‘There’s a gap in the chain-link; just up here, see?’
We picked our way through hawthorns, pyracanthas and brambles, scratching our forearms as we eased the prickly branches out of the way, no doubt intended as the first line of defence to deter people – kids, like us – from trespassing into the quarry.
‘I don’t understand why we can’t just go to rec,’ I said. ‘I’d much rather go there.’
‘Jools, would you stop being such a pussy. You’ve never been to the quarry, have you? And I want to show it to you. It’s sick! You’ll . . . like it.’
Pussy was Danny’s new favourite word. Everyone was a pussy these days, or even a pussyhole if he was feeling particularly fervid. He let go of the branch that he had just pushed through. It pinged back and hit me on the nose, a thorn only missing my eye by chance, scratching my nose as I jerked my head to the side.
‘Hey!’ I suppose I sort of screeched. ‘Watch it.’
Danny turned to look at me over his shoulder. ‘We’re through now, so stop bleating on like a little girl. Welcome, my friend, to the biggest sand pit in the world.’ He pulled back the rusty, severed coil of chain-link fence and dipped to duck through it.
‘Careful you don’t scratch yourself on that wire,’ I said. ‘It’s rusty. You could get blood poisoning if it cuts your skin and enters your bloodstream.’
‘Stop being such a pussy!’
Being careful not to let the wire touch me, I manoeuvred my body through the gap, stepping back into the luminous light of the day. Something tugged back at me as I tried to ease myself forward.
‘Danny. Danny. Hey, Danny, I’m caught up. Give me a hand, would you.’
‘Jesus,’ Danny mumbled. He leaned over me and disentangled my shirt from the wire. Even if the wire had punctured my shirt, I hadn’t felt its poisoned finger graze my skin. But, even so, it was one of, if not my absolute favourite shirt: a Yankees baseball jersey that dad had brought me back from a trip to America (even if he hadn’t got Teixeira’s name on the back like I’d ask him to, but had just got a plain one).
‘It’s not torn, is it?’ I asked Danny. ‘There’s not a hole in it, is there?’
‘No,’ he replied. I saw him curl his lip and raise his eyebrows as he turned away. ‘Your precious tea towel is still in one piece, Piggy.’
Oi!’ I said, surprising Danny by the strength of my grip on his shoulder as I spun him round, and the ferocity of my glare into his bespectacled eyes. ‘Don’t . . . call me that.’
The day that we had watched Lord of the Flies in Mr Mattox’s English Lit class had changed my life, for the worse. The sniggering and vitriolic glances in my direction had started before the film was even half-an-hour in. Being called Piggy or Chunk – the fat kid from The Goonies – made my blood boil perhaps in the same way that Carrie’s did before she used her telekinetic powers to lock the doors of the school hall before setting ablaze her school prom. Perhaps if they push me far enough one day . . .
After a moment taken aback, a grin began to rise at the corner of Danny’s mouth. Then he sort of puckered his lips and nodded. ‘Okay. Sorry. Pussyhole,’ I heard him mutter as he shrugged my hand from his shoulder. ‘The quarry,’ he said, lifting out his arms like a preacher and surveying the pan-like dustbowl in front of us.
Wiping sweat from my forehead, I squinted around at the vast sand quarry. With the ancient chain-link fence to our backs, we were standing on a ledge about two metres deep, the sandy surface speckled with spidery tufts of brown grass. After that two metres of scant security, the ground dropped away over a cliff-edge, falling away into the dustbowl. Without moving my feet, I dared to lean forward over the cliff to see how far the drop down was.
‘You don’t think that the ground will give way, do you?’ I asked Danny, the toes of my furthest foot forward tingling. ‘In a sort of . . . landslide. Do you think that we’re safe standing up here?’
‘What if the ground does give way?’ he replied, the sneer reappearing. ‘Have you ever slid down a sand dune?’
‘Well, yes, but . . .’ I sighed and could feel my face sort of trying to meet in the middle – my eyebrows coming down over my eyes and my mouth creeping up towards my nose. ‘What about the gang?’
‘You know, haven’t you heard? The gang that hang around down here. What if we meet them? That’s why I mostly wanted to go to the rec instead. Apparently – I heard – they beat people up; sometimes with tennis rackets. Golf clubs. Cricket bats! They’re the kids from the Burden estate behind the town park. I used to know some of them at primary school, the ones who never wanted to learn and only seemed to be there to disrupt the class. They were always fighting at playtime; even in class! They have, like, gypsy blood, or something; all seem to be related.’
‘Well I’ve never seen them down here. They’re pussies, anyway.’ Danny pointed two fingers out at the quarry. ‘Do you see them now?’
‘Well, no, but . . .’ I heard myself breathe two quick breaths through my nose. ‘This is their territory. What if they turn up without us knowing? Even if they don’t, what if the ground gives way beneath us here and we get buried in the sand?’
‘What . . . like this,’ Danny said, eyes widening dramatically as he back-stepped towards the edge of the cliff.
‘Danny . . .’ I warned. ‘There might be snakes and . . .’
‘No, don’t be silly. I’m serious. Danny. Danny, watch o –’
The ground beneath Danny’s feet did give way and he disappeared over the edge of the cliff in puff of sandy dust.
‘Oh my God,’ I whispered into the balmy, warm air.
With my furtive glance over the edge of the cliff I hadn’t seen how far down the drop was. Looking around the circumference of the quarry, it looked as though it could be as high as three storeys – town house height. I don’t care how soft the fabric of the landing area might be, you can break bones jumping into water. Having demonstrated the precarious nature of the ledge on which I yet quivered, I was reluctant to advance further. But I could hear him now, calling out: ‘Jools, oh no, Jools. Wahhh-ohh-ooooo . . .’
Sweating heavily in the mirage of heatwaves rising from the cauldron of sand, with immense precaution I stepped towards the severed ledge from where Danny had disappeared. After a pretty brief drop of about four metres I could see that the sand, littered with beer cans both new and rusted, just lazily sloped down to the base floor, where trucks had left furrowed tracks in the sandy ground. I could also see Danny, exaggeratedly tumbling down the bank, arms out, like Cary Elwes at the beginning of The Princess Bride; like . . . an idiot. Even from where I was I could see him grinning.
‘Jools, wahhh-ohhh-nooo. Joooools,’ Danny cried, continuing to bundle ankle over elbow down the bank.
Sparing a quick look over my shoulder at the severed hole in the fence, I stood with my hands on my hips, hoping that my glare transmitted to him far down the slope beneath me. My feet inched a half-step closer to the edge. To be honest, alone I felt exposed and vulnerable. But I didn’t want Danny to know that. The proclaimer of pussiness.
Coming to an abrupt stop near to the bottom of the slope (I suppose Danny was right about it being dune-like), he knelt in the sand and leaned back on his haunches, readjusting his specs and looking up at me – both foolish and victorious as he squinted in the sun.
‘Well,’ he called, hands funnelled around his dumb grin.
‘Well what?’ I replied.
‘Uh-let-me-think-about-it . . . no.’
‘Come on, Piggy.’
I clenched my jaw; could feel my pout protrude; could feel my face swell. ‘Daniel West,’ I said slowly, ‘the next time that I get my hands on you . . .’
‘What?’ he said after a brief pause. ‘What, when you next get your hands on me? You’re going to shake me like a Polaroid picture? Tug me off? Encourage me gently to dance Gangnam style? What?’
‘Believe me, you don’t want to find out.’
‘Won’t ever find out if you stand up there all day looking like a . . . Do you realise how ridiculous you look?’ A smirk betrayed him; I could see what he was intending to say.
‘Don’t call me that name!’ Even from up here my yell echoed around the dusty sand cauldron.
‘So . . . come down and teach me a lesson or two, P – P – P –’
I took another look down at the drop, and then the slope, just one big pace in front of me; closer when calculating this unforgiving terrain.
‘Just come down, you pussy.’
Truth told, I’d much rather be called pussy than . . . the other one. Truth told, I’d much rather be down there with Danny than standing with my back to the town park and the Burden estate beyond that. I scoured the bank beyond the cliff. Just a few steps further along the unstable ledge the sand was banked up about a metre higher: an unappealing five foot drop – approximately my height. I could see some gnarled roots, probably from the hawthorns and pyracanthas, sticking out of the face. I deigned that I could use some as handholds whist using the others as steps.
‘Okay . . .’ I said to the ridiculous smiling face, ‘I’m coming down.’
Now, I don’t consider myself to be stupid. Since being at primary school with some of those Burden estate kids, and now at the secondary comprehensive with the nefarious comedians, I have always listened in class and built up somewhat of an intellect. But after lowering my feet down to rest on a brace of roots, as the meagre branch that I was pulling on whilst I negotiated my next step gave way from the cliff face, I had a moment, as I wheeled through the air, useless branch in hand, to ponder that it had not been my smartest ever move. All air puffed out of me when I landed, inelegantly rolling down the sand dune. Even then I could hear Danny laughing hysterically, the sound coming in droves as I span, a sound like being stuck on a lunatic, out of control merry-go-round in a mental asylum. When I finally did come to a stop, halfway to the bottom, it would be safe to presume that I was not best pleased.
With particles of sand sticking to my sweaty face like so many parasites, I slowly raised my head. Danny was standing with his hands on his thighs, laughing so hard it looked like he was retching. Seeing that he had his iPhone in his hand, my wrathful previous thoughts could be described as jubilant, comparatively.
‘Tell me that you didn’t blooming well film that,’ I said, to my ears sounding dangerous.
Danny took one look up at me, opened his mouth to speak, and then bent double with laughter. I could see spittle spray from his mouth, winking like cruel diamonds as they caught in the sunbeams. I could see that, even through his painful-sounding mirth, he was attempting to keep his phone aloft. Pointing at me. I find it hard to imagine that before the advent of mobile videoing devices friends would point and laugh rather than going to see if their comrade was okay after an unfortunate fate had befallen them. I sometimes believe that I was born at the wrong juncture on creation’s timeline.
I rolled to my feet and staggered over the sandbank towards him, my feet slipping on the slope, empty beer cans skittering on down, fury reddening my face further, realising somewhere deep within my cognitive intellect that I was probably making things much worse for myself: i.e. making the video that Danny was recording much funnier. To others.
Realising, perhaps hearing, my approach, Danny began to backup – phone aloft.
‘Put that down, Daniel West,’ I growled. ‘Stop that. Put that phone down now.’
We were now on the flat bowl of the quarry. I continued to boulder my way towards him over the loose sand, fists clenched.
‘I’m going to get you,’ I said, feeling my eyebrows knit together, a sort of malevolent smile creeping before my gritted teeth (at least, I hoped that it appeared malevolent). ‘And when I do . . .’
‘Oh, back to this again,’ Danny said, rolling his eyes, finally, thankfully (though it was probably about three minutes too late) lowering his phone, pocketing it. He took a lunge-step towards me. ‘Wha’cha gonna do? Huh? P – P – P – P – Pussy!’
Oh, well, that was actually quite a pleasant surprise: to be called pussy.
He span on his heel and darted away. This was never going to be a fair chase. Danny, though what is referred to in modern parlance as an inbetweener – still a sort of a geek or loser, but neither a dredger of intellectuals and spivs nor a fulltime dredgee –, was in the top three cross country runners in our school. I wasn’t even in the bottom three. I was in the bottom one. I lumbered after him, feeling my stomach bounding around inside my Yankees jersey – yes, I suppose, doing my own version of the truffle shuffle – arms pumping hopelessly as I seemed to be running through water . . . or loose sand. Danny couldn’t even be bothered to look back, as if I was gaining on him. He just chose to sit in the far centre of the quarry, where I caught up to him minutes later, puffing and out of breath. Curiously for one of the best long distance runners in the school, he was smoking.
I dropped down opposite him, too puffed-out to even consider trying to wrestle with him – where I would come into my own. At least the sweat now pouring from me was washing some of the sand from my face. The heat that the sand had absorbed poured up from the ground, the air dusty and dry. More sand instantly, almost statically, stuck to my calves where they touched the ground beneath my shorts. Danny didn’t even look like he had broken into a sweat.
‘Want one?’ he asked, holding a pack of Camel Lights out to me.
‘Sh . . . sure,’ I managed beneath breaths. From the pocket on the side of my combat shorts I removed my new Zippo lighter with Muse embossed on the side, purposefully holding it so that Danny would see to logo, placing the pack of Camels on the floor next to me.
‘Hey,’ he said, perfectly suckered in, ‘cool. Get it at the gig?’
‘Sure did,’ I said, ruining my one attempt to be cool by plugging the Camel way too far beyond my lips, making me look like a kind of suckling . . . animal. I had to choke back the primary exhalation of air to stop myself from coughing. Which made me cough, hard. ‘Da . . . hurghh!’ My second puff. Not quite a cough.
‘Yes, that’s what they call me: Dahurr; just like my Indian cousin.’
I took a deep breath; held it; exhaled. ‘Dan-ny,’ I carefully enunciated.
Inhaling, he raised his eyebrows, peering over his glasses.
‘Don’t . . . you know . . . show anyone that video. Right?’
Behind his cigarette, he smirked. ‘Well I’m not going to get rid of it. Consider it . . . collateral.’
‘Michael Mann. Two-thousand-and-four,’ I spouted. ‘“You killed him?” “No, I shot him. Bullets and the fall killed him.”’ I exhaled triumphantly, even if it felt like the last of my breath.
‘Always with the films,’ Danny said, blowing smoke out into the air above him, but with a smile. ‘Now you have a film of your own, in which you’re the star.’
Grinning, helpless not to, I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand, feeling the grit of sand exfoliating my skin . . . in a stingy sort of way. ‘As long as you don’t Facebook it . . . I don’t mind. I suppose.’ Fingering my Zippo, I looked around at the vast bowl of the quarry. ‘With all the litter and everything,’ I said, ‘it’s like a sort of demented, apocalyptic stadium, probably for some Mad Max-like death bowl. Or something.’
‘Mmmm,’ Danny said, gazing off over my shoulder. Without looking down, he stubbed his cigarette into the packed-sand floor and leaned up on to one knee before readjusting his glasses, the light winking off the lenses and into my narrowed eyes.
I glanced up into the bright blue sky, closing my eyes, thinking about . . . nothing. ‘Oh, hey,’ I said, moments later. ‘I’ve got my James Bond Top Trumps on me.’ I began to dig into the opposite pocket on my shorts, my sweat-slick hands struggling over the metal button. ‘I mean, if I have Irma Bunt again – who has a big zilch in sex appeal, and barely makes up for it by being about as dangerous as Paris Carver – then I’m not –’
‘Jools . . .’
‘– going to play. Unless I have Bond himself, of course, or even Blofeld, who –’
‘Jools . . .’
‘– is probably . . . What?’ I said, plonking the Top Trumps down next to the cigarettes.
Danny didn’t reply. Licking his lips, he was still looking over my shoulder in the direction by which we’d entered the quarry. Turning with effort, at first it didn’t seem real: seeing five people sliding down the sand bank far behind me. I noticed three more standing at the top of the bank, maybe negotiating how best to descend – no, two. One of them just leapt off, quickly striding wildebeest-like towards the bottom. The other two behind him followed suit. Eight people in all, looking like extras from Twelve Monkeys. When a few of them had reached the base of the bowl it looked as though a mini sand storm was enshrouding them; like the earth had caught light, spewing dusty smoke, making a broth of them. And then I realised that it was them kicking up the sand. Running. Heading our way. The Burden estate quarry gang, no doubt. I think that a sound escaped me.
‘Run,’ Danny said with surprising serenity. ‘Fucking run!’ (Perhaps there had been nothing serene about it at all.)
Danny was already off, pegging it towards the far side of the quarry. Grabbing the top trumps, with my heart yammering within my jersey like I had never known before, I tried to follow but felt like a juggernaut trying to move up a hill in third gear. Adrenaline kicked in, not that it made me feel Olympian, but I had never moved faster, following in Danny’s falling dust.
It seemed like a long way off to the far edge of the quarry; it seemed not to get closer. Truffling along, I dared a look over my shoulder. Whoever was at the front of the pack was far out ahead of the others, nearly to where we had moments ago been sitting.
‘Danny,’ I tried to call out – I think that it must have sounded like a squeal. Already I felt that I could run no further, but my very core was bubbling with magmatic fear and adrenaline. To stop would be to die, to resignedly allow quicksand to swallow me rather than attempt to struggle free. At least in cross country at school you could drop out – well, I would – but never to sacrifice yourself to a pack of wild dogs.
After pounding over hell’s travellator-in-reverse for eternity, ahead of me Danny reached the wall of sand, where a works road was cut into the cliff. Thankfully he now had the good grace to wait until I caught up. He was again looking beyond me. I dared not to ask how close they were. I dared not look.
‘Danny . . .’ I wheezed, feeling the frantic look on my face.
‘Up here,’ he said, as out of breath as if he had just stepped out of a paddling pool. ‘Come on.’
I trundled up the road after him, checking as I panted and dry-heaved that my Zippo was safely buttoned into my pocket.
Before the upward road ended, Danny leaped up and over the edge of the cliff, spraying sand over my face. I tried to follow him, my feet windmilling beneath me, trying to find purchase in the unstable sand, pulling great chunks of sand over my head, into my eyes. There was no way. I was going backwards. I didn’t want to, but I looked. The vanguard of the quarry gang was nearly at the foot of the road – a short sprint beneath me. I could see that he was brandishing a cricket bat. Wimbledon season was over.
I’m not sure if he had been waiting for me, but Danny leaped back down to the road, pushed me up and followed, all in one movement.
‘Did you . . . see?’ I said, trying to catch a breath. ‘Cricket . . . bat.’
‘This way,’ Danny said, now looking as petrified as I felt, leading me into a thicket of long grass, one that I wish I’d never known had existed. I think I saw an adder slithering into the grass. Not even that stopped me following Danny. And I didn’t even mention it to him.
I could hear the leader of the quarry gang right behind us, now in the grass, the swishing sound as it parted for him like that scene in The Thin Red Line, where you know that the soldiers are about to be attacked by the unseen enemy. I could run no more. If it were to be death at least I was already halfway there.
‘Da . . . Danny,’ I puffed. ‘I can’t . . . g-go . . . on. You . . . go.’ I quite liked myself at that moment, even though I hated my lack of athleticism more than I ever had.
I watched Danny slow and turn. Pushing back his fringe, I saw him look over my head. He looked as though he might be about to cry. I don’t think that I’d have had the sources, my reservoir dry, soaking into my Yankees jersey. I heard the swishing of grasses behind me cease. Trying to fill my lungs with air, I too turned.
He was alone, the cricket bat resting over his right shoulder, looking from one of us to the other. Unfortunately lingering on me. ‘What you ran for?’ he said after a time, sort of Irish-sounding, but not quite. Sort of, Wha ye ran fer. Like one word: Whayeranfer.
I admit that the question both startled and confused me. I wished that I was brave, so that I could answer with the obvious invective response. I, of course, didn’t.
‘Wha ye ran fer?’ he asked again.
Like Danny, he also had merely the barest glistening of sweat sheening his palest of skin. (I was dripping, moistening the dry earth like a monsoon of African proportions.) The sun shining on his white skin made him appear almost translucent. His hair, untamed, was so white that it might have been grey; his angular cheekbones pulsed, chiselling down to a chin that looked sharp enough to bore wood. His forearms were as thick as the cricket bat that remained, for now, on his shoulder, contours of muscles and blue veins. His neon-blue eyes continued to look from one to the other of us. I wondered where the adder was now, if there were more; whether they might help us out and bite this . . . fellow.
‘Gorra smoke?’ he asked.
I could sense, rather than see, Danny feeling around in his pocket. But it was me that the fellow was yet staring at.
‘Gi’s one ‘em smokes, son.’
I looked down at my hand to see that I was holding the Camels. Which meant that my bleeding pack of James Bond Top Trumps were left out in the middle of the accursed sand bowl. I must have been frowning when I looked back up. The gang member lowered the bat, a frown of his own drawing faint red lines on his forehead.
‘Gi’s,’ he . . . ordered.
‘Here,’ I said, holding a Camel out at the peak of my reach, like going to the boating lake to feed bread to the crocodiles. The fellow stepped towards me and snatched the smoke from my hand.
‘Gonna nee a loite,’ he said, now only a step away, his razor-sharp cheekbones pulsing; his piercing eyes telling me that if I were to dare try and defy him . . .
My treacherous hand fingered the pocket with my Muse Zippo in it. If I handed it over I strongly doubted that I’d ever see it again. Even if this fellow was no Muse fan. God, I felt like a duellist. But he did have a cricket bat and a reputation of uncompromising, gratuitous violence.
Danny leaned past me. ‘H-here,’ he stammered, holding out a blue Bic lighter – no loss. Danny sort of tossed it towards the fellow. My heart sort of stopped. It span in the air, looking for the world like it wouldn’t carry to him. Thankfully the fellow swiped it out of the air. His countenance betrayed nothing.
Now more of the quarry gang began to arrive. Some had dark, tanned skin. In fact, no others were like this first one – pale to the point of opacity. ‘Gorra smoke?’ they all asked as they arrived. ‘Gi’s smoke.’ Strangely none were sweating beneath their garish, threadbare shirts, showing muscled chests and collages of homemade tattoos. Whilst the first fellow glared at us still, the others seemed not to know where to look. And then my possible saviour arrived.
‘Oh hi, Mike,’ I said, recognising one of the gang from my class at primary school and the ridiculousness of my voice, sounding like I was greeting a friend of the family rather than addressing a potential murderer; perhaps a real true-life murderer. Maybe my murderer. ‘How are you?’ I effused. I recognised the lad next to him, too: a younger brother, or a cousin or something – maybe one and the same. In fact, looking around, I thought that I recognised a few more of the gang as being relatives of his.
Mike sort of mumbled something in response. Something that sounded like it was all one word, certainly with a couple of slurred effs.
‘You can, uh . . . keep these,’ I said, glancing at Danny – who looked as white as the first of the gang – and threw over the pack of cigarettes. Pale Face caught them, glared at them – looking as vague as General Zod’s sidekick in Superman II (forget the character’s name; the big one who doesn’t talk) – and then slowly opened the pack as if he had never done so before. He handed one out to each of his companions, even a lad who looked like he must only have been about ten.
There were some members of our school year who were more mature than Danny and myself, who had – or claimed – worldly experience. They were naturally muscular, tougher in the tackle in rugby matches; they shaved because they needed to and knew the combinations of alcohol needed to make cocktails. But none of them looked so much like men as the quarry gang did. Even the little lad, smoking like an expert, looked as though he’d spent his life foraging to survive, washing in streams and learning from the land rather than after-school classes. He kept looking from Pale Face then back to me and Danny, his demeanour jumpy – a dog without a leash. It only takes the smallest of firecrackers to set the whole factory alight.
‘We’re, um . . . we’ve got to go,’ I said. ‘Nice to, er . . . see you, Mike.’ I nodded. ‘Gang.’
Pale face said something that I think was, ‘Yea roigh,’ and then, ever so slowly, we retreated further into the grass. We didn’t look back, but neither did we hear the perilous swishing of grasses.
‘Did they chase us so that they could ask for a cigarette?’ I asked Danny, looking up at him, pleased that some of the colour had begun to return to his face.
‘I . . . I . . . I have not got the foggiest idea,’ he replied. ‘Er . . . sorry. I feel like we’ve just walked through a German trench and were allowed to walk free because we bought a dag from the same breeder as some Kraut.’
‘Maybe they wanted a game of cricket,’ I said cheerfully, feeling for perhaps the first time in my life a bit superior to Danny.
‘I think . . . think I saw blood on the bat,’ Danny mumbled.
‘Yah. Don’t be such a pussy,’ I said, walking ahead of him, further into the tall grass.