On a bold indigo morning, when the picketed moon fades to chalk, there’s a place you can go where in one flicker of a fuse you might see a plane, a train, a seagull searching for scraps; or hear a baby cry and a police siren scream and a stream of cars pour down the carriageway as kids dodge between to reach the central reservation.
As you dip below the underpass with its bonkers graffiti, you come to a river running left to right, passing below you from upon the bridge. Looking up river, after a night’s heavy rainfall, you could see a shopping trolley perched in the reeds, and a stork standing sentry, motionless, while the water runs between its stick legs. Peering downwards there’s a family of ducks bobbing in the froth and the rush, not quite sure which side of the stream to take. Appearing just beyond the river’s edge, underneath the low trees and the single street light, huddle four boys amidst the morning dew and the dog shit.
The first one wears a big black bubble jacket, hood pulled up and zip tight to his eyes. Thick rubber boots toe bung a stone at the kid opposite; Billy. Billy’s nearly thirteen but with his new haircut makes a more likely eight, and has the black under-eye rings of a boy who dreams all night of robbing banks.
‘Fuck you,’ he sputters as the stone twats his shin, very aware of the extra-large brown plaster splayed across his own nose. Stood next to him, back straight, is Stevie, looking up at the street light. He’s smart, clean, a little chubby and soon to be soiled by these morning chats.
‘The bed was bangin’, all night,’ says Clayton, combing his hair, drawing out the last two words for effect. He stands, almost twice as tall as Billy, with hands stuffed in his silver reflective coat like a teenage astronaut.
‘What were they doing?’ asks Stevie, innocently, riveted by the streetlight.
‘Having a race,’ says the boy in the black bubble jacket.
‘Where to?’ Stevie asks, scratching the back of his head.
‘They were shagging like rabbits Stevie!’ splurts Clayton with joy.
‘Oh,’ says Stevie and waits, listening to the cars race to beat the red light on the carriageway. He thinks, and as the silence grows and his stomach twists, inquires again.
Billy and Clayton look to the boy in the bubble jacket who skims a wink from inside his deep hood.
‘Shagging Stevie,’ barks the boy in the black bubble jacket, ‘When your mum bounces on the bed with a man to see who breaks it first.’
‘And they scream harder, HARDER!’ inserts Clayton.
Billy giggles looking shyly at his shoes, but the bubble jacketed boy and Clayton stand impassive.
‘Shagging,’ repeats Stevie, as if the pieces of his Spiderman jigsaw just fell into place, ‘My mum and dad do that every Saturday morning.’
‘That’s the one Stevie, you should ask if they need a hand next time you hear it.’
Stevie considers it, turning from the street light as the morning begins to brighten. ‘Right,’ he says, ‘I might do.’
Billy pisses his sides, but Dedrick, the boy in the black bubble jacket, kicks another stone at him with his rubber boots that cracks his shin like a corporal’s whip.
‘Ahh you dick,’ screams Billy, rubbing his skinny leg.
‘Now,’ declares Dedrick, ‘Old Man Morley’s become an even bigger twat than normal.’ The recruits look up promptly. ‘Last week when we were playing football here, he came past and said he’s gonna put a fork in the ball if we hit his wall one more time.’
‘Fucking ball,’ interrupts Clayton, ‘he said he’s gonna put a fork in the fucking ball.’
‘That’s right,’ concedes Dedrick with a distinct nod of the head, ‘he swore as well, which means an even bigger forfeit for him.’ Dedrick had been in love with forfeits ever since he was schooled in the art one summer back in Jamaica, and carried the idea to London like a relic to remind himself of home.
‘I’ve got five pound fifty,’ he says, jingling his hand in his pocket, ‘and if you’ve got three of the finest English pounds between you then we can get one whole packet.’
The cars on the carriageway beyond the trees seem to come to a halt and a hush breaks out between the gang. Billy looks down as Dedrick rolls his right boot over another stone and so furiously fishes in the front pocket of his rucksack. Clayton pulls out a note.
‘I’ve got a fiver but I want some change.’
‘Fiver?!’ cries Billy, ‘Where the fuck d’ya get that?’
‘My mum’s purse, obviously.’
‘What’ve you got Billy?’ asks Dedrick, still staring from the hood.
Billy rattles a handful of change and reveals twenty six pence in coppers.
‘Got this,’ he ventures, holding out his pale hand.
Dedrick looks down at his boot ready to unleash another shot but stops, realising Billy’s usefulness goes beyond financial contribution. ‘That’ll do soldier,’ he says scooping up the pennies, ‘that’ll come in very handy indeed,’ before turning to Stevie.
‘I’ve got a couple of pounds.’
‘Not bad,’ says Dedrick.
‘You sure? What’s it for?’ he asks.
Dedrick looks over both shoulders and then upstream towards the stork, noticing how it stands frozen as a stalagmite.
‘What’s it for?’ asks Stevie again.
He turns and sees the gentle desperation in Stevie’s eyes, before delivering the words, ‘Fireworks Stevie.’
All day the temptation to tell someone outside the gang about the plan was huge, but the consequences of revealing the knowledge to an uninitiated civilian were potentially lethal. Since Dedrick joined the school on that cold October morning, the four of them were inextricably drawn to one another, like four loose fragments waiting to find a common soul (Stevie being the last wisp to trickle into the brigade). And though they differed in opinion, and clearly the levels of hierarchy prevented there ever being equality in the group, they shared an unspoken principle- that one should find ways to entertain oneself.
So the possession of such an aim led to a torturous notion – that they had stashed a box of eight Premium Deluxe Nightcrackers in the bush near where the ducks were bobbing that very morning and they couldn’t breathe a breath about it to anyone. Billy nearly let it slip in the bogs when Danny Johnson caught him laughing in the mirror to himself, ‘What you laughing at Bilbo? Can’t believe how ugly you are still?’
Billy had heard that the only way to stop yourself from telling a secret was to bite your tongue, and so backed into the corner with the stench of boys’ piss flooding his plastered nose, he clamped his tongue and grinned back at Danny Johnson, nodding into the mirror as the taste of blood dripped into his throat.
For the other three not one drop of the plan was even close to being spilt. They passed each other in the corridors and the canteen, and even sat next to each other in English. But the look on Dedrick’s face was a clear reminder that to go coughing up now would result in not only the standard punishment of beatings, but an extra forfeit that even Clayton wasn’t curious to learn of. At the three o’clock bell they calmly closed their English books and packed their bags, except for Stevie who was so excited he dropped his colouring pencils all over the floor. They filed out the classroom, ensuring best behaviour all the way to the gate (so not to risk collecting a detention for some wasteful misdemeanour). Best behaviour to the gate.
They each had a role assigned. Clayton was Penny Thrower. Being the tallest he could also run the fastest and throw the furthest so, with Billy’s collection of coppers he was designated the task of lobbing the ammo at Old Man Morley and baiting him in for the chase. Once Old Morley started after Clayton, he would leg it in his silver reflective jacket through the underpass and back round behind the low trees where he could watch the next stage unfold.
At this point the old man would come face to face with the duet of Stevie and Billy crooning in his path with the chant of ‘Morley, Morley, this is gonna make you poorly.’ They were the Singing Distractors. The potential flaw in the plan was that Morley would be so enraged by Clayton’s copper penny chucking that he would brush past Stevie and Billy, who, even though they had perfected the song to an unsurpassable level of annoyance, may not have had the physicality to deal with the ageing yet wiry old codger. So this is where the boy in the bubble jacket stepped in. He was going to twat the ball at Morley’s wall with such force, screaming ‘Morley you old cunt!’ for good measure, that doubtless the pensionable rotter would turn to see what all the commotion was. The time it would take for Morley to work this all out in his grinding brain was just enough for Dedrick to duck round the wall and set the final act in motion. And for this he called himself The Firestarter.
That morning, just after they had stashed the Deluxe Nightcrackers, they each chose a pile of dog turd from under the trees where they huddled, that they in turn used an inside-out plastic bag for to pick up and deliver to the bottom of the hedge next to the fireworks horde. They would then, as Stevie’s Casio turned to 3:15, heave the four poos together in the bag in one go, Billy on one handle, Stevie on the other and they would dump the heavy load just round the corner from Morley’s wall where the Firestarter eagerly waited with a firework behind each ear, one between his teeth and another tucked in his belt for luck. As the now solid brown mass was presented to the perfect spot, the Firestarter would carefully place each of the four Premium Deluxe Nightcrackers at the optimum angle for maximum scatterance. Billy and Stevie would return to their place behind the bush and await Clayton’s kick-off with the copper pennies.
And then they waited. The Casio read 3:16. Everything was in place but no sign of Morley. Hand signals were sent from each lookout point to keep calm. Sit tight. 3:17. An old woman appeared in the underpass wheeling her shopping trolley behind her. If she didn’t get a wriggle on she might ruin the whole operation. Billy broke rank and stepped out.
‘Do you need a hand?’
Dedrick’s blood rushed to his face at the sight; helping old ladies was so far beyond the gang’s remit he thought he was going to vomit.
‘RECRUIT!’ bawled Dedrick, ‘Morley’s been spotted, back to position.’
The old lady was left bewildered by the thoughtful young man’s offer which was just as swiftly retracted on his disappearance back behind the bush. She kept on her steady way up the path singing an old cockney song about kind young men.
Then Morley tottered into view. His afternoon trip to the bookies had been eventful. He was up sixteen quid from the 1.10 at Cheltenham. A tip from Blind Dave had come up trumps and so he wagered half of his winnings on the poker machine. But like yesterday, and the day before, and pretty much everyday for the last three months ever since they’d installed the shiny new machine, Morley lost most of what he’d won that day along with any optimism too. ‘Fucking thing’s rigged,’ he grumbled as he stomped across the bridge.
Although Morley’s moods were mostly dictated by his success in the bookies, the sight of no kids playing football against his wall was one of his biggest joys. The constant thud of leather on wall when he was trying to watch Countdown had turned him into a manic cunt, and he blamed his growing gambling addiction on these little bastards who felt no fear from his threats. He often lay awake at night with the phantom sound of a football being booted at his wall. It reminded him of the dull explosions still fixed in his memory from the term he served in the Falklands. It gave him the shakes.
As he crossed the bridge that afternoon squinting in the late sunshine, he realised his wall was free from intrusion. A smile crawled across his face as he began to day dream of sitting in front of the telly, with a good brew, and the pleasure of sipping the steaming tea uninterrupted with a plate of digestives at his side. His smile grew even wider, the sun now glinting off his false teeth. ‘Two or three digestives?’ he thought, ‘Three’s the magic number!’ He licked his lips at the thought when without warning he received a terrible smack to the back of the head, sending him lurching forward and stumbling across the bridge. ‘What the…?’ he thought, just as another colossal whack was delivered to his head.
Dedrick observed the events from his corner, delighted that he had chosen Clayton for this position. Clayton then ran past Morley, launching the rest of the shrapnel at the old man’s head, landing a high percentage and even drawing blood from his temple with one severe shot. Morley turned with an unremembered rage, the shock sending him into a frenzy of spit and danger. He stood like a shaking rock as he watched the lanky, silver coated hooligan disappear through the underpass, realising that he would never catch this symbol of untaught youth.
Just then, the two waifs Stevie and Billy jumped in front of him like red rags, his eyes widening at the thought of a good clout to the back of both their heads. A tuneless serenade sprang from their mouths and he realised they were singing his name, goading him, asking him to strike at their silly little faces. He felt like a giant about to claw at these miniature creatures when months of nightmares collided, scorched, and exploded, in one titanic whack of leather off wall.
The smack echoed down the underpass and the carriageway was once again silent as all form of life seemed to stop. He turned bitterly, waiting to see the boy in the black bubble jacket.
‘Morley you old cunt’ whispered the boy, and as Morley spun round it was indeed the boy in the black bubble jacket stood there, as he knew it would be.
They stood face to face in the late afternoon sun, a deep respect almost creeping in to both figures.
‘Fuck you,’ said Dedrick, then he scarpered round the corner, backing up against the hard brick where he breathed a long, deep breath. One to settle the nerves. From in his right school trouser pocket he brandished the Clipper lighter, sparked it up first time and lit each firework in one smooth arc. They sizzled and crackled. The instructions said the countdown was eight seconds. He counted, taking backward steps with each second, never removing his eyes from the corner where he needed Morley to appear.
‘Four Mississippi, Five Mississippi, MORLEY!!’
On Six Mississippi, just as doubt began to dance in Dedrick’s soul, Morley’s raging face yanked round the corner to leave an unyielding second where everything froze but for the smoking fuses which wafted up his nose, triggering a flashback of that bloody battle in San Carlos. And half a second to look into the eyes of the Firestarter.
The four Nightcrackers erupted in symmetry; one unified, glorious unfurling of turd and firework. The rockets shrieked skywards, launching a tirade of shit straight towards its target. The brown muck landed; splattering the old man’s face, his coat, his hair, his eyes, even the old man’s false teeth took a coating, while a shower of pinks and blues and purples flickered in the sky. Dedrick stood there with the pride of a leader who had just witnessed his empire succeed over the most hardy of barbarians.
‘Where’s your fucking fork now?’ he spat with venom, before spinning on his heel and pegging it up the river path past the shopping trolley and the stork, leaving Old Morley hunched and defeated, wiping the filth from his face.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
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