by Dominic Ward
Stanley rolled over at the interruption of the call. He’d spent some time on the shop floor deciding on this bed and he was very comfortable. But the phone persisted. A few further moments later he acceded that it just wasn’t going to quit. It just seemed, right then and there, that it was going to be one of those days. The sun was in the bedroom now anyway. He sighed, an admission that he was now entirely awake and that sleep had fled, at least until the world went dark again. He reached over his side of the bed and took up the handset from where it sat on the floor.
– Stanley, we need to chat.
That voice – Willy’s; a younger man and technically his subordinate.
– What’s up, Willy?
– Not on the phone, Stanley. Do you know somewhere good?
– Sounds interesting, Willy. You can come on over here.
– No, not at your place, Stanley. I respect you and yours. I want to keep your family well away from this.
– I don’t know if I want to know anymore about this, Willy. That’s a pretty dark hint.
– It’ll be worth your hearing it, Stanley.
– Ok. Meet me out back of Chang’s. I’ll let the old man know you’re coming. He’ll send you through. 10am.
– Appreciated, Stanley.
Stanley knew better than to try and guess what Willy might have to tell him. He’d been party to enough surprises in his time, more than one or two plot twists and turns. He languished back in bed, just far enough that his hip came up against the soft flesh of Mary’s round bottom.
Willy doesn’t want to risk the family – I haven’t had that in a while.
Stanley lay back into his pillow and went methodically through the items in his day. Get up, shower, dress, breakfast, Bella to school, Chang’s at 10 and, now, Willy, group meeting at 12 on the harbour, the afternoon full of minor details – the jobs that needed doing, the bankable stuff – home in the early evening for Bella and then off again into the dark for the hard hours of the night shift, keeping all his projects on track and moving. Stanley bored of the grind sometimes, but he also knew that it was vital to maintain that essential momentum. Everything, even the smallest plot, had to keep going forward, the engines that drove it regulated and its every cog greased. The only way to assure this was physical attendance.
His back was aching some.
The big jobs the group undertook to which Stanley lent his experience paid well but they were few and far between. His real money, the money that paid the bills, was made on the small, hustling much as he always had, since his very first days of membership. Sure, the territory was now bigger and the cut likewise, but it was still hustling, with all the risk and hard work that that entailed. The Boss didn’t hustle. His cadres didn’t hustle. But everyone else did, even old Samuel, Stanley’s initial sponsor and one time mentor. Samuel was a lifer. He’d been doing this a long time now, having joined during that period shortly after the group had proposed its first charter. He had worked alongside some of the original big names, taken turns on jobs with men who’d later become legends and leaders, men who were mostly now all dead. And he’d die on the job someday too, though not in a blaze of glory but through a gentle yet vile fading. Samuel was a third-to-front-rower in the organisation, but he had little actual sway. He’d been a street warrior all his life, overlooked for every great promotion. Well, maybe he was a little on the slow side. But nonetheless, Stanley had long thought Samuel deserved better, a proper title and a pension or something.
That will never happen to me. I’ll make sure of it.
Stanley got up and had his shower. He liked to keep clean, doing his own shopping for the grooming products he felt worked best for him. The warm water on his skin tingled, in that subtle sensation was the first hint of withdrawal, a benign fever in the forearms, a gentle burning that, without intervention, would become an agonising wildfire by the time he was due to meet Willy. There were other signs as well, small, recognisable only to the dedicated addict. Stanley’s mood was off, a barely-registrable depression, distractibility, irritability. So minor it could just have been the detritus of sleep. But Stanley knew better, and he knew that soon he’d have to intervene. He knew that this morning, like every other morning for years now, he’d have to have a shot just to get out the front door. Without that magical shot, he’d soon wind up back in bed, begging for mercy to a God who had long since abandoned him. But once he had that shot, his swagger would be back on, he’d be pure health and energy and work speed again – for another four or five hours at least. And for several hours at least, he’d be able to act like he didn’t have that crazy pain that sometimes made his moods unbearable.
After showering, he dressed in silk – mulberry synthesised from DNA preserved from the Old World – taking the shot in the closet, waking his family after first taking a moment for himself, a moment and just a moment, to enjoy the new life surging through his veins and on into his every cell – his own quiet thank you to that same fickle God – then taking his daughter out to the kitchen for breakfast while his wife showered.
– How’s school?
– It’s ok.
– Still sitting next to Sally?
– Yes, but she talks too much, Daddy. Sometimes she annoys me.
– I don’t remember you complaining about that before.
– She’s changed, Daddy. All she talks about is Daniel.
– Ah, a boy.
– Yes, and she’s always in trouble with the teacher and sometimes I get into trouble too because she talks to me but I don’t want her to.
– Have you told her this?
– Yes, but she does it anyway. She can’t help herself, even if she says sorry later.
– How about telling the teacher?
– Sally might not like me anymore if I did that.
– Yes, I see the problem. A tricky one. So I guess you gotta figure out which is more important to you – your friendship with Sally or your work.
– I guess so.
– Maybe there is a way to have both.
– I can talk to your teacher and ask her to move you. That way, Sally can’t be upset at you because it wasn’t your choice.
– I don’t know, Daddy. Let me think about it.
– Sure, baby.
– Are you going to work today?
– Yes, sweetie. You know I have to. But not until after I’ve walked you to school.
– Now, what are you having for breakfast? Toast again?
Stanley saw nothing but beauty in Bella. The little girl had so much of her mother in her. At ten she was already very confident about her place in the world. She had the grades at school to back it up, too. Stanley often wondered what her future might bring. He had no doubt she’d move away from the life he was living. And that gladdened his heart. Someday maybe even he and Mary could join her in that other world. Maybe. Stanley somehow doubted he would ever forget the scars of membership that he carried, the pains of an old wound perhaps too great a reminder of who he really was. And yet now, sitting across from Bella, his beautiful daughter dutifully packing her work books into her school bag, he thought anything possible. And, wow, was Bella getting tall now! This was something that did worry Stanley a little. Still, there was nothing to prevent his little girl growing up.
He put two slices of white bread in the toaster and pulled down its rubberised operating lever. While the toast was being done, he put the electric kettle on and prepared a coffee each for him and Mary. The moonstone was well in his brain now, having peaked and now smoothing down the plateau, his life-force surging. Moonstone was clean to shoot. Well, this moonstone was anyway. He shot his own supply, never anything off the street. His habit cost him nothing, well almost nothing. He had a team working pharma and he simply skimmed off the top what he needed. He’d learned tricks for keeping his veins open, and, a lot of the time, he skin-popped.
Mary knew about the moonstone of course. She had been there when it first started, the addiction. She understood it, as well as she could. Stanley had never od’ed on her, and she’d never seen him a mess. He used it for the pain, and that was all. He’d taken that bullet – in the back, close to the spine, fragments still littering him – and the doctor who had attended him through his rehabilitation had given him those first little pills. The needles and syringes had frightened her at first, but they were just a part of life now, and Stanley had always kept his shooting away from her and Bella. Stanley was a good man. He was always respectful and not once in their entire time together had he raised his voice – or anything else – to her. Sure, she’d prefer him home a little more and he was often out until very late. And some of the things that he was involved with, well, she’d rather not know. And when he did admit to some of the more harrowing or contentious aspects of his work, which was infrequently, he was never righteous about what he was doing and she took some good measure of comfort from this. He’d promised her he’d never involve himself with prostitution or anything at all to do with children and that was enough for Mary. She knew he was serious about keeping that promise. For Stanley loved her dearly; and he was both a committed partner and a dedicated provider. He took care of her and her daughter, their daughter. And Mary’s mother had always told her that you could never have everything your own way, that compromises had to be made. She finished dressing and went out to the kitchen to join her small but cosy family.
– They’re asking for nominations for junior school captain this week.
– You’re going to put your name in?
– You’d like to be captain?
– Yes, I think so.
– Then nominate.
– What if I don’t win?
– Well, you might not win. Someone has to miss out. How bad would you feel if it was you who missed out?
– Pretty bad, I guess.
– Sure, you’ll feel bad for a little while. Then other stuff will happen and you’ll forget all about it. But if you don’t nominate, you’ll definitely not win. And maybe you’ll spend the rest of the year wondering what might have been. Do you know what I mean?
– Yes, I think so, Daddy.
– Sometimes it’s better to try and not win, than to not try and not win and always think: ‘Well, maybe I could have won.’ I say give it a go. Even if you don’t win, the experience would be great for you. Look at it as just that–- an experience and nothing more. Winning then would be just an extra bonus.
– I see what you mean. I think I will put my name down.
Mary came up behind Stanley and put her arm around his waist, nuzzling her face into his shoulder. She liked the feeling of the kitchen mornings, as regular a custom as there could be. It was the one time when the whole family were guaranteed to be together, although Stanley did make a valiant effort to be home for some part of the early evenings. She loved to just quietly listen to her husband and daughter chat between themselves, the coffee that her husband had made for her awaiting her on the bench top, toast already on its way to being done, her day slowly beginning around her. She never once envied the bond between father and daughter; she revelled in it. The mornings were for them; she had Bella all to herself in the afternoons and nights.
Mary was a quiet woman, but not in a timid, weak kind of way. She had her own inner strength; indeed, much of it. She simply had little interest in being heard, preferring to keep her judgments to herself, or shared only with Stanley. She didn’t socialise much with the wives and girlfriends of the other members, even with those of the few to who her husband was close. She kept up an old network of friends from her younger days and that was enough, though in truth she didn’t see them much more than she saw anyone else. Yet she did not feel isolated. She had all the freedom in the world, if she needed it. And perhaps in that knowledge was the ultimate freedom itself.
– You got all your homework done?
– Yes, Daddy. I’ve finished everything already and it’s not due until Tuesday!
– Ah, yes, that’s right. You’ve got the weekends to do it now, don’t you?
– Yes, but I always get mine done early.
– I don’t doubt it, sweetie.
The two made a happy sight – the tall father walking hand in hand with his much smaller daughter, her long dark hair with its fine ringlets easing down over her shoulders, their bodies not quite touching and yet so close as to be. A few cars of morning traffic went by them, the suburbs draining in an aortic rupture to complete the city; Stanley had set up the family home in a typically middle-class suburb, wishing a quiet, warm life for his beloved two. They’d kept home here now for all of Bella’s decade; they’d moved in from a small apartment in the city, Mary falling in love with Stanley’s plan immediately, house hunting ferociously while her husband was at work. That was the kind of partnership they had – anything one thought good, the other would too. Trust was implicit, respect a given, love unbreakable.
They’d been high school sweethearts: he an often truant hoodlum; she a preppy, college-bound straight. With little in common, and the difference of circumstance and class, it had been a miracle they had come together at all. And yet they had. Despite being anything but aligned, a coming together had occurred against the odds. Somewhere in their final year they had had a chance to experience each other’s company and he had somehow managed to make an impression on her. Stanley had of course already long been involved in gangs and the underground by that time; his friendship group at school – when he was there – was compromised entirely of the rough and the dangerous, those who would get a girl into the greatest trouble and not think twice about it. But he had always been, from his marrow outwards, respectful of girls and gentle towards them. Whatever it had been, and there is no telling with these things, Mary had become quickly infatuated with this bad boy and in return she was wooed and doted upon. After high school, they had moved in together, Mary softening Stanley’s inherent rage at the world enough to get him through to graduation, even helping him to raise his grades to levels he could not have thought possible. The truth was that Stanley had a mind built for academic success and though he had never imagined this for himself, Mary had seen this potential within him from the start. Perhaps therein lay the source of her attraction.
During the summer following graduation, Stanley fell headlong into group membership, moving from a fringe player and troubled youth with a whole lot of pretence to a fully-fledged, wholly inducted member, while Mary prepared for college life. And yet even while they were moving in two radically different directions, they remained stuck. For the next four years Stanley threw himself into the work of a lower tier member while Mary attacked her studies, spending her days on campus and coming home in the evenings to their apartment to prepare their evening meal. Long had there been a domestic side to Mary and so it was that after graduating with honours, she happily gave it all up to stay at home and support Stanley.
The life of a junior member is tough – it is all waiting and trials, waiting for the next trial. You work hard for your money, really hard, right down to the marrow so that bone chips circulate with your blood. It’s a harder life than that of an unsigned thug and the returns are routinely smaller. But there is the promise, the guarantee, that hard work and smarts will pay huge dividends in the long term. It is not the career for those seeking instant rewards, over-night success. Membership of the group means you’ll do many years of the hard stuff first, before you can even begin to think of anything else. But eventually, little by little, on the back of that hard graft – and with a little luck – you will rise through the ranks. It was three years before Stanley got any kind of taste of life higher up the ladder. He liked it; the experience hardened his resolve and for the first time he began to believe in the lie of easy money. Easy money – those at the top got rich on the slog of their subordinates. Stanley envisioned that for himself – all the money without the grind and the risk. Real easy money. During his fourth and fifth years, things steadily began falling into place for him; his natural intelligence and his innate capacity for hard work enabled him to really start moving upwards within the group. Suddenly, his money went big. Suddenly, he was finding money everywhere. He was still working just as hard but, where he had once to scrap for every last penny, they were just turning up in his pockets. And not just in bits and pieces but really filling them. Stanley was getting rich. But instead of going lavish, he and Mary retained their small apartment and concentrated on laundering their money, making it good for the future.
Stanley pulled Bella’s hand, using his natural strength to direct her little body into his. He’d been aware of a car pulling up behind them and his instincts were hard. He got them over to the brick wall that ran this length of the footpath, positioning Bella inside of his lean. He kept them walking but he was ready.
The voice; Stanley felt his muscles relax, his grip on Bella’s hand softening. Laboured footsteps on the asphalt: he knew he’d turn to see Johnno’s large frame ambling up to them, red in the cheeks, pockmarks of sweat denigrating his suit.
– Stanley, wait up there.
Stanley turned at the last, keeping Bella inside his arm. With no comment on his face, he waited on the struggling man’s final few paces. The overweight and heaving Johnno passed over the kerb and joined them on the footpath, beneath one of the avenue’s many shade trees. He had an almost embarrassed and somewhat sorry look on his face. Stanley knew Johnno wouldn’t be comfortable intruding like this, whatever chore it was he was on: he was on a lower tier than Stanley, a simple man whose major asset was loyalty to his betters.
– What are you doing here, Johnno?
– Stanley, forgive me. I apologise for getting in yours. Mary said I’d find you here.
– You went to my home?
– I’m not proud, Stanley. I was asked to run this errand and I couldn’t refuse. Again, I’m not getting in yours by choice and I ain’t easy with it.
Stanley felt Bella’s hand tighten in his. She didn’t know that she didn’t need to be nervous and this angered Stanley more.
– Damn it, Johnno – I’m with my daughter. This isn’t good.
– I know, I know. I’m sorry. But I have a message for you.
– Not here, Johnno.
– Stanley, I gotta tell you this. Let me tell you so I can get on my way. It’s big news for all membership. You need to know, right now.
Stanley took a moment in his mind. This needed to play, he realised. Johnno had the spook on him.
– Ok. Hang on one second. Just wait here and give me a minute.
– Sure, Stanley.
Stanley turned back to Bella, leading her a little way off. When they were a good set of ears apart from where Johnno had been left waiting, he knelt down to his daughter and cupped his hands over hers.
– Baby, I’ll be straight back, you know I will.
– I gotta hear what this man has to say. This is work.
– Daddy, I don’t like him. He scares me.
– I know, baby. Give me 30 seconds, then we’re off.
– 30 seconds?
– Thank you, baby. Now you wait just here. I’m only going to be over there, ok?
Stanley stood, giving Bella’s hand a last teasing pull, winking as he turned for the fat man who’d chased them down. Bella didn’t know anything of her father’s work; she’d come to understand it one day of course, but Stanley hoped that day was yet far.
– Sorry, Stanley, really.
– 25 seconds, Johnno.
– Today’s meet has been shifted. You’ll get a call at nine-oh-two sharp with the new location.
– What’s the story?
– I don’t know, Stanley, honest. I got the message and that’s all.
– Fair enough.
– That’s all, Stanley. Keep your phone on for that call. I don’t know who will call you, but that’s what I got to tell you.
– Any talk about this off the record?
– Not on this one, I swear. I’m clean and you know I don’t have bones with you, Stanley.
– Alright, Johnno.
– Listen, Stanley, I gotta get me going. Still have plenty of others for this message.
– You stay golden, Stanley. I’ll be seeing you.
– You too.
Johnno jogged back to his car as Stanley returned to Bella. Stanley had taken Bella’s hand back in his and both had turned to see their overweight intruder off. Johnno reached his car shortly, fumbling with his keys before managing the door open, wading in. The car started and revved, Johnno then pulling it neatly off the kerb and back out onto the road without a further hesitation. Awkward on his feet, but silken behind the wheel, Johnno had served his junior days as a getaway man. They waved him off, getting back to their own morning.
– See, that was only 15 seconds. Plenty of time to spare.
– Sure, daddy.
This must be some drama. Nobody is supposed to come to my house. They all know that.
Stanley wasn’t surprised the group had known where to find him though; he had equal smarts on many of his peers as well. How often is the location of a meet changed at the last minute? Stanley couldn’t recall this ever having happened before. He knew Johnno wouldn’t be setting him up, at least not consciously. Did this all tie in with Willie’s call? Stanley knew enough to know it would all fit together somehow, all weaves in the one tapestry.
He squeezed Bella’s hand again and they continued their walk on towards school, the shade trees of the avenue recommencing their downward sweep in a gentle protection.
Dominic Ward lives and writes in Esk, Australia. He is married with four sons.