The drizzle had left a sheen on the tarmac that reflected the yellow streetlights, and Ray Sharp had to step on to the grass verge to dodge a pile of dog shit. His foot sank down, mud seeping through his shoes and into his socks. He cursed out loud and stomped off towards the block of menacingly uninviting high-rise flats ahead. His thin hair was stuck down to his forehead by the rain, and his beige overcoat had a large wet patch on the back. As he made his way to the door and began rooting for his keys, the door buzzed and swung open. A heavily pregnant girl of about seventeen stepped out, lighting a cigarette while talking animatedly into a mobile phone wedged between her right ear and shoulder.
“I already told ya that! I don’t-” She puffed deeply on the cigarette, pocketing the cheap plastic lighter.
“Excuse me, shift.” He slid past the girl to get through the door and as she flung her arm out in a rude gesture, he saw the pattern of swollen red and purple track marks on the inside of her arm. He quickly pulled the door shut behind him, shaking his head in disgust and heading for the lift. He could hear loud thumping music from one of the flats as the lift grinded to a halt and the doors pinged open. He hated living here. The lifts always stunk of piss and he was surrounded by the scum of the earth; junkies and illegals. Just as the lift doors were about to close, an arm shot through the gap. The doors clunked back open and a slim young black man stepped in. He was wearing a dark blue tracksuit and he had a bulky envelope in his left hand.
“What the fuck are you lookin’ at, old man?” The black man stared at Ray, and he averted his eyes, watching the numbers on the display in the lift change. He lived on the fourteenth floor of Bloomfield Court; an ugly pebbledash dumping ground for the dregs of society. As the number changed to fourteen and the doors opened, he stepped swiftly out, avoiding the gaze of the black man and hurrying off down the hall. His shoe squelched as he went, leaving faint muddy footprints on the already filthy vinyl floor. The walls were filthy too; years of grime and graffiti covering the once-white paintwork. Rising damp had left the hallway with a foul smell but the owners of the building didn’t give a fuck. The fluorescent tube lights buzzed overhead and Ray could hear Deal or No Deal through somebody’s door, and a baby crying. He pressed his fingers into his eyes underneath his wire-rimmed glasses and headed for his flat. He heard a chain being undone, and Sally Lynch opened her door and poked her head out.
“They’ve done it again.” She nodded towards Ray’s door across the hall and his stomach sank. The word “PEDO” was written across his door in garish red spray paint. “I didn’t see or hear owt but when I came back from the shop I saw it.” Ray grimaced and turned away from her. He unlocked his door, wiping his feet on a coconut mat and leaving the door open and Sally watched as he disappeared into his flat.
“I’ll put the kettle on!” Sally shuffled back into her flat out of view. Ray reappeared with a spray bottle and a dirty cloth. He sprayed the strong smelling concoction on to the door and began to scrub at the paint. The paint on the door blistered and cracked, flaking red bits on to the mat. Sally popped her head out into the hallway, watching Ray as he struggled, defeated.
“You’re making a right mess of that, Ray.” Sally walked over and snatched the cloth, gently wiping away the remainder of the red paint. “You’re gonna have to get that door repainted again, I’ve got some paint left somewhere. Anyway, come on, brews are done.” She headed back to her flat as Ray locked his door and studied the pale pink stain and damaged white gloss paint. He shook his head and followed Sally.
Inside her flat, Ray sat down on a faded floral sofa, removing his shoes. Sally brought two chipped mugs in, raising a drawn-on eyebrow at his muddy sock.
“Fuck sake, forgot to change ‘em.” Sally set the mugs down on the coffee table and flopped down on a chair opposite Ray. She was a middle aged woman with blonde hair that had grown out, revealing black roots. She had probably been pretty at some point in her life, but not anymore as alcohol had stolen that from her. Ray got along with her, they shared a common problem; run ins with the law had landed them both in Bloomfield Court, and neither of them wanted to be there.
Ray picked up his mug and took a long swig. Sally always put too much sugar in, despite him telling her he would only have one, and he grimaced as he swallowed. Sally looked over and he quickly smiled; he couldn’t afford to keep offending his only friend.
“Telly?” Sally nodded over at the chunky old Panasonic and held out the remote. Ray took it from her, their hands touching briefly, and flicked through the channels; static occasionally interrupting the pictures. He settled on the evening news and leant back, drinking the rest of his tea. Sally lit a cigarette, stood up and busied herself tidying magazines and taking the mugs into the kitchen.
“Cottage pie for tea, that alright?” Sally popped her head out of the kitchen, a half-peeled potato in her hand.
“Sounds great, need me to do anything?” Ray muted the television, preparing to stand up but Sally quickly shook her head.
“Of course not, everything’s under control.” She winked and disappeared. Ray knew she liked him. He thought she was nice, too, but he’d already been married once and had no plans for another relationship.
While Sally banged about in the kitchen, Ray thought about his ex-wife, Maureen. They had married in their thirties and never had any children. Maureen had been devastated when she found out they couldn’t, but Ray was secretly glad. He never wanted children; he thought they were expensive shit-machines and never understood the attraction. But Maureen wiled away her days pining for the child she never had, and Ray always got the blame in the end. She pushed him away and that’s why he’d had an affair. It is true; hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. She had gone straight to the police when she found out what he had done, and now here he was; sitting here in Sally Lynch’s flat while she cooked a cottage pie, all because of fucking Maureen Sharp.
Ray’s thoughts were interrupted by Sally entering the room, two steaming plates of cottage pie and vegetables in hand. She had a bottle of white wine wedged in her right armpit and a cigarette dangling out of the corner of her mouth. He hated it when she smoked while cooking but he didn’t say anything, instead standing to relieve her of the plates.
“I’ll get the glasses.” He knew Sally would just drink out of the bottle if he let her, but he preferred to surround himself with some air of civilization. He returned with glasses and the cutlery she had also forgotten, and poured the wine.
“Thanks, Ray. I’m fucking useless, really.” Sally often fished for compliments and Ray happily took the bait; he needed to keep her on side.
“You’re great, and this looks lovely, it really does.” Ray settled down on the sofa, unmuted the television and they began to eat.
Halfway through their meal, they were disturbed by somebody pounding on a neighbouring door. Sally joked that somebody must owe Bennett money, and the pair laughed. Bennett was the resident drug dealer, and he was well-known for kicking the doors of flats in to get what he was owed. The pounding continued, and then suddenly a voice.
“OPEN UP YOU FUCKIN’ PEDO!” The colour drained from Ray’s face and Sally stopped, a forkful of carrots halfway to her open mouth. Ray slammed his plate down on the table and it skidded across it, leaving a trail of peas in its wake. He charged to the door and Sally leapt up behind him.
“Don’t start a fight, Ray!” She abandoned her meal and followed him into the hallway.
Outside Ray’s flat was a young lad of about twenty. He wasn’t very tall but he was stocky, and he sported a garish tribal tattoo on his neck. When he turned around, a vein pulsed on the side of his reddening face.
“YOU! What the fuckin’ hell have you been sayin’ to my girlfriend?” Ray stuttered and stopped. He couldn’t speak, he had no idea what this man was talking about. He thought it must have been a mistake, but he knew Ray. He thought back to his day, who he had spoken to and where he had been. He hadn’t said anything to anyone who could possibly be this boy’s girlfriend. He held his hands up in front of him.
“I’m very sorry but I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please leave.” Ray tried to keep calm but he was angry, and he was shitting himself. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and he stood firm, trying to keep his knees from knocking.
“Bullshit.” The shaven-headed boy whistled down the hall. “Come on, babe, don’t worry. Let’s see if he remembers you now!” Ray and Sally twisted their heads in unison to get a look at who ‘babe’ was. Her belly came around the corner first, followed by the rest of her. She had a cigarette between her fingers that was burning almost to nothing, a neat grey line of ash getting ready to fall. Her mobile phone was in the other hand, thumb still poised above it, waiting to return to texting. Ray recognized her straight away. His eyes sought out her arm; the weeping sores that had been irritated by movement. The veins around them standing out violently bluish-purple against the porcelain skin. He bet they were sore. Sally looked at the girl’s belly. She knew that she would just be having another baby that cried through the night – more noise. Ray wondered how a girl her age had ended up here, pregnant. He imagined her heading out, scantily clad, inviting strangers into herself in order to get her next fix. He pictured the blissful look on her face as she forced the needle into herself, re-opening a wound that would never heal. Now she was up the tub and needed somebody else to provide for her. He was disgusted, averting his eyes and looking back at the boy.
“I only asked her to move, she was stood right in the doorway smoking. I-”
“So you do know her, eh? Thought as much. She’s fuckin’ seventeen years old, you sick fuck. Stood there, fantasizin’ about her. Stay the fuck away from her, I’m warnin’ ya!” Then he spat on the floor at Ray’s feet and sloped off to his girlfriend.
Back in her flat, Sally reheated their leftovers and poured Ray another glass of wine. He sat on the sofa, stunned. Had he just been threatened? He couldn’t believe it. As if his life in this shit hole could get any worse. He pictured the smug look on Maureen’s face when she came to visit him in prison, presenting him with divorce papers. She could have got a lawyer to do that, but he knew Maureen, she liked to do things personally. She loved to twist the knife in.
“I didn’t fucking know, I swear to God. I pleaded guilty because the bastards forced me into it. She told me she was eighteen, we met in the pub for Christ’s sake!” Ray clenched his fist around the stem of the wine glass, almost snapping it in half.
“I know, love. It’s alright. Everything will be fine, it’s just a misunderstanding.”
“I’ve done my fucking time, now I’m even being punished here!” Sally sat next to Ray on the sofa, their legs pressed together as she prized the glass from his grip. Ray was aware of Sally looking at him, her hand resting gently but purposefully on his thigh.
“I need some air.” Ray jumped up and headed out of the flat, leaving Sally on the sofa, her hand hovering in the air where his leg had been.
When he got out of the flat, his head was pounding. He was fucking sick of this place and the cretins who lived here. He looked down at the grimy floor and realized he had left his shoes in Sally’s flat in the hurry to get out. As he reached the end of the hallway, he pressed the button for the lift and prayed that nobody was coming up. When he got inside it and the doors closed, he punched the elevator’s shiny metal interior so hard that it bent in under the force of his fist; his own warped reflection mocking him.
“FUCKING MAUREEN SHARP!” He screamed, the sound ringing around the metal box. His ex-wife’s name tasted like poison in his mouth. The elevator pinged, the display changing to ‘G’, and Ray straightened up to leave. When he stepped out, the pot-smoking youth from down the hall was leaning against the wall, waiting to get in.
“What you screamin’ about, weirdo?” He had an amused look on his pimply face, his eyes glazed over. He was already stoned and Ray couldn’t be arsed with another argument tonight so he scurried off, cursing to himself when he was safely out of ear shot.
Outside it was cold and the sky had turned inky black, but luckily for Ray it had stopped raining and his feet stayed dry as he walked off towards the main road. There wasn’t much traffic, the buses had stopped running now but Ray didn’t mind the walk; it would be worth it in the end. He dug his hands into his trouser pockets and whistled tunelessly, wondering what Sally was up to now. He pictured her sitting in the same place on that old sofa, smoking cigarette after cigarette and fretting about Ray. She had probably given up on drinking wine from a glass and had finished the bottle by now; her drinking was the reason she was in Bloomfield Court but she hadn’t learned her lesson.
A car beeped its horn as it passed; a couple of yobs hanging their heads out of the window like dogs and shouting obscenities.
“OI YOU FUCKIN’ NUTTER, where’s ya shoes?!” Ray almost pitied them for being so stupid, but he was overcome with a sudden good mood and decided to entertain them with a little jig; stomping and kicking his feet, being careful to dodge stones. He laughed to himself, he had so much to look forward to tonight and he intended to make the most of it. A fresh start was just what he needed, and he couldn’t do that with Maureen still around. He hadn’t spoken to her since he got out of prison, but he knew she still lived in their house. The bitch had taken everything in the divorce; everything that Ray had worked hard for and earned while she reaped the benefits. Now he was the one stuck in that shitty flat with the mildew in the shower because of her, and she was living it up in his house. He clenched his fists, turning the corner on to Wharf Lane.
Maureen Sharp was a woman of habit. She ate her dinner at five o’clock every evening, followed by a cup of milky coffee. She watched the news at six, then went upstairs to wash and put her nightie on. She was a neat woman. When she woke up in the morning, she made her bed and set out her nightie and slippers after getting dressed for the day. She watched her favourite soap at seven, and now she was sat with her feet up, reading a romance novel marketed for women just like her. Single, middle-aged women who lived alone.
Ray could see the house from this end of the street, number seventy-three. The curtains were closed, but there was a soft glow from a lamp that made it look cozy and inviting. Everything looked the same as he remembered it; the border flowers in the front garden, the hanging baskets either side of the door. He picked up the pace, passing the neighbourhood watch sign and giggling to himself. Everyone on this street was nosy as fuck, but they’d all be in bed at this time so he didn’t need to worry about them. Maureen didn’t go to bed until ten, and she liked to read before she went upstairs. He couldn’t wait to see the look on her face when she opened the door and saw him standing there. He got to the end of the driveway and paused, looking at the house where he had lived for almost twelve years with that bitch in there.
Maureen jumped when she heard the door. She didn’t normally have guests and certainly not at this time of night. She wondered if something had happened; maybe one of the Powells, the elderly couple next door, had fallen ill. She shuffled to the door in her pale pink slippers, turning the outside light on by a switch on the wall in the porch. She could make out the silhouette of a man through the frosted glass and thought it must be Roger Powell.
As she opened the door, she heard the man whistling. It was a tuneless whistle, the kind that really gets on your nerves. The sort of whistle her ex-husband used to do while he was washing the pots, knowing it would annoy her and cause trouble. Through the crack in the door she saw the wire rimmed glasses, his cheeks rising and pushing them up as he grinned at her. Her blood seemed to go cold, the breath stolen from her lungs as she clambered to shut the door. Ray got hold of the door handle and slammed the PVC into her face, breaking her nose instantly, blood running down on to her slippers before she fell backwards, unconscious.
Maureen had certainly put on weight since Ray last saw her and he was disappointed she had let herself go so much. He had never found her very attractive but she was disgusting now.
He broke her left wrist by accident trying to drag her back into the living room and now she looked all wrong; her hand dangling limply on the end of her arm. He sat her on the sofa, shaking her gently to wake her up.
“Hnnnghh-h, n-n-no,” Maureen struggled against him but cried out in pain when she moved her arm.
“Your wrist’s broken, you stupid bitch, stop moving so much. I just wanted you to be awake for this part.” Ray left her whimpering in pain as he went into the kitchen. Everything looked the same. He took his favourite meat cleaver from the knife block on the Formica worktop; he had bought this in a set one year from a designer outlet store. It was stainless steel and heavy in his hand. When Maureen saw it she cried out, tears and snot mixing with the blood on her face.
“Jesus Christ, you disgust me. I’ve waited so fucking long to do this.” Ray laughed, and with that he brought the meat cleaver up into the air, and back down into her neck with one swift motion. Her eyes widened in horror and she choked on the blood that quickly filled her airway. It sounded like somebody trying to suck the last of a McDonald’s milkshake through a straw and Ray brought the cleaver down once more, separating her head from her body. He grinned, triumphant.
“You’ve really lost your mind this time, Maureen.”
Sally had finished a full packet of cigarettes waiting for Ray to get back, and when she heard the elevator doors clunk open, she ran out to greet him. His face was splattered with dried blood, a dark pool of it in the middle of his shirt and a fine mist covering the rest of him. He cradled the cleaver in his right hand, his knuckles swollen and bruised. He stopped smiling when he saw her.
“Don’t worry about it, love. Get yourself sorted in here.” Sally held out her hand and Ray took it, following her into the flat. Sally put the kettle on while Ray went into the bathroom, peeled his clothes off and washed himself. Sirens wailed in the distance as Sally did the dishes, washing the cleaver in the sink with them. She popped her head around the door when he had slipped a fluffy bathrobe on.
“Come on, brews are done.”