Lady’s Mantle by Leon Coleman

Jim hates the fact he took that first step. The darkest one. A mini suicide. The exhilaration of going back, and afterwards the despondency of knowing there was no going back. And so now, each day begins with a false dawn, which bleeds away as the sun falls.

Everything before seems unreal. The low paid jobs that would come and go, the rented flat with only a mild damp problem, and the one thing that made it all bearable – Clare.

He tries to remember their time at the allotment. The crack of dawn. Spring. Clear blue sky, sunshine, fresh. He was ready, spade in hand, to help her turn some soil. Along the edge of the path, she crouched down to show him something: a clump of spreading green foliage, webbed fingers covered with tiny droplets of water like glass beads. Lady’s Mantle, she had called it. What a strange name for a plant, he had thought.

It is getting late. Concrete tower blocks stand in silhouette like prehistoric monuments against a slate sky. Streetlamps ignite, reflecting back on rain-soaked streets glittered with glass, and beyond, the intermittent barking of dogs, motorbikes cutting up the grass in the nearby park.

Jim is waiting, the cold seeping inside. 

There is a whistle – Jim turns toward the tower block. A shadow appears. The lad brushes past Jim without a glance. “Follow me,” he hisses.

Jim trails, keeping ten yards back. The lad pulls his cap down low, glances behind before slipping into an alleyway. Jim follows into the dark, holding his barely visible hand in front as he manoeuvres amongst the overstuffed wheelie bins, until the two are face to face.

“Alright, the dough,” the lad spits.

“You got the gear?”

The lad shows a fist. “Proper gold.”

He unravels his fingers. There in his palm, a tiny film-wrapped package, folded tightly. The hand closes.

Jim hands over twenty pounds.

“Nah, man. Price is thirty.”

“We said twenty.”

The lad tuts. “Looks like we got a situ-a-tion.”

Jim can’t see the lad’s eyes in the dark, but he can see the white of enamel, grinning back.

Dark shadows creep up from behind onto the brick wall. Jim turns to see a crowd of bodies blur into one, blocking his exit. The yellow streetlamps spill gold onto the group, some of whom wear caps and scarves, hiding their faces, others in hoodies. Two of them stand barefaced, grinning. The last thing Jim remembers is turning back towards the lad when the lights cut out.

Jim opens his eyes, groggy. His right cheek is numb against the cold cobbled ground. He sits upright. There’s a whiff; it’s not good, a cross between damp and piss. Something is scuttling around behind the wheelie bins. A glass bottle rattles. He sticks a dirty finger into his mouth and counts his teeth. All still there.

He stands, knowing before patting his pocket that the money is gone. So is the gear. He could score in Town, but he daren’t show his face. He owes money. Lots of it. And at this time, it’s barely worth it.

Stepping out of the alley he surveys the sky, listens for the traffic, the odd solitary car passing in the distance. He stops by a parked car, looks into the glass for his reflection but sees nothing. He walks on, directionless, his arms and legs heavy, appendages that belong to someone else. He finds himself back where he started, going over old ground. He needs to score but he’s skint. A gust of wind blows; he feels the chill and zips up his coat, tugs his collar up around his neck. He comes to the park and lies down on a bench, crossing his arms over his chest. The leafless branches above sway in the winter breeze. Branches that were lush and green only months earlier.

The welt on his cheek aches. He can’t sleep. The cold has set into his bones and without gear or alcohol time stretches. To stay warm, he walks until he finds himself beneath a motorway overpass, the swish of vehicles passing above rebounds off huge concrete supports. He crosses through a wasteland of rough, overgrown grass and comes to a concrete verge, where downstream the river runs black. Further along the bank, there’s a glimmer.

The man wears a long overcoat and is holding a stick, which he jabs at the flames that pop and crackle in a metal drum. Blades of grass beneath Jim’s boots snap with each step.  Jim coughs. The man doesn’t react. Jim clears his throat.

“You don’t mind if I hang out here for a bit, do you?”

“Of course not, mate, course not,” the man says, glancing at Jim, before returning his gaze into the quivering flames.

The man looks older, late fifties maybe, his skin, pockmarked and grey, lunar. Dark lines cross horizontally on his brow and vertically on either side of his mouth, thick and black as though drawn on with coal, his eyes flickering like candles. The stick jabs into the steel drum, sending embers shooting like tracer ammunition into a night sky.

“Cold, hey?” Jim says.

“If you think it’s cold now, mate, wait ‘til it’s three or four in the morning. It’s gonna be freezing. You know what I mean?”

Jim nods. He knows.

The man explains how he ended up on the streets: wife lost to cancer, unable to pay the rent, evicted. He’d gone onto the housing list but after moving up only twenty places in six months he gave it up as a waste of time. Jim is used to this, hearing story after story from those on the outside. Jim thinks about his own life – ordinary, until that phone call from Clare’s sister. Clare had been hit by a car whilst cycling to work. While he was mopping floors in a warehouse, she was dying.

Jim clears his throat. “I wouldn’t ask but you couldn’t sort me out, could you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know.”

“Nah, mate. I don’t do drugs… not for me, mate, not for me. Not anymore.”

The man’s cheek quivers, his upper lip pulls back, a gurn exposing teeth, dark yellow and rotten.

Jim’s stomach cramps and his head spins. He needs to forget, remember. His fists clench. He has an impulse to go over, knock out the man’s front teeth and take his stash. But the face dissolves into nothing.

Jim backs away. He feels a coldness he has never felt, like he is walking into an abyss where there is no sun and nothing grows. He tries to run, to be somewhere else, but trips and falls then rises again, until, through exhaustion, his pace slows, breathless and dizzy. He hasn’t eaten for two days, but he doesn’t need food. He wades onwards, gasping mist into the pitch black, unable to see where he’s going, his face sliced on a hanging branch. 

He reaches a clearing and cuts through to the main road and then back to the park. Soon it is twilight, the early dog walkers are out. Another day. And when he can go on no more, he slumps against the snowy bark and tilts his head upwards, toward a clear blue sky; it seems only moments earlier it was night and now it is morning. Sun rays break through the bare branches and caress his face. In the yellow grass he notices a hint of lilac, a budding crocus bulb. He closes his eyes and clasps his hands together and, in that moment, he is there again. They watch those tiny droplets of morning dew on the canvass of green.

About The Author

Leon Coleman lives in Manchester, England. His work has just been shortlisted in the Cheshire Prize for Literature and is to be included in the upcoming anthology. His short fiction has also appeared in Literally StoriesThe Fiction Pool, Misery Tourism and the Henshaw Three Anthology.

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