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John Harvey's Not Tommy Johnson: An Extract Taken from Going Down Slow and Other Stories

14 January 18 words: John Harvey
photos: Tom Morley

"A wall-eyed mongrel barked as he entered, hackles raised, then backed away, growling, from the kick that failed to follow"

Tommy Johnson was not Tommy Johnson. That’s to say, he was not the Tommy Johnson whom Resnick first saw skating, perfectly balanced, across the mud of the opposition’s penalty area, red hair catching fire for an instant in the floodlights before dispatching the ball into the upper right corner of the net; the Tommy Johnson who scored forty-seven goals in 118 appearances for Notts before moving on to Derby County, Aston Villa and points north; Resnick’s favourite player, amongst other favourite players, in that team that won promotion two seasons running, those brilliant years 1989/90/91 when it seemed they could do little wrong.

The same years that found him struggling still to come to terms with the failure of his marriage, Eileen having sequestered herself somewhere across the Welsh border with her estate agent lover, leaving Resnick custody of four cats, an unused upstairs nursery in which the alphabet wallpaper was already starting to peel, and an overflowing collection of vinyl he was slowly but studiously replacing with CDs — most recently, working alphabetically, Duke Ellington’s 1959 score for Anatomy of a Murder.

Tommy Johnson’s body — that’s this Tommy Johnson, three weeks and four days past his sixteenth birthday — was found on the uneven paving beneath the fifth-floor balcony from which it had fallen; one arm stretched out at a broken angle, the other wrapped tight across his eyes, as if to ward off any sight of what was fast approaching.

If anyone had heard his helpless cry or the thump of the body landing — landing with sufficient impact to break not only various and sundry bones, but to rupture, also, a number of internal organs — they were, as yet, not saying.

It had been Gerry Clark who’d found him, a little after four in the morning and on his way to the bus that would take him to his job in the distribution centre out by the motorway; just light enough, from the solitary overhead lamp still working, for him to make out the body where it lay, unmoving; what was recognizably blood further darkening the cracks in the paving.

That was two days ago, some forty-eight hours and counting, and Resnick, slightly out of breath after choosing the stairs over the dubious aromas of the lift, was at Danielle Johnson’s door; not the first time and likely not the last.

One glance and she turned back into the flat, expecting him to follow. Cotton draw-string pyjama bottoms, sweater, fluffy slippers.

A wall-eyed mongrel barked as he entered, hackles raised, then backed away, growling, from the kick that failed to follow.

Dark in the room, Resnick eased the curtain sideways, letting in a sliver of November light. Opposite him as he sat, Danielle lit a cigarette with a shaky hand and shivered as she inhaled.

“Whatever you or anybody else might’ve said about him, he never deserved that. Never. Not Tommy. And don’t try tellin’ me he jumped of his own accord, ’cause I’ll not wear it. Someone had it in for him an’ that’s a fact.”

“Any ideas who?”

She coughed and shook her head; coughed again.

Nine-thirty in the morning and the off-key sweetness of cider on her breath as she spoke; two empty cans, last night’s, on the table and a litre bottle, recently opened, on the floor nearby. Not long past thirty, Danielle: three kids who’d been in and out of care; Tommy the only boy, her favourite. Melody, the youngest, living with her nan now in Derby; Janine in temporary foster care in another part of the city.

“You saw him that evening?” Resnick asked.

Danielle fanned smoke away from her face. “In and out. Nine it might’ve been. Later, maybe.”

“Any idea where he was going?”

She shook her head. “Not his keeper, am I? Ask, he’d only tell me, mind me own fuckin’ business.”

“So you don’t know who he might have been seeing that evening?”

“Just said, never told me anything.”

“It’s important, Danielle.”

“I know it’s fuckin’ important. Think I’m fuckin’ stupid?”

The first thoughts of those who’d responded to the emergency call, the police, the paramedics: Tommy Johnson had taken his own life, jumped to his death under the influence, most likely, of this, that or the other. Something more than self-pity. But a small trace of cannabis aside, that and paracetamol, there were no drugs, untoward, in his body, and all he seemed to have drunk in the twenty-four hours previous, water aside, was a copious quantity of Red Bull.

An examination showed blows to the head and body quite possibly administered prior to the injuries sustained in his fall. Another homicide was the last thing the team wanted — Tommy’s especially — but it was, it seemed, what they were getting.

Officers went to the school in theory he’d attended; having been excluded so many times, since September-end he’d more or less excluded himself. They talked to the few from around the estate who would admit to having spent any significant time with him; talked to the social worker who’d been attached to him since his last brief spell in care.

Quiet, pretty much a loner. Bit of a loser, really.

“No great loss to humanity, I’m afraid,” his Citizenship teacher had said.

After another twenty minutes or so of getting nowhere, Resnick rose to his feet and Danielle prised herself out of the settee and saw him to the door. When he was halfway to the stairs, she called him back.

“There was this girl he was keen on. Leah? Leah something. Felix, maybe? Skirt up to her arse an’ a mouth to match.”

John Harvey’s Going Down Slow and other stories is available at Five Leaves Bookshop.

John Harvey website

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