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Viva la madness, p.14
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       Viva La Madness, p.14

           J. J. Connolly

  ‘There’s no one out there,’ says Sonny over his shoulder.

  ‘No, Sonny, you can’t see anyone out there,’ replies Roy, ‘don’t meant to say—’

  ‘Yeah, I know, whatever. Here, put this on,’ says Sonny, snatching a raincoat off a peg and throwing it over to Roy who pulls it on. It totally engulfs Roy. It’s huge and comical but it gives him cover for the machine gun. But it still doesn’t look right. It’s midday – the temperatures are soaring into the thirties. Sonny unlocks the front door then grabs the first thing he can get his hands on – an anorak with a fur hood. He pulls it on, sticks his pistol in one of the front pockets, pokes his head around the door and checks the landing. All clear.

  We head out of the flat. Sonny slams the door shut. They’re both hiding their guns under their coats or in pockets the whole time. They don’t seem worried about the law – the law ain’t gonna shoot them dead, and they wouldn’t get tooled up for the law.

  We half-trot down the hall, turn a corner and bump – fuck it – straight into one of Sonny’s neighbours, a little old lady. She’s seriously freighted-up with bags from shops and delis. Roy spins around, startled, pulls his gun out, and almost shoots her. Luckily she picks that moment to reach down to scoop up her lapdog. She doesn’t notice the gun being waved around. Me and Sonny silently scream at Roy to put it away. She appears too preoccupied with her own trials and tribulations.

  Sonny goes to dodge past her but she blocks him off. She wants to chat, chat, chat, to Sonny, her new neighbour – complain, really – about the sudden change in the weather. Sonny tries to edge round her but she’s taken him hostage, wants to talk. Sonny nods but he’s sweating profusely; poor boy’s melting before her eyes. She looks at him strange. He’s wearing a padded anorak and complaining about the heat. She’s blocking our exit. Sonny’s looking like he wishes Roy had given her a quick spray with his machine pistol. Roy’s getting impatient – barely holding the coat and the tricky head together – sweating because he’s carrying a bag of guns and ammunition.

  I break left while Roy breaks right and we dodge past. Sonny tails us out, leaving her in mid-sentence. We trot down the stairs, two at a time, hit the ground floor, march across the lobby in long strides. As we get outside Sonny hugs the Gucci briefcase even closer to his chest, like it’s chained to his wrist.

  ‘So, what’s in the case, Sonny?’ I ask. ‘Anything important?’

  ‘Mind that,’ he says, tapping his nose. ‘You wouldn’t wanna lose it.’

  Answers my question.



  Roy has the stripes now, definitely in charge. He marches towards Sonny’s Range Rover, checking the locale, walking backwards, shooter tucked under his arm, snatching the keys. ‘I better drive – know a few back-doubles.’

  Roy unlocks the doors. Sonny’s clutching his Gucci briefcase close to his heart. I grab the scanner that’s sitting on the top of Roy’s box of tricks.

  I turn it on, walk to the rear of the Range Rover and hold it against the boot. It starts beeping – beep-beep-beep. This is getting worse.

  ‘We’ll leave it here. Quick, in that one, it’s clean,’ says Roy, nodding at the rental.

  Roy opens the door, pushes the holdall under the driver’s seat, jumps in, and motions for us to hurry the fuck up. Soon as we get in Roy pulls away with a wheel spin. The gatekeeper has seen us coming and opened the gate. Roy pushes the motor into traffic. The car behind us beeps his horn. Roy is oblivious. He’s straining to see if any cars are pulling out to follow us. He drives fast for a hundred yards then cuts across oncoming traffic to slip into a narrow turning. He hits the gas, pushing me back in my seat. I look out the back window. Nothing, and nobody, is following us.

  We rush past rows of grand houses – coach drives and pillars and no change outta five million. If a police car was to trundle up, Roy’d be getting his collar felt for dangerous driving. Wouldn’t wanna end up in a situation where Roy feels no choice but to use the shooter.

  ‘There’s nothing behind,’ I say, cautiously. ‘You might wanna come off the gas.’

  Roy ignores me, blocking everything out, but seems to know where he’s going. Roy must have his head crammed full of emergency contingency plans and exits. He appears to be zigzagging west towards his old manor of Kilburn, racing down forgotten streets, throwing the motor round corners, accelerating then braking hard at junctions. Roy’s doing textbook U-turns, working the power steering. I’m getting slung about in the back.

  I notice something about Roy. When the threat is real, attack imminent, and Roy gets to mobilise his crisis planning – no twitch. But when the threat is only perceived, Roy starts twitching like mad. These guys didn’t get where they are today by being spooked by pigeons. Someone is looking for a fight. Roy’s got a bag of automatic weapons under his seat – serious jailtime. These ain’t trigger-happy youngsters. I’ve never seen Roy so happy – been proved right. This is not an exercise.

  Roy’s giving us a whistle-stop tour of north west London’s suburbs, past golf courses and cemeteries, avenues of sycamore trees along the Underground track, through Golders Green, Hendon then Cricklewood. Fair play to him, he’s got us back to the reservation. He begins to slow down to thirty. Roy’s odyssey has only lasted ten minutes but we can safely say there’s nobody up our arse.

  ‘Where we headed to, Roy?’ Sonny asks.

  ‘Me mum’s. I’m starving.’

  Roy does a sharp left down a short road with a ‘No Through Road’ sign at the top and an Underground line at the bottom. He pulls the motor up in front of a galvanised metal fence topped with ugly spikes, cuts off the engine, jumps out, walks around the back, scanning the area. Then he strolls back to the driver’s door, opens it again, pulls out the tool bag. He slings it over his shoulder. As Sonny and me get out I notice there’s a footbridge going up and over the railway. A train is approaching fast. As it rushes by Roy instinctively turns his face away, locks the motor and starts climbing the metal steps.

  ‘We’ll leave that one here for the time being,’ says Roy. ‘Now let’s go and see Mum.’

  The bridge is the classic armed robbers’ paradise – rob the jug, jump in the motor, skid up at the bridge, ditch motor, over the tracks, pick up stolen motor parked on the other side, leaving any pursuers scratching their heads.

  Roy’s buzzing, adrenalined-up. Sonny doesn’t like this shift in power. We trot over the bridge, down a pissy alleyway and emerge out in a quiet street, walk to the end and come out into a small post-war housing estate – four-storey blocks built around a courtyard. There’s a plaque, a crest in the brickwork – ‘Built by the London County Council – 1948’.

  Roy leads us into the courtyard. There’s a gaggle of teenage kids – boys and girls, black and white, smoking and play-fighting around the entrance to a block. They see Royski approaching and instantly fall silent. The kids nod and stare with big eyes, almost genuflecting, at Twitchy Roy Burns, and some even dare to snatch a glance at the legendary Sonny King. They clear a path to let us through – pure Apocalypse Now.

  Roy leads us up two flights of concrete stairs, and half-trots down to the end of a landing. He stops at a front door with a grilled security cage. Roy pushes the bell in some primitive recognition code. After a few seconds we hear a deadlock being turned. Then the door opens slowly a smidgen and a frail, wrinkled face peeks suspiciously around the door. Missus Burns, Roy’s mum, is about five foot and a fag paper tall and would weigh about six stone in hobnail boots. She smiles – loose dentures in her shrunken head – and opens the door wide.

  She invites us in with an accent so thick it never left the West of Ireland. The small, immaculately tidy council flat smells musty – of snout, fried food, bleach and, sadly, old people’s smell. She obviously knows Sonny, and although Roy tells her my name, I can tell she’s instantly forgotten it.

  ‘What you got there, Roy?’ she asks hopefully, nodding at Roy’s bag. ‘Washing?

  ‘Tools, Mum,’ he replies truthfully.

  ‘We was doing a bit of maintenance at one of my properties,’ Sonny lies.

  ‘That’s good,’ says Missus Burns. ‘You’ll save yourself a good few pounds, doing it yourself.’

  ‘That’s my policy, Missus Bee – hands-on.’

  Missus Bee shepherds us into the front room. There’s too much furniture; it’s cluttered and cramped. She’s fond of swirly carpet and a crocheted lace arm covering or ten on her velveteen sofas. There’s no Catholic trinkets or icons, no pictures of His Holiness the Pope or glow-in-the-dark Sacred Hearts but I spot a collection of funeral Mass cards tucked into the frame of an embroidered map of the Auld Country.

  There’s a shrine to Santa Royski – school photos of Roy – a chubby-faced boy who certainly looks capable of pushing up the pecking order to become number one school bully and terrorising the teachers. There’s mistrust and suspicion in his scowl, a studied air of what you looking at, cunt? If it wasn’t for the stripy school tie it would be a prototype mugshot. There’s a scattering of polished pewter amateur boxing trophies and yellowing photos of a triumphant teenage Roy, his arm being held aloft by a red-faced and sweaty – no doubt a sex case – priest who appears to be acting as referee. The other kid in the photo – Roy’s battered opponent – looks dazed and confused, face pummelled into jam, eyes swollen.

  Sat perched on top of a glass-fronted display cabinet, crammed full to bursting with china plates and crystal glasses, there’s a portable television with an indoor aerial. On the shelves there’s a few tattered books, mostly counter-espionage textbooks. I assume they’re part of Roy’s reference library; I can’t see Missus Bee needing a surveillance evasion handbook to go down the newsagent to pick up her Galway Advertiser.

  ‘You hungry, lads?’ asks Roy’s mum.

  ‘We skipped luncheon, Missus Bee,’ says Sonny, in his swell’s voice, and winking at Roy.

  ‘I’m not sure I’ve got much in, boys,’ she says, disappointed. ‘If I knew you were coming I’d have got something nice.’

  ‘We’re starving, mum,’ says Roy. ‘A fry-up’ll be fine.’

  ‘That’s no problem, lads. I’ve got bits in the freezer.’

  We sit down as Missus Burns goes into the kitchen next door. Almost immediately we hear the sound of slabs of lard hitting a white-hot frying pan. Sonny places his briefcase carefully down the side of the sofa. With Missus Burns out of the room I lean forward.

  ‘Sonny …’ I ask, trying really hard to remove all trace of confrontation, ‘who do you and Roy believe to be pursuing you?’

  But Sonny slowly and unhurriedly places his index finger across his lips.

  ‘It’s bad manners, pal,’ says Sonny King, that relentless defender of civility and propriety, nodding towards the kitchen. Then Roy and Sonny look at one another, shake their heads, like it would be a total breach of etiquette to be discussing such events in the sanctuary of Missus Burns’ humble abode.

  ‘So those are alright, are they?’ I say, pointing at Roy’s bag of weapons nestling between his feet. ‘Mum’s not gonna have a problem with those?’

  Sonny gives me the pointy finger and shut-the-fuck-up eyes.

  Mum is certainly a relic from a bygone age, seventy if she’s a day. One of a generation parachuted in from Ireland in the austere fifties, looking for work, tipped up in Kilburn, stayed but never felt like they belonged, always talked about going back home. Nowadays it’s all Polish and Russian kids on Kill-and-burn High Road. The Irish immigrants are disappearing fast. There’s still a few drinking Guinness, getting sentimental, melancholic or homesick, getting busy on their own funeral circuit, but another Great British Tradition – the Irish colonising Kilburn – is dead.

  We sit in silence, listening to the activity next door – whistling kettles, can openers hitting tins, chunk-chunk-chunk, fridges and freezers opening and shutting, eggs breaking, bacon beginning to sizzle, sausages being hacked off a frozen block. She fusses between the kitchen and front room, wearing her favourite apron, bringing tea and setting up fold-up tables while a strangely comforting smell creeps down the hall. Missus Burns has gone operational.

  In truth you can’t beat a full English – or Irish – if you’re well hungover, it’s February, there’s black ice on the pavements, and you need the grease. You need the heart attack on a plate – overcooked bacon, exploding sausages, baked beans, slice after slice of buttery holy ghost, eggs rock hard in the middle, burnt to a frazzled crisp around the edges, and fried bread to soak up some of the fat, all served in a slippery layer of lard – and Missus Burns does not disappoint. She even smokes snout while we eat – which I always believe to be essential, the smell of burning tobacco enhancing the taste – sat on the sofa, with tea towels over our laps, because Missus Bee insisted. You don’t want to be getting your nice clothes dirty. Missus Bee says nothing about the fact that Sonny has a long streak of oil up his jogging pants.

  ‘Will I put the television on for you, boys?’

  ‘Yeah, go on, Missus Bee,’ says Sonny, between mouthfuls.

  ‘Roy wanted to buy me a new set but I said no … there’s not much on worth watching these days. Save your money, I said.’ She switches on the small portable and, would you believe it, it’s John Wayne riding into the sunset. ‘There’s so much violence on the television these days, it’s on the news and everywhere,’ Missus Bee says, shaking her head. ‘Wasn’t there a boy killed up in Willesden for his mobile phone only last week? It’s got very dangerous up there … and Harlesden too. You boys be careful. You hear me?’

  ‘Oh, yes, Missus Bee. I will be,’ nods Sonny, licking his knife.

  ‘And you too,’ she says turning to me and pulling hard on her snout.

  ‘I will be,’ I say, nodding my head.

  ‘You don’t say much, do you?’

  ‘No, Missus Burns.’

  ‘These boys get led astray. My father used to say, God rest his soul …’ she quickly blesses herself, ‘you are the company you keep.’

  ‘That’s so very true, Missus Burns,’ I say, winking at Sonny and catching a homicidal look.

  ‘It’s all those drugs,’ she continues without pausing for breath. ‘It was on the News at Ten only the other day. There’s drugs everywhere. They send people mad – this crack and that cocaine. It’s not safe to go out anymore at night. Missus Cassidy down the landing doesn’t even go out during the day. And gangsters! And they’ve got guns! It’s got terrible. You don’t feel safe in your own home!’

  Roy, the fuckin lunatic, is nodding along in agreement.

  ‘I said I’d buy ya a dog,’ he says. ‘Get ya a big bastard—’

  ‘Roy! I’ve told you. Don’t swear,’ she scolds him. ‘You’ve got a God-given vocabulary.’

  ‘Train him up, Mum; anyone comes in the gaff, bite their nuts off—’

  ‘Roy!’ says Missus Bee, pulling a harsh face, like she’s never heard the like. Sonny laughs.

  ‘Seriously,’ says Roy, ‘I’ll get ya a dog—’

  ‘And who’s going to feed him?’ she asks. ‘Take him for walks?’

  ‘I’d take him for a walk,’ says Roy, ‘over the Heath.’

  ‘Let me think about it. The company might be nice,’ she says, putting out one snout and lighting another.

  ‘A nice Staffie, a puppy …’ says Sonny, nodding, ‘or a Doberman.’

  ‘Oh, no, only a small one,’ says Missus Bee, shaking her head.

  ‘Doberman would suit you, Missus Bee, a couple maybe,’ says Sonny, grinning now.

  ‘You’re teasing now, Sonny.’

  ‘Oh, no. I’d contribute, put a few quid in,’ says Sonny. ‘Be a pleasure, get pedigree papers.’

  ‘I couldn’t have a big dog, council wouldn’t allow it.’

  ‘Fuck the council,’ Sonny says with a dismissive wave of his fork.

  Missus Burns looks at Sonny quizzically, then sideways at Roy, but Sonny trundles on regardless, oblivious.
br />   ‘You don’t need to worry about anyone, Missus Burns,’ he says, waving his knife around to emphasise the point. ‘Anyone gives you any grief, Missus Bee, you let Roy, or me, if Roy’s away down in Spain, know. Straight away, get on the phone. You get any trouble ring me or Roy and we’ll come over and sort it out for ya.’

  ‘You’re a good boy, Sonny, but I never get any trouble,’ she says, still perplexed. ‘All the coloured boys who sit down in the porch offer to carry my shopping up if the lift’s broken, and it breaks down a lot …’

  ‘Maybe, Sonny,’ I say in spite of myself, ‘you should have a word with the lift repairman.’

  ‘Fuckin shut it, you!’ snaps Sonny, leaning forward, pointing now with his knife. ‘We don’t need your fuckin sarcasm!’

  Missus Bee looks bewildered, her snout, with its long ash, hovering inches from her mouth.

  ‘Sonny, language! Me Mum,’ says Royski, nodding towards his puzzled mother.

  ‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Missus Burns,’ says Sonny, in his money laundering voice, ‘I forgot my manners for a moment then. I’m very sorry indeed.’

  Sonny zeroes in on me, giving me the narrow eyes. ‘Can I have a little word?’ he says sarcastically over-polite, nodding out the door. ‘In the hallway, perhaps?’

  Here comes trouble … But Sonny is all sweetness and light. Sonny suggests as nicely as possible that perhaps it’s not such a good idea to mention this slight overreaction of Roy’s to Mister Mortimer. ‘You know how he worries about your welfare. Wouldn’t want you mixed up in something that could get you …’

  Sonny realises – too late – he’s said the wrong thing.

  ‘Killed, Sonny?’ I ask. ‘Killed by who?’

  ‘Oh, you know … anyone,’ he says, shrugging calmly, spitting out a smidgen of bacon. ‘You know what our Morty’s like …’

  You never know with Sonny. When he’s trying to be pleasant he comes across as supremely manipulative, sounds more sinister than when he’s blatantly intimidating.

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