You’d have thought I’d recognise murder when I saw it; after all, it’s the stuff of films, TV plays, novels—it’s everywhere, a national obsession, even then. But I didn’t. There it was, happening on the cruddy old sofa as I half-rose from the armchair, still laughing, my voice a weak little thing saying stop it, stop it, guys, and not realising what I was witnessing.
So long ago, now. Looking back it’s easier to remember other things than that moment; things like the hot rush of youth, and the way none of us cared about being cold, or poor, or even hungry sometimes. I remember us making stuff and rushing to wake up sleepy friends at four in the morning so they could mumble yeah, yeah, t’riffic when you read them your new poem, or they listened to your new song, or stared blurrily at your new painting. Our favourite guessing game was: Who’d play us in the Hollywood film of our brilliant lives? And passing round the bottle of cheap, filthy British wine, so pink and false it coated your teeth with an acidic fur, we’d laugh ourselves into stomach-ache and hiccups - and still secretly believe it was only a matter of time.
Man, so many people living in that house, and no-one paying the rent. Musicians, poets, artists, piss-artists and fashion freaks. All the raggle-taggle, backcombed, dancers and thieves, the bright-eyed and the chancers, the lost and the ruined. A river of voices flowed in through the blistered front door and out into the back yard, pooling in the sitting room to eat scavenged leftovers and talk until sleep knocked you sideways on the heaps of Oxfam overcoats and fag-burned doss-bags. Even now, there are some faces I can’t put a name to and some names that bring back faces from the depths of memory like pale fish swimming up through the black peat-water of a deep tarn.
But Roy I’d known for years; poor, ugly Roy. He was the brother of a friend —aren’t boys like that always someone’s brother, never someone’s lover? Anyway, my friend had all the looks in that family; her thick chestnut waves were his brown, thinning rat’s tails, her lively blue eyes his protruding, mismatched slatey goggles, scanty of lashes and always red-rimmed behind thick dirty lenses. Sure, he never had spots, which was something, but his skin was a faintly phosphorescent fish-belly white; OK, he was muscular through his arms and shoulders, but that just gave him a slightly hunched look. Girls never make passes at boys who wear glasses, and they definitely don’t when the boy also has a pigeon chest, spindle-shanks and a razor sharp, unkind wit.
Because Roy was as smart and as quick to see a weakness in you as the rodent he so resembled. Oh, you’d imagine you’d thought of something clever and original, but no sooner were the words out of your foolish mouth than Roy, from the snuffling fog of whatever virus he currently harboured, would mercilessly nip, nip, nip your brilliant theory to shreds and leave you standing naked in your stupidity. The only reason he was tolerable was the undeniable fact that he was very funny. The way he had of putting things —the reams of books he’d read, the pastiches, satires and scarcasms, the camp routines, the arch remarks. So funny, Roy, quite the Oscar Wilde of the Bradford slum set.
I used to watch him being funny; I knew the signs. First there’d be the twist of his scrawny neck as he sighted his prey, then the mottled flush of pleasure that crept over his pale cheeks, finally the way he’d lean forward to deliver his acid fusillade at an unsuspecting young punk rocker. Adder-quick, darting, he’d deflate an ego, eviscerate a pretension. And the laughter and the cries of ‘ouch! Got yer there, mate’ and ‘God, Roy, you’re awful, honestly’ were Balm Of Gilead to him. They soothed the hurting places in his heart, they drugged away the virgin loneliness and let him be, in his mind, the dandy highwayman he so wished he was.
His pride was terrible. It was all he had. He’d sacrifice anyone, anything for a good line and everyone knew it. There was no-one to challenge him, no-one funnier, no-one quicker—and that was fine with us because you didn’t need two like Roy. One was quite enough; you’d like a taste, but you wouldn’t want a lot of what he was.
So he reigned supreme—until one bright autumn day, Beaney slid in through the front door from God knows where, and settled his apple-cheeks and black exploding curls on the sofa, like a cheeky young rag-doll dressed up as a punk.
Beaney—where is he now? In the gutter or some glittering palace, I imagine; nothing in between. That wild, elastic monkey-boy, his round, yokel face hiding a wicked, cunning mind taught by poverty and free of books; as generous with his love as he was with your possessions. He rose to mascot status in a flash, then to a kind of firecracker hero; cowardly, daring, rude and completely without fear or respect for authority. Not only we gasped laughing at his semi-idiot atrocities, but policemen, nurses, social-workers and magistrates tried and failed to catch hold of Beaney, the flailing dervish, as he ran rampant through town, his pirate’s pockets stuffed with contraband.
For Roy, it was hate at first sight. Just as possible as love at first sight and twice as lasting. His rapier wit sang over Beaney’s head and dissipated in the beam of Beaney’s watermelon grin. His book learning and clever allusions meant nothing to a boy who couldn’t write his own name and didn’t care; his elegant bon-mots were a gift to Beaney’s mockery. Slowly, slowly, the bright sun of Beaney eclipsed Roy’s cold silver moon and he slid to the outer edges of the room, beyond the gasfire’s flickering orange glow, into the dark by the old dinner table.
I felt so sorry for him. I tried to make it up to him, but the books I scrounged for him, the obscure articles I tore out of magazines in the library, none of it did any good. To make it worse, Beaney loved me. For some reason, in that chaotic head, I became another mother to him and he threw himself into my lap like a child, showering me with stolen goods and boasting of me to his probation officer. He brought me Mother’s Day cards and secondhand graveyard posies. He never saw Roy, hunched over his grimoire muttering curses, because Beaney never, ever looked into the dark.
Then, one winter’s night as the snow fell outside in fat white flakes like goose-feathers, and the house was as cold and damp as witch-breath it chanced that only Roy and I were up at three in the morning. The usual all-night crew had crawled into the felted layers of their appalling bedding in the myriad rooms above, the sound of their chattering teeth quite audible in the hallways.
Too poor to go out, Roy and I had stumped up enough coppers for a big bottle of boot-brown sherry that we got from the corner shop, where it was dispensed into empty milk-bottles and old jugs from a grey plastic cask. ‘Armadillo’, it was called, and it had never seen Spain. But neither had we so it didn’t matter. Roy was on good form after half a pint, and we were happily doing sketches from Round The Horne, an old radio comedy we’d both listened to as kids, when Beaney slewed in from a club in a flurry of snow and a cocoon of other people’s coats.
Without noticing the freeze, he sat on the other end of the sofa from Roy and launched into a crazy recitation of his night’s adventures.
I told him to shut up. Shut up, Beaney, me an’ Roy’s talkin’. Go up to bed, you nutter’. I said it a couple of times but he just laughed and piled more and more nonsense on the tottering castle of his evening.
I didn’t look at Roy. I should have—but I was so young, what would I have seen if I had? What? An expression? A tightening of his body—so strong in the arms, you never thought it, but he was—a smell of hate like a whiff of burning meat? I didn’t look and so when he took off his belt, pulling it through the loops of his jeans without a sound, I didn’t notice. I saw Beaney’s head thrown back as he laughed, the fire lighting the smooth, rounded column of his young throat, his curls flying, I saw, from the corner of my eye, Roy lean forward, intent but I didn’t . . .
Then the belt was round Beaney’s neck and Roy had a knee in the boy’s chest and with the leather twisted round each hand he pulled hard, and I was half out of my chair, the laughter dying in my mouth as I heard the hideous choking gurgle of Beaney, strangling, fighting against the man who was killing him, the blood vessels popping in his eyes, the dull purplish flush of death on his smooth cheeks as Roy grunted like an animal and pulled until his shoulder joints cracked and only then, only then—it was all so quick, you know? Only then I hit Roy, and hit him and hit him until he dropped Beaney, who flopped and coughed like a beached fish, whooping harshly as he got his breath. Roy, his glasses knocked off, put his head in his hands, which were still marked with the white striations of the belt, and sobbed like a man with a broken heart.
And the gas fire hissed, and the snow fell outside; muffling the night while we sat there, dumb. It all looked so normal, if you didn’t know better. We never spoke of it to anyone, Roy, Beaney and I. We made like it never happened; so I put it away in my memories and left it there, that moment of murder, because I couldn’t understand it then. Now I wonder how many murders happen because people don’t believe in them, don’t understand what’s happening, are still laughing as the knife goes in, the gun goes off or the head is kicked.
It only makes sense later, stuff like that, and then of course, it’s too late.
© Joolz Denby
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does lots of things including:
writing novels, poetry & short stories:
is a spoken-word artist
and spoken-word recording artist
manages New York Alcoholic Anxiety Attack (NYAAA)
is an illustrative artist working within the
music industry in particular for New Model Army
is a working tattooist;
is an Arts curator;
is a photographer;
and doesn't get enough sleep.
Contact the author: Joolzdenby00@googlemail.com
See also: Facebook: Joolz Denb