Charley’s heart was in the art of the confidence game, but he got his regular income from peddling drugs. I only saw him push dope, but I know he also sold smack, and I’m certain he did other stuff as well.
Don’t ask me if or how that is connected to Bryan and Leeds, but, well, it’s hard to avoid that conclusion, innit? On the other hand, jumping to conclusions can be a dangerous thing. As I later figured out, Charley probably was involved in other rackets as well, corruption, blackmail, and who knows what. Back then I thought that none of that mattered to me. I had nothing to do with his side jobs, all we had in common was the games we played and the marks we shook down.
But sometimes, when we were together, he met some peeps on some corner, in some park or some pub for a quick sell. That was what he did in that bar in Leith, near the port, that one night at the end of my first week in Edinburgh.
Outside it was pouring cats and dogs, and so I went inside as well. The bar – I have forgotten the name – was narrow, dark, and crowded, and smelled of wet wool and spilt beer. Charley was making his round, having a gab here and there, shaking hands, handing out little folded pieces of paper and palming equally folded bills in return.
I trailed behind him and passed the time studying his techniques. He had some sweet moves, and I thought I ought to trade a couple of handshakes with him, and practice that passing off routine, but on the whole I decided I was the better sleight-of-hand artist. Of course, I would never be able to charm peeps as easily and effectively as he could. Deceive them, yes. Manipulate them, sometimes. Charm – not a chance.
Usually Charley got out of these places as soon as he was done. That night, though, he bought a pint of stout for each of us instead.
“Here you go, Bobby,” he shouted over the general din.
“Ta!” I shouted back. “We’re not leaving?”
“Nah. You don’t want to miss this.”
“Give’em a minute. They’ll be on soon.”
He pointed to a set of drums a heavily tattooed bloke was setting up in one corner. Two others in torn jeans, faded t-shirts and wearing studded black leather belts, bracelets, and dog collars were messing around with dodgy looking cables and an old set of amps and loudspeakers.
“Who are they?”
“Ah, the finest crappy band you’ll ever hear.”
“What do they play?”
At that Charley had to laugh. “Ponyboy is one of my regular customers. Fag like you.”
As far as I could tell Charley was pretty straight – blokes just didn’t rattle his kettle was how he put it – but he was about the least homophobic straight bloke I ever met. He had no problem embracing me, or walking around with an arm over my shoulder. He didn’t mind playing queer for our games, either, and when he did, he never camped it up. No floppy wrists or falsetto voice. When he played queer he was simply himself, only that he allowed the same possessive greed to creep into his eyes when checking out male butts that he usually reserved for his kind of ladies – the ones with a tramp stamp peeking out above low slung jeans, boobs straining against the top, and about a pound of war paint concealing their faces.
He played it well, too. The way his eyes undressed and nearly devoured me each time we played the Teen Ticket – the way disdain mixed with raw, physical desire in his gaze – even after all that has happened since, even after Charley’s eventual monstrous betrayal and all it cost me, I still shiver thinking of it.
So when he called me a fag, in a fucked up way that was meant as a compliment. You know: “I’m so cool with you, I can use the bad word, cuz we’re brothers.”
The pub had no stage or anything. When the two blokes were done with the amps, they simply climbed onto the bar. One of them had a battered Ibanez electric guitar, the other held a mike in his hand. Their man at the drums started in with, well, I suppose it was a solo, or maybe just a noisy wake up call. The Ibanez followed, screeching scratchily, and finally the singer followed suit.
He was too drunk to be able to stand properly on the narrow bar, so for the most part he knelt on it, using his free hand to steady himself, while he screamed into the mike. It was absolutely atrocious. The crowd loved it and cheered them on in their drunken and stoned ineptness. And whenever the singer’s knees or palm slipped on the beer-slick bar and he crashed with his crotch or chin onto the hard, wooden top, everybody hooted and jeered.
“Aren’t they great?” Charley shouted when the singer accidentally tore the cable from the guitar and the guitarist kicked him hard into the shoulder with heavy combat boots, almost knocking the singer from the bar, and finally stomped hard on his hand.
“Which one is Ponyboy?”
I was hoping for the drummer – he was stocky, with a square forehead, a square jaw, and a fleshy face, but with intense, stormy eyes that blazed as he pounded away at his drums – as if he was chopping enemies to bits with a battle axe.
“Him.” Charley pointed at the singer. Just then the guitarist had plugged his instrument back in, and they continued, Ponyboy cradling his stomped on hand, and screaming through split and bleeding lips.
He was a tall, lanky bloke. He wore hi-top basketball boots, black patent leather with a neon green Nike arrow and neon pink laces, skin tight, black patent leather trousers, and a black tank top with a glittering picture of My Little Pony “riding” Hello Kitty. His arms, shoulders, and neck were heavily tattooed, and a half dozen piercings gleamed in his face. His hair was short, wet, and died a very artificial black. But the best was his eyes: laughing crazily while at the same time crying in quiet despair.
Just then, he threw up. Without warning he puked all over himself, the bar, the draft levers, and the patrons in the front row. And he didn’t stop singing, just continued with oatmeal coloured puke hanging in glistening strings from his chin.
But the pub owner started shouting at him. Ponyboy ignored it. Still screaming his profanities into the mike he just kicked backwards – like a pony – at the annoying voice behind him. The pub owner fended off his foot, grabbed him by the ankle, and dragged him from the bar. Ponyboy’s head thumped against the bar and the steel counter behind the bar. I had to think of Winnie-the-Pooh, and Christopher Robin dragging him down the stairs.
“No way, you sick pup!” Charley shouted at me, grinning wildly.
Ponyboy’s band-mates just went on playing as if nothing had happened.
“What?” I shouted back.
Instead of answering, Charley grabbed me between my legs, making me only too aware of my hard on.
“You really dug this sick shite, eh?”
I half started to bristle, but then instead simply grinned at Charley, half embarrassed, half defiant. Let me tell you: It felt great not to deny it.
“Go ahead,” Charley nodded towards the back door, through which the owner had dragged Ponyboy. “Go to him, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I hesitated for a moment. I hadn’t actually considered doing anything that daring, but now that Charley said it, I understood that I wanted to, very much. Well, it’s the confidence artist’s job to know his mark’s hidden desires better than the mark does himself, innit? And as I said, Charley was a confidence artist at heart.