Alfie can take the hits, always could. The trick is knowing where to take them, what can be exposed and sacrificed to keep the body going. Alfie's very good at keeping at going.
You don't know where to take the hits and you'll do your head in, end up like the boy he was fighting last week. Ten rounds Alfie is at his head and the silly twat instinctively protects his pert nose at the expense of the tender sides of his bone box. Eleventh round and the poor fuck can't quite get his toes up to the mark in the center of the ring. The din of the hall swells, the crowd howling and hectoring, loathe to let this prime example of good Anglo blood fall to the likes of a thick-fisted brawler from Camden Town. Inches from the mark the boy veers and stumbles and it's over; Alfie collects his winnings and a tall bottle of dark beer for the walk home. He's out the door with a whistle on his lips and a gun in his belt.
(Course, you gotta watch yourself walking alone in those civilized boroughs. Certain breeds don't like seeing their own lose, and they don't mind finishing the job their mate couldn't between the ropes.)
Prizefighting's easy winnings, but it's not something Alfie plans to keep doing for much longer. He's got plans, right, and while money deposited by blood on his fists is money just the same as what got by his head for numbers, he prefers the latter. And so for the remaining bouts he has left, he protects his tender sides.
One should always protect one's tender sides.
His next fight is a little farther afield from home than he likes to go, but his fixer Howard Cutter assures him the fight's secured by the Bessas and funded by some upstart Italians, and with the crowd they're expecting, the payout's gonna be twice what he made in the last month. They're selling it as a skirmish, a blood feud of ethnics – some deep pockets like putting money on that sort of thing, get a little exotic thrill at the sight of spilled heathen blood.
Alfie's stripped to the waist and waiting in his corner. He warms up a little, jumping and stretching but nothing ostentatious. He's alone, which is fine; he never much cared for having some useless well-wisher yelling at him from the sides, telling him the what-for and what's-up as he puts in all the sweat and effort. No, Alfie don't need anyone in his corner.
His opponent's about his age, maybe a little younger. Not much to look at in terms of bulk, which means he's probably meaner than an alley cat been yanked out mid-coitus. Probably grew up punching bags of coal when he wasn't wrestling wild dogs along the canals. The boy at his corner is even smaller, but he looks quick and sure like he knows all the soft spots. His eyes are constantly moving along the room, alert and watchful.
Alfie pauses mid-stretch and leans back against the ropes.
Gypsy, that's what Cutter told him, a Peaky boy from Birmingham. Name's Arthur Shelby, and Alfie would wager his winnings the one beside him is another Shelby, a younger brother or cousin perhaps.
The younger Peaky hooks his arms over the top rope and grasps Arthur's narrow shoulders, his head dipping down so he can murmur something into his ear. Alfie watches the unheard words shape his mouth and feels a stirring of air along his own cheek, a phantom missive.
The boy must sense something like a second shadow on the ground because he looks up. His eyes cut over like he's always known where Alfie was, sharp as the blade that's probably hidden in his cap.
Alfie meets his gaze and doesn't bother to pretend he wasn't staring. He lets his mouth curl into a small, rueful smile, and the boy's stream of whispers falter and stop.
(Arthur, eyes on the dirt, keeps nodding along anyway, nerves firing along his neck seconds after the animating wire's been severed.)
His fixer told him to take the fight fifteen rounds. Alfie turns from those narrowed, wary eyes and decides he's going to knock that pretty boy's brother out cold in the first.
Tommy used to think he could live forever gliding along on one of Uncle Charlie's boats. The world of men that sat on the banks was a mystery he was content to let float by: approaching with great potential and receding back into the fog before the sight grew tiresome. On the water he and his brothers were untouchable.
As he gets older he finds himself longing for an unknown destination, a solid place to step off the boat and stake a claim.
“It was a fucking sucker punch, John,” Arthur says thickly, words issuing from the side of his mouth that isn't covered by a steak. He is reclining a few feet away in the open air, his head back against the side of the boat and eyes slitted furiously up at the sky.
John smirks and kicks Arthur's shin, hard enough to make the other wince. “Wish I coulda seen it. Not fair that I have to stay back with the boats when we go to London.” This last he directs to Charlie, who ignores him and continues steering. John returns his attention to his brother. “Was this fighter big, then?”
“Twice my size, John Boy. And still had to take me down like a cheating dog.”
The fighter hadn't been that much bigger than Arthur – shorter but more solid. He felt bigger than he looked, Tommy thinks. Which makes no sense but is true nonetheless.
John slouches down and tugs at his cap, yawning for show. He is already growing bored with the story. “Guess that's the end of your boxing career,” he says slyly. “First fight in London and you have to row home, tail between your legs.”
Arthur snatches off the steak and straightens, mouth screwed up in outrage. In the early morning light the bruise decorating half his face is gruesome. John tenses, spoiling for a fight; Charlie frowns, looking past them to Tommy, who sighs and ducks out from under the canopy.
Last time Arthur and John got into it on the boat, they nearly capsized.
“You're thinking too short-term, John,” he says, leaning in between the two of them. “You have to take the long view, think of the narrative we're building.”
Arthur nods along, anticipating the angle that will salvage some of his pride.
Tommy continues, “We underestimated our opponent. Arthur's gone from being the unbeaten fury of Birmingham to underdog. Next time he goes to London, he'll be trained up and prepared, and we'll get twice the return on our wagers when he wins.”
It sounds plausible, anyway. Even Charlie looks a little considering.
“Just the one problem there, Tom,” John says eventually. He leans back and props his elbows against the side of the boat.
Tommy sighs and digs in his pocket for his cigarettes. “Yeah, and what's that?”
“We lost all the money we came with.” John spreads his hands and looks around at them all. “No way anyone's letting us go back to London to try again any time soon.”
As facts go, that one is pretty inarguable. Tommy cups his cigarette and lights it to cover his grimace. Arthur collapses back in his seat and slaps the steak back on his face.
The boat cuts inexorably on towards Birmingham, and the hiding they're all going to get from Aunt Polly.
With his winnings and the modest surplus from a couple small schemes on the side, Alfie can afford to live alone. In the space where once his mother and another boarder would stand and cook and wash, he builds a collection of trivialities: trinkets from the Spitalfields market; paintings from artists lingering outside opium dens and looking to sell quick for their next hit; books from the old man on Brick Street who'd come from Poland carrying only two trunks of leather-bound volumes wrapped in linen coated with boiled linseed oil and umber.
Alfie arrays his treasures around him in consideration of the light from the window. Eventually he realizes he'll need to build some shelves.
He lives in a room at the top of a divided terraced house on Wentworth Street, where he can be among his people if never of them. A family of seven lives in the room below his and all but the littlest two get work on the periphery of the rag trade. The stairwell frequently reeks of dye, and some nights coming home after a match he gets dizzy with it; his head pounds and his overworked lungs spasm, but then he'll rise above the stink and ascend into his own quiet space.
He doesn't mind the arrangement too much; sanctuary always demands a price.
Night of his next match he locks up his room and takes the stairs down two at a time. The rapid rhythm of his tread is as good as a factory whistle, and the door of the dye family flies open as he comes even with it. A tousled dark head pokes out and orients itself towards him expectantly.
“Alfie,” says the boy in greeting.
“Young Sir Edmund,” says Alfie in return, pausing on the step and angling a significant look back upwards towards his own door. His hand dips into his pocket for a coin. “Think you can pencil in some door-watching into your evening itinerary?”
“Leo and Ollie both got fevers, so Mum's making me stay home with them.” Edmund's hand extends out.
But Alfie withholds. “I'm not paying you to stay home with them.”
“I can look after them and the door at the same time,” the boy protests. And then, cunningly, he adds, “Who else you gonna get to do it?”
Barely ten and already an observer of market demand; Edmund's going to go far in life. Alfie drops the coin in his outstretched hand.
Cutter's cross with him about the last fight, keeps on about trust and the bottom line of all the poor barmen who were expecting a night's worth of fight-driven thirst and instead got two swings and a knockout. All told in the end, Alfie's let down not just his fixer, but half of London.
“There was a voice whispering in my ear,” says Alfie, conversational as he laces up his boots. “The type of holy command you cannot deny for love nor money, and it told me Alfie, you better knock that little Brummie bugger out before he makes off with all the gold in the room, as his nature demands.
He gets cuffed around the head for that.
“Feuds are for marketing,” Cutter says. “They don't belong in business. You're just lucky the man wasn't local and had no connections who gave a damn about the humiliation.”
He thinks about the boy who'd stood shouting from the corner, how he'd leaped in one liquid motion over the ropes and landed by his fallen brother's side without noticing the impact on his knees; how he'd grasped the still face in both hands and tilted it from side to side; how he'd raked his eyes up from that face to Alfie's in one dark searing trail.
Alfie hides his smirk in his shoulder and draws his bootlaces tight.
“Alfie, do you hear me?”
He straightens up. “Howard, you used to possess a sense of humor. Wherever did it go?”
Cutter scowled. “I sacrificed it the day I signed you. Worst trade in a long line of bad ones.”
“Ah, well, at least you still have your sweet disposition.”
They start for the door that leads to the makeshift ring set up outside. Alfie's fighting in a market today, where the blood will mix with the air and the shouts of the crowd will reach for a Heaven that sits empty.
He never pays much attention to the people who attend these things, figuring one man getting excited at another's thumping is much like any other. Their jeering's not unlike the lads who used to circle around and kick Alfie in the streets, except now their money's going into his pocket and every one of them knows Alfie could beat him bloody under a minute. There's a satisfaction in that, somewhere.
He abides by Cutter's forbidding stare and dances nice with his opponent, a man a little older than him with a wicked scar twisting shiny over one cheek. The man's a little slower but he's heavy, and his fists land with weight of age and judgment.
By the fourth round, Alfie's taken a few punches. He pours some rum into the little tin cup set beside his corner and drinks it down in one go. His eyes drift over the wash of faces standing around, and out of the line of contorted expressions he finds one observing cool and unmoved.
Alfie lowers the cup and only then finds out his mouth is bleeding as it pulls and stings around his smile.
There is something wrong with Tommy.
He has always known it, can't pretend he doesn't hear the voice that sits behind his eyes watching the world and making its plans. It weighs strengths and weaknesses and only considers emotions when they're a liability likely to tip over into inconvenience. He doesn't always like these plans, but the voice is merciless. It doesn't give a damn what he feels, only what he can accomplish.
It's only ever for the good of the family in the long run, but he knows they wouldn't see it that way if they got wind of what he was doing. And Tommy doesn't like explaining himself. It takes too long.
This is the third time he's traveled down this way; it's getting easier to slip out of Small Heath, to leave behind the coal-clogged streets and move past the delicate bubble of his family's influence. Outside, he stands alone and it's strangely exciting.
In London Tommy keeps his cap low over his eyes and tries to shrink in on himself so as to look inconspicuous. It goes against the Shelby nature – make some noise! Throw your arms out and walk down the road like you own it because some day you will.
In the end, he doesn't know how successful he is at blending in, but thankfully no one's interested in the audience when a prizefight's going down. So he forgets himself, forgets he can be seen at all. With each new bout, he drifts closer to the ring, until he edges up to the spray of blood along the floor. A wall of noise rises at his back and before him, a vigorous face angling down from the ropes.
Again that strange bolt of recognition and connection, undeniable.
He is no longer the one seeking, but now also being sought. The voice that sits behind his eyes finds that strangely exciting too.
His mother believed in lines of connection that spun throughout the world, gossamer-thin and imperceptible to the untrained eye. Tommy slips up sometimes when he's not guarding against it and imagines he can see them too. If he's drunk enough, he might follow the lines and find himself in a far meadow at dawn, facing down a preternaturally calm doe with an open blade in his hand and a decision before him.
In London after the fight, his eyesight turns queer with drink. Objects in his path sharpen to painful definition while faces blur into watercolor impressions, streaking along the periphery as he weaves down the street. He enters an unfamiliar establishment with a step made certain by superstition, and his faith is rewarded with the sight of Alfie Solomons leaning up against the bar.
Tommy had a schoolteacher once who told him, in the tone of one bestowing a compliment, that he didn't look gypsy. At the time, the idea that strangers' eyes might slide over him and not register his fundamental difference left him feeling obscurely unsettled. But he's willing to use it now.
He relaxes his shoulders, tucks in his elbows. Keeps his gaze half-lidded and dull, just a young chap in his cups on this gay Thursday evening.
Solomons reads through it in an instant, is the thing. He notices Tommy approaching. His eyes flick up and down and his mouth lifts mockingly. He doesn't move or turn from the bar. He gives the impression he is waiting for something.
Something is tickling his nerves. The room around them is unremarkable, neither full nor empty and its occupants perfectly preoccupied with their conversations and drinks. No one seems to notice Alfie Solomons and maybe this is what unsettles Tommy. Men don't ignore something dangerous unless it's part of an act, a trap.
Tommy glances around the room once more and drops the act. When he looks back at the other man, the smile has grown. It should look warped by the bruise at his jaw, but it's like it's too powerful or something. Smile beats bruise in an easy knockout.
And Tommy wants to stare; he has never seen a mouth like that on a man. He fixes his attention on his dark, alert eyes instead.
“Thomas Shelby,” Solomons says then, dropping the name into the air like it's a line in a vaudeville show and any second the dancers are about to start to shimmy. “You're becoming a fixture in the neighborhood. Why is that?”
Solomons keeps him pinned with an attentive look and reaches unseeing over the counter to grab a second heavy-bottomed glass. He proceeds to fill it alongside his own – he has been given free reign with a bottle of rum, which sits half empty at his elbow.
Lacking recourse and looking to hide his surprise, Tommy accepts the glass.
“You know my name,” he comments, and takes a slow sip from the drink in his hand. The liquor is acrid and tastes of nothing but London, an injection of exotic sweetness tempered by the heaviness around it. Tommy doesn't like it. He takes another drink and glances up.
The man's thick eyebrows rise. He rolls forward onto his forearms against the bar, and ducks his head slightly, one large hand coming up to ponderously rub at the shorn hair at the nape of his neck. Tommy looks at the strong lines that come together to make his neck and shoulders.
When Solomons speaks again, the words come out thick and muttered, but they lose the stiffness in their joints within a couple sentences.
“Yeah, well. Asked around about the Brummie boys from a few weeks ago, and a mate of my fixer knew a man been recently released from prison. Paroled on his twelve year sentence – he'd been thrown away for fucking his landlord's sheep, claimed it was only his ancient right, for those sheep were raised and pastured on lands that had once belonged to the commons, see, and the lord's family had stolen it over generations with their bloody fences.”
Here, Solomons sniffed and dropped the hand that had been moving hypnotically over his head. He cracked his neck and angled a friendly look up at Tommy, all the while continuing relentlessly:
“This sheep buggerer spoke in the telltale yodel of one hailing from the Black Country, and seeing as he felt so particular and passionate about keeping the common law alive, my fixer's mate thought he might have some local knowledge. And damned if he wasn't a card-carrying member of the Birmingham Communist Party, of which you are apparently a member yourself. And so, through a spark of luck and not a little determination on behalf of my fixer's mate, it was swiftly concluded that he did indeed know of the Shelbys, and their eldest two boys. They say we live in new, modern times, but when it comes down to it, it's still all gossip and fucking, ain't it? And I call that,” he concludes with satisfaction, straightening up from his slouch with a strong arch of his back, “the fundamental nature of civilization.”
Thus having delivered this winding tale, he watches Tommy. Expectant again.
Tommy doesn't blink. His fingers itch for a cigarette, but he knows any move for his case will be read wrong. After a moment he settles for finishing off his drink. He chooses, for the sake of his own sanity, not to notice the way Solomons blatantly follows the movement of his throat.
Why did Tommy come here – this bar, the fight, London? He thought he understood the instinct he'd been following, but he is beginning to realize –
He thinks he might –
He sets the glass back down on the counter and says, “So you say you were asking about me.”
The smile returns. There's something vaguely menacing about it, decides Tommy. His limbs are buzzing, reacting to something stronger than the rum.
“That's what I said, yeah,” says Solomons. He licks his lips, tonguing at the cut on his lower lip, and it is only due to the slowness and deliberation of the action that Tommy realizes he's been caught staring after all. The smile turns to a smirk, and Solomons turns away.
He pinches up a cork from the bar between two blunt fingers and neatly slaps it home into his bottle, which he hefts into his crooked elbow like one might cradle a baby. His free hand reaches out and retrieves a half-smoked cigar from an ashtray on the bar. He sets his lips around it, the plump pink puckering in rounds, pa-pa-pa. The cigar kindles to the air.
And then, easy as you please he says to Tommy – like this is something men say to other men, he says:
“If your dainty balls are still needing a good squeeze, come along.”
He brushes past his shoulder like a stiff breeze, leaving Tommy ruffled and reeling.
Tommy stares in the space he'd just occupied. He feels too leery to look around, knowing the glance might be a tell to the other men in the room. Not that their behavior hasn't been a pretty good fucking tell as it is, you'd only have to watch for a few seconds.
Tommy decides not to worry about it, which is merely a matter of matching his insides to his outsides. The first step to not caring is looking like you don't. It's something his father excelled at; his mother, not so much.
He turns from the bar, reaching into his pocket for his cigarettes. In the stretch of light spilling out into the street, he sees Solomons has paused to wait for him. The sight makes Tommy give in, for just a moment, to a shiver.
He is following something he doesn't properly understand, something long hidden within himself. Maybe he always suspected it existed. Maybe he's been looking for its denial.
But when he steps out into the night air and meets the waiting man's eyes, he doesn't see denial anywhere in reach.
God draws down his fly and takes a piss on the walk back to Alfie's place. Water collects in the usual places, runs off and mixes with the muck of the day's travels. The gutters so begrudgingly installed by the neighborhood's landlords overflow at the low corners and tip their contents onto the ground below in a deafening splatter. Everything is leaking something.
Alfie shrugs his jacket off and stretches it over his head. Tommy flips his collar and hunches forward like he's taken a jab to the gut. In unspoken agreement, they run, skidding beside one another over the wet pavers.
Confidence being his lifelong patron, Alfie takes a corner too sharp and his feet shoot out from beneath him. Only a mad grab for a street post saves his behind. Next to him, Tommy laughs – a quiet, disbelieving gasp of a sound. Alfie's so immediately taken with it, he can't even feel embarrassed. But he also can't let it stand without reprisal, and so he shoves the unsuspecting boy sideways into a puddle.
The laughter dies out but the humor lingers. They continue on.
By the time they find their refuge out of the rain, their shoes are flooded past saving. The smell of wet wool and leather quickly clouds out the building's foyer, its delightful normal collection of co-mingled odors temporarily overwhelmed.
They don't speak as they start up the stairs. Tommy's skin shines slick in the passing light at each landing, and Alfie wants nothing more than to put his mouth on it. But he has learned to be a patient man.
He pays close attention as he lets them into his flat. He's always careful with the placement of any new acquisition, wanting it to fit properly with the ever-changing mosaic in his head. He cocks his head, eyes the way Tommy's profile cuts through the dim light, and can't help making a thoughtful sound.
He has a feeling Tommy Shelby would fit anywhere in his room.
He leaves him by the door and goes to light a lamp. The cluttered walls reveal themselves in the bloom of light, and he feels something inside him relax. It's always good, being back in his own space.
“It's not so different,” says Tommy. He turns in place to study the walls. But he don't sound like he's talking about the walls.
Alfie glances over. “What's that, then?”
“This place. Your building. Some of the men back home talk like London's paved with marble cobblestones. An electric light in every hearth, that sort of thing. But this is just like home.” He meets Alfie's eyes, a peculiar tension to his jaw, something that's shaped like a smile but with a mean slant. “Fifteen families in five flats. Terrace courts packed in tight so the light don't hardly make it down to the street. Tell me, Solomons, you have your own plumbing or do you have to share?”
His faces warms beneath the glaze of cold rainwater.
“Never had to sweet talk your way into someone's bed before, I take it.” He doesn't know whether to laugh or spit. “Must be the face.”
Tommy doesn't respond, but his lids fall, concealing his expression. Annoyance or embarrassment. Well, he's not alone there.
Alfie turns away and goes rifling for two cups in which to pour the remainder of his bottle. Over his shoulder, he says, “Call me Solomons again, and you're out on the street. Won't have someone barking at me like a schoolteacher in me own rooms.”
Truth is, Alfie's smarting a little. To have some upstart in here, judging his home and feeling free to broadcast it. The fucking cheek. He didn't even look at the painting on the south wall.
The sting of the disrespect mixes with the unfamiliar nerves he's been ignoring for a couple hours, and it all briefly overwhelms the simmering arousal. He looks at Tommy, standing easy inside his home and blinking sleepily at all his eyes rest upon, and he finds himself saying:
Tommy looks over, expression half-amused. “What?”
Alfie nods. “Out, this is over. C'mon, move those little legs.” He crosses to the door and opens it, nodding to the dark hall outside.
Tommy doesn't move for a second, disbelief and affront progressing across his face. Alfie, heat still flushing through his body, wonders if he'll have to get a hand on him to throw him out. But Tommy slowly moves for the door.
He hesitates only a moment before crossing back out of the apartment, and he stops just outside. Alfie shuts the door before he can turn around. He waits, listening for the tell-tale creak of the floorboards outside.
The wood creaks; Alfie nods to himself and and crosses the room to toast his decision.
The rum tastes weak and watery, the flavor lacking some of its former verve. Dissatisfied but his mind and body still abuzz, he fetches about for something to do and ends up in his armchair. The book he started the day before rests spine up on the chair arm. Alfie takes a large dram of his drink and looks at it.
Five seconds later he is up again and pacing towards the door.
Tommy is sitting on the top step, cap crumpled in his fists between his bent knees and face turned down. His head snaps up at the abrupt opening of the door, his bewilderment swiftly transforming, eyes widening. He stands and reaches out and they meet in the middle, a collision of grasping hands and seeking lips.
Alfie hauls him inside and kicks the door shut.
He expects a fight, insofar as he expects anything. Even with the rare sort of man who is inclined to fuck other men out of desire rather than a twisted exercise of power, it is still usually a fight of sorts. And Alfie usually loves it – he's got thick knuckles and coarsened skin from his bouts in the ring; his hands know how to grip and hold.
But Tommy ducks and weaves easily past all his expectations. He pulls at Alfie's braces and shirt with an air of brimming discovery. His lips are softer than any he's ever had, his kisses impossibly sweet for a lad Alfie's sure has blinded more than one man with the blade hidden in his cap.
Alfie bends and presses and instead of straining, Tommy flows with him like water. His body is slender but well-proportioned, stronger than it looks. And Alfie has looked.
Alfie wants to strip him bare and stand back to admire. He wants to see him arranged across his bed, in his chair, up against the window in the morning, when the bright light will frame him in a perfect portrait. But he suspects still life cannot compete with the boy in motion.
When Alfie puts him down on his bed and covers his body with his own, Tommy's face flickers with surprise. But still he goes with it. His legs, at least, seem to know what to do – arranging themselves around Alfie hips and holding on. His lips dent thoughtfully, like he's assessing the position and its merits. Alfie bypasses all calculation and kisses the expression away.
In the days that follow, he's going to remember flashes of this at inopportune moments – the splayed slap of Tommy's fingers against the wall, the gleaming line of his neck as he throws his head back. His ragged breathing as he blinks down with a dazed fervency at Alfie's cock driving between his clenched thighs.
His damn eyes. He doesn't stop watching Alfie once through any of it, and it's not until Alfie puts him on his belly that he gets some reprieve from that heavy gaze.