He knows that they are all behind him, standing in a semi-circle around him. Greg, Kevin, Tim, Don, Steve, Mike, Lawrence, the two Johns, Will, Ed, Martin, Terry, his foreman, the girls from the office, his boss... Everyone who works for this company, all of them pointing at him and laughing. Daniel switched the angle-grinder off and spun around to catch them by surprise. Standing on his tiptoes, looking over the welding-screens, he could see that everyone was going about their work, minding their own business.
Daniel plucked the grinder's plug from the wall socket, wrapped its cord around the tool’s handle. He pulled off his gloves and goggles, and then climbed out of his overalls. Daniel lifted his sports bag out from under his workbench, bundled the overalls into it, and placed the Black & Decker grinder on top. Carrying the bag, he made his way through the maze of machinery over to the toilets, where he hastily washed his hands and face, then swallowed a couple of tablets.
I'm going bald, just like my father did, he thought as he combed back his hazel hair, scrutinising his gradually receding hairline in the smeared mirror.
As Daniel clocked himself out, he was shocked to hear his father shout his name.
He still has a splitting headache. The two paracetamols, he had taken twenty minutes ago, seemed to have had no effect. Noises from work still echo around his head: the hiss and crackle of the welders, the whirl and bore of drills, the whine of grinders, the thud and crash of the guillotine, the rumble and screech of dragged metal...
Dusk was descending, the day steadily being consumed by the night, shadows spreading and swallowing the light. Daniel could sense the darkness surrounding him: a malevolent black gas stealthily diffusing through the air, closing in around him, threatening to choke and conceal him. He hurried down the pavement towards the telephone box at the top of his street.
He does not even have to try to remember her number anymore; his index finger presses the correct buttons automatically.
It rings only once.
"Yo?" It's a male voice.
Daniel quickly hangs up. In an instant, he is overcome by a vast and vicious feeling of hostility towards this unknown man, wishing a brisk and bloody death upon him.
But how can you despise somebody so much when you've never even met him, Daniel tried to rationalise.
Because he is with her. Because he is able to touch her, to hold her, to kiss and caress her. Because he is where I should be. And for that trespass doesn't he deserve infinite animosity?
That's the first time that he has answered. I just wanted to hear her voice. One word. A simple friendly greeting. To know that she is only a mile away... But he had answered straight away.
Maybe I wouldn't have given her enough time to pick up. I could have let it ring just one more time. Just to let her know that I'm still here, forever thinking of her, dreaming of the life we could have lived, the person I could have been.
Daniel put his bag down in the hallway and felt a momentary chill fall through his body. He shivered, pushed open the living-room's door, then froze. His father was sitting in the easy-chair in the middle of the room. Petrified, Daniel saw his father scowl at him and begin to rise from the chair. No! This isn't possible, Daniel silently screamed. And his father's phantom faded, the apparition evaporating, then a second later the ghost was gone. Daniel backed away from the living-room's doorway, fled down the hallway, rushed up the stairs.
In his room, Daniel sat on his bed. My father is dead, my father is dead: repeating in his head. Seeking some kind of distraction, he switched on the portable television on top of his chest of drawers, then he lay back on the blanket, tried to slow down his breathing, relax his body and clear his mind; but the tension in his muscles remained and his headache persisted.
Jessie wandered into the room, looked at him as if to say: "I thought that we were going out around now. Why aren't you ready to go out? Come on, it isn't time to go to bed yet." She waited for a moment, staring at him; then she climbed onto the bed, laid down beside him. Daniel stroked her short, dark hair and together they watched the early evening News on ITV.
"...at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky. The fourteen-year-old boy shot at his fellow students who were gathered for Morning Prayer service." An aerial view of the school buildings filled the television's screen. "He fired a dozen bullets before dropping the gun and calmly surrendering..." Daniel swung his legs over the edge of the bed, then stood up, approached the television. "A fifteen-year-old girl was killed. Six others, aged between fourteen and seventeen, were wound-" It isn't me, Daniel told himself as he pressed the ON/OFF button. It's the rest of the world that's gone insane.
He could imagine the panic and chaos inside that crowded school assembly hall, the confusion and disbelief as they heard another gunshot, as another pupil cried out and then fell. And what was the explanation? Why had that fourteen-year-old boy set out this morning with the intention of killing as many people as he could? Daniel did not have to see the rest of the report to know that there would be no answers, no solution offered.
He remembered that, a few years ago, a man had crashed a truck through the front window of a restaurant in Texas, then indiscriminately shot at the diners inside with two semi-automatic pistols; a massacre that ended with twenty-two people dead. But it isn't just an American phenomenon, Daniel thought. Last year, a man had walked into a school gym in the Scottish town of Dunblane, and shot dead thirteen children, before shooting himself in the head. A couple of weeks later, in Tasmania, a man had gunned down thirty-three people in a restaurant; then he held the survivors as hostages. The man doused himself with petrol and tried to burn himself to death after realising that the police were not going to let him escape.
What complicated mixture of pressures combined to cause these men to explode so violently? Daniel wondered. These mass murders, always men, usually ended-up killing themselves. So why don't they just commit suicide? Why do they shoot so many others first?
Daniel had once read an article in a newspaper written by a psychologist expressing the opinion that these men were trying to live up to an image reinforced by countless movies and TV thrillers: that they saw themselves as the lone gunman who wreaks vengeance on the people who have wronged him, living out a final fantasy of dying in a blaze of glory. But the victims of these shootings were often chosen at random, without the slightest provocation. Revenge was certainly not any justification. No, these men must be insane, psychotic, evil, living in their own paranoid reality, harbouring an increasing hatred of everyone around them.
"There are some really disturbed people out there," Daniel said quietly.
Jessie barked in agreement.
Now, more than ever, I must protect myself as best I can, Daniel decided, then he pulled open the only drawer of the small table beside his bed. He lifted his brother's Browning High Power pistol from the drawer, eased back the gun's hammer. The barrel pointed at the floor, Daniel squeezed the trigger. Mechanisms inside the gun released the firing-pin, thrusting it into the empty chamber. Seems like it's still in working order, he thought. Daniel took one of the magazines of ammunition from the drawer, slotted it into the gun's handle. He pulled back the slide, chambering a bullet; then he applied the safety-catch. Lifting up the tail of his shirt, hands behind his back, Daniel slid the barrel of the loaded and locked weapon under the belt of his trousers. The pistol held firmly in place, he let the shirt's tail fall, covering the semi-automatic handgun. He stepped over to the wardrobe, turned around in front of the full-length mirror. Looking over his shoulder, the outline of the gun was barely visible through his shirt; with a coat on top, no one would ever know it was there.
"Ready?" Daniel asked Jessie, who had moved to the bedroom's doorway and was now sitting, watching her master. The Labrador's tail began to sway, brushing back and forth across the carpet in the hallway.
Most of the shops were either closed, or in the process of closing. The town centre was nearly deserted, except for the usual groups of youths gathered around the benches, smoking and swearing at each other. Daniel and Jessie steered well clear of them.
Christmas lights had been put up yesterday, suspended between the shops, hanging high over the paved precinct. Many of the shop windows were also decorated, displaying Christmas trees and possible presents, edged with tinsel and flashing fairy lights.
One of the shop fronts had been boarded over, its TO LET sign sticking out from the bricks above. Someone had smashed its window Friday night. The place had been empty, there was nothing inside to steal, so Daniel could not figure out why someone had the urge to throw a large stone through the window. That seemed to be the main news in the local newspapers lately: windows smashed and other acts of mindless vandalism, people's houses burgled and commercial properties broken into, stereos taken from cars and bicycles stolen; they even steal the flowers from graveyards.
I'd move again, but is it really any different anywhere else? Daniel thought as he quickly walked down the precinct, Jessie keeping pace at his side. Besides, as long as it was there, while he could feel the rubber grip of the gun's handle against his skin at the base of his spine, what was there to be scared of?
In the kitchen, Daniel filled Jessie's water bowl, then placed it down on the linoleum. She lapped up some of the water as he forked out the contents of a tin of dog food. A couple of minutes later, leaving her food bowl half-empty, Jessie went to her basket by the back door, laid down and then closed her eyes.
Daniel spent half an hour under the warm spray of the shower, and then dried himself, put some clean clothes on.
The drumming started at about seven o'clock. A month ago, when he had first heard that sound, Daniel had thought that someone next door was banging on the wall that separates the two semi-detached houses, then the continued rhythm had made him realise that his new neighbour has a drum kit, and no sound-proofing.
His landlord's son lives next door and that makes Daniel apprehensive of complaining about the noise. It is normally quiet during the day and after midnight, but in the evenings it sounds like his neighbour stages rock concerts in his living-room.
Tonight, the drumming seems to be louder than ever before. Then the thunder of the drums was joined by the amplified wails of electric guitars and the singing started, though Daniel always thought it sounded more like shouting. Even Jessie was annoyed by it; she began barking.
I've put up with that racket for far too long, Daniel decided. "It's alright. I'm going to deal with it," he told Jessie as he put on his coat, hiding the outline of the Browning pistol in his trouser pocket.
The music and singing ceased as Daniel stepped outside. A young man came running out of the house next door and then jogged down the street. Daniel marched down his wet driveway, then up to his neighbour's front door. He rang the doorbell several times before a teenage girl answered. She looked tired, her eyes bloodshot and barely open.
"Could you please turn your music down a little?" Daniel politely asked.
"Why? And who the hell do you think you are?" She was dressed like a boy, wearing big, black boots and jeans. Her hair was long and fair.
"Because it's too loud and I live next door," Daniel said, aggravated by this girl's attitude.
Her laugh was short and nasal. "It's not loud," she said calmly and carefree. "You're just too out of touch to appreciate it."
Suddenly a hand was on her shoulder and she was dragged out of the doorway as Daniel's neighbour appeared. The young man flicked a few dark curls from his eyes. He looked tired too, like he hadn't slept for days. "Hey man? I apologise on behalf of my young feminine friend here..."
"Yeah right," the girl laughed. "Screw you too," she called over her shoulder as she disappeared down the hallway.
"Manners of an iguana," the young man seemed to say to himself, shaking his head.
Daniel struggled to dull the edge of intensifying irritation, tried to concentrate on the badge pinned before him to a red leather lapel: a yellow disc with a crude cartoon face consisting of two dot eyes and a curve of grin.
"You're Dan, right? From next door?"
Daniel looked up from the badge and saw the same stupid grin on the young man's face. Daniel nodded solemnly.
"So, what's the problemo?" the young man wanted to know.
"Er... It's your music," Daniel told him. "It's a little loud."
Blake frowned, cupped a hand behind his ear and made as if he was straining to hear. "Wow... It's like so loud, it's currently beyond the range of human hearing."
"What?" Daniel said, confused.
"We'll be keeping it down, alright? Be seeing you." The front door closed, then Daniel heard the young man behind it yell: "Hey Sarah! No need to go insulting Bono and the boys, you uncivilised wench!"
Definitely on drugs, Daniel thought as he walked back home.
All was peaceful next door for about a minute, then his neighbour’s front door was slammed and someone downstairs turned on the stereo. That racket was joined by excited voices upstairs and what sounded like somebody jumping up and down on a bed; which Daniel quickly realised was actually the sound of a couple having sex. Then the volume on their stereo began to creep up again.
Daniel went to the telephone in the hallway, ordered Chinese from the take-away around the corner. Jessie was up and out of her basket before he had finished the call.
Daniel tied Jessie's leash to the drain-pipe outside of the Golden Dragon, then he joined the queue inside. When he had collected and paid for his order, they walked down to the river that flows through the heart of the town. Daniel sat on a graffiti-covered bench in front of the court-house, watched the swans gliding on dark waters. He peeled the card lids from the tin-foil containers, and then ate his dinner using a plastic fork.
The end of another day, and what have I achieved? I eat, I sleep, I go to work... God, I hate that place, the people, the way they make me feel, and tomorrow I have to go back there. Why? To earn money. And what do I need money for? To buy food and pay the rent, to eat and sleep, so I can work another day. How am I any better off than I was yesterday? Is this all that life's about?
I don't think I can carry on like this much longer.
"Hello?" she said.
Hello Caroline. It's me.
Daniel could hear her breathing quicken.
"Hello?" she said again, this time more abrupt, more urgent.
God, it's so good to hear your voice.
There was a click as she hung up, then the hum of a disconnected line.
Daniel put the receiver down; then he fumbled through the change in his pocket for another ten pence piece, found one, pushed it into the slot, dialled again.
The number was engaged.
Daniel pressed the Follow Call button, and then rapidly dialled again.
She's taken it off the hook, he realised and replaced the receiver. She always did that, in the end.
And, as always, after that one word, the simple greeting heard, all that he can feel is guilt, ashamed of distressing Caroline in this way.
I'm a fool, Daniel thought. To the only woman I ever loved I'm just a nuisance.