Everybody knew Shandor Marley’s mother liked to spend more time flirting with serial killers than she did taking care of things at home. So when her son went round with an air rifle popping his neighbours like they were allotment pigeons, they figured all the boy really needed was a bit of attention.
Shandor finally flipped one day after finding out the inbred farm boys who made his life hell most days were in fact his half-brothers. He returned home to confront his mother only to find her pritt-sticking press cuttings of the Mad Killer into a brand new scrapbook and seemingly not in the least bit concerned by her son’s unexpected discovery.
Luckily Shandor’s shooting spree didn’t do too much damage beyond putting one of his so-called new father’s eyes out, which could be considered doubly unfortunate given as the so-called new father in question owned the old byre Shandor and his mother called home.
After Shandor had spent enough time shut away in borstal with the kind of kids who would’ve sent his mother all weak at the knees, he went straight home half-expecting the byre to be boarded up with a blu-tacked note saying she was lugging her stupid arse to Texas to spring her latest psycho boyfriend from his cell on death row.
Shandor was thinking how much that excuse would sit well with her as he scuffed up the stone track to the byre with a black bin-bag of belongings and a sunburned arm across his forehead to shield himself from the glare.
The place looked pretty much the same as he remembered it, only three years worse off. The strip of grass outside the back door was parched yellow and paint peeled around the blown-out windows. He had a hand on the door before he knew for sure it was still lived-in. He flapped thunderbugs off his forearm and creaked open the door. The kitchen stank of stale cigarettes and the dregs of spirit bottles. A black man glowered up at him from a photocopied rap sheet on the kitchen table. Shandor pushed open the living room door and he could hear his mother through the floorboards above. ‘Fuck me Hillman,’ she was repeating. ‘Fuck me Hillman’. With each thump a puff of plaster dislodged from the ceiling and lit up in a triangle of sunbeam as it drifted down.
‘My Hillman’ – that’s what she’d called the guy in the single letter she’d sent him during his time inside. ‘My Hillman’ – he imagined her cooing out his name like he was some kind of cute rescue-puppy, not a gun-toting psycho who’d bagged himself a cell on death row and a trans-Atlantic pen-pal into the bargain. ‘I’m telling you,’ she’d wrote, ‘he’s an innocent man and one of these days we’re going to prove it.’ She was planning to get out there and tie the knot before he got fried. Evidently the closest she’d got to Texas so far was a few afternoons of role-play with some equally fucked-up local in the master bedroom, and a trip down to Costcutters for a crate of Southern Comforts.
Shandor’s mother had been wetting her knickers over bad boys ever since the Mad Killer and most probably before. Billy Richards, they called him, and he had some beef with the army that ended in him shooting dead his old mother and her new man before heading into the forest and shacking himself up in a tree-house for a week or so and picking off another three coppers while he was at it. In the end they got him surrounded and Billy Richards blew his own brains out rather than turn himself in.
Shandor was eight years old at the time and a bit too young to be scared shitless by a lunatic on the loose but he remembered the way his mother acted all disappointed and stopped watching Look North every night from the moment she found out it was over. Shandor pulled a cigarette from his jeans pocket and placed it between his lips but the moans and thumps of his mother upstairs were pounding into his brain so he tossed the bin-bag into the corner of the room and reckoned he’d go and get the public appearances over with instead.
Shandor headed straight for the car park woods. Most of the kids he grew up with would be lifers at the animal feeds factory by now. But Shandor knew there’d still be Johnny and Chelsea hanging around the benches, too spaced-out to care. On his way down the high street he fixed his eyes on the pavement every time a car came past. A bunch of kids leaned their heads out of a rough-sounding Vauxhall Astra and one yelled over the stereo thumps, ‘Marley, you fucking psycho.’ They returned five minutes later from the other direction and drove level with him for about half a minute calling names and shouting threats. One threw an open carton of milk which splattered the house wall behind him, catching him with spray.
Johnny and Chelsea both looked thinner than Shandor remembered and Johnny was wet-eyed and white-faced and pretty obviously still on the glue. Chelsea was curled into his side shivering in spite of the heat. Neither noticed Shandor until he was close enough to reach out and touch Chelsea’s goose pimpled arm.
Johnny turned his head and blinked slow three or four times to focus and said, ‘fucking hell, look who’s here.’ When Chelsea didn’t respond he stuck his elbow into her skinny ribs and she started and looked up and a faint smile cracked over her lips.
‘Them Thackeray boys is after you.’
Her voice was husky and breathless. She made it sound like having two of the local arseholes on your case was a thing of awe.
Johnny said, ‘every time they see their old man’s eye patch they think up something new they’re going to do to you when you’re out.’ His forehead creased and he said, ‘well, you’re out now.’ He draped his arm round Chelsea and squinted up. ‘Me and Chelsea, we’re an item.’
Shandor couldn’t much face the idea of spending the rest of his days keeping a look-out for the Thackeray boys. The thought that they could be half-brothers of his almost made him want to spew the last of his borstal breakfasts. More than a few people had been known to say that if there was any justice in the world the Mad Killer Billy Richards would have left them poor coppers alone and taken out the Thackeray boys instead. Then he’d have had a statue built for him on the village green and not bits of his brains splattered all over some tree-house on the edge of the forest.
‘Yeah, well. They don’t scare me.’
Johnny snorted and hung his head between his knees to gob on the flags. ‘They didn’t scare Ged Blackstock but that didn’t stop him getting skinned like a fucking rabbit.’
The whole village had been witness on show day one time when they tumbled out of the beer tent around sunset and accused Ged Blackstock of being after rutting with some fancy of theirs round the back of the swingboats.
Next thing, they had Ged’s ankles twined up and a rope hooked up to the back of their Massey Fergie and Caleb yelled, ‘floor it!’ and booted Ged in the ribs with his steel toe-caps for good measure. Billy junior flashed this sick grin and hauled him right across the middle of the parade ring and there wasn’t nothing anyone had a mind to do to stop him.
One thing that could be said was that they feared their father. Or more than likely they feared what he might do with their shabby old farm once his days were numbered. Far as they were concerned the place could rot but they could see plenty of pound signs worth harvesting out of the acres around it. Their father was known to be upset more than a few times by their antics and he was even said to have forced his sons to cough up some of their own dosh to pay a portion of Ged Blackstock’s hospital bill. Everyone half expected Billy Thackeray to wind up poisoned or mysteriously shredded under a combine’s spikes one day. They feared that day, because so long as he was still breathing he was the only one who could keep those boys just about in check.
Something in Billy Thackeray had obviously snapped all of a sudden a while back and led to him telling those good-for-nothing boys of his they had another blood relative in the running for his riches. The secret was still warm when the Thackerays plucked Shandor right off the benches and chucked him in the boot of their old green Volvo without a word. Lord knows how many hours later the boot sprung open and the sudden sunlight was shut out by a meaty fist. Shandor was hauled out on the edge of the forest and trussed up tight to one of the trees. The brothers sat and smoked and drank and took turns getting up and aiming kicks and punches at Shandor until sunset.
With each can the kicks got sharper. With each kick they told him he’d better stop planting fancy thoughts in their old man’s head and that he’d better get used to the fact he’d be long gone before he saw a penny of Thackeray inheritance.
They took off his shoes before they crunched away. Hawthorns tore at the soles of his feet and he trailed coughed-up blood the whole way home. By the time he made it back the sky was bleeding white. The next day, Shandor still had enough anger swirling in his fuzzy, beat-up head that it didn’t take him long to decide to pick up the air rifle and head out a-Thackeray-hunting.
Despite the way it looked, Billy Thackeray hadn’t been the one Shandor intended to hit. It was just his misfortune to be clanging past on that Massey Fergie of his when Shandor opened fire. But the way Shandor saw it, if he was going to hit anyone but the boys it may as well have been the man they were beefing over having claimed to be his dad.
Billy Thackeray had never been much of a problem in himself. Shandor could tell that by the way his mother was still shacked up in the byre. Fact is, his mother had a hell of a lot to thank Billy Thackeray for. It was him who got the byre cleaned up and gave her somewhere to stay when she landed up in the dale eighteen years ago with just a scribbled address of some unknown and, as it turned out, freshly-dead old friend and a sob-story of a time when one of them psycho boyfriends of hers had ended up getting a little too real-life for comfort.
In return, Shandor’s mother worked her keep with household chores that evidently ended up in the bedroom. Once Shandor himself refused to do any more helping-out in the fields due to the constant taunts and threats of the Thackeray boys, Billy Thackeray lobbed him an air rifle and told him to head off culling crows and get out from under their feet.
Thinking back, Shandor reckoned he always had an inkling of something amiss because Billy Thackeray could come across as a mean-hearted bastard when he wanted to but to him he was nothing but tolerant. Shandor would stay out long hours stalking the hedgerows with the rifle slung over his shoulder and he never once had the nerve to pull the trigger. He lost count of the number of times he trained his sights on one or other of the Thackeray boys lolling around in the shade on one of them long cigarette breaks of theirs, and wished he had the nerve.
Shandor reckoned Billy Thackeray had it in him to recognise his remorse and not hold too much of a grudge that way. He kept a good look-out on his way back up to the farm and started at every swish of grass or distant drone of engine like it was Billy Junior and Caleb sneaking up to wrap their cold hard hands around his scrawny neck in the nick of time. He was relieved to note the absence of the Volvo in the old yard. He lamped over the last gate and caused a couple of the Thackerays’ old mutts to start yapping and clanking at their chains. Even seeing it was Shandor wouldn’t shut them up. The yard hadn’t changed. The silo hulked over the farmhouse roof. The empty hay barn perched awkward on its stilts. Rusty parts of farm machinery had been reclaimed by the undergrowth. The yard stank of silage and wood-smoke.
‘Well, well,’ rattled a voice from behind him. Shandor spun round and saw Billy Thackeray leaning against the gate-post. He wore a fraying black eye-patch and the way he screwed his good eye up against the sunlight made it seem to Shandor more like he was judging him.
‘I must be the only one round these parts who reckoned on you having the balls to rear up like this,’ said Billy Thackeray. He kept his good eye trained on Shandor. Billy Thackeray’s insides squealed up like an old horse cart every time he heaved a breath. Shandor’s eyes darted for any sign of his sons. ‘If there’s one place you’re safe enough hiding out from them two buggers,’ said Billy Thackeray, noting his alarm, ‘it’s right here where they make out to belong.’
Billy Thackeray cocked his head towards the old farmhouse and began shuffling towards it. Shandor remembered how in the days before he got shot he’d be tossing hay bales into the back of the trailer like they were sacks of air. He could out-throw Shandor by more or less four to one. Now Shandor reckoned he’d be lucky enough to get a single one of them off the ground.
They stepped into the stone-floored kitchen and even after Shandor’s eyes adjusted the room seemed dark. Billy Thackeray lit the stove and filled a pan full of water. It sloshed over the sides as he carried it to the heat. He scraped back his chair and plonked himself down and caught his breath. He looked up at Shandor and said, ‘you never were much cop at shooting them damned crows.’
The room was cool. The pan began to bubble on the stove. Billy Thackeray looked away. ‘When the missus went and died young on me like she did, I never did reckon on finding me no-one else. Then up steps your mother out of the pasture one morning. Just lands right up here on the doorstep, all wrung out in morning dew.’ He looked out of the window as if he was seeing her over again. He placed his palms flat on the ledge and concentrated on drawing up his chest.
‘I don’t want nothing,’ said Shandor. ‘Tell ‘em that. I don’t want nothing.’
Billy Thackeray didn’t seem to hear. ‘Happen that airgun pellet was the Lord’s way of telling me summat.’
Shandor didn’t wait for the tea. Instead, he walked right out of the door. Billy Thackeray stayed glued at the window. He tramped the back way through the copse and swung his feet at the wild garlic. The heat stuck heavy despite the shade of the tree-tops. Sunlight speckled the ground. Crows cawed. He’d hunkered down here when those roaming Thackeray boys were looking for trouble. It was the only place he knew where nothing but a blood-hound would’ve ever been likely to find him.
When he got through the copse he came out half-way up the valley side and from where he was stood he could look right across the green sweep of the dale to the grey moors up behind. He looked down at the byre where he grew up in and where his mother was finishing rutting with her latest death row role-play. From his high-up angle, he could see over into the scratchy old horse field next door and round the back at the overgrown pill-box. He got a twist in his stomach when he saw the brothers’ old Volvo hid in a space alongside.
Not rushing, Shandor swung down through the grass and lamped over a couple of barbed-wire fences until he met the rough track heading up to the house. As he reached its edge he heard the rough cough of the Volvo’s old engine and the spit of gravel and he stood over the side-ditch and felt ready for the meeting he’d tried so hard to wish away.
A smirk spread across Billy junior’s rat-faced features when he rounded the corner and he slowed to level. His eyes closed to slits. ‘Well well,’ he said. ‘Look who it isn’t.’ He lost the smirk. Caleb, the younger one, puffed on a thick roll-up in the passenger seat and kept looking straight ahead. He said, ‘we’ve brought you a beauty little welcome home present.’
‘Man,’ said Billy junior, ‘this brother of mine, he’s fucked up in the head about as much as you.’
They laughed. ‘Not as fucked up as your mother, though,’ said Caleb.
‘Isn’t no-one in this whole dale as fucked up as her.’
Billy Junior said, ‘see you around, fuckface,’ and gobbed down the middle of Shandor’s tee-shirt, a great thick greenie that took its time to fall. He pressed the accelerator, and Shandor turned and watched until the car specked to dust..
He went in the front way. He shouldered the rotting front door and trampled months of free newspapers and unopened post. When he got in the living room he stopped and sat on the couch and ignored the muffles coming from upstairs. He lit a cigarette and this time he smoked it through.
Then he trod up the stairs in the same footprints as the Thackerays’ muddy work-boots and heard the muffles getting louder as he did. He pushed open the bedroom door and saw his mother for the first time in two years. Handcuffs stretched her arms back in a shape like a half-diamond. A black bra pulled her mouth back into a sick Joker-smile. She was naked and spread-eagling her charms –clawed-at nipples and her still-glistening cunt. She looked pretty much how he always figured she’d look without clothes. He imagined how much better she might have looked to Billy Thackeray back then. She crossed and uncrossed her legs trying for modesty, then she flipped on one side away from him like a grounded trout. The room smelled of cigarettes and sweet alcohol and ripe farm-boy sweat. The light fitting still dangled bare from the middle of the ceiling and a bin-sack was still taped against the edge of the shut-up window. It was shoved aside enough to make a pool of sun on the mattress. His mother cricked her head over her shoulder and looked at him and tried to speak. Shandor reached across for a half-full bottle of Southern Comfort and he took it then he left the room. He trod down the stairs ignoring the muffles. He went out through the kitchen, past the rap sheet on the table. He couldn’t help noticing how Hillman’s great big bug-eyes were still staring right out at him, like they were following every move.