He had to go outside to smoke. His sister-in-law Christina did not like anyone smoking around the kids. Fair enough. He waited for his brother outside, and smoked his cigarette leaning over the brick wall that enclosed the small front garden. He had left the front door slightly open, although he guessed that would probably be wrong too. He’d be letting the heat out, or something. Hurry up, he was thinking inwardly, hurry up Anthony. He straightened up to pull out his phone to check the time and saw that Lucy had replied to his text. She was on her way over. His stomach did a little lurch and he sucked his breath in and grimaced. So this was it then. This was the day. He stared back at the road, frowning at every small car that passed, in case it was hers. She had a Mini didn’t she? He tried to remember when he had last seen her, and all he could come up with was that it was some time back in the summer. At a barbeque. One of those things where someone tries to get old friends back together. It had been weird, Michael remembered. You always think everything is weird, he heard his brothers voice say in his head.
His ears strained back to the noises coming from the house. The TV on, one of the kids whingeing, and Anthony and Christina having words in the kitchen. Michael sighed, finished his cigarette and stubbed it out on the top of the wall. He almost dropped the butt onto the ground, but then he thought twice. Christina would go nuts. One of the kids might pick it up. He sighed and dropped it over the wall onto the pavement instead. “You’ve known about this for ages,” he heard Anthony hiss at his wife.
He looked back at the road. A white van trundled slowly past, followed closely by a bright orange Mini Cooper, one of the old style ones. Michael grinned. He watched her making faces at the slow van, before jerking the little car in to the kerb once it had got out of the way. She got out, locked the car, shook back her hair and saw him staring. “Morning!” she beamed. Michael beamed back. He was unable to help himself. He came quickly around the garden wall and put his arms around her.
“Hi Lucy. Good to see you.”
He felt her arms squeezing him in return. “Good to see you too. Can’t actually believe this day is here…but you know! It’s weird.”
Michael pulled back, let her go and nodded at her. “It’s fucking amazing, is what it is,” he told her, and she grinned at his swearing, something he had evidently not grown out of.
“Anthony inside?” she asked him.
“Yeah. Missis is on his case I think.”
“Fuck knows. It’s not like she hasn’t known about this for years! Miserable bitch.”
Lucy made a face and then coughed into her hand. Michael looked behind him and saw Anthony’s eldest staring back at him from the front garden. The little boy, dark haired and well built, was the image of his father. He narrowed his eyes at Michael and tipped his head to one side. “Uncle Mike were you saying swear words?”
“No,” Michael said quickly, grinning at Lucy. “Not at all! I wouldn’t be doing that would I?”
“Were you smoking?”
“No! Course not! What do you think I am? Did your dad send you out here to spy on me Liam?”
Liam came up to the wall, and tried to pull himself up on it. “Hello,” he said to Lucy.
“Wow how old are you now Liam?” Lucy asked him. “You’re getting so big!”
“Seven,” Liam told her, finally scrambling onto the wall and lowering one leg down the other side so that he straddled it sideways. “Where are you all going?”
“I told you,” said Michael. “We’re going to pick my friend up. He’s been away for a long time.”
“Where’s he been? On holiday?”
“Hey you’re not meant to be out here without a coat on,” Anthony said then, coming quickly through the front door. He swept his arms around the little boy and pulled him down from the wall. The boy squealed and giggled, and then turned and flung his arms around Anthony’s legs.
“Can I come with you?”
“No sorry mate. You’ve got to stay with mummy.” Anthony looked up and nodded at Lucy. “Hi darling, how are you doing?”
She nodded back, hands in pockets. “Keen to get going,” she said. “Nerves are setting in again.”
“Right you are. Hang on.” Anthony swung his little boy around in a circle then dropped him back through the front door, and patted him on the head. “Be a good boy. See you later.”
“See you later daddy.” The door closed and Anthony turned to face them.
“Ready?” Michael asked him. “Finally?”
“Shut it. You know what she’s like.”
Michael rolled his eyes. “Come on then. We’re going.”
He led the way to his car. They were taking his, having mutually decided Lucys’ would be too small for them all, and Anthony’s too full of the kids’ stuff. Michael gestured for Lucy to join him up front. He was getting nervous himself now, he realised, as they all got in, and he stuck the key into the ignition. They were all silent. Even small talk seemed impossible. Michael chewed at his bottom lip, scratched at his neck, pushed back his hair and drove off. Lucy looked politely back at Anthony sprawled out in the back. “How’s Jess?” she asked. “She must be, what, four now?”
“Five,” he corrected her. “She’s five. Little madam. Takes after her mum.”
“Oh lovely. They’re both lovely, I mean.”
“Thanks. How are things with you? Work and that?”
“Oh I’m back in Reception this year,” she said with a smile. “They like to move us around a bit. Keeps us on our toes!”
“Still can’t believe you’re a teacher at our old school,” Michael said to her. “That is mental.”
“It is isn’t it?”
They all nodded. Nodded, and then fell silent again. After a few moments Michael saw Lucy lean forward to fiddle with the radio. She found a station and leaned back in her seat again, her hands folded on top of each other on her lap. He stole sideways glances at her. He thought she looked better than ever. She had been pretty in school, in a studious and serious sort of way, but she had blossomed since then. He thought she was one of those women who just looked better and better as they grew older. She had an air about her, he thought. Calm and confident, and at ease with herself. She exuded kindness, but then, she always had, hadn’t she? She’s stuck it out, he remembered, nodding to himself, good on her for that. A song came on the radio then, and Michael felt it like a stab to the heart. ‘Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be…’ He shook his head.
“I know,” Lucy sighed beside him. “I just had the same thing in my car. It’s like every bloody song, isn’t it?”
“You all used to go mental for this one,” Anthony recalled, sitting forward suddenly. Michael looked at his face in the mirror. His hair was as dark as ever, no signs of going grey yet, although he often joked that the kids were sending him that way. “At Chaos, do you remember? Always went totally mental if Nirvana came on.”
“Fuckinghell,” Michael said again, because he didn’t know what else he could say.
“Certain songs bring back certain memories ,” Lucy mused, staring straight ahead. “You know when it was summer and you used to drag those old chairs out the front? Always had music on. If I hear anything by The Stone Roses, I think of that.”
Michael nodded, and said nothing. He didn’t know what to say. In some ways he hated nostalgia, all this talking about the old days, when we were young and all of that, but up until today that was all they had owned. Memories. He tightened his hand on the wheel and glanced again at Anthony in the mirror. He was lighting a cigarette, his expression tense. “You okay back there?” Michael asked him. “Not gonna’ comment on my driving are you?”
“We all know your driving is shit,” Anthony replied dryly.
“Oi. Still smoking behind the old lady’s back I see?”
“Don’t call her an old lady, and I think today calls for a smoke or two, don’t you?”
“I know what you mean,” said Lucy, nodding. “It’s going to be strange all right.”
“When did you last speak to him?” Anthony asked her. She sucked in her breath, stared at the road ahead and then exhaled again slowly.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Probably about a year ago. Maybe eighteen months?”
Anthony nodded. “You been writing though yeah?”
“Oh yeah. Every month.”
“I spoke to him yesterday,” Michael announced, glancing at the two of them briefly. “He doesn’t know you’re coming Luce, you know that right?”
“Yeah, I know. I didn’t make my mind up until yesterday actually. I was still debating it in my head. Would he want to see me? Is it the right thing to do?”
“Well you’re here,” said Michael. “So it must be.”
She shrugged at him. “I still don’t know.”
“He’ll be glad,” Michael told her, with certainty. “I promise you.”
They drove on, falling back into silence. The radio blared. Michael reached forward and turned it up a notch or two. They listened, not looking at each other. Every now and again there would be another song, another twist of the knife, and Michael would bite down on his lower lip, controlling himself, holding his emotions in check. It was a strange day, Lucy was right about that. It was a hell of a day. His mind could barely cope with it all. The memories were one thing, the years that had passed were another, and then there were the possibilities, the future, the now. He shook his head, biting his lip and trying to concentrate on the road ahead. He had no idea how someone could adjust to everyday life after so long away. It was quite simply impossible to fathom.
It was an hour’s drive. They pulled up outside the prison just a few minutes before ten am. Michael turned the radio off, raised his eyebrows at Lucy, and then swivelled in his seat to look at Anthony. “He should be here any minute,” he told them both. “What the fuck are we meant to say, eh?” He smiled, feeling the excitement rushing through him suddenly. He felt as nervous as hell, but happy too, he reflected, really happy, because wasn’t this the day they had all been waiting for, the past eight years? Wasn’t this the day that had been hanging over their heads, shadowing everything else that had gone in-between? It felt that way for Michael, anyway. Like everything had just been building towards this day, this one momentous day. It had become the day that would finally made everything all right again. Yes, that was it, he thought, nodding to himself; this was the day they could all start to live again. He bounced up and down on his seat a little bit, and shook his fists at Anthony, who grinned back at him. “I think Lucy should get out the car first,” he said, suddenly. “To surprise him! Imagine his face!”
Lucy was smiling back at him, but she was scared too, he could tell. She kept pushing her hair behind her ears. He remembered her doing that at school whenever she was nervous. “I’m not sure,” she said. “Don’t we all want to get out?”
“No, you first,” Michael insisted. “Because I know how much he’s hoping you’ll be here. You have to. You really do.”
“Well you better make your minds up fast,” Anthony commented casually from the back seat. “Because I can see him coming!”
Michael immediately rolled his window down and leaned out. Anthony did the same from the back. They leaned out as far as they could, grinning and waving.
“Okay then,” Lucy said bravely and stepped out of the car.
“Go Lucy,” Michael murmured, watching her. “Good moment,” he mused, nodding again.
“Got to be the best?” agreed Anthony. They both watched as Lucy walked hesitantly at first, along the pavement towards the young man that had just come through the prison gates. They saw his face brighten with the biggest grin, and then Lucy started to run towards him. “Jesus Christ!” laughed Anthony.
“Look at her go! Fuck me! Oh man, this is the best,” Michael clapped his hands together, and could not take his eyes off of them. He felt like his heart would burst from sheer joy, as he watched them embrace, watched Lucy disappear into his arms, her feet leaving the ground. “All right!” he cried, shaking his fists again. “What a moment eh? Fucking hell, look at them!”
“I know,” Anthony was nodding, a big dopey smile eating up his face. He reached across and patted his brother on the shoulder. “Waited eight fucking years to see that.”
“Come on,” Michael said then, shoving his door open. “They’ve had long enough, I want some of that action!”
Anthony laughed and followed him from the car. “You bastard!” Michael was yelling and ambling up to his old friend, with his arms spread wide. “Come here then!”
Anthony rushed up from behind, grabbing his brother and shoving him forward, so that they all became one big bundle of arms, hugging and ruffling hair, slapping backs.
It was a surreal moment. He knew that when he was in the middle of it. Totally and utterly surreal. Almost dreamlike. He had of course dreamed about this moment for years, and now here it was, for real, and in the flesh. He had tears in his eyes as he hugged them all, and felt their arms around him, their hands gripping him. It was too much emotion to deal with almost. The moment was in danger of building up, exploding with the weight of it all, so he shook himself free, kept one arm firmly around Lucy and pointed to the rust red Escort they had ran from. “That your car?” he asked Michael, who grinned and nodded in return. “Piece of shit!”
Anthony laughed out loud, and clapped him on the back again. “Wait till you see how he drives that piece of shit!”
“Hey I’m a great driver!” Michael protested as they made their way back towards the car.
“He lost his license two years ago,” Anthony confided in Danny with a wry grin. “That’s how good a driver he is.”
“Fuck you,” Michael responded. “That wasn’t my fault and you know it.”
“How many times have you crashed since you passed your test?” Anthony said, jumping to the side to avoid being punched. Danny watched Michael narrow his dark eyes and point a finger at his brother.
“None of them were my fault!”
They all laughed. They reached the car and Danny climbed into the back with Lucy, dropping he looked at her. She hadn’t stopped smiling, he noticed. Her eyes looked wet, but she was not sobbing or anything. That was typical Lucy, he thought, watching her, so together. “What am I letting myself in for eh?” he joked, nodding at the back of Michael’s head as he slammed the door and turned the engine on. Anthony dived in the other side and turned to grin at them.
“Fasten your seat belts people!”
“So where are we going?” Danny asked. “I mean, I know your place Mike, but where are you even living these days?”
“Please don’t say the same bed sit?”
“No course not. I’m above fucking Poundland, aren’t I?” They all looked at each other before roaring with laughter. Michael frowned at them. “What? What’s wrong with that? It’s a decent flat. Close to all the amenities.”
“It’s a shithole,” Anthony informed Danny.
“Oh you can shut up Mr. Fucking Domestic!” Michael groaned and drove off, driving with one hand on the steering wheel while he searched his pocket for cigarettes. “There is nothing wrong with my flat. You’re round there often enough, mate, escaping the missus!” He grinned at Danny in the mirror. “Wait till you meet her mate.” Anthony lashed out and punched his brother in the arm.
“I’m warning you!”
Michael giggled. “Whoops. Hey wait ‘till you see Kurt Dan!”
Danny grinned. “He must be getting on now, what about nine?” He smiled at the thought of seeing his little dog again. Michael and Lucy had taken care of him, sharing him between them over the years.
“He’s a bit slow and fat but I bet he’ll remember you,” Michael said.
“He’s fat because Mike feeds him the same crap he eats!” Anthony said with a roll of the eyes. Michael frowned at him.
“I don’t eat crap. I just don’t like cooking. We can’t all be fancy chefs, can we?”
Danny looked down at Lucy. She was sat beside him, her leg against his. He wondered if he ought to slide his arm around her, pull her in close, but the more he thought about it, the less he felt able to do it. He had not seen or spoken to her in over a year, he realised. She had written faithfully, every month without fail, but that was not the same as seeing someone in the flesh, or speaking to someone over the phone. He did not even know if she was single, or whatever, although going by the kiss they had just shared, he guessed she was. And the tattoo. That had blown him away. Danny-Boy tattooed across her hipbone. She’d had it there the whole time, the whole eight years, and she had not told him until just now. He shook his head, unable to absorb it all.
“I am thinking pub first,” Anthony announced from the front, turning in his seat to look back at Danny and Lucy. “I don’t have to be home for hours, let’s put it that way, might as well make the most of it. Pub everyone?”
“Okay,” Danny agreed unsurely. “Why not?”
“Definitely,” said Lucy.
“I’m in,” said Michael, sticking a cigarette between his lips and lighting it. “Dan?”
“Oh yeah. Go on then. If you’ve got a spare.”
“Course I have,” Michael pushed the packet back towards him. “Help yourself.”
“Pub first,” Anthony went on. “Few drinks, then on to Mike’s yeah? That where you’re staying Dan, right?”
Danny nodded in agreement. “That’s it.”
“Like old times, eh?” Michael laughed from the front. They all looked at each other, sharing awkward smiles. Old times, Danny thought, although old times was one thing he really did not want to think about. Anthony was still watching him, his mouth straight and tight, his eyes burning with it all, all the unsaid things, and the wonder among all of them about how long they would remain unsaid. Danny looked at Anthony, and felt bowled over by how much he had changed; yet still seemed the same. He looked like a man, like a grown up, like a dad, broad and thick and steady. His face older, the lines on his forehead deeper, the creases around his eyes more prominent. He was a fucking dad. A husband. Owned a house. Danny knew the realisations and the jolts were going to be hitting him for a long time to come. Eight years, he thought, eight years! Anthony smiled at him, and it was a smile he knew from the past, it was a smile of worry and pity, and it hit him like a blow to the heart. No more of those smiles, he thought to himself, gritting his teeth, no more need for those smiles.
“So tell me about the kids,” he looked up and asked. “Tell me about the wife and kids, and all of that. Fill me in. Come on,” he looked to Lucy, and then to Michael. “I know we’ve been in touch, but come on, there’s so much I don’t know.”
It was a wise move, he reflected, ten minutes later when Anthony was in full flow, regaling him with tales of fatherhood, work and responsibility. Better than that were the knowing looks Michael was giving him in the mirror, as if to say, get him, Jesus Christ! But the tension had slipped away, for the time being. The words still left unsaid.
He tried to just be in the moment, as they drove away from the prison, and back to the old territory. Michael had a pub he liked just down the road from his flat in Belfield Park. He tried to push away the enormity of the day, and the fear for what lay ahead. Living in the moment, he told himself, as the car drove on, don’t think back and don’t think forward. Best way to be. He realised on some level that it was a survival mechanism, stopping his brain every time it flicked back or zoomed forward, just stop, stop, wait here. Hold on. He hoped a drink or two would help.
Michael parked the car around the back of his flat, and they followed him up the road to the The Olde Inne, his usual haunt, or so he informed them. He certainly seemed well known in there, even at quarter past eleven in the morning. The chubby bloke behind the bar, slung a wet tea towel over his shoulder and offered him a wide grin. “All right mate?”
“All right Tone!” Michael approached the bar, slapped his hands down upon it and jerked his head towards the rest of them, piling in behind him. “Big day mate! We need tequila shots and pints! And fucking crisps too.”
“All right, all right, I think I get the idea,” Tony laughed. “What’s the big occasion then?”
“Tell you later,” Michael tipped him a wink and nodded to the corner of the pub. “Bring ‘em over yeah?”
“No problem mate.”
Michael gestured for them to follow him. Danny looked around, and again the feeling of living within a dream came over him. He realised in amazement that he had never actually set foot in a pub in his entire life. A club, yes, Chaos, back in the day when they were all underage except for Anthony, but not a pub, not a place like this, where men came to sit in corners and cradle pints and watch sports. He took a seat between Lucy and Michael and could not speak, as he stared around himself, taking it all in. It was a small, dark little place, one bar, with toilets on one side and a lonely pool table on the other. The carpet was threadbare and stained, the furniture sagging and frayed. It was comfy though, he thought, settling back, and quiet too. Going to the pub had appealed to him in many ways. Alcohol for one thing; he had not had even a sniff of a drink in eight years, but it had filled him with doubt at the same time. Everything, he thought then, staring around, everything would fill him with doubt, for some time to come.
The chubby man brought a tray over, lined with shots of tequila and pints of beer. Danny could not help but grin at it, and Michael could not help but slap a hand down onto his thigh and beam into his face. “You’re back,” he said then, his voice strangled slightly, his eyes shining. “You’re fucking back.” Danny nodded. Picked up a shot and chucked it down his throat, while they all cheered, and Anthony smacked the table, and Lucy clapped a hand to her mouth. He felt the hot burn in his throat, and the buzz behind his eyes.
“Not bad,” he told them, as they watched him, waiting. It was smiles all around, a smiling table, full of hope, in that moment. They followed suit and downed their shots, wiping their mouths and laughing, and Danny swallowed hard and thought he had never loved anyone as much as he loved these three people, right here. Live in the moment, he told himself again when he picked up his pint, don’t think back, don’t think ahead, and you’ll be okay, one day at a time.
“Gonna’ put a song on,” Michael said abruptly and left the table. Danny drank his beer, and realised quickly that it would make him drunk before it was over.
“I’ll be a lightweight,” he told Anthony’s watchful face. “Starting over!”
“Cheaper that way,” Anthony mused. “Have you got any idea what you’ll do for a job? Do they sort that all out for you?”
“I don’t know. Don’t think so. Did they for you?”
“Yeah. They did. Back then.”
Danny nodded. Sucked in his bottom lip and stared at his pint. Anthony had been to jail twice, he remembered. And the second time was because of him. “I’ll have to have a think about it all,” he said with a sigh, looking up. “Haven’t got a clue what I want to do really. Not that I’ll have that many choices, obviously.”
“You do any courses inside?”
“Yeah. English. I did a degree.”
Anthony nearly spat out his beer. Lucy looked on, wide-eyed. Danny nodded at them both. “You got a degree?” asked Anthony. “Inside? A fucking degree?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“I don’t know! Get you, eh?”
“Good on you,” Lucy smiled, patting his arm. “That’s amazing. Any idea what you’ll do with it?”
“Not a clue,” Danny shrugged. “It just killed the time, you know. Read a lot of good books and wrote about them. I liked it.”
“Why not eh?” grinned Anthony. “Always knew you were a little brain box really.”
Michael sauntered back to the table. Danny looked down at the floor, felt the need to inhale a deep breath, as the alcohol started to hit him. Michael’s song choice kicked into play and Danny jerked his head back up, stared at Michael who was smiling lazily back at him, eyebrows raised; “Fucking…Lithium!” he mouthed. Michael nodded. Danny smiled, looked down, and wanted to cry. He felt Michael nudge him with his elbow, and they sat side by side in silence. I’m so happy, because today I found my friends, they’re in my head…
“It’s gonna’ be all right now,” Michael said to him hoarsely, before the song drew to an end. He glanced sideways, met Danny’s eye. “You know that don’t you? It’s gonna’ be all right now.”
Danny nodded, nudged him back. “What else can I think?” he replied. And it was true. What else could you do, but hope for the best?
Drinking in the day, Danny thought some time later, what is it about drinking in the day? Why does it make you so much drunker, so much faster? They had not planned to stay in the pub this long. One or two drinks had been the plan. But two hours had passed in a blur, and they were all merry, and Lucy was asking how she was supposed to get home now, and her cheeks were a vibrant red from the tequila shots. “I’ll call you a taxi,” Michael told her, and got up from the table. They watched him go the bar, where he ordered more drinks and pulled out his mobile phone. Anthony leaned in towards Danny, his tone low as he said; “he’s missed you, you know. He’s been lost.” Danny nodded, holding his drink and knowing there was more to come. “He’s worried the hell out of me most of the time, you know. Bounced from one disaster to another.”
“How do you mean?”
Anthony shrugged, his eyes on Michael at the bar. “Jobs. Relationships. Fights. Just nothing but trouble.”
“I’m sorry,” Danny heard himself murmur before he could stop himself. Anthony frowned at him immediately.
“Don’t say sorry,” he said sharply. “Never say you are sorry. I never want to hear you say that again Danny. Okay?”
They fell silent as Michael came back from the bar and slid back between them. “Course you know who else comes in here most days, don’t you?” he announced, slinging a heavy arm around Danny’s shoulders and peering curiously into his face.
“The fat man!”
Danny laughed out loud and slapped the table with one hand. “You’re joking, Terry’s still knocking about? No way!”
“Yeah, he’s still slobbing about,” Michael grinned at him, his arm falling away as he picked his next drink up. “He kept that shop going for years, then he had to close it down.”
Danny nodded. “Oh that’s a shame.”
“Not too bad,” Michael told him. “He opened another one down the road from here. Bit smaller. Think he sells porn vids out the back door, the dirty bastard.”
“Another record shop?” Danny asked. “What’s he called it?”
“Oh this is the clever bit. ‘The Record Shop Too’. Genius, eh?” Michael laughed at Danny’s dazed expression. “He’ll love to see you mate, he will. Always asks about you. He’s still the same sarcastic old fat man obsessed with the fucking Smiths.”
“Bless him,” Danny murmured, and he meant it.
Lucy was putting on her coat next to him, and checking her pockets. Danny watched her, and her eyes met his, and she smiled. “Mike will bring you round mine tomorrow,” she told him then. “I’m cooking a roast dinner for everyone. Mum and dad want to come too, will that be all right?” He shrugged in reply, not wanting to think about it now. “Good,” she said, and picked up the last of her drink, holding it aloft. “We should drink a toast,” she said to them all. “To Danny. To his future.”
“Danny,” Michael said, clinking his drink with hers.
“The future,” Anthony nodded sombrely. Danny forced a weak smile. He felt like they were waiting for him to say something.
“You’re the three people I love most in this world,” he told them, blinking back the tears and smiling at them. He saw Lucy look down, then drag a hand across her eyes. “Couldn’t have been three better people to meet me today. You’re the ones who saved me.”
Anthony and Lucy looked at him, smiled and drained the last of their drinks. Michael was watching him, his expression taut with tension. Danny watched him down half a pint of beer, then wipe his mouth on the back of his hand, before slamming the pint back onto the table and saying; “but we didn’t save you. Or you wouldn’t have just spent eight years in prison.”