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Bareknuckles Pulp No. 17: Kin

We're staying with the family theme this week here at the Bareknuckles Pulp Dept. Right fucked up, this one is.

Kin by Gareth Spark



It was the best hand of Paul's life and he was out of money. Paul looked through the outlawed cigarette smoke at his brother-in-law, Tom, sitting at the bar of the Working Man's Club. Tom had been laid off from the steel works a month back, him and 200 others, and they'd all been given something. It was hard to think through the whisky fuzz, but something like an idea caught fire as he stared at the little bastard.

Hail hit the dark window behind him like gravel as he turned back to the hand; three-of-a-kind Aces, with a King and a Queen as side cards - his heart kicked up at his ribs and it felt like flame was rushing over his skin. Dale Mullany, seated opposite, puffed at a cigarette and looked at his own cards with hard black eyes, then over at his younger brother, Jig.

'You out then?' he asked, dragging the vowels over a broken Irish accent.

Jig glared back, a dangerous, thinner version of the older man, same darkness, same scruffy beard and long hair. Paul always wondered why the two richest men he knew chose to look like tramps.

'I'm out,' Jig answered.

Dale nodded towards Tom, who was leaning over the bar, whispering in a young girl's ear. 'And I thought if you were unlucky in love you had to be good at cards, boy. Seems they was wrong.'
Jig glared over at Tom and swore quietly.

Dale glanced up at Paul, whose naturally red face had deepened a few shades. 'What about you?'

Paul swallowed, his throat was dry. He saw the money piled in front of him, heard a woman laugh from the barroom and saw how it would go: he'd lay the greasy cards down, grab the notes; then go on home and buy out that bitch of a sister, get her off the farm at last. She was all about money, just like her mother.

‘Listen,' he said, 'let me go have a word with Tom; he's been laid off, got his redundancy. He can stand the money for me.'

'Can he?'

Paul nodded. 'I put up with 'em on my land, they owe me.'

Dale looked through the smoke at the bar and dragged on a cigarette. He held his cards carelessly in one hand. They were the only two still in the game. The others watched through the dark. 'Jig,' Dale said, 'bring that idiot over here.'

Jig flashed one of his rare smiles and rose from the table. He walked through and grabbed young Tom by the neck. The latter squealed and spilled his drink as he was marched through into the back room.

'What've I done?' he squeaked. He was a small man and Jig moved him easily.

'Enough,' Jig said, 'but we'll save that for another time.'

'Meg told you to leave me alone.'

Jig lifted Tom up by the collar of his jacket and stared hard into his face. 'And that's just like you, to be hiding behind a woman. I should....'

'Let him go,' Dale growled, 'there's money at stake here, money, and that's more important than falling out over some lass... again.' He sighed. 'Tom, this fat get here said you'll stake him for this hand. Well?'

'I...I don't have any money.'

'What about this cash from the plant?'

'I spent it, obviously.'

Dale laughed. 'Sorry, Farmer Giles,' he said, turning to Paul, 'looks like you lose this time.'

Paul felt the world turn like a wheel at the corner of his eye and the words fell from him,

'Can't you take an IOU? I have the money at home, I promise.'

Dale shrugged and stubbed out his cigarette. 'I could, but if you lose that means you'd owe me, and that isn't like owing a bank or the water board. You'd pay me back, or we'd fall out, you and me, and that's not something you want.'

Paul looked down at his cards; he wasn't going to lose. 'Fair enough.'

'Go on then.'

The farmer smiled and fanned the cards out in front of him. 'Three of a kind.' He couldn't stop himself grinning.

Dale raised his thick black eyebrows. 'That's a good hand,' he drawled. He spread his own cards on the table. 'Straight flush.'

Paul heard Jig snort close by him and stared down at the cards. Hailstones smashed into the glass behind him and he felt his hands start to shake.

* * *

Megan fed her child by the window; she glanced out across the yard at a coughing diesel tractor parked up before the grey wood of the barn door. 'How long's it going to take him?' She said to the baby. The room stank of exhaust fumes, but the child was content, and she didn't wish to disturb him by rising to slam the window closed. She heard the rapid crunch of feet on snow and the breath fell cold in her chest. Paul was coming at last. Heavy boots thundered on the wood stairs and the bedroom door smashed onto dark. He stood there; his orange boiler suit was spattered with cow shit and oil. He spat when he spoke, 'I want it back.'

'What?'

'You know what.'

'Paul, I'm breastfeeding.'

'I don't give a shit; I want my money back, every penny.'

'Money?'

He leaned in close; his breath was sour. 'I know you've been round and had it. I bloody know you have. Cash I hid in the barn, where Dad kept his.'

'Had it all along then, did you?' She spoke clearly. He was 35, in his prime; 7 inches over 6 feet tall, but he hadn't frightened her in a long time. 'I hope it was coming my way. I told you, get me my money and you can have this shithole all for yourself. That's the deal.'

'Yes, I know,' he shouted, 'but things have changed. I need that money, or...'

She covered herself and stood, pushing the child close to her skin. Paul looked down at her as she carried the baby to its cot. 'I want you to leave,' she said, calmly. 'You can't storm in and blow up whenever you like. Until you come up with what I want this is my home, and you know better than to try and push me about.'

'This is my land, mine, and I won't be robbed of it. Evil just like your mother, twisted. '

'Then we share something, brother,' she said, staring hard into his eyes. Breath blasted through his nose. 'Now get out.' He continued to stare; his face burned. 'Go on, what would Dad say if he saw you like this?'

'Only reason I put up with you is due to him, because I promised; well enough's enough. Either I get that money back today, or I'll drag you and that creature there by the scruff of the fuckin' neck and chuck you in the snow.' He paced, winding himself tighter and tighter. 'I've had enough.'

'Not while my name's on them papers,' she snapped. 'You can't touch me, Dad made sure of it, and don't forget I have a few friends round here. Go on, if you dare. I fucking dare you.'

'Don't think I bloody wouldn't. I'd of done it soon as the old man died, 'cept I give him me word; but that don't matter no more, not when it's my neck. '

She pushed towards him, started to yell, lifted her hand. He pulled back a fist and threw it down at her eye, knocked her flat back against the pine cot, then he was on her, slapping her face sideways, his sovereign ring cutting her milk skin, punching her again and again until the breath left him and he stood, dry heaving after the fury. She wept, quietly at first, holding her wet face with both hands. Blood ran through her trembling fingers.

'Look what you made me do now,' he said, his voice shaking like a broken flywheel. The child screamed from its bed. 'Just look what you've made me do.'

* * *

Megan walked up the slope of Gristhorpe village towards the Working Man's Club, pushing a stained pram through fresh fallen snow that was already turning grey. The long streets of the pit village stretched into the storm; wet slate roofs fading beneath twisting currents of snow. She grinned and felt the cut on her lip tear. She caught her reflection in the window of an abandoned shop and paused; she was smiling with blood on her teeth.

Their father was killed the year before. Refuelling the tractor with its engine running on a slope in the yard when it rolled forward, trapping him beneath the wheels. Shattered pieces of femur opened an artery and the old man appealed to his only son as the air ambulance tore up the yard dust, 'Look after Meg.'

They were half brother and sister, a decade between them, and Paul resented putting her up while his own mother was stuck in a Teesside bedsit. Meg wanted money that was all. Enough to get away from the village, from the past, enough to settle somewhere it was never cold. She thought Tom was her way out, but he loved the bottle before anything else. She had hoped her brother would see sense, not be so cheap, but he was as much a loser as anyone else in Gristhorpe. If she was going to get away, she was going to have to do it herself.

Jig was in the back, smoking in spite of the ban, alone at a chipped table. He wore a creased blue and white check shirt and his beard was black and thick against the pale winter light. He watched her roll the pram towards him over torn carpet. The village drunks leaning on the bar fell silent as she passed.

'Who the fuck did that?' he asked quietly, carrying more than a little of his father's Irish. She sat, studied the cigarette smoke drifting up into the window draft; her good eye shone like a wet road at night. He stared at her. 'Was it that bastard?'

He meant Tom, who was in town, killing his day in the bar of the George Hotel. She caught sight of a man walking over from her eye's limit and watched the way Jig waved him calmly away, without so much as looking.

'No.' She winced as she spoke. One of her teeth was loose.

'He was here last night,' said Jig, his black eyes staring at the smoke, 'spending money like water; never drawing a sober breath; Christ, Meg, why did you choose him?'

'He wasn't always like that.'

'Yes he was.'

She breathed deep, reached over for his cigarette and drew the smoke down into the shudders of her chest. His fists were pressed so hard the knuckles shone white against his dark skin.

She said, 'I'm in trouble, Jig.' Then she told him, and all the time she spoke a stream of tears cut down her cheeks.

'That's a lot of money,' he said when she'd finished, 'and he reckons you have it, does he?' He was looking at her swollen closed eye. 'How you get here if Tom's out playing?'

'I walked.'

'You walked nine miles over the moors,' he said, 'with a bairn, through the snow?' He bit his lip hard and looked away. 'That's what your own brother let you do?'

'I had to see you.' She reached over and touched his hand. The baby stirred in the pram and he glanced at the shifting blankets beneath the rain cape. She saw a spark hit off the flint of his expression. His skin was warm to her tear-wet fingers. 'I don't have anyone else in this world,' she said, 'and I knew you'd never let me down. You never have.'

He looked back at her. Men laughed drunken goodbyes from the door and he waved dismissively. The pulse thumped wild against his throat. 'You remember that night we got in the car and pissed off driving,' he spoke quickly, 'headed up through Borough and down right over the country, down to Blackpool, spent the night in one of them B & B's? 19 years old and knowing nothing of the shit this world was brewing for us.'

'We called it the day we saw two seas,' she said, absent-mindedly fingering the purple flesh swollen up like a buried tree root across her face. 'North Sea and Irish Sea; you were joking we should have gone down to the airport, flown off anywhere, called it the day we saw three.'

'But you had to get back for your Mam,' he said.

'The year she passed.' Meg's voice shrank. The baby moaned behind her. 'I was grateful for that day.'

'Could have been others like it,' he said. His voice was odd and tight. 'Could have been a whole life like it.'

'You know that's not how it works, Jig, not the way Dad was with you, not when Tom had a future.' She laughed.

'No-one knows how the cards are gonna fall,' he said, 'me old Gran used to say that; 800 quid.' He shook his head. 'Your own brother, turning your face to meat; that bastard, your own kin; what kind of man does that.'

'He said the money was gonna save his neck.'

Jig frowned, looked away to the window. 'You leave it with me,' he said. 'My mate there'll run you back up home when you're ready. Leave it with me and don't worry no more about it.' He kissed her hands and she felt him shake. 'You've got me.'

* * *

Paul stood in the south field, looking down over Beulah Wood, 30 square miles of black pines and firs, thick beneath the snow and night. He had a fire going, burning what was left of Megan's old stable. He'd demolished it that afternoon after watching the girl fight into a blizzard with her bastard child, first thing to go. The flames curled over pink snow towards the heaving darkness of the forest. His face was red in the glow, and he bent back when the wood popped, then forward again, leaning out with an old pitchfork, moving broken pieces of door and timber into the fire's belly. The ground around the fire was dark and wet where the snow had melted away and he didn't hear the man behind him until that voice rang out clear over the howl of flames.

'Paul.'

He span round. His lower lip quivered wet in the glow and his voice was high. 'Oh, now then Jig, how are you, mate?' He smiled, and then the smile was knocked down. 'Tell your brother I have his money, I've got it, I mean, what I mean is, someone's getting it for me. I know I'm late, but I've got it.'

'I'm not here about my brother's business,' Jig said softly, looking forward into the fire. His black Irish eyes were filled with the inferno's glow and he stroked his beard with one hand as he spoke. He wore mud-stained jeans and a shapeless donkey jacket and his hair was wet with snow. 'You remember when I knew your sister?'

'I remember you seeing her a while....' the farmer stammered, confusion stamped on his face.
'But that was all over a while back, what's any of it to do with me? She been running to you? What would you give a fuck about her for? She dropped you like a fucking hot brick, mate, first chance she got. They're all the same.' He retreated, then realised his back was to the fire. He felt it scorch the hairs at the back of his neck. 'After the way she dropped you, why would you give a shit?'

'A man like you, Paul, you could never understand.'

He swung the ball hammer he'd cradled behind him and caught the taller man's temple with a crack of bone. Paul staggered, eyes rolling; the shape of his skull was wrong. Then Jig brought the hammer down on the farmer's forehead and knocked him into the blaze. His oil stained boiler suit quickly took up the flame as he lay over blackened wood. Jig dropped the hammer, lifted the pitchfork and carefully moved Paul's legs into the fire. He stood a moment watching the flames work, and then looked over at the trees. A man can hide anything in there, his brother had said, believe me.

* * *

Meg watched the distant bonfire from the highest window in the cottage. It was no more than a little ball of light against the black land. Her baby screeched downstairs but she left him. He'd cried himself to sleep before, and would do again. She turned from the glass and walked over to a makeup box on top of a pine dresser at the foot of the bed. Tom had seen the card game, seen Paul lose and borrow a grand more from Jig's older brother to keep on playing. They were losers, all of them. If they weren't caught by their own folly, then they were caught in a bottle or by love, or duty, or loyalty or the land. She lifted the banknotes from the box, 400 pounds, what was left of Paul's money after she'd given Tom half to leave and never return. She would never be caught, nor would her child, the only kin she had now. They would flow through this world like a river of fire and this cold place would be far behind and long ago. Megan had the world now. She looked back at the flame through the window. Whatever the farm sold for in the end would be enough.


Gareth Spark writes dark fiction from and about the moors and rustbelts of North East England where grudges are savoured, shotguns are cheap and people get by in the economic meltdown any way they can. His work has appeared at Near 2 the knuckle and Shotgun Honey.