Murphy Conway was half Albert’s age and twice his size, but all Murphy had to do was look into the pieces of flint that were Albert’s eyes to know he could never take him, even if he did him dirty and started it from the side.
He was older than old school, built out of cobblestones and it hurt just to shake his hand.
“Bad one today Murph?”
Albert was cleaning a pint glass with a rag behind the mahogany bar.
The pub was graveyard dead.
“Don’t even say it. Just line em up. and keep them coming.”
Murph sat down and the stool complained under his weight.
Albert poured out a double belt of scotch into a tumbler and set it down in front of Murphy.
He put the bottle next to the glass.
“Help ya self guv’nor.”
Albert’s mouth hardly moved when he spoke, like a ventriloquist that had just done a ten stretch.
Murphy traced the zigzag of scar tissue that ran across his neck with a finger and stared into the brown fire in the glass.
He sniffed it and considered knocking it back, but instead poured it down as slow as possible, savouring the burn, relishing the screams of the blood vessels in his throat.
He looked at himself in the mirror behind the optics.
His face needed ironing, but the whisky had thawed out the cold he always carried frozen within whenever he finished a day’s graft.
“Yardie torture job. Found out a young girl on the estate was gabbing to the CID. Chopped her to pieces in the bathtub. The old bill did a piss poor job.”
“I found her hand in the fridge.”
Albert’s granite jaw tightened.
“She was sixteen.”
Murphy poured out another belt, nearly filling the tumbler.
Albert laid down another glass.
“Fill me up.”
The men swallowed and hissed.
“I shouldn’t have asked.”
Murphy poured another, his head reeling with images of a scum rimmed bathtub full of blood so thick and old it had set like mud at the bottom of a dried-up riverbed, trapping the myriad of blue bottles that had tried to feast on it.
“Nor should I.”
Sometimes Murphy asked the officers or the medics as they left the scene, and sometimes, just by seeing the look on their faces, he knew not to. He knew he should just grit his teeth and scrub the blood off the wallpaper and scoop up the brain matter.
But when he followed his nose, and opened the door to the busted fridge, the funk rising up to swallow him whole like a great rotten whale as his watered eyes fell onto the dead nails painted pink, he knew he had to know, no matter how painful the truth would be.
Since he got out of prison, Murphy had been a cleaner of crime scenes, scrubbing away all the things the city couldn’t bear to look at.
The stabbings that left tower block stairwells smeared in rust brown gore and the suicides that left fluid and evacuated bowels congealing and drying into great scabs on the carpet.
The homeless junkies and winos so forgotten and decomposed they were more puddle than person by the time Murphy came and put what was left in a bin bag.
They all left a trace, a mark, and it was up to the Murphy’s of the world to get rid of that mark so everyone could carry on as normal.
The door burst open and two city boys burst in, day trader types that Albert probably once labelled yuppies while everyone else just settled for wankers. Wannabe Jordan Belfort’s with a yen for overpriced coke and second tier escorts, doomed to re-enact The Wolf of Wall Street scenes that they fantasized about the most until it was time to give up the dream and go and sponge off daddy’s old money.
They were red eyed and half cut, laughing and shouting at each other like they were deaf and blasting each other in the arms with punches.
Their shoulders were wet. It was drizzling outside.
“Shona is so low end. She’s been through half the firm you dog! Do I need to remind you of the New year’s party? Two Glasses of Grey Goose.”
Murphy looked at Albert. Albert winked but the city slickers were too wired to notice anything except their own desperate need to speak in accents so posh they probably came via royal appointment.
The suit who spoke had a ring of white dust hugging his right nostril.
His mate was gurning, trying to eat his own face, starting with his lips.
“I said two, yes that’s right, Two glasses of Grey Goose. If you haven’t got it, we will take Belvedere. Now for fuck sake.”
He started snapping his fingers. Murphy felt like snapping them off.
“I heard what you said. You boys are out ya nuts. I can’t serve you.”
The other snake in a suit stepped up. It was his turn to bat.
“Guy won’t ask you again. Give us a drink or we’ll smash this museum, and you, to pieces.”
Albert burned holes into them with a stare that could wilt flowers.
He grinned a grin that would have made a toddler cry.
“Go on then son. You’ll need this. Think of it as a head start.”
Murphy watched Albert’s fist, no more than a blunt object with fingernails, slowly push a short bat wrapped in duct tape across the bar.
Murphy watched them in the mirror.
They eyed the bat and Albert, and the dark faced bear hunched over the bar, which was himself.
They were replaying each possible scenario in their coke frazzled minds, and none of them looked good.
This wasn’t giving Lucian from the Chelsea yacht club a telling off and a clip around the ear or humiliating an intern down the brokerage for kicks.
This was playing for blood and they weren’t prepared to cough up the house fee.
The suits flinched back.
“Fuck this place. We’ll go somewhere else. What are you supposed to be, some has been gangster or something?”
“Come on Julian. Let’s go to the Vulture. They’ve got a do on.”
The yuppies made for the door.
“Off you pop Julian.”
The doors shut.
Albert’s laugh was a chainsaw being started and Murphy’s was a bear on two packs a day coughing its guts up.
“They were nice lads weren’t they.”
Albert went to the doors and rammed the bolt home as he shook his head. His short steel coloured hair didn’t move.
“I’m closing for the night Murph. Fancy a lock in?”
“Wouldn’t say no. Who would call their kid Julian?”
A few hours and another bottle of the good stuff later, Murphy was whisky loosened and slack in his seat.
Albert was as indifferent and immovable as a standing stone.
He didn’t look drunk at all.
They had moved from the bar to a round table in the corner looking out onto the street.
It had started to rain, and runnels of black looking water ran down the window.
Murphy pressed his face against the cool glass and watched the pissheads shielding their kebabs from the drizzle and the half-dressed girls staggering across the road. The black cabs crawling along like beetles.
“Why do you do it, Murph? It’s killing you.”
Murphy didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Albert already knew the answer to his own question.
Murphy turned away from the window and poured another drink.
“What’s done is done, Murph. We’ve all got skeletons. God knows we share some.”
“You don’t say.”
Three years ago, Albert’s daughter got raped by a local scumbag called Jack the Lad McCarthy.
Albert’s daughter had never recovered. She would spend the rest of her days in the laughing academy, having her head plugged into the national grid with that electro shock shit, doped to the gills so she wouldn’t try to open her veins again.
One night a year or so after Murphy finished his ten and got out of jail, Jack the Lad had wandered into the pub blind drunk and oblivious, just before closing, just as Albert was collecting glasses and Murphy was finishing his drink.
Albert had used two pool cues on him, breaking the first, and more than a few of the balls.
Murphy had locked the door and watched.
By the end, Jack the Lad McCarthy was so battered his eyes had closed to blue slits and there were purple blood blisters bubbling across his forehead.
Murphy helped Albert clean the place up good and proper with his work gear, and then he helped Albert do away with the body.
Part of Jack the Lad ended up in the cellar, and what was left was thrown in the Thames.
“If it weren’t for you, I would be doing life. You helped me when I needed it the most. That must count for something?”
Murphy slammed down another scotch, but it didn’t settle. He squeezed his eyes shut as his belly soured.
Putrid water filled his mouth and bile climbed up his slashed throat.
“Some wounds can’t be cleaned, Albert. And my boy ain’t never coming back.”
As he walked down Old Street, he thought of the life he had lived before the one he had now.
He thought of his son.
An ambulance hurtled past in a blur of blue light.
Someone somewhere was being painted in twenty shades of hurt.
Murphy had taken a ten by the time the gavel slammed down, which wasn’t bad considering how much dancing with the devil he had done and how many times he had cheated death.
He had gone through a cat shelter’s worth of nine lives, and a decade of porridge was better than taking a bullet induced dirt nap.
Karen looked relieved it was all over, like a trapped spirit finally freed from the house it had haunted.
Murphy knew Karen hated him, but she was too scared to do anything about it.
She had tried to leave once, and Murphy had caught her in the middle of packing her bags.
Charlie was only little then and he was just standing there, his eyes big blue bowls of panic and confusion, flinching with every word.
Murphy broke an ashtray over Karen’s head and pinned her against the wall by the throat.
The glass in her hair was like frost.
“Over my dead body, cunt. You try to leave again, and Charlie grows up without a mum.”
Murphy had plenty of enemies on the inside, and he got his throat cut from behind with a sharpened piece of plexiglass.
He remembered the wing going silent and each Cons face as Grey as a snow flake after his throat grew a spewing bloody mouth.
He had died twice on the operating table, but he didn’t see God or the devil. He saw nothing.
When he came to, it was as if he had bled all the hate out of his body.
He didn’t grass, but he didn’t retaliate, which was considered almost worse, but he was beyond caring. Instead, he tried to do the right thing for once.
He kept to himself, read as much as he could, and squeezed the skag out of his body with pushups until he gagged.
He kept out of the politics on the wing and wrote letters, to Charlie and to Karen.
He asked for forgiveness because there wasn’t a word for what he needed.
Karen never wrote back but it wasn’t long until Charlie was visiting him.
Murphy had never been a father.
All he had ever cared about was pumping himself full of drugs and maintaining his reputation as a cutthroat, a man who would kill you as soon as look at you and strip your body bare before it was even cold.
Seeing Charlie boy was like staring in the mirror before the hate had turned him rotten.
The hate given to him by his own father, the hate he hoped he hadn’t passed on to Charlie already.
He was the spitting image of himself, the same build, the same dark hair and heavy features.
But he was soft, and he saved the hurt and held onto it, rather than load it up like ammunition to fire into someone else.
The boy used to smile sadly, like he knew how it was all going to end.
It took the firemen hours to put out the fire and cut his body out of the car.
He had hit the tree so hard the battery was stuck in the side of the trunk like a meteorite, the bark wasted with acid.
It was funny. The moment Murphy realised he even had a heart was the moment it broke for good.
When he got out, he didn’t see Karen. She had moved up north, and he knew in his heart he would never see her again.
He had gone to see Charlie, and laid flowers down on him.
He had always liked flowers as a boy. He had loved the colours.
All Murph could do was take the piss and curse his luck for having a sissy for a son.
His first job was an old boy who had been forgotten by the world and lived with a feral tribe of cats.
The gas had been cut off and he had croaked, and they had eaten the parts of him that weren’t frozen stiff and shat him out all over the house.
Murphy had thought maybe he should just throttle all the cats, wring their necks one by one.
But he didn’t. He just scrubbed until his fingerprints were worn away and pink.
And he felt better. He felt better because he hurt. It was like he had absorbed it from the floorboards and the cat turds, and he clung to it like his boy had.
The pain, other people’s pain, could keep him going.
Murphy passed an alley and stopped.
A girl was squatting in the gutter, steadying herself with a hand against a dumpster, releasing a stream of steaming piss a horse would be proud of.
The slimy cock in her mouth was attached to a shaven headed goon swaying and groaning, gripping the girl by the hair, his jeans around his ankles sloshing in a puddle.
They froze and the girl stopped pissing.
The girl spat out a wad of saliva and precome.
“What are you staring at you nonce? Find another alley to sleep it off in.”
Murphy moved on, avoiding the brackish puddles and sticking to the shadows, keeping his head down as groups of wankered weekend warriors stumbled by.