I apologise preemptively for this chapter. Don't read if you are affected by any of the below triggers. This fic does not have a happy ending.
TRIGGER WARNINGS: DRUG ABUSE, DEATH, SUICIDE, SUICIDAL IDEATION, COARSE LANGUAGE, MENTAL HEALTH
This had to be bumped up to M for the above reasons.
This is the last chapter in this fic, and it is important to note that it ties in with the fifth segment of Chapter 4 (the Celia Higgins chapter); the events in the majority of this chapter take place on the same day. That segment should also make more sense now.
This is the only chapter that won't solely be from Shifty's POV, for reasons that will become obvious.
And please, don't hate me. This chapter mainly happens because of things that will need to be addressed in Here where the world is quiet.
The Ballad of Shifty Boswell
It's raining when he gets to Liverpool.
The train ride was torture, a purgatory of his own making, writhing in the acid of his own sins, and in the added insult to injury of Celia Higgins's damning characterisation of him in that stupid book.
Waking the streets isn't any better. It's as if someone might burst from every door, insults ready on their tongues. Every building is a hauntingly painful memory, every path he retraces a reminder of the life he'd once had here, every change he notices in the city and even more agonising reminder that he doesn't belong here anymore.
London isn't really his home, but neither, now, is Liverpool. It's a ghost city, and Shifty hunches his shoulders as he goes, turns the collar of his coat up, pushes Dave's moth-eaten old hat down over his eyes, aware this all makes him look like a criminal, even more suspicious than if he had just walked normally down the road, but Shifty daren't walk normally. He's too ashamed. He barely notices the rain.
The churchyard is misty, dark now it's evening, the drizzle starting and stopping at intervals. It's a horror film come to life, as is finally finding what he came for.
William Thomas Duvall
1912 – 2000
It's a nice headstone. Simple and tasteful. Evidently Joey didn't choose it. Joey's always been a bit over-the-top, assuming because something is expensive and blingy that that automatically makes it stylish (apart from anything made of white gold, which for some reason he hates with a burning passion).
Seeing it makes Shifty go weak at the knees. Makes it suddenly real, true. Living far away, not seeing the evidence, he could still, in some part of his brain, pretend to himself Grandad was still out there, screaming at the neighbours to piss off, grumbling about his dinner, existing.
He staggers, shudders, lands in the wet grass in front of the stone.
'Grandad,' Shifty says softly, feeling grief whack him in the chest in a way it hasn't until now. Feeling guilt join it, stronger now than ever before, consuming his very being until he feels his ribcage might crack.
If only he'd come. He's never going to get that last goodbye, that chance to touch the old man's hand, farewell him properly. And he'd had that chance – Joey had not only offered him that chance, he'd bloody shoved it down Shifty's throat. And Shifty had rejected it in the most insulting way possible – with silence.
He wishes now he hadn't. He knew all along he'd feel this way; that if he actually turned up in Liverpool, it would all come crashing down around his ears, inescapable. It's just as bad as he'd expected. It's squeezing his torso so tightly Shifty can barely breathe. He's overcome with despair, a hopelessness that he realises has always been there, bubbling away in his guts, that he's been hiding all his life, stuffing down behind little fleeting highs. Seeing the reality, the finality, of Grandad being gone has burst that bubble, brought it to the surface, and he can't push it away again.
If only he'd brought something to relieve his mind. Alcohol; drugs; even his gold watch, to look at, to remind him that there's always something out there he can take to compensate.
He's got nothing.
Shifty struggles to his feet, ignores the fact that the back of his jeans and the hem of his jacket are wet, stares at the gravestone for a bit longer, wonders if any tears are going to come. He hasn't cried for years. Decades, maybe. He doesn't really remember what it feels like.
He rests his hand against the top of the stone, leans heavily on it, feeling his guts clench, so absorbed in his own wallowing that when the shadowy figure emerges, seemingly from nowhere, it's a moment before Shifty notices.
The man's stride is familiar, the set of his jaw is familiar, the look in his eye is familiar, but he's so consumed with his own thoughts that briefly, Shifty almost doesn't recognise him.
Last time he saw Joey, Joey was blond. He'd been blond since he took over the family when Uncle Freddie left in '83, and Joey had given himself a bit of a George Michael makeover to try and build the confidence to get through it. Now, he looks more like Joey always had, back in the day, and he should be recognisable, but Shifty still does a double take.
It's been thirteen years since he's seen his not-cousin, his former best friend. Joey has let his hair go natural, a colour closer to Jack's with a few greys starting to make appearances around his ears, he's gained some weight around his middle, though not a lot – he'd still be what one would consider great for his age. Probably all that vegetarian rubbish, no lard, no shortening, no lamb chops with little fatty bits on them, probably all keeps him in decent shape. He's got a long leather coat, the kind he always wanted when he was younger, that suits him more now at his age than it would have when he was in his twenties; a don-of-the-mafia type coat. Leather trousers, too, although those look a bit barmy at his age. Still a fop – and a hypocrite, then, obviously. Wearing cow and eating cow are two different things in his mind, somehow.
Shifty can hardly say anything, though, because at least Joey still looks good. Shifty is a year younger and looks a good ten older than Joey. He's emaciated, the result of turning to a combination of drugs, ciggies and dubious deeds to get through his life, to keep the sickening guilt at bay. He looks in the mirror and sees a starving crackhead – well, he is a starving crackhead, so he supposes it's apt – but it still makes him feel a twinge of jealousy, seeing Joey looking so good when he isn't.
'Greetings.' His voice is the same. Colder, harder, than it used to be when directed at him, but it hasn't changed much in all these years.
Shifty inclines his head, tips Dave's old hat, now moth-eaten and nearly fallen to bits. 'Joey.'
The silence is so thick you could slice it and serve it on plates.
'Every year, I wonder if you'll come.'
'I have now,' Shifty says awkwardly.
'Why now?' Joey cocks his head to one side, a genuine curiosity on his face, mingling with repressed anger. 'Four years you stayed away. And before that…you didn't even have the guts to come and make it up with him when he was on his deathbed…'
The anger comes all the way out, tears with it. Joey has been waiting for this confrontation, evidently, for a long time.
And, Shifty realises as he feels himself tense in anticipation, so has he. He may be staggeringly in the wrong here, not coming to see Grandad, taking Grandad's money in the first place, but Joey isn't off the hook. Doing Auntie Nellie's dirty work and throwing him out; running off with Shifty's woman and marrying her so there was no hope for Shifty to make amends with her; acting like God almighty when it comes to Shifty's wrongdoings, while conveniently downplaying his own.
Abandoning Shifty, taking away his support, when Joey's support, pompous and hypocritical as it was, was what used to get him through.
Shifty wants to have it out with him just as much as Joey does.
'Go on, then, Joey. Do it. Fire yer shots at me,' he hisses.
'Grandad wanted you,' Joey immediately launches into it, sounding agonised as well as furious, and that's worse, somehow. 'He called out for you, Shifty. Cried out for you. Asked and asked and there was nothin' I could do, other than plead with you on the phone and reassure a sick old man I was sure you were coming.'
There are bits of spittle coming out of his mouth as he hurls his words at Shifty.
'But he knew, Shifty. I saw it in his eyes. He knew you weren't comin'. And Christ, when he died, Shifty, I saw anger in front of me face so brightly I think I could have gone blind with it. I really didn't think you had that in you. I really didn't.'
Joey's voice softens at that last part, perhaps from emotional exhaustion, perhaps from sorrow, but Shifty can' t cope with that at the moment, when staring in the face of the evidence of what he did. When Grandad's grave is less than a foot away from where they're standing.
Acknowledging he's in the wrong would probably go some way to assuaging Joey's helter-skelter emotions, making the first step towards some sort of peace, and yet to do that right now, Shifty thinks, would destroy him. So he responds, instead, the only way he knows how that can keep him from going to pieces.
'How was I supposed to come, how? With all of ye gathered round, raining judgement on me? Condemning me needlessly…'
'You nicked Grandad's money, Shifty! I told you so many times – nickin' things was always gonna get you into trouble; and you didn't just take anything; it was our Grandad's savings! That was always gonna take time to forgive – that doesn't mean you should have just abandoned an old man in his time of need! Honestly, Shifty, supposin' we had, as you put it, rained judgement on yer for summat you deserved, d'you really think that excuses you from doin' what's right, trying to make up for what you did?'
The way Joey is talking points to Martina's influence on him. He's taken intonations, expressions, phrases from her. It makes Shifty's blood boil. They've lived together for long enough they've rubbed off on one another, the way old married couples inevitably do. The way he never committed to anyone enough to have happen to him.
'You just think, Joey Boswell,' Shifty attacks again, feeling backed into a corner, 'that you, on your little high-and-mighty throne, can sit there like the Good Lord on High handin' out judgement and condemnation to everyone. I stayed away like ye said, I get condemned for not bein' there. D'you enjoy it, Joey? Stringin' up others by their sins for the world to see? Different story when it's you, though, isn't it? Isn't it?'
'Shifty – you betrayed our fam-i-ly…'
Shifty had forgotten the way Joey drags the word 'family' out like that. A habit that had annoyed him back in the day, and yet one which floods through his heart now, making him miss him in spite of himself.
'…you had a chance to make amends before it was too late – and you didn't. Just shows, Shifty, how much you really cared for us. If you'd wanted to, you would have done, eventually. And you didn't.'
That's not something Shifty wants to hear.
'I cared,' he growls, 'I did, don't you say, Joey – don't you say I didn't! And you need talk about betrayal – you betrayed me, don't you forget!'
Joey raises his eyes to Heaven.
'How did I supposedly betray yer, Shifty? What did I ever do, other than show you I cared? I was there for you all those years – I was always the one gettin' you out of gaol again, when I could, I was the one fightin' for yer to have a place with us when Mam was dead set against it, even when you kept lettin' us down, I tried and I tried, Shifty, to show you there was more to yer than a crook who went around nickin' things; I tried, not to get at yer, but to give you a chance at a better life with us, Shifty! How is any of that a betrayal? When was carin' about yer ever a betrayal?'
'When you married Martina.' He can hear the contempt in his own voice. 'You go on about me nickin' things, what about you and women! Alice Waring, my girlfriend, loved me til you appeared with your swagger and charm – didn't care so much about me then, did you? Yeh didn't care about me, did you?! Roxy wasn't mine, but it just shows you, doesn't it; someone else's wife and you detonated that marriage by stickin' your nose in…'
'For God's sake, Shifty.'
'And Martina, my woman, my lover – couldn't wait to get in there, could you? Soon as we took a little break, you were there, waitin'. You love goin' where I've been, don't you? Does it get you off, Joey, knowin' I've been there first?' He's being disgustingly coarse; sees Joey recoil at this comment, face contorted in horror, but he doesn't care. 'Never occurred to you, when you get on your high and mighty horse about stealin', that just maybe, stealin' people's girlfriends…'
'You – shattered her,' Joey thunders, suddenly more angry than Shifty's ever seen him – and he's seen Joey angry many a time, and angry at him about seventy per cent of those. 'You broke her into pieces, and I picked them up, Shifty – if you knew the state you left her in!'
'Bet she picked up your piece and all, so she did,' Shifty cackles to himself, enjoying how filthy he's being, enjoying horrifying Joey, enjoying finally, finally having this out with him after steeping in resentment for so long. He's entitled to be a bit nasty. 'She left me, if you don't remember – she left me, she did! Out of some insane notion she…well… I could've won her back, though, become a different man, I could, if you –'
'She had to leave you,' Joey growls, spewing – is that hatred? – at him. Everyone in Shifty's life has hated him, at one time or another. Friends he's double crossed, lovers he's let down. Not Joey, though. Even at his moments of deepest disappointment in Shifty, even when he stole thousands from Grandad and earned himself a permanent excommunication from the Boswell fold, Joey's face had betrayed sorrow at having to lay down the law. Now, though. Something about discussing Martina, his woman, Joey's wife, their Martina, a part of both of them whether she and Joey accept it or not, riles Joey up in a way Shifty's never seen before. Not even when Roxy, human freebase, poisonously addictive like nothing else to Joey, had been on the scene, back in the day. Joey has changed; Martina has altered his compass somehow. Well, she always did have that effect on people, didn't she? Shifty remembers that feeling well, that overwhelming urge to be better for her, to be what she deserved. And then another bubble of resentment wells up and bursts.
'Oh, she had to leave me, did she, she was compelled by an invisible force that propelled her legs along…'
'She left you,' Joey's voice is quieter, though the malice and venom in it is still there, mingled now with sheer, unalloyed agony, 'because in her mind, it was that, or commit suicide. Get out, one way or the other. Whatever it took.'
Shifty stops dead.
'She never told you that, sunshine,'there's a poisonous edge to the word sunshine; it's almost sinister, 'but she told me. And I've never been able to forget that. Forget that the way you treated her drove her almost to her death.'
And Shifty feels his blood run cold, the horror of it chilling him to the bone. He can't believe it. He doesn't want to believe it.
He won't believe it. To accept that would destroy him completely. Irrevocably.
'It's because of me childhood,' he tries desperately, shrilly, knowing as he says it that the words mean nothing. That they can't undo anything.
'So because of your childhood,' Joey is shouting now, top of his lungs, and it's a good thing no-one else is around to hear their slanging match because it could probably make walls fall, 'you nearly went and killed my wife with your selfish behaviour!'
'She wasn't your wife, not then, she wasn't yours!' Shifty roars back. 'You were busy out there makin' a twat of yourself for Roxy Hartwell while Martina was my lover, and I tried like nothing else to be a better man for her! Sod it if I can't get it right all the time – but I loved her, and I tried to be what she wanted! Holy Mother, if I'm not paying for it now, for stolen years with someone else's wife before the fact, hearing rubbish like that. I won't believe it of her, Joey – Martina loved me. She did. She wouldn't see death as an easy escape from me – that's not Saint Martina with her perpetual suffering and her perpetual strength and her perpetual desire to surround herself with things that make her suffer, always loving what hurts her the most…'
'You do realise, don't you, that she's depressed?' Joey's voice is quiet now, almost mournful. He's calmer, gentle in his sadness. 'That she has always been depressed? I mean really depressed, Shifty. The kind of depressed you need a doctor for. She might pretend she can cope with everything life throws at her, but the thing is, Shifty, she can't. Every time she gets wounded, it sinks in deep. She's not resilient; it just all festers inside her, and she tries to hide it but it bubbles up eventually. And you wounded her one too many times, Shifty, and when she's down in that state and thinks there's no way back up– '
'She's a martyr, that's what she is, Joey – determined to suffer, that's what she is, that's what she always has been – ' Shifty has always hated her for this, for her insistence that the world was out to get her, for her refusal to do anything about it. And it sickens him that he never realised, that it never occurred to him there was a reason for it, a reason she just didn't try. That there was something innately wrong with her, eating at her core, that made her this way. That in all the years he loved her, on and off, it never occurred to him.
'I never saw – '
'You never wanted to see, Shifty!'
'I'm not buying it – Martina's strong, she is – '
'Not always, Shifty,' Joey sounds mournful again. 'I thought so too, at the beginning. But she picks herself up because she has to. To survive. She's strong for other people because it helps her not focus on herself – because she needs that in the same way I need it with me fam-i-ly, because if she does focus on herself too often, she starts going to pieces again.'
Shifty scoffs, but as he does so, pain flicks through his chest like a penknife. Joey knows Martina better than Shifty has ever known her. He was always better at relationships. Shifty had had a feeling Joey might be better at Martina too. Here's proof. Shifty was busy trying to win her love, prove himself to her, because he needed her. He never really stopped to consider what she might have needed; wrote her needs off as an enigma, didn't try to decipher them. But Joey did. Joey opened up her inner workings and learnt them properly.
Her words, the very last time she'd taken him back, their two-year run that had, apparently ended in those horrific thoughts for her, that had seen her fleeing their flat instead, come back to him now. Don't do this to me, Shifty. I can't take it. Not again. And he'd done it to her. And she'd taken it. And it had ripped her almost in half.
Oh, God, Joey's right. The signs were there. He just didn't see. Didn't look. Shifty had always known he would hurt Martina, right from the start – it was why he was so reluctant to love her in the first place – he just never imagined it could be that much.
'Why,' he says contrarily, because he's still going to fight this, 'would she have loved me the way she did, given me chances the way she did, if it made her feel – '
'She saw in you what I saw, Shifty,' Joey cuts him off. 'That's why. I know she did; she didn't have to say it. She saw that somewhere, there's a good man inside you. An honourable man, who could've done…who could've been…'
Joey inhales sharply, tears in his eyes, unable to finish.
'But you never let that man win, Shifty. You never let yourself be the better version of you – you'd start to, try for a little while, and then you'd go round the same roundabout every time, just as things were startin' to settle, and you'd do summat that'd destroy everything. And I just couldn't understand why, Shifty. And neither could she.'
Shifty doesn't fully understand why, either. That's just how he is, ingrained in his nature, he thinks. He's wanted, on and off throughout the course of his life, to be a better man. And it just doesn't come easily. The lure of the wrong thing to do is always too strong, too hard to resist.
'I don't understand,' Shifty says, 'why you always tried to make me better. You know I can't ever manage it. And you pushed me, even when everyone else gave up. Why'd you do that, Joey?'
'Because…' Joey's voice is quiet now, broken. 'I love you, Shifty.'
And that's something Shifty's wanted to hear for so long, has missed hearing, probably hasn't heard since they were children. Even as Joey was doing his head in, lecturing him, playing father where it wasn't needed or wanted, Shifty felt a love for him that was overwhelming. What they'd had had always been unique, a strange relationship that wasn't quite cousins, friends or siblings, seemed to transcend all of them. When Joey isn't around, there's a hole in Shifty that needs filling, one separate from the hole he's had because of his upbringing that he fills with women, stolen cars, drugs.
Except hearing those long-coveted words doesn't heal that hole. Not now. Not after thirteen years with only Joey's increasingly hateful answerphone messages passing off as any form of contact between them. He wants Joey back, the way they had before. And yet, he thinks bitterly, he's not sure if that's possible anymore.
There's a long pause, in which a few raindrops start to fall.
'Well don't expect me to snog ye, if that's what you're waitin' for.'
'You know that's not what I meant, Shifty. There are other kinds of love.' The softness has returned to Joey's eyes, and suddenly Shifty can see the small boy he used to run down the docks with, climb on the roof with, the boy who pressed a 20p coin into his hand rather than let him steal it.
'Help me, Joey,' Shifty rasps out, suddenly desperate. The paralysing blows of Grandad, and now Martina, are making him slowly sink to the floor. He'd felt bad enough about Grandad. He's devastated about Martina. He's always known he wasn't good for people, but that…
There has to be a way to escape his brain. To shed all of that, like a skin, and start anew. Moving to a new place hadn't got rid of it. The guilt had followed him there. The only way he gets by, truly, he realises with a flash, is by latching onto someone who might help him. That's why he kept trying with Martina, with Celia. Someone, someone he cares about has to be his salvation and fresh start, his hope, or he has none. He hopes Joey, with that comment, is offering it. Is offering the hand he so desperately needs to pull him off the cliff's edge.
'I'm sorry, Shifty, I can't…' Joey shudders out a breath of air, 'I can't keep doin' this. I tried. God knows I tried to help yer. But there comes a point when you have to just…walk away. For your own good. It got to that point with Roxy, much as it nearly killed me to do it. And I'm sorry, Shifty. But I reached that point with you a while ago, now. I can't keep ploughin' concrete, much as I love yer.'
Joey turns away from him.
Turns away, walks away, doesn't so much as glance over his shoulder, striding out of Shifty's life with the finality of a closing book.
There was one person, once, who never wrote him off as a hopeless case. But Joey has. He's written him off.
Even throughout his life, when he was at his worst, committing his worst deeds, hurting people in the worst ways possible, that little seed was there, planted by Joey, that just maybe there was another way for him.
Joey has uprooted that now. Stomped on it. Destroyed it.
He wishes he'd never come back to Liverpool. He should have stayed away. And yet he had to come. Couldn't stop himself.
Joey has damned him. Martina, though he hasn't seen her, has damned him. Grandad isn't alive to damn him, but it's too late for forgiveness there, either.
Celia Higgins has damned him, with her infernal book.
And yet now, after all he's just discovered, all he's just learned, she's the only one left who hasn't excised him from their lives irreparably.
His only hope is Celia Higgins, and even that's a long shot. He needs to go to her now.
There was never any hope for you, Shifty. There never will be. Because you are incapable of change.
For once in her life, Celia Higgins is right. There is no hope for him. He's incapable of change. And he's sick of it. He's sick of being him, of being Shifty of the no hope.
He leaves Celia's house, kicking the pavement, so irate he thinks if he had a nuclear bomb, that would be it for the world. Condemned by all the people he loves. Every last one of them.
Incapable of change. Well, if that's the case, there's no point, is there? They'll be sorry, the lot of them, when they realise what they reduced him to.
It's easy enough to steal a car. It always has been; he's got a knack of working out where they'll give, whether that be the lock He pulls the sleeve of his shirt over his fist, breaks the window, not caring that he thinks he probably broke something in his hand doing it, judging by the blood and the agony. It won't matter in a few moments, anyway. Not if he pulls this plan off.
The fact that the road is wet works in his favour. He speeds, slips around in the road, presses the accelerator harder than he's ever pressed it, feeling the car fly, a feeling he had, up til now, felt as a release, a joy in life. Now he feels an ominous apprehension, a mounting dread. It's dark, and he hopes to Heaven there aren't any people around crossing the road, because he can't stop, and he laughs hysterically to himself, accelerating and accelerating until the flash of oncoming headlights zooms into his vision.
For a split second – or perhaps more of a nanosecond – he wishes he hadn't done it. That he could turn back, take it back, because he didn't really mean it.
But it's too late, and his stolen car goes into the other one with horrific force.
No-one wants a phone call like that. No-one wants an evening like he's had. Joey has seen things that will haunt him forever, that will slash through his dreams for years to come, filling him with terror and trauma and a horrific nausea that's threatening to come up into his mouth and overspill.
He keeps it together for Belle's sake, pretends to smile when he comes home and greets his daughter, gives Edgar II a pat and ruffles his ears, ignores the fact that Martina is looking at him strangely, that she's noticed something is wrong. She's very perceptive when it comes to him.
When Martina puts Belle to bed, Joey goes upstairs, stumbles into the bathroom and vomits all over the bath, unable to keep it in for a few seconds longer to get his head down the bog.
He slumps down to the floor afterwards, his legs too weak to move properly, leaning against the bath despite the fact that the stench of his own vomit is right near his head. He feels the cold tiles against his hand, is faintly aware that Martina is standing in the doorway, looking at him, but he can't move, even to lift his head towards her.
'Are you drunk?'
'No,' Joey rasps. 'Would that I could be, sweetheart.'
'Then what's all this, love?' her voice turns from sternness to concern right away.
'Just leave me be, Martina, I can't talk to yer at the moment, I …' he can't even finish his sentence. He can barely speak.
Asking Martina to leave him alone when she's worried for him, thinks he's hiding something, or, as appears to be the case her, a combination of the two, is an impossible feat.
She's across the room in seconds, bending down in front of him so her face is level with his. He feels the back of her hand against his forehead.
'I'm not unwell,' he slurs.
Her eyes narrow. 'What's happened, then?'
Joey doesn't answer her, stares at the tiles on the floor until they become a taunting optical illusion on the floor, moving back and forth before his eyes.
Martina turns the bath taps on, making a face.
'Are you sure you haven't been drinking? That's vile. Reminds me of that time we got drunk on Baileys.'
'I've not been drinkin', I told yer.'
'I think that's got most of it,' she says, more to herself than to him. 'Now, listen 'ere…'
Joey shuts his eyes, trying to drown her out, but the second he does, he has to face the nightmare playing out in his head, and then he's sitting up straighter, stifling a scream.
'Cut it, Martina,' he snaps, a bit too hysterically, shrugging off the hand she's put on his shoulder, 'just cut-it-out!'
He gets up off the floor, a bit too hastily, the room spinning, and Joey thinks he might faint, but right now all he wants is to get away from her before she starts pushing him to talk.
He can't face anything, wants to simply ooze off into oblivion. Joey half-rolls into their bedroom, feeling the room lurch with every uneasy step he takes, aware she's following him but ignoring her, crawls into bed, burrows under the covers face-down.
'It's half past eight.'
'Leave me alone,' he insists again, 'I can't cope.'
'Can't cope?' Martina wrinkles her nose. 'Why?'
Joey doesn't bother to answer her, doesn't look at her. Tries not to look at anything in particular, concentrating on different spots on the wallpaper, because if he lets himself think too much, he'll remember what just happened. What he just found out.
Except then Martina has pulled off her shoes, yanked back the covers and climbed in beside him, refusing to let him alone.
'I smell like sick,' he protests when she wraps an arm around his waist, pulls him closer.
'You do, yeah. Didn't stop you spreading it to our bed, did it? You're changing these sheets tomorrow; don't think you'll get out of it.'
Joey murmurs incoherently, an affirmation that he'll do as he's told.
'You're also using that as an excuse not to tell me what's goin' on.'
'Hnn.' Joey presses his face into the pillow, but the darkness this causes when his eyes shut brings back horrific images from earlier today, and he's forced to raise his head again, open his eyes again. And that, unfortunately for him, means being caught by Martina, pulled back into the conversation whether he likes it or not.
'Tell me,' she demands, dragging him forcefully onto his side so he's facing her.
'It's nothin', sweetheart,' Joey lies, but it's a bad lie, an obvious, unsubtle one. 'Just…not a great day, that's all. I just wanna sleep it off; I'll be ok in the morning.'
'Mister Boswell,' Martina chides. 'I know you. If something's rattled you this much, to the point where you can't even function and you're throwin' up all over the place, then it really is bad. And it's one of two things: family, or something which reminds you of Roxy and Oscar.'
Damn. She's too good at seeing into his soul. That's his fault, though, because he's deliberately let her in to see it, brought her close enough to him to let her explore his inner workings. And he doesn't regret that, because he loves her, wants her to know all of him, but right now, he wishes she weren't being so perceptive. Because if he has to tell her, it's going to hurt her just as much as it hurts him.
'So?' Martina pushes. She's still got her DHSS lady voice on (he can picture her correcting him, it's not the DHSS, in that irritable tone of hers, but he really doesn't care. It'll always be DHSS in his mind, because that's what he prefers to call it).
'Which is it?'
She waits for a moment, and then presses again.
'I don't think you wanna know.'
'I don't think I want to know, Mister Boswell. But it's a bit hard to ignore, love, this problem you don't want me to know about, when it's the third person in the bed with us. When you've just chucked your guts up over whatever it was. So, go on. Tell me.'
She's not going to let it go. He supposes he'll have to say something. He can't hide it; he's already failed at that.
'I…' he doesn't know how to begin, how to put into words the horror that has been his evening. Nor does he know it's a good idea to tell Martina. Her emotional state, much as she likes to make out otherwise, is a dreadfully fragile thing. Especially when it comes to losing people she loves. He can't lie to her, though. Not about important things. It took him a long time to build up her trust; he takes its maintenance very seriously. It'll half-kill her, but she has as much of a right to know as he does.
'I saw Shifty.'
'And?' Martina's face is unfathomable. Joey hesitates again, because she seems all right at the moment, but this could tip the scales, and once she spirals into a black mood, it's hard, God, it's hard, to get her out of it again. They're getting worse, longer, the gaps between them slowly narrowing, until Joey fears one day normal Martina, his Martina, Martina of the quick wit and sharp tongue, will be squashed out altogether, drowned in this entity of depression that is slowly taking over her, that she can't see, that she doesn't recognise, even though he's desperate for her to, that she thinks is just part of herself, when he knows it's not, it never has been. It's something that eats her, not something that is her, and he can tell when it's talking and not her.
'Joey,' Martina says sternly, leaning over him, one hand pinning his shoulder to the bed, a nonverbal warning. You started this. You can't leave me hanging.
'Nothing.' He shudders. 'He didn't say anything.'
'Not really in a fit state to; he…' he can't say it, but now he's begun, he can't keep it from her. Can't let her think, if she finds out some other way, that he's lied to her. He's vowed to keep her trust no matter what. He's not letting anything tear it apart.
Joey takes a shaky breath and comes out with it.
'Shifty's dead, Martina.'
Martina freezes, mouth half open. Just looks at him. Uncomprehending, or unwilling to comprehend.
'Dead.' Her tone is expressionless. Emotionless. It hasn't hit her. Not yet. But it will.
'Are you sure?'
'Crashed a car last night…deliberately, they think, and they…' he can't get further than that. He can't bring himself to say the next words. 'They…'
'Go on, love,' Martina's voice has softened now, perhaps from a combination of realising why he's really upset, concern for him and being shaken herself by the news. 'They?'
'They asked me to identify the body,' Joey grinds the words out, another torrent of spew nearly coming out with them. 'I was down as his next of kin. I had to go and…see it really was 'im. And…' Every second word is strangled; he can't go on.
He convulses at his own words, starts crying as he hadn't let himself until now. In spite of the emotional turmoil Martina must be feeling at this, she holds him, strokes his hair. She's always been good at being his strength, even when she's struggling herself – and she is, he can tell she is from the way she's shivering against him. It moves Joey no end that she tries so hard to be what he needs, to be a shelter for him when he's busy taking care of everyone else, but it worries him at the same time, because she's less and less able to hold herself together these days. He doesn't like to think how much closer to a permanent breaking point this could push her.
He's not going to tell her Shifty took the other driver out with him. That's more than she could cope with. She's not made of steel, even if she thinks she is.
'And was he…' Martina pauses, uncertain. He can tell, even though he can't see her face, that she's trying to weigh up her words, work out the right way to say it, but even though she can't, Joey knows her well enough to know what she's thinking.
'He was…no, he seemed pretty peaceful. Thank God, eh?'
This is a lie. Every word. Shifty didn't look peaceful, he looked ghastly, grotesque, an image Joey doesn't think he'll ever get out of his head. It'll haunt his nightmares forever. Even if he has to tell Martina what happened, she doesn't need to know that. This is hard enough as it is; he's going to protect her from that forever.
And then another surge of nausea overcomes him, because he remembers the last conversation they'd ever had. How he'd accused Shifty, condemned him, damned him, walked away. And that could, for all he knows, be the last conversation Shifty ever had with anyone.
'It might be my fault.'
'Joey, how is it your fault? It isn't.'
'Because I saw him…before that. And I let him 'ave it about Grandad, about what he did to you… about what he did to us…' Joey can feel more vomit coming up. Martina puts a mixing bowl in front of him (he's not sure where she produced it from; but she always seems prepared for everything, and he loves her for that) and holds him while he lets it all out.
'Don't fill it all the way up. I might need it meself in a minute.'
'Told you it was my fault.'
'It's not your fault!' Martina says angrily. 'How many times have I said similar to him? How many times 'as everyone said similar to him? If it was that that did it, he'd have been done for years ago, Joey.' Her hand comes down on his shoulder, reassuring, the love in the gesture so powerful it relaxes Joey just a little. Even if he still blames himself, she doesn't blame him; is offering him absolution that's not really hers to give, though he appreciates it all the same.
'Something must've 'appened you didn't know about. It's been more than ten years, after all, hasn't it?'
Joey shuts his eyes, moves to turn away from her, but she grabs his face, holds it there.
'You did not kill Shifty, Joey. You didn't. Don't even let your mind go there.'
'I could've laid the groundwork, though, that led to everything that eventually finished him off. We shouldn't have kicked him out, when he took Grandad's money; we could have sorted it – then he would've been with Grandad when he died and then I wouldn't have 'ad a go at him for that, and then maybe he wouldn't have moved in with you and you wouldn't have left or tried to…you know, and I wouldn't have 'ad a go at him for that…'
'And I never would've married you, and we never would've 'ad Annabelle…' Martina adds crossly. 'And who's to say he and I wouldn't have reached that point anyway? We would more likely than not. Besides, love, how many times did I kick him out? I wasn't the only one, either. And then he 'ad thirteen years, Joey, without yer, and eleven without me. And you don't know what happened in that time, Joey. Could've been anything.'
She's sensible. Thank God she's keeping it pretty well together, not letting the depression speak, letting Logical Martina get him out of this nightmare hole he's falling into.
'Yeah, but –'
'No yeah, but, thank you, or I'll smack yer same as Belle when she says it. Now listen,' Martina is firm, commanding, though there's a tremor in her voice that suggests she can't hold onto her self-possessed state much longer, and Joey needs to get himself together soon for her sake, 'all those things that happened – Shifty had a hand in that, you know. You threw him out because he harmed Grandad. Stole his money, Joey, and how many times could you let him do it? What happened between him and me – he destroyed what I had with him. He didn't have to, but 'e did. And what he did…'
She puts her hand over her mouth.
Joey pushes the bowl towards her; she pushes it back, swallows, goes on.
'…that was his decision, Joey. He didn't have to.'
Bloody hell, he wishes she'd be this logical when it comes to herself. She's talking incredible sense, more so than she can apply to her own situation, but that's a conversation for another day, and though Martina doesn't like telling people what they want to hear for the sake of it, right now, by speaking so logically, she's told Joey exactly what he needs.
Joey gets out of bed, puts the makeshift bucket carefully on the floor, retreats back to the sanctuary of the covers and Martina's arms. She's rigid now, even as she holds him, small tremors running through her body. In spite of her reassurance, her ability to try and talk him out of his self-blame, it's hit her now, and it's hit her hard. Even if she doesn't want him to know that. The pieces are coming apart behind her mask of outward strength, and he knows he's going to have to reach in there and pick them all up again, when he's strong enough. When she's finished picking him up first.
'Stupid bastard,' Martina says weakly, voice shaking. 'He didn't have to.'
She wants to cry, but she doesn't want him to see. Doesn't want him to know that she wants to. It's not easy for her, Joey knows. She verbally attacks Shifty at every opportunity, talks about him in unflattering terms, but he can't help forget that, while Shifty was someone who caused Martina immense harm, for a long time, there, he was her lover, her companion. For a while, to her, he was everything. He was her Roxy, and Joey knows how it feels, to be hurt so much by someone you can't help caring about.
'It's okay, you know. I know you loved him.' Joey pauses. 'Love 'im.'
Martina's eyes meet his, a strange fear swirling in them. 'I love you more.'
'I know, sweetheart, I know. I just meant…you don't just stop lovin' people. Either you never really did, or…there's a little bit of you that will forever. So it's okay, sweetheart, if you wanna grieve. I understand.' His voice catches. 'I loved him too.'
Her eyes are wide.
'Not like that, Martina. Not like that. Don't be daft, it doesn't suit you. He was me friend. Best friend, for a long time, when we were growin' up. Bit like another brother, only…it was a different sort of bond. Me and him, we shared things I couldn't share with me brothers. It was…special.'
'What was he like? Back then?'
'He had a way with him,' Joey says. 'He could make you feel…like you just wanted to reach into the sky and give him the sun. He was so bloody loveable, even when he was bein' a bastard. You know?'
'I know. He made me feel that way an' all.'
Joey holds her closer. 'He could twist you round his little finger, even when you knew you were gonna pay for it later. He got me into trouble so many times…not that I wasn't up to somethin' meself,' he laughs weakly, 'but Shifty used to get caught while I usually didn't. We wagged school once, you know, when we were kids. Went down the docks…we 'ad a fantastic day, but Shifty put his great foot in it and Father Dooley saw us and told me Mam. I got belted for that. Was still a nice day, though. You always enjoyed spendin' time with Shifty, even if it was bad for yer.'
Martina's listening, transfixed. Her head's propped up on her elbow, she concentrates on his face, as though trying to see into his mind the images he's relaying to her, and he realises this might be what's keeping her together right now, concentrating on his words, his memories. He keeps going, pushes into the depths of his memory banks for another nice one.
'When I was ten,' Joey says, 'and Shifty was nine…one day someone left a ladder out the front of our 'ouse. Can't remember why now…but we climbed up there and we just sat there. Just watchin' the sky. There was a storm comin', I remember, and Shifty was terrified of the lightning because he thought it was God coming to strike him down.'
Martina manages a small chuckle at this.
'So I told him, in return, what me worst fears were. I'd never felt so close to anyone before. I'd always had to be in charge, look after me brothers and sisters; I couldn't have weaknesses. Tried to look after 'im too, but he never 'ad any of it…so he was just me friend, most of the time, and I could talk to him like one. Get up to mischief with 'im like one – harmless, of course!' he holds up his hands.
But Martina's far away in her mind, lost in his memory, too far to make any references to him being a crook, or up to no good.
'But anyway…I just remember that day…one of the best days I ever spent, and all we did was sit there. But it was great. You know? And back then Shifty still admitted he had fears, and he was just afraid of the world and his mam was never around and he kept gettin' moved all over the place and not settlin'…I think he wanted to be good, you know. He just didn't know how to be. He was so lost.'
'Sometimes I think you might be right. When I first met him,' she says, offering him a fond memory of her own, 'or not long after that, anyway…it was before he'd ever broken me heart…I 'ad this goldfish in me flat. I sort of hated it.' She gives him a wry smile, but a stray tear is building in the corner of her eye, and it leaks.
'Then it died and I realised…I 'ad loved it, really. Even if I pretended not to. And I cried, and Shifty… he bought me a new one. Actually, no…' she looks at the ceiling, as if her eyes are trying to reach up into her head for the rest of the memory, '…two new ones. I keep forgettin' one of 'em, because it only lived a day. He barely knew me back then. But he did that for me, and…even on the worst days, when I just wanted rid of him…I could never forget that somewhere inside him, there was a side of 'im that did things like that.'
Joey wraps his arms around her, because he's not really sure what to say. He understands, even if his own relationship with Shifty played out differently. There was a side of Shifty, stuffed down so deep that it barely surfaced, that was capable of extraordinary love. It was a pity he'd never learned how to use it properly, to harness that pure goodness inside every human being, that he could have learned to use, that he could have unleashed on the world, but didn't. He was so lost. Joey had always thought he would one day help him find his way.
'It was the only nice thing he ever did for me, though,' Martina goes on, her voice hardening. 'The rest of it was lying to me and coming home with stolen gear and other women's lipstick on 'is collar.'
'Bringing home stolen gifts for Grandad and coming home having given all our savings to Yizzel and Charles,' Joey says, going with her through a brief spell of anger. He wonders if this is a stage. He's heard there are stages in grief, though he doesn't know what they are. He and Martina seem to be pinballing between emotional states, leading each other into different feelings, from fondness and affection to fury in the span of a few seconds. There's so much to process, he can't settle on one particular way of coping. He wonders if this is normal. It was different when he lost Grandad; more straightforward. Sadness, anger, and then acceptance over time. It made more sense, though. He was old. Shifty, for all he looked it, wasn't, and somehow the fact that he had a hand in his own demise, the fact that he had a hand, selfishly, in someone else's, that Joey and Martina are inextricably linked to Shifty in a strange web that strings them to each other as well, makes the whole business a lot more complicated.
'Never even told me his name,' Martina says bitterly. 'Shows how much he loved me, I couldn't even know 'is name.'
He can't compare anything to that, can't top it. He'd imagined Shifty had, at one point. He hadn't realised Shifty had shut Martina out of that part of him, and he can't bear to think of that. Joey may be doing a lot of questionable things, but he's never shut Martina out of any crucial part of his heart, even the bits she isn't so keen on – his dodgy deals, his past with Roxy, the part of him that wishes Roxy's son hadn't grown up hating him and turned his back on him except to scrounge money, nothing. She deserves so much more than to be kept in the dark. Shifty must have known what went on with Martina's brother, how he abandoned her, and he went ahead and treated her like that anyway. A stirring of anger flickers in Joey's chest.
'What…' Martina is hesitant. It's as if this has only just occurred to her, or it's only just occurred to her to ask. 'Did…you know his name? His real one, I mean?'
'Course I knew. I knew him since we were kids. His mam used to call 'im it.'
He feels Martina tense against him, though not in fear. Almost in…anticipation.
'Nosy little thing, aren't you?' he teases, and realises immediately it was the wrong thing to say. 'Inappropriate, I know, I know.' He looks her squarely in the eyes, sees an emotion in them he can't name, but which he's sure mimics the strange ambivalence he's feeling exactly.
Even if Shifty never chose to disclose it to her, she was an enormous part of his life, and he of hers, for a long time. She deserves to know who he really was.
Joey touches her face, strokes it.
'Liam, Martina. His name was Liam.'
'Oh.' She stares at the ceiling as she chews on this. 'Never would have thought…can't really picture 'im as that, can you?'
Joey laughs. 'Not really. Not anymore.'
And then another stray tear appears on her face, her voice shakes. 'I wish he'd told me.'
'Would it have made any difference, sweetheart, if he did?'
Martina shakes her head. 'Not really. It wouldn't have saved us. I wouldn't have wanted to stay; I couldn't… I just…I just wish he had, all the same. You know?'
'I know,' Joey pulls her close, unsure if he's comforting her, or taking comfort from her. 'I know.'
Martina is still and quiet, her eyes closed.
'What are you thinking?' Joey asks at length.
'Praying,' she mutters.
His hand closes around hers.
'I just don't like to think of him,' Martina says, 'afraid of God striking him down. It might happen now and all.'
'I'm sure it won't,' Joey squeezes her hand tighter, reassuring himself as much as her, because a similar thought has occurred to him, too. 'Shifty had some goodness in him. Somewhere. It was there. He had love. And faith. He just didn't show those things often – but God sees beyond all that exterior stuff.'
He tucks a strand of hair behind her ear.
'I'm sure he's okay,' Joey repeats, though he really isn't.
Martina is quiet again, and Joey shuts his eyes as well, offering up a mangled jumble of a prayer, trying to keep the horrific sight of Shifty in the morgue out of his brain, failing, and then he's crying again, sobbing more uncontrollably than he has in years, than he has since his marriage to Roxy had fallen apart only a year after its inception, and her son had been borne away from him. And then his hysteria sets Martina off too, breaks the last barricade she was holding up around her tears, and they hold each other and cry and Joey hopes with all his heart Annabelle is asleep and won't come in and find them like this. He might send her to his Mam's tomorrow; neither of them are in a fit state to pretend to be okay, even for her sake. They might need some more time just to suffer and process together.
'What could we have done?'
'I don't know, sweetheart. I don't know.'
They're silent for several more moments, apart from the sniffling.
'If only he knew,' Joey manages through his phlegm, 'if 'e could've seen. That we loved him. That we wanted better for him. I really thought the fact that we tried meant something… what he did, it just...it doesn't fix anything. It was never a way to make anything right. If he'd just talked to us...'
'Oh, God,' Martina sobs, burying her face in his neck. 'Oh my God.'
They've only got one more morning, just a couple of hours before the removal men come, and Shifty is borne away from Kelsall Street into the unknown. Before he's no longer part of this family, because his friendly soul mother has detached herself from his bastard stepdad, before he's drifting again, a sod without a home.
Just a couple of stolen hours with Joey left to go. Stolen in the usual Shifty sense of the word; he's nicked them, because Joey is supposed to be having breakfast at home, and he's going to be in for it with Auntie Nellie when she realises he isn't there.
'Worth it,' Joey says, when Shifty reminds him he's probably going to get belted for sneaking out like this. 'Can't let you go without a good send-off, can I?'
He grabs at Shifty's hand.
'C'mon. Let's go down the docks.'
'Is that your only idea of a good time?' Shifty teases, because Joey goes down the docks a lot, just to watch the boats, and the water and get a glimpse of Uncle Freddie at work, and thinks it's fantastic. Shifty finds the expedition a bit dull, but being with Joey always livens it up. There's an innocent joy about Joey that comes out when he's doing something he's really passionate about. He lights up, and that lights Shifty up too.
Oh, how Shifty wishes he didn't have to leave. How somehow, Auntie Nellie or Grandad would take mercy on him and take him in, so he could go on being a Boswell forever.
He walks quietly alongside Joey's side. His not-cousin-anymore is jabbering on about something Shifty barely registers, and grins when they get their first glimpse of the boats, hear the day's first caw of gulls.
'It's not gonna be the same, after today, is it?'
'Course it is. I told yer last night.'
'Not really, though. When am I gonna see you next? Me up there, you down here…I can't picture Auntie Nellie and Uncle Freddie driving you over to see me, I can't.'
'Then I'll climb out the window,' Joey says. 'I'll climb out the window.' They get up onto the railing, leaning over the edge, trying to see, as they often do, how far down the water goes. Shifty watches a sheath float by, followed by an array of burnt-out cigarettes and an empty crisp packet someone's tossed to the winds. Joey seems not to notice, fascinated instead by the way the light on the water reflects on the side of the dock, a mesmerising, glowing ripple effect.
That's always how it is. Joey sees the good in life, the hope. What it could be. Shifty sees the rubbish. What can never be. It's the same when they think about him, too.
'D'you think if I stopped me watch, time would stop as well?'
Joey shakes his head sadly, eyes still on the water.
'If we could do that, Shifty, I'd do it every day when me dad came home, and when you were in the house. And we'd never be apart again.'
They're quiet for a while longer, still staring out over the water, absently observing the boats and the workers. Shifty catches a glimpse of Uncle Freddie, his flyaway hair flying even further away from his head than usual in the wind. He looks incredibly burdened, even from a distance, his posture showing his hatred of being still, coming to the same place every day. Shifty wonders if he'll be gone for good one day. He knows that feeling, of wanting to put one foot in front of another and walk and walk and walk until the world disappears. He sees it in Uncle Freddie.
The sun (or the foggy outline of it, barely visible through the clouds) is making its way higher into the sky, and Shifty acknowledges, heart sinking, that his stolen time with Joey is nearly up.
'We'd better get home,' he says, resigned. 'Auntie Nellie's gonna have your head.'
'Yeah, I suppose.' Joey hops down from the railing, takes one look at Shifty and pulls him into a hug, awkward because they're not really touchy in that way, because Shifty doesn't really like people touching him full stop, but welcome nonetheless, even if Shifty leaves his arms hanging by his sides rather than returning the embrace.
'It'll be all right, you know. You'll see.'
'I wonder what the point of life is,' Shifty says quietly. 'I can't see much happening when I grow up.'
'You'll be a pirate; I told yer!'
'I mean really, Joey. Just a lot of disappointment and then I'll die and that'll be the end.'
He sighs, gazing up at the sky, the thick clouds making it almost white.
'That's a bit daft and sad. What about Heaven?'
Shifty frowns. 'I don't think I'll make it there.'
'You will, Shifty. You will.' Joey casts his eyes skywards for a moment, smiles, then turns, grins at Shifty, a picturesque, gap-toothed cheeky cherub offering him one last shred of joy.
And they're off and running, their laughter mingling with the birds and the breeze.
Please don't hate me but this ending just came out of nowhere and eroded the original ending I had planned, which was where he would eventually get back together with Celia. This seemed to ring more true with Shifty's recklessness, and the fact that, in the show, he has moments where he regrets, and can no longer repress what he's done to people, but deals with things very badly. I don't AT ALL think this is the right thing for anyone, nor am I suggesting it should be, nor am I suggesting Shifty redeemed himself in this way (as Joey and Martina pointed out, he didn't have to at all, and there could have been ways he could have fixed the situation, which he SHOULD have considered instead).
And this isn't meant to be a character assassination on Shifty, nor a blaming of the Boswells, Celia or Martina for how he was; it's more meant to show that really, he needed professional help (something that will parallel Martina's own mental health in the upcoming finale).
I touched briefly on Martina's suicidal ideation before she left Shifty in ATEOTD, but it was brief and somewhat glossed over, though it was still there. Things are going to get messy for her in the finale though, especially because of what happened in this chapter, so I needed to bring it a bit more centre stage here.
The impact of this on Joey and Martina (especially Martina) is going to become evident in Here where the world is quiet and it should make sense of a lot more things that happen to them, separately and together, in that fic.
I feel terrible. In this universe, I killed Derek, Grandad and Shifty, gave Jack an existential crisis, and put Joey and Martina through torment. I promise, the finale fic will bring a bit more joy, eventually. (After all, the main premise of the series originally was that at the end of the day, Joey and Martina were happy when they found each other. And they will be again).
I also promise a fluffy Joetina next week to make up for this. I've already got one ready to go.