Dragging the Plant
Barry tilted back the remainder of his pint and glanced at his watch. “Fucking ‘ell,” he sighed heavily. He surveyed the crowded pub once again, painfully aware that the black pea coat and cargo pants he had chosen made him appear out of place, suspicious even, amongst the urbane mix of west Londonites who currently occupied the Fox and Thistle. Though he had done his best to tuck away his nearly two-meters into the shadowy alcove at the end of the bar, the singularity of his brooding presence created a gravity that drew wary glances over shoulders and provoked muttering over the mouths of pint glasses. Barry noticed, as he always did, but worked at appearing just another bloke coming up for some air after another long day in the salt mines, a man who was simply thirsty and just wanted a little time to himself and his thoughts.
In truth, that was all Barry really wanted at that moment. A nice, quiet drink by himself, free of impending responsibilities or the approach of the hour hand. Free to just sit and sort himself out while he decided his next course of action. But as the hour hand approached half-past seven and the pub swelled to capacity, the din of a hundred conversations held over clinking glasses and the scrape of metal utensils over china made such a wish prohibitive and served only to remind Barry that his next course of action had already been decided for him. Now there was nothing to do but watch the minutes tick away and secretly hope that responsibility didn’t show up.
With a little assistance from the pint of bitters, Barry coaxed his nervousness into submission and began drumming his fingers to the bouncy rhythm of “West End Girls,” which filtered down to mingle with the legalese and corporate-speak of the recently arrived, smartly dressed barristers and bankers settling into their first and second pints. Barry also did his best to avoid staring at the bright, clean-shaven faces for too long, lingering on the silk ties, the crisp collars and pleats, the soft leather bluchers, the Rolexes and gold cufflinks. He did his best not marvel over the clean, cut-glass accents and the artless, polished gestures. Yes, Barry did his best, but it was a tiresome undertaking, and the longer he was left waiting, the longer he had to endure the kvetching looks and carping tongues, the more difficult that undertaking became.
Barry understood all too well that his presence engendered in others different versions of the same emotion: fear. Loathing, deference, suspicion, awe, ridicule. All symptoms of the anxiety with which his quiet, oversized presence seemed to fill public spaces. To his employers, this made Barry an invaluable asset. Oh, so you don’t remember where the money went? Maybe my associate Mr. Green can help you to remember. Most of the time Barry didn’t even have to make a fist. He would simply put on a vacant expression and smile as if to say that his capacity to cause large amounts of pain would cost him little effort and virtually no compunction.
The feeling, as Barry called it, came on as a familiar mix of clammy shame and restlessness, of fear and anger and frustration. When in public Barry often felt like a sandwich man and envisioned himself girdled on all four sides with a garish marquee, replete with pudgy letters painted in red and festooned with carnival lights It made him want to run, to break things, to hide from the gossiping looks that whispered their banal insults. Have a look at Billy-No-Mates. Bloody Tonk. Lunkhead. Fucking hench, that one. Pillock. Flashbacks to primary secondary school, to the days before “bullying” became a bona fide when pupils flung their verbal salvos from the relative safety of a pack, where girls passed notes about the holes in Barry’s shirts or the stains on his coat, where teachers He thought about removing his coat, but a man his size didn’t do such a thing in a public place without inviting the types of looks people reserved for stray mastiffs. So he waited and watched. And waited some more.
Despite his size, Barry was not a man who craved idleness or who looked forward to the late afternoon languor that seduced so many to seek the inertia of a tavern booth or bar stool. Inactivity made him feel vulnerable, anxious, something confirmed by the empty glass sitting before him, its sides still beaded with condensation, a thin collar of foam sagging along the inside rim. He didn’t even recall drinking it.
Continuing his observation of the pub, Barry fell into the familiar ritual of tracing over the chalk and cheese incongruity of his presence amongst the electorate, people who, like the nearby coteries of punters huddled around hardword pub tables and packed into booths, had steady jobs, stable lives, families to go home to at night. Roast beef and potatoes at 7:30, an hour of Inspector Lewis in the palor, pack the kids off to bed, a leg over with the missus. Pub crawls and Prem games with your mates on the weekend, once-a-year holiday in Costa Verde, afternoon tea with the boss, mortgage, a white Vauxhall Corsa, vegetable garden, dog, cat, goldfish. Security. Ease. Boredom. A life of ease and predictability.
But the crooked trajectory of Barry’s life had taken him far beyond the straight and narrow, well-worn thoroughfares of pedestrian life, propelling him along a crosshatched network of unexpected detours, dark backroads, unavoidable shortcuts, trapdoors, sinkholes, and dead ends, and had deposited him in a place where circumstance and potential went strolling hand-in-hand down dark, deserted alleyways, each holding a knife to the other’s throat. A life filled with ventures and vultures, perils and predators. Stop swimming and you drown. Let your guard down and expect to get carved up and bruised.
Eventually, Barry had eased into the life, had learned to see in the dark, to swim freely amongst the nefarious demimonde who became his colleagues, this employers, and sometimes his enemies. And while the services he provided did not require a great deal of intelligence, they did require an ability and willingness to accept with a certain degree of professionalism the inglorious rigmarole that those services required—bite into shit sandwich, chew slowly, swallow, repeat. There’s a good lad. In the early days, Barry didn’t mind that bit so much, but a chap could only take being called a ‘meat-head’ or being told to ‘piss-off’ so many times before he reached his limit, got brassed off, and misbehaved.
“Yeah, ‘an then what?” asked Noodles, Barry’s sometimes partner. The question had been posed several weeks prior in response to a complaint of ‘inadequate compensation’ following the heist of a rival betting house in Holloway that netted less than half of the estimated takings and resulted in a high-speed chase through Tufnell Park. Barry was working on a reply when the old Ford Fiesta came fishtailing around Tufnell Park Road and onto Dalmeny, a pair of Kalashnikov-wielding villains riding side-saddle out of the open back windows and using the luggage rack for support. Noodles had laughed and pushed the Peugeot 308
“‘Mr. Joe Soap, would you be so kind as to provide us with your most recent savings statement, payslip, list of outgoings, and council tax bill?’” handed Barry an imaginary sheet of paper
Which is why Barry had been so highly employable: despite possessing nearly twenty stone of , a combination that made him intimidating and employable. But the job was beginning to wear on him like an ill-fitting boiler suit.
He hated this part of the life, the expectancy, the humiliation. Fucking bollocks. His very presence in this pub stood as a reminder that he lived a life of peonage, of subordination, of what some lovingly referred to as ‘dragging the plant,’ a phrase crammed full of incrimination and the dirty facts of existence that Barry’s day-to-day life as a lawless citizen revolved around. Like so many colloquialisms born out of environments that required a permanent state of contestable machismo, ‘dragging the plant’ was understood to literally mean one man performing a task, usually of a disagreeable nature, that has been forced upon him, like disposing of someone else’s corpus delicti or setting fire to a rival betting house that doubled as a puppy mill. Morally reprehensible, but a job; offensive but part of that job. Metaphorically, it simply meant that your employer had you by the shorthairs and that it was time to prove that you were the type of dog’s body who knew where your loyalties lay, that your cobblers were polished, and that you were prepared to chaperone Mssrs. Potential and Circumstance into the cold shadows with nothing but a pair of heaters to keep you warm.
“Yeah, fucking bollocks,” Barry grumbled. He needed another pint to settle his nerves. If nothing else, to offer a little camouflage. But he was afraid Simon might walk in, see the empty booth, and then quickly deduce that Barry had been all mouth and no trousers. Then Simon would leave, taking with him the promise of enough cabbage to feed Barry for the next six months, keep a roof over his head, pay off a debt or two. And so with that tentative promise Barry had already agreed to drag the plant. He was committed.
For a long time Barry had been comfortable reproducing the remedial sums that his services garnered, along with inglorious rigmarole that those services required—bite into shit sandwich, chew slowly, swallow, repeat. But a chap could only take being called a ‘meat-head’ or being told to ‘piss-off’ so many times before he reached his limit, got brassed off, and misbehaved. Which is why Barry was so highly employable: he was big as fuck and cool as a cucumber, a combination that made him intimidating and employable.
Sweat was running in small rivulets down his back and sides. Crikey it’s hot in here! Maybe he had misunderstood Simon’s instructions and had taken a booth in the wrong corner of The Foxglove and Thistle. Maybe Simon had found someone else to do the job. Maybe he had decided to call the whole thing off. Barry was just about to get up and order drink when he saw Simon, wearing his trademark grin and a gray herringbone jacket, shouldering his way through the crowd, a pint of Fuller’s in each hand.
When Simon reached the table he set the glasses down and slumped heavily into the vinyl-covered booth. Heaving a sigh, he threw Barry a wink and began working on his beer.
“Glad you could finally make it, gov.” Barry made no attempt to hide the irritation in his voice.
Simon did not seem to register the comment, focused as he was on methodically discharging the contents of his glass, taking the long measured gulps of an ardent and parched drinker. After draining off the last of the beer, he regarded the empty glass for a moment, running his tongue over the foamy mustache on his upper lip, and heaving another sigh, “Oh, that’s nice.” He set the glass down and turned toward Barry with a start. “Oi, Barry! I didn’t even notice you there! All right?”
“Smashing.” The word felt thick and foamy in his mouth as he pushed it between clenched teeth. Barry had prepared for this, however. Dragging the fucking plant. He knew that before Simon would give him the details of the job that his dignity would need to undergo the requisite flogging, a ritual necessary for Simon to reestablish a precedent of authority and thereby lay claim to certain job-related prerogatives. In order words, get a nice big handful of the short and curlies. Simon liked to draw the ritual out, have his fun, show up to appointments forty fucking minutes late. If you really wanted the job, you took your flogging happily, smiled as if to say, ‘Thank you, sir, may I have another?’ and prayed Simon did not change his mind. So Barry painted on his best counterfeit smile and returned his attention to the other drinkers lest Simon see the anger smoldering in his eyes.
Simon smiled broadly at the silent acknowledgement that the ritual was proceeding as expected and nodded at Barry’s untouched pint. “Are you planning on imbibing your beverage, good sir, because if not I would . . .”
“All yours, mate.” Barry slid his glass over the Simon, who received it eagerly. Just as he brought the amber liquid to his lips he stopped and raised the glass, which he addressed with wistful reverence, “Now a soft kiss—Aye, by that kiss, I vow an endless bliss,” and then proceeded to slowly pour the beer down his gullet. After a moment, he came up for air. “That’s Keats, by the way. A shit poet but a lovely dreamer. Cockney School, what a load of rubbish!” Simon snorted and went back to sucking on his pint glass. He knew bloody well that Barry hadn’t a clue as to what he was going on about, but that was the point. Bite, chew slowly, swallow, repeat. But Barry was having a hard time getting it down today.
After a long, uncomfortable silence, Barry shifted his bulk and cleared his throat. Simon continued to drink slowly, making an obvious show of ignoring the big man seated across from him. The big man who could crush his melon like it was made of papier-mâchè but wouldn’t because he needed to eat, put clothes on his back, and pay for his shithole, rat-infested flat. Barry could feel his hackles rising. He had worked with Simon on a number of jobs in the past, each characterized by an obvious swell in the man’s loftiness and by a greater affinity for outright rudeness, something that Barry attributed to familiarity and to his subordinate position. Simon’s jobs were always top drawer, though, real earners, usually a simple nick, the kind that allowed one to retire for six months. Those kinds of jobs didn’t come along often, so when they did, you made yourself fit and you dragged the bloody plant.
But things changed after the last job. The whole thing had gone tits up as a result of bad intelligence, poor planning, and Simon’s hubris. A Bishops Avenue smash-and-grab that was to take no more than twenty minutes, involve only three marks—a flaccid private security guard and couple of blue hair housekeepers—and net them over £4 million in Russian antiques. “Bloody milk run,” Simon had laughed after explaining the details. Turns out the security guard, although a bit of a salad dodger, was former MDPGA, while the two housekeepers were a couple of knife-throwing Romani who were both mad as hatters and who almost turned Simon into a human bulletin board. How Simon got his shit wrong Barry would never know. That, and how those two nutters ended up as housekeepers.
Upon entering the home, Simon quickly discovered that recent renovations had turned what was supposed to be a straightforward operation into an absurd room-by-room pillage, and after nearly thirty minutes of faffing about like a couple of dilettantes and finding nothing worth taking, Simon and Barry had made some renovations of their own. This had never been part of the plan, but Simon’s misinformation had forced them into a scuffle with the trio of tooled up live-ins, and when it came to a scrap, Simon and Barry were all business. The rent-a-cop made the first contributions just after he produced a hand-cannon and began punching out new windows in the drawing room, where Simon and Barry had been forced to take cover. After the guard burned through his seven-round clip and Barry heard the tell-tale click of the hammer dry humping the firing pin, he was up and charging out of the drawing room and into the main hallway where, with a little encouragement from Barry’s size 12, the guard knocked out a new door leading from the hall to the living area. A moment later the kitchen took a splash of color thanks to a collaboration between Simon’s modified Olympic cartridge pistol—a gentleman’s weapon, he called it—and the knife-wielding Romani, the latter of which provided the pomegranate and burgundy accents to the previously white marble countertops and cabinets.
The next day most major newspapers, including The Sun and The Daily Mail, ran front-page stories about the bungled burglary which they described as “shocking” and “brazen” and which Simon seemed to find amusing. “Seems a bit harsh, eh Bazz? There’s no context. Of course the facts are going to seem disagreeable when deprived of rationale and context. A little blood and a broken vase and now every cozzer in Scotland Yard is tripping over his own water gun to be the next Dixon of Dock Green.” But after a little consideration, Simon thought it best to declare a temporary moratorium, which meant Barry would have to go back to playing the brainless bogey man for tight-fisted dealers and smoked-out nightclub owners. Dragging the plant once again.
“Crikey, Simon, slow down. Can we at least discuss the job before you get sloshed?” Barry tried to keep his tone friendly, but the province of familiarity was territory governed only by Simon, and Simon did not share the liberties that he enjoyed. Barry had just trespassed.
Simon brought the half-empty glass away and leveled an unfriendly stare at his companion. “You’ll want to mind that pretty little mouth of yours, old chum. I’ve just spent much of the bloody day sorting out the details of ‘the job,’ as you so crudely put it. The engagement promises to be quite the remunerative affair, and we do have much to discuss, so,” he clapped Barry on the back and raised the glass to his lips once again, “sod off just a moment while I make myself gregarious.”
Barry sat back and smiled thinly. “Sorry, ya? It’s just that I’ve been waiting . . .” The weight of Simon’s stare over the rim of his glass brought Barry up short. Physically, Simon was a bit on the small side—Barry outweighed him by nearly six stone—but the misperception that he was unseasoned was a lesson that never needed repeating. Dozens around London bore the scars and broken bones to prove it. In the hazardous work environment of the criminal underworld, however, the ability to fight like a barmy gypsy only went so far when dealing with people who routinely accessorized with pocket warmers, Ka-Bars, and truncheons. For those whose skill sets did not extend much beyond this fact, options were limited: end up as fertilizer, an aquarium exhibit in the Thames, or as an employee for someone like Simon who possessed weapons far more lethal than the kind that pierced, cut and maimed. Barry left the sentence hanging for a moment.
Simon drained the last of the pint, set the glass down gently, and dabbed at his mouth with a gray silk handkerchief seemingly conjured out of thin air. Not taking his eyes off of Barry, he executed a perfect two-point fold and deposited the cloth neatly in his breast pocket. “And what, may I ask, have you been waiting for? ‘I am to wait, though waiting so be hell, Not blame your pleasure be it ill or well.’”
“Let me guess, Keats.”
If looks could kill, Simon’s expression would have rated murder one. “Shakespeare, Barry. William. Fucking. Shakespeare. Sonnet fifty-eight.” He leaned over the table, his bunched shoulders giving him the appearance of vulture inspecting a potential meal. “You know, the one about the bloke, or—” Simon flung an expression of levity to the side as is he was flicking away a stray lock of hair and then lowered his voice to a conspiratorial level—“some wench. But that’s what makes Willie so damned brilliant, you see, this ability to essentially turn art on its arse, to turn the confounding gift of artifice against itself by treating the artificiality of art as reality. Like looking at the world as a negative exposure.” He watched wistfully as his words drifted off into the ochre shadows above the booth to mingle with the trophy black-and-whites of famous footballers and MPs.
Fuck me, ‘e’s either gone completely mad or ‘e’s taking the piss. At my expense. Barry cleared his throat.
Simon’s eyes flicked back like a switchblade and his tone iced over once again. “Fifty-eight. The
And for Barry, options were very limited. While Simon had been gifted with a substantial intelligence quotient and an Exeter education in Art History and unlicensed boxing, something which he managed to parlay into a lucrative business that dealt exclusively in black market objets d’art, Barry had been endowed with a pair of alcoholic parents and an education that abruptly ended midway through his sixth form when, of all things, a drink driver turned his parents’ Vauxhall into a De Kooning exhibit. Sent to live with an aunt in Millwall, Barry’s size and shy disposition made him an easy target for young miscreants looking to gain bragging rights either by conquering or recruiting his size and strength. By the age of 17, Barry had gone permanently truant and signed on as a fence with a crime gang who enjoyed minor celebrity status in the press. From there he was gradually assigned bigger jobs and even ‘rented out’ to other associates, something which Barry did not agree with on principle but which, like everything else, he had no choice with. So while Barry ended up as a garden-variety thug who scraped by, Simon cultivated a green thumb that thrived on the fruits of others’ labor.
After that last job, though, Barry had decided that it was time to make a change. After nearly ten years, an accumulation of clientage and the maintenance of a top sirloin reputation, Barry had been ready to venture out on his own, finally become a self-made man, determine which jobs suited him and which did not, set his own prices. He was done being a lackey for witless cunts and cutthroats, done dragging the plant for others. But the job market had changed quite a bit over the past decade. Now it seemed like every creatine-fed wanker who had a hard-on for Schwarzenegger wanted in on the action, and where supply meets demand, experience went from being an asset to a commodity, especially where the real dirty work was concerned. That was never Barry’s cup of tea. Job quality was important, and he still adhered to the old model of ‘no women and children,’ but which he amended with, “No animals. Except for monkeys. I fucking hate monkeys.” And after a few months on his own, he would have knocked over an entire zoo of chimps and orangutans had someone asked him. Jobs were far and few between unless Barry was willing to drag the plant for half price. “Sign ‘o the times, mate,” one of his colleagues lamented.
Then a week ago Simon rings him. “Barry, old boy, have I got a job for you . . .” which was laden with the typical assurances of an easy take, low fuss, and a generous cut once the goods were sold off. A few quid up front, a little more on the back and Bob’s your uncle. Easy peasy. “. . . so come ‘round to the Foxglove and Thistle at six sharp and we’ll sort it out. Cheers.”
“Barry, mate, you’re sweating cobs. Take your jacket off, stay awhile.” Simon smiled smugly, set his glass down and loosened his paisley silk tie.
That tie could pay my rent for two months, Barry thought.
“Been a little under-the-weather,” Barry replied, dabbing at his forehead with a cocktail napkin. “I’ll be alright in a day or two. Don’t mind me.” He propped his elbows on the table and interlocked his fingers, a sign that he was ready to talk business. Simon responded to the cue by reaching into his jacket for a sheaf of papers which, after casting a quick glance around the pub, he produced and laid out on the table. Floor plans, Sotheby’s appraisal forms, ID tags and swipe cards, photos, the works. Simon carefully ran through the details of the job, which turned out, unsurprisingly, to be more complicated and dangerous than he had originally intimated to Barry over the phone, but for which a careful stratagem had been devised.
“No bollocks this time, old chum. That last engagement was a tawdry affair that I hope never to repeat. You have my word on that.” Simon placed his right hand over his heart and raised his half-empty pint, “Thieves’ honor.” He finished off the last of his beer and fluttered his hands at Barry as if to shoo him away. “Be a good lad and get us another round, ya.”
Barry gritted his teeth and slid his bulk out of the booth. At the bar he flashed two fingers at the barman, who promptly filled a brace of glasses, which he exchanged for the £100 note that Barry slid across the bar. The barman took the note, quickly folded it and slid it into the pocket of his apron, and began wiping down the counter. “Last stall. Brown Oxfords, green socks,” he said while continuing to run the towel over the dry bar counter.
“Cheers.” Barry took the glasses and nodded at the barman. Without looking up the barman whipped the towel over his shoulder and moved casually to the other end of the bar where a covey of patrons were waiting for refills.
Barry returned slowly to the table with a glass in each hand, trying not to slosh any of the dark brown liquid as he walked and reprimanding himself once again for wearing such a heavy coat. He set the glasses on the table and placed a hand over his abdomen as if to staunch a wound. “Be back in a jiff, gov. Have to use the loo.” Simon had already started on his pint and waved him off dismissively.
Barry arrived at the lavatory door just as a pair of young suits came barging out, braying at some joke. Their laughter quickly dissipated when they saw the black-clad giant blocking their path. Barry held the door open and gave the men an impassive look, “Ladies first.” The icy tone sent the two men scurrying under the massive outstretched arm and back into the warm embrace of the pub. Barry entered the brightly lit water closet and made his way to the nearest sink where he proceeded to wash his hands. The mirror displayed a quartet of stalls, the first of which was missing its door, and a trio of urinals, all of which were free of occupants save for the farthest stall where a pair of brown shoes topped by green argyle socks rested on the cement floor. Barry rolled his eyes and said into the mirror, “I hear the edible flower display at the Kew Gardens is lovely.”
The words seemed to have an effect on the feet, which wiggled slightly, and a hollow cough issued from the stall and echoed around the tiled room. “Mr. Green.” The voice was frayed at the edges, suggesting age, but it was confident, self-assured.
“The one and only,” Barry said into the mirror. He turned off the faucet, lightly patted his face, and dried his hands with a paper towel. He remained at the sink in case he needed to busy himself should anyone enter.
“I think we have everything we need, Mr. Green. You’ve done well. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.”
“Great. I don’t suppose you want to be a love and untape this device from my chest? I’m about as broiled as a fucking game hen.”
“Once you leave, my associate will come by to collect our belongings.”
Simon scratched at his chest, realized he couldn’t feel anything through the thickness of his coat, and returned to wringing his hands on the now shredded paper towel. “What about Simon? What happens to him now?”
“That’s none of your concern, Mr. Green.” A momentary pause. “Mr. Green, we would like you to assist us one more time once this . . . transaction is complete. A certain Mr. Halloway, whom you had some dealings with some time ago . . .”
Despite the flash of heat that washed over him, Barry kept his tone even. “Fuck off. I told you I’d give you Simon, and I’ve done that.”
“Bravo, Mr. Green. And so you have.” That mocking tone, always that same fucking tone. “I don’t need to remind you, however, that you and your compatriot out there are still the two primary suspects in the Bishop Avenue aggravated assault and double-homicide.” The voice paused to let that sink in for a moment. “And so, Mr. Green, until such time as you have rendered sufficient service, your arse belongs to us. Are we clear?”
Barry was clenching his jaw so tightly that expected to hear teeth cracking any moment. He pictured himself ripping the door off of the stall, reaching in and . . .
“Good. I take your silence to mean that we have an understanding. Now. If there is nothing else, piss off.”
Barry turned to exit the lavatory. He was shaking, the adrenaline pumping through his large muscles, swelling them to the point that he thought his jacket might split. “Oh, and Barry? You may not think so now, but believe me, old son, there are worse ways to spend your time than dragging the plant.”