We all have lists for when we set foot beyond the big iron gates, and mine was a short one: I wanted a long, hot shower with soap that didn’t crack my skin raw; I wanted a proper pint of something that tasted like booze instead of stockpiled satsumas in fermenting bin juice; I wanted a nice quiet room where I could indulge in a nice loud wank; and, above all else, I wanted to look up an old mate who had managed to breathe fresh air sixteen months before me.
I didn’t get the shower, because the halfway house bathroom was a fucking Legionnaires’ ground zero. I didn’t get the drink because the pubs weren’t open and the supermarkets weren’t selling before ten. I didn’t get the nice quiet room, either—I was sharing with a six-foot skin problem who looked like a pirate carved out of a flapjack and smelled of piss. The whole halfway house was stinking, too many lads cluttering the hallways with aggravated grief once they’d found their wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, mothers, families, whoever they cared about, had all fucked off and left them to rot. It was easier to deal with your boyfriend’s arsehole behaviour when he was behind bars. Outside, a lot of people used the taint of prison as an excuse to keep you at arm’s length.
I was lucky. Bluebeard, he wasn’t like that. We had a fucking connection.
I got the bus out to Gracemount and wandered identical streets for an hour before I found the right address. Looked like council flats, not a place someone like Bluebeard would call home. He was the kind of bloke to have a drawing room flat in the New Town. He had bearing, breeding, education. Like, he was better than you, but you didn’t mind it. He was fucking class, like.
I stopped outside a block of flats, three floors high in new council brick. There was a glossy red door with a small, wired pane in it and bank of buzzers off to one side. There were no names on the buzzers, so I leaned on the number I’d been given and waited.
I pressed the buzzer again in a rhythm, the same way I used to knock on the cell door—the old “shave and a haircut”—but there was still no answer.
I checked my watch. It was after ten, so I could probably go and buy some cider or something, but I didn’t really feel like it. I’d had my first day planned out, things to check off, people to see, and it was already going to shit. To top it all off, it started to rain, drops so big and fat it felt like sleet. I tugged at the collar of my jacket and took shelter under the concrete porch. I hit the buzzer again, lashed out at it this time. It made a noise like a swatted bee.
I turned, saw an old fella with two shopping bags trying to noodle his way past to the door. He doubled up the bags in one hand and felt about in the pocket of his stained green coat for his key. He was small, podgy and had a beard. It took me a moment to recognise him.
“Fucking hell, Bluebeard, how you doing?”
The sound of my voice made him stop what he was doing. He turned his face to me. Looked like a bit of a jakey, like. He might’ve been podgy in the gut, but his face was all pulled out of shape and the beard that covered his cheeks was greyer than I ever remembered it.
“Mick.” He attempted a smile. His hands were shaking and I wondered if he had that Michael Parkinson’s disease. “Hi, Mick.”
I slapped his shoulder, grinned at him. “Fucking remember me now, do you, eh?” I clapped hands, rubbed them together, nodded at the door. “On you go, big man. Away and open the door, eh? Freezing my balls off out here.”
He looked at the key in his hand as if he didn’t know what he was doing with it. Then he remembered, nodded to himself like a fucking muppet, keyed the door and pushed it open. I took his shopping away from him. Tell the truth, he didn’t look strong enough to carry it.
“So what’s the pad like, eh?”
“Your new place.”
“Oh. It’s okay.”
“Doesn’t look like much from the outside.”
“It does me.”
Bluebeard’s place wasn’t much bigger than his old cell. I dumped the shopping on the counter in his pokey little kitchen, then followed him down the pokey little hall through to his pokey little front room. If he’d had anything other than the bare essentials—sofa, chair and table for eating off of, portable telly, standard lamp—the place would’ve been jammed.
“D’you want a cup of tea, Mick?”
“Aye, yeah. Ta.”
“Make yourself comfortable.”
I heard Bluebeard toddle off to the kitchen. The scoosh of water into the kettle, then the click as it went on, and the rustling of the shopping as he put it away.
Make myself comfortable. How the fuck was I supposed to do that?
I went over to the window. The only two things missing from it were bars and about seventy years of accumulated filth. Bluebeard’s flat looked out onto the grassy bit in the front. There was a line of bare trees out there, a couple of years old at the most, held up by braces and straps like they were polio kids.
Tell the truth, I was a bit depressed. This wasn’t what I was expecting at all.
Everyone called him Bluebeard, but it always looked more gingery to me. His record read wife-killer and fraudster. He did two wives in the same insurance scam, drugged them up and smashed the car. Seemed like earning the hard way to me, but that was why I was skint and banged up on some laptop shite, while Bluebeard had a couple of million in life assurance that the police hadn’t managed to take away. At least, that was the rumour. So, aye, the name Bluebeard started to make a bit more sense once I found out he had buried treasure.
Course, when I first met, he wasn’t exactly the social type. He was scared, you see, because he was a known wife-killer and there were some blokes on the spur—the robbers, the rapists, the pimps and fucking drug dealers—who didn’t take too kindly to wife-killers on account of they made this big sentimental fucking show of loving whatever fat bag of shit dragged their squealing bairns in to them every other month. They didn’t understand why anyone would kill their wife. It rubbed them up the wrong way, got them frustrated, got them angry, and then sometimes, if something went wrong in the visits or something like that, they decided to take it out on Bluebeard. They’d already had a go at him twice by the time I came along. He refused to go into the showers, didn’t want to wash himself unless there was a screw in the room.
We were almost peas in a pod, now I come to think of it. Both hated by the majority, both of us alone.
My problem was that people kept fucking testing me. They had me in the Seg three times in my first month, and none of it was my fault. On that spur, I was in a lower bracket than Bluebeard on account of the laptop shite—the indecent images an’ that—and my rep as a kiddie-fiddler, which, tell the truth, was fucking bollocks, because I never fiddled with nowt. Having a wank at the baths isn’t the same as physical assault, and if my brief had given more than a quarter-shit about my case, he would’ve said something. But no, he kept his trap shut, didn’t he, the cloistered little prick.
Anyway, I wasn’t a man to be tested. And so that hefty cunt who tried to carve a slice of my kidney with his double-razor melt quickly found his teeth knocked out and his head bashed in. My mantra was, you come at me, you better bring a couple of stout-hearted thugs with you, because see if you started something, it wouldn’t stop until I was dead or the screws pulled us off. And if that makes me sound like a heid-the-baw, then I need to redefine, don’t I? I wasn’t mental. I was checked. I had problems—there wasn’t a number in that fucking house who didn’t—but mine were all about a lack of love. That’s what the social worker said. Like all my adult relationships had failed, and so I just went younger and younger until I could control it, or some such shite. It sounded better coming out of his mouth—he had the big words an’ that. But even with all those problems, I was the sanest cunt in Saughton. There were plenty of head cases about, like the lads who spent their years butting the control and restraints, getting all non-compliant and generally fucking up everyone’s day just to prove a point. It was the same with the others, the half-mentals, the ones who trashed their cells, redecorated with their own shit like Honeysuckle Paul. They had to burn incense outside his Seg cell twenty four hours a day.
I was different. I wasn’t an aggro merchant. Anyone came at me, I finished it, but I never gave the authorities any trouble, never split any uniform lips. Way I saw it, it wasn’t their choice to break it up—it was their job, and they had a duty of care, didn’t they? So I never gave them any stick, went like a lamb to the Seg and stayed that way while I was there. After a while, it got so’s the screws and I had a bit of an understanding. I mean, after all, I was knocking heads that needed knocking, wasn’t I? One of them even called us the screw’s screw behind my back when he thought I wasn’t listening. I’m not ashamed to say I took that to heart. And it made me see that the screws were all right, most of them. They could see beyond the sentence. I wasn’t such a fucking pariah after all.
Not that they could do much for poor old Bluebeard. He was too scared, and he wore it as a literal stink. He didn’t leave his cell for association, just pushed the door closed and carried on reading his books, which made things worse for him in the long run because if you didn’t come out and mingle, then people got to reckon that you were up your own arse. It marked you out. A man like Bluebeard needed friends. He needed back-up. I watched him for three months. He was always reading. He seemed like the kind of bloke it would be interesting to know.
And so one association, I paid him a visit.
“What you reading?”
He looked up from his book. It was a paperback with a woman’s face on the front. She looked like she had a dose of the ennui.
“What’s up with her puss?”
“Her on the cover there. She looks pure fuckin’ melancholy.”
He looked at the book. He didn’t say anything, but mirrored the woman’s expression.
“You want to watch yourself, reading all that depressing shite. It’ll turn you into a Code One.”
Bluebeard placed his bookmark, which I thought was a classy move because I was a corner turner, and then closed the book. “I’m okay.”
“Aye, they all say that, don’t they? Then it’s all”—I mimed what the screws called a ligature around my neck and pulled—“hyurk, know what I mean?”
“Yes, I do. I know exactly what you mean.”
His lips disappeared. I thought he was going to cry.
“I like that Shaun Hutson, me.” I looked at myself in the four mirror squares above the sink. “Loads of dirty bits and violence an’ that. There’s this one, it’s about a hospital porter, and he’s supposed to burn all these aborted foetuses. Except he doesn’t because they’re all still alive and they’re like little vampires, so he has to kill for them.” I nodded at Bluebeard. “You remind me of him. Y’know, the way he’s described in the book an’ that. Except, well, you don’t have all the scars. Otherwise, mind—”
“What do you want?”
I smiled. “I want to help you.”
“I don’t need any help.”
“Smells like you do. How long have you got left on your sentence?”
“I don’t see how that’s—”
“Long enough, right? Thinking maybe you’d get your Cat D if you had a wash every now and then, what do you think? Nice minimum security, get to do your reading in peace, nobody’s looking to stick anything up your arse. Maybe even get a work release in a library, something like that.”
“It won’t happen.”
“Only because you don’t let it. How long d’you reckon it would take if you were suddenly nobody’s fuckin’ problem? If they didn’t have to supervise you every time you washed your balls?”
“I don’t know.”
“They don’t want to keep you here, mate. This place isn’t for you. It isn’t even for me, but I can handle it. And what I’m saying is I can handle it for two if you let me.”
I held up a hand. “Just let me talk it through first, eh? I’ve been thinking about this for a while, so the least you can do is hear me out.”
And so I spelled it out for him.
I would look after Bluebeard, become his shadow, his fucking ghost, so he could go about his daily business unmolested and without fear. Anyone got too close or too aggro, I would sort it out. I didn’t give a shit what he did. Fact of the matter was we were all human beings and we shouldn’t be nipping at each other like trapped animals. It wasn’t fair that Bluebeard’s quality of life and basic human rights were being degraded by a bunch of cunts.
“How much?” asked Bluebeard, because he was a perceptive man.
“How much is it worth?”
“I don’t have much money.”
That was a lie without legs, so I smiled at him. “I’m not going to fleece you, Bluebeard. I was thinking five grand a year.”
“I don’t have –”
“Payable on release. I’m in no hurry. I’m on a fiver here, mate. If I’m looking after you there’ll probably be some incidents, so I might have a bit extra to wait—”
“Absolute max. Telling you, you won’t be here in five.”
It ended up being fifteen—three years of me at Bluebeard’s hip, stuck to him like shit on a blanket when he was out of his cell and watching the door when he was at home. The screws knew the deal, knew that I was keeping the peace more than wrecking it and so they gave me a bit of leeway. It wasn’t like I was going to stick one in Bluebeard myself, was it? He was five times the age of my normal type. As it turned out, I didn’t reckon on us getting as close as we did. Turns out, two men spend every minute from the seven-thirty morning unlock through to nine every night, they get to become accustomed to each other. I’m not going to lie to you, there was affection. Not in the touching arses way or nothing, but like—fuck it, I’m going to say it—a love, like the kind old people have when they’ve been married for fifty years, the kind of quiet affection you feel sitting in a room reading with someone you care for. It was nice, I’m not going to lie. It was new to me. We talked about the books he liked to read, and I learned more in those hours than I ever did at school. Got so’s I was using bigger words an’ that to try and impress him. And then he got his transfer to Cat D, and then Castle Huntly for his “transitional through-care for prisoners working towards a structured and gradual integration into their communities”, and that was him out of my life, and me apparently out of his.
“Why didn’t you answer any of my letters?” I asked.
He was sat at the table, his tea between both hands. I was still stood over by the window. The tea was milky. He knew I didn’t like milky tea. It was like he forgot everything about me.
Bluebeard shook his head. “I don’t think I got any, Mick.”
“You got ’em. If you didn’t, then they would’ve come back.”
“I don’t remember.” He blinked a lot. “Listen, I’m glad you’re out, I really am—”
“I sent one every week. Every Sunday. Asking you how you were getting on and everything.”
“I just didn’t know you were coming, you see.”
“You would’ve if you’d read my letters. I told you all about it.”
“Yes. Okay. Well.”
I looked at my tea, then put it on the window sill. “This wasn’t what I was expecting, Blue.”
More blinking. He looked scared. “I know. The money. I’m sorry, Mick. I just … I don’t have it.”
“The fifteen thousand.”
“You don’t have it?”
He shook his head, and returned his gaze to the mug. “I mean, you must have known, Mick—”
“I didn’t.” I sniffed and looked out of the window. “Never crossed my mind.”
He looked at me then. “Really?”
“Why d’you think I came round?”
Bluebeard opened his mouth and then shut it again.
“I came round to see you, man. See how you were getting on. See my mate.” I wiped my nose. “I’ll be honest with you, Blue, I’m a bit disappointed about the money, but only because you thought that was why I’m here. I couldn’t give a shit about it. I mean, I mentioned it to the lads once you’d gone and they took the piss and everything, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t the goal, was it?”
He blinked again. “I don’t understand.”
“They’ve got me in a halfway house, Blue. I don’t like it there. It’s a hole.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
I looked around the front room. Bluebeard saw me looking.
“No, no, now wait a minute, Mick—”
“You can’t stay here.”
He stood up. His legs were shaking. “You just can’t. I can’t fraternise—”
“I can’t be seen with you, Mick. It’s delicate. I could be recalled.”
“For what? You’re not breaking your licence. I mean, you could tell your offender manager, y’know, he’d put you right. I know I’m under MAPPA, like, but you don’t have any kids, do you?” I stood up an’ all. “Besides, I’m telling you, I’m not really into that anymore. I’ve had a word with myself. It’s all about relationships, you see.”
“Really, Mick, I just …” Shaking his head and on his way to the door.
I followed him. “I thought you’d be happy, mate.”
“It’s good to see you,” he said from the kitchen. “Don’t get me wrong.”
I leaned against the doorway to the kitchen. “It’s good to see you, too.”
“And it’s good that you’re not bothered about the money.” He smiled at me, teeth peeking through the beard. “I really appreciate that, Mick. You had me worried.”
“Nothing to be worried about. We’re mates.”
And the smile turned into a bad drawing. “Yes. About that.” He put his mug in the sink. “Listen, Mick, I’ve got some things on the go at the moment—kind of busy, if I’m honest—and I don’t know—”
“I won’t take up much space, mate. Be just like the old days.”
“You can’t stay here,” he said.
“Course I can.”
“No,” he said, and I could see that he was deadly fucking serious. “You can’t.”
I didn’t say anything for a little while. I didn’t move, either. Tell the truth, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t really think much. My head was all stuffed. I knew what he was saying, but I didn’t know why. Didn’t know what I’d done wrong.
“I protected you,” I said. “For three years.”
“I know, and I’m very grateful. But that was on the inside, Mick, and things were different then.”
Did he just quote the Prisoner: Cell Block H theme tune to me? I felt a bit sick. My head started to spin.
“I’m trying to get my life back on track,” he said. “Trying to start again. Look at it from my point of view, Mick. You’re a convicted child molester—”
“No, I’m not.”
“You were convicted—”
“Indecent images, Blue.”
“Please, Mick, don’t call me—”
“Indecent fuckin’ images, that’s all. And where the fuck d’you get off calling me a fuckin’ molester? Why would you call me that? You know me better than that, man.”
“I’m sorry.” He looked over my shoulder like he suddenly realised he was trapped in the kitchen. He made a calming gesture with his hands. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“I thought you were beyond that, mate. I really did.” I had to look at the floor. I wasn’t feeling well at all. Getting dizzy. I held on to the door frame. “I thought we had …”
“Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not.” I laughed. “I fuckin’ loved you, man.”
He didn’t say anything, but the colour was gone from his face.
I held up my hand, pushed off the door frame. “It’s okay. It’s fine. I’ll go.”
I moved away from the doorway and heard him move behind me. Then I turned and hit him as hard as I could, felt skin under my knuckles and something give on impact. Bluebeard windmilled off to one side and hit the kitchen cabinets. He tried to hang on, looked as if he was trying to find his reflection in the cabinet door. I stepped up and pushed his head against the door. Once, twice, three times. The door busted in. I kept going until my arm got sore and then I let him drop. He smacked off the counter before he crumpled to the lino. There was blood all over his face and half his teeth were out. He was still breathing, even though it was more of a rasp. He made a whining noise. I left the kitchen and went back into the front room. There was blood on my hands. I shook it off and it spattered the carpet.
I sat down on the sofa. It was all springs. I thought about that shrink inside, the one that told me all my adult relationships ended up in the shit. The one that had told me I was showing progress.
I wanted to apologise to Bluebeard, but I knew he wouldn’t hear me, and I knew it wouldn’t make any difference.
In the kitchen, something fell over. I put my hands over my ears until I heard nothing but a rush. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t manage anything but a dry heave.
I showed progress. I did. It was everyone else that had stagnated.
I lowered my hands. Looked around the front room until I found the phone. I picked up the receiver and called it in as a murder. It wasn’t. He was still breathing. But they’d get here quicker if they thought there was a decent collar in it.
Then I sat back down and stared at the blood drops on the carpet until they came to take me home.