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22/01/2013

CHAMBER MUSIC

Tom Benn

– 1 –

THE SUPPLIANT

 

 

13 February 1998

Friday

 

‘Henry Bane is dead.’

I looked up as he said this.

Vic rocked on his heels like a bobby, cleared his throat, lifted his chin, blinked a few times – eyes red and boozy. ‘But that dunt mean ee int wiv us. Keepin eye on rest o you lot till we give it up n av the good sense t’croak n all. All o yer knew ee were a good man, our Henry. Ah knew im near nuff twenny years. But ee sodded off fer the las few. Ah were glad when ee come back, though. A sound bloke, ee was. A right jammy bugger. We loved im. Dint we?’ Vic cleared his throat again. ‘Dint we?’

His front room said yeah.

Vic had been best mates with my old man and I was best mates with Vic’s son, Gordon. I was glad to have the do at his place.

So then Vic asked us all to have one on Henry Bane.

‘Ee-ah, enry.’ Some bloke on the other end of the couch passed me a drop of rum in a short glass. ‘Jus one. Do yer good, lad. Elp yer get right in yerself.’ I said no, took it off him anyway, held it up to the light. Hard black stuff. The glass didn’t glow. I slipped it under the coffee table, untouched, spilling some next to the sausage roll flakes and dead drinks.

Drip stains swelled and ate the rug.

Everyone was gabbing again.

My old man had been a market trader for most of his years.  Henry’s Records down Arndale Market: 7-inch soul and rhythm and blues classics. Two-for-one every Saturday before twelve.

‘Out of Sight’ was playing quietly on Vic’s dusty stereo in the corner. A James Brown tune – sampled by every rapper since the microphone met the turntable and fell in love.

Out of Sight.

The old man’s favourite.

Henry’s Records: 1981-1990. RIP.

Henry Bane: 1931-1998. RIP.

It was a mega heart attack outside Ladbrokes – just like that – small winnings still to collect. My mam wasn’t too dead to be smug.

Lola Bane: 1949-1990. RIP.

‘Out of Sight’ faded. We had ‘Soul Power (Parts One and Two)’ on next but somebody got up and turned the sound down to zero. ‘Coon shite,’ they muttered.

I shut my eyes. Soft hands pushed a brew into mine, making sure I had hold of it before letting go. Her fingers stroked my cheek, touched my lips. I could smell her hand cream, her perfume, her B&Hs.

Eyes open: chipped red nail polish.

‘Careful, lovey. Hot.’

‘Ta,’ I said.

‘Enry?’

I gulped the brew, put it down on the table between the lager cans and looked up at our Jan.

‘Ow we doin?’ she said.

‘He’s not here yet,’ I said. ‘Gordon.’

Jan rubbed my head, bent over and kissed me. ‘No, lovey.’

‘Where’s Trenton?’ I said.

‘Ee’s in kitchen. Pickin at buffet. Want us ter get yer summat? Yuv not ad owt, av yer?’

‘I’m alright, love.’

‘Gotta av summat.’

‘I will do.’

Jan smiled. Jan worried.

‘When yer wanna go ome, we’ll go ome,’ she said. ‘Right?’

‘Right.’

She walked out, new heels knifing the bald carpet, dodging the sea of booze.

It was roasting in Vic’s with everybody sardined into the front room, the gas fire going. Above the flames – the brass clock on the mantle said 7 p.m.

On top of the funeral, Gordon was getting out this weekend. I thought he was due back today, but it was a bit late now. Maybe it was tomorrow. His picture by the clock showed him stood with his dad on Blackpool promenade – two scruffy gits, holding up their double 99s. Granite Gordon – 6’6, roid gut, squinting at the camera, a jolly grin, the same grin he gave the world when he was kicking some sorry bugger’s head in. He’d served ten months of a two-year sentence and I hadn’t rung him in four or visited in six. I was bricking it. Maybe he’d be back tonight. Vic would know the ins and outs of it but I hadn’t had a proper word since the crematorium this afternoon.

Our Gordon wasn’t in my school year – he was a couple of years older. I kept well clear until the summer of ‘88, when we got friendly through our dads: Victor Payne the bent, sage cabbie and Henry Bane the music man. They were the Cock o’ the North pub quiz dream team. I must’ve been eighteen, just. Gordon wasn’t the brightest bulb but he was hard – a bad lad, a right rum sort, his dad said.

But so was I.

My old man had liked reminding me and all.

I got up with my brew, made it to the hallway, then the kitchen. There was a decent-sized spread on the little breakfast table, some of it still cling-filmed.

Trenton was sat up on the surfaces, still in his scarf, gloves, Adidas jacket, the back of his trainers thumping Vic’s draining cupboard door. He’d turned thirteen last September. Jan’s kid. He was mither. But I took care of him and he let me.

‘Pack it in.’

Trenton stopped thumping the cupboard and started flicking a Zippo in his hands to remind me he was bored. It sparked but there was no flame.

‘These any good?’ I said, pointing to a tray of party scran.

‘Yeh.’

‘Barely been touched. Could be a warnin. Mini sausage rolls? Firm favourite – only two left. You havin one?’

Trenton nodded.

I passed him one and ate the other. He was still pissing about with the lighter.

‘Give us that.’ I took it off him.

‘Oi.’

I put it in my pocket.

‘Oi nothin,’ I said. ‘Y’mam won’t want you messin with that.’

‘It’s ers.’

My dad had never smoked in his life.

We heard the doorbell go. I started on the breadsticks, dunked one in my brew and regretted it.

An old uncle I hadn’t seen since I still believed in Father Christmas popped his head into the kitchen.

‘Enry, think someone’s at door fer yer, lad.’

‘I don’t live here,’ I said.

‘Ah said it were yer dad’s funeral do n then she said she were after you, lad.’

‘She?’

‘Aye.’

I walked back through to the hall and saw the front door was open. It was dark out and I could feel the draught from there. Somebody was stood on the step but fellers my old man had known
were coming in and out of Vic’s front room, blocking my line of sight.

‘Someone want us?’ I said, getting through the traffic.

She’d let her hair grow out.

She’d got thinner.

‘Henry.’ Her voice still had that soft croak.

The cold bit my shaving nicks. My face cracked when I said her name.

She was bug-eyed in the dark. I shut the front door to and we looked at each other, teeth chattering, brains burning. Time passed. I heard her swallow.

‘Henry-’

‘It’s just Bane now, love.’ I folded my lapels up and the frost walked my spine.

‘Well, it’s still Roisin,’ she said.

When I came closer, she stepped back and made up the distance again.

She said: ‘Listen. I’ll need your help to get him inside.’

She was still gorgeous.

‘Who?’ I said.

‘Follow me.’

Roisin took me out of the front plot and over the road.

There was a battered Fiesta humming on neutral – lights on, exhaust smoking. A bin bag was taped over the back passenger window.

She opened the car door and stuck her head inside, pulled the front seat back and showed me a feller, breathing hard, wincing royal, blood down his jacket.

‘Help me then,’ Roisin said.

I helped her lift him out the car.

‘Who’s this?’ I said, taking most of the weight.

‘This is Dan.’ We got him standing. He’d hurt his foot or ankle. He was trying to hop and hold onto us at the same time.

Roisin gripped my arm as well – nails – short but sharp.

Dan said hello.

When he was steady, I had a quick look inside the car. There were tiny crystal squares on the backseat where some of the glass had come in. The door panel fabric opposite had three small holes in it.

‘What happened to the window?’ I said.

‘Kids,’ Dan went.

‘Bollocks.’

‘Henry,’ she said.

‘Where’ve you come from?’ I said.

‘London.’

‘Lundon?’

‘Freezing,’ he said.

‘Just help me get him in.’

We got Dan over the road and took him inside – the wave of gas heating making us choke.

Jan came out of the hall loo as we were getting him up the stairs. ‘What’s goin on?’

‘Nothin,’ I said. ‘Keep everyone downstairs. Be down in a minute.’

She stood there, watching us go up.

‘Get him in Gordon’s room,’ I said to Roisin, Dan’s arm over my shoulders.

‘Gordon not in?’

‘Not yet.’

The three of us reached the landing.

‘Oo’s that feller?’ We heard somebody say from downstairs.

‘N oo’s she?’ Jan’s voice.

 

Roisin was four summers after Alice, and my first proper bird after leaving school. We were mad for it from word go. She was nothing like Gordon, her big little brother. She was the clever one: book worm – fancy ideas – studying all sorts at the polytechnic. Gordon didn’t seem to mind me shagging his sister and, for a bit, we all got on dandy. Then it got fucked right up. And she left Wythie. Left Manchester. Left the North. This was all a good eight years ago. I hadn’t heard from her since that day she checked herself out of the Royal Infirmary.

At least Gordon and I had stayed mates.

I shut the bedroom door and we got Dan onto the bed.

‘How long’s it been for you two?’ he said.

‘Eight years.’ We both said it together.

Roisin touched my arm again. ‘Sorry to hear about your dad.’ The crackle in her voice: tyres on gravel, a fucking frog inside the princess. I remembered more and more.

‘Cheers,’ I said.

Gordon’s room hadn’t changed since he was a young lad. He was thirty years old and still stopping at his dad’s when he wasn’t bunking in Her Majesty’s cell. There were old boxing gloves hanging from the wardrobe knob. Newspaper cut-outs stuck all over the show – we had Nigel Benn the Dark Destroyer and some heavyweights like Herbie Hide. He’d got all creative with it. I tried to imagine our Gordon, sat there with a pair of scissors, Blu-tacking Lennox Lewis and Iron Mike Tyson on his wall – and I fucking well couldn’t.

Dan had a go at the zip on his jacket but Roisin had to help him out of it. She kissed the dried blood on his cheek, stopped him flinching. He told her he loved her.

In the light I could see his foot was the real mess and knew that someone had shot him. The top of his trainer was torn but there wasn’t any blood pumping out. He was pale as death though, he could’ve already lost a pint on the way up the M1.

‘So what happened?’ I said.

Roisin was still sat on the bed, mothering him, his head against her chest, her hands in his hair. She said: ‘You’re going to have to help us.’

A knock on the bedroom door made her jump.

‘Right – clear off, all o yer,’ Vic yelled through the door. ‘Pub’s open.’

We heard his footsteps creak on the landing, voice fading as he went back down the stairs to roll off goodbyes: ‘Mind ow yer go. Ta fer comin. All the bloody best.’

‘He’ll be chuffed when he sees you. Both kids back on the same weekend,’ I said.

‘Where’s Gordon been?’ she said.

‘Strangeways.’

‘Jesus.’

‘Again.’

‘Again?’

Roisin stood up and came closer. My eyes went to young Tyson on the wall – slugging Alex Stewart, mid-annihilation. Roisin tried to touch my arm but I moved away.

‘What did he do?’ she said. ‘Gordon.’

I looked at Dan – hugging his own ribs. ‘What did you do?’

There was another knock on the door. Jan opened it, she glared at Roisin then me then Dan then back to me.

‘We goin?’ she said. ‘Vic’s pissed. Wants everyone out.’

‘I know,’ I said.

Jan coughed. ‘K, well – me n Trenton’ll be in the car.’ She shut the door again carefully and we watched the handle turn.

‘Who’s she?’ Roisin said.

 

–Chamber Music (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) is out now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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