No More Heroes
Dace scowled at the line he`d just typed, that`s not right, he thought, and deleted the word past, replacing it with “passed.” “The time of heroes is passed,” he mused to himself; “No that`s not right either, the tenses are wrong.” He replaced “is,” with, “has,” “The time of heroes has passed,” he murmured, and made a face. It was grammatically correct but he didn’t like it, too definitive, too final, no wriggle room.
He typed out the three lines again one under the other, decided he really hated “The time of heroes is passed,” and deleted it for the second time, which left him with the lines,
“The time of heroes has passed,”
“The time of heroes is past,”
He clicked his tongue in frustration, he really liked “is past,” it had a portentous feel to it, but if he sent that to a publisher as the first line of a novel……
He sighed and slumped back in his chair, rapping the fourth and little finger of his right hand on the mousemat in frustration.
It was too hot for writing, he decided, yeah that was it, the sun was splitting the stones outside, he`d go for a walk, clear his head. That`s what he needed, an early evening walk in the park.
“I`m going for a walk!”
Jill looked up from her colouring book, pulled the left side of the headset off her ear and said, “huh?”
“I said, I`m going for a walk,” Dave repeated.
“Oh, okay,” she said, slipping the headset back on again before leaning back over the book; on the screen of the laptop to her right a woman looked like she was youtubing her way around a Walmart.
Dave shook his head as he pulled the front door closed behind him; adult colouring books, who`d have thought. It`d taken him eighteen months to write his first novel, and it had sold a whopping forty eight copies, but books of pictures you had to colour in yourself, those were selling by the millions; there truly was no justice in the world.
One of the things he liked most about where he lived was its proximity to the park, a fifty metre walk across the green and he was there, and best of all because it was `An Taisce protected` he`d never have to worry about anyone building anything across from him.
As he pulled the park gate shut behind him he was greeted by the sight of a toddler, couldn’t be more then eighteen months, running towards him, arms in the air, shrieking for all she was worth. A step behind her, a man, bent double, his arms outstretched, was chasing her saying, “I`m gonna getcha, I`m gonna getcha…”
“Gottcha,” he cried as he grabbed the girl around the waist and laughing, threw her into the air, the child’s shrieks of joy reaching piercing levels as she flew up. Behind them he saw a woman, almost certainly the mother, wince, as she saw her daughter being flung so casually skywards.
Dave smiled at the memory of doing the same with his kids at that age, and how Jill had hated it, how she`d complained, “You put the heart crossways on me,” every time.
As he cleared the tree lined path and stepped out into the sunshine, the wide expanse of the soccer pitches to his left, he noticed knots of people watching a park bench fifty feet away to his right.
Raised voices greeted him as he approached.
“Leave my bag alone!”
“Gimme the fuckin bag, bitch!”
“Leave it…get away from it…I said fuck off!”
“D`you wanna puck, do ya? gimme the fuckin thing or else!
A man and a woman were seated on the bench, she was turned away from him, clutching something to her stomach, he was facing her, trying to pull it from her; another man was standing in front of them, the remnants of an eight pack of Budweiser dangling from one hand.
As Dave passed he heard the standing man say, “Ger, let it go will ya?”
The man on the bench ignored him.
Close up he could see the man on the bench was much the worse for drink, his face ruddy, maybe from booze, maybe from the effort of trying to part the woman from her bag, he couldn’t tell. He kept walking, but only for another eight feet, stopping by a gaggle of teenage girls who were watching open mouthed.
Dave turned back, unsure what, if anything he should do. The woman didn’t sound frightened, wasn’t asking anybody for help, it could just be a domestic. On the other hand what if it wasn’t, anger could make people insanely brave, maybe she was in more trouble than she realised; without deciding to, he walked back to the trio.
“Give it back to me,” the woman screamed; the drunk had finally wrestled the bag from her.
As much to his own surprise as anyone else`s Dave said, “Give her back her bag.”
The drunk looked up at him, frowned, then snarled, “Fuck off before I kick the shit outta ya.”
Dave cocked his head to one side and said, “I said give the girl back her bag.”
The drunk got unsteadily to his feet, the bag still clutched in his right hand. Dave saw it was small black leather shoulder bag, the long thin straps dangling by the other man`s knees.
Angrily he jabbed the bag at Dave “I said fuck off ya cunt, or I`ll fuck ya up,” the other man dropped the cans of beer on the grass and took a half sidestep, putting himself between Dave and the drunk.
Dave was astonished by his own behaviour, he had never considered himself brave, actually thought he was something of a coward, though he would never admit that to anyone else. His last fight had been forty years ago in secondary school, and that had been little more than a slap-fest. Yet here he was on this beautiful summers evening, facing down a man, taller, broader and at least twenty years younger than he was.
And, he realised, as he stood there coolly analysing the situation, weighing up his chances, not of survival but of beating the other man; that wasn’t the strangest part of it. No, the bizarrest thing was how calm he felt; right then his heart should be beating faster than a hummingbird’s wing, yet it seemed to be thumping away at its usual sedate pace.
He was actually thinking; okay he`s younger and stronger than me, but he`s also drunk, and I`ll bet he`s right-handed, the hand he`s holding the bag with, so he`s handicapped himself. And anyway it`s not like I`m a seven stone weakling, I`m a welder, I`m lifting steel all-day, I`m stronger than I look, yeah I think I could take him.
He thought all that, while at the same time wondering at himself for thinking it at all; then, enunciating each word he repeated, “Give...her..back...her..bag,”.
The drunk lunged towards him screaming, “I`m gonna fuckin kill ya.”
Dave didn’t even flinch, only tensed, readying for the assault.
The other man grabbed his friend as he lunged, pushing him back, the drunk shouting, “Lemme go, lemme go, I`m gonna fuck `im up.”
Dave ignored him, instead looking at the woman who was still sitting on the bench; time to find out what was going on.
“You know these two?”
She looked up, “Yeah.”
He paused, still ignoring the two wrestling men, “You going to be okay?” emphasising the word "going."
She shrugged, “yeah.”
Shit, he thought, a fucking domestic, brilliant.
“Okay then,” he said, turned, and continued on his walk as if nothing had happened, not once looking over his shoulder to see if the drunk was coming after him.
He took the right hand path to the river and stopped by the tree close to the weir, watching the kids as they padded along its concrete edge until they were close to the centre, there, in ones and twos they cartwheeled sideways into the water, shrieking as they hit the cold surface.
He was still puzzled by his behaviour, it had been so un-him, he couldn’t even say why he`d done it, much less why he wasn’t shaking like a leaf. He lifted his right hand, palm down, and studied it, not a tremor, how weird is that, he wondered.
He pushed away from the tree, wandering slowly along the path that paralleled the river; he passed five drunks in their late-teens, boisterously bothering nobody but themselves. He met cyclists and joggers, a couple walking their dog; he gave the animal a wide berth, he didn’t get on with dogs, now and then he swatted fruitlessly at the occasional cloud of midges he walked through, all the while trying to fathom why he`d done it.
By the time he reached the car-park he gave up, dismissing it as an aberration, and turned for home. He took another route back, going the long way around the soccer pitches, not because he was afraid, but because he saw no point in risking another confrontation with the drunk.
Jill was in the kitchen making a sandwich when he got back, “Hiya,” she said, “how was the park, crowded?”
He shrugged, “Oh you know,” he said non-committedly, realising he would never tell her about what had happened, knew she`d only call him a “Silly old fool,” if he did.
“I`m going back to the book,” he said as he mounted the stairs.
“Umm..Hmm,” she replied without looking up.
The hard drive whirred, the screen bursting into life when he touched the mouse, “Okay,” he said to himself as he deleted the first line, “My story, so I`m going to tell it my way and damn the begrudgers.” He took a breath, his fingers resting momentarily on the keys, and then he began to type.
“The time of heroes is past,” Anders said to the five year old sitting on his knee in answer to his question.
“What happened, where did they go?” his grandson asked, eyes wide with excitement.
Anders frowned as he considered the question, it was something he`d never thought about before, he took a long drag on his pipe before answering. “Go,” he said, “Well they never went anywhere. Heroes come when they are needed, they are ordinary men who do extraordinary things, and when they are no longer needed they go back to being just men. Farmers and fisher-folk; or tailors, like your father.”
Erik nodded as if all that made sense to him, then looking at the patch where his grandfather`s eye had been asked, “Were you a hero granddad?”
Anders looked from the child to his daughter-in-law in the chair opposite. Her mouth was a straight line, her brow furrowed, the knitting needles clicking busily as she worked them furiously; he was not unaware that they had gotten faster and louder with every question her son had asked.
He thought, how should I answer?
He thought about his fallen comrades, cut down in their youth. He thought about those who`d survived, now old men like himself, who met each day in the tavern, men who filled their days talking about everything but the things they`d seen and done. He thought about the man who`d taken his eye, and the one who`d taken his leg, and how he`d repaid them both by taking their lives. And finally he thought that he could never tell his grandchildren any of these things.
He smiled down at Erik and said, “Why bless your heart child, but me…. no, I was never a hero.”
Dave reread what he`d written, thought it was okay for a first draft and ploughed on.
He never stirred from his seat for the next five hours; just sat, hunched over his keyboard, watching in fascination as the unthought words boiled out of his fingertips and onto the screen.
memories of an un-heroic lock keeper
He had remarkably blue eyes,
The lock-keeper of Godstow
And I see him clearly
Legs splayed concave,
Peaked captain's cap a-slant.
Hear his rustic voice
Pronouncing on river politics of the day -
His catch-phrase “What I carn't understand is...”
Was mimicked by colleagues and some
Fun was made of his Eternal Vexations.
No winner resulting from lock-side disputes,
He'd scoff at the end of the farce,
“'I carn't tell if that shit's from 'is mouth or 'is arse!”
In high 1980s summer with the Stranglers playing
And bikini bodies on the pleasure boats laying
He's puzzle to himself
“Now why ain't I got a woman like those?”
Shake his head and shrug -
“Not enough money I suppose.”
He'd lonely pace his exercise yard
Two fidgety jack russels in tow,
Until later two daughters and wife
Would return from work
And in neolithic fag-bonding ease
Send collective thoughts on daily matters
Smokily out on the river's breeze.
His lock-side sentence ran out a little early -
A brain tumour ending the stream of his life.
Many boats passed through his gates
But I do not think he knew them well,
(“It would be a good job if it weren't for the boats!”)
Those smug owners of fibre-glass shells.
I see him on days off
Not storming the barricades,
Nor challenging Thatcher,
Or striding out on CND parades
But clambering with rod into his little skiff
To see what the river god might give.
See him looking eternally down stream,
Bored to heaven by the boats
With those remarkably blue eyes.
The chicken Hero died on Sunday
called so from Hero and Leander of
course (it's a girl's name but you
knew that), and it was not really
a good hero's death: a wound
unnoticed, infiltrated by maggots
e'en before the grave, and in fact
as it was a hot day I said burn her;
don't bring her back so fallen;
but importantly, remember (note
to self) this is not Anglo-Saxon poetry
not the Dream of the Rood, and her
demise was not a prefiguration nor
was meant to be.
I will kill my squirming
maggots and I will live.
Heroes can resist the
stench of the grave and
the false allure of heaven
if they believe.