Black Cross (Chapter Seven)
Thomas Wade lit another Carlton and inhaled deeply, savouring the rush of nicotine flooding his brain. The ashtray before him was stuffed with cigarette ends and rollups. Table strewn with empty glasses and sickle-shaped watermarks. There wasn’t a clock in the Tavern nor so much as a single window to reveal the crimson-streaked skies of a dying day. Here, time was measured with cluttered tables and empty pockets.
Smoke poured from Tony’s mouth as he exhaled. The Railway Tavern was his favourite hangout, had been his local since he was fourteen, old enough to earn money selling flakes of green embedded in Amber Leaf rollups. It was nothing more than a fleapit now, but had been a central part of the community between the nineteen-forties to the early eighties when the village was at its most prosperous. Black and white pictures adorned the wall behind the bar; groups of coal miners, scenes of the war effort and the former railway station before closure. Tony doubted that anything had been replaced within that time. The armrests of his chair sweated with the grime and oil of the men who’d preceded him, labouring their way into an early grave. Tony’s father, Thomas Wade Senior, had been one such man. Names were carved into tables cracked with the moisture and stifling heat. His included. His, Morris and the rest of the lads. The only recent addition was a custom dartboard featuring the Iron Lady’s puppet from Spitting Image, riddled with so many holes that the print was almost unrecognisable, save for the ski jump honk and steel-blue eyes rising above them with rampant disgust.
They’ll chew you up and shit you out, Tony. Morris’s words. That’s our legacy. The blood of ours made this country, made the others fat and rich. In the end, all we got was dust. Don’t be under any kind of illusion: they’ll treat you like a little worker ant, if you let them. Lure you in with the promise of a nine-till-five job. A cushy number, aye. Something to give you a purpose, that’s what they’ll say. You sign the paperwork, do the labour. Get the pay check. And then it hits home like an uppercut to the balls: what life can be enriched on chickenfeed? So, you push yourself harder; do longer hours, work through your days off. And for what, little worker ant? A body crippled before its time. Life reduced to exertion and exhaustion. Lining the pockets of the greedy. The promise of a better life is the carrot dangled in front of us. Unattainable. But the worker ants, Tony, they’ll keep toiling. That’s why our fathers are in the ground.
Tony regarded his calloused hands. Remembered his boss sitting behind a desk the size of a Star Destroyer, soft and fat. He drove the latest BMW. Tony had a truck that had barely passed its MOT. The higher up you go, the less you have to do, Morris had said. That’s when he’d proposed the idea of selling hard drugs. Just as they keep us docile on booze, we’ll step above them; honour their greed with our need. They’d toasted to that on watery pints of Tennent’s in this very pub, had drawn up something resembling a business plan, got the lads on board. Morris had been the brains behind the entire operation. Eventually, they’d branched out, using the sinflat for their activities.
But then Morris had gone to prison, hadn’t he? As the right-hand man, Tony had been left to pick up the pieces of an empire shattered before maturity. But he couldn’t. His promise to Jen had been sincere, uttered on his knees, with tears pricking his eyes: I want to make a go of things, pet. Proper and legitimate. I promise you that I’ll give up the dealing. I’ll be the man that you need.
The lads hadn’t said much about the demise of the business, but Tony could sense their restlessness. They looked to him for leadership he couldn’t possibly provide.
Tony went to the jukebox, inserted a ten pence piece and selected four songs. The first one, Hungry like the Wolf, started to play as he returned to his seat in the corner.
He regretted sitting as soon as his arse met the chair. His limbs felt too fidgety, too cumbersome for this tiny space. He shifted. Stretched. Rolled shoulders thick with muscle. But that still wasn’t enough. Even the air in this place was beginning to feel like a fucking cage.
Morris hadn’t shown up last night or the one before. Tony had phoned in sick for work, had thrown a house party with the lads to celebrate his release, but hadn’t received so much as a phone call explaining his absence or whereabouts.
The lads were apparently nonplussed. Monkey Boy and Beaker were playing on a fruit machine. Big Cliff was up at the bar buying another round of Tennent’s and pork scratchings. Darren had made up with Charlene for what felt like the twentieth time this month. They were probably at Charlene’s parents’ house this very minute, up in her bedroom, shagging away like a couple of randy Duracell bunnies.
Well, best o’ luck to the cunts, Tony thought, exhaling columns of smoke through his nostrils. Least things are alright for some.
Jen hadn’t returned home, either. This was the third night she’d been away from him, the longest since she’d returned to Blackcross almost four months ago. He assumed she was staying with Gwen, her bitch of a sister who lived in Chapel.
Tony had replayed the scene dozens of time in his head: his girlfriend stumbling backwards, head smashing into the cooker. Tony had never intended for her to get hurt. The look of shock and pain in her eyes had been akin to a slap across the face. A knife twisting in his belly. He’d screwed up. He’d screwed up big time.
Tony removed a packet of paracetamol from his back pocket, took two and crushed them between his teeth.
“Here you go, lad.” Big Cliff placed a pint in front of him before sitting at the table. “Get that down your neck. It’s as good as any medicine that is.”
Tony chased the powdery bitterness away with the amber liquid.
“Come on, Tony son. He’ll show up!”
Tony didn’t reply, took another gulp of beer, grimacing as it washed coarse grains of paracetamol across his tongue.
“Jenny will show up once she calms down, too! She always does," Cliff said.
“Trying to tell a woman to ‘calm down’ is like trying to baptise a cat. Especially that one,” Tony said, looking straight ahead, the pounding in is head now reaching an agonising crescendo. Things had been good for a solid month, maybe two. But over the past few weeks things had started to slip away again, almost as if they’d been building up merely for something to give.
Cliff smiled. “Let me tell you something, son. Nothing—and I mean nothing—in this world is ever easy. Yesterday I was coming across here for my morning pint, took five steps out the door and heard something drop. Well, there was a hole in my pocket, wasn’t there? Had to be the house key, I told myself, so I started to look about for it and it had only fallen down a bloody drain.” He downed half of his pint and let out a belch. “Couldn’t have fallen when I was inside, could it? No, had to happen when I was walking right past that drain. I swear, chaos is a woman and she waits for the stars to align.”
Big Cliff knew what he was talking about. At forty-eight (although he could easily pass for a man in his late fifties), Cliff was the oldest of the lads. He’d also served in the army for most of his life, leaving after fighting in the Falklands war around the same time that Tony’s dad had passed. No doubt about it, Cliff had seen some terrible things—and had been involved in a great deal of them, too.
Tony didn’t agree on prying in the business of other men, but knew that Cliff had suffered some sort of trauma and had turned to drink. He’d lost his wife and teenage daughter on account of his alcoholism five years ago. Cliff hadn’t tried to change since then. He’d merely shrugged his big shoulders and locked his eyes on the next pint placed in front of him. Letting himself crumble away one drink at a time had become his mission in life.
“Thatcher’s tits,” Cliff muttered, wobbling the table. “Tate needs to get some new furniture,”
“Nah,” Tony said. “Proper history in here. Legacy shit.”
“It’s a pub, not a museum. He’s had these tables since I was a lad. And they were falling to pieces back then.”
“Aye, and they belong in a skip, too.”
Tony allowed a small smile.
“Tate,” Cliff tossed his head over his shoulder, addressing the owner. “Don’t you think it’s about time you took a bit of pride in your establishment? I’m trying to enjoy my beverage here and it’s like being back at sea.”
Tate Williams was a gnarled stick of a man. He had a shock of white hair and arms veined with faded tattoos. He didn’t even glance in their direction, just gave Cliff the middle finger in response.
Beaker and Monkey Boy turned from the fruit machine, and started to hoot:
“Get him told, Tate!”
“Yeah, if he doesn’t like it, tell him to piss off to The Stables. I hear they serve cashew nuts to their punters in a bowl.”
“Shut up, the pair of you.” Cliff said, ramming a beer mat underneath the table. “Worse than a couple of bloody children.”
“Sorry, Daddy!” Monkey Boy retorted.
They were always like this now. Barking and snapping with each other. Tony shifted. Cliff didn’t say anything else. He just took a very slow drink, his eyes focusing on nothing else but the television screen on the adjacent wall. When he was finished, he turned back to Tony. “So…are you and Jenny still trying?”
“Sometimes you’re better keeping things as they are. Women change once they’re settled,” Cliff said knowingly. His failed marriage was still a sore subject even after all these years. But Tony wasn’t like the big man. He didn’t ignore problems by pickling his brain—he rolled up his sleeves and fucking addressed them. Besides, Jess had had her mother goading her the whole time she was married to Cliff, clinging to her shoulder like a fat-arsed devil, whispering half-truths. Jennifer had told her mother and step-father where to go and went on her merry way. Which wasn’t a terrible thing; they were a couple of miserable arseholes, too.
“I’m sick of the fucking arguing,” Tony admitted.
“Well, you know why there’s arguing.”
Nobody else prodded and dissected the past like Clifford. He was a seasoned pro, constantly regurgitating his own misdeeds. He was probably enjoying the change.
“You can’t blame the girl for that,” Cliff continued.
“Nah, and I don’t.”
“Does she still mention her?”
This was it, the other elephant in the room. “No,” Tony said, but that wasn’t strictly true either. He’d heard Jennifer call out for Abby once or twice when she was having one of her nightmares. “No, she doesn’t mention her.”
“Maybe it’s not a bad thing Morris didn’t show up,” Cliff said, giving Tony a sideways glance. “Means we can all move on, doesn’t it? Maybe he’s met a girl of his own, maybe he’s trying to get a nice little nine-to-five job in a nice place.”
That didn’t sound like Morris, not to Tony. “What would you do, Cliff, if you were me?”
The older man raised his dopey-looking head to the television again. He reminded Tony of Droopy the dog, the cartoon character with the sad eyes and a face like a melted candle. There was always a sadness attached to Cliff, a deep-seated loneliness which no amount of laughter or alcohol could penetrate.
After a moment, he turned to him. “You’re in a pub, Saint. Forget about all the bullshit for a bit and leave it behind, son.” And then he laughed. Tony rarely heard Cliff laugh these days. It was deep and wheezy, as if causing him pain.
Saint. That’s what they’d called him back then. Before Morris had been locked up. Before he’d donned his nursing home scrubs. Back when he used his fists. Thomas Wade, the Saint of Sinners.
Behind them, Tony could hear Beaker and Monk let out a cry of delight as the fruit machine spewed out change. The Tavern was greenhouse warm, but Tony suddenly felt cold, a foreboding feeling creeping up his arms and settling into his joints. Let the old days die, he reassured himself. Keep sight of what’s important. And never, ever let it go. No matter what.