I peer round the side of the wheelie bin. Blue lights flash ominously in the distance. We’ve run, but not far enough. “Nope. Fuzz are still hanging around.”
“Christ. Could be here for hours. And it fucking stinks.”
The scowl on Big Mack’s face mirrors my own, I’m sure. I can’t see much more of him; the bin blocks out the light from the nearest street lamp, yards away, and the moon’s gone behind a cloud. He’s right about the smell, too. God only knows what’s inside the bin. It’s one of the big trade ones and the lid will barely close. Takeaway leftovers from the previous month. Dead cats. Even a body or two. It’s a sobering thought, more so when you’re hiding from the filth at half past one at night with your pockets full of loot. It’s been a good night thanks to the local jewellery store. I’m hoping it stays that way.
Beside me Big Mack shifts. “Fucking hell, think a rat just ran over my foot.”
“I hate rats,” a third voice pipes. Big Mack’s cousin’s kid, who he swore was good for some hired help but who’s been a liability all night. Went in to the jewellers too fast and triggered the alarm, shot some poor bugger in the leg then stepped in the blood and left a trail so wide a blind man could follow it. It’s why we’re holed up here rather than scarpering for home. I don’t like guns. Fists and boots, yes; knives possibly, but never guns. That’s something I learned from an old friend long ago.
There are rats; I can see them for myself. Sleek dark bodies hugging the ground, keeping to the shadows, slinking away when they detect our scent. The Pied Piper of Hamelin would be useful, as long as he left the kids alone. Well, all except Big Mack’s cousin’s kid. He could take him now and never bring him back.
As if on cue, a man limps past the alley’s half-closed jaws. It can’t be, I tell myself. Coincidences don’t happen like that. It’s just some other bugger with a walking stick; some old codger come to see the damage of the night’s riots for himself. But the man pauses, turns, walks slowly down the alley, his stick tapping on the cobble stones. It’s too dark, I still can’t be sure. But then his voice rings out across the murky back yard and it’s unmistakable.
“What are you boys doing out here?”
It’s Old Joe with his magical, musical walking stick.
Suddenly I’m eight years old again. It’s 1981 – the last time the streets of England melted with discontent – in Toxteth, the night the cinema burned down. There’s a smell of burning on the air and a weird red glow in the sky. I don’t know what’s going on but I can feel the electricity, the buzz, the anger and adrenaline. The streets are afire: red flames licking, smoke billowing, dark figures weaving in and out. It’s like a new dance craze, one you wouldn’t see on Top of the Pops, and me and my mate Mack have sneaked out to watch. If Mum catches me I’ll catch the back of her hand, but right now I’m too excited to care.
“This is brill,” says Mack. I lip-read more than I hear; the fire roars and pops and sirens are screaming past. The wind shifts and a shower of sparks land in our hair. We laugh and slap them out and dance with the rest.
Until one figure stands out from the rest. A tall man, silhouetted against the flames, waving something over his head. At first I think he’s just another one of them, that he’s nicked something or found a girder to chuck at the coppers like everyone else. But he’s coming towards us, and Mack elbows me in the ribs.
“Catch a load of the old guy.”
“What old guy?”
“The one with the stick, you divvy.”
Drifting smoke clears and I can see better. He’s stopped waving the stick in the air and is using it to walk instead. Step lurch, step lurch, like he can’t straighten his leg.
“If he’s that old he probably got busted up in the war,” I mutter, but Mack just elbows me again. “What d’you do that f–” I start, but the guy’s in front of us now and I have to shut up.
Close up we can see he’s black, with grooves in his face and a fuzz of greying curls. He looks ancient with his hair and his gammy leg, but to an eight year old ancient is anything older than your Mum.
“What are you boys doing out here? It’s not safe. People are getting hurt.”
We shrug and drag the toes of our boots in the dirt.
“Come on, let’s get you out of here. Hey, want to see something magic?”
We’re not that young that we still believe in magic, not really, but something in his voice tempts us near. “Go on then mister,” says Mack.
I’m half expecting something bad like what happened to Billy Bowman from school, but the old guy just waves his stick. “Come and see, then. See what this can do.”
We peer. At first it’s just a walking stick, but then I see the holes, up and down the shaft in groups of two and three. I’m still puzzling over those when he lifts the whole thing up, turns it sideways, and applies it to his mouth. And then the magic starts. Music bursts forth as he blows and fingers the holes. He’s turned the stick into a giant flute.
“That’s fantastic, mister.”
“Show us how it works.”
We clamour and pull on his sleeve and he grins. “Okay, okay, one at a time. There – see? I drilled out the centre and put these holes here and here, so when I cover or uncover them it plays a tune.”
So it isn’t really magic, but it might just as well be. He plays again, and the sound is incredible. Pure, haunting, sad. You’d never think such a home-made instrument could give such results. I even recognise the tune. It’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, which Mum plays all the time. It must be his theme tune, I think to myself, in a moment of insight far beyond my years.
We’ve been walking all this time, slowly, imperceptibly, moving away from the troubled streets. I haven’t even noticed, but look up now to find we’re at the bottom of my road. How did he know I live here? Then again, anything’s possible for a man with a musical walking stick. He’s like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, piping the rats – and the children – away. It’s a story Mum reads to me sometimes but it isn’t one I like. Where did all the children go? I always want to know. Now perhaps I do. Perhaps this really is the man from the storybook, come to pipe the children of Liverpool away. I shiver and head for home. Mack’s already gone.
“Old Joe,” he calls after me. “That’s my name. If ever you’re in trouble, boy, just whistle that tune and I’ll be there to help you out.”
“Yeah, right.” Even an eight year old can see through that one, but it’s comforting all the same. Inside the safety of our garden gate I turn to watch. He’s limping away again, step lurch, step lurch, back towards the fiery orange glow. Gone to fetch more kids away, or just to watch? Who can say? I go inside and switch the telly on. Even magic walking sticks can’t compete with footie or Doctor Who.
I never did try whistling, but I was right about the theme tune. Years later I found out his surname was Waters; you can’t get much more appropriate than that. He’s laid himself down all right over the years. I bump into him now and then, usually when I’m up to no good. He has a knack for knowing that. He’s tried telling me what I do is wrong, but I don’t listen. I’m still a blagger and a looter at heart. Steal it if it isn’t nailed down – that’s my motto in life. I know he disapproves, but it’s just the way I am. The one thing I did learn from him was not to mess with guns. “Fists, knives, you can do a lot of damage but it’s harder to kill,” he told me once, and it’s advice I took to heart. Pity Big Mack’s cousin’s kid can’t say the same.
“What are you boys doing out here?” he calls. It’s the same thing he says every time – as though it’s a dream that keeps on repeating, as though time itself stands still. There’s nothing dream-like about what happens next. He brings his stick up towards his mouth. I grin, expecting the familiar tune; at my side Big Mack shifts, preparing to stand up. If Old Joe’s out there it must be safe.
But safe for whom?
“Fucking hell he’s got a gun,” Big Mack’s cousin’s kid shrills. There’s a bang, deafening in the alley’s enclosed space, then a second and a third.
Old Joe stands for a moment, stock-still, as though his legs have turned to solid lead. Then he lurches forward one last time, crumples and folds. A leaf crushed by a passing foot, he falls to the ground, twitches and lies still.
I can’t move. Should run to him, should check his pulse, call the paramedics in, but I can’t move. Can’t even whisper the fuckfuckfuck that’s pounding through my ears.
Beside me Big Mack surges to his feet. I watch in disbelief. He grabs the young kid’s gun, points it between his eyes and fires. The kid crumples in turn, his face pasty, his eyes staring in comical surprise. Except it isn’t funny, really. “Fucking worthless little tosser,” Big Mack growls. “He wouldn’t last five seconds on the streets, jumpy as that… Is he still breathing, mate?” There’s a catch in his voice and it’s obvious he’s not talking about his cousin’s kid any more. Old Joe’s as magical to Big Mack as he is to me.
I swallow and try to nod. Creak to my feet. Feels like I haven’t stood upright for a month. My legs carry me to where Old Joe lies, his walking stick across his chest. He’s holding it, cradled, his most precious possession to the very end. Slowly I bend and listen at his chest. Nothing, not a sound. No drum-beat for Old Joe now. The music’s gone.
I empty my pockets of all the stuff we’ve nicked. Necklaces, bracelets, earrings, gleaming in the light from the distant fires, falling around Old Joe like golden rain. There doesn’t seem much point in keeping them. We won’t get a tenth their value and the buzz of stealing them congeals on the cobblestones with Old Joe’s blood. He spent thirty years trying to keep me on the straight and narrow, him and has magic stick. In a funny sort of way, with his death he’s won. Although I won’t be listening to Bridge Over Trouble Water again.
Bio: Liverpool lass Tess is now settled in the far north of England where she roams the fells with a brolly, dreaming up new stories and startling the occasional sheep.
Tess writes a distinctive brand of British comédie noir and her short stories have darkened the pages of various anthologies and magazines, including Shotgun Honey, Pulp Metal Magazine, Out of the Gutter Online, ‘Exiles: An Outsider Anthology‘, ‘Drag Noir’ (Fox Spirit), ‘Rogue’ (Near to the Knuckle), and ‘Locked and Loaded’ (One Eye Press). Her debut novella ‘Raise the Blade’, a psychological noir tale involving a serial killer in Birmingham and a lot of Pink Floyd references, is available from Caffeine Nights Publishing now.