A light hearted story, but with strong language that some may find offensive – don’t say I didn’t warn you! 😉
Deep, thick mud held Ken’s body firmly to the ground. Falling over wasn’t part of the plan while venturing out to get a pizza, but there he was, a fallen man.
Just before the fall, he’d decided to take a short cut to the main road across a muddy grass verge, thoughts whirring in his head about the randomness of life. How one minute all the goodness of the world can swing your way, and the next, it abandons you and rushes in the direction of those who really don’t deserve it. In the moment of pondering, in the cool dark evening, he’d heard a noise like eggshells crunching under his shoe. It wasn’t an egg as he’d first thought, but a snail on a slow journey. His big foot ended it’s travels, squashing a peaceful creature into a flattened mess.
“Random shit!” Ken mumbled, as if accompanied by an agreeable invisible friend. Then he took the fatal step, the one he really shouldn’t have, onto the muddy grass. It was now more mud than grass. Torrential rain several times in a week and kids skidding across on bikes, had turned it into a great big shiny brown sludge, with a few isolated tufts of faded grass here and there. Four clumsy steps across the mud, his right shoe squelched deep into the stickiness and firmly sunk in. His left foot automatically went forward to save a fall, but in instant, he found himself welded to the ground. He felt like a giant human plant, standing there, growing from earth, with a pizza box cradled in his arms.
In a strong effort to pull his feet free, he’d lurched forward. Reached out to save himself from the fall, the pizza box left his hands, whirled in the air with force like a low flying Frisbee as he fell flat on his face. His arms neatly jammed beneath him, squelching in the sliminess and the weight of his body. He could barely move, and found no strength to lift himself up. There was pain – bad pain. Not just from the fall, from the arthritis in his arms, hands, and knees. Deep pain raged.
He turns his head sideways, rests his cheek on a spindly tuft of grass. It’s like a miniature island, just enough to stop his ear from sinking into the sloppy soil. “Help!” he shouts, desperately calling into the empty street, in hope of a kind passer-by. Instead of his usual full stereo tone, his voice is small and mono, travelling no further than a few metres.
His thoughts turn to home and Elaine patiently waiting for him to walk in the door with the takeaway meal. He stares longingly at the box, lid flung wide open, a 20 inch meat feast pizza perched neatly on top of soggy mud. How ironic, he thought, it fell right side up. That never happened. It was always wrong side down for Ken. Scones with strawberry jam were the worst, they tumbled down his shirt, falling sticky side down on a fluffy carpet, and his ever hopeful dribbling pug would gobble it up at speed, as if the poor animal had been starved of food for days.
In the distance, a sound of chatter arrives, loud laughter, voices drawing near. Relief rushes through him. The thought that someone, a human being, several even, were making their way towards him, was a welcome sound. He prepares to deliver his S.O.S. call. But the voices sound aggressive, a string of swear words reach his ears. Not just one or two, but an endless repetition of F words. “Fuck that – fucking bitch – what the fuck – and I fucking told him….” and on it went. “The Taylors!” he says, “It’s definitely the Taylors.” The lads from the council estate. Brothers, a twosome gang of trouble. Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dunce were the names that he and Elaine had given them. Their own little private joke. It took the edge off hating them.
If anything was vandalised in the village, there was no need for a Parish Council enquiry, everyone knew who was responsible. And if you woke in the morning to find your garage door spray painted with a beautiful red image of a V or some kind of smiley with devil like pointy ears, proclaiming victory over oppression – of course, it was the Taylors. They’d been caught spraying their own unique brand of expressive street art on the walls of their old school. It had been a parting gift they said, for all the crap they’d put up with under the oppressive regime.
Their voices continue, words crystal clear, bleating their constant stream of fucks, as they arrive on the path the other side of the road. Instead of crying for help, Ken keeps his head low, his body unmoving. He didn’t need their assistance, they wouldn’t know what help meant. He might be in a disaster zone, unable to do anything about it, but he wanted to make it home alive, and still retain his wallet.
He thinks of Elaine again, sitting watching Eastenders. He imagines the police arriving at the front door, her distraught face as they tell her what terrible thing happened to her husband. No! he thought, it isn’t worth the risk, there’ll be someone else, someone more appropriate – soon. But he wonders how soon, as the sound of their voices slowly mouth off into the distance.
He watches the boys fade into the dimly lit street, observing the way they walk. Noting, they didn’t really walk, they waddled like fat old men. And every so often their feet would skip off the pavement and take them onto the road, then quickly hop back on again. Drunk, or high on something? he wondered. If they can’t walk straight now, how will they walk when they’re my age? Strange boys!
“Oh – this is stupid,” he mutters, angry at himself. “I must be able to get up – try harder!” He draws in a deep breath and pushes with his weak painful arms, letting out a defeated sigh as his muscles give up on him. The right side of his face squelches into the mud, and his glasses shift and rest above his eyebrows. “No! This can’t be happening!” Falling over was the one thing he’d feared for years. Falling over and not being strong enough to lift himself up. Elaine was always nagging him to use his stick. Telling him straight, he needed the support, in case he tripped. But he grumbled like an irritated bear every time she brought the subject up. Shoved it to the back of his mind, like a child refusing to acknowledge danger. The process of ageing he felt was bad enough, without being humiliated further by an old man’s stick. Vanity ruled, and made the decisions. There was no need for a walking stick. But now – how much he wished he had one.
A voice in the street echoes, drifts towards him. A man’s voice, one he doesn’t recognise. Not a local. A strong accent. French, German – Dutch maybe? No other voices, just the one. An excited sound in relentless chatter. It comes closer. Ken lifts his head slightly and calls out, “Help! Can you help me?” The voice rattles on, and the shoes of the talking man clip like a metronome as he confidently strides by on the pavement across the road. He shouts again – and again, his voice breaking with the strain. The man turns briefly, looks behind him, as if he believes he’s being followed. He holds a phone close to his ear, his chatter continues.
“Is he on a phone?” he asks. “He is on a phone! Damn people and their mobiles!” He rests his ear back on the little tuft of grass, and lets out a long frustrated sigh. And he hears a faint echo. As if his his sigh is coming back to him. It happens again. That can’t be an echo, he puzzles. I only sighed once – the echo came twice.
Again, a faint sigh. That’s not a sigh, he thought. It’s not human either. He turns his head slightly, looking to the other side of the road, catches sight of a large dark shadow moving, just behind the spindly trees lining the fence of a field. The deep sigh sounds again. This time, he’s more sure what it is. It’s not a sigh at all, but the sound of a curious horse. The street lamps reveal the dark shadow of the animal. Ken passes the field most days, and always there are three horses, two white and one grey. Puzzled, he questions, When did the dark one arrive? And why is a horse still in the field at this time of evening?
The horse walks along the trees, pacing to the left, then turning to the right. Despite the pain in his body, he smiles at the thought of how ridiculous his situation is. Stuck in mud, his cries for help not heard – but now, he has the company of a horse. “It’s very nice of you to be concerned for me,” he says to the animal in the shadows. “But there’s not much you can do, is there?” He chuckles slightly at how mad the situation is, and then fears a little, that maybe laughing is a sign of insanity.
The light cool breeze makes a sudden turn. The sharp air cuts across his face, works its way round his neck and inside his jacket. How long? he wonders. How long, could he lie there before he became seriously cold? How long, does it take for hypothermia to start? The frosty nights are gone, but it’s far from warm. His body begins to shiver.
He closes his eyes, recalling the conversation he had with Elaine before he left the house. “No – I don’t need that!” he’d snapped at her in the hallway as she held out his winter coat. “I’ll take my light jacket!” And just as he’d slipped that thin jacket on and pulled open the front door, she held out his scarf. His voice raised in frustration, “I’m only going to be a few minutes woman! I won’t be needing that – it’s March for goodness sake!” She gave him one of her stony stares and said, “You’ll need it – it’s chilly.”
Annoyed, he’d grabbed it from her hands, and snapped, “Right – chilly night!” He’d only agreed to wear it because it was her Christmas gift to him. She’d knitted it herself. He felt an ungrateful bugger refusing it. Grumbling, he wrapped that scarf round his neck – just for her. It was the beginning of Spring, a scarf wasn’t necessary.
The wind circles his vulnerable body, the chill increases, and slowly he sinks a little deeper into the mud. Her knitting is a comfort.
Time slowly drifts. It’s a quiet night, and no-one passes. Twenty minutes? Half an hour? He wasn’t sure. He’d forgotten his watch. He’d forgotten his phone. The only crucial item he had with him were his keys – and the pizza. His stomach rumbles. He closes his eyes, because there is something weirdly tormenting about looking at his meat feast pizza, out of reach and stuck in mud.
He tries to lift himself up again. But it’s useless – he is useless. He’s nothing but a heavy ageing body, full of aches and pains. How did I get like this? he asks himself. What happened to the fit man who used to lay all those bricks on building sites? Weak didn’t exist – couldn’t exist. Freezing weather, cuts and bruises, insults from other men. Never a job for the feeble. Where did that man go?
Frustration takes over, emotion rises. The feeling of wanting to cry is intimidating. He wants to shout loudly, that none of this is fair! He doesn’t deserve this incapable body. But instead of tears, anger roars. “Arghhhh! Bloody hell! Where is everyone tonight?” he yells. Silence. No-one answers. But the horse is still there, standing in the shadows. Sounding like it’s trying to push its way through the trees. Dry thin branches snap, as it appears to move forward.
Thoughts circle in his mind. The presence of a horse reminds him of one he’d tried to help a long time ago, all on it’s own in a field, vulnerable and sick. He’d missed his bus home from the local town, instead of standing waiting another hour for the next one, he’d decided it would be quicker to walk. That homeward journey was full of country roads lined with green fields and rolling hills. In one of those fields was the horse. No ordinary horse. Like no other he’d ever seen. A badly neglected animal. He was shocked to the core.
A field bare of horses, but just the one. Dark brown, head hanging low. Bony protruding ribs, sunken eyes had slowly looked up. The sight horrified him. Flies buzzing, eager to feed on festering sores. He moved in closer and leaned onto the fence. He felt he should say something, do something – help the poor animal. His mind had raced in chaos, conflicting thoughts of what to do. He reached out his hand, gently called the horse to him. It didn’t respond, just looked at him sideways with one large suspicious eye.
A bright idea came to him. He unhitched his rucksack from his back, rummaged deep into his shopping, and pulled out a small bag of apples. He held out the fruit towards the horse, inviting it to take a bite talking in soft tones. The low head of the neglected horse lifted, eyes wary of what was on offer. Slowly it came towards him and sniffed the apple. He reached out to stroked it’s neck. It backed away, skin shuddering as if he had poked it with something sharp. “It’s OK!” he said softly, “I’m your friend.”
Once more he held out the apple flat in his hand. The horse responded, wrapped it’s big yellow teeth round that juicy green apple, and began to chew. But soon bits of apple had fallen to the ground. Slowly, it rejected the sweet treat. He reached out his hand again, and beckoned it to come closer. Eventually the horse allowed him to stroke it, and the shuddering stopped. It even seemed grateful for the attention.
Ken spoke as if it were human. “Look at you! You can’t even eat a tiny apple. What have they done to you boy? And where’s your water? The bastards haven’t even provided you with a drink.” He continued, telling the horse not to worry, help would be on it’s way, he would make sure of that. But words began to feel inappropriate, so they stood in quietness, Kens eyes welled up with emotion.
He felt a fool leaning over that rusty metal fence, weeping with a horse. But the horse didn’t mind, it even moved closer, absorbing his kindness. Finally, when Ken managed to bring himself to leave, and began to walk away for home, briefly, he turned back, and reassured the horse, saying, “I’ll get help you know! I’ll get you out of there, find you a decent owner, one who’ll look after you. And if I have to – I’ll look after you myself!”
On arriving home, it was all he could talk about. Slumped deep in his comfortable armchair, a warm cup of tea in his hand and a listening wife, his usual firm confident voice had faded, cracked with emotion, it took some time for what he’d seen to unfold. Elaine reached for the Yellow Pages, rang the RSPCA immediately, told them of the state the horse was in, the direction of where it was, and left them to investigate.
A week later, Ken still hadn’t heard from the RSPCA. He’d rang them to check on what was happening in regard to his complaint. They said, “What horse?” Several times they had visited that area, there were no horses in the field. They explained the owner of the land was mystified, and had stated he’d not let a horse graze there for six years. Sheep grazed, and cows sometimes, but at the present time the field was empty.
“He’s a liar!” Ken exploded in conversation with Elaine. “I’ll bloody well go up there and rescue it myself!”
She replied, “Lovely dear, but don’t bring it home with you, the back garden isn’t big enough!”
Armed with a camera and a bag of fresh apples, Ken returned to the field. The RSPCA were correct, there was no horse. No sign of any animals at all. Months went by, he visited the land at least once a week, each time fully expecting to find that sick horse, waiting for his return, so he could say, “See! I knew it was a lie!” He didn’t get his chance. The horse was never seen again.
And now, this evening, it was his turn, his time to be vulnerable. To be a victim in those random events of life, with a horse keeping him company, separated by a fence, a few trees and a very quiet road, watching him lie helpless in mud. How strange it is, he thought, that humans and animals can live together on this planet, all with the same basic needs, and often so limited to help each other out.
“Thank you for keeping me company my friend.” he says. “The fact that you’re there is what matters – I appreciate your concern old boy – or girl, maybe?” Talking to the horse distracts his mind from the discomfort of the fall, the cold slimy mud, and the shiver riding up and down his body, tensing every muscle. He doesn’t stop there, he moans to the horse about how quiet a night it is, and how rude people are in their own private phone world. And then a voice interrupts, asking, “You alright down there mate?”
Ken’s rambling abruptly comes to an end. He listens intently, waiting for more, thinking, perhaps the horse had found a voice? A young man wearing a black Beanie hat suddenly appears leaning over him, staring intently. “Do you need a lift mate?” he asks. All that talking to a horse and the sudden appearance of the man’s face, leaves him confused.
Another young man appears, holding a white paper bag, stuffing chips into his mouth. He leans over saying, “What ya doing down there?”
“I fell over – I can’t get up!” he replies, acutely embarrassed.
The young men say nothing, just look at each other briefly. The one in the hat reaches out his hand and says, “Come on mate – I’ll help ya up!”
“Why – broken something?” asks the man with chips.
“I don’t think so, I hope not! I’ve got arthritis – I haven’t got the…” he stops in mid flow. Do I know these young men? he asks himself. Oh – yes, I do – Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dunce. How did I miss that? He feels stupid now.
The hand from the man in the hat retracts, finding a comfortable place on his hip. He says, “Arthritis? My nan’s got that – painful in the knees.”
Ken isn’t sure what to say. The last people on this planet he wants as a saviour right now, are these two. The urgency to clamp his hand over his coat pocket, to secure his wallet from being lifted is strong, but he can’t, his hands are still trapped underneath his body. He feels small, vulnerable as a freshly caught fish, armless and legless.
The man in the hat pulls at the fibres of his Beanie, as if somewhere in there they’ll be an answer. The man with the chips looks around, as though he’s expecting someone to arrive from behind him, opens his mouth wide and shoves in a four chips at once. The man in the hat, says irritated, “Stop stuffing ya face – we’ve got a job to do.”
Ken doesn’t like the way they talk, dislikes the way he said ‘job’. Mentally, he lets go of his wallet, seeing the crisp notes being stuffed into their greedy pockets. He cringes, tightening every muscle, ready for what’s coming to him.
“Right!” says the hat man to his mate. “Get that side. I need you over there!”
His mate wraps his chips back into the paper and stuffs them into the front of his coat, pulling the zipper high.
The man in the hat, adjusts his Beanie, takes a quick look around him, and says to his brother, “You grab that arm and I’ll grab this one. When I count to three, yank him – OK?”
“Yeah – yeah got ya!” he lets out a nerdy, sinister laugh.
“No – no – leave me alone!” Ken blurts out. He cringes again, realising it was probably the worst thing to have said. It was never a good idea to let your enemy know you’re vulnerable. But he was – and they know it.
“One – two – three – pull!”
“Aahh, you can’t – you shouldn’t – I’ll get…. bastards!!!” he shouts with his blaring angry voice as they pull his arms.
“What? What’s the matter mate?” said the hat man, frowning.
“That fucking hurt!” Ken shouts back, now standing on his own two feet again he glares at the young man eye to eye.
“Sorry mate – but we had to get you up somehow. Thought it was best to do it quick like.”
“But, I could have broken something – my neck, my back. You can’t just – haul someone up like that!”
The man in the hat looks at him with sad dog eyes and says in a low voice, “I was just trying to help you out man.”
Ken shoves his hand in his coat pocket, his wallet still remains. Feeling stupid in misunderstanding the situation, he says, “Well – thank you – that was very good of you – both.”
“We could put you back down there if you want.” says the other young man, reaching inside his coat, pulling out his chips again, another one of his silly laughs rattles from his throat.
“Haha – very funny! I need to get another pizza actually. My wife is waiting for me to bring home the dinner. That won’t be any good now.”
“You might want to clean up first.” points out the man in the hat. “You look like you’ve been dropped in a bucket of shit mate.”
Ken looks down at his clothes. Like chocolate frosting, thick mud is smeared over his clothes. “Oh – yes – maybe I should just – go home. It’s not been a good evening really.”
“We’ll walk you home, if you like.” said the man with the chips. “In case you fall again.”
“Oh, no no, no – I’ll be fine! I won’t be walking on any more slippery mud, that’s for sure!”
A female voice calls in the distance, screeching words that none of them can quite make out. Arms in a red coat, flapping and waving like a radiant flag. As she moves closer they hear, “Leave my husband alone you scum!”
“Oh no.” Ken whispers in dismay. “Ignore her.” he says, trying to smooth over her rude statement. “She doesn’t mean it. My wife, she gets very…”
“OH – MY – GOD! What – have they done to you?” she shrieks, her eyes wide as though she’s stumbled on a scene of horror, her arms outstretched like wings as if she wants to embrace Ken, but can’t quite reach him. “You!” she says pointing her finger sharp like a drawn dagger at the brothers. “Are there not enough abominable things for your criminal minds to do, that you’ve have to pick on the elderly and vulnerable? Has throwing food in peoples gardens become too childish for you these days? HOW DARE YOU! I could quite happily strangle you both with my own bare hands. My god, you should have been drowned at birth!”
“STOP!” Ken shouts. “I fell over, it’s got nothing to do with them, you stupid woman!”
“By yourself?” she snaps in surprise.
“Yes – all by myself! My foot got stuck in the mud. I went forward, I couldn’t get up!”
“I knew something was wrong!”
“We’ll, I should use that stick more, shouldn’t I? And maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”
She bursts into hysterical tears. “I thought I was going to find you dead somewhere!”
“Oh – don’t be silly! Come here you soft bird.” Ken pulls her towards him, wraps his muddy arms around her. “I’m OK, just a bit of dirt to clean off, that’s all.”
The man in the hat, pulls the Beanie down over his ears, as if he doesn’t want to hear a couple of old people get too cuddly and emotional. The man with the chips, stops eating, and stares at them open mouthed, as though he’s never seen anything like it.
“These two lads helped me up actually. They were very helpful. I’d still be down there if it wasn’t for them.”
“Really?” she says, sounding as if she’s finding it all too difficult to grasp. She pulls herself away from Kens slimy arms, faces the two brothers and asks nicely, “So which one of you helped him up?”
They look at one another, each waiting for the other to speak. The man with the chips bluntly says, “Joint effort.”
“Oh – I see, well that’s very good of you.” She gives them a smile, drawing a tissue from her pocket, wiping her tears away, and gently blowing her nose. It’s a forced smile, the one she uses for occasions when she must smile. “Forget what I said earlier – I was in shock. I lose my head a bit when I’m flustered.”
“Forgotten already.” replies the Beanie man.
“I’d like to shake both your hands.” Ken says. “But there’s so much mud on me – you might not want that.” The young men wordlessly agree with nods of the head. “Thank you so much, you really were a great help – saved me!” He turns to his wife and says, “We’d better get home sweetheart, clean up a bit.” He looks at Elaine’s coat. “I’ve ruined it, haven’t I?” Elaine looks down at her newly acquired mud, gifted by her loving messy husband. She looks disappointed, that her coat isn’t quite so red any more.
“What about the pizza?” asks the man with the chips.
Ken turns to looks at his mud caked takeaway. “In a bad way isn’t it? Perhaps I’ll leave it where it is. There aren’t any bins now – bloody council, they’ve removed them all. Best not mention it to anyone – eh?”
“Haha – good one!” says the hat man giving Ken a thumbs up with both hands, while his mate agrees with another demented laugh. Ken reaches out, inviting Elaine to link arms. “Come on love, I have a horse to thank before we go home.”
“What?” Elaine’s eyes widen with surprise.
“There’s a horse in the field – look!” he points to the trees. “He was good company while I was lying there.” They all turn to look at the dark trees. No-one sees a horse. Ken steps out onto the road, dragging his wife with him, crossing over to the pavement, approaching the trees. “Where are you boy?” he calls. Elaine stares through the shadowy trees, desperately trying to find a horse. The breeze picks up, something dark moves, a rustling comes from one of the branches. There’s a strange sound, almost like a sigh, but sounding a little more crackly than it did before. Ken points in the direction of the mysterious dark shape.
Elaine says, “It’s a plastic bag – looks like a bin liner. Can’t see a horse dear.”
On the spot where the horse had stood, a large black plastic bin liner hangs from a low branch. It sways a little to the right, then to the left, inflates to a big dark shape as the cool evening air fills the inside, and a branch from a tree gently snaps.
The Taylors turn to leave, to pursue anything they may stumble across next. A brick wall that needs decoration, a convenient place to chuck the chip wrapper. Or even another person who needs a lift from the ground.
Tired of being smeared in mud, Ken agrees, he should have worn his winter coat, it’s definitely a chilly night. Time to head for home, to soak his aching joints in a warm bath, be thankful he was rescued by two strong lads, who didn’t lift his wallet, and try to forget about mystery horses and bin liners in the breeze.
He feels guilty leaving behind his takeaway, but smiles at the thought of someone passing in the morning light, catching sight of a twenty inch pizza sitting pretty on the mud, puzzled as to why anyone would want to do that to a perfectly good meat feast.
Pictures: Escape ~ NichlasBoysen
Sunset Horse Silhouette ~ Mark Duffy