I left a few months after Simon died. I hadn’t planned to stay any longer, anyway, but I’d begun to count the days. Some kind of new routine developed after a fortnight. We’d all gone to his funeral, and stood the three of us away from his family and his other friends. It had been a hot day of bright sunshine and we’d made it through the service and to the graveside before Frank had sworn violently underneath his breath and walked away.
We’d been stood at the back of the crowd and no-one but Jane and I had seen him leave. I looked to her and saw my face mutated in her sunglasses. There had been no expression on her face and her makeup was immaculate. I could feel the shaving cut from that morning sting under my chin. I watched as his parents threw dirt onto the coffin lid, as the crowd shuffled forward to take their turn. Jane and I had stood and not moved, and his father had looked up at us. He seemed not recognise us through his grief. I saw fresh tears form in his eyes and I saw him walk away amongst the headstones, and I saw Simon’s older brother take his mother by the arm and lead her away.
Jane and I had stood for a long time, until the other mourners had left, until the workmen came along to fill up the hole with dirt. There were two of them and two of us and we looked at each. There was uncertainty on their faces. Finally I nodded and they hefted their shovels and set to work.
I turned to Jane and motioned away with my head and she turned also. I put my hand on her elbow but she quickened her pace and was away in front of me. I closed my eyes, opened them, turned, and walking backwards I watched the workmen pour dirt over Simon’s coffin. I wondered, briefly, what his headstone would say. If it would say anything.
Frank had waited for us at the car. He was sat on the kerb, his hands between his knees, smoking a cigarette. From twenty yards back I saw Jane walk to him and crouch down, take his cigarette, take a drag, pass it back, stand. Neither of them turned. I pulled the keys from my pocket and pressed a button on the fob and the lights on the car flashed and there was a clicking sound.
I finally came to them. I sat down next to Frank and lit my own cigarette. We both exhaled smoke towards the sky for a minute before anyone spoke.
I looked up at Jane. She’d taken her sunglasses off as the only cloud in the sky passed over the face of the sun. Frank spoke before I could.
He pulled a small silver hip flask from the pocket of his jacket and shook it. The liquid within sloshed.
“I’ll drive. I don’t mind.”
We sat and smoked. Frank took a drink. Jane walked once around the car and stood in front of us. I looked up at her. She was staring over our heads, back toward the white stone church. Frank took another drink and Jane looked down.
“What is it?”
Frank said nothing, but he held the flask out towards her. She took it, sniffed, shrugged, and drank.
“I hate brandy.”
Frank shrugged and held out his vast hand. She gave him the flask. The sun emerged again from behind the cloud and our shadows were made sharper and more defined. I threw the last half of my cigarette out into the driveway of the cemetery and stood up. Jane looked at me. Her eyes narrowed a tiny amount.
“You look terrible.”
“What do you expect?”
She shook her head and did another circuit of the car. Finally Frank dropped his cigarette and stood up. He tapped the flask with his index finger.
I nodded. Jane opened the rear door and slid in. Frank took the passenger seat, and sat there, he took another drink. I could smell the brandy when he opened the flask.
I turned the key and turned the car in the road, and we were off. None of us ever came back. We sat in the hotel bar that evening until they threw us out, and early the next morning we were sleeping off our hangovers on a small aeroplane.
He was the second person to die. The first was the pale girl with the black hair and the blue eyes. I remember the first time I saw her, waiting with Si in the elevator as I ran towards it from the street, dripping with rain, soaked through to the skin. Si had held the door open for me and smiled as I slumped against the wall. I could see the steam rising from my chest already.
I remember it well.
Closing my eyes, dragging oxygen into my lungs, and opening my eyes again to see the two of them with their arms around each other, facing the doors, their heads turned to me. One of them smiling and the other not. He wore a grey suit, an open-necked purple shirt. She wore a short one-piece dress made of some shiny dark green fabric. A deep blue wrap around her shoulders and a tiny black handbag twirling from one delicate long-nailed finger. Thick black eyeliner. I smiled and nodded at her. Si grinned on, for a few seconds longer, until discomfort had just begun to grow, like he always used to do, and then he spoke.
“John, this is my friend Ella. Ella, this is my friend John. We live together.”
I straightened, wiped my wet hand on the front of my wet jacket, and offered it to her. She looked down for a second and took it, not smiling, not frowning. No change in the expression on her face at all. The second our hands touched she pulled hers back like I was electric and live.
I looked at my hand, as if I expected to find something there.
“I’m sorry. You’re cold. That’s all. You’re cold.”
She held her hand out again and this time she smiled.
We shook hands.
“Yeah, I’ve been out. Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault.”
Her eyes flicked down to my shoes and then up, all in the space of a breath, and I only just noticed it. I moved my eyes away from hers before her gaze reached mine, and I stared at the looped graffiti on the walls of the elevator. Just the usual type of thing. Just the usual proclamations of love and screeches of toilet humour.
The lift rattled upwards, and we talked for a while before I went into my bedroom and they went into his. I could hear them through the wall. I turned the radio on, up, and sat reading a book I’d been given for my birthday last year. I didn’t get very far. I laid on my bed for an hour, listening to the radio, pretending not to hear the bangs and moans, and when I couldn’t pretend any longer I went out and spent another hour alone in the Chinese buffet down the street. By the time I came back Si was stepping out of the shower. He grinned at me, pushed his hair away from his face, and slipped back into his bedroom.
Five minutes after that, Frank came back from wherever he’d been, and we sat and watched sports on the television, and drank. We were making good progress through our second bottle of red wine when they came out, Si in a different suit and a different shirt, Ella in what she’d been wearing before. The three of us grinned at each other. Ella looked at the floor, the walls, pretending not to notice. Si spoke.
“Right, we’re going out.”
The last I saw of her was her hand as it pulled the front door closed. She died a week later. She choked to death on her own vomit at a party somewhere else. Si locked himself in his room for a day, and soon enough we forgot about her.
When things stopped feeling alright. Down a dark street that I didn’t remember well enough to avoid. From the shadows a shadow stepped with something shining in its hand. I tried to walk past, tried to ignore what was about to happen. The shadows spoke, the anger not hiding the worry.
I stopped. I was too far gone to at first realise what he meant.
“Money. Don’t fuck around.”
I blinked and looked behind to the mouth of the alley. In a few seconds, I knew, there will be another shadow there. Another shadow, this one huge and dangerous and barrelling towards me.
“What? Come on, man.”
“Fuck you. Money. Now. Hurry up. Motherfucker.”
An anger rose and I was about to shout before I remembered the shadow behind that was to come.
“Okay, okay. Jesus.”
“Don’t say that.”
The words were hissed and worried enough to carry some warning of danger.
“Alright. Sorry, sorry.”
I fumbled a little in a pocket that I knew didn’t hold my wallet. The shadow in front of me twitched.
“Hurry the fuck up, you dumb fuck.”
“Alright, alright. It’s alright.”
Footsteps at the far end of the alley, behind me. I moved my hand to another pocket. I’d thought there would be a voice. But there was just the sound of feet on wet stone. I moved a little and the knife flashed once in the dark.
“Don’t fuck around. Don’t fuck me around.”
I didn’t say anything. I counted the steps of the shadow behind. Heavy and insistent.
My hand closed on my wallet. It caught on a loose thread in my pocket and I couldn’t get it out from that pocket. I jerked at it, my actions exaggerated. I could hear the heavy breathing of the shadow in front of me. And then those footsteps there picked up and they were a little away from running.
A shock of movement past me and a heavy fist swung through the air and the crack of a jawbone splitting. The sound of falling to stone. Something else cracking and something spinning out over the stones. And a kick to a prone body. And a huge figure next to me, towering, eyes blazing, and my arms wrapped around his fridge-wide chest, and the sound of my own voice a little too loud and a little too high.
Another kick and another sick sound of something breaking. Far away the blade of the knife caught some light.
A kick this time that missed. The briefest prayer of thanks that it had. The entire weight of the man pressing against me like floodwaters upon thin wood.
“FRANK! Come on!”
He looked down at me and in that second before the anger was pulled back from his eyes I was very scared. But then that anger did fade and he was looking at me with something I didn’t like but something I at least recognised.
“Come on. Come on. Let’s go.”
He nodded. And before he le me lead him away he bent to the bleeding figure.
“Don’t fuck around with my friends. Don’t you ever fuck around with my friends.”