On a crisp winter morning such as this one, the view from Quinn’s bedroom window could be breath taking, but only if he looked straight ahead, keeping his line of vision over the tops of the grey slate and terra-cotta rooftops.
Quinn allowed his gaze to move across towards the smoke-hued mountains in the distance. Folding as they did and disappearing through the faded powder-blue sky, he could see the ice clouds knit together in that slow and lazy motion that calmed him like nothing else could.
A morning like this didn’t come very often these days, or if it did, he wasn’t in any state to appreciate it.
He leaned out now to greedily inhale the fresh dewy air and tried his best to take comfort from the scenic view that capped the cramped council houses, and the risen, empty blocks of apartments that overshadowed the last vestiges of open space, defiantly holding its own against the solidity of concrete that ebbed at its fragile borders.
“Are you up yet son?” his grandmother, Maggie, called from downstairs.
Quinn moaned quietly, his insides burning again, searing acid rushing at his throat. His head, heavy as lead, weighed down on his neck and shoulders, and how it pounded, relentlessly, like the dull ache in the pit of his belly. And that smell, that fucking smell kept clawing at his nostrils, seeping out from under his skin to keep him there, in that moment, in that memory; that moment.
He only managed to get in one drag of his cigarette when the sound of Maggie’s ascending footsteps prompted him to stub it out with licked thumb and forefinger. Carefully placing it back inside his precious pack of twenty, he stuffed the carton down the front of his tracksuit bottoms, hurriedly fanning away the last of the smoke that curled from his nostrils before she entered the room.
“Alright Nan?” he asked, without awareness that his tone, while emanating from such a tough and armoured expression, was so soft, so benevolent and gentle, that it could still surprise or unsettle the one person who knew him best, or at least, thought she did. With his ruddy, weather-beaten face and tightly shaved hair, the colour of hardened chestnuts, his features were too rough, too lived in, for a boy of seventeen; a fact that would have broken Maggie Quinn’s heart, if it wasn’t fractured irrevocably already.
Quinn studied her lined expression now, each deep wrinkle a scar-like testament to the toughness of her life. She was creasing her nose in suspicion, an accusing finger pointing at her only grandson, and he knew that she was weary at the impotence of yet another idle threat.
She nagged him constantly, wore that frown, pan-caked to futility, like a mask, her eyes screwed up and glassy to make her look constantly on the verge of tears. It was a face that could tug at his heart-strings and still manage to drive him up the fucking wall.
Quinn’s belly sometimes hurt with the deep feelings he harboured for her, but she could be such a pain in the bollix. Giving her opinion on everything, and mostly when least called for. Going on and on, about Monica and apprenticeships, and the state of his clothes; the company he kept.
And reminding, always reminding him. Like Quinn ever needed that.
He knew that she was trying to help, but sometimes it took more than a little self-control to stop him from telling her to piss the fuck off. He never did though. Avoided confrontation at all costs, after all, she was his family, and she hadn’t been the one to abandon him after his Da’s death, but Quinn never spoke of that other one, that dead-to-them bitch; and neither did Maggie.
In the cluttered, cramped kitchen now, Quinn watched quietly as Maggie prepared to go to her cleaning job. Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to poxy minimum wage we go.
“Your man the driver is always going sharp” she moaned as Quinn watched her hurriedly pull on that old trench coat that he hated, once beige or maybe pink, now an insipid shade somewhere in between, “It’s like a feckin’ race every morning to get to the bus stop before he does!” She wrapped a printed cotton scarf around her neck, the only splash of colour on her slight, shapeless form. “And I want to go to the grave before I start.” Quinn’s stomach churned now, his mouth dry and set in a grimace as he anticipated her pause. Even with her back to him, he could see her quivering lips pucker up with that question. “You know the date, don’t you son? And don’t waste that breakfast – and wash up the dishes after!” she called back on her way out the door.
Quinn held his breath, the sight and smell of the mixed grill she had cooked for him made him want to puke now. He pushed it aside, his heart heavy.
He wouldn’t be going to the grave, not today, not ever. He rolled his livid blue eyes towards the ceiling, knowing she meant no harm, knowing she couldn’t help herself, knowing she was existing in a hell that must be similar to his own
“Fuck it! Fuck it!” Quinn swallowed a lump in his throat, squeezing his eyes shut as he tried to erase the pictures in his head, the images that haunted his days and nights; that morning, a year ago now. The hammering on the door, the dull thuds of the shots, the growing pool of blood on the hall carpet as he cradled his father’s head in his arms, and time standing still as the car screeched away and the blood seeped into his jeans, and he waited for the ambulance. And waited, with this smell in his nostrils and that sound in his ears; the smell of a broken human being, bleeding out, and the sounds of the wretched gasps and gurgles as his father struggled to breathe, his precious gulps of air being sucked back out through the gaping, singed hole in his neck.
And afterwards, the silence, that terrible lull and the searing sense of loss.
Quinn held his finger on the doorbell as he peered through the frosted glass panel of Monica’s front door, his raw, bitten-down fingernails sliding off the glass as Robbie, a beautiful dark-skinned, chubby toddler, squealed, tugging with elation at his mother’s hand as Monica paused inside the hallway before opening the door.
“So you are not dead then?” Brushing past her to lift the wide-eyed boy high in the air to the child’s roars of excitement, Monica’s broken English helped to camouflage the tremor in her voice as Quinn wondered if she could hear the quickening of his heartbeat at the sight of her.
“Two weeks now — you go on holiday or something?” The sudden acute pain inside his ribs made him double over, ignoring her failed attempt at sarcasm as his legs quivered, and Quinn allowed Robbie to fall gently as he slumped, clutching his sides, onto a chair. Monica’s concern, her knowing, creased her expression to frustration.
“When you gonna quit doing that shit!” she yelled at him, “You made a promise to me!”
Quinn groaned through clenched teeth, “Don’t fuckin’ start Monica”, he winced, pain etched across his face, “Have you anything’ I can take – for the pain?”
Monica fell silent, turning away to compose herself. Quinn watched her from behind as she stretched up to reach the cupboard, his eyes travelling the length of her shapely body; the deep olive skin of her lower back and curvy hips showing from between her low-rise jeans and slightly raised sweater. A couple of years older than him, though she never told him her exact age, Monica was a fine thing, and he wondered now, and for the thousandth time, just what the hell she saw in him.
He was sorry he had snapped at her, Monica, of all people. He wanted to tell her that, among other things, but the words just were not there; few words, and even less courage to use them.
Quinn stood up and moved in closer to slip his hands around her waist, thoughts of his pain subsiding as he pressed his body against hers, his hands caressing that invitingly soft skin beneath her sweater, reaching for her warm breasts as he nuzzled into her hair. She smelled sweet and fresh, a clean soapy scent that he loved. It made him forget, it made him wish he could breathe her in so deeply that it would drown out that other smell.
Quinn turned her around to face him, tried to kiss her; she barely brushed his lips with hers. “Not in front of my child” she whispered quietly, “You know this”. She gently pushed him away and Quinn let his arms fall awkwardly, stepping back from her as his need to touch her, to be connected to her body, rushed through him; a craving, so like the other.
“Do you know who got picked up last night?” She asked carefully, “I heard there was a raid?”
“Should I?” he replied, and more defensively than he would have liked. Quinn did not speak to Monica of such things, neither confirming nor denying his involvement with anything that might sway her against him. No lies, no truth.
He was on eggshells as it was; if Monica knew where he had spent the night, how he had spent the night, in the burned out remnants of the community centre. And those scorched walls, barely providing adequate shelter from the creeping cold. Until dawn, until the last deal had been done and he’d finished himself off from his profit for the night after that fuckin’ psycho had come to collect.
And then, Quinn had been alone again, to float away on his powdered clouds, time standing still until they cruelly disappeared from beneath him, leaving him to fall, fall, and he was back there again, sprawled on the piss-damp ground, his veins throbbing from inside out, and praying that if those scarred walls would stop closing in on him, that if the contents of his stomach would stay down just long enough for him to get some dreamless sleep; he’d never touch gear again.
If Monica knew how he had spent the night.
Quinn had trouble now looking at her, meeting the disappointment in her eyes. Coal black, cutting into him, through him, causing him to suck air into his heaving chest as he baulked internally at the vacant promises he kept making for himself, his good intentions meaningless.
Monica cleared her throat. “I also heard some guy is dying. A bad fix.”
Quinn’s expression darkened. He stared at her, his mouth tightening. He knew that poor fucker, the one who’d just had his leg amputated after injecting his heroin fix, cut with wallpaper paste, straight into his veins.
“What are you tellin’ me this for, what the fuck has it got to do with me!?”
Instantly contrite, he sensed Monica’s turmoil bubble inside her now, sensed how she struggled to suppress it, her dark lashes sweeping down to conceal moistened eyes. No shelter though, from Quinn’s penetrating, needy gaze.
“Monica, stop worrying, okay.” Quinn relaxed a little as she nodded, the corners of her full lips lifting ever so slightly. Yet, the gnawing unease remained as he silently admired her prettiness, her courage, her sense of herself; her duty to her son.
What the fuck was she doing here? Monica did not belong in this shitty, low-rent council bungalow. Spending her days, her nights, waiting, and for what? Quinn had no illusions about himself. He didn’t even mind when his mates called him ‘the foreign bird’s bit of rough.’ She deserved better, better than anything he could offer her.
Robbie clambered up onto his lap, a broken toy in one hand, his other hand, with small sticky fingers, clutching at the hood of Quinn’s sweatshirt. “Fix it yada”, he warbled, dropping it onto Quinn’s lap. An uncomfortable smile escaped Quinn as the innocently mouthed implication settled on his brain. He felt the colour rise in his cheeks and couldn’t meet Monica’s mortified expression. Pushing the child away, tentatively, and not daring to look into the tiny puzzled face, Quinn became engulfed by a sickening panic.
“I have to go — have someone to see”, he stumbled, embarrassment, legs like jelly as he headed for the door.
Outside her house, and with the cool evening air to soothe his flushed cheeks and heated brow, Quinn hesitated, but it was only for a moment before he strode quickly away.
The psycho would be waiting for him, with another stash of gear. Quinn quickened his pace. That fucker wouldn’t wait all night, and if things didn’t go his way, he’d be pissed off. And he knew all about Quinn’s Da.
The psycho was always reminding him about it.