At the centre of the Stonebridge housing estate in North London, no light could penetrate the shaded stairwells and the dirty net curtains. There were no views and inside the dingy flats cockroaches darted through bedrooms and the rank smell of blocked toilets wafted down halls. Those who knew the place said it was the darkest area in the city. And had the darkest heart. That's where the undercover Officer Hislop patrolled daily, keeping his eyes on the neighbourhood hoodlums and arresting youths for drugs, knives and firearms offenses. He kept his distance, fighting any urge to sympathise with any of the kids he came up against. There was no point, they were on the road to self-destruction - empathy was a waste of his time. Except for one teenager, Gerald, part of the Skelter crew, who Hislop couldn’t help taking pity on.
One afternoon when some of the Skelter crew were rounded up and cuffed after a raid in the south side of the estate, rain lashing down on the concrete outside sounding like cracking knuckles, a small group of officers circled the gang who they'd forced to their knees by a wall. Officer Gauche frisked the crew. When he came to Gerald, he yanked his head to one side.
‘Hislop,’ ordered Gauche, ‘come over here. This kid's cuffs are loose, I hope you're not going easy on him.’
‘I didn't cuff him, said Hislop, and I don't go easy on anyone.’
‘Yeah, I don't need any help from no cop,’ said Gerald, the crust of dried snot plastered across his upper lip.
‘Shut up punk,’ said Gauche.
‘Yeah, Gerald, shut the fuck up,’ said Hislop.
Gauche forced Gerald's head against the wall. Hislop lit a cigarette and played with it nervously as he stared at Gerald and the stupid look he wore on his face, like he was confused by some complex maths equation. That poor sap couldn't count to five, Hislop thought.
The police found nothing on the gang and eventually set them free. They scuttled off like a mischief of rats into all four corners of the building. Gerald went home to the fifth floor where his grandmother was waiting for him in the kitchen, smoking a joint that alleviated the pain from her cancerous breast.
When he came in the door his phone exploded with text messages. It was Gerald's gang leader, Reece, checking on him to see if the cops had found anything.
Gerald's grandmother beckoned him to join her.
‘Put the phone away, I have to talk to you,’ she said.
Gerald slipped the phone inside his jacket pocket and took a seat opposite his grandmother. His stomach growled with hunger as he wiped his nose and reached out for the joint.
‘No,’ she said, ‘I need your head clear for what I'm about to tell you.’
She laid the joint in an ashtray, letting it burn out by itself as it nestled amongst a cluster of other roaches.
‘I'm dying Gerald,’ she said, ‘you know that don't you?’
‘Yeah, I know,’ he said, watching a fly try to wrestle itself free from a spider's web.
‘But I don't think you understand. It means you'll be all on your own with no one to look after you.’
‘But you can come visit though, right?’
‘No - what? Gerald when someone dies, that's it, they are gone, never to come back. Like your parents.’
‘Oh, they just went away, they'll be back one day. I get it.’
‘No, you don't.’
‘I do, gran, and I'll save you, I promise.’
‘Listen to me Gerald, I have nothing to leave you when I die except this flat. I need you to promise me that you will sell it and leave this God forsaken place when I'm gone.’
‘Leave? But what about my job?’
‘Gerald, you're selling drugs for a gang. It's not a job. I know you don't understand but I want you to find a way out of here.’
Gerald smiled and said, ‘It's going to be alright gran, you'll see.’
Gerald's grandmother sighed, sparked up her joint and said, ‘You can go back to your phone now. Please try to think about what I've said.’
That night Hislop returned home to his wife and child late. As he searched his pockets for his keys he almost tripped on the front step. His wife, Marie, opened the door and said, ‘Jesus Patrick, this is the third time this week you've come back wasted.’
Hislop aimed a kiss at Marie's cheek and brushed past her into the living room.
‘I've put Stanley to bed. Would you at least like to say goodnight to him?’
‘Can't it wait?’ he said. ‘I need a cup of coffee.’
Marie placed her hand on her hip and gave him the look.
‘OK, OK, I'll be up in a minute.’
Stanley's room was illuminated by a night light that spread a gloomy fog. As Hislop entered, closely followed by his wife, he saw the boy, three years old, in Spiderman pyjamas, standing in his cot gently crying. Hislop scooped him up into his arms and whispered into his ear, rocking him back and forth. Hislop looked into Stanley's eyes. The boy held a glazed expression.
‘He still doesn't recognise me,’ Hislop said, as Stanley began to wail.
‘Give it time,’ Marie said.
A few days later Hislop was patrolling one of the blocks when he caught sight of Gerald dealing by the motorway that separated the estate from the rest of the city. The crackhead jetted off before Hislop could catch him but he managed to corner Gerald.
Hislop cuffed him and said, ‘Come with me,’ and he led the boy across the motorway where they found some semblance of civilisation. They stepped into a burger and beer joint. Clean lines, white decor with splashes of red.
‘I didn't do it, OK?’
‘Take a seat Gerald, I just want to talk.’
Hislop released Gerald from his cuffs and the boy rubbed his chafed wrists.
‘What would you like?’ Hislop said. ‘Pick anything, it's on me.’
‘Is this a joke?’
‘No one needs to know Gerald; this is between us. I want to help you. You are hungry, right?’
A waitress wearing her hair in a bun and an apron with a picture of a bull etched on the front came to serve them.
‘Give us a double patty diablo with the works. Fries and a chocolate milkshake too. I'll just have a light beer, thanks,’ said Hislop.
The waitress jotted down the order but before she could leave Gerald said, ‘What are you looking at?’
‘Excuse me, sir?’
‘You know what I'm talking about. What the fuck are you looking at?’
‘Go easy Gerald,’ said Hislop. ‘Nobody's judging you, right miss?’
‘Look,’ she said, ‘If it’s all the same, I think I'm going to let someone else wait on you.’
‘Fine,’ said Hislop, ‘but I'm sorry.’
Another waitress soon joined them and Hislop repeated the order. He flicked through the mini jukebox that was positioned on the side of their table.
‘I've been watching you Gerald. You may not know it but I've been looking out for your wellbeing.’
‘Looking out how?’
‘Just... Looking out. I know your grandmother.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Gerald said, all cagey.
‘We speak sometimes. She's a good woman who cares deeply for you.’
‘I don't want to talk about my gran.’
‘OK, we won't. But listen, I don't care that you deal drugs. I know you are a good person too.’
‘How do you know I'm a good person?’
‘No idea, Gerald. Call it instinct.’
‘You don't know the things I've done.’
‘Maybe so but I want to help you.’
The food came and Gerald tucked in ferociously.
‘I want to get you out of the hood,’ said Hislop.
‘I don't need any help, I've got plans,’ Gerald said, manoeuvring his mouth around his burger then biting down hard.
‘Oh yeah? What plans are these?’
‘None of your business, and don't worry about me. I'm going to be just fine.’
‘Right, of course.’
What, you don't believe me?’
‘Honestly, no I don't see it.’
‘Well, you're wrong.’
‘Fuck you, how about that?’
‘Now play nice, Gerald.’
Gerald wiped his mouth and sighed.
‘I'm going to save up for university, get a degree and become a doctor or something.’
‘There's so much wrong with that sentence I don't even know where to begin.’
‘I don't have to listen to this bullshit. If you want to arrest me, arrest me. Otherwise, thanks for the food, but I've got to go.’
‘No wait, I'm sorry, please just hear me out.’
‘Why do you give a shit about me?’
‘Don't ask me that question Gerald because I really don't know.’’
Gerald stood and said, ‘People think I'm thick, well they're wrong. I can achieve whatever I put my mind to.’
‘That's all very well but if you stay here, in the hood, dealing for Reece you're going to end up dead or in prison. You have to get out of this city where the Skelter crew can't track you down. Please take a seat and let's talk about it.’
Gerald stared out of the diner window, across the motorway and over to the looming presence of the estate. It seemed to look back at him, saturated in all its grey haunted glory. He sat back down.
An hour later, after an in-depth discussion, Hislop and Gerald went their separate ways. As Gerald crossed the motorway and approached the estate, he felt eyes on him, peering like black opals embedded in the concrete. As he jiggled his keys in his front door a text pinged from his phone. It was Reece. Gerald's muscles contracted sending a bolt of energy through his body. The message simply read, ‘My flat, now.’
So, Gerald climbed the four floors to reach Reece's apartment. He texted Reece to say he was outside his door. He was shown inside by one of the crew and the smell of high-grade skunk stung his nostrils. The living room had a couch and a coffee table next to it. A selection of guns was laid out on the surface and beside them was a mound of cocaine with tubs of detergent and baby powder to cut the drug. A one-year old baby with a soiled nappy roamed around the constricted space, dried tears on her face. The flat was hot and Reece wore a shirt cut off at the sleeves. But he was lean and had no muscles to expose. He indicated to Gerald that he should take a seat. ‘Why did you text me, you idiot, if you're just outside the fucking door?’’
‘Um,’ stuttered Gerald.
‘I'm not going waste time Gerald,’ Reece said, as the baby tugged at Gerald's trouser leg.
‘You've been seen with... Wait, pass the little tyke over.’
Gerald picked up the baby and caught a glimpse straight into her eyes. He saw purity.
‘OK,’ said Reece laying the baby on one side of the couch, beginning to change her. He stroked the side of her face and made some goofy noises.
‘Gerald, you've been seen with Hislop. We know he's been helping you. Let's face it, any fool can tell you would have been locked up a long time ago if it wasn't for him. Honestly Gerald, do you actually like that shitbag?’
‘No, uh, he just wanted to talk and I listened.’
‘Talk about what?’
‘Well, you know, I guess, my plans to go to university and that. He said he could help me.’
‘University?’ Reece cracked a smile, chortled, then fell about laughing. After he'd settled down and picked up the baby, resting her on his chest, he said, ‘And what about your commitments to me and the gang? You have a lot of important work to do. And I'm sure you know what it means if you talk to the police, right? Listen to me now and listen well. I'm going to give you one of these guns and you're going to take Hislop out. Pop pop, OK? It's the only way I can be sure you're on our side. I have to be able to trust you one hundred percent from now on. Otherwise you're no good to me. Now I know this is a big thing I'm asking you to do, fuck me everyone knows you're thick as two short planks. But I believe in you. I want to believe in you anyway. Prove to me that my faith is well placed. This is your last chance. Am I understood?’
Gerald gave a sullen nod and took the gun.
‘I'll text you with instructions when the time is right.’
Gerald went home, his mind swimming with visions of death. That night he dreamt of his grandmother being strangled with a rope. He saw her blood vessels bursting out of her eyes, her bulbous tongue sticking out of her mouth. He couldn't see who was murdering her but he felt it could be him. He woke in a cold sweat and checked his phone. Still no orders from Reece. He would have to wait.
After saying goodbye to Gerald outside the diner, Hislop went to the pub, but he didn't stay long. Instead he journeyed home to spend some time with his family.
‘This is a pleasant surprise, to what do we owe this honour?’ said Marie as Hislop took a seat at the dinner table. She doled out some casserole for him. The baby sat in his chair and squinted. His lazy eye shifted about in its socket.
‘Just, you know, want to make some changes,’ he said.
‘Well great, about time,’ Marie smiled. ‘Wine?’
They finished the meal, put Stanley to sleep and climbed into bed. As they switched off their bedside lamps both of them remained wide-eyed and deep in thought. The night outside seemed to hiss with venomous intent.
‘You never bring your work home with you,’ Marie said, ‘but for once I want you to talk about it with me. Let me in. I know something is going on.’
‘I thought I could keep it from you. That was the plan. But you're right, there is something. There's some boy at work. He needs help Marie.’
‘And you think you're the one to give it to him?’
‘Maybe, yes, I mean, I don't know.’
‘Let me tell you what you do. You steer clear of this kid as much as is humanly possible. You don't talk to him; you don't think about him.’
‘But you don't even know who he is and what his situation is like.’
‘I don't care. I know your job and the scum you work with. They are animals, degenerates. Keep away, do you hear me?’
They were quiet for a while and then Hislop broke the silence, saying, ‘I'm having dreams, nightmares. I'm afraid I've already let him in and I can't push him away. I've opened the door and now I can't shut it.’
‘The only door you need to open is for Stanley, no one else. He's the one who needs your help and attention. Can't you see we're losing you to this job of yours? And God knows what danger you're putting yourself in by associating with some crackhead.’
‘He's not a crackhead. Marie he's actually given me hope. I can do something worthwhile for once in a job that's been meaningless for years. If, that is...’
‘If he doesn't screw it up.’’
‘Please, I'm begging you, stop this madness and focus on what's important - your family.’
That night Hislop couldn't sleep so he took a pillow and a throw and crept into Stanley's room where he laid down on the floor. Hislop finally nodded off an hour or two before dawn. He slept beside Stanley every night that week. He and Marie didn't talk about his new routine and why it was happening because, although Marie wanted to feel happy about it, she wasn't completely sure if she liked the motives behind his new behaviour.
The week after, Gerald was taking a snooze late in the afternoon. His dreams incorporated the sounds of an audience applauding from the television set next door. He was woken by a text from Reece. It spelled out the details of when and where the hit was to take place. Reece signed off by saying, ‘Don't fuck it up.’
Gerald wiped the sleep from his eyes, slipped his feet inside his trainers and picked up the gun from inside the dresser. The weapon glinted in the shaft of light emanating from the half-open door. He swallowed. He reached out to his ashtray, took a couple of puffs from a spliff and then tried to sneak out of the flat before his grandmother could notice. As he opened the front door it creaked and alerted her to his presence. She was sitting in the armchair in the living room watching a game show shrouded by a cloud of weed smoke. Buzzers and ticking clocks frayed Gerald's nerves.
‘What, you don't want to give a kiss goodbye to your gran?’ she said.
Gerald's shoulders slumped and he shuffled back inside.
‘What's wrong Gerald? Don't hide anything from me. Grandmas always know when there's something up with their boy.’
‘It's nothing gran. How are you feeling?’
‘I'm coping darling, I'm coping. I don't know if I should tell you this but that nice police officer paid me a visit the other day. What's his name? Henry? Harold?’
‘Yes, that's it. Well we've been talking about you, and me, but mostly you and I have to say he really does speak sense. He seems like a good man and I truly believe that he has your best interests at heart. One day soon I'd like us all to sit down and have a chat. Now, I don't want to keep you, I just need my kiss and I'll let you be on your way.’
Gerald dutifully bent down and gave her a peck on the cheek. He was close to tears. He walked out of the flat and told himself under his breath, ‘Fix up, look sharp, you can do this.’
Reece's text had directed Gerald to wait in a stairwell on the second floor. The message said Hislop was expected to arrive, one flight of steps lower, in the hall by the elevators around five pm. Gerald leaned up against the cold wall with his gun held aloft, resting it near his cheek. He noticed his shallow breaths. In out, in out. He noticed the sweat dripping from his forehead. Then he heard voices echo below. Calling him from hell. It was a conversation between Officers Gauche and Hislop. He eavesdropped.
‘I gotta say, I'm getting a little tired of this place, said Gauche. Frankly I don't know if I can carry on much longer.’
‘Who do you think you're fooling? You've said the same thing every day for the last ten years,’ said Hislop.
‘Nevertheless. And what about you? You seem to have a new found spring in your step.’
‘Really? No, I don't think anything's different.’
‘I have a feeling I know what's going on.’
‘Oh yeah, what?’
‘Do I have to spell it out?’
‘Yes, I'm afraid you do, because I have no idea what you're talking about.’
‘OK. It's Gerald isn't it. Tell me, what have you got yourself into?’
‘Come on Gauche, I've told you a million times I have no connection to that kid. Now lay off me.’
‘I wish I could but this is too important to be brushed under the carpet.’
‘What do you want me to say?’
‘Say you've been having secret meetings with Gerald and his grandmother. Say you've been looking the other way when he's dealing on the streets or beating up crackheads. For chrissakes, say you're obsessed with him.’
Gerald knew it was time to act. But the words of his grandmother reverberated through his mind, ‘He wants the best for you, he's a good man.’ Gerald remained frozen in the stairwell, caught between two worlds. The darkness and the light. All he could do was continue to listen into the cops' conversation and delay the inevitable.
‘You really want to know what I think of that retard Gerald and his crippled nan?’ Hislop said. ‘I'll tell you. He's degenerate scum just like the rest of the bacteria in this hole of an estate. Yes, I thought I could help him, yes, I thought I could fix him somehow. But I was wrong and he and his gran can rot six feet deep for all I care because they have brought me nothing but misery since I met them.’
‘Jeez,’ Gauche said.
‘OK, OK, I believe you. I never knew you felt that way. I just thought...’
‘You thought what?’
‘Never mind. It's history.’
Gerald leapt out of his hiding place and aimed his gun at Hislop's temple. He fingered the trigger lightly but couldn't bring himself to shoot.
‘I believed in you,’ he howled, the anguish and confusion painted on his face. ‘You said... you said, and my gran she trusted you. I'm going to blow your fucking brains out!’
Just then the sound of trainers squeaked on the concrete from behind Gerald. Hislop yelled, ‘Gerald, watch out!’
A gun fired. The blast pulsated around the hallway. Gerald hit the deck, collapsing like a wave. His blood and brains were splattered against the elevator doors as the lift descended to the basement level. The hitman raced off and disappeared amongst the maze of steps and halls in the building. Gauche scampered after him. Hislop knelt down next to Gerald's body and wiped blood from his cheeks. His eyes were open, grey and gone.
‘Shit Gerald, you idiot, what have you done? I didn't mean it; I didn’t fucking mean it.’
Gauche returned to the scene with the killer in tow and said, ‘You certainly do a good impression of not caring for the retard.’
The prisoner had a blank give-a-shit stare, yet it was clear he was trying his best to avert his gaze from the dead body lying at his feet.
‘Looks like Troy here just saved your life Hislop,’ Gauche said. ‘And now we're going to take him to the station to find out why.’
‘No need to wait, I'll tell you right now,’ said Troy. ‘It's a warning to mind your business and leave the Skelter crew alone. Gerald crossed the line, there was no helping him. So, now you know that if you want to get involved again, you can expect the same thing to happen. Without question.’
Hislop flipped. He grabbed Troy by the back of the neck and forced his face up against Gerald's.
‘Look what you've done!’ he cried. ‘Don't you care what you've done?!’
‘That's enough Hislop,’ said Gauche. ‘Let him go.’
Hislop released Troy who staggered to his feet, shaken.
‘Better him than wiping out some cop. We're not that stupid,’ Troy said.
‘OK that's enough out of you,’ said Gauche. ‘You're gonna be in a world of pain. Do you believe in karma? Hislop go see Reece.’
‘Reece can wait until tomorrow,’ said Hislop, ‘he's not going anywhere. He'll be waiting for us, he'll be clean. But someone's got to tell the grandmother. I don't think I can do it.’
‘I'll get Rawdon to pay her a visit. Go home, have a shower, try and forget about today. Gerald's not your responsibility, never was.’
Instead of going directly home he decided to walk a lap around the estate in an attempt to clear his mind. He saw rival gangs loitering here and there, continuing to go about their business, not even scared of dealing in front of him. A statement had been made. He hated them and yet he realised Gerald was once one of them too. Maybe Gerald was the same as all the rest. But maybe they were all like him - just kids who needed proper help and guidance. Or they were all psychopaths. Hislop took one last glance behind him as he left the estate and caught sight of two rival gangs, ten on each side, formed in a huddle, hurling punches at each other, grunting and groaning. Hislop let it pass. Not today. And what did it matter if he got involved anyhow? They'd only be at each other’s throats again the next day. It was insanity.
He hit the pub - propping up the bar, still, quiet, throwing back pint after pint as punters buzzed around him. Laughter rang out intermittently as strangers bonded over the pool table and old drunks slept in booths.
Then he went home and tried his best to be quiet as he entered the building. Something told him his wife knew he was there but was giving him a wide berth because, as he crashed about the kitchen searching for coffee, she made no appearance. He was relieved. He gave up on the coffee and with a shaky hand drank five glasses of water. He grabbed a bag of tortilla chips from a cupboard and climbed the stairs. He walked into Stanley's room, closed the door, and took a seat on the carpet by the cot.
He prised open the crisps and began stuffing them in his mouth, crumbs falling from his lips, scattering around his feet as he sat cross-legged. He put the bag to one side, still munching away, got to his feet and arched his head over the cot to peer in at his son who was ensconced in a blanket, fast asleep.
Hislop picked up Stanley and carried him around the room on unsteady feet. Stanley opened his eyes and yawned. He pawed at Hislop's chin and looked straight into his father's eyes. The baby seemed to smile.
‘You see me,’ said Hislop in astonishment. ‘I don't believe it, you see me.’
He hugged the baby. He hugged him tight. Too tight. Stanley wriggled around and tried to cry but his breath was trapped in his diaphragm. He began to turn blue as his father continued to squeeze the life out of him. The sun began to rise on another day, a day like all the rest, where the weak were swallowed by the strong and no one dared to think twice.