So where did it all start? What do we go back to? We go back to me, wanting a fight. I didn’t like sport, and I had no interest in cars. I liked books and my own imagination. I didn’t mind a kickabout, but I did not follow a team. I was looking for something, but I didn’t know what, and whatever it was always eluded me, so all I could do was fight, because everything seemed futile and I was always angry. Me, always wanting to fight. That was where it began.
We’ll go back to 1993. You might remember it. You might have been there too. The Conservative Party were still in power, and had been for my entire life. Bill Clinton was the President of the United States. It was a year of violence and horror in the news, I remember that because certain grotesque stories stuck inside my head. The abduction and murder of two year old James Bulger by two schoolboys. The stand-off and fire at Waco, Texas, where seventy-six members of David Koresh’s cult died alongside him. The racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. The troubles escalating in Iraq. Horror, everywhere you turned, everywhere you looked, even in music. You see, I remember 1993 for lots of reasons, and music is one of them. The charts were shoddy. Whitney Houstons’ ‘I Will Always Love You’ dominated the start of the year, and it didn’t get much better after that. I discovered that you had to look for music, you had to seek it out, and hunt it down, go forwards as well as backwards. I had just moved house with my mother, and older brother John. I was a stranger, a new kid, sullen and jarred by the unfairness of her mistakes affecting me. I was standing on the edge of a great swelling discovery; music. I felt like I was turning the pages of a good book faster and faster, but that I would never get to the end, I would never discover all of the music.
It thrummed in my ears, Guns ‘N’ Roses, my new favourite band. November Rain. Except it was April, not November, and it was sunny, not raining, and as I stared through the net curtains at the window, I knew there would have to be some kind of fight. I knew it, and they knew it. It had been three days now. I couldn’t let it go on any longer, couldn’t bear to. They were always out there, circling slowly on their battered bikes, like vultures, hovering on the perimeter of some unfortunate half dead prey. I stuffed my hands into my pockets and glared at them. They would shuffle their bikes together and flick their mean eyed gaze to the house, where I lay trapped within. They appeared hungry to me, huddling together, heads low and shoulders hunched, discussing me. Their foreheads would almost touch, before they would all recoil again suddenly, dramatically, mouths gaping with laughter muffled by the window pane. I reached for them, touched the glass with an outstretched index finger and knew they were laughing at me. The new boy.
So what did they want? I felt they were waiting for me to decide, waiting for me to make the first move. A fight then. Better than feeling like a prisoner, holed up in the new house, while my mother and brother moved our old lives into it behind me. The boys had appeared on the first day, rolling in on their beat up BMX’s, heads low, hair long and eyes flat. Their arrival had made me pause in the doorway to the new house, cardboard box in arms. Hello had worked its way to the tip of my tongue, but at the emergence of three piercing scowls, the word had evaporated in the air before me. The second day had been worse. I’d been sent out to retrieve my mothers’ handbag from the front seat of the car, and they had been out there again, just watching. “Forgot your handbag?” the dark one had called out in a mock high voice, sending the other two boys into howls of laughter. I’d gritted my teeth and gone back in. That had cemented it. I had a problem. Again and again I returned to the living room window, drawn to the dusty panes like a moth to the light, not wanting to know they were after me, but unable to stay back and ignore their presence.
I had been thinking about the dark one. The dark one was the ringleader, without a doubt. The one I would have to fight. Winning did not really matter at this point, and I knew this. But starting the fight, and putting up a good one, would mean everything. The dark boy was bigger than me, with jet black hair long on his neck and hanging down over his eyes. Those eyes gleamed at me from across the street. He looked angry, I thought.
It felt like my body was always rigid with displeasure, arms crossed tightly, jaw jutting out, forehead creased with a frown. Of course they; my mum and my brother, just bumped and bundled past me, sighing and clicking their tongues. I did as little as I could to help them carry our old life through the doors. They did their best to skirt around my dark moods, making light of everything like they always did, while I merely stood and considered the injustices they forced upon me. I wondered dismally if life had been this unfair to my mother at age thirteen, but she never told me anything, so I wouldn’t know. I just felt like we were not supposed to be here, in this new place, and the unfairness of it all formed a constant lump in my gut, that twisted and churned every time I saw my mothers’ face. Every time I looked at her, the same thought would fill my mind, literally going off like a bomb in there; I am being punished for her mistakes.
I got away with shooting her the odd hard look, but I couldn’t push it too far, or she would go off on one. She thought the same when she looked at me though, I knew it. The looks she gave me were cautious ones. We tiptoed around each other, or we locked horns and fought. That was the way it was, the way it had always been. She made me laugh sometimes when she went off. When she gave the full works, it was hair pulling and everything. She’s even smashed plates and things. Why can’t you be more like your brother? You are the thorn in my bloody side! Funny stuff, if you were in the right mood for it. My brother, Good Boy John I called him just to wind him up. The golden boy. I could have hated him, but he was too fucking nice for that.
I bided my time. I watched and waited, gearing myself up for the challenges that lie ahead. If mum or John vocalised their despair at my lack of movement, I would just turn and offer them my iciest stare. You don’t have to be me, I thought, whenever I looked at them, you don’t have to go out there at some point and face those boys, and it was true. So she’d moved us to this seaside town called Redchurch. She used to holiday there when she was a kid. She raved on and on about the beaches, and the quay, and the ancient Priory church. I didn’t give a shit. She’d made it sound like we were moving to millionaires row or something, like we would be out on a fucking yacht every day or whatever. Of course, she was on her own since my dad bailed out years ago, so all we could afford was a rented end terrace house on the housing estate at the edge of town. It was like a box, identical to all the others. Dull. The kitchen was tiny, just big enough to squeeze the round table into one corner, although you had to suck your tummy in when you passed it to reach the back door. The kitchen window gave a view of the postage stamp sized garden. Like all the other rooms in the house the kitchen was painted magnolia. The floor covered in cheap beige lino, and all the other carpets were grey. From the kitchen, the hallway led to the front door, with a downstairs toilet under the stairs, and the living room to the right. I’m not saying we lived in a mansion or a castle or anything before, but this place just hung with inescapable dullness. I felt nothing but apathy for it, and I needed some excitement.
What was amusing was watching her stride purposefully from room to room, in those first few days. Always with this cloth headband on her head. I’d never seen her wear things like that before, so it made me sneer a bit. She had an outfit for every occasion, my mum, and denim shorts, red vest top and matching head band appeared to her moving house ensemble. I watched her scurrying about, lugging boxes, scrubbing windows, and knocking down cobwebs, and all the time she was spouting all this excited drivel at us; “we’ll soon put our stamp on it won’t we boys? Can’t wait to start decorating! Don’t you want to go out and explore Danny? There is so much to do around here!” She was doing her best to be positive I suppose, I’ll give her that much, but there was guilt behind it, and that irritated me. She wore a permanent fake smile, painted across her face, while her eyes gave her away as usual. The smile had shown no signs of cracking just yet, and I knew that when it eventually did, it would be because of me. “Wait until you see the beach, it’s gorgeous!” she was prattling on behind me. “You’ll want to spend the whole summer down there Danny. It’s amazing. And the town even has its own cinema you know? Did I tell you that already? Why don’t you go out for a bit and have a look eh?”
To this I turned and looked at her. I suppose she was getting sick of the sight of me, so I sighed in response. As much as she tried to keep up this jolly front for us, I knew that my dark moods irritated her. Unable to think of a response that was not rude, I looked back out at the street, my stomach giving a little lurch when I remembered that I would be starting school in two days. “You’re really going to love it,” she was saying now. You are going to love it, I corrected her inwardly, you think it’s all amazing, not me. At that moment John came into the living room with an armful of books.
“You could pop to the shop,” he started saying, without even looking at me. He dumped the books on the sofa and trudged back out again. “You’re not exactly any help to us here,” he threw back over his shoulder. I glanced at mum. She had a bottle of cleaning spray tucked under one arm, and had picked up one of the books. Her blue eyes regarded me cautiously.
“You can go out you know Danny. Go on, go out and explore! You’re started to get on my nerves just stood there the whole time staring! What are you looking at anyway?” She dropped the book and came around the sofa.
“You guys can never wait to get rid of me, can you?” I shot back, arms folded, as she arrived at my side. John groaned out in the hallway, but that was all from him. He hated confrontation, and never liked to get involved in anything. That didn’t stop my mother from calling on him constantly for back up though. He’d always do his best to be fair. He’d try not to take sides, and he was really good at calming mum down when she lost the plot with me, but you could always see he hated it. It made him uncomfortable, stepping in, playing the father figure. We looked nothing alike, John and me, and everyone always mentioned it. John was tall and broad shouldered, thick chested, and kept his mousy brown hair neat and short. I suppose he was good looking, in a traditional, conventional kind of way. Girls always seemed to go for him anyway. He was the double of his dad, everyone always mentioned that too. They never said I looked like my dad though; just that I had my mothers’ eyes as well as her temper.
With mum beside me, I felt the niggling urge to nudge her away, to poke an elbow at her, but I didn’t. Instead I folded my arms even tighter and looked back out of the window. I noticed right away that the boys had gone. I had not seen them go, and wondered what exciting distraction had finally torn them away from me. I reached out then and scraped my finger nails down the pane. I wouldn’t say I did this deliberately to annoy my mother, I just sort of did it without thinking, but she reacted like I had, leaping backwards, slamming her hands against her ears and looking at me in horror. “For God’s sake Danny!” she practically shrieked at me. “Stop that awful noise and just do something!” I didn’t look at her then, but I could imagine her perfect red smile splintering on her face. I turned to her reluctantly and right away the expression on her face made me decide to get the hell out of there after all. It was the face she only seemed to give to me; all taut and tight, anger mixed with anxiety, fear mixed with love, I don’t know, but it was always the same and it always depressed me one way or another. I narrowed me eyes at her. Looked her up and down, which I knew she hated, because she had a real paranoia about being judged, by anyone. I wanted to shake my head at her, maybe I did just a little bit, just at the sight of her, not quite forty with two teenage boys. She was always wearing tight fitting clothes which made me question exactly how the hell I was meant to take her seriously.
I threw up my hands in mock and exaggerated defeat and stormed past her. “All right I’ll get out if it makes you happy!” I yanked open the front door and paused long enough to shout again; “happy now?” They said nothing, but I could feel their relief. I’d walked for a few fast minutes before I realised how warm the day was. I slowed down, blinking in aggravation at the sun, and removed my shirt to tie around my waist. Under the shirt I had this cool Guns ‘N’ Roses t-shirt I had picked up back home. Black, with the guns and roses logo in the middle. I could smell the sea. It twitched my nostrils and I wondered if I could even hear it. The sky was pale blue, and streaked with low slung clouds. I shoved my hands into my pockets and stomped along, my hair hanging down over my eyes the way I liked it. I remembered then that I still couldn’t even listen to my music, as they hadn’t found the cord for my stereo yet. That was part of the reason I’d spent so much time staring out of the window, I reasoned, as I marched on. My mum had laughed when she saw me organising my small collection of tapes on the desk in my room, tapes I couldn’t even play until they found my cord or bought me some batteries. “You seem to love everything I hate!” she remarked, and then she had given me a stern look. “I don’t want to hear swear words coming from your room young man.” I’d smiled secretly at this. What she didn’t know was that all the tapes I owned had swear words on them. It wasn’t the swear words I liked though, not really, it was the music, you know the screeching guitars and the mad drums, but not just that, it was the lyrics. She always moaned and said she couldn’t hear a word they were saying, but she didn’t listen, or she didn’t care. The lyrics were brilliant, and I was always scribbling them down, so I could learn them or think about them. I don’t know why, but they just always seemed apt to me. It’s like I would be thinking or feeling something, for whatever reason, and then a song would come on and I would think, hey fuckinghell, that’s exactly what I mean! I had Axl Rose in my head as I walked then, and as usual the words were spot on; when I look around, everybody always brings me down, well is it them or me, well I just can’t see, but there ain’t no peace to be found. You see what I mean? Brilliant. There are song lyrics for every moment of your life, you know. Every second.
Nodding to the music in my head, I walked to the end of Curlew Close, and turned right. There were more houses, identical to ours, with a wide expanse of green in the middle of them. There were kids out, riding bikes and scooters in loops around the houses. I stalked quickly past them, lifting my head long enough to see trees in the distance, up on a hill. I was looking for a place where I could smoke my cigarette in peace. I was thinking about my smoke, and I was thinking maybe I would stay out for hours and make them worry about me, and I was also thinking what would happen if I ran into those boys?
By the time I reached the top of the hill I was a bit out of breath, and sweating under my hair. I pushed it back and walked on. My mum was constantly on about the hair. She hated how long it was, which only made me want to grow it longer. I had this huge poster of Axl Rose on my wall above my bed, and his hair was way longer, and looked so cool.
. I crossed the road and slipped under the low fence that surrounded the park. At the bottom was a football pitch, and some younger kids were in the middle of a game. I slunk around the edge of them, and headed up the hill. To the right was a swing park, which didn’t really interest me. I kept on until I was at the top of the hill, and from there I could see woods in the distance. I was getting desperate for a smoke now. I didn’t think I was addicted yet though. The first time I’d smoked at all was when I was twelve. Me and this boy from my old school used to walk home together, and one day he just had some, so I gave it a try. I’ve got to be honest, I found it pretty disgusting to start with. I left it alone for about a year, and then I started pinching them from my mums’ handbag when she started going on about moving us. It was the stress, you see. I didn’t find it disgusting anymore. I loved everything about it. The taste, the smell, the feel of the fag between my fingers, lighting them up, everything, especially the thrill of not being allowed. I spotted an empty bench under a tree, not far from the woods, and headed for it, one hand in the back pocket of my jeans, fishing out the stolen cigarette.
I sat on the bench, pulled up my legs, hugged my knees and lit up. I felt momentarily happy. I watched the smoke circling above my head and I felt my body loosening up for the first time in days, relaxing. Behind me, I thought I could hear the distant roar and crash of waves, and guessed I must be pretty close to the beach my mother had been raving about. I’d only taken a few tokes when I spotted the trio of boys entering the park down where I had. I didn’t recognise them at first. I had to squint down, hold one hand up against the glare of the sun and still I didn’t realise it was them until it was too late to move. Not that I would have run off or anything, anyway. I watched them plough through the younger kids football game, charging at the kids when they protested, sending them scattering like skittles across the grass. They came up the hill quickly then, but I wasn’t sure if they had seen me or not. It was them. The three boys from the street.
Shit, I thought, and lowered my feet to the ground. I had no choice but to stay put and try to appear either cool, or invisible. So I sucked on my smoke and watched them get closer. They had slowed right down now, and were slouching their way towards me, and I saw the tallest one flick back his hair and say something to the other two. I took the chance to look them up and down and take them in properly for the first time. They were all dressed alike, scruffy jeans with holes around the knees, checked shirts worn unbuttoned over t-shirts, and hair that was too long.
They stopped right in front of me, so I looked up at them expectantly and wondered whether I ought to smile or not. For some stupid reason I felt the strongest urge just to grin at them. The tall one stood back slightly, his arms crossed loosely around his middle. He had pale brown hair that curled in wisps around his ears and danced across his forehead. His face was lean, his cheekbones high and his hazel eyes sombre. The smallest one had a squat and stocky build. His hair was rusty orange, stiff and wiry, while his eyes were a bright and inquisitive green. He placed one foot up on the bench beside me. I glanced at the dirty Adidas trainer next to me, and then looked back at them. The dark haired boy was just staring at me, his only movement being a quick shake of his head to knock the hair from his eyes. I had to concentrate hard now, to keep the scowl on my own face. My lips wanted to smile, and there was a tremor of a giggle caught in my throat. I sat up, straightening my back, reacting to a shiver of excitement that shot up my spine. “You’re on our bench mate.” The dark haired boy said finally. Again I had to fight hard not to smile, or laugh, but it just sounded so funny. I looked at each of them carefully in turn, and then I glanced down at the bench I was sat on. I drew on the cigarette and puffed the smoke out towards them.
“I don’t see your name on it mate.”
The boy raised his thick black eyebrows in return. The other two looked at each other, and the small ginger one sniggered. “You’re the boy who’s just moved in.”
I nodded. “You’re the boys always out the front.”
“What’s your name?”
“Guns and Roses are so fucking over mate,” the small one said then, taking me a little by surprise. He was sneering at my t-shirt, the one I was so proud of, and the other two were laughing softly now. I tried not to let my confusion show. Part of me wanted to explain that I had only recently been getting into music, and there was just so much of it, that I felt I would never be able to catch up. I frowned a little at the small kid then. I wondered what he knew that I didn’t.
“In your opinion,” I told him.
“Where you from?” back to the dark boy.
“Why’d you move here?”
“My mum,” I shrugged, and told them. I was still trying to work out if there was any chance they were actually being friendly, but the persistent scowl on the dark boys face was not giving me much hope. I could tell they were waiting for more. “She had this mental boyfriend,” I explained. “She dumped him and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Started following her everywhere and making weird phone calls, so we moved.”
“You mean like a stalker?” the ginger boy asked, leaning over his knee now, while his green eyes widened in interest. I felt doubtful. I hadn’t heard that word before, not in relation to crazy old James anyway. So I shrugged.
“So where’s your dad then?” the dark boy wanted to know.
I shrugged again. “I dunno.”
I saw a look pass between them, and it gave me the feeling that I was going to get away with it this time, that I was going to be able to walk away from this. The other two boys had their eyes on the dark one, and I felt like they wanted to discuss me. I also knew I was right, about him being the ringleader, the one I had to beat, and I felt that fizz of excitement course through me again, churning my guts and making my limbs feel restless. I wanted a fight. I needed a fight. Finally the dark haired boy put his hands on his hips, dropped his shoulders a little, and sighed.
“Okay Danny, whatever your name is, this is our bench right? We come up here to have a smoke and a chat, so I’m gonna’ ask you nicely to get up and fuck off back where you came from, okay?”
I blew my breath out really slowly, and glanced down for a moment. I took one last, long drag on my cigarette before tossing it behind me. I wanted them to think I was considering the offer. What I really wanted to do was either laugh in his face, or smash my fist into it. I quite liked the idea of a fight, to be honest. I wondered how mental my mother would go if I came back home all bloodied and messed up. But I was outnumbered, and I was smaller than two of them. I was waiting urgently for some kind of fucking growth spurt, but my mum kept telling me not to hold my breath. You have my build, she would tell me, making me want to tear out my own hair and stuff it into my ears so I wouldn’t have to listen to her. Small and light, like a bird, she was fond of saying. Yeah great, a fucking bird no less, exactly the look a teenage boy wants to have. I shrugged carelessly and got up from the bench. I tried to move as slowly and casually as possible, exaggerating all of my movements to make it look like the most boring thing in the world. “Okay go for it then mate,” I told him, sliding through them and gesturing back towards his precious bench. “I was leaving anyway.”
I started to walk away, but walked backwards for a bit. “Maybe I’ll see you guys in school on Monday,” I told them. I nodded at the dark boy then. “Maybe I’ll see you in school on Monday.”
“You starting at Somerley?” he called after me. I nodded and kept walking. “See you Monday morning then,” he said, and when I looked back at him one last time, I saw him nod at me. His face was dark and serious, his eyes narrowed down to slits, his lips tight. I understood that expression perfectly, so I grinned and laughed.
“See you then,” I said, and didn’t look back again.
I walked back with a small smile upon my face. It was all spinning around and around inside my head. The boys, the bench, the threat. School. When I thought about those mean eyed kids, I felt something fill the emptiness inside of me, and it was a relief. I would either have to fight them, or win them over. Whatever happened, it was going to be interesting.