I can still replay it in my mind, the day everything changed. To this day I can recall the chill of the air combined with the fire in Danny’s eyes, and the rush of anxiety we prayed we could supress. As I go about the life I so desperately endeavoured, I wonder whether the overwhelming burning that comes with the memory is that of regret, guilt or pride. In many ways, we succeeded that day. Danny called it Theft Day.
It was summer, one of the hottest I’d ever lived through, when we came up with the idea over a meal limited in nutrition accompanied with watered down lager and leftover juice frozen into blocks. Neither of us usually spoke at home. We rarely had anything to say to each other – after over a decade of living with each other’s company whilst sharing mundane experiences, our list of topics of conversation wore thin. Even the things that perhaps were of interest we didn’t talk about, we pretended they didn’t exist. What went on within our four walls was witnessed by both of us, what went on outside we’d rather ignore. Danny ate his food with some haste, staring at a blank wall with a look of frustration and anger on his face. His mouth moved as if talking while he ate, his expression like none I’d seen before. His fist struck the table with such force that I jumped to my feet, my chair crashing down to the floor behind me.
“Why did you do that?” I gasped, my heart pounding.
“I’ve got it,” Danny muttered, his eyes remaining fixed on the wall. “I’ve finally got it. You trust me don’t you Chris?”
I nodded slowly, frozen to the spot. That was when we planned Danny’s Theft Day. He had solutions for every problem I threw back at him as I desperately sought a reason why it shouldn’t go ahead, but eventually, we shook on it. I went to bed that night sick with anticipation and a flood of thoughts racing through my mind, bombarding each of my senses with the deepest sense of unexplainable emotion. I knew it could only go one of two ways, and either way, this was my last night in the small room that Danny and I had called home for the last twelve years.
I awoke early to the familiar sound of Danny’s alarm clock, the high-pitched sound ricocheting against the walls and into my ears. Danny still snored, his arm hanging over the front of the sofa with his fingers not quite reaching the pen from which he had adroitly drafted plans and sketches of his fantasy that lay peacefully on the remains of the carpet. Slowly beginning to decipher my thoughts, differentiating between my haunting dreams and unexplainable conscious thoughts of what was to come, I dragged my limp body up from the mattress and over to Danny.
“Wake up, D,” I called, shaking his shoulder. “It’s time”.
Danny groaned and his eyes fluttered open. “Eat first”, he ordered. “We’ll need all the energy we can get. We’re not going to eat again for a long time.”
I looked at the small pile of food that was left in the corner of the room, comprising of some stale bread slices, warm ham and a quarter of a block of cheese, yellow from the heat in the room. Knowing that our finances would forbid us consuming anything more than what lay in that pile for at least another two days, I began to eat. Between the two of us we hungrily devoured the pile of food and the last of the lager that stood in a small bottle. As we ate, the sun began to extend its nimble extremities into the room through the cracks in the board that covered the part of the wall that once contained a glass window.
“It’s getting light outside. Let’s go, brother,” Danny mumbled dryly, his eyes bursting with exhilaration.
I got dressed quickly, pulling the cord in my trousers tightly around my emaciated body while Danny looked over his plans. Once he had memorised each intricate detail, he placed the papers in the ashtray on the table and lit them with a match, the slight flame suddenly becoming a small fire, dancing as it engulfed the pages greedily before gradually dying out, leaving nothing but soft, grey ashes in their place.
When we left our home, the streets were still quiet. The early sunrise was a welcome source of fabricated security, the daylight providing us with the confidence to tackle what may be lurking behind each corner. We ran from the building without looking back, our eyes and hearts fixated on the building that stood pompously over the city with an air of authority that cast a sombre shadow over all that dwelled beneath.
“What are you doing out here so early? One of the chancers, are you?” a gruff voice echoed through an alleyway containing the remnants of a civilised society. “Seen plenty of them – don’t think you’ll get anywhere, you might as well come join me here, it’s actually quite peaceful. You can see the stars sometimes, in the sky at night, and if you hide really well, some days you won’t get caught by anyone at all. I’ll tell you what that is… that’s freedom.”
I peered into the alleyway, just making out a scrawny figure with long grey hair and a white beard. I inched closer, into the shade of the building and looked into the alleyway. The man had a gentle face, dirty with the repercussions of what could have been decades of living in these conditions, but the thing that resonated with me about this man for countless months after meeting him were his eyes, so perfectly blue but also so dark, like nothing I’d ever encountered in another human being. His gaze pierced my skin as if it were burning, a lifetime of deprivation of contact with anyone other than the few rats that belonged to a colony that invaded the corners of every building in the town. His clothes were mouldy and torn, and he had no shoes at all.
“How long have you been living in there?” I dared to ask.
“As long as I can remember, son. I’ve got my wits about me and that’s all I need to get by. That and the help of a lovely little lady, she throws food in here for me, every other day without fail. I’d be dead without her. She creeps out here, from up there,” he gestured to the pretentious building. “She dresses up and everything.”
He paused for a second, his soft face becoming stony and cold. “Hey, you didn’t hear that, alright? I didn’t tell you anything. Now, you and your little friend be on your way, I can see him, lurking over there. Clear off and stay away, I can defend myself against you, against anyone, you’ll see!”
I turned around and saw Danny behind me, staring blankly at the man, hidden away in the shadows cowering from the light of day and the population. “Let’s go, brother,” he commanded.
I left the man and ran away from the alleyway, giving Danny a sideways glance. It was then that I realised how envious I was of that man. The man with the most freedom I’d ever seen on our side of the world living in an alleyway, cowering in the darkness feeding from the perilous kindness of a stranger.