'There,' Terry said, pointing to a fat one.
It was on its hind legs next to the fence. Something was gripped between its claws. It was fiddling away at it, as if knitting with tiny needles. Terry picked up a glass bottle, a big one. He held it above his head.
'If I hit it, we're doing what I want to do.'
'Then say it. We do what I want next.'
'It's already late.'
Gary pulled on the strings of his hood, tightening it around his face. The night was turning cold. He looked at the rat. It had stopped fiddling now and was still, just staring back at them. Terry had the bottle raised, but he didn’t move either.
The bell rang. Jim looked up from his pint and realised he was one of only a few remaining punters. In the corner, a younger couple, maybe in their thirties, were sitting close. They weren’t regulars. At the far end of the bar, Maureen and Martin were involved in some sort of domestic; the usual. Louise was sweeping up. A few twenty-somethings, in a variety of polo shirts, were getting ready to leave. Smoke hung in the air. Jim caught a glimpse of himself between the letters of a Jameson’s Whiskey logo. He looked old. Rough. The blood vessels were becoming more and more noticeable. And the lines, particularly around his eyes. He turned to Louise. ‘One more please, love.’
He looked at the mirror. His face was still hard, stern, even into his seventies, but the bags and blood lines weakened it. He was a big man, but his shoulders had begun to slope, his back too. The arthritis had made his hands bulbous around the knuckles and, when Louise placed his pint on the counter, he hid his discomfort in picking it up.
Outside, the wind blew into Jim’s face and made him shudder. The drink couldn’t blanket him from this cold. He thought for a moment about heading back inside and calling a cab, then changed his mind. He turned up the collar and pulled his cap down as far as it would go, shoved his hands firmly into the coat pockets. He squinted down Love Lane, trying to make out the Main Road at the other end. He remembered how Pete from the pub had got his head kicked in by some lot late at night. For nothing. Just a laugh. Pete’s kids had to move him out the area. Potter’s Bar, or something. It never used to be like this. He thought of his empty flat, and reminded himself to go to the Post Office in the morning. He was distracted by a plastic bag that had wrapped itself around his leg.
It was hard to tell. The bottle had smashed, and its parts reflected the security light, at the spot where the rat had been.
'I'm telling you, I hit it.' Terry said.
'Where is it then?'
They went to the fence and stared down at the broken glass. No rat, no blood, nothing.
‘I saw it.’
They heard a door open and the slap of bare feet on metal above them. A large silhouette at the top of the stairs, in front of the open door. They ducked behind the fence. A deep voice came through the dark.
'Who's down there?'
The boys waited for the sound of footsteps. It was what they wanted. A chase. A little spark. In the silence, they could hear the noises of the place: cars passing on the Main Road, a dog barking, sirens ringing out somewhere. Gary could feel his blood pumping, a quickening pulse in his neck. Terry collected a few stones from the ground and held them out. Gary shook his head. The boys were quiet, and the security light went out.
Jim noticed the same car doing circuits along the Main Road. It was making some racket. It roared past. That music. A nightmare. It was packed full. Must be illegal, the amount they have in there.
He reached the Bricklayer’s, an old haunt. He stopped and stared at its boarded up windows, the faded sign. The wind whistled. Jim thought of the old war songs. The streetlight buzzed above him for a second, then flickered from a pale yellow to pink.
‘Now is the hour, when we must say goodbye…’
He sang the words aloud. He rooted in his pocket, being careful to avoid the steel blade he kept there. The night air was making breathing difficult but, under the pink light, Jim could hear the sound of music. A piano. Laughter. The clink of glass against glass.
‘Soon I’ll be sailing, far across the sea…’
He put his hand back in, gripped the handle loosely with his warped hand. He remembered holding Vicky Spence in his arms, kissing her. He must have been eighteen. Right here, where he stood. The year before he went away.
It started to rain so he took shelter under the arch of the entrance. He sat down on the steps and lit up a cigarette. He watched as a fox appeared in the road before quickly disappearing through a broken fence, in the way only foxes do.
They were out of breath. Terry more so. Mucus rattled in his throat. He was laughing in bursts, whenever his breathing would allow it. Gary leant on a bin next to the bus stop.
‘You could’ve hurt that guy, Tel.’
Gary had heard the crack of stone against brick, the smash of a window, and, he was certain, a grunt of pain as one of them had hit the shadowy figure at the door. He looked at Terry, who was still coughing, spitting up lumps. He saw Terry’s hands, scabby with muck, scarred knuckles, the black fingernails.
Terry looked up and shot him a grin. It wasn’t the paleness of his face with the purple rings round his eyes, or the chipped teeth and the dirt in his hair that got to Gary. It was that smile.
Earlier that day Terry had set about a couple of smaller boys, flashing a knife or something at them, telling them to run up the road until he couldn’t see them anymore. He told them that, if they were to stop, he’d find them and cut them. The two boys obeyed, of course. Gary liked to pretend that Terry lied when he told these stories, but he knew it was more likely that things were being left out.
Without answering, Terry stood up and turned toward the bus shelter.
‘Taking a piss.’
It ran down the side of the shelter and onto the street. Steam rose. Gary watched as Terry shook himself dry.
‘Let’s go do something,’ he said. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes that he’d stolen. ‘Look,’ he said, squinting at the packet.
He flicked at the lighter a couple of times, then lit up.
Gary looked up at the moon. ‘Look Tel, I’m going home.’
Terry’s eyes were closed as he drew smoke from his cigarette.
‘No. We’re staying out a bit longer.’ He flicked the ash from his fag.
‘Can’t. I’m already going to get in shit for this.’
Terry didn’t respond. He took another draw.
‘Seriously, I’m going home, Tel.’
Gary tensed. It felt like something was being twisted in his stomach.
‘That guy will be phoning the police right now, or out looking for us. I’m going. Sorry.’
As Terry inhaled, the tip of his fag grew brighter. He took a step in Gary’s direction, and blew smoke towards his face. He was looking Gary in the eye. He was quiet for a second. Gary forced a laugh.
‘Tel, stop it. I’ve got to go home.’
‘Stop what?’ Terry said.
‘Poor Pete,’ Jim said aloud. He’d seen him after it happened. He was a mess. Couldn’t see out either eye. He flinched at every noise. At the sound of a car horn outside, a bus coming to a stop. Pete had lived here for sixty-odd years, and he was too scared to leave the front door.
This place was a dump, no question. Jim rested his head against the wall. He just needed a little rest. He’d wait for the rain to stop. But he’d need to get going soon. He needed to get into the warm.
Where was it they’d moved him? Was it Potter’s Bar right enough? No. Maybe somewhere in Essex. Epping Forest, maybe. Could be. What did it matter, anyway? It didn’t. A car drove past, spraying a puddle into the air. Jim pulled out the bayonet, and examined it. He ran his fingers along the eight-inch blade. It shone under the street light. Jim listened. The street was ghostly now. You could pick up the odd sound of something far away, every now and then. It was strange, Jim thought; he was here, alone, an old man listening to the sounds of the city sleeping. At any given moment he wasn’t too far away from the next person. Somebody who had their own set of worries. They lived here too, packed into the flats across the road and the houses on the backstreets, the estates further back.
His old fingers were twisted around the bayonet. He pulled it close to his chest. He felt the weight of everything. It pushed down on his eyelids.
He’d only ever felt sorry for him, but Gary’s patience had ran out. He wished he’d gone for him back there. It was what he needed. Maybe that’s why his dad hit him. Imagine living with the prick. But he knew that he’d never stand up to Terry, because Terry only knew one way to be.
They were walking down the Main Road, and Terry was talking about some video his brother had shown him a few nights back. Gary was trying not to listen. He could see the Bricklayer’s in the distance, which meant he was close to home.
‘Why you walking so fast?’ Terry said.
Gary slowed down.
‘You’re being boring, Gaz.’ Terry said. ‘I’m bored. I hate being fucking bored.’
Terry stopped. Gary walked a few paces ahead, then stopped too. He sighed.
‘What is it now?’
Gary could hear him flicking at his cigarette lighter again. By the time Gary had turned, Terry had it lit. He smiled.
‘I’ve got something to show you.’
Terry reached into the inside pocket of his hoodie. He pulled something out.
Terry held it out. It was a long piece of metal, shaped like a spike.
‘Fuck. Where did you get that?’
‘Near here. Nicked it off some old guy.’
He drew back on his fag, then exhaled. He turned the spike around in front of his face, studying it.
‘Put it away,’ Gary said.
‘You’ll get in trouble.’
Terry looked Gary up and down.
‘Does it scare you?’
He held it towards Gary and stepped forward.
‘Stop pissing about.’
Terry jabbed it in his direction. He laughed.
‘Seriously, fucking stop it.’
Terry moved closer, jabbing the spike towards him.
‘Calm down, mate. It’s only me.’
Gary slapped the outstretched hand away.
‘Get away from me, I mean it.’
‘That supposed to worry me?’
‘No. I’m going.’
‘Good. Because we both know, if I wanted to, I’d put this through your eye.’
He thrust it at Gary again. Gary grabbed at Terry’s wrist. Terry dropped his fag. Both pairs of arms shook. Nobody was laughing.
When Jim woke up he was shaking violently, as though he were about to fall apart. He felt the cold in his bones. His hands had seized up, his knuckles ached. He looked down at them. They were purple. He forced himself up and tried to stretch his hands in an attempt to get the blood flowing, but they’d hardly move. He put them in his pockets. Then he knew. It was gone.
By the time Jim got home, the sky had begun to brighten. He climbed the metal stairwell to his flat at the Dolphin Takeaway. A rat jumped into the discarded chip vat below. He could hear it moving around on the metal surface, then he closed the door. ●