The Boy With…Chapters 65&66

65

 

 

            I awoke the next day, calm and refreshed.  I spent some time just watching Kay as she slept beside me.  I knew she would sleep for hours yet, and that was just fine by me.  I liked watching her sleep, and I also liked the quiet time to myself I would get when I slipped out of bed to go downstairs.  I had already heard the newspaper boy shoving the paper through the letterbox.  Mornings were best enjoyed alone.  Mug of tea and the newspaper in the kitchen, followed by a full English breakfast if I had the time.  I glanced back at Kay and thought how tiny she looked, how delicate.  She slept with both hands pressed together under her cheek, and her small body tucked up into a little ball.  She looked serene, sleeping so peacefully, but I sighed as I flipped back the duvet and swung my legs out of the bed.  I knew that as soon as her eyes opened, they would fill with dread and anxiety.  She would remember what happened yesterday, and the despair would consume her.

As much as she liked to try to gloss it over with her fluttering eye lashes and candy smiles, she couldn’t hide it from me.  That boy tormented her days.  She was obsessed with him.  She was overdoing it with attention one moment, sucking up to him because she assumed he was heading in the right direction.  Showering him with praise he had done nothing to deserve, going back to her old soft ways with him, showing no spine.  He did it on purpose, I was pretty sure of that after all this time.  Wound her up with false hopes, viewing her with scorn and distain the entire time, before he dashed them all, right on cue, fucking up in spectacular fashion.  Liked to think he was a bad boy didn’t he?  Telling his teachers to fuck themselves and threatening to burn the school down.  Very funny.  Very fucking funny.

Now she would be in another state about him.  It had reached the point when I dreaded her speaking his name.  My skin would prickle with barely contained rage.  You wanted him dead, I wanted to scream into her pitiful little face, you told me yourself!  You were going to get rid of him and he’s haunted your very existence ever since!  Fuck, sometimes I felt like the only sane one in the family, the only one who could see things the way they really were.

I paused outside his bedroom, tying my dressing gown neatly around my middle.  I felt good.  Better than good, I felt fucking amazing.  I might have been approaching middle age but I was in the best shape of my life.  Hadn’t let myself go, not like Jack.  I rocked back on my heels, sniffing the air, before I shuddered involuntarily, thinking about what was happening to him, what he was turning into.  It was laughable really.  He was becoming on the outside what he had been on the inside for a very long time.  I turned my head to the bedroom door, located the sound of muffled, laboured snoring, and nodded to myself in satisfaction.  The boy was on his last warning, and he had his instructions to remain put.  Fuck his friends, fuck his job, fuck all of it, unless I said otherwise.  I smiled a delicate smile when I remembered the last thing I had said, before leaving him alone in the dark.  “One wrong move, and I bring your mother in here and introduce her to this.”  I’d slapped the belt against my hand and he’d flinched on the bed, although only half conscious.  He knew I meant it though.  And I did mean it.  To be honest, I was starting to think she needed a wake-up call.  It was like one step forward, three steps back with that boy, and most of the time it was her, undoing all my hard work.

I cracked my knuckles outside his door, and then padded softly down the stairs in my slippers.  I picked the paper up from the mat and carried it into the kitchen with me.  I was half way through filling the kettle when I heard the banging on the front door.  Not knocking, but banging, hammering.  Resentment flooded me.  I slammed the kettle down onto the side and swung out of the kitchen, marching hotly towards the front door to find out who had dared to interrupt my peace, my moments of solitude which were becoming increasingly rare.  I rolled my head on my neck and cracked my knuckles again.  This was no time in the morning for visitors, and I was reminded of my growing hatred and disgust towards the place.  This estate was not for the likes of Kay, and me.  I had been scanning the property pages for homes for sale up on the hill.  That was where we belonged, in one of those houses.  Just thinking about it made me want to lick my lips slowly, from one side to the other.  When I wrenched open the door, my irritation spun into anger, in fact it was enough to ruin my entire day; the sight of that little black haired freak on my doorstep, glowering at me in his school uniform.  I jutted towards him in a fast, snapping motion, watched him jerk back in surprise and sneered into his face; “get the fuck away from my house!”

The boy composed himself quickly and scowled back at me with pure hatred in his glittering eyes.  He glared back at me like he had every right to be stood on my doorstep first thing in the morning. “I want to see Danny,” he said to me. I cocked my head to one side and frowned at him as if he were stupid.

“I’ll repeat it for you,” I said. “In case you are deaf, or just stupid…get the fuck away from my house!”

“What have you done to him now?” the boy demanded, his fists shaking at his sides, his voice rising quickly.  I looked at his chest, puffing upwards with anger, and I wanted to laugh.  I smiled instead.  “They say he’s not coming back to school. What have you done to him now?”

I had an idea then.  A bit of crazy one, but fuck it.  I pulled my neck in, took a breath and scanned the street beyond my door, for sound and movement.  Satisfied that we were alone, I reached out suddenly and took the Anderson boy by surprise, gripping him by the lapels of his school blazer and wrenching him right through the front door.  There was this amazing, this satisfying expression of utter horror upon his face, and I imagined for a moment what he was feeling, being dragged in like that, knowing what he knew, fearing whatever he feared…He was too shocked, too stunned by my sudden actions to make a single sound, or noise.  The only noise that came from him was the grunt he emitted when I slammed his body back into the hallway wall.  I kicked the door shut and held him in place, with my nose pressed right into his.  Right away, I felt better already.  The irritation and anger was all gone, replaced only by the urges that pulsed behind my eyes.

His eyes were dark and wild, at once terrified and full of outrage.  His mouth hung open, soundless and afraid.  “You know,” I said to him, pinning his head to the wall by pressing my forehead into his.  “I think I’ve just about run out of patience with you and your interfering brother.  Sticking your nose in where it’s not wanted.  I thought I warned you both before…I thought your brother said he had learnt his lesson?  Maybe it’s time I taught him another one eh?  Is that what you want you miserable little fuck up?” His body squirmed under my touch, but there was fire in those eyes, so I narrowed my own.  “You want to know where Danny is eh?” I asked him softly, purring my words into his slack mouth.  He moved his head in a nod.  I crushed his head with mine.  “He’s upstairs in his room.  In a world of pain.  Which, by the way, he fucking asked for like he always does…You can go and see him if you want, you can fucking join him if you want, if you want to find out how much you can take…You fancy that fuck-up?  You want that?  I’ll take you up there right now if you want.  I’ll take you apart.  I’ll break every bone in your body if you like.  And then, while you’re thinking about that, I’ll get on the phone and let the cops know there’s still stuff to be sniffed out in your house….Because there is you know…Not anywhere you’ll ever be able to find it mind.  But sniffer dogs, you know?  Fuck me, they’re good at their job! They’ll find what’s still there, and what’ll happen to the big boy then eh?  Back to prison where he belongs?  And how about you?”  I moved my head back just enough to stare deep into his eyes.  I laughed softly, remembering what Jack had said about him once.  Eyes like pools of melted chocolate.  Fucks sake man, I had said to him.  Write him a fucking valentines card why don’t you?  I shrugged my shoulders at him and gave him a pitying look. “Oh dear me, what will happen to you then eh?  No parents about.  No older brother.  Be carted off to care in a fucking shot, and then we’d see what a tough guy you really are eh?” I sneered laughter, opened the door and hauled him roughly towards it.  “Now of you go boy, off you go to school, go and think about that for a while.  Go and think about how quickly I can fuck up your life with one phone call.”  I shoved him through the open door and he sprawled down onto his knees. “Have a nice day!” I called, and slammed the door.  I picked the phone up and stalked into the lounge with it.  I twitched the curtain and watched the little shit picking himself up from the front lawn.  He looked confused.  He looked mad but scared, and he looked like he didn’t have a fucking clue what to do.  Little boys, I thought then, punching in a number, little boys playing games they won’t win.

The phone picked up.  “Mate?”

“Morning Jack.  Get this.  You’re going to like this.  I just had an early morning visit from that little Anderson shit you’re such a fan of.”

Jack made a noise at the back of his throat that was either a snort of laughter or a choke of embarrassment. “Really?” he asked. “Must have a death wish.”

“Yeah seems like it.  Him and his interfering brother.  Don’t trust either of them.  We need to put the shits up them again mate.  Seriously.  Can I leave it with you?”

He laughed. “I’ll put my thinking cap on then Lee.”

“Good.” I hung up the phone and glared back out of the window.  I could see the dark haired boy walking away quickly, shifting his school bag to the other shoulder.  He marched around the corner and I chuckled.  I stood there for a while, keeping an eye on the street.  I had totally forgotten about my newspaper and my breakfast.  I slipped into a kind of trance, I suppose, my hands held slackly in the pockets of my jeans, my eyes fixed on the world outside.  I found myself thinking about Jack, contemplating the way he asked how high when I told him to jump.  It was a never ending and stable thing, his loyalty to me.  He was a strange man, and ultimately harmless, no bother to anyone.  But it didn’t pay to forget what he really was underneath.  We are all animals beneath the surface; we layer up with clothes and jobs and respectability but underneath it all, an animal lurks.  Jack Freeman was nothing more than a dog on a lead, and it was me who held the other end of that lead.  He presented an image to the world, one that everyone fell for, and one that was mostly the truth.  He was a shabby, shambling figure of a man.  His hair needed a cut and he rarely washed it.  His clothes reeked of stale sweat, whiskey and last nights curry.  When people complained that time went too fast, that life was too short, Jack would disagree with them.  He didn’t see it that way.  He saw time as an awkward lumbering beast that always moved too slowly.  Life, he said, it ambled on blindly, promising nothing and meaning even less.

I turned slowly from the window and walked into the hallway.  Jack said that days all jumbled into one.  He never knew what day, or time it was, and he cared little.  He lived a simple life and always had done.  For a long time now, he had followed my rules and adhered to my expectations.  I trusted him.  I had saved his scraggy arse on more than one occasion, and he remembered this as well as I did.  I knew everything there was to know about the man.  I knew what lay beneath his human skin, I knew about each and every dirty layer that piled upon his soul, and believe me, if you peeled them back, each one would reveal something more distasteful than the last.  He had gotten away with a lot of bad shit over the years, and he had me to thank, and he knew that, so he ambled on, never grumbling, never questioning.

I heard the whine in his voice at times though, of course I did.  I heard the whine of a spoilt child who has been told he is not allowed to touch the cake, let alone taste it.  His eyes sometimes, they were like something out of a cartoon; bulging and popping from the sunken, hollowed out sockets.  I watched him shifting and fidgeting in his sagging grey chair, and it amused me.  “It’s good for you,” I told him once when we were alone.  He had groaned and rubbed his greasy head into both curled palms.  I had merely laughed at him.  “Exercising control.  It’s good for all of us.  You don’t want to be an addict, do you Jack?  Someone with no self-control?  Like all the pathetic little fuckers who call you up begging for their next hit.  They’d do anything, wouldn’t they Jack?  Weak.  It’s good for you to practice control.”

He was mostly happy, I reasoned.  He liked his flat and he liked his work, and he liked coming to the club, and he was never one to feel guilt when he saw the lives he touched run to ruin.  People will always need something, he liked to say.  People will always need something, be it booze, or drugs, or sex, or whatever.  They all have their needs.  All we do is supply, all we do is fulfil their needs.  He didn’t force anyone, did he?  Oh no, not good old Jack.  You could hardly even call the old git a pusher, a dealer.  He sat on his backside most days, his fat spreading out onto the sofa that held his imprint whenever he hauled his ageing arse out of it.  He had people like Lawler, and he had a stream of young visitors, people who needed something.  They didn’t have to take it, did they?  If they didn’t get it off him, then they would just get it somewhere else, which was true.  I knew that it amused him most of the time.  You could see it in his eyes.  But I also knew that it was getting harder for him; that some parts were becoming nothing less than fucking torture.  And yet still, I continued to dangle the bright orange carrot in front of his pale greedy eyes.

But he had to be grateful didn’t he?  I started to climb the stairs, one at a time, slowly sweeping my hand up the wall as I went.  I passed the photos Kay kept nailed up. Old photos of John and Danny as children.  First day at school.  Missing teeth.  Cheeky smiles. They made me wince.  Sometimes I had the strongest urge to knock them all down and send them shattering down to the hallway. That’s gone, I wanted to say, that was the past!  Jack was drinking more, I knew that.  Drink was only one of his weaknesses.  It walked hand in hand with the other one.  Sometimes I presented the rules to him when I sensed him wavering, when I inhaled his mewling self-pity.  I arrived on the landing and pulled my hands out of my pockets.  It was simple, I had told him.  Let him come to your flat, let any of them come.  Let them get high and let them drink, and let them do whatever the fuck they want to do, let them trust you, let him become your friend, shelter him, provide comfort, a safe place to go, but do not go anywhere near him.  Do not touch him.  You’re enjoying it, he told me miserably one night, his eyes drawn across the darkened room to the huddle that snored softly under a heap of his blankets.  I had wanted to laugh out loud and slap his saggy wrinkled cheek.  Rules are rules, I told him, and the rules are simple, and if you break the rules my friend, I’ll kick you back out on the shit heap and that will be the end of that.

I stood outside the boys room and strained my ears.  The house was still, and silent, rocked only by the snores of two, semi-conscious people.  I walked into the bathroom, found a flannel and ran it under the cold water.  Jack was relying more and more on the whiskey.  It was him and his good old friend Jack D. They walked this life hand in hand, and one was not the same without the other.  He lived a simple life and he liked the small things.  Countdown and Ready Steady Cook, Emmerdale and The Bill.  Spicy meat feast pizzas, and the first warm slosh of a Jack Daniels and coke.  Dirty magazines and filthy books.  Being alone.  He had always been alone.  People like Jack have to be.  They have to keep a distance, you see, surround themselves in a muggy kind of fog, a barrier between them and everyone else.  Normal people would be repelled, you see, normal people would turn and run.  I took the wet flannel and went back to the boys door, and turned the handle.

You still can’t control that fucking boy.  Jack’s words one night.  My fathers words every time I spoke to him on the phone.  Words, followed by amused laughter.  They were laughing at me.  Jack knew it, and I knew it.  You’re obsessed, he told me, you’re either in a bad mood or a good mood, and the reason is always the same.  It was twisting up inside of me.  It was making me restless all of the time.  I walked into the room and breathed him in.  It was dark, but a mop of blonde hair showed at the top of the duvet, the rest of him hidden from view.  Jack didn’t like it when I lost my temper with the boy.  He never said a word, but he flinched and winced and looked the other way.  You’ll kill him one day, he tried to tell me afterwards; we’ll end up driving his body all the way out to the fucking woods to bury him.  Maybe he was starting to think they were on the same side?  Jack, and the boy.  Maybe he was beginning to see me as the problem, as the common enemy?  It’s not fair, he said to me once, what you do to him is not fair.  But I’ll win, I replied and to this he looked sad, and gazed down at his knees and he said no more after that.  I lifted the duvet slowly away from him.  I had slapped his face at some point last night and he had been bleeding all over his pillow.  I grimaced.  I looked down at his pale face, eyes closed but twitching, and I thought about all the things he did not know about Jack Freeman.

Then I woke him up by rubbing his face with the wet flannel. His eyes shot open, and he spluttered and coughed and tried to pull away, but I held him fast and scrubbed all the blood from his face.  Then I yanked the pillow free from his head, ripped off the cover and slung it to the floor behind me. I knelt down next to him and pushed his hair back away from his eyes.  I tried to determine what I could see in them.  Caution, or something more than that?  Fear…fear….maybe, but it wasn’t enough.  It was less than what it had been…like it was fading, like his emotions were becoming numb to everything. I felt a swell of frustration rising inside me.  I cocked my head to one side. “I’ll just tell you what I told your little pal Michael just now,” I said to him, and then I saw it, oh yes, then I saw the fear! Flashed through his eyes like fucking lightning, it did! I smiled at him.  “Yeah that’s right, I just had a little visit from him.  Very nice.  Gave him a few things to think about though.  I think he’s gone home to look for the rest of the drugs I had hidden in his house.  Not the kind of place anyone would think to look of course, but you know those sniffer dogs they have these days? Wow, they’re amazing!”  I chuckled warmly while he stared on.  “Don’t let that angry look get in your eyes,” I warned him then, holding up a finger.  “Try not to.  Try not to let it come. I don’t want to see it, because if I see it, I will have to make a phone call to the cops.  Send them round to the Andersons house, you know?  See what they find.  One phone call, you see, just one phone call and it’s all over.” I nodded at him and got to my feet. I was smiling as I considered his small body and all the times I had beaten it.  It still wasn’t broken, and neither was he.  I would go after his friends if I had to, if that was the way to get through to him, then so be it.  I smiled down at him and thought about the lead around Jack’s neck.  “You have no idea,” I told him softly. “You have no idea how much worse I can make things, with just a click of my fingers.  No idea.”

He did a strange thing.  An unexpected thing.  He sat up slowly, eyes closing briefly against the pain in his back.  He moved back towards the wall, brought up his knees and folded his arms on top of them.   “I’m sorry,” he said then, and his voice was small, barely audible, but I heard it, I wouldn’t have missed it.  Sorry.  I frowned at him and I wanted to laugh out loud.

“You what?”

He coughed into his hand.  “I said I’m sorry.”

“And what are you saying sorry for, Danny?”

“Everything,” he replied with a limp shrug. “Walking out of school.  All of that.”

I wasn’t sure I believed in him, but it was still nice to hear it.  I wanted to believe him of course, and that was the thing that frustrated me the most.  How I couldn’t get it through to him.  How he only ever saw me as the enemy.  I wondered then if he had an ulterior motive.  Something he wanted.  “And where does that leave us?” I asked him.  He looked up at me.  His eyes, deep blue and deadened.  They fixed on mine.

“Whatever you want.”

“You’ll keep away from those boys.”

“I do anyway.  I don’t go near anyone.”

“You won’t give your mother anything else to fret about.”

“Course not,” he whispered.  I moved towards him.  I found the edge of the bed in the dull room and sat down on it.  He stiffened as I reached out to him, brushing his hair back again.  I searched his eyes, hunting him down.  “I’m sorry,” he said again, the words hushed and private. “I won’t make you angry anymore Lee.  I really won’t.”

“Yeah, well we’ll see.”  I took his face gently in my hand and turned it to mine.  I wanted him to be telling the truth.  I wanted him to be a good boy.  All of the time.  And not just because he wanted something, and not just because he was afraid of me.  I wanted him to want to be good, to want to please me, just as I had wanted to please my father.  “But I’m telling you now Danny, I am promising you, that this is the last chance I give you.  The very, very last chance.  Next time I lose it with you, next time you push me that far, I’ll send the sniffer dogs round to their house, fuck their lives up forever, I will drag your mother in front of you and beat her to within an inch of her life, and then me and you will take a special ride somewhere.  Just me and you.  And then it will be over Danny. I swear to god.  I fucking promise you.  It will all be over.”

66

 

July 1995

“We’re like rats in a cage,” Michael told me nervously when he came into The Record Shop.  He was as jittery as fuck.  Scratching at his bare wrists and looking over his shoulder, and peering constantly through the dusty windows.  I felt his constant fear, and it was a guilt that weighed me down.  Despite me keeping my distance, and keeping my promise to Howard, Michael and Anthony had been targeted for months.  It was stupid stuff mostly.  Broken windows in the middle of the night.  Phone calls from people who would not speak.  Unknown cars with blacked out windows that rolled slowly behind them if they walked the streets.  They were too scared to breathe, let alone skin up.  Anthony had paid for new locks on all the doors and windows and they were religious about checking them and double checking them.  It made me sad.  I knew what it was, and there was little I could do.  Howard and his minions, turning the screws, keeping them scared, holed up and helpless.  One wrong move and you’re slaughtered.  Bad luck.  They were in line too, just like me.  I couldn’t tell them what I longed to tell them.  That I had a plan, building slowly and surely at the back of my head, amidst the fog and the rubble and the despair.

Michael still came to the flat sometimes, and Jack always promised not to tell Howard.  He kept to his word, as far as I knew.  He told me that I was looking too small for my age; that maybe things cannot grow properly, without love and care.  He was drunk most of the time; a shadow hanging over him.  Sometimes, very late at night, he would sniffle tears in the darkness.  I still wanted desperately to believe that he was on my side.  Somehow.  Michael did not trust him at all.  He came to the flat only to make contact with me.  We would sit side by side on one of the sofas, our arms touching, our eyes restless.  If Jack was not there, Michael would hold my attention and talk fast. “Anthony’s onto it,” he would tell me. “You have to keep going.  Don’t do anything stupid.  Don’t annoy Howard or raise his suspicions. Just keep your head down.  Honestly Danny, honestly, honestly he’s onto it. He’s gonna’ help you, I promise.”

School was over.  The exams had been and gone.  I had gone in for some of them, much to everyone’s surprise.  I sat the English exams and struggled through the maths and the science.  That was it.  That was all I had, and it wasn’t much.  The looks on their faces though; that had made it worth it!  I’d walked in, head held high, eyes fixed ahead, pencils clutched in one hand.  Michael had shaken his head and covered his mouth to laugh behind it.  Jake and Billy had just stared and stared.  Better than that, I finished first in the English exams.  They were a piece of piss.  I handed them in, walked out, and felt for one fleeting moment as if I were as free as a bird.  It tickled me no end, surprising them all like that, as if I had given them a glimpse of my true master plan, of the real me that lay hidden under my wrecked and strange existence.

My friendship with Michael was continued in snatched moments, at the shop, at the flat, and at Chaos.  Leaping up and down on the dance floor, screaming along to the music, alive.  Just alive.  You had to remind yourself of it sometimes.  He loved the fact Terry had given me a proper job in the record shop.  He loved to tell me how insanely pissed off and jealous Billy and Jake were.  “You’re down, but not out!” he liked to tell me, with a ridiculous grin upon his face.  I supposed he was right.

I was surviving day by day, with my eyes fixed ahead, with my plans and my dreams rolling along inside my head to keep me company.  During that time I was exactly what Howard wanted me to be.  In his presence, I was a boy beaten and pulped into shape, and into place.  I was all, yes sir, no sir.  I kept my eyes dull and empty.  I pushed feelings down, pushed emotions away, kept myself numb and obedient and safe. He loved it, and he revelled in it, but let me tell you now, he sure as hell didn’t believe in it.  He didn’t believe in it any more than I did.  But I had to string it out, I had to bide my time, keep the façade up, keep the fire out of my eyes.

The day that Michael came skidding into the shop with a wild panic in his eyes, was a day like any other day.  The shop was sweltering, so we kept the door propped open and instead of tea, Terry and I took turns making each other milkshakes.  I remember I had put Radiohead on the record player, even though it always made Terry groan.  “At least put something joyous on,” he would complain.  “At least some uplifting lyrics that will give us all hope!” You can’t help how you feel though.  And on that day, I was feeling down, and I was feeling like there was a constant top layer of dirt upon my skin, and I was feeling like I wanted to run into the ocean to scrub myself clean but that if I did, it would never work, or it would never last.  I was putting records away in the soul section, nodding along to the music, wanting to sing along but not owning the energy to hold my head up properly let alone open my mouth and speak.

Can’t get the stink out, it’s been hanging round for days…comes like a comet, suckered you but not your friends..One day he’ll get to you and teach you how to be a holy cow…You do it to yourself, you do…and that’s what really hurts…

            “Danny!”  It was Michael, bursting breathlessly through the open door, sweat pooling on his wrinkled forehead, his hair whipped back over his head as if he had been riding his bike very fast.  He ignored the look of alarm on Terry’s face and gripped me by the arm. “When do you finish?  I need to speak to you!”

I pulled my arm free and glanced at the clock on the wall.  “Ten minutes.”  I watched his shoulders drop in relief.  He put one hand out and rested it against the wall, catching his breath.

“Good. You’re coming with me.  I just had the weirdest phone call ever from Anthony, and he told me to come and get you.”

I considered his statement for a moment, and then I scratched my head and yawned. I was tired.  I wanted to sleep, and all of my stuff was at Jack’s flat.  “I dunno,” I told him. “I kind of had something else to do Mike.”

“No you can’t,” he hissed at me then, his eyes shooting from mine to Terry’s, and then back again. “Seriously Danny. He just called me at home from the pub. He sounded really upset!  He scared me.  He said he has something to tell us about Freeman, and we have to go back to mine and wait for him to finish work.”

Now I was really confused.  I felt weary, my shoulders hanging, my head too big and heavy for my body.  I didn’t want to tell him what my plan had been before he came rushing in, because it was shameful really, because everything about my life had become shameful.  I’d been thinking about it all day though; doing a few lines of coke with Jack and seeing if it felt as amazing as last time.  Now I had this wide-eyed Michael all frantic before me, I could see that it wasn’t going to happen. “Okay,” I told him, not seeing that I had any other choice.  “I’ll come with you to see Anthony, but I have to go to the flat first to get my stuff.”

“Oh god,” Michael moaned, looking up at the ceiling.  I shook my head at him, not understanding.  He rubbed at his eyes and nodded back at me.  “Okay, okay if you really have to, but the thing is Danny, Anthony told me not to go anywhere near Jack.  I mean, he practically begged me.”

“He won’t even be there,” I lied to him. “So chill out.  We’ll be really quick.”

Michael smoked a cigarette outside while I finished up and collected my cash from Terry.  Outside the shop, Michael grabbed his bike and started to push it along the pavement, and I fell into step beside him.  I narrowed my eyes at him. “What is wrong with you?” I asked. “You look like you’re gonna’ shit yourself!”

“’Cause I am,” he admitted, sucking the last few drags from his cigarette before chucking the butt over his shoulder.  “Anthony just phoned me at home and told me to stay the fuck away from Jack Freeman, and now we’re on the way to his bloody flat!  If I don’t shit myself I know I’m gonna’ bloody piss myself!”

“What do you think it is Mike?  Why does he want us to keep away from him?”

“I don’t know, that’s the point!  He couldn’t say over the phone.  He’d just seen Jaime though.  You know he’s been getting him to spy and that, find stuff out?”

I didn’t know, so I shook my head, baffled and astounded. “Why?”

“I dunno. They’re mates.  They meet up.  I dunno Danny, but the point is, he was very fucking specific just now.  Do not go to the flat, he said.” Michael blew his breath out slowly and looked up, shaking his hair from his face as the old council flats loomed up ahead of us, on the other side of the railway tracks.  We crossed the bridge in solemn silence, keeping our eyes ahead. “I feel like a total fucking prick coming here after what he just said,” Michael muttered, the nearer we got.  I offered him a brief and nervy smile.

“I’ll be like two seconds.  I’ll just grab my stuff and we’ll go.”

“Oh man,” Michael moaned, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “What do you think it is?  What do you think Anthony’s worried about?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh Jesus.”

“Are you scared?” I asked him, looking his way.  He nodded at me instantly.

“Are you?”

I tucked my hair behind my ears and grimaced. “I’m always fucking scared.”

When we reached his block, the main door was propped open with a brick.  I stepped into the dimly lit hallway while Michael leaned his bike against the wall outside. “It might get nicked,” I warned him. He nodded in silent reply, evidently too nervous to speak.  Jack’s flat was on the second floor.  We climbed the stairs briskly, keeping close to the mustard coloured wall, keeping silent.  Michael seemed to grow increasingly agitated the nearer we got to the flat.  As we trailed along the corridor towards Jacks door, he whispered to me; “have you got your knife on you?” I looked at him, rolling my eyes.

“What are you gonna’ need a knife for Mike? He’s a fat fucking slug, he’s not gonna’ do anything.”  We reached the door so I fished my key out of my back pocket.

“That’s obviously not what Anthony thinks,” Michael reminded me miserably, his eyes shooting around nervously as I unlocked and opened the door.  At once, the smell of curry hit our nostrils, and we could hear the TV chattering.  My stomach took a massive nose dive and I imagine Michael’s did as well.  He looked like he was going to be sick, and I wondered for a moment what had happened to the boy I used to know, the tough talking Michael Anderson, the boy who was not afraid of anything.  I wondered what had happened to both of us.  We were like mice, cautious and scuttling as we entered the flat, side by side, resisting every temptation to grab eachothers arms.  Michael pulled at the back of my t-shirt as I went ahead of him. “Just get your stuff quick and go,” he hissed.

We emerged from the hallway and stepped into the lounge.  Jack was right there, sprawled like a bearded whale on his favourite leather sofa, his jaws moving around and around, a lump of bright orange curry poised on the end of a fork close to his mouth.  He hiccupped and burped and waved the greasy fork at us. “Hello boys,” he said.  We ignored him.  Michael stayed put, and I crossed the room quickly, snatching up one of my jumpers from the back of the tatty grey sofa and slinging it under one arm.  I picked up my tin from one of the coffee tables and stuffed it into a back pocket.  Then I walked behind the sofa and started to pile my arms up with records and cassettes.  “What’s up, you not staying?” Jack questioned, talking through his mouthful of food.  I looked at Michael and he nodded at me. “Lost your tongue?” Jack went on, sounding nervous. “Gone all shy on me?  Thought we had plans kiddo?  You know?  Your mate is welcome too, you know, you always know that.”

“Gotta’ go,” I told him, heading back to Michael, and the door.

“Why you taking all that with you?”

“It’s mine.”

“Oh alright, alright then.  Off you go.  Back later then are you?”

“Maybe,” I said, just to keep him happy. “See you later.”

We left the lounge and hurried back to the front door. “Don’t worry I’ll save you some!” he yelled after me.  “I know you won’t wanna’ miss out!”

I slammed the door behind me. “What’s he on about?” Michael asked, his eyes wide with fear.  I shrugged.

“Fuck knows. Come on.” We grabbed at each other in mounting uneasiness, and started to run.

We were sat in the kitchen, nibbling nervously at marmite toast, when Anthony came sighing through the front door.  We looked at each other, knowing the wait was over, knowing this was it, as he slung down his keys and kicked off his boots in the hallway.  We sat hunched over the table, and I pushed my half eaten toast away, unsure why it had suddenly begun to make me feel sick.  Anthony came into the kitchen, stopped, and just looked at us, and I swear to god, for one awful, terrible moment I was utterly convinced that he was going to cry.  He just stared at us, mostly at me, and he looked wretched and gutted, and I thought, who has died?  Has someone died?  That’s one of those faces, that’s a face like someone has died, or something really, really terrible has happened, and spikes of terror broke out across my skin, and I felt freezing cold.

Instead of crying, Anthony coughed, cleared his throat and ran a hand quickly back through his short, dark hair.  He looked troubled, and was frowning, and then it was like he was unable to meet our eyes properly, and the more we stared at him, waiting, the more he couldn’t look at us, until finally he turned and wrenched open the fridge.  “Okay then,” he said, turning back with beer in hand, and eyes to the floor.  He didn’t say anything though, he just kept us waiting even longer and started to pace back and forth with his beer.

“Come on then!” Michael snapped at him suddenly, his outburst making me jump so badly I knocked half of my cup of tea all over the table.  Michael swore and rubbed irritably at his eyes. “Come on then,” he pleaded. “Tell us what the hell’s going on.”

“Alright, alright, give me a chance, hang on, I got so much to explain. Shift up Mike.” Michael moved along the bench and Anthony slipped in beside him.  He held his beer in one hand and his head in the other.  He looked like he was in some kind of terrible pain, and my hands were growing slick and greasy with sweat.  “My head is killing me,” he complained. Michael thumped the table.

“Anthony!  For fucks sake!”

He looked up.  “Right, okay, I know, okay, give me a chance.  This isn’t easy you know.” He closed his eyes for a moment, and rubbed two fingers against the middle of his forehead. “I don’t even know if it’s definitely true, I mean, I’ve gone and scared you all, and me, and I’ve only really got Jaime’s word for it.”

“What’s Jaime got to do with it?” I asked in a small voice. “What’s been going on between you two?”

Anthony lowered his hand and looked at me with a sigh. “Well that’s the thing,” he said. “I mean, that’s why this is hard to explain.  Look, you know I said to you a while back that I was onto things?  To help you?”  I nodded yes.  He scratched his neck.  “Okay, well, that all started way back, when I came out of prison again, and bumped into Jaime. Mike told you we went to school together right?” I nodded again. “Yeah, well, anyway.  I started meeting up with him every now and then, just buying some grass off him to start with.  Started grilling him when I could get away with it, you know, about Howard and Freeman. Just finding out anything I could about them, but to be honest, he didn’t know much.  Not really.  Only that it is true Freeman used to be a cop.”

My eyes widened and Michael’s did too. “That’s true?” I asked.  My heart was beating thick and hard inside my chest.  I picked up my half cup of tea and sipped it. Anthony nodded at us.

“Well to begin with Jaime wasn’t totally sure, but he reckoned only a cop or a criminal would know the stuff Freeman knows.  He dug around a bit when he could, you see. To help me.  Because I asked him to.”

“Why the hell would he do that for you?” Michael demanded. “He works for them.”

“Hmm,” said Anthony, making a face that told us otherwise.  “He sort of works for me too.”

My jaw fell open.  “Whaaaat?”

Anthony laughed a little nervously. “This is the bit even Mike doesn’t know.  I’ve been paying him.  Jaime, I mean.  For a while now.  Well, from the start really.  I’ve been paying him to spy for me, to find stuff out, whatever.”

Michael held up a hand, shaking his head in bemusement. “Hang on, hang on, let me get this straight. You’ve been paying Jaime Lawler to dig dirt on Freeman and Howard?”

Anthony smiled slightly, shrugged and nodded.  “Basically, yes.  I wanted to know anything.  Anything he could find out, anything he heard, like if Freeman was a cop once, and how he knew Howard in the first place, and as it happens, Freeman really was a cop, a detective even, until about three or four years ago.”

“No shit?” breathed Michael, looking at me.  “That fat sack of shit, a cop? I never would have believed it.”

“How did Jaime get anything out of him?” I asked then, shifting forward slightly. “He never told me that.”

“Just questions,” Anthony shrugged. “Waiting ‘til he was drunk, that kind of thing.  But we needed more than that, we needed confirmation, so we came up with a plan.  Last night, Jaime came into The Ship and kicked off big time, reeling around the place, smashing stuff and starting on people until he got himself arrested.”

My mind was spinning.  I didn’t understand a thing.  “Why?” Michael asked, while I could only stare.

“To get arrested, on purpose,” Anthony went on very patiently. “Cost me a bit, I can tell you, but you should of seen him guys! Should’ve been an actor that lad.  You would’ve thought he was blind crazy drunk, but he hadn’t touched a drop.  Anyway, to cut the long story short, he ended up in a cell, and demanded to see Officer Heaton and no one else.”

“Why him?” I asked. Anthony sat back a little and drank some beer.

“They went to school together,” he told us, while our jaws dropped yet again.  He nodded at our shocked faces. “Same year.  Few older than me.  Heaton’s a good bloke.  He agreed to speak to Jaime to shut him up. He was causing mayhem in the cells. Anyway, Heaton agreed to speak to him and Jaime offered him a deal no copper worth his salt would ever refuse.”

What?” Michael demanded, his hands planted and splayed against the table top, his eyes bulging from his pale face.  I knew exactly how he felt.  I didn’t think I could cope with this much longer.  The suspense, and the building fear were killing me.  I wanted to get up and run out and never have to hear any of it.  Every time I looked into Anthony’s eyes I had the most awful feeling of dread, heavy and dragging in my belly, pulling me down slowly.

“He offered to give him the location of some big-time crack dealer over in Belfield Park, in return for Heaton running a quick background check on our pal Jack Freeman. So Heaton took him up on it of course.  Ran the check, gave him the information that came up, and Jaime gave him the number.  One less lowlife crack dealer operating in Belfield Park by the looks of it.”  Anthony grimaced again and rubbed his eyes with one hand.

“Dangerous for Jaime,” I whispered, my eyes on the table.  Anthony was silent for a moment or two, and then he sat forward.

“Okay, so anyway, this is where it gets interesting.  And when I say interesting, I really mean disturbing.” His eyes found mine and I really wanted him to stop it.  I wanted him to stop talking and I wanted him to stop looking at me, and I wanted him to stop looking so damn scared and anxious.  He rolled his shoulders back and rubbed vigorously at the back of his neck with one hand.  “You’re not gonna’ like this much,” he said, his voice gruff and small, and again, his eyes on me.  “But you need to know, so here goes.  Okay.  Well it’s true that Freeman and Howard have known each other for years.  And for a lot of that time Freeman was a cop, who made it all the way up to D.I. But then a few years back, he was pushed into early retirement because he was being investigated.  Someone made an accusation against him, and it was taken seriously enough for him to be suspended.  It didn’t get very far though, the investigation, before the witness backed out and changed his mind. The accusation was dropped and he pretty much got away with it.  But his career was over.  Then he turns up here.  Called over no doubt by Howard who was getting his knickers in a twist about me and my mates threatening him that time.  All falls into place when you think about it, eh?”  His voice had dried up to almost nothing.  He lifted his beer and guzzled about half of it, before banging it back onto the table.

There was a long, cold silence between all three of us then.  I think none of us wanted to be the first to speak, the first to ask the question that hung like ice in the air, strangling us all. My eyes travelled to meet Michaels, and he just looked confused and pale and sad, and then I looked at Anthony, and oh Jesus Christ, he was just staring right back at me in this awful, this terrible knowing way, like he knew I knew exactly what he was going to say, and I felt something slipping inside of me then, and this livid terror clawing up my throat.  It was my question to ask, so I asked it.  “What was he accused of?” Anthony swallowed and glanced down at the table.  He was rubbing his thumb nail back and forth against the cloth.

“He had a rent boy as an informer, you know what is?  You know what that means?”  Michael and I shrugged and nodded at the same time.  My mouth felt coated with something vile, something I wanted to retch up and spit out.  “This kid, he was fourteen, anyway, it was him that made the complaint, and it’s all on file, and Heaton told Jaime what came up on the check, so I guess we have to assume it’s all the truth…but anyway, he accused Freeman of molesting him, you know, attacking him, you know…” He trailed off, not wanting to speak the words, not wanting those words to fit inside his mouth and I knew what he meant and I knew what he felt, and I was just blinking in shock and horror, and the whole room was spinning like crazy around my head, all of it suddenly fuzzy and unreal.  I shook my head hard, trying to shake it all away and when I felt Anthony’s hand on my forearm, I wrenched my arm away, and I heard Michael saying, shittinghell, shittinghell!

“Danny?”

I opened my mouth to speak.  But I felt sick.  I was going to be sick.  I lunged away from the table and ran to the kitchen sink, where the marmite toast lurched up violently from my belly, sending splats of twisted brown and black gunge across the worktops.  It was followed by another lurch, and this time my tea flew up after it, splattering the draining board.  I gripped onto the edge of the sink with my hands.  I felt the whole world dancing  around me.  I wanted to get off.  I wanted to die.  I didn’t want to have to turn around and look at them, not ever, not ever.  I thought he was my friend. I was breathless and panting, and my stomach kept heaving and trying to breathe for me.

“Danny?”  I heard Anthony from behind me.  He sounded desperate and panicked. “Danny? Has anything ever happened…like that?”

I did not want to turn and face them.  I did not want to face myself.  I wanted to scratch my face off.  I wanted to scratch all of my skin off.  I wanted to scratch him off.  I thought about walking to the door and leaving.  I thought about finding a dark hole somewhere and shredding my skin off, layer by layer, until I found whatever was left of me hidden underneath.  Instead, I shook my head slowly from side to side and said. “No.”

Anthony breathed a sigh of relief, and I turned around to see his eyes focused firmly on Michael, who had turned as white as a sheet. “Anything Mike?  Anything weird?”

“No!  God no!” Michael reached for his cup of tea, his hand shaking visibly as it snaked across the table.

“Okay that’s good,” said Anthony, but then his eyes were back on me.  It was the way he looked at me that did it.  My knees felt like jelly and I wanted to sink to the floor, but somehow I had to keep it together.  Somehow, I thought, some fucking how there has to be some hope somewhere.  So I sat back down and kept looking at him.  My eyes filled with frightened tears, and so did his.

“Few times,” I mumbled, my lips trembling.  I wiped my eyes with my hands. “Few times he sat next to me at night.  He stroked my hair and stuff.  I thought I was dreaming.” I nodded, remembering how I would wake in the morning with fuzzy memories in my mind, memories that I ignored, shoved away, recoiled from…Sometimes he would just be sat there.  Just staring at me. Looking like he was going to cry.  I dragged a hand across my eyes again.

“What else?” Anthony urged me.

“He was just staring at me,” I said. “I just thought I was dreaming.  I had bad dreams all the time…I thought I was dreaming.”

“Anything else?” Anthony asked, his voice tight, his face taut and still.  I shook my head miserably, but at the back of my mind, I was crawling up the walls and trembling with fear and disgust and confusion.  I pressed my face into the palms of my hands and just held it there, just rubbing and rubbing at my eyes and my head, trying to make it all just go away.  I shook my head.

“Fucking dirty son-of-a-bitch!” Michael burst out suddenly, hissing through his teeth, as he rose abruptly from the table, with his hands ploughing through his unruly black hair.  He was shaking his head at us.

“That’s all though?” Anthony turned his attention back to me.  I swallowed and rubbed at my arms.  I was trying like hell to pull myself back together, to not disintegrate in front of them.  I lowered my head back into my waiting hands.

“Yeah, that’s all,” I told him.

“It’s okay,” Anthony was telling me urgently. “It’s okay because we know now, so that’s fucking it right?  You guys never go near the slimy pervert ever again, right?  And I’m gonna’ find a way to fuck him up, you can believe that.  Both of them.”

“You think Howard knows all this?” asked Michael, standing close to the back door with his arms folded across his chest.  He blew his hair up and out of his glaring dark eyes. “I bet he does, fucking evil cunt bastard!  Both of them Anthony!  I knew it, I fucking knew there was something dodgy about that guy didn’t I Danny?  Filthy shitting pervert!”  He shuddered and shook his head and his lips were all curled back in revulsion.  He was looking at me, and I wanted to shrink away in shame, remembering the countless times he had told me how uncomfortable Jack made him, and all the times I had ignored him and encouraged him to come to the flat.  “I said, didn’t I? Why the hell would Howard’s friend let us go to his flat and drink and stuff?  Why would he?  I knew there was something dodgy going on, I knew it! Oh fuckinghell, this is horrible!” He unfolded his arms and covered his mouth with one hand, just shaking his head from side to side.

Anthony took control of things.  He picked up a pack of cigarettes and passed them out to us, lighting each one in turn.  “You’re right,” he nodded at his brother. “This is all to do with Howard. Right from the very start.”  His eyes met mine, and I could only stare back at him, trapped within a grim and frightened silence.  I heard the truth of it all come crashing in on me, and the truth was deafening.  My mind wanted to buckle under the pressure.  I felt like my heart and soul were being wrung out slowly.  “He brought the guy here,” Anthony said to us.  “We know that.  Called him up and got him here because I threw my weight around at that party.  Calls in his old perverted buddy.  Sets him up in his old flat.  Gets him dealing with the likes of Lawler, and letting you kids use the flat to score and get drunk.” Anthony was nodding as he puffed nervously away on his cigarette, his eyes on me.  “Jesus,” he said, with a brief smile. “I thought I was scared of that guy when he got me sent down again, but I think I’m even more scared of him now.” He shook his head, and in between drags his teeth were nibbling restlessly at his lip.  I had never seen him look like that before; like he was shitting himself.  “This is heavy, serious shit.  I didn’t really have a clue. I’m guessing you did though, hey?”

I glanced down at my hands, clasped together on the table to stop them shaking.  About a million memories of pain and fear rushed through my mind and all I could do was nod silently, and think, you’re right Anthony, you don’t have a clue, you really don’t…

“What now?” Michael croaked then, from the back door where he stood huddled against it. Anthony shrugged at him.

“I don’t know yet.”

“I’ve got a plan,” I said then, lifting my eyes to meet theirs.  I breathed in, wondering if it were possible to inhale their courage and their strength.  “I’m sixteen next month.  Terry can hire me properly.  That’s one thing.  The other thing is I can leave home without the cops bothering to look for me.  So I lay low until then.  Carry on as normal and pretend I don’t know all this. We find a place to live.  We don’t tell anyone.  We go.  All three of us.  They won’t know anything about it. We find a place together.” I looked from Michael, to Anthony, licking my lips as they took it in.  I could hardly stand to look at them, hoping as much as I was.  Hope was such a painful thing, I remembered then.  God, it hurt.  Michael looked at his brother, who lowered his cigarette and stared at me wonderingly.

“Are you serious?”

“It’s been my plan for ages,” I shrugged at them. “I’ve even got money saved up.  Been buying way less music.” I smiled a little. “Anyway, Terry will increase my hours when I’m sixteen, so I’ll have to keep my job there, but we’ll move somewhere else, and they won’t know, we’ll just go.  We can afford a place if it’s all three of us.”

Anthony was smiling now.  “So where are you thinking?” he asked me.

“Belfield Park,” I said, smiling back. “So we’re close to Chaos.” I watched the smile spreading up Anthony’s face, lighting up his eyes, taking over his face.  Michael came forward, looking at me as if he did not understand me. “Plenty of bed-sits and flats,” I explained. “Cheap as chips.  We can all bus into work.  If they find us, or bother us, we’ll go further.”

“Anthony?” Michael arrived at his brothers side and nudged him. “What d’you reckon?  You’re always saying we can’t afford this place now mum’s gone.  And I just got that Saturday job in McDonalds, that’ll help, right?”

Anthony stared at him before laughing out loud.  “You boys don’t need to convince me for fucks sake!” He stubbed out his cigarette, reached across the table and ruffled up my hair.  “Jesus fucking Christ mate, you’ve got more balls than anyone I’ve ever met!  Come on, I’m serious, Mike? Grab the paper!  There’s places to rent in the back of it. We need to start looking now!”

Michael dashed out of the kitchen, excitement lighting up his face, while Anthony just looked at me, shaking his head and clapping his hands, and we just grinned at each other helplessly.  I felt something stirring softly inside of me then.  A nervous and heady kind of excitement that made me feel a little woozy, a little foggy in the mind.  Anthony’s eyes burned back into mine, unflinching. “This is it,” he told me then. “Listen to me, I promise you, this is it. It’s all gonna’ be okay now.”  I wanted to believe him.  God, I wanted to believe him so fucking much.

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