Asking after Thomas.
There was a message on my answerphone from Jem. Terry was dead. The funeral was on Thursday.
The call brought me to a standstill. I hadn’t heard his voice in years. Didn’t know he had my number.
I never went to the funeral; I didn’t care for Terry. When best friends become sworn enemies the fire can smoulder on for years. I hadn’t seen him for the past fifteen, but he still taunted me in my dreams.
But two weeks later I did phone the number that Jem had left me.
I spoke to him like I’d never been away, and the years collapsed in on themselves. Everything I had done since leaving - getting clean, university, different jobs, different friends, my whole new life, seemed ephemeral, unimportant, as ghosts came down the phoneline to sit with me.
Two days later I was stepping out of the small squat tube station and onto that hopeless main drag, the drab grey hill, with its rows of tired, scruffy shops, and their hard-faced bag-laden punters trolling up and down for the cheap stuff. It was all cheap.
Jem was late. I stood copping the looks, the cold inquisition. I’d crossed some invisible tribal boundary, tube-trained into the heart of enemy territory: my home town.
It had felt worse when I lived here. We had found ways of coping.
And then there he was, plodding up the hill. And he was fat and smiling. Jem was a shortarse, came up to my chin, but had never carried any weight. None of us did; none of us ate.
He got up close and we hugged each other. I knew then where the weight came from: it was half-past eleven in the morning and he reeked of booze. White Lightning I guessed, that chemical fizz masquerading as cider, never a sniff of an apple.
He looked better than I expected.
Inevitably, I suppose, we ended up in the pub. Jem caned the lager, (which I bought after his first one), while I worked through the token selection of foul tasting soft drinks, then washing them out with mineral water.
For his part, it was all “remember when…?” and “what about when you…?” a catalogue of sad events and traumatic episodes that, oddly enough for me, time had sucked the humour out of. They were nasty little scenes that I had gradually worked out of my life.
For Jem, they were escapades that could have happened yesterday. They seemed our only link. They were his only link with anyone. Everyone had fallen away, and his life had become the size of a postage stamp.
You get up, you get your ‘script, you wash it down at the off-licence.
You maybe pick up something on the way home, if it’s pay day, then you go home, switch off, until it’s time for the ‘script again.
Years go by like that. You can reach the end like that.
Our conversation went round and round, sputtered and faltered before reaching the inevitable. It had been on my mind since I’d known I was coming: we had been three but now there were two; there was a ghost at the feast, as it were.
“You seen Thomas?”
His eyes rolled and he scowled into his beer.
Jem looked up from his pint:
“He ain’t the Thomas you remember. He’s a nasty cunt now. He’ll have you running around, and take what you got, and leave you with fuck all. He’ll clump you for nothing, cut you maybe.
I keep clear of him. Keep clear of everyone. I don’t see no-one. But if I see Thomas and he ain’t seen me, I’m off.
He ain’t no good.”
Well now, that was the Thomas I remembered. Only it seemed Jem had been on the receiving end. They had always fallen out, especially if you asked Jem. Thomas had never seemed to notice.
Now I had known Jem since school days. He was a bit younger than me, but we had liked the same music. We hung out, got stoned.
Thomas was older, scarier, and I kept away from him back then.
He was what they commonly referred to as a psycho. A fucking nutter. What they meant was, he had a penchant for extreme violence, and his name had spread across our miserable little town.
He was no psycho. He was an angry man.
Thomas had been a big scary skinhead. I was a long-haired hippy. I’d never have thought we’d have become the best of friends. Now, me and Thomas, our stories really were stories, hair-raising escapades that defied repeating.
When it got wild it was good to have him along. He had saved my neck more than once. I had remained loyal. Maybe that was why he had never hurt me.
I was all spent out and Jem was getting edgy, convinced the staff were talking about him. There was a time I would have been in there with him, and we would have been shouting the odds as a prelude to being slung out and battered. I suggested we walk, there was nothing here for us, and Jem concurred, forgetting his imaginary confrontation, mumbling something about “picking something up from home.” I felt like a voluntary worker, leading my charge through a danger-free day.
I left the subject of Thomas for the now.
We had been walking for some time, it was hard to keep track, it was disorientating. We turned a corner that was identical to the last two: this was the largest council estate in Europe. It was in the book. Some said it was the biggest in the world. I often wondered about that, if it stood up against some Siberian Stalinist sprawl, a tucked away Soviet crumbler of a city. Perhaps they didn’t have councils out there.
But when they planned this uniform maze, they forgot, or cared not, to put in any boozers.
Or shops. Or anything, but more of the same. I recalled wandering round this spread of red and grey bricks, of peculiar dead ends we called “ banjos” because of their odd shape, in the early hours, just before the birds kicked off, my head racing from vicious chemicals, wondering if the world had turned to brick, and had closed down on me.
If you lived here it had anyway; with nothing else to do, having grown out of vandalism, and traumatised by violence, we retreated into each other’s bedrooms, closed the curtains, put the music on and turned our heads off. Years can go by like that. You can reach the end before you emerge.
Jem veered off between the low-rise, heading for the eleven-storey monolith rising out of their midst.
A good yank on the security door and we slipped in. “Just got to see someone,” was all I got as explanation.
The lift worked.
Smells catch you off-guard, past your defences, take you hostage and take you back.
I remembered my own flat now, before they evicted me. My rabbit-hutch in the sky I called it. I felt cold.
Up halfway, out onto a lightless landing, over to a door of patchwork plyboard and plastic.
Jem rapped once, and shouted his presence through the hole where the letterbox had once been, and finally the door tugged open.
My presence was a concern; I looked too healthy, but being in Jem’s company took the edge off that and I was admitted.
I didn’t know them but I knew their type, three tired faces of that familiar skinny, beaten ilk, sinking into their collapsing sofa, that had been dragged away from the bin-sheds one late night, when the chemicals had led to a rare outward burst of energy, more commonly expended nowadays on some internal, mental workings, whilst staring blankly at the mountain range or tears ripped through the silvery wallpaper, the top peaks slicing through the ill-matching flowery border, and revealing long-forgotten children’s (or childlike) graffiti scratched and scrawled onto the council-job plaster.
Jem paraded me in front of them, all proud to know someone who’d got away.
They nodded their approval, and relaxed at the explanation for my incongruous good health and clean clothes.
It occurred to me then, that I had never made it to this point, to their daily drag of existence.
I was the one, they said, who was most likely to…
Likely to what?
Die, apparently. I was seven stone and counting back then. I really didn’t mind. Looking back, I am grateful I fell so far, or I wouldn’t have tried to crawl back up. I wouldn’t have had to.
Either get up, or go down. Anything but this purgatory.
Jem cut to the kitchen with one of them, leaving me standing awkwardly on display.
I thought I’d ask:
“You know Thomas?”
Accompanied by some half-arsed venomous snipes at me for having mentioned the name. They were still wary of this apparition standing in front of them
But I did hear tell of a recent turnout, of Thomas putting a knife to a man I knew from the estate years back, a man who had defied the medical profession by still being alive, and what more with all his limbs. A man who couldn’t walk from one block to the other without the sores weeping through the dressings on his blood starved legs. Thomas had taken his only thing of worth, the wrap he purchased that morning.
I fell silent.
We finally left, and I wanted out of town. I should have never returned. They tell you to never go back. You might succumb. I knew, that wasn’t going to happen, I had turned too many corners, but this was too depressing.
We got to Jem’s. He asked me to wait outside; it was him mother’s house. He was back with his parents’, having turned forty last year.
He took longer than he said, as much as expected, and when he re-emerged, I told him I was going, and that I would make my own way. We shook hands, told each other it had been good, and I headed for the station.
I stood outside, took one last look around.
A skinny man stood at the bottom of the hill, shouting and waving.
A skinny man, his dirty misshapen fleece hanging loosely from his sharp boney shoulders…
I thought for a moment of running down the gangway onto the platform; I didn’t know what he could want from me.
Apart from Jem, I had seen no-one from back in the day.
I knew, some were dead.
Some were locked away.
And some had got out – the south coast was overrun with our homebred ex-junkies. Apart from Jem, and Thomas of course, all my other connections here were tainted; marriages of convenience, hellbound contracts sold out at the first opportunity. But my memories of these had faded and mellowed. There may, however, be some here like Jem, for whom all the past was just yesterday, there might be some with a grudge as fresh as the day it was born.
The man was running up the hill. I considered his chances of making it to the top; this must be important. I readied myself, fight or flight.
I could hear the voice, gruff, growling, a voice too big for that wasted scarecrow of a man. And the features became clear; I saw through the lines, sores and yellow pigment.
It was Thomas.
I took his hand, and pulled him close and hugged him. He didn’t respond, just laughed a bit.
“You ain’t turned batty on us have ya?”
Then: “Ain’t seen you for a couple of years.”
More than ten. Ten years in which the world had changed, many times.
Here, it seemed to have just slid. Not far, but enough to see the damage.
Nah. I’m clean now.”
That killed it.
“Looking well,” he said, for want of anything else.
and then: “Are you flush?”
“What you after?”
“A score,” he pushed.
And I went to the cashpoint, drew out the twenty, and handed it over.
Thomas wanted to go, but some remnant of old times held him for a moment.
“Look, I gotta, shoot, you know how it is, but take my number and we’ll catch up. Have a party. Be good to see you.”
I think both of us knew this was all a load of nothing, but we performed the ritual of punching each other’s numbers into our phones.
And he was off down the hill.
On the train, I kept thinking of Thomas. I thought of us three, as we had been. Or as I thought we had been. It was my version, the story of us as I had seen it. It meant nothing to anyone else, and quite probably meant nothing to Jem, or Thomas.
Sometimes, it means enough to hurt, to cry.
And sometimes, if I’m lucky, to smile.