A Cheylesmore Collision

Mark trudges past half-stripped billboards scarred like a giant cat’s scratching post, the layered generations of bold brainwashing unveiled. Pavement studded with hardened splodges of rejected chewing gum. Beyond the holey fencing, a train judders confidently towards a known destination, belly full of human cargo purchasing overpriced crisps. He salutes his respect, acknowledging its presence with a perfunctory wave the passengers won’t see. Their world and his are too different and divided in this moment.

An anthem of his doomed youth shuffles sneakily into Mark’s ears, a track he hasn’t heard since leaving school. Energy overwhelms. Pumped up and grinning, he struts, he punches the air. He’s practically skipping up the street. Hey, he was wild and free once, same as anybody. He can’t go home for hours; will have to time it so they’re all upstairs snoring, avoid another confrontation. The MP3 player’s battery will last a little while longer. Screw the world – forget the stuff his dad said, the stuff everybody says.

Yeah, he’s a loser. So what?

Screw that whole scene, thinks Darren. Fuck their paper plates of sausage rolls. The second cousins like lager-breathed buzzards rifling through boxes of Donna’s make-up and CDs, negotiating tops, dresses and shoes that she’ll never dance in again. Had to break out of there, find his mates. They’re the ones who matter. Nan and Tracey will look after mum. Cider and vodka making the rounds, bit of spliff will put him right. Got to keep walking, that’s important. Pacing up and down his own brain like a tiger in a zoo, throwing himself against the bars repeatedly in wordless frenzies of rage. Empty bottle of pop on the pavement, send it flying. KA-POW. Sleep tight, motherfucker. Not enough. Bin stapled halfway up a lamppost: lay into it with fists, tear it down, stamp dents into it, send it skidding into the road. Cans rolling in a tinny parade of tattered confetti of crisp packets, bus tickets and stiff balls of crumpled tissues.

Still not enough.

Darren forces smoke from lungs like the Big Bad Wolf trying to huff apart the sky. It would normally chill him out but tonight not even weed can calm the certainty that the whole world is against him. Why did she have to die? Got any answers, god, you bearded prick?

His mates are stoned, falling against each other and spluttering laughter. Only Paul still remembers what day it is, the day the world officially ended; continuously passing him cans and joints, patting his shoulder, intense sideways glances. The streets are abandoned as if the whole city’s done a runner, except for the blue flicker of flat screens pulsating through the gaps in each curtained window. Nobody here knows how he feels – it’s alright for them, chilling on their sofas. His little sister is dead and he can’t channel the sadness, can’t command justice for Donna, can’t batter down the killer’s door and jam a screwdriver through his throat.

Leukaemia doesn’t have an address.

Hello, weary cleaner on her way home from work. Hello, old man taking his whippet for a walk. They are all comrades, the Night People. Mark is approaching the strip of shops; only Bargain Booze is still open. Passes the pond, thinks how the gnarled tree is leaning over to whisper secrets to the swans. There is an eerie glow over the water. No geese in sight. He turns down a side street beside the chippy, treats himself to a chuckle over the weird fake grass lining the butcher’s window display. What’s that all about, who wants a steak that’s been lying in the grass? Or is it a tribute to the cows and sheep themselves?

A figure up ahead passes under the streetlight beside the butcher’s, so that Darren gets a glimpse of the guy’s face. Who does Mr Happy-Go-Lucky think he is, laughing at them? Wearing a leather jacket and strutting like a hard man, thinks he owns the streets. Darren can’t hack the merriment – shakes Paul’s arm to get his attention.

Mark has been alerted to the group further up the street, is aware that their voices sound male and drunk. He reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and thumbs the volume a little higher; hooks his concentration onto the drumbeat and lyrics, determined to ride out their abuse in ignorance. Best not to attract attention so he drops his gaze to the veined paving slabs, haphazardly portioned into sections like nations on a map. Dad’s right, he’s weak; too pathetic to even stroll past a bunch of other human beings without getting tense.

Leather Jacket hasn’t even the sense to look up, can’t make eye contact, thinks he’s better than them. With a full cider can in hand, one surprise smash to the head sends him staggering backwards, earphones leaping into the air like tiny bungee-jumpers. Unity of the pack: they rush him, pass him back and forth bouncing off knuckles, knock him to the floor and commence kicking. Craig and Dan back off after a few brutal stomps, start scanning the street for witnesses.

Tenderise the meat until its face is covered in ketchup.

And then they’re running, Adidas pounding the streets. Adrenaline screaming victory.

Raef Boylan