Poor Dead Billy

It had been a long old night. Cold and stiff he sat on the concrete feeling it sink into his bones damp and heavy like he was.

Finally, a cold grey dawn began to creep across the sky. It was raw and ugly like the little town which sat below it.

He looked down, quite a drop onto brick where they put the trash out. Still, it would be easy to hose down afterwards.

Idly he wondered if poor dead Billy Fish had felt the same. If he had looked down from this very spot and taken in the scene or jumped straight away.

Billy Fish the town hero, good looking, talented with a glittering career all before he was 40. His books were required reading for any student.

Nobody knew why he had done it. September the 14th 1928 Billy had climbed those familiar steps on the roof of the building and launched himself into posterity. A legend died and was re-born that day.

He remembered clearly the poem that everyone had to learn in their second year. 14 Steps it was called.

His mother had called it a touch morbid. She had known Billy Fish when she was a young girl and had said that he was nice.

His mother thought everyone was nice she never got beyond pleasant in her little kitchen world which seemed to exist somewhere between the refrigerator and the washing machine. A ceaseless triangle of dreary nothingness.

He didn’t want to leave her, or his amiable father who worked so hard for them all. They were so proud that he had got into college and he knew full well that sacrifices were already being made.

Once a month the cookie jar would come down from the shelf and they would count. God how he hated that counting  it was a mantra to aid his misery.

How could he tell them he didn’t want to go? He wanted to paint, to go to art school not law school. He was never the brains of the family that was his twin sister Peg.

She would get her chance his father said, a nice clerical job where there were no shifts and you went home clean without the factory stink that was the perfume of the poor.

He knew damned well that Peggy wanted to be a Doctor about as much as he yearned to paint. She was as smart as a whip and focused, not a dreamer like him.

How could he tell them that their scrimping was all for nothing? He had already flunked most of his exams except art, he knew he had. So he had run away into the darkness before the creeping disappointment of his results landed on the morning mat.

Mr Morgan his tutor had told pa that he was a natural and that he should go for a scholarship,

Pa hadn’t listened. He had smiled and said that a man needed a job and a reliable wage coming in so that he could bring up a family without hardship. Not daubing around with paint, that was for rich kids with a trust fund, or Saturday afternoons when your chores were finished.

He had decided that ending it all was the cleanest way. Peggy could have the contents of the cookie jar with his blessing, and whatever they had put by in the savings bank.

He wanted out, a clean break. He could not go home, he could not bear to see them crushed, life had already done that to them once too often.

He made ready to go when a hand grabbed his shoulder. Mr Morgan was standing right behind him.

I thought I would find you here, your mother will be worried sick. There are other ways Jonnie he said. This isn’t one of them son. Come down now and we’ll sort it out I promise you we will..

He had shaken his head, too late he had said, the tears about to fall.

No it isn’t son, Mr Morgan had told him. We just have to make them see. You have to stick around and fight for the life you want to live. I will help out if I can, together we can wear them down and then Peggy can have her chance too.

Come on down now and let’s see what we can do. Too many people in this town just give up and I won’t let you do that.

He had sobbed because he knew that it was all true. Too many pin bright faces and minds dulled by the roar of the production line. Clever girls like his mother drudges made old before their time.

What do you say? You have a bumpy road ahead but they will all come around in the end.

Never give up on yourself, remember that John. Now go home and I’ll be there just as soon as I can, scoot!

Snotty and wet with tears he had climbed back down the 14 steps and walked home.

His mother’s face at the door had said it all. Thank goodness, the school rang, they were concerned she said. Come on in son and we’ll talk just you and me. Pa has driven Peg to school to celebrate with her friends so it’s just us. Then we will face the music together.

He had smiled, Mr Morgan said he would come by soon to help he had said.

His mother had wiped her brow with her apron and sat on the stairs.

I almost married Tom Morgan she had said. You never knew that did you. We were going to run away to Europe together to paint. But I got cold feet and married your father instead, I settled for the security that my parents always wanted for me.

Don’t settle for less John she had said. I want you and Peg to have your chance. Your father is a stubborn man but a good one, he will come around.

Now let’s get you some breakfast and we can hammer it out somehow.

They both jumped as the kitchen door opened and Pa came in. He looked shaken.

He sat down at the kitchen table and said quietly.

I bumped into Denny on my way back from the school. It’s not good news I’m afraid. Tom Morgan is dead. He jumped off the Fish building late last night. Apparently he had a cancer in his liver and didn’t want to linger.

Sorry John, I know you were close.

He had stared at his mother who just shook her head as if to say leave it and he had. Some things are best not explained she had told him later, when the shock and all the fuss had died down.

Tom Morgan looked down from the Fish building.

How did I do he had asked?

Dead Billy Fish had smiled, very nicely Tom, I think it’s time for us to go now.

Tom Morgan had put his hat on, and they went together.

John never went to college but he did go to Europe to study and to paint on the money that Tom had left him.

Every year on September 14th he drank a silent toast to Dead Billy Fish, and to Tom Morgan both born and raised in the grubby little town that they were too good for, and finally free of it.

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