“It’s sad the way he’s turned out.”
Elvis and I were in the Bungalow Café having a coffee. I looked out over the harbour and towards the lighthouse. The sea was quite choppy, but inside the harbour walls it remained calm. Tim was outside taking photos of the sea. He had changed since I went away. It was rumoured that he had spent some time in Cherry Knowles mental home.
“What happened to him?” I said. “He was great when we were kids, always looking out for us.”
“I’m not sure. He lost his job at the shipyards and seemed to decline from there. He went silent on us, barely ever speaks.”
It was sad to see someone we all looked up to as kids turn out like this.
“Do you remember this?” I said as I removed a ticket from my wallet.
“Newcastle City Hall, Eleventh March Nineteen Eighty-One,” said Elvis. “Still the best concert I’ve ever seen. Why have you kept the ticket?”
“Memento I suppose, a reminder of how things used to be.” I replaced the ticket in my wallet.
“In the years before Kevin Davison you mean?”
“Maybe. Is there nothing we can do to help Tim? It hurts me to see him like this.”
“I tried a few years ago. I offered him a job in the shop, lugging boxes and stuff. I couldn’t afford it, but I think I owed him that much. He turned it down. Although he’s gone silent, he hasn’t lost his marbles, far from it. He’s decided not to bother with anyone, chosen to opt out. Don’t let anyone tell you that he’s been in Cherry Knocker, it’s not true.”
“If that’s how he wants it I suppose there’s nothing we can do but keep an eye out for him.”
I watched Tim adjust the camera lens and take a photo of the lighthouse.
There was a fishing boat returning into the harbour, riding the waves like some giant bucking bronco.
“He drinks in The Whistle if you want to see him,” said Elvis, “I try to avoid it because Davison’s gang drink there.”
“I might pop in to see him, I’m sure there must be something I can do for him.”
“You could help him with his dress sense, look at him.”
We watched Tim for a while.
“Do you think he’s under the impression that he looks smart or is he just taking the piss?” I was glad that Elvis had lightened the mood a little.
“I think he has it sussed. Shirt and tie, V-neck jumper, suit jacket, different coloured trousers and a pair of trainers. It’s certainly a look,” I said.
“Looking forward to Friday?” Elvis said.
“Yeah, should be a good laugh.”
“We’ll see. I’ve got to get home for my tea and then I’m going to have a look for my old sta-press. I’m sure I’ll still fit into them.”
“Can’t wait to see it. Catch you later.”
I watched Elvis leave, Tim was still snapping away. I sat back, looked out towards the lighthouse and contemplated what I was about to do.
“For years, all I ever wanted to be was popular. Then I realised that it would never happen,” I said, “nobody can be truly popular.”
The sun was reflecting off the ripples on the sea. The downpour had gone as soon as it had arrived. Seagulls circled above us as Claire and I sat on the balcony of the lighthouse. She had popped around to make sure I was still going to the reunion.
“In your lifetime you’ll have two, three if you’re lucky, people who really like you, people who genuinely think the world of you,” I said. “Everybody else will treat you with varying degrees of contempt. There may be some who say they like you, but nine times out of ten, they don’t know the real you. It’s just a superficial show that’s put on for the crowd.”
“That’s a very cynical view of life,” said Claire.
She had covered her bruising with makeup, but you could still make out where Kev had smacked her. She seemed on edge.
“Life gets you like that. You can be respected, that’s one thing. Unlikely, but it is an option. Then you can be feared. Fear can be dressed up however you like it. Fear can look like respect and it is often passed off as popularity, but it is only when you know the difference that you can control it. Popularity is unobtainable, it’s time to be feared.”
“Is this just you, or have you written off the whole human race?”
“Everyone. Go on see if you can name one person who is popular. Someone who isn’t despised by as many people as those who claim to love him.”
“Santa Claus.” Claire had a satisfied grin on her face. “Everyone loves good, old Father Christmas.”
“Too easy. The Catholic Church hates him. They think he’s the Devil.”
“All right then, The Pope. The Catholic Church can’t hate him.”
“He is the Devil, head of the biggest criminal organisation in the world. Do as I say or go to hell. I think that one qualifies as fear.”
“Fair enough, you have a point. It doesn’t mean that you should give up. I still like you.” Claire tried to lighten the conversation.
“You haven’t seen me for fifteen years.”
“That means that you haven’t done anything in the last fifteen years for me to stop liking you.” She knew she was beginning to get the upper hand.
“Give it time.”
“That’s no way to treat an old friend.”
“Best to know now to avoid disappointment later.”
“I’ll take my chances. Come on, you grumpy old bugger. Walk me home?” Claire took my hand.“ You can try all you like, Peter Wood. You’ll never be feared. You’re too likeable,” said Claire. “Can I ask you something?” She looked straight into my eyes. “Why did you come home, Pete?”
“Come on, let’s get you home before your incredibly popular husband notices you’re missing and decides to spread some fear around.”
A light breeze put a slight chill in the air and it had started to become overcast again, the night was beginning to draw in. We watched the seagulls swirl in the air above the white patches in the waves. A cargo ship had left the harbour and was now turning left for the trip towards Norway.
“I had a dream last night,” I said as I put on my coat, “I’m not sure what to make of it.”
Claire had sat back down in the armchair, reluctant to leave. She was wearing a camel coloured, woollen coat to protect her from the wind.
“When we are sat here, we can watch the birds flying, soaring into the sky without a care in the world. Occasionally when they are swirling around the top of the lighthouse, they don’t see the glass. They try and fly straight through it. There’s a thud and they fall to the ground. It’s quite unnerving the first time you see it.”
“That’s terrible. Do they survive?”
“Most of the time they’re just stunned and fly off, until this morning that is. I was in that dozing state just before you wake. They say that’s when most dreams occur. Anyway, while I was sleeping this seagull flew straight into the glass. The noise must have woken me, that’s when the dream happened. In the split second before I woke, it wasn’t a bird banging on the glass; it was the hand of the Grim Reaper I saw, the hand of Death. It was a bony, slender claw protruding out of a black sleeve. It shook me up a little bit.”
“What do you think it meant?” she said.
“I don’t know. It could mean nothing, it could mean everything.”
“You’ve had a rough time since you came home. Maybe it’s the stress of everything getting on top of you. You should relax more, you’re really uptight.” Claire walked behind me and massaged my shoulders through my jumper. “You’re in knots.”
“You could be right.” I placed my left hand on hers and smiled. “When I got out of bed I came out onto the balcony. There was a seagull lying here, its neck was broken. Maybe that’s what it was all about. Maybe Death had come to take away the bird. Who knows?”
I looked up at Claire and thought about kissing her; it somehow didn’t seem like the right moment. She gave my shoulder one last squeeze and sat back down.
We stayed there for another hour, not really saying anything. Eventually Claire decided that she had to leave. “Don’t worry about the dream. You’re not going to die. I’m not going to let you get away that easily.” She kissed me on top of the head and ran her hand through my hair. “I want to see you tonight, Pete. Don’t go anywhere.”
I stood and took her hand in mine. I looked straight into her emerald eyes and gave her hand a squeeze.
As we walked back along the pier I noticed a lone fisherman. The pier was now private property and fishing was prohibited. I considered asking him to move on, but he had possibly been fishing there for years. Who was I to take that away from him?
Claire placed her arm around me. The orange glow of the streetlights and the fret coming in from the sea combined to form a luminous haze.
“Do you never miss seeing the stars?” I asked her. “Do you not wish that you could lie back in the grass and stare into the evening sky without this orange glow? I used to do that quite a lot, completely lose myself in my thoughts. Better than any drugs, better than any religion.”
“And you would know, would you?” she challenged.
“Surely the point of religion, the chief selling point, is freedom. To be alone with your thoughts with no distractions is the greatest freedom. That’s why people are never happy when they are together. You can only be truly happy when you are alone. The happy couple is a myth.”
“You can be a miserable bugger at times. I thought we were having a good time. These last two weeks have been special to me. Obviously, you don’t feel the same. Someone must have really hurt you once for you to be so bitter.”
“I’m not bitter, just realistic. Why build yourself up to be knocked back down again.” I put my hands in my pockets.
“That’s it, isn’t it? You don’t believe any of that crap. It’s another one of your little self-defence mechanisms. Don’t let anyone get close because you’ll only get hurt. That’s bollocks and you know it.” Claire was surprised at how angry she had become.
“I think you’ve just proved my point. If you were alone, you wouldn’t be having this argument. Unless you were hearing voices and then I suppose you wouldn’t be truly alone.”
“Okay I give in. You win we’re all going to lead miserable unproductive lives and die unhappy. Now can we try and enjoy this walk along the seafront before the rain comes and spoils it.”
“I quite like the rain.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Claire.
We walked for about ten minutes in complete silence, quietly enjoying each other’s company.
“I’ve got to go. His Majesty will be expecting his tea by now. See you tonight.”
Claire headed across the road, past the concrete lions and up the garden path. I looked out to sea, not long now.
Tomma knew it was all coming on top sooner or later; he’d had a good innings and now was the time to get out. He’d planned it from the start and now he had enough money to move to Oz and disappear. Not as much as he had hoped, but that was unavoidable. He had managed to skim that money from Ingham, but that meant his need to get away all the more urgent. There were a couple of loose ends to tie up and then he’d be away.
Tomma didn’t feel sorry for Kev; he’s had it coming. He did murder Nick Couzens after all. Whether he had the right motive is irrelevant. He was still the man with the knife. A little phone call just before he boarded the plane would have Carter and the wooden tops pissing themselves with excitement.
“Fuck Davison, fuck Ingham, fuck everyone.”
Tomma knew that disappearing would make him look like a bad person; he didn’t care. All he wanted was to be liked, to be popular. Then life got in the way, people got in the way, so they had to be removed. He was thirty-one years old and this was the first time he had done something that was for him alone. He’d been living in Davison’s pocket for the last twenty years, it was time to move on. This would be his last time in The Whistle with the lads. He fingered the wrap of cocaine in his hand. Yes, tonight was going to be a good one and he was determined to enjoy it.
I could sense that something was about to go off. I also knew that when it did, I had to move fast. I realised that none of the lads trusted me but as I was on good terms with Ingham, I was tolerated. Tomma remembered me from school and I think he had noticed how close me and Claire had become, even if Kev hadn’t. When it did go off I wasn’t expecting it but believe me, I moved quicker than I ever have before.
I’d only gone into The Whistle for a quiet pint before the reunion. Hopefully I would get to have a word with Tim. He was at the bar and nodded in acknowledgement as I came in. I suddenly found myself without anything to say to him. He carried a camera around his neck, but everybody knew that it had no film in it. At worst the lads saw him as a minor irritation when he was pretending to take photos; most of the time he was seen as comical character, someone to take the piss out of.
This particular Friday had started like any other for them, most of the lads meeting in The Whistle after work for a few beers before hitting the Town.
Kev was missing but that wasn’t unusual, he was probably sorting some business. The lads always had a reputation as trouble, everyone has to have a local and The Whistle was theirs, a few high jinks but nothing over the top. Big Dave the landlord used to work with my dad and I was surprised that he tolerated them. He explained that business was business and he couldn’t afford to kick them out. Especially as he didn’t want the repercussions. He also expressed surprise that I mixed with the likes of Ingham. I explained but I’m not sure he believed me.
I took my pint and sat in the corner under the window. Some of the lads nodded in my direction although none made the effort to speak. I watched them perform their usual antics. Levis copies were sold out of a large holdall, tales of female conquests were relived, loud enough for everyone to hear. Everything appeared normal, except for Tomma. I thought about giving him an invite for tonight then thought again. If he wanted one, he could ask. He seemed to be on edge. Tim was taking snaps, all the lads were posing, some with spliff in hand others lining up the Charlie in the back room. I don’t know whether Tomma suspected something was up however he took too much of an interest in Tim’s camera.
Everybody thinks that Tim is a gentle giant, but if you’ve had the piss taken out of you for the past ten years and haven’t said a word in all that time then you’re going to have some anger building inside of you. This was the night it was coming out and boy did it come out.
“What’s that fat cunt taking pictures of?” Tomma knew he should leave it alone, tonight of all nights, but the coke was taking over.
“We’re only having a laugh, Tomma. It’s got no film in it.”
“What are you taking pictures of, retard?”
Tomma poked Tim in the stomach. Tim ignored him.
“I’m talking to you shit for brains,” Tomma grabbed Tim’s camera from around his neck. “Give us a look at your camera, fatty.”
Tim pushed him aside. Nothing nasty, but to a wannabe hard man being given the brush off by the local fruitcake is a bit of an embarrassment.
“Who do you think you are pushing, you fat cunt?”
Tomma took a swing, but Tim knocked him flat on his arse. His broken nose produced a stream of scarlet.
“You’re a dead man.”
Tomma produced a knife. I was shocked to see it, but I guess that most of the lads are tooled up these days. By now most of them were up and were going to lay in to Tim. I couldn’t stand by and watch it happen. He always looked out for us. This wasn’t in my plans, but what the hell? I raced to the bar, grabbing a bottle of Becks from the table and smashed it straight over Tomma’s head. He went down in a heap and I knew he wasn’t getting up. I saw someone coming for me out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t wait to find out who it was and slammed the remainder of the bottle straight in his face. The adrenaline was pumping now, this is what it was all about, and this is why they all loved fighting. I was rushing.
I landed a swift kick in the bollocks to the nearest man to me. I had been like a firework waiting to go off. They all wanted a piece of me, but not half as much as I wanted a piece of them. I caught a glimpse of the knife just before I saw the body collapse in front of me, Tim’s huge frame towering above it with a broken stool in his hand, the knife lying hopelessly in the limp hand on the floor.
Big Dave came racing in and stood between me and Tim and the rest of the crowd. The baseball bat in his hand and the damage we had already inflicted deterred anyone from having another go.
“You two get out now, I’ll take care of these little shits.”
We didn’t need a second invitation. Dave had bought us some time and we needed to hit the ground running. Dave dished out one last blow to the image of Davison’s gang.
“You, pick up the rest of your face and get this fucking mess tidied up before you even think of leaving this pub.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many photos in one place, on the walls, on the coffee table, even on the chairs, piles of them everywhere. So much for him having no film. Black and white photos are somehow so much more revealing than colour, more dramatic.
“Bit of a hobby you have here, Tim,” I shouted through to the kitchen.
It was more than a hobby it was an obsession. This was the second house I’d been in this week that was full of photos. Maybe this was the new craze in Sunderland. It’s funny, even the most familiar places look completely different when presented like this. The school, the pub, even the bus stop at the end of the street. He must have photographed nearly every spot in the city. There were some familiar faces, Big Dave, Kev, all the lads in fact. Ingham was even in the pictures, he wouldn’t be happy about that. Then I saw it, Nick Couzens, lying dying on the floor with Kev stood above him with a knife.
“Jesus Christ, Tim has known all along who killed Nick and he hasn’t said a word.”
“They make interesting viewing, don’t they?”
I jumped. I hadn’t realised that Tim was in the doorway.
“Bloody hell, you gave me a fright there. I read about this in the paper the other night. They said it was a pub brawl, but they had no leads. How come you haven’t handed these into the Police?”
“Because I know of your involvement with Davison and Ingham. I know all about you, every move you’ve made since you moved away. I’ve kept an eye on you and you’re beginning to get out of your depth, aren’t you?”
“You don’t say anything for years. When you do decide to open your mouth it’s to tell me you’ve been stalking me for the past fifteen years. What sort of a freak are you?”
“Take a look at this.”
Tim threw a photo on to the table. It was a picture of me carrying Ingham’s kids out of the burning house, very dramatic.
“I didn’t know you were there. How come I never saw you?”
“Take a look at this, five minutes earlier.”
There I was staring straight into the camera, lighter fuel in hand. I never saw him.
“If these ever end up in the hands of the police, or worse still, Ingham, I might as well kiss my arse goodbye.”
“What do you want Tim? Is it money? I’ll give you money, buy as many cameras as you like.”
“Leave, Pete. Take your money, take Claire and disappear. I’ll make sure these photos end up in the right hands. I’m sure that D.I. Carter will be very interested. Of course, I’ll make sure your involvement is omitted. When he has the evidence in front of him he’s not going to dig any deeper is he?”
“Don’t you see? I’ve already run away once and look what happened. Nothing changed, it never does.”
I flicked through the photos on Tim’s coffee table and lingered over one of Claire in her dark glasses.
“I need to end this once and for all. I have to end it now before it’s too late.”
“It already is too late, Pete. Things are getting out of hand, they probably would have anyway, but you haven’t helped matters.”
“I never meant for all this to happen you know. Davison pushed me into it. I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Why does Davison need to be punished, because he’s a bully? Who’s going to punish you, Pete?”
Tim placed a photo of Elvis, Gilbert and Bumper in front of me. The three were in suits, laughing.
“That was Bumper’s thirtieth birthday. Look how happy they are. You have it in your head that they are permanently miserable, and you can save them from it all, but you’re wrong. They’re no happier and no more miserable than anyone else. They’re just getting through life as best they can. If it wasn’t Davison it would be somebody else.”
“Surely getting rid of Davison helps them.”
“It wouldn’t. You would just be getting them into more trouble than they can handle.”
“I can’t walk away.”
“Like you said, you’ve done it before. Davison’s empire is beginning to crumble around him. Leave and leave him to rot.”
“It’s something I need to deal with, Tim. It’s personal.”
“You think I don’t understand. Do you think I’ve never been bullied? We slogged our guts out at the yards and then we were dumped. Look what it did to me.”
“Fine, if that’s what you think, but remember if you get the other lads involved in your vendetta you’ll be turning into exactly the type of person you claim to despise. You’ve got a chance to put this right. Disappear now before it all caves in around your ears. This is your only chance, Pete. Take it.”
“I can’t do it, Tim. I know exactly what you mean, but I can’t just up and leave. I have things I need to take care of.”
“Can’t you see, Tim? It’s not just me; it’s Elvis, Bumper and Gilbert. They had to be involved.”
“They didn’t need to be involved, you know your way around a computer system; you’re forgetting what I know about you. Why did you get Elvis involved when you could do it yourself?”
“I’m not the only one who needs to exorcise the ghosts of the past. I wasn’t the only one put through hell by Davison; he has affected each and every one of them.” I thumbed through the photos of my friends. “Look at the state Elvis and Bumper’s businesses are in because of him. And then there’s Gilbert, he’s never going to make anything of himself and he has the talent to do so. People like Kev need to be put in their place; more importantly, people like us need to do it. If we don’t, the next Kevin Davison will come along and take it all away from us.”
“There’s nobody who looks out for Gilbert more than me. That’s why I don’t want you to go through with it. I understand everything you have said, but what if it doesn’t work?”
“It has to, we have no choice,” I said.
“If it doesn’t, Davison will kill you; you do know that, don’t you?”
“It had crossed my mind. His friends already know something is up and after the performance in The Whistle tonight we’re hardly going to win any popularity competitions. I think you should start looking after yourself. It’s not safe to stay here tonight; they know where you live. I’ve got the old lighthouse now, nobody knows about it apart from Gilbert and Claire, you’ll be safe there.”
“Thanks, you’re probably right, but I’ll take my chances here.”
“The offer’s always there if you want to change your mind. Make sure you lock up properly. What did you mean when you said that nobody looks out for Gilbert more than you, I didn’t realise you kept in touch?”
Tim fidgeted with the lens of his camera, not looking me in the eye.
“Pete, I think there is something I should tell you.”
“I’m his father, Pete.”
“How come? I thought he never knew his dad.”
“He didn’t, in fact, he still doesn’t know the truth.”
Tim told me the whole story. “It’s not something I’m proud of, you have to understand how lonely I was. I had friends, mostly down the shipyards, your dad included. I always had problems chatting up women though, I was shy, and it was killing me. I heard the lads talking in the shipyards, you know how they do, don’t leave anything to the imagination. They were talking about a lass some of them had slept with who lived in Southwick.”
“Gilbert’s mam, Eileen?”
Tim nodded. “They were mainly married men as well. At first, I was disgusted at the thought, then I met her. She was in the Torrens when we went for a pint after work. She wasn’t the slapper everyone had made out, she was just lonely like me. We only did it the once, upstairs while the two brothers played in the sitting room. Didn’t last long, but she was quite sweet, didn’t force me out of the door as soon as I was finished, didn’t make me feel too bad. I decided then that I would never go back.”
There was sadness in his voice. He continued. “A few weeks later I heard the lads talking again, Eileen was pregnant. None of them knew that I had been there, but somehow, I knew it was my baby. Don’t ask me to explain it; it was just a feeling I had. I went to see Eileen and she said it was mine, but she didn’t want anything from me. I offered to marry her, she turned me down, said that it would only confuse the kids. It tore me up inside knowing that I had a baby son and couldn’t see him, but there was nothing I could do”
“Could you not have fought for custody?”
“I would never have won. When could I look after him, I was at work all day? It was for the best.”
Why have you never told Gilbert? It must have been chewing him up thinking he had no father and all the time you were a couple of streets away.”
“I know what you think, but I couldn’t; his mother didn’t want me to. As the years went by it got harder; how do you tell someone that for the last thirty years his father has been living around the corner, but hasn’t been to see him? It would crucify him, he would end up hating me.”
“You don’t know that, he’s a forgiving person, he could welcome you with open arms.”
“If your plan doesn’t work I may never get the chance to tell him.”
I felt guilty; while I assumed that the other lads all wanted to be involved I hadn’t bothered to stop and ask their families.
“I’ve struck up a bit of a friendship with him over the last couple of years through the photography. I’ve always been into it, as you can see. A few years ago, I saw him in the park and he was taking photos of a flowerbed he had laid, really good work it was. You could tell he was proud of it and I struck up a conversation with him, gave him tips on lighting etc. I think he was a bit wary at first, he’s had a lot of cruelty in his life, so strange men approaching you in the park is bound to set alarm bells ringing. I saw him most days and after a while we’d built some trust between us. He invited me for tea and showed me some of his work, far better than his old man’s.”
“Possibly not as incriminating. He’s never mentioned you, how come he never told me about any friends?” I said.
“We sort of drifted apart. He started working more for Kev and he didn’t like me going around there. I’ve still kept an eye on Gilbert; don’t think for one moment that I’ve deserted him. It kills me to see the way that Davison treats him; I’d like to rip his head off with my bare hands.”
“Now you see how I feel.”
“The difference is that I haven’t. When I found out you were back I knew there would be trouble. I know what you have been doing and I didn’t want you to get my son mixed up in your vendettas. I also know how persuasive you can be, so I can see how he was convinced.”
“He needs this as much as me.”
“Maybe, but I need you to promise me one thing.”
“You’ve got to make it work, this plan of yours. I don’t want any comeback on Gilbert; he’s not big enough or clever enough to look after himself, especially against the likes of Davison. I’ll still look out for him, but I’m not sure that I can deal with Davison. Make it work, Pete, put an end to it all, for everybody’s sake.”
He handed me a brown envelope.
“Make sure these end up in the right hands.”
They were photographs, incriminating photographs. Every one of them incriminated Kevin Davison and his gang in one way or another.
“Don’t worry, they’ll end up with the right people. I promise I’ll take care of Gilbert. This time Kevin Davison is not coming out on top.”
The next chapter will be released soon. If you can’t wait, Leg It is available on Kindle, Paperback and Hardback.