There are days when life takes against you for no reason. You don’t know how you’ve caused offence but you have and life takes it badly and pursues you and trips you and kicks you until you can’t move. Then, just when you think it’s gone away and you’re lying curled in a foetal ball and feeling sorry you were born, you hear it come back to level one final kick before it finally departs.
That final kick came in the form of a phone call. It’s ten o’clock at night, it’s Wayne and he sounds slurred.
‘I’m down at the Moonlight Bar,’ he says. ‘You should see the mindless fuckers in this place. Do you fancy a pint?’
The Moonlight Bar?
I’ve got my coat and I’m heading for the lift before I realise I’ve left my mind behind. It catches up as I pass the first floor and I start to put my thoughts in some kind of coherent sequence. What the hell is he doing at the Moonlight Bar? That’s Mackie’s place, the place Tyrone works, the place where they throw knives at your head, the place where Manny hangs out – literally. What the fuck...’
I pass the rest of the journey down there imagining how many drinks Wayne will have consumed and what state he’ll be in.
By the time I walk through the door to be hit in the face by the bright lights, deafened by the sudden blare of music and nauseated by the heat of innumerable bodies, Wayne has already cleared himself a space near the bar. He’s dancing slowly with an invisible partner. People are looking at him and laughing but Wayne hasn’t noticed. He’s moving round to the music and his eyes are closed. From the end of the bar Manny is watching, monolithic. I think I can hear his knuckles crack.
Wayne sees me and he’s pleased.
‘Phil,’ he shouts, really loud, and now everyone’s looking at me, including Manny.
He turns to the bar and orders a couple of drinks; then he takes me by the hand and shoulder and starts to dance with me. I try my best to break away but he’s clinging on and swaying and now he’s singing too. I haven’t had a drink, so I feel very conspicuous. Besides, my evening hasn’t exactly put me in the mood for dancing.
‘For fuck’s sake, Wayne, what are you doing here?’
I break away and lean against the bar. Wayne staggers over and leans next to me.
‘Two whiskies,’ he says. I shake my hand towards the barman but he ignores me and pours them anyway. Money is money, I guess.
‘What a fucking shit hole,’ Wayne says.
‘Why are you here?’ I ask again.
‘Have you seen the fucking dick-heads in this place?’
One or two of the dick-heads are staring at him and they don’t look happy. I don’t risk eye contact.
‘I came to see my big brother,’ he slurs. He turns to the throng beside and behind him. ‘I came to see Tyrone. Where’s Tyrone?’
‘Miserable fuckers,’ he says.
I glance at Manny. He doesn’t move. There’s something of the troll about Manny. He just stands there waiting for the right moment, the mysterious spell which brings him to life. he’ll pace heavily across the room, crushing people underfoot and flinging them against walls, and there’ll be blood and bodies everywhere.
‘God, he’s an ugly fucker, isn’t he?’ Wayne observes, none too quietly.
‘Come on, Wayne, let’s go somewhere else.’
He turns to a guy who is standing waiting to order a drink and greets him like an old friend.
‘Hi, how’re you doing? I killed my best friend, you know, years ago. He was called Stevie. I killed him.’
That’s quite a way to start a conversation, you have to admit. The young guy doesn’t know whether to smile, frown, back away or turn and run. He risks a sympathetic smile and glances towards the barman. He’s got that mesmerised look of a rabbit caught in headlights, or a target caught in the cross hairs.
‘Dead on the floor, and blood everywhere and it’s my fault.’ Wayne says. ‘He was Stevie, my friend.’
He turns and I know he’s going to announce to the whole room that he killed Stevie and I think it’s time to act. We’re getting enough funny looks as it is.
‘You didn’t kill anyone. You never meant for any of that to happen. It wasn’t your fault. Come on, let’s go.’
He turns back to the young guy who’s collecting his drinks and glancing over the crowd to where his friends are waiting. At a moment like this, their table must look like sanctuary.
‘You want to fight?’ Wayne asks him, like he’s asking if he wants a drink.
‘Ignore him,’ I tell the guy. ‘He gets like this.’
I’m really grateful when he’s happy to comply and backs away. Some people don’t.
He pushes through the crowd and starts to talk to his mates and they’re looking across at us. It’s hardly surprising.
‘You’ve given him a story to tell his mates,’ I tell Wayne. ‘It’s not every day someone confesses to a murder.’
‘It was my fault,’ Wayne slurs. He throws back the whisky and I think maybe I’ll join him. ‘If I hadn’t nicked your football...’
‘For fuck’s sake, Wayne, give it a rest. It didn’t all come down to a sodding football, or to choosing to go to your house that day instead of somewhere else, or to anything else we had any control over. It was just bad luck and Tyrone. Come on, let’s get out of here.’
That’s when he turns again and starts shouting at the top of his voice for Tyrone, and I see Manny fracture from the seat to which he’s attached and step slowly towards us. It’s time to go and, for once, I’m not taking no for an answer. I grab Wayne by the arm and steer him through the crowd towards the door and I think my luck has maybe changed because he’s compliant and allows me to get him out of the door and onto the street.
The cold air and darkness hit me like a clenched fist. Wayne has clasped his imaginary partner and he’s dancing again, round and round the parked cars.
‘Come on, you daft sod,’ I say. ‘What did you hope to gain?’
‘For Tina,’ he said.
‘I don’t think Tina would think much of tonight’s performance.’
‘It’s all for Tina. I love her, you know. I mean I really fucking love her.’
‘Yeah, I guessed that, but don’t start getting sentimental on me, I’ve not drunk enough.’
‘Everything I do, I do it for her.’
‘You could make those words into song lyrics.’
He snorts a laugh and then grabs me by the arm and starts singing at the top of his voice. A couple of guys walk past, grinning. Wayne sees them and sings louder, a happy drunk for once.
‘Let’s go back to my place,’ he says, ‘watch some rugby.’
That sounds like a really good idea but there’s a rule which intervenes between a good idea and its fulfilment.
It’s called sod’s law.
I sense the application of this law when a smart looking car pulls up under the street light next to us and the door swings smoothly open.
‘Get in,’ a voice says from the darkness.
Wayne pushes me aside and clambers in the front seat, leaving me to slide into the back as the car eases away. I find myself squeezed in beside Manny, who doesn’t even glance towards me.
‘Have you a twin brother?’ I ask him, ‘Irish - maybe from a different mother, goes by the name of Mickey Flynn.’
Laugh while you can, funny man,’ he says.
‘Where are we going?’ I ask.
In the front seat, I hear Wayne get straight to the point.
‘Did you send a blackmail letter to Mrs Oldfield, you bastard?’
Tyrone changes through the gears and we approach traffic lights and, for a second, I dream of escape; but the lights change, and he turns right and accelerates away.
‘Probably got a child lock on it,’ I say to Manny, indicating the door, ‘Got to keep you safe.’
I see Tyrone turn his head briefly.
‘No,’ he says to Wayne’s question.
‘Did you attack Thomas Oldfield?’
‘No,’ he says again.
We continue in silence for a time and I watch out of the window, trying to keep track of where we’re heading. We seem to be following the main road towards the south of the town, parallel to the sea. There are some pretty grim estates down that way and a few construction sites. Regeneration, they call it. The darkness closes in as even the streetlights give up hope.
‘Thomas Oldfield has gained consciousness,’ Wayne says to Tyrone. ‘Did you know that?’
It’s a moment before Tyrone speaks. ‘I’m pleased for the family. Truly I am.’
‘Maybe he’ll remember who attacked him.’
‘Let’s hope so. It’s a fucking jungle out there.’
We leave human habitation behind and enter a pocket of industrial estates and demolition projects. Tyrone turns between two tall buildings and follows a long road down towards a skeletal building in the process of construction. It’s lit up by floodlights like a prison camp. The car pulls up sharply and he turns to speak.
‘Mr Mackie has a special gift. Did you know that? It’s true. He can see into the future. He has these visions. He sees things that are going to happen very fucking soon. He had a particularly unpleasant visitation the other night. He saw something waiting for you two. It was so clear, he said, it might have been happening right in front of him. He thought you’d want to know because the things that Mr Mackie sees often come to pass. It’s uncanny but it’s true.’
‘It’s a shame he didn’t see me winning the lottery,’ I say, but it’s just bravado and he knows it. My legs are trembling and my bladder is sending out warning signals.
The door opens and Tyrone leads us towards the open side of a metallic structure, the skeleton of a huge warehouse. We pause beside a trench, about fifty feet long and three or four metres wide. The darkness beyond an arc of lights seems to lean over my shoulder, as if to get a better view.
‘It’d be too much to hope for a night watchman, I suppose?’
‘He’s otherwise engaged I’m afraid.’
I look down in the trench.
‘It’s waiting for concrete,’ Manny says.
’Only you could make that sound like a threat,’ I tell him.
There’s a chair, incongruously set beside the trench; it’s an old, wooden backed affair, like a chair my gran might have had at her dining table when I was a kid. There’s a coil of thin, nylon rope beside it.
‘Did you kill Carl Jeffreys?’ Wayne asks.
It’s as if he hasn’t seen the trench or the chair or the rope and won’t acknowledge the implications. Me, I have difficulty dragging my eyes away and I quickly sequence the items. It goes me, chair, rope, trench, concrete and finally building.
‘This is what Mr Mackie saw in his vision.’ Tyrone ignores Wayne and looks at me. ‘There was some wet concrete and a foundation about to be laid,’ he says, ‘and you were going to be part of it.’
It takes a few seconds for it to occur to me that this is what passes for humour with Tyrone. It’s not a few seconds I want to repeat.
‘Did you kill Carl Jeffreys?’
You’ve got to be impressed. When Wayne bites on to something his jaws lock.
‘You did, didn’t you? You killed him, you evil bastard.’
‘You didn’t like Carl Jeffreys.’
‘He was still better than you.’
‘Who the fuck is Carl Jeffreys?’ Manny growls.
The silence that follows must arouse some primitive emotion in Manny because he turns as elegantly as a bull and plants his heavy fist right in my solar plexus and I’m doubled up on the ground and I’m fighting for every breath. It’s like drawing oxygen through a blocked straw. For a moment I think I’m going to die. My mouth is full of soil but I haven’t the strength to cough. Manny gives me a push with a boot the size of an unexploded bomb and I roll into the trench.
‘That’s for getting a journalist involved,’ he says. ‘Mr Mackie isn’t pleased. He says you should consider this a warning.’
Yeah, I can do that.
There’s a sound above me and then Wayne rolls into the trench and the blood from his nose and mouth drips into the dry soil. He struggles to sit up and then clamber to his feet, but I pull him back. I can breathe now but standing up would be a problem.
‘Well, at least we’ll be together, darling,’ I manage to say to him and he starts to laugh and the blood oozes between his teeth and then he can’t control himself and he laughs and laughs.
Tyrone ignores him and stares down at me.
‘Mr Mackie is running out of patience,’ he says, ‘and time is running out for you. He wants that package. If you break the rules again, Miss Oldfield will join her father in intensive care.’
’It’s pretty obvious Wayne hasn’t got it, even to a dimwit like you. And I don’t know where it is.’
‘Then you’ve got a problem,’ he says.
A really big, fucking problem, I think.
‘You can find your own way home,’ Manny says. ‘I don’t want blood in the car.’
They turn to go but Wayne hasn’t finished. ‘Did you attack Thomas Oldfield?’
Tyrone turns and looks at Wayne as if he’s just crawled out of a piece of rotting meat.
‘No, little brother, I didn’t. Don’t you remember? That was you. There was a witness.’ Then he laughs and it sounds like he’s chewing nails. ‘And now, the police have got a tip off. They’ve found money from Oldfield’s safe in your flat and some gloves with blood on them. Everything goes back to you. You’ll not walk away from this one, bro.’
‘What about Joseph Darby?’ I ask him. ‘Someone murdered him, 1992.’
He pauses and lights a cigarette with an expensive lighter.
‘I was 13 for fuck’s sake. What would I know?’
‘You hung out with Mackie’s crew, even then. Was it Mackie?’
He smiles but there’s something behind the smile, something I don’t understand.
‘I was thirteen,’ he says, ‘just a kid.’
And then I understand. ‘Jesus Christ,’ I mutter.
‘Yeah, bitch, ain’t it?’
Then he holds the cigarette out and blows the tip until it glows orange.
‘Fond memories, eh, they come flooding back.’ He flicks the cigarette at Wayne and then walks away. ‘We’re counting the hours, Mr Tyler.’ His words are almost drowned out by Wayne.
‘You bastard, you fucking bastard,’ Wayne screams after him.
The doors open and close, the engine hums into life and the car moves away, grinding the soil and dust into powder. It’s like a metaphor.
We lie back in the trench for a minute then I hear this strange sound from beside me and I push myself up and look at Wayne. He’s laughing and there are tears on his cheeks.
‘What the hell are you laughing about?’ I demand but Wayne just laughs even more and then I’m laughing too and I guess neither of us knows what we’re laughing at. So, there we are, lying in our own graves and the sky is black and a gentle rain is falling and we’ve got miles to walk and no money. If you don’t laugh you cry.
I guess we choose laughter.
‘What now?’ I ask when we gradually calm down.
‘Find a shovel and leave me here,’ he says. ‘Just cover me up, nice and warm.’
‘Can’t do that,’ I remind him, ‘we’ve unfinished business.’
‘People to protect,’ he says.
‘You can’t go back to your flat, not if you’ve been set up.’
‘I know a place I can hide. Thomas told me about it. Tina will get me the key.’
There he goes again, calling Mr Oldfield Thomas as if they’re the best of friends.
‘What about me? I’ve only twenty-four hours to live.’
‘You can do a lot in twenty-four hours,’ Wayne says. ‘Listen to music, read poetry, write your will, have sex. Or you could go and see Alasdair Riley.’
He clambers from the trench and I follow more slowly; that slug to the gut has left me barely able to stand upright. We stumble across the bare ground and head towards the road. I reckon it must be about two. As we emerge from the regeneration zone and start to see shops and houses, Wayne fumbles in his pocket for his phone.
‘I’ve got to phone Tina, get some keys,’ he says. ‘You’d better leave me here so you don’t know where I’m going. No point in lying to the police when they come looking for you.’
‘They’ll need to form a queue,’ I mutter gloomily. ‘You can’t phone Tina now. She’ll be asleep.’
‘She’ll think it’s the hospital.’
’They wouldn’t call her number; they’d call her mum. Ring me tomorrow.’
He’s walking away now, with the phone to his ear.
‘Tina,’ I hear him say. ‘Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. Listen, I need a favour – and it’s a big one.’
I turn and walk home.
Tomorrow, I’ll go and see Alasdair Riley like Wayne said. I get that feeling again, like someone’s just tugged a string.
Only this time it’s Wayne.