The most important thing was making sure I did not feel anything anymore. I had wondered if it was possible, that day on the bench. I discovered it was actually pretty easy, with a little bit of help. That had become my main aim, my main purpose upon waking every single day. There were moments, where the last drink wore off, when a new day began without my permission, when the cold fingers of reality would arrive to tap me briskly on the shoulder. I never looked reality in the face. I turned away, and picked up another drink. Nothing panicked me more than the sensation of the veil beginning to lift. I would catch just a glimpse, of my own mind ticking back into action, starting to form thoughts again, and that was never a good thing, because thinking too much led to pain, one way or another. Thinking too much made it all come back, and it was too much then, too much for me to bear. The useless and bitter disappointment of it all. In moments of sad clarity such as these, I would feel as if I had awoken briefly from a confusing dream, and I would look down at myself, usually slumped like a rag doll on Jack’s grotty sofa. I would ask stupid, hollow questions while tears filled my eyes. “Why is he like that?” Jack would only shake his head and chuckle and smile. “Why does he want to destroy me? You must know. I’ll save him the trouble today. I’ll go and jump off the cliff.” I meant it when I said it, but I never did it.
My questions would simply echo, unanswered around the perpetually darkened flat, which had become my refuge, and my prison. Then Jack would do his best to cheer me up, and there was always something on offer, and he was pretty generous with his offerings, and I would never say no, and then I would drift away again, and there would be no pain, no sorrow, no nothing.
Nothingness was good, nothingness was always welcome. I tried to fight back with it when the self-loathing and disgust crept in to torture me. It only haunted me when I was alone, when Jack was out and about, doing whatever it was he did. Day after day I would sit and rip myself to shreds, peeling back the layers until I became a nothing person, a nothing, an empty shell who simply lived and breathed. My aim, to reach a point where I would not be able to experience fear anymore, because I wouldn’t be able to feel it, I wouldn’t be able to feel anything. Waking up sober was a terrible torture. Instantly my mind was sickened and I felt disgusted with myself, for what I had taken, for what I had done to myself, for everything, and I would think, I am dying slowly inside, this is a slow death, and he will win. Because he was winning, he was the victor. I found that I did not really care, so long as all of this was over.
Rebirth seemed a nice option, if only such a thing existed. I daydreamed about it sometimes when I was spaced out in the flat. It seemed a warm and wonderful thought to pay attention to. Being born again, as someone else, someone new. Someone better than I was; someone who was innocent and pure, and good and strong. Sometimes I would lay and stare at the skin that covered my bones, and I would have the strongest urge to start scratching away at it, to scrape back the layers in case there was someone better hidden underneath.
When I slept, Lee Howard was there, infesting all of my dreams. I sought to drink and smoke as much as I could in order to find a level of unconsciousness that would hold the dreams at bay. But it never worked for long, because he was always there, looming over me, with doom in his eye and he was twisting a knife around in my belly, laughing and laughing as he turned it, curling my guts slowly up the blade. Nights were full of horror. I twisted and turned among wretched dreams, sometimes waking myself up with my own screams. Jack watched over me, and I had begun to have paranoid thoughts that he was my jailor, not my protector.
The day after Lucy closed the door on me, and Anthony threatened me, I pushed them all away inside my mind. I decided I didn’t want or need any of them. In my mind, things could not get any darker. I hid out at Jack’s flat, until Howard hunted me down there. He came through the door like a tornado, spewing out eye bulging rage, his teeth shining and gnashing, his hands reaching for me. I knew it was coming, and I did nothing to avoid the storm. “Your mother has gone to Leeds to see John,” he stood before me and said, planting his hands on his wide hips, staring down at me, with a loose, slack look to his face. “What do you think about that eh?”
I shrugged and told him what I really thought. “I don’t give a shit.”
He laughed. It was high pitched and manic. He told me he had been looking for me everywhere. That it was about time I learnt my lesson again. That he would make me give a shit. I wondered if he had been drinking, because he had a crazed look in his eyes, and he was sweating like a pig, and I just sat there and stared up at him, a look of dull defiance on my face especially for him. “I’ll get you back in line,” he started ranting, before he picked me up and threw me to the floor. He was in a state, wrestling with the waist band of his jeans. “Get you right back in fucking line!” He realized he was not wearing a belt, and went completely insane, kicking over Jack’s glass coffee table and sending it shattering to the floor. He then started pacing around the flat, and I looked up from the floor and saw the door, but I couldn’t even be bothered to try to get to it. He came back from the kitchen, brandishing the cord from the kettle, and he put his foot on me and started lashing out with it. And Jack did nothing and said nothing. I could see his shoes, I could smell his cigar. I wondered if he was scared. Scared to speak up. Scared to help. I knew what Howard was doing, putting me right back to square one, and I didn’t care, in fact I was glad. It was easier that way. “You won’t fuck with me!” he kept screaming, and I thought yeah, you’re right, I won’t, I can’t be arsed.
He left, and I found myself existing in a fire of agony that would not cease. I got onto the sofa, sobbing and moaning, and the pain was electric, the kind of pain you cannot even breathe through, the kind of pain that makes you want to die, the kind of pain that ties your mind up in a cage. I writhed and panted on the sofa, and it was Jack that rolled me a joint and held it to my lips. “He doesn’t know any other way,” I heard him murmuring softly. I could not determine the tone of his voice. “It’s all his knows. Best you just stay on the right side of him, with your mum gone again.” The joint did nothing to help the pain, and I lay there and whimpered until he fetched me a shot of whiskey, followed by another. Eventually I guess he got annoyed with my crying, because he came and pushed a pill inside my mouth, and I swallowed it and I was so glad, so relieved, because whatever it was worked and worked quickly, and I felt my body being lifted up by kind and gentle hands that carried me away down a dark and twisted corridor, and for ages after that I felt like I was floating, just floating on the ocean.
When I woke up in the night, he was sat beside me, with his hand resting on my head. He didn’t ever seem to sleep, unless it was in the middle of the day, with his head thrown back and his mouth wide and snoring. I would roll away from his hand, shivering as I felt his fingers unwind one by one from my hair. I would bury myself in the blankets and the thick deep sleep would arrive to claim me and I would forget about it all in the morning, because I would wake up searching for escape, and because everything that existed inside my head was pushed away, stamped down, wiped out.
There was nothing to do, nowhere to turn to except oblivion, and Jack let me have whatever I wanted. If it was there I could have it. If it wasn’t there, then we would call Jaime Lawler over. I kept myself topped up, and the biggest fear I had was any of it wearing it off. Jack pushed food in front of me but it all turned my stomach. I didn’t want to do anything that would prolong my existence, but I did not have the courage to end it suddenly either. I wondered dully in those strange moments if Jack was helping me or finishing me off. I didn’t know, and I didn’t care, but sometimes the way he looked at me made me want to close my eyes and cease to exist, because that would be easier. He looked at me. Sometimes he looked at me too much, and I didn’t know what, if anything, his eyes were trying to say. I felt like a goldfish, swimming aimlessly inside a bowl. “Try this,” he would say to me. “Just try this…” The only thing that made me move was music. The only thing that made my heart beat was music. The only reason I left the flat was music. I had to leave the flat to find the music, and when I was in The Record Shop, though Terry viewed me with a perturbed and distainful expression, he never turned me away.
He let me stay in there for hours if I wanted to. I didn’t talk to him much. He laughed about this, saying that at one point he could never shut me up. He made me cups of tea and he started offering me money to sort out the shelves, or to answer the phone. I took it graciously, thankful and yet silent. Sometimes he tried to pull conversations out of me, asking my opinion on new releases, offering me singles and albums to take home and try for free. “Your opinion is worth more than mine,” he would explain. “The kids that come in here don’t take my word for it these days!” The shop was busier than it had ever been. It was the same kinds of kids that came in, day after day. Terry called them Indie kids, and they all had hair like the Gallaghers, or hair like Jarvis Cocker. They wore parka coats, and flared jeans, and devoured music by the likes of Pulp, Suede, Blur, Elastica and Supergrass. Terry had a fair amount of sarcasm for the lot of them. Members of a scene, he explained. Followers of a rule book. “Not like you,” he told me once. “You’re cool, because you like everything.”
It seemed like word got out quickly about the fat man letting me hang around in the shop, letting me work for money. Michael came through the door one day after school. He shook his head slowly and sadly when he saw me crouched on the floor, dusting off cassettes before I put them in order. Just the desperate look in his eye made me want to sever an artery. I looked away from him. I wondered what the hell he wanted. He picked up a CD and squatted down next to me, while Terry went back to his magazine behind the counter.
“You’re never at school,” he started, and he was right. I had given up on that again. I hadn’t been for weeks. My mother was still up in Leeds with John. I was starting to wonder if she would ever come back at all. I rolled my eyes and ignored him. “I’ve been talking to Lucy,” he went on regardless, speaking in low tones, with his eyes on my face. “I took her to the café yesterday Danny. I explained everything to her. Are you listening? I know you don’t want people to know stuff, but I had to explain it to her, I had to make her see why you didn’t turn up that day.” I didn’t look at him. I didn’t allow the words or the information to infiltrate my mind. I picked up another cassette. The best of Dusty Springfield. I started to wipe it clean with the yellow duster Terry had given me. Michael sighed beside me. “Listen,” he said. “She understands. The reason she was mad at you, is she went back the next week, in case you went back…she said she really thought you would, you know, because you’d been going every Sunday for like months. She went back Danny, the next few Sundays in a row to see you there. To sort things out.”
I rolled my eyes again and shrugged loosely. I placed the cassette on the shelf under D and picked up the next one. Guns ‘N’ Roses, Appetite For Destruction. The casing was split, so I put it in another pile, knowing Terry would want it in the discount bin next to the counter. Michael clicked his tongue angrily. “Danny, can you speak? For fucks sake mate! I’m just gonna’ keep coming in here until you do! Did you hear what I said? About Lucy? She’s gonna’ come and see you in here mate, I don’t know when, but she said she would because she wants you two to make up, you know?”
“Going to Chaos this Friday,” I told him then, frowning down at the next tape in the pile. More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits. “If you wanna’ come. I’ll meet you there. Or whatever.”
He nodded instantly. “Okay then. I fucking will. I’ll see you there. We’ll talk then, right? We’ll catch up.” I nodded and he got up and walked out.
I had another visitor not long after. Jaime Lawler, at first just hovering outside of the door, finishing off his cigarette. I watched him from inside. He was tall and thin, and hunched up against the cold, with his cap pulled low and his tracksuit jacket zipped right up to his chin. He nodded at me when he saw me looking. Terry was on his stool, his wide berth dripping down either side of it. His nose buried in the NME. He didn’t even look up when Jaime walked in through the door. He played it cool at first, well about as cool as he was capable of. He picked up a CD, then put it back too quickly. Walked along and picked up another, and then came right up to me with it. Not exactly subtle. I was starting to think the guy was a bit simple, to be honest. He could have had DRUG DEALER tattooed across his forehead and it still would have been more discreet than his behaviour at times. He loped up to the side of me with this lop-sided grin on his thin face. “Alright mate? You working in here now or what?”
“Sort of,” I shrugged.
He looked pleased and stared around at the shelves full of music. “Wow, pretty cool ain’t it? Must be your idea of heaven eh?” He nudged me with one spiky elbow and I flinched. He looked sorry and tried a grin instead. “Still waiting for my money mate,” he said then, leaning towards me and dropping his voice to a whisper. I nodded at him. I dug around in my back pocket and brought out a crumpled ten pound note, and a handful of change. He took it and examined it before slipping it into his own pocket. “That don’t even really touch what you owe me mate,” he said, with a regretful shrug. I nodded again.
“I know. I’ll get you some more.” I looked at Terry briefly. “He’s started paying me a bit. I might get a proper job here when I’m sixteen.”
Jaime looked hopeful. “Oh yeah? When’s that?”
He made a face. “Fuckinghell I can’t wait that long mate! Look we’ll talk later yeah, I got to go and meet this mate of yours now. You know he’s working in The Ship?”
I was totally confused. “Who is?”
“Anthony. Me old mate from school. Bless him.”
“He’s working in The Ship?”
“Yeah, out the back, cheffing. I’m gonna’ go and get me a pie and chips, warm me right up.” Jaime patted my back and headed for the door. I stepped behind him.
“What do you mean you’re meeting him? What for?”
Jaime pulled open the door and a rush of cold air swirled around our ankles. He looked down at me, and there was for once an almost human look in his restless grey eyes, and it looked like he was trying to decide what to say to me, and how to say it. He grimaced a little and scratched at his scrawny neck, and then pushed his cap back so that he could rake his short nails through the front of his wispy blonde hair. He tugged the cap back into place and clapped me on the back instead. “Well you know me,” he said. “Keep everyone’s secrets don’t I eh? Ask him yourself if you wanna’ know. Seeya’ later mate. You at Chaos on Friday or what?” I nodded that I was. He snorted as he left. “I’ll be expecting a begging call from you then. Seeya’ mate.”
I went back to my work, dazed and wondering. Part of my mind wanted to know more, and wanted to chase down the road after him. But the other part of my mind wanted to know nothing about anything, and went back to sleep instead. There was nothing I could do anyway, I reasoned. I hadn’t seen Anthony since he had laid into me for giving Michael speed that night. I imagined he hated me, and that was that. Truth was, I was too ashamed of myself to go anywhere near him.
“Dodgy as fuck, that one,” Terry remarked wearily from his stool. I couldn’t have agreed with him more. I went back to the tapes, taking my time over each one, cleaning them and checking them for wear and damage. The Stone Roses were playing Shoot You Down on the record player. “All this new indie Britpop stuff,” Terry started saying. “It’s all influenced by The Stone Roses, I mean, it started with them and Inspirals and all that right?” I looked up and shrugged, not sure if I could be bothered to get into a debate with him right then. “And they were influenced by The Smiths. It all comes back to The Smiths you see.”
“Bullshit,” I told him. “Who were they influenced by then? Sixties guitar bands?”
“No, punk you idiot!” he roared back at me. “It’s a well known fact that Morrissey was a fan of The New York Dolls. I’m putting them on next to educate you.”
I just sighed and let him get on with it. The man had an unhealthy obsession with The Smiths. According to him, anything good about music today could be attributed to them. He slipped off his stool after a while and went out the back to put the kettle on. While he was gone, the door opened again, and Lucy walked in. She looked awkward and nervous, in her smart school uniform, her bag on her shoulder, and two thick text books clutched to her chest. Her face brightened when she saw me kneeling on the floor. “There you are!”
“Yeah,” I said, and stood up. She hugged her books and smiled sheepishly.
“How are you?” I shrugged at her.
Her smile faltered, and then returned stronger. “Want to try and sell me some music? You normally can’t shut up about it.” I shook my head at her. I was tired. I didn’t need this, whatever this was. I felt like cringing under her pitying glare. I couldn’t stand the thought of what Michael had told her. I imagined them sat in the café together, their heads lowered over their coffees or their milkshakes, while Michael filled her in on the full story of my pathetic little life. I felt a cold anger shaking through me. It was directed right at her, and yet again, I thought, here he is, here is the monster right on cue, seeping through me, taking me over. I wanted her away from me. I was no good for her. I would only drag her down and destroy her. Couldn’t she see that? “I just wanted to see you,” she tried to explain, her smile gone now, her eyes heavy with sadness. “Michael…I mean, he spoke to me…He explained so much to me Danny…and I had to see you, I just had to come and see you.”
I gave her a hard and withering look of contempt. “Well now you’ve seen me,” I said, and turned away from her.