The waitress had not yet put the coffee cup down when his mobile rang, wrecking the premeditated moment of flirt.
The waitress was sweet-cheeked and Italian with fair hair and dark eyebrows, a thing which had a strong subconscious appeal for him. He spoke her language well but had not used the skill yet lest she discovered his origins too soon; she thought him English. Serena. He planned to impress her during her cigarette breaks, with some good storytelling that would give her the chance to study him physically. Then come the long November afternoons together, perduti in primordial kisses and thigh explorations, exchanging bodily gifts and other things mystical…
His black mobile rang. The Bach ringtone did not make it any less annoying.
It was his friend Zen.
“I found out where he is” said Zen.
“You found out where who is?”
“The man who owes me money. I told you about him, didn’t I? That louse has been dodging me for months. Openly; as openly as saying fuck you – and not just to me but to the whole Albanian community. But I found him; I know where he’s working now: somewhere between Swiss Cottage and St’ John’s Wood. I’m going to need some help from you on this one. Won’t get you into trouble or anything, don’t worry; I just need…Wait a minute: where are you?”
Where are you. Paralysing question. In London at the minute, the new Babylon. In a coffee-shop, the one in the southern corner of the park next to the big pond with the happy ducks in it: Café Brickwood. Ha-ha, you and your coffee shops; when I win the lottery, I will buy you one, solemnly swear, so that you can sit there with your books and notebooks and get high on caffeine. Alright, listen: don’t move. I’ll be there in exact-ly twenty-one minutes.
Franc loved Zen but felt his availability was being taken for granted; his creative time tampered with. Zen and the others assumed he had time to murder. Then this hairy business about the debt. Zen had worked for this middle-aged Middle-Eastern man doing several construction jobs cash-in-hand in various places, but the building boss had kept postponing the payment. Until he had disappeared. It was a matter of a four-hundred-pounds-or-so sum, but the snub had turned it into a matter of honour on top. Zen was angry and rightly so, and Franc was Zen’s friend, and he had to go, even though he was not angry. Hairy business.
Zen arrived. In a blue T-shirt that screamed screw-you to the damp twelve-degree November weather. There was ethnic hugging, and plenty of patting on the arms and shoulders. Franc’s notepads and things were already inside his bag but Zen sensed he had interrupted something.
“Sorry about all this” he said “Maybe I should let this one go – but I can’t. Don’t worry though; you might not need to get involved at all. Two guys – Gimi the Hammer and Ben the Pizza-Maker – are coming with me, so there’s plenty manpower. They’ll do the ‘labouring’ bit, so to speak, if needed – they’re OK like that. But they could also fuck up a cup of coffee without some sort of guidance, know what I mean. I need someone I can trust to be there with me.”
Gimi the Hammer and Ben the Pizza-Maker were already on their way. Their car was less-easily traced than Zen’s working van with his company logo and all the details on it. SAS SPARKIES, it read – NO JOB TOO ODD.
“One thing” said Franc “If this man gives you the money, without ado—”
“We get the money first, sure” said Zen “But this is beyond money now. The scumbag will pay for making a mug out of me.”
Franc went to the toilet. So there was going to be war, no matter what. Talking his way out of it was out of the question. Zen would walk through burning coals for him, had proved it in the past. He needed to get in the mood, and fast.
On his way back to the table Franc spotted Serena. She mopped off the floor something that looked like a spilling stain. Her face: flawlessly serene.
As Gimi the Hammer and Ben the Pizza-Maker approached, Zen said to Franc:
“I told them about our adventures in Belgium and Germany, how we fought our way with glasses and beer bottles out of that village bar on Carnival Day and about our border-crossings in Europe. And how you knocked that guy down in ‘Burger King’ that night, one-shot.”
Zen had edited well events that had occurred over a period of ten years, recasting Franc as a gangster or some kind of black-belt.
Gimi the Hammer was a handyman, good with the hammer, who had worked with Zen in the past for the same boss. He had a shaved square-shaped head, benign eyes and a robust handshake. Next to Zen’s wiry build, he seemed a little out of shape. The one called Ben Pizzaiolo (the Pizza-Maker) dropped his packet of cigarettes on the ground before sharing it with the rest. He was a touch shorter than his mate and had longish curled hair that reached down to his black leather jacket. His high cheekbones were perpetually red on the upper part as if two apples had been forcefully stuck in them. His reputation as a first-class pizza maker preceded him.
In Gimi’s car as they drove northward through a late-nineties’ London, Franc began to feel fluttery in his stomach. He tried to think of the cruel, unjust, humiliating blow the Middle-Eastern boss had inflicted on his friend (his countryman, his brother!), struggling a bit to take personal offense to it. He was British, the middle-eastern; owned businesses, vehicles, hired and sacked people at whim. While his friend – a poor Albanian; big time disadvantaged in this case. The middle-eastern Brit thought he could demean and get away with it – wrong, wrong…
Some enforced anger finally turned up in Franc’s gut. Not quite the white-hot revolutionary sort, springing from unfairness and hatred toward the vile-vile boss who cheats the workingman out of his rights – but anger. The blood temperature was a tinge higher and that’s what counted.
But with it grew nerviness and other unpleasant sensations he refused to name.
When the car stopped in traffic, he spotted a van with the inscription YELLOW VAN COMPANY on it. It was written in yellow. The phrase ‘yellow-belly’ came to his mind. He was no yellow-belly. He had proved it in the past that he could take the strain and see things through better than those who boasted. Yet a yellow streak of a sort dwelled in his belly. Just think of loyalty, he said to himself, towards your friend – and not what’s going to happen there. I know there’s fear in you, but it is more stage fear than anything else.
Gimi the Hammer kept examining Franc through the rear-view mirror while driving and talking to Zen. Not convinced he had what it takes. While Ben the Pizza-Maker sitting next to him, just smiled and kept offering everyone cigarettes.
The car entered a mainly residential street with all the sanitation and uniformity of a well-off area. They looked at the endless rows of Victorian houses on both sides.
This one. No, no, this is 112; we need 211. Are you sure? I’m pretty sure; keep going.
That’s it, that one there. That’s the one.
A massive skip stood only a few yards away from door 211. Plainly some building going on inside. Suddenly, out of the door emerged a tall blond man in paint-sprinkled overalls and chucked some junk into the skip. He had a big earring on his left ear.
“Look, it’s Jason!” said Gimi the Hammer to Zen “The English guy we used to work with, the painter.”
“Yeah it’s him alright” confirmed Zen “Now we know for sure we are in the right place. He has worked for that prick for a long time. Drive on.”
Gimi drove on until they reached a local pub. He parked nearby, and they all got off and went into the pub, silently, harmoniously, without any suggestions or objections.
The insides of the pub were tidy and sleepy, with good light-green and oatmeal furniture and frames, and a well-groomed oldie having a pint of mahogany-coloured ale by the bar.
They sat strategically by the window.
“What are you drinking?” asked Zen.
“No, no; no way” argued Gimi the Hammer “I’m paying.” And for a while there was a near-brawl amongst them on who would get the drinks, but then in the end Gimi the Hammer won. He told Ben the Pizza-Maker to be quiet and keep furnishing people with cigarettes.
“What’s yours?” he asked Franc.
“Tea” replied Franc.
Gimi looked at the others for a minute, Zen frowned.
“Pint of Amstel, please” said Ben the Pizza-maker.
“Tea” said Zen, with a reassuring nod “English Tea.”
Hammer and the other looked at each other again. They could make no sense of the choice.
“Tea, yes? You sure you don’t want anything else?”
Zen looked at Franc.
“No, no. I mean yes, we’re sure.”
The barwoman served them with contemptuous looks.
The teapots arrived – two of them – and Zen and Franc poured tea like two English gentlemen at leisure-time. The other two kept looking at them in wonder while busying themselves with Guinness and Amstel, and a double-rum Gimi the Hammer had gotten as a side order. Zen assumed the teapot thing was a part of his friend’s plan to impress, but Franc had not planned anything.
Gimi the Hammer cleared his throat and said:
“Look, erm, I know this wasn’t part of the plan and everything, but, that guy Jason…I want to get him too.”
Franc and Zen looked at each other. They posed their teacups on their saucers.
“When we worked together, we use to argue, like that. He was always making fun of me and that. Calling me all sorts of names: foreign prick, Albanian cunt, cabbage-picker…You people live in caves, this and that. I didn’t know you celebrated Christmas in fucking Albania, he said to me once; that hurt. He has done it too many times, too many times.”
Zen and Franc were not expecting this kind of outpouring from Gimi the Hammer, designed somewhat to hurt their patriotic feelings. Ben the Pizza-maker offered them cigarettes and they grabbed them eagerly.
“One thing I don’t understand,” said Ben while lighting the cigarettes, “why call us cabbage-pickers? We’re not Russians; we don’t use cabbage in Albania. Not that much anyway.”
“In my village we do,” said Gimi the Hammer, “but that’s not the point. He insulted me – I mean us – deliberately. This hurt more than the drill him and his mates stole from me, I tell you. It was him, and his friends, to steal my drill – I’m hundred percent sure!”
Zen looked in Franc’s direction for the last time. The latter shrugged his shoulders slightly.
“OK, fine,” said Zen, “we hit Mahzuk and Jason. Settled.”
Franc sipped some more tea. Unpleasant sensations were now multiplying in his stomach, like gnats around a sick bison. Preparing yourself to hit someone you’ve never seen before was awkward enough, even with the motives presented. Now it was to be two. An Englishman now, with a big mouth. Where’s the demon of indignation when you need it?
“What’s his name again?”
“No, the other’s. Mah-?”
“Mahzun, Mahzud, Maksud – fuck knows.”
“Jewish or Arabic?” asked Franc.
“Not sure” said Zen “Take your pick.”
“Could be Armenian.”
“He will pay today,” Gimi the Hammer said, “with or without a foreskin.”
“We have no racial prejudices,” said Zen, “we beat them all equally.”
They laughed again. The barwoman wiped the counter angrily. Then they discussed the number of people they could meet with inside, and Ben the Pizza-Maker said something through his teeth about his immigration status being wobbly and that he preferred it were done quickly – in a flash.
Then Franc spoke:
“Ben, you stay at the door – since your status is wobbly. So that you can be the first to run if ‘the uncles’ turn up; after you’ve warned us, of course. Don’t worry; three of us are enough to take care of those inside: surprise will do them in. We should be out of there before anyone else thinks of intervening. You must lose that leather jacket, though – it’s got ‘police bait’ written all over it. Zen; we’re going in all smiles, alright? On friendly terms. There has to be some chitchat first: ask for the dough, then maybe a future job etcetera…you do the same with Jason, Gim. He must not have a clue of what’s happening. Use hands, don’t grab any objects, unless it’s really necessary. Our signal will be Zen’s first punch.”
Gimi the Hammer finished the last bit of his Guinness and wiped his lips, Ben the Pizza-Maker took off his leather jacket quietly, while Zen, looked at those two with a triumphant smirk on his face that screamed I told you he’s the man.
Zen and Franc entered first, talking and laughing carelessly on the face of it, Gimi the Hammer followed, and Ben the Pizza-maker stayed at the door, looking much better in his flowery jumper.
They found Mahzud-Mahzun stripping off some wallpaper in one of the ground floor rooms. He was of medium height and wore glasses. His stubbly face dropped when he recognized some of the uninvited.
“Hello you” he said advancing, arranging his thick glasses, and swallowing spit.
“Hello-hello” said Zen smiling. Franc greeted as well, with a smile.
“Look the other one is here too” said Mahzud, pointing at Gimi the Hammer.
“Hello Mr Maduz” said Gimmi the Hammer, getting his name wrong.
They shook hands. There was never a more reluctant handshake than this.
“This here is my brother” said Zen indicating Franc.
“Your brother” Mahzud repeated, while shaking hands. “Vat’ brings you here?” he added, regaining composure skillfully.
“We were just passing really,” said Zen, “wanted to see how you were.”
There was a pause, then Zen laughed. Haha. Mahzud laughed too, the most nervous laugh in the world. His shifty eyes kept staring at Franc.
“I’ve come to get my money” said Zen. “And ask you if you have any more jobs for me. It’s a bit slow at the moment for me.”
The bit about work seemed to defuse the situation, scraping at least some suspicions off Mahzud’s mind.
“I’m going to have loads of vork for you, as it happens” said the boss, putting his hand in his pocket for the wallet, “as for the money, you know, I might not, er, have enough cash on me, as it happens…”
He had plenty. His wallet was bursting with dosh, and he could not hide it.
At this moment Jason approached holding a paint roller in his hand.
“Hey!” he exclaimed happily and went shaking hands with Gimi the Hammer, “what are you doing here, you dozy Albanian prat? Hahaha! Good to see you fellas, haven’t seen ya in bloody ages! So: what have you spastics been up to then?”
Jason was tattooed and good-looking. Big cheerful Arsenal supporter.
Mahzud handed Zen the cash reluctantly and Zen counted it.
“About hundred fifty pounds short,” said Zen.
“I vill give you the rest tomorrow,” he said, “or Friday.”
He kept staring at Franc.
“Your brother, eh?”
“Yes,” said Zen.
“He doesn’t look like your brother,” said Mahzud.
“You sure?” asked Zen.
“Yes I’m sure.”
Zen punched him in the face hard. The man fell like a sack of waste – first against the wall, then down – after a muffled ‘oh’ and a ‘crack’ in the glasses. Jason’s face registered pure shock; but he didn’t get a chance to as much as whisper: Gimi the Hammer socked him in the jaw—instantly. The shot was good and clean but Jason didn’t fall. Franc punched him sideways; Jason wobbled and this time fell. He raised his head: his nose and lips were bloody, his eyes tragic, his mouth had gone to one side – like that of a man who is about to cry. Franc hit him a couple of more times but not to hurt him this time, just out of inertia. Then he dragged a reluctant Gimi the Hammer by the arm, and they rushed to Zen, who was still working on his ex-boss:
“You thought you could fuck us over and get away with it, eh? Look at you now, fuck! And you can stick the rest of that money up your arse!”
Franc grabbed Zen by the arm, then, again out of habit, gave Mahzud a kick in the ribs. And again a scary muffled groan, then silence. He lied motionless by the wall; glasses broken, blood on his face, his head hanging pitifully on one side.
“Move, move, move!” Franc urged the others ‘quickly, come on!!”
They ran from the living room through the narrow corridor towards the exit. A stocky builder carrying some material loomed by the door. The view of the excited gang charging in his direction made him move aside—fast. They shot passed him.
“Run to the car!” Franc yelled at Ben the Pizza-maker, “we’re done here!”
Agitated, Ben didn’t need to be told twice. He dashed, they followed. Franc – with the image of the bloodied man with broken glasses on his mind. Think: a piece of glass in his eye; serious permanent eye injury; blind on one eye. He was stock-still when they left him – was he even breathing? What if he had bashed the back of his head against the wall? Ambulance delay; dead.
Ben the Pizza-maker reached the car before the rest. He had the keys, and turned the engine on quite quickly. The Police must have been called by now, Franc thought. Just as they were leaving, they heard shouts.
“Look!,” said Ben the Pizza-Maker, turning, “it’s him!”
They all turned. The bloody-muzzled boss was out in the street, hobbling after them.
“I vill find you, Albanian motherfuckers!” he yelled, “By God I vill!”
Damn, thought Franc, the man is alive and kicking. He urged Ben the Pizza-Maker to hit the gas.
Zen stuck half of his body out of the window and shouted:
“Next time I will kill you, you cheating cunt!” Then to Ben: “stop the car; we haven’t beaten him enough.”
“Keep driving,” said Franc; then to Zen: “stay down, don’t be stupid.”
Three minutes later they were all congratulating each other, with the exception of Franc maybe.
“We should split,” said Zen to Gimi the Hammer, “And take care of the car plate, as we discussed; although I doubt that prick had time to take the numbers.”
About twenty minutes later Zen and Franc were in King’s Cross.
“Let’s go to O’Neill’s” said Zen.
In O’Neill’s pub they ordered two pints of golden lager and two BBQ chicken bacon & cheese sandwiches with chips on the side.
Franc took a big long gulp. It was fresh and tasted nice. But it would take more than that to defeat the heavy feeling in his stomach. The stomach housed the feelings for him, good and bad; it was perhaps where the thing called soul could be located. Mahzun was forgotten, after his zombie appearance on the street. Now it was Jason, the image of Jason, hassling him.
“Great beer!” said Zen while wiping his lips, “it tastes even better after a successful day!”
He took out his wallet and put three twenty-pound notes and a tenner on the dark oak table.
“What’s this?” asked Franc.
“Your share” said Zen “I will sort the others later.”
“Don’t be silly” said Franc.
“Put it in your pocket, come on. You can buy your coffees and rollups with it. This thing was not about the money; didn’t expect anything from the leech. I see this as a bonus.”
He sipped more beer and continued:
“We’ve done a good deed today, believe me. Who knows how many people has that man fucked over and up. He got much less than he deserved, believe me.”
“I know, it’s just…Something doesn’t feel right. Jason. The expression on his face…we made a mistake there.”
“It wasn’t our call; it was Gimi’s.”
“We should’ve said no to Gimi on this one.”
Zen made a dismissive gesture with his right hand. Someone brought the food, and Zen rubbed his palms with pleasure. The waiter asked if they wanted ketchup or mayonnaise; they asked for both.
“Mayonnaise reminds me of the good-old days in Belgium,” said Zen.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit nasty and unmanly what we did to that guy Jason?”
“What you did, you criminal” said Zen, then laughed. “No but seriously; it’s all in your head,” he continued, while munching, “that guy doesn’t think like you, doesn’t read books and things. He doesn’t brood like you; they don’t take offense like we do. I’m sure in half an hour he would be up and painting the walls; in fact he probably already is! He’ll forget about the whole thing in a couple of hours, trust me. They’re not like us.”
Franc bit the fat sandwich and tasted the brown bread and the meats mingled with cheese. It felt good.
“You were great today,” added Zen smiling “you honoured me. Those two will be singing your praises for a long time, I tell you. One thing though: did you have to kick poor Mahzun while he was on the floor! You are one cruel bastard, and there’s no two ways about it! Ha-ha-ha!”
Franc shook his head. His faint smile turned slowly into a chuckle. They ordered another round, and realizing their lack of cigarettes, discussed how they should maybe phone Ben the Pizza-Maker to bring them some, remembering his flowery jumper and curly hair – and they laughed some more.
With the evening dusk came a deserved sense of misery. The battle had been fought, the beer drunk, Serena’s coffee shop had shut long ago. Mahzud – his face and ribs put together by the medics, was probably still dealing with the police, demanding something substantial be done to catch the criminals who attacked him and his employee without reason. Describing them and the car for the millionth time; what good are those cameras you install if you cannot catch a qvartet of cheap lowlifes? Jason was probably telling his loved ones, for he had some for sure, ‘what scum the East European lot were’; I’ve always treated them right, the backstabbing cunts; and this is how they repay us…The blood, the potentially broken jaw; his quivering mouth at the point of crying. All his friends and family and relatives and acquaintances would now hate the Albanian kind. A chunk of Britain. The country of these fair and fair-haired creatures that welcomed him in its dispassionate bosom; the country of confident creatures, who built instead of brooding…Franc had knocked one of theirs down without knowing or hating him. This was their lot; Franc had his mates and brothers, Jason had his. And both loved their friends and brothers regardless of their faults.
Finally he imagined Gimi the Hammer telling his mates how he had flattened a drill-stealing racist-hooligan called Jason; people like him have no sense of shame, or respect...
He would’ve preferred to be at Serena’s coffee shop, waiting for her cigarette break, to impress her with some good jokes and storytelling tricks. Then come the long November afternoon together, in large spacious atelier-like rooms, with brick-walls and lyrical windows with rot-wood frames and foggy glass; there, where fear and thoughts of future did not live, he would study her face and lively hips and reach for her rich continental bosom; he would listen to her warm voice, kiss her wet fair hair and touch the contours of her dark eyebrows with his trigger finger…Then they would talk, about their countries and loved ones. She was somebody’s daughter, Serena. The daughter of someone who would very likely tell her: beware, do not trust them; they’re not like us…
Franc went back to his room and lied down and shut his eyes hoping for a good rest.
After a few seconds of darkness the image of Serena with her fair hair and dark eyebrows returned. The next day he would take her out for beer-tasting and other things exciting. He had the money.