"You might want to put on a shirt?"
"I'll put on no fucking shirt," and he pushes me out the way of the trailer door, goes wobbling across to where his Merc's parked in front of the lock-up.
Auntie Fiance is trying to shepherd the children inside a trailer but it's not every day you see a shirtless man screaming his head off and waving what looks like Judge Dredd's gun about as he fails to operate his own car's door. At least, not first thing on a Saturday morning.
"Francie mate," I babble, backing away, "We've got a dentist's driveway to tarmac, the machinery's been butchered-"
"I shall be doing the fucking butchering!" He falls down on his arse in the mud.
"Well, yeah, but we've got a Bomag with all its hydraulics smashed, we've got a-"
"I shall rip that fucking Duchie cunt's head clean off," he bellows, scrabbling to his feet, "and I shall piss in the hole for luck."
"You might not need a shooter, if you're just gonna rip his head off, Francie mate," I say, getting ready to fling myself behind the thin aluminium of the trailer door, for all the good that'll do me. "I mean, accidents happen-"
"I'll fucking accident you, you fucking Kennick cunt," he screams, wheeling away from the seemingly impregnable door of his AMG. He waves the piece at me, or at least, in my general direction. "Come over here. I need a fucking driver, and you'll do as well as anyone else."
I struggle with the mental equivalent of a slipping clutch.
"I- I don't think I'd be insured, Francie," I manage. "German car interiors always make me feel sick, too. It's the smell of the upholstery-"
"Get in the car, hedge-mumping cunt." The awful hole in the end of that ridiculous gun swings toward me again. The Merc starts with a purr. I fiddle helplessly with the complicated foot-operated parking brake. "Get me to Duchie's, Kennick. And don't crash me fucking motor on the way, or I swear to Jesus, Mary and Joseph I'll spray your fucking brains all over this here car."
I'd only gone down for my little cousin Emma-Louise's christening. In the church, Emma-Louise shit herself when raised up to the font. Nattie clung to my arm, burying her face in my shirt to stymie her laughter. We both agreed later that the clergyman had done well to make it to the end of the invocation. We all repaired to a pub to start the serious business of getting hideously drunk. While old men lined up to karaoke the standards of long-dead crooners, Aunt Kathy took me to one side.
"Kind of hoping you'd've got in there," she said.
"Eh? What? Me? With who?"
"Our Nattie." She regarded me seriously, as if over the top of a pair of glasses. She doesn't wear glasses.
"Nattie? B-but... She's me cousin!"
Aunt Kathy looked suitably horrified. After all, almost all of my relatives married someone they had a genetic relationship with: keep it in the family, like, or at least the tribe. My mother and father were, I think, second cousins. If that.
I grimaced, looked away around the room. Old men, supping pints. Small children dressed in posh but outdated Sunday best.
"Anything'd be better than the dinlo she's gone and got engaged to," said Aunt Kathy, sipping her gimlet and adjusting her hat.
"Who's that then, Auntie?"
She tilted her head and indicated the swollen bulk of Francie, swaying behind the mic, belting out "When You and I Were Young, Maggie" like half of Foster and Allen, if Foster or Allen weighed twenty stone and looked like they were smuggling breezeblocks strapped to their arms.
"Fat steroid boy on the mic?"
"He's a murderer," she muttered darkly.
"Well. Accessory to. Held 'em down then buried the corpse, didn't he?"
"Jesus." I blinked. "Whatever happened to choring the wheels off of a vardo?" I asked. "When did we start playing proper gangsta?"
She shook her head sadly, took another pull on her gimlet.
"It's a wicked world, my sweet little chavvo."
We drive. I think I do well, in the circumstances: I only stall the stupid overpowered car twice, and Francie doesn't blow my head off.
"I really love your fucking cousin," he says, when we slow down to negotiate a cattle-grid somewhere, fat low-profiles clump-thunking over the grate. I keep my head fixed front but my eyes slide sideways toward him. "I mean, I really love fucking her, too. But I also love the girl. She will make me a fine wife."
I pull up to the deserted little industrial estate, park outside Duchie's unit, which is on the end of the row of three, the one with the least number of smashed windows, conspicuously graffiti-free.
With his free hand he reaches across and pulls the electronic starter out of the dash, stuffs it into his trousers.
"You wait here, get me?"
Relief passes through me in a wave of warmth, a tingling dream of ecstasy strobing up from my toes to the crown of my head.
"Here? Right-o Francie, no problemo like—"
"This is an AMT Automag, Kennick. I got five shots. That gives me two spare. Don't do anything that'll lead me to wasting one of them on you, eh?"
"Good." Out the corner of my eye I can see his gut heaving; the sweat pours off his chest and mats the wild hair in the deep valley of his pectorals. He gives my head a friendly push with the gun, then climbs unsteadily out of the car.
I watch him wobble across the buckling, weed-strewn car park. The breath goes out of me in a long stream. I cannot imagine how this day can get any worse.
A tapping, on the tinted window to my right.
One of Duchie’s little helpers, Baz or Chris—I can't tell them apart—is leaning on the roof. He scrapes the barrel of the shooter he's been tapping the window with across my field of vision, makes motions I interpret to mean "Get out of the car." Outside, I shiver in the drizzle. His gun, I note with interest, is rather less compensatory than the one Francie was waving around, but is doubtless still big enough to ruin my life.
Ruin it some more, I mean.
Out of sight, around the corner of the lock-up, I hear Francie scream.
I ended up staying after the christening. Within a week I was out on the crew with Barry and Tommy and Vanni. Up at four, pile into a Transit van held together by rust and filler, drive to the arse-end of nowhere. Then ten, twelve hours laying asphalt.
"I'd let you on the mini-roller or the layer," said Barry, wiping a thick black smear across his sweating forehead, "But from the way you handle that rake I'd fear for me fucking life and for that of every other man on this site."
Then down the pub to drown whatever brain cells remained. It'd be digs in some flophouse if we were away on a job and when we worked closer to Francie's lock-up—upon which thirty or forty caravans were arrayed—Barry gave me the twins' old trailer to crash in. I'd collapse into sleep, hands shaking and numb from incipient nerve damage, burned all over and tired further down in my bones than I'd ever known possible. But it was good, it was good: family who I'd hurt and turned away from had opened their arms and welcomed me back, out of nothing more than the goodness of their hearts and my willingness to bend my neck over a shovel.
Tommy joked that Francie didn't like to get his hands dirty. He hawked a few cars on the side without bothering the taxman about it, via discreet adverts in the local paper. Every time he snaffled one up—part exchanges off dealer’s forecourts, mostly—he’d send the motors out to Duchie's, and they came back waxed and buffed, primped and shining. Upon their return, each one went straight into Francie's lock-up, a task he was fanatical about seeing to himself. And every morning, no matter how he reeled, bleary-eyed, from the previous night's excesses, he'd have the van started and warmed up before we'd swallowed our paint-thick tea and bacon butties, and he'd hump the toolboxes out from the lock-up and stash them carefully in the back. Always sniffing, red-faced, wild-eyed, even in the driest weather.
"You watch the Kennick doesn't chore those toolboxes, Tommy," he'd chide us. Tommy would grin and nod and mug, but he made sure, I noted, to keep the keys to the padlock chained to him at all times, and when someone needed something he'd walk over himself to dole out the tools.
We were contracted for a month's work in Cardiff, on a big crew laying a new call-centre car park: Vanni shadow-boxing and boasting of the time when, as a boy, Uncle Cyril and Uncle Jack had taken him to see Howard Winstone lose to Vicente Saldivar for the undisputed world's title; up to Doncaster to do a private job on a man's farm, where Tommy regaled me with tales of the days when Uncle Charlie and Uncle Durri would attend the races just after the war and Charlie once got into an argument with a man over a 10-1 shot and got a straight razor across his hip for his troubles.
I grew muscles I hadn't seen since I'd boxed and my "th"s all turned back into "F"s; I shaved more often and ate a lot of Joey Grey. I'd sit with the women, at a discreet, respectable difference from the men, and share a joke while the boys grumbled into their pints. Nattie would laugh with her head thrown back like a sword-swallower and chore roll-ups off me when she thought Aunt Kathy wasn't looking and I tried not to stare down her low-cut tops and stepped away when she moved close against me to whisper something conspiratorial that she didn't want the boys to hear, which was twenty times a day.
We'd got up that drizzly Saturday morning and found someone had broken into Francie's lock-up during the night. We'd all been out on the piss even harder the night before, celebrating getting the cash-in-hand work to tarmac a local dentist's driveway, a huge thing more autobahn than access route. He was going away for the weekend and wanted to return to find all the potholes turned into an asphalt billiard table.
I struggled out of bed to find Vanni, Tommy and Barry arrayed around the open door of the lock-up, wearing expressions you'd expect at a funeral. Someone had got in during the night. They'd jimmied the door, smashed the locks off the toolboxes, scattered tools all around the rough concrete floor; picks and shovels shattered, the mini-roller still on its trailer, sitting in a pool of hydraulic fluid, flaccid hoses hanging down like dead snakes. I set to helping Barry clean up: lots of stuff had been broken but weirdly nothing had been nicked.
"Gadjé bastards," said Barry, over and over, tears in his eyes. It wasn't just what it'd cost to fix the hoses, it meant we were down a roller, and that meant a day sorting another. "They'd burn us if they could get away with it!"
A crowd of relatives, near-relatives and assorted hangers-on had formed. No-one had seen anything, but everyone had an opinion that the next time some Gadjés from the local estate came calling, there'd be Hell to pay. Others counselled that we should move on—that, as ever, we had outstayed our welcome locally and should relocate.
"I can see the point in choring things," said Vanni, with what I thought a surprisingly philosophical tone, "but just smashing stuff up? Where's the sense in that?"
Tommy looked uncomfortable.
"Uh... I'm gonna go tell Francie that someone's knocked the shit out of his lock-up." He paused, big blue eyes fixed on me. "Actually, I'll go phone the man about his driveway, tell him we might be taking more time to finish than I thought. Why don't you go give Francie the good news, cuz? Cheer him up."
I'm sat next to Francie. My front teeth have been knocked through my bottom lip, but apart from that I'm okay. I'm sitting on an old metal oil can, attached by a tow-chain you could moor a battlecruiser with to the Irish Traveller equivalent of Mechagodzilla and over in the corner Baz (or is it Chris?) is doing something to a big crowbar with what I assume to be an oxy-propane cutting torch. It fills the air with sparks and the reek of burning grease and hot metal and ozone, but I think it's just for show.
"Holy Mary mother of fuck, Duchie, there's no need for that shite," says Francie, who evidently doesn't believe that it's just for show. "I can tell you to the very ounce where your stuff’s been going, like. If you was to have a word with my man Tommy-"
"Tommy?" I snap, "What's our Tommy got to do with this?"
"Shut up, Kennick," says Francie, squinting at me through purple swellings that render his eyes even more piggy-ish than usual.
"You sell out Tommy I'll fucking kill you myself," I snarl, spitting out blood. "Pavee piece of shit."
"Now now, boys. Inter-Gyppo racism is a terrible thing to behold." Duchie, a leathery Gadjé with something about him that reminds me of an ageing roadie for a heavy metal band, runs a hand through his greying mullet and grins a nasty gappy grin at me. "It's tearing apart your community. You'd think the oppressed could learn to all get along together, eh?"
"Traveller." I snap. "Inter-Traveller."
"Is it now? I don't know what you'd have to say about that, being a fucking Kennick of all things," mutters Francie, nearly lost in the spit and roar of the cutting torch.
One of Duchie's boys—whichever one isn't playing blacksmith over in the corner—lamps me around the back of the head. Francie has calmed down, but through the swellings and the drying blood glowers at Duchie with all the hate in the world.
"Got anything else to say, Francie?"
Francie holds his peace and flexes his shoulders, his huge meaty arms clanking the chain tight behind him, an action that drags me painfully to one side.
"That this morning wasn't nothing but a warning shot across your bows, Francie. You don't fuck about with me, I told you that." He shakes his head, a passable impression of a man gripped by a terrible and soul-deep sadness. "I know your lot's all in it together."
I start to say something and Baz or Chris steps around the front to punch me, having got bored of hitting me in the back.
"We're going to get all you boys in, eventually. One at a time. And we're going to sit each of you here and Chris over there-" the mush in the corner shuts off the cutting torch and turns around, the crowbar glowing before him in the gloom of the lock-up, smoke from his heavy welding gauntlets curling up into the air— "Is going to do to each of them what I'm about to get him to do to you, which is to ram this crowbar so far down your throat you'll be shitting sparks out your ringpiece like your arse was a fucking dragon."
From the look on Francie's face, I can only assume that Duchie is not the sort of fella who'd joke about this sort of thing.
"Then we'll get your little blonde piece in," continues Duchie, "And see what she's got to say about my missing fucking cocaine."
At the mention of Nattie I can't help it, a switch is flicked within me and I try and rise. Baz smashes me across the side of my face with the butt of his handgun.
I've been in a few decent street fights (and have run away from some really, really awesome ones). I've come off the back of a motorbike doing sixty round a bend and skidded for two hundred yards into a ditch, shredding my shoulder and busting my arm in two separate places. I've even had my heart broken a few times. Nothing I've ever done to myself or had done to me by an uncaring world has ever hurt quite so much as getting smashed in the face by that gun. I'm not sure if it's the heaviness of the thing, the oily hardness of it, or merely that it's just a terrible death-dealing device that should never be brought near a human being. It hurts like fuck and I proceed to squeal and yammer in a most unbecoming way as the entire left-hand side of my face fills with blood.
Through the explosion going off behind my eyes and my brain pinging about the otherwise empty expanse of my skull, I see Duchie kind of put his forehead in his hand and massage his brow, like a man with a nasty headache coming on; I see Baz throw back his head to laugh, hands on hips and beergut wobbling below his stained Polo shirt; I see Chris pause and join in, smoke still pouring from his welding gauntlets. I see Francie slip his chains and rise from his oil can beside me with blood streaming from his wrists like a suicide who's just decided ending it all is a bad idea, after all.
No-one is more surprised, I think, than Baz when Francie cops hold of his shooter and wrenches it free and proceeds to use it to batter seven shades of shit out of him. The look of horror on Duchie's face is a wonder to behold.
Chris, to be fair, is made of sterner stuff, and swings the crowbar around with both hands, legs braced, like he's felling a tree. The glowing end of it comes around and when it hits Francie it does indeed make a bit of a mess of the man's shoulder. Despite the horrific sizzling noise and the smell—hideous, like when you drop your lit fag on the upholstery of a car crossed with the worst barbecue fuck-up ever, exploding proteins and boiling fat and skin—he seems to remember that the thing he's been using as a club can be employed in a more efficient manner, and he shoots Chris right through the forehead.
I've never heard a gun go off before. No-one ever told me that they were so shockingly, world-endingly loud. I'm suddenly thankful for all the damage I've already done to my hearing at bad hardcore concerts. Chris goes over backwards with half his head gone to bloody ruin.
Duchie pulls out Francie's gun from somewhere. I cannot possibly imagine where he's had it stashed. I'm impressed he can heft it without keeling slowly forward under the weight. Francie appears to weigh up his chances; then he smashes Baz in the mooey one last time with the gun then lets it drop to the floor.
Duchie says something I don't catch, what with the tinnitus and all, and he thumbs something on the gun I presume must be the safety. Then it strikes me that the chains that previously held me are slack after Francie managed to wriggle out of them and almost without conscious volition I lurch forward—chain and oil can and all—through the intervening space and hit Duchie as hard as I can on the side of the jaw. We go down in a tangle and behind the cold hard bite of the adrenaline something inside me is cowering, waiting for the explosion of light and pain that's going to end the one attempt in my entire miserable existence to play the hero, waiting for the bullet that'll rip through muscle and blood and bone and the fat links of the chain are oily and cold and slip in my hands as I bring them down again and again and again on Duchie's head and as my hearing comes back I think "Who's making that fucking high-pitched shrieking noise?" and I realise that it's me and by then Duchie's head is just so much blood and matted hair and with a shudder like coming inside someone I love I finish and look up, nausea roiling against the earth-shattering world-ending pain in my head.
Francie is picking at the huge eschar—like a bad 90's tribal tattoo that's gone terribly wrong—on his shoulder, but he glances down and nods at me.
"That's not a bad job, for a Kennick," he says, conversationally, and I look at the blood on my hands and the bloody chain around me and my hands close on something else amongst the warmth of Duchie's corpse and I bring Francie's enormous handgun up, slowly, so slowly, it weighs a metric fuck-tonne, I've never felt anything so heavy but I bring it up steady and when I pull the trigger and shoot Francie right in the fucking face, he doesn't look a bit surprised.
You've got to put your back into digging, much like you've got to put your back into life. Feel the heft against your muscles. Feel the strain on your spine. Feel the sweat sting your eyes, the bitumen sear in your mucus membranes. The roar of the roller is the background static that clouds out your life, makes you lose sight of what you want, both for yourself and the people you care about. Tonight, it is joined by the rattle and gravelly churn of a cement mixer, one Tommy borrowed off a mush who owed him a favour over a horse or a girl, I can't remember which.
Laying a driveway properly is best approached as a craft: a technical problem to be solved by the materials available. It is not usual to dig down an extra six feet and fill the resulting trench in with cement before packing over the top of it with hard-core and then layering on the asphalt; men like Barry or Vanni or Tommy would, in the general run of things, call you a fucking dinlo for even considering such a thing, making such hard work out of a task that can be accomplished with much less effort.
This is not the general run of things. In this particular case it was needed, at least in Barry and Tommy's opinion, and I'd trust the pair of them with my life. In fact, I am trusting them with my life, and Vanni too, working the shovel beside me as we dig. I don't think the dentist is going to be disappointed with the workmanship of his new driveway which—when we've finished, sometime in the early hours of tomorrow morning—will be as smooth and black as the surface of an ebony lake, as an onyx horizon. Like a familial bond, it'll be solid and it'll go down deep, deeper than it strictly needs to. It will last that man—should he take care of it—a lifetime, and more besides.