This was a piece written with the prompt “Wiltshire” – I was trying to think of something original to write about Swindon!
“Are you ever going to do anything with your life?” Ben demanded, navigating the crowded streets of Old Town in Swindon while also trying to hold a conversation – not the easiest feat.
Mark shrugged. “Like what?”
“Like get a decent job? Or travel? You’ve never been anywhere.” Ben reached out and pulled his friend across the pavement as he was about to step into a lamppost. “Shit, you’re so useless. Half the time you’re not even here.”
“Are you even listening to me?” Ben demanded. “You really need to get out more.”
“I do.” Mark protested.
“I don’t mean walking around the streets. That’s just weird. You need to meet people.”
“I already do.”
“No you don’t. You spend all the time you’re not working at the pub just walking around! How can you meet people if you never stop and talk to anyone?”
“I still don’t get why you work at that heap anyway.”
“I like the Plough.”
“It’s a heap.” Ben said.
“Why’s that important?”
“No, seriously. Why does that even matter?”
“There’s more to look at.”
Ben gave him what could only be called a Look. “God, you’re weird sometimes.”
“I just like history, ok?”
Ben pulled him out of the way of another lamppost. “Watch where you’re going, you twat. How the hell do you miss the postboxes but always hit the streetlights?”
Mark shrugged. It was easier than trying to answer.
“Urgh. How about a drink?” Ben said, glancing at his watch.
“Let’s go to the Bell.” Mark said firmly.
Three pints later, Ben seemed to be thinking of something. “Look,” he said eventually, “you’ve never been to the library, have you?”
“I’ve been a few times.”
“Oh.” And Ben relapsed back into silence.
“Why?” Mark was driven to ask.
“I wondered how you knew there used to be a windmill on Wood Street.”
“Ben, that was seven years ago! Will you shut up about it?”
“It’s just been nagging me, ok?” Ben said defensively. “It was just so weird.”
“I read it somewhere.” Mark said, looking back down to his pint.
“I can’t remember.” Mark snapped.
“Cos the library never throw anything away, and they don’t have anything about it.”
“Maybe it was in a book on Swindon.”
“Yeah, ‘cos there’s loads of those.”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember last week, let alone six years.”
“It’s just weird.” Ben said vehemently.
Mark looked up, surprised by his friend’s tone. Ben often got irritable – mostly when Mark walked into things – but he’d never heard that genuine frustration. “I saw it, ok? Now shut up.”
“You saw it?” Ben gave him another Look. “What do you mean, you saw it?”
“It’s where the Kings is now. There used to be a windmill there. A huge one.” It must be the three pints. He’d never normally admit to that.
“Never thought you were an architecture buff. What did you do, sneak into the pub to have a look out the back?”
“It’s not there now-” Mark gave up, and shook his head. “Forget it.”
“What was there? Out the back of the pub, I mean?” Ben asked a few minutes later, having taken several long pulls of his pint.
Mark looked up. “I didn’t see the ruin. I saw it. Working.”
“Riiiiight.” Ben said uncertainly. His friend very rarely lied, and there was nothing in his tone or face that suggested he was trying to pull a joke. “You saw a windmill that isn’t there now.”
“Yeah.” Mark said, as if relieved that Ben had understood.
“Ok. I’d say you’re mental.”
Mark rolled his eyes and shrugged. “You wanted the explanation, you got it.”
Another long silence as they both drank.
“So how did you see it?”
Mark put his pint back down on the stained beer mat with a thud. Luckily the glass was mostly empty, and the sloshing beer didn’t reach the top. “It was just – there, ok? Like you see it now! I can’t explain how my bloody eyes work, can I?”
“All right, all right. I’m going to get us another drink.” Ben said soothingly. “All right?”
Ten minutes later, they were sat back in the booth, full pints in front of them. Mark took a pull of his, but Ben was just twisting his round. “Do you see anything else? Like, weird?” he said eventually.
“Yeah.” Mark said flatly. “All sorts. And it makes me sound mental, okay? So I don’t talk about it.”
“What sort of stuff?”
Mark looked around. “Man drinking at the bar. Tall hat. In one of the smart coats with tails.”
Ben looked at the bar. “There’s no one with a hat there. Or a smart coat.” The two men drinking at the bar were both in jeans and t-shirts, heads bare.
“Pics on the walls, too. They change a lot.” Mark was drinking again, taking a long pull at the pint. “God, I must be mad. Why haven’t you told me I’m mad yet?”
“You ever told anyone else?”
“Few. They all gave me pills. None of them helped, so I stopped taking them and told them the visions had stopped.” Mark stared into his pint as if he could see the future in the depths. “Haven’t told anyone for years.”
“What else do you see?”
“Steam engines are the best. The clouds of smoke. You can always tell when a train’s coming in.”
“How about the buildings?”
Mark shrugged. “The streets change, but most of ’em have been in the same place for a while. I…forget, sometimes. Try to go down the wrong ones.”
“So you…see old stuff?” Ben was trying to wrap his head around Mark’s delusions. “But you’re here.”
“Physically, yeah. Mentally, dunno. Sometimes it’s fields. Swindon wasn’t that big until the railway came. A lot of the time it’s smoke, with the steam engines and all that. It’s like,” and Mark screwed his face up, trying to think of a good metaphor, “when you have a projection. But you can see what’s behind it. So it’s two things in the same place but they’re different.”
“This is mental.” Ben muttered, picking up his pint. “I dunno what you’re on, but it’s good.”
Mark almost looked relieved. “I don’t know what I’m on either, mate.”
“Is it all the time?” Ben asked.
“Yeah. Gets more and less.”
“Depending on what?”
“Mostly how much something’s changed.” Then he grinned. “S’why I like this pub. It’s been here a while, so the walls don’t change.”
“You don’t walk into postboxes.” Ben said deliberately.
Mark nodded. “Right. They’ve been there a while.”
“And the lampposts haven’t?”
“Well, they’re all electric, aren’t they?”
“You see people too…”
“Do they see you?”
Mark shifted uncomfortably. “No. Not usually.”
“So sometimes they do.” Ben narrowed his eyes. “What do you do? Can they talk to you?”
“There’s one person I keep seeing.”
“What, you’re following some woman around?”
Mark flushed. “No. It’s a man.”
“No! I don’t think so. I don’t know.”
“This whole psycho-trip was you trying to tell me that you’re bi?”
“All right, so there’s this man you keep seeing – so what?”
Mark leaned forward, jabbing his finger at the table, suddenly intent with the drunken seriousness of four pints. “He’s in all the times, don’t you see? He’s there in fields. He’s there in the smoke. But I haven’t seen him here yet. I don’t know when he’s from. And he can see me.”
“What does he do?”
“Just bows. Or touches his hat.”
“What do you do?”
“Just…nod. It all feels weird. The rest of them can’t see me.”
“Whasse look like?”
Mark considered it. “He changes. Black coat, sometimes. Kinda like a…Victorian gentleman. With the tall hat.”
“That wasn’t him at the bar?”
Ben took another drink, trying to work it out. “So you see old buildings, and people. And things. Like postboxes.”
“It fades in and out.” Mark said morosely. “I can make myself see it, sometimes. Or not.”
“Is it…all the times? Like, all the history?”
“Nah. Seems to pick a period depending on…I don’t know what. Randomly. Maybe whatever I’m looking at.”
“I’m still maintaining you’re mental.” Ben said, wagging a finger.
“That’s okay. I think I’m mental.” Mark agreed.
“Have you tried talking to this man?”
“Maybe you should.” Ben’s eyesight was beginning to blur, and he was uncomfortably aware of the room swaying. Mark didn’t look in a much better condition. “Maybe important, yeah?”
“I think we’ve had enough.”
“Let’s go home.”
The hangover kept Ben in bed for Sunday morning, and when he staggered out he wasn’t quite sure he had remembered the conversation correctly. He put it out of his mind for the rest of the day, and did his best to overcome the nausea and headache with fried food and bad films.
Monday morning went past in a panic of broken alarm clocks and hectic work schedules. He was on his way back from work, sitting on a crowded bus, when his phone rang.
“Ben? Hi, it’s Paul, the manager of the Plough. Have you seen Mark today?”
“No? We went out Saturday night, but I got him home. Why?”
“He hasn’t arrived at work. Usually he calls, so I wondered if you knew if he was ill or something. You’re his emergency contact here – sorry to call, but we don’t have any other numbers.”
Ben’s mouth stopped working as a jumble of thoughts piled themselves up in his brain. “Um,” was what he managed eventually. “Look, I’ve got a spare key. I’ll go and check on him.”
The neat flat was empty. Lying on the table were three sheets of paper, and one sealed envelope. Ben glanced briefly at the sheets; a letter of resignation to the pub, a letter for Mark’s landlady, a letter for the bank. And the envelope had his name on it.
He slit it open, and pulled out the sheet of paper.
I talked to him. I’m going travelling, finally.
Thanks for everything.