Man Bites Trap
Jude Greyson sat at his desk in a cold room. Outside, birds sang as if Spring brought a bountiful feast, and for the time being, the cats in the neighbourhood didn’t exist.
He didn’t hear them. The song. Beauty. Not in the notes or the spaces between them.
Downstairs his friends partied on from the night before. That’s what they called him, a friend. He didn’t hear them either.
The light flickered overhead. Nothing.
A dog barked next door. Silence.
All Jude heard was the zip on a small leather case as he tentatively started to open it. All he felt was numbness. He was a cannonball somehow floating on the waves of life and he knew he was due to fall, sink and rest. Someday soon, maybe it would be today.
His mother hadn’t said a word as she’d helped him pack his bags for college. She’d ironed sheer hell out of everything as she compensated for the weight she knew he carried inside. She saw it in him, the anxiousness. Like he had a crack-filled balloon in his belly about to pop. She’d ironed his clothes so heavily. Trying to purge his worry. Without the emotional tools to do it the way a mother should — she knew nothing else. So pressed, hard. She’d made creases down the front of his jeans as sharp as razor blades. Fuck he hated that. Almost as much as the assumption that his demeanour was nothing more than an adopted artist’s aloof masquerade. Stolen and borrowed from something he’d seen in a book, or the latest band he was into. And that somehow, he was going to come true at college, out of his shell — all crap.
Jude spent a lot of time with his door locked in his shared house at college. When he occasionally ventured out, the others were drawn to his blackheart. It oozed shadows and left invisible bloody footprints as he skulked around the tired old house. What was ridiculed at school, had become a honey-trap at college. An image of something they normally saw onscreen or in music mags. He was the real deal. A walking talking fucked up idol to be built up, and knocked down. They could see it wouldn’t take much. Unlike those they’d read and seen on screen, in bands and in those mags. He was…for real.
He didn’t feel any of that either, their abstract admirations — piss to the wind.
There was no way to see the full extent of his turmoil from the outside. His internal tormentors wore virtual masks, came in many colours and rarely showed an obvious face.
The zip went back on the little black case. As he opened it up, he imagined flying insects buzzing at his head. Carriers of distraction back into life. So, he swatted them away. From the case, rusty shiny blades looked up. He pulled back a shirt sleeve and admired each one of the fresh scars. Pushing. Made them seep.
He turned up the radio, he wasn’t listening to. All white noise drowning out a world; not his. This moment was between him and the blades. His real friends. And Family.
He cut himself, to test if he was still there. To see if he could feel past the numbness. A reality. He cut himself to have control. To be done to, by himself, and only himself. His feelings, born and made fragile by an unsympathetic upbringing, could erupt at any moment with outside influence. Here, he had complete orchestration over his pleasure, pain and when it started and stopped…
He sat back. Tears came. Of pleasure, pain, in the caress of the blade.
‘Jude, we’re having a brew… you want one?’
He wiped the blood away. Put on a plaster and rolled his sleeve down. He was ready to engage again. Although he didn’t know for how long.
Silence. Then a zip. Radio turned down.
‘You knocking one out in there, Jude?’
‘I’ll just be a sec…’
‘Be down in 5.’
* * *
Byron Walters was a public schoolboy prick. The rest of the household thought so as soon as he turned up on their doorstep. He stood there, way too fucking proud in his fake-tan skin. Posed catalogue-regal style, like the shitty neighbourhood didn’t matter, and the student house was his new castle. And, his new housemates peering hesitantly around the door were his new servants. His black designer holdall bag that hung from his hand was worth more than the rent they would all pay each quarter.
They let him in.
In the kitchen, the peeling walls bellowed and the others were glad Jude was locked in his room. They could tell Byron’s brash over-confident and constant banter-shit could send Jude spinning off, either in his head or literally. They’d have to ease them both in together, maybe over a brew. At least Byron wouldn’t be mouthing off as he took a sip of something, surely.
One of them went up to grasp the nettle. To get Jude.
Byron kept laying it on. Really trying to sell himself, all the while misjudging his audience. It was about to go even more off-track, as Jude started to come down the stairs.
The others heard the steps and looked at each other. Byron didn’t notice. He was too busy sucking himself off with stories of girls in each port… How he couldn’t beat them off with a dirty stick — how he was the fucking man. And how all these girls…barely pubescent, were his trophies.
The rest of the housemates felt the fabric of the house and kitchen change. With each of Jude’s steps overhead on the stairs carrying more weight than Byron’s hard-sell macho shit.
Jude slipped easily into the room behind Byron. And leant in the corner out of sight. One of the others nodded, leant over behind Byron and grabbed the kettle, filled it and returned to the base and switched it on.
Jude rolled and lit up.
Byron sniffed the air, looked around and jumped at the new member in the room.
Jude was all in black, as usual, a translucent shadow. Aloof. An invisible reluctant observer, wishing to keep it that way.
‘What the fuck? You a fucking goth or something?’ Byron barked and laughed. Slapping his leg as if riding a horse, ‘thought this was Manchester…all indie kids, baggy trousers and Reni hats n’ shit,’ Byron’s words bounced around the kitchen. The others waited for their reception to take shape. Insult, a dig or friendly intentions were irrelevant. Jude was like thin ice with a bed of nails underneath at the best of times.
Jude breathed in.
He gripped his forearm, enough to feel he could leave the room, at any moment without moving. His recent release was fresh enough that these stranger’s words bounced straight off him. The irony of the pain making his armour thick.
‘I’m going for a piss,’ Jude said to the floor, rolly hanging from his lip. He left, his smoke hanging in the vacuum he left behind.
‘That’s quite an act. Fucking dark arts reaper or something. Watch steam doesn’t come out,’ Byron said as Jude walked up the corridor and back up the stairs.
‘Ain’t no act,’ a voice said by the sink.
‘Bollocks,’ Jude barked. ‘Kid’s been listening to too much Smiths already, that’s all. We’ll get some Boddingtons in him, pills, poppers… Get him out into the big city for fuck sake. That’s just some small-town country repressed fuck up waiting to drink through it, get laid and come out the other side. Hell, he can have one of my birds. Two turning up tomorrow. At different times. It’s a nightmare of a juggling act anyhow…’ Byron’s coffee had kicked in and the others had wished they gave him tea instead. He was off on one, again. The gobshite was churning it out double time. Hyper. Like a dog busting for a piss, hopping on the spot between two lamp posts.
Jude’s footsteps started again on the stairs overhead. Coming back down.
‘Wait… I’ve an idea. It’s a belter — check this out!’ Byron announced to the room. ‘Everyone, hide. NOW! I’ll get behind the door, I’ve got just the thing for the fucking Crow,’ he giggled. No one joined in.
The others looked around, beyond worry. Not confident enough to rein in the ego dominating the room. And a little curious to see what was in store, despite knowing it wouldn’t end well. They knew it was a car crash coming and they were fixed to the back seat anyway.
Byron turned up the radio in the kitchen. Radiohead was playing Creep. ‘Perfect,’ he grinned and knelt down, unzipped the black holdall he’d just arrived with and quickly took something out, and put something under his tracky top before they could see it. Then he stepped behind the door and pulled it in front of himself so he was hidden.
The others all found a spot. Ducking, some in the cellar, others around a corner by the bins. All retreating best they could, out of sight.
From the top of the stairs, Jude heard Radiohead coming from the kitchen but already had Paul Weller in his head, and bits of Oasis, then Joy Division. He might have looked a Goth but his all-black uniform was a mere egoless wardrobe he didn’t have to think about. He was a broken priest of his own religion. His mind whirred on ideas, concepts, existential quandaries of abstract expressionism and broken mirrors. He was a deconstruction of himself. There was no time for public image preening.
By the last step of the stairs, New Order’s Crystal, was playing both in the kitchen and his mind. He floated to the bottom step.
His feet padded down the dark hallway. A thrown beer can had blown the bulb two nights ago and they hadn’t replaced it. The kitchen door was open but he couldn’t hear voices. This was normal over those that whispered in his head and whatever soundtrack he played there too. He heard the Chemical Brothers start and didn’t question whether it was internal or external. This soundtrack meant that rather than about to get worn down by the day, he was in a good place and mood. Ready to crack his own notions over what lay ahead.
He stood in the doorway to the kitchen.
Where had they gone?
The cellar was full of shit, nothing to see down there. And there was nothing much outside…
Longsight wasn’t a place to go sightseeing. Unless you liked boarded up windows, smashed out bus shelters and a community that could chew you up and leave you dead if you stopped still long enough.
They must be hiding.
Maybe they’d been burgled? And the rest were in the cellar tied up.
This area was rough. This city could eat you alive and you wouldn’t even make the second page of the local rag. Only last night a taxi driver had been mugged and killed. Some lads had jumped in, put a gun to his head and noose around his neck. Told him to drive or be shot. Said they’d let him know if he could stop before the rope tied back to a lamppost snapped his neck and his head came off. That was after he’d given them everything and showed them pictures of his wife and kids. His head was found by school kids the next morning and the car crashed into a fence a hundred yards ahead, motor still running as a piss and shit-soaked leg pressed an accelerator to the floor.
Jude grinned. Touched his forearm again — so be it. Muggers or not, he was going in.
Oasis’s Force of Nature played all around as Jude took a step forward. The world slowed. At moments like this, his nervousness went past boiling point. Like when he had to talk to more than one person at a time, interact with an attractive girl…any girl. Or, just a stranger. Jude always swallowed it down and got on with it — and let a well-practiced zen-like power overwhelm him. When he stopped trying and let it win, he knew that would be the end. It was like the calm ebbs and flows moments before going over a waterfall in a small boat. Knowing…
The boat always goes over.
He looked out of the kitchen window to the sun, felt nothing.
The door behind him snapped open crashing against the counter. Nothing, he didn’t jump.
He didn’t feel the gun barrel pressed hard against his temple or the arm gripped tight around his neck, pulling the gun and skull together tight. Nothing. But, he knew they were there.
‘Haha,’ a voice said, spitting over Jude’s face, ‘you’re gonna get it now… Say your last fucking words, CUNT!’
Jude breathed out, his eyes looked down. He didn’t resist the grip on his head and neck, instead embracing the moment, slowly closing his eyes as if going in for a kiss. ‘If you’re gonna do it, do it,’ Jude whispered, intimately.
Bryon started to shake.
He saw the Devil.
The others stepped out. The joke was on Bryon. They’d all been there long enough, the city was in their veins. Now it was in his.
‘Like we said,’ a voice went, ‘he’s for real.’
‘Fuck,’ Byron muttered… Gasping as realised he was out of breath. He felt small, naked.
‘Just pull the trigger, will you, so I don’t have to,’ this time Jude’s words sounding like a lover’s whisper.
Byron jumped away, scolded, as his feigned aggression faded fully away to reveal his extreme fear. He could see Jude welcomed the bullet. Any bullet. All the while seeming somehow bulletproof.
Byron’s arms dropped. The one holding the gun raised slowly back up and he put the piece on the worktop, delicately, like a priest holding out a communion wafer as a tear welled in his once superficial eyes. He’d been christened and embraced by loss of control. Now, he felt true darkness. Living and breathing in this place, and in Jude. This wasn’t an act. Byron’s image-persona was destroyed, ‘Pint?’ his lips quivered, conceding his comfortable life was now over.
‘Yes,’ Jude said, ‘and you’re fucking buying.’
As they put on their coats to leave, Byron put a hand on Jude’s shoulder and told him he’d wished he hadn’t pulled the joke. That he was an idiot. He was sorry. It was just a toy; fired blanks.
As they walked up the road, towards the nearest pub, a rope dangled from a lamppost and trailed to the centre of the road. Up ahead a burnt-out Vauxhall still smoked.
Sitting in a beer garden, by the fifth pint, Jude told Byron not to worry. That yes, he was an idiot. He didn’t need to tell him the rest… He didn’t need to say that he was sorry too, that it hadn’t been a real gun. That he welcomed a live round.
They sat in that beer garden in the pouring rain, getting soaked through, drinking down quicker than the heavens could re-fill the pint glasses. Small victories.
Jude closed his eyes and opened them again. There was no one there. Reopened, and they were back, smoking, drinking. The clouds took a rest and the sun strained for a chance as much it could in Manchester.
Jude looked into his glass. He saw just how much Byron had been shaken. He saw what was in him. He saw blackness. Flushing, embarrassed, he smiled again, bashful. Like receiving an unworthy felt compliment — a lover’s gift. Then, it drained away, and the calm washed over.
He rolled a cigarette and eyed a broken bottle with shards of razor-sharp glass by his feet.
It welcomed him. It spoke to him.
The bottle’s neck formed the perfect handle. The glass shon. In it he saw a crossroads — choices. Each, with a welcome release. All of them red as night, dark as sinkholes, and humming like the finest everlong embrace.
He saw the Devil.
This time, he’d be in control…and it wouldn’t be a joke.
John Bowie 2020 ©
John Bowie: Biography
John’s writing has appeared online and in print for the likes of Red Dog Press, Bristol Noir, Storgy Magazine, Close to the Bone, Litro Magazine, Punk Noir Magazine, Necro Productions and Deadman’s Tome.
He writes poetry, short stories and novels. His fiction is a semi-autobiographical mix of dirty realism, crime fiction and noir. Ghostly references to a heritage that includes the Vikings, Scotland, Ireland and the North, U.K. flavour the words throughout. Often with a dark humoured edge.
He’s the founder and editor of the Bristol Noir e-zine which specialises in dirty realism, noir and dark fiction.
John lives in Bristol with his wife and daughters, where he has been since the late nineties. He is a professional designer, artist and writer as well as a proud husband, father, brother and son.
John’s first novel, Untethered, the first in the Black Viking Thriller series is out now with Red Dog Press. Transference, the second Black Viking Thriller is due February 2021.
His pulp noir Weston-super-Nightmare is out in March 2021 with Close to the Bone.
His poetry collection, Dead Birds & Sinking Ships (Little Tales of Melancholy Madness) is due August 2021 with Close to the Bone Publishing.
A collection of Bristol Noir stories (Tainted Hearts & Dirty Hellhounds) curated by and including John’s work, is slated for Q1 2021.