We had instructions to meet the others outside the fish and chip shop two doors down from the cinema in the high street. They were there before us, and started hooting and whistling when they saw us hand in hand. We let go, and became enclosed in the circle of hand slapping and giggling. Michael slung one arm around me and the other around Zoe. “I just spotted the victim,” he informed us, his head low and his eyes alive. “His mum dropped him off and he went in for tickets. As soon as he comes out, Zoe goes over to meet him. Drops a nice dose of reality on his feet and we arrive in time to see his face melt! Everyone got it?” We all nodded, and shuffled our feet around to face the right way.
We waited, until Higgs was spotted coming back down the steps from the cinema, two freshly purchased tickets clutched in one hand. I suppose if there was any point where I felt sorry for him, it was then. It was tragic really, watching the way he hopped exuberantly down the steps, his eyes scanning the crowd for Zoe. He was dressed in beige chino trousers, and a neatly ironed shirt. His blonde curtains looked bouncy and shiny as his head swivelled from side to side. Zoe took her cue from Michael then, and strode confidently out from our secretive huddle. I watched her go, and I had to agree with Michael that she had scary good looks. A goddess in the making, she had long tousled blonde hair which she threw expertly from one shoulder to the other. She was ridiculously tall and well-built for a fourteen year old. To me, she looked like trouble piled into white sling backs. Her blue almond shaped eyes were caked in make-up, and she had her body on full display that night, in denim hot pants and a low cut black top.
We all watched her approach him, her hips swaying, her arse wiggling, and we all watched his mouth drop open in greedy hunger, and his eyes bulge in their sockets. She stopped right in front of him, hip cocked to one side, and she did the hair toss, and anyone could see that he was putty in her hands. “Come on,” Michael said then, and we followed him through. As we got nearer I saw two things happen to Eddie Higgs’ face. Zoe leant towards his ear, and as he listened, his forehead creased in confusion. He even tipped his head to one side, as if he was sure he had misheard her. Then he clocked us coming up behind her, and his face, it just crumpled. It just folded. I’d never seen anything like it, and I couldn’t deny that I loved every bit of it. I wished I had a video camera to record it, that’s how good it was. I would have loved to be able to rewind that disintegrating face again and again. Realization smacked him between his eyes, and in that moment he saw and understood everything, and even his shoulders caved in on him.
We glided up just in time to hear Zoe really put the boot in; “…and if you think I’d ever go near a slimy, tedious, nasty, ugly little mummy’s boy like you, you’re fucking crazy!” She sneered at him, looking him up and down as if she wanted to vomit on him. “You make me sick! I wouldn’t go on a date with you if you paid me!”
Michael slipped one arm around her waist and pulled her close. “Whoops! Looks like there’s been some kind of mix up here!” he chortled at Higgs and his misery.
“Monkey face, did you really think you had a chance with a hot girl like that?” Billy was smiling broadly, loving every minute of it. “You knob end!”
“Loser…” someone else sniggered from behind.
“Very funny,” Higgs spoke up finally, and his voice was like granite, hard and flat, and dripping with venom. He jabbed a finger towards Zoe. “The only way you’ll ever get any is by getting paid for it, you cheap brain dead slut!”
“Ah that’s not what you were saying just now Eddie,” Zoe teased, sticking her lower lip out at him.
“Still want to see the film Higgs?” I asked him, with a laugh. His lips pursed in fury, and he suddenly ripped up the pair of tickets, threw them down and then spat on the ground next to Zoe’s feet.
“Bunch of fucking filthy loser scumbags!” he muttered, his voice shaking with anger. “You’re not funny! Just sad and pathetic, and I’ll get you all back for this!”
“You can call this payback from us actually,” Michael corrected him, leaning towards him with a darker expression now. “Ganging up on Danny when it was meant to be a fair fight, four against four! That’s how you get your kicks, being a nasty little coward. This is how we get ours. All is fair in love and war.”
Higgs looked like he was torn between a tantrum and tears. His face had turned bright red. His eyes stared in a way that made him look rather deranged. “Oh ha ha,” he sneered. “Really fucking funny, the lot of you! Enjoy it while it lasts you skanky bunch of cunts! Go on home to your slut whore mothers!” He shoved through us then, and we scattered briefly, doubled up with laughter and scorn. Michael slapped me on the back.
“Slut whore mothers!” he cried. “Sounds like a good name for a band!”
“What’s he gonna’ tell his mum?” Billy giggled. “He’ll have to phone her up to come get him!”
“More to the point, what’s his revenge gonna’ be?” wondered Jake, as he flicked the end of his cigarette to the ground. Michael just laughed and shoved him towards the cinema.
“Oh stop worrying old man, nothing he can do can ever top that!”
They piled energetically up the steps, but I hung back to walk with Lucy. I glanced cautiously at her face, unable to stop wondering what her dad would have made of all that. “Bit cruel really, wasn’t it?” I asked her. She shrugged, and she was smiling this radiant, flushed sort of smile.
“Not really. Not compared to what he says and does to people at school, and always people who are like shy, or weak or whatever. He’s a nasty bully Danny, always has been.” She slipped her arm through mine then, and I could have hooted with joy. “Come on, let’s forget about it now, I came here to see a movie!”
I drifted off easily that night, for two reasons. One, all I could think about was how Lucy had leaned against me in the dark of the cinema, for the entirety of the film, and two, I had The Smiths in my ears, and I am pretty sure I fell asleep with a smile on my face. I woke up suddenly at some late hour though. You shut your mouth, how can you say, I go about things the wrong way? Billy’s dads mix tape was still whirring in my ears, and it was a strange lyric to wake up to. I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does. Beautiful though, don’t you think? My headphones fell down as I rolled over, and it was then that I heard her sobbing. I sat up in bed, rubbing at my face with one hand, and straining my ears to listen. It was unmistakable really, and I didn’t know what I should do about it. I could hear water running in the bathroom, and on top of that, my mother crying. I just sat and stared at the bedroom door. Part of me felt an instant stab of guilt, and thought maybe I should go to her, but somehow I couldn’t do it, couldn’t make myself move. So I just sat there uselessly, listening to her trying to control herself. She was really crying though, you could tell. She was running the water to try to cover up the noise. A short time later, I heard her turn off the tap, and creak her way out of the bathroom. She was sniffling as she padded down the landing in her slippers. She closed her own door behind her, and that was that. Silence.
The next morning I found John in the kitchen eating cereal before work. “How was your date?” he asked me, with a grin. I was sort of smiling, so I guess he already knew it had gone well.
“Really, really good! Are you working today?”
“Yep,” he nodded, washing a mouthful of cereal down with a glug of tea. “Some of us have to earn the money to keep this place up.”
I opened the cupboard to find something to eat. “Is mum still in bed?”
John drained his tea and placed it next to the sink with his empty cereal bowl. “Yes, she is, and if I were you I would stay out of her way today and not annoy her.”
I frowned at him. “Why? What’s wrong with her? She’s gone all weird.”
John shrugged under my suspicious glare. He knew more than I did, I could tell. They were always confiding in each other and keeping things from me. “She’s probably just worried about money,” he said. “Housing benefit is not sorted yet, so my job is kind of keeping us afloat at the moment.”
“I could get a job!”
John snorted and opened the back door. “Who would give you a job?”
“Just being honest,” he shrugged again. I slammed the cupboard door and turned to face him properly.
“Oh yeah, great, just like mum! You guys are great at slagging me off all the time, you know, and you never notice when I’m trying to help!”
“Whatever,” John muttered, bored of me already. “Just stay out of her way, all right? Don’t give her anything else to stress about.”
“Oh go to work golden boy, go on.”
After he left, I poured myself a bowl of coco pops and sat at the table to eat them. I glanced at the ceiling when I heard my mother in the shower. I felt a stirring of unease in my belly. John’s words were playing over and over inside my head as I spooned my cereal into my mouth. Who would give me a job? What did he mean by that? Why did he think no one would give me a job? I gritted my teeth and wanted to show him how wrong he was. I could get a job, I thought petulantly. I could earn a bit of money to help mum out, and then she would be less stressed and grumpy, wouldn’t she? With a plan of sorts forming in my mind, I dumped my empty bowl in the sink and dashed upstairs to get dressed. I bumped right into her, coming out of the bathroom. She had her hair all wound up in a towel on top of her head, and her dressing gown on, and she stifled a yawn when she saw me.
“Morning. How was the date?”
“Oh fine,” I said, pausing outside my bedroom. The question caught me a bit off guard. I rested one hand on the door handle. “It was really good actually. Fun.”
She yawned again and tugged her pale green dressing gown tighter around her body. She had that look about her again, I thought, as I watched her. Her eyes, slightly narrowed, her head sort of low, her forehead creased, as if try as she might, she just couldn’t figure out who I was, or where I had come from. “And how was the big introduction? With her dad?”
“Not too bad,” I winced. “He just asked me a load of questions.”
“Oh yeah, like what?”
“Like how we were settled in, and how your job was, and what my father did.” I watched her expression become instantly hostile and aggressive, her nostrils flaring wide open, and her shoulders bunching right up to her neck. She made a noise in her throat and rolled her eyes.
“Great! So what did you say?”
“Nothing. Just said he wasn’t around.”
“Well you’d think he would already know that,” she snapped. “The way gossip spreads in small towns. He was just being rude, asking you that.”
“Probably just thinks he is better than us, with his fancy house and his fancy car, and his perfect family! He was trying to make you uncomfortable asking all that!”
I didn’t know what to say. I looked at my bedroom door, wanting to go in and close it tightly behind me. Then I looked at my mother, and she met my eyes angrily, and I wanted to ask her was I the reason she was so angry? Was I the sole cause of her anger and shame? “Why do people do that?” I sort of mumbled and shrugged at her.
“Don’t ask me,” she replied icily. “I’m just trying to do the best I can, raising two kids on my own, and working my arse off for peanuts. Seems that’s never enough for some people.”
“John said you were worried about money.”
Right away I regretted saying it. Her eyes flashed at me, and she sucked breath up her nose just as Grandma had done over the phone. “Oh don’t you start!”
“What? I was just saying.”
“Oh go,” she said then, storming towards her bedroom, waving a hand at me dismissively as if the very sight of me aggravated her existence. “Go, go and play, go and do whatever you do! I’ve got enough to worry about today.” She went into her room and closed the door. I felt myself harden towards her then. What was the point in trying to be on her side? Just me being alive and breathing seemed to piss her off on a daily basis.
I dressed and left the house, grabbed my bike and skidded it around the corner to Michael’s. Even from the front, I could hear the screaming. I grimaced, dropped my bike at the mouth of the alley, and picked my way over the broken bricks and split bin bags, to reach his back gate. The tone of his mothers voice, shrieking and wailing over the rooftops, reminded me of my mums, when she was really mad. Thin and tortured, irritated to the brink, a tone that begged, just get away from me, for God’s sake just get away! I pushed the gate open, and heard a deep male voice joining in. He was basically telling her to shut the fuck up. Just then Michael came spilling from the open back door, his face scowling, his movements hurried. Something smashed inside the house, and he ran faster, not even seeing me until he had practically ran into me at the gate. “Shittinghell!” he burst out, hands in his hair. “Where’d you spring from?”
I grinned, and turned back down the alley. “My mum was pissing me off so I came to call for you. Sounds like yours is doing a better job though.”
He picked his bike up wearily from the end of the garden and followed me out. “Fucking crazy people,” he muttered darkly, shaking his head as he lifted his bike over the worst of the rubble. “I would introduce you to my dad mate, but it’s a bit of a war zone in there at the moment.”
“No problem. I’ve got an idea. You want to try and make some money?”
We paused at the end of the alley, climbing onto our bikes. Michael pushed his shirt sleeves up to his elbows and looked at me quizzically. “Why and how?” he questioned. I shrugged.
“I dunno. But get this. John tells me mum is worried about money, which is why she’s being all shitty for no reason, so I say I could get a job and help out, and he says no one would give me a job!”
Michael looked appalled. “Did he? Idiot!”
“I know. He thinks he’s so great.”
“We can get a job, easy.”
“Yeah. It’s summer. Everyone’s lawns need cutting. The rich people don’t like cutting their own grass, do they?” Michael pushed off and started to cycle slowly away. I kicked off and followed him.
“Yeah, come on! We’ll cut grass, trim hedges, that kind of thing. Easy money. I’m telling you!”
He sounded so full of hope and enthusiasm, that I couldn’t help but feel excited. As we rode off, I thought about how he was always like that. Always smiling, and finding the light side of things. My dark mood lifted, but it didn’t last for long. An hour later we had been turned down by countless people, and decided to go for the park for a smoke instead. I was silent by then, having slipped into a bit of a depression about it all. Michael sat on the back of the bench and I waited while he rolled two perfect cigarettes with papers and tobacco. He was proud of his efforts, I could tell. He laid them out on one palm and peered at them from each angle. “What do you think?”
I was sat on the bench, scuffing my feet back and forth against the dry grass. I nodded at them. “Very good. Very professional.” He smiled gently, lit one and passed it to me.
“Easier to steal papers and tobacco,” he explained. “My dad leaves his tin lying about the place.”
I took a long drag and glared back down the hill at the town we could see beyond us. I didn’t want to bother knocking on any more doors. It was bringing me down. Seeing how they all lived, what cars they drove, what clothes they wore. I didn’t want to know. “What were they fighting about anyway?” I asked Michael, slumping forward over my knees.
“Fuck knows,” he laughed. “Money probably. I dunno. I try to leave the house as soon as they kick off.”
“I don’t know how you turned out so well mate.”
He sniggered. “I know, I’m a credit to myself, aren’t I?”
I nodded, and smoked silently, staring and thinking about all the people that had said no to us today. The ones who had just looked us up and down and closed their doors quickly, as if we were contagious in some way. “Bastards,” I muttered.
“Everyone,” I stated, gesturing to the park and the streets beyond. “All those gits saying no. Lucy’s dad last night. Higgs. My mum. All of ‘em.”
Michael nodded solemnly. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
I looked up at him. “Why’d they all say no to cutting their stupid grass? It’s not like some rich kid is gonna’ come along and offer to do it! They don’t need the money!”
“Oh chill out,” Michael laughed at me. “We’re trying again in a minute.”
“I just wanted to shut John up. Give my mum some money.”
“We will,” Michael said brightly. “We’ll ask Lucy’s dad next. He has a huge fuck off lawn!”
I looked at him, shaking my head. “Piss off, there is no way I’m asking him!”
“Come on, think about it. He’s a busy man, he has a huge garden, and you want to impress him, yeah?” I squirmed on the bench, growling slightly, because I knew he was right, but I detested the thought of knocking on his door and asking, after the humiliation of last night. “It will look good, trust me,” Michael went on, smiling back at me, the breeze rifling through his black hair and lifting it away from his eyes. “If he says no, we’ll ask all his neighbours. Someone will say yes eventually Danny. And then we’ll do the best job anyone’s ever done, do you see where I’m going with this?”
“No really,” I grumbled. “I don’t want to ask her dad and get humiliated again.”
“Get used to it mate,” Michael said, his dark eyes twinkling. “You’re from the estate and they think your mother is a whore. You’re gonna’ be humiliated your entire fucking life anyway.”
I stared up at him, my mouth dropping open in genuine surprise and hurt. Michael stared right back at me though, his eyes shining in warmth and wickedness, and I wondered again, how the hell did he do it? How did he remain so positive and upbeat? “Well thanks mate,” I told him in confusion. He giggled at me.
“It’s the truth,” he said. “Just like with me. Always gonna’ have people think the worst of me, because of who my family are, and stuff. So what?” He shrugged his shoulders and took a quick puff of his roll up, before hurling the butt behind him into the grass. “You can do two things, if you ask me. You can give them exactly what they expect, and play the part. Which can be pretty fun at times. Or you can make them eat their own words every now and then. You ever thought of that?”
“You’ve lost me,” I admitted. “What was last night then?”
“Oh come on,” he groaned. “We’ve got nothing to lose having a war with Higgs. Nothing to gain from being nice to him. But what about Lucy? What about people like Mr. Chapman? Wouldn’t you want to prove him wrong and have him think well of you?”
I stared back out across the field below, blinking as I considered this. I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit it, but I was starting to think he might be right. “People are so wrong about you,” I told him then, sucking the life out of my own cigarette and throwing down the butt.
He let out this delicious peal of laughter and leapt down from the back of the bench, slapping me on the knee on his way down. “Come on then, you whining little shitbag, let’s get back out there before you change your mind!”
I’d spoken to her at last. It had become a regular thing, most Friday nights, her and her workmates. Her, and that man. Well, I didn’t make a special effort to get to her, or to seek her out, but people noticed me after a while. People noticed me because I was the boss, and punters, clubbers, whatever you wanted to call them, they noticed things like that, they noticed who was in charge. But it’s not just that. People have always noticed me. My mother used to say I had something about me.
It does not pay to get big headed about these things, but when you get to a certain age, and you have met enough people, and clocked up enough experience, then you get to be quite secure about what is fact. She noticed me before she spoke to me, I know that for certain. I caught her looking my way when I was training up the new girl. She was at the bar, squeezed unceremoniously between two burly, bearded men. I met her eyes very briefly, and my face remained impassive. I finished training the new girl and left them all to it while I went out the back to make some phone calls. I felt warm inside. I felt like I had given her a little bit.
The next Friday, she was in again. She came in early, only half an hour after opening. She had the usual gaggle of men and women with her, but I still got the feeling they were more acquaintances than friends. When I watched her with them, it was like she stood apart from them all; despite the fact she was obviously interested in what they were saying, and she laughed and clapped and threw back her head, and looked to anyone who didn’t know better, like she was having a marvellous time with them all.
I knew better.
I was behind the bar, talking to one of the bar men. He had been late the night before and needed a warning. I kept it short and sharp and held his gaze the entire time; didn’t let his eyes leave mine for one second. I saw him swallow thickly.
She came to the bar with a friend this time. A tall, sallow faced woman with fake red hair and a turquoise dress on. They waited while I finished my talk. I was closest to them, so they tried to get my eye. Short of waving at me, they were trying it all on. Pushing their boobs against the bar, giggling and flicking their hair. I could see her blonde fella in the corner, leaning in towards another woman. I narrowed my eyes at her for one second. I saw her eyes widen, just a little bit, and then I smiled. I felt my face relax. A smile is a magnificent thing. The effect is has on people. The calming nature of it. The reassuring gesture that is universally accepted in this stark human world. She smiled back.
I went to them. “What can I get you ladies?”
I kept it short. They wanted to talk, especially the red haired one. They were keen to flirt, I could tell. Women of their age often are. They want to know they still have it. Well, the red haired one never had it in the first place, I can tell you that. I served them, smiled graciously, but kept things cool. I was the boss, doing my job. That was it. I gave nothing away. I just let her catch my eye one more time that night.