Bleak North - The Website of Author, BARRY LITHERLAND

                                             FIRST CHAPTERS

 

1.  THE HAND OF RONAN HAWKE

 

 

Davy slipped out of the dark alleyway and didn’t look round. At this time of night, the Glasgow street was only dimly lit. There were just a few people about, probably heading home after a night in the clubs and bars in the city centre. A solitary car passed him, its headlights momentarily lighting up windows and doors, while streetlights cast a reflected glow in pools of recently fallen rain. A heavy sky glowered overhead and the air was still. It was after two.

Davy remembered his instructions. He pulled his hood over his eyes and kept his head down. He looked like any other lad after a night out with the boys – blue jeans, a dark hooded coat - like he belonged on those streets, a creature of the night hurrying to his burrow.

‘There are three cameras on the road but they won’t identify you if you don’t look for them. Keep your head down and your hood up. Turn down the second street on your right. There’s another camera on the corner and another outside the club. That’s the one to avoid. It’s monitored from inside.’

 

 

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He crossed the first junction and walked quickly towards the second. It was silent at that time of night and full of shadows. The buildings were all in darkness, their doorways drawing back into deeper dark to hide their secrets. Halfway along the narrow street, dull lights emerged from one building. As he stepped towards it he could hear music from within. He slipped into a doorway on the left, some distance short of the entrance.

Now he had to wait.

He knew what happened within those doors, inside that club. The man who’d hired him had told him. He knew the sort of people who went there, rich people who could do what they wanted because they had money and power and friends. He had none of those things. The man knew that and he was going to help him. This was his way out, his way up.

His eyes narrowed and his hunched shoulder tightened. He held the leather-strapped gun grip and pushed it deeper into the pocket of his coat. He glanced at his watch – two twenty-five. ‘Two thirty,’ the man had said, the man who called himself Mr. Smith. ‘He’ll come out at two thirty and he’ll turn to walk to the main road. He’ll be alone.’

Well, you don’t advertise those sorts of habits, do you, not when you’re in his sort of position and come from a country like his? He wouldn’t last long if they knew back home. No wonder people wanted him dead; they weren’t fit to live, his sort. Mr. Smith had told him everything. He said he trusted him.

‘He deserves to die,’ Davy told himself now. He said it again and again. Davy knew all about people like him. Even without the other crimes Mr. Smith told him about, he deserved to die.

Still, as the moment came closer, his hands were trembling and he was sweating. Fear gnawed his stomach. For a moment he wanted to turn away and run and forget the whole thing. For a moment he wondered what the hell he was doing out there in the early hours of the morning, with a gun in his pocket, waiting to pull the trigger and kill a man. Christ, he was seventeen – what was he thinking?

Then he remembered he was being paid and he remembered the man who was paying and he knew he had no alternative. He’d made his choice. His life would be worth nothing if he failed. He gripped the gun tightly and shrugged away his doubts.

A door opened down the street and light and sound belched momentarily from inside. There were some hurried words; he heard a deep, foreign voice. Then the door closed and someone turned to walk towards him. The boy drew himself into the darkness and slipped the gun from his pocket.

His heart was beating faster now and his breath came in quick bursts. He was no longer just trembling, his whole body shook and the strength had gone from his arms and legs.

 

‘I can’t do it,’ he told himself. ‘I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.’

Then he remembered how Mr. Smith became suddenly very fucking scary and how he described the fate that awaited him if he failed, and he remembered that home wasn’t worth going to and he saw the target pass him, a swarthy, corpulent figure, swaggering towards the main road, oozing self-importance, indifference and power. Hate surged like phlegm to his throat and he blocked out the consequences. He stepped out of the darkness. He took steady aim and he fired.

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2      TURBULENCE

Hannah stood by the kitchen window, her hands resting on the polished granite worktop. It was her second spring in the house and the silver birches she planted were breaking into leaf. Daffodils flourished below them and beside a path which curved between shrubs and lawns. There were vegetables too, by the fence to her right, though not growing yet - just shoots. The lawns were fresh from their first cut. A child’s empty swing hung motionless.

Joe stood behind her next to the door which led to the hallway and the front door, ready to leave, an old canvas backpack beside him on the floor.

‘I’ve got to go,’ he said.

‘I know.’

She didn’t look at him. She stared out through the window at nothing in particular, vaguely aware of cattle steaming in the field away to her right beyond the fence. The pasture rose towards a copse of trees. Beyond lay a farm, a lane and a distant horizon.  

‘What will you tell the children?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know. I’ll think of something.’

‘Tell them I’m sorry. Tell them I wish...’

She turned round and looked at him.

‘No, I won’t tell them that. Maybe I’ll just tell them the truth. Maybe it’s time. Maybe they’re old enough now.’

‘Which truth is that?’

She shrugged. ‘The simple one maybe.’

But seven and nine years old; could that ever be old enough to know?

She shook her head to drive away the thought. ‘I’ll think of something.’

The sun emerged from behind the clouds. Mottled foliage was shadowed on the wall; on her face too.

‘Tell them I’m sorry I couldn’t say goodbye. Say I kissed them while they were asleep.’

‘Where will you go?’

‘I’ll just keep on the move. I’ll drift up towards my brother’s cottage in the north. Alan will take me in for a while. Maybe they’ll get tired and leave us alone.’

‘You think so?’

‘No, but I hope so.’

‘I’m tired, Joe, really tired. We’ve got the children to think of. We’ve got a home. My father says we can live here as long as we like but we can’t always be running away. They said it would be okay when the trial was over and they were sentenced - but it wasn’t. Then they told us that things would settle if you went away so you left and we were alone. We moved here and we waited and waited and eventually they said we were safe again so you came home. But now...’

‘I know.’

‘How did they find you?’

‘Someone told them.’

‘Someone always tells them.’

‘People believe the lies they tell.’

‘Why won’t they leave us alone?’

She turned and looked back into the garden at the side of the house. A gentle breeze rippled the leaves. He crossed the kitchen and stood behind her. He put his hands on her shoulders and she leaned back against him.

‘The phone call was awful. I knew it was him - Caine - the way he laughed.’ She shuddered. ‘He knew you were here.’

‘I’ll phone from Alan’s. I’ve got to go, Hannah, before the girls wake. There’d be too much explaining – and tears.’

‘Why do they hate us so much?’

He kissed her hair and spoke to her gently. ‘You know why.’ He paused for a moment. ‘It’s like we were walking down a country lane – all of us together. The sun was out and there was a cool breeze and it was just right, you know. There were birds and butterflies in the hedgerow and deer across the field over by the trees’ edge. That was our life. Everything was perfect, just perfect.

‘Then we came to a junction and suddenly we were scared. We could turn left or just go straight on. We knew that left was the harder way but it was the way we ought to choose, even though it was tangled and overgrown and we couldn’t see where it led. Straight on it looked like nothing would change, just the same country lane going on forever.’

‘You turned left, Joe. You always turn left.’

‘I know. I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry. I’m not. It’ll be over one day, though, won’t it? Promise me.’

‘One day,’ he said, ‘I promise.’

She turned towards him and rested her head on his chest.

This time they’re really close, aren’t they? They know you’re alive and they know you’re here.’

‘Yes.’

‘It was worth it, Joe, wasn’t it?’

She raised her eyes to look at him, wanting reassurance. Round eyes, overflowing, blue beneath the tears like sky reflected in ice.

‘Sometimes I wish I’d taken the easy path.’

‘Me too.’

He held her close for a minute, and then another, harder minute, and then he took her arms and pushed her gently away.

‘If I don’t go now, I’ll never.’

He walked to the door and picked up his backpack, slinging it over his shoulder and turning the handle of the kitchen door.

‘If they catch you, will they kill you?’

He tried a smile. ‘They’ve got to catch me first.’

‘I know, but will they?’

‘You know the answer.’

‘We’ve got to be honest, always. It’s the only way I can manage.’

He paused. ‘Yes. Yes, they will. They’ll never forgive me for what I did or what I am. But they won’t catch me and sooner or later they’ll stop and then I’ll come home. See if I don’t.’

‘Promise?’

‘Cross my heart.’

‘Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.’

‘I’ve got to go. I’ll phone when I can.’

She turned back to the window and the garden, the child’s swing moving gently now in a sudden breeze as if recently vacated, the honeysuckle, not yet in fragrant bloom, twining round the fence. She heard the door close.

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3    WAVES BREAK (ON UNKNOWN SHORES)

 

I drop him on the sofa and go through to make coffee. The cups are on a rack, and they gleam. I’m fussy when it comes to cups. There are lots of places where I’d rather die of thirst than use the crockery, but I wouldn’t at Wayne’s. The worktop is wiped clean, there are no teaspoons lying by the sink, and there are no coffee granules in the sugar.

By the time I get back, he’s sitting watching rugby as if nothing had happened. Congealed blood on his nose and lips, swollen eye, bruising, and he’s watching the rugby. And that’s how we spend the rest of the evening, watching rugby like two normal guys after a night out.

This is how it is about once every couple of months. I wish I could see it coming but I can’t. There are no tell-tale signs, at least not until the fifth pint when something like a black cloud descends. Then I know alright. But by then it’s too late.

I wonder why Wayne and I are friends. I’m always wondering that. It’s not as if we have much in common except a long history and a death, though I suppose a death is a strong sort of bond when you think about it, especially a death like that.

Still, our friendship does go way back, like the beginning of this story.

‘See him? See that guy over there? The bastard’s staring at me – the guy drinking red wine at the table by the window. See him?’

‘Sit down, Wayne. No one’s staring at you. Look at the girl he’s with. Why would he look at you?’

‘See that! He looks this way then starts smirking and laughing with his mates; now they’re all laughing.’

‘Sit down and finish your drink. No one’s looking at you.’

Wayne sits down for a minute, but his eyes slip back to the group by the window. The landlord glances at me. I know what he’s telling me. Get him under control or get him out of here. Through the mirrors behind the optics and the glass shelves, I watch the scene as if I’m outside looking in – which is pretty much where I want to be right now.

For a moment, Wayne is calm, and I think maybe we’re okay, but then up he chirps again.

‘He’s wearing a waistcoat.’

‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

Wayne is loud now, and people are staring at us. A couple move towards the end of the bar, near the door, just in case. Two young guys watch and grin. Sitting alone, a familiar-looking, heavy guy with tattoos and stubble glances up from his Daily Mail. He has the Neanderthal look of a man whose lips move as he reads; he’s not a man you’d want to sit too close to.

The barman leans over and speaks: ‘Get him out of here,’ he mutters.

Easier said than done; Wayne is a limpet.

 

‘Come on, Wayne, let’s get out of here, get a game of snooker maybe, or a Chinese?’

‘He’s wearing a waistcoat, and he thinks he can laugh at me.’

‘It’s a waistcoat, not a City top, and he’s not laughing.’

‘Bastard.’

Now he stands up, swaying a little, holding the edge of the bar.

‘You,’ he yells, ‘fucker in the waistcoat, are you a City supporter?’

He lurches aggressively forward towards the table. The pretty girl looks anxious, the guy in the waistcoat bewildered and, unsurprisingly, embarrassed. The rest of the party inch back, the men gathering space to move if they need to. The women are ready to shout abuse or leave. Everyone is staring.

‘Are you looking at me?’

The guy looks at his friends, maybe for reassurance.

‘I am now,’ he says, with a nervous, half laugh.

I wince. That was a mistake. Humour goes right over Wayne when he’s in this mood, stratospheric. His eyes are heavy and bleary and he’s swaying to and fro, but he’s fixed the waistcoat with a stare and he won’t let go.

‘Why the hell,’ he grunts, ‘are you wearing a waistcoat?’ He snorts a strangled laugh and looks around the bar for support. There is none. Mostly people turn away, find something they urgently need to talk about, and avoid eye contact.

The door closes behind the nervous couple. Others are reaching for their coats.

‘Come on, Wayne.’ I drag at his arm, but it’s like trying to weigh an anchor. He pulls away and stumbles against the table, and a drink slops onto the pretty girl. She screams and the guy clambers to his feet, defensive mode, protecting what’s his, alpha male, which is pretty much what Wayne wants.

Nothing ever goes well from here.

Wayne assumes an aggressive stance.

‘Guy in the waistcoat thinks he’s tough,’ he slurs and snorts.

Trouble is that anyone is a tough guy compared to Wayne in this condition. Anyone who can stand upright and focus for long enough to throw a punch is a tough guy. This one is tall and athletic, and, to make matters worse, the landlord has thrown a towel on the bar and is coming over. He looks seriously pissed. Anyone who isn’t Wayne can see how this will end.

The trouble with Wayne is he doesn’t know when to stay down. No matter how many times he gets hit, he always stands up again. He’s had a lot of practice, even back in primary school when I first met him. Nobody could ever really beat him because he always came back, until his opponents got bored and walked away.

‘They’re too scared to fight me,’ he would crow, eyes bruised, lips cut and swollen. ‘They can’t beat me,’ which was true, after a fashion.

Twenty minutes later, Wayne and I are limping along the town street towards Wayne’s flat. He’s bleeding from nose and mouth, but he’s laughing too. I’m not laughing. That’s another pub from which I’m temporarily barred on account of Wayne. There aren’t many left, and this is a seaside town with a lot of bars.

‘You’re going to get yourself killed,’ I mutter.

‘I beat the fucker though, didn’t I?’ he laughs.

‘Yeah, I could see the look of defeat on his face as he stepped over you on his way out.’

‘He couldn’t keep me down, though,’ he says, which again is true enough.

‘Let’s go to the new Thai restaurant.’ He stops in the middle of the road and grabs my arm as if he’s just had the best idea in the world. ‘Let’s celebrate.’

‘Celebrate what?’

‘My victory!’

Now he dances drunkenly in the street, shadow boxing. A car swerves past him and the driver swears. He turns and feigns a punch or two at me. I duck and get an arm round his shoulder so I can direct him towards the pavement.

I talk him out of the Thai restaurant with the offer of a pizza when we get back. He’s compliant now he’s got out of his system whatever it was that was in there.

So, I’ve got my arm round Wayne and I’m half dragging him up the stairs to his flat. The lift is out of order again but that’s no surprise. The surprise is when it’s working. I don’t use it even then. That lift is either broken or about to break, and about to break is worse.

The flat is on the second floor, which is not so bad unless you’re lumbering up there with a drunk on your shoulder. He stops to urinate. I glance down the concrete stairs and then up ahead. This might not be a select neighbourhood, but people still don’t want you urinating on the stairs.

They’ve got standards.

Well, some of them have.

Wayne’s flat is surprisingly tidy. I’ve never been able to understand that. There are no clothes scattered on the floor and there’s no unwashed crockery in the sink. The carpet is clean and recently vacuumed, and the furniture, albeit sparse, is spotless. How come an aggressive binge drinker like Wayne has the energy or the commitment to clean and tidy? I just don’t get it. And there are books, lots of them. I wonder when that started. It was probably when Tina Oldfield entered our lives.

It’s the same with his work. I don’t think Wayne has missed a day in four years. It’s nothing special, just a factory job, food processing, but he started off part time then they took him on full time, quite an achievement during times of austerity when the best you can hope for is a sixteen-hour contract.

Politicians are bastards. Conservative politicians are the biggest bastards of all.

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