Yellow Mama Archives

Tim Frank
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ym_76_oct19_kidsgames.jpg
Art by Keith Coates Walker © 2019

Kids’ Games

by Tim Frank



Pavel was thirteen when he stabbed a boy for his iPhone in the skate park, near their school. He didn’t mean to kill him, but that’s the way things go, sometimes, and Pavel didn’t lose any sleep over it.

Before the murder, he suffered stark periods of loneliness and gloom, but afterwards, he was almost energized by the strain of becoming a killer. He didn’t know how he’d get away with it, though, as he had no one to help him, no friends, nothing.

As Pavel mulled over his situation on the park bench, a kid from school, Gollum, named because of his strange crouched stance and growling voice, caused by a rare spinal condition at birth, tapped Pavel on the shoulder, and said, “I can help you.”

“What are you talking about?” said Pavel, fiercely eyeballing Gollum, who was holding a graffiti can—paint splattered across his hands and face.

“I saw you. I know the kid you killed, Natty, and I can unlock his phone. I can get rid of the body, too. You know he was a dealer, right? We could take over his business together, storm London town, dominate.”

“Drugs?”

“Yeah, drugs and money,” Gollum hissed.

Pavel didn’t want to lose his high, so against his better judgment, knowing Gollum was trouble, he agreed to a partnership.

They found the drugs in Natty’s school locker. Gollum wheezed in delight as he handled the contraband and slipped it inside his rucksack. They were ready to go.

The first deal they set up was through Natty’s Instagram account, that linked them to a boy who walked with a fake limp, had burns across his arms, and was puffing on a cigarette, like he was inhaling laughing gas. He was called Benzo and must have been eleven.

“Who’s this freak?” said Benzo, nodding at Gollum. “Actually, it doesn’t matter. Look, I don’t know who you guys are, but this dust better be lit, or me and my crew will track you down.”

 

But Natty’s coke delivered, and the word spread, until they caught the attention of a crime boss called Ryno.

Ryno was known as the Acid King. A sixteen-year-old from Walthamstow, he would line up trips in a bandana, lie in a tanning bed, and wait for the sweat to help absorb the acid into his forehead. He was always far gone. But this didn’t hinder his business acumen.

“I want you to sell something for me,” he said, staring fixedly at a spot on the ceiling, as if the center of the universe was poking through. A burly man in a tie-dyed sleeveless T-shirt exposing his biceps dumped a brick of coke on the table. Gollum fidgeted uncontrollably.

“Play your cards right,” said Ryno, playing with a Rubik’s cube, “and the world is yours.”

It was left to Gollum and Pavel to divide the coke up into little baggies, ready to be sold on the street. They kept the drugs at Gollum’s place because his parents were always out, working.

Once everything had been prepared, they alerted the major crews around London. As the gangs converged on the meeting point—the skate park at night— Pavel noticed in the half-light that Gollum had blood seeping from his eyeballs.

“Oh, shit, Gollum, what have you done?” Pavel said, and then dug inside Gollum’s backpack and found handfuls of empty bags of coke.

Gollum gasped and began to hyperventilate.

Then, out of the blue, Pavel was grabbed from behind, and his throat was slit.

The perpetrator was from Pavel’s art class and said, “This one’s for Natty.”

Gollum hobbled away to safety, holding onto the bag of drugs for dear life.

Crews arrived at the park—the raggas from Stonebridge, the dreads from Camden, the Irish from Kilburn, and the Russians from Shoreditch—everyone ready to kick off.

Pavel bled to death where it all began. He sensed the last flickering light of his consciousness slowly fade.

Before he passed on, he felt as if he was soaring through the sky, never to land, his short life lived to the fullest.

 

 

The Bridge is Over

 

Tim Frank

That night the artist wore his hoodie up, a pollution mask strapped across his face, a shaded figure hidden in plain sight under the spotlights of the London underground.  When the time was right, he slipped into a tunnel. The trains had all been docked in their depots and the artist was venturing deeper into the darkness than he'd ever been before, past where any graffitist would ever want to go because in this murky world filled with scuttling rats nibbling on crisp packets not even the most determined tagger would see the sense of facing this abyss. Why did he do it? For the business commuters - their heads buried in their papers, oblivious to the signs he’d carefully crafted outside their windows charging past at sixty miles an hour? No, the artist carried out his task despite this, because what he really wanted was another challenge, another surface, another piece, to elevate his art to the next level.

That night inside the tunnel, after he’d finished a new work, he heard a stone collide against a railway track and like a frightened rabbit the artist raised his head, packed his spray cans and darted out of the area without looking back. As he made his getaway a beam of light was cast from a phone, confirming to the artist someone had really been there and he wasn't losing his mind. As he bolted out of the tunnel, a couple of note pads came loose, tumbling to the dirt out of his rucksack.

In a park the next night, the artist was sketching in new pads, starting from scratch - drawing a tree lit from beneath a street lamp, a still and sparse winter scene, as if God had pressed pause on nature. A teenage boy in baggy jeans and puffed up trainers placed himself beside the artist on the park bench, catching him off-guard. The artist hurriedly began to pack his things but the kid said, ‘I'm Jeff. Don't go, I've wanted to talk to you for so long.’

Jeff had a cockney accent and a shaved head. It was like he was out of the past, a relic of style and attitude - overly familiar and without boundaries. Some would say he had no respect.

‘What do you know about me?’

‘I know you push things to the limit. I know you're serious, deadly serious - tagging is no joke for you. I'm with you on that. You might have seen my tag. I go by CNN. We could make a team. Look, it's cold out here, let's get a coffee and talk about it.’

Intrigued, because he believed maybe someone had truly noticed him, because he had nowhere to go except home and that was no place to be, he followed Jeff to the local hospital café where they sat opposite each other and sipped coffee from Styrofoam cups in the antiseptic surroundings.

They remained in silence for minutes. ‘You don't say much,’ said Jeff.

The artist wriggled in shame and discomfort. ‘I'm a bit shy,’ he said.

‘Oh, well, that's not a bad thing. Hey, I'm happy to do the talking. They don’t call me CNN for nothing. Listen,’ Jeff said leaning in conspiratorially, ‘I have this plan to tag suicide bridge in Amersham, the ultimate score, the Heaven tag.’

‘I know the place. But I can’t. To be honest, I just don’t think I’m ready yet. There's more for me to study.’

‘You're ready, I've seen your stuff around, my mates have too, we're all convinced. And joining up with me, well, we can make history. You're not afraid, are you?’

That jolted the artist into life, ‘I've tagged more dangerous spots than I can count. I work on the edge because I’m representing myself with every throw-up. I'm not scared. I work alone, instead of with a crew, for my own reasons. Of course, everyone's goal is to make their mark on suicide bridge but...’

‘But what?’

‘But, finding the right time is key.’

‘OK, Ok, guess I hit a nerve, I'm sorry. Hey, let's go to the park and get stoned.’

‘I don't smoke, never tried it once. I need the loo.’

Jeff watched as the artist shifted his way around tables and chairs towards the toilet. He opened the door and there was a half-naked couple coiled around each other, their bodies angled uncomfortably on the loo.

‘Get out!’

As the artist found another toilet, Jeff quickly pulled out a notepad and flipped through it until he came to a page he had clearly studied before. There was a drawing of a woman with a mane of hair cascading down to her shoulders and emerging from the curly locks was the word 'Mum' intricately designed. Underneath were the words, 'If I am not my body, not my senses, what am I? I am immortal.'

The toilet door opened and Jeff was able to hide the pad before the artist returned.

‘I've been thinking,’ said the artist, ‘maybe you could show me how to smoke weed. It could be fun, but I hear it makes you paranoid.’

‘That's why you need to do it with someone you can trust. Let's go.’

It only took several puffs for the artist to break out of his shell and talk a blue streak, reminiscing about things he hadn't focused on since time had set them in dust.

‘There was the time my girlfriend and I, we must have been eleven years old, played dare with oncoming traffic, dodging cars with glee, then after a near miss, one afternoon, I was rewarded with my first kiss by the roadside as drivers honked their horns in celebration. Or that's what it seemed like.’

 He told other tales but he was getting very stoned now and he was going in circles, stuck in the coils of memory.

In a moment of silence, Jeff said, ‘Did something happen to your mum?’

The artist shut down immediately, filled with suspicion. ‘What do you know about my mum?’

‘I, er, it's just you haven't mentioned her.’

‘Have you been following me?’

‘No, I always hang out at this park and I know you do too, but I’ve never wanted to bother you. I was in the tunnel the other night. I wasn't following you though. It's like I've been thinking, we're on the same path. You dropped some pads. I met you here tonight to return them.’

 ‘You stole my pads?’ the artist exclaimed. ‘Give them back now.’

‘Sure, sure, listen, this looks bad but I just wanted to know about you. You're destined for greatness and I want to be on the front line when it happens - maybe you can teach me what you know and help me get there too?’

‘You'll never make it, because you're a thief and a hack. I've seen your tags and your throw-ups and even your most ambitious pieces show you have zero flair and zero inspiration.’

‘But if you show me, if you explain, maybe...’

‘Trust me,’ the artist said, snatching his notepads from Jeff, ‘you don't have it in you. Just give up, because you're giving us all a bad name and turning the city into a cesspit.’

The next day, the clear light from the mid-afternoon sun mirrored the artist's clarity of thought. Far from feeling hungover from smoking grass for the first time or harbouring any bitterness about the fight he had with Jeff, he felt guilty and ashamed of his actions and went to the park to make amends.

When he arrived the sound of skateboards striking concrete curbs and wooden benches echoed around the area like ripples of a wave. Jeff was surrounded by other taggers, skaters too and he stood on a bench as if he was lecturing on preacher's corner. The artist couldn't hear what he was saying and, feeling he’d wasted his time, he turned from the crowd to leave. A few seconds later he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and saw Jeff smiling at him, surrounded by the rest of his crew who were analysing him like he had just caught a fly in one hand and they couldn't fathom how.

‘I didn't expect to see you again,’ Jeff said, as the skateboarders' beady eyes scoured his profile for something - a sign maybe, to capture his essence. The artist blushed violently.

‘Is this him?’ said one skater.

‘Uh-huh. Give him some room boys, come on now please,’ said Jeff.

The artist wanted to collapse in on himself like a Venus fly trap. Jeff put his arm around the artist's shoulder, led him to a quiet spot in the park that was dotted with auburn, dried-out leaves. He said, ‘Ignore them, they're just shocked they've seen someone in this game that's better than me.’

‘I'm not better than you, we just have different styles.’

‘I wish it was that simple. But thanks for saying so.’

‘Look I was thinking,’ said the artist, ‘I have this piece I've been carrying in my head for a while, haven't even sketched it yet. It's not ready, but I believe it could be something. How about we work together on it? A way of apologising for what I said last night. I know you've got skills. And I know the perfect place to spray it.’

So, the artist let Jeff into his room, where no one – not even friends or family, were allowed to enter, regardless of the occasion. They worked in there day and night, sparking ideas off each other while crawling about amongst piles of old stencils and posters the artist had discarded, many of them with the same design; a pregnant woman holding her belly as if she was cupping a giant crystal ball. They lived off stale pizza and smoked hash that made them low and mean but it seemed to fit the situation perfectly.

One day Jeff just blurted out, ‘The pregnant woman, it's your mum isn't? Please tell me what happened.’

The artist thought carefully and then said, ‘She died in a car crash. She was eight months pregnant. I was in the back seat. My dad and I survived.’

‘I'm so sorry.’

‘Yeah, and I've been trying to reach her ever since.’

‘What do you mean reach her?’

‘Find a way to contact her or connect with her, something like that.’

‘Through your pieces.’

‘Exactly.’

‘That's why I can never be like you, I need a muse.’

‘You want your family to die?’

‘No, of course not, but nevertheless I want something in my life to inspire me.’

‘I'd rather be happy. There's only so much soul searching someone can do without becoming jaded and just sick inside.’

‘But look at this, look at the colours, the colours,’ Jeff exclaimed, clutching reams of paper covered with illustrations. ‘This stuff will make you a legend.’

‘You don't understand, all the pieces I have aren't even close to how they should be, how I pictured them in my mind. I can feel it and see it but I can't put it down on paper.’

‘I don't get it, just what is it that you want?’

‘I want to stretch the boundaries between life and death. I want to reach the other side.’

‘Let's get this piece out on the streets tomorrow. People need to see what you can do; they've been waiting for it - whether they know it or not.’

The next night they set out on their most ambitious mission yet - to graffiti the suicide bridge in Amersham. Trains would whirl through all night, making the bridge more difficult to access and it was high, creating a treacherous drop. It was almost impossible to find a comfortable position to paint as the bridge’s brickwork would give way at any moment. But it was worth it. The fact people went there to kill themselves only added to its allure. The bridge was dank, and sparse lighting created a gloom that spread like mist from a spray can. There was a young man there, cradling a bottle of JD in his hand, pacing back and forth, making indentations in the mud. The artist paid him no mind and started work on his piece - climbing over the lip of the bridge, held in place by Jeff.

‘Why are you here?! Why are you here?!’ cried the young man suddenly. The artist and Jeff ignored him and the artist got to work until after thirty minutes he said, ‘Pull me up.’

Jeff lifted the artist up on to the bridge and they gave each other smiles and a fist bump. The artist had finished the background, the splashes and added the cast shadow; ‘I’m done,’ he said.

‘So, you just need to sign it and we're good to go,’ said Jeff.  ‘Rest a bit and then I’ll help you down to put the finishing touch.’ After stretching his legs and arms, the artist knocked back hot cocoa from a flask and then, holding onto Jeff’s muscular frame, he took his position to complete his piece.

 The young man leant his head over the bridge and said, ‘You shouldn't be doing this, it's my area.’ He leant his head in close to Jeff's so Jeff could smell his toxic breath.

‘Get out!’ the young man cried.

Jeff loosened his grip on the artist's hand. A spray can spilled from the artist's grasp and he said urgently, ‘Jeff, have you got me?’

‘I've got you.’

And then a dark thought clouded Jeff's mind.

‘Get off me!’ Jeff cried.

‘What's going on Jeff? ’said the artist.

‘This guy, he's attacking me. I'm losing my grip. He won't let go; I don't know how much longer I can hold on.’

The young man was doing nothing of the sort. He was sitting on his haunches, huddled up with his back to the bridge, muttering to himself. An oncoming train could be heard as whipping sounds shot up and down the tracks.

The artist looked up at Jeff's strained expression, then back towards the hurtling train and said, ‘It's OK, Jeff, I'm ready. I've done it, I've got it out of me, the best I can anyway. I can live with it.’

The artist was released. As if in slow motion his arms and legs flailed like an upturned spider trapped in a glass. A spray can landed before him, creating a metallic crack as it landed on one of the sleepers. He plummeted to his demise as the train's wheels rolled on, ruthlessly gutting the artist. Blood settled on the tracks.

The young man sobered instantly and said, ‘I saw what you did, I know what you did.’

Jeff turned to him with a stern face, ‘You better get out of here. Who do you think they're going to believe? I'm his friend, you're just some drunk nutjob who doesn't care about life or death. Now go on before I call the cops on you right now.’

 The young man dropped his bottle and it crashed to the ground sending shards of glass scattering across the patchy tarmac. Whisky drenched the ground. He ran. Jeff looked from side to side, checking for onlookers, but he was in the clear.  He bent down over the edge of bridge and tagged the piece the artist had painted. It was still pitch black. Night was his ally, for the time being. By the morning he’d be immortal.




Concrete Jungle

 

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 up and 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 anyone.’

‘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 a 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 them 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 cancerous breast.

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,’ she said.

Gerald slipped the phone inside his jacket pocket and took a 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 tell you.’

She laid the joint in an ashtray, letting it burn out by itself 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 gran, you'll see.’

Gerald's grandmother sighed, sparked up her joint and said, ‘You 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. As 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 into the living room.

‘I've put Stanley to bed. Would you at least like to say goodnight to him?’

‘Can't it wait?’ he said. ‘I need a cup of coffee.’

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 a 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 expression.

‘He still doesn't recognise me,’ Hislop said, as Stanley began to wail.

‘Give it time,’ Marie said.

‘Right. Time.’

A few days later Hislop was patrolling one of the blocks when he 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 his chafed wrists.

‘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?’

‘Well, yeah.’

A waitress wearing her hair in a bun and an apron with a picture of a bull etched on the front came to serve them.

‘Give us a double patty diablo with the works. Fries and a chocolate milkshake too. I'll just have a light beer, thanks,’ said Hislop.

The waitress jotted down the order but before she could leave Gerald said, ‘What are you looking at?’

‘Excuse me, sir?’

‘You know what I'm talking about. What the fuck are you looking at?’

‘Go easy Gerald,’ said Hislop. ‘Nobody's judging you, right miss?’

‘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 order. He flicked through the mini jukebox that was positioned on the side of their table.

‘I've been watching you Gerald. You may not know it but I've been looking out for your wellbeing.’

 ‘Looking out how?’

‘Just... Looking out. I know your grandmother.’

‘Oh yeah?’ Gerald said, all cagey.

‘We speak sometimes. She's a good woman who cares deeply for you.’

‘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?’

‘How what?’

‘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 said, 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.’

‘Enlighten me.’

‘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 even know 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 don't know.’’

 Gerald stood 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 hood, dealing 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 and 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 Gerald 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 over.’

Gerald picked up the baby and caught a glimpse straight into her 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 noises.

‘Gerald, you've been seen with Hislop. We know he's been helping 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 shitbag?’

‘No, uh, he just wanted to talk and I listened.’

‘Talk about what?’

‘Well, you know, I guess, my plans to go to university and that. He said he could help me.’

 ‘University?’ Reece cracked 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 right.’

Gerald went home, his mind swimming with visions of death. That 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 went to 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 honour?’ 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.

 ‘Just, 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 intent.

‘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 on.’

‘I thought I could keep it from you. That was the plan. But you're right, there is something. There's some boy at work. He needs help, Marie.’

‘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 is like.’

‘I don't care. I know your job and the scum you work with. They are animals, degenerates. Keep away, do you hear me?’

They were quiet for a while and then Hislop broke the silence, saying, ‘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 one else. 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 what?’

‘If he doesn't screw it up.’’

‘Please, I'm begging you, stop this madness and focus on what's important - your family.’

 That night Hislop couldn't 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 new behaviour.

                                                  *

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.’

 Gerald wiped the sleep 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 gran?’ she said.

Gerald's shoulders slumped and he shuffled back inside.

‘What's wrong Gerald? Don't hide anything from me. Grandmas 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?’

‘Hislop.’

‘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. He was close to tears. He walked out of the flat and told himself under his breath, ‘Fix up, look sharp, you can do this.’

 Reece's text had directed 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 place,’ said 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 a new-found spring in your step.’

 ‘Really? 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 you're talking about.’

 ‘OK. 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 have no connection to that kid. Now lay off me.’

‘I wish I could, but this is too important to be brushed under the carpet.’

‘What do you want me to say?’

‘Say you've been having secret meetings with Gerald and his 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 Gerald and 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, OK, I believe you. I never knew you felt that way. I just thought...’

‘You thought what?’

‘Never mind. It's history.’

Gerald leapt out of his hiding place and aimed his gun at Hislop's temple. He fingered the trigger lightly but couldn't bring himself to shoot.

‘I believed in you,’ he howled, the anguish and confusion 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 from behind Gerald. Hislop yelled, ‘Gerald, watch out!’

A gun fired. The blast pulsated around the hallway. Gerald hit 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 said, ‘You certainly do a good impression of not caring for the retard.’

 The prisoner 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,’ Gauche 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 and forced his face up against Gerald's.

‘Look what you've done!’ he cried. ‘Don't you care what you've done?!’

‘That's enough, Hislop,’ said Gauche. ‘Let him go.’

Hislop released Troy who staggered to his feet, shaken.

‘Better him than wiping out some cop. We're not that stupid,’ Troy said.

‘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 around 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 booths.

Then he went home and tried his best to be quiet as he entered 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 mouth, 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 on 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.’

He 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 novel.




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