I thought I’d give folks a sneaky peek of my latest novel, Peripheral Vision. Here’s chapter one to set the scene. I’d be interested in your feedback if you fancy proffering it. Oh, and if you spot any typos and grammatical errors, don’t be shy, I won’t be offended.
* Please be aware that the story deals with some emotive issues such as: child abuse, domestic abuse, paedophilia, drug use and gang violence. So, if you’re of a sensitive disposition, I’d stop reading now.
Blurb: After being blinded in one eye by his abusive father, Peripheral Vision tells the story of 11-year-old Danny Kane growing up in 1970s northern England. His violent upbringing results in his descent into a life of drugs and crime. As he reaches adulthood he realises that the only way out of his spiralling slide into perdition is to find the one thing that he treasured most – his childhood friend, Sally, who was taken into care after the death of her mother. Can the search for his long-lost love lead to Danny’s redemption?
Part 1, 1972.
The cowboy and the bridesmaid.
Some people might think the day my father blinded me was the most pivotal episode in my life. For me, it was that gloriously sunny day in August, when Sally and I were playing with my toy soldiers in my front garden, that oscillates into life.
Sally was the only other kid on our street that was my age. So it didn’t seem strange to me for us to pal up. She was happy enough to play with my toy soldiers and I wasn’t particularly perturbed by the prospect of dressing up her dolly and pushing it around our front garden in its pram, (so long as my schoolmates didn’t find out). My father, on the other hand, had quite a different view on the subject.
We’d just finished a war game, which I’d won – again. (To be honest, Sally doesn’t really put her heart and soul into it like I do.) I have explained the rules to her so it’s not like I’m cheating or anything. The thing is, you have to be clever about how to deploy your troops. Strategic areas such as the dustbin lid which acted as a base, or Mum’s potted hydrangea, (which had a great vantage of the battlefield), seemed to go right over Sally’s head.
Once the game begins it’s really down to the luck of the dice. Highest roller starts. If you roll a one or a two you get to use a rifleman, three or four gets you a sub-machine gunner, five a grenade thrower and six a heavy machine gunner. Of course, you can only kill enemy troops adjacent to your soldiers in play. You can’t, for example, lob a grenade to the rear lines and take out the general if it’s beyond what a soldier in real life could do. Who shoots what, on which dice roll, depends on which box of soldiers we’re playing with. Because some sets come with snipers or demolition experts you have to be a bit flexible with the rules. Today, I was American Marines and British Commandos, whilst Sally was German Storm-troopers and Japanese Infantry. Both of my armies were an olive green, whereas Sally’s German troops were a shade of dark slate grey and the Japs were quite mustardy in tone. Sally did complain from time to time that she was always the Jerries or the Japs and I was always the Brits or the Yanks. Which wasn’t true. Sometimes I was the Russkies or even the Ghurkas. I think what she was really getting at is that I was always the Allies and she was always the Axis Powers, which was probably a correct assessment.
It had taken us much longer to set up the game than it did to actually play it. That was on account of how poorly Sally had deployed her troops and a spot of luck on my part having thrown a couple of double sixes in my first few throws. To be honest, I don’t think that Sally cared that she had lost, nor that the game had ended quite quickly, because that meant we could start playing her game of choice, which was dressing up her dolly and us pretending to be its mummy and daddy. If I’m being honest, I didn’t particularly care for this game, but it was only fair, I suppose.
We were sitting on the front doorstep with its rounded corners and slight concave seat from all the years of footsteps on it. The bricks on the house were rounded too and black with soot. Mine was an end terrace, which were much sought after because they had a side garden as well as front and back. The front one wasn’t that big, probably six feet from door to gate, but it was nice to sit out front and keep an eye on passersby, particularly in the afternoon when it caught the sun. There weren’t many cars on our street, partly because it was the 1970s and partly because it was a fairly poor area. There were a few young couples with babies, or else old grandma and grandpa types who’d lived there forever. Anyone with kids our age had moved on to bigger and better things. (Unlike our folks.)
My mum worked the nightshift down at the biscuit factory in the town, while my dad worked in an insurance company doing quite what, I don’t know. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to make him very happy as he usually only came home when it was time for my mum to go on her shift. Even then he was pretty pissed up from the pub where he’d go straight after work. Mum had told him to come home on time tonight as she’d been asked by her foreman to do an extra shift, which meant she had to go in early. It was the school summer holidays and Mum was doing the added shifts to try and get a bit of extra cash for a last minute holiday. But for every supplementary pound she earned, Dad seemed to squander it on booze. Still, she did get to bring home broken biscuits, which was a bonus. Any biscuits that got damaged or were unfit to sell were given to the staff as freebies.
Sally was just slipping Lucy’s, (which was the name of her favourite dolly), peach-coloured baby grow off while I was trying to separate my shorts from my thighs. It was a hot August afternoon and my knee-length Bermudas were driving me crazy. Although they were summer shorts, they were made out of a thick, coarse fabric that seemed unconducive to cooling a person down. I’d already stripped off my faded Brady Bunch t-shirt and had tried, and failed, to convince Sally that it would look good on her dolly. Instead, she asked me to pass her a rather fetching canary-yellow dress from the satin bag she had brought with her that was full of the baby’s things. I duly complied, and once Sally had deftly fastened the metal clasps of the dress, she began to feed the baby with a bottle that contained a white milk-like substance. Wisps of Sally’s golden hair floated up in the summer breeze as though controlled by some invisible puppeteer. Occasionally, a strand would be caught on her moist lips and she would wipe it away with the back of her bottle-holding hand. A strip of freckles ran across the tops of her cheeks and the bridge of her nose beneath her shining teal-green eyes that gazed attentively down at her charge as though it was the only thing that mattered in the whole world.
I was wandering around the garden absentmindedly pushing the empty pram as she began talking to the baby in a baby-like voice telling it what a good baby it was and that her daddy, (which was me), would be home from work soon. That was a bit of a coincidence, as my own father just happened to be pulling up to the kerb outside our house in his rickety old Morris Traveller. When he caught sight of his son, (which was also me), pushing a girl’s pram around for all and sundry to see he flew into such a rage that he leapt out of the car and dragged me into the front door of the house by my hair – which was pretty long at the time – calling me ‘faggot’ this and ‘poofta’ that. Sally jumped to her feet taking herself, and Lucy, out of harm’s way. Dad threw me onto the hall stairs and slid his faux crocodile skin belt through the hoops of his suit pants and began whipping me about the head. I held up my arms to protect my face, which afforded me a little protection, but it still hurt like hell, particularly when the buckle hit my wrist bone and top of my skull. My mum came running from the kitchen with a half-peeled carrot in her hand and screamed at him what was going on. He shouted back that it was all her fault that I was a ‘raving queen’ on account of her ‘molly-coddling’ me too much and that I was a too much of a ‘mammy’s boy’. My mother wasn’t the shrinking violet type so she promptly told him to go ‘fuck himself’, to which his response was to punch her in the face, sending her staggering backwards and falling over the chair arm in the sitting room. If it hadn’t been so shocking it would’ve been quite comical, seeing her legs in the air over the arm of the chair. Dad turned back to me with bulging red eyes and I thought he might punch me too, but he just turned and walked out, slamming the door behind him. I heard the car’s engine rumble and the gears scrape and whine as he drove off down the street. I looked in on Mum. She was still sitting in the funny position holding a tea towel to her mouth.
“Are you okay, Mum?” I said in a soft voice.
She shuffled herself straight in the chair and looked at the bloodstain on the tea towel, then at me. I could tell she was angry with me.
“What the hell did you do to annoy him?”
I was dumbstruck. I didn’t know how to respond. I actually didn’t know why I’d made him so angry. “I was just playing,” I offered feebly.
“Go to you room!” she barked, as she got out of the chair. “I’m sick of the sight of you.” Then she walked back into the kitchen still holding the half-peeled carrot.
I stood there for a few moments not really knowing what had just happened. One minute I was playing, the next being whipped. I glanced out of the living room window and saw Sally by the garden wall looking in at me with a furrowed brow. I shrugged my ghostly-pale shoulders at her. She half-smiled and held up a hand in a slow wave, then walked down the street toward her own house. I watched her thin, golden hair float behind her as she bobbed along, pushing the pram in her bright red jellybean sandals and strawberry-patterned summer dress.
Sally lived with her mum half way down the street. She couldn’t remember her dad as he had left when she was a baby. Her mum didn’t go to work as far as I could tell but she did go out a lot at night and often didn’t come back ‘til early the next morning. Most of the time she seemed pretty spaced out on the sofa with the TV blaring in the background. So much so, that Sally would have to make her own tea, usually beans on toast or jam and bread. The only time she got a proper meal was at school or if she came round to our house.
I stood there in the doorway between the living room and the hallway unsure whether to go to my room or alert Mum to the fact that all my toy soldiers, (although packed back into their correct boxes), were still outside. If I didn’t bring them in, and Dad saw them, he’d give me another good hiding for not looking after my stuff.
“Mum?” I called out to her in the kitchen.
“I told you to get to your room!” she bellowed.
“But nothing! Now!” I heard a pan crash into the sink shortly followed by something ceramic smashing. Unsure whether she’d dropped it or thrown it I thought it prudent to go to my room anyway. I sloped up the worn, brown-carpeted stairs past the framed black and white family photographs on either wall. My room was at the end of the hall, with a ‘Danger! Keep out!’ sign and a drawing I’d done of a skull and cross bones. Not that it ever seemed to work as everybody just barged in whenever they felt like it.
I closed the door softly and lay on my bed with its layers of thick wool blankets and looked up at my model aeroplanes dangling on cotton threads from the ceiling. They were mainly World War II planes: a couple of Spitfires, a Messerschmitt 109e, Hurricane, Heinkel 111, Stuka dive bomber, Japanese Zero, American Mustang, Mosquito, Lancaster bomber (that had been a tricky one to build) and an American Merrill Marauder. I’d made and painted them all – some with more success than others. My brushwork wasn’t that great and they didn’t look as professional as they did on the box lid. Still, in my mind, they were the real thing, flying dogfights up there in the skies above my bed.
My bed was in the corner of the room pushed up against two walls. Above my bed was a Leeds United collage poster – Don Revie at the top with the more famous players like Bremner, Giles, Clarke, Charlton and Gray taking centre stage. My ‘desk’ was pushed against the wall adjacent to my bed. It was an old pine dining table whose surface had been bleached by the sun. On it were a pile of Commando magazines, an old tea mug crammed full of coloured pencils and crayons, and reams and reams of paper with various military vehicles or battle scenes drawn on them. It was also a place of repair. Various parts of models lay in states of molestation from recent battles, like the hangar of some distant Pacific island outpost. Tins of Humbrol model paint surrounded several prostrate figurines ready to be licked back into shape for the next battle. Sable-haired paintbrushes stood hair-end up in an empty jam jar. Whilst another jar, which contained a chartreuse liquid, lay next to a saucer with various shades of dried green paint on it. Beneath the table, boxes and boxes of plastic soldiers scales 1:72 and 1:32. Opposite my table was a dark wood wardrobe, shiny with a heavy lacquer. It had once been my Nana’s, then had been passed down to my mum, then to my older brother. I was last in line. The walls were covered in a smoke-stained Anaglypta, (smoke-stained by the previous owners of the house, not me). It’s undulating surface rough beneath my fingers, like the contours of some alien landscape. Although, I had done my best to conceal it with posters from comics and magazines: everything from dogfights and hand-to-hand combat to Glam Rock bands such as Sweet and T-Rex. I didn’t know much about pop music. Anything I listened to was courtesy of my older brother, Jed. Not that he shared his music with me. But it was hard not to listen to it when it blared from his bedroom. Had he the slightest inkling that I actually enjoyed it I’m sure he would have turned it down just to spite me.
Jed was my older brother by four years. But it might have been four decades for the amount we had in common. He hated me. I’m not sure why, though. Perhaps it was because I was the youngest and got more attention than he did. Or, perhaps it was because he had learnt some of his behavior from our dad. Who knows? But he did have a penchant for torture, which he did his level best to hone if ever we were alone together and our parents were out of the house. Thankfully, that was rare. Today, he was round at his mate’s house, probably torturing some amphibian down at the frog pond or someone’s pet cat. He once swung a cat round by its tail and threw it on a bonfire up at the Rec.
I was pulling the hairs on my forearm when I noticed how pink my skin was from the sun. Pink that is, except for three white circular scars on my left arm near the elbow. Like cigarette burns or something. When I’d enquired of my parents how I’d come to acquire them they pleaded ignorance. The only glimmer of evidence was my mother’s darted glance to my father. He explained that sometimes people had scars that were like birthmarks. They just happened. But I didn’t buy that. And neither did the teachers at school. At the start of each school year, my new form teacher would ask me how I’d got them and I’d just say that I didn’t know, that it must have happened when I was very small – a baby even.
I slid off the bed and opened the drawer of my wardrobe and pulled out my Action Man t-shirt. I looked out of my bedroom window to the disused viaduct that used to carry the old railway line to Leeds. The colossal black arches coming to an abrupt end where it had partially collapsed into an overgrown swale below. Large weeds and bushes sprouted over the top of the viaduct where the lines once laid.
“Danny! Your dinner’s ready!” Came my mother’s shout from the foot of the stairs.
I took the stairs two at a time and walked through the living room into the kitchen where my dinner sat waiting on the table. The chair squeaked across the linoleum as I took my place. I opened the brown sauce bottle and shook sauce all over the piecrust and mash. I didn’t bother putting any on the peas and carrots, as it didn’t seem to go somehow.
“You’re welcome,” my mother said sarcastically.
“Fang-ku,” I said, inhaling rapidly in short bursts to try and cool the red-hot piece of corned beef hash pie.
“Blow it, you idiot!” she said, as she placed her own plate on the table with a bang.
“Our Jed not home yet?” I asked, enquiring of my brother.
“He’s stopping at Andy’s,” she said, cutting into her pie and sliding some mash and peas onto it.
I didn’t want to inquire about Dad just in case it got her hackles up again. Besides, it was pretty obvious where he’d be – down the pub. “Would it be okay if I went outside to…”
“No! You’re stopping in,” she snapped, before I could get my question out.
“Not to play! Just to bring my toys in and my t-shirt.” I said pleadingly.
She looked at me sideways as she slid a forkful of peas and carrots into her mouth and chewed ponderously, then nodded.
After dinner, I washed the dishes, as this was one of my chores, along with emptying the bin. Jed’s was to dry the dishes and sweep the kitchen floor. When I’d finished, I plopped down onto the sofa next to Mum who was knitting whilst simultaneously watching Crossroads on TV. Click-clack, click-clack went the needles. It never ceased to amaze me how she could knit so quickly without seeming to pay any attention to what she was doing.
“What time you going to work?” I asked.
Without taking her eyes off the TV she replied, “As soon as your father gets home. He’d better bloody hurry up or I’ll be late,” she said, glancing up at the clock on the mantelpiece.
“I’d best bring my stuff in then,” I said, getting off the sofa and waiting for her approval. But as none was forthcoming I went outside anyway. It was still light and warm out. I gathered up my boxes of soldiers and my t-shirt, which I’d hung on a holly tree. I looked up and down the street for any signs of Dad. The air was still and calm. Sparrows chirruped in the hedgerows, whilst a cuckoo was bidding everyone goodnight. I went back inside and thought better of disturbing Mum again. She seemed pretty on edge as it was and I didn’t want to make things worse by interrupting her favourite soap opera.
I went back up to my room and put my soldiers away. I slid a pine box from under my bed that contained my Matchbox cars and began sorting through them. I wasn’t really in the mood for playing with them but I wanted to do something to distract myself. I knew the inevitable was coming. It was just a question of when. Most of the die-cast metal cars were pretty bashed up, scarred paintwork from too many chases with cops. I preferred the American ones. There was something a bit more glamorous about them. A lime green Lincoln Continental was one of my favourite ‘baddy’ cars, as was my Dodge State Police black & white. The pale blue English Hillman Imp cop car bore no comparison to its US counterpart. Though, not even the flame-red Plymouth Barracuda could compare to the Aston Martin DB5 in British Racing Green. I even had a James Bond version in silver, complete with rear bullet-proof shield, front bumper machine guns, tyre shredders from the chrome-spoked wheels, revolving number plates and, of course, the passenger ejector seat which ousted a baddie two feet into the air when the catch was depressed.
I was just connecting my Hot Wheels loop-the-loop track to my desk when I heard a car pull up outside. I glanced over to my alarm clock – it was just after nine. He’d been gone about four hours and I knew Mum was already late for work as her shift started at nine o’clock. Maybe he’d bought her flowers or chocolates or something, to make up for hitting her. Maybe he’d drive her to work so she wasn’t so late. The door opened then crashed shut. Muffled shouts followed.
Mum: “What fucking time do you call this? I’m late for work, you selfish pig!”
Dad, (slurring): “Do you want another fucking slap?”
Dad: “Then keep your fucking mouth shut!” He emphasized this last word.
Mum, (from a different part of the room, further away): “I’ll probably get the sack because of you!”
Dad: “Where’s me dinner?”
Mum: “In the bin!”
Dad: “You fucking bitch! Come ‘ere!”
Mum: “Let go!”
Dad: “Fucking cow!”
Mum: “Oww! Stop it! You’re hurting me!”
I wanted to go and help my mum, but the last time I’d tried I jumped on Dad’s back and he just flung me over his shoulder, like an empty carrier bag, onto the floor knocking the wind out of me. I began to hum to try and shut out the noise of my mother’s screams.
I liked it that my mum worked at the biscuit factory because her cardigan would always smell sweet. I’d crawl up onto her lap when she came in after a nightshift of packing boxes of chocolate bourbons or digestives and snuggle my face into her bosom. Sometimes, she’d bring home a paper bag filled with broken ones that couldn’t be packed. My favourite bits were the brandy snaps with their sticky shells or the pieces of honeycomb that hadn’t set right. Thinking about this completely distracted me from noticing that the screaming had stopped.
The front door opened and slammed again. I presumed it was my mother going off to work. Or else it was Dad going back to the pub. Then I heard footsteps on the stairs. Heavy ones. Not Mum’s. Quickly, I got under the blankets and pulled them over my head and faced the wall pretending to be asleep. The footsteps were slow – sluggish. I imagined him grasping the bannister to steady himself as the wooden steps creaked beneath his weight. Not that Dad was heavy – just average, I’d say. He was quite small for an adult, really. Obviously, he was much bigger than me, but for a grown up he wasn’t that… well, grown up. I remember asking him once why he was so short compared to the other dads. He just gritted his teeth and punched me surreptitiously in the kidneys.
“Not as short as you, you little cunt,” he’d whispered venomously. Fortunately, we were in the supermarket. Or else he would’ve probably punched me in the face.
My bedroom door creaked slowly open. I could hear his heavy breathing – feel his presence in the room. “You awake, Danny?” he slurred. I could smell the all too familiar aroma of stale tobacco and alcohol.
I lay as still as possible and breathed a little deeper than normal – a trick I’d learnt by trial and error after I tried the same thing with my mother and she had called my bluff by telling me that waking breathing is much shallower than sleeping breathing.
“Danny!” he shouted.
I made a slight grunting noise like I’d almost woken up and rolled over onto my other side letting my arm flop over the edge of the bed. He seemed persuaded by this ruse and pulled the door closed behind him. I exhaled a sigh of relief as I pulled my head up for air. I heard him stumble on the stairs and secretly hoped that he would fall and break his neck. Quietly, not wanting the floorboards to creak, I tiptoed over to my desk and grabbed a handful of Commando magazines and slipped back under the sheet. I flicked through the brightly illustrated covers: The Winter Warriors – American infantry treading stealthily through a forest shrouded in snow; True Brit – British 8th Army infantry in the El Alamein desert; Slogger’s War – British Commandos crawling through the grass with a German base exploding in the background. I settled on an intriguing cover, which showed German Storm-troopers attacking a German Tiger tank – Code of Honour, in outlined type. I could only presume that the German Storm-troopers were British Commandos in disguise, or that the British had somehow managed to pinch a Tiger tank. Only the covers of Commando comics were in colour, the cartoon strips on the inside were black and white line drawings, usually between two and eight drawings per page. A sentence or two of narrative at the top in a rectangular slab and one or two dialogue ovals. I’d been collecting them every fortnight for the last three or four years and had over a hundred now. Not all bought brand new, mind. Some were back issues that I’d got off market stalls or from second-hand bookshops with my pocket money.
The sparrows were still chirruping away when I awoke the following morning. My Commando mags had slipped off the bed onto the floor. The clock said it was quarter past eight. I peeped through the blue and yellow striped curtains and squinted at the harsh sunlight. My Beano and Dandy annuals lined the windowsill, along with a few Janet and John books, which I thought were pretty boring, but had to read for school.
I tiptoed into the living room and Mum was fast asleep in her armchair. Good, I thought. That meant Dad had already gone to work. Her bottom lip was swollen where he’d hit her and she had a purple and yellow bruise on her right wrist.
I went into the kitchen and climbed up onto the pale-lemon Formica worktop and opened the cupboard door and pulled down a box of cornflakes. I emptied them into a bowl but, when I looked in the fridge, I saw we were out of milk, so I ate them dry, standing at the counter. I wanted to stay as far away from Mum as possible so that I didn’t wake her up. After I’d finished I carefully opened the pantry door and switched on the light. The left hand side was mainly tins of beans, soup, fruit segments and the like. On the right, packet sauces, gravies, flour and baking stuff. It was the back I was interested in. That’s where she kept the biscuits. I inched my way around the ironing board, which was propped vertically against the tinned stuff. Stepped over the vacuum cleaner and reached out as far as I could for the biscuit barrel. My fingers flicked at it but only managed to push it further back onto the shelf. That meant I had to negotiate the mop and bucket as well. I had one foot wedged between the bucket and the skirting board while my back leg was stuck between the ironing board and the Hoover. I reached up and swiped at the barrel knocking it from the shelf and caught it close to my chest. I unscrewed the lid and rummaged among the caramels and Penguins until I found what I was looking for: a brace of two-finger Kit Kat wafers. I slid them into my pocket and put the biscuit barrel back on the shelf. I steadied myself using the mop handle whilst transferring my weight from my right leg to my left and stepping over the mop bucket.
“Caught you! You thieving little git.”
I jumped with fright, the mop handle swung in the bucket and I swivelled backwards into the shelf bringing tins of Heinz beans and soups crashing down on me as I fell over the vacuum cleaner. I winced as I felt a sharp pain on my spine as it connected with the wooden edge of the shelf. I looked up and there was my brother, Jed, staring down at me with a huge grin on his face, obviously pleased with the startling effect he’d had on me. Jed was tall considering his parentage and quite handsome in his ‘rough diamond’ kind of way. But despite his looks, there was a hard edge to him, like he could turn psychotic at any moment.
“What the hell’s going on in there?” came my mother’s shout from the living room.
“Our Danny’s in the pantry thieving again,” Jed said off to one side.
“No I’m not!” I protested. “I was looking for some sugar for my cornflakes.” I scrambled to my feet and made my way clumsily out of the pantry.
“Didn’t hear you come in,” I said, brushing past him.
He cuffed me on the back of the head.
“Ow! What was that for?” I said, rubbing it.
“Because you’re a little twat, that’s what for.”
“Pack it in, you two!” Mum shouted again. “For Christ-sakes, I’ve only just got in and you’re already bloody at it!”
I went into the living room, Mum was yawning and pulling her salmon-pink cardigan tight around her navy blue work pinafore. Although it was summer it was still a little chilly in the mornings.
“All right if I go round to Sally’s?” I asked.
She yawned again. “Bit early isn’t it?”
“I’d check his pockets before he goes,” Jed said, appearing behind me.
Mum furrowed her brow, suddenly recalling, “Wasn’t there any sugar in the bowl?” she asked, rubbing the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger, then pushing a strand of long, black hair over her ear. Her cheeks were hollow and dark rings smudged under her eyes.
“I didn’t check,” I said feebly.
“Guilty!” beamed Jed.
“Oh, pack it in, you,” she said to Jed. “Go on, if you must. Better in her mother’s hair than mine.”
I didn’t turn to see Jed’s expression. I knew he’d be mad at me for Mum taking my side and no doubt would want to pay me back later. I slammed the front door and ran down the path, vaulting the gate, towards Sally’s. The azure sky was cloudless and promised another glorious day.
Sally lived about a hundred yards down our street on the other side of the road. The cream paint on the window frames was peeling and cracked. There was even a hole in one of the bedroom windowpanes that had faded yellow newsprint behind it to keep out the draft. I banged the knocker in our secret code: dot, dot, dot – dash, dash, dash – dot, dot, dot. I’d learnt it from one of my Commando magazines.
She answered the door in a pink, floral nightie, rubbing the sleep from her eyes with a knuckle and scratching a naked foot down the back of her calf.
“Hiya,” she said with a yawn, then turned and walked into the living room, flopping on the sofa. The coffee table was strewn with empty lager cans, an ashtray brimming with cigarette butts and an array of women’s magazines – Woman’s Own, Woman’s World, Rave. There was a metal syringe on a saucer with a burnt teaspoon lying next to it.
“Your mum not in?” I asked, plonking myself beside her, sinking into the soft brown velour fabric dotted with cigarette burns.
“Dunno. Probably hasn’t come home from the club yet,” she said, staring at the television, which stared back, olive green and blank.
“Had breakfast?” I asked, digging into my pocket.
“Nah, just got up.”
“Here you go,” I said, handing her the Kit Kat, tearing the red paper wrapper off my own and peeling back the silver tinfoil.
“Wow, thanks,” she said rather sleepily and unenthusiastically.
“You okay?” I asked, when she didn’t immediately tear into the Kit Kat as I had done.
“What? Sorry,” she said, suddenly noticing the Kit Kat. “Still half asleep.” She tore at the wrapper and wolfed it down in three bites.
“No dinner last night?” I asked.
Sally shook her head as a wafer crumb spilled onto her lap. I got up and walked over to the TV and switched it on. A pale blue stripe appeared on the screen then widened into a black and white image of the Test Card Girl sitting in front of a blackboard holding a piece of chalk and playing a game of naughts and crosses with a demented looking puppet clown. I flicked through the other two channels hoping to find some cartoons but there was nothing on.
“What shall we do?” I asked, turning to face her.
Sally shrugged, “Could go to my room and play dressing up.”
“Okay,” I said, wishing I’d brought my Batman outfit.
I followed Sally up the threadbare stairs into her bedroom, which was the same one as our Jed had at home. It was bigger than mine. But as she was an only child she got to choose the larger one. Her room had bright canary-yellow walls and orange curtains that were still drawn. The walls were dotted with posters of kittens and puppies, Barbie dolls and ponies. It was much tidier than my room with everything neatly put away, unlike mine, which had clothes strewn all over the floor. She had a white pine dressing table with a triptych foldout mirror. On top of the dresser was a music box with a dancing ballerina and various bottles and vials of make up and perfumes that she’d got from her mother. A heady and perplexing aroma filled the room as though she had been experimenting with different concoctions. Her bed was covered with cuddly toys of all shapes and sizes – teddy bears, cats, dogs, dolls, babies, a tiger, a leopard, a dolphin, and an elephant. It was hard to see where she would actually fit into the bed. Beneath the window was a large whicker basket with handles on the side. She pulled it away from the wall a few inches so that when she lifted the lid it could lean back against the wall. The basket was full of outfits and hats. First, she pulled out a peach-coloured taffeta dress.
“I’m not wearing that!” I said.
“That’s for me!” she said. “It’s a bridesmaid dress. I was supposed to wear it to Mummy’s wedding.”
“Why didn’t you?” I asked.
“Daddy had to go to jail,” she said, sifting through the clothes. “How about this?” she said, producing a pirate outfit.
“No thanks. What for?”
“Dunno. Stealing, I think. This?”
“Let’s see,” I said taking the red-checked shirt and brown waistcoat with a silver sheriff’s star attached. “Looks cool. Does it have a hat?”
“Here,” she said, producing a brown felt Stetson with a white band around it.
“We could play cowboy mummies and daddies,” she said, standing up and pulling her nightie over her head. I stood and gawped at her white naked body. When she noticed me staring at her she said, “Go on, then.” Nodding at me to follow suit. Tentatively, I pulled my t-shirt over my head and threw it on the floor. I slid down my shorts and Y-fronts and kicked them off. We both stood staring at each other’s genitals for what seemed like minutes, but in reality, was probably only a few seconds, before we both burst out laughing. Sally pulled the bridesmaid dress over her head while I put on the cowboy outfit.
“Do you have any pants for it?” I asked.
“Nah,” she said. “It came with a skirt.”
“Then why did you tell me to take my clothes off?” I said, furrowing my eyebrows, painfully aware of my nudity.
“So I could see your tadger!” she said smirking.
I shook my head and pulled my undies and shorts back on. They didn’t really go with the top half but it was either that, or wear a black and white cowhide skirt. Sally fished out a double-holster with two shiny pistols on each side and handed them to me.
“Got any caps?” I asked fastening the belt around my waist and drawing the pistols as fast as I could.
“Nope. They’re not that type,” she said, turning around and lifting her hair from the nape of her neck for me to fasten the metal hooks on the back of her dress. They were quite fiddly for inexperienced fingers but I’d seen my dad do it for my mum so I eventually figured out what I should do. When I’d finished, she turned around and lifted the skirt slightly between thumb and forefinger as though she were about to curtsey.
“Well?” she said, when I didn’t say anything.
“Well, what?” I stared blankly.
“How do I look, silly?” she said in consternation.
Her hair was matted at the back where she’d been sleeping on it. “Like a bridesmaid,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
We played all morning in the back garden only coming in for a glass of orange squash and a brown sauce sandwich at lunchtime. I was her sheriff boyfriend and she was a dancer in the saloon. (Something she’d seen in an old western.) She wanted us to get married while I wanted to have a shoot out with some bank robbers. Fortunately, we had time to do both. I got wounded in the shoulder in the gunfight so Sally turned nurse and patched me up with crepe bandages from her doctor’s case. We got married just after lunch but it was almost ruined when a gunslinger gatecrashed it and had a bullet with my name on it. Fortunately, I was quicker to the draw.
When we got bored of this game we went inside and did some drawing and colouring at the kitchen table. Sally drew a princess getting married to a prince while I was drawing The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It was only when I walked through the living room to go to the loo upstairs that I saw that Sally’s mum had come home and was asleep on the sofa with what looked like a tourniquet strapped around her left bicep. I went back into the kitchen and told Sally but she didn’t seem all that concerned. She suggested that we go round to my house, which I didn’t think was a good idea. So we decided on the park instead.
The park was only round the corner from where we lived. It wasn’t so much a park, as an exceedingly large garden. There weren’t any slides or swings or roundabouts, or anything. Just lots of perfectly manicured green circles and oblongs filled with a myriad of different coloured flowers – violet ones, red ones, pink ones, orange ones and some purple and yellow ones, which reminded Sally of butterflies. Every few yards the aroma of the park would change, bringing a new bouquet to the senses.
At the far end of the park were some public toilets that were cut into a tree-covered embankment making it very easy to climb onto the concrete roof from the back. We lay on our stomachs and crawled to the edge of the roof and peeped over. The toilet entrance faced a gateway, which lead into the park from the south entrance. It was cool where we lay because of the shade from the great looming oak trees behind us on the banking. After about five minutes or so we were getting bored and were about to give up on scaring any passersby who happened to need the loo at that particular moment in time. Then, an old man appeared in a shabby tweed overcoat, which I thought was a bit odd, considering how hot it was. Once he was inside, Sally and I started making ghostly noises: Woooohhooo, whoooohoooooohoo, we echoed between stifled giggles. A few moments later the man reappeared and went to walk out of the park gate, then he stopped, slowly turned around and looked up at us with a stolid expression. We both froze.
“This what you’re looking for?” He opened his coat and his penis was sticking out of the fly of his trousers. He began pulling it backwards and forwards furiously until it got really big and sent a jet of white liquid flying out of the end. Sally screamed, jumped up and ran back toward the embankment. I followed suit and we clambered our way through the undergrowth scraping and scratching our legs and arms on branches in our haste to get out. We broke out into the glaring sunlight at the other side and ran as fast as we could back towards our houses at the other side of the park. My lungs were hot and my legs burning. I could feel the sweat running down the back of my neck as the sun scorched my scalp.
Breathless and doubled up, we stopped at the park gate at the north entrance. Our faces were bright red and our arms and legs glistened with sweat.
“Did he follow us?” Sally asked, between breaths.
“Don’t think so,” I said, looking back into the park.
“Where’ll we go?” she said, standing upright, hands on hips, breathing hard.
“Got any money?”
She shook her head. “Why?”
“Sweet shop,” I replied, nodding in the direction of the corner shop across the road. “Come on,” I said, looking down the road for cars.
“Wait!” she said, as I took off. Then, when she saw I wasn’t turning back, followed me across. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“You go in and ask him where the washing up liquid is. It’s right down the back. I’ll come in a few seconds later when he’s showing you where it is. When he takes off after me you just walk out of the shop and I’ll meet you on the roundabout at the Rec.”
“I don’t know, Danny. I don’t want to get in any trouble. Mam’ll kill me.”
“You wont, I promise. It’s me he’ll be after. Come on,” I said, walking towards Patel’s Newsagents & Off-License. I waited by the door and gestured for her to get in quickly. Reluctantly, she did as I asked. I counted one Mississippi, two Mississippi, until I got to twenty, then walked up the two, worn stone steps through the glass door. The bell tinkled loudly as I entered. The shop was gloomy and rich with the redolent aroma of Asian spices: Garam masala, garlic, saffron, turmeric, cumin and fresh coriander wafting from the back of the shop. Sure enough, Sally and the shopkeeper were nowhere to be seen. I quickly walked up to the counter and glanced down the aisle. There was Mr. Patel with his back to me bending over and pointing to a low shelf. Sally was on her hunkers looking at where he was pointing, then she spotted me and glared with wide bulging eyes.
“Be with you in a moment,” Mr. Patel said without turning around.
I grabbed a handful of chocolate bars from the display on the counter, turned, and ran out of the shop. I jump the two steps and bolted down the street, turning right up Dickenson Lane then left down a ginnel between two rows of terraced houses. At the end, I took another right onto Madeley Avenue, which was a cul-de-sac but opened up at the end onto a large field that was known locally as the Rec. – which was short for recreation ground. It was pretty overgrown but it was the only place near our house with any swings or slides. I went over and sat on the wooden roundabout with paint-peeled metal handrails. You could see down to the bare brown metal where the paint had weathered. First a blue layer, then a red layer on top of that. The wood was painted green, not that there was much still left on it. I took the chocolate from my pocket and put it down on the roundabout. I hadn’t really looked at what I was getting, I just grabbed the first things in front of me. There were three Curly Wurlys, a Milkybar and a Caramac. That was one and a half Curly Wurlys and I couldn’t decide between the Caramac or the Milkybar. I loved them both. I pushed the roundabout back and forth with my feet while I waited for Sally. She was taking ages. I wondered if Mr. Patel had sussed out the ruse and guessed we were working in tandem and called the cops? I thought about going back, when her head appeared on the horizon at the far side of the field, shortly followed by the rest of her body. I could tell by the slope of her shoulders that she wasn’t happy. And when she got even nearer I could see that she’d been crying.
“What happened?” I asked guiltily.
As she slumped down next to me on the roundabout she elbowed me in the ribs. “Don’t ever do that to me again!” she shouted.
“Did he knobble you?” I said looking down at my black pumps, which were split on the outside of my right foot.
“No! But he was a bit suspicious when I didn’t have any money. Didn’t think that bit through, did you!”
“What did you say?” I said sheepishly.
“I said I must have lost it on the way. I was terrified he was going to say I was in on it. But I don’t think he even noticed anything had been pinched.”
“Phew, that’s a relief. What’s the problem, then?”
“I felt sorry for him. He seemed like a nice old man.”
I reflected on this for a moment. She was right – he was a nice old man. I hadn’t been in the shop for ages. Not since Mum had sent me with a note to buy a bottle of cider. Although you were meant to be 18 to buy alcohol it was pretty common round these parts for parents to send their kids along to the off-license with a signed note authorizing their approval. Not sure how approving the cops would’ve been about it, mind.
“Come on,” I said, hopping off the roundabout. “Let’s go down to the beck where we’re out of sight.” I was concerned that if any other kids came to play in the park and saw how many sweets we had they might take them off us. Or, at the very least, want us to share.
The beck trickled its way through a narrow slit of land at the edge of the Rec. It was flanked by high banks and couldn’t be seen from more than ten yards away. You had to be careful walking across there at night just in case you walked over the edge. Sally and I slid down the steep bank to where a small patch of sand and dirt opened up next to the brown stream ebbing its way over sandstone rocks. I shared out the booty and we lay back, staring up at the clear blue sky with a single vapour trail dissecting it as we devoured our hoard. Sally had solved the Caramac/Milkybar conundrum by suggesting we break them in half. Very clever, that girl. Don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it.
“What was that stuff that came out of the end of it?” she asked, after unfathomable moments of tranquility.
“What stuff?” I said, picking a crumb of Curly Wurly off my cheek.
“You know, out of his thingy,” she said.
“Oh, that,” I said finally realising. “Some kind of wee, I guess.”
“Didn’t look like wee,” she said. “Wee’s yellow. That was white.”
“True,” I said in agreement.
Then, after a long pause, and almost as though the two events were connected – though quite how – I wasn’t sure, she said: “Do you think we’ll get married when we grow up?”
I pondered this as I chewed on my chocolate covered toffee. “Might be difficult,” I said in as adulty-a-way as possible. “I’m going to be an astronaut when I grow up, so I could be away for a lot of the time.”
“That’s okay,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’ll wait for you. I could bake a cake while you’re gone.”
“What kind?” I asked.
“I dunno, what do you like?”
“I like Bakewell Tarts.”
“Bakewell Tart it is then,” she said.
I thought about it for a few more moments. I supposed if she was willing to wait while I went on dangerous missions there was absolutely no reason at all why we shouldn’t get married.
“Okay,” I answered. I glanced over at her. She had her eyes closed and a small smile crept across her lips. I don’t know why, but to see her lying there in her peach, taffeta bridesmaid dress all happy and content like that gave me a warm glow inside. It wasn’t a feeling like ‘happy’ or ‘joy’, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. But whatever it was, it felt nice and I knew that there was nowhere else I’d rather be and no one else I’d rather be there with. I pulled the brim of the Stetson over my eyes and chewed lackadaisically on my Milky Bar.
When I got home, Mum and Dad were in the kitchen arguing. I was surprised that dad was home so early. He didn’t usually get back ‘til after five but it was only four o’clock. Mum was sitting at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette, hands clasped together, fingers in knots, staring at the vinyl tablecloth. Easy to wipe down – she’d said. Dad was pacing around at the far side of the table. He was smoking too. The ash on his cigarette was precariously long. When he noticed, he went to the ashtray in front of my mother but he’d left it too late. The ash dropped onto the table. Mum gave the ash a look of consternation. Dad put his cigarette between his lips and brushed the ash to the edge of the table then cupped his other hand by the lip and scooped it over the edge. Most of the ash just smeared over the vinyl. Mum got up, walked to the sink, got a dishcloth and threw it on the table in Dad’s direction. He looked at her with contempt. But instead of rebuking her, he picked it up and wiped the ash clean. She was right, it did wipe down easily.
I knew by the atmosphere that it wasn’t safe for me to stay there. Even though I didn’t know what was going on, or even if I was involved in this tense situation, but it was highly likely that I would be caught in the crossfire or used as a human shield to defend one or the other if I stayed. So I slunk my way back out of the living room and sat on the bottom step on the landing with the door ajar so I could hear what they were arguing about.
“What were you thinking?” Mum said.
“That’s the point, I wasn’t,” Dad replied.
I noticed a tiny piece of wallpaper had curled up where two pieces joined together by the skirting board. I picked at it with thumb and forefinger. It came up and away quite easily. What had been a tiny hole of a couple of millimetres was now about a couple of inches wide.
“You promised you wouldn’t go to the pub at lunchtime anymore,” Mum said.
“Sorry, I’m not as fucking perfect as you!” Dad responded.
“Here we go again, always blaming someone else,” Mum retorted.
“Get off your high-fucking-horse. The twat deserved it.”
Deserved what? I wondered.
“He deserved it?” she said sarcastically.
“And you’re going the right way about getting a smack as well.” Dad was getting angry.
“Is he going to press charges?”
Silence from dad.
“Well, is he?” Mum said pressing.
“Says so,” Dad replied almost inaudibly.
“Well, so much for our summer holiday. We’ll need that brass for a solicitor,” Mum said dejectedly.
Bollocks. No summer holiday, I thought, trying unsuccessfully to stick the wallpaper back down with saliva.
“Don’t get your knickers in a twist, I’ll go down the job centre tomorrow. I’ll get something else by the end of the week.”
“Yeah? ‘Cause it only took you six months to get this one.”
“Oh, look on the bright side, why don’t you!”
“Bright side!” Mum was angry now. “I was looking on the bright side until you decided to beat the living daylights out of your boss! You’re a fucking maniac, you know that.”
I got nervous at that and perked up on the step. Dad wasn’t the type of man to take that sort of criticism. It was too close to the truth. Thwuck, thud. It was the sound of bone on bone. My heart suddenly started pounding. I jumped up and ran into the living room. Dad was standing by Mum’s chair. She was lying on the floor on her side, emitting a low groan. He spun round and looked at me with fists still clenched and insanity in his eyes. I could feel the warm liquid run down the inside of my thighs. When he noticed the darkening patch growing on the front of my shorts he strode towards me shouting something like: “You dirty little bastard!” Then, thud. A dull pain on the right hand side of my head shortly followed by a white-hot light and searing pain on the left hand side as I cracked my head on the mahogany sideboard. I looked up at Dad through one eye – the right one. My left was a kaleidoscope of bright burning colours. I could tell by his shocked expression that something wasn’t quite right. He bent down to me, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed my left eye. When he touched it, it burnt like hell. And when he pulled the hanky away to fold it over on itself it was bright red.
I heard a groan far off. It was Mum coming round.
“Jean!” Dad shouted. “Get in here, quick!”
“Oh, sweet Jesus, what the fuck have you done?” Mum said groggily.
“It was an accident!” Dad shouted. “Here, you look after him. I’ll get the car keys.”