‘Awright lads,’ Cooper’s da was bald with a booming voice. He shouted a derisory greeting as we dodged furniture in the living room. He’d the comfy chair by the window and the racing blaring on the telly. A spliff roll-up in the corner of his gob. Tennent’s lager with a girly picture stencilled on the back of the can grasped in his large hand, a blue anchor tattooed on his beefy arm. He’d been a part of my adolescent years, but doubted he remembered my name. When we met outside, confusion hardened his face and grey eyes. He looked through me as if he’d a curious interest in what was behind me. In winter he wore a long black trench coat, with a quarter or half bottle stashed in the side pocket and army boots. He smelled like damp closing times at the boozer. But sometimes I’d get the nod, an incline of his grizzled head that meant he recognised me as the boy that lived next door, and traipsed through the gap in the hedge, without using the footpath, to get into his house. Lads covered a variety of sins and included his son, Josh, who was two years older than me.
In his own house, Cooper’s da was both king and joker. He rolled out a number of sayings with a raucous laugh that invited you to join in. ‘Keep the high balls low,’ or his favourite, ‘Don’t dae whit I wouldn’t dae.’
Then we’d get the wink, his drawn grey face and raw eyelids like the cracked celluloid of a Carry On film inviting you to hoot with laughter.
‘We won’t Mr Cooper,’ I’d once replied in my plummy school boy voice, which was the wrong answer. I wasn’t used to getting wrong answers. School jotters were covered in wallpaper to keep them fresh and fragrant, teacher loved me, said I was a breath of fresh air.
Mr Cooper choked and fag ash fell on his belly as he coughed and flicked it away.
‘Just ignore him,’ Josh said when we were safely in his room, with its bunk beds and pictures of Rangers players John Gregg and Tam Forsyth pinned to the wall. He was a quisling version of his dad, but with feather-cut hair and Adidas Samba trainers.
Josh hid the knife inside a cardboard box in the cupboard beside his bed. ‘It’s better that way,’ he’d said. ‘Because you’ve nae where to hide it.’
My room was tidy, turquoise and orange bedcovers and starched sheets. Mum would have spotted the knife quicker than Jesus hanging from a cross above my bed.
Josh unclasped the door, pulled the knife out and stuck it in the side pocket of his high-waister denims. It was half his and half mine. He’d chipped in with a gingy bottle and I’d added ten pence. We bought it out of Johnny Graham’s.
I got a shot of it when we were practicing killing people. Throwing it into the back of the wooden slats of the garages at the short-cut and kidding on it was a burglar that was holding your mum to ransom. But it didn’t stick very well, unless close enough to stab. The tartan handle bounced off the long grass and hit a brick. We got scared it would get damaged and fall apart. Bad people would be able to get away with murder.
It was getting dark when Josh etched his name in the horizontal wooden slats at the bottom of the slope. They marked the boundaries of the gardens of the big houses on the street below. Trees and bushes had grown up and out, and smelled of rotting wood and leaf mould where branches had fallen and become entangled in jaggy nettles. I picked up a dry elder twig, snapped it in two, and mined the dark soil searching for treasure. Dragon flies hovered and midges feasted on my arms and legs and itched their hair and back of my neck.
I yelped when Josh stabbed me in the side, under my oxters, with the knife. But he was only fooling. He’d used the tartan handle, not the blade.
‘Your turn,’ Josh snorted. He smirked and kept flicking and twirling the blade towards me when I went to grab it. If it had been sharper, it would have cut the meat of my thumb.
We retreated to our gang hut before I had to go up the road for my dinner. The roof was a slat of corrugated iron. Wooden pallets provided the walls and the run of the slope balanced it out and gave us wriggle room. We even had an old carpet, which was more than Josh had in his room.
An overgrown privet hedge with an arched gap allowed us to slither in and out, unseen. We ran tin cans outside attached by string to warn each other of impending enemies: ‘Over’.
Josh tried to get me to smoke a fly cigarette he’d stolen from his mum’s pack, but I choked up and didn’t like it. He was more successful with the scud magazines; he’d taken from beneath his da’s bed. Penthouse and Playboy.
Stiff pages turning over shiny blondes, brunettes and redheads fed our virginity. Pouting mouths and bright eyes. A finger on their ruby lips as they looked proud and as surprised as you to find themselves naked with big tits and a hairy fanny. We jerked, floating above them, gasping for breath, until we got that funny feeling—we couldn’t yet cum.
And left it there, hidden until later in our shrine to those knocked-off magazines. But some he had to take back home, or he said his da would know.
He brought a different type of magazine, less glossy, among the Penthouse and Playboy. It had funny writing I couldn’t read. Instead of women, it had naked men.
‘Where’d you get it?’ I asked.
He shook his head and wouldn’t look at me. ‘I found it. Just found it.’
‘But they’re poofs,’ I said to break the silence. ‘I don’t know any poofs.’
‘Neither do I,’ he whispered. ‘But don’t tell anybody—promise?’
‘Yeh,’ I said. ‘I promise.’
‘We need to make it official,’ he picked up the knife. Nicked his arm with the blade at his left wrist. Blood seeped on his white skin and he licked at it. ‘You do it now and that’ll be us blood brothers.’
‘No, I don’t want to.’
He grabbed my arm, and his eyes narrowed. He shuffled sideway on the carpet, where it was damp and we’d taken off our shoes and blocked the entrance. ‘You’ve got to. You’ve got to.’
I let my arm go limp and he made a small slash. ‘Sorry,’ I said as I gasped with pain. But he seemed more in a hurry now. Rubbing the watery blood from his wrist over mine until he was satisfied it was done.
‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘We’re blood brothers. Da said you can’t tell anyone never, ever—now just shut your eyes.’