By Tim Frank
At the centre of the Stonebridge housing estate in North London, no light could
penetrate the shaded stairwells and the dirty net curtains. There were no views
and inside the dingy flats cockroaches darted through bedrooms and the rank
smell of blocked toilets wafted down halls. Those who knew the place said it
was the darkest area in the city. And had the darkest heart. That's where the
undercover Officer Hislop patrolled daily, keeping his eyes on the
neighbourhood hoodlums and arresting youths for drugs, knives and firearms
offenses. He kept his distance, fighting any urge to sympathise with any of the
kids he came up against. There was no point, they were on the road to self-destruction—empathy
was a waste of his time. Except for one teenager, Gerald, part of the Skelter
crew, who Hislop couldn’t help taking pity on.
One afternoon when some of the Skelter crew were rounded
cuffed after a raid in the south side of the estate, rain lashing down on the
concrete outside sounding like cracking knuckles, a small group of officers
circled the gang who they'd forced to their knees by a wall. Officer Gauche
frisked the crew. When he came to Gerald, he yanked his head to one side.
‘Hislop,’ ordered Gauche, ‘come over
here. This kid's cuffs are
loose, I hope you're not going easy on him.’
‘I didn't cuff him,’ said Hislop, ‘and
I don't go easy on
‘Yeah, I don't need any help from no cop,’
said Gerald, the
crust of dried snot plastered across his upper lip.
‘Shut up, punk,’ said Gauche.
‘Yeah, Gerald, shut the fuck up,’ said Hislop.
Gauche forced Gerald's head against the wall. Hislop lit
cigarette and played with it nervously as he stared at Gerald and the stupid
look he wore on his face, like he was confused by some complex maths equation.
That poor sap couldn't count to five, Hislop thought.
The police found nothing on the gang and eventually set
free. They scuttled off like a mischief of rats into all four corners of the
building. Gerald went home to the fifth floor where his grandmother was waiting
for him in the kitchen, smoking a joint that alleviated the pain from her
When he came in the door his phone exploded with text messages.
It was Gerald's gang leader, Reece, checking on him to see if the cops had
found anything. Gerald's grandmother beckoned him to join her.
‘Put the phone away, I have to talk to you,’
Gerald slipped the phone inside his jacket pocket and took
seat opposite his grandmother. His stomach growled with hunger as he wiped his
nose and reached out for the joint.
‘No,’ she said, ‘I need your head clear
for what I'm about to
She laid the joint in an ashtray, letting it burn out by
as it nestled amongst a cluster of other roaches.
‘I'm dying Gerald,’ she said, ‘you know
that don't you?’
‘Yeah, I know,’ he said, watching a fly try
to wrestle itself
free from a spider's web.
‘But I don't think you understand. It means you'll
be all on
your own with no one to look after you.’
‘But you can come visit though, right?’
‘No—what? Gerald, when someone dies, that's
it, they are gone,
never to come back. Like your parents.’
‘Oh, they just went away, they'll be back one day.
I get it.’
‘No, you don't.’
‘I do, gran, and I'll save you, I promise.’
‘Listen to me Gerald, I have nothing to leave you
when I die
except this flat. I need you to promise me that you will sell it and leave this
God forsaken place when I'm gone.’
‘Leave? But what about my job?’
‘Gerald, you're selling drugs for a gang. It's not
a job. I know
you don't understand but I want you to find a way out of here.’
Gerald smiled and said, ‘It's going to be alright
Gerald's grandmother sighed, sparked up her joint and said,
can go back to your phone now. Please try to think about what I've said.’
That night Hislop returned home to his wife and child late.
he searched his pockets for his keys he almost tripped on the front step.
His wife, Marie, opened the door and said, ‘Jesus Patrick, this is the third time
this week you've come back wasted.’
Hislop aimed a kiss at Marie's cheek and brushed past her
the living room.
‘I've put Stanley to bed. Would you at least like
goodnight to him?’
‘Can't it wait?’ he said. ‘I need a cup
Marie placed her hand on her hip and gave him the look.
‘OK, OK, I'll be up in a minute.’
Stanley's room was illuminated by a night light that spread
gloomy fog. As Hislop entered, closely followed by his wife, he saw the boy,
three years old, in Spiderman pyjamas, standing in his cot gently crying.
Hislop scooped him up into his arms and whispered into his ear, rocking him
back and forth. Hislop looked into Stanley's eyes. The boy held a glazed
‘He still doesn't recognise me,’ Hislop said,
as Stanley began
‘Give it time,’ Marie said.
A few days later Hislop was patrolling one of the blocks
caught sight of Gerald dealing by the motorway that separated the estate from
the rest of the city. The crackhead jetted off before Hislop could catch him,
but he managed to corner Gerald.
Hislop cuffed him and said, ‘Come with me,’
and he led the boy
across the motorway where they found some semblance of civilisation. They
stepped into a burger and beer joint. Clean lines, white decor with
splashes of red.
‘I didn't do it, OK?’
‘Take a seat Gerald, I just want to talk.’
Hislop released Gerald from his cuffs and the boy rubbed
‘What would you like?’ Hislop said. ‘Pick
anything, it's on me.’
‘Is this a joke?’
‘No one needs to know, Gerald; this is between us.
I want to
help you. You are hungry, right?’
A waitress wearing her hair in a bun and an apron with
of a bull etched on the front came to serve them.
‘Give us a double patty diablo with the works. Fries
chocolate milkshake too. I'll just have a light beer, thanks,’ said Hislop.
The waitress jotted down the order but before she could
Gerald said, ‘What are you looking at?’
‘Excuse me, sir?’
‘You know what I'm talking about. What the fuck are
‘Go easy Gerald,’ said Hislop. ‘Nobody's
judging you, right
‘Look,’ she said, ‘If it’s all
the same, I think I'm going to
let someone else wait on you.’
‘Fine,’ said Hislop, ‘but I'm sorry.’
Another waitress soon joined them and Hislop repeated the
He flicked through the mini jukebox that was positioned on the side of their
‘I've been watching you Gerald. You may not know
it but I've
been looking out for your wellbeing.’
‘Just... Looking out. I know your grandmother.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Gerald said, all cagey.
‘We speak sometimes. She's a good woman who cares
‘I don't want to talk about my gran.’
‘OK, we won't. But listen, I don't care that you
deal drugs. I
know you are a good person too.’
‘How do you know I'm a good person?’
‘No idea, Gerald. Call it instinct.’
‘You don't know the things I've done.’
‘Maybe so but I want to help you.’
The food came and Gerald tucked in ferociously.
‘I want to get you out of the hood,’ said Hislop.
‘I don't need any help, I've got plans,’ Gerald
manoeuvring his mouth around his burger then biting down hard.
‘Oh yeah? What plans are these?’
‘None of your business, and don't worry about me.
I'm going to
be just fine.’
‘Right, of course.’
What, you don't believe me?’
‘Honestly, no, I don't see it.’
‘Well, you're wrong.’
‘Fuck you, how about that?’
‘Now play nice, Gerald.’
Gerald wiped his mouth and sighed.
‘I'm going to save up for university, get a degree
and become a
doctor or something.’
‘There's so much wrong with that sentence I don't
where to begin.’
‘I don't have to listen to this bullshit. If you
want to arrest
me, arrest me. Otherwise, thanks for the food, but I've got to go.’
‘No wait, I'm sorry, please just hear me out.’
‘Why do you give a shit about me?’
‘Don't ask me that question, Gerald, because I really
and said, ‘People
think I'm thick, well they're wrong. I can achieve whatever I put my mind to.’
‘That's all very well but if you stay here, in the
for Reece you're going to end up dead or in prison. You have to get out of this
city where the Skelter crew can't track you down. Please take a seat and let's
talk about it.’
Gerald stared out of the diner window, across the motorway
over to the looming presence of the estate. It seemed to look back at him,
saturated in all its grey haunted glory. He sat back down.
An hour later, after an in-depth discussion, Hislop and
went their separate ways. As Gerald crossed the motorway and approached the estate,
he felt eyes on him, peering like black opals embedded in the concrete. As he
jiggled his keys in his front door a text pinged from his phone. It was Reece.
Gerald's muscles contracted sending a bolt of energy through his body. The
message simply read, ‘My flat, now.’
So, Gerald climbed the four floors to reach Reece's apartment.
He texted Reece to say he was outside his door. He was shown inside by one of
the crew and the smell of high-grade skunk stung his nostrils. The living room
had a couch and a coffee table next to it. A selection of guns was laid out on
the surface and beside them was a mound of cocaine with tubs of detergent and
baby powder to cut the drug. A one-year old baby with a soiled nappy roamed
around the constricted space, dried tears on her face. The flat was hot and
Reece wore a shirt cut off at the sleeves. But he was lean and had no muscles
to expose. He indicated to Gerald that he should take a seat. ‘Why did
you text me, you idiot, if you're just outside the fucking door?’’
‘Um,’ stuttered Gerald.
‘I'm not going waste time Gerald,’ Reece said,
as the baby
tugged at Gerald's trouser leg.
‘You've been seen with... Wait, pass the little tyke
Gerald picked up the baby and caught a glimpse straight
eyes. He saw purity.
‘OK,’ said Reece laying the baby on one side
of the couch,
beginning to change her. He stroked the side of her face and made some goofy
‘Gerald, you've been seen with Hislop. We know he's
you. Let's face it, any fool can tell you would have been locked up a long time
ago if it wasn't for him. Honestly Gerald, do you actually like that
‘No, uh, he just wanted to talk and I listened.’
‘Talk about what?’
‘Well, you know, I guess, my plans to go to university
He said he could help me.’
a smile, chortled, then fell about laughing. After he'd settled down and picked
up the baby, resting her on his chest, he said, ‘And what about your
commitments to me and the gang? You have a lot of important work to do. And I'm
sure you know what it means if you talk to the police, right? Listen to me now
and listen well. I'm going to give you one of these guns and you're going to
take Hislop out. Pop pop, OK? It's the only way I can be sure you're on our
side. I have to be able to trust you one hundred percent from now on. Otherwise
you're no good to me. Now I know this is a big thing I'm asking you to do, fuck
me everyone knows you're thick as two short planks. But I believe in you. I
want to believe in you anyway. Prove to me that my faith is well placed. This
is your last chance. Am I understood?’
Gerald gave a sullen nod and took the gun.
‘I'll text you with instructions when the time is
Gerald went home, his mind swimming with visions of death.
night he dreamt of his grandmother being strangled with a rope. He saw her
blood vessels bursting out of her eyes, her bulbous tongue sticking out of her
mouth. He couldn't see who was murdering her but he felt it could be him. He
woke in a cold sweat and checked his phone. Still no orders from Reece. He
would have to wait.
After saying goodbye to Gerald outside the diner, Hislop
the pub, but he didn't stay long. Instead he journeyed home to spend some time
with his family.
‘This is a pleasant surprise, to what do we owe this
said Marie as Hislop took a seat at the dinner table. She doled out some
casserole for him. The baby sat in his chair and squinted. His lazy eye shifted
about in its socket.
you know, want to
make some changes,’ he said.
‘Well great, about time,’ Marie smiled. ‘Wine?’
They finished the meal, put Stanley to sleep and climbed
into bed. As they switched off their bedside lamps both of them remained
wide-eyed and deep in thought. The night outside seemed to hiss with venomous
‘You never bring your work home with you,’
Marie said, ‘but for
once I want you to talk about it with me. Let me in. I know something is going
‘I thought I could keep it from you. That was the
you're right, there is something. There's some boy at work. He needs help,
‘And you think you're the one to give it to him?’
‘Maybe, yes, I mean, I don't know.’
‘Let me tell you what you do. You steer clear of
this kid as
much as is humanly possible. You don't talk to him; you don't think about him.’
‘But you don't even know who he is and what his situation
‘I don't care. I know your job and the scum you work
are animals, degenerates. Keep away, do you hear me?’
They were quiet for a while and then Hislop broke the silence,
‘I'm having dreams, nightmares. I'm afraid I've already let him in and I can't
push him away. I've opened the door and now I can't shut it.’
‘The only door you need to open is for Stanley, no
He's the one who needs your help and attention. Can't you see we're losing you
to this job of yours? And God knows what danger you're putting yourself in by
associating with some crackhead.’
‘He's not a crackhead. Marie he's actually given
me hope. I can
do something worthwhile for once in a job that's been meaningless for years.
If, that is...’
‘If he doesn't screw it up.’’
‘Please, I'm begging you, stop this madness and focus
important - your family.’
sleep so he took a pillow and a throw and crept into Stanley's room where he
laid down on the floor. Hislop finally nodded off an hour or two before dawn.
He slept beside Stanley every night that week. He and Marie didn't talk about
his new routine and why it was happening because, although Marie wanted to feel
happy about it, she wasn't completely sure if she liked the motives behind his
The week after, Gerald was taking a snooze late in the
afternoon. His dreams incorporated the sounds of an audience applauding from
the television set next door. He was woken by a text from Reece. It spelled out
the details of when and where the hit was to take place. Reece signed off by
saying, ‘Don't fuck it up.’
from his eyes, slipped his feet inside his trainers and picked up the gun from inside
the dresser. The weapon glinted in the shaft of light emanating from the
half-open door. He swallowed. He reached out to his ashtray, took a couple of
puffs from a spliff and then tried to sneak out of the flat before his
grandmother could notice. As he opened the front door it creaked and alerted
her to his presence. She was sitting in the armchair in the living room
watching a game show shrouded by a cloud of weed smoke. Buzzers and ticking
clocks frayed Gerald's nerves.
‘What, you don't want to give a kiss goodbye to your
Gerald's shoulders slumped and he shuffled back inside.
‘What's wrong Gerald? Don't hide anything from me.
always know when there's something up with their boy.’
‘It's nothing gran. How are you feeling?’
‘I'm coping darling, I'm coping. I don't know if
I should tell
you this but that nice police officer paid me a visit the other day. What's his
name? Henry? Harold?’
‘Yes, that's it. Well, we've been talking about you,
and me, but
mostly you and I have to say he really does speak sense. He seems like a good
man and I truly believe that he has your best interests at heart. One day soon
I'd like us all to sit down and have a chat. Now, I don't want to keep you, I
just need my kiss and I'll let you be on your way.’
Gerald dutifully bent down and gave her a peck on the cheek.
was close to tears. He walked out of the flat and told himself under his
breath, ‘Fix up, look sharp, you can do this.’
Gerald to wait in a stairwell on the second floor. The message said Hislop was
expected to arrive, one flight of steps lower, in the hall by the elevators
around five pm. Gerald leaned up against the cold wall with his gun held aloft,
resting it near his cheek. He noticed his shallow breaths. In out, in out. He
noticed the sweat dripping from his forehead. Then he heard voices echo below.
Calling him from hell. It was a conversation between Officers
Gauche and Hislop. He eavesdropped.
‘I gotta say, I'm getting a little tired of this
Gauche. ‘Frankly I don't know if I can carry on much longer.’
‘Who do you think you're fooling? You've said the
same thing every
day for the last ten years,’ said Hislop.
‘Nevertheless. And what about you? You seem to have
spring in your step.’
No, I don't
think anything's different.’
‘I have a feeling I know what's going on.’
‘Oh yeah, what?’
‘Do I have to spell it out?’
‘Yes, I'm afraid you do, because I have no idea what
It's Gerald isn't it?
Tell me, what have you got yourself into?’
‘Come on Gauche, I've told you a million times I
connection to that kid. Now lay off me.’
‘I wish I could, but this is too important to be
‘What do you want me to say?’
‘Say you've been having secret meetings with Gerald
grandmother. Say you've been looking the other way when he's dealing on the
streets or beating up crackheads. For chrissakes, say you're obsessed with him.’
Gerald knew it was time to act. But the words of his grandmother
reverberated through his mind, ‘He wants the best for you, he's a good man.’
Gerald remained frozen in the stairwell, caught between two worlds. The
darkness and the light. All he could do was continue to listen into the cops'
conversation and delay the inevitable.
‘You really want to know what I think of that retard
his crippled nan?’ Hislop said. ‘I'll tell you. He's degenerate scum just like
the rest of the bacteria in this hole of an estate. Yes, I thought I could help
him, yes, I thought I could fix him somehow. But I was wrong, and he and his
gran can rot six feet deep for all I care, because they have brought me nothing
but misery since I met them.’
‘Jeez,’ Gauche said.
‘OK, OK, I believe you. I never knew you felt that
way. I just
‘You thought what?’
‘Never mind. It's history.’
Gerald leapt out of his hiding place and aimed his gun
Hislop's temple. He fingered the trigger lightly but couldn't bring himself to
‘I believed in you,’ he howled, the anguish
painted on his face. ‘You said... you said, and my gran she trusted you.
I'm going to blow your fucking brains out!’
Just then the sound of trainers squeaked on the concrete
behind Gerald. Hislop yelled, ‘Gerald, watch out!’
A gun fired. The blast pulsated around the hallway. Gerald
the deck, collapsing like a wave. His blood and brains were splattered against
the elevator doors as the lift descended to the basement level. The hitman
raced off and disappeared amongst the maze of steps and halls in the building.
Gauche scampered after him. Hislop knelt down next to Gerald's body and wiped
blood from his cheeks. His eyes were open, grey and gone.
‘Shit Gerald, you idiot, what have you done? I didn't
mean it; I
didn’t fucking mean it.’
Gauche returned to the scene with the killer in tow and
certainly do a good impression of not caring for the retard.’
had a blank
give-a-shit stare, yet it was clear he was trying his best to avert his gaze
from the dead body lying at his feet.
‘Looks like Troy here just saved your life, Hislop,’
said. ‘And now we're going to take him to the station to find out why.’
‘No need to wait, I'll tell you right now,’
said Troy. ‘It's a
warning to mind your business and leave the Skelter crew alone. Gerald crossed
the line, there was no helping him. So, now you know that if you want to get
involved again, you can expect the same thing to happen. Without question.’
Hislop flipped. He grabbed Troy by the back of the neck
his face up against Gerald's.
‘Look what you've done!’ he cried. ‘Don't
you care what you've
‘That's enough, Hislop,’ said Gauche. ‘Let
Hislop released Troy who staggered to his feet, shaken.
‘Better him than wiping out some cop. We're not that
‘OK that's enough out of you,’ said Gauche.
‘You're gonna be in
a world of pain. Do you believe in karma? Hislop, go see Reece.’
‘Reece can wait until tomorrow,’ said Hislop,
‘he's not going
anywhere. He'll be waiting for us, he'll be clean. But someone's got to tell
the grandmother. I don't think I can do it.’
‘I'll get Rawdon to pay her a visit. Go home, have
a shower, try
and forget about today. Gerald's not your responsibility, never was.’
Instead of going directly home he decided to walk a lap
the estate in an attempt to clear his mind. He saw rival gangs loitering here
and there, continuing to go about their business, not even scared of dealing in
front of him. A statement had been made. He hated them and yet he realised
Gerald was once one of them, too. Maybe Gerald was the same as all the rest.
But maybe they were all like him—just kids who needed proper help and guidance.
Or they were all psychopaths. Hislop took one last glance behind him as he left
the estate and caught sight of two rival gangs, ten on each side, formed in a
huddle, hurling punches at each other, grunting and groaning. Hislop let it
pass. Not today. And what did it matter if he got involved anyhow? They'd only
be at each other’s throats again the next day. It was insanity.
He hit the pub - propping up the bar, still, quiet, throwing
back pint after pint as punters buzzed around him. Laughter rang out
intermittently as strangers bonded over the pool table and old drunks slept in
Then he went home and tried his best to be quiet as he
the building. Something told him his wife knew he was there but was giving him
a wide berth because, as he crashed about the kitchen searching for coffee, she
made no appearance. He was relieved. He gave up on the coffee and with a shaky
hand drank five glasses of water. He grabbed a bag of tortilla chips from a
cupboard and climbed the stairs. He walked into Stanley's room, closed the
door, and took a seat on the carpet by the cot.
He prised open the crisps and began stuffing them in his
crumbs falling from his lips, scattering around his feet as he sat
cross-legged. He put the bag to one side, still munching away, got to his feet
and arched his head over the cot to peer in at his son who was ensconced
in a blanket, fast asleep.
Hislop picked up Stanley and carried him around the room
unsteady feet. Stanley opened his eyes and yawned. He pawed at Hislop's chin
and looked straight into his father's eyes. The baby seemed to smile.
‘You see me,’ said Hislop in astonishment.
‘I don't believe it,
you see me.’
hugged the baby. He
hugged him tight. Too tight. Stanley wriggled around and tried to cry but his
breath was trapped in his diaphragm. He began to turn blue as his father
continued to squeeze the life out of him. The sun began to rise on another day,
a day like all the rest, where the weak were swallowed by the strong and no one
dared to think twice.
Tim Frank’s short
stories have been published in journals many times, including Bourbon Penn, Bartleby Snopes, Thrice
Fiction, Foliate Oak, and Able Muse.
He is an upcoming writer, specializing in the comic and the
surreal. He has written a semi-autobiographical novel, Devil in my Veins, and
is currently writing a sci-fi thriller