by Edward Barnfield
The friends of Tony Meadows meet in ‘The Lamb’ every December and raise a glass to his memory.
At first, you’d be hard pressed to pick them out from all the hometown returnees and family reunions. Five lumpy blokes, short hair, grey faces, sitting amongst the tinsel with Slade playing on repeat.
Maybe you know Andy from around the way. He’s still at his parents’ place, a few streets down, sleeping in the childhood bed. He grabs a table in the corner and sits with his back to the wall.
Manny and Bob come through a few minutes apart; Manny with a scowl as though the festivities are designed to cause him personal pain and Bob weaving, old whiskey on his breath.
They swap cautious small talk, try to dodge the fragment grenades that lurk in each other’s lives. Manny is just out after a stretch inside, while Bob has at least two kids he never sees. Andy works hard to limit the conversation to the football.
It’s a relief when Barney walks in; big, smiling Barney with his tales of London life and the joke about the Irish gynaecologist. Barney is the only one who seems comfortable with Christmas, who weaves between the office parties with a full tray and not an apparent care in the world.
“So, there’s these three monkeys like, and they’ve been trained to masturbate on command…”
Last in is Little Chris. He’s travelled furthest, has a paying job that takes him to Dubai and Dusseldorf, but he never misses this reunion.
It takes a while to notice there’s something off about this group, some hidden tension that makes the other revellers steer clear even as the pub packs out. You can see it in the tight fingers on their glasses, in Manny’s hard stare and Andy’s cold sweat as he struggles to keep the mood copacetic.
“Whose round is it? What are you drinking?”
They were sat here a decade ago, same table, same time, waiting for the friend who never showed. Barney is the first to say the name.
“You remember when Tony came out of that warehouse with a bag of industrial diamonds?”
There are snorts, a smile or two. They all have a Tony story, school-yard scraps and nightclub memories, grand schemes and long cons. He’s the thread that binds them all together, even now.
“To Fast Tony Meadows,” says Barney, “Big talker, dangerous driver, best friend.”
“ShhTony,” replies Bob, glass in the air, his jaw too loose already.
“You hear anything?” asks Chris.
“Nothing. His Mum passed about the same time as mine, and she was the last connection.”
“Somebody knows,” says Manny, a growl in his throat. “Somebody’s always known.”
Tony had been due back from the airport after meeting the connect, and they were planning to split the proceeds round the back of the pub. They had all called his mobile and listened to the same voicemail message, the same ominous beep. It was two days before Christmas and traffic was bad, but…
Andy could still feel the tightness in his stomach from that night. What if Tony had been picked up by the cops, or worse? There were other crews out there, greedy, more ruthless. He was scared for Tony, their friend and instigator, but also for the money he was supposed to bring, the doors it was supposed to open, the pain and panic they’d inflicted to earn it.
After an hour of whispered conversation, they had decided to split. If it had been a sting operation, there was no point in waiting in a clump to get picked up. Manny and Bob went to Tony’s flat; Chris would check in at the lock-up. Barney could visit Tony’s parents, charm whatever information he could out of them, while Andy was supposed to drive out to his mistress, see what she knew.
“Aye, well. All in the past now,” says Barney.
But it isn’t, not for them. Something was stolen that night that couldn’t be replaced. And even in the weeks that followed, when Tony’s burnt-out car was found on a country road, or when his blurred photo made the papers, they couldn’t shake the primary horror that gripped them.
What if Tony had ripped them off? Finished the deal, taken the proceeds, hopped on a plane, and left them to their lives? What if this was his last scam and they were the victims?
Because his disappearance was absolute. Tony, who had been a fixture of their lives for so long, had either vanished from the earth or made it look like he had. And that meant somebody had helped him. Someone to ditch the car and clean his flat out. And that would mean…
“You look like you’re doing alright, Chris,” says Manny, lingering on the last syllable with a hiss.
“Can’t grumble.” Chris holds his gaze.
“Only, it must be expensive, all the back-and-forth, all the business lunches. Must make a dent.”
“Come on, Manny,” says Andy, perpetual peacemaker.
“I’m just saying. Must be hard, keeping the show on the road.”
Barney cuts in with another Tony tale, a trip back from Calais that saw them speeding down the back streets with the lights off, two in the morning and…
Little Chris isn’t having it. “You trying to say something? You think I’ve got something of yours?”
Manny’s hand slaps hard on the table. “Somebody has. People don’t disappear. Money doesn’t evaporate.”
“Easy, lads,” says Andy. “It’s Christmas.”
This is always the ritual. They meet up, swap rumours, try to make sense of everything that happened, and then they reach the point where they can’t pretend any longer, can’t hold back the bitterness. Two years ago, it was Manny and Barney, swinging at each other in the carpark.
A woman by the bar is laughing too loudly. Manny and Chris are primed, ready, veins up in their necks. If he goes for Chris, Chris will kill him, thinks Andy.
Bang. The spell is broken by Bob, poor Bob. He’s off his stool and clattered into a fake fir tree, his arm entangled in the lights. There’s a smell too, curdled milk and nappies, and the boys are stricken by the thought their friend has just soiled himself. Nobody else pays much attention. Alcoholics get off easier during the holidays, when the tee-total and the part-time join them at the bar.
“Jesus, get him up,” says Manny. “I’ll take him to the bathroom.”
He half-drags Bob to the gents. It’s strange, but Manny has limitless patience for Bob and none for anyone else. Barney thinks it’s because they came off worst from Tony’s disappearance.
“I mean, I have to say,” he says, “I was wondering whether to bother at all this year. It’s good to see you guys,” he nods at Chris and Andy, “but those two? Like a bad memory, you know?”
“You come for the same reason we all do,” says Chris, his eyes sharp and loveless. “You know we’d track you down if you didn’t.”
There’s not much small talk after that.
A carol starts on the soundtrack, and a few high voices join in. For a moment, it feels like grace has descended on ‘The Lamb’. All is calm, all is bright. Everywhere, except the table in the corner and the five men destined to revisit the scene of the crime every Christmas, forced to show their faces in case the others take absence as proof as guilt.
“Good to see you, Andy lad,” Barney says at the end of the night. “You’re the only one who’s kept his marbles.”
Andy thinks on that as he’s unlocking his folks’ door. He stands in the porch, smells the old tobacco, wishes he could hear their voices one more time.
Because Barney has a point. The old crew are just scarred, sad men these days, cruising home on Christmas Eve to empty houses and bad dreams, spouting all those stories from the past to make the present bearable.
But look at him. Living with the ghosts, walking the same streets he rode his bike on back in the day. Is he any better?
The only comfort, he thinks, is that they still don’t suspect me after all this time. They still can’t imagine that Andy, good old Andy, found Tony Meadows coming out of his mistress’s place, two suitcases in his hands, and dropped him with a single blow to the head without hesitation.
The cases were still where he’d hidden them, in a hollow behind his parents’ deep freeze, and their previous owner was still resting among the choc ices.
Eventually, the boys would tire of the annual meetings, he told himself. They’d run out of questions and move on with their lives. The money would still spend. He would just have to make it through Christmas until then.
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