top of page
Martin Dixon

Martin Dixon
Author

LIQUORICE STREET

FIRST TWO CHAPTERS

1

 

 

If you could see him you would notice straight away. The man shook as though he was shivering with cold. But sweat ran down his temples. Pacing, unable to stay still with one main thought stuck in his head: I don’t want to die. Forcing himself to stop he leant against the wall. With efflorescence from the brickwork staining his clothes he pulled his casual jacket tightly around him even though he wasn’t cold. Took several deep breaths and felt his breathing steady. Then, swinging his watering eyes to the ceiling he wished more than anything he could turn back time.

  After the outside brightness the space seemed dark. That and the distinctive smell of damp added to the thought he was in a dismal place. He absentmindedly rubbed his left arm. The arm he had landed on. A rough push had propelled him through the door to tumble down the short flight of bare wood stairs and crash onto a hard stone floor. Rolled to lodge against the far wall where he stayed still for quite a few moments. Let his eyes drift around the room. As far as he could see it was near empty.            Crawling onto his knees he pushed up and stood as his eyes started to get used to the dimness aware that he was being watched from the top of the stairs. Then the door slammed and he heard a bolt ram home. At least that man with the iron grip had pulled the sack off his head as he had shoved him through the door.

  One chair and an old white enamel bucket in the corner was all there was. Just the one chair in the centre of the room. He moved to it. Rubbed his hand over the wood. Solid and old. A carver with a hard wooden seat. On the wood he could just make out dark staining and had an idea what it was. Attracted by a thin ring of light he glanced up at the round hole in the ceiling above the end wall. The street wall he would guess. He could see a round iron cover at the top of a short shaft where it did not fit snugly after years of constant use. Even if he could somehow reach, the shaft was likely too narrow to crawl through. The brickwork on that end wall stained black. He recognised the smell mixed in with the damp. Coal.

  He had no idea where he was but had a fair idea what the two men wanted and suspected he must have made the only seriously bad decision in his life. One thing for sure: he had not expected to get snatched. Mid-afternoon and the walk from the tube station was not so far. Crossing the High Street almost home there was the white van. He had noticed it parked against the kerb on double yellow lines. Nothing unusual about that. The back doors open. Two men looking in, maybe about to unload something. Nothing unusual about that either. He did not really look, otherwise he might have been cautious. Drawing level the biggest man suddenly moved and grabbed him. The smaller one pulled the sack over his head. He had struggled but the big guy was one hell of a strong man. Literally picked him up and threw him into the back of the van. The other slammed the doors. A few seconds is all it took. Too quick for anyone on the crowded pavement to intervene, that is assuming they had the courage. They might have taken the registration number but with cloned plates who cared. Then he was listening to the high revving engine and struggling to stay still as he was thrown about, sliding on the smooth wooden floor.

   Now he slammed his hand hard against the brick wall and felt the pain. Thought of what was likely to come. Slipped down to crouch, his faded jeans pulled tight over his knees. Back resting against the damp brickwork. Head in his hands he rubbed his face and carried his fingers through his long dark hair. Suddenly stood; he had to do something. Had another look at the shaft. One of his talents: being small and slim he could slither though very tight spaces. Glanced at the chair and instinctively realised it was not high enough. Climbed the short stairs and checked the door. Gave it an unyielding shove. Just the slimmest chance but it was secured fast.

   Sitting on the bottom tread the hopelessness of his situation suddenly rammed home. Refusing to sit on the chair because of the connotation he stayed put trying to work out how to play the expected interrogation but not so much thought was required. They would leave him to stew a while. Let him work himself up into a compliant state of mind to make their task simple. He held out his hands trying to hold them steady. They needn’t have bothered to wait, he had no doubt about that.

 

Later, the bare bulb in the centre of the ceiling suddenly shone. The bolt slammed back and he looked at his watch. One hour exactly. Standing, he shuffled to the far wall, subconsciously as far from the door as he could get. The two men came slowly down the stairs. One short who carried a grin that showed stained teeth. Tailored suit, shirt and subtle silk tie tucked into a deep red waistcoat. Polished shoes. Old, with pure white hair. How old it was hard to tell. The suspicion was he was one of those deceptive people with an overall fitness level that depressed his actual age. Not so short and well groomed. Had a look of sophistication about him. The man knew who he was. He had not seen him before but there was no doubt. Ron Draper, a man with a reputation not to be ignored.

   Ron stopped just to the left side of the chair. The grin, that was very disconcerting. The other, tall, wide and heavy. Short sleeved shirt that looked two sizes too small but was probably the biggest size made. Boulder fists clenched tightly. No grin. In fact he looked like he probably despised any sort of humour. Not a gram of sophistication there for sure. A few swift steps and the big guy scowled in front of him. Unclenched his right fist and grabbed the man’s shoulder. Roughly pulled him to the centre of the room and slammed him into the chair. Stepped back to stand in front an intimidating one arm's length away.

   Moving one step closer, Ron took hold of the man’s chin and pulled his face to look at him. Stared him in the eyes for a moment then smiled and said, “You’ve got something of mine. You were spotted, son, all covered up in black but one of my lads recognised your style. We’ve some questions for you. Give the right answers and you can go.” He nodded towards the big guy, “Please, don’t hesitate or be deliberately evasive. It’ll upset Moose… It won’t work… The last fella… well, he did not like to cooperate but we got what we wanted in the end.” It was then that the big guy appeared to grin but the man interpreted the look as one of anticipated glee.

    Moose clenched his right fist tighter. The man looked at the dark stains on the chair. He knew he was not so tough. He knew, whatever he said or didn’t say his outlook was bleak and, to avoid endless pain, he knew what his only option was: Answer any question they asked truthfully and without hesitation, then hope his destination was not going to be the mud at the bottom of the river.

 

2

 

 

Old Man stood at the window staring through the gloom as the sky gradually darkened. Across the street a lady, hand on hat, long grey hair whipping around her face stooped low as she struggled home. The bag in her right hand appeared heavy. Something green and leafy poking out of the top. It was a long time since anyone had used his proper name. So long that even Margie Barker, one of the oldest residents nearby, with her hand on her hat and the stooping walk, had probably forgotten. Yes, thought Old Man, she’s the last, everyone else has either passed on or moved.

   A clock hung on the wall above the door. One of those old-time clocks that clicked with a stuttering drop of the hand signalling each minute. Made en-masse. Big white dial secured within a round black Bakelite frame, black hands with fat pointers. The sort of clock that littered 40’s and 50’s school rooms with that monotonous tick that drove the kids, with their young sensitive hearing, sometimes to distraction. Old Man though, he looked up and smiled. Loving the click and the memories contained within. Of course he remembered vividly where it had come from and how he had obtained it. Sally with the long blonde hair had played a big part. His Sally, but… some things were not to be and those could leave a lasting scar. Literally.

   The next click and four in the afternoon signalled the moment. That was how precise Old Man was. There might have been a queue starting from the doorway and stretching down the pavement but, regardless, he would never have opened until exactly four on any Tuesday. He would stand in his grey slacks and brown soft-soled shoes, white shirt and blue tie. The Windsor knot pulled up tight. He would stand seemingly vacantly gazing at nothing but all the while he inspected. Searched amongst the impatient faces. Recognised some. Uninterested in most. Then would settle on the man perhaps in the middle. One, two… four heads back. Ruffled long hair, suit and a swagger. He would be one of interest. Old Man could always tell. It might be the cut of the suit or the way he stood or the manner of his walk. Maybe just something in his face that gave him away. Talkers. They were the ones he was interested in. But only the talkers with something to say. He wanted none of that meaningless spittle of too many boring words, holiday talk or how the wife Old Man did not know or care about was dishing out endless grief.

  The time of the queues had passed though. Those were when he had rented out chairs to the freelancers and took a percentage of their take. Then queues were essential to fill the seats. Then he would pick and choose his customers and leave the others to deal with the everyday trade. Now, the last thing he needed were the queues but this evening he knew he might be safe. Any danger of one forming would be quickly blown away before it could establish itself especially if the expected rain arrived.

   He reached up and turned the sign to OPEN and flicked the light switch. Watched the back of Margie Barker struggle up the short path to her front door. Take her hand off her hat. To retrieve her key Old Man supposed. And, it was instantly gone, the hat, wrapped around the higher branches of a magnolia tree showing the first signs of budding. He saw her move inside and return with a long handled broom to shake the branch. In a lull the hat fell just like an autumn leaf fluttering in the wind. Old Man inwardly sighed with relief knowing he would not have to attempt her rickety, high stepladder. Glancing both ways and seeing no one else on the pavement he went to make tea.

   Through the plain white door at the back of the shop. Stopped in the kitchenette to fill and flick the kettle then to the sitting room at the rear. High ceilings gave the impression of a vast space that in reality was quite compact. The long room sparsely furnished. Two wide, high armed soft chairs. One facing the shop and the other the door to the rear yard. Soft blue fabric but with the tatty look of age. Between these a low coffee table. Formica topped and a throwback from the fifties. A tall, metal shelf unit against one wall virtually empty. Just a long line of black diaries on the top shelf. A black tin box with a keyhole on the middle one. A large outdoor key next to the box and a tall can of clear oil and a near clean soft white rag on the bottom. In the corner beside the rear door in front of the window and facing the room a multi-gym and treadmill perhaps held the secret of his longevity.

   Picking the soft cloth and oil from the shelves, Old Man moved to the multi-gym. Used the cloth to thoroughly rub down the two chrome runners. Applied a couple of oil drops to each just above the weight stack. Sat on the seat with his feet hooked under the pads of the hamstring curl, grabbed the lat bar above his head but failed to pull it down. Grunted. Swore. Stood and moved to the back cursing his son’s strength. Pulled the pin from way down the stack and moved it up to under the first weight. Returned to his position, pulled the bar a few times spreading oil up and down the runners until the single weight slid smoothly. Returned the cloth and oil can to their shelf and went and made tea.

   Returning he placed the steaming mug on the waiting coaster on his side of the table. The one that faced the shop. Before he sat he reached to the top shelf and removed the last of the diaries and the pen sitting next to it. Sat in his chair, put on his specs, opened the diary to today’s date, wrote the time he opened the shop and noted the appalling weather. Flicked back to yesterday’s page and stared at the code. A unique code from his boarding school days. Secrets that needed to remain… secret. There were only four people who knew the code. Three of them the same age. One had passed on, one was obviously him and one… Old Man had not spoken to him in over fifty years but he was not forgotten. That was one thing Old Man would never do, forget that third man. Then there was the last. Someone much younger who was definitely on Old Man’s side.

   There was something else that periodically concerned him. Was there another? There should have been if… but the question that Old Man was not sure of the answer: had there been time to educate his son before his best friend had killed himself trying to persuade a borrowed flat out e-type Jaguar to take off over the humped back canal bridge. A feat at which he had succeeded with the unfortunate consequence of being unable to negotiate the following bend leading to the argument with a stout oak tree which he sadly lost.

   Old Man sighed knowing it was likely irrelevant but even so it would bother him considering what his best friend’s son did for a living. Still, what will be and all that. He had things to do while he waited for customers who he suspected would be hard to come by considering the conditions.

 

  • Facebook
bottom of page