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A bad case of lover's balls, a chapter from the novel Kingdom of Darkness

Bryce kept close to the shuttered shops as he came round the corner from Market Street into Piccadilly Gardens; it was rumoured there was a nest of snipers on top of the Piccadilly Hotel and any lone figure at this time of night would present an irresistible target, too tempting to think twice or even worry whether it was friend or foe. Probably, Bryce thought, they couldn't care less anyway. Too many factions and groups and cells, and factions of cells within groups, themselves splintered off, splinters of splinters; all at each other's throats.

It was mad and confusing, ridiculous and frightening, all at once.

Hurrying and silent on his soft-soled shoes, hunched a little in his bulky dark overcoat, Bryce padded towards Mosley Street. Away to his left the pock-marked wasteland of the Gardens was splashed here and there with garish light from the two or three intact streetlamps, like a children's sandpit in the park after a particularly savage day. A sulky fire burned behind the cracked, smoky panes deep inside the bus shelters. Bryce remembered the Gardens from the days before civil strife: he had worked in an office quite near here. He remembered the people strolling in the sunshine in their lunch hour, sprawling on the grass with their sandwiches between the corporation flowerbeds. Young men eyeing up the girls. Shoppers resting their feet before another bout in Debenhams and Lewis's and the Arndale Centre. Now these places were open, what? - three days a week at most. People still had money; they were just too afraid to come into town, in case when they got back their house was gutted.

Bryce was sweating. Mainly through fear, but also because he was overweight and out of condition. His face, unlined and chubby, had a schoolboy innocence to it. His fair hair was thinning already, pale scalp showing through, so he let it grow over his collar to compensate, whereas most young men favoured the brutal razored-to-the-bone look. Once into the sanctuary of Mosley Street, shielded by builldings on either side, he breathed more easily, and felt almost composed when at last he reached the shelter of the Portico Club.

He ignored the main entrance. The ground floor had once been a fashionable café-bar called Pizzazz or some such name; it was now derelict, like so many properties in the city-centre, its insides vandalised and then ransacked of anything worth selling or trading off. Instead he went round the corner to the iron door set into the granite base of the building and pressed the button above the anodised grille in a certain sequence. There was a hollow click, and with a sharp look over both shoulders Bryce turned the handle and slipped inside. Damp gloom enveloped him. His composition soles rasped on the worn stone slabs of the circular staircase, a faint eerie echo resounding from the curved walls of green tile.

It was how he imagined the servants' back stairs would be in a mansion in the depths of the country: imagined it because he had never been near one.

The place was ancient and musty, over two hundred years old, someone had told him. Bryce wasn't much interested in history; the world began - the real world at least - the day he was born. Old newsreels sometimes fascinated him, with their jerky black-and-white figures, but only as a mythical representation of a quaint fantasy that existed nowhere except within the film itself. As real, or not, as a storybook.

The gloom gradually lightened. The top floor gallery which housed the library was a high-domed room with a few tattered leather-bound books still on its dusty shelves. He had glanced at them, but, like the newsreels, they belonged to the dead ages before time began. A bulky figure stepped in front of him. It held a scarred baseball bat, the blunt business end resting gently in the other hand.
"Thought you'd ducked it."
"The train was late," Bryce said.
"Train? What train?" the man said, his pale square face frowning stupidly at him. "They don't run after …"

He blinked then, getting the "joke", and gave a tiny snort through fleshy nostrils. It was meant to be derisive and dismissive, and he tapped the baseball bat in his palm as if to say: all right, Mr Smart-Arse, trade your cute remarks with this and see who wins the argument.

Bryce shifted his eyes and went past him towards the lighted half-open door at the far end of the room, past the empty cavernous shelves, his shoes squealing on the parquet floor. He was aware of the man watching him, with a contemptuous grin probably; seeing himself through another's eyes - the retreating bulky figure, ponderous, rather stooped - made Bryce yearn to be leaner, fitter, more challenging.

Behind the half-open door of what had been the reading room (a small library in itself), deep leather armchairs and small round tables were clustered in groups on a threadbare carpet of swirling floral design. Sacking blanked out the narrow elegant windows. The room was chilly: no one had dared light a fire in the marble fireplace in case smoke from the chimney gave the game away. Julia caught Bryce's eye as he came in, the dim light flashing in her glasses as she turned her head. No one else seemed to notice Bryce as he shuffled behind a sofa on the edge of the group, hands in the pockets of his overcoat, like a man waiting for a bus.

"We can make contact, of course we can," Decker was saying, "but never with any intention of getting involved. These are crude bully-boys, after all. They go on about Blood and Soil and Purity. Ttrashy web propaganda they've picked up from redneck training camps in the backwoods of Idaho."

Once again Bryce was aware of Julia's eyes upon him. In them he saw a disdain she didn't bother to conceal. They had all - every member of the group gathered here - heard Decker on this same rant so often it had passed the point of tolerant boredom. What came next? Encouraging feminists to incite male outrage and fury, probably, which could then be channelled -
" … using the gender war to our advantage," Decker was saying, right on cue. "Actively promoting the cause of feminism to drive men to the wall, to the end of their tether, so the sexes are literally at each other's throats - "

"For God's sake, all that's old hat," said a weary voice.

Decker wasn't used to being interrupted, and plainly he didn't like it. His Adam's apple jerked in his thin veined neck. He stared round with slightly moist eyes at the dozen or so people who did actually look quite bored.

"We must use every weapon at our command." His stare challenged anyone to contradict or even dare to interrupt him. "Some of you are new to our campaign. You might think you know all the answers. But experience counts for - "

There was a muffled rattling (like rice being thrown at a window pane) and several people in the room instinctively ducked or hunched their shoulders at what was the sound of an automatic weapon, not too far away. Bryce wondered whether it was the snipers' nest on top of the Piccadilly Hotel. He felt a sudden swift tremor down his back that not many minutes ago he had been in their sights ... his head plumb dead-centre in the cross-hairs, following his dark figure as it came round the corner from Market Street, the finger tightening on the trigger as the knuckle whitened. Phuttt! Like a melon exploding. Bits of bone and flesh instead of seeds and pith. Bryce shivered. The backs of his thighs were quivering.

At least it had shut Decker up for a couple of minutes. He had paused, mouth hanging half-open, staring at the blacked-out window.

Somebody said nervously, "Are you sure there isn't a light showing?"

There was a muttered, "Don't know why we have to meet in this draughty old barn in the first place ..."

"Now. Listen. Pay attention." Decker raised his arms. It was a lost cause. The gunfire, faint though it was, had unnerved everyone. One or two people began to drift away and others had started up conversations.

As they left the meeting together, going down one after the other in the gloom of the circular stairwell, Bryce was surprised and even more flattered when Julia asked him if he fancied going for a drink. Thankfully it was too dark for her to notice the hot blush that came to his cheeks.

"I'm not sure - I mean I don't know of any place to go - anywhere that's open, I mean. At this time of night." He hoped it didn't sound like stammering.

"That's okay. I know somewhere."

Bryce felt a wave of giddy exhilaration sweep over him as they came outside. It wasn't cold on the street. He wouldn't have noticed it if it had been; his feet hardly touched the pavement. The tramlines were still down in Mosley Street. Nobody had thought it worthwhile to tear them up for scrap even though there hadn't been a tram in the town centre for three years, not since the winter of twenty-ten. In those days the transport authority had employed armed guards to ride shotgun, two per tram, which had worked for a time. But within months the sporadic attacks by gangs - halting the trams by throwing house bricks through the drivers' windows, swarming aboard and robbing the passengers of all their money and possessions - had increased to three, four, five a week, then every day. They got to be too damned dangerous. So people just stopped using them.

Julia was nearly as tall as Bryce. While he was on the podgy side she was thin and fine-boned, with not an ounce to spare. She had a narrow face that sloped to a pointed chin and curly reddish hair that sometimes gleamed like dull gold; her grey-green eyes behind round spectacles darted about, never still, alight with mischief or slyness or some devious scheme or other (he'd never worked out what exactly).

"What do you reckon to Decker?" Julia asked. Before he could think of what to say she said: "Losing his grip and he knows it. All the pillock can do is spout off. Has he ever come up with a plan that worked? Or put into operation?"

Bryce didn't want to bad-mouth the man. He was way below Decker in the pecking-order, a mere foot-soldier in the great cause. Also he'd heard a rumour that Decker and Julia were lovers - or had been, he wasn't quite sure. Maybe that was the reason she was so biting and outspoken in her condemnation. Curdled love turned to scorn and hate. Anyway, she didn't need any help from him in forming an opinion.

"I'm tired of all this empty talk. Aren't you?" Julia said. "I want to get something moving, make a difference. The time couldn't be better." She slipped her arm through his."Kick some shit around and see where it sticks."

"I thought things had to be planned with the group. You know, co-ordinated ... security and all that stuff."

Julia gave a harsh laugh. "That's just to give themselves illusions of grandeur, to make them feel as if they're at the nerve-centre of some clever master-plan, with a strategy and an objective and all that." They were crossing St Peter's Square and Bryce was aware, as of almost nothing else, of her thin arm inside her coat sleeve pressing up close to his side. To their right was the boarded-up entrance of what had been the Central Library, looking bereft and headless without its dome, demolished for reasons of safety following the damage to the Reading Room when a suicide bomber walked in with a 40 kilo nail-bomb in a hidden compartment underneath the baby she was pushing in its buggy.

"Could we really do that?" Bryce said doubtfully. "Without submitting it first to the committee? What would Decker say?"

"Decker wouldn't know anything about it, would he, till he saw the headline in the paper. Then it's too late - it's over, done with. More than likely he'd take the credit himself, or try to, especially if it was all over the media, a big national story, not just some piddling local incident."

Despite his natural timidity Bryce was beginning to get quite excited by the idea. He felt he was being drawn towards the centre of things where important decisions were made. He didn't fool himself: Julia was the cause of this, choosing him to confide in, trusting him with her secret thoughts; and not least her close physical presence: the cloud of her perfume enveloping him so deliciously on the cold air made him giddy as if he'd downed a large brandy in one.

The place she led him to had the look of a derelict building. It was at a junction with traffic lights, one road leading under a Victorian viaduct to Deansgate, another curving towards Oxford Road, and the one they walked along coming from St Peter's Square past the site once occupied by the Bridgewater Hall. The fire that had gutted it in twenty-eleven was still a mystery (even though two people had been arrested and charged, no group or faction had claimed responsibility - that was the baffling bit) and council block scavengers and asylum scroungers had been through what was left with garden rakes and black plastic bags.

What he had taken to be an abandoned two-storey building at the junction turned out to be a pub. As they crossed the road Bryce saw the two words Briton's and Protection hanging askew halfway up the wall, pockmarked, as if riddled with bullets. Julia knew the place well, evidently, because she pulled aside a sheet of rusty corrugated iron that Bryce would have walked right by and the next he knew they were in a gloomy passageway smelling of beer and stale tobacco smoke. Holding him by the hand she led him to a warren of dark rooms at the back. He was aware of other people, dim figures sitting in corners, muffled in silence, with mumbled scraps of conversation coming from somehwere. Julia ordered beer for him and red wine for herself through a little hatch with doors inset with panes of frosted coloured glass. Nothing was said, no signal passed between them, though Bryce got the impression that she and the barman knew each other. She found them a table in a corner alcove, hidden away from the rest of the tiny dim room by a chimney breast housing a huge black-leaded grate and jutting mantelpiece. Because the red plush banquette followed the right-angle of the wall, when they sat down their knees touched between the curly wrought-iron legs of the table. For Bryce the sensation was not disagreeable.

He drank some beer, wondering how Julia had come to know of this place, hidden away as it was. She didn't work in town, as far as he knew. But that was just it. As far as he knew extended nowhere, because he knew nothing about her. His knowledge was based on supposition, idle speculation and guesswork; he had no idea where she lived, whether alone or with another person of whatever gender, what she did for a job, where she came from, how old she was. Bryce liked that. It made her seem mythical somehow, fantastical even, as if she inhabited a world he could hardly begin to imagine, someplace mysterious, exotic.

Julia was looking at him over the rim of her wine glass in a way that made his heart flutter. She completely floored him then by saying: "You still with the studio crew at GTV?" His mouth must have dropped open. "What's the matter? You look totally shocked."

"I am shocked! I didn't know you knew where I worked! How did you find out?"

"I asked around. Made a few inquiries." Julia's lips curved up in an impish grin. "I know more about you than you think. You know - asked people at the meetings, that sort of stuff."

"Which people?"

Julia drank some wine. "Oh, well, you know. Different ones."

Bryce was flattered by her interest, and also perplexed. "Nobody there knows me. Or what my job is, or anything about me."

"Of course they do, silly boy. D'you think they'd let you attend meetings without anyone knowing who you were? There's a file on you, for goodness' sake."

"Is there?" Bryce didn't know whether to be outraged or honoured. Was he that important to them? "You mean an actual file?"

"Yes, on you! There's a file on all of us. That's the one thing Decker's good at - organisation, checking up on people, filing stuff away for future reference, knowing who does what and where ..." Bryce was hardly listening; he had become aware of the pressure of her knee against his under the table. Or rather - her knee was actually between his knees, easing them apart. (He wondered whether he shouldn't be doing this to her, but he'd never have the nerve.) Julia carried on talking with Bryce hardly taking in a word while he could feel unmistakably her shoeless stockinged foot moving along his inner leg towards his groin area. Her foot arched over and cupped him. He began to expand luxuriously as her foot moved to and fro in a gentle massage. Julia had squirmed round a little to facilitate this; now she was half-reclining on the banquette, sipping her wine with a little naughty smile on her lips, stretching out towards him.

"So what's it like then, working at GTV?"

He coughed and nodded. "Yeh. All right."

"What do you do?"

"I'm with the studio crew."

"I know that. I mean, what's the job entail? Are you actually there in the studio when they're filming? Do you get to meet the stars? Famous people?"

"Yeh. Sometimes." Bryce was having trouble breathing. "Well, we don't ... not 'meet' them as such. We don't chat with them, we're not allowed to. We do our job and keep out of the way." He took a swig of beer to moisten his throat. "Somebody was given the push not long ago for talking to a member of cast. It was during the coffee break. He asked her something and she reported him to the SM."

"Who's that?"

"Studio Manager."

"The bitch. She got him fired?"

Bryce nodded.

"Just for that? Which slag was it?"

Bryce shook his head.

"Bet it was that blonde tart, was it?"

Bryce shrugged.

"Sounds just like her to me." Julia pressed her heel into his groin. "What's she doing on TV in the first place? How can they allow a slag like that to go on Florizel Street in front of twenty million people? She's foreign, isn't she? What's wrong with English actresses? She's taking the work of our girls. It's a disgrace."

Bryce said, "I'm pretty - almost certain she's English."

"She looks like a foreigner to me."

"She was born in Bolton or Bury or somewhere."

"Well, whatever," Julia said. "Wherever she was born, brought up a slag. I read she was going out with a black man. Or was it a Paki? Bringing shame on her sex."

Bryce could not stand any more. He was bursting at the seams. Any minute now he was going to explode and make a right mess. He edged his posterior further back on the plush banquette and Julia gave him a crooked smile. "What's the problem? Getting all hot and bothered, are we?" She removed her foot, and leaning forward reached for his hand and pressed it to her small left bra-less breast inside her cashmere jacket with the mother-of-pearl buttons, moulding his fingers tightly under hers. Deep in his chest, Bryce groaned: ecstasy and agony in equal measure.

"What is it, lover? Can you feel my heart beating?"

"Oh Julia ...."


"You don't know, honest you don't, what you do to me."

Her eyes grew very wide. "Really? Now what could that be?"

"I don't think I've ever met anyone like you before. No, I haven't, honest. You're wonderful."

"You do like me then? A little bit?" Julia removed his hand from her breast and brought it down across her belly to where her thighs conjoined. Bryce's tremulous fingers encountered something hard and lumpy, with sharp edges. He recoiled.

She had a firm grip on his hand so he couldn't pull away. "Any ideas?" Julia had that impish grin on her face again. When Bryce shook his head she stood up, with the table between them, and raised the hem of her skirt to waist height. She was wearing very skimpy knickers cut so fine that they couldn't hide a mass of of reddish pubic hair curling round the lacy edges. A handgun was stuck down the front of them, its brutal cross-hatched butt outlined against her pale belly. "How's that for a pistol-packin' momma?" She let her skirt fall and sat down again.

"Is it real?" Bryce asked, unable to wipe from his mind the intimate vision she had brazenly revealed of herself.

"Glock nine-mil. Fourteen-shot but there's only three in the mag."

"You carry it for protection I suppose. ManU's a dangerous city."

"Not only that. Some of us have a job to do. That's why we belong to the movement. We're given a task and have to carry it out." Julia wasn't smiling any more. Her eyes behind the round lenses were looking directly into his. Bryce wanted to look away but couldn't. He was intimidated by her but also endlessly fascinated. Helplessly so. He thought he might be in love, if this was what being in love felt like. It was all new to him; he had nothing to compare it with.

"Could you be in any danger," Bryce asked, concerned suddenly, "doing what you're asked to do?"

"It's possible." Julia finished her wine. She dabbed the corners of her mouth with a tissue. "Everything carries a risk. The more something is worth doing, the higher the stakes and the greater the risk. I didn't go into this blindly. If you believe in something, a cause, as we do, which is why we joined, you should be willing to do whatever it takes to further that cause. Whatever the personal sacrifice. That's how I look at it."

"It sounds brilliant when you say it. It's what I think too but I can't come out with it, express it, the way you can. It's sort of ... welling up inside, like ..." He searched his mind for an image or symbol. " - Like lava trapped underground, bubbling and frothing, and it's got to burst out somehow in a huge flaming spout from the peak of an angry volcano."

Julia patted his hand. "You express it very well, lover. Almost Freudian if you can believe anything that Jew pig wrote. I think we'd better get a move on, we don't want you to be late, do we?" She shrugged into her coat. "I need the Ladies."

Bryce sidled out of the corner buttoning his overcoat. "You mean for - "

"You're on late-shift, aren't you, filming Florizel Street?" Julia smiled at him over her shoulder. "I told you about Decker and his filing system. He keeps tabs on everybody."

Bryce waited for her in the dim space next to the little hatch with its coloured glass panels. They went out into the street, turned to the left and started walking in the direction of Deansgate. Ahead of them was a long and cavernous underpass in which every sound was amplified and bounced back by the walls of grimy white tiles and the crosswork of girders above. This structure had once supported the railway lines feeding Central Station in the days when Myra Hindley had loitered under the station clock ever vigilant for a suitable young prospect. At the next intersection they stopped and hung back for a minute or two before crossing as a precaution. The darkened length of Deansgate stretched away. It had once been alive and buzzing with night-life. The chicanes of steel crash-barriers and sandbagged emplacements had been erected to foil the gangs of ram-raiders from Longsight and Droylsden. They had also deterred the packs of boy racers who swooped along four abreast, using the pavement whenever they ran out of road. Despite these measures Kendals and the other department stores had been forced to close down (their out-of-town clientele simply stopped coming) and the antics of the boy racers had effectively killed off trade at the pavement cafés (literally too: in less than a year the death count was five). Eventually the café owners had withdrawn indoors behind steel mesh barriers before giving up the ghost. Bryce had rather fond memories of sitting in the sunshine at a pavement café on Deansgate with his work colleagues from GTV.
It was a forlorn and faded memory, gazing down it now - dark and deserted, glistening with broken glass, demented drug-hungry eyes watching from the shadows for easy prey. It was wise to be careful.

At last they crossed the dangerous corner and into Liverpool Road. The empty shell on their right, Bryce recalled, had once housed the Museum of Science & Technology, though he'd never been inside. He started to mention this to Julia but she was staring off, not listening. Then she dug her nails into his arm and quite violently yanked him from the pavement into a doorway. Her body was crushed against his, their feet amongst windblown litter and dirt. Bryce opened his mouth to speak and Julia clamped his arm fiercely. A moment later he understood why when he heard the stuttering engine of a vehicle of some kind. It was coming up Liverpool Road towards them, heading for the town centre. There was the thud of music. Both of them stopped breathing. They were just barely concealed in the shallow doorway.

As if it would help, Bryce shut his eyes. He heard the engine noise rise to deafening pitch a few feet away, roaring and clunking above the music; as it started to recede he risked a peep over Julia's shoulder: a banged-up old van packed so solid with young men that two of them were sitting on the roof. They were white, Bryce saw, with shaven heads and tattoos on their necks and bare shoulders. The thumping beat and shouted vocals was Sixties northern soul, which he guessed might mean they belonged to the Cheetham Hill Mob. Marauding parties came in nightly from the white ghettoes around the city to forage and loot.

He was at once alive to Julia's hot breath on his cold cheek. Her sucking mouth fastened on his. Her needful lips and tongue squirmed inside him. Behind his closed eyelids a million spinning stars swirled across a black velvet void. He groaned her name under his breath. Julia's mouth touched his ear and her tongue flicked inside. "Guess what, lover. I've taken them ..." She guided his hand to her belly and lower; everything was smooth and soft down there, nothing hard and lumpy, and when she brought his hand underneath her skirt to touch her he got the picture.

For several minutes Julia lay against him, moving herself slowly this way and that, then she took his hand away and straightened up. "You have to go. I don't want you to be late ..."

Bryce was touched by her concern but was unable to speak; he was in agony with a bad case of lover's balls. They were throbbing like billy-o and felt like two 4-pound lead weights. At the corner of the street which led to the first GTV checkpoint Julia paused. "I've got a surprise for you. Hope you like it." From the pocket of her coat she took a bulky object and gave it to him. It was solid and heavy, wrapped in something flimsy and lacy. From its shape Bryce realized it was the handgun.

"Afraid they're still warm and damp," Julia said. "They're the ones I was wearing. You can keep them afterwards."

Bryce stared down at the concealed object. "What am I supposed to do?"

"Wait your moment. Get the blonde slag on her own. Use this." Julia held up a metal cylinder. "It screws into the barrel. Hardly a sound. No louder than a puff of air. This is vital: get in close - to the side or back of the head. Use all three shots."

"Does it have to be her?" Bryce couldn't hide his dismay. "She's one of the most popular actresses in the show. She gets sackloads of fan mail every day."

"You've answered your own question. That's the reason. Afterwards dump the gun in the garbage. Anywhere out of sight, doesn't matter. Make sure you wipe your prints off. Leave this next to the body."

It was a folded sheet of paper inside a plastic freezer bag. There was some strange lettering on the paper, Bryce saw - handwritten - that might have been Arabic or Urdu or some such lingo.

"What's it say?"

"Don't ask. Anyway, I don't know." She looked at her watch. "Hurry up, put this stuff away."
Bryce did so. He said gloomily, "Just my luck if they do a body search."

Julia looked at him sharply. "I thought if you have security clearance they don't bother."

"Not if you've got authorised ID and your handprint checks out okay. But now and then they do random searches when they feel like it."

"Don't worry. You'll be okay. You can do it." Julia stroked his cheek. "Just remember and keep in mind what you said about that hot lava bubbling and frothing, ready to spurt out. This is your chance, lover. Let it all go!"

She squeezed his hand and started to walk off. Bryce called after her anxiously. "Will I see you at the next meeting?" Julia turned and nodded. Bryce glanced up and down the dark street. "I'm frightened for you, out here alone at this time of night."

"I'll be okay. I'll get a friend to pick me up."

Bryce turned reluctantly and trudged towards the thirty-foot high steel mesh fence topped with curlicues of razor wire. All around the perimeter were watchtowers on concrete stilts with searchlights. Guards in black uniforms and black helmets with smoked visors stood next to the blockhouse holding snub-nosed machine-guns across their chests.

Above all this, on a blank brick wall, glowed a huge GTV sign in red neon.

Bryce passed through the first checkpoint of three. He nodded to the men in black helmets and joked with the security official, a hefty woman with a blonde crewcut, who swiped his ID through the machine. Before he reached the next one he paused to look back past the striped barrier and steel-link gate and could just make out Julia's slim form in the darkness across the street. She had the phone to her ear and he saw her lips were moving.

Relieved, he carried on.

"... seemed to respond well, better than expected," Julia was telling Decker. "He took the medication and was prepared to finish the course of treatment. We shall know the outcome, one way or another, over the next twenty-four hours. But the prognosis, I feel confident, is positive. Keep your fingers crossed, lover."


© Trevor Hoyle 2008

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