After finding out what he did, I didn’t see Mal Bellis for about one full year. In 1994, I jacked college in, my niece Rosie was born, I went to Spain on holiday, jacked in my job when I got back, and turned eighteen. After turning eighteen, I got a skinhead and had the biggest fight with my parents ever. They threw me out, as I was now ‘old enough’. Luckily, I had somewhere to go. It was an eight-unit block of flats called ‘Westways Court’, at the very edge of Ingham. Troubled times lay ahead.
I had been rowing with my parents for years, especially Mum, but had never dreamed of leaving because I depended on them so much. But I craved for the day I could turn round and tell them to go f*** themselves as I had enough ammunition to head for my life of success or stardom or whatever. I made that moment come too soon, feeling as I did the strength of a young man who has found his wings.
Me and the boys (Macca etc.) had been going round to the flat of a lad called Jingo for some time, smoking drinking having mushrooms etc. The availability of this place gave me the bravado to tell my folks where to go, and so I did. Within a week, Jingo had sorted a flat for me in the same block: Westways Court. It was like being on a school holiday at first, being able to stay up all night giggling with my mates and eating midnight feasts. To the boys, the novelty was just as strong (perhaps more, as they didn’t have to tidy up), and we truly revelled in having our very own headquarters, making as much noise as we could and getting girls round. One of the other residents called my gaff ‘The Student Pit’, and by God it was. It was the biggest bedsit in the place, but the carpet was littered with dimps and crisp-packets and empty beer cans. I was out on my own having a whale of a time; the centre of my own universe.
The place attracted all kinds of unsavoury types, bearing in mind that Ingham is short of nightspots for the poor and needy. By night, it would be mainly my own crowd, but by day my room became a stop-off point for lone doleys who made a career out of finding fellow doleys to smoke with, particularly if they had a nice warm flat in the Winter. All of a sudden, I was best buds with a whole host of older lads who hadn’t given me the time of day before when they had seen me with Jon. For all my dreams and ambition, I had become layabout scum; watched closely in shops by paranoid shopkeepers; old friends crossing the road to avoid speaking to me. But I didn’t care, and why should I have? I was happy in my bubble. All I needed was something to smoke or talk to, and a meal every so often. State benefit paid for that, and why shouldn’t it? These people that whinge about forking out for ‘dole spongers’ don’t realise that, in doing so, they are helping to keep satisfied a dangerous fraternity who, if forced to ‘earn’ their money, would make the whingers’ life hell by being far better at doing the poxy jobs that they do. Indeed, they would dominate their pretty little worlds.
One of these fellow doleys was a lad called Andy Kerligan, or Kerli, who was 25. I had known him a couple of years, through Jon. They had been good mates at one time, but had fell out over something. Kerli was the domineering type, a bully even, but his main ailment was deep thinking. He analysed every thing and every one to the point of paranoia, but I couldn’t help liking him. Perhaps I was like him in that one aspect: over-analysation. And temper too. He was a redhead, and I had been born a redhead, and my mother instilled in me the fact that redheads, whether they hide it or no, all have bad tempers.
I had some amazing discussions with Kerli. Like me, he wanted to get to the bottom of everything. We were fascinated with the pursuit of truth, and would go to the bitter end to find it no matter how much we pissed off the apathetic company we kept. Moreover, we both respected each others’ opinions, and debated like adults. Indeed, Kerli would only ever get furious (and furious he did get!) with someone who neglected to tell him something. When he wasn’t told the ins-and-outs of all manner of private affairs, even if they had nothing to do with him, that is when the paranoia began. His imagination would come up with all sorts of reasons as to why people didn’t tell him things, and he would often believe those reasons. When those reasons became the truth in his own mind, he would confront whoever it was like a rabid dog, not wanting an explanation because he already had one. The whoever in question would then shit their pants and never want to deal with him again. And so they wouldn’t confide in him again, and the whole paranoic process would start all over again. Those on the receiving end of Kerli’s wrath never seemed to understand that it was their silence that had made him angry in the first place, and that further silence would make him twice as bad. They seemed to think that he was a bully who just wanted everyone to agree with whatever he said.
I was one of these people. The first time I pissed him off was not my fault, but I made it ten times worse by not dealing with it properly. One of the fellow doleys was a guy called Armando Vespucci, a fancy name I am well aware but nonetheless a complete pain in the arse. ‘Mando’ was a fruitcake. Not a bid mad like the rest of us, but an actual, certified nutcase. At this time in his life, he had just come out of Meadowview mental home (a place which, I believe, sent him madder than he had been in the first place), and was zombified by all the bizarre drugs they had given him. We all felt sympathy for the way he had become, but he was just too much to be around. He couldn’t speak, slavered from the mouth, and unnerved me by staring blankly at me all the time. He was a bona fide patient, and as much as I feel for such people, I am not qualified to look after them. He came round all the time, and I couldn’t handle it. In the end, I stopped answering the door to his knocking, coward that I am.
On several occasions, I looked through the spyhole to see Kerli with him, but I didn’t answer. On other occasions, Kerli came alone but, as chance would have it, I wasn’t in. This went on for about two weeks, Kerli knocking on and me either not being in or not answering, and he began to suspect that something was up. The wrong penny dropped one afternoon, when Jingo told him that I had been in the flat all morning. Naturally, he jumped to the wrong conclusion.
He stormed round to my gaff the next day, bellowing, “OPEN UP LEO, YOU LITTLE CUNT, AND DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT PRETENDING NOT TO BE IN!”, before I had the chance to see who it was. I opened up, baffled as ever, and asked him what was up. But he made no sense at all, going on about me thinking I was better than him and prodding me in the chest. My bafflement, which was genuine, was in his eyes a pathetic charade that he was by now used to. He hated me from that moment onward, not so much for the lies but for that pathetic charade afterwards. I had not only offended him, but had wasted his time also as I was just as big a coward as all the other cowards he knew. He had thought better of me, and I had let him down. If only he knew that it was an accident, and he had gotten me wrong.
Jingo, who was about his age, had obviously had his ear bent and took his side. So did Al, the guy who lived next door to him upstairs. He had a big posse of mates, and before too long they were giving me the cold shoulder too. I would’ve told Kerli about Mando, but I didn’t think it right to badmouth someone like that. I should’ve done, though, as the bad treatment got worse as time went on. Ironically, however, Mando himself didn’t fall out with me! He continued to pester at the door.
Funnily enough, I warmed to the guy. After all, he was a nice daytime ally to have. At night, life was sound, me and the boys having a right old laugh. But during the day they were all at work or college, and my day consisted of being rudely awoken at the crack of shite by Jingo’s music (‘in return for the noise I made at night’ was his reason behind it), cleaning the flat, putting the bins out, and watching mind-numbing shite on TV. Mando, despite being the lethargic mong he was, could be quite refreshing. After all, madness is a state of mind is it not? It could be said that people were afraid of the guy, simply because he had a different agenda than they. They didn’t care to find out what it was, but once I started to get the knack of deciphering his language, I began to see what this agenda was. He, like Kerli and myself, was simply looking for the truth. People called him mad because he would stare into space and laugh at nothing whatsoever, but in actuality he wasn’t laughing at nothing. He was making discoveries all the time, and some of these discoveries made him laugh. Alternately, some of these findings made him shake and slaver and go all wild-eyed, but these were things I didn’t want to know about. The Mando visions were at once hilarious and devastating.
Once I started to like him, I tried to make him laugh with various silly jokes and faces. But they didn’t work. Not only was Mando laughing at things I didn’t understand, it became clear to me that he didn’t want me to understand. The world he lived in was his property, and he didn’t want anyone else standing on his toes. He had had enough of that in the real world, or should I say ‘other’ world. The world he lived in now was the realest he had known.
Then why did he come to see me? Boredom? Or maybe, and perhaps maybe, as I warmed to him, he warmed to me. Perhaps I was in the company of one of those rare people who like me for what I was, rather than what I knew. Perhaps, and this is clutching at straws, I was beginning to be impressed by someone for more than their mind. For whatever reason, I knew that I had a duty not to turn my back on him. He had been put out in the cold, and I had a nice warm flat.
Of course, Kerli’s malice toward me had no effect on him, and why should it have? It was his fault in the first place, but then again I knew fully well that it was mine. In fact, I was being punished for not telling Kerli the truth, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for avoiding Mando like some sick, ignorant upstart. Who did I think I was? The more I looked at Mando’s face, the more I began to see someone with a supernatural, God-given type gift. He knew, somewhere in his spirit, that I had wronged him. He also knew, somewhere in his being, that my punishment would also be my rehabilitation. And that he was administering both in the most humble, saintly way.
Armando Vespucci was so called because his father was Italian. But his mum, or should I say his Ma, was Irish. In this way he learnt not one, or two, but three distinct languages, and each of them as fine as the next. Such a man cannot help but have a love for words, and such a man demands that the world not waste them. All that Mando wanted of those he’d like to call friends was the decency not to waste breath on inane chit-chat that veers from what we mean.
The shit really hit the fan when I decided to throw a party at the flat. This wasn’t an ordinary, weekday noisy gathrin, but a bona fide hullabaloo of sin and debauchery and sheer madness. A shitload of people turned up, and I only knew half of them, but the music was turned up full whack and scantily clad girlies graced my lowly bedsit.
They were moody enough on normal nights, but this time the jealous, boring whingey bastards upstairs had enough ammunition to blow me up. Big Al came down first, but he was letching and cavorting and generally seemed to be enjoying himself, probably because he hadn’t seen women in four years or something. It was Kerli’s arrival that caused all the shit. He had a big bottle of cheapo beer in his hand, and started to accidently-on-purpose spill it all over the carpet. “Accidents will happen” I said resolutely. “Ooh yes, I know” he said elvishly, and proceeded to ‘spill’ the rest of the bottle over some girl’s leg.
The girl screamed, and her boyfriend ran over. Whilst the poor guy was still in the stages of sussing out what went on, his bird skriking like a right fanny, Kerli made the well-thought out decision to get his crack in first. ‘Well fucking magic’ I thought, knowing the responsibility to sort it all out was mine, but knowing full well that I had no such power with relations being what they were. Of course, Kerli proceeded to lay into the poor sod with the gusto he would’ve liked to use on me, and all hell broke loose. Someone dived on Kerli, and big Al jumped on him, and then Jingo came down from his pit. No-one fucked with Jingo, and these boys were a lot older than all the guests at my party, and so people started to leave in droves. Eventually, the fight became a squabble, and I was one of only five or six involved.
Kerli, Jingo, and Al. Me, Macca and Jonno. Three of them, three of us. In any other situation, the post-fight talking stage would have been a more peaceful one, but this was intensely fragile for me. All three were waiting for me to goad them in the slightest way but, moreover, I was angry myself. I tried to be reasonable, but at such times I cannot hide my rage and it seeps through my however-well-thought-out words like the malice in the hand of a rapist who is trying to be gentle. It didn’t take Kerli long to give me a smack. Jonno, of all people, was first to jump to my aid, but this gave Jingo all the reason he needed, considering he didn’t like the guy much anyway. Al and Macca tried to sort the ruckus out, but ended up fighting each other. We got well and truly battered by these jealous older boys, and it was wholly embarrassing. Naturally, I got the worst of it.
I wouldn’t’ve minded the hiding all that much, if that’d been all I got. But no. Kerli proceeded to piss all over the carpet, and smash things up at random. Most of the things he broke were just bits of furniture, worthless bric-a-brac etc, but he also destroyed something that meant a great deal to me. It was a statue of Saint Anthony, carrying the baby Jesus. My Mum gave it to me as a Communion present, and so I had had it for over ten years. It had sentimental value. It had spiritual value. St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things.
I was devastated, and never wanted to see the flat again unless it be burning down with Kerli in it. Jonno and Macca helped me up, escorted me away from Westways Court, and accompanied me on the three mile walk to the loving arms of my big brother Jon. Jon was horrified to see me in such a state.
“I’ll fucking kill the bastards!!!” he said.
“I wouldn’t bother,” I answered, “They’ll be dead soon anyway. I just need somewhere to stay, that’s all.”
He brought me in and we snorted some speed, for all the good that would’ve done. We stayed up all night chatting, but didn’t say a word about the event. We didn’t have to. Jonny knew what it was all about. It was about jealousy, and nothing else. My brother had been on the receiving end of such malice too. No, we talked about good times, and girls, and life in general. We talked about music and art, and having kids at a young age. In August, Alicia had given birth again, to a girl this time: Rosie. Jon feared the future, having to bring up a pretty girl in a hostile world full of maniacs and jealous maniacs, paedophiles and murderers. “They’ve always been around” I told Jon. “Yeah, but now they’re getting organised” he told me back. He was right of course, and such a prospect chilled my spine. Together, though, we’d be ready to take on the evil armies. Perhaps we would start with Andy Kerligan. Who knows.
I had always thought that strength lay in size, or experience. I had always felt safe with Jon because he was bigger than me and more experienced, but now I was just as big - and as old as I would ever be. Talking to him that night, I realised that he was just as terrified as I was; as we all are. I realised that strength lay in courage, or being mad enough to not give a fuck, or whatever you choose to call it. Bullies fight people who don’t fight back, but the honourable soldier is the one who doesn’t want to fight at all. Fighting is a chore, such as putting the bins out. The person who doesn’t fight when fighting is needed is as bad as the bully who fights when it is not needed. We talked about other people we liked. I mentioned Jonno and Macca for helping me out back there, and Mando for living his mad life in the face of adversity. Jon mentioned Mum and Dad, and Alicia’s mum and dad, and all those other people who had helped the young couple with two kids. It seemed that, somewhere, me and him could strike a balance between responsibility and frivolity. Here was Jon with his wife and kids and paternal love and care, and me with some sort of social conscience. We truly could put the world to rights!
One thing we Pallaces seem to have an abundance of is intuition. Jon and I can, trippy as it seems, actually feel the pain of each other from afar. That night, he had sensed I was in some kind of trouble, just as I had when a pane of glass slashed his wrist and nearly killed him several weeks before. This intuition, which many people have, would be normal enough if it weren’t so damned emotional and limited to ESP between each other. But, in all honesty, our psychic prowess doesn’t stop there. It’s all about songs, and TV programmes, and people saying things we’re thinking, and numbers. We wake in the morning to hear a song such as ’Leaving on a Jet Plane’ after having a dream about air travel. We turn the telly on to see that there’s been a plane crash in the Middle East. A mate comes round and says that he’s off to Spain on holiday. And then, to top it all, we realise that 7:47 was the time we woke up. These things, as any good scientist would tell us, can all be put down to ‘coincidence’. Well, if this is the case, then perhaps coincidence needs closer inspection. Perhaps coincidence is a science in itself, but a magic science that ordinary people cannot understand. Perhaps, and this is just perhaps, someone does understand it.
The language of coincidence excels the type of concrete examples I have just given. It lives with me, living the life I lead. If I wake in the morning in a foul mood, everyone else is in a foul mood too. If I am pondering what life is all about, the chatterbox woman at work seems that little bit quieter today. When I am in an ignorant frame of mind, no one will listen to me or laugh at the jokes which I think are funny. When I am sharp and ready to listen, those same people who didn’t laugh at the jokes will be on exactly the same buzz that I am - and I regret ever having thought them idiots. “Sometimes,” I tell Jon, “It’s as if I am dictating my own universe. If I pull out a Hearts card from the pack…”
“You have a ‘loving’ day?”
“Yeah. But more importantly, so does everyone else. Sometimes I feel as if everyone is waiting for me to make a move, almost as if all their lives depended on it. I used to think that destiny was taking me where I had to go, but now…”
“Too right. I’m making my own destiny. How mad does that sound?”
Jon gave me the look of someone who thought I’d gone too far, and he was right of course. What was I saying? That I was God? If I was, why had I let myself get into this awful sorry mess? Perhaps, I thought, everyone is controlling the lives of everyone else, and it just so happens that, by sheer coincidence, we all control in the same way and come out with the same results. But that was a stupid thought, as it adds up to the same meaning as the cliché ‘We are all in control of our own destinies.’
If I was writing my own story, so to speak, why couldn’t I understand it? If I was predicting or sensing what was going to happen, why didn’t I know why these things were happening? It must have been something to do with that ‘Universal Mind’ shit, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. In the same way, history’s greatest philosophers cannot put their finger on the meaning of life, and scientists cannot put their finger on what ‘love’ actually is. I can only assume that faith is the key. We must have faith that there is a meaning, even if we are doomed to never know what it is. Somebody or something somewhere knows more than we do, and the fact that we can live and love and learn means that they or it must be looking after us. Even if we are the subject of a joke or ridiculous experiment, we have nothing to fear. Even Death itself is not to be feared, for that can not take us further to the answer. In fact, it can only possibly take us closer to it, even if the answer is that there is no answer at all. I may have been controlling everyone else, even if it be in my own mind, or I may not have been, but in any road I was still under the control of something else. Whatever the story, it didn’t matter. All I wanted to be was safe.
Like I said, we talked all night. At about eight the following morning, we heard a rap at the door. It sounded familiar. Jonny opened it.
The face Jon revealed was one I hadn’t seen in quite a while, but nonetheless one I knew very well. All this talk about influencing events and situations was made divinely appropriate by this guy’s appearance out of the blue, yet I wouldn’t have predicted that he would show up – with hindsight. It was Mal Bellis, and he seemed to say, “Need protecting there, Leo?”
F***in’ right I did. I needed protecting from myself. And I remembered that Mal was my friend, too.