There is a man who lived near us, out in the wilds of Cumbria. Our flat over the bookshop has huge windows looking out across hillsides peppered with ragged sheep. The skies are mostly low but when they are not, a soar of blue leaps across the landscape shining brilliant, endless. All around the immense greens clamour loud under the silence of huge skies. Jessica was the first to see him, and then we both saw him many times. She saw on the hillside, random flashes of a wrong, misplaced colour, the muddied artificial blue of a jacketed figure, prone and usually at dusk. She saw it that first time, looking out through the window as she washed up, peering squint eyed through greying light. “Look, isn’t that Ken? It looks like his coat. No one has a coat that awful shade of blue.” I looked to confirm, “Yes. Certainly looks like him. Must be pissed again.” And we turned away to get on with our evening. Not long after, Ken’s slight form was on the ground vomitting and freezing. But we didn’t see that part. By the time we went to bed we hadn’t thought about it anymore. In the morning the weekday routine kicked in and we had no cause to look out of the window at the hillside lost under a blanket of heavy rain.
He used to live above the pub in the next village, with his mum and dad, then with just his dad whose mourning was endless. Ken didn’t care. The mourning got on Ken’s nerves, like the nagging to go to work, get a job, blah blah. Whatever job Ken took, they eventually fired him. Plasterer. Postman. Cellarman. Son. All gone. He took to roaming the local villages, waiting for his dole money, drinking it down, almost in one.
Sometimes people would express concern about poor Ken, traipsing along the lanes and falling down into ditches. They’d say stuff to his dad, ask what Ken was doing roaming about at all hours. Frightening the sheep, shouting at children, collapsing dead drunk. The children would stare wide-eyed at the prone figure, spittle dripping off the edge of the curb. His fingernails were black and ragged, and there were often strange wounds in livid blue and red on the ashen face. His dad would reply that it was nothing to do with him. He had a place to stay, a bed. What more did they want?
Ken came home from time to time, to sleep, to wash a little. To eat whatever was going in the fridge. His dad wasn’t much on cooking since his wife had died. But he worked as a gardener so he had plenty of potatoes and carrots and beetroot stored over winter. He’d get a bit of mince from the butcher to make mince and mash, with baked beans on the side. Ken’s dad said not much and spent his evenings playing snooker in the pub and pretending his wife was reading and waiting for him to come back home to bed. He was an old man now and his son a creature he blanked, had always blanked for his stupidity, for some past and long forgotten sin. Poor Ken was not like his two sisters, who were smart and ambitious. Poor Ken did not have their brains. As all three of them shifted into middle age, it was clear that Ken’s close set blue eyes and thin little lips would never address anything more than the pint in front of him and the unfairness of it all. He took solace in spreading spiteful rumours about his many enemies. His dad. The young man in the post-office who did not want to meet up for a drink. The unruly kids who laughed at him. Their parents. He told grand tales about a girlfriend he had in the south. About a hotel they owned together in Sevenoaks, and about their two houses in Hastings rented out to celebrities.
When they are indoors together Ken and his dad sit in adjacent armchairs staring at the television. But Ken is mostly watching his dad and his dad is studiously ignoring him and his asinine observations about the game or the news. Ken coughs from time to time and shifts in his seat to remind his dad that he is there. But for his Dad he is not. After a while in his spite he takes to hiding his dad’s cue chalk and moving his dead mother’s things. For his dad, it’s as if she is still there.
And then Ken leaves more and more and stays less and less. When he is at large in the village he launches angry tirades at the neighbours about where they’ve placed their bins and parked their cars. He does his best to have a go at the customers in the pub. But the landlady is quick with her hands and cuffs him about his small grey haired head when she catches sight of his skinny form approaching people. Those out walking see Ken in the woods. Appearing suddenly ahead of them on the path they see the bright blue jacket veer off and disappear when he sees them coming. Horse riders and cyclists tell similar stories about his uncanny arrivings and departings. Ken’s always where you least expect him. The flash of blue against the fading summer greens and the browns of autum. And the blue’s getting grubbier and less blue. Sometimes he’s spotted in Ambleside and even Kendall, miles from home, dead drunk, asleep on a bench or verge, even in the rain. His dad never bothers nor his sisters. They figure it’s up him how he lives his life. It’s up to other people if they want to pick him up from the side of the road to bring his freezing drunken body home. It’s up the them if they want to bother with a sick-soaked blue coat and discarded shoes.
And then from our flat window we saw again the blue against the green. Jessica said: “There’s Ken again. It’s bitter out.” We saw ragged crows arcing across the chilled sky, and we saw the cold stillness wrapping itself tighter and tighter around Ken’s lifeless form.
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