Twenty-four


‘Lee?’


‘Who’s this?’


‘Andy Gunton.’


For several seconds there was nothing but loud and derisive laughter. Andy almost put the phone back.


‘Dear oh dear, let me wipe my eyes … tell you what, I knew you’d be on to me before long. But it’s making me laugh all the same. You coming to cut my lawn or what?’


Andy clenched his fingers into his palm to stop himself from swearing. Calm and reasonable, he’d decided.


‘You said there might be a job – in your club.’


‘You said you wanted to work in God’s fresh, couldn’t stand being cooped up in an office, you said.’


‘OK, is there a job or isn’t there?’


‘Depends. Not in the club there isn’t, I’ve got a couple of smartly dressed young chaps right here … besides you ain’t interested in racing.’


Andy waited.


‘I might have something else.’


‘Legit. It’d have to be.’


‘For who?’


‘Legit.’


‘I don’t do criminal. I’m grown up, And.’


‘Right.’


‘Know the Crown on the Starly Road?


‘I’ll find it.’


‘Half six.’


The phone went dead.


Andy Gunton stepped out of the kiosk. If he hadn’t made the call he’d be stacking shelves in the supermarket overnight – either that or homeless.


‘You don’t get yourself a job by this time next week, Pete says, you’re out of here; there’s jobs, And, you ain’t dossing in Matt’s room any longer.’


He had given up on anything he was trained for, at least until later on in the spring. He had to get some money behind him somehow, then a place of his own, then find a way of starting up his market garden. He needed a backer, or a partner at any rate, and working for Lee Carter might lead him to someone.


The pub was a mile out of the town centre, on a nondescript corner, not the sort of pub anyone would find their way to unless it was their local. Andy wondered how it kept going. It smelled stale.


The mirrors behind the bar wanted cleaning. There was a poster on the wall for a circus that had left town three weeks ago. Next to it was the poster about the missing boy. Andy looked at his face and looked away again. He saw him everywhere.


Lee Carter’s car turned into the pub drive at exactly six thirty. He walked into the bar and straight up to the counter, ordered a double tomato juice, came over to Andy and took off his leather jacket with a flourish.


‘Like it?’


The jacket was like the car.


‘Very nice.’


‘You work for me, all this could be yours, my son. You got all you want to drink there?’ Andy nodded.


‘Cheers. Now then, And … cars.’


‘What about cars?’


‘Know anything?’


Andy shrugged. ‘I’m no mechanic.’


‘Wouldn’t need to be. See, what I do is, I dabble in import-export and sometimes it’s cars. Export mainly. I buy this, sell that, ship the other … good money.’


‘What’d I be doing?’


‘Driving, picking up from here, dropping off there, bit of smartening up … whatever.’


‘What kind of cars?’


Lee Carter smiled a fat, smug smile. ‘Top of the range. No money in heaps of rusty tin. Mercs, Beamers, Jags, Rangers.’


‘Bloody hell. Where’d you get ’em?’


Lee’s smile iced over. ‘First thing you know when you work for me is how to keep this shut.’ He gestured.


‘When do I work, nine till five sort of thing?’


Lee laughed, picked up Andy’s glass without asking or answering, and went to the bar.


Andy wiped the back of his hand across his mouth to make it feel cleaner. He had buzzing in his ears. Buzzing along his veins. Buzzing through his head. Warning buzzing. Get up, he told himself, get up now and walk away. Remember where you’ve just come from? Remember what it felt like?


Lee set the pint glass in front of him. The head frothed up over the rim.


‘Here’s to it.’


Andy drank without speaking.


‘When you work,’ Lee said, straddling the chair, ‘is when you’re told. I ring you, or someone else does. You’ll be told where to go, what to do. When.’


Andy shook his head. ‘I don’t think so. This don’t sound legit to me, this don’t sound like straight car dealing.’


‘You reckon? Like I said, this is export. Not your garage forecourt with your Aftershave Nigel trying to flog you a tin coffin. I told you, this is different.’


‘Yeah, illegal different.’


‘Nothing illegal about exporting cars, And. Happens every day. Why not? You come to the office, you see the yards of fu**ing paperwork I have to fill in, customs this and excise bloody that … I ain’t doing that if exporting isn’t legal, right?’


Andy looked at him. He had that straight, blue-eyed gaze which held yours. There were lunatics and murderers and paedophiles who couldn’t look you in the eye and then there were the conmen, who always did.


Only he needed a job.


‘When do I start?’


‘You got a mobile?’


Andy laughed.


‘Right, I’ll sort it. Meet me Thursday, Dino’s in Queen Street. Eleven o’clock.’


‘Bloody hell, Dino’s …’


‘He’s still there … only it’s Alfredo taken over now, and he’s got a missus. Dad sent him off to Italy, they’d got it all fixed before he went, came back with Lina. Smashing girl.’


For a second, Andy Gunton forgot who he was talking to – forgot Lee Carter had been one of the reasons he’d done five years in prison, forgot you couldn’t trust him, not ever, and that he’d be daft if he went to work for him. Forgot he ought not to be in this pub drinking with him now. All he remembered was when they’d been in school together and Fredo Jaconelli had been with them and they’d all piled into Dino’s after school and on Saturday afternoons and drunk Cokes and eaten Knickerbocker Glories in tall glasses with long spoons. If Fredo’s dad was feeling generous, they’d had one each; if not, one between them and however many spoons it took. Dino’s.


‘Machine still makes the same noise. They still got cherries on the wallpaper and plastic pineapples full of sugar.’


‘Bloody hell.’


‘They weren’t though.’ Lee Carter stood up.


‘What?’


‘The days. Just in case you said they was. Crap, those days were. These are the days, Andy, and don’t you bloody forget it.’


Lee Carter shrugged on his leather jacket and walked out of the pub without a backward glance.


By the time Andy followed him it was raining, hard, straight, steady rain which had him dodging in and out of doorways and hanging about under shop awnings which then tipped water down the neck of his jacket. He had no raincoat – no coat at all. He stood, looking into the window of an electrical shop at convector heaters and steam irons. He knew what he wanted. He wanted his own house, his own front room, sofa, television, radiator, carpets. His own door, his own key. Freedom as freedom was no longer enough. The thrill of being able to go out and walk about as he pleased, enter a pub or a shop or a café when he liked, all of it had worn off. He was a stage further on. He had started to be discontented, even irritable. To want more. A lot more.


He dodged between doorways and stood waiting for a bus to the Dulcie estate.


Michelle was out. Pete was in the kitchen.


‘Been wanting to have a word with you,’ Pete said, standing in the doorway with his hands on either side, his stomach falling out over his belt. He had a line of moustache and a line of beard drawn round his chin and stubble between. Underneath, his skin was pink as pork. Andy imagined him in prison as one of the screws who bullied and had favourites and played nasty little tricks. He’d never understood his sister having anything to do with Pete.


‘I hope Michelle’s not standing outside that paed’s house in this lot,’ he said, pulling off his jacket.


‘Up to her. We don’t want them perverts here. This is respectable.’


‘Since when?’


‘Since until you got out.’


‘Can I put this by the stove to dry out.’


Pete stood solid as a chopping block, unmoving in the doorway.


‘OK, suit yourself.’


‘How long was you thinking of stopping? Been here a bit now. Feels like years. I was going to tell you it was time you got a job, only funnily enough, I got one for you. Warehouse down Culvert Street. They want a loader. I put in a word. Foreman’s a mate of mine.’


‘I got a job.’


Andy walked away from his brother-in-law and into the living room where the television blethered away to itself. Andy stood looking at it. A man was standing in a garden waving his arms about.


‘I don’t believe you. You just made that up.’


‘Nope.’


‘Doing what? What sort of job?’


‘Cars.’


‘What do you mean, cars? You ain’t no mechanic.’


‘Export.’


‘Talk English.’


‘Top-of-the-range motors, sorting them for export.’


The man stopped waving his hands and started to walk slowly down the grassy garden avenue between mixed flower borders fifteen feet wide. Roses and clematis climbed up old brick walls.


Pete stood, fumbling about for words. Andy ignored him.


‘Where’d you get this job then? You don’t get jobs like that down the jobcentre and who’d give you one, with your record?’


‘Thought you said you’d got me one – with my record.’


‘Never mentioned it.’


‘Right.’


‘What they paying you?’


‘Enough. Can I get a cup of tea?’


The man was leaning on a lead statue of a na*ed woman. A bee was zizzing about his head.


‘You got a job then, you’ll be looking for somewhere to live?’


Andy turned and faced Pete.


‘Too right.’


The back door opened and slammed shut behind Michelle.


‘Bloody soaked I am. Pete, ain’t you got the kettle on?’


Pete turned from the doorway. ‘He’s got a bloody job,’ he said. ‘Exporting bloody cars. What’s he know about cars? Who’d give him that sort of a job?’


Michelle came out of the kitchen.


He couldn’t tell her who, Andy knew that. He could never mention Lee Carter’s name in this house, he’d be flat on his back on the path and the door locked behind him.


Michelle went on looking.


‘That right?’


Andy headed for the stairs. ‘That’s right.’


He pulled off his wet shirt and trousers and changed into dry. There was hardly room for him to turn round in the room he had to share with his nephew.


He ought not to have rung Carter, he ought not to have listened to him. Carter was trouble. He’d ruined his life once. Why give him a second chance?


This was why. Andy looked round the frowsty, overcrowded room, with Matt’s soccer poster and heavy metal stars all over the walls and his wardrobe spilling out with clothes and gear, the top of it unsteady with piles of old toys. Under his bed were half a dozen pairs of manky trainers and the trainers smelled. This was why, this and his piggy-faced brother-in-law.


Besides, who was to say the car business wasn’t perfectly kosher? Probably was. He’d do it for a year, maybe eighteen months, until he’d saved the money he needed. It’d be OK.


He went back down, carrying his wet clothes. At the doorway of the sitting room he glanced through to see if the man was still wandering about the garden but the screen was manic with a cartoon.


In the kitchen, Michelle was pouring water on to tea bags in two mugs.


‘We seen the bugger off,’ she said as Andy came in. ‘Police took him away half an hour ago.’


‘Where to?’


She shrugged. ‘Don’t care so long as it’s a long way from here. We don’t want him.’


‘Trouble is, he’s got to live somewhere.’ Andy put his trousers over the oven rail.


‘I don’t see why. Have my way they’d hang the lot of them.’


‘Nah, you’re going too far there, darling, castration’d do the trick.’


Michelle laughed.


Andy sat down at the kitchen table and put his hands round the tea mug.


‘You see Nathan Coates again?’


‘Yeah, he was up twice. Snooty little bugger he is now, just cos he’s a copper. Don’t know what he’s got to be like that for, his brother’s never up to any good.’


‘They found that kid yet, did he say?’


‘Never asked. They won’t have though. Poor little bugger’ll be dead in a ditch somewhere and it’ll be down to a paed. Like that Brent Parker. What else?’ She lit a cigarette from the gas sparker. ‘It don’t stop things happening,’ she said.


‘What do you mean?’


‘People like them, you know … posh family, live on Sorrel Drive … all of that don’t make any difference. It don’t save you from anything. You’re just as well off being like us when push comes to shove. Now get your backsides out of here, the both of you, I got things to do.’


The two men wandered into the living room, where the television had gone black and white and calm with an old romantic comedy.


Andy went to the window. The Dulcie estate looked down at heel and deserted in the rain. Grass sprouted up between the paving stones and in the corners of the guttering. Runnels of water ran down from the drainpipes on the block of flats opposite, making dark stains. It wasn’t that he’d be as well off in prison. He wouldn’t. He hadn’t been. But if he’d come out to nothing better than this for the rest of his life he would be suicidal. All the same, Michelle had a point. He knew that. They had what he wanted, those people – big house in a nice area, smart cars, good jobs, everything you’d envy if you were living here on the Dulcie estate, everything you’d want. He wanted.


But when it came to losing their kid one Tuesday morning, to God knew who or what, none of it had made the slightest bloody difference at all.


Twenty-five


‘Aw look, darling, look … so pretty!’


Shirley propped Martha over her arm expertly, plumped up the backrest and pillows with the other, and set her comfortably in place again. It was like moving a giant doll, Simon thought.

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