The rest of the weekend was pretty dull. They found the lead for my stereo though, which was a bonus. With my music on, and the door shut, I felt more compelled to sort my new bedroom out. It wasn’t anything amazing, obviously. They’d let me have the room bigger than Johns, which I think was partly to appease me, and partly because he was off to Leeds after the summer to start his university course. I had the view of the street, which was good. Welcome to the jungle, it gets worse here every day, Axl screeched as I unpacked and I had to agree with him on that. I covered the pale green wallpaper with music posters and bits I’d cut out of magazines, and with every piece of paper I stuck to the wall, I thought about what the ginger kid had said to me. So fucking over. What did that even mean? He did like Guns ‘N’ Roses once, but now he didn’t? I stole two more cigarettes from my mums’ bag and smoked them out of the window, while I thought it all over. I kept my eyes on the street, watching for any sign of those boys, but there was none. I felt abandoned for some reason, unworthy of their attention. I was bored by Sunday, and started to write in my notebook. My mum called it a diary, but it wasn’t one, and her saying that always annoyed me. Diaries have dates and things. This was just a lined notebook, and I wrote whatever the hell I wanted to write in it. Sometimes it was what I’d done that day or whatever, but most of the time it was just thoughts and feelings, and words. Words from songs, or words from my head. It helped pass the time, but if anyone knocked on my door, I was quick to shove both notebook and pen under my mattress.
Monday morning found me strangely calm to begin with. I got dressed in my scruffiest jeans and a t-shirt I had saved up pocket money to buy back home. It was black with Jim Morrison on the front. My mum didn’t like The Doors either, by the way. You’d think she’d at least appreciate something from her own generation, but she didn’t. She started fussing around me in the kitchen, trying to tidy my hair and acting all excited for me. The calm seeped right out of me then. I actually felt it hit the floor when it dropped out the legs of my jeans. Instead this knot of something started to build inside my stomach, getting harder and tighter, so that there was no room for breakfast. “No fighting,” my mum was telling me, counting off on her fingers. “No cheek, no mucking about being the clown, no getting into trouble of any kind!” I wanted to tell her to stop assuming the worst of me, but that would only have given her more ammunition for later. “Don’t forget to go to the office first to pick up your uniform! Do you want me to drive you? Do you know which road to go down after you cross Somerley?”
I nodded and rolled my eyes at her. “Yes, you already showed me.” I was out of the door, and reaching for my bike, when she tried to go in for a kiss. I ducked away, so she pulled back and placed her hands on her hips.
“Oh okay, I don’t know why I bother! Be like that then! Have a nice day Danny!”
I rode off before she could shout anything else. In my mind there was no point starting the day with niceties, when I already knew it was going to end with a slanging match. I rode quickly, keeping my eyes on the other uniformed kids heading the same way. The school was smack bang in the middle of Somerley estate, which was across the main road from ours. The houses were different though, I noted as I cycled through. They were red brick and looked older, more run down. The gardens were all bigger, but most were in a terrible state. I found the bike sheds and secured my bike, and then set off, my sole intention being locating the boys from the park. I had strict instructions of course, to go and introduce myself to the head master, and collect my school clothes, but that could wait. He’d be meeting me soon enough.
I knew where to look for kids like them. The bike sheds, the toilets, anywhere they could skulk about and cause trouble unnoticed. I pushed my way through the corridors as if I owned them. My heart was thumping faster and faster, and I almost longed for some faceless kid to shove me back so that I could lash out. My hands were curled into fists as I marched on, and the first bell had already rung by the time I found them. They were coming out of the boys toilets, just as I was going in. It was the dark haired boy, and it was me that won the struggle with the door, batting it back at him so forcefully he was knocked off his feet. I entered the toilets and let the door slam behind me. The other two boys had backed up silently, not sure what to do, or say. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” I told the dark haired boy, and stuck my hand out to him. “This place is huge!”
Unsurprisingly, he ignored my hand and climbed quickly to his feet. “Danny, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. Didn’t catch your name the other day.”
“Michael Anderson,” he told me, and threw his fist solidly into my face. I managed to side step it a little, and it knocked my cheek and sent me flying back into the door. The next thing I knew we had a hold of each other and we were down on the wet tiles, scrambling and panting. It didn’t last long, of course. Some teacher must have heard the noise, and came flying in, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. He took hold of our arms and dragged us down the corridor to the headmasters office. We were both flushed in the face, a little bloodied, and trying not to smile.
The head master was a large black man called Mr. James. My mum had told me previously that he was very strict, and wouldn’t stand for any nonsense. You can see the way her mind worked. We slouched solemnly into the office and he rose from his chair to regard us with nothing but disgust. He narrowed his eyes at me, lifted his wrist and briskly tapped the face of his watch. “You must be Daniel Bryans, my promising new student?” I nodded without meeting his eye. He clicked his tongue and stuck one brown loafer forward. I stared at it wordlessly. “Well what can I say? Quite some introduction eh? Take a seat.” He nodded at a grey plastic chair on the other side of his desk, so I took it without a word. “And what have you got to say for yourself Mr. Anderson?” he addressed the dark haired boy cooly, with a slight sigh at the end of the question.
I glanced up to see the dark boy shrug, his eyes averted to the floor. There was a trail of blood coming from one nostril, and I could see a spattering of red on his white school shirt. I glared at him in triumph, but he kept his gaze down. “Nothing sir. Sorry sir.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Mr. James had a deep voice that boomed around the small office, and seemed to bounce back at my ears from every cluttered surface. “Go and get cleaned up and back to class,” he snapped, waving a hand at the dark boy. “You’re in afternoon detention for the rest of the week and I’ll be sending your mother another letter. Go on, get out of my sight.”
He looked up then, and caught my eye. I thought I saw the corner of his mouth move upwards slightly, before he spun out of the room and closed the door softly behind him. Mr. James positioned himself on the other side of his desk, but remained standing. I understood that tactic all right. It was supposed to make me feel even smaller. He placed his hands down on the desk, leant towards me and regarded me curiously, while tilting his head to one side. “So what about you young man?” he asked. “Got anything to say for yourself? Want to explain how you can get into a fist fight on your first day in a new school? Is this the way you always start off?”
“Just got in a fight sir. Sorry sir.”
He lifted his eyebrows in response. “I’ve had the pleasure of looking through your school records,” he said. “They make colourful reading, to say the least. The only positive thing they have to say about you in the last year or so is that you are good at English, and like to write stories, is that true?”
I grimaced a little and looked at the door. “I dunno sir. I don’t think so.”
“Well you better be good at something Daniel, or you won’t be impressing me in a hurry will you?”
I gave a half hearted shrug. I didn’t want to piss him off exactly, but I didn’t want him having any high hopes for me either. I kicked the carpet with my shoes. “Sorry,” I said again. I spoke the word and realised it felt just the same as when I said it to my mother. It was just a word, I thought, just a word that you said when you’d been caught. It slipped out automatically, I mused, and it was always there, on the tip of my tongue. Sorry.
Mr. James released a sigh that he directed up to the ceiling along with his eyes. “I have a worrying feeling I’m going to be hearing that from you a lot young man.”
At the end of the day I was shown to detention. It was a classroom, filled with bored looking kids, scrawling aimlessly on notepaper, and I immediately took the seat next to the Michael boy. I stared at him for a while, trying to instigate some kind of reaction. I didn’t know about him, but I was ready for more. We’d been interrupted before anything had been settled. I didn’t like to leave it like that, so I wrote a note offering to finish the fight after detention and passed it to him. I watched him read it, and then he smirked a little, screwed it up and shoved it into his pocket. He carried on writing and did not look at me again.
I spotted him pushing his bike away after detention, so I wheeled mine right up to him. He stopped and held up a hand. “Whoa there mate,” he said, with a laugh. “I don’t want to fight you again.”
I was confused. “Why not?”
He offered a bright smile that confused me even more. “’Cause neither of us will win,” he shrugged. “We’re too evenly matched. You going this way too?” I nodded, narrowed my eyes in suspicion and fell into step with him. “This school is a total shit hole,” he started to say, as we pushed our bikes along. “It’s fucking shit, everything about it is shit. The teachers are shit, so are the lessons. Most of the kids are total twats one way or the other. It does my head in.” I nodded when he looked my way. He grinned. “You were totally insane this morning! Total mental!”
“Well you asked for it,” I started cautiously. My mind was whirling as we walked. My first thought was that he was being nice to be as a joke, or as part of a trick. Maybe the other boys were lying in wait somewhere. “All that shit at the bench the other day. Hanging around outside my house the whole time, trying to scare me or whatever.”
“Ahh we were just bored!” Michael snorted in amusement. “We were being nosy. Nothing ever happens around here, ever. We were just checking you out.”
“Yeah well I can fight any one of you any time you want!” I told him then, fixing him with what I hoped was a fierce stare. “No one pushes me around.” Michael nodded at me, so I nodded back. We climbed onto our bikes then and started to ride slowly back home.
We crossed Somerley Road, and on the other side I had to stand on the pedals, bearing down with my full weight to keep up with him. He pointed to the houses around the corner from ours, the ones I had passed on the way to the park. “I live there,” he said. “My mum’s out if you wanna’ come in?” I stopped my bike and eyed him. “I’ve got fags,” he added with a grin.
“All right then.”
I followed him to the alley that ran behind the row of houses. We pushed our bikes through piles of split bin bags and smashed TV’s until we came to his back gate. The gate was open, hanging awkwardly from the top hinge. Michael slammed his bike down into the overgrown grass, so I did the same. He gestured to the rusting skeleton of some indistinguishable car that was sat on bricks, going nowhere. “Don’t think my brother’s ever going to get around to fixing that, do you?” he asked in amusement. I stopped behind him at the back door, as he fished a key from his pocket and unlocked it.
“Is he not home either?”
“He’s in prison. Come on in.”
The kitchen was dark, as was the hallway beyond, but what I noticed even more was this thick sweet smell that seemed to immediately clog up my nostrils. It was really strong. I had no idea what it was, but the closest I could get to identifying it was realising that it smelled a bit like Grandma Sylvie, my mum’s mum. Michael dumped his bag on the kitchen table and started swinging the cupboard doors open in search of food. I gazed around curiously as he did. The table was covered in junk; piles of newspapers and magazines, overflowing ashtrays, and a large plastic basket of dirty washing. The sink was full of unwashed crockery, and there were several empty wine bottles lined up on the draining boards. That’s when I realised what the smell probably was. Booze. Stale booze. I stepped forward and something crunched beneath my shoe. I looked down and saw broken glass scattered across the floor. “Oh whoops sorry,” Michael turned and said to me. He offered a brief shrug of the shoulders. “My mum’s been too busy to tidy up lately. Had a few parties.”
“Oh.” I lifted my foot from the glass. I was starting to relax a little now, quicker than I had thought I would. Obviously the other boys were not about to jump out and smash my face in. “You lived around here long?”
“My whole life,” he said with a sigh. He slammed the last cupboard door and turned his attention to the fridge instead. “Rubbish eh? It’s a boring old shit hole just like that school. Jake lives in the flats near the beach? The shitty ones I mean, not the swish ones the other way.” I had no idea what he meant, so I just nodded. “Billy lives round the corner. We’ve been mates since Infants school.” I leant back against the table and listened. Michael slammed the fridge door shut and turned to face me. It was weird then, for a moment. When I looked at him I didn’t recognise him as the boy from the park, or the street outside my house. It was like looking at a totally different face. His dark brown eyes were warm and sparkling with mischief, and his smile was lazy and looped casually up to his ears as he spoke. “Billy has this huge crazy family! Like a hundred brothers and sisters, seriously! His parents were hippies, or something. Jake’s dad is this ex-army bloke though, boring old fart, never cracks a smile. And his mum is sort of a fatso, I mean, she never leaves the place!” He produced two cigarettes from his trouser pocket and held one out to me, so I took it.
“I’ve just got an older brother,” I told him. “But he won’t be around much longer either. He goes to University in Leeds after the summer.”
“You get on with him?”
“Nah,” I laughed. “He’s Mr. Perfect he is. Golden boy. Makes me sick most the time.”
“Doesn’t sound much like you,” Michael grinned, chucking me his lighter.
“Nah, he’s nothing like me.”
“Listen,” Michael stepped past me then, sucking on his lit cigarette, and taking me lightly by the arm as he passed. He walked back outside, so I followed. “Sorry about that, the other day at the park? We were being twats to you.”
We sat down on the doorstep, smoking like pro’s. “That’s okay,” I shrugged, and I couldn’t stop the smile that escaped me. There was this tentative brimming of hope inside me, for some reason. I liked him. “Sorry about this morning.”
“That’s okay, we deserved it,” he laughed. He was watching me carefully now, cigarette poised between finger and thumb as his hand dangled over one knee. “So you can hang around with us if you like,” he said then. “If you don’t know anyone else. But I mean, people will probably tell you not to, like teachers and neighbours and stuff. They don’t think much of my family round here.”
“Do you think I’d give a shit what any of them thought of me?” I asked him very seriously and he laughed in return.
I put off going home for as long as I could, and when I finally showed up, my mother met me at the back door, blocking the way in. She held onto the door frame, her hips thrust aggressively to one side, while her nostrils flared dangerously. “Where the hell have you been? Get in here now! I am just about ready to explode!” She said all this so quickly it was almost just a mumble of fury, but at least she moved and let me in. “Have you been smoking? I can smell smoke!” I dropped my bag on the floor and went to the sink for a glass of water.
“No,” I said with my back to her. “Just been around people who have.”
“Liar,” she snarled behind me, and I wanted to smile, so I kept my back turned. “I am missing cigarettes all the time Danny, and I know when you are lying! So don’t you dare stand there and lie to my face! I am so bloody angry with you young man! The head master called me! On your first day!”
I drank the water and started to refill the glass again. “Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I got in a bit of trouble today.”
“You got into a fight Danny!” she screeched, really erupting now. I turned slowly and saw her stood there with her fingernails in her cheeks. “On your first day! A fight! How could you? I shouldn’t be surprised though should I?” I had to rub a hand against my mouth pretty hard to disguise the smile that was threatening.
“I’m really sorry,” I told her, eyes down. It was my best shot. “Look some kids were picking on me, that’s why. I had to stand up for myself, didn’t I? Otherwise it would just carry on, right?”
She pushed one hand violently through her hair and shook her head at me. I felt just a small stirring of guilt in my belly, but that was okay. I was used to that. I bit my lip and kept my eyes down, while she looked on. “What do you mean picking on you? Fighting is not the answer Danny! I’ve told you so many times! We came here for a fresh start, for goodness sake…”
“You mean you came here for a fresh start,” I corrected her.
“Well I just mean, saying we makes it sound like me and John got into a mess and had to run.” I risked a look at her, and could see she was fuming, yet also calming. She had her own guilt, see. That was the way it worked between us. She threw a little at me, and I threw a little right back. In the end, we both had to back off, because neither of us would ever win. I shrugged my shoulders a little and tried to look pathetic. She was waiting for me to say more though. She was waiting to see how I was going to get myself out of this one. “What I mean is, it was actually you who picked another loser boyfriend who went all weird on you. Just saying.”
“Yeah I know what you’re saying,” she snapped, and finally turned away from me. I watched her shoulders drop as she snatched her handbag from the table and started to rummage around in it desperately. “But whatever you think about all that business Danny, and yes, it was an unpleasant time for all of us, but I moved us here for the best, is what I’m trying to say. I moved us here for the right reasons. A new start for all of us.” I waited. Now it was her turn to get herself out of it. She stuck a fag between her red lips and lit it up. With one hand on her hip, she cocked her head at me and puffed a quick stream of smoke into the air above. “You said you would behave better. You’re not sticking to your side of the bargain.”
Ha! I knew I had her then. Had she really forgotten so soon about her side of the bargain? I smiled a little at her, a nice smile I mean, as if I was a little kid just remembering something nice his mummy had promised him. “Okay, okay,” I said. “I’ll do better tomorrow, I promise. I didn’t exactly mean to fight, it’s just these kids were giving me a hard time, but it’s all sorted now anyway…so don’t forget, you have to stick to your side of the bargain too? Remember that?”
She gave me a quizzical look, cigarette held in mid air. “I do,” she said it slowly. Then she tried to turn the attention back on me. “What do you mean it’s all sorted now anyway?”
I sensed my victory in more ways than one, so picked my bag up and headed for the door. “I’m friends with them now,” I told her as I went. “And your side was no more loser boyfriends, remember?”
A muffled groan followed me up the stairs, and I grinned in response. She had probably thought I would forget about that one, but no such luck. She had promised me after crazy James, promised me, no more boyfriends. I closed my door behind me, gave Axl a withering look and pulled my notebook out from under the mattress.