IN THE FIRST PLACE • by Matthew Roy Davey

Beryl says it’s my own fault. What did I expect, she says, a man of my age acting like that. We were walking back from Morrisons, our weekly visit. We always have a cake and a cuppa in the café. I say weekly visit, it was the first time for a month, due to her treatment. Anyway, we were walking back, slower than usual, she’s not well, I haven’t been sleeping, when these lads started calling out. At first we didn’t realise they were shouting at us. We thought they were just having a laugh, the way young people do nowadays. You know the sort, baseball caps on backwards, tracksuits, that sort of thing. They were sat on the wall opposite the Texaco, swigging beer. They can’t have been more than sixteen; no school, no job, so where do they get money for beer? Anyway, they started calling out, “baldy”, “slaphead”, that sort of thing. Beryl started talking in a loud voice, going on about our Michael coming over for tea, but she wasn’t talking natural, she was nervous, trying to distract me.

I could feel it rising up in me like lava. Beryl’s words were just a buzzing in my ear. I dropped my bags, looked over and caught the eye of the biggest one. There wasn’t any doubt who they were talking about.

“Come back,” she called, but I was already halfway across the road.

They started laughing when they saw me coming, acting scared, but, you know, taking the piss. I went up to the biggest one and started having a go. It’s better that way, you take out the ringleader and the others lose their bottle. Anyway, I was having a go at him and he was saying “Calm down, Granddad,” that sort of thing, and his mates were laughing, and that made me angrier. But I was enjoying it too, buzzing, like I was young again. I didn’t care anymore. Little bastards. I could hear Beryl calling and she was trying to get across the road. She’d left her trolley but she couldn’t get over as there was so much traffic. Some of it was slowing down to watch.

Anyway, I was jabbing my finger in this lad’s face and he was starting to get wound up. He could see I meant business, he didn’t like to be told what a little berk he was. Berk. Berkshire Hunt. You know. Nobody has the bottle to stand up to these bastards anymore and they end up running the estates. He didn’t expect me to stand up to him and he didn’t expect me to poke him in the eye. I hadn’t meant to, I think one of his pals shoved him, but anyway, my finger went right in his eyeball. Knuckle-deep. That stopped him. He screamed and bent double. I remember what I said then. I said “Oops.” How daft is that? I almost said sorry but then I remembered why I was there in the first place and felt really glad I’d done it, even if it was an accident. He was swearing like a sailor, calling me an effing c and all the rest of it.

It was then that his mates started getting agitated. They’d gone all quiet after I’d poked the big one, they weren’t sure what had happened at first and then they weren’t sure what to do. They weren’t the brightest looking boys but then when they finally got around to realising what was going on, they got quite nasty.

Beryl was over the road by this time and trying to pull me away but I wasn’t going anywhere. Quite a crowd had gathered by that point. I hadn’t noticed with all that was going on and then suddenly, pow! There they were. One of the boys was poking me in the chest and saying, “Come on, then,” as though I was going to fight him. He was calling me a bastard and every name you could think of. None of the crowd were doing anything, just enjoying the spectacle. Couple of big men there as well. Did nothing, just watched. The other lad was shouting and trying to help his mate, the one with the eye, but then when Beryl came over he called her a “bald bitch” and that made me lose it properly, that was why I was over there in the first place. I know how much it upsets her, she doesn’t need some dickhead making her feel even worse just so him and his mates can have a laugh.

I saw red. That punch was no accident. I used to box in the army and I’ve still got a bit of it in me. It knocked him back a step. Beryl shrieked, “Gordon!” and that distracted me and made me drop my guard. The bugger was straight back, punched me on the nose, from the side. I heard it crunch and I went right over, sideways and backwards. Luckily I missed Beryl, but as I hit the ground I heard it, my hip going.

That scared them, they must have heard it too, like the crack of a pistol. They took off like rabbits, even the one with the eye.

A motorist stopped and it was him that called the ambulance. That’s how I ended up in hospital. Same one Beryl has her treatments in. She’s alright, though she could have been a bit more grateful. There’s me, standing up for her honour, knight in shining armour, and all she can do is call me a silly old bugger, say it’s all my own fault. It bloody hurts, mind, and I bet it will for the rest of my life. Things never heal properly anymore. I’ll feel the snow coming.

I just hope it didn’t bother her too much. I don’t want her feeling she has to wear a hat or a wig. I think she looks fine just as she is. My princess.

Matthew Roy Davey has won the Dark Tales and The Observer short story competitions He has been long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction award, Reflex Flash Fiction competition, Retreat West Quarterly competition and was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Bristol, England and has no hobbies.

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