The Debt He Carried
The following story was published by Notes from the Underground.
No one knew Archie’s real name. No one knew when he’d washed up: his words, not mine. He told me once the Underground was like a spin cycle that spat you out. People like Archie tottered into the Tube seeking warmth and upholstery. Sooner or later they got chucked out and staggered the handful of yards to abandoned shop doorways or empty stairwells. He gave a different alias for each arrest. He preferred 60s film stars and singers. We’d had Archie Bennett, Archie Martin and Archie Curtis. I don’t know why he bothered. For the dozen or so years Archie roamed the streets we all knew him well enough.
I slumped against the railings. I was finishing a run of eight nights and a late turn football duty. I had a hangover head I couldn’t shake. Trouble was, I couldn’t sleep; never could sleep on nights. I couldn’t escape the rumble of traffic, the shouts of school kids and slamming of doors. Worst of all nights got to my guts. I couldn’t eat right. Cornflakes and cold milk sloshed in my belly at teatime and pie and mash sank like ballast at breakfast. I read somewhere nights took years off your life.
Fish brought me a coffee. Fish was a probationer called Peter Salmon. He had a pencil-neck and persistent shaving rash. Fish had ambitions in firearms, but I doubted he’d tough it out. He’d no presence and his biceps were like knots in cotton. Fish’s biggest issue – and a serious one for a copper – was he couldn’t stand death. When there was a body Fish was happiest fetching the coffees. His eyelid trembled when duties were doled out. You got to spot the little signs. I’d give him time, but not much. I wouldn’t be doing him a favour in hiding him.
‘You OK, Skip?’ Fish said.
Now Fish was worried about me. I fixed another hand on my coffee to steady it. My left was shaking, sending ripples across the surface. Fish probably thought I had the DTs. I nodded.
‘Just fine,’ I said.
My mouth tasted sour and metallic, like the cheap brown sauce they gave you in the canteen. I blew the surface, letting the steam warm my face. It was a bitterly cold February morning, but a blinding winter sun was shining from the pavements, windscreens and office blocks. Sour sweat and scorched dust drifted up from the Underground.
‘Have they taken him away yet?’
Fish frowned, puzzled. I stared till he got my meaning. He gripped the railing at the pedestrian crossing and craned his neck to see where Archie lay, among the crushed crisp boxes and greasy, scrunched up burger wrappers.
‘Go and see,’ I said.
Fish had bought a pair of black military-style boots. His skinny legs and heavy-soled boots made him look like a golf club. Fish took a step closer, still holding the rail, like a man afraid of heights skirting a cliff edge.
Archie was slumped in the doorway of a clothes shop. His legs were splayed out and one boot was off. Archie’s big toe poked from a grimy red football sock. His nicotine-stained hands were palm down on his thighs. He was propped against a nest of broken boxes, chip trays and windblown pizza leaflets to spare his shoulders the hard contours of the shop door. He’d frozen to death, clutching a Styrofoam cup of milky coffee turned to a disc of ice. A night’s shelter, or even a blanket, would have kept him alive. In the shop window was a rack of £2,000 winter coats.
Archie must’ve arrived about the same time as me. He’d stumbled off a sleeper at King’s Cross or Euston, blind-drunk and shaking his fist and scowling. Perhaps I’d stepped off the same train on my first day. I remembered making my way through a dripping, bald London square to be measured for my uniform. Archie brought what he stood in: a crumpled nylon shirt, filthy grey slacks and a golf sweater unravelling at the cuffs. I was issued eight shirts, four pairs of trousers and a tunic I never wore, except for court. My tie was clip-on, so no one could throttle me. I spent my evenings bulling a shine to my toecaps with cotton wool and water. Archie went in search of drink and redemption. We both started new lives that day.
I don’t know how Archie washed up on my beat, but suppose he had to go somewhere. Back then the councils were handing out free Tube passes. In the winter the old boys would sit on the Circle Line and go round and round getting a warm beneath the frosted streets of Marylebone and St Pancras. Even in midwinter their stench could clear a carriage. They’d stagger and shuffle from seat to seat in greasy greatcoats, with curling tongues flapping from their workmen’s boots. The Tube’s a great leveller. There’s no first class down there and the suits daren’t complain. Instead they mutter and hide behind an FT or feign sleep.
As coppers we’re in the business of arresting folk. You cut your teeth on vagrants because no one’s going to question a drunk and disorderly charge. Especially if the man’s soaked in piss and wearing most of his dinner.
One of my first jobs was a vagrant guzzling lager and fighting himself. This was first thing so there were just office workers worrying on mortgages and down payments on French villas. The District line train had pulled into a siding. It had Wimbledon on the front. Steam rose from nearby houses. People gawked from the platforms, prodding each other.
The driver saw me, waved and opened the doors. A waft of piss and bin juice hit me. The tramp, a giant called Mac with a copper bush of a beard, was squinting at me. Uniform has a galvanising effect on tramps and mental health patients. Maybe the last time they saw it they had the shit kicked out of them. It’s hard to forget a uniform if there’s six of them pinning your face to the floor and squeezing your lungs paper thin. Mac growled and raised a black can. I don’t remember the name. It was a cheap cider, always something to with weather: lightning or storm or tempest. Mac must’ve been six-four. Even when he stooped he towered over me. I fiddled with my radio, sure I’d need backup. As my fingers fumbled with the brooch mike I saw Mac unbutton his trousers. His limp, grubby cock hung from his button fly and he’d turned out his pockets.
‘Do you like ma’ elephant,’ he said.
I tried to breathe through my mouth.
‘I want him arrested,’ a man in pinstripes said.
The man had pinkish skin and his neck flushed. He’d spent twenty minutes trying to pluck up the courage to challenge Mac. No need. There was a young cop to get beaten up for him. Mac turned to face the fire extinguisher. His shoulders slackened. It took me a moment to realise what he was doing. A foaming stream of amber piss rolled across the wooden decking.
‘You’re going to let him do that, are you?’ pinstripe said.
I should’ve radioed. It’s funny how you know that; know you’re doing something wrong and you’re going to regret it, but you can’t seem to stop. Maybe I was seduced by the thought it’d be one hell of a first arrest. I crept behind Mac, hands trembling. I slowed my breathing and snapped on a cuff, glad they were sprung ready. As Mac turned I caught him off balance and nudged him into the side of the carriage.
Mac belched sour, clammy breath.
‘Take it off,’ he grunted.
I reached for his right wrist. He jerked back and swung a fist the size of a ham cracking me on the jaw. Light bulbs exploded in my face. My helmet toppled and rolled along the decking. My knees buckled and I staggered back into someone’s lap. A newspaper scrunched under me. There were screams and people were pushing and shoving. I felt along my belt. Someone screamed and that was when I saw the knife.
Life slows when you see a knife. Suddenly all you can see is that blade. It’s barely moving, but there’s a shine of steel and a faint circling motion. It draws you like a mackerel to bait. The flash of blade trails light like stardust. I swallowed. I daren’t take my eyes from him. I felt for my truncheon. I touched polished wood with my fingertip. The blade flashed and a searing pain cut me.
I woke up in cool, fresh linen with a gash on my wrist.
‘Lucky boy,’ the nurse said.
‘I don’t feel lucky.’
She brought me water, tilting it gently into my mouth. The glass was sandpaper scorched where it’d been through the dishwasher.
‘There’s a man next door isn’t so good. He’s the guy who saved you,’ she said.
It almost sounded accusing.
‘They’re operating on him.’
‘Is he going to be alright?’
She shushed me and told me to rest. I was so tired my eye balls rolled and I sank into the pillow. I learnt no more until Pete Loach turned up with a dog-eared Western and a black-speckled banana. Pete was the night turn skipper.
‘It’s a page-turner,’ he said.
The book was called Shootout at Death Creek. The front cover showed a scattered pack of cards and a glinting revolver. Pete rubbed his bristly chin.
‘No more of that Bruce Lee stuff,’ he said.
‘You were lucky kid. Never take on a knife. It’s not worth the risk.’ Pete shook his head. ‘You OK?’
I nodded. Pete inspected his thumbnail.
‘The other bloke isn’t.’
Pete told me the guy down the corridor was getting his guts sewn up. The guy was a hard case – would have to be to take on Mac.
Mac sliced my wrist and shoulder and when I fell he stepped in. He broke the giant’s ribs and nose and knocked him cold, but not before the blade lashed out and opened him. Blood had pooled in the grooves of the decking. Mac lay squealing, while the man hugged himself, holding his guts together.
I crossed to the doorway and stared at the hollow in the crumpled boxes where Archie had died. Archie survived that op. He got stronger and within weeks he was off walking the streets, sleeping rough, refusing kindness. I never learned why he walked out on his old life, but the debt he carried paid for my life.