Cotter’s troubles with sleep began with retirement. After forty-three years as a painter and decorator-cum-odd-job-man, his half-wrecked body was not accustomed to idleness, and idleness, he quickly discovered, was neither blissful nor conducive to good sleep. Lying awake each night, staring up at the shifting continents of damp running across his bedroom ceiling, he was powerless to prevent his restless, un-worked brain from dredging up long-concealed feelings of failure and regret from the darkest corners of his mind. His GP, who, only months earlier had diagnosed career-ending arthritis in his knees, surmised that he was very likely suffering from depression. And although Cotter thought this a distinct possibility, he declined any further help on the grounds that introspection just wasn’t his thing. Besides, he didn’t need twenty sessions with a shrink to figure out that Debbie running off with the kids to start a new life with Angus McClure, one of the Sunday school teachers from her church, had left him a little more forlorn than the next man. And neither did he need to be told that in retirement he had lost his sense of purpose and maybe even his sense of identity.
As the months went by, Cotter began to regard his once happy family home as his prison. Back when he was working, he’d made a point of spending as little time as possible within its four walls, leaving early in the morning and returning late at night. For quite some time after they’d left him, Cotter clung to the hope that Debbie and the kids might one day return, and when they did, he wanted them to find the place exactly as they’d left it: safe and familiar, just like him. But that was thirty years ago now, and any kind of reconciliation was looking distinctly unlikely. For all he knew, Jane and Kieron were married with kids of their own by now, and he regretted not making more of an effort to see them over the years. But on the rare occasions he’d driven north to spend some time with them, he’d got the distinct impression that they wished he hadn’t, and he would return home feeling sad and deflated, as though his dislocation from them was somehow his fault. And maybe that’s why he could not bring himself to rid the house of their things, why he moved about the place like an awkward, apologetic ghost, taking care not to disturb what did not belong to him. And yet, if the house was indeed a prison, it was one he was free to leave at any time, if only he knew how. A man of few hobbies, and even fewer acquaintances, he was condemned to spend his days watching reruns of his favourite black and white sitcoms in the fusty surroundings of his living room. Sometimes, though not often, he thought about getting back in touch with a few of his old friends from school, but every time he picked up the phone he suffered a change of heart. What, in reality, did he have to say to these people? Nothing. Not a thing. At least nothing they’d want to hear, anyway.
As summer approached and the nights got warmer, Cotter started to experience troubling auditory hallucinations. Rolling around on sweat-soaked sheets, neither asleep nor fully awake, he would hear Debbie and the kids moving around the empty rooms, laughing and joking just as they’d always done before Angus promised them a better, more fulfilling life with him. Sometimes he’d even hear himself talking back to them in that dour, monotone voice of his that Debbie hated so much. Please, he’d say, quieten down, never really sure what was so funny in the first place.
Fearful that he was losing his mind, Cotter swapped his bedroom for his car, preferring to spend his sleepless hours driving around the city, listening to late night radio phone-ins. Negotiating his way down streets and avenues more familiar to him than the faces of his estranged children, he would sometimes think about calling in himself; to do what Debbie had always said he was incapable of doing: expressing an original opinion about something. But as a man who had always distrusted his own instincts and cared little for his own opinions, this sort of thing did not come easily to him, and the closest he ever got was giving his name and a précis of his thoughts to a bored-sounding producer before thinking better of it.
Some nights, when feelings that he might’ve done more with his life could not be kept at bay, he would revisit the sites of old jobs, hoping to convince himself that he’d done the best he could with the hand he’d been dealt. It comforted him to know that walls he’d erected and patios he’d laid were still there for everyone to see: still standing, still stood upon. And when his time came (peacefully, he hoped, in front of the TV with a beer and a microwave meal) he would be able to ascend to paradise knowing that he had done some good for his fellow-man, which was more than Angus McClure could say.
One night in late August, Cotter was parked up outside the community centre at the bottom of Caruthers Street, admiring the ramp he’d once installed for its less able-bodied members, when a small blue car travelling in the opposite direction hit a deep, water-filled pothole. After pulling up to the kerb, the car’s driver – a tall, red-headed woman who, like him, appeared to be in her early sixties – jumped out of the vehicle to inspect the damage. Sensing that she had seen him and that feigning ignorance to her predicament was not an option available to him, Cotter wound down the window.
‘Did you see that?’ the woman asked. ‘Did you? Did you see what just happened?’
‘Good. Then I have a witness. Can you believe it, the state they let these roads get into?’
Cotter opened the door, got out of the van and walked over to where the woman was standing.
‘Look at it,’ she said. ‘It’s as flat as a pancake.’
Cotter’s stiff knees ached as he knelt down to examine the car’s front left tyre. Poking it with a key, for no other reason than he’d once seen someone do it on TV, he said, ‘It must’ve been the water.’
‘You know…subsidence. From all the rain we’ve been having lately. I’m pretty sure the hole wasn’t that big last night.’
The woman sighed as she reached into her bag for her phone. ‘I suppose I’d better ring the breakdown people. I’m Molly, by the way.’
‘Richard,’ Cotter said, grimacing as he straightened himself out. He offered to change the tyre himself, but Molly declined.
‘Might as well get something back for my money,’ she said, kicking an imaginary item with her right foot as she pressed the phone up to her ear. A minute or two later, the call was over. ‘They say they’ll have someone with me within the hour,’ she said, dropping her phone back into her bag.
‘Would you like me to stay?’ Cotter asked.
‘You know, until they arrive?’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Molly said. ‘You don’t have to do that. Go home. Your wife will be wondering where you are.’
His wife. It had been a long time since anyone had assumed that Cotter was married. Bald, gaunt, and habitually unkempt, a fellow drinker in a pub he no longer frequented had once joked that he carried the unmistakable stench of an eternal bachelor. ‘There is no wife,’ he said. ‘Not now, anyway.’
Molly looked Cotter up and down. He wondered what she saw, what she was thinking. Probably that he was a mess. A suspicious-looking mess to boot.
‘Maybe I should just go,’ he said.
Molly furrowed her brow. ‘Right,’ she said, looking a little disappointed. ‘Okay.’
‘Unless of course you want me to stay?’
‘Tell me, Richard,’ Molly said, turning her car’s heater up to its highest setting, ‘do you live around here?’
Cotter told her he lived in Lakeside Park, a sprawling estate on the north side of the city. ‘It’s not such a bad place,’ he said, certain that Molly would be aware of its reputation for petty crime and antisocial behaviour.
‘No,’ Molly said. ‘I’m sure. These things get exaggerated. I know that.’
Cotter was about to ask her the same question when she pre-empted him.
‘Personally, I’m just a blow-in,’ she said, explaining how a few years earlier she’d moved to a village just outside the city in order to care for her elderly mother. ‘Her health isn’t what it was,’ she said. ‘And as all my siblings live abroad, it fell to me to step in and take care of her.’
‘I’m sure she’s very grateful,’ Cotter said, wondering who, if anyone, would uproot themselves to come and care for him when his knees eventually rendered him immobile.
‘Thankfully, I have the theatre,’ Molly said, ‘otherwise I’m sure I’d go crazy.’
The confused look on Cotter’s face prompted Molly to elucidate.
‘I manage a small repertory company on Brook Street. It helps to keep my mind active, gives me an outlet. Are you at all interested in the arts, Richard?’
Cotter smiled nervously, wondering whether a detailed knowledge of The Munsters and Mr. Ed counted as an interest in the arts. Perhaps, he thought, a better, more erudite conversationalist might be able to make a case for them, but not him. He shook his head. ‘I’m afraid I’m a bit of a -‘
‘Yes,’ Cotter said. ‘A philistine.’
‘Maybe we can cure you of that,’ Molly said. ‘Our next production is The Birthday Party. We open on Friday. Maybe you might come along?’
‘Maybe,’ Cotter said, recalling the time he and Debbie took the kids to the pantomime not long before she left him. He remembered it as a singularly joyless experience, Jane and Kieron sat stony-faced between them like buffers against their mounting unhappiness as the cast of struggling actors and failed pop stars worked their way through the tired jokes and routines they had long since grown to hate.
‘So tell me,’ Molly said, ‘what were you doing earlier, sitting there all alone in the dark?’
Cotter considered spinning her a line, but lying had never been his thing. He had, as his late mother used to say, a plain, but honest face, and duplicity did not come easily to him. So he told her the truth. He told her about Debbie and his knees and the long, sleepless nights that had sent him out into the city each night.
Just then, Molly’s phone began to ring. ‘Mother?’ she said. ‘No, I know. I’m sorry. My tyre burst. It’s a long story, but don’t worry, I’m okay. I’m sitting with a nice gentleman named Richard, waiting for a man to come out and change it for me. Huh? I don’t know, hopefully not too long. Are you okay? Did you remember to take your tablets? Good. And the little green one? Well take it now. It’s important. No, don’t wait up for me. Go to bed. I’ll see you in the morning. What? No, Richard’s okay. Huh? How do I know? Instinct. Anyway, go to bed! Love you too. Bye.’
Molly ended the call, rolled her eyes, and playfully covered her face with her hands. ‘This,’ she said, ‘is what my life has come to. If I’d known I’d end up living with my elderly mother and a houseful of near-feral cats, I’d have killed myself years ago.’
Cotter laughed, although he wasn’t sure that it was appropriate to do so. Living on his own for so long, his social skills had withered like the muscles around a paralysed limb.
‘I mean, to think that I once dreamt of falling in love and getting married, maybe even having a few kids. Jesus Christ. Where did it all go wrong?’
‘Maybe it all went right,’ Cotter said.
An hour passed and the breakdown driver had still not arrived. And as Molly talked at length about the precarious finances of small, underfunded regional theatre companies, Cotter began to wonder whether the two of them might meet again at some point, under different circumstances. They wouldn’t necessarily have to become romantically involved with one another. That wasn’t what he was looking for, if, of course, he was looking for anything at all. In fact, it’d be better if any future relationship between them remained strictly platonic. Love, after all, was just a complication, something that could, when it went wrong, easily end up souring an otherwise wonderful coming together of two lonely people.
‘I’m sorry,’ Molly said, sensing a far-away look in Cotter’s eyes. ‘I’m boring you. I do tend to go on a bit sometimes. Just ignore me.’
‘I’d like to go,’ Cotter said.
Molly laughed. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘To the theatre. To your theatre. To your play. I’d like to see it.’
Molly smiled. ‘That’s great, Richard. You’d be very welcome. We’ll have to arrange something.’
There was more. Cotter knew that. There was more to say, if only the words would come to him. But before they did, the breakdown van appeared, slotting into the space in front of Molly’s car.
‘Finally!’ Molly exclaimed, clapping her hands together. ‘About bloody time.’
Cotter watched on as she opened the door and stepped out into the rain, immediately directing the man in the puffy fluorescent jacket towards the burst tyre. Watching was all he could do now. The moment for saying what he wanted to say had passed. Getting out of the car, he glanced over his shoulder at Molly, hoping that she might see him and say something other than thank you and goodbye. But Molly was busy reproaching the mechanic for taking so long to get to her and she didn’t even notice as Cotter walked back across the road towards his van.
Only when the job was complete did Molly look up in search of Cotter. But by then he was several streets away, parked up outside the old bingo hall, staring blankly through the dirty windscreen at the work he’d once done on the building’s guttering.
Soon, though, he was on the move again, heading north, back towards Lakeside Park. It was still relatively early, but his head was heavy with thoughts and his body, he knew, would not be tricked into sleep tonight. Instead he’d have to rely on the rolling news channels and that half-empty bottle of whisky on top of the fridge to see him through till morning.
But at the junction opposite the Baptist chapel where Debbie had first fallen under Angus’s spell, Cotter surprised himself by taking a left where ordinarily he would go straight on. It wasn’t long before he was once again at the top of Caruthers Street, his van picking up speed as he drove downhill towards the ever-deepening hole that had earlier claimed Molly’s tyre. And as he prepared himself for the dull thud of the impact, he imagined how good it would feel to be sat there, alone in the dark, just waiting to be found.
Nick Ryle Wright is a writer of short fiction and poetry, currently based in the New Forest, Hampshire. He has had stories published in numerous magazines and journals, both in print and online. He is a first reader for The Nottingham Review and can be found on Twitter here.