I was forced into Church and warned, “Don’t touch the Korean crazy, makes The Boss pouty.”
Even though it was called Church and the space had collected in its fair share of prayers, it weren’t no place God had ever been. Used to be a Free School, then that was ripped down and The Saint Anthony of Padua Shopping Arcade was built. But when I came to be there those lives had passed. Sort of.
Victorian style window shops ran either side of us, a brow of kiosks tucked along a mezzanine floor above us. Hundreds of Chinese lanterns; shaped like skulls and plastic faced baby pandas grinned down at us. A shiver jabbed at the back of my neck, as the empty eye sockets bore down. A riverbed of puppets stood between us and a sweeping set of iron stairs at the far end of the shopping arcade.
We threaded our way through the piles of silent puppets, but my foot caught on a puddle of fabric and I almost tripped into a life-sized giraffe. The Bitch snatched me from the fall, clipped my ear and growled at me to stop fucking around. A man with one leg was sat stitching red flowers onto the puppet’s elongated neck. I willed him to look at me, to see me, but only the giraffe watched as I was dragged away. The air ripped apart by the pull of thread through the fabric.
Herded along until I was standing at the base of the stairs in front of a crimson-stained hole, that had been jack-hammered through the tiled floor.
I tried to back up but her hands clamped down and I was fixed in place.
She called out, “Boss.”
I searched the muddy light, sweat dripping into my eyes, but I could see nothing. There was a click of a door opening, the boss was coming. The draft made the lanterns sway and flecks of dust that had only just been hanging on gave up and a grey snow floated down.
A voice punched out from the dark, “Like my puppets don’t you, skank? How many do you think there are? Guess, guess!” Then without letting me answer, he answered for me, “Twenty six.” An unoiled joint of a laugh squealed out which turned into a yelp as he got caught up on something; finally managing to fight his way out.
I swear down, you could have seen the daft git from space. He was a slick-hopper, you know from that film? Massive collar. Neon Bolo. Skin-tight trousers, also neon; he even had the hat, you know, with the feathers.
This, it turned out, was The Boss. Known to his mam as Milton; known to everyone else as King Tiny Turd, not to his face though, never to his face. He had a viscous streak running through all that chub.
Over the top of my head she barked, “What’s with all the pinkies?” Indicating to the dozen children hunched over fairy lights untangling the chaos. Her leather coat crinkled as she flexed. “We ain’t finished business yet.”
Lovingly straightening the ears of a purple rabbit, he flapped away her concern. “The Splurge is tomorrow, I didn’t have time to wait for Nails, besides they won’t tell.”
She temporally let go of me and pointed towards the giraffe. “I saw that guy suck some tourist off for a pack of mince.” Not waiting for Milton’s permission, she shouted for them to get the hell out. The hall filled with the noise of downing tools and the scramble of bodies.
His nostrils flared, his finger jabbing the air. “How I am supposed to get the six new puppets done before tomorrow? Eh? You over-grown gorilla. I can’t sew everything myself.”
Her bananas for fingers dug hard into my shoulders and I had to suck down a whimper. She threatened with a single word, “Einn?”
His colour dropped six shades. “I’m not afraid of her,” his chunky digits fiddling with the gold chains around his neck. “I’m not. She’s away anyway.” He tried to fob off his discomfort by turning his attention to me. “Shard’s so uptight; you’d need the Jaws of Life to part her legs.” His plucked eyebrows arched high as he laughed at his own joke but it rattled along alone, jumping at its own shadow.
The thick wedge of angry muscle behind me was called Shard? I squirmed under her grip, sweating sheets, the stale BO of my dress burnt my nose and I was trying to fight waves of queasiness but Milton glared at me repeating himself, “Jaws of Life… It’s funny, it means she don’t do stick…” and he grabbed at his crotch.
I tried to smile, but it must have been the wrong kind, because the pudgy ring he had instead of a jaw started twitching. “Are you laughing at me skank?” He jabbed his fingers into my shoulder. “Don’t you know who I am?”
Struggling to hold it together against the feral leather of his aftershave, I flipped. “Do I look like I give a shit?”
His eyes bulged and he went to slap me, but Shard caught him by his wrist. He raged, “You forgetting your place?” He broke free from her grip, stepping back well beyond her reach and spat the word, “Woman,” at her.
Reapplying her two-handed grip on me she said, “Damaged products don’t fetch premium prices do they?”
I couldn’t help it, I gipped. Bet double trying to heave up nothing, my stomach churning itself apart.
He recoiled. “Is it going to be sick?” Flapping his hands like windy day washing, squealing, “Not near the puppets. Get her away from my puppets.”
Finally I managed to right myself, wiping the sweat from my face with the back of my hand, my heart drumming like a hammer.
The main doors behind us swung open, slamming their weight into the air. Milton turned to see who it was but the smirk on his face told me he already knew.
He shouted, “Wait, wait, wait!” Rearranging his hat he asked, “How do I look?”
A growled, ‘fine’ sailed over my head.
He skipped over to the banister and lent against it, trying to look casual he faced his audience and waved them forward.
A man wearing a child sized pink tool belt and an old faded t-shirt with a yellow smiley face and the words, ‘Have a Nice Day’ lumbered in and he wasn’t alone.
I flinched backwards stepping hard onto Shard boot; she growled at me not to do that again.
The pink belter was dragging a woman with purple hair behind him. She’d lost one of her shoes and now a dirty foot trailed behind her as she failed to keep up.
The man threw her down, gushing, “Shard, Shard! Here you go; one tutee fruity mac snooty. I didn’t bang-bang, just like you said, all in one piece, not one teeny tiny hole, nada, not one.” His mouth a burst artery, he bent down and sniffed hard at the poor mess on the floor; giggling how she smelt like milkshakes and dancing. She drew back from him but he held onto her purple locks; a leash between them.
“Shard?” Milton demanded, “Shard? What have I told you Nails? Address me!”
Eyes wide and puzzled, the man-creature grinned. “Address boss? It’s here, you live in…”
He screamed for him to ‘Shut The Hell Up’. Yanking at his electric-blue penguin jacket, trying to get the ends to meet over his grinning gut he turned his attention to the woman. Skipping down the stairs he addressed the trembling pipe-cleaner at his feet. “Hi Rhea, sorry about him,” and he waved his hand at Nails, asking her, “What do you think of my new threads?” he puffed out his chest.
Tipping her head back to take him in she stuttered, “Th- they’re nice.”
His knuckles clenched. “Just nice?”
She flinched expecting a slap, but when it didn’t come she wormed her way out of his bad grace just as quickly as she’d found herself in it. “I mean it’s so dark in here sweetpea I can’t see anything…” her voice trailed off.
He relaxed rolling back on his heels. “I told Einn we should get some light up in here but she…”
Shard interrupted him, “Boss.”
His eyes narrowed in our direction but he conceded and changed the subject. “Fine, look Love, I need a favour…”
I couldn’t hear the rest as he’d bent down and whispered; his pudgy fingers petting her purple hair, his eyes never leaving her chest.
Whatever he’d said her face crumpled; she got onto her knees, an autumn leaf about to fall. Her voice faint, she asked, “Is he here?”
Milton stood back up, flicking away the dust that the tails of his coat had scooped up. “No, and it’ll stay that way if you just do this one thing for me.”
“Please…” but he didn’t even let her finish the sentence squeaking that he’d paid for a God damn product and it wasn’t here, was it?
She reached out to him and with a honeyed smile and treacle words said, “Sweetpea, you’re the richest person I’ve ever met,” her fingers tracing the front of his shirt. “Can’t you…” but it was a mistake.
He slapped her. “You skanky bitch,” white scum frothed at the corners of his mouth. “You think money just comes from thin air?” He grabbed a fistful of her hair, his eyes raging as he yanked her face to the floor. A dozen unrelated gripe spilling all over the floor. She should beg to be with him, hundreds of woman, no thousands wanted him. She was a nothing, a stuck up frigid skank, she knew what would happen if she didn’t do what he said. His arm stretched out and pointed at the hole.
Gripping his wrists, begging him to stop, please stop. Only when she said ‘Please Big M’ did he suddenly let her go; he fell back onto his arse, staring whited-eyed at the clump of purple hair in his hand.
Sheepishly heaving himself up, he tugged at his jacket hem and lifted his head; a wannabe Napoleon. “I am a businessman.” His eyes bored through her ripped dress, licking his lips. “So, I’m giving you a chance to fix this…, what about that, eh? Would my father have done that, been as generous as that?”
She whimpered that he was very kind, her eyes never leaving the stained hole only a meter away from her.
“All you have to do is a bit of babysitting and delivery, err, to…” he coughed, mumbling about a Toymaker before he flicked a glance my way. Her shoulders became ridged and she turned; we were looking right at each other. Fish caught in the same net but it was her sunken eyes that filled with salted pity. I could feel it creeping up my chest, worming its way into my mouth, filling my lungs. We were trapped in a shrinking bubble of air, we both knew it; only one could survive and all that pity falling out of her, she thought it was going to be her.
Well, fuck that.