(from Genuine Cherry Red)

Upstairs Len McLeod sat at the window with the late afternoon light falling on the floor behind him.  His head was turned away from the window and his hands were lying lifelessly in his lap.  His thinning sandy hair sat in the organised clumps that had been briskly flattened for him that morning, with tiny tufts that had escaped as they had dried, to leave him looking neat and untidy at the same time.  No breeze had brushed him, no movement had ruffled him.  He had dried in the shade – silent and motionless – affected only by the passing of time, not the passing of events.  The ironed creases in his soft blue shirt looked crisp and fresh.  The shadow that enveloped him hid his face, but anyone who knew him would have known his expression.  It had been the same for two years.  Blank.  Abandoned.  It wasn’t just that he wasn’t happy or angry or distraught.  There was nothing there.  As if he had given up thinking.  And with that came a kind of sadness.  You couldn’t see it on him, but it was all around.

It hadn’t always been this way.  Lenore “Cowboy” McLeod’s life had been one of passion and achievement.  His fame had reached to places he had never even heard of – as had tales of the origins of his name.  (Someone – who wouldn’t know anything – had once said that Lenore had got his name because his parents thought that that was what Len was short for.  But that remained unconfirmed.  His first name was one topic Lenore would never discuss.)  His nickname, Cowboy, had been with him for almost thirty years – since his first book had reached cult status when he was thirty‑seven years old.  The name may have been the device of some diligent publicist, or possibly homage paid by some devoted fan, but it had stuck.  And Len had preferred it to the nicknames he’d endured in school – a boy called Lenore would always be a favourite target – so he had encouraged that persistence.  So, to readers of the “Grey Bob Adventure Series”, he was Cowboy.  And everyone was happy.  Well, that’s how Ena always thought of it.  Those times when Len wrote four books a year, and travelled for book signings to stores at the bottom of skyscrapers, and to towns where they sold cereal, fertilizer and books all in the same shop.  The days when he would finish writing his winter (or spring, summer or autumn) adventure and walk over the hill with Marta to post the manuscript to the publisher from the tiny post office on the corner of Main Street.  The days when he looked happy.  Or angry or distraught.  When he was surrounded by something other than sadness.

*  *  *  *  *

So Ena and Marta and Lenore lived on, in the house behind the hill in the flattest place on earth.  Where nothing ever changed because the floors were mopped on Monday and the teacups were kept in the cupboard over the sink and no new problem couldn’t be solved by a large hanky and a strong cup of tea.  And nothing, it seemed, could ever intrude on that.

The days flowed from one to the next as they always had.  Marta and Ena moved through their timetables and were always ready for Len to move back into position.  His food was carried upstairs instead of to the kitchen table, Marta went for walks by herself, and Ena and Marta both had to talk a little bit more than they were used to, so the silent gap where Len’s voice used to fit was filled with something.  But nothing was really different.

Marta had stopped asking when Len would come downstairs because Ena always answered, “Soon,” in the same roadblock voice, so Marta knew that it was something that couldn’t be talked about.  Something nebulous and uncertain, and they both found comfort in the certainties, so they saw only those and overlooked anything else.

So Grey Bob was taking some kind of extended holiday.  A vague break from his adventures.  Which was strange because Grey Bob wasn’t that kind of person.  And Rocky Creek wasn’t that kind of place.  There are no travel agents in cowboy towns, and a person’s job isn’t just what they do, it’s what they are.  And there is no holiday from what you are.  So Grey Bob hung somewhere in suspended animation.  In the middle of a dramatic rescue or waiting to confront a gunfighter at the saloon.  Waiting to continue with his life.

The past decades had seen the hero bring many wrong‑doers to justice, discover the truth behind ancient mysteries, and bring a sense of community to Rocky Creek.  He was what all his readers wanted him to be.  And yet, Len knew he was so much more.  He had created Grey Bob to be the answer to the one‑dimensional western hero with the white hat – not purely good or fully bad, but with texture and complexity.  That was what Cowboy felt raised his work above that of others.  Bob’s grey hat, shirt and chaps were the visual images that symbolised his revolutionary role as the first fully rounded character in the history of the western genre.  And it was this innovation that gave Len his purpose.  His devotion to Grey Bob and the uniqueness he represented had given Cowboy McLeod ’s life purpose and direction.  Len had a vitality that came from the thrill he felt at having contributed something to the world.  He was a proud man with a need to achieve and when he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his drive had remained because his goals were always still achievable.

But that had changed.

And no one asked him why he had been able to keep going when he was forced to rely on a wheelchair for mobility, but the diagnosis of bowel cancer had brought him to a halt.  People had just left him, waiting for him to come back from the void he floated in.  And so he stayed where there was nothing of his previous life, because the real world was too much now.

If someone had been able to catch his thoughts in that moment just before he became so abruptly stranded, they might have been able to explain what was now an inexplicable state.  But it had happened in an instant.  The cancer had pushed him down into the place he been unconsciously skirting for years.  The physical deterioration that had seemed so bearable for nine years was not, and another sign of his mortality had tipped the precarious balance. And now the man with the energetic ambition, with the authority over his own life, was powerless.  And everything he had unconsciously relied on was gone.

Len knew he hadn’t finished yet.  He had so much more to do.  But suddenly something else was deciding that his life would be imperfect.

From the outside, he was silent and inactive.  But inside, Len’s mind circled the jagged shards left from the instant of his extreme horror.  Unable to control his life, and so, unable to re‑enter it.  Ena and Marta saw him sit silently in his room for weeks.  Len was still gasping for breath – imprisoned in one isolated moment.  When he had suddenly realised that he could die.

The world moved gently on outside his window.

Inside, stillness and havoc ravaged the people who lived in the house behind the hill in the flattest place on earth.


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