“What the fuck are you smiling at, Tommy, you look like the cat’s got the cream?”
Tommy carries on, oblivious, his smile, a secret smile, he thinks. Everybody thinks they have a right to know your business but are too quick to tell you to fuck off, if you get in their’s.
Tommy’s got news, from the doctor in the community medical centre and for that news he’s smiling. Why? because he’s dying, that’s why and that’s enough to make me smile, he’s thinking.
And why would he want to tell any eedgit in the street? he thinks, knowing the question is no more important than the answer to them but, in the language of these mean streets, it’s a way inside your head, your pocket and with any luck, your bottle.
And speaking of bottles, Tommy does have one, hidden away this morning, knowing he’ll need it later, he wants it now, that bottle, but first, he has to lose the entourage.
He glances, swiftly, over his shoulder and there’s at least three of them, closing on him like a moving target they’re trying to focus on; Phonsie, the fucking eedgit who asked the question, shuffles after him, leering, a slime of grey drool, hanging from the edge of his unshaven chin, one eye, half shut and bruised, from falling or fighting, or both, his clothes a jumble of charity offcasts, the running shoes, incongruously new; Mary, a sharp, purple faced harridan, her hair a knot of unkempt grey, shoulder length, her teeth, once like sawtooth serrations, now yellow, gapped and broken and George, tall, thin and once, distinguished, now desperate, craven and beaten, without a trace or shadow of the dignity he once wore, like a badge.
All they know is Tommy’s smiling so Tommy’s got a bottle.
And all Tommy knows is that bottle’s for him and him, alone.
Five metres ahead of them, he quickens his pace, steps, deftly, into a side street where he breaks into a run, through a gap in a fence and out across a vacant lot of scrub and demolition waste.
Everybody knows Tommy, he’s thinking, when he has a bottle, they’re like flies around shite.
Tommy slows down. He’s short of breath, his clothes stuck to him, stained by sweat and ingrained dirt. His feet hurt. There’s a tightness in his chest he wants to ignore. He’ll get that bottle first. It’ll settle him, better than the pills the doctor prescribed, he’s thinking, tapping the script, folded scrappily, in his trouser pocket.
Then he’s at his hiding place where he stashed his bottle only that morning. But there’s five young fellas here, boys from the neighbourhood, he recognises, because he knew their fathers. He slows himself, looks away and down at the ground. He’ll walk past them slowly and they won’t notice me. He can come back, he thinks. He can smell the weed they’re smoking as they pass a flagon of cheap cider, between them. He hopes he’s invisible. It’s worked before, he thinks.
Not this time. ‘Well, Tommy. Is that you, Tommy?’
He keeps staring at his feet as they pass before him, his feet, that is. Don’t answer, stay invisible, he thinks.
‘Hey, Tommy. Tommy Guns. I’m talking to you.’
One of them steps in front of him, blocking his progress. He keeps his eyes on his toes, his own toes. Stay invisible, he thinks.
‘I’m talking t’ye, Tommy Guns, ye stinkin’ wino.’ This one puts his hands on him, a flat hand on his chest, halting his progress, entirely.
‘D’ye know this is the famous Tommy Guns, boys, the one that got away, the hired killer who never got caught?’
‘Except by a bottle of Dago red,’ one of the others answers and the rest of them laugh and whoop.
‘Careful there, Jimmy, he might be packing,’ one of them goads Jimmy, the one who has stopped him and put his hands on him.
Tommy feels his head split apart, bone and cartilage grind and splinter, blood and spittle splash, sticky and wet. He feels a whoosh as his breath leaves his chest, the kick has hit him mid-sternum, causing as much discomfort, he knows, to his attacker as himself.
Now they’re standing around him as one pours the last drop of the cider on his head while another relieves himself. Tommy stays quiet, stares at a tiny square foot patch in the dust, blood and piss stained pool before him. He hears their steps recede and waits.
Satisfied, he stands up, shrugs and disappears inside the shell of the building, roots in a corner, upends a loose patch of floorboard, reaches inside and scrabbles about before emerging with half a bottle of whiskey. He slumps back in the corner, ignoring the reek of piss, his splintered nose, the smudge and smear of blood, sweat and snot on his face. He bites the cork from the bottle and in one fluid move, swigs and gulps its fiery, amber content.
He shuts his eyes tight and remembers. A young soldier, pimple faced, hardly shaving, sitting in the back of an army patrol vehicle and he, in a hooded parka, holding the nine millimetre Parabellum, emerging from the shadows and pointing it into the face of that boy his own age, who stared at him and said, ‘why me?’ before he shot him.
Tears run down Tommy’s messed up face, tossing his head about, violently, as though to cast the memories from his mind. Death will come soon, but oblivion, he believes, is at the end of the bottle.