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Authors: James Wheatley

Tags: #debut, #childhood, #friendship, #redemption, #working-class, #learning difficulty, #crime, #prejudice, #hope, #North England

Magnificent Joe

BOOK: Magnificent Joe
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A Oneworld
Book

First published by Oneworld Publications
2013

Copyright © James N. Wheatley
2013

The moral right of James N. Wheatley to be identified as the Author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act
1988

All rights reserved
Copyright under Berne Convention
A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library

ISBN 978-1-85168-966-8
eBook ISBN 978-1-78074-119-2

Text designed and typeset by
Tetragon, London

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Oneworld Publications
10 Bloomsbury Street
London WC1B
3SR
England
www.oneworld-publications.com

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Prologue

There is a body in the lane. They caught him at a break in the high hedgerow and did it by moonlight. He lies crumpled, like casually discarded clothes. The search is over, and all around me the night is suddenly vast and cold. I watch, I breathe, and then I run the last few feet and drop to his
side.

‘Joe.'

I grab the arm of his coat and roll him over. He flops onto his back, all
limp.

‘Joe.'

He makes a weak sigh, but his eyes are swollen shut. I touch his
face.

‘Joe, please.'

‘Jim, help me.' It comes out low, with a soft spray of blood.

‘Oh God, Joe. Hold on, hold on. It's going to be all right.' I know that it is not going to be all right. His whole body has caved in. He will die soon. I have no phone, and no help, and if I leave him now, he will die alone.

‘Why?'

‘Oh Jesus, Joe. You know
why.'

‘They wanted to hurt
me.'

‘They're gone. Just hang on for
us.'

‘Will you look after
me?'

‘Aye, Joe. I'll look after
you.'

But what can I do – first aid? It's hopeless, and what if I did actually save his life? I thought that I wanted to, and that's why I charged out here after him, but now this has happened, it would be better to let him reach the end. He is going to die, but at least I will be here with
him.

‘Joe, I love
you.'

—

I have watched TV archaeologists disinter bodies in the name of science. They work with care and the skeleton emerges slowly. The last layer of soil is brushed away from the surface of the skull, from between the tibia and fibula, from between the radius and the ulna, and from between the vertebrae. We dig up the past, we carbon-date it, and then we gawp at it from behind the glass. It is supposed to tell a story. This is our story.

I got a letter from Geoff:

Hello
Mate,

I hope your all right. I'm doing well I've lost two stone. Its the climate. Your probably angry with me. They never suspected a thing they thought I was just a hairy arsed builder! I am sorry if you feel riped off but it wasnt exactly millions. I could'nt see the point of shareing it when there was so much I wanted. I think of you when I am having a drink off an evening and I rise a glass to you. I know that you fucked her but I have the hole truth now and I forgive you for every thing.

Cheers,

Geoff

ps She told us about Joe. Im sorry he was just mental and should of been in a
home.

Of course, there's no return address. It's a local postmark too: he must have sent it to someone else first, inside another envelope. Maybe he had the presence of mind to retain a lawyer here, just in case. There's no point in any detective work, though; like he says, it wasn't exactly millions. Besides, he's probably spent most of it by
now.

Geoff doesn't give a shit about Barry, and neither do I. I can't imagine that hateful bastard received a letter of his own. He's so bitter he'd treat it as a clue and try to send it for forensic analysis or some such shite. Not that anyone would listen to him now. I think Geoff knew that, fundamentally, I wouldn't care about the money. Money was never my problem.

Now when I look back on the things that have happened, I can hardly believe I was there. If I couldn't hold the evidence in my hands, I wouldn't know if any of it was real. There is no one now. Mrs Joe, Joe, Geoff, and Barry are all gone in one way or another. For a while there was Laura, but then Geoff sent for her. She gathered up her stuff in the middle of the night and I never saw her again.

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Part One
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1
October 2004

A Friday morning. The weather is cloudless but chilly. It's a half-way decent day, at least; there's no rain, but it's not warm enough to really sweat. I stand on the edge of the loading bay and look down as the teleloader drives up to the pack of concrete blocks below. From the cab, the driver waves at me and I raise my thumb to him. The diesel engine picks up again and the forks extend under the pallet, then lift and carry the blocks towards me. I wave the driver on and step back as the pallet slides onto the scaffold. The fork withdraws and I begin to rip the plastic off the pack. I don't rush. Geoff and Barry still have plenty to be going on with; looking down the platform, I can see them laying blocks.

They stand a few feet apart and move along the wall a couple of steps at a time. Barry leads with one course of blocks, and Geoff lays the course on top of that. They work with smooth, unflustered concentration. Even when one of them picks up a cracked block that falls in half as he lifts it, he chucks the pieces away without a second look and only the barest of murmured curses. The bits of concrete sail groundward and thump into the mud, easily capable of killing anyone they hit. Despite this, some of the men still save their hard hats for official inspections
only.

We're building a temple, as a matter of fact. Barry has plenty to say about this, but he doesn't really care – none of us do. We'll never even see the finished thing; as soon as the walls are up, we'll clear off to the next job. We might go even sooner if we get pissed off, or kicked off. To be fair, though, it's a long time since we were kicked off a site. We're a good crew, whatever that means. Besides, getting kicked off a site involves fucking up royally, and we're all well past that sort of nonsense. There's a twisted pride to be had in doing a decent job, even though you hate the
work.

If you wanted to, though, you could really make a mess: a mess so bad that a man, maybe several men, could die. All you'd have to do is look serious when whichever idiot in a hi-vis vest and tie walked past. He might stop and have a look, perhaps even get his tape out, and then maybe say something like, ‘It needs to come up five mil by that end,' but he wouldn't notice that anything was seriously wrong, he'd just keep walking.

These thoughts linger, unsaid, in the silence of the cabin at lunchtime, until someone breathes, ‘Thirty-odd more years of this shite,' and then everyone's lottery fantasy comes tumbling out, warming the place, and even the most pig-ignorant sod on the site can achieve a certain eloquence in the telling of it, because they get plenty of practice – the same story day after day, slipping through clumsy mouths like worn rosary beads through arthritic hands. ‘Ah well, live in hope, eh?' someone
says.

I load blocks into my wheelbarrow, two at a time, stacking them neatly to get as many in as possible. It takes a bit of grunt to get it rolling, but once it's moving, it goes easily – stopping is the harder part. I guide the barrow down the platform, towards Geoff and Barry, and then squeeze behind them to draw up slightly past where they're working. I load out, starting a stack for each of them so they can move along and continue the course.

Geoff looks over. ‘All right, Jim. They getting any lighter
yet?'

‘No fucking chance.'

‘Ah well, live in hope,
eh?'

I grunt at him and go back for
more.

—

Under the strip lighting of the Co-op everything takes on an unnatural glow. It gives me a headache, further adding to the bafflement I feel when trying to shop. I'm surrounded by groceries and I can't make a single decision. This shouldn't be so hard for a man of thirty, but apparently it is for me. I hate it. I'll live on tinned tomatoes for days rather than go to the supermarket, so this expedition does not constitute an ideal Friday evening. Sadly, I really do need to be here – I've run out of toothpaste, soap, whisky, and food, and I need a packet of sixty-watt light bulbs.

Despite knowing all this, any sense of purpose I had deserted me as soon as I stepped through the automatic door and now I'm completely fucking zombified. In truth, I'm close to tears. I mutter, as I do every time, ‘I should have made a list.'

I grip the trolley and start to stride up and down the aisles, hoping that when I pass something I need, it'll trigger my memory and I'll pick it up. It's a hopeless situation, though: how are you supposed to know what you want when you're surrounded by signs and labels telling you that you want something else and there's fifty per cent extra free? And now, as if I wasn't confused enough, Joe is walking towards
me.

‘Hello.'

‘All right,
Joe.'

‘What you doing?'

‘Erm…I'm shopping,
Joe.'

‘Me too – look.' He brandishes a list in front of my face and then turns it round and begins to read, ‘Milk! Bread! Potatoes! Cheese! Beans!
To—'

‘All right, Joe, I understand.' I'm mildly surprised, but I shouldn't be. I know he can read, and I know he can count, and I know he can use a shop, because he kept me in beer and fags during my early teenage years. But still, actually seeing Joe do something normal always surprises me. He's a slow shambles of a man. Even in my childhood memories of him – at which point he was in his twenties and considerably slimmer than he is now – he plods and lumbers like a sleepy elephant. Slow or not, he's making a better job of shopping than I am: his trolley already contains several items, while mine is painfully empty. I suppose he's had plenty of practice in dealing with this sort of thing, because the way I feel in a supermarket must be the way Joe feels all the
time.

His gaze turns to a display of cakes in the bakery section and a big grin lifts his chubby, crumpled old face. ‘It's magnificent, in't
it?'

‘Aye, Joe, it's fucking magnificent.' Actually, they don't look that bad. Joe is pleased that I agree. ‘Are you going to get one?' I ask, knowing the answer.

‘It's not on the list.' Joe frowns.

‘So what? Just get a fucking cake if you want one – it's your disability benefit.'

‘No! They're not on the list.'

‘All right.' His mother will have made the list, and Joe will have received strict instructions. Joe's mother is too old and too ill to leave the house herself. In fact, she's too old and too ill to be alive, but she refuses to die because Joe has no one else. ‘I'm going to get
one.'

‘Which
one?'

‘The chocolate one, there.'

‘I love chocolate,
me.'

‘Me too.' Joe and I approach the bakery display and I pick up the cake. It's in a cardboard box, with a cellophane window on top. The icing looks creamy and delicious. The price tag says, ‘Two pounds ninety-nine,' and, ‘Lovingly handmade at the in-store bakery.' We gaze at it together and I lay it in my trolley.

‘Looks lovely,' breathes
Joe.

‘Aye, it bloody does.' We push off, to continue our shopping together. ‘Joe, what's the difference between a supermarket trolley and a blonde?'

‘Dunno.'

‘The trolley has a mind of its
own.'

‘Oh. Righto.'

‘It's a joke,
Joe.'

‘Oh.' With Joe to talk to, the shopping becomes much easier and I feel in control again. He sails through all the crap, picking up exactly what he came for, and I follow his example. At the checkout, Joe has his money counted out before it's even his turn. Joe's mother has been doing things the same way for a very long time indeed, so Joe shops from a rather limited slate of items and has had time to memorize their price. I can imagine his consternation on the occasions when something has gone up, but this evening all is well and Joe hands over the money without a word, takes his change, and waits for me patiently. Special offers, piped music, point-of-sale advertising are all powerless against his unyielding regime. His idiocy is his force field; he stands astride the aisles like a simple-minded colossus.

Finally, I get my groceries bagged up and breathe a sigh of relief. ‘All right, Joe. Do you want a lift home?'

‘Aye, that's magnificent, that.'

‘Howay, then, as long as you make a brew – I can't eat all that cake myself.'

‘Aye, you'd be a right fat bastard if you
did.'

I shoot him a sidelong glance and realize that he knew all along. Sly bugger, he's never quite as daft as you think he
is.

—

Joe and I chomp chocolate cake and slurp tea in his mother's kitchen, run-down but spotless. Loud snores emanate from the front room, where Joe's mother has fallen asleep in front of the blaring
TV.

‘Fucking hell, Joe. How does someone so small make so much noise?'

‘Who's small?'

‘Your mam. She sounds like a fucking elephant.'

Joe giggles. I shake my head, bite cake, and slug at my
tea.

‘You've got chocolate on your face,' says
Joe.

‘You what?' I pick up a teaspoon, to see my reflection, but Joe is already reaching over to dab at my face with a bit of kitchen roll, motherly concern on his face. ‘Fuck off, man. I can get it myself.' I push his hand
away.

‘Just helping,' he says matter of factly.

I grunt a reply and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, leaving a chocolate smear near my wrist. I lick it
off.

‘You're a mother hen, you,' I tell
him.

Joe thinks about this for a moment, and then starts to make chicken noises and flap his elbows.

‘I'll wring your neck like one in a minute.' But it's too late, I'm already laughing at him – his eyes bunched up, his bottom lip pushed out, and his cap pulled low over his brow. Joe stands up and begins to parade back and forth across the kitchen, clucking. ‘You're crackers! Sit down!' I shout, through my laughter.

‘All right, keep your hair on,' he says, sitting.

‘Keep my hair on?' I snatch his cap from his head. Joe suddenly looks bereft, separated from his hat. I inspect the embroidered logo. ‘What the fuck is Chicago Bears?'

‘Dunno. Bears, I think, in Chicago.'

‘Where's that?' I ask, out of mischief.

‘Somewhere down South. Near London.'

‘Oh, you been there?'

‘No. I bought it off Sharon. Nine ninety-nine. Mam said I needed a new
hat.'

‘Sharon?'

‘Aye, the lady in Allsports. She's got a badge.'

‘Oh, the one that says, “Hello. My name is Sharon”?'

‘Do you know
her?'

‘Aye, I've had
her.'

‘You what?'

‘Nothing.'

There's a stirring from the other room and the snoring has stopped. I hand back Joe's cap as his mother shuffles
in.

‘Hello, Mrs Joe,' I greet
her.

‘Hello,' she replies, with a slight suspicion that could lead me to believe that she doesn't remember who I am, though I know that she does. She's stooped and looks groggy from sleep. ‘You woke me,' she
says.

Quite frankly, I regard this accusation with some scepticism: nothing Joe or I did came even remotely close to the volume of her television. ‘Oh, I'm sorry, Mrs
Joe.'

‘Doesn't matter. I shouldn't have fallen asleep there anyway – it's bad for my back.'

I don't know what to say to that, so I look around the kitchen. ‘Your lino's coming up in that corner,' I inform
her.

‘Is
it?'

‘Aye. I'll come round tomorrow and stick it down for
you.'

‘That's very kind. Have you eaten
yet?'

‘Yes, I have.' That's not quite a lie, since I did manage a couple of slices of toast before I went to the Co-op.

‘Oh, I made some shepherd's pie earlier. There's some leftovers. Are you sure I can't tempt
you?'

‘No, thanks, Mrs Joe. I'd better get going actually.' Barry and Geoff will be in the Admiral already. It's Friday night and I'm ready to start drinking.

‘Well, I'll see you tomorrow, then.'

‘Yes, you will. Goodnight. See you later,
Joe.'

‘See you later, alligator!' Joe smiles at me, replete with chocolate.

‘In a while, crocodile.'

I pick up my jacket and make for the kitchen door, but Joe calls after me, ‘Don't forget your cake!'

‘That's all right – you hang on to it, Joe. I'm watching my figure.' I step out into the October night and catch the smell of burning leaves. A slight drizzle has set in. I sigh, turn up my collar, and walk back to the
car.

—

‘You're a bit late.' Barry squints up at me through the smoke of his cigarette. These days, everything he says seems to come with a sneer. From above him, I can see the beginnings of a bald patch in his curly brown hair. The three of us are the same age and work in the same places, exposed to the same elements every day, but Barry looks at least ten years older than Geoff or
me.

‘I had to go shopping.'

Barry snorts and pretends to check his watch. ‘Who for, a fucking army?'

‘Never mind. You all right for drinks?'

‘Yeah,' says Geoff. ‘We just got 'em
in.'

I dump my jacket on the back of a free chair and make my way to the bar. I buy a drink – shit bitter, given the illusion of substance by a thick nitro-keg head. Normally, I would resort to lager when faced with such a dismal choice, but this is my local, and a man shouldn't have to drink lager in his local. There are two other pubs in the village, and the Admiral is the worst of the three. We frequent it out of habit. We're ingrained in this place just like the dirt and the fag ash. None of us has ever suggested that we drink elsewhere.

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