The tube train shivered and shook restlessly along its tracks, bumping the shoulders of the passengers crammed inside like tired, sweaty sardines. Suited and booted, headed home after a long day at work, the well-placed advertisements for retirement companies and pension schemes taunted each weary worker as they fought to avoid eye contact.
Alec’s every bone ached. His back twinged every time the train rocked too far to the right, and he’d managed to ruin his shirt. Again. His mother would kill him. The other passengers gave him as much of a wide berth as it was possible to give on a 6pm train out of London, eyeing the bloodstains on his collar when they thought he wasn’t looking. Alec focused his attention on the music blasting through his headphones, questioning for the millionth time the insanity that had had him drive drunk just one effing time, and worse, get caught at it. Of course, the council had provided a railcard free-of-charge, spouting some nonsense about valuable employees, but then they’d also cut his pay rate to account for the insurance overhead.
His was the last stop. The platform was fairly empty, a ghost town by London’s standards, the overhead lighting flickered and the benches were old and broken. The bare concrete walls proclaimed various colourfully misspelled phrases, buried beneath unoriginal artist tags. Alec and his battered suitcase made their lonely walk home, pulling his synthetic-weave duster coat tighter across his chest to ward off the deathly chill that snuck through the rip in the thin cotton shirt beneath. He paused at the park one street from home, carefully setting the briefcase in a pool of dim ruby light spilling from a streetlamp before settling himself on a swing. He relieved his pocket of the fag packet he’d been hoarding for a good month, only three death-sticks left, the far left turned over to indicate its luck. Alec glared at it. It sure hadn’t been doing its job all that great these last few months. His twitch got further than usual tonight, a Lucky Strike dangling from his grimace as he turned his Zippo between well-chewed fingers. Fuck. He ran a gnarled thumb over the grooves, the gold embossed logo stared back up at him, accusatory. With a weary sigh Alec shook himself out of his funk, shoving temptation back out of sight. This wasn’t the brilliant life his mentor had promised the young genius he had once been, but then Alec was no longer naïve enough to believe that was real.
The apartments were as riotous as ever. The couple at number three had yet to learn how to communicate in anything less than screams. Children re-enacted pound-shop movies and boot-sale comics in the stairwell while their junkie parents hot-boxed number seven. Somewhere a dog barked a beat. There was a stack of post on the doormat, the door only opened half way, the avalanche of paper blocking its path. His mother was in the kitchen. He chucked his suitcase on the table and kissed the top of her head, making the way back to his room with no care for her fussing over what was essentially a black eye. He’d buy another shirt. Washing off the dried blood, he changed into flannel stripe pyjamas and settled back at the kitchen table nursing whisky in a chipped mug and waving away his mother’s second attempt at concern. As she sighed and returned to stirring the ragu bubbling on the hob, Alec wiped off the butter knife and took to opening the post. They were late on rent. The electric bill needed paying again. The gas would be shut off without a transfer in the next forty-eight hours. His imprisoned car would be crushed if he didn’t pay the fine to collect it. The council had finally sent out their cheque from that big freelance job in the Eastend last week. Didn’t make for the most uplifting read, but he supposed it could be worse.
“Hey, can you drop this in at the bank for me tomorrow?” he waved the cheque at his mother, slipping it under a magnet on the fridge. “I won’t have time, it’s ComicCon.”
“Yeah, I guess I need to go in anyway, we need milk.” She gestured at the hastily scrawled shopping list also pinned to the fridge: carrots, shampoo, tissues, MILK. “Can you turn the radio up? I can’t hear it for the fan.”
“For the neighbours, you mean,” Alec said, hitting the volume. “You need any help?”
“Can you stir this while I start the pasta?”
Alec did so happily, most of his work colleagues were orphans, and a lot of time spent around their petulant god-complexes had only made him appreciate his own mother more.
He was laying the table when the second radio spat white noise. The forks in his hand hit the wood with a clatter as he leapt across the room to cut off his mother’s dinner music mid-track and snatched the police scanner off the top of the fridge to crank it up.
‘…masked men. Hostage situation in Shepherd’s Bush, we’re getting numbers but suspect thirty or so. Neighbours have heard screams and gunshots…’
Alec’s fingers flew to the buttons on his flannel nightshirt as he scooped up the pack of Lucky Strikes and turned for his case, but his mother was already there, dialling open the lock. As he shucked his pyjama pants she handed him the spill of red fabric with a kiss on the cheek. His heartbeat pounded, adrenaline pulsing through his veins at the familiar feel of the loose cloth between his fingers.
“Be safe!” his mother pleaded as he lunged from the kitchen window, four floors up, the cape snapping and billowing behind him in the wind.