For a long moment Simon and his father stared at each other like strangers. Then, Pa's face contorted into a scowl.
"What the bleeding hell are you doing here?" He bellowed and hurled a blow at Simon's head. Simon intercepted his fist neatly, holding it a moment before releasing. Pa sneered at him, rolling up his sleeves. It was clear from the sway in his step that he'd been drinking but then that was no surprise Simon couldn't remember a time Pa hadn't been drinking.
"Standing up to me now, are you? About time, you spineless little piece of shit. So what you doin', crawling back here, eh? Shitty little turncoat, upping and leaving like you did. You got some nerve!"
"With all due respect," Lindsey cut in, colour rising in his cheeks. "Simon has done nothing to deserve to be called those names and you owe him an apology, sir!"
"Oh yeah?" Pa demanded. "And who're you to be an authority on what my worthless son does and doesn't deserve King of England? You keep that bloody great posh gob of yours shut."
"Finally something we agree on," Simon broke in, giving Lindsey a significant look. Lindsey returned it with an expression of confused hurt that would have made Simon's stomach twist if he didn't have bigger things on his mind.
"So," Simon said, looking from Pa to Gary. "No one's pleased to see me. Big surprise. You didn't miss me, then. Or did you even notice?"
"I noticed that there was no one to clean the crap off the floor," Gary said. His voice was more level than Pa's, more difficult to read which was perhaps why Simon had always been more frightened with him. With Pa, you pretty much knew what to expect, and if he was pissed enough, it was easy to get out of his way. But with Uncle Gary, moods were changeable. Sometimes he was nice, lulling Simon into a false sense of security which made it even more crushing and even crueller when he inevitably turned. "Didn't take two brain cells to work out you'd scarpered and wouldn't be coming back. Nicked money to make your great escape, didn't you?"
Of all the regrets in his life, lifting eighty quid from the Claddagh's till to get him to London wasn't high up Simon's guilt list.
"D'you blame me?" He tried to make eye contact with his mother, but she was steadfastly refusing to glance his way. Leaving the men to settle things like always! "I bet if I'd stayed here you'd still have me sweeping the floor and mucking in the kitchen."
Pa let out an angry exclamation and made to lunge at him again, but Gary spoke first. In a quiet voice that was a mixture of marvel and sneer, he said, "You think you're so good. Don't you?"
"I... I don't think I'm anything, Uncle," Simon said. There was a glint in Gary's eyes he didn't like. "I didn't come to cause any trouble."
"Oh yeah you did. You obviously want to show off. So why don't you share what you've been up to the last five years? I'm sure everyone's gagging to hear your splendid tale of rags to riches."
They were all staring at him; Gary, Pa, the other drinkers, everyone except Ma. Simon moistened his lips. He couldn't tell them; what he'd done would mean nothing to these people. They didn't want to know. Gary was only asking because he wanted to up the anti and to remind Simon exactly who was boss. Back then, whenever Simon had done something good which wasn't often, but occasionally he got a good word or two in his school report, or complimented by one of the customers on his cooking Gary would beckon him over. In a calm, reasonable voice, he'd ask, "So you did good today, Simon, right?" There was no right answer if Simon was affirmative, he'd get yelled at for being arrogant. If he tried to dodge the question, he'd get sneered at for being a wuss. And always, always, there'd be some kind of blow to put him in his place to let him know that even if he did do well in something, he was never to even dare to take any pleasure in it, because he didn't deserve even the tiniest bit of feel-good.
Involuntarily, Simon brushed his nose, remembering how it had been broken after one such encounter. And suddenly strong anger flooded through him; what he hell had he been doing letting Lindsey talk him into coming here! He'd run away for a reason, he'd buried these memories, for a reason. Lindsey knew jack all about his family! He'd just assumed that whatever rift Simon had with his folks could be patched up. Simon had known better; known his family could never change, but he'd still let himself be carried along with this!
With effort, he swallowed the anger down. Lindsey wasn't the enemy here. There were so many emotions surging and dying down inside him that his head was spinning.
The drinkers were awaiting his answer. The hostility in their eyes was almost overpowering. Simon noted with dismay that there were a number of burly men there, burlier than his father or uncle. Too many for him to be able to fight off. Without looking back, he reached out and brushed Lindsey's arm.
"Get behind me."
"Si," Lindsey began. Simon shushed him. Gary rolled his eyes.
"Come on, thicko. It's not that difficult a question. Even someone as stupid as you knows what it means. We all want to hear the answer."
"I'm not thick," Simon snapped. "You made me believe I was, but I'm not. So you can cut that right now."
"Are you challenging me?" Gary sounded amused. "You don't have the guts."
"I do," Simon said, dismayed to hear his voice wobble. "You don't scare me anymore."
"Is that so?"
"I don't think it is," Gary leaned over the bar, pinning Simon's gaze. In a whisper that chilled Simon's blood, he said, "You are a thick, worthless, spineless and stupid little shit who will never, ever make good. You belong in the gutter. Don't you ever forget it. I can still make your life hell, kid."
Simon swallowed. He felt eight years old again. Defenceless.
"I'm not afraid of you," He repeated.
"You'll always be afraid of me."
Hands gripped Simon's shoulders and wheeled him round, breaking the eye contact with Gary. Instead he found himself looking into a level blue eyed gaze instead.
"Simon," Lindsey said softly. "He can't hurt you anymore. None of them can. I won't let them."
He spoke each word as though he meant it, and eight year old Simon disappeared. Simon shook off Lindsey's hands.
"I'm the bodyguard," he hissed fiercely. "I protect you."
And then he turned to Gary. The sensible thing would be to make for the door, but damnit, he was going to say his piece if it killed him! "You want to know what I've been going, uncle? I've been making a life for myself. And compared to what it was here, I'm doing pretty well. So despite your best attempts, you know what? You failed.
Someone made a low hissing noise, and Pa went very red.
"It was never enough for you here, was it, Simon? You'd always whine about how unfair it was whenever I got you cleaning windows, how it wasn't fair you were being put to decent hard word. Greedy, that's what you are! People don't get more round here. We get by. You never got it into your thick skull how good you had it!"
"I had it good?" Simon cried. "Sweet Lord, Pa, get a lobotomy! You know why I came back? because I wanted to give you a chance. I wanted to believe you were better than what I remembered. You know what you two are? Cowardly bullies who picked on a kid to make them feel better about their own pathetic lives! And you know what else? This kid isn't playing anymore!"
He'd known his father and uncle wouldn't stand for that and he was ready for them. Simon's fist flew out the moment his father made a move. It hit Pa full in the nose. There was a cracking sound and Pa fell back. Gary made to intervene but Simon grabbed both his shoulders and thrust him hard against the bar. The sound of shattering glass mingled with Gary's furious cry as he fell back.
Seeing them on the wrong side of him for a change, Simon was sorely tempted to beat the crap out of both of them. He could, and sweet mother of Christ, they deserved it! But with tremendous effort he stopped himself because he was better than that. He would never hurt anyone the way they'd hurt him unless there was a damned good reason, because if he did one positive thing with his life, it was going to be to not turn out like them!
Simon turned and headed to the door, Lindsey at his side. No one tried to follow. They shouted abuse, but Simon was done with abuse, and he wasn't even listening. Goodbye family, he thought as he stepped through the door of the Claddagh never to return.