Phil huffed his way through slush slowing Sheffield's Ecclesall Road down to a watch-your-step crawl, shouting a phlegm-checked call for John to stop. That his actions invited madness. It shouldn't have been hard for Phil to catch him, John had to use his arms to push his wheelchair through stubborn half-melted snow, but the boy had arms like tree trunks, honed from always trying to escape his minder. Still, though Phil had long since let his physicality slip, he still had an old boxer's strength. Stamina was now his problem. He scanned the street, nervous Chrissy might catch him like this.
His left foot slipped well behind his right outside what was once the Pomona pub, and an almost-split stretched a forgotten hamstring enough to make him screech louder than he ever did at the pub's karaoke, when he drove most punters back to the bar to avoid his Livin' on a Prayer.
“Bloody hell, John, just stop, or I call your old man right now.”
“Bollocks,” he shouted over his shoulder. He'd have flipped his fuck-you fingers, Phil was sure, if it wouldn't have slowed him down.
Phil cursed his boots and their thinning grip. He nearly knocked one elderly lady over, who could barely see where she walked for the red knitted scarf wrapped around her from neck to forehead, the slit she left shifting with each step. He mumbled an apology and tried skating through the blackening snow. It felt ridiculous, and the college kids let him know it, a couple rolling up ice balls. If they hit him, they'd know about it, the smug skinny bastards. Must be nice having daddy pay for you to read Charles fuckin' Dickens all day with a frothy latte tickling your bum-hair 'tache.
They seemed to sense danger and let the death-balls slip back into the ice they'd been rolled from. That felt good. His muffin top had not yet hidden his menace. That brightened, if only a little, his fears about Barry Green. It pushed him on to grab John. John headed for the subway across the massive roundabout into the town centre. Phil had to get him before he had to push the kid back up slopes he hadn't the mood for. John flew on to the road, not minding the bump from the kerb, doing a wheely at just the right moment to get up the next and back onto the pavement. Phil thought about stopping and calling Barry. Let him deal with his errant son.
No. Not a good idea. He tried to make the burn in his lungs into a positive thing. He used to get it when he pushed himself to train for the ring, and he used it to check his pain threshold. It was mountain-high back then. These days, he winced at hot water getting a little too burny.
His legs managed to get him within yards of John. The lad’s arms had tired as sooty snow clogged his wheels. He spun on his back wheels, balancing a wheely and grinning at his pursuer. He knew the game had come to an end.
“Not funny, John. Not funny.”
“You're wrong. This is hilarious.”
John Green spent his day getting mollycoddled around on his wheelchair, all the time complaining he could push himself. His father’s meatheads, including Phil, all sympathized with his push for independence – but nobody wanted to cross Barry. Barry thought his son a victim. A car crash had made him permanently seated, and now his dad had him paraded around to show his fatherly care.
Phil saw how it upset John. The nineteen year old wanted to do his own shit. He had upper arms which could wrestle a bear to submission, so he could push himself – and often did. His former pushers had let him, but Barry told Phil to look after his son properly or “join him in a fucking wheelchair.” What could he do? Barry had already put him on probation for that cock-up in Leeds. Phil wiped the cold sweat from his brow the memory always induced.
Phil ordered two coffees in the American-themed joint just down the road from Sheffield Hallam University, berating the bottle-blonde waitress about the icicles above the entrance which barely hung from the doorframe.
“They're ready to skewer somebody. I'd love it if it wasn't me on the way out.”
“Gee,” she said, all concerned, one hand resting on her hip. “I'll get Mack to deal with it.”
“You're from Sheffield, love, I don't need a ‘gee’.”
“I'm from Chicago, actually, though my roots are in York.”
“Ah,” said Phil, turning away from her to raise his eyebrows at John. Chicago to Sheffield didn't have the right ring to it.
He watched John's eyes follow the blonde as she left to sort out their beverages, detecting lust, detecting insecurity. It made Phil scratch his nose and watch students through the window, all hunching inwards to ward off the wind's fingers trying to mug their warmth.
“Do we have to go through this?” John asked. He flicked his floppy fringe from his right eye. Phil thought it looked foppish and ridiculous on such a well-built lad. He thought he should have a shorter cut, something manlier to match his physique. He thought the kid could have played rugby league if he had his legs.
“No, we don't,” said Phil. “If you stay a good lad, we never have to do that again. I'm knackered every time you do a runner, and I'm sick of it.”
“You're sick of it?”
Phil shuffled. Those poncey students were easier to look at than his charge. He hoped Chrissy would eat real food tonight. Fish and chips would slide down nicely.
“I can see your gun,” John nodded.
Phil zipped his jacket closer to his chin, glancing at the boy. He had reddened. He had his eyes on a female, he could see frustration colour his cheeks. He knew the waitress was approaching from behind. He needed to get over his wheelchair, Phil thought.
“Life's not fair,” John said, slapping the smartphone against his thigh after another unanswered call to his friend, Colin.
Phil couldn't wait until the kid turned twenty. Maybe then his dumb teenage laments might end. He shook his head and wore his earphones, cheap black ones from Argos to deflect interest from muggers who might detect an iPhone if he used the white ones. The sound was a little tinny, but not as irritating as the whines coming out of John's cake-hole. He sympathised, he really did, but he was sick of insisting that it was his job to push him around. He visualized Barry's cold-fish stare to block sympathy which might force him to relent to the boy's wishes. Barry didn’t make it any easier by having a mechanic fit the wheelchair’s brakes closer to the wheels. Pushing it now felt like he waded through syrup.
The snow had surrendered to spring, thank God. Barry had bought his son a nice little new build off Ecclesall Road a few months before but failed to take into account the lack of wheelchair accessibility. Phil had to drag John up five steps, which, after all that snow, now seemed a doddle.
“I'll get the builders in,” Barry had said. Weeks, maybe months, ago.
Leeds. Always Leeds.
Phil tried to get the key into the door. It was stiff in the lock, the result of an inefficient cut. He just wanted to get inside, luxuriate in a nice cuppa, and watch some mindless telly. He'd heard “This is bullshit” one too many times on their walk round Ecclesfield Park, so much that even those pleasant little ducks and their content quacking couldn't prevent his stomach knots screwing his temper. Even in the ring he'd managed to keep his calm. Even performing some of Barry's more unsavoury tasks had not unduly knocked his temperament off its kilter. The kid had forced the black earplugs out of his jacket pocket, and a tinny output of Jon Bon Jovi's Wanted Dead or Alive kept him from grabbing the boy's collar for a snap-out-of-it shake.
He didn't worry too much about the young Green balancing his chair at the edge of the top step. John did it for the wind-up. He could get up and down the steps without any assistance, and Phil let him do it without his help on the odd occasion he felt safe from Barry's omnipotence. He pulled the door handle and twisted the key, pushed into the door and twisted. The damn thing never gave easily, the metal version of the boss and his boy. He looked over his shoulder as he tried to find the right pressure on the door and the correct amount of insertion for the key. John had one wheel on the top step, the other on the step below, practicing changing the step each wheel rested on.
“Careful, lad,” Phil mumbled.
“Always, old woman.”
There. All the door needed was a frustrated push and turn, and it welcomed him into the warmth.
“What you doing?” John shouted as he tumbled, the crash down each step whipping his neck towards an inevitable brace.
“I...” Phil said, most of the exclamation coming through his nose. “I didn't touch you. Shit, John, what have you done?”
He jumped down the steps, furious John mixed his howls of pain with those of laughter.
“You pushed me. You fucking pushed me, you twat.” He craned his neck at the old lady walking past with her old-woman shopping cart, inviting her to tut at the scene. She screwed her eyes at Phil.
Phil sat on his haunches, his useless hands on John's chest and the side of his head, making sure his temple didn't rest on hard wet cobblestones. John bore his eyes into Phil's.
“Why don't you just put that thing in my mouth and pull the trigger? It'd give us all a rest.”
He looked down, saw the hammer-end sticking out through his bomber jacket, zipped it up closer to his neck, and slapped the boy's cheek.
“Cut that talk out. You have things to live for. Plenty. This is just a blip in your life.” He shook the wheelchair's frame.
He heard the old woman's trolley rattle against the pavement as she walked off. He saw her shaking head as he glanced over his shoulder. Little moral disapprovals like that ate into him, and he'd worry about her all day, as if he needed her approval.
“Come on, let me help you up.”
For once, the kid let him.
“You didn't tell your dad,” Phil said.
Phil sighed, turned his attention to the telly, found a comfortable position on the sofa, fingered the gulley of the scar which stretched from the bridge of his nose to the far side of his right cheek.
“A boxing scar?”
Phil flinched. “Yes.”
“Must have been one hell of a punch.”
“It ended me.”
“A right hook?”
“Two stupid jabs I should have backed away from. Instead, I shifted into his hook. I couldn’t remember anything for a week after.”
“And now you're a fat bastard.”
“And now I'm a fat bastard.”
Phil counted to ten and tried to concentrate on the TV soap. The shit always did this, getting all conversational, softening him up for a punch. His feelings always hurt more than physical pain. John started speed-wheeling across his view of the telly, balancing on two wheels, spinning, then resting face-to-face with tired, baggy-eyed Phil, between him and his viewing pleasure.
“You know what to do,” John said.
Phil closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
John told Dr. Beeson, “My carer abuses me. Every Wednesday between 6 and 7am, while I’m still groggy.’” Phil heard it from outside the doctor’s door and had to fling it open to protest his innocence. The doctor believed Phil. It must have been the fluster allied to bluster, which mangled his words into innocence.
Phil tired and wondered if the Leeds incident would mark him forever. It was a simple mistake. As if Barry had never cocked anything up in his life.
He rotated his watch-strap around his wrist, vaguely searching for a cold part of its metal to cool his veins. Nothing, the whole strap had conducted his heat.
Couldn’t Barry let the boy live his life independently? Or at least get him a dedicated nurse? Apparently not, a nurse would turn the boy into a pussy. He needed a man to look after him. He needed Phil.
John’s first words to Chrissy when he first met her: “Where’d you pick her up? Same as usual?”
Before Phil could smash his balled fist into the boy’s cheek, Chrissy closed in and examined him as if checking smudged lipstick in her reflection, and patted him on the head. She turned, gave Phil a kiss, told him it was gym night so she’d see him Friday, and left the subtle taste of her fragrance behind as she left. John’s tongue worked, spreading her taste around his teeth and gums.
In the candlight, direct and bouncing off the walls, Chrissy’s warmth shone, even after a day typing notes at Sheffield Crown Court trials. He absorbed it, laying on his back in bed. He watched golden light flicker across her bare breasts, swinging over him as she pulled off his boxers and threw them on the floor.
She looked him up and down, settling her eyes on his troubled face. “No?”
His open palms accompanied the apologetic shrug. “I’m thinking not.”
She slumped beside him, nuzzled his neck, settled into the arm he wrapped around her waist.
“I always wanted fun in life,” she said. “I had enough to last me a lifetime in Ibiza, Majorca, the Costa del Sol. Then I wanted a good job, a good education, because fun didn’t pay for the future. Now I want contentment, some real love.”
He followed the shadows jerk across his bedroom wall with each breeze coming through the little gap in the window. Central heating stuffed his nose full of snot, so he always left a little gap for the outside world to reach in.
“I know I have real love. And I do love you, though I have no idea why. You’re not my type.” She laughed at the realisation, but moved closer into him. “But I don’t know if I have contentment. You frighten me sometimes.”
“I do?” He jerked his head round to her, waiting for an explanation.
“It’s not the way you are, it’s what you are. Who you work for. What do you want, Phil?”
He shifted his attention back to the wall. Worked saliva for his dry mouth. What do I want? he thought. Respect, maybe. He always chased it, finding it as precious as gold. Nobody ever gave it to him, or he had to work hard, harder than anyone else it seemed, to get it. He chased Barry’s. Barry gave it in small doses and then took it back without notice.
He tried not to be as blank as the wall he stared at, but they fell asleep in each other’s arms without a further word.
Phil hardly let either hand leave John’s wheelchair handles, a little nervous pushing him one-handed with his dad Barry walking by his side. Words stayed dammed in their mouths, only the odd sentence spilling, which the wind took and carried off into the air as if it never existed. March in Skegness hardly varied. Phil couldn’t remember when he last came here, but he recalled his family only holidayed in the summer holidays. They all wore coats then, too. At least the sun shone.
Skegness Pier didn’t have much going for it. The North Sea looked as grey as ever, even under the sun, matching each of their moods as they sat contemplating its depths.
“Fantasy Island might be a good idea,” John suggested.
“We’ll go later,” Barry said, still looking into the sea rather than across it to the horizon.
John’s right cheek twitched. His suggestion about Fantasy Island had come out almost as a choke. His dad’s rejection meant walking about dull streets instead, with dull company. If only he knew, Phil thought.
They took their time up the Grand Parade, Phil controlling his urge to grunt at the brakes on John’s chair. John sat slumped, knowing his old man wouldn’t allow him to use his own strength and initiative to get about.
“Fish and chips, anyone?” Phil said. The chirp in his voice only narrowed the others’ eyes. “No?”
Skegness smelled of chip grease. It pulled at his nose and dragged him into the next chippy, a place which had only just reached the '70s. Turquoise and white tiles assaulted his corneas, but the place appeared spotless, and the grease made saliva fill his mouth.
“You should have some,” he told John.
“I’m not hungry.”
Phil glanced over at Barry leaning his right shoulder against a lamp post outside, occasionally running a hand through his slicked-back hair, constantly adjusting his sunglasses with one hand while fiddling his iPhone with the other.
“You’ve not eaten since first thing this morning, and that was only an apple. Strapping lad like you could do with a battered sausage.”
John looked up at him, frowning. Phil stared back, expression blank.
“Why’d you force me here, Phil?”
“Your dad thought you needed some fun. You can’t beat Skegness.”
“Rotherham would beat Skegness.”
“Can I help you, love?” said the fryer, a grey-haired woman, her eyes lined with years of laughter, her lips already curled upwards ready for banter.
“Definitely,” said Phil. She’d infected him and he couldn’t help smiling back. “A portion of fish and chips …”
“Cod or haddock, love?”
“Well, we have plaice too.”
“You never offered that.”
“You did want a surprise.”
“Any one of them?”
“Yep, as long as it’s not haddock or plaice.”
“You silly sod.”
Her name tag spelled “Alice.” Seemed such a young name for such an old bird. He supposed she’d been young once, and though she’d probably seen more chips than she’d ever desire, he could see her hunger for human contact. He thought of his mother, a small woman who gave him such love any time she could, who always invited the neighbours round for a cuppa, a biscuit, and a chat. She died when he was thirteen, a heart attack taking her away from him when she was only thirty-four. Leaving him alone with his dad. It occurred to him that she’d hate what he did for a living. It pinched his heart, made him want to make it up to her, then rebel against her. For a long time he thought it outrageous she could have left him like that, finding her on an ambulance trolley just as he got back home from school. Hated her for it. He’d never sat down and reconciled himself to the fact that she’d merely died and morality had nothing to do with anything.
The shhhh of the wrapping brought him back and he looked into Alice’s old eyes, penetrating him, saying life always had promise. He handed her the eight pounds and turned to what had cast a shadow across her bright face. Barry stomped in, sunglasses pushed to his hairline.
“Are you buying their whole stock of fucking potatoes?”
“She … she’s only just wrapped them,” he said.
“And I suppose you’re going to take your bastard time to eat the fucker too … did you get mushy peas?”
“No … I’m not fussed about them.”
“You’re fucking useless, Phil. Let’s go.”
Phil’s feet wouldn’t step ahead of each other. He stared at Barry’s back, each step hard to the doorway, where he turned, lifted his elbows until his forearms rested on each side of the doorframe, and sighed like an impatient parent to a toddler.
“I’ll just stand here all fucking day until you finish your chips, then?”
“I’m coming, Barry. I’m coming.” He shook his fluster away, handed the fish and chips to John, and pushed the wheelchair out.
“I should have brought Danny,” Barry moaned, walking ahead like he didn’t want to be seen with either of them.
“I’m your man.”
“You better be.”
Phil pushed the chair harder, making sure he remained shoulder to shoulder with Barry, eyeing his cooling-to-lukewarm lunch, and regretting he never said his farewell to Alice. Her eyes had fired an expletive shitstorm at the man. He was glad Barry had not even acknowledged her presence.
They spent a few pounds at the LA Super Fruits, John glowing red at kids running about in tracksuits shouting “spazz” at him and making wanker signs, then running off as Phil jutted his chin out and headed for them.
“Leave them,” Barry said.
“Didn’t you hear them?”
“I can look out for myself,” John said, pulling the arm of a one-armed bandit. He got one orange, one lemon and a barely visible lime trying to shine behind a streak of tea or coffee on the screen.
“You heard him,” Barry said. “This is not the time to draw attention to ourselves. In fact, let’s go.”
He pulled the sunglasses from the top of his head back into place, ready to go back outside.
“John can push himself, right?”
Phil glanced at the youth. John stared at the machine as if it was rigged, though Phil knew he had bated breath for a “yes” from his dad. His friends had not been to see him since the Leeds trip. Isolation would push lava above the surface and cause him havoc, Phil knew.
“You push,” Barry told Phil, giving his son the briefest look.
John pulled the arm again as the ‘o’ at the end of “no” dissipated with his hopes.
Outside, the myriad bulbs lighting punters’ way to emptying their wallets in the slot machines and video games dimmed sad in the sun’s glare. The cold wind had warmed, enough excuse for desperate Brits to take their clothes off and bare their pasty skin to the only God the country worshipped. He could have done with a holiday, a proper one abroad, where the sun felt more at home.
Only a few people braved the beach, most realising they could not sustain tolerance to the cold blowing in from the North Sea for more than a few minutes. Phil thought he’d go snow blind if he looked at any of the bodies for a period of time, except for the one woman who clearly poured her tan from a bottle.
The heavy silence between the three of them started to weigh on Phil and his charge.
“The Partridge,” Barry said as they came off the beach.
“Definitely. I could do with a pint.”
They sat round a square table, Barry parked on the upholstered bench with a full view of the entrance, Phil on the creaky chair. He couldn’t help fingering the amateur graffiti carved into its upper legs. The pub’s windows, like small eyes scowling at its customers, hardly exposed the dark. The chintzy lamps on the wall shone dim, shadowing their eyes. The landlord brought their drinks, nodding at Phil and Barry knowingly, shining a lopsided smile at John.
“Enjoy,” he said, then scuttled off, using a handkerchief to wipe sweat from his bald pate.
John sipped at his Stella, Phil downed his John Smith’s like he hadn’t drunk all day, and Barry let his orange juice sit.
A hollow-eyed man walked in, headed straight for the bar without looking left or right. His shoulders hunched and his head looked like it was half-dropped into a pocket where his neck should have stood. Phil sideways-glanced at John, seeing his eyelids flicker at something vague he slowly started to recognise. Barry stared at the man leaning forward across the bar-top. Phil turned to survey him. The man reached for a glass beneath the pumps and started pouring himself a pint of cider. The barman and landlord had gone into the cellar to change a couple of barrels.
Phil swiveled back to Barry, ignoring the finger-tapping John made on his wheelchair arm. The dim light above Barry blinked, in contrast to his boss’s fish-eyes. Phil pushed up from the chair quietly, put a finger to his lips for John’s benefit, and wheeled him out the entrance. Barry would lock it in a moment.
“What’s happening?” John said, outside. “Who was that man?”
“Did he look familiar?”
He craned his neck to look up at Phil. Phil ignored him and pushed up the isolated side-road, almost like a jennel, at the back of the pub.
Seagulls screeched as they circled above, maybe spotting the remains of ready-made chicken wings that had spilled out the pub’s waste skip. They’d soon fall from the sky if they pecked at that.
They stared at the tall wooden gate framed by the brick walls bordering the pub’s yard. The only way out from the back was through the gate, unless you could leap fifteen feet to the top and crawl beneath or over the barbed wire crowning.
“Who was he?”
They heard the back door swing open and smash into the wall. Phil opened and swung his jacket back with his left hand and pulled the handgun from the holster, readying its aim at the gate. Steps made unsteady by panic reached it. A man fumbled the latch, gained control of it, opened. The wood’s unvarnished creak looked like it matched the man’s state of mind. He halted in the wall’s arch, wild-eyed at the person in the wheelchair facing him. Recognition from John triggered recognition from the man.
“What the fuck? I … I …”
Phil clocked Barry approaching from behind. The man felt his presence without looking, glared at Phil’s gun, and readied himself to run. Phil pulled the trigger. It jammed. The man stepped from the arch, gearing up for a sprint, but his first steps went across John’s outstretched leg and instead he scraped his face on the rutted tarmac. His attempt to push off the ground ended with Phil’s knee in his back, pushing his face into damp leaves and an empty salt and vinegar crisp packet stuck in the grime.
“Nice one, son,” Barry said, smiling for the first time that day. “Craig Polston, from Skeggy, right?”
“Yeah,” John said, hardly breathing. “That’s him.”
Barry wore boots, toes capped with steel. He kicked that boot-end into Polston’s ribs with enough force for Phil to lose balance, making him drop the gun and land on his palm to prevent sprawling into the grime. He repositioned himself, left knee into his back now, wiped his hand on the man’s black North Face jacket, and reached for his weapon. The man still spluttered, gasping for breath.
“And,” Barry addressed his son while keeping his attention on Polston, “he’s the one who scored you the pills in Leeds?”
John’s mouth had fallen open, but words had frozen and failed to tumble out. Phil couldn’t tell if excitement kept him silent – his hands gripped the armrests – or fear had paralysed the rest of his body.
John nodded, so slight Phil thought it a trick of the light as a cloud, one of many now gathering, crossed the sun. It was enough for Barry.
“Phil, give him your gun.”
He looked up, brows v-shaped.
“Do I have to say it again?”
Barry had his feet apart in line with his shoulders, like he braced himself for … John’s initiation. Phil heaved himself off the man slowly, his old boxing agility long gone, thinking this was too much. The kid should have a life, be sent off to places where he needn’t worry about looking over his shoulder all the time. Barry wanted his boy to see what he did, to see what power he could wield. Phil wanted to protest, but he didn’t have any sway these days. Barry never mentioned this part.
A puff blew through Barry’s teeth which forced Phil to hand the gun to John. John took it, turned it this way, turned it that way, stared at his dad.
Polston’s cries seemed to reach Phil’s ears for the first time. His pleas for mercy pulled at him, despite the fact he would have shot him if it wasn’t for the gun jamming.
“Please, please don’t kill me.” He still had his face in the road. His elbows tucked in and his arms rested beneath his body.
“As a kid you did nothing but gripe about seeing what I do for a living. Now here we are and you don’t want to know?”
John stared at Polston’s back. Polston turned, eyes popping, suddenly aged.
“You kill people. I get it.”
Barry moved to stand over the man, six feet of hardened spirit overshadowing about five feet seven inches of cowering inexperience. “It’s not about killing people. I play chess for a living. A wrong move could mean the end. Cheque mate. You overpower everything that gets in your way. You win. This is not about killing for the sake of it. It’s about power. This piece of shit is an example of my power. Your power: if you want to take it.”
John looked at his dad, screwing his eyes, maybe at the bright sky behind him, maybe at the man himself. Phil kept an eye on Polston, but kept still.
“You haven’t looked at me straight since I’ve sat in this thing, Barry,” John said, patting the armrests, letting the gun slip to the road.
“Barry?” his dad said.
“I’m not your son anymore. Because of this. Because I’m stuck in this thing.”
“I don’t know where this is coming from …”
Phil flinched at how Barry flashed a glance at him.
“ … but you’ll always be my son.”
“Bollocks. I’ll be your son again if I shoot him,” he nodded at Polston. “No.”
“Soft,” Barry shook his head. “Fucking soft as a badger’s tail. You’ll never amount to anything with that attitude.”
John shrugged and spun his wheelchair. The sun dappled through gaps in the trees keeping the side road cloaked from outsiders. Somebody would have to come round the bend to see anything.
“Yes?” he shook.
Barry nodded at Polston. Polston still held his side from the kick. Phil had readied himself, noting how he had been looking around, for escape routes he knew. Phil took the gun, moved in quick, like he saw an opening for a right hook in his boxing days, only this time he kicked Polston under the chin. It elicited a scream loud enough for Phil to wrap his left forearm across his mouth, muffling his cries lower than those of the seagulls above. He dragged him into the pub’s backyard, looking over to John for a second. He just sat there, his back to the scene, arms flat against the armrests. It made Phil feel dirty.
Polston bit into his jacket. It was well-padded, so he let him get on with it as he pulled the young man across uneven concrete paving slabs, the gaps between overgrown with dandelions and other weeds. He heard Barry close the gate, remaining outside. Phil dumped Polston close to the pub wall, the man’s cries now dampened to whimpers and snot. Red-rimmed eyes begged.
“I-I-I-I-I … he … he … asked for the pills. I … I just found the man who had them. That’s all I did.”
Phil wondered if his heart would punch through his chest any second. He thought of Chrissy typing criminal misdeeds in Sheffield Crown Court. He wondered if one day she’d type his.
He pulled the trigger, one bullet smashing Polston’s head back into the wall. He slid sideways, revealing the splash. The landlord opened the door, stepping out with rope, a mop and bucket, and a blank expression. Phil gave him a terse nod and headed back to John, letting Barry dish out the cash for the old man. John slumped his body on Phil’s first push.
In Sheffield’s Victoria Hotel function room he sat with Chrissy and John, who sat beside Geena, the girl from Chicago who Phil had forced him to ask out. It was a little round table forcing them knee tight. Phil sniffed at his prawn cocktail, thinking his mum made better sauce from Tommy ketchup and mayo, but he ate it anyway. It tasted like the décor looked, posh, but without any kind of distinction.
Barry Green kept popping over to check out Geena, ruffling his boy's head like he'd just scored a goal. Like Skegness never happened. He made Geena nervous. Her backside-shift caused an arse-shuffling Mexican wave around the table.
The event's compere kept praising Barry for this charitable night, highlighting his wonderful generosity, grating everybody’s ears further by elongating the last word of every sentence. Phil was unsure which made him more nauseous, the fawning or watching John's face crease at every word. Geena tried conversation, and he and Chrissy left space enough for John to respond.
Phil sighed, felt Chrissy squeeze his hand. Fake-smiled at Barry's other muscle - who smirked at his babysitting gig.
“What brought you to Sheffield, Geena?” Chrissy asked.
“The men,” she smiled, rolling her eyes.
Chrissy laughed, encouraging John to join in. “Right. They're not all miserable sods like this one.”
John's lip-only smile hardly chiseled the hardness in his eyes. Phil could see he desperately wanted to engage her, but his damn wheelchair blocked him. Phil refused to try a rescue. The kid would only resent him.
He watched a lot of shaved heads bob around the room, a couple of coppers double-hand a handshake with Barry, and a lot of overdressed women ignore their men while they worked their social status. Barry introduced none of them to his son. Phil dabbled in another prawn and sank his Stella.
He stood and started working the room. He brought one of the coppers over, introduced John to him. He noted Chrissy’s glare. John nodded, kept his words minimal, like he did the next few people Phil tried to introduce. He caught an occasional glare from the boss, wondered what it meant. He sat down, feeling somewhat chastened.
A half-minute after Phil entered the toilet, feet wide to avoid target-missing piss, Barry followed him in, pulled an arm behind his back and thrust his upper body into the urinal.
“Barry ... what ...?”
“Don't embarrass me out there.”
Phil's left cheek flattened against the bottle-green tiles, scrunching up against his eye. “I ...”
He could smell cheese and onion crisps on Barry's breath and the gel which slicked his hair back from his forehead, both strong enough to overpower the smell of piss.
“Don't say another word, Phil. That scar I gave you will be nothing compared to what I'll do if you continue to introduce my son to all and sundry. He's not fit for socializing, or anything else. Your lack of due care in Leeds made sure of that. If I’d wanted to introduce him to everybody, I’d have done it myself. Now sit with your woman and the boy, and leave it at that.”
Barry pushed his head briefly into the wall. Phil thought he might pull it back and smash it into the tiles. He didn't. He just gave himself the once over in the harsh light above the sink, and left, muttering “Fucking useless.”
Phil pushed himself away from the wall, grabbed a bunch of tissues to wipe piss off his thankfully dark suit, and ran a finger over his scar. It felt hot, fresh.
“I’m turning into my father,” John said a few weeks later, an hour or so after watching Phil drip honeyed words down the phone to Chrissy. “I’ve got nothing.”
“Your dad has everything,” Phil assured him.
“He has a certain power, yeah, amongst people like you.”
“John, please, a little respect.”
“You don’t deserve any. You hate doing this as much as I hate you for doing it. Does my father make you roll over when he tickles your tummy?”
Phil sighed, though the words popped his arm-hair erect.
“How did such a lap-dog get a woman like Chrissy?”
“Leave Chrissy out …”
“Does she put you on a lead when you go out together?”
Phil had flashed his eyes at the back of the boy’s head many times before. Now he did so to his face. John took strength from it.
“She could do with a man like me.”
“Is that right?” Phil said.
“Right is right. I’d show her a few tricks, rattle her bones every night, and make sure she hadn’t settled beneath herself.”
“You screwed any idea of rattling any woman’s bones the moment you got behind that wheel, jacked up and drunk.” That got him. Phil smirked. “And you totally blew it when you called her a whore.”
“I know … I know. But if I can’t have her, then I don’t want you to have her either.”
“I don’t know where this is coming from … You arsed it up with Geena …”
“… I’ve already set everything in motion.”
“Sure you have, what…”
John grabbed his wheels and lunged the metal of his footplate into Phil’s shins, cutting short his inquiry. The smash sent him forward onto the boy, then over his shoulder, John helping him along to a heavy crash on to the iron-edged coffee table. Phil slumped to the polished wooden floor.
“See you later, numb-nuts.”
Phil had Barry, and Polston, in mind to help him get up from his prone position. The knock on his funny bone had sent bum notes up his arm, but he remained agile enough to catch the handles of John’s chair as he edged out of the house, dragging him back in while avoiding flailing arms and fists, aiming for his jaw.
“This is my job, whether you respect it or not. And I will do it.”
John swiveled his chair to face him. “Get a proper fucking job.”
“I want one,” he screamed, high-pitched, desperate, a tear falling and settling on his face-fuzz.
Phil wondered if he would have children, and if Chrissy would be their mother. For a moment he imagined John as his son. It made him choke. Just for a second. In that small time, he wished to set the boy free, and he might stand on the doorstep and watch him fly, like he imagined a proud father would. But John’s real father insisted on popping up in his head, his eyes dead to all the things he had done, and what he might do yet.
“I’ll do my job,” Phil reiterated.
“To protect me?”
John wiped the tear away with his sleeve, forcing his eyes to behave, showing a little of the steel his father had forged. “I’ve seen off every minder but you. You’re like a fucking pitbull.”
“I thought I was a lapdog.”
He laughed. “Well, how far will you go to protect me?”
“As far as I can.”
“More than your girlfriend?”
Phil’s fingers twitched open a “what?”
“Will you go further to protect me than you would your bird?”
Phil couldn’t help baring his teeth. “What game are you playing?”
“Call her,” John said, smiling.
Phil fumbled a grip on his phone, a sweaty thumb pounding numbers. He felt his other hand twitch for his gun.
Wrong number …
What am I doing, he thought, her number’s in my Favourites list. He pressed “Chrissy”, hearing his pumping blood above the ringtone. John’s grin flattened to the cod-stare his dad had perfected.
“Chrissy … call me as soon as you get this message.”
Phil held the phone like it was her hand, as if it kept her from drifting away.
“I’m the son of Barry Green. I can make a lot happen.”
“Bullshit. You don’t even have permission to live your own life.”
“I don’t care what you think … I’ve taken your prize possession. If I can’t live my life, because of you, then I want your life to be as scuzzy as mine.”
Phil manoeuvred himself onto the edge of the settee’s arm and dialed again, trying to will the bead of sweat about to roll, and advertise his fear to this shithead, back into the pore from which it tried to escape. Chrissy’s always busy, he reasoned. He didn’t always know what she got up to, but she was always at it. But not at this time of night. She would answer her phone if she saw his name come up. He punched in her digits one more time, hoping panic had induced him to think her voicemail had not just happened. Nope, her voicemail again.
John had stopped looking at him, now slumped back in his wheelchair, ready for consequences. Phil gave him sideways glances, seeing resignation. Seeing a life given up on. Seeing a pact made with desperation. Seeing truth in what the boy said.
Phil breathed like he had a plastic bag wrapped over his head. His fingers wrapped his gun’s handle ready to strangle the trigger. Standing brought decision. He knew the shitstorm to come through every moment his finger squeezed harder, but felt it only once he had punctured John.
He stumbled out of the house, slipping and almost turning his ankle on the red cobblestones he forgot had been laid only a few weeks before. He regained a little composure, squinting up at the eye-like full moon as if Barry had got it watching his movements. He jerked open his car door, feeling the Sheffield chill settle into his bones, and almost stalled the red Ford. He sped down the narrow road, cars parked on both sides in front of drive-less houses, nearly hitting a silver Renault just like Chrissy’s. He stamped his brake as he saw, in his rearview, the car swerve and snap off a parked BMW’s side-mirror. The Renault pulled up, its occupier watching him in her rearview.
Chrissy … safe.
He unlocked the door, barged it open and leapt out, sprinting the twenty-or-so yards to her car. Chrissy stepped out with seen-it-all-before calm, as if she had started methodically typing notes for this incident, and opened her palms to him for explanation. His joy crashed. The boy had played him. He’d shot him for nothing, except to put him out of his misery and transfer it to himself.
“You know I go to the gym on Thursday’s,” she said. “I tell you every time and you never listen.”
“You’re safe,” is all he could mutter, squeezing her into him.
“The panic in your voice, I sped all the way here.”
“You could have called.”
“Your panic got to me. I just charged to the car and put my foot down.”
Expletives bombarded them from the resident whose car Chrissy had dented. Phil placated him with a quiet word in his ear. Everybody knew of Barry Green.
“What took you so long, you bastard?”
“John, you’re alright …”
The lad look surprised. “You came back? I knew you were an idiot. Absolute fucking plant pot.”
Phil and Chrissy kneeled on the floor beside him. He had rolled off his wheelchair and pulled himself towards the kitchen, leaving a red streak. He now grunted at them both as they asked inane questions about being “alright?” and poking him to see what hurt.
“My body, you prick.”
“Why, John? Why did you let me think you’d killed Chrissy?”
“You know why … I’m only sorry for you, Chrissy.”
“Let’s get you to the hospital,” she said.
“You need to get away from here,” John told her.
“How did you fall in love with this lump? He brought you here, knowing who I am, knowing who’s on his way right now.”
“Shit…” Phil breathed. “You’ve got to get away. Go now.” He got up and encouraged her with gentle nudges to the door.
“He needs seeing to,” she protested.
“I’ll sort it out.”
“What does that mean, Phil?”
He flinched at her glare. “Not what you fear. Please, go.”
She grabbed her purse from the floor and rushed from the mess. Only then, did he feel able to breathe.
“This really hurts, Phil. Why didn’t you just shoot me through the head?”
Phil sneaked a peek behind the curtain to see if any cars had pulled up. He was okay for now, but what to do? The boy had called his father. Barry now knew he had shot his son. He would have ordered his men to find him and do terrible things in revenge.
“What will you tell your dad?”
“I think I’m going to live,” the boy winced. “I don’t think you got anything vital. It’s just the bleeding.”
“God, yes, sorry.” He emptied the linen closet of clean towels and started wrapping them around John’s chest wound, pressing to stem the bleeding. “What will you tell your dad?” he insisted.
“That you’re an idiot,” he laughed through his teeth.
Phil saw no blood on them, thankful he hadn’t started spitting up the red stuff.
“You’ve been nothing but a pain in my arse, Phil. You got all the drinks in when we went to Leeds.”
“It was your eighteenth.”
“Yeah, but you got me drunk.”
“I helped you have a good time … I didn’t tell you to snort that shit, too, and get into that car and drive off like a Big Time Charlie.”
“But you didn’t stop me either.”
“I got distracted … I took my eye off you for a second. Bloody hell, take some responsibility, will yer?”
“I should fucking land you in it. I never told dad that you got me drunk.”
“What’s that compared to this? What about now?”
“You’re scared, aren’t you?”
Headlights broke through a gap in the curtains, making Phil feel he was in the spotlight. “What about now?”
“I won’t tell him if …”
The car door slammed. Feet stamped to the door.
“If you kill the bastard now, as he walks through the door, I won’t tell him a thing.”
“Are you insane?” The front door’s handle rattled. Spare keys jangled. Phil's index felt for his scar.
“Do it … and he won’t have to know a thing.”
Phil rocked on his heels, laughing with disbelief. Unconscious of having done it, he already had his gun ready. The front door opened. Phil stiffened with Barry’s every step. His boss appeared in the entrance to the kitchen, his face mashed with worry and anger. The sight made Phil hesitate. He thought the man had given up worrying about his boy. He thought he only considered his son in abstract, as an adornment to his reputation.
Barry rushed to his boy, holding him, letting tears wash away John’s cynicism. John seemed to forget about his pain, his squeezed-to-slits eyes opening wide.
The father, his boss, looked up, clocking Phil and fixing his gaze on the Beretta pointing at him. “You should have kept him in his fucking wheelchair.”
John’s eyes narrowed immediately.
Phil’s finger twitched … The muzzle flashed …
Barry fell, blood oozing through fingers that had tried to block the bullet’s entry wound into his neck.
“I’m free,” John whispered.
Phil’s cheeks puffed and blew flat. Maybe a minute went by. Maybe an hour. He had a tingle at the base of his spine telling him this feeling of freedom wouldn’t last long.