By Thom L. Jones
The man in the leather coat walks down the quayside towards the bridges, the traffic movers. There are four of them that carry vehicles across the river: the Tyne, the biggest and most imposing by far (they cloned the Sydney Harbour Bridge from this one,) the Swing, the High Level and the Redheugh. There's also the Millennium Bridge behind him, but he doesn't count that one, as it only allows pedestrians or people riding bicycles. The one that interest him is the High Level, the oldest of all these bridges. It is essentially there now, to carry railway trains, although in the good old days you could drive or walk across it.
It was opened by Queen Victoria in 1849. It was in September sometime, and the man remembered reading somewhere, that it rained that day, which hardly surprised him as it rains a lot in this city. It's an arched bridge, double-decker, masonry piers to support it, cast ironwork holding it altogether, and stand about 100 feet high. As he walks along the riverside, he remembers one of the stories someone in the family told him about this bridge. It came originally through his father, who had known the man telling it. He was a police officer, on duty that dark and stormy night, foot patrolling the deserted streets. It was back in the 1940s, sometime towards the end of the year, maybe November. He was walking from Sandhill into the Close, passing under the bridge on his way to check out the warehouses and small business premises that lined the river front, when he heard this sound. Like a hiss, then a enormous slapping sound. He spun around, and there only feet from where he stood lay the sprawled and broken remains of a man who had obviously jumped off the bridge, above him. What bothered the cop though, was that the impact had torn off the man's head, which sat twenty feet away in the middle of road, lying there with a strange, demented grin across the features. The man in the leather jacket wonders how they handled that one, back in those days.
What interests him so much about this bridge is that to-day, as part of the massive gentrification of the area, it shelters a range of new, up market buildings, huddled beneath it, one of which is a pub. Whitewashed exposed stone and red tiled roof with a courtyard fronting onto the riverside, it's the place where the meeting has been arranged.
The man walks in and finds a seat near the door. He goes to the bar and orders a Thatchers Perry Cider, and sits, looking out of the window. He sips his drink slowly. One will be okay, but three or four and he'll be flying like a kite. He opens a pack of Rothmans and lights a cigarette, checking the flow of pedestrians moving past the pub and wonders when his man will arrive. One day, in the not too distant future, he may not be able to smoke in a pub or any other public building here, in this city. Like New York and California and Sweden and Australia and many other cities and countries around the world, smokers in England will have to find some open space, probably cold and wet and windy if they want to nicotine themselves to death. The man wonders when it will end. Maybe one day he won't be able to drink alcohol, except in a drink-a-torium, a specially reserved and isolated area, safely out of reach of the good people. No more red meat because the world can no longer tolerate the murdering of cows. No more cod and chips, because all the fish will have been dredged from the seas. How crazy will the world becomes before it self-implodes? I'll not be around then, thank God, he thinks to himself.
He looks around the bar at the people drinking and eating, everything with chips he notices. Some habits just never change. It's years since he's been back here, to this city where he grew up, and it has changed out of all recognition. It looks familiar, but it's not. Everyone looks fat and healthy and well-off. It wasn't like that when he once lived here. He knew families so poor they drank their morning tea out of jam jars; couldn't afford things like fancy cups or mugs. Fathers went out to work for a weekly wage that to-day wouldn't have paid for the drink sitting on his table. To some families, a plate of bread and beef dripping was considered a treat at tea-time. No one ever ate dinner between six and seven; it was always tea-time. His own father had worked at two jobs until he was in his seventies, his mother scrimping and saving to manage a household of five. Somehow, for most of them, it seemed to work.
The city itself has changed, its geography dislocated by a massive shopping centre that has replaced its very heart. Buildings he had known as a child and a young man, now gone. Lovely old Georgian houses and streets replaced by ugly, heartless concrete bunkers, squatting like malefic guardians of the genre: shop-till-they-drop. Streets that once led you in an orderly fashion were now dead-ended or had turned into one way race tracks. Some of the old buildings remained: the cathedral, the fluted pillar monument at the top of Grey Street, the soot-stained, crumbling castle down near the railway lines, these and a few others stood as a silent testimony to the majesty of the old city, the one that blossomed and nurtured itself on the fruits of the industrial revolution, when the river outside, teemed with boats and downstream, shipyards and engineering works employed thousands who filled the air with the sound of their furious labours, day and night. All gone and forgotten now, the yards and factories replaced by rows and rows of apartment buildings, climbing up the river banks-more gentrification to fuel developer's dreams and avarice.
The more he thinks on these things, the older he feels. The man he's waiting for waddles through the door; short and fat, with a red face, sweating heavily. He comes over to the table as the man rises.
"So, how have you been man?" the portly figure says in his strange, lilting, high pitched Geordie accent.
Terry McCoy, the man in the leather jacket nods his head, taking the fat man's handshake.
"I'm doing okay Jimmy, you look great." He hopes he sounds sincere, because Jimmy 'Effortless' Butler looks anything but good; more like a man dying by degrees, his cholesterol-clogged veins and arteries shutting off stage by stage.
"Ee man, I could murder a pint," Jimmy says, and McCoy goes over to the bar and orders a large glass of lager and two large packets of salt and onion potato crisps. He knows from experience Jimmy has to stuff his face when he drinks beer. And he does. They sit there, the fat man munching and gulping down his drink, McCoy smoking and taking the occasional sip on his cider. They are a strange pair, one fat and short, the other tall and lean. Jimmy wears a tired suit, rumpled and stained, a white shirt faded to gray and a string tie, shoes dirty and down at heel.
His net worth is about £5 million. McCoy, the black leather jacket over a similar coloured roll-necked wool shirt, black jeans and heavy, black boots. His hair is cut short above a hard looking face which has seen too much of everything, a lot of it bad. He runs a limited wardrobe, a five year old car and carries an inventory of memories that keep him awake most nights. After almost thirty years away from this town, he's back six months now, doing jobs for people like Jimmy Butler, a man whose business activities include loan-sharking, gambling and drug dealing; generating income and customers through his club land connections. There's plenty of them in this city of just under 300,000; literally hundreds of pubs, night clubs and wine bars combining to make the city notorious across England and Europe as the party town to end all party towns.
Jimmy who developed his nickname from the way he gets what he wants, finishes his lager and nods at McCoy who goes and gets him a refill. When this is half empty, he starts to talk.
"I want some work done," he says, through a mouthful of crisps. "There's this wanker who owes me big on a loan I made to him, and he's dried up, like you know? So I want you to go and persuade him, not a good idea to piss about with Jimmy Butler. Right up your street, eh?" The man in black looks at his cider, which is almost gone, and wonders if he dares have another. Might lessen the pain, ease him through the torturous highway he'll have to navigate with this man who is so devious, he makes Machiavelli look like a country bumpkin having an off-day. Sorting out a bad debtor will be the easy part, it's what is behind the request that will probably cause all the problems. Mr Butler has a habit of understating his priorities until the shit hits the fan, and then he makes an issue of it. McCoy has had dealings with 'Effortless' on previous occasions, so knows what to expect.
Jimmy takes a thick envelope out of his inside jacket pocket, sliding it across the table.
"Here's a retainer, the balance on completion of the job. Usual stuff, you know. There's details on this prick in there as well. A word of warning; he's connected into the Tams, and you know what lovely people they are. Get me the money." He pauses here, looking at McCoy with a face that has changed from John Bull to Adolf Eichmann; the look of a man who cares nothing for the feelings of others, especially when his money's at stake, "if he can't or won't give it up, top him."
"I do that, you'll never get your cash back," McCoy offers.
"Probably not, but it should make everyone else think twice before trying it on me again," says Jimmy. "Can't have people thinking I'm a soft touch, eh?"
He gets up, brushing off the confetti of salted crisps scattered over his suit, and turns to go. "Oh Terry," he remembers, " if there's nay money to come, make the bastard suffer, right? I'd like the coroner's report to make interesting reading, you know what I mean." Then he's gone, leaving behind a layer of stale sweat and Old Spice after-shave.
Terry McCoy decides he's due that extra drink and goes and buys it at the bar. He sits back at the table, opening the envelope. There's plenty of cash, and it's ten percent of what he will get when the job's finished. There's also a sheet of foolscap paper and a six by four coloured photograph. It shows a close up of a man, a little blurred around the edges, probably taken with a telescopic lens. He's short with a mean looking face, hair brushed back from the forehead, eyes dark and bottomless.
He looks like a hundred men McCoy has crossed paths with in his life: drummers and thieves, robbers, drug dealers, strong-arm men, each one burdened with the stigma of a dislocated life and the burden of a social conscience that has never developed beyond puberty. Matched to a feral disregard for the rights of their fellow man, they become the atypical sociopaths that populate the criminal underworld of every society.
There are some details on the sheet of paper: his name, Jack Lambert; his address, somewhere in the wilderness of Cowgate, a suburb in the west end of the city, now disguising itself under a new-ward heading: North Fenham, and the names and addresses of his favourite pubs and the other drinking holes he frequents. It also lists some of his associates, a number of them members of the notorious Tams family. McCoy is aware of this huge, sprawling conglomerate of criminals who have historically dominated this part of the city, particularly the sprawling terraced hill sides of Benwell and the Scotswood Road area. Men not to be crossed unless the back-up is a team of SAS commandos. He's sure he won't be going down that road however, because he knows something that Jimmy 'Effortless' doesn't.
He finishes his drink and leaves the bar, making his way back down the quayside to his parked car. A Peugeot, dented and scratched and a bit worn around the edges, but the engine and transmission are sound and the car runs well. It's late in the day, so he thinks he'll leave the job until tomorrow. He drives out of the city, north into the suburb of Jesmond, and the flat he rents off Osborne Road. Two rooms and a bath, in a terraced house. Not much to show for a lifetime of quiet desperation. He undresses in his bedroom and takes a long, tepid shower in the bathroom. Having lived most of his life in countries where houses have real showers, he finds the electric ones installed in most English bathrooms, pathetic. After he finishes, he sits by the window in the living area, looking out onto the street, smoking and drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels. He suddenly feels too tired to dress and go out for dinner at one of the local restaurants, so stays sitting there until it gets dark. When the bottles' half empty, he falls into bed and lies there, thinking of the things that make it hard for him to sleep.
Late the next day he heads across the city into the suburb of Benwell sprawling up and down the dirty, cobbled streets that cover this western district of the city; driving around until he finds the Crown and Anchor, the public house he knows Jack Lambert visits every Thursday evening. He parks on the street, down from the tavern, lights a cigarette and sits, watching the world go by, or at least this strange and wonderfully weird portion of it.
Here in Newcastle there's a word they use to describe this underbelly of the community who live on welfare, breed like rabbits and experience a lifestyle so far removed from his own, he could have been sitting by a canal on Mars. They call them 'charves,' teenagers and adults often born out of foetal alcohol syndrome, or spawned by drug addiction, going through their miserable lives drinking, fighting and spitting at each other as though their very existence depends upon their capacity to shock. The men identified by shaven heads, muscle shirts, dirty jeans and heavy, leather work boots. The women, if they're young, sport faces full of pierced flesh, silver pins and rings and buttons, parading their bloated bodies in pelmet size mini skirts, torn stockings and black leather boots. The one common denominator that links them is the obesity of their bodies, fuelled by a regular diet of fatty, take-away foods, fizzy drinks and beer, the alcohol a constant stimulus for their unpredictable and dangerous physical anger directed at the world and themselves.
The straight-up citizen would never stray into the no-go areas of these Hogarthian creatures, a breeding ground for tally-men, dope dealers and whores, and would choke into their gin and tonics if ever presented with a roomful of them. Because work is tantamount to almost a religious epiphany, these 'charves' fill the street by day and night, wandering between homes and bars and betting shops and tinny houses. In a street of terraced houses like the one McCoy is parked in, it is not uncommon to see a dozen men and women of this subculture sitting outside their front doors, in filthy plastic garden chairs, sprawled languidly, bellies hanging loose, tins of lager at the port, crowding the narrow footpath, like huge, pasty white, amorphous slugs.
McCoy checks his watch, its just after seven. Time to go. He leaves and locks his car. Just up the street, a couple of youths are loitering, kicking a football back and forward. He goes up, stopping in front of them. They watch him, looking for signs of danger, their tiny, ferret eyes glancing around. He takes out a £10 note, waving in front of them, and then tearing it in half.
"Keep an eye on the car," he says. "It's still here, in good nick when I come back, the other half is yours." He hands the half-note to the tallest boy, a symphony of unwashed acne, sporting a United soccer shirt, then walks past them and into the front door of the public house.
The door opens onto a long room, with a bar running down one side and chairs and tables set out at random against the other side. This wall is broken by two large, dirty windows, letting in the evening sun-light. McCoy orders a beer and sits down at a table, close to the door. At the far end of the room is a group of men, including Lambert, standing around the corner of the counter, draped in a cloud of blue smoke. McCoy watches them for a while, then a big, fat, bald man leaves the party and waddles down the room. He is a 'charve' to end all 'charves' -shaven head, gold earrings, chains around the neck and his wrist, and a handful of fingers speckled with huge, lumpy rings. A bright yellow polo shirts strains across his huge, flabby tits. He stands over the man, pointing a finger the size of a small banana.
"What you fooking looking at man?" he asks in a voice like a coffee grinder in motion.
"Not you for sure," answers McCoy, pushing back his chair slightly, bracing his feet, knowing what's coming. "You a clever twat or somfing?' the man growls, leaning forward to grab McCoy's shirt front. It's over so fast most of the spectators don't realize it's happened. As the fat man leans in, McCoy stands, twisting his hip for leverage, grabbing the man's wrist, bending it back on itself, and snapping it with a sound like tree branch breaking. The fat man howls in pain and McCoy side-steps the table, driving his fist deep into the other man's neck. His face turns red, and he tumbles over, tripping over a chair, collapsing onto the floor like a huge sack of potatoes.
McCoy turns slipping the automatic pistol out of the holster tucked into the small of his back, as a group of men separate from the bunch at the bar's end and move down towards him. The men stop dead, as McCoy stands there, casually holding the gun against his right cheek.
"There's ten rounds in this, and I'm fucking dead-eyed dick, so if you want to rumble, let's go," he says and everything goes very quiet in the bar. No one moves, someone, at the back of the room coughs and drops a glass onto the floor.
McCoy backs over to the entrance, pointing to Jack Lambert.
"You," he orders, "outside, now," and then he steps out of the bar and waits on the footpath.
Lambert comes out and follows McCoy down the street to the car, waving the men who are following, back into the bar.
When they reach his car, McCoy gives the spotty-faced boy the other half of the note, and then the two men get into the vehicle and McCoy drives away down the street until he eventually reaches Benwell Lane and turns left into Delavel Road, pulling up and parking near the open area off the Armstrong Road.
He turns in his seat, offering his hand.
"How you been Jack, long time no see."
Lambert shakes the hand, pumping it up and down.
"Fucking dead-eyed dick, my arse," he laughs. Let's rumble. Hadaway, what was all that about then?"
McCoy laughs. "Just felt like it really. I get little enough satisfaction in this job. Beating the crap out of hoits like him is just one of the few perks available to me. Who was he anyway?"
"That's Freddie Dobson, he's a bouncer for Teddie Deegan's mob. Some of the boys back there in the pub. They go around calling themselves the Newcastle Mafia. Real pack of wankers I can tell you."
McCoy smiles, comfortable in his car with this man he's been sent to kill, worst case scenario. "How's the wife then?"
Lambert goes serious, his thin face, pinching in even more. "I don't see a lot of her now that we've split up. She's canny one, wor lass, and I love her dearly, but somehow, it all fell apart after Peter went and died." McCoy knows about the young boy, their son, suffering for a year, and then dieing from the leukemia. It's often hard for families to stay together after a tragedy like this.
"So look, Terry," Lambert asks, " why all the dramatics. There's things called telephones, you know that?"
McCoy smiles, his face changing as it lights up with the creases and the wrinkles around the eyes. "I told you. I just wanted to enjoy myself. Life's been a bit flat recently for me."
"So, what do you want?" Lambert asks.
"Jimmy Butler says you owe him, and big and he wants it now, or I get to kill you," McCoy looks at the other man with a hard stare.
"You'd do it then, just like that?" Lambert wonders.
"Is it true?" asks McCoy.
Lambert pulls out a packet of Woodbines and lights one up. Terry McCoy didn't even know they were still on the market. When he gets it going, filling the car with the pungent stink, Lambert begins.
"Jimmy Butler's a fucking piece of work, a pain in the kite, a fucking noodle. I don't owe the bastard anything. I know Joan and I have broken up, but I still care for her. That fat fuck, he wants to get his hands all over her. He knows there's no way it's happening as long as I'm around, so this is how he's getting into it. He's a great sack- less cuddy; thinks because he's got plenty of cash, he can do what he fucking likes. There's no money owing Terry, my word on it."
The two men sit and talk for a while, then McCoy drives back into the city, dropping Jack Lambert off at Eldon Square, before heading back to his apartment in Jesmond.
Two days later he meets up with Jimmy Butler. It's late at night, and they come together back on the quayside, down by the river, where it all started. They walk along the riverside talking, passing the Millennium Bridge, the worlds first and only tilting bridge, linking the two sides of the river. When it opened in 2002, it was the first bridge to cross the Tyne in 100 years. It's illuminated, throwing sparkles of yellow and white light across the black, liquid mass that flows slowly down to the sea, ten miles to the east. The two men stop, and light cigarettes, watching the images on the river and the dockside over in Gateshead.
"So you fixed it, right?" asks Jimmy.
"It's all taken care of. Your problems are over. He's gone. He said he didn't owe you the money. Claimed you were pulling his chain, so I took care of it."
"Good boy," says Jimmy, handing McCoy a fat envelope. "Here's the rest of your fee."
He turns back to look once more at the River Tyne, drawing deep on his cigarette, as McCoy pulls out a flick knife, clicking it open, and sliding the razor sharp blade deep into the kidneys of Jimmy Butler. The little, fat man, gasps in pain, dropping his cigarette. McCoy holds him up, slipping his hand into the man's jacket pocket, pulling out the thick, padded wallet, then, shuffling forward, he pushes the dead man off the quayside. He falls, turning over once, and lands into the water with a heavy splash, sinking and then re-surfacing and rolling over onto his face with his arms and legs spread wide. Like some giant black starfish he bobs about for a moment, and then surrendering to the tidal flow, he drifts off, downstream.
Terry McCoy throws the knife far out into the blackness then walks back to his car, slipping out his cell, and hitting the speed dial button. It rings a few times, and then the woman answers it.
"Hello," she says.
"Hi, it's me," Terry says, "how are you pet?"
"I'm fine, really good. What's happening?" she asks him.
"I saw Jack the other day."
"How is he?" she asks.
"I think he misses you badly. That's my opinion. I think he still has feelings for you. Maybe you should think of talking to him, soon"
There's a pause, then she goes on.
"What you doing now?"
"I was heading back to the flat, why?"
"Why don't you come over. I'll cook you a curry. One of your favourites, a Madras, extra hot, with some garlic naan on the side."
"That sounds really great, bonnie lass," he says, "I'm on my way. I'll stop and pick up a bottle of wine. See you soon."
He closes the phone, and drives away from the quayside. Fifteen minutes later, he stops on Fenham Hall Drive, across from the big, old church on the corner: St James and St Basil. Sits there, thinking back to the wedding. Jack and his beautiful bride, all excited and red-faced and happy, standing in the lovely manicured grounds for their wedding photos; all their lives ahead of them. He leaves the car and crosses the road, and walks into the bottle shop in the small strip of stores next to the church. He wanders around until he finds what he's looking for: a bottle of Wolf Blass Yellow Label Merlot, one of his favourite Australian red wines. He takes it back to the car and drives off, heading for dinner with the woman he loves most in the world:
His sister Joan.
© Thom L. Jones