Algebra

Tramway

Issue 3

Faceless, falling

by Allan Radcliffe

Allan Radcliffe

My head was racing. So I left work early and stopped off at the nearest newsagent. I searched until my fingers were smeared with black. My heart gave a thump when I landed on what I was looking for: a paragraph buried in the middle of a tabloid.

MISSING MAN’S CAR FOUND NEAR SUICIDE BRIDGE

I read and re-read the block of writing, holding the page up to my face and squinting at the muddy black-and-white picture. Ryan’s car had been found parked on the High Street in a town called Old Kirkpatrick. The article called the bridge a popular suicide spot. It sounded jaunty, like a blurb in a holiday brochure.

Ryan was half-turning to the camera as if in response to someone calling his name. The photograph must have been a few years old; he looked much younger than twenty-five. His hair was long and untidy, the fringe down over his eyebrows. The detail of his features had been bleached out, but his face still carried the cultivated cynicism of late adolescence. I wondered how many people had landed on the headline, over breakfast or on the bus, scanned the spare story before moving on to the TV schedules.

I bought the paper and went out into the night. I hoped Niall was home. He might be out looking for work, but I thought it unlikely. He had spent the previous night drinking with a friend and was still dead to the world when I left in the morning.

Three nights since I first heard the name Ryan McAllister. The story had come on the news, somewhere between the main headline and the sport. Ryan’s fiancée made the appeal on behalf of the family: Caroline, her name was Caroline. She was tall and slim, dressed like she’d just come from work, in a white shirt with pointed lapels. While the police superintendent was speaking she kept crossing and uncrossing her legs and absent-mindedly rolling the finger and thumb of her right hand around her engagement ring.

She looked into the camera and made her appeal slowly and carefully. But about halfway through she let go an abrupt sob and her cheeks puffed out. ‘I just don’t understand,’ she gasped. ‘We were making plans.’

My nose turned heavy. My shoulders were trembling. I couldn’t remember crying like this since I was a child. Niall watched me, appalled.

‘What’s got into you? You know him or something?’

I shook my head, shrugging helplessly. It was almost funny.

I groped for his hand.

‘Niall, please.’

We sat in silence. Niall held my hand until I stopped sobbing then returned to the television, flicking incessantly. I wanted to hear him talking about the news story, to speculate on what had happened to the missing boy, and I wanted to try telling him what I thought, how I felt. But I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know why I’d let it get to me.

Niall heaved out a sigh, pushed back his chair and muttered something that ended in ‘out’. After he had gone I spent four straight hours in front of the rolling news, waiting in vain for an update.

And that night I dreamt of Ryan McAllister, faceless, falling gracelessly against a harsh, white light.

Home. I considered ringing the doorbell as a kind of warning to Niall, but as I searched my pocket for my keys I heard a voice that wasn’t his, deep and slow, from inside the house. I hesitated at the door. And what about your mother? How do you think she feels? And: Typical of you, Niall. You just didn’t think this whole thing through at all.

In the silence that followed I twisted my key in the lock and said ‘Hello’ very loudly. The door shuddered, spewing forth a stream of windowed envelopes. I squatted and patted the collection of bills together.

Someone was sitting in the armchair by the living room window: a gaunt face under cropped dark hair that was almost white at the sides. Niall’s father greeted me with a nod.

‘He’s just leaving.’ Niall was leaning against the wall in the kitchen half of the room. His hair stuck out in clumps and he still had on the charity shop T-shirt he had taken to wearing in bed. The legend across his chest read: Ingleston Truck and Trailer Fest 1998 – The Only Way is Truck!

Mr. Ross turned to me. ‘Come in now, don’t hover in the doorway.’ He sat bone-straight on the edge of the chair, still huddled in his overcoat. ‘Are you still doing that . . .’ – he tap-tap-tapped his long fingers on the arm of the chair – ‘What was it you were doing again?’

‘Life assurance.’

He nodded. ‘Good for you.’

I looked away, not sure if he was being sincere. I thought of my office, the workstations arranged in banks of four. Over the last couple of years I had sat next to Poles, Romanians, Australians, Kiwis, South Africans and Americans. The friendly ones would open up about their lives, their aspirations and travel plans. They took turns to collect coffees from the machine and bitched about the commission the agency deducted from their wages. And then, without word of warning, they would disappear off to something better paid, more interesting and fresh recruits would emerge from the lift the next morning to take their place.

Niall’s bare feet slapped the kitchen lino.

‘Right, well I’m off,’ he muttered. ‘Things to do.’ I stepped out of the way as he blew past. The bedroom door thudded shut.

Mr. Ross was easing himself to his feet. When he moved he looked frail; his power was all in his voice. Niall had two much older brothers, which meant Mr. Ross was probably in his seventies. When he raised his head I could see how deep the hollows in his cheeks were. With his brick-pink complexion and blue eyes he looked like Niall with all the flesh melted off.

‘Are you sure I can’t get you something to drink?’ It was all I could think of to say. I opened the fridge and felt for the milk. ‘I’m sure Niall will be back in a second.’

‘Niall doesn’t want to talk to me. He doesn’t want anything to do with me.’

He stepped forwards, extending a hand, the suddenness of the movement pushing me backwards. A smile stretched his face as he patted my shoulder. ‘Niall is obviously going through some kind of . . . second childhood. And that’s fine. But what he doesn’t seem to realise is that his self-centred behaviour impacts on other people. People who care about him: his mother and me.’

I turned the half-pint in my hands. ‘I shouldn’t have called you. I just . . . don’t know what to say to him anymore.’

He shook his head briefly. ‘It was worth a try.’

I stared down at my hands. In the States they put pictures of missing people on milk cartons. I pictured Ryan McAllister’s face glowering in my hands.

I placed the carton on the table by the fridge. Mr. Ross was scratching at his face, his eyes tight, as though trying to remember something.

‘Sure you won’t have some tea?’

‘You know something? This is the first time I’ve laid eyes on Niall in nearly two years. I didn’t even know he had moved. Can you believe that?’

‘He thought you were angry with him. With us.’

‘He could have been dead for all we knew. Can you imagine how worried his mother’s been?’

He was speaking fast, like a politician being interviewed on the radio, keeping the bus moving so he could avoid being asked questions. I remembered he was a lawyer, an advocate, not a solicitor, which was what Niall was training to be when we met. Mr. Ross probably made speeches in front of crowds every day.

‘I’m not asking you to be disloyal to Niall. But I hope you’ll use whatever influence you have to encourage him to do the proper thing and ask for help.’ His voice ran on, climbing in pitch, like he was giddy with something. ‘You know what he’s like,’ he said, under his breath. ‘You could persuade him to, if you wanted.’

His blue eyes were pale and staring. Niall always said he took after his mother but I had no way of judging.

I hesitated before saying: ‘I think that’s up to Niall really. I can’t . . .’ My voice cracked. I felt like I had just made a hash of a job interview.

He stared at me. Then he gave a little snort and began moving towards the door. ‘This is a nice little flat.’

‘It belongs to a friend.’

‘Well done.’ He slapped his hand down on my shoulder in a gesture that was part congratulatory and partly a means of telling me that our conversation was over.

Mr. Ross had to duck to get under the doorframe. As he turned to say goodbye his eyes lingered for a moment on the shut bedroom door. A spasm made the skin around his mouth wrinkle.

‘He’ll come home when he’s hungry,’ he whispered.

I wanted to put my hand out and stop him from leaving. He was meant to help us, to make things better.

His eyes found mine. ‘Good to see you again. We’ll keep in touch?’

Niall was lying on the bed staring at the ceiling. The room was a mess. The framed photo of my mother had fallen from the bedside table onto the floor.

‘So, the old boy’s got you working for him then, has he?’

‘He’s worried about you.’

‘Bollocks.’

‘Your mother misses you.’

He hesitated. ‘I don’t believe that.’

‘Maybe you should just try talking to them.’

He rolled over and presented his back to me.

‘Niall. I saw a thing in the paper about, you know, that missing boy…’

‘What boy?’

‘You know . . . the other night. Ryan McAllister.’

‘Oh . . .’

‘They found his car near the Erskine Bridge.’

Niall slowly rolled over onto his back. He lay motionless, working his mouth, as if considering whether the place meant anything to him.

‘Did they say what made him do it?’

‘Do what?’

‘Well he wasn’t blown off the bridge.’

‘You think he’s dead?’

‘People don’t abandon their cars near the Erskine Bridge because they haven’t paid their car insurance.’

‘Maybe he had an accident.’

‘Nah. Nah.’

I felt weary. I let myself fall onto my back. I looked across at Niall, willing him to say something, anything that would lift me. But he carried on staring blankly at the ceiling.

We lay side by side on the bed, and at some point the rain dried up outside and the light broke through the window. After a while I heard Niall’s breathing change and I raised myself to my elbows so I could watch him. He slept with a slight smile on his face, his chest rising and falling.

I looked at the newspaper article again but there was nothing to say why Ryan might have thrown himself from the bridge. I stared down at his face in the picture. Perhaps he was clinically depressed. Maybe he had impossible debts or a terminal illness or he had committed some terrible crime.

As the laptop wheezed into life I pictured the words I would type into the search engine: Ryan McAllister, Bridge, Car, Missing.

Niall was certain that Ryan was already dead, his body caught in rocks somewhere or turning over in the waves.

I thought of Ryan’s fiancée, uncrossing and crossing her legs and twisting her engagement ring.

We were making plans.

My eyes filled. At what point, I wondered, would she give up hope and accept he wasn’t coming back?

How long before you take a deep breath and give yourself up to grief?

Allan Radcliffe

Allan Radcliffe was born in Perth in 1975 and now lives in Edinburgh where he works as a journalist and editor. His short stories have appeared in anthologies and journals such as Elsewhere, New Writing Scotland, Gutter, Celtic View, Markings and ImagiNation. His monologue, When the Moon Was Overhead, about the artist Frances McNair, was performed as part of Glasgow’s Mackintosh Festival. In 2009 he won a Scottish Book Trust New Writer’s Award, which allowed him to complete his first novel, Buttons for Eyes.