© Shane Gladstone
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The East Lancs road on a Friday night feels like the end of the world. Rain hammers the windscreen as cars plough through petrol-flecked puddles, glimmering like muddy rainbows without pots of gold.
We pull off the main road and onto an estate that feels like a dilapidated fortress of some fallen empire – streets lined with peddle-dashed council houses and feral kids hanging around outside dilapidated shops.
‘I don’t know about this,’ I say to Noel.
‘It feels too heavy – driving on to Norris Green, knocking at some bloke’s house.’
‘We’ll be there in five minutes,’ he says. ‘Just shut your gob and relax. Here, have a ciggie.’
He pulls a fag from a fresh deck of 20 Regal and stuffs it between my lips as I drive. Noel’s acting the hard man. But he’s fooling no one. We go to the right clubs, wear the right jeans, but we’re definitely not hard.
‘Think this is us,’ Noel says, looking at a scrap of paper.
The garden of number 11 is scruffy – the lawn’s not been mowed in months, there are a couple of plastic kids’ toys covered in mildew. An old fridge sits at the bottom of the garden. But we knock anyway. The door’s flung open.
‘All right, boys,’ says a scally bloke, ‘fucking come in quick or you’ll have them curtains twitching over the road. Come ead, get in.’
We follow him into the house.
‘Sorry about that. Neighbourhood Watch,’ he says, grinning. ‘Me name’s Gaz.’
He’s wearing a navy Lacoste shell suit with the jacket unzipped. A heavy curb chain twinkles in the hallway light. His face is pale, blotchy.
‘As much as I’d like to stand here chatting shit with you all night, I’m a busy man. Have you got the cash?’ he says.
‘Have you got the gear?’ Noel replies.
I can’t believe Noel’s being so cocky, and I whisper ‘dickhead’ and scowl. I try to focus on a line of school photos leading up the stair wall to avoid eye contact with Gaz. They show knee-high Gaz pulling a cheeky face; baby Gaz in a nappy with flabby legs. But there’s one picture that really rattles me: a little girl with blonde hair and gappy teeth.
I wasn’t expecting to see such normality here, in a dealer’s house, and I feel mad at him for showing me it and mad at myself for taking part in it. We normally buy our drugs from shadowy figures in club toilets, or phone for them to be delivered in the same way you would a pizza. These clinical transactions are over in minutes, seconds. I’ve never thought of the people behind the drugs – whether the bloke in the car outside has a kid, or whether the geezer down the alley is flogging coke to pay for nappies.
It may sound naive, but that’s just the way it is.
I glance around quickly. Shoes in the shoe rack, a kid’s jacket hung on the stair bannister, wet clothes drying over the radiator. Bills and magnetic alphabet letters stuck on the fridge door.
It’s like a normal family home. The carpet’s a bit threadbare, the walls in need of a lick of paint. It’s a bit scruffy, but normal. Scarface and Tony Montana it is not.
But then I think about people knocking at all hours, and threat of potential violence hanging in the air. It’s no place for a kid to be living.
And the girl on the wall reminds of someone I love, who I wasn’t there for when she needed me. From nowhere memories fizz and crack inside my mind: brilliant sun shimmering off white hair. Happiness.
And I wonder what I’m doing here. In this house. In this city. Living a completely different life. When I know I should be somewhere else, looking after those I left behind.
Post-traumatic stress, the doctor had called it.
It was like he was numb – his mind was always somewhere else, no matter what you said. Sometimes I’d be asking him a question about school, and he’d have this blank look etched on his face, his hands gripping a mug of tea as he stared into the void. Mum would come and usher me away, telling me to stop bothering him and to go and watch telly. I’d wander in to the living room and sit against the wall next to the fireplace, my chin resting on my knees and eyes blinking at the flickering images on the screen, wondering why my dad didn’t want to know.
‘Oi, dickhead. What’s the problem? What you staring at?’ Gaz says.
I’d slipped into a daydream; something I’ve always been prone to. And something that generally gets me into bother. Now the hallway seems colder, darker. Like a chill wind is blowing through. Gaz comes closer, clicking his fingers in my face – once then twice.
‘I invite you down here to do a bit of business, and you look down your nose at me? You don’t even fucking know me.’
I say nothing, but I’m fucking scared.
I can feel his warm breath on my face. It’s like someone’s flipped a switch: on to off, light to dark. From nowhere, and without any run up, he head butts me hard across the nose. Fuck does it hurt. But his technique is impressive.
I stagger back and fall to the floor quite pathetically. Noel crouches protectively over me. He’s not going to get much of a fight from either of us.
Gaz boots Noel in the stomach, and then crouches down to punch us.
But he doesn’t.
Instead I hear muffled cries, and someone sniffling, wailing under their breath.
‘Fucking hell’ Gaz says. ‘Yer just a pair of soft cunts. What you even doing here?’
He slides down the wall and puts his head into his hands.
‘Do you think this is how I want to live? What I want from life? Knocking out gear to cunts like you?
‘It’s easy for youse two. Fucking university educations more than like. Mum and dad at home. Yeah, you’ve got your nice clothes, girlfriends; your whole lives mapped out for you. You think you’ll just spend a year or so getting fucked, and it’s okay – normal. You’re just getting it out of your system and all that.’
Noel and I stay silent, part terrified part transfixed by his clarity of thought – his understanding of the game of life. His ability to break a man’s nose from a standing point.
‘But it wasn’t like that for me. Dad dead by the time I was 15. Mum done one – comes back whenever she feels like it. Left with me little sister to look after.
‘We had no one, nothing. Left to fend for ourselves,’ he says to no one in particular.
And then I notice another picture on the wall. A youngish bloke looking proud in an army uniform. A young lad on his knee. And it clicks. Even though he’s just head butted me – fucking hard – I want to talk to him.
‘Where did your dad serve? Was it the Gulf?’
He snaps his head to me sharply, like a fighting dog baying for blood.
‘My dad was there too,’ I say before he can speak - staring at a fixed point on the woodchip wall. Mind a chaotic whirl.
Then I start talking. No one’s asked me to, and I don’t even properly realise I’m doing it – it just comes out.
‘Before he went he used to lark around with me, take me to the football. I can remember sipping Bovril from a flask on the terraces on cold, damp November afternoons. The best days.
‘After, there was nothing. He was like a shell – all empty and hollow: echoes of a life lost – empty like the sounds of the sea.’
For the first time I notice the TV’s on in the other room: the sound of football pundits’ banter. Too quiet to hear what they’re saying. Just noise.
Gaz starts speaking but stays still, his head still firmly planted in his hands.
‘Mum tried to be there for him, to get him through it. But he was gone. I remember the screams in the dead of night, the sound of him crying. Shouting out people’s names.
‘Up all night, always. Sat by the fire.
‘Then one day, I cam home from school. He wasn’t there. Mum was sat at the kitchen table, crying. I remember the house feeling different. Empty.’
I barely know this man, yet I can see in his eyes that he’s haunted by it: failing to connect with the man he loved and respected most. And I know how he feels. Because I couldn’t get through either - no one could really.
As I got older I started to understand more; that when I was asking him about sums and spellings he was thousands of miles away, in the midst of a bloody battle. I remember watching the news reports and not understanding: burly men in khaki uniforms; tanks racing across flat plains of sand; the oil fields of Kuwait blazing thousands of feet into the air, creating visions of some apocalyptic hell.
It was like a film – but he was there, among it – holding onto the hands of friends blown apart by gunfire, wiping away tears from their sooty faces.
Noel stays silent, the bravado of the car long forgotten. Him listening, nodding and trying to not breathe loudly.
I nod at him, then look at Gaz.
‘So what did you do after he, after your dad, after you lost him. After he died?’ I say.
‘The only thing I could. Took charge. Fucked school right off,’ Gaz says.
‘Someone had to earn, to bring in some money. I’d got a job at a supermarket see. But the money, it just wasn’t enough. And now here I am.
‘What a fucking mess hey?’
‘No wonder you’re judging me. I’d probably do the same,’ he says, the last bit quiet, muttered under his breath.
I pull myself up and walk across to where he is. Slide down the wall so I’m crouched next to him. I don’t feel scared of him anymore.
‘You stayed. You stayed and you did your bit. To help, to put food on the table. To look after your kid sister. It wasn’t perfect, no one’s saying that,’ I say.
He lifts his head from his hands, eyes bloodshot to fuck. But open, massive, staring at me.
‘That’s more than I did,’ I say.
‘I left, ran away. Just left them all to get on with it. What kind of son am I? To run when they needed me most.’
‘What about your dad?’ Gaz says. ‘Did he, you know, did he top himself too?’
I shake my head, realising I’m crying too.
‘No, he didn’t,’ I reply.
‘He’s still there, staring out of the window. Keeping mum up half the night. Me little sister not knowing what’s going on – where her brother’s fucked off too, or whether he’s ever coming back. And I’m poncing about here, miles from home. Pretending none of them exist. Getting nutted by wankers like you.’
He laughs, and shrugs his shoulders as if to say ‘fair enough’.
Gaz pulls a pack of fags out, takes two and passes me one. He pulls hard on it, before breathing out a fat plume of smoke.
‘It’s not too late, you know. You can still help your dad,’ he says.
‘I can’t do that, that option isn’t there for me no more. My dad, god rest his soul, ain’t never coming back. And that’s something I’ve got to live with – every day.
‘He won’t see my kids. Won’t see me get my shit together finally. Won’t see my get married.’
He stands and walks around the room, peers through the curtains and walks back.
‘But you can have that, those things. Help your mum and sister to help your dad get through it. You can be his army. If you want it.’