by Big Prawn
A super hero, tired after a day at his 9-5 job, just wants to relax and watch the football
"A Night Off"
by Darren Whiston
It wasn't that the shopping was heavy, or that the plastic bags were cutting into his fingers. That might have been true if he was any other man but not for him. It was just awkward. He was trying to carry 4 bags of shopping, a laptop bag, 2 poster tubes and a bucket of fried chicken as well as trying to manoeuvre his keys out of his coat pocket. Something simply had to give.
Something did. One of the plastic handles snapped and spilled 7 loose oranges and a cauliflower onto the front step. They slowly rolled mockingly away from him as he helplessly watched, still trying to wrestle his keys out of his pocket.
"Damn it!" he growled. At least he hadn't dropped the fried chicken. Silver linings were thin on the ground in his life right now but he was definitely counting that as one. The beer hadn't fallen out either. Another boon. If that had happened, he might have cried. After the day from Hell all he wanted from the next 5 hours was peace, quiet, junk food, a few cold beers and the United Champions League game on the telly.
And that was all Rich Spencer wanted. That was it. Not too much to ask. Most people could count on that every now and then. Once in a while. The trouble was that Rich Spencer wasn't most people. He was always in demand. Catching arch-criminals. Stopping gangsters. Foiling robberies. Preventing burglaries. Thwarting muggings. Rescuing cats from trees. Appearances at supermarket openings. Posing for fucking selfies. Everything that went along with being a super-hero in the UK. Being Captain Justice.
But not tonight. Tonight the itchy, uncomfortable, sweat-inducing and slightly effeminate Captain Justice costume was staying in the wardrobe. Tonight was all about Rich Spencer. He was going to forget about his alter ego, forget about his other life and responsibilities. Forget that he was Captain Justice and just veg on the sofa with some fried chicken, beer and footie. Tonight he was just Rich and the alien invasions, rampaging mutated monsters, scheming supervillains and all the natural disasters could take a night off too. If they could all hold off till tomorrow, then that would be great. Really appreciate it.
He eventually managed to retrieve his key without dropping anything else and opened the front door. His schoolboy football skills that had brought him briefly to the attention of Oldham Athletic came in handy as he dribbled the conveniently round fruit and veggies across the threshold, closing the door behind him with a neat back-heel.
Then the smell hit him. It made his toes curl and his face crease in on itself.
"Buffy," he called, trying desperately not to breathe through his nose, "that better be in the litter tray and not in one of my shoes this time or I'm going to kebab you." He trudged down the hall and into the dining-kitchen, dumping his cargo onto the old pine table he had bought from a second-hand shop in Stockport. He would have liked a new one from some fancy furniture shop but his poorly paid job and dodgy credit rating simply didn't let him do such things. He could, of course, break into a bank vault or steal a cash machine straight out of the wall but as with all super-heroes, he stood for a higher cause.
He looked around, Buffy was sat waiting by the patio doors. She slowly turned her head, her amber eyes staring disinterestedly at him and looked back outside.
"Yeah, nice to see you too," he said. He grabbed the key from a hook, walked over and opened the patio door. It made a satisfying swoosh sound as it slid open but Buffy was unimpressed.
"There you go," said Rich, smilingly tiredly as he looked down at his white and tortoise-shell housemate. He could never bring himself to call her his pet, she was more than that to him. His pal, his confident, somebody who needed him and someone he needed too. He knew he was just the thing that fed her as far as she was concerned but that was ok. Now though she simply stood, arched her back to stretch and walked slowly back into the house, heading for the stairs and her upstairs sanctuary. He would find her later sat in the sink or in the bath, or asleep on his pillow. Rich shook his head and swooshed the door closed again. Looking over at Buffy's litter tray he spotted the source of the unearthly smell. He considered using his super-speed to get it done quickly but the stack of papers, unpaid bills and magazines strewn across the table persuaded him otherwise. Nothing quite like having to tidy up a mess after tidying up a mess. He sighed heavily and got started. It seemed apt that a day spent taking so much shit was now ending with him cleaning up more.
It hadn't started well. A runaway train at rush hour heading straight for a packed Piccadilly station meant that Captain Justice was needed early. The trouble was that by the time he had brought the train to a halt, waited for the authorities to arrive and flown the one injury to A&E, he was 20 minutes late for work. Dragged into a meeting with his manager and his manager's manager and asked to explain his constant tardiness, he could hardly explain he had been preventing carnage by flying at 4 times the speed of sound to put himself in front of a speeding, commuter-packed train and bringing it to a gradual stop instead of an instant one so as to minimise any possible injury to the people who were stood in the isles of the carriages. Well, he could tell them that but it was fair to say that his alter-ego disguise was very good and the chances of them believing that the ginger and slightly balding, bespectacled 37-year old was Manchester's very own super hero were very remote. Instead he had simply repeated "I'm sorry, I'll try harder" over and over in increasingly meek tones of voice till they had sighed, shook their heads disappointedly and told him to get out.
The armed robbery at lunchtime was something he could have definitely done without. It wasn't that taxing, a couple of deflected bullets and a short chase before hauling the three would-be gangsters, still in their getaway car, off to the police station. It was just time consuming. He had to answer questions at the station, stop for selfies with some of the officers (and one of the crooks) and it all took time. He had barely made it back to the office within the hour but hadn't had time to grab a sandwich. Not the worst thing in the world but it meant he'd be hungry all afternoon. Talk about first world problems.
It wasn't a galloping shock when 5pm arrived and he bolted with not-quite super-speed but certainly with the macabre enthusiasm that comes along with the downtrodden worker. He had wanted to fly home but nosy Mrs Peterson next door was always on the look-out, always with her nose poking through the net curtains and tongue ready to wag, spreading gossip around the estate. If she saw Captain Justice arrive at 31 Acacia Road, her lips wouldn't stop flapping for the next 3 years. So, he had taken the tram. It had been late. Obviously. It had been packed. Again, obviously. And it had inevitable been hot, sweaty and uncomfortable made even more so by the fact he was wearing a skin-tight, figure-hugging, leaves-nothing-to-the-imagination Lycra suit underneath his normal clothes. How he hated that suit. Uncomfortable, itchy and outlandishly camp. Sometimes he wished he could just go about his hero business in a pair of jeans, his favourite Adidas Gazelles and his t-shirt with the witty but slightly insulting slogan on it but that simply wasn't the done thing. Simply wasn't cricket. As he had been told by the Committee when he first got his powers, people have certain expectations on their superheroes, you have to stand out in every possible way from the norm, be as far away as possible from the ordinary. Actions. Attitudes. Even clothes. The bland and drab were for the alter-ego, the superhero was glitz and glamour.
Rich Spencer hated glitz and glamour.
With a heavy sigh he started his clean-up operation, setting down fresh litter, spraying cotton-fresh air freshener around the dining room and kitchen and putting out food and milk for Buffy. Then he went upstairs for a shower, that would make him feel better, get the grime of the day off.
Lay on his bed, still wet with his towel around his waist, he closed his eyes and tried to relax but his mind was racing with thoughts. He was brought back to the present when his phone vibrated out an SOS tone. Nothing serious. Just a text. At least it wasn't the mobile he had given to the Chief Constable. It was just Rachel.
Hey. How was your day?
Not bad. The usual.
Saw u on TV. Did that bank robber really ask for a selfie?
He did. Unbelievable!
Are you ok?
That guy on the train was staring at me again.
Yeah. I thought you were going to have 'a word' with him.
Sorry. Haven't had chance yet.
Can u pls. He makes me feel really uncomfortable.
I will. I promise.
Nothing quite like having Captain Justice in your corner.
Thank u babe. Love u xxx
Love you too xx
Rich sighed again. This would be the sixth man he would have to threaten as Captain Justice because they looked the wrong way at Rachel. He was starting to feel that perhaps he was just a trophy boyfriend for her, someone she could show off. Not himself. Not Rich Spencer. Oh no, he was a nobody. But having Captain Justice as your boyfriend? Now that was something a girl could brag about. He half wished some evil villain would kidnap her so she could see the downside of the situation but that only happened in the movies.
Like all the other stuff that only happened to super-heroes in movies, or in America. The great, dream job with the understanding boss who doesn't go all megalomaniac on your ass because you turn up a few minutes late. The ability to actually earn some money out of being a superhero so you don't get to the last week of the month and wonder how you will eat. You never saw Flash doing his laundry. Never saw Green Lantern getting a towelling from his boss for not hitting his outgoing call quota for the day again. Certainly never saw Batman cleaning up cat shit, but then he would probably get Alfred to do that for him but you certainly never saw Superman threatening every bloke in Metropolis who happened to give Lois Lane a leering or less than positive look on the train.
Another sigh, a heavy one. The curtains flapped like a gale was blowing around the room and the door slammed shut with the force of a speeding locomotive. Sometimes it was a downright inconvenience having super-powers. It was 6.45. An hour before the game was due to kick-off. He closed his eyes and tried to relax, just in case he was called out on some disaster or emergency later.
"Just leave it till at least after full-time," he said out loud to whatever power happened to be listening. He smiled and drifted into a semi-conscious slumber, waking briefly when a police siren invaded. He sat up with a start. Should he go? It could be serious. How far away? 35, 40 miles?
"Oh, sod it," he muttered and lay back down. It was probably nothing more than a stolen bike. And anyway, he couldn't be expected to answer every siren and every cry for help that his super-hearing allowed him to hear. The cops had to earn their money sometimes. Anyway, he'd only been Captain Justice for 4 years and they seemed to have coped without him before that. They could cope now.
After another blissfully uneventful snooze, he awoke with a grumbling in his empty stomach.
"Junk food," he thought, "the only answer." He picked up his mobile, another 3 messages waiting for him. 2 from Rachel about a guy eyeing her up as she put petrol in her Toyota Yaris and wanting Rich to "go all Captain Justice on his ass" and one from his mother asking if he could help her move a wardrobe this weekend. He swiped them off the screen and found the number for the local takeaway in his favourite contacts, pressing the green phone icon.
"Hello 5 Chefs," said an accented voice. Rich recognised the voice. It was Asif, he always answered the phone.
"Hi Asif, can I place an order for delivery please?" he said.
"Sure. Name?" asked Asif robotically.
"It's Rich," he said, slightly bemused. Did Asif not recognise the voice?
"Postcode?" asked Asif. Surely he knew it. He had just told him who it was, surely he knew where he lived.
"OL2 7RY," he played along, patience running a little thin.
"House number?" asked Asif. That was it.
"Asif, it's me, Rich, Rich Spencer. You deliver here all the time. Must we go through this process every time I call?"
"Hey Rich, sorry man, how are you?"
"Hungry. Can I have my usual please?"
"Sure, no problem,"
"Just remind me what your usual is?" There was a question Captain Justice would not have to answer. People always remember his favourites, his usuals.
"Special mix lamb tikka and donner meat kebab on naan bread with salad and a pot of mild sauce," Rich sighed, slightly irked.
"No worries, how long will it be?"
"About 40 minutes, maybe a bit less,"
"Just one more thing,"
"What's your house number?"
"Thanks Rich, see you soon."
Another kick in the ego. Still at least his food was on its way. Beer was in the fridge. Bucket of fried chicken that would act as his starter before the kebab arrived. Champions League quarter final was on telly. As long as United won, the day might yet have a happy ending. Well, perhaps happy might be a bit of strong word for it. Less sucky.
He got up and finished drying himself, putting on a pair of shorts and his t-shirt. The Lycra could stay where it was, in a crumpled heap on the bedroom floor along with his dirty socks and boxer shorts. Downstairs he grabbed a beer and the bucket of fried chicken and settled himself into his arse-groove on the sofa. Buffy gave him a cursory glance from the armchair but decided that was far too much effort and put her head back down, quickly going back to sleep. The programme was just starting, the usual guff spouted by the usual pundits, not a one of them ever saying anything original. There were people living in society who had the IQ of a glass of water who had more original things to say about football than the dross wheeled out for the amusement of the armchair football fan. Just because these men were ex-pros it was assumed they had expert opinions, valuable insights and original ideas about how the game was played, how it should be played and why we, as fans, should count our blessings each day that such football Gods were around for our entertainment. They infuriated Rich each and every time they were on his screen. He had actually lost it during a World Cup qualifier and used his heat vision to eviscerate the morons but had instead set his curtains and Buffy's tail on fire. She had scarpered and not come back for 12 hours after that and only then for food. She flatly refused to be stroked. It had taken days for her to forgive him.
Tonight though, despite the pure brown crappiness of the day, he was calm. He had a beer in hand, chicken juice dripping down his chin, a big kebab on the way and no indication of any impending need to climb back into the Lycra cat-suit for the rest of the evening.
7.45. The teams were out, the Champions League song had been played, the UEFA song, like an anthem for commercialism and the death of the common man's game but none of that mattered now. United were ready. Rich was ready and after a day of never-ending direness, a day filled with ordinary challenge that even his super powers couldn't help with, a day with resentment slowly building like the steam inside a pressure cooker. But the shower, beer, and promise of live football and delicious fast food delivered to the door had released some of that tension. He had stripped away the day and left it with the Lycra suit, in a pile with other unwanted items. He had been cleansed and not even the inane wafflings of Lee Dixon could dampen his rising spirits. He was finally happy. Relaxed. At peace. A million miles away from Captain Justice.
Then the screaming started. The cameras swung away from the action in the Theatre of Dreams and above the Stretford End. And there, hanging in the sky like a slowly deflating helium balloon was a craft. Not a human craft either. Suddenly it spewed a cavalcade of smaller craft which began firing green laser bolts at everything they could. The commentator couldn't believe his luck. He was a real journalist for a change, talking about actual events.
Rich sighed as he heard the words "Surely Captain Justice will be here in no time!" He lifted his bottle to his mouth and drained the last of his beer, burping loudly which pinned Buffy to the wall.
He stood and trudged upstairs to get the Lycra back on. "So much for a night off," he whined.