By Mark Burrow
Every kid likes to start a fire. For Christian Cumberbatch, fires went beyond a bit of fun. With a box of matches or a lighter in his hand, he was totally in his element. He was crazy about the whole process, from scouring to find whatever would burn, to putting that randomly found tinder together, to standing there and looking at the flames.
I was new to the estate and Christian and I kind of started hanging around together. We weren't mates or friends really. What we had in common was that we didn't know anybody else and nobody else wanted to know us either. Plus, there was the small matter that I had to get out of the flat my mum and dad had moved to as they fought like cats and dogs. Christian had his reasons too.
It was a two-bedroom, second floor flat with low-ceilings. The place was better than where we lived before but not much. You could hear the TV of people downstairs and the footsteps of people walking in the flat above, and between six and half seven in the evening there was the smell of stewed, watery vegetables that lingered on the balcony as everyone cooked dinner. Christian called that stink “eau de cabbage”.
I lay in my room a lot. I discovered books that year and did plenty of reading. But the summer was a scorcher and the rooms were sticky and airless, no matter how many windows were opened. So what with the heat and my arguing parents, I preferred to get out on the estate during the six-week school holiday. I suppose I could've read outside, but if the other kids on the estate saw me they would've ripped into me. Books were for school and school wasn't for kids like us, not in this area.
Christian was throwing stones at a lamp post by the home for old people when I first met him. 'Your mum has periods,' he yelled. I didn't have a clue what he was on about. 'Pyramids?' I replied. 'No, you idiot, p-e-r-i-o-d-s.' I screwed up my face, thinking he was the moron. 'You mean pyramids,' I said. 'How can your mum have a pyramid?' he replied. With real pleasure, he told me about periods.
That's how it all started.
On an estate of paupers, Christian stood out as the worst dressed kid. His wardrobe consisted of blue dungarees, white tee-shirts and a battered pair of two stripe trainers, which he called "Adidas Bastards".
It bothered him because poor kids were hung up on appearances. 'My dad won't buy me clothes,' Christian said to me on one of those scorching afternoons with nothing to do. 'He buys alcohol though and sits in that pub playing cards and crib. Whatever money he wins he spends on himself or some proz and I have to walk about like this.' Christian gestured to the bleached blue denim, with its buckles and straps. 'I look like a cotton-pickin slave you see in films. I know I'm no saint, but my father only thinks about himself.'
I met Christian's dad on the first floor landing where they lived. From the monstrous figure Christian had described, I pictured a muscular, powerful man. But he was slight of frame and unshaven, wearing a worn grey suit, black pork-pie hat and brown NHS specs. He walked right by me and Christian. 'There's money on the table for dinner. I won't be back 'till late,' he said with a syrupy Jamaican accent. Christian gave him the finger behind his back. We bought a bottle of sweet American wine and a bag of chips and went to the top floor of the flats to look at the lights of London at night. Watching the ebb and flow of traffic. The ruby red lights of vehicles streaming one way, and the starry white glow of the cars, bikes, buses and lorries going the other. 'I have to get out of here,' I remember him saying. 'Somehow, I have to get off this fucken estate.' He took a slug of the wine. 'That's poison,' he said, gasping; then he went for an upbeat tone. 'Proper wino stuff. We should've got a couple of joints instead.'
Being off from school was fine, but all we did on the estate was wander about aimlessly.
My mum was washing up when she noticed Christian leaning on the balcony outside. 'Who's that?' she said.
'He looks like trouble.'
'Why's he dressed like that?'
'Don't backchat me.'
I left the flat, ignoring her calls to return so she could shout at me.
'Your mum's giving me evils,' said Christian.
'No she's not.'
'It's my clothes, innit? And my hair? My big stupid Afro. It's like I'm fresh off the boat. Even the black kids are going on about my hair, callin' me "picky head" and "jungle boy". It's fucked. I have to get money.'
We were going to the ABC in Streatham to see a film. As people left via the emergency exit doors at the back of the cinema, we could skip in and lie low until the next showing. There was a risk that a do-gooder would see us sneaking in the exit door and grass us up, but we never met anyone who did.
'To be honest, you could be wearing a crown on your head and it wouldn't matter to my mum,' I said.
'Like that is it?'
'My dad too. He's worse.'
'Well, my dad hates whites, Asians, Africans. Everyone except the Chinese. Why is it no one hates the Chinese?'
'Maybe it's the food. Everyone loves a chicken chow-mien, eh?'
'Could be. But people like a curry too.'
He yanked my arm and turned a sharp right. A gang of boys and girls were up ahead and there would be trouble if they saw us. It was Nathan, Lee, Porky, Richard, Cubik, Pearl and Kelly. They wandered about like Christian and me but we weren't part of their group.
We kept walking. Christian pointed to a tall, Victorian house. 'Two nurses were murdered there last Christmas.'
'No, it made the news. The tele people were here and everything. The nurses lived there and brought some madman back with them and he went nuts with a blade, slicing both of them up. The whole area was sealed off and there were forensic guys searching round here on their hands and knees.'
I stared at the creepy old house. Images from horror and slasher movies came to mind. Christian lied about a lot, but I sensed he was telling the truth about the grisly fate of the nurses. He hopped onto a wall. 'I've decided I'm gunna steal money. My birthday is coming up. My 15th. And if my dad doesn't sort me out with clothes and a haircut then...Well...' He jumped from the wall and on to the gravel of the alleyway. 'Last one to reach the main road has to buy the cokes.' He was already running and had a head start. I ran after him, knowing I wouldn't catch him, let alone beat him.
The film was stupid but the cinema was air conditioned and it was a relief to be away from the constant, ever present heat of the sun and the tension of other people.
That evening, back on the estate, we went and sat by the old people's home. 'Let's start a fire,' Christian said. As I knew he would. Our days nearly always came back to fire. Often, they were small ones. Both of us would collect what we could. Paper. Dry leaves. Branches. Christian's eyes would brighten at the sight of a plank of wood or a door. 'Tidy,' he'd purr. 'Tidy, that's what we're after.' I felt glad to be doing what he saw as the right thing.
And his pleasure was for all to see.
He took control like a foreman on a building site, carefully positioning the tinder if I did something wrong. He would layer the paper and dry weeds and whatever else came to hand, and then decide on what we kept in reserve when we needed to keep the fire going. That could be a floorboard, a pane of plywood, or something to keep the fire interesting like an aerosol can.
We would watch the flames rise and twist. Hearing the crackle and split of the gnawing, chewing heat.
I remember this one time sitting by the old people's home again. We had a spot by an area with metal poles with hooks on that were supposed to be used to hang clothes on (no one did as the clothes would be nicked). It was the perfect place to hang around as the other kids rarely came over to this part of the estate and old people were, well, old and didn't kick up a fuss, apart from a couple of real miseries.
We were staring at a fire. Christian liked to watch the flames in silence, so I realised I shouldn't be asking him a question the second I opened my mouth. 'Where's your mum?' I said.
He snapped a branch slowly and sucked his top lip,
pushing half of the branch into the flames. 'Your mum and dad divorced?' he said.
'Nah, but they fight all the time.'
'Does your dad hit your mum?'
'He's grabbed her but that was because she was hitting him. She goes nuts, throwing stuff, breaking cups and plates. He's never hit her - you know, like punching from losing his temper.'
'Mine did. Not just slaps either. Proper, losing-his-temper fist punches.' He dipped his head and made a kissing sound by sucking spit through his teeth. 'He knocked her tooth out once. I saw it on the carpet in the living room. A blood-stained bone. She left after that fight. The flat was smashed to pieces. He wasn't there either. He'd probably gone drinking somewhere. I don't blame her for leaving like she did...'
'Where did she go?'
He shrugged. 'Away, man. I thought she would come and get me. Part of me still hopes for her to come back and take me with her. She's got her problems, but she doesn't only think about herself.' He paused, then added, 'Until now, I guess.'
'You not heard a word?'
'Nah. She left back in Feb. Fuck it. Fuck...IT.'
He punched me on the arm. Hard. He was a couple of years older than me and, at that age, that was a big difference. The soreness of my dead arm gradually faded as he prodded and stoked the flames with the stick. I told him I was going home. He acted like I wasn't there.
My dad moved to his mum's flat after a bad weekend of arguing. My mum was difficult to be around, moaning and complaining worse than ever. I almost preferred being at school than trying to second guess her moods and what would set off her blind rants.
Reggae thumped from the tower block, which was set in the middle of the estate's bowl of high rises. Mum was raging against the volume of the endless, thudding bass. 'What's the matter with these people?' she yelled at me. 'Why don't they think about others? It's ridiculous. We're in England, not bloody Africa.'
I went for a walk. I saw Cubik, Nathan and Kelly and Pearl in the playground and I went in the other direction. I climbed onto the roof of the car garages and threw stones, then watched two dogs humping on the grass and then I lay on the warm tarmac of the roof and gazed up at the blue sky, seeing the vapour trail of a jumbo unfolding like a carpet of cotton. I wondered if that carpet led to heaven.
The day was too hot and I decided to head for the top floor of the flats, taking a couple of pints of milk left outside someone's front door.
As I had thought, there was a breeze on the fifth floor balcony and I enjoyed scanning the rooftops. My breath quickened and stomach tingled at the sense of distance. The milk was too warm to drink. I dropped a bottle over the side. There was the smash of the glass and then the instant, brilliant white of the milk on the grey paving stones. I tried to land the second bottle in the same spot. It landed a bit to the left. I watche the milk trickle away and the whiteness disappear. I was walking along the balcony when Christian appeared by the stairs.
'You idiot,' he said.
'You better run. You nearly hit Sid and his girlfriend, Emma.'
'They're coming up here now. Sid'll kill you. He saw it was you. You can stand round here if you like but...'
I began to panic. Sid was a smack head who lived in the tower block and he was known as a nutter. The same with Emma, except she was about the size of a house and had tattoos. They made a lovely couple.
'What am I gunna, do? Fuck.' My voice was quavering and high.
He began running, making for the walkway that joined to a high-rise on the other side of the road below. 'It was an accident,' I said, almost wanting to cry. 'I didn't mean it.' Christian was at the stairwell and running down three or four stairs at a time, steadying himself on the slanted metal hand rail. He spoke but I couldn't catch what he said, I just followed him, my trainers pounding on the floor. We ran through "the pit" with the high fences that some joker had made to play cricket in but no one ever played cricket or had a cricket bat, only football…football…football, and then we passed the garages and then we came to the tower block. 'That's where Sid lives,' I yelled. Christian went round the back and then up a flight of steps and used his fingers to prise open a door, where meters for electric, water and gas - all smashed a long time ago and broken - were attached to a wall. He pulled the door shut. I listened to our heavy breathing, convinced the noise would attract Sid and Emma to us.
'It was an accident. He knows where I live too. Fuck, what am I gunna do? I'm screwed.'
Christian was laughing.
'It's not funny, man.'
He pushed open the door. The daylight came in. He was doubled over. 'Your face,' he said. 'You were cacking your pants.'
I'd been had. I could feel myself blushing but the relief outweighed any embarrassment. 'You cock,' I said, noticing needles and burnt foil and empty bottles of cider on the floor of the room where we had been hiding.
We walked round for about five minutes when I registered that he was wearing smart clothes, Nikes, and his hair was cut close and neat. 'What's going on with you?' I said.
'Today's my birthday.'
'Happy birthday, I didn't know.'
'I thought I said.'
'You said it was soon.'
'I'm sure I told you.'
'I would've remembered if you had.'
'Everyone forgets my birthday.'
'Your dad must've remembered?'
'Your clothes. Haircut. New trainers.'
He turned round and pulled up the back of his polo shirt. 'That's what I got when I told my dad.' There were two long, purple welts running the width of his back. We were at our spot by the old people's home. The afternoon heat was less full on, close, leaving a smoky, easy warmth. The thudding bass of the reggae had stopped. He lowered his top and lit a joint. 'You want a toke?' he asked. I shook my head, seeing a scratch by his ear. 'My father decided to get his belt out and have some fun of his own. The fucker drinks in the mornings now. A massive glass of brandy for breakfast.' He pulled out a wad of notes. 'I'm not going back. Fuck him. So I thought I'd help myself to a little travelling money. Stupid fucker doesn't think I know where he hides his gambling cash. It's next to his porn stash, under the bed. How original is that? I've cut the fannies out from his mags and left him with a cut up fifty pound note.'
'You can't go back.'
'That's the point.'
'Where you gunna go?'
He didn't say a word. He sucked on the joint. A fat ginger cat jumped on a black metal fence, paused to look at us, then jumped on the far side into overgrown grass, the bell on its faded red collar tinkled.
'What is it with parents? Why would he have me if he didn't want me?' he said.
'I think the same about my parents.'
'I mean, what the fuck? I didn't ask to be born. He had me, you know? Why can't people just get along? Does it have to be so difficult all the time?'
'I'm not sure they can help themselves.'
Christian wanted to sign off his last night on the estate with a fire. 'Let's turn this place into a giant birthday cake for yours truly,' he said.
'I'm not sure.'
'Yeah, you're in. I know you're in.'
Every part of me was against what we were doing. We went to Stockwell Motors and bought a can of petrol and aerosol cans. I was sure I would be saved by the bald guy behind the counter. We waited our turn in the queue and as Christian put the stuff on the counter I could already hear the guy ask why a 12 and 14 year old were buying these items.
He didn't so much as bat an eyelid.
'You want a bag?'
Christian was on a mission. 'Maybe we should make petrol bombs too,' he said.
I looked at him.
'Shit, I'm kidding.'
And yet serious too. Each block of flats from the first floor up had a rubbish chute on each landing, next to the stairwells at either end of a balcony. These chutes ran the length of the building to a storeroom on the ground floor where the rubbish fell into large, cylindrical bins made of steel. We had opened the doors to one of these storerooms and Christian was pouring petrol into a bin and throwing in a few bits of wood and a couple of aerosol cans. We had to cover our noses from the stink. I was nervous about rats. Some kids would come here to try and kill rats with sticks or home-made catapults.
One set of bins wasn't enough. We went to five, six of these storerooms. He disappeared onto the first floor where he lived - or had lived - to pour petrol down a chute. He used every last drop of that petrol.
By the time we finished, the sun was setting and the sky was smeared a soft and gooey orange.