The Den (Part 1)
I heard him come in the front door and go through to the kitchen. Someone filled the kettle and set it down. Then the radio was switched on. I listened for their voices, but there was just the music from the radio. I'd heard them arguing again last night - him shouting and throwing things around. Something got smashed.
I turned over in bed and looked out at the sky. A plane was flying across it, really high, leaving a chalk line in the blue. The sun was hot already. It was the perfect day for building the den. I wondered about it - about how big it would be, and where we were going to build it.
I was still day-dreaming when the door opened and mum came in. She had her work apron on under her coat and her bag over her arm. She put a bowl of corn flakes down on the carpet by my bed. Then she bent over and kissed me on the forehead. Her eyes were red and puffy, even with her make-up on.
"What are you up to today?" she said.
"Going out with the others."
She pushed my hair back from my face.
"Stay out of trouble, then." She lowered her voice. "And keep out of your dad's way."
I turned away from her.
"He's not my dad."
I looked out of the window again. The chalk mark was still there in the sky.
"What did he do?"
"It doesn't matter,” she said. "Now... I'm going to be late.”
She went to the door again. She turned back before she closed it.
"Remember what I said, love. I'll see you later.”
I heard her go out to the landing and speak to the woman next door. Their voices were loud, but I couldn't make out what they said. Then the lift came, and their voices disappeared inside it.
I ate my corn flakes, listening to him in the kitchen cooking his breakfast. I didn't want to see him. When I'd finished, I put on my clothes. Then I grabbed my football and sneaked out to the landing so he wouldn't hear me. I tried to shut the front door quietly, but it sounded like a gun going off. The lift wasn't there, so I ran for the stairs.
There was no one else around under the flats, so I stayed by the lifts, kicking my ball up against the wall. The evens lift was called and I watched the numbers change as it went up to the fourteenth floor. When it started coming back down, I put my ear to the door. I could hear banging, and Barry's screams echoing down the shaft. I didn't know if he was laughing or crying. When the door opened, he was lying on the floor with David on top of him. When he saw me, David jumped up and charged out at me. He knocked the ball out of my hands and started kicking it around. Barry came out of the lift and David booted the ball hard at him, just missing his head.
"Crossbar!” I shouted.
"Bollocks it was.”
"It was, D-David,” said Barry, laughing.
The ball bounced back, but David ignored it and went over to Barry.
"Are you calling me a liar, Barry?”
Barry turned away from him and put his arms up to his face. He started to whine. David just stood over him with his fists clenched.
"Answer me, Barry.”
Barry just kept whining. He bent his knees, like he was trying to hide.
"P-p-p-please d-don't h-hit me, D-D-David,” he said.
David didn't move. "I'm not going to hit you, Barry. Just look at me.”
Barry dropped his arms down a bit, and turned to look at his brother. His eyes were almost closed, and I could see the lids flickering. He was going to say something - but then David slapped his face. Barry creased over then and started screaming again, stamping his feet up and down. Snot was running out of his nose. David let him cry for a bit. Then he put his arm around his neck and hugged him.
"Stop crying, Barry, alright?” His voice was quieter. He rubbed Barry's head with his other hand, and he started to calm down.
"Just say 'Sorry, David'.”
"'I love you, David'.”
"I l-love you, D-David.”
Then David let go of him and started to kick the ball around again. Barry just stood there by the wall, wiping his nose on his shirt. David booted the ball over Barry's head again, but he still didn't move.
"Two-nil!” David shouted, running with his arms up. He was always the same. No one could tell him anything. The only person he listened to was his uncle Royal. David and Barry lived with their uncle and their nan. They never said anything about their mum and dad, so I don't know where they were.
We carried on with our kick-around until Michael and Angela came down. Angela was still at primary school, but she wasn't like a little kid. She was as tall as her older sister, who was in the year above me. She had pink jeans on and a white t-shirt, and her hair was tied up on top like a Walnut Whip. I fancied her a bit, but I never let on. Her mum didn't like her playing with us, but she was always at work anyway, so there was nothing she could do.
Michael took the ball and started doing kick-ups with it, showing off. He had his school trousers and shirt on, which was all he ever wore - even in the holidays. Me and David were the only ones who went to the same school. Barry went to a special school, and Michael went to Churchill Park Grammar. Michael was the only one of us that David never hit.
"Where are we going to build our den?” said Angela.
"Where do you think, stupid?” David said. "Over on the site.”
Angela poked her fingers up at him.
"My step-dad's told me I'm not allowed to go on there,” I said.
Michael laughed, making a noise like a baby. "Aw, daddy's told me to be a good boy. You're just a big chicken.”
"Shut your gob, Michael,” I said.
He kicked the ball hard and it hit me in the guts. "Make me, chicken.”
I turned away from him, holding my stomach. It hurt, but I didn't want him to see. He started strutting around then, wagging his arms and making squawking noises, dropping the ball down between his legs like an egg.
Everyone was laughing, especially Angela. Michael was always taking the piss out of me because my step-dad was the caretaker. I wanted to punch him, but I knew I couldn't beat him in a fight. His mum was the only one I'd ever seen hit him. He nicked some money from her bedroom drawer one day and she found out. She went for him right in front of us, by the lifts. She took off one of her shoes and started whacking him with it. He wouldn't cry, so she just kept on. She was Greek or something, and she kept shouting things we couldn't understand. Later on, Michael showed us the bruises on his arms. He was proud of them. He looked like my brother John did when he had his army tattoos done.
"Are you coming or not, Terry?” David said.
The odds lift was called and went up to the third floor. I knew it would be him. I grabbed the ball off Michael and started running.
The site was at the back of the estate, where the old streets had been pulled down. There was a corrugated iron fence running all round it, but we'd found a place by the garages where you could get through. Whenever we went there, it made me think of a programme I'd seen on the telly, where some kids climbed through a hole into another world. That was what it was like. When you climbed through the fence, it was like you were on the moon or something. It was huge. You could walk right across it to the swimming baths in Latchmere Road. They were supposed to be building more flats on it, but we never saw anyone working there. I'd already been clouted for going on there because it was dangerous. There were old cellars you could fall down and things. But it was better than the playground on the estate. No one else went there. The site was our place.
David wanted us to build the den over on the other side, where the fence went along the road by the candle works. The builders had put up some scaffolding there for their sign. It looked just like the climbing frame in the playground. David said we were going to use it as the framework. It was a good place because there was a big pile of rubble in front of it, so you couldn't see it from the flats.
We split up to look for stuff to use, and I went over to one of the derelict houses. It looked like pictures I'd seen of places that had been bombed in the war. The inside walls were still there, but the ceilings and roof had all gone. There was a broken staircase that went up one wall and finished in the open air, like the high board at the baths. I could see the gap where the front door had been. I went through it and saw the door lying there. I thought it would be great for the den, but it was too heavy for me to lift on my own.
I looked around inside. The paper on the walls had little pictures of cottages and fields on it. There were some squares where the colours were brighter, where the people had hung their pictures. In the corner was an old settee, all ripped up with the springs sticking out. Next to that was a smashed up radio - one of the big wooden ones, like my nan used to have. The rest of it was just bricks and rubbish. It was bigger than our sitting room indoors.
I wondered what the people who'd lived there had been like. I thought they were probably old people, like my nan. I could see the man coming in the door, and taking off his hat and coat and kissing his wife. Then they'd sit and have their dinner by the window, looking out at the garden, talking about the weather and things like that. Things old people always talk about. Then they'd clear up and sit down by the fire, listening to the news on the radio. The woman would make them a cup of tea, and the man would drink his with a cigarette while he read the paper, and she'd mend his shirts. They'd talk about their family, and the war, like my nan always did when me and mum went to see her on Sundays. When it was dark, they'd go upstairs to bed.
I wondered where they'd gone. They might have lived in the house all their lives, and not wanted to leave it. Perhaps they were dead already. I looked up at the top of the staircase, where the end of the carpet dangled over the edge. Perhaps they'd died up there, in bed. I suddenly felt the creeps. I nearly screamed out when I heard something move behind me. But it was just Barry and Angela.
"Have you found anything, Terry?” Barry said.
I lifted up one end of the door.
"Give me a hand with this,” I said.
It took us all morning to build it. We put the floor in first, putting planks of wood across the poles, so it was off the ground. Then we did the roof on the next row of poles up. We used the door for that, and some more planks. We made the walls out of some old bits of hardboard, fixing them up with some nails that Michael had found. We nailed an old tarpaulin over the front, like a curtain. Then we put some old carpet down inside, and it was finished. We climbed up on the rubble pile to look at it. It was brilliant. I'd seen a picture in a library book of a house in India, standing on stilts over a river. That was what it looked like. I thought that if the site was ever flooded, we'd be safe in there.
"Last one in's a wanker,” shouted David. We ran down off the pile and climbed in.
It wasn't very wide, but it was big enough for all of us. We sat around the walls and David pulled the tarpaulin down so it was dark. Barry started giggling because David was feeling him up. Then Angela started laughing, too.
"Quiet!” Michael said. He sounded scared.
"Shut up,” he said. He was whispering. "Listen.”
We sat still in the dark. We could hear the traffic going by on the other side of the fence. Then we heard some kids' voices way off, probably coming from the playground. There were some noises from the candle works - metal clanging, and a hissing sound, like steam escaping. Then a plane flew over.
It was a weird feeling, being in the dark and hearing all those things. It made me think of stories nan had told me about when they used to hide in the cellar when the bombers came over in the war. I thought of that plane as a bomber now, coming in closer and closer, getting ready to drop a bomb on us.
Suddenly a torch went on in Michael's face and he made a howling noise, and Angela screamed and that finished it. We all scrambled to get out. I thought Michael would do something like that, but it still made me jump. Barry was really spooked and he ran off a little way, screaming. Angela was sobbing a bit. David and Michael were just laughing.
"You should've seen your faces,” Michael said.
"You're a bastard, Michael,” Angela said.
Michael put his fingers up at her. He sat in the doorway of the den, flicking the torch on and off. David started throwing stones at Barry, who screamed again.