The Messengers

If you could change the future, where would you start?

“We’re drawn to each other, us messengers. We must be. I remember the first time I saw him, down by the beach huts. How could I not go over?

Frances is sent to her aunt’s house for the summer to escape difficulties at home. Soon she meets Peter, a man unlike anyone she has ever known. Peter is a messenger – but his messages never bring good news.

Peter believes that Frances is a messenger too.

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3. Three

I couldn’t sleep that night. It wasn’t so much because of my strange meeting with the man in the beach hut, or the drawing I’d done after my blackout – although I’d been so freaked out by the sketch, I’d buried it in my kitbag. Recently, when I couldn’t sleep, it was because I didn’t know where my brother was.

So, yes, he’d got into a stupid argument outside a pub and punched an off-duty policeman. Johnny was a boxer and that’s just the way he’d been rewired, through his training. Witnesses said the police officer was unconscious before he hit the ground, and because of this, he didn’t put his hands out to break his fall, so his head snapped back against the pavement. That’s what did the damage.

The time it takes a professional boxer to throw a punch is one tenth of a second. That’s how long you’ve got to get out of the way. That’s how long it takes to split two lives in half.

Staying in Helmstown, along with this new development in my fainting fits, reminded me of the first time I’d seen Johnny fight. That was also the first time I blacked out. The junior championship bout was taking place at the Hilton Hotel on Helmstown seafront, on a scalding hot day in August. I was five years old when me and Mum travelled down to watch. Too young, really, for something like that.

Johnny was a youth boxing sensation and our granddad had high hopes for him. He had a chin of steel, Granddad said. As a little girl, I had once stroked his face and said, “Your chin isn’t made of steel.”

“It’s just a thing folk say,” Johnny had answered. “It means I can take loads of punches.”

“Why would you want to do that?” I’d said.

Even before watching my first fight, I’d seen how our house changed in the days before one. It was all about trying to get Johnny’s weight down. He’d weigh himself twelve times before lunch. He’d ditch the steak-and-egg breakfasts he ate when he was training, and the milkshakes that made his farts smell and were named after natural disasters: Cyclone, Whirlwind. He’d replace all that food with ... nothing. Well, sometimes he’d chew a whole pack of Hubba Bubba and walk around the neighbourhood, spitting, because he thought if he could get rid of all his spit, he’d drop a couple of pounds.

Granddad would come and stay with us, and everyone would wake up early and play loud and ridiculous music. In the evenings, we would go to bed when it was still light, but Johnny wasn’t allowed to come to my room and tell me stories. I would wake to the sound of the bathroom scales whirring. I loved Johnny and I didn’t want there to be less of him.

It was as if all of the pipes and cables in the house fed into and out of my brother. As we got nearer to the day of the fight, Mum would become tense and shout at me for nothing, but Johnny would tell me it was going to be OK. “I don’t worry about getting hit, Fran,” he said once. “The worst thing, for me, is having to take my top off in front of all those people.”

There was a fashion, at that time, of giving boxers nicknames from retro films, and they decided to call him Johnny “Top Gun” Clayton.

The seafront was packed on the day of that Helmstown fight. Not many Claytons had been to a Hilton, and me and Mum felt out of place. Auntie Lizzie hadn’t moved to Helmstown back then, and we were staying at Nana and Granddad’s funny little house, just down the coastal road in Whiteslade. So it was odd to walk through the posh, cool corridors of the Hilton and then into this rowdy, darkened ballroom that stank of sweat and cigarette smoke. They’d built a mini grandstand for the spectators to sit in. I remember how the backs of my thighs stuck to the blue folding seats and how the ring, which was so brightly lit, looked like a square swimming pool. I remember thinking that the announcer looked odd standing in the boxing ring in his suit and bow tie. And I remember Mum, with her hair dyed red and her white shirt, as still and straight as the lion statues outside big old buildings.

The theme from Top Gun played as Johnny climbed through the ropes, and he wore big reflective aviator sunglasses like they did in the film. Granddad slapped him on the back and took off his glasses. Johnny opened his mouth wide and stuck his tongue out – a little habit he had. I tapped Mum and did an impression of him. She smiled weakly.

Granddad tightened the straps on Johnny’s headguard, took the knotted towel from around his neck and then tied his boot laces. That’s when I started to get worried. How was Johnny going to win a fight if he couldn’t even tie his laces?

The other lad was tall and strong. He looked like a man really. His name was Gary “Basher” Bradley. I felt like you do when you get on a theme park ride and the wheels start to turn, and you know you’ve made a terrible mistake. When the bell went to signal the start of the first round, the men in front of us stood up so I couldn’t see. They were cheering for the other guy. “Kill him, Bash!” “Do him!” “Go–o–o on, Basher!” they shouted.

Mum didn’t bother to stand. She just stared into the backs of these men. I climbed on my chair and peered over.

I didn’t know anything about boxing, but I learned quickly, and I didn’t need anyone to tell me Johnny was losing. Basher Bradley had him in the corner of the ring and was pounding him in the stomach. To my relief, Johnny danced away from him and shrugged. He smiled, as if to say, “Is that all you’ve got?” Typical Johnny.

But Bradley had more.

Johnny was trying to protect his stomach, and Bradley landed a right cross (I know all the names of the punches now) on Johnny’s chin of steel. Several things were horrible to me. The first was that Johnny’s gumshield shot out and skidded across the ring. I didn’t know he was wearing a gumshield –

I didn’t know what a gumshield was – so I thought a piece of Johnny’s jaw had been chipped off. I was too upset to scream. I couldn’t even turn away. When you watch a boxing match, you feel like you’re taking part, especially if someone’s getting a beating. And in some ways, just by being there, just by watching it happen, you are taking part, aren’t you?

Anyway, the worst thing about it was that Johnny didn’t go down. He stayed on his feet for another two rounds and took all sorts of punishment. I was the one, in fact, who hit the floor. I caught a whiff of smoke and the last thing I remember was looking up at the ceiling, beyond Mum, beyond the fat men who were throwing air punches of their own. The ceiling had fancy swirling borders and a chandelier hanging like a bunch of flowers.

During the weeks I spent in Helmstown at Auntie Lizzie’s, I kept thinking back to that day, the fight, and that first blackout. The memories kept intruding: waking up in the bedroom of my Nana and Granddad’s house in Whiteslade; Johnny standing over the bed; the trance-like state I was in, and the sudden urge to draw. I suppose it was natural that I would remember my first blackout so clearly. After all, it changed my life.

With no chance of getting any sleep, I decided I might as well get up and do something semi-constructive. It was pointless, lying there just thinking about Johnny.

I always had the hope, especially late at night, that he might have found his way to an Internet café and emailed to say he was safe. At around 1 a.m., I left the spare room and crept around Auntie Lizzie’s big house. It was beautiful, all dark wooden floors and clean cream walls. Books everywhere. It was a world apart from our flat back home. Auntie Lizzie had married Robert, an architect who had his own practice, whereas my mum had married – well – my dad, who I’d never even met. “Don’t screw your life up for love,” Mum had always told us.

Our flat was so small, you could barely breathe without waking someone up, but here, there was space and privacy. I sneaked up to the top floor, into Uncle Robert’s study, and turned on his iMac. While I waited for it to fire up, I looked out of the window. A black cat with white socks slinked along a low wall outside a house across the street. I’d seen the cat before. It was the one I’d drawn after my last blackout. It looked up at me now, its eyes lit with the reflection from the streetlight. Accusing me. I shuddered and closed the curtains.

There was no message from Johnny, and I didn’t know what to do any more. I’d called all the guesthouses and B&Bs back home, and the few friends that Johnny had, but they were quick to distance themselves from him now. I’d called them cowards.

I Googled Johnny and tried not to read the old news reports. There was no further information, so I went on Facebook and checked up on my friends back home. Keisha, my best mate, had updated her status four hours earlier:

Keisha McKenzie misses Frances Clayton.

I commented that I missed her too, and wrote that Helmstown wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I spent a bit of time looking at the pictures from a recent party and felt annoyed that I was missing out on the summer holidays – the time when everybody had those life-changing experiences – but what could I do?

I checked my emails one last time. There was still nothing from Johnny, only a single unread message from someone called P. Kennedy. Junk. Then it hit me. The man from the beach hut. How did he get my email address?

I don’t know if I can handle this, I thought. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I’d read what he had to say. I opened the email.

It was a link, with a short message:

Dear Frances Clayton,
Be here at 11 a.m. tomorrow and you will begin to
understand. I know you think I am strange, but if I am, then so are you. I want to help.

Regards, Peter Kennedy

I clicked the link and it took me to a map. The map showed a network of streets in Helmstown, near the seafront. Halfway along one of the streets, Landsmere Road, was a red pushpin.

I didn’t write the address down and I tried to forget the time. But I knew I would remember both of them, and I knew I would be there. Peter Kennedy flashed into my mind, bits of him. His lips, the workman’s boots, the streaks of paint on his long fingers. I had spoken to him only for a few minutes, but I couldn’t get him out of my head. It was a raw, dangerous sort of feeling.

I updated my Facebook status:

Frances Clayton is in a right state.

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