Saturday, May 28, 2005

Chapter 43

Here I am, my written self, untidy but unbeaten. Shortly shall all my labours end. I was never sure what to do for a happy ending. I wanted the people involved to somehow end up more innocent than they were at the beginning of the novel. Somebody once suggested I could arrange it so that Christy and Danny had lobotomies in the last chapter, but there’s no perfect way to do this.
For too long this has been my life; a running battle between my memory and my imagination, an attempt to reach a point where I could say my escape is greater than my loss. But now that I know escape is impossible, for me the war is over. I’ve been with this stuff for too long, stuck like a bore who can’t change the subject to save his life. I needed to cut it all up and start all over again, without dread at the controls this time, to make myself understood, to make my meaning clear. It all started as a mess and it’s still a mess, but at least it’s not a secret mess anymore.
All these years I’ve used the same thing that made a lack in me, to fill that lack in me. But the past is another country. I don’t want to live there and I don’t want to see it taking over the whole world. I still sometimes feel like it’s earlier than it is. The old feelings come back like an accent I’ve tried to lose. But at least my mourning sickness is over. I’ve opened the box. And what’s left is hope, I hope. As Iggy Pop once said; I declare myself unfinished.

Danny got into the car. He tore the sunstrip from the windscreen. This time he really was going somewhere; London, the heartland, the motherland, an unfinished city with arms outstretched.
Striding along the Weymouth road Christy saw the hurtling black Wartburg approaching. He ran into the road, faced Danny, and began scuttling crabwise across the width of the A354 like some insane goalkeeper. The sour stink of burning rubber plumed from the tyres of the car as Danny braked. Christy sprawled himself across the bonnet.
Danny wound down his window. ‘Get out the way you fucking freak.’
‘Where you going?’ Christy shouted.
Christy lunged in at the driver’s window and grabbed the ignition keys. ‘Can I come?’
‘No you fucking can’t! Give us the keys!’
Christy climbed over Danny, into the back seat.
Danny turned to face him. ‘I’m not fucking about, Christy. Give us the keys and fuck off. I’m disappearing.’
Christy smiled. ‘Nobody disappears completely. Everyone leaves traces.
It’ll all catch up with you sometime.’
Danny thrust his hand at Christy. ‘Keys! Come on!’
Christy smiled again, dangling the keys from his index finger. ‘Dump me and I’ll grass you up about the dealing.’
Danny looked at him. He saw headlights approaching behind. He sighed. ‘Fucksake.’
Christy handed over the keys. Danny started the engine, angrily, noisily. He pulled away, lurching through the gears.
So, they set off for the city, to make themselves a home. As they moved away from Portland and the landmarks of their unhappiness, Christy laughed. Sat in the black car, leaving, he turned to look out of the rear windscreen. He wanted a clearer view of what was behind him. He wound down the nearside window and leaned out. Feeling the wind rushing past him, he turned towards the disappearing island, cleared his throat, and spat with all his strength.

Chapter 42

Everything went right down the toilet in the end. It was like everybody round me was going mental. The stuff with Kev was the least of it. Karen got a court order to stop him coming round. She had to. He knew when her mum and dad were out. He’d stand in the garden screaming at her. It terrified her, terrified Kerry. The last time, he tried to kick the front door in. Karen called the police. She had to.
Kev’d probably tell it different. Everybody’s version of things is unreliable, but if you want a really unreliable version of what goes on, find yourself a coward. He didn’t know what Karen wanted. She told Les he only asked her what she wanted once, on Chesil Beach that time. The first thing she said was abortion. But he knew her, knew how to work her, talked her round.
But for me, that was nothing like as weird as the whole business with Christy, then later with Danny and Christy. Fuck knows what went on there. Wish I could’ve seen Christy while he was up the hospital but we weren’t allowed. Would’ve set him off again apparently.
I’ll never forget the night he cut himself up. I was round Les’s. Late on, the phone rung. Animal must’ve got the number off me mum. You could tell from his voice he was bricking it; you could hear him trying to swallow his stutter. He said about Christy freaking out and how Patrick and Animal had been looking for him all over Amsterdam. He asked me to go over Christy’s to see if he’d come back.
I goes, ‘Why don’t you phone him?’
‘You don’t know the fucking state of him!’ he goes. ‘If I phone him he’ll think it’s all part of some fucking plot. It’ll be the last of him.’
I took the number for the hotel. When I rung Christy he hung up on me. I rung Animal back. There was a long wait, then footsteps. I goes, ‘He’s there.’ He let out this big rush of air. I heard Patrick grunt in the background like he’d just dropped something heavy.
I had to get over to the island but the last bus’d gone. There was no money round the house for a mini-cab. I run round to the cashpoint. Sod’s law the cunt wasn’t working, so I had to wait for Les’s mum to come in and borrow the fare off her.
I got round there in the small hours. Christy was nowhere. His bedroom window was open. I was going loopy. I phoned Les from a call box and she talked me down off the ceiling.
I seen the woman next door the day after. She give me some bollocks about he’d had an accident but he was being looked after. I only got the proper story a couple days later, off Kev.
Course the Danny thing put the tin hat on the band. There’s this joke. This bloke goes to hell and the Devil’s showing him the things he can do while he’s there. There’s blokes having hedgehogs shoved up their arses, blokes having their ears syringed with hot chip fat, blokes having their bollocks gone over with a belt sander, all that. Then in one corner there’s blokes stood drinking cups of tea, up to their armpits in wet shit. So the bloke chooses that. He wades in, just gets settled, two sugars thanks, all that, when the foreman turns up. The foreman goes, ‘Alright lads, teabreak over, back on your heads.’
That’s how I felt about the band; teabreak over, back on your heads. A shame, it falling apart. Once in a while we were fucking good but it was always by accident. Whenever we acted like we knew what we were doing we just sounded bog-average. We never ended up on that compilation tape. Patrick wanted us to put on ‘World Full Of Ugly’, from the chip shop tapes. I said it wasn’t on because we couldn’t ask Danny. Pity. Made it feel like we never happened.
After the split I seen less of Patrick and Animal. As much as you can see less of someone in a place like this. Patrick I was avoiding. He reminded me of me too much, reminded me of giving up. The next time I seen him to speak to was at the Hairshirt Boutique gig. According to Animal he was on pills for depression at the time. The last Saturday in March, Hairshirt Boutique organised this gig at the Pulpit Inn. On the posters they called it the Last Supper. For once, nobody turned up to put the mockers on things. Nobody needed to by then. Over the door of the pub there was a sign saying ‘Welcome to the end of the island.’ Welcome to the end of the world, it felt like. There was this real feeling of things falling apart. Sid was dead. The Pistols’ accountants had just had this big punch up in court. ATV were on their last legs.
Everyone was there, the posh lot included. Usually there was a bit of needle between them and everybody else, but not that night. It was like two sides of a family meeting up at a funeral and making an effort. Before the bands come on I went outside to get some air. I stood looking out to sea for a bit. Then I climbed up on Pulpit Rock. Fuck knows how long I was sat there, watching the moon shining off the water and thinking about Christy.
I heard a voice call up behind me. It was Animal. He goes, ‘Patrick’s on in a minute Phil. Are you coming down?’
I said, ‘We all are aren’t we?’
The worst of it was The Village Idiot People. Patrick had made out to the Wildman that he wanted him as singer for this band he’d so-called formed with Jeff and Andy. It was like watching somebody pulling the wings off a fly.
The Wildman had a feather boa on. Patrick give him a plastic toy guitar to hang round his neck and bought him Guinness all night. I said to Patrick, ‘Bit tight isn’t it?’
He just said, ‘Bollocks. He likes the attention.’
Then the four of them got up on stage and did a twenty minute version of ‘Wild Thing’. The Wildman looked so lost, I couldn’t look at him.
Linda stopped it. She was due on next, doing her own songs. She walked onstage, unplugged Patrick and walked up to the mic. She goes, ‘This is cruelty without beauty.’ She was having a go at Patrick and the others, but everybody thought she was introducing the first song. Then she said, ‘Here Be Monsters.’ She was introducing the first song but everyone thought she was having a go at Patrick and them.
Just before Hairshirt Boutique come on I seen this ferretty-looking little twat tap Patrick on the shoulder. As he turned, this bloke clumped him one. I laughed so much I spilt me pint. The side of his head swelled up after. Not Tom and Jerry size, but noticeable.
Hairshirt Boutique finished by slaughtering that Doors song, ‘The End’. There was something about it. I could’ve cried me eyes out.
Soon after the Pulpit gig the twins called it a day with Milk, Milk, Lemonade. I’ve still got that last issue, the one with the headline ‘Who put the disease in seaside?’ Then the Shakespeare Monkees split. Ed talked about starting a new band called the Trappist Monkees. The idea was they’d just get up on stage and not say anything. But his heart wasn’t in it.
In some ways Animal come out of it the best. He got this job as warden up the bird sanctuary over Radipole Lake. The money was shit, about two quid a week more than signing on, but they give him a caravan rent free. He used to nip up Dorchester and do a bit of busking too, so he managed.
The last time I touched a guitar was when I went round his place for a bit of a jam. He had electric in the caravan but he said we’d have to play acoustic so it wouldn’t scare the birds. I thought he was taking the piss. With all the stuff in between I’d forgotten about him being into all that. He was drawing again. A bloke on Dorchester market used to buy some of his pictures.
He had the place done out nice; painted up, and hooks and shelves for everything. You wouldn’t have thought it because his dad’s place was a right tip. He was at home. I always said he reminded me of a gyppo. I said to him how I had to hand it to him, sticking to his dreams and that. Punk as fuck.
He goes, ‘If it weren’t punk it would’ve been something else. I had to. Had to do something to show meself I’m here.’
‘You know what it was like round ours. Couldn’t get a word in. Wasn’t like having loads of brothers, more like having one big lump of brother squashing the shit out of me.’
Then he surprised me. He goes, ‘Anyway, the punk thing was always more your thing than anybody’s.’
He reminded me about when we seen Sham 69 at Taunton Odeon. Before it, we seen Jimmy Pursey in the Golden Egg with all his hangers on. I said hello to him. He goes, ‘Alright lads? Coming to the show later?’
Animal smiled. ‘You was moaning about it all night, going “What’s he mean, show? It’s a gig not a show. It’s not supposed to be fucking show-business.”’
I’ve got some good memories from then, but there’s a taste in me mouth. It’s something about wanting, deserving and getting and how they’re hardly ever anything to do with each other. All them parties; we was never really invited. That’s what that time was; just us gatecrashing. Sometimes I think about us lot. Sometimes I think about me and Paul. Maybe there’s those that leave and there’s those that get left behind. I know which I feel like.

Chapter 41

I didn’t see it coming. I’ll never understand it. I tried to puzzle it out but I couldn’t. Doesn’t bear thinking about.
We didn’t even manage a whole year together. I wish Christy had been around. He didn’t know anything about that sort of thing but it would’ve been someone to talk to. Daft as a brush he was, I thought, doing what he did.
The funny thing is, we had a lovely Christmas. Cosy. Enjoying Kerry and so on. I think probably Karen was making a last effort.
Really things hadn’t been comfortable for a while. Lots of silly rows over not very much. It was as if nothing I did was right. She could be so negative. She’d tell me what she didn’t like, but she never told me what she wanted. How was I supposed to guess?
At least she didn’t just go without saying, like Dad. She told me the Saturday after New Year that she wanted to move out. She said she wanted to tell me on the weekend so we had Sunday to talk things over. But I couldn’t think of anything to say. I was speechless. Knocked flat.
The Sunday afternoon I couldn’t watch her packing her stuff into boxes. I was getting upset so I took Kerry down to the beach. When I got back her dad was there, helping her load her things into the van he used for work. He said hello but he couldn’t look me in the eye. He just got on with the loading to give himself something to do. Just then he reminded me of Dad, the way he used to keep himself occupied. I went and sat in the kitchen.
I said goodbye and hugged Karen. She was all limp like she wasn’t there already. I said, ‘We’ll still see each other regular won’t we?’ She give me a squeeze then; really tight.
Sometimes I’d phone her at her mum and dad’s. I’d say, ‘If I make myself different will you come back?’ Then I phoned and the number had changed. I checked and they’d gone ex-directory. I popped round to see her a few times, just on the off chance. I tried to reason with her but she wouldn’t see sense.
I hear she’s got a Council place over Broadwey now. And a new chap. I pick up bits and pieces from Phil because Karen’s friends with his Les, but it’s difficult. He says he wants to stay out of it, feels a bit in the middle of things.
I don’t see Kerry. It upsets me but life goes on. The mistake is wanting too much. I’d still like to settle down with someone nice. There’s a girl at Mass called Sheila. She’s just ordinary, but she’s nice. Quiet and sensible. More my type really. With someone like her I could really get things right.

Chapter 40

I was shitting myself after Terry’s bust. His case was up at the magistrates the week before Christmas. I was certain he’d grass me up at the last minute. Some people, they’re all over you when you’ve got something they want, but they’d drop you in the shit soon as look at you if it suited. That was why I was late turning up at that College gig; I’d been running me arse off flogging the last of the gear. As far as the old life went, that was the night it all went sideways for me.
We were getting left behind. Dave and Max’s new band, Not Off Hand, were on, plus Hairshirt Boutique. Plus The Shakespeare Monkees and Doublethink. Us lot never got asked. Patrick said I was a jinx. I knew it was because Terry didn’t want me within a mile of him, but I couldn’t say.
Doublethink were doing gigs everywhere; Bridport, Frome, Yeovil, all over. They’d started hiring out their P.A. They even had a bank account in their own name. And now they’d put out a single of ‘Dread At The Controls’ on their own Think Twice label.
By the time I got to the gig Animal, Phil and Patrick had done a bomber each so they already had a vibe about them. Them and Kev were stood in the lobby outside the exam hall where the gig was. I said, ‘How come you haven’t gone in? I said I’d see you in there.’
Patrick pointed to the double doors into the gig. There was a girl with a cashbox sat at a table and two rugby meatheads standing either side. Patrick said, ‘Everyone’s got to be signed in by a student.’ Doublethink had put a banner over the door like they owned the place. It said, ‘Welcome to the Mudhutters’ Teaparty.’ It didn’t look like they meant us.
Patrick looked at Phil, then he looked at me. ‘Could’ve been in there.’
I knew what that meant. I said, ‘Fucksake. Don’t start that again.’
When we heard about the gig Patrick wanted us to arselick our way into playing. Phil wouldn’t have it. He said, ‘I’m not brown-nosing round Doublethink. They’re wankers. Three years ago they’d’ve been reciting Monty Python sketches down the pub.’ I took Phil’s side to save explaining. That swung it, and Patrick got all pissy about it.
I said, ‘We can still get someone to sign us in. Dave and Max are on first. Should be loads of people coming out.’
Animal and Kev were sat on the floor against the wall. I asked Animal how come Alison couldn’t have got us signed in.
He said, ‘Bit of a sore point. We’ve split up and that.’
I was surprised. You never even heard of them two rowing.
He turned to Kevin, finishing something he’d been saying. ‘I don’t want to talk about it really.’
Kev wanted to talk about it, whatever it was. He looked like a bag of shit. Terrible. Like he hadn’t slept for a month. His eyes were all bloodshot. He said, ‘I don’t know what Karen wants. I really don’t.’
Animal said, ‘You could ask her.’
Kev said, ‘I did once.’
Animal said, ‘I know what Alison wants. So does she. That’s the fucking trouble.’
Just then the double doors opened and we got an earful of what was going on inside. It felt like someone throwing scraps to a dog. I heard John say, ‘Remember, the only good Catholic’s a lapsed one,’ and Hairshirt Boutique started ‘Oh Come Let Us Ignore Him.’
‘Roll up for your mugshots of Jesus Christ Almighty,
Looking like Bjorn Borg in a halo and a nighty.’
Then Phil piped up about Christy, how it was a pity he wasn’t there. I nearly dropped meself in it. I had it just behind me teeth to say I’d asked Christy if he fancied coming.
Phil started on about how me and him ought to see Christy’s mum, try and fix it so we could visit him. Then Patrick said, ‘Leave the nutty cunt well alone I reckon.’
Out of nowhere Phil dug him really hard in the chest. ‘Give it a fucking rest will you? Cunt can’t help it.’
You could tell Patrick didn’t know if he was joking or not.
I had to change the subject. I said, ‘I was thinking about maybe trying to get some gigs in London.’
Patrick said, ‘Who with? Us or one of the other twenty bands you’re in this week?’
I thought, fuck me, I can’t win. I had to try though. I said, ‘With us. We could send off that tape.’
Phil looked at me and shook his head. ‘Fucking dreamer. That tape’s shit and you know it.’
Animal said, ‘No fucker likes us round here. How are we supposed to get gigs anywhere else?’
I said, ‘Alright then, bollocks. Just an idea.’
The doors swung open again. I could hear The Shakespeare Monkees.
‘Peculiar the likeness,
Between Philip Larkin and Eric Morecambe.
In what then consists the difference
Between what you get and what you’re given?
It might be trite but it might be true,
That what you are is what you do;
Take your pick it’s up to you.’
From the way he was singing it, even Eddie didn’t sound convinced, and he was half mental.
I seen John out of Hairshirt Boutique going in the bogs. He come out and walked over to me. I stood there thinking, don’t show me up for fuck’s sake.
He said, ‘Got a minute? Outside.’
I went outside with him. He was after mushrooms for later but I never had none. Instead, I guessed a sixteenth out of me personal and stuffed it in a fag-packet. He said he could sign me in but I said not without the others.
When I come back in Animal and Patrick were giving me a look but not saying anything. In the end I said, ‘What?’
Animal said, ‘What was all that in aid of?’
I said, ‘How do you mean?’
Patrick goes, ‘What’s the big secret with John?’
I can never come up with a half-decent lie at short notice. I thought, fuck it, might as well own up. I said, ‘He was after some gear.’
Patrick said, ‘Why’s he asking you then?’
I said, ‘I’ve been dealing. On me own.’
Patrick looked at Animal. Animal’s eyebrows went up.
I said, ‘I never said I was packing it in altogether. It was just the situation.’
Patrick looked at Phil. ‘Did you know?’
Phil shrugged. ‘Pretty much. Yeah.’
Patrick said to Phil, ‘Thanks a lot. What a two faced cunt you turned out to be.’
‘Fuck off,’ Phil said. ‘What odds does it make?’
I jumped in. ‘If you had any sense you’d’ve worked it out Patrick.’
He said, ‘All that bollocks you come out with about, oh it’s getting a bit weird with Christy and it’s not a laugh like it was before and all that. Fucking hypocrite.’
The bouncers looked over but we were nothing to them.
At the time my attitude was, fucked if I owe Patrick any loyalty after all the stick I got; all the Billy Bullshit bollocks. I said to him, ‘I haven’t got to give you any reasons you twat. I don’t owe you nothing. What am I? Your brother?’
Patrick said, ‘Yeah, well,’ and give me this look.
I just thought, don’t say a word. Not a fucking word. I turned and started walking away. I felt something hot flick me on the ear and I seen this fag-end spinning past me head.
I heard Patrick say, ‘Don’t walk away from me when I’m talking to you, you ignorant cunt.’
I turned and ran at him. He put his hands up like he was miming being stuck in a phone box. Then he started coming towards me. Animal jumped and grabbed me. Phil grabbed Patrick. Animal was trying to hold me back and Phil had hold of Patrick. Kev was just dithering round the edges like a referee at the wrestling. It stayed like that for a minute or two. Patrick was really struggling with Phil. Then Phil nutted him.
Everything suddenly went quiet. Absolutely dead quiet. We all looked at each other like we’d been hypnotised and someone’d snapped their fingers. We just stood there. I used to get this comic called Whizzer and Chips. This kid in there was always having these daydreams, really lifelike, like tripping. And the things in the dream were always a bit like the real things around him. Then he’d wake up. Just then was like the bit where he woke up. We’d all been having this dream. Then we looked round and saw that the crappy ordinary things had been there all the time. We hadn’t got away from anything and we hadn’t got away with anything.
There was a sort of whoosh from the exam hall as the doors opened. The gig was over. This big wave of people come out and caught us up. We got sort of swept out. Like rubbish.
When I got back from the College Mum was still up the Pilot for darts night. They must’ve been having afters. She’d started going a couple of weeks previous. I nagged her into it. She needed to get out even more than I did. She wasn’t getting any support off that useless old cunt.
I went to my room and sat chain-smoking. After about an hour or so there was a knock on the door. I said, ‘Yeah?’
Dad stuck his head round. ‘Fancy coming down and keeping me company?’
He could be like that. He’d sit in the front room with Mum for hours and they wouldn’t say a word. But when she was out with the dogs or at darts you could tell he missed her. He’d give me a knock and make out there was something funny on the telly he wanted me to catch. You’d get in there and he’d look at the T.V. and shrug and say, ‘Oh. Missed it,’ and you’d stay anyway.
I followed him into the front room. The telly wasn’t even on. It didn’t look good. He had a bottle of Bells on the floor next to the armchair. There was a second clean glass on the foot-stool. Something was up.
I sat down.
‘You bank the takings alright?’
I said, ‘Yeah.’
He poured me a whiskey. ‘Enjoyed it this week?’
‘Just work isn’t it?’
‘Appreciate the work you do Danny. Do really.’
I shrugged. He sounded half-pissed.
He looked at his knees. ‘I’m telling you first because I’m not sure how your mum’s going to take it.’
I put me hands over me eyes.
‘That Trevor from Ladbrokes. I asked him to keep an eye out if anything come up.’
I looked at him.
‘They’ve offered me a job. Relief manager. Better money. I’ve said yes.’
I didn’t speak. He kept reeling off the stuff he’d rehearsed. ‘It’ll be a lot of travel. Probably have to stay overnight quite often.’
I said, ‘What about Mum?’
He winced. ‘I’m relying on you Danny.’
‘To give her a bit of support. See this as an opportunity.’
‘Said to Chant you’re ready. Take over the reins. He seems alright with the idea.’
I put me glass down on the floor. ‘You twat.’
He sat there with the glass near his mouth. ‘You understand why I’m doing this don’t you?’
I understood alright. Mum couldn’t get over the past. He couldn’t get away quick enough from anything that reminded him of it. Maybe that’s what panicked me in the end. I could see myself in my old man. All he ever wanted was something he could run towards to stop himself thinking.
I got up. ‘Yeah, I know why. You’re a fucking coward.’ I went to walk out the room. He stood up. I dug him one in the shoulder. He sat straight back down again, too surprised to speak. He didn’t even follow me.
When I got to me room it was like every muscle in me just went loose. Suddenly I felt dead calm and knew exactly what to do. I had to cut me life in half and start again.
I stuffed some pants and socks and teeshirts in a duffel bag and crept into the hallway. I could hear Dad pottering about in the front room. His jacket was in the usual place on the hooks beside the front door. I reached in the inside pocket and lifted out the keys to work, opened the front door and slipped out.
I parked up at Butts quarry. I left the headlights on so I could find the box. I opened the box and took the money I’d stashed from the dealing. I give the place one last look and drove away.
Then come the tricky bit. I reversed into the top of King Street and jumped out. There was traffic pissing past so the only thing I could do was act like I had the right. The only good thing was the pubs had already kicked out.
I could hardly get the door of Goodwill and Chant’s unlocked for shaking. I took a deep breath and went in. I knew I was either starting something or finishing it, or both.
If I’d planned it I never would’ve banked the takings. All there was in the safe was the float, but it was doing it that mattered, not how much was there. I was bursting for a shit. I stuffed the money in the duffel bag. I left a note so they couldn’t think it was anyone else. It said, ‘I’m going outside forever.’ I signed it and walked out.
I left the island behind like it was a sinking ship. I had to go. Everything just come on top at once.

Chapter 39

Washed and tidy, with his palms sweating, Christy waited in the car-park for Fletcher to collect him at the end of his shift. He hadn’t managed to squirm out of the film show. He’d considered telling Fletcher it clashed with the College gig, then hiding in a back street pub all evening. But there was something about lies and secrets that didn’t fit him anymore.

Fletcher parked up outside his house on Lyndhurst Terrace. He patted Christy’s arm. ‘Just going to get me other half.’
Christy wound down the window. He was sweating.
Fletcher came out of the house alone. He signalled for Christy to get out of the car. He explained the baby-sitter was late and invited Christy inside. In the front room was a woman in a boiler suit.
‘This is Is,’ Fletcher said.
Christy said, ‘Eh?’
‘Is,’ the woman said. ‘Short for Isabella. Hello Christy.’
Fletcher twirled his car keys. ‘You might as well wait here Christy. Give me a chance to set up the projector and that. Walk up with Is later.’
Fletcher left and Is led Christy to a large lean-to shed at the back of the house. Along one wall was a wide, cloth-covered workbench. The shed was full of crates of broken coloured glass sparkling like chests full of jewels.
Is switched on a baby alarm next to the lightswitch. ‘Might as well get a bit more done while we’re waiting.’ She smiled at Christy. ‘I make stained glass windows. It’s me trade.’
Christy watched as Is began marking and cutting shapes from fragments of glass which she selected from the crates. ‘Anything I can do to help?’
‘No.’ She smiled. ‘I know what I’m doing, cheers.’
‘I wasn’t meaning...’ Christy said.
‘Alright.’ Is handed him a pair of tongs. ‘Pull us out a couple of red bits about so big.’ She formed a square with her hands.
As Christy rooted in a crate Is explained how her father had taught her the trade. ‘I was a sod at that age. Couldn’t be told anything. I never used to draw up a design. I just used to put bits together as they came. I thought, fuck it, it’s still a window. But then it started to seem a bit of a cop out. Might as well make an effort, make what you can of the material.’
The fragments began to form a pattern on the workbench as the pair worked together, accompanied by the clink of broken glass and the amplified breathing of a baby.
The doorbell sounded. The baby-sitter had arrived. When Is showed Tracie to the child’s room she beckoned Christy. ‘Come and have a look if you like.’
He peered down into the cot. ‘What is it?’ he whispered.
Is smiled. ‘It’s a baby.’
He laughed for the first time in ages.
‘Miranda her name is. She’s knackered at the moment. Took her swimming earlier.’
‘Bit young for that isn’t she?’ Christy asked.
‘Best to start early,’ Is said. ‘Babies swim by instinct. Up to six months old they’ve got this thing called the diving reflex where their lungs close automatically so they don’t drown. Nothing to it, swimming, the mechanics of it. It’s only fear that stops people.’
‘Maybe I should learn,’ Christy said.

Walking to Mulberry Terrace, Christy concentrated on the sound of Isabella’s voice, and tried to shut his mind to the bad memories that hung around in the streets like gas. On arriving at the arts centre there was just time to say hello to Fletcher before the first film started. He greeted them, then returned to swearing at the projector which he was prodding with a screwdriver.
The audience comprised the parents of the posh lot; teachers, hippy bakers, bike-riding librarians, men with beards, women in specs, kind people mostly. Christy scanned the crowd, frightened that he might see Reverend Stiles.
Is and Christy found seats as the lights dimmed. The words ‘Two Hundred Mistakes’ appeared on the screen. A man stood alone in a white room. On a table in front of him were two piles of large cardboard squares. The man tossed a coin. He took one of the piles and began holding up each card in turn, then letting it fall.
Each card contained writing. The first said, ‘Sue would’ve gone out with me if I’d asked.’ The next said, ‘Mark wasn’t humouring me.’ The third said, ‘When Stewart was talking about Tom it wasn’t a hint about me.’ The fourth card carried the words; ‘Those presents came out of kindness not pity.’ And so the film revealed two hundred opportunities misperceived, compliments taken for sarcasm, kindnesses dismissed as condescension, reasons read as excuses, excuses taken as snubs, all now reconsidered.
Laughter started rippling through the audience. Soon cheers greeted each new card. As the two hundredth mistake fell away and the screen burnt white again, Christy nudged Is. ‘Am I missing something?’
She smiled. ‘It’s just that last time we saw the other version where he goes through two hundred things he used to think were good, that he’d changed his mind about since. Depressing as fuck.’
A second film began. It’s title was spelt out in fuzzy felt letters: ‘You Are Not In Bedford Falls; “It’s A Wonderful Life” In Dub.’ A young man with unfortunate sideburns stepped into shot. His voice was wry and gentle. ‘This film proposes two things. The first proposition is that there’s nothing so tragically stupid or stupidly tragic that it can’t be re-edited, retrieved. The second proposition is that the sign in the opening shot of “It’s A Wonderful Life”, which says, “You are now in Bedford Falls” should actually say, “You are not in Bedford Falls.” Because the world is much more like Pottersville. Anyone who won’t face that has got no right to be surprised when the floor opens underneath them and they find themselves drowning.’
What followed cut up Capra’s film and started all over again. In this version George Bailey languished in Pottersville unsupported by any evidence that his actions counted for a piss in the ocean. The borrowed footage ended with George, stuck like a scratched record, saying over and over, ‘I want to live... I want to live... I want to live’, until the man with the sideburns stepped back into shot to say, ‘I want to live too, but not necessarily in a world like this. The question isn’t whether to be or not to be, the question is, where and what is Bedford Falls, and how do we get there?’
After a brief interval during which Christy hung around Is drinking orange juice from a plastic cup, the main feature began. It was ‘Last Holiday’, starring Alec Guinness as a man given weeks to live. The opening credits reminded Christy of wet Sunday afternoons in front of the telly. He settled into the story. It gave him the feeling songs sometimes did; a panic-less sense that he was being talked about. He watched as Guinness’s character acted like there was no tomorrow. He smiled as the character argued that people should always tell the truth. Christy’s eyes were feeling hot again.
The show over, he helped Fletcher and Is load the equipment into the car. Back at the house Is showed him into the front room while Fletcher made coffees. She paid the baby-sitter and showed her out. On returning, she walked over to the sideboard, inspected the hand-written label of a cassette and pressed the tape into the music centre’s brushed aluminium mouth.
Fletcher returned with a tray of mugs and biscuits. ‘You enjoy the films tonight?’
‘Yeah,’ Christy said.
‘Bit hit and miss sometimes,’ Fletcher said. ‘Everyone votes on what film to have.’
‘Fucking “Citizen Kane” last month,’ Is complained.
Fletcher laughed. ‘It’s not that bad.’
Is leaned forward and took a Bourbon. ‘The whole premise is shite,’ she said. ‘You can’t work backwards from the end of someone’s life and sus out what it all meant, any more than you can start from the beginning of someone’s life and guess what it’s all going to mean.’
‘Maybe,’ Fletcher said.
Is dunked her biscuit. ‘You should know that. With Dale and that.’
Fletcher handed the biscuits to Christy. ‘Me and Dale started a film club together when we were at Exeter University. Then after, when I moved back here, he came too and we started this one. I went college with this real fuck off vibe about me. But he wouldn’t let me off with it. Kept talking to me. I just gave in eventually. That’s when I started opening up. Dale made that second film, “You Are Not In Bedford Falls”.’
‘You two fall out or something then?’ Christy asked.
Fletcher straightened. His jaw flexed. ‘He killed himself a couple of years after the move to Weymouth.’
Christy straightened too. ‘There’s a lot of it about.’
‘Yeah. There is. Really knocked me back it did,’ Fletcher said. ‘I felt I should’ve seen it. That I let him down.’
Christy nodded.
‘I was so fucking furious with him. It was like the opposite of everything he stood for. It was like saying he was finished.’
‘He’d probably be pleased you kept the film club going,’ Christy said.
‘Yeah,’ Fletcher nodded. ‘I thought about stopping. But that felt like I’d be as bad as all the people who wanted to act like he’d never existed. People treat suicide like puke in a playground; something that needs to be covered up in case it sets everyone else off.’ Fletcher brushed biscuit crumbs from his jeans. ‘Anyway. Bit of a conversation stopper.’
Christy looked at him. ‘Wasn’t until you said it was.’
The three listened quietly as the tape played ‘Nature Boy’ by Big Star. Alex Chilton sang like a choirboy with a bastard hangover, his voice brittle, uncertain, but perfect.
The song ended. Fletcher took a swig of coffee. ‘Can’t argue with the words can you?’
Christy shrugged. ‘I wouldn’t know.’
There was a crackle from the tape. A voice like tar was speaking. ‘How about listening to old Pops for a minute? All I’m saying is, see what a wonderful world it could be, if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love; that’s the secret.’ Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’ began.
Christy’s eyes widened. ‘Me dad used to have this. I haven’t heard the bit of talking at the start before though.’
‘I think this is the album version,’ Is explained. ‘The single hasn’t got the talking on.’
‘I used to hate it,’ Christy admitted.
‘Used to?’ Is asked.
‘Yeah,’ Is said. ‘Think it’s the talking that makes the difference.’

The tape clicked to an end. Fletcher stretched himself and rubbed one eye with the heel of his hand. He nudged the dozing Christy. ‘I’d better take you back mate.’
On the doorstep, Is flapped her arms once at her sides. She ducked forward and kissed Christy on the forehead. ‘Good luck Christy.’
Outside the hospital Fletcher kept the engine running. He looked at the dashboard as he spoke. ‘Nobody’s ever really finished Christy. Dale used to say to me, “There’s only one ending. Other than that there’s just jump-cuts, flashbacks and dissolves. The good news is you can always do another edit.” What happened to you Christy, I reckon you’re going to have to make it register somewhere. Otherwise you’ll be going back to it forever, like somebody telling a joke over and over because it doesn’t get a laugh.’
Christy looked at him. ‘I’d better get inside.’ He smiled. ‘Do you want me to ask if they’ve got a spare bed for you?’
As Christy got out, Fletcher dug him in the ribs. ‘Cheeky fucker.’
Christy crept onto the ward, undressed and got into bed. He lay thinking. He knew he was trying to remember something but he didn’t know what. Soon he was sleeping, dreaming.
In the dream everything seemed to be happening backwards. Outside the house the pavements were sweating. A black car was leaving. The big blue door slammed. Clair was in the hallway going round in circles. She was carrying a hinged metal box the size of a suitcase. The box was held shut with string. The string broke. The box fell open; papers spewed across the hallway.
Christy was up to his waist in papers, wading through them. A book floated towards him like a raft. He opened the book and read.
Here we are and here I am; me again, a later self. Only I can write this, but I can only write what I can write. I could imagine some clues as to the why of your dad’s death but clues are all they would be. I could present some evidence but all evidence is anecdotal evidence. A final statement can’t be made. But as far as it relates to you Christy, between earlier and later there was nothing. It’s called bad luck.
Things don’t run like a detective novel. The last person to see the victim alive isn’t always the culprit. Neat plots of cause and effect only hold up for the guilt-ridden and the smug. If you insist on everything making sense then something has to give. What gave was you. But now I’m doing the giving. And what I can give you is this; love, baby, love. That’s the secret you kept from yourself; your albatross and millstone loved you like a father. That’s what you lost. It’s the same in any language.
This is the happy ending and this is where the real work starts. The terror will always be that what you thought was behind you might still be ahead of you, waiting to rear up like a dragon, waiting to break over you like a wave. But sooner or later you have to let go of the things that were fucked up for you, and move on to the things you might fuck up for yourself .
Christy was in the playground alone. The playground gate was complicated and ugly. It clanked shut. He pressed his face against the gate. Alongside the pavement was the black car. His dad got into the car. The engine started. Christy pressed his face harder against the gate, looked as hard as he could, shouting with his eyes. The engine stalled. His dad got out of the car and opened the gate. He picked Christy up. He kissed him on the top of the head. He looked into his face and said, ‘Goodbye.’ He set Christy down. He turned and walked back to the car. He got into the car and drove away. Christy watched the black car leaving.
He woke up and sat up. He cried like he’d never cried before. He sat for some minutes, sniffing back snot and tears. He wiped his eyes and dressed himself. He was decided. He was going out to the end of the island for the last time. Christy walked out into the navy blue night. His footsteps clapped crisply on the shining pavement.

Chapter 38

Christy had arranged to meet Fletcher at lunchtime, to share his food again. While he waited, he played Scrabble in the dayroom with George and Mandy. Mandy was the Scrabble champion of the ward. When there was nobody to play with she’d sit for hours at the board, making her own crosswords, mumbling clues to herself, stopping only to wash her hands every half hour.
Christy looked at the letters he’d been dealt. They weren’t promising. He tutted to himself.
Mandy smiled at him. ‘There’s letters missing,’ she said. ‘You have to do what you can with the lack you’ve been given.’
George took a sip from his mug of tea. ‘Exactly. A lot of it’s down to luck.’
‘I didn’t say luck. Lack, I said.’
George frowned. ‘Oh.’
Mandy watched as Christy played his turn. ‘Your wrists have healed up good. Hardly shows.’
‘Yeah,’ Christy nodded.
‘Why’d you do it?’ Mandy asked.
‘Don’t know,’ Christy said. ‘Haven’t worked it out yet. Something to do with me dad though, I think. He topped himself.’
George and Mandy’s mouths clacked open and shut twice. An awkward silence followed. Mandy broke it. ‘Yeah? Fucking hell. How come?’
‘Fuck knows,’ Christy said. ‘It’s a mystery.’
Mandy tilted her head to her shoulder like a preening bird. She sniffed herself to see if she stank. ‘There’s a lot of it about. Suicide, I mean. But you wouldn’t think it to hear people talk.’ She rolled a cigarette and lit it. ‘I used to see a lot of it when I worked in the Prince of Denmark. Pub right on the top of Beachy Head. You know Beachy Head, where everyone goes to off themselves?’
Christy looked blank.
‘Over near Eastbourne,’ George explained. ‘Notorious. First thing you see when you get off the train’s the signpost to the Samaritans.’
‘People used to go in the Prince for a last drink before taking a dive,’ Mandy said.
‘Charming,’ Christy said.
‘We used to have the Samaritans’ phone number up in the toilets. We was toying with printing it on the beermats but Gavin the landlord said it’d be depressing for everyone else. We used to watch out for jumpers. If they put “Endless Sleep” on the jukebox that was always a bad sign.’ She began to sing softly to herself. ‘I don’t care what they say, I won’t stay in a world without love.’
Christy felt himself blushing.
Mandy went on. ‘You’d try and talk to them if they looked likely but you couldn’t be obvious. Sometimes one of us’d nip into the kitchen and call the police. A few times me or Gavin followed people out. Scary. Once Gavin had hold of this bloke near the edge. The guy was getting hysterical. Gavin punched him unconscious. Saved his life though.’
‘Christ,’ George muttered. ‘Remind me to drop in there for a pint sometime.’ He laid three tiles on the board to form the word shed.
Mandy stubbed her roll up. ‘I’m proud of that time, what we did. But it got too much. All that waste.’
‘Everyone’s got the right to though, I reckon,’ Christy said. He blushed again. ‘I mean logically there’s no shortage of reasons to do it.’
Mandy disagreed. ‘It’s not about logic. Easy enough to stay in a world without logic.’
George nodded. Christy sniffed.
‘Did you just pack it in then, the job?’ Christy asked.
Mandy shifted her chair back as if she were preparing to leave the room. Her raw pink hands twisted in her lap. ‘Kind of. I got pregnant by Gavin. He wasn’t interested so I packed me bags and went.’
Christy couldn’t ask.
‘I kept the baby,’ she said. ‘Holly. We moved in with me dad in Dorchester. He’s looking after her for now.’
‘Is that what got you in here then?’ Christy asked. ‘Gavin leaving you in the lurch.’
Mandy said, ‘No. There’s been others since.’ She smiled at Christy’s look of surprise. ‘You get over things. No point living a half-life just because you’ve been hurt.’
Christy lit a cigarette. ‘Didn’t you worry the same thing’d happen again? Get close to someone then they go.’
‘To begin with, yeah,’ Mandy admitted. ‘But you can’t go on like that.’
She played her hand and formed the word finished.
Christy frowned. He placed his last two letters on the board and formed the word unfinished.
Before putting his head round the dayroom door Fletcher knocked, as if the occupants were proper people. He led Christy to the conservatory again.
They sat for a while, eating in silence. Then Fletcher turned to face Christy. ‘Would it bother you if I told you I’d had a look at your admission notes?’
‘Suppose not,’ Christy said.
‘I was just wondering, how much do you reckon the speed and acid were the problem?’
Christy chewed and thought. ‘It all would’ve happened anyway, I reckon. Just brought it on quicker. Thing with the acid was, it made me see all this stuff going on inside and between people, but I didn’t have a clue how to work out what it meant.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I was telling someone once,’ Christy said, ‘I had this book out the library about people who’re autistic. They have this thing called mind-blindness where they can’t even guess what someone else is thinking. That’s what I feel like mostly. Scares me.’
Fletcher lifted the flap of a sandwich and inspected the filling. ‘What do you reckon’s made you like that?’
Christy sat remembering and thinking for a while. ‘I think it’s to do with after me dad died. Everyone acted like nothing had happened, never said anything or showed any feelings. It was like their mouths and faces were disconnected from their insides.’
‘Yeah, but the whole world isn’t like your family is it?’
Christy sighed. ‘Can you tell with people though? Look at me dad. I’ve kept trying to remember him and all I can remember is an ordinary dad, a proper dad, a nice bloke. But there must’ve been something drastic going on underneath.’
‘He probably was ordinary. Anyway you were only seven. You haven’t had practice guessing about people at that age have you?’
Fletcher polished two apples on his jumper, smiled and handed one to Christy. ‘Do you know what they mean when they say someone’s psychotic?’
Christy paused, about to bite into the apple. It was coming now. This was what all the questions were leading up to. ‘Not really, no.’
Fletcher smiled again. ‘I just remember reading how psychotics tend to think there’s conspiracies going on or there’s some weird, complicated, secret reason for the things that are happening. That ring any bells with you?’
‘There’s always been stuff going on I didn’t know about.’
‘Like what?’
‘At home. With that with me dad. I sort of guessed he was dead. I can’t remember anybody saying. I used to think he come back to see Mum and Clair after I was in bed.’
He would sneak to the living room, to be turned away, to see a door closing on the included world.
‘Do you mean there really was something secret and complicated going on?’
‘So do you reckon you thinking he was coming back was no stranger than the fact that nobody told you anything?’
‘Wasn’t just definite things either. Atmospheres. There was always loads of atmospheres.’
In the classroom Miss Carter clapped her hands twice. Talk thinned and lapsed, faces looked up from plasticine, from tracing paper.
‘Now children, I want you to do something important for me. I’m going to ask you to be very grown up and sensible for me.’
The children looked blankly at her. She continued with the speech she’d prepared. ‘You all know Christy is coming back to school today, don’t you?’
‘Yes, Miss.’
‘I want you to promise that you won’t say anything to him about his daddy. Ever. Do you promise?’
‘Yes, Miss.’
She spotted doubtful expressions on the faces of three or four children; the dimmer ones, she thought. She made eye contact with each of the doubters, swept them up. ‘It’ll be like a pretending game. We’re going to pretend he never even had a daddy.’
Christy frowned. ‘But what if the past’s always going to fuck me up?’
‘Doesn’t have to, does it?’
‘I mean it’s good to remember sometimes. Even if you try not to remember you still remember. I don’t want it to be like me dad never happened.’
‘I suppose the bastard thing with the past is, there’s so much of it,’ Fletcher said. ‘You think if you can work out what the past means, the present’ll take care of itself. Maybe it’s the other way round though. What do you reckon?’
Christy shrugged.
A thought occurred to Fletcher. ‘How did you find out your dad did it to himself?’ he asked, puzzled by the awkwardness of the phrase.
‘I found his death certificate.’ Christy inhaled in two jerking steps. ‘Nobody told me.’
‘Can’t be an easy thing to tell someone.’
‘Not impossible though.’
‘Listen, it’s two weeks till Christmas; do you think you might want to try going home for a few days then?’
Christy chewed his lip but said nothing.
‘I was thinking might be good to get you out of here for an evening. Dip a toe in the water.’
‘Where to?’
‘Do you know the arts centre on Mulberry Terrace?’
Christy nodded. He’d been past it but had never gone in. It wasn’t anything to do with him.
‘I help run a film club up there. Usually have one proper movie and a couple of shorts. We’re having a screening on Friday if you fancy it.’
‘Don’t know. Maybe.’
Fletcher looked at the banana remaining in his sandwich box. ‘I’m finished Christy. What about you?’
Christy raised his hands. ‘I’m full.’

Chapter 37

Alison had decided. She had to give it a try. She’d seen the course she wanted to do. Her tutor said she had every reason to be confident, said she was definitely university material.
That evening, Animal called round on his way to Danny’s birthday drink at the Merman. He sat on the floor with his back against her bed. ‘You definitely ought to go. It’s a chance.’
‘How do you feel?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I wish you could’ve...’
‘Could’ve what?’
‘You know. You could’ve done the same,’ Alison said.
‘I didn’t think. It was different for you. Nobody expected it with me.’
‘Nobody expected it with me.’
‘I know. But you had less people not expecting it.’
Alison brightened briefly. ‘Bristol’s not far. We can stay friends.’
Animal didn’t want to string it out. Better a clean break. He wanted to get on his own and get numb. ‘I could do with having a think on me own. I’ll skin one up, then go.’ He rolled a joint. Alison kissed him goodbye. He walked down to the dark empty beach. He sat, lit up, and watched the tide going out.
He spent the following weekend wafting round town like a ghost. Just as a quitting smoker finds the world is full of smokers, so Animal found Weymouth was full of couples. On Monday he walked into Skinners at nine-thirty, told Lenny he was leaving and went straight to sign on.
The following January, Alison would think the interview had gone badly, and she would be wrong. She would open the letter from Bristol University offering her a place to study Fine Art. She would stand in the hallway rereading the letter, relishing the word unconditional. She would reread the name and address in case it had been wrongly delivered. Then she would dance up the stairs to her room.

Kev was sat on the sofa, engrossed in the December edition of Milk, Milk, Lemonade, the one with the front page headline ‘Life’s a gamble but so is bingo.’ He read that Ed and Fred were planning to release a compilation tape of all the local bands after Christmas, under the title ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do, Within Reason.’ He thought of offering to complete his family tree of the bands for the tape’s cover. It would be something to do, to take his mind off things.
Karen came and sat next to him. She’d been rehearsing this. She lit a cigarette to calm herself and to get his attention.
Kev looked up from the photocopied pages. ‘I wish you wouldn’t, love.’
She touched his wrist. ‘I’ve been thinking Kev. These rows and everything.’
Kev looked back at the fanzine.
Karen took it from his hands and laid it aside. ‘Maybe I should go round Mum and Dad’s for a bit. Just a week or two. Be a breather for both of us.’
He talked her round like he had down on the beach. But a wedge was in place.

Chapter 36

Kev was driving Karen crazy. Absolutely crazy. So many things he did now had the effect on her of hearing two bits of polystyrene rubbed together. When he walked barefoot in the living room his verruccas could be heard gently scuffing on the carpet. When he undressed for bed he’d take his Y-fronts off before his tee-shirt and stand there looking like a stupid little boy. When he entered the records he’d bought in the red book, the tiny pink tip of his tongue would poke out of the corner of his mouth. When Karen swore he’d look at her meaningfully and say, ‘Language.’ He’d begun calling the telly the goggle-box like some slipper-wearing old fart.
Wednesday was half-day closing. He liked to spend the extra time at home. Karen was sat on the sofa with a book on her lap and her eyelids drooping. She gathered herself. ‘Why don’t you go up and see Christy, Kev? Might do him good.’
At her feet Kev played with Kerry, holding her upright by the armpits as she gurgled and wriggled and smiled. He ignored Karen’s question. ‘Look K. She’s dancing.’
Karen’s shoulders sagged. ‘Don’t get her excited Kev. I’ve got to put her down in a minute. She won’t settle.’
Kevin’s expression changed. ‘You’re right.’ He lowered Kerry gently and walked towards the kitchen. ‘Fancy a hot drink?’
‘Okay,’ she said. She leaned forward and smoothed Kerry’s hair. Karen sniffed. ‘Kev. She needs changing.’
Kev called absently from the kitchen. ‘I did wonder actually.’
‘Thanks a bunch.’
He returned and stood with his head resting quizzically against the door-frame. ‘Alright?’
‘You don’t mind playing with her but it’s me that does the bloody work.’
‘You can’t say I don’t work though, lover.’ He paused then shook his head. ‘You’re not yourself lately.’
Karen cupped Kerry’s ears. ‘Stop fucking telling me who I am all the time,’ she said, her voice rising.
‘I know what you’re like though love.’
‘You don’t! I don’t think you’ve got a clue about me. Or anyone.’
‘I don’t...’
‘It’s like everybody’s just in your head. Your imagination.’
‘That’s silly.’ He touched her shoulder. ‘I’ll make a pot of tea. There’s some digestives somewhere.’
‘You twat! You act like you’re forty. When are you going to grow up?’

Danny had been having the same nightmare again and again. In it he was always running furiously, being chased. Last night in the dream there was a ferocious roaring sound behind him. He knew what that sound was.
On the Wednesday that would’ve been Kath’s tenth birthday, he couldn’t face going straight home when Goodwill and Chant’s closed. He refused his dad’s invitation to the Pilot, got in the Wartburg and drove.
He entered the dayroom and walked straight up to Christy. ‘You allowed out of here, for walks and that?’
Christy examined the Scrabble tiles in his hand. ‘Don’t know. I’ve never give it much thought.’ He looked at Mandy, Bob and George. They nodded.
Danny took Christy’s arm and led him from the room. ‘Get a jumper on. I’ll take you out. Have you eaten lately?’
‘Feels like never.’
They wandered the streets until they found a cafe still open. They looked in through the steam-streaked windows. They read the small hand-written notice stuck to the glass; ‘Don’t stay on the outside feeling fed up; come inside and get fed.’
The cafe’s interior was decked out in smeary formica and mock-pine panelling; there were Pot Noodles on a shelf behind the counter. Two bored women stood beside a chrome tea-urn. One was tiny and white-haired. The other, younger, had her hair in pig-tails so tight that her face was stretched into a permanent look of surprise.
Danny and Christy stood in front of the blackboard menu, choosing. Danny ordered the all day breakfast with chips and extra toast.
‘Should I have the same?’ Christy asked.
‘Might be too much if you’ve not been eating a lot lately,’ Danny said.
‘Yeah,’ the pig-tailed woman said, smiling. ‘He needs nourishment, not punishment.’
‘What about scrambled eggs and bacon?’ Danny suggested.
The food arrived along with a large pot of tea. Danny lifted the teapot. ‘Shall I be mother?’
Christy nodded, his knife and fork poised over the lovely food. Danny looked at Christy’s uncertain smile and saw the child under the skin.
Christy took a swig of tea. ‘What you been up to then?’
‘Usual bollocks,’ Danny said. ‘Got to do something soon. Be eighteen next month. Know me dad’s going to try making me work full time in the bookies.’
‘Can’t make you, can he?’ Christy asked.
Danny swallowed. ‘Got me over a fucking barrel. Says he’ll grass me up if I don’t sign off. I’m fucked. Officially I haven’t worked in eighteen months. Nobody else’ll touch me with a bargepole.’
‘How’s the band doing?’
‘Just about hanging in there. There’s a gig on up the College, December. Fifteenth it is. Don’t know if we’re playing yet. You ought to come. Just make out you didn’t find out about it from me.’
Christy bit his lip. ‘Don’t know. Might not be well enough.’
‘Phil’d be pleased to see you.’
‘Does he know you’ve been up?’
‘Nope. Awkward it is.’ Danny bit into a slice of fried bread. Chewing, he looked at Christy. ‘You’re weird you are. The way you always used to come back for more. Not the acid so much but knocking about with us lot.’
‘Yeah...’ Christy frowned, puzzled. ‘Maybe it was because it was different from home. At home we was a mystery to each other. With you lot, at least it felt like you were reacting to me. Even when you were giving me stick.’
‘Suppose so, yeah,’ Danny agreed. ‘Mind you sometimes we were just being cunts for the sake of it.’
‘Sometimes it felt like you lot could read me mind. I wasn’t used to people working out what I was thinking.’
‘It’s not that weird is it?’
‘Don’t know,’ Christy said. ‘This bloke on the ward was saying about it. How you can try and guess what people have got going on underneath, but in the end you might as well guess who’s going to win the 3.15 at Newmarket.’
‘Sounds like he’s never had a punt in his life,’ Danny said. ‘You’re not just guessing with racing. People look at form, conditions, choose whether to go for value or long odds. And they enjoy it. When you get it right there’s nothing like it. People like him, they’re just shit scared.’
Christy pushed his plate away. ‘I don’t think he was just on about racing.’
‘I know that.’
Danny poured more tea for them both. He watched Christy’s eyes reddening, shining. Christy pinched his nose at the bridge like he was trying to stop a nosebleed.
‘You alright?’
Christy blinked. ‘Me eyes feel all hot.’ He lit a cigarette and offered one to Danny. ‘I’m sick of it all, is all. The being quiet.’
‘Fair enough.’ Danny concentrated on flicking the ash from his cigarette.
Christy continued. ‘I want me dad back and I want me sister back. And I’m not going to get what I want.’
‘Clair might change her mind,’ Danny said.
‘Doubt it.’
‘Might do.’
‘Me dad won’t.’
Danny sniffed. ‘There’ll be other people though.’
‘Will there?’
‘Yeah. Course.’
‘Other people who’ll fuck off.’
‘Not all of them. Some of them might. But not all of them.’ Danny tried to think of something else to say. He couldn’t.
Christy took a drag on his cigarette. ‘Sometimes lately I just feel so fucking angry.’
‘With who?’
Christy frowned, chewing the skin at the side of his thumbnail.
‘Don’t know. With me Dad maybe. But then, it always felt like my fault. Specially with nobody telling me. I just knew he’d gone and it was something to do with me.’
‘Fuck me though Christy; you were only seven. How bad can you be at seven?’
‘Not how you think though, is it? At that age.’
Danny thought for a while. ‘Suppose not. When I was six I used to think that people carrying umbrellas made it rain. You link things up all wrong.’
‘I thought I must be really bad. I thought if I try really hard to be good, quiet and not make a fuss, things’ll go good again. Then Clair fucked off. So that didn’t work.’
‘That was the weird thing with you and the gear. It was like you still wanted to behave. Like you couldn’t just get into it and have a laugh like everyone else. Like you weren’t entitled to enjoy anything.’
‘I think I wanted an excuse to stop being good. But I couldn’t let meself go.’ Christy hesitated, then said it. ‘What about you? Didn’t you feel angry about Kath and that?’
Danny’s mouth formed into a thin line. His clothes felt too tight. He could feel his face puckering. ‘How you know about that?’
‘Phil said. Sorry.’
‘Fucker. Told him not to say to anyone.’ Danny swallowed. ‘Course I was fucking angry. And what could I do? There was nobody I could get hold of to blame. They never found the driver. You must know what that’s like. Being fucking furious at someone you can’t get at.’
‘Didn’t you ever feel guilty?’
‘I used to beat meself up for not getting the registration of the lorry. And sometimes I think I shouldn’t’ve took her down the shops... Suppose things were clearer for me. Maybe because I was older.’ Danny drained the last of the tea and stood up. ‘Come on. I’ll take you back to the nuthouse.’
At the entrance to the hospital they couldn’t look at each other. Danny lit another cigarette and began to walk away. He spoke over his shoulder. ‘Give us a ring if you fancy that gig up the College.’
Christy nodded.
Danny couldn’t face home yet. He drove over to the Mudhut on spec, having not heard from Terry for a while. He could kill some time there.
Terry opened the door. He looked at Danny then looked up and down the street. ‘I think you’d better go.’
‘No honestly. I got busted with that last eighth I had from you.’
‘Fucksake.’ Danny thought quickly. ‘Alright. I’ll go. We’ve never met. Okay?’
He drove round the corner, dumped his personal down a drain, and headed home. In the dining room his dad was sat at the table with his head in his hands. Danny’s nightmare was leaking. Everything was repeating. The crepe paper was there again. The balloons were there again. On the table was a cake, sausage rolls, Twiglets, sandwiches, jugs of squash, a milk jelly and paper hats.
Danny’s dad looked at him. ‘I knew she shouldn’t’ve come off them tablets.’
Danny clenched and unclenched his fists. ‘You talked her into it. Said it was time. Where is she?’
‘Christ knows,’ his dad said. ‘I’ve checked round the house, plus up the garden. Dogs are there so she’s not out with them.’
‘This is bad. This is really, really fucking bad.’
His dad stood slowly. ‘I’d better ask round the neighbours. See if they’ve seen her.’
Go on then, Danny thought, you gutless wanker. He sat alone, listening to his pulse in his ears, listening to the house creaking and settling. As he bit into a sandwich he heard someone blowing their nose. He took his shoes off and stood quietly. He walked into the hallway and listened again. A woman was crying. The sound was coming from the spare room. He knocked. ‘Mum?’ Nothing. He knocked again. ‘Mum?’
His mother spoke. ‘Step away from the door Danny. Step away.’
Danny backed away a few paces. His mother stepped out and quickly shut the door behind her. She turned to lock the door. Danny grabbed the door-handle. His mum stared into his face. ‘Don’t Danny. You don’t want to see.’
He pushed the door open. He felt himself falling. The room was Kath’s room. The same bed, the same carpet, the same wallpaper, the same shelves, the same toys, the same wardrobe. In the wardrobe were clothes that would have fitted her now. All the long days alone his mother had rebuilt the shell of what she’d lost.
Danny sat on the bed shaking. ‘Christ, Mum. Couldn’t you say?’
She looked at his eyes. ‘Neither of you wanted to know.’ She paused. ‘You won’t tell your dad will you? He won’t want to look.’
‘No,’ Danny said. No, he thought, let him stay fucked up if he wants to.

Chapter 35

Christy was sitting on the chair by his bed talking to Bob, filling up the time until lunch arrived. Bob, still in bed, leaned up on one elbow. He pointed at Christy’s wrists. ‘Bloke who used to live in the same digs as me offed himself.’
The boarding house was run by Mrs Cole, a vague woman who did everything vaguely. Her face was white like a pet mouse. A stockade of narrow wrinkles puckered her top lip. Her white hair was streaked nicotine brown. The smell of mince and onions, stale but moist, permeated the house. There was a doorbell which made a hostile rasping sound. There was a greasy payphone in the hall. The interior was sepia throughout.
Bob went on. His voice dragged like it was being played at slightly the wrong speed. ‘Brian Nilson his name was. Read meters for the Gas Board. He had the room I was in, before me. Hanged himself.’
Christy sucked in a cold mouthful of air.
‘That was how the room became free,’ Bob said. ‘But it was a while before I found that out. Once I knew, somehow it preyed on me. Like him doing that was trying to tell me something.’
‘Like what?’ Christy asked.
‘Don’t know. I sort of shut my eyes to it after a while. It was there at the back of my mind but I got kind of half settled.’
He sagged into a routine. He would sit down each morning to drunkenly undercooked fried eggs, whose yolks burst like blisters. Each evening after work he would sit in the parlour with the other lodgers, absorbing their defeat like it was a smell.
Christy looked at his watch. Bob didn’t notice. ‘Then I met my girlfriend.’ He paused. ‘Girlfriend as was, I should say.’ He was just reaching the age when the word girlfriend begins to sound somehow inappropriate. He handed Christy a small photograph. ‘Rachel.’ When he said her name his face unclenched. She was standing by the sea in an anorak. Her hair looked dated but her glasses looked too modern for her face. She had a nice smile.
Unprompted, Bob explained how they met. ‘I was in the skittle team with work. Not serious, just a nice night really. We played out of the Rose. Rachel’s in the local history society. They meet upstairs there once a month. We started noticing each other. It was a gradual thing. But lovely. I hadn’t really bothered much with that side of things before.’ He sighed.
Christy shifted in his seat, looked at his watch again.
‘From somewhere, I got some courage for once. Decided I’d move in with Rachel.’
There were goodbye drinks in the parlour. Nobody could’ve called it a living room. On the stretch-covered sofa Mrs Cole, Malcolm and Neil sat, like three clue-less monkeys. The departing Bob sat in pride of place on the Parker Knoll. In his navy blue car-coat he seemed fidgetty, anxious to leave. An occasional table was carpetted with plates of crisps and nuts, petrol station tumblers full of own-brand whiskey, and beer cans; green Heinekens, stubby blue light ales.
Gobbets of attempted conversation were lobbed at Bob by the three monkeys. Stubby-fingered Malcolm, bluff and stiff, produced ritual questions like a succession of nervous coughs. ‘Renting her own place is it? Independent lady is she? Be getting your name on the rent book will you? Never know, do you? Suppose you’ll be wanting Mrs Cole to keep your room free for a while won’t you? Never know, do you?’
Neil, hunched but limp, reached for an ashtray. ‘Nobody ever stayed long in that room. It’s unlucky.’
‘Poor Mr Nilson,’ Mrs Cole said, lifting her glass. ‘Always remember him liking a drink.’ Everything reminded her of something else, nothing meant anything to her.
Annoyed, Bob levered forward. ‘It’s not about the room, me leaving. It’s about love. I’m forty-three; I don’t want to be eating me tea off me lap on me sixtieth birthday.’
The three monkeys huddled closer.
‘It’s that room,’ Malcolm said. He looked at Bob, and shook his head, as if he were talking to a stupid child. He settled back on the sofa, folded his hands in his lap. Once more he told the story he couldn’t stop telling. ‘Quite a normal bloke you’d’ve thought, to talk to him.’ He paused for effect. ‘Hanged himself. From the curtain rail in his room. Surprised it took the weight to be honest.’
‘We didn’t notice for a few days,’ Neil added. ‘But then he always was quiet.’
Mrs Cole placed one hand flat to her cheek. ‘I had keys to the room but I couldn’t bring myself to open it and look in. Had to get the police round.’
Malcolm went on. ‘That was the first we knew there was anything odd about him, him doing that. He left a note. It said, “Why? Why not?” Bit off in the head. Either that or he’d been up to something he shouldn’t.’
‘It’s a mystery,’ Mrs Cole said, flatly.
‘In the end you can’t really know anything about someone. That’s the trouble,’ Neil said.
‘This is Neil’s pet theory,’ Malcolm said. ‘He ought to spend less time in the library.’
Neil ignored Malcolm. ‘I reckon you can try and guess why someone does things, what makes them tick, but you might as well try and guess the winner of the 3.15 at Newmarket.’
Bob sat up on the edge of the bed. ‘Don’t know why, but as I was sitting there I was getting more and more terrified.’ He pressed his hands to his cheeks as if he were holding his face together. ‘When it came to it, I couldn’t go through with it. I phoned Rachel and said I couldn’t do it.’
He had thought he was different to the three monkeys. He knew they were
uncentred, unequipped to cope with the panic of actually liking anybody. He knew they would remain in that home for the stunted, the rigid and the broken, stuck forever in the realm of the sexless. And he had thought he was different. But in the end he couldn’t bring himself to step out into a chosen world.
A tear rolled down his face. Christy coughed and looked towards the swing doors at the end of the ward. The midday meal was arriving on trolleys. It was something with mince in, as it often was. He couldn’t stomach it. He made an excuse to Bob and wandered off the ward, away from the meat smell.
In the corridor he met Fletcher.
‘Alright Christy? I was hoping I might see you.’
‘Done too many sarnies again. Fancy sitting out in the conservatory and helping me finish them?’
Christy looked back at the ward, saw Bob and the others forking shepherd’s pie. He shrugged. ‘Alright.’
On the bench in the conservatory Fletcher opened his sandwich box. He sat with his head propped on one elbow and squinted at Christy. ‘What was it got you in here then Christy?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I mean what was it you were feeling that made you cut yourself up like that?’
‘Don’t know. Everything just felt really weird. Went a bit mental I suppose.’
‘Had you ever felt like that before?’ Fletcher asked, passing him the sandwich box.
‘Kind of. Once properly, then a time before was like it but not so strong.’
‘Can you remember the first time?’
Christy looked at Fletcher, wondering, judging. ‘I was at Butlin’s with me mum. I had a bit of a freak out then.’
Fletcher cocked his head. ‘What do you reckon sparked that off?’
‘Don’t know,’ Christy said. He bit into a cheese and pickle sandwich. ‘This bloke drowned in the pool. He was pissed. Might’ve been that.’
That morning the sound in the dining-hall was different. No clatter and bubble, but an ebbing rustle and whisper, like tinnitus. The waiters paused longer, leaning, nodding. The words rippled, broke. Terrible. How old? Imagine. Stood there. Not able. Seeing it. On the edge of the water. Not able.
Could he swim, the boy? Not in his clothes he couldn’t, not drunk like that. Eight minutes of consciousness, they say. Whether you’re trying or not. The water, blue in the day, was grey in the night. A terrified blank gasping. Opening the eyes wide, as if you can scream for help through your eyes. Surfacing. Spinning. One hundred and eighty degrees of his father. Down again like a dog in a bucket.
Was the father dancing? On the cool blue tiles at the pool’s edge he took two steps backward, two forward, two to the left, two to the right. He patted his pockets and, leading with one hand, shuffled forward like a drunk unlocking a door.
In the air again. One unclassifiable sound. His father, on his knees and one elbow, at the edge of the water, in his best clothes, waving at his drowning son.
‘Why would that affect you so much, do you think?’
Christy made a series of small silent gulps. ‘Reminded me of me dad dying.’
Fletcher winced and nodded. ‘When was this?’
‘When I was seven.’
Back when Christy was young and everything was simple.
‘Was it unexpected?’ Fletcher asked.
Christy pulled a face like he was trying to swallow something jagged. ‘Not by him it wasn’t. He committed suicide.’
Yes. Suicide. The one daft idea after which there is no other.
Christy stood and began pacing around the conservatory. He reached one end and began drumming his fingers on the glass as if he were trying to attract the help of passersby. There were no passersby.
Fletcher bit into an apple. ‘Can you remember stuff from around when he died?’
Christy sat again. ‘I can remember bits before, then there’s a gap.’
A gap that can’t be filled, where memory fails and the screen burns white, blank.
‘Did you understand what had happened with your dad?’
‘Not really. Nobody told me anything or explained.’
Stories swam around the playground. Christy’s dad became like something in a book.
He’d been a milkman but he got blown up by the Jerries in the war, because he was out late delivering.
He died of dick trouble. It went bad and fell off and all his blood squirted out of the hole it left, until he was all flat like a balloon with the air out.
He wasn’t dead. He was a secret agent, working undercover. He wasn’t allowed to come back. Not even at Christmas. Nobody believed that one though. Dean said it and he was thick. He reckoned you could get the oxygen chewing gum that Marine Boy used, out of the Beech Nut machine at Weymouth bus station.
‘Were you able to talk to anyone about it?’
Christy shook his head.
Apparently, nothing had happened. And Christy didn’t like to make a lot of fuss about nothing.
His mother had used the word ‘dad’ eight times in Christy’s presence. Each time, Christy had twitched alert like a waking dog. Each time his mother had meant her own dad.
At school Miss Young read them a story once, about an invisible man. He had to go round in bandages so people wouldn’t bump into him. Christy listened and wished he was invisible. Silence was as near as he could get.
He kept his head down and his mouth shut. He came to think about speaking in the same way that, later, other boys thought about fucking. He got good at it in his head.
‘Any brothers or sisters you could talk to about it?’
‘Me sister’s gone.’
‘Left home. Don’t know where she is.’
Fletcher frowned. ‘That’s a lot of people going isn’t it?’
‘Yeah.’ Christy stood again. ‘Anyway, that’s enough for now.’ He made for the door.
‘Sit down Christy,’ Fletcher said. ‘You’ll get indigestion.’
Christy stopped. He stood for a few minutes, shaking, with his eyes squeezed shut. He returned and sat next to Fletcher.
‘Can you remember the first time you spoke to anyone about your dad’s suicide?’
Christy wiped a crumb from the corner of his mouth. ‘The other week when Danny come.’
Fletcher’s eyebrows lifted. ‘Have you got any idea why your dad did it?’
‘Did you have anything to remember him by?’
‘I had some stuff in a box. Photos and that,’ Christy said, taking another sandwich.
‘Did that help?
‘Not much.’
He remembered the picture of his father where he seemed about to say something. He had always felt a swell of panic when he saw it, a terror of being stuck forever on the edge of speaking.
‘Was there much support available outside the family?’
There were Christmas presents for the children from the neighbours; a satchel, a blackboard and easel. And a card signed by everyone, full of kind words for the objects of pity.
‘Not really. We used to go to church but none of them lot ever really said anything.’
There are questions which write their own answers. There is obedience. There is original sin; an idea for mopping up all unplottable etceteras.
Catholicism’s an unlucky faith for the dadless; it’s all pattern and paternity. There is always something there to remind you; the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost, our father who aren’t in heaven, bless me father for I have sinned, father, father, father.
The men and women with tired faces, their best clothes smelling of incense, made no mention of the sins of the father. The generous ones hoped he’d fallen. Outside, the car park was full of minibuses. Inside, the air was thick with the dust from dead people. Christy listened to the rising, falling, dull throb of the sermon. He felt every stab of that word. He stared at the swirls and knots in the grain of the pew. There was a roaring noise like a dragon. The swirls and knots swam and wriggled. Christy levered forward and crumpled like a dropped accordion. His head smacked against the pew in front. He was lifted under the armpits. In the distance he could hear the scrape of his shoes dragging across the polished floor. He found himself looking at the church steps from between his knees, with his mother at his side.
‘Do you reckon the lack of talking about it made things worse?’
‘Fucked if I know.’
Fletcher looked into Christy’s face. ‘It’s a mess isn’t it?’
Fletcher put the lid on his sandwich box, brushed crumbs from his thighs. He gave Christy’s arm a squeeze. ‘I’ve got no answers Christy. Only questions.’
Christy stood up. ‘I’d better be getting back. Thanks for the sandwiches.’ He walked from the conservatory thinking, nosey cunt. On the way back to the ward he stopped off in the toilets. Alone again, he vomited everything that was inside him. He went to bed. When his mother visited three days later he was still there, staring into nothing, unblinking, with an apostrophe of drool on the pillow beside his mouth.

Chapter 34

The lunch hour. Danny and his father were standing poised at opposite ends of the kitchen table as if they were about to play ping pong.
Danny lunged forward. ‘What was all that about earlier on with Chant?’
‘How do you mean?’ his dad asked, straightening.
‘All that “Oh you remember Danny don’t you? Good kid. Always popping in. He can’t wait to start here when he’s eighteen.” All that.’
Mr Chant, joint-owner of the chain of bookmakers, had made a rare visit to the branch that morning. Danny’s dad had taken the opportunity to nudge Danny closer to what he dreaded.
‘I’m sick of it Dad,’ Danny said, working his knuckles against the top of the table.
‘Sick of what?’
‘All these mega-ton hints about following in your poxy footsteps. I don’t want to spend the rest of me life running a bookies.’
‘What do you want then?’
‘I don’t fucking know!’ Danny shouted. ‘I’m working it out. Alright?’
‘Well don’t take forever,’ his dad said, leaning calmly against the cooker. ‘I know I keep coming back to this but you’ve got to think of the future.’
‘Ah bollocks!’ Danny said, turning to walk out. ‘That’s all you ever think of, that is.’
He slammed his bedroom door and leaned his back against it. He’d seen his future. It was behind him in the kitchen. He locked the bedroom door as if to keep that future out. He punched the door. ‘You bastard. You stupid bastard.’

Alone, Christy sat by the window in the dayroom, smoking and watching the rain. His brain felt like it was tightly wrapped in clingfilm. He heard the snick of the door opening. It was one of the nurses; Fletcher.
‘Mind if I join you?’ Fletcher asked.
Christy said nothing.
‘Teabreak,’ Fletcher said. ‘Thought I’d pop in for a quick snout.’ He smiled and lit a cigarette.
‘You don’t usually come in here,’ Christy said, still looking out of the window.
‘Fancied a change.’ Fletcher paused, inspecting his cigarette. ‘How’s it going then Christy? Medication helping and that?’
‘Don’t know.’
‘Been here about a month now isn’t it?’
‘About that.’
Fletcher nodded. ‘I was like you at your age. Bit older. Suddenly you do something that changes everything. Then you have to start working out the reasons.’
Christy looked at Fletcher suspiciously.
‘I was twenty. It was just me and me dad at home. I wanted out but I couldn’t leave. I was minicabbing at the time.’ Fletcher shifted in his seat. ‘There was this bloke who’d been blagging outside Deja Vu, no radio, just hanging about picking up punters on spec. I did his motor. Drove past, cut the lights, lobbed a johnny full of paint-stripper onto the bonnet. Next week outside Deja Vu he pulled across me, got out and fronted up to me.’ Fletcher paused, wiped his palms on the legs of his trousers. ‘I chinned him. He caught his head on his wing mirror. Fractured his skull.’
‘Yeah?’ Christy said.
‘I could’ve killed him. Would’ve gone down if he’d pressed charges. Made me stop and think. Decided I was going to make a new start, become someone else.’
‘What you telling me for?’ Christy asked.
‘All I’m saying is, with you, when you feel stronger you might find something to launch yourself at.’ Fletcher smiled and looked at him. ‘I worry about you, you know. The way you don’t really talk.’
Christy looked at Fletcher.
‘Not to the staff so much but to anybody,’ Fletcher said. ‘You should try it.’
‘Might help. Might find out you’re not on your own.’
‘What if I am?’
‘What if you’re not?’ Fletcher asked, standing now. ‘Might help if you had some visitors other than your mum. Aren’t there any mates who could drop by?’
Christy covered his mouth with his hand. ‘They’re keeping away.’
Fletcher stubbed his cigarette. ‘Well. Teabreak over.’ He looked over his shoulder as he left. ‘Think about what I said though, yeah?’
Christy grunted.

Christy lit another cigarette. The rain stopped. The dayroom door opened. George came in wearing a string vest and beige slacks. He sat in a chair near the window.
They looked at each other silently for some time. George frowned and spoke. ‘You remind me of someone, you do. Your manner.’
‘Who?’ Christy asked.
‘Bloke I knew. Doug. Doubting Doug I called him.’
Doug lived in a bedsit opposite George’s tattoo parlour. Every night Doug watched the blue neon word ‘TATTOOS’ flashing in George’s window with a regular, lazy click. Sometimes it reminded him of American detective novels. Sometimes it reminded him of a lighthouse. Every day Doug passed the green door at the bottom of George’s stairs. There was writing on it in bright fairground lettering; ‘ORIGINAL SKIN; for the scars you choose. Go upstairs one way, come down another.’
George continued. ‘He came in every pay-day for months. He’d look at the photos of work I’d done. He’d spend hours going through the albums of designs. I left him to it. Couldn’t find anything he liked so he started bringing in his own sketches.’
Christy felt his attention wandering. He had a strange distant feeling as if he were listening from underwater.
George droned on. ‘He couldn’t draw, so I redrew them for him. He chose one. I was sat with my toe on the footswitch and the sod panicked and backed out. He came back a month later with another sketch. I took a deposit that time. Redrew it. Last minute again, he heard that needle buzzing and his nerve went.
I asked him why. He said it wasn’t the pain. Just couldn’t handle the thought of deciding something so permanent. Imagine if we all went round like that. Nobody’d do anything.’
‘Did he ever go through with it?’
‘Not with me,’ the tattooist said. ‘I banned him for pissing me about. There’s another two tattooists in town. He did the self-same thing with them; dithered, then chickened out. Ended up going to some scratcher in Southampton; a real cowboy. Got septicaemia. Nearly killed him.’
Christy thought for a moment. ‘What’s all that got to do with me?’
‘Don’t know,’ George said. ‘Just something about you reminds me.’
With that, George went and sat at the large table. Christy followed grudgingly.
The dayroom door was opened by Fletcher. ‘Christy,’ he said. ‘Your mate’s here to see you.’
Christy looked up to see Danny approaching. He felt panic whip along his spine.
‘Alright Christy?’ Danny said. ‘How’s things on the paranoid ward?’
Christy swallowed dry air. He tried to speak but everything in his mouth felt glued together. Nothing came out.
Danny sat at the table. ‘Fuck me Christy. You look like you’ve just been dug up.’
Christy looked at his wrists. ‘I think I’ve lost the plot.’
Danny looked across at George and whispered to Christy. ‘You don’t want to be in here with nutty fuckers like that. Cunt ought to be in a circus.’
Christy shrugged. He introduced George.
Danny’s eyes fell to the watch tattooed on George’s wrist. ‘What’s that in aid of?’
‘Just a reminder,’ George said, ‘For when the things that used to stop you looking at your watch don’t work anymore.’
After a pause Christy said, ‘George is a tattooist.’
George handed Danny a business card. On one side were instructions for the aftercare of tattoos. On the other side was a telephone number and the words, ‘People rewritten, estimates given’.
Danny handed Christy the card. ‘There you go. You could get him to tattoo you a black armband.’
Danny flicked his head back too late to avoid Christy’s fist.
The tattooist trotted from the room with his hands to his face.
In dreams, Christy had often seen himself trying to punch a featureless face but failing to connect. Now he’d connected. It felt glorious. He watched Danny dabbing his nose. ‘Sorry.’
‘Alright. I am too.’
They sat for a while. Danny tried to think what to do next. He looked at the skinny red tracks on Christy’s wrists. ‘What happened with your wrists Christy? Looks like you’ve been having a go at them with a fucking Flymo.’
Christy shrugged with his face.
‘That was fucking stupid. You could’ve died. You ought to know better.’
‘How come?’
‘You know why,’ Danny said.
‘Don’t know what you mean,’ Christy said.
‘Yes you do. With your dad.’
Christy lit a cigarette. ‘If you’ve got something to say then say it.’
Danny stubbed his own cigarette. ‘No. You say it. You fucking say it.’
Christy blew two plumes of smoke from his nostrils. ‘Me dad killed himself.’
Danny leaned back in his seat. ‘I know.’
‘You knew?’
‘Everybody knew, Christy.’
Christy held the sides of his head.
‘What the fuck happened in Amsterdam then? With the others.’
Christy moved his mouth as if he were trying to recognise a taste. ‘I had to get away. I knew something terrible was going to happen to me, and everybody was in on it. I couldn’t tell what was inside me head and what was outside it.’
Danny said, ‘I don’t know what the fuck you’re on about.’
‘I was being set up,’ Christy said. ‘Right from that party, with all of you straight and that.’
‘Straight? We were tripping our tits off same as you.’
‘Then when we got to Amsterdam Animal and Patrick planted some smack on me so I’d get busted by Customs.’
‘Don’t be a cunt. Why would they do that?’
‘What for?’
‘Don’t know.’
‘They could’ve got you busted anytime if they wanted. When we were all dealing.’
Christy turned in his seat. ‘There was people from that party on the ferry on the way back. Following me.’
‘Fucking weren’t. How could there be?’
‘And your mates from Bournemouth. In the hotel.’
Danny banged the table. ‘What the fuck are you on about?’
He lit another cigarette and offered one to Christy. ‘I don’t understand it. Everybody gets paranoid but you think you’re in the middle of some fucking international conspiracy. Things aren’t like that. Why would anyone bother?’
Christy said nothing.
‘Granted there was times when there was stuff going on you didn’t know about. Your dope was always under to make up for you being useless. And that smack at Pontin’s. That was just plaster ground up.’
Christy nodded. ‘Plus that money you and Phil nicked out of me jacket at Henge.’
Danny sat with his head tilted, remembering. ‘We never.’
‘I seen you splitting up the money when I come back in the tent.’
Danny’s face cleared. ‘Me and him had a bet you couldn’t shift that gear. That’s all.’
Christy licked a finger and rubbed at his wrist. ‘I don’t know what it all is really. Can’t explain. It’s all loads of stuff together.’
‘Well start with bits then.’
Christy rubbed his eyes. ‘All that with me dad and with Clair, it felt like they couldn’t get away from me quick enough. You end up thinking nobody’ll want anything to do with you. Just expect bad stuff to happen.’
Danny scraped around in his mind for something to say. ‘What about Linda then?’ he asked. He knew it sounded lame.
Christy looked at Danny. ‘That was just a set up too.’
‘You’re a prat to yourself Christy,’ Danny said. ‘She was curious, and you cocked it up.’
‘Curious how?’
‘Interested!’ Danny said. ‘Told me once you had a nice smile. All that sad shit. Said you always looked like you were about to say something. She was disappointed after. Because you didn’t give it a chance.’
Christy frowned. The pair sat without speaking. Eventually Danny stood and looked at his watch. ‘I’d better shoot, Christy. Got to get down the Gloucester Bars. See a man about a dog.’
‘You won’t tell any of the others you’ve been up, will you? I don’t want them coming.’
‘Please yourself,’ Danny said. ‘Up to you isn’t it?’ He walked away, feeling like the first mourner to leave a funeral.

Terry returned from the Gloucester Bars with an eighth of Danny’s homegrown. He parked the Mini in front of the Mudhut and killed the lights. He fished the gear out from under the passenger seat and sat for a few moments to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness of the unlit street.
Like a photograph developing, the shape of a police car formed in the darkness. Terry opened the door a few inches and moved to drop the grass into the gutter. The headlights of the police car came on. Terry whispered to himself, ‘Just drive you bastard. Drive. Pull away.’
The police car pulled out and drew alongside Terry’s Mini. The officer in the passenger seat stepped out and walked over to Terry. ‘Evening sir.’
‘Good. Sir. Evening officer.’
‘Do you mind stepping out of the vehicle please sir?’
Terry stepped out. He stood on the pavement clutching the bag of grass close to his palm like a bad magician. He tried to remember the words of ‘Advice On Arrest’ by The Desperate Bicycles.
‘This your car sir?’
‘Yes sir.’
‘Could I have a look at your driver’s licence please sir?’
‘Yes,’ Terry said, fumbling in his left pocket.
‘What’s that in your hand son?’
Terry felt a small squirt of piss escape.