By James A. Beaumont
James didn’t call Jason on Monday. If he had, Jason wouldn’t have been crossing at the corner of Melville Avenue at precisely 11:32 am when that asshole came speeding round the corner and hit him. In other words Jason wouldn't be dead.
James went to the funeral. It entered his mind that a single phone call would have been enough to have saved his friend’s life. He wanted to say something but it just really didn’t seem like the time to say it. Maybe there was no time to say it.
James went to work. His boss was looking for an excuse to sack him, but that moment didn’t seem like the right time. There would be other opportunities.
Jason had also worked at Brownings and things went on as usual that day, and if it wasn’t for the large photograph of Jason, with a lot of cards placed beneath it, you might never have thought someone had passed away; a part of the team, a part of the big working family.
James left work early; his boss grumbled but said nothing. He walked down Union Street, crossed over onto Melville Avenue and stood at the spot where Jason had been hit.
He glanced at the flowers, closed his eyes, and crossed.
Jason had crossed at the same pace, but his eyes had been open. Not so for James. He walked along the road, heard the sound of horns and his body did react, it really did. He was tense and shivering all at the same time. Meeeeeeaaaah as one car went round him – a little too fast maybe but that was the only one.
James made it to the other side of the road completely unscathed. He decided to go to a pub. It was the sort of thing they did – had done, rather – quite often, going to the pub straight from work, so it felt almost normal to do it now.
Jason’s drink was Becks. Hell, these two had had their first taste of alcohol together – well, at least that’s what they’d both claimed. In truth, James had tasted a bit of wine about a month before this rite of passage but he’d never admitted that to Jason. ‘You go first, no you,’ the words felt more powerful for being shared. That had been it for Jason, even if James had soon concluded that Becks tasted like piss.
James ordered a Becks. He drank it down quickly. Three gulps. Jason always took his time with his.
‘Another?’ the bartender asked.
James eyed the taps, the refrigerators and the top shelf. ‘Actually, a whisky,’ he said.
‘Anything in particular?’
Jason had once claimed to be able to tell the difference between a Laphroaig and a Glenlivit. ‘Bullshit,’ James had said.
‘You’re buying them if I can.’
Then again, a fifty-fifty bet didn’t quite seem fair, so James had introduced a control. ‘JD,’ he’d whispered to the bartender. Jason had correctly named all three.
‘I’ll have a Laphroaig,’ James said.
‘Single or double?’
‘Better make it a double.’ And then, like in the movies, ‘On the rocks.’
The bartender looked like he was about to smirk but somehow managed to hold it in. ‘Coming right up,’ he said.
James paid for his drink and gulped it down. It was all he could to stop himself from coughing.
The place was near empty. There were just two other people there. One a little further along the bar, and someone else in the corner. They had something playing on the TV, an old Van Damme movie. The bartender walked off to restock the fridges.
The man at the end of the bar said something then. ‘You’ve been here before,’ he said. James turned to see an elderly man with a half-finished pint of Guinness.
‘I don’t think so,’ James said.
The old man smiled at this. ‘Boy doesn’t even know what he’s talking about,’ he said, voicing his opinion to the room as a whole, but nobody took any notice. The barman kept stocking the fridge. ‘Yeah, I remember it clear as day,’ he continued. ‘It was you for sure, only your were wearin’ different clothes – real nice ones like.’
James raised his eyebrows at the backhanded compliment.
The old man came closer now, so close that James could smell the alcohol on him, even in a pub. ‘Yeah, it was you alright,’ he said. ‘You had this hot piece on your arm. Girl in a red dress. Man alive, what a lucky fella to have a girl like that.’ He took a big sip of his Guinness.
James rolled his eyes at the sexism. ‘I’m telling you that wasn’t me,’ he said.
A glazed look came over the old man’s eyes at that moment. ‘Hmm,’ he said and quicker than James would have imagined, he reached out and took his chin in one hand. It wasn’t hard and James was so stunned he didn’t even move but just stood there as the old man looked deeper into one of his eyes and then the next. ‘Sure was you,’ he said, his bushy eyebrows raised. ‘But wait, no, a different time, a different reality even.’
He let go then.
James really needed another drink at this point. He signalled over the bartender. ‘Same again, please,’ he said.
He tried to busy himself with Van Damme as he sipped the whisky but all the while he could still feel the touch of those cold fingers on his chin and the old man’s eyes as they burrowed into him.
At some point it became too much. ‘Can I help you with something?’ he said, turning back around.
The old man’s smile grew wide. ‘What was the name of that piece of yours?’ he said.
‘Seriously, old-timer,’ he didn’t know where that came from – another movie? ‘You’ve got your wires crossed. I’ve never been here before and “some piece?”’ he shook his head and tutted.
Vanne Damme was busy breaking one man’s neck on the screen before it went in for an extreme close up of his face. James realised it was Time Cop; a relic of his childhood.
‘Don’t know what else to call it,’ the old man was saying. ‘Still, you could tell she was more into your friend if I’m honest.’
James coughed as the whisky went down. He never had quite got the hang of drinking it. ‘What are you talking about now? What friend?’
‘The guy you with in the suit.’
‘I just –’ James swilled the whisky in the glass. ‘OK, what did this guy look like?’
The old man finished his Guiness and already had another waiting for him. He picked it up and inspected the foam before answering.
‘Chinesey fella,’ he said.
James narrowed his eyes at him.
‘Oriental – I don’t know the word for it. Wearing a flash suit, flash, shiny shoes–’
It couldn’t be, James thought.
‘What kind of watch?’
‘Like I said, expensive. Had all these dials on it. Quite big but looked good. He wore it well.’
‘This is crazy, we never came to this place!'
‘Like I said, probably a different time. Or a different reality.’
James just shook his head.
‘But man were you both happy. What do they say? Living on the spurs of youth. Ready to take on the world.’
‘This is stupid,’ James said, lifting up the glass of whisky and downing the rest.
‘Hey, that’s the watch right there,’ the old man said, gesturing at James’s wrist.
‘Uh-huh,’ he said. ‘You probably just saw that when I came in,’ he said, looking down at the chronometer. He remembered the scene, just a week before. Jason’s dad after calling him over to the house. James had been shaking on the doorstep before ringing the bell. Jason’s mum was in tears, pulling him into a hug. His dad had no words until he’d presented James with the watch. ‘He would have wanted you to have it.’
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, old man,’ James said, nearly slamming the whisky glass down onto the bar and getting to his feet.
He moved for the door but the old man’s voice came right after him. ‘Never dwell on what could have been but only on what you have.’
James paused at the doorway and turned around. The old man was staring up at Van Damme. James stepped towards him, opened his mouth to say something but then thought better of it and left.
He made his way home in the typical gait of the semi-drunk. The edge had truly been lifted off everything and James even managed a smile as he ambled along. He saw the sign for a newsagent further up the road and remembered the lottery ticket in his pocket. His smile broadened, ‘Why the hell not?’ he said out loud, before going in.
There was small queue – mainly people buying cigarettes and alcohol. James waited his turn and handed over his ticket. The shopkeeper looked at him a little doubtfully. Maybe it was the smell of alcohol but then again it was a lot of money.
‘This is . . . congratulations!’ the shopkeeper said after a while, for the numbers were a clear match for last week’s roll over. The shopkeeper shouted into the back, ‘Navya, Sahil, come out here!’
A few moments later and his wife and son were staring at the ticket as he hurriedly told them what was happening.
‘In our own store?’ his wife said.
‘Never happened before!’
‘Only small amounts.’
He handed the ticket back to James with both hands, like a Japanese businessman handing over their card.
James looked at him dumbly.
‘Can’t accept this here,’ the storekeeper said.
The shopkeeper smiled. ‘Too much money,’ he said and laughed. ‘Much, much too much money.’ His family laughed with him.
‘Can I take a photo?’ the boy asked.
The shopkeeper nodded vigorously at him and before James knew what was happening he was posing for a photograph with Sahil and then the shopkeeper was getting the four of them together for one big selfie.
‘You need to call Camelot,’ the shopkeeper said to him. ‘Here,’ he said helpfully, ‘you can use our phone,’ and he pulled up a receiver from below the counter.
James stared at it for a few moments and then shook his head. ‘It’s ok,’ he said. ‘I’ll take it at home.’
They nodded to him, and with a few more cries of congratulations ringing out behind him, James left the store.
It was going to be awkward, he knew that. Jason had been the one who’d bought the ticket, not him – even if it had been in James’s wallet after the accident. ‘Don’t lose that!’ Jason had said.
‘Of all the fucking luck,’ James spoke out as he walked.
He went home and made the call.
A couple of weeks later with several expensive purchases behind him and a night on the town lined up, James was adjusting his tie in the mirror. It was a bit extravagant for these parts, the suit he was wearing, but that was kinda the point, was it not? His phone rang. It was Ruth, wanting to know what time he was picking her up.
‘Are you . . .’ she started but her voice caught, as if she was embarrassed.
‘Are you going to be in the Ferrari?’ she asked.
James checked his reflection in the mirror once again. ‘Of course,’ he said.
There was a short silence, not the whoop of delight he’d been expecting. ‘You still there?’ he said, turning to the side to admire his profile.
‘Yeah . . .’ she said but it was clear a lot of her enthusiasm had gone.
‘What’s up?’ James asked.
‘It’s . . . well, it’s Jason,’ she said.
James caught his grimace in the mirror. ‘What about Jason?’ he asked.
‘Well . . . you probably didn’t know but I, I kinda had a thing for him back, well, back in school.’
Of all the times . . . James thought to himself. ‘Oh,’ was all he said.
‘Sorry,’ Ruth said, ‘I’m being stupid, I know.’
James turned away from the mirror and bent down to retrieve another beer from the box at the end of his bed. ‘It’s fine,’ he said automatically.
‘Forget I said anything,’ Ruth said. ‘Come on,’ she added, her voice much brighter, ‘tonight’s going to be a big night, right? Don’t know why you want to start it at The Vic but it’s your party, so I guess what you say goes, right?’ She laughed but it seemed kinda forced to James, it all seemed forced. She was babbling now, ‘I’ll be wearing my red dress – good old red and, well . . .’ she was running out of things to say and James wasn’t making it any easier for her. ‘Who else is coming?’ she asked.
‘Who else is coming out?’
‘Oh, just some of the people from school, you know?’
‘Oh yeah? Great, like who?’
‘You know, Gareth, Alice . . . erm, Paul, Johnny . . . Emma, erm . . .’
‘Paul, Johnny and Emma?’ Ruth repeated. ‘You barely know them, do you?’
‘Yeah, well,’ James said, swigging down the beer.
There was a short silence. ‘Well, I guess I’ll see you soon.’
‘Yep, be seeing you in a bit.’
He hung up the phone and sighed. He turned to look at the wardrobe – as extravagant a piece of furniture as they come, covering a whole wall. It was something his brother had talked him into buying. He pulled open a draw at the centre. It was a glass case with jewellery and watches inside. James traced a finger over the watches before picking one. It was the large one Jason’s dad had given him. He put it on, got himself another beer and then headed out to the pub.