Francis Heal was sixty years old. He had lived in most parts of Britain and then some other places in his lifetime. He had never liked to feel his roots bury too deeply in the dirt of a town.
He was adept at being one of the hundred nameless faces one sees every day, and forgets every day. He was seamless at blending in; going unnoticed; becoming part of the scenery. Francis was okay with that.
Inevitably though, people would start to take an interest and they would become over-friendly. They would call him by his first name and maybe invite him for a drink. They’d start being nosey and ask lots of questions. That was the time to pack his bag. Often, people weren’t entirely comfortable with the answers. Francis knew, without debate, that this was tragically true where he was concerned. He knew because it had happened. They couldn’t live with themselves once they knew.
Yes, it was always best to keep moving on.
Recently, he had found work in Southampton as a van driver. It was cash in hand, job and finish. He started about four in the morning, and when the shift was over he would return to the bed-sit with its blacked-out windows and sleep. Francis had no difficulty sleeping during the day; he found the darkness much more stimulating.
He was accustomed to the night. His father had frequently taken him poaching in the woods. They would lie in wait for their quarry for hours and his father would give him beer as they stalked. Francis pretended to swig it, then poured most in the undergrowth, although he risked a hard fist if he was caught doing that. He enjoyed those hunting trips.
It pleased him as an adult to wander alone at night. The walk made him relax. The night allowed possibilities. He often roamed the crowd-forsaken streets in the darkness, savouring his liberty in the shadows, observing, waiting patiently for an opportunity for expression.
On these after-hour jaunts, he drove his car to a chosen area and then stroll for three or four hours. By the end of these outings, his heart was pounding, his body was tight and his mind would be free. He was regenerated. That was when the evening was uneventful. When it was not, the sensations were almost euphoric.
He was aware that people thought wandering the streets at night a strange thing to do, but nobody knew what he did and how much he enjoyed it. And, not a soul knew he was out tonight.
It was early Wednesday morning. He had parked near the outskirts of Shirley by a large roundabout about a mile and a half from the major crossroads which had just come into view.
As he walked, his gloved hands remained deep in the pockets of his brown, three-quarter length leather coat. Tufts of grey hair poked from under his beanie and overlapped his collar. The wind had an edge to it tonight. His pitted nose was raw with the cold. He had roamed for only a couple of hours and was heading back. There was something not right about tonight. It was unusual for Heal to quit so soon, especially mid-week. On Fridays and Saturdays, he tended to go home early, as he generally found the streets too littered with people. Most of these just staggered to reach another pint. Some would lash out wildly, driven to violence by their weekly frustrations. Others would shout slurred obscenities at the stumbling sluts in front of them, who knowingly teased the beast, Heal thought.
He coughed and hawked up a chewy ball of phlegm, which he quickly transferred to a white cotton handkerchief. As he returned it to his coat pocket, he got an unnerving sense of being studied. He checked about him. The bored flash of a Belisha beacon signalling a vacant crossing illuminated the dead eyes of terraced shops on either side. The shadows that lurked in every corner were empty. Yet, still he had a sense.
A flutter of wings flung his attention up high. He glimpsed a white spark disappear behind the roof of the newsagent. A gull, Francis guessed, a big gull.
He reached the crossroads and stopped. To his right, the dual carriageway ferried transport towards Winchester and it was here that he spotted two figures walking along the stretch of grass that ran parallel to the road. One of them was female with long, blonde hair. She was skinny. They were all skinny these days, he thought, all skin and bone: no meat. Dressed like a tart, too: wearing hardly anything. Even her jacket was skimpy. He shook his head. They wonder why it’s so bad these days, he thought to himself.
The second figure was tall, skinny again and male. He was doing his best to keep up with the girl who was obviously in a rush. She was hurrying while he was lagging behind, occasionally lurching forward. She had her arms crossed in front of her, she was probably very cold. They might have had an argument as well, for something wasn’t quite right with the couple.
The male dropped litter and it rolled awkwardly into the road then they turned left up the incline opposite where Heal stood. The night walker followed.