The television is on but the sound has been muted, Dale Winton is prancing about with a shopping trolley while a middle-aged woman waves an inflatable hamburger above her head. The air is thick with cigarette smoke, an ashtray on the coffee table is overflowing with fag ends. There’s a bottle of vodka which has been half drunk, next to it a bottle full of blue pills. John sits down next to his friend who still hasn’t acknowledged his presence. He picks up one of the pills with two fingers and holds it in the air, examining it as if he’s never seen one before. He knows what it is: Valium, the elixir of life for the depressed, the doctor’s saviour.
‘This is stupid, Rob.’
Rob turns his head, his eyes are black, thick black hair sticking up on one side where he’s had his head rested against a cushion. He shakes his head but says nothing.
‘She was fucked mate. There’s nothing you could have done about it.’ John stands up and walks to the curtains, he opens them slightly allowing a few rays of light to penetrate the room. Rob squints but doesn’t object.
‘When did you last go out?’
‘Last night, to get that.’ He nods towards the bottle of vodka. It’s cheap, the kind of shit you bought when you were fourteen and wanted to get pissed with your mates in the park, get off with that girl you fancied in your year but instead you ended up being carried home covered in sick. There’s a big eagle and a sword on the label, a marketing gimmick: It can’t be that bad if it’s got a big fuck off eagle on it. John shivers, just the sight of the vodka bringing the nail varnish like taste to his mouth.
‘What’s the score then Rob? Were you still shagging her or something because I don’t get why you’re so cut up about this. She was a crackhead, she sucked off half the geezers on this estate so she could buy some rocks.’ Rob’s look is one of self-pity and anger rolled in to one which gives John his answer.
‘Well that was fucking stupid then wasn’t it?’
‘I wasn’t shagging her, I was just helping her out.
‘That’s a more eloquent way of putting it, what’s the matter with you?’
‘I swear on my mother’s life, I haven’t slept with her since we were going out with each other.’
‘Enlighten me then? Why are you taking this so fucking hard?’
‘Maybe cause I’m not a heartless fucker like you. You know what it’s like to go and see someone every day only to find them lying on a mattress out of their head while fucking cockroaches walk about the floor?’
‘What did you do to help her, Rob? Nothing, mate. You might have thought you was helping her by giving her money but it don’t work like that. She didn’t give a fuck about you, she lived for one thing and it was those little white rocks which, funnily enough, the geezer you work for sold her.’
‘Fuck off! I still loved her!.’
‘Oh, Jesus Christ. You didn’t love her, Rob. Felt sorry for her I agree but there weren’t any love there. She wasn’t even the same person.’
‘She was the same person! I could see it.’
‘I’m off, you need to sort your nut out. I get that it ain’t easy, I understand you had some sort of feelings for her but sitting around feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to help you.’
‘She jumped off a fucking building, John! It keeps playing over and over in my head. What sort of friend are you?’
Rob pours some of the vodka into a glass and takes a sip of it neat, coughing and spluttering as he swallows. He picks up one of the pills and throws it into his mouth. John shakes his head, leaving his friend to wallow in his own self-pity. Hearing the door slam, Rob puts his head in his hands and begins to cry. No one understood, they just saw her as the local slapper crackhead. She was more than that to him, he could see through the skinny legs and the skeletal face, the packets of bacon she’d be trying to sell off to anyone passing by. He saw the girl he’d hold hands with when going to school six years ago, his first and only love.
It’s one of those shitty days where the sky is grey, the clouds heavy and dirty looking, making everything else look dirty, old and worn. John lights a cigarette, looks up at the sky wondering what to do with himself. There’d be no point going home because his mother is in one of them moods where she feels the need to lecture. Twenty-two years old and he’s still scared of his mum, he shakes his head blowing smoke up into the air. Going for a pint would be a good choice.
The estate they had both lived on since children wasn’t the most desirable of places, in fact it was somewhere those who lived in the leafy streets a few hundred metres away would tell their children they’d send them if they were naughty. Grey rectangular tower blocks, each adorned with rectangular windows and rectangular balconies. Sitting between the three tower blocks was a small park, covered in shattered glass, a solitary swing remaining, blowing in the wind as if it were part of the introduction to some documentary on deprivation.
The social experiments of the 60s and 70s were long forgotten, it had become a place to put society’s less fortunate, whether they liked rectangles or not. The pub is rectangular too, a flat roof, the windows blacked out. The Orange Tree, a place of myth and legend to those who passed it, but to those on the estate it was just the local. A man with a rolled up copy of The Sun in his back pocket and a betting slip in his hand nods his head at John and holds the door open for him before jogging off to catch the early race at Kempton.
The pub is empty apart from the barman. John sits down at the bar and orders a pint of Stella, the barman pours it and puts it down in front of him, grunting as John hands over his money. He sits there sipping his pint, trying to think of something to say to the barman, the barman doesn’t look interested in conversation though and John’s presence is an obvious annoyance.
‘Weather’s a bit shit ain’t it?’
‘Not many people in here today.’
He gives up, the barman is more interested in reading a newspaper, letting out occasional gasps of exasperation as he reads about the latest plot by foreigners to turn England into a rabies infested, T.B ridden hell hole in which those proud Englishmen, such as the one behind the bar with his tattoo of a St George’s cross and a bulldog will become second class citizens, not welcome on this fair island they call home.
‘Put them all on a boat and send them back to where they come from.’ John looks up from gazing at his pint.
‘What was that mate?’
‘Put them all on a boat and send them home.’
‘These foreigners, I’ve had enough of them.’
John picks up his pint and moves to a corner away from the gaze of the budding national front member. A man walks in the door, John recognises him, he lives a few doors down from his mum, the man gives him a nod of the head and then in his thick Jamaican accent orders himself a rum. The barman looks delighted to see him, shaking his hand, asking where he’s been because he’s not been in for a long time. Obviously just a part time racist.
His mind wanders back to his friend and how he’s going to help him out of his self-imposed misery. She was a nice girl. If someone who he was close to died he wouldn’t know how he would take it either, probably not very well. She was a fucking mess though, she was only using him. Everyone could see that; must be why they say love is blind. Rob was his best mate. There’s a period of time in your life where the friends you make are always going to be there, they’ll always have a profound influence on your life; Rob was one of them.
The girl who’d killed herself, Claire, had been Rob’s girlfriend when they were both still in school. John resented her, not because she wasn’t a nice person, she had been, but because his mate was always with her. She was clever too, she didn’t work hard but still managed to pass all her exams, one of them annoying people that breeze through life with little effort. It all changed a few years back, they’d been split up for a year when John started seeing her hanging around places you only hang around for one reason and that was to score drugs.
He runs his hands through his hair and blows out a big puff of air. He should have been more understanding with his friend. Whatever Claire had been to him in the last couple of years, they still had memories together. His pride will stop him from going back there though, not today. Poor girl, things must have been bad for her to end it like that.
Ten years ago they were fucking around in the little park at the bottom of the block they both lived in. Kicking around a deflated football, knocking on people’s doors and running away, asking their mums for 10p so they could go to the shop, rob it blind and keep the 10p for school the next day. Ten years later and their paths have taken different directions. John has decided to become a policeman while his best friend is running around collecting loan debts and drug money for some small time drug dealer.
The door opens again and a man and woman walk in. The barman looks at them with disdain. They both have Down syndrome, there’s a place they live in just next door and they come in for a drink now and again. The barman doesn’t like them because they get pissed and become a bit rowdy and he doesn’t know how to handle them. If he threw them out people would say he was picking on disabled people and they were generally harmless although one of them kicked him in the bollocks one night because he’d wanted to throw him out after they had set the toilets on fire.
John looks down at his pint, there are only a few mouthfuls left. He doesn’t want them to come over and talk to him. Not because he’s got anything against them or like the barman believes in the survival of the fittest but because he doesn’t know what to say. They could ask him the most normal of questions and he would sit there like an idiot and reply as if they’re a couple of children. He notices they are both holding hands and he feels like even more of a cunt for thinking the way he does. A simple act of normality from a group of people viewed differently by society makes you question your own views and beliefs. What the fuck is normal anyway?
There was a kid they went to school with who had something wrong with his legs, when he walked he looked like he was a puppet in Thunderbirds. John felt sorry for him, would even talk to him sometimes at lunch. One day a load of kids picked him up and wrapped him in insulating tape and then dumped him behind a wall, leaving him to be found later that evening by the caretaker. He’s held on to that, every time he sees someone with a disability he sees that kid, wrapped in black tape, and he tortures himself for not helping him. It was a choice though, ostracised by your mates or hanging around with that kid for the rest of his school days. Being perceived as cool always wins.
They sit down on the table next to him. All the empty tables in the pub and they had to choose the one next to him to sit at. He takes a mouthful of his pint, swirls the rest of it around and finishes it off, stretching his arms, making a big show of having to go, like there’s somewhere his presence is required. The man and woman look at him and then giggle to each other. Leaving the bar he puts his loose change in the charity box because there’s nothing better to placate your conscience than throwing a few pennies in a box with a teddy bear stuck on the front of it.
The man turns to the woman, ‘He should have just given it to me, I could have got another pint.’
Rob sits in his flat alone, his tears have dried but his face is still red from rubbing it. He’s in a new phase of loss now, the denial is gone, he wants revenge. The world and all who exist in it have created this mess, it was their fault she was so fucked up, none of them did anything to try and help her. All the police did was nick her and then let her go again. No one gave a shit, why should he give a shit? Fuck the lot of them, there will be a way to get back at them. He picks up the bottle of vodka and swigs from it. His head is spinning from the combination of alcohol and Valium.
John as well, he can’t get away without any blame. The way he talked about her even though he knew how much she meant to him. Not much of a mate really is he? He’ll just drop him out, never speak to him again. John’s going to join the police force anyway, that’s good enough reason to have nothing to do with him. He swanned off to university thinking he was better than everyone else, talking about philosophers and writers he’d never heard of. Fuck him! The stuck-up prick! Next time he sees him he’ll be lucky he doesn’t knock him out.
Outside the front door he can hear people laughing and shouting. He looks through the spyhole, a bunch of kids messing around, nowhere better to go than outside his door. He feels his anger boiling up, who do they think they are? Having a good time especially at a time like this, they’re taking the piss out of him, they know. He opens the door and stands there, his big frame taking up the whole doorway, they all turn to look at him and then burst out laughing before running away down the stairs.
Kids don’t care, your reputation is nothing to them. He stands at the doorway feeling stupid for trying to frighten them. They’d know who he is, he’d probably been to at least one of their houses before to get money from their parents. The man who comes to get the money, the man who means they can’t eat something that night or won’t have enough money to get lunch at school. They blame him, they never blame their own parents who are idle and lazy and prefer to spend their time and money smoking drugs.
He turns on the light in the living room, squinting as he sits down on the sofa, picking up the blue pills and squeezing them tightly. There are enough there, if he wanted to go the same way she has, all he has to do is put them in his mouth, take the last gulp of vodka and then sit and wait. It’s a risk though, what if he doesn’t die? Or what if he does die and there’s nothing? An endless blackness, those guilty and sporadic trips to confession a waste of time.
All she had to do was take a step out into the open air, all he has to do is put the pills in his mouth and swallow. It’s different though, he could phone an ambulance or call his mate to come and help him. When you step off the top of a tower block that’s it, all you have is the few seconds it takes to hit the ground. What went through her mind? Did she regret it? Is there enough time to regret it?
He opens his hand and looks at the pills, he stands up and opens the door to his balcony, holds the pills out over the edge and lets them go. You can’t be tempted by something you haven’t got. He looks out at the night sky, the lights illuminating the city in front of him. In the block opposite he sees a woman cooking her dinner. He’s sure he’s been in that flat before. How many people who live around here has he made unhappy? A crisis of conscience.
The morning she killed herself he’d been to her flat. As usual she was lying on the dirty mattress, pipe by the side of the bed. Her eyes were dead, she had no money and he thought he’d done her a favour by leaving her twenty pounds. If he hadn’t have left that money, would she have gone out? Of course she would have. He did give her drugs though, thinking he was helping her, the reality was he was just enabling her. Maybe she was just using him, but he doesn’t want to think about that.
Back in the living room he turns the volume up on the television. Cilla Black is talking in that grating accent of hers as some geezer who looks like a cross between a catalogue model and a banker is trying to choose between three girls he can’t see. Cilla oooos and aaaahhhs as he smarmily asks them questions. Rob turns the television off, the geezer will be taking which ever one he chooses away on a holiday somewhere and he doesn’t want to watch their happy smiles. He throws on his jacket and takes off to find more vodka and more reasons to hate the world.
John’s mother is sitting on her armchair, fag in her hand, blowing smoke into the air defiantly, a book resting on her lap. Since he’s come home she’s said nothing. She’s in of them moods where he knows something’s up but he doesn’t want to ask because he knows it’s him who’s done something wrong. It’ll be a small slight, maybe you didn’t wash a plate up after you finished your breakfast or she asked you to bring home a pint of milk but you’ve completely forgotten about it, what with your best mate looking suicidal having lost his crackhead girlfriend, milk isn’t really your priority but it is hers. Her day will be ruined by a lack of milk.
She’s reading a book about feng shui.
‘You going to move the furniture about then mum?’ She looks at him, she doesn’t want to speak to him but someone finally wants to listen to the merits of strategically arranging your furniture so as to bring positive energy. She tried to explain it to her friend while they were having coffee earlier but she didn’t understand. Some people are like that, they just don’t get it, they’d rather bury their heads in Hello magazine and come up with another conspiracy theory as to how Diana died. Sandra isn’t like that, she’s got brains and she never liked Diana anyway, too much of a do-gooder, so even if they did kill her they were doing her a favour not having to watch her fanny around pretending to pick up landmines.
‘I’m thinking of getting a fountain.’
‘We live on the eighteenth floor of a council block mum, how you going to put a fountain in here?’
‘Just a small one, it’ll bring us money.’ John nods his head, knowing full well there won’t be a fountain appearing in their flat and by next week she’ll have found something new to obsess over.
‘I’m going to make all the furniture point east. Put the tele against that wall and turn the sofa around, it’ll look nice.’
‘Yeah, I’m sure.’
‘It’ll bring me luck. My son might remember it’s my birthday today as well.’
She lights another cigarette, blowing the smoke in John’s direction. Her lips are pursed as she lowers her fag, her eyes asking ‘where’s my card and present?’. John has two choices, he can put his hands up and hope she forgives him, or he can lie and pretend he knew all along and he’d stashed a present somewhere. The shake of her head and look of disgust tells him she won’t take pity on him. Did the old man remember? He wonders.
‘Your father bought me a lovely cake and a bunch of flowers.’
Why didn’t the silly bastard remind him? It’s not just John who will have to deal with the fallout from this massive error, Ted Flynn will have to too. She’ll bend his ear all week about not being a good role model to their son and how if they’d brought him up right John would already be a millionaire and would have celebrated her birthday in a villa in some Caribbean hideaway.
‘I knew it was your birthday! I was just waiting to surprise you! I know you like surprises!’ She’s suspicious now but her eyes have softened slightly, the thought of a surprise has got her attention but she’s not yet convinced there is one. She looks up at the clock and then back at John.
‘Just wait another hour, at eight o’clock you’ll get it. I bet you don’t know why I waited until eight do you?’
‘I’ve noticed you’ve been into your feng shui and all that, so I did a bit of research and eight is a lucky number for Chinese people.’ The geezer who owns the Chinese restaurant downstairs had lectured him on the superiority of Asian races when he was pissed one night and somehow eight being a lucky number had slipped into the conversation. His pleasure at his own genius is quickly replaced by fear at having to come up with a plan to surprise her within an hour.
‘That was very thoughtful of you darling!’ She looks at the clock again. ‘Only fifty five minutes to wait! I’m so lucky to have such a clever son!’ She’s excited now and that’s made it even worse.
‘I’m just going to pop out and get it. I didn’t want to bring it home with me because you’d see it then.’
‘What is it? Where did you leave it?’
‘Wouldn’t be a surprise then, I’ll be back at eight.’
Instead of taking the lift he walks down the stairs from the eighteenth floor, needing time to think and come up with a masterplan. He feels like a naughty child who has lied to his mother, he is a naughty child who has lied to their mother. Where the fuck is he going to get anything to do with ancient eastern mysticism at seven on a Saturday night? Mr Lee might know, if Mr Lee doesn’t know then he’s fucked and there’ll be no point going home, he might as well join Rob in drinking himself into oblivion.
‘Hello Mr Lee!’
‘Alright John, what’s the matter? You want a takeaway? My fryer is fucked, think I’m going to have to close. Why do you still call me Mr Lee? My name’s Dave for fuck’s sake.’ Mr Lee has a cockney accent, he is in fact a cockney having been born within the sound of Bow bells. His Chinese food is the best around but he has a tendency to get aggressive with his customers if they don’t show him respect and appreciation, which is why John calls him Mr Lee, had he called him Dave he’d have got the hump.
‘Listen, Dave, I’ve got a problem. My mother, she’s into feng shui and it’s her birthday, I need to get her a present.’
‘What makes you think I know anything about feng shui?’ Dave is defensive which means he’s going to be awkward.
‘Look, Dave, I just told her I have a surprise which she’s getting at eight because you told me it was a lucky number. Help me out here mate because if you don’t she’ll cut my bollocks off.’
‘Not my problem, John. If you don’t treat your mother properly then you deserved to be punished. I agree with your mother, maybe I’ll come and help her.’
‘Fuck you, Dave! I thought you’d help me out!’
‘Fuck me? I’ll cut your bollocks off before your mum does and I’ll even put it on my menu. Deep fried spicy bollocks. You wanna watch your mouth son.’
John raises his middle finger to the angry Dave but leaves hastily, there’s a counter separating them at the moment, if he gets to the other side then he’ll have a problem.
He spots Rob sitting on a wall outside the off license, still feeling sorry for himself, even with his hood up there’s no doubting who the figure staring down at the stones he’s throwing on the floor is. His choice is to spend the night with a miserable bastard or go home and spend it with his mother who is expecting great things which are nothing more than a hastily spun story. The miserable bastard seems a better choice.
Rob had already seen him coming out of the Chinese. Half an hour ago he wanted to kick the shit out of him, now he’s hoping he’ll approach him, he’s not going to show he wants him to approach, he’ll pretend he doesn’t even know he’s there. If he doesn’t come over it’ll just give him another excuse to hate him, abandoned by his mate at the time he needed him most.
‘Still feeling sorry for yourself?’ Rob looks up at his friend, he wants to take offence to the insinuation he’s ‘feeling sorry for himself’ but that would leave him lonely, he doesn’t want to be lonely.
‘I can’t go home because my lunatic of a mother is expecting big things in about half an hours’ time. There’s a party on over in Brixton, one of the geezers I went uni with, his house. You want to come?’
‘I don’t know mate, they won’t be my sort of people will they?’
‘Just come, you might broaden your horizons a little bit.’
‘Fuck it, let’s go, I want to get away from this shithole anyway.’
Paperback version here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1986975509