Extract from
'The Head of a Young Man'



There was a buzzing in Danny’s ears, in his head, as he went into the hallway. The drops of Vicky’s blood on the carpet were smaller and more faded than he expected.

Come round, keep me company some other time.

Del was smiling, still looking at him as the door finally closed, it closed, and he was out at last. At last. Danny was on his own, in the close, feeling the draught, the hard stone under his feet, he moved down the spiralling stairs as quickly as possible, trying to put distance between himself and Del, who’d be back getting drowsy on the bed already, the lazy bastard, two walls separating Danny from him now, and more as he hurried down the steps, then another floor between them, and even if Del did suddenly, for some reason, think of something and run out into the close, shouting his name, he'd gone far enough that he could not be caught, he was fast, Danny, when he had to be, and all the time the gap increasing, that space and time, and he came outside of the building, the air felt freezing, the noise, as he cut across the grass and onto the pavement. Not right now, as this was still the escape and he was enjoying it, being out in the wind, a coldness in his lungs all of a sudden, it was so good, what a feeling, but once he got to the end of the street he would need to consider if he looked alright to get home, if he was acceptable to mingle with normal folk, actual human beings, everyday people, but he looked ok, he was sure he did, a bit dishevelled, a bit greasy, but ok, maybe just the appearance of being hungover. And why was it dishevelled, the dis-, was there a word shevelled, was everybody else shevelled and him, the opposite of that, the dis-, his slicked-down hair and tired face, the wrinkled clothes, they were loose on him, as if the fabric was wearing away to nothing, hanging off him. Or if he had lost weight? But it wasn't important, being dishevelled, not today, not in the grand scheme of it.

It was a movement he noticed then. Not seeing it exactly, because it was only in the peripheral vision. He was staring at himself in the window of a parked car and something moved in another of the cars, one on the other side of the road, and Danny knew not to look over. He turned and started walking fast but not running.

He listened, concentrating, waiting for the sound of an engine to start, a door to open, the steps he was taking and the seconds that ticked by were heavy, so heavy, these seconds, he was waiting and the noise would come, somebody would come after him, and he couldn’t run, Danny was shaking, his hands were in the pockets and there was a pressure in his throat, it was hard to swallow, he couldn’t run, legs were weak and struggling just to walk at this speed, they were like stilts, fucking wood, not bending right at the knees, and when a car door did slam it was like a gunshot – BANG – it fucking banged alright, it was banged shut and the noise, it hung in the air, reverberating, it was like Danny felt the waves of sound, the aftershock, still falling over him again and again afterwards, it was echoing round the flats, the street, and Danny’s hands did come out his pockets then and he did run a step or two before stopping himself, nearly falling, going back to walking, because he had no chance, and more or less crying, this sound coming from in his throat, he wasn’t crying but felt water sliding out the corner of his eye, still walking and waiting for that hand gripping onto his shirt, the weight of it on his shoulder, the voice saying he was caught. He couldn’t hear any footsteps but that was probably how they done it, trained at sneaking up on people, murderers or innocent bystanders, taking them down the same, getting them from the back. A wee girl coming out her gate pushing a tricycle, grinning up at him. Danny managed a smile back. Should he have ran as soon as he saw the movement. That was how animals done it – they could not see the thing, the detail of it, it was what the thing did, the action, that’s what they saw, and then they took off. The breeze was in Danny’s face. Not to look back, not to risk it, but was there anybody or fucking wasn't there, they’d have got him by now surely, if the movement had been a person, a watcher, taking a photo or making a note, if the noise had been them getting out, starting to give chase. Could be that the not running had saved him, made it look like he wasn’t bothered, like he’d nothing to hide. Danny turned and looked over his shoulder. The wee girl was riding the tricycle away from him, further along a few boys were kicking a ball against the wall of a shop.

It had been nothing. Were there other reasons people would sit outside a house in a parked car. He wiped his forehead, it was sticky, and round his eyes too. Around the corner and a last look back, but there was nobody, definitely there was nobody. He was going to the flat. To Julie. He was a missile, a heatseeker, coming along streets, across roads, nothing to stop him, homing in on her, the unsuspecting Julie, probably sitting on the couch, if she was in, cursing him, the bastard, fucking drunken bastard, he's in for it this time, he's went a step too far, no not one step, more, several, too many. She might even have packed his stuff into binbags and left it lying in the hall. He would not be surprised if she had. It was theatrics. Julie. She just wanted him to make the effort. To not try and write it all off. Show that he cared. And he would, he could do that. And then it would be a nice time, putting his stuff back into the drawers and laughing.

A van beeped its horn as it passed and Danny held up a hand to wave, thinking it was somebody he knew, but it was gone before he'd seen. He quickened his pace. A ginger cat came out from some hedges and ran ahead of him, the tail bouncing along the pavement. Danny put his hands in his pockets and tried to whistle but the nose blocked again and he couldn’t, the sound dying in his mouth before it got to the lips. What actually had happened. He’d moved his arm about for a few minutes, and that was that. It was nothing. It could have been more. Worse.

Mad thoughts. Danny shaking his head and smiling as he crossed at the lights, started up the hill towards the flat. What sort of a life, his life, compared to others. What would people think if they knew these things about him. The mam, Martin, the dad, Sandra, Julie, Vicky, his own friends, what would they all think. The baby, what would it think. Nothing, it was a baby. But it was unfair, being honest, the way things were, how people thought, it was fucking unfair.

None of it mattered. There wasn’t time for feeling bad because so soon he'd be home and they'd be face-to-face, and what to say. What could he say. The truth. That he was what he was. He knew what he was to her. He was boring, an ungrateful selfish waster who did not deserve her, what was it she said the last time, that he did not deserve to kiss her feet, and she was right, she could get somebody better than him to do some feet-kissing, that was guys for you, they’d queue round the block – but even now, as the words formulated in his brain, the ones that would soon be coming out of his mouth, and though he knew they would be the right words to show her that he understood, to let them get over it, to give her her due and make her feel better, it was his consciousness of this, of this process, his manipulations of it, it made him everything she said he was, and more. He didn’t really make mistakes, he always knew what he was doing, he just wasn’t honest. She would let him deceive her again and he would, of course he would. It was just couples, it was how they worked.

Danny was getting out of breath, he was slowing down, the steps along the pavement, each one shortening the road between him and the flat, the building, which housed all his possessions, such as they were, the décor they recently picked out, and Julie, his Julie, on the couch, with her round cheeks and dark eyes and eyebrows and the thin arms, sitting there.

He wouldn’t plan what to say. Danny trusted himself to find the right story in the moment. A plan could be picked apart. He would intuit. It was practice for the master-work. A challenge for how to produce some improvised, made-up shite. One day he would write about what happened, if he wanted to. And readers would find it raw and terrible. He'd get sympathy then. Danny, on the stage at a book festival discussing his ordeal, fielding questions from students, so stupid, telling him how brave he was, how inspirational, and it would all be so false, really.

Danny smiling as he came up the path towards their block. What was he doing. What. Aye, that was it – he was trivializing the pains of people who really had been traumatized. Because he wasn’t traumatized. What did it say about him that he wasn’t. He wanted a shower to get rid of any traces that could've seeped through the sheet onto his skin. But that was all. That was all there was to it. If there was something wrong in him he didn’t have the time to care about it. Danny reached the door and hit the buzzer. The crackling from the intercom immediate.

Julie?

-

I didn’t have my key.

-

Julie?

I've got the lock on from the inside.

What? Julie?

Don’t come up here, I mean it. I'll phone the police.

Aw, come on. Please.

-

Go to your mammy's.

The sound stopped.

There was just the wind again. He shivered. He pressed the buzzer in again. Even if she wouldn’t answer, it would annoy her. Till she would eventually take it off the hook and then it would be silent. He was really shivering. Cold because he had stopped moving. A dizziness in the head. Closing his eyes and putting a finger to the button again, pushing it all the way in.

He leaned on the wall, wishing to be inside. In the flat with Julie, or anywhere that had a bath, clean clothes, a bed, warm covers that smelled like her. His head was sore. The comedown. This was it. Brought on by the cold, the situation, the fucking wandering about, that it was still going on, that there was no end in sight. Some comfort, that was all. Holding the buzzer in again, hearing the interference as it blared upstairs, knowing it was the last time. He couldn’t stay there any longer, freezing, the darkness starting to fall heavy on him now. Tapping his foot gently against the wall. If she would just buzz him in, buzz, just fucking buzz. Did she not understand he needed help. Was that not more important than arguing, fighting, fucking squabbles.

The way he breathed out then. Starting to get in a bad way. Danny stepped away from the door and wiped his face and his eyes. He walked onto the road, turned and looked up at the flat. First to the bedroom window, then the living-room, the frosted glass of the toilet. She wasn’t at any of them. Busy with other things. Not him. His wellbeing was not at the forefront of her thoughts. The same as when she had a bath. Whenever he had one he left the door open so when she went past, he could invite her in. Sometimes she came, sometimes not. Danny was shaking now, his hands moving fast, it was starting to be frightening, he was hunched over, like folding in on himself - but there was still a flicker of pleasure, one second of good feeling, thinking of the times when Julie had rolled her eyes and agreed, and what she looked like, stripping and stepping over the edge of the bath and sinking a foot into the water. It was a thrill, times like that, to be him, with the naked woman coming towards you. It was brilliant, just brilliant, beautiful, that’s what it was to him. And that was the point. Danny turned from the building and walked back the way he'd come. Julie left the door open too when she was having a bath, she always did, but she did not invite him. The door would be wide open, her glass of white wine by the taps, trying to read a magazine in the steam. It must crinkle the pages, dampen them, in fact it did, it ruined them, he’d went in and looked at it afterwards that time, and the thing was unreadable, it had shrunk and faded and was soggy, heavy, a pointless fucking exercise, but that's what she did, Julie, she read and she drank in the bath, and she saw him going past, sometimes he even asked her questions and she would shout the answers, getting annoyed with him, you heard it in her voice. She was never thinking of him at all, not like that, the way he thought of her. She would never have that thrill, not any fucking thrill, if he'd been doing the climbing-in, that excitement was not there for her, and it didn’t worry him exactly, more disappointment, a sadness, that she was sitting in there, her nipples bobbing above and below the surface, her legs moving around in the water, and him, standing about in the lobby, waiting to be asked, becoming hot, red in the face, dying, burning, fucking burning, to be in there with her but it never happened, and when he heard the wee splash as she stood up he'd go back along to the kitchen and sit on a chair, on his own, sickened by it.

He was walking slowly. Thoughts of the bath, even these sad, hopeless, fucking miserable ones, they'd still left him with half a hard-on, and a slow walk hid it better from the people he passed. Danny sighed, sniffed. How to explain himself to the mam. It wouldn't be easy, but the bed in his old room, the wee single-bed, to have that door shut and the laptop on top of the quilt, to hide there till the morning, he felt like he would do anything. Really it was better than if Julie had opened the door. Speeding up, trying to empty the mind of the malingering and the sadness and whatever else, to get there in good spirits, normal, not disappoint her more than was necessary. Just to arrive, be nice, disappear into the old room, his room that they'd kept exactly the same, the implication that they knew he'd be back soon enough. And here he was. Seeking sanctuary. Life was hard. It was just fucking hard, so much harder than he thought it would be. It had caught him unawares.

He'd been walking alone in the wind for a long time. His legs weren't tired, it was his brain. It was failing him, he was weakening. He put it through too much. Trudging on, Danny boy, nearing extinction, so sad he could hardly breathe, he knew he couldn’t talk, could not utter words to anyone else, not at the minute. How much money had he and Vicky taken from them at the party. Maybe she would remember. And what use was that. He had to get there, to the mam's house, had to make it without bumping into anyone. If Stevie came round the corner now it was over. It was something to fear. It was real. If he met any of them now he would crack, he'd combust. Capitulate. Shatter like glass. Crumble to the pavement and cry, sob like a baby, it would be humiliating but he had nothing, there was just nothing left, nothing in him, he would cry and fall and try to hide on the ground, try to look like a pile of old clothes, nothing but clothes and hair, a wig and a pair of shoes, that's all he was, emptiness, rubbish, to be kicked about, spat on. He had to get there, make it inside, it was absolutely fucking essential, it was beyond essential. If they saw him now...

He tried to think what notes could be taken from the day. He wasn’t bothering to look around him now, it was just streets and more streets, the same ones he'd already walked, or ones like them, that was the thing with this part of Glasgow, and his life, it was always the same, tramping the same streets, coming to the end of one, turning onto another, who cared about any of it. He was not close to his destination. Fucking Julie. He was punished. Aye, great. A thought to stick out his hand and flag a taxi and get the mam to pay for it at the other side. ●










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