by Dominic Howell
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And in the middle of it all the fire alarm went off. The judge gave me the nod as if to say Go on then lad, get the hell out of here while we sort this thing. I walked down from the stand to show everyone what a sensible, polite boy I was, and went out of the court through the special side door I’d used to come in, and on the other side, I was expecting to see the bloke from the Witness Service, Neil or Nigel or whatever he was called, but, as it turned out, he wasn’t there. A long, narrow corridor lay empty to my left. A voice came into my head: stay put and wait, kid, someone’ll show up sooner or later and escort you out of the building. But there was another voice, this one louder: The right thing? Hasn’t exactly worked out for you now has it? And then came a feeling. The feeling pulled underneath my chest like a hunger. I gave in. I ran. Through bar after bar of slanted shadow and light. I could go fast in these new leather soled shoes, it was like running in slippers, I kept on my toes. Down some steps and it got darker. Pushed on a door that took me into a larger room with rows and rows of empty seats and at the back of that room I karate-kicked the silver handle of a fire exit. The door flung open. The grey light of the day came pouring down with the gurgling sound of traffic. A pigeon with a clumped foot pecked at something inside a brown paper bag. I couldn’t quite believe it – I was out on the street. Neil or Nigel would soon be onto me so I ran down a wide pavement. The sun was somewhere deep behind grey cloud that rolled out absolutely everywhere and looked like a duvet you could get wrapped up in, but there was no time for any of that.
A woman was standing at a bus stop. When I got closer, a bus moved in and clattered its doors open with a tiss. The woman started digging into her purse, laying out coins with a sharp snip onto the driver’s tray. I was right behind her, breathing hard, checking every few seconds in case of Nigel – still no Nigel – but people were milling around the entrance to the court now. She shuffled down the bus. Under eighteens could ride for free – and I knew my rights, so I gunned it for the stairs. Then bang. My nose just millimetres from the floor. A pain shooting up my toe and shin. Those fucking stairs. My eyes adjusted to what was in front of me: a curl of dark hair, a slug of teeth-marked gum, the faint scent of something, sharp. Fuck. Dogshit. I picked myself up and completed the journey, crashing down onto an empty double seat. Christ knows what I must’ve looked like.
The bus rode over a brown river that I knew to be the Trent. A streak of sunlight broke through over near the football ground and it made it feel like it was gonna be okay. It was all gonna be okay. Raindrops moved down and across the window joining other drops to make bigger drops, little streams… I kicked the seat in front of me. That cunt barrister was still in my head. He had this sickly teacher’s pet voice for the judge, and a deeper, jabby one for me. Pushing me. Getting me tangled in his You say this happened then, in that place, but you were actually doing this, over here. Weren’t you. WERE YOU NOT. Nail marks were on the heels of my palms. It was like my head had an elastic band around it but when I put my fingers through my hair there wasn’t anything there. I took out the piece of paper I’d been given: a list of phone numbers, underneath the words Reach Out. “Reach Out”. Pathetic. I saw Nigel’s actual name written down, he wasn’t called Neil. Nigel Parthwick it said. Witness Service Volunteer.
How did Nigel end up being a volunteer? What bad deeds was he making up for? Because all these old guys had bad deeds. I looked at the criss-crossed orange-and-grey lines on the back of the seat I’d just kicked, and the seat said, Is that all you’ve got?
The bus swung left. A row of orange-bricked terraced houses came into view that I recognised, the front of them smudged black with traffic fumes. I always spotted the white diamond-shaped plaque on the middle house that said 1882. Along this way, there was a flat tree-less park that people called The Forest, and for a week or so every year the gypsies came and turned it into a fair. The bus passed a low wall on the corner of Burford Street and I remembered the time I had seen Daniella sat there, on that very spot, swinging her brown legs in the sun. She had taken my hand and we’d slipped between caravans into smells of fried onions and candy floss. The sound of our trainers running along the metal decking.
I got off at the Grosvenor pub. Took the long route home. The dark trunks and branches of the trees leaning over the road like strange creatures that could snatch out and grab you with their knitting-needle fingers.
Almost at the turning to my street a blacked-out Renault Cleo pulled up. The electric window on the passenger side zhooshed down. It was Remo. A lad from my year at school. Must’ve just passed his test.
Err – here, Remo said, Patch.
Remo’s cheeky mouth widened, showing small gummy teeth.
Took me a moment to realise he was talking about the car. I stood back and looked at its glossy black doors, like I could tell anything from that.
Yeah, I said, Nice. Very nice.
New wheels, Remo said.
He gave out a burst of excited cackle and he smiled, but it died, quickly, and his cheeks fell back into their slappable, plumpness. Bit of an oddball was Remo. If he was asked a question it was like the information had to travel down a long tunnel before it reached him. But, everyone knew him for one reason: an afternoon a couple of years back, he’d sparked out Ryan Beckett from the year above by the lockers before Geography. No one really understood the reasons why. One punch.
Soooo, Remo said, his eyes turned away from the road and held mine, Smoke?
I thought about it… I didn’t really have a head for weed. The way Remo had pulled over was causing a bottleneck with the small island and slanted Belisha beacon.
Nah, I said.
Remo craned his neck to check behind, sweat patches showing through his large grey t-shirt.
Well… he said.
At that moment two mopeds growled out of the dusk. They swerved against each other, racing along the straight, steadily inclining road, dipping over the brow into the night that had darkened now to a deep indigo colour.
Idiots, Remo said.
I didn’t come in on it.
Er, he said, Well, we could…
He drifted off again. Something like a million pins pricked over my body. The close tick-tock sound of the indictor against the softer swishy sounds of passing car after car floated the words W A S T E D L I F E into my head.
Look, I said, You’re alright man. I turned, double tapped his roof with my hand, See you around.
You get that nonce put away? he said.
Jaggy ice down my spine. The question hung in the air. You get that nonce put away? It turned into a wet medicine ball that punted itself straight into my gut. I lifted my head out of the car window. Is that what he was? A nonce. What did that make me? And Remo kept it coming.
You were one of the lads, he said
You were. Against Mister Ballard.
I didn’t understand. How did Remo of all people know… A clever smile hiding somewhere in his face. All this court stuff was supposed to be secret, I’d hardly breathed a word. Lawyers, police, they’d all told me – promised me – my name would be nowhere near things, and, now, for the likes of Remo… it must be all over school.
S’not really… is that what people are saying? The words came out of my mouth without my mind saying them.
What made you –
A horn pipped. Headlights flashed across Remo’s nubby features. His shoulders went up and down. Put your hands around his neck, a voice said.
Anyway look, he said, Talk soon proper.
He revved the engine scudding the wheels and the smug, rounded corners of his Renault Cleo disappeared over the brow of the hill.
When I got back to the house Mum was asleep in front of the television. I knocked it off.
Silence and dark.
Her head was hanging down to her belly. A wine glass still in her hand. I removed her fingers from the glass, downed what was left of it, threw a blanket over her and rested a cushion behind her head.
In my bedroom I had a small desk by the window. I sat for a while swigging the rest of the wine bottle and watching the street. My thoughts kept getting drawn back to the courtroom. Not just about what I’d said, what I’d got wrong, but also just the look of the place. I was expecting something grander somehow, it looked like just any other office room, there were computers, and fold down seats, and all those Princess Diana women, sat with straight backs. Even my moment, my truth, seemed somehow drab.
Scrunched up leaves scraped across the tarmac outside. I turned to a fresh page in my notepad and began to write.
Today I thought about that time at the fair. Us running to the ride. The Rotator it was called. Do you remember that round room? It was a deep-red colour. You were opposite me and the room started to turn faster and faster until we were moving so solid we stuck to the wall. The floor dropped and you never stopped looking away.
Both of us, pulling ourselves up the wall to see who could get the highest. Could’ve had any lad in school if you wanted but in that spinning room
I am doing we said
I chucked down my pen and went and lay on the bed. I could hear mum clanking around. A tap running. It was cut off sharply. The sound of light switches snapped. Her footsteps onto the wooden stairs. One day she will die. A creak right next to the entrance of my room.
I’ve had phone calls, she said.
You know from who. She opened my bedroom door a touch and we saw each other for the first time. Her cheek bones gaunt in the gloom.
From who, I said again.
Her eyebrows went up.
Now, now. And she laughed, a nervous little laugh.
The court, she said after a pause. Look if you’re not sure –
I am sure.
She put this leg-jelly doubt inside of me, she always did, and I can’t remember what I said, or what she said, but the next sound I heard was her bedroom door banging shut. The high springy noises of her mattress and I could just make out the sound of words being whispered, over and over, and I knew it was the words she hoped would stop her going to hell, but what was the point in any of that. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Jack and fucking Jill.
After a while, I heard her snore and that’s when I got up. Went over to the window. Lifted it just enough to get one leg out, then the other. I tip-toed along the ledge and up the tiled roof in three long, light lunges. It had to be done like that because of the slates, they could slip. After a climb of about five metres it flattened out onto a lead-lined square with space enough to lie down if I wanted, but, from up here, you had a view of the whole street. And you could see through the windows into some of the houses, a few were still glowing orange. I could make out an old man’s head propped up in arm chair, which I knew to be Mr Skelpen. When the football had gone over he’d never thrown it back, miserable sod.
A thick darkness hung over, no stars, but after a while of just watching, you could make out big billowing cloud outlines, drifting over to what I believed to be the West. If they carried on that way, they’d get to the Atlantic and who knows what shapes they could make before they reach the United States of America. Under a few cracked slates I kept an old jewellery box I’d found out on the street. It had my tobacco, rizla and skins inside. But my hand went to the aerosol can and cloth. I sprayed the can onto the cloth, held the cloth over my mouth and nose. Deep breaths. Re-sprayed and breathed and breathed until things went giddy and you get that smell that eventually becomes an earthy, soily smell. Bits of night flickered around, making pointy loops. Darting, sharp turns. Hello Mr Bat.
Mum came to my mind. This time she was standing in the door of my bedroom, in a white nightie, her grey hair, wet-combed right back like she’d come out of the shower. And she was going to say something and I knew it was gonna be important, something I had waited a long, long time to hear. But – no words.
Say it, I said.
Her quivering wet mouth.
Her lips made a tight shape. A frothy line of spit came down her chin. Something rose up within me. I laughed and laughed, my whole body shook, I couldn’t stop, and when I opened my eyes – I was stood on the ledge.
The city laid out in a milky way of twinkling lights. Swirling lines and sad patterns. A blackness in between the lights. I turned away from it all, Lean back, the voice said, Let go.
I come out and see him some nights Daniella. Mister Ballard. I like to watch him leaving his house when he can’t see me. He is so old now, so frail.
One night I came out with a crow bar and I was ready to do it, I was ready to end him this way and I waiting, waiting for him to appear and I got listening to the radio. Late one night they get a call from this woman and she starts going on about how she’d lost her son. Raised him, best she could, until he was thirteen and one day he goes on his bike down by the river and never comes back. Disappears. She sounds the alarm with the authorities and there’s searches and appeals, even on the news, and it goes on and on for weeks she says, months, but he never turns up. Good many years go by and then one day, late summer, a figure stands at her door, and just from the shape of this person, just from the outline through the frosted glass panels, she gets a feeling moving over her, like God is talking to her, telling her something, and she knows, becomes convinced, that the shape standing on the other side of that door is her son. The idea storms over her. Something about the way he’s standing, the shape of his shoulders. One of his arms leaning against the wall in the exact same way as she remembers her son would lean on things. But before she can get to the door and open it the shadow goes.
And she begins to see him everywhere. Coming out of the supermarket. In office block windows. On trains going in the opposite way. She breaks down, balling her eyes out, and she says the words, I put slugs inside of that boy I’m so, so sorry, but I did, I put slugs inside him when he was hungry for something. I did things a mother should never
The line drops. The presenter comes in says something mumbly and short. Music plays. Things go back to how they always are and in that moment I thought, yeah. I got slugs too, stinking up my insides, leaving big holes, but I don’t have to let them beat me, not me, I don’t have to be gone that way. I’ve poured salt on those slugs. Watched them turn to liquid pools dripping off the steps. I can work things out. I kissed you under the bridge Daniella! And when I close my eyes it’s all still there. Your lips on my lips, our bodies in the spinning room, everything whirling. So I drive away. I drive away.
These characters appear in another tale by Dominic Howell, First Love, the title story of a collection of new writing available here: