Baby Teeth (Part 1)
The structure was ugly, angular, built at a time when aesthetics were deemed unimportant, irrelevant, for functionality was all. Red brick in construction, where once places such as this were seen as The Future, a world envisioned as concrete paradise, with citizens gliding to and fro in electric cars, on hover-boards, now it just seemed sad, despairing. The main road that ran alongside the building was busy, thousands of cars a day spewing out their fumes, coating everywhere around in a cloying, grey-black grease that clung to brickwork like the most resilient of moss, blending the building in with the grey-drab skyline; heavy, pregnant with rain yet to be spilt.
Noel shivered within his duffel coat, hunched shoulders and stooped posture an artifice, his attempt to withdraw entirely inside the garment futile, but he tried all the same.
From behind, a noise, sudden, rushing, and Noel’s breath caught in his throat, a mild flutter of panic seizing him before the cyclist glided past, headphones in place, oblivious to the emotions of the stranger sharing the same pavement.
‘Get off the footpath,’ Noel called after him, though not too loudly. Just because the stranger had headphones in, did not necessarily mean music was playing, and the last thing he wanted was a confrontation.
No response from the cyclist.
‘That’s right. Keep riding,’ Noel said, as if there were any other possibility, geeing himself up with the notion that the rider was fleeing from him, in fear, perhaps, or out of respect.
Either would do.
He reached the walkway, the sixties construct to his left splitting in two, though only partially, a footpath formed beneath an overhang that served as entrance to The Avion Centre, a small, rundown shopping parade. Half of the shop fronts were boarded over, several others had corrugated steel shutters permanently rolled closed, an assortment of graffiti emblazoned about them. Noel studied some of the artwork as he passed, noting the variety, some simply tags, others monikered with the ubiquitous ‘x was ‘ere’ whilst other pieces still were more complex; stylish even. An interpretation of an eagle caught his eye – a bald eagle? Possibly, it was hard to be certain – beneath which, in green spray paint was daubed the surprisingly philosophical ‘To soar like a bird is the essence of existence.’
Not bad, he thought. Beats ‘Pakees fock off’ anyway.
He walked from beneath the covered section of the centre, out into the quad, surveying his surroundings as he strode, on guard, alert for any sign of hostiles. Two years it had been since the mugging, yet still he was nervous in public places. Three men, boys really, no more than eighteen, had cornered him just yards from where he now walked. One of them flashed a knife, though it had not been necessary to do so for he would have offered no resistance, either way. Three pounds was all he had on him at the time, a quid apiece, and that had angered them, as if somehow it were his fault. Yeah, I should have been a more considerate victim, he thought with sour tainted irony, made sure I had plenty of cash on my person for the local population of scumbags to relieve me of.
They’d knocked him to the floor, a three pronged jostle and punch attack that he was powerless to resist and, once down, they had occupied themselves trying to use his head as a football. He had curled into the foetal position instinctively, hands cupped over the back of his head, the better to protect the vulnerable spot at the base of the skull, and tucked his legs up, abdomen and groin duly shielded. Still, the blows that landed were sharp and painful, and the assault went on for what seemed an age, but could truly have been no more than thirty or forty seconds. The attack ended abruptly, immediately followed by the sound of three sets of feet running. Dazed, he had uncurled himself, blinking back into the world of the normal, though at ground level, to see the welcome sight of a policeman giving chase. He did not manage to catch the culprits, but Noel still remembered the gratitude he felt for the uniform, had gushed his praise and thanks upon him when the officer returned to the scene of the crime, was brushed off with the ‘just doing my job’ routine but, still, the gratitude remained. Who knows what would have happened if he had not been on that particular part of his patrol. Didn’t seem like the youths planned to stop kicking him, otherwise.
Today, though, all seemed peaceful. The set of three benches that occupied the centre of the quad were devoid of life and, beside himself, only a child could be seen, loitering outside the newsagents, Noel’s final destination. As he neared, Noel gave a cursory glance at the boy, no more, and was about to pass him when the youngster stuck out a hand, pressing it firmly against his chest.
‘Get us some fags?’ he asked.
Noel hesitated, not sure how to react. No way he was buying the boy a pack of cigarettes, but neither did he want to be overly aggressive to one so young.
‘I’m terribly sorry. I can’t get you a packet of cigarettes.’
So formal, he thought. I wonder why?
‘Not a pack. Only want a couple of singles.’
The child, all blonde locks and bright blue eyes, could be no more than eleven, twelve at a push, held out his hand proffering a single, shiny fifty pence piece.
‘I’m very sorry, but I can’t do it. It’s against the law. I could get done.’
Less formal now, perhaps an attempt to adopt the language of the street.
‘Oh, goo on,’ the boy protested. ‘That nigger in there says he woe sell ‘em me anymore.’
Noel felt the first flush of anger begin to rise.
‘That’s a really inappropriate word to use.’
He’d make a great teacher one day. He just couldn’t help himself.
The boy looked confused.
‘What word? What you on about?’
‘The N word. It’s not a nice thing to say.’
‘My dad says it all the time.’
‘Well, maybe he does, but he really shouldn’t. It’s a stupid thing to say.’
The boy took a step back at that, eyeing Noel up.
‘You calling my dad stupid?’ he demanded.
‘I didn’t say that. I just meant…..’
But then he caught himself, realised the folly of the exchange.
‘Look, I’m not buying you any fags and that’s the end of it. OK?’
Noel didn’t like the way his voice rose on the last bit.
Of a twelve year old?
Get a grip.
And, with more conviction than he truly felt, he pushed his way past the youngster and entered the shop.
The transition from real daylight to artificial fluorescents took his eyes a few seconds’ adjustment. Though grey and dismal in the outside world, still it was brighter than the interior of the shop which felt too small for the amount of stock on offer. Everywhere the eye fell, stacks of produce, cardboard boxes and trays of saleable items jostled for position, arranged in no kind of order that Noel could figure out. Here, a stack of eggs, thirty to a carton were placed right next to a display of shower gel. There, a cardboard box, top ripped off to reveal gnarled knuckles of fresh ginger, beside which, strawberry jam. It was as if a shop-floor planner had gone quite, quite mad, thought Noel, wondering how long it took the owner to do the exhaustive annual stock take. As if that ever happened.
He stepped up to the counter.
Felt nervous again.
Still did not know why.
Maybe still rattled by the encounter with the boy?
‘Morning,’ he said to the man behind the counter; old, unsmiling, mute.
‘Twenty B & H, please,’ he said quietly.
‘What?’ the man behind the counter snapped, apparently deaf as well as dumb.
‘Twenty B & H, please,’ said Noel again, louder this time.
‘Who they for?’
Noel blinked at him, the question unexpected.
‘For me,’ he stated.
‘Course I’m sure. Who else would they be for?’
‘I saw you talking to ‘im,’ the shopkeeper said, jabbing a finger in the direction of the doorway.
‘The boy? Yeah, he was trying to get me to buy him a couple of singles, but I refused.’
The man stared at him intently, eyes locked onto his, sizing him up, clearly deciding whether he was telling the truth or not.
‘You don’t know him?’
Eyes still locked on, like a missile guidance system to an enemy craft.
‘Never met him before in my life.’
‘How do I know that?’ the shopkeeper demanded, and Noel’s patience began to wear thin.
‘For Christ’s sake,’ he sighed. ‘I’ll go somewhere else to get them if you want.’
At that, the shopkeeper relented, visibly thawing before a potential lost customer.
‘No need for that. Sorry. Just can’t be too careful.’
‘The police send them in sometimes,’ he explained.
‘I know,’ said Noel, really just hoping to leave now, the exchange unwanted and pointless.
‘You’d think they’d have proper criminals to catch….’
He let the sentence trail off, perhaps sensing Noel’s disinterest, and turned to the cigarette display.
‘B & H,’ replied Noel, mustering politeness from somewhere deep.
‘There you go.’
And, at last, the transaction was complete.
As he left the shop, Noel knew immediately there was trouble in the air. Even before he saw the boy, something instinctive, some sense that defies the minds of the scientific warned him, spoke to him almost: ‘Prepare for tension.’
Three paces from the shop doorway were all it took.
‘Eh, you fucking wanker.’
The youngster, tufts of blond hair lifting from his scalp as he ran towards Noel, finger pointing, just to be sure there was no doubt as to who he was addressing.
‘You fucking cunt.’
Noel picked up his pace abruptly, resisting the urge to break into a run, just wanting to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.
The boy caught him in a matter of seconds. Noel just tucked his head down into his duffel, trying to adopt the tortoise strategy, unable to do so completely for he needed eyes outside of the coat to navigate away from the rage.
Past the benches in the centre of the quad, under the overhang, past the eagle (bald?) graffiti and away from The Avion Centre, Noel hoping that the child would grow bored of the game, leave him be. Like a sprite in a computer game, perhaps he had boundaries over which he could not cross but, if that were true, it extended beyond the shopping centre.
Down the main street now, still the youngster giving chase, firing off volley after volley of foul-mouthed abuse, Noel struck dumb, reeling within, completely unprepared for such an event so no strategy was in place to deal.
Should he run, after all?
Could he really accept the sense of shame that would surely follow?
Perhaps confrontation was the key. Bullies back down when confronted, so common wisdom suggests, and that was surely what he was faced with here: a four foot eight bully, half his weight, surely, with a shock of blond hair.
As they progressed, Noel became increasingly aware that others were watching, too. Eyes were drawn to the scene, not because of anything he was doing, but by the sheer volume of the youngster’s voice.
‘You lying prick,’ he hollered. ‘You said you’d buy me some fags. You fucking filthy liar.’
Noel stopped in his tracks, fighting every instinct he possessed in order to do so.
He turned to the boy.
‘Look, leave me alone and I’ll give you a quid,’ he said, desperate for this to end.
‘Errr, ‘ the boy squealed, shrill, deafening. ‘E’s a paedo. ‘He wants to touch me.’
Noel shook his head furiously.
‘I did not say that,’ he hissed through gritted teeth.
‘Says he’ll give me five pounds if I suck his cock,’ the boy continued, pointing at him again, letting the onlookers know the precise location of the sexual predator in their midst.
Out of options, Noel turned on his heels and ran.
Jodie nuzzled against him, her soft snores the only source of sound, the bedroom pitch black. Noel glanced at the digital clock on the bedside table as it flicked forward another minute, two o’clock fast approaching, yet still sleep eluded.
He couldn’t shake the tension from his body, mind still active, mulling over the encounter with the boy. Certainly, a sense of disgrace still lingered, not due to anything the boy had said, for the accusations levelled were nought but nonsense. Instead, the mental disquiet stemmed from his own shameful final act, fleeing the scene as if guilty of the stated charge.
Jodie had known the minute he walked through the door. After seven years, she could detect the slightest change in mood. Patiently, she had extracted the information, despite his reluctance to discuss what had transpired, and she had given him the pep talk: it was only a child; don’t take it too seriously; nobody even knows who you are and, whilst there was much common sense to her words, still it had not entirely dispelled the sense of inadequacy. He should have stood his ground. Should have denied the words, proved to those nearby that it was the boy in the wrong, not he.
Too late now, though.
All he could do was lie in bed and hope for the sleep which he knew would be long in coming.
Something stirred him, disturbed him.
Another glance at the clock.
Just past three.
What was it?
Then, it came again.
A small sound, but amplified by the stillness of the night.
Metallic, almost a scraping sound, and Noel identified its source.
Someone was moving the letterbox.
Instantly the image of a thin arm snaking through the metal flap formed in his mind, an unknown intruder attempting to gain access, fumbling in the dark for the door latch to release them into the house.
Noel’s heart began to race.
What to do?
No. Why worry both of them. Besides, she was a light sleeper. If need be, a simple yell would do the trick.
Gently, Noel eased himself away from his sleeping partner and swung himself out of bed, his feet finding the coldness of the floor, probing blindly, searching for his slippers. Found, he slid his feet into them and stood, slowly.
Jodie mumbled something incoherent, but slept on.
On tiptoes, Noel rounded the bed and nudged the door open, the hinges well maintained, making not a sound.
Again, the noise came and, briefly, Noel considered abandoning his surreptitious movements. Maybe best to wake Jodie after all, to call the police there and then.
But what if it was nothing?
What if it was just the wind?
He stepped over the threshold, not bothering to shut the door behind him, instead creeping out onto the landing. The head of the stairs lay immediately to the left and, at their foot, the front door.
Again, the letterbox rattled, louder this time, less cautious.
Noel slapped a palm against the light switch, eyes blinded momentarily, recovering quickly enough to see an object withdrawn from the letterbox, then the sound of running footsteps, receding, away from the house.
‘What the hell?’ he murmured, beginning down the stairs, though cautiously, alert to any sign of activity from beyond the door.
He neared the bottom of the stairs, noticed something on the doormat, though he could not make it out or, more likely, he did not want to believe what his own eyes were telling him. He reached the bottom of the stairs and crouched, nose wrinkling at the foul odour that reached his nostrils.
‘Jesus Christ,’ he said aloud.
And he knew exactly who was responsible.
(Part 2 available imminently)