Category Archives: Gareth Spark

This notion of a fire

Dane Franklin lived in the far side of the forest close to where the tall, black pines shaved down to the moor as hair shaves down to a skull. He lived in the remains of an old caravan with his sister, Suzanne, who had, over the years, turned more than a little crazy. She’d wander the moors and woods in stone-cold rain and beneath clouds the colour of bruises in wind that ripped like a flail across bracken and heather. Dane, the wrong side of 40, with a nose that had broken more times than his heart, would stumble after her and drag her back to the caravan that served as home to the both of them. It stood on the corner of land belonging to his boss, Max Clifford, close to the dark water of the river, and Max would often wander down from the village with a bottle of cheap cider along with the wages he paid Dane for the odd jobs he did. He was an old friend, maybe Dane’s only friend. ‘Now listen,’ he’d say, usually after the third glass had gone down sweet as a baited hook. ‘You’re going to have to get ‘er put someplace she won’t get into bother, mate. You don’t know the half of what’s going on.’
+++++Dane, seated in a folding deckchair beside an electric heater, would gaze from the bars glowing like two bones in hot moonlight, to his sister laid on the cot; her dirty blonde hair hung over the side, sweeping the floor. ‘I promised my old man on his death bed I’d look out for her no matter what, that was on his deathbed, mate; she wasn’t always this way.’
+++++‘Nobody’s always any way.’
+++++‘I’m just saying she needs me more these days than ever she did.’
+++++‘And what’s it cost you?’
+++++‘Nothing I wasn’t ready to lose.’
+++++Max sipped from the cracked plastic tumbler before him. ‘Lost you Jane, lost you your job when you could have had her someplace safe where she’d be cared for.’
+++++‘A barmaid with a wandering eye and shit work in an abattoir aren’t the things to set your life by, not when there’s family and not when you owe them.’
+++++‘Dane, I’m just saying, you can’t be here all the time, and while you’re not here she wanders. I caught a few lads from town the other day, following her back into the wood. If I hadn’t been there, anything could have happened and, let’s be honest, there’s not a way you’d know. Doesn’t talk at all does she?’
+++++Dane turned and looked over at her. She’d walked eleven miles that day along the course of the river, through brush and thorns so tangled, he wouldn’t have believed a rabbit could pass. She lay sleeping, her breaths coming in frantic gasps as though she was some fresh-born beast testing natal lungs for the first bloody time. She’d been beautiful once, before the fire and, even now, beneath the scars smeared across her bones like thick clay, there was something of that loveliness remaining. ‘She hasn’t spoken a word to me in 12 years.’

***

The next day beneath a July rain that was hot as tea, Dane worked at repairing a wire fence on the river bank. The oily mud splashed as he drove a fresh post into the earth to replace one older than he was. He became aware of a movement on the far bank and looked up. Three young men stood watching him from beneath hoods. One, the closest to him, wore a baseball cap beneath the hood, and the legs of his track suit bottoms were tucked into his trainers. Another puffed at a cigarette he held away from the rain in a cupped hand. The third carried a child’s fishing rod. ‘Now then,’ the first said, ‘any good fishing round here, mate?’ There was arrogance to the voice, a scorn Dane heard all too clearly. He’d heard it all his life.
+++++‘No fishing round here lads, this is private.’
+++++‘You couldn’t look the other way, bud, just let us cast a few lines in?’
+++++Dane looked across the water at them. The river was the colour of old beer bottles beneath overhanging trees, flowing quickly down from the high moors behind. In spite of the rain it was hot, and he took the cloth cap from his head and wiped his face with it. ‘It’s just as I say, boys, it’s not up to me; it’s private all this.’
+++++‘Private?’ One of the men asked with a laugh.
+++++‘Aye,’ Dane said, confused by their lack of comprehension. ‘Private, as only he what owns it gets to use it.’
+++++The man with the cigarette said. ‘Like your sister, eh?’
+++++Dane stood very still. It felt as though a trap door had just opened beneath his ribs, and that his heart was falling like a bird with a bullet through the wing. The river washed darkly at the clay of the banks. ‘The fuck did you just say?’
+++++The men started laughing. ‘Take it easy Forrest Gump,’ the one with the rod yelled, ‘nobody wants to roll with a mental fucking pork scratching, no-one except you that is.’
+++++‘Fucking hillbilly,’ said the one with the cigarette. ‘Fuck your fishing and fuck you.’
+++++Dane stared down at the quick water. ‘If you were on this side …’
+++++But the boys were already walking back onto the trail headed to the estate at the edge of town. ‘You’d do fuck all, mate.’
+++++The rain eased up and a haze of small flies hovered over the fresh turned mud at his feet and it was a long time before Dane turned back to his work.

***

The sun was a blaze of gold in the pink misted clouds that washed over the hills. Dane sat on the deckchair in front of the caravan and watched it sink as he smoked a cigarette he’d rolled. He rolled them in the same way his father had and as he watched the sun he thought of the flames that had taken his sister’s house as he’d been passed out on the sofa, drunk on whisky and stoned, and of the two little boys’ asleep upstairs slowly choking to death on the smoke. He thought of the scream that woke him and how Suzanne, home from work early, dashed face first into the blaze too late and the scream of sirens and the last thing she ever said to him, “You killed them.”
+++++She came back close to midnight with her dress torn near enough to rags and her face beaten blue and bloody. She wasn’t crying, just came into the caravan, sat down, and started to comb her hair. He rose from the cot, walked across to her and held her face in his hands close to his. He knew it would be useless to ask sure as he knew who was to blame. He pulled the axe from beneath the bed and headed out into the night, locking the door behind him.
+++++Later, when he returned from the camp the boys had set up in a low field on the far side of the river, he tossed the axe into the river. His jeans were soaked in blood that wasn’t his and there were tooth marks on his knuckles. ‘Suzy, he said, ‘where are you?’
+++++The boys were half asleep and stoned on weed beside a fire that was more cinder than flame when he’d found them. He’d stood behind them and, with the blunt side of the axe head, despatched them one after the other the same way his Dad did the pigs back in the day. They had barely even screamed.
+++++He found her stood in the river, her yellow dress floating on water dark as obsidian, dark as a scrying mirror, the fabric pale in the moonlight like tarnished brass. He climbed down the muddy bank, slipping once or twice and stepped into the chill embrace of the water. ‘I’ve done something mad, Suzy, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry for everything. Sorry for everything I did and didn’t do and everything I am and everything you ended up as, and I’m sorry for the boys, yours and them, and I’m sorry,’ he listened to a distant siren echoing off the crowded hills, ‘I can’t watch you no more. I’m a stupid fucking man, a stupid bloody curse.’ He sighed and glanced at the silver stone of the moon hanging over a dark land. ‘I’m good and bloody sorry.’
+++++He reached for her and leaned her back into the river as though baptising her. The ruined beauty of her face vanished beneath the peaty water. She did not kick or cry out, and he held her there until the first police car burst into the valley in an explosion of light.

The Guests

Listen instead!
Listen instead!

I find them living in the woods, a girl, a barefoot man and a woman wearing a paper crown. They’ve set up a dining table in a muddy clearing between the greasy trees and stare at each other through the late October twilight as a light rain falls. A caravan the colour of a diseased lung stands a little way off into the forest, lit from within by a wavering yellow light. I watch them through the thick undergrowth, my breath coming in little gasps that hang in the air like smoke.  The table is made of some highly varnished wood and is too big to fit into the caravan. A damp cloth of pristine white covers it, upon which is set a full silver service. I can’t see what’s on the plates through the grey light. The girl’s about 14 years old clothed in a white dress that’s mud-stained and yellow with sweat. Her lank hair hangs wet around the bones of her shoulders and she glares across the table at the woman. The latter is massive, and her grey hair’s like the hair you see on the fringe of a cheap Halloween mask. A tattered paper crown is jammed onto her head. The man’s thin, badly shaved and drools onto the front of his grey vest. It’s silent in the wood and I crouch low in the undergrowth, confused and beginning to lose whatever confidence I have left.
+++++It’s an ancient forest near Bein Dearg, in the Scottish highlands. My girlfriend Ruth and I made the trek from Inverlal, up to the mountain over the previous two days. A fellow walker recommended the trail through the forest. He said it was a beautiful diversion on the way to Fort Auchter. I left Ruth at the camp we made that morning after breakfast and had somehow strayed from the trail in pursuit of a rare bird I’d hoped to photograph. I’d wandered for hours as the light failed.
+++++Then I came across the prints of a man’s naked feet in the mud, which I followed, for want of any better plan.  Each arduous mile felt like a hundred and the forest was thick with mist and sopping wet undergrowth. The trees towering above me were wet-barked and black and I thought I heard a cry at one point, in the vastness of the forest’s heart. Probably, a stricken Hare, I thought, that’s now a Fox’s supper.
+++++I crouch a little lower, trying to make sense of the scene upon which I’ve stumbled. Then the man rises and walks slowly around the table. He begins to hum and dance in circles. His broad, naked feet, pale as a dead man’s, splash and squelch in the mud as he circles.  There’s something obscene about the glee this dance seems to afford him though his female companions continue to glare at one another across the perfectly set table. I rub my eyes, and peer through the gathering gloom and, for the first time, begin to feel truly afraid. I’ve stumbled across something that makes no sense.
+++++I crawl backwards and the low branches of blackthorn scratch the back of my jacket. The man, smiling and laughing as he dances, strips his vest. His skin’s grey as a worm, and caked with filth.  The large woman suddenly picks up her plate and throws it at him with a growl.  He stops, turns and glares at her. Gravy drips down his chest.  His thin face carries a perfect expression of subdued, impotent rage and when he opens his mouth, I see his teeth are nothing but denuded pegs of bone, scattered across black gums.  He mumbles. ‘Do we not dance at the feast?’
+++++‘Our guests have yet to come,’ the large woman says, ‘and ye have not gifted them a thing. Angry will they be, angry; aye, there will be a merry dance soon enough.’ They speak with a strange accent that sounds old fashioned but utterly alien as well.
+++++The girl glares at the woman. ‘It is hungry I am mother; the table is set and the guests have not come. Can we not eat?’
+++++I inch backwards, my heart thumping the cold earth. The mud’s deep about my trembling fingers.
+++++The woman scowls. ‘Have we nothing at all, foolish man? We have the meat, we need the gift.’
+++++The girl echoes the sentence in a hollow voice, ‘We have the meat, we need the gift.’
+++++He stretches to his full height and sniffs the air, straining every inch of his lanky body. ‘Yet there might be something.’
+++++The damp has soaked through my thin clothes as I work back through the undergrowth. I slip off my rucksack and push it to the side. I’ve stumbled across something I shouldn’t have, something weird, something dangerous. I know that. I can feel that, and I have to get as far away as I can, and quickly.
+++++Then, it’s like a giant bird has dug its talons into my shoulders and hoisted me up. I gasp and fight back, then find myself face to face with the man. His grip’s hard and his breath’s rank.  He laughs as I struggle. ‘Please,’ I stutter, staring into his rheumy eyes, ‘I’m lost, I was following a bird.’
+++++‘A bird, is it? Then come, traveller, join us.’ He laughs again, a wet, bitter sound, and pushes me into the clearing. The mist has resolved itself into a light drizzle that’s rapidly soaking the cloth. ‘Sit,’ he says, forcing me into a chair at the table. ‘A fine gift we have now,’ he says to the woman. ‘All is well, except with thy faith.’
+++++The trees sway to my right as the breeze picks up. I can’t feel it though, everything is silent and heavy in the clearing.
+++++I breathe fast, too fast. I feel dizzy.  ‘Look…’ I start to say.
+++++‘Are ye hungry?’ The large woman pushes a tureen across the long, perfectly laid table. The wind must have started in the high trees above us. She offers me a dark stew of some kind with a layer of grease on the surface.
+++++‘No…I….’  Then I see the ring forced onto her fat finger. I gave a similar ring to Ruth, on the mountaintop. I’d proposed on bended knee, and thought it very romantic. How strange this woman should have the same ring? Tall, dark trees move in the corner of my eye, yet I can’t feel the wind. The pulse pounds at my throat so hard it hurts.
+++++Then the woman with the paper crown claps her hands in joy and looks beyond me. ‘Ah,’ she says, laughing, ‘our guests have arrived.’
+++++I turn quickly towards the high trees moving in the wind.
+++++They aren’t trees.

The English Dark

Listen instead!
Listen instead!

She’s quiet now, Goodwill’s girl, and I’m glad for it. I’m sitting in the upstairs of the cottage looking out of the window at the great burning flat land running down to the coast and the sun’s like a gold sovereign over the water of the beck, something hot and hard, that you can’t take you eyes off. I do it, though, look back to her laid on the floor, dressing gown open and bloody around her white thighs. Her marble-hard gaze has fixed on me though the white of her left eye is red as a post box. She was 16 years old, my age; she was in my class at school I think. I don’t have much of a memory.
+++++Mick brought her up to the cottage last night and all she’d done is cry. She’d cried so much that her face shone, wet and slimy under the naked bulb, and her voice had broken from all that pleading and begging until it was a squeak; a death squeak that piped through the rag over her mouth. Now she’s quiet and I’m fucking glad of it. I couldn’t think, couldn’t get my head together with all that bloody noise; even her breathing was doing my head in.
+++++Mick had tied her to the chair in the back room with an old washing line. I watched him do it and he did it in a way that made me see he’d done it before; without hesitation, as he does everything in life. It was nearly two in the morning when he pulled up with her slung in the back of the old Datsun Cherry. She’d been out cold and her breath made little clouds in the starlight. I’d been waiting at the cottage since ten when he’d dropped me off, and had gone through nearly half a pouch of ‘baccy waiting for him to get back. She had a dirty rag around her eyes and she wore some kind of fancy dress, as a woman in a magazine might wear. I looked down at my grey shell-suit bottoms with the hole in the knee and hated her a little. I lit a rollie, but couldn’t take my eyes off her blonde hair; the way it caught and cracked the light like some kind of treasure, something men would cross oceans and kill for. Mick’s older than me by fifteen years, my brother, my only family. ‘Now Karl,’ he says to me, ‘you watch her like a hawk, yeah? Don’t listen to anything she says; don’t even give her a drink until I get back, all right? I’m serious, boy.’
+++++‘I know what I’m doing.’
+++++He looks at me for a long time through the shadows. He stood behind her, his hand around her neck. He’d worn an old balaclava when he took her from outside the school prom, and it sat on top of his head now like a gnome’s hat, pulled up from his face. ‘I wish to fuck I didn’t have to rely on you.’
+++++‘Don’t be like that.’
+++++‘No,’ he said, looking at me all serious, ‘come on kidder, I didn’t mean that. I just mean you’re a bit slow an’ that.’
+++++‘I’m not slow.’ I flicked the fag at him. It hit his chest and burst into bits like a firework in the dark of the empty room. Everything seems louder when there’s no furniture, no curtains and that, and I clamp my lips shut in case I shout again.
+++++‘I know you’re not, I’m just saying there’s a lot riding on this. I’ve taken a great bloody risk tonight and I’m counting on you. There’s money in this, enough money for us to get the fuck out of here for good, you hear me? We fuck this up, mind, and the pair of us is fed to the pigs, yeah?’ I mumbled something and he repeated, ‘Yeah?’
+++++‘Yeah.’
+++++‘I just want you to watch her and make sure she doesn’t get away. I’m off to town to let the fat twat know we’ve got his daughter. I’ll be back tomorrow night when I’ve sorted shit out. All you need to do is watch her until then.’
+++++‘You can count on me.’
+++++He looked down at her and said something gross about her that an older bloke like him shouldn’t say. Then he said, ‘When she wakes up, she’s going to be fucking upset, boy.’
+++++‘I bet she bloody will.’
+++++‘Don’t let how upset she will get into your head, be cool, yeah? And don’t let her see you, whatever you fucking do.’
+++++A vixen called out in the woods outside, the black-trunked winter-beaten wood losing all it had to the mud and moonlight. I fancied I saw it through the single pane; a sharp thing darting through the blue early morning grass to hunt God knows what in the English dark. The dark seemed to breathe in and out, seemed to shake beneath the stars like some giant thing alive and sleeping, the endless dark I love.

***

I’ve been a little forgetful ever since Goodwill run me off the road when me and the lads were on our bikes in Spital Lane, in the centre of town. That was when I was ten before Mam got cancer. Mick used to say it was the stress of watching me through hospital glass, not knowing if I’d live or burn away like fag paper , that wore down her body and weakened her enough for the tumour to burst out. He brought me up from being twelve, went to the doctors with me, went to the school when I’d got done for punching a lass. He said it wasn’t right what I’d done. Said I’d come back from Death’s door with a little of the grave-cold in me, but I knew better, I knew it was the dark, lodged in the place where there used to be gold, deep inside, like the black in the middle of your eye, a dark thing, flashing like a wet rock in the light. He didn’t know that all the cats missing from the estate were now bones and fur in the woods, because of me. It’d do his head in if he knew what I’d done to them.
+++++Goodwill’s a big fat bastard, owns the town more or less; takeaways, arcades, pawn shops, a loan company and a ton of crooked things aside. Mick worked for him back when I got knocked down. Goodwill had a bunch of Illegals living in sheds on his farm, Chinese, Afghans, the lot, and he rented ’em out to work the harvest. A couple died and Mick said Goodwill fed ’em to the pigs; said that’s what he did with folks who fucked him over. He got rid of a few dead ‘uns for city gangs too; big blokes with heavy gold jewellery, tattoos and knife blade eyes. Mick wanted to get back at Goodwill; said it was for me, for Mam, but I know better. Mick never did anything for a soul but himself.

***

I hear him pull up outside, long after midnight. I finish my fag and look down at the girl. Hannah was her name, and for the first time in many years, I feel whole, feel like the part of me that went down into the fucking unknown when I was in that long, long sleep has filled up with something else, something black as oil. I should tell him she’d tried to escape or some shit, but he’d see through it. He’s yelling to me. ‘We’ve got to get her out of here, Karl; they knew it was me, for fuck’s sake. They’ll be coming.’
+++++‘How would they know?’ I shout down. I stand and get behind the door holding the shovel I’d found in the shed. It’s caked with dried concrete, which makes it a little heavier. I swing it to test the action and then wait.
+++++‘I don’t know! There’s no way they could have known!’
+++++‘Maybe somebody told ‘im?’
+++++Mick opens the door and steps into the death-stink of a room decorated like a butcher’s shop with the girl’s blood. The gasp he makes is almost funny and he gets out a… ‘What the f…?’ before I give it ‘im on the back of the head.
+++++He goes down like a sack of dirt, the breath rushing out of him like a Rook’s bark. I check his pulse, then take the money from his pockets and stand. I smile and look out to the main road. The sun’ll be up in a few hours and already the dark is paling to the east, but there’s a dark that sun won’t ever reach.
+++++I watch Goodwill and his men turn up ten minutes later. The big man’s wearing some kind of suit and his lads have guns, and not shotguns neither but proper ones, like in the films. I’ll have to get one of those. I’m standing in the black of the wood, almost part of it, hardly even breathing. I hear the big man scream from inside the cottage and let a smile break on my lips. Now he knows what it’s like to lose your soul, if a soul exists; maybe not a soul but something in you that keeps you in the light, whether that’s a God like Mam thought, or the foggy rules Mick followed. You lose that, and you’re something other than a person, something less but at the same time more.
+++++They drag Mick out. He’s wobbly on his feet, just coming round, just starting to figure out what’s going on. One of the lads decks him and then lifts him back up. I can still hear Goodwill screaming; it’s like the Vixen’s bark, a cold and pure sound against the night, it’s beautiful. They throw Mick into the boot of the first car and I can hear his fists banging on the inside as they drive past me. Goodwill and one of his boys are in the house and I know the cops’ll be on their way before too long.
+++++I fade backwards into the dark, feet crunching on the wet leaves. The moonlight silvers the branches of the trees and I light my last fag.
+++++At least the pigs won’t starve this week.

Ghosts

I was sure Tommy had killed his Dad that morning, but I wasn’t going to let that ruin our day; the old bastard probably deserved it more than most anybody else I knew.
+++++Tommy’s old man was a hooligan, a meathead who knocked around with my own Father years before, did his dirty work. The pair of them ruled this wee town.
+++++Then my old man went missing and Tommy’s fell into a bottle of vodka and now, from the state of Tommy’s hands, he’s either dead or so fucked he wishes he was.

We drank Frosty Jack cider under White Point Bridge, looked into the summer rain and waited. It was all we could afford; £3.50 for 3 litres, 22 units of alcohol a bottle and Tommy drank two bottles every day I knew him. We hid from the stamping foot of the rain beneath a black grease mark on the stone where a fire had raged.
+++++Tommy swigged from the plastic bottle, handed it to me and looked out at the yellow field and squat council houses against the cool white of the sky. ‘Fuck’s sake,’ he said, reaching up to touch his mouth. His lower lip was puffed up like a slug and split down the centre. ‘I almost hope them lasses don’t even turn up now; how the fuck am I supposed to do anything when me jaw’s like this?’ Carpet fluff filled his long Blond hair, dirty and parted in the middle. His blood stained hands shook. ‘Fuck, what the fuck am I going to do?’
+++++ ‘What exactly happened?’
+++++ ‘Never mind; pass us back that bottle.’

Tommy’s house was at the back of mine and I heard his Mam scream before I’d even dragged out of bed that morning. I looked through the window at the rain-dark bricks of his home and saw the old man’s fat silhouette against the glass. I saw he had her by the hair, tight against the kitchen floor, then I saw Tommy run in and grab the old man’s shoulders and pull him backwards out of my view and that was all I saw. His Mam screamed again, something high and filled with a hundred nights of knuckles and Gin and then the house fell into a silence so sudden it came like an attack. I reeled from the stillness, blood thumping at my ear, waiting for whatever evil was going to rise from that calm, but nothing came. An hour later Tommy climbed over the back-garden fence and was at our kitchen door, bottle in hand.

‘Just let me think for a bit.’ He handed me back the bottle.
+++++I shrugged and drank. It had a chemical taste and was bitter like bile at the back of your mouth. It’s what you expected for less than four quid. ‘Everyone fights with their Dad at some point, mate,’ I said.
+++++ I wasn’t a drinker like him and the fizz of the afternoon worked up at the hard luck thoughts like mints in a bottle of coke. The rain stank of the distant smoke of fires in the scrap yard and the entire world was hard and cool as marble.
+++++ ‘They aren’t coming,’ he said.
+++++ ‘Don’t you think that’s for the fucking best?’ I replied. ‘What happened with your old man, then?’
+++++ ‘Let’s not talk about it, not right now.’
+++++ ‘We’re gonna have to do something.’
+++++ ‘OK,’ he said. ‘Come on, let’s piss off.’
+++++We sat and looked into the rain, neither bothering to move.

We’d met the girls next to the Kamikaze ride the night before; Tommy wore a dirty Middlesbrough shirt and was smoking Lambert and Butler’s, his hair loose on either side of a face moist with booze sweat. I wore my Dad’s old Biker Cut-off, a denim jacket with the sleeves sliced away and the gang’s name and insignia, faded and year cracked by now, across the shoulders. It was too big for me, but was the only thing of his I had. He walked out one night when I was small and neither my mother nor I had heard a thing from him since.
+++++ Tommy and me both had long hair, and the girl’s wore Nirvana T-shirts, so I reckoned they’d spotted us among the milling Chavs and taken us for kin of some kind. They were so drunk they hadn’t even noticed I was a girl. Tommy wasn’t good with words, ‘Here on holiday?’ That was the best he could do on the spot. They were clean beneath the shop-bought grunge, perfectly made-up and I flashed envious glances at their long legs and perfect teeth.
+++++ When I started to speak the tallest interrupted, ‘Jesus! You’re a girl!’ I felt my face burn and Tommy pushed me with his shoulder and announced, with the pissed-confidence that saved him sometimes, ‘We’re mates, me and Nat.’ I turned and stared at him. He continued. ‘Best mates.’ The air was heavy and wet and the jeans I wore stuck to my legs; I felt strangled, captured by the night, deafened by the boom of dance music and the heavy metal screech of rides and kids screaming and yelling with the kind of laughter that comes dangerously. I watched Tommy lean over the girls, his hands on their shoulders. He kissed them both before they climbed onto the ride, then he watched the Gondola tip upside down into the neon stained black of night, cigarette hanging from his lips, crooked half-grin on his long face. The girls hung there, held against the dark by the ride’s heavy arm and I saw them scream and Tommy whistled, his fingers in his mouth, laughing. He didn’t even notice me leave.

The walls of the tunnel had started to drip rust from the iron girders above and we’d had enough of the mud and dust; Tommy wanted to find the girls. He knew where they were staying. He was unsteady on his feet as we walked down past the White House hotel, looking out over the fairground.
That was where Jingo found us.
+++++ He slowed the red GTi by the grass of the cliff edge and turned the thumping Tommyce music down low. ‘Tommy,’ he shouted out of the window. We ignored him. I heard somebody laugh in the back of the car, but couldn’t see a soul inside through the darkened windows. Jingo slipped the shades from his face; shrunken pupils in his eyes like burnt match-heads. He was a local dealer with pretensions, his older brother and Tommy’s father met in Durham prison a score of years before; they ran pills and brown down from Middlesbrough before business suddenly ceased, that was how I understood it from Tommy, when he was drunk enough to spill. Jingo was intent on fucking with us to pass an afternoon. ‘Tommy, these lasses say they know you, mate.’ More laughter from the back seat of the car, enough to make Tommy stop, turn and look down at Jingo; he glanced at the pale line where the day was fading, then into the back seat. ‘Hello again,’ he said, ‘thought we had a date?’
+++++Jingo laughed. ‘You’re already out with a young lady, though, very romantic. Maybe she’d see you in a different light, if she knew, eh? How is it Nat, heard owt from Daddy? I bet you fucking haven’t; I know where they buried him, you see.’
+++++Tommy, quick as a snapping dog, reached through the window, took hold of Jingo’s fat, grease stained throat and dragged him half out the window. The laughter turned to screams. Tommy raised a fist, brought it down on the Big Mac shine of the dealer’s face. I heard the nose smash, blood sprayed out like juice from first cut on a grapefruit and I dashed over, grabbed Tommy. He shoved me backwards, reached in the window and unlatched the door. Dragged the other lad onto the pavement and started giving him the boot, until Jingo stopped moving and blood streamed like spilled paint out into the chickweed breaking through asphalt.
+++++ Tommy trembled and looked over at me. ‘He shouldn’t have said that about your Dad,’ he said, then, he pushed me towards the car. ‘Get in.’ I heard a siren on the summer breeze.
+++++ ‘The fuckin’ police are coming…’
+++++ ‘Get in.’

Tommy pressed the small car through the back roads as if it was a blade pushing into something’s heart. Dust ripped from the gutter on Danger Bank, then down by the banks of the Esk, and up out into the moorland and the hills, where traffic was restricted to trailers, tractors and nothing much beside. He gripped the wheel and I could smell the drink coming out of him in great swathes of sweat. The two posh lasses were crying in the back seat as he ripped the car from side to side of the thin road, up against the blue sky thin as eggshell already falling into night at the edges where the day had surrendered to the larger darkness coming for everything standing in light.
+++++ He eased his foot off the pedal and glanced in the rear view. The police were miles back, lost in the side roads and lanes of the dale bottom. He lit a cigarette and turned. ‘Having fun yet?’ He yelled and there was madness in his gaze, as if he knew this was to be his last stand. Next thing would be the helicopter.
+++++ ‘Tommy,’ I said, reaching over and taking hold of his hand. ‘Why the fuck did you turn on him like that?’
+++++ ‘There’s things you don’t know about your old man, things you shouldn’t know; him and my Dad were bad men.’ He swallowed. ‘Jingo knows that, knows what went on, back then. Fucking hell, he knows too much.’ He stared at me. ‘We’re mates still?’
+++++ ‘Always.’
+++++He nodded and smiled as though this had satisfied him. Then he turned to the girls. ‘Not quite the date I promised, lasses, but out you get,’ he said, ‘the three of you; this is a one way ride.’ He glanced at me out of the half-opened window as I shut the door. ‘They’ll come looking for me,’ he said.
+++++ ‘I don’t think you hurt him that bad.’
+++++He looked past me into the air. ‘Not for him.’ Then he locked eyes with me again. ‘Fuck ’em all, eh?’
+++++ ‘Fuck ’em,’ I said, stepping back, feeling tightness in my throat. I knew I would never see him again.
+++++He nodded. The two girls started running back towards the town, which glittered at the foot of the hills as if a sparkling jewel set against black leather. The sky above the west burned with loss and Tommy started the engine, turned the car on the gravel of the pull-in, and raced into darkness.

American Tan

By now, the coppers have the farmhouse surrounded. They shout something through a bullhorn but the last shot took out my hearing and all I pick up is the dull sound of a voice, not words, just the drone of authority beneath the ringing of my busted ears.
+++++My brother, Jimmy, is on the floor beside me. Police marksmen shot him through the face ten minutes ago. He was always a touch crazy. He’d stood in the window with Dad’s old shotgun, firing at them as they came up from the low road. I see his feet from the corner of my eye, Primark trainers wet with blood, toes pointed up at a curtain wandering in the breeze. He was born in this room and now he’s died in it, funny how things turn out. The shot took his lower jaw away and I can see it in the corner, teeth and all, dental fillings dull in the summer light. I’ve seen worse in Afghanland, course I have, but this is Jim. I want that image out of my head. I think back to the last time Judy and me were happy and it works for a spell.
+++++Check the chamber of the pistol; one in the spout and after that, I’m done. The room stinks of blood and smoke, fucking hell, my whole life has been blood and smoke, but I never thought I’d bring it here. The picture of Mam and Dad on Jimmy’s bedside cabinet catches the sun and I turn from the glare, push hard against the dusty wall, bleeding where the auld man in the village post office stuck me with a blade. No way out this time, no way at all. Fuck it; I’m having a ciggie first.

Jimmy had the idea about a week back, pestered me with it through loveless days filled with cider and skunk. I was trying to get over her leaving like that, and some other things I will not go into, and Jim had troubles of his own. He mortgaged the farm a year after liver cancer dragged the auld man off, and couldn’t keep up with the payments. Now he was in hock to loan sharks from the Borough an’ all and hadn’t a penny to give ’em. He spent everything he had on drink. They were going to break his legs. ‘Come on, Digger,’ he kept saying, ‘can’t trust anyone else; you ride the bike, that’s all. There’s a couple of grand in it, you can’t go wrong.’ Yeah, Jim, you can’t go wrong.
+++++ We wore tights over our heads as disguise, same type me Mam used to send me to the village shop for when I was a bairn, American tan, she always used to say, get us a pair of American tan. It was a joke. I kept the bike revved up in front of Ruswarp post office; it was a dirt bike. We used it for scrambling round the farm. The sun scorched the village high street, and the tights stuck to the sweat on my lip as the bike turned over, stinking of hot metal and petrol fumes. I saw the steel bridge over the Esk ahead, blue and shimmering in the heat and thought for a moment we might even get away with it. I saw us racing away in that July haze, when I heard the shotgun bark and a woman scream.
+++++ I left the bike, crashed into the cool of the shop and when my eyes adjusted saw an old man on the ground. Blood dark as oil decorated the glass counter screen. ‘What you done?’ I yelled at Jim.
+++++He come at me with a fucking sword or summat.’
+++++The old man was breathing blood and his eyelids flickered like the wings of something trapped. A woman with a bairn stood in the corner. She was crying madly, but the little lad was calm. He looked up at me with black bottomless eyes and I turned away. The whole world was shaded American tan and I knelt down next to the auld fella, out of instinct I suppose, wanting to check where Jim had shot him. He gave out this yell and stuck me in the gut with an old issue bayonet. I felt it like a punch and fell back onto the gritty floor. I’m a soldier, been one half my 34 years, and it was natural as drawing breath to swing the pistol round and put two rounds in his skull. I did it without a thought. I struggled upright, the bayonet handle sticking outta my side. I couldn’t feel it. ‘Come on,’ I pressed Jim’s shoulder. He’s booze thin and I pushed him to the door.
+++++ ‘I never got the money,’ he said.
+++++ ‘Bollocks to the money.’
+++++ He pulled away, stormed to the counter, slipping in the blood on his way. ‘I need that fucking money, Dig, or you know what’s gonna happen.’ His voice was high and strangled with crazy.
+++++The woman wept. Her face was a wet mess of snot and mascara and she pulled the kid towards her as the old man’s blood dribbled over grey lino. My waist was wet around the belt and I saw blood pissing out of me side and felt the pain finally and suddenly. Knew I was hurt bad. Jim came back with a few handfuls of money stuffed into a carrier bag and we were out of there.
+++++ Jim drove us back to the farm. By then I was slipping. I’d had a plan, a decent plan, take us up to the moors, hide in Beulah wood until it blew over. I had a story sorted, we were up there camping, had been a week. There was even a tent set up by the beck, where our Uncle took us rabbiting years ago. Jim wasn’t ever able to think ahead, as I say. He thought we could just go home and nobody’d notice, simple get that he is. I peeled the tights off me face and let ’em go into the wind. American tan, the whole world coloured blood red and American tan.
+++++There are reasons, there are always reasons I suppose. Judy left me on my last tour and I couldn’t go back to Afghan when my leave was up, not after last time. I was going to take the money and vanish, start fresh. All of it gone to hell. I drop my last smoke on the wet carpet and it sizzles in my blood. There is darkness at the edge of my heartbeats, something lifting up to meet me. It all goes to hell always.
+++++The coppers are sneaking closer; I can hear ’em now the singing’s going outta me ears, boots on gravel. I think back to the last time Judy and me were happy. It was down in the lower field, an August day a lifetime ago. The field was lying fallow and the sky was a blazing, endless blue above it. The sun was low and we had cold beers and cigarettes and lay listening to the waist high grass move gently in the breeze and I stretched out my hand and she was just a little out of reach, just that little bit out of reach in the long hot August grass. And the world was calm and the sky was empty and everything was measured as a dream and I wish I could hear long grass in the wind once more before I die.

The Black

The last one brought a baseball bat; it dropped from his fist as he rounded the alley’s corner. Danny Costigan looked back at him, fists stained with blood that was black in the neon glow. At his feet the lad’s two friends lay moaning and bleeding in the rain-swept gutter. Dance music pumped through the windows of the club and Danny, his shirt torn and eyebrow cut, said, ‘Come on then.’ A hood masked the lad’s face. He paused, then vanished rat-quick into the dark. Danny nodded to himself, then plucked a half smoked cigarette from the ledge of a bricked up window. ‘Not as stupid as youse two,’ he said. One of the men started to crawl away through a dirty puddle. Danny ignored him; they’d been shown how it was in the Jack of Diamond’s Gentlemen’s Club.
+++++Tommo, the other bouncer working, waited by the side-door; he’d ended up in the Borough after some never disclosed trouble that left him with a scar running from the corner of his eye to the edge of his mouth. He laughed. ‘Might have to give that teetotal shite a try; never seen two gadgies go down like that.’
+++++Danny shrugged. ‘Didn’t take much,’ he flicked his cigarette into rain that fell like fire against flashing red neon. ‘Pissed up, weren’t they? Bloody scallies.’ He took the black suit jacket Tommo handed him. His knuckles were tooth-grazed and stinging. ‘Respectable place this.’

There was a girl called Marie on the stage. Red light flooded up from smoked glass sconces in the walls and a haze of cigarette smoke drifted above the heads of two dozen men watching her from small round tables. The girls were doing well, and when they weren’t dancing they circled the tables wearing as little as possible; there were private booths off to one side and a long bar to the other. Danny weaved through a group of men dressed in cheap suits as Marie stripped to a dance track. A cup of tea waited near the telephone. He nodded to Istvan behind the bar, sat down and sipped the drink. He grimaced. ‘Bloody Poundland crap,’ he said, pushing it away.
+++++Tommo stood beside him. ‘So that weren’t the trouble?’
+++++‘I reckon there’s something a little more serious coming.’
+++++‘Karen should tell us.’

Karen ran the Jack o’ Diamond’s for her husband, Terry Mahoney. He’d vanished years before; some said he’d gone to Thailand, some to Northern Cyprus; others said he was under a concrete flyover somewhere; but Karen kept the business going regardless, increasing profits, expanding premises, all for the day Terry came walking back through the door. Danny shrugged and caught sight of his reflection in the mirror opposite, framed by dusty bottles of chivas regal. ‘Istvan, pass us a tissue.’ He moistened it in the tea and dabbed at the dried blood above his eye.
+++++‘You getting slow there, boss?’ The Hungarian asked after watching for a moment.
+++++‘He got lucky.’ Danny glanced back at his reflection: black hair swept back from a dark face; a little more wear and tear than the average man a week away from his big four – oh; otherwise, in good nick. Still alive to see it, he thought, remembering a few of the times when his continued existence had been in doubt. ‘You only need for them to get lucky once, that’s all, and Karen never said owt about trouble,’ he said, turning to Tommo, ‘just that there was something going down and we had to keep bother to a minimum. Keeping a place this respectable takes work.’

They came in at 2 AM, dressed in jeans and bomber jackets, heads shaved, old tattoos faded to a powder blue that was almost beautiful. Three men, one older than the rest by decades, weighed down by gold chains and sovereign rings. The older man was short, not much over five feet; grey stubble covered his scalp and he had a spider’s web tattooed across his throat; Danny recognised him straight away. ‘Bri Steele,’ he said to Tommo. ‘Bloody hell.’
+++++‘Who’s that?’
+++++‘Grangetown lot; used to cut blokes up at Middlesbrough games in the 80’s, did some time and now he’s got his fucking fingers in all sorts: pills, porn, cigarette running; small time stuff, but not the sort you’d bring home to meet your Gran.’ Danny glanced up at Tommo. ‘Let’s keep our heads down.’
+++++Karen Mahoney came through the door leading to the office stairs.
+++++She was dressed, as always, entirely in black. Her greying blonde hair was thick with hairspray and when she kissed Bri’s stubbly cheek she left a trace of red lipstick. ‘Brian, my love,’ Danny heard her say; ‘I wish the auld man was here to see you.’ He missed the reply and the group were quickly led away to the side-room. Bri looked at him over his shoulder and Danny swore he caught the old man smiling. A pair of girls followed, carrying trays of drinks. Danny watched them go, then turned away.
+++++Something turned in the hollow of his heart; something cold and wary and wicked.

A few hours later and the club was emptying; the dancers at that time of the morning weren’t the best, and Danny told them to give it up after a while. They were going home when she came into the club. Danny had put a handful of Sinatra songs on the jukebox and was sitting with his fifth cup of tea, staring into the smoke from a cigarette. His knuckles had scabbed over, but were still sore and he had an ache in his ribs where one of the lads had landed a wild right hook. Tommo was letting the girls out, saying his farewells and kissing the prettiest goodnight. Danny watched with a lazy smile and turned his face away, remembering when he’d have done the same, before something was killed out of him. He felt a hand on his shoulder and caught the smoke-dappled scent of a perfume that hadn’t trapped his heart in years. Then she said his name and he turned, tired suddenly and saw those wide green eyes and thick red hair brushed to the side of a heart-shaped face. Her eyes were smoky with blue mascara and she smiled her crooked old smile and he felt his stomach lurch as though he was on an aeroplane dropping from the air. ‘Faye,’ he said.
+++++‘I thought you’d have more sense than to stay,’ she muttered, sitting at the bar beside him. She wore a blue top that sparkled beneath the lights of the bar. ‘Got a drink for an old friend?’
+++++‘Istvan,’ he said, his mouth dry; ‘gin and tonic.’ He glanced at his eyes in the mirror. ‘And a scotch.’
+++++‘Scotch?’
+++++‘Large as all outdoors, mate.’
+++++The barman raised his eyebrows. ‘Okay, boss.’

Danny lifted his glass; the thumping gold light of the room shone through the liquid. He felt her emerald eyes turn on him as Sinatra sang through the speaker. Danny had walked out of H.M.P Durham a month before, five years after walking in, and hadn’t so much as sniffed a bar-rag in all that time. ‘To old friends,’ he said softly.
+++++‘To the wee small hours,’ she replied, echoing the song.
+++++They drank, and then he said. ‘So what are you doing here?’
+++++‘I’m with Gary,’ she said, looking away, ‘Gary Steele.’
+++++‘I saw the lads,’ Danny emptied the glass and signalled for another. ‘Don’t look bad. You weren’t gonna wait forever.’ He nodded to the large rose tattooed on her shoulder. ‘Looks better than my auld name, anyways.’ She glanced away as he drank. Alcohol buzzed behind his eyes and he rubbed them sore as she started to speak.
+++++‘They’re doing something for Karen; big money.’ She sighed. ‘I thought you’d vanish when you came out.’
+++++‘Where was I going to go?’
+++++‘Anywhere but here; aren’t you frightened?’
+++++‘Not like you.’
+++++‘I don’t worry about nothing; I’ve got Gary watching out for me.’
+++++She said, ‘So, how’s life?’
+++++‘Over a long time back,’ he said, ‘what you’re seeing her are the credits going up after the film’s done with. This is the afterlife, love.’
+++++‘I won’t let you ruin everything.’
+++++‘Won’t you?’ He looked over his shoulder at the empty room. ‘Sometimes I’m sorry it was only the gun they got me for.’
+++++‘He was going to kill us.’
+++++‘Was he?’
+++++‘You don’t believe me?’
+++++‘I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.’
+++++She shook her head. ‘You know what Terry was like,’ She whispered, close to his ear, ‘an ‘ard man, the kind that never lets things go.’
+++++‘Well,’ Danny said, ‘he wasn’t so hard at the end.’
+++++‘And you will be, I suppose?’
+++++‘Only ever get one chance to find out.’
+++++‘You’ve been fighting,’ she said. The drink stood untouched before her. She studied his hands, his clothes, the cut on his face; she ate him with her eyes.
+++++‘It’s what I’m paid to do.’
+++++‘You’re getting on; leave it to lads like Gary. What did they do to you inside?’
+++++‘I’m tired,’ he said quietly, rubbing his eyes again, ‘sick and tired. I should never have let you talk me into it. You flash your eyes and I lay my whole life in front of you. I loved you, sick and long and hard. I still love you, almost as much as I hate you and that’s the bloody god’s honest.’ He raised his glass. ‘Cheers, darlin’.’
+++++She looked at him for a long time. Lights went off in the club, leaving them alone in the glow from the bar. ‘The past is the past,’ she said, ‘let it go.’
+++++‘That’s shit,’ he snapped. ‘The past is never in the past, not here, not with me and you; not ever. We’re going hand in hand to Hell.’ He finished his drink. ‘Count on it.’
+++++He stood and she watched him weave between obscure tables crabbed with litter and half empty glasses as Sinatra finished up on the jukebox and the hall, where she danced when little more than a child, fell into a darkness as complete and as peaceful as death. Then she turned away.

Danny stumbled along the rain wet wall outside. It was the end of November and cold stars glittered between fast moving clouds lit by a full moon. He stopped for a piss at the end of the alley, crossed Gristhorpe road, now dead and still and headed for the footpath leading to the estate. His heart beat against his ribs like something knocking to be let out and the taste of the whisky was sour at the root of his tongue. He was sorry for the drink, regretted letting it strike hard at his sense, but hadn’t she always done that? Knocked away the scaffold holding up his world and dropped him down with the dogs? A phrase shone over his mind….without are dogs and murderers…he didn’t know where he’d heard that. He’d been a hard bloke, yeah, they all were, but he’d never killed a man, not until that summer night, not until she’d goaded and chided and pushed him out of the door with the gun she’d found and paid for. She was good all right. She was very good.
+++++He was in the underpass, bumping into the slick-tiled wall marred by graffiti and the burn marks of cigarettes. The tear in his shirt ripped a little wider; he swore under his breath and tried to examine the savaged cloth in the yellow light. When he looked up again, the men were there, three of them, hoods pulled low over their faces. ‘So,’ he said. ‘Thought you’d have another go?’

They moved towards him, slowly. One carried a claw hammer; another held an axe handle that was stained and dented. He tested the weight of it, slashing it downwards with a vicious, well practised swing. The third man, shorter than the others, idly whistled an old country song. They weren’t in a hurry.
+++++Danny glanced down at his empty hands, swore, then raced back the way he came. The sound of charging feet exploded in the small tunnel and he ran with a speed and agility he thought had deserted him. He rounded the corner, out into the night.

A car squealed to a halt on a black road and Danny pushed his way over its bonnet as the driver swore out of the window. He ran into Pursglove park. The gravel path crunched like breaking ice as he turned on the spot, looking for a place to hide. ‘Idiot,’ he said. His breath was a blue cloud in the starlight. ‘Fucking idiot.’ There was yelling behind him and he ran, blindly, aware of feet closing behind him.
+++++He tripped, and the man carrying the axe handle, who had been a few steps behind, stumbled over Danny’s legs and fell, dropping the weapon. Danny coughed, then grabbed the handle and hoisted it above his head. The man said, ‘No, no, no.’ Danny smashed his jaw with the handle, knocking teeth and blood across frosty stones with the twig snap of broken bone. He hit him again, harder, smashing his nose, splitting it wide as the other two men approached, then raised the handle and pointed it at them. ‘Come on then, you bastards; I’ll fuckin’ murder you. Come on then!’ He screamed the words, dizzy, elated, his blood poisoned by violence. The pulse beat so hard at his throat it was difficult to breathe and he could smell blood pouring across the path at his feet. The men stepped away, hands raised, without a word. Danny walked backwards, little by little, the bloodied axe handle pointing at the men. He reached the iron gates and stepped into the darkness of a car park close to the river.

The breath ripped through his ragged throat and he trembled as he turned and walked to the water.
+++++‘Danny?’ At first he thought he’d imagined her voice, the low purr he’d heard every time he dreamed. He turned and she stood close by, arms crossed, leaning against the bonnet of a car, looking up at the blue stars with idle curiosity. He smiled, his first and expected reaction. The cut over his eye had opened again and he limped towards her. ‘Faye,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to get the fuck away from here, love, it’s not safe.’ He glanced down at the handle, then let it drop to the ground, embarrassed of it suddenly, as though she’d caught him with something shameful. The light of the town coming from the river behind, reflected in her wide green eyes and he felt the cold of the night for the first time; a reptilian crawl across the back of his neck. Her eyes were large and wet and she nodded.
+++++Her hair, red as a snake’s tongue, flickered in the breeze. ‘Look into my eyes, Danny,’ she whispered.
+++++He frowned, leaned forward, wanting to kiss her again, wanting to feel the warm pool of her gaze, the softness of her hair on a pillow and the heat of her in the night. Wanting to know it wasn’t all a lie; that there was such a thing as love and it could last forever; that it was worth killing for, dying for; worth half a decade behind stone walls. That he hadn’t been wrong; that she was the meaning and summation of all that misery and blood.
+++++At first he thought he’d been punched in the back. He gasped, winded and fell to his knees. Then he felt the warmth rush over his skin and when the hit came again he felt it, the knife, and it was too late to scream.
+++++It felt worse than he could ever have imagined and he fell to his side. Blood like liquid steel forced itself up his throat and he looked at her as he fell to the side. Gary Steele stood over him, a butcher’s knife in his fist. ‘That’s for Terry,’ he said, his voice a little too high and scared. Danny gasped. The pain was fading now, everything was fading; his legs kicked in the grit and faded cigarette butts and it felt as though he was sinking in mud. ‘F…’ He said, looking up at her from the bottom of a dark pit. He saw Gary Steele kiss her lips and then she turned and glanced down at him, her pale face crowned by a halo of stars and streetlights. ‘I…I.’ She smiled and he seemed to be falling and falling.
And then the black took him.

BIO:

Gareth Spark lives in Whitby, is 33, and writes rural noir based on things he’s seen, done or heard about over the last decade or so. He’s new to short stories, but has previously published a collection of verse “Rain in a dry land” (Mudfog, 2008).

Coming Through The Dark

The car ripped through hogweed and barbed wire, turned on a fallen tree and smashed into the beck. Karl’s head hit the dash. He groaned, his sight flickered, but he was alive. Icy water rushed through the shattered window. ‘Sue?’ He said. She stared up at him; the belt held her tight. ‘We have to get out.’ He unlatched; fell sideways, landed on her and something warm hit his face. In the back of the car was a kilo of cut heroin they were taking to Dale. That was Karl’s second and biggest thought. He reached through and grabbed the sports bag. Sue’s head was turned an impossible angle, facing him, half-drowned by the black water. She was bleeding from her mouth. He touched his face and his hands came back red; the water was coming fast. There was a sweet perfume above the fuel, hot to the nose, and some part of him knew it was death. Long black hair waved in the rushing stream and he saw how that side of the vehicle was mangled. Her face was under the water now and her blue eyes beckoned through its prism, flat as polished stones. Madness chewed him as he climbed into the back and through the side window, landing in mud that squelched over his ankles. He’d been out of Durham prison for a month, and no matter how much he’d loved her he wasn’t going back just to set the record straight with the law. She’d been driving after all, it was her car. Dale hadn’t known she was the one Karl arranged to pick him up; if he hadn’t got drunk with the Turk back in Borough, none of this would have happened. He pushed forward through the weeds, parting them with his good hand, picking his way slowly through the black. A pale moon hung like a fishbone over the country. It wasn’t his fault, he just wanted to scare her by grabbing the wheel; if she was scared it was always good, it lit against his lack of fear and he needed her to know how tough he was, that he could take care of anything. He stood on the dark road. Wind moved the wet branches of overhanging trees as he shivered and looked down at the car; its broken headlight shone ahead into the woods, illuminating rough barked thorn trees and reeds growing by the water and mouldering fence posts. He couldn’t take care of shit.
+++++It was morning before Karl limped into Gristhorpe. He’d stuck to the back roads; clutching the bag, sneaking between scrappy trees beside the potash mine and heading up to the village as the sun rose. Dale Mullany was waiting with his brothers, the three of them seated at a scarred kitchen table, smoking rollies, the blinds drawn and the Formica counter top littered with half empty glasses of vodka. There were violet bruises round the older man’s eyes and greasy black hair hung across his shoulders. He stroked his beard, looked over at Karl and said, in a still voice, ‘Why is it you’re three hours late?’ His brothers said nothing. A bull terrier in the corner snarled and slobbered over something’s thigh bone and Karl felt his throat dry. He was 23, a good ten years younger than the youngest Mullany, and he knew how these boys had filled those ten years. He tried to think of something, but the whisky still had a pillow pushed over his mind; he stammered something about a bus. Jig Mullany reached behind him and pulled a knife from the counter. It was a hunting knife, a foot long; bone handle worn and dulled by use. He stroked his goatee with the sharp edge and Karl watched a few severed hairs fall to the table. The youngest brother, Shaun, drank from a glass before him and said, ‘You got it though? The Turk was all right?’
+++++Karl grinned and walked over with the bag, which he set it on the cluttered table. ‘I took care of it, like I said I would. Just like I always said I would when we was inside, Shaun, eh? You know I’m good for it.’ He closed his eyes and saw Susan staring through the water.
+++++Shaun said. ‘I had no doubts, mate; you stink though, what you been gettin’ up to?’ He looked inside the bag and nodded to Dale.
+++++‘I fell into a ditch, comin’ through the dark. That’s all. Been inside stone walls too long mate, not used to it, am I?’
+++++Dale spoke. His voice was a rumble starting deep in his thick chest. ‘I spoke to the Turk; ’bout an hour back.’
+++++Karl felt the world rushing past stop suddenly and turn to face him. The tick of an old plastic clock above a never used cooker kicked through the drink fuzz and a shiver wormed up through his bones. He shook a little, looked into Dale’s black eyes and asked why he’d called. Didn’t he trust him? It was Karl’s way to spin fierce when backed up and afraid. It was why he’d been inside the past 5 years.
+++++Dale held his gaze, reached forward slowly for the sports bag, lifted it from the table and lay it by his feet. He wore a dirty checked shirt and baggy jeans and the chair creaked as he stood. ‘Turk said someone picked you up; didn’t say nothing about a bus. Said it was a lass, nice one an’ all, and you’d be back soon; who were it?’
+++++‘He’s lying,’ Karl said. ‘Oh aye, trust that get over me why don’t you. I told you how it was; Shaun, back me up. Why would I be lying? Why would I be lying, eh?’
+++++Shaun winked at Jig who slashed down with the knife and slit Karl’s hamstrings. He collapsed. Blood pumped over the pale tiles towards a nicotine stained fridge; he grasped helplessly at the back of his leg, mouth falling open and shutting back with a crack of teeth. His crimson shot eyes were wide with a slaughterhouse terror. ‘What have I done?’ He said at last, flailing on the blood-wet floor, trying to get himself back against the wall.
+++++Dale stood over him. ‘You lied to us son, an’ if you’ll lie over something small as this, how can we trust you with our business?’ He crouched, stared at Karl, and smoothed the long hair behind his ears. ‘Plus you got a white top on riddled over with blood I can see isn’t your own. You think I wouldn’t be all over knowing what you were doing? Think I wouldn’t know Susan was coming for you?’ He shook his head; his brothers stood behind him, silhouetted against the hazy light. Karl looked to the door, tried to move his leg and found it wouldn’t obey. The dog walked over slowly and started to lick his blood from the floor. ‘So you tell us where she is,’ Dale said, ‘and I’d better like the answer, or you’re going a place you really don’t want to.’
+++++Karl swallowed and started to talk, too quickly for it to make any kind of sense.
+++++Dale reached into his pocket and pulled out a butterfly knife that he fanned and flipped open with one hand in a graceful, well-practiced movement. He held it close to Karl’s right eye and said, calmly, ‘So come on, son, where’s our baby sister?’
+++++Karl glanced at the door; the sun was behind the glass, already hot against his face. He shook his head, closed his eyes and waited.

Rundown Dog

The man from Govan caught Spick Monroe’s jaw with a left, sent him crashing to the hard mud of the pit dug out in the barn floor; then he was on him, laying punches down on his face with brute percussive force. Spick felt his lip burst and tasted the hot sting of blood pour backwards down his throat. There were boos and screams from the men watching, leaning on the scaffolding pole rail; a dark parade of faces twisted in the burning sodium light like an ID parade in Hell. Spick blocked with his elbows, found the strength from somewhere and swiped out with his good leg. Caught the Jock just right on the knee and watched his pale face melt out into confusion and pain. Then Spick was up. His tattooed chest was further patterned by flowing blood and grey dirt. All was screaming noise and lights bursting like camera flashes close to his eyes, but his fists worked independently, a jab with the right, a lifetime’s hurt behind it, another, then a clear left circling through sweat-moist air, connecting with a snap of bone and spit to the other’s jaw. The man turned quick as though someone had called his name from behind and went to the earth like a rundown dog; the ginger stubble across his head was tainted with dust and blood and Spick heard the deep, soul-trembling snores that always signalled to him when a man was down for good.
+++++He walked to the poured concrete steps leading up to the barn as the Jock’s corner man ran past him, glancing up at Spick with hate the latter could almost taste. Things were being thrown into the pit: loose change, empty tins of lager and cider, fag-ends. Spick ignored the few trying to talk with him and made his way to the home-made bar where the farmer’s daughter stood, staring as he approached and pointed to a bottle of Bud on the table behind her. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe through a chewed up nose. The beer stung his lip as he drank and he dabbed at it with a black bandanna as he heard the noise of the fighting Staffys starting next in the pit. There was a time he’d have had a bet on the dogs, but that was a luxury he could no longer afford. He finished the beer in a few mouthfuls and made his way across to Jack Gallon, the man behind the fights. He squatted at the back of the room with his minder, a fat, grey man dressed always in a tight blue shirt and tie stained by curry sauce. Spick reached down for his holdall beside the table and pulled out a white T that caught the complexion of blood as he drew it down across his face.
+++++‘Nearly had you there, Spick,’ Jack said, counting out a pile of twenties. ‘Here you go, son, a monkey extra for the win, as promised.’ Spick took the money and shoved it in the watch-pocket of his jeans. ‘Maybe you’re getting a bit long in the tooth for this game, mate; that Scotch git was gonna murder you then, I couldn’t hardly watch.’ He laughed and Spick turned away from the coffee stained grin and said. ‘Maybe.’
+++++‘In any case, this is gonna be the last one for a bit. The Detective Inspector over there told me that boy ‘as got himself killed last month. Kicked up a bit of a stink.’
+++++Spick remembered the boy – a 20 year old from Grangetown, who thought he was the hardest bastard ever walked the earth until shown otherwise. He’d claimed experience he had no right to, something the man he fought should have seen straight off and called halt; instead he’d beaten the lad to death. Jack’s boys had dumped him in a play park outside Redcar.
+++++Spick nodded. ‘If owt else comes up,’ he started to say.
+++++‘Yeah, yeah, you’ll be first to hear.’
+++++The night was deep and black and the frost-snap of November worked across his skin like a cool cloth as Spick walked over to the bike. His ribs didn’t sit right and creaked with pain as he moved. His lip was swollen double and his black hair hung loose over his forehead, heavy with sweat turning to spiders of ice as the night worked its hard charm. Maybe he was too old; at 35 he was almost ten years older than the ones set against him, but he had something they didn’t, something to fight for. The dark hills of the moorland surrounding the farm stretched away into blackness without the least spark of light far as he could see. He heard the shouts of men in the barn behind, turned to see golden light seep between the boards of the building, heard the snarls and yap of a dying dog and wished there was another way, but not these days, not in these times; with the steel works shut and the car factory closed for good; it hadn’t taken much to push him back into Gallon’s arms; quick money, and all you had to give for it was everything.
+++++They got him just as he reached the bike. He faced the pair of them as a soft rain began to drift across the light; the corner man and a lad with shoulders like Tractor tyres. He pointed at Spick and said, ‘That was fuckin’ cheating, pal. Our kid had you; he’d won that fight fair.’
+++++‘So what?’ Spick lifted the bike helmet from the seat and turned back.
+++++‘So we want that win money; he had you cold, pal.’
+++++The man Spick recognised as the corner man had a knife balled up in his fist. He lifted it level with his venomous eyes and said, ‘Kicking like a dirty bastard in a fair fight.’
+++++‘So have it out with Gallon.’
+++++‘Already have; he sees it our way; reckons your past it now; wants us to give you the message not to bother him no more. That was the point of tonight. We go back, me and him.’
+++++‘Suppose your boy was meant to finish me off in there was he? Didn’t do too well.’
+++++‘I’ll make up for it,’ the corner man said. His voice was a cold whisper beneath the rain.
+++++‘Try it,’ Spick said. The man lunged forward with the thin-bladed knife at the same time as the other did with a crowbar, lifting the octagonal metal too far behind his head, preparing a swing Spick wouldn’t come back from. Spick jammed the bike-helmet into the corner man’s face, splitting the cartilage of his nose, heard the knife drop on the earth, and then sidestepped. The bar swung by his head, tearing the air. Spick stumbled, moving too quickly, and went to his knees. The youth lifted the bar above his head. Spick found the knife close to his hands, gripped the rain-wet handle and punched it upwards through the gristle of the man’s breastbone. The bar fell from his hands with a fierce music. His long, grubby face was a perfect mask of surprise as he looked down at the blade sticking out from his chest. Spick pushed him to the side as the corner man looked over, holding his face with both hands and sitting on his arse in the rain. ‘What the fuck have you done?’ His voice was muffled and far off.
+++++Spick stared down at the body; his hands shook with the black rush of blood and he was breathing hard. There was a roar of victory from the barn and he saw the side door open and Gallon’s minder stepped out with a cigarette. Spick threw himself onto the bike and looked down at the blood running thick over gravel like a spring beck over stone. He tried to say something, but panic and adrenaline trapped the words on his tongue, and he spun the wheels on dirt as men ran across then sped like a dart into the country’s heaving darkness.
+++++His flat was on a council estate in a village 30 miles distant. Spick ran up the steps, onto the walkway and waited a moment outside the open window of the living room. He heard his daughter’s wheelchair turn on the laminated wood of the floor; she was laughing at the TV. Spick hated leaving her alone at 12 years old, but their family had reduced by accident and disease to just the two of them. She was all he cared for, and he watched her through the window and felt a tear hot as blood cut through the grime of his face as the cars pulled up in the street below and the doors slammed and boots clamoured on the stairway behind him.

BIO:

Gareth Spark lives in Whitby, is 33, and writes rural noir based on things he’s seen, done or heard about over the last decade or so. He’s new to short stories, but has previously published a collection of verse “Rain in a dry land” (Mudfog, 2008).