Friday, February 16, 2007

Chapter 5

There was a noisy queue for taxis outside the Aquaba and several knots of people saying rowdy goodnights crowded the pavement. We weaved between them and stepped over at least one semi-comatose drunk, a kid of about twenty asleep with his back propped on the low wall outside the club. His friends waited for a vacant cab to carry him to his bed. I hoped his cabby was a sympathetic one, otherwise it would be the scenic route home and a few more quid out of his pocket that night.

We turned right past the Phil' into Hardman St and down the hill towards town. Timmy had Alison by the hand and was chatting to her animatedly, pointing out sites of interest as they walked. Sarah and I walked a few yards behind them. We didn't talk and we didn't touch.

As we waited to cross at the bottom of Hardman St I looked over to the spot Tom had died. The Christmas tree was still in place and appeared to be undamaged. Its skeletal foliation seemed to luminesce in the sodium lights. In my mind's eye I saw the Fire Brigade hosing it down, washing the stains of Tom's blood down the drains and out to sea. There would be no trace of him left to upset shoppers and tourists. Beneath its branches was a police notice appealing for witnesses to the previous night's incident. I wondered how long that would remain in place.

We walked past the burnt out framework of St Luke's church. The moon which shone behind it was in the third quarter. The one working face on its sandstone clock tower showed twenty-five past two. I wondered how long Tom had watched his life tick away on its rusting fingers. I didn't know why, but it seemed important.

As we passed the church it started to rain very hard. A sudden squall had blown in from off the river. We dashed the last few hundred yards down a sidestreet and into the doorway of the Max. Behind the glass inner doors on a barstool sat Scouse Farrell. Five foot four, but broad as a bull. The height of the stool disguised his own shortness. All you saw was a big man in his sixties with brindle hair shaved to a crew cut and a nose broken almost flat into his face. He leaned forward without looking up from the copy of The Ring on his lap and with a hand as large as a spade pulled the door inwards.

'Alright Timmy, alright U, I'd ger in out the rain if I were youse. Don't want you ruinin' de expensive carpetin' on us now. A' dem girls wit' youse, and if so, do thee know the trouble they're in? ' The utterance came in a machine gun nasal burst of pure Liverpool accent.

Scouse's appearance always made me smile. From the top down he wore the classic uniform of an old time night club bouncer. Double-breasted DJ with cheap silk lapels, over-tight at the seams and straining across the midriff. Immaculate, white dress shirt and black dicky-bow from which his thick neck seemed in a struggle to escape. Below the waist was a different matter. Tonight he wore a pair of baggy pale brown acrilan slacks and wool carpet slippers in red and beige plaid.

'Alright, scouse' said Timmy ' Are the plates playing up again?' He'd noticed the slippers too.

'Don't talk to me about de' feet , pal. I'm lucky to be standing here with them at all. You'd think wit' de number of quacks I've seen, one o' dem would be able to sort 'em out. Mind you dis weather doesn' help at all'

'I've got some oil I made in me O.T. group up at the day hospital that's supposed to be good for feet. I'll bring you a bottle down next time I come' said Timmy.

'Ta very much, lah. Bur I think it'll be Lourdes water that dese things'll need before long, ar kid. I'll be chuckin' out from a bleedin' wheel chair if dee keep up the way dey have been.'

During this exchange the two women stood patiently looking through the glass partition which separated the foyer from the main room of the Max. There wasn't much to see. Apart from the lights above two of the half dozen snooker tables which took up most of the floorspace and a desultory fluorescent tube illuminating the small bar in the corner, the room was wreathed in blackness. Players would emerge out of penumbra and into the pool of light bathing a table, shoot their break and then return into the shadows. The darkness on the periphery of the tables was as impenetrable as the expressions on the faces of the snooker players. Only their cigarette smoke lingered longer in the light than they did.

'I s'pose it's my fuckin' round again, is it?' said Timmy 'I never thought I'd end up using me disability money to subsidise third level education.'

The two women giggled drunkenly as Timmy ushered them into the main room. As I turned to follow them Scouse placed his hand on my arm and halted my progress. He leaned towards me. Perched on his stool his face was level with mine.

'I'm sorry for your trouble, lad. We found him, you know. I called the ambulance, bur it was too late for him.' His voice was low, intimate and strangely gentle.

'What happened, Scouse? Did he say anything?'

'I don't know lad. About half one last night Billy Parkes, you know little Paddy's eldest lad, come dashin' in here ravin' about a body hanging from de tree up at de top der. I got the missus to phone for an ambulance and walked up dere for a look see. I thought it might be some 'ead the ball, or a smack 'ead, you know like. I couldn't believe me eyes when I saw Geraghty hangin' dere. By de time I got to him, he was gone. I don't know how long he'd been dere. Dere was blood everywhere. I've seen a few things in me time, but this was terrible.'

'Did anyone else see anything?'

'At dat time of the morning? Dere's no fucker about is deh? Dey're all hoping for a last go at gettin a shag before de clubs close, or well tucked up for dee night. De young feller only found him because he'd spent up early an was on 'is way 'ome, like.'

'Did the Parkes lad say anything?' He shook his head.

'He was in a right state, I'm tellin' yer. Little get thinks he's a hard man, an' all. Well he's not the man 'is father was, if last night is anything to go by. No bottle, none at all. Anyway, son have you 'eard from is missus? D'you know when's the funeral?'

'Aye, she called me tonight to let me know. She didn't say when the funeral was. There'll have to be an inquest and a post-mortem, I suppose.'

'Well if you find out, ler us know. I'll keep me eye on the Echo in the meantime and Beryl'll organise a whip-round for a wreath. Mind you der'll be a few here dat won't be purrin' der 'ands in deir pockets too quick. Deh big fellah wasn't popular, even amongst ' is own, you know. 'E was always dead straight with me doh.'

'What about the Parkes lad? Is it worth speaking to him do you think?'

'I doubt it la'. That one will still be wetting de bed with nightmares. I got now sense out of the little bollocks. Dey had to take him to the 'ossy too, you know wit de shock. Anyway, as I said before, I'm sorry for your trouble. Tell Beryl your next round's on dee 'ouse.'

'Thanks, Scouse. I'll see you later.'

I turned and walked away from him into the main room. Timmy and the women were on stools at the bar.

'Here's the man of mystery now' I heard Sarah say as I approached. Her voice was timbred with a brittle ring of drunkenness. The conversation with Scouse had somehow sobered me up and I began to feel the grief I'd been controlling all the night. Timmy handed me a drink. It was a Jimmy's. I drank it back and ordered another round. Beryl brought them over and refused the money I offered her.

It's alright lad' she said softly 'Put dat towards the flowers for Tom'. I returned the cash to my back pocket.

'Fuck me old boots' said Timmy loudly 'A free drink in 'ere. As somebody died or what?' I gave him a glare and he realised what he'd said. He started to apologise and I stopped his words short.

'Forget it, Timmy. Don't dig a bigger hole for yourself than you already have.'

His pale blue eyes looked deeply into my brown ones as if he was trying to establish my state of mind. His round face held no expression. He had spent so much of his own life being looked at by people in that way he'd picked up the knack himself. Sarah, insensitive to the tension between myself and Timmy, put her arm around my shoulder and leaned onto me. I shook her off gently but firmly and moved just out of her reach along the bar. I threw back my drink, put the glass carefully down on the bar and stepped away from the group.

'I'm heading on now. I'll see you again, alright? Safe home to you.'

'Aye alright, U, see you round.' Timmy's voice sounded hollow with a tone of contrition. The women said nothing for a moment. I was across the room and through the door before I heard them call their goodbyes.

I said goodnight to Scouse and stepped into the street. The rain had stopped and the moon was still bright as I walked down the hill towards home. I circled around Chinatown and cut through onto Paradise Street. There were few clubs in this part of town and those that there were did their business mainly at weekends. The sudden squall had polished the empty pavements and they shone like obsidian. It felt like walking on the moon.

As I walked I thought of Tom plodding the beat around here and remembered some of his stories. It was strange. I'd not thought about him since the P45 had dropped through my letter box but now on the deserted moonlit streets everywhere I looked seemed to be a feature in the geography of his past.

I passed a spot on Paradise Street where he told me that as a probationer he'd arrested his first drunk. The lad turned out to be a cousin of his from Listowel and didn't he only write to his parents to say what a gentleman their son was. Telling them how Tom had got him a warm bed and a good breakfast on his first night in a strange city. He had the tact not to mention the forty bob fine it had cost him.

At the end of Paradise Street I turned right and cut across past some seventies' municipal monstrosity onto Wapping. I passed the Baltic Fleet, a pub named from the days when Liverpool still had one. I remembered the story of Betty Savage, a real life Maggie May who'd worked the south docks. According to Tom she'd had her throat cut after rolling one drunken sailor too many. It was a Dutchman who'd done it. Not because of the money, but because she'd ditched his wallet in the River Mersey. It was bad luck really. The wallet contained the only photograph he had of his wife and child. They'd been killed by the Nazis in a concentration camp. He'd searched for Betty every time his ship had docked. Eventually he found her and killed her. Mad with drink and remorse, he'd given himself up to Tom at the Pier Head sub-station.

It chilled me to think that so much of my knowledge of the city, my adopted home, was loaded with someone else's memories. I saw it through the eyes of an ex-rozzer now lying cold on a mortuary slab. I didn't have place-memories of my own to recall. At least none that were worth passing on. Even if there was ever anyone to pass them on to.

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