There it was; that sensation. The sideward spray of rain had him shuddering deliciously. He held onto the rail and took in the scene, drinking it, the green – life.
“You’re going to have to move off now,” a voice behind urged.
He moved over to let the queue begin filing down the steps to the bus. His hands gripped the rail, ever conscious of the people behind him. The crowds would be difficult to get used to. A week, maybe two, then back to normal. Then again, what the fuck was normal anyway?
It seemed that sections of rain were waiting in line to unleash themselves upon the airport. Dark grey sheets punctuated by white beams of sunlight. He expected an electric fork of lightning somewhere in there, they were a normal occurrence where he’d come from. The weather’s behaviour could turn the tide of events in operations.
Newcastle Airport bustled with the gridlock of human traffic. People queuing, people arguing, kids screaming – a bag slammed to the floor. Steve cringed and ducked. He quickened his pace to the queue for the passport desk. Two lines: one for EU nationals and one for non-EU nationals. It didn’t really matter now; both queues were as mixed as each other.
“Hey, sonny! Over here, lad!”
Heads turned in Steve’s direction. A fat security guard called him. He bowed his head and pushed the trolley past the throng of visitors, who all glared at him and his camouflaged rucksack. The guard’s grin was a morass of misshapen teeth, his eyes fixed on Steve’s, searching for some recognition. The guard held out a hand and Steve offered his. He then pushed his fingers back into place and waited for the guard to speak. He had that look, that precursor to a statement.
“Welcome back, son.” He let Steve through and bent low to his ear. “Kill any of those Paki fuckers?”
Steve looked up at the guard, who grinned back, a cheesy smell on his breath. He’d probably applied for the Army but got turned down on medical grounds; a proper Army nut, Steve thought.
He pushed on through, determined to get out of the building. The machine of the airport ever constant with people pushing the cogs into gear, it was enough to keep you on edge. So soon after the six months in relative concord, with only one thing to focus on.
A toothy grin and a handshake from a taxi driver confirmed a place in front of the queue again. Steve backed away; there were at least eight people waiting. “Naw, fellah. Get yoursel’ in the back. Can’t leave war heroes out in the rain, man.”
War heroes? He shrugged.
“I’ve got a son in the Army, mind.” The driver struck up the usual line of conversation; he probably gave it to every squaddie he picked up. Shite.
“Geordie Simmo, they call him. Based in Germany?”
Steve waited for the question. Hadn’t he already asked? If he was based in Germany then no chance of knowing him, but there were about eight lads called Geordie in his unit, twelve called Taff and sixteen called Jock.
“Geordie Simmo? No? D’y’know him, like? Been in two years.”
Geordie Simmo was likely to leave in the next two years, most of the kids did nowadays, Steve thought. The young’uns were taking the piss out of the cash incentives; join up and get a free fucking mountain bike. They’d threaten to sign off and get a carrot dangled in front of their spotty, plukey faces. Fucking gobshites.
“What unit’s he in?” Steve asked.
“I think the Engineers.” The cabbie rose in his seat and pointed to another car. “Get some fucking manners, you daft shite! See that daft bugger? Straight through a red light!”
Steve got out at O’Neil’s pub in front of the train station, and paid the cabbie.
“It’s good to see you lot back from over there.” The driver sucked in his bottom lip, contemplating the next line. Whatever it was never came out. “It’s just good to see you lads back. ‘Bout time we got you all back, ay?”
Steve patted the driver on the hand and shouldered his bergen.
Dirty old city. Smelly, oily, littered city. Like an old friend he’d visit each year, paying homage to the wrecked shipyards. Had they not closed down Steve would have worked here, like his forefathers. Steel fingers pointed to the sky, all standing in a row down the dock. Ferris should be by one; Steve would sit with him and talk about the old days. He loved his mum to bits, but couldn’t strike up a rich and deep enough conversation with her, nor would he want to. With Ferris, he talked about his times in places he couldn’t talk about to normal people. Ferris was a friend to offload all his fears and anxieties on.
Ferris worked the shipyards all his life until it was taken from him. He chose to stay on when everyone else left. He’d be foraging for wood like some woodland creature. Corrugated tin walls lined his home. This was Mad Max territory. Children brave enough had tried to attack poor Ferris with dire consequences. Ferris was nearly arrested for manslaughter several years before. When it came out that the child had had an epileptic seizure and drowned it was all too clear, and Ferris was acquitted. This was a blessing and as the rumours went, Ferris had murdered the child. Nobody came down here but the police, occasionally.
That wasn’t his real name. Steve couldn’t remember it. It was something ordinary, like Gary Wilcox or Steve Turner. No one knew why he was called Ferris; he didn’t think Ferris knew himself. He dropped his large pack and pulled back the wriggly tin door. His backyard hadn’t been tended, by the look of it. Ferris would collect scrap metal and twist them into weird shapes. The metal sculptures before Steve had been battered and beaten out of shape. Dog shit and litter lay in the yard. Ferris was a tidy creature and wouldn’t let his home deteriorate like this. The shack even had a gaping wound in its roof.
Something wrong here.
The sound from the shack confirmed a man, but it wasn’t Ferris. Ferris didn’t have any friends, just an old dog and himself. This bloke had been lying on a mattress that had seen sunny days back in its youth, relegated in age to tramps and rain. One eye was opened by a grubby finger; it swivelled wildly in its socket before settling on Steve.
“You.” He struggled to sit up and lit a cigarette, a carton of Marlboros lay by the head of his bed. “You Steve? Right? You’re … were Ferris’ friend. He talked about you. He said you were a good boy.”
Steve could only guess that he was smiling as most of his teeth were ruined. The tramp tapped the side of his head three times, eyes bulging at Steve.
“Y’think ahm fuckin’ stupid, don’t yer? I’m not daft, mind. Been t’college n’that. Ah kna stuff, like. Thoo’s been t’afghan. See it in yer skin and yer eyes, mind!” He was still grinning despite the short, sharp expulsion of words.
“The police found him. Over there. Stone dead.” He pointed to a felled shopping trolley.
“The dog was howling like crazy for a week until the police came. Been put down now, mind.”
That sensation again. The word ‘dead’ and nothing more was heard; the words didn’t make sense. That word had weight, it could empty a man’s gut and drop him as easily as a bullet. His confidante was dead. The connection severed. Ferris had understood him, known him from a child.
He’d never known his father; Ferris had been that.
He stepped back and sat where he fell. He would not cry – no, not here.
Ferris had been a reputed wizard and a sage to him, a mystic and a friend. The yard held for him images of magic and adolescence. There was nothing for him here now; only catalysts for memories.
Steve shouldered his rucksack and headed toward the Whickham Estate, with its boarded up houses ready for demolition. His mum would be patiently waiting for him. The pack of wolves that passed for friends would be calling soon, and then the fun would begin.