by Richard Hillesley
When I was young the streetlights sang. The cold sun dipped in the river at six, cracked like an egg on the ships’ hulls and house-ends, dripping white and yellow on the split glass and wet slate. We ran a race to the lane’s ending, slid in the gutters and sang.
Out in the street there was the smell of wet smoke, playing football behind the coalsheds, whoosh, hack his legs from under him, running through the streets with the ball in the cold winds of February.
One evening just before the sun went down we were playing in the back lane when Mel Jamieson, trying for a header, jumped into the air and knocked the ball over the wall into Kowalski’s back yard.
That was the first time we saw Kowalski. He had moved in during the previous spring. Mrs Paterson had told us about him, that he was odd, that he came and went during the night, and was gruff when she passed him in the street.
—He has a foreign accent,
she said, and that clinched it for us.
We stood to attention and knocked on his door but he didn’t answer so we pushed Mel into shinning over the wall. He stood on the dustbin, one foot in a crack between the bricks, one on the bin, and heaved himself up.
—Can yis see it?
someone said, and he said,
poised there with his legs dangling in space.
O’Brien on the step opposite with his arms around his knees flicked a piece of gravel into the air. Mel jumped and fell with a clang into the yard. He threw the ball over the wall, ran for the gate, and pulled back the bolt when Kowalski’s hand landed on his neck.
We had never seen anything like it. Kowalski lifted Mel into the air and held him suspended, and though I don’t know why, we all burst out laughing. It was a nervous kind of laughter for we were all balancing on our heels ready to scatter if he should move towards us. His big eyes flashed in the dusk. Mel dropped from his grip and ran on all fours towards the end of the lane, and the rest of us stood our ground so as not to look soft in front of the others.
—A kna about yis lot,
Kowalski shuddered as his voice boomed out across the evening terraces.
—A kna about yis lot,
he said in his hybrid accent of local vowels and foreign consonants.
—Whar’ave we done?
we said, and he said,
—Yi kna what yis have done.
and looked at us one by one with a long and silent stare.
—A haven’t done owt.
and he looked at O’Brien and slowly lifted and pointed his finger,
—A have seen yis.
And O’Brien shifted uncomfortably.
—Whar’ am a supposed to ‘ave done?
—A have seen yis.
—Yis ‘ave not.
And he slowly shook his head.
—You can hide your evil doing from the world. You can hide it from yourself. But you cannot hide it from the Lord.
—A’m not evil.
said O’Brien, and Kowalski paused and glared at the tops of our heads.
—If you tell lies the Lord will bring damnation on you.
—A don’t believe yis. A niver said me prayers, an’ it niver harmed me.
—It will me lad. It surely will, for the Lord will make me the instrument of your punishment.
We were transfixed, and stood in silence while he looked around us and slowly backed away and shut the door behind him.
—Did yis hear that?
I had known O’Brien since I was so high. We grew up in the same street and went to the same school. He was the gawky kid with a ridge of hair that blew off his head and one of those faces that always got him into trouble.
He looked like he had just done something terrible and he was pleased about it. You couldn’t define what it was. It came somewhere between the freckles and the chin and the surprised look in his eyes that always made you laugh. I was the innocent one who was led into trouble by O’Brien, but we knew it wasn’t like that, that we led each other and he always got the blame. We rang old ladies’ doorbells and ran like the wind when they shook their fists at the empty streets behind us. We threw fireworks into cornershop doorways and catapulted stones at lampposts on school evenings just to watch the light shatter through the puddles, and we always got it in the neck at school.
That winter we stole Kowalski’s bicycle from outside his kitchen door, not for keeps, O’Brien said, but to see him angry. We knew how he would be. He would come looking for us with a blether and a strut, bowlegged and bowshouldered, sprung like a taut arrow, zing, across the backlanes and washing lines. He would throw profanities in the air and stamp on the ground till the earth trembled and the stars flew around the sky. That was how it would be, but it didn’t happen that way, for he had become our friend in a strange way.
He took us into his house and talked to us, myself and Mel and Jonah and O’Brien and Lorraine Gallagher and that friend of her’s with the squint. We went up to his kitchen and sat round his table while he stood by the fireplace with his thumbs in his braces, and told us how it was.
We were kids and we didn’t believe him, but it made no difference. His house was drab and thick and dreary, like an old man’s house. We didn’t go to learn anything. We went to taste the smell of churches, of fluff and Bibles, and to peer into his eyes, which were popping and uncoordinated and thyroid-skewiff. When he looked at you, you were never sure whether he was looking into your eyes or beyond you into a crack in reality, for his gaze was lost in the silence that surrounded his thoughts. We may as well not have been there as the words he spoke took him higher and higher. He opened the dam and the words poured over us, fiery words full of grit and brimstone, words of light and truth directed at some mystical point between heaven and his kitchen door, words like Sodom and Gomorrah and the Whore of Babylon, who walked across our imaginations and into our hearts, words of hope and anger that poured into every crack of our beings, until he crumpled into a fragile silence, and the echo and the image of his words were left bouncing around the room, and he stood alone and suddenly vulnerable, a sad and lonely old man with a crust that was hard and brittle, and whose words kept his demons at bay.
He was mad, definitely mad, with a vision that pierced the opacity of outward forms but misread the core. He was mad with a belief the world could not live up to.
He jammed his spectacles hard on his nose, sat stark upright at the table and opened his Bible with hands that were huge and clumsy, and read aloud chapter and verse from the Holy Bible, his voice echoing and booming like an organ-pipe in an empty cathedral. The sun left a pool of light on the window, netting a cloud on the Sea of Galilee, and the biblical rhythms flowed off his tongue like driving wheels, clattering down the line, taking off the rails and floating into space.
And if we, who were only there to laugh at him, and to hear his strange and lying stories, should distract each other by talking or kicking or whispering, he would stop, and with his head bent low, glare over the tops of his spectacles with a silence that spoke much louder than words. Those were the moments we loved.
Innocently, squat on our haunches, we would ask him questions he couldn’t answer like,
—What does God look like?
And he would cough and glare, and shine his spectacles with the cloth from his pocket, searching for the words in the dark thick air, fiddling with his Bible, praying for inspiration from the pages that had blown cold through the centuries. He stuttered and hummed, his thoughts abrupt and clipped and hesitant until he found his stride, and his voice banged and flew like the strokes of a mighty hammer on a magic anvil.
Lies moulded truth in his big black heart, burning solid and heavy, and his words on fire melted objection, and we would wallow in the glow, eyes turned to the light until the sermon ended, or we tired of the loud voice and the intimidating silence and ran for the door.
We stole his bike one quiet evening after school. We had not meant to steal his bike. It just happened that way. We were nine or ten at the time and had come down the lane with a surreptitious cigarette, half expecting a harangue from the old man who was always looking out of his window to witness the irreligion of his neighbours, but he wasn’t there, and we sat on his step, passing the ciggie between us. His bike leant against the kitchen door, with a rusting frame and missing spokes.
O’Brien knocked on the window and had no answer. I sat on the bike with one foot on the ground so as to keep my balance. I wasn’t thinking about stealing it, but it seemed natural to ride it round the yard through the puddles even though I couldn’t reach to put my bum on the saddle. I skated round with one foot on the pedals and one foot on the ground, and O’Brien shouted up at the window, but Kowalski didn’t come. So we rode it into the lane and skidded round through the puddles, whooping and shouting, wheee.
O’Brien hung on the back with his legs in the wind, and I pedalled like a madman, hoying it down the hill past houses in clouds of smoke, evening lampposts and elder brothers off to the club in corduroy ties and shrunken suits. We rode for miles and miles and the basket and saddle clattered as we swung in the mud through the goalposts on the park by the dirt-tip and the cloudfilled sky. A coppa saw us, and waved an angry hand, to be on with it home to our mams in the withering light. And we jumped off and pushed it ower the road.
—Does he kna it’s stolen?
—It’s not stolen. We borra’d it.
—A kna that, but does he kna that?
—He’s gone, hasn’t he?
The sun sank in the sulphur over our shoulders, bruising the sky above the shadows of houses and the pit. I pushed the bike along the road and O’Brien walked behind me with his hands in his pockets. He wandered off onto the grass kicking a can he had found, and lay down with his hands behind his head. I put the bike down where it was, half on the road, half on the pavement and stood there.
—Yis got a tab?
I said, and he pulled out a Number 6 packet with a dumper inside it. He nicked them from his mam’s bag. I used to watch him doing it. He would be talking to her, playing the sweet child while he ransacked her bag though he was careful and never took more than a few pence and a tab. The tab was a ritual we had between us. I would light it and blow the smoke around my face. I never inhaled and I never coughed. He always inhaled and posed which was something I never understood, but I never laughed because that was part of the ritual, the understanding we had that we were doing something that was forbidden and therefore special.
And while we were lying there on the grass, blowing smoke into the air, a car came by, running across the wheels of the bike where it lay half on the grass, and half on the road, and we jumped up and shouted at him, but he was gone and we knew that we had no-one to blame but ourselves.
O’Brien kept saying, but I knew and knelt over the remains of the bike.
—What’ll we do?
The spokes and the back wheel were twisted out of shape. We dragged it behind us and it reproved us with its presence. At Harton Dyeworks pond, blue-green light on the water, scum on the ditch. The trees had begun to screech as the icy wind mopped up the leaves. Everything was slowly dribbling outwards. We stood against the railings, the bike held in our hands with effort, balanced on top. I said,
—Shall wis push it in?
I don’t think we meant it, but we turned and smiled as the sludge opened and the water bubbled. A few stray weeds tangled in the spokes. We stayed, hanging on the railings, until the water went still, leaving a dark stain on the surface, and turned and went home.
The bicycle stayed with me. It had a life and a ghost of its own, and I dreamt about it, rising out of the Harton Dyeworks pond and following me home, its ghostly wheels spinning through my dreams. Two or three nights later we were back outside Kowalski’s place, playing the usual game of shouting up at his window and asking to be let in. We listened for him but he did not answer, and my heart was not in it.
A damp light glowed in his window and the wind blethered through the wires, and I dragged O’Brien with me through the unlocked door and up the creeping stairs to Kowalski’s room, where he sat in the cold on his hard chair in his coat, as sad and ambiguous as the black Bible that slept on his side table.
—A niver done owt,
—Wha’s the marra?
—Me bike’s bin stole,
Kowalski said, and stared before his eyes into the empty fireplace without a fire, not looking at us, and we pushed each other back out through the door.
We went to the Harton Dyeworks pond. We did not talk all the way but we knew it was a matter of pride and urgency. We climbed over the railings and hung on, dredging with a stick until we found the bike. O’Brien stood up to his knees in the slurry and muck, as we pulled at the tangle and heaved and pulled the bicycle onto the pavement. There was not much of it. Weeds and muck tangled in the spokes and chain but we pushed it all the way home, wet and cold and shivering and unhappy, and leant it against the wall where we had found it.
I said, and O’Brien said,
Richard Hillesley grew up in Kenya, South Shields and North Wales. Curious and disaffected, he travelled widely through his twenties, across all parts of Britain and Southern Europe, the Sudan and Libya, working as a casual docker, book seller, railway guard, and yacht delivery crew. He became a computer programmer in his thirties before moving to Totnes in Devon as a feature writer and later editor of the first UK Linux magazine, and has since devoted himself to writing fiction and poetry.