The barman looks up from the beer he’s pouring and stares briefly across the room. I turn and follow his gaze and catch my first, never to be forgotten, glimpse of Solomon Brown.
Sully, as he’s known to those who dare speak his name, is six foot two inches tall, weighs 175 pounds, lives with his mother in Railway Terrace, has an incarcerated father and a distinguishing scar across his stomach. Of course, this information is not immediately available to me. I glean it from the police report later.
I turn back to the bar before he catches me staring.
‘Believe me, buddy,’ says the barman as he pushes the beer in my direction. ‘This ain’t the summer of love.’ His tone is flat, humourless.
I look to Brett to see his reaction but he says nothing. He seems lost in thought, chewing his lip.
‘What do we owe you?’ I say to the barman.
‘Twenty-one fifty,’ he says immediately, as if pulling the number out of thin air.
I put the money on the bar and join the confab at the table.
‘Whose brilliant fucking idea was this?’ Johnny asks.
‘The brainchild of one Brett Simon Philips,’ says Pete, who’s slumped in his chair and has pulled the brim of his purple hat down to completely obscure his face.
There are not enough chairs for all of us and so Brett, Molly and I stand.
‘What do you think?’ I ask them.
‘I think if I drop a tab in here that I’ll be taking a trip to the nearest mental hospital.’ She’s disappointed. This was supposed to be her night.
‘Well,’ says Brett. ‘This isn’t exactly going according to plan.’ He has a habit, when stoned, of slightly nodding his head as he mulls something over.
‘OK,’ he says finally. ‘Let’s drink up and fuck off back to Pete’s place.’
‘God,’ says Molly in a tiny voice at the back of her throat, but loudly enough for us both to hear. Brett looks at her and says nothing but she reacts as if he has started an interrogation.
‘Well I don’t have to get dressed up to go to Pete’s.’ She has a pretty-girl petulance that’s perfectly suited to stating the obvious.
‘That is true,’ Brett says slowly, as if talking to a very young child. ‘But right now, do you have a better idea?’
‘Why don’t we go back to my place?’ Pete asks from the table and then stands up and joins us.
‘Oh, that’s a great idea,’ Molly says while staring at Brett with an expression that holds him one hundred per cent responsible for messing up our big night out.
It’s while I’m watching them, studying their faces and wondering about their relationship, that I notice Solomon Brown approaching our table. He’s flanked by two other guys, both of them smaller than him.
Sully is what my mother might describe as a ‘fine figure of a man’. He’s tall, slim, and stands straight with square shoulders. She’d approve of his clean-shaven chin, particularly as it’s thrust forward in a gesture she associates with men of authority. His clothes are impeccably clean, a big plus for her. More revealing though, she would say, are the state of his shoes. Again, a pass with flying colours. Even in the dim light of the corner where we’re standing, the toes are gleaming.
However, it seems likely that my mother might struggle to interpret other aspects of his appearance. The double-denim ensemble with high turn-ups on the trouser legs would strike her as cheap perhaps, but not frightening. The smooth, bald head that’s been buffed and polished to a sheen that rivals his Doc Martens would not intimidate or scare her. And she’d attach no malign significance to the fact that his bare, left arm reveals that he’s removed his watch.
The three of them stop behind Pete and stand still.
Pete hears nothing and continues talking. ‘There’s a flyer behind the bar,’ he says to Brett. ‘It says 60s night is on the first Saturday of every month, not every Saturday.’ Brett pays no attention. He’s looking over Pete’s shoulder. Molly glances at me and inches closer to Brett.
Sully takes a step forward. He’s now almost touching Pete.
A moment passes and then Pete becomes very still. Somewhere, deep within his nervous system, there’s a red light flashing. He looks to Brett whose eye-line confirms the danger is behind him and turns around slowly. As the brim of Pete’s hat brushes Sully’s lips, the skin on the backs of my hands starts to prickle and I feel my heart thudding and reverberating in a hollow stomach.
Pete leans back so that he can meet Sully’s eye. ‘Good evening,’ he says politely. He’s showing no sign of the fear that is now flushing through me.
Sully looks down his nose at him. There’s no expression on his face. His eyes, locked onto Pete’s, are so empty as to appear blind. This strikes me as a charade he adopts for psyching out adversaries. No one speaks and no one moves. For four or five seconds we are a tableau vivant of incipient violence.
And then Sully smiles.
It’s common to assume that people with ugly intentions are betrayed by ugly features. We read poor character into mean lips or narrow eyes. Sometimes we ascribe nefarious intent to a lack of symmetry in an unfamiliar face. But Sully was born to be beautiful, handsome. His skin doesn’t wrinkle, it creases into a few clean lines that could have been drawn by the hand of a confident artist. His lips part to reveal a line of bright, even teeth in a wide palette. His eyes gleam with a confidence that comes from knowing the effect of his physical presence. He’s long accustomed to seeing women lean forward and men lean back.
‘You’re shit,’ he says as if recognising a pleasing quality in Pete.
Pete doesn’t respond.
Sully waits patiently for a moment or two before saying gently, ‘I said, “You’re shit”! What are you?’ He could be a teacher trying to coax an answer from one of the slower students in his class.
Pete clears his throat but says nothing. I look at Brett and see he no longer has his arm around Molly’s shoulders. She’s standing to one side and slightly behind him. Everyone at the table has turned to watch but no one makes a move to stand. Across the room, I see the barman staring at us while eating a bag of potato crisps.
I look back when I hear Pete say, ‘Well, I suppose that it’s all a matter of perspective.’ There’s no jagged edge of fear in his voice. He could be chatting to an old friend.
Sully’s smile widens. There’s sport in this prey and he breaks his stare to glance at each of his two friends.
To his right stands Simon Norris—27 years old, the dis-appointing son of a local accountant who I’ll later discover is under restraining orders from two different families. The absence of a neck makes him the shortest of the three but he displays the squat muscularity you’d associate with a prison gymnasium. Despite wearing the same denim uniform, he’s altogether of a different species to Sully and has a face that would challenge the pride of the most loving mother. Three years before this fateful occasion, he made the grave error of insulting a hippy who happened to be carrying a tent peg mallet. The ensuing damage creates the impression that he is always looking slightly to the right. His flattened nose no longer operates as part of his respiratory system and is prone to running even when he doesn’t have a cold. This affliction, combined with the phonetics of his name, has led Sully to give him a heartless moniker. Outside of his family, Simon Norris is locally known as Snot.
Standing to Sully’s left is Snot’s brother, Liam. Something of an afterthought, he’s only 16 and has the pudgy physique of a body that’s yet to escape puberty. What muscle that does lurk beneath the puppy fat would be of a ‘slow twitch’ variety. Liam ‘Lee’ Norris doesn’t move quickly. His role in any fray that Sully starts is to act as ‘kicker’, and he takes great pride in the fact that his steel-capped toes have delivered the coup de grace to a number of Sully’s prostrate victims.
‘A matter of perspective? That’s interesting. I like that.’ Sully maintains his affable tone. He looks around the group as if to share his appreciation of this intelligent reply. And then he lowers his eyes to Pete again.
‘So let me ask you again. You’re shit. What are you?’
Pete swallows. I expect him to look around for help but he keeps his eyes on Sully and says, ‘OK. I’m shit. If you say so,’ in a quieter voice.
Sully smiles, Snot and Lee laugh.
‘No, no mate!’ Sully says, shaking his head. ‘Not because I say so.’ Holding his beer close to his chest, he reaches out with his left hand and gently, affectionately shakes Pete’s shoulder. ‘Hmmm?’
Brett eases further in front of Molly and stands up straighter.
Pete bows his head so that the brim of his hat obscures Sully’s eyes. He blows out a lungful of air and says, ‘I’m shit.’ He then looks back up and says, ‘Happy, now?’
Sully has another psychological ploy. He’s developed the ability to stop smiling in an instant. Without warning, his features relax as if there’s been a power cut to his face. The light in his eyes goes out. The smile lines disappear.
‘I’m a cunt,’ he says. ‘What am I?’
Lee and Snot exchange glances and smile. They’ve seen this routine before.
‘I never said you were a cunt,’ Pete says. His voice is getting weaker.
‘I said, “I’m a cunt!” So, tell me. What am I?’ Sully sounds as if his patience is being tested.
Pete says nothing. He wears the forlorn expression of a man who has to play the last few moves in a game he knows he has already lost.
‘I don’t think you’re a cunt,’ he says.
Sully pauses to savour the moment. He frowns in disbelief. He looks from Lee to Snot with mock incredulity before turning back to Pete.
‘Are you calling me a liar?’ he asks.
Those are the last words I recall Sully speaking. And the events of the next sixty seconds are now just flash-frames, fragments of memory that have been edited and re-edited in my mind so many times that I’m no longer sure of their true chronology.
For the benefit of the police report and for my testimony in court, I ordered them like this:
The sting of beer in my eyes. (Was this the tail end of the spray from Brett’s glass as he threw its contents into Sully’s face? Or was this the beer that splashed from Pete’s cheek as Sully’s glass smashed into his nose?)
An explosion of pain in my left leg, just above the knee. It felt as if a hammer had hit me so hard that it had actually reached the bone.
The sound of Molly screaming.
The sound of my head hitting the floor.
Pete staggering above me, blood pouring from between the fingers that are holding his face together.
Protecting my head with one arm as I pull myself back up with the other.
The crash of the table collapsing and glasses shattering beside me.
Sully’s intense concentration as he hits Johnny in the mouth and then kicks him as he stumbles backwards.
Brett’s face. The skin bleached white with anger as he charges and pushes Liam Norris backwards towards the bar.
Mark, Chrissie and Paul backed up against the wall watching. None of them moving.
Snot waving the knife in the air and screaming, ‘C’mon, C’mon.’
The open door.
This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing A Novel course 2017.
One sunny Sunday morning, Thomas Nash receives tragic news. The therapist he has been seeing for five years has suddenly and unexpectedly died. Over the next few days, Tom realises that he knows nothing about the man who knew everything about him. Obsessed with understanding his grief and loss, he hides his true identity and insinuates himself into his therapist’s family. It’s while trapped in this pretence that he discovers the notes from their therapy sessions together and realises that he must risk everything to confront the fears and the shame of the secret he has been hiding.
Nick graduated from St Martin’s School of Art and stumbled into advertising where he worked as a Creative Director in London, Tokyo and Sydney. Now a ‘Corporate Escapee’, he lives on the Northern Beaches with his wife and two children. When he’s not writing, he makes and plays guitars.