I kept it up for as long as I could. Let it be known than being overly nice to someone you detest is not an easy thing to do. I felt like she was testing me, those next few weeks. She was seeing how far she could push it, just like I was. Just as she threatened, Bradley started to show his face at ours more and more often, and I just had to swallow it. I started to wonder if it was time we changed tactics; hit him with the big guns. So he didn’t mind his girlfriends’ son being a bit over the top friendly? How would he feel about me being an outright little shit?
At school, I had relaxed into things, the way you do when you have no choice about going somewhere. I knew who was okay, and who to avoid, and I knew that none of it really mattered anyway when I’d found the three best friends I had ever had. I spent hours in my room, faithfully recording the music Billy leant to me on an almost daily basis. Billy was right about his dads’ music collection being akin to an education. It was more than that though. It was a revelation; as close to a religious experience I was ever likely to get. I learnt the words and sang along loudly when I was alone in the house. One of the best ones to sing out loud was I Am The Resurrection, by The Stone Roses. Everything about that song spoke to me. Everything about that song commanded it be played extremely loud at least once a day. The intro, just drums and nothing else, pounding drums for what feels like eternity, and then the guitar kicking in with the melody, followed shortly by Ian Brown singing , down, down, you bring me down. Just brilliant. My mother could not fathom why I wanted to play it every day, why I would listen to it, only to rewind the tape back and listen to it again. I didn’t have the vocabulary or the inclination to explain to her how I loved the way the song built up, two verses before you got the first spill of chorus, I am the resurrection and I am the light! That was the bit I loved to sing at the top of my lungs; I couldn’t ever bring myself to hate you as I’d liiiiiiiiiiiiike! The guitars just blew me away. I started pestering my mother for guitar lessons, imagining that spiralling and joyous sound coming from me, from my own fingers! But we couldn’t afford such things, she said. I had to be content with playing it loud whenever I got the chance. Lying on my bed and wriggling from side to side, or bouncing up and down, looking for a way to release the happiness it expanded inside of me. I was starting to distrust and despise people who did not like the same music as me.
Discreetly, I kept one eye on Lucy Chapman. Part of me knew I would always fancy her, whatever happened, but part of me worried that it would never last between us if she didn’t like decent music. I knew where she lived; up on Cedar View Hill beyond the park, the same road Edward Higgs lived on. The road was long and sweeping up there, the houses vast, reminding me of mansions in Hollywood, in the movies. They all had glorious views of the sea from up there. I imagined that she would fall for me one day, and that her parents would hate me. I would drive up there on my motorbike to pick her up. I knew that she was clever, she was in the top groups for everything, and that she liked to twirl her hair around her index finger when she worked with her head bent low over her desk. We had swapped a few smiles and said hi a few times, but that was it. I didn’t know how long I would have to wait for something to happen, but I had noticed that she was best friends with Zoe Collins, a girl who melted into giggles whenever Michael was around.
After school, there were long and lazy afternoons to fill at the park, or the base. We would ride our bikes up there, smoke cigarettes and muck around. “The fight is on,” Michael told us there one day after school. It was something we had all been eager to hear, especially me, now that I needed to shake things up a little at home. “Normal rules apply. Four against four, no weapons.”
“As long as he sticks to the rules,” Jake commented from where he was sprawled on the grass, with a cigarette jutting from his mouth. “Last time he had three extra bastards hiding in the bushes.”
I looked on, appalled while they all nodded grimly and seriously. “Never trust Higgs,” Michael warned me solemnly. “He never plays fair, the dirty little bastard.”
“Can’t wait to get my hands on him,” was all I could think to say right then, and they seemed to appreciate it, bursting into laughter around me. I was punching one fist into the palm of my other hand. It was true though. The little shit was an incessant pest to me at school, trying to goad me into violence daily. The fight at the park was a chance to settle the score again, even things out and give him something to take home to show his mummy.
I rode home after that, and I rode straight into trouble. I skidded my bike in carefully practiced fashion into the driveway behind my mothers’ car. There was another car parked behind hers; this swish navy blue Porsche thing. I didn’t give a shit about cars, never had. It annoyed me the way people expected you to be excited about them, just because you were a boy. I hated the way some boys at school talked about cars all the time. It bored me. What cars they rated, what cars they wanted to drive when they were old enough, what cars they wouldn’t be seen dead in; who fucking cared? Cars were not important, not like music. Music changes peoples’ lives, I was thinking as I barged into the empty kitchen. I could smell something nice cooking in the oven, and I could hear voices, coming from the lounge. Still thinking absolutely nothing of the Porsche in the drive, I opened the lounge door, and there they both were. My mum and Bradley. Panic stricken faces as they scrambled for their clothes. I saw things I really didn’t want to see. Hairy balls and my mothers arse as she dashed around the other side of the sofa. “Danny,” she was mumbling incoherently. I yanked the door shut on them and ran from the house. “Danny come back!” I heard her call out, but I couldn’t have stopped if I had wanted to. My feet tore me through that house, and spilled me back outside into the sunny remnants of the day. I saw my bike and seized hold of it, and I was off before I even knew where I was going, pedalling furiously, not looking back.
It was weird, as I rode. You would think I would only be able to see their naked bodies in my mind, but no, it wasn’t that, thank fuck. It was crazy James, the last one, the unstable one who had caused us to run. It was him I could see in my head. Sat out on the old doorstep night after night, crying one minute, then screaming the next. His constant presence unreal and yet frightening. I rode past Michael’s house without even realising it, rage erupting a hot sweat across my forehead. I felt like I was burning up, I was so wired with anger. Like I would explode or catch on fire if I didn’t do something.
I found myself outside Billy’s house, and remembering him saying I could come by anytime, I propped my bike up against the porch and knocked on the door. As I waited, I wiped my hands off on my school trousers, and gazed around. The Madisons had an extremely overgrown front garden, but it was sort of beautiful at the same time. There were climbing roses growing over the porch, and all these little wind chimes tinkling against each other. The doorstep was covered in discarded and muddied wellington boots, and there was a row of terracotta plant pots, with various half dead plants growing from them. You could tell they belonged to the kids, because each pot was painted a crazy rainbow of colours. There was plenty of noise coming from the other side of the door. Small children yelling, and small dogs yapping. A willowy looking woman, with long pale blonde hair opened the door to me. She seemed to have children stuck all over her, and they all looked just like Billy, flame haired and freckle nosed. I wanted to make a comment about The Waltons, but I guessed they had probably heard that one before. Billy’s mother smiled at me warmly. She was wearing bell bottomed jeans and a large over-sized shirt, spattered with paint. “Hi is Billy in?” I asked her. She immediately held the door open and gestured for me to come in.
“Yes, yes he’s up the stairs, don’t tell me! You’re Danny! You must be Danny.”
“Yep, that’s me. Thanks Mrs. Madison.”
“Call me June,” she turned and smiled at me. “Please.” She peeled one of the children from her leg. “Coco go and tell Billy his friend is here. Danny, you must stay for dinner, we were just about to eat.” I paused and scratched at my neck.
“Oh I’m sorry, I can come back later…”
“No, no, don’t you dare!” she laughed at me. “You are more than welcome to stay. If your mother won’t mind, that is?”
I thought back to mum, and Bradley, the horrible tangle of arms and legs, and shook my head at Mrs. Madison. Just then Billy appeared at the top of the stairs, waving to me urgently. “Get up here!” he hissed, so I obeyed. He ushered me into the bedroom he shared with two younger brothers and kicked clothes out of the way so that he could close us in. “What’s up?” he asked me breathlessly, “is it about the fight?”
I looked around me. He had the same room as me, at the front of the house, but it seemed so much smaller, with bunk beds on one wall, and his bed on the opposite. There was a tatty old leather arm chair beside his bed, and he quickly swept another bundle of clothes from the seat and shoved me down into it. His walls were plastered in posters, even more than mine were. For a moment I was just lost, staring around at them all, trying to take them all in, place their band and their songs. “No, I was just bored,” I told him slowly. “I had a fight with my mum so I came out. You don’t mind me coming over do you?”
Billy flung himself onto his bed, reached across to his stereo which was positioned on a shelf at the head end of the bed, and started fiddling with knobs. “Course not, stupid, I told you, my mother loves it! She’ll bore your pants off at dinner time, endless fucking questions, and my dad. What was the fight about?”
“Oh. I walked in on her and Bradley.” Billy’s head whipped around to stare at me, so I nodded reluctantly. “Yeah. Naked and everything.” I looked away from Billy’s expression as it moved from wonder to amusement. I felt sort of down and dark about it again right then. It wasn’t just shock, or anger that I felt, it was more than that. It was hurt, and dismay. I had to try not to think about it too much. I had to try to forget her promise to me, just as I was going to forget mine to her. I picked at a scab on the back on of my hand, and just felt sort of heavy, as if I should lie down or something.
“That’s horrible mate!” Billy was saying to me. “That’s sick! Gross!”
“I know,” I sighed in agreement. “I had to get out of there before I puked.”
“Ugh,” he shook himself. “Horrible. Nasty. Old people, shouldn’t…should they? Ugh, just put it out your head mate. Don’t think about it. Doesn’t sound like the plan is going very well then?”
I shook my head. “Nah.”
“Shit,” Billy said in sympathy. Then he brightened. “Hey, while you’re here you can get more music off my dad. He will love meeting you! Only thing is mate…they’re kind of vegetarian.” He shrugged his shoulders at me in apology.
I couldn’t help but smile at him. “That’s all right Bill.”
After dinner at the Madisons, I climbed on my bike and started to pedal slowly home. I was tired. My mind was a mess of churning thoughts, making the urge to write in my notebook stronger and stronger. I needed to put some music on and let it pour out. Staying for dinner had put my head in a whirl. Don’t get me wrong, it was great. I actually loved every minute of it. The kids were unruly and noisy, and there was this constant background buzz of whining, laughing and banging. But there was so much love, I had noticed, between them all. That was the only way I could explain it. It was there in the way they all looked at each other, the way their eyes smiled on. June was one of those very tactile people, always tapping or touching or grabbing you when she spoke. She leaned in towards you, looked at you as if you were the most important and valuable person to her in that moment, in that sharing of information. She laughed at everything I said, and not in a mean way, or a fake way either. She chattered non-stop at the dinner table, seemingly able to hold several different conversations with different children at the same time. Mr. Madison had arrived home just as dinner was being served. I don’t know what he did for a living, but he wore a suit and tie. He looked just like Billy, short and square, with rusty orange hair that came down to his shoulders. He had a thick wiry beard too, which he rubbed at when he spoke. He seemed as pleased as his wife to have an extra guest at the dinner table, and he asked me questions all the way through the meal, just as Billy had warned. What music did I like? Had I been to see any bands yet? Where had I moved from? Did I like it better here? Did I want to look at his music collection?
I cycled home with a few more mix tapes in my pocket. He had insisted on taping me some albums by a band called The Smiths. “Billy won’t approve,” he had told me with a wink. “Not grungey enough for him, at the moment, but I have a feeling you’ll find something you like there.” I thought of the tapes in my pocket and felt a warmth of gratitude. I headed home, thinking about how different Billy’s mother had been to Michaels. I wondered about the rumours that surrounded Jake’s mother; that she was fat, really fat, like too fat to leave the flat fat. I couldn’t reasonably ask Jake if this was true though, could I? I stopped when I got to my house, and planted my feet on the ground either side of my bike. The blue car was still there. I noticed it properly this time. A brand new Porsche by the look of it, with the number plate personalised to Bradley. Disgusting, I thought, what a smarmy prick. I sneered, and edged closer to it. I did what I did next without even really thinking about it. I just did it, and it was done, and then I was scared. I had snatched a stone up from the ground and dragged a ragged scratch across the bonnet.
My sleep was restless for the next few nights. It annoyed me. In between fitful periods of unconsciousness, I kept waking, choked with guilt and the fear of my mother confronting me. I gritted my teeth against it, reminding myself that it was good actually, what I had done; it was all part of the plan, wasn’t it? Scare the bastard off. Plus, he deserved it anyway, and they wouldn’t ever be able to prove it was me. I held onto that, whenever sleep eluded me. I tried to remember how quickly mum had tired of James, and clung to the hope that it would soon go this way for Bradley too. One minute she had been all over him like a rash, murmuring about engagements and moving in together, and then the next, he’d been old news. She’d started avoiding his calls, and ducking behind the sofa when he knocked on the door. I remembered how James had sucked up to me, and tried to get me on his side, and how it had worked too, for a while. I’d liked him, the stupid dopey fool, I’d thought he was all right. I was never making that mistake again.
When the day of the fight rolled around, I found my mother and Bradley entwined on the sofa together, watching some cheesy movie they had rented out. I told her in tight, clipped tones that I was going to Billy’s to listen to music, and she merely nodded back at me silently. There had been no mention of the scratched car, but she knew, I could see that in the way she looked at me. I was going to be early for the fight, but I had the idea that a quiet stolen cigarette on the bench would get me in the right mood, so that was my plan. I cycled there, head low, jaw tight, that cramping nervous feeling taking over my belly.
I got to the park and threw down my bike. My mouth was dry, and my stomach now had that fluttery, disjointed feeling you got on the first day back at school, or on the morning of a test, or something. It was partly because of the fight, but it was also because of Bradley, and Project-Sleazebag. I needed to consult Michael about it, when this business was taken care of. It was not going to plan at all.
I didn’t even have time to light my smoke before I felt these hands ramming into my back, propelling me violently forward. I had no chance to correct my balance, and my bike was right in my way, so I fell over it, scratching one ankle on the spikes of the chain.
“Ahh all alone?” It was Eddie Higgs, with three boys behind him. I turned onto my backside and stared up at them. I vaguely recognised the other three. The big, stupid looking one was called Kevin Grady, and he glared back at me through these slitty, piggy eyes. I had him down for a slime and a thicko. The other two were harder to work out. Good boys. Like Higgs, at school. Polite and clean and top of their classes. But here they were, punching their fists into their hands, snarling down at me like I was a stray dog that needed putting down. I knew I was at least five minutes early. So it was going to be like this, was it?
“The others aren’t here yet,” I said, thinking my best chance was to stall them.
Higgs smiled a dangerous smile and came toward me quickly. “Oh really? They’re not here yet? Well you don’t mind if we get things started do you? You’re not too chicken?” That was rich, I thought, getting briskly to my feet and holding up my fists, coming from a boy about to fight four on one. He came at me then before I could argue, bowled me right over and got two punches into my ribs before I could grab a handful of his hair and toss him to one side. I stumbled half way up, my intention being to run, but Grady was on me before I could, twisting one arm behind my back. Shit, was all I could think then, shit and fuck and fuck and shit. Higgs was back on his feet and coming at me. He winked at me.
“Think I’ll go first boys. Think I’ll go first and teach the scummer a lesson!”
He rolled a fist up into my face and followed up with a kick to the stomach. I would like to say for his sake, that it really hurt, that it was impressive, or whatever, but it really wasn’t, not one little bit. No wonder he needed three more arseholes to help him out. Grady let me drop, so I pulled my arm around and rubbed it quickly. I knew I had to get up and run, before they all started on me. Higgs was pacing around me, his circles getting tighter and tighter, his pansy arsed little face all screwed up with gloat and glee. I wanted to kill him. I felt that warm red flooding my mind again, and I was glad. “Shall I tell you what my dad says about scummers like you?” he was saying as he walked. Like I gave a shit what his dad said, or thought about anything. “Scum like you, low life benefit scroungers like you and all your mates! You know what he says? Kill ‘em before they grow!” He seemed delighted with this little pearl of wisdom, and suddenly so many things about him made sense to me. He leapt in nimbly then, booting me in the chest and knocking me back down. I struggled back up, shaking my head at him in disgust. I was thinking of the cherubic faced boy I saw at school, holding doors open for teachers, and throwing his hand up enthusiastically in class. I looked at the sneer of hatred twisting his face as he paced around me like a lion stalking his prey, and I felt a kind of dumb shock at the difference in him.
“You’re a cowardly little prick,” I told him then. “That’s what you are. Don’t want to wait for a fair fight like we arranged!”
“I came to fight you, not your reject friends,” he sneered back at me. “Don’t you get it?”
I shrugged. “Fine then. Me and you. Not a problem.”
He laughed, and the others laughed too, and it was like they had this secret little joke between them all, something they had planned and rehearsed and chuckled over, and me, I was the butt of that joke all right.
“Oh listen Bryans,” he said then, finally stopping his circling and standing right in front of me. I got to my feet and faced him. I showed him no fear because I didn’t feel any. He was laughing at me, and the way he looked then, with his smooth curtains and his glinting eyes, he reminded me of some old fashioned army sergeant or something. Some upper class snotty shit, utterly convinced of his own superiority. “You don’t get it, do you? So let me explain it to you! People like you and your slut mother, and your shitty scummer friends, they drag this town down, you know?”
“Talking shit,” I told him. “Boring. Get on with it.”
“They’re coming up!” one of the others yelled then, and I saw the alarm leap into Higgs eyes. He was out of time, and he knew it. I started to laugh, and looked over my shoulder. Big mistake. Higgs saw his advantage and took it savagely. I felt his fist smash into my cheek, and I went down again. Suddenly they were all at me. I folded my arms over my head, and it was nothing but a flurry of feet coming in and out, and when I caught a glimpse of them, all their faces were shielded by their hanging, sweaty hair.
It was over quickly. I heard their footsteps tearing away. I heard Michael’s enraged screech as he thundered past me; “get back here you fucking bastards!”
Jake skidded to his knees out of nowhere. “Shit! Are you okay?”
I sat up, rubbing the grass from my hair. “Think so.”
“Fucking arsehole bastard shits!” Billy exclaimed, arriving out of breath behind Jake, and planting his hands on his knees while he leant over to recover from his run up the hill. “Can’t trust them!” he panted. “Wankers!”
Michael had given chase for a while, but now we could see him sauntering back from the woods, his face dark as he shook his head at me. “I can’t believe they did that! Are you okay Danny?”
I wrapped one arm around my middle and climbed gingerly to my feet. I was a little bit shaken up, to be truthful. That moment, when I’d been down, and all their feet had been coming at me, well, you don’t want to have too many moments like that, I suppose. “You’re bleeding,” Billy told me with a nod. I touched my top lip, which felt wet, and brought my finger down to inspect it.
“Oh.” I could feel my nose leaking steadily now. One of their kicks must have caught me on the nose, but I couldn’t remember feeling it, until now. Michael patted me gently on the shoulder.
“Don’t you worry,” he told me. “We’ll get ‘em back for this, I can promise you that.” He fished around in his pocket and brought out a smoke and a lighter. “Here, you look like you need this, but I tell you what, next time come and meet me first, yeah?” I nodded, laughing a little.
“Were you alone long?” asked Jake.
“Only about a minute!” I told them all. Billy had picked my bike up for me, and we had turned towards home. “I was just gonna’ have a quiet smoke and wait for you lot.”
“You dick,” Billy scolded. “We told you not to trust them. That’s the kind of thing they always do.” I nodded in reply. I felt sort of stupid really. We were plodding back down the hill, I was bleeding from my nose all over one of my best tops, and all I had managed to get in was that measly hair pull. Pathetic.
“My mum’s gonna’ kill me,” I groaned then, limping along. Michael patted my shoulder again. His eyes were down, and very grave. I wanted to smile at him then. He reminded me of a soldier, but not in the way Higgs had. He just looked young and dark and solemn, like those soliders you see in war movies, trudging on, battle weary and brave.
“No she won’t. We’ll tell her you got attacked. It wasn’t your fault.”
“Yeah right,” grinned Billy. “We came up here to discuss our homework, right?”
“You know what he said?” I remembered then, frowning at them all. “He said about us, he said we were scumbags dragging the town down…something like that. Kill em before they grow, or something, he said.”
“Oh he really loves spouting that kind of shit,” Michael nodded seriously. “He’s always on about stuff like that, to wind us up. He thinks he’s better than everyone, I told you. Just ‘cause he lives in a posh house, and has posh parents. He hates anyone who’s not just like him. He used to pick on Jake because of his mum, and where he lives…used to pick on Billy for being ginger!”
“I am not fucking ginger,” Billy retorted with a growl. “I am auburn.”
I grinned. “Wow his dad sounds like a real gentleman, I can see where Higgs gets his manners from.”
“Oh he’s such an arrogant twat!” Michael retorted, slinging his arm around my shoulder. “You ever see him you’ll just want to smash his face in. We never even set foot in that shitty shopping centre, it might as well be a prison it’s got so many rules.”
“He was calling my mum a slut again,” I muttered.
“Ignore it,” advised Jake. “You should hear what he calls mine.”
“And mine,” said Billy. “You know, this one time, we were in the video shop, it was when we were about ten, or something, and he called my mum a commie loving freak right to her face! His dad just laughed! Just like ruffled his hair or something and went oh kids eh, as if it was nothing!”
We arrived back at my house, and Billy and Jake hung back out on the pavement, evidently less than keen to run into my mother. Michael however, walked confidently up to the back door with me and rapped upon it loudly. I realised then that I had yet to see him show fear over anything. He looked at me, as I stood there, shoulders drooping, a bit dazed by it all, and he said softly; “don’t worry mate.” I looked up blinking, as my mothers blurred form appeared on the other side of the glass, and for some reason then I had these stupid hot tears stabbing at my eyes. I don’t know why, but for some reason, him saying don’t worry like that, seemed like the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me. My mother wrenched open the door.
“What the hell have you been doing?” she screamed at my bloody face.
“He got beaten up,” Michael explained for me, as I stepped wearily inside. “By some boys at the park. It wasn’t his fault.”
“I just bet it wasn’t!” she retorted, and promptly closed the door on him. I opened my mouth to protest, but then I saw the look on her face and decided against it. Her eyes were wild and huge as they ran up and down me, and her hands were claws on her hips.
“It wasn’t my fault mum,” I said then, before her silence could persist any longer. “I was at the park and these boys attacked me for no reason, and Mike found me and brought me home.”
“You told me you were going to Billy’s house.”
“Yeah, I was, I just went to the park first.” I felt a bit muddled and strange as I looked at her then. I could feel the blood still oozing from my nose, and I suppose I just half expected her to hug me or get me a tissue or something. Just then Bradley appeared in the kitchen doorway, looked at the state of me and whistled through his teeth.
“Ooh, looks like you really pissed someone off,” he remarked, and I noted that he did not exactly sound sorry about this. I looked back at mum.
“Went to the park to smoke my cigarettes more like,” she snapped at me.
“Yes! I am missing cigarettes all the time Danny, do you think I am stupid? Did you think I wouldn’t notice? I know it’s you!”
I stared down at the floor. I had no idea what to say to her. Instead I watched the drops of blood landing, one after the other on the lino between my feet. I became sort of fascinated by it. “You know, I can’t believe a single word you say, ever,” she went on. “Everything that comes out of your mouth is a lie. You say you’re off to Billy’s, and the next thing you come in the door all bloodied, and after the way you’ve been at school lately you really expect me to believe you didn’t go there for a good fight?”
“They attacked me,” I told her miserably, my bottom lip jutting out. “They really did. I didn’t do anything.”
“I can’t believe you.” Her voice was like grit. “Do you steal my cigarettes?”
“Did you damage Franks car?”
The question came out of nowhere. I had totally forgotten about the stupid car. I felt myself growing cold. I opened my mouth, but there was nothing to say, so I closed it again. I stared at the floor as her eyes burned into me endlessly. There was suddenly a huge lump in my throat that would not go away, no matter how many times I swallowed it, and those stupid tears seemed perilously close again. “We’ll take your silence as a yes,” she said then, her tone laced with disgust. I kept my eyes on the floor.
“You’re lucky I don’t call the police,” said Bradley from the door.
“Very lucky,” my mother agreed stonily. “I am literally at the end of my tether with you Danny. Just when I think you can’t stoop any lower, you go and surprise me yet again. You give me nothing but trouble. You lie, you steal, you fight…”
I had heard enough, so I pushed past Bradley and limped towards the stairs. I heard her furious footsteps pounding after me. “I hope you really are hurt you know!” she yelled. “I hope it teaches you a bloody lesson! Maybe that’s exactly what you need! Someone to take you down a peg or two, and stop you being such an arrogant little shit!”
I made it to my room and slammed the door behind me. She sounded like she hated me, I thought, turning and leaning with my back against the door. I couldn’t do anything to stop the tears then, and I didn’t try, as it didn’t matter now that no one could see them. They flowed down my face, mingling with snot and blood and right then, I felt like the lowest of the low, like the kind of scum that drags people down.