‘I was thinking, would you be …’ Her look forbade. He changed tack: ‘Give me four rump steaks and a leg of lamb, please.’
Frank Murphy was intimidated, had been since he’d joked about the local wild duck. Local? Wild? In this bomb-site? In the north end?
She’d stared. Grey eyes like marble in a face of perfect symmetry.
‘Croxteth Country Park,’ she’d said. He’d laughed nervously, chastised.
No-one else affected him like this. He leaped up life’s escalator in expensive suits, fabulous cars. Now he was about to make her a fine offer and yet he quaked; fingered the back of his just-barbered hair.
‘I hope you’ll not mind. It’s a suggestion. Expect you’ve heard talk of the new casino. My second. In town. Building’s almost finished. I was thinking, would you come and work there? You’d be great.’
His palms were damp, voice hoarse.
‘I don’t need a job.’
‘No, of course. No. I just thought. Well, it’d be a change, wouldn’t it? Nice clothes. Glamorous.’ He saw a glimmer of pleasure fade: touchy about flattery.
‘I’ve never worked in a casino.’
‘Not a problem. There’s six weeks’ training. You’d be an inspector, check on dealers, advise customers. We need people with experience handling money.’ This was wrong, too, as though he’d referred to where lines had begun above exquisite cheekbones. He wanted to run to the safety of the BMW. Yet he couldn’t lose this. He never lost anything.
‘Here’s the new brochure. Take a look. Think about it. I’ll come back next week.’
Frank knew she was called Maureen because he’d overheard it. Most people neither knew her name nor anything about her. He knew nothing about her either. His enterprises teetered towards illegality, touched the criminal world enough for him to sense her earlier life hadn’t been easy. Still, he couldn’t fathom why she’d ended up here. And Maureen didn’t suit her. She ought to be Mia or Marilyn or Marianne.
The meat was good at James Aldred, Family Butcher. They knew about it in the better districts; risked car theft to get hold of it. Fillet steak, rack of lamb, venison, calves’ liver lay alongside dirt-cheap rabbits, scrag-end and tripe for people in the decayed terraces who’d bought there all their lives. Others served behind the counter, too: the owner, Michael Twomey; Pat, a little red-faced man with a jaunty hat.
Buying from the beautiful butcher was something else. Her delicate fingers poked among skinny thighs and wings, slid under kidneys, scooped mince. She sliced through liver at one stroke, smearing blood on her slender, aproned waist; sawed through bone, stripped skin, fat, membranes, severed necks. When she handed over change you saw her immaculate unsmiling proportions, honey blonde hair; always thought you’d surely seen her on screen.
There were men who crept in under the striped awning in the hope of watching her from behind as she raised her cleaver or twisted the six-inch blade. Bandsawed chops. Drew out handfuls of innards. Stuffed sausage skins. Women were embarrassed. They patted frumpish waves while they waited, hid stoutness behind baskets, knew they couldn’t patronise a woman whose looks were of a higher order.
She was the object of fantasy. Was she married to Michael Twomey? She wore no ring, perhaps to avoid bits getting stuck. Was it a miserable marriage? Their exchanges were brusque; you never heard laughter. Sometimes he bawled at her from the yard. Was he a brute? As she passed by the grimacing ribs of hanging carcases slit neck to tail, you wondered. Her coldness, disdain might encourage violence. The imaginations of customers scuffed about in the sawdust, skirted the blue, electric fly-killer, took fright between humming refrigerators.
She washed surfaces, swept the floor, hosed it down, cashed up, fag ash dropping into the till. It was her night to shut up shop. She wiped fat, blood from her shoes, changed into heels for walking home. Longed to put her feet up.
Her flat was in a new block wedged between a garish red-brick old people’s home and condemned shops part shuttered, part shattered. She rented unfurnished, buying pieces she fancied from a five-storey warehouse chock with acid-bath pine and house clearance. Her routine was fixed: turn on tv, shower, wash hair, put on jeans and a loose top, light up. In the kitchen she heated the meal she’d bought in the Precinct – char-grilled Mediterranean vegetables and couscous. She scraped it out of the plastic container onto a pretty plate from the warehouse, sat on the stool she’d got there too, ate looking out of the window as her second stub burned down. There was a wholemeal roll, a low-fat chocolate pudding. She washed up, made coffee, lit another, swung her feet up on the sofa in the living room.
Thought about casinos. ‘Glamorous’ was the word he’d used. She liked him quite, Frank Murphy, heard he ran successful businesses, must be worth a bomb. Married, young children. Not good-looking, short, but she liked him. She supposed he wanted her in the casino to draw the punters. She could stand a bit of staring, had it every day in the shop. She knew exactly what they were thinking, those men who came for a couple of rashers or a pie, but she could always turn her back. In the casino they’d be there for the money, roulette, card games. She’d just be part of the overall glamour. They wouldn’t need to speak to her much. They wouldn’t touch her. She could be anonymous.
When she was a girl people said she’d be a model with her looks. Or an air hostess. They’d look at her in a certain sort of way. Teachers either hated her or made her their pet; then the children hated her. She’d learned good looks were bad.
She flicked through Murphy’s brochure. People stood at gaming tables pleased with themselves. Women dealers and cashiers wore white shirts and black bowties, black trousers, waistcoats glittering with sequins. Some had braces pushed aside by enormous boobs. She thought she’d look good in the gear. She could see herself doing the job, except perhaps for the smiling. Perhaps he wouldn’t insist on her smiling.
She’d be starting work around now, evening, till six am. Familiar hours. She assumed the business was bent, the games fixed, but that was Murphy’s affair, not hers. She let herself dream. Life without the feel of meat, the smell of it, sight of it, its resistance beneath steel. She thought of heads turning in the casino, of being taken out in smart cars. Men who played big sums might be less interested in sex. She imagined someone, attentive, worshipping, choosing priceless dishes for her, waiters hovering, business-class flights, hotels, designer clothes, bags, shoes; and all without pawing, leering, slobbering, all without sex.
The problem would be Michael. Her kid brother Michael. Michael, so skilled with the knives, whose left hand, despised at school, cut faultlessly, who’d bought a whole butcher’s business and made good. He’d given her work in the shop because he’d wanted her off the game. Would he let her go now? She felt the strength of his hold on her. He made her anxious with his temper; he was so jittery always, she thought twice before she spoke. He had no friends, only lovers. Lovers who lasted a night. One had stayed a week, hung around the back of the shop, his trousers so tight you had to look. She’d worked in the shop nine years. That was enough, she’d surely paid him back by now. But she didn’t know how he’d take it.
She got up, went to the window and looked out, resting her elbows on the sill. Michael lived in squalor nearby. Behind those houses were roofs; trees in increasing numbers stretched out into salubrious suburbs and then to Welsh hills. She watched a few cars stop at the lights, move on. A BMW was parked in an alley opposite, beneath the street lamp.
Frank Murphy was uxurious. He loved his wife’s small, bustling plumpness, her easy manner with people, admired her way with the children, girls, both pretty like she still was. He’d hang around fondly in the kitchen, enjoy her improved tones on the phone. He bought her a new car every year, now SHA 8, exotic flowers each weekend, never questioned a bill.
Their house was vintage modern, rectangles, glass, through-carpeted, landscaped, pampas grass, patio, not far from Sharon’s mother. He knew what he wanted ultimately: a Victorian shipping magnate’s sandstone pile in Noctorum – Gothic towers, crenellated walls, corbels, huge chimneys that would flatten a man if they fell. Billiard room, great dark Jacobean mantlepieces, wainscotting, library. He’d once been invited to such a house; a boy in his class at school, there for the Catholic education, asked him for tea. No friendship germinated; he couldn’t ask the boy back. No children were ever invited to ‘tea’. They didn’t have that sort of tea.
Frank was bright, lucky in his teachers, even as a boy envisioned the existence of a better world. As he accumulated money he began to buy books and classical music. He read, listened like other men drank, would rather stay in on a Saturday afternoon than go to the match. Sharon laughed at him, but he bought his daughters quantities of books, more than those of their friends in prep school. Quick at numbers, he’d started life in a bookie’s, risen to manager, partner, bought the business, opened branches, graduated to casinos. Money washed in. He could be hard, had to hold off the big boys, but his success was due to brain-power. Most other people were stupid.
Yet now he began to know what it was like to be thick. His mind was stuck, wouldn’t shift, thought only of Maureen. He couldn’t make decisions. He cancelled meetings, diverted calls to his manager. Sat at his desk transfixed. She was there in his head day and night, her pale, shockingly beautiful features, her grey eyes gazing coldly at him. What he really wanted was to stand in a corner of the shop and watch her, her beauty made poignant by blood and flesh. In time she might notice him, listen to him, like him. Acknowledge that he wasn’t like other men, wasn’t a fool.
There was no betrayal of Sharon. She was good in bed, read her glossies, tried out the latest tips. He’d never desired any of the girls in the casino though he liked their sexy clothes, flirted enough to keep them on their toes. He was proud of his faithfulness in the face of temptation.
Maureen was not that kind of temptation. He wanted only to see her. All the time. To absorb her. Let her beauty seep into his soul.
Opposite James Aldred was a secondhand bookshop, Crow’s. Buddleia sprouted from its down-pipe. Recently Frank had bought a complete Dickens – Imperial Edition – in readiness for the library in a house he had his eye on. Now he was at Crow’s daily, stepping over heaps of damp paperbacks to catch sight of Maureen through a gap in the shelves. The bookshop owner, white, trembling from an unfinished breakdown was puzzled, pleased.
That day, obliging the bookseller to remain open, he’d stood and watched her leave the shop, then followed. When he saw her reach the block, a window open two floors up, he went for his car and parked in an alley over the road. He watched without cease until, late, she looked out then drew the curtains. He waited a further hour, sweating, anticipating a late-night visit, but there was none. No sign of the butcher either. He drove home feeling strangely purified as when a boy he’d been to mass with his mother, before all the others were born and clouded her life with toil.
Sharon suspected another woman. Frank swore there wasn’t one, which was true in the sense Sharon was thinking. He told her he was drawing up plans, also true, though he dreamed about them in the car outside Maureen’s flat, not in his plush office. He intended to open a restaurant over the river, in a disused once grand building. The city was on the up. Now was the time. He’d have it tastefully decorated, buy in a chef with a name, aim for customers with class.
Have Maureen manage it for him. Lift her out, raise her; his tribute to her. He imagined her there, cool, poised, peerless.
After two weeks she’d not agreed to his offer of work in the casino, had put him off twice. Sitting in the car, third Ruysdael alight, Classic FM playing on his emotions, knuckles on the window broke his yearning. A man flung onto the passenger seat.
‘What’re you after? You a pervert or something? I’ve seen you here every night this week, and last week.’
‘What d’you want with her?’ he rasped. ‘What d’you want with Maureen? She’s my sister.’
‘Frank Murphy.’ Frank tried to shake Twomey’s hand, was ignored. ‘Your sister. Right. I made her an offer.’
‘She told me. And you thought she’d change her mind if you sat outside her flat every night! Pull the other. She’s not accepting your offer. She works for me. End of story.’
‘She’d be an asset in my new casino. Her looks …’
‘Her looks got her on the game. Didn’t know she’d been a hooker, did you? Shocked are you? I got her out of that. You do when it’s your own flesh and blood. Don’t tell me about her looks. She was on the game at fourteen. Well used before that. What is this crap?’ Fretting fingers turned the sound down but not off. Be-ne-di-i-ctus, Frank heard.
‘How do you know she was . . er before she was fourteen?’
‘Because he had us all, didn’t he? Uncle Gerry. Each one in turn. Had the whole fucking lot of us.’
Frank looked at Twomey’s taut face, paper-thin skin. His hair was dark but the cheek bones were the same as hers.
‘Did they get him? Is he inside? They get them nowadays.’
‘No such luck. He wasn’t a priest, see. Just a family friend.’
‘I’m sorry. But a job in the casino’s not the same at all. It’s respectable. No relationships with staff. Against house rules.’
‘You don’t get it, do you?’ He sensed Twomey’s knee pumping up and down, noticed, then, the six-inch blade on the dashboard.
‘I’m making Maureen a really fine offer. There’ll be promotion. You’ve no idea the great things I’ve planned for her.’
Twomey yelped. ‘You fucker! Look!’ Yanked off his tee shirt. A pattern of scars from neck to groin, herringbone, exquisitely cut.
‘She squealed, didn’t she. First I wouldn’t join them – they wanted me, for my knives. I’m good, you see. Precise.’ He picked up the knife, nicked a deft F in Frank’s thigh, peeled back the heavy cotton.
‘No mark on you, see? Not a scratch! Didn’t even feel it! Buy another pair, won’t you, Mr Casino? As I said, I wouldn’t play, then I was getting her out, getting her away from them and the cunt squealed. They said they’d show me they had knife skills of their own. Pretty, would you say? Like Irish tweed. Feel the quality!’
He wrenched Frank’s hand from the steering wheel and drew the palm down over the scars to the top of his fly.
‘How much do you need, Mr Twomey? I’ll compensate you. Pay you her full worth. And more. It’ll be a lot, she’s worth a lot.’ He tried to pull back his hand, failed, kept his eye on the knife. He mustn’t lose this. He never lost anything.
‘You shouldn’t trust a cunt like that, Mr Murphy,’ Twomey said, forcing Frank’s hand into his unzipped lap. ‘She’s paying her due. She’ll pay as long as these scars last. You take my offer.’
Frank felt the erection, Michael’s muscular fingers now at the back of his neck, and, as his head jerked down, glimpsed the figure of Maureen through the windscreen, illuminated in the flats’ entrance.
A fool, he shoved the car horn with his right shoulder; saw her face as his head jacked up with the blow; blood flood the upholstery. Heard the fade-out on osanna.
© Alix Nathan 2013-2014