If he had been sober Michael might have felt ashamed as he let Danny into his flat, but as he was drunk, he felt reckless and excitable, and kicked the door open, spreading his arms wide and declaring; “home sweet home!” as they bundled into the darkness. They were quickly greeted by the soft pattering of feet, and a wagging tail as a little Jack Russell came swaggering out from Michael’s bedroom to the left. Danny immediately crouched down and held out his hand.
“Oh hey mate, do you remember me?”
“Course he does,” Michael insisted, as he staggered and fumbled along the wall for the light switch. “Damn,” he said, remembering that the hall light had blown. He made it to the tiny kitchen, which was at the end of the long hallway and hit the light in there. Danny was smiling in wonder at the little dog, eventually picking him up, and wandering slowly down the hall, eyeing the place with a slightly distasteful grin. Michael shrugged at the state of the kitchen, at the overflowing bin, filthy floor and tower of dirty crockery next to the sink. “I’m not exactly house proud!” he shrugged at Danny. “Don’t blame me, blame my parents. You remember the state of our house? Fucking disgrace, wasn’t it?”
“It was slightly treacherous at times,” Danny replied, looking back at the little dog. “Oh mate, oh Kurt, man did I miss you! Do you think he remembers me Mike? What do you think?”
“Well put it this way mate, he’s normally a grumpy little bugger and won’t get off his arse for me half the time, so yeah, I’d say he remembers you!”
Michael grabbed a four pack of beers from the fridge and led the way into the lounge. It was large, spread across the front of the flat with a full view of the high street down below. He turned on the light, sat down on the only sofa, which was dark brown and sagging in the middle, and put the beers down on the coffee table. Danny dropped his bag to the floor and joined him on the sofa, with the dog on his lap. He wrapped his arms around him and the little dog lapped slowly and gently at his nose.
“This my bed?” he asked, pulling away from the wet tongue.
“Yep, afraid so pal. I’ve only got one bedroom, and I think me and you are too big to be sharing a bed again don’t you?”
Danny laughed. “You always used to steal all the covers.”
“You always used to fidget and jerk around in your sleep!” Michael passed him a beer and opened his own. He leant back into the sofa, running one hand back through his hair. “I’ll put some music on in a minute,” he said. “One good thing about living above a shop mate, no neighbours!”
Danny nodded, and looked at his beer without opening it. “I think I’m drunk enough,” he murmured. “Not used to it, you know.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll drink it for you.” Michael sighed, and looked at his friend, sat forward and staring at the beer in his hand, as if lost for a moment. He felt a flood of memories hammer through him, and had to rest his head in his hand. He knew he was drunk, and it was all going to come out, one way or another, but he supposed it had to at some point. “You know what you said?” he asked Danny. “About us saving you?”
Danny looked back at him and nodded. Michael narrowed his eyes. He saw a young man with the same scruffy blonde locks he had always had, worn long and tousled around his ears. He tried to see what else was the same, what else was different. Danny had piercing dark blue eyes, and most of the time back then, they had been full of fear. Michael sat forward then, exhaling another ragged sigh. “I wish it was true mate,” he told him. “But I always felt like I let you down.”
“Don’t be stupid. No way.”
“I did though. We could have done more. I’ve thought about it so much since…you know. I’ve run it all through my mind so much, trying to work out if we could have done more.”
Danny shook his head at him, his eyes sad. “Don’t be stupid,” he said again. “We were kids. We were all just kids.”
“I remember this one time,” Michael went on, his eyes fixed on the floor, his expression troubled. “It was PE, and we were all getting changed, and you were always so private and quick about it, but I saw…I saw your back, fucking black and blue mate. I didn’t say anything.”
Michael watched Danny drop his head into his hands and shake it slowly back and forth. He felt like a bastard then, for bringing it up, but he didn’t know how much longer he could keep it all inside him, the guilt and the doubt and the rage. He didn’t know how much more he could take of it, the weight of it, holding him down. “You knew what I’d tell you,” he said softly. “If you’d asked me.”
“Your fucking bike,” Michael replied with a brief hard nod. “But I didn’t believe you, and you knew I didn’t.”
“Mike, it doesn’t matter now, does it? It’s over. We all have to move on and forget about it, yeah?”
“I know, but it’s hard mate. I always thought, if only I’d woken up that morning. If only I’d figured out what you were doing. I could have stopped you.”
“No point thinking like that mate.”
“We could have done more, me and Anthony,” Michael was nodding now; the drink was rolling through him, accelerating the emotions and the memories. He caught Danny’s eye and held it. “We should have told the cops. The school. Anything.”
“Michael, you were just kids,” Danny told him again, looking at him patiently. “You were in an impossible situation. Look what happened to Anthony! You can’t beat yourself up about it. You have to let it go. I have.”
“Have you? Really, have you? I find that hard to believe, I mean, I don’t know how you can.” He got up abruptly from the sofa and crossed the room. Next to the far wall he had a battered old, folded down table, with a wooden chair positioned next to it. He had got it to eat his meals at, but that had never happened. Meals were eaten on the sofa, or stood up in the kitchen. On the table was his CD player and CD collection. It was all a mess, he noted with a sigh, as he started to look through them to find something to put on. He felt Danny’s eyes on him from the sofa. He felt angry, but not at him, just at everything, at eight wasted years. He flicked through the CDs, getting annoyed with himself, wondering what would or wouldn’t be okay. In the end he put Oasis on and sat back down. Danny was grinning at him tiredly. Kurt had curled up his lap, emitting a series of grunts and groans as he tucked his feet under his chest and put his chin down. Danny stroked him smoothly and slowly down his back. Again, Michael felt the jolt of memory awakening him. He saw Danny when he first got Kurt, when Lucy brought him over, just this tiny little white and tan bundle of energy. And Danny had taken him everywhere with him, hadn’t he? Even to the record shop, even to work.
“You still listen to all this?”
“Mostly,” Michael told him. “I haven’t really got into anything new. I mean, I can’t keep up with it, or nothing takes my fancy like the old stuff did. Nothing good has come along since Nirvana or Oasis, has it?”
“Not as good no,” Danny agreed with him. “Do you still see Billy? I bet he would disagree.”
“See him sometimes,” Michael rolled his eyes, sighed angrily and waved a hand dismissively. “Still go to Chaos sometimes,” he said, looking back at Danny, and feeling weary with it all.
“Yeah, they do a grunge night, would you believe it? That’s how fucking old we are now mate! They do theme nights from our time! They do a grunge one, and they do a fucking Britpop one too.”
Danny laughed quietly, and looked away briefly. “No way,” he said. “Living in the past eh?”
Michael knew it was a joke, but he looked at him sharply. “Anthony always says that to me.”
“Yeah, like I’m stuck in the past or whatever. Can’t move on.” He grinned and shrugged and shrank back into the sofa, lifting his beer to his lips. “I guess that makes two of us then,” he said. “You and me eh?”
Danny turned and looked at him gently. “I can’t let myself go there Mikey.”
“The past. I try not to think about it. I decided at the beginning, when I was inside, that was the only way forward. And especially the closer I got to being released. I tried to think about how I would handle it, and I figured not looking back is the best way. Forget it all. Put it behind and don’t look back.”
“I can understand that,” Michael nodded, and fought the sudden urge he had to just throw his arms around him and hold him tight, just to make sure it was really real and not another crazy dream. “It’s gonna’ be all good now isn’t it? Now you’re out. You’ve got your life back. We’re all back together. We can finally move on, can’t we? Have the lives we deserve eh?”
“You should have been doing that anyway Mike,” Danny told him, his tone slightly stern now. “Not waiting for me, or dwelling on it or whatever.”
“Hard not to,” Michael shrugged in defence. “When something like that…something so unfair…” he felt the anger tightening him up inside, “something so fucking…”
“Don’t Michael,” Danny said quickly, putting his hand on his knee. “Don’t go there remember? Past is past. All over. It’s been over for eight years.”
“It wasn’t over for me,” Michael shook his head at him. “Not until today. Not until you got out.” He lifted the beer can and finished it off. “I think Lucy’s been kind of stuck too,” he went on, as he crushed the empty can in his hand and tossed it onto the coffee table. “You know. Not sure how to go forward. But the rest of them…well you saw for yourself. Jake and Billy too. Just like Anthony. Fucking wives and kids and mortgages mate.”
“So what’s wrong with that?” Danny laughed at him gently. “And why not you?”
“Don’t know. Never felt right.”
“Anthony worries about you.”
“He worries about everything,” Michael groaned, picking up a second beer and opening it. “That bloody woman of his is half the problem.”
“So tell me about your kid. Tell me about Zach.”
Michael rested his beer in his lap and smiled dopily, stretching his legs out in front of him. “He’s three mate. He’s into fucking Thomas the Tank Engine and all that.”
“I still can’t believe anyone had a kid with you,” Danny joked, finally sinking back into the sofa next to him, and stretching his legs out beside Michaels. He kept one hand on the little dogs back. “What happened between you and the mum?”
“Didn’t work out.”
“Ah she was too clingy, too needy. Too everything. Bit thick really, bless her. Couldn’t have decent conversations with her, you know?” Michael scratched at his head and stifled a yawn. “She’s sweet. Nice girl Jenny is. But it was never going to work out with us.”
“So how often to you see Zach?”
“It’s just whenever,” Michael said, looking away. “Once a week. Once a fortnight.”
“Doesn’t sound much.”
“He can’t really come here,” Michael tried to explain, as he felt another heavy dose of guilt pummel him from the inside. “Look at this place! She has a new fella now anyway.” He swallowed and could not meet Danny’s eyes. The silence stretched on, until Danny coughed and looked down at his lap.
“I know, I know,” Michael said quickly, and drank more beer. He wiped his mouth again, looked briefly at Danny, who was staring down, his jaw twitching. “Believe me, I’ve thought every single thing you’re thinking right now, and worse, but don’t worry, I checked the guy out. I fucking interrogated him. He’s a dimwit mummies boy. No threat to anyone. What can I do?” He lifted his hands and dropped them again apologetically. “I don’t want to be with Jenny. I can’t expect her to stay single her whole life.”
Danny met his eyes finally and smiled, but Michael could see right away how forced it was, and he felt the guilt flatten him all over again. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing,” he said graciously.
“Anthony doesn’t think so.”
“He thinks I should be with the mother for the sake of the kid. He thinks I’m slack, you know? A crap dad or whatever.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t think that,” Danny was shaking his head.
“He does. Just because he sticks it out with the queen bitch over there. He does it for the kids. He doesn’t want them to grow up without him.”
“Because of your dad?”
“Because of…” Michael trailed off, stopped himself, closed his eyes tightly for a moment and wondered how many times he would have to stop himself from wandering into the past. Danny nodded, understanding. He sighed and looked down at his lap.
“I never thought about it affecting you all so much,” he said softly. “I mean, I knew you’d miss me and be upset and everything. But that was it. I never thought it would impact on you so much…”
“I tell you,” Michael said, eager to lighten the mood again. “Fatherhood is fucking terrifying though!” He grinned and laughed. “I love the little blighter, don’t get me wrong, but I’m shit scared the whole time!”
“I would be too,” Danny was nodding. “I’m never doing it, I’m telling you.”
“Not even with Lucy?” Michael frowned at him.
“No way. Terrifying, like you said. Anyway,” he shrugged and laced his hands together in his lap. “I’m not really sure what’s going to happen with us. Still can’t get my head around her being there today. I sent the letter but she didn’t reply, so I didn’t know. But you know, there is no way a sixteen year old girl just sits back and waits eight years for a boy, is there? And then live happily ever after? I’m not naive enough to believe that.”
“But she came!” Michael insisted loudly. “She’s single!”
“She’s loyal Mike,” Danny corrected him. “Like you.”
“She loves you, you twat. What about the tattoo?”
“Well yeah. That did blow me away.”
“So see how it goes?” Michael asked, looking at him in hope. He had not realised how much he expected them to just slot back together. That should be part of it, shouldn’t it? That should be the happy ending. “You’ve got all the time in the world mate,” he said. “If you want to be together. You know you both deserve it. Fuck knows, you deserve a good life Dan.”
“She must have had men, in all that time…” Danny mused, looking up to catch Michaels’ knowing smile. He shrugged.
“Think there was a bloke at University, but it wasn’t serious I don’t think. I’m pretty sure she’s just been waiting for you.”
“No pressure there then!” Danny laughed.
“To not fuck it up, or let her down.”
“Christ, you won’t. Give it a chance.”
“Got to meet her bloody parents tomorrow, no less,” Danny groaned, covering his eyes with one hand for a moment. Michael laughed out loud.
“What are you worried about?”
“They hated me back then, what the hell are they gonna’ think now?”
“They understand,” Michael assured him, nodding. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll be there too. Me and Anthony.”
“So tell me about Billy and Jake,” Danny said, changing the subject. “They still local?”
“Billy is. He moved in with some girl, over in Redchurch. I see him about. I’ve got his number. I sent him a text about you coming out and he said he’d like to see you. You want me to text him back and arrange something?”
Michael watched as Danny considered this, and appreciated his hesitance. Billy and Jake had never gone to visit Danny in prison. Not once. It had been the cause of endless conflict between Michael and them over that summer. Then they had both gone on to sixth form, Jake then left for University in London, and that was it. It left a bad taste in Michael’s mouth when he thought about it, even now. To him, friends were friends; they stuck together, no matter what. “I don’t mind,” Danny said finally. “I’m cool with that if he is. Be a bit weird, but you know. It’s all gonna’ be weird for a while. You don’t see Jake then?”
“He lives in London,” said Michael. “Got married two years back. Has a sixth month old daughter, and he works in a bank. Fuck knows what he does. Don’t fucking care.”
“How do you know all that?”
“Friends Reunited mate, on the internet.”
“Oh right, I heard about that inside but I didn’t really get it.”
Michael felt sudden warmth towards him, and again, resisted the urge to grab him for another hug. “Oh mate,” he laughed softly. “There’s gonna’ be so much that will blow your mind! Get Lucy to show you tomorrow. You can find anyone on there. Stay in touch with people from the past, that kind of thing. I don’t have the Internet here though. Haven’t got around to it yet.”
“So Lucy is friends with him via that?” Danny asked, frowning. Michael thought the confused expression made him look young again, not that he looked twenty-four anyway, the lucky bastard. He could have easily passed for five years younger. He nodded at him.
“Yep, and others. If you want to be nosy just go on there. I’ll text Billy for you though. He’s a good boy really.”
“He did write,” Danny said then. “Every now and again.”
“So he bloody should have done. You were their friend. We were a gang. They weren’t supposed to just forget you once you were gone.” Michael finished the second beer, crushed the can again and dropped it carelessly to the floor. He realised that his plan to pick it up later would probably not be seen through. The carpet was littered with things he had dropped and hadn’t gotten around to picking up again. The joys of living alone, he thought to himself, you don’t have to tidy up if you don’t want to.
“They probably couldn’t get their heads around it,” Danny was saying, biting at his bottom lip, which Michael watched sadly, remembering how he always used to do that when he was nervous.
“I don’t get that,” Michael shrugged angrily. “They knew the situation for fucks sake. Jake had some first hand experience of it, don’t forget!”
“Mmm. But you know. What I did….”
“What you did Danny, we all understood, you know that don’t you? And anyone who doesn’t understand, well, then they don’t know fuck all do they? They weren’t there, they didn’t see.” Michael was getting wound up. He recognised the familiar surge of frustration and resentment. He had been living with it for the last eight years and considered it a friend. He had been angry a lot, he realised. But the anger had helped him through. Getting drunk and punching people who pissed him off had come with the territory. He looked at Danny and saw the doubt in his eyes. “You don’t regret it do you? What you did? Because I fucking wouldn’t, eight years inside included. I still think you did what you had to do.”
Danny sighed and looked down at his lap again. “I’ve thought about it a lot,” he said. “There’ve been times I’ve thought about nothing less and times I was probably nearly went crazy thinking about it.”
“I don’t know.”
Michael got up then from the sofa. Danny looked at him. “Need something stronger,” he said, and walked back to the kitchen. He dragged a half full bottle of whiskey off the side and stalked back into the lounge. If they were going to have this conversation, then he knew he was going to need some more insulation. He placed two glasses on the coffee table and sloshed a measure of whiskey into each one. Danny reached for his and lifted it to his lips. Michael stood for a moment, looking around at his flat, at the disarray and the chaos of it all.
“You know what’s bothered me all this time?” he said then. “You know what I wish? Like, night after night?”
“That we’d got you to talk that night. That night you came back to the bed-sit. We knew it was really bad. You were so angry…all shut down…wouldn’t even look at us or talk to us.” Michael shook his head and sat back down. He could see it so clearly in his head and it hurt like hell.
“That part is still a blur,” said Danny. “I barely remember it.”
“Your face was covered in blood,” Michael went on, holding his whiskey up and staring into the glass. “You couldn’t walk properly. Your wrists all bloodied and cut. We were stupid! So stupid!” he turned and looked at Danny then, his dark eyes full of the memory. “We let you go to sleep. Then in the morning you were gone. We should have made you talk. We could have snapped you out of it if we’d tried!” he shook his head angrily. “Instead we just left you.”
“Michael,” Danny told him gently. “You had no idea what I was going to do. You can’t blame yourselves for anything.”
“We should have called the cops,” Michael went on, turning sideways to stare at Danny, one arm over the back of the sofa. “As soon as you came back. I don’t know why we fucking didn’t! God, if I could go back…”
“Mike, we were all scared of the cops, remember? We didn’t know who to trust.”
“So what about you? Would you do the same again, if you could go back?”
Danny looked overwhelmed with the question and breathed out slowly, before drinking a mouthful of whiskey. “It’s so hard to say,” he held up his hands and dropped them again. “I’m not proud of what I did. I’m not proud of what it makes me. And I’d do anything to have the last eight years back. To have a normal life. You know, to have grown up with you guys, doing what normal teenagers do.”
“But?” Michael asked him, touching him gently on the shoulder. “Do you think that would have happened?”
Danny shook his head firmly. “No. If he’d been alive, it would have gone on. I know that. One way or another, it all would have carried on. We would have had to keep running, and hiding. Remember what he was like? He was obsessed. He wanted me to work for him, do you know that? Did I tell you that?”
Michael shook his head in amazement. After being sentenced, Danny had said very little to anyone about what had led up to that fateful morning. It was like he had shut down and closed up. He took the sentence without flinching, put his head down and got on with it. Michael had a sense of him marching through the years that followed like a tin soldier; every blow and every glimpse of hope just bouncing right back off of him. “I didn’t know that, what do you mean, work for him?” he asked.
“He was on about it for a while. I kept saying no. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He wanted me to take up Freeman’s old position.” Danny’s eyes shifted to meet Michaels, and Michael felt his lips wanting to pull back in disgust. There was a name he could not think about or hear without feeling like taking a bath afterwards.
“No way,” he said gently, lip curled slightly.
“Yeah. That’s what he wanted the whole time. His good boy. Whatever the fuck that meant. That’s why he took me that night. To get me to say yes.”
“Danny, he would have killed you eventually. You know that.” Michael touched his shoulder again and kept his hand there. Danny was nodding in agreement.
“Or I would have killed myself. Thought crossed my mind at times.”
“So you don’t regret it then?” Michael whispered. He felt the warmth of the whiskey soaking through his body, loosening him up. He wanted to sink back into the sofa and close his eyes. He wondered how well he would sleep that night, and imagined himself waking up, convinced it was all a dream. Danny looked him in the eye and stared at him silently.
“No,” he said to him. “I don’t regret killing that twisted bastard.”