Cracks In The Artex
With his mind’s Moviola cautiously selecting what he should withhold and what he could confess to Doctor Benoit, once again the disturbing images and feelings from that day unwound through Nero’s emotions.
He began at the point he’d pulled up outside the house of one of his regulars, Tonya Booth. It was just before 8pm, and it was generally his last stop before home; being only a few hundred yards from his flat. Nero finished this late so he had the morning to lie-in each day; an opportunity to catch up on some sleep, as the noisy video gamer upstairs generally eased-off a little towards dawn.
It was a mild evening for autumn. Around the houses, windows were open and a muted cacophony of thumping drum ‘n’ bass clashed with rococo, auto-tuned R&B vocals echoing across the estate. Maybe they believed making noise meant you were alive; like the exuberance of waking birds during the dawn chorus. Silence meant you might as well be dead.
Nero shut the car door and pushed the key fob button to lock it. As he approached the front door he could hear a television blaring out from behind the living room window. He knocked on the glass of the front door. The TV went silent a couple of seconds later, so he banged the frame of the door this time.
There was still no answer after nearly a minute. He banged the door harder and for longer. Feeling a little like The Big Bad Wolf, he shouted:
“Tonya, it’s Nero. I know you’re in.”
A few seconds later he heard her muttering something to one of the children and could see Tonya’s shadow growing larger as she approached the door. She turned the catch to unlock it, and pulled it open as she simultaneously twisted around and began to march off back down the hall.
“You’d better come in,” she instructed him curtly.
Tonya then told him, matter-of-factly, that she hadn’t got anything for him this week as she shuffled into the kitchen, not bothering to turn as she spoke. One of her kids, a boy of about ten, dressed in a Chelsea football shirt, following her into the room screaming at the top of his voice. He mimed a strike at goal with his outstretched right leg. Tonya walked into the living room, engrossed with texting on her mobile. Nero tagged behind her while opening his satchel to retrieve her file. On mute, the wide-screen telly played tense scenes of family confrontation before a studio audience.
“Look, I’ve fuckin’ got nothin’. Don’t you listen?” Tonya snapped as she avoided his gaze, leaning forward to stare through the net-curtained window at nothing in particular.
“It’s all come at once this week, there’s nothing left.”
Nero had made a space for himself on the sofa, moving magazines and toys to one side, and sat with his knees together, spreading out the company paperwork on his bag.
He tapped away on his calculator and announced, “Altogether, the rent for the last fortnight, including what you already owe, plus the interest, comes to two-hundred and seventy-five pounds and thirty-four pence. I can’t leave here today without at least a hundred from you, or I’ll be in the shit with the boss,” he added firmly, but inwardly felt uncharacteristically awkward about his demand.
Tonya paced the room while staring at Nero with a look of anger mixed with defeat written across her face.
“I can give yer twenty-seven quid, and that’s it; you’ll clean me out. What the fuck am I supposed to live on till Tuesday?” she replied, her voice now turning to a snivel and tears.
“Look, I’ll have to take that, but we’re going to have to make up the rest with something else,” said Nero as he glanced around the room looking for likely objects of redeemable value.
“One of the lads can come round for your TV and the computer tomorrow, but I’ve got to walk away with a hundred now.”
“Take the bastards, I don’t care!”
“How about the cash-point? I could drive you to the one at the shops.”
“You’ve got to be fuckin’ jokin’, right!”
Tonya sobbed as she threw down a couple of screwed-up banknotes and assorted coins onto the floor. Nero hated these scenes; they were the worst part of what was a pretty unenviable way to make a living.
Generally in this situation, if they couldn’t pay, Dixey’s heavies would come and strip the place for anything of value, which there usually wasn’t, other than the usual electrical stuff, maybe a three piece suite; more often than not the tenants didn’t own them anyway, being out of a catalogue. Even if they did pay that week there’d be no end to it. Often the original loan would be less than a hundred, but week by week, month by month, the compound interest payments could easily build it to a thousand or more – just for what started as a few pounds for a pair of trainers or something. For people like her living on next to nothing, it was either buy new stuff with a crippling APR, or over priced second-hand crap, often spread over three years. You needed cash, or enough in the bank to get the discounts. The poor always pay more.
Nero bent down and retrieved the scattered cash from the floor and adjusted the sum in his figures. By now, Tonya’s boy had run into the room and was looking up at his mum and asking why she was crying; hugging her legs and asking her if it was that man who had upset her.
She tried to compose herself and whispered: “Kyle. Mummy’s just had a bit of bad news, that’s all, I’ll be OK. Why don’t you go and play at Aaron’s a bit and I’ll call for you when your tea’s ready.”
“Yeah, OK mum,” said the boy, with a resigned note in his voice, and skipped to the front door, slamming it behind him.
Tonya breathed in, straightened herself, smoothed the wrinkles out of her skirt and then aimed a half-hearted flirtatious smile at Nero.
“Oh come on, Tonya, your not going to pull that old one are you?”
“What, you sayin’, I’m not worth seventy quid?” she snapped, slowly approaching Nero, noticing how his eyes darted from her heavily suntanned cleavage to her legs.
Nero hadn’t thought of Tonya in that way when he’d visited before. She wasn’t what he thought of as being that attractive, but he certainly didn’t consider her ugly either – far from it: late thirties, mousy shoulder-length hair. She was a touch overweight maybe, but had nice big tits he couldn’t help from noticing. And she knew he’d noticed too on previous visits when he’d copped a look at them when he thought she wasn’t looking.
“Come on love, you want to, don’t you? I know you do. Let’s go upstairs,” she beckoned, now pushing her body up close to his, but with her face revealing an expression of thinly disguised distaste.
Nero recognised the look and knew he shouldn’t take advantage of the situation, but he also knew he hadn’t had a sniff of any sex for nearly three years, and it wasn’t going to take much provocation to dissolve his self-restraint. Tonya knew which buttons to press: principally the one at the front between his legs. With a firm, kneading push from the palm of her hand on his hard-on, Tonya knelt down, unzipped his trousers, undid his belt buckle and pulled his black jeans and underpants down together in one movement.
“No, I want you properly,” he murmured with a tremble in his voice as he bent down slightly to rest his hands on her shoulders, gesturing for her to lie down.
“Take your top and bra off too,”
Tonya reluctantly acceded, wriggling out of them while knocking her head slightly with an “Ow!” on the wooden coffee table as she lay back awkwardly on the fluffy rug. Nero flopped his body on top of her and sweatily feasted his clammy hands over her breasts, cupping and squeezing them assiduously. As he kissed and sucked her nipples, Tonya stared blankly at the light fitting on the ceiling, and from it the long, jagged cracks in the Artex. Nero parted Tonya’s legs and pushed up her faded denim skirt, his fingers pressing lubriciously at her tensed thighs for a few seconds before impatiently pulling her pink panties down towards her knees.
Flesh slapped against flesh as he pumped and panted away for perhaps a minute or so in all, grinding and gathering speed, then finally hitting the bliss for a few fervid seconds before letting out a stifled gasp of pleasure, juddering his hips to a sweaty halt.
Breathing heavily, Nero relaxed his head onto Tonya’s bosom. She ordered him off instantly as she reached down to remove his slimy, flaccid muscle from inside her. Nero reluctantly rolled onto his side and Tonya quickly rose to her feet, pulled up her underwear and dashed out of the room, upstairs to the bathroom.
As Nero caught his breath, re-arranged his trousers, and attempted to regain his composure, a wave of remorse flooded though him. He could hear the baby crying upstairs and Tonya comforting it.
Nero was gathering his papers and bag together when a few minutes later Tonya returned to the room, wearing a lilac bathrobe and glaring at him in utter contempt.
“Well, we’re square for this week then aren’t we? I’ll get the rest by next week one way or another. I’m not fucking doing this again,” she asserted with her arms crossed and a look of defiance mixed with vulnerability.
“I’m so sorry, Tonya. I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Nero replied feebly as he hastened towards the front door, tripping over the carpet join.
“Just get out!”
The door slammed behind him.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Nero hissed between clenched teeth, feeling a flood of utter shame rush through his body as he stood on the concrete step with his back to the door. He felt repulsion at his own weakness and what he had become, but at the same time, such complete self-pity that in turn made him feel even lower and base in his self-indulgence at Tonya’s expense. He staggered towards his car, checking left and right to see if anyone had noticed him: only a couple of skinny youths leaning on a garden wall vaguely looking in his direction. He blipped the car alarm off and quickly clambered in.
He sat with arms gripping the steering wheel and breathed heavily in and out, over and over. Panic surged to his fingertips and up his neck; so much was crowding into his head. It was if he were watching himself from afar: a sad, pathetic, middle-aged man sitting in the waning prestige of an old BMW, reduced to squeezing a few quid out of the jobless, single mums in debt, and all the other poor, down-on-their-luck bastards on his round. But it was his own choice; no one had pointed a gun to his head to take the job. But in some puzzling sense, cruising around the city making his calls had made him feel respected and important.
Nero must have been sitting there for several hours; it was dark. Like a dying man, memories from his childhood blurred by on fast-rewind through his head, together with flashbacks of his days in the music business.
He experienced the persistent, uneasy disconnect of his life then with his life now: days of unfolding novelty and surprise replaced by disappointment and lethargy. Being fifty was impossible to contemplate at twenty: the old had always been old, and he and his friends would surely always be young; it seemed natural that way – they were a different species. The old did the boring, mundane jobs, were happy to mow lawns and pontificate, settle into predictable relationships, live in the same old boring place. Back then, Nero and his pals were convinced they were immune to the creeping inevitability of it all; the world was theirs to reinvent.
He agonized over why his life was so complex, how it had all ended up like this; anything but find a reason and a way forward, even as he slid lower and lower, eventually arriving at right now, this moment.
There he was, a miserable piece of shit quivering in the driving seat. All the accumulated pushed away thoughts fell upon him in that moment. He was untethered; disintegrating in his head second by second.
Seemingly from nowhere, moronic teens crowded the car like hyenas surrounding a fresh kill. They beat the roof and slapped the windows, mocking him as he wept inside. A dense black billiard ball of tension solidified in the back of his neck. Nero’s shoulders clenched and a sensation of icy electricity flashed up and down his spineless backbone. His arms and fingers seemed anaesthetized and weightless, his head giddy; out of control and careering up there.
Two sirens arrived yelping to a halt. From the flickering blue, hi-vizzed police officers hurried to calm the commotion, pushing their way through the scrum of white baseball caps.