A Careful Man

Janelle parked across the street and scrunched down as low as she could. The nineteen-thirties semi with criss-cross leaded windows hid shyly behind a round chestnut tree. Nestled within the leaves, a street light cast a yellow haze across the driveway, where a grey Volvo was parked. Janelle hunkered down even further until only her eyes remained, reflecting the light in a wide stare.

She waited.

The man worked the night shift at Thomson’s. Picking and packing. It didn’t seem a very glamorous occupation to Janelle.

‘If he was a brain surgeon would that have made Darrell’s death worthwhile?’ her mum had asked.

Well, no. Of course not.

But then again… Maybe if other lives had been at stake…

Janelle knew her mum hadn’t thought much of Darrell. The earring, the tattoo, the low-slung jeans and carefully messed-up hair. And he was only a mechanic, after all. But a brave one. No one could deny that he was brave. Not now.

Across the street the front door opened and closed softly. The man took a step, halted, then turned and checked the lock, once, twice. A woman peered out of the bay window, her face a white circle. He gave her a thumbs up as he climbed into the Volvo.

So. A careful man. Well, who wouldn’t be after what had happened?

The white face disappeared behind curtains and the Volvo inched off the driveway onto the quiet street. Janelle started her engine awkwardly, still slumped low in her seat. She needn’t have worried. He didn’t glance her way as he headed west towards the industrial park and Thompson’s hulking yellow warehouse. Janelle slid back up in her seat and followed.

In her mind: Darrell leaning on the wall outside the pharmacy where she worked. A Saturday, five pm. The last time she’d seen him alive.

‘See you later,’ he’d said, giving her a warm kiss on the lips and leaving her with the taste of weak cider and cigarettes.

‘Be careful!’ Janelle had called out after him.

Or had she? She liked to believe she had, told people she had.

‘“ Be careful” I said. The last words I ever spoke to him. If only I’d known. If only I’d known.’

Hindsight, her mum said, was a terrible thing. Janelle knew this was meant to comfort her, it was one of her mum’s many sayings. She’d heard them all over the last few weeks. “Time is a great healer” was a particular favourite. Her mum would say it whenever Janelle cried, patting her back and stroking her hair, one eye on the TV, barely stifling a yawn.

‘Don’t upset yourself, sweetie. Time is a great healer.’

The Volvo turned right and slowed for the traffic lights even though they showed green. Janelle rolled her eyes. Following a car unseen was proving harder than she’d expected. The streets were deserted, for one thing. And he drove so damn slowly!

Had he always been such a careful man, Janelle wondered? Or had his brush with death changed him forever?

She focused her eyes on the Volvo’s tail-lights. Right – left – left again – slowing – speeding up a little – now right. She allowed half her mind to go into a kind of trance. Drops on the windscreen. Wipers switched on. Swish, clunk, swish, clunk. Streetlights reflected many times on wet tarmac, the Volvo’s indicator flashing orange.

Janelle blinked and shook her head. Tiredness was catching up with her. This was her third night of watching. So far her efforts had turned up nothing of use: One trip to the local supermarket where the man held the door open for a girl with a pushchair and re-used his shopping bags, but who doesn’t these days? One visitor: his son, recognised from the inquest. Janelle had formed the opinion that this man and his wife were practically hermits. Had they always been that way?

Darrell had had loads of friends. Over a hundred people came to the funeral, the crematorium’s low-backed benches crammed tightly, a fuzz of faces, smiling, crying. The night he died had been Trickie’s birthday and the gang were meeting at the Kings Head for legal drinks before going on to a club. At the funeral, Trickie stood hunched near the back, his hood pulled up to hide the tears.

‘It’s my fault,’ he’d cried after the inquest. ‘If he hadn’t been coming to meet me …’

Janelle tried to comfort him but didn’t she have her own guilt to deal with? If she hadn’t made him wait that extra five minutes while she brushed her hair and put on lipstick. She wanted to look her best. Especially as he was going out without her. She wanted him to hold a picture in his head of his girlfriend looking good – looking fly as he would have said. But what did it matter now? He’d never even made it to the pub, hadn’t made it further than Edgemont Street near the Chinese takeaway and Pop’s Amusements.

She pictured him as he walked, that hitched-up, jumpy walk he had, i-pod plugged in, humming maybe or singing along. The music would have been proper loud so he must have seen rather than heard the attack. If he’d passed by that alley five minutes earlier everything would have been so different.

Especially for the man in the Volvo.

Mr Brown. Mr Robert Brown. Such an ordinary name, Janelle thought, as she stared at the back of his head while they waited at another set of lights. Such an ordinary man. She couldn’t imagine what had marked him out as a target for the gang. Maybe it was just that – his very ordinariness. She’d done it herself, hadn’t she, her and Darrell and his friends, not really a gang but still … she’d stood on street corners and shouted at passing strangers. Darrell and his mates would never go too far, though. Not even Trickie.

Although Janelle did wonder whether Trickie still carried a knife, the one he used to brag about. She had a feeling he didn’t brag anymore.

Lost in her thoughts, it took a while for Janelle to notice that Mr Brown and his Volvo weren’t heading towards Thompson’s anymore. The industrial estate was left down Waterworks Lane half a mile back, but the Volvo was still dragging itself along, with Janelle following not-too-closely behind.

Now the Volvo indicated, slowed, and finally came to a halt alongside a row of cramped townhouses.

Janelle pulled into a space across the street and turned off her lights. She waited, half nervous, half curious, to see whether Mr Brown would clock her. She would notice if the same car had been behind her for her entire journey. But the man locked his car, checked it, then headed up a narrow path and knocked on a door without a backwards glance. Ha! she thought. Not such a careful man after all.

Confident now that she wouldn’t be seen, Janelle strained her neck for a better view. The door was opened by a woman – that she could make out but not much else. A flash of pink skirt, a glint of pale yellow hair, and then the door closed again, cutting off the light that had cast their shadows across the square patch of lawn.

Janelle frowned. What was he doing? He was supposed to be going to work, she was sure of it. She felt something shift inside her and her lips let out a small sound, a breathless Ah. She took in the flowers on the windowsill, the frilled and valanced curtains. She pictured the way they’d hugged at the door. And then she thought about Mrs Brown with her pinched white face at the window.

This was who Darrell had died to save? A grey, boring man who was cheating on his wife?

Janelle drove home, her knuckles white on the steering wheel. She told her mum, who shrugged.

‘What difference does it make? Leave it alone, girl. All this sneaking around and spying. It won’t bring him back, you know.’

Another of her sayings. As if Janelle, like Frankenstein, was trying to resurrect the dead. She wasn’t stupid. She knew he was gone for good. Was it so wrong to want to know that he had died for a good reason?

A frost had settled during the night and now, with a weak sun pushing through from the east, the Brown’s garden seemed full of tiny jewels. Janelle had parked slap-bang in front this time. She wasn’t the one who had something to hide.

Darrell wouldn’t approve of a confrontation, but who was he to talk? He hadn’t left well alone, rushing to the rescue like that, acting the hero. Wrong place, wrong time. (Yet another of her mum’s sayings.) But he could have just walked on past. Couldn’t he?

Targeting the middle-aged man with the anorak and the brown-paper takeaway bag had been a dare for a new gang-member, the inquest was told. Fourteen years old, five foot tall, something to prove. The policewoman who reported this had a huge mole on the side of her nose. Janelle hadn’t known where to look.

She figured she knew how it had happened as clearly as if she’d been there herself. A whole load of squaring up, some pushing perhaps, egos and reputations at stake. She pictured Mr Brown caught up in the middle of it, clutching his cooling chop-suey to his chest.

Was he thinking about his wife at that moment? Or about his lover? Was he scared for himself or for the young man who’d come to his rescue only to be set upon himself?

Janelle clenched her fists. The sun was warming up the glass now and the car felt bereft of air.

The Volvo appeared from her left, ponderously slow. It seemed to take an age for Mr Brown to park, inching back and forth, then locking and checking the doors twice. Six thirty a.m.. He must have gone on to work after making his detour.

He hauled his frame out of the car and stretched.

Janelle was out of her car already, approaching the man with her shoulders tense, fists still clenched by her sides. He turned and looked at her, puzzled at first, then smiling in a polite, if slightly wary way as he recognised her face.

‘Janelle, isn’t it?’ he said, stepping forward and raising a hand against the low sun.

Janelle brought her own hands up, palms flat, and pushed him square in the chest.

‘Darrell died for you. He’s dead because of you. He was wonderful and kind and brave, and you – look at you! You’re nothing. You’re scum. A boring grey man with a boring job and a boring car. Is that why you’re cheating on your wife? Because your life is so boring? If Darrell had known what you were he would have left those lads to it. I wish he had. Your wife would be a widow now but she’d be better off without you – and your bit on the side.’

Janelle wiped away the spit that had gathered at the corners of her mouth. Mr Brown looked like he was struggling to catch up, one hand hovering over the middle of his chest where Janelle had pushed him, the other still shielding his eyes.

‘Bit on the side,’ he said. ‘Widow?’

‘A careful man, that’s what you seem like on the outside. Checking the locks, driving slow. But underneath you’re not, are you? Creeping around, having an affair, walking past alleyways asking for trouble.’

‘Trouble …’

‘You must have done something to make them have a go at you. Provoked them or something. And then you let my Darrell take them on for you instead. All the while thinking of your floozy.’

She was panting now, spitting words out like bullets, her face pinched and fierce.

‘There’s been some kind of mistake,’ Mr Brown said, but Janelle had already turned away. She could see his wife’s face at the window again, two wide eyes and an O of a mouth. She got the impression that his wife was older than him, an invalid maybe. The injustice of it all became too much and she reached blindly for the door of her car, key held out in front like a dagger.

A hand on her shoulder.

Mr Brown’s careful, measured voice in her ear.

‘Please, just wait for one moment. Please. You can’t just go off like this. You’re upset.’

Janelle looked up and into his face, but all she could see was Darrell. Not the Darrell she’d known but a Darrell of the future. The earring was gone, along with the low-slung jeans and the cheeky grin. His hair was receding and grey now, the tattoo covered by a run-of-the-mill polo shirt. He’d been robbed of this, her Darrell. Growing old and boring and safe. Instead, he would always be eighteen and reckless, frozen in time, walking with a bounce along the high street, passing an alleyway and calling out, ‘Hey! Leave him alone!’

Lying on the sharp gravel, clutching at his stomach and looking up into the eyes of the man he’d never be.

Janelle looked into the old Darrell’s eyes and saw her own old-self reflected back at her. A turned-down mouth. Short, set hair.

We could have grown old together, Darrell. We would have been good together.

The pain in her chest was too fierce to contain. She pulled her eyes away and Darrell disappeared.

‘Wait,’ Mr Brown said. ‘There’s been some kind of a mix-up.’

Janelle wiped the tears from her eyes defiantly.

‘I saw you. There’s no point denying it.’ Her voice sounded unfamiliar, cold. ‘You’re nothing. Worse than nothing – a married man having an affair. Such a cliché. Not worth the dirt on my Darrell’s shoe.’

‘An affair? Why on earth would you think that?’

‘I saw you! Last night when you were supposed to be going to work.’

Darrell appeared again, her Darrell this time, standing by her side, smiling and shaking his head. ‘Janelle,’ he was saying, ‘You are a silly cow sometimes.’

Mr Brown had his puzzled expression back. The line between his eyes was a crevice. ‘My daughter, you mean? I stop off at my daughter’s house some nights to help out. She’s a single mum, you see. Little ones playing her up. I help her put them to bed. Is that who you mean? But… how…? Have you been following me?’

His daughter?

Darrell was laughing now, his mouth wide and his eyes closed. ‘You’re priceless, Janelle,’ he said, and then he faded away into the sunshine.

‘Your daughter?’ Janelle replayed the scene: red-brick house with flowers at the window – hadn’t there also been a children’s bicycle propped up against the wall? And those frilled curtains – weren’t they covered in teddy bears? Now she really thought about it, the woman in the pink skirt couldn’t have been more than twenty-five or so.

Janelle swallowed.

‘You followed me?’ Mr Brown said again.

She fingered her keys and wondered what his wife was thinking, seeing her husband outside being shouted at by a young girl. She tried to picture Darrell again but he refused to come. Stubborn as usual.

He’ll never change.

She swallowed even harder and blinked a tear away.

‘It doesn’t make any difference,’ she told the man, sticking out her chin and making her voice hard. ‘You’re still not worth it. You’re not worth dying for.’

The sun disappeared behind a cloud, and as the brittle light faded all the life seemed to seep out of Mr Brown’s body.

‘No,’ he said quietly. ‘No. I most certainly am not.’

He turned and walked towards the house, although it was more of a shuffle than a walk, Janelle saw now. And he was, actually, quite a frail man. Why, an old man, even. Working nights must be hard at his age. And looking after grandkids – that must be exhausting.

Darrell appeared again, shaking his head, not laughing this time. ‘For God’s sake, Janelle,’ he said, his voice hollow. ‘I bloody-well died to protect him. Thanks a lot.’

‘I’m sorry!’ she cried. ‘I didn’t think. I just wanted to make it all okay.’

‘I know,’ Darrell told her. ‘So did I.’

Mr Brown stopped in the doorway and looked back. The front door opened and his wife reached out to him possessively.

‘It’s OK,’ he said, looking straight into Janelle’s eyes. ‘I understand,’ he told her, and then he turned and led his wife inside.

Janelle climbed into her car and started the engine. The sun crept out again, and although it illuminated all the dirt on her windscreen and the patches of rust on the bonnet, the street looked a better place for it. She put the car into gear. Darrell sat beside her and smiled, lifting up his legs to rest them on the dashboard. Janelle felt the skin on her face tighten as the tears started to dry. She tried to smile. Her eyes felt bruised. She tried again.

Darrell looked at his watch. ‘Gotta go,’ he said, the last words he’d ever spoken to her.

‘Be careful,’ she said.

‘I’m always careful,’ he told her with a grin. ‘I’m a careful man.’