Rab finishes his pint and follows Jaz out of the pub. He feels woozy, as if he could lie down for a lunch-time nap. A few minutes’ walk through drizzling rain sobers Rab up. They cross over the road at the intersection beside the canal.
‘Where does that cunt Frank Dunne want to meet?’ Jaz’s lip curls when he mentions his name.
‘Wherever you want,’ Rab says. ‘It’s your shout. But they want to get things sorted, pronto.’
Jaz weaves past a woman on the broad pavement holding the hand of a toddler with a red woollen cap and pushing a black Silvercross pram with the hood up and two sets of infant eyes gazing out at him. He turns into his close. ‘You think I’m fuckin’ daft? I’m no’ meetin’ nae cunt until I’m carryin’ some serious shit.’ He clatters up the stairs taking them two at a time.
Rab slides the palm of his hand along the bannister, wheezing, trying to keep up. Jaz doesn’t wait. He remains ahead of him, the last few steps of top landing, and home, when the door to the middle landing opens and Jaz’s mum peers out at him. His sister is at her back, dressed in print dress similar to his mum’s, but blimp-sized. His mum looks through Rab, crooks her head, gazing up the stairs at her son.
‘I thought it might be you,’ she tells Jaz, her voice shrewish. ‘You no’ spare yer family a minute of yer precious time. We’re havin’ a wee get together for your faither’s birthday and you’re invited.’ She smacks her thin lip together. ‘I’d already told yeh about it.’
‘Aye,’ says Jaz. ‘That’s right.’ He pats his jacket pocket for his cigarettes and feigns a smile, taps a Silk Cut out and searches for his matches. ‘It slipped my mind, to be honest.’ His fingers trail through his hair. ‘And I’m in a bit of a hurry.’
‘You can never be in too much of a hurry for your ain faither.’
‘For you ain faither,’ his sister echoes in a high voice, wrings her hand and laughs in high-pitch.
‘And there’s cake,’ his mum adds.
The front door is left open and her slippers slap on the linoleum in the hall followed by the heavier thud of his sister. The lit cigarette at a jaunty angle in the corner of Jaz’s mouth, and narrowed eyes are a mask. Rab grins at his friend’s embarrassment. He waits, and trails behind Jaz, into the lobby and through to the living room.
A three-legged table has been pushed up near the sagging couch, a cake sitting on top of it. His da, with a glass of Pale Ale in his hand, sprawls on a candlewick cover over burst cushions, staring at the sticks of candles with bloodshot eyes.
‘Has anybody got a light?’ his mum whispers in a girlish tone. Grey hair, tight in a bun, her chin drops and she gazes down at his da’s thinning hair, baggy, heavy-lidded eyes, bent nose, frayed shirt collar and bony knuckles. ‘They you can blow them out – forty-three-years young and handsome as the day I met yeh.’ A worn-out family joke and she half turns gawping at them absent-mindedly as if forgetting they are there and reliving other parties, other memories.
Eric catches Rab’s eyes and shakes his head, a crinkly smile flashes across his face. He remembers how his mum always had ‘a wee thing’, such as a pistol that shot caps, for each of them at their birthday, took it on herself to get the money, no matter what.
Jaz is in a hurry. He fishes his lighter out of his pocket. Flicks it open and runs the flame over the top of the candles. Small flames wiggle as they catch and move together into a something beautiful. His attention focuses on his da’s wheezing breath. Wonders if his old man will have enough air in his lungs to blow out so many candles. ‘Sorry, I didnae get you a card.’ His old man looks up at him and nods. Cornered, in the same way as his son, into playing along for his ma’s sake. Jaz dips into his pocket and drops a fifty-quid note onto the couch beside, the brown cardigan and the box of Panatella cigars. ‘Take that and get yerself something.’ Duty done, but he feels a surge of anger. Stares at the window, remembers how he could tell how drunk his da was by his footfall in the lobby and what kind of beating to expect.
‘Blow out the candles,’ shrieks his sister, clapping her hands together, her cheeks rosy with warmth. ‘Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to—’
‘Happybirthdaytoyou,’ shouts his mum.
His da leans across and blows out a couple of candles on the side nearest him and then shakes his head. ‘That’s enough,’ he says, in a gruff voice and fidgets. Takes a drink out of his glass and puts the glass down on the table. He opens the packet of cigars and bends down, uses candle light to suck smoke into his lungs and blows out a small cloud that fills the room with the stink of cheap cigars.
‘Make a wish John,’ says his mum.
‘Thanks,’ his da mumbles, looking up at Jaz and slips the fifty-pound note into his side pocket of his nylon trousers, ignoring her.
‘Whit about the rest of us?’ Eric says. ‘Do we no’ get any thanks. Or is it just for the blue-eyed boy that gets all the praise for swanning in and dropping a few quid in your pocket.’
‘Blow out the candles.’ His ma ducks down and her daughter waddles in beside her and, red faced, they make a game out of extinguishing the flames.
‘Stop your whinin’,’ Jaz tells Eric over the women’s head. ‘Naebody asked for your opinion. What did you get the old man.’ He sneers. ‘A fuckin’ cardigan.’
‘Aye, a cardigan. Bought with my own money. You always were a selfish wee bastard, even as a kid. You always did whit you were gonnae dae. And you’d walk away without a scratch, and never gave a thought to anybody else. Never ask. Always expect. Nothin’ changes.’
‘Right boy’s that’s enough,’ says his da, taking another puff of his cigar.
‘I’m no’ askin’ you for anythin’.’ Jaz’s tone is guttural. He puts a hand to his ear. ‘You here me askin’ for anythin’?’
‘Aye, but you ur,’ Eric says. ‘You don’t even need to ask and we acquiesce—’
‘—Oh, acquiesce is it. That’s a big word.’ He sniggers, look about, and the others smile. ‘Sounds like you’ve got a poker stuck up yer arse. Wouldnae surprise me if you’re one of them benders.’
Eric surges forward and throws a punch, hitting Jaz on the bridge of the nose. He follows it up with a volley to the right eye. Jaz grabs at his torso and the two of them wrestle and fall into their da’s lap, knocking the cake to the ground, with their sister laughing and clapping her hands.