Jez and Bam and Phiz and Smack lived on the third floor of a medium-sized, sleazy semi in one of the less salubrious suburbs of Oxford. None of them had a job, though they each spent a small (very small) part of their time looking for something (rather half-heartedly) in the free newspapers that came rattling in relentlessly each week through the letter box. The State paid for their rent, but not for their electricity and gas, which were both cut off periodically.
At the back was a strip of brown grass, long and thick, which stretched down to a patch of communal dereliction beyond its gate. This wasteland was at the lads’ disposal. Phiz had suggested growing ‘skunk’ there; but the boys didn’t ever seem to get around actually to …doing anything much. They tended to laze about. dreaming about doing things. Every day, when Smack finally managed to struggle out of bed, about mid- morning, he would amble over to his window, and stare out, scratching, yawning and exhausted. But each day he would say to himself:
‘If only I had some tools I’d do some gardening – plant veggies and things. You know … proper real stuff. I’d like to do that. I could be…you know, well… self-supporting. I could be a professional gardener. Well, you know – I could be – couldn’t I?’ ‘
In his head sprouted pictures of the grass all dug up and neat regiments of carrots onions and potatoes thriving and flourishing on the good brown earth instead. And… poor old Smack was permanently worn out from doing…well, nothing much at all!
Sometimes Jez or Bam or Phiz – or Smack managed to get an interview for a job. Not often. Then the others would rally round to find suitable clothing – they pooled the best they had. But somehow no job was ever quite achieved by any of them, and this was at the same time both a disappointment and a great relief. To all of them!
A certain percentage of their dole money – which had to be collected early on alternate Tuesdays some way away, and was the one justification for an early rising – was put aside and given to Smack who saw to whatever scanty housekeeping wasn’t done, but who always did the shopping. Smack was the most methodical – that is to say – the least unmethodical of the four. Every day he would make lists – both of shopping and all the other tasks he and the other three didn’t get done. ‘Shoping’ he would write; and underline the word painstakingly: Sliced bred, baked beens, biskits, crisps, choclit bars. See if Ali, at the general store has got anything he’s going to throw out that might come in handy. Smack was the organiser. When each chore was completed (or, more likely, not completed) he would cross it off his list carefully, item by item; then, finally, start another list. (He loved lists!) One: Skim through free papers for jobs. Two: Clean Doc Martens and spurs. Three: Three: Patch jeans again? Again? Mebbe…mebbe not… No – can’t be bothered! Need to dye my two oldest shirts –Oh Shit! Can’t be done! Out of Crazy Colour again! Wash sweater. Oh Crikey! I’ve done all this except for jeans and sweater. They’re not old – just… elderly. And shirts. Sweater’s never been washed and it might fall to bits if I tried. What would I wear if it did? Bleedin’ nothing! Have to go in my birthday suit – not got owt else! Daren’t risk it!
When he came back from the supermarket, Smack would unpack the shopping in the communal room where Jez and Bam and Phiz were smoking roll-ups and drawing moustaches and black teeth onto the politicians in last week’s free newspapers. It was early afternoon and the boys had just finished their breakfast mugs of tea. Most of their cash went on their evening’s entertainment – beer and gigs. Not much on dope, and then nothing hard. Only Smack had ever used smack; horse, dung, junk, mud, skunk – whatever it was currently nick-named – and now he didn’t. It was his biggest achievement that now he didn’t. How big he didn’t realise. How big all the others understood…
Soon Jez and Bam and Phiz and Smack would prepare for the evening. This was tough, anxious work. Boots and belts and bracelets were polished like in the army. Hair was coaxed or coerced to defy the laws of gravity. Shampoo, setting lotion and dye were almost as big an expense as food, though not so crippling as booze and gig tickets. But, first of all, the shopping had to be sorted out, mulled over and pulled to pieces.
‘Hey, Smack – can’t you get nuffin’ save baked bloody beans? Can’t you use your fuckin’ imagination? Oh no – you haven’t got any –so sorry, I forgot,’ jeered and sneered Phiz, the hungriest one. Smack thought Phiz must be suffering from worms!
‘Yeah, we would appreciate the odd change of fuckin’ diet now and then. How about a tin of bleedin’ spaghetti? Go on, Smack – be a tad more original! Be daring. Be a devil!’ chipped in Bam.
‘Hang on,’ said Smack. He’d have to write it down. The boys were getting him all sweaty and hot and bothered.
‘Aw – go make yet another list, Smack! That blippin’ lad’s blippin’ obsessional!’ mocked Phiz. And the other two tittered behind their none-too-clean fingers.
‘ Bog off!’ he hooted. ‘ Keep your soddin’ beaks shut or else!’ He couldn’t wait to start another list. He hurried to his room and found an old brown envelope, and after a lot of hassle and swearing under his breath he retrieved the one-and-only surviving communal biro which had rolled under the bed. He started on another list for the next time he went shopping, headed ‘spagetty.’ He was starting to sweat. Time passed too quickly for the one who did the shopping, who didn’t often do the housekeeping, (whatever ‘housekeeping’ was,) who was supposed to be the organiser. (Whatever that was!) When he went down again Phiz had trodden a biscuit into the crumby old carpet. He was falling about, pissing himself giggling, like a silly schoolgirl. Smack began to see red behind his eyes as he always did when he was thrown out by aggravation and change, and when his arrangements were criticised.
‘What’s the huge shittin’ joke? How about clearing up that fucking mess?’ he shouted, knowing that Phiz would take no notice; that he’d only done it to rile him and cause aggravation. Oh, anything at all to stir the sticky muddle of flat grey boredom that stood in for Phiz’s brain!
‘Watch out, lads! Smack’s working up to one of his paranoid fits!’ spluttered Phiz. Smack said nothing, but made a little noise in his throat halfway between a grunt and a sigh. Then he found the brush and carefully swept up the crumbs while the others watched him, sniggering.
It was time for Smack to wash the dishes; to unblock the drain; to mop up where someone had vomited; where someone else had splattered beer all over the wall. Then time to change, time to get ready. Time to catch up with the others. Time? Time? There was all the time I n the world! Wasn’t there? No! .No! Not really. There was no time at all!
‘C’mon, Smack! Time to hit the town!’
‘Just coming! Wait for me! I’m nearly ready.’
The time was three in the morning when the boys got home. Early Saturday morning. Smack had had enough booze – and nearly enough skunk to make all his bad problems – and the very recent lesser ones like the spaghetti and the squashed biscuit – feel far away, less threatening. He curled up in his cocoon of blankets and slept in his clothes, snoring. When he woke it was two in the afternoon. What a lot of time he’d wasted! His head ached, his mouth tasted sour and his crotch and armpits stank. Better put ‘wash’ on the list, he thought, straight on waking. Wash. Find soap somewhere. Not from the Churchill again. Anyway, their soap smells pouffy. Spaghetti …wash sweater – It might fall to pieces .but it pongs. It really does. I’ll have to risk it.
Smack gazed out at the brown pasture of the garden below him.
‘If only I had some tools I’d love to do some gardening,’ he told himself as he did every time he got up.
Smack walked down the road towards the new shopping centre. It could have been the suburb of any large British city – you name it – Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, London or Glasgow. Only it happened to be Oxford. Highly civilised; one of the chief intellectual centres of the world. This was Headington; another part of this famous city- this street not so salubrious – old women in headscarves wheeled battered trolleys, looking down at the pavement; young ones, mostly in saris or with Muslim headdresses on, British Home Stores coats bundled over the Lurex, pushed prams packed with babies and dangling with carrier bags, scolding their toddlers who dawdled behind them. Old men in raincoats shuffled their feet in shop doorways, keeping their distance from the gangs of youths who leaned provocatively up against walls gaudy with graffiti or lounged on the steps of the war memorial. Little Eastern children, penned inside windows, twitched net curtains and then turned away and giggled. Smack did a side-step to avoid a couple of Rastafarians who would have bumped into him, looking for trouble. On his own, Smack was vulnerable. It was alright when he was a part of a gang – with Jez and Phiz and Bam and the rest of their mates to reinforce him. They all wore the same badge – an identical uniform – heads shaved to baldness each side with a Mohican comb on the top which was dyed different bright colours. They all wore black jackets or jerkins the back of each was cryptic with symbols. Skulls, death, flames. parodies of crosses were displayed on each back, together with the names of pop groups that mirrored the symbols – Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Sisters of Mercy, Motorhead, Killing Joke. Names that proclaimed some kind of poetry and drama; words that shouted decadence, paradox, black magic and anarchy – a welter of inner life erupting in the mean, every-day streets off Cowley Centre. Round their hips, low-slung like holsters, they sported black-studded belts. They wore bracelets to match, and they jingled with earrings and nose rings. Twelve-hole Hitler- style boots were laced on their feet – over socks that had once been fluorescent pink or blue.
Rubbish crackled under Smack’s boots as he went – cigarette cartons, sweet wrappings. He kicked the odd empty can of lager or Coke. His pace quickened as he passed a gang of Mods – little boys mostly; hair cropped short like convicts and wearing green Parker jackets, far too big for them. Small they might be, but Mods were aggressive, unlike Punks, Smack knew; and he was on his own and they were strong in number. They belonged to a different and therefore hostile tribe in this strange world of the unemployed. All waiting for something to happen – something – just anything at all – to relieve the boredom of nothing to do….
And nothing much did happen unless it was made to. Which was easiest achieved by shouting provocation, by stirring up trouble. That’s assuming you really wanted anything to happen!…Just something…anything at all…but nothing is safest…
Smack reached the safety of Sainsburys. It was vast and bright and spotless in there. He made straight for the bin of dented cans with their cheerful orange Special Reduced price tickets. Rice pudding, cat food, tinned peaches …he leaned down and rooted around in the holy unlucky dip till he found two tins of spaghetti that looked as if they’d been kicked round the precinct in a fit of rage. (Perhaps they had!) He noted their price and then walked back to the orderly, decorous shelves where the tins were stacked up and perfect. The two bashed ones came to a bit more than one of the extra-large intact ones. Two small ones wouldn’t do for all of them. But one large one would be wasted if Phiz got hold of it first. Yes – Phiz would guzzle the lot, wouldn’t he, the greedy bastard!? Smack went back to the bin and found four bashed-up tins. Then he got a rather bent sliced loaf, reduced price and biscuits on special offer. He selected a till with a new girl; not one of the usual middle-aged biddies with too much makeup and a grey ridge of hair at the parting where the dye didn’t seem to meet her head and who always seemed to sniff at his purchases. This girl had long shining hair, newly washed – Smack thought he could smell it, fresh like a meadow. She had pale, disdainful features like a carved saint in church –like the Virgin Mary. Her hands, playing the cash desk keys like a piano, were narrow, long-fingered with pink, unvarnished nails, half-moons their only decoration. She wasn’t your usual supermarket bitch at all, thought Smack. Probably she was one of those snooty posh college girls slumming it – doing a vac job for pin money and to add real-life experience to her sociology essays. Smack was too shy to chat up the girls like Phiz did.
She clocked up five ninety-eight p, Smack staring at her, willing her to notice him. She looked up and smiled, glad of a change from harassed housewives grumbling.
‘You’re not a very smart shopper, are you? You’d have done better to get own brand,’ she scolded him.
‘Would I? You’re new here, aren’t you? ‘
‘Yep. But I shop myself. I have to eat, you know.’
The woman behind him coughed impatiently and shoved her wire basket into his back. The girl grinned again at Smack. Smack blushed. He felt the colour rising. He took his time putting his stuff into a battered carrier bag that he kept in his back pocket.
‘I’ll remember about the own brand – seeya.’
Her smile and the warmth in her eyes switched off at once for the coughing, impatient woman behind him.
Sainsburys suddenly turned into a rosy, cheerful paradise! Smack didn’t want to leave it. At the automatic doors he turned again to see her. She was still looking. She waved the tips of her fingers at him – a tiny, intimate gesture. Smack collided with an old dear, upsetting her basket. She swore at him.
‘Sorry, Ma’am.’ Smack bent at once to pick up her things. He put the cake mix, frozen sausages, custard packets and peas back in her basket with a flourish. The old dear softened, grinning with ill-fitting dentures.
‘Ta, ducks. Look where you’re going next time.’ He flashed her a winning smile. The world was a great place! A blackbird shouted its head off behind Boots the chemists. Smack gave it a thumbs-up and whispered Hi to it.
Smack strode back to his digs, feeling like a king. The fug in the communal room was thick and blue. It stung his eyes.
‘Aw Jesus! What a den! How about opening a window?’
‘Where’s that blimmin’ spaghetti?’ demanded Phiz, who was on his own in there, his lips hardly moving because of his roll-up. ‘Leave that fucking window alone! We don’t want to freeze. Fresh air never did no one no good, my Ma told me. Aw, them tins’ve been abused –maltreated! Gotten paranoid with ‘em, have yer? Oh well – where’s the bleeding tin opener?’
Sweat started to break out on Smack’s upper lip. He saw red behind his eyes.
‘Where’s the others? Hey – leave us some of that!’
But Phiz was ladling it all into his mouth, straight from the tins. The cooker wasn’t working.
‘Dunno where they’ve got to. Don’t care either. You should’ve got some more tins, shouldn’t yer!’
Smack was starving. Then he remembered his lists.
‘It’s OK – Nah, don’t fancy it anyway. Not in them tins – might get food poisoning.’
Smack sprinted upstairs to start a new list. He rescued an old paper bag, smoothed out its crumples. He found his biro. Sighing with contentment he underlined the title: Shoping. Monday.June the ? Spaggetty Own speshul brand. He underlined this carefully as well, and decorated it with complicated asterisks. Then he wrote: Wash sweater. Bath. Get soap. He paused and contemplated, chewing his pen. Look up that bird again. He doodled in elegant arrows so that it read: Get soap. Bath.
Smack ambled over to the window and looked out. If only I had some tools – just a fork and a trowel, I could do some gardening, he told himself. Long rows of veggies, onions, carrots, leeks and spuds and then a border of the most elegant, conventional summer flowers could blossom here – hollyhocks and scented stocks – lupins, forgetmenots, lobelia and some dandelion-y flowers (cum weeds) called Little Lions – then an endless row of dope poppies, crimson and scarlet; still flashing their red danger signal to anyone coming along that road – then the odd line of Marijuana – Dope, Grass, Blaze, Boom Stinkweed – call it what you will – beautiful or stinkingly ugly – scattered here and there amid the confusion of other growths– and finally something even more threatening – even darker – grew taller and taller; gigantic, monstrous, spread inside, flaunted itself before crushing itself on the ceiling and then running riot inside his head.
Five short stories read on BBC Radio 4. One recently in the magazine Scribble. Big family.
If you enjoyed Smack, leave a comment and let Sarah know.
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