I can see it. It’s looking at me, I can see the twinkle in its eyes. What the hell is it? Too big for a cat and I don’t think it’s one of the neighbours’ dogs ‘cos there ain’t no-one around. I bend low and move towards the wall. I don’t want to scare it. I make a squeaky noise like a mouse and then some clicks with my tongue. That makes me sound friendly, like I’m not going to put it on the barbecue. Madu says that barbecue is said B B Q, but that’s just how it’s written. Everyone knows that. We had a big B B Q on the estate when I was in nursery school. Everyone was there and they burnt the food and drank beer. I had a shandy. I played tag with all the kids and even the Pakis were there, but they didn’t eat sausages because they look like cocks. I ate a samosa. It was so spicy that I had to drink a gallon of lemonade. My mouth was on fire for an hour but it was delicious. And then me and Madu tried to drink as much pop as we could to see if we could keep pissing and drinking at the same time so that it was going in and coming out like a tap. We pissed a lot. Then we went round the back of Madu’s block by the abandoned skip and had competitions to see who pissed the highest and furthest. Madu won the highest and I won the furthest. And I had the best aim and even weed into a coke can from ten metres away. That was one of my favourite days ever, apart from Christmas and birthdays. I stand on the gravel and it crunches. I stop moving because I don’t want to scare whatever it is. Its eyes move away from the bricks and I can see something ginger. I take a few side steps so I’m looking through a broken bit of the wall. Someone’s kicked it in so there is a pile of breezeblocks next to a big U shape hole. I used to walk along the top of the wall and it’s the big challenge to keep going past the hole. I tried a lot but I couldn’t do it until year six, then I didn’t bother anymore. I can see the thing moving. It steps out into the gap in the wall. It’s a fox. It’s dirty brown and orange. It’s not like the foxes in my school books and on telly. They’re always bright red with a white stripe on their tail. They poke their heads from behind bushes and trees. You never see a whole fox at once and they always smile. This fox isn’t smiling. Its head is down near the floor and it looks frightened of me. I can see its skin through bald patches. It’s manky and skinny like the anorexic girl in year nine. You can see her bones through her skin and if you shine a torch on her back you can see her heart beat. Nobody’s done it, but you can tell it’s probably true. Georgina said she saw her in the changing room and all the girls called her Ethiopia. She’s flat as a wall. I’d feel sorry for her baby and her boyfriend. She couldn’t even give him a tit wank. Everyone says the problem’s in her head, but it must be in her mouth. She should just eat steam syrup pudding and Maccy Ds for a week. That’s what I’d do. It would be cool. I might pretend to be anorexic too. But the fox is sad. It’s got an empty crisp packet in its mouth and they’re only ready salted. Foxes eat rabbits and hedgehogs. It stares at me for a moment and then jogs away. I want to help it. I climb through the U shape crack in the wall and look for the fox. I can’t see it anymore. There aren’t any lights and it’s pitch black. Mum said there used to be a park here, but they knocked it down to build another block. But there isn’t one. It’s just piles of rubbish and bricks and metal. Me and Madu used to come here even though we’re not allowed because it’s dangerous. We built a base out of corrugated iron and bricks. Me and Gary came once and played inventors. I threw nails at him and he went home. What a wuss. The fox is gone. I can’t see it anywhere. I can hear noises. I put my hands behind my ears for super hearing. It’s footsteps behind me. I turn around and see two black shadows step through the breezeblocks and walk towards me. There is light behind them so I can’t see their faces, but I already know who it is by the stupid way they walk.
‘So we meet again.’
Yep, it’s Tyrone and Darren. Tyrone heard that line off a cartoon. It’s always the baddy who says it. They want to be gangsters but they’re just TLC.
‘But now you’re on our turf.’
‘You can have it.’
It’s just a pile of shit anyway.
‘I saw a fox.’
It comes out before I even think about it.
‘Really? Wicked. Where?’
Darren drops his mouth open and I can see his white teeth. You can’t see black people in the dark. It’s unfair. They’d be really cool night soldiers and snipers and ninjas. Their weak point would be their mouth and if they smiled everyone will shoot them in the face. If I had to fight them, I’d put a feather in their shoes to make them laugh and then I could kill them easily. Pakis would be better in the evening. Tyrone punches Darren on the arm and they both stand up as tall as they can, but drop their heads at an angle. They’re such dicks. I’m going to find Georgina. I walk back towards the wall but Tyrone stands in my way. I try and go around him but he does the same thing again.
‘Time to finish what we started.’
Tyrone puffs his chest out and folds his arms like the security guards in the shopping centre. It doesn’t sound like Tyrone speaking. He sounds hard, but his voice goes up at the end. He’s frightened. I try to barge past him again, but this time he pushes me backwards. It’s strong and shocks me. I can’t think what to do.
‘We still owe you for Madu.’
Tyrone steps up to me. I look at Darren but he just stands there holding his hands together. Tyrone pushes me in the chest again.
‘Fuck off Tyrone.’
It was two years ago. The burning is coming over my face. I’m going red. They can’t see it in the dark but I can feel it. My body goes numb like after being tickled. Another layer around me. Like getting caught in a spider’s web. Tyrone pushes me again.
‘Come on white boy.’
He nods his head at me. He wants me to start so everyone will blame me. But I won’t. He can fuck off. I’m not getting in trouble for him. He pushes me again, but this time I stay where I am and our faces get closer. I clench my fists.
‘Are you starting?’
He’s so close his spit hits my face. It’s like tiny hot dots that quickly go cold. It’s skank. It’s makes me mental. I spit back. It’s not a greeny or anything, just spray and it goes all over his face. We don’t move for minutes. I know what’s coming. I shut my eyes tight and clench my face. Tyrone punches me. It’s not straight, it bends around my head and hits me in the ear. It doesn’t hurt. I can’t feel anything. I’m all numb. I can’t even hear what I’m saying. I swing my arms at Tyrone, like I’m doing a doggy paddle, trying to punch him on the top of his head. His face is all wrinkled up. His mouth is shut tight with a zip and his eyes are almost closed. My fist comes down on his nose and knocks him backwards. Noses hurt a lot. Everyone says you can kill someone if you punch them on the nose at the right angle. The bone goes right into their brain. I hope I don’t kill Tyrone. I only want to hurt him a bit. He staggers back and puts his hand to his nose. He looks down and sees blood on his fingers. It’s not fair. I’ll get told off and I didn’t even do nothing. It’s stupid Tyrone’s fault. I want to go home. I turn away, but my legs catches something and I fall over. I hit the ground hard and bang my head. It echoes in my brain. I can’t see anything. It’s too dark. I roll over and see Darren backing off. He must have tripped me up. He’s such a pussy. He’s not brave enough to scrap with me, even two against one. You can’t attack from behind, everyone knows that, it’s the rules. Madu must have taught them because we did that special move too. It fooled everyone and we were the hardest because we used our fighting brains, just like the smart ones in cartoons. Tyrone kicks me in the arse. It sends a shock up my back. It really hurts. I try and get up but he kicks my legs and knocks me over. I look at his face. He’s gone mental. He’s snorting like a horse. He kicks me in the side. I cough. I can’t breathe. I don’t have air. My chest is going down the plug hole. I hear myself wheezing. I sound like Georgina’s Nan. I’m going to die. I don’t know what that is.
Darren’s voice is wobbly.
I’m grabbing my chest and roll over on my back. Darren is moving towards the wall. He’s looking around nervously. He wants to run away. He’s the worst. He didn’t even fight properly. I’m going to smash his head in.
Darren says it loudly. I roll back over and see Tyrone. He kicks me in the face. Silence. It’s blurry. The world is upside down and Darren is still like a statue. My face is numb. I turn myself the right way up. My face feels like a balloon blowing up. Pain explodes in my head. It zigzags all over me. I hear myself crying out. It sounds like a hoover being turned on and off. I roll over and over but it doesn’t go away. I can’t shake it off. The pain is inside me and on me and stabbing me with fire. I can hear shouting. Lots of shouting, loud and angry. My eyes are broken. It’s dark and the light is blurred. Shadows are running towards me. I rub my face. It’s wet. It must be blood. Above me the shadows have stopped. I see feet and trackie bottoms. I follow the legs up. I see hoodies and chins sticking out from the black holes. It’s the gang from Addington. They’re shouting and punching at the night. There’s nothing there. Tyrone and Darren have gone. I can make out swearing and threats. Cunt, nigger, piece of shit, kill you, wog, dead and lots and lots of fucks. They punch the air and do Vs and up yours and one of them is cupping his hand and waving it up and down. I know what it means. It means wanker. Sometimes I do it from my forehead and that means dickhead and if I do it from the side of my head then it means right dickhead. One of the gang is waving something. I can’t see what it is, but it reflects the light. It’s a knife. The leader’s holding it. The one who looked at me in the car park. He does a stabbing action and I imagine Darren getting sliced open and his guts falling out. He waves the knife in the air and shouts.
‘We see you again round here and we’ll fucking kill you.’
He walks over to me and puts out his hand. I hold it and he pulls me up.
‘You’re alright. You’ve got a nosebleed.’
His face comes out of the shadow of his red hood. It’s like a ghost, so close to my face. I can’t do nothing.
‘Don’t let us catch you getting beaten by niggers again.’
He slaps me hard across the face.
The pain rushes over me again. Now I recognise it so it doesn’t hurt as much. But I don’t like it. I feel weak. I can’t do nothing, not even speak. He stares right at me and I feel embarrassed. I don’t want to look at him but I have to otherwise he might hit me again. I nod my head. He purses his lips, spits past my ear and gets up. He stands over me.
‘Don’t let the black cunts think we’re weak. This is our land.’
He bends back towards me and holds the knife to my face. The blade glows. One side is sharp and the other is all jagged. It’s not like the knives in our kitchen. It’s a hunting knife for killing animals and chopping down trees and making bases. I’m scared, but I want to touch it. I want to chop things in half. Me and Madu once made spears by sellotaping nails to the end of a bamboo pole. We hunted and made targets out of coke cans and aimed at birds but we didn’t hit any. Then we used them to smash up a plastic sign and some stupid old bitch shouted at us so we ran away. The knife is really close to my face. If he falls over he’ll stab my eye out and I’ll have to wear a patch. The Addington gang leader touches the knife against my cheek.
‘If a nigger gives you any shit, just let us know and we’ll fucking sort him.’
He stands and puts the knife in his trackie bottoms. The gang all clump together and swagger off towards the broken wall. They hunch their shoulders and bang into each other and slap each other on the back and snort and spit. I watch them until they disappear. They rule.
Dean’s Mum shook him awake in the morning. His blurry eyes opened to see his bloodied clothes gripped in her hands. She was furious, had he been fighting again, who with, why, wasn’t he in enough trouble already? Dean’s face hurt. His cheeks were puffed and bruised and he still had a dried blood Hitler moustache. His Mum kept on, waving the tracksuit in front of him, shouting and swearing and threatening to sell the television. His head was muzzy, his eyes couldn’t focus and his whole body ached. A deep swelling moved from the pit of his stomach and pulsed through his chest. He began crying chokes of tears and snot. It was intense, uncontrollable. Dean’s Mum stopped shouting. She put his grubby clothes to one side and sat down beside him, taking the boy in her arms. He didn’t hold her back, just convulsed against her. After he’d explained everything his Mum cursed Tyrone and Darren and muttered they were all as bad as each other. Dean only half listened as she went on claiming it wasn’t all blacks of course, whites did a lot of bad things too, like those thugs from Addington. She was glad they’d stopped the fight, but she ordered Dean to stay well away from them, they were trouble, a right bunch of good for nothing sods. She tutted and gave Dean a squeeze. She had to get going as she had an early shift. She kissed Dean on the forehead and told him to be good, making him promise to go to school.
Dean cleaned himself up and set off. It was a typical post-truant day. He turned up late, reported to the Deputy Headmaster who gave him the same spiel about the importance of school for his future. Every time he said it, Dean felt as though both he and the Deputy Headmaster believed it less and less. Dean was behind in his work and was kept in detention to catch up. He drew cocks on textbooks, tits on desks, gazed out of windows and swore under his breath. He snogged Georgina behind the rusted climbing frame and went back to Gary’s house to play Super Nintendo. Gary’s Mum cooked them sausage rolls and chips, tutted at Dean’s explanation for his black eye and gassed on about all sorts of rumours she’d heard about that Madu boy getting into trouble, always swearing at teachers and bullying other kids. But then again his Father was no better. Never had a job as far as she knew. All the men in that block were bad ones. Some of the women were nice though. In fact, she had tea once a week with Vie who made delicious ginger cake. Dean and Gary had stopped listening and concentrated on car racing, street fighting and big boss bashing. All they wanted to do was complete another level.
The games devoured the evening and it was already quite late when Gary’s Mum told Dean to bugger off home. Gary lived right on the other side of Eldon and it was a good fifteen minute walk along the access roads, or ten if you cut across the courtyards. Dean hovered by the first passageway disappearing off into the unlit depths of a square’s inner sanctum. He backed up and took the road instead. It was a quiet night, only the distant hum of the evening traffic penetrating the estate. Dean watched as the blocks went by one by one. The shapes, the patterns, the colours repeated. Building after building echoing each other from one side of the estate to the other. Eight storeys high and fourteen flats long. One hundred and twelve identical front doors. One hundred and twelve identical living room windows. One hundred and twelve families packed inside. Dean walked past, they were all just like his own flat. He wondered if all the families were similar too. If they all wanted the same flat. Why else would they live here? Why else would these blocks have been built this way? He was lost in thought by the time he reached the junction for his block. So much so that he didn’t notice the figure walking towards him from the opposite arm of the T. He stopped dead, clenching his fists tightly. He carefully weighed up the dark figure silhouetted against the streetlamp and realised they were shorter than him. He let out a silent breath and relaxed. He moved forward into the orange light cone and the other child followed suit. He saw the smoothly curved head, the confident steps and knew exactly who it was. He froze, his pulse dead, his mouth hanging half open. Time shifted to slow motion. The voice came and lifted Dean clean off the tarmac. It was Ghalia.
‘You should shut that before you swallow a seagull.’
She sounds the same. I’m in a bath and the bubbles are popping on my skin. The water’s warm and smells of dissolving jelly cubes the day before birthday parties.
‘Long time, no see.’
I shut my mouth. She always says cool things. She makes me feel dumb, but I’m not. I’m even on the black maths cards. I wish Ghalia was still in my school.
I mumble and feel small, which makes me angry.
‘Why are you outside?’
I spit it as an accusation, but I don’t mean to. I want to be nice. I haven’t seen Ghalia properly since fighting Madu and now I can’t control my insides. It’s all going topsy-turvy.
‘I thought you ain’t allowed out at night.’
I say it as soft as I can, but it feels rough as it comes out of my mouth. Ghalia puts her head to one side and bites her bottom lip.
She bursts out giggling and her white smile shines in the middle of her face. It doesn’t look like a moon anymore. It’s longer and browner, but maybe that’s because it’s night and I’ve never seen her in the dark before. Her mouth is different too. Her lips are bigger. They look soft. I giggle with her, but I don’t even know why.
‘Have you run away?’
I ask. She pulls a duh face at me. Her eyebrows make a V at the top of her nose and she pouts her lips out like an angry page three model.
She shuffles her shoulders as she says it and it unwinds her face. She does a two footed jump forward.
‘My brother didn’t collect me from my piano lesson.’
‘What? Your Dad’s going to go mental. Shouldn’t you get home?’
Ghalia sticks her jaw out and moves her eyelids up and down.
‘It’s not my fault. Mahmud’s going to get in trouble. Not me.’
Her eyes open wide and she bites her tongue. It’s the same thing she used to do when she told me about her new ugly faces for Mrs Tosser. It means she’s thinking about doing something bad. I feel nervous and the back of my neck goes cold. Ghalia moves closer and then a big naughty grin spreads over her face.
‘I had to walk home all on my own.’
She puts on a babyish voice.
‘But I’m just a little girl and haven’t done it before so I couldn’t find the right way and got lost.’
I point down the road towards our buildings.
‘It’s that way. I can take you.’
Ghalia shakes her head.
‘I know where I live Dean. It means I can stay out as long as I want and I won’t get told off.’
I don’t get it. She opens her eyes really wide and moves her head in a circle. It jumps right into my mind. She’s going to lie to her Dad. Now I get it. She’ll get her brother into so much shit. I bet Ghalia’s a really good actor and her Dad will believe her and ground Mahmud for a year and give Ghalia more pocket money and she’ll have to collect him from school instead even though he’s her older brother. Ghalia’s smart.
‘What are you going to do?’
I’m more excited than her. She bites her teeth together and kicks me in the leg.
‘You can show me all the cool places.’
She kicks me again and walks off.
‘Come on then.’
I catch up with her.
‘What do you want to see?’
‘The bits you like.’
I never thought about it. I live here. I can’t think. I picture the different parts of the estate but none of them are great. I want to take Ghalia somewhere really good, but it’s impossible. We go into the first courtyard and I point at the garages.
‘We play one touch here. You have to kick the ball against the garage but you only get one touch. That’s why it’s called one touch. If you spaz up you lose a life, but if you hit the concrete bit at the sides or the top of the door you get a life back, but you can’t have more than five.’
Ghalia nods and I continue.
‘You can play with a football or a tennis ball or even a bouncy ball, but that’s only for experts. We play five lives usually, but sometimes three if we don’t have much time. And-’
She interrupts and I stop talking. Maybe girls don’t like one touch. Actually, that’s not true. I once played Georgina and I only beat her with two lives left. Probably Pakis don’t like it. Ghalia looks over her shoulder at me.
‘Shall we go somewhere else?’
I stare at the garages. My face and shoulders go heavy. I feel stupid. One touch is for kids. I don’t want to look at Ghalia. I scuff the side of my trainer against the gravel.
‘If you want.’
My voice is quiet and the words sound jumbled. I grip my hands together and crack my knuckles. I don’t look at her.
‘Where do you want to go?’
‘I don’t know.’
Ghalia punches me on the arm. It doesn’t hurt but I can feel the spot she hit. It’s glowing. I want her to do it again. I look at her. Her head is on its side and her eyes are looking up to the sky so only the whites show and she’s sticking out her tongue like she’s dead. I laugh out loud, she looks like a zombie. Ghalia would be great at Halloween. We could use tomato sauce to make it look like we’re bleeding from our brains. Ghalia stops pulling her face and pokes her tongue out at me.
‘There must be something exciting around here.’
‘I saw a fox the other day.’
I say it before I think it. Ghalia’s eyes go really wide and bright and her mouth drops open.
‘No way. Where?’
She’s really excited. She moves her head forward and her whole face shines. Ghalia seems taller. She’s really close and there is a glow all around her. Her eyes twinkle orange and so does the edges of her headscarf. She looks like an angel. I think it’s the streetlamp behind her.
I run over to the lamppost and kick it hard.
‘Look at the floor.’
The light patterns wobble on the road. It makes you want to go swimming. Ghalia watches them for a second and then looks at me. I point up at the light.
‘It’s because of the rain water stuck in it.’
I worked it out all by myself. Me and Gary were having a competition to hit a streetlight with a tennis ball. When the ball hit it all the light went weird and we thought we’d bust it, but it went back to normal after about a minute. We searched the post for ages and then I threw the tennis ball at it again. I saw the water swishing around in the plastic cover and guessed it was from the rain, even before Gary did. I try and stop myself smiling. I want to look smart in front of Ghalia, like it’s nothing special. I have to clamp my mouth tight together to hold my lips straight, but I can feel the edges are going up. I can’t hold it. I quickly turn away from Ghalia and kick the post again. I bite the inside of my cheek and then take a breath to control my smile. I lean against the post with my shoulder and look super cool.
‘It’s wicked, isn’t it?’
She does a couple of little nods then tilts her head forward. Her eyebrows go up so far they nearly disappear under her headscarf.
‘Where did you see the fox?’
I bite the inside of my lips and stand up straight. Ghalia makes me feel small. She’s the one having the adventure and I’m the annoying kid who gets into trouble and everyone hates except the hero who almost dies trying to save him and everyone’s happy in the end. But then in the next film it all starts again with a new girlfriend and a new dickhead kid and everything’s the same. What happens in the middle? Do they all have a scrap and tell each other to fuck off and get out of the house? It’s stupid. And anyway, Ghalia can’t find the fox without me. I’m the only one who saw it so she has to follow and I’ll be the leader. I stretch out my arm as far as I can and point at our buildings.
‘By the broken wall.’
I use my hero voice. It’s strong and serious and everyone knows I’m not joking. Ghalia shakes her head.
‘I can’t go near my house, my Dad’ll see me.’
It doesn’t matter though ‘cos I know all the shortcuts and secret passages. Me and Madu explored everywhere on Eldon and found the best hideouts and lookouts and places to ambush our enemies and all the fastest getaway routes from the pigs. I don’t even know how Ghalia got this far home on her own. She’s never allowed out so how can she learn where to go? And now it’s dark so she’ll need me to show her the right way.
‘You can go round the back.’
I nod towards the road behind Madu’s block. Ghalia does a naughty grin and walks off without waiting for me. I stand still and watch her get smaller. Where’s she going? She’s quite far away now and I can only see the outline of her body in the darkness. She doesn’t stop. Why isn’t she waiting for me? Maybe she doesn’t want me to go with her. I clench my teeth together and kick the streetlight angrily. The orange light goes wavy. I discovered it and I still like the patterns no matter what she says. I scrape my foot on the pavement and look at the floor. Ghalia can fuck off
‘Are you coming or what?’
Ghalia shouts back at me and I run as fast as I can to catch her up. We don’t say anything but we bang shoulders accidently on purpose. I’m smiling a lot and I can hear from her voice that Ghalia is smiling too. I can’t see her mouth, but I can tell. We come out behind Madu’s building where the road stops at the broken wall. The breezeblocks look rusty in the street light, but in real life they’re grey. I can lift two at the same time easily. Gary can only lift one. He’s a real pussy. The streetlamp isn’t very strong and there is a dark orange circle of light on the ground behind the U shape hole in the wall. It spreads out like pancake mix. It’s thick and heavy and makes you feel held down in place. At the edge it goes black and you can’t see nothing and it feels as if you’ll step into the dark and float off into space or fall into a bottomless pit and keep falling and floating and falling and floating. Sometimes I like the light more and sometimes I like the dark. Sometimes I dream that I keep jumping higher and higher until I’m bouncing above the estate and right out into the universe and I can’t stop, but I don’t care, I just keep jumping. It’s always night in my dream. Maybe because I’m asleep or maybe it’s because I like the darkness more or the stars or maybe I want to jump to another planet to see how it feels. I like sunny days too.
‘Is this where you saw it?’
Ghalia whispers. I nod and put a finger to my lips.
‘But we have to be silent so we don’t scare it off.’
Ghalia does a serious face, copying doctors and scientists off of the telly. We wait in silence. I can hear my breathing. It’s so loud. I take tiny sips of air to be quieter but my chest starts to tickle and ache and I can’t hold it and I breathe in a big gulp. Ghalia turns to me with angry eyebrows and a finger over her lips.
She pushes her hand slowly up until it reaches her nose and the fingertip disappears up her nostril. Her mouth twists like she’s drinking lemon juice and she bursts out laughing. She kicks me in the shins.
‘Come on Dean. This is boring. Let’s hunt.’
She turns and walks towards the hole in the wall. I reach out and put my hand on her shoulder. She stops, but doesn’t turn around. I can feel her body through her cardie. It’s soft and round, not bony like Georgina. I shiver all through my legs and my balls and my tummy. It’s like having the runs. I move my hand away and pinch my leg really hard so it hurts. It makes the feeling get softer, but I’m light and my brain is all higgledy-piggledy. But I’m the leader so I have to be hard and go in front. I go past Ghalia in a big circle so I don’t touch her.
I spy on her from the corner of my eye as I tiptoe around her. I keep my head forward and just move my eyeballs. It’s what James Bond does. Ghalia is looking dead ahead. She’s very still. Her face is in a shadow and I can’t tell if she’s happy or sad. I keep moving and after a second I hear footsteps behind me, but I don’t look round. I’m the leader after all. I step over the lowest part of the wall and wait for Ghalia. The light circles us but stops about three metres away. There are black dots of midges and flies whizzing around our heads. Flying would be ace, but I don’t want to be a fly because you’d have to eat shit. I look back at the lamp and see lots of moths and midges and animals flying around it. I wonder what they’re after. Maybe they think it’s the sun. If they like light so much, why don’t they come out during the day? It’s funny that light has an end. I used to think that if you put a mirror next to a torch then you could light a whole room, but you can’t. It just makes the light go in a different direction. It’s good for doing shadow puppets though. I can do a dog and a crocodile and a horse. Gary says he can do a rabbit, but someone said it looked more like a squashed baby. Ghalia pulls her ears out from under her headscarf and cups her hands behind them.
‘It gives you super hearing.’
She whispers. I try it and everything goes digital. I can hear electric wires buzzing and the wind whooshing and cars revving and it all sounds crisp and clear. I take a few steps back.
I hiss until she turns to me.
‘Hello. Can you hear me?’
I say it as quietly as I can. Ghalia whispers back.
She mouths back.
‘But I can read your lips.’
It’s true. She didn’t say anything out loud, but I understood.
‘That’s so cool.’
I say it at normal volume and Ghalia waves her hand at me to shut up. I grab my mouth and hold it tight. Ghalia pushes her bottom teeth over her top lip and then rolls her eyes up. It’s a moron face. I feel like a moron too and it’s even worse because it’s in front of Ghalia.
‘You’ve scared the fox away.’
She’s still whispering, but I don’t think it matters now. Foxes have big ears so it could hear us better than when we use our hands for ears. It probably heard us talking miles away and is hiding. I still feel like a fucking idiot though. Ghalia walks to the edge of the orange circle.
‘We’ll have to look for it.’
She walks into the dark and I follow her. I step out of the light and my body goes mental. I start breathing quickly out of my nose and my chest goes bananas and thumps me hard from the inside. The air is too thick and I choke. I can’t move my foot forward. My eyes are itching and the edges are hot, I want to cry. I step back into the light and grab my hands together. They’re really sweaty. I can’t breathe normal, it’s all juddery and fast. I can feel tears on my cheeks. I feel hot and embarrassed and rub my eyes with my sleeve. It’s painful. I can’t concentrate. I’m all on my own. Someone presses my arm. Everything slows down. I focus on the fingers holding me. I breathe long and deep. I hear a voice.
‘Dean. Are you alright?’
It’s Ghalia. She’s close. Her face is next to mine. It’s beautiful. I feel such a dick. I pull back and rub my eyes with my fist.
‘I’m allergic to foxes.’
I mumble as I try and wipe the tears away before Ghalia sees. She’ll think I’m a baby. She doesn’t let go of my arm. She holds me, but it’s not tight. It’s just resting there. My eyes are blurry from rubbing them and Ghalia’s face looks orange, like it’s in the middle bit of a flame. She smiles at me. I remember my Mum from when I was really young, before I went to school, and I had chicken pox. She made me soup and bought me Lucozade. Mum always smiles more when I’m poorly. Ghalia lets go of my arm but stays close. She pokes out the tiniest tip of her tongue and it makes me giggle. She’s not taking the piss. Nobody else is like Ghalia. She giggles with me. It’s not even funny, but it’s fun. Like when my Mum makes the bed and I lay out on the mattress and she flings out the sheet and it floats down on top of me until I’m completely covered and it’s so still and silent and I think it must be what heaven feels like. And then Mum tickles me so much that I can’t stop laughing and it hurts my sides enough to make me cry and my throat feels like swallowing burnt toast but I just laugh and laugh and laugh. Then it’s over and I have a hole right in the middle of my tummy where all the bad stuff was. There’s nothing there. But it’s fun, not funny, just happy and fun. I want to do that to Ghalia. I want to make her smile and laugh and jump up and down and feel like she’s in heaven. I wish I knew how to. I don’t know what to do. I even ruined her chance to see a fox because I’m such a pussy.
It chokes in my throat. I mean it, but it’s difficult to say it out loud. Heroes never say sorry, just the annoying kids who get them into trouble. Ghalia’s a better leader than me.
‘It doesn’t matter.’
Her voice hits me in the chest. She’s half smiling, but her eyebrows cut an upside-down V from her forehead. It’s the same face that the Deputy Headmaster does when I tell him why Mr Fuck’s thrown me out of class. But Ghalia doesn’t look as if she’s thinking about something else. It makes me sad. I sniff and feel the runny snot gurgling in my nose. I want to blow it out my nostrils like a football player, but I can’t in front of Ghalia. Instead I snort it right to the back my throat and swallow it. Ghalia’s mouth drops and her chin disappears into her neck.
She sticks out her tongue and shakes her head side to side. At first I think she’s serious, but she keeps doing it for ages and it gets bigger and bigger. It’s really funny. She stops and gives me a cheesy grin. Her teeth are all orange from the streetlamp and her ears stick out in front of her headscarf. She looks like a clown. I burst out laughing through my nose and it makes all the snot fly out everywhere. Ghalia points at me and laughs and that makes me laugh even more and that makes her laugh even more and then we’re laughing together so much that we can’t breathe and we gasp for air and grab our waists and bend over until we start coughing and choking and then we stop. We look at each other. Ghalia’s lips twitch. I bite the inside of my cheek. Our mouths go tight at the same time and we piss ourselves again.
‘Are you afraid of the dark?’
Ghalia has stopped laughing. I’m still snorting air though and can’t look at her. I sniff and wipe the tears and snot onto my sleeve. I rub the palm of my hand all over my face and wipe off the sweat. I must be bright red.
My mouth is full of spit and it makes the word sound underwater. Ghalia grins. I pinch my leg to stop myself from laughing again. My ribs hurt when I breathe in. Being happy is so painful.
‘My uncle’s afraid of the dark too and he’s six foot tall.’
I don’t know if Ghalia’s being nice or teasing me. I gather the rest of the saliva in my mouth and gob it out. I sniff a few times and clear my nose. When I spit out the snot, it makes my chest hurt, but in a good way. It tickles from the inside. One of Ghalia’s eyebrows go up. She uses them a lot. They’re dark and thick and stand out against her skin. I didn’t notice them before. Perhaps she’s getting pubes too.
‘I’m not afraid of the dark.’
I say it angrily, but I don’t want it to sound like that. I want to be strict, explaining like the man off the News. I can’t get it right and everyone always thinks that I’m in a mood or having a strop. Sometimes I am, but sometimes I’m not and I just want to sound serious but no one listens to me and they just tell me to stop shouting and hitting things and then I do get angry because no one lets me speak. Then they start shouting at me and that makes me swear at them and I lose control and kick stuff. I don’t know what else to do. Ghalia doesn’t shout at me. She doesn’t move away. She just stands there and smiles. It makes me want to lie down on the floor in a ball. My head drops to my chest and I stare at the ground.
‘I just don’t like that place.’
‘Why not? Is it haunted?’
Her voice is mucking around and it makes me feel better.
I shake my head and look up. Ghalia is staring at me. She’s kind, but strong. I think she’s stronger than me. I want to tell her all my secrets.
‘Tyrone and Darren beat me up in there. It was two against one and Tyrone kicked me in the head.’
I blurt it out. It feels good. I want to keep talking.
‘I could’ve won but they cheated and did a-’
‘Why did they beat you up?’
Ghalia’s voice is really quiet, but it feels loud and makes me stop speaking.
‘To get their own back.’
Ghalia comes closer. We’re almost touching. My body is shaking, but not on the outside. It feels like I’ve swallowed an ice cube and it’s gone down my spine and into each leg, making my bones wobble.
She’s so close and looking right into my eyes. I want to look away but then she’ll think that I’m lying or that I’m a pussy. I don’t want to tell her. I feel stupid and guilty. I push the side of my foot into the ground and scrape it backwards and forwards.
‘Did you do something to them?’
I breathe out of my nose and shake my head. I’m not going to tell her anything. Her face is really close and I can’t focus on both her eyes at the same time. I flick from right to left and back again. She’ll think I can’t look at her, that I’m not telling the truth. Well, I’m not going to say anything. I force my eyes to stare directly ahead and try and concentrate on her pupils. I’m a statue. I won’t even blink.
‘Dean, tell me what happened.’
She puts her hand on my wrist. Everything goes silent and it’s just me and Ghalia. I feel so light, like I’m floating on my back in the swimming pool with my ears under the water. The sun comes through the windows and it’s so bright I can’t see anything. But it’s warm and quiet and, almost, even better than the diving boards.
‘It’s because I beat up Madu.’
I hear the words come out of my mouth as if it was somebody else talking. Ghalia’s face changes. She looks sad. Maybe she’s angry with me, or disappointed. I want to tell her everything and explain.
‘He said nasty things about you and said that I’d said them, but I didn’t. I never said anything and it made me really fucking angry that Madu lied and made you upset and think I that didn’t like you, which isn’t true. Madu’s a bully and he shouldn’t treat people like that.’
I speak quickly, but I don’t think Ghalia is listening. She stares through me, as if I’m invisible. Her hand is still on my arm. Her grip is soft, but not loose. She’s holding me. I don’t know what to say. I feel small. There’s a lump in my throat. I swallow hard. If I let it come up I’ll start crying like a baby. Ghalia makes me feel stupid about getting angry. I feel bad. I don’t want to make Ghalia upset. It makes me want to cry because I hurt her.
I mean it. I say it and I mean it and it feels good to say it.
‘I didn’t want to fight Madu. I didn’t want to make you sad.’
I look at Ghalia and she looks back at me. I can feel tears on my face. I don’t care.
‘I’m sorry Ghalia.’
She grips her hand tight on my wrist and looks directly at me. We kiss.
A soft amber light spread a feathered circle across the discarded construction site. Cracked breezeblocks were piled high amidst sand and gravel beds, all strewn with microwaves, washing machines and disused white goods. Car tyres jostled for space amongst the weed grass and rusted metal of no discernible function. A junkyard, a wasteland, a relic of an abandoned vision. Here, Dean and Ghalia, awkwardly content, shared their first kiss. It was a messy, slobbering affair of whirling tongues and bitten lips. Teeth banged together and noses itched uncomfortably whilst hands groped for acceptable places to hold. Their bodies pulled together, pressed gently, warming through the fabric of their clothes. It was a disjointed, fumbling, amateur-dramatics of a kiss. It was squidgy and wet and it didn’t even taste very nice, but for Dean and Ghalia, it was wonderful. As soon as it was over, they fell back into empty chitchat. They spoke about Ghalia’s new school, about cartoons, about anything other than what they’d just done. Their mouths and bodies followed the same patterns of stimulus and response, but their thoughts were off in another direction, trying to piece together a semblance of understanding. They’d kissed with tongues. It had been spontaneous, no planning for days, no negotiations, no egging on by mates from either side. They’d been lost together momentarily and neither had known that feeling before. It stuck to their insides and held them burning. They walked around the access roads and passageways until Ghalia finally declared she’d pushed her luck far enough. Dean showed her the quickest way back to their courtyard and they hid behind the corner of his building to say goodbye. They both knew how difficult it would be to see each other again, regardless of living on the same estate. The trivialities trickled away and they were left with nothing but the inevitable. Before she left, Dean ran his fingers across her cheek and behind her ear, still exposed from beneath her headscarf. The back of his knuckles brushed across a few strands of her hair. Ghalia reached up and took Dean’s hand in her own and pressed it softly, holding it in place against her skin. They said nothing and then it was over. Dean watched Ghalia shake herself into order, straightening her headscarf and wiping her lips clean. She smiled at Dean, stuck her tongue out, kicked him in the shins and left. He spied on her from behind his block, watching as she appeared on her walkway. He saw her knock on the front door, her Father dropping to his knees, her Mother running from inside without her hijab. Ghalia was subsumed and the whole family quickly retreated inside the flat.
The night went quiet and Dean was left with the sound of his shallow breaths. He lingered in the corner shadows lost in thoughts. Images, sensations, emotions and words all flooded through him and he was unable to pin any one down for more than a few seconds. He was delirious. He walked past the entrance stairwell of his building, but the thought of being confined to his flat made him nauseous. He needed space, open air, the access roads and courtyards. The growing sensation inside him required the whole estate to be its canvas. He wandered aimlessly through the uniform blocks, projecting scenes of Ghalia on every blank wall. In the streetlamps’ glow he felt her lips. On the tufts of grass struggling for life amongst the concrete he touched her flesh. The swirling breezes brought her hair to his cheeks. Ghalia was all around him. He repeatedly tried to recall the encounter, playing the narrative out like a film. Yet he kept getting stuck at the same point. Ghalia’s tongue had been in his mouth. Whenever he’d see her again how could he think of anything else? His tongue had been in her mouth too. It was disgusting and exciting and sent shivers down his spine. He drifted through the blocks with an irreducible grin.
It was growing late and Dean had unwittingly wandered to the far end of the estate. Here the blocks began to taper in as the A48 cut towards the city, pulling the estate into a point. After the last Eldon block, the access road stopped dead at the edge of a triangle of unkempt scrub. At the tip was the Handonwell junction, ringed by a warren of pedestrian subways. Eldon’s prick, as it was known on the estate, was a short cut between the buildings and the major bus stops at the junction. Dean caught where he was and snapped out of his revelry. How the fuck had he walked this far? It would take ages to get back to his flat. He let out an angry grunt and turned to walk home. He took a few steps but stopped when he heard shouting. A boy, not much older than Dean, burst out onto the grass from behind the other end of the last building. He sprinted towards Handonwell Junction, throwing frightened glances across his shoulder. He was followed closely by a group of five older lads who were making most of the noise. Dean backed against the wall instinctively, keeping out of sight, and watched as the younger kid stumbled. He hit the ground and scrambled desperately to get back to his feet. Before he could, he was set upon by his pursuers. Lunges, punches and kicks reigned down amidst a volley of swearwords so discordant it was impossible to make out any individually. The violence transfixed Dean. Held him tight to the wall. His lungs contracted and emptied. His heart pumped fast and hard. He watched the onslaught.
It’s not like cartoons. I don’t know who’s bad and who’s good. But it’s not fair to fight five on one. And they’re bigger. It’s just a bundle. I can’t see anything. The light from the junction is too bright and they all look like shadows. The big boys have their hoods up and their faces are just black holes. They’re all shouting and it’s just a noise. I can’t hear any words. Maybe fuck and bastard and nigger, but I don’t know really. It feels like banging your head when you fall over or wearing a motorbike helmet like one of my Mum’s special friends had. It’s just a fuzz of noise. My body is so loud. They’re going to hear me. I stop breathing, but my pulse is banging like an African drum from music class. My heart thumps me again and again and again. It’s painful. I want to run away, but I want to see everything. I like fights on the telly and in the playground when the baddies get beaten up. But this looks like a scrap and the big boys are hitting really hard. I can hear the punches and kicks and they sound dull and heavy. I’m shaking. I want to puke. I clench my fists and my toes. I press harder against the wall. It’s rough, like glass paper, but I push more. The big boys stop hitting the kid and he runs away. I can’t see his face properly, just that his black skin is shiny with sweat. One of the big gang is holding something in front of him. It’s too dark. I want to go nearer. I can’t move. They stop shouting and the one holding something spits.
‘Where you going nigger?’
It sounds something like that. And it sounds like the voice of the Addington gang leader, but it’s all blurry. Everything sounds the same. It’s all mumbo-jumbo and wishy-washy. I don’t know if it’s even real. The big boy in the middle puts the object in his trackie bottoms. I see a quick orangey red flash as it reflects the light. I can’t see properly, everything’s all orange and black. The whole gang run off over the wall at the end of the prick that goes to Handonwell Junction. They disappear and I look back to the other boy they were beating up. He’s gone. He must have got away and ran home. It’s not fair to pick on one person if you’re in a gang. It should be one against one or the whole gang ‘vs’ the whole gang. Only a few heroes can win against an army, but just the ones with superpowers. He looked ordinary. I can feel the wall against my face. I think I’ve grazed my forehead where I pushed so hard. I take a small step forward and look around the prick to make sure the boys are definitely gone. Maybe it was the gang from Addington, but the leader didn’t have a red hoodie and anyway, I couldn’t even see their faces. I walk a few metres onto the grass. I want to see the battleground. My skin’s covered in sweat and feels colder every step I take. I can feel my pulse pounding and it’s like I’m wrapped in cling film. I can hear breathing. I hold my lungs and listen. It’s fast and shallow. There’s a soft cry and some choking. I turn and a few metres away there is a body on the floor. It’s the boy who got beaten up. I don’t move. He’s breathing very quickly and his body is shaking up and down. He’s in a dark patch. I can’t see his face. He whimpers and groans and shudders. I can’t see anything else. Just the kid who got beaten up. I can’t think. I don’t know what to do. I can’t do nothing and if the big boys come back they’ll beat the shit out of me too. He’s breathing. I look around but there is nobody. I can’t do nothing. I take a step back and then another. He’s still breathing. I turn and run. I’m going fast. I don’t see the buildings. They swoosh past. I follow the white lines of the access roads. I’m in a tunnel. My feet thump against the ground and it sends shockwaves up my legs and back and it makes my head pump. I reach the turn to my block and look over my shoulder. No one is chasing me. I feel my breath. It’s thin and scraping like an asthma kid. The inside of my chest is lined with barbed wire. My lungs are going in and out and they’re really big, but I can’t get air. I stick my tongue out. It’s cold. I look towards the prick again. Nobody. I can breathe. I want to get home as fast as possible. My legs are on fire. Like pins and needles but with knives and forks. I run a few steps and then walk and then run and then walk. My body doesn’t do what it’s told. I can’t make it. It’s not mine anymore. My throat is a hoover pipe full of hair and stones. The stairs to my floor are Mount Everest. I use my hands but I don’t go faster. It makes them dirty. Outside my door I look over the courtyard. The garages and the bins look different. They look alive. There’s no one around. I listen. Traffic and some music in the distance. I look at Madu’s building and I breathe out suddenly. It’s hard and I cough and choke. I look at Ghalia’s building. The faded Fuck Off looks cruel. I see Ghalia in my head. I don’t want to think about her. I don’t want to think about anything. I go inside and lock the door and check it three times. I turn on all the lights in the flat and go into every room. When I know it’s empty I go to my room. I get into bed and then get out and close the door. I get back into bed, but I want the door open. I want to hear if anyone breaks in, so I can escape or hide. I’ll hide under my bed or in my wardrobe. Or maybe on top of my wardrobe. I’ll put pillows under my duvet and they’ll think that I’m asleep. I pull the duvet right over my head. I see the knife shining and the big boys punching and kicking and the boy on the ground. He’s shaking and shaking and shaking and never stops. I turn over and push my face into the pillow. It’s so thin. I wish I had a thick pillow that I could pull right around my ears. I want to black out and wake up and have breakfast with my Mum and go to school and see Gary and make friends with Madu and kiss Ghalia and feel Georgina’s tits and try hard and do my best and tease the fat kid and play one touch and get a SNES Super Nintendo for Christmas and see Ghalia again and I want to forget.
Dean slept soundly. His Mum had done a late shift so he got ready for school on his own and slipped out quietly. The morning was uneventful. Dean gave Mr Buck the usual backchat, but got eight out of ten on the spelling test. He kissed Georgina behind the rusted climbing frame. He tried to push his tongue in but she kept her lips tightly clamped together. Neither mentioned it. Dean and Gary played one touch and swapped a packet of roast chicken flavour crisps for a three pack of ginger nuts. The whole school was rounded up and gathered in the assembly hall after lunch. Gossip spread amongst the pupils as this only ever happened on special occasions like Diwali or Eid or Christmas assemblies. The Deputy Headmaster stood solemnly at the front with two police officers. He gathered silence faster than usual as the children were intensely curious to know what it was all about. One of the officers stood forward and talked to the school in an interrogative tone, silencing the whispered words still hovering amongst the students. Last night on the Eldon estate there had been a vicious assault on a black teenager. He had been stabbed twice and had died before the ambulance could get him to hospital. It was being treated as a murder investigation and if any of the pupils in the school had seen, heard or knew anything about it, they should come and talk in secret to either of the officers or to the Deputy Headmaster. The announcement pinned Dean to the floor. He couldn’t comprehend the situation and his mind crashed. The police officer was talking directly to him. It was just the two of them and they knew exactly what the other was thinking. Dean stared at the officer. From that moment, the same two distempered images of the fight constantly flicked out of sequence in his mind. The glinting orange knife and the victim’s rapid, dying breaths. He was stuck. Dean had become stone.
The boy, Dwayne Campbell, had lived on Addington before his death. He was fifteen. Every one of the gossip channels claimed to have known someone who’d known him. Eldon became an ants’ nest of stories and accusations. Anonymous sources sent to the police reiterated the same names over again and a few days later the Addington gang were arrested. A national newspaper ran a front page spread with pictures of the five adolescents leaving the local police station. Dan Jenkins. Phillip Harris. Brian Cobb. Matthew Cobb. Simon Brown. Killers. The press flooded Eldon and Addington and the papers ran story after story of racially motivated crime statistics in the borough and the degenerate lives of the benefit scum. Saint George’s crosses tattooed onto skinheads ran alongside testimonials of ethnic harassment and filled the tabloid pages. Those murderers were the evil that resided in the depths of the London estates. That white filth brought shame on the country. The hooligans, the single mothers, the truant kids, the juvenile delinquents, the lack of discipline, the lack of respect for authority, the dregs, the underclass. That was Eldon. That was who they were, every last one. The reporters asked loaded questions and demanded loaded answers. Was it drugs? Was it gangs? Or was it motivated by racial hatred? They ran with guilt and condemnation of a broken community that had allowed this to happen. The murder may have been committed by five local thugs, but they were all to blame. It was a disgrace. The media moved on, new stories to push and papers to sell. The residents of Eldon and Addington were left torn and scarred. New barriers were drawn up. New fears sprouted. Allegiances were formed and friendships put in doubt.
Dean drifted through those days in seclusion. The story washed up on him, circulated around him, permeating deeper into his memory. The events of that night played over again and each time the details contorted and mutated and twisted in and out of each other. He could only be certain of the knife and the shaking boy. The voice he’d heard now seemed distant and unreal. There’d been no mouth to utter it, just a faceless void of shadow under a hoodie. According to Gary’s Mum, it was a gang thing, after all, that’s what happens nowadays. It was all about these drugs and turf. Her sister lived on Addington and she’d seen them scuffling on more than one occasion. They used to keep her up at night with their awful music and shouting. And a friend of Gary’s Mum’s sister’s from another block swore she’d seen Dwayne buying whacky backy off some black teenagers. It was always the blacks who were selling, that’s what she’d heard anyway. Dean noticed that his own Mum got upset every time she read the papers and would swear under her breath at the pages. When Gary’s Mum came around, Dean sat on the sofa and listened in to his Mum complaining about it all in the kitchen. Both Mums tutted and grunted in agreement as Dean’s Mum went off on one. She wasn’t some scrounger. She wasn’t a racist either, she didn’t care where anyone came from as long as they didn’t start making problems. All that stuff in the news about the people on the estates. It was always white people causing problems for blacks and Pakis. It was always white people who were the bad ones. She’d never done anything to any of them. She’d always made an effort to say hello even to the ones who didn’t speak English. She never called them names, even when they left their bin bags everywhere or other people did. It wasn’t fair that everyone thought she was like those nasty bastards from Addington. And it wasn’t fair that niggers could call each other niggers as loudly and as often as they wanted wherever they were, but if you even said the word out loud you could be sent to jail for it. It didn’t make any bloody sense. It just made her angry. The words echoed around Dean’s mind, reminding him of his fight with Madu and getting suspended from school. It made him angry too. When they sat on the wall together, Georgina made sure Dean knew her opinion. She was glad that the cunts from Addington had been put in prison. They were dirty fuckheads and deserved everything they got. She’d overheard her Mum talking to some of her friends and they all agreed too. The gangs were the problem. Especially the black ones. They were always stabbing each other and fighting over things. The papers never said about it, but that was the real problem in the borough. That black kid who was killed was almost certainly involved in drugs. This was confirmed when Dean went to Georgina’s for dinner one evening and Georgina’s Mum’s explained that a friend of hers from Addington knew it for sure. Everyone all said it. In fact, that Dwayne boy had a criminal record for dealing, although they never mentioned that on the telly. No wonder then. It was just drugs and gangs like all the black on black violence. It made the place dangerous. That nasty bunch of white kids needed a good hiding, that’s for sure, but they shouldn’t go down for murder. Georgina’s Mum repeated it over a forkful of peas. Not for murder.
Dean was whisked around in the vortex. Battered and bruised, flung here and there. The more he tried to recall that night the more it didn’t make sense. Were the killers really the gang from Addington? He did all he could to conjure up their faces and place them on his memories of the night of the murder. Yet, every time he couldn’t get them to stick. Maybe he’d not been able to see the faces in the shadows because they’d been black. Surely white skin would have been easy to see, even in the dark. It didn’t make any sense to him. And now he kept hearing about all the gang wars around the other estates in the borough. Turf wars over drugs amongst blacks. Why else was Dwayne Campbell on Eldon? Perhaps he was hiding out, running away from the dealers he owed money to. Dean pictured the knife and followed it along to the bearer. The hoodie wasn’t red. He seemed taller than the Addington gang leader who had saved Dean from Tyrone and Darren. It was the voice that echoed in Dean’s mind. It was familiar, but strange. Now he’d recognise it and the next moment it would be alien to him. He wasn’t sure. And if he wasn’t sure, maybe the police weren’t sure either. He didn’t know what to do. He was scared and confused and it got worse the more he wrestled with his memories and listened to the rumours and the stories and the community facts that circled around him everywhere he went. It became so consuming he couldn’t even enjoy break time anymore. Eventually he decided to tell the Deputy Headmaster. Then he told it again to the police. They asked him if he was sure he’d really seen it. Had he really not recognised any members of the gang? Was there nothing distinguishing about them at all? It was a very serious matter and he had to be sure. The more they demanded his certainty, the more convinced Dean became that the gang from Addington weren’t guilty. Events swept along quickly and Dean found himself giving testimony to a video camera as part of the court case. He was ushered in and out after practicing what to say. The whole affair had been a go on the waterslides. Dean fell through the tube and dropped out at the other end unable to remember any of the ride. The case was dismissed and the gang from Addington were released. It was over. The fuss died down eventually and Dean’s life went back to normal. Only now, his tongue had been in Ghalia’s mouth.
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother celebrates her 100th birthday. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 comes into force. Big Brother airs for first time in Britain. Len Coombes elected leader of the BFP. Visitors to The Millennium Dome number 46% below target. Tabloids campaign for Sarah’s Law in honour of murdered Surrey schoolgirl. Fuel protests across the country. Baha Men’s ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ shares airplay with Britney Spear’s ‘Oops I Did It Again.’ The Tate Modern opens.
In a sixth floor flat in a central block, Dean sat slumped on the worn sofa. The flatscreen television cast a mutating glow over the still room. The curtains were drawn and the little light that made it through just about illuminated the unchanged furniture. The cabinet at the rear of the room tucked away in a dark corner now exhibited Dean’s Mum’s collection of miniature jugs rather than magazines and comics. She’d started it after getting a promotion and treating herself to a week in the Costa Del Sol. A tiny ceramic sangria carafe still stood pride of place in the centre of the display. She’d brought Dean back a bottle of expensive sherry. They’d drunk it together, Dean wondering silently what all the fuss was about. The television was on mute and the daytime images smouldered, inciting no reaction from Dean. The remote sat loosely in his palm and he ran his fingers over the rubber buttons, pushing them sideways, absorbing the tension.
The last two years had found him here too many times to count. School had remained of static interest, getting no better or worse after moving to the nearest secondary. He’d left with four token GCSE passes that had not helped him find work or a place on a training scheme. The days had lapsed into the biweekly turn-up-and-signs at the Job Centre Plus. He’d drag himself to the other side of Addington, queue up to be patronised for ten minutes and then wait for the money to show up in his account. That was Dean’s fall-back allowance. The money he gave his Mum to help cover the bills and rent. The rest of his income he earned by odd jobbing around the estate. He’d found a bunch of old dears who couldn’t make it to the supermarkets anymore and were spending more than their pensions on low quality products from the local corner shop. He did about ten runs a week and made nearly a hundred quid out of it. Georgina once mentioned she’d overheard her Mum talking about the nice young lad who did the shopping. After that Dean started asking his clients questions. They rewarded his fake interest with the inclusion of out of place alcoholic items on their lists. A bottle or six pack of something usually found its way into Dean’s hands at least once a week. He smiled, he winked, he gave it all his youthful charm and won them over. They ended up spending more than they ever had at the corner shop, but it kept Dean’s pockets turning over. To be honest, he’d actually started enjoying some of the conversations and had even succumbed to a cup of tea now and again. He’d have hated to see his own Mum ending up as lonely and desperate. The old girls weren’t as bad as everyone said and hardly any of their houses actually smelt of piss or lavender. It was an easy life really. He couldn’t stomach the thought of doing a job like all the other mugs who forced themselves to work sixty hours a week on minimum wage just for it to be taxed to kingdom fucking come. He was better off doing a bit of cash in hand and having most of the time to do whatever he wanted. The line of light the curtains admitted had crawled across the living room wall and was now warming Dean’s remote control gripping hand. The buttons had become pliable under the friction and the sun added to the effect. The rubber nodules bent at his will as he circled them with his thumb. The television shone through the muted room. Dean didn’t move, his shallow breaths the only hint of life. The day wore on. The shifting shadows traced the passing time across the living room.