When I got the call that Ray was dead, I was watching TV with my girlfriend of two years, Nicola. I hadn’t spoken to Ray in seven. Nicola had never heard of him.
“So the funeral’s tomorrow,” she said.
“Yeah.” I was still in shock.
“Were you close?”
“Yeah … kind of.”
I didn’t know what else to say. I’d never spoken to her about my old friends. I’d never spoken to her much about the past at all.
There’d been four of us: me, Billy, Liam and Ray. We grew up together, same area, same schools, knocking around as teenagers, pubbing, clubbing, doing all the things you do. But once Ray got sent to prison it was never the same. At twenty-one I moved further out of London and rarely saw them.
“Are you alright?” Nicola asked, coming back into the room with two cups of tea. She put them down, then stood with her hands on her belly. She was seven months pregnant.
“I’m fine. It’s just tomorrow, you know.”
“Are you sure you have to go? You’ll have to take a day off work.”
I looked at her.
“He was a friend of mine.”
That night I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned.
Ray spent six years inside, but had been out for a year. I’d even spotted him one night as I was driving through Kentish Town. I was stuck at the lights and saw him staggering along the pavement, trying to talk to people, everyone walking past, ignoring him. He could have been begging, or maybe asking for genuine help, I didn’t know. But part of me wanted to pull over and chat and laugh about the old days, make it all right, all better again, perform a miracle right there on the street. But the lights changed and I moved on.
“How did he die?” I’d asked Billy on the phone.
“He hung himself Mick.”
Those words ringing in my head.
I’d visited Ray in prison three times, all in his first few months. It was uncomfortable for the both of us, but we tried our best to hide it. But it was there regardless, staring us in the face – the unfairness of it all, Ray inside, me free. As we shook hands at the end of that third visit, he looked me in the eye. “Don’t come again, Mick.”
I nodded. I understood.
Ray took the rap. He took it all. He kept silent and did the time for something he hadn’t even wanted to take part in… It’s crazy, Mick, fucking madness… But I made him do it. I talked him round.
-I’m going round there, Ray. I swear to God, I’ll do the fucking thing myself.
-Listen, Mick, okay… We’ll just give the bastard a quick bruising and get the fuck out of there.
That’s the way things were with me and Ray. We did everything together.
But we burst straight in there with bats and killed him. Not Ray, though, it was me – I killed him.
A year ago when Ray was paroled, Billy phoned and said they were putting on a welcome home drink for him, and asked if I wanted to come down. Come on Mick, it’s the decent thing. I told him I’d try, but I didn’t turn up.
I later heard the night had gone well, with lots of talk about the old days and high spirits all round. But afterwards on the street it turned sour, Ray storming off, telling them to go fuck themselves. But everyone was in a right state by then, Billy laughed. Just like old times really.
Ray had apparently been eager to see me, asking what time I was coming down, and if anyone had my number. Come on lads, someone must have his number.
Then later, when it was obvious I wasn’t coming, he leaned into Billy’s ear: Tell Mick he’s a fucking cunt.
But why weren’t you there, Mick? Billy said.
I told him I’d been doing nights, couldn’t get the time off. But it was bullshit. In reality, I just wouldn’t have known what to say. What can you say? In a way I’d spent the past seven years pretending Ray didn’t exist. I had a good job, a decent flat, I was in a relationship and soon to be a father. Sometimes the past seemed like something from a dream, a different life.
Over the past year Billy had phoned perhaps three or four times; Liam had messaged me also. They’d see Ray out and about and things weren’t good. He wasn’t adapting. The way things are going, Mick, he’s going to end up back inside or dead. I know it’s been a while, but maybe you should come down and meet him. Have a word. Try to talk some sense into him.
I told them I’d get in contact and see what I could do. Sometimes I even convinced myself that next week, or maybe the week after, I’d drive back down to Archway, patch things up, somehow try and help. Yet deep down I knew it would never happen. Time passed and I did nothing.
The death of Pat O’Connor changed everything.
None of us had been angels. We had all been nicked once or twice, spent nights in the cells for being drunk or whatever, but we never went around hurting people. Not as a rule anyway. Or at least never people that didn’t deserve it. But Pat O’Connor was different. Pat O’Connor was a bully. He’d bullied his way through school, then did the same thing out on the streets. He did two spells in Feltham. Once for robbery, another for drugs.
He’d once pushed Ray’s sister onto the floor of a club after she’d told him to stop bothering her. Ray hated Pat for that, but what could he do? A few years later in court, they made a big deal out of that, trying to associate it with what happened. But my own grudge with O’Connor never came out in court at all.
One night after a few drinks I was walking home. I turned a corner and saw O’Connor with some mates across the road. O’Connor was pissed, in show-off mode, calling me over. Come here Mickey boy, I’m talking to you. But I just waved and kept walking. He started following me down the street, his mates behind him. Oi, cunt, are you fucking deaf?
They chased me through some flats, and I took a kicking that left me only half-conscious. I still remember O’Connor’s face as he stood pissing over me – his mates telling him to leave it, laughing, telling him he was mad, leave it out Pat – but Pat insistent. Finally giving me a kick in the gut, telling me next time I walk away from him he’d fucking stab me.
Months went by, but I couldn’t leave it. It was eating me up. I saw him a few times around, but always from a distance. Then once, full-on in daylight, I passed him on the street. I stared him out, and for a second I thought he was going to start. But he just gave a little smirk and carried on walking. But that was it. I was going to get the bastard, I knew that now.
He’d recently moved out of his mum’s to the other end of Holloway. A ground-floor flat on a small estate. I’d just bought my first car and started to spend hours parked up watching the place.
Sometimes he’d have company. Once he left with some mates and I remember sinking into my seat, tensing as they walked past the car; yet somehow it excited me. Sometimes there’d be a girl also. But most nights, by a certain time, he’d be on his own.
I wanted to get him right there, right in his comfort zone. I told Ray. When he heard I’d been spying he laughed and said I was mad. Then about joining me in the plan, he told me, what’s the point? You want to teach him a lesson? Forget it. People like O’Connor don’t learn lessons. You’ll start a war. He’ll come back and kill us.
No he won’t, I said, because we’ll be wearing masks. He won’t even know what hit him.
I told him to think about it.
He shook his head. You’re crazy, Mick.
On the night it happened, it was cold and wet, the streets empty. Ray had drunk some vodka, but I didn’t need it. I was so revved-up, so up for it I could have done anything, taken on the whole world.
O’Connor opened up, his expression quickly changing as my bat got him straight in the face. He staggered backwards as I battered him down the hall. He tumbled into the living room, Ray joining in now, O’Connor trying to grab him, clinging onto Ray’s jacket but I beat him back down and he toppled onto a low glass table, the bats raining in, Pat out for the count now, not moving a muscle, Ray saying come on let’s move, but I kept laying into him, wouldn’t leave it, FUCKING HELL, ENOUGH, LET’S GO, Ray tearing me off and the two of us running.
The next afternoon we heard that O’Connor was dead. He’d been murdered in his flat and only discovered in the morning. The news was everywhere.
Several of his friends were quickly arrested, but all were released without charge. I got rid of the baseball bats and we burned our clothes. If they came for us we’d say nothing.
A few days later, the police pulled us in. We denied all charges and gave no-comment interviews.
Months later, at the trial, it emerged there were enemies and grudges against Pat O’Connor everywhere. People who had wanted to kill him, and people who had even attempted to kill him before. He’d already been stabbed twice and clearly lived in a world of drugs and ripping people off, so we both should have stood a chance. But that’s not how it worked out. At least not for Ray.
During the attack, a cigarette lighter had fallen from Ray’s pocket. Excuses that Pat had stolen it from him didn’t wash. Then, finally, his alibi fell through. Fighting on would have only landed him a longer sentence. He changed his plea to guilty.
But I had a chance and I took it. Why put my hand up for something I could get away with? I took it all the way. Nothing could pin me there, nothing concrete anyway, not unless Ray spoke out, and he didn’t, he kept quiet.
So best friend or not – my brief urged the jury – there simply isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest that Michael Barrett was at the scene of the attack, or played any part in the killing of Patrick O’Connor whatsoever. Therefore I urge you to find him not guilty.
I walked. I was lucky. I carried on living and everything went well for me. But Ray got a twelve year sentence for manslaughter, with no chance of parole for at least six and a half years.
Ray took the brunt. And when his time came, he was spat out into a world that had nothing to offer him any more, a world that had moved on without him. And he spiralled downwards, all the traps laid out. Drink, drugs, depression. Just the four walls of a room above a shop on Hornsey Road where he ended his days hanging from a cable, undiscovered for two days until his sister’s boyfriend forced the door, his sister’s screams filling the building and her boyfriend having to restrain her.
Ray left no note, no words, only the most devastating statement of all.
And it was all my fault.
In the morning I got up quietly, letting Nicola sleep on.
In the bathroom mirror, the face staring back at me looked shattered.
I splashed with cold water, slapping away the sickness until my skin felt numb.
Then, finally, I pulled myself together and set about getting ready for the funeral.