He always enjoyed smoking one cigarette on the way home from work. Christ, he needed it, after a hot and stressful day in the kitchen. That was one thing he knew that Chrissie would regrettably never understand. She liked to inform him of how stressful her own day had been, and he would grin and bear it and smile sympathetically in all the right places, but inside his head he would groan in despair. She had both the kids at school now, and had just started working with her best friend, doing other peoples ironing. Anthony was all for it. It was great that she wanted to earn her own money, and impressive that her and her friend had started their own little business, but at the same time, he just could not quite equate her collecting clothes from people and ironing it back at home, with his level of pressure in the hotel. He didn’t tell her though. He had learnt well how to back down from arguments. He didn’t like them, didn’t like where they led, and all he had to do was look at his younger brother to see where constant confrontation got you.
He smoked the cigarette slowly, winding his way through the Sunday afternoon traffic to get home. He hated working Sundays. He was not religious, but he truly felt at least one day of the week should be a day of rest. Fat chance of that, ever, he mused ruefully. He smoked with the window rolled down, despite the cold, because he didn’t want the car to smell of smoke. Chrissie would detect it almost immediately, complaining that it was terrible for the kid’s lungs. Of course, she would smell it on him too, even if he ate some mints and chewed some gum. He sucked on his cigarette, tolerated the traffic and thought about how best to tell her he was going out again. There was no if about it, Anthony realised. Michael was putting the pressure on, and if he didn’t come because of Chrissie, then the shit would hit the fan soon enough. Michael did not need any more ammunition, he thought, any more reason to pick fights with his wife. Yet again, he sighed, and felt dismay at the impossible situation he found himself in. His brother and his wife pretty much despised each other.
As he got closer to home, Anthony tried to think of a way to put it to her that would not make it sound so bad. I’m going out again, for no real reason other than Michael wants me too, and I want to see Danny some more. He shrugged to himself, mulling that one over for a while. He could try inviting her along too of course, to meet Danny, but that would involve getting babysitters, which always seemed far too much of a hassle these days. She wouldn’t come anyway, he mused. She did not enjoy spending time with Michael, and her views on Danny’s release from prison had so far consisted of raised eyebrows, sucked in breath and barely disguised hostility. They had not had it out with each other yet, but he knew it was coming.
Proceeding down the road, which led to their home, Anthony tossed his cigarette butt out of the window, fumbled in the glove compartment for an air spray, and pumped several streams of vanilla scented gas into the air. He pulled up into the driveway and killed the engine. He checked his phone. Two messages. Michael; Dan gone awol. Explain at pub. Anthony rubbed his chin. What the hell did that mean, awol? The second message was from a number he did not recognise; Ant, Mike on Dan’s fone, save it yeah, c u @6. Anthony shoved his phone back into his pocket and groaned. Michael was just assuming he would definitely be there now, even though he had told him he had to square it with Chrissie first. Typical Michael. The trouble with single blokes, he thought, is that they don’t have to consider anyone but themselves and expect everyone else to be the same. You would think that Michael would get it by now, he considered, shaking his head slowly and staring through the windscreen at his house. He and Chrissie had been together nearly eight years. They had two kids. When the hell was Michael going to get used to the fact things had changed?
It was nearly dark outside. He could see that the lounge light was on, and the curtains had not yet been drawn, because he could just make out the light of the television against the far wall. Standing in front of it he could see a small figure, hopping from one foot to the other, waving the occasional arm. Jess. She looked like she was dancing; probably to that dance show she loved so much on Cbeebies. He knew that Chrissie would be laying the table in the kitchen. Liam would be in the back garden, muffled up in his coat, kicking his football against the back fence again and again until it was too dark to see it anymore. Anthony watched his daughter through the window, and felt the rush of love that even now, still staggered him at times. He had never known it was possible to love like that. Not until the day Liam had been handed to him in the hospital. It was so powerful it was terrifying.
That love, he thought, that love changed everything. Up until that day he had been jack the lad, just like Michael. He loved Chrissie, they had even moved in together, with Mike as their lodger, but the relationship had not seemed real, or solid, until the baby was born. He loved Chrissie even more now, he knew it. He loved the way she was a natural, earthy sort of mother. She was everything his own mother had never even tried to be. She adored those kids, he thought, watching Jess spin in circles next to the TV. Watching her with them over the years, encouraging them and believing in them, constantly awed and amazed at every little thing they did, it had brought them closer together. They had got married when she was seven weeks pregnant with Jess. Mike had moved out by then, of course. By then, it had been obvious that he and Chrissy were never going to get on. They had both tried, at the beginning, they had tried really hard. They had tried for him, Anthony realised. Neither of them wanted to be the one to upset him or let him down. But right from the start, they were in competition with each other, and they all knew it.
And nothing had changed. Michael was still trying to drag him out on benders every weekend, and Chrissie still felt anxious and threatened every time he came back worse for wear. She thought Michael was unstable and a bad influence. Christ knows what she really thought about Danny being back, or about what Danny had done.
Anthony got out of the car then, locked it up and went inside. He poked his head around the door of the lounge and caught Jess mid-dance. She squealed and immediately threw herself at him for a cuddle. “Can you do it with me?” she questioned, when he set her back down, pointing at the TV. He kissed the top of her head.
“I will, but hang on, let me get my coat and shoes off, and see mummy quickly. Did you have a good day?”
“I tried my bike without stabilisers again!” she beamed back at him. He dropped his jaw in amazement.
“No way! That’s brilliant! Did you fall off lots?”
“No, silly Daddy! Well, only one time. Two times actually.”
“Oh my God, that is amazing,” Anthony shook his head at her, and reached out to ruffle her hair, but she ducked away and starting dancing again. “Well done baby, I am so so proud of you. You’ll have to show me baby.”
“Mummy said it’s too dark now.”
“Yes, it is. See you in a minute.”
Anthony kicked off his shoes, hung up his coat and wandered down the hall and into the kitchen. He found his wife stirring a pot at the oven, and slid his arms around her from behind. “Mmm, chicken?”
“Yep and pasta and garlic bread. You hungry?”
“Oh yes. Jess said she did well on her bike today? Did you go to the park?”
Chrissie smiled proudly. “No, just the garden again. She’s getting really brave, bless her.”
“We’re obviously doing a great job,” he teased, kissing Chrissie’s neck. She giggled and let him, but her suspicions were obviously aroused.
“Okay, what do you want?”
“You normally come in and head straight for a shower. Why are you being all lovey dovey with me?”
“Because I love you.”
“And you want something?” She left the pot and turned around, smiling at him curiously, arms folded. He reached out and smoothed a stray hair away from her face. She still had the faint spray of freckles across her nose that had attracted him to her in the first place. He made a face.
“Well I might sort of be going out tonight.” He saw her smile vanish. Her mouth went small.
“Yeah. Just, you know, Danny being out and everything, and Billy, I haven’t seen him in years, he can make it tonight too so…..” He looked at her hopefully but she was staring back at him, her lips tightly pressed together.
“Well there was me looking forward to a quiet night in with you. Just you and me.”
“I won’t be long Chris, I promise. Just a few drinks, check in with Danny, say hi to Billy, and I’ll be back.”
“Don’t bother saying that.” She turned her back abruptly and went back to stirring the chicken in the sauce. Anthony found his pockets with his hands and hung them there, sighing.
“What’s the problem?”
“Nothing. Do what you want. But don’t bother saying you won’t be long when you know that’s not true.”
“You do what you want,” she snapped. “Whatever.”
“Chris please don’t be like this. I barely got to catch up with Dan the other day, you know. I want to see how he’s doing, how he’s getting on. It must be so weird you know, all that time locked away.”
“Fine, I said. I get it.”
“Well what does that mean?”
“I get that you’d rather be with them lot than us. That’s fine.” She tossed her dark blonde hair from one shoulder to the other, and he watched her shoulders stiffen, her back grow rigid. She was really mad, he could tell. He took a step back, looked at the hallway and thought of the shower that he really needed.
“Don’t be stupid, that’s not true. I don’t go out all the time Chris, do I? This is sort of a special occasion.”
“I thought the other day was? How many special occasions will there be with this guy? How long til he doesn’t need you checking on him?” She said all of this with her back turned, stirring the pan. Anthony considered just walking away, leaving it at that. He could cope with a tense dinnertime. He would help stick the kids in the bath and then make a move. Deal with her moods tomorrow.
“You know the situation,” he said to her instead. “I’ve told you all about it enough times. I told you all about it when we first met. You always knew one day he’d get out, and me and Mike would want to be there for him.”
Chrissie just shook her head, sucked in more breath. “You didn’t answer the question though. How long?”
“How can I answer that?” he shot back. “What does that even mean? How long will I be a friend to him for? How long will I be a brother to Mikey?”
“Oh look, I don’t want to row about this now, dinner is practically ready. Go and have your shower.”
“Fine.” Anthony took the chance to walk away. He caught a glimpse of Liam heading up to the back door with his football in his arms, before he stormed out of the kitchen, and thumped up the stairs. It was all right for Chrissie, he found himself fuming as he slammed and locked the bathroom door behind him. She’d grown up with lovely, normal parents. She doesn’t know, he thought, peeling off the sweaty layers that clung to him from a day in the kitchen, she doesn’t understand. There were times that he watched her with their kids, and almost felt jealous of what they had, of what she was giving to them. Stunned and mesmerised by her gentleness and her patience with them. They had everything they ever needed, he realised, and that was great, that was something they could both be proud of, but sometimes, just sometimes it pricked him sharply, it stopped him in his tracks. He saw them, and he wanted to say to all of them; you lucky bastards.
He knew then that he would eat dinner and be civil, kiss the kids goodnight and go out on his own. He would find Mike, and Danny and Lucy, and Billy, and he would get rolling drunk. He would do it. He would do it, and embrace it, and feel it all, and come home with the truth of it all steaming from his skin, and he would show it to her and say there, there look, this is me. This is me. Just in case she had forgotten.
He felt recklessness he had not joined forces with in a long time. Chrissie seemed to sense this, and grew even more rigid with anger as the kids tucked into dinner. When they were bathed and ready for bed, Anthony kissed them both goodnight, looked once at his wife, and left the house without saying a word.
It was a twenty-minute walk from their house to Belfield Park high street. He did not even consider getting a taxi. He needed the walk. He lit up. Thought of pints of beer lined up along the bar, whiskey chasers and tequila shots. Like the old days. He smiled as he walked. He thought of them all smiling from ear to ear, cheering raucously when he arrived, and he thought of those rare and wonderful moments, and he felt a swell of longing and nostalgia and love.
Anthony pushed his way into the pub and saw them right away, bustling with each other at the bar. The music was loud, just the way he remembered it, just the way it should be and he even thought he knew the band, The Libertines, and the song, roaring into his brain oh what became of the likely lads? Oh what became of the dreams we had? Oh what became of forever? Though we’ll never know! He approached them with arms out wide, arrogant smile upon his sneering lips. “All right you bastards?”
“Anthony, you cunt!” Michael spun around and slapped him hard on the shoulder. “Look, it’s fucking Billy!”
Anthony slipped his hand briefly around Danny’s arm; “all right mate?” and then moved on to Billy. He had not seen him in years, had no idea how many, but the little boy was no longer little, he was short, but stocky, flame hair dulled to a rusty burnt orange. With pint in hand and childlike grin, he greeted Anthony with a vigorous pint-spilling handshake.
“Anthony! How the hell are you?”
“Good mate good, what about you? All grown up! Jesus, look at all you lot,” he gestured to the four of them, Lucy standing next to Danny, her back against the bar, her coat off and lying over one arm.
“Mad isn’t it?” Billy agreed. “Fucking crazy.”
“What do you want?” Michael turned to the bar, sticking out his elbow to poke Anthony in the arm.
“Same as you lot.”
“Glad you made it,” Michael glanced his way. “Was getting worried there for a minute.”
“Shut up and get me a drink,” Anthony looked back at the other three. His eyes moved curiously from one to the other, from Billy, up to Danny, then down to Lucy, whose hand occasionally crept onto Danny’s arm, only to slide slowly back again. He watched them all for a moment, as the small talk battled on, and he felt both a stabbing sense of sorrow, and a fierce desire for hope. Michael pushed a pint into his hand and leaned back against the bar, just as Lucy suggested grabbing the corner seats and getting comfy. Anthony lingered beside his brother, as the other three converged on the table. “What’s up then?” he asked him.
“Few weird things. Good and bad.”
Anthony took a sip from his beer. “Bad first then. What’ve you done?”
Michael looked taken back. “Why do you assume I’ve done something?”
“You usually have,” Anthony shrugged. “What is it?”
“Just a little incident yesterday, of me and Dan pissing on Howard’s grave and his old man catching us.” Michael closed his mouth, and dared a glance at his brother. Anthony was staring back at him in utter horror.
“You heard didn’t you?” Michael flinched and bit his lip, and his eyes darted across to the table where the others had sat down together. Anthony felt the need to shake his head a little, frowning at the floor.
“I don’t think I did hear you right,” he said, glaring down. “You can’t have said that, because that would make you even more stupid than I thought you were.” He looked up sharply, and caught the flash of guilt in Michael’s eyes, that quickly darkened to anger.
“Don’t start,” he hissed. “Danny wanted to. He wanted to go and check the grave.”
“What the fuck for?”
“Why do you think Anthony? To fucking make sure!”
“Okay, okay,” Anthony placed his pint on the bar and leant there with his elbow, his body turned towards Michael. “Whatever, that’s insane, but why the fuck did you feel the need to piss on it?”
Michael shrugged and Anthony saw him as a teenager again. But he was not a teenager anymore; he was nearly twenty-five years old, and a father. Not like he ever acted like either. “Why not?” he replied. “He promised him he would. That morning, when he did him in. When he ended it. He told him he would piss on his grave. I think that’s pretty cool don’t you?”
“You need to grow up,” Anthony told him seriously. “I mean it.”
“Christ,” Michael rolled his eyes into his head and then frowned back at his brother, his jaw set hard. “You would have understood once.”
“You said his old man caught you? What the fuck does that mean? Whose old man?”
Michael glanced over at Danny, and then leaned closer to his brother. “This old man came along, started shouting at us. We ran. He called out it was his son. His son’s grave.” He lifted and dropped his shoulders again casually. “Who would have thought the bastards dad would still be alive, eh?”
“I can’t believe you…really I can’t.” Anthony was shaking his head. He picked his pint back up and drank three slow mouthfuls.
“It’s fine,” Michael grumbled. “What does it matter? The old goat won’t do anything.”
“Well you better hope not,” Anthony snapped suddenly, pushing his face close to Michael’s. “Because in case you forgot, your friend over there only just got out of jail, and funnily enough they don’t take kindly to ex-cons getting straight back into trouble again! What were you thinking Michael? Why didn’t you talk him out of it?”
Michael just puffed his angry breath down into his pint. “I didn’t want to. He needed to do it. It felt good doing it.”
“You’re a fucking idiot Mike.”
“I don’t know why I even bother telling you anything…”
“So what else happened then? There’s more I can tell. Look at the state of Lucy. And despite this being a happy occasion, Danny looks more like he would like to take someone’s head off.” Anthony held his brother in his stormy glare. “What else?”
Michael sighed loudly, and scratched at the back of his neck. “Someone spray painted graffiti on Lucy’s front door last night.” Anthony lifted his eyebrows.
“Oh Jesus fuck…you idiots!”
“Why does that make us idiots? Are the idiots not the shitbags who go around spraying shit all over people’s houses that they know nothing about?”
“You know what I mean Mike.”
“Well anyway,” Michael drank half his pint quickly, burped and wiped his chin. “That was the bad news. Wait till you hear the good news. Well Dan doesn’t see it as good news but I fucking do.”
“What is it?”
“His mum’s giving him two hundred grand.” Michael nodded at Anthony and lifted his pint back to his lips. Anthony felt stunned, and speechless. He looked across at the group in the corner. It looked like Billy was having to do all the talking, while Lucy did her best to fill any awkward dragging silences. He turned back to Michael.
“Oh my God.”
“I know. I know!”
“That’s unbelievable.” He stared, wide eyed, from Michael, to Danny then back again. “That’s like, so much money!”
“Yeah I know,” Michael grinned. “Like life changing money, yeah?”
“Yeah, and he doesn’t want it.”
“You what?” Anthony stopped then as they both watched Danny slide back on his stool and leave the table. He came straight to them, holding out his glass, which was empty already. Michael took it from him.
“You want the same again?”
“Yep,” Danny nodded at them. “I’m getting seriously fucked up tonight boys. It’s been eight fucking years!”
Michael laughed and patted his shoulder agreeably. “Well,” said Anthony. “It sounds like the next round could be on you, if what Mike’s been telling me is true?”
“Oh that?” Danny rolled his eyes as if he could care less. “Don’t even fucking get me onto that. You want two hundred grand Anthony? You can fucking have it.”
“You’re serious?” Anthony asked him, as Michael addressed the barmaid. “You don’t think it would be helpful? You know, to start again?”
Danny rocked back on his heels, his hands in his pockets, and his eyes flicking curiously over Anthony’s face. Anthony felt unsure of him for a moment. He could not tell if he was just already drunk, or just really fucking angry. For a moment it seemed like the face he was staring into, was nobody that he knew. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said to him. “I want to get fucking rat arsed and have a good time. It’s been a shitty shitter of a day and I want to get wrecked.”
“No problem,” Anthony smiled easily at him, reaching out and clapping him on the arm. “You go for it mate. You fucking do it! We won’t say another word, will we Mikey?”
“My lips are zipped,” Michael agreed, turning around and passing Danny his drink. “So what’s it like seeing Billy again? Looks like his fucking dad, right?”
Danny snorted into his drink. “That’s exactly what I was thinking! I swear I nearly fucking called him Donald!”
“Come on,” Michael tugged his elbow. “Let’s get over there. This is gonna be a shit hot night I can tell you.”
Anthony followed them. He felt somewhat on the outside for a while, wallowing in the anger as he felt towards his brother, and the confusion he felt with Danny. He sat back, drinking steadily, and wondering why the familiar feeling of responsibility settled so easily upon his shoulders. He shot glances at Michael and Danny and felt like they had all momentarily stepped back in time. Chrissie was right, he thought, to question how long. How long? How long was he going to feel responsible for them? How long was he going to feel like he had to look out for them?