Dear World, my guts are all a mess. As we approach the house several disjointed and unrelated thoughts hit me; the last one being I don’t want to grow up. You would think the same World, if you thought there was a chance you might turn out like Mick
He is in the front garden, leaning under the bonnet of one of the cars. Joe’s expression is utterly bereft and bewildered as he walks up to the car, shifting the bag full of narcotics nervously on his shoulder. I keep just behind him, never keen on getting too close to Mick and his smacked in face. Joe taps on the bonnet, making Mick jump, lift his head too fast and bang it on the metal. “Ow! Fuck!” he cries out, screwing up his face in pain and annoyance as his eyes settle on Joe and his pained expression. “Bleedinghell! What are you creeping about for?” Joe’s eyes are nearly hooded by his frown, as they flit from side to side, and then up and down at the house.
“Are Travis and Leon in?”
Mick ducks his head back under the bonnet. “No.”
“Do you know where they are?”
“No bloody idea.”
Joe looks at me in desperation, so I beckon him away from Mick, because we both know that’s about all the help he is capable of. “What now?” he asks me, when we are out of Mick’s earshot. He has pulled his phone out again and sighs at it forlornly. “My battery is dead Lou!” I am trying to think. We can’t just carry that bag around with us all day, we just can’t. The weight of it is going to kill us both before long. We can’t leave it in the house, because that would just put us back to square one. I bite at my lip and try to remember all the places that Leon and Travis are likely to be in.
“The men’s club?” I say suddenly, looking up at Joe. His eyes widen and he nods at me.
“That’s it.” We both drop our shoulders in relief, and start walking again with Gremlin. As we walk away from the house, Will passes by on his bike with two of his friends in tow. He looks too much like Mick for my liking. He has the same flattened nose and puffed up eyes, and he is only seven years old. He’s okay though. He’s preferable to Tommy and his sticky fingers.
“Where you going?” he asks Joe, skidding to a halt.
“Can we come?”
“No. Go away.” Joe picks up his speed and marches on, and I have to jog to catch him up. I can feel Will’s eyes watching our backs as we go, and a flashback careers through my mind, of Joe, and me at his age, trying to tag along with Leon and Travis. They were always marching off, arms swinging; weapons in hand, up to no good and not letting us come. We used to whine and think it was so unfair. Now I am glad they didn’t let us go with them. I am glad that whatever darkness taints them did not rub off on us.
The men’s club is on the outskirts of our estate. It is not really just a men’s club anymore, as that is incredibly sexist and probably illegal. Women are allowed in, but mostly they don’t bother. For decades and decades the men had it all to themselves. They would go there to drink beer, play pool and watch sport. They would go there to get away from their women. When my parents were still together, it used to be my dad’s favourite place. ‘I’m going down the club,’ he used to say when he had had enough of us all. You have to be signed in by someone if you are not a member, and you can’t be a member until you are eighteen. Sunday’s they put on a roast dinner at midday for just under a fiver. It’s as good a guess as any that Leon and Travis will be found here.
It takes us ten minutes to cut through the streets and the back alleys to get to the club. It is a sagging, one-storey building, painted white. The car park goes all the way around it, and there are some little kids kicking a ball about out the back. I look at them and can remember doing the same thing at their age, with Joe and my sister, and his brothers. Passing the time. If you were lucky your dad would remember you were out there and bring you out a coke and a packet of crisps. The place makes me sigh, and shove my hands into my pockets. It reminds me of a hundred hot nights, loud music, and being ignored by your mum and dad. They have a children’s party every Christmas, and my mum still drags us along to it. Father Christmas comes, and everything. The only good thing about it now is waiting for your parents to get too pissed to notice, and then stealing their drinks. The first time I ever got drunk was at the club at Christmas. I was twelve, and I did such a good job of being less drunk than my parents, that they never even knew.
Joe drops a heavy hand onto my shoulder when he spots Leon’s car parked out the front. I manage a strained, weak smile and we both exhale out deeply, although I’d had no idea I was holding my breath in so much. We traipse up to the doors and peep in. The place is busy, mostly full of men, and it takes us a while to spot Leon and Travis at one of the pool tables. To me, they look perfectly at ease, taking their shots and strutting around the table as if they own the place. Joe puts one foot inside the door, and is almost immediately accosted by a tall thin man known as Whitey. He is around seventy years old, impossibly gnarled and wrinkled, with a small scrap of startling white hair on the top of his long head. I have no idea if this is the reason he is called Whitey, or if it is just his sir-name. Men seem to have a real habit or either making up nicknames for each other that stick for life, or simply calling each other by their sir-names. He holds a shaking hand up in front of us. His other hand is wrapped around a pint glass. “Hey you young ones got to be signed in, you got to be signed in,” he informs us, as if we don’t already know this.
“Can you just get my brothers, over there?” Joe points to Leon and Travis. Whitey rubs his head and squints over at them.
“They’re your brothers, over there? You want your brothers, over there?”
“Oh all right then, all right then, hold your horses, hold your horses.” He stumbles off towards them, and when Joe turns to look at me he frowns because I am pressing one hand against my mouth. I can’t help it, I just can’t. I so desperately want to talk to Whitey and repeat everything twice the way he does, just to see if it confuses him or not. Cruel, I know, but hey he’s a drunk, he won’t notice. Joe looks back inside the club. We watch Whitey chatting to Leon and Travis, who both turn their heads and see us at the door. I see Travis drop his shoulders and roll his head on his neck, as if a great weight has suddenly been lifted from him. He even smiles, as he jerks his head towards Leon, and for a moment the smile lights up his face. Leon narrows his eyes, lowers his pool cue carefully onto the table, says something to a man waiting to use it, and starts to walk over to us. He struts, more than walks. When he walks towards you, you have the automatic reflex of wanting to back off. And so we do.
We back out of the door and wait for them in the car park. Leon is first out of the door, practically punching it open, and letting it fall back for Travis to catch. Joe has let the bag slip from his shoulder, and is holding it by one strap. “Thank fuck,” Leon snaps, his eyes on the bag, as Joe pretty much throws it at him. He catches it, then digs into his pocket and drags out his car keys, which he then tosses to Travis.
“You guys were just about to become dead meat,” Travis tells us both, with a twinkle in his eye, as he takes the bag from Leon and walks over to the car. Leon spreads his feet apart and folds his chunky arms across his puffed out chest.
“I hope you’ve learnt a lesson kiddies,” he says to us, his head low, and his eyes moving quickly between Joe and me. “Stay out of our fucking room from now on!”
“What are you doing with it now?” Joe asks him. Leon raises his eyebrows.
“None of your business.”
“You can’t leave it in the house, Leon. Not with the kids.”
“You think I give a fuck about those stupid kids?”
“You can’t. That’s why we moved it! You just can’t leave stuff like that in the house!”
Travis joins us, folding his arms just like Leon, but still smiling, as if he is finding this all very amusing. “Don’t worry about it, forget about it,” Leon sighs and tells Joe. “It’s gone, okay?”
“Didn’t know you were drug dealers.”
“Shut up. Go and play. Run along.” Leon flaps his hand at us dismissively.
“You owe us,” Joe tells him adamantly, and when I look at him I am amazed at how calm he appears. Leon and Travis could drag him around the back and give him a good kicking and there would not be a thing I could do to stop them. Leon shakes his head in amazement, glances at Travis for back up, and steps forward.
“How do we owe you? You stole our bag. You got it back. End of.”
“We did you a favour and you know it. Sign us in the club and get us a drink, or give us some money for cider.” Joe stares at Leon and does not back down. Travis is still smiling. In fact he is practically laughing. The silence drags on, until Joe speaks again and hits them where it hurts. “Or we tell mum and Mick everything.”
“You wouldn’t fucking dare,” Travis says in hushed tones.
“Do you like the taste of hospital food?” asks Leon. Joe stands strong.
“I mean it,” he says. Travis laughs then, and slaps Leon on the back.
“Oh fuck it, let them in, let them have a drink, who cares?”
Leon only has a moment to make it look like letting us in is as much his decision as Travis’s. He steps back, grabs the door and wrenches it open. He then holds out his other hand, spreads his legs again and beckons for us to go in. “Go on then kiddies,” he says, in a mock friendly voice, speaking to us as if we are ten year olds. “Come and have a drinky with us.”
I go first, dragging the dog with me. There is a collie that lives behind the bar, and trots about freely, so they can’t say a thing to me about Gremlin. Joe steps forward, but does not take his eyes from Leon. “You’re just gonna’ leave that out there in your car?” he asks, incredulously. “You’re gonna’ get caught with it you know.” Leon claps him on the back and follows him into the club, behind me.
“Haven’t done so far,” he replies with an arrogant shrug.
“Who are you doing it for?” is Joe’s next question, and even I know this is one question too far. Leon only has to give him a look, and all the colour drains from his face.
“Shut it,” Leon hisses, and the conversation is over. Travis signs us in, and we scurry over to a table and chairs in the corner. Once we are seated, the relief washes over us again. The bag is gone. It’s over. It’s their fucking trouble now, their stupid business. Nothing whatsoever to do with us anymore. I smile widely at Joe and he grins back. Leon has taken a stool at the bar, and is hunched over a pint, talking to the man next to him. It is Travis who gets us the drinks and brings them over. He places two cokes and a pint of cider on the table before us, and we both stare hungrily at the pint. “It’s my pint, yeah?” he tells us with a wink, and goes back to the bar. We spend the next fifteen minutes drinking our cokes, and sneaking sips of the cider when we are sure no one is looking. We probably don’t even need to worry. No one in here is going to give a shit if we drink or not. The only problem with sharing a pint of cider with your best friend is the thirst it gives you for more. I start to wonder how generous Leon and Travis might be feeling, now that they’ve got their drugs back.
I slip into a bit of trance and watch them at the bar. I do that a lot World. I think of my mind sometimes, as sort of perched on a slippery rock. It can hold on for so long, but every now and again it inevitably slips into oblivion. I can do nothing but stare. Leon, and his thick, tattooed arms folded on top of the bar. Exuding confidence and danger. Travis who is smaller and calmer, but equally as tough. I think about the bag in their car, and I wonder like Joe did, where did it come from? Who are they working for? Who do they deal it to? What strange and dark lives do they lead under everyone’s noses? I look at them, and it occurs to me that I have known them my entire life, yet I do not know them at all. Not one bit.
“Do you think it’s a one off?” I ask Joe, dragging my eyes away from them, and battling out of the fog of my trance. “The drugs?”
“Don’t know,” he shrugs. “I’ll keep an eye on them now though. See if they start flashing money around unexpectedly!”
“Mmm. Or do you think they found it, or stole it?” My imagination has gone into overdrive now that I am a getting a little tipsy. I cannot seem to tear my eyes away from the backs of Joe’s brothers at the bar. Weirder than that, I can feel that surge again, you know the one I mean? Like a hot surge of a sort of yearning I just cannot explain, except that it’s partly physical, and horrifyingly it seems to start down between my legs, and then spreads right through me, making me shiver. I wonder what the fuck is happening to me, and I wonder if Joe gets the same feelings and doesn’t tell me?
“Yeah, maybe,” Joe nods. “Hadn’t thought of that.”
“Your mum would do her nut, wouldn’t she?”
“Oh she’d throw them out for sure. Because of the kids.”
“You’ve got quite a bargaining tool then, haven’t you?” Joe meets my eyes and frowns at me. I smile. “I mean, should you ever need it? If they piss you off, or whatever. You’ve got quite a hold over them really. Look how easily they caved in and got us in here.”
“Are you suggesting I blackmail my own brothers, Carling?” Joe is regarding me with mock disbelief and bites his lip, shaking his head at me. “Really, and I thought I knew you! You’re pretty twisted under that innocent exterior, aren’t you?”
“You don’t know the half of it,” I tell him, letting my eyes scan back to Travis. Almost as if he can feel me watching him, Travis turns slightly on his stool and peers over his shoulder at us. He winks. At me, or at Joe? I look away, just as my stomach emits a loud growling sound that causes Joe to put down his coke and stare at me.
“I hope that was your stomach and not your arse!”
“Of course it was my stomach.”
“Right, I’m gonna’ get them to get us some food,” Joe announces then, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and getting to his feet. “Let’s see how grateful they are to us for keeping their secret, hey?”
“Go for it.”
Joe marches up to the bar and squeezes himself in between his two brothers. Leon looks down at him, his expression displeased. He looks at everyone the same way, I realise. Like they are a piece of shit on his shoe. I wonder for a moment, has he ever been afraid of anyone, or anything? Has he ever been impressed by someone else, or wanted to emulate them? I shake my head at my own questions. Not that I can remember. He’s always been like this. I can see Joe talking to him, and Leon scowling. Joe shrugs his shoulders, says something else. Travis laughs. Leon looks mad. I fidget in my seat. I want to be up there too, I want to know what is being said between the three of them. The next thing I know, Travis says something to the bar man, then gets up and comes over to me holding two packets of crisps. I feel a bit panicked, and frown over at Joe. He is about to come over, but then Leon grabs his arm and starts talking to him again, with his face nearly in his ear. I see Joe’s body tense, but he remains there, and slowly I watch his body relax again, as Leon continues to speak to him. I am now thinking, what the fuck?
Gremlin utters a pathetic slobbery sounding growl as Travis plonks himself down in Joe’s seat, chucking the crisps down on the table. I feel my heart rate picking up pace immediately. “Shut it,” Travis addresses Gremlin, and grins lazily at me. “Joe said you two hadn’t had any breakfast.”
“No, we were a bit too busy rushing off to get your bag back,” I say this too quickly, too defensively, but fuck it, it is true. Travis raises his eyebrows at me and rests his arms on the table, pint in one hand. The way he sits as the same as the way he moves World. Loose and fluid, like his muscles never feel the need to tighten or clench, like he views life through a warm haze of indifference. He sits next to me like he is part of the furniture, and part of everything.
“Yeah, thanks for that,” he says, his tone dropping a level. “I know we were angry yesterday, but you probably did us a favour actually. Where did you hide it by the way?”
“Well I better not say,” I shrug at him, and his grin widens across his face for some reason.
“Okay, fair enough. We’ve all got our secrets I suppose.”
“Yeah, but some are bigger than others,” I point out, and then decide to shut up and drink my coke. Travis is watching me carefully. I glance up at the bar, but Leon is still talking to Joe.
“You two doing anything tonight?” Travis asks me then, changing the subject, which I think is a good idea.
“Don’t think so.”
“Mate of mine is having a party.”
“You know Hogan?”
I nod cautiously. I remember Hogan. His real name is Lewis Cross, but they call him Hogan because he is built like a tank and has lank blonde hair that he wears to his shoulders, making him look like the bastard child of the ageing wrestler Hulk Hogan. “He’s got a place with his girlfriend,” Travis informs me, relaxing back in his seat, and holding his pint casually on the tabletop. “We’re all going over about eightish, if you two fancy it? He said more the merrier.”
“You’re asking me and Joe to come?” I look at him as if he is crazy. I am sure I have misheard him somehow. I am thinking back to a lifetime of being told to fuck off by him and Leon. Fuck off and die, they used to say to us.
“Why not?” he shrugs at me. “You’re sixteen, aren’t you? You’re not little kids anymore.”
“And Leon is okay with this?”
“Course he is.”
“What are they talking about anyway?”
“No idea. Look, maybe it’s just to say thanks, yeah?” Travis cocks his head at me and holds my gaze. I feel that shiver twist through me again, the same one from the night before, when I had relived the touch of his hands on my arms. I want to look away, to look down, anything, but I can’t. “You two could have dropped us right in it, you know, with Mum and Mick, but you didn’t. And you got it back okay. Call it a thank you. It’s at 12a Wick Lane, yeah? You know where that is?”
I nod at him. I can see Joe is on his way over now. “Can we bring some friends?” I ask Travis, as he gets up to go. I am thinking of Marianne, and Josh and Ryan. Back up, if you like. Travis shrugs.
“Course you can,” he says, and goes back to the bar to join Leon. Joe slides silently back into his seat and promptly drains the last of the cider. I look at him, feeling my impatience intensify with every second that he remains silent.
“Travis just asked us to a party,” I say finally, lifting and dropping my hands in sheer exasperation. I do not understand any of this. Joe mostly keeps his gaze on his brothers at the bar. I sense that he is not really with me at all.
“Yeah, at Hogan’s new place, no less. Why would they do that?”
“Thanking us, I think,” Joe says hesitantly, and opens one of the packets of crisps. “For not dropping them in it.”
“What was Leon saying to you?”
“Oh nothing much. I’ll tell you later.” He gets up then, swinging his leg back over the chair, and nodding down at the other packet of crisps. “You gonna’ have those or what?”
I nod and pick them up, and follow his lead by getting up from the table. “We going?” As I walk I feel like looking back over my shoulder, for some reason. But at the same time, I don’t want to, in case Travis sees me, and thinks I am looking at him.
“I’ve got to get home, do a favour for Leon,” Joe is saying. “Do you want to go to that party then?”
We reach the doors and go back outside with Gremlin. I shrug my shoulders at Joe and blink my eyes at the bright sunlight. “I don’t know. I suppose we could do. It’s something to do.”
“Ask the others?”
“Yeah. I might take Gremlin home and go over Marianne’s actually. See if she’s all right.”
“Make sure she hasn’t severed any arteries?”
“Joe, don’t be mean. You can never know what is going on in a person’s head. You can never even hope to understand how someone else feels.”
Joe is looking at me, both amused and concerned. I feel tired and confused, without really knowing why. Part of it is Joe not telling me what Leon said to him. Part of it is everything else. I need to be on my own for a while, so I say goodbye to Joe and head off back to my house alone. The cider has made my head feel slightly fuzzy and full, but at the same time I feel the ridiculous urge to run. I am still clutching the crisps in one hand. As I walk along I open them, feed one to Gremlin, and eat three in a row. The salt and vinegar seems impossibly strong and reactive within my taste-starved mouth. The chewed up crisps feel heavy and distasteful as they slip down my throat, so I screw the rest up in my hand, feeling the satisfying crunch of them crushing to crumbs in my fist. When I walk past the parade of shops I hurl them into a bin. I walk on slowly, feeling the familiar regret and disgust that follows a fat person around after they have just eaten.