Jen saw the dogs first, their short muscular bodies scudding along the pavement like torpedoes. The Brothers and their men came after, followed by the girl and the fat woman. The shoppers and the tourists sensed the change in the atmosphere and parted instinctively, allowing them to pass. Jen hung back, keeping close to the buildings. Daniel and Joseph Avery were dangerous; catch their eye, come into their orbit, and you would become their victim. They stalked the streets like warlords, their dogs always by their side, their gang of sycophants never far away. The rest of the gang had split up and were begging for money or cigarettes.
Alone, they were invisible or abused; together, with the dogs as their messengers and the Brothers as their mentors, they wielded their difference like a weapon. The men pursued the tourists; the women targeted the smokers outside the Shisha cafes. Obsequious and cajoling, they were insistent; most people gave them something to get rid of them. Jen wished they wouldn’t. The area had become a Mecca for beggars who would spend the money handed over for ‘a cup of tea’ or for ‘something to eat’ on cans of lager or cider; by nightfall, they would be shadow boxing demons and urinating in shop doorways, the women as carelessly as the men.
Excuse me, love, you’re blocking the way. ’ A girl pushing an enormous baby buggy hung all about with bags was waiting to pass, and Jen stood back. Distracted by the antics of the beggars, she’d lost sight of the Brothers. When she saw them again, a man in a wrinkled blue suit was trying to attract their attention. He was walking between them, talking and gesturing, fingers jabbing the air. Massive, cuboid, identical moon faces impassive, the Brothers stopped suddenly, stood perfectly still. Jen slowed down, her breath caught in her throat. She recognised the sudden stillness that comes before a violent or traumatic act.
The man in the blue suit hesitated, laughed, his hands quiet, but his feet making small panicky steps, advancing, retreating, as if he was frightened to stay, frightened to go. The Brothers clamped him by the arms, their thick white fingers crumpling the sleeves of his suit, and continued walking, taking him along with them. Their matching suede jackets, once tan, were stiff with dirt, and their grey track- suit bottoms were baggy and stained, but they had authority; no one dared challenge them. Jen thought she’d seen the man before, but whatever he’d done to upset the Avery’s was no concern of hers.
He was struggling now, trying to free his arms, and shouting. The Brothers held him fast; they were strong, hard men, thick with fat and muscle, and he had the emaciated appearance of someone who hadn’t eaten or slept for weeks. He looked over his shoulder, and Jen thought he was looking at her, his eyes dark and pleading in his white face. He called out something, and Daniel jerked at his arms, but he strained his neck around, and yes, he was looking at her as if he knew her, and his mouth was moving, shaping words she couldn’t hear.
Daniel turned to scan the street and she pretended to examine something in a shop window. Joseph whistled for the dogs and they fell back to walk beside him, jostling for supremacy and quivering with devotion. The rest of the gang gave up hounding the public and hurried to form a group around their leaders. An odour of smoke and decay hung over them and lingered in the air after they passed. When she dared to look again, they had crossed the road and were making their way down the steps to the canal. The handles of her shopping bag was cutting into her fingers, and she put it down and stretched out her fingers.
Her feet hurt, her back ached, and all she wanted was to get home and rest. The noise in the street had gone up a level; the schools were out, and teenagers from the local Academy swarmed around her. Locked into their world, their interest in each other disguised as mock fights or insults, she was invisible to them, an obstacle they avoided but didn’t acknowledge. Groups of boys huddled together, pretending not to notice the girls that sashayed past them. All of them held their phones as if they were passes to the VIP lounge in a member’s only club.
Angie wanted a new phone. They’d argued about it last night. Remembering their argument drove any speculation about the man out of her mind She had taken off her jacket and put the kettle on when she heard Angie’s key in the lock. Drying her hands on the tea towel, she went into the hall to greet her. Angie mumbled a response to Jen’s greeting without looking at her, and went into her room and closed the door. Jen went back to the kitchen. Angie could hold a grudge for weeks, and her energy for combat was phenomenal.
She would come as prepared for battle as a general and argue her case as cunningly as a lawyer. Last night, though, she’d lost the argument. Jen couldn’t have bought her a new phone even if she wanted to; she couldn’t afford it. ‘I’m the only one in my class without a decent phone,’ Angie had said. ‘You’ve got a phone, Angie. You use it enough; I’m always topping it up. ’ Angie had towered over her. When did she grow so tall? She was obviously uneasy with her body and stood with her shoulders hunched and her back rounded. It made her look clumsy and awkward.
If I had a decent phone…. ’ Jen hadn’t let her finish; there was no point. ‘It’s out of the question, love. I can’t afford it. Maybe next birthday. ’ ‘You can afford booze and fags, though. ’ And she’d slammed out of the room, skinny legs in skinny jeans, Doc Martins unlaced. ‘God, you’re so feeble. ’ Maybe Angie had a point, Jen thought now. She should cut back on the drink and the cigarettes. It was a struggle to keep them housed, clothed, and fed, but there were few pleasures left to her; she had no appetite for food, no money for nights out, and her sex drive was non-existent.
At thirty-five, she was supposed to have reached her sexual peak, to be wearing out old husbands or new lovers, but she was too tired for sex, and too disillusioned for a relationship. Her cigarettes and a bottle of wine now and again helped keep the worry about money and the loneliness at bay. Later, she took Angie’s supper in to her. She was at her desk, and turned her computer off when Jen opened the door. ‘Knock first, mum, don’t just barge in. ’ ‘I did knock, you didn’t hear me. ’ ‘Put it on the chair, I’ll have it later. ’
She waited for Jen to leave, radiating strained patience. How was school? ’ How feeble, how idiotic she sounded; Jen waited for the sarcasm. ‘How do you think it was? It’s school. ’ Jen left. She didn’t have the energy for another argument, not tonight; tonight she wanted to kick of her shoes and watch something mind numbing on the television. Back in the kitchen, she started to make herself a sandwich, then opened a bottle of wine instead, took it through to the sitting room and turned on the television. The six o’clock news was over; it was officially night-time, her drinking time, and she poured herself a glass.
She woke dry mouthed and sweating. The television was blaring away in the corner, and she switched it off. On her way to bed, she looked in on Angie. Even asleep, she looked guarded, her knees drawn up, her forearms crossed over her chest, her hands gripping her shoulders. The supper plate was on the floor by the bed. Jen was too relieved she’d eaten the meal to worry about a dirty plate. Fussy eating was fashionable at her school; half her class swore they were wheat intolerant. She groped under the bed and retrieved a mug and a knife and fork.