The Breaking of Liam Glass
Multi-stranded state-of-the-nation novel.
Jason Worthington, frustrated journalist, desperate to sell his soul, if only someone will buy…
Andy Rockham, sleep-deprived detective constable whose one mistake will cost him his job, unless he finds someone to pin it on…
Jamila Hasan, loyal politician who will lose her seat at the coming election unless she discovers a principle to stand for…
Royland Pinkersleigh, well-meaning local gym trainer, who will go to jail unless he can explain why he’s holding a blood-stained knife…
Their stories weld together over 24 hours, when white teenager Liam Glass is stabbed and left in a coma, on a mixed-up, mixed-race estate in Central London.
And Jason tries to buy his ticket to tabloid heaven, by telling a small lie…
The Breaking of Liam Glass
“Every day’s newspaper starts devoid of ideas – and some of them stay that way.”
Gareth Whelpower, “Off-Stone – Memories of a Newspaper Man”
The thing is, we always know. We may not say but we know… there on the estates, with their silent walkways, glittering with night-time drizzle, with just a few of us still mooching in holding patterns in the dark, smoking and selling spliffs and worse, and keeping an eye ranged for members of the wrong crew.
That’s how we see her – standing in a yellow square of window on the first floor. In her thirties, we’d say. White, short and thin. She’s looking down into the street for someone who doesn’t come. Stubbing out another cigarette. Brushing the hair from her face with anxious hands.
Eyes and ears. We know.
How long? Ho-o-ow lo-o-o-o-ong could it take him? How long, Lia-a-a-a-am? Going out of her mind. Out. Of. Her. Mind. How long, Liam-baby?
And he’d been twenty-five minutes already, and she was on the tills early next morning, and his homework book on the kitchen table not even touched, and sometimes she wished she had a man around, but not that man, not that man for sure, and the pizza man was going to be there any second and, shit, that was the door bell pinging, and she was like opening it and it was cold outside for April, and she was going, “Look, I’m sorry but my kid’s supposed to be back with the cash…”
The pizza man stood there gormless on the concrete walkway. He was all covered in a Noah Pizza oversuit with an ark and brightly coloured rainbows and a helmet like a Star-Trooper – his little eyes behind the visor darting. And he held the box tight, like he was afraid she’d steal her own dinner.
“Yeah, that’s great,” she said, clutching her bare arms to stop shivering. “That’s a perfect price for a Noah pizza. I couldn’t imagine a better one.” She offered him her sweetest smile and tried once more to communicate to Darth Vader with rainbows that she’d had to send her son to the cash point – right there – you could almost see it. She pointed and there was no-one below on Gordon Road under the sickly orange street lights, just two Bengali teenagers kicking something small on the ground, but he wasn’t even looking.
“Ten-ninety.” Like he was on a loop.
“Because the girl on the phone said no debit cards, didn’t she? And like he sometimes takes it into his head to go wandering but not tonight.” She could totally smell the pepperoni and the cheese and like taste each individual anchovy she was so hungry (and she always ordered extra anchovy).
“Yeah, we do.”
“Take debits.” The star trooper stoutly defended the financial policy of Noah Pizzas. “You must have said cheques, We don’t take cheques. Give it me.” He pulled out his machine.
“Well, it’s too late, because the girl on the phone said you didn’t and he’s got the card now, hasn’t he?” She moved close and looked up at him hopefully, but the portable reader retreated. This was mad. She’d rented a DVD of Lost to watch, and she had to iron her blouse for the morning and this wasn’t even doing any of it. “He’ll be back in like five minutes.”
“Five minutes ’sno good. Makes over thirty.”
Now it was Katrina’s turn not to get it. He tapped the pizza box. “Over thirty minutes is free.”
And then she did get it and she touched him gently on his chest, with its multicoloured ark. “That’s OK, I’m not going to ask you to give it me for free.”
He stepped back rather more quickly than he needed to. He couldn’t be more than five years older than Liam, and suddenly she felt very old herself.
“Delivery over half an hour has to be free, that’s on the leaflet. That’s the rules.”
“So let me have it for free, then.”
“I can’t do that. You should pay.”
“Well, in five minutes I’ll be able to pay.”
“But in five minutes you won’t be allowed to.” He waved his gloved hand in exasperation at her stupidity in the face of the obvious and it was already twenty-nine and a half minutes, and nothing she said could change his mind. He began to pack the pizza away in its padded bag.
“Wait.” And she went and got her phone from her handbag in the kitchen. “Yo!” His voice answered bright as ever and she said “Liam” just in case, but of course it went on, “Leave that message, bro!” Like he was black or something. He always refused to change it. She said, “Liam, Liam, baby, this is Mum again. Waiting. Like, the pizza man is here.”
The Noah Star-trooper announced, “Thirty.” And started down the concrete steps. She shouted, “So now you should give me the fucking pizza for free.” But he just flipped her the bird with a gloved finger.
The bike buzzed away with her dinner and she leant over the parapet and looked up and down in both directions. The Bengali teenagers were jumping in and out of the shadows, hoods up, larking about, and she called out, “Hey-!” One of them looked at her and they both ran off. The street was silent without them and she thought about strangling Liam when he got back, good kid and all. He was mush-brain, except when it came to kicking a football. Not the brightest shop sign in the High Street.
Liam-baby, where are you?
A shiny blue Tory election leaflet had been shoved half through her letterbox. She’d not seen it there before. She stopped in the open doorway and thought of phoning his friends, she’d start with Shay Begum and Zen Methercroft, though they’d just had a fight with him about football. And she thought about phoning 999. But she didn’t want to be a stupid mother, making a fuss about nothing. He’d be back in two minutes and asking for his dinner and getting on Facebook. But there was no-one and she felt a chill coming off the walkway.
And she went inside to grab her denim jacket and car keys to go look for him, and then she stopped, perhaps she should wait in case he came back. And whatever she said to herself, her stomach felt sour with fear.
Going. Out. Of. Her. Mind.
Thirty minutes earlier Jason Worthington had turned twenty-seven but he kept it to himself and merely stole a Twix from the squat glass-fronted vending machine in the corridor. He didn’t like sharing personal grief. He sat heavily at his workstation, and dialled a number.
“You must be Danny,” he said to the young voice that answered the phone. “I was a friend of your dad. I was really upset to hear. That truck,” Jason continued in a warm sympathetic tone, leaning forward in his chair. “Horrible. To end that way. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
He cast a baleful eye over the lines of deserted computers that stretched across the newsroom, their twirling screensavers dancing merry patterns for nobody. Two remaining juniors huddled over their keyboards at the far end, their faces death masks under the flat light of the fluorescents. He shouldn’t still be there himself. There was a mumbled grunt at the other end. The articulacy of youth. “Devastated, I should think Danny. Shattered, yes? Would that be fair? I feel for you, Danny. And your poor mum too. Ripped from your hearts. When’s the funeral? I’ll make sure I’m there. No, no, I wouldn’t think of not coming, Danny. It’s the least I could do, for the old guy,” he said in a voice that would accept no disagreement. “And it’s dreadful about the local newspapers.”
“The papers? What about them?” So the boy could manage complete phrases. There was hope yet. Jason doodled a gallows on a page of his notepad.
“Don’t you know? Didn’t they tell you?”
Danny didn’t know. Jason thumped the desk in front of him with his fist. “Typical! Journalists. Listen, you should be thankful I phoned. I hear things. Tomorrow’s editions. All over the front pages. They’re going to say it was suicide.” One of the distant juniors stood up and stretched with an agonised groan.
“Suicide by truck. Your father removed himself from the gene pool. No offence, Danny. It’s a common tragedy. Man has problems at work. Man fights with wife. Man is rejected by children. Man throws himself in front of Sainsbury’s frozen food shipment on Chalk Farm Road.”
“It was an accident.”
“There’s no reason to pretend, Danny. I know about the family problems.” There were always family problems. He waited, biro poised, for confirmation.
“Not that much. And the AA meetings were helping, he told us.”
Jason noted ‘Drink’ and dropped his voice in further enthusiastic sympathy. “The rows. The bitter fights. He shared it all with me. What was it you last argued about? Friends? Homework? School grades?”
“My grades weren’t that bad -”
Jason wrote, ‘Rows over grades.’ “And with your mum. Dreadful…”
“That was over months ago.”
He jotted, ‘Bit on the side?’“The affair… Who was she?”
“He had an affair?”
“Sammy always said -”
Jason froze, bowed forward. “Your dad always said to me -” But it was too late.
“Nobody ever called my father, Sammy. Who are you?”
Jason laughed in a friendly manner. The juniors looked round briefly. “I told you, a mate.”
“Are you that guy from the local paper?”
He stopped laughing. “Put me on to your mum.”
The teenager’s voice rose. “Fuck off. She said she didn’t want to speak to you.”
“That’s not a good idea, Danny. Let me tell you what tomorrow’s headlines are going to read in the Camden Herald. They’re going to say, Abusive Alcoholic Father Truck Death. Is that what you want? Marital unrest. Family turmoil. Father rows with son over grades and then tops himself. Or do you want us to hear your side of the story?”
“My mum already told you, she wasn’t going to talk to anybody.”
“How about: ‘Son admits dad’s AA drink problem’?”
“That was off the record.”
Jason sighed deeply. He leant back and gazed at the dusty office ceiling. “Nothing’s off the record, Danny. Life’s not off the record. You know what brings people down. It’s not their flaws, it’s the lies they tell. We have a free Press and it’s best to speak to us. We just want the truth. The Camden Herald could be on your side -”
The boy slammed the phone down. Jason shrugged, screwed up his scribbled notes and tossed them into the nearest bin. He had what he needed.
He tapped out a thirteen-par story about the accident and included two quotes from the distressed son. Serve him right for not co-operating. People imagined a free Press kept functioning despite their lack of help. One day they’d turn round and find it gone. All around his workstation lay the last week’s newspapers, like piles of autumn leaves. He loved their jumble and musty, dry smell. At the far end, the pair of juniors remained hunched over their computers like they were plotting revolution. If only. An ambulance wailed in the night somewhere in Chalk Farm. Jason finished the piece. He’d hoped it would be good enough to sell on to a tabloid, but it was too thin, so he filed it for the Herald.
Instead he snatched up his mobile, but the first number he tried went straight to voicemail. A bright voice told him his call mattered. He agreed. The second call went to voicemail. This one didn’t bother to lie.
The third number answered.
“What’s going down, Andy?” he said with convivial warmth.
“Hi, Jason. I’m fine. Cheryl’s fine. Duane’s fine. Nice of you to ask.”
“How are you, Andy? Are you all fine, Andy? That’s great, Andy. Pleased to hear it. Are you at the police station? It sounds very weird there.” Jason could hear an erratic electronic bleep and a radio playing Bengali hip-hop. He inspected the nearest of four disposable Costa cups by his monitor, but the coffee in it had been drunk hours before.
“I’m buying emergency nappies, aren’t I? And I’m late. Cheryl will kill me and then the Duty Inspector will kill me more. You’re not still working, are you?”
Jason liked Andy. Andy Rockham was a friend. And solid. And he was his third best contact. “Not at all. You sound like you need a drink. Friend to friend.”
“And you want a story.”
Jason felt deeply hurt. It was not fair of his friend to defame his motivations, even if he was right. Friendship demanded a certain degree of dishonesty. “All the more reason to book in that drink. Call me a Covert Human Intelligence Source. Claim on expenses.”
“I have nothing for you.”
“Hey, buddy, sling me something I can take to the nationals. My career is as upwardly mobile as my self-esteem. I’m on the down escalator to local journalism hell. Tam’s given me an article about schoolchildren dressing up as zoo animals to help deprived geriatrics. We even have photos of them painting their faces. The kids, not the geriatrics. Do you suppose there are actually people in Camden who like reading this kind of thing, or are we just adding to the suicide rate?”
“It sounds heart-warming.”
Jason twirled a rubber band between his fingers. “It’s this kind of story that gives high-school massacres a good name. My journalistic skills are turning to McFlurry… What about this big raid I keep hearing about?”
Andy said nothing for a long moment. Jason could hear two people arguing over the sell-by date on a prune yoghurt. An array of little pink and green hippopotamuses danced onto his computer screen. Googling for ideas, he’d found this online game. Angry Hippos. It was remarkably taxing. The challenge of spotting and killing your rival’s pachyderms while your own gang ate the petunias was proving, in his humble opinion, to be up there with black-belt judo and becoming a parent. His current nemesis was Iris, a ten-year-old competitor from Dagenham, whose skill in exploding mammals rivalled the big-game hunters of old. If she was indeed a ten-year-old girl and not a sweaty fifty-year-old paedophile on the trawl. Jason tried to believe the best of people but his job didn’t help. Andy came back eventually.
“I’m not on any raid, am I? I’m buying nappies. And once I clock in, I’m straight out again.”
“To the raid?”
“No, Jason, to A&E. It’s a bollocks job. No interest for you there.”
A third of his hippos blew up in a myriad coloured blobs. Iris ratcheted another thousand points on the scoreboard and messaged a suspiciously mature “Suck on that.”
“Which hospital? What’s happening?”
“Down, boy. Wait for the press release.”
“I’m down already, Andy. I’m down so far I can see the sheep in New Zealand. Give me a hint. A postcode. I can work out the rest for myself.” Jason tried desperately to keep the desperation out of his voice. On the far side of the newsroom, one of the juniors pulled on a brown parka, ready to leave for the night. “If you’re off to A&E then there’s someone in trouble and the nation deserves to hear.”
“Listen, Jason. I can’t talk to you.”
“Me or any other intelligent, insightful, investigative journalist?”
There was another significant pause.“Andy?”
“No direct communication. An order from the top.”
Jason sat bolt upright. “That’s censorship of the Press. I’m going to the Police Complaints Commission. Hear that tapping? That’s me on the computer making a formal complaint.”
“What have I done wrong?”
Andy mentioned a number of recent articles.
“Come on! What do you want me to do? Cover up the truth? Lie to the readers of the Camden Herald? Pretend your bosses didn’t screw up?” Andy’s silence suggested this might indeed be the case. Jason slapped the side of his chair. “I still have principles, Andy. Even if you don’t.”
But DC Rockham just grunted and asked what would happen if he bought nappies that were two sizes too large.
“It doesn’t bear imagining. I’ll ring you in half an hour.”
“Then I’ll -” But Andy had cut him off. He’d never done that before and Jason stared at the Nokia’s display trying to convince himself that it was an accident or a lost signal. This was most definitely not good. A journalist was only as good as his contacts. In front of him, five more of his hippopotamuses met their maker. After an appropriate period of mourning, Jason picked up his office phone and dialled a number from memory.
Many times, later, he’d wish he hadn’t.