Bryan Hemming

short stories, comment, articles, humour and photography

Enough for a Lifetime

GlasgowFour hundred and eighty pounds in fifties and twenties. Two fifty euro notes, three twenties, a ten, a couple of fives and a handful of mixed loose change. Where had the rest gone?

Eddie counted the notes over and over, half-expecting them to multiply. But whichever way he did it, the final tally always came out the same. He never thought the money would run out so fast.

He knew it would all go wrong the moment Rab tossed the handgun onto the bed. A smaller, but nastier looking tool, it wasn’t the replica he’d shown Ed before. Then came the live rounds. Begging him not to load it, Eddie threatened to pull out. Rab just laughed, telling him not to be such a fuckin’ wuss, saying he’d never use it. It was just a back-up. If he did have to pull the trigger, he’d aim at the ceiling. Stupid.

To stop his mind repeatedly straying back to the numbing moment everything had changed, Eddie tussled with how he’d managed to blow so much cash in the few months since he’d arrived in Marbella. The first couple of weeks were lost in such a haze of booze and coke he could hardly piece them together. That’s when and where most of it had gone.

“You shouldna ha’ loaded the fucking gun!” he swore, stuffing the remaining money back into the zip-up bag, “I told ye not tae! Ye wouldnae listen, would ye?” But Rab was no longer there to hear him.

At the start, it all went to plan. Staring down the barrel of a gun, and seeing the wired look in Rab’s methed-out stare, the chief cashier acted sensibly, emptying each drawer in turn before handing large wads of notes over the counter.

Sod’s law had to dictate an armed policeman would amble by just as Eddie had crammed the last wad into the bag. Drawing his own piece, the officer burst through the doors yelling for them to surrender their weapons and get down onto the floor ‘nice and easy like’. Eddie knew the game was up. Raising his hands high, to show he wasn’t armed, he dropped slowly to his knees in the full belief Rab would surely do the same.

The deafening crack that followed would remain with him forever. He turned to see the grin on Rab’s face, as the dying officer crumpled. With the second crack, Rab’s grin transformed into a look of incomprehension. He clawed at his stomach, a fountain of blood spurting between his fingers. The gun clattered against marble tiles. For Eddie, a matter of seconds had become a lifetime.

A woman’s belated scream broke his trance. Suddenly, he was up on his feet and running. Out of the bank, along the street, his head filling with real or imaginary sirens, screeching brakes, and shouting. Lots of shouting. He kept running and running. Never once turning his head to looked back, he hurtled along familiar and unfamiliar streets, shooting up narrow alleyways, leaping fences, scrambling over walls, and stumbling through back gardens. He didn’t stop till was through the door of his bedsit in the Barras.

Once it was shut, locked and chained, he leaned his back against it, fighting for every breath. Only then he realised he was still clutching the bag. Gripped by the weird sensation it’d taken on a life of its own, he could no longer bear to touch it, swiftly tossing it onto the bed, as though it were diseased. For a fleeting moment, he felt an urge to throw it out the window, for fear of being infected. The moment having eventually passed, he dumped himself beside it, his hands shaking uncontrollably. Whether he liked it or not, he was infected. Grabbing a half-full bottle of whisky on the top of his bedside table, he swigged nearly a quarter of what remained, spilling another quarter down his chin. The bottle stood empty before he dare look at the bag again.

Unzipping it slightly, he saw the money still there. There being no reason for it not to be. Great wads of fifty and twenty-pound notes. Unable to count, or even handle them, he hurriedly zipped it back. There was no time. No time to think. He yanked the drawer out of the bedside table, almost pulling it over. Pieces of paper, pens that no longer wrote, loose change and long-dead batteries, cascaded out, rolling and scattering everywhere. Falling to his knees he scrabbled through the papers. Unanswered mail, unpaid bills, and unopened bank statements, all testaments to a life of things undone. His hand alighting on his passport he stuffed in his jacket pocket. Grabbing a change of clothes, some underwear, and a toothbrush, he bundled them into another bag before rushing from the room, bolting downstairs and out of the house before the police arrived.

The overnight coach from Glasgow pulled into London’s Victoria bus station early next morning. At the news-stand Eddie expected to see headlines full of it. The Scottish dailies would be. Glancing furtively as he passed, he saw no mention. At least, not on the front pages. At Waterloo he bought an Evening Standard from a street vendor, flipping quickly through. Nothing there either. He couldn’t help thinking it must be some sort of trick, and kept having to stop himself from peering over a shoulder, to see if he was being followed. For almost an hour he wandered the station platforms avoiding the railway police while trying not to look suspicious.

Finally, leaning against a pillar with the newspaper concealing most of his face, he eyed the Eurostar ticket office for signs of police activity. Seeing the mid-morning train to Paris was about to board, he made up his mind to move. Eyes front, he strode up to the window. When the ticket clerk took his passport, she seemed to take an age comparing his likeness before issuing a ticket. He fully expected to see blue uniforms heading in his direction, or to feel the hand of the law on his shoulder before boarding the train. Nothing of the sort.

The stop at Ashford came unexpectedly. At the scream of brakes he sat up with a jolt, his blood running cold. Sweat leaked from his forehead. A full five minutes passed before the engines revved up again.

Finally, they emerged on the other side of the Channel tunnel to speed through the French countryside as though on wings. By two o’clock, local time, he’d arrived at Gare du Nord.

Two days later he was in Marbella, the nightmare of being on the run over for the time being. That only gave him even more time to think of the nightmare that had preceded it. All along the way the bag had remained zipped. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to reckon up the haul.

When he finally tipped the wads onto the hotel bed he counted out slightly more than twenty grand. Enough for a lifetime, Rab and he had always thought. Looking at it now he knew it wasn’t nearly enough.

Fully expecting a tug on his collar at any time, he started spending as though he only anticipated living for a fortnight. There was more than enough for that. Booking into a better hotel he bought expensive clothes, treated himself to the white linen, dinner jacket he’d always promised he’d have some day. He bought a leather suitcase in which to keep them. He scored gram upon gram of cocaine, and found more than enough beautiful women to share it. They dined at the best restaurants and drank the finest champagne, usually ending up at a roulette wheel in the early hours of the morning with piles of multi-coloured chips in front of them. By dawn he would be down to the last few, which he would toss across the table to the croupier. Without Rab at his side, somehow, they seemed tainted.

Ten days passed before he counted the notes again. Down to £5,420. He couldn’t believe it. At that rate he’d be through the lot by the end of the week. There was no way he could keep it up. He would have to leave the temptations of Marbella behind.

Booking out of the hotel, he hired a car to take him further down the coast. His idea to find somewhere cheap and simple, somewhere the air was clean. Somewhere he could wash away the grubbiness he felt clinging to his very being. Somewhere to hole up, while deciding what next to do.

At Estepona he turned off the coast road and headed into the mountains, stopping off here and there to look at little pueblos and towns. Nowhere felt quite right. Most of the places were too small. He felt too conspicuous. Two nights he slept in the car because of his growing paranoia.

After criss-crossing his way slowly west towards the Atlantic, he turned south, eventually reaching Santa Catalina one grey and windy afternoon.

Out of season, the small seaside resort stood suspended in gentle hibernation. Its streets were practically deserted. The few bars still open had virtually no customers. Tired of looking, weary of running, there was nowhere left to go. And this looked like nowhere, as much as anywhere ever could. Anonymous and undistinguished, a good enough place to take stock. He would stay put for a few weeks while making up his mind what to do next. Rab would’ve known what to do. Rab always knew what to do. Except for the morning in the bank. “Ye shouldna ha’ loaded the fucking gun! I told ye not tae! But ye wouldnae listen, would ye? Ye had to go and load it!”

The only guest at the rundown Ceuta Hotel, his room was poky and dark. The shower didn’t work properly and the hand basin was cracked. Just what he’d been used to all his life. It’d taken little more than a fortnight to sink back to the state he thought he’d left forever.

Grey days spent wandering aimlessly along the sweeping, empty beach watching silver Atlantic rollers thunder in from some blown-out hurricane thousands of miles away, he almost felt happy. The few occasions the ocean was calm he’d pick up small flat stones to send them skimming across its surface. If it was warm enough he’d go for a swim. Sunny days, he’d lie on the sand gazing up at blue skies for hours on end. Till images of Rab’s startled expression, as he clutched his torn stomach, formed themselves out of passing clouds. The face of fear, in the knowledge he was about to die, written all over it; blood gushing between his fingers. If only he hadn’t loaded the gun.

Each evening he would drown those visions in a fog of alcoholic haze. Only for them to drift back and haunt him with each morning hangover.

They had grown up together. The first time he met Rab they were both seven years old. New boy, Eddie, in the school playground surrounded by a gang of bullies trying to steal his dinner money. Fists flying, Rab forced his way between them and sent the biggest packing with a bloody nose. Years later, when Eddie asked, Rab told him he’d done it for the crack, as much as anything. He hadn’t given a flying  fuck who Eddie was. He didn’t fuckin’ know or fuckin’ care. That was Rab, alright.

Rab took him to his first football match. Celtic and Rangers, of course. Celtic pissed on Rangers. The young lads celebrated with their first puff of spliff, tossed to the ground by a deliriously drunken fan as he left the match.

And it was Rab who led him into a life of crime, though he was sure he would’ve turned out much the same had it not been for Rab. Skipping class, one day, they went on a shoplifting spree. Wandering from shop to shop, they stole sweets, comics and anything else they could lay their sticky, little fingers on. Right up till the moment they were caught by one keen-eyed shopkeeper.

Locking the shop door he herded them into a darkened back room. At the sight of him unbuckling his belt they fully expected a thrashing. Instead of which, he demanded if one of them sucked him off, he wouldn’t call the bobbies. Rab said he’d do it, calling him ‘sir’. Adding he loved the taste of spunk. The shopkeeper smiled. As soon as his trousers dropped below his knees, Rab aimed a sharp kick at his bollocks. The shopkeeper doubled up, yelling in pain. His ankles caught up in his trouser legs, he toppled over. They managed to tie him to a shelf support by his wrists before leaving, after they’d stuffed his underpants in his mouth and robbed the till on the way out.

Rab and Eddie became inseparable. Hardly ever going to school, they spent most of their days out on the streets, free as birds. Word went round the tenements ‘that pair’ were bound for serious trouble, sooner or later.

They played footie with empty cans, threw stones at street signs, stole anything that wasn’t tied down, and fought with other lads. They smashed windows of disused factories, broke into warehouses and set fire to abandoned car wrecks. They taunted the old and bullied the young. When they had enough money, they got older boys to buy cider, and drank it in derelict flats. Then they stumbled about drunkenly, giggling at each other, pissing against the walls to see who could piss the highest. They smoked dope and sniffed speed.

Most market days they went to the Barras to run errands for the stallholders. Fetching tea and laying bets with illicit bookies in exchange for pocket money and cigarettes. They shared everything. On Eddie’s tenth birthday, they cut their thumbs and mingled their blood to bond themselves as lifelong brothers.

When Eddie’s mother OD’d on smack, before he was twelve years old, Rab turned up at the funeral. No other fucker did. Not even his dad. He had abandoned family life for the bottle long before.

It rained the sort of cold rain that plasters your hair to your forehead like grease. Raindrops trickled down the gully formed by the nape of Eddie’s neck and on, beneath his shirt collar, as he waited to go into the chapel of rest. They rolled down his face and cheeks, disguising his tears, before seeping their salt into the corners of his mouth, as lead grey skies opened up, as if to share his grief. But they couldn’t hide the redness of his eyes.

Rab had walked the four miles to the crematorium. He was sopping to the skin. Ed’s gran in hospital, after trying to top herself, just he, Eddie, and a bored social worker stood watching the coffin disappear into the furnace on the other side of the wall, Rab slipping a comforting arm round Eddie’s shoulders.

Eddie never went back to the family flat after the funeral. The social worker wouldn´t let him. She took him straight to a home for orphans and strays. The unwanted. There, he became truly alone in the world for the very first time in his life, except for Rab. They were blood brothers.

“Ye stupid fucking arsehole! Why did ye have to go and load the gun? I told ye not tae, but ye wouldnae listen!” No matter how hard he tried, Eddie couldn’t push the bloody image from his mind.

The orphanage was more a finishing school for young delinquents. He learned to break into houses undetected, as the occupants slept, and how to hot-wire cars.

Their first armed robbery was a Pakistani newsagents. Fifteen years old, flying on quarter of whizz and half a bottle of vodka, they threatened to stripe the owner’s face with a Stanley knife. Forty-three quid. “Enough for a week!” they shouted. And spent the lot the same afternoon at an amusement arcade.

The newsagent spotted them passing his shop two days later. He called the police. After their arrest, Rab swore he’d get him.

As they were being sentenced the procurator told them they were menace from which society demanded protection. They didn’t see each other for three years.

Five months after their release the Pakistani newsagent was found bleeding to death behind the counter of his shop. There were twenty-four stab wounds to his neck and torso. Word got round, the young police officer, who found the body, threw-up all over it. Eddie never knew whether it was Rab or not. When asked, Rab just smiled. “He got what was coming,” was all he would say.

The only time Eddie saw his dad again, he was sitting under the arches of a railway viaduct. Huddled round a fire in an old oil drum, with some other winos, he sat swigging from a bottle of Tesco’s own brand scotch. Eddie went over to talk to him. Close up, his unshaven face was red and bloated from drink, his flaky scalp covered with scabs, his pitted nose bent and broken. He reeked of stale piss. At first, he didn’t recognise Eddie. Then it dawned.

“Fuck off!” he shouted at him, “Fuck off! Ye scrounging wee bugger! Ye’ll not get a penny from me! Fuck off!” Not knowing what to say, Eddie turned and fled, the abuse ringing about his ears long after he had disappeared round a corner. He was only going to ask why he hadn’t turned up at mam’s funeral. He wished he’d kicked the old bastard’s head in.

Two month’s drinking in Santa Catalina and he hardly dare count his money. He would rummage in the holdall for a few notes every few of days to change at the bank. But his hand was having to search more and more. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the day of reckoning came, and he’d have to think of what to do next. Rab would’ve known what to do. Rab always knew what to do.

Another week passed. He could postpone it no longer. The manager of the Ceuta Hotel caught him sneaking out of his room several times, asking him when he was going to pay his bill. Eddie just nodded and smiled.

With a sigh of resignation he tipped the remaining notes from the bag and laid them in rows on the bed, before emptying his pockets. Four hundred and eighty pounds in fifties and twenties. Two fifty euro notes, three twenties, a ten, a couple of fives and a handful of mixed loose change. Where had the rest gone?

Though more than enough for the return journey to Glasgow, he was determined not to go back. To go back would mean facing a long stretch inside. Killing anybody in an armed robbery was bad enough, but killing a cop would mean being banged up forever. Or as near as damn. Even though he hadn’t pulled the trigger, he would be treated as though he had.

He stared at the notes laid out on the bed. There was the bill for his room to settle. A quick mental calculation told him he’d hardly have anything left. Yet he couldn’t keep stalling forever. There was no time to think. Rab would’ve known what to do.

“Ye shouldna ha’ loaded the fucking gun!” he spat, as he stuffed the money back into the zip-up, “I told ye not tae. Ye wouldnae listen, would ye?” But Rab was no longer there to hear him.

It was still dark when he crept out of his room and down the stairs in socked feet. Nobody tending reception, he retrieved his passport from a drawer and left the key to his room on the desk. Taking the first morning bus out of Santa Catalina, he didn’t even register where it was bound.

Cádiz lay about an hour’s drive north. As the bus hauled along the long boulevard leading into the city centre, he saw it was as good a place to stay as any. It was big. Big enough to get lost in. Big enough to die in without anybody noticing. The thought came from nowhere.

Booking into a cheap pension in a warren of narrow side streets he counted his money yet again. Still it came out the same, minus the bus fare of four euros and sixty-seven centimos. Even if he was really careful, it’d just be a matter of weeks before it ran out completely.

Wherever he went he couldn’t escape the bars. They were everywhere. And drink was cheap. If he couldn’t escape them, at least he could escape his memories.

He started drinking as soon he got up. Before he’d even had anything to eat. The refuge of sleep having deserted him, he would tumble out of bed, struggle into his clothes, and head for the nearest bar. He soon learned the cheapest passage to oblivion was via the white fino poured from barrels into recycled Coca-Cola bottles the locals drank. He never counted how many it took, but by the time he staggered back to the pension each evening he was well and truly blathered.

He met the middle-aged Argentine whore in one of many bars. Through a broken mouth, in broken English, she shared her life story, as he shared his fino. A fair enough exchange, he thought, in a life where loneliness had begun to cast a permanent shadow. They got through six or seven bottles before stumbling across the road to the house where she rented a room. Next morning, the landlady showed him a spare one, and he moved in.

A squalid building stuffed with life’s collateral damage the only name for it was a dump. The sheets were grubby, and what furniture there was, dilapidated. Yet, at less than half the price of the pension, it would be a roof over his head for twice as long, by his reckoning. However long that turned out to be. But that didn’t account for the Argentine whore. He knew she would only hang round for as long as his money did.

With her in tow they pissed up over half the remainder in less than a week. What was left lasted to the following night when they were confronted by a mugger, as they staggered back to the house. Hardly able to stand, Eddie lashed out. Too late, he saw the glint of the blade.

Out of a nightmare of gunshots, with Rab staring down at the gaping hole in his stomach spilling entrails and spurting blood, Eddie moved into a dream of glaring fluorescent tubes rushing along the ceiling, as he gently rocked from side to side. There were urgent voices, as though a radio or television was playing in another room. If this was heaven somebody should change the lighting. An angel face smiled bizarrely into his, asking something in an angel tongue he hardly understood, the words at such odds with the angel mouth moving in eccentric fashion. It took him some minutes to work out the angel face, looking down, was upside down.

As the doctor sewed his ragged upper lip back into one, he told him how lucky he was to be alive. If the guardia civil hadn’t come along when they did, he would’ve been dead. Whichever way he looked at it, Eddie could only think how unlucky he was. His assailant had got away.

Back at the tumbledown house it came as no shock to find the Argentine whore gone. Without a word, or paying the rent she owed, she had slipped out of her room that morning unnoticed. Eddie climbed the stairs to his room, the landlady shouting and cursing unintelligibly at his back.

Just as expected, the zip-up bag was gone. As was the passport he’d taped to the underside of the bed frame. Along with it, the fifty pound note secreted amongst its pages, ready for such an emergency. As an act of kindness, or in her haste, the Argentine whore had left the leather suitcase containing the clothes he’d bought in Marbella.

His jeans were still damp where he’d wet himself during his beating. Nothing left in the pockets save bits of paper sodden with piss. He peered at the face in the mirror over the basin with detachment. The cheeks hadn’t seen a razor in almost a week, the scalp was scabbed and flaking. The eyes were puffed and bagged. The surrounding skin, purple, yellow and blue, the nose pitted and bent. The mouth had swollen out of recognition. At his touch, the lips felt like they belonged to someone else. Black blood stitches stood proud like charred bonsai twigs. In the places not numbed, their stinging pain neither was his. Nor the red and bloated face.

To his immense horror, at that moment, it dawned he was staring into the face of his father. Like father, like son.

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming

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