Snow – the whole town is buried under six feet or more. Cars and wheely bins parked down the street have disappeared in drifts. Everything looks different. You can’t see the shit on the green; the cracked sinks, old mattresses, prams, wheels, bum-outs, are completely covered over. You can’t see the barbed wire laced along the top of the East Wall. You can’t see the tired grey stretch of bitumen surrounding Holmes Estate. The scratchings on the wall are still there, but even they look better in all this whiteness. Kids are skid skating around like something on the front of a fucking Christmas card. It’s pretty beautiful, actually.
School closes early. I call for Mik and Scott on my way to the green. They live two doors down. The air tastes real clean this day. I stamp down the unspoilt snow, watching my breath stick to the air, fog up and fade away. I feel good with this snow underneath my feet. I get to thinking, as I light a smoke to warm me up, that things aren’t that bad. The damn snow is making me high.
I bang twice on Mik’s door before anyone answers. Mrs Hunt stands there in her dressing-gown. It’s nearly 3 o’clock. Her face is all puffed up and patchy from no sleep.
-All right, Mrs Hunt?
She nods, taking a drag on her smoke. Looks right past me, out onto the street, waiting for me to say something. It’s hard to know what goes on inside that head of hers. I’ve seen her, millions of times, leaning against this doorway, totally still, as if she were dead already.
-Tell them I’m on the green, will you, I says, starting down the street.
Mik flings the upstairs window open and hollers out to wait on. Scott is yelling something in the background. He could be singing. Hard to tell.
-Come in, says Mrs Hunt. It’s too cold to wait out here.
Her arms are smothered in goose bumps.
-I’m all right, I says.
-You’ll catch your death. Come in.
She waits to close the door behind me. The kitchen is a state: dirty pots and smoke butts everywhere. Mik’s dad doesn’t look up from his paper when I sit down.
-Your mother any better? says Mrs Hunt. I heard the doctor came Tuesday.
-She’s fine, I says. She made Jen a cake yesterday.
-Oh well, if she’s up to making cakes.
Mrs Hunt offers me some tea and scouts around for a clean mug. She starts washing up.
-Nobody lifts a bloody finger in this place. Won’t bother their lazy arses to wipe a dish clean.
Her hands are shaking so much, it’s no wonder the mug slips through them, breaking up and bouncing all over the tiling floor.
Mr Hunt puts his paper down beside his toast. He says:
-Get a grip, for Christ’s sake.
-Fuck off, she says.
He folds his paper in half before he gets up, slipping his toast into his Mac pocket. He closes the door real gently behind him. Istart to pickup the broken mug. Some people feel sorry for Mr Hunt, the way his wife goes on with every bloke in the street, but I reckon he gives as good as he gets. He’s a narky old sod. Goes out walking by the canal all day since he got laid off from the factory.
Mrs Hunt bends down in front of the metal toaster to take a look at herself. She takes up her flowery bag full of lipstick and the like. Tries to keep her hand steady, rubbing brown stuff onto her skin to cover up the patches. She looks better with make-up on, less tired.
-I hardly recognise myself, she chirps, shining the side of the toaster with her sleeve.
Mik appears, yanking a jumper over his head.
-You ready, he says?
-Where’s Scott? says Mrs Hunt.
-He’ll follow us.
-You’ve not had your tea, John.
I tell her it’s all right, we should get going.
-Aren’t you going to wait for your brother? she says to Mik.
-He knows where we’re going. Any spares?
Mrs Hunt picks up her handbag and roots around, pulling out a packet of smokes.
-Take three, she says. I’ll need the rest to get me through the day.
She follows us to the door. Mik takes a bin bag from the drawer on his way out and shoves it in his coat.
-Mind yourselves, says Mrs Hunt.
We’re off scooting down the street. And there’s Mrs Fray coming out of the corner shop with a load of bags. She frowns at the sight of us.
-How are you this morning, Mrs Fray? says Mik, pulling on a straight face.
-What are you up to, lads? she says, all suspicious.
Mik drops me a wink.
-Can I give you a hand with your shopping?
Eyebrows knot together underneath her woolly hat.
-You cannot, she says, but you can tell she’s chuffed, the way she squeezes away a smile.
-Watch yourself. Stay out of trouble for once. We’ve enough trouble with all this snow without you lot starting up.
-Oh, we will, says Mik with his old man’s smirk.
-Aye, well, mind you do, she says. Just mind you do.
She picks her way along the path like a new-born duck. Mik waddles after her, taking the piss. I nearly split, laughing. Then Scott comes steaming out of the house on his bike and nearly mows her over.
-Wait on! he yells.
We sprint down to the green, Scott pedalling after us.
Tam is already there, collecting wood for a fire.
-Where the fuck have you been? he shouts, stacking up sticks in the oil drum by the tree. We’ve had visitors.
By the look on his face he can only mean Scarrer. Scarrer is from Holmes Estate, the other side of the East Wall. He’s fucking psycho.
-What did he want? asks Mik.
-He came by about two with a few mates. They were sniffing round the place. Cleared off pretty quick after he saw us. Said he’d be back. That’s all.
-Give us the binny, I says to Mik.
He pulls it out of his coat, distracted by Tam’s news, not really with it. I grab the binny off him and sprint up the slope. The air slaps hard against my face as I go flying down.
Me and Mik take turns speeding down, swerving and bailing off the binny to miss the junk and shit underneath the snow. Scott’s skidding around on his bike making tyre tracks. Tam climbs up to the nest and watches us. The nest is the only tree left since the council cleared the green. Me and Mik try a tandem and Tam nearly falls out of his branch, laughing. We’re both yelling Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck! as we dive into a pile of snow. The binny’s ripped to guts. Mik sends Scott home for another one. We climb up to Tam in the nest.
From up here you can see the whole town as far as the factory. Further even, if your eyes are good. Traynor’s Way is the length of a finger from this distance. Holmes Estate looks like four grey bricks and the water tank on the pitch, the other side of the Estate, is just a small dark smudge.
That’s where Scarrer and his lot hang out, by the tank.
-That your old man, Mik? says Tam, pointing towards the canal.
Tam has x-ray vision. I’m trying to light a smoke and keep my balance at the same time. I can just about make out the pale blue of Mr Hunt’s Mac.
-Yeah, says Mik. He’ll be feeding the birds.
There are a load of blackbirds curving up and swooping down in the sky around Mik’s dad’s head.
-Why does he always wear that Mac, I ask. Does he sleep in it or something?
I take a few deep puffs on my smoke to get it going.
-He likes it, says Mik, shrugging his shoulders.
We all watch Mik’s dad, saying nothing for a while. Then Tam says, out of the blue:
-What do you reckon Scarrer will do when he leaves school?
-What do you mean, what’ll he do? I says. When does Scarrer ever go to school, anyway?
-I reckon he’ll be a priest, says Mik.
That cracks us up. Tam says:
-He’s as near a fucking priest as the devil.
-No, I’m serious, says Mik. You can see it in his eyes. He’s got the same damn look as Father Eamon has sometimes. As if he can see right inside you.
Tam says Mik’s a stupid bastard, but I can’t help wondering if Mik might be right. They do have the exact same look. Scott is pedalling across the green waving a binny above his head. He looks the spit of Mik right now, only smaller. Mik flicks ash over my boot and says:
-Your sister have a good birthday, then?
-Yeah, I suppose.
Mik’s got a soft spot for Jen.
-How old is she, anyway?
Tam is making filthy signs behind Mik’s head.
-Too young for you, you dirty bastard, I says.
-Fuck off, says Mik and swats a handful of snow at me.
That starts us. Mik scrambles down. We’re after him, running, roaring and pelting each other with snow. Mik’s on his back howling and spluttering as Tam tries to shove snow in his mouth. He spits it out, laughing. We’re all wet and bruised and knackered by the time we’re through. That’s one thing about Mik, the way he laughs, so fucking loud-he sets us all off. Happen that’s why we don’t hear Scarrer and his lot coming across the green.
It’s after five. The sun is burning bright red just above the East Wall, sinking down behind the backs of Scarrer and five of his mates as they head towards us. I recognise Mitch and Header and Carl Swindon. They stop by the dump. Scarrer starts poking a stick underneath the snow around the oil drums. The others are kicking up rubbish and clearing snow off junk as if they’ve lost something.
-What do you reckon they’re looking for? says Tam.
-Scarrer’s brain, says Mik.
No one laughs. It isn’t funny.
-If he starts anything, I’ll have him this time, says Tam.
Scarrer may be a small runty freckled bastard but he’s hard as fucking nails. None of us could win a fist over him, not even Tam. The rings and studs on Scarrer’s face make his features look sharper, more aggressive. Mik says Scarrer got piercings to cover up his acne. He’s an ugly looking bastard.
We wait there, by the tree, gearing up for a fight. No one speaks. It’s like we’re all holding our breath. Mik steps forward, putting himself between Scarrer and Scott. The snow looks fake right now, the way it shines against the orange-red sky. Sends a shiver right through me. What’s amazing is that Scarrer doesn’t bother us. The lot of them stay prodding around the junk for a while and then they look as though they’re heading off. But then Scarrer stops and turns back towards us, spinning a clutch of keys around his finger.
-All right, nappy boys! Fucking-arse-lickers.
Scarrer’s got a way with words. He puts his keys away and pulls something else out of his pocket. He fires a stone at a line of birds parked up on the telegraph wire above our heads. One bird gets hit and falls down a few feet from where Mik’s standing. The rest frenzy into a small black cloud for a second before they fly off in different directions. Scarrer splits, the other lads following him over the East Wall. I can’t believe our luck.
-What’s he up to? says Tam.
It has to be a first for Scarrer not to pick a fight. Mik’s kneeling down over the injured bird. There’s a line of blood coming out from behind its frozen eye but it’s still breathing.
-We’ll have to kill it, says Mik.
He searches around for a stone to crack its skull. He’s there with this stone, inches from the bird’s head, for ages.
-Give it here, says Tam. I’ll do it.
Tam is at Mik’s shoulder ready to take the stone when Mik jerks into action. He bashes the bird’s head into the snow, making a cloud of black feathers and blood. Mik’s coughing as if he is about to retch.
-That’s enough, Mik. It’s dead, says Tam.
Mik gives it one last bash. Tam says we should go.
-You coming, Mik?
Mik’s standing there, over the bird, in some sort of trance.
-Come on mate. Let’s get some grub.
That’s when Mik drops the stone and races off towards the East Wall. He’s running so fast he disappears into the dark almost immediately.
-Where’s he going, stupid bastard? says Tam.
We call out after him and start traipsing through the snow in his footsteps.
There’s a crust of ice forming on top of the snow which makes it hard to go fast.
-What good will it do, us going over? We’ll all get the shit beaten out of us, I says.
By the time we get to the East Wall and climb on top, Mik is at the end of Traynor’s way heading into Holmes Estate.
-Mik, wait there, shouts Tam, but Mik doesn’t hear and carries on until he’s just a dot.
-They’ll kill him if he’s not careful, I says.
We’re standing on the wall, staring down Traynor’s Way.
-Scott, you go back and keep watch from the nest, says Tam.
-I want to come. Mik’s my brother.
Tam ignores him.
-Light the fire while you’re waiting.
Scott doesn’t argue with Tam. No one does. But he sulks off with a face like a sore arse. Tam turns to me and says:
-We’ll wait till seven. If he’s not back by seven we’ll go and fetch him.
Seven seems like light years away. Thirty five minutes is enough time for Mik to find Scarrer and take a beating and drag himself back. Mik is not like Scarrer. He doesn’t go out looking for a fight. That’s why it’s all so weird. If it was Tam it would make more sense. Tam’s got a mean temper on him. He can get well riled.
Tam and me patrol along the wall like coppers, scanning Holmes Estate. After a while Tam says:
-I’d like to bomb that fucking place one day. Blow up the lot of them.
Knowing Tam he’d do it as well, crazy bastard. He squints his eyes up trying to see beyond the dark. I’m staring down Traynor’s Way with all these stories racing through my head. There’s been murders down there, girls raped, and other shit. We stop pacing and crouch down on the wall. I ask Tam if he remembers that old fella from our street who died last year. Swore he’d seen a ghost down Traynor’s Way. Convinced himself it was the devil dressed up as a woman.
-Yeah, Fisher. Mad bastard, he was. Used to go walkabout at night. Right through the Estate. No wonder he got in trouble. I reckon it was some messers trying to give him a fright. You don’t believe in any of that shit, do you?
I shrug my shoulders and look down at my watch.
-Never saw nothing, I says. Doesn’t look like Mik’s going to show. You ready?
Before we jump Tam gives orders.
-The main thing is to look as though you know where you’re going. No one will bother us if they reckon we know the turf.
He reaches in his pocket for his knife, running his finger along the blade. For a second I can’t swallow. I’m not scared, I just can’t swallow very well.
Tam jumps first and waits for me to land before he heads off down Traynor’s Way.
-Remember what I said, he says. Just look straight ahead.
I can’t look straight ahead. I keep feeling Scarrer’s mean grey eyes spying on me from the dark passages down the sides of each house. The place is a fucking ghost town. At least if you can see the bastards you can run. All we see are a few mangy dogs sniffing around the bins and scrapping over chip papers. Tam marches down the middle of the road, his head cocked up as if he hasn’t got a bother in the world. I’m expecting to hear screams and running footsteps; I’m expecting the Holmes lot to smell us out and beat the shit from us; I’m half expecting to die. But nothing happens. Most of the curtains in the houses are shut. In a weird way it’s just like our street. You can see the flicker of television screens coming through the curtains. And this street is never-ending like our street. The snow crunches so loud under my feet it’s nearly deafening. I concentrate on my feet, counting, one two one two one twoonetwoonetwo, speeding up as I go along.
At the end of Traynor’s Way we see the lights of Holmes Estate, and I’m thinking, we’ve made it. But Tam narrows his eyes. He says we’ll have to walk right through the Estate to get to the Water Tank. There’s no other way. He signals for me to keep my head down.
Ugly grey flats swell up on either side of the road, throwing monster shadows across the snow. I tread in Tam’s footsteps, avoiding anyone’s eyes. There’s a few folk about but no one bothers us. We zigzag between the smashed up shopping trolleys abandoned in the middle of the road. We keep walking. Staring straight ahead.
We turn the corner onto the pitch and hit the tank full on. It’s massive, and there’s this long pipe sticking out of the back of it, like the neck of some dinosaur. The pitch itself is completely empty.
-They can’t have gone far, I says. They’ve only just made this fire. There’s a fresh butt here.
-Sherlock bloody Holmes, says Tam.
The fire is burning wooden stakes which must have been nicked from the factory. I start scanning for footprints. I says we should shout for Mik but Tam says we’re best to stop quiet. Someone’s built a crooked snowman behind the fire. There’s a traffic cone stuck on its head. It’s kind of funny. Tam hisses:
-There they are!
Scarrer and the others are heading towards us from the canal track, six of them, armed with wood.
-Can you see Mik? I says.
I can’t make out more than shapes from this distance.
-He’s not there, says Tam.
-Maybe he went back already. He could have taken the canal track.
I’m about to shit myself, seeing Scarrer and that lot coming towards us. I’m pretty sure Mik must be home by now if he’s not with them.
-He could have, says Tam, sounding doubtful.
-Shall we head back then? I says.
I’m dying to run like hell out of here, but I know we’ll have to walk real slow so as not to get noticed.
-Yeah, says Tam. We’ll leave these boys to their little snowman. Who’s the fucking nappy rash now?
He swipes a kick at the snowman as he goes past. He stops right there and kicks again.
-What’s up? I says.
Tam’s shovelling away at the snow with his hands, pulling the thing apart. All I see at first are Mik’s eyes. He stares straight ahead looking like that mad fucker in The Exorcist. His body is strapped to a stake stuck into the ground. There’s a scarf in his mouth and his hands and feet are tied in yellow rope. Tam keeps saying all right Mik as he wrenches at the rope and bangs snow off Mik’s clothes.
The weird thing is, I don’t feel a thing. All this is going on and I’m just standing there as if I’m watching a bloody film. Sounds crazy, I know, but that’s how it is. I can’t feel anything. And all of a sudden I’m dying for a piss. I piss right there, melting a yellow hole in the steaming snow.
-You’ll be all right, Mik, once we get you by a fire, says Tam.
When Tam gets him untied from the stake, Mik’s legs melt underneath him. Tam keeps trying to stand him up. He says to me:
-Let’s go. Give us a hand. Get round the other side.
He wraps his coat around Mik’s shoulders to warm him up. Scarrer is within arms length now.
-You lads are on the wrong side of the fence, he says. Found your mate, then?
-I’ll fucking kill you, says Tam, spitting the words out as we tug Mik away.
Mik can’t walk, he keeps crumpling over and shaking violently.
-You’re in deep shit now, Scarrer.
His mates dump their wood and shift about nervously, guarding the fire. Scarrer’s filthy smile fades away when he sees Mik collapsing again. Mik’s face scrunches up as if he’s in pain, as if he’s about to shit himself.
-We were coming back for him now, stutters Scarrer. We were only messing. He’s just cold. We only left him for a few minutes.
-You’ll not get away with this one.
Tam seems bigger in his anger.
-Fuck off, shouts Scarrer, as if what he means to say is God Forgive Me.
He stands there, shouting abuse, his voice trailing off as we tramp away. We carry Mik between us, balanced across our shoulders like a coffin.
We aren’t half so invisible on the way back, but we know Scarrer won’t touch us. Tam is telling me to walk faster but I can’t. Mik weighs a bloody ton. I don’t remember how we pass through the Estate and up Traynor’s Way. The hardest part is getting Mik over the East Wall.
As we lug him across the green the glow of the fire gets bigger and Scott comes racing out of the darkness on his bike. He gets off and wheels his bike aside Mik’s head, trying to talk to him and getting no reply.
-What happened to him? he asks.
-He got caught in a fucking snowman, I says.
Scott laughs, we all do, because it seems like the funniest thing in the world.
In a week the snow has practically gone. There’s just a few grey patches of sludge left. The wind is blowing litter all over the place as I head up our street towards the square, feeling like a right prat with these flowers. The hospital is just across the Square.
When I get there a chubby nurse says she’ll show me Mik’s ward, says the flowers are nice. I tell her she can have them. She laughs and says I’m a character. Mik’s bed is right at the end of a row of geriatrics. I can’t believe they’ve shoved him in here. I spot him and yell.
-Hey Mik! How’s it going, mate?
The nurse shushes me-there are people sleeping. Half of them look dead. She levers Mik up in his pyjamas, propping a pillow behind his head as if he were an old man. She talks to him like a child.
-Come on then, Michael. There we go. Look who’s here to see you.
I’m waiting for him to tell her fuck-off. Instead he stares straight at me with these fixed foggy eyes. When I move towards him he starts flailing his arms around like a spastic. I step back quick. The nurse tells me he’s just excited.
-Mik? I says.
He doesn’t answer me. There’s spit dribbling from the corner of his mouth.
-You’re a stupid bastard sometimes. What the hell were you playing at? I reckon Scarrer…
Mik’s staring at me as if he doesn’t know what the hell I’m talking about. All I can think of, right now, are these paper plates me and Jen used to draw faces on. That’s what he looks like; his lips are all skew whiff and his fingers are splayed like they were stuck on wrong. I’m waiting for him to burst out laughing and say, you fucking idiot, I was only messing. But he doesn’t say anything. I need to hear his mad-fucker laugh right now. This silence scares the shit out of me. I can’t breathe properly.
-See you later, mate, I says. I’ve got to get back. I’ll catch you later.
I can’t hear myself. There’s no sound coming out.
-Me mum sent you these.
I drop the flowers at the end of his bed.
Mrs Hunt is crossing the hospital car park on the other side when I get out. I wave at her but she doesn’t see me. She looks even older from this distance. Mik once showed me a photograph of her when she was young, sixteen or seventeen. I remember she was really beautiful.