Chapter three, part two. Reviews would be appreciated.
At half past eight, after a bus journey sat next to an old woman who smelt of drains, we arrived at our destination.
When we got off the bus, my first thought was that the whole place looked like a scrapbook picture, or a child’s drawing. The streets seemed to only consist of varying shades of grey – slate streets, dusty pavements, grimy sky – and the tumbledown houses looked haphazardly arranged, like they barely fitted together and were straining for room. The amount of litter in the place was even greater than it had been in the park all those years ago, a mix of polystyrene coffee cups and leaking Chinese takeaways, with dirty newspapers trodden so firmly into the ground that they clung to the pavement like grimy stickers. Pebbledash houses lined each street, the best of which suffering scrawls of spray paint and flaking paintwork, the worst of which burdened with missing windows and graffiti-smothered walls. Most seemed unoccupied, with only a few houses radiating that steady glow of a home, but I found myself wondering how anyone could even bear to live in such filth – and it wasn’t like I lived in a palace.
Max lead me down the grimy streets, shuffling through crackling rubbish just as children shuffle through autumn leaves. Every street seemed the same as the last, which gave me an unpleasant feeling that we would end up stumbling around the estate all night. It didn’t help that Max barely said anything, leaving us free to hear the hollers and catcalls of gangs in the distance, plus the barking of vicious dogs. The memory of the park swelled to the surface of my brain and I shoved it down with a shudder, desperately hoping we’d find the house soon, and that it would be thick with enough noise to leave no room for thinking.
We rounded a corner, turning onto what was by far the most derelict street yet. The ramshackle houses looked as though they could barely hold themselves together, like if someone so much as knocked a nail into their walls then the whole building would come crashing down into its foundations. The graffiti scrawled on the bricks was so vast that it could have passed as unattractive paintwork, and the large majority of the windows were shattered, some left as gaping, jagged holes, some bordered up with wood (not that such repairs made them look any better).
It was evident which Josh’s house was. The third home down was teeming with people – so many that they flooded out onto the street, and the heavy beat of club music pounded out from the window spaces, so forceful that, as we approached, I could feel it pressing on my stomach like a hand. I stared at the people lounging around outside the house, realising that the yells and jeers I had heard on the way here must have been coming from them.
The people at the party didn’t seem to speak proper words – all of their speech melted together into a long, droning torrent, and even when I managed to single out the conversations they were still drug-tainted and nonsensical. They all had the same look about them too, even the boys and girls look similar. I mean, appearance-wise they looked different; all the boys had ragged clothing, acne-scarred skin and dark, drug-swollen eyes, and all the girls wore next to nothing, had foundation-smothered skin and faces painted with an identical needy expression – but they still held themselves in that similar way, presenting themselves as a part of the crowd. They seemed to blur together, like extras in a film. I almost wondered if they were really there, so it was a shock when we began to muscle our way towards the house and I felt them all bump into me. How can someone with that little individuality possibly be physical, be able to have an effect on your life?
The inside of the house was hazy with cigarette smoke, cloaking the corridors in a kind of mist that turned everyone into no more than an outline. The music travelled up through the floor, pumping through my body like rapid heartbeats, and the sound was enough to wipe out any kind of coherent thoughts from my brain. My entire focus narrowed down to the smell of weed, the haze over my eyes, and the meat-hook grip of Max’s fingers in my shoulder, hauling me down cramped corridors to some unknown destination.
Eventually, I was yanked sharply into a room on my right, one that was still claustrophobic and overloud but actually had about a meter of free space in it, thus allowing you to at least be able to stand and breathe your own oxygen (or cigarette smoke). Max shoved me down onto a battered old sofa and swanned off to the other side of the room, supposedly in search of a drink, whilst I fidgeted uncomfortably, very aware of the fact that there was a couple next to me engaging in what could only be seen as a violent tongue war. I shifted as far away from them as I could, hoping that they’d eventually have the decency to find an abandoned room upstairs like lots of couples were doing. I wasn’t banking on it though, the way they were carrying on.
I tried to see where Max had gone, catching sight of him cracking open a beer in the company of a stocky, blonde-haired guy in slack jeans with a voice loud enough to make you wince. The average person would still have to yell over the music to be heard even by a person a foot in front of them, but this guy seemed to have a naturally voluminous voice that could be heard clearly even in this environment. He looked slightly unsteady on his feet, an arm clinging possessively to a willowy blonde girl who was just as tall as him but about half as wide. She had a sour look on her face – not that I blamed her. If I’d had to stand next to that lout all night and be treated as his crutch, I’d be scowling too. She wasn’t paying much attention to the loud guy, though – but she was definitely giving Max the eye, as was he to her.
I sussed within about a minute, just from his looks, demeanour and presence, that the big bloke was definitely the ringleader of the party – he was Josh. Once I realised, it struck me how obvious it was – even from a smoke-clouded distance I could see that he wasn’t all there, whisked off into utopia by some drug or another. That was another thing I respected about Max – though he did a hell of a lot of drug dealing, he still knew that drugs were nasty shit and refused to take them. I’m not saying he was righteous – he was far from it – but he knew what he was doing, at least where drugs were concerned.
The couple next to me were rapidly beginning to commandeer the majority of the sofa, so I left it to stand by the grimy window – though it actually was a window, without any cardboard patches and minimal scratches.
As I stared through the dirt at the tangled garden outside – all brown and clumped, like the hair that gets caught in the plughole of the bath – I felt someone come to the window next to me. Alarm bells rang in my head, but I carried on staring directly out of the window, wishing I had a cigarette or something to give me more purpose.
It didn’t work. “How’re you doing?” they asked, so I had no choice but to look at him.
The first word that came to mind was ‘sleazebag’. He looked around twenty, and his very presence made me feel uneasy – you could tell with one glance that he was a guy who spent too long looking in the mirror. Unlike my hacked-up hair, his was smooth and dark, chocolate brown in hue. It curled deftly about his head in a way that looked irritatingly deliberate, like he’d painstakingly stylized every ‘random’ curl. His face was glazed with that stupid phoney seductive expression; smiling slyly and gazing with heavily-lidded, scanning eyes. They were the eyes of a wealthy crook weighing up potential servants, and I didn’t like them.
His voice matched both his demeanour and looks – really smooth and well spoken – but with a tone that matched his expression. He spoke quietly and deliberately, creating the impression that his words were for you and you only. If his voice was a fabric, it would have been a fake, silk-like material – classy on the surface, cheap in its entirety. The fabric of lies. Like I said – sleazebag.
However, he obviously wasn’t here to charm me into bed, so I figured he had to be a drug dealer.
“Fine,” I replied, a beat too late. I looked back out of the window, unable to stand looking at his scumbag eyes.
“Some party, huh?” he said, leaning back against the wall next to me and lighting a cigarette.
My eyes flicked round the room; at the couple on the sofa, the stoned guys slumped in corners, at Josh roaring with slurred laughter, at a drunken girl vomiting into a bin.
“Yeah,” I said, in a voice tinted with sarcasm. “Some party.”
He chuckled quietly, in his bastard voice. “You don’t sound like you’re enjoying yourself.”
“Really?” I asked, deadpan.
“Nope,” he said. He shifted a tad closer, “I could help with that.”
I deliberately ignored what he was getting at. “Sorry, fella, I don’t swing that way.”
He just laughed again. “I don’t go after kids,” he said.
He hesitated. Why didn’t the bastard just talk if he had something to say, instead of lingering on the moment until I wanted to punch him? I whipped round and frowned into his dark eyes, forcing myself not to blink.
“What do you want?” I asked firmly, though I knew. “Is it drugs? ‘Cause I ain’t interested.”
“I can do you a good deal, anything you want,” he wheedled, diving into full pushy-drug-dealer mode.
I scoffed. “I’m not interested. I’ve got no money. So you can piss off.”
“Come on, I’ll give you a discount, seeing as I like you so much.”
“Didn’t you hear me? I’ve got no money.”
“What about a free trial? You can pay me back, I’ll collect it later,” he suggested wildly, a hint of desperation in his voice. He really was clutching at straws.
“Buddy, I don’t want any.”
He was losing his cool, licking his lips and bowing his head. I was pretty worried about what he might do next, half expecting him to start laughing hysterically and stab me with syringes.
Luckily, Max shoved through the crowds towards me, an angry look on his face.
“Oi, Steinbeck,” he snapped, and I saw the guy wince, “He doesn’t want any.”
Steinbeck didn’t move, staring at the floor as though he hadn’t heard.
“Didn’t you hear me?” Max snarled, grabbing hold of him and wheeling him round, “Fuck off.”
He threw him forward, leaving him to stumble off obediently. There was no trace of seduction in his face anymore – he was blank, flopping like wet cardboard.
“Twat,” Max spat. “You didn’t take anything from him, did you?”
“Course not,” I said. “What’s your problem with him?”
“He’s a slime ball, sells the dodgiest drugs in England, seriously. You don’t want to buy from him, you’ll end up dead,” he said, frowning.
There was still a hard look in Max’s eyes, leading me to believe that it wasn’t just the fact that Steinbeck sold untrustworthy stock that annoyed Max. There was obviously history there, but I didn’t press further.
I noticed that Josh was slumped, without a scrap of dignity, on the dirty floor in the corner, gormlessly agape with his face pressed against the wall. I was just wondering where his crutch-woman had gone when she drifted up next to Max, still scowling despite having finally got away from Josh. She stood glaring at me like I’d spat in her face.
“Who is this?” she said dully, like I was a mucky dog at her heels or something.
“I’m Daniel,” I spoke up, glaring back stoutly.
She frowned even more. “A little young for this, don’t you think?” she sneered.
At that moment I realised that her sourness wasn’t anything to do with Josh’s lousy company, it was to do with the fact that she was a bitch.
“Well, what can I say? I’m mature for my age,” I snapped.
Max solved the friction by putting his arm around the girl and steering her in the direction of the door, totally ignoring me.
“Let’s go upstairs,” he said, softly enough for the words to have some sexual meaning, but loudly enough for me to hear and suss the situation. As he wandered off with her, whispering into her ear, he twisted his head round in my direction and mouthed ‘stay here’ at me, giving me a stern look that was clearly meant to mean ‘don’t you dare follow me’. What the bloody hell did he think I was going to do? Watch?
They disappeared into the foggy corridors together, leaving me to lean miserably against the window again, glaring out at the sky. It was a beautiful night, as well; the sky high and dark and clear – y’know, the sort of sky that makes you feel like a dick for spending the night inside at a crappy party in lousy company. But what can you do? I didn’t exactly have anything else to do.
I got thinking about Max and that girl. She probably wasn’t his girlfriend – he’d never mentioned her – so she was either a random stranger who’d taken an interest, or she’d be charging him when they finished.
It reminded me of my dad. There was a time when I was about five and my mum had buggered off for bit, to make a point, and I was left alone with my father for a few months. I was only a little kid, so I can’t really remember properly, but I do vaguely recall sitting in the corner of the living room in whatever shitty home I was living in at the time, watching my father disappear upstairs with a different woman every night. Well, it felt like every night. One time I asked him how he had so many girlfriends when he was so ugly; with typical five-year-old tactfulness (the bastard wasn’t even that ugly – not that he was a looker either. He seemed to rest somewhere between the two, a bit like me) and didn’t give me an answer, he just told me to shut up. I just accepted it, I suppose. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realised that the women weren’t there for daddy’s looks, they were there for the thirty quid he gave them before they left.
Fabulous role model, wasn’t he?
It was just after midnight when the evening turned stupid.
I noticed a disturbance out in the corridors, a stirring beneath the cigarette fog, hearing raised voices above the pounding music. I moved towards the door, looking out into the thicket of people crowding the hallway. I strained to peer over the crowds, and I saw that the people further off were moving about frantically, as though desperate to get out. The tone of the people nearest to me was changing slightly, becoming soft and anxious, when someone down the hall screamed high above the music.
If I ever find the girl that yelled that out, I’ll dunk the bitch in oil and deep fry her.
As everyone else took it in – as the knowledge that a fire had broken out settled on their alcohol-soaked brains – there was nothing; no movement, no speech, nothing. It was like the moment where a child hurts themselves, starts crying, and then takes a deep breath – you have to brace yourself because you know, you just know, that they are about to scream the place down.
And in that one, heart-stopping second, my brain squeezed out the most useless, stupid advice.
You really should move out of the way.
But of course there was no time.
The people in the corridor surged into the room, desperate to get to the window and out into the garden. Floods of people poured into the last available gaps of space, arms and legs flailing amongst the crowds as everybody strained against the crush of bodies. Fingers and hands emerged from the panic and scrabbled for something to cling to, afraid of drowning in the swarm, and a girl’s false fingernails found my face and prised at it. Pain bloomed on my skin, and I yelled incoherently, slamming my fist down on her wrist with such force that, as her hand fell away, her fingernails scraped my face like claws, drawing lines of blood. I swore loudly, but it was merely a whisper amongst the sound of heavy footfall and shouting.
The sea of bodies tore at me from all sides – I was powerless against it – until I was brutally crushed into a wall, feeling tense creatures brush past me, knocking me this way and that. I pressed myself further into the wall, wishing I could sink into it. Instead I dug my fingernails into the chalky plaster, closed my eyes against the melted roar of sound, and stood my ground.
I’d be okay. Everyone would get out soon enough, and then, when the crowd had thinned, I’d get out too. I’d leave the party and find Max-
Shit. Max. How the hell was I going to find him? Did he even know about the fire yet? He was upstairs with that girl; he was hardly going to be listening out for disturbances on the ground floor.
I needed to warn him. I needed to get upstairs.
I may as well have tried to breathe fire. It probably would’ve been easier.
With a deep breath, I started heaving myself against the crowds, muscling through the towering bodies to the door. I hadn’t realised how much smaller I was than everyone until now – everyone seemed to have grown to ridiculous heights in the chaos. I felt like a daffodil amongst a load of redwoods.
Anyway, as small as I was, I was still taking up a foot of floor space, and so when a certain loud-looking youth caught sight of me moving against the crowd, he wasn’t best pleased. To him, I was a guy with a lifeboat who was puncturing it for the fun of it.
“Oi!” he yelled – and he was loud. To be heard above both the music and the chaos was quite a feat. “Where the fuck do you think you’re going? The window’s that way, you dip-shit!”
He was quite well spoken, which surprised me. That’s exactly the way my brain works; I can be struggling against a crowd of people fighting to escape a fire, yet I can still find the time to be shocked that a thuggish-looking guy is well spoken.
Anyway, I ignored him and continued weaving to the door. It wasn’t far. It really wasn’t.
“Hey, you stupid ass, there are people trying to get through!” he shouted, and suddenly his hand shot out and began grappling towards me. I hadn’t realised that he was so close. I ducked to get out of the way.
And dived right into someone’s elbow.
I heard the crack of my nose breaking as the strong curve of bone smashed into my face, pain exploding through my head and screaming down my flesh. The force of the blow knocked into me with such force that, I swear to God, I actually thought I’d snap in half. I fell back, slamming my head into the hollow walls, and crumpled on the floor, lights scattering across my vision like glitter.
I thought, in that disorientated moment, about movie fights. In a film, a guy can be elbowed in the face and he’ll spring back up instantly, like a frigging jack-in-a-box. It’s nothing like that. Movies are nothing but lies.
Then I passed out. A bit. I was half-aware of people cursing me, tripping over me, and stamping all over my limbs, but I couldn’t really do anything about it. After a while I decided, very matter-of-factly, that I was probably going to die.
Oh well. This isn’t that bad a place to die. At least it’s not a skip.
Yep. As least it wasn’t a skip.
I’m not sure, but I think someone stood on my face shortly after that thought, so I really did black out, falling into an unconsciousness that I was nothing but grateful for.
“Daniel! Daniel! Wake the fuck up!”
My eyes lolled open a crack. I saw cloudlike whirls in my blurry vision, and a steely glare of light that pinched at my eyelids, trying to force them shut. Was I dead now? Surely I was.
“Daniel!” someone shouted, and I felt the impact of a hand smacking my cheek, and something burning through my face that was probably pain.
A squeezing grip clenched my shoulders, and something shook me fiercely, yelling in my face all the while. My eyes flicked open of their own accord, and I saw a brush of brown-red and two hard, glaring pinpricks staring out from a thin mask. They were probably eyes. The mask was possibly a face. The brown-red might have been hair.
“Max?” I mumbled, shifting around tiredly.
“Jesus, Daniel, get up!” he shouted, pulling me upright. “What the hell happened to you?”
I merely grumbled in response. Max sighed heavily, yanking me to my feet. I clutched at him, barely able to stand, let alone walk.
Max steered me through the room. My senses were becoming more acute – the acrid smell of smoke was thick in my nose, and I could make out a staccato crackling in the corridor, the sound of fire eating away at the derelict house. I stumbled a little more urgently to the window, still dragging my unsteady feet, and pushed myself out of it, straight into a thorny shrub. I let out a stream of angry swear words even though I wasn’t really that annoyed.
“Right, we need to get out of here,” Max said, after following me out. “The guys next door called the fire brigade – none of these bastards wanted to do it; most of them are higher than fucking kites – so I reckon they’ll have called the police too. With Josh for a neighbour, they’ve probably been meaning to call ‘em for ages, so we need to get out.”
“Why?” I whined. I just wanted to sleep. Was that too much to ask?
“Why?” Max spat. “They’re the frigging police. I case you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly in keeping with the law.”
“They’ve got nothing on you, why do you care so much?” I snapped. My brain was screwed from that elbow to the face; words were coming out of my mouth without my consent. Not that I cared.
“You’re not thinking straight,” Max sighed irritably. He squinted at me. “Jesus, is your nose broken?”
“I’d fucking reckon so,” I snapped sarcastically, pointing at the misshapen lump at the centre of my face.
“Well, deal with it, princess. I’m not taking you to A and E. We need to get back.”
“Then let’s go. You keep saying we need to go, but you won’t actually go. What’s the matter with you?” I whined.
“Could ask you the same question. Come on,” Max said, giving me an impatient look.
He took me by the arm and hauled me through the clumped garden, dragging me down back alleys and through grime-ridden streets. I could barely keep my eyes open, and Max kept giving me smacks round the head to rouse me. At least I’d sleep tonight.
Eventually, we reached the bus stop. I slumped on to the bench in the bus shelter, head hanging. Max shoved a crumpled tissue into my hand.
“Clean your face; I don’t want people giving us funny looks.”
Obediently, I spat carelessly into the tissue and scrubbed at the crusted blood on my face, ignoring the jerking twinges of pain from my cracked nose and stinging of the cuts from that girl’s false fingernails.
We still got a couple of funny looks on the bus, but it wasn’t because of my battered face, more to do with the fact that it was one in the morning and I was eleven. It took me more than an hour to get home, and I don’t think I would have got there at all if Max hadn’t been with me. I hadn’t slept properly for days because of my wretched insomnia, and the exhaustion had caught up with me, coupled with the elbow to the face making me feel unsteady and light-headed. Max guided me home, stopping me falling asleep where I stood, and practically shoved me through my front door.
I didn’t even go upstairs. I collapsed on the floor, rested my throbbing head on the first step of the staircase, and fell asleep instantly, the last thought on my mind that my parents would probably step on me in the morning. It didn’t matter. After that evening, I was pretty used to being stepped on.
I wasn’t particularly partial to parties after that. My nose never looked quite the same.
You probably reckon that I might have had moments where I wondered what the hell I was doing, y’know. That’s what people always say in books and stuff – the main character, if they’ve had a bad past, is always aware of it at the time. It’s not like that. Sure, I had my moments where I knew I’d done something stupid, but I never really thought ‘what the hell are you doing with your life’. Besides, this was my ‘Before’ period – I wasn’t living; not yet. Either way, at the time I never realised that there was an alternate road to the pathway of existence I was walking – and even when I did realise, I didn’t choose a particularly good alternative.
But that’s another story.