My twelfth and latest book was released back in June. It came out exactly one week after Cutthroat and I think it got a little lost in the shuffle, flew under a lot of people’s radars, so you’ll forgive me if I try to make up for that now.
I’ve been working on Just Like Jesus in many different iterations for the last fifteen years. It’s gone through many drafts, none of which I could ever seem to make work satisfactorily – until now. What it came down to was a case of ‘kill your darlings’; once I cut out the parts I wanted to keep because they were important to me, based on memories of real events and/or real people, once I streamlined the thing, I found it finally came together.
I consider this to be my summer novel. It takes place in Northumberland, primarily in my hometown of Amble, and follows the exploits of two best friends and drug dealers while they cruise the back roads, hang out with girls, and do their best to avoid trouble. Of course, this is a crime story, so there’s plenty of trouble to be found. It’s a departure for me in that I’ve written it in the first person, the first of my books to have been done so. When I wrote the very first version of it, all those fifteen years ago, I’d recently read all of Bret Easton Ellis’s books and the work was heavily inspired by his style. It perhaps still is. Consider this a kind of Northumbrian Less Than Zero. While I wrote THIS version I was listening to a lot of The Cramps and the B-52’s, and I think a lot of their influence comes through too.
Anyway, please read the Prologue and Chapter One, they contain a murder and sexual content, so it’s right up your street if you’re into that sort of thing. If you like what you read you can find a link at the bottom down below.
The end of this story began with a murder.
Daniel Donaldson was my best friend.
“Grab his arms!”
He was about to kill a man.
“Grab his fucking arms!”
I was helping him.
I did as Dan said. The body on top of me twisted and struggled. I grabbed his arms, pinned them. Dan held a knife. He stuck it into the man, over and over. Blood sprayed. It splashed. It went up the walls, and all over Dan. It spilled down onto me. It got in my mouth. I wanted to throw up.
Dan didn’t stop until the body stopped moving. He was painted red. From where I was he looked coated head to foot.
The body was limp on top of me. It got heavier by the second. Its torso was open to the world. Dan stared down into it, at what he had done. He was breathing hard. He pushed the body off me then offered me his hand. I took it. Both our grips were slippery.
“We better clean this all up,” he said.
How it started was I lost my job.
I’d spent most of my adult life working as a mechanic in Cramlington. It was a job I hated, but I’d fallen into it and by that point couldn’t do anything else. Then, at twenty-five years old, work started to dry up. Management started talking about redundancies. A month later, the letters went out. I was one of five. It was a big garage.
I’d built up savings for a while so was able to survive through spring on those. Paid my rent, paid my bills, but it didn’t take long for it to dwindle.
I met up with Dan regularly. Kept him abreast of my situation. We’d go to the pub for a pint, or else I’d go round to his and we’d pass a joint back and forth. On the night in question, we were in the pub. It was a Wednesday, so it was quiet. There were only a few other people there. Borderline alcoholic regulars. They propped up the bar and made miserable small-talk, the response from one to the other consisting mostly of grunts. We were the youngest men in there by a good couple of decades.
“How’s the job hunt going?” Dan said. He took a drink. He’d bought mine, too. Things were getting leaner and leaner.
“Thought you were qualified. What’s the problem?”
“Problem is no one’s looking.”
“How far are you searching?”
“From here to Newcastle and everything in between. I don’t really wanna go any further than that, but if things keep going how they are…”
Dan grunted. I didn’t expect him to fully understand my plight. He lived in a house his parents had bought for him before they emigrated to Australia. Dan didn’t want to go with them. I’d asked him why not.
I’m not interested in starting over, he’d said, but at the time he’d been in a long-term relationship with a girl called Laura, and I reckoned it had more to do with not leaving her behind than anything else. He probably thought he was in love. As it transpired, they broke up six months after Dan’s parents moved. And, I mean, I’m in my twenties now. What am I gonna do, move to another country with my parents and live with them, rely on them for everything? I’m too old for that. I need to start making my own way.
So he did, as a drug dealer. I don’t know how he got into it and I never asked. I didn’t want to know. Whenever his parents asked how he was making ends meet, he told them he worked in a bank. They were pleased to hear, saw no reason not to believe him.
“So what’s your financial situation?” Dan said, taking another drink.
I shrugged like it was no big deal, even though I was screaming internally. “It’s not great. Couple more months and I’ll probably have to go back to my parents on hand and knee, beg them to let me have my old room back.” I was downplaying it a little – it was more likely to be a couple of weeks. I didn’t want to project my problems onto anyone else.
“Ouch,” Dan said, wincing. “Have you’s made up at all since you moved out, or…?”
“No, things are still as bad as they were.”
“Why’d you all fall out? You never said. Just said it was serious.”
“It was stupid.”
“That’s not answering the question.”
“It was about rent. They wanted to put it up. I said if they put it up any more I might as well get my own place. So they kicked me out and told me to do just that.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“They kicked me out, Dan.”
“Aye, but that was years ago, now. I’m sure they miss their little boy.”
“They haven’t reached out. They’re bloody stubborn, man.”
“Aye, and so are you.”
“Whatever.” I took a drink. My first. I had a lot on my mind. There was always the prospect that I returned to my parents, hat in hand, and they turned me away. I wouldn’t put it past them.
“You’ve still got your car though, aye? Things haven’t got so bad you’ve had to sell that off yet.”
“Aye, I’ve still got it.”
“Whey, listen. Cos I’ve been thinking. Why don’t you come and work for me?”
I blinked. “Work for you? What do you mean?”
“You could be me second.” He leaned in closer, across the table, glanced round the room to make sure no one was listening in. “You could help me deal.”
I frowned. “I dunno, man…”
“You don’t have to decide straight away, give it some thought. Just hear me out, first.”
“All right. I’ll listen, but I can’t guarantee that’s not gonna be all I’ll do.”
“So, I’ve been thinking – with your car, you could drive me round. I could cover more ground. Amble’s only so big, and Gavin’s working it an’all. I could go round the likes of Hadston, Widdrington, through to Alnwick, maybe further. That way we’d be mostly out of town, too. Keep it all away from the front door. And here, here’s another offer for ye, since this is a kind of twenty-four hour operation, you could move in with me. Into the spare room.”
It all sounded good, but I still wasn’t convinced. Dan could likely see it in my face. “What if we get pulled over and we’re carrying a load of…” I glanced round the room the same way Dan had, then leaned in closer. “…a load of drugs?”
“Stick to the limit and they’re not gonna pull you over. Howay, I’ve been doing this for years now and I’ve never had any hassle with the bizzies – y’know why? Cos I behave meself. Keep me nose clean. Head down. I divvint do anything that’s gonna draw any unwanted attention on meself. It’ll be the same when we’re driving.”
I said nothing, stared into my drink.
“Whey, just think on it, okay? We could make a lot of money together. And, fuck me man, where’d all those years of loyal service in that garage ever get ye, eh?”
He had a point there.
His phone buzzed and he checked it. A message. He read it, raised his eyebrows, responded. Put his phone away then looked at me, down at my drink, hardly touched. “You’re still all right to drive, eh?”
“I’ve had one sip.”
“Good. Howay.” He got to his feet, grabbed his jacket.
“What d’you mean – where we going?”
“Just had a message off Holly – howay, let’s gan get her.”
“Who’s Holly?” It was the first time I’d heard of Holly Cunningham.
“You’ll like her. She’s with a friend. Now howay, let’s gan get them.”
I followed him out and we went to the bottom of the main street where I’d parked my car. A silvery-green Ford Fiesta which I’d luckily paid off the loan for before I was made redundant. Otherwise the money would have run out a lot sooner. “So where am I going?”
“That way.” He pointed. “Head up toward the high school, she lives just opposite the Welfare. Right opposite the basketball courts.”
I didn’t need directions. Amble was a small town, and, as well as that, my parents didn’t live far from there. “So who is she? This is the first I’m hearing of any Holly.”
“She’s a student,” he said. “Lives down in Leeds during term time, but she’s home for the summer.”
“How old’s she?”
“Twenty. So’s her mate.”
“And who is her mate?”
“Beth Miller. Recognise the name?”
“No. Should I?”
“No, but I was just checking.”
“The two of you seeing each other?”
He grinned, winked at me. “Something like that.”
As we neared, we didn’t have to pull up outside any house. There were two women waiting just inside the junction that led to Bisley Road. They leaned against the white street sign. I’d guessed it was them before Dan pointed them out, told me so.
It was early summer and still light out, the sky a pale blue. I could see them just fine. They both wore tight jeans and converse trainers. The one with long coppery hair with the streaks of blonde had more curves and wore a white sports jacket, and the other was thinner, athletic looking, with black hair cut at her shoulders. The girl in white must’ve seen Dan as she pushed herself from the wall, smiled, waved.
“That’s Holly,” Dan said, waving back. “Pull over here.”
I wasn’t sure where he thought I was planning on pulling over, but I did as he said. The two girls came to us, got into the backseat. “Hey!” Holly said, looking right at me. She grinned with an almost manic energy. “You must be Ed, right?”
I glanced at Dan, figuring he must’ve mentioned me in the message. “That’s right.”
“Nice to finally meet you,” she said. She turned to Dan. “This is my friend Beth that I told you about.”
We exchanged hellos all round. I started driving. Dan told me to go to his house. In the back, Holly and Beth said something to each other, laughed about it, whatever it was. Holly sat forward then. “What’s your last name, Ed?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you around.”
“Ed here keeps to himself,” Dan said.
“Must do, cos I’m sure I’d remember him,” Holly said. “Ed, has anyone ever told you that you look just like Jesus?”
The long hair and the beard. “I’ve heard it a few times.”
“I almost feel like I need to be on my best behaviour.”
“Nah, don’t worry about that,” Dan said. “Ed’s just as naughty as the rest of us. Just means he can absolve us of all our sins after.”
They all laughed.
“Are we planning on sinning tonight?” Holly said.
“When aren’t we?” Dan said.
We got back to Dan’s and he put some music on then got to work rolling up a few joints. Dan lived in the middle of a row of semi-detached houses down the bottom of Amble, next to the harbour. Outside his front yard was a road, across from which was a grassy hill that led down to a small beach known as the Little Shore. The pier boxed this area in. He had a view that stretched all the way to Warkworth, where the castle could be seen.
Inside the house we started passing the joints round and before long the sitting room filled with smoke.
“What’re we listening to?” Holly said.
“The B-52’s,” Dan said.
Holly glanced at Beth. Neither had heard of them.
“I’ve been listening to them a lot lately,” Dan said. “Getting back into them.”
“They sound really old,” Holly said.
“Well, I guess they are.”
“You don’t have anything different?”
“You don’t like it?”
“I just mean, do you not have anything newer.”
“You can check my CD collection, but if you don’t like this I doubt I’m gonna have anything that you will.”
“The fact you have a CD collection kind of tells me everything I need to know.”
“That’s nothing – I’ve got some records upstairs. You want me to go fetch them, set the player up?”
“No. No, thank you.”
I was sitting on the sofa next to Beth. We glanced at each other, raised eyebrows in acknowledgement and greeting, or more like we were reminding ourselves the other was present. It didn’t feel like we were bonding well. Dan and Holly were talking amongst themselves, there was a lot of laughter and smiling between them. They sat very close to each other on the floor, their backs against the other sofa. The joint made its way dutifully around the room. I could feel a small buzz starting, but it wasn’t enough to make me relax.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me. The amount of time I’d spent locked away in my flat, watching my money dwindling, not interacting with anyone other than Dan, had made me develop a social awkwardness. I wasn’t used to being in a group anymore.
I swallowed down any anxieties I felt, bit my lip and turned to Beth, figuring fuck it, I didn’t have anything to lose. “So, are you a student?”
“I am.” She sat with one arm propped against the back of the sofa, holding up her head. Before I spoke to her her eyes were looking droopy, nodding off.
“What do you study?”
“Oh really? You like Maths?”
“I like money more.” She grinned. “I’m sorry, that sounds so crass.”
I grinned back to show that if she’d meant it as a joke then that’s how I’d taken it. “Where do you study?”
“Glasgow? Do they have much call for accountants up in Glasgow?”
“They have need of them everywhere.”
“Yeah, yeah I suppose they do. That was a stupid thing to say. I guess what I meant to ask is, why Glasgow?”
“I wanted to get away. Go somewhere far away from where I grew up. It’s in another country, but at the same time if I need to get home quickly for whatever reason, all I have to do is hop on a train.”
“You like it up there?”
“Yeah. I like it fine.”
“You reckon that’s where you’ll stay when you graduate?”
“Dunno. I haven’t decided that yet.” She straightened up. Her eyes weren’t so droopy anymore. “What do you do? Other than healing the sick, of course.”
“Right now healing the sick is all I do. I’m…uh…I’m between jobs.”
“Yeah, it’s been a few months now.” I scratched behind an ear, knowing that if I went on much longer I’d start to sound pathetic. “I was a mechanic.”
“Oh?” She perked up at this. “Any good?”
“I did it so long I got pretty good at it.”
“Do you drive?”
“No, not yet. I suppose I should learn. But hey, at least whatever you do next, you’ll always have that life skill, right? You ever break down at the side of the road you won’t have to wait for some recovery service to swoop in to the rescue. You can rescue yourself. The sick aren’t all you heal. Is that the kind of work you’re looking for now? Or something different?”
“I don’t know.” Truth was at that point I’d take whoever would have me.
Then I glanced at Dan, sitting on the floor, his head close to Holly’s. Thought about the job he’d offered me. Driving round for the summer, dropping him off while he dealt drugs. I supposed I wouldn’t have to go inside the houses he visited. I could just wait in the car.
I shook my head. It was drug dealing. My summer spent driving round could quickly turn into a few years spent behind bars.
I turned back to Beth. “I probably will, though,” I said, picking up where I’d left off. “I can’t do anything else.”
“I dunno – I mean, how old are you, same as Dan? Twenty-five?”
“That’s still young. You could always change direction. Do something new. And if you’re qualified, what’s it matter if you don’t like it? You can always go back to what you were doing before.”
She was still talking, but at some point I stopped listening to what she was saying and became lost in her face. She had a round face, but her features were very angular and sharp. Her cheekbones were high, and there was a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. The joint came back round and I took a long draw on it. Felt myself hit the buzz that I wanted.
She started laughing suddenly, snapped me back to attention. “What?” I said, stammering a little.
“What’re you looking at?” she said.
I raised my eyebrows, tried to think of an excuse, then said, “You. I guess I’m looking at you.”
“Oh, Jesus, you’re such a charmer.” I couldn’t tell if she was cursing, or if that was what she’d chosen to call me.
“I try,” I said.
Behind us, Dan and Holly got to their feet, hand in hand. “Right,” Dan said. “We’re going up. You two are welcome to stay down here. There’s a bed in the spare room if anyone wants to use it.” He wasn’t so crude as to give us a nudge-nudge and a wink-wink, but the inference was clear. He and Holly went upstairs, and before long we could hear what they were doing there. The bedsprings creaked, the headboard banged. Holly herself wasn’t exactly quiet.
Beth looked at me and we burst out laughing. “Well…” she said. She didn’t add anything. We ended up sitting in silence for a few more minutes, just listening to them fucking upstairs. It wasn’t an uncomfortable or awkward silence. It became a case of us waiting to see who would make the first move.
She put a hand upon my chest as she slid to the floor, keeping me in place. She undid my jeans and took me into her mouth. I sat back, caught by surprise but certainly not complaining. She was good with her mouth and it had been a while since I’d last done anything with anyone other than myself. I felt compelled to return the favour, so I took her by the shoulders, lifted her into my place and changed positions. We both fought to get her out of her jeans then she wrapped her legs around my head. I got to work and she writhed and stroked my hair. My hands were on her narrow waist, holding her tight.
“Upstairs,” she said, gasping. “Let’s go upstairs.”
We grabbed her jeans and underwear and went up. My dick was hanging out my pants and I held up my trousers with one hand so I didn’t fall on the stairs as I led the way, and held her hand with the other. I glanced back. Her legs were long and pale, taut with muscle. Seeing her half-naked sped my ascent, and at the top of the stairs I picked her up and carried her into the spare room, kicking the door shut behind us.
On the bed we tore off the rest of our clothes and I sunk in with ease. We made our own sounds of creaking bed springs and banging headboards, so much so that we couldn’t hear Dan and Holly anymore. Beth wrapped her legs around me, clawed at my back, bit my shoulder. I kissed her hard.
I got up to my knees and threw her legs over my shoulders. Her whole body was tight and firm. Muscle rippled as I thrust into her. I figured she had to be a runner.
“Have you got a condom?” she said.
“Fuck,” I said, shaking my head, “no.” Caught up in the moment, and hard as hell for the first time in a long time, the thought of protection had half slipped my mind, and the other half assumed she’d be on the pill.
“Pull out,” she said, lowering her legs.
I did as she said and she took me in her hand, working fast. It didn’t take long before I finished hard, shooting up her stomach and chest.
“Pass me something to clean up with,” she said, lying back, staying very still so it didn’t spill everywhere.
I looked round the room, saw an old t-shirt discarded in the corner that must’ve belonged to Dan. I grabbed it, hoped it was clean enough for Beth to dirty. She wiped herself down, made sure she got everything, then got under the blankets. I slid in beside her, put my arm around her. She nestled in, then abruptly pushed herself up, looked into my eyes.
“That was fun and everything,” she said, “but I’m only back for the summer, so don’t go falling in love.”
“Okay,” I said. “And hey, you just keep telling yourself that, too, all right?” I winked.
She patted me on the chest. “I won’t,” she said, then lowered her head and fell asleep.
The next morning I disentangled myself from Beth’s arms, dressed and went downstairs to find Dan sitting alone at the kitchen table. The back door was open. Early morning sunlight spilled into the room. He smoked a cigarette and wore only his boxer shorts, his legs stretched out. He drew them up as I appeared. He smiled. “Good night?” He raised his eyebrows as if he knew exactly what kind of night it had been.
I’d heard him come downstairs. I’d been awake a while and I’d been listening out for him. “I’ll take the job,” I said.