I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a family man. I make a point of meeting up with my old man at the pub every weekend, just to see he and Mum are doing alright, and drive down to see my sisters whenever I get the time. Some of my best memories are of us kids squashed up on the sofa like the three wise monkeys, flicking through the cartoons on our miniscule second hand telly, with my parents milling about somewhere in the background. They weren't always necessarily involved, the conversational barrier between children and adults too vast to breach, but their presence alone was a comfort I only ever appreciated in hindsight. You don't have much time to reflect on your privileges when you're nine years old. You're too busy scabbing your knees or scoffing sherbert and to you the world is only as big as the four walls you live in.
And you certainly never think about death. Not really. Definitely not your parents.
Now the reality of it is hard and cold in my gut, like a knot of bicycle chains. I can feel it winding around my intestines, crawling up through my bowels. Threads of ice draw play through my kidneys. I crouch down and clutch my abdomen with both hands, cursing myself for my weakness. There was no point getting worked up when I didn't know anything for sure, I told myself. For all I knew, Mum and Dad could be clinking wine glasses in their swanky flat, completely oblivious to the slumbering death creeping out on the streets below. They could be out on a drive, or eating out, or watching a film at the niche cinema in there end of town.
Yeah, right. Who am I kidding? They'd be the first to go.
I rock backwards on forwards on the balls of my feet, picturing it all scene by scene. Mum, dropping flat in the living room, her head bouncing of the sharp edge of the coffee table so that blood gushed through the sweet blue rinse of her sensible perm in an ugly, jetting stream. She's probably still gripping the tattered pages of a gardening magazine, her arthritic fingers clawing again and again in taught spasms over Alan Titchmarsh's face. I can see her eyes close, lids shutting out the pain. Her lips, twitching. Nothing. Apart from the gore caked around her skull and the linoleum, she could have flopped down for a quick kip like an old lady out there. Only if you gave her a shake to tell her tea was ready, she wouldn't shift.
Dad now. I try to tell myself that imagining this sick stuff isn't helping, that it's only making me panic even more than before, but I can't stop. It's like anything horrible in life; a road accident or a bad news bulletin. Your curiosity grabs you by the shoulder and forces you to look with the grim fascination of human nature. When I was about eleven, me and a bunch of mates found a half-dead squirrel at the side of the road. Its spine was smashed in and its tongue was hanging out, swollen up between its teeth like a hank of black pudding. I remember thinking it was the first time I'd ever seen a squirrel's tongue- I'd never even considered they'd have one before - then coming on so queasy I felt like running home. Yet, of course, I didn't. No kid ever does. I stayed there, watching the others take turns prodding it with the end of a stick, and when it came to me I didn't back down.
So that's what I do now. I pick up that damn metaphorical stick and take a stab at what might have happened to Dad when the sleeping thing got him. He will have been driving, I reckon, off to pick up a packet of fags from the corner shop. Mum would never buy them for him; she was always moaning it was a stinking bloody habit that put them both out of pocket. He was supposed to have quit, he'd confided during one of our weekly booze-ups, but whenever the old nag turned her back he'd sneak off and have a sneaky one out of the bathroom window and switch the fan on so she'd never pick up the smell.
Yeah, he'll have been driving, his fat fingers tapping the steering wheel in some half-remembered seventies rhythm as he pulled round the bend at the end the estate. He'd have yanked the gear stick, rolled down the window to flick a butt out, then suddenly he'd sag and the keep on rolling, rolling, until the car got to the end of the road and slammed into the back of the Off-License. I can hear the brutal crunch of metal, the fluctuating scream of the bonnet as it scraped, slowly, slowly, down the raw wall of brick to collapse into itself. Breathing it, throat full of stupid tears, I can smell the stink of ripe meat as what's left of my Dad slumps sideways in the car seat. Maybe the radio's still playing. Strangled strains of the Beegees, a pretty twisted death dirge, filling the silence where screams should have been.
Because who's bloody left to scream, after all this? Only me and the boy I saw. Perhaps a few more. We're just a handful of insomniacs in a city full of sleepers, and there's no one left to wake up.
I drag myself onto my feet again. My stomach ache's receding, the sickness of grief numbing into a numb twinge. I could drink it off, if I had the booze. I've been through this a hundred times before. Life's full of deaths and breakups, firings and failures, and all of them can be blocked out with a few beers or five. Now all the s**t that's ever happened to me has blown up into something a can of bitter can't handle, I don't know what to do. I could break into an empty shop, loot the alcohol aisle the way I've always dreamed of doing and swig myself silly.
Or I could do what I always do when I'm stuck in a grey spot, and go to see my sisters. Kelly and Megan. Because unlike my parents, I reckon they'd have fought harder to stay awake, or at least tried to. Not because they're young and fit- I've already seen scores of people in their twenties on their backs like abandoned dolls -but because they're got kids to think about. Children.
Then I get myself moving and grit my teeth to block out my own thoughts, because this time I can't bear to poke the stick in. I don't want to imagine the worst, not with babies involved. It's just too easy to suppose they were put down for a nap, and never came out of it.