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Decline And Fall Of A Man In His Prime by Hilary Ayshford

Ninety-seven. That's the number of times he's apologised to people for the things he's done. He wrote them all down, counted them. He's probably forgotten a few. Or a lot. They added up to nothing, in the end. Saying sorry is only meaningful if something changes.

Eighty-nine pointless promises to his wife, his son, his mum, that he would give it up, get help. Looking back, he realises he had no intention of doing either. They say you can't start to get back up until you've reached rock bottom, and he never did. Until tonight.

Eighty-three kilograms. That's how much he weighs now. He's put on quite a bit, staying up all night, drinking can after can of beer, stuffing his face with crisps, popcorn, burgers and curries, delivered to the door because he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the screen. Until the money ran out, anyway.

Seventy-nine pounds he's shelled out for the room in this hotel. He resented paying that much, but he doesn't want his last night to be in some down-at-heel, flea-bitten hovel or crouched in a shop doorway with only a ratty sleeping bag and a couple of flattened cardboard boxes for warmth. Appearances are still important. He doesn't want his family to think any worse of him than they already do.

Seventy-three times he's picked up the phone to call the helpline. Usually, he wouldn't get further than the first couple of digits of the number. Sometimes he heard it ringing but hung up before anyone could answer. He wonders what would have happened if he had waited to speak to someone. But there's no point in what-ifs. Not now.

Seventy-one years his mother has been on this earth. It amazes him that she hasn't died of shame long ago. The smile on her face when he went to see her yesterday was like a hammer blow to his ribs. Only one of them knew it was for the last time. He is thankful that his visit and what follows won't linger long in her memory.

Sixty-seven friends have blocked him on social media, stopped replying to his texts or answering his phone calls. His communication with those who still spoke to him has dwindled to small talk and brief conversations. Nobody cared enough to ask how he was in case he told them, or worse, asked them for something.

Sixty-one. That's how old his father was when he died. It was sudden. A heart attack, but probably to be expected in a man who started smoking when he was thirteen and liked a beer or three. And whisky, when he could afford it. When he hadn't thrown most of his wages down the drain at the racecourse or the dog track. Is it genetic, he wonders, an addictive personality? Or do boys just want to copy their dad. No, he can't put any of the blame on his father. This is a road he selected for himself. So many times he could have chosen to make a U-turn, but always stayed resolutely on the path to destruction.

Fifty-seven months since he last saw his brother. Almost five years. They still spoke occasionally, birthdays and Christmas, but neither of them would back down. He has replayed the massive bust-up over and over in his head, knowing it was his fault but unwilling to accept the olive branches his brother held out to him, often at first, but less frequently of late. One of his biggest regrets is that his brother will never know how much he misses him, how sorry he is.

Fifty-three Beechwood Crescent was where he used to live. He remembers carrying his new wife over the threshold, the way she gasped when he pretended to drop her, the flowery perfume with an undertone of musk she always wore. She could have had her pick of any of the men. He couldn't believe his luck when she chose him. They were so happy to begin with in that house, until the gambling because more important to him than anything else, including her and the roof over their heads.

Forty-seven times he denied he'd got a problem, even though the evidence was overwhelming. He always said he was in control, that he could stop any time he wanted. There were times when he almost believed it himself.

Forty-three times he's thought seriously about doing this. He's investigated all the possible methods, but this seems like the only one that is infallible. He feels sorry for the people who will have to clear up the mess, but it can't be helped.

Forty-one. That's what's left in his bank account after paying for the hotel room. Pence, not pounds. His credit cards were cancelled ages ago, so he had to pay cash up front. Bit of a rip-off, he thinks, since he's not going to be taking a bath or sleeping in the bed.

Thirty-seven. A bit over half the age his dad was. He's in his prime. He should be comfortably off, living in a nice house with his family, looking forward to meals out and foreign holidays, watching his son grow into a young man, seeing him off to college or university, planning what he and his wife will do when they have the place to themselves again. That’s how it might have been, could have been. It shouldn't be like this.

Thirty-one people he's let down in his life – workmates, friends and family. Everyone he's ever been close to or who's tried to help him. He's pushed them away, broken promises, borrowed from them with no intention of repaying the money. And when they wouldn't lend him any more, he stole from them. At least it won't come back to haunt his wife. Debts die with the debtor.

Twenty-nine metres per second. That will be the speed he'll be travelling when he hits the ground. He looked it up on the internet. There's a site called Splat Calculator that does all the sums.

Twenty-three years old when he met her. She was a couple of years younger. She was so bright, so vibrant, he felt like a carthorse next to a thoroughbred filly. All eyes were drawn to her when she stepped into the ring, up on her toes, prancing to the music, her chestnut mane gleaming, a clear favourite. Everyone was surprised when, against the odds, he came from the back of the field to edge out the rest of the contenders. Nobody was more amazed than he was. When he put the ring on her finger it was like winning the Grand National, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Epsom Derby all rolled into one.

Nineteen months was the average time he held down a job. Full of good intentions to start with, it didn't take long for the enthusiasm to wane. Long lunches in the pub, popping out in the middle of the afternoon to the bookies round the corner. Later, placing bets from the company's computer. Turning up late because he didn't get to bed until the early hours. Petty cash going missing, money from jacket pockets, purses left unattended.

Seventeen years they were married. It was good to begin with. They were happy, he thought. It was a long time before he realised she was miserable. Even longer before he recognised he was the cause. If she'd only said something sooner, he would have stopped, could have changed. No, he's kidding himself. Nothing she could have said or done would have altered anything. This was always going to be how it ended.

Thirteen floors up, a hundred and thirty-one feet from the ground. Thirteen has always been his lucky number. It's colder than he expected up here on the roof, a stiff breeze ruffling his trousers, his jacket billowing around his torso. He is shaking, but whether from cold, fear or dread he's not sure.

Eleven is a bad age to lose your dad, but his son will get over it. And if he's brutally honest, he hasn't been there for the boy for the past five years. He's doing him a favour really. His wife will move on, find another man, someone who will be the sort of father he should have been. A real role model.

Seven months since his wife left him. It was two days before he even noticed she'd gone. She tried to talk to him when she came back to collect her things, but he didn't want to listen. There was no shouting, no tears, just unfathomable sadness. He told her again he'd get help, he'd stop, he'd change, but she'd heard it all so many times before. He doesn't blame her for going. In her place he would leave too.

Five times he cheated on her. Not because he was bored or fancied the other women. It was just a means to an end, a way of getting money out of them in exchange for a bit of attention. It wasn't because he stopped loving her. He's never stopped loving her.

Three seconds to impact, give or take. According to Splat Calculator it will all be over quickly.

Two paces closer to the edge. He stands there, precariously balanced, looking out, not down.

One step. That's all he needs to take to make it all stop. He is hesitating. Could he still redeem himself? It would be much harder than letting it all go, slipping into oblivion. He takes his lucky dice from his pocket. Fate can decide this one for him. He's pretty sure which way it will go. He's had a lot of practice at calculating the odds, and they have seldom been in his favour. If he throws a prime number – two, three, five, seven or eleven – he'll go back down to his room, have a hot bath and sleep in a comfortable bed. If not...

He cups his hands, shakes the dice, opens his fingers to see a two and a three on his palm. Two primes adding up to a third one. Fate, it seems, has other plans for him. Starting tomorrow.

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1 Comment

Sep 04, 2023

Brilliant as usual, the ending is very clever. I love this authors writing.

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