Johnny got a tattoo of his girlfriend’s name inside an arrowed heart on his upper left bicep. He said it was to show Carol how much he loved her. Carol took one look and decided she loved the estate agent a whole lot more. So Johnny changed the tattoo himself, using biro ink and a sewing needle, so it said ‘Castrol’, as in the oil. Then he added ‘GTX’. The ‘T’ and the ‘X’ strayed outside the arrowed heart, and even in his own opinion made the thing look messy. Johnny spent a week in hospital with blood poisoning. He said what the hell, it’s good oil.
Carol was waiting to meet him at the hospital gates. ‘No way are you getting me in there,’ she had told Johnny by telephone one day. He had rung to ask her to bring some Kestrel Super Strength.
‘I’m fucking desperate,’ Johnny had pleaded.
‘I was in them places enough times when I were a kid. It’s all death and that. It gives me the creeps.’
At the hospital gates, Carol told Johnny she’d finished with the estate agent, but really the estate agent had finished with her.
‘No-one’s ever done nothing like that for me before,’ she said, slipping her arm through Johnny’s bad one and making him wince. Johnny nuzzled his five-day stubble up against her cheeks. He smelled of Kestrel Super Strength.
‘You got yourself sorted then?’
‘I met a couple of lads having a smoke who helped me out.’
Carol smelled of a different brand of perfume. She asked Johnny if everything was going to be all right.
‘It’s nowt a drink won’t fix,’ Johnny said.
Carol had got a surprise ready for Johnny to try to make up for her running off like that with the estate agent, and what had happened with Johnny’s tattoo.
To get the surprise sorted, she had to get back with the estate agent. She slept with him one more time and as soon as she heard him start snoring she took his set of keys.
She had a new set cut before he woke up.
She went round to the show home the night before Johnny came out of hospital and put some fresh flowers in a vase and a four-pack of Kestrel Super Strength on the kitchen side.
Carol told Johnny all about his surprise on the bus back from the hospital.
‘It’s fully furnished and everything,’ she said.
Johnny said there’d better be an off-licence near by, or it wouldn’t be much of a fucking party.
Johnny refused to go to the show home straight away. He said he did not want to spend the best part of the day in an empty house. So Johnny and Carol sat in the corner seats of the Fox and Rabbit, furthest from the door. A triangle of dust hung in the sunlight. Johnny crumbled the corners off his beer mat, and Carol fingered her empty glass.
Two boys were playing pool. They were swigging their pints like they knew where the next one was coming from. They wore tight tee-shirts which showed off their bare arms and flat bellies. They played in almost silence, playing each shot like something big depended on it. They left angles which allowed for the slope in the bottom left-hand corner where cigarette ash had burned away the baize. The taller boy hit the white ball off two cushions and potted a red he didn’t intend. The shorter one muttered something under his breath and turned to feed the jukebox. ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ by Phil Collins jangled across the silence.
Carol lit up another cigarette and watched through the smoke as Johnny got up and wandered across. He slapped a two pence piece on the side cushion, almost losing his footing as he did.
‘What the fuck’s that?’ said the taller boy.
‘I’ll play the winner,’ said Johnny, his palm pressed flat against the side wall.
‘With one fucking arm?’ laughed the shorter boy.
‘With no fucking arms if I want,’ said Johnny.
The taller boy won the game and went to the bar.
‘Mine’s a lager,’ said Johnny, reached down to rack up the balls.
‘Fuck off,’ said the taller boy, but he got Johnny a pint of lager anyway. Johnny noticed the thick roll of notes the boy pulled from his pocket.
‘We’re having a party tonight,’ said Johnny. ‘You can come if you bring a bottle, as they say. She knows where it is.’ He motioned across the pub at Carol. The shorter boy walked across and sat down on Johnny’s old stool, and asked Carol to lend him a fag.
The shorter boy leaned over and said, ‘what the fuck’s a sexy girl like you doing with a guy like that?’
Carol took another drag on her cigarette. She said, ‘Have you ever had anybody love you enough to get a tattoo of your name across their arm?’
The boy said, ‘I’ll definitely get yours if you tell me what your name is.’
The shorter boy reached under the table and put his hand on Carol’s thigh. They watched the taller boy pot the black. Johnny asked the taller boy for a twenty pence piece for the jukebox. He put on ‘Wind of Change’ by Scorpions. After the first verse, the landlord pushed aside his newspaper and reached over to pull the jukebox plug out of the wall.
‘I want my money back,’ said Johnny.
‘Get to fuck,’ said the landlord.
Bubbles began to foam at the corners of Johnny’s mouth.
‘It’s lucky I’m disabled, or I’d fucking do you,’ he said. He struck a few wobbly kung-fu poses in front of the pool table. The landlord shook his head and picked up his newspaper. The shorter boy slid his hand further up the inside of Carol’s dress until it reached the warmth between her legs. Carol sucked on another Lambert and Butler and gazed into space.
Johnny insisted on doing the driving even though he only had one good arm. The shorter boy tried to pull Carol into the back next to him, but she pushed his hand away and got in the front next to Johnny. Her ankles sunk into old cigarette packets and empty cans. Johnny jolted the car out of its parking space. Carol lit up two Lambert and Butlers at once and reached across to poke one between Johnny’s lips.
‘What did you do to your arm?’ said the shorter boy.
‘Knife fight,’ said Johnny. ‘You should have seen the other guy.’
‘Yeah?’ said the taller boy. In the darkness it was obvious they were trying not to laugh.
Johnny drove slowly. Carol had to help steer through the S-bend at the top of the high street. Johnny smoked his cigarette down to its filter and dropped it in his lap when it burnt his fingers. He swerved onto the kerb when he saw an off-licence, and gave the boys a shopping list.
Following Carol’s directions, Johnny turned into the cul-de-sac without indicating. The show home was easy to find because it was the only one with a flagpole and a lawn. The cul-de-sac was bathed in orange light and no-one was about. The houses snaked around a slight curve with empty driveways. They were little boxes with square black windows and signs saying there were favourable rates for first-time buyers.
The show home smelled of sweat and fresh paint. It was fitted out like it was lived in by the neatest family in the world. The worktops were unmarked and the puffed-up cushions sat at nice angles on the sofa. Carol dragged her fingers along the empty mantelpiece. The taller boy scuffed his feet across the white sheepskin rug. The shorter boy went upstairs. Johnny sunk into the sofa and lit up another Lambert and Butler. He reached for the one of the bottles of vodka the boys had brought, and balanced it between his knees while he unscrewed the cap.
‘To a great party,’ he said, holding the bottle. ‘And new friends.’
He tipped his head back and held the bottle at too steep an angle. The vodka poured down his chin and formed a damp patch at the top of his tee-shirt. The shorter boy shouted down from upstairs that the fucking stupid toilet wouldn’t flush. Carol clicked open a can of Kestrel Super Strength and watched Johnny knock back the vodka until his eyes began to close. He fell asleep and the rest of the vodka drained into the folds of the sofa.
From the bedroom window Carol could see how the cul-de-sac curled into blackness. The shorter boy stood behind her and looped his bare arms inside hers to cup her breasts. She turned to him and saw he was already naked except his boxer shorts. She thought of Johnny lying downstairs. She let the shorter boy to push her gently down on the bed. She lifted her arse slightly as his fingers hooked the tops of her tights. The taller boy watched, then bent over and started to remove his jeans.
Johnny woke a few hours later to the sound of birds and the sunlight chinking in through the thin curtains. He felt the cold patch on his tee-shirt. He saw Carol sitting at the kitchen table, watching him.
‘We’d better go before they come to open up,’ Carol said. She got up, brushed her hands down the sides of her dress and tucked the kitchen stool back under the table.
Carol unclicked the front door. Johnny got to his feet and headed for the stairs.
‘The toilet’s full,’ said Carol. ‘It doesn’t flush, remember.’
Johnny unzipped his trousers and began to piss on the carpet and the sofa. His piss reeked strong of alcohol. When he’d finished, he took a biro from the top of a pile of information leaflets on the sideboard and scrawled ‘piss’ and ‘fuck’ - or maybe ‘pissfuck’ - on the wall above the fireplace. He pressed the biro hard enough to tear the new paint.
Carol lit up a single Lambert and Butler as Johnny jolted the car through a three-point turn. She noticed how the morning dew sparkled on the show home’s lawn. She wondered what it might be like to get up in the morning with a steaming mug of coffee and walk through the wetness barefoot. Johnny looked across at Carol and told her it was the best welcome home party he’d ever had. He told her how much he loved her, and that he was going to get his tattoo changed back to say ‘Carol’, just as soon as his arm was better.