I left the city with my connections scorched and my prospects blown, looking only for somewhere to batten down for the winter to come. I left on a bright morning in August, dozing fitfully as the train drifted through the purgatorial horizontals of the midlands, heading west. The midland skies were huge, drenched in pearlescent light and stacked with enormous chrome confections of cloud, their wrinkled undersides greyly streaked and mottled, brimming with whatever rain is before it becomes rain. Each time I came to and checked the carriage window the same cow seemed to be eyeing me from the same sodden, tobacco-brown field. Or each cow bore the same expression; the huge jaws mechanically working a wad of cud back and forth, the dark eyes registering me with the same steady, sullen incuriosity.
I was not well. I was drinking, too much and too often, and had resolved to stop. In the city I had drank away my job, money, a raft of friendships, one woman, and then another. My cat, a princely tortoiseshell tom named Ruckles, succumbed to a heart attack after eating a phial of damp cocaine he’d unearthed at the bottom of my closet while I was out on another all-night jag. Ruckles’ passing got me to thinking, in a vague and wistful way, of dying by my own hand. I began to consider my hands in the starlight of bar-rooms — the brittle wrists and yellowed skin, the nicks and weals and livid pink burn marks of unknown origin—and realised I was already way along on that project. It was go home or die, and home was an oblivion that was at least reversible.
I was thirty-three and had no extant family in the town. My parents were in the cemetery, my only sibling, an elder sister, moved to the States years back, and those locals who were once my friends were now grown strangers. It was my old secondary school principal that saved me. The principal was of a type, the Sentimental Authoritarian, who have always proven susceptible to my charms. Recalling my teenage athletic prowess—I had been the star of the football team, driving Saint Carmichael’s boys to three successive provincial finals and winning two—he found me a sinecure as groundskeeper and part-time gym teacher. He had seen a talent burgeon under his institution’s aegis, and did not want to think it truly snuffed out. I admitted I had come into this low ebb entirely of my own accord, but he assured me in time I could make things right.
I was billeted in a small cottage on the school grounds, and granted a modest stipend in exchange for executing my duties and staying sober. As groundskeeper I was tasked with keeping hale the clutches of flora decorating the institutional hillocks, ensuring the dumpsters were emptied on time, unlocking the gates in the mornings and keeping watch as the train of kids moiled in. I cut my hair neat and dressed in long sleeves, to conceal the tattoos that wound like black foliage down my arms. I carried a large, old-fashioned ring of keys and jingled them as I patrolled my appointed territories, advertising my approach to any boys risking a smoke in the bushes. In the school’s evening emptiness, seeking some kind of cosmic reparation for Ruckles, I fed the stray cats that foraged about the skips, and in turn they brought me blood tributes, depositing on my cottage doorstep the tiny mauled carcasses of baby birds.