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November 2008
DO ME A FAVOUR

James Sanderson
The three of us caught the bloke in a back street off Highbury Fields and gave him a good kicking. Left him crying on the ground.

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‘He was a lairy prick, he deserved it.’ Henry punched the air as we strolled back to Highbury Corner to meet the rest of the gang.

‘I think I broke me finger.’ Albert was holding his hand. ‘On the wall when he ducked.’

‘He didn’t duck, he fell.’ Henry slapped Albert on the back.

‘What fucking difference does that make? It hurts!’

‘Show me.’ Henry was smirking.

‘Bollocks. I know what you’ll do.’

Henry just shook his head.

‘See. It’s swelling up. You have a look at it, Georgie.’

Albert: stick-out ears, big nose and acne. His finger was swelling as I looked. Ever since we were kids in the buildings Albert has always listened to me.

‘It’s either broken or dislocated. You gotta go to the hospital.’

‘Shit. What’ll me dad say?’

‘He’ll probably break another to match that one.’ Henry laughed at his own joke.

‘They’ll bandage it up or something.’ I didn’t know.

‘Fuck my old boots,’ Albert said. ‘All this because Henry needed a favour.’

‘Well,’ I laughed, ‘if the geezer had been with his mates, then it would’ve been Henry doing the running.’

‘Bastard, I didn’t need your help.’ Henry stood in front of me and pointed a finger. We were the same height. ‘You’re an arsehole, Georgie. A fuckin’ arsehole.’

I stared at him and finally the penny dropped. ‘You been taking purple hearts, Henry? You have, haven’t you?’

‘No, I bleedin’ haven’t,’ he replied, his face close to mine. ‘And anyway, what’s it got to do with you if I have?’

‘Two shillings and sixpence for five.’ Albert was blowing on his finger.

‘What? What’s two and six for five, Albert?’ I said, distracted.

‘Purple hearts. Half a dollar for five of ’em,’ he replied.

‘How do you know that?’ I asked.

‘Everyone knows,’ he answered.

I looked at Henry. ‘You take any more and you’ll be frothing.’

‘How many more times I gotta tell you? I ain’t taken any, so give it a fuckin’ rest, will you?’

I gave it a rest.

• • •

Lost in thought, I watched the traffic slowly edge its way round Highbury Corner. Around here, rush hour went on forever. Exhaust fumes; brake squeals and revving engines all mingled with the exaggerated voices of Henry and Albert telling the rest of the mob about our little escapade. The street lamps were already on and there was a marked difference between the daytime and nighttime temperatures. I went home. I wasn’t feeling too happy and if there were any comebacks, I didn’t want to be around when they started.

Five minutes away from the corner, my home was The Buildings. A solid Edwardian dwelling, purpose built for the poor people of Islington. My Gran lives in the flat next door to us, and she said that when she moved in all those years ago, she fitted the bill perfectly. I never thought much about it; everyone else was in the same boat. Coal fires, bare lino and freezing bedrooms throughout the winter.

• • •

The following day Albert met me at the gate as I came home from work. He was holding his bandaged hand.

‘They got Henry. Done him over real bad. He’s in hospital.’

‘Slow down, Albert. When did this happen?’

‘Late last night. I went home early like you did cos my hand was hurtin’. I was told about it down the market this afternoon. You know, where I work.’

‘And?’ He did go round the houses.

‘Yeah, well, apparently the old bill came knocking at his house late last night. Told his mum that he was in hospital, like. All beat up.’

I nodded, falling silent, thinking.

‘You been round his house?’ I asked.

‘Fuck off. She’d start asking questions, wouldn’t she? And you know what she’s like when she gets going.’

Henry’s dad had pissed off years ago. That probably had something to do with her attitude.

‘Well, we gotta see Henry. Shit, if it’s something to do with that geezer, we could get it next.’ Albert couldn’t keep still.

I nodded, not knowing what to say.

‘Oh, gawd, Georgie. Why did we get involved?’

‘Cos he asked us to. Cos we’re mates.’

We’d walked down the block to the big shed. Kids were running around the grounds, shouting and hollering. We were like that a few years ago. Nothing changed.

‘I suppose I’d better go and see his mum. You coming?’

He didn’t want to, I could see it in his face.

‘Better you know what’s going on now, Albert.’

‘Yeah. Okay.’

He was worried, and he wasn’t the only one.

• • •

Henry lived in a small terraced house round the corner from us. His mum answered the door.

‘Hello, boys. Come in.’

She looked awful. Hadn’t even taken her curlers out.

The three of us sat in the kitchen and the room was chocka. You couldn’t swing a budgie in it, never mind a cat.

‘Albert’s just told me the news, Mrs Hampton. How is he?’

‘Bad, George. He’s barely conscious. Mumbles and cries out in pain.’

‘Oh, blimey.’

‘He’s got a fractured skull, broken arm, two broken ribs and his face is all swollen and bruised. I hardly recognised him.’

She wiped the falling tears away with a sodden hankie. I wanted to put my hand on her arm, but didn’t.

‘Sorry, Mrs Hampton, sorry.’

‘S’okay. I’m all right now.’ She sniffed. ‘We don’t know how it happened. Or why. The police said they had a witness. A woman was putting her cat out as Henry passed her house in Park Street. Then four blokes come running up and jumped him. He didn’t stand a chance.’

‘Fucking hell.’ Albert had gone white.

‘The woman screamed that she was gonna call the police and slammed the door on them. They reckon she might have saved his life.’

I was having waking nightmares.

‘Funny, really,’ she continued. ‘The police said she hasn’t got a phone.’

I nearly laughed. ‘Was she able to give any kind of description?’

‘I dunno. They didn’t say last night and if they’ve been round to see me again since, I wasn’t here.’

I let that one go; I knew what she meant. ‘Well, if there’s any news, will you let us know?’

‘Of course, George.’

We scraped our chairs on the lino as we got up and walked single-file down the dark passage to the front door.

‘Thanks for coming, boys.’

• • •

The owner of our local sweetshop was only a few years older than we were. A big fellow with the beginnings of a pot belly; I worked for him as a paperboy until I left school the previous year. One Sunday morning I was early and while I was waiting for him to mark the papers he gave me a huge handful of pornographic photos to look at. Some of them seemed to be really old, but that didn’t stop me looking through the lot though. Later, some customers complained that they got the wrong papers. I told Bill that they were lucky they got ’em at all.

Albert was jumped by four blokes as he left Bill’s shop. When they started kicking the shit out of him, Bill grabbed the baseball bat that he keeps behind the counter and stormed straight into the fight. They weren’t expecting him and he put two of them on the ground before they realised he was even there. The other two backed off, pulling their injured mates with them. Bill says they had it away in a dark blue Consul. Albert was carted off to hospital with a broken leg and some cuts and bruises. I stayed in for three nights, then well tooled up, I caught the bus that went up to the Royal Northern.

• • •

‘Glad to see you’re awake, Henry.’

‘I’m not. I’m half dead,’ he groaned. ‘I fuckin’ hurt all over.’

‘That bad, eh?’

‘I can’t even get up for a piss. Have to do it in a bottle and I’m so swollen down there, I can’t get it in properly.’

‘Do the nurses help?’

‘Oh, don’t make me laugh.’

He lay his head back and breathed through his mouth.

‘Those fuckers didn’t give me a chance. I didn’t get one punch in before I was on the deck.’

‘Looks like he’s got mates or family after all, don’t it?’ It was a statement more than a question.

‘Fuck it, I misjudged the situation,’ he replied. ‘My own fault. I should have fronted him on my own, then you guys...’ He closed his eyes and drifted.

• • •

‘Did I go off?’

‘Yeah. No problem. I can sit here.’ And smell the carbolic.

‘They got me on painkillers. Dunno what, but I keep sleeping.’

‘Help you get better, quicker.’

He nodded.

‘Sorry, mate.’

‘What for?’

‘For involving you and Albert in all this. For asking the favour. Should have taken care of it myself. I just wanted to be the big shot. Impress my mates and all that.’

‘That’s water under, Henry. It’s done now.’ I patted his hand. ‘You know about Albert?’

‘Yeah, mum told me. You seen him yet?’

‘Nah. Going to in a bit.’

‘Don’t leave it too late, they chuck you out at eight.’

I watched his tired brain tick over.

‘Here. You tooled up?’

I opened my coat.

‘Hammer and knife. One on either side. They come for me; I’ll have a go.’ I stopped. Just thinking about what might happen was too much.

‘I know what car to look out for, Bill told me.’

A small smile. ‘Fuckin’ hero, Bill. What a good bloke. Didn’t ask no questions; just steamed in. Could’ve done with him by my side. Sorted the fuckers.’

His eyes closed and then just as suddenly opened.

‘Watch your back, Georgie. Don’t daydream.’

‘I will. I can’t go on like this, though. Gonna have to do something about it.’

‘Like what?’

‘Well, I’ve been thinking. I reckon it’s only a matter of time before they get me and I’m not gonna hang around waiting for them. I’ve never been to the toilet so many times in a day. They keep wondering where I disappear to at the office. Anyway, do you know where the bloke lives? Whatshisname. The one we done over?’

‘Polydopoulous? Yeah, he lives in those flats down Highbury Grove. By the laundrette. First block, I think. Why?’

‘Might pay him a visit. Try and sort it.’

Henry stared at me. ‘Yeah, I see. He must still be in a mess, eh? A bit of friendly persuasion might help. You might get away with it.’

‘I ain’t got no choice, really. I either wait for his mates to get me or I go and see the geezer.’

Henry had fallen asleep again so I quietly left and went to see Albert. I didn’t stay long with him. He was scared from his beating and in pain from the traction on his leg. He moaned at Henry for getting him into the mess and moaned at me for not having had the same punishment as him and Henry. He was still moaning when I left.

• • •

Saturday morning and I went across to see Bill. His shop window was boarded up and none of the other shops had been touched. He was steaming.

‘They done me in the night, Georgie. Gutless bastards. Brenda’s in a right state what with the baby due soon. Do you know who these geezers are? I gotta put a stop to this.’

That makes two of us, I thought. ‘No, I don’t, but I’ll see what I can find out.’ I paused. ‘Sorry about the window, Bill. You don’t deserve it.’

‘It’s not the window, George, it’s my family they’re threatening. That’s not on. You find out who they are, mate. I want to know.’

• • •

In the dark, my legs were shaking and it wasn’t just from the cold. For two hours I’d been waiting in the shadows of dustbins for a bloke who might not even be out and about yet. I had to do it though; the whole thing was doing my fucking head in. The luminous hands of my watch moved so slowly that I kept putting it to my ear to make sure it was working.

A car door slamming brought me out of my reverie and I pushed myself back as far as I could go. Male voices were talking.

‘I’m home, now. Go and enjoy yourselves. Go on. I’m all right. See you tomorrow.’

‘Take care, little brother.’

‘Not so much of the little.’

A dark form walked stiffly past me as the car drove away. In the light of the stairwell I recognised his face. Moving swiftly, I had my knife at his throat before he’d climbed the first flight of stairs.

‘Guess who?’

He flattened out against the wall. I could smell Old Spice.

‘I know who you are, ‘ he said. ‘Coward.’

He wasn’t wrong.

‘And your mates,’ I replied. ‘Or family. Or whoever they fucking are. Doing your dirty work for you. Putting bricks into innocent people’s homes. Scaring pregnant women. What sort of people do you think they are, then? Fucking heroes?’

‘What did you expect my brother to do? Stand by and see me slaughtered?’

‘Don’t make me laugh,’ I replied. ‘You’re walking around. My mates are in hospital.’

I let him think about that.

‘You’ve done two of us now and we’ve only done one of you. Where’s it all gonna end?’ I asked him.

‘I don’t know.’

He hadn’t moved since I flashed the knife.

‘Well I’ll give you a promise, then. You do me and I’ll come back and do you. Not your brother or his mates. You. Then I’ll tell my mate Bill — the bloke with the smashed shop window, where you live. He really wants to see you.’

‘I had nothin’ to do with that.’

‘Bill don’t care. He wants revenge and he’s got mates — tasty geezers every one of them — just itching to help out. I’m not talking about pissing around here. These blokes are heavy.’

‘I don’t want any more trouble. Honest.’

‘Really? Well, I’m gonna see whether you’re bluffing or not. Tomorrow night I’ll be waiting with my mates over Highbury Corner. You sort it with your brother or this will go on forever.’ I waited a moment. ‘I don’t know why you didn’t have a straight fight with Henry in the first place.’

‘Fight him? I hadn’t done nothin’! I don’t even know why he was after me!’

I lowered my knife.

‘Oh, fuck.’

Gutted, I backed away and stopped fronting him.

He shucked his coat by the lapels and straightened his tie. His confidence was returning as mine drained.

I slowly put my knife away. ‘Are you telling me that there’s no history between you and Henry? None at all?’

He nodded. ‘Whatever he thinks, it’s all in his mind. I know his reputation. Why would I want to have a go at him? There’s nothing between us.’

I was puzzled. It seemed like Henry was the lairy fucker, not this bloke. And Albert and me got dragged into it. ‘Look, I don’t know what’s going on here, except that I want it to end.’

I stared at him, this stranger, and the thought flashed across my mind that this was one of those stories you couldn’t make up.

‘You understand that I could’ve done you tonight and didn’t. It’s your move now.’ I backed off. ‘And I’ve not said anything to my mate Bill. Yet.’

• • •

They found me down the Angel, in Chapel Market. Him and another bloke I presumed was his brother. I don’t think they were looking for me — just that we were all there at the same time. I’d glanced up from the second-hand record stall I was at and there he was, not ten feet away. I nearly pissed myself, expecting his crew to pile in from behind. When nothing happened, I took in the bloke next to him. Had to be his older brother. Dead ringer. I undid my coat and rested my hand lightly on my stomach.

‘You don’t have to do that.’ He came a bit closer and I could smell his aftershave again.

I didn’t say anything, watching everywhere, still half expecting a bat over my head.

‘We saw you ages ago. If we’d had wanted to steam you, we’d have done it already.’ He waited, letting me stew. ‘Does that sound familiar? Huh?’

Cocky bastard.

‘So what do you want?’ I asked. I wasn’t gonna roll over.

‘Nothing. We’re calling it quits.’

I nodded, breathing deeply through my nose. Relieved. ‘Good idea. Best thing.’

A sea of bustling, noisy people flowed round us, innocent of the drama taking place. Shopping, browsing, nicking or just plain chewing the fat. A typical, busy market day.

Quietly, I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ The guilt had never left me.

They continued staring and I didn’t know whether they’d heard me or not.

Finally the older one turned and walked away. Swallowed by the crowd in seconds. He hadn’t uttered a single word. I looked back. The bloke was about my age with styled, short black hair. Mod too.

‘Ever you see me again,’ he said, ‘do me a favour, don’t say hello, will you?’

Confused and embarrassed, I watched him leave and there and then I promised myself that the next time someone asked me for help, I’d make up any old excuse and say no. Because the price just might turn out to be too bloody high.




© James Sanderson 2005
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