Authors: Gerard Brennan
Montgomery strode out of the bakery, proud and unruffled. McAllister still had a way to go with regards to a professional veneer. He mouthed obscenities at Dermot as his eyes rolled about in his head.
"Get the fuck out of here before you get yourself in trouble, wee boy."
Dermot's words infuriated the cop further but in his frustration he could produce nothing more than a squeak before he tried to slam the door shut. The old hinges on the warped frame caused too much friction for a satisfying result. McAllister's face burned red. He stormed off after his partner. Dermot turned to Louise. His dark eyes glinted with excitement and the promise of danger. His smile curled upwards on one side, the lips fastened together hiding his teeth. She didn't trust that smile, but his eyes intrigued.
"What time do you finish here, love?" he asked.
"I'll see you then. There's a good comedy on at the pictures. I think you'll like it."
She didn't have time to accept or decline. He strutted out of the bakery and was out of sight before Louise's mouth unfroze.
"Okay," she said to herself, to prove that the ability to speak had returned.
That first contact set the tone for their entire relationship. Throughout their time together Louise's fascination with Dermot and her inherent mistrust of him waged war. She never knew if she loved him. Only that no other man had ever inspired such extreme emotion.
And now, twelve years later, she sat at her kitchen table, nursing a lukewarm cup of tea and waiting for Dermot's son. Joe. A chip off the old block without ever really knowing him. She wished she could figure out how to deal with Joe. It'd kill her to see him end up like his father.
At last, his key turned in the door. He chatted to someone as he stumbled over the doorstep. Wee Danny Gibson by the sound of it. They flopped onto the couch and the TV burst into life. Joe didn't even think to check the kitchen to see if his mother was up. Just like old times.
Missus Phillips stood in front of the TV with two fists buried in her bottle blonde hair. Her face contorted and reddened and her mouth formed words too quickly to lip-read. To Wee Danny she was all picture and no sound. As far as he could tell she wanted to express a lot of anger, probably directed at Joe, but it didn't compute in his frazzled brain. Frazzled.
What a great word. Frazzled, frazzle, frazz... a-ma-taz.
Pressure behind his eyes derailed his train of thought. He looked at Joe, sitting beside him on the most comfortable sofa in the world. He was talking too. Wee Danny wasn't interested in Joe's words. His moustache was more interesting. It danced like a caterpillar on E as Joe's mouth motored at ninety to the dozen.
"Ninety to the dozen," Wee Danny said.
Joe turned to him and winked. Joe's ma reached out a huge hand and grabbed a handful of Joe's chin. She turned his face to hers. Wee Danny looked at the strands of hair caught between her fingers. She was literally pulling her own hair out. How bizarre.
Bizarre, in a car that won't go far. Far, a long, long way to run. Me, I'm high, so fucking high. Stoned to fuck. All on my own.
His brother Paul would pull his hair out if he wasn't going bald already.
Paul. Shit. Paul had seen him fucking with McVeigh's car. Shit.
A typhoon of nausea in his stomach stiffened his spine. Then his head hovered above a sink. A sink with mugs and regurgitated dinner in it. He'd decorated it with the typhoon. Orange pebbledash. His stomach lurched again. The rest of the badness left his stomach and made him feel lighter. Relieved.
Better out than in.
He rested his head on the stainless steel draining board. A pleasant chill worked through his skull. Like background static, Joe's laughter drifted. A mild annoyance but significant. Joe's ma must have found her mute button. She silently spoke to Danny. Coaxed him to straighten up with body language. Her hand felt smaller than it looked as she cupped his face. He gazed into her eyes. Bloodshot, yellowing sclerae framed icy, blue irises.
"Your eyes are beautiful, Missus Phillips."
"Are you okay, Danny?"
"I think so. Sorry about the mess in your sink."
"I'm more worried about the mess in my living room."
"I can't remember messing up your living room."
"That's okay, Danny. I do."
She stepped back and smiled. Then she punched him on the nose.
"Did your ma punch me on the nose last night?"
Joe concentrated all of his energy into opening his eyes. Wee Danny, bare-chested and propped up on his elbows at the foot of Joe's bed, looked as bad as Joe felt. Maybe worse. He stared at Joe through puffy, purple eyelids. His nose looked swollen too. A crusty blood trail ran over his lips and down his chin.
"She sure did," Joe said. "I think it's broken."
"I thought I dreamt it."
"Nope. You deserved it though. You whitied like a bastard. The living room is going to stink for weeks."
"Ah shit. I feel wick."
"I don't blame you. I'd be well embarrassed too. What time is it?"
"Half past twelve. Still early."
"Better get up though. My ma's probably having a fit downstairs. No point making her worse by staying in bed all day. Besides, I'm starving."
Wee Danny produced a joint he'd palmed the night before, "to take the edge off," and they shared it before venturing downstairs. Every stair on the way down creaked louder than ever before. His ma was up and about. He could smell cigarette smoke and hear the kettle boiling. Even through an early afternoon blow-haze his nerves kicked at his insides. He focussed on an outward appearance of calm. He couldn't freak out in front of Wee Danny.
At the foot of the stairs Joe realised his ma wasn't alone. A man's voice rumbled under the sound of the almost boiled kettle. Jealousy surged through Joe's core. Some man was in there with his ma. Some man she'd neglected to tell him about. Joe shoved open the kitchen door and stormed in. His fists hung ready, clenched at his hips. They relaxed as soon as his brain processed the man's identity.
Wee Paul Gibson.
Still not wonderful news, but better than what he'd been prepared for. He heard Wee Danny curse behind him.
"Danny," Wee Paul said. "You should have phoned Ma to tell her you'd be staying here. She was worried about you."
"Sorry, Bro." Wee Danny's voice sounded sincere, but Joe guessed he was sorrier about getting caught than causing his ma to fret.
"Well, get your stuff together and say cheerio to Joe. I'm taking you back to my place. Ma went to chapel and she won't be back yet. I'll text her to let her know she can come meet you at mine."
Wee Danny hesitated.
The wee man bolted up the stairs like lightning to fetch his coat and baseball cap. Joe stood his ground in the kitchen, willing himself not to twitch under the scrutiny of his ma and Wee Paul. He focussed his gaze on a damp spot on the wall just above their heads. He'd heard somewhere that the old IRA boys used to do the same when the Brits had them in for questioning.
"Good night last night?" Wee Paul asked.
Tell the fuckers nothing!
"Nothing special, Paul. Just hung about, like."
"The usual, then?"
Wee Paul nodded then turned to Joe's ma. "They just hung about."
Joe's ma shook her head. "You're a dopey wee bastard, Joe. Paul
you! You stand head and shoulders above the rest of your mates and you don't think you'll be spotted every time you do something stupid? You didn't get your brains from me anyway."
"I didn't do anything, ma!"
"Ach, fuck up. You make me sick."
Wee Danny stood behind Joe again. He coughed to alert his brother of his presence. He obviously wanted to leave before things got too crazy. Joe couldn't blame him.
"And you're just as stupid, Danny," she said. "You follow this big eejit around like the wee sidekick you are. Do you not see how he's a shit magnet? If you'd any sense you'd cut him out of your life. Mark my words, if you don't, you'll end up in jail or dead."
"Nice opinion of your son," Joe said.
She hissed and stepped forward. Wee Paul flinched. He mumbled about getting back to his girl and the kid.
"What do you expect me to think of you? You're just like your da!"
Joe physically recoiled. She'd never even mentioned his da in front of him before. Now all of a sudden the absent male role model was the root of all their problems. Like she was a total saint. Joe's heart jack-hammered in its cage.
Joe said, "Why'd you have to say that, you cunt?"
The Wee Gibsons blew out a lungful of air in unison. His ma's face seemed to swell. She shrieked and launched her mug at him. He lifted his arms to protect his head. The projectile bounced off his elbow. Half a cup of cold tea splashed his face and upper body.
"What did you call me? What the fuck did you just call me?" With each indignant syllable she got louder and closer.
Joe backed away, bumping Danny out of his path without taking his eyes off the woman scorned. But she was an inevitable disaster. She attacked him with the ferocity and speed of a threatened alley cat. She kicked his shin. Her claws caught his cheek. A low punch knocked the air out of his lungs. Her tiny hands pushed into his chest. He stumbled into the living room. In frustration he curled his fists. This only aggravated the situation.
"Don't you dare lift a fist to me, Joseph Philips!"
He dropped his guard. She kicked him in the balls. Warmth spread up into his stomach. His knees buckled. He bent at the waist. She cursed at him. He looked up, hoping to make eye contact. She kicked him in the face.
At last, Wee Paul dragged her away. She struggled for a few seconds then relaxed in Paul's grip.
"Take it easy, Louise," Paul said.
She burst into tears. Huge, dripping, tumbling drops fell off her face and soaked into her T-shirt. Her sobs cut through Joe's pain. Wee Danny helped him stand up.
"You all right, Joe?"
"You kind of deserved that, though."
Joe looked at his mother. She'd turned to hug Wee Paul, buried her face in the crook of his neck. Paul regarded Joe with a disgusted curl on his lip. Joe shrugged and then shook his head.
"Fucking right I did."
"Jesus, that was fucking mad," Danny said.
"He shouldn't have said that to his ma." Paul said.
"I know, but holy fuck."
They waited for their own ma in Paul's decked out living room. Bob the Builder played on the widescreen. Wee Owen ignored the show and concentrated on stuffing a biscuit into the DVD player. Danny thought maybe Owen was a bit slow. At the age of five he should have figured out that only DVDs fit in there. Sinead, the lazy bitch, disappeared upstairs as soon as they'd arrived, leaving Paul to watch the child as usual.
"So you saw me last night," Danny said.
"I'm freaking out for you."
Danny wanted a cigarette but couldn't have one in front of his football hero brother. He took slow, deep breaths like the guidance counsellor at school taught him after he was first caught smoking in the school toilets. Quitting advice. It did nothing for him. Paul maintained eye contact and Danny was afraid to break it. In the silence between the two of them, Wee Owen's mouth-breathing became an unbearable noise pollution. Danny had to break it.
"You don't need to worry about me, Paul." He managed a small smile and a wink.
"Like fuck I don't. Stephen McVeigh thinks you've been up to some serious shit. And he's going to be watching you and your mates like a hawk until he has some sort of proof of it."
"What's he think we've been at?"
"He reckons you're in the gang that's been out mugging grannies all over West Belfast these last few months. Them scumbags they call the Wee Rockets."