By Barbara Tsipouras
I don’t know how I got here, nor where I am. Michael calls it vX1. What a strange name for a place. And when I asked where that is he said, “in my hometown.” But that can’t be. Apart from the landscape, nothing else reminds me of home. Perhaps this is the future. It must be the future.
Everything was nearly perfect when I met Michael. I guess that’s what they call ‘love at first sight’. I hadn’t believed this could ever happen to me. He looked into my eyes and I felt a shiver run down my spine and I knew immediately that he’s someone special. There was this connection between us I had never felt before. Michael was so gentle, so aware of my needs, listened carefully to whatever I had to say, understood my thoughts and feelings better than I did. I secretly planned our future together.
Until one day he told me he had to leave and he probably would never return. He told me that he loved me, but that we couldn’t stay together. He talked about his ‘mission’ – whatever that was; he never really explained – said he had to go home. He had got an urgent call. They needed him there. And I? Didn’t I need him? Wasn’t that important to him? I saw that he was hurting as much as I was. He couldn’t even promise to come back. I couldn’t let him go.
After hours of discussing and weeping and halfhearted explanations and more crying he finally said there was a way he could take me with him, but that would mean never to return. I’d have to leave everything behind and never look back. Could I do that? Yes, I could. He meant more than anything to me.
I can’t remember the trip. I just don’t know how I got here. When we arrived I felt dizzy, disoriented. At first I didn’t notice the difference. We seemingly still stood on the same beach, but when we came into town everything was different in a strange way.
Michael’s family welcomed me with open arms and everybody seemed to know who I was. They served us dinner, brown rice with vegetables, without fat, without spices. And only plain water to drink. The breakfast the next day was as tasteless as the dinner, some cereals with milk, but without sugar and no coffee, just herbal tea. When I asked for sugar they said they didn’t have any.
I wanted to call my parents to tell them that I’m with Michael and they don’t have to worry about me, but my battery was dead and nobody could lend me a charger. Nobody has ever seen a smartphone! But they communicate with their houses. They have flat screens on the walls, tell their house who they want to talk to and that’s it. They don’t need to go grocery shopping, they tell their fridge what they need and get it delivered. Life seems to be easier. And safer. There are no locks at the doors, they don’t bother to close the windows when they leave.
But it’s also boring. I wanted to go partying in a club, a pub or at least a cafe, but I was disappointed, no such things in this strange place.
I tried to watch the news to get an idea where I am and what’s going on, but they had only reports about other “dimensions” – what the hell is that? – no wars, no crimes, some politicians discussing issues I didn’t understand, only the weather forecast was somehow familiar.
As long as Michael was with me I was just happy to be with him. Everything else didn’t matter. But yesterday he went on his next ‘mission’. He didn’t answer my questions about where he would go, to do what exactly or when he will be back.
Why doesn’t he trust me? Why doesn’t anybody trust me? I get no answers to all my questions. Everybody is friendly but when I ask where I am, what this place is, if this is the future, if there’s a way back, they just change the subject.
I feel stranded in a place or time I don’t belong to. I’m lonely. Have I made the right decision? Is love enough? What if Michael won’t return?
The wheels of the sturdy, black Range Rover crunched over the cracked concrete. At some point in the past this would have been a factory floor or a car park, but now it was an isolated patch of weed-strewn, broken stone overlooking the unfashionable end of the river Tyne. Two disturbed seagulls pounded their wings up into the cool, early- morning sky as the Range Rover turned. A parked car swept into view through the windscreen. An elegant, equally black BMW. Stood, leaning against this vehicle were two men. Both of them were wearing black suits.
One, Richie, was tall and slim to the point of skinny. He was cupping the final third of a tightly-rolled cigarette in his right hand and was busily sucking as much smoke into his lungs from it as he could in one go. His already thin cheeks were pulled in, adding a haggard look to his already scarred and aggressive features.
The other man, Little Lennie, could not have been more different. Shorter and incredibly fat. Had he turned around then the strip of additional material, salvaged from a second suit jacket and used to increase his jacket size beyond the proportions of ordinary men, would have been visible. His face was red with the exertion of having to stand and hold his own body weight up. It would have been unfair to say that he was as wide as he was tall, only because this was a state that he hoped one day to slim down to.
As the two men watched the Range Rover complete its tight arc, the hard-faced Richie stopped sucking at his cigarette long enough to look down at the shorter, younger, wider Lennie and nod acknowledgement at the automobile saying, “About fucking time.”
Little Lennie replied. “Aye, isn’t it.”
Little Lennie’s almost comedic name was an accident of traditional baby naming. Every firstborn male of a generation of the Rogerson family was called Lennie. The dad would then be known as Big Lennie, and the son as Little Lennie. The occasional male Rogerson who lived to become a granddad inheriting the title ‘Fatha’. So, as there were three generations of firstborn male Rogersons still alive, this led to the happy accident of a young man who weighed in at somewhere just under thirty stone being referred to as Little Lennie.
The Range Rover crunched to a halt. Ritchie flicked the dog-end of his cigarette away, took out a pouch and immediately started rolling another. As he did this the driver’s door of the Range Rover opened and out stepped a third, similarly dressed man. Similar in that his suit was the same make and colour, but the way he wore it certainly was not. Despite the fineness and expense of the suit, on this man it looked dishevelled. In fact, every bit of him looked dishevelled, from his scraggy blonde hair, through his drooping, dark eyes and all the way to his laceless, scuffed, black trainers. Some people wear overalls, whereas some people make whatever they are wearing look like overalls. This man was the latter.
Little Lennie approached him. “All right, Carl?”
The scruffy man scratched at his belly underneath the untucked right side of his shirt. “Aye, Lennie, nee bother.” Carl quickly shuffled around to the boot of the car, opened it and started unloading equipment. “I got everything, like. Got the lot.”
Lennie nodded. “Good, good.” He joined Carl at the back of the car. A click and a flare indicated that Ritchie had lit his next cigarette. Lennie surveyed the items that Carl was taking from the boot of the Range Rover. A large water carrier, a spade, a plastic storage box, a bag of sand, a pair of wellingtons, a bag of cement. “Was B&Q busy?”
Carl shrugged. “A bit, like. The tills are a nightmare now with that serve yerself shite. I didn’t kna where the bar codes were on the big bags, like, an’ I had to turn them ower aboot four times.”
“Did anyone clock you?” It was Ritchie. He had walked round to the side of the Range Rover, which he was now leaning on nonchalantly smoking.
Carl looked up at him. “Wey, some bird what works there helped me on the till bit, but that’s all. I telt her I was laying a patio, like, so no worries.”
Ritchie spat. He did not seem impressed, but he did not enquire further.
Little Lennie pointed to the pile of Carl’s purchases. “What’s with the wellies?”
Carl was in the process of taking a cigarette out of the battered box he kept untidily in his shirt breast pocket. “Aye, Lennie, man. I thought aboot that, like. You’d missed them off the list.” Lennie just looked at him, as Richie approached and gave Carl his lighter to stop his frantic patting and checking of every pocket in his already crumpled suit. “The wellies, man. We need the wellies.”
Lennie asked, “Why?”
Carl rolled his eyes and looked to Richie for support. Richie’s face remained hard, as he merely held out his hand for the return of his lighter. Carl lit his cigarette and did so. He then turned back to Lennie. “Concrete wellies, man. We canna chuck a bloke in the river with concrete wellies on if we haven’t got nee wellies.”
Lennie laughed as he turned to Richie, who remained impassive. He said to Carl, “We don’t need wellies.” Carl’s left eye twitched slightly as he tried to work this out. Lennie explained. “Concrete wellies is a metaphor, man. A figure of speech.” Carl’s facial expression had not passed beyond confused. “If you tried to use real wellies, you wouldn’t be able to get enough concrete in. They’d be full of the guy’s feet. He’d pop straight back up again and be floating around like a shit in a Jacuzzi before we got as far as Gatesheed.” He looked again to Richie to join him in his mirth at Carl’s expense.
Richie, who simply flicked the dogend of this finished cigarette at the offending wellies, muttered, “Prick,” and headed towards the boot of his and Lennie’s BMW. Lennie continued explaining to Carl how they were to use the box to create a concrete block, which Carl couldn’t accept should be called wellies unless there was one on each foot. Richie reached the boot of the BMW and opened it. This boot was not filled with DIY equipment, but was filled with weakly struggling person. Richie reached in and hauled the person out, dropping him heavily on the broken stone ground.
The man groaned through his gaffa-taped mouth. He started to struggle slightly more energetically against his makeshift bonds – a set of roof rack straps pulled tight around his arms, body and legs through the use of a ratchet. Richie kicked him hard in the stomach, which increased his groans but lessened the struggling.
Lennie and Carl came to join him. The three men looked down at their trussed up captive for a few seconds before Little Lennie spoke. “The Don’s coming later. We’ll have to get sorted.”
Richie glared down at him. “Who did you say?”
Little Lennie wilted a little under Richie’s glare. He knew that less than an inch beneath the surface of that glare lay potentially uncontrollable, anger-infused violence. “Erm… Don. You know, Keith? The boss?”
“Boss?” Richie’s voice rose a little. “He’s not a proper fuckin’ boss. And you called him The Don. What’s that shit about?”
Lennie kept his voice deliberately low and calm. “It’s a joke. ’Cos his middle name’s Gordon, I say Don for short.”
Richie leant in, his nicotine breath assaulting Little Lennie’s face. “You said The Don.”
“Did I?” Lennie hurried on. “Aye, it was a mistake like. Just with him always going on about Mafia shit and that.”
Richie’s anger seemed to be deciding whether or not it was pacified by this response, when the two men were disturbed by Carl. “Hey fellas.” He had arranged all of the equipment, filled the water carrier from the river and was in the process of pouring some of the contents of the cement bag into the plastic storage box. “How much sand and cement do we need?”
Richie held his face close to Lennie for two more heartbeats, before straightening up and saying, “Aye, well. Divven’t forget, he’s not some fuckin’ Mafia gangster, he just thinks he is. He’s not even a proper boss.”
The two men relaxed slightly, and looked over to a now sweaty and even more untidy Carl. It was Lennie who responded. “You have brought enough stuff haven’t you?”
“Oh aye, I’ve got loads. But, like, how much of each.”
Little Lennie shrugged. “I dunno. Loads of cement and a bit of sand?”
Richie shook his head. “Nah. There’s proper amounts what you have to use for concrete.”
“Aw, reet.” Lennie turned to Richie. “So how much then?”
Carl was still stood, cement bag in hand, waiting for an answer before he poured more in. Lennie turned to him. “Why divven’t you know, Carl?”
Carl put the cement bag down. “It’s not me job, is it? I just get the shit and do the legwork, like.”
Richie was shaking his head slowly, blowing noisily out of his nostrils. “This is your job, Lennie, you should know.”
“Well how, I’ve never done any…”
“You should have fucking found out!”
“Right, right, settle.” Lennie was determined to keep Richie calm. “I’ll just Google it, man. Give us a second.” He took out his smartphone and keyed in a code. He looked at the screen. He held the phone as high above his head as he could. He waved it back and forth a little. “Aw, fuck. There’s nee signal.”
“For fucks sake.” Richie was clenching his hands in frustration.
Carl saw the danger of Richie’s anger, and held his hands out pacifyingly. “Divven’t fret man, Ritchie. Me uncle’s a builder. I’ll get his number, Lennie, you can ring him.”
Richie’s anger was diverted to Carl, who he approached, slowly, hands held forwards in tight, pugilistic fists. “Ring him? You prick. Have you got a fuckin’ clue what nee signal means?”
Lennie interjected. “Halfy-half.” He was determined to waylay Richie’s seething anger.
Richie stopped. “What?”
“Halfy-half. I’ll make the decision, it’s my job.” Raising his voice more assuredly to Carl. “Halfy-half, Carl.”
Three minutes short of two hours later and a third black car glided over the cracked concrete. It was long, slick and smooth. A Limousine. It dwarfed the other two cars. Little Lennie, Carl and Richie were sat on a masonry block at the edge of the concrete floor; Carl and Richie smoking cigarettes, Little Lennie eating a Caramac. The captive was lying a few metres away, his feet embedded uncomfortably in an almost solidified grey-brown lump setting in the plastic storage box. He was desperately trying not to cry having received a jarring punch to the jaw for his earlier sobbing.
All four watched the Limousine glide to a stop, and a uniformed chauffeur step out of the driver’s door. He moved to the back door and opened it. From the angle at which the three non-captives sat, all they could see was the foot of the occupant beneath the door as it stepped out of the car. A brown wing tip, covered by an immaculate white spat, at odds with the dusty, broken concrete beneath.
“What the fuck? Look at them poncey shoes.” Richie muttered through an exhalation of acrid smoke.
Little Lennie was chewing noisily. “Aye, they’re lush aren’t they?”
“Eh? Fuckin’ rubbish.”
The shoe had been joined by its opposite number, as the occupant slowly exited the car to assess the situation.
Lennie swallowed. “No, man, no. They’re classics. Apparently they’re real gangster shoes. He bought them at an auction in one of them Speakeasy bars in Vegas.”
“Speakeasies. They’re like illegal whisky dens from the thirties or something. Ran by real Mafia.” Little Lennie pressed on, despite Richie’s obviously unimpressed look. “They’re real Mafia shoes from a real Mafia boss in Vegas. He paid a fortune for them.”
The man from the back of the Limousine had walked round to the captive by now. He was in his late forties, balding and slightly overweight. His tailored, pin-stripe suit was immaculate, complete with button-hole flower and pocket square that matched both his tie and socks. He leant over the captive, inspecting his face, before turning his attention to the contents of the plastic box. He sucked his teeth noisily before turning to walk towards the three men.
Richie whispered to Lennie. “He might have paid a fuckin’ fortune, but it doesn’t mean they’re real and it still doesn’t mean he’s a real boss.”
Keith, The Don in his own mind, stood before them. He reached into his inside pocket and drew out a small, silver cigarette case. He opened it and removed a thin cigar. He replaced the case and was about to reach for a lighter when Richie jumped up, holding his own cigarette lighter out before him. It flared up. “Here you are, boss.”
Keith lit his cigar on the proffered light, puffed out a mouthful of smoke and then spoke. His accent was Northeast, but not broad, and he kept his voice at a low, gruff whisper. “Well, you got the right guy.”
Lennie stood up. “Aye, boss, we got him.”
Keith turned to look over his shoulder at the terrified captive, shaking in his metaphorical wellies. As he looked at him, Keith asked over his shoulder, “What mix did you use?”
Lennie responded. “What?”
Keith’s head turned slowly back to the three men. “The concrete. What mix did you use?”
It was Carl’s turn to jump up. “Halfy-half, sir. Just like what Lennie said, like.”
Keith’s hand, holding the cigar, stopped halfway to his mouth. “Halfy-half?”
Keith’s eyes moved to Lennie. His voice rose slightly in volume. “Halfy-half?” Little Lennie nodded. Keith continued. “Why, for the love of God, would you tell him to use halfy-half?”
Lennie shrugged. “I dunno. I just… you know… well I didn’t…”
Keith’s jaw set. “You should have found out. Halfy-half? You imbecile. I mean, there’s not even any shingle in that mix. It’s barely a mortar. Everyone knows, concrete is one part cement, three parts sand and three parts shingle. What sort of idiot wouldn’t know that?”
Richie, Lennie and Carl looked sideways at one another. Then Carl spoke. “Well, like, does it matter but? It’s setting hard, like.”
“Matter? Does it matter? Of course it bloody matters!” Keith exploded. “Concrete wellies. The clue is in the bloody title – concrete. Why concrete? Because it’s heavy, durable and waterproof. You’ve mixed a frigging mortar. It wouldn’t last five minutes at the bottom of the Tyne. I mean, the guy will be popping up at Dunston and be bobbing round like a turd in a hot-tub before the month’s out.” He flung his cigar at Lennie, where it bounced off harmlessly. “One job! I ask you to do one job. What’s going on with you youngsters that you don’t even know how to mix cement? You’ll be telling me you can’t paper a wall or replace a carburettor next.” Carl opened his mouth to speak, but Lennie prodded him into silence. Keith continued to fume at the world in general, pacing back and forth in front of the three men. “Concrete wellies. Bloody concrete. They haven’t even put in shingle!”
He stopped and turned to look again at the captive. He then shouted to the chauffeur. “Trevor. Get that guy in the back. And give him a bourbon, settle him down, I can’t be doing with that crying.” He turned back to the other three. “Help him, then. He won’t be able to lift that block of crap that you’ve produced on his own.”
The three men rushed forwards to help.
Little Lennie, Ritchie and Carl watched the Limousine glide out of the broken concrete square and up the dirt track away from the river. Carl turned to the other two. “D’yous reckon B&Q will give us the money back on them wellies?”
Richie punched him.