Conkers by Laurence Edmondson

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It was the autumn of 1996. The rust-crowned sycamores and horse chestnuts of Thornton-in-Craven were bathed in a thick morning mist. A light frost kissed the windowpanes of the old houses and bungalows, and the sheep of the surrounding farmland shuffled invisibly about the damp, sloping fields. Behind the woods to the north of the village stood the old limestone quarry, abandoned and flooded since the 1930s; to the south, the former railway line, now little more than a rude, overgrown footpath, trailed off all but forgotten into the hushed expanse. Through the centre, the car-swept hum of the A56, insisting on Thornton its unrelished standing as a commuter thoroughfare, cut the dozing parish air in two.

Halfway down Booth Bridge Lane, which stooped south from the main road until it levelled out at the cricket pitch, was Queens Garth, a cul-de-sac of eight small pebbledash houses. At its far end, with littered lawn and uncut hedges, stood Thornton’s last remaining council-owned house, out of which now stepped the heavy-browed, round-shouldered fifteen-year-old, Paul Dowell.

Paul stopped in front of the gate to fasten his coat, and as he fumbled with the half-broken zip the door of the house reopened. ‘Ang on,’ said Karen Dowell. ‘Don’t just sneak off – come ere.’ Paul gave up on the zip and went to his mother, a small, gaunt woman in her late thirties, wrapped in a red dressing gown. She handed him a five-pound note. ‘Go to’t Co-op after you’ve been to see Malcolm,’ she said. ‘Get some bread and milk. And summat for tea.’

‘Areight,’ said Paul, stuffing the note into the pocket of his jogger bottoms.

‘And promise me you’ll go.’

‘I will.’

‘Don’t just piss about all day.’

‘I won’t!’ Paul scowled.

‘Cause if I ear from im that you’ve not bin round…’

‘Fuckin ell!’ said Paul, walking away.

Malcolm Laycock was an old acquaintance of Karen Dowell’s who owned a small shed makers two miles away in Earby. In a fit of exasperation she had called him up the previous afternoon. ‘E’s not goin to school any more, y’see,’ she had said in a contrite tone, ‘an e just needs summat to give im – e just needs a bit o purpose. E’s a strong lad, I’m sure e can elp you out…’ A lengthy silence had followed, then Malcolm Laycock had sighed and said, ‘Alright Karen, send im over. I can’t promise owt though.’

Paul stopped outside the garages at the corner of Queens Garth. His usual route to Earby was to descend Booth Bridge Lane then trail west along the railway line, but it was only eight o’clock and it seemed silly to go over there so early. He made one more concerted attempt at his coat zip, gave up, then turned right and started uphill.

He arrived at the lamplit main road and looked across at the dozen youths standing at the bus stop, waiting to be taken to their schools a few miles away in Skipton. Through their coats he glimpsed their uniforms: the dark blue blazers and colourful ties of the grammar school, and the burgundy round-neck sweatshirts of the comprehensive, the same school from which Paul had been expelled six months earlier, for ‘persistent absence and a fundamental refusal to apply himself.’ Those had been the words of the headmaster, but Paul, and even more so his mother, believed it had more to do with the infamy left behind by his older brother Liam, who was in prison for grievous assault, and a bias that this had created against the family.

He walked along the pavement, staring across. He saw his neighbours, David and Hannah Williamson, both notice him then avoid his gaze, while a trio of the village’s older teenagers, James Parker, Louise Bradley and Vicky Sheridan, all tracked him with indifferent eyes in a break from their conversation. Next to them, two young grammar school boys, Jonathan Stott and another whose name Paul didn’t know, were immersed in a game of conkers. Paul watched Jonathan dangle his conker on its string as the other boy took aim and struck, making unsatisfactory contact and letting out a yelp of frustration that dissolved under the noise of the passing cars.

Paul moved on until he was walking under the chestnut trees that separated the A56 from Old Road. He looked over the roadside fence at the grass verge scattered with fresh conkers, and in a sudden neat motion, vaulted over it. He picked up and opened a conker, examining the hard brown shine of the nut in one hand while thumbing the silken inner lining of the shell in the other. He dropped the nut into his coat pocket and began scouring for more, only stopping to pick up the bigger ones. Soon he heard the school bus trundling past and he smirked at the idea of those boys, Jonathan and his little mate, having to go and be told what to do all day while he was free to claim all the village’s best conkers. And he didn’t even play conkers!

When both his coat pockets were full, he skidded to the bottom of the verge and hopped onto Old Road. He strolled downhill, peering through the tall gates to the houses, coming almost to a halt outside the two drives that had sports cars in them. After the last house Paul entered a field which, when he was in the middle of it, seemed to be as cloudy and silent as the sky. He reached a fence and climbed into another field, then cut diagonally across it in the direction of the railway line, using the peak of the Halliday’s house, formerly Thornton’s station building, as a beacon through the mist.

He climbed over a stone wall into the narrow strip of undergrowth that ran between the cricket pitch and the Halliday property. In the far corner of this section he eyed a wide, square pile of sheet metal, and automatically headed towards it. He stepped on top of the metal sheets, took out a conker, then cocked his arm and fired it violently downwards, watching the conker rebound with a loud lingering clang. He did this another time, and then another and another, exploring the parameters of this new pursuit, angling his throws to see how far he could make the conkers bounce away.

‘Oi!’ came an irate voice from the adjacent garden.

Paul was startled. He had not expected Mr. Halliday, a man of business, to be home at this time on a Monday. He hopped off the pile and started moving on.

‘What the bloody hell are you doing?’ demanded Mr. Halliday.

‘Nowt,’ said Paul.

‘That’s my property you’re wrecking there!’ the man was close to the fence now, his livid face jutting out from a starched, salmon-pink shirt, his voice at an enormous volume.

‘Not doin owt,’ said Paul.

Yeah, yeah…’ Mr. Halliday’s face contorted in elaborate bitterness. ‘Not my fault, blah blah. You’re scum. That’s what. Scum. And if I see you doing anything like that again I’m going to break your neck. Is that clear enough?’

‘Dint fuckin do owt,’ muttered Paul before skulking through a gap in the shrubs.

Paul had witnessed quite a few Halliday outbursts over the years – there was practically nobody who hadn’t been on the end of one at some time or other – but through them all he had never heard the man call anyone else ‘scum’. In his manner with Paul there was always something more than the short-temper and loud histrionics for which he was renowned throughout the village, and it felt clearer now than ever what that was: a pure and unreserved hatred. This notion pressed unhappily on Paul as he started along the coarse path of the railway line. Just because he was poor, just because he’d been expelled from school, just because his brother had done what he’d done, it meant that he could be treated worse than the rest, that he could be called ‘scum’ just for existing. Paul kicked out angrily at a loose stone and it shot into the shrubbery. It wasn’t right. He’d lived every day of his life in Thornton; he was as much a part of it as anything, and he shouldn’t have to be talked to like that, especially not from some crackpot businessman who spent two months a year in Barbados.

He was halfway to Earby before the tight feeling of injustice had eased and he was able to start enjoying his walk. There was nobody who knew this path better than he did. Even before his expulsion he’d walked it almost every day, whether he had anything to do in Earby or not; and over the past six months he’d been known to walk it up to three or four times in one morning, just going back and forth, patrolling the line, sometimes to get out of his mother’s hair, but sometimes just because he liked it. It was his territory, this bracken-walled corridor. His knowledge of it was unrivalled. Nobody else knew with certainty which was the best tree to stand under when it rained; nobody else would have found the sheep skull he’d once stumbled upon in the long grass by the fence; nobody else (well, there was one unknown other) had any idea about the little soft-floored nook in the bushes that you could squeeze into and hide, in which he’d once found a stowed away copy of Men Only. Nobody else, probably ever, had walked this line as much as he had, and he had the physique to show for it. He had been proudly alert to his thick, muscular legs ever since he had been to see the doctor in the summer, and the doctor had said they were the strongest calves he’d seen in a long time.

The mist had begun to clear when he emerged in Earby. He strolled past the faded blue walls of the plastic factory, past the dilapidated bus station and down the drab, quiet high street. He walked along a row of terraced houses, past the playing fields and onto a small industrial estate.

He approached an open entrance below a sign saying ‘LAYCOCK’S’. Inside he saw Malcolm, with his tall, broad frame and tufts of spiked, greying hair, deep in conversation with two workmen: a wiry, stern-faced man in his late thirties, and a bulky, red-cheeked twenty-year-old. They were standing around the foundations of a shed floor, and their speech and manner seemed tense, almost heated. Paul stood awkwardly in the doorway, shuffling the conkers in his pockets, until he was acknowledged.

‘Alright Paul, just gizza minute,’ Malcolm said abruptly. ‘Take a seat out there.’ As he spoke the other two men glanced at Paul, both appearing perplexed by his presence.

Paul stepped out to the white plastic chairs in front of the workshop and sat down. He sat there for a while, staring across the yard. He was becoming hungry, and had started to think about leaving when Malcolm appeared and sat heavily on the chair next to him with an amplified workman’s sigh.

‘Ow’s your mum?’ he said, lighting a cigarette.

‘She’s reight,’ said Paul. ‘Ser birthdy next week.’

‘Oh aye? Well wish er appy birthdy from me.’

Paul nodded.

‘And your brother?’ said Malcolm. ‘Bin to see im much?’

‘Went a few week ago.’

‘Ow’s e doin?’

‘E’s reight, e sez.’

‘Right, okay…good.’

Paul was relieved that Malcolm didn’t follow up the question. Liam had seemed like a different person when they had last visited him. It wasn’t just how much bigger and more muscular he had become – it was more something in his face and in his voice, something like he couldn’t even be bothered talking to them, like he wished they weren’t there. Paul had asked him a question about what it was like in prison and he’d just told him to shut the fuck up. On the bus home his mother had cried. He nearly had, too.

‘Anyroad,’ Malcolm was saying. ‘To be honest it’s ard coz I’ve not got much work goin.’ He paused, took a drag. ‘But, thing is, Adam’s goin on oliday in a coupla week, and the lad I ad elpin out last time’s gone AWOL, so…not promisin owt, but mebbe, if you wanna stick around this aft, watch ow things are done, elp us wi a few odd jobs an that – mebbe you could come in when Ad’s away… It’d only be two weeks like, but mebbe after that we’d ave a few more bits n bobs for you, you know, lookin to’t future.’

‘Yeah, areight,’ said Paul.

‘Right then,’ said Malcolm, flicking his cigarette away. ‘So I’ve got to make a coupla phone calls now, but just bear wimme and we’ll see. We’ve got a new stock o wood comin in this aft, you can definitely elp us out wi that.’

‘Areight.’

Paul sat on the chair and waited for Malcolm to come back, thinking of little other than his increasing hunger. After a while he got up and went inside. The other two men were busy at work, exchanging only a few curt, mumbled words. Malcolm could be seen in a small office room at the back, talking on the phone.

Paul hovered for a moment then said, ‘Just gonna get summat to eat.’

He rushed to Pickles’ bakery and had two meat and potato pies and a custard tart. Then he went into the Co-op and picked up a loaf of sliced bread, a four-pack of baked beans, two pints of milk and a packet of sausages. He slowed when he reached the alcohol aisle, his eyes running over the sleek bottles of vodka, rum and gin, and stopped on a blue bottle with the words Bombay Sapphire on its label. He remembered this one; he thought back to where he’d seen it before. Tony, the man who his mother had been seeing a while ago – the bald one who thought he was funny – he had once turned up at the house with a bottle like this and her face had lit up at the sight of it. ‘Ooh hoo!’ she had said. ‘Fancy fancy!’

The urge to steal the Bombay Sapphire and give it to his mother for her birthday flooded Paul’s being. His heart pounded as he took the bottle in his hand. It was too big for his coat pockets; even without the conkers it would still stick out of the top. He opened his coat and inspected the inside, but there was nothing that could feasibly hold the bottle, and after a quick test of the elastic waistband of his jogger bottoms, he regretfully put the bottle back on the shelf.

It weighed on his mind as he queued at the checkout. The fact was that he had never given his mother a birthday present before, and he had already told himself more than once that he should get her one this time, it being her first birthday since Liam had gone away. He stared at the kindly, pudgy-faced cashier as she scanned and bagged his items. He paid and moved on slowly to the exit, then stopped and looked back. The next customer appeared to be on familiar terms with the cashier, and a friendly chat had started up. Paul turned from the door and walked the long way around the shop to the alcohol aisle, forcing himself not to rush. He dropped a bottle of Bombay Sapphire into the plastic bag, turned on his heel, and walked the long way back.

‘Excuse me!’ he heard the cashier say as he went through the automatic door. ‘Excuse me!’

Clutching the bag to his chest he ran full pelt down the high street, his thick legs pumping, his coat flapping. He didn’t look back. He flew past the bus station, past the plastic factory, and onto the railway line. His throat burned, and he was almost certain he wasn’t being pursued, but there wasn’t much further to go to the security of the hiding place. He arrived at the spot and pulled his coat sleeve over his hand to draw open the gap in the bushes. He stooped through, cracking small branches on the way, and leant into the little cavern that opened up. He turned and eased onto his back with his knees raised, and there he lay panting, sweating, blinking up at the white of the sky through the bramble ceiling.

It was close to one o’clock when he crawled out and set off back to Thornton, still awash with the thrill of his crime. He gave Malcolm a passing thought, but didn’t regret abandoning him. It wasn’t as though the man had made any seriously promising offers, and besides, it was much more important now to get the bottle back and safe in his room.

His mood of exhilaration was pierced when he passed the immaculate, flower-lined driveway of the Halliday house. Feeling another hot flash of resentment, he approached, and with three deep snorts dug up a thick mouthful of phlegm and spat it over the gate, leaving a large pale splat that glistened on the tarmac. He whistled as he ambled back to Queens Garth.

‘Well?’ said his mother in the kitchen as he took the shopping out, careful to keep the blue bottle concealed in the bag. ‘How was it? Why’re you back so soon? Did e not ave anythin?’

‘Nah,’ said Paul, avoiding her eyes. ‘Said mebbe in a few week there could be summat, when one o’t others is away, but there were nowt today.’

‘And that’s all? So you’ll go back in a few weeks? When?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Whatya mean dunno?’ she said. ‘What’s that you’ve got?’

Paul had wrapped the plastic bag around the bottle and tucked it under his arm. ‘Nowt,’ he said, moving into the hallway.

‘What is it?’

Brushing past his mother without answering, Paul jogged upstairs to his room and closed the door. He put the bottle inside an old rucksack then dropped to the floor and stuffed it as far under his bed as he could. With a breezy air of accomplishment, he came back down to the living room and sat in front of the television. He flicked channels and deflected his mother’s questions until the phone rang and she went to pick it up.

‘Hello?’ she said. ‘Oh, hiya Malcolm, we were just talkin about you – y’alright?’

Paul rose from the sofa and headed for the kitchen.

‘Yes I ave – e’s ere now…’ his mother was saying. A conker jumped out of Paul’s coat pocket as he whisked it around himself. He stamped into his trainers.

Did you?’ he heard her say incredulously. Then at the top of her voice, ‘Paul! Paul!’ by which point Paul was out of the front door. He passed down the side of the house and vaulted the fence into the fields behind.

He didn’t bother running. There was no chance of her coming after him; she would just save it up for later. She would go off to work at four, where she would plan a speech, storing up all her anger about how she’d found him some work and he’d thrown away his chance, then she would come back at midnight and give it to him. ‘Yer gonna prove that headmaster right!’ she had shouted last time they’d argued about his future. ‘What kinda man d’ya think yer gonna be if you just keep sackin everythin off?

He stomped through the field. Nothing ever went easily for him. It all just ended with him being in trouble. It was at times like this that he felt a deep, silent conviction that the future held nothing to look forward to, nothing to work towards. Why, his instincts wanted to know, should he have to stick around at Malcolm’s all day? What was the point? What was the point in doing anything, in putting his mind or his heart into anything, when no matter what he did, there was never any reward, never any respect? Why couldn’t he be left alone? Why couldn’t they see that he just wanted to exist, to be free…and not have to do things people said, or get told he was doing something wrong, or, just…

FUCK OFF!’ he screamed at the sky.

He walked on in a straight line as a dismal emptiness took over. He walked through field after field until he could no longer recognise where he was. Part of him wanted to keep walking straight ahead, to not stop and just see what happened, but seeing a farmer glaring at him in the oncoming pasture put him off the idea, and he curved his path to the side. He kept walking. Joylessly he jumped a small stream, kicked dry cow dung into the air, threw conkers at a scattering flock of sheep. Eventually he heard the rumble of traffic, and his curved path alighted at the A56, at a point just outside the village. He scrambled through the thicket, crossed the road, and climbed into a steep section of woodland. He treaded up the hill until he arrived at the wire fence that overlooked the sleeping expanse of the old quarry.

He peered over the fence at the rockface that dropped fifty metres to a dark basin of water. He threw three conkers, one after the other, and watched them fall until they slapped silently into the pool. Then he filled his lungs and hurled down into the wide, empty gape another bellowed and unheard ‘FUCK OFF!

He slumped to the floor and leant forward, resting his forehead on the wire mesh of the fence. On the far wall of the quarry he saw a familiar protrusion in the rock, maybe ten metres above the water, and his mind passed back to the summer day four years previously, when he and Liam and Liam’s friend Andy had climbed up on top of it. They had squeezed through a gap in the barricaded entrance at the base of the quarry, wearing their swimming trunks under their clothes. It was a hot day, and they all sat next to the water, Liam and Andy drinking and smoking. There was a lot of laughter that afternoon, the two older boys full of humour and mischief, sometimes teasing Paul about his eleven-year-old body or his childish remarks, but mainly treating him near enough as an equal. Once they had climbed the rock and Liam and Andy were jibing each other to be first to jump into the water, Paul suddenly broke forward screaming ‘Come on then!’ and threw himself off before either of them. Eyes closed, he bombed through the warm air for what seemed like too long; but then came the hard smack of water on buttocks, the ice cool plunge, the frantic kicking up to the surface, and with it the whoops and hollers from the rock, before the others both jumped themselves. They called him ‘Chief’ for the rest of the day after that. He had never seen Liam so impressed. Andy was still calling him Chief the next time he saw him…

The afternoon light was fading. His mother would have gone to work by now. He stood up and walked slowly around the edge of the quarry, down the hill and back into the village. The school bus had been back through and when Paul returned to Queens Garth there were two boys, David Williamson and Jonathan Stott, still in their white school shirts, kicking a half-deflated football about on the tarmac in front of the garages. Arriving at his front door, Paul searched his pockets and discovered he had left his key inside when he had rushed out earlier. He checked under the doormat and in the gutter at the back, but no key had been left for him.

He went back to the garages and half-heartedly joined in on the game, knowing that within a few minutes David and Jonathan would both find a reason to go home. When that happened, and they started moving away with mumbled goodbyes, Paul reached into his pocket.

‘Oi Stotty,’ he said to Jonathan. ‘Want a conker? I’ve got a fuckin massive one ere.’

Jonathan peered uneasily at the conker in Paul’s hand. ‘Err, no thanks,’ he said, ‘it’s alright,’ and he moved off onto Booth Bridge Lane.

‘Fuck you then,’ said Paul, pelting the conker at Jonathan, narrowly missing his head and causing him to scurry around the corner. Paul looked to his side to see what David had made of it, but David had already reached the gate to his house.

It was getting dark. The lone streetlamp of Queens Garth flickered into life. There was nothing left to do but get on the railway line again, see if anything was going on in Earby. Some of his old schoolmates often hung around at the bus station there in the evenings. He could maybe cadge a cigarette, tell them about the Bombay Sapphire…

Down the lane he ambled, his mind a muddle of indignation and boredom. Soon he heard movements behind him and turned to see that he was being caught up by Marion Taylor-Smythe, a tall, lean woman of fifty, walking her Labrador.

‘Oh, hello there,’ she said, squinting at him in the dusk. ‘Paul, isn’t it?’

‘Areight,’ Paul nodded.

Walking together they exchanged comments on the chilliness of the evening, then Mrs. Taylor-Smythe said: ‘I see you walking around quite a lot, don’t I?’

‘Yeah,’ said Paul, ‘I’m always out. All’t time.’

‘And there’s nothing wrong with that,’ she said. ‘Nothing wrong with a bit of fresh air and exercise, is there?’

‘Yeah,’ said Paul. ‘I’m always doin it. Walk all day sometimes. Doctor sez I’ve got strongest legs e’s ever seen.’

‘Oh really?’ she said. ‘Well – that’s good.’

‘Yeah – e looked at em and e just sez like – there’t most muscly legs I’ve ever seen.’

‘I see, well…that’s impressive stuff.’

‘Yeah,’ said Paul.

They walked on as far as the cricket pitch. ‘Well Paul,’ said Mrs. Taylor-Smythe, ‘this is where Freddie and I turn around. What are you doing with yourself?’

‘Goin Earby,’ said Paul, bustling towards the opening of the railway line.

‘Oh really? But it’s a bit dark down there isn’t it…’ she said. ‘Okay then, well, take care!’

‘Seeya,’ he said over his shoulder.

While Freddie the Labrador fussed about for the most desirable tuft of grass on which to urinate, Marion Taylor-Smythe stood at the end of the lane and watched the round-shouldered boy march off into the narrowing darkness.

‘Ah, here’s something,’ she said later over dinner. ‘I spoke to that Dowell boy earlier – Paul. You know, from the council house?’

Rory Taylor-Smythe’s eyes narrowed slightly as he chewed a mouthful of asparagus. ‘That the one who mutilated the shopkeeper?’

‘No, no,’ she said. ‘That was his brother. This is the younger one.’

‘Right,’ he said, already losing interest. ‘And what were you doing talking to him?’

‘We crossed paths on our walk,’ she said. ‘And you know, he was quite…approachable, in his own way. He was almost – well, I can’t say sweet or anything – but, I mean, you’d think he’d be dreadful wouldn’t you? In the end it just made me wonder–’

But that was the end of the conversation, because Rory Taylor-Smythe had knocked his glass of wine over the table top, and Marion had to rush to the kitchen for a dishcloth. And by the time the mess had been cleaned up, neither of them could remember what they’d been talking about.

glasses

Laurence Edmondson

Laurence Edmondson grew up in the countryside of North Yorkshire and East Lancashire, received an MA in English Literature from Lancaster University, and has lived in Berlin since 2007. His work has appeared in Entropy, Fictive Dream, Bandit Fiction, the Rubery Book Award Anthology, and has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize.

Previous publications:
Milk Roll:
https://fictivedream.com/2018/08/26/milk-roll/?fbclid=IwAR39E6AXdtOdTdBkoGn-P3ZK7238ezOkXxbQ7UHRTrMY_k8h4USYippolVg

Some and Any:
https://entropymag.org/blackcackle-some-and-any-by-laurence-edmondson/?fbclid=IwAR1SDz3Dy38rtUG566VoDoh2z0GopyvklQwns1Putfgmm5BFuW_oxj87dZc

Centre of Attention:
https://payhip.com/b/QWFb

Laurence can be found on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/laurence.edmondson.7

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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