She pushes up her eyes with her fingers and then looks down so it’s only whites left. Then she uses her little fingers to push her nose back like a pig. Her tongue drops out of the side of her mouth and she leans her head to one side. It’s well good. It looks like a freak pig. I laugh at her and she stops.
‘I’m going to do it after break when we come back in from the playground.’ Something hits her on the side of the head. We turn to see Madu doing the Vs to her. I don’t say anything. Madu laughs and Ghalia doesn’t say anything either. Madu does another Vs and this time moves his pointing finger up and down so he does a Vs and then up yours and then Vs and then up yours again. It makes me angry ‘cos I taught him that and now he says he made it up, but he didn’t and he never tells the truth about it and even if I say I made it up, which I did, then everyone will say that I’m just copying. And Madu knows I made it up but he doesn’t even admit that to me and it makes me angry because he really thinks he made it up. It’s good when we do it together ‘cos we time it so he does the Vs and I do up yours and then we swap and I do the Vs and he does up yours. It’s well sick and we look much cooler than the other boys from Eldon. Ghalia turns away from Madu and looks at me. She’s not angry with Madu. She doesn’t care anymore I think. She’s brave. Madu’s the hardest boy in our year, but he probably won’t hit a girl and Ghalia will never say anything bad, so if Madu hits her then everyone will hate him because he hit a girl who didn’t even do anything. I look at Ghalia. She’s not smiling anymore, her teeth have hidden behind her lips. Mrs Tosser tells us to get our books out. It’s maths now. I’m only on the green cards but Ghalia is on the blue ones, that’s the next level up. When I get ten out of ten on the green cards then I can do the blue ones. The sums get harder until you get to the black ones but nobody’s on them as they are really for the next year up but we have them in the class just in case. Maybe Ghalia will do them one day. I hope so ‘cos then I can see one and I know I can’t do them because I’m not good at dividing and if Ghalia gets one we’ll be the only table on a black card and I’ll be really proud of her. Madu’s only on green too. We’re not as clever as Ghalia, but Madu thinks he’s better, but he ain’t. He can’t even add one plus one. I finish the first question, but it’s always easy so I don’t even try. Ghalia works hard. She bends all the way over her workbook. Her scarf is falling forward onto the page and she keeps having to move it. I kick her.
‘Why are you wearing that stupid scarf? It looks stupid.’
She doesn’t look up. She likes sums. I kick her.
‘It’s not cold. I didn’t even wear my jacket. It must be well hot.’
She looks up from her maths and kicks me under the table. I kick her back and we kick each other for a few seconds. It’s fun and she smiles at me and I like it when she’s happy.
‘Why don’t you take it off in class?’
‘Why not? Have you got nits?’
She looks back at her sums and speaks really quietly. Not a whisper to stop Mrs Tosser hearing, but like she’s done something naughty.
‘It’s my birthday.’
‘What a shitty present.’
Madu whispers loudly across at us. He’s been listening in like a spy. He’s just jealous. I think he likes Ghalia ‘cos she’s the prettiest girl in the class, but she hates him. I hate him too now. Why’s he picking on her? She doesn’t look at him and gets back to her sums. Madu gets bored and looks away. I don’t look at him ‘cos if I do I’ll laugh and then Ghalia will think I am playing with Madu, but I’m not. I don’t even like him. He’s a right bully sometimes. I don’t mind when he bullies the other boys and sometimes I join in because they’re all pussies and we’re harder than them and then it’s fun and me and Madu are the bosses of the estate. That’s well cool. I didn’t know it’s Ghalia’s birthday. I tear out a page from my workbook and write Happy Birthday on it and then fold it in half. I kick Ghalia and then pass her my card. She smiles when she reads it and I feel very hot in my tummy.
I can’t look at her and stare at my book. I want to run away and jump up and down in the play park and have a go on the slide. I can jump from the top without even falling over. Only me and Madu can do that. I kick her instead.
‘So what? I’m nearly nine and a half.’
‘I’m a grown up now.’
I don’t get it. She’s not big yet. She’s smaller than me. In fact, she’s the smallest girl in class. She’s so stupid. I kick her.
‘My Mum don’t wear one.’
‘You’re not Muslim.’
Now I understood. All the people in the Paki building are Muslims too. Everyone says so. All the women dress like ghosts. Me and Madu pretend they are day ghosts ‘cos at night ghosts wear white sheets so in the day they must wear black sheets. We spy on them from around the corner and then run away before they get too close. There’s always too many of them. They all go together like a pack of dogs. Everyone says so. My Mum says they all wear designer gear from the market under their sheets, but I spied on them once and I saw one of them had Nike trainers on. They were total fakes ‘cos the tick was upside down and looked like a willy and balls. I told Madu and we pissed ourselves.
‘Do you have to wear it forever?’
‘Not with my family.’
Only her family?
‘Can I see your hair?’
I feel stupid. I don’t mean that. She’ll think I like her but I don’t.
She puts her head down and doesn’t look at me. I don’t care. I hate her and her stupid scarf and her stupid family. They’re all fucking Paki idiots with fake trainers anyway. I kick her under the table but she doesn’t even kick me back. I hate her. She looks unhappy. Good. It’s her birthday and I made her sad. I’m well pleased. Stupid cow. I go back to my green card and look at question two, 27 ÷ 3. I hate divided by. I jab my pencil into the book and break the lead. Fucking hell. I hate school.
Mrs Tosser shouts across the classroom. Everyone looks up. Madu has pulled his jumper over his head and is pretending to be a girl. It’s really funny, but Mrs Tosser shouts again.
‘Madu. Take that off immediately.’
She’s really angry. She never shouts like that. Her face is red. She’s going to explode. Really. It’s not even funny anymore. Everyone in the class is silent. We’re like statues. Even Madu and Mrs Tosser. It lasts for hours and then she shouts in a whisper.
‘Madu. Take that off.’
Madu has gone red like a Coke can. I didn’t even think he could go red ‘cos his skin’s really dark. Actually, it’s more like his eyes are burning. I can see his face twitching. Everyone knows Madu wants to be the hardest.
His backchat isn’t strong like usual. His voice is weak, like a pussy. He’s scared of Mrs Tosser, but he wants to look hard. But he’s not hard. He looks scared. He points his hand at our table.
‘What about Ghalia?’
Madu is such a dick. It’s not even funny. He doesn’t have to pick on her. Why doesn’t he pick on the new boy? He’s well fat and can’t hit back ‘cos he gets out of breath really quick. It’s not her fault she has to wear the scarf. And even if she wants to wear it, she can. He’s just jealous ‘cos he has to take off his baseball cap in class. It’s a stupid hat anyway. It says FUCT and he wears it all the time like it’s stuck on with glue and when I tried it on it smelt ‘cos he never washes it because he never takes it off. He loves that hat. I want one too, but just with NYC. That would be well cool and we’d look well hard, especially when we did the Vs and up yours together. No one would touch us ‘cos they’d think we were American. I can even do an American accent. If I went to New York nobody would know that I’m English. I wonder if they have estates in America. Me and Madu would be the big bosses, even though Madu can’t do an American accent. He’d still be the hardest in the year, even if we lived in New York. Mrs Tosser shouts so loud the windows rattle.
Madu looks around the class but everyone is quiet with their heads down at the desks. No one wants to look at Madu ‘cos he’ll make them laugh. He slowly takes his jumper down off his head. Mrs Tosser stares at him for a second and then sits back down in the teacher’s chair. Madu throws his textbook at Ghalia.
Mrs Tosser goes apeshit and grabs Madu by the arm. She pulls him out of the classroom as quick as a flash. Everyone is shocked. Nobody’s seen Mrs Tosser go mental before. She’s gone proper mental. I think she’s flipped in the head. One person starts to talk and the room goes bananas. Everyone talks at the same time. We all want to tell what happened again, in case we didn’t see it and we forget. This is the funniest day in school ever. Mrs Tosser has gone apeshit and Madu is getting well told off. I reckon they’ll phone his Dad. Fucking hell. It’s well funny. But I’m not laughing. I can’t even think about it. Madu just did his raghead impression and Mrs Tosser went apeshit and then Madu backchatted her and she dragged him away to the headmaster for a super bollocking. I can’t concentrate on it. The classroom has gone Loopy Lou. Everyone is talking at the same time. Some of the other kids are being Madu and some are being Mrs Tosser. It’s well funny. I kick Ghalia.
‘Did you see that? Mrs Tosser went mental with Madu?’
Ghalia doesn’t laugh. Her smile has gone away. She’s crying.
The morning lesson continued without Madu. Dean managed his usual six out of ten, whilst Ghalia faked a wrong answer and stayed on the blue cards for another week. Mrs Prosser had returned shortly after dragging Madu out and shushed the class with one of her stern hisses. She dropped herself down and accepted nothing but silence for the rest of the lesson. One by one the pupils would come up to her desk and wave their card and answer papers in front of her. She’d scratch across their work with a large green tick or a small red cross and send them back to the cracked plastic ice cream tubs to collect the next card of the same colour. No one got ten out of ten. It was a typical morning all in all.
Dean worked slowly on his sums, not able to concentrate, his thoughts bouncing between Madu, Ghalia and the television programmes he was going to watch after school. Most evenings Dean’s mum wouldn’t get back until well into the night. She had to take the late shift as it was almost an extra pound an hour. It didn’t bother Dean much anymore. Sometimes he’d play with Madu or watch the comings and goings of the estate. Sometimes he’d make himself a beaker of squash and watch his cartoons. If his mum had worked a double and been there all night, she’d be asleep by the time he got home from school. Dean would sit in his room and play with his toys until she’d come in and tuck him into bed with a cuddle.
The morning was slow and the divisions were not getting easier so he decided to give up on them. When he took them to Mrs Prosser, she just crossed and ticked and sent him back to his seat without explanation. There were far too many pupils in the class just to get through, let alone help individually. Dean couldn’t stay focused on his work and his eyes wandered around the peeling paint and curled poster edges of the makeshift walls. Under the blu-tack were rolling hills of green and brown stains where water dripped from leaking pipes and ceilings, and rising damp continued its slow takeover of the school. The pupils looked disinterested in their work and sat in murmured silence until eventually the break bell rang. The class jumped up as one and rushed to collect their bags from the pegs before clambering outside. Mrs Prosser looked out the window.
Dean ran too and hoisted his rucksack off the hook. He was desperate to find out what had happened to Madu and whether the school had phoned his Dad. As he was leaving he caught sight of Ghalia. She hadn’t moved from the table. The two of them hadn’t spoken to each other the whole time since Madu had been dragged out of the class. For a moment he felt like staying with her. Remaining behind was not an option though, as Mrs Prosser waved him out. He trudged along the main school corridor, torn between Ghalia and Madu. His head down, he watched his feet as they took one step after another over the smooth non-slip floor. He contemplated moving and how he stayed upright. He tried to walk quicker, at the same pace he would if his eyes had been forward. His feet kicked out in a constant natural rhythm that hypnotised him. All thoughts of his two friends evaporated and he trundled along the corridor blindly. He sailed across the plane and lost all sensation of thought, only foot, foot, foot. His head bumped into a soft object that stopped him in his tracks. He looked up at the Deputy Headmaster who smiled questioningly at him. He’d been caught daydreaming and could already feel the red guilt of embarrassment creeping through his body to his cheeks. The Deputy Headmaster stepped aside and guided Dean to the main door. A quick pat on the shoulder and Dean was outside in the screaming vortex of the playground.
Groups huddled together scheming up rules to games they would never play, break time running out before they could all agree how to start. Others dashed around staging enactments of dramas and adventure movies, narrating their role before, during and after they played it. A few skipped, a few sang badly and some walked silently around the periphery staring through the prison mesh fence at the jostle of fuming mid-morning traffic. The day was warm and the sun hung just behind the ridge of Addington, so only a thin slice of the tarmac was out of the shadows. Madu stood in spotlight recounting the horrors of his ordeal. He had cast himself as hero in an oppressive system that outlawed fun and laughter. The group of boys standing court around him listened intently as he wove his story again and again, embellishing dubiously established facts with impossibly tall tales of cruelty, staunch resolve and bravery. Dean, spotted his friend from afar and dashed over to hear of Madu’s adventures.
Madu’s like a superstar. The sunshine on him looks like a spotlight when they sing on the telly. He’s well the coolest boy in our year and the hardest and I’m his best friend so no one messes with me. I push my way through to the front of the crowd and stand near Madu. Everybody lets me ‘cos they know I’m the second big boss and that me and Madu will deck them if they say anything. I can stand in the sun too. It’s well warm. I can’t see properly ‘cos it’s really bright, but Madu’s got his cool baseball cap on so he can look directly into the sun if he likes even though we’re not allowed to ‘cos it’ll make us go blind. I don’t mind. I’m in the spotlight too so everyone knows that I’m Madu’s best friend. It’s hot in the sun.
‘And he even got this big ruler thing and bent it like a whip or something and said that he was going to beat me in the head with it. And I was like you can’t even do that and if you do I’ll get my Dad on you. And he said I don’t care ‘cos I can put him in detention.’
I bet the Deputy Headmaster didn’t do that. He smiled at me and gave me and Madu a biscuit. I don’t think he hit Madu. I don’t think teachers hit us ever. Maybe they do, really crazy ones, but then they go to prison and the cops handcuff them and take them away and they never can go back to a school and have to work as dustbin men or cleaning toilets with their tongue, which is the worst punishment ever. That’s well gross. I don’t even like to poo in school. I only wee and save my poo for when I get home and I can read a comic.
‘He’s such a knob. I reckon we should do something to him. Like a trick.’
All the boys say yeah together and shout stuff like slash his tyres or smash his windows. One boy shouts stab him up and everyone shouts yeah, but I don’t ‘cos he’s nice and gave me a biscuit and I bet he didn’t even do anything to Madu. He didn’t even call his Dad. Madu is well unfair. He’s a liar liar and makes everything up like he’s got a colour telly in his room and that his uncle is in the FBI and that his Dad’s been on telly. I don’t care ‘cos I never believe him, but the other boys don’t know he’s a liar and they’ll follow him and stab up the Deputy Headmaster, even though they won’t really do it, but they’ll backchat him a lot and he might leave like Mr Osborne who was funny and now we have Mrs Tosser and she doesn’t even care if we get our sums wrong. She just wants us to shut up. When the Deputy Headmaster teaches us he wants us to talk. And we speak to each other and he comes and listens and asks us questions and wants to hear what we think and makes us feel like when the grownups talk on the news. One time we had to write our name on a bit of paper and then BBC or ITN after it and the Deputy Headmaster drew this big telly on the board and we pretended we were telling the news and the rest of the class were watching from home and the Deputy Headmaster pretended that the board rubber was a remote control. It was really good fun. And then another time we drew faces of ourselves and I did a big circle and eyes and nose and ears and hair and mouth and then I finished and then the deputy headmaster looked at it and made me put my hand on the paper and see if it was the same colour. It wasn’t even the same even though everyone says that I’m white, but I’m not. I’m more like pink or light brown. I couldn’t even make my colour with the felt tips because they don’t mix and everything turns purple and then the page tears because it’s too wet. He did the same to Madu and he’s not really black even and then he did it to Ghalia and she’s in the middle of me and Madu. That was my favourite lesson. Madu’s pulled his jumper up again. He’s pretending to be himself when he got done. It’s well funny.
‘So I just pull my jumper up and pretend I’m a stupid Muslim and I have to wear a scarf over my head in case a bird does a shit on me.’
He dances around like he’s a girl. Everyone pisses themselves and me too.
‘And then Mrs Tosser shouts at me and I’m thinking like what. What did I do? I didn’t do nothing. And Mrs Tosser goes well mental and her face goes this bright red and I think she’s going to explode like the Incredible Hulk. But I don’t care so I’m thinking fuck off you old bitch.’
He does an impression of Mrs Tosser and puffs up his cheeks and makes his eyes go crossed and waves his arms like an octopus and points his fingers at one of the boys from the year below. He makes a funny voice.
‘Take that off now Madu.’
Madu does himself again.
‘Why should I? That stupid Paki bitch doesn’t have to.’
Madu pretends to be Mrs Tosser again, but it’s not funny. He’s being nasty to Ghalia and she didn’t even do anything and now everyone will call her stupid Paki bitch because they want to copy Madu ‘cos he’s the hardest boy in the year and everyone thinks he’s well cool, but he’s not. He’s nasty and sometimes he’s nasty to me too, like when he broke my favourite toy car because I didn’t let him play on it because I knew he’d break it and then one time he kicked my football onto the road and it got run over and popped and no one could fix it. Why does he do it? I feel sorry for Ghalia because she’s just nice and smiles at everyone. She even smiles at Madu and he always tells her to fuck off. She should say fuck off to Madu and see if he likes it. He’s got his jumper up again and tries to speak like Ghalia. But her voice is lovely and Madu just sounds like a dick. I hate him.
‘And Ghalia creeps on me and tells Mrs Tosser and says miss miss Madu is saying bad things to me. She’s such a creep. She licks Mrs Tosser’s bum. Fucking teacher’s pet. Stupid fucking Paki bitch.’
I can feel my body is shaking. I’m really hot and the sun is making me hot too. I hate Madu. He says stuff like that to copy his Dad but it’s not even the truth. It didn’t even happen and I know because it’s on my table and Ghalia didn’t say anything.
‘Don’t trust Pakis ‘cos they’ll tell on you.’
‘Ghalia didn’t do nothing.’
I say it out loud and then everyone shuts up and looks at me. But I don’t care. I feel like my face is burning like when me and Madu set fire to plastic bottles. It’s all bobbly and melting. I don’t care. It’s not fair.
‘She didn’t creep. Mrs Tosser told you off for it. Ghalia didn’t say nothing.’
Madu’s face goes nasty. He’s a real bully sometimes. He points at me but is looking at everyone watching.
‘Dean’s a Paki lover. You love Pakis.’
‘Fuck off. No I don’t.’
I push him on the arm.
‘You love Ghalia.’
He puts his jumper up over his head and does his stupid fucking voice again.
‘Kiss me Dean. You’re my boyfriend. Let’s make us a baby.’
He does kisses to me. Everybody is pissing themselves, but it’s not even funny like normal. I can’t concentrate on him and I want to run away, but I want to stay and fight him ‘cos he’s a stupid fuckhead. I’m getting hot and I grip my hands together. Madu pushes me away and laughs.
‘Dean loves Ghalia. Your girlfriend is a Paki bitch who wears a headscarf. She should cover her face ‘cos she’s well ugly too.’
I hate Madu. Why does he pick on Ghalia just ‘cos she’s a Paki. No one picks on him ‘cos he’s black. How would he like it if everyone calls him a stupid nigger? He’d go crazy and everyone says it’s well bad to say that, even worse that fuck off and shithead, but Madu always says Paki and bitch to Ghalia and it’s not even her fault and she’s not even a bitch. She’s nice and Madu is a stupid fucking nigger. Madu pushes me again. Everyone’s laughing and it’s really loud. I can’t think properly. I start to burn all over. I can’t stay still, all I see is Madu’s stupid grin, like he’s won.
Everyone turns where Madu points. Ghalia is standing on her own by the main door. Madu shouts at her.
‘Ghalia. Ghalia, over here.’
Ghalia looks up and sees us. Me and Madu are in the sun. Everyone else is in the shade. She looks at me. She smiles at me. Madu shouts again.
‘Dean says you’re a stupid rag head Arab Paki bitch Muslim and you smell like curry and shit.’
Ghalia stops smiling and she goes all limp. My chest goes tight like I’m in a bear hug. Ghalia’s mouth twitches and it makes my ears burn on fire. Madu pushes me and smiles at me with his stupid fucking grin. I hate him. I really fucking hate him. I want to stab him up and kill him and break all his toys and smash his stupid fucking head in. I’m burning all over. Ghalia goes back inside the school and I go mental. I run at Madu and hit him as hard as I can.
‘Stupid fucking nigger.’
I shout at him as I hit him in the head.
‘Stupid fucking nigger.’
How does he like it? I hit him everywhere and push him against the fence. He tries to hit me but I can’t feel anything. I punch him in his stupid face and I see blood on his white teeth. It makes me go mental. I hit him harder and harder and faster and faster and he tries to hit me but I don’t care anymore. I hate him. I feel two big hands on my shoulders dragging me backwards. I try and fight but I can’t do nothing. Everyone watches me as I’m carried backwards. I fight and scream and shout but I can’t do nothing. I see Madu get up from the fence. He doesn’t even do an up yours. He’s got blood on his mouth but he doesn’t even care. Everyone watches us. I stop fighting. Madu stares at me from across the playground. He looks small and weak. He doesn’t look like the hardest boy in the year. He doesn’t even do the Vs. I’m far away now. Almost by the main door. But I can see Madu watching me. He doesn’t even care about the other boys shouting at him. He’s my best friend. I don’t hate him anymore. He just stands there watching me and my burning makes me feel sick. The door is shut behind me and I can see Madu through the glass. He looks so small.
Dean sat in the deputy head’s office, kicking his feet against the wooden chair leg. His Mum had been called and they were waiting for her to arrive. Madu had told his side separately and been sent back to class with a harsh reprimand for fighting and a serious threat of calling his parents if he added a third misdemeanour to the day. The Deputy Headmaster filled in forms, scratching his pen across the paper while Dean absently kicked his heel against the floor. There was a knock at the door and Dean’s Mum was shown in. Her scraggy blonde hair had been finger combed to create a semblance of respectability, but it was undermined by the lopsided slap of make up that barely covered the emerging smoker’s wrinkles. Lipstick ran over the lines like a kid’s colouring book and when she forced an upturned grimace of a smile it emphasised her overlapping yellow teeth. Her one size fits all uniform hung over her skinny, bent frame, making flapping noises as she moved. She explained that she was in a rush and was desperate to know what the trouble was as any absence was docked from her pay. This had already cost her a tenner. Dean muttered his story once more, again avoiding the real reason for the fight. He didn’t look up once. His Mum was surprised to hear that Dean had attacked Madu, she told the Deputy Headmaster, they were best friends. Well, boys would be boys and getting into a fight over a pretty girl, even a Muslim one, was understandable. She didn’t really get what all the fuss was about and was keen to get back to her job. The Deputy Headmaster explained that it wasn’t simply the fight but the language that Dean had used. They had no choice but to treat this as a racially motivated attack. Dean’s Mum protested, they were best friends and this would blow over by the weekend. She suggested that the Deputy Headmaster come down to Eldon one day and hear how the blacks talked about the Pakis and how the Pakis talked about the whites and how everyone talked about everyone else. It wasn’t racist language, it was just how they spoke down on the estate, or weren’t they allowed to use those terms anymore? The Deputy Headmaster did understand her point and felt very sorry for Dean, but in a situation as sensitive as this, he had to follow policy. He’d be happy for her to bring it up at the PTA meeting next week as they’d be discussing the cultural diversity awareness weeks and the taking down of all the Union Jacks. He gave a smile of reassurance to Dean’s Mum. It was only a few weeks of suspension and then Dean would be welcomed back to the school. The Deputy Headmaster asked Dean if he knew how seriously these issues were taken, but Dean just shrugged his shoulders. He wasn’t going to say anything. He wasn’t a creep and he certainly wasn’t going to dob Madu in. He was his best friend.
Dean’s Mum left him at the school gates and went back to work. She’d lost twenty quid and was fuming. She gave Dean a slap around the head and power walked off to the bus stop. Dean looked at the cracked pavement and then up at Addington. It frowned down like the grotesque twin of his own Eldon estate. The lines were fraught, the high walls and corrugated steel imprisoned everything inside. Life there was adrift from the sleek new cars that glided past the school on their way to another part of the city. Dean stood between the twin facades of the estates and understood that this was where he belonged, his real home. He turned back to the school and looked across the playground. The sliver of sunlight was gone and the building was dark in shadow. Madu was in there somewhere, probably picking on Ghalia. Dean thought about what had happened and the burning came again. He raised his middle finger to the school. He hoped they all fucked off and died.
The War in Bosnia rages. Buckingham Palace is opened to the public. An IRA bomb explodes in Bishopsgate, City of London. Unemployment at almost three million. First train journey though the Channel Tunnel. The British Front Party win a council seat in Tower Hamlets. 2Unlimited knock Whitney Houston from number one.
Deep in the heart of Eldon, basking in the courtyard midday sun, Dean checked the grass for dog shit, lay back and looked up at the looming grey square outlines the tower blocks cut from the blue sky. He put his hands under his head and closed his eyes. Daytime television had not been what he’d expected and one touch was just not the same on his own. He’d started a small fire with some newspaper behind the abandoned skip, and even though he liked the gust flare from spraying deodorant, he didn’t get the same rush without his mates. He’d watched some younger children chasing flying debris that eddied and jostled across the carpark. He’d trudged around the corners of the blocks a few times and wondered if skiving was all that. He always ended up returning to the same place he was now. Lying back, he thought of all the other kids in school, stooped over desks, scribbling away pointlessly, whilst he could just relax. Being alone might not be great, but it was better than that bullshit. He was shut off, the horns from the A48 just breaking over the estate horizon of sound. He listened to the artificial trade winds whistling around the buildings’ edges, bringing with them the smell of exhaust fumes and metal. He dozed in peace.
A loud sharp crash jerked him from his sleep. He didn’t move, just opened his eyes and turned his head towards the large bins, their rubbish spreading over the rims like muffin tops. Dean watched as one of the closest began to tilt forward and back, eventually toppling over, crashing to the ground and echoing thunder around the courtyard walls. The contents spewed out across the gravel and spread in a fan of torn black bin liners, nappies and teabags, all marinated in a thick brown juice. The fallen bin revealed two boys in their late teens, bent double in hysterics as they kicked empty baked bean tins across the tarmac. Dean pushed himself up onto his elbows and watched as three more lads appeared from behind his own building. They sauntered forward, lips pursed, dragging the last remnants of smoke from their finger-nail-clenched rollies. One of them spat out a glob of phlegm, bent over and sprinkled it with a few more droplets of spittle. Still looking at the floor the same lad shouted over to the two boys at the bins to stop fucking around. The whole gang erupted into a volley of swearwords that ricocheted off windows and bounced away through the estate. They swayed on their pins and jostled and tumbled, spitting at garage doors. Their white and grey trackie bottoms flapped in the breeze as Dean watched them go by. None of them paid him any attention except the boy who’d first spat. From under the exposed elastic of a red hoodie, he caught Dean’s eye. His face was long, uncooked pastry skin pulled taut over his sharp jaw, a thin shadow line of rat whisker hair under his nostrils. A short, silent nod of recognition and he turned back to his gang. Dean looked on and watched as they picked up strewn bottles from the bin and threw them at Madu’s building. The glass exploded as the boys ran from the scene, disappearing along the main artery road towards Addington. Dean, still resting on his elbows, kept his eyes on the blank space of the access road left in their wake. He sniffed and spat to his side, but still watched, listening as the gang’s shouts mingled together and were lost in the sounds of the city.
‘What a bunch of cunts.’
Georgina stands behind me staring at the clapped out Ford Escort near where the gang just left. She’s got that sideways squint like she’s shooting a crow. She always does that. And her mouth hangs down, like she’s stopped halfway in a chew, but she’s not even got any gum or sweets. I don’t have any either. I only get fifty pee a week pocket money and I already spent it on a coke and some highland toffee. It tastes creamy and sweet and sometimes I put the whole thing in my mouth in one go and I can’t hold it in and all my spit runs down my chin. It’s sticky and lush. The wrapper’s hard to get off though. Georgina’s got a pink top on that shows her arms. She’s got her hand on her hip ‘I’m a Little Teapot’ style. She thinks she’s grown up just because she’s in the year above. But she ain’t. She isn’t even a year older than me, it’s just because her birthday’s in July and mine’s in October. She’s only going to be twelve for…July, August, September…three months before me. Another reason school is so fucking stupid. Georgina sniffs her nose up into a ball and drags both her hands over her hair. She says it’s blonde, but it’s more like ginger, in fact we all say that to piss her off. And it works. She goes mental and tries to punch you, but like a girl, using the side of her hand so it looks lame and doesn’t even hurt, which makes us laugh even more. She swears a lot and calls us pricks and dickheads and wankers, especially if you call her Georginger. That’s well fucking funny and I made that up with Gary. He said Georginge and then I said Georginger, which sounds much cooler. I’m way cooler than Gary, easily. He’s got asthma and can’t do sport so I always win at everything and he wears Hi-Tecs and a duffer coat. He never stands still and my Mum says he’s got ants in his pants. He’s alright and sometimes I beat him up. She’s still staring at the knackered Escort. I sit up and look too, but there’s nothing there. I try and imagine the gang, but they all look like the leader with the tash and the wicked hoodie.
‘They should fuck off back to Addington.’
She says with a snarl. She puckers up her lips and looks down at me.
‘Why aren’t you in school?’
‘Why aren’t you in school?’
I snap back angrily. I hate people telling me what to do. She ain’t me fucking Mum. Georgina rolls her eyes because I already know her excuse. She comes back to check on her Nan at lunch to make sure the old bid hasn’t snuffed it. Georgina folds her arms and slowly blinks her eyelids. I feel my face going red. She starts tapping her heel on the floor and it makes her skinny knee bob up and down. I shuffle on my arse and don’t know what to do with my hands. I keep moving them from my pockets and then holding them together and then putting them back in my pockets again. Georgina watches me and then looks over her shoulder towards my building.
‘Do you wanna sit on the wall?’
I want it to be hard, but it comes out weak and my voice sounds high like a gaylord. Georgina smiles at me and walks towards the wall at the end of my building. I scuff my trainers against the floor. They ain’t got no grip anymore so I can do the best ice slides in winter. You run up to the ice patch and skid along it. I did nearly ten metres once. Gary’s shit at it. He’s too pussy to run up fast so he only did a centimetre. His bones click so he’s worried they’ll snap if he falls over. Madu used to do it the best, one time he did a slide across the whole car park. We didn’t play this winter. I push my foot hard into the ground and watch my toes curl up at the end. It’s not the same without Madu.
‘Are you coming or what?’
Georgina sits on the wall and shouts at me. Her voice feels like a bread knife, all bumpy and sharp.
‘I ain’t got all day.’
She’s a right bossy cow. Just because she’s in year eight. She can fuck off, stupid fucking bitch. I give her an up yours.
‘Dean, I’ve got to go.’
She says it more softly, with her head tilted to one side. I look back at my feet and I feel bad for doing the up yours to her. Her Nan’s really ill with heart cancer and can’t even piss or shit on her own and Georgina has to clean her and feed her tomato soup. I sniff as hard as I can and feel a hard lump move from behind my nose and into my mouth. It feels a little sore but really good, like having a dump. I gob it out. There’s a dollop of green in it. Georgina’s kicking her heels hard against the wall. She looks lonely on her own. I don’t want her to go back to school. I get up and walk over. As I get closer my tummy starts to feel like it’s shrinking. I slow down, but Georgina pouts her lips at the wall. I sit next to her and look at her knees. Her skin is white and pink and she has a brown and yellow bruise on her thigh. My legs are longer than hers. I can touch the floor, but she can’t. She’s tall for a girl though. My Mum says Georgina could be a super model if she didn’t have a wonky nose. Mum says she was born like it, but Georgina told me in secret that her Dad punched her in the face before he got banged up. I think it’s okay. It’s not that big or anything, it just goes to the side a bit. I don’t even stare at it anymore. Georgina puts her hand on my face and leans in and kisses me. I keep my mouth shut and we press our lips together. Georgina moves side to side and I do too. I put my hands on her shoulders. When we first kissed I didn’t do that, but now we’ve done it a lot and it’s how they do it in year eight. I like touching her skin because it always surprises me. I think it’s going to feel like my own, but it’s cool and soft and smooth and I just leave my hand there until it gets sweaty. I wonder if she thinks the same when she touches my face. We don’t do frenchies because Georgina says we’re taking it slow, but we’ve been boyfriend and girlfriend for nearly four months so I’m probably going to have to finger her soon and touch her tits. That’s what everyone says. I don’t know when to stop kissing so just keep going until Georgina pulls away. I take my hand off her shoulder and she smiles at me. It feels okay. I like kissing Georgina, but it’s not like on the telly when a sexy girl with big knockers kisses Bugs Bunny and his heart jumps out of his chest. Sometimes, I think about ice sliding.
‘I’m going back to school.’
Georgina lets herself down from the wall and walks off.
‘See you later.’
I do the Vs behind her back, but only for fun. I watch her for a bit and then get down from the wall. The sun’s gone in.
Dean kicked around the courtyard for a while longer before heading back home. The door opened onto a staircase with an opening to the right that led into the living room. It was small, but just big enough for him and his Mum. A faux leather two-seater faced the television, with a round fold-up table stashed in the back corner next to a cabinet awash with gossip magazines and some of Dean’s comics. He walked past the pile of boxes under the stairs and headed through the hanging-bead door to the galley kitchen at the back. He grabbed himself a beaker and filled it halfway with blackcurrant squash. He began to run the tap so the water would get cold and took a small sip of the cordial. The sweetness coated his mouth and made his lips purse. He turned off the tap and filled the rest of the beaker with squash, heading back into the sitting room. He dropped himself down onto the sofa and immediately got back up to turn on the television. He flicked through the four channels, declaring them all shit before settling on a cookery show. He fell back on the sofa and sipped his purple syrup. Within minutes the TV chef had finished his Jamaican Jerk Chicken and Dean had knocked back the complete beaker of undiluted squash. As the credits rolled, he switched off the television and wondered why there weren’t any foods called British something or something. He couldn’t hold the thought. The sugar was going to his head and he could feel his eyes begin to pulse. He walked around the sofa a few times and then out onto the walkway in front of his house.
He took in some deep breaths of fresh air and looked out over the square horseshoe buildings. To his left was Madu’s block and to his right was Ghalia’s. He didn’t see much of either anymore. After coming back from suspension, Dean had been moved to a different class and sat on a table with Gary, who had an already greying curly mop of hair and patchy bum fluff all over his blotchy pink face. At first Dean hadn’t liked him. He was one of the best pupils in class, but also a real teacher’s pet. As soon as he’d finished the task, he’d run to the front desk and show Mr Buck, waiting patiently for the green ticks and smilies that were inevitably coming. On the way back he’d be bursting with so much pride that he couldn’t hold back a gap-toothed grin. This, and Gary’s lack of arrogance, pissed Dean off so much he made it routine to grab Gary’s chocolate bar at lunch and crush it into his yoghurt. It took him a while to realise that Gary still ate both and on some lunch breaks would pre-empt Dean by doing it first. It came to a head when Dean decided that cheese and pickle sandwiches mushed into Gary’s juice bottle would be a more effective form of bullying. It served Gary right somehow and got Dean another three days off school, which turned into a week from his own truant’s volition. It was during that time Dean had seen Madu playing one touch by himself. The ritual of suspension covered the fact they hadn’t spoken since their fight and Dean had rushed down the stairwell to join his friend. By the time Dean had reached the garages, Madu had already spotted him, picked up his ball and headed back to his building. Before he’d disappeared into the stairwell, Madu had shouted that he wasn’t allowed to play together anymore. Dean became friends with Gary the day he went back to school.
Dean scraped his nails along the walkway bricks. There was a sickly rasping in the back of his throat that he couldn’t get rid of. He spat over the low wall and watched the droplets float down to the floor. The day dragged on. He stooped over the wall and watched and waited for anything to happen. Nothing did. He was bored. He’d been bored these past two years. Even so, he was in no rush to start going back to school. He dropped his chin onto the ridge of the wall and felt his neck contract against the brick as he swallowed against the tickly dryness still there in his throat. His eyes wandered lazily around the courtyard. If he could draw well, he’d be able to render this view from memory. It didn’t change, just deteriorated. His eyes came to rest on the faint Fuck Off on Ghalia’s building. The council had painted over it and the next day it was back, bigger and brighter. In the end they just gave up and left it there to fade along with the rest of the estate. Dean traced the outline of the spiked lettering and wished he could create the same jagged words. He could see the pictures in his mind, but just couldn’t get his hands to follow.
On the ground floor he saw movement. A man walked a few steps ahead of a smaller figure, head to toe in navy blue. Dean stood bolt upright. He knew that movement from a mile away. It was Ghalia. He followed every step she took along the walkway, every shuffle around a discarded black bin bag, every wisp of scarf as she turned her head. A year ago she’d won a scholarship to go to an all girls school in the next borough. According to what Dean and Gary’s Mums had heard around the estates, she’d got in because of other reasons, but they didn’t like to talk out loud about that. Since then Dean had only caught glimpses of her. He often thought of her round face floating above her shoulders and occasionally he dreamt of reaching out and gently loosening her scarf and running his hands over her hair. She hadn’t spoken to him again after the fight with Madu. Dean had earned himself a reputation that many of the estate families didn’t appreciate, especially those in Ghalia’s block. She got to her floor and began along the walkway towards the door the man with her had already begun to unlock. Dean felt a panic rising inside him, gripping his innards and squeezing his whole body in desperation to see her face just once before she went in. Ghalia reached the door and entered. She didn’t look back. The door was pulled shut and Dean was again left alone in the fractured silence of the estate.
‘Stupid fucking Paki bastards.’
I spit it out quietly under my breath like the men outside the bookies. I don’t even care about Pakis, but it pisses me off that Ghalia’s never allowed out. All the other girls on the estate are. Georgina can stay out until midnight if she wants. She’s in a gang of girls who rule all the way until the main road. But they only rule the girls. The big bosses are the gang from Addington. One of them is nearly eighteen and they all smoke. Actually some of them are from Eldon, which is why they can come here too. They did the cool graffiti on the Paki block and they always tell the old codgers to fuck off and die. I don’t want old people to die, but they always tell me and Gary off for playing games on the grass. They must have such shit lives if all they care about is some grass. It’s not even nice grass. It’s covered in dog turd. And even though there’s a sign that says no ball games or fires, where else can we play footie? They’ll moan whatever. You just can’t win. If I had a gang, I’d tell them to fuck off too. Madu’s got a gang now. Well, he thinks it’s a gang. Three black kids pretending to be gangsta rappers is rubbish. I bet they can’t even rap. They can’t do nothing. They’re not a real gang, they don’t even bunk off school. They all sit there doing spelling and learning about Afreeka. Who gives a fuck about it anyway? No one in school has been there. What’s the fucking point in learning about Africa and India and Pakiland? Some kids can’t even speak English. There’s a boy on mine and Gary’s table called Janek who can’t even say hello or goodbye. I bet he can’t even count to ten or do the alphabet. He knows how to swear though. He must watch eighteen films. It’s funny ‘cos he says wanker bitch and fuck off wanker bitch. He doesn’t even know what it means. He should go back to nursery school. Me and Gary heard Gary’s Mum say that loads of people think they should go to a different school, like a special school for kids who don’t speak English. I don’t care about them, it’s the teachers I hate. All the teachers like Mr Fuck and Mrs Tosser love them so much because they don’t speak properly. They never get told off or detention. One day we had to write about what we did at the weekend and the boy on mine and Gary’s table only wrote two sentences and Mr Fuck gave him two ticks but he didn’t even look at my story. Gary got two ticks as well, but he licks the teacher’s arsehole so he always gets lots of ticks. I tried really hard too. I used loads of describing words and even checked my spelling in a dictionary, but no one cares. I don’t care either. School’s shit. It must be final bell now. Everyone will be getting their bags from the pegs and doing secret Vs and up yours to the teachers. I always did that. I always like going to school and leaving school, it’s the bit in the middle I hate. Gary told me that. It’s clever ‘cos it sounds like you’re a teacher’s pet, but really you hate school. But Gary loves school. I think he wants to marry it. I don’t know why we have to go. None of the gang from Addington do and they rule two estates. They’ve got the latest Nike Air trainers and they didn’t even buy them from the market. And they smoke and drink and no one tells them off. Everyone lets them do what they want. Nobody can do nothing anyway. I always get in shit because I don’t go to school, but why should I? They never teach us about the stuff I like. Things like the history of football or how to cook a roast dinner or about London and how a Nintendo works and people like me and Mum. And in music we never listen to pop songs. It’s always African drums and twangy guitars that sound like cats having it off. We learnt steel drums once. That was my favourite lesson because we did calypso and it made me feel like I was running on a beach in the sun and I hit my drum at the same time as I ran and everyone joined in and there were all the kids from my class running and we all had big grins on and we jumped up and down together like a tribal dance as the music got louder and I imagined Ghalia in the middle even though she’s not in my class and she didn’t have her scarf on and her hair was waving at the same time as the ocean and we danced together. Then Tubby, the fat kid, fucked it up and we had to start again, but it wasn’t the same because I couldn’t get the rhythm right and it sounded like dropping glass bottles down the stairs of my block. I was so angry I imagined cutting open the fatty and seeing how many sweets he’d ate for dinner. I called him a fat waster instead. He can’t do nothing. He has a heart attack if he runs a metre. But we all say he’s the fastest thing on two legs if you give him a dinner ticket. I made that up and I told everyone and everyone got it and laughed a lot. Then Mr Fuck found out and I had to go to the Deputy Headmaster’s office. I think he’s bored ‘cos he just made me sit in silence until the final bell. Stupid wanker bitch. People are coming back from school. Everyone walks along the access road next to Ghalia’s block and then split up to go home. Sometimes we hang out in the courtyards or play one touch, but most days we go and watch telly. I usually come out again when the news is on. Tyrone and Darren come round the corner into the courtyard. They’re Madu’s new friends and they think they’re well hard just because they’re in his gang. Nowadays they swagger through the estate giving it all that. They soon fucking shut up when the gang from Addington are around. Then they run and hide in their block and shit themselves and cry to their Mummies. They can’t even do graffiti or smash windows and if they try to smoke they cough their guts up. I saw a cat puke up once and Madu said it was from smoking hash. And there was a rumour that someone shot it up the arse with an air rifle. I laughed but it made me feel sick and I thought of the cat dying slowly and I dreamt about it and woke up crying. I feel sick now as well. I’ve got a tummyache.
‘Hey batty boy. Where’s your boyfriend?’
Tyrone shouts up at me and Darren does the up yours sign. They’re trying to be bad man but they can’t stop giggling as if they’re still in year one.
‘Where’s the rest of TLC?’
I shout back down and give them a Vs. They hate it when I say that because TLC are all girls and it also means Tyrone Loves Cock. Everyone knows it’s true because when he was in year six he said Darren was his special friend. I said Madu was my special friend, but nobody remembers. Darren and Tyrone are like peas in a pod and my Mum says she can’t tell which one is which. But it’s easy. Tyrone is the gay one. They used to be pussies and sometimes me and Madu would ask them to play and then beat them up, but now they think they’re harder than me and always give me shit just because I beat Madu up. Madu wasn’t even their friend. They only care ‘cos he’s black and they all gang up together against white kids. They think they’re in a war and they’re all soldiers, but who cares anyway? It’s stupid. I only beat up Madu ‘cos he was a dick. I wish we were allowed to hang out together again.
‘Come down here and say that.’
Tyrone shouts. He always talks for Darren and then when Madu is there he just backs up Madu. I give them the Vs.
‘Yeah. I will.’
Some other kids are watching from the edges of the courtyard. Tyrone and Darren haven’t noticed but I can see them from up here on my walkway.
‘Yeah. Come on then.’
Tyrone cups his hand to his chest and then moves his head like a spitting cobra. Darren stands next to him trying to snap his fingers together like a rapper. They’re as lame as Gary. They won’t come into my block and they know I’ve beaten them up before so they’ll back down first. They notice the other kids looking and pull their shoulders up. They look quite big. I can feel my face going red. Everyone’s staring at me. They want a scrap, but I feel like I’m going to puke. I only beat them up when I was on Madu’s side and they’re bigger now. Everyone is waiting for me to step up.
‘Yeah. I’ll fucking deck you.’
I give them a Vs with each hand. They look at each other and then Tyrone nods his head up to me.
‘Yeah. Two against one?’
They cross their arms at the same time. They must have practised it for ages because it looks really cool. All the kids watching are impressed and are whispering to each other. Tyrone and Darren look mean. It’s not fair if I fight them both, even though I can, because they might win and then everyone will say I’m a poof and the big boys will give me shit for being beaten up by a black kid. No one will care that it’s two on one. That’s not how it works.
‘One at a time.’
I shout down. I don’t feel well. I burp and it tastes like tinned pineapple in syrup. I don’t want to fight them. I want to go in, but if I back down I’ll be a pussy. If I can beat up Tyrone then Darren will run away and I’ll win. There’s too many kids watching. I clench my fists ready to go down. Darren is looking at Tyrone. I bet he wants to go home and cuddle his teddy. He’s the pussy. Tyrone punches Darren on the arm. He’s showing off, trying to be a bad man in front of all the other kids.
Tyrone shouts up but his voice is wobbly. We stare at each other and then I start slowly along my walkway towards the stairs. My tummy has got butterflies, but it hurts like wasps or stinging nettles. All my skin is prickly and my legs are heavy. I drag myself in slow-mo to the door. I wish it was locked and I couldn’t go down, but it’s always open and anyone can come in and nick your stuff or do a shite-a-lite. All the kids watching are shouting scrap scrap scrap. I stop at the top of the stairs. I’m dizzy. If I try and walk down them I’m going to fall and roly-poly all the way to the bottom and out into the car park. The chanting stops and my heart goes crackers. Tyrone and Darren must have come into our block. They’re coming up the stairs and are going to get me by surprise. I turn around and look out over the courtyard. Tyrone and Darren are still there. But now, Madu is too. He looks up at me with a brick face. He looks older. Like a real bad man. He turns back to Tyrone and Darren and nods at his building.
Madu orders them like a commander from the army. Tyrone gives me an up yours and swaggers off with Darren. Madu stands still for a sec and then follows them. I watch until they go into Madu’s block. I was well going to beat the shit out of Tyrone. He’s lucky Madu stopped the fight otherwise he’d be bleeding by now. I walk back to my front door. My hands are still clenched. Madu didn’t even look back. He’s such a dick. He thinks he’s so cool and tries to act like his Dad and the rastas off the films and music videos. He’s not. He’s just a kid who goes to school and backchats the stupid teachers and bullies people. He’s a fucking dick. I’ll beat him up and Tyrone and Darren. Three against one. I punch the front door as hard as I can. At first I don’t feel anything, but then it rushes through me. The pain takes over my hand and I can’t move my fingers. It makes my tummy do a somersault. I grab my wrist with my good hand and open and close my hand. It hurts a lot. Stupid fucking door. I kick it, but not hard. I look back over the walkway wall, but everyone is gone. Fuck them. I wish I was still Madu’s best friend and we’d deck them all.
Dean slunk back inside and collapsed on the sofa in time for his programmes. He played through the pre-fight build up again and again, conjuring up smart aleck retorts that would have floored Tyrone and Darren without a single punch. He rehearsed them time after time and with each run through his sick anger waned. By the time his favourite cartoon came on he’d forgotten the whole affair. Nowadays he liked a programme about a family of aliens who had to move to a different planet because their own had been destroyed. They got on well with some of the people of their new home, but most episodes had to fight against an evil emperor who was hell bent on killing them or sending them back. Dean liked the way they fought with swords and bows and arrows even though they had the technology for spacecrafts and land vehicles. The episode had just got going when the key went in the lock and Dean’s Mum came in. She walked straight up to him and slapped him hard across the face. Dean told her to fuck off so she hit him again, once with each hand. She’d had another phone call at work, Dean had been playing truant and if he didn’t come to school they’d need to inform social services. She’d had to swap shifts to get home and now she was going to have to do an all-nighter. She already had a shift in the morning. She didn’t need this hassle and he’d be at school tomorrow or she’d put him up for adoption. Dean blasted back he’d prefer that but his Mum shouted him down, nobody would have the little bastard. She had to slave over sixty hours a week to keep a roof over their heads and food on their plates and if he thought he could slouch around all day doing bugger all he had another thing coming. Dean changed tack, he felt like he was going to puke. His Mum turned the television off, went to hit him again but stopped short and retreated into the kitchen. Dean pictured pushing his Mum over the walkway wall and seeing her splatter on the concrete below. Then he imagined reporting her to the cops and suing her for child abuse. He punched the back of the sofa and hurt his bad hand even more. He swore under his breath and turned the telly back on in time to catch the heroes explaining the moral of the story. He hated that part and never understood why they didn’t just end on the big fight. That was the important bit after all. Dean’s Mum stormed back in and pulled the television plug out by the cable. If she heard it on again she’d sell the bloody thing. It wasn’t as if she ever got to watch it anyway. Dean hadn’t seen his Mum so angry for a long time and backed into the corner of the sofa. The lines on her face cut deep and Dean saw how tired she was. She didn’t say anything else, just stood there staring at him. Dean stared back, defiantly avoiding acknowledgement of the tears running down her face. Dean’s Mum shook her head and ran upstairs, slamming her bedroom door behind her.
Dean couldn’t keep his mind on one thought. He vacillated between his Mum, Madu and his favourite cartoon. He was angry, but couldn’t pin down the cause. He tried to imagine punching his Mum in the face, but he couldn’t conjure up the image. He began to feel sick again and a wave of nausea ran through him. He went to the kitchen and grabbed the scratched and faded washing up bowl from the sink. He held it up to his head and wretched up a few globules of red phlegm that lined his throat with acrid syrup. The feeling past and he washed his mouth with water direct from the tap. On the counter his Mum had left an empty mug next to an open jar of instant coffee. The kettle was steaming. Dean went back to the sofa and sat quietly for a while with the bowl beside him. He wasn’t angry anymore, just blank. He didn’t feel anything apart from a growing sense of boredom. He pushed himself off the settee, grabbed a comic from the sideboard and trudged upstairs to the bathroom. He didn’t need the toilet, but wanted something to do. The tiny landing was three sides doors and one side stairs, just enough room for two people to squeeze past each other. The thin walls were only slightly thicker than the fibreboard doors, which were so light that Dean had punched and kicked a number of large dents into them over the past couple of years. He sat on the toilet and began to read the cover story of his comic. The main character bullied the soft one all the way through until the last pane when the Dad smacked the bully’s arse with a slipper. Dean rushed through it and turned the page to the next strip where he watched a girl do exactly the same thing. Halfway through he was distracted by a noise reverberating softly through the wall. Dean moved his head closer to listen. It was a rhythmic sobbing, stuttering between breaths. His Mum was crying. A chill ran through his body and he sat upright clenching his teeth. He went back to his comic but couldn’t focus on the words. He flipped through the pages until he reached his favourite character. He read the first few panels but didn’t take anything in. He went back three times and read them over again. His Mum’s crying had become deafening. The nausea came back, sweeping across his body. His stomach lurched upwards, threatening to jump out of his throat. He threw the comic on the floor and ran quietly downstairs without flushing. He buried his head in sofa cushions. He plugged in the television but didn’t turn it on. He flicked through the pages of his Mum’s magazines and then tidied them into a neat pile. He did the same with his comics. In the kitchen, he reheated the kettle and finished making the coffee, preparing one for himself as well. He put the mugs on a tray next to three biscuits in a neat line on a saucer and carried it all upstairs. He struggled to turn the knob whilst balancing the tray. Dean’s Mum watched silently as he put the two mugs of coffee down on the bedside table and offered his Mum a biscuit. She took the saucer, put it aside and gave her son a hug. Dean felt warm and guilty. He was sorry for being bad. He didn’t want to make his Mum’s life harder and he promised to go to school. Dean’s Mum held him close. He stayed in his Mother’s arms for over a minute. She stroked his hair. She sat back and took a small sip of her coffee. Dean grabbed his lukewarm mug and gulped down a mouthful. A fountain of purple juice exploded from his mouth, covering the bed, the bedside table and Dean’s Mum. The room stank of pungent blackcurrant as the neat cordial soaked into the duvet.
Dean’s Mum tucked him up in bed with a glass of hot milk before putting the washing machine on its hottest cycle and leaving for her night shift. Dean felt fine. Since he’d vomited the nausea had abated and he was ready to go out. He gave his Mum ten minutes to get off the estate before he jumped out of bed, got into his tracksuit and headed downstairs into the evening. It was getting dark. Plastic wall mounted lights loosely screwed to the edge of the blocks illuminated the high bricked walkways between the blocks. Dean’s courtyard was empty, just the purr of the night traffic on the A48 and the night creatures waking up to their breakfast bins. He sloped around the garages for a while searching for dog ends before throwing a loose stone towards Ghalia’s building. The Fuck Off was lit by a streetlamp. He thought of the back of Ghalia’s head and decided to look for Georgina. He didn’t want to see her particularly, but he was bored on his own and there was no way Gary was going to be allowed out at this time of night. He turned round and sauntered off along the concrete walkway running between his building and Madu’s. The air had a chill kick to it, but it was fresh and made Dean feel awake and alert. The passage was narrow and damp. There were puddles here even in the height of summer. It opened out behind Madu’s building onto a lone access road that stopped at a gravel patch in front of a half finished breezeblock wall. Dean pricked his ears up to the night. There was a rustling on the breeze and through the triangles moulded into the blocks he spotted movement. It was low and furtive. His instinct was to run, but instead he moved closer.