The hundred dollars sat on the table like a campfire, the three boys huddled around it.
‘I don’t think this is a good idea Tommy,’ said Dave.
‘Well, you can always take your ten dollars out and go home.’
‘I said it was a bad idea. I didn’t say I wasn’t in. When does that ever count me out?’
‘And you Jules, you in?’ said Tommy.
‘I think I might actually agree with Dave on this one Tommy,’ said Jules
‘Come on. One time, for a laugh. Something to tell the ladies.’
‘I swear, if this goes pear shaped Tommy.’
‘Don’t worry. It will be fine! Trust me!’
‘Just once,’ said Jules, ‘just to see what it’s like?’
‘There’s my boy. Just once. Just to see!’ said Tommy.
Jules smiled, his teeth jutting out like they didn’t quite fit his mouth.
‘When do I ever lead you boys wrong?’
‘About nine times out of ten’ Jules said.
‘I wonder why we listen to him at all.’
‘Because I look out for you boys.’
Dave shook his head, Tommy trousered the money and the boys headed out the door.
The lazy walk from the tram stop to the Gatwick had only taken five or so minutes and now they stood at its portal, the not quite visible veil between youth and decay. Tommy took in a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and stiffened his back. He let his smile fade into a smirk then turned to his compatriots nodding for them to do the same. Jules smiled for Tommy. Dave lifted his neck, fixed his eyes straight and locked his hands at his side. His finger tapped against his pant leg audibly. Jules and Dave fell in line behind Tommy.
Tommy walked through the white, concrete archway and the boys followed. The warm summer air turned dank and humid in the lobby of the boarding house. It clung to the boys’ skin. In chairs to the left were two street folk sharing from a bottle of wine, sipping from its glass neck. The boys’ shoes clung to the carpet and they could hear loud yelling echoing from somewhere down behind the empty reception desk. Tommy opened his mouth, let it hang open a moment then closed it. He stepped forwards toward a hallway leading deeper into the “hotel”. It stunk of smoke. You couldn’t walk a few meters before meeting a new stain. Every now and then a hallway door hung open. Tommy would cock his head to the side and the other boys would keep their heads fixed straight. Towards the back they found a flight of stairs and started climbing.
‘You do know someone here, right Tommy?’
Dave’s tone was hushed. Tommy replied confidently.
‘You really do worry too much mate. Good pal lives here. Met him down Chapel one day. Stand up fella.’
‘He was begging,’ Jules added.
‘Beside the point.’
‘How is that beside the fucking point Tommy?’
Dave’s whisper cracked at the plosives.
‘Because Dave, and you might want to think about this buddy, but I don’t see the world through that lens!’
Tommy lifted his finger to his lips then pointed to the numbers on the doors, tracing along until it fixed itself about halfway down the hall. He smiled at the boys. Jules shone his big white bricks out for Tommy; Dave barely curled the corners of his lips. Dave and Jules had barely made it to the door before Tommy started knocking, three heavy cracks against the warped wood door. A mutter sounded back from behind it. The boys stood. A minute passed and Tommy knocked again, this time softer. Another 30 seconds passed before the door flung open leaving a fat man’s face hanging in its wake. It had wrinkles like an old Aztec mask. His voice was thick with smack addict whine.
‘I said hold your fucking horses alright. What do you want?’ said the relic.
‘We met the other day, Chapel wa…’
‘What do you want?’
‘Well,’ continued Tommy, ‘you said if I ever needed any…’
‘Don’t have all fucking day. What do you want?’ he repeated, this time threatening to close the door on the boys.
‘Heroin,’ said Jules.
‘Yeah heroin,’ Tommy chorused, ‘remember when we met down on…’
‘Righto, righto,’ the relic said turning his body out of the doorway so the boys could pass.
The whole room smelt like a toilet. The kitchen, which was marked by a change from carpet to lino, fridge and sink, was stacked with dishes covered in caked on two minute noodles. Dave felt his stomach turn.
‘You boys got cash?’ said the relic.
‘A hundred,’ said Tommy.
The relic disappeared behind a door. There was a muffled rumble, something fell on the floor. After a minute or two he returned with a small chunk of brown tied in the scraps of a plastic shopping bag. In his other hand he grasped a spoon, needle and similar package.
‘Take a seat’ said the relic smiling.
The boys squeezed onto a brown, stained couch. The relic took his seat between them and the door in an arm chair. The stuffing leaked out. He sat one of the bundles in front of the kids and placed the contents of his other hand gently in a row on the table.
‘Now let me show you the ropes, wouldn’t want you boys screwing it up’
He dropped a small chunk of brown onto the spoon, added water and held his lighter underneath. It bubbled slowly turning the water from clear to brown. He dropped a cotton wool bud onto the spoon and through it he sucked up heaven into the needle. Then he slowly reached over the table and placed the needle in front of Dave.
‘There you go son. On the house.’
The relic stretched his lips out to either side. His three or four teeth were brown and yellow. His cheeks sank into his face, his gums not quite enough to support a smile.
‘I’m okay,’ said Dave.
‘That will make you better.’
‘We were going to wait till we got…’ said Tommy.
‘Where is the fun in that.’
‘No you look. New customers take a hit. Rules is rules. You don’t want to break the rules do you?’ the relic asked.
His lips slackened. His eye brows dropped. His wrinkles deepened. He held out his hand for the money and nodded back to the needle. Dave hadn’t looked up.
‘I don’t think we want to buy any after all,’ said Tommy.
‘That’s a shame,’ said the relic, ‘because you are giving me the hundred whether you are buying or not.’
From beside the armchair, hidden in the fluff and lining, the relic produced a blade. It was small and light and dull. It had a fine point. Tommy produced the money and laid it on the table. He picked up the package and put it in his pocket. Jules sat rigid and straight and still.
‘Rules is rules,’ said the relic, nodding at Dave.
Tommy reached over for the needle. The relic grabbed his hand.
‘Not you. Him…’
Dave looked up. Water clung to the tops of his eyelids. He blinked and shook his head. The relic let go of Tommy’s hand and pushed the needle towards Dave.
‘Rules!’ said the relic.
Dave picked up the needle slowly. His hands were trembling.
‘This is fucked,’ said Tommy shaking his head. His shoulders were no longer stiff. His back hung slack.
‘Cause I look out for you boys,’ mumbled Dave picking up the needle; he was crying.
Tommy looked at Dave. Then Jules. Then he swallowed hard and hooked his foot underneath the table. The table flipped towards the relic. Tommy pulled Jules to his feet. The relic was old and slow. He started to stand. Tommy laid a kick onto his chest. Then another for good measure. Jules stood. The relic jabbed out with his blade. He was crumpled in the chair. Dave threw the needle at him and Jules yelped. Tommy pushed the boys towards the door and they ran.
The boys all wheezed for air.
‘Brilliant fucking idea Tommy,’ yelled Jules, a large red blood stain around the tear in his jeans. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ said Tommy.
‘How fucked is your leg?’ asked Dave.
‘Fucked enough,’ said Jules.
Jules started limping out of the alley. His head turned back with smile.
‘At least I wasn’t going to cry,’ he said.
‘Fuck up,’ said Dave, ‘you weren’t the one Junky George was trying to give a hotshot to!’
‘Hospital?’ asked Tommy.
‘Obviously,’ replied Jules.
‘Let me take a piss quickly,’ Tommy added as the other boys, Jules limping, headed for the mouth of the alley.
Tommy turned, leaned with his hand on the wall and reach down for his zipper. Every heavy running step had shaken his bladder. His head leaned back as the stream hissed against the wall.
‘You at least got the stuff right,’ Jules called back.
Tommy looked over at Jules and his limp. He looked at Dave with his head hung low and his hands that shook. He looked back down at the ground.
‘Fuck the stuff,’ said Dave quietly.
Tommy reached into his pocket and fingered the little package into his palm. He pulled it out and then used the same hand to repackage and re-zip. He looked down at the little brown ball. He dropped it into the puddle of piss and turned the tip of his toes on it. Around the very edges of the chunk his piss turned muddy.
‘Nah,’ said Tommy, ‘must have dropped it while we were running boys.’
‘Fuck me,’ said Jules, ‘bloody leg, a hundred down and a failed mission. Sometimes I wonder why we listen to you at all’
‘Because I look out for you boys. Day and night, rain or shine!’
And from now on, he thought, he really would.