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About the Author
Prolific British mystery writer John Harvey (b. 1938) is the author of more than 100 books, as well as poetry and television screenplays. Harvey debuted his best-known character, Charlie Resnick, in 1989’s Lonely Hearts, which the London Times called one of the "100 Best Crime Novels of the Century." The series came to an end in 2014 with Darkness, Darkness. Harvey lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
Four days after Nick Harman's seventh birthday, his father climbed onto a bridge high above four lanes of traffic, paused, then threw himself to his death on the road below. That was a little over nine years ago. Today Nick was sixteen.
The clock alongside the bed read 7:59.
Nick reached out an arm and switched off the alarm before it could ring. When he'd been small, little more than three or four, not yet started school, his dad had sneaked into his room while he was asleep and fixed stars in the shapes of constellations to the ceiling above his bed. The kind that shone in the dark.
Nick lay there now and stared upwards, trying to make out the faintest glow.
Not so much later he realised that his eyes had closed again. 8:07. He could have risked a few minutes more but he needed to pee. The quilt had become tangled around his legs and he tugged it free and swung his feet round towards the floor. He could hear music, blurred, from the flat upstairs; sounds of traffic, impatient, from the street. Wearing the t-shirt and boxer shorts in which he'd slept, Nick headed for the bathroom.
Fifteen minutes later, dressed, dark hair still tangled, he pushed open the kitchen door. The radio was playing, tuned to Capital, and he switched it to Radio One then XFM then off. Chris had lent him the new Radiohead album and would be on to him to find out what he thought. The water in the kettle was still warm and, setting it to boil, he reached down a mug and dropped a tea bag ready inside. If his mum had not already left for work, he might have had toast instead of corn flakes. Before she got this new job, seven to four six days a week behind one of the tills at the petrol station shop, that's what she'd made, most mornings, toast and jam, toast and marmalade. Time to nag him about being late, his homework, the state of his shoes.
The envelope was propped up against the box of cereal, not quite stuck down. A ten pound note folded inside the card. Happy Birthday, Love Mum. Nick stirred two sugars into his tea and glanced at the clock.
His rucksack was heavy as usual, weighted down with books, and he swung it on to one shoulder as he pulled the door fast shut and turned the key. The one time he'd forgotten to lock it, some opportunistic shit off the estate had been in there and out again before Nick, half-way to school, had realised his mistake and come running back. The forty quid that his mum kept for emergencies had gone, a watch, bits and pieces of jewellery she scarcely ever wore, the computer from Nick's room that wasn't yet paid for, the video and the TV. These last two had been replaced, but the only times Nick got to go on a computer were at school or round his mates' evenings or weekends.
From the forecourt outside the flats a narrow path led down towards the street. A car body shop to one side and on the other a patch of grass dedicated to the memory of some councillor who, if he saw the state of it, food wrappings and drying dog turds, would be turning in his grave. There had been some small flowers growing there a month or so before, white and purple, but now they had died away.
Faintly, Nick could see his breath on the air.
There were two comprehensives in the area, close together, one bog standard, the other Roman Catholic, and the road Nick walked along now was crowded on both sides with clusters of three or more pupils, talking, smoking, pushing, shouting, carelessly forcing anyone else off the pavement as they passed. The younger ones wore a semblance of uniform, the rest dressed in some combination of combats or track pants, t-shirts and hoodies, some with logos, some not; trainers by Nike or Adidas, occasionally Puma or New Balance. A scattering of girls wore calf-length coats in black or beige, short skirts over coloured tights; wide-fitting jeans hung low on the hips of some of the boys, hoods pulled forward over their heads. Nike again. Tommy Hilfiger. Gap.
Nick, in red tab Levi's and a faded denim jacket, his boots knock-off Timberlands from a stall on Camden Market, hurried on, snatches of conversation drifting around him.
"... that's shit, man, why d'you watch that shit?"
"Offside? Course he wasn't bloody offside!"
"... in the queue outside the Boston, wasn't he, just standing there, right, not saying nothin' and this bloke bottled him."
"Fit, i'n it? Really fit."
"Look at that, I wouldn't mind a bit of that."
"Forget it, she's a slag."
Nick saw his mates Christopher and Scott standing outside the school entrance, Christopher's head moving slightly to whatever was playing on his Walkman, Scott sharing a smoke with his girl friend, Laura.
Christopher was tall, almost six foot, only just beginning to thicken out; most days he dressed like he was about to go off and climb a mountain somewhere, anorak, waterproof trousers with a million pockets, walking boots with serious cleats. Scott was shorter, smarter, almost always in some variation of black and grey, laughing now at something Laura had just said.
Laura had a sharp face and blonde spiky hair and went to the Catholic school across the road. She and Scott had been going out the best part of a year — some kind of a record.
"You listen to the Radiohead yet?" Christopher asked.
Nick shook his head.
Laura's face brightened with a grin. "I saw Ellen just now," she said.
When, a month or so back, Nick had asked who was the girl with the yellow waterproof and the black beret, Laura had walked right over and asked her if she fancied going out with one of her boy friend's mates.
"Sorry," the message had come back, "she says you're not her type."
And they'd laughed at the embarrassment colouring Nick's face.
A few days later he'd learned her name.
"Come on," Christopher said, removing his headphones. "Else we'll be bollocked for being late."
Nick nodded, hands stuffed down into his pockets against the cold.
Laura turned away and waited for the traffic to stop at the crossing and the three boys walked together into school.CHAPTER 2
The block of flats, five storeys high, where Nick and his mother lived, had been built in 1936. Whenever Nick read the inscription embedded into the wall of yellowing brick, he wondered it had stood that long.
By the time Nick's parents had moved in, roughly fourteen years ago, the estate had spread like a kid's game of Lego, long and narrow, tall and thin, none of the parts quite matching. Concrete and glass. The entrances to each block now had doors that locked, numbers that you punched in to gain admission. One look at the squares of garden or up at the balconies was enough to tell you who had been living there half a lifetime, who had been moved in by the council as a last resort. If anywhere stayed empty for too long it was squatted in or worse.
Most days after school, Nick hung out with Christopher and Scott, having a Coke or some chips at the same cafÃ(c) where they bought a slice of pizza for lunch. In the summer they'd go and sit on the grass in the open space which bordered the main road, sometimes kicking a ball about or just lazing round and looking at the girls. Talking about who they'd like to have if they got the chance.
More often than not, Nick would end up walking Christopher back to where he lived, a tall Victorian house on one of the tree-lined streets beyond the estate, Saabs and SUVs parked along the kerb.
On the way they'd chat about this and that, arguing over the respective merits of Arsenal and Chelsea, Eduardo or Ballack; Nick listening to Christopher as he rubbished some singer for her lyrics or the way she kept veering out of tune. Not that Nick cared one way or another. There was a poster of J-Lo on his wall and it wasn't there because he liked the way she sang.
Sometimes when they got to Christopher's they'd go up to his room and mess around on the computer, but this was one of the evenings when Nick worked so he headed back quite soon, following a ramshackle series of walkways through the estate.
"Hey, Nick! Nicky, where you goin'?"
"Yeah, man, what's your hurry?"
Hands in the pockets of his jacket, Nick continued walking, not breaking his stride. He could see Ross Blevitt and his mates standing round in the shadow of the tower block, hoods pulled up, the sound of Dr Dre or Ice T distorting from the open windows of the ground floor corner flat. Blevitt with his Burberry cap pulled well forward on his head and a surly smile on his seventeen year old face.
"Hey, Nicky. Chill."
"He can't," called someone else. "Hurry home to his mama, i'n it?"
"Yeah, Nicky. Give her one for me."
Recognising the voice, Nick half-turned into the laughter and saw Blevitt, cap pushed back now, leering as he cupped his crotch with one hand.
Blevitt had started on him once, a year or so back, and Nick had stood his ground, the pair of them pretty evenly matched and neither willing to strike the first blow. Nick knew that Blevitt felt he had lost face and had been looking for a way of getting back at him ever since.
"He's a pussy," someone shouted.
Slowly, Blevitt moved his hand up from his crotch, fingers extended then curling, beckoning him on. His crew behind him, seven or eight strong.
This wasn't the time.
Not hurrying, deliberate, Nick resumed walking, jeers and catcalls falling about his shoulders as he continued on his way.
* * *
"Nicky, is that you?"
Nick suppressed his usual 'Who d'you think?' and carried on into his room, draped his jacket across the back of the chair and dumped his rucksack on the narrow bed.
His mum was sitting at the table in the small kitchen, leafing through one of her magazines. In the living room the television was playing to no one, volume low.
"There's tea in the pot."
Opening the fridge door, he fished out a can of Lucozade.
"That stuff'll rot your teeth."
"Like yours, you mean?"
His mother sighed and turned the page.
Nick took two slices of bread from their wrapping, rummaged some more in the fridge, then spread the bread with peanut butter and blackcurrant jam before pressing the pieces together. Forestalling his mother's complaint, he put the sandwich on a plate and sat opposite her, chair rocked back on its rear legs.
"How was school?"
He shot her a look and she caught herself wondering when the ritual response of "Fine" had been replaced by that familiar expression of boredom and disdain.
"There's oven chips in the freezer. I could do you egg and chips."
"It's okay, I'll get something at work."
Three evenings a week and alternate weekends, Nick had a job in the restaurant attached to one of the local pubs. For Â£4.50 an hour, cash in hand, he would clear the tables and wipe them down, load the dishwasher, dry plates and scrub pans; at the end of a session he would clean out the gunge and grease that had collected in the sump of the main sink, scald the chopping surfaces with boiling water, spray and polish the griddle till it shone.
Working two jobs, the petrol station and some evenings behind the bar, his mum earned enough to put food on the table and pay the rent, keep Nick in basic clothes. Anything extra he had to earn for himself. And he had his heart set on a scooter, a Vespa or maybe even a Piaggio. For every pound he spent, there were three or four he saved.
"What time you leaving?"
Nick looked at the clock. "Soon."
"Hang on then. There's something for you."
When she came back into the room, she kissed him on the cheek. "Happy birthday." The package in her hand was the size of a shoe box and at first Nick thought it was the trainers he'd been after, but when he picked it up the weight wasn't right and besides whatever was inside rattled.
"What is it?"
"Open it. Look for yourself."
"What is it?" he repeated.
"I don't know."
Nick narrowed his eyes. The box was wrapped in brown paper, a section of which had faded as though it had been left somewhere in the sun. Along the edges, the paper had been fastened down with Sellotape and for good measure the whole thing was tied around with string.
"Your dad left it for you. With a note. He wanted you to have it on your birthday. When you were sixteen." She wasn't looking at him as she spoke.
"What note? What bloody note?"
"I burned it, threw it away, I can't remember."
"You must remember."
"All right. I burned it. That and everything else he left."
The inside of Nick's chest felt hollow.
"Everything except that."
Though there was no more than a mouthful of tea left in her cup and that was cold, she brought it to her lips.
Nick stared at the box: the way it rested on the table between them.
"I'm gonna be late for work," Nick said, pushing back his chair. "I've got to change."
His mother took her cup to the sink and rinsed it, went into the living room and turned up the sound on the TV. A few minutes later, she heard the front door open and then close.CHAPTER 3
Next morning Nick was late. Hurrying between the last stragglers, his rucksack bounced awkwardly against his back, first drops of rain fresh on his face. His mates had given him up and gone inside.
He caught up with Christopher on the way to maths midmorning, the first class they shared.
"You okay?" Christopher asked.
"Thought you'd decided to bunk off."
"Then I wouldn't be here now, would I?"
Christopher decided to keep the rest of his questions to himself.
"What happened to you this morning?" Scott asked later. They were on their way, the three of them, to the café for their usual slice. The rain had eased off, but overhead the sky was still grey.
"What d'you mean, what happened?" Nick said. "Nothing happened. I was a few minutes late, that's all."
"You're never late."
"Yeah? Well, today I was, okay?"
Scott shrugged and spat at the ground.
Nick said nothing.
Outside the café Laura was waiting for them, takeout cappuccino in her hand — that and a couple of Marlboro Lights were all she normally had for lunch. Maybe a bite of Scott's pizza.
"I thought you weren't here," she said, looking up at Nick.
"Jesus," Nick said.
"Leave him," Christopher said.
"Laying in bed thinking about Ellen," Laura said with a grin. "Stunt your growth."
"You can talk," Scott said.
"That's cause I'm thinking about you."
"You better be."
"We gonna eat or what?" Nick said, and suddenly there she was, Ellen, right across the street. Walking with four or five other girls, not wearing her beret today, her streaked fair hair partly masking her face until, with a laugh, she shook it free.
Laura had followed the direction of Nick's gaze and was about to make another crack but something in his expression made her bite her tongue.
"What you having?" Christopher asked, digging Nick in the ribs. "Ham and cheese?"
"Yeah," Nick said. "Why not?"
It was the cheapest they did.
* * *
Nick had been awake that morning since well before six, waking out of a dream that splintered the moment he rolled onto his side to look at the clock. Sweat matted his hair to his scalp. The water in a glass by the bed tasted stale. In the restaurant the night before, a party of eight had insisted on sitting around till way past twelve, ordering brandy after brandy and laughing at their own jokes. Eventually, Marcus, the manager, had tapped Nick on the shoulder.
"Cinderella, go home."
"Nah, it's okay," Nick had said. "I'll stay."
"I can't afford overtime, I've told you before."
"It doesn't matter."
Marcus had thrown Nick's jacket at him by way of reply.
There had been no more than the usual selection of drunks on the street. Only the usual deals going down outside the all-night garage and the twenty-four hour corner store.
He could hear the faint wheeze of his mother's breathing as soon as he got inside, the door to her room ajar. Two years ago now, she'd cut down her smoking to five a day; this after a friend, early forties like herself, had just survived a cancer scare.
Nick had been on to her to quit altogether since a health education lecture they'd had at school, the pictures of smokers' lungs, shrivelled and blackened as burned-out shells. A lot of the other kids had been laughing as they left the hall, couldn't wait to light up as soon as they hit the street, but Nick believed what he saw, knew that it was real.
The box was still where it had been left, at the centre of the kitchen table.
How long did it take to die?
Months, seconds, years?
Growing up, he had walked, some empty Saturday or Sunday afternoons, along the Archway Road until he was almost underneath the bridge and stood there staring up, and sometimes he would see a small wedge of colour amongst the bridge's grey, the face of someone peering down.
Sometimes he had tried to imagine his father's fall.
What had been in his mind.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nick's Blues"
Copyright © 2008 John Harvey.
Excerpted by permission of Five Leaves Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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