So. Here you are.
Looking at yourself in the mirror of a mock-up Ikea bathroom that has those twin His 'n' Hers basins you always wanted. You can't pronounce the name of it without sounding like you're coughing up a lung, but it doesn't matter. It's not as if you're buying it, just staring at yourself. And you're reminded of the old joke—I knew I was losing my hair when it took me fifteen minutes to wash my face—but you can't find the energy to smile.
Thing is, you know it's coming to an end. Never expected it to end like this, but then nobody ever does. We all think we're going to cark it peacefully in our sleep, so the missus wakes up the next morning to find your stone-cold corpse next to her, lying in a frigid puddle of piss. Your missus, she'd be glad you were gone. It'd mean she wouldn't lay awake watching you snore—and wasn't that the tip off, when you weren't sawing logs all night?—and secretly, if you were conscious at the time, or even a sentient being instead of dead, you'd be glad of it, too.
Because it'd all be over that way. This relentless grey-brown trudge through life. These ideas you had that stumbled, half-formed and spastic out of your head into the world, only to turn on you in the end. You can see it in every line in your face, the film of disappointment on your eyes, the world-cruise luggage underneath. All the while there's that spat-spat-spat as your blood hits the floor, a metronome beat that corresponds with the colour draining from your face.
Bleeding out. Huh. How's that for a metaphor?
It started with your father. At least that's what you're going to tell yourself, the way you're going to justify your failure. He was a grocer, one of those guys who slapped that label of "local" to his chest like a medal. Thought he was a pillar of the community—realised he wasn't when the new Asda opened up and his customers drained away, taking his profits with them.
But he survived. He built other businesses from the ground up, learned from his mistakes, became obsessive about economic climates, had plenty to say about your business decisions. Bitter experience made him determined and strong. He exercised that strength when he made sure you got a good and guilty Catholic education, further exercised when he nudged you—c'mon, it was shoved with both hands—into a business degree. Failure was an option, but only if it led to bigger and better things.
That which does not kill me, makes me stronger, right?
You honestly believed that, right up until a stress-related stroke dropped your father in the middle of the after-school rush. Now your singular image of him is a man stuffed into a wingback chair, his head caught in a slow, involuntary nod. A mute, perpetually agreeing with whatever news you had to tell him. Which was normally bad, a litany of failure that you had share with him because you couldn't tell anyone else. And he'd sit there, his head moving, that strength he once had bubbling under, a look beyond his eyes saying it all: And to think we spent all that money to create this.
Closes your throat to think about it now. He would've been the first to tell you what you were doing wrong, but you've got the sneaking suspicion it still wouldn't have been early enough to stop you.
In the wake of the dot-coms, small businesses folding left, right and centre, used office furniture became your trade. The idea was to buy in as much as you could, refurbish and sell it on when the country finally managed to get off its knees. And it worked, for a while. Two, then three outlets later, you were doing okay. In fact, the only problem was that you were running low on stock, so spent a majority of your time looking for new companies that were already financially floundering. In some instances, certain partners of yours arranged circumstances in which larger companies went into liquidation. They could charge removal, buy up office space, you could gut the place for profit.
You were a vulture picking at carrion, using that lesson your father taught you—life gives you lemons, make lemonade; while you're at it, call it organic and charge through the nose. Spend money to make money. Credit is the rich man's friend. But as the other cliché goes, all good things come to an end. The Dow dropped fifty-nine, the FTSE 250 dropped twenty percent, the Nikkei 225 even more. Some hack decided that the words "credit" and "crunch" looked good together and you suddenly realised that there'd been daggers in the smiles of your creditors all along.
You tried to tell your father what happened, but soon the pressure wasn't eased by a weekly nursing home confession. And words didn't pay the bills that were mounting up. So you went to the only bloke you felt you could trust to help you out—your brother-in-law, Terry—even though you could hear your father echoing in your head: Don't dump your problems on family, especially extended family. Be a man. Sort yourself out.
"I need money," you said.
It wasn't a request. Nissan gave Terry the boot five years ago. He spent his days drinking cheap beer in a second-hand recliner, absently watching his tearaway twins—you could never remember their names but you were positive they rhymed—smash last year's hand-me-down toys. When he was drunk and frustrated enough, he used to kick the walls. And when you arrived with a six-pack sweetener, you couldn't help but notice the dents in the baseboard.
"Don't have nowt." Terry cracked the first can and returned to his chair.
"But you might know people who do."
"You don't want to know."
"It's why I'm asking."
"You're not that bloke. You don't go looking for trouble. You got a bit of bother with your finances, that's not the way to go about it. No shame in admitting defeat."
You wanted to tell him there was, but you kept it shut for half a can.
Then he said, "You in bother, then?"
You nodded. "How was it when they laid you off?"
"Fine. Didn't register mostly."
"And when it did?"
He described it to you, and you sat there mentally ticking boxes. His eyes felt useless in his skull, his sinuses dried out and a thick numbness at the front of his head, like they'd removed a part of his brain and packed the space with cotton. He couldn't focus on anything, couldn't even make halfway through Eastenders without losing the plot.
He cleared his throat. "What it really felt like . . . "
You waited. He struggled.
"Just felt like I was going demented." He drained his can, crumpled it slowly. "And that there was nothing I could to stop it."
"So what happened?"
There was a ghost of a smile on his face when he said, "There was that accident."
Right enough, the Pathfinder he bought at a discount developed a freak electrical problem that torched the entire car. Because Terry was religious when it came to his insurance payments, the insurance company did likewise. Of course, this was back when everyone was spending, when belts were loose and credit grew on trees. An extra bump to his redundancy payment, and a suitably small revenge on the company who'd booted him in the first place.
You couldn't do that. Your Lexus was too precious to you. Same as your house. So you took Terry's other example, went home and kicked the walls once your wife had gone to bed. There it was, that comforting vibration from toe to calf over and over again. That night, after you crawled into the bed in the spare bedroom, you dreamed that you were watching a man in a suit bleed to death. You lit a cigarette even though in real life you didn't smoke, and the flame bloomed from blue to yellow, fizzing the end of the cigarette before guttering as you awoke.
You didn't believe in dreams. And you certainly didn't believe in them as premonitions or advice. So when you dug around the home office as your wife still slept, looking for insurance documents, you were doing it out of curiosity rather than need. You found insurance on the only shop you still owned.
You also found life assurance. Remembered the difference: insurance for "just in case"; assurance for "we know you're going to die". Sat there in the formal living room, dawn beginning to seep through the nets, casting a sick light on your missus' Lladro figurines.
The one that caught your eye: "Time For Reflection." A lithe woman with a wide-brimmed hat leaning against some stonework. Supposedly the epitome of elegance, you recognised it then for what it was - pricey tat. And then you looked around, felt as if you'd surrounded yourself with the stuff, that it was your lifestyle that was choking you.
You had the figure in your hand when she came into the room.
"You okay?" she said.
You put the figure back on the mantelpiece. "Yeah."
Attempting a smile: "No, yeah, I'm fine."
Of course you weren't. Sitting there in the gloom, you'd already discovered something that you couldn't shake.
Your life assurance, and one particular clause, in which the only contestable period in the event of a claim was twelve months after the policy was taken out. In layman's, they would pay out, albeit grudgingly, in the event of his suicide. It was buried in the small print, but it was definitely there and readable, even in the dim light from the window. As you soaped up the displays of the two outlets you'd already lost, your mind kept returning to that clause. And when you were confronted with a couple of men in cheap suits at the one outlet you had left, it was all you could think about.
That night, your wife asked you why you were so quiet. You told her that you'd shut up the two outlets and she said she understood. You knew she didn't, but you didn't say anything. You were just glad of the quiet.
You waited until the next Saturday night, then told your wife you had some last minute paperwork to care of.
"This late?" she said.
"Sorry," you said. "Totally forgot about it."
She looked tiny on the sofa, her eyes reflecting the television. You smiled and leaned over, kissed her on the forehead. When you straightened up, you saw her frowning at you, as if you'd never kissed her before. She didn't say anything, returned her gaze to the television, and you wondered if you'd done something wrong. A part of you wanted to ask her about it, but you couldn't find the words.
You left the house, caught the Threshers just before it closed and bought a one litre bottle of High Commissioner. Then you swung round to the Esso and filled up two containers with petrol. By the time you got to the shop, your mind was made up.
The idea was to go up with the shop, crisp and dry, a real Viking funeral. That way, there was a slim chance the insurance on the business would pay out as well as your own. You went ahead and doused the place with petrol. You drank half the litre of High Commissioner and promptly threw most of it up. Drank some more and used the Stanley knife on your left wrist, going up the arm as you'd learned in countless episodes of Casualty—"When they go across the wrist they don't mean it"—and then, after a few botched attempts on the right, you threw the knife to one side and fumbled out a brand new Zippo. You touched fire to petrol, then lay back on the floor and stared at the ceiling as the flames took hold.
But of course, in the end, you chickened out. Because that's what you do.
When the smoke became solid in your throat, you panicked. Tried to claw your way upright, peeled yourself from the floor, sticky with blood. Flipped yourself over like an insect and scrambled painfully to the back door. Tumbled out into the back alley, a thick fist of smoke following. You twisted once, saw flames flutter out of the open door, then ran as fast as you could up the alley.
You'd left your car in the long-stay at Central Station, thought you were being clever. You regretted it when you were bleeding in the dark, staggering forward as if someone pushed you ages ago and you still hadn't managed to get your balance.
If you'd had the car, you wouldn't be here now. You'd be at home with your wife, staining the cream carpet, probably a tea towel tightly knotted around one wrist while you wait patiently for the ambulance to arrive. She'd be red-eyed and shivering; you'd probably be the same.
"Why did you do it?" she'd say.
You'd shake your head, thin your lips to keep from crying. "For us."
"No, you shouldn't have."
And it'd be the worst and best present anyone could've given her. In a way, the most romantic thing you've ever done in your long marriage.
But that's not happening. Won't happen. Not now.
You're stuck with the slow drip, the stench of smoke, whisky and puke in your nostrils. The mirror you're staring at, it's starting to mist up. Your face beginning to soften around the edges. You can hear people talking about you above the roar of blood in your ears, and you're not surprised. Because even through the fog in this mirror, you look bad. Don't need to look down to see the blood pooling at your feet. Don't need to wipe the mirror to know that your skin is grey.
You can feel the crowd that's developed around you move as one, feel the floor under you shift as they do. Someone's come into the shop, and they're saying something that's directed at you. You have to concentrate to make it out.
It's your name. They're saying your name. Means they know about the shop.
You nod, your eyes heavy. The floor keeps threatening to jump up at you. You begin to turn towards them as you feel your knees go to water.
You smile when you see paramedics. You thought they'd be coppers.
But then you always thought you were more important than you actually are.
You shake your head, turn back to the mirror, and you can't even see yourself now. Whole thing's fogged up; you've disappeared.
"I'm still here," you say.
And then, as your vision greys out and you feel a breeze against your face, you're not.