by Richard Hillesley
After school we ran through the streets under a pale sky, snotnosed and tufthaired, pushing and squawking like the gulls over the fish quay at evening.
—Na, yi won’t.
But we did. Diving into the swirling waters with our wings splayed and our mouths wide open, webbed feet alighting on the rails, screaming into the cold air, and swooping behind doorways to pick up scraps. We broke the windows of our own homes and rebelled against our own kind.
And if we didn’t know what we were doing it didn’t stop us, running with the others through the streets with our quivers filled with arrows, our arrows barbed with hard words, and our cheeks inflated with barefaced cheek.
The things we saw were hidden from schoolbooks and copied essays, the wrecks and bones washed up on the tide and the faces in the coming storm. But it never seemed so bad then. Our lives were a textbook in acquiescence and submission. We broke the windows of our own homes and rebelled against our own kind, running in the dusk down by the river, sliding down the side of the wind, fighting over scraps until the night fell across the houses and the storms stirred the waves.
screaming into the cold air.
One evening we were playing football in the back lane after school when Vinnie came down the lane, hopping between the bins, cocky and knowing with a skip in his step like Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and walked straight through our game. He tackled Jimmy and pushed away the skinny kid with glasses who lived in the flats at the end of the street. He shimmied past a couple of us with the ball at his feet and kicked it over the wall into the builder’s yard, where he knew we wouldn’t be able to get it back. He was ten or fifteen years older than us, and we couldn’t stop him doing it.
—You didn’t have to do that,
Jimmy said. But he did it anyway.
—I did it, didn’t I?
he said and kept on walking.
someone shouted, but he didn’t care. He had no self-awareness and couldn’t help himself. He lived down the street from us, worked at the second hand car lot on the piece of wasteland at the end of Church Row, bombed out during the second world war. The wasteland belonged to his brother and his gang, filled with clapped out ‘good runners’, Zephyrs and Victors and Anglias and Consuls with their prices whitewashed onto the windscreens.
Vinnie’s brother was older than he was, and worked as a fixer for the gang. They ran the fair and traded in slot machines and one armed bandits. They wanted to be gangsters but were bikers and small town bullies playing at being something greater than they were, more attitude and posture than hard reality. Vinnie spent his days in the shed on the car lot and waited for punters, coming out of the door every now and then to make shapes and shadow box with the clouds and stars, or to bully kids like us.
One ordinary evening under a black and white sky we ran past the lot and one of us had the idea that it would be a laugh to climb over the car bonnets and fix the prices written on the windscreens by rubbing out the last nought, to teach him a lesson.
Jonah said, and I went. And Mel and Jonah laughed as I climbed under the advertising hoardings and the fence and ran through the gravel and the oil stained puddles, circled in silver and black. I could see the yellow light in the hut and Vinnie inside yawning and stretching as the shadows lengthened across the lot.
I had done this before, but even so I was tingling and scared like you are when you do something wrong and you know you might be caught. The game was to run between the cars without Vinnie seeing us. I crept up to a Zephyr next to the hut, and sprawled over the bonnet, watching him through the glass of the windscreen, scratching my arm on a wiper that caught my sleeve as I rubbed out the nought at the end of the price. I jumped out of sight and fell onto my knees.
I whispered, and crawled to the next car and turned to see Mel and Jonah laughing and pointing. Vinnie was coming out of the hut, standing in the cold in his T-shirt, sweatstained and oilstreaked, his chest puffed out, his hands stiff in his pockets. I looked up and saw Dolores coming down the street in her clicketyclack shoes, tight sweater and highpointed bra. Dolores was his girlfriend, and he came out towards the car I was leaning on and yelled,
and she waved and said,
And I slipped down and crawled to the end of the row, skipping round the back of the next car on all fours so she wouldn’t be able to see me, and slipped away between the cars and over the fence and under the advertising hoarding. Jonah said,
—She called him Marlon.
Vinnie’s jaw was long and twisted and his eyes were like onion rings dipped in gravy. He wore a white t-shirt and jeans turned up at the bottom just like Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. But he was no Marlon Brando.
In those days the lads liked to stand on street corners, looking hard and flicking their hair. They wore drapes and drainpipes and switched back Van Goghs, waxed in axle-grease and layered in careful wads. The combs in backpockets were as necessary as a wound to a thrill, and Vinnie was a boxer, though he’d never made it past the gym and a few local fights. He cut imaginary silhouettes across the evening sky and boxed with the shadows as he came down the street, curling his lip and flicking his hand through his hair, making a stand against the weather and tearing the sky apart.
His bike was a BSA Shooting Star. It was beaten up, needed a lot of work and cost him very little, but it was his pride and joy. He carried a flick knife and curled his lip. He was always in trouble and having fights, and he told my friend Billy once he got more of a thrill from a fight than getting laid.
—Aye, he did.
But he was no Marlon Brando. His land was the fairground, gum in his jaw, a world on his shoulders, High Noon by the Shore. Machines that whirred and whined through the night.
Ship matches. Packets of 5 Players’ Weights.
Courting in the cinema pits. Dancing to 78s.
Six evenings a week he took the bike apart, oil on the pavement and the parts laid out, and on the seventh he rode to the coffee bar or the fair and made angles along the handlebars to impress the girls. Dolores was his girlfriend. He treated her like dirt, but she hung on his every word. She was complicit in her own undoing, and said he was everything she wanted in a man. He was hard and could spit as far as heaven. He was everything she had ever dreamed of, but he was no Marlon Brando.
We stayed behind the advertising hoarding, looking to see if Vinnie had seen us, hoping he’d lose his rag and chase us up the street, but he didn’t care about us, so we were happy to chase each other and kick a tin along the pavement until Donnie came around the corner. Donnie was a friend of Vinnie’s who lived in South Frederick Street. He joined us in our game, span around and scored a goal and walked away towards the car lot, saw the Zephyr, looked at the price and said he wanted it.
He knocked on the shed door and Vinnie came out and we kicked the can into touch, and watched through the fence to see if Vinnie had noticed we’d changed the price. He grabbed the keys from the shed and Donnie drove the car to the top of the street and back, feeling good.
— I’ll take it,
he said, and handed over the cash. Vinnie looked the car over and said,
—The price doesn’t look right,
but it was too late by then. The light slipped over the houses, hooked on the windows and the cranes of the shipyards, and we flew home, sliding down the side of the wind.
One evening a week or two later, as the grey light spilled over the houses and the lights came on, a Commer van drew up next to Vinnie’s house, and two lads in leather jackets climbed out with club hammers and smashed up his bike. I almost felt sorry for him. He had given more love to his bike than he’d ever given to Dolores. No-one knew who they were or why they did it. Jonah thought it was to teach him a lesson for selling the Zephyr to Donnie. And some thought they were after Vinnie’s brother.
A couple of days later we saw his brother coming down the street and tried to tell him it wasn’t Marlon but us who had fixed the price on the Zephyr. But it meant nothing to him.
was all he said. And soon enough we knew there was other stuff going on. The times were exciting and filled with wonder, and something new was happening every day. One evening we came upon the Commer van by the fish quay. It was a burnt out shell. The doors were blown open, and someone had ripped off the tyres. We swooped around it, looking for scraps, but there was nothing to tell us what had happened. All we knew was that the bikers were at war with each other, and Vinnie wasn’t going to work on his own anymore. He always had two or three of his friends with him, sitting in the hut in leathers and jeans, looking hard and staring out of the window, their bikes lined up outside the window.
We were kids and to us it was the stuff of legend, but there were gaps between the myths we wanted to believe, of riders fading into the sunset carrying the world before them, and the reality of the streets, aimless stand-offs on stationary bikes, the bikers showing off and throwing insults at each other among the fading noise of screaming tyres and broken exhausts. Once or twice it went wrong and someone was hurt, but usually it was self-inflicted and they had no-one to blame but themselves.
The big news that summer was the big fight at the fair. A gang of bikers came out of the night, flailing chains and yelling, roaring and skidding between the rides, knocking people over and making a lot of noise, but they didn’t do much harm. They scared some people, and a lot of stories were told in the days that followed. Some of the lads became heroes. One had hoyed a rock at one of the disappearing bikes and knocked off the rider. Another had had a piece of flying glass hit him in the face and it took out his eye. But it wasn’t what people said it was. There was no big fight and nothing really changed.
After that things went quiet for a while. Once or twice some bikers came riding past the fair, shouting and whooping, but they faded back into the night as fast as they came, and Vinnie was on his own again. His biker mates had gone back to the fair to look out for the lads on the rides and Vinnie had to take care of himself. The troubles faded into memory and we thought it was over until the night of the fire.
It was a dark and murky night, mist and smoke coalescing over the houses as we played football in the street and a stream of bikers came skidding into the car lot in a storm of noise and burnt exhausts. We didn’t know it at the time but they came with cans of petrol and lighted matches and threw them over the hut and the cars. When Vinnie came out of the hut they turned on him and beat him up. All we knew of it was the muffled explosions we could hear in the night, and the great plume of smoke rising from the yard as the cars caught fire. The bikes roared away and smoke and flames rose over the houses. No-one knew where Vinnie was until he emerged through the smoke, blackened and bloodstained, stumbling and falling up the lane, hanging onto Dolores’ arm. The old men came out of the pub to see what was going on, and we stopped our game in the street and stood in a line as he went past. We didn’t know what else to do or say, and Jimmy said,
—Wey hey, Marlon,
and we laughed. Vinnie didn’t like it and turned to look at Jimmy but didn’t say a thing. One of the old men spat on the ground and said,
—What that lad needs is a damned good war,
and we said,
screaming into the cold night air.