“Those trouble-makers are hanging around outside again.”
Andrew turned to his wife, Penelope, and told her not to worry. “They’re just harmless kids, Pen. I’m sure if the council gave them something to do at night they wouldn’t be loitering around the streets, bored. We were young too, once, you know? Not that I can remember that far back anymore.”
Penelope allowed herself to crack a smile. It was a rarity these days, which made the gesture all the more attractive to him. “You’re thirty-eight, Andrew,” she said. “I don’t think your memory is going just yet.”
“Exactly, and I can remember being a sixteen year old with nothing to do like them. Didn’t mean I was up to no good. Just ignore them and they’ll ignore you.”
Penelope twitched open the curtain and stared out of the window again, as she had been for the last ten minutes, concern etched all over her face. It was getting dark outside and shadows had started to cast over her face. “Isn’t that what they say about wasps?”
Andrew laughed. “Wasps, snakes, rabid dogs, whatever. I think it makes pretty good sense in most situations. In other words, stop being such a nosey-parker.”
Penelope let go of the curtain and let it sweep back into place. She padded, barefoot, across the beige carpet of the living room towards her husband. “I know, I know. They just make me feel uncomfortable, that’s all. Where have they suddenly come from? There must be about ten of them hanging around tonight. Why do they have to be outside my house?”
Andrew wrapped his arms around her and enjoyed the warm feeling of her hips through her blouse. The flesh was softer now than it had been ten years ago, but still very trim for a woman of forty. Penelope worked the rowing machine every Wednesday and Friday and it showed. Andrew was a lucky man. He kissed her forehead. “I think you mean our house. Anyway, will you just stop worrying? The kids outside haven’t done anything wrong, have they?”
Penelope shook her head against his chest. “No, they haven’t. You’re right, I’m just being silly.”
“Good, now what’s for dinner, woman?”
Penelope slapped him on the arm. Andrew didn’t let it show, but it stung quite a lot and made him feel like a wimp. “You’ll get put to bed on an empty stomach if you call me woman again.”
“Did I hear someone mention dinner? I’m starved!” Andrew’s daughter, Rebecca, walked down the stairs in nothing but a plump, white towel. Her shoulder-length, brown hair was a wet and tangled mess.
“Will you not walk around the house half-naked?” Andrew sighed. “You’re not a little girl anymore, Bex.”
“Chill out, Dad. I just got out the shower . Anyway, back to my earlier question: did I hear someone mention dinner.”
Penelope dumped herself down on the room’s large cream sofa and patted the space beside her. “Sit down, Becky. Let me get those knots out of your hair. You look like something out of a horror movie.”
Rebecca sat down and allowed her mother to run her fingers through the tangled bunches of hair, wincing whenever a knot got yanked. Andrew examined the smooth curves of his daughter’s naked legs and wished once more that she would cover up.
She doesn’t realise just how much of a woman she is becoming.
Becky caught her father staring and frowned, pulling down the hem of the towel so that it was closer to her knees. She knew him well enough to recognise his disapproval and, for the most part, she humoured his requests. She smiled at him. “Can we have chippy, dad?”
Andrew looked at Penelope for approval, who nodded, and then repeated the gesture himself. “If that’s what you fancy, hun. You want the usual?”
Becky nodded. “Yeah, cod and chips is fine. Just salt, no vinegar.”
“You think I don’t know that? I’ve been feeding you for fourteen years.”
“And if you don’t feed me again soon, I might not make it to fifteen.” Becky sucked in her cheeks so that she looked like a ghoul. Add the chaotic mess of her hair and the impression was quite convincing.
“Okay,” said Andrew finally. “I’ll get going now. I’ll probably walk, save the petrol, but then we can settle down and watch a movie. Isn’t there a Stephen King film on tonight, Bex?”
“Yeah,” she replied, leaning back against her mother and relaxing on the sofa, her hair now sufficiently straightened to pass for human. “It’s called The Mist. I don’t think it’s for you though. It has monsters and stuff. You don’t like violence.”
“Well, perhaps I’ll make an exception if it means spending some time with my increasingly absent daughter.”
“I’m only increasingly absent because you smell so bad.”
Penelope cut in. “Can we save the banter for after we’ve all eaten, please?”
Andrew put his hands up in defence. “Okay, Okay. I’m going.” He left the warmth of the living room and stepped into the chillier hallway. His shoes were in the front porch so he went to retrieve them, whistling a made-up tune as he went. When he got there, Andrew could see the group of youths, hanging around the street, through the glass window of his front door. Penelope was right, there was about ten of them in total – mostly boys, but not all; Andrew counted at least two young girls about Becky’s age.
He still stood by what he said, though. They were just bored kids with nothing better to do. It wasn’t like there was a cinema to go to or a bowling alley. In fact there was pretty much nothing to do in the evenings without going into Birmingham.. The teenagers outside were just trying to entertain themselves. There was no reason to be frightened of them. In fact, that would likely make things worse. If you treated young people like thugs then that’s probably how they’d end up behaving.
Kick a dog and it’ll bite.
Andrew pushed aside his shoes and decided on a pair of trainers instead. The Nike’s were new and a little uncomfortable, but he may as well keep trying to wear them in. He tied the laces loosely to reduce the pinching on his toes, then stood up and pulled out his brown-leather wallet to check he had some cash. He did: just over twenty-pounds in notes and change. The last thing Andrew did was pull on his long-black overcoat. Even from inside the porch, he could feel that the weather outside was nippy. Once he fastened the last button, he was ready to leave.
Andrew unlocked the front door and stepped out into the cold, grey dusk of the evening. The cold air gravitated towards him immediately as though he was an environmental magnet. He gave his own shoulders a quick, yet vigorous rub and then started down his front pathway.
The teenagers across the road noticed him coming, but didn’t pay much attention. Too consumed with their mobile phones and iPods, Andrew suspected. Just like he told Penelope, there was nothing to worry about. They were just kids. In fact, he was due to walk right by them on the way to the local chip shop, and he betted they wouldn’t make so much as a peep at him.
Andrew stopped in his tracks.
Obviously I was wrong. No problem. Probably just want to know the time or something.
“Oi, mate, are you fuckin deaf?”
Andrew turned to the gang of youths a few feet down the road from him. He cleared his throat and spoke calmly. “What do you want?”
One of the youths stepped forward, a tightly-muscled teenager in a red, woollen hat pulled low over his forehead. The lad had a facial twitch as he spoke and a thin scar across his lip. “You got a cigarette, mate?”
“I’m afraid I don’t smoke,” said Andrew.
“Get me some from the shop then.”
Andrew took in a breath and let it out slowly as he thought about what to say. “Okay, sure. I’m on my way to the shops anyway. You want to give me the money now or when I get back?”
The whole gang laughed, but the teenager in the woollen hat did not. Aside from the intermittent facial tic, the lad’s face was completely serious. A look of indifference carved in granite.
The teenager took another step forward, so that he was almost nose to nose with Andrew. The smell of beer permeated his every breath. “Don’t think you understand me, mate. You’re gonna buy me some fags because you like me.”
Andrew took a step backwards, reclaiming his personal space. He tried to laugh, but it came out as a splutter. “I…er, I don’t think so. Get your own cigarettes.”
The teenager took another step forward and this time snarled in Andrew’s face. “Listen, you stupid cunt. If you get back from that shop without my fags, your head is gonna hit this fuckin cement, understand me?”
Andrew almost fell backwards from what he could only describe as utter shock. Such foul behaviour was behind his comprehension and yet it was happening to him right now. He was furious at such indignity.
But for some reason all he could do was walk away, his head down, his mouth closed. He heard the word ‘prick’ muttered behind him as he headed down the road, but did not turn back. A numb sort of shock had come over him and the feeling in his stomach was like a white hot sickness that pulsed against his ribs.
It was a good five minutes before Andrew regained control over his thoughts again. By that time he was many hundred yards away from the gang of teenagers and almost at the small row of shops that included the chip shop. He shook his head in disbelief.
I can’t believe that…that thug…spoke to me that way. How dare he threaten me. Who does he think he is? To think I was sticking up for those kids not thirty minutes ago. Well, Pen, was right. They are all a bunch troublemakers. Evil little shits is what they are. Especially the one in the wooly hat.
Andrew crossed the road and headed into the chip shop. Inside was a member of staff he recognised – a young blond girl that had served him several times before. They had never spoken personally but she always had a smile for him. Tonight was no exception and he felt a little less angry as the girl showed politeness with her usual welcoming grin.
Least not all teenagers are bad.
He placed an order for his and Penelope’s food, as well as for Becky – salt no vinegar – before standing aside and leaning on the chip shop’s warm counter. His entire body seemed to unload its weight onto his elbows as he leaned, as if he had been fighting off the urge to fall down the whole time but had not noticed. It was unbelievable how angry he felt, yet so numb at the same time; almost as if the encounter with the youths had sent him into some sort of social shock.
And you still have to walk back past them to get home…
What the hell should I do? I’m not going to let them scare me into not walking the street outside my house. It’s my fault anyway. I should have said something at the time. I bet they’re a load of cowards against someone that stands up to them.
That’s it. That’s what I’ll do. I’m going to stand up to the little wretch next time. See how big he is then.
“-ful they’re hot.”
Andrew looked up from the counter. “Huh?”
The blond girl on the other side smiled at him. “I said, careful they’re hot.”
Andrew took the plastic carrier bag full of takeaway food from the girl and thanked her. Then he walked away, but, before he got to the door, the girl called after him.
Andrew turned back around, and for some reason could just feel that his cheeks were pale. “Oh, I’m fine, thanks. Just had a run in with a gang of youths. Made me a bit angry and I haven’t calmed down yet.”
The girl’s face dropped. “You don’t mean Frankie, do you?”
Andrew shrugged. “Don’t know their names.”
“Red beanie hat? Has a twitch?”
The girl shook her head and wore a grim expression. “I’d be careful if I were you. He’s a bit of a nutter. Just got out of a young offender’s home.”
Andrew huffed. “He’s just a boy. I’m not going to let someone like him intimidate me.”
“Just watch yourself, okay? I mean it, he’s dangerous.”
Andrew stood in the doorway and thought about things. It still felt wrong to let a teenager bother him. He lived in a country where everyone had the right to be free, safe, and happy. No one had the right to take that away from him.
“What’s your name,” he asked the girl behind the counter.
“Well, Charlie,” he said. “Thanks for the advice, but I think I’ll be just fine. You take care.” He pulled open the heavy metal firedoor and stepped back out into the cold. The night had arrived fully since he’d been inside and it was now dark beyond the streetlamps that lit the small shopping area.
Walking down the road, the warming aroma of hot chips and acrid vinegar made Andrew’s mouth water. It was an unhealthy dinner, he knew, but he could stand to put a few pounds on his sender frame anyway. Bit of junk food never hurt anybody. He picked up speed as the thought of eating encouraged him onwards.
As he rounded the final corner before home, Andrew suddenly thought about the youths. He was surprised that he had managed to calm down and turn his mind to other things, but it hadn’t been that hard once he decided that ‘Frankie’ and his followers would not be allowed to intimidate him. All the same, it was somewhat of a relief when he discovered that they had moved on from their previous spot. The street corner was now free of their presence.
Too scared to go through with their threats, no doubt. Didn’t want to lose face when they found out I hadn’t got them any cigarettes. Cowards.
Andrew was just about to smile when he heard talking in the distance, towards the front of his house. He strained his eyes to make out who was there, and was irritated by what he saw.
The gang of youths were milling around his car, parked outside his house. Frankie was sat on the bonnet, leaning back on his elbows and laughing with his friends.
“Fucker!” Andrew almost spat the word as he headed across the street.
Frankie saw him coming and put up a hand, waving.
Don’t you wave at me, you insolent little shit.
“Hey man,” said Frankie. “You got my cigarettes?”
Andrew rushed over to the group and this time felt none of the shock or anxiety that had plagued him during his first encounter. “No, I haven’t got your damn cigarettes,” he said. “Now get off my car.”
Frankie did as he was told and slid off the bright red bonnet of Andrew’s car. He looked back behind him and seemed to be admiring it. “Nice motor, mate. What is it, an Audi, yeah?”
“Yes,” said Andrew, impatience enveloping the word as it came out of his mouth. “Now please just step away from it. I only just brought it.”
Frankie nodded his head and whistled. “You hear that everyone? Brand new Audi.”
“Yeah,” said a tall black teenager beside him. “Mr bigshot.”
“Thinks his shit don’t stink,” said another black boy that seemed to be the other’s twin. They were identical in both genetics and clothing, both wearing the same blue jeans and none-descript white t-shirts that seemed to glow in the dark.
“I don’t think anything like that,” said Andrew. “I just think you should respect other people’s belongings.”
Frankie shot forward and pushed Andrew’s shoulder, jarring the bag from his hand and spilling chips all over the road. He moved forward again and poked Andrew hard in the chest, repeating it with the sound of each word out of his mouth. “And…I…think…you…need…to…respect…me…”
Andrew’s stomach turned over and he felt like being sick all over the teenager’s shoes, but he would not allow that.
I’m not going to be intimidated again. No way.
He snarled right back at Frankie who was smiling now and twitching with glee. “Why the hell would I respect a fool like you? You’re nothing but a classless thug.”
Frankie seemed to enjoy Andrew’s reaction and turned to look over his shoulder at the gang behind him. They were all laughing. They were still all crowded around the car.
“Now, now” said Frankie in a patronising voice, as if he were trying to teach a foreign language to a guinea pig. “No need to get upset, mate. We’re just talking. In fact it’s me that should be upset.”
Andrew huffed. “And why, exactly, is that?”
Frankie punched Andrew in the stomach. The pain was excruciating and took away his breath so completely that it seemed like he’d been born without lung.
Frankie crouched down next to Andrew who had fallen to his knees. “I asked you for a pack of cigarettes and you ignored me. I thought we were friends. You hurt my feelings.”
Andrew couldn’t speak. The tightness in his chest and stomach seemed like it would never let up and it seemed for a moment like he would never manage to take a breath again. He felt as if he might die and the mortal panic took control of every cell in his body.
Frankie stood up, laughing and kissing his fist like a trophy. “Come on guys, let’s leave this piece of shit to eat his chips up off the floor. We’ll carry this on another day. Nice trainers by the way, man. Gotta get me a pair of those.”
Andrew rolled on to his side as the youths walked away and his breath slowly – very slowly – came back to him in great heaving gasps. The sounds coming from his throat made him sound like a dolphin in distress. Part of him wished so much for his family to run out and comfort him, but another part – a bigger part – made the thought of them seeing him like this intolerable. Gradually – and tenderly – he got to his feet, using his hands on the floor to steady him. He felt sick – more sick then he had ever felt – but his stomach managed to control itself somehow.
Looking down at the scattered chips and mashed-up cod on the floor made Andrew realise that he was crying. Several lonely tears made their own individual journeys down his cheeks, leaving freezing cold trails behind them. He didn’t know if they had been caused by pain or by fear. The thought that someone had frightened him to tears made Andrew feel ashamed – and even sicker.
He shot forward and heaved up the contents of his mostly-empty stomach, coating the discarded chips on the floor in a hot broth of undigested coffee and the biscuits he’d had with earlier.Several moments later, Andrew wiped his mouth and begun the long and lonely journey up his garden path, towards his house. Somehow, it no longer felt like home