‘Going anywhere nice this year?’ Pedro pushes my head down so that he can trim the stray hairs at the base of my skull as he says this, so I can’t answer him without salivating into the neck band of my prison-issue, grey marl t-shirt.
‘Very funny, Pedro, you’re a better barber than you are a comedian,’ I say, when I can lift my head, side-smiling at him in the mirror. His face looks deadpan, like he meant it. ‘Croydon probation office is supposed to be lovely at this time of year,’ I say, trying to raise a laugh. Still he doesn’t smile. For some reason I stroke the soft webbing between by thumb and forefinger under the nylon cutting cape that is loosely draped over me.
‘Let’s clean up that neck of yours,’ he says, as his foot works the peddle that tips my chair back. Pedro turns to his wheeled tray of gadgets, slots the scissors into one of the black plastic compartments, then lifts out a cut-throat razor. I can see this from my reclined position, although watching him from this angle makes my eyeballs ache. I close my eyes and trust that, in the seven years I since I was last here, his hand has remained steady.
As I lie there trying to let my body fall slack, I hear the scrape of steel on stubble. It sounds like crickets chirping and I think of balmy summer nights, smoking stolen cigarettes and drinking cider from the bottle, lying in the flattened wheat crops beyond the fence at the foot of my parents’ garden. I’m about to lose myself in a memory of Alice when the razor catches my Adam’s apple. ‘Steady on, Pedro,’ I say, slightly strangulated. I open my eyes to see him eyeing me with concern beneath a woven brow.
‘Humph,’ he says, his waxed moustache riding pursed lips. ‘It’s still a bit of a mess; best to leave it ’til next time.’
I’m wondering he means by ‘still’ but I’m not left wondering for long. As Pedro pushes up the headrest, I sit upright facing myself in the mirror, and it is only now that I notice an angry, jagged ridge of reddish-purple flesh standing proud of what’s left of the five o’clock shadow on my neck. The kind of scar left by a badly-sutured slit throat. I touch my fingers to it, for fear that this mirror is playing tricks on me. My fingertips register its lumpy contours, but from the inside the skin feels dead. The sensation makes my body judder, like someone has trespassed my grave. I see that I look gaunt and ashen, blueish even. And I feel the burn of rising bile bubbling under my diaphragm.
‘If you’re going to throw up, use the bathroom,’ Pedro says, as if he can read my thoughts. ‘But you can’t leave until you pay.’
‘I’ll see you right, Pedro, don’t you worry,’ I say, ‘I always pay my dues.’ Sliding from the chair, the Velcro fastening on the robe crackles as I tear myself free. I tilt forward, then right myself, shaking my head to clear the blotches forming across my vision.
‘Pay your dues,’ he mumbles, pulling out a leather-bound ledger. Pedro takes a pen from his chest pocket. ‘One close shave’, he notes down.
I need to get to the bathroom, if nothing else to throw some water on my face. I have my back against the chair, urging myself to move. Across from me is the waiting area, with two guys slumped in their seats. They look beat up, drunk; they look like they are on death’s door. I straighten up and take a tentative step towards the back of the shop. As I pass these guys I realise with horror that one of them has a broken neck, his head lolling on his chest; the other has a broken jaw and a boot print stamped into his cheek. Chrissake, where the hell am I?
‘That’s a good question, Jake,’ Pedro says, grinning.
I didn’t say that out loud. I’m sure I didn’t. I know I didn’t. I shuffle past him on my way the back door, and as I do it seems to recede away from me, like it used to in my dreams when I was running towards the prison exit down an impossibly long, concrete corridor. Running towards Alice. Is that what is happening? Am I dreaming?
‘You’re not dreaming.’ Pedro is at my back. ‘You’re in limbo.’
I swivel to face him. And as I do I feel a searing heat on my back, and see that Pedro’s features are dancing in an amber glow; flames flickering in the sheen of his eyes.
‘You may not want to see this,’ he says, putting his palms to my face to hold my head still. I feel like I’m on fire now, sweat rolls off the bridge of my nose and onto Pedro’s hands. I close my eyes. I hear guttural, rasping breaths, the grating drag of steel across ceramic, the wet snapping of bones, and the sick-making stench of rotting flesh and Sulphur fills the air.
Then the wall of heat is gone. And suddenly I am very cold; I am shivering. I open my eyes and the fire has gone from Pedro’s eyes.
‘Now that was a close shave,’ he says, his smile blooming to full, revealing the gaps between his tombstone teeth. ‘At the Twelve Gates there are two exits. The front,’ he says, nodding towards the shop window, ‘And the back.’
I sink to my knees. ‘Please, Pedro. Please, let me go by the front.’
‘The choice isn’t mine to make, dear Jake. I simply give people a wash and brush up and send them on their way. The choice is yours.’
‘I’ve done my time. I’ve paid.’ I’m crying now. Pedro still cups my face with his hands even though I’m kneeling. My tears leak down his fingers.
‘I think not. According to my ledger, you are still in debt. You see, the reason you are here, Jake, is because the dealer that you tried to con had one of his men shank you in the throat with a shaved-down toothbrush. Nasty.’ He lifts up my chin with his forefinger, inspecting the barely-fused gash. ‘It doesn’t do to owe people like that.’
Pedro releases me and my chin drops to my chest.
‘But owing my people is much more serious. It’s not your life that’s in the balance. It’s your soul.’
‘What do you want from me?’ I’m whimpering now, pathetic. I’ll do anything.
‘You didn’t do your time, Jake. You didn’t pay your dues. If you want to save your own soul now, you’ll need to redeem the soul of another, back when you could.’ As Pedro is saying this he gently pulls me to my feet and guides me to the cutting chair. He tilts me back. ‘Close your eyes, Jake,’ he says. I do as he says, and then I feel the soothing warmth of a damp, heated towel being draped across my face.
I breathe in the fresh scent of lemons as I press the hot towel to my cheeks. When I take it away I am sat around a table at the Taj Mahal restaurant. Turmeric strains on the starched, white tablecloth around my plate tell me that I’ve eaten. Alice sits opposite me, her eyes cast down. She is flanked by Tommo and Shiv. When she looks up she is unfocussed, her eyes glazed with whatever she has taken to numb herself. Whatever I have supplied her with. And I readily supply both the reasons for the need and the pacifier of it.
‘He’s after blood, man,’ Shiv says, his eyes darting from one face to another. He is chewing the flesh on the inside of his cheek, and the lamb madras in front of him hasn’t been touched. ‘I’m serious, blud. He knows we’re light, I swear he does.’
I remember this conversation. And with that memory comes the urge to empty the contents of my stomach. I know its outcome. I know the deal I made to save my own skin and that of my junkie buddies. I whored my own girlfriend; the girl I had known since we rolled in flattened wheat when our lives still had sunshine. The girl that used to be so full of natural light. The girl I turned into the bag of bones and skin that sits opposite me now.
Pedro is right. I don’t learn. I have always been in debt. And tonight I know that I pay this debt with the flesh of another human being. The girl I am supposed to love.
‘He likes Alice,’ Tommo says, ‘You know that, girl?’ He digs Alice in the ribs as he says this. She snarls at him and pulls her leather jacket tight around her midriff.
‘Tommo, you are cookin, man.’ Shiv turns to me. ‘That’s it, cus. We send Alice with the money. If it’s light, well, she helps us pay. You know what I’m sayin?’
‘We know it’s light.’ I say, deadpan. It’s light because we each had the sickness. We had the need. And in those needy moments, the debt didn’t matter. The debt would pay itself somehow. Thishow.
I remember looking at Alice the first time this night happened. I remember justifying it to myself. It’ll be just one night, that’s all he’s ever wagered. One night that we can both forget the next time we pull the rubber tube tight around each other’s arms. One shot and she will forget it. We both will.
But it didn’t play out that way, our dead cert of a plan. She was taken. She was passed around his boys. They filmed it; sent me the video. And the one they shot of her taking an overdose, when none of them did a damned thing, aside from jeer.
God, Pedro, please don’t let me see that again.
I shake the image from my brain and then I look up at Alice. The downers are wearing off and her eyes are coming alive. She takes a lip gloss from her bag and sweeps it over her lips. And then she smiles at me.
‘Over my dead body,’ I hear myself say. ‘I’ll go down before I ever let that happen.’ I can say this now because I’m clean. I’m clear. I’m not desperate to save my skin.
And you may think I am saying this because I am desperate to save my soul. Perhaps I am. But I want to save Alice more than anything I have ever wanted in my entire, wretched life.
‘Bruv, think about what you say,’ Tommo scratches the inflamed web of blood vessels in the crease of his elbow. ‘We’re dead if we don’t see this right.’
‘I’m a dead man walking, Tommo. Same difference.’ I wink at Alice. Then I reach over and I take one of the plastic-wrapped towels from a stainless steel dish in the centre of the table. I rip it open and I press it to my face.
‘Ah, that’s looking a little better,’ says Pedro, lifting the towel. ‘We may yet be able to give you a clean shave.’ He lifts up the backrest of the chair so that I can see my reflection in the Twelve Gates Barber Shop mirror. I lift my head and inspect my neck. The scar is still there, but it looks less livid than it did.
‘Did I do enough, Pedro? Did I?’ I twist in my seat, but he has already turned away.
Pedro walks to the back of the shop. He takes a broom by its handle and he starts to sweep tufts of hair into the centre of the room. Behind him I can see the door to the rear. In the cracks between the door and its frame I can see an orange light. I can hear the roar of the flames.
‘Tell me. Did I save her?’ I want to get to my feet but the weighted rubber cutting collar that he has placed around my shoulders pins me to the chair. I twist my head left and then right, trying to grapple his attention.
In the mirror I watch him return the broom to its place in the corner, and then saunter over to the counter. He picks up his leather ledger and scans the page.
‘What then? What can I do?’
‘You can go and check on our friend over there.’ Pedro is behind me. As he lifts the collar I feel as though I could float. I drift to my feet. As I turn I can see the man with the broken face wilting in his seat. I walk over to him and sit next to him.
‘Hey, buddy. You OK?’ I place my arm around his shoulders and give him a gentle squeeze.
‘Hey.’ My arm is around Alice’s shoulders, ‘You OK?’ She nuzzles by neck and I press my nose to her hair. She smells of apples.
I know where I am. Or should I say, when I am. We are before the uppers and downers. Before the shared needles. My chest caves. Pedro, I know why you have brought me back here to this rainy night, sitting in this bus shelter.
‘Want some?’ I hand her an opened bottle of white cider that has a lightning strike for a label. A foreshadow of the bolt that is to come.
Alice shakes her head. I know she doesn’t want it. And I know why. But still, as if to test the memory, I take back my arm and tug out the pack of Silk Cut cigarettes that I had lifted from the corner shop earlier that evening. I light one and hand it to her.
‘No thanks,’ she says.
‘You OK?’ I say again. Alice shrugs. ‘Is there something I should know?’ I remember that back then I started to feel a flutter of fear as I asked this. I thought she was going to tell me that she had met someone else. Again. I was thinking about myself.
‘I’ve got something to tell you.’ Alice sits upright as she says this, and she clasps her hands together across her midriff. She won’t meet my eyes.
I take a few sharp tokes on the cigarette, then throw the butt to the tarmac. I watch as the rain, drop by drop, blots out its light. An analogy that is not lost on me now as I look back. I am the rain in this scenario. ‘Go on, then.’ I try to sound hard, like a boy who doesn’t really care.
‘I’m pregnant.’ As she says this, Alice opens her palm across her belly.
I want to cry. I want to cry for that stupid boy that shared this once-in-a-lifetime moment with the love of his life only to get to his feet, drain the cider and tell her that she knows what she has to do, as he throws the bottle out into the street and watches it shatter into a thousand tiny lights.
But then I realise, I am not that boy. I am a man with a slit throat, sitting in a barber’s shop that probably doesn’t exist apart from in his dead head; here with a girl who died of an overdose over ten years ago.
‘Really?’ I say. ‘It’s mine?’
‘Of course it is, you daft sod,’ Alice says, trying her best not to smile.
I place my hand over hers. I weave my fingers through hers. I put my arm around her shoulder and I hold her close, drinking in her apple shampoo.
‘What are we going to call him?’ I say, stifling the urge to weep.
‘Who says it’s a he?’ Alice’s broad smile reaches her eyes. She takes my face in her hands and she kisses me.
And then I start to sob. The tears come and I don’t try to stop them. I’m the happiest I can ever remember feeling. And I realise that this is the moment. This is the turning point. This one decision led to all the others. I lay my head on her tummy and I try to make out a heartbeat.
I open my eyes and I am lying across two seats in the waiting area. My face is wet with tears. Broken face guy has gone. There is a faint whiff of Sulphur in the air. I glance towards the back door, which glows with the inferno beyond.
‘Going anywhere nice this year?’ Pedro asks as he brushes down the reclining chair and gestures for me to take it.
I glance towards the back door. ‘I hear Croydon probation office is lovely at this time of year,’ I say, lowering myself into the chair.
Pedro lets out a chuckle. ‘I don’t think you’ll be needing to go there anytime soon.’ He places a white bib around my neck. ‘Wet shave, sir?’
I catch my reflection. My stubble is piebald from the partial shave I had earlier. But despite this I can see that I no longer have that jagged line of scar tissue. I touch my fingers to my neck and I can feel the sensation from outside and in.
‘Pedro,’ I say.
‘Yes, Jake,’ he says as he sharpens the blade on his leather strop.
‘Why is this place called the Twelve Gates?’ I say, settling down into the cutting chair.
‘Haven’t you worked that one out yet?’ He lathers my face, then starts to draw the razor over my skin in short, deft strokes. ‘The twelve gates were made from twelve pearls, each pearl a gate.’
‘Ah, I see, Pedro. Or perhaps I should call you Peter.’
‘OK, all done. One close shave.’
‘What do I owe you?’
‘All paid for, sir.’ Pedro says, gesturing to the front door.