Rain patters on the sheet iron and flows along the rusty grooves, falls in a spray onto the concrete below. The man sits under his shelter and watches the water pour down, and it’s like peering through a thin waterfall. The world on the other side is distorted, fluent, easier to take in.
He’s dressed in a long duffle coat that he found by the railway tracks. Under it he has a woollen jumper, a baseball cap on his head. His hair and beard are long and thick, his eyes are sharp and blue. He looks old, wrinkled, though he’s not that old at all; too many days in skin wrenching sunshine, too many nights in icy, wet wind.
He lights a roll-up with a match, tokes long and hard, warming his brittle fingers. He pulls a watch face from his duffle coat pocket, the straps long gone, the glass on the face scratched, cracked. It’s time.
He rises to his feet and passes through the waterfall into the world on the other side. The clouds in the sky are dark and heavy, the rain falls straight, a windless evening. He moves out from the overpass and climbs the stairs to the road above, heads down it towards the city.
The streets are dead, only the occasional car passes by, screeching on the damp tarmac. The man plods slowly but with purpose. Rain water seeps into his worn boots and his feet are soon drenched, his hair soaked, his blue hat turning darker.
He sits on a bench outside the library and waits, watches the buildings in front of him rise high into the sky, checks his watch again. He starts to worry, glances around, and all the while it rains, it pounds down over him, while the rest of the world hides in safety, in dry warmth.
She comes out from the library a few minutes later, a girl, aged around twenty. He sees her immediately but doesn’t get up, just sits as she opens up her umbrella and hurries off down the road. When she’s a safe distance away he finally gets up and steps after her, moving along the curb, avoiding puddles on the pavement and the road either side.
She stops at the next crossing, waits for a bus to pass, then rushes across, her long hair bouncing up and down on her shoulders. He crosses behind her, moves quickly to keep up, tearing across the street.
She heads down into a pedestrian subway, that tunnels under the busy intersection above. He follows her down carefully, keeping his distance. Below, yellow light is strong and false, the stench of urine strong. A group of young men stand in a circle and stare at her as she moves towards them. Their hoods are up, faces hidden in shadow, but their dark eyes shine in the electric glow, and the man can see their ill intentions immediately.
The girl walks carefully forward, avoiding their eyes, their looming forms.
They call to her, “Hello darling, you look wet. Fancy warming up with us?”
She ignores their calls and one of them steps across, blocking her path through the subway. She’s frightened but tries to ignore it, and the hooded figure puts his hands on her shoulders, holding her in place, not letting her carry on. She tries to remove his hands forcefully and they laugh, close in around her.
The man picks a stone up off the ground, rubs his rough fingers over its smooth edges. Then he hurls it, striking one of them in the arm. They quickly turn to face him, giving the girl a chance to run past, out through the far entrance of the subway. There are four of them and they all charge towards the man, who immediately turns and runs up the steps and out into the rain.
His chest heaves and he coughs, gargled and sticky with infection. Back on the surface the rain continues to hammer down, and the sky is almost completely black, illuminated only by the orange light of habitation below.
The hooded figures are stronger, faster, and they catch him, just a few metres from the subway entrance. One of them smacks him to the ground and he curls into a ball. The others arrive and start to kick him; the back of his head, his stomach. He coughs and splutters, moans. They don’t stop. They shout abuse and keep kicking. They lean down and punch, with keys between their fingers, sharp metal stabbing into his skin.
Sirens cry out in the dark and the men abruptly stop, charge off into the night like fleeing vultures. The man lies, a wet heap in the road as an ambulance passes. His body aches and he rolls onto his back, writhing, wiping blood from his mouth with the back of his hand.
He pushes himself up and staggers to the side of the pavement, leans against a metal railing, breathing heavily with his eyes closed. He collapses to the ground again and vomits into a puddle, the liquids mixing and flowing into one another, streaming away down the gentle hill.
On his hands and knees he reaches into his pocket, pulls out his strapless watch. It’s almost seven, he must hurry.
He rises again and limps on down the road, through the subway and out the other side. He moves as fast as he can, staggering from his aching head. He coughs and spits blood onto the ground but carries on, un-phased.
He rounds a corner and heads all the way down the lifeless street, passing warmly lit windows, parked cars. At the end of the road he turns onto another similar road. He stops outside the second house and stares up at the windows on the second floor. No lights are on.
As fast as he can, he moves around to the side gate of the house, follows the path to the plot at the back. He cuts straight across the dying grass and pulls himself up onto a brick wall, crying out in agony, his body weak and in heavy pain. He perches on top of the wall and peers through the windows at the back of the house but still, no lights are on, there is no sign of anyone. He stares hard, can barely see past the blanket of rain, the thick haze. But then he spots her, the girl, curled up on her bed by the window, sobbing in the dark. She’s clutching something, a photo, though he can’t see what it is.
He watches her and amongst the water droplets on his face a tear slides down from the corner of his eye. He aches even more now, a deeper hurt than any beating.. But at least she’s safe, at least she’s out of the rain and home alive, unharmed.
The man climbs down from the wall and straightens his coat, leaves via the gate and trudges back through the rain, towards his sheet metal home. He watches his shadow grow before him as he moves along the road. Another shadow of himself appears and then shrinks, grows, then the next, as he passes under the tightly lined street lights.
He arrives at his shelter and cuts through the waterfall that is thinner now, the rain finally subsiding. He leans against the brick wall at the back and starts to pull apart a pile of rags and blankets. From underneath it all he takes out an old acoustic guitar.
He fingers the wood, the worn strings, rough and frayed. He sits with his legs crossed and starts to pluck a few notes, softly, keeping with the rhythm of the rain, his orchestra.
He closes his eyes and he’s years back, a younger man, fresh faced and arrogant, driving on a rainy night like this one. Only it’s hotter, the air steamy and thick, as he takes a corner too quickly in his four-by-four.
He doesn’t see the young couple as he fiddles with his CD player, trying to find the right song for the moment. The girl steps out into the road and freezes, stunned by approaching headlights. He looks up and spots her, slams the breaks, sends himself swerving. Her partner, a young man, leaps from the pavement and pushes her aside, out of harm’s way. She goes crashing down but no longer in his path. But the four-by-four starts to spin and hits the young man side on, at speed.
The man opens his eyes, the icy blue is wet, like a frozen lake. He strums a few times, cradling the guitar, the worn wood, all that’s left of who he once was. The rage in him, the sadness, will never quieten down, there will be no silence, not for him, nor for her. But he must do what he can, to make things right, until the day he dies.