Beyond weak, she was now spelling it out for him, like a mother – holding the small fat hand of her first born, pushing the stubborn fingers around, as they clutched a pencil to shape the letters of his own name.
How many times had she said it now? Could she count how many times she had laughed it, asked it, stuttered and moaned it and even once – in the vacancy of quiet hours – called for it, loudly across an ocean of silence.
He’d been watching the kids play across the street for a while before the police had showed up. He didn’t know what time it was exactly, but knew she’d be here soon. She always came round after her Thursday shift.
The sun had dipped slightly out of sight, but the chill of evening had not yet cloaked the estate. In the distance, he could still hear lads kick a football outside the chippy. Washing no longer flapped on lines, but had yet to be taken in. The pubs hadn’t turned out, so he knew he had a while before his father returned, red-faced and heavy with lager.
Near where he sat on the front step, pressed into the damp lip of an discarded Tennent’s, were the spent ends of three cigs. He calculated that he must have been perched there for at least 20 minutes when he saw the blues silently flickering towards the end of the road.
The kids – two boys – were playing on a trampoline that took up the entirety of the square front yard of number 43. As they leapt about, it’s metal framework skittered and giggled across the concrete, echoing against the parallel walls of the estate. Two coppers exited the car. A man and a woman.
‘Is ya mam home?’ He inquired, attempting to peer through the nets of the living room window.
‘Nar.’ The eldest chirped, still leaping. ‘Can a wear your helmet?’
As he watched them, he stubbed his fourth tab and pushed it, along with the rest of the ends, into the hole of the tin, hearing it rapidly extinguish with a soft hiss.
Finding no answer to their knocking, the coppers looked around the estate and clocked him sitting on the front step – asked if he knew where the homeowner might be. He shrugged and they nodded, disheartened but unsurprised, returning to their peering and speculation.
She turned up shortly afterwards and, like usual, he hadn’t heard her soft tread on the pavement until she was almost stood in front of him. She lifted off her supermarket tabard, folding it under her arm, and took her place beside him without a word.
‘How was the shift?’ He asked, handing her a tab from the pack by his feet.
‘Ugh.’ She grunted. ‘Can’t you just hurry up and win the lottery so we can get out of here?’
A flicker of pleasure ran up his back. He smirked.
‘I’m working on it, like.’ He said, handing her a fresh tin.
‘Your dad back yet?’ She asked, knowing the answer.
‘Still got a bit left to piss away this month then.’
‘Wey the heating’s gone again, so I’m assuming he’s not far off.’
She snorted and shook her head, before indicating with her cigarette, nodding at the squad car across the road.
‘Don’t know.’ He replied, shifting slightly sideways, to give her more space. ‘That’s the third time they’ve been this week.’
She took the gesture, moving closer to him. He could feel the warmth of her side pressing against his.
‘Poor bairns.’ She muttered, shaking her head. ‘Bet they haven’t had any tea.’
‘Aye. She won’t be back for a while yet.’ He shook his head.
‘There’ll be nowt in, an’ all.’
The small muscles of her arm flexed as she brushed lint from her skirt. From the corner of his eye, he saw her mouth twitch in a downturn, as she chewed her lip and stared. Neither spoke or moved for a few minutes, each watching the inconsequential evening unfold around them. The police officers sat in their car, which was still parked nearby. The kids played.
In the stillness between them, she let the rest of the cigarette burn down and go out.
Last week, when they were drunk and he had kissed her, he had cupped his fingers around her face. It had made him feel like there was something tiny in his hands. A bird’s wing, a dried leaf. He imagined telling her that, and let out an involuntary laugh, knowing how she’d clout him if he ever said as much.
‘What you laughing at?’ She grinned, turning her face towards him. He kept looking forward and batted the question away. She turned away slowly and he stole a quick look as she picked a bit of ash from her shoe.
He let the memory return, as he had so often since. He had kept his eyes open during the whole thing, as if he’d needed proof of what was happening. He had watched her blue veins blur behind the petal thinness of her eyelids until they too had opened again. He remembered the feeling. That she might ebb away suddenly, like vapour, or a wavering ember, evading his grasp. He remembered the feeling, and the fear. He wondered if she had thought about it too.
She said nothing, and he felt the silence heavily. He opened his mouth, half hoping words might come without his knowing. When they didn’t, she sunk her head against her chest and yawned. By the time she raised it, he still had not spoken, and the long cylinder of ash that had amassed by the end of her knuckles fell like grey snow onto the ground. It was starting to get dark.
‘Right, well. I’d best be off. Mam’ll worry I’ve run away with the circus.’
But she did not move. Her inaction froze him, as he watched her purse her lips to the side, and rest her hands on her knees.
‘Aye, fair. You working tomorrow?’ He choked, at long last.
He was pleading, in his way, pretending he wasn’t. Like a dog, sniffing for scraps, thankful for any morsel she might drop from the obscure and unseeable surface of her mind.
She nodded, sighed, and, finally, she stood. He wanted to snatch her back down, to pull at her arms, clutch her fingers, to wrap his hands around her narrow shoulders and press her to him like body armour: a shield against the salvo of regret her fated exit would unleash.
But he did no such thing. She rounded the corner as silently as she came, though, this time, with no such surprise to him, and he watched her go. It was then he would notice that the street was quiet, the children across the road had since gone indoors. Soon, his father would return, and he would be out of time.
John caught the 73 bus back from school every day, except on a Thursday, when Mr Bradshaw did football training at four o’clock, after which, all the lads of St Bernard who stayed behind would find their way home on foot, roving the town streets like stray cats.
The uniformed huddles of boys saw the bus approach: the same nameless driver as they’d always known, pulling in with a precise one-half turn of the great wheel, and flexing his fat red fingers out as he hauled the bus into the stop. His arms, marked with pin up girls, blued by age, and stretched wide by nightly fish suppers and Fray Bentos pies, pressed against the plastic divider, as he put his tab back into his mouth, multitasking by taking coins and pressing the button for the machine to dispense its long ticket tongue through the feed gap.
His four gold sovereign rings had long since lost hope of escape from between joint and knuckle, wedged on tight. John flinched, imagining the pressure, each time he looked, but today he took little care to examine. It was Monday, and the worst part of his week – Geography with Mr Cairns – was once again a whole seven days away. He made his way to his usual space, in one of two aisle seats downstairs, securing the window with his bag for Liam Doyle, who was always late being let out of the labs in Block A. John knew that, once he showed, Liam would have a story or titbit for him, about Mr Murphy.
Liam was almost a year older than John, despite being in the same school year, but had been put into the bottom set for sciences, with Arthur Murphy. John had once seen Murphy tackle a first year, in a since discontinued student-teacher touch rugby match – a friendly – and, despite never having had a class with him, Liam’s stories had bolstered John’s picture of the man: that first year had gone down like a sandcastle in a tsunami, and Mr Murphy had pulled the boy up by his collar, legs like limp spaghetti plucked from a pot, brushing him down and laughing in front of the other boys, not so much in concern but in warning.
Liam’s position in the bottom set had little to do with ability. He had started the previous year with John, in Mr Whelks’ class, but was moved before Christmas. This had perhaps been due to his proclivity for what Mr Murphy would later call, ‘being a little daft bastard’. He had once stuck pencils into the gas taps and turned them on full whack at the start of the lesson, whilst Whelks had been chatting to Mrs Quint in the corridor. When old Whelks finally sniffed the air like the aging greyhound he was, and paused his lesson on photosynthesis, Liam gave himself away immediately, exploding into shrieking laughter after the long wait. He was always doing things like that, even when no one else found it funny but him.
John loved his stories, despite knowing how Liam was prone to poetic licence. He didn’t care. But today, as Liam swung his way onto the bus, there was no story for John. Instead, he saw Liam clutching something in his hand: several gleaming conkers. Many of the other Year 9 boys fingered the same treasures, having scooped them off the grass, where they had fallen and rolled towards the school field, tumbling from the great horse chestnut beyond.
‘Thanks for keeping the seat warm, lad.’ Said Liam, grinning, as John bunked up, finally taking the window seat as Liam opened his palm, to reveal his finds.
Liam turned the brown baubles in his ink stained hands. John took one from him and admired its bulbous shape.
‘Any cheesers?’ He asked. Liam shook his head.
‘No. Matthew Pryce got the best of them before I even picked one up.’ He confessed. ‘I did well to find these. Almost had them confiscated by Mr Finchley.’ Liam frowned, before adding, ‘Fincher, Fincher, Tit Pincher.’
John wasn’t sure who had started the rhyme. Nobody was. It might have been someone in the upper school, because no boy in his year had yet taken credit for what had swiftly become a playground anthem. One possible source had been Max Dempsey, the Irish lad who had joined late last year. He once tried to convince the other boys that he’d seen Mr Finchley with his hand up his younger sister’s shirt. They had believed him, for a time, until a few of the form saw the size of Mr Dempsey, one day as he picked Max up from school. It was then they realised that, had there been any truth to that tall tale, Dempsey would have already taken the teeth from Finchley’s mouth. Besides, the rhyme had been about long before Dempsey’s arrival.
As he considered this, John saw Mickey get on the bus and make his way up the narrow staircase, flanked by the few others of the upper school boys who held rank enough to sit at the back of the top deck. They ascended, knowing their usual seats would not be taken.
Mickey, John’s brother, was three years older. They did not acknowledge one another, as it was not their custom to do so until their walk back from the bus stop on Stanberry Road, but John couldn’t help but admire him as he watched him climb the steps, his bag slung over one shoulder. The other lads had long since removed their blazers but Mickey’s stayed put, albeit with a loosened tie. John knew it was because mam liked him to look smart when he came in, and no other lad would dare ask anyway.
As the bus shuddered to life and set off, the Year 9 boys on the lower deck began playing conkers. With none of his own, John shared a few of Liam’s, strung with the lace from Liam’s left shoe, the opening of which now hung like an old mouth. At one point, Ted Kershaw, a big lad in the year above, had eyed the chance to acquire a win, and squeezed himself into the seat in front of John, challenging him to a round. He swiftly won, and Liam groaned as John reluctantly handed over one of his borrowed lot.
‘You thief, Kershaw.’ Liam called. ‘No one can beat that one – you’ve soaked it in vinegar. I can smell the bastard from here.’
Ted grinned, his back teeth showing as his thick neck widened in laughter. ‘Hand it over, you nonce.’
Liam continued to protest, and the surrounding boys took an interest. Caving to pressure, Ted handed his prized conker to Liam, for the purpose of examination. Liam gave it a once over and handed it to John, who ran his finger against the fatal ridge of the seed. Liam continued to claim he could smell vinegar, and began making a joke out of it, sniffing his fingers as the other boys howled. It wasn’t so much the soaking that the boys objected to, as the denial, but he was adamant. As Liam’s ham performance continued, and Ted’s scowling face grew redder, John swung the conker in question only once, in mock play. He had not been paying attention, his eyes stinging with tears as he laughed at Liam. The conker hit the back of the seat with a dull tin clonk and, making contact with the metal hand bar, it smashed into pieces.
There was a brief silence, as the other boys registered the casualty, their mouths rounding to small O’s, waiting for Ted’s reaction. It came fast. Ted Kershaw swung his sweaty fist 180 degrees until it met with John’s mouth. The force popped John’s lip open immediately, and he tipped his head forward, clutching his face in shock, before Ted thumped the back of his head twice, catching the top of his ear with the final blow.
Liam, who had dropped his own conkers as he stood stunned at the fierce little interlude, made his way back to the seat next to John who, knowing he had only seconds to save face, flung his head back and laughed, out of kilter with his pain, as Ted shoved himself into another seat nearer the front of the bus, his shoulders heaving with rage.
For the rest of the journey, Liam tried to make John laugh.
‘Never mind Kershaw. He’s as soft as shite, really. Did you see him nearly crying after he hit you?’
He rubbed his eyes for false tears and made a soft crying noise, to the amusement of the other boys. John laughed too, but the adrenaline he had released had tired him, and he wished Liam would be quiet.
‘Forget him, the thieving bastard. I’ve seen him taking the five pences out the collection plate on Sunday mass, an’ all. He’ll probably be held back next year, I reckon. He’s almost as thick as me.’
John pushed a desperate laugh out from his chest, sucking the tell-tale blood from his tender lip and praying that Ted would not have left a mark that mam might see later that night.
At the bus stop on Stanberry Road, John did not wait for Mickey to climb down from the top deck, but headed off towards home, hoping that he would miss him altogether. He did not want his brother to see the marks of the humiliating ordeal.
A hundred metres down the road, however, he heard Mickey’s soft jog behind him.
‘Hoy, cheers for waiting, Johnny.’ He sighed, pretending to catch his breath. ‘I’m puffed out now.’
‘No, you’re not.’ Said John, without stopping. ‘You can run faster than anyone in the school and you’re never puffed out, so I don’t know why you’re even saying that.’
Mickey sensed the subtleties of John’s mood like a shark. He had always been able to, and it was a gift that John had always revered and resented in equal measure. He longed to be home, and to hide in his room, but Mickey had caught the scent of blood in the water.
John continued to suck his lip, hiding it on one side of his face, but he couldn’t hide his ear, which had swollen into a thick red curve, like a wave, barely hidden by his curly hair. For a few moments, they walked in silence.
‘Who’s done that?’ Said Mickey, finally. He did not look, and did not have to point. John did not pretend not to know what he meant.
‘It doesn’t matter.’ He insisted, slowing down as exhaustion caused his defensiveness to wane.
‘Who.’ He repeated calmly, without even the note of question in his voice.
When John finally caved, and told him the whole story, Mickey asked one further, clarifying question.
‘He the blonde one?’
‘Yes.’ John replied.
They continued to walk, now in silence, and when they arrived home Mickey explained to mam, who fussed soft hands over her youngest, that John had tripped stepping off the bus. Mickey went out for the rest of the evening, and John went to bed, both his sore ear and pride stinging.
The next day, Liam was waiting for John at the bus stop. His class had PE last thing, and Mr Bradshaw, always shattered on a Tuesday after Monday’s hair of the dog had worn off, called the lads off the field a few minutes early. Liam’s knees, brown and scraped, swung one in front of the other, as he jogged on the spot, beckoning John over.
‘I swear Bradshaw did a little sick over by the changing rooms. He looks a fucking fright today, have you seen him?’
John, a little wary of his return to the scene of yesterday’s incident, felt himself laughing at Liam’s impression of Bradshaw. He thrust his backside out, imitating the man’s beer belly by pushing his own out as far as it would go, and burped, pretending to throw up against the bus shelter. He mimed unscrewing a hipflask after the revolting performance was complete, and John guffawed as they stepped onto the deck, taking their usual places, at this usual time.
Once most of the boys had filed onto the bus, John saw Ted Kershaw bowl his way down the aisle. His stomach dropped. He was careful not to meet his eye, or flinch, but heard him mutter something snide and disparaging as he sauntered past. He heard the smirk in his voice.
Mickey got on next, and cast a throwaway glance across the lower deck, before climbing the staircase. He did not look at John.
By the time the bus set off, Liam had started to regale John with one of his stories about Murphy, as the other boys chattered and shifted in their seats, impatient to get home and get out. A few still played with their conkers, though yesterday’s events had put a dampener on their general enthusiasm for the game.
It was just as Liam began the build-up to a punch line that resulted in Murphy calling him a rancid bugger, when John saw Mickey coming down the bus stairs. He was alone, but called a response to an inaudible conversation on the top deck, pausing on the last few steps, to hear something from above, before casually leaving his bag in the luggage hold near the front of the bus. He was smiling. Most of the boys on the lower deck had not yet noticed him, but John did not blink as his eyes followed Mickey gently slinking his way up the aisle, removing one arm from the sleeve of his blazer, and then the other. He did not stop when he reached John but, by this stage, Liam had spotted him and called out.
‘Alreet, Mickey! What are you doing down here?’
Mickey patted Liam on the shoulder as his sole answer, and laid his blazer on the back of his chair. Liam held it in place, as he turned in his seat to follow Mickey’s movements. At the back row, Mickey walked straight up to Ted Kershaw, biting the corner of his mouth and pulling his shirt sleeve from where it had caught on his forearm.
‘Are you Ted?’ He asked. Ted Kershaw scowled in confusion.
Before an answer had left his mouth, the back of Ted’s head met with the rear window. Mickey clocked him right on the pink fat of his jaw. It made a thudding sound, like dropping your mam’s Sunday ham on the kitchen tiles. Ted recovered with animalistic ferocity, leaping from his chair, as the two began to scrap. John’s mouth hung open as he watched his brother land hit after thundering hit against Ted’s back and legs, as Ted clung to him, vice-like. The bus erupted into cacophony. Chants were passed around like relay batons. A few boys tried to start bets.
Before too long, the bus screeched to a sudden halt, and the heft of the driver’s accelerating paces could be felt all up the aisle. Those standing sat in an instant. His tab end still nipped between his purple lips, he grabbed the two culprits by their ears, causing them each to wince and give in, as he howked them to the front of the bus and booted them off. John, who had not yet stopped to take a full breath, felt like he had jumped from a tall building. He could feel his body vibrate, as sheer excitement coursed through him. In all the commotion, he had missed his chance to step off the bus with Mickey, and he watched his brother grin, as he disappeared into the distance.
At Stanberry Road bus stop, a seven-minute walk from their home, John waited the thirty-five minutes it took for Mickey to walk from the point of his hasty departure. By then, he had spat out much of the blood from his own mouth, though his shirt shoulder had been ripped beyond repair.
‘Your shirt.’ John said.
‘Aye, I know. Mam’s gonna have me.’ Mickey smirked, shoving John with the tip of his elbow. He lit a cigarette, retrieved from his top pocket.
‘Don’t let her catch you at that, either.’
‘You can say they’re mine, if she smells them.’
Mickey laughed warmly, taking a deep drag as John looked at him. There was not much difference between them, in height and build, but John’s way of looking at his brother, through his pale eyebrows, had always made it feel as if there was.
‘That’s alreet, lad. Besides, I think the shirt will probably take top billing.’
It was not the custom between the two to give thanks, but nor was the day’s gesture unacknowledged. It poured out of John, in every step they took, and each furtive look. As they rounded the corner onto their estate, he finally asked.
‘Did he do anything, once you got kicked off?’
‘No.’ Mickey exhaled.
‘Nothing?’ He peered at him, inquisitively.
‘He just went home, John.’
Tossing his tab end into the gutter, Mickey took his brother by the shoulder as they walked through the garden gate. Mam had hung the day’s washing out, and it swayed and wavered in the afternoon breeze. They smelled its clean soap smell, careful not to touch, as they reached the door. John stepped into the house, and Mickey followed behind him.
As they sat in the garden with sun on their shoulders, they saw two moths mating: Elephant Hawks, enormous, olive winged and brightly tipped – pink as a kiss, their bodies tail-pinned in a union older than them. Both gawped and tutted at the audacious clasp. This is a family neighbourhood, he said, smirking, and they left the Fornicators to it.
What she didn’t tell him though was that, later that same night as she went out to lock the gate she saw them again – still stuck together, one dead, the other not, but flying low, unable to breach the garden wall or free itself from bondage as, in frantic flutter, it dragged its cold mate through the blue light of summer night.