I waited for him after school. I parked the car around the corner so he would not know I was in. I sat patiently at the kitchen table and drank my tea. The clock on the wall told me I had ten minutes until he rolled through the back door. I smiled to myself. I thought about what I had to say to him. I thought about grabbing his face and squeezing it until his eyes popped out. Then I told myself to calm down, to rein it in and take it slow. So I nodded, and sipped my tea and took deep, slow breaths, in and out, in and out. It wasn’t exactly that I had a bad temper. I wasn’t one of those people that went beserk and lost the plot. I wasn’t like that, because I felt positive most of the time. I dreamed big, and I stood tall. That was fine. That was good. I didn’t like things going wrong. I didn’t like disorder and chaos, or things that fell out of line.
Time ticked by. He was late. I finished my tea and stretched out my legs beneath the table. I picked up the pack of Benson and Hedges and pulled out a cigarette. I didn’t have long. If he didn’t come home soon, there would not be much time before Kay got back in, and I needed to be down the club early as well. Damn it, I thought.
I lit the cigarette, chucked the lighter onto the table and glowered around at the small room. It wasn’t enough for me, that much was certain. Poky little council house. Paying someone else’s mortgage. When things had moved forward a bit more, we would buy them out, or better still, buy a bigger place. There was not much you could do with a little council house. I had already repainted all of the rooms and bought odd bits of furniture to smarten the place up, but a terraced council house was what it was, and served the function it was supposed to serve. It housed poor people. The humble, and the meek. The lazy and the ignorant. I only had to look around me. Look at the neighbours! Fat greasy alcoholic bitch next door, never once drew back her curtains, and let her scuzzy cats crap in our garden every fucking day. Next door to her, single mum and three screaming brats. Awful. She was rake thin and chain smoked while the brats ran riot in the close. She wore tight jeans and cropped tops, and her stringy hair was always scraped up high on top of her pointy head. Horrible. Next door to her, the old couple with the manky German Shepherd. All you could hear was coughing when you walked past their place. All you could smell was gravy.
That was the trouble with estates I thought, grimacing to myself. They were hopeless places. Full of kids on bikes, roaming dogs, and washing lines full of pants. Men in green overalls tinkering with cars and smoking roll ups. The stench of roast dinners wafting across the back gardens on a Sunday. People who thought they were going places because they had moved up from a flat, to a two up two down house. People with no ambition, the work shy and the pathetic. You saw them everywhere. It made me sick. Kay and I, we were better than all this, I thought. I could see us on the other side, over on Cedar View Hill, one of those roads. Sea views and driveways like streets.
I finished my cigarette and glanced at the clock on the wall. I shook my head, got up and put the kettle back on. I shoved my hands into my pockets, and felt them pulsing there with energy. I pulled one back out and scratched my neck and thought about strangling his. I made my tea and sat back down. I strained my ears for the sound of footsteps on the drive. He wouldn’t ride the bike of course. Ungrateful arrogant little shit stain. I had time to consider what was happening.
I thought about Pippy then. Ha, Pippy. I smiled to myself and rocked the chair back on its legs. I’d felt bad about Pippy, but then, I was just a little kid really. You feel a lot of doubt and guilt when you are just a kid. I didn’t feel guilt about my brother Dennis, obviously. No way. But Pippy, well, he was my mums you see. She was a stern woman, my mother, still was. They used to say that she didn’t suffer fools gladly. As a child, I had no idea what that meant, but I gathered it had something to do with the haughty look that remained on her face at all times, and the way she glared at people she did not approve of, like the postman who whistled too loud, and the lady next door who showed off too much cleavage. My mother had a way of looking people up and down and sniffing when they spoke to her. They didn’t always notice. Some people are fucking thick skinned you know. I used to notice though, when I was playing on the floor behind her. No one was really good enough, no one was as good as us, and it was something she would often remark on.
She was a stern woman, yes. Stern and firm, and didn’t believe in frivolity or nonsense of any kind. The only thing she softened at slightly, was Pippy, her dog. She got him before I was born, so he was pretty old and arthritic by the time I was old enough to really consider him. He was a Pekingese dog, with this flat little face and these black, bulging eyes. Pippy loved my mother and curled up on her lap whenever she sat down in the evening to do her knitting. She used to say he was a good judge of character. Well maybe he was, or maybe he wasn’t, but in his old age, Pippy got to be a bit of a grumpy bastard. That was how I saw him anyway. Grumpy, snappy little bastard.
I was afraid of him for a while. He would snap at you if you tried to pet him. In his old age he took to crapping in the hallway whenever he felt like it. One day I was pushing toy cars up and down the hall and he strutted along on his short little legs and squatted over one of my cars. I remember my mouth falling open as I watched the steaming brown shit curl slowly out of his arsehole and onto my car. I remember what I wanted to do. I wanted to take that car and ram it right up his fucking arsehole because that would teach him a lesson. Instead, outrage and offended, I jumped to my feet, rushed up to him and cuffed him over the head. He snarled at me, his horrible little black lips rising up over his rotting little teeth. I remember thinking, how dare you? You take a shit on my car and you snap at me? I remember gasping at him, in pure disbelief and horror. He should have been ashamed! He should have scuttled off with his thick plumy tail stuffed right between his legs. But no, not Pippy. Pippy thought he had every right in the world to shit on my toys. And now he was growling at me and would probably bite me if he got the chance. So I kicked him. I kicked him hard, and I suppose I had gotten pretty big for my age by then, as the kick sent him flying right into the door. I know I felt scared then. He sort of crumpled. He was dazed. I looked around but we were all alone. He wasn’t snapping at me now. So I walked up and smacked him over the head again. I smacked his little rounded head so hard that my hand smarted in bed that night. I smacked him again and again to teach him a lesson.
Pippy was never the same after that. My mother used to say he had gone down hill. He would walk in circles instead of in straight lines. He forgot how to climb the stairs. He took to crapping inside constantly until my father could bear it no longer. He carried him off to be put to sleep when my mother was at her friends house one day. I remember her words when she returned, when my father told her what he had done with Pippy. “Well that’s the end of that then,” she had said. And it was.
I was going to think about Dennis for a while, but I made the mistake of looking at the clock again. I shook my head in anger. Fucking damn it. He still wasn’t back and Kay would be home any moment. I picked up my second cup of tea and hurled it at the wall.
Well it all went to shit didn’t it? Of course. Like everything always fucking does. I sometimes think it works that way, you know. Some people sail through life, they glide through it, they bump around a bit, but it’s never too stormy, never too bad. And some people, it’s like the tide is turning against them the whole fucking time you know? That was how I felt anyway. That was exactly how I felt when Mrs. Baker told me I was not allowed to join the school paper. I felt a rush of things; a rush of disbelief, of hurt, of wanting to cry, of wanting to scream and stamp my foot, and then this one solid feeling settled over me, and I closed my mouth and just glared at her. I felt defeated. She was mortified, or course. You could see it in her eyes, because she could barely look at me, and her cheeks were red, and she kept wringing her hands just like my mother did when Howard was not around. She looked a bit like she might cry at one point. “It’s not forever,” she kept insisting as I glowered in front of her. “No one is saying you can never join the paper Danny. It’s just it appears there’s been some trouble, with the police? And the thing is, the board of parent governors feel strongly that students in years ten and eleven really ought to be setting a good example to the younger members of the school.” I just stared at her. Waited for more. Waited for her to turn the knife she had just shoved into my back. “It’s just, it’s just,” she said, floundering now. “They can’t be seen to endorse that kind of thing. Like I said Danny, no one is saying you can never join, there will be other opportunities and please don’t stop writing and sharing your work with me!”
I shook my head at her. My body felt small and hard with knots of rage. I lifted my lip in a snarl and turned for the door. “Fuck it,” I told her. “Shove it up your arse!”
It was Friday. There was double maths to endure before the final bell rung. Not for me though. I was going home. With my folder, with my potential clutched under one arm, I stormed from the library, along the corridor, with the double doors at the end in sight. I heard a voice call out to me in concern, but I did not react until I felt her hand claw at my arm. It was Lucy. She was waiting outside her classroom with Zoe, who was chewing gum and looking bored. I couldn’t help it, but I felt my anger deepen at the sight of her. She looked so fresh faced, so pretty and wholesome and new and clean, and everything I was obviously not, and then I remembered that her dad was on the parents governors board and so was Eddie Higgs. “What’s wrong?” she was asking me, her brow creased in concern, her hand soft around my arm. I pulled free and she immediately shrunk back into the wall.
“Tell your dad thanks a lot!” I growled at her.
“Because he’s on that governors board of shitty little arseholes with Higgs dad, isn’t he? And they don’t want the likes of me on their school paper, that’s why!”
She could only stare back at me, hurt and not understanding. Zoe looked unimpressed and stepped to her side, slipping her arm through Lucys in a protective gesture. “I don’t understand,” she said, shaking her head at me.
“Ask your dad Lucy,” I told her, looking away and stamping my foot in impatience with everything. “Oh fuck it.” I looked back at them and shrugged. “What’s the fucking point anyway? Just forget it.” I turned and stormed away. I kept going. Through the doors, across the playground and out of the gate, leaving them all behind. No one saw me. No one stopped me. Who would know? Who would care?
I stuffed my folder into my bag in a careless, hurried anger, and kicked along, hands in pockets, eyes down. I told myself I didn’t really want to be on the stupid paper. It was probably just run by stuck up snobs and pricks like Higgs anyway. I crossed Somerley road and headed to McDonalds for a milkshake. I paid for a chocolate shake and started to walk home. “Your stuff is really good,” Mrs. Baker had called after me. Like what the fuck did that matter if they didn’t want to know? I sucked on the straw and realized that was what it all came down to. They thought I would be a bad influence on the other kids. Fantastic. As I headed home, I tried desperately to shake it all off, the unfairness of it all, the awful undeniable truth that they just didn’t want me there. I remembered Lucy then, and my stomach sank, and my heart ached, as I saw the hurt on her face when I had laid into her. It made a sick feeling spread throughout my body. I would have to apologize to her when I got the chance. It was not her fault her dad hated me.
It looked like I had the house to myself, so I grabbed a packet of crisps and a kit-kat and took them up to my room. I pressed play on the stereo and nodded to myself when the music kicked in. Don had taped me a load of Bob Dylan and I was slowly but surely falling in love. I scribbled down the lyrics whenever I could. I couldn’t resist. When you sit and hear words that lovely, words put together in the most beautiful and meaningful way, with melodies and guitars that set your heart beating, you just want to hold onto them somehow. I saw lyrics like moments, gone too fast, fleeting. I tried to hold onto them by writing them down. O where have you been my blue eyed son? And where have you been my darling young one? I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains, I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways, I’ve stepped in the seven sad forests, I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans… I was shaking my head, just stood at my desk, wondering why he wrote about twelve mountains, and six highways, why were the numbers important? Why was the forest sad, and the oceans dead?
I was thinking about all this, to take my mind off the school newspaper, and Lucy, and I had turned it up loud, so I didn’t hear his car slide into the driveway and I didn’t hear his heavy footsteps as they tore up the stairs towards me. All I became aware of was the sudden emergence of him, the monster, bursting into my room, slamming the door back into the wall, his red face bursting with violent desire, his small eyes gleaming with it. He was in my room and stealing up all of the air. “Hello Danny!” he cried out at me, sounding nothing less than delighted with himself. He grabbed me by my hair, twisted it around his fist and slammed me back into the wall next to the door. “What’re the chances eh?” he sneered into my face. “I was driving down the road and spotted you! Coming out of McDonalds! Fancy that eh? Got let out of school early did you? Or are you just a skiving little shitbag?”
I swiped at his hand, I dug my nails into his skin and raked them up to his wrist. “Get off me! I’ll kill you!”
“Oh yeah, about that!” He pulled me from the wall by my hair and pushed me face down onto the bed, pressing a chunk of knee right into the base of my spine. With one hand still tightly entwined in my hair, I felt the other searching the pockets of my school trousers. “So where is it then? Where is it? Must be here somewhere, oh yeah look! Here we are!” He tugged the small switchknife from my back pocket and released the blade. “You shouldn’t be carrying this about with you, you little idiot,” he told me gleefully. “You’d get in real trouble with the police if they caught you going about with this!” He brought the blade down right in front of my face. “Gonna’ kill me, are you?” he asked me then, and his voice was soft and dangerous and husky with malice. He pressed the cold edge of the blade against my cheek. “Gonna’ kill me are you Danny? Gonna’ fucking kill me?” I had stopped struggling and I lay still, my eyes fixed on the tip of the knife that rested millimetres from my pupil. I blinked and breathed and waited. “I don’t think you are, do you?” he asked me, still in that rasping, excited voice. He pressed the blade harder into my skin. “Are you?”
“No,” I said. “No.”
“More like I’ll be the one killing you eh?” he taunted, sliding the knife back towards my neck. “That’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, you know. How I’d do it. How I’d chop you up, and bag you up and just dump you somewhere, and no one would ever know. I’d get away with it you see, because you’re such an irritating little shit stain who would give a shit if you just took off eh? If you just vanished. Easily done Danny, I’m fucking telling you mate. It would be easily done.” His hand tightened in my hair. He was holding it so tight it felt like it was about to be ripped from my skull. I closed my eyes and waited. I bit down on my tongue, my lips, everything, determined not to cry out, not to give him the satisfaction of a sound. “But I’m not an unreasonable man,” he said, pushing his lips down right into my reddening ear. His voice came out sluggish and thick and his breath smelled like Juicy Fruit chewing gum. “I want to give you a chance, you see. I want to talk to you again about how to be a good boy, like I told you, remember? So you’re gonna’ listen to me alright? We’ve got some time together now, see. You’re gonna’ listen to me, and stop fucking around, and opening your mouth when no one wants to hear it, right? You’re gonna’ be a good boy instead, yeah?” I had no option but to nod my head in reply. “Good,” he said.
Howard removed the blade from my neck and stuffed it into his own back pocket. He let go off my hair, pulled me over onto my back and delivered a hard cold slap to my face. It was so hard I felt my teeth rattling in my gums. For a moment I thought I was going. My vision blurred and everything went grey. I blinked furiously, and felt the urge to just roll my eyes back into my head, to just let myself go. “That’s better,” he was saying to me. “That’s what we want. Now you look at me, you look at me you little son of a bitch.” I kept blinking, and lifted my hands to rub at my face, but he didn’t like that, so he pinned my wrists to the bed, and as my vision sorted itself out, I was face to face with him. He was too close. I didn’t want to look. I turned my face away. I didn’t want to believe in him. “That was unbelievable the other week,” he was saying to me, his leering smirking mouth just centimetres from my cheek. “All that throwing a tantrum about the bike, threatening to kill me! Your little loser friends threatening me too. You want to tell them they don’t know who the fuck they’re dealing with. That’s what you want to tell them Danny. I let you have your fun, but playtime is over now mate. Now I’m being deadly fucking serious with you.”
I let myself glance at him. I saw his thin lips stretched back from his teeth, and the teeth gleaming down at me, coated with saliva. I saw the pale piggy eyes drilling into me, and I saw what was behind them, something dark and murderous, something that longed to destroy me. “You’re gonna’ say sorry to me now,” he told me. “Before we sit up and have our little chat. You’re going to say sorry to me, you’re going to say you’ve finally learnt your lesson, and you’re sorry for all the shit you’ve put me through lately. And then we’re gonna’ start over again, and this time you’re gonna’ follow the fucking rules! Now come on, let me hear it. Let me hear how sorry you are.”
I looked away from the vile face that hovered above mine. I felt something hardening inside me. Something that rose up and chased away the fear. I saw my legs dangling off the bed between his. I saw my only chance to fuck him over and I took it. I lifted one leg, pulled it back and rammed my foot right into his balls as hard as I fucking could. Howard let go of me then, and I scrambled up and away from the bed. His hands went to his balls. His face was white and silent and screaming. His eyes bulged and ropey drool slipped from his lower lip. I didn’t look at him any longer. I ran.
I ran and ran in crazed and hysterical style, all the way to the park. I didn’t stop running. I ploughed through the undergrowth and the bushes until I made it to the base. I knew the others would meet there after school because it was Friday. I fell through the door, landed on my arse, giggling and shaking, and kicked out with one foot to close the door. My skin still crawled with fear, and my face stung and my head throbbed with it all, but I fixed my mind on Howard’s mask of pain, and I laughed and laughed. I dropped my head into my hands and clung to my hair. “Oh my god, oh my fucking god,” I panted and laughed. I closed my eyes and sat like that for ages. My body felt wired. All the strings pulled tight. Then I remembered the group bottle of whiskey we kept stashed in one of the cupboards. There was a good half left, so I unscrewed the cap and started swigging it to calm myself down. I felt dizzy and sick from all the running and from all the fear.
The boys arrived promptly back from school and were surprised and pleased to find me there. Jake held out his hand for the whiskey so I passed it to him. “Heard you walked out of school?” he asked. “You’re gonna’ be in so much shit!”
“Couldn’t stand it another fucking minute!” I cried up at him, grinning wildly. I guess I was on fire with adrenaline or something, because I felt delirious with it, high as a kite on a few swigs of neat whiskey. Michael was giving me that strange look again, the tight, nervous one.
“Are you okay?” he asked me. “Your face is all red.”
“Nothing,” I shrugged at him, glancing at the other two who were rooting through their schoolbags at the table. I rolled my eyes at Michael letting him know now was not the time. “Shut up,” I told him with a smile. He narrowed his eyes, and his shoulders slumped.
“Why’d you walk out then?” Billy wanted to know.
“Stupid paper,” I told him with a sigh, remembering. “They won’t let me on it, so I thought fuck the lot of you then, and went home.”
“Who won’t let you on it?” asked Michael.
“Parent governors, whoever they are. I’m bad news!”
“That’s not fair,” frowned Jake, passing the whiskey to Billy.
“Yeah, their loss,” he agreed. “Your stuff would make that shitty rag worth reading. Hey, you should start your own underground paper or something! Give them a run for their money!” He passed a handful of tapes to me.
“What are these?”
“From my dad,” Billy said with a sigh. “Been trying to give them to you all day.”
Still sat on the floor where I had landed, I looked the tapes over one by one. Two Bob Dylan albums, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, Disraeli Gears by a band called Cream, and two more mix tapes, which blew my mind to be honest. Taping albums for me was one thing. But him actually sitting there, probably for hours, putting on records, pausing and recording the tape, writing them all down, thinking about what to put on, it just amazed me that he would do that.
“Loads of old stuff,” yawned Billy. “He’s pushing it on you ‘cause all I care about is Nirvana. Just chuck it in the bin if you don’t like it.”
“You’re joking,” I said, shaking my head, as I stared in a daze at the tapes in my hands. “This is amazing Bill. How can I ever thank him?”
Billy laughed at me. “Just listen to them then,” he said, as if this should be obvious. “That’s all he wants.”
I blinked hard and nodded. A wetness had invaded my eyes. I just felt so amazed, so touched. I blinked again and got to my feet. “Thanks Billy, I mean, tell him thanks. I really mean it. Make sure you tell him.”
Michael had taken a seat at the battered table and had opened up his little tin. “Got something else here to cheer you up Danny-boy,” he said. I went to have a look. His tin was full of the usual things; card for roaching, tobacco and cigarette papers. But he also had a little dark green bud in there. “Popped home,” he looked at me and winked. “Anthony was feeling generous! So it’s Friday, and we’ve got booze and weed, and Jake’s got the munchies, right Jakey-boy?”
Jake dragged his bag up from the floor. “Oh yeah,” he said, and tipped it out onto the table. We all laughed. Three bags of fizzy sweets, a huge pack of Doritos, a large bar of Dairy Milk chocolate and a packet of marshmallows. “Borrowed from my mum,” he explained with a shrug.
We spread out and relaxed after that. The rusty old caravan was our second home, our secret place. We laughed, and we smoked, and we drank and we giggled at nothing until our cheeks hurt and our bellies ached. When it got dark we went outside and collapsed on the grass. We all lay on our backs, sharing a final cigarette and staring up at the sky as the stars blinked to life amidst the blackness. “I lost my knife,” I said to Michael as I passed the smoke his way. He took it carefully between his fingers, inhaled, and then exhaled very slowly, both of us watching the grey smoke as it curled and twisted up in front of our eyes.
“I’ll get you another one,” he told me, and I nodded, understanding right away.
“Of course. Anthony.”