Extract from Berserk

October 13th, 2000 • Posted in Extracts |

Ten years after Steven’s death, Tom never thought that his son would change his life again.

Tom held dear every precious memory of Steven, especially those times that affected him so much that he believed they had altered his perception of things forever. His toddler son, pointing to the sky in wonder and gasping his first word, Cloud! Older, learning to ride his bike, Tom letting go and Steven only falling off when he realised he was riding on his own. At thirteen he won a bronze swimming medal for the school in the national finals, and the photograph of his presentation showed a boy on the cusp of manhood, his expression delighted yet reserved, full of self-awareness. At seventeen Steven joined the Army, and at nineteen he was accepted into the Parachute Regiment. Tom still had the photograph of his son wearing that red beret hanging above his fireplace at home. It made him proud. It made him sad. It was the last picture he took of Steven before he died.

Tom sat staring into a half-empty glass, listening to the bustle of the pub serving after-work pints and meals, wondering whether he should go home to Jo or stay for one more drink, and Steven suddenly popped into his mind. This often happened — he had been their only child, and his loss had stabbed them with a blade that time kept twisting — but mostly it was when Tom least expected it. He blinked tears into a blur, drained his drink and tried to imagine what Steven would be like now, were he still alive. After ten years in the Parachute Regiment he would have likely seen action, either in Eastern Europe or the Gulf. He would probably be married; he had always been one for the girls, even as a youngster.

Maybe Tom would be a grandparent.

“Hello, wherever you are,” he muttered as he stood and walked to the bar. He often pictured the ghosts of those not yet born, shades of lives unlived, and sometimes he craved to be haunted by his own grandchildren. He hoped they would be proud, but he thought not.

“Same again, Tom?”

Tom had placed the glass on the bar with every intention of going home, but now he nodded and handed over a fistful of change. Glass replenished, he returned to his table, but two men had taken his place. He considered asking whether he could join them, but the thought of entering into conversation with strangers did not appeal to him right now. Not when Steven was so fresh in his mind.

It’s almost ten years. He sat in the window seat close to his original table and sipped from his pint. Ten years since he died. Jo has changed so much in that time. Gone from a lovely young mother into middle age barren of all but her hollow hobbies. And I still love her. He drank again, closed his eyes, tears threatening. She loved him too. It was strong, their bond, and passionate, perhaps the single positive outcome of Steven’s death.

He wondered just how much he had changed.

The two men were talking quietly, yet Tom could not help overhearing some of their conversation. He had never been the sort who could shut out background noise, and even if he had no real interest in what was being said, the words still found their way in.

The men were talking about their time in the Army. They looked around thirty. Steven’s age, were he still alive.

Tom drank some more ale, already beginning to regret this third pint. Jo knew he stopped off for a beer on the way home every Friday. What she did not know was that he was invariably on his own. He had led her to believe that a few colleagues from the office went along, and that small white lie did not bother him greatly. There was no reason to make her think otherwise. She would only worry. And for Tom it was just a couple of quiet pints, during which time he could muse upon the week gone by and contemplate the weekend ahead. He sometimes chatted to the couple who owned the pub, and occasionally he entered into conversation with one or two of the regulars. But more often than not this was his own time. It was when he could really think about whether or not he liked himself. The answers usually came in thick and fast, and that was why he was often home after just a couple of drinks, to immerse himself in life with his wife once again. Smother his thoughts. Bury the aching feeling that he should have done much, much more with a life so scarred by Steven’s death.

“…never knew what it was all about,” one of the men said. The other nodded meaningfully and drank from his pint. He caught Tom’s eye momentarily, then glanced away.

“Well if he didn’t know what they did there, he deserved it.”

Tom turned to the side in an effort to hear more of the conversation, but somebody hit a jackpot on the fruit machine. The celebratory clunking of their ejected winnings drowned the bar for thirty seconds, and by then the two men were sitting in silence once again.

Tom looked around the pub and felt a familiar disquiet settling in. He spent only a couple of hours here each week, and yet sometimes it seemed more familiar than his own living room. Perhaps this was the only place he ever truly relaxed. He closed his eyes and sighed, and when he opened them somebody said, “Porton Down.”

He looked at the two men. They were hunkered down over their drinks, leaning in close, but they were not catching each other’s eyes. One was staring into his pint glass, the other had found a fascinating snag of lint on his jacket sleeve.

Porton Down! That’s on Salisbury Plain where… Where Steven was killed. ‘Training accident’, they had told Tom. When pressed, they gave a few more details, and he had always wished that he had not asked. And yet… there was that ever-present doubt. ‘Cover-up’, Tom’s own father had muttered at the funeral, but he was long lost to Alzheimer’s by then, and Tom did not pursue the matter.

There came one of those rare moments of silence that haunt bars and wait to manifest, a brief second or two when conversations falter at the same time, the fruit machine falls silent between turns, the bar-staff pause for a drink or go to change a barrel, and the juke box takes a breather between tracks. And into that silence – still so quiet that probably only Tom could hear it – one of the men whispered, “They kept monsters.”

* * *

Later, Tom would spend some time musing on destiny, and what cruel fate had deigned that he hear those three whispered words. If he had gone home after his second pint he would have never heard, and life would have gone on, and perhaps he and Jo would have grown old together, their love doing its best to fill the void where Steven and his family could have been.

But by the time he thought that, he already knew the monsters of which the man had spoken. And in the face of their ferocity, regret had no place at all.

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