Michael had us all assembled at the base the following day after school. It was imperative he said, that we be there. It was vital. The dinner with Lee Howard was to go ahead that night, and it hung over me all day, like a bad smell I could not shake off. I looked at Michael when I needed light, and hope and humor. He had come prepared. He had torn the side off an old cupboard box and propped it against the wall on the table. He had a permanent black marker in one hand, and had scrawled across the top of the cardboard in capital letters; PROJECT ARSEHOLE. It made sense, I thought. We were all there that day. Jake, he was sat at the table in his usual fluid style, yawning while he expertly rolled us a few cigarettes to smoke. Billy, was on my other side, and squirming with the excitement he found in telling me how hated Lee Howard was down at Nancy’s. Mike waved his pen about and commanded us to be silent. We were all there the day we decided to mess with Lee Howard. Maybe if I’d said no, maybe if I’d said hey, let’s not bother, maybe, who knows, maybe things would have been different.
“This is Plan A, and it goes into immediate effect,” Michael was shouting in the style of an American army officer. Jake slumped back further and yawned again.
“No chance of you guys just giving him a chance first, eh?”
“Are you mental?” was Billy’s outraged retort. “Have you listened to a word I said? Steve hates the guy, Jake, hates him! He’s already looking for a new job!”
“Everyone hates their boss,” Jake pointed out, exactly as I had before I met the man in my hallway. “He might be a nice bloke outside of work.”
“You sound like John,” I told him, unimpressed.
“He’s an arsehole Jake,” Michael said, holding up a hand to indicate there would be no debate on this fact. “It’s obvious. Worse than Frank Bradley, right Danny?”
“He’s got really mean eyes,” I nodded at Jake. “And he’s bloody enormous! Like a giant gorilla!”
Jake laughed and lit the first roll up. “Just thought you were trying to stay out of trouble, that’s all.”
“Listen men!” Michael bellowed at us then, eyeing us all fiercely and pointing at us with his marker pen. “This is not the time for doubts and fears! This is what we do! We make trouble for bad guys! Now come on, who is with me? Who’s on board for Project Arsehole? The stuff I’ve got planned needs as many men as possible, so come on!”
So that was it. The start of the war, if you like. The start of all of this.
I cycled home when the finer details of Michael’s first plan had been discussed and confirmed. It was to start that very night, the night of the dinner. I arrived home later than planned and met my mother struggling with shopping bags in the driveway. I slammed down my bike and made an apologetic face at her stressed grimace. “Sorry.”
“That’s all you ever say,” she muttered, and staggered on into the house with her bags. “And put your bike away properly! Someone will run over it one day and you won’t be getting a new one!”
I growled a little under my breath, picked my bike back up and wheeled it around to the back. When I stepped into the kitchen, she was chucking packets and tins of food into the cupboards, and her face was flushed and irritated. John appeared calmly in the doorway and offered to help. “What are we having?”
“Some chicken thing,” she panted, stepping back from it all to push her hair back away from her face. “I’ve got the recipe somewhere. Can you put the rest of this away for me boys? I’ve got to have my bath and get ready, and I’ve already got a banging headache from the stress of it all.” She pressed one hand to her forehead and whimpered.
“It’s only dinner mum,” John reminded her. “No need to get in a state. Why not just order takeaway?”
“I don’t want to!” she snapped at him, whirling around and marching from the room. “I want to make something special for Lee, and make up for how rude Danny was to him last night!”
John waited until she was upstairs before he looked at me. “You met him last night?”
“Yeah, he popped in to say hi. And I wasn’t rude. I didn’t do anything.”
“And what was he like?”
“Hmm,” I replied, with a knowing smile. “You’ll have to make your own mind up golden boy. I’ll be very interested to hear your opinion afterwards.”
I went up to my room and listened to Nirvana until dinner was ready. I needed it pumping through me to prepare me for what was to come. I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling, and my feet danced at the bottom of the bed, and I thought about everything Michael had said. I had a job to do at the dinner table, but the most important thing was not provoking my mothers’ anger, whilst interrogating Howard as much as I could get away with. We needed as much information, or ammunition as possible. It would all be written down in the notebook later. The boys had their own part to play, and it was the knowledge of this that gave me a brave and warm feeling inside as I waited. By the time I was called down for dinner, I was throbbing with resentment and scorn, my fists curled at my sides under the cuffs of my oversized shirt. I entered the room and slid into a chair and offered the man an icy smile across the table.
For some time, I just sat and ate in a good natured silence. I tucked into the chicken dinner my mother had slaved over, and just listened to the flow of adult conversation around me. John had a few questions for Lee, which I paid close attention to. In fact I watched John almost as much as I watched Howard. I tried to note his tone, and his facial expressions, but my brother was always so polite and pleasant to everyone, it was impossible to tell what he really thought. I at least hoped he had noticed how the guy talked with his mouth full. I watched him do it, fascinated. It was sort of obvious that he knew he shouldn’t do it, that he knew it was rude, or whatever. He tried to chew and swallow faster when he had something to say, but it was like his words couldn’t wait, or they were too important to hold back, so they would spill out anyway, food or no food. He was so impatient to deliver his opinion, that good table manners went out of the window. It disgusted me, so I chalked up another reason to despise him. I took time dissecting the way he was dressed too. Those stone washed jeans again, and a matching denim shirt. Awful. Just seeing him in a denim shirt made me want to collect up every single shirt like it in the entire world, throw them in a pit and set fire to them.
And then there was the way he interrupted people, and spoke over the top of them. Again, I noticed that he did it in a clever way, not making it too obvious. He would nod and say yes, yes while they were speaking, and he would slide in little words here and there, agreeing with them, and before you knew it he had stolen the conversation, whipped it right out from under them. Took it off on his own boring tangent. I sat and stared and absorbed and prickled, and wondered how the fuck my brother and my mum could not see what I saw.
My ears pricked up when he started to tell us about Nancy’s. “Really turning the place around now,” he said, still chewing and gulping down the remnants of a new potato. His pale blue eyes went around the table, taking us in one by one. He had this serious tone as he forked another potato into his mouth and nodded at us. “That place was going down the toilet when I arrived. Unbelievable how bad Philips had let things get. It was only a couple of months away from folding completely. But crazy as it sounds, that was the kind of place I was looking to invest in. I mean, to put your money into a place that’s already a success is fine, but to go in and turn around a place that’s on the brink of disaster, is more of a challenge. I mean, you can’t take much of the credit if the place is already doing well. You can’t say you’ve achieved much. No, I wanted a challenge. I had no fear about that.”
I shot a look at John. He was nodding and eating, but glancing constantly at the clock on the wall. I started to worry that he had plans after dinner, and was just going to shoot off once he had eaten. “Just needed money and fresh blood,” Howard was still saying. I watched him fork a piece of chicken, whip it around in the sauce and then pop it into his mouth. He chewed hard and fast and then said; “Plus experience of course. Luckily I had buckets of both, and I could see what a little goldmine the place had potential to be.”
“You’ve got lots of experience in pubs then?” I spoke up. It was the first time I had said anything, and I felt all their eyes fall on me at once. My mother seemed to suck in her breath and lower her head slightly, her eyes averting to her dinner plate. Howard just looked at me and nodded enthusiastically.
“Oh yeah. Been working in pubs and clubs my whole life. There’s nothing I don’t know about working in that environment. God, I’ve done it all over the years…” he grinned through his food and started to count off on his big, thick fingers. “Barman, doorman, manager…”
“Drunk?” I enquired brightly and teasingly. I avoided the desperate look I knew my mother was probably giving me and let my eyes lock with Howards.
“Danny for God’s sake,” my mother complained. I heard John clear his throat. Howard’s expression did not really alter as he stared back at me. He stared back, and refused to look away. He made a hand gesture towards mum.
“No, it’s all right,” he assured her.
“There was no need for that,” my mother was shaking her head at me.
“Sorry,” I shrugged. “Just a joke.”
“It’s all right,” Howard said, his thin smile stretching out a little at either end. “I see what you’re getting at, and the answer is obviously no. You wouldn’t get far in any job, let alone in the drinks business, if you were a drunk. You only have to look at the guy I co-own the place with.” His lips lifted apart then, as he smiled with his teeth. I could see all these little bits of chicken stuck and stranded between them. He had small teeth, I noticed then. Small and straight. “Your mum warned me about you,” he said.
I shrugged and glanced at John, who had finished his meal and pushed his plate away. When I looked back, I found Howard still staring at me. I felt myself stranded there too. I looked away, at the wall, or the floor, or the food on my plate, but whenever I looked back his face had not changed and his eyes were still completely on me. I shivered with it. Shivered from my scalp right down to my feet, and I hated myself a bit then, and I started to make myself think about the gang outside, doing their bit.
“You guys could learn a lot from Lee,” my mum announced, putting down her knife and fork and pushing her own plate away. He looked away from me then, smiling intently at her and slinging an appreciative arm around the back of her chair. “I’m serious,” she said. “Started out with nothing and worked his way up to the top, isn’t that right honey?”
“Well yes,” he agreed, as I stared on in horror. “The fact is boys, you can’t climb as high as me if you’re too fond of the drink. Back when I was wiping tables and cleaning toilets, I told myself, one day I’ll the boss of a place like this, and then I made it happen.” He turned his other palm up on the table as if to say there you go, simple.
I felt close to bursting with my scorn and my disbelief. I wanted to open my mouth up wide and scream laughter across the table. I wanted Michael right there with me, so he could share the moment, so he could see what I saw. I looked at the way Howard sat in his chair, leaning back like king of the fucking castle, like he fucking owned the place, with his arm now draped over my mothers’ shoulder. I looked at him and saw a gorilla. A monkey man, a body packed full of power and energy and I offered him my fakest smile. “Well done,” I said. “Really pleased to hear that. Amazing stuff. Never been so inspired in my life.”
“I got to make a move mum,” John said quickly, filling the gap before my mother could admonish my sarcasm. I looked up in genuine alarm as he shoved back his chair and carried his plate to the sink. “Meeting someone.”
“Who?” I asked, but they all ignored me. John leaned in and offered his hand to Howard, who got to his feet and shook it vigorously. I wanted to vomit then, I really did. I wanted to bring my chicken back up and hurl it across the table.
“Nice to meet you finally Lee,” he was saying, and then he was gone, out the door, the sneaky, spineless, waste of space bastard. I sat at the table, dumbfounded, just shaking my head at the back door. My mother was watching me intently so I looked her way and waited.
“We’ll leave you to wash the dishes Danny,” she said to me curtly. “I think it’s the least you can do.”
I groaned at the pile of pots and pans stacked up beside the sink. I dropped my head into one hand. “Great, thanks.”
She smiled a tepid smile, and rose from the table with her wine glass in hand. “Well the thing is Danny, when you start to behave as well as your brother does, you’ll be able to have the same privileges, won’t you?” She left me with that pearl of obvious wisdom and carried her wine through to the lounge.
“We can’t all be perfect,” I mumbled, and started to roll up my sleeves. I felt relieved though, to be honest. The dinner was over. I had plenty to tell the gang, plenty to laugh about, and if everything had gone to plan, their part would be done and dusted now too. All I had to do was clean up the dishes, and escape up to my room and wait. I went to the sink and started to fill it up. My mum had this little old transistor radio that she kept on a shelf above the sink. I turned it on and fiddled with the knob for a bit until I found a station playing The Doors. I began to hum under my breath, and for a moment I was totally lost in the music, as I waited for the sink to fill. It was Break On Through. I opened my mouth a little and sung along so no one could hear.
It was not until I heard the strike of a match behind me that I realized I was not alone. I jumped, just a little and looked over my shoulder, and there he was. The big gorilla. He was still sat at the table, his gut straining slightly against the tight black belt he wore. He shook out the match, placed it on the table, took a long pensive drag of his cigarette, and looked at me. As I stared back, he lifted one cowboy boot and placed it on the chair next to his. How fucking rude, I wanted to say. “So,” he said finally, softly. “Your mum tells me you’ve been in a lot of trouble lately?” I offered him a blank stare and watched him rise slowly from the chair. It was like watching a mountain rise and rise. It was like he was never going to stop. His cigarette dangled loosely between his thin lips as he gathered up the last of the glasses on the table and placed them on the side next to me. He then positioned himself squarely on my other side and pulled a tea towel from the hook down below.
“You better not be helping him Lee!” My mum yelled out a warning from the other room.
“I insist!” he bellowed back, grinning down at me. “Dinner was amazing!” He picked up a plate I had just washed and began to dry it.
“I’ve got it,” I muttered. “You’re all right.”
He carried on regardless, so I looked back into the sink of water. I felt filled with a hot and trembling anger. I blew breath out noisily between my teeth, picked up the next plate and started washing faster, just desperate to get this over with now and get the hell away from him. For a few moments, there was just the splash of the water as I scrubbed, and the music murmuring from above, just The Doors, and then; “Troublemaker eh?”
I shook my head. This was horrendous. I fixed my eyes on the bubbly water and searched for something biting to reply with. “Ah lost your tongue again, like last night?” he said. His voice was low and smooth, like a purr, and he followed the question by puffing his smoke out above the sink. I watched the grey swirls rising in the air towards the radio. “Maybe you keep your mouth shut so you don’t say something stupid eh?”
“You don’t know anything about me,” I heard myself say, looking up at him. He returned this with a small and knowing smile.
“Oh course I do. Get kids like you in my place all the time.”
“Yeah well I hear you’re not so popular down there, anyway.”
“Oh? What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Just been doing my research, that’s all.” I glared back down at the water. To my utter disgust and fury, I found my hands were shaking under the bubbles.
“Oh well that’s nice,” he said easily. “To hear you’ve taken such an interest in me, but you don’t need to go to any trouble to do that. You can ask me anything you like.” He stopped drying then and screwed the tea towel into a little ball, before tossing it onto the side. “Listen, I don’t want a row with you mate,” he said, puffing more smoke out above the sink. “But I do have one thing I want to say to you.”
I scowled up at him. I didn’t want to, not one little bit, but I felt I had to. I had to show him I was not flustered, that my hands were not really letting me down under the water, that I was not afraid of anything, or anyone. I glared darkly up into his face, and I noted how small his eyes were, far too small for that large, prominent forehead. They seemed to beam out from his face like pebbles on a beach, like stones. “I’m crazy about your mother,” he said softly. “I think the world of her, and things are getting pretty serious between us, so…”
“Yeah whatever,” I snapped, cutting him off in the rudest way I could think of and turning my shoulder to block him out. He stood still, in a shocked little silence, and I started to think I had won, I had got the better of him and he would shut the hell up and shuffle on out of there. And then he started talking again.
“I also know about all the shit you gave the last guy she went out with,” he said, and then, as he said it, he moved closer to me and placed his hand on the back of my neck, as he leaned in towards my ear. I just froze, my hands turning to stone beneath the water. “Just to warn you little man, that kind of shit won’t work with me so don’t waste your time. I won’t be going anywhere, and the sooner you get used to that the better.” He pulled back, tightened his hand briefly, and then was gone. I turned slowly, locked in a dumb stupor, and watched him saunter casually down the hall to the lounge. I found myself stood there, staring back at the water and wondering if it had really happened. It was so quick, just this brief hard squeeze and then nothing, gone. I found myself rubbing at my neck, questioning if it had really happened.
Before long, I was unable to stand either the dirty dishes or the booming laughter that flowed back from the lounge, so I gave up and went into the back garden for some fresh air. The evening was cool outside, the daylight dwindling. I could hear the distant voices of children playing, probably riding their bikes around in a last set of circuits before they were called in for bed. I found a roll up in my back pocket, squeezed it back into shape and lit up, leaning against the back wall of the house. As I smoked it, I wrapped one arm around my middle and took deep slow breaths, in and out, in and out, but it wasn’t working, the rage was building and bubbling and rolling around inside of me helplessly. I projected it all bitterly towards my mother, the hurt swelling every time I imagined her talking to him about me. The bastard was too well prepared, I thought. I would have to tell Michael tomorrow. I felt an impossible and shaking hatred for her then. She was never on my side was she? Never.
Just moments later the back door pushed open and she appeared beside me, her face small and pale in the darkness of the garden. As soon as she saw me she folded her arms over her chest and tapped one slippered foot angrily against the ground. I made a slow and unbothered job of finishing my smoke and dropping it before speaking to her. “Checking up on me?”
“Thought you might have disappeared somewhere,” she replied cooly.
“Sounds like a plan,” I muttered and started to walk past her. As I did so, she reached out and grabbed my arm, stopping me. The look in her eyes was desperate and confused.
“Why do you want to spoil it for me?” she begged. I shook her off.
“Why do you have to pick the biggest bastard boyfriend ever?”
She shook her head, close to tears. “You don’t know anything about him.”
“Neither do you,” I said, and went inside.
Up in my room I closed the door and went to the window to wait. I made myself comfortable there, with my music on low, and the window slightly open. I sat and let the cool breeze soothe the angry redness of my face and mind. Every now and again, without even meaning to, my hand would rise and wander to the back of my neck. I was afraid to ask myself if it hurt or not, if my skin could still recall the press of fingers. I knocked the thoughts away when they came. What had happened there? Eventually I retrieved my notebook and sat at the window scribbling lyrics into it instead. It was the only way to get the thoughts from my head. Stone me, why can’t you see? You’re a no one, nowhere, washed up baby who’d look better dead. I did it to stop myself thinking and wondering, but it didn’t work too well. My mind kept taking me back there, kept replaying it over and over again in my mind. He had stepped closer. Leaned forward to speak into my ear. It was just a hand on my neck, I rolled my eyes and told myself.
Yes, but had it been a pat or a squeeze, or what? Surely it had only been some kind of clumsy pat, and my heart had no business beating so hard and so fast under my clothes, as if it was trying to get out. A pat was okay, I thought. A pat on the back, or the shoulder would have been better, I replied. Why hadn’t he done that? You didn’t touch people’s necks, did you? I tried to think as I scribbled down words, had I ever done that to anyone? In play, or jest, or anything? The questions flew into my mind faster than I was able to chase them away. A pat on the back would not have gotten me into this state, I thought.
Sometime later, I was still perched at the window, scribbling down my favourite parts of Stone Roses songs, when I heard the front door opening down below. I immediately dropped my pen and book to the floor and yanked the curtains across to disguise myself. I could hear them talking, softly and lovingly. I could hear the wetness of their prolonged kissing. And then, through a tiny gap in the curtains, I watched the big man himself sashay brashly down to his car and get in. I held my breath. The engine roared into life, he drove off a little way, and then all hell broke loose. Raised voices. Slamming doors. My mother ran down to see what was wrong. I could see him stalking around the tyres, stooping down to inspect each one in turn. My mother started to flap about and talk in a high voice, and every now and then she just stopped and stared up at my window. I ducked down and smiled to myself. If Michael and the boys had had enough time and nerve, then all four of Lee Howard’s tyres would be slashed and stabbed in several places.
Fear and regret steamrollered me into moving the next morning. In fact I don’t think I have ever got out of bed as fast as I did that day. I grabbed my bike and scooted over to Michael’s house. I ran around to the back and started to throw stones at his window. I got three solid hits in before he appeared at the window, bleary eyed and messy haired. He opened it and stared in amusement down at me. “What the hell? It’s seven in the morning!”
“I know. You coming out?”
“Oh man. Hang on.”
Minutes later I watched him bundle sleepily out of the back door, still pulling his arms through his checked shirt. “You’re insane,” he yawned at me. “What’s going on?”
We started down the alley and climbed onto our bikes. “Had to get out the house,” I explained to him. “Before mum work up.”
Michael nodded, releasing another mammoth sigh. “Oh shit, yeah, I nearly forgot. What happened? Did they go mental?”
“No,” I shook my head, my eyes on him. “Not yet. She called a taxi for him then went to bed. Didn’t say a word to me. They were out there talking for ages though. He knows too much Mike, that’s the problem. He already knows what we did to Bradley, everything!”
“Shittinghell,” Michael shook his head very seriously as we rode slowly along. “You know, we went a bit far actually, got a bit carried away. I hope to hell no one saw us out there.”
“He deserves it,” I grumbled, eyes down, following the progress of the front wheel as it rolled me along. “Should’ve got you to smash all the bloody windows too.”
Without discussing it, we had cycled out onto Somerley road and were heading towards town. “What about the dinner?” Michael wanted to know. “Find anything useful out?”
“Nah not really. Just that he’s a big mouthed cunt who talks with his mouth full and interrupts people all the time.”
Michael snorted laughter. “Fair to say you still don’t like him then?”
I grunted. “And fucking John. Jesus Christ Mike, he arranged the whole thing, it was all his idea, and he asks fuck all and scoots off right after dinner! Useless fucking twat.”
“Jesus,” Michael whistled through his teeth. “Sounds terrible mate.”
I nodded. It was terrible, and now that I was up and out and thinking about it all again, it was just awful. I was getting this crushing tightness in my chest, this horrible sensation of having no room to breathe, of anger filling each and every part of me.
“We need to do something,” Michael said then, and I nodded in agreement, feeling the same, but I had no idea what. We rode on for a while in silence. I took the time to gaze around, noticing for the first time how quiet and still the streets were. It was Sunday, and the town had not woken yet. I’d felt a rise of excitement in seeing Mike, but I could feel it drying up inside of me now. Instead there was this gnawing anxiety, and it was there constantly in my head as we rode our bikes along; tell him, tell Mike about Howard’s hand on your neck, tell him, because you know it wasn’t right, you know it was weird, it was…I still didn’t really know what it was. That was half the problem. I kept thinking about how it would sound if I said it to him, and the further time moved me from the moment it had occurred, the more I found myself wondering if had even happened, and if it had, if it meant anything at all anyway. Maybe it didn’t mean anything. Some adults were like that, I thought, they ruffled your hair and patted your back, even if they didn’t know you that well. Like June Madison, touching my arm, holding onto it even, as she rocked back and forth with laughter that crinkled up her eyes. So why then, did just thinking about it make me shudder? We rode up and over the two bridges, towards the high street.
The shops were all closed, and the high street seemed ghostly and desolate in the absence of shoppers. A gang of swooping, screeching seagulls had decided to follow our progress though, and every time I glanced up at their beating wings and open beaks, I was reminded of the gang before I knew them, circling their bikes outside my house. It seemed like a lifetime ago, I realized then. “Are you okay?” I heard Michael asking me. He was looking at me with a frown.
“You okay? You hungry? ‘Cause I have an idea.”
I shrugged in reply and he gestured for me to follow. He crossed the road and took a left down a narrow alley that ran along the back of the high street. All the businesses, shops and cafes backed out onto this alley. Michael stood up on his pedals and pumped his legs, picking up speed until we arrived at the back of Nell’s Diner. It was a traditional style café, popular with teenagers, cheap and cheerful and a place to hang out. There was a white van parked out the back, the doors open, as it made its deliveries. The smell of baking bread and cakes rolled sweetly down the alley towards us, and I closed my eyes briefly, inhaling it deep within my lungs. Michael nodded, and as we looked on, a portly bald man in a white apron, came out the back of the café, grabbed a tray from the van and staggered back inside with it. It was then that Michael made his move, and made it swiftly. He was so fast, so sudden in his actions, that I was almost left behind in surprise. I had barely caught up to him, when he stopped his bike, reached into the van, grabbed the nearest thing to hand and sped off again.
I was right behind him then, roaring with laughter as he struggled to cycle fast with two massive French sticks tucked under one arm.
We kept cycling, seen by no one, doubling back on ourselves and riding down towards the old Priory church. We zig zagged through the ancient, crumbling tombstones of the long dead and forgotten, and freewheeled down the hill, through a deserted car park and out onto the quay. There was no one. Not a body in sight. Just old sailboats and dingy’s jostling gently on the shining water of the harbour. I was laughing too much to cycle, so I got off and pushed my bike up to the edge of the water. Michael dumped his and claimed a bench, as always, sitting on the back with his boots on the seat. I joined him, weak and breathless with laughter, and as I flopped down, he pushed one of the sticks onto my lap, and it was still warm. “Breakfast is served!” he said, grinning broadly.
“You’re mental!” I told him, still giggling and wiping at my leaking eyes. “You can’t just do that! You dirty little thief!”
“Hey don’t call me names, I just got you breakfast!”
“You’ve done that before haven’t you?”
He nodded. “Once or twice. Tuck in.” He tore a huge chunk of bread off with his teeth. The sun was spilling orange juice out onto the water as it continued its climb up to the clouds. The light reflected off his black hair. He looked for a moment, as if he had a hazy halo surrounded his head, and it made me have to look down, look away.
“Thanks Mike,” I told him. “You’re a legend.”
“I know. And you’re welcome.”
For a while we just ate in silence. It was nice. Just sat there, staring at the orange tipped water and not saying anything about anything. We could have been anyone, I thought, anyone going anywhere. The warmth of the stolen bread filled our minds and our stomachs. Beyond the harbour, the marshland grasses stood tall and proud, swaying in the breeze that teased our hair. Swans glided by in pairs. Ducks quacked, especially when they got a whiff of our breakfast. We started throwing them some after a while. We didn’t have the room to eat an entire French stick each. I pulled my feet up onto the bench and wrapped my arms around my knees. The seagulls croaked and squawked behind us, strutting about on the grass, hoping for leftovers. The boats bumped and moved gently against each other. I found myself wondering if this view, this silence was what my mother had been trying to tell me about before we moved here. I just stared at it, and I couldn’t for the life of me work out what it meant to me. “We should do this again,” I said eventually, turning to Michael. He was tugging pieces of bread from the last portion of his stick and tossing it out to the ducks. “It’s nice, I mean. Everyone else asleep, or whatever.”
“We should. It’s cool. Think of all the mischief we could get up to with no one else around.” We looked at each other and grinned. “You want to know the next part of the plan?” he asked me then. I swallowed and smiled a little. My stomach pulled down, not wanting to go there. “Got a shit hot idea,” he went on. “Laxatives in his drink!”
I laughed out loud. “We can’t do that!”
“Yes we can,” Michael giggled. “I can steal them off my mum. We did it to Higgs once!”
“Yeah, at school. Slipped them into his coke in the canteen. He doubled up instantly. Legged it to the toilet, shit stains everywhere!” Michael let off a peal of laughter, lifting his chin to the sky and clapping his hands together. “Brilliant!”
I nodded. “God, I wish I’d seen that.”
“Well we’ll do it to the arsehole. Whenever he’s next at yours call me, and I’ll bring them over. It’s easy.” He slipped down beside me then, hunting in his pockets for a cigarette. Coming up with nothing he sighed and dropped his hands into his lap. “If you want to, that is. You don’t have to.”
“I want to,” I said, staring back out at the water. “I’ll do anything Mike. I do not want that creep with my mother. Trouble is, I don’t think he’s gonna’ be the pushover Bradley was.” I swallowed again, and it was there on the tip of my tongue, tell him, tell him what you’re thinking, what happened, what it might have been, what it might have meant, tell him! I felt Michael watching me carefully, waiting for more. I coughed into my hand. “I mean, she’s warned him hasn’t she? He’s prepared for it.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Michael replied simply. “He still has a limit. Everyone has a limit. We’ll push him to it. Whatever it takes to piss him off. Whatever it takes to get rid of him, we’ll do it. One thing after another, yeah?”
“Only thing is, you’re mum is gonna’ be pretty pissed off with you for a while.”
I shrugged. “Used to that.”
“But be careful at school,” he advised me. “Stay out of trouble with Higgs and everything. We don’t need all that shit.”
“Be a good boy?” I looked at him and grinned.
“Prove them wrong,” he corrected me.
I had a puncture when I got home, so I turned the bike upside down, and sat on the doorstep to spin the wheel around. I was lost in this for a moment, sleepiness washing over me from my early start, so it made me jump when my mother cleared her throat loudly right behind me. I immediately felt the guilt stealing across my face, and looked up at her reluctantly. She regarded me as she always did. Eyes narrowed down, forehead furrowed, and mouth small. “You were up early,” she stated. I opened my mouth to explain but she didn’t let me speak. “Lee’s coming over in a minute. To help with the painting.”
I floundered, struggling for words, struggling with the heavy sinking of my gut. She turned and grabbed the kettle and carried it to the sink to fill. I stood up and wiped my oily hands down the legs of my jeans. “What painting?”
“About time I started sorting this place out,” she replied with her back to me. “Gonna’ start with the hall. He’ll be here all day helping me. I might as well ask him to stay for dinner again to thank him.”
I had no words for her. I could only stare at her back. I watched her make her coffee and carry it away. I would have been lost in anger and disbelief if I hadn’t recalled Michael and his plan. So I hovered near the door until I heard her upstairs, and then I dashed for the phone. Do you ever read a book, or watch a film, and watch the main character start to make a massive mistake? You can see it’s all going to go horribly wrong, and they should be able to see it as well, but somehow they can’t, and they go blindly on, they go staggering dumbly towards this stupid, stupid thing. You want to scream at the TV or the book, don’t you? You want to reach out and grab them and shake them, pull them aside and say hey, really you don’t want to do that, it’s all going to backfire, listen to me a minute. Well I wish I’d had someone to do that for me that day. With the grotesquely unfair and useless benefit of hindsight, I can now see that I should have stopped myself. I should have sat back down and got on with looking for the puncture. I should have politely ignored Michael’s offer to help humiliate and deter Lee Howard. I should have stood back patiently in the sidelines, and waited for it to go wrong by itself.
But I didn’t. All I could see was that man, and his pebble like eyes, and his monstrous chest, and his shining forehead, and I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to punish him for ever coming near my mother in the first place, and I wanted to show him that his words in the kitchen meant nothing to me. That shit won’t work with me, he had said. Well I wanted to show him that his shit wouldn’t work with me either. So I called Michael and told him to come over with the stuff.
Michael arrived on his bike, with a battered old tool box swinging from one hand, just moments later. He found me sat forlornly on the doorstep with my bike lying on the ground before me. I held my head in one hand and gazed up at him. I felt sick. “What’s the matter?” he asked me, dumping down the tool box. “You look like you’re ill.”
I blew my breath out. “You got the stuff?”
He lifted his t-shirt and showed me the tub of pills poking up from one of the front pockets of his jeans. “Mum swears by it,” he whispered. “Totally undetectable in drinks.”
“Don’t think I want to know.”
“Your tyres need pumping? I brought the tool box as a cover story. You know, we’re out here fixing our bikes.”
“Got a puncture,” I told him wearily. “Your alley is full of glass.”
“Oh cool. Genuine cover story. Why’s he coming back over anyway?” He knelt down then, unclipped the lid of the rusty tool box and started to pull spanners and screwdrivers out. “Puncture repair kit in here somewhere, I know there is.”
I got up then. My stomach felt cramped and small so I stood up and stretched myself out. I put my hands in my pockets and gazed down the driveway. “Painting apparently. I think they know we did the car,” I said softly. “They must do. My mum’s face Mike. They know.”
“Don’t freak out,” he warned me. “Guilt shows if you’re not careful. They can’t prove anything, or they would have said something by now.”
Just then we heard the sound of a car purring smoothly into the road. We looked up and watched the silver Mercedes, the very car Michael and the others had sabotaged last night, roll up into the drive behind my mother’s Fiat. Michael shot a look at me. I was chewing my nail, my lip curled up, my forehead creased. “For fucks sake,” he hissed. “Relax. They know nothing!”
Howard climbed out of his car, locked the door, and then checked it. He looked up and nodded at us in recognition. He then lowered his head slightly and walked right around the car, scrutinising it. I heard Michael snort discreetly beside me and I resisted the urge to elbow him. Finally, Howard nodded in satisfaction and came up towards us. “Morning lads,” he announced, clapping his hands together loudly as he approached. Michael smiled back at him sunnily. I tried not to look as guilty as fuck. Howard was wearing his cowboy boots, with the pointed toes, and the horrible stone washed jeans. His black belt pulled tightly restrained a degree of middle age spread, but above that loomed a body of serious power and strength. He was wearing a crisp white shirt, tucked into his jeans, and with the top three buttons undone. I met his eyes briefly before looking away. I thought how they reminded me of marbles, little balls of glass flicked with blue. He was smiling, but that smile seemed to see right through me, and appeared as fake and as dangerous as the look in those eyes. “Up to no good I bet?” he said to us.
Michael raised his eyebrows and smirked. “Always,” he replied confidently. I kept on chewing at my nail. Howard jerked his thumb towards the house.
“Your mother in there?” he asked me. I nodded, unable and unwilling to speak. “Lost your tongue again eh?” Howard rocked back on his heels and hooked his thumbs into his pockets. His grin seemed frozen in place, unflinching. He glanced at Michael. “Not very talkative is he?”
Michael was still smirking nicely. “He’s just a bit choosy about who he converses with,” he said.
“Oh is that so?” Howard looked amused, as he looked from me to Michael and back to me again. “Ah that’s all right, except I wanted to ask him a few questions, so maybe I can ask you and you can answer for him then?”
Michael frowned and folded his arms. He looked ready for war and he looked like he was enjoying every minute of it. Not like me. I was sweating. I could feel it breaking out across my neck and shoulder blades, and dripping slowly down my spine. “What questions?”
Howard shrugged. “Well there was some funny business last night, that’s all. Came out and found all my tyres slashed. I didn’t realise it wasn’t safe to park a nice car around here. A bit rough is it?”
“What are you, new?” Michael demanded, his tone churlish, his lip lifting.
“Been in town a few months,” Howard replied steadily. “Of course I’m no stranger to rough types. Get all sorts in the club.”
“Oh yeah?” Michael sounded bored now.
“Yeah, yeah, just the other night we caught a couple of low lifes trying to deal drugs in the toilets. Had some of my staff keep them busy while we called the cops in.” He sniffed then. His grin seemed to have faded. “Pays to be on good terms with the police in my game. Favours for favours, you know? Got some good friends in the force.” He nodded at us. “Always handy. “ He smiled then, and it reminded me of a shark, all those little teeth lined up neatly, revealed one by one by the parting of his thin lips. “Well better get on with the painting eh? Have this place looking like home in no time Danny.” He walked past us and patted me on the back. I was taken by surprise by the contact and sort of jumped and turned and felt a strange creep of disgust.
Michael sneered when he had gone. “Shittinghell,” he hissed through his teeth. “What a fucking giant prick.”
“What does he mean, like home?” I asked wonderingly. Michael looked intense and took my arm, pulling me down the drive a little way.
“I was paying more attention to the bit about cops,” he said. “What was that about? Do you think that’s true, or more bullshit?” I just shrugged unhappily. I felt weak for some reason. Weak, and small and tired. But Michael was grinning back at me then, his grin growing bigger and bigger, his eyes lighting up. “We have to be careful,” he told me. “Wait ‘til he has a drink on the go and then sneak in.”
I sighed and turned back to my bike. “You gonna’ help me fix this or what?”
We had to wait, and Michael was all for it, keeping his eye on the kitchen, and the hallway beyond, where we could hear my mother and Howard talking in low tones. Every now and then Michael cocked his finger and shot an imaginary gun in their direction. I remained silent, brooding, unwilling to talk. We fixed my bike and hung about, waiting for the chance. I rode my bike up and down the drive just to kill time and keep busy. Michael remained close to the back door, his dark eyes alight with mischief. Just when I was starting to get bored of the whole thing, Michael marched up to me and winked. “Two drinks,” he whispered. “They just made them and left them on the kitchen table. One tea and one coffee. Do you want to do the deed, or shall I?”
My mouth was dry. I nodded and pushed him a little. “You. Mum’s is the coffee.”
He grinned and turned back to the house. He was only in there about a minute. And then he came reeling back around the corner of the house, his smile ear splitting, his hair flying back from his forehead. “Go,” he urged me, jumping onto his bike and pushing off. We didn’t waste any time. We were gone in seconds.