by James Robertson
My hands gripped to the railing, I peered down at the ancient brickwork laid out in the dimensions of a house. My fingers twitched as the suburban road stretched on ahead of me in the middle of the fresh, morning mist which mingled with the scent of a bit tongue splashed across the dashboard, dribbled down soft flesh onto the stone blocks below.
I gazed up at the city around me. Grey clouds crowded around the church spires and office towers. It could rain later. Locals shuffled past in their trench coats, eyes to the ground, arms folded shut. Life here was barely living. I’d hardly call this a city. Don’t know how Laszlo could stand to live here. Perhaps he was really doing me a favour when he cast me out this morning.
A woman in an orange puffer jacket approached the ruins. She held a little flag up in the air. A line of tourists marched behind her. They chattered so loudly the tour guide had to shout over them. She began jabbing her finger at the air that separated her and the ruins.
“Here we have come to the Roman remains for which this city is known for. Around 300BC, the area was a part of the Roman Empire’s invaded region of Pannonia.” She paused for a moment when someone’s GoPro clattered to the floor. “It was one of the last great attempts at colonial expansion, hallmarked by a bloody thirst for territory and riches.”
There’s actually a McDonalds over there.
“Many of the local tribal population were enslaved or murdered in battles and raids. The Romans stamped their claim upon this land without much of a care.”
I wonder if they have nuggets.
“Eradicated. Destroyed. All in the name of Caesar.” The tour guide had gone into her own little world now. She stared off at the low mound of bricks with just a hint of a smile on her face. “You’d think,” she continued more quietly, “that such an indelible name would make something as simple as a building just as eternal.”
I could almost eat a whole McHorse right about now.
She came back to her senses and began to usher the cattle into their next pen. I stared off at her little flag waving in the air, coaxing them along. I realised a young boy, evidently a part of the tour group, was lagging behind. He looked up at me, his little fists clenched. I had frozen. His mother returned and picked him up and I heard the murmured word “homeless” come from his lips. Fair call, I thought. I needed a new jacket. I hadn’t changed this one in a while. Not since…
I could get a McLatte at the McCafe if I only had the McMoney.
I could leave now.
But instead I looked back down at the ruins. Just a couple of rocks, nicely formed to shape the bedroom, the living room, the kitchen counter which was cluttered with school lunch boxes, files and the contents of Esther’s briefcase, spilled out across the marble top as she was stuffing them back in while also packing Lilla’s sandwiches and juice box into her bright, sparkling backpack. I stood at the door, tapping my foot shouting her name but Lilla pranced about and I told her to tie her shoelaces, but Esther fumbled with the latch of her briefcase while I tightly gripped the handle of mine. I glanced out at my car in the driveway, hoping to be on the road soon, wiping away the sweat that dripped down my forehead with a tissue as the cold breeze drifted inside the house. I had to leave. I just sprinted away from the Roman remains and crossed the road in the direction of McDonalds.
Inside it was disgusting and homely. Laszlo owned this one now. Lucky bastard. You really know success has gone to their head when one of your old mates “can’t afford” to put you up anymore.
The things I did for him. The backs I broke. Mainly mine, but what do I have to show for it now?
“Excuse me, sir?”
He kicked me out this morning. Not even so much as a forint for my trouble.
He could have helped me. But my success has gone to his head.
The cashier appeared in my vision. “What can I get you?”
“A latte. Make that two. And a twelve-pack of nuggets.”
“How will you be paying for that, sir?”
I emptied out my pockets, but used tissues from five years past can hardly be termed as a legitimate form of currency. Going to play my superiority card. It worked once.
“I was going to be your boss, you know.”
“Pardon me, sir?”
“This could have been mine. All mine. I was going to be the manager of this district.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but…”
“You would have been my employee.”
“This district. All mine. I think that deserves a latte on the house.”
“Sir, I would not be allowed to oblige under the circumstances.”
“Yes, you can and you will.”
“Sir, I am going to have to ask you to leave.”
“I can. I will. I’ll have to leave now, I have to be there on time.”
“I’m not going to be late, not for this, not this meeting. It would be the death of me.”
“I do not understand what…”
“If I miss it my career’s down the toilet. But I have to drop them off first though.”
“I’ll have to make it quick.”
“There is a line of people waiting.”
“Screw the limit, they were only made for people who are on time.”
“Sir, I’m going to have to call security.”
“I could have! I could have made it there on time! I didn’t mean for it—I didn’t mean for it to happen!”
“Sir, please stop yelling.”
“I’ll go now.”
I turned to leave but in the queue behind me stood Esther and Lilla, holding both briefcase and sparkling backpack, their skulls cracked open and drooling blood. I couldn’t run. The entrance was blocked. I pulled my jacket around me, tearing the back of it in half, screaming. I felt myself being picked up by the shoulders and hoisted out onto the damp pavement outside. I decided to lie there. The screaming had stopped, but it still rang in my ears. I breathed wet air and felt as my under garments began to swell with rain water.
I eventually got to my feet and wiped the droplets from my eyes. Dusk was beginning to descend and the cold crept through to my bones.
I must leave. Leave this city. I needed to move. The longer I stayed in this familiar territory, the further I slipped into it.
I ran to an oncoming taxi and, banging on its front bonnet, climbed into the passenger seat.
“Boy, you’re in a hurry.”
I apologised and thanked him for stopping.
“No sweat off my back. Where are you headed?”
I took off my drenched jacket. “Anywhere you like.”
He sped off down the main road and very soon we were entering the twilight world of the countryside.
“Laszlo who?” he asked when I stated the name of my old ‘landlord’.
“Oh, Laszlo!” he cried. “Old friend of mine. Went to high school with him.”
A fog emanated from the surrounding trees.
“Got a beautiful wife and kid, hasn’t he?”
The moon glowed through the dark clouds.
“Good guy, you think? Got integrity, that man.”
The windscreen wipers flicked by.
“How come you were staying with him?” the taxi driver asked.
I became silent.
I remained quiet.
“Is everything alright between you two?”
“Keep your eye on the road,” said Esther.
“I’m sorry?” said the taxi driver.
Along the misty road, Lilla squeezed her sparkling backpack as I exceeded the speed limit.
“I said shut up!”
Fear grew in the man’s eyes as Esther pulled at my jacket sleeve.
“There’s no need to be like that,” he said. “I’m the one giving you a lift.”
“I’m the driver,” I yelled. “I decide how fast.”
“Please! Can’t we go slower?” said Esther.
“You’re freaking me out!” he yelled.
“I can’t afford to be late!”
I grabbed hold of the wheel, but the man pushed me back in fear. I smacked him across the nose and yanked at the wheel again. I had control. I was the driver. Lilla gave a shrill cry as I swung round a bend and approached an oncoming lorry.
The car skidded across the tarmac and collided with the face of the lorry. The left side of the car was crumpled like a can of Pepsi.
It came to rest, shattered across the road.
Amidst the wrecked hulk, I opened my eyes. Brushing the glass off my jacket, I jumped out of the taxi and left the driver behind.
There wasn’t a scratch on me.
The fog had cleared now. The rain had stopped. Moonlight shone across the figures of Esther and Lilla, standing in the road. Esther reached out and held my face with her soft, damp hand.
“Come on now,” she said. “To Rome.”