The Cage is located in a post-industrial ghetto on the west side of London. It’s a desolate place, squatting in the shadows of what locals call spaghetti junction, a confluence of elevated freeways that drape over each other like so many strands of linguini, and where thundering truck noise echoes ever present from above. The Cage is a windowless, bunker of a building, the only aesthetic touches an unlit neon strip on the roof, and a series of profane messages sprayed on the outside walls. Inside a wooden deck runs the length of the room before disappearing into a dark corner. There’s a couple of scuffed and torn pool tables, a rack of splayed tipped cues, most of which have been used as weapons during brawls, a clock with pool balls for numbers and an ancient jukebox with a selection of 60’s and 70’s rock. The walls are draped with peeling, crimson flock and the floor covered in a gluey mixture of spilt drinks, spit, sawdust and worse.
So what was I doing sitting in the back of a cab on my way over there? Well, I knew The Cage once upon a time; I was a regular for years, and I wanted to see what, if anything, had changed while I’d been away.
I was half cut before I left my hotel, fortified by three Scotch rocks; the barman, an old guy cleaning ashtrays with a small white towel as I sat and stared through the window at a cold and dreary November day. After I finished the drinks I called my wife back in Boca, said a quick hello to my three year old daughter, then hung up and called a taxi. I told the cabby to drop me off half a mile from The Cage so I could finish the journey by foot.
“This alright?” he said as he pulled up behind a dumpster overflowing with garbage.
I was hoping for some sort of nostalgia buzz as I walked through the streets, but the neighborhood disappointed. It was dead, as if everyone had been shocked indoors by the trucks shuddering overhead. I wondered what the chances were I’d see anyone I knew in The Cage but as it turned out I didn’t even get that far. He was standing outside smoking a cigarette, hunched over with a mobile pressed tight to his ear; my old partner in crime, Mick.
“Oy,” I shouted, and his eyes narrowed and flashed around suspiciously.
“Hold on,” he said to the phone, “Be right back.” And he stared at me bug-eyed with mock disbelief as he folded the mobile back into his pocket.
“Well look what the fuckin’ cat dragged in,” he said, extending a paw of his own. He was grinning, his thick lips drawn over his false front teeth reminding me of the time he’d drunkenly crashed a stolen car into the retaining wall around The Cage. Mick had clawed his way through the shattered windscreen, staggered into the bar, demanded half pint of Tequila, then sat quietly waiting for an ambulance to take him and his busted mouth to hospital. Hard bastard was our Mick.
“Alright, mate?” I said. “It’s been a while.” And it had. His face was testament; blond hair gone gray, feathery mullet now a scruffy ponytail, eyes minced raw from drugs, booze, probably both, and his chin speckled with salt and pepper whiskers. To tell the truth he looked more than a bit dodgy.
“You ol’ bastard,” he said, shaking his head, and there was an awkward moment of silence before I remembered protocol.
“So,” I said, “You gonna buy me a fucking drink then, or what?”
We sat at the back near the toilets. Mick ordered a G&T while I settled for Bitter. “Yaw kiddin’ ain’t you? No-one drinks that shit anymore,” Mick said when I told him what I wanted.
It was early and there were few other punters in The Cage; an old man with red eyes sat in a corner clutching a photograph album, a couple of pug-faced building workers were playing pool, and a skinny red-head sat at the bar biting her nails and nursing a glass of white.
“Dear old dear,” Mick said, shaking his head. “All this time. Who would’ve thought? I mean lovely, an all, but really, bit of a shocker, definitely a bit of a shocker. Disappeared without trace, so to speak. Then here you are. Years without a bleedin’ word.” He looked at me as if my reappearance were the strangest thing ever he’d ever encountered, something completely perplexing. “So, where you been?” he finally asked.
I smiled. “Hiding in Florida.”
“Florida, yeah. Where ‘bouts in Florida, then?
“Miami, yeah. Must be nice. Blond tarts in bikinis, all that vice.”
“Some of that,” I said. “As it happens I ended up marrying one of those blond tarts.”
“Oh, yeah?” He looked at me and sneered. “Well, you always was a fucking jammy bastard weren’t you?”
I wasn’t sure how to take that. A few more drinks and I expected us to be trading insults like the old days, but it was as if Mick had jumped the gun, and I felt a little burn of anger.
“So, what you up to these days?” I asked.
“Oh you know bit a this bit a that. Nothing too exciting. Anyway, now you’re here we should go do something, yeah. Don’t wanna stay in this dump all night, do we? I tell you what how about we snort some whiz, then there’s this boozer on the North Circular, The Potash, where they’ve got some right lovely striptease talent. Well in order, be just like old times.”
Pitiful, it really was. Mick and I were likely lads back in the day; bird pulling together, getting drunk, stoned, getting in fights, getting arrested. But at a certain point you start making calculations - this one thing is good for me, this other thing is not. Time moves on and you try to start subtracting the bad things from your personal equation. Looking at Mick I could see he hadn’t been able to do the math and now the bad numbers were adding up all over his face.
“Maybe,” I said. “We’ll see.”
Mick said, “So my guess is you’re working as a bent cocktail waiter at some hotel on the beach. You know, like that Tom Cruise character, what’s it called? Fuckin’ poof.”
I floated him an obliging smile. “No, nothing like that. Office waller, that’s me. Married, 3 year old daughter, Mr. Suburbia himself.” I didn’t elaborate, not sure how much he’d enjoy hearing about the stack I made helping rich Colombians navigate certain pharmaceutical laws. Besides, by withholding I felt a particular kind of power over him, like having a shotgun in the garage, just knowing it was there made me feel better. I figured part of the reason I’d come back was to see how far I’d moved away and if that was true Mick was providing glorious confirmation I’d moved in the right direction. Forget that I was terminally bored, or that I cared more about my golf swing than day to day life with my family, here, right in front of me, was living proof I’d done all right. Mick, with his hocked and hammered features, his fucked up future, was a portrait fading into ever paler versions of himself. Looking at him I couldn’t help but feel a warm glow inside. Better even than the expensive Scotch I’d been drinking back at my hotel.
“So what about you, Mick. Still at the post office?”
He drew a breath, shook his head wistfully. “Nah, bastards let me go last December. Right before the fuckin’ ‘olidays.”
“Found booze in me sack. Been dabbling in the building trade since then. Good bit a money there.”
Yeah, I thought, a good bit in burgers too if you own a couple of McDonald’s franchises. But by the look of Mick’s bent and busted fingers he was right down there with the patty flippers and nugget fryers. His hands looked as if he’d been using them to stir concrete and I pictured him bent over a shovel in the rain, gasping for breath, pushing a wheelbarrow full of wet sand up a mud slicked ramp. Poor old Mick, headfirst into middle age and working like a dog for some fat fuck in Ealing. No wonder he spent so much time drinking.
I was going to ask him about some of the old faces but he beat me to it.
“You’ll never guess who I saw in here the other day.”
“Bone,” he said, and I felt my legs stiffen. “Yeah, he walks in and starts with his psycho bit so I had to take him round the back and teach him a lesson. Tell you what that cunt ain’t evolved, not a fuckin’ inch.”
Harry Bone. Talk about a ghost from the past. Bone was a nutter who twenty years ago had given me the worst beating of my life. I was paralytic drunk, an excuse I used to explain how a bloke six inches short and four stone light had put me in hospital for several days. Truth was I couldn’t keep him off. I hit him with everything, kicking, biting, punching him to the ground, but he just kept getting up and coming. Eventually I gave in, let him beat seven shades of shit out of me because I knew that was the only way I could get him to stop. Bone had even made the occasional appearance in a re-occurring nightmare of mine, and for years I’d had revenge fantasies about him.
Mick was obviously trying to establish something here, some atavistic power play -- ‘Remember Harry Bone, bloke who battered you senseless all those years ago? Yeah, well, I just did him, didn’t I? So what do think the score is now?’
“Damn, I was fried that night,” I said, as if recalling some fond memory.
“Damn? What’s that then? You talking American now?”
“Behave, will you?” he said fixing me a stern eye.
I quickly finished my Bitter and held up two fingers for another round. The barman looked, turned, and started talking to another customer. A little too eagerly I changed the subject.
“Ever see Gloria around?”
“Nah. No one sees Gloria no more.”
“How come?” I asked.
“Probably because she’s dead,” he deadpanned.
“Yeah. AIDS got her, didn’t it? No big surprise to be honest.” He finished his G&T with a loud gulp, shouted over at the barman, “Another round over here, Davie.” The barman started making our drinks. “Yeah she was on crack weren’t she? Dunno what happened at the end but she was putting it about. To be honest I count myself lucky. Least I had her while she was still decent.”
It felt like a sharp slap in the face, my cheeks flushing with blood. Gloria was one of the few regrets I’d had about leaving. There was a time I thought I was in love with her but it hadn’t gone beyond a few smoldering stares at parties. She was gorgeous, all curly black hair, pink nails and leather, and now Mick telling me not only that she was dead, but that he’d been knocking her off ‘while she was still decent’. Things were starting to go adrift and the warm feeling in my stomach now felt more like heartburn. Mick’s mobile went off and he spent a couple of minutes cajoling someone over a construction project.
“Look, I don’t give a shit. I’m ten in the hole so you keep going ‘til it’s finished, under-fuckin’-stand?” “Wanker,” he said after he hung up.
The barman brought over our drinks and Mick peeled a twenty from a fat roll of notes. I tried to pay but he waved me off with a spread hand. “Don’t even fink about it,” he said.
The Cage was starting to come to life now, workers from the AG plant hammering beers, the jukebox belting out oldies, the room filling with smoke and conversation. I got up to go to the toilet and passed the old man in the corner hunched over his photograph album. His eyes were running with tears and there was a small puddle of liquid at his feet. He looked up at me and muttered something that was lost in the din. ‘Careful’, I thought he said.
The bathroom was fetid and half flooded with piss. I stood on my heels as I took a leak, and afterward I studied myself in the mirror standing the same way. Everything about me looked soft - the carefully cultivated tan, the expensively chopped hair, the perfectly frayed jeans, and mono silk shirt. The door suddenly swung open, slamming against the wall as one of the AG workers came barreling into the room. He gave me a leering look and I turned and hurried back to the bar before he could open his mouth.
“Hey, you know that old dosser over there?” I said to Mick as I sat down, “I think he pissed himself.”
He looked at me as if doing some serious appraisal of his own. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?” He said after a moment of silence.
“That’s Don’s old man. Remember, Don Evers, got run over by a spirit truck on his way home from the pub? You were still here then. I know that for a fuckin’ fact.”
“No way,” I said. “That’s Bill Evers?” I took another look. “Can’t be.”
“As I sit here,” Mick said. “Never got over it did he? Heard him and Joan kept their attic just like it was when Don was living up there. Well freaky, like that book, what’s it called, monster in the…anyway, Joan walked out ‘cause Bill couldn’t keep his hands off the bottle. Been downhill ever since. He’s in here every night. Has a few jars, opens his book, starts crying, pissing, throwing, the lot. Not much you can say really.”
“Sad story,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “And talking of stories what about you? What’s your fuckin’ story, then?”
I managed to fudge a reply but the truth was I didn’t know. What was I doing in there? Looking for faded residues, validation, forgiveness? I didn’t know. I felt the sudden and overwhelming desire to be back in Boca with my family, or better yet out on the golf course in a pastel polo shirt, the expanded sweet spot of my oversized Titanium whistling its arc through a cloudless blue sky.
Mick took off his jacket. He was wearing a tight white T-shirt and his arms were roped with muscle and heavily veined. He leaned into me.
“He’s in here you know.”
He smiled, sat back in his chair and clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. I got a glimpse of his dental plate as it lifted away from his gums, his four front teeth momentarily floating before he pushed them into place with as stubby finger.
“Bone,” he said. “Just walked in. Now’s yaw chance.”
I felt a shivery rush of adrenaline, hair bristling all over. Several silent seconds ticked by before Mick threw back his head and started laughing.
“Ah…ha, ha, ha! Fuck me mate, your face, I swear. Fuckin’ picture that was, absolutely precious.” He pounded out a tattoo on the edge of the table with two fat forefingers. “Lovely!” he said.
I managed a wan smile as I stood up and shoved my way back to the bar for more drinks. I was getting seriously uncomfortable now, starting to think of ways to leave, wondering if I could lose Mick by sneaking out the front door while he wasn’t looking. I tried to pull myself together. You’re in a crappy pub with a crappy old friend and soon enough you’ll be back at your hotel. It was all bullshit, nothing I couldn’t handle. I paid for the drinks then turned towards Mick with a glass in each hand. As I shouldered my way through I almost dropped them at my feet. Mick wasn’t joking after all. Over by the jukebox, like my half forgotten nightmare come to garish life, was Bone.
I sat down and tried to pretend I hadn’t seen him. Mick was talking to some character in motorcycle leathers. He pulled several twenties from his roll and exchanged them for a foil packet. The biker left and Mick looked at me and winked.
“Care to indulge in a line or free?”
I thought about the last time I’d snorted - squirming about some bed-sit at five in the morning, begging the walls for the sun to come up.
“No thanks,” I said, “I’m gonna stick with the Bitter.”
“Suit yourself,” he said as got up. “Be back in a minute.”
I sat with my drink, shooting furtive looks across the bar for Bone. A few minutes later Mick returned but instead of sitting down he bent over and hissed in my ear.
“It’s payback time.”
“It’s never too late, mate. Bone, he’s in the pisser. Get in there and give him what you owe him. Go on, kick the fuckin’ shit out the cunt. He deserves it after what he did to you.”
I rose robotically to my feet, compelled by code I no longer believed in. All at once everything had caught up with me and I felt my legs give out a little as I turned away from Mick’s nod of assent and into the crowd. I began working my way towards the toilets, mouth gone dry, a bitter pill stuck in my throat as I tried to swallow. It was, as they say, hurting time.
I hesitated outside the bathroom. Bone was in there, probably facing the urinal with his dick in his hand. How simple to walk in and take him from behind, to smash that skeleton head into the porcelain, to cave his face before he even knew what was happening. But, of course, people like Bone always know what’s happening when it comes to violence. They excel in those desperate, weary moments, throwing themselves in because that’s where they live and that’s who they are. Bone kept coming because giving up meant losing his identity. It was obvious now that I’d named my weakness - that in this place Mick and Bone were clearly my superiors. Simple really, maybe the only simple thing I knew. So rather than pushing open the door to the bathroom I leaned into the back exit and headed out to the thundering engines of the night.
It was cold, dark and raining and I had to weave my way through a maze of tightly parked cars to escape. I was just about to vault the retaining wall when I head Mick screaming after me from the front door.
“Oy, where the fuck you going? You bottle merchant. What, you ain’t got the balls so you run?”
I turned and faced him. “Yeah, that’s right, Mick” I shouted. “I’m leaving.” and I gave him the cold shoulder one last time.
“And don’t ever come back,” I heard him say as I walked off into the sodium lit street, and very far away.