The Bad Ones Are Always the Best
by Michelle Ann King
Marty’s grandson takes the cup of tea he’s offered — without saying thank you, mind — and stares at it dubiously, as if he doesn’t know what it is. Marty wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t; kids all seem to be brought up on vitamin water and kale juice, these days.
‘Drink up,’ he says, nodding encouragingly. Marty’s cuppas are the real thing: brewed until they’re the colour of brick dust and made with full-fat milk, four sugars and a thimble of whisky. ‘It’ll put hairs on your chest.’
Gary — no, Garrett; Marty’s been corrected on that point at least twice already — doesn’t seem impressed by the thought. No doubt he’d just have to wax them off afterwards, because God forbid he should spoil any of the smooth surfaces and rounded corners. The kid looks like he’s been popped out of some kind of designer mould, all rough edges pre-sanded off. Model no. 87: Corporate Tax Consultant.
Marty can just imagine Robert and his snooty wife picking that one out of a catalogue. No wonder they kept their distance all these years; didn’t want their perfect creation spoiled by messing about with an old man who used to work with his hands and misses the days when kids wanted to be astronauts and explorers when they grew up, not accountants.
Garrett puts his cup down — without using a coaster, the fucking heathen — and gives Marty a big Hollywood smile. In the living room’s fading light, his whitened teeth go off like a flashbulb.
Marty returns the grin, giving it full dentures. The boy followed his nose here in the end, though. That’s something.
Garrett turns his attention back to Marty’s computer. He’s offered to do his old grandad a favour and see if it needs updating, or cleaning up, or whatever. Starting with Marty’s online banking account, he notices, before the kid angles the screen away.
‘So,’ Garrett says casually. ‘Have you always lived around here, Grandad? In Silvertown? That’s what it’s called, where you were born?’
Marty nods and gives him an approving grin — although he can’t help rolling his eyes a little, too. He might prefer life in the flesh — red in tooth and claw, and all that — to the dubious pleasures of the virtual world, but he still understands the concept of security questions. So while the lad gets points for initiative, he loses more for clumsiness.
Marty grins again. If Robert could see this, he’d be positively mortified. Not only has the kid reverted to undesirable type, but he’s shit at it. ‘That’s right. Silvertown. All one word,’ he adds helpfully.
The boy flashes another smile as he taps away, fingers flying over the keyboard. His nails are very short, very clean. Buffed. At his age, Marty would’ve been embarrassed to have manicured fingernails. His were always filthy and ragged, broken in a dozen places from climbing and scrabbling and fighting.
It’s different now, of course — these days, parents freak out if their precious kids so much as pop their heads outside the door without an armed security detail — but the past, as they say, was a different world.
Marty smiles. Literally.
‘And did you have a pet, Grandad? What was it, the first pet you had?’
‘Dog. Fierce little thing, he was. Half Pit Bull, half fuck knows what. Wolverine, maybe. Or hell hound.’
Another bright smile, another click of the mouse. ‘Uh huh. And what was his name?’
Marty can’t resist. ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’ he says, then laughs as the boy’s fingers go still and his eyes wide. ‘I’m kidding. It was Killer.’
‘Oh.’ Garrett gives Marty an uncertain glance, then laughs too. ‘Right.’ His hands go back to the keyboard.
Marty dunks a Hob Nob in his tea. ‘Don’t suppose your dad ever got you a dog, did he?’
The kid shakes his head. ‘I’m allergic.’
Of course he is. Tax consultants are bound to be allergic to anything beyond screens and numbers and climate-controlled offices. God forbid they should ever know the dirt and danger, the fun and freedom, of the real world. Or any other.
‘You don’t know what you’re missing. We had some right good adventures in our day — like the time we found the portal.’
‘Uh huh,’ Garrett says, focused on the screen.
Marty smiles again. He’d been with Kenny and Eddie from down the street, playing cops and robbers on the local building site. They’d had the time of their lives, chasing Eddie’s little brother over piles of bricks and rubble, through pipes, up scaffolding and down holes. We’ll get you, copper!
‘So we’ve got Joey cornered in this great big trench, where they’re digging the foundations. It’s over; there’s nowhere for him to go. But when we jump in there, he’s gone. There’s all these roots, worms, bugs — big, weird bugs — but no Joey. We can’t work it out. So Eddie’s kicking at it, looking to see if there’s some kind of tunnel or something, and the next thing we know, he’s gone straight through the wall and disappeared.’
‘Uh huh,’ Garrett says.
It’d come as a bit of a shock, of course, finding the portal. But once they calmed down, it made sense. For posh kids, yeah, doorways to other worlds would be found at the back of wardrobes stuffed with fur coats — but for the likes of Marty and his mates, they’d appear in dirty great holes in the middle of building sites. It made perfect sense.
‘It was just like in the stories,’ he says. ‘Time was different on the other side.
It felt like we were over there forever before we caught up with Ed. Before we found his little brother.’ Or what was left of him, by that point. Again, this portal hadn’t been like the ones in the kids’ books.
It’d been much more fun.
‘Where it went wrong,’ he goes on, ‘is that Kenny told people what really happened. Where we went, what we saw. What we did. Poor Ed never said a word — never spoke again, as far as I know — but Kenny told the truth.’
Which rarely does anyone any favours, honestly. Marty, who understood that, told the story people wanted to hear — or no, not really; nobody wanted to hear that kind of thing. But at least they could understand it.
Things weren’t like they are now, with people seeing murderers and kidnappers on every street corner, but the concept wasn’t exactly unknown, either. So Marty told everyone — his parents, the police, the doctors — about an old fella in a raincoat, who asked them to help find his lost dog. He told them how Joey stayed searching after the rest of them got bored and went back to their game — until finally, they realised how long he’d been gone, and went searching for him too.
It was a horrible story, yes — but the bad ones are always the best. And while people might not have been happy about believing Marty’s version of events, at least they could. Which was a lot more than you could say about Kenny’s.
‘Uh huh,’ Garrett says. He’s frowning at the screen again, a disappointed expression on his face. Looks like he finally got into the accounts, then.
Marty takes pity. ‘I wouldn’t worry yourself about all that banking stuff,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t matter if that’s out of date, or whatever, because I don’t really use it. Not a big fan of banks. Numbers on screens, and all that. I like proper money. Real money, that you can hold in your hand.’
The boy’s head comes up. ‘You mean… you keep your money in cash?’ His gaze flicks around the room. ‘In the house?’
‘You haven’t touched your tea,’ Marty says reproachfully, and Garrett obediently picks up his mug. He takes a mouthful, coughs violently, and just about manages a smile. ‘Lovely, Grandad. So, er… you were saying?’
Marty nods. ‘I was saying about my old mate Kenny, yes. In and out of nuthouses, hospitals and prisons for years, he was. Last time he got out, he came round here. He thought he was an exorcist or something, on a mission to rid the world of evil.’
Marty shakes his head sadly. Poor bastard. ‘Nothing but skin and bone, he was. Said he was living on the nourishment of righteousness, or some bollocks. I gave him a nice cup of tea and a packet of custard creams. Perked him right up.’
Garrett shifts in his chair, all fidgety impatience. Kids have got no attention span, these days. No sense of commitment. In the old days, you picked a path and you stuck to it. Like Kenny, bless him. Like Marty himself.
‘Of course,’ he says, before Garrett can interrupt, ‘then he tried to kill me and set the house on fire, so maybe inviting him for tea and biscuits wasn’t such a great idea.’
The boy’s eyes widen and he starts paying attention again. There’s nothing like a bit of death and destruction to focus the mind.
‘He realised, you see, about the house. I don’t know how he worked it out, but he did. So of course, he thought it was evil. Cursed ground, or something.’
Garrett looks confused. ‘The house?’
Marty nods, gesturing around the room. ‘This is where it was, you see. The portal. This estate, it’s what they were building when we found it. That great big trench we were playing in, it was the foundations for this house. I watched it go up, brick by brick and wall by wall. Never forgot it. Worked like a mad bastard, I did, to get the money to buy it. Took fifteen years and some really dodgy jobs, but I got there in the end. Lived here ever since.’
‘The… portal?’ Garrett says. He still looks confused. That’s what you get for not listening properly. Forgotten art, listening.
Marty listened to Kenny, when he came round. He ranted and raved for days, about what it’d been like over there — about evil, and monsters, and all manner of horrors. And Marty listened to every word, because they’d been mates, and because he felt sorry for the poor bastard — nobody else had ever believed him.
Plus, he found the whole thing pleasantly nostalgic. His own memories had already started wearing a bit thin from repeated fondling by then, so it was quite nice to get a fresh perspective.
‘What happened to him?’ Garrett wants to know. ‘Kenny?’
‘Nobody knows,’ Marty lies. ‘He’d done a runner by the time the police turned up. They never found him.’
That part, at least, is true. Again, it was different in those days: they didn’t have all that high-tech CSI stuff, fibres and databases and DNA. And Marty was a fine upstanding homeowner while Kenny Rudow was a known offender with no fixed address and a history of mental illness. Case closed.
For a while, Marty had hoped Kenny might turn out to be the missing ingredient, the key that would turn the lock, but no joy. He’d been trying his damnedest ever since he’d moved in, obviously — begging, pleading, bringing it offerings — but even when he brought it Kenny, he got nowhere. The portal stayed shut.
Later he started wondering if it was an age thing: if it only opened for kids. Which was a trickier theory to test, since a single man living on his own didn’t get much cause to invite children to come and play in the hole underneath his floorboards. And unlike homeless nutters, kids would get missed.
It’d be easier if he had his own, he realised in the end — hence Janice, and then little Robert.
But Robert wasn’t exactly an adventurous kid, that was the trouble. Not exactly a chip off the old block. He never wanted to play cops and robbers, or soldiers, or even underground explorers. He cried at the slightest bruise, was terrified of bugs and knives and anything with teeth, and practically fainted at the sight of blood. If the boy hadn’t been the spit of him physically, Marty would’ve done some serious questioning of Janice’s virtue.
He finishes his tea with a slurp and fishes out the soggy remnants of biscuit with his finger. He did think about having another go, but Janice had started to cause trouble by then, and the whole thing had been such hard work, and such a disappointment, that he couldn’t face going back to square one. So he let Robert grow up and go his own way — he became a poet, just to add one final humiliation — and mostly gave up on trying to get the portal open.
But now there’s Garrett, and it feels as if maybe he’s being given one final chance. The boy’s older than he would have liked, and an idiot, but he’s still got Marty’s blood in his veins. And he’s at least got a bit more oomph than his father. Cyber fraud, or whatever you’d call it, isn’t exactly Most Wanted stuff, but it isn’t poetry, either. Maybe there’s hope for the kid, with the right encouragement. The right environment.
Maybe the portal will think so, too.
Garrett does an elaborate stretch and stands up. ‘You get stiff sitting down too long, don’t you, Grandad? Maybe we could walk about a bit — you could give me a tour of the house, if you like.’
‘Good idea.’ Marty snaps his fingers, as if he’s just had the thought. ‘Here, why I don’t I show you where I keep the money? You can tell me if you think it’s safe enough.’
‘Okay, sure. I’m happy to help.’ Garrett gives him another smile, although it’s less dazzling this time. The pills dissolved in his tea are probably starting to make themselves felt.
‘It’s right this way,’ Marty says. ‘In the back room, under the floorboards. You might have to get down there and dig around for a bit, though. You haven’t got to rush off, have you? Your dad not expecting you home?’
Garrett yawns and shakes his head. The smile turns a little conspiratorial. ‘I didn’t actually tell him I was coming to see you.’
Marty grins and slaps the kid soundly on the back, hard enough to bruise. Garrett winces and lets out a surprised oof, but at least he doesn’t start crying. Good lad.
‘Chip off the old block,’ Marty says happily, with a little touch of pride — and hope — in his heart.