The Dead Cat
Steve “Stevo” Mason never did like school. At 14 years of age, the rest of his life looked a very long way away. Particularly bright at junior level, Miss Cusworth had taken a shine to the mop haired youngster, buying him the books needed to enable a pass at eleven plus. He couldn’t understand why she had done this selfless thing but it proved to be fateful; he successfully navigated the tests and made it into King Edward’s Grammar School for boys.
Today was proving to be another slow day; just like all the rest. He glanced at his watch for the thousandth time – 15:39. Seconds later, the bell started clanging loudly marking the end of the school day. Books flapped shut, chairs screeched as pupils pushed them backwards followed by a cacophony of sound; a mixture of scuffling feet and snatched conversations. That was the first time Steve was to hear a mention of “The Dead Cat” during the kerfuffle. He bolted for the classroom door, froze and stood to attention as Mr Marker bellowed “Waaaaait for it” before giving final instructions for homework.
If he ran full pelt, he could make it to Five Ways by the time the 998 bus arrived. This particular chariot was a limited stop express reducing the travel time home by a worthwhile margin. Breaking into a run, Frederick Road stretched out before him, a mile or so between the school and the ride home which normally arrived at 16:02. He had caught it many times by the skin of his teeth and, usually, because it was running a few minutes late. The sun beat down imperiously.
Rows of terraced houses flanked both sides of the route, many villas built in the nineteenth century. The occasional property was unoccupied and in disrepair, probably due to being repossessed. Squatters were common place. Not that this made any difference to Steve as long as he caught the flying God Mercury from the world of Omnibus. Fortune was against him as the sight of Andy “Spig” Spyro and Martin Wade swam into view.
“Alright Stevo, in a rush as usual?” Spig was of Cypriot origin and a renegade with numerous, outstanding warnings from school for bad behaviour. His olive complexion and curly hair conceded to a toothy grin. His sidekick was considered a hard knock. Kids saw Wadey as an IRA sympathiser, such was his vocal admiration for the terrorist organisation underpinned by his own Irish roots. By contrast to Spig, his associate was short and stocky, a crew cut made his chubby face look mean. The inference was to walk with them the rest of the way.
Steve slowed and adopted a pedestrian pace, Spig reaching into the inside pocket of his blazer and pulling out a golden packet of Benson and Hedges. He flipped it open and slid a couple of cigarettes out, passing one to his friend. Wadey ripped a match down the side of a packet of Swan Vestas and lit both of the cancer sticks. Steve shuffled along, trying to stay small, hoping he would be a silent partner. “You haven’t had a fag before, have you?” Spig looked at the arrival mischievously, greeted by a shake of the head in reply. A further smoke was slid out and handed at arm’s length, the offering jutting out of the box. It was duly taken as Wadey lit it up. Steve took his first, reluctant drag….and coughed and spluttered whilst holding his chest. It was how he imagined inhaling a car exhaust might be. “To get the best experience, you need to jump around a bit, take it all in.” They had stopped laughing by now, Wadey looking across at the smoking virgin like watching a child trying to ride their first bike. The second pull was accompanied by a shimmy and a shake; Steve looked like a demented salsa dancer. They were giggling again. A light headedness had overcome him. He distantly heard one of them say “What a spaz” as he briefly became dizzy; lungs felt sickly with a sudden infusion of tar. “Don’t worry, you have to go through it to start with. You’ll be fine after a few days.”
For the next few weeks, Steve adopted a new habit of buying a box of twenty, every so often on the way to school. Becoming used to the effects, he decided to keep it a secret from his family. His mom suspected, the smell on his clothes a giveaway. His father was a chain smoker so had no inkling his son was on the cigarillos. Dad was a six foot four security guard; he went everywhere with his faithful Doberman Pinscher. Being ex merchant navy, he had a macho outlook on life. His reaction to discovering his offspring’s guilty pleasure was hard to predict. Mason senior was prone to violence.
Things got trickier for Steve. He was caught squabbling over lost, free school meal tickets with little Tommy Roach in the playground. This hadn’t been one of his better moments as Tommy was a boxer who regularly attending a fight club, belying his diminutive stature. They had both been marched to the Headmaster’s office. Mr Hawley (known to the school population as “The Mole” due to his hunched exterior and mammal-like face) had suggested they settle their differences using the Queensbury rules in the gym with the rest of the school watching on; if they couldn’t reach an amicable agreement. Annoyingly, having now found the missing tickets in his back pocket, Steve instantly dismissed this idea as insane bearing in mind his opponent’s existing mastery of the noble art. They shook hands, called it quits and the recalcitrant pair got out of there as quickly as possible.
In and out of lessons, Steve had begun to notice other boys whispering and murmuring, conspiratorially. Maybe they had always done this and he had only just started to realise. He had picked up on the words “dead cat” several times now and wondered whether it was some kind of underground organisation. Maybe it was a weird cult that involved sacrificing felines on the heath at midnight.
At home, things trundled along in a dystopian way. His dad was as busy as ever patrolling building sites in the dead of night, scouring locations to intercept thieves looking for building materials to steal and sell on. His mother juggled her job as a cleaner at the mock law courts in Perry Barr with her matriarchal duties looking after Steve and his three brothers. He had finally come clean about his current drain on funds. Father had returned one day to find him smoking in the living room, staring absently at the television – The Clangers were on, up to no good with blue string soup. It had been a tense encounter, his parent genuinely shocked and unsure as to how to react. His mom had been present and told her husband that her son was just trying to be like his dad. This seemed to establish an understanding. The smokey bandit thought he really was not trying to be like his father at all. It was just a case of being a victim of peer pressure. He went along with it, though. Anything for an easy life.
Mondays were always the worst. Maths followed by English in the morning. Steve was clock watching again. Morning break was coming at 11am. Soon. He was sitting next to little Michael “Micky” Nix who was stationed at the desk next to him. Micky was always immaculately turned out as though his mom pressed him a new uniform every night and gave him a manicure each morning before he left home. He was also marking time, surreptitiously, of course. Nixy looked across at Steve as the bell rang once more. “You need to follow me” he mouthed. Wondering whether he owed him money that he didn’t recall, he was urged, intrigued as to what this was all about. They pushed their way through crowded corridors, thronged with students, passing the tuck shop on the left and the bottom of the stairs that led to more classrooms on the first floor to the right. Swinging into the vestibule that took them to the Victorian archway that formed the entrance/exit, they emerged into the playground. In front were prefabricated class rooms, a recent addition and an afterthought. The school could have been straight from Tom Brown’s School Days. To the right, the concrete expanse was flanked by a brick wall that provided segregation from a road. Little Micky scampered along, heading for the obscured corner of the playground that became a nook tucked away at the side of the school. He placed his foot on a brick that jutted out a foot above ground level. He swung his left leg and pulled himself onto the top of the cratered wall and then vanished from sight. Steve imagined he was meant to follow suit and did likewise, looking around to check for prefects and teachers who might take an exception to this inconspicuous escape.
On the other side, he landed on a patch of earth that consisted of weeds and dirt. He could see that the house was derelict; just an opening where the front door was supposed to be. The side of the property had collapsed leaving a patchwork of masonry and piles of bricks. Steve wandered in through a gap formed by disorderly stonework. Inside, Michael Nix was sitting on a boulder, one of many strewn across where there was previously flooring. He summoned his partner in crime over with his finger. The internal structure of the property was still discernible but it had been left to decay for a considerable length of time. Rooms looked like they belonged in The Blitz, plaster and dust replacing what was formerly ceilings and solid partitions.
He slipped his hand into his trouser pocket and withdraw a screwed up packet of Rothmans. There were other lads there, mainly older boys. Steve recognised some, not others. All were smoking, sharing puffing sticks, chewing the fat (often involving moaning about teachers). This was an oasis in the middle of the mundane. He smiled at Nixy and drew on his cigarette.
“Welcome to The Dead Cat” Micky muttered, absently. This was considered, realisation dawning that the object of mystery was no more than an abandoned dwelling.
“Why is it called that then? Is there a departed moggy somewhere?” Steve asked.
“Nobody seems to know. It’s just what everyone calls it”. One of the sixth formers glanced across, winking knowingly.
The Dead Cat became a part of Steve’s life until he finally left education, aged eighteen. Family ructions came and went, highs and lows were had in school. His GCSEs progressed from “0” to “A” level. Throughout it all, the haven in Frederick Road was there, an open secret that surely teachers knew about. If they did, they never did anything about the reprobates that attended on a regular basis. Maybe they realised that everyone needs an escape room of some kind. No man is an island.
*Image is King Edwards Grammar School, Aston. Wiki Commons – no known copyright issues