‘They stole it,’ she says, sitting up.
I reach up, put my hand to my face. Pinch the bridge of my nose, close my eyes tight and take in a deep breath through my nostrils. I’m tired. ‘Who stole what?’
‘My arm,’ she says. ‘Those bastards out there stole my arm.’
She nods towards her right arm, dangling from her shoulder, points to it with her other hand.
‘Who stole it?’
‘Those fuckers out there,’ she snaps. Hearing my mother swear like a docker still unnerves me. It doesn’t sound right. Ever since the stroke, it’s like some sort of filter has been removed.
‘The nurses? Why would they do something like that? They’re trying to help you.’
‘I don’t fucking trust them,’ she hisses. ‘Thieves and liars. Especially that one with the big nose.’
‘Mam,’ I say, and it comes out sounding like I’m telling my kids off. ‘You can’t say things like that. It’s not right, it’s rude.’
‘But she has got a big nose.’
She pouts like a child and for a moment I feel guilty. When I get home, I’ll talk about this to Sandra, and we’ll extract the humour from it, laugh a little at all the outrageous things she’s said, and I’ll feel guilty again. But it’s something we have to do. It helps me cope.
Sat there propped up in bed, wearing her pale blue nightgown, she looks shrivelled, helpless. Her white hair falls like avalanches over her shoulders. She’s not wearing any make-up. Thank god there are no mirrors. We’d really have a problem then.
‘When can we go home John?’ she asks.
‘Soon.’ My Dad’s name was John. He died five years ago.
‘And when are you going to go and get my fucking arm back?’ she snaps.
The sound of her raised voice still has the power to make me jump. I wait until she’s calmed down a bit before I speak again. ‘But you’ve still got your arm,’ I say pointing towards it. ‘It’s there Mam, can’t you see it?’
She looks at her arm, then at me, and then back at her arm again. She sighs, says, ‘Don’t be daft. That’s not my arm.’
‘Then whose arm is it Mam?’
She smiles, shakes her head. ‘That’s your Uncle Jeff’s arm you silly beggar.’
I pull my chair closer to the bed, reach over and take her hand – Uncle Jeff’s hand – and hold it. It feels cold, lifeless almost.
‘Sorry Mam,’ I say. ‘I’ll do my best to get it back for you.’
I’m stood on the corner of Shilton Gardens, looking at the shop and trying not to look suspicious, which is difficult since I’m wearing a big black puffa jacket and a rolled-up balaclava on the top of my head.
It’s getting late now, the shop will shut soon, so it’s nearly time to make my move. I keep checking my phone, and it’s ten minutes since I saw someone go in and come back out, so it’s now or never really. I dot my cig against the lamp-post and have a quick look around to make sure no one’s peeping out their window, and then I head across the road.
Here we go.
The bain won’t stop fucking screaming. Don’t know where he gets it from. He’s nowt like me. According to Mam, I didn’t say owt for years. In fact, at one point she took me to doctor’s because she was worried that there was summat wrong with me, like I was slow or deaf or summat. They did some tests and they all came back fine.
The week after the tests, and we’re at my Aunt Jan’s house, and we’re having Sunday dinner, and Aunt Jan’s keeps asking me if I want more mashed spud, and I keep shaking my head, but she keeps asking, and eventually I turn around say: ‘Fuck off, I don’t want any mashed spuds.’
Mam said she didn’t know whether to breathe a sigh of relief or clatter me around the head.
So yeah, he’s nowt like me.
I’m trying to psyche myself up but I feel fucking ridiculous. Me, wearing a puffa jacket I haven’t worn since back before Eminem had a beard, rolling the balaclava down over my face. I’m supposed to look scary, but I feel I’m wearing a shit Halloween costume.
I need to focus, get my shit together if I’m going to pull this off. In theory it’s simple, but the adrenaline’s kicking in now, so all the careful planning is dripping out of my ears.
Short, deep breaths. A bit of grunting and roaring, try and control the nerves.
I can do this.
Our lass is all right. Great with the bain. But she’s always banging on, there’s always fucking summat. Money usually. She knew the score when she got with me. There’s nowt out there for people like me. I didn’t want her to get pregnant. That was a decision she made. She could have got rid of it. Him. Could have got rid, but she chose not. I stuck by her. My mates said I was fucking mad.
‘Yer off yer fucking head mate,’ Mark said. Bit rich coming from a fucker who’s stoned most of the time, but there you go.
Push on the door and the bell tinkles as it opens. Take the knife from my pocket, ready to start throwing shit down, but there’s no one behind the counter. Fucking cheeseballs.
I look around, and then I hear a voice say: ‘I’ll be with you in a sec.’
Looking at the mirror above the door, angled to the back of the shop, I see Dimitri crouched down, putting some stuff on a shelf. Fuck’s sake. Put the knife back in my pocket. I figure that it’s best to whip it out in front of him. It’s okay, it’s okay. Improvise, adapt and overcome. Like the special fucking forces.
It was good for a bit. Mam was chuffed to fuck. She’d been at a loose end for as long as I could remember, ever since Dad walked out. Her daily routine involved supping cheap-shit wine and watching repeats of American soap operas and talk shows, so I think she was excited at the prospect of having summat to do on an evening other than pass out in a stupor.
Our lass managed to get herself a flat. Although officially I was still at Mam’s, I spent most of my time round at our lasses. She wasn’t too happy when the lads came around for a session, but I never complained when her mates came round.
We were skint, but we needed to kit the house out,so we went to Bright House, got a cooker and a telly and that. The terms were mental, like five quid a week for the rest of our natural lives, but we didn’t care. ‘We could all get blown up tomorrow,’ was the way our lass put it and she was right.
Dimitri gets up and comes over. ‘Alright mate?’ he says as he scoots behind the counter. He doesn’t clock the balaclava at first, and when he does, it’s like one of those YouTube videos where people record their mate’s reactions to eating a hot chili or summat.
I whip the knife out, all menacing and that. ‘Empty the fucking till,' I say in my best Christian-Bale-as-Batman voice.
I’m expecting him to do as he's told, but he’s frozen, on the spot. A big red flushed chili face. He’s staring at me, dead intense.
‘Put yer fucking hands where I can see ‘em,’ I bark. ‘Don’t be pressing any alarms.’
He puts his hands up, I’ve shocked him into action. Good. Just need him to empty the till so I can fuck off now.
The bain popped out, big, pink, round and loud. And there we were. Domestic fucking bliss.
Money was tight. Never seemed to be enough. Just the cost of the bain alone: prams, clothes, toys, all of that shit. Our lass started banging on at me to get a job, start earning. I tried explaining that I didn’t need to do that now that I was knocking a bit of weed out. But it wasn’t good enough. ‘You fucking smoke more than you earn,’ she said.
The letters came through the door, letters about the telly, the fridge, the fucking leccy bill. And all the time the bain is fucking screaming, and our lass is getting on me case and it’s like, fucking hell, when did all this creep up on me?
It all came to a head one afternoon when Mam came round. It was only half-two and she was half-cut already. She stumbled in through the front door, saying, ‘Where’s me bain? Where’s me bain?’
Our lass looked over at me and rolled her eyes. ‘Don’t fucking say owt,’ I said.
We’d finally managed to get the bain to sleep after feeding him, but Mam insisted on holding him. She kept banging on about it until our lass relented and fetched him into the kitchen. Mam took the bain, held him.
‘Aren’t you beautiful?’ she cooed.
Mam had a fag in her gob, crappy knock-off baccy, and as she spoke the end of it dropped onto the bain’s forehead.
The bain woke up immediately, screaming his head off, and then our lass started screaming, ran over and grabbed the bain off Mam. ‘What the fuck have you done yer stupid cow?’ our lass yelled, and this set Mam off roaring.
Our lass had the bain’s head until the running cold-water, while Mam’s sobbing, saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m fucking useless.’
I felt as though my head was going to explode. I walked into the living room. Stood in front of the big telly, the one that our grandkids will probably still be paying off long after we’re dead, and I kicked it, planted my foot right in the centre of the screen. The glass shattered and the telly rocked back and forth like a boxer reeling from an uppercut, tipped over onto the floor.
Next thing I knew, I’d smashed everything up. The table, the shelves, everything on them. Bits of glass and plastic everywhere.
Dimitri’s scooping the money into a small blue carrier.
‘Do you want the coins as well?’
I belt the counter with the butt of the knife, and he tips the shrapnel into the bag.
He seems to be taking forever, and with that, I hear the bell on the door go. I’m caught off-guard and I spin around to see who’s just walked in. And that’s all it takes. There’s an explosion somewhere off to the side of my head. The shockwave sends me careening into the spinning rack of birthday cards, which I take down with me. I look up to see Dimitri leaping over the counter, a small wooden bat in his hand. I hold up my hands to try and shield myself from the blows that rain down on me. I hear a sickening crack as one of my fingers bends back.
Eventually, Dimitri stops. I’m aware that there’s someone else near me. I hear Dimitri’s voice when he calls the coppers.
As we wait for them to arrive, Dimitri lifts my balaclava, exposing my face. Even though I’m bloody and bruised, he recognises me. He looks sad now, deflated.
‘Why?’ he asks me, shaking his head. ‘What the fuck was you thinking?’
‘I have absolutely no idea.’
First time I went into recovery, one of the guys in the circle described it as putting a massive beast to sleep. Kicking, I mean. He said once you got clean, this monster would hibernate, but it would keep growing. Every day you didn’t go to back, the beast would get bigger. And if you ever stumbled, dabbled, it would wake up, angry and hungry, and consume everything that you’d been building since quitting.
It was his fifth time on the merry-go-round, so he knew what he was on about.
I decided my own personal beast was a tiger – it had to be – and I’m thinking about it as I stand at the entrance of the crematorium.
On the way here, the taxi driver subjected me to a friendly prying. A light grilling. He had the broad strokes: he was taking me to the crematorium and I was wearing a suit; he just needed the finer details to fill in the rest of the picture.
‘No-one close, I hope,’ he said while flicking through his radio presets.
‘Dunno mate,’ I replied.
He shrugged his shoulders.
People were already beginning to drift in when he dropped me off, so I had a quick fag, thought about tigers for a bit, and made my way down the road towards the chapel. Someone had made the decision to extend the bypass just past Castle Hill, so the sound of cars whooshing past in the distance didn’t completely fade until I got near the room with the Book of Condolences. I briefly toyed with the idea of sticking my head in, but I hope to avoid as many people as possible. Besides, I’ve got nothing to write.
The sky is milky and grey, the sun is a cataract. A cold breeze ruffles collars and turns cheeks red. I squeeze past a couple of people to get into the chapel, an old dear and a crumbly gentlemen, both wearing their Sunday best, and they nod. Caught in the no-man’s land between recognition and bafflement. Although there’s something familiar about them, I have no clue who they are.
I make my way to the back and plant myself at the end of the pew. The chapel begins to fill up. It’s a good turn-out. There’s a low murmur of voices as people chat and greet each other, and then there’s a barrage of throats being cleared. The doors swing open. My brother is one of the pall-bearers, along with Pat and Phil, my Dad’s boozing buddies from way back, and my uncle Mick.
I don’t recognise the music that’s playing as they carry the coffin. I’m craning my neck to get a better look at Mark, our kid. He’s put a lot of weight on. They plonk the coffin down, and they drape a Hull City flag over it. Mark makes a big thing of putting a stuffed tiger, probably from his kids, on the lid of the coffin.
To this day, I don’t know what upset Dad the most: the day I told him I just wasn’t into football, or the day I wrote him a list of all the drugs I’d tried in the year leading up to my GCSEs.
A guy in a suit wanders up to the podium and starts to talk about Dad. How he was brought up in a house off Hessle Road with loads of love but no money; leaving school at fifteen to work on the docks; his beloved Hull City; how he met mam and settled down but still liked a drink, that kind of stuff. I struggle to keep up. I feel like an extra waiting for his name to pop up in the credits at the end of the film. I get a brief mention, but he spends most of his time talking about how much Dad loved his grandkids, and how much he loved Hull City football club, of course. I can see the back of Mark’s head. Unfortunately, he’s inherited Dad’s fat neck, and it jiggles as his head bobs. He could be crying or laughing; I can’t tell from this angle.
Just when I think it’s over, Mark gets up and reads something. It’s more stuff about his kids. I’ve heard second/third-hand that Dad mellowed and became a bit of a softie in his latter years, especially when it came to Jack and Holly, the kids. I’m overcome by an urge, a fantasy of making my way to the front to share some of my own memories. Like the time Dad decided to turf me out onto the streets after I dropped out of college in order to fully devote my time and efforts into the study of the effects of Class A drugs.
‘I’ll never forget his last words to me,’ I’d say, in conclusion. ‘The snarl on his face as he slung my bags out the front door and said: "Son, fuck off and don’t come back. The rest of your stuff is going in a skip."’
Mark wraps it up and takes his seat again. More music. It’s a Rod Stewart song, but I’ve got the synth refrain from ‘Dominator’ by Human Resource (12’ mix) stuck in my head. We all do the Lord’s Prayer, and then it’s over. For a moment, I think that I might have got away with it, that I might be able to slink off, but then I realise we all get funnelled out past the grieving family, my family. I get nervy and edgy, wait until most of the other people have filed out.
I look around the chapel, at the architecture that points all the stresses and forces of the structure upwards towards the sky, towards God, but I don’t feel anything, because I don’t believe in god.
In recovery, they always went on about ‘reconciling yourself to a god of your own understanding’, but I couldn’t get my head around it.
‘The way I figure it,’ I’d say, in between puffs on my fag, ‘If god does exist, then he has to be fundamentally unknowable in nature, beyond the capacity of human understanding.’
‘So, how do get around it?’
‘Let’s just say I’m agnostic for now and we’ll come back to it later.’
My brother spots me approaching and he runs over and hugs me. He’s big and cuddly and he makes my ear wet with his tears. He keeps saying things like, ‘It’s so good to see you’ and ‘I’ve missed you’ and ‘it’s been so long’ over and over again. He squeezes me.
When you start using, you keep a lid on things. Your feelings. That’s why you end up doing it for so long.
Eventually, he lets me go. ‘You look good,’ he says. ‘Really good.’
‘Thanks. Not looking bad yersen.’
Debbie, Mark’s wife, comes over and hugs me. I always got on with Debbie. She’s my age, went to my school. She knows what I’ve been through.
There’s a little old lady hanging about. It takes me a moment to realise it’s Mam. She doesn’t hug me. She doesn’t know what to say. Dad’s still got a hold over her. I remember once, on my third time through the merry-go-round, I tried calling her, on the advice of my counsellor. Part of making amends with everyone I’d wronged, or some shit.
Sat in an office, sweating like a bastard, I picked up the receiver and dialled. Dad answered. ‘Hello?’ he said.
‘Dad, it’s me.’
He hung up.
Mam, the survivor. It’s been that long since we’ve spoke, there’s nothing left to be said. ‘Good to see you Mam,’ I say, letting her off the hook.
‘You too,’ she says.
Mark, my brother, puts his arm around my shoulder. ‘What you doing now? After this, I mean,’ he asks.
‘Not a lot. Was just going to get the train.’
‘Where’s home now?’
‘Sheffield,’ I say.
‘We’re off to the pub, Half Way. You should come. Please. We need to catch up. Talk.’
It’s a bad idea. A couple of drinks; sometimes that’s all it takes to wake the beast. I should steer clear, but I feel compelled to go anyway. ‘The kids are staying with Debbie’s sister. We thought they were a bit too young for a funeral,’ Mark says. ‘You can jump in the car with us.’
I ride in the front. Debbie sits in the back with Mam. The sky has cleared, and even though it’s still chilly out, it’s nice to feel the sun on my face.
I rest my forehead on the glass. I close my eyes and think of tigers.
It’s Wednesday today.
I’ve been working for The Dosh Shop for about six months. Getting the job wasn’t part of some grand plan, some big career move. The last firm I worked for went belly up after being in administration for over a year, so I found myself in the position of having to panic-apply for a bunch of random jobs in the desperate hope that something, anything, would turn up. And The Dosh Shop was the first company – the only, in fact – to respond, so I sent in my CV, and a week later I was sat in a little room being grilled by the store manager and the area manager.
‘I’ve always been intrigued by the pawnbroking business,’ I said, lying through my teeth. ‘I want a career, not just a job.’
Although I’ve never been ‘career motivated’, I’ve always had a talent for blagging my way through interviews for some reason. It might be all the practice, I suppose; I’ve applied for a lot of jobs the past couple of years. Funnily enough, my ability to get a job is at total odds with my ability to hold one down. In most cases, I usually coast along for a while before something happens and it all goes tits up.
Sometimes, it’s a personal issue, a disagreement with a colleague or a superior, but usually it’s just some mad freak occurrence that catches me and everyone else around me off guard. Like a company going into administration. Or getting horribly drunk at a Christmas do and then assaulting the boss. Things like that.
Despite having borderline agoraphobic tendencies, I always seem to land retail jobs, or jobs that involve interacting with the public. As I’m getting older, my misanthropy and general bitterness is only increasing, so it’s difficult to reconcile my outlook with whatever it is my potential employers see when they make the decision to hire me. But one thing’s for sure, I know my way around a till. When it comes to floats, counts and transactions, I’m the man. The irony of always having worked with money while never having any of my own isn’t lost on me. It’s something I often joke about but seeing as I’m usually sobbing by the time it comes up in conversation, hardly anyone laughs when I do.
I’m currently operating at what I consider to be the optimum point on the new job timeline, a couple of months in. Competent enough to be given a degree of autonomy, green enough not to be given any responsibility. And I’m still learning stuff, which helps keep boredom and soul-crushing despair at bay. For now.
The Dosh Shop provides a range of services. Pawnbroking loans against gold and jewellery, buyback loans against consumer goods and electrical items, cheque-cashing, foreign currency exchange and international money transfers. I’m getting my head around it all, slowly. It’s not quantum theory obviously, but it’s complicated enough that I need to keep my wits about me at all times. Because everybody, whether overtly or covertly, is trying to have you over, get one up on you. So you hit the lists, the systems: is it a legit cheque? Is it fake gold? Is the game console working correctly? It’s a case of remembering all the steps, making sure you don’t skip any of the steps.
The shop is a small unit with cameras everywhere, so everyone feels hemmed in, claustrophobic, which makes everyone act as though they’re under suspicion, myself included. The atmosphere is a cross between a being in a dentist’s waiting room and a police cell, and all the reflective glass surfaces reflects all of your boredom and anxieties back at you. We tend to get busy on paydays - end of the month for most people – because everyone’s comes and gets their stuff back. And then we’re busy two days later when they’re pawning it back in again.
Because everyone is skint. And everyone is a little bit mad, desperate. Last year, I worked in a bookies for a bit. It was alright, but I got sick of it: the hopeless addicts, the punters who just couldn’t call it a day. And now, here, in The Dosh Shop, I’m having to deal with the people who can’t call it a day when it comes to credit.
Anyway, so like I said it’s Wednesday today, and it’s always Wednesday lately for some reason. I’m behind bullet-proof glass, and I’m squirting it with a blue liquid that reeks of vinegar, and then wiping it with kitchen roll. As well as being cold, Wednesdays are always slow, and they always have been in my experience.
Behind me, there’s a fifty-inch flat-screen telly embedded in the wall. It displays the news, all day every day. Wednesdays are no exception. I spend the vast majority of my time at work being bombarded with everything that’s wrong and awful with the world. I get to witness every celebrity historical sex-crime trial, every terrorist act and aftermath, every political gaffe and scandal, live and direct, when it happens, as it happens. Occasionally, scientists will land a probe on a comet or something nice like that, but things like that never happen on a Wednesday.
My first customer is an elderly short chap with a bit of a limp. He’s accompanied by a younger woman who I assume is his daughter. He’s wearing a big puffy coat, a chunky purple thing that bears the colours and logo of some obscure American sports team. It would look out of place on a buff teenager, but he wears it reasonably well.
‘What can I do for you?’ I ask him through the gap in the glass.
The glass is there to protect us, allegedly, but there’s a large vertical gap in the middle so we can take things from the customers. On my first day, I asked the boss what we do if anyone stuck a gun through it. He just shrugged.
‘What do we need to cash a cheque?’ his daughter responds.
I go through the list – ID, photo and address, two active phone numbers and the details of the cheque issuer, all that. The daughter opens her bag, begins raking around. ‘What’s the cheque been issued for?’ I ask.
‘Refund of my deposit from me landlord,’ he tells me, smiling. ‘Just moved into a new place.’
‘Good for you,’ I say as his daughter dumps all the necessary paperwork into the drawer. I slide it through, pick up all the bits and bobs. ‘I’ll have to give the landlord a quick ring, confirm some details about the cheque, is that ok?’ I say, doing the obligatory thumb and little finger extension hand signal for phone by my ear.
‘No problem,’ he says.
The call only takes five minutes, and then it’s just a case of taking all his details and opening an account for him.
‘So, got settled in then?’ I ask, feeling an urge to fill the void with banter.
‘Yup,’ he says. ‘Needed more space, a bigger place.’
‘We’ve got another little un,’ he says, and then he turns to the woman that I assumed to be his daughter, and she leans in and gives him a big kiss on the lips. ‘Holly came along last year to join our big happy family. I’m seventy-two me, y’know. Got eight kids.’
‘Fuck me,’ I say, unable to help myself.
He gives me another big grin. ‘Oldest father in the region,’ he says, winking. ‘Official, that.’
‘Wow. You’re the oldest Dad I’ve ever heard of. Charlie Chaplin used to be the oldest dad I’d ever heard of. He had a kid when he was in his sixties, right?’
‘I don’t know,’ his partner replies. ‘Are we nearly done yet?’
‘Nearly,’ I say as I begin to count out the money.
Placing the money on the counter in front of the camera, so I can prove that I’m paying the right amount, he watches the big flat-screen telly through the bullet-proof glass. His girlfriend watches me like a hawk.
‘What’s happening?’ he asks.
‘There’s been a shooting.’ I say. ‘In America. Young kid, stormed into a school, shot a load of people.’
He strokes his chin, shakes his head slightly.
‘I know,’ I say. ‘Mad times though, innit?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, everyone is skint, aren’t they? Desperate.’
‘That’s no excuse,’ he says.
‘I’m not trying to justify it.'
I slide his cash and ID though the gap. He takes them out.
‘They should bring back national service, kids today don’t know they’ve been born,’ he says, and his partner nods in agreement.
‘Well, maybe national service would be a bad idea. Military service teaches people how to shoot better and kill more efficiently.’
He can barely contain his disdain as he scoops up his money.
‘And there’s something else going on, isn’t there?’ I continue. ‘Everyone’s messed up right now. Nobody knows what to think, or even what they're on about.’
He pauses, steps back, looks at me. His eyes narrow.
‘You all need a bloody good hiding, that’s what I think,’ he says.
I smile and nod as his partner snatches the cash out of his hands stuff it into her pockets. I tell them to enjoy the rest of Wednesday, and I congratulate them again on their upcoming parenthood.
It’s good to know the future is in safe hands.
Vigilante. It’s a great word, innit? Sounds exotic. And I like what it means. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I feel like Batman sometimes. I feel proud, like I’m worth something.
It’s important too, the work we do. We’re cleaning up the mess that the police are too lazy and skint to deal with.
That’s what Chris says.
I first met Chris when I started working at the firm last year. Craven’s Caravans. It’s a good job, good money, but for the first couple of months I thought I might end up jacking it in. I’m younger than most of the other people I work with, so they used to take the piss a bit. Y’know, all that ‘go and get us a left-handed screwdriver son’ bullshit. Pranks and banter. I tried going along with the joke, but it started getting to me. Felt like I was back at school, or like my last job, if I’m honest. But once I started knocking about with Chris it seemed to stop. And then a new kid started, and everyone moved onto ragging him, myself included.
Chris is only a couple of years older than me, but he’s a big lad in every way. D’yer know how some people just fill up a room? Larger than life? He’s one of them. He’s just got it, y’know? Charisma. People automatically like him, respect him. Everyone shuts up and listens when he opens his gob. He tells it how it is.
‘Everyone’s entitled to my opinion,’ that’s what Chris says.
I made mates with him on Facebook to begin with. I couldn’t believe how many mates he had on there. He lives on Greatfield, and I think every fucker on the estate hangs on his every word.
He posted the usual kind of shit: photos of him and his lass at barbecues; his bairn bombing about in a pedal car; tirades against KR’s current form. He seemed to have it sussed, carved out a nice little life for himself. I’d be sat there in my little shit-hole flat, plonked on my saggy sofa in my kitchen-slash-living-room, surrounded by biscuit crumbs and the damp-stink of a dirty sink, peeking through virtual curtains at this guy who seemed to have it all. Nice house, lovely girlfriend, cute bairn. All over it. And Chris was proud of where he lived. He was a presence on the estate, and he didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought of him.
One day, he posted this mad video. He’d been out walking his dog with his lass and bairn, and he stumbled across this smackhead crawling out of someone’s house with a telly. He started filming it, calling the guy out, and then the guy started getting clever with him. ‘It’s got fuck all to do with you, I’ll bang you out mate,’ all that shit. So Chris gave his phone to his lass and went over to sort him out. And his missus kept filming, caught everything that happened next.
It was fucking great. The kid – a trackie-wearing streak of piss who hadn’t had seen clean water since god-knows-when – made the mistake of taking a swing at Chris, so Chris just flattened him. Knocked him the fuck out. When the kid came to, Chris grabbed him, started screaming in his face: ‘This is my fucking neighbourhood, I better not see you and your fucking smackhead mates round here anymore.’
The video ends with the police turning up and arresting Chris.
When he came into work the following day, I went over to him, said how much I admired and supported him. It was about time someone took a stand. He shook my hand, thanked me, and we were mates after that.
The story of the video made the front page of the Hull Daily Fail, and it went viral after that. Everyone in Hull was talking about it. Most people couldn’t get over the fact that Chris was the one who was in danger of being banged up. Here was a bloke trying to do the right thing by stopping a burglary, and he could get fined and even end up losing his job. It was a fucking joke, and everyone knew it. I decided to start an online petition, a Facebook group, and I was shocked to find that within a week it had over two-thousand members.
That’s when it began.
When it went to court, the judge let Chris off the hook. He threw it out, praised Chris for being a good Samaritan, an upstanding member of the community and all that. The police ended up looking like total dickheads, obviously. The response was incredible. It just erupted. Chris went from being popular to being famous. In the pub after court, Chris came over to me. He put his hand my shoulder, and then he gave me a big hug, right in front of everyone.
‘I just wanted to say how grateful I am,’ he said.
I couldn’t believe it. ‘For what?’
‘Starting that group on Facebook.’
‘That? Fucking hell, it was nowt mate. Least I could do.’
He shook his head, squeezed my shoulder again.
‘No mate, I think it really helped me out. And it’s made me realise that there’s more to be done. Would you be up for popping round to mine? There’s something I’d like to chat about.’
I’m not ashamed to admit that I was chuffed to fuck.
I went to his house for tea with him and his lass later that week. It was a lovely house, he’d done it up real nice. Laminate floors, freshly plastered walls. Big telly and stereo. Gas barbecue on the patio. I hung out with him and his mates for the night, and that’s when Chris had the idea. The whole experience changed his outlook. It was time for ordinary people to take a stand he said. Start looking out for each other, not relying on the police.
‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of smackheads and paedos is for decent blokes to do nothing,’ that’s what Chris says.
I changed the name of the Facebook group to Greatfield’s Angels, and we began meeting once a week. There was Chris, his lass, two of his mates (James and Graham), and Trevor from work. We’d pop round to Chris’s, break out the bourbons and beers, and I’d man the computer. We started asking people to report stuff, name and shame. First night, this woman posted a picture of one her neighbours dumping a sofa late on a night.
‘I hate fly-tippers,’ Graham growled as he bit into a sausage-roll. ‘Those fuckers really grip my shit.’
‘Well, let’s do something about it then,’ Chris said, standing up. ‘It’s only round the corner.’
Me and Chris’s lass got our phones ready and we all marched out. We were quite beered up by this time. We must have looked well scary mooching down the street.
The woman posted the address of the offender along with the picture, so it didn’t take long to find the house. It was a right fucking state. A small table and shriveled yucca-plant had joined the sofa on the path. It was like someone was slowly recreating a living-room on the street. Graham’s face went bright red, like he was trying to strain a turd out.
‘I can’t bear to see shit like this,’ he said. ‘Fucking animals man, fucking animals.’
Chris placed his hand on Graham’s shoulder. ‘Keep it together big man, we’ll get this sorted.’
The house in question was part of a row of identical pre-fabs with small gardens set back a few yards from the path. It stuck out like a gammy tooth. The paint was the kind of yellow that looked as though it had been white once, and all the cladding was dropping off. The garden looked like a scene from the Battle of the Somme. The burnt skeletal remains of various appliances jutted out from gaping trenches in the lawn. The fence was charred from out-of-control bonfires. Wounded bags of old clothes spilled their guts onto the floor. A minefield of stale dog turds.
‘Jesus,’ Graham muttered.
The kitchen lights were on, so me and Chris’s lass got our phones ready, started filming. Chris booted open the gate and marched up to the door, accompanied by Graham, Trevor and James. He banged on the door, a proper copper’s knock, which set off a dog barking inside. Someone shouted: ‘Who the fuck is it?’ and then the door slowly opened. I was stood quite far back, but even I caught the earthy whiff of weed and piss.
This skinny fucker with a shaved head and goatee stuck his head out.
‘What the fuck is this? Who the fuck are you?’
‘We’ve come about the fly-tipping,’ Chris said.
‘All the shit you’ve dumped on the street outside your house.’
This guy looked around, said: ‘What the fuck has it got to do with you? Do you even live round here?’
Graham pushed forward. ‘We live on the estate, and we’re not putting up with this shit anymore. Sort it out mate.’
‘Excuse me? Who the fuck are you then?’
The bloke tried to shut the door, but Chris stuck his foot in to block it. Graham grabbed this geezer and pulled him out into the garden.
James and Trevor got either side of him to make sure he couldn’t run away. He started screaming: ‘This is harassment yer bastards, I’ll ring the fucking police.’
Chris put his face up close to his and said real slow: ‘As far as you’re concerned we are the fucking police.’
The bloke’s girlfriend, a greasy looking wench in jogging pants, charged out of the house, screaming blue murder.
The lads dragged him out into the street. He was kicking up a right fuss, so much that people came out to see what was going down. The lad started giving it the big I AM, but Chris was having none of it.
‘I don’t give a fuck who you know, or who you think you know,’ Chris hissed. ‘Things are going to be different around here from now on.’
It didn’t take long for the bloke to pipe down. He was flanked by four big guys who knew where he lived. Reluctantly, he started to drag the stuff back into his garden, grumbling the whole time. A big crowd had assembled by this point. When he picked up the last bag and dumped it into his garden, a cheer erupted.
‘We’ll be back in morning to check that all this shit is on its way to the tip.’
I edited the footage together and stuck it up on our Facebook page. It was huge. The support was incredible, everyone was going on about it. Loads of ‘likes’ and comments. But Chris was worried. For the first couple of days after the confrontation, he half-expected a visit from the police. They didn’t turn up, but it freaked him out. He didn’t want his collar getting felt again. The shit with the burglar, despite the way it turned out, caused a bit of friction with management at work, especially when it went to court. He could have lost his job.
At our next meeting, Chris spoke about this.
‘It’s been on my mind,’ he said, pacing up and down. ‘When Graham started kicking off, I thought it could have been game over for us before it even started.’
‘Sorry boss,’ Graham said, looking down at his feet.
‘Nah mate, don’t worry about it,’ Chris said, placing his hand on his shoulder. ‘If you hadn’t strong-armed him like that he would have only given us more lip. Some of these fuckers only understand aggression.’
‘So what do we do then?’ James asked.
A big smile appeared on Chris’s face. ‘We take a leaf out of Batman’s book. The hero always wears a mask.’
And with that, he picked up a bag and emptied it onto the table. It was a set of balaclavas.
I changed the page to remove all mentions of us as individuals. No links to any personal accounts or anything. Changed the picture to one of Chris in his balaclava, arms folded across his chest. I photoshopped it a bit, created a logo. Stuck a Union Jack on it. It looked dead professional.
‘Branding is important,’ that’s what Chris says.
After the fly-tipping incident, it snowballed. Everyone wanted us to sort something out. Usually, we ended up getting dragged into petty squabbles between neighbours. Chris was getting frustrated. He wanted to tackle the big problems on the estate. Didn’t want to be the voice of reason in an argument over someone’s messy garden. He wanted us to make a real difference.
After one incident where we turned up at a house only to find that we’d called out by a miserable codger who hated the noise the kids next door made when they were in their bedroom, Chris nearly jacked it in.
At the next meeting, we were all assembled, as usual, in his kitchen-stroke-dining room. Trevor was busy demolishing a tray of mini-pizzas. James and Graham guzzled little bottles of beer. Chris was visibly tense. He seemed coiled up, like a spring. We were laughing and joking, the usual pre-meeting banter, but Chris sat there, face like stone.
‘Everything OK boss?’ I asked.
‘Not really,’ he replied. ‘Look at us. It’s a joke. We’re a fucking social club.’
He said the last part loud enough for everyone to hear, and the talking stopped.
Chris stood up. ‘I mean, seriously, what the fuck are we doing?’
No one said anything at first, and then Graham said: ‘We’re making the estate a better place. Safer.’
‘Bollocks,’ Chris snorted. ‘We’re bullying people into behaving for a few Facebook likes. That’s all.’
‘Well, what do you suggest then?’ James said.
‘Do we stop?’ Trevor said.
‘No,’ Chris replied. ‘It’s time to get serious.’
Chris’s lass brought her laptop into the room, put it on the table and turned it round so we could see the screen. It was a Facebook profile. For ‘Carrie’, a thirteen-year old girl.
‘This is bigger than the estate,’ Chris said. ‘It’s time to go after the real fucking monsters.’
His name was Geoff. He seemed average enough; late forties, balding, glasses. The messages to ‘Carrie’ started out innocently enough: ‘I think you might be friends with my daughter,’ that kind of thing. But within a week he was sending close-up photos of his cock and balls.
The sting was set like this: ‘Carrie’ and Geoff would meet at Brough station. Geoff would bring booze and fags, ‘Carrie’ would bring her lucky knickers. But Geoff wouldn’t be meeting ‘Carrie’, he’d be meeting us.
No one spoke on the drive to the station. We were all crammed into the back of James’ van. Graham, sat across from me, cracked his knuckles for the entire trip. It was tense. We all felt as though we were taking a big step into something larger. Deep down, I hoped the bloke wouldn’t turn up, that his conscience would kick in. I didn’t know how we’d react when faced with a paedophile. I was really worried about Graham, about his temper.
When we arrived, we all piled out of the van and made our way to the platform. Geoff had agreed to meet ‘Carrie’ in the little shelter. He’d be wearing a blue shirt with a black tie he said. Making our way towards the meeting point, we all held back while Chris’s lass went ahead to suss it out and get her phone ready to film. I noticed that Chris was shaking.
‘You OK?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, I’m just…’ Chris reached up and rubbed the back of his head, ‘…feeling wired, I guess.’
My phone buzzed. It was a message from Chris’s lass: ‘HE’S HERE.’
Chris, Graham, James and Trevor turned to look at me.
‘It’s on,’ I said.
We pulled on our masks and headed towards the shelter. The platform was deserted, no one about, and as we reached the Perspex shelter, we could see Chris’s lass, stood with phone poised like she was reading a text, ready to film. I fumbled with my own phone, sweaty fingers slipping as I accessed the camera app.
I don’t know what I was expecting. I mean, I knew he wouldn’t have fangs and horns or anything like that, but I thought he’d at least give off an ‘evil’ vibe or something. I don’t know. All I do know is that when we got into the shelter, he shit his pants immediately. Four big blokes (and me) ballied-up. Probably thought he was about to get rolled. He tried to make his way to the exit, but Trevor swiftly moved to block his exit.
Me and Chris’s lass raised our phones and started recording.
The sound of his own name hit Geoff like a punch in the gut. He looked pudgy in real-life; his head looked like it had been carved out of a turnip, and his belly rolled out of his trousers and hung over his belt.
‘I think there’s been a mistake,’ he said, the colour draining from his face.
‘Too right there’s been a mistake,’ Graham said.
Chris stepped forward. ‘I’m afraid Carrie can’t make it.’
Geoff looked between us all. He knew then what was happening, what was about to happen. I often wonder what was running through his head at this point. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have sympathy for the fucker, he deserved everything that happened to him, but it must be a mad feeling, knowing that the game is up. Knowing that your little dirty secrets are about to be exposed to the world.
‘You’ve got it all wrong,’ he said. ‘I’m not…’
‘Don’t fucking lie,’ Chris roared, cutting him off.
It was then that I noticed the carrier bag. Chris grabbed it, poured its contents onto a plastic seat. Fags, wine, condoms. A packet of fizzy Haribos.
‘You dirty fucking bastard,’ Trevor growled.
Geoff tried to make another break for it, but we got him. The lads held him while Chris read out all the messages. Me and Chris’s lass filmed his reaction as Chris showed him a print out of all the dirty shit he’d said, the photo of his cock, and finally, his profile picture.
Trevor clenched his fist and drew his hand back like he was ready to punch him, but Chris stopped him. Geoff burst into tears: huge, gulping sobs that shook his entire body.
‘Kick the fuck out of me, I deserve it,’ he pleaded. ‘Just don’t tell my wife. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’
‘You sick bastard, you’ve got kids, a daughter,’ Chris screamed. ‘How could you do this?’
‘I wasn’t going to do anything, honest. Just chat.’
Brough’s a quiet station, and it was late, so no one interrupted us. Geoff crumbled. His life as he knew it was over. After we recorded his confession, we let him go.
‘This is going on Facebook and then it’s going to the police,’ Chris said.
Geoff got on his knees, begged us: ‘I’ll do anything – I’ve got money, I can give you what you want.’
It was pathetic. In the distance, we could see a train approaching from Hull. We didn’t want to be stood on the platform with balaclavas on our heads when the train pulled up. We’d done our job. Tempting as it was to keep filming, it was time to go.
‘Go home and explain it to your wife,’ Chris said.
With the train getting closer, we turned to leave. It didn’t slow down as it approached the station; turned out it was a direct service to Doncaster, so when Geoff threw himself in front of it, it was going full-speed when it hit him.
Some people might think we went too far, but they’re in the minority though. ‘One less paedo on the streets,’ is how most people look at it. Ask them. The people on the estate have started a crowd-funding page to help us with our legal costs, that’s how much support we have.
‘We just exposed him, if he took his own life, it was his choice.’
That’s what Chris says.
If nothing else, I hope we’ve inspired other people to take a stand, and I’ve heard that similar groups are starting up all over Hull. People are sick to death of the way things are. They’re not willing to take it any longer. I’m proud of what we did, and maybe if you lot did your job properly, you wouldn’t need people like us.
What happens now officer? Have you spoke to Chris yet?
Is he OK?
You don’t sleep on a night, not really. Instead, you just sit there, drifting between being not-quite-awake and not-quite asleep. You’ve always got one eye open, because you don’t know who or what is out there. You might have to pack up your shit at a moment’s notice and scarper.
Huddled in the doorway of the abandoned shop you pull the blankets tight around you, try and lose yourself in them. The covers are your shield. Those couple of inches of fabric are a magical barrier that will protect you from the world. It’s like when you were a kid and your brother made you watch A Nightmare on Elm Street, and later on, when you were in bed, every time you heard the stairs creek you’d think it was a killer, and you’d pull the blanket up over your head. Like it could somehow stop razor blades.
You’re never alone, not really. Things scuttle around in the night. People and animals. Rats and ravers. You don’t want either of them having a slash on you.
The town centre doesn’t sleep, doesn’t need it. Even when it’s dead quiet and there’s no-one about, it still makes noise, still creaks and hisses and gurgles, like it’s trying to digest something. Sleeping beneath a streetlight that turns the night the colour of ear-wax, you start drifting. You hope that tomorrow will bring something, anything, to make the day pass over you like a bad dream.
It didn’t used to be this bad. We used to have places like the Clarence Flour Mill to crash in. I remember the first night I spent in there, stacked amongst all the other bodies, sighing and snoring and farting as we tried to get some shut-eye. It terrified me at first, the bricked-up windows and broken glass, but after a while we colonised it. Put up a couple of lamps, put a couple of mattresses on the floor, made it more ‘homely’, if you can believe that. It still had a lot of fixtures and fittings leftover from when it used to be a working mill. The iron railings. A couple of thick, heavy tables. Some chunky wooden stools. When winter drew in, we burnt stuff in a pit of stacked breeze-blocks. We took it turns to watch the fire, to make sure that it didn’t get so big that it drew attention, or god-forbid, get out of control and burn down the building with all of us trapped in it.
But the Clarence Flour Mill’s gone now, along with most of the buildings near the Drypool bridge. Knocked down to make way for a new set of soulless hotels: The Hilton; Travel Lodge; the grand-fucking-this or the welcome-fucking-that.
The first light of the morning creeps in, preparing to shove aside the night. We’re greeted by the dawn chorus of city-birds screeching and dust-carts sweeping. The chug of the early buses’ diesel-engines, the beep of alarm systems being reset. The whine of the electric milk-float, the crash of bins being collected.
I look across at Carrie. Her eyes are open, but she doesn’t say anything. Both of us sat there, hoods up and surrounded by quilts, peeping out from the folds of the material like new-borns. It’s getting hot already. The kind of heat that penetrates every part of your body. It’s been brutal this summer, and the nights are worse, still and airless. But no matter how hot it gets, you keep wrapped up for protection. Every morning I feel like some sort of sweaty creature wriggling from its cocoon. My arms and legs are numb from laying on the floor, so I walk up and down for a few minutes to get the blood moving around my body. Pins and needles in my hands and feet. Groggy and tired, hungry and pissed off.
So much is waiting.
The morning begins to pick up pace, life begins to emerge. Buses roll in and dump their contents onto the pavements, all the people heading to work or college or where-the-hell-ever. Carrie sighs as she peels off her covers. There’s the big car-park just to the right of us, so she heads towards it, looking for the spot just out of view of the CCTV, and she drops her knickers. I don’t need to go just yet, so I sit there, enjoying the last few moments of peace before I get up.
Carrie comes over and sets about making a couple of rollies from the few shreds of tobacco that we have left. She hands one to me without saying anything and I light it. It makes me cough and splutter, but I enjoy the bitter taste of it as it burns the back of my throat.
Carrie and I used to be in what you could call a ‘romantic’ relationship: we kissed and talked and sometimes we had sex with each other. But we’ve moved beyond that now. We’re partners in a different way. We look out for each other, keep each other safe. We get high together, we get low together. She’s the only person I trust, and that counts for more than love. I puff away on the baccy and I look at Carrie, wondering if she feels anything at all.
Sheila, the lady from the café across the road waves at us as she takes the padlocks off and rolls up the shutters. I wave back, Carrie sits and stares at the floor. We’re both feeling rough, it goes without saying. The things we necked yesterday have become cobwebs and dust in our cluttered heads, making everything seem fuzzy and indistinct. I find myself drifting again, and I’m startled when Carrie places her hand on my shoulder. I look up to see Sheila stood there in front of us, clutching paper-cups.
She’s big and round and kind, and her oval face is smiling at us as she hands over the coffee.
‘Here you go,’ she says as we take them.
Carrie grunts thanks, and then I say, ‘Thank you so much darlin, godbless yer.’
I’m repulsed by the sound of my own voice, shocked by the coarseness of it. It’s become so different from the voice in my head. It’s like I’ve spat on a plate and been asked to lick it up. Even though it’s something my own body has produced, the moment it leaves it, it becomes alien, disgusting.
Sheila adjusts her glasses, and she looks at me as though she’s about to cry.
‘Godbless you too,’ she says, and then she’s off, bouncing across the road back to the cafe. I hold the coffee for a while, watch the steam rise, and then I begin guzzling it. It tastes good, sweet and hot.
We take the quilts and fold them up, place them on the floor and use them as cushions.
Carrie slips into the routine: ‘Got any change please?’ she says, over and over again, our mantra. Most people ignore us, choosing to speed up as they walk past, but the odd one will drop a bit in the cup. Occasionally, someone will stop, look at us with disgust and shake their heads.
Eventually, we rake up a bit of money. We’ve done quite well, so Carrie gets us a sausage roll to share, and we spend the rest on a bottle of cider. I find it difficult to eat my half of the sausage roll. It feels like warm plasticine in my mouth, but I chew it and force it down, because I know I’ll suffer for it later if I don’t. We decide to take the bottle to the little patch of grass near the cemetery so the PCSOs don’t get on our case. Maybe we’ll smash it in and then head back into the town centre. We wait until the trucks have been round to empty the bins, and then we stuff our quilts into the bin at the back of what used to be BHS. The building still stands, mainly because of the mural on the front, but it’s clear that the council don’t know what to do with it, so it’s just there, a monument to the slow, prolonged death of the high-street.
We’re about to set off, but then the usual suspects arrive: Carl, George and Ricky. It’s like they can smell the alcohol from miles away, the same way a shark can smell blood in the water. They’re all ok I suppose, all apart from Ricky: he’s a perv. He’s dangerous. His little beady eyes – rammed into a thin, weasel face – always seem to be looking Carrie up and down. One night in the Mill last year, I woke up to find him trying to put his hand down her jeans. I screamed bloody-murder and punched him in the face, and then everyone woke up, just as I got him round the neck and tried to strangle him. He started crying, reckoned he’d done it in his sleep, didn’t know what he was doing. He hasn’t tried anything else like that since then, but I still don’t trust him.
We get to the park and pass around the bottle. The cider is sharp and cheap, tastes like chemicals rather something made from real apples, but it does the job. We’re about to head back into the town centre when Ricky pipes up: ‘Hey guys, got summat you all might be interested in.’
He takes a small container from his pocket and shakes it. Tablets rattle around inside.
‘Got some of that Subatex,’ he says through his daft toothless grin.
‘Gizza couple then,’ Carrie says.
Ricky frowns, shakes his head. ‘They’re expensive, these,’ he says.
‘What about all that cider you just downed?’ I ask.
‘That’s different,’ Ricky says. ‘Besides, whenever I’ve got some booze, I share it with you guys, y’know that.’
I square up to Ricky, like I’m about to belt him one, but Carl gets between us.
‘So what are we talking then Ricky?’ Carl says.
‘Let’s calm down guys. I’ll sort you out,’ Ricky says, laughing. ‘You can owe me.’
‘Owe you what?’ Carrie says.
With that, Ricky turns to look at her, a sinister gummy smile spreading on his face.
‘Nah mate,’ I shout, and I lunge towards Ricky. ‘I’ll wipe that bleeding grin off yer face for good.’
I’m surprised by the force of my own reaction, then George gets hold of me.
‘Calm down pal,’ he says.
‘What? What have I done?’ Ricky says.
We calm down. Ricky is pouting like a kid who’s just been told off for being cheeky.
‘Bell-ends, the lot of you,’ he says. ‘Try and do people a favour, and this is what you get.’
Eventually, we manage to settle on an arrangement; we all get a couple of tablets each, on the understanding that we pay Ricky as soon as we get straight. Carrie and I drop our pills before slinking off back to the town centre.
I’m surprised by how quickly the tablets kick in. It only takes a few minutes, and then everything begins to ebb and flow. It doesn’t take long before I feel as though I’m wading through jelly instead of air. Wobbling and bumping into things. Carrie grips my arm tightly to stop me from falling over. I feel warm and safe now, wrapped up in a blanket made of angel feathers. It’s like I’m outside myself.
Huddled in the doorway of heaven, you cocoon yourself, pull the vibrations tight around you. The buzz is your shield. Those couple of little pills are a magical barrier that will protect you from the world. Because you’re never alone, not really. There are forces around you all the time. Spirits and demons. Gods and monsters. You don’t want any of them having a slash on you.
How did it get like this? I think as I’m careening around. Things are worse now than they have ever been. I’m still in my twenties for god’s sake.
It’s always the same. I’m locked up somewhere, and then I’m out on the streets skint and desperate. Even if I manage to start sorting things out - get another room, get some support - something always happens and I’m back to square one.
The difference is that now there are so many more like me. Help and support is stretched thin, and they’ve seen me – and people like me – time and time again, they know how the system works, know that I know how it works: wash, rinse, repeat. How and when will it end? Just how many chances does one person get?
I can hear Carrie’s voice, somewhere off in the distance: ‘I don’t understand what yer saying luv, yer babbling… Are you ok?’
I know the rules. Know that if someone collapses and passes out, everyone else bails. Can’t hang about, that’s how people get busted. If you’re too messed up to stand up, you’re on your own. It’s only fair. Despite this, it still comes as a shock to find myself alone, sliding down a wall. The green marble feels cool against my face as I slip down towards the ground. Everything around me is noise and colours, can’t even make out faces. Where exactly am I?
Either I wake up, or I don’t. It’s not important right now. I think I can hear sirens, somewhere in the distance. It’s getting harder to think straight, but I suddenly feel as though I’m beginning to understand something, like I’m about to let in on a big secret.
I try to remember the last time I felt the rain on my face.
This was originally performed as a spoken word piece at the BBC Contains Strong Language festival in 2018, featuring a soundscape by Mick Sanders-Green of LIFE.
The secret is to go limp. That’s the only way you can do it without hurting yourself. That’s how drunk people can get hit by a car, or fall down an open manhole, and they just get up and laugh, and everyone around laughs, out of relief more than anything. And then you get people who are stone-cold sober, trip over, and end up fracturing their wrist or arm.
It’s the resistance. Bracing for impact, you tense up, and it’s going rigid that can cause major injuries. One of the first things stunt-men learn is how to go ‘rag-doll’, how to relax and keep loose so they roll with the impact.
‘Are we ready to rock yet, or what?’
‘Shut the fuck up Nick, I’m still getting into the zone. You’re disturbing my shit, mate.’
It’s difficult. The party’s banging now. Fat basslines shake the walls. The air is thick with the sickly smell of weed, sweat, and dark fruit cider. We won’t get another chance, so we must do it, right now. I open my eyes and Nick is at the bottom of the stairs. A small crowd has gathered. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, exhale and fall forward.
You’re fighting instinct, an instinct that has been hard-wired into us over millions of years of evolution. The primal instinct of protecting yourself against physical harm. It’s like flinching; you don’t even know you’re doing it. Seriously, try falling face-first without putting your hands up. It’s nearly impossible.
I hit the stairs hard. My right arm crunches between my body and the stairs. The momentum carries my legs over and I roll onto my back. The trick now is to tuck into a ball and control the last part of the tumble. It goes well up until the last couple of steps. I bounce off them, and splat face down on the floor, arms and legs spread out.
I’d like to say that everything went silent at this point, but I’d be lying. But the crowd that had gathered around Nick weren’t laughing or chatting anymore. Most of them were holding up their own phones. Peeling my face from the floor, I could see their faces, lit blue by the LCD light of their screens.
I roll onto my back. My right arm is numb, so I raise my left arm, give a thumbs-up.
And the crowd goes wild.
I’ve had the wind knocked out of me, so I can’t get up. Nick is busy filming the onlookers, capturing their reactions to my prat-fall. He does his crowd control bit as well, lets them through a couple at a time so they can take selfies next to my crumpled body.
I wriggle each one of my limbs, see if there’s any twinges or sharp pains. My right arm has suffered the most. It’s still numb, but I start to feel a dull, aching throb near the elbow. It’s difficult to move. I sit up and shuffle away from the stairs as people rush upstairs for the toilet.
That’s when I see her. Slumped against the wall in the hallway of this big Avenues house, she comes over and looks down at me. She has long, straight dark hair which falls across her face. Her lipstick is the colour of my recent bruises, and she has a small ring in her left nostril. Her eyebrows, these amazing dark slashes, are knitted together in a frown. Her arms are folded across her chest.
‘Seriously, what the fuck was all that about?’
Using my left arm, I grab onto to the thick wooden bannister and drag myself to my feet.
‘It’s kind of what I do.’
‘What, throw yourself down flights of stairs?’
‘Pretty much, yeah. I’m Jamie, the staircase headcase.’
She looks me up and down. ‘Are you like, famous for this shit?’
‘I can’t be that famous if you’ve never heard of me.’
She smiles at that, and I’m not embarrassed to admit my stomach flips. Flips more than it does when I’m rolling down a flight of stairs.
‘What’s your name?’
My right arm dangles from its socket like a loose chain in an abandoned mine, so I raise my left arm and wave.
‘Can I get you a drink Donna?’
‘I was thinking about leaving to be honest.’
‘Same here. Do you live around here? Can I walk you home?’
‘I’ve only just met you. You could be a psycho for all I know. After what I’ve just seen, I think the odds are tipped in that direction.’
‘I’m fucked up. Even if I was a psycho, you could poke me in the ribs and I’d fall over.’
‘True, but in that case, what if we were attacked? You’d be useless; kind of defeats the point of escorting someone home.’
‘I could throw myself at them while you ran off.’
‘OK, sounds reasonable. Let me go and tell my friend I’m leaving.’
Even though it’s late, it’s boiling. Close. I’m panting like a dog. My t-shirt is stuck to my back. The trees are thick, green, and still, and the charcoal smell of barbecues still lingers. The noise of the party fades as we head away from it.
‘So how did the whole ‘throwing yourself down flights of stairs’ thing come about then?’
‘I used to be into tricking, parkour, all of that stuff.’
She raises her hands to her chest and groans loudly: ‘Anyone who does that shit deserves to break their neck.’
I laugh, but I’m embarrassed. I feel like a daft kid. Even though it’s dark, she somehow picks up on this, because she immediately follows up by saying: ‘Hey, I’m just teasing. Don’t get all precious.’
While we’ve been walking, I’ve been using my left hand to gently squeeze up and down my right arm. Nothing’s broken, but I’m going to wake up sore. I also bumped my left knee, so I’m limping. I’m also going to have a massive bruise on my right thigh. I’m banged up, but I’m OK. Nothing permanent.
‘What about you?’
‘What about me?'
‘What do you do?’
‘I do lots of things,’ she says. ‘I think ‘what do you do?’ is such a loaded question. People ask it automatically, don’t they?’
‘It’s a good opening gambit. Usually.’
She goes quiet for a bit, and then she says: ‘Sorry, I’m not usually this obnoxious. Well, according to my Dad I am. But I’m not. It’s a defence-mechanism.’
‘It’s OK, I understand. Mam says the same thing about me. Where do you live?’
We don’t say anything for a while. We just drift along. For some reason, I keep thinking that I should feel awkward, but I don’t. I feel calm. It’s nice to be out walking. It’s nice to be out walking with Donna.
‘So you were into parkour and ‘tricking’ and all that.’
‘Are you sure you want to know about all that daft shit?’
‘I’m sure,’ she says, and then she looks down. ‘I promise not to be obnoxious for ten minutes. At least.’
I laugh. ‘OK. Deal. So me and Nick – the guy who was filming me at the party – had been filming ourselves doing runs, tricks, all that kind of stuff. Everyone who does parkour stuff films it and posts it online. Nick’s good at editing and all that, but none of the videos we posted seem to get many views. One day, me and Nick set about doing a run along near Drypool bridge. We set up a series of cameras. It was a risky run. We had to run along the handrail and then jump onto a set of wooden posts that stuck out of the mudbank. Nick bottled it, so I ended up doing it alone. Nearly did a perfect run, and then…’
‘And then you went arse over tit.’
‘Damn right. Cleared the handrail and the posts, but then I jumped onto some steps. Skipped up them, but then I slipped and rolled back down and over the side. Ended up face down in the mud. I had to be rescued and everything.’
She stops walking and she throws her head back. All that dark hair swings jumps up and down like waves in an oil slick. She bursts into laughter. It’s a loud, honking laugh. She snorts through her nostrils like a pug.
‘Don’t be. Nick filmed the whole thing. And then he stuck it online. Got loads of hits, that’s when we came up with the falling downstairs thing.’
She’s bent over now, hands on her knees.
‘Just gimme a sec,’ she says.
I should feel like a prat, but I don’t. I’m happy. Happy I made her laugh this much.
We continue walking, and we continue talking. She tells me she’s at uni, but she doesn’t really like the course. She tells me she has three sisters and she’s the one in the middle. She tells me that she’s really into punk. She tells me that she’s been single for three months.
The walk home doesn’t take long enough. When we reach her front door, she puts her finger up to her lips, the universal sign for shush.
‘Thank you,’ she whispers.
‘It’s OK.’ I wait for her to fetch her key from her pocket and stick it in the lock before adding: ‘Could I see you again sometime?’
She looks at me, like she’s working something out.
‘Great. How shall I get in touch with you? Are you on Facebook? Instagram?’
‘Is all your social media stuff bound up with the falling down stairs stuff?’
‘Then I’ll give you my number. You can text me. Old school.’
Nick’s sat looking at his laptop. On the screen, a short clip of my body slamming onto the stairs at the party is playing on a loop. I wince the first few times I see my face bounce off the step, but after I’ve seen it for the twentieth time, it’s like it’s someone else on the screen.
‘Got some absolutely killer footage,’ Nick says.
I’m unzipping my tracksuit top, and it takes a lot of effort, because every time I lift my right arm I’m in total agony.
‘Got the reactions, a couple of short interviews, the whole enchilada.’
‘Great. Check this out.’
Almost the whole of my right arm, from my shoulder down to my wrist, is the colour of plums.
‘Fuck me, that’s nasty. Do you think you’ve fractured anything?’
‘I’m not sure. I’m supposed to be at work tomorrow, but I might have to go to hospital.’
‘Thank god we got it in a single take.’
Nick goes back to his editing. He’s got a real talent for it. For the whole thing. Well, aside from the ‘falling down the stairs’ bit.
Nick has a little fridge in his bedroom, keeps it stocked with tins of Monster and bottles of 7up. I go over and help myself to a 7up. Twisting the cap off makes my arm hurt.
‘I met a girl at the party.’
‘Oh yeah? Is that where you disappeared off to?’
‘Yeah, I walked her home.’
‘The perfect gent. Did you get anything in return?’
‘No, it wasn’t like that.’
His attitude about Donna pisses me off. Nick and I have been mates for a long time. We first met years ago, when he moved in a couple of doors away from me. He started at my school and everyone picked on him because he was tiny. This little snotty kid with big jam-jar specs and a stutter. Seeing as I was similarly socially excluded, I’d go over and sit with him while he bawled his eyes out because he missed all his friends from where he lived before he arrived down my street.
‘I’m going to see her again.’
He pauses, stops hammering the keyboard and clicking the mouse. Peers over the top of the screen at me.
‘Yeah, she gave me her number.’
‘What she like?’
‘She’s fit. And she’s funny.’
Nick goes quiet for a bit, goes back to whatever it was he was doing. He clears his throat to let me know he’s about to say something important.
‘So long as she doesn’t distract from the big work, it’ll be fine.’
‘What are you talking about? Do I need your permission now Nick? Do you want to interview her?’
Nick sighs, and then folds the screen down, just to indicate the sheer magnitude of what he’s about to unload on me.
‘We’re getting close Jamie. This shit’s about to go viral. Big time. This new video is the best yet. It’s raised the stakes. We need to do something spectacular to top it.'
‘Something big. Something public. It’ll be like making a statement. It could launch us into the stratosphere. We could be as big as Pewdiepie. Or Logan Paul.’
‘But they’re tossers Nick. I can’t stand them.’
‘Not be like them. Be as big as them.’
‘I don’t know dude, I’m still pretty fucked up from the last one.’
Nick slams his fist into his laptop. It makes me jump. He stands up, leans towards me, gets right in my grill. So close I can smell the McMuffin he had for breakfast.
‘Do you want to be working in that fucking call-centre your whole life? This could be it.’
‘Cool your jets man. I’m the one who has to go tumbling down the stairs.’
Nick shrinks back, his face all twisted like I’ve jabbed him with a needle.
Nick sighs and shakes his head. I’m unnerved by this sudden flare up. Nick doesn’t have a temper. Seeing him like this freaks me out.
‘What you need to understand is that your bit is over in a minute. I’m the one who has to sit here for hours and hours, editing it together, putting it out on all the social meeds.’
‘Don’t say that.’
‘”Meeds”. As in, “social meeds”. Makes you sound like a twat.’
‘This is about more than rolling down some stairs.’
‘No, it isn’t. It’s only about rolling down some stairs. Any fucker can do it. Have you seen the internet lately?’
‘You ungrateful bastard,’ Nick roars, lunges at me over the table, tipping me out of my chair. I’m so shocked I don’t know how to react at first. He manages to get on top of me and start raining down punches, MMA ground ‘n pound style. Well, when I say ‘rain’, what I really mean is ‘tinkle’. And when I say, ‘MMA ground ‘n pound’, what I really mean is ‘lightly slap’.
His face is all screwed up like he really means it, but I can’t take him seriously, so he screws his face more and more, and I start giggling.
I’m about to let him keep slapping away until he gets it out of his system, but then he presses his knee against my right arm and I cry out. I fling my left arm and catch him on the chin. There’s a loud snap as it connects, and he falls off me. I grab the edge of the desk with my good arm and pull myself up. Nick is curled up on the floor, hands covering his face. By the way his shoulders jiggle up and down, I can tell he’s sobbing.
‘You shouldn’t have touched my arm. Told you I was bashed up.’
He doesn’t reply.
‘C’mon man. I’m sorry. But you started it.’
He doesn’t say anything for a while. But then he gets up, takes his glasses off and rubs his eyes. My arm is throbbing intensely. I feel like I’m going to throw up.
‘Arsehole,’ he whispers.
‘Listen, while I do appreciate all the hard work you put in, until you find some other mug who can throw himself downstairs, you better chill the fuck out. I don’t mind you building a career off my back, so long as you keep off it. Capeesh?’
He sits back in his chair, shoulders slumped like he’s just been given a ticking off from his Dad or something. He flips open his laptop, waits until the screen is on, and carries on with his work.
I’m angry, so I leave his bedroom and head down the stairs. Nick’s Mam sticks her head around the corner.
‘Is everything OK up there? I thought I heard a crash.’
‘Sorry Mrs. Walter,’ I say. ‘I was leaning back on a chair and fell over. Sorry if it disturbed you.’
‘No, it’s fine. So long as you and Nick are OK. The only time he leaves his bedroom is when you come around. Rest of the time he’s on that computer.’
I don’t know what to say, so I just grin and shrug.
‘A YouTuber. That’s what you want to be, right?’
The sun’s out again. It’s relentless. I feel like I’m burning up. I’m wearing a long-sleeve top – Iron Maiden, The Trooper - and navy-blue drainpipe trousers so I can keep my bruises covered. Beads of sweat trickle down my face and into my eyes, a toxic mix of sunscreen and perspiration that stings like a bastard. Thank god I’m wearing sunglasses, so she can’t see me wincing.
‘Shall we find some shade to sit in?’
She places her lips on the straw and sucks up slushy. Her lipstick and the slushy – a potent mix of blue raspberry and cherry – are the same colour as my bruises. She’s wearing a black blouse and skinny black jeans with rips in the knees, but the heat doesn’t affect her like it does me.
‘OK,’ says, and then she draws up another load of slush with a big gurgling noise. She burps, loud, giggles and then: ‘Are you feeling alright?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘It’s relentless, isn’t it?’
‘The heat or my questions?’
I’m about to start apologising, but she laughs and stands up. We’re at Minerva, on the Marina. The brown river rolls and sways, filling the air with a faint tinge of seaweed and salt. It’s busy. Middle-aged men with bright red baldy heads sup lager from plastic cups. Mams with prams shove ice-cream cones into chubby hands.
We take our slushies and head over to a tree that juts out from a square patch of grass in the cobbles. Donna sits, so I hand her my drink and ease myself down. All my limbs pop and ache as they compress. I mutter and moan all the way through the process.
‘You sound like an old man,’ Donna says.
‘I feel like one.’
‘So is all this pain worth it then? To become a YouTuber.’
‘Fair enough. When you say it like that, it makes me sound like right twat. Feel like a right twat.’
‘Why are you doing it then?'
I sigh. ‘It’s complicated.’
‘Not really. Stop throwing yourself downstairs.’
‘It’s not just me I have to think about. There’s Nick as well.’
She looks away, then back at me again, feigning an ostentatious double-take. ‘Nick? I don’t see him chucking himself down any stairs.’
‘I know, but he’s invested a lot in this. He does all the filming and editing. He’s looking to launch his career in the media.’
‘By launching you from high-places?’
‘Nick’s my mate,’ I start, but Donna starts shaking her head, so I shut up.
I let a couple of minutes pass before blurting out: ‘Well, what about you then? What you got going on?’
‘Fuck knows. Just uni stuff I guess.’
‘What’s up? You’re a student, aren’t you? I thought it was all wild parties and no-strings attached sex.’
‘In American teen comedy films maybe. A lot of my mates left Hull to go to uni. Went to Leeds and Manchester and that. I’m the only one who studied in Hull.’
‘Ah FOMO – fear of missing out?’
‘Kind of,’ she says. She stretches her leg out, rams her hand into her pocket and battles with the contents. After huffing and puffing for a bit, she pulls out a crumpled packet of fags and a lighter, sparks one up.
‘Why did you hang about then?’
‘My parents couldn’t really afford to support me. I mean, I got a loan and stuff, and an allowance, but it was cheaper to stay at home and I felt obligated to help out. With my younger sister and stuff.’
‘Yeah, but you’ve made new mates, right?’
‘A couple, but it’s a bit weird. Because a lot of them are from out of town, they take the piss out of Hull. The accent, the locals, all that. I shouldn’t mind, but I get real defensive. It’s a shit-hole, but it’s my shit-hole. Maybe it’s just paranoia, but I always think they’re looking down their nose at me.’
I’m a bit taken aback. Donna seems so together, cool about stuff. She’s clever and funny and pretty and…
She looks at me and smiles. ‘Yeah, I know, you’re right: Fuck ‘em indeed.’
‘They sound like a bunch of phoney fuckers anyway. You’ll graduate soon, and then you can get out of Hull.’
‘Who said I wanted to leave?’
I’ve submerged myself in a cold bath. I read somewhere that’s what martial artists do to heal themselves. My body shudders and rattles, goose-bumps spring up on my flesh. My cock and balls bid a hasty retreat into my body. After the initial shock subsides, I lower myself beneath the surface, raise my head and slide down until only my head and knees are above the waterline. The intense cold is almost painful against my skin, but as my blood circulates around my body, my core temperature adjusts, and the chilly water soothes me.
I look over to my phone, which is on the toilet. I’m waiting for a message from Donna. There’s no point in lying to myself anymore. I think about her all the time. Everything else – my shitty job, my shitty bedsit, my shitty burgeoning stunt career – has faded into background noise. It all seems minor. My thoughts about Donna have become a lump, a ball of nausea that nestles in the pit of my stomach. It’s like the feeling you get when you’re waiting for an important test result, or for your team to score, or like when you’re checking to see how many hits your latest video has got.
I don’t want to put her off by texting and messaging her every two minutes, so I’m trying to do the whole standoffish thing. It’s difficult. I could be doing other stuff – should be doing other stuff – but I find myself counting the minutes between her messages, so I find myself doing random acts to try and take my mind off the situation. Mad things like going to my Mam’s house so I can have a cold bath.
The phone starts vibrating, and I leap up, water splashes everywhere. I feel like Godzilla, rising up from the ocean. I swing my leg over the side of the bath, slip, almost lose my footing and go arse over tit. I only manage to save myself by grabbing the side of the bath. There’s a huge thud as I plant my foot back on the floor.
‘What the hell is going on up there?’ mam shouts from the bottom of the stairs.
‘Soz mam, I slipped getting out,’ I shout back.
I quickly dry my hands and grab my phone. I answer it just as it stops ringing. I check the screen. It says: ‘NICK’.
We haven’t spoken since our little disagreement. Did the whole ‘see who breaks first and calls’ routine. Now Nick has broke the seal, I’ll have to call him back.
He answers straight away.
‘Hey,’ he says. His voice is all wobbly and high, like he’s desperate for a piss.
‘About last week, I…’
‘Listen, forget about it,’ I say, cutting him off. ‘We’re mates, right?’
‘Yeah.’ There’s a long pause before he starts speaking again, and when he does, it’s a long rant that tumbles quickly out of his mouth. ‘I wanted to get hold of you because I’ve just had a call from a producer, works for Channel 5, one of those clip shows, and he loves our stuff and he wants to feature the last one we did on the show, and he asked if we’ve got anymore, and I said we were working on it, so I was just checking in, seeing where you’re at, how you’re feeling, because I think this could be it, what we’ve been waiting for…’
While he’s jabbering away, I look down at my bruises. They’re fading now, the mottled purples giving way to coffee browns. The big ones on my arm and thigh look like continents on an old treasure map.
He trails off as he runs out of steam, leaving us both silent. I’m stood there, naked, dripping and shivering. But I don’t know if I’m shivering because I’m bollock-naked and freezing, or because I’m angry.
The quiver in his voice suggests Nick has maybe picked up on the vibe.
‘I’m still here.’
The hum of the phone’s speaker hangs in the air. Every now and then, a drip of water hitting the floor-tiles echoes around the bathroom.
‘So what do you think? I know you’re pissed off with me, but I think this could be it, for both of us I mean. This could set us up for life. Think of the bigger picture,’ he says.
I still don’t what to say, so he tries pleading: ‘This is all I’ve fucking got mate. This is my ticket out of here. It could be our ticket of here.’
‘What are you on about? This isn’t a fairy-tale Nick. What do you think is going to happen? You’re going to get spotted by a producer? Leave Hull and get a job in Media City or where-the-fuck-ever? Even if that did happen, it wouldn’t magically make everything in your life better. It’s the same everywhere Nick you go. It’s the same.’
There’s a weird noise, like a slurp. Is he crying?
‘So you won’t do it?’
‘We can’t go on like this. I’ve got a life as well, Nick. There are things I want to do. Things that don’t involve falling down stairs’
‘One last fall. Please.’
I sigh. ‘Will it make you happy Nick? Will it make everything OK between us?’
‘Then I’ll do it.’
We’re at a gig. Well, it’s kind of a festival. A couple of days of music at Zebedee’s Yard in the town centre. But there’s no camping facilities; instead you get to go home at the end of it.
Donna is wearing her regulation all black. Black pencil-skirt, black shirt buttoned up all the way to her neck. Black Doc Martens. She looks amazing.
We’ve just eaten halloumi fries drenched in honey and a Greek-dressing. We’re on our second fruit cider and everything is great.
‘Are you having a good time?’ she says. When she leans over to speak to me I can smell hairspray and shampoo and garlic.
‘You seem a bit distracted.’
We’ve been seeing a lot of each other. It’s great, and I’m having the time of my life, but in the background, I’m secretly toiling away with Nick on the ‘big one’.
‘I’m fine, just a bit tired.’
She narrows her eyes, looks straight at me like she’s trying to suss out if I’m lying. I blush.
She reaches up and puts her hand on the back of my head. The band on the stage kicks into another song, a blast of feedback and drums, and my heart starts slam-dancing. She pulls me closer, so her face is right in mine. Her breath is hot. We clumsily adjust our heads so they’re at the right angle, and then she kisses me. For the first time.
‘Have I got your full attention now?’ she says as she pulls away.
I’m dazed, befuddled. I can’t tell if I’m swaying or not; I feel like I am, like I’m on a ferry, rocking from side to side.
I feel a hand slap me on my back. I rock forward, almost fall over. It’s like waking up from a dream. I turn to face two lads.
‘It’s him,’ one of them says. He has long, grungy hair spilling out of a blue, knitted fisherman’s hat. He looks like the sort of guy who punctuates every sentence with ‘dude’.
‘Fucking hell,’ his mate says. He’s got a shaved head and a chin-strap beard. They both have a glint in their eye that suggests they’re on something.
The one with the hat and long hair sidles up to me, puts his arm around my shoulders.
‘Get a picture!’ he shouts to his mate.
‘Excuse me,’ Donna says as she’s shoved aside.
Holding up a camera, chin-strap guy clicks a couple of pics, and then they switch places so they both get a photo with me.
‘So when’s the big one?’ grunge guy asks.
‘It’s gonna be fucking mad,’ chin strap says. ‘Yer off yer fucking head mate.’
I notice that Donna is staring at me. Arms folded. She doesn’t look happy.
‘What’s this?’ she asks.
‘Haven’t you seen?’ chin-strap asks.
‘This guy is the real deal,’ grunge guy adds. ‘He’s gonna crash down the steps of the bridge that leads to the KCOM stadium. First home-match of the season. It’s just been announced on Instagram.’
Donna’s frowning now.
‘Cheers guys,’ I say, hoping to draw the conversation to a close. ‘Have a good festival.’
‘We will mate,’ chin-strap says. ‘Fucking love you mate. YER MAD YOU ARE.’
They take it in turns to vigorously shake my hand and hug me, and then they wander off into the thrashing crowd.
I smile and hold my hands up. I’m about to start explaining things when Donna cuts in.
‘What the fuck?’
‘I was going to tell you.’
‘KCOM stadium? You’ll kill yourself, what the fuck?’
She looks hurt.
‘Listen, I’m going to wear some padding under my clothes, it’ll be OK.’
‘And a bit of padding will stop you breaking your neck? You’re a fucking idiot.’
The harshness of what she’s saying cuts deep. And she’s right; I feel like a fucking idiot already. My guts are churning. The mood of the day has shifted. I’ve ruined it.
‘I’m sorry, I should have told you. I’ll get in touch with Nick and…’
‘Fuck off,’ she says. It hits me like a punch in the stomach.
She drains the last of her cider and drops the plastic cup, crushes it under her Docs.
‘I like you Jamie, but I’m not wasting my time with someone who wants to fuck himself up. I just wanted to hang out, have fun. If you need to figure things out by throwing yourself down stairs, that’s fine. But I’m not waiting around while you do it.’
I don’t know what to say, so I say, ‘Donna…’ and I try to put my arms around her, but she pushes me off.
‘Have a nice life,’ she says, and then she disappears into the crowd.
We’re stood at the top of the steps that lead up to the footbridge near KCOM, just off the Anlaby Road flyover. There’s a lot of steps: hard, grey, concrete slabs punctuated by the occasional plateau. The wrought-iron handrails that run up and down the steps are the only things that could interrupt the tumble.
Nick has elected for a three-camera set-up. One at the top of the steps, one at the bottom, and a hand-held digital SLR camera that he’ll operate as he follows me down. Thanks to our appearance on ‘Britain’s Biggest Fails’ on Channel 5, our stunt has blown up on social media. It’s getting busy already. Hull City is back in the Championship, and all the fans are keen to see how they get on against Burton Albion.
I don’t whether someone throwing themselves down some stairs at a Hull City is symbolic, but by the way it’s spread on Facebook and Twitter, the fans have latched onto something. Even a couple of the players shared it.
In fact, it’s so big that even the local paper has picked up on it. That’s why we changed the time: Nick was worried about the coppers turning up.
‘How are you feeling?’
Rows and rows of people clad in amber and black shirts stare up at me from the bottom of the steps. The merciless sun that it made it impossible for me to wear additional padding beats down on us all. There’s a whiff of pastry and lager in the air.
‘Pretty fucking shit by all accounts,’ I say.
Donna hasn’t spoken to me for over a month now. I tried texting and calling, but she didn’t reply. I’m not surprised, but for the first time in my life, I actually feel like chucking myself down some stairs.
Nick does his final checks on the cameras. I shut my eyes, try to empty my head, but I’m distracted by my phone buzzing in my pocket.
Nick sidles up to me, says, ‘It’s nearly time.’
I take my phone from my pocket and check it. Unlocking the screen, the message flashes up: ‘It’s not too late to stop this.’
As if on cue, the crowd breaks into a chant: ‘ROOOOLL DOWN THOSE FUCKING STAIRS SON, ROOOOLL DOWN THOSE FUCKING STAIRS…’ sung to the tune of the opening riff of Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes.
Stood behind me, Nick shouts: ‘GET YOUR PHONES READY, YOU’RE ABOUT TO WITNESS HISTORY!’
A cheer erupts, and I close my eyes. Even though the bruises from the last fall have nearly gone, I’m still sore and tender. My heart’s not in it, and I’m not prepared. It’s pointless, this whole thing. It’s childish, stupid, moronic. What the fuck am I doing here?
I turn my head to face Nick.
He peeks from behind his camera, gives me a thumbs up, says: ‘We’re rolling.’
‘I’m not rolling though, Nick,’ I say. ‘I can’t.’
Nick slowly lowers the camera from his face.
‘What do you mean?’
‘This is crazy Nick. I’m about to kill myself in front of a bunch of half-pissed football fans. I never signed up for this.’
‘But we agreed. One last fall. The big one.’
‘You agreed Nick. I went along with it because we’re mates, and I didn’t want to upset you.’
‘But what about all these people?’
‘What about them Nick? They’re here for the match. They couldn’t give a shit about some idiot falling down a flight of stairs.’
An empty beer can hits me on my head. It’s like the last piece of the puzzle dropping into place.
‘It’s her, innit? That Donna lass you were seeing. I can’t believe you’re doing this to me; bros before hos, remember?’
I shake my head.
I look at the crowd at the bottom of the steps. They’ve all got their phones out, ready to record my finest moment. But it’s over. It’s like a weight has been lifted my shoulders. I’m not going to fall down these steps, I’m going to walk down them.
I raise my arms, wave them from side-to-side to indicate it’s a no-go. I raise my foot, ready to take the first step, and that’s when I feel the hand on my back, shoving me forward.
And I fall.
I was in the local deli – or the sarnie shop, as I like to call it – and it was scorching hot. No breeze, no respite in the shade. A heatwave had kicked in, and collective hysteria had already begun to take hold. Almost everyone in Hull had decided to expose as much bare flesh as possible. I was stood in a queue of sweaty, lobster-red people. As more and more people entered the shop, I felt as though I was being subsumed into a slithering amorphous blob. I imagined us all oozing out of the shop and rolling down the avenue, surrounded by cries of horror.
I wanted a tomato ciabatta and a couple of good slices of pastrami. I like to buy everything separate and assemble my own sandwich at home. Don’t get me wrong, the lasses who work in the shop were lovely and that, but as sandwich artists, they leave a lot to be desired. I can only guess their main influence is Jackson Pollack.
I was pondering whether I should invest in a quality preserve – a chilli jam maybe – when in walked this guy. He didn’t join the queue, which snaked all the way from the counter, round the wall and out the door; instead, he went to the small gap in the middle of the shop. Everyone turned to look at him, and not just because of his flagrant disregard for the unspoken rules of queue etiquette. It was hard not to stare at him. He was wearing a huge three-quarter length black leather coat that dwarfed his skinny frame, and an old sea captain’s hat, like the one Captain Birdseye used to wear. He had Bono-style wrap-a-round shades on, and he stunk in a way that made me think of allotments.
The main lass, the one who barked like the boss at the customers, smiled and waved.
‘BRUTAL OUT THERE, INNIT?’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘HOW YER DOING LUV?’
It was clear that she was hoping she could just focus on banging out sarnies, in the hope that he would eventually clear off. Or join the queue.
No one said anything. Technically, he hadn’t done anything wrong yet. There’s no law against being outrageously over-dressed in the burning heat. Huffing and puffing, hidden behind our sunglasses, we all continued to stare at him.
‘FUCKING DAY I’VE HAD. THEM BASTARDS AT THE COUNCIL HAVE BEEN MESSING ME AROUND AGAIN.’
‘YEAH, FULL SYSTEM’S BROKEN. PEOPLE LIKE ME, THE ONES WHO NEED THE SUPPORT, DON’T GET IT.’
‘BUT ALL THESE DRUGGIES AND SPICE-ZOMBIES GET LOOKED AFTER. SHOCKING.’
‘I know, shocking.’
A shudder of recognition ran through me. I must have put a vibe out, because the guy turned to look at me, like he had picked up on something. Cocked his head like he was trying to figure out who I was.
The lass behind the counter wrapped up her batch of sarnies and put them in a bag, gave them to the woman she was serving.
‘Nine-pound sixty please.’
‘IT’S ALL DOWN TO THE COUNCIL Y’KNOW. THEY’RE NOT WHO YOU THINK THEY ARE.’
‘Thanks, that’s a tenner you’ve given me.’
‘THEY’RE PART OF A CULT. THE ORGANISATION THAT SECRETLY RUNS THE WORLD, THE GOVERNMENT BEHIND THE GOVERNMENT. IT’S A SEX CULT. THEY’RE ALL FUCKING PAEDOS.’
No one batted an eyelid. We were all subscribing to the 'ignore him and hopefully he’ll go away' school of philosophy. Perhaps sensing the energy, he marched out of the shop, but not before stopping, giving me the thumbs up and saying: ‘ALRIGHT MATE.’
After what felt like an eternity, I got my bread and meat, and headed out of the shop and onto the avenue. I was dismayed to see that the strange fucker had hung about. He clocked me leaving the shop and marched over.
‘NOW THEN, LONG TIME NO SEE.’
It hit me then. I realised that I did, in fact, know him. It was Phil Barling. Phil fucking Barling.
‘Holy shit Phil,’ I said.
I was shocked by how much he’d changed, physically. I went to school with him. Used to knock about with him when we were kids. I’d not seen him in over a decade, but I’d heard rumours. He was a nice lad, but he was a total wreck-head. He was the sort of kid who would still be necking pills at five in the morning, just as everyone else was passing out. Always had to take it too far. It all got too much for him, and he started to lose the plot. Intense paranoia, hearing voices – all of that shit. One day, after staying awake and necking whizz for three days straight, he developed psychosis and went after his Mam’s bloke with a kitchen knife. It was in the paper and everything. He got banged up, and that was that. I think he got banged up in a unit outside of Hull. Then, no sight or sound of him for years. Until now.
‘YER LOOKING WELL MATT.’
‘Cheers man. So do you.’
This was an out-and-out lie of course; he looked terrible. His skin looked stretched and wrinkled, like a peeled-apple that had been left near a radiator. His few remaining teeth were the colour of ear-wax.
‘D’YER LIVE AROUND HERE THEN?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, hoping he wouldn’t ask for any further details.
The truth was, I didn’t know what to say. I was relieved to be wearing sunglasses, because I’m not ashamed to admit that I had tears in my eyes. Seeing him had rattled me. I felt gutted for him. And responsible. You see, deep down, Phil was a good kid. The whole going-too-far routine was all a front. He hadn’t even smoked a fag before he got in with the crowd I hung around with. He started necking pills and smoking spliffs as a way of fitting in, to impress us. It was bravado pure and simple and it fucked him right up. Everyone else from school – including me – had grown up, moved on, but here was Phil, still trying to get over those years, still coming down from the big weekends out.
‘I’M IN ASSISTED LIVING NOW, JUST MOVED ROUND HERE. WE’LL HAVE TO GO OUT FOR A BEER AND A CATCH UP.’
‘WHAT ARE YOU UP TO NOW?’
‘I work for the council. I decorate new properties, been there about five years now.’
Phil whipped the glasses from his face. ‘THE COUNCIL?’
‘Yeah, it’s not bad like. Steady money.’
I knew that I had said something wrong, that I’d triggered him. He shrank back, his eyes wide and brow furrowed, like he was looking at me with new eyes. It was clear from his rant in the shop that Phil believed the council were into some real satanic shit, and me, like an idiot, had to go and put my foot in it.
‘DO YOU REALISE WHO YOU’RE WORKING FOR?’
‘Well, like I say, it’s steady money and that. The lads I work with are alright as well.’
Looking into Phil’s eyes – black pits of swirling chaos – I suddenly felt exposed. His already loud voice was getting louder now.
‘THERE ARE THINGS THAT ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN MONEY – LIKE YOUR SOUL FOR INSTANCE.’
People were looking at us as they passed. I felt like the guy in the zombie film who accidentally sets off the car-alarm.
‘THEY’RE EVIL SCUM. THEY FEED UPON THE SOULS OF THE YOUNG.’
‘Come off it Phil.’
‘BY SUPPORTING THEM, YOU ARE CONDONING CHILD ABUSE AND THE EXPLOITATION OF VULNERABLE YOUNG PEOPLE.’
‘Give it a fucking rest Phil.’
My feelings of remorse and pity were giving way to anger. While it was obvious to anyone watching that Phil had major mental-health issues, the bottom line was that I was stood on the avenue around the corner from where I live, and someone was shouting mad shit about child abuse at me. Can’t be having that.
‘ALL GOVERNMENTS – EVEN THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT – ARE IN THE EMPLOY OF A RACE OF INTER-DIMENSIONAL SHADOW BEINGS. THEY WANT TO ENSLAVE US MATT.’
Jesus fucking Christ.
A small crowd of people gathered, got their phones out and began filming. I took that as my cue to leave.
‘Be seeing you Phil.’
I tried walking away, but Phil came after me and grabbed my arm.
‘PLEASE DON’T TELL ME THEY’VE GOT TO YOU ALREADY. PLEASE DON’T TELL ME YOU’RE ONE OF THEM.’
I took Phil by the wrist and pulled his arm away from mine. I pulled him close, close enough to get a whiff of damp earth, and then I growled: ‘Fucking put a sock in it Phil. I’ll speak to you when you’ve calmed down.’
Phil looked down at the ground, and I briefly thought I’d connected with the inner-Phil, the Phil I used to know. I thought I might be able to extract myself from this awful situation without too much hassle. But then he started up again.
‘YOU ARE LOST MY FRIEND, AND PART OF THE INFERNAL MACHINE THAT WILL DRIVE US INTO ETERNAL SLAVERY AND WAR. AN IRON PRISON OF THE SOUL.’
Even though it was boiling hot, I could still feel my cheeks burn with embarrassment. My temper flared up, and I lashed out, just to get him to shut up. He gasped and fell to the pavement clutching his neck.
‘I saw that!’
A middle-aged woman with big round face ran over shouting her head off at me. ‘You assaulted that poor man. I saw it. I’m a witness.’
The small crowd that had been filming our exchange began to gather around Phil, helped him to his feet. An old-ish guy with a bald head and ‘Kill ‘Em All, Let God Deal With Them’ Metallica t-shirt shouted at me: ‘This man is clearly ill, what’s wrong with you?’
‘He was harassing me.’
I regretted it as soon as I said it. Trying to paint myself as the victim wasn’t going to work, and with that, a PCSO approached.
I’m convinced community Police have magic powers: never there when you need one, always there when you don’t.
‘What’s going on here?’
They’d managed to get Phil up and sat on bench. He coughed, spluttered, said, ‘HOW COULD YOU?’
‘This is the guy you want to speak to,’ the Metallica guy said, pointing at me.
No charges were brought, of course. I was given an on-the-spot caution, and Phil declined to take it any further. It was just a misunderstanding after all. But I still feel bad about it.
Following on from the incident, I keep seeing Phil on the avenue. He continues to be loud and obnoxious, but everyone accepts him now. He still refuses to acknowledge me, and when we pass each other, we don’t say a word, we just awkwardly shuffle past each other.
It might sound daft, but for a while after, I started to worry about whether I was actually working for the Shadow Beings. I had a couple of strange, nasty dreams following on from the confrontation with Phil. In them, strange, dark figures surrounded me, and I felt total panic and helplessness, like they were taking over me, corrupting me. I swear I could feel them pressing down on my chest, trying to squeeze the life out of me. It was like something had burrowed into my brain; the very idea of them had infected my dreams.
Waking up, covered in sweat and panting, I found myself thinking back, about school, about Phil and our childhood. Dragging myself out of bed, I sat near my window, waited for the sun to rise, and hoped it would burn away the shadows.
I decide to drop in on Donny John on my way back from town. The curtains are drawn, as always, when I stroll up to the door. I give it a copper’s knock and walk in.
John jumps up from the sofa, tipping his ashtray over. He frantically swipes at his crotch, trying to brush off all the ash and tab ends that have dropped into his lap.
‘Silly bugger,’ he shouts. ‘Nearly gimme a fucking heart attack.’
‘What’s got into you?’ I ask.
‘Barging in like fucking coppers or summat, fuck me drunk,’ he replies, clutching at his chest.
‘Why would coppers be barging in Donny John?’ I ask. ‘You better not have been downloading dodgy shit again.’
I plant myself in the armchair.
‘Make yersen at home,’ John mutters.
‘I fucking well will,’ I say. ‘D’yer know what else would make me feel right at home?’
Donny John stands there, shoulders sagging, face drooping, like some big fucking moose. He reaches up and pulls at the peak of his baseball cap, his bottom lip jutting out; a big sullen, dejected fifty-something kid.
‘What’ll it be then?’
‘Tea,’ I say, reaching for his packet of fags. ‘And make sure you leave the bag in for a bit, and then mash it against the side of the mug. It’s thin as fuck otherwise.’
I’ve spent the day digging a drive, a fucking nightmare of a job. I’m that knackered that even the lumpy grip of Donny John’s furniture is enough to make me drowsy. I guess that’s why it’s twenty minutes into The Chase before I notice that the stereo is missing.
I’d been trying to figure out what felt ‘off’ from the moment I’d sat down. Even though it’s always shrouded in gloom, the landscape of Donny John’s living room is so familiar that any change in its arrangement stands out.
I slowly sit up. My first thought is that he’s decided to move it, so I have a quick look around, but there’s no sign of it.
Donny John is sat, fag in hand, staring blankly at Bradley Walsh on the telly, thin line of smoke expanding into a ribbon as it trails upwards toward the ceiling.
‘John,’ I say.
I lean forward, grab John’s knee, shout, ‘JOHN,’ and for the second time today, Donny John leaps up, knocking the ashtray and its contents into his lap.
‘What’s fucking wrong with you?’ he yelps.
‘Where’s the stereo, John?’
John swallows. ‘Nowhere.’
I stand up. I’m quite a bit taller than Donny John, and a lot broader. I place my hands on his shoulders, give them a squeeze and pull him closer so I can look down into his face. John tips his head back and peers out from under the peak of his cap.
‘Where’s the stereo, John?’ I ask again.
He can’t look at me, looks like he’s about to burst into tears. This daft fucking man-boy, shaking like a shitting dog.
‘Someone borrowed it,’ he says.
I notice that my hands have crept closer to his neck. I’m so mad that I could quite easily choke him to death. Deep down, I know he’s a bit slow, a bit of a victim – the kind of person my mam would describe as having a heart of gold – but he’s daft, soft. Slow, deficient. Weak. That’s why people take advantage of him. People like me, and people much fucking worse than me.
‘Who took it?’
He lets himself cry now. ‘It’s okay John,’ I say as tenderly as possible, all the while fighting the impulse to smash his face in. I sit him down and then sit next to him.
‘Who was it, John? Who took it?’
‘They don’t come here often, just every now and then,’ John says as he wipes the tears from his eyes. ‘They’re just young lads really, they turn up with a couple of bottles. Sometimes, they bring a couple of birds,’ he looks up, give me a cheeky grin before continuing, ‘They’re proper tidy some of them.’
I start punching him, thumping his chest and stomach. I can’t help myself. He cries and whimpers like a young kid getting the belt. I tell myself that it’s for the best; that he needs to be taught a lesson. There are a lot of nasty fuckers out there who will use him and exploit him given half the chance.
Thank god he’s got someone like me looking out for him.
It doesn’t take long for him to spill his guts. He tells me it was taken by Carl Kirkland, a young(ish) ball-bag who knocks about the estate with his mates. He’s been using Donny John’s as a doss-house, taking his mates round with a bit of weed or whatever, and then bullying John into buying them all booze. A couple of days ago they turned up, but John was skint after a trip to the bookies, so they decided to help themselves to his stereo.
I take a walk around the estate. I stop a group of lads on bikes near the offie, and they point me towards the playing fields at the back of St. Hilda’s.
Approaching, I can see some lads and lasses hanging around near the bench next to the bin on the footpath that winds through the field.
‘I’m looking for Carl,’ I say.
One of the lads stands up. I can tell by the way he puffs his chest out that he’s a cocky little shit, really thinks he’s something. His mates get up and try and follow his example. Back-up. It’s almost comical. There’s only one way to deal with it, so I address the lad who got up first: ‘Are you Carl?’
I don’t even give him time to nod his head. I punch him square in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him. A couple of the lasses scream, and predictably, his mates scatter like mice.
I pick him up off the ground. His face is bright red, and he gasps for air. I tell him to calm down and take steady breaths. When he finally gets it together enough to talk, he starts in with the whole my Dad will kick yer arse shit, so I give him a sharp slap around the mouth, pull him close and whisper into his ear: ‘You better shuddup, or I’ll go fetch yer Dad and smash his face in while you watch.’
He shuts up then.
‘What have you done with the stereo you took from Donny John’s?’
It takes him a moment, like he can’t quite believe that this is because of a shitty JVC 3-disc changer.
‘Are you joking me or what? That piece of shit?’
‘It’s got my cassette single of Set You Free by N Trance in the deck,’ I say, and I punch him again. ‘It’s the seven-inch single mix you fucker.’
He doesn’t know what I’m on about, but he’s scared and starts crying. For the second time today, I’ve reduced a bloke to tears. I should be cutting myself a bit of swagger, y’know, ‘still got it’ and all that, but it’s depressing that the day has come to this. Could have done with a quiet night in, truth be told.
Eventually, he tells me everything. About how he took it to the Dosh Shop in the town centre, but he’s still got the docket at home. I walk him back to his house.
‘It’s in your name, so I need you to get it out of the shop,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll be here at nine in morning in a taxi. You better be outside waiting, or so help me god I’ll break every fucking one of your windows, got it?’
He gives me a frantic nod, and then disappears into his house.
I’ve got the beginnings of a stress-induced headache, so I nip for a quick pint before going home and settling down in front of Masterchef.
I’m pleased to find that he’s stood on his doorstep just as he was told when I go round the following day. Last night, watching Greg and John dismantle some new hopefuls, I had visions of going on some mad goose-chase around the estate to find him. But he knows which side his bread is buttered. Good lad.
When the taxi pulls up, I wave at him and he jumps into the back-seat. His left eye is swollen, a lovely purple shiner.
‘Got the docket?’ I ask as he gets in.
He doesn’t reply, holds the slip of paper up instead.
Our trip to the town-centre is a quiet one. The single bit of conversation takes place while we’re stuck behind a line of traffic down Freetown Way.
The kid turns to me and asks suddenly: ‘Why’s he called Donny John?’
‘Donny John – why’s he called that?’
I give him a look: are you fucking daft or what? Then I say, ‘Because he’s called John, and that’s where he’s from.’
‘Doncaster. He’s originally from Doncaster. That’s why he talks funny.’
‘Ah right,’ the kid says, turning to look out of the window.
I have a fag while he goes inside the shop. I’m keeping a front, but I’m bricking it, because I don’t know how thorough they are when they check stuff before they take it in. After I finish my fag, I immediately light up another.
Eventually, the kid comes out of the shop. ‘Look mate, I need a hand,’ he says, sticking his head around the door.
I stand away from the entrance, because I’m don’t want to be captured on the shop’s CCTV, and he drags the stereo to the door. I pick up the speakers, and he carries the main hi-fi component. We bung it into the boot of the taxi and head back to the estate.
When we arrive at Donny John’s, the kid helps me get the stereo to the doorstep, and then I let him off the hook.
‘Does this mean we’re okay?’ he asks.
‘We’re okay kid,’ I tell him. ‘Sorry I had to fuck you up. It’s just that you came on with the attitude, so I had to take the situation in hand.’
‘Yeah,’ he says.
‘I don’t mind you going round to Donny John’s,’ I say. ‘I mean, he enjoys the company. Just don’t take the piss.’
‘Nice one,’ he says, and then he trudges off.
I knock on the door, and when Donny John opens it and sees the stereo, he breaks out into a big grin, like a kid on Christmas morning.
‘You got it back,’ he says.
I give him a wink.
‘I can’t believe yer’ve done this for me,’ Donny John says. ‘Yerra good friend to me. I don’t deserve it.’
I smile and put my arm around Donny John’s shoulder.
‘Tell us what,’ I say. ‘Go make us a cuppa while I get it set up.’
‘Of course,’ Donny John says, and then he waddles off.
I wait until he’s left the room, and then I check the speakers. I tap on each of them until I find the one with the loose panel on the back. Carefully removing it, I reach inside and pat around until I find the package. I take it out and examine it. By the looks of it, it’s not been disturbed. It’s still stuffed full of powder. I pin it back to the inside of the casing, and then I replace the panel, and let out a long sigh of relief.
‘Everything okay?’ Donny John asks when he returns with the tea.
‘Everything’s great,’ I say, smiling. ‘Everything is exactly as it should be.’
An earlier version of this story originally appeared on the Armley Press website, which you can find by clicking here
There’s a smell of stale piss and vomit that all the Cillit Bang in the world couldn’t shift. Barry Scott would have a meltdown if he had to tackle this place. Oblique stains, like maps of undiscovered continents, are scattered over the walls. You waste ten minutes naming them: the Republic of Sore Heads; the Great Plains of Nausea; the Isle of Silly Beggars.
The paper suit they make you wear chafes at your crotch, your collar, your cuffs. It crinkles and crackles, filling the space with echoes. You think of that joke: ‘What do you call a bloke in a paper bag?’ Rustle. You feel like an uncooked bit of fish, bound in paper and slung in a basket. Everything seems designed to make you feel uncomfortable, raw. There are marks and scratches all over the metal door, evidence of previous tenants losing their shit and lashing out at the walls. You don’t lash out though.
You’re aware of time as it inches forwards. Just a few hours ago, you were drunk as fuck, marching around town like you owned it, having it large, the pints flowing and the good times rolling. The Friday feeling, all of that shit. And now, you’re here, in this place, this situation, wondering what the fuck is going to happen next.
You’ll have plenty of time to reflect later of course, but right now, standing astride the gap between your life before tonight and your life after tonight, you can almost sense the future bearing down on you; your face plastered on the front of the local rag; the sound of your Mam sobbing in the court; the smell of the prison you’ll end up in for the next few years.
Looking down at your hands, you notice the small graze and the swollen knuckle. It’s starting to throb now, your punching hand. Just like your head. You’re a different person now, people will never look at you the same way again, but there’s nothing about your outward appearance to suggest that anything is different.
You stand up, take a deep breath, pace up and down for a bit, and then return to your bunk and sit down again. That’s when you see the camera, its single red unblinking eye taking everything in. In a room somewhere, people are watching you on a monitor, trying to decipher your movements. Is this how guilty people act? What are they saying about you in that room? For some reason, you find yourself trying to see it from their point-of-view. How do they feel about it? You don’t really feel anything other than numbness, and the discomfort that comes from wearing a paper suit.
Reaching down, scratching, tugging at your balls, you remember the camera again.
You think to yourself: I could murder a cigarette. And you whisper the word ‘murder’ and it makes you feel sick. Just the sound of it turns your stomach, and you rush over to the toilet and stick your head in the metal pot, brace yourself for the hot rush of bile that pours from your mouth. Behind you, you hear the sound of metal grinding against metal, the clang of the little hatch being drawn back, and a voice says: 'Are you OK in there? Do you need anything?'
'I’m fine,' you grunt, and you return to your bunk, choosing to lay down this time. You drape your arm over your face to block out the cold unblinking strip-light. There’s no chance of sleep, but you crave darkness. You find yourself wishing for a power-cut, an earthquake, a nuclear war, anything to kill the lights, but nothing happens. The hatch slides across and you’re alone again.
You find yourself thinking about Shannon. Where is she right now? She’s probably here, in this building, sat at a desk while the coppers ask her questions. Or maybe they’ve let her go home by now. It’s getting hard to gauge how long you’ve been here. There are no windows in here, so it’s confusing, hard to keep track.
You want to touch her, to be touched by her. Put your arms around her, scoop her up. Put your face in her hair and inhale, breathe in coconut-shampoo and mint body-spray. You think back to last week, in bed together at her house, the sound of her shrieking when you put your feet on hers to warm them up, stealing her heat.
It’s over with her, of course. Even if by some miracle she still wants to be with you, it won’t last. You’re marked now, toxic. No one in their right mind will have anything to do with you. For the first time since being slung in here, emotions bubble up in the back of your throat, your eyes. You want to cry, scream, but you can’t let yourself do that. Can’t give those bastards who are watching the satisfaction of seeing you break. You know you’ve fucked up, done wrong, but it was an accident, a fucking accident. Honest.
You’re surprised by the speed with which self-pity is replaced by resentment: What was that stupid fucker doing there anyway? With his fancy fucking hair and eggshell head. You think back to the amount of times you’ve been punched, laid out, put on your arse. You simply got up, brushed yourself off and went home. That’s how it works. You didn’t stay on the ground, twitching and jerking like you’d been electrocuted. You didn’t slip into unconsciousness. It’s just one of those things that happens every now and then, getting decked, isn’t it? He must have been a fucking fanny.
It wasn’t his fault though, was it? He had no idea what was about to happen when you went over to him. You’d seen him talking to Shannon, saw her laughing and giggling as he showed her something on his phone. Fucking prick, who did he think he was, talking to her like that? She screamed when you swung at him. There was a loud crack as his head hit the floor, and then Shannon shouted: ‘He was just showing me photos of his kids for fuck’s sake, that’s all.’
You spat on him as he lay there, twitching and convulsing, and when Shannon screamed, you went over to your mates to demonstrate the technique you’d just used to knock the fucker out. 'One punch,' you said, laughing. 'One fucking punch.'
It didn’t take long for it to sink in: he wasn’t getting up, wasn’t moving. A crowd began to gather around him, and you heard someone shout: ‘He’s not breathing,’ and then your friends stopped laughing.
‘You need to get the fuck out of here, now,’ Jonno said, and with that, you were gone.
You were stood in the queue at the taxi rank when your phone went. It said Shannon on the screen, so when you answered it, you were surprised to hear a bloke’s voice. ‘Hello?’ he said, and when he asked if he was speaking to you, you could hear the sirens in the background, hear Shannon crying hysterically, and you knew.
And now you’re here, in this cell, and nothing will ever be the same again. All you can do is wait for your turn to be questioned. Wait for the jangle of the keys, someone opening the door to take you to the room with the coppers and the solicitor and the tape-recorder.
Sat on a chair, wearing your paper suit, sipping weak coffee from a paper cup, you’ll be saying things like: ‘It was an accident,’ and ‘I only hit him once,’ and then someone will turn to you, look you in the eye and say:
‘Sometimes, one punch is all it takes, son. One punch.’