Icy laughter melding into screams. Black gaffer tape and a broken Polaroid camera. A smell, like bacon frying. Rusty, brown bloodstains and a worn length of rope. A faded newspaper and a creaking chair. And the sound of something moving in the shadows.
Nick jolted awake, coated in cold, dank sweat. Daylight sliced through the gaps between the broken blinds. A tight band gripped his forehead and his pounding heartbeat seemed to echo through the sparse, anonymous hotel room.
He stumbled out of the bed and into the bathroom. His wiry arms gripped the washbasin for support. He sighed deeply as he splashed cold water on his face and stared at the burn scars.
It was time to go home.
As he drove from the hotel to Chestnut Road, Nick gripped the steering wheel with clammy hands. His arm pits were wet. His shirt soggy. A sickly smell permeated his pores.
He pulled up outside his semi-detached home and dug into his glove compartment. He pulled out a box of Tic-Tacs and poured them into his mouth.
Crunching the mints, he walked into the kitchen, still shaking. His wife Fran was her usual chirpy self, singing along to the lukewarm music that leaked out of the CD player. She tied back her long blonde hair and checked her make up in the mirror.
“How do I look?” she said.
“You look great. Fresh as a daisy. Mind you, you always do,” he said, hanging up his raincoat.
“Oh, unfortunately, you really look like shit honey bunny,” she said, as she stepped past him into the hall, pinching her nose. “And you don’t smell much better, either.”
Nick forced a grin.
“I hope it was a good night,” yelled Fran. She pulled on a black jacket, picked up her briefcase.
“It was!” he croaked, leaning against the kitchen table.
It was a lie, of course.
He’d told Fran he’d been out with a couple of the lads from work but, in fact, he’d been alone in a hotel room, drinking whisky and mulling over the monkey on his back. Something he couldn’t bring himself to tell her about.
“Bye,” she shouted, and slammed the door.
Nick walked into the living room and slumped into the sofa as spring rain dotted the windows.
He’d have to phone Riley.
The rattling ferry cut through the brandy brimmed morning.
Riley leaned against the railings. He downed the last of his Fanta, crushed the can and threw it into the river. He pushed a hairy hand under his AC/DC t-shirt and scratched his beer gut.
“Not affecting your work, though, eh? Business is still good, by the looks of things.”
He nodded toward Nick’s Rolex.
“Fine. It runs itself these days.”
“Well, that’s a hell of a dream, I can tell you,” said Riley. “Mine are usually about going back to school dressed in just my underpants.” He snorted.
Nick stared down at the spectres of steam that rose from his coffee.
“So what do you think?” he said.
“What I think,” said Riley. “Is that you’re not playing with a full deck of cards, mate. You been smoking weed again?”
“I know, it sounds mental but it’s been every single night.” He traced the scar on his temple with his fingertips. “Every night since I was shot.”
Nick had been starving. The smell of the cheese and onion pie in his hands was making his stomach rumble. He held it close to keep warm. February seemed to be getting colder and colder these days.
He’d had the usual banter with the woman from Palmer’s Bakers, who had tried to convince him to buy a corned beef and potato pie, even though he and Fran were both vegetarians. And now he was rushing down the High Street, on his way to pick up a couple of bottles of Guinness to have with his dinner.
He took out his mobile phone and looked at the time. Half past six. If he got a move on, he’d be back in time for Emmerdale. He picked up his pace as he headed toward Boozebusters. As he opened the door, he heard a scream.
“Fuuuck! Out of the fucking way!”
A man wearing a black balaclava and combat jacket hurtled out of the shop and tumbled into him. They both fell backwards onto the pavement, tangled up together.
Nick saw the revolver, heard a sound. And then the lights went out.
“It’s a weird one, innit. I mean, nobody uses a Polaroid camera these days, do they?” said Riley.
Acid burned in Nick’s stomach.
They were walking along what used to be known as Dock Road, when Nick and Riley had worked for Wrightsons, just around the corner. But now it was called Marina Drive. So many things had changed since the gentrification. Memories came flooding back. Not all of them welcome.
“What did the quack say?” said Riley.
They stopped outside The Happy House Fun Pub’s multi-coloured doorway. It was a far cry from the Boilermakers Club that they used to visit every Friday after pay day.
“Oh, he said that having a piece of metal embedded in your brain can cause hallucinations.”
“Yeah, but, you know …”
They entered the pub.
“So … what do you think it is then?”
They leaned against the bar. The place was deserted, its gaudy design looking depressing in the cold light of day.
“I think it’s a memory.”
“What sort of a memory?” Riley tried to catch the pasty-faced barmaid’s eye as she painstakingly chalked the day’s menu on a blackboard. Her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth.
“What do you think?”
Riley slammed his big fist down on the bar. It echoed around the room. The barmaid jumped and walked over.
“We’re not serving food yet,” she said, flustered.
“I don’t want to eat,” growled Riley. “It’s a pub. Give me a pint of Carling and a half of Guinness.”
Riley turned and glared at Nick.
“I thought we said we’d never mention … that?”
They collected their drinks. Nick handed over a ten pound note and didn’t wait for the change.
They found a table near the window and sat in silence, gazing out at the yuppie flats that stood where the Wrightsons factory used to be.
“And they call that a redundancy?” Nick said. He placed a pint of lager in front of Riley and sipped his half of Guinness before putting it on the wobbly Formica table. He sighed as he sat down.
“It’s a bag of shite, is what it is,” said Riley. He picked a cigarette from the side of the ashtray and burnt a hole in the wad of papers in front of him. “I’ve been working at Wrightsons for nigh on ten years.”
Nick looked around the Boilermakers Club. It was full of men drowning their sorrows. There was a portable television at the end of the bar showing some flash new series from America, about vice cops wearing designer clothes and driving flash cars.
“When did you start at Wrightsons, Nick?” said Riley.
“Straight after school. I was sweet sixteen. Same as you.”
Riley gulped his pint.
“It’s bad enough getting laid off but Julie’s up the duff again,” said Riley. “I reckon we’re going to have to do it.”
He finished his lager and went to the bar. Came back with another pint and sat down.
“So, what do you reckon?” he said.
“Sounds a bit iffy,” said Nick, shuffling in his seat. “They’re bound to know it’s us.” He started tearing up a beer mat.
“Nah, me and Julie are moving out of the house next week. Back with her old man. I’ll make a copy of the key before we go. We’ll leave it a month or so. Then we can sneak in during the night.”
“And we can get into every house?”
“Every house on the one side of Dalston Street. I told you. There’s no walls between the attics. We’ll have to be careful walking on those beams, mind you, but we can go from house to house. Sneak down from the attic. Grab a few things and climb back up. Then on to the next house. Most of ‘em living there are old folk. They won’t hear a thing.”
“I feel a bit shit robbing old aged pensioners, though.”
“Dalston Street! They’re all snobs, man. Retired teachers and civil servants and the like. Bet they all voted for that Thatcher who got us in this mess. And that bloke at the end, Old Man Hammonds, he’s a recluse. You know what that means, don’t you?”
“What’s that, then?”
“I bet he’s a pervert. Interferes with the young uns and that.”
“Aye. And I heard he’s got a load of cash stashed away there.”
Nick finished his Guinness.
“You in, then?”
“Aye,” said Nick. “Alright.”
Nick had only drunk a couple of bottles of Guinness, but the room was really spinning. He was trying to concentrate on the X Factor but it was doing no good.
“You shouldn’t drink alcohol when you’re taking medication,” said Fran.
“I know,” said Nick. “But a little un won’t hurt.”
Fran started saying something else but Nick couldn’t hear her. There was a pounding in his head and he could smell something strange. He unsteadily got up from the sofa and staggered towards the bathroom. And collapsed into darkness.
“Think you can do what you want, eh? You young uns think you’re kings of the castle, you do,” said Old Man Hammonds. He slammed the hot frying pan against the side of Nick’s face again. Nick screamed and staggered back into a rocking chair.
“Think you can come into my place and take my valuables.”
Nick curled up in the corner of the room.
The place was a mess. All sorts of junk strewn around. Black gaffer tape and a broken Polaroid camera. A worn length of rope. Faded newspapers. An old transistor radio playing some even older comedy show.
Nick had crept down the stairs and almost died when he’d seen Old Man Hammonds in the kitchen making a bacon sandwich. The old man had moved quickly too, slamming the frying pan in Nick’s face, fat flying everywhere. Burning him.
“Think you can just waltz in here …”
Nick felt a chill as he saw Riley moving in the shadows with a hammer. And then the world turned crimson.
The handful of black umbrellas looked like bats’ wings, as they fluttered in the wind. Riley had his arm around Fran as they walked out of the cemetery towards her BMW.
“So sudden …so sudden,” she said as she shook hands with the priest.
Father Cook just shrugged his shoulders and patted her on the back of the hand.
“Life is a sweet mystery,” he said.
Riley got behind the steering wheel, getting a taste for driving such a big car. He hadn’t driven for a long time. Hadn’t had a car since his tool hire firm had gone into liquidation. Since Julie had left him. He’d regretted not going into the tiling business with Nick, but, well, someone was going to have to take over the company now. It’d be too much for Fran.
The car cruised slowly into the centre of town. Traffic, as always, was at its worst at this time of day.
“Oh, stop. Stop,” said Fran suddenly. “Pull over here.”
Riley did has he was told and parked beside an old red post box.
“What is it?” he said.
“Just something I promised to do for Nick,” she said, rummaging in her handbag. “Something I have to post in the event of his death.”
She pulled out a large envelope and jumped out of the car. Before Riley could stop her, Fran had popped the letter into the red post box.
“I can’t imagine why Nick would want to write to the local police and newspapers,’ she said, as she got back into the car. “But a promise is a promise.”
(c) Paul D Brazill