Finally got this one done. It's been a hard one to finish. There are parts of this chapter that are five years old, and there are parts I finished last night, so hopefully it's cohesive.
It's meant to be about Shifty and Grandad, but as it covers a) a significant event in ATEOTD timeline that's often alluded to and b) a few time jumps, and tie ins with the Jack fic I did a while back and c) the fact that over time, what Shifty does to one person starts to intersect with the others, it delves a bit into Shifty and Joey and Martina a bit as well. Shifty hurting one of them has a domino effect on all the people he cares about, although Celia is on the periphery to some extent.
Trigger warnings for this chapter: death, drug abuse
A Fish Called Boswell
Shifty gets out of prison on a technicality.
He should have been in five years. Instead, he's free after one. He strides out, his prized, just-been-released-from-prison hat slapped on his head (it's a bit moth-eaten now, but he still loves the tradition), and already he sees how the world is different.
For starters, there's no Joey here to pick him up. It's Billy who waits for him now, his old banger Beetle looking like it'll barely get them home. Billy's got barber's rash, which means either he and Julie have made it up (wouldn't surprise him), or he's finally found a different bird (this would surprise Shifty, but as he finds out when he settles into the torn-up passenger seat and lets Billy bunny-hop them home, it is, in fact, the right answer). Billy doesn't shut up about Connie (or Bonnie, or was it Molly?) all the way home, and it's all Shifty can do to get a straight answer out of him on why he was the one to collect him, when for years, it's always been Joey.
Still. He's out of prison, he's got another clean slate, another fresh start (he's in a spot of trouble with Slicer and Slasher, but they don't know he's out, so he can hopefully buy some time to make the money he owes them), and ahead of him lie Auntie Nellie's cooking, bloody Joey, who he's both smiling and scowling at the thought of seeing, and a warm, comforting welcome and a warm, comforting bed at Grandad's.
Shifty pictures the old man smiling, little beady eyes magnified by his specs and glinting with a mixture of mischief and joy, and even though he doesn't know why he's heading home with Billy, being jerked to death by the one car he's never had an interest in stealing because it's so awful, he settles back in his seat, imagining what's to come, and smiles.
'You're a strange little boy, aren't you?' Are the first words Shifty ever hears Grandad say, before he's Grandad, when he's a stranger named Mister Duvall Shifty's being forced to live with. 'What did they say your name was again?'
There's a roar from his stepfather not to lie from behind him, as well has his mother's half-hearted chant of be honest, Liam, but Grandad seems to have taken no notice.
'Oh, aye. Shifty. You look like a shifty one. Come on, then, shifty one. You can help me feed me canary.'
The inside of Number Thirty, Kelsall Street looks the same, but the atmosphere in there feels different entirely. For starters, there are fewer people. Aveline was here when he arrived, being fussed and fretted over by Oswald over a miscarriage that mercifully didn't happen (or was it merciful? Shifty wonders. Aveline is not the grandest mother who ever lived.) But apart from her, apart from Auntie Nellie, the house is filled with an awkward silence. Jack is over the road, suddenly having developed effeminate tendencies Shifty would have never expected of him, now he and Leonora are permanent and with child. Billy goes out for most of the day, gallivanting around with a strawberry blonde bit of crumpet (who is called Connie, though he doubts he'll remember it) with a gob just as big as his, comes home and snogs the selfsame bit of crumpet on the sofa so shamelessly Shifty always ends up leaving for Grandad's for the night before he has to witness this.
And Joey and Adrian have moved out.
It's their absence that creates a strange hole in the middle of the Boswell fold. The two more sensible (Adrian just barely fits into this category), more loving Boswell brothers, have cut themselves out of the picture, lashed themselves to their women (soft, little Irenee, quite lovely, someone Shifty wouldn't mind having a go on, and nasty, manipulative Roxy, with all the cunning of Celia and none of the charm, not particularly attractive, either, with all those acne scars, who Shifty wouldn't go near because she would eat him alive and spit out the bones) and cast themselves adrift. And now this doesn't seem like a seamless household – without the two voices of reason, Auntie Nellie shrieks and sobs more than ever, Billy runs rampant, Jack blunders in, takes one look at the rest of the chaos and blunders back out again.
Shifty finds himself avoiding it more than he used to. Home doesn't feel like home anymore.
'I 'ad a thought,' Grandad says, his eyes distant. 'About me own funeral.'
A chill runs through Shifty's blood.
'Don't say that, Grandad!'
'About what it would look like,' Grandad goes on. 'Everyone goin' down the street with their wreaths, they were.'
'I don't want to hear this, Grandad!' Shifty insists. The idea of Grandad being gone is a sickening one. Grandad is supposed to be immortal, eternal, even though Shifty knows it can't realistically be that way.
'Oh, aye, nobody spares a second thought for me.'
'I can spare a thought, Grandad,' Shifty insists, feeling he's going insane, because this isn't what he wanted to hear the moment he got back to Kelsall Street; next door is a nightmarish mess, and having Grandad start fussing and fretting over his own mortality, making Shifty in turn fuss and fret over Grandad's mortality is like throwing a blanket of despair over his head, over his newfound freedom, which is already dampened.
'But God Almighty, can't it be a thought for the life you have, Grandad?! You're gonna outlive us all yet! Now why don't we go and put this seed ring,' he pulls it out of his pocket; a quick theft from two streets down, so small it hardly counts, and the joy it brings Grandad surely outweighs that, 'in your canary's cage and then I'll put the kettle on?'
Grandad looks from the seed ring to him.
'You always knew how to bring joy to an old man's tiny life.'
'And you,' Shifty says, pressing the birdseed into his hand, 'bring joy to the tiny life of an empty sod like me. So let's have no more of this dying talk.'
Shifty ponders running away from Kelsall Street. He does more than ponder – he filches train timetables, he makes plans.
'I did that once,' Grandad says, intercepting him without planning to. 'Bought a loaf of bread…lost the change, I did. Down a drain it went. So I ran away.'
'You can't run away forever,' Grandad says, changing his mind without planning to. 'Specially on no money. You'd starve.'
'I saw men go blind,' Grandad says, going off-topic, interesting him, entrancing Shifty into liking him against his will. 'In the war, you know.'
'You're not going to go, are you?' Grandad says, pulling on his heartstrings, 'You're the only one of this mad lot I can stand.'
And Shifty stays.
Of course, Joey couldn't keep away for good. Even before Shifty had returned, Joey had come grovelling on his hands and knees, imploring Nellie's forgiveness – and he has it, of course he does, but things are still tense when he does turn up; the atmosphere is like lead, though Shifty suspects it'll slowly diffuse itself. The restored relationship between mother and son will take a bit longer to repair, but by God, Joey's doing his best to get it there. Roxy won't like that, he knows – and he can see from his cousin's face that Joey is stuck between a rock and hard place, as he always is when Roxy is around, trying desperately to divide his love up evenly between her and his family, making both feel he isn't giving them enough. Now they're married, Shifty supposes that'll be life forever.
Poor sod. He'd feel sorry for Joey, only Joey knows full well what Roxy is like. She's proven herself enough times; he can't write everything she does off as being hurt or having good intentions or just being a baffling woman, especially not now he's living with her, and he must be able to see she's like that all the bloody time. Joey is wilfully blind where Roxy's concerned. She is to him what stealing is to Shifty; addictive, dangerous, causes you harm if you're not careful. And Joey isn't careful.
No one would catch Shifty acting like that around a woman, he thinks snidely. He doesn't crawl around after women. They come to him.
Except for Celia.
Except for Martina.
He pushes them both out of his mind for now. Neither are speaking to him. Celia hasn't answered his phone calls since she ended their engagement with an agonising kick to his squashy parts. His last attempt to make good the harm he'd done Martina had only lasted two months, before he'd stumbled to her flat at three in the morning with lipstick on his collar, and she'd locked him out. And then he'd been inside again, no visits from her, a pretty accurate indicator, he supposes, of where they stand now.
Joey and Auntie Nellie are sat together at the kitchen table now, his hand awkwardly but determinedly on hers. Uncle Freddie has returned from a strange disappearance nobody talks properly about (he's heard the word gypsies thrown around a few times, though he really can't follow the story, not having all the pieces), and Joey has stepped up to his old protector and comforter role, trying to talk Nellie through it, although his voice lacks its usual convincing lustre.
'Look, Mam, Dad may have been gone for nearly a year – but it's us he came home to. The fam-i-ly. He's a wanderer, is our Dad – and you know that. He's like a wild thing in a cage – let it go free, it eventually comes home. It's no good bein' kept on a leash.'
And then irony strikes; a tug on Joey's leash coming in the form of his mobile ringing.
'Roxy,' Joey says as he answers it, an irritation seeping into his voice that Shifty has never heard before, no matter how hurt Joey was by Roxy's antics. Trouble in paradise already, eh? Didn't take long. 'I told you, I need to sort a few things out, that's all…look, Roxy, I won't be more than an hour, promise!'
Shifty can hear the passive aggression down the phone from the other side of the room.
'It's just difficult at the moment, sweetheart… me dad's just come back from Heaven knows where and me Mam's…no, I don't only think of her, Roxy, I just…'
Shifty can't bear watching any more of Joey's emasculation. He slips out the door and retreats to the shelter and the safety of Number 28.
'It's 'anky panky,' Grandad tells him when he's sitting in Grandad's parlour, idly tossing bits of birdseed through the bars of the canary's cage. 'All the problems in the world come down to hanky panky.'
Most of Shifty's problems come from theft, so he can't necessarily agree with that statement.
'That or food.'
'Now that one, Grandad, I'll agree with wholeheartedly.' Shifty's stomach is growling. He raids Grandad's cupboard for a packet of biscuits, and they scoff them in the parlour while waiting for someone to bring the trays round.
'Where's me tray?! Empty sacks won't stand you know!'
It's the first he hears of Grandad as he sits in Joey's car, listening to Joey argue with Auntie Nellie through the door, pleading with her to let him stay.
He hasn't heard that voice for a couple of years now, and it sends a flutter of joy through his heart. Excitement. All of a sudden, he's an eight-year-old boy again, thrilled beyond belief to be settled down on Grandad's sofa with an Eccles cake, listening to another of his fascinatingly daft war stories. He's going to stay with the Boswells 's home. He's really home.
Grandad hobbles over to the car, peers through the window, his grumpy little old face lighting up when he spots him inside.
'Is it Shifty?!'
And Shifty's winding the window down as fast as he can, unable to conceal his smile any longer, unable to stand there being any physical barrier between the two of them anymore.
'Shifty!' Grandad exults.
'Grandad,' he's overcome with emotion.
'Come out, dear, and let's have a look at yer! Hee hee!'
And Shifty's out that car and in those familiar arms before he can blink. He convinces himself every time he's inside that it's not so bad, every time he spends a good stretch away from the Boswells that he can manage.
It only takes Grandad's uncharacteristic joy at seeing him to melt all that away.
'Have you finished at the 'ospital, then?'
And Shifty flinches, but only for a second. Joey's lied for him. Or someone has, but Shifty suspects Joey. And he feels the familiar misery and self-disappointment creep through him, because the only way he can keep submerging himself in Grandad's love is to protect him from the truth.
'I have, Grandad,' he plays along with the lie Joey has chosen, nodding solemnly. 'I'm much better now.'
Maybe this time it'll be true. But he doubts it.
'Thought you could fob us off, didn't he, Yizzel?'
Shifty hears a muffled yeah down the line. He'd laugh, except he realised the second he heard Yizzel's mate's voice that his situation was dire. He feels his stomach sink.
'Thought you could pretend you'd gone back in the nick and get out of giving us our dues?'
The lump in Shifty's throat gets bigger. He'd thought that was a good idea, at the time. Pretend he hadn't been let out early, keep Slicer and Slasher off his back for a long time. Perhaps long enough to forget how much he owed them, how much more he owed them after he'd tried to make back what he borrowed, game after game of cards ending badly, job after job he'd done from them ending with one of the cars from their business crashed in a smoking wreck on the side of the road.
'I'll have it, I'll have it!'
'You owe us, you know. And we're not gonna forget debts lightly.'
The low, menacing voice goes on, twisting threat-blades deeper into Shifty's body, letting him know, graphically, what will happen if he doesn't bring the dues, and Shifty lives up to his name, shifting around in his seat, feeling beads of sweat drop from his forehead as he listens.
'On that phone again!' Grandad grumbles, and Shifty starts. He hadn't realised the old man had come in. 'Always on that phone you are. If you're not chatting up some woman you're rowin' with some woman. Never get to use me own phone, do I?'
Shifty slams it down, even though Yizzel's mate is mid-threat, then picks up the receiver and holds it out to Grandad.
'I'm off, Grandad. I'm off! Chat up your own women to your heart's content!'
'Oohhh,' Grandad grumbles, sloping back off towards the kitchen. 'Cheeky little bugger!'
Shifty can still hear him grumbling as he rattles around with the kettle.
He looks at the lifeless phone in his hands, the words that issued from it a few moments ago still echoing in his ears.
Have the readies. Twenty-four hours. (Yizzel's voice cutting in down the line: Yeah, twenty-four hours). Don't try anythin' funny or we'll have your dangly bits wrung through a shredder.
He's not sure if that last line is literal or not, but whatever they're thinking of doing to him, it won't be pretty, and he doesn't intend to find out exactly what they might have in mind.
Does anything in his life ever change?! He's been here before, in dire need of money for the same two mugs, so desperate to get the readies as quickly as possible that he'd done something he didn't want to do. He can't believe he's here again.
There's no way he'll be able to get three grand by honest means. He's not earning anything. His Social Security wouldn't even begin to cover it, and he and Martina are broken up again—she won't take kindly to his asking for an enormous advance (probably wouldn't anyway, even so). He remembers the last time he'd tried that, her cool response when he told her it was that or leave the city forever: you wouldn't take the entire Boswell family with you? I could come off me Valium then.
He'd resorted to stealing from Grandad, had been thrown unceremoniously from the Boswell house for quite some time after that. On your bike, Shifty, Joey had said when he turned up at the door, ever the family gatekeeper, and it had taken a lunch with Jack to worm his way back in, using one of the younger Boswell brothers as a side door.
At least they love him now, too. Jack and Adrian and Billy and Aveline. They've helped him in the past, Jack letting him back into the fold, Aveline giving him a reference that helped him get a job as a bus driver. He knows, though, if he does anything like that again, he won't be so lucky.
He feels that familiar tingling in his fingers and sits on his hands. No. No, he's not doing that again. He's only just got out of prison, only just found his way back to the comforting sanctuary of Grandad's hearthside and the bosom of the Boswell family, and this time (yes, like all times, but this time he means it, and this time he does mean it)he's not going to screw that up, not going to get chucked back in the nick, not going to end up with his fists full of things that don't belong to him. He wants to stay here. He wants to be home. Even if home isn't the same as it used to be, he still wants to be there.
But three thousand pounds, and his dangly bits in a shredder…
Shifty's hands twitch. He stuffs them in his pockets.
Not this time.
Not this time.
''ere, take this tray.'
Shifty looks up from his spot in Grandad's armchair, curled in a sort of upright foetal position, but doesn't move. He's got his feet up on the seat, which Grandad normally hates, but the old man, in spite of his pretend indifference, must be concerned for him, because he's not telling him off.
'Oooh,' Grandad grumbles to himself. 'You'll 'ave to pull yourself together. You're beginnin' to get a soft in the 'ead look about yer.'
'I'm depressed, Grandad.' Shifty stares into the distance, rakes his hand through his hair. It's all failed for him again. His good job, his bus, his freedom and own set of wheels, his second chance with Martina, all gone in one fell swoop. It had felt worth it at the time, flying off towards London. He's never been able to resist that rush, that high. And now he isn't half paying for it.
'We're all depressed. The way the world is today you wouldn't be normal if you weren't depressed.' He takes a disgruntled sip of his tea. There's a strange wisdom to Grandad's words that Shifty can't help but acknowledge, but he still wants to wallow.
'Yes, but it's deep down inside me.' He curls in on himself even more. 'It's like the great weight resting on my head is pushing everything downwards. I'm like a man full of stone.'
'Aye, and as long as you tell yourself that crap, you'll begin to believe it.'
Grandad's got a point. A point Shifty never really heeds, but he wonders, later in life, if he should have.
If he'd believed, as Joey did, that there was hope for him, would things have been different? Would he have actually been able to change, make it stick, be a good man?
He'll never know, because he's never believed anything other than the same crap. That he's a man full of stone, weighed down by his own transgressions, unable to break through the struggle between what he's always felt he is, to achieve what he wishes he were.
'You! Grandad's tray!'
Shifty only realises Auntie Nellie is talking to him (even the suddenly aggressive tone of voice didn't twig him, his mind being in the turmoil it is) when a dinner tray comes crashing onto the table in front of him with such force the cutlery on it leaps out of its place, the fork clattering onto the floor.
'All right, all right, I'm goin', for the love of—'
'Don't you take our Lord's name in vain in this house!' Nellie snaps, even though her boys do it all the time. Shifty's a bit sick of the double standards. Her precious sons can do no wrong. Even when Adrian and Billy, daft pricks that they are, had sold those stolen videos, the blame had eventually settled on him. As if they had no minds of their own. As if he was some sort of demon in disguise, somehow able to transfigure himself into a little creature on their left shoulders, urging them on to sin. Every cross word, every single transgression, no matter what it is, can be laid at his feet while he's living under one of their rooves.
And, well, Shifty supposes, this wariness of him is justified. He's never yet managed to prove to them he's trustworthy. But he wants to this time, he wants to earn their trust, even as his brain is wondering just how much money he could locate in this house in how little time. He fights it with all he has, bites on his tongue to force back the retort he'd been planning to fling back at her, smiles and nods and picks up the dinner tray.
'There are two silver spoons on there,' Nellie says in her Judge of the High Court voice. 'A silver fork and a silver knife. I will know if any of them go missing.'
'I'm goin' straight, aren't I?' he wails. 'I've found me fear of God!'
He's always had a fear of God, though it's more the fear that one day he'll be caught and struck down by Him rather than an ingrained desire to do right.
'The last time you and God had anything to do with each other, you abused your position as an altar server and took the chalice home with you!'
Shifty goes to say something. Joey catches his eye, shakes his head.
Let it go, son, Shifty can almost hear him say. Just let it go.
Joey, ever the diplomat. He loves Joey, the only person he's ever really been able to lay claim to as a friend, and yet he can't stand him at the same time. Joey trying to intervene, to save him, even from as trivial an incident as this, fills him with a strange cocktail of gratitude and resentment. At least someone is on his side. He doesn't need a father. At least Joey bothers. He doesn't need a father.
And anyway, Joey need talk about interfering with people's lives anymore.
He blinks, a nondescript acknowledgement of his not-cousin's input, and starts carefully towards the door.
Grandad has savings, a little voice in his head tells him. He shakes it off. He's not doing that. Not this time. He'll find a way to repay his debt to Yizzel and his mate, but not like this.
'Yer deadline was a day ago.'
(Yeah. A day ago).
'And yet to my surprise, there were no readies in me hands yesterday, were there?'
'Er…' Shifty begins, but there's no point trying to get any sort of excuses in. They're not going to listen.
'I know where you are, you know.'
(Yeah. Where you are).
Shifty shudders, and is tempted to clunk the receiver back down, only something tells him he'd better not.
'We know where you live, you know.'
'Who you live with. Little old men can have accidents, you know. It would be too easy to make it look that way.'
Shifty's heart stops. That's going too far. And yet he doesn't put it past them. At times they're petty. At times they can be vengeful, when the mood takes them, kidnapping people and stuffing them in sheds, blackmailing people, the lot. And the twitch in Shifty's hands is unbearable, because how else is he supposed to get it? Ask someone? Chance would be a fine thing. He's not the asking kind, and yet…it'd be better than the alternatives.
'If our readies aren't in our hands by one o'clock on Friday…'
He does clunk the receiver down this time, unable to take any more.
They've added a new element into the game. A nasty one, and, though it sickens Shifty with pre-emptive guilt to realise it, it changes everything.
He can't be good and get what he needs. He doesn't have enough time. He's got no choice now.
Shifty knows what he has to do, and how to do it.
But he'll be damned if he doesn't wish there was another way.
It take a couple of days of being settled, but he finally gets a moment alone with Joey, convinces him to steal away to the pub for an hour before he goes home. It's not like the old days, though. Joey has one eye on his watch, gets jumpy anytime he hears a noise that could be vaguely construed as a phone ringing. He's anticipating being told off by Roxy, of having his time cut short. It kills the mood a bit, puts a dampener on what might be his last lovely time with his not-cousin before he betrays him. And even though a part of Shifty is still angry at Joey for so many things – for splitting him and Martina up that first time, three years ago now, for sending him away after he stole from Grandad, for having a go at Auntie Nellie the way he did, to the extent that Adrian followed suit like the briefcase-carrying sheep that he is, and now the usually comforting Boswell family is in disarray, he doesn't wish this sort of life on Joey. Joey wasn't meant to live under a steelwool thundercloud of depression, fear and guilt, ever torn between two different loves. Joey was meant for sunshine and bright days and hands clasped all together in unity. It's what he was made for, and fighting it, solely because Roxy had poisoned him enough to sow a seed of doubt about the very thing Joey prizes most, has altered his cousin drastically.
'Good place, this.'
Joey settles into his chair, pint of Stella Artois in hand, and frowns at him.
'Yeah. Hasn't changed much in all these years, 'as it?' He narrows his eyes. 'All right, Shifty, what's goin' on?'
'On? Goin'…goin' on?' His who, me? expression never works on Joey. His cousin is far too adept at reading him to fall for a fake look of innocence.
'Come off it, Shifty. You've been goin' around all week with a face like you've got a branding iron up your arse, you've actually bought me a drink, you're clearly skatin' around something…what's the matter, son? Is it Martina?'
'If it were Martina, I'd have said,' Shifty doesn't like the way Joey says his ex's name. After everything he found out from her, after the way Joey did his best to split them up that first time, he can't help feel a shudder of the old jealousy coming through him at the use of her name.
Shifty hesitates, because if he tells Joey, Joey will know.
Joey will know, will notice things have gone missing. Will realise who broke into the Place of Nonpoisonous Substances, and took the wad Freddie had been saving in the back of the till. Will realise who cleaned Nellie's pot out after lunch (Shifty wonders if Joey suspects. He'd normally be right on the ball, but Joey is only ever half there anymore these days, one ear listening out for his phone to ring and Roxy to start on the offensive again).
He can't let on about his money troubles. Because that would mean admitting guilt in the thefts he's already committed, and in the one he's about to commit, even as the last tattered shreds of his conscience scream at him not to do it.
That would be admitting that, yet again, he's let them all down spectacularly.
'Do you ever get the feeling that you're sinking into a pit of despair with no way out that doesn't involve destroying your world?'
'Every day, sunshine,' Joey says sadly. 'I just wonder which world I'm gonna end up destroying, and which I'm gonna get to keep intact.'
Shifty knows Joey's off in his own world again. He's thinking of whether he's going to get to keep Roxy or his family, realising slowly, as he wakes up to the Hell of his own making, that he can't have both.
As if on cue, Joey's mobile rings.
'Roxy – I'll be there, I'll be there.' He balances the phone between his ear and his shoulder, grabbing his jacket with one hand and using the other to put his glass to his lips and down the rest of his Guinness. 'Sorry, mate – have to go – small problem.'
He flicks open his wallet, drops a couple of fivers to the table. Drops his wallet, lets Shifty pick it up and hand it back to him, not noticing the quick flick of Shifty's fingers through it in the split second it passes between them.
'Never fear – old Shifty understands matters of the heart, he does.'
Joey shakes his head, and then worry flicks across his face.
'Yeah, I'm still here, Roxy, I was just leavin'… I'm on me way, love, don't worry…'
And he hastens away, in such a rush that he can't see Shifty's hand strategically placed over the table, concealing Joey's credit card, which he had so easily lifted, unnoticed amid Joey's distraction.
It's come to this. It's not enough, what he's got, and though Shifty had hoped the other channels he'd gone through would have helped him, they haven't. He's got all he can get elsewhere. The other channels have been exhausted. And it's come to this.
Shifty knows where Grandad keeps his stashes. In drawers, in little bags inside porcelain figurines on the mantelpiece. Under the canary cage.
His hands tremble. His stomach roils and writhes. He pictures the old man's face, pained and pinched, and then pushes it aside, the fear of Slicer and Slasher and his dangly bits in a shredder spurring him on to loot every last place he can think of.
As he stuffs it in his pockets and makes a hasty escape, he can feel the guilt ringing in his ears, see Grandad emblazoned on the back of his eyelids.
But he had to do it.
'Next time, I won't be so lenient,' Yizzel's mate says, snatching the wad of banknotes off him and counting them twice, then three times. 'I said twenty-four hours, not five days.'
'Not five days, gov.'
Shifty would love to punch Yizzel in the windpipe, stop him echoing his mate for good, only Yizzel and his mate are powerful. He knows they launder money through their stupid little Occasion Cars business, pretend that's all there is, but they've supposedly got a network of aggressive little sycophants at their command, and an underground crime ring that stretches across half of Liverpool.
Then again, do they really? Nobody Shifty's dealt with seems all that scared of them. Joey has never been scared of them. Joey has humiliated them multiple times. Now he's not in the hot seat, not panicking, Shifty wonders how much weight their threats actually had. In the light of day (even if that light is fading, because it's late afternoon now), in the flesh, they look smaller. Less menacing. And a sickening thought comes to him – was he letting his mind make more out of this than it was, because he didn't want to go through more honest channels? Because doing what he does best was far easier?
'I don't normally extend deadlines, you know.'
'Now get out of our sight.'
'Sight, y – '
' – Yizzel, what have I said about repeatin' the bits that don't matter?!'
Shifty slips away, the momentary relief nothing's going to happen to him or Grandad replaced with a sickening sense of remorse.
He walks halfway home, hands in his pockets, mulling it over, then takes the bus the rest of the way, not in the mood to walk anymore but not really in the mood to reach for a car that's not his.
He stumbles down Kelsall Street, pauses at the door of Number Twenty-Eight. It's getting late now; Grandad will have had his after-supper biscuits and be dozing in his chair.
He makes for next door instead. A little family conversation might keep his mind off what's just transpired.
When he opens the door to Number Thirty, Auntie Nellie is standing in the parlour, waiting for him, a thunderstruck expression on her face.
'I didn't! I didn't!'
'Don't you give me that!' Nellie Boswell's voice always could bring the house down when she was in one of her rages. And she's doing it now. It's a rage akin to every mention of Lilo Lil ever uttered combined. Billy sits rigidly at the kitchen table, too shocked and afraid by the scene unfolding even to make a tactless comment, Connie looking silently amused beside him, but tactfully hiding her smirk behind her cup of tea. Jack, who no doubt thought he'd come over here for a nice dinner with his family, looks down at the table top, cheeks red even though it's not his shame.
'All Grandad's hard-saved money, scrimped together to keep himself comfortable in his old age, stolen at the hands of a devious little thief who doesn't know how to keep his hands to himself! The minute you set foot on my doorstep I knew you'd come to no good, tainting my children with your influence! I don't know why Joey kept insisting you deserved more chances – if you'd have been my responsibility, I would have left you on the doorstep to fend for yourself the first time you showed your wicked face around here – and now look what's happened! You've come into our home and our lives and destroyed everything we hold dear!'
Auntie Nellie always was prone to exaggerating.
'I told ye; I didn't!' Shifty tries again, even though it's pointless. 'How many times do I have to be dragged through the muck by you lot?! Not all the evil in the world is because of me, you know!'
'DON'T YOU TRY AND PRETEND THIS WASN'T YOU!' Nellie's shriek must have brought tiles off the roof, such is its volume and pitch. The others shrink down in their seats, looking as if they daren't cover their ears, but wish they could. Shifty doesn't blame them. He doubts his left ear is going to hear properly again.
'I know it was you! Everyone on the street knows it was you! The blind man down the docks knows it was you – GRANDAD SAW YOU, AND IF YOU THINK – '
'All right! All right!' Shifty thunders, just to make the shouting stop! 'But I had good reason, I tell ye, had good reason! If you'd just listen for one moment, I can explain!'
'Oh, you want to explain?' Nellie's voice is nasty, mocking, climbing in pitch again as if often does when she's really losing control of her temper. 'You want to EXPLAIN?! There is nothing you could say, nothing, that could explain what you did! Well, you can forget about ever coming through this door again – you are not welcome, you hear? Not welcome!'
Probably everybody in the street heart he was 'not welcome,' such is the volume if Nellie Boswell's shrieking when she really gets going with a rage.
'Come on, Auntie Nellie,' Shifty cajoles, reaching to touch her shoulder.
Nellie shrugs it away, glaring daggers at him.
'Get out of my house.'
'You mean Grandad's house,' Shifty tries the splitting hairs approach, and ducks as the teacup in Auntie Nellie's hand is let fly, shattering against the wall behind where his head had been.
If she's at the crockery-throwing stage, he'd better get out of her. Nellie's hysteria tends to spiral before it peters out.
'Jack…' Shifty begins, desperate to appeal to someone else, to have someone vie on his behalf to Nellie again once she calms down, as his cousins have in the past.
Jack resolutely refuses to meet his eye.
'I told you,' Nellie looks as if she's going to explode, 'to get out of this house and never return!'
And Shifty has been told that many times before, but he still gets the sense that this time is different. He can't really be sure why. He hopes to Heaven he's getting premonitions that aren't there. Still, he leaves the house, Auntie Nellie's unbridled fury burning his back as he goes, Billy's hateful stare burning just as ferociously (since when did Billy start falling into the Boswell ways, when did he start developing that self-righteous streak the rest of them have? He was always the fun one, the forgiving, well-meaning one, if a bit daft and irritating).
Shifty can hear her on the phone to Joey as he leaves, relaying the entire incident.
'And I told him – I told him, Joey, if he thinks he's welcome under our roof after what he's done this time…'
Shifty slams the door behind him, the horrible crashing sound it makes slicing nicely through her ferocious defamation of him.
He suspects the ban on his presence in the Boswell home is supposed to extend to next door as well, but seeing as that hasn't been explicitly stated yet, he goes back into Grandad's anyway.
The old man is, as Shifty suspected, asleep in his chair, the fire low and the light off, his parlour darkened.
Shifty sits down on the floor beside his chair, just watching him for a while, wondering what he's dreaming of, hoping that, if what Auntie Nellie said was right and he did somehow see him take that money, he might forget, or at least forgive.
He puts his head in his hands.
'I know what you did, you know.'
The voice is soft, sad, a near-whisper Shifty almost misses.
But he doesn't.
Grandad's eyes are cracked open, the moonlight reflecting off his specs, staring at him with an empty, hollow look.
'You think I don't know, but you do. All of you think I'm too daft to see.'
'I…' Shifty's normally so good at lying, but he can't. 'I needed it, Grandad.'
The pity angle is the only one he can play. He can't explain his real reasoning, because he's not even sure, anymore, if it was rational. If he didn't just need an excuse to take the easy way out.
'Oh, aye. Needed it, but didn't think to ask. I used to think the world o' you, you know. Still do, really, I suppose. But when it comes down to it, you're like they all said. Shifty Shifty, with light fingers and a devious brain.'
'Grandad, I'm…' Shifty goes over there, kneels by the side of his armchair. He'd say the word sorry, only Shifty knows sorry is meant to equate with I'll never do it again. And Shifty knows by now that never doing it again is something he just hasn't got in him.
He will always do it again.
'I needed it, Grandad,' he tries again. 'They were gonna come after me; you can understand, can't ye, Grandad? Can't ye understand what I…what they…'
And Shifty doesn't need to look up to know what he'd see if he did. Joey standing over him, an ominous shadow emerging from the blackness, his accountability catching up with him.
'Come on, Shifty,' Joey's voice is quiet, and yet there's still that parental air about it that sends a shiver down Shifty's spine. He's being summoned by the paterfamilias, to be dealt with. 'Let's go.'
Joey's hand descends on Grandad's shoulder briefly, soft and comforting, and then he removes, it, reaches down and takes hold of Shifty's wrist.
His cousin doesn't need to say any more for Shifty to understand the situation. His choices are make a scene in front of Grandad, and have Joey drag him outside, or get up and come quietly.
Shifty gets up, and though he cooperates, Joey's hand is still forcefully wrapped around his arm.
The evening air assaults his face as they step outside, whistles around his ears, and Shifty wishes he were wearing something a bit warmer. He's shivering.
Or perhaps that's just ominous chill of this moment, because he's sure that Joey didn't drag him out to have a pathetic fight with him again, as he did once, years before, when he was fed up with Shifty's thieving ways. He's sure this time, Grandad won't come out and save the day by chucking a bucket of water all over them, effectively breaking up their fight and restoring their relationship to a better state.
'Joey –' he begins, but his cousin holds up a hand.
'Why, Shifty? How could you do this to us? To fam-i-ly?'
Shifty looks at Joey, at the pain in his eyes, and for the life of him he can't think of a way to respond.
'Again?' Joey pushes.
'I've done it before, and yeh've never – '
'There's such thing as a last straw, Shifty. You've done it one too many times. And this time, what Mam said – I think I'm gonna have to – '
It's at that moment they're interrupted, as they always seem to be these days, by Joey's mobile. He raises a warning finger at Shifty, a don't you go anywhere finger, as he answers it.
'I'm on me way, Roxy, I'm on me way…I've just got to sort something out…yes, me fam-i-ly again…look, it's a serious problem!' Joey pauses, mid-row, his eyes flicking in Shifty's direction. 'Grandad…he's been robbed, and I'm just trying to… I'm not makin' this up! Why would I?!'
Robbed. That was the word he used.
Shifty has never been called a robber before. It sheds a whole new light on what he's doing. He's always used the same expressions – nicking things, retaliating – to be accused of robbery makes what he's done seem far worse. Far more serious.
But this is Grandad he's talking about.
Joey's shoulders are hunched. He looks shorter, more tired, more flat, rings under his eyes. He always looks that way these days, a bit of the old Joey sparkle missing since he married Roxy. Even as he's delivering the final nail to the coffin of Shifty's shame, flagellating him for his mistake, Shifty wants to reach out and put his arm round him, clap him on the back, comfort him.
'Look, I'll see you in about an hour…okay? All right, then, half an hour,' Joey sounds impatient now. 'Give my love to Oscar, okay?'
He hangs up, his heavy sigh echoing down the empty street. And then he turns to Shifty and sighs again.
'God, I can understand what Adrian means about hangin' by a thread, sometimes.'
'Just don't, Shifty. Just – don't.' The hardness is back, the Disappointed Dad Joey voice returning full force. 'This isn't the first time you've done this to us. I just can't believe, after last time, that you'd have the nerve…three thousand pounds, Shifty! That's a new low. Even for you.'
And Shifty wants to yell at him, remind him what a pompous, hypocritical prig he is, but right now, Joey doesn't seem that pompous or that priggish. He looks exhausted, a flat battery and a broken heart. And he finds himself reaching into his pocket.
'Joey,' Shifty holds out his hand, Joey's gold credit card shining from in his palm.
He'd expected some sort of anger, but Joey looks defeated.
'And some of it was mine,' he sighs, snatching the card back, though the action is weak, no real force in it. 'Cheers, mate. Thanks a lot.'
There's not even any sarcasm, not really. Joey sounds tired, resigned. Good old Joey – he never can hate Shifty, but that might not necessarily be a good thing. It means Joey doesn't have a healthy, angry outlet the way the others do. Celia and Martina ricochet between passionately loving him and passionately hating him, and in this, he suspects, they draw strength from their anger to see them through the next moment of love, and the love sustains them through the next moment of sorrow enough to channel it into anger again. It's a strange water cycle of the heart, but it works.
Joey isn't resilient when it comes to betrayal.
Joey is passive, and he doesn't cope. He doesn't fight back anymore, especially since Roxy.
Ever since Joey married Roxy – no, ever since Roxy made up that rubbish about the kid being his, and Joey went back to her – Shifty's noticed Joey's temper is shorter, even as his soul is slowly being squeezed out of him. He barely smiles, barely jokes around anymore, as he used to. He's becoming a shell of his former self. She's always been a bad lass, Roxy; the sort Shifty avoids, because she's too much like him to ever fall for him. Knows exactly how a man ticks, where to hurt him, how to destroy him before he destroys her. Shifty knows Stan – he's been inside, a couple of times. He's got an aggressive streak, but he only really loses control of himself if someone riles him up beyond breaking point, which is rare, hard to achieve, and hits him hard, every time. He's a soft touch about eighty per cent of the time. For Roxy to deliberately push him to that point, aggravate him into snapping and retaliating, then run to Joey crying – he's pretty sure that was deliberate. Low. If he could get a woman to do that to him, to get another woman's sympathy, a sickening part of him, deep inside himself, thinks, it'd be very, very effective. She's got skill, he'll give her that.
But he doesn't like to see that skill used on Joey. Against Joey.
Doesn't like seeing what's left behind when the harm is done. He's usually off and away into the sunset once he's hurt his own conquests.
Now he's seeing it, enacted with his poor, beloved cousin, a pompous bastard who, in spite of himself, Shifty loves with all his heart, and it's squeezing his chest so tightly he thinks his heart might crumble into pieces. And he wonders if he should say something, warn Joey, but it's a bit late now. He's shackled to Roxy in the bonds of matrimony, the chains lashing him to her growing link by link, yard by yard, the ghost of old Joey Boswell's chains rivalling Jacob Marley's, but forged from lust and infatuation and guilt rather than greed.
It doesn't help that he's just added to Joey's burden. And so when Joey speaks again, Shifty is so stunned, so saddened by both Roxy and himself, that he can't even attempt to defend himself.
'How many others?' Joey asks, his shoulders hunching even more.
And Shifty, though a hundred different lies are on the tip of his tongue, can't bring himself to use any of them.
'The money from Auntie Nellie's pot,' he says, as though reciting a twisted nursery rhyme. 'Uncle Freddie's profits from the shop.'
'Our shop!' Joey bursts out, a little flicker of energy in him at that. 'Mine and 'is – so you stole from me twice, did you?!'
'I didn't have enough!' It's a feeble protest, and they both know it.
'And the thing is, Shifty,' Joey rakes a hand through his hair, his voice cracking again, 'I could've forgiven 'em all in time. But why Grandad? Why an old man? An old man who's shown you nothing but love?!'
A solitary tear falls down Joey's face.
Even as he plays his last, desperate card he knows it's not going to be enough. He's crossed one too many lines, one too many times. He gets a sinking feeling in his gut that that's it.
'Can't ye forgive me? Give a reformed man a second chance? I'll come in with ye and discuss how I'm gonna earn back that money and pay ye all back.'
'Liam,' Joey says, and the use of Shifty's real name kills, because he knows things are irreparable if it's come to this. 'Not this time.'
He looks…sad isn't a strong enough word. Devastated is perhaps not quite right, as he's still functioning, and Shifty knows enough about devastation well enough to know you can't look stern when you've fallen apart beyond repair. But he looks somewhere between the two states, that's for certain.
Shifty has a sudden flashback to their eight and nine-year-old selves, to Joey's cheeky grin being shot his way, to their boyish laughs as they'd thought up a devious scheme that Joey had then backed out of and Shifty had taken the rap for. Even when they were children, he realises, even when they were best friends, Joey had always drawn a line, and Shifty had always crossed it. Joey had gone inside, stood by Nellie's side and acted all responsible, saying how he'd told Shifty not to do such-and-such a thing but no, he wouldn't listen. Shifty had always ended up being belted, unable to stop himself from committing the deed even after Joey had changed his mind about how much trouble he was willing to get into.
And the same thing is happening now. Joey had encouraged him to get a car of his own. Joey had balked when Shifty had told him just what he'd got involved in with Yizzel and his mate, doing their dirty work in order to try and earn enough to get said car. Joey had withdrawn his support and gone into fix the situation or I'm telling mode. And Shifty had spiralled, borrowing more money, getting into more debt in an attempt to get out of the original debt.
Pompous prig, the thought returns, even though a moment ago Shifty was feeling sorry for him.
'You know something, Joey,' Shifty says, something bubbling in him, though he doesn't know if it's really anger, as he knows truthfully he has no right to be angry with someone who encouraged him to do the right thing, 'you really are a hypocritical bastard, aren't ye?'
'Shifty, you can't push the blame off on me to excuse – '
'You with your bloody illegal number plate business – didn't care that much about doing the wrong thing yourself, did you, until it was you who got caught!'
He'd been kinder to Joey at the time, in one of his phases of affinity with Joey, which seem to rise up and overwhelm him, before making way to annoyance instead. But now, when he's being lectured – and worse, he suspects – by Joey, and even though he knows he was in the wrong, it makes all that pent up anger come back full force.
'Well, don't forgive me, then!' He snaps contrarily. 'I'll up and away. Abscond! Disappear!'
He's waiting for Joey to butt in, say no, all he has to do is behave, but no such words come his way.
Joey is just standing there, not stopping him.
'I'll go, then, shall I?'
And then Joey says the words that toll in Shifty's ears like a death knell.
'I think that's for the best.'
Shifty's panic has him immediately changing tack. 'No – Joey – I can explain, I can change, I can make this – '
'Just go, Shifty.' Joey keeps on looking at him, mournful, and Shifty could swear he can actually see a part of Joey die off. His cousin rakes a hand through his hair, visibly distressed at his own words, and then he reaches out, curls his fingers around Shifty's hand, connecting them for the briefest moments, an echo of all those times he'd reached through the mesh when visiting Shifty in prison when offering him a tangible reassurance. It won't be forever. But then he snatches his hand back, visibly correcting himself, visibly trying to force himself to accept there won't be a thin end of the wedge this time, that just maybe, this time, it is forever.
He blinks, tears in his eyes, and then turns his face to one side, though not fully away.
Shifty knows why Joey did it, even as he's fuming. Right now, keeping the fragile amends he's made with his family is one of Joey's top priorities. He nearly destroyed his relationship with his Mam and his siblings, ripped the whole family into pieces, when he had a go at them the way he did, when he went off to Scotland with Roxy, when he came back and threw another heap of verbal abuse on Nellie. He's trying his utmost to repair that rift.
And in the meantime, he's trying to prevent a rift with Roxy, mere weeks into their marriage if that, which could come about from his freshly-made amends with his family.
It's a hell of a double life to be trying to hold together, two competing parties playing tug-o-war with Joey's attention, and Joey simply doesn't have enough space for anyone else in there.
So if saving what he has with one of his two main priorities means throwing somebody else on the scrapheap, right now that's a price Joey will easily pay.
Shifty had thought what he and Joey had was special. That he ranked up there with everyone else Joey held dear. But no, perhaps he wasn't, after all. He was sacrificed on the altar of real family, when it came to the crunch.
Now he's completely lost.
He considers. There's Adrian, perhaps, the one Boswell still barred from the fold, because he hasn't gone grovelling back yet like Joey, who knows nothing about what just transpired. No. Adrian undoubtedly will go grovelling back, and then he'll find out, and Shifty will be turfed out of there as well.
Besides, he doesn't even know where Adrian lives.
He goes to the one other place he's nearly always granted entry.
Martina's surprise registers on her face when she answers the door, which is fair enough considering a) he's technically still supposed to be in prison and b) they're split up at the moment anyway.
He clears his throat.
'This'll be good.' She leans against the doorframe, one hand on her hip, the other curled around the half-open door, barring him.
And all thoughts of pleading to have her back, all entreaties of love, die on his tongue. He can't bring himself to say all that. He's said it all too many times before. And right now, he's heartbroken in a way he's never experienced before.
'The Boswells threw me out,' he says instead, managing, to his credit, not to cry in front of her.
He frowns. 'You don't sound all that surprised.'
A sigh. 'I'm beyond being surprised by anything you do.'
'Well,' he wrings his hands, 'I've got nowhere to go, you see…'
'That's not my problem.'
Shifty pulls out one of the classic guilt-trips. 'You did love me once, didn't you?'
Even as he says the words, he cringes. It's pathetic to resort to that and he knows it. But he really doesn't know what else he can do. He needs to distract himself with her, or his thoughts will turn to Grandad. To what he did. To what he vowed he wasn't going to, but couldn't help himself.
'Don't do this to me.'
He looks at Martina, startled by the soft, pleading voice that reaches his ears. Her face is pale, her eyes shining with something that can only be called desperation.
'Shifty, I can't do this.' Her fingers grip more tightly around the door, clutching the wood. She appears on the verge of pulling it shut, only she doesn't move; she's frozen. 'I can't take it. Not again.'
He doesn't blame her. How many times has it been he's let her down now? He can't remember. Even admitting out loud, to her face, that he loved her hadn't helped. She'd raged at him to behave himself, he'd gone home with her, sat in the chair she'd dictated earlier, spent the evening making good all the harm he'd done her…and then he'd done it all again far too soon.
Shifty won't give up hope on a reconciliation, though. After all, she's all he's got now. If he has got her. Of which he isn't sure. It won't stop him from trying. He's lost the Boswells, and, much as he resented them at times, he's already missing Joey, missing Grandad. It's one thing being in prison, away from his family, but knowing they're still there to come back to when he gets out. It's another being told you're never to come back, never to walk through the door again. Being cut off. Knowing that it's forever. He's been banned from their home before, but this time is different and he's well aware of that. That look in Joey's eyes wasn't forgiving. It burns through his brain.
'We could be friends,' he offers, wildly plucking an idea from the mess that forms his mind.
'I don't want to be friends with you.'
Ambiguous, if ever Martina personified the word. She was hard to decipher when he first met her, giving him a frustrating mesh of mixed signals, and she's hard to decipher now. She doesn't want to be friends because she wants nothing more to do with him, or because she wants something more, to go back to how they used to be?
He's leaning toward the former. She's trying to bring herself to shut the door on him again.
'Martina, look,' he grabs her hand, stays it before she can pull it all the way closed, guides her into pushing it a little further open, 'I'm not asking you to forgive me. But I don't know where to go. I just need one night…argh,' he rakes his free hand through his hair, 'I've no right to ask you this, have I?'
'No. You 'aven't.' But he can see her crumbling. She raises her shoulders as high as they'll go before dropping them in a dramatic sigh, then very slowly opens the door to him, pushing it all the way out.
'One night. I mean it, Shifty,' she says, raising her finger in warning. 'And don't even think of comin' near my bedroom. You can stay on the sofa.'
'Martina, do you realise you are the most wonderful angel that ever lived?'
Flattery never works on her, never gets anyone anywhere with her. She never listens to it. But right now, it's true.
Once inside, Martina goes and makes him a cup of tea. Shifty paces the familiar living room, a few memories of the flings they've had in here flashing through his head, a tonic to the Boswell-related memories he's trying desperately not to think of. She's replaced the rug they used to shag on. He's not sure why, but he doesn't like the colour of this new one. It looks like a pile of sick.
He wanders into the kitchen after her and examines her fishbowl; that bulbous piece of glass he's come to regard as a friend, a familiar sight to come back to, no matter what else changes around him.
'New fish,' he observes. It's a tiny black thing with bulging eyes, its body dwarfed by its own fins. He wonders why she's deviated from the usual choice of generic goldfish. This one's an ugly little beastie. She must be trying even harder than usual to maintain her distance from it emotionally, not that that'll ever work. Despite what she claims, Martina, he knows, gets attached to things. People too. She gets far too attached to people.
'It has been a year,' Martina shrugs, slinging a spoon into one cup, then the other, stirring carelessly so tea sloshes over the sides.
Shifty taps the glass, grinning as the fish wriggles as far away from his hand as it can.
'Of course it is.'
'I was tempted to call this one Shifty.' Martina comes round the counter to join him, pressing a mug into his hand. 'But then I thought I'd better not. I'd have murdered it within a day and taken it to work in a sandwich.'
'Why d'you keep buyin' them if you hate them so much?'
'I don't know. I just…want one.'
'D'you ever get sick of doing the same thing time and time again and always gettin' the same results?'
Martina meets his eye for the briefest of moments.
'I do, yeah.'
There's a lot of subtext in that look. Shifty knows all too well she's thinking of him, of all the times she's hoped perhaps this time things between them will be different, all the times she's been bitterly disappointed. He sips his tea, not replying to her, his mind swamped in thoughts of his own shortcomings. He keeps doing the same thing, too, and where does it get him? Nicking a car equals another sojourn in gaol. Disappointing Martina equals being cut off from her. Betraying the Boswells means losing his home—and he's lost it forever. It's evident they got tired of playing the same record too—and unlike the law, which allows release from prison after a certain period of time, unlike Martina, who's too wrecked inside to demonstrate enough strength to keep him away, the Boswells aren't going to stand for it. They've severed their tie with him.
He drinks quietly.
'Oh, well,' Martina bangs her empty cup on the counter. 'I'm off. I've got work in the morning.'
She heads out, disappearing from view. Shifty stares at the dregs of his tea.
'Are you coming to bed or not?' Martina calls from the next room.
Shifty's eyebrows do a dance of surprise, and he's at her side within seconds.
'I thought you said that wasn't gonna happen.'
Another sigh. 'When have I ever 'ad the resolve to keep that up?'
She takes his hand, more in resignation, he notes with some disappointment, than with any enthusiasm. Still. He needs her. He can make it up to her. He can try.
Shifty kisses her.
'Why d'you keep lettin' me back in?' he asks when he pulls back. 'When you keep getting the same results?'
Martina blows a strand of hair off her face.
'I'm not very bright, I suppose.'
They don't spend a particularly passionate evening together. While Shifty is relieved to have found shelter with her, while he is determined that this time, this new chance she has given him will not go to waste, he just isn't in the mood to be romantic. He can still hear Joey's voice in his head, sentencing him over and over.
Not this time. Just go.
Martina asks him if he wants to talk about it, but he doesn't want to admit to her what he's done. How far he went. How badly he hurt them. It shames him too much.
'I think I'm me own worst enemy sometimes,' he says, staring over Martina's shoulder at her bedside table, her wallpaper, her curtains, her flat. None of it is his; none of it ever will be. He's gone from being the Boswells' parasite to hers.
She turns on her side to face him, propping her head up on her hand. 'Do you?'
'I think I'm different from the rest of the human race somehow.'
'If you mean because most of the human race buy things instead of stealin' 'em, then yeah, you are.'
' 's not funny.' The smirk fades from her face. 'I can't just wreck me own life, I 'ave to wreck everyone else's as well. I'm always lettin' people down. Everyone I care about, I sort of…destroy.'
'I disappoint you, don't I?' He already knows the answer.
She smiles wryly. 'Constantly.'
'Do I hurt you?'
Shifty frowns, pulls her closer, buries his face in her hair and inhales the scent of the hairspray she douses it with to keep it in that awful style.
'Why do you put up with me?'
'I love you,' she replies. It's an automatic answer; a reflex. He wonders how many times she's asked herself the same question, how many times she's drummed those words into her own head.
'Why?' he asks again.
Martina pulls back to look at him, searching his face for something. He squints into her eyes, trying to see himself reflected back in them. All he can see is a silhouette.
'Why doesn't matter,' she says at last, sighing. 'It isn't important.'
Her evasiveness unsettles him further. She's all he has left now, the only one he hasn't yet driven away for good (though he almost has before; he can't forget that.) He can't bear to lose her—to lose her now would mean the loss of absolutely everything. He has to invest all of himself now into keeping her, into not disappointing her again. Shifty considers this for a moment, and then frowns.
He'll never be able to do that. It isn't in him.
'I'm sorry,' he says.
'For letting you down all the time.'
Martina leans over him, shushing him with a kiss. 'Then make it up to me.'
He never really can.
Not in the ways that matter.
It takes her two years, but Martina gathers together the strength she needs, and she goes. She leaves him the flat; transfers the lease to his name.
Giving, caring, right up until the end. She knows the lack of a home has always pained him. But she's still gone, and so he resents her all the same.
She leaves her (twelfth?) goldfish behind, too. Shifty continues to feed the bloody thing until it dies, and then he simply leaves the fishbowl where it is, a reminder of something. Of what, precisely, he couldn't say. Of something.
Another two years afterwards, a tiny mention in the marriage column of the paper informs him that she's got married—and to Joey, no less. He thought Joey was married already. Thought Roxy, cow though she was, was his one and only. Huh. Shows what he knows.
He doesn't know what to make of that. Martina was his. Joey was his. Now, apparently, they are each other's, and he's been squashed out without a second thought. Shifty thinks back to all those years ago, to when he'd first met Martina and a part of her had been resentfully pining for Joey, stubbornly pretending she wasn't longing for something she could never have. Well, she's got her wish now. He'd thought she'd been over that. Apparently not. Doesn't matter now, though. They're married and knowing Joey, he'll devote his life to giving her everything she ever bloody well wanted, everything Shifty wanted to give her but never had the means to. Joey will shower her in the sort of stable, steady affection Shifty was never very good at. Spontaneity was always his thing, and on-off passion.
Joey was always better at relationships.
Joey was always better at everything. He's probably better at Martina, too.
Shifty reads those couple of lines of type over and over, scrutinising the details.
Oswald's church. Proddy church. Joey's going to extreme lengths for Martina. Martina has never been sure what she is, flits between one and the other depending on her mood, but Joey, though he's pretty tolerant of Aveline and Oswald, though he doesn't make much of a palava about it in front of people, is very Catholic deep down.
He wants to be angry. He wants to hate Joey and punch his face in, but he feels the loss of his cousin as keenly as he does the permanent loss of his ex-girlfriend.
It stings like nothing else. He wishes he could have been a better companion for Joey. He feels it keenly that he can't even pick up the phone and congratulate his childhood best friend, jealousy aside. That he can't pop round and see Joey grinning and glowing in that way he always does when something is going his way. That look about him, Auntie Nellie used to call it. Shifty misses that look.
He sits, stewing in resentment, and pictures it. Joey probably looked resplendent; leather or silk suit; he could have gone either way and pulled it off. Martina probably looked sulky, because he can't imagine her wanting a lot of fuss, and Joey probably forced a lot of fuss on her whether she wanted it or not. And she was probably secretly happy, because no one ever makes a fuss of her, and though she pretends she hates it, Martina loves positive attention, deep down. Just doesn't think she'll ever get any, and pushes it away when she does, because for some reason, it's ingrained in her nature to suffer. Like she can't help it.
Grandad probably made a fuss about hanky panky when they sealed it with a kiss. Even at weddings, he was prone to doing that. Shifty misses that bulldog face of his, that look of disgust that disguises Grandad's jealousy when he sees people in love, because it makes him think of Edie Mathieson.
It's all too much. All three of them, connected and happy, and he's left on the outside. The only way this could be worse is if Celia was somehow in on it all, too. It's a small mercy she was never connected enough to the Boswells to become one of them, to be adopted into their little network of Boswell family and friends. At least he can think of her out there, not joined together in the little unity bubble like the other three people he loves most, probably off complaining about something.
It's a small mercy. Particularly as last time they'd spoke, she'd been pretty resolute he wasn't allowed back in her life.
He leaves the city that day. Takes nothing, doesn't bother telling Martina's landlord he's leaving. He doesn't even know who the landlord is. He's behind on the rent as it is; he's trashed the flat by this time; pink wallpaper Martina had once loved stained with filth and grime he can't clean off. There's no way he'll get any sort of bond back. Given he's down on the books as Shifty Boswell, which isn't even his name, he suspects the landlord is pretty dodgy anyway, doesn't care too much about red tape, probably won't bother to come after him, will be too busy installing someone else in here as soon as possible and bumping up the rent a bit.
Before he goes, he acts on an idea. Could be a good one, could be a bad one, but a necessary one either way. He takes one last jaunt past Kelsall Street, sits at the end of the street in the taxi he's taken, watching Grandad sit out there in his wicker chair.
Grandad looks more hunched than he remembers, his face more pinched. The afternoon sunlight reflects off his specs and off his bald head; he's got a scowl on him that means his lunch is late, and the thought of a where's me tray?! being released into the atmosphere makes Shifty's heart stop for a minute.
He'd tried coming back here, in the beginning. A week after Joey officially excommunicated him, only to hear an on yer bike from Jack through the letterbox. No chance of chips and sneaking back in, then. Again, after Martina had left him in '93 and he'd yo-yo-ed to Celia for a hopeless three weeks before they too had bust up, and out of sheer loneliness, had come to apologise on bended knee. And Billy, of all people, had shut the door in his face.
Last time he'd tried, one last-ditch attempt, to weasel and crawl and plead his way back there, Auntie Nellie had locked him out so aggressively he wonders if his nose blood is still on the door. He'd tried the window after that, in desperation…only to find they were one step ahead of him. All the windows were tightly bolted, on both houses.
He hasn't seen Grandad since, not even the tiniest glimpse. What he wouldn't give to speak to the old man personally.
Then again, maybe he wouldn't.
Is it Shifty? SHIFTY!
The memory echoes through his brain. Grandad had always been delighted to see him. Delighted by his very existence. Perhaps he would be, and Shifty wonders if that would make him feel better, or worse about this whole thing. Grandad, for his grumpy nature, is too trusting of him. Just like the other people he loves and ruins.
Shifty just sits and watches him for a while, observing the street, observing Billy, curls wild in the breeze, bring his tray and then disappear back into Number Thirty.
He cranes his neck for the sight of a Jaguar, of Joey, of Martina, of anyone, but sees none of the above. Maybe they don't live there. How would he know? He knows nothing about their lives anymore. He's always been on the periphery of the Boswell universe, but now he's all the way outside it.
He turns the taxi around, just a chaste, modest three-pointer, as he's trying not to attract too much attention or get himself landed in gaol again, and drives off, that last glimpse of a bald head, moustache and pince nez burning on his brain.
Shifty can never shake off the guilt about Grandad. Moving to London hadn't helped escape the attacks of it, the onslaughts, little spiders of guilt crawling over him, biting him all over, leaving itchy little splinters of even worse guilt that he can't scratch away. He distracts himself as much as possible, tries new things, sometimes, even, does good things, like tossing coins to people in need, though it doesn't give him much of a kick, and shifty behaviours that live up to his nickname are far more handy when he needs to fill his mind.
He falls down deeper holes. Stealing is no longer enough of a high, but cocaine is, for a while, and the fusion of both, he finds, is electric. If he can add sex into the bargain, he's on to a winning combination, and so nights pass by in this fashion, picking up a girl from the sort of dingy establishment where he knows they won't mind his little habit, doing lines with her, bonking and then emptying her handbag while she's crashed afterwards.
Five years of his life are wasted in this fashion.
Shifty grows, but not really. He becomes a bit cleverer at hiding himself, at keeping himself out of prison. For some reason, this new city he's made his home is a lot easier to navigate, to master, than Liverpool ever was. This city doesn't know him. Doesn't hate him. He moves locations every few months, taking dingy bedsits and lodgings and flats, not particularly caring what any of his landlords or landladies think of him as he's never anywhere too long. And this freedom of movement allows him the ability to swipe a bigger item now and again – a sum of money, a handbag, a motorcycle, whatever takes his fancy at the time – and take himself off somewhere else, keeping himself out of the line of suspicion.
But he hasn't become a better person, and without Joey's influence, or Martina or Celia's hearts to try and take care of, without poor, frail little Grandad looking at him with undisguised love even through his bulldog expression, needing him, he's got no motivation to try.
And before he knows it, he's drinking Scotch in an underground bar with a girl whose name he can't remember, counting down the seconds til 2000 smashes down the gate. Everyone is wild with joy, or at least with drunkenness. The girl snogs him as though she's trying to dislodge his tonsils. He goes home with her and boffs her, feeling the usual rush of adrenaline and the usual sickening disappointment afterwards, and goes back to his own place as quickly and quietly as possible. And so begins the New Year for him.
It's a new century, a new millennium, and yet he's still the same old shifty Shifty, except with a few more tricks under his belt to keep himself from getting caught, and fewer people he values in his life.
Not a fantastic life, but an existence he can live with, he supposes.
He tries to forget.
There are the reminders, though. The reasons he can't – can never – forget.
There are the photographs he hides beneath his pillow. A black and white snap of him and Joey as boys, stolen from one of Auntie Nellie's albums. A Polaroid of him and Joey from the '70s, Joey with his daft long dark hair, his first leather jacket of a much more teenage cut, Shifty grinning in the way only Joey could make him grin. The little picture of Martina, taken on the same stolen Polaroid, on its last legs by then, that he'd snapped of her at Windermere, trying to hide her smile behind her hand, because she always hated having her picture taken. Him and Celia, the latter flashing the engagement ring he'd bought her. And about five of Grandad looking grumpy, in the middle of saying don't point that thing at me, you daft 'apeth! He torments himself going through them, wishes they could be out of sight, out of mind, only he can't bring himself to get rid of them.
He goes through them at night, and the tears that threaten to fall, and the gnawing guilt, are so unbearable that he has to numb himself into a stupor with a substance to put them out of his mind again.
Then, of course, there are Joey's answerphone messages. He saves each and every one of them, replays them over and over, tortures himself. He has no idea how Joey finds his phone number, but he does, and a terrible narrative begins to unfold every time he 1571s, every time hanging up and pouring himself a Scotch rather than acting on Joey's pleas.
*Shifty? It's Joey…look, I know where we left things off wasn't…great, but this is important. I really need to talk to you. Grandad…he's in Broadgreen Hospital, and…well...look…he's got septic pneumonia. It's not likely he's gonna recover from that, at his age, his immune system bein' what it is, and…I think you need to come and see him. Give me a call when you get this message. *
*Shifty? Joey again…sorry about the screamin' in the background, my daughter doesn't want her hair brushed; she's throwin' a bit of a tantrum. Anyway. Look, Grandad…he's gettin' worse. He's not got long. We're goin' out to see him now…and Shifty…you need to come down here. Please. Just…come and see him. Before it's too late. Say your goodbyes, at least.*
*Me again. Grandad's lucky to have a couple of days left in him. If that. Shifty, get on a train, come and see him, while you still can. He's asking for you, Shifty. Over and over. Every time we go in. Please, Shifty. For his sake. I know you're still not speakin' to us, and if you let us know when you're coming, me and Martina don't have to be around. Not Mam, either, if you're still cut up with her for lockin' you out. But Grandad…Grandad loves you, Shifty. He wants you. Please. Just come and see him. It'll mean everything to him. Give him that, at least. *
Obviously the right thing would be to go. Face the music, accept the stares and the glares and the silent (or vocal) disapproval from the Boswells, and go to Grandad.
But although he heads determinedly in the direction of the station dozens of times, buys himself a ticket once, even, whenever he reaches the barrier he loses his nerve. Grandad's sad little bulldog face peers out of the recesses of his mind. Joey's sorrowful voice, not this time, Shifty, wafts up. The click of the lock as Auntie Nellie slammed the door in his face echoes through his brain. And Shifty runs, sprints back to the safety and shelter of his dingy little flat and does whatever he can to put himself into a stupour and forget again.
*Shifty, pick up the phone, I know you're there. I don't expect you to make things up with me, but for God's sake, think of Grandad. He's DYING, Shifty. He's asking for you. Swallow your pride and come and see an old man in his last days. This could be your last chance. *
*Shifty. Joey here. Grandad…passed on about twenty minutes ago. Funeral's on Monday. Wake's probably gonna be at mine, so I don't expect you to come to that, but…for God's sake, Shifty, you couldn't give him one last goodbye when he wanted you there, least you can do is come to the church and pretend to be fucking remorseful. *
Joey rarely uses four letter words.
Shifty's really crossed a line, this time.
*You know what, Shifty? You are a sick bastard. A little part of me kept hoping, right up until the end, that you'd turn up. That you did care after all. But I was wrong about you, as usual. I don't know why I kept thinking, that some daft part of me kept hoping you were better than that. I didn't think you'd sink as low as to deny Grandad like this. Enjoy your life, Shifty. I hope it's worth it. I won't bother you again.*
That last one was particularly brutal, even though he knows he deserved it. He didn't go to see Grandad; he didn't go to Grandad's funeral; he just couldn't. He's too ashamed to face the Boswells again, too resentful to even risk seeing Joey. And he knows, not even deep down but on the surface, because it's that obvious, that that was the wrong thing to do. He should have made the effort.
He needs relief. And he's bought himself some.
Shifty tips the little plastic bag upside down, scatters his stash all over his coffee table (it's technically a cardboard box with coffee mug stains on it, but who cares?) so messily half of it goes off the edge, pulls out the credit card he'd stolen earlier today, and starts to mark out lines. He needs to forget this. He hates Joey, resents him, and yet.
He'd heard the pain in his not-so-cousin's voice, the hurt, no, the agony that had filtered through the phone. He's damaged Joey, deeply, he knows. He's betrayed Grandad – not that he hadn't already, but this adds insult to injury, and he knows it. This is unforgivable. He's done something so sickening he can't even bring himself to stay sober enough to dwell on it.
He could go right now. Turn up on Auntie Nellie's doorstep, beg to see Joey, beg for Joey's forgiveness, beg to see Grandad's grave, pay his respects privately. It won't make up for anything.
It might count for something.
I'll go, he decides. I've got to. I've got to go and see Grandad, even if it is too late.
He's made up his mind. He's going to go to Liverpool tomorrow.
It takes him another four years.
Well, that's that one done, and it wasn't my favourite, but it's necessary for a lot of what happens in ATEOTD verse.
Next chapter is the final chapter, and it covers what happens when Shifty finally does what he set out to do in the Prologue (some of which was covered in the Celia chapter, but not all).
And it is dark, be warned. It is very dark. There is a chance you might hate me, so when it's done, I promise a fluffy Joetina.