It was Anthony who opened the door to a strained looking Billy, five days after we had moved into the bed-sit. He shuffled quickly in through the door, checking back over his shoulder as he did, his hands jammed so deep into his pockets that his shoulders appeared hunched right up to his ears. Anthony looked him over with a quizzical frown. “Alright there Billy? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
Billy shrunk past him. “More like a monster,” he mumbled unhappily.
Billy released a weary sigh, and looked at Michael and I, sprawled out lazily on the bed. Anthony closed and locked the door, and turned to face him, folding his arms over his chest. “I’ve got bad news,” Billy told us remorsefully. I sat up then, my eyes narrowing and my mouth closing. He was looking right at me, so I guessed it was my bad news. Billy sighed again, and grimaced back at me. “Howard attacked Jake. Last night. Beat him up.”
There was an audible gasp from all of us. Michael jerked up beside me, his mouth gaping at Billy. “You are fucking kidding me!” he cried. I just stared. Billy shook his head in misery. To me, he appeared small and scared then, reduced to a childlike status, and I found myself wondering, what the hell Jake must look like.
“After he finished work,” he told us. “Out the back of the café. Just crept up behind and attacked him.”
I got up from the bed then, shaking my head and pressing my hands to each side of my face. I was wearing my old Nirvana t-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. We had been enjoying a lazy morning, our favourite kind. Crappy TV on low, music on loud, a bit of a smoke, and Anthony’s cooking. Billy looked like he was about to say more, but wasn’t sure how to. I nodded at him, and he blew his breath out unhappily. “He told Jake to give you a message Danny.” We all stared back at him in silence, our breath held, our hearts thumping. Billy swallowed. “He had a knife and he cut off a chunk of Jake’s hair and told him to give it to you, and to tell you that if you don’t go home, he’ll start cutting bits off all of us.”
“Oh my god,” breathed Michael in horror, stumbling up from the bed. “Shittinghell!”
I looked at Anthony and saw that he was still, and calm, his dark eyes intense and focused solely on Billy. “And then what happened Bill?” he asked him. Billy took a deep breath before going on.
“Jake came to my house, and my mum opened the door to him, and he said who did it, and she called the police.”
Anthony nodded, eyebrows raised. “Seriously?”
“Yep. They came and took a statement off him, and said they’d go and find Howard, and they asked if we knew where Danny was, and we said no.” Billy took another breath, licked his lips and eyed us nervously. “And Jake didn’t tell Howard either. He didn’t tell him where you lot are. You think he’s been arrested by now Anthony?”
“Who knows?” shrugged Anthony, pushing his hand back through his hair. He looked at me then, wonderingly. “Well mate, sounds like the prick has lost it big time. I don’t know whether we should be pleased or scared, eh?”
I found the edge of the bed and sat back down. “Is Jake okay Billy?”
“He’s fine, yeah,” Billy nodded. “Just a bit shook up, you know. He said to tell you sorry, by the way.”
I frowned. “What the hell for?”
Billy shrugged awkwardly. “Dunno, I guess for not sticking by you when things were tough, you know, when you were skipping school and high and stuff. He thinks he was harsh on you. He didn’t know, you know?” Billy scratched his head and stuck his hands back into his pockets. “We didn’t know,” he said, sounding confused. “We had no idea.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I told him softly.
“Did we do the right thing?” he asked then, his tone slightly desperate as he looked back at Anthony for the reassurance he so often gave us. “Telling the police and that? My mum, she just took over!”
“Serves him right,” was Anthony’s reply.
“It’s fine,” I agreed. “Maybe they’ll catch up with him, hey? God. Poor Jake though. Tell him I’m sorry, will you?”
“Sorry?” Anthony looked at me sharply. “What have you got to be sorry for, you twat?”
“He’s after me,” I sighed. “I’m not gonna’ let him go through you guys to get to me.”
“What does that mean?”
“He won’t get us anyway!” Michael blurted out then, staring from me to Anthony, to Billy, his brow creased, and his eyes fearful. “He’ll be arrested by now, won’t he? He can’t just attack Jake in broad daylight like that and get away with it! He can’t do anything to us, now that’s on record, he just can’t! Isn’t that right Anthony?”
Anthony nodded sombrely. “He’d be nuts if he did. Danny?” I looked up. “What are you thinking?”
I bit down on my lip and slid from the bed again. I felt their eyes on me curiously as I found my jeans on the floor and pulled them on. “I’m thinking about going back to work,” I said quietly.
Billy gasped. “Are you insane?” he yelled at me. “After what just happened to Jake?”
I sat back down to pull on my socks. “I’ve got no choice Bill. The fat man won’t keep my job open forever, and I haven’t even thanked him for those tickets yet, for christs sake. I’ve messed him about enough. I need to be there.”
Billy turned helplessly to Anthony. “Are you gonna’ let him do this?”
“What?” he shrugged in reply, a sparkle in his eyes and a grin on his face. “He can’t spend the rest of his life in this room, can he Bill? He’s got no choice.”
“You going now?” asked Michael. “I’ll come with you!” he started searching the floor for signs of his own clothes. We hadn’t exactly shown ourselves to be house proud so far in our new surroundings. The floor was so covered with discarded clothes and dirty dishes and cups, that the carpet was barely visible. He set about tossing and kicking things aside until he found his black jeans, and started to yank them on. “I’ll go with you to work, then I’ll go and see Jake. Come back and meet you when you’re done, yeah?” He looked at me hopefully, shaking his hair from his eyes.
“Cool,” I nodded. Billy groaned loudly and raked both his hands violently back through his stiff auburn hair.
“Oh for fucks sake,” he complained. “I’ll come too. Jesus Christ.”
As for Anthony, he made me smile. He dropped down onto his sofa bed, crossed his legs at the ankles and picked up his little tin from the arm of the chair. He was grinning like a fool, this long, lazy smile lighting up his eyes, as he pulled the lid from his tin and set about rolling himself a little smoke. “Proud of you all,” he announced cheerily, as we began to troop solemnly from the room. “Get on out there and take no shit! Fight back!”
The three of us emerged cautiously from the darkness of the hall downstairs, blinking and feeling the urge to rub at or shield our eyes from the bright August sunshine. No one spoke, as we rounded the corner and waited at the bus stop together. And we were silent when we boarded the bus, paid our fares and took our seats. It was only a fifteen minute bus ride back into Redchurch, and I felt the tension building in me with every second that passed. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being a criminal, returning to the scene of his crime. I looked at my friends, at their sick and frightened expressions, and I felt another layer of guilt settle over the first one. I gazed out of the window and thought, I owe it to them not to be scared anymore. When we got the stop closest to The Record Shop, we got up and jumped off the bus. The sunlight was dazzling in that area of town, bouncing and rebouncing from every available surface, shop front and car. I closed my eyes briefly, breathed in and then faced them with a smile. I owed it to them to stand up, and I was going to show them, we had no reason to hide. “Could be an interesting day,” I joked, as they walked me towards the shop.
Billy was fiddling anxiously with the leather bracelets around his wrist. “What’ll you do if the cops come here to see you?” he asked me and I shrugged.
“I dunno. I really don’t. Hey, say hi to Jake for me, won’t you? Tell him I said sorry, won’t you, that he got caught up in all of this.”
“Well maybe he’ll be more on your side from now on,” Michael muttered somewhat darkly, as his eyes flitted restlessly up and down the street. He patted me on the shoulder and attempted a smile. “I’ll be back around three, yeah? After I’ve seen Jake I’m gonna’ pop into work and see if they’ve got me some more shifts yet. Some girl quit last week, so I should get offered some.”
“No problem,” I nodded, and watched them go. I had an awful feeling Billy was going to say something terrible and depressing like good luck, but he didn’t. If anything he looked too nervous to speak, and as white as a sheet. I turned around and pushed gratefully into the shop. I was met with a warmth and a smell that was instantly and indescribably comforting. I could have bathed in it. I wanted to breathe it in, and let it settle through me, and on me. The smell of old things, coated in dust, smeared in finger prints, and aged by love. Radioheads Bones was playing and I paused to hear the lyrics; I don’t want to be crippled and cracked, shoulders, knees, wrist and back…crawling on all fours…when you’ve got to feel it in your bones… I inhaled it all and approached the counter, where Terry looked up at me from his stool, a brief and surprised smile filling his face.
“Oh look who it is!” he boomed. “All better now I see?”
“Was the funniest thing,” I grinned back at him, resting my arms wearily on the counter top. “Couldn’t stop puking for days. You wouldn’t have wanted to catch it Terry.”
“Got a delivery at the back,” he told me, jerking his head in that direction. “Some old bird just dropped it off in the alley. Four bloody boxes of records. I can’t go near ‘em mate. Makes me sneeze.”
“I’ll put the kettle on first shall I?” I laughed, and he looked pleased and handed me his empty mug.
“Oh, just to warn you,” he said then, “you’ve had a pretty constant visitor these last few days.”
I paused in the doorway and forced another smile. “Let me guess. Massive angry bloke? Wanting to know where I am?”
“That’s the one,” Terry nodded grimly and made a little grimace of disgust. “Bloody thick necked twat. Been getting right on my wick, he has. You know I like my peace and quiet in here. He your step-dad is he?” He sort of winced as he asked the question, as if the very thought of it offended him.
“Yeah. That’s him.”
Terry rolled his eyes, made a little grumbling noise in his throat and swivelled on his stool to face me properly. “Fucking beefed up, testosterone fuelled, monkey brained psychopath by the look of him.”
I laughed out loud. I wanted to hug him. “Yes! That’s him! Brilliant Terry!”
Terry grunted. “He the cunt that runs that club down the road now?”
“Yep. He owns it. Doesn’t like music though. Nothing.”
Terry’s eyebrows shot up towards his receding hairline. “Fuck me,” he snarled. “God I could really get to hate some people, couldn’t you?”
“I’ve left home,” I told him then, lowering my voice slightly, but keeping the smile upon my lips to let him know that all was good. “Just so you know. Moved in with Mike and Anthony. That’s what he’s pissed about.”
“Well who could fucking blame you?” Terry roared at me, making me laugh again. “I’ll call the bloody cops if he comes in here again, shouting the odds.” He shook his head and clicked his tongue and looked back down at his copy of NME.
“You do that Terry,” I told him. “And hey?” He looked back up, wonderingly. I felt a little embarrassed then, but I stepped forward and held my hand out to him. I didn’t know how else to thank him for the Oasis tickets. I wanted to let him know how amazing and beautiful it was, how it meant the world to me, and made me smile from morning til night, just thinking about October. He frowned and raised his lip up and took my hand in a confused manner. “Thanks,” I said, and shook it before dropping it and stepping back again. Terry looked completely baffled. “For the tickets,” I nodded. “Fucking amazing. Best present ever. Can’t even….” I shrugged and shook my head and sighed. It was useless. There were no words in the world to describe what those tickets meant to me. “Just…thanks Terry. I owe you. I mean, you’ve been bloody brilliant.”
Terry rolled his eyes, and waved his magazine at me irritably. “Oh that! Jesus Christ I got them to shut you the hell up! Forget about it.”
“Amazing though Terry…I can’t even…”
“Oh go and put the kettle on and stop embarrassing us both,” he sort of grinned at me then, and there was a pinkness creeping into his soft round cheeks. “I did it for the shop, yeah? Can’t have staff working for me if they’ve never even been to a live gig for fucks sake! Can’t call yourself a music fan if you don’t go and see it live! Go on now. Tea.”
It was coming up to one o’clock, and I had just brought out another round of tea and biscuits for me and Terry. I had spent all morning sorting through the boxes the old lady had left for him in the alley. I found a copy of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and Terry insisted I keep it. “Beautiful songs, bloody good singer,” was all he would tell me. I put the tea and biscuits on the counter and turned to the record player. Blonde On Blonde had just finished, so I took it off and slid it carefully back inside its sleeve. I flicked through the pile Terry had chosen. He had a couple of Neil Young records in the pile, and Sandanista by The Clash. I fancied something a bit livelier, so put that on while he was farting away in the toilet out the back. I stuck my tongue out, urggh, he sounded like he was having a hard time in there, and I put the record on, closed the lid with care, and turned around, just in time to see a maniacal face pressed up against the shop window. Howard.
All at once, the rest of the shop just fell away from me and disappeared from view, even the music seemed to fade quickly away to nothing. There was just nothing, except me and his wild, leering face. He seemed to materialise inside the shop without even opening the door or walking in. He was just suddenly right there, filling the space as always, dominating the atmosphere and stealing all of the air. An icy coldness flooded my veins. “Well look who it is!” he declared in delight, the words rolling from his hanging tongue, dripping with glee, as he closed the space between us and slammed both his hands down upon the counter. I jumped. Moved back. Felt the memory of fists against skin jarring through my body. I watched his tongue flicking rapidly around the edges of his gaping mouth. “The original whizz kid eh! Finally crawled out from his hiding place! I ought to grab hold of you and drag you down the police station for what you did to Jack!”
I forced myself to breathe. It was like I had forgotten how to, but I opened my mouth, felt the air tickle the back of my throat and sucked it in, sending it swirling through to my lungs. I ran my eyes over the monstrous man who stood before me, and then it occurred to me that I had never seen him appear so dishevelled before. He was unshaven, and his hair and beard looked like they needed a trim. His eyes were all wrong; like they had been forced open for too long, and now were too big and round and staring to close properly. “And I’ll tell them what you sent him for, you sick motherfucker,” I said to him, speaking my words slowly and softly, and as I spoke, I remembered the fire of defiance that had lived in me such a long time ago, the constant urge to fight everyone, to rail against everything, to be heard. I searched for it now. I dug deep down inside of myself to bring it back to the surface, and I clung to it now as I stared into the eyes of a man who looked scarily close to the edge of reason.
His top lip rose like a hungry dogs. “Oh yeah? You little fucker!”
“Yeah,” I said. “I hear they’re looking for you anyway, after you attacked Jake for no reason!”
His face loomed closer to mine, and I moved back instinctively. “Oh yeah? Well smart arse I think you’ll find they’ve already spoken to me about that, and they were perfectly happy with my alibi! I was with my bar manager Mark at that exact time, and he was only too happy to verify that for them!”
“You mean you paid him, or threatened him to give you an alibi?”
Howard snorted violently through his nose. “Whatever. I told the cops how your drug addled friends have always had it in for me. They were very keen to know where you were, you know. Maybe Jack’s made a complaint, eh? Could find yourself in all sorts of shit now.”
I shook my head and bit down on the retorts that sprung to mind. I didn’t want him here, infecting the air, wrecking my space and my peace. I sighed, and I was tired of it all, of this never ending game of trading insults. “Look I’m busy,” I told him. “Was there something you wanted? A record you’re after?” I heard Terry flushing the toilet out the back.
“Don’t give me that you fucking little piss bag!” Howard spoke viciously, his nostrils flaring wide as spittle flew from his lips and sprayed the counter. I watched the droplets land and spread on Terry’s magazine. “You know why I’m here. To take you home. To give you another chance.”
“I don’t think so,” I told him, looking him right in the eye. I stared at him, I stared right into him and I willed him to see how much I meant it. “Never gonna’ happen.”
Just then Terry came shuffling around the corner, hoisting up his gut to buckle his belt under it. His eyes clouded with rage when he spotted Howard in his shop, and he headed for his stool on his puny legs. “You again!” he bellowed instantly. “I thought I told you to sling your hook bully boy! Go on! Out you go!”
Howard straightened up and stiffened, his hands falling away from the counter. I regarded him curiously, and saw his face changing. I saw fear there, I knew I did, fear, and panic and uncertainty. It fascinated me because I didn’t think I had ever seen him like that before. It was the face of someone losing control, losing their grip. “I hope you know the kind of scum you’ve got working for you,” he snarled at Terry. Terry climbed onto his stool and waved an impatient hand at him. Howard pointed at me. “This kid is a drug addict! He has a police record as long as my arm, did you know that? You ought to check your till and your stock carefully fat man!”
“Go on,” Terry repeated in absolute distain, waving a podgy hand as if swatting at a fly that was irritating him. “I don’t want you in here causing trouble! I’ll call the law!”
“Oh really?” Howard fixed his manic stare back on me. “Well then, little man, aren’t you the popular one these days eh? Yeah. Ooh everyone loves Danny so much! Danny has so many people sticking up for him! Don’t know why everyone thinks you’re so great when you’ve been nothing but a little fuck up from day one!”
I just stared back at him, steady and unflinching. I felt almost drowsy with the strength that was building up inside of me. It made me want to smile, and laugh, and sit down and let it all through spin through my head. Lee Howard, I thought, look at you, falling apart before my very eyes. I didn’t have to say or do a thing. Behind me Terry had picked up the phone and was dialling. “Calling the cops!” he said to Howard. “Come in here, insulting my staff!”
He was starting to retreat. Backing slowly towards the door. He had come for something and he was being forced to leave without it again. He looked like he was panting slightly as he raised a finger again to point at me. He nodded his head and reached out for the door behind him. “This isn’t over,” he told me. “I’ll be coming for you! I’ll be coming for you you little cunt when you least fucking expect it! You can count on that little man. I’ll be coming for you. You still got a lot of lessons to learn off me!”
“Get out!” Terry yelled, and he went. The door eased itself shut behind him. I said nothing. I closed my eyes and released a massive, shaky sigh of relief. I could hear Terry muttering away indignantly beside me. I opened my eyes and rubbed at my face and gave him a thankful, withering smile.