Sunday, 22 April 2012

Angel



(Massive Attack - Angel)

It was the hottest summer I can remember, suspended between school years as if time had stopped.

There were five of us, and we thought of ourselves as a gang, even though we didn't have any rivals to fight. We did have a leader though. Fender was as big as  any two of us put together, and he had grown up fast and hard on his dad's farm with no mother to sweeten the influence.  He used to take the piss out of me and Paul - Lord Tweedledum and Lord Tweedledee - we were both from middle-class families, and were both going to boarding school at the end of the summer. Tucky and Mike would be going to the comp; Mike could have coped at any school, but his father didn't believe in grammar schools. Tucky - well, Tucky wasn't the brightest match in the box, as Paul used to say, but he was a laugh. They were all a laugh. It's what we did, the five of us, laugh, play in the hot sun, swim, fight, build camps, play football, laugh, under skies so blue they appeared painted above the world.

And then that summer, there was a sixth. Every group has its outsider; ours was Miles. He had only arrived in the village that Easter when his father bought the village shop and moved the family in above it. Miles first turned up when we were killing time outside the garage, sitting on the low wall, practising spitting into the cow parsley on the opposite side of the road. He was breathless and talkative; we were sullen, grudging, curious. We gave him such a hard time in the beginning that I imagine the only reason he put up with it was the lack of any alternative. Fender in particular seemed delighted in the novel challenges presented by a new face. He'd arrange a gang wrestling tournament, and when he drew the lots for partners, Miles would always end up fighting Fender first. Miles had nearly drowned once on holiday, he confided in us once, eager to win us over with a tale of dramatic adventure. Fender listened intently, and then casually suggested a swim to cool off. He walked off in the direction of the river, taking off his shirt as Miles stood waiting behind, shifting from foot to foot, diminishing in the distance as we all followed our leader.

Miles was small for his age and wore glasses which slid down his nose every five minutes. He put up with all of our teasing, desperate to be accepted, and over the summer he gradually became part of us, if not ever actually quite one of us.

At one point he disappeared for a couple of weeks. We wondered where he had got to, but not to the point of bothering to call round for him. When he eventually reappeared, something was different. He was more confident, in a distant kind of way, his shyness not so much gone as pushed to the back, subdued by something stronger. He'd meet our eyes now, and argue back if we were talking. We all still teased him, but it just seemed to wash over him. This infuriated Fender, who started getting worse with Miles, giving him a hard time as often as he had the opportunity - and Fender made sure that there were plenty of opportunities. Miles just laughed and went along it, and always seemed too far away for it to really bother him, but this just made it all worse.

A week after he had come back we were sitting on the wall by the garage, watching Mike's cousin doing oily things to the underside of an old van, sucking at ice-pops and waving away wasps. The big question of the day concerned a nest of red ants Mike had found in his garden, and the consensus reached was that we were going to kill them with boiling water first and then excavate the nest afterwards. Miles suggested that when we had finished we should build a gang den down in one of the ditches at the back of Tanner's Field.

 Fender paused and hawked up some phlegm, spat it expertly across the road. "We've been around for years. All the things we've done. All the fights we've had. We've been around for years. Can't just become part of the gang in one summer. Maybe not even two or three."

Miles looked at the ground, scuffing the heel of one foot back and forth against the wall, not saying anything.

"Different if you could bring us something." Fender said.

"Sweets from yer dad's shop." Mike said.

Fender snorted."Sweets. Jesus. No, like beer from his dad's shop. Or  fireworks, proper class bangers and rockets. Or a ninja throwing star.  Something like that. Something better. Prove himself worthy."

Miles looked directly at Fender. I had never seen him look so intense. His glasses had slipped down over his nose again but for once he hadn't pushed them back up. He stared at Fender over the top of them.

"I can show you something better than those."

"Better than a ninja throwing star? Yeah, reckon."

"Better."

"Like what?"

"You know when I went away for a few days? Was at my aunt's. She's got all sorts of stuff, my aunt. Her shop's by the docks, she buys stuff off the foreign sailors, see, sells it to the tourists. Old stuff, all sorts. She gave it me."

"Gave what to you?" Fender managed to sound both bored and impatient at the same time.

Miles grinned, and jumped off the wall.

"Meet me at the rope swing in quarter of an hour and you'll see. Then I'm in the gang? Swear?"

"If it's as good as a ninja star, you can take Tucky's place if you like," Fender said, and we all laughed, even Tucky.

Miles ran off down the street in that odd, lop-sided way of his. We finished our ice-pops, dropped the wrappers behind the wall, and walked down to the bottom of the road. Fender was first over the fence and as we crossed the rec ground to get to the woods beyond we speculated wildly as to what Miles was going to bring. Tucky was busy telling us about the time he had stolen some cider off his dad, and been sick in his mum's flowerbed, when we reached the swing. It was our invention, a strong rope with a tyre on the end that Mike's big brother had tied to a high branch of an oak for us in return for Mike not letting on about his cache of dirty magazines. Miles was there before us, walking round and round the clearing, an excited look on his face, a faded Tesco carrier bag in his hand. Fender carefully assumed his most uninterested look, strolled over to the swing and sat in the tyre, rocking himself to and fro.

"Go on then. And this had better be good."

"You promise not to tell. You all promise not to tell. My aunt said if you tell, it doesn't work."

"We promise," said Fender, swinging round in a lazy circle, "don't we lads?"

We swore our agreement on various relatives' lives.

"Go on then." Spinning round, pushing off from the tree.

Miles stopped pacing, reached inside the bag and pulled out a small, dark bottle that looked like nothing more than an old medicine bottle.

"What the fuck is that?" Fender stopped the swing of the tyre with an abrupt kick of his foot into the ground. "I thought you said that it was better than beer."

"It's not beer." Fender's anger scared Miles. It scared me.

"Well what is it, moron?"

Miles swallowed, pushed his glasses back up. "It's an angel."

There was silence. The air hung hot and heavy on my skin, even in the shade of the trees. Then Tucky howled with laughter.

"Miles is mental, Miles is mental, mental Miles is mental - "

"Shut up." Fender slid off the swing. His voice cut Tucky off in mid-song.

"It is," Miles was pleading now. "My aunt said it is. It's brought me luck. It came from India and she bought it from a sailor, he told her the story of it, it's sealed in the bottle and as long as I keep it, it will bring me luck, and stop everything being bad for me and make everything right and - "

Fender stepped forward two quick steps and punched Miles in the face. The smaller boy staggered backwards, a hand flying up to his nose.

  "You said." Fender was angrier than I had ever seen him. "You said it was better. Better than fireworks. And you bring me this, this, this shit. You can fuck off, and never, ever come near us again, you liar, you shit you, you little lying shit."

Miles made the sort of noise our cat did once when I trod on her tail, and he scrambled off through the trees. We all started after him without really knowing why, but Fender jumped in front of us, holding up his hand. We came to a crashing halt.

"When we catch him, he's mine."

Tucky nodded, Mike just stood there, eager to run. I wanted to say something to Fender but I didn't dare in case his anger turned upon me. Paul started to speak, but the look on Fender's face froze the words and Paul tailed off into an embarrassed mumble. Fender dropped his hand and ran off into the woods, Mike and Tucky close behind. Paul and I exchanged a look, and then ran off after them. After all, it was our gang, we belonged together. And we were scared of Fender - and scared for Miles. We charged down the wooded slope, dodging the low branches that tugged at our shirts and the brambles which left red welts on our legs, and came out onto a dirt path. I saw Tucky's red t-shirt disappear around to the left, and followed, catching the others up.

As I reached them, Fender held up his hand again, and we all stopped. The path led down to the river where we swam, clear bank on this side, steep rocks on the other. Miles was standing where the beaten earth of the path tapered out into the crumbling riverbank. He was holding the bottle tight against his chest. He looked into the water, looked back at us, then across at the rocks, and then back at us again. Fender walked forward, slow deliberate steps, and stopped, a few feet away from Miles. We followed, a few paces behind, waited in Fender's shadow.

"Rub the bottle to see if it'll come out and fly and rescue you away" said Tucky. "Flap, flap. Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it's Mental Miles and his magic angel."

"Shut up Tucky" said Fender.

"Fen, come on, leave it, let's go back and -"

"Shut up Paul" said Fender.

Paul looked at me. I looked away, at the rush of the river, looked back at Paul, shrugged and stayed silent.

"Give it me." Fender held out his hand, stared at Miles.

Miles looked at the ground, wrapped his fingers tighter around the bottle.

"Give it me or I'll take it."

Miles looked up, tears in his eyes. We all knew that he knew that whatever he said or did, Fender was going to take the bottle. There was a few seconds silence, Fender staring unblinking, his hand outstretched, Miles looking back, scared and defiant. His glasses slowly slid down his nose. Fender leapt forward, but for once in his life Miles moved faster, whipping back his arm and throwing the bottle across the river and towards the rocks on the other side.

The bottle spun, turning end over end in the air, and then smashed against a rock. There was a brief moment of light, and then there was just broken glass scattered over rocks on one side of a river, and six small boys standing on the other. Miles walked through the rest of us, and away into the woods. I had moved forward to touch Fender's arm, to say that enough was enough, but he made no attempt to get to Miles, just stood there, looking across the water. The sun had gone behind a cloud, and all the colour seemed washed out of the air. After a while, Fender turned and walked off into the woods without a word. We all followed at a distance, quiet for a while. Tucky started to say something but Paul punched him hard on the arm and for once Tucky took the hint and shut up.

When we got out of the woods, we all went our separate ways. I walked back most of the way home with Paul, and by the time we got to the fence at the back of his house it had started to rain. Paul looked at me as if he was going to say something, then looked away again, vaulted his gate and disappeared inside. I began to run, only intending to run the last few yards home, but as I got to our house I kept on running, faster and faster, until I was sobbing for breath and the muscles in the backs of my legs were burning. I ran the length of the village, I ran as far and as fast I could, but when I reached the garage I couldn't run any more. I stopped, my arms and legs shaking as if I had a fever, and then I threw up over the little wall of the forecourt, and walked home in the rain.

At the end of that summer Paul and I went off to boarding school, and the others to the comp. Although we saw each other in the holidays, the friendship between us all gradually slipped into acquaintance. Even Paul and I, once inseparable, found others, changed from best of friends to just friends. Growing up, growing apart. We went to different universities and occasional letters turned into annual Christmas cards and now he's married and a father and I have never even met his wife. I catch up on the gossip back in the village once in a while when I visit mum and dad. Tucky works in the garage, as he has since he was sixteen, and Mike survived the comp, got a place at university and ended up teaching there. Fender works on the farm his dad used to own, and has four kids now, by three women.

Miles was found in the river, a week or so after that day, his small body caught by a willow which hung its branches tenderly into the water, the soft flowing river eddying around him and then on, rushing over rocks as if nothing had stopped it. The five of us stood together at the funeral, a solemn little gaggle all pink-scrubbed cheeks and hand-me-down too-wide black ties just behind the grieving adults. When it was over and the grown-ups were drinking tea and talking in quiet voices we all left, and walked down to the river, stood in silence in the soft rain for a few minutes, and then walked back to the village. Although nothing had really changed for us, nothing was ever the same.

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