The Black Banana
“That’s all I can remember; I must have blacked out.” Nero turned his head away from Alain while he unburdened himself, slumped forward with head in hands, sniffing and clearing his throat. Alain placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
“Nigel, it’s all right. I’m pleased you were able to tell me all that. You needed to lose the weight of it. I’m not going to judge you for your actions. I’m here to help you if I can; but I think that is perhaps enough for today. We’ll explore some more on your next visit. Why don’t you go along to the Rec Room and try to distract yourself from these thoughts for a while.”
Nero stood up, wiping his nose, trying to appear as normal as he could muster. “I can’t go back to what I was doing. I tried, but I can’t do it any more. I’ve let myself down!”
“We can talk some more next time.” Alain leant over his desk and looked over at his appointments book: “How about tomorrow at 2.30?”
Nero nodded.Hunched, he walked slowly and deliberately to the door and opened it. Nero wandered down the corridor from Alain’s office and found the empty recreation room; selecting one of the green, high-backed vinyl armchairs and clasped his fingers behind his head and leant back briefly, unable to think; nothing would settle in his mind. Nero was grateful for the distraction of the TV up on the wall where BBC News 24 was occupying itself enthusiastically with recession, bailed banks, and the anaemic FTSE – the mood was of financial apocalypse.
He realized it couldn’t be long now until Lorcan was due, and rotated his left wrist to see it was 10:35: less than half an hour to think up something plausible to explain why the car was destroyed and why he was in this place. A shiver of apprehension sparked up and down his neck and arms.
Shortly before the appointed time, Nero exited the lavatory and walked out into the car park, where he expected Lorcan to arrive at any moment. He walked up to the entrance, where it met the main road, and tried to look casual as he peered in each direction, looking out for his distinctive vehicle. No sign, so he walked back to the main doors of the Unit. He repeated this pattern three times.
Nero was almost certain that once Fin got to hear he was in a mental hospital he’d lose all confidence in him. He’d be out of a job; the job he hated but relied on to live.
At nearly ten past eleven, there it was: “The Black Banana”. It was Nero’s nickname for the black, roach-backed Mercedes-Benz CLS that Lorcan drove. The model oozed menace and style in equal measure, and was a popular choice with minted gangster types – or those who wanted to project that image – and always in black. The rumble of the V8 engine slowed and the car swung around gracefully to park in one of the Consultants’ bays. Nero approached cautiously, like when he was a schoolboy sent to the headmaster’s office for a slippering. He gingerly bent his head down to catch Lorcan’s attention as he opened the door of the ebony beast.
“Hello Nero, mate. You didn’t tell me it was one of these places, did ya; kept that quiet. They let you out on your own then?”
There was an unmistakable family resemblance between him and his older brother. As well as the facile sarcasm, Lorcan was to all intents a thinner and younger version of Fin, and he possessed the same irritating cocky swagger too.
“I’m a voluntary patient. I’ll be leaving soon.”
“My bruv’ll be interested to hear about this.” Lorcan shook his head in a ‘you’re a naughty boy’ fashion and reached behind a well-cut charcoal lapel for his Blackberry, tapped a couple of buttons and waited for a reply – but no answer. “You’re a lucky lad.”
Nero must have betrayed his sense of relief as he lifted the strap of his leather satchel and offered it to a now suspicious Lorcan. “It’s all there, yeah?”
“Yes, of course. The paperwork all tallies.”
“I will be telling him though, as soon as I can get hold.” Lorcan took the bag from Nero and had a superficial look inside to satisfy his curiosity.
“It’s all right, all the client files are in there and up to date. All the figures are on the laptop too. Look, I’m sorry about this, but I’ll –“
“You’re sorry about it, mate. I’m well pissed-off at trailing up here; I’ve got stuff I should be doing.”
Lorcan was already getting back into the car and making it clear the conversation was at an end.
Nero attempted to be as helpful as he could muster. “Shall I phone you when I’m out of here and ready for work again?”
“No, mate. Wait for Fin to call you.”
With that, he gave a derisive laugh and slammed the door shut. The Merc roared into life again, reversed out with a growl, and he was away.
Fin didn’t do reasonable. There would be some kind of painful payback once he discovered what had happened to the car.
Back in his room, Nero wrung his hands with growing panic; any kind of cohesive plan of action was undermined by his agonized state of mind. The overriding impulse though was to get out of there and away – anywhere Fin couldn’t get to him. There wasn’t much to take with him, but he noticed the bottle of tablets on top of the bedside table; the Diazepam Sarah had got for him. He took one instead of two; he didn’t want to be falling asleep in the next hour or two. But he did need to calm down enough to think properly.
Minutes later, Nero was pacing down the corridor towards the nurses’ office. Sarah wasn’t there this time, but instead an older female nurse he hadn’t seen before.
“Hello. I’ve just come to tell you that I’m going to have to leave.”
The new nurse quickly finished chewing her chocolate bar as she looked up and asked Nero who he was.
“My name’s Bain. Nigel Bain.”
“Why do you want to leave, love?”
She stepped over to a filing cabinet and flicked briskly through the patient records.
“Look, it’s difficult to explain. I’ve just got to go, that’s all. I have to.”
“It does say here you’re a voluntary patient, but you should really be staying a bit longer so we can try and help you, you know.”
“Believe me, if I stay around here much longer my health’s going to suffer a lot more than if I stay; and I don’t mean my mental health.”
“Your choice, love. But I’ll have to ask you to sign the release forms. And Doctor Benoit should know. I see he’s your consultant.”
“Tell him if you want. But I have to leave right now.”
As Nero quickly filled in the form, the nurse picked up the telephone and made a call.
“Right, it’s all signed. Thanks. Bye.” Nero marched out of the building and glanced around the car park to see if the taxi he’d booked had arrived yet. It hadn’t. He was convinced that Lorcan would have got through to Fin by now and he’d be back pretty smartish. The minutes that passed were like torture. “For Christ’s sake, come on!’” he seethed as he paced up and down outside the reception doors, attempting to summon the vehicle by sheer force of will.
Nero turned around with a start. It was Alain standing there.
“Why are you in such a hurry to leave? I thought you had more to say to me.”
“I’m sorry, doctor... Alain. Look, something’s come up since I saw you. It’s complicated.”
“Can we arrange an appointment later in the week instead?”
Nero caught sight of the taxi turning into the entrance and began walking towards it. Alain followed a couple of steps behind. “I’d like to, doctor, but I can’t stay here. I need to get away – I have to.”
Alain produced a piece of paper from his pocket and began scribbling on it. “Nigel. Would you please do me a favour and get in touch when you can? Here, I’ve written my number down.”
“I really don’t know when I’ll be back again – if ever.”
“Nigel. I’m writing something else on here that I think you should check out. You just need to type these words into the internet and read what comes up. I think it could benefit you.”
By now Nero had raised his arm to attract the attention of the taxi driver and was striding towards the vehicle at a faster pace. Alain continued following him at a jog. Nero stretched his arm back like a relay runner as he took the scrap of paper from Alain, putting it in his trouser pocket without reading it. “Thanks. I’ll try, doctor. Cheers... bye.”
With a look of bemused disappointment, Alain gave a slow wave: “Goodbye, Nigel.”
Nero opened the back door of the Skoda taxi and clambered in. “Blackbird Leys Road, mate; the shops by Cuddesdon.” The driver gave a nod to Nero in his mirror, and Nero gave an apologetic nod to Alain as he as he shrank from view through the rear window.
There were three calls he needed to make. The first was to Kevin. He and Kevin had remained friends even though Nero had usurped his position as guitarist in Atrium all those years ago back at school. He was easy and uncritical company.
Kevin should have inherited a secure future in his dad’s fruit & veg business after he’d left school, but he couldn’t get on with the early starts – he couldn’t get on with late starts either. His dad had given up on him after he’d either walked out, or been kicked out, of four jobs in six months; sending him on his way, out to fend for himself.
He’d lived for rock gigs back then, ever since seeing Bowie at Oxford Town Hall in June 1972. Kevin was convinced he could see himself in the crowd on the well known Mick Rock photo taken at the gig, where Ziggy Stardust, splay-legged and gripping Ronson’s silver-suited buttocks, is apparently giving a blowjob to his Gibson Les Paul.
A few years on, Kevin had enjoyed a briefly dissolute roadie lifestyle with Nero and Simon’s band. At nineteen he married a girl called Yvonne who he’d met while on the road – she’d worked in catering at one of the venues – and they’d had a kid, but the relationship fell apart and they split up and then divorced after couple of years. He’d never married again, but had a knack of attracting a succession of gullible women who fell for his vulnerable, dishevelled, little-boy-lost charm.
So for years now, he and Nero had regularly got together for a beer and a take-out around each others’ places, and to mouth-off at the state of the world and play music, with the TV on mute.
Kevin answered his phone almost immediately. “Where’ve you been? I tried to call you. I thought you were supposed to be coming round the night before last – I’d lined-up After the Goldrush for us to play; from the box set I got.”
“Sorry about that, Kev. Long story. Listen, you couldn’t do me a big favour could you; are you using the van for anything at the moment?”
Kevin advertised himself as a man with a van, doing the occasional house removal, auction collection and odd jobs about the city; and it didn’t interfere too greatly either with his unyielding pursuit of leisure. For over twenty years he’d avoided anything resembling a steady job, and miraculously slid under the Jobcentre’s radar when it came to “back to work” interviews; so much so that Nero was convinced he held incriminating photographs of someone high up in the management there.
Kevin gave the appearance of having entered some kind of suspended animation in around 1974 – with his pony-tailed long black hair, brown leather jacket and jeans ensemble – and then reanimated (like one of Oliver Sacks’ catatonic patients in Awakenings) back into the present day; an older, grey-flecked and beer-bellied version of his seventies’ self.
“No, I’ve got nothing booked until Monday. Do you want to borrow it or something?”
“Well, yeah. And you, if you can spare the time – like you’re ever busy, Kev.”
“What d’ya mean, I’ve got plenty of stuff to do you know. There’s the –“
“Yeah, right; about as busy as Bagpuss.”
“Up yours, you bastard. Anyway, where do want to go?”
“Well for a start, round my dad’s house - I’m just about to phone him - then on up to Sime’s tomorrow.”
Kevin sounded bemused. “But he lives miles away, up in Wales or something, isn’t it? Why do you want to see him again all of a sudden?”
“I’ll explain when I see you. So you’re up for it, then?”
“How long were you thinking of going up there for, like?”
“Oh, I dunno, a day or two I suppose.”
“OK, but as I said, I’ve got to be back by Monday.”
“What’s so special about Monday; one of your lady friends?”
“Something like that. There’s this woman, Muriel, I’ve been seeing; been doing her garden – nice place up Iffley Village – she’s an administrator at some college or other.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve wasted any time either.”
“Well, we’ve done the deed if that’s what you mean.”
“Ah, such a romantic turn of phrase. What must she see in you...”
“Well she’s divorced, like, and said she’s been getting a bit ‘restless’ since she started on the HRT; misses having a man about.”
“She been looking long? No, good luck to you, mate. So she’s getting on a bit, then?”
“Well, fifty-two and a bit plump, but still tasty, like.”
“You make her sound like an oven-ready turkey.”
Kevin hadn’t heard Nero’s last comment, distracted by his randy recollections.
“She’s had me working all night too.”
“Yeah, thanks but I don’t need the detail.”
“Ah, you’re just jealous. Anyway, what time do you want me over?”
“Well how soon can you get round here?”
“Give me a chance to get my things together and I’ll be over. An hour?”
“If you could make it a bit less, Kev, yeah? I’ve got someone who could drop in that I don’t want to see.”
“Been getting yourself in the shit? Who is it?”
“Fin. You could say our professional relationship is at an end. If you could get over pretty quick, I’d appreciate it, mate.”
“Deep in it then. Seeya in a bit.”
Nero’s next call was to his dad. He answered on the tenth ring, just at the point he was about to give up.
“Hello. Gordon Bain.”
“Dad, it’s me. How are you?”
“Ah, Nigel. It’s good to hear from you, son. I’m fine, but my knees are playing me up again. And when I went for that appointment at the clinic the other week they gave me some tablets: statics, or something.”
“Statins, dad. They’ll be statins; for your blood pressure I should think.”
“Aye, it could have been. I’ll go and get the bottle, I think it’s in –“
“Dad, it’s OK. Don’t bother. Look, I was wondering if I could come over later on – perhaps stay the night? I was going to bring Kevin too.”
“Aye, I should think that would be all right. But you would have to sort the beds out, they’re never used these days – not since you’re nan. Kevin, you say? Not that lad you use to knock about with; the scruffy one?”
“Yes, dad. That’s him. Just for the night. We’re going up to see Simon tomorrow.”
“Simon. I see. Yes, of course Kevin can stay.” It was Gordon’s turn to sound bemused now. “ Did you want me to see him for some particular reason?”
“Nigel. Forgive me for asking – I must be missing something – but why do you need to come here to stop-off? I’m only the other side of town.”
For the life of him Nero couldn’t think of a plausible explanation that didn’t involve an angry, psychopathic gypsy hard-man concerned over the fate of his BMW. He opted for a cheap exit stratagem.
“I’d like to see you and... sorry dad, you’re breaking up.”
“See you in about an hour then. Bye.”
Finally, it was Simon he needed to phone. The battery was onto its final bar. He scrolled through the presets. He only had his mobile number, and there was no answer. Nero prepared himself for leaving an answer-phone message.
“Sime. It’s Nero here. I was ringing to say that Kevin and I are passing close to your place tomorrow, and if it was all right to drop in. Anyway, shame I didn’t catch you. I’ll call again. Seeya.”
He wouldn’t let on to Kevin that he hadn’t arranged anything with Simon; just play it by ear. The taxi was just pulling up to the shops as he finished the call. He handed a fiver to the driver.
As the cab drove away, Nero had a quick look around to see if he could see the Black Banana parked anywhere close by. Still no sign, so he cautiously approached his low-rise block of flats, walking past rubbish piled up and stinking in the galvanized bins outside.
The video gamer’s blunt beats thumped through the brickwork as he approached the front door. Nero rented the place off Dixey but it was actually a council property; someone was sub-letting it, with Dixey pocketing a fifty-percent hike in rent. As well as the blight of the noisy neighbour upstairs, there was also the state of the “fully furnished accommodation” that depressed him. Damp was getting in somewhere and with it the unmistakable aroma of mildew. Nero scrubbed black blotches of it from one of the walls every few weeks, and all of his clothes betrayed the aura of his reduced circumstances.
None of the furniture matched. Everything was typical landlord-picked shite that filled the rooms, but did little to nourish the soul of the occupier. In the bedroom, the flat-pack wardrobe threatened to return to its original state on every attempt to access it. In the sitting room was a two-seater wooden backed sofa that was faintly desirable some time in the early 1960s, but then only to buyers restricted by either a limited wallet or a Puritan bent. Its inadequate Bri-Nylon cushions in speckled green had been permanently hollowed by countless bottoms over the years, requiring any occupant to place themselves uncomfortably close to the arms in order to find a small region that less resembled sitting on a park bench. Opposite the TV was an armchair bought within the last decade: a white, canvas Ikea cantilever affair that had sadly succumbed to a succession of sweaty necks. In the kitchen, the cooker was a plain, base model with only two rings working and a congealed grotto of fat within the oven. Moving on to the “master” bedroom, as the real estate lifestyle television shows like refer to them, lay the single bed. It had two twangy springs in the mattress and a stain on one side which Nero thought resembled the shape of a giraffe’s head. The two stains on the other side didn’t resemble anything in particular. It was therefore predictable that Nero discouraged visitors, other than Kevin, and would never think of attempting to entice a woman there. The flat reeked with the essence of seedy bachelordom.
Given the choice, Kevin’s bedsit was the preferred venue for Nero to spend his evenings. It was compact, but thankfully also warm and cosy, and a lot more inviting in contrast to his own place, even if it lacked adequate shoulder room. Kevin lived just off the Cowley Road, not far from the golf course where Nero and Laura use to meet when they were teenagers. On arrival at Kevin’s, Nero would attempt to peer through the grimy veil of net curtain before tapping on his window as a signal to open the communal front door. On entering his flat, Nero would generally ask Kevin to get the teas on while he nipped up to the shared bathroom on the first floor. The low sash window behind the lavatory was generally wedged open, so that any male user was left to speculate whether or not their tackle was in full view of the neighbours opposite. Therefore, Nero would stand some distance to the right of the loo and aim carefully sideways.
(One of a number of undignified consequences of living in multi-occupied houses is in having to ask visitors to take paper with them if they desire a longer visit upstairs. Because of this, when it comes to potential romance, bedsitter boys generally play away.)
Kevin was an unwitting minimalist. He kept his place basic: two armchairs; a coffee table; a folding dining table, and his bed against one wall. No knick-knacks or clutter. The room he inhabited was probably once the comfortable, high-ceilinged sitting room of a middling Edwardian family. The room now had a very utilitarian kitchen area squeezed into one corner, comprising a sink and a small area of work surface area. Underneath were two small cupboards containing a small saucepan, two plates, two Cadbury’s promotional mugs, and the barest minimum of cutlery resting in a beige polystyrene McDonald’s meal tray. Kevin regularly consumed tins of soup and takeaways, but more often could be found blagging meals off friends. There was tea and coffee but no milk; it was either go without or have the powdered stuff. Surrounding the room was a wooden dado rail, and higher up a picture rail, with coving running from it to the ceiling – all with many accumulated layers of paint. Nero recalled how at some point on each visit he found himself gazing at an out of reach cobweb long since vacated by its maker, grey with dust, billowing from thermal convection and suspended by one end attached to the central light fitting and the other to a Jimi Hendrix poster.
When quizzed on why he had few possessions, Kevin would answer that he could always leave in a hurry if it came to it. He’d now lived there for six years. Recently, Kevin had sold his vinyl album collection and decent stereo to finance the purchase of a metallic blue early ’80s Suzuki GT250 motorbike with a fake tiger skin saddle cover. But it wasn’t long before he realised it was going to be a choice between the booze or the bike. The booze won. The bike was sold and one of the first iPods bought in its place; Kevin was an enthusiastic early-adopter. It suited his style, and adhered to the maxim proposed by King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, of lending him the quality of being a “mobile, compact unit.” He filled the device with his old albums, temporarily re-appropriated from their present owner, Nero, and converted to mp3 files. Kevin was seldom seen without the characteristic white wires dangling from his ears, occasionally singing along tunelessly while reading magazines in WH Smith or windmilling air-guitar power chords in the queue at the chippy.
Nero’s mobile rang. It was Dixey. His anus dilated as he quickly turned the key in the lock and entered his flat, slamming the door behind him.
“You’ve got some explaining to do. Lorcan told me you’re locked up in some kind of asylum. What the fuck’s going on?”
“Look, I told him, I’m a voluntary patient. I can go any time I want. I’m feeling a lot better now anyway.”
“I don’t want you on the job like that, not with all the rent money; I’ll get someone else in – someone I can rely on. Lorcan’s on his way over for your keys.”
Dixey gave a peeved sigh. “The car keys.”
Nero swallowed hard and braced himself. “There’s a bit of a bit of a problem with the car, Fin.”
“Let me guess. I’m not going to enjoy this, am I?”
“Well, you know, I was in a bit of a state before they picked me up – the hospital. My head was all over the place… I’d still got the keys in my pocket; I didn’t realise until the next day. Well anyway, to cut a long story, the kids must have done it.”
Once again Dixey exhaled impatiently. “Done what exactly, Nero?”
“The police said it was burnt-out; completely gone – I’m sorry, Fin.”
Nero was expecting both barrels down the line, but there was silence for a few seconds before he heard Fin’s muffled voice speaking to someone.
“Oi, Darren. Can you get onto that thing and give me a price for a ten-year-old S-reg BMW M5. Fully loaded; all the bits.”
“Hello, Fin. Are you there?”
“What was the mileage?”
“I don’t know, about a hundred-and-thirty, I think.”
“A hundred-and-thirty, Darren.”
Dixey was clearly exasperated. “Sixty-grand that was new! It had the lot: built-in sat-nav, nappa leather, memory seats. For fuck’s sake...“
“I don’t know what to say...”
Nero could just about hear Dixey getting the results through from Darren and his computer: “Ta. Give it here. Right, let’s have a look. That means you owe me seven and a half thousand. How would you like to pay?”
Several seconds passed as Nero’s mind went blank in disbelief before he could open his mouth.
“What do you mean?”
“It was a plain enough question. How are you gonna pay? You didn’t think the insurance cough upout for it being left unlocked, did you? Seven-and-a-half to replace it, in that condition, mileage, with full history.”
“I... I can’t pay that much. I haven’t even got a thousand in the bank. I don’t know what –“
“Nero. You know the score by now: pay up in a week or it’ll only get a bigger problem, won’t it?”
“But there’s no way I could get anything like that together in a week. Nowhere near!”
Dixey’s voice was calm, cold and businesslike. “It’s not my problem, mate. Sell something; sell your arse for all I care. You owe me. You’ll hear from me in a week if I haven’t got it. So, next Friday.”
As usual, he didn’t wait for a reply before ending the call. It was all Nero could manage now to suppress blind panic. He took another Diazepam, gulping it down with water straight from the tap. Only three pills left now.
He lost no time in dragging out everything he owned that he thought would fit in the van; he wasn’t likely to be coming back to the flat again. Nero knew Fin would have been straight on to Lorcan to come and have a “conversation”. At least he would waste a bit of time trying to catch him at the hospital. But every second would count.
Surely Dixey couldn’t find him. He didn’t even have a surname to go on; he just knew him as “Nero”. No bank details either; Nero would simply take his wages (5% of takings) from the cash he banked, minus his rent money. He’d be careful to pick up any letters or bills lying about the place too. Sure, he could ask questions; people he knew, eventually track him down maybe. But he’d got a week to sort something out – or disappear for good. His thoughts flitted between numerous impractical ideas of where he could go and what he could do as he planned what to take with him.
First to be stacked near the front door was his old Gibson in its case, then personal papers, photos, a couple of boxes of vinyl and CD albums and tapes. Nero thought about taking his PC, but it was too bulky, and it was so ancient it wasn’t worth anything anyway – though he did have the presence of mind to switch it on and format the hard-drive, avoiding the possibility Lorcan might retrieve any useful morsels of information; his memory stick had all the important stuff anyway. Apart from some clothes and his nan’s diaries, there wasn’t much in the way of impedimenta to reflect nearly five decades in the world.
In twenty-five minutes it was done; all there in a heap in the hall. Then he noticed his unopened post lying on the floor. He snatched it away, but knew Lorcan was bound to come sniffing around again, looking for clues where he might be. Once he and Fin had a surname to go by they’d be able to trace him. He’d have to re-direct the mail.
Nero nervously checked at the window to see if Lorcan was lurking. He wasn’t, but he did notice Kevin’s dirty green van pulling up to a halt on the potholed tarmac in front of the flats. He rushed out and waved at him. Kevin saw him, wound the window down, and poked his head out.
“What the hell’s all this junk doing here?”
“It’s going in the van, Kev.”
“What, you leaving then?” he answered with an incredulous look as he stepped from the vehicle.
“You heard what I said earlier, I’ve got to get out. I don’t want that mad sod having my things. I’ll store it at my dad’s for now. Can you take that box and I’ll bring the guitar?”
“Yeah, but don’t you think you’re over-reacting a bit with all this?”
“Come on, Kev. You know what he’s like. I just want to get away and have a chance to work out what to do next.”
With everything in the van, Nero nipped round to the Post Office to sort out the Mail Redirection. It would take a week before it would take effect. He’d have to break it gently to Kevin and ask him to come over every day to remove any letters for him.
About twenty minutes later the pair of them were sitting in Gordon’s living room waiting for cups of tea.
“Can you bring some chocolate biscuits please, dad? Not the shortbreads.”
Gordon shouted from the kitchen: “He’s always been picky, you know, Kevin.”
“Yes, Mr Bain. I don’t mind shortbreads.”
Nero leant towards Kevin and whispered, “Creep.”
Gordon entered the living room carrying a tray and offered the cups to Nero and Kevin.
Kevin leant forwards. “Cheers, Mr Bain.”
“So you lads are off up to see Simon.”
“Yes, dad. Haven’t seen him for a while... I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve got a bit of stuff I’d like to store here for a bit – if that’s all right.”
“I knew you’d have something up your sleeve; I don’t suppose I’ve got a great deal of choice in the matter have I – he’s always been like this, you know, Kevin. How much stuff exactly, Nigel?”
“Well, there’s a few things in the van; they shouldn’t take up much space. It’s only for a while.”
“I know your ‘whiles’. There’s still his car track up in the loft, you know, Kevin; that must have been there thirty years or more. I’ve got a photograph of him playing with it somewhere about. Though it must be more like forty years now I think about it...”
“Nigel’s had to leave his flat, Mr Bain.”
Nero gave Kevin an accusing stare.
“Why’s that? You’ve been paying your rent, haven’t you, Nigel? I could always lend you a few pounds.”
“Thanks, dad. But no, it’s not that. It’s just that I’ve had a bit of a run-in with my boss. So I’ve got to move on. I should be fixed up with something else soon; it won’t be for long.”
“Aye. Well as I say, I’m use to hearing that. But, I suppose so. Try not to make a mess when you go up there.”
“No problem, dad, we won’t. Have it done in no time. Come on, Kev, let’s get on with it.”
Kevin appeared to be very settled where he was, feet up, sitting in the armchair, dipping his shortbread. But reluctantly he put down his cup and got to his feet.
“Thanks for the drink, Mr Bain.”
“You’re welcome, lad.”
By 10:30 that evening, Gordon was asleep in his chair, an open book on his lap, while Nero and Kevin stared vacantly towards a tedious rock compilation repeat on TV, slumped and staring from each end of the settee as they sipped JD and Cokes. Kevin glanced across to his friend, noticing uncharacteristic drumming of fingers on the chair arm and a distracted expression on his face.
“There’s something you’re not telling me about all this, isn’t there? Come on.” Nero feigned an expression of puzzlement, glanced over at his dad, and lowered his voice:
“This thing with Dixey; the flat and everything. What’s going on?” Kevin knew Nero well enough when his friend was masking something that bothered him.
“If you must know... the BMW got torched. Dixey’s blaming me for it and says I’ve got to pay for it – seven and a half thousand quid! I told him, there’s no way I could raise that much. He wants it all by this time next week or –“
“Yeah, I can picture it. But how’d it happen? How about the insurance; won’t they pay?”
Nero squirmed awkwardly in his chair and attempted at least a partial explanation: “Look, it turns out it was my fault, so I’ve got to come up with it. The keys were left in. I wasn’t feeling too good. I’ve been under a lot of pressure with one thing and another. Well anyway, I sort of flipped-out for a while. I didn’t know what I was doing. The police came and took me away, and I ended up in Littlemore.”
“What, you mean – “
“Yeah, that’s right, the loony bin, nut-house; whatever you want to call it. That’s where I’ve been the last couple of days. I just didn’t know where my head was for a while. Then Fin phoned me up – it’s a bloody mess.”
Kevin didn’t really know how to take the news in, and he wasn’t good at expressing sympathy; situations like this embarrassed him. Nero had always been the level-headed, sensible one when they’d been in the band on the road; always been so buttoned-up and in control – until near the end when he was sick of the touring and got panicky and missed shows. Nero didn’t take drugs either, except for the time he was slipped some acid without him knowing. But even then he didn’t freak-out or trip on it like the others did. While Kevin had been giggling at daisies, Nero had just sat there with his eyes rolling, clinging to logic.
“So, mate, at Littlemore, did they strap you up and that?”
“That’s right, Kev; had the lot: the electrodes stuck on and a few fucking thousand volts through my brain. Course they didn’t, you dozy sod!”
“OK, OK. You just imagine these things, don’t you.”
“So you can see why I’ve got to get out of here. My life wouldn’t be worth living if Fin got hold of me. He never gives up!”
“Well that’s it, isn’t it. Won’t he find you one way or another?”
“Thanks for cheering me up, mate. That’s just what I needed to hear. Ever thought of getting into counselling?”
“Fuck you then. I was only trying to help.”
“All right, Kev. Sorry. I’m just so wound up with it all.”
Nero’s phone rang. Predictably enough it was Dixey again.
“Lorcan’s been to the flat; saw you’d done a runner. A month’s notice on quitting the flat you owe – that’s another five hundred. You didn’t take your cut on the last day, but the takings were short by seventy quid. So that’s eight-thousand and twenty-two pounds in all.”
“How about my deposit money?”
Nero moved his head towards Kevin’s, holding his mobile a little out towards him so he might be able to hear what Dixey was saying. “That’ll go towards moving all your shit out and cleaning the place up.”
“I know I’ve got to pay you; I just need more time. It’s a lot of money to come up with.”
“A week, Nero. And don’t try to be clever – I’m onto you.”
The dialling tone marked the abrupt ending of their conversation as usual.
“Did you catch any of that?” Kevin nodded. “You see what I mean? If I stay around town any longer the bastard’s going to get me. It’s just as well we’re away tomorrow.”
Nero told Kevin he was off up to the loo, but was actually on the landing attempting to get in touch with Simon again. Success.
“Hi, Simon. Did you get my message earlier?”
“Hi, Nero,” he said flatly. “I’ve been a bit busy; hadn’t checked my voice-mail. How are you keeping?”
“Well, perhaps best not to comment on that one. So it’s OK if we drop-in tomorrow – me and Kevin?”
“Fine, yes, as long as you take us as you find us. I’ll be working. What time were you planning on getting here?”
“By about one I should think. Where are you again? I can’t remember from last time. It’s on the Welsh border somewhere, isn’t it?”
“Just outside Temeton. Are you using a sat-nav?” Simon gave Nero the postcode and some further directions, but didn’t seem keen to chat. It was just as well, his phone was bleeping its battery situation like a starving Tamagotchi.
“Right, see you tomorrow then, Sime.”
Nero’s mobile died before he could finish.