WARNING – THE FOLLOWING STORY IS NOT FOR CHILDREN OR FOR THOSE OF A SENSITIVE DISPOSITION
Dirty Old Town
In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it. That’s why I kept my mouth zipped. If the guys dishing out justice were anything like me, the more noise I made the more pain they’d inflict.
Luckily, their first punch was too good. Right on the point of my chin. I didn’t see the stars, but felt them speed through my nervous system, tingling down to my fingers and toes.
From the way I hurt when I came round I knew they hadn’t stopped at one hit.
It was like my birthday in reverse. They gave plenty and I ended up with less than I started with. I lost the sight of one eye, one front tooth and a button from my favourite jacket. I didn’t mind – it was about time I got myself a few new clothes and the missing tooth just made me look interesting.
I reckon I’d make the perfect front man for the Popes should Shane MacGowan pop his clogs. We’ve been laying bets on him dying before Christmas every year since ’86, and we’re still losing money. I could do it. Stand in for Shane. I know all of the songs and can’t hold a tune. What more could they possibly want?
Lucy Whale was worth every moment of agony. Taught me things I’d never heard of, stuff any man would want in his life if he could get it. Shame Mr Whale couldn’t see it my way, that she was doing humanity a service.
When I arrived home I was a wreck. I washed down a couple of painkillers with my cocoa and decided I needed a lie in. I set the alarm for 6:00 and crawled into bed. The way things turned out, I wish I’d never even tried to get up the next day.
In the morning I wasn’t sure I could make it, but the nationals were almost upon us. The squad had been working their gym shorts off trying to get to the top of their game and I wasn’t about to let them down by crying off sick when they needed me.
My boys were already in action when I arrived. Luke was on the rings, James on the parallel bars, Ken and Crazy Horse were practicing floor exercises, Donald was on the pummel horse and Hugh was pumping weights.
Good lads they are. Known them since they were eleven, and seen them grow from children to teens to young men. Not many kids would make the sacrifices they have, not these days.
I took them out for ice-cream when we heard Britain got the Olympics. Last thing they needed was sugar, but I gave it to them all the same. I doubt they slept a wink that night. I’ve not treated them since – it’s a serious business preparing for a games. I can take them there, I know I can. All I ask in return for my help is education, dedication and perspiration.
Train like you’re coming second I tell them, and for the most part, they do.
I interrupted their workout, offered a few suggestions and answered all questions about my face in the same way. “It was a full moon. The lunatics were out of the asylum.”
8 o’clock we took our usual break. The boys went to the changing room to re-hydrate and take in calories. I went to talk to the desk-staff to see if I could book a session for the weekend.
For the umpteenth time that week, I saw the back end of Billy the Cheese. I had no idea what he was up to or where he got his name, but whenever he was around I felt uneasy. If I’d have seen him entering I might have turned him round and sent him packing. Instead, he was heading for the exit when I clocked him. There was nothing I could do.
I carried on chatting with Laura and Ruth at the desk.
Donald burst through the double doors to interrupt. Told me I should come. “In a minute,” I said, but he pulled my arm and I found myself moving in his direction. These boys have got muscles on top of muscles. More than I ever had and that’s saying something.
It wasn’t until we were alone that he spoke again.
“There’s something wrong with James. We can’t get him to wake up”
“Is this a gag?” I asked as we entered the changing room. I could have saved myself the bother if I’d waited a moment.
James Foster lay on the floor, his eyes bulging, leg swollen and his arms circling like he was trying to swim in the air. Sticking out from his thigh was a hypodermic syringe, half full of blue liquid.
“Get the epi-pen, for Christ’s sake,” I told them.
Crazy Horse and Ken opened his locker and fumbled through his things, throwing them onto the floor as they were checked.
There wasn’t much I could do by then. I knew already he was leaving us. He was telling me with his eyes.
The pen arrived and I took off the cap with my teeth. I jabbed it into his leg and the contents emptied into his bloodstream in seconds. Seconds too late, as it turned out.
You shouldn’t have favourites, I know, but James was mine. He was quiet. Didn’t talk much and hardly smiled. We understood each other from the moment we met. I went to his birthday parties, family events, spent time at their holiday cottage and took him to all his competitions. I’d spent more hours with him in hospital than with some of my closest friends. And there he was, white as an England shirt, lying in my arms, life already drifting to another place.
“You stupid bastard,” I said as I hugged him to my chest. “You stupid, stupid bastard.”
It’s not a situation you can prepare for. Won’t find it in the gymnastics manual. I looked round at the others and saw the panic on their faces. Not one of them spoke, not even Crazy Horse. Ken gagged, looked like he was going to puke and ran to the toilets. We listened as he filled the sink with isotonic drink and bananas.
When Ken came back, I rested James’ head on the floor and stood up with my arms folded.
“Sit down.” My eyes felt hot and I had the urge to slap them all. “How many of you have been doing this shit?”
Nobody answered, but I could tell from the way they looked at each other that they were all involved.
“What the hell is it?” I held out the syringe and chucked it to the corner of the room. “Well?”
Crazy Horse was the spokesman for the group. Always has been. When they were twelve and didn’t like the diet I’d set, he was the one to tell me they wouldn’t eat half the things. Couldn’t they please be let off some of the list? It was brave of him to try, not that it got them anywhere. “Extra broccoli,” was my answer, “and if you don’t fancy that, I’ll add another bulb of garlic.” They didn’t complain again.
“We’ve been buying stuff from The Cheeseman,” Crazy Horse said. “Like steroids, but not. He said we could get bodies like the Chinese and they’d never catch us because the chemists are always ahead of the game.”
I couldn’t speak, so I shook my head instead and looked at James. I knew just how badly he wanted it. How badly they all wanted it. Made them vulnerable to scum like Billy.
Donald hit out at a locker then butted it with his head. I hoped it would knock some sense into him.
“Imagine the headlines,” I told them. “We’re screwed.”
“Unless you can help us, Chalky.”
What was I supposed to do? Leave them in the lurch? Watch as their dreams were publicly smashed? I’d never turned my back on them and I wasn’t about to start now.
“I can only help if you’re all with me. All for one or nothing at all.”
“I’m in,” Crazy Horse said.
“Me too,” Ken chipped in.
The rest nodded.
We huddled together as if that would keep us safe and I decided what to do.
“James was allergic to things, right? Which is why he shouldn’t have been injecting that junk. Donald. Hugh. Get yourself to the machine. Buy anything you think might have nuts. And be quick about it.”
When they returned with carrot cake, we had James sitting upright.
“Feed it to him,” I said. They did as they were told without asking questions.
James’ tongue filled the whole of his mouth. There was hardly room for anything else.
“Make sure you get it right into throat.” Their fingers went in deep. Ken went pale, ran back into the bathroom. Crazy Horse laughed at him as he went. It was nice to remember there was still humour in the world.
“Crazy. Call an ambulance. Tell them exactly what happened.”
“We bought a cake and shared it out. James had a reaction. We did what we could. That kind of thing?”
“Exactly that kind of thing.”
I knew then that they’d keep the Olympic flame alive.
Crazy Horse started to dial.
“Wait,” I interrupted. Change of plan.” It wasn’t time to call anyone just yet. I needed to make sure the death didn’t hit the news until late. “Put him in my office, get out there and do your stuff like nothing’s happened. Call the police when you get here for the four o’clock session. Tell them how it is when you come in.”
Getting hold of Billy the Cheese’s number wasn’t easy. I didn’t expect the directory to be holding numbers for him. Didn’t stop me from trying though.
I needed to get out and do some legwork.
First person I saw was my brother Charlie, who knows everyone there is to know. I met up with him at the bookies on the High Street. He was studying the greyhounds.
“2 from 6,” he said. “I’ll reverse it to be safe.” He wandered over to the counter, put on his bet just as the bell rang and came over in time to watch the hare set off. We didn’t talk while the action took place – that was his only rule.
The hare passed the traps. 4 pulled out like its tail was on fire and took the lead, but took the second bend like it was a dose of rabies – with a wide berth. Cost him the lead. 3 took over with 5 close behind. Two bends from home the leaders collided, leaving 2 and 6 whistling through to the line neck and neck. A photo finish.
“My lucky day,” he said, kissing his slip and giving me a hug. I felt the bruises from the night before as he squeezed my ribs, took out a couple more painkillers and swallowed them with some of the coffee he’d left in front of the Walthamstow form.
“What happened to you?” he asked, not really caring.
“It’s a dirty old town this town of ours.” He kept his eyes on the screen for the result of the photo. “6 from 2 pays better. What are the chances?”
“If I remember my maths, fifty-fifty.”
“Ya beauty,” he shouted as the result appeared. “Now, what can I do for you?”
Just hearing his voice gave me the creeps.
“Do I know you?”
“You do business with my gymnasts.”
“And I was hoping we could meet.”
“Tell me more.”
“They deserve the best they can get. I’m sure you can understand that. With the right kind of investment maybe we could up the ante. Reach for the stars.”
“Where and when?”
“10 o’clock at the gym. Knock three times on the door round the back, the one that says Jess loves Mick.”
“Will you be doing business?”
“Look forward to seeing you, Mr Fish.”
“It’ll be my pleasure.” The way I planned it, I certainly hoped it would.
I don’t go to pubs very often. They’re not much fun when you don’t drink.
I picked one that I knew would be busy on a Friday afternoon. The Penny Black near the sorting office was a safe bet. Posties knock off at all times of day and lugging mail is thirsty work. So is saving the world – if the postmen didn’t fancy a pint, the folk from the Amnesty headquarters round the corner might.
As luck would have it, both groups were represented.
I spent a good while wandering the streets carrying my laptop bag, making sure the CCTV got a good look. Then, walking through the doors of ‘the Black’, I made sure I banged into a few people.
“Oi. Watch yourself mate,” attracted attention and I apologised like I meant it.
At the bar I ordered a half of lager-shandy without the lager. The bartender wasn’t amused.
I took the lemonade over to the window and sipped it. When I was confident nobody could be bothered to watch, I emptied the newspapers from the bag and threw them onto the sill. I folded the bag up small and stuffed it into my coat sleeve.
I sat in the cubicle of the gents for a good five minutes, scrunched up a few tissues and pulled the flush.
When I got back to my drink, everyone was as I’d left them.
“Excuse me, mate, you didn’t move my laptop did you?”
The bartender was even less amused this time round when I told him the story. Having the police in a friendly establishment is never good news.
They turned up, took my statement, said they’d do what they could and left. I made sure they got a list of missing items: laptop, memory stick, pens, book and the keys to the Leisure Centre.
4:15 and the boys had done exactly as I’d told them. The police were on their way.
The smells of sweat and trainers were more welcome than usual. We sat on the benches and waited.
For a couple of hours it was mayhem. There were photographers and paramedics and plain-clothed coppers all over the show. We just had to wait, none of us in the mood to say much.
The police took us for a chat one at a time. When had we seen him last? Did we know about his allergies? Who administered the epi-pen?
We had it sewn up. Said we trained with him that morning, but when we were done he told everyone not to wait because he needed to work on a dismount. We’d all seen his routine and agreed it was probably a good idea. He must have bought himself the cake for when he finished. Something in it didn’t agree with him – maybe the Leisure Centre was using a new supplier for the vending machines. Anyway, that was the last they saw of him till they turned up for the afternoon slot.
By the time the forensics wrapped up, it was almost 7. We’d achieved our first objective of avoiding the 6 o’clock news and they still hadn’t been able to contact the parents on account of me giving them tickets to a West End show.
I agreed to speak at a press conference the following day, watched everyone leave and hung around to lock up. The knock on the door came at ten o’clock on the button.
I let Billy in and he parked himself on the bench I’d sat on earlier.
“Nice to meet you at last,” he said.
I offered my hand and he took it. His breath smelled like cat food and his stubble was smudged with grease. Made me wonder why he bothered dressing in a suit.
“You brought the stuff?” I nodded over to his travelling bag.
“Sure. It’s all in the case.” He hooked his foot over it and dragged it over. “What we have here,” he said as he opened the bag, “is the best that money can buy.” He picked up a vial of blue liquid. “Here we have the bronze medal range. The stuff that’s turning your boys into supermen.”
“I know about that. What else have you got?”
He pulled out two more vials, one pink, one green.
“This,” he said, holding out the pink stuff, “is the silver medal merchandise. It’ll take you almost all the way. They don’t have anything like this anywhere else.”
“Tell me how it works.”
“Do I look like a scientist?”
He didn’t, so I moved on. “Tell me about the gold instead.”
“Now you’re talking. It lets you build muscle, burn calories, train harder and recover from injury faster. It’ll even wash the dishes and put them away.”
It was no wonder they all fell for it, the way he spoke. If he’d been around when I was a contender, I’d probably have gone for it myself. “How about dope tests?” I asked.
“Negative, negative, negative.” A grin spread across his face. I guessed that this was where he usually clinched the deal.
“And the price?”
“For anybody else, £2,500 a week, but I’m a patriot. For the British team, half price.”
That was steep. I wondered what he was charging the lads for the bronze medal stuff, but didn’t want to think about how they might be getting hold of that kind of money.
Things were dragging. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could look him in the eye. I needed to make a move before he sussed me out.
Just as I thought I’d have to go for him face to face, Billy turned his back to repack the samples.
I grabbed his neck with a grip that would have opened any pickle jar then remembered I had to be careful. I didn’t want to wipe him out without making him suffer.
He swung his arms like a wind-up toy. His shoulders were too broad to let him get to me with any power.
Turning him round, I let go of his throat and stuck one in his ribs. His gut was soft. I felt it give. Disgusting the way some people let themselves go. I hit his head, hit his head again and then threw him to the floor.
It looked like I’d knocked him out, but I wasn’t going to take chances. Into his mouth I stuffed a cloth and ran tape across his lips and round his head it till it was secure. I’ve never stuffed anything into anyone’s mouth before, nothing that wasn’t attached to me anyway, and wasn’t exactly sure what it was for. Still, that’s what they do in the movies.
He remained quiet and still as I worked.
When his hands and feet were tied, I slung him over my shoulder and took him into the gym. It was already set up as I needed, the vaulting horse under the rings.
It wasn’t easy getting us both up, but I managed.
Taking him on my shoulders again, I hoisted him up, slipped one foot through each ring and let his weight fall. He must have felt it. His body twitched and I looked down to give him a little wave.
“You stink, Cheese. I’m going to get rid of your smell forever.”
In my back pocket I was carrying two pairs of police handcuffs, untraceable as it happened. My brother, as well as being a hell of a hunch-better, is also on the force. He’s a good man to know, my Charlie. I used them to fix his legs into place. He wasn’t going to be going anywhere in a hurry. In fact, he wasn’t going to be going anywhere ever again, unless you counted the bottom of the canal. When the sun came up I’d take him out in my barge, dump him half way through the Islington tunnel. Half a mile long it is. Nobody would he finding him in a hurry.
Returning to the changing rooms, I filled the syringe that James had used with a cocktail from the vials in his bag and carried it out to Billy, making sure he saw what I was holding.
He was crying like a newborn. Pleading for all he was worth. It came out as a lot of mumble. I suppose that’s what the rags are all about.
When I stuck the needle in, it made him worse. Didn’t he know about the staying quiet thing?
“James Foster was the best I’ve seen on the rings. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t have managed. I’d have backed him for a medal without any of your shit. He died today. You poisoned him.”
Billy’s body twitched. It didn’t look like he was having a very good time of it. I punched him hard in the stomach just to make myself feel better.
“We used to wonder, James and I, how long it would take for someone to die if they were hanging upside down. Reckon this is as good a way to find out as any.”
I looked at him one more time. He was bright red, his eyes bulging the way James’ had done that morning and he was swinging backwards and forwards trying to get his hands to the rings. He was miles off.
It took nine more syringes to empty his sample bag. By the time I got to number six, he was looking pretty groggy. By number nine, he’d stopped moving altogether.
I went to clear up the mess. My hands were shaking and I felt sick. It was way past my bedtime and my body was crying out for cocoa.
As I went to switch my office lights off, I noticed something about my left eye. Most of what I could see from it was dark, but in the middle, like someone had poked a hole through a piece of paper, there was a ring of light.
Covering my right eye, I looked out of the hole for a while and saw the photo on the wall, with James holding his medal to the camera. UK Junior Champion 1992. Felt like he was holding it out to me. I almost reached to take it.
I winked at him and hit the switch.
“Good night James Foster,” I said into the darkness and rested my head on my desk.
Dirty Old Town is the my debut collection of short stories. If you like what you’ve seen and fancy checking out the book, 69p will get you a copy from: