Mr. Ridley’s Last Regret

Blue lights still flickered in the wreck. The car had come off the highway at eighty-five and hadn’t lost much of that speed as it careened through a ditch and spun out of control into the Badlands. Dirt was balled up around the left two wheels, clogged with earth and brought to a dead halt. The windscreen, weakened by gunshots, had shattered immediately into a sparkling halo of bluish squares.

A red stain was leaking from the passenger’s side, running down the crumpled metalwork to feed the exposed roots of the desert scrub. The windscreen wipers rasped and rattled like snakes in the low, soft desert wind.

He had paced for a little bit. Then he had stopped and leaned against his car and tried to look nonchalant, a toothpick rolling from one side of his mouth to the other. But in the end he just sat down at the edge of the highway, where the tarmac fell suddenly away to scrub and wasteland and the scratches and trails of paint led like lines of fire to the smoking wreck.

He asked himself, as he had always thought he might, if he had any unfinished business.

He had not come from this land – like the settlers whose ghosts his years on the highway had left him familiar with, he had drifted in from far overseas. A land of green villages nestled in the gentle sentinel-arms of forest-covered hills and valleys.

He had been sent to learn the piano. He remembered wandering the village streets after school, where even though he had known the place ten years or more, he could still be surprised to turn down some alleyway in the freezing cold and see a fox running for cover, or a pair of ghost-children looking up from some ancient game of cards and marbles.

His teacher lived far from the centre of town, past the plastic and glass covered school buildings, the drab greyness of the yard where children ran in endless, expanding circles. In the winter, there were slices of frost across the green playing fields, where the trees had laid in delicate lace the tracks of their afternoon shadows over the hard ground.

Stretching cold fingers across the incomprehensible keys, he could not take his eyes off her face. She spoke to him in bitter tones, of things he had heard adults stop talking of when they saw he was listening. As she turned the pages with thin, pale fingers, she told him there was no hope.

At first, he tried to provoke her. He told here about the medication he took and searched her eyes for the sympathy he was used to. She told him he wasn’t special while her eyes played over his face and her mouth twisted with unfamiliar sarcasm and disgust. He told her his dreams – the band, the private jet. She laughed and told him it would never come true.

Then he tried to use her. He told her of his broken home, his mother’s listless despair, his father’s tired infidelity, all the things he could not speak of to anyone for fear of their pity and their sympathy. He told her how he felt every Wednesday from four until half-five, while the ground outside grew harder and the sky blackened with the onset of the witching hours of evening. There was silence then, but for the turning of the pages and the strained, pathetic chords that he drew from the piano.

He realised only later, in another land with a gun at his side and a name on his lips, that he had loved her. She was all the pretty girls that had ignored him in school, all the opportunities that had passed him by, all the love that had come and gone. He missed her now, with the tired nihilism of her smile as she told him he’d never understand, that he could never be normal. Her waiting for him even through the cold of winter, her silhouette – so fragile now – framed under the false warmth of a flickering streetlight.

He felt the old ache in his fingers now, as the warm wind picked up and the fractured sound of sirens pierced the evening air.

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