Something is off with mum. She hasn’t said anything but when something is bothering her she ain’t good at hiding it – not that she would. I try to visit with her two or three times a week but last week I had a bit of business up north and so I missed a couple of visits. I don’t like to leave it so long between visits, but in my line of work you don’t let people down – or the visits to mum might stop for good.
She’s twitching in her chair and hasn’t touched the tea she made for us both – mum’s old school, still serves it in the pot and insists that the man pours. I enjoy the ritual as much as she does, but as I poured today she barely looked at me. She’s not said more than half a dozen words since I’ve been here.
‘I’d have rather been down here mum,’ I say, ‘don’t get me wrong, the boys in the north are good as gold but it’s grey, wet and cold up there.’
‘What… what are you talking about?’ Mum responds.
She doesn’t really seem to be in the room – I’ve really pissed her off. I try to be a good son, drop in as much as I’m able but as soon as I miss a couple of visits she lays on the guilt. It’s always been the same. My useless fucking brother fucks off to Spain to live and whenever he’s home she’s fawning over him and declaring him a great son because, ‘he never forgets to visit his ol’ mum whenever he’s home.’ And yet I have to go away for a few days and I get treated like I took a shit in her cornflakes.
‘I had to go up north mum. I had work up there. I’m sorry I couldn’t visit.’
‘Ah, don’t worry about that.’
She waves a dismissive hand at me and I realise that there is something real bothering her. And, it must be serious as apparently my trip hadn’t registered. Before I can ask what’s up she’s talking.
‘You remember little Kirsty Richards? Maureen and Dave’s girl – skinny little thing, not much to look at.’
I don’t need the extra details but mum always likes to give it, I remember Kirsty just fine. She was a couple of years behind me at school and lived across the green on the estate.
‘Yeah, I remember.’
‘She got mugged a couple of nights back, right here on the estate. She’s in hospital, Maureen said it’s touch and go whether she’ll pull through. They’ve had a terrible year that family, Maureen’s mother died over Christmas and Dave himself only went eight months back, god rest his soul.’
‘I know how Dave died mum,’ I’d been given an update on his illness every time I’d visited mum whilst he was ill, I even went to the funeral but mum’s mind isn’t in great shape these days and it wonders off all over the place, ‘I was asking what happened to Kirsty?’
‘Well she’s been doing that door-to-door catalogue selling. It’s a load of old crap, but I always try and have something off her – you know to help her out. She’s had no luck that girl, she bought a place with her fella a couple of doors down from Maureen and Dave’s, but he buggered off and left her with a kid to bring up. She couldn’t keep the mortgage up on the house so moved back in with Maureen and Dave, which has actually been a bit of a blessing to Maureen since Dave’s passing – it’s good to have a bit of company around.’
I felt defeated by the insinuation in the last comment, even in someone else’s painful story mum could find a way to make it about her. I knew all about Kirsty’s situation, mum had told me about it a few times before. I decided to push mum to the point of her story.
‘So, she was mugged for the money she’d collected from the catalogue sells?’
‘Yes, thirty-seven poxy bloody quid,’ mum spat the words, ‘this estate isn’t what it used to be. It’s not safe to walk the streets anymore.’
I couldn’t disagree with her there. I’ve been trying to get mum to move out for years, I’ve even offered to buy her a place near me, Sue and the kids, but she won’t leave – she says the estate is her home – our home. I can see her point, it was the first and only place she made a home for her family in and a lot of the families that we grew up with have remained so she’s got a lot of friends nearby. She says she’d feel like she was leaving dad behind if she went, feel like she was betraying his memory if she sold the house he’d worked so hard to buy from the council.
But, for each positive about the estate there are at least two negatives these days. It’s not the same place that I grew up in. Every time one of the old stalwarts moves out or dies off their house seems to attract far less desirable families than the ones that went before. Don’t get me wrong, it was always a tough estate, some seriously nasty bastards grew up here – myself included. But, it was a tough estate with morals – one of which was you don’t shit on your own doorstep. The posh houses across the flyover were fair game, but if anything happened to anyone from the estate the people rallied together – we looked after our own. Crimes against the estate from within were rare to non-existent, on the odd occasion that someone did step out of line they didn’t last long before they were forced to find somewhere else to live. There was a sense of community, the kids played together, the dads drank together and the mums gossiped together. The houses were nothing special, but everyone took exceptional pride in them.
Now when I visit mum I come past unkempt lawns, wrecked cars and strewn rubbish. The kids still seem to play together, but they do so at night in hoods with knives and guns.
I’ve let the silence sit in the air for too long as I contemplate what once was and what has now become. Mum sums up many of my own thoughts with a few painfully real words of her own.
‘This never would have happened when your dad was alive. He wouldn’t have let it.’
There’s a red moistness to her eyes that I’ve seen only once or twice before. A strong, proud woman, mum never really even cried at dad’s funeral – although I heard her sobbing alone in her room that night. I stood from my chair and moved towards her to provide comfort. It was an awkward moment – we had never been a family that hugs. Most of the time if I’d tried to hug her, she’d have pushed me away, there was no lack of love – we just didn’t feel the need to show it. Today she doesn’t push and as I hold her I feel her shoulders slowly rise and fall and her tears moisten my shirt.
‘Hey, Johnny Boy Winter. What’s up blud?’
One of the kids that now inhabit the estate I once called home has recognised me as I stand at the door saying goodbye to Mum. He’s part of a group of three kids, all late teens and dressed in clothes so loose they look like they’re suffering from a wasting disease. My line of work comes with many hazards, one of them being that every scumbag looking to gain a reputation in front of his crew wants to be seen talking to me.
I nod an acknowledgement in the direction of the group and hear some sort of celebratory sounds coming from them – I’ve made their day.
‘They’re the ones that mugged Kirsty Richards,’ Mum said eyeing the group with disgust as she spoke in hushed tones, ‘The one that called out to you, he’s the ring leader, evil little bastard.’
‘I figured – why are they still on the streets?’
‘I’m told the parents provided them all with alibis for the night of the mugging, bastards. If that had have been you and Daniel I’d have had the police take you away, give you a bloody good hiding, lock you up and then have your old man give you another one when you got out.’
I have little doubt. We’d had whippings for far less – most of them deserved.
I kiss Mum on the cheek, she flinches away and gives me a tap on my cheek and follows it with a look that asks what I think I’m doing. She’s in public now – the vulnerable woman that needed a hug in the living room is well hidden. I tell her to make sure she locks the door. As it shuts I wait for the sounds of the bolts sliding and keys turning before making my way back to my car.
‘Laters Johnny Boy,’ the same youth shouts.
Yeah… Laters, I think as I walk away.
My car is warm but I take no comfort in it as I think about the Richards family, my mum and the old estate. I had driven out of the estate so that the muggers had seen me go, they waved and called out as I left – but now I am back. I’d turned the headlights of as I’d pulled into the estate and parked up on the road at the boundary edge. I am looking across the estate at the muggers, parked far enough away that they haven’t spotted my return. It’s taking all of my energy not to pop the trunk, take out the gun I’d used for the bit of business up north, walk over and put a hole in each one of these arseholes, but that would be stupid. The reason I have the deal with the lads up north is if any murders need doing it’s harder to connect the doer to the crime, I do theirs up there, they do mine down here – I can’t fuck that up by firing the gun I used up there just because I’m pissed off down here. That would fuck everything up – dots would start to be connected.
After a long wait I see the group disband and head towards their houses. I keep my eyes on the one that mum identified as the ringleader. He heads towards one of the least presentable houses on the estate and lets himself in. My car engine purrs as I start it and role the car slowly and quietly towards the house. I’ve arrived outside as the lad has just gone inside and shut the door behind him. I jump from my car and run at the door. It falls inwards as my weight impacts with it and the young mugger is now lying unconscious under the door and my not inconsiderable weight. I give him a couple of punches to ensure he stays out and feel his cheekbone implode as the second blow strikes – that ought to do it.
There’s a call from upstairs, ‘Tommy, what the fuck is all that fucking noise, we’re trying to fucking sleep up here,’ a man’s voice with less urgency or panic in it than you might expect after such a commotion in the middle of the night. I guess drugs have been indulged in, not just tonight but every night for quite some time.
I drag Tommy up the stairs by an arm. He doesn’t come around – I’ve hit him hard.
‘What the fuck Tommy? Keep it fucking down,’ it’s the same voice that called out moments before.
I drag Tommy towards the room that the voice has come from and stand in the doorway. I reach inside the room and hit the light switch – I used to live in one of these houses I know the layout.
‘Who…who the fuck are you?!’
Finally some panic in the tone as the man I assume to be Tommy’s dad – but who knows these days – bolts upright and tries to back himself through the headboard and into the house next door. His wife is half a second behind him but she mimics his every move perfectly, adding a scream for good measure.
‘My name’s John Winter,’ I say, ‘and I’m a friend of Kirsty Richards.’
They don’t flinch at my name, but I see them both shudder at the mention of Kirsty in a sign that I see as an admission of guilt.
A look to the side of the bed confirms all I need to know about Tommy’s upbringing. The drug paraphernalia on both parent’s bedside tables paints a picture of a lad that never had a chance in life. I don’t want to, but I feel sorry for him.
‘Don’t fucking move,’ I said and walked towards the bed.
Both parents look at me with terror in their heavily glazed eyes. They are younger than a first impression gives, but their grey broken skin and lifeless greasy hair is doing them no favours. I punch Tommy’s father hard and he goes straight out cold. Tommy’s mother yelps as she anticipates what’s coming next and I don’t disappoint her, putting her lights out next. I pick up a cigarette lighter from the bedside table and put flame to the duvet. The cheap synthetic material takes in seconds and the bed is ablaze.
I look at Tommy still unconscious on the floor in the doorway to the bedroom. I feel sorry for the lad, but he is what he is – nothing is going to change that now. I step over him and leave him to burn with the monsters that created him.