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Authors: Martyn Waites

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BOOK: Born Under Punches
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That was six months ago. Tommy was working his way up Fairbairn's organization. Almost to the top of the pyramid and only eighteen. And doing it with such style.

Cathy came out of the bathroom, bent to slip on her shoes. She stood up.

‘D'you want me to hang around?' she asked. ‘You've got me for the day, if you want.'

Tommy shook his head. He didn't like other people staying in his flat for too long.

Cathy smiled. ‘Mind, you don't say much, do you?' She reached into her bag, took out a card, laid it on the bed. ‘It's been fun,' she said, her voice brittle-bright. ‘If you want to see me again—' she dropped her eyes in a well-practised gesture of fake seduction ‘—call that number.' She walked out, closing the door behind her.

Tommy lay on the bed, staring out of the window at the blue sky.

It won't be dark for hours yet, he thought.

Tony drove, Louise sat beside him, Aztec Camera provided the laid-back Sunday-afternoon soundtrack and they talked and talked.

Louise was from Grimley, a small town on the way to Chester-le-Street. ‘Well, a street with houses behind it, actually,' she explained. Her family were working class, she was at college doing business studies, she shared a flat with Rachel, another student, her older brother Stephen was trying to make a name for himself as a journalist.

Tony's turn, and he told her that he too was from a working-class background; his father had been a miner until he was invalided out. ‘One lungful of dust too many,' he said. He had a brother still at school who hopefully wouldn't have to. ‘Mind, with the strike and everything, it looks like he's not even going to get the chance.' He told her he had just bought himself a flat in a new development in Ponteland.

‘Is that where we're headed now?' she asked.

Tony smiled. After making love on his return from Saltwell Park they had decided to go for a drive. ‘Not yet,' he said with a smile. ‘I thought I'd show you round a bit first.'

‘Where?'

‘Start with my old home town. Coldwell.'

They drove down the main street. The town looked deserted.

‘You'd think they'd dropped the bomb and evacuated the place,' said Louise.

‘It's always like this,' replied Tony. ‘No one here goes out on a Sunday. Day of rest.'

Louise thought of Sunday afternoons back at her parents' house. Harry Secombe's
Highway
, Jim Bowen's
Bullseye.
‘I've always found that kind of thing depressing.'

Tony nodded in agreement.

Louise put Coldwell at about the same size as Gateshead. Although clearly not a prosperous town, it seemed tidy enough, civically well maintained. Lampposts, walls, boarded-up shop windows and advertising hoardings bore the familiar legend, ‘Coal, Not Dole'. She had seen the posters often enough, the miners and their supporters rattling their buckets by Grey's Monument in Newcastle, people walking around with stickers on their lapels, but this was the first time she had ever visited an area directly affected by the strike. She kept looking at the streets. Coldwell didn't just seem quiet, she decided; it felt like the town was holding its breath, waiting for something to happen. Like a medieval fortress under siege, waiting for some robber-baron's armies to attack.

‘What do you think about the strike?' Tony asked her.

‘I think they've got a point,' she replied. ‘But I think they have to be honest. The coal's not going to last for ever. It has to run out sometime.'

‘I know what you mean,' said Tony, not taking his eyes off the road, the streets. ‘This was one of the mines the government wanted closed. But my dad said it was making a profit.'

‘So why close it?'

Tony gave a bitter smile. ‘Politics. Them down there don't like us up here.'

Louise smiled uncertainly. ‘D'you really believe that?'

Tony shrugged. ‘Dunno. Probably. I just wish my dad had had somewhere else to work, that's all.'

They drove without speaking. Roddy Frame singing about the knife whose twists were cruel and hopeless, how neglect had worn it thin.

‘Hey,' said Tony. ‘You hungry? D'you fancy a drink?'

Louise did.

‘Come on, then.'

They drove to a pub in Seaton Sluice with a view of the coastline stretching from St Mary's lighthouse to the Cambois power station. They just made the lunchtime deadline, Tony ordering fish and chips for both of them, since the pub was famous for that. As they settled into their booth, Louise looked around. She stopped dead, drink frozen on the way to her mouth, eyes locked.

‘What's up?' asked Tony.

‘There's our Stephen,' she replied. ‘Me brother.'

Tony looked around to where she was pointing. He saw three men sitting at a table; one older, two younger. One of the younger ones was wearing a faded Levi jacket and matching 501s, a black T-shirt and brown DMs. His dark hair was short at the back and the sides with sideburns and a gelled quiff. He was talking animatedly in an intense, serious manner. He looked, to Tony, like that dickhead from the Smiths.

‘Him there?' asked Tony.

‘Yeah. Let's say hello,' said Louise.

She led him by the hand across the pub to where the three men were sitting, deep in discussion. As they approached, the older man looked up and Tony knew he'd been recognized.

‘Hiya, stranger,' said Louise, her face beaming.

Stephen Larkin looked up, clearly annoyed at being interrupted. When he saw who it was, his annoyance gave way to surprise. ‘Louise. What you doin' here?'

‘Just having some lunch,' she replied. She linked her arm around Tony's. ‘This is Tony.' She looked at him. ‘He's me new boyfriend.'

The smile and the look she gave him, the words she said, gave Tony a good feeling inside.

‘Hello, Tony,' said Larkin. He gestured to the two men with him. ‘This is Dougie an' this is Mick. They're leadin' the strike in Coldwell. I'm writin' about it. Helpin' where I can.' He spoke with the kind of intensity Tony expected.

They all nodded to each other. An embarrassed silence descended on them. The older man broke it.

‘Are you Pat's lad?' he said to Tony. ‘Ian's young ‘un?'

‘Aye,' said Tony, ‘that's me.'

‘You're doin' a grand job. Keep gannin', son. You're bringin' a bit o' pride to us.' The man smiled. ‘Howay the lads.'

Tony laughed, blushed slightly. ‘Thanks. I'll try to. Well,' he said, ‘they'll be bringin' our dinners over soon. We'll leave you in peace. Nice to meet you.'

They said their relieved goodbyes, Tony and Louise retreating to their table.

‘Nice, isn't he?' Louise asked.

Tony looked across to where her brother had resumed his conversation with the two men. The one who had spoken looked over and smiled. Tony smiled back. Louise's brother was talking as if he'd forgotten he had ever been interrupted.

‘Yeah,' said Tony.

Their fish and chips arrived and they ate, talking and laughing their way through the meal.

‘So,' said Tony once they had finished their meals and had another drink, ‘what d'you want to do now?'

Louise smiled. ‘How far's your flat from here?'

Tommy Jobson had worked out with his weights, been running and had a session of sit-ups and press-ups. He had showered, his body feeling toned and powerful, then sat in an armchair, Coke in hand. He didn't drink alcohol. He knew Frank and Dino did – famously so – but he didn't. It kept him sharp, honed. On guard.

He turned the TV on but could find nothing of stimulation or solace. He switched it off again and looked out of the window. It was nearly dark now. He looked around. His flat was minimally furnished, not because of any fashion statement, but because he had hardly anything to put in there. Furniture was functional, the weights were necessary, what LPs and books there were were all Frank and Dino. There was one picture on, the wall – a framed black and white print of the Ratpack in front of the Sands in Vegas circa 1959. Tommy looked at that a lot. It helped him focus. Ignore Joey, Peter, Sammy and the rest, concentrate on Frank and Dino. Keep the deadwood out of his life, concentrate on what was important.

But it wasn't working tonight. He wasn't in the mood. There was something he wanted, some hole to be filled, some need to be catered for. But he didn't know what.

He thought of the girl who had given him the glad eye in the bar at the golf club. Only on the other side of the room, may as well have been on a different planet.

‘I Just Called to Say I Love You'.

He sighed, went into the bedroom, found the card Cathy had left. He checked his wallet for cash, picked up the phone and dialled.

It wasn't what he wanted, but it would fill the need. For now.

4. Now

Davva and Skegs ran as fast as they could, haul clutched in their arms and jackets, shedding bits as they flew out of the newsagent, the Paki owner swearing, screaming and giving chase, down the street, smacking arms, legs and shopping, skipping over a pushchair, getting told to fuck off by the teenager pushing it, into the road laughing, shouting and screaming, drivers swearing, brakes screeching, hearing the Paki give up the chase, then on to the other side and into the mall, knowing the fat old security guard would have a heart attack before he could catch them, dodging and weaving the shoppers, giving V-signs and obscenities to the CCTV cameras as they passed, then banging through the double glass doors, into the car park out back, making straight for the far corner, squeezing between two parked cars, then up and over the wall, trampling flowers as they landed, making for the CCTV blind spot, a wall by the bushes, which they flopped down behind on the grass, flat out, and choked down air.

Chests burning, legs aching, heads light and tingling, they were both exhausted and on a giggly, adrenalin-pumped high. Skegs reached into his jacket to retrieve his haul: two packets of Embassy Regal, one Silk Cut, three Bensons. It looked like beating Davva's haul: two large bars of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut, four chunky Kit-Kats, but when Davva reached into his jacket and pulled out the bottle of Bacardi and the can of lighter fuel, Skegs knew he'd been trumped again.

It pissed him off a bit because even with the booze, Davva's haul had been easier to come by. Skegs's had involved skill, risk, reaching round the counter to make a grab, timing it so he didn't get his arm grabbed and twisted. The Paki had known what they were after the minute they'd walked into his shop, but there was that doubt, that small piece of suspicion that they might be legit customers, so he had played along. But when he turned his back, the fun had started.

Davva halved a bar of Fruit and Nut, handed it to Skegs who was pulling the wrapper from a packet of Bensons, throwing it to the breeze and uncapping the Bacardi. They were getting their breath back, reliving bits of the run to each other. Their haul would keep them going, keep things at bay for a bit.

Skegs, the smaller, more thoughtful and nervous of the two, lit two fags and handed one to Davva. Although the same age, Davva had the street wrapped around him like a filthy blanket; he tried to wear it as a shell. They drew the fags down to the filters, alternating with mouthfuls of chocolate and swigs of burning, bile-inducing Bacardi until the first bar had gone. They looked at each other.

‘What now?' asked Skegs.

Davva shrugged. ‘Dunno.'

Davva reached for another bar of chocolate, halved it. Skegs lit two more fags. They passed the bottle. As they did so, the comedown started, real life folding in on them again, and they lapsed into fidgety silence, smoking, chewing, swigging. Just filling in the day, killing time.

The front door thudded shut like a coffin lid and Louise automatically checked the kitchen clock. Six thirty-five. Bang on time.

The ritual began:

‘Hello, love,' she shouted into the hall. There was a grunted reply, then the sound of her husband making his way into the living room, flopping into an armchair. The TV started up, the local world according to Mike Neville.

Louise walked to the foot of the stairs and shouted up: ‘Dinner's ready, Ben, Suzy.' She walked into the front room, looked at her husband. It was hard to believe he had just walked through the front door, the armchair seeming to have osmotically absorbed him.

‘What's for dinner?' he asked, not removing his eyes from the screen.

‘Pot roast.'

‘With what?'

‘Vegetables.'

Her husband turned to look at her. Louise was struck once again by how tired he looked. His sandy hair now absent from the top of his head, his eyes sunken and dark-rimmed, his mouth – always weak and pinched – now ineffectually disguised by a moustache. Whereas most men spread out as they got older, thought Louise, he seemed to have contracted, hardened.

‘What kind?' he asked. ‘Parsnips?'

Louise sighed, swatting something away from her eye with a finger. ‘Yes, Keith. I've made parsnips.'

‘Good,' he said, his eyes returning to the TV.

They sat around the dining room table, Louise, Keith and Ben. A place was set for Suzanne, but she hadn't shown. It wasn't unusual.

The meal commenced in silence.

‘I had a visitor today,' said Louise between mouthfuls.

Keith made a non-committal sound.

‘My brother Stephen.'

Keith looked up. Something unpleasant flitted across his face before settling back into pinched repose. ‘What did he want?'

‘Doing some work in the area. Popped in to see me.'

Keith let out a sound that managed to be both sneer and snort. ‘What now? Whingeing on about how dole scroungers can't get jobs because they were all abused as children?' He gave a short, hard laugh.

Ben gave a skittery glance from his dinner, like a tortoise peeking nervously out of its shell, ready to withdraw at any time.

BOOK: Born Under Punches
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