He'd escaped for a few years by the only route available to some young men. But now he was back from the sea, with nothing. Back among the landmarks of his unhappiness, in this begrudging town where last orders was half past ten but the pubs still set their clocks ten minutes fast.
This evening he'd trawled the town for hash. Get back to the room, skin up, forget about it. But there was nothing about and nothing remained of the old crew. Malc and Jerry were in Exeter doing three months. Dope in the post from Thailand, a clumsy P.S. to a holiday of a lifetime. Billy Bullshit and his sisters had called it a day. Busted once too often they'd vowed they'd had their last two inches of notoriety in the Gazette. Even the biker pubs offered nothing.
Neil sat on the car park wall and considered his choices. From somewhere he remembered what Workman had told him about Brownie. Brownie was known as the town queer but what Workman knew was that he'd once brought a quarter of a weight of South African bush through Customs by stuffing it in Old Holborn packets which he then ironed shut.
He was conspicuous among the cider-heads and left-over punks in the Crown. He sat alone at the bar in grubby deck shoes and baggy khaki shorts, even now in winter. His legs were bandy and heavily veined.
Neil walked to the bar and ordered. He stood next to Brownie, checking that it was him. His time away had done something to his memory. These days he found himself forgetting the names of streets he'd walked down all his life. But he remembered Workman's description and recognised him from it. And there was something else. Some other memory from further back, hovering just out of view.
He considered the shortest route to the drugs, got ready to speak.
Brownie got in first. 'Look familiar for some reason.'
Neil shrugged. 'Every fucker does round here don't they?'
Brownie smiled. 'Local though?'
'Used to be. I was away for a bit. In the Merchant.'
'Self too. Fifteen years. Not a bad life.'
Neil noticed the clipped way he spoke. Like he was thinking aloud, talking to himself. Going okay though, he thought. He'd found a way in by accident.
'On leave?' Brownie asked, offering a Park Royal untipped.
Neil really couldn't be doing with it, but he thought he might as well get it out of the way. 'Got booted out. I was down in the Malvinas. With the Fleet Auxiliary. Couldn't bear all the regular wankers.'
'Chinned a bloke. Caught him a pearler. Could've killed him. He was two foot off doing a backflip into the hold.'
That everydad prick was looking for it, with his yes sir, no sir, kiss my arse and call me Charlie. Neil looked at his hand after the blow. On his sleeve were two wet dots where the man's nostrils had made contact. He hadn't even connected properly but he'd floored him. It was a beautiful feeling.
A biker squeezed between Neil and Brownie at the bar. He looked at Neil. 'You alright for a drink there mate?'
'Do you want to get out the fucking way so I can get one then?'
Brownie and Neil moved to a table in the corner. The older man began to reminisce, about places he'd been, warmer places, about how he used to be as brown as a berry all year round.
'That why they call you Brownie?'
Instinct told Neil to leave it.
Brownie rolled up his sleeve to reveal a smudged tattoo of four Chinese characters. 'Got that done in Singapore.'
'What's it mean?'
'Chicken fried rice and chop suey. For when I'm in the chinky and I'm too arseholed to speak. Lift up me shirt and Bob's your uncle.'
Neil listened as Brownie continued. He found himself forgetting to feel bored for once. Brownie had stories.
But Brownie had secrets too, his alone to hold and carry. In Bolivia he'd licked cocaine from between the buttocks of nineteen year olds. In Tangiers he'd smoked hash with someone who'd once met Keith Richards. He'd had hand-jobs beyond number in every corner of the globe.
But he was back these last eight years. Back looking after his dad; cooking for him, wiping his arse, fetching in a fish supper every Friday, stopping the old fool from going down the shops in his pyjamas. Nobody's idea of a life for either of them.
By the bar a glass dropped, shattered. A young man, pink and stocky, steadied himself. His spluttering face was creased with laughter.
His tall, gormless-looking mate continued braying out his story. 'Should've seen her. Piss-flaps like an elephant's ears, she had.'
Neil looked then looked away. 'All I need,' he said.
Brownie reached for his cigarettes. 'Trouble, do you reckon?'
'Just don't want that piggy-looking fucker spotting me.'
'Friend of yours?'
'Hardly. Spencer. Used to go out with his sister. I told me mate she had funny-shaped tits and it got back to her, so she dumped me. Spencer threatened me with a pasting on the strength of it.'
Brownie's eyebrows lifted slightly. 'Nice.' He nodded in the direction of the bar. 'Here he comes, look.'
Neil felt a knuckle jab at his shoulder. He turned, shifting his weight, ready to roll from a punch.
Spencer was smiling. 'Alright, Neil? Long time.'
Spencer gave another dig. 'No hard feelings about that kicking I nearly give you. Fucking silly tart, that Louise.'
Neil said nothing.
'Been getting some time in me,' Spencer said, as if he were answering a question. 'Falklands.' He grinned. 'Fucking loved it.'
Neil looked at him. 'Glad someone enjoyed it.'
'Load of us are going up Déjà Vu later. You coming?'
Neil shook his head.
'What's the matter? Haven't you had your fix yet?'
Spencer sniggered for a while at his own joke, then, like somebody remembering something, suddenly frowned and said, 'Alright, bollocks then you twat.' He rejoined the other matelots.
'What was that about?' Brownie asked.
'The dig about the fix.'
'Doesn't know what he's on about. All gear's the same to someone like that.'
Neil smiled. 'Got to have a hobby haven't you?'
They were off then. Two drugs bores together, one nostalgic, one with it mostly to come.
In a pause Neil remembered the purpose of the evening. 'Don't suppose you know for any at the moment do you?'
Brownie shook his head. 'I don't anymore. It'd finish the old man if I got done. He's got a weak heart.'
Neil had that feeling again, of something half remembered. Like glimpsing something from the corner of his eye. Then he remembered. Brownie's daft, jittery dad, peeping from behind spotless nets, his neck leathery like a tortoise's. Dog-shit on the catch of the gate. Brownie stood on the pavement, shaking with rage, shouting 'He's got a weak heart you little bastards!' Then, as they ran, his voice after them. 'I'll remember you. I'll remember you.'
At least once a week for about a month. Until it got boring. Up the end of the tennis courts for a snout then round the corner for a bit of tormenting. Neil, Skeggs, Workman, Dan, Spencer, whoever was about really.
Neil accepted a cigarette from Brownie. He went to say, 'Thanks' but it came out as, 'Sorry'.
He felt a sharp tap on his skull.
Spencer again. 'Last chance for Déjà Vu,' he said. 'Grab a granny night.'
Neil took a sip of his pint. 'I'd rather have me cock banged between two bricks.'
Spencer looked at Brownie. 'Pity they don't have a nonces' night. Anyway, what brings you out? Scouting for boys is it?'
Brownie drew on his cigarette. 'I remember you.'
Spencer remembered the last time Brownie said that to him. The cinema. The summer he left school. He'd had enough of kicking his heels, down by the brook with the usual crew, killing the days with evostik.
He'd retreated to the darkness of the Majestic. He sat alone and watched milkmen and nurses and housewives and window-cleaners disrobe perfunctorily. As they dropped Crimplene trousers to reveal flabby arses the colour of semolina, he felt nothing. Like waiting to come up on a drug he would never come up on.
Then he did feel something. A hand on the thigh.
Later in the cubicle of the toilets he lost his balance as he came, banged his head on the partition. Brownie kissed his forehead, said, 'Steady, now.'
Spencer leaned across the table and prodded Brownie in the chest. 'You want to watch yourself you bent twat. I'm trained to kill a man with one hand.'
'Well, if I spot any men with one hand I'll tell them to give you a wide berth.'
The gormless mate held Spencer back by the collar like he was a dog in a cartoon, dragged him to the door.
Brownie and Neil hung back until the last stool had been banged on top of the last table. They walked to the Square, feeling safer where the crowds were. They queued for hot dogs at the van, Neil watching out for Spencer.
On the bench in the churchyard, eating, Neil felt uneasy, alone and quiet with Brownie. He began telling the story of how he'd caught crabs the last time he was there.
Brownie interrupted. 'Why did you start talking to me in the pub earlier?'
Neil put his hot dog down beside him on the bench, tensed himself ready to clump Brownie and run if he tried anything. 'Just thought you might know for some weed.'
'Oh.' Brownie wiped his hands and lit a cigarette. 'I can guess why you think I spoke to you.'
Neil sniffed. 'Fucked if I know.'
'Wanted to know what made you tick I suppose.' He looked at Neil's face for a clue. Nothing. 'You don't remember do you?'
'How do you mean?'
'You could've give him a heart attack. You and your mates.'
Neil stood. 'Oh, that. Weren't anything personal. Don't know any better that age.'
Brownie wouldn't let his face give anything. 'By the way, I wouldn't touch you with someone else's, in case you're wondering.'
Neil kicked absently at the leg of the bench. 'So how come they call you Brownie then?'
Brownie exhaled, leaned back. 'Brown-hatter.'
'Oh. Right.' He looked at Brownie, remembered school, those days. 'Don't suppose you have much of a time of it do you?'
'I manage, cheers.'
'I'd've thought you'd be better off in Bristol or London or somewhere. With being a bit whatsit. You're fucked round here.'
'Not as often as I'd like.'
Neil began rolling a cigarette. 'Can't see meself staying. I'm not like the wankers round here.'
Brownie smiled. 'Everyone thinks that, your age. Wears off for most people.'
They headed back to the Square. The queue for Déjà Vu had shortened. Neil squeezed past the end of the queue and ducked into Tabernacle Alley for a piss.
Pissing, looking blankly into the near-darkness, he realised he'd forgotten all about the gear, and smiled. He shook himself, zipped up and began walking back. Spencer was kicking Brownie from one side of the mouth of the alley to the other.
Behind Neil a pallet was leaned against the wall. One of its slats was broken, hanging loose. He wrenched the slat free and swung it as hard as he could at Spencer's head. Spencer went down, stayed down.
Neil walked Brownie to the cab office, not touching him, not speaking. He put him in the first car on the rank and ran for his life.