Subtitle: Why are there so many bastards in the world??
I’d involuntarily closed my eyes when I heard the first blow connect. The unmistakable noise of a bare fist impacting on a person’s face has always carried with it a shiver of unease for me. It’s like an alarm bell for life I’ve found, bringing the moment into sharp focus, waking you from the humdrum, zombie like drifting through the day. I don't know, maybe it’s because I haven’t heard it that often that it has such an effect on me. At the time I was sure of two things though - one, that I was grateful I wasn’t the one being hit, and two, that my morning commute was not going to be as staid and routine as usual.
By the time I’d opened my eyes a few seconds later, the fight (if you could call it that), was over. The protagonist, red faced and swearing, was being held back by what I could only assume was his wife, whilst the man who had been on the receiving end was already shuffling off down the railway platform, with what appeared to be a rapidly staining handkerchief pressed tightly against his nose. A few red drops speckled the floor where previously he had stood and received his comeuppance. You couldn’t really argue with that result, for next to the blood stains was what remained of the pastie he had knocked out of the guy’s hands and then, to add insult to injury, stepped on with his foot and slowly, deliberately, ground into the platform.
The wife was already leading her husband away in a stop-start fashion - her argument to find a guard or policeman interspersed with either agreement, or another sudden decision to turn back and continue the altercation. It was like watching a tide going out - their gradual retreat mixed with the occasional return of a few steps on his part, only to be cajoled further away each time. Fortunately no crowd had gathered - you didn’t really get that kind of thing on a train platform in Bristol. Small islands of single people or groups that didn’t mingle, each unconsciously trying to maintain a standard distance around them from everyone else. These witnesses to the event hadn’t moved, but their attention had definitely been diverted from their iPhones and free papers. Mine too, if I was being completely honest.
I’d turned my attention back to the guy now walking off further down the platform. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen him there, and neither was it the first time I’d seen him involved in some kind of trouble either. As far as I could tell he was in his late 50s, thinning grey hair, clean shaven, thin but not wiry, and dressed in an expensive dark blue business suit. Or at least that’s how he normally looked. Right then his hair was wild, suit ruffled, tie crooked, and some blood had made its way onto his blue shirt before he’d been able to find and retrieve his handkerchief. He’d finally stopped moving next to an empty bench a way further down and had sat, one hand holding the handkerchief in place whilst using the other to try and adjust his hair and clothing back into some semblance of order. I still don’t know what made me follow him down the platform that time. Curiosity probably, or some other urge I wasn’t quite in control of. Ignoring the surreptitious looks of the other people waiting there in his direction, I’d walked calmly after him and then sat on the same bench, but maintaining a respectful distance.
It had taken me a good few minutes before I’d built up the courage to speak to him. I’d spent the time working through various opening lines in my head, mixed with what I’d hoped were well hidden glances in his direction, trying to fathom his personality and mood. Again, no idea why I wanted to talk to him; all I knew was that I eventually would.
“Why did you do that?” I’d finally found myself opening with.
Silence. No response. He'd just continued dabbing at his nose and looking forward, lost in his own thoughts. I’d tried again.
“You’re lucky you’re still walking. Hell, breathing even. Knocking that guys pastie out of his hand was one thing, but then grinding it into the ground in front of him? I mean...I dislike Gregg's pasties as much as the next guy, but that was simply…Christ, I don’t know what that was…”
That was true. The whole thing had thrown me completely off balance. I’d never experienced such a deliberate act of...I didn’t know...contempt before? Maybe I’d just been lucky up to that point, but I’d grown used to the passive aggressive response of most individuals who weren’t happy with the people they were forced to interact with. This was something new to me though; something more...forthright. More physical. Maybe that was why I’d been so drawn to enquire further?
“Look, I don’t know you from Adam, and yeah, sure, before you say it, it’s none of my business, but this isn’t the first time I’ve seen you act like...well…a bastard.” I couldn’t think of a better way to put it; in truth, there wasn’t really another word for it.
Still nothing. I was beginning to get the feeling that maybe this was beyond simply ignoring me. I’d begun to worry that maybe he was building up to do something worse to this nosey guy hassling him. Regardless of these fears I’d pushed on, eager for at least a response, if not the answers I was interested in.
“I’ve seen you do this before, and I’d bet money that you don’t even know these people! You just seem to walk up to complete strangers on a whim and do the worst thing you can think of at the time. It’s just…weird!”
At this point I’d been looking at him as I spoke, getting more impassioned. Following this last comment though I’d finally turned away, now lost in my own thoughts, trying again to somehow understand his motives. So it was with some surprise when he’d finally spoken in a soft, well-spoken voice.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
I’ll admit that I did a double-take here, both caught by his unexpected response, but also by what was clearly an out-and-out lie.
“You’re shitting me right?” I’d answered, both amused and aghast in equal measure at this blatant ignoring of the truth.
Once more, no response. Now I knew he could speak if he wanted to, I felt emboldened to carry on.
“Last week. That overweight guy getting on the train after you? He’d put his case down to get his ticket out?”
I’d waited for an acknowledgement, a nod even. None had come, but I’d carried on anyway.
“You kicked his suitcase right out the train door! The guards had to escort you both off the train before a fight started! You missed your train as a result!”
Then, in an unflappable tone he’d responded:
“I naturally assumed, judging by his weight, that walking was the better long term course of action for him.”
Ignoring this, I continued.
“Two weeks ago, you grabbed a woman’s drink and chucked it over her!”
Again, in a passionless, almost vague voice he’d answered, his eyes never leaving the track in front.
“She appeared hot and in risk of overheating.”
“She was drinking coffee!!”
Without missing a beat he’d then followed up his first comment with:
“She appeared cold then, and in risk of hypothermia.”
By this point I’ll admit that I was getting quite exasperated with him, wondering if somehow he was trying to goad ME into hitting him.
“Yesterday you stole someone’s handbag!”
Clinically, as if explaining to a child he’d responded:
“I think you’ll find I stored it securely for them.”
“You chucked it over the station fence!”
His absurdly logical response had then been:
“A fenced off area, by definition, is a secure area.”
I’d finally groaned in a mixture of rage and frustration, turning away, before quickly turning back and saying darkly:
“You’re lucky you didn’t get arrested any of those times.”
Then he said something, but so quietly I hadn’t even been sure at the time I’d heard it correctly, and then subsequently only assumed he’d been bragging.
“I never get arrested.”
It was at this point that he’d finally turned to face me. Again, he’d caught me off guard. Looking beyond his dishevelled look and the now deep, sullen red hanky pressed against his nose, his eyes had a sad, haunted look that held me for a few moments, before he’d turned back to contemplate the track in front of us once more, speaking again but this time in a mocking fashion.
“What’s it to you anyway - are the Samaritans branching out onto railways now?”
A hint of annoyance had entered my voice at this point.
“You don’t have to be a Samaritan to recognise when someone is being an asshole on a regular basis.”
He carried on, and I couldn’t tell if he was deliberately needling me, or honestly looking for an answer:
“So what then? Are you here to stop me? Do you think that bringing my terrible deeds to my attention will somehow make me realise the error of my ways? If arguments, threats and...aha…”
At this point he’d paused, retrieved the hanky from his bleeding nose, waved it in front of my face to make a point, and then continued:
“...actual violence hasn’t stopped me, I can’t see a few words from you making any difference.”
At this stage, an almost desperate need to understand had entered my voice.
“Then for Christ’s sake WHY?? Apart from what I can only guess is some kind of...momentary thrill, you don’t appear to be getting any long term benefit from it?”
Again, confusion was my answer to his response.
“Well I can’t see any.”
He’d been quiet for a moment then, lost in a private world of thought, before suddenly switching what had been a weird conversation to begin with, onto an even odder track.
“There’s a saying I often return to”, he said casually, “No good deed ever goes unpunished”
“So what if the opposite were true?”
At this I’d felt my ire rise once more - had he honestly expected me to believe the crap now spewing from his mouth?
“What, you’re implying instead that ‘No bad deed ever goes unrewarded’? I’m sorry, you expect me to believe that you’re doing these things in the mistaken belief that doing random nasty acts will somehow get you rewarded? That’s just totally screwed up! That would be like the devil popping by and saying: ‘Hey, nice job littering the other day, here’s a two for one Subway voucher, keep up the good work’"
He’d sat back on the bench then, the hanky withdrawn from his nose as the blood had appeared to stop, relaxing into our odd conversation.
“Why not? Millions across the world believe if you tally up all your good works over your life, the guy in the sky will provide you with rent free accommodation for all eternity in the quiet suburb of Blind Faith Falls. That part’s always struck me as a bit vague, don’t you think? At least with the man down stairs you have a well-defined pricing structure.”
“‘One soul, one wish.’ You can’t get more basic than that. No complicated sales tax for one thing.”
I have to admit, at that point I’d forgotten his previous actions that morning, and was curious as to where he was going with this.
“I can’t believe I’m having this conversation, but yeah, okay, one soul - one wish. You seem to be glossing over the whole ‘eternity of suffering’ angle as well though.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“True, but you try to visualise such a thing. Life is so immediate, it’s hard to look beyond our present needs. Probably explains why some good people might take up such an offer without thinking it through completely. Imagine all those sensitive, caring people. Then take it further and imagine those of that number currently having to watch the people they love suffer, knowing there’s sod all they can do. Very frustrating I would imagine.”
At this I'd disagreed.
“Sorry, still not a good enough deal though - your eternal soul just to temporarily save one life. That’s not a fair exchange.”
He’d surprised me then with a quick, bitter laugh, before looking at me with an abrupt piercing gaze, like he was reading my soul.
“Let me guess - Economics or Business Studies?”
I’d got defensive at that point. Maybe it was because despite the efforts we all go through to try and be individual, I’d still somehow fallen into the trap of dressing like your average student, including the messenger back stuffed with books, or maybe I was more shaken by how easily he’d seemed to read me.
“Retail Management,” I’d answered sullenly, knowing it was no crime being a student, but feeling that the admission made me lesser somehow. Despite my statements to the contrary, it was still true that being in education carried the unbidden stigma of ‘no life experience’. He’d read this in my face as well, and had then continued in an amused tone.
“So, what would you do in that situation?”
Annoyed with myself, I’d quickly recovered, at least in my eyes, and tried to address his question with the common sense afforded most students. A student not burdened with a lifetime of repetitive work and crushing boredom I also reminded myself, in the vain hope of healing some of my bruised ego.
“Obviously,” I’d responded, trying to sound more assured in my thinking than I felt, “...if I was hell bent…sorry…if I was intent on selling my soul to save someone’s life, I would expand the return for my investment at the very least.”
I’d been pleased at the time with how that sounded, and was rewarded with what I assumed had been an interested look in his eyes.
Now warming to the subject, I’d expanded on my thoughts.
“The sensible option would be to instead ask to be able to save multiple lives. Word the deal to get the ultimate benefit in exchange for my soul. Maximise the profit-to-loss ratio.”
He’d nodded then, as if considering my argument, before returning a comment of his own.
“Sounds reasonable. I see one fly in the ointment of your plan though. Don’t you think the devil would be unhappy with such an arrangement, or at least put some kind of ‘evil’ spin on it? His remit is suffering remember, and if you’ll forgive the cliche, the devil is in the detail after all.”
“What do you mean?” I’d asked, wondering where he was going with this.
“Well for one, you left the specifics out of how you’d save people. Sure, he’d provide the means for you to help them, but not necessarily in the way you’d expect.”
“Okay, I can see that.”
At this, he began to lean slowly toward me, his voice lowering, as if imparting some special secret.
“Think about it - have you seen any flashy miracles on TV recently? Internet footage of demons stopping runaway cars, or pulling people from burning buildings. No? No. He’d be a lot more subtle than that...more insidious…”
A shiver had unexpectedly run down me at that point, and he’d noticed it, leaning back once more, and returning his gaze forwards toward the track. After a short pause, he spoke again, this time clearly and matter-of-factly.
“Think ‘Cause and Effect’.”
“Cause and Effect?” I’d answered, still a little uneasy, a little off-footed by the twists and turns the conversation had been taking.
“The individual steps that lead to an event occurring.”, he’d continued, “Track back from an accident or illness, all the little actions that led to that conclusion.”
At this new path our talk was taking, I’d grabbed it, hoping to find some hard, factual ground where just before I’d almost floundered, almost mesmerised by his argument.
“So not only the question of Good and Evil, but we’re now heading out into Chaos Theory territory? The flap of the butterfly wing that eventually produces the hurricane. Total crap.”
I’d felt some of my assuredness return, happy to take a strong stance on something once more.
“Humour me,” he’d answered, a half-smile on his face.
I’d shaken my head stubbornly, and decided to come out fighting. For some reason the need had stirred in me to pull the conversation back from whatever mad turn it had taken, to return some semblance of sensible logic to it.
“Look, I can see where you’re going with this, hell, everyone at some time has wondered what would’ve happened if they’d just did one small thing differently in the past, if they’d waited one more minute, taken that different bus. What you’re implying is that the Devil would provide you with the means to save lives, but so far ahead of the event, the people on the receiving end wouldn’t even recognise your help for what it was. Makes some sense, but I can’t see where your suffering would come into it?”
I can recall now the sound of a train approaching in the distance and of him standing, seemingly ignoring my last comment as if the conversation had abruptly ended in his mind.
“This is my train.”
I’d half watched him approach the edge of the platform, watched him look toward the train. For myself, I was still on that bench, lost in the final thoughts of our talk, not realising I was still expressing my thoughts out loud.
“I guess the people affected would need to hate or resent you for your help somehow, the devil setting it up so your actions could only be negative ones, despite the long term positive gain. Like, I don’t know, if you deliberately tripped someone up so that three streets later they wouldn’t meet that speeding car, or stopping someone catching a plane destined to crash by somehow making them late for...their...connecting...train……”
A chill had rippled through me as both disbelief and certainty fought for control of my mind. The conclusion, the argument leading up to it, everyday reality even, made what I was now thinking completely absurd. And yet.
I’d leapt up from the bench at that point, dashing over to where the man now stood, finding the words tumbling from my mouth.
“Is that it? Is that honestly the reason why you do these things??”
He’d looked at me briefly then, neither confirming nor denying anything, before returning his attention to the rapidly approaching train.
Still, the words had poured from me, trying desperately to pin down the truth either way from him before the train took him away, and robbed me of my peace of mind.
“Look, I don’t know if I believe you or not, but say I do…why? Why can’t you just try explaining your actions first, or just stop for Heaven’s sake?! All this hatred you suffer, can’t you just…stop?”
I remember these last words being an impassioned plea, my own well-being now somehow caught up in his. He still didn’t look at me, but I fancy I saw a resigned smile rise on his lips before he spoke again:
“No, it’s part of the deal.”
I’d watched then as he’d sighed. A tired, hopeless sigh, as if pulled from some terrible depth inside him that had been dug for too long, and yet had no end in sight. I remember feeling an intense pity for this man, who if his words were to be believed, was cursed to help, and be hated for it. Then came his final words to me:
“I never mentioned the final kicker did I?”
I shook my head wordlessly, glad he was not looking in my now wet eyes. He seemed oblivious to me then, as if steeling himself for some final act, and for the first time I grew aware of his intense focus on the approaching train. My God, I’d realised, was his flippant remark earlier about Samaritans not so flippant after all? Was he indeed asking for help, for saving before he did something rash?
I remember I could almost feel the pressure of the train arriving now as a physical thing, it’s mass bearing down on us, like a timer counting down to some terrible event. When he spoke now, his words fell like lead weights upon my ears:
“Sometimes, when I look at someone, I can see the course of their life. See how their actions will impact on so many others, and not for the good. There’s a focal point in their lives, a point where, if acted upon, many others can be saved. Those few unfortunates I’m allowed to tell.”
“Why?” I’d answered quickly, thinking keep him talking, keep him talking.
Then he’d looked at me, sadness evident in his eyes, and said above the noise of the now arriving train:
“...because they never tell anyone else.”
At this he’d pointed behind me at the train, and I instinctively turned to look. It was barely ten metres away now, and still yet to slow as it pulled its carriages to the platform. I’d realised then I had mere moments to stop him from doing something he’d regret.
And then surprisingly it was too late to do anything, as I felt his hands press briefly against my back before pushing me hard off the platform and onto the track.
I’m lying here now, a cold rail pressed against my neck, my body twisted unnaturally and throbbing with the vibrations of the train now bearing down upon me. Those last ten minutes have just flashed before my eyes - our meeting and our conversation. I’m no closer to knowing if what he’d said is true, a lie, or if he’s just completely insane, and the train isn’t going to provide me with the time to figure it out. The only thing left to do is close my stinging eyes, hope the end comes swift, and pray that my death means something beyond a madman’s beliefs….
The businessman looked down at his hands, tried to stop them shaking. How many years had he been doing this, and still he couldn’t get used to it? That was a good thing though he grudgingly realised. The sickening pit in his stomach, the agonising regret threatening to swallow him whole, flooding his thinking and freezing him in place. What kind of person would he be if he stopped having these feelings, stopped being overwhelmed with self-loathing each time he felt the necessity of taking a life? That was the curse inherent in originally being a successful businessman - the ability to make the hard decisions, to see where the most gain could be made, where the factors causing the most loss could be ‘cut back’. The devil had seen it in him, had anticipated it - no moral quandary here, no question of inaction, of deliberately letting the many suffer if you could act against the few... or the one. He looked down at the track again, feeling the gorge rise in his stomach. Another ‘overhead’ in his ongoing business. Profit and loss. The balance sheet of life & death.
He felt himself buffeted by people pushing past him, watched them look down at the track below as well. How many were looking out of concern? Out of shock? Out of curiosity? He didn’t know, and in truth he didn’t care. No one would stop him. No one ever did.
Taking a deep breath, he clenched his hands tightly, released them slowly and breathed out. Turning, he slowly began to thread his way through the gawking, chattering crowd, back toward the stairs leading off the platform. He’d almost reached there when he stopped, his face momentarily blank. Through his mind flashed pictures of a woman being stabbed in two days' time, images of the blade biting deep into her side, of her falling to the ground and the sounds of panicked running.
He rocked on the spot as the disquieting picture show ended. Then he looked down, his eyes meeting a lady’s suitcase he was just about to walk past. Elegant, stylish, expensive. A resigned sigh drifted from his lips as he reached down and picked it up, then headed up the stairs and out.
Written by CharminglyShallow