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Twelve Stories Down


									                                                                                Twelve Stories Down

                                   Twelve Stories Down

               (Short-listed Orange New Voices competition. Run in the Northern Echo)

Harry fell. The ground zoomed. Vast, paved: impossible to miss. Rooftops sparkled.

Twelve storeys down. Not long left to live. Funny, his life used to be counted in decades

and years. Now it‟s rapidly diminishing metres and inches.

        Adrenaline amnesia. The rush of concentrated terror blasted his mind clean and

clear. Wiping conscious thought away like chalk from a blackboard. He realised he didn‟t

know anything, other than the situation. All he knew was giddy descent. Lethal

trajectory. He didn‟t even know who he was.

        I’m falling, he thought. Then with indignation: Why am falling? How did this


        In answer, his mind spat little flashes of memory, and falling, he viewed each as if

it were brand new. Little grains of information in some semblance of order. A memory

for each floor he fell. Envelopes of his life:

        From out of the rushing wind he hears his Mother‟s voice, calling from the

kitchen. Calling from a long time ago.

        “Harry. Dinner’s ready.”

        The sky grizzles with rain, lightening strobes.


        He‟s drowning the neighbour‟s cat in the overflow barrel behind the shed. Quite

why he‟s doing this, he‟s not sure. He actually likes cats, but when you‟re eight years old,

you do some strange things don‟t you? The poor thing looks pathetic, its fur bedraggled,

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its body limp. His arms throb with deep scratches. He feels sad at this reminiscence.

Hardly the most auspicious start to life was it? No wonder he‟s falling from the roof of a

tower block. But his childhood wasn‟t all drowning cats. So, why this tawdry show?

         From over his shoulder, his Mother shrieks at him to stop and he‟s crying because

its too late and the lightening flashes and he plummets another floor and is elsewhere


         Fourteen years old, a petrol bomb raised high above his head. The tombstone

blocks of the estate he lived in, and terrorized for three years, framing the horizon. The

car they stole skewed across the road. Parked haphazardly on tarmac dusty with the soot

from all the other vehicles they burned. A generation of automobiles turned to charcoal,

rust and shattered glass when all the adventure had been leeched out of them.

         “Go on!” Chris Jackson hisses. Eager and expectant. The banshee wail of sirens,

drawing ever closer. Blue light paints his friend‟s face, making him an eerie midnight

clown. “Blow the bloody thing up then!”

         He doesn‟t budge. He remains as still as a statue. Chris loses his nerve and

rabbits. Harry holds onto the Molotov until the very last moment before the police arrive;

only throwing it when he hears their boots pounding the pavement towards him. He

couldn‟t tell you why he does this, but he holds secret knowledge, half formed and

unconscious: he wants the police to catch him; the trouble is, they never do.

         Voices roar. Harry sprints. The car detonates in a rolling percussion behind him.

A white sheet of flame rises on the wind, burning a hole from this memory into the next.

                                                                          Twelve Stories Down

       Age twenty-three. He‟s crouching amidst broken glass, beer cans and shrubbery

behind a concrete wall, trackside, on a railway embankment. His face is level with a hole

he smashed through the wall a week ago in preparation. A double-barrel shotgun rests

across his knees. Through the hole in the wall: a well-kept garden that he ruined with four

cans of black paint. It looks like an explosion in an ink factory. The wind blows through

stained flowerbeds, nodding the heads of luminous but splattered vegetation, shivering

over the skin of a polluted pond. Koi Carp flap and choke in this oil slick.

       It‟s a long afternoon, waiting as the autumn sun wanes. Shrinking out of sight

every-time a train thunders past behind him. Harry yawns, sunlight twinkles on the glass.

Time crawls. He dreams unease. He snaps out of a doze; muffled shouts from the house.

       “What? I don’t believe it! Who‟s done this?”

       The door bangs open and a prematurely balding, South London wide-boy steps

into the garden to survey the damage. He‟s wearing a pinstripe suit and the ghost of acne

on his still adolescent face. His name is John Pearson and he is a rival drug dealer who

Harry has been ordered to shoot, but not kill. Although in circumstances like these it

would be hard to know exactly how you could be so precise either way.

       “My sodding petunias!” Pearson shouts and Harry chuckles as he leans through

the hole in the wall like a jack-in-the-box with two barrels of bad intention in its hands.

Petunias indeed! He thinks. Now there’s a comment you’ll never live down. Feeling

vaguely sick and dizzy, his legs numb, his knees popping after so long without

movement, but what the hell, this is his chosen profession and not everyday is a shooting-

people kind of day, and there is an upside, occasionally, to crime. He points the shotgun

                                                                          Twelve Stories Down

at the back of the Pearson‟s legs and pulls the trigger, blinking against the blast. Thunder

roars, his ears ring. He opens his eyes, and he‟s somewhere else entirely:

       Back to the present; barrelling headfirst towards terra firma. Somersaulting in

hideous slow-mo, his hands grasped at hand holds in the air that simply weren‟t there.

Brickwork breezed past. Windows whizzed. He saw the interiors of peoples‟ flats.

Curtains, sofas, bathrooms. An old couple watching TV. He caught a glimpse into a

bedroom, saw a beautiful woman undressing. A snapshot of naked breasts and he


       Oh Naomi.

       And remembered the first time he saw his wife to be:

       She’s too good for a villain like me. He thinks when he lays his eyes on her. She‟s

a solicitor, fiercely ambitious, independent, and he‟s in trouble with the police. Too good

for your type Harry, he chides himself. And he‟d need something special to woo her.

Something dazzling to warm her to a hopeless gangster like him and he racks his brains

for weeks, until he wakes in the middle of the night with an idea so bright in his mind, it

could have been written with light-bulb filament wire.

       He‟s thirty-eight, with the better part of eight million pounds in an off-shore bank

(that previously-mentioned upside to crime; a fat bank account) and doesn‟t mind making

extravagant gestures when it comes to seducing a woman who has destroyed his sleep

with the fear of her elusiveness.

                                                                             Twelve Stories Down

       He‟s being prosecuted for fraud. They meet in a restaurant to discuss the case.

She looks nervous; the case is the last thing on her mind.

       “Look, what‟s this about?” She says. “Why did you break into my car and fill it

with flowers?”

       “I plead mitigating circumstances.” He replies, “I was provoked; I‟m in love.

Didn‟t you read the note?” He can‟t stop grinning because it wasn‟t just a single bunch he

left inside her vehicle. It was twenty grand‟s worth of posies, crammed to the roof.

       “Yes.” She said. “But what do you think you‟re playing at? And the boat you

parked outside my house is lovely, of course, but if you think I‟m going to keep it. . .”

       “I don‟t think you‟re going to keep it. I know you are. You don‟t have the


       “Look! You‟re up in front of the Judge next Tuesday; you can‟t pass yourself off

as an upright citizen if you break into your solicitor‟s car and bribe her with boats.”

       “I‟m in love with you Miss Gallagher.”

        “I don‟t date clients, I told you that before. . . It‟s against policy-”

        “You won‟t have to. I don‟t need a defence counsel. I‟m going to plead guilty.

I‟m giving up crime, Naomi. For you. I‟ve never been in love before. That‟s probably

why I‟ve ended up this way. But now that I have, I‟m not going to waste it. I‟ll do my

time gladly, and when I get out I‟m going to retire, and then I‟m going to marry you.”

       She looks exquisite when she‟s angry; her eyes sparkle like stolen opals.

       “Don‟t be so stupid!” She hisses. The words escaping her mouth like a jet of

steam. “I‟ve never given up a case, and I‟m not starting now. You can’t plead guilty- I

won’t let you!”

                                                                          Twelve Stories Down

       In her vehemence she sweeps a glass off the table. Her eyes flash. Ah, those stolen

opals. They bore into him like drill bits, stripping him away to his bare consciousness.

For a moment she sees herself in him, her drive, her relentlessness, her stubbornness

mirrored. Neither will ever capitulate. No ground will be given. She sees all this and

smiles, and they seem to meet each other again, for the first time.

       The wine glass tumbles in slow motion. It strikes the tiled floor and splinters. The

cracks spread outward from the glass in a spider‟s web formation, shattering the memory,

opening a seam into elsewhere:

       He‟s middle aged and running up the stairs of a tower block. Footsteps ahead.

Who is that? His breath ragged, burning. His black funeral suit has been ripped. It‟s a bad

omen that he‟s wearing it. Translation: Someone’s going to die today. His shirt flaps

loose. His face itches like his arms had the day he killed the cat. The answer to his current

situation lies in wait at the end of this pursuit. But before he can see who‟s around the

next bend he runs headlong into another recollection:

       Rain on the apartment window. Rain in the Algarve. The holiday turned sour. Her

drinking, and flirtations with other men. His drinking, and wandering eyes. Mobster style

holidays awoke nostalgia for his past. He panicked when he saw that she wasn‟t in the

apartment. She‟s sitting in her dressing gown on the balcony, soaked to the skin. Mascara

streaks her face with black tears.

       “What would happen if I told you I was going to leave?” She says.

                                                                           Twelve Stories Down

        He kneels down and hugs her. He wants to show her how much he needs her, how

much he cares. He wants to translate this physically and so clamps his arms around her

tightly, fiercely (in hindsight he realised that the message might have been lost, it

would‟ve been like getting hugged by a bear). But she‟s not the only one with tears

blurring her eyes.

        “I love you so much.” He says. “You saved me from me. I‟ll never let you go.”

        Joshua. The birth of their son. An attempt to remake the bond. Retired and no

longer craving his bad boy ways. Staring into his son‟s gaze for the first time. Wide and

blue and forever hungry for the world. Untameable; just like his mother‟s. His birth

heralds a brief return to the glory days, a second honeymoon that will last until Josh is old

enough to say “Dada,” but no longer. For now though, a sheaf of happiness.

        That vivid blue. It grows, it spreads, permeates everything, until it feels like he‟s

falling into his child‟s eyes:

        The blue becomes the heavens, 30,000 feet above the ocean, viewed from the

window of a twin-engine aeroplane. Moving through mountain ranges of cloud, like

icebergs in the sky. He‟s returning home from Ireland, and thinking about his father in

the hospital bed before he died. Time had shrivelled him up and worn him down. Making

him delicate and fragile, a straw doll wrapped in his father‟s skin. And he thought then:

                                                                         Twelve Stories Down

No matter what happens. I don‟t want to die like that. And it seems that was one wish that

came true for him anyway.


       The house had been double-locked, that was the first thing that struck him as

wrong. Her car was in the drive and the front door was locked.

       Oh Naomi.

       A jittery sensation up and down his spine as he pads silently down the hallway.

Two sets of clothing on the lounge floor. He came back from Ireland early. Naomi hates

to fly. He can‟t even touch the bedroom door at first. A man with his dark history,

frightened like a child. He‟s crying when he finally gets the nerve to push it open. He

can‟t stand out there all day. He has to know.

       John “Gammy-Leg” Pearson is in bed with his wife. John “Dirty Petunias”

Pearson, who, though starting out as an enemy, has finished up as a business associate

and confidant. (A strange fact he picked up: in this game, with so few criminals at the

top, the people you hurt or maimed but didn‟t kill, usually end up working for you.)

       “You never did forgive me for the leg, did you John?”

       Naomi shrieks and runs into the bathroom.

       Pearson: “Can‟t you take a joke Harry?”

       Harry shoves him aside and begins to berate the bathroom door. “You bitch! I

gave up crime for you! And you turn to a pathetic scumbag like him?”

       Pearson bristles, offended by this slur. “You killed my fish! And they told me I

couldn‟t play football no more!”

                                                                          Twelve Stories Down

         “We were kids, John.”

         “Yeah, well, you have to think of the repercussions.”

         “Right then!” He says, grabbing the man around the throat. “I‟ll show you some

of those!”

         But before he can inflict any lasting damage, Naomi appears and hits him with the

ornamental toothbrush holder. „Petunias‟ slips out of his grip, lightening fast for a man

with no clothes on and a dodgy leg. Harry is dulled by the shock and betrayal. He falls,

retching, beneath a flurry of punches and bathroom ornaments. Flinching against the

assault and humiliation.

         Eventually, the blows cease.

         Naomi says: “I‟m taking our son. Don‟t ever try to find me.”

         Harry doesn‟t reply. He can‟t. He lays drooling and silent until the front door


         Very, very slowly he begins to lose his temper, invoking the ghosts of drowned

cats and villains past. A slow calm envelopes him, like a suit of black ice.

         Another floor, another piece of the puzzle:

         A tyre explodes and a car slams into a wall on a council estate. A windscreen

shatters. The shotgun in his hands is scalding hot. He cracks it open and feeds it another

two cartridges.

         Harry approaches the smoking vehicle. Two shadows inside. Three shots in rapid

succession. Not his own. Two angry bees drone past his nose. Glass rakes his face. He

                                                                            Twelve Stories Down

drops and crawls in the gutter to avoid further stings. A car door slams open. Footsteps

recede. He gets up slowly. The car is not empty. A passenger stayed behind.

        Naomi‟s car is brimming with red again but this time it isn‟t flowers.


        He yanks open the door but instead of seeing whatever grim reality is waiting for

him inside, he sees sky and velocity.

        Oh Naomi.

        He tried to think about being a child again. He remembered the barrel, the water,

the soggy fur. If I could take it all back! If I can reverse the tragedy. If I could grow up

differently. Be someone that Naomi could have truly loved. He wanted to climb back

inside that envelope of time, to a place where he had spared the cat. Two reasons: he

could have undone the rot that set in there, and he wouldn‟t be so close to the ground


        I don’t want to know how this turns out, he thought. But there was two floors left

to tumble. Plenty of room for revelation.

        The second floor is a repeat of past reminisces. That stairwell again. Graffiti and

shadow, his heart pounds like there‟s a rabbit trapped inside his chest. That must be

Pearson around the next turn now, and he‟s going to flay him alive when he catches him.

They‟re gaining some height. Twelve storeys to be precise. A long distance to climb, a

longer one to fall.

                                                                          Twelve Stories Down

       One floor from impact and he bursts onto the roof. He thought it would be

Pearson waiting for him, but there‟s Naomi instead, encased beneath a pane of crystal

blue sky. The city shimmers in an endless fume haze. There is a pistol in her hand. A

shotgun in his own.

       She grins: “What are you looking at me like that for? I wanted to get away and I

knew you‟d never let me. John was my protection, but he was worse than useless.”

       “So you killed him in the car? Bloody hell babe. You‟re scarier than I ever was.”

       Her eyes, solid anger. Looted gemstones. “Yeah. And you’ll get the blame!”

       “I love you.”

       “But you‟re crushing me Harry, and I won’t have it!”

       “Naomi. Please. Just come back. We can sort this out.”

       She screams in frustration and raises the pistol. Three shots.

       A hornet stings his thigh. A wasp bites his neck. The third clips a television aerial.

Someone loses the lunchtime news.

       He doesn‟t realise he‟s going to shoot her until the gun goes off. It just happens,

his body acting on automatic. Naomi falls over. Harry falls over. He lands on his face;

everything turns black and white. Drooling, he watches ants crawling along the gravelled

rooftop. He varnishes them in his own blood. He wants very much to look again into his

son‟s eyes. He wants to break into a beautiful woman‟s car, giggling whilst he crams it

with roses- He wants-

       He claws himself to his feet. Naomi stays put.

       A wall of sirens, approaching.

       It was never going to work. She says. You were too crazy.

                                                                         Twelve Stories Down

        He laughs in spite of his injuries. “Yeah. You‟re pretty far gone yourself. We

messed it up big time. We-”

        But she‟s not going to answer. She hadn‟t even been talking. Her life had slipped

away in a precious wine while he blacked out. The conversation only happened inside his


        The sun drums down. He feels dizzy, sick and forgetful. He wishes he hadn‟t

drowned that cat when he was eight years old.

        Harry sprints for the edge before he loses the courage.

        The ground zooms.

        Oh Naomi.



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