Crossing the Road
Wrapped in each other’s arms, a head lies resting. The
chest’s gentle rise and fall accompanied by a rhythmic
heartbeat. Hands are stroking hands.
Nearly dark. Two empty glasses on the table. The telly on
Comfort. Security. Warmth.
The sound of a key in the lock breaks the silence.
Climbing down. Rushing out. Lifted up. Small arms wrap
around a father’s neck.
‘Have a good time, sweetheart?’ he asked.
The head that once rested nodded. ‘We had ice cream!’ she
whispered. A secret pleasure.
‘You had ice cream! Did you save me some?’ he replied.
‘Has she been okay, Mum?’
‘We’ve had a great time.’
A look asked the silent question, ‘Anyone?’
Her eyes replied, ‘No, not yet’.
Matt West lifted his hands from the keyboard to reach for
the mug of cold coffee sat on his desk. He liked the way
the opening to his second novel could be misinterpreted.
It reminded him of a song in the nineties by Cornershop
about everybody needing a bosom for a pillow. He smiled
at the thought of strait-laced members of his dad’s church
being appalled by the hint of a lovers’ embrace – and what
may have happened before or after.
A child with her grandma. Some will get it; others won’t.
He wondered how the looks might lead the story. Whose
eyes said what? Who are they waiting for? Ideas trickled,
rather than flowed. The doctor calling about Grandad?
The police saying they’d found… the dog, a child, a body?
The bailiffs? It needed more work, but it was a start.
‘What do you think, love?’ Matt asked the photo next to
the computer. The woman in the photo looked back.
Start. Power. Shut Down.
It was always a struggle to leave for work. The Housing
Association had promised to install a power assisted door
because manoeuvring his wheelchair was difficult. Matt
was glad to live on the ground floor apart from when the
chap opposite left his bike in the hallway.
Shoes secured (Velcro’s easier than laces). Coat on. Bag on
the back. Beanie. iPhone. He loved his music. All the
decades. Aretha. Bacharach. Beyoncé. Billy Joel. Coldplay.
Marley. All on his playlist. All in his story.
The November sunshine was bright and clear and the cold
wind chafed his hands as they gripped and pushed. He’d
forgotten his gloves again. A five-minute push for a fiveminute
bus ride. His strong upper body compensating for
the weaker lower half.
Half an hour from the coast, Eastwood Minster is a large,
busy, multicultural town, its population swollen by
tourists in the summer and university students the rest of
the year. Shops cater for West Indian and Asian tastes and
the increase in Eastern European flavours. A green belt
ensures weight gain from new builds is kept to a
minimum. Parks and riverside walks aid the town’s health
and wellbeing. The 10th Century Minster Church stands
proud in the centre alongside the river wending its way to
Locals called the 2B ‘The Shakespeare Bus’ because
sometimes it didn’t turn up. The drivers were usually
helpful: stopping at the raised kerbs and lowering the
ramp. Pushchair wars were a regular occurrence. Audible
sighs accompanied the folding of ones used for shopping.
Matt had got used to it by now but the eyes spoke. ‘What
are they saying when they look at me?’ he wondered.
People often stared at someone in a wheelchair.
Sometimes out of pity. Sometimes out of disdain.
He’d worked the evening shift for four months now. Three
days a week, three hours a day. It was better than nothing
and supplemented Universal Credit. A great
improvement on the 18 months or so he’d spent on the
sick and he knew he’d get a better job one day. It was pretty
much the same every time. Customers came and went.
Some less than ten in a basket, others a trolley full. Matt
had always been a smiler. He’d be the one to cheer up
someone else’s dreary day. He’d be the one to get children
to say ‘beep’ as he scanned. Do to others as you would have
them do unto you. Until someone complained he was
being too friendly and he got told off by the manager.
A First at Oxford. A rowing Blue. Five years at a leading
advertising agency. ‘Marketing maketh the man’, he used
to joke. Married at 24. Dad at 26. Published at 27. Now 29.
A till operator in a pound shop. Not quite the career move
he had planned or hoped for.
Besides rowing, Matt had occupied his university days
with History and English and couldn’t quite get over how
he got in. His calm laid back exterior portrayed an equally
stable and placid interior. No one had ever seen him ‘lose
it’: whatever, whenever or wherever ‘it’ might have been.
With a body honed in the gym and on the Thames, Matt’s
six foot two frame, combined with his natural humour,
scored high on the student likeability index. This welldeveloped
protective layer hid a lack of confidence:
especially where women were concerned. He had tried
and failed, lusted and lost.
It was different with Jo McKenzie. A finals year romance.
They’d met through the Christian Union: described by
many as a dating agency for virgins, as indeed some were.
Jo was a BA Fine Arts at The Ruskin School. Petite, quietly
spoken, her shoulder length, auburn hair provided the
perfect frame for her bespectacled face. Lots of other guys
liked her and for a long time Matt thought he would
probably lose out (again). She hated rowing though:
nothing more boring to watch, she once said. A joint
interest in art brought them closer. He preferred Hockney
and Warhol. She liked Monet and Delacroix.
After leaving the city of dreaming spires, they moved on
together but not in together. Shared faith meant shared
restraint – although there were times when they wanted
to, really wanted to. Jo got work at a National Lottery
funded community arts project while Matt started with
Wilson MacDonald. Designing ads for bus shelters wasn’t
top notch, but it was a start. Renting studio apartments
only ten minutes’ walk apart, Eastwood Minster provided
a convenient commuting base for them both.
Matt’s mum, Janice, a part-time social worker in Adult
Services and his Pentecostal Pastor dad, Des, lived nearby.
Matt was their only surviving child and Jo soon became
the daughter they’d always wanted but never had.
Likewise, Rob and Gill McKenzie regularly welcomed
Matt to their family home: a five-bedroomed detached in
the heart of the Cotswolds. Both in their late fifties, Rob
had taken a severance package from an investment bank
in the City to live the dream of a long and happy
retirement. Devoted to their two daughters, only the best
was good enough and they always gave the best.
Three years after leaving university, Jo and Matt’s
wedding was the talk of the Cotswolds’ glossy magazines
when Des’ gospel choir rolled into the small village
church. The local vicar lamented it wasn’t always like that
on Sundays. The parishioners were less enthusiastic: ‘Just
not Church of England’ they muttered. At least the
organist had a sense of humour: playing a few bars of
Village People’s ‘Go West’ in honour of Jo’s married
name. Some got it; others didn’t.
Once married, they moved in to a cramped, second floor,
two-bed rented apartment not far from Matt’s parents. It
was cheap but it was home because they made it so. Tilly
arrived a couple of years later and, girl, did they know it.
All the things a baby brings and two floors up. Life was
never the same again and they loved her all the more
because of it.
Matt had begun his debut novel about a teenage activist
caught up in the 1950s American Black civil rights
movement before uni. His paternal grandparents had
often told him about what happened in the States before
they emigrated to the UK. Playing Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change
Gonna Come’ on their Dansette record player, their
stories of racial segregation sparked a passion in Matt’s
heart whenever he visited them in the St Paul’s area of
He’d always admired the fact they’d carried on living there
after the riot in April 1980. The trouble had started just
down the road at the Black and White Café – the irony of
the name was not lost on them. His grandparents told him
how they were sat in their home in Albert Park. They
could hear sirens outside and, in the days when listening
to the police on FM radio was possible, they found out just
how close it all was. Very close. Just at the end of the road.
In the morning, the damage was clear. The bank was a
burnt-out shell, as were other buildings – but none of the
pubs. Cars lay wrecked and windows smashed. They told
Matt how the young man next door at number 19 moved
out soon afterwards because of it all. Many were injured
and arrested although no one was ever convicted. It
wrecked the area for a while and his grandparents played
their part in supporting those who rebuilt it. The more he
worked on his novel, the more he realised that racial
tensions had always been prominent over here as well as
in the States. He always knew Black lives mattered.
Study, rowing and meeting Jo had all intervened with
writing the book, though, so when Tilly was in bed and Jo
was out teaching evening classes, Matt picked up the
story’s threads and weaved them together.
The setting sun signed its autograph in red and orange
pastels that warm June evening. The book launch had
gone well. The publishers had marketed the marketing
man. Early sales were promising but not yet second book
stage. It was a half-hour walk from Waterstones to pick up
Tilly from Matt’s parents. She always enjoyed being with
her grandma and grandad. Jo held Matt’s arm as they
walked. She on the inside, him by the kerb – ever the
‘It was good so many people came, Matt. You did really
well saying what you did and explaining about the
background to the book. I wonder how many people have
no idea what was going on in those times?’ Jo wondered.
‘Did you see the man in the bright red coat?’
‘Yeah, I know. Quite something, wasn’t it? White beard
too,’ replied Matt. ‘Shame it isn’t Christmas. You know
what, though, he asked me to sign three copies – one for
his partner, called Greg I think and two for his kids.’
Jo raised her eyebrows very slightly. ‘I wonder what the
‘What, you mean because…’
‘Yeah. It must have taken some getting used to. I guess
they’re very much loved all the same.’
‘And I very much love you,’ replied Matt.
Jo turned and kissed him. They looked at each other. It
was ‘The Look of Love’, as Burt Bacharach and Hal David
called it (or ABC, Matt joked to himself).
‘How are you feeling about your job?’ he asked, as they
walked on arm in arm.
‘It’s difficult to know,’ she replied. ‘I enjoy it but constantly
going from funding crisis to funding crisis is unsettling
and takes the edge off things a bit. The managers are
always stressed and going on about cost-effectiveness and
where they can cut back. It’s almost as if they’re not
interested in what we’re actually doing anymore. It’s such
a shame, really.’
They crossed the road at the junction with Church Street.
It was ten past nine. A bus pulled up at the lights.
‘I’m looking to move on,’ Jo said as they reached the other
The car was travelling over thirty in a twenty zone when it
mounted the pavement.
Jo never felt a thing.
(Those are the first 10 pages of the published novella)