The fire was turned up. Ironside stretched himself, belly out to the flames, with a face dreaming in perfect poetry. Everyone retired to sweaters, swaying themselves into comfort with tea and cakes. They had originally set aside the afternoon for bridge, but Lily had insisted on putting her side since she hated distracting clatter over the table. She set the rules down before she began her narrative.
'Firstly I don't want any interruptions, unless I need some clarification on a particular point. Fine? I'm going to keep it as simple as I can. That's if I can keep it simple. And if I'm not sure about anything, I'll say so. There's gossip, and there's gossip. And I'll say if it is, but I'll do my best to stick to the facts. As for the rest, it's all maybes, and I'll avoid those. Now, if you're all sitting comfortably, I will begin.'
Cigarettes were passed around, glasses refilled, apart for Wanda who had barely touched her second glass of wine. Everybody shuffled and rested down for the long voyage back.
'Allan Powell was a right little pain, as far back as I remember can him. Too clever by half, they always said. He had a paper round when he was a kid. He'd always read the papers from start to finish, and then start talking big from them. Nosy and full of himself he was; that's what they said around here, and that's how I knew him as well. He mixed with everybody, but didn't really take any sides. Nobody really liked him that much. By the time he was into his late teens he was already working for the local rag, collecting stories and gossip from round abouts. He knew all the local ruffians, so when there was trouble, he knew how to get to the source of the story.
'It was through mixing with them that he met Julie Lacey. The Lacey's thought they were something around here, but they were just pub brawlers and housebreakers; selling knocked off goods on the side. Jack Lacey, that's Julie's dad, had a nice little sideline. He worked for the council, doing up the council properties. He'd write stuff off, then whip it, and sell it on later. I'm sure you know what I mean, Jack? He started off in what they called the Direct Works back then: building the new council estates, clearing up land after the bombings, and the slum properties that had gone to ruin after the war.
'Well to put it bluntly, Allan and Julie had to get married because Allan got her up the duff, if you pardon the expression. For all the thieving, Jack and Ma Lacey, as they called her, were good catholics. It was also a good business arrangement. Allan kept them out of the papers, and for that he got a nice kickback. Julie was the smart one with figures, though. After Jonathan, the first kid, was born, she studied accountancy from home. Learnt it all from books. She grounded the family business, as they called it then.
'Two years later she gave birth to James. That was a difficult pregnancy, and after that, for all the good catholic talk, they decided to call it a day. The business was going well though. Julie was using the money to buy up houses in the area, and rent them out to students. Well, mostly. Then she'd set Toby and George to burgle them. I forgot to tell you, Jack; Toby and George were Julie's good-for-nothing brothers. A right pair of lazy so-and-sos. Both lived on the dole, and spent all their ill-gotten gains on booze and horses, and, later on, on drugs. They'd always disappeared off to Manchester or Liverpool after taking their cut. But I'll come back to them later.
'Well time rolls by and business is going well for them. Then, one day, Jack Lacey staggers home after a long session at the old King's Arms, puts his key in the front door, and drops down stone dead on the steps. Heart attack. Well, Ma Lacey takes over the whole business. That would be back in Seventy-three. Yes. I remember now: the royal wedding, Princess Anne and all that; same week as his funeral it was
'Well now she suddenly gets the religious bug again all of a sudden. Decides she wants it all legit. Gives the two sons a good beating, and orders them to mend their ways, or else. As for Julie and Allan, they were the apples of her eye, especially with two legit kids in tow. But even with all that god business in her head, Ma Lacey knew, well enough, that if she left the business in the hands of Toby and George it would end up...pee-ed up the wall. Well, you know the expression. That started the bad blood between Julie and her brothers. They felt they'd done all the dirty work helping their dad to seteverything up but . I can tell you one thing they couldn't stand - and that was Allan Powell. Yes, a right slimy toad he was. Anyway, he outlived the pair of them. You see nothing came of all the bad blood. Allan wouldn't make a move on them, and neither would they on him, as long as Ma Lacey was still living. No, Toby and George wouldn't touch him, or that kid of theirs, Jonathan. In fact, they ended up conspiring with them. Blood is still thicker than water, as they say.'
'I thought you where going to be brief and to the point,' interjected Peter, as he leaned forward grasping for the cigarette packet.
'I told you not to interrupt me. I don't want to lose my flow . Thank you, dear.' Lily took a cigarette. 'Anyway, I needed to fill you in on all the background. You follow it all don't you, Jack? It's not too confusing.'
'No, fine,' I replied, taking the cig offered by Peter.
We lit up, and sipped our vodkas before Lily resumed.
'Their first kid, Jonathan, grew up to be a bit of a thug; his nickname was Power. Though some had other names for him. He was a right thug at school. Always full of himself. He wasn't too bright, though; but he made up for it by not given a damn.' Lily added a huff as she blew out a sharp, dismissive cloud of smoke.
'Peter Burnage was in the same school, three years above. By the time Power left school he was already spending time at Burnage's place. Burnage was a small time dealer: cannabis and amphetamine mostly. He used Power as an enforcer to get the buyers to pay up. When Julie found out, she hit the wall, literary punched it, from what I heard. But it wasn't just that. Power was hanging out with this girl, Sue Elmwood, or Slapper Sue as they called her. My god, the names they used to call each other. Mind you, it was quiet apt for her. From what I know, Power used to turn up some mornings drunk and stoned, sleeping all day, and then going out in the evenings. Ma Lacey didn't like all that drug stuff. That was the only good thing about her. She was violently against it. But when Julie Powell found out how much Burnage was making from it all, she wanted a piece of the action.
'You see, she had a little cash flow problem at the time, and decided to set him up in business separately - and away from Ma Powell's prying eyes. She knew that Toby Lacey had contacts in Manchester so he could get the drugs. So she bought a shop on Greet Road, just off the Whitehouse estate, and turned it into a gambling arcade. Of course Allan pulled a few string to get the license through the council. It wasn't far from Crossley School; and that was just around the corner from the Burnage's, so she thought it would cut off his business. She was sly like that, was Julie. She knew if she could get the kids into the arcade, and hooked on the tuppenny fruit machines and all those new arcade games, she'd have a captive audience. That was the start of the eighties, space invaders and that sort of stuff was taking off in a big way. The parents complained, of course; but it didn't seem as bad, especially when Power used to tell them that at least they knew where their kids were. But, of course, it was from the backroom they dealt the drugs. And Power used menace to make sure that no one dared grass them up. And he had that copper yes, well that's another story. He took kickbacks that one did - and he was also a bloody pervert...' Lily shuddered with the thought.
'Harry Listerne was his name. Lusty Listerne, they called him,' said Peter.
'I can't even bring myself to say his name,' growled Lily. 'Well his dead now - and so that's that. But anyway, between the two of them they managed to wreck Burnage's business.' She paused, stubbed her cig and frowned. 'Now it's going to get slightly complicated.' Lily clasped her hands together and pursed her lips.
'Right - now the Whitehouse - well, the asylum, as you know it, Jack. That closed in Nineteen Seventy-eight. The original plan was to fill the land in and turn it into a park or nature reserve. Oh dear, they had some grand schemes back then. Well, Julie Powell saw it as an opportunity to invest some money. This is where she ran into her cash flow problems. You see Allan used his influence in the council. He was now reporting on council matters, and was very friendly with some of those on the finance committee. He knew quite a few of their dirty secrets. So, somehow, he wangled the sale of the site to Julie Powell, for a few favours of course. Now, for once, she hadn't really thought it all through. Well, you know what it was like Wanda, that building?'
Wanda nodded. 'The place was very badly damaged by bombs during the war,' she said pointing upwards. 'Of course they rebuilt it but but there was always problems with flooding, especially in the basement. The bombs must have disturbed the foundations. It was not until they built the council estate that - well, somehow they managed to block off some of the underground streams. And guess where they all ran? Straight beneath that place.' She pointed over through the window to the back garden and beyond. 'Oh, it was horrible. The basements were always damp. When it rained well, you had to wear Wellington boots to go down there. And in summer the smell was awful. You wouldn't believe how much bleach and disinfectant we had to tip down there just to make it bearable.
'But it was the subsidence that finally closed it up. The whole male wing, well you saw it, Jack - it was all sinking into the earth. One night, everybody had to be evacuated. There was a huge crash, and the whole floor split right across the middle, and one of the frames fell out and one of those er, big fluorescent lights things fell into the middle of the walkway. It was a miracle no one was killed. But oh, the smell. I can still remember it. Oh, it was so awful - awful... Sorry, Lily, I am talking too much. You go on.'
'I don't mind dear, but ' said Lily. 'Anyway, it just goes to show that the council where no fools. They knew how much it would cost to redevelop the land, and they knew that no one else was buying at the time. So, by selling it to the Powell's, they could wash their hands of it, and turn a tidy profit for themselves at the same time
'Julie had all sorts of ideas of what she was going to do with it. That was until they had a survey done, and found the amount of work that was needed, and how much it would cost just to set the foundations. They tried all sorts of things. At one point they tried turning it into a community centre, and then some wholesale market scheme. But it was too far-gone. The place was riddled with damp and mould. Finally they came on the great idea of burning it all down and collecting the insurance. That was Allan's idea. Ha, it was the last one he was ever allowed to have. They filled the place with cheap stock and insured it up to the hilt. But after the fire, the insurance company refused to pay up. In fact they nearly ended up being taking to court over it. So, after that, they just abandoned the place and they were left nearly broke with useless piece of land. It was then that Julie came up with idea of the arcade. Peter, I think I need a top-up
'That place, Jack,' resumed Lily, after a vodka and orange refill, 'that place was left to go to rack and ruin, and that's when the problems really started. It became a magnet for schools kids. They treated it like some adventure playground. There was nothing else like it in the area. At the same time, it began to fill with drunks and down-and-outs. There were quite a few dodgy people as well, I can tell you, along with the odd hippy types. I think they wanted to turn the place into some sort of commune, but the drugs came in fast on their heels.
'It was in the early eighties when the first heroin addict turned up - dead of course. It wasn't a local kid though, so nobody paid that much attention. But before long there was a real drugs epidemic in the area.
'There were all sorts of rumours flying around. The main rumour was that Peter Burnage was using the place to sell drugs in order to get back at Power. Of course it was nonsense. For all of Peter Burnage's faults, he was never interested in the hard stuff. What mattered, though, was that Julie's clients were turning into heroin addicts. And it was Power and Toby dealing behind her back. Or maybe she turned a blind eye. Who knows? But to her it didn't matter; she wanted Burnage out of the way. She told Power to sort it, and he got this this Listerne to get Burnage's place raided. Burnage got arrested along with some of his gang. Power thought he could just walk in and take over the rest of his patch, and that's when all the trouble started on the estate. It had become a nightmare of a place to live. In the end all order finally broke down. Burnage used to have some influence on the estate but there were darker forces at work. I used to visit there regularly once, and I can tell you, you daren't go out at night there. And even around here. Johnny it was bad wasn't it - remember Johnny?'
'Yes, all deals were off,' said Johnny. 'Even I wouldn't go down to the Whitehouse anymore. And the regular vagrants were steering clear of the place. They'd preferred to go to the park and shelter under the bandstand, rather than go down there. Plenty of mornings we used to find needles in the back garden here. People were breaking in left right and centre. I was mugged once. That was September Eighty-three. That's why I stopped going. Remember Wanda?'
'How can I forget terrible,' she wailed. 'I thought of selling up once, and moving to Blackpool. This street became a nightmare. It was full of bedsits and sorry, Jack, I am not trying to mark those people out. But there was always trouble around here, shouting and screaming every night. It was hell. Tell Jack about the riots, Lily.'
'The riots? Yes, oh dear,' sighed Lily. 'That was after Vicky Laytham died from a heroin overdose. She was Burnage's girlfriend at the time. She'd had two kids by him as well. They ended up being taken into care. I don't think he ever saw them again. Anyway, there was this big meeting in the school where John Laytham, Vicky's dad, really laid into the police. Now Listerne was at this meeting, so he must have warned Power, because when the police raided the arcade, they found nothing. Then Burnage got paroled, and when he found out the full story he really let rip. The arcade got torched. The whole estate erupted into a riot, east meets west as they said. Burnage controlled the east and Power the west.
'That was some weekend. Someone nearly set the school alight that Friday night; no one knows who did it. Then there were running battles on the streets. Even Burnage's place had Molotov cocktail through the window. People who had spoken out against either side had their windows and doors smashed in. The police just lost control. It the end, the asylum was firebombed again, but this time in anger. Burnage won back the estate with the promise that he'd keep it clear of heroin, but he ended up back in prison again for GBH. He had to serve his full sentence, plus another twelve months. Yes, that's when he lost his kids - taken into care they were, and later adopted.
'Power and his gang scattered, and that that Listerne finally got his comeuppance. They found out that he had been making dirty films involving some some of the local schoolgirls. He was selling them on the black market - the dirty, filthy huh! He was lucky the police got him first. He got packed away to the slammer, but he only did eighteen months. I heard later from his sister, Sheila, after he'd died. That was about two years back. He was living in London at the time. Even his own flesh and blood wouldn't go to his funeral. Refused to let him be buried in the family plot. She'd have nothing to do with him. Said the shame killed her mother.
'What really settled it all, though, was when Ma Lacey found out what had been going on. She went berserk. Disowned her son, Toby, and told Power to leave town. I don't know if she ever found outhow much of it was Julie's doing. She made peace with her anyway. George kept his distance from the whole affair, though he did give Toby refuge, and tried patch things up later, between Toby and his Ma. But there was already too much bad feeling.
'In the end, it was all too much for her though. She had stroke, and was never the same again. Julie and Allan kept it all from George and Toby. As she became weaker, they slowly wrestled control of the business from her. And so, Jack, this is where it ends. You see, although they could never prove any connection between Allan Powell and any of the drug dealing, his name was pretty much mud. I heard he even tried to get a job on TV, in regional news, but it came to nothing. Julie finally got rid of the asylum and all the land about a year back. Signed it over to some property development company. Hence the big new house they bought.
'It was then just a matter of tidying up all the affairs after Ma Lacey died. She died in nursing home some three years back. Julie sold her house to pay the fees. She was too far-gone to complain. She was virtually a vegetable for the last eight years. Had to feed her by hand, and bathed her and . It was her stubbornness that kept her going for so long, even after so many strokes. Her whole family abandoned her. I should know. I worked at the nursing home where she ended her days.'
It was nearly seven when I thought of chasing up M'mate since he was back in town. When he answered his mobile I found him all pubbed up. 'Jack! Where the fuck are you!' he rolled in that pubbed up voice. The sounds of sharp conversation and clanging glasses formed the background chorus.
'I'm at Johnny's. I stopped over to pick up some stuff up he'd promised me.'
'Fuck mate, that's just around the corner from me, I'm at The Unicorn.' He gave directions, and prompted me on to join him.
'I've a bit leathered - mixed the wines and spirits a bit too much,' I said.
'Fucking pussy! Come on Jack, you don't want to spend the rest of your life hanging around with those stiffs. They'll be time enough when you get to be one. Which won't be long, the way you're going. What are they doing anyway, playing fucking bridge?' M'mate was truly a man for all seasons, but all reasons went to the atmosphere of his present company.
'No.' I paused. 'Well okay, I'll be over in a minute.' I said, submitting to the taunts of his put-you-down-put-me-down brutality.
'There doing a talent night - all fucking Phoenix Nights, it is. It'll be a laugh.' And as you know, M'mate was always up for a laugh.
I though, well, there's nothing here to keep me any more, only curiosity. 'I'll be over in a bit then,' I said, with my voice of enthusiasm.
'That's the spirit. Oh by the way mate ' he began, and then tripped a pause. 'Nah, it's nothing. Hold on yeah well we have a chat when you get here. Okay Jack?'
It was that last serious tone that threw me, making me wonder what the 'by the way mate' meant.
He gave me directions again. I pencilled them in my memory. Back in Wanda's living room, the first game of bridge had ended with recriminations between Peter and Lily. Peter had gone down playing in four hearts - a hand he should have easily made. There was the familiar: 'are you going already' words, but Johnny understood with a smile and a nod.
I made my goodbyes, and Johnny lead me to the door. 'Ah, I nearly forgot to give you the rest of the photographs.'
I'd completely forgotten. My forgetfulness was pure alcoholic distraction. He beckoned me on into one of the rooms across the corridor from Wanda's.
'Come in Jack. Hold on - I'll just put the light on.'
The light bulb was smothered by a large bulbous chintzy lampshade, which threw out a grim dirty brown glow. The study, for that's what Johnny called it, was crammed to the ceiling with books and boxes, and file upon file was sandwiched onto shelves. By the window stood a heavy mahogany desk, as if transported from some Victorian clerk's office. Even on top of that were piled more greyish brown files. When the desk lamp was turned on, it threw an intense light that only highlighted the oppressive gloom in the air, and lit up more nooks and crannies piled with books; some half open, others bookmarked. They were all hardbacks, mostly dense, with imposing bindings and gold stamped titling. The whole place smelt of some dusty old insurance office where all the policies had lapsed, and their relevance was only to archive.
The rest of the asylum photos were in full view on the tatty leather desktop. With a 'there we go' he passed them over, after examining them himself with a slight alcoholic overemphasis. Just as with the same sway, he caught my curiosity at the contents of the tottering stacks.
'I suppose your wondering what all these files are, aye?' He said sliding back onto the desk. 'All of these are memories - memories, Jack.'
He smiled and shrugged sharply. 'They're all from the Whitehouse. That's why I've been going there all these years. Collecting them - piece by piece.'
'But when they closed it down, surely surely they wouldn't leave all these? Are their medical files?'
Johnny reached across the desk and offered me one. 'Go on, take a look.'
The name on the top right was Violet Lucas. I opened and read the biog inside.
Violet Flora Lucas, nee Hawtrey, born 25 September 1924 married to John Lucas .
This isn't right, I thought, and closed it quickly as if caught in some indiscretion.
'Interesting, Jack? It's history,' insisted Johnny. 'When they closed the place they left all the files. Locked them in the basement. Forgot about them.'
'But didn't the basement flood. I mean, it would have all gone damp rotted?'
'They put them on top of pallets, and old beer crate, to stop the water getting to them. Some were a bit musty, but . In the rush to get out, they must have forgotten about them. Some were locked away upstairs in the attic of the old building. Those were just a little dusty but, otherwise, fine. Some go back over a hundred years.'
'I can't believe they'd just abandon all of these. They're peoples' private lives, secrets almost. How could they? Anyone could have got hold of these.'
'Precisely Jack. That's why I saved them. Anyway, it happens all the time - too much in a hurry to get out. Mind you, they would have got burnt anyway, those in the attic, if I hadn't saved them back then. Just think Jack, there's real history here?'
'But some of these people are still alive,' I said uneasily, handing the file back Johnny.
'Of course Jack. You know I even found my file there; still in the basement it was. And this is only half of it all. I've got even more in a spare room, upstairs.'
Suddenly I realised that I was expected - or not - at the pub. So I took the remaining asylum photos and buried them into my coat pocket and prepared to leave; but Johnny caught me with one more question: 'Do you know who's file that was, that you where holding just then?'
'Yes. I see her around the block quite often,' and, with that, I made escape.
Outside I shivered. I had stood too long in one place. Even though it was warm inside, the chill of the rain-cleared air ran through me. So with shaking strides I made direction instinctively to a warm pub, and the relieved feeling of escape from the stifling inertia of a stuffy room.
I took the arc of Claremont Road onto to the main street, and off to the left where The Unicorn stood, with it Saturday night cries and cheap thrills before the bus ride into town's clubland. I noted all the letterboxes and intercoms that took me back to my teens and bedsitland. It all took on the form of some race in my mind; strutting out fresh-faced again into the certain air of old adventures. Being indestructible again. Burning that hole through the sun against self-doubt. Breaking the old frame - kicking against the glass ceiling of reason. Watching it shatter into a kaleidoscope of colours. Be aware, but never afraid; be sure, but never arrogant; be stupid but never hateful. Welcoming all seasons, like a child alive to all the possibilities of nature.
Moonboots - that was it - the big clumping, white CND-logoed Moonboots that Stan the Man wore. He was the first person I met before I stepped into bedsitland. There I sat nervously; it was my first venture into a gay pub. He pulled over beside me at the bar. He was a mixture of black Goth attire falling into Boy George androgyny. He bellowed, 'It's shit in here - would you like to go to a party?'
The party ended up spanning four floors of a cockroach infested, mad-headed tumble of colours and lights, full of borrowers and fuckers off, and hysterical laughs and more hysterical tears of a new order. The remnants of those days had been turned harsh by my London experience; worn to sharp metal bones by its acid rain. But before then it was the Birmingham of lost races. It was where I first met Ciss and Marcus, and Anne and Archie, and Sister Susan. It was at that first party hope sprang of an escape from the cracks of a tarmac-ed and concreted graveyard. Stan was a light and rock, if the two can be the same. He didn't give a fuck about what anyone thought of him. He'd call someone a fucker if he thought that they were, and a twat - a twat, a star - a star; and he could fight. He'd defend himself, and his friends. He was only five six, but well built, with bright green eyes that, with a stare, negated the bullshit or sophistry of anyone. And when we walked the streets at night his virtue made us feel impregnable, and raised us a thousand times, re-framing our fragile self-belief.
'You've got to learn, that the more you hate the more you end up hating yourself,' I heard him once say. He never had a bit of bigotry in his bones, just an innate sense of right and wrong. Then one day he got a place at Art College in Leeds. I remember the going away off party. There, he promised to come back and visit but .
The best of bloody times? And so, after that, it wasn't long that everything began to break down, especially after the Gina business. We had ended up decamping to London .
In a glassy moment of reminiscences I had freed myself from the solidity of the present, and woven it into a tapestry of lost freedom. Now reality struck in.
What the fuck was ? I heard sharp footsteps and voices - strange voices. Their words came from a foreign tongue
A blow came from behind, mixed with a shuffling of feet on the wet paving, and catching the back of my head with an angry roar. I toppled, and my eyes opened to the burnt gleam of the main road. I staggering forward, half turning, a second blow caught the left side of my face. I felt my jaw crack. Fortunately my legs still carried me to flight, and I danced off the curb into the road. I tried turning to face off my assailants. For a split-second I saw three strangers railing against me from the pavement.
Car tyres squealed. Headlights blinded me. My frame folded.
A sharp pain shot threw my left leg. My body streaked over a wet bonnet striking the windscreen. The horrified face of a young boggle-eyed blonde flashed past. My left hand grasped the wiper. It slid through my hand like a sodden razored leaf. My head slapped the frame of glass. I flipped over and floated in perfect arched descent to smash crumpling onto the tarmac. As I hit the ground I cried out.
I couldn't move.
Fuck! I was still awake. Fuck this; I would rather be out. I felt my body melting into wet tarmac, the rainwater mixing with my blood and sweat. I could smell damp clods of earth - as if this was my funeral - with me as some cataleptic witness in descent.
'Are you all right? Are you all right?' came the panicked voice of a young woman.
'That's a stupid bleeding question,' yelled another woman.
Indeed, I though.
'We've called an ambulance. It'll be here in few minutes,' cried the sensible voice.
I felt a coat slide over me, and I shivered. Then came the squeal of cars pulling over, and the clatter of footsteps around me, and more jostling words. Then the rain began to fall again.
'Jack! Jack!' It was M'mate's cry. 'Fuck! Jack, son!'
I smiled, but I doubt if anybody noticed.