Carl stopped dead when he reached the gate of the path that led to the large house. He struggled for a moment to remember why he was there but then his fingers touched on the cold leather of the tick book in his pocket. Carl took a deep breath in through his nose, blew it out his mouth and pushed through the gate.
The bushes that lined the path were trimmed with a surgeons care, the front door of the house looked freshly painted and the windows were polished portals. Carl pressed a thick finger on the bell and waited. Minutes later a woman opened the door; expensive haircut, quietly pricey clothes and a look that asked why a heavy-set, skinhead in a cheap suit was on her doorstep.
Carl took the book from his pocket and opened it. He leafed through several pages in silence. He stared at the letters and numbers on the page before he spoke.
“I’m here about what you owe.”
“Oh,” her questioning look had fallen away.
“Yeah, what you owe. Will you be paying in full now?”
“Well, not right now – obviously.”
Carl sucked on his front teeth for a moment and stared down at the toes of his shoes.
“Can’t we come to some arrangement?” her arm snaked up the door frame while she loosed a button with her other hand.
“’Fraid not, love. Got to have some kind of payment. Been a while since you’ve even chipped away at the interest.”
“What am I meant to do? What kind of payment?” the woman crossed her arms and jutted her chin at Carl.
“Don’t get arsey with me you stuck up bitch. You know the fucking deal, you made it – you don’t want to make the full payment then you pay the interest; you spit in the font, wank off a schoolboy or put dog shit through your neighbour’s letter box, get me?”
The woman gave Carl a look like he’d just pissed on her cornflakes. Carl grabbed her chin between his thumb and index finger. He squeezed and watched as the look of petulance flickered to one of fear.
“You know what you have to do. I don’t want to have to come back here again. You understand?”
The woman managed to nod. Carl gave her chin an extra squeeze before he let go. He looked deep into her eye and spat onto the tile mosaic floor of the house porch. He turned on his heel and walked away. Led by his feet down the garden path.
The tree lined streets seemed to merge together as Carl walked through them. One tree looked much like the one before, the houses blurred into continuous terrace and the sky was a constant grey above him. He stopped and looked in his book. The letters of an address swam before his eyes. He struggled to concentrate, to make sense of the scribbled words.
Almost without thinking he stepped into a small café and ordered a hot chocolate to take away. He looked around but the few patrons kept their gazes down on their empty, greasy plates and half-finished mugs of tea. When his drink arrived Carl took a tentative sip – not too hot but the bitterness surprised him. He tore open five sachets of sugar and stirred them into the drink. Better but it was still as though he were drinking it through a mouthful of cotton wool – it lacked taste, he added two more sugars and walked back outside.
He pounded the concrete until he stood outside of an office block near the town centre. The sky was darkening and Carl checked the watch on his wrist – five to one, lunchtime. He stood to the side of the doors and waited until the workers started leaving.
“Andy!” he called at a small man in a dark coat wearing a yellow tie.
“Eh, hi,” the man stepped in close “do we have to this here outside my fucking work?”
Carl bristled, puffed his chest.
“You trying to get smart, telling me what to do?”
Andy deflated and refused to hold Carl’s glare.
“No, no of course not. I wouldn’t.”
“Good. Right then, so what are you saying?”
“Don’t want to do the whole lot.”
“I bet you don’t. What’s your plan then, Andy?”
“Well, my girlfriend’s got two kids. The thirteen year old is always giving me the eye…”
“What if I, you know…”
“Think I know what you mean. Yeah that’d give you some breathing room, quite a bit of time if you make it a regular thing – know what I mean?”
“Oh yeah, I could do that.”
“Well you best start soon. I don’t wanna have to come back.”
“I will, I will – promise. Tomorrow night. The girlfriend’s out at her Zumba class.”
Carl looked at Andy for a moment and then made a note in the tick book.
“Just make sure that you do.”
The lights of the pub called to Carl. He ordered a pint, found a table and then ordered a portion of the curry, chips instead of rice. It tasted like he was chewing cardboard except that cardboard would have had more flavour. He pushed the plate away and took the remainder of his pint outside. He stood by the doors and lit a cigarette before taking the book from his pocket. The next address was a short walk away. Carl threw the last of the lager down his throat. He couldn’t really taste it anyway, and smoked on the walk.
The streets changed and as they did so the atmosphere did and, it seemed, the very air itself. Carl felt more comfortable, at home. The soles of his cheap loafers slapped across concrete and he stepped through a broken door to the lobby of a block of flats. He pressed the button for the lift and waited.
He stepped into the piss scented box and felt its shuddering ascension in his bones. The lift jerked to a halt between floors and the lights died. The dark made Carl’s heart pound, his mouth grew dry and he fumbled in his pocket for a lighter. The flint sparked and the flame sputtered. Carl pressed the alarm and waited. The dim light and shadows of the lift made him remember a room. A room in which he had sat in the half-light, the chair he was in hard and uncomfortable. A group of people in suits, both men and women, sat behind a long table watching him, smiles on some of their faces.
“You’d understand the level of trust that would be placed in you, Mr Connor, what would be expected of you?”
“I do and I’d like to tell you all how much I appreciate this opportunity.”
Carl’s palms had been sweating and he found it hard to hold the stare of the interviewers.
“Not the most reliable man though are you?”
Carl wasn’t sure which of the suits had thrown the question at him but it had been a male voice, thick with privilege and edged with age. He mumbled a response.
“Sorry, Mr Connor, I don’t think any of us heard that. Could you please repeat yourself?”
“I said that I always delivered on the money. Never came up short, always made sure that them what owed paid up.”
“Yes, that’s right and that’s the reason you’re here despite your faults and vices.”
The hip flask in his jacket pocket felt suddenly heavy and the lottery wrap of cocaine pressed against his heart through the thin lining of his suit.
A fat, ruddy faced, man leaned forward across the table.
“You’re our man, Connor. You get the job done and we’ll look after you. Always take care of our own. You just make sure you hold your end, results! Savvy?”
Carl had looked up and nodded once before returning his gaze to his lap.
The light flickered back on in the lift and Carl blinked against it. The rest of the ride upwards was smooth but he still stepped out quickly once the doors opened. The corridor he found himself in seemed familiar. Carl took the book from his pocket and read the relevant line before he reached through a wrought iron gate and rapped his fist twice against the wood of the door.
The door opened on a woman that, to Carl, looked like his mother. Carl knew that was impossible, his mother was dead.
“You know why I’m here?”
“Yes,” she replied with a pinched mouth and set face.
“Payment in full?”
Carl looked up from his book and stared into the woman’s eyes. They were bright and showed a fragile strength.
“How you gonna do it?”
“I need to know, gotta tell them how you’ll be leaving.”
“Oh, of course. Pills and a hot bath tonight, I think.”
“Fair enough. Try and make sure it’s tonight, eh? Now you’ve agreed it needs to be in the next three days or else I’ll be back and you don’t even want to hear about what the interest is if you pull out.”
“There’re no worries in that regard. I just want to be done with it all now. I’ll be doing it tonight. We all have to pay for the things that we want the most,”
“Okay then, tick in the book for you, my love.”
The woman smiled for a moment.
“Thank you, son.”
Carl looked up but the door had already closed.
Carl walked home. He could have taken the bus but it seemed easier to keep moving. Couples holding hands seemed to scream at him, mothers with their children laughed and mocked him, teenagers stopped and pouted at him. Carl closed his eyes and walked in darkness until he stumbled into the gutter.
Indoors he took a mouthful of whiskey and snorted a line of white powder off the cheap coffee table. He stared at his phone for ten minutes before he made the call.
“Yes, who’s calling?”
“Carl Connor here,”
“Well, Mr Connor?”
“One big interest payment, one thinking about it but she’ll sort something out and there’ll be one payment in full.”
“Are they making the full payment soon?”
“Excellent. You keep up the pressure, Mr Connor. You’re doing us proud, repaying the faith we have in you.”
The call was disconnected and Carl went back to the booze and the cocaine, pushing the tick book away across the table and who he had become far into the warrens of his mind.
Benedict Jones’ novella Skewered takes us onto the mean streets of South East London.