By Monday morning I felt better. I was alright again. Michael packed up his school bag and went off to meet the others. Anthony cooked me this huge breakfast with bacon, sausages, eggs, the works and came and sat on the sofa beside me while I tucked in. My stomach had finally stopped hurting, and it was a massive relief. At one point I knew I had been completely convinced that I was dying, that whatever I had taken had been slowly killing me from the inside out. But Anthony had all the answers apparently. “Bad drugs, no food,” he said, counting them off on his fingers, while his eyes rested on mine, dark and solemn, and looking into me as if he knew and understood everything. He reached across to me then, and lifted up the edge of my t-shirt. I was alarmed, and swatted his hand away instantly, but he made a face that told me he already knew, had already seen. “Couple of right hooks to the stomach.” He shrugged, telling me it was simple and obvious. “No wonder you were in pain mate. I’m surprised you were able to walk!” I said nothing. I just stared right back at him, and he passed me a cigarette and lit it for me. I put my half-finished breakfast down on the floor and inhaled slowly, deeply. “We need to talk,” he said softly. He was still staring at the edge of my t-shirt and his expression was reluctant and pained. I didn’t want to talk to him, not really. Just sitting next to him was torturous, knowing what I knew. “I saw when you were out cold,” he went on. “So it’s still going on? When he gets mad or wants to lash out at someone? And your mum, she doesn’t know?”
I smoked the cigarette, my eyes on the floor. Anthony sighed and stretched his legs out in front of him. I didn’t know what he wanted me to say. What could I say? Yeah, things are bad, worse than you know, but look what happened the last time you tried to help me? I glanced at the door then, remembering that Howard was out there, hunting me down as we spoke. “Those other marks Danny,” Anthony said, nudging me with his elbow. “Cigarette burns, aren’t they?”
I looked right at him then. My bottom lip trembled so I bit down on it hard. “You can’t get involved Anthony,” I told him sharply. “I mean it Anthony. You can’t get involved. You only just got back out. You have to stay out of it. Stay out of everything.”
“You’re right,” he said to me, smiling gently. “I shouldn’t get involved. I told Howard that much when he hammered on the door last night, looking for you. You know, he asked if I’d learnt my lesson, how do you like that? I told him I had. I told him it pays to mind your own business these days.”
“Yeah,” I nodded at him. “That’s right.”
“It’s not right,” he disagreed. “And I can’t do that. I can’t ever do that.” I swallowed and glanced at the door again. I thought about getting up and running out, getting away from him before it was too late. My legs felt weak though, so I dragged on my smoke and tapped the ash against the ashtray when Anthony held it out to me.
“You have to,” I told him then, and when I looked at him I just hoped and prayed that he could see it there in my eyes, how deadly fucking serious I was. “I’m serious Anthony. You don’t know what he’s capable of. Do you want Michael to end up hurt? Or worse? He’s threatened it you know, and he has people that can do it, he told me.” I licked my dry lips and my hand shook as I lifted the cigarette back to my mouth. Anthony sat forward, waiting for me to say more. “I’m fucking serious,” I nodded at him. “I wouldn’t joke about this, but Mike could end up dead if you mess with Howard, if you piss him off again. I’ve got to go. I shouldn’t even be here, it’ll get you all in trouble.” I stubbed out the cigarette and started to push up from the sofa, but Anthony was having none of it. He caught my arm and eased me gently back down.
“Don’t be silly, you’re not going anywhere yet. Sit back down.”
I sagged back into the sofa wearily, pressing my hands against my face for a moment and groaning softly behind them. “Just stay a minute yeah?” he said to me. “Just talk with me a minute. He doesn’t know you’re here.”
I nodded and shrugged and dropped my hands down onto my knees. “We said we hadn’t seen you,” he told me. “And I think he believed me. I said you and Mike don’t even hang about together anymore, and he seemed to swallow it. But Mike says that’s pretty much true anyway, yeah?” I shrugged again. “Such a shame. You’re such good mates. He’d do anything for you, you know?”
“I don’t want him to get hurt,” I said, staring at nothing. “He lost you for an entire year, because of me.”
“No, not because of you, you idiot, because of Howard and possibly this other fucker Freeman. Tell me about him. What’s his name? Where’d he come from? Who is he?”
“Friend of Howards. From way back.”
“Jack Freeman, right?” I nodded in reply. “So what’s he like?”
“He’s alright,” I said. “He’s nothing like Howard, I mean. He just lets us hang out at his flat and listen to music and stuff. Most the time he isn’t even there.”
“Okay,” Anthony said slowly, nodding at me. “So he lets you come to his flat and listen to music and smoke weed and stuff? Okay, but why, why would he do all that?”
I could feel the force of indignation and suspicion behind his gaze, and I shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. “I dunno,” I replied. “I dunno why people do things.”
“You should think about it Danny. He’s Howards friend right? Doesn’t that seem weird to you in any way? Does Howard know he gets you drugs and stuff?”
“No,” I shook my head quickly. “That’s why someone else sold me speed on Friday, ‘cause Jack thinks Howard is getting suspicious or something. He thinks he’ll throw him out.”
“Throw him out? So what, he’s in Howards flat is he?”
“Hmm, I dunno. Must be.”
“See, weird?” Anthony sounded almost pleased I thought. “He lets this guy move in his old flat, and suddenly this guy is palling around with you, giving you drugs and shit. Does that not seem weird to you Danny? Do you not see what they’re doing?” I stared at the floor again, my mouth tight and my nostrils working. I knew he spoke sense, and I could see what he was doing, putting all the pieces of the puzzle together in his own mind, and his dark eyes were alive with knowing and this fierce kind of energy. “Who sold you the speed on Friday then? Who was that? You remember his name?”
“Jaime someone,” I told him with a sigh. “Skinny guy, about your age.”
“I know of a Jaime about my age,” he said, talking faster and louder. “He’s one of the Lawlers, they’re this terrible fucking family of losers on the Somerley estate. Jaime is a bit older than me, but one of his brothers was in my class at school. Bunch of crackheads and criminals. Makes sense they’d have someone like him on board.”
“Look Anthony, I really better get going, if he comes back here or sees me leaving…”
“Hang on, we need to figure this out. When did Freeman show up here? Can you remember?”
Of course I could remember that. That day was etched inside my mind forever. Me hiding behind the sofa, while they talked and laughed and enjoyed the spectacle of Anthony’s arrest from the bathroom window. I felt horrible and sick inside. I wanted to go. I didn’t know how he could bear to be near me. “It was the day you got arrested,” I said then, and even as I spoke the words I wondered what the fuck I was doing, giving him that information. His eyes were glowing and his body was tensed up beside mine. The bad memories were trying to get back into my head, angry memories from that day, knocking on the window of my mind like petulant ghosts. I didn’t want to think about any of it. To be honest, all I really wanted to do right then, was go and get stoned somewhere. “I came back from the base,” I said, not looking at Anthony. “I fell asleep in the lounge and when I woke up I heard Howard and this guy…Jack. I could hear sirens and stuff. I hid. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Then Jack left. And Howard found me.”
Anthony shifted restlessly on the sofa, and for a moment he covered his mouth with both of his hands. “I’ve got to think,” he spoke through his fingers. “I’ve got to be so careful.”
“You think it will happen again?” I asked him. “I mean, if they got rid of you like that once, they can do it again, right?” I looked at him and my mouth was sucked free of moisture. Anthony looked back at me.
“It was them,” he said firmly. “You know that, don’t you?”
I nodded. I felt sick inside. I wanted to cry. “He told me. He told me he got rid of you and he’d do the same to anyone else that stuck their nose in. That’s why you’ve got to stay out of it Anthony, you have to. You can’t do anything, Anthony, you really can’t. Mike can’t lose you again!” I bowed my head, unable to look him in the eye any longer. The tears were swimming, threatening to fall. I sniffed. “I’m sorry Anthony. I’m so, so sorry.”
Anthony twisted to face me and clamped his hand down onto my shoulder. “You can’t let it drag you down,” he told me fiercely. “You listen to me. It wasn’t your fault. Not any of it. Okay?”
“Michael lost you for a year, because of me…you were locked up! Because of me.”
“Because of Howard, not you. And possibly because of this other guy.”
“I feel so shit about it…If you hadn’t tried to help me, if I hadn’t told you anything…”
“Listen to me, I stuck up for you because I like you okay? I’d do the same for anyone in that situation. I couldn’t stand the thought of that fucking gorilla giving you a hard time. Okay, I’ll admit I had no idea who the fuck I was messing with…but that’s not your fault right? None of this is your fault Danny.” He stared right into my eyes and did not flinch. He stared at me until I nodded back miserably. “You’ve got to listen to me mate, or all this is gonna’ drag you down and finish you off, I mean, look what the fuck’s happened to you in a year! You look a mess mate. You look like you don’t give a shit about anything. You have to understand something, alright. They’re the adults, you are the kid, so none of this, fucking none of it is your fault. That man is evil. And I’ll bet we don’t even know the half of it.”
I managed to smile and nod at him. There was a sort of lightness filling me slowly. Just knowing that he did not hate or blame me, was an amazing feeling. I felt a little bit like I had been untethered, set free. “Okay,” I told him. “Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” he replied, getting to his feet. “We’re up to our necks in it. But we’ve got to figure something out, bring them down somehow. But he can’t know we’re up to anything. He can’t know anything or we’re fucked. Maybe we start digging around a bit, yeah? Play detective. Play it smart. I got one idea already.”
“I’ll track down Lawler. If he’s who I think he is he won’t be too hard to find. He knows me. Might be able to score some grass off him and get him talking.”
The thought of it flooded me with fear. I shook my head. “Anthony…”
“Don’t worry about it, don’t even think about it,” he commanded me. “All you have to do is keep your head down and stay off them drugs, yeah? You’ll feel better then. More with it. You’ll be useful to us then. So no more silly stuff, alright? Because all you’re doing is playing right into their hands, you know. They’ve had an easy ride for a year, if you think about it. Me inside. You apart from your mates, and drugged up out your mind, not questioning anything, not fighting back.” He laughed a little then and gave me a playful punch in the shoulder. “What about that eh? You forgot about all that didn’t you? Fighting back Danny. The old Danny eh? The boy Mike was always telling me about, getting arrested at school for fighting! Giving people hell. What happened to him eh? We need him back man. You gotta’ get him back.”
After lunch Anthony announced that he was going to have a bath. “Do all my best thinking in there,” he grinned. He had been up there for twenty minutes or so, when I decided to leave. I should have told him, or called up to him, but I didn’t. I thought he would try to stop me. I couldn’t stay there a minute longer. I’d been growing jumpier by the second, thinking about Howard, still storming around out there looking for me. So I walked to Jacks, and I took the long way around so that no one would see me.
I walked with my head lowered and my hands in my pockets. The Smiths were playing on my Walkman now. It was the kind of song that made me want to wallow in sadness and despair, and that was pretty much what washed over me as I walked. Park the car at the side of the road, you should know, that time’s tide will smother you, and I will too, when you laugh at people who feel so very lonely, they’re only desire is to die… I heard children laughing, and I realized that I had just ploughed carelessly through a whole bunch of them on the pavement. I guessed they were heading to the fish and chip shop for their lunch. One of them called out to me, and I pulled the headphones down curiously. “Danny?”
It was Higgs. Eddie Higgs. He was in the middle of the group, and he was staring back at me, his expression wondering, a slow smile lifting his lips. It was weird looking at him. My old adversary, the boy who had been the cause of so many of those explosive fights with my mother. I felt a detached kind of curiosity, nothing more, but it made me realize then that Anthony was right. I wasn’t the same boy anymore. I was a shell. An imprint of what I once was. I saw him smiling and nudging the other kids, and then I suddenly felt horribly aware of the clothes I had been wearing since Friday, and of how awful I must look. I couldn’t bear to see any trace of satisfaction on his face, so I turned quickly and kept walking. I pulled my headphones back on so I would not have to listen to their laughter following me down the pavement.
I let myself into Jack’s flat with the key he had given me. He was home. Slumped in one of the tatty sofas, whiskey in one hand, a fat cigar in the other. He was watching Countdown. I paused at the door, my head suddenly full of Anthony’s questions, and Jack and I eyed each other warily across the room. He puffed on his cigar. “Well you look like hell,” he said finally. I shrugged at him.
“That guy sold me something bad. I’ve had the worst comedown ever.”
Jack merely chuckled at me. “Bit dramatic ain’t it? No such thing as bad stuff mate, you just probably took too much. Just ask Jaime for some downers next time. Take the edge off when you come back down.”
I shook my head and walked across the lounge and into the kitchen to put the kettle on. “I’m not touching any of that stuff ever again,” I said. He laughed again from the sofa.
“Whatever you say kid. It’s your life.”
I located the kettle and filled it with water. The area around the sink was cluttered and overcrowded with dirty plates and cups, and piled high with takeaway wrappers and containers. The window was closed, holding the unique smell of boozy sweat and chicken tikka masala hostage in the airless room. I shuddered and wondered what the fuck I was doing back there. Why had my legs walked me there like some kind of robot, instead of walking me somewhere decent, like the record shop, or to Lucy? I found the cup I always used, the cracked cream one with the black Labrador on the side. The teabags lived in a metal tin next to the kettle. I rummaged around in it, found one in the dust at the bottom and dropped it into my cup. I took the milk from the fridge, checked the date on the side and then sniffed it just to be sure. I heard Jack clear his throat of phlegm.
“Lee’s looking for you, you know,” he called out. “You’re meant to be at home he reckons, seeing some people to do with school?”
I’d forgotten all about that. I folded my arms in the doorway and waited for the kettle to boil. “He wasn’t very happy with me all weekend. I was in a total mess.”
“You just need downers. Told you.”
“No. Never again.”
“You won’t be wanting this back then?” He had picked up my little tin from the coffee table. He waved it back and forth in the air. I rolled my eyes, went to make my tea, and then carried it into the lounge and sat down on the sofa. Before he could say anything else, I picked up my tin and shoved it into my pocket. He laughed out loud. I stared at the TV.
“This is Howard’s place, right?”
I felt his eyes turn on me, measuring my question. “Yeah, it is yeah.”
“You rent it off him then?”
“That would be the name of the arrangement, yes young man. Why the sudden interest?” I looked his way to see that ever present soft smile upon his lips and I felt immediately stupid. I had said too much, too soon. We never really talked much, so I had to be careful not to make him suspicious. So I drank my tea for a while, saying nothing. When Jack poured himself another whiskey, he grabbed the rim of an empty glass sitting on the table and filled that one as well. He passed it to me, and I took it without even thinking about it. It was just habit, that’s all. Sitting there with him, getting wasted. I couldn’t deny the urge was as strong as ever.
“Would Howard kill you if he knew about the speed and shit?” I ventured some time later when the whiskey had stoked up my bravado, and my curiosity. Jack turned his calm eyes upon me again.
“Who knows?” he replied with a sigh. “But it’s the thought of your mother finding out that terrifies me the most.”
“So why do you then?”
“Why do I what?”
“Why do you sell it to me?”
“I don’t. Not anymore.”
“But you have,” I argued. “You did, until Friday.” I knew I was pressing him, pushing him too far, but I felt desperate and impatient. I wanted something, anything to take back to Anthony, so that he would not have to risk going out to look for it himself.
“Look,” Jack sighed again. “I’m one of those people, right. I don’t give a shit what other people do, as long as it don’t bother me, right? Live and let live and all that. Take it if you wanna’ take it, don’t if you don’t, it’s no skin off my nose either way. I was just trying to be friendly that’s all.”
“And now you’re worried that Howard would be mad? If he knew about it?”
Jack stared at me then, and his eyes were narrowed and he ran his tongue slowly over his lower lip before he broke out into a smile again. “I think you need to look at yourself Danny,” he advised. “No one forced you to take anything, not once. If you don’t want to do things, then don’t. It’s your life buddy. But I never heard you complaining about any of it until now, so what’s changed? One bad comedown?”
“Howard doesn’t know?” I asked him once more. I had finished the whiskey and I was aware that it had loosened my tongue. I felt like I was walking along a tightrope, trying to keep my balance, while certain death waited for me on either side. I could sense the danger in the air and I understood it.
“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Jack said. “He’ll be here any minute.”
The air in a room always seemed to alter when Howard walked in. It smelled different and it clung to the skin. I accepted another measure of whiskey from Jack and waited for the inevitable. I thought about leaving, getting up and getting out, but where could I go? Not back to Anthony. I couldn’t risk leading them back there. My mind wandered helplessly as I sat there. What was to stop them setting Anthony up again? If they had done it once, surely they could do it again? When Howard finally arrived, he did not knock or use a key, he just strode on in as if he owned the place, which I remembered, he actually did. He walked in big angry strides and tossed his car keys onto the glass topped coffee table with a bang that made me jump. He stood like a tree, legs spread and head cocked. “Where the fuck have you been?” he demanded. “I’ve been everywhere looking for you. You’ve not been at the record shop, or at Billy’s. You better not have been with those Andersons.” He raised his eyebrows at me questioningly. “’Cause I thought I already fucking warned you about that.”
“I wasn’t there,” I said. “I’ve been ill.”
“Yeah and that’s your own fucking fault! Don’t expect any sympathy off me!”
“True,” I nodded, glancing at Jack. “But it’s also his fault.”
Both men were staring at me now. I didn’t really know what I was doing, or saying. I thought maybe they would kill me. Maybe they would just laugh at me. But I had to get something from them, anything to make things a little clearer. Howard nodded at the door then. “Come on,” he said. “The truants officer and a teacher are on the way over.”
“You don’t really want me to speak to them,” I said, and my voice was a whisper, but they still heard it alright. I swallowed nervously as my throat began to tighten, warding off the oxygen it needed to breathe. Howard looked intrigued.
“I might have to tell them the truth about why I keep missing school,” I shrugged and glanced between them. I suddenly felt horribly small and vulnerable sat there with both of them staring at me. But I could definitely see the anxiety in their eyes, and as scared as I was, it pleased me and it was obvious, I thought. Howard knew, and he did not want to talk about it. Anthony was right.
“Come on, let’s go,” he said coldly. I rose up from the sofa.
“So you don’t mind that Jack deals me drugs then?” I don’t even know where the courage to ask the question came from, but there it was. And all Howard did was head to the door.
“What you two get up to is your business,” he snapped. “I told you already, Just don’t fucking do it in my house.”
“Okay,” I said, as we left the flat. “I get it.” We headed down the corridor and down the flight of stairs, and I felt this little throb of fire burning in my gut. I wanted to smile, and I wished that Anthony could have seen me then. We walked out into the sunshine and towards Howard’s car, and I was just about to ask him what mum would think if I showed her my little tin and told her all about Jack, when Howard slipped an arm around my shoulders. He pulled me into his side.
“You can tell your mum, and these other people whatever the fuck you want,” he told me, as a thin cold smile stretched out his lips. “But if I were you I would think about what happens to you next. ‘Cause I know for a fact your mum is on the edge, as far as you’re concerned. It’s only me that keeps talking her out of getting you put into care, you know. So you think what happens if they all know about your drug habits. Kicked out of school probably. Arrested again if the cops are called in. Third offence right? So you’d be up in court little man, with a pretty colourful record going ahead of you. All I have to do is suggest care would be a better place for you, and she’d jump at it mate. I’m telling you.”
He unlocked the car and opened the passenger side for me. He nodded down at the seat, so I slid in and stared back up at him with slumped shoulders. He grinned and leaned towards me, a glint in his eyes as he spun his car keys on one finger. “Do you know what happens to boys your age when they go into care?” he asked and waited for an answer. I just stared back at him and shook my head, as the heaviness of despair came crushing down on me yet again. My mouth had gone dry, and my fire had gone out, and I already knew that I would not be telling anyone anything today. “Pretty boys like you?” He was laughing at me now, licking his lips hungrily and revealing those neat rows of teeth. “Let’s just say, you’d get a very warm welcome Danny, do you get my drift? My brother found that out the hard way when he was a naughty little shit stain. My parents sent him to a place like that, so I know. You’d be eaten alive mate. A little blue eyed kid like you. You’d be their fucking pet.” He laughed out loud, slammed the door shut and walked around to his side. He climbed in, still laughing, and turned the key in the ignition. Then he slapped my thigh briskly and winked at me when I looked at him. “There’s something for you to think about anyway kiddo. That, and the fucking shit that will come down on those Anderson cunts if you ever threaten me again.” His eyes burned down, his lips tight and small, all humour dissolved now, nothing but violent promise behind those eyes. “Now shut the fuck up and be a good boy like I told you to be.”