Mr Andrews reacted on instinct. He approached the man standing in the open doorway and, bowing a few degrees from the waist, said, 'Good evening, sir. May I help you?'
If it had not been for the balaclava, the waiter would have seen a blink of surprise.
Mr Andrews smiled thinly and moved closer in the hope that the width of his barrel-chest and his shoulders, correctly positioned, would bar entry to the man. When there was no response he moved closer still, and repeated the question. 'I said, sir, may I help you?' Before the man could answer, there was a crack of gunfire from outside.
The man swung about frantically at the noise, only to be pushed backwards into the restaurant by another figure in a black jacket and balaclava. Together, the three of them crashed into the dining room. Mr Andrews just managed to say 'Really!' as they hit Thomas and Walker's table at the top of the kitchen stairs, knocking the two men off their chairs. There was the sound of splintering wood as the table's front legs gave way and it fell to the floor, table-top facing the front door. It was followed instantaneously by the crack and shatter of crockery and glassware, banging against each other on the way down and the ripefruit splatter of osso bucco and boeuf bourguignon landing amid the wreckage.
The two masked men lay sprawled against the table-top at their backs, stunned. There was silence in the dining room. Slowly the first of the men turned to look at the gallery of faces staring back at him. A number of people had half risen from their seats, and were fixed there, knees bent, watching. Red wine dribbled off tables where glasses had been knocked over by diners, startled by the commotion. Waiters stood between them, staring down at the masked men, knuckles white from the tightness of the grip on the plates in their hands. The regulars at the Oyster House regarded the restaurant as a place that could be relied upon to keep the world at bay. It was their place, and in these first seconds they saw the intrusion by the masked men as something they should be outraged by rather than afraid of. This, after all, was exactly what they had been voting against all day. How dare these men just barge in? Some talked later of a moment of calm and described how the two men stayed fixed with their backs to the upturned table, staring out at the street, arguing with each other.
'You shouldn't have fired.'
'They were coming for us.'
'They were just girls.'
'I didn't hit them.'
But there was still the winded Mr Andrews, who had been thrown by the impact on to his back a few feet from the gunman and who lay there now, surrounded by the chaos of sauce and crockery, listening to the hoarse exchange of words, regaining his breath and planning his next move. As the two men talked, their sentences becoming ever more staccato, he turned himself slowly on his side and looked at the weapon, still clutched in the second gunman's hand, which lay in his lap. Sensing an opportunity he took a deep breath and lunged, one soft hand reaching out for the gun, hoping the momentum offered by his weight and the unexpectedness of his actions would knock the intruders off balance.
Unused to physical activity of any kind, he miscalculated badly and threw himself beyond the hand with the gun. As he landed across the men's legs, the impact forcing the breath from his lungs once more, he felt somebody grab him and then he was rolling across the floor, over jagged shards of broken plate and clanking pieces of cutlery, one of the men behind him, the hand with the gun about his neck. He reached up to take it, his fat fingers scrabbling against the cold metal. Now they had stopped rolling and he felt the other man underneath him and pressed down, sensing for once that his excessive weight might give him an advantage. The two of them scrambled with their feet to gain purchase on the sauce-slicked carpet.
It was as he finally got his hand around the barrel of the gun, held hard against his cheek, that Mr Andrews felt a sharp stabbing pain in his throat which was so intense it radiated out across his shoulders and into his chest. For a moment the head waiter flailed his arms as though he were trying to stop himself from falling, and then finally he became still as the effects of the injury overwhelmed him.
The gunman tightened his neck-hold on the head waiter and pulled him upwards into a seating position sprawled next to him, Mr Andrews' soft back held against the hardness of his bony chest. The two men were leaning against the side wall of the restaurant, by the front door, facing into the dining room. The gunman twisted the silver fork that he had just stabbed into Mr Andrews' throat so that it moved deeper through the layer of fat covering his gullet. The wound released a thick stream of blood. It soaked into the front of his white shirt and down across the lapels of his black suit. Mr Andrews gasped and his eyes bulged and the gunman tightened his grip further, until he was satisfied by the speed of the haemorrhage.
'Did you want something, fat man?' he said, whispering hoarsely into the waiter's ear.
The gunman heard screams and looking up he saw that, at the sight of Mr Andrews' blood, the diners in the front section of the restaurant were finally rising fully to their feet. Chairs fell backwards. More glasses tumbled to the carpet in a spray of expensive claret. He let go of the fork for a moment, tossed the Browning pistol into his free hand and pointed it around the room. He shouted, 'Downstairs.' The customers and staff of the Oyster House did as they were ordered, slipping through the narrow gap between the upturned table and the top of the stairs, screaming and hollering at each other to move more quickly so that some stumbled on the way down and called out in pain as they banged against the walls or the doors at the bottom. When the last of them had gone through the gap the two gunmen scrambled behind the upturned table, taking the waiter with them. The first gunman looked down the stairs behind him, at the diners pushing their way through. He turned to his companion and hissed, 'Trevor!' 'Insurance,' Trevor said.
The head waiter tried to right himself. Trevor dropped the gun again and reached over to the fork. He twisted it so that his victim gave a tight, wet groan, and his tongue flopped out of his mouth. Mr Andrews stopped moving. His breathing was coming in shallow pants now, and there was a blue tinge to his lips. Blood was pooling on the carpet and was smeared across Trevor's hands. Nathan James looked at the punctured skin and the fork protruding from it which his accomplice was still holding, a lever for the administration of pain, and felt a rush of nausea which only subsided when he took a deep breath and turned away from the bloody mess. He told himself Trevor had done the only thing possible, that this was exactly why he had brought him on the job in the first place. He was in no position to worry about such things now.
From their position behind the upturned table, the two men heard the sound of sirens followed by the rapid, nightclub strobe of blue lights, which flashed against the buildings outside, cutting into the Georgian façades. Trevor picked up his gun and fired another shot that took out the glass frontage of the restaurant. It shattered, turning cobweb-white from the impact and holding for a split second before collapsing to the floor like a satin sheet released to gravity's will. Nathan pressed his hands against his ears to ease the ringing caused by the noise of gunfire. 'Stop,' he shouted, and for a moment he sounded desperate.
The head waiter's eyes were glazed and rolling back in his head. 'And ease up on him.'
Trevor released his neck-hold, so that the waiter slumped to the floor and gasped.
The two men peered over the edge of the upturned table, at the shuddering blue flashes outside and the shadows moving among them. The light show was punctuated by the wail and crack of the police klaxons.
Trevor said, 'You sure about the door?'
Nathan nodded and, eyeing the waiter, said, 'Leave him here.'
'He comes with us.'
'He'll slow us down.'
'I told you. Insurance. Warning to others.'
There was no time to argue. They could decide what to do with him later. They would have to decide a lot of things later. The two men slipped a hand under an armpit each and dragged the limp body of the head waiter towards the restaurant kitchen, his head banging on each stair as they went.
As they worked their way down, Nathan James looked at the damage his accomplice had done to the man's throat and at the trail of blood it had left behind on the carpet. He felt a familiar rush of anger that made his cheeks burn beneath the harsh mesh of the balaclava. He had spent his life trying to be a man who made things happen. Instead he was a man things happened to.
When Nathan James was seven years old, his parents were killed in a car crash. That day it was his grandmother who was waiting for him at the school gates. She held her arms stiff at her sides and looked past Nathan into the distance and he wondered if she was watching out for someone else. Then he called, 'Nan,' and she turned to him with an empty stare. She told him that his mother could not collect him today because of a 'problem' and waited until she had walked him silently to his house to give him the news. Even then she was unable to find the right words. She said: 'Mummy and Daddy were in an accident.' She told him 'it was the kind of accident that makes people go to sleep for ever', and she hated the way it made his parents sound lazy. She finished by announcing that he would now be coming to live with her and his grandfather in Streatham. Mrs James assumed she had supplied enough pieces of information for Nathan to work out what she meant without distressing him with needless detail, and told him briskly to pack a case with his favourite toys to go with the one of his clothes that she had already prepared. That September afternoon in 1966 Nathan James began his journey back from London's middle-class suburbs to the fringes of the inner city, a journey that his father had completed in the other direction some years previously.
Nathan's grandparents, Terry and Frieda, decided early on that it would be best for the boy if they did as little as possible to remind him of his previous life. Every night at bedtime Frieda asked Nathan if he was all right, but she would never suggest any reason why he might not be. The first night she leaned over to kiss him goodnight on the cheek, and he forced his face down into the soft part of her shoulder, his slender arms looped about her neck, and wept noiselessly. Nathan did this every night and Frieda held him tightly while saying nothing before gently releasing him to his pillow. After a few weeks of this, she said it was time for the crying to stop. Nathan accepted the instruction. Terry James ran a removals business, and at first the furniture in Nathan's new room was made of old wooden tea chests: a high bed of upended chests pushed together with a mattress on top and tea chests on their sides for open cupboards from which he got splinters. Nathan thought that they smelt of other people's lives. Over the next few weeks each piece was replaced by objects Terry had scavenged from households that no longer required them. Every one, Terry said, was 'a lovely find', though Nathan regarded them suspiciously as cast-offs like himself. Nathan went to a new primary school in Brixton, further north into the city. At school he had a hook for his coat, just as at his old school. There was hard shiny paper printed with the words 'Now wash your hands' in the toilets, and wall bars in the school hall for PE lessons. There were many of the things he had known before, but they were all in the wrong place.
In the school holidays Nathan joined Terry on his removal jobs. Each day began the same way, the empty van parked up on a residential street in Streatham or Tooting, while Nathan and his grandfather waited for the rest of the removal team -- impressive, solid men called Ken, Tom and Jack -- who would help ease another family towards a life elsewhere. Every day Terry read his copy of the Morning Star. He had three copies of the newspaper delivered, two of which were meant to be read by the others, but they never were and these tightly rolled copies formed an unlit pyre in the space behind the dark green vinyl seats in the van's cab. As he read his paper Terry maintained a commentary, mostly about a war in Vietnam, or about America's 'imperialist ambitions', which Nathan understood was something his grandfather disliked. Occasionally he tapped an announcement of an event -- a summer camp run by the Communist Youth League or a fun day from the Young Socialist Alliance -- and said, 'We should get you on to that,' but he never sounded convinced and nothing came of it. Sometimes he taught his grandson slogans from the Communist Manifesto because he thought it was funny to hear a small boy shouting, 'The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.'
At night, over dinner, he talked to Frieda about the newspaper stories he had read. Workers were organizing in Sunderland, he told her one evening. The bosses had gone too far this time in Birmingham. Then he looked over at Nathan. 'Listen to me trying to put you to sleep with all this talk,' he said, and he winked. 'Kick a ball about after tea?' Terry said, businesslike, as he scooped peas on to his fork.
Nathan said 'Yeah' even though his grandfather was bad at football and lost interest quickly. Most evenings, after an initial burst of activity, Terry stood staring at the house, while Nathan ran around him, the ball at his feet, and he knew that his grandfather would rather be at his desk, tearing articles out of newspapers and scribbling notes in the margins. Still, he was glad of the offer, and happy that the talk of workers and bosses was done with for now, even though he knew it could start again at any moment. Terry had fought Mosley's Fascists at Cable Street in 1936 and liked to impress his grandson with stories about the crowds who gathered that day, unafraid of violence. Terry James was a man with a great memory. His sense of betrayal at the news of Soviet tanks moving into Hungary in 1956 was as intense as if it had happened yesterday, and when in the summer of 1968 they rolled again, this time into Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring, he fell into a depression. He turned the small plaster bust of Lenin that he kept on the mantelpiece in the front room to face the wall, and took his party membership card from his wallet and placed it on the table in the hall by the telephone. 'I'll get rid of that tomorrow,' he said, though he didn't, nor the day after that. One morning, watching unseen from the shadowed half landing, Nathan saw Terry slip it back into a slot in his brown leather wallet.
Before the car crash, Terry had been a distant figure in Nathan's life. He never seemed pleased to see his son's family when they visited, and even on a Sunday he retreated to his desk to deal with paperwork, wearing the brown warehouseman's coat that he kept for weekdays. Terry's son -- Nathan's father -- had joked about his father's membership of the Communist Party, as if it were an embarrassing hobby, and made good his rebellion by becoming an accountant. Now that the son was gone, the grandson became Terry's project. He bought him a large dictionary and told him that everything he would need in life was on its pages. Sometimes he tested him on the spellings of difficult words and gave him a coin or two as a reward, which Nathan put in the toy safe he had hidden under his bed, illicit bounty stolen during a moving job. In his early teens, Terry gave Nathan books to read -- Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell -- though he didn't get far with them. Reading single words in a dictionary was one thing, Nathan decided. Reading whole chapters took him further inside his head than he ever wanted to go.
Frieda James died when Nathan was twelve and, wanting to make Terry feel less sad, Nathan went with him a few times to his political meetings. They were held in small halls around Brixton that smelt of bleach and overheated dust and seemed to Nathan to be attended mostly by angry men in duffel coats. The meetings were terribly dull. Still, his grandfather's revolutionary narrative appealed to Nathan's sense of himself as an outsider and once, attending a lecture on anarchism, he felt that he had found an ideology that would suit him. Wasn't the death of his parents so early the 'abolition of government' that the definition of anarchism described? He decided he had been living in a state of personal anarchism for years, and liked to imagine that the circumstances of his upbringing released him from any responsibility to the laws which bound others.
After Terry died, and Nathan's life changed again, he threw away all his books. He didn't attend any more political meetings and soon stopped describing himself as an anarchist, because he didn't like any of the other anarchists that he met. He had hung out for a while at the squats on Villa Road in central Brixton and, though he was intrigued by the sense of family they had created, too many of them were middleclass college kids mouthing slogans they only half understood, and he doubted their commitment.
Nathan was twenty years old in 1979, and eligible to vote for the first time at a General Election, though he didn't bother. So many of the brick walls in Brixton had been daubed with the smudged black swastikas of the National Front by then, and all he ever heard in response were the empty platitudes of the Villa Road crowd. Stinking piles of black-bagged rubbish piled up during the winter of early 1979. Every office building was guarded by a cadre of strikers, shouting at passers by and adding to their freight of morning gloom, and Nathan couldn't see how voting for the Labour Party was going to change any of that. He reserved equal contempt for Margaret Thatcher's easy rhetoric and wished that Terry was still alive so he could hear him rage with authentic anger. Terry would have called her an 'embezzler', as he did anyone who took the side of business.
On polling day Nathan met Ken, one of Terry's former removal men, who told him that the new owner of his grandfather's business had erected a poster of the Conservative leader by the depot's gates. After dark Nathan went alone to the depot and found the poster. She had her teeth set in a grin and her hair fixed in a crashing golden wave that could only be maintained with a heavy dose of lacquer. The poster was attached to a wooden stake, which in turn was nailed loosely to the gatepost. Nathan took a swing at the poster in the darkness, hoping to knock Margaret Thatcher to the pavement. He regarded it as an act of revenge on his grandfather's behalf, but he did not see the long rusting nail protruding from her mouth, where the poster had been nailed to the stake, until his fist was impaled upon it. The blood rushed out over his hand, down his forearm and dribbled off his elbow to the ground, and he had to pull hard to free himself. He went to hospital after that, and saw out the rest of election night watching the blood soak into the muslin strips the nurses had given him when he arrived. By the time they had stitched him up and given him a tetanus shot it was dawn and Margaret Thatcher was the new Prime Minister.
This is part two of a four-part series. Part one is here.
This extract is taken from The Oyster House Siege by Jay Rayner, published in March by Atlantic Books at £10.99. To order an advance copy at the special price of £9.99 including postage and packing, call 01903 828503 quoting reference JR1.