Read an Excerpt
By Peter Taylor
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2010 Peter Taylor
All rights reserved.
Old Fred Torrance stared into his whisky as though he could see his whole past floating there in the liquid. Sitting opposite him, Frank, his elder son, slid his eyes in his father's direction, tried to gauge how much effect the drink was having. He didn't want to restrain him, but neither did he want him so far gone that he couldn't communicate with a modicum of sense.
The pub, in the town of Appleby, Cumbria, was bursting its buttons and most of the clientele were gypsies in town for the annual horse fair. Animated conversations cross fertilized so that standing back from the hubbub all anyone could have heard was a cacophonous jumble of nonsense, like feeding time in a menagerie.
Frank's gaze cut through the tables and the idle talk to one group of gypsies, the Jacksons, whose serious demeanour set them apart, as though they were stragglers from a funeral party who'd wandered in here by mistake. Frank shifted uncomfortably in his seat aware that they were watching him and his father like hawks watching prey. He knew that soon they would be crossing the room to join them and he didn't relish the prospect.
'He's out next week,' the old man suddenly mumbled into his glass, seeming to address, not his son, but a presence rising out of the whisky, from his wistful stare maybe an imaginary genie he hoped could grant him three wishes.
Frank arched an eyebrow. 'That's what I heard.'
'Won't be the same, your little brother,' the old man said. His eyes met his son's. 'Do you think he'll come back to us?'
Frank heard the emotion in his voice and studied his father. He didn't look well at all, not like the strong man who'd been a bare-knuckle fighter in his youth. Age and physical decline had mellowed him but occasionally in the eyes a spark still leapt up from the flint in his soul, hinting at the man he had once been.
'Five years,' Frank said. 'It's a long time.'
Old Fred returned his eyes to the glass, swirled it in his hand making miniature waves.
'We should have visited him.'
Frank sighed. This was old ground, miles behind them. Who could have guessed the old fool would turn sentimental about any of his family?
'What good would it have done? It would only have reminded him of what he was missing.'
'Never wrote to him,' the old man said plaintively. 'Can't write, can I? Missed him though.'
'He can't read or write either,' Frank said, the faintest of smiles playing on his lips. 'So what would have been the point?'
Frank watched the old man take another slug from the glass. He hoped the men across the room would make a move soon. His father had had enough and he didn't want to buy him another drink because it might just tip him too far.
'Five years!' Fred sighed. 'It's a lifetime when you're old.'
Frank frowned. His father really was overdoing the sentimentality. Where had it been hiding when he was young?
At the other side of the room the three Jacksons started to rise. Frank was glad things were starting to move. He was tiring of his old man's reverie. His new-found sensibility was sickening. For five years he'd managed fine with only an occasional bout of guilt about not visiting his son in prison. Was it just the drink making him maudlin? Had it reached into some far corner of his soul and disturbed part of him that he had never allowed expression before?
The Jacksons were weaving their way through the tables now. Those who recognized them became suddenly mute, shifted their chairs to clear a path for them. When they reached the Torrances' table, they formed a semi-circle. It was not hard to see one was the father, the other two the sons. Apart from the father's steel grey hair, they were all alike, burly, big-shouldered fellows whose facial features seemed to crowd too close together as though in competition for space. It gave them a mean look, pug ugly enough to give peas in the pod a bad reputation. As well as the grey hair, a broken nose distinguished Danny, the father. Both sons, Terry and Jet, as though neither wanted to be outdone by the other in the ugliness stakes, sported a cauliflower ear.
Old Fred Torrance lifted his head and looked at them. The light from the window fell across his face and Frank could see his eyes were watery and vague, knew the booze had settled in him like an old friend in a much-frequented home. Frank tried to remain optimistic. Fred could be mean when he was steeped in it and he had to hope he hadn't reached his fight-the-world stage.
'All right, Fred. All right, Frank.' The elder Jackson nodded to each in turn as he spoke.
'Mint,' Frank replied, and made a sweeping gesture with his arm. 'Take a seat, boys. It's been a long time since we sat down together, ain't it, Father?'
Fred said nothing. The scowl on his face said it for him as the Jacksons accepted Frank's invitation and swamped the free chairs with their considerable bulk. Frank watched his father throw down the last of his whisky. From the distasteful look on his face, it could have been foul-tasting medicine. Frank could feel a tug of war in his stomach. The Torrance and Jackson families weren't bosom friends. There was a history of bare-knuckle fighting on both sides and both sides had produced champions. The death of Bull Jackson, the elder Jacksons' younger brother, was the reason Henry Torrance had been sent to prison on a charge of manslaughter. Bull had been a famous champion, Henry Torrance a relative novice when they'd fought. His death from the blows he received in that fight was a scar on the Jacksons' pride. Rightly or wrongly, it had given Henry a certain twisted kudos amongst the crazier members of the fight brigade.
As an uncomfortable silence fell on the group, Frank and the two brothers exchanged meaningful glances.
'We hear your boy's getting out, Fred.' Danny's voice was halfway to a sneer.
Fred narrowed his eyes, gazed at him. Frank cast his eyes downward, rubbed his jaw wondering whether his father would control himself, hoped he would.
'That's right,' Fred said, his voice clipped. 'He's getting out.'
'We hear he's been keeping fit,' Terry said. 'Using them fancy gyms they've got in prison.'
Fred's eyelids fluttered like birds' wings, closed, then as he turned to Terry ascended lazily.
'You know more than me,' he growled. 'How is that?'
Terry examined his fingernails as though he was bored. 'We've friends inside. We've kept tabs on him.'
Fred leaned back in his chair, eyed each of the Jacksons in turn.
'And what business is it of yours watching my boy? He's nothing to you. Five years he's been in that dump and he weren't going nowhere. He'd need wings, wouldn't he, and he weren't no angel.'
The words came out coherently, just a hint of a slur. Frank was glad that his father was far gone enough to be stirred, but not punchy and prepared to defy the odds against him, as he might once have done. It was how he wanted him.
Daniel Jackson sat forward, his shovel hands on his thighs, shoulders hunching forward like thick wings.
'That night Bull died,' he rasped, 'it was a fluke, a million-to-one chance, but it gave your boy a reputation he didn't deserve. They don't just say Henry Torrance who maybe would have beat Bull Jackson: they say Henry Torrance who killed Bull Jackson and they say it with awe, like he's a legend or something.'
'It's disrespectful,' Jet said, speaking for the first time, as though he'd been waiting for the malice he injected into the words to properly ferment before he let them out.
Perplexity wrinkled Fred's brow. His cheeks, already flushed with booze, took on a deeper hue. He looked at his son who avoided his gaze, so he turned it back on the Jacksons.
'Henry was a good fighter,' he said. 'That night was bad luck all round.'
Terry laughed scornfully. 'Good maybe, but there was only one Bull Jackson. Henry couldn't tie his laces.'
Fred couldn't help himself. They'd found his soft underbelly and he reacted.
'There's champions in our family. As many as in yours.'
Terry pulled at his cauliflower ear, somehow made the gesture impertinent. He glanced at Frank.
'Like Frank here you mean?'
All three Jacksons turned towards Frank with knowing grins. Frank lowered his head. He'd tried the fight game and he just didn't have it. Whatever it was in the Torrance blood that made them fighters had given him a wide berth. There was nothing to say.
'Chip Jackson, our cousin, he's the man now, the next King of the Gypsies,' Jet said.
Fred shrugged. 'Who's arguing, son?'
'But they still talk about Henry Torrance and in the same breath as Chip,' Daniel said, shaking his head, emphasizing his disbelief.
A small grin flirted on old Fred's lips. 'So what?' he hiccupped. 'What if they do?'
'He wasn't in the same class,' Daniel snapped, shoulders twitching. 'It's like comparing a racehorse with a workhorse.'
Bridling at the insult, Fred started to push himself out of the chair looking as though he was prepared to stuff Daniel's words back down his throat. Frank reached across, pushed him back down. Red-faced, struggling with his pride, he slumped back and Frank knew Danny was pushing all the right buttons, just hoped not hard enough to send him right into orbit.
'You were a champion – once,' Daniel sneered. 'Now you're just an old man and the acorns fell a long way from the tree.'
'Is that why you booze, Fred?' Terry followed up. 'Because you can't live your glory days through your sons?'
Jet grunted, 'It's pathetic.'
A bush fire ignited the old man's cheeks. Above the blaze, the wide barrels of his eyes fired volleys. Frank could see his father's frustration lay in the knowledge that, if he directed his rage physically, he would make a fool of himself, of what he had once been. Eventually he turned to Frank, his eyes appealing for his son to do or say something that would stop these puffed up Jacksons from besmirching the family name. But Frank just sat there saying nothing and the fire in him, like a guttering candle gradually surrendering its light, died away.
Seizing the moment, Daniel pressed on. 'Maybe we could settle it. Maybe Chip would fight Henry.' He winked at his sons. 'There again, there's a whisper Henry's gone soft in jail, and there's the prize money; I doubt anyone would sponsor him. You couldn't afford it, could you, Fred?'
Frank, his nerves on edge, watched his father's face, wondering how he would react to yet another insult. Drink and rage had been a potent concoction in the old man's life, sometimes together, sometimes apart. He could see the old belligerence in the set of the jaw, the way his bottom lip protruded. Frank knew that in his day his father would already have kicked off. But time had taken its toll. The body that had once been so strong was too weak now, its still considerable bulk belying that illness had reduced its strength to not much more than a ten-year-old's. Breathing heavily, he rapped out words that once would have been punches.
'Our Henry will fight anyone. He's a Torrance. Could have been a champion if —'
The three Jacksons exchanged glances. Frank saw a gleam of triumph in their eyes as though they'd felt the tug on the line, knew all they had to do was reel old Fred in.
'Life's one big if, ain't it?' Daniel said, raising his eyebrows dismissively. 'And, like we say, we've heard Henry's gone soft. Got religion or something. Waste of time setting up a fight with him.'
Fred's big hands clenched into fists, the knuckles like snow-capped peaks.
'He ain't gone soft,' he spluttered, spittle issuing from his mouth. 'He'll show you. All I have to do is ask him.'
Daniel rubbed his jaw as though he was pondering the matter. He shook his head.
'Naw! You'd have to put up forty thousand minimum to fight Chip. You couldn't afford that even if you could persuade him. Best to let the Torrance name slide into obscurity.'
A slight quiver in his hand, Fred reached out for the glass, picked it up, slammed it down again when he realized it was empty. He looked at his empty palm as though he was trying to read the future scored in the lines there. Suddenly, he held it out across the table, dangled it in front of the Jacksons.
Danny made no move to grasp it. 'You sure, Fred? You got forty thousand to give away, have you?'
Fred waved his arm impatiently. 'Man offers you his hand, you take it, no question.' He paused, stifled a burp. 'That's how it was in the old days.'
With a grin, Danny reached out and took the hand offered him. 'All right, Fred,' he said as they shook. 'We've sealed it and there's no going back.' He held onto the old man's hand and bellowed out above the noise in the room.
'Everybody see this! Chip Jackson will fight Henry Torrance. Each fighter puts in forty thousand and the winner takes all.'
There was a second's silence, then a flash went off, followed by others as those in the room who had cameras took pictures. Then, gradually, the noise rose, reached an even higher pitch than before as the latest bit of news to hit Appleby fair reverberated around the room. Danny let go of Fred's hand. The old man, startled by the flashes, had a bemused look, like a stage-struck actor frozen in the footlights on his first night.
Danny stood up, followed by his sons. Self-satisfaction dripped off them like grease from fried bacon. Fred stared at them as though through a curtain of mist, as if the whisky he'd consumed had finally numbed his senses and he'd retreated into an alternative world only he was aware of.
'Let's hope he loves you enough to fight,' Danny said. 'You've got forty thousand reasons to hope so.'
As they swaggered their way back to their table, Jet turned and said, 'Have a nice day, Fred. Got to make the most of them at your age.'
Frank watched them go and said nothing. His father maintained that self-hypnotic stare, while the silence between them stretched into an arid desert that seemed to have no prospect of an horizon, until Frank finally gave it one.
'Satisfied, are you?'
Fred's eyes swivelled, locked onto his son's. The lost look vanished, was replaced by bitter disappointment that turned to accusation. Frank averted his own eyes.
'Where were you?' Fred said. 'Where were you?'
Frank bridled, snapped his eyes back to his father. 'Watching you flush forty thousand down the pan. That's where I was.'
'Henry would have stood up to them,' Fred said, his voice forlorn. 'Them and their big mouths.'
Frank snorted, 'He'll have the chance now, won't he? If you can persuade him to fight, that is.'
'He'll do it for me – when he knows about this.'
'Let's hope he'll still take notice of you,' Frank grunted. 'Let's hope he even wants to know you.'
Doubt clouded the old man's face, found its way into his eyes, took root there. He knew he had risked just about all his savings. Lowering his head, he mumbled in a voice denuded of all pride, 'You'll have to help me persuade him, Frank.'
'Don't worry,' Frank told him. 'A man coming out of prison needs money. The question is whether he's prepared to take a beating – whether he still has the nerve.'
The old man rubbed his face with his hand as though the action could remove the foolishness of the last few minutes. Frank didn't have any pity because he didn't consider he'd been enough of a father to deserve it and he didn't let pity rule his emotions anyway.
'Between us we might just persuade Henry,' he continued. 'Can't have all that money running away down the road, can we?'
Fred gave him a sideways glance. 'Half it will be yours one day. You've got a vested interest here.'
Frank nodded. He knew that little fact too well. 'Let's get out of here,' he said, 'before you spend it on booze.'
He guided his father to a door keeping well away from the Jacksons' table. Just before he exited, he glanced back across the room in their direction. They were watching him with identical grins as though they'd been choreographed. In return, Frank gave a slight nod of his head.
Seated on his hard bed, Henry Torrance glanced up at the bars of his cell. Familiar prison sounds drifted to his ears, sounds which had at first been alien and disturbing but now, after five years, were no more than an occasional irritant, even at times strangely comforting in their familiarity. He was aware routine had been his saviour but soon that routine would be broken. Those sounds and prison smells would be no more, except perhaps in his dreams. In two days he would be released, penance served, society paid its dues. Bubbles of perspiration burst onto his brow and his blood gave a sudden rush. For sure, he was ready for his freedom but he wondered whether he would cope. He was different from the callow youth who had entered these walls. The world outside would have changed too. Could the different man adapt to the different world without reverting to old habits?
Excerpted from Stone Cold by Peter Taylor. Copyright © 2010 Peter Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.