BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Requiems for the Departed (co-editor) (Morrigan Books) The Point (Pulp Press and Blasted Heath) Wee Rockets (Blasted Heath) Fireproof (Blasted Heath) Welcome to the Octagon (Fight Card Books) Wee Danny (Blasted Heath) Breaking Point (Blasted Heath)
For further information about the author go to: www.gerardbrennan.co.uk
DERRY ~ LONDONDERRY 2013 3
All correspondence to Verbal Arts Centre Stable Lane & Mall Wall Bishop Street Within Derry~Londonderry BT48 6PU
ÂŠ Verbal, 2013 The moral rights of the author have been asserted
Author: Gerard Brennan Title: Bounce 2013 4
Father and Son “What did you do to your face, son?” “Don’t start, Daddy.” “You’re asking for trouble.” “No, I’m not. I’m just... I’ve every right to look the way I want to.” “Son, Derry is full of animals. They don’t care about rights. Fellahs like you attract the wrong kind of attention from—” “Big fellahs like you?” “Hey. I’m no queer-basher.” “Queer-basher? Thanks, Daddy. Just thanks.” And then he storms out. My eighteen-year-old son, slamming doors like he did when he was five and couldn’t have the last chocolate biccy. But at least back then I could talk to him. Make him laugh with stupid wee jokes. Now every time I open my mouth I say the wrong thing. And if I complain that he’s being too sensitive, sure isn’t that the wrong thing to say too? It’s not that I resent the way he is. At least, I don’t think so. Not on what you’d call a conscious level anyway. I love him. 5
Always have. That’s why it scares the life out of me that he runs around Derry holding hands with other boys. Wearing eye make up. Spiking his bottle-blond hair to attract as much attention as humanly possible. He thinks that because I’m a bouncer, having a gay son is a dent in my machismo. Hardly. Being a bouncer, though, I’ve seen some hectic behaviour. What some of these young thugs do to innocent kids without provocation is just savage. But give them a reason... well. I just have to hope for the best. He’s not interested in what I have to say and I’m late for work. Nothing for it but to get my arse in gear. I check my clip-on tie and button the cuffs of my white shirt before I leave the house. Then it’s off to work for another night of keeping the peace.
Skeet City I arrive at Underground just as some wannabe hard-nut is giving Sammy lip. It’s only a touch after eight and this skinny wee spide is swaying back and forth, pointing the finger at a man twice his size and saying dirty rotten things. He has that face you see all around Derry. These young hoods all look related. And the standard haircut, shaved all over except for a stupid fringe gelled into little points, it adds to the clone look. I’m in no mood for diplomacy. I grab skeet-boy by the collar of his knock-off Ben Sherman and yank him backwards off his feet. He squawks and pukes a little as he hits the ground. I bend at the waist and look right into his beady eyes. “You can either take yourself up the road, or I can dance on your head,” I say. “I was only slabberin’, mister. Just joken, ye know?” I hate that. Only slabberin’. Just joken. Like that’s their catchall excuse to show nobody any respect. I want to stomp on him. Crush him under my steel-toe Caterpillars. But I can’t. I’m not 7
taking an assault charge for this scumbag. Best I can hope for is that he comes back later on, drunker and looking for revenge. I want him to come at me, fists swinging. Then I can get some real digs in. Is it any wonder us bouncers come across as a bit surly sometimes? The stress of self-restraint eats our insides out, so it does. I let the wee scally go with a nod and a snarl. He skitters off. Of course, he shouts a bit of abuse from a safe distance. They all do that. But never mind him, eh? It’s the start of the shift. I’ll see worse as it goes on, no doubt. “All right, Sammy? The head melters are out early tonight, hi?” Sammy shrugs, dead dour and protestant-like. “Aye. But sure what’s new, Paddy?” Sammy’s all right, like. From the other side of the city; where you’d call this place Londonderry. But you’re not long learning that geography means less and less these days. One of the good things about working a door in the city. You mix with all kinds of people and the easiness of it shows you how life’s getting better 8
around these parts. Catholics, Protestants, immigrants. We’re all of us just slapping scallys to make a few quid. It gets to the quiet part of the night, when it’s too late for anybody else to get in, but too early for the lightweight drunks to be kicked out. As usual, we’re smoking and chatting. Same old same. “So I told her to get off her arse and get a job if she wants gold chains and nights out. It’s been salad all week. That’s passive aggressive behaviour that is.” Sammy’s conclusion to his most recent marital spat. He’s modern enough to tout phrases like passive-aggressive and suggest the woman of the house earn a crust. Still Stone Age enough to be frightened of the microwave. But we nod our appreciation for his woes. I’m up next. “How’s your Sean?” Sammy asks. “Ach, I don’t know. He’s a mystery to me.” “He going to go to Queen’s, then?” Paranoid, I weigh up the tone he uses when he says Queen’s. Nothing in it, of course. I’ve told Sammy about Sean’s wee notion to move to Belfast and go to university there. Sammy 9
knows Sean’s gay, but he’s not one of the judgemental Freebietypes. Not sure what kind of Protestant he is, but he’s quite relaxed about the gay thing. “No. He changed his mind. Says he wants to be a hairdresser.” “Hairdresser?” This from the new boy. Twenty-year-old Mickey. Cock-of-the-walk in his wee mind. Prick to everyone else. “What is he, a fruit?” I square up. “Yes, my son’s gay. That bother you, wee fellah?” “No, Paddy. Sorry. I didn’t know.” He says sorry like he’s offering condolences. I want to bite his ear off. But that would be out of order. Let him call me next time his back’s to the wall, though. Might take me a little longer to respond than usual. I turn back to Sammy. “He doesn’t talk to me, you know?” “Wains, eh?” Sammy says. “Aye.” What else can you say, like? Skeet-boy comes along pretty soon after that. He’s on his own, which surprises me a bit, but carrying a Stanley knife, which doesn’t surprise me at all. He waves it around and I make 10
calming hand gestures for the sake of the cameras. But I’m calling him all the names of the day in a cheery voice. I’m looking to wreck this wee bastard and he’s given me all the reason I need. Mickey shits it, though. “Paddy, Paddy! He’s tooled up!” “I’m not blind, son. Stay cool, all right?” But he decides he wants to play the hero. He darts forward, eyes on the knife and the hood panics. He slashes upwards and opens the dimple on Mickey’s chin. Jesus. Close one. Of course, blood’s flying everywhere and Mickey’s screaming like he’s dying. Skeet-boy’s gone all pale, waiting for Mickey to bleed to death or something. Sammy goes to young Mickey, leaving me the gift of demolishing the wee hood. I go a lot harder than I need to, but with Mickey cut and all of it on camera, nobody’s going to give me any grief. I leave bloody footprints on his clothes. Serves him right. Waiting for the ambulance and talking to the peelers passes a bit of time. Paramedics reckon Mickey needs stitches so he’s off for the rest of the night to get his first battle-scar taken care of. I hope he’s learned his lesson. He’s wild stupid, but. 11
Sicken Ye I get home at the same time as our Sean. That happens a lot. Takes me a while to close up, takes him forever to catch a taxi. Tonight he gets out of a PSNI car, though. He’s been slapped about a bit by some kids. The cops reckon they were hoods from The Bog, but they always say that when something bad happens. Could have been anyone, so although I’m boiling inside, I’ve no plans to go down there. But I might call a few friends on the doors tomorrow. See if I can pick up a lead. I’m nodding and half-listening to the peeler who’s about a year older than our Sean and probably as Catholic too. But I’m watching my son. He’s sat down on the doorstep trying hard not to cry. My heart’s broke and I wish to God this baby cop would get out of my face and let me talk to my son. I arrange a time to bring Sean to the Strand Road police station for a less garbled statement and see them off. The clouds empty and it starts pishin’ down. Sean barely flinches. “Come on inside, son. I’ll make you a coffee.” “I’m sorry, Daddy. I should have listened to you.” 12
And I swear to God, I’m almost crying. I want to tell him I was wrong. He should be able to look like whatever he wants. The world shouldn’t be this ugly. I love him and I want to protect him and I’ll find the bastards that humiliated him and they’ll pay, oh Jesus, will they pay. But my heart’s too weary to handle a big emotional scene like that. I just nod, and I can see in his eyes that it cuts him to the bone. And I hate myself for feeling a little bit happy about that. I think desperately to come up with some wise words to make things a little better for him. “We shouldn’t tell your ma about this.” His face goes stony and I’ve lost him. Christ, I’m such a coward.
The Morning After… Maria goes out to do her shopping on a Saturday morning. She doesn’t like to wake her boys before she goes. Usually it’s a golden time for me. I get up before Sean and make myself something to eat, read the paper, warm up to the day. And I usually put on extra rashers for him that he’ll pick at them in front of the TV, nursing his hangover. Today’s different, though. I call Sean up out of his bed as soon as I hear the front door click shut and the car engine rev off. He tries to ignore me but I need to talk to him. The whole thing’s been eating me alive. I barely slept a wink the night before. “Get up, Sean.” “Just a minute, Daddy.” He rolls from his back onto his side, pulls the duvet cover over his head. If he thinks that’s enough to stop me, he’s dead wrong. I stalk into his room and rip the blankets off him. And I instantly regret it. It’s something I haven’t done in years. Used to be the only way to get him up for school. But he’s a grown man 14
now. And he sleeps in his boxers. They don’t leave much to the imagination, and Sean’s overly aware of that fact. His hands go to his crotch. I look away. “Fuck’s sake, Daddy.” “Hey!” “Hey nothing. You’ve my head deeved.” “Just get up, will you? We need to chat.” I leave Sean’s room, with a full body reddner. But I hear his feet thump the carpeted floorboards when I get to the kitchen. He’s up. There’s comfort to be had from cooking a good breakfast. Do it often enough and you can get it down to a fine art. Going by the little digital clock on our cooker, I time out everything from how long ’til the pan’s the perfect temperature to when the kettle needs to go on to get the pot on the hob for just the right amount of time. Sausage, black pudding, and then bacon. Eggs fried up in their own smaller pan to keep those whites pure and clean. We’re all watching our carbs these days, though my waist isn’t getting any smaller, so I just use a bit of fadge to soak up the oil left in the big pan. Sean comes in before I’m done and sets the 15
table without needing to be asked. I love him so much. “Here you go, son.” Sean smiles at me and pours our tea; milk in the cup first. It’s all I can do to stop myself from reacting to his face. In the harsh morning light his bruises look much worse than they did the night before. There’ll be no keeping this from Maria. “This looks lovely, Daddy.” “Taste it first. Then you can tell me how good it is.” We eat in silence. It’s a near-perfect fry. I have to choke mine down, though. And Sean leaves more on his plate than he usually would. He fetches the pot from the cooling hob and pours a wee heater into both our cups. His silent apology for not clearing his plate. “I have to stop making so much,” I say. “It was delicious. Just…” Sean shrugs his shoulders. “Aye.” It takes me a few sips of Irish courage before I’m able to talk about the night before. “Did you get any digs in?” 16
“Don’t, Daddy.” “We can’t ignore this.” “I can.” I roar. “Well I fucking can’t!” It surprises me as much as it does our Sean. But his physical reaction guts me. His cup shakes and tea spatters the tabletop. He hunches his shoulders like a beaten dog waiting for another kick. And his eyes are the worst. Ringed in makeup from the night before, they’re big and wet and full of fear. May as well have slapped him. I get up and leave the table. Before I even know what I want to do, I find myself in the hallway, staring at the front door. There’s junk mail jammed in the letterbox. Why don’t they just push it the whole way through, for fuck’s sake? What about all the people on holidays? Sure that’s just a flag for robbing scumbags. Three more steps and I’m at the front door. I pull the colourful fliers all the way through and hold them too tight. The straight folds crinkle under my grip. I drop them on the doormat then remember how much that winds up Maria. A grunt escapes 17
me when I hunker down to scoop them back up again. Old age. There’s too much to be done before I can let that shit get in the way. I stand up and try to fix the crinkles with my thumb and forefinger. Breathe. My heart slows down and I feel foolish. Maria likes to see the deals available in the smaller supermarkets. Reckons it’s a good way to save money. But who has the time to go to all five different places for a week’s groceries? I go back to the kitchen and put the fliers on the table in front of Maria’s usual seat. She’ll read the fliers over a cuppa and some Tesco biscuits and I won’t point out the irony. Well, maybe not today. She’ll want to know about Sean’s face today. “I’m sorry for snapping, Sean.” He looks at me, says nothing. I don’t know if he’s huffing or scared. He’s well within his rights to be either. I sigh and take my seat again. Try a sip of tea. It’s too cool. I push the cup away from me. Sean drinks his. “You can understand why I’m angry, right?” “Yes, Daddy. You’ve told me often enough not to be hanging 18
around Derry after last orders. I should have listened to you.” “You think I’m angry at you?” “Aren’t you the one shouting?” He doesn’t look at me when he says it. I hold my tongue for a few seconds. The urge to bark again passes. “Tell me what happened, Sean.” The pale parts of his face go purple, almost matching the bruises. “I got beat up for being a queer.” Now it’s his turn to walk away. He takes his tea with him and stamps up the stairs.
Breaking News Maria’s home. I can hear her ABBA CD as she pulls into the driveway. So many times I’ve wanted to Frisbee that damn thing into a wall. Today I’m grateful for it. I can take a few seconds to work a smile onto my face before she gets in, thanks to the early warning. The woman’s half my size and yet she still has me sweating buckets at the thought of telling her about Sean. And I have to tell her. Sean made sure of that when he hid himself in his room earlier. I’ve tried coming up with the right words in my head to break it to her gently. Now I think those words don’t exist. I flick on the kettle and meet her at the front door. She barely looks at me. Just hands over a couple of so-called ‘bags for life’ and goes back to the car for the rest. It’s the usual routine and I take heart in it. We meet at the door twice more before she locks up the car and joins me in the kitchen. “Anything good in those?” Maria nods to the fliers on the table while separating the tinned soup from the tinned fruit and veg. 20
“I haven’t looked, love.” She’s humming Dancing Queen. I hate the song but I love it when she hums to herself. She’ll be closing the cupboard doors with her hips next. And they’re good hips. She’s been better at ‘watching the carbs’ than I have over the last few years. Decades, even. “Sean got hurt last night.” Maria drops a tin of chicken soup. It hits the table, rolls towards my tucked-in chair and comes to a rest. The humming’s stopped. “Where is he?” Her face is ghostly and the lines around her mouth are deeper than I’ve ever seen them. “Upstairs.” Maria blesses herself so fast that the airstream lifts her freshly dyed and trimmed fringe. She’s gone a little blonder this time. I should have noticed and told her it looked nice before I mentioned Sean. Forgot she’d booked the appointment. No wonder she’s so late back. “Oh, thank God. I just got a notion in my head that he was that poor wee lad they were gossiping about at the hairdressers.” 21
She shakes her head. “I mean, I know it wasn’t our Sean because I looked in on him before I left this morning, but just for a split second...” “What wee lad?” Maria waves my question away. “What happened to Sean?” “Some thug slapped him about last night.” “Ach, don’t say it like that!” I shrug. “How bad is he hurt, Paddy?” “Just some bruises. He’s very annoyed about it, though.” “Have you found out who did it yet?” “He doesn’t want to talk about it.” “Is that so?” Maria takes a deep breath and shouts. “Sean! Get yourself down here right now!” I double-blink at the sudden volume boost. Looks like Sean’s as surprised as me. He’s down the stairs in seconds. “Jesus Christ,” Maria says. “Come here to me now, pet.” She holds out her arms and Sean collapses into them. I stand back, shuffling my feet. Then I realise the tea’s not been made yet. I go back to that while Maria coos and oohs in the child’s ear 22
then leads him to the kitchen table. The groceries will have to wait. When the tea’s made, I move the tin of chicken soup away from my place at the table and take my seat. The other two have already sat in their usual places. Sean looks as relieved as I feel in the presence of his mother; his shoulders are relaxed and his face less pinched. Maria brings out the best in both of us. “Are you going to go to the cops about this?” Maria asks. “Yes, he is.” I say. “I’m talking to Sean, you.” So I shut up and let Sean tell it.
Up The Walls Sean left Ego, the only gay nightclub in Derry, a little after the call for last orders. He’d been flirting with a guy most of the night and they went for a dander up The Walls. “I know, Mammy. Stupid idea. But we just wanted to have a natter, get away from the crowds.” They walked for a good twenty minutes with no hassles. Sean started to feel like he would actually go a whole Friday night without anybody spewing their hate his way. “I can’t remember his name. He told me, like, but I was pretty blocked.” The fellah he was with said he needed something to eat and wanted to see his dealer about getting some more pills before hitting a house party. He asked if Sean wanted to go with him. “No, of course I don’t do wingers. I was just going to get a bag of chips with him and maybe check out the party he was talking about. Sure I know what Daddy’s seen at work. I’m hardly going to show up at our door munching the face off myself, am I? I’m not stupid.” 24
On their way back into the city they bumped into a man with his hood drawn up. “All I could see were his eyes. They were opened so wide he must have been on the disco biscuits himself. He was ranting and raving at us. Haven’t a clue what he was talking about. Probably just the usual homophobe shite. Sorry, Mammy.” Sean tried to push on past the hooded man. The whole world lit up and his head snapped back. He’d been punched in the face. “I just remember thinking that it would have been far worse if I was sober.” He was scared and tried to hit back but he couldn’t even land a punch. Fighting wasn’t really his thing. Flashes went off in his head a few more times and he fell to the ground. Curled up in a ball and waited for it to get worse. Then it stopped. “For a few seconds I thought the guy I’d been walking with had dragged the man away from me. But when I opened my eyes, all I could see was the two of them running on up The Walls. My new friend left me to fend for myself. Bastard. But maybe I’d have got worse if the yellow belly hadn’t run off. The man in the hood wanted to make sure he gave both of us a good 25
slap or something.” Sean picked himself up and headed in the opposite direction of the trouble. Back towards Ego where he knew he’d find a cop. “Not that talking to the cops did much good, other than get me a lift home.”
Call That Luck? Maria’s eyes are shiny. Her lips quiver. “It’s all right, love,” I say. “It could have been way worse.” “Neither of you know how lucky he was,” she says. I share a confused look with Sean. It’s a brief but warm connection and I finally feel like I’m contributing something to the situation. Then I reach out and rub Maria’s wee shoulder. She lays her cheek on my knuckles and sniffs. I can feel her tears on my skin. “It’s okay, love.” “Yeah, Mammy. I’ll be fine. It’s not the end of the world.” “It was for your friend.” Another shared glance with Sean, then, “What are you saying, love?” “When I said to you earlier about the gossip in the hairdressers?” “Something about another wee lad?” “They were chatting about this young fellah who got beat up on The Walls in the early hours. Really badly. Like, he’s in the 27
hospital and it’s touch and go.” “Are you serious, Mammy?” Maria nods then pushes her tiny fist against her lips. It’s too big a coincidence to be anybody else. “Maybe I was lucky,” Sean said. “If you’re lucky you win the lottery. What happened you wasn’t lucky, son. Why have the cops not been on the phone to us?” My question is for both of them and neither of them. Maria still has her hand against her mouth, doing her best to contain a sob. Sean works his jaw silently then turns his hands palms upwards. I answer myself. “They mustn’t have put it together yet.” “Or they don’t give two fucks about two poofs,” Sean says. Maria can’t hold it back any longer. A bawl pushes past her fingers. She stands too quickly, knocks her chair into the wall behind her and runs out of the kitchen. Her feet pound the stairs and then she’s in the bathroom. I can hear the door slam and the lock clunk into place. Sean curses under his breath – he’s getting a little too loose-lipped for my liking – and follows her. He knocks on the door and tries to sweet-talk his mother. Knowing 28
Maria, the boy has his work cut out for him. I slip out the back door and sit on the old bench that overlooks our garden. The flowerbeds need work. And the grass could probably do with a final cut before the winter months. As dry and mild as it is, it’ll not happen today, though. Maybe next week. Sean could have died last night. My son could have died. I get off the bench and curl my hands into fists. My heart hammers against my ribcage. I’m ready to kill dead things. There’s no target for this rage. Not right now. Not just yet. But some bastard is going to get what’s coming to him.
Strand Road I have no more faith in the cops than Sean. But I want him to have a different relationship with the authorities than I had growing up. He should be able to rely on the system for justice. It’s the only way forward. So we have to at least try this route. We walk up to the Strand Road Police Station security door and smile for the camera before they let us in. I’m amazed at how easy it is to get through. If Sean thinks it’s strange, he doesn’t say. The desk duty officer, a pretty girl, takes our details and asks us to wait. She points out a pair of plastic seats over by a notice-board cluttered with fliers about domestic abuse and drugs. I don’t study the info. Just in case whoever watches the CCTV footage gets the wrong idea about me. “What am I going to say?” Sean asks. “Just tell them what you told me and your mother.” “But none of that will be of any use to them.” “You don’t know that.” “I’m going to be a stuttering mess in there.” “You didn’t do anything wrong, son.” 30
Sean huffs air through his nose. “Is there anything you haven’t told me?” I ask. “Like what?” “Were drugs taken?” “Aye, alcohol.” “Don’t be a smart-arse. You know what I mean.” “I don’t take illegal drugs.” God knows what he means by that. Is he suggesting he’s into those so-called legal highs? This isn’t the time or place for a discussion, though. “Just remember that you’re the victim here and you have nothing to hide. If there’s anything you left out of our conversation earlier to spare my feelings, or your mother’s, make sure you share it with whoever takes your statement. You’ve nothing to be ashamed of, okay?” “I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve nothing to be ashamed of. I’m the victim... I get it, Daddy. Are you trying to convince me or yourself?” There’s no point talking to him when he gets like this. I fold my arms and lean back in the chair. Watch the second hand do 31
the rounds on a white plastic clock on the wall. A tall cop comes to the desk and calls for Sean. “Do you want me to come with you?” I ask Sean. He shakes his head. “Should he have a solicitor with him?” I ask the peeler. “Your son hasn’t done anything wrong.” I grunt. No fucking way I’m taking a tin-opener to that can again. The cop leads Sean to an interview room. Neither look back at me. That’s fine. I’ll just sit here and wait. Keep an eye on that second clock and make sure it keeps on spinning. I’m a bouncer, after all. Spending time and waiting for things to happen is what we do. The pretty cop behind the desk is very good at not catching my eye. I wonder what she’s heard working that job. Even in a police station, the animals that I see every work night are hardly likely to watch their tongues. Poor wee thing must be tortured. Or do they put the bigger cops on the desk on the mad nights? They used to all be big cops. And they all used to be older than me. When did that change? 32
Then Sean’s back. The peeler who took him away leads him halfway to the public area. My son’s so unthreatening that they don’t need to ‘accompany’ him past that wee girl cop. I guess that’s something I should be proud of. Isn’t it? We walk past Ego and The Last Stand Bar on our way back to the car. Sean barely raises his head to glance at either place. It’s too early for Ego to be open, of course, but I wouldn’t mind having a pint at The Stand. Maybe buy a beer for Sean too. We could have a wee sneaky one and I’d still be all right to drive, even these days. But we’ve already passed the place now and I don’t know if he’d even want me to ask him. Maybe I’ll just come back here later. I know a couple of lads on that door. They might have even seen something from the night before. Something I can tell the cops, like. They’ll probably do more good with the information than I could.
Home James We’re in the car, the radio is off and the house’s just a few minutes away. But I can’t bear the awkward silence any longer. I have to break it. “Were they decent to you?” “The police?” Sean asks, as if he doesn’t understand the question. “Aye, the cops. Were they dead on, like?” “A barrel of laughs.” “I’m being serious.” “So were they. So serious.” “What do you mean?” “I’m probably just being paranoid.” “About…?” “You turning here?” “Fuck.” I brake too hard and turn too sharp. Almost miss the turn off for our street. Sean has his hand clamped to the door handle. Like that would save anybody in a crash. 34
“My driving instructor would’ve given you so much stick for that.” “That right? Tell him to concentrate on teaching you, well. Costing me a fortune.” “God, you’re loads of craic today.” I sigh and ease our car into the driveway. Neither of us move to get out. I pat his knee, an awkward moment for both of us. This was so much easier when he was smaller. “Are you all right, son?” “I’m better than the other guy.” “Right enough. Poor lad. Did they tell you his name?” “Yeah. James Cooper. He was twenty-three.” “You’re only eighteen!” “I know that. He looked way younger.” “Was he on drugs?” “You’re obsessed with drugs. Are you on them?” “Don’t be cheeky. I don’t have the whole picture, just.” “Neither do I. They didn’t say either way.” “Did they tell you what they’re going to do about this mess?” “Nope.” 35
“Is the young fella… this James Cooper… is he going to be all right?” “They didn’t know.” “So it was just a waste of everybody’s time?” Sean looks me square in the face for the first time that day. He seems older. Jaded. Defeated. “We both knew it would be, Daddy. The police knew it too. It was written all over their grumpy-hole faces.” “I can call in during the week. See if there’s been any progress.” “Why bother? They can’t find the guy that hit me because my description was useless.” “You got hurt.” “Everybody gets hurt. I should just count myself lucky I’m not in hospital.” Sean gets out of the car and heads towards the house. Maria meets him at the front door, smiles and pecks him on the cheek on his way past. Then she looks at me, still sitting in the car, and raises her hands, palms turned up. What are you doing? I kill the engine, pop open the driver’s door and heave myself 36
out of the seat. Maria is beside me before I’ve even locked the car. “Is he all right? He seems upset,” she says. “He’s upset.” “What went on?” “You’ll have to ask him.” “Did you not sit in on the interview?” “He didn’t want me to.” “So what?” “So let him be a man, Maria. He wanted to do it on his own.” “Is he hiding something?” I think he’s hiding a broken heart. It’s not the kind of thing I can tell Maria, though. She’s bad enough as it is. So I just shrug. “Jesus Christ, Paddy. How can you be so calm about this?” Calm. That’s a laugh. She’s no idea how torn up my guts are. “I’m going to call my supervisor at the firm,” I say. “Tell them I’m not working tonight.” Maria looks pleasantly surprised. She’s not going to like this next bit. “Thought I’d call down to The Last Stand.” 37
“You’re going out? Drinking, like?” “Come on, Maria. When was the last time I went out on the rip on a Saturday night? This is hardly the time to start. I’m going to have a chat with a few lads I know. See if they know anything about Sean and the other fellah’s attacker.” “And then what, Paddy? You going to round up a posse?” “Catch yourself on. Those days are over. Whatever I learn, I’ll pass it on to the police.” “Why am I not convinced?” “Beats me, love.” “Just be careful, okay? You shouldn’t be getting in trouble at your age.” “I don’t need to be careful. I’ll not be doing anything stupid, all right?” She can tell fine rightly I’m in the mood to do something downright moronic, though. But you know what? I think she’s okay with it. Like she was worried I didn’t care for a wee while there. Now she knows different.
Saturday Night Fever Bouncers have a bad enough reputation. A lot of people think of us as bullies on a power trip. Marty Downey does everything he can to prove these people right. He’s been fired from the first firm that took him on for excessive force, and I’ve heard that he’s on his last warning with the current one. Spend a night on the door with this eejit and you can be guaranteed a series of hero stories and tales of bullshit sex conquests that’d make a blue movie star blush. But I smile and shake his hand. His palm is warm and clammy. He squeezes too tight. Textbook insecurities coming out of his ears. “Getting it handy, Marty?” ���Quiet enough so far, Paddy. But it’ll not stay like that.” Aye, not if he has anything to do with it. “You not on tonight, Paddy?” “I was due a wee break.” “Fair enough.” “I’m going to get a pint here, Marty. But sure I’ll come back 39
and have another wee natter with you before I grab a pew.” “Gentleman.” The night is young and the bar practically empty. The majority of the loyal clientele won’t arrive until they’ve had a few cheap drinks at home. It’s the only way they can afford a night out. Unfortunately, some of them will get a little too greedy and not make it past aul Marty out there. It’s an awful anti-social way to be sociable. Makes it dead easy to get served at this time of night, though. I sit over a decent pint of black stuff for a few minutes. Marty can wait while I take a wee moment to myself. He’s not going anywhere. A couple of gulps of stout later and I’m wondering if I’d get away with leaving the car in the Foyle Street car park overnight. Just have a few more pints and get a taxi home. But that’s not what I came out for. The glass is half-empty already. I better slow down. Back at the door, Marty wolf whistles at a gang of wee girls. If they tried to get into Underground, I’d be asking for ID. They seem to be headed that way too. Not my problem tonight, like. 40
But I definitely don’t like the way Marty’s acting in front of them. It’s just not right. How’s a wee girl meant to feel safe around that breed of savage? Once the underage Majellas are out of sight, Marty turns to me. “Big plans tonight, Paddy?” “No, not really. Just came out for a nosey.” “Fuck all to see at this time of night.” “You’ve time for a quick chat, then?” Marty scrunches up his face. The deep lines on his sloped forehead betray his age. “That sounds very formal, Paddy. You working for the peelers now?” “Hardly.” “Ach, relax. I’m just joken.” Just joken. Prick. “Did you hear about young fellah that took a bad beating last night?” “The wee queer?” He smirks. “Aye. Happened up The Walls, didn’t it?” Either Marty’s forgotten my son is gay, or he’s having fun at 41
my expense. He’d need to watch himself. “He’s in a bad way.” “That’ll learn him.” I’ll not be able to look at this wanker for much longer. It’s a long shot that he’d know anything anyway. I just wanted to start somewhere. “Was there much trouble here last night?” I ask. “No, it was quiet. Heard one of the new lads on your door got slashed, though. Was it as bad as the jungle drums make out?” “More of a nick than a slash.” I ran my finger along the dimple of my chin to show Marty where Mickey got cut. “He’ll live, like. It’ll barely be a scar at all.” “But you still stomped the wee scally, didn’t you?” I take a sip from my pint so I don’t have to answer that. He looks too impressed with me. I’m not comfortable with it. A quick gulp later, I ask, “What time does that Ego place open at tonight?” “You thinking of changing teams?” He’s got that smirk on his face again. “I want to see if they’ll let me have a look at their CCTV.” 42
And I nod to the camera above Marty’s door. He glances up at the tinted glass bubble and shakes his head. “Why are you so interested in poofs all of a sudden?” “My son got attacked by the same fellah that hospitalised the other lad last night.” “Your son...?” His confusion seems genuine. “Aye, Sean. My son… who happens to be gay.” I’ve never said it that way before. It’s an awkward phrase. But the penny finally drops for Marty. His face glows. “Paddy, I wouldn’t have...” “Forget it.” “Nobody ever told me about your son.” “What’s to tell?” “That’s right, mate. You’re spot on, like. Nobody’s business, is it? I’ll not tell a soul.” “You think I’m ashamed of him or something?” “I don’t know how to answer that, Paddy.” I drain my glass and hand it to Marty. He looks at it like it might explode. “Forget it, Marty. I’m going to head on here. Just do me a 43
favour and keep your ears open. If you hear of anybody acting the big man and you think they might have had something to do with last night, give me a call.” I pass him one of the slips of paper I wrote my number on before I came out. He takes it with his free hand and shoves it into his back pocket. “No bother, Paddy. If I hear anything at all, I’ll get right onto you.” “Happy days.” He raises the empty glass I handed him. Flashes his teeth with a nervous smile. “What’s the craic with this, though? Do you think I’m doing a line as a glass collector too?” “No, Marty. I was worried I’d have smashed it into your face if I held onto it much longer. Safer in your hands.” “I’m sorry, mate.” “I know you are.”
You’ve Been Framed Under normal lighting and without music, nightclubs are eerie places. I never feel at ease near an empty bar or dance floor. Far too corpse-like for comfort. I wait by the bar for the manager. There’s a big Ego logo on the face of it, backlit in pink neon. No stools. I knock on the polished wood countertop for good luck. There could be something in this, if I can get the manager to indulge me. “Paddy, is it?” I snap my head upright and start smiling before I’ve even set eyes on the fellah. A young man in a grey suit approaches me. He’s got a stern expression on his face and his hand is held out in front of him like he wishes it was a gun. We shake briefly and I note he’s got a firm but not overbearing grip. A man comfortable in his own skin, I’d say. Maybe a little too serious. Not really what I was expecting. “Yes. How are you…?” “Matthew. And I’m good, thank you.” He’s a Belfast boy, judging by the accent. Hard, twangy, 45
definitely not camp. There’s little about him that suggests he’s gay. Seems like a strange job for a straight man, manager of a gay nightclub. Or maybe it isn’t. What would I know, really? “Nice place you run here.” Matthew raises an eyebrow. “It’ll do for now. Sorry to hear about your son.” “Thanks.” “But to be clear, the assault didn’t occur on our premises. Not even within throwing distance of the club.” “I’m not here to level blame on this place, Matthew. But if you could allow me access to your security tapes I’d really appreciate it.” “What are you hoping to find?” “Even if he didn’t get attacked in your club, there’s a pretty good chance that the thug followed him from here.” Matthew checks his watch and nods. “Would half an hour do you?” “Absolutely. Sean, my son, left just after last orders, apparently. Shouldn’t be too hard to find him on the tapes.” “Our security boys aren’t here, but if you can work the 46
machine, go for it.” “Easy peasy.” “Follow me, then.” Matthew leads me to a door behind the bar. He taps a code into a button pad with practised confidence and the locks disengage. The office is cramped and the CCTV set-up is nice and basic; a simple console hooked up to three computer monitors. “I’m going to get a coffee. Want one?” “Please. Black, two sugars.” “Dead on. You just work away there.” And with that, Matthew leaves me to it. I jab the buttons, turn the dial, find the angles and time period I’m after and start squinting at the monitor in the middle. It doesn’t take long to catch a glimpse of our Sean. I feel like a creep. There’s my son in black and white, enjoying himself, laughing along with something said by the guy he’s with. He’s at ease with the situation, blissfully unaware of the cold camera lens recording every subtle flirtatious movement. And he has no idea of what lies ahead of him. 47
Matthew comes back into the office and sets a cup down on the desk for me. I take a sip. It’s powerful stuff. “That’s your son, then?” “Aye.” “And the other fellah’s the one that ended up in hospital?” “I’d say so.” On the screen, Sean and James Cooper are getting ready to leave. Drinks drained, coats on, they walk to the door hand-inhand. My eyes are peeled for anybody following them or acting odd. No sign of a big man in a hoodie on this recording. I skip on to the camera at the door. It’s easier to find the stretch of tape I’m looking for this time, now that I know the exact minute Sean left the club. But again, it doesn’t look as if anybody has taken an interest in them. I let the recording play for a couple of minutes while I finish my coffee. Nobody else leaves. Sean and James would have been well out of sight by the time I hit the pause button. “Shite.” “I’m sorry, Paddy. Wish you’d been able to find something you could use.” 48
“Aye, me too.” I reach into my pocket and snag one of the slips of paper with my number on it. “Could you call me if you hear anything, please?” “No sweat, Paddy. Anything at all, you’ll hear about it first.” “The cops been in yet?” “No.” “They didn’t ask to see your security tapes?” “Maybe they’re planning to wait until the bouncers are on duty?” He seems no more convinced by this idea than I am. Nice of him to fake optimism, though. I flick off the monitors and stand up. “I’ll leave you to it, then.” “Aye, better get cracking. No rest for the wicked, what?” We leave the office and there’s a young guy at the bar. He’s fiddling with a little hand-held video camera. And he looks more like the kind of fellah I’d expect to meet in a place like Ego. His hair is dyed pink and stands to heavily-gelled attention. Under his breath, he sings a couple of lines from some dance song or another – they all sound the same to me – and I can detect 49
sibilance, even at a low volume. He’s dressed to kill. “Hiya, Gary.” “Mattie, baby. You look so grumpy. Cheer up, will you?” “I’m too stressed to cheer up.” “Ach, you always say that.” Gary nods towards me. “Hello there.” I force a smile I don’t feel. “Hello back.” “Mattie, can I borrow your laptop?” “Is it work-related?” “Oh my God, yes. It’s so work related. I’m going to edit the videos from last night and stick them on the Facebook page.” My ears prick up. “Videos?” “Gary’s doing a little PR work for us.” Matthew, or Mattie, smiles at the younger man like he’s an overindulged kid brother. “Says it’s more interesting than working the bar.” “Would you mind if I had a look through those with you, Gary?” I ask. He gives me a sidelong glance then looks to Matthew. His boss nods slightly. “I guess not.” 50
“Sorry, Paddy, I’m going to have to head on here.” Matthew adjusts his tie and buttons his suit jacket. “Help yourselves to a couple of drinks, sure.” “Free drinks?” Gary looks me up and down. “You must be important, are you?” I shrug. “Well, I’ll not turn you down, Mattie,” Gary says. “God knows when I’ll be offered again.” “Ach, give my head peace, Gary. And be nice to Paddy.” “Sure I’m nice to everybody.” “Aye, dead on. The laptop’s in my office.” Matthew hands Gary a bunch of keys and leaves us to it.
Who’s That Guy? Gary’s a real whiz kid. He’s plugged his camera into Matthew’s laptop and is running the footage through some movie-maker programme. The screen is split in four and he’s making adjustments to each section. I can feel my eyes going together just watching him. “Do you know our Sean, then?” “Just to see. Seems a civil kid.” “What about James Cooper?” Gary makes a little noise, somewhere between a sigh and a sob. “James has been coming here for years. He’s practically family.” “Do you know of anybody who’d be out to get him?” “In the hate crime capital of the North? Couldn’t even hazard a guess.” I let him work on for another five minutes in silence. If he realises I’m a bit narked at him, he does a great job of ignoring it. He’s singing that stupid tune under his breath again. I should drown him out with some real music. A bit of Sabbath or 52
something. I haven’t the balls to belt out Iron Man, though. “Here we go. I knew I had James on this last night. He was... in very good form.” Gary enlarges one of the corners so we can view the clip fullscreen. We watch James on the laptop. His jaw works like he’s got three packs of chewing gum in there. Unwrapped. “Good form? Off his head, more like.” “That’s James. Go hard or go home.” “I didn’t think E was trendy anymore.” “It hasn’t gone away yet...” “What’s he saying?” “Doubt it’s anything profound.” Gary ups the volume on the laptop. James’s chatter comes through loud and clear. “... know I’m irresistible, like, but that’s not on, is it? You can’t go around grabbing fellas like they’re pieces of meat.” He pause then giggles. “Well, maybe if he was better looking he could. But you want to see the cut of this man. Wild strange, like. Just wild. And he’s still got his feet in the closet. It’s as if he’s just leaning out for a few hours and swinging those meathooks 53
around to see what he can grab before he heads home to the wife. Fucking disgrace. You shouldn’t be allowing him in this place.” Gary’s voice crackles from the little speakers on the laptop. “That’s not my job.” “Aye, jobsworth. That’s the problem with this city. Nobody wants to take responsibility for anything. God forbid you might have to lift a finger, like.” “I’ll lift more than a finger to you if you don’t settle, petal.” “Oooh. Scary bitch tonight, are you? Well, let the record show, I alerted a member of Ego’s staff to a pest in the club and nothing was done about it. Don’t come crying to me when this closet freak throws his toys out of the pram, all right?” “I can’t tell if you’re being serious.” “Neither can I.” James sighs and he frowns. Then his face lights up with a mischievous smile. He checks his watch. “Boogie time. Are you for the floor?” Gary performs a quick jig for the camera then sashays towards the writhing mass of dancers. And a man wearing a grey hoodie follows him. 54
“Fuck. Is that him?” Gary rewinds the recording. Plays it back in slow motion. “He’s definitely very interested in our James,” Gary says. “Not that this is much help. He didn’t look at the camera. The police can’t ID the back of his head, like.” “But we know he was definitely in the club now. There’s bound to be an image of him somewhere.” “But you said yourself, he wasn’t picked up on the CCTV when the two lads left last night.” “Aye, but what if he left earlier in the night and waited for them outside? Maybe he was canny enough to stay out of shot because he knew what he was going to do.” “So what now?” “Keep looking at your videos. The picture’s much clearer that the security footage anyway. Even if you’ve captured him lurking in the background it’ll make for a better quality image.” “Oh my God. This is a wee bit exciting, isn’t it? We’re like private investigators or something.” “Aye, we’re something.” Gary gets back to work. He scans through the video in fast55
forward. I pray for a result. “See instead of hovering over my shoulder,” Gary says, “do you think you could nip down to the bar and get me another wee bottle of WKD? Mattie won’t mind, since you passed on his kind offer. I’ll just be having yours, won’t I?” “Are you sure I wouldn’t be more help to you here?” “To be honest with you, sweetheart, you’re kind of bugging me.” “Oh.” Gary waves me off. It wouldn’t pay you to be too sensitive around these parts. I head back down to the bar and grab a bottle of WKD from an under-counter fridge. Never understood the appeal of this stuff. It’s so blue. Couldn’t be good for you. I have a quick look at the whiskeys they have on offer. I could be tempted by a half ’un if the right one presents itself. There’s nothing special to be had, though. And I really shouldn’t, anyway. I had that pint not so long ago. By the time I get back to Matthew’s office with the alco-pop for Gary and a glass of tap water for myself, the young 56
cameraman is looking very pleased with himself. He’s thrown his jacket over the top of the laptop. “What’s the craic with that?” I ask, pointing at the cloaked computer. “Get ready for the big reveal, Paddy.” Gary rotates his wrists and wiggles his fingers, doing his best impression of a magician’s assistant. Then he whips the jacket away from the laptop. There’s a frozen image on the screen. A man wearing a grey hoodie, the hood drawn down, with wide eyes and a pinched mouth. Grey flecks his hair and his face is baggy, jowly. He’s older than I’d have guessed, but I think we have our man. “Ta-daaa!” Gary says. “Holy shit.” “I kind of remember him now that I see him. This is the only glimpse I caught of him on camera. He wasn’t that happy about it either. Didn’t say anything, but the look he gave me… I was happy enough to move on.” “He’s not a regular, then?” “Definitely not. He doesn’t look very comfortable, does he? 57
Couple that with his bad attitude, he’s a definite contender for the closet creep James was ranting about.” “Would you print—” Gary hands me a sheet of printer paper. The colour image isn’t just as sharp in hardcopy as it is onscreen, but it’s pretty damn close. I give Gary my number. “If this guy shows up here tonight, I want you to call me right away.” “What about the police?” “Call them too. See who gets here first.”
Positive ID I’m home in less than ten minutes. Maria’s on the couch, watching some crap reality TV thing. She looks guilty. Doesn’t like to be caught sitting down. “I wasn’t expecting you back so soon, Paddy.” “I might be heading out again. Just want to check something with our Sean.” Maria stands up. “Will I put the kettle on?” “If you’re having one yourself. Maybe make Sean a wee cup too?” I leave her to it and head up the stairs. Sean’s listening to music in his room, his door open slightly. I knock, begrudging the formality of it, and wait for him to acknowledge me. “Come on in.” Sean’s room is bathed in soft light from the lamp on his bedside cabinet. He’s sitting on the edge of the bed. I can see by the wrinkled duvet cover and pillowcase that he’s been lying down. The music isn’t familiar to me, but it’s a little less boomboom-boom than what he usually listens to. Mellow and 59
melancholic. Still shite, though. “You all right, Daddy?” I unfold the sheet of paper Gary gave me and pass it to Sean. He looks at it in the lamplight and frowns. “Want me to turn on the big light?” He nods. I flip the wall-switch and wait for a response. His bruises look worse in the brighter light, of course. A fresh surge of anger swells my chest. “So… do you think he’s the guy?” “Where did you get this, Daddy?” “I went to Ego. Met a really helpful lad called Gary.” “Gary? The barman?” “He was acting in his capacity as a PR man, I think.” “Oh, Jesus. I’m wrecked.” “What’s the problem?” “Ah, Daddy. Gary’s such a bitch. I’ll never live this down.” “He seemed all right to me.” “Ugh. I’ll not be back in Ego for a while, then.” “Honestly, son. The fellah was really concerned about you. 60
And James.” “You don’t know what he’s really like.” I think he’s making a big deal out of nothing, but I don’t want to get sidetracked. He can work on his social paranoia another time. Right now I’m only interested in one thing. “Is this the guy?” “He’s wearing the same hoodie, definitely, but like I said, I didn’t get a good look at his face.” “You said you remember his eyes. Do they look right?” Sean hesitates then nods. “Yeah, they’re wild enough, like.” He shudders. “You can tell he’s a violent bastard too.” I don’t pick him up on cursing in front of me. He’d be entitled to say a lot worse. “All right, then,” I say. “All I’ve to do now is find out who he is.” “Are you going to the police with this?” “No. I’ll wait until I have a name.” “Do you think they’ll do anything?” “If it was just your assault, I wouldn’t be convinced. But James Cooper’s in a bad way. There’ll be an uproar if they 61
ignore this. We’ll make sure of that, right?” “Like bring it to the papers?” “For starters, yeah.” And at last, my son treats me to a smile. “Thanks, Daddy.” “No worries, son.” I move a little closer to him and clap a hand on his shoulder. “Your ma’s making tea. Come on downstairs and sit with us, will you?” He stands up suddenly and hugs me. I hug back. Jesus, I wish I could hold on forever.
Going Underground “Ah, now. Here’s the slacker.” Sammy grasps my hand with his right and pats my forearm with his left, like he hasn’t seen me in months. “What are you doing here on your night off?” he asks. “I got tired of swinging the lead. Mickey come in tonight?” “No, Paddy. He’s grand, like. Think he’s feeling a bit embarrassed more than anything else. He’ll probably come back when the stitches come out.” “Who’d they send to replace us?” “Nobody yet. They’ll have to get somebody soon, though. Place is starting to fill up.” “Fucking jokers. Probably trying to save a few hours pay.” “Isn’t that the sort of them?” “Want me to hang about for a bit?” I’m not in uniform, but my face is well known. The black polo shirt and blue jeans will do rightly. “If you’ve nothing better to be doing than working for free, don’t let me stop you.” I can tell he’s glad of the company, though. 63
“What about your Sean, then?” he asks. “On the mend. Think he took heart in this.” I pull the picture from my back pocket and unfold it. Sammy takes the printout and looks at it for a few seconds. “I know this lad,” he says. “Slide on.” “Seriously. It’s Big Billy Larmour. He drinks in Castro’s on a Sunday.” Sammy tilts the picture, examines every angle. “Where’s this taken?” “Ego.” “What’s he doing at a gay nightclub?” “Groping wee lads by all accounts.” “You’re codding me on.” I shake my head. “Apparently he was trying to get with James Cooper last night. But the young fellah wasn’t interested. In fact, James Cooper left with our Sean.” “Well, that would give him a motive, I suppose… Jealousy?” Sammy folds the paper and hands it back to me. “Doesn’t make sense to me, though. Billy’s a family man. He has kids and everything.” 64
I pocket the picture. “He wouldn’t be the first man to live a lie.” “That’s the big bastard, there!” The booming voice comes from behind. I spin on my heel. It’s skeet-boy. The wee scally I stomped the night before. And he’s brought friends. Fuck’s sake. “Maybe you should have stayed at home, Paddy,” Sammy says. I roll my shoulders then tilt my head from side to side to stretch my neck. Excitement and fear fight for dominance in my gut. Skeet-boy has an arm in a sling and stitches in his face. An overall improvement to his look. He hasn’t bothered with his ‘going out’ gear; the fake Ben Sherman. Trackie bottoms and a Celtic top are the order of the day. Four other young fellahs, similarly dressed and topped with baseball caps, march in step behind him. They must be on something, calling me out like this. Sammy’s on his mobile, waiting to get through to the peelers. 65
I don’t waste my breath on bluster. This is going to happen. They’ve obviously been working up to it all day while filling up on drink and drugs. Five of them, like, but one’s in pretty bad shape. Plus, I’m sober and full to the pipe with rage. I figure that increases the odds on my side. “The cops are on their way,” Sammy says. “Oh, right. Nothing to worry about at all, then.” They’re almost within kicking distance now. I can see that the injured scally has his phone in his hand. He intends to film this, the wee gobshite. Maybe put it on YouTube. He’s got another think coming. I move towards them, less bound by rules since I’m not actually on duty. Skeet-boy might have only come along to work the camera, but I’m not letting him away with that. I launch myself at him. His friends are momentarily stunned by my lack of hesitation. They freeze while I grab the original scally around his waist and slam him into the footpath. Air blasts from his lungs. A reedy cry replaces his ability to breathe. I straddle him. Wonder how much he caught on camera? I strip his phone from his good hand and smash it into his forehead. The back of his 66
skull bounces off the ground. I hit him again and feel the casing give way. One more crack across his jaw and both the scally and the phone are knackered. Hands pull at my arms. His friends are finally reacting. A bit late, but that’s okay. I let them drag me off their fallen comrade. Use them as support to get back on my feet. Some punches rain in and rebound off my chest and back. There’s little power in them and their aim is atrocious. It takes more than numbers to win a fight. I throw out a flurry of hooks and haymakers. Buy myself a little space and time. And then I see one of them fall and Sammy is by my side. He’s rubbing the knuckles on his right hand. I nod to him. Thanks. Three against two now. The wee bastards don’t look so confident anymore. “We weren’t going to do anything, mister. You threw the first dig!” “Aye, you’re some craic,” I say. “Come on, big balls. Now’s your chance. Show us how tight you are.” Another one says, “Told you this was a bad idea.” 67
“Honestly, mister,” the third says, “It wasn’t meant to go like this. We were just going to mess you around a bit. Maybe break one of your windows.” “Is that all?” Sammy asks. “Maybe we overreacted, did we?” These wee fellahs are about one more threat away from pissing in their knickers. We’ve scared the fight out of them. And yet, part of me wants to coax them into another scrap. Must be the adrenaline. “Pick up your mates and get out of here, will you?” Between the three of them they manage to gather up the original skeet-boy and their other fallen comrade. They slink down the street, slow but steady. I take a wee notion into my head and follow them. “What are you at?” Sammy calls after me. I turn and give him a quick thumbs up then set my sights on the sorry wee gang of hoods again. One of them spots me and says something to the others. They speed up but can’t get any real momentum going with the other two dragging them down. The tallest of them gives up on the retreat. He turns and stands his ground as I approach. Fair play to him. 68
“Mister, we said sorry. Can you just leave it now? Please?” I hold up my hands to show that I come in peace. “I’m not going to start on you again, boys. Just want to make something clear to you.” He eyes me warily. “Okay” “This is the second time your wee chum’s tried to come back for revenge. He’s obviously a slow learner. Let him know, the third time won’t be a charm.” “I’ll be letting him know plenty when he comes around again.” “Well let me be as clear as crystal, then. I’ve been nice to him this time. If I see his face again, I’ll smash it. Then I’ll cut his throat and toss him in the Foyle. Nobody will miss him, nobody will look for him. He’ll be gone.” I run a thumb across the front of my own throat for emphasis. “Fair enough, mister.” They go their way and I head back to Sammy. “You all right?” he asks. “Actually, I feel pretty good.” “Looks like you did yourself an injury, though.” He points at 69
my arm. I check it and see that my left wrist is swollen. I must have connected funny with one of those haymakers. The pain hasn’t cut through the fight or flight juice just yet. Bastard. That’s all I need now. “Fuck’s sake.” “You should head on and get some ice on that, mate.” “And leave you on your own?” “If you’d left me alone earlier your little friend might have walked by without starting. He only lost it when he saw your big square head at the door.” I actually smile at that. “He’ll be seeing my big square head in his dreams for the next wee while.” “No doubt. But here, your substitute’s bound to arrive soon. If nothing else, the peelers will be along. Might be less complicated for you if you’re not about when they show up.” He makes a good point.
Reflections Maria’s opted for an early night and Sean’s back in his bedroom. I’ve got the place to myself. No idea what to do with it. I spend a little time trying to find the remote control. Once I have it, I bounce it up and down on my palm for a few seconds and set it down on the mantelpiece, unused. Then I check my reflection in the big mirror hanging on the chimney breast. I’m happy to see that I’ve not picked up any cuts, scrapes or bruises on my face. Just skinned knuckles and a sprained wrist. Not bad. I’m not getting any younger, like. Big Billy Larmour, Sammy had called him. I take the photo from my back pocket and study it again, this time I have a name to put to the scumbag’s face. This is the one, then. The man who hit my boy. And for what? Was it jealousy? Self-hate? Simple perverted pleasure? Whatever the case, he wronged my son. I need justice for that. There’s a chance that I might not get what I want from the system. The cops could fuck something up, or simply have no interest in what my amateur investigation has thrown up. They’ll 71
tell me their hands are tied or some such bullshit. Nothing will be done. Nothing will be done? Not if I can help it. And just like that, I admit to myself what Iâ€™d already decided to do when I first saw Sean on the front door step, head hung low and tears threatening to spill. Iâ€™m going to go out and get justice myself.
Easy Like Sunday Morning I cook a different sort of breakfast on a Sunday morning. A quick one. You see, I do the roast every week as well. Something light is the only way to go. A warm-up before the feast. This week, it’s bagels with cream cheese and bacon. Bagels, like. My ma would have something to say about that, God rest her. My wrist is still tender. Nothing a few painkillers won’t take the edge off, but I don’t like the thought of a weakness in the light of last night’s decision to go after Big Billy. I don’t want to afford him any advantages. Sammy said that this scumbag liked to drink in Castro’s on a Sunday. No prizes for guessing what I was going to do later. I have no real plan, other than to show up at the pub and see if he arrives. After that, I’ll have to figure out how to lure him away from witnesses without causing a scene. I’m not going to panic about the details. An opportunity will present itself. And then he’s mine. “Smells great, love.” Maria slaps my backside playfully. I didn’t even realise she’d come in. 73
“Morning, love.” I turn and look her up and down. “You’re looking well.” “Ach, saunter on.” She primps her bed-head hair and adjusts the hang of her dressing gown. “You’re no oil painting, yourself.” “You want two rashers or three?” “Oh, God. Just two.” “Happy days. More for me, then. Did you give Sean a shout there?” “I did, yeah. He’ll be down in a minute.” I nod and start dishing out the grub. Sean surfaces just as his plate hits the table. It’s like a sixth sense. “Cheers, Daddy.” “No worries, son.” He tucks right in without another word. Makes me smile. His bed-head would rival his mother’s today. I have an urge to take a picture of the two of them, side-by-side, dishevelled and silently stuffing themselves. We hardly ever take pictures of each other any more. All these phones with cameras in the house too, it’s never been easier to capture a moment like this. But it occurs to 74
me less and less the older Sean gets. I discount this as a Kodak moment, though. None of us will want a reminder of the bruises on Sean’s face. I take a seat instead and demolish my own bagel. The food is reduced to crumbs and satisfied sighs in a matter of minutes. We sip on tea and enjoy the rare moment of unity at the table. None of us go to mass anymore, so there’s no rush. We can sit on as long as we like. “Did Daddy show you the picture?” “What picture?” The wee frigger. He knows I wasn’t going to tell Maria. I’d said as much last night, just before heading down to Underground. “He reckons he’s identified the attacker.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” Maria asks, her voice an octave higher than usual. “This whole thing’s taken enough out of you, Maria. You wouldn’t have slept a wink last night if I’d told you about it.” “You’re full of shite,” she says. “What are you up to?” “Happy now?” I ask Sean. 75
At least he has the good grace to look contrite. “Don’t put this on him. You should have told me and you know it, Paddy.” I feel myself sag. She’s right. “Sorry, love.” “Never mind that now. What’s done is done.” She takes a sip from her tea then nods to herself as if she’s reached some decision. “Show me the picture. I want to see the creep that hurt our Sean.” I take a gulp of tea and carry it in my mouth up the stairs. The printout is still in the back pocket of my jeans. I pick them up off the bedroom floor and notice they’re a bit grubby from the fight with skeet-boy. Better throw them in the wash basket. I empty the pockets onto the dressing table, wallet, car keys and some shrapnel, but keep a hold of the photo. Maria’s not slow. She’ll know rightly that I’m going to track this Billy Larmour down on my own. That I’ve no intention of going to the police. No doubt I’ll have to talk her out of taking the info to them herself. I decide to keep his name to myself. And I won’t mention that 76
Sammy was able to identify him. That’ll buy me some time. I plod back down the stairs and rejoin my family at the table. Maria holds her hand out for the picture. I give it to her, still folded. She takes a deep breath before straightening the sheet. I watch her, wait for her reaction. It’s swift. She slams the page down on the table; disgust contorts her face. “The age of him,” Maria says. “That’s a middle-aged man, Paddy. What’s wrong with him that he’s picking on teenagers?” Now’s probably not the time to point out that James Cooper is twenty-three. “Some people are just twisted, love.” It’s a simple explanation, and true. “Are you sure this is the man?” she asks Sean. “The more I look at it, the surer I get, Mammy. I’ll never say I’m a hundred percent…” He looks into his cup. “Because I was pretty drunk. But the feeling I get when I look at those eyes... it’s the same as the other night.” Maria turns to me. “So what are you going to do with this?” “I’ll ask around a few of the bars and clubs, see if anybody knows his name.” 77
“And then what?” “I’ll take the information to the peelers.” “I don’t believe you.” “I’m not asking you to, love.” “That right? Well, tell me this. What use will you be to me and Sean if you get banged up for assault?” “Stop fretting, Maria. I’m not going after the scumbag.” The house phone looses its shrill ringtone. All three of us freeze; spines straight and faces worried. The landline never rings on a Sunday. The odd sales call comes through it during the week, but weekends, it may as well be unplugged. None of us want to volunteer but, “I’ll get it,” I say. It’s a peeler. We get the pleasantries out of the way quickly. I can sense he wants to get to the point. “Sorry to have to tell you this, sir. James Cooper passed away last night.” “Jesus Christ. You’re not serious.” “I’m afraid so. Which changes things slightly. This has now become a murder inquiry. And as such, we’ll need to arrange a date to talk to your son again.” 78
“How come? It’s not like he’ll have any more information than he gave you.” “It’s just procedure. Nothing to worry about, of course. Your son isn’t a suspect.” I should fucking think not. But I hold my tongue. No point shooting the messenger. The peeler gives me a number for Sean to ring when he’s ready to talk to them. I wish him luck with the investigation before hanging up. Then I drag my feet back to the kitchen. Two pairs of eyes track my every movement as I take my place at the table. Fuck you, Billy Larmour. Fuck you.
Approach the Bench Maria comes out and sits beside me in the garden. She leans into my side. I put an arm around her narrow shoulders and halfhug her. She sniffles. “Is he all right?” I ask. “Not one bit. It was an awful shock, wasn’t it? I’ve left him in his room to have a wee cry.” “Better out than in, hi.” “I guess so.” We sit in silence for a few minutes. I let my thoughts wander. They don’t get very far. My mind’s eye replays the phone conversation with the cop and the look on Sean’s face as I broke the news. A constant loop of me passing more misery to my son. I just want things to get better. For all of us. Maria clears her throat. “It could have been our Sean.” “I know, love.” “What would we have done?” “There’s no point thinking that way.” “I think I know what you would have done.” “Do you…?” 80
“I know what you would have done. And I wouldn’t have blamed you.” I hold my tongue. If she wants to talk me out of hunting down Billy Larmour, she can do the work. I’ll not draw it out of her. “In fact, if something were to happen to the man that killed that poor boy, and hurt our Sean… and I’m not just talking about the bruises on his face… if something happened to that man,” Maria dabs her eyes with the sleeve of her dressing gown, “I’d be at peace with it. God forgive me.” I’m careful not to ruin this moment. She might be giving me her blessing to do something unholy, or she might just be angry, saying things she doesn’t mean. But if I play it right, maybe I can use this conversation to silence my conscience. It’ll be one less distraction to believe that Maria is on my side. “It’s a natural reaction, love.” I figure it’s a safe enough statement. Non-confrontational. “I love you, Paddy.” “Love you too, Maria.” And that’s enough for me. I’ve got Maria’s blessing.
Viva Castro Castro’s is a good wee bar. As I approach, I wonder why I don’t spend more time there. Once I’m inside, I remember. Revolutionaries stare at me from iconic pictures on the wall. Already I feel that vague guilt that I should take more of an interest in politics. And the size, shape and style of me makes me feel self-conscious too. I realise I look like a figure of authority, even in Sunday casual dress; jeans and a checked short-sleeve shirt. Like an offduty cop. There’s a distinct vibe you get from the uniform cops, especially when they’re trying their hardest to disguise it. Bouncers have that too, you know. We probably bring it on ourselves by being overly sensitive to normal pub behaviour. With me, it’s the way I narrow my eyes at the drunkest in the room, check for potential weapons on tables and walls, make sure I know where all the exits are in case trouble kicks off. Being aware of a behaviour doesn’t make it any easier to change, though. I bounce, therefore I am. I take a mad notion to stand on one of the tables and scream at the top of my lungs, My son is gay! As if that would admit me 82
into the exclusive club for liberals. It’s a good job I don’t always do whatever the hell I feel like, though. For a start, there’s only three other people in this room. The barman and a couple at the corner of the bar, together but not; one reads his newspaper and the other plays with her phone. “What can I get ye?” The barman says. “Pint of Guinness?” “I’ll bring it down ’til ye.” Proper pub. I choose a table in the corner farthest the door and plant myself on a wee wooden stool under some framed pictures of some Indians. The kind that wear feathers in their hair. Native Americans. Jesus, if I can’t get that right first time, I should really watch my mouth in this place. The last thing I want to do is stand out. Half the reason I picked this table is because somebody left their newspaper on it. So I can pretend to read and sup quietly at my pint and be like any aul Joe off the street, craving a bit of peace. The other half of my reasoning, I’m quite proud of. I can sit with my back against the wall, eliminating some of the 83
judgement from the symbols of greater causes, and facing the door, ensuring that I see the bastard as soon as he danders in here for his Sunday evening piss-up. The articles at the front of the newspaper do nothing but depress me. Local news, international news, it’s always bad fucking news wherever it’s set. I flip it face-down and find some journalism that matters. The Candystripes. Derry City FC. There’s a Sligo Rovers match at the Brandywell in a few weeks. And our boys are looking good for it. There’re a few injury worries, so technically Rovers are favourites. But the bookies are wrong often enough. I’m putting my money on our lads. It’s not something I do for every match. Just when it feels right. I took Sean to a North West derby once. Didn’t bet on that one. Turned out to be a total disaster too. He had me take him to the toilets at least ten times. No word of a lie. I was sure somebody from our row of seats was going to punch me in the back of the head. We had them up and down out of their seats like yo-yos. It was a shite match too. We lost, and we deserved it. On the way home I asked our Sean if he wanted to go with me again, I was thinking about buying a family season ticket. He 84
told me he didn’t like football. I joked with his mother that night that maybe he was gay. She didn’t find it funny. I thought she was being uptight. Thinking back, she probably had the wee lad figured out already and was waiting for me to catch up. I was never the quickest that way. Case in point, I tried taking him to at least one match a year until he was sixteen. By then I knew he was gay, but I figured that that didn’t have to mean he’d dislike football. According to the internet, it’s stereotypical or prejudice or whatever to think that way. But no. A son that liked football just wasn’t on the cards for me. No big deal, I guess. What bothered me more was that I might not have any grandchildren, Maria put me straight on that one just a few months ago. Apparently married gay couples can adopt children here now. Or couples in a civil partnership. The marriage thing still hasn’t been fully sorted. Stupid distinction, isn’t it? I always thought a civil partnership was two businessmen being nice to each other. I suppose it can be that too. A marriage, though? That gingerAmerican comedian our Sean likes says it best, “I approve of gay marriage. They deserve to be just as miserable as the rest of 85
us.” Louis CK. That’s the boy. I realise I’m grinning to myself. So does the barman as he comes to collect my glass? “Something funny?” he asks, in a good-natured way. “It’s a location joke,” I say. He tilts his head. I clarify, “You’d have to be there, you know?” He taps his nose and asks me if I want another. I’ve the car with me again, but fuck it. Let’s live dangerously. “Aye, throw it in that glass, just.” I don’t know why I said that. Dirty glasses turn me. Must be the spirit of Castro seeping into my bones. Or I’m just in good form. That changes when Big Billy Larmour darkens the door.
Cat and Mouse I had him pegged as a bigger man. All the times I stared at every feature in that printout, I imagined I was looking him in the face. Squaring up to him. That must have put the idea in my head that he was my height. I’d say he’s four or five inches shorter. Broad enough, but nothing to shit myself over. I’ve dropped much bigger. No idea how he got labelled ‘Big’ Billy. His face, though. I can see badness in it. No wonder Sammy took note of this character. He’d tick every box in the bouncers’ potential-trouble check list. He’d earned that mug through years of heavy drinking. Red across his cheeks and nose, vertical lines deep in his cheeks and horizontal furrows in his forehead. A drinker’s jaundice-tan. And the eyes. Desperate and sad and miserable. I’ll happily put this wreck out of his misery. The barman is pouring a pint of lager for Billy and he hands it to him just as the self-hating, closet-homosexual, teenagerbeating scumbag steadies himself on a high-stool at the bar. My Guinness is still settling. I need to stay calm and finish the pint. 87
Things won’t work out the way I want them to if I don’t keep a handle on myself. The barman rings in the lager and hands the bastard his change. “Ye well, Billy?” “Aye.” “Good talking to ye, like.” Billy grunts. “Aye.” The barman, more efficient than I’d have expected in a wee place like this, has my pint topped up and on my table seconds later. “Ye winning?” he asks and nods at the paper. It’s opened at the crossword. I’d been flipping the pages aimlessly and happened to stop there. I shrug. “They’re easier when you have a pen.” “Ye want one?” “No thanks.” “Ye sure?” “Aye.” Please stop talking to me. He catches my vibe and leaves me in peace. 88
Poor fellah. The wee barman’s just trying to get his shift in a bit quicker but there’s no craic from any of us grumpy-hole patrons. I know what my problem is; I just don’t want to be remembered. And Billy Larmour is an obvious cunt. Don’t know what’s wrong with the young couple at the corner of the bar, though. They’re bugging the shite out of me, actually. I know that they shouldn’t, but fuck it. They both need a shake. Maybe I should set fire to your man’s paper and steal her phone. Or maybe I should focus on the one who really deserves my anger. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Sup, sup, sup. Repeat. Even though I’m fighting hard to control my urges, the pint disappears much quicker than I wanted it to. I feel a bit of a buzz. After two pints. The size of me, too. Maybe I’m not fit for... No. Don’t go there. I consider bringing my glass to the bar before I leave. That 89
might stick in the barman’s head, though. Instead I give him a slight nod and he returns it. Then I head out the door. It’s time to wait. My car’s parked in a lay-by across the street from Castro’s. I’d have been worried about staking the place out from such close quarters but the line of young trees running up the middle of the Street makes for a decent obstruction. It might have been more of a worry if they’d a doorman on duty, bored and trying to spot anything suspicious, but to anybody inside the pub, I’m as good as invisible. I lower the back of the driver’s seat so I can lay back with my head turned to the right. The position gives me a perfect line of sight. Autumn twilight darkens the streets, but I’ll see Billy in the doorway lighting as soon as he moves. I crack open a tin of Red Bull and down it. There’s little chance I’ll fall asleep – I can barely catch a few hours in my own bed since Friday night – but I’m taking no chances.
Beat Down Billy Larmour’s silhouette is framed by condensation on my car window. I’ve been rubbing a little spy-circle clear for the last hour. Either he drinks less than I suspected or he’s left early to catch the off licence before it closes. Doesn’t matter which. He’s on the move now, and this is my opportunity. I get out of the car and stretch. My spine crackles. I shake a little of the deadness out of my legs. Billy has turned right and is headed towards the library. Given that it’s a Sunday night, I doubt he’s planning to call in for the latest Dan Brown. Most likely he intends to walk uphill, past the Foyleside Shopping Centre. Towards one of the sets of stone steps that grant access to The Walls. The thought of catching up to him on The Walls puts an extra spring in my step. Poetic justice, isn’t it? I’m right too. He’s making slow progress up the hill. There’s little danger of him breaking into a run, unsteady as he is. I hold back. It’d be a bad idea to get too close to him right now. The area’s too well lit. Slow uphill progress heats my thighs. I relish the sensation. 91
The work I’ve put in at the gym over the years still pays off, even though I’m not as gung-ho about maintaining my bulk as I used to be. My breathing isn’t as steady as I’d like, but I’m doing okay. ‘Big’ Billy Larmour isn’t going to know what hit him. But I wonder if he should know. What if he thinks this is some random attack? It won’t matter if he’s dead. Do I have it in me to kill a man? In self-defence, probably. But in cold blood? I’ll find out now. He’s climbing the steps to walk along the walls. I’m closer to him now. Less cautious as the street lights become fewer and farther between. It’s almost time. I might not be able to do this. Fuck. I’m losing my bottle. Just go fast. And he’s right there, within touching distance. I look ahead of him and behind me and it’s just the two of us. He’s oblivious to my presence. Weak. Prone. No match for me at all. This is the wrong thing to do. 92
But I do it anyway. I kick the back of his weight-bearing leg as he takes a step. Old school. He topples. Lashes out on his way down and hits nothing but air. I skip to his side as he gets his knees under him. Launch a boot into his flank. Now he’s on his back. He’s like an upturned tortoise, arms and legs raised. The bastard has some fight experience under his belt. He knows to keep his feet between us. Makes it tougher for me to get to him. I take a step forward and he lashes out with a kick. It’s an easy one to dodge, but I’m losing patience. I want to be on top of him. His fitness levels are letting him down already. I can see a tremor in his limbs. It’s been a while since he’s done a sit-up by the looks of it. He gasps and his heels touch the ground. I close in and kick his ribs again. That’s them cracked. Another few kicks and I’m pretty sure they’re broken. Billy’s crying. Like my son cried. Good. He’s certain he’ll die. Like James Cooper died. Better. 93
I’m in a perfect position to stomp on his face. But I can’t do it. Fuck. I stand over Billy Larmour. He’s got no fight in him. Hasn’t even got the wit to curl up into a ball. I think he might have pissed himself. “I’m sorry.” I can barely hear him, but it’s not a tough sentence to lip read. He blinks tears out of his eyes. I kneel down, wary that he could lash out at me. “What are you sorry for?” “I hurt your son.” He knows me. Not a huge surprise. Derry’s a small city and he’s a drinker. I was stupid to think I could go undetected like some TV spy. But it’s alarming that he knows Sean. “It’s okay. I deserve this.” He seems to be at peace. I don’t like that. “I’m going to kill you,” I say. “I know. When I saw you at Castro’s…” Billy takes a deep breath and winces. “I ordered two whiskies after you left. Good 94
ones. My last meal.” My fist hammers down just below his sternum. It surprises me as much as him. He convulses, turns his head away from me and pukes. This is a dirty thing I’m doing. I hate myself as much as I hate this pathetic excuse for a man. Killing him would be a mercy. “Turn yourself in, Billy.” “I don’t want to go to jail.” “James Cooper didn’t want to die.” Billy howls. I put my hand across his mouth to dampen the sound. “Shut the fuck up.” Somebody’s bound to have heard that. My time’s up. I need to kill him or leave him. If I keep my hand like this, he’ll die. I’ve jammed his nostrils with the webbing between my thumb and forefinger. He stares at me with bulging eyes. And now his whole body judders. His primal instincts kick in and he wraps his hands around my wrist. The injured one. I hiss when he pulls on it. Resist his attempts to survive. Then he jerks harder and I 95
have to let go. Billy sucks in a deep breath. I can see it hurts him to fill his lungs, but his body forces it. In his mind he might be ready to die, but his heart hasn’t received the message. I’m not going to kill him. But I have to know something. “Did somebody tip you off about me?” “Sammy.” “You related?” “We went to school together. Us prods have to stick together. Not that many of us in the city.” “Why didn’t you run?” “Can’t run away from what I did. Only God can judge me…” “Fuck yourself.” I stand up and kick his head like it’s the last ball in a penalty shootout. His lights go out. I’m not sure if he’s dead. Not sure if I want him to be. I back off. Never kick a man when he’s down. A decent enough rule to live by when you deal with decent people. Billy Larmour is not decent. He’s barely people. Whatever becomes of him, I’ll feel no guilt. I move on, slowly at 96
first. Then I’m striding, eager to get off these walls. I contemplate whether or not I’d have suffocated him if my wrist wasn’t injured. The steps are in view. I’ve almost put Billy Larmour behind me, come what may. When I get to the top of the steps, I see two peelers at the bottom.
Bad Boys Panic bounces off the lining of my lungs. My heart searches for the ejector button. Sweat escapes my pores. I’m caught. They must have heard Billy howl. Could it have taken them this long, though? I was up there for ages. Wasn’t I? My mind is blank but my legs keep moving. I descend the steps, and I feel like I’m watching this all play out from above, like a soul still tethered to its failing shell. The peelers look up and acknowledge me. I nod, my face a mask of serenity. One of the peelers is tall. His face is familiar. He’s the one that led Sean to the interview room. It’s only a matter of time until he puts this all together. I’ve fucked myself. Once the sound of the cops’ footsteps fade, I run. It’s all downhill from here.
Light in the Window I pull into the driveway, the stink of panic and sweat in my nose. Blue light illuminates the front room blinds in random flashes. Maria’s watching telly. This time I don’t catch her sitting. She opens the door before my foot hits the step. Ushers me into the hallway. I turn to see her gently close the front door. Then she leans her back against it, barricading me in and the world out. “Everything okay, Paddy?” “I really don’t know.” Maria nods. Is it acceptance? I couldn’t be sure. But she’s not angry. And I think she’ll be patient with me. I take her in my arms and hold her tight. The dressing gown is so soft to the touch, like a child’s security blanket. She’s shivering. “Are you cold?” I ask. “Yes.” I kiss her cheek. “What can I do for you, Maria?” “Take me to bed.” I do. 99
Monday Blues Maria’s gone to work. Sean’s left for tech. My time’s my own. All I can do is waste it worrying. I’ve boiled the kettle four times and still haven’t wet the tea. Managed to burn my toast. Surely it’s only a matter of time before they come for me. I could go out for the papers, I suppose. If getting arrested is inevitable, then why delay it? No. I’ll leave it. Given the choice, I’d rather be arrested at home than on my way to the shop. There must be something I can do before it happens. A favourite movie I can watch. Or a record I haven’t heard in a few years. Food. It should be food. Something that’s easy to make but nobody ever gets right, except for me. Omelette. I go to the fridge and pull it open. Stare inside. I’m looking for... Eggs. Cheese. Ham. Something else? I’m not hungry. Am I? The eggs, cheese and ham go back in the fridge. I close the door, open it and close it again. My stomach growls but the 100
thought of eating fills my mouth with sour puke-spit. Something buzzes in my pocket and I almost shite myself. It’s my phone, obviously. A text message. From Sammy. He’s asking if I’m all right. I’d be better if I didn’t have to think about him right now. Not that I can blame him for tipping off a mate. I might have done the same myself. He’s obviously feeling guilty about it too. Or he hasn’t heard from Billy Larmour and is worried. Jesus, I don’t know. I’m sick of trying to figure things out. The phone goes back in my pocket. Sammy can read about it in the papers. We’ll take it from there. The doorbell chimes. I answer it quickly. Peelers love to break doors down. No sense leaving that sort of hassle behind for Maria. “Morning, sir.” It’s the tall cop. The one who must have discovered Billy on The Walls. “Plain clothes today?” “Off duty. Can I come in, please?” I’m sure I look half daft, but I can’t think of anything to say. 101
The cop clears his throat. “This won’t be the visit you’re expecting.”
Non-uniform “You’re one of those boys that still look like a peeler when you’re in plain clothes.” “Yeah? Probably why I don’t get a lot of undercover work. You know, most people don’t call us peelers to our faces.” I shrug. “Never really thought about it. What’ll I call you?” “Chris is fine.” “After the saint?” “Yes, I’m a taig.” “Most cops say catholic.” It’s his turn to shrug. “So, I get that you’re not going to arrest me. What’s the story, then?” “The story is that we found a man beaten half to death on The Walls last night.” “Getting to be a dangerous place.” “I’ve a feeling it might be a bit safer now.” “That’s good.” “We got an anonymous tip-off about this man. Billy Larmour. He’d have been picked up by some of my colleagues at some 103
point today.” “Isn’t that funny? If your lot were a little more efficient...” “Don’t get cocky, Paddy.” “Fair enough.” “My colleague didn’t get a good look at you last night. Bit embarrassing for him, but he forgot his contacts.” I’m happy that we’re talking about this more plainly. It was getting a bit silly there. “So what do you want from me?” “A promise that this is the end of it. Billy’s only half dead. If he’s to go all the way there, I want it to be of natural causes. Preferably after a stint in prison.” “I don’t want to kill him.” “Could have fooled me.” “I’m no vigilante. Last night was a lapse in judgement. It won’t happen again.” “That’s all I needed to hear. If push comes to shove, Maria will know where you were last night, right? After you left Castro’s?” “On the couch with her, watching shite TV.” 104
“That’ll do well.” Chris the cop stands up and looks at the table as if he’s forgotten something. Then he scratches his head. Must be missing his hat. He’d be the worst undercover cop the PSNI ever produced. I’d love to see him make Chief Constable someday, though. “You sure you won’t have a cuppa before you go?” “No, thanks. I’ve a bit of a drive ahead of me and I just want to get to me bed.” I nod and see him to the front door. He reaches for the handle. “Wait.” Chris turns and smiles at me. “What did I do to deserve this?” I ask. “You really don’t know?” “Would I be asking if I did?” “Fair point. It’s just that, with your son and all, I thought you might have figured it out on your own.” “Still lost, Chris.” He laughs, leans in to me as if he’s about to whisper a secret, and kisses my cheek. 105
“Do you get it now, Paddy?” I’m stupid, but I’m not that stupid. I get it. Must be wild tough when you’re catholic and gay in the PSNI. Fair play to him. I wait at the door while he gets into his car, a flash BMW. His window is down and as he turns the engine over I take a notion that he might have an ABBA CD of his own. It’d be a laugh if Dancing Queen started pumping out of his speakers. It doesn’t, though. He’s got his radio tuned to BBC Radio Foyle. Takes all sorts, I suppose.