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Copyrights reserved 2107. No part of this novel should be republished in any form without the permission of the author.
John Ai Grisham
The phone sitting on Gabriel William’s desk rang. Gabriel yawned and picked up the receiver. ‘Yes?’ he said shortly and then, when the receptionist announced that his next client had arrived to see him, added without much enthusiasm, ‘Show him up.’
Prompted by the imminent arrival of the client whose name he quickly checked in his diary, he pushed aside the file he had been working on and then quickly opened the sash window of his office. He hoped that that might remove the lingering smell of the fish and chips that he had not long ago consumed for lunch. His fingers, he noticed as he straightened his tie, still smelt of vinegar.
It had been raining for some time and the sound of traffic swishing along the wet High Road floated in through the now partially open window. A sudden raucous burst of laughter caused him to glance out of the window and across the street were a group of teenagers loitering in a shop doorway. Yobs, with nothing better to do, he thought. Then he noticed that one of them was a youth he recognised and groaned inwardly. Oh no, he thought. Don’t tell me he’s out already. The last time that he had seen the youth he had just been sent down by the local quarter sessions judge, a miserable old git with an explosive temper, not helped by the fact that the youth in question had made up a story about having fathered a child and having a job, neither of which proved to be true when a suspicious police officer looked into the story. Unfortunately for Gabriel and the barrister who had appeared for the youth, they had believed his story. As a consequence, the story had been advanced in mitigation of the sentence the youth was to receive. The barrister thought the circumstances were such that it might even prevent the client receiving a prison sentence. Things seemed to be going that way when the police officer crept into the court and whispered something in the prosecuting barrister’s ear. That gentleman at first raised his eyebrows and then, with an expression cast carefully between regret and indignation, rose to his feet and said, ‘I regret the need to interrupt my learned friend,’ he began, referring to defense counsel. Barristers always referred to their opponents, if barristers, with elaborate respect as ‘my learned friend’. Solicitors were referred to in a markedly different manner as ‘my friend’. Not so learned then. In any event, learned counsel for the prosecution continued with an exaggerated look of concern on his face to impart the news that he had received from the police officer. The judge’s face flushed a delicate shade of puce. The officer was called to give evidence and, having been sworn, he proceeded to relate the outcome of his enquiries. There was no job. There was no baby. There wasn’t even a girlfriend.
The defense barrister and Gabriel were allowed to speak to the defendant who, in the cells, ruefully admitted that it was all a cock and bull story. Gabriel couldn’t believe his ears. He had believed every word of it. The youth had drip-fed the story to him over a period of time and he had believed him. He was staggered. The youth hadn’t seemed capable of making it all up and yet, with a bashful look on his face, that was exactly what he was telling them he had done.
Now they were for the high jump. The client would go inside. That was his problem. The trouble was that the judge had been hoodwinked as well and that spelt trouble. It did indeed. Having sentenced the client to a custodial sentence with a few short words, the barristers and Gabriel were summoned to the judge’s chambers where they were given a severe dressing-down which they had been obliged to listen to as respect for the man’s office required. Nobody escaped censure, not even the prosecution, and all because the learned judge had been taken in, just like the rest of them.
As a consequence, the sight of the youth in question in the proximity of his office, obviously at liberty again, was not a cause for rejoicing as far as Gabriel was concerned.
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on his door. ‘Come in,’ he called and looked as the new client entered the room. The new arrival smirked at Gabriel and winked at Gabriel’s secretary as he made an over-elaborate display of squeezing past her. Pathetic, thought Gabriel, but the secretary giggled and then left, shutting the door behind her.
The new arrival was not dissimilar to himself thought Gabriel as he looked at the man. He was probably in his mid-twenties with blond, shoulder-length hair and fashionably dressed. Gabriel, too, had shoulder-length hair. He may have been a solicitor, but he was as susceptible to the fashions of the day as anyone else. Even police officers, particularly if they were in the drug squad, had long hair, as did probation officers and even barristers. It could be quite comical at court sometimes as uniformed officers, who invariably had short hair like squaddies, tried to distinguish the defendants to be put in the dock from their own CID colleagues or the lawyers defending them.
Gabriel invited the client to take a seat.
‘Ta, don’t mind if I do,’ he said, sitting down and placing cigarettes and lighter on the edge of Gabriel’s desk with heavily nicotine-stained fingers with the nails bitten down to the quick. They were heavy, labourer’s hands with the scarred knuckles of a fighter and the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on the fingers. A strong smell of tobacco had wafted in with him which even the pungent smell of the man’s aftershave failed to conceal.
Gabriel’s visitor immediately lit a cigarette and offered one to Gabriel who did not smoke and who, in fact, had never been able to stand cigarette smoke. He declined with a strained smile and despite the fact that there was now a cold wind blowing down the High Road and rattling the window frame, he pushed the window wide open. His visitor didn’t seem to notice. Gabriel apologised anyway. He felt that good manners required it.
‘Hope you don’t mind,’ he said, gesturing at the open window as he did so.
‘Not a bit of it, mate,’ said his visitor grinning. ‘I’m used to it. You want to be in Bedford nick on a winter’s day!’ Gabriel didn’t want to be in Bedford, nor indeed in any other nick whether in winter or any other day and tried to move matters on saying, ‘Right, Mr, er, Moloney, what can I do for you?’
His visitor casually flicked his cigarette ash out of the window and with a grin said, ‘Call me Derek. I’d like to retain you as my brief.’
Gabriel noticed that Derek had the throaty voice of an habitual smoker which of course dove-tailed in neatly with his appearance. He must have lungs like a smoked kipper, he thought acidly.
‘Are you in trouble with the police?’ he asked, feeling a trifle foolish as he did so. Normally, in his experience, people only consulted him if they had already been charged or were about to be. His visitor laughed as if the very idea was preposterous. Cocky too, thought Gabriel morosely.
‘No,’ said Derek. ‘It’s just a precaution you might say – a bit of forward planning.’
Gabriel realised now that he was dealing with a professional criminal. He had met enough in his years in the profession. He could by now tell the difference between a real pro and the flotsam and jetsam of society that made up most of the clientele of Her Majesty’s Court Service that washed up regularly on his doorstep.
Pros, in his experience, did not usually get caught in the first place despite the fact that being apprehended by the boys in blue was an obvious occupational hazard. On the rare occasions, however, that they found themselves as involuntary guests of the constabulary, even they required the help of those urbane pillars of society, the bulwark between the citizen and the State, the legal profession.
If, regrettably, in the clutches of the police, the pro was normally calm, knowledgeable and self-possessed. They knew the rules as well as the police and lawyers did, and they knew how to work the angles. Even the police seemed to recognise this and invariably treated them with the respect of one professional to another. Pros formed a kind of aristocracy of the criminal classes. Gabriel decided that the man in front of him, sitting confidently in his office and filling the room with smoke, was just such a man.
‘Why me?’ Gabriel asked, waving his hand in front of his face in a futile gesture to move the smoke away and in an effort to embarrass his visitor.
Derek either didn’t notice or chose not to, and simply said, ‘You come well recommended as a good defense brief and I always like to use the best.’
It was a suitably slick answer, but despite himself, he was flattered at the thought of the reputation that he apparently had. He suddenly found himself quite drawn to Derek. He reminded him of some of the lads that he himself had grown up with and who were doubtless even now being supported by Gabriel and the rest of the tax-paying society at some expense at one of Her Majesty’s establishments for those who infringed the laws made in her name and who were also no doubt still protesting their innocence. If the prisoners were to be believed, there were no guilty men in jail.
‘Sure I will act for you if you need me,’ said Gabriel smiling, warming to the man. Nothing like a bit of filthy lucre to create a warm sense of wellbeing.
‘Good,’ said Derek, and to Gabriel’s surprise produced a large wad of money in an elastic band. ‘How much would you like on account? Will a grand be enough?’
Gabriel was staggered. A grand. In 1972 that was more than six months’ salary for an assistant solicitor such as himself.
‘Er, sure,’ he said as Derek counted out the notes on the table.
The pile of used fivers sat there on the desk between them. Gabriel just looked at it for the moment, lost for words. Derek was pleased by the impact his gesture had made. He watched Gabriel carefully whilst Gabriel sat there and stared blinking at the money. Derek decided to take the initiative to move things on and he said with an elaborate wink and a smile, ‘Don’t worry about a receipt.’
‘No, I insist,’ said Gabriel quickly coming to life again and scribbling out a receipt on a piece of headed notepaper. He handed Derek the receipt, but left the money where it was for the present. He felt rather nonplussed at the pace at which things had developed. The man was so confident that he actually felt rather awkward and at a disadvantage. This was unusual for him. People were supposed to feel ill at ease in his presence, not the other way round.
Partly to cover his embarrassment and partly because he wanted to know more about this new client, he asked him whether or not he had lived in the States. He had noticed that Derek’s accent mutated from estuary English to American and so it presented an obvious line of enquiry. Given the likely nature of Derek’s work, he could hardly ask him about his work.
‘Sure,’ said Derek grinning. ‘I was there until recently,’ he continued and before Gabriel could ask him anything else, he added, ‘I was a bodyguard for a pop star – well a band,’ he corrected himself and he then mentioned a name that even Gabriel had heard of.
‘Wow,’ said Gabriel only partly feigning surprise. ‘You must have seen a bit of life.’
‘Yup,’ said Derek emphatically. ‘Yup’ would normally have sounded off-key and naff to Gabriel, about as convincing as a Manchurian pretending to be a country and western singer complete with a southern American drawl, but somehow when Derek said it, it sounded perfectly in character. Derek guessed that Gabriel was principally interested in the perks of such a lifestyle and added tantalisingly, ‘Plenty of sex and drugs and rock and roll – boy, those guys know how to party.’
‘Spare me the details,’ said Gabriel hastily. He was not concerned about being shocked. He was rather more concerned that he might be jealous. The man before him gave every appearance of being as free as a bird. He was a rolling stone that gathered no moss, a wanderer who had lived life on his nerves free from the encumbrances and responsibilities that weighed down lesser mortals whose lives must inevitably seem pedestrian by comparison. How, he thought, could you compare his life, a life of predictable normality with that of a soldier of fortune?
So, although he would have quite liked the details, he tried to change the subject slightly.
‘How on earth did you get a work permit? I thought you had to have a job lined up to go to. Aren’t the immigration controls really strict?’ God, he thought to himself, how pompous I sound.
‘They sure are,’ Derek answered willingly enough, again with a grin. ‘Although, to be honest, I decided to sort of,’ he searched for the words, ‘bypass them.’
‘Well, how did you get in then?’ said Gabriel, his curiosity aroused and, although Derek was making him feeling incredibly naïve, he did not care, he genuinely wanted to know. He was intrigued.
‘Well,’ said Derek with the air of a man imparting a confidence, he was after all talking to his solicitor, ‘When the plane landed and we had got down the stairs, I just did a runner right through the airport. I ran all through the customs sheds and just kept going. One bloke tried to stop me and I just smacked him one and carried on legging it until I got off the airport.’
‘Good grief,’ said Gabriel impressed despite himself by the sheer audacity of the man. ‘You were taking a chance.’
‘Maybe, but it was worth a try and it came off. I then hitched and worked my way around until I ended up in Nashville where I got a job as a roadie, and then one night when there was a fight with some bikers and they saw how tasty I was with me fists, I became a bodyguard – piece of piss!’ he laughed.
Gabriel, looking at the well-built man in front of him, could well imagine that he was able to look after himself in a fight. He felt a certain grudging respect despite himself.
‘What brings you to Watford then? It must seem a bit tame after where you have been’, adding ruefully as he gestured out of the window at the street and rooftops glistening in the rain as the street lamps came on, ‘Not to mention the weather,’ he added emphatically.
Derek lit another cigarette. ‘Fag?’ he said adding hastily, ‘No, sorry, I forgot – any chance of a coffee?’
Gabriel rang through to his secretary and asked her to make a couple of coffees for them. After a short interval, she came into the room and put them on the desk in front of Gabriel and Derek.
‘I hope there’s enough milk in yours, Mr Moloney?’ she enquired looking at him with doe-like eyes. She blushed slightly as Derek leered at her and answered, ‘No, that’s just how I like it, thanks darling.’ The secretary smiled and left without looking at him, Gabriel noticed. Surely she couldn’t fancy this tough, he wondered silently.
‘Nice bum,’ said Derek approvingly as the door was closing behind the secretary, not loudly but so that she might hear. Gabriel considered that she plainly did hear because he noticed her blush again. She was very fair-skinned and blushed easily anyway. He began to fell irritated, but chose to ignore Derek’s remark. He did not want to get drawn into a conversation about how attractive his secretary might or might not be.
‘You were saying,’ he said a little stiffly.
‘No special reason,’ answered Derek after nosily slurping some coffee. ‘It’s as good as anywhere. I got no family. I was in a children’s home near Watford when I was a kid. I hated the place. I was always running away, but they always caught me. I had nowhere to run to so, after living rough for a while, I would get nicked pinching sweets or something. Anyway, they would take me back and I had to stay there more or less until the SS …’
‘SS?’ interrupted Gabriel.
‘Yes, the SS, Social Services, let me out of there – anyway, so when I came back from the States, Watford was the first place I thought of, so here I am.’
Gabriel was keen to ask why it was that Derek had left the States in the first place, but decided he had learned enough for now. It could all be a cock and bull story, but the bit about the care home sounded as if it might be true. He had begun to feel sorry for Derek. Behind that confident, brash exterior lay a tough past. Perhaps that explained the chain-smoking?
Derek asked for and was given Gabriel’s home telephone number in case of emergency and then excused himself saying that he had somewhere to go. He stood up. They shook hands and then Derek left the office.
After Derek had gone, Gabriel sat looking at the cash on the table. That and the half-empty coffee cups, now with Derek’s dog-ends floating in it, were evidence enough, if he needed it, that Derek had really been there. Outside it was still raining. His room reverberated slightly with the sound of the traffic still crawling up the High Road, the vehicles stuck in the usual queue, engines turning over and occasionally revving as the drivers became more impatient. A cold wind continued to blow in from outside, but he didn’t shut the window. The room was still full of smoke from Derek’s cigarettes. He scowled. He knew his clothes would stink of tobacco smoke. He could smell smoke on his upper lip.
Gabriel turned the light on and took a couple of paces around the tiny room which contained only the desk now with the pile of cash on it, two chairs and a filing cabinet, the whole now dimly illuminated by the single light bulb.
On the wall there was a picture of Snowdonia. It had been the front page of a calendar which would now have been years out of date, but Gabriel kept it there attached to the wall by safety pins. It was a picture of one of his favourite places, the valley of Nant Francan seen looking towards the Ogwen Valley and dominated by the huge submarine-coning tower shape of Tryfan, a large and quite forbidding rocky mountain. He loved that view. He had had some happy times there in the past, rock climbing with friends. How many years ago now was it? Too long certainly.
When he was alone in his office, he would often just sit there and stare at it until the phone rang or somebody knocked up his door and disturbed his reverie. He looked at it again today with a thoughtful expression on his face.
From a nearby room came the sound of typing. Good, he thought. The secretaries are hard at it.
He and his colleague, another assistant solicitor who did all the land transactions and conveyancing, effectively ran the practice for the man for whom they worked, a much older solicitor who was rarely there. Gabriel assumed that that was because he was pursuing his property interests elsewhere, but his colleague, who was also older than Gabriel and who had a little more experience of life, assured him that it was because he had a woman somewhere. Whatever the reason for the boss’ absence, Gabriel, his colleague, the secretaries and an attractive middle-aged woman who did the bookkeeping had the office pretty much to themselves and kept the show on the road.
In twelve months, Gabriel and his colleague, who both kept a running tab on the bills they produced, reckoned that they had between them earned their employer a substantial sum of money, so much so that he was able to buy a very large and very expensive car. Neither Gabriel nor his colleague resented that at first. They were both hard workers, but they both anticipated that they would in the circumstances receive a rise in their salaries. This did not happen and, as far as Gabriel was concerned, this rankled.
Gabriel again looked at the money on the desk. A dangerous thought suddenly came to him. What if he was simply to pocket it? Who would know? It was cash. Perhaps he could pay in part only of the money into the firm and keep the rest? He shook himself. What was he thinking of? The phone rang again. He answered it.
‘Yes,’ he said briefly.
‘It’s your last client today, Mr William.’
‘Last client?’ he said absentmindedly.
‘Yes, the Russian lady.’
Gabriel remembered he had agreed to see the woman at the end of the afternoon because she had trouble taking time off work to see him. He was dealing with her divorce. So, she was here and obviously he would have to see her, but he didn’t really feel like it. He wasn’t sure what was wrong with himself. He wanted to ask his secretary what she had made of Derek, but stopped himself and simply said, ‘Ok, send her up,’ as he scooped up the money and placed it in a drawer. He would decide what to do with it later.
It was just as well that he didn’t ask his secretary about Derek. If he had asked, he might have learned perhaps that Derek had spent some time after he had left Gabriel’s office in the typing pool chatting up the secretaries. As Derek left Gabriel’s office, his path took him past the typing pool. Leaning nonchalantly on the door frame, he leered into the room at the secretaries busy working in there. ‘Hello, girls,’ he said, ‘Keeping you busy are they?’ The girls smiled. They were all young. Derek was handsome. His blond hair and smart clothes gave no indication of the life he really led, a life of squalid bed-sits, loneliness with only the occasional companionship of the public bar to relieve the monotony of life in between crimes, a life so lonely that as an adult at least prison had seemed like a fraternal club, comfortingly warm and compassionate.
On seeing him, Gabriel’s secretary blushed. Encouraged by this and ignoring the other girls, Derek walked up to the table and said, ‘Fancy a drink this evening?’ The other girls tittered and Gabriel’s secretary, after a momentary pause, simply said, ‘Yes.’
Derek smiled and said he would meet her after work. As he turned to go, he bumped into Shantel, the rather older lady who did the bookkeeping at the firm. She, too, was subjected to the Derek-the-lad chat-up line before Derek eventually left. To the secretary’s chagrin, he had also left with the middle-aged bookkeepers’ telephone number.
The Russian lady entered Gabriel’s room. Gabriel invited her to sit down and she did so, plumping herself down on the chair as if she was exhausted. She had been in England so long that she had almost forgotten her native language. She had told Gabriel her history. Apparently, she had been sent by the Germans during the war to work in Austria. She was still there when the British and Americans had arrived. She had not wanted to be repatriated to Mother Russian, which in the light of what happened to other Russian prisoners who did go home was clearly a sensible decision. She had married a Pole serving in the British Army and got her ticket into Britain that way. Fate had brought them to Watford where they had worked hard and fought regularly. The Pole beat her up often, she complained, but now it was she who was being prosecuted for assaulting him. During one particular evening of domestic bliss, she had during the course of a running fight defended herself rather too enthusiastically, stabbing him through the hand with a pair of very sharp scissors. When the police arrived, most of the blood was on the husband and so she had been nicked. She was no going to stand trial in the Crown Court for causing injury to her husband.
Gabriel had a sneaking regard for her. She was a fighter and a survivor and she had stabbed the bastard of a husband that she had for good reason. She was quite different from other clients, the sort that were involved in completely casual violence for no reason other than that it simply happened. One young yob in particular came to mind who had a broken leg and who was actually on crutches at the time of the assault. This hero had left the pub late one night and then belted the first bloke he came across with his crutch, of course. Unfortunately for him, the prat had then gone through his victim’s pockets and had taken a few shillings. That had been very ill advised. Assault is one thing, but taking the money then made it robbery with violence and he got three years. Watford Magistrates Court was full every day with idiots like that, individuals who seemed to have no control over events or themselves and who, as a consequence, were victims of events. Professional criminals, on the other hand, made things happen. This is what made professional criminals like Derek Moloney different.
Gabriel realised and was uncomfortably aware that in Derek he saw what he himself might have been had he not been what his friends called ‘the brainy one’ and gone to college. Derek reminded him of where he himself had grown up and the fact that he too might have chosen an entirely different life to that of the legal profession.
When he was still a schoolboy, he had been offered a job on a tar-spreading gang. He had politely explained that he was staying on at school. But the man had persisted. The money offered was attractive and he had been tempted, but in the end he turned it down. What would he have been doing now had he accepted? A futile question, but wet winter afternoons in Watford sometimes prompted dull introspection of that kind.
He did not reflect on life very often. He preferred not to. He just got on with it. From dawn to dusk, and often much of the night, he lived in a world of dimly-lit police cells, smoke-filled court waiting rooms crammed full of human debris, squalid bed sits and dives where the gullible hazily lived out their illusion of the so-called swinging sixties, surrounded by wrecked furniture and bits of old toast.
These places were usually an old house divided up into bed sits, which the police, on effecting entry on a drugs raid, would do so to the accompaniment of the sounds of lavatories being flushed as people tried to get rid of the incriminating substances. If there were not enough toilets or there was not one handy, the usual expedient was to chuck the drugs, usually cannabis, out of the window into the back garden much to the discomfort of whichever Drugs Squad officer had been stationed there and who would find himself being showered with pieces of cannabis cut into handy deals.
He had built up quite a following of drug offenders. Word gets around and he soon found himself regularly at the Magistrates Court with a haggard looking following of the latest group of largely middle class youths who had fallen foul of the local Drugs Squad. Possession of drugs was one thing. Supplying was infinitely more serious and meant the Crown Court, rather than the Magistrates. He was much the same age as most of them, as indeed were the local police officers on the Drug Squad. All were equally long haired and dressed in the style of the time. It was silly really. There they all were just playing different parts in the same game. The trouble and the tragedy was that everybody took themselves so seriously. The clients saw themselves as rebels against the old order, an order of which no doubt one day they too would be a part as soon as they got a job and a mortgage. The police saw themselves as guardians, not merely of law and order, but also to a degree of public morality. The magistrates affected a world-wearing tolerance in so far as they could. And the solicitors? Gabriel couldn’t speak for them. His musings were directed less at the philosophical aspects of the situation and more towards getting off with the girls, one of whom in particular was very attractive and to whom he was particularly solicitous. Fear, though, prevented him from translating his salacious thoughts into action and he was compelled as a result to remain merely an observer.
When he thought about it all, he thought it was funny. Why take it so seriously? Very few people in his experience could claim to occupy the moral high ground. Life was a tightrope. Wobble one way and you win, wobble the other and you lose. That applied to everything in his view, honesty/dishonesty, success/failure, win/lose, moral/immoral. It was all really a matter of chance, a spur of the moment thing. It was almost as if the Fates decided.
Probation officers were perhaps an exception, young ones anyway. He had a soft spot for probation officers, particularly if they were young, earnest and pretty. Probation officers who, when young and before time and the people they dealt with had soured their view of humanity, were a well spring of human optimism who could generally be relied upon to find something positive to say about the most abject human ruin to appear before the Court. Gabriel hated pleas in mitigation before sentence. His heart was rarely in it when it came to presenting a sob story. He much preferred a fight. However, even in the most hopeless of cases where there really was absolutely nothing positive that could be said about a defendant, there would be a report for the court from the Probation Service which would have some crumb in it, some morsel to offer the court and, if all else failed, Gabriel, like many of his professional colleagues, would rely heavily on the contents of the report for something to say and at least give a semblance of respectability to the sentencing process. It was a case of saying exactly what the report said, but not so it sounded as if you were simply reading it.
The Russian lady had gone. The end of the working day was drawing near. The office would be closing soon. He checked his diary for the following day. He tidied up the files - that is he moved them around the desk. There were always some files that he would rather not deal with and these, to solve his conscience a little, he would move to a different part of the desk to trick himself into thinking that he was not ignoring them. He was dealing with them, hadn’t he moved them? He signed the post brought to him by his secretary, the small red-headed girl. Derek was right, he thought as she left with the letters, she did have a nice bum.
He reluctantly forced himself to think about the money and opened the drawer. Why couldn’t he just hand it to the office bookkeeper to pay it into the firm’s account? He was reluctant to dent his own self image by taking it. He shut the drawer. He would leave the money there overnight. Someone might find it, in which case he could hand it over explaining that he had not had time to do it before or someone might find it and pinch it. He would then be spared the need to make a choice at all. This, he knew, was all pretty unlikely and rather stupid, but he was tired. He went home.
Home Sweet Home
He lived with his mother, who was an invalid and who doted on him. The unconditional love of a mother for her offspring is fine up to a point but it quickly becomes stifling, and, in any event, in Gabriel’s experience was most certainly not unconditional. It imposed its own obligations on the recipient. He had learned that there was a price on everything. You had to pay for your pleasures in life, preferably, he had eventually decided, in advance. He owed his mother a great deal. She had been the lioness who had defended him against the world after his father had died when he was still very little. She had been father and mother to him and his brother, and had cheerfully and selflessly put her children first, no matter how hard the circumstances. They had been very poor, but he had never gone hungry.
She had always worked, which meant that she left the house before they went to school and returned home long after they had, struggling cheerfully into the house to be greeted by her sons calling, ‘What’s for tea? We’re starving!’Poor woman, she had barely got through the door, but such is the selfishness of youth.
His father had been a prisoner of the Japanese during the war. He had been captured at Singapore. His regiment had just been shipped out there and when Singapore surrendered shortly afterwards, they had all entered captivity and a living hell as prisoners of the Japanese.
He had survived, but died whilst still young from the affects of his captivity.
Gabriel did not remember him very well. That is, he had no mental picture of him. He was a presence that one day was no longer there. According to his mother, he had not told her much about his experiences, but as Gabriel grew older, his mother would tell Gabriel how his father would have nightmares and she would sometimes wake up at night and lie there listening to him sobbing quietly.
One story he had told her, though, and that was that just before the atomic bombs were dropped and Japan surrendered, he and the other prisoners had been digging their own graves. The Japs had ordered them to do so. They must have realised that the end of the war was not far away. The dropping of the bombs saved the prisoners. ‘Saved our bacon,’ he had apparently said and then added, ‘Still, you can’t help feel sorry for them’. Whether this was meant seriously or said ironically, she had never been able to decide.
His mother’s consequential loathing of the Japanese had been passed on to Gabriel who had, however, never met one, that is he had never met one until, whilst he was still a student, he had gone to Paris for a few days. He had been standing on the terrace of the church at Sacre Coeur, looking morosely over Paris and feeling hungry, when two Japs had appeared at his elbow. He recognised them from that doss house of a youth hostel that he had been staying in near the abattoir district of Paris. They had stood out in a sea of German youths who had otherwise occupied most of the bunks and carpeted the floor with their bodies and belongings.
They apparently recognised him as well and smiled at him, which made him feel quite guilty about the thoughts that had been running through his mind and the fact that he had recoiled at the sight of them.
He had felt even more guilty and a complete hypocrite, when they had then offered him some chocolate which he had gratefully accepted. He had briefly considered a lofty rejection of the proffered gift acting with a degree of dignity and restraint that would be bound to impress them if not crush them utterly, but he was hungry. ‘Oh well’ he thought. ‘We are all mates now’.
He apologised silently to his father as he ate the chocolate.
He had known from a very young age that they were poor. What does a small child know about being poor? He does not know anything, of course, in the intellectual sense. He senses rather than understands, and cringes with embarrassment for his mother over her anxiety about whether or not she can afford to buy a cup of tea in a café, wishing grimly that she would not twitter on nervously at the waitress. As a result, humiliation was something that he experienced at an early age.
There had been an occasion when the school he attended organised a trip by coach to see Nelson’s ship, the Victory, at Portsmouth. He had a passion for history and adventure which was fuelled by the comics he read. The idea of walking around the very ship on which Nelson had fought and died made him tremble with excitement. He knew his mother would let him go. He knew that if he asked her, she would pay for him to go on the trip to see Nelson’s flagship. It was precisely because he knew that she would, he could not bring himself to ask her and he knew she could not afford it.
He did not ask her and when the day of the excursion came and the coach laden with his class mates pulled out of the playground, he was the only one left standing there, a small figure in the middle of the asphalt watching the coach disappear down the road.
Somehow, somewhere along the line as he grew older, embarrassment and humiliation changed into determination. A steely determination to earn money. A determination to set his mother up and then to move on. The burning question was how?
The opportunities open to boys on council estates attending local secondary modern schools were limited. He had been unaware of that when he was little or, indeed, that there were people who did not live in precisely the same circumstances that shaped his and his school friends’ lives. Awareness is limited by who you know and where you grow up. As a consequence, it takes a person a long time to get any perspective on life and to find out where a person fits in in the scheme of things.
Most of his friends opted for a trade of some kind, which parents, who had known the rigours of the Depression before the war, encouraged their sons to pursue as a route to what experience had taught them would be a secure future. Many followed that path, taking an apprenticeship in the print industry or aircraft and other industries where fathers, uncles and brothers already worked.
The restless souls among them joined the army or went to sea or got into trouble and finished their education off at an approved school or borstal.
One lunchtime in the school library, Gabriel discovered the answer. He was wondering what on earth he should do when his eyes fell on a pile of career pamphlets on a shelf. On impulse, he grabbed the stack and quickly sifted out any that had anything to do with maths or science, both of which subjects he loathed. That left a rather smaller stack. Then he turned the remaining smaller stack upside down and opened each pamphlet at the end where it helpfully mentioned the salary you could hope to earn. He quickly identified the largest salary, the one that he hoped would enable him to set up both his mother and, having achieved that, then to continue on and lead his own life, duty done.
He turned the pamphlet over and read – solicitor. Solicitor? One of his mates had told him he had had to go and see a solicitor when he got into trouble with the police. He could not have been much good because the mate got sent to borstal.
Despite this, he did not even know what a solicitor actually was, but decided there and then that that was the job for him.
Then the girls from his class had come running into the library. One of them, Charlotte, as usual had suggested putting the record player on and, the momentous decision having been made, he found himself jiving with the obligatory deadpan face to Joe Brown and the Bruvvers until the bell went for afternoon classes. It was important to maintain an attitude of casual indifference where mere females were concerned.
In the fullness of time, he had succeeded. This had initially been in the face of his mother’s objection who, when he had gone home one afternoon after school and announced his intention of becoming a solicitor, had said ‘Oh Gabriel! That’s not for the likes of us.’
He had had no idea what she was talking about and it was only in retrospect that he had come to understand. Despite her initial shock, his mother supported him through the long years of study and, at the end of it, he had helped her to buy her own home. It was a modest but quite reasonable little house. He was still paying the mortgage and, contrary to his original intention, still living there.
Now, however, he found himself faced with an altogether different problem. His mother’s health had declined. His brother had married. He later told him that the reason he had married had been to get away from their mother, whose emotional dependence upon her sons had increased rather than declined with the passing of the years. Gabriel then found himself alone at home with a mother from whom he could not make the break.
His father’s death had left him with a responsibility – his mother. When his father had died, his mother had said to him, ‘Now you’re the man of the house’ and at some point, without being consciously aware of it, he had accepted that. He had always planned to go once his mother was settled, but he could not bring himself to do it, particularly after his brother left. How could he leave her on her own? The responsibility he felt for his mother paralysed him. The longer he had stayed, the harder it had become. Instead of releasing her son and encouraging him to go, his mother clung to him. If he went away for a weekend, she would look at him from her chair and ask plaintively, ‘What about me?’or ‘What, you’re going away and leaving me?’She would then quickly add ‘Oh, but you must go. You deserve a break’, but the words had been said. He knew she loved him but she could not help herself and she did not love him enough to free him. He felt, and was, trapped.
He briefly considered marriage, then discarded that idea. None of the girls he had grown up with would even go out with him. His education now separated him from them like the width of the Grand Canyon. He had moved from one room of the house into the next and the door had shut firmly behind him. He would never be able to re-enter that room that he had left.
Not only that, but as he had grown older he had looked at those around him and seen in marriage only the shackles of obligation and expectation. What people called happiness or love seemed to end at the wedding photographs. The problems started when the film ended. Boy gets girl, beginning of nightmare, like putting two cats in a sack and watching whilst they tear at each other in their frustration and fury and desire to escape. Was that all that life held? What about this happy ever after lark that everybody subscribed to?
In his late teens, whenever he met any of his mother’s friends, the women anyway, they would ask if he was married yet or going steady. As time went by and he was in neither happy position, these same people would stop asking, but look at him askance. ‘Was there something perhaps wrong with him?’ their look seemed to say.
It was as if there was some gigantic, unconscious conspiracy to ensure that everybody was encouraged and obliged to conform to some generally accepted path through life and about which people were invariably sentimental, despite the evidence of their own eyes and experience.
His emotional life was lived largely through books. Just as his earlier youthful desire for adventure had been constrained by the hard reality of his life, he led an existence of quiet desperation.
As he drove home that night, he reflected on the drabness of his life and the powerlessness he felt at not being able to change it. The drabness stretched on and on into the future as far as he could see. He felt that he was due something. He was not sure what he was due, but surely there was something more?
Over the years, he had sometimes imagined that some great event would come along like a war, for example and as a consequence he would have no choice but to go away. His burden of responsibility would be lifted from his shoulders by events he was powerless to control and in a sense he would be freed even of the need to make a decision.
The years went by and nothing had happened. No bugle had blown. No great cause had claimed him.
In his heart he still felt that he was a rebel, but if that was right, he glumly acknowledged to himself he was a rebel without a cause. Why did he feel so gloomy, he wondered. Then he realised that it was because of Derek Moloney. He might be a criminal, but Derek’s appearance and everything about him had suddenly presented to him the man he might have been and the life he might have led had things been different. Derek Moloney was free.
As he shut the car door and made his way up the path to his mother’s house, he felt suddenly angry and resolved that whatever it was, he was bloody well going to get it.
As he entered the fuggy room in which his mother was sitting watching television, the smell of dog hit him in the nostrils. He mother had an old cocker spaniel that she treated as some kind of auxiliary human being to the extent that Gabriel felt the dog did not live with them, rather that they lived with the dog. The dog bowl and towel were kept on the kitchen sink, the dog shared his mother’s bed, its head on the pillow next to hers, and she often fed the dog with her fingers whilst preparing food. In effect, he felt that they lived in a dog kennel.
‘Your meal’s on the table,’ his mother said as he came in without looking away from the television. He went into the kitchen and inspected the plate, carefully removing several strands of dog hair from the food before putting the dish in the oven to re-warm it.
His mother called to him querulously from the sitting room.
‘Aren’t you going to give me a kiss?’
No, he thought. Ever since he was a small boy, he had loathed being kissed by his mother and refused to kiss her. Nonetheless, he went into the sitting room and gave her a quick hug around the shoulders and turned to go and have his dinner. She frowned.
‘What about Dinky?’she said referring to the dog on her lap.
‘Sod the dog,’ he said leaving the room.
‘There’s no need to be like that,’ she said with a hurt tone in her voice and putting her hands over the dog’s ears protectively. ‘You’ll upset her.’
He ignored her and went and had his dinner in the kitchen accidentally treading in Dinky’s water bowl as he carried his plate from the oven to the table. He swore, but otherwise ignored the mishap. He was hungry and even though the delicacy before him was fatty, stuffed calves’ hearts swimming in gravy with a film of grease on the top, he devoured the lot. After he had eaten, he decided to go for a walk. He couldn’t face watching television in the fuggy sitting room.
Poking his head quickly around the door, he announced his intention of going out for a stroll and, to avoid being cross-examined about his intentions, he said he would pop round to see nan. He hadn’t seen her for a while and it got him out of the house.
His grandmother, a woman in her eighties, lived not very far away in an old folks’ bungalow rented from the council.
The town was shrouded in a wintry fog made denser by the smoke from hundreds of coal fires. He could smell the coal in the cold air. When he arrived at his grandmother’s bungalow, she, too, of course had a fire burning. It was a cold night and it was the only form of heating apart from a smelly paraffin stove that she put on in the bathroom to take the chill off the air.
He let himself in. His gran, seated by the fire with a shawl around her shoulders, was pleased to see him. She rose from the chair, farting gently as she made her way into the scullery to put the kettle on. Since there was no dog to blame, she dealt with the potential social embarrassment by ignoring it, or perhaps she didn’t notice or was past caring.
Gabriel sat there on his gran’s sofa, the draught gradually froze his ankles. Just a well there was a draught though, he thought.
The next day at work, he pocketed the money.
CHAPTER 3 – THE ALIBI
Christmas came and went. The weeks slid by in a steady dismal downpour. It was a grey world. Gabriel had heard no more from Derek and he was almost able to persuade himself that he had imagined the whole thing.
He had stifled any feelings of guilt and even managed, to a degree, to put out of his mind the fact that he had taken the money. Another part of him knew that he had the money which he had not yet spent, and that part of him felt a thrill of excitement. It was his secret.
He had no close friends. By becoming a solicitor, he had found that he had left them all behind. Their paths had separated as completely as if he or they had emigrated. He might perhaps in other circumstances have made new friends, but since he and his mother still lived in the same area in which he had grown up, his life had not moved on. As a consequence, he had no one to talk to and so occasionally, when he had something on his mind, he talked to Alkan. Alkan was his imaginary friend.
He had originally had a friend called Alkan that he had been close to. They had been in the same class together when they started school. As they grew older, they used to go to dances together. These were held at local schools and were tense occasions. Despite the fact that they were only about 14 or 15 years of age, Alkan and he would dress carefully for the occasion with winkle picker shoes, drainpipe trousers, bum freezer Italian jackets and DA haircuts. Alkan would have a fag on the go at all times which, of course, added a degree of maturity and had the cocky swagger of the streetwise, working class youth who was, after all, about to enter the world of real work, as adults termed it, and who would within a few years have a wife and a couple of nippers of his own.
Most dances ended in a fight, so the first thing Alkan did on entering the hall where the girls jived in groups and dangerous groups of teenage boys stood in clusters and eyed each other and the girls warily, was to greet people he knew in those different groups.
Turning first to the left, he would nod and casually call ‘Wotcha, Phillip!’ and then, nonchalantly looking to the right as he slouched across the hall avoiding the dancers, he would shout ‘Wotcha, Gabriel!’ to another lad in a different group.
The monosyllabic acknowledgements he received took the heat off both Alkan and, by association, Gabriel. Alkan was one of the boys. As a result, when the punch up started, Gabriel and Alkan would not be the main target and had time to exit by the nearest window and scarper before the police arrived.
Once, when in an unhappy case of mistaken identity, Gabriel had been grabbed by the tie by some huge youth and lifted off his feet, dear old Alkan had saved his bacon by rushing up and grabbing the big lad’s arm, drawn back ready to knock the living daylights out of Gabriel, saying ‘No! No! Lel! Not ‘im – that’s Willie. He’s alright.’ ‘Lel’ was pronounced like ‘bell’ and reflected the working class habit of shortening names beyond recognition, ‘Lel’ being short for ‘Leslie’.