Give My Regards to All the People I Met
By Toby Wallis
The only person on earth that knows where I am is asleep on the passenger seat. He has taken off his seatbelt in order to curl up and get more comfortable, which normally would annoy me but I am driving slowly on account of the rain so if I were to crash he would still probably be fine. He is always fine. Traffic bunches up behind me and then overtakes in great spurts when it can. The rain is heavy and the windscreen wipers are working hard and it still isn't good enough. I am sat forward in my seat staring hard into the rain and darkness in front of me.
It was Ed’s idea, all of this. Everything we do is his idea, I just resist for as long as I can and then give in. He has been suggesting we do this for a while but I never took him seriously. Let's just get in the car and leave and never come back. Whenever he said it he sounded flippant so I never actually considered it as a real option. He'd say it and I'd agree and we'd talk about how good it would be. Then we would drink some more and go home and carry on with our little lives. That was the routine. We had done it a thousand times.
Ed called a hotel once we were on the motorway. He booked one room with two single beds to save money. He said the hotel was about two hours away but we have been driving now for three. I don't mind. I am glad we are getting further away. The headlights catch on the heavy rain and the darkness beyond makes it look like we have arrived at the edge of something. The very edge.
This all started yesterday. I had realised, after six months of working at my new job, that I was being paid below the minimum wage. I went to the owner of the little printing firm that I work at and informed him of this. I felt emboldened because I knew that I had the law on my side. I had the whole government on my side. Even so, I did it as non-confrontationally as I could. I just laid it out plainly. I don't know if you realise but I am being paid a little below the minimum wage. I added the word little to cushion it a bit. But it isn't little. It is significant.
So today I arrived at work and my boss called me into his office. He told me he had been talking to the board (he meant him and Terry and Geoff, I had never heard them referred to as the board before,) and that they all agreed I was doing an excellent job and deserved a raise. He took a sheet of paper out of his printer and wrote a number on it. Then he folded the paper in half and slid it across the desk toward me like a big shot. He looked all pleased with himself as he did it, like he was in a scene in a movie and it was going exactly the way he'd always envisioned it. When I unfolded the piece of paper the number he had written was minimum wage to the penny.
Ed was outraged on my behalf.
“We have to get out of this town,” he told me. “We need a clean start.”
We were sat in a pub even though I had wanted to go home after work. I was fed up and didn't feel like being out, but Ed insisted. Ed wanted a drink.
“How many true clean starts have you had in your life?” Ed had asked me.
I thought about this for a bit.
“After college,” I said. Ed nodded. “How about you?”
“After I nearly died,” he said.
Ed did nearly die once. He is prone to exaggeration and hyperbole, but this one is for real. He was hit by a car and was in intensive care for weeks. It was serious. For days no one knew if he was going to live or die. Now he gets fatigued very easily and is completely blind in one eye. It is amazing he is alive at all. His doctor said so.
“Was that a clean start?” I said.
“It felt like one,” Ed said. And that’s probably good enough. That’s probably all it needs to be.
“Come on,” he said, “we need to wipe the shit off the slate.”
I resisted for as long as I could, then I gave in. We finished our drinks, went back to his place and then mine to pack clothes and essentials and we got in the car and we drove.
Even though he promised he wouldn't, Ed gets drunk once we arrive at the hotel. He sneaked in the alcohol from the car, smuggling it in under his coat in three separate trips. There is no indication that we are not allowed to have alcohol in our room but he didn't want to risk it.
The room, incidentally, does not have two single beds. It has one double. Ed finds this funny and says he doesn't mind sharing. He doesn't ask if I do.
“It'll be fine,” he says, bouncing on it like a child and then collapsing back into a full recline with his boots on the bedsheets.
I don't like Ed when he is drunk. He talks almost non-stop and laughs constantly and becomes extremely inconsiderate. I know that doesn't sound so bad, but for some reason it really gets to me.
When he is really drunk I decide to fuck with him by turning the volume all the way down on the television and then hiding the batteries from the remote while he is in the bathroom. He can't work out what is going on. He jabs the buttons on the remote, then he hits the TV for a while, getting angrier and angrier. No one has repaired a TV by hitting it like that for twenty years, but he gives it a good go. The funny thing is this isn't even the first time I have done this to him. I have done it lots of times.
Ed falls asleep at nine-thirty, sprawled across the entire double bed. I try to sleep on the floor but can't get comfortable so I shake him awake.
“Ed,” I say in an urgent whisper, “wake up. It's an emergency.”
He is still drunk and so tired he has no idea what is going on. He doesn't even know he is awake.
“What is it?” he says.
“Listen,” I say, “it is of the utmost importance that you sleep on the floor.”
Ed gets a serious look across his sleepy face and clambers down out of bed.
“Like this?” he says, but is asleep again before I can answer.
Ed might be blind in one eye but there isn't anything actually wrong with his eye at all. It is called cortical blindness. The bit of his brain that processes the images that his eye sends got destroyed when his head bounced off the bonnet of that car. Technically, he isn't blind; he is brain damaged. I make fun of him for this sometimes but he doesn't mind.
We have been friends for a long time. I don't even know when it started. We grew up on the same street, went to all the same schools, the same college, the same unemployment centre. We worked together for a while too, at the same job I am still at. He didn't last long. The board didn't like him. They didn't like the way he used to laugh at everything. Like the whole operation was completely ridiculous. Every time he was asked to do something he would smirk like only he could see how futile it all was. The board made out like they separated by mutual agreement, but the truth was Ed just stopped turning up one day. Just like I will do tomorrow.
Ed suffers terribly when we wake up. I make him coffee but I don't have any real sympathy in me. I roll my eyes at him.
“You don't understand,” he says, pressing fingers into his temples, “you can't understand.”
I pour the second halves of a number of beer cans down the sink. The smell of the stale lager makes him feel worse, so I carry on.
“You should eat,” I tell him, “and have a shower. You smell awful.”
“I can't,” he says, “I just need to sit perfectly still.”
He proceeds to sit perfectly still and breathes as slowly as he possibly can. I walk out and go down for breakfast.
As I eat I wonder what the guys at work are saying about me. I would like to think they are concerned, but I am sure they just assume that I have overslept or fucked off somewhere. The idea that this is what they think annoys me, even though it is exactly what I have done.
From where I am sitting I can see the woman behind the reception desk in the lobby. She is wearing a neatly pressed blouse and has a look of perfect tranquillity on her face, like she has found her calm centre right there behind that desk. There is a payphone next to her. It takes everything I have not to phone work and tell them I am sick. Not doing so feels like crossing a line. I have always felt that you shouldn't cross a line until you really have to. Then I remember the number written on that piece of paper, minimum wage expressed to the full number of decimal places, and I stand up and go outside.
The motorway services hotel looks bleak in the grey morning light. Cars come and go and all the drivers look tired. No one wants to be here. Everyone is on their way somewhere else. I lean against the wall, content to just watch the world go by, but I constantly seem to be in someone's way. Every ten seconds or so someone comes along needing to pass through the exact space I am occupying. Without meaning to I end up twenty meters along from where I started. I look at the time and it is just after nine. Now would be the time to call in sick but I'm not doing it. I'm just watching the grey clouds pass overhead.
A woman in black and pink Lycra jogs down the road. Her trainers are pristine white and she has an iPod strapped to her arm. Where has she come from? Her eyes are fixed on the bit of road just in front of her, the iPod plays music that dictates her pace, tracks her location, measures her heart-rate. She doesn't notice me at all as I step out of her way. I want to run after her and get some answers. Who are you? Where are you going? What kind of life is this that you are living?
I find Ed in the lobby using the payphone, miraculously recovered from his hangover. I wait for him to finish his call and then sneak up on him and tap him on the shoulder. It scares the life out of him. Because of his blindness he is easy to sneak up on. If you are quiet enough and get the angle of approach right he has no idea you are there.
“Who were you talking to?” I ask him.
“My landlord,” he says, “I handed in my notice.”
“You shouldn't have done that,” I say.
“I told them not to wait for the notice period to end, they can go ahead and rent it out right away.”
“But you still have stuff in the house. What are you going to do about your stuff?”
Ed shrugs. “I don't know. It's their problem now. They can sell it I guess, or just whoever moves in can have it.”
I find Ed's lack of regard for consequence breathtaking, but there is a part of me that just wants to take him by the shoulders and shake him.
“Come on, let's get breakfast,” he says.
I follow him into the restaurant and watch as he helps himself to coffee and muesli and toast and fruit.
“So has your hangover just gone already?”
“Yeah,” he says, “I just needed to sit still for a little while. Let me eat and then I'll be good to go.”
“Where are we going?” I say.
Ed has his mouth full of toast and banana so he just makes a gesture with his hand. It is like the gesture you would use to describe an aeroplane taking off and the look he has in his one working eye is wild and joyful.
We try to drive at random but it is harder than it sounds. All the motorways are well sign-posted, all the destinations neatly laid out in front of you. You know where you are heading a long time before you get there. In the end he says we should just go west. So we go west.
Ed has the window down and is leaned all the way round in his seat so that he can look out as we drive. He has a pair of sunglasses on even though it is still dull and grey. I don't even know where he got them from.
“Where do you think we will end up?” he says.
“I don't know,” I say, and Ed nods, satisfied, like this was the best answer I could have given. But I think that I do know. Nowhere. We will end up nowhere.
In his mind Ed has turned this thing into an epic road trip. In his mind we are travelling across the breadth of America, or across whole continents, out of Europe, into India, then north to god knows where. But we aren't. England doesn't allow for it. No matter how far you go in England you are always almost home.
“The sky is bigger here,” he says.
At first it seems that this is one of the stupidest things I have ever heard him say but then I notice that in fact the horizon does seem to be lower than usual, the broad sky does seem to stretch off higher. Now that Ed points it out the sky does seem enormous and he is only seeing half of what I am seeing.
“I don't think we should stay in a hotel tonight,” Ed says. “We have to be careful with our money. We need to make it last.”
“So where are we going to sleep?” I hadn't even considered it. In the back of my mind I just assumed we would end up going home. That the idea of leaving our old lives behind would fizzle out. Like Ed would suddenly remember one of his favourite TV shows was on and ask to be back in time for it. If his house is still his. If the landlord hasn't instantly filled it.
“I guess we sleep in the car,” Ed says.
“I don't like the sound of that.”
“I'll take the front. I can sleep in a sitting position. I'm a better sleeper than you are.”
“But where will we sleep?” I say.
Ed turns, takes off his sunglasses and looks at me. If you didn't know he was blind you probably wouldn't guess. Maybe if you looked at him long enough you'd start to notice that something was off about him. That he is only watching you with one of his eyes.
“Anywhere,” he says. “It's all free, and it's all ours.”
We stop at another motorway services, discouragingly similar to the last. Ed goes to use the toilet and I buy lunch.
“What is this?” he says when he gets back and I hand him a baguette.
“Brie and grape.”
“We shouldn't be eating brie and grape.” he says.
I take a big bite, deliberately overstuffing my mouth so that I can't even close it.
“Why not?” I say around my food.
“Because we have to be careful with our money,” he says. “We should be eating cheaper food.”
I get the impression that he is disappointed to be eating the brie and grape baguette, not because it is expensive, but because it doesn't fit with the new life he is embarking on. The life of a hobo adventurer. The sort of life where you only eat when it is free and you sleep sitting upright in the passenger seat of a car parked on the side of a road. I am sure he sees heroism in it. I'm sure he sees poetry.
We sit down on the curb to eat, which I think suits his new sensibility a little better.
“Did you get coffee?” he says.
“Soy latte,” I say, and he sighs as I hand it to him.
Ed made the front cover of the local newspaper after his accident. It wasn't much of a story, the driver wasn't drunk or speeding. It was just one of those things that happen sometimes. The picture on the cover was just an image of the stretch of road where it happened. There were no pictures of Ed's unconscious body crumpled on the roadside, no pictures of the dent in the car, no pictures of the dawning horror on the drivers face as he assimilates this latest event into the story of his life. There was some stuff about Ed's medical condition and a lot of road safety statistics for the area. I was going to keep my copy, it is the only time I have ever known anyone on the cover of a newspaper, but I lost it. I think I threw it in the recycling by accident.
I went to visit him in the hospital once he was out of intensive care. He was stupid from the morphine and hardly made any sense and slept almost all of the time. But I liked to be there so that he wouldn't be alone when he woke up. I got us food from the hospital vending machines and we watched television and he tried to get used to only having one working eye. He showed me how narrow his new field of vision was by pointing out all the things that he couldn't see. And then we had fun with his broken depth perception; me throwing things at his face, and him laughing as things bounced off of his face before his reflexes had had a chance to make him flinch.
They put up a sign near where he was hit warning drivers to watch out for pedestrians. We went to visit it once he was out of the hospital. It was underwhelming, standing there looking at his little sign while cars roared past us.
“Is this where I got hit?” he said.
“I don't know where exactly,” I said. “Somewhere around here though.”
“Do you think it'll help?” he had asked me, gesturing at the sign.
We never went back to the sign again. There didn't seem any point.
We finish our baguettes and begin to walk back toward the car but on the way we see an old man standing in the road. He looks dazed and unsteady. A car weaves around him and carries on going. The old man looks confused, like he is not sure where he is or what is going on. Ed is watching him intently and when the old man begins to fall Ed is running toward him before he hits the floor.
The old man lands heavily and clumsily. It looks bad. I freeze, looking around to see if anyone else has seen, if anyone else is going to do anything about this. But there is no one else around.
Ed kneels down next to him.
“Call an ambulance,” he says to me.
And so I do. I pull out my phone and call the emergency services, tell them I need an ambulance, where I am, what has happened. I keep fumbling my words and repeating myself. The woman on the other end of the phone is firm and patient and keeps telling me that I need to talk to the old man. She says I need to reassure him and tell him that an ambulance is on its way, but I am too far away from him. I am still at the same distance from when he fell. She asks me questions about the old man's condition but all I can say to any of them is 'I'm not sure'. I am useless.
Ed is magnificent though, I can hear him talking to the old man. Other people have gathered but Ed calmly asks them to stay back and give him room while he continues to hold the old man in his arms. Everyone, relieved, keeps their distance.
Ed speaks to him constantly. The old man seems to be drifting in and out of consciousness, his eyes opening and closing slowly, the folds of skin around them concertinaing.
“Talk to him,”the woman on the phone says again after I have been silent for too long, “tell him everything is going to be OK.”
I am glad I don't have to tell him he is going to be OK because I am honestly not sure if he is or not. Ed, to his credit, even though he talks to him the whole time, never once says that he is going to be OK. He says much truer things. He says an ambulance is on its way, and that this will be over soon, and that he isn't alone. The old man's eyes open when Ed says that he isn't alone and I see his tiny, bony hand grip Ed a little tighter. Then he slumps again as he continues his little ramble along the edge of consciousness. The old man's eyes close softly, like he is going off for a nap.
The ambulance arrives and Ed passes the old man on to the two paramedics that come with it. They are calm and unhurried as they check the man out, wake him up, ask his name. Like this is just another day. Just another old man collapsed in a car park. Like it happens all the time and that there is no point being alarmed by things that happen all the time.
Once they have him on the gurney they load him into the ambulance. I can't see if he is awake or not. They have put an oxygen mask over his face and his head is turned away from us. But one hand hangs limp over the side. It bounces dead weight as they wheel him into the ambulance.
As the paramedics close the doors Ed turns to me.
“Do you think the word emergency comes from combining the words emerging and urgency?” he says.
“I don't know,” I say.
“Emerging urgency,” he says again.
“I get it,” I say.
We go for another coffee. Ed doesn't argue about the cost. We sit by the window drinking in silence. Outside the ambulance has gone. The crowd has gone. The girl behind the counter makes coffee and small-talk with customers. I feel a little pang of jealousy. She probably doesn't earn much but at least she knows where to stand. You can't buy peace of mind like that.
“I think he is going to be OK,” Ed says.
It hasn't even occurred to me that the old man might turn out OK. In my mind he is going to die in the ambulance on his way to the hospital, or shortly after, once his family has arrived. In my mind it is tragic.
“I'm not so sure,” I say.
Ed smiles and looks out of the window at the grey sky. “You shouldn't worry so much.”
I look out of the window with him. There is nothing out there. Nothing.
“I'm going to go home,” I say. I say it quieter than I mean to.
“You're going home?” Ed says. “All the way home?”
He stresses the words all the way, but it really isn't that far. It won't take that long.
“You should come too,” I say.
“But we were doing it,” he says. “We were finally doing it.”
I shrug, staring into my coffee. Ed turns back to the window.
“You're throwing in the towel faster than I thought you would,” he says.
I stand up angrily and clatter my seat a little more than I really need to. I am not actually angry, I am just hoping that if I appear that way it will obscure my embarrassment, my shame.
Once I am outside I walk directly to a cash machine. I put in my card, type in my pin, check my balance and then withdraw almost everything I have. I don't count it when it comes out of the machine. I just stuff it into my pocket. Looking back at the window of the coffee shop I can see Ed still sat where I left him. I can't see him clearly, I don't know if he is looking over at me or not. He is just a smudge behind a window. A thumb print.
What am I rushing back to? There is some washing up in my sink that needs doing. The bins need to be put out. I can't just leave these things undone. I can't just pretend they aren't there, or forget about them. I don't think this will cut it with Ed though. I don't think he will consider the bins as important.
I walk back to the coffee shop and sit down across from Ed. He looks at me fixedly with his one piercing, brilliant eye.
“I'm not going with you,” he says.
“Good,” I say, and take out the money. “You're not welcome to.”
He looks confused. “What's this?”
“It's for you.”
He nods and quickly puts the money away in his pocket. We are both glad to have it off of the table.
“Do you need a ride anywhere?” I say.
Ed shakes his head. “Might as well start from here,” he says.
Outside a woman in black and pink Lycra with an iPod strapped to her arm runs past. I do a double take. It looks like the same woman from yesterday, from miles away. Like she has been running all night and has finally caught up to us. But it can't be. I laugh and Ed turns in his seat to see what I am laughing at.
“What is it?” he says.
“Nothing,” I say. “It's nothing.”
I get in the car and a fine rain starts to fall. I call work and tell them I am too sick to go in today. My boss doesn't sound like he believes me but what can he do? This sort of thing is the minimum he should expect. He tells me next time I am sick I need to call sooner and I apologise and tell him that I will. But I think to myself that I won't. I will make a point of not doing that.
I put the windscreen wipers on but then I turn them off again. I want the sound of the rain on the window. I want the colourless light. I want the flat grey sky. I sit like this for a long time before I head home.
And so now the only person on earth who knows where I am is sitting in the coffee shop I just left and soon I won't have any idea where he is, but he will know where I am forever.