You first encounter the eponymous Barry Sherbet just as he’s moved house. Years and years of scams, card games and bets have finally paid off. His prior residence, the generic council house, bequeathed to him by his woeful father, resided in the kind of area where caravans are often parked in the driveway. This has been traded in for the promise of respectability provided by the suburbanise dream of a ‘sensationally wonderful’ four bedroom detached house. We’ll be kind and consider that a euphemism as Barry, after being left no choice by his third wife Gemma, finally relented and chose to believe in the ruse of social mobility. Barry being Barry, a man of the earth, who would never deign to change even if he could, he does of course still own a Caravan. But now, as a man of relative affluence, he can afford to leave it situated on the coast. It was a good place to decamp to if the scum where to get on to him, or someone’s trying to kill him, again, or, most likely, a place he can take one of those (relatively) inexpensive nineteen year old Eastern European girls to.
So, yes, there’s that, and, well you have every right to wonder what’s interesting about any of this? Well for a start there’s Barry. Barry is not just, just your common moronic chancer. When he was younger, his father, also named Barry (why, of course), instilled into him the expediency of self-confidence; ‘people are ruthless cunts, or they wish they could be, but really most of ‘em are timid – soft as shite, happy to take shit and live in it’ said Barry senior, ‘so you have to be the biggest most deviant type cunt of the lot. That’ll put you ahead in life, and even if it doesn’t at least you’ll be interesting’. We must consider that to be prophetic proclamation. Barry junior, then, is a victim of both nurture and nature colliding, colluding even, to cause irreparable damage.
In Barry’s chosen line of work, if I can have the temerity to call it that, and he would, failures are common and successes are scarce, and let’s be thankful for it, because when it comes to Barry in particular, failure is infinitely more interesting than success. We’re about to embark on a success, that, thanks to Barry, becomes a failure.
Appearances are important to Barry, even when he’s not scamming he’s acting the part, ‘yeah, you know, like some twat would practice for a job interview, or an exam, which, funnily enough I never have, but yeah, that’s the key, you gotta imagine how other folk want to see you. It’s about making ‘em comfortable, that’s when they’re liable to get complacent, int they?’ I would consider it complacent, even negligent, that Sherbet immediately took an interest in his next door neighbours as extortionists and confidence men, petty euphemisms for opportunists, are habitually prone too when assessing any new surroundings. The difference is most of them have the common sense not to ‘shit on their own doorstep’, as it were, but consider this – Barry believes his nature, his way of doing things, has lead him to his improved station. Frustratingly it’s hard to argue with the logic of this, especially as life has beaten an expedient cynicism into him. If the means equal the end result, and that result is a positive, the means can be justified. We should consider that in Barry’s case this contains an oxymoronic element, as acts of theft and blackmail are inherently risky, and to embrace risk requires one, in most cases, to eschew common sense.
Barry sniffed out Dickie Burn as a potential mark upon first sight. A trait he earned from his mother, who upon finally coming to her senses and dumping Barry senior, became a good spinster, ‘But to be fair people who try desperately hard to be normal are the easiest, they give it away.’ Dickie looked stiff when he tentatively nodded politely and said hello, as you tend to do during that odd period with people from round the way when their faces become familiar but their names are still elusive, ‘he’s definitely not a people person, and they tend not to be sure of themselves. As Gemma rightly put it “those two look like the sort who’d name their son Wayne or Lance”. I mean, it’s true, innit? But she really is a snob about irrelevant shit like that, but yeah, the Burns are straight batters, tight arses, normally the sort to be avoided, but I’m bored.’
Barry’s life of crime started inauspiciously. After dropping out of uni he tried to get into the money lending game. This was motivated by the trite hedonistic sadistic fantasies that beset many boys in their youth, mostly cheap grindhouse scenes of nailing people to the floor, or taking a blowtorch to them if they didn’t pay – the truth was Barry’s talents lay in being a petty thief and somewhat adroit gambler, both cards and horses. You can’t fault his ambition, but there were problems; one – Barry lacked money, two – he had an aversion to scarring violence and lastly – he isn’t a large chap, vertically anyway. Five foot eight isn’t an imposing figure, especially as it’s now coupled with a bald spot and a developing paunch, a symptom of compensatory and congratulatory decadence to offset the onset of middle age.
Thankfully the dream was extinguished when he stepped on the turf of the local heavy, and it wasn’t just for lending money either. Barry borrowed that money from the local heavy – Freddy ‘Ziploc’ Quince, or ‘Quincy’ to his mates. Quince acquired the nickname ‘Ziploc’ as he developed a penchant for saving people’s digits in plastic freezer bags then feeding them to his hounds later on. Such a fate would beset Barry, but as is usually the case with Barry, even in failure he managed to avoid disaster. Only three toes on his left foot were ‘Ziploc’d’ before Freddy became irritable at Barry’s ‘girlish’ screaming. Fortunately for Barry Quincy had a splitting headache that day and so Barry can still walk normally, at least, that’s the spun narrative Barry had to parrot. Freddy just didn’t want to be late for the game. Plus the clichés are wrong here, money lenders by their nature are subject to free market forces like any business, and killing clientele, or too many of them, is bad for business. Plus, Ziploc saw an opportunity to both punish Barry sufficiently, and therefore protect his reputation, and to make more money out of Barry, whose talents he recognised. Ever the optimist, Barry looks to learn from trying experiences, and his run in with Ziploc and subsequent years spent under his thumb taught Barry a lesson about successful extortion and how lucrative it could be from a victim’s perspective, ‘Look, mum always said, sometimes you get your arse kicked, but you gotta remain positive. When she got her benefits stripped, it just motivated her to steal even more to make up the difference. Before she got lung cancer and her looks went in the toilet she was brilliant at conning lonely old rich fellas, she went through one a year. As I always say I’m a character, and you’ve gotta use that, even though I’m a loathsome cunt, being a chirpy, funny type in adversity is interesting, people still admire it, dunt they? How have you only got seven toes Barry? Always gets them talking when we’re on holiday and or I wear me flip lops. Nobody gives a shit about boring people who have never had anything bad happen to them, like the Burns, well except the likes of me. And in time they’ll thank me, cause after I’m done with them they’ll be more interesting.’
Barry first made contact two weeks after moving in, it seemed like an appropriate amount of time for a formal rendezvous. And so it was – wine bottle in hand with a hamper of goodies, picked by Gemma Sherbet from an expensive Deli. Barry could sense from the solidity of Dickie’s jowl a reluctance at their presence. In particular he was uncomfortable at the novelty value his wife, Betty, seemed to derive from having people like the Sherbet’s as their neighbours. The X-Factor gene pool is only entertaining if it’s at a safe distance, confined to a media realm which can be switched off, but in your living room, potentially staining your settee? Not so much. This stiffened Barry’s resolve to fuck them over, somehow, anyhow, but the banalities of typical get-to-know-you conversation weren’t illuminating and he was preoccupied by suppressing the loquaciousness and biliousness of his gut. Barry was desperate to avoid corrupting the air with a despicably sulphuric fart. That could burn bridges, and singe the neighbour’s eyebrows, creating an impediment to gathering further intel.
From their first encounter Barry did glean was that Dickie was ex-army. The most crucial point was whether this could be used and how effective it could be? How content was the wife? Was he trained to kill? Unlikely, but it couldn’t be ruled it. Or, more likely, was he just some freight driver or mechanic, who did some basic training on the assault course or the shooting ranges? Was he a victim, as all men are, to vanity, to vacuous pride? Observing him and Betty together Barry smelled a rat. Dickie seemed to sort to be lead down paths he had no desire to tread, a prophetic interpretation, and yes, as you’ll see, my pun is intended.
Now that the ice had been broken via a formal introduction Barry was confident of building a level of trust that could lead to extricating sensitive information later on, ‘People want to talk, ‘bout anything, but mostly themselves. They’re obsessed with it. Everything’s about them, and why not? Why shouldn’t you try to make the world revolve around you as much as possible? Nobody else is gonna live your life for ya, are they? Everyone’s a star in their own show, and it’s up to you what kind of performer you wanna be. Bottom line, it’s about finding out how and where people are most comfortable talking about themselves.’ The Sherbet’s hosted a barbeque for all the neighbours a few weeks later. ‘Thankfully the weather was good, that could’ve fucked everything up, easy, and I dunno, but Dickie seemed a bit more open and less judgmental this time. Me and Gemma managed to plan it so we got him and Betty separated from each other’.
‘Say Barry, we’ve heard a few rumours about you.’
‘Oh yeah? What kind?’
‘Just that, you were involved in some rather dodgy stuff, years ago.’
‘Yeah, had a few run ins, when I was young, you know, as young lads like me tend to, nothing too serious right enough.’
There was an intermittent silence as Dickie pondered this and Barry knotted every sinew in his stomach to keep quiet. Barry focused on the meat he was incinerating, poking it gently and turning it with a deft panache even though it was fast approaching the point where overcooked meat creates the smell akin to fried fish, a fragrance that’s both appealing and oddly disgusting at the same time.
‘I had a few scrapes too, when I was in the Army.’
‘Yeah, Falklands, Kuwait, but there was drunken debauchery too, you know, pissing in public, the like.’
‘Right of passage that mate, at least you had the structure of the Army, you can’t be belligerent in there.’
‘No, no…no, yes, very true.’
‘I bet you got some stick for being called Dickie?’
‘I used to go by Ritchie in the army, boys I went to school with still call me that. It’s a nickname Betty’s gave to me, it’s stuck. I wish she hadn’t…’
‘Look mate, I’m on me third one, resistance is futile.’
‘Right, these look done.’
Barry proceeded to throw most of it on the grass for Gemma’s pug Obama, who immediately pounced on the charcoal with scant regard for its stomach lining.
A week later Barry waited and watched the Burn residence from an upstairs window, ‘this part’s always the worst, innit? You sit there, wondering what you’re gonna find? Plus there’s the prospect of getting caught out. It’s happened to me a few times. The best case scenario? They don’t recognise me and call the bill. But sometimes you get folk who go fucking apeshit when someone invades their ‘inner sanctum’. One time in particular I got chased by this large bloke with an hammer, would’ve Peter Sutcliffed me if he wasn’t such a fat bastard. And to be fair I was younger and leaner back then. From talking to him I reckon Dickie’s not a chaser.’ They left at around eight in the evening, and Barry waited nearly an hour until the sun started to set. Picking the lock was a doddle and the alarm wasn’t armed, even after all these years Barry was still aghast at this typical display of arrogance. Barry was looking for something, anything, of value – an easy score, jewellery, money, antiques weren’t his thing, but if it looked pricey and it wasn’t too heavy, it’ll do. Information for digital banking, passwords and the like were just the ticket, so he looked around for desktops and laptops and he encountered one upstairs in the bedroom.
From rummaging around the files Barry soon deciphered it was Betty’s, ‘yeah, it was full of bird shit, you know, photos of family, plus she had a “diet matrix and exercise” spreadsheet, which hadn’t been updated in seven months’. Frustratingly there were no financial files, or documents that contained passwords, but there were some video files in a folder named ‘My Dickie’. He opened one, he studied the video tape, there was no sound – only watching it again later through his fingers would Barry realise, much to his chagrin, that the sound was muted on the laptop. Barry’s facial muscles slowly constricted with a horrified claustrophobia the moment Dickie’s tongue, with lavish strings of saliva, met Betty’s feet, just as a ten year old boy would react to the confusing juxtaposition of watching his parents being enthralled by whales awkwardly copulating to David Attenborough’s dulcet tones. Momentary revulsion aside Barry had gotten his hands on something that could be, perhaps, more valuable than anything he lifted in the here and now. Did that stop him from stealing Dickie’s watch and Betty’s jewellery? Of course it didn’t, having made the effort and assumed the risk Barry wanted to leave with something he was sure to be of value.
Three days later the blackmail note arrived through the Burn’s letterbox. Barry had driven fifty miles away to post it. It read ‘I know all about your dirty little secret. 50k or the video gets uploaded to social media and shared to everyone you know. Further instructions to follow soon’. Barry made sure to use block capitals, he also used surgical gloves handling the envelope and its content at all times, ‘I felt like a total fucking div to be honest, this isn’t a spy movie or some great act of espionage, I’m extorting some couple for having a weird fetish. They won’t suspect me, but having come this far in life, I don’t wanna take unnecessary risks anymore. Plus, the old bill have got me fingerprints.’
Later that day, from his favourite vantage point, Barry could tell Dickie was worried, what else would Dickie’s lengthy bouts of staring into space whilst sitting in the back garden be about? Perhaps he was just enjoying the sun? Perhaps he was fantasizing about the soles of his wife’s feet? It didn’t really matter, they would either pay or they wouldn’t. Barry had done nearly all he could. If it worked, it was a bonus, the jewellery and the watch alone had netted him twenty-five hundred, ‘the way I see it, aim high, and sometimes you get rewarded. But I’ve learned not overlook the importance of small scores, do enough of them and over time they start to mount up to something bigger. Plus, it’s tax free, innit?’ Barry agonised over what to do next, eventually he was convinced that the duration of Dickie’s vexation in the garden was due to the letter, and he didn’t want Betty to see that it was worrying him. It was an opportunity to foment that lingering sense of dread swirling in Dickie’s head, cementing it into true ascendancy. He went into his back garden and offered Dickie over for a beer, or several. Dickie was reluctant, but eventually relented, Barry knew he would, given a choice or a chance at the alternative, no condemned man chooses to dwell on his fate, and Barry wasted no time in getting to the point;
‘Christ mate, you look down in the dumps.’
Dickie plunged onto the deckchair with the robustness of a dropped anvil, bouncing forward into a crouched slump on the flat part of the deck chair. He sighed and plucked the beer bottle offered from Barry’s hand with a languidly that simultaneously conveyed defiance, anger and dejection, as if he was swiping a ripe fruit from a tree with a sense of entitlement.
‘It’s the wife, innit? What’s she done!’
‘No, no, no, just-‘
‘We were broken into a few days ago.’
‘Fucking hell, I thought it didn’t go on around here?’
Barry somehow maintained the façade before, during and after that little disingenuously sanguine musing of his. ‘Look, I was quite impressed with meself at this point, I was literally ready to explode with laughter. Poor cunt.’
‘Well, we were done a turn, the bastards.’
‘That’s the spirit! Anyway, the insurance will cover it, yeah?’
‘It’s not about the money, it’s the invasion, and they stole something of immense value.’
Barry hesitated, he could tell Dickie wanted to get the burden of secrecy off his chest, and sharing something like this in confidence with Barry would ensure that he’d eliminated Barry from suspicion. Still, Barry had to subtly lay the bed that Dickie would feel comfortable lying on. ‘The more people drink, the more honest they become, and yeah, dad drank too much.’
Forty minutes later…
‘Nah, nah, Gazza, Euro 96 against the jocks, dinked it over that blonde geezer and then volleyed it in. Aww, what was his fucking name, you know – the one with the head like a fridge?’
‘Yeah, that’s him.’
‘Owen against Argentina was better, mostly because it was against Argentina.’
‘Yeah, bet you lot in army hate them bastards.’
‘Speaking of scum, I hope they catch those thieving bastards that did you ova.’
‘That isn’t the worst of it.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘We’re being blackmailed by some horrible fucking prick.’
’Fifty grand, that’s what they want, or they’ll expose us, sorry, expose me.’
Here Barry hesitated, was that ‘us’ and swift correction to ‘me’ a Freudian slip, or just intoxication taking over? Perhaps both? He said the video was important to Betty earlier. Barry’s suspicions were aroused.
‘Look mate, you lot seem like the sort with nothing to hide, now had they done me over, well, I’ve got a few skeletons in me closet. Not that I’d ever pay some arsewipe who’s blackmailing me right enough – you aint gonna pay, are ya?’
‘No, no, fucking no.’
‘Too right, it just makes you look guilty, or ashamed, and if you give these kinds of bastards the money they’re liable to keep going, who’s to say they’ll stop at fifty?’
‘Not knowing is the worst part – who it is.’
‘It must be someone who knows you well. Nobody would blackmail someone else if they didn’t know a good deal about ‘em. I mean that makes sense, dunnit?’
‘It’s not gonna be from someone miles away is it? It’ll be some cunt you know, someone who really knows ya well.’
Barry was eager to keep Dickie, now intoxicated and increasingly slipping back towards introspection due to the subject, talking.
‘Who do you know…I mean know?
‘What do you mean?’
‘You know, that has close access, that’ll know things about ya?’
‘They know nothing, nothing like this.’
‘They must know something, or they think they do.’
‘But, but how?.’
Look mate, it’s none of my business right, but they think they’ve got the goods on ya, they sure as hell aint gonna say what that is. Leverage, right? So you’ve gotta figure out what it is they think they know. If they know fuck all, just fucking bin it.’
‘Call their bluff?’
‘But what if they don’t stop?’
‘I dunno, what about telling the old bill, you reported the robbery, right?’
‘Absolutely fucking not!’
‘But you reported the robbery?’
‘Yes, we did.’
‘Well maybe they’ll catch them, difficult to blackmail someone from prison I reckon.’
Dickie seemed mortified by Barry’s analysis. He hadn’t considered the permutations of the blackmailers being arrested, what they could be, would they upload the videos out of spite? Barry hoped that was one of Dickie’s fears. Dickie got up, thanked Barry for the drinks and company and walked as briskly as he possibly could down Barry’s driveway and turned left round the wall. Barry smirked as he watched Dickie’s hair protrude over the wall and move with increasing speed to his front door. Barry had first made him relax and forgetful, only to rattle him again with doubts at his oversights, ‘now if I’m right, he’s gonna go straight to the missis, and waffle on about the blackmailers getting nicked. I reckon she’s just as keen as he is to keep it quiet. Sure, she aint the one with the fetish, she aint the instigator, but she’s involved in it. She’s – what’s the right word? – facilitating it, or whatever you wanna call it. If she uses this as an excuse to say no, maybe he goes and licks some prozzies feet, maybe he doesn’t, or maybe he’s too ashamed to pay for it? Anyway, who gives a toss, the more worried he is the more likely he is to pay up. Job done.’
The following day Barry was woken at ten in the morning, a time well before he usually rises. He was home alone, conveniently, in case it was something unseemly, and inconveniently as Gemma wasn’t home to answer the door. Barry staggered down the stairs in Gemma’s dressing gown and opened the door wide with an irritable swipe. It was Betty Burn. After the initial surprise, Barry composed himself,
‘Betty my love, what can I do for ya?’
She walked straight past Barry and sauntered into the living room, Barry with his left eyebrow raised and fixed, remained statuesque in a state of surprised confusion, before following her.
‘Well Barry, if you could be so kind to return the jewellery and watch that you stole from us, I’d be most grateful’
‘Now c’mon Barry, we both know it was you.’
‘You know fuck all, you’re mental.’
‘The blackmail letter.’
‘It’s your writing.’
‘Oh yeah, it is hahaha. Get the fuck out, now! I’ve had enough of this.’
Betty calmly produced the welcome card from the hamper the Sherbet’s had given the Burns a few weeks earlier. As with the blackmail letter, Barry had used block capitals there too.
‘Proves fuck all.’
‘I haven’t told Dickie yet. But I will, and there’s no way of telling what he’ll do.’
‘Threats, great, from middle class wankers. What a load of bollocks, get the fuck out!’
‘You know Barry, there is a way to make this go away.’
‘I’ll make you fucking go away.’
‘You see it isn’t Dickie’s thing, it’s mine.’
‘I like a man who truly worships my feet.’
‘What the fuck? This is a wind-up. Has to be.’
‘No Barry it’s not, you see I’d like a man who’s motivated, who’s just as invested in my desires as I am. Given what’s happened, I think it’s highly likely you’d be.’
Betty with an air of graceful vengeance, turned sharply and sat down on the sofa, removed her left shoe, and started running her finger along the arch of her exposed sole while looking Barry in the eye passionately. Barry found this alluring momentarily, until he was beckoned over and instructed with a hand gesture to get down on his knees. But he did so, now with her toes resting on his chin, with the hairs of his goatee protruding between them he could see a prevailing aspect of his future in all its grisly detail; the corns, a developing bunion, the dried sweat and calloused flaking of skin between he toes, the sharp toenails, the feint whiff of stilton and her soles discoloured by stained insoles mixed with dirt from walking barefoot. It had taken forty-four years but Barry finally had to acknowledge a truth, ‘I’ve met my match ‘ere.’
© Niall Cullen (2015)