I’m feeling really fucking angry, and fear has taken up residence like some unwelcomed semi-permanent lodger. Maybe I should give up the paper, run away, write a novel. I could work in a bar and live in a garret; my story could become a best seller. I’d call it, ‘Wayne Keech: Bowling Ball and Skittle,’ because the book would be about Wayne, and that’s pretty much what he’s always been.
You forget so much of childhood. Sometimes it feels like a waste of life. I mean, you live through all those years, nine or ten of them, and the only things you remember are catastrophically bad or exceptionally good. Other than that, it’s just impressions, shadows emerging from a mist then disappearing again, fragments. Other people remember more about those years than you do. Old people love to tell you about you.
I move to Wellington Road Primary when I’m almost eight, and I’m nervous and not too happy about my new school, which is huge compared to the village primary I just left. I feel like I’ve walked through the front door of a tiny shop to find myself in a crowded hypermarket, and there’s no-one I recognise. Then Wayne comes up to me and wants to be my friend and I think, ‘okay,’ because, hell, any port in a storm, right? He’s in my class so we play together at break time and lunchtime and he’s waiting for me at the school gate every morning. It’s always the same.
‘Hi, do you remember my name?’
‘Wayne,’ I say, and he’s really pleased. There’s a stupid grin on his face, like he’s won an award or something.
‘You’re Phil,’ he says.
‘Yes, I know.’
After a few days I start to make other friends in the class and one message comes through loud and clear. Wayne is bad news.
Only he’s figured out where I live and, even though it’s a long way from the estate where he stays, he turns up and my door. Mum and dad are glad I’ve got a friend and I’m settling at my new school.
Then our kitchen window gets broken by a football – Wayne – and a couple of my favourite toys disappear – super hero figures were in demand in those days – and all the evidence points in one direction – Wayne. Mum and dad get uncomfortable. They get worse when I stop reading and writing, give up my interest in art and spend hours on my computer playing games with Wayne – until the computer breaks and the game disappears.
Then comes the telephone call from the school. My teacher says my attitude is bad and I’m distracted in class, not finishing work and so on. She doesn’t name names but it’s evident that she thinks the source of the distraction is another boy in the class.
‘Perhaps this friendship should be discouraged?’ she hints.
A hint is enough for my parents. They’re ambitious for me and they expect me to do well at school. Anything less than total commitment to my education leaves them anguished and looking at me like I’ve urinated on a neighbour’s door. I promise to work harder at school and I tell them I’m friends with Stevie who likes books and learning things. I tell them Stevie’s allowed to play with Wayne and how the three of us play together and it’s okay. Eventually they relent.
‘You’re not allowed to go to his house,’ they warn me, ‘and keep away from his brother.’
That’s good advice and I intend to take it. Only the next time I see Wayne, a couple of streets away from my house, Tyrone is with him. He’s got his arm round his shoulder. In his other hand he has a cigarette which he passes to Wayne, who draws heavily on it. They’re both laughing but Wayne’s laughter is high pitched and weird, like he’s forcing himself to laugh. But he smokes the cigarette and I can see he won’t let Tyrone think he doesn’t like it or that he’s scared. I’m about to head in the other direction when he calls me.
He tries to pull away but Tyrone holds him back. It’s too late to run.
‘Are you a friend of Wayne’s?’ Tyrone smiles. It’s the smile of a predator which has just spotted its next meal. He’s about sixteen, I suppose, and tall and everything about him is full of darkness and menace, from the empty eyes to the heavy set of his jaw. I can see he’s a threat to anything his eyes settle on, and I don’t want them settling on me. I want to get away.
Only I can’t – not until I take a drag of his loosely packed cigarette.
‘I don’t want to,’ I say, over and over, but he’s got his arm round my shoulder and he’s not going to let go and he’s losing his temper. He digs his nails into me until I cry out. Eventually I drag on the cigarette, and he laughs as I cough at the sharpness in my throat and I retch. I feel light headed and sickly.
‘Know what you’re smoking?’ he sneers.
‘A cigarette,’ I say.
His sneer turns into a laugh, and he forces me to take another drag and another. He watches as I inhale. Only when he sees tears does he let me go. Then he takes a kick at my leg and I’m crying at the pain, and sickness and fear join hands to swim around my head.
Then he lets me go and I watch as he walks away down the street, laughing.
‘He’s a fucking bastard,’ Wayne says. ‘I hate him.’ Then he sweeps it all away, like he’s used to this sort of thing, and says, ‘Let’s go and play football.’
Only I don’t want to play football; I don’t want to play with someone who has Tyrone as a brother and who smokes cigarettes, so I break away and run home. It doesn’t take my parents long to get to the truth. The sweet smell of cannabis on my breath and clothes doesn’t help. The police are called in, and I figure my friendship with Wayne is over. For the next year, until he’s locked away for good, I live in fear of meeting Tyrone on the street.
Tyrone Keech is the stuff of nightmares.
Looking back, it’s like I spend my life peering over my shoulder, checking corners, scanning streets, shops, playing fields. If he sees me before I pick him out I get hacked across the legs or I find myself in a headlock or my arm is halfway up my back and I’m screaming. The only consolation, if you can call it that, is that it isn’t personal. He’s a bastard to everyone.
There’s an overgrown hollow over by the river, at the other side of the rec. I ran across there once, to fetch a wayward football. I was searching through the undergrowth when my hand settled on the corpse of some poor animal. It had a look on its face which didn’t suggest a peaceful death. I leapt back, rubbing my hands like I’d just picked up dog faeces. When I looked round, I saw another and then another. It was like the killing fields. I was stumbling though corpses. I’m still haunted by them – a couple of cats, numerous frogs and toads and a tiny puppy, a collie I think. I still remember its dead eyes. They fill my nightmares.
As I say, the cannabis incident marked a temporary break in my friendship with Wayne; but it didn’t last. He isn’t at school for a couple of days but when he comes back, apart from a bruise or two, it’s as if nothing has happened. Pretty soon we’re playing again, and I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because Stevie plays too and Stevie is my best friend. Stevie’s the only person I tell about the dead animals.
‘Fucking Tyrone,’ he says, ‘I wish he was dead.’
Being friends with Wayne has another down side. It makes us enemies of Carl Jeffreys and his gang and that brings trouble. Carl takes revenge seriously. But then he will, I suppose, given his unforgiving nature and what happens to his little sister.
Of course, Wayne isn’t entirely to blame. It’s another of those accidents that happen whenever he’s around. To hear Carl, you’d think Wayne took aim at Chloe with the intention of blinding her. We’re throwing stones in the river, trying to skim the surface. Wayne can’t skim stones, but he reckons he can clear the river, so he throws his stones harder and further until he kind of loses control. He hits Chloe squarely in her left eye.
She isn’t really blinded but takes several stitches to stem the flow of blood. Chloe is left with a nasty scar across her eyebrow. Wayne is sorry but Wayne’s always sorry. He never wants to do these things; he never does anything on purpose.
I suppose it’s like that with Stevie.
He’s just another victim, like Chloe, only worse, much worse.
Like I say, accidents cling to Wayne like a bad smell.
It could’ve been me. I was there too.
But it wasn’t. It was Stevie.
And I guess I have to live with that.