A ghost story for Christmas…
When I was a kid, I made a list of things that scared me. I was honest, while at the same time restricting myself to the real night terrors, rather than the vaguely unsettling. Like a Desert Island Disks list I got it down to seven:
- Spiders (foreign and domestic, especially the really big sod in the attic that my dad insisted on referring to as ‘Sam’).
- Velociraptor hide and seek.
- Ghosts (the whistling winter wind in the windows, though easily explained by their age, was to me the wailing of the damned).
- Nuclear war.
- Being coated in boiling wax and turned into a shop dummy (Carry on Screaming at age five is not a comedy).
- Anything to do with football.
- Gary Beckett. He was the worse of the lot. Impending Armageddon paled by comparison to each new torture and humiliation he devised. We’d been mates at preschool but by Year 2 I was his primary target.
I knew even then that this was explosive information. If my secrets were discovered, I was pretty sure Gary Beckett would find a way to expose me to all of these horrors, even if it meant cloning dinosaurs. (He’d probably find someone clever who’d done it and then nick them off him.) And whether or not he could commune with spirits or had the means to facilitate the apocalypse – which, again, I would not put past him – he could certainly lay his weirdly girlish hands on a shitload of spiders.
‘He must never know,’ I said out loud, in the stillness of my bedroom, as if uttering a short prayer. I carefully tore the page out of my exercise book.
‘Who must never know, mate?’ said my dad, sticking his head round the door. ‘Is it me?’ he continued, in pantomimic despair, his heavily inked arm thrown across his brow. ‘What terrible secret lies within?’ He sat down next to me on the bed and had the paper out of my hand before I could formulate a response. ‘What’s this,’ he said, squinting in the muted lamplight, ‘homework?’ He took off his glasses, flicked a strand of long dark hair out of his eyes and scanned my neatly written bullets. ‘Fuck me,’ he concluded, ‘what are they teaching you there?’
‘It’s English,’ I said, ‘we’re doing Frankenstein this term, and Mr. Phillips said the best way to understand gothic stories is to think about what frightens you the most.’
‘So who mustn’t see this?’
‘Well, everybody. It’s like you always say, you should never reveal your weaknesses.’
‘Wise words,’ he said. ‘Are you sure that was me?’
He thought for a minute, scratching his head. ‘Then make something up,’ he finally said.
So that’s what I did. We came up with them together, although I toned his down a bit. Bollock rot was a bit strong for GCSE English, and burning alive might give Gary more ideas. My final, fake list, as I recall, included: earthquakes, show tunes, speaking in public, snakes (I didn’t give a shit about snakes, and Dad reckoned I needed one credible phobia), algebra, dentists, and cancer.
‘Tell them your mum died of cancer,’ my dad advised. ‘She wouldn’t mind, god rest her, and they’ll feel like tossers for teasing you about the other ones.’
‘Cheers, Dad,’ I said, genuinely grateful. At that point in my life, he could still pretty much solve any problem that I had just by talking about it. That time was passing, but I didn’t know it then.
He stopped at the door. ‘You know them other ones ain’t real, right?’ he said.
‘Spiders are real.’
‘There ain’t no dangerous insects in England, mate,’ he said, ‘even with global warming. Now go to bed.’
I wanted to say that spiders weren’t insects, and there was nothing imaginary about nuclear war or school bullies either, but there was no point arguing with him. He was doing his best. And he was right, of course. The biggest worry was always other people. I tore up my original list and then flushed the bits down the toilet. It’s best not to leave these things to chance. Gary Beckett disappeared anyway, presumed to have run away to London, which is what’s known as a self-correcting problem. Others said he’d been murdered. I didn’t care as long as the bastard never came back.
That was ten years ago, back when life was much simpler, not that it seemed that way at the time. I remember it because that was the last time it snowed at Christmas and we broke huge icicles off the walls on the way to school and played with them like light sabres. A lot had happened since then. I’d fallen in love and moved to the States with my girlfriend, getting work in a studio near Venice Beach. Now, I had a different list, with dying alone and unloved pretty high on it after Danni chucked me out and I got in such a state about it that I lost my job and my friends got sick of me couch hopping and moaning. I’d had no choice but to come home in the end, home being the last building standing on the lot in a rundown part of town on account of Dad still clinging on to a statutory tenancy from the eighties. The ground floor represented the family business, Kamikaze Dreamin’, once an award-winning tattoo studio, the first in the city. Now it was just one of about two dozen, and not trendy enough to attract much attention. Back in the day, rock stars would fly over from LA just to get inked by Dad. That’s how come I hooked up with an American chick. She was in the entourage of that nu metal dude who topped himself a couple of years back.
Like everyone else who wasn’t a baby-boomer on a final salary pension, I also worried about money constantly.
Dad lived in a big flat upstairs. Although we spoke on the phone regularly, we’d not actually seen each other for a couple of years. I was shocked by the state of the place. He’d managed to keep the shop clear, but the flat was a disaster. If the landlord ever bothered to visit, I reckon Dad would’ve been out on his ear faster than he used to get through a tub of True Black. He had still solved my problems though, given me a bed and some cash-in-hand work. By the look of the accounts, this was the first time he’d had customers for a while.
He’d taught me to tattoo when I was still a kid, and I’d been making my living by it ever since. Like him, my preferred style was old school and my most treasured possession was an original framed drawing signed by Sailor Jerry which Dad had given me when I turned eighteen and which, along with the clothes I stood up in, was pretty much all that came back from California, everything else having been pawned, sold or lost. Not that I minded that much. Unlike Dad, I preferred to travel light. This week I finished a cover-up, put a bit of cheap flash on a neck and an upper arm, did a nice ‘FTW’, and Spongebob surfing on a pickle (don’t ask). The cover-up was a second sitting and still pretty much a day’s work, but they’re always fiddly. A day is a long time to sit, even with fag breaks, but the canvas took it like a champ, explaining at length how the needle was considerably less torturous than the relationship I was carefully obliterating. She was a big woman, late-thirties at a guess, but not wearing particularly well, the straps of her pink tank top and bra pulled down further than I needed to do the job, revealing far too much of her perfumed but leathery cleavage. She spoke earnestly of her children, her own childhood, her hopes and dreams, and the drunken bastard she’d just chucked out of her council house. I tried to sound interested as I worked on her back, and dodged any suggestions that we ought to go for a drink later to celebrate her rebirth. She did not meet her own gaze in the mirror, and thus I was similarly spared the full force of her loneliness and despair. I suspected she was self-conscious about her weight.
‘Have you ever been in love?’ she asked at one point.
‘No,’ I lied.
When I’d finished and she looked at reflected roses tumbling from her shoulder where her lover’s name once was she wept and crushed me to her sweaty chest in gratitude. I patted her good side awkwardly and pulled away, urgently giving her the card with the aftercare instructions. I managed to steer her to the other side of the counter and wished her a good night.
‘You sure I can’t tempt you?’ she had said archly.
‘I can’t,’ I said, adding quickly, ‘it wouldn’t be professional, you know?’
‘Like a priest,’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘like a priest.’
The FTW was the last job of the week. The canvas was a biker, a friend of a friend of my father’s. He wanted the initials in parchment script around a skull in a flying hat and goggles. I did it like a zombie First World War flying ace, with a rotted, billowing scarf and a barb wire no-man’s land beneath an angry sky peppered with biplanes as the background. Good backgrounds are everything. We went for black and grey with the odd red highlight and it turned out lush. I’d wear that, only everyone’d think it stood for ‘For The Win’ so you’d have to spell it out: Fuck The World. Fashions change so fast, you see, and in my business it pays to look ahead, though the customers never do.
However you cut it up, though, it wasn’t a full week’s work, but then there’s always too much or not enough. The little stuff doesn’t take too long, and I can never bring myself to charge for the whole hour if I don’t use it. I’d done a ‘Mum and Dad’ and a Kanji straight off the wall, and the cartoon was tiny and had been drawn by the canvas. ‘Thus does the artist prostitute himself under capitalism,’ my father had remarked. He wouldn’t have said that if it had been Sandy the Squirrel in a bikini.
The cover-up would carry us. That took six hours, which was worth three hundred sheets. The other stuff came in at about a ton-eighty, and the biker paid me in speed.
I neglected to tell Dad this when I closed up the studio and went upstairs. We usually ate together on Fridays, doing our own thing for the rest of the week, not that I ever saw him cook. It was always a takeout, which was probably for the best given the state of our kitchen. Like everything else, you just order them online nowadays. It’s really easy.
‘Did you charge for the full hours on the simple jobs?’ he said, playing with his chow mein with a worn pair of lacquered chopsticks.
‘Yeah,’ I said, trying to remember which way you’re supposed to look when you’re not lying.
‘Did you see the pictures?’ I said, strategically changing the subject. ‘I uploaded them this afternoon.’
If I do anything interesting, I photograph it with my phone and bung it online. People mostly want cheap shit though, so I leave that out.
‘I can’t be bothered with all that,’ he said, meaning our Facebook page, which, however many times I explain it, he can’t seem to use. (I haven’t even tried to show him Instagram.) Not that I’d want him fucking about on it anyway. It’s my social networking that get us most of our business these days. Even though we have to try and look a bit mean and moody, it’s all about forming relationships with potential customers. Ours are mostly young white, working class men who are unlikely to agree with my father’s political views, which is what he thinks constitutes a status update.
‘What about that biker, Rick’s mate?’ he said, returning the conversation to business. ‘I hope he didn’t expect too many favours.’
‘Oh, he paid up,’ I said, ‘don’t worry.’ He wouldn’t check, anyway. I did all the accounts. As long as I paid the rent and made sure the water and the electric stayed on, he didn’t care. He ate like a bird as well, and had packed in weed, booze and fags since I’d been away. All in all, he was pretty cheap to run.
‘What was he riding?’
‘The usual,’ I said. ‘New-ish Harley. Sportster – nothing special.’
‘You never saw them in my day,’ he said. ‘Nowadays, every bugger’s on one.’
‘Globalisation,’ I agreed.
‘Fuckin’ Taiwanese rain dodgers,’ said Dad, stabbing at his noodles as if they had done him some personal wrong. He’d always wanted a Harley, but a classic one like a 45, with hand-change gears and a suicide clutch. The proliferation of the new ones really got under his skin, especially when piloted by affluent middle-aged businessmen. ‘Having ten grand to spare, designer leathers, and an intercom in your bloody lid does not make you a fucking biker,’ he was apt to remark in general, and, in the old days, often to their faces.
The chop sticks were not an affectation. He had lived in Japan for several years, perfecting his art amongst provincial Yakuza, and he always said he felt weird eating Asian food with a knife and fork. The bike thing was serious too. He’d been affiliated with one of the nastier local clubs when he was young, and had remained strictly classic and British. His ride of choice was Ariel, with a crate that went on the side for moving stuff around and keeping upright in the winter. When I was growing up, we never had a car, and I’m not sure he knew how to drive. He still had the Huntmaster he built when he was a teenager in the garden shed, the deep claret paint faded to a dull matt with age but still a runner.
The bike was a 650cc vertical twin – basically a BSA A10 with Ariel trim – with an iron head and a pre-unit engine, which had come out of the factory in 1957. Dad had bought it at an auto jumble in a couple of crates when he was eighteen in 1982, and then spent two years lovingly restoring it, his best mate, Rick, who was the better engineer, doing all the tricky stuff. He rode it like he stole it for about thirty-five years then put it away for some reason, about a million miles on the clock and still on the original crank. The engineering was simple and solid and there’s was something almost Victorian about the look of the thing, as if it ought to be powered by steam. When I was little it reminded me of a Flash Gordon spaceship. Other bikes had come and gone, but he refused to let go of this one, despite several offers, and despite never riding it. He just kept it tidy, as if waiting for something, polishing the chrome, keeping the tyres up, changing the oil occasionally, and firing it up every couple of weeks.
He talked endlessly of riding, of the club, and old war stories, but he never took it out anymore. When I suggested he flog it to do up the shop a bit he was appalled. ‘I mis-spent my youth on that bike,’ he would argue, ‘and had a bloody good time doing it.’ He would have ridden around on it with Mum before I came along and then she got sick. To him, it felt like family.
It was my father’s nostalgia for the material objects of his past that was responsible for the state of our home. He was simply unable to discard anything. And now money was tight, he had a back-up reason for hoarding everything. We either might need it, whatever it was, at a later date, he argued, or it might have some resale value, when, of course, he got around to sorting things out and listing them on eBay, which of course he never did. When I suggested helping he got so panicky that I had stopped offering.
The room we occupied now, for example, that space laughably referred to as the ‘living room’, more closely resembled the interior of a council incinerator. It was full, and I do mean full, literally packed in fact, with stacks of books, newspapers and magazines, CDs, DVDs, and, in the lower strata, vinyl records and videotapes. There was a path cut through, like a fox run in a meadow or a small part of a maze, which led from the door to a burst leather couch in front of the telly. This, in turn, had a narrow channel leading to it in order to get to the Freeview box and the DVD player, and another running from that to an overflowing desk, upon which sat my father’s PC, shoved in front of a high bookcase with a dining chair tight up against it. This also served as the sound system, and old, grey speakers that buzzed and spat and required their own power supply were jammed high on the bookcase. At present it was randomly playing haunting Syd Barrett songs off the hard drive. There was no fire, and I couldn’t tell you where the radiator was anymore. Under the window, I think, the blackout curtains permanently drawn, and piles of paper pushed up against them as if hastily thrown up by soldiers preparing for a siege. Consequently, it was always freezing, and you had to wear several layers. Oddly, Dad didn’t seem to care. All those years on British bikes in the winter had made him tough.
To Dad, this was the ‘library’, though it conformed to no system of categorisation that I knew. Dewey Decimal would not help you here. Items were located by memory and luck, if they were vaguely in range of the path, and otherwise left undisturbed, except by mice and insects. These animals were my father’s mortal enemies, and teetering upon the top of the accessible piles one would often find mousetraps and roach hotels, little vermin sarcophagi occupied by mummified remains. He’d had a cat once, who, in theory, dealt with this issue, but he’d obviously had enough because he went out one morning and as far as we knew never came back. I found it when I came back from LA, crushed and mummified under a huge pile of Back Street Heroes. I didn’t have the heart to tell my dad.
The library was not restricted to the living room, but spread, like cancer, through the rest of the flat, including the bog, bathroom, and kitchen. He called it ‘The Museum of Everything’, and there was a memory attached to every item in it. Every wall was shelved and filled, seemingly with every book my father had ever read, or would like to read. (He reckoned he’d done about half of them, and there were several thousand.) Histories of everything shared space with every genre of pulp fiction and hundreds of graphic novels. There were art books, workshop manuals for bikes he no longer owned, books about Japan, and books in Japanese, which he read and spoke, though rustily these days, and hundreds of classic bike and tattoo magazines. Then there were the knick-knacks and collectables – crap from Japan, Meccano motorbikes, cups full of pens that didn’t work, half-finished model kits, and shiny metal objects of indeterminate function, all jammed on the shelves and ready to fly off as if animated by a poltergeist should you try and get to a book. Everything was painted in dust and human grease, a foul coat disturbed only by spiders grown so large on neglect that they had no place in England outside a zoo or an exotic pet shop.
His room he kept locked. He always had done. It was his one bit of private space as a single parent, and when I was a kid he didn’t want me stumbling across his drugs or weaponry, messing with his guitars or blundering in on him and Tanith. I shuddered to think what it was like in there now. When there was a draft under the door it smelt like the back of a Salvation Army shop – mould, old clothes ingrained with dead men’s sweat and fag smoke, that atmosphere you get in damp cellars. I was going to get in there and clean it one day, if he ever went out. Picking locks was something else he had taught me.
The subject of Rick’s mate and his generic wheels gave me an opening for another issue I’d been waiting to raise. ‘You know,’ I said, all casual like, ‘it’s Rick’s fiftieth soon. He’s having a party out at his place, with music and camping and everything.’ Rick and his old lady lived in the middle of nowhere, in an old farmhouse with quite a big parcel of land attached to it.
‘Oh yeah?’ he said guardedly.
‘We should go,’ I said breezily, ‘you could sing.’ I already knew what he’d say though.
‘You go, son,’ he said quietly.
‘It’s not me they’ll all want to see, it’s you.’ I countered, referring to the small army of friends he still possessed from the counter-culture of the old days, no longer revolutionary, but still awkward fuckers for all that. They were all old bikers, punks and goths; children of the Thatcher years who’d never quite grown out of it and still, like him, dressed in exactly the same way they had in the eighties, even if the men had less hair and the women were a lot broader in the beam.
‘They know I’m ill,’ he said, ‘and they know where I am if they want me.’
The exact nature of this illness remained undetermined, something, apparently, to do with his immune system. He was no longer seeing doctors and self-medicated with pro-biotics, over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants that he sent me out to get and then stockpiled. I knew he’d be better if we cleaned up but he wouldn’t let me. I was still working on the going out, though, so I decided not to push my luck. I’d reintroduce the subject again later. The clans were gathering, and he needed to be there.
I was sitting cross-legged on the right side of the sofa, a tray balanced on my lap, eating straight out of the cartons. I recklessly reached for my beer on the floor without looking and hit a pile of papers by mistake, bending back a nail.
‘For fuck’s sake,’ I said, deliberately pushing the column over in frustration.
‘Oi, oi, oi!’ cried my Dad, ‘be careful with those.’ I felt my blood rising. This was so fucking stupid. He grinned with stained and misshapen teeth, the product, he always said, of 1960s NHS dentistry. ‘How’s your dander,’ he said, ‘is it up?’
I took a deep breath and calmed down. ‘You know we’ve got to deal with this,’ I said.
Now it was his turn to tense up. ‘People collect old newspapers,’ he said defensively.
‘No,’ I said, ‘they don’t.’ I gave up on the food and skinned up. I lit up, took a long drag, counted to five and then exhaled a vast cone of smoke, which glowed in the cold blue of the fairy lights that Dad loved to drape everywhere at Christmas, giving the place the atmosphere of a haunted carnival. I had a couple more good hits and then offered it to him. As ever, he declined. He’d barely touched his food, but he set it aside and leaned back, eyes closed, listening to the music.
Poor old Syd was singing an outtake of ‘Terrapin’, because he didn’t leave much stuff, so every desperate demo and fuck up is included in the CD box set that I knocked off for my father, who, of course, only had the vinyl. This was my mother and father’s song. Dad had sung it at their wedding.
I became vaguely aware that I needed a slash. It’s always difficult to tell in that state but I preferred not to leave it to chance. Dad still used the toilet in the flat, but I found the experience quite disturbing, especially when stoned, so I went downstairs to use the one in the shop. By law this one had to be kept clean and free of clutter.
I followed the string of lights down the narrow stairs carefully and deliberately, like a deep sea diver on a lifeline. The studio was cool, still and dark. Through the large, barred window that fronted the shop, the streetlights glowed a dirty yellow. It was quiet outside, being too late for shoppers and too early for the clubbers and the homeless that followed them, tucking themselves into doorways like spiders once the drunken chavs had been and gone. It was raining as well, but then, that goes without saying nowadays. Dad said it was because the Jet Stream had been fucked by global warming, and took every storm as a sign of the coming weather apocalypse, an event which he dreaded and looked forward to in roughly equal measure.
‘We’ll need signature weapons,’ he would say, ‘and a black Ford Falcon.’
‘And umbrellas,’ I might add, though we both knew that if civilisation fell over the fuckers who regularly broke half the windows in the street when City were playing at home would eat us as soon as they’d cleaned out the Tesco Metro.
But the street was not completely deserted. For a second, I could swear I saw a figure standing in the doorway of the charity shop across the road from us, underneath an inflatable Santa so shit that nobody had bothered to nick it yet. It looked cloaked and hooded, which was pretty weird, and even from that distance I could feel it looking at me. I squinted back, trying to focus on the shape rather than the shadows, but as suddenly as it was there it was gone.
‘Fucking designer weed,’ I told myself, backing out of the studio.
Upstairs, Syd was still singing.
Oh, baby, my hair’s on end about you…
‘That’ll be the ghost,’ said Dad, when I reported the mysterious figure.
Cool, spidery fingers stroked the hairs on the back of my neck. ‘What fucking ghost?’ I demanded.
‘Well,’ says he, relishing a good story. ‘There’s three possibilities to my mind. For a start, there’s the old legend, of the mad monk Borace Alvertham, who sold his soul to Satan to escape the condemned sell and was cursed with eternal life but not eternal youth.’
‘What did he do?’ I asked.
‘Ate a nun. The story goes that he’ll walk the earth as an animated corpse until he can find someone willing to take his place.’
‘Who’d be a zombie?’
‘I dunno,’ he said. ‘See how the other half lives…’
‘Ok, that’s creepy,’ I said. ‘What’s behind Door Number two?’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘it could also be that homeless guy who the local Hitler Youth set on fire while you was away.’
‘Nah, it wasn’t him.’ He leaned back and closed his eyes again, still listening to the music.
‘You said there were three,’ I reminded him.
‘Oh yeah,’ said the dozy bastard, all casual like. ‘You remember that little chav who used to give you a hard time at school.’
‘Gary Beckett,’ I said flatly.
‘Yeah, Gary, that’s right. The little bastard what hung you out of an upstairs window with his mates and smashed your mobile phone. I thought it might be him, you know, haunting me.’
‘Why would he be haunting you?’ I said cautiously, not really wanting to know, ‘It was me whose life he made hell.’
‘You didn’t really think he went to London, did you?’ he said.
The room suddenly felt particularly cool. ‘Shit, Dad!’ I said, ‘what did you fucking do?’
‘What any father would do,’ he said cryptically, ‘whose kid was being terrorised every fucking day. I saw what it was doing to you. I sorted it out.’
‘How?’ I demanded, knowing the sort of shit his bike club used to get up to. Half of them were still inside today, two of them for murder.
‘I shouldn’t have mentioned it,’ he said, getting up and stretching. ‘I’m away to me bed,’ he added, the evasive twat. ‘Don’t stay up too late.’
But how the fuck was I supposed to sleep after that?
I lay awake all night mithering about what he’d said. Had he really killed Gary? There wasn’t really any other way of taking it. And when I went downstairs for a piss at sometime around 3.00, the hooded figure was back. This time he was at the door, his face pressed up against the glass. I got the impression of dead white skin and empty eyes before I legged it back upstairs, shaking like a junkie. The room next door was as quiet as the grave. Unperturbed by his weird confession, my dad was sleeping like a new-born kitten.
He hadn’t emerged when I opened the shop. I looked out of the door nervously, but ghosts and ghouls can’t be doing with daylight. There were just some pigeons picking amongst the dog shit and fast food cartons in the rain, and a few passers-by on the other side of the road where the shops were. I was out of cigarettes, but after the night I’d had I felt as if I’d been shot through the lung. For the thousandth time I decided to give up smoking. My appointment book was empty, so I got a pot of coffee on and prayed no one would walk in off the street, as they sometimes did on Saturdays. I was considering going back to bed when a guy walked into the shop and asked me if I tattooed swastikas.
What he had in mind wasn’t a small job, either – he wanted a back piece, black and grey, with a Nazi eagle motif. He didn’t look the type. In fact, he was pretty ordinary – middle-aged, short dark hair thinning, chinos, brogues, nondescript brown leather jacket. He carried a brightly coloured corporate umbrella, and with his receding chin and big nose he looked a bit like a parrot. He said he was a taxi driver, and that this would be his first tattoo.
I decided to give Dad a shout. Back pieces were his speciality, and I was so tired I was barely coherent, let alone capable of sketching some provisional designs. I needed to talk to him as well.
I excused myself and went upstairs to bang on Dad’s door.
‘Fuck off!’ he said.
‘We’ve got a customer,’ I told him.
‘Tell them to fuck off an’ all.’
‘It’s a back piece,’ I coaxed, ‘twenty-plus hours of work over four or five sittings, maybe more. At sixty quid and hour, that would certainly solve a lot of our short-term financial problems.’
‘Give me a minute,’ he said, ‘and make sure he doesn’t leave.’
I had left the punter out the front, in the waiting area by the counter. Fortunately, he was still there, leafing through an old portfolio and trying to look like he belonged, which he didn’t, of course. Not that it mattered to me. I’d take anyone’s money.
When my dad appeared, the bloke looked nervous, which was the affect the old man tended to have on people until they got to know him. He was a big man, well over six feet tall, broad shouldered, long-limbed, big-gutted and bearded, his once-long, dark hair close-cropped against encroaching baldness. He wore his colours over a once black T-shirt with a faded skull on it and ‘Nuke Me Slowly’ printed underneath. He was covered in good ink, bad ink and prison tats, much like the patches on his cut-off, as if his hide was stitched together from the same ancient leather.
‘Alright?’ he said, ‘so what can I do for you, squire?’
‘As I was just telling your young colleague…’ the punter began.
‘My boy, you mean!’ said Dad, proudly, cutting straight across the other guy, as was his way.
‘Sorry,’ stammered the cabbie, ‘that is to say, as I was telling your son here, I want something historical, you know, in the style of the regalia of the Third Reich. It’s not political, you understand,’ he added, absentmindedly running his hand through hair made spikey by the hard rain, ‘I collect Second World War memorabilia.’
‘Nazi art,’ boomed my father, ‘marvellous! Blood and soil and all that…’ (The punter nodded enthusiastically.) ‘You mean something like a banner at a Nuremberg rally?’
‘Perfect,’ exclaimed the man, ‘just what I had in mind.’
‘Have a seat then, mate,’ said my dad, ‘and we’ll see if the Idle ’Prentice here can’t rustle up a nice cup of gnat’s while I sketch out a couple of ideas.’
‘Fuck off,’ I mouthed, from behind the client.
‘Is there are charge for design?’ he said.
‘Nah, mate,’ said my dad, ignoring me, ‘that’s all part of the service. And there’s no obligation, so don’t worry about it.’
I made some tea in the kitchenette out the back while my dad went upstairs to grab some books about the war and have a quick look on Google Images. He came back with his sketchbook and a copy of The Nazis: A Warning from History, sweeping clutter off his workstation. He got me to trace out the guy’s back, then he put on his glasses, blew the dust off his lightbox and got to work. The punter sipped his tea and I pottered about behind the counter. No one spoke, but my dad insisted on singing: ‘Auf der Heide blüein kleines Blüß Erika…’
‘I hope to hear that song sung in Mecca one day,’ said the punter.
‘I bet you do,’ said Dad.
In half an hour he had two strong drawings. The first was the more technical, being a graphic representation of your classic Nazi eagle clutching a swastika wrapped in oak leaves. It was very Albert Speer, and Dad said it was based on the bronze eagle from the New Reich Chancellery, which went down very well. The second was more like a period propaganda poster, with a beaming Stormtrooper holding a long pennant, again with the eagle, above a fluttering Nazi banner, like a mural on the original U-Bahn.
The client was transported. ‘Oh my god,’ he said, clapping his hands together, ‘they said you were still the best and they were right. They’re so perfect, I’d be hard-pressed to choose one over the other.’
‘You could have both,’ I suggested, ‘the big eagle on your chest, the soldier on your back.’
‘Do you really think so?’ he said happily. ‘Money’s not really an object, you know, not for work of this quality, but how much, roughly would all this cost?’
My dad thought for a moment. ‘Well, the eagle on the chest would probably take about six hours, give or take – that’d be a couple of sessions. The back piece would take a bit longer, say three sessions… call it four, just to be safe. That’s twelve hours max. Obviously, it could take longer, or it might be less, but let’s assume about eighteen hours over five sittings. That’d be…’
‘One thousand and eighty pounds,’ I chimed in on cue.
‘Call it a grand for cash,’ said Dad, beaming expansively.
‘Cheap at the price,’ said the punter, without even thinking about it. Fucking cabbies are always loaded. ‘When can we start? – before Christmas?’
Dad retrieved the two drawings and looked at them lovingly. He reached into a top pocket and brought out a battered brass Zippo.
‘I thought you’d given up,’ I said.
‘I have,’ he said. He flicked open the lighter and fired it up, kissing the bottom of the papers with the flame. He held them in front of his face as they burned, finally dropping them on the tiles and waving his hand like a clown, blowing on his fingers. The cabbie looked horrified. Suddenly serious, my father came in close, stooping so both men were face to face.
‘Truth be told,’ he said quietly, ‘I wouldn’t wipe my arse with these, mate. Now fuck off.’
My mind’s eye formed a picture of a winged wad of notes flying away from us like a startled origami crane.
‘You what?’ said the cabbie, clearly in a state of some surprise, not to say disappointment. As body art, those designs would’ve been the envy of all his little Kipper and Britain First mates.
‘You heard,’ said my dad.
As it was our turf, the cabbie had no choice but to back off. He retrieved his umbrella and brandished it like a rubber sword in a panto. ‘All this,’ he said, waving at the flash on the walls, the posters and the picture disks, ‘is degenerate art. You wait till we’ve got shot of the darkies, the lefties and the queers. Then, my friend, we’ll be coming for you.’
‘And I’ll be waiting,’ said my dad. ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’
‘Degenerates,’ repeated the outraged cabbie, slamming the door behind him. It was bulletproof glass, though, installed a few years back after some rival biker trouble, so he didn’t hurt it.
‘Kettle on,’ said my dad, stomping off back upstairs before I had a chance to speak.
As ever with my dad, I was torn. On the one hand, I couldn’t believe he’d just blown out the best gig we’d been offered all year, but on the other I respected him, although it had to be said that these fine principles didn’t exactly stand up to scrutiny.
‘Hang on,’ I said, once I’d thought it through with a brew in my hand and gone to find him upstairs. ‘How many swastikas have you put on punks, skins and angels over the years?’
‘Hundreds,’ he said, ‘thousands probably. When I was starting out, it was a common as Elvis round here. I remember when I was a young punk, I knew I was on the right track when a vicar gave me a bollocking outside the post office where I cashed my gyro for wearing an SS cap badge on me leather.’
‘So, what the actual fuck?’ I asked him. ‘We really needed the money.’
‘It’s different now,’ he said, ‘we used to wear all that shit to get a rise out of people. It wasn’t any more political than the rebel flags on the teds. These fuckers, on the other hand, they really mean it.’
The rain clattered against the display window, whipped by an unseasonably wild wind. It was still only mid-morning, but the storm clouds made the sky unnaturally dark. ‘Can we talk?’ I said.
‘That sounds serious.’
‘I mean about what you said last night. You didn’t really kill Gary, did you?’
‘Nah,’ he said, ‘I was just winding you up.’
‘Thank Christ for that.’ I felt myself relax, although I was beginning to feel pretty stupid. He was always fucking with me. When I was a kid, he used to threaten me with the ‘floating head of death’, which turned out to be a balloon with a face drawn on it in marker pen.
‘I had a word with him, obviously,’ he continued, which made me feel a tad less relaxed, ‘and his fucking mates. Waved a blade around a bit, explained who I was, what bike clubs did… gave him a slap…’
‘And you scared him so much he did a runner,’ I concluded.
‘Not exactly,’ he said. ‘Silly sod tried to burn the clubhouse down with us in it, so Rick gave him both barrels. It was my mess, so I got rid of what was left of him.’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. ‘You killed a kid!’ I exploded. I felt sick.
‘No,’ he said, ‘I only buried him, Rick killed him. And he weren’t no kid, he was a fucking teenager, the same age I was when I joined the club. He knew what he was doing.’
My head was spinning. I didn’t want to sit near him so I slumped down in the computer chair. ‘That isn’t an argument!’ I shouted. ‘You’re an accessory after the fact, and now I am too.’ Worse, I thought, he’s fucking come back. ‘I saw him last night,’ I said earnestly, ‘twice.’
‘Bollocks,’ he said. ‘I was just having you on. There’s no such thing as fucking ghosts.’
I thought about the terrible face in the window. He knows I’m back, I thought. And he’s come for me. I needed a smoke and I wanted a drink. ‘You’re full of shit,’ I said, ‘and you’re a murderer. Run your own fucking shop.’
Not waiting for an answer, I stropped off in search of twenty fags and a pub that opened early. Just then, I never wanted to see him again.
Now, I am not by nature superstitious, but the apparition of the night before and my father’s story had put the fear of god into me. I had also seen a lot of horror movies. It was obvious that Gary’s spirit wouldn’t rest until his body was found and properly laid to rest. That might be enough to get rid of the bastard. The last thing I needed was him stalking me again, this time from beyond the grave. It’s hard to describe quite how terrified I felt just then. It was like the time I dropped acid in a country churchyard on my own in the dark. To be honest, it was like being a schoolkid again. It was that bad. I doubted I’d ever be able to sleep again, and the only reason I didn’t leave town there and then was the conviction that it wouldn’t make any difference. I was cursed. I didn’t want to implicate my dad, pissed at him though I was, but I knew there was only one way to end this. I had to find out where Gary was hidden.
It was getting dark by the time I’d drank enough to face going back to the shop, and to make matters worse all the lights were off. Dad must have finally left the building, I thought, not really registering what a big deal that was for an agoraphobic. I ran across the muddy lot, glancing nervously into the shadows. The fact that I didn’t see Gary was nearly as bad as if he was there, like being lost at sea and knowing there’s a shark nearby.
My hands were shaking when I unlocked the door. I closed it hurriedly and methodically turned on every light in the building. It was unnaturally quiet without Dad and his music. He’d probably gone to find Rick and confer about me and Gary. I figured he wouldn’t let Rick do anything to me, but right then he wasn’t my biggest problem. Compared to vengeful revenants, murderous bikers were a doddle.
Now was my chance to check out his room. It was a long shot, but I was still drunk and therefore figured there was probably a clue up there, like in stories. I knew, for example, that Dad was an avid diarist, and given that he never got rid of anything the handwritten volumes I remember him scribbling away at in my youth were almost certainly still up there. He wouldn’t have written anything incriminating, he was too smart for that, but there might still be a subconscious hint or two that someone close to him might spot. I had no idea how much time I had. I got to work on the lock.
It wasn’t difficult to break in, and if I was quick, he’d never know I’d been there.
The door opened with a creak and the musty air hit me like a hammer. I reached for the light switch, but the bulb had blown. This saved me, because as my eyes adjusted to the shadows, I realised he was in the bed, spark out, surrounded by huge piles of clutter. I considered searching the room anyway, but I was no burglar and would almost certainly knock over one of the towering stacks of what I assumed to be old newspapers in the oddly lunar landscape and wake him. A row would no doubt ensue. I decided to go to my room and have it out with him in the morning. Maybe I could convince him to make an anonymous call to the cops about the body. Presumably it’s be bloody hard to link it back to him after all these years and bikers are fiercely loyal and good at keeping secrets. No one had talked so far. That meant they never would. Gary wasn’t the only body the Last Heroes had buried.
I woke up late. Dad had yet to stir either, and when I got up, I realised that the night before I had failed to relock his door, which was hanging slightly ajar. When I went to shut it, I saw why the house was so quiet.
He wasn’t in the bed at all. In the curtain filtered daylight, the shape I’d seen the night before on the bed resolved itself into a guitar case. Dad, or what was left of Dad, was on the floor, under a mountain of books, papers, and records. All I could see of him was his head and a bony arm, frozen in the act of clawing at the floor. His other arm was trapped and probably broken, maybe his back too. What I could see was almost completely mummified, the skin a dry parchment, cobwebs thick across the holes that used to be his face, teeth bared like an animal. He must have taken a long time to die. As I looked at him, a huge spider emerged from his mouth and disappeared under the bed.
I wondered then who I’d been living with all these months. He’d clearly died when I was still in the States. My hair stood on end and I no longer gave a shit about Gary bloody Beckett. I slowly backed out of the room and closed the door, locking it with a penknife, the same way I’d opened it the night before.
I had a sense then that someone was standing on the landing behind me. ‘Dad?’ I whispered, turning around nervously. There was nobody there. Had he ever been there? I wondered. I wasn’t sure. That was worse.
I suddenly needed to get out of there as fast as possible. I went back to my room and took the Sailor Jerry sketch off the wall, stuffing it into an army surplus rucksack with a few clothes. Then I went downstairs, emptied the cashbox and policed up the tools of my trade, the machines, spare needles and all the ink I could jam into the bag.
The Ariel was still in the shed, mercifully without its D-lock. I don’t think I could have gone back upstairs to look for the key. The bike was so old it had direct ignition, so starting her shouldn’t be a problem, as long as she still ran. I pulled off the cover. As ever, the tyres were up, there was clean oil in it and petrol in the tank. When I walked back into the yard I saw the hooded ghost.
In the winter sun he was not so scary, leaning over the fence with a stained rollie glued to his bottom lip. It wasn’t Gary Beckett either. I didn’t know him.
‘I’ve been watching you,’ he said, in a strong Norfolk accent.
‘Oh aye?’ I said, faking nonchalance. Could it be he knew about Dad? I began to wonder if I’d get the blame for his death. I mean, living with a corpse for months was pretty fucking creepy.
‘Do you want any drugs?’ he said.
‘Nah mate,’ I managed, almost laughing with relief. ‘I’m good.’
‘Well, if you change your mind,’ he said, ‘I’m usually about.’
I nodded, and he took his leave. It occurred to me that if I split, him or someone like him would probably break into the shop once it became obvious it was empty.
I steeled myself and went back inside the house one last time. I found Dad’s leather and crash helmet in the kitchen cupboard. There were shades in the pocket of his jacket and his old Zippo. I turned on all the rings on the gas cooker then set fire to the curtains with it, put on the sunglasses, and left.
I had just enough time to open the large gates out the back and kick the Ariel over. She started first time, itching for a run. I didn’t dare warm her up, so I kept the revs high and eased her out onto the empty road, pulling away sharpish. Behind me, the house went up like a bomb. Even at the end of the street, I felt the blast at my back, trying but failing to take the bike out from under me. I pulled over and looked back, watching my father’s hoard burn. He would have liked that, I think, a Viking funeral. When I heard the first sirens, I got the big bike into gear with a reassuring clunk and let the clutch out slowly. As I headed out of town for Rick’s farm, having nowhere else to go, I understood what every child must finally learn – how it feels to be loved by the dead.