Bill Robinson wasn’t the only one who roamed the streets of the estate by night, but as far as he could tell, he was the only one who did it for reasons not connected to living. The other shapes and forms who slipped in and out of the alley ways, were doing it because of life. They were stealing, or fighting, or prowling, or spying. One way or another, it was all about survival, because that was all they knew. Quitting, leaving, changing or dying on purpose were not things that ever occurred to them.
Bill Robinson considered that his purposes and reasons for roaming, made him different, but then Bill Robinson had always known that he was different, and he held that knowledge in his strong shoulders and steely eyes. Being different from them, being different from anyone he knew, was all he had ever wanted. Around here, being different was something that mattered.
Roaming and drifting took him around the messy edges of the small world he lived in. He remembered that when he was a child, it had seemed so big, so full, so noisy and bright. At one time, he had been certain that nothing else existed beyond the brick walls, concrete car-parks, and connecting alley ways of the estate. Now, he saw it differently. Now, he saw it mostly as it was at night; silent, jagged, black and white.
He left home in a dramatic fashion, which served no real purpose. His father worked nights, so was not at home. If his mother had hung around maybe she would have been the one to hear his bedroom window opening. Maybe that was why he did it. Because he could. Because no one ever heard him leave.
His older brother and younger sister slept through the clinging to the drainpipe which always sent his heart up into his throat. They slept through his leaping onto the concrete wall which separated their garden from next doors, and they slept through his cat-like pounce to the flag-stoned patio, hands and feet prepared in advance with boots, thick socks and woolly, fingerless gloves.
From there, it was a brisk walk to the back gate, which was always left open, as the top hinges had disconnected from the rotting post. After the escape, as he liked to think of it, the outside world was his. Their back alley led onto others, corridors of concrete and fence panels, separated by squares of parking spaces and lock-up garages. He could go left, or right. He could go anywhere. The night was his, and everything about it fascinated him.
The houses, all the same in size and shape, like little black boxes closed up after day. Chinks of yellow light shone behind curtains and blinds. He could see who left their kitchen light on for the dog, and who left the landing light on for the kids. The estate was like a massive, silent, sleeping secret…
Bill Robinson imagined himself to be feline, supple in shape and movement. All he really lacked was a tail. He wasn’t hunting prey, though he was hunting something. Some elusive, mysterious, transient something, which escaped him during the day. A something. A big, soft, sleeping, silent something.
In the dark, rats skittered and their eyes glowed behind wheelie bins and recycling boxes. Broken glass littered the ground. Cats watched him from the safety of walls. Every now and then he interrupted a scraggy looking fox from his scavenging. He often saw them trotting casually across the roads, unbothered in the dark by traffic. And as he wandered, he felt less human in body, like all the pretending that made up life melted away as soon as it was dark. He felt unburdened from all the expectations and disappointments which were heaped onto you from the moment you were born. He felt like he supposed the animals felt. Like all that really mattered was the moment you were in, and what you did while you were in it. One foot fell softly after the after, and Bill Robinson scoured the haunts of his patch, of his place of birth and life. From the school, to the playing field, to the shop shut up tight behind steel shutters, to the youth club behind and the community centre around the corner.
Passing the low red-brick building made his lips turn up slightly, as he thought about next Saturday, like he thought about every Saturday. Him, on the stage, if they let him. You’re not the only one around here who wants to do something, Marvin Grady liked to tell him. Bill thought that he was wrong. As far as he could see, he was the only one around here who wanted to do something. He sure as hell was the only one with any talent…
Beats filled his mind as he by-passed the hall. Beats from last week, beats from the next performance to come. He sometimes entertained the thought of taking his music with him when he roamed, pushing his ear-plugs into his ears and hitting play on his phone. But he never did. Silence was something too. Silence gave you time to just be.
He walked on, crossing an empty dark road, enclosed suddenly in the tight black darkness under a group of trees, before he emerged on the other side, illuminated by the street lights outside a block of flats. Bill Robinson courted danger at night, in a different way to in the day. But he was old enough to understand that danger attracted him, in all its many, complex forms. People were dangerous; he knew that. All of them. Especially the ones who knew you. Drinking was a form of self-destruction, albeit a socially acceptable one. Night prowling was anti-social and strange. It served no purpose, except he did it because he was hunting for something and he knew he would recognise it when he found it.
He wasn’t old enough to drive, but he somehow knew that if he ever got behind the wheel of a car, he would want to drive too fast. He would want to take a drink or two along for the ride. He would want to push it too far.
He felt this way about most things. His father and brother called him a bad-tempered wind up merchant. His younger sister, with her narrow-eyed knowledge of the estate, told him he was suicidal.
Bill Robinson, raven-haired and freckle-nosed, with blue eyes that pierced right through you, offering everyone the same rigid level of condescending contempt. Bill Robinson thought you might as well push things to the extreme. He had no illusion or trust in a better life, place or overseeing God. He knew that poor people mostly stayed poor, and angry people mostly stayed angry. He knew that whether you studied life and philosophy forever, or had the odd drunken ramble over beers with your mates, life was ultimately a chance, a fluke, a flash in the dark and in the great big Universe scheme of things, it was pointless.
Not that he wanted to leave. You’d have to be bored or scared to want to leave, and he was neither. He felt like you might as well push it a little, take your chances, enjoy risks and see if you could test the limits – how much were you really meant to be here?
On the night that the unfortunate Lewis Matthews felt his own young life rushing from him in a crimson flood, Bill Robinson, his heart thudding in his chest, was only two streets away.
He heard nothing and saw nothing.
The fifteen year old boy died on the ground with his face against the cold alley wall, and his hands under his chest, clutching vainly at the emptying vessel that was his body.
With the music in his head and his mouth silently singing along, haughty Bill Robinson passed by without knowing a fellow youth was spluttering blood in the very last remnants of his life. He walked on, leaving one alley to join another, and that was when he saw the other night-prowler.
They both stopped and stared. Bill, with his hands in his pockets, and his breath blowing out in front of him. The other form was familiar to him. Round shouldered and round eyed. Their eyes met, and they both squared up, anticipating something…and a decision was made.
You didn’t see me and I didn’t see you.
The figure moved on quickly, into the darkness, head down, feet light. Bill Robinson felt a chill and a thrill at wandering so close to a well-known evil. He had come off okay to still be standing. He chuckled to himself in the dark, and entertained the reasons Charlie McDonnell would have for roaming the streets at three thirty in the morning. Girls. Women. Threats. Drugs. He shivered, and moved on.
The next day, Bill Robinson woke at ten past nine and wondered if he still had two cans of Stella stashed away at the back of his wardrobe. He was rubbing his eyes and scratching his hair, and his lips were already moving quickly over the words they wanted to sing next time in the community centre.
His younger sister burst into the room without knocking.
‘Guess what?’ she cried out breathlessly, while he sat up in bed, yawning in confusion.
‘There was a murder last night!’
‘A murder! Cross Road alley. Lewis Matthews got knifed to death, Bill! The dustbin men found his body this morning! It’s all over the estate!’
(This is a short story related to a book I started but never finished when I was 16 years old – I still have the writing in a suitcase under my bed, with all my other early works and ideas – it is about a teenage alcoholic whose only passion is singing in the community centre at the weekends – it’s been in my head a lot lately, so decided to write a short, which is basically a prequel to what happens next, and get back to it when I have time, which won’t be for a while!)