UKArchive ID: 36353thegeeza
Originally published on March 21, 2016 in Faction
Does our environment shape us? Of course. How much? Is your underlying core always there? Remembering someone from the past and how they ranged from surprisingly normal to surprisingly abnormal.
Hordes of kids pushed past, shouting “bus!”, pushing screaming, monkeying around. The bus sat winking at the bus stop, taking a sharp intake as they leapt onto the standing platform and up the stairs. The old Routemaster buses couldn’t hold back those tides like the newer buses can. A large percentage of the kids were black, making the middle aged and older white passengers shift uncomfortably in their seats.
‘Did you play?’ said Larry.
‘Yeah, was good. We won.’
‘How much by?’
‘Couple of goals.’
The two schoolboys were shabbily dressed. It didn’t mean anything, being unkempt was cool in its own way for most of the kids back then. Class boffins were always smart, the result of parent driven pride that explained their later academic success. Some of the New Romantic Duran Duran fans were smart with rolled up blazer sleeves. Larry and Steve were scruffy. Steve wore light grey trousers (only dark grey was permitted), a blue shirt (that wasn’t allowed), his tie was cut down and he had no blazer – but did own a note from his mum saying they were too poor to buy another. That wasn’t strictly true but Steve didn’t like blazers. For some reason he’d tried to sew the bottom of the tie with his mum’s sewing kit, to stop the tie’s innards exposing themselves and had made it look much worse. Larry’s tie was also cut down and the tie knot was enormous and bigger than a tennis ball. His blazer was much too big - probably a hand-me-down from an older sibling. All the kids did some kind of uniform desecration, none of them could explain it then or later.
Larry wore top of the range Adidas trainers, Steve wore slip on shoes. The school uniform code allowed the children to wear trainers, so Steve always wore shoes. That tells you everything you need to know about Steve.
School bags slung over their backs, they made their way down Windmill Road as the traffic flowed past them.
‘Have you got a Commodore 64?’ asked Steve.
‘Got a Spectrum and a tele in my room.’
‘We could’ve swapped games if we had the same.’
‘Yeah, I’ve got loads. How many you got?’
‘You ready for the exams?’ said Steve.
‘Mocks for the English exam in the summer.’
‘Are you doing it?’
‘Nah. Not interested in exams. I bunk the lessons, they send me to the Unit and I just sit about down there. They let me out early if I behave.’
‘Shall we run for the lights?’ said Steve.
Larry sprinted off, Steve following close behind to get across the fast A3 road before the traffic lights changed and called the start of a five minute wait to cross. The boys laughed on the other side.
‘You’re quite fast,’ said Larry.
Larry was a well developed black kid, very sporty and athletic. Steve remembered the recent basketball session where he’d been one of the only white kids playing. The rough kids always played basketball and one had thrown him the ball and said that he was quite good for a white boy. He’s still happy to remember the comment years later.
‘Thanks,’ said Steve, not sure of what to say.
Steve was in the top class, which wasn’t difficult in the sink school that he went to. Let down by poor teaching quality, he played a lot of sport – all sports – a few hours each day. It lent him some respect from the gangs of kids that wandered around, getting up to no good. Teachers had been stabbed, the toilets had been smashed and ceilings torn down showering pupils with asbestos. One of Steve’s classmates had been chased through the playground in the middle of a football match and onto Wandsworth Common where he was handcuffed to a fence and beaten up by a gang of kids from the school. He was lucky to escape with many cuts, bruises and a broken leg. His crime was to say in a lesson that he was thinking of being a policeman one day. Dumb thing to say.
Larry and Steve often walked home together and talked about television, computer games, football and all manner of sports. They passed the time together walking home but contact in school was minimal.
‘Have you got any sweets?’ said Larry, one day.
‘No,’ said Steve.
‘He’s always got sweets in his pocket,’ said Matthew.
‘Jump up and down,’ said Larry.
Steve jumped up and down. The two boys watched him.
‘It’s in his pocket,’ said Matthew, ‘I’m telling you. I seen him, always putting his hand in there and pulling out sweets.’ Steve felt a strange sort of pride that Matthew had noticed him doing that.
‘Have you?’ said Larry. ‘Show me what’s in your pocket.’
Steve took out a white paper bag full of his favourite toffee crumble. He would run over the shops at lunch time most days, breaking school rules to get it. He would run as fast as possible with his friend Darren and they’d always be first and second to the newsagent and the bakers to beat the queue. The teachers would file into the pub opposite and ignore their afternoon charges. Steve often used to run home, run to the shops, run everywhere. He wouldn’t be able to tell you why, really, but he’d always want to get things out the way as quickly as he could. In his older life, he walks, but walks quickly.
‘Give me that,’ said Larry. Steve handed over the booty. ‘If I ask you for sweets, just give them to me, okay?’
‘He’s got money too,’ said Matthew.
‘Get lost,’ said Larry to Steve.
‘Get the money!’ said Matthew.
‘Nah, leave him,’ said Larry. ‘The sweets are enough.’
Another time, Peter said, ‘did you hear what happened?’
‘No,’ said Steve, ‘what?’
‘There was a big fight last night.’
‘Our school and Earlsfield.’
‘Really? Who won?’
‘We did. Larry, Tony and them lot.’
‘They went there after school.’
‘Yeah, and they had a big fight. Larry cut their ear lobes off.’
‘Yeah, they do it all the time, if they catch ‘em.’
‘You walking down?’ said Larry.
‘Yeah,’ said Steve.
It was a few days after the big fight and the boys were outside the school at the top of the steps. Cars hurtled past on the dual carriageway, Wandsworth Prison just opposite. It was a likely destination for many of the school’s students. Neither boy would dare mention the fight.
They walked towards and then down Windmill road.
The crowd barged past the boys and jostled them.
‘They get on my nerves,’ said Larry, ‘always running and busting their guts. Why? Just relax, get the next bus.’
‘I never get the bus,’ said Steve. ‘Hate it. Too crowded, noisy.’ He stopped, conscious of the weakness.
‘Me too,’ he said. ‘Have a walk, get home, turn on the computer and play. Wait for my mum to come home. That’s what I do.’
‘Yeah, me too. I go out and play football after dinner.’
‘Yeah? You do too much, you should just chill out a bit.’
It makes you wonder about Larry, thinks Steve. Circumstances and peer pressure pushed Larry out at a different angle to what society deems as normal. As people get older and wiser, the angle starts to come in and the outliers merge slowly into the main traffic of jobs, mortgages, families and life. Sometimes the angle is too steep and they don’t make it. They didn’t have much of a chance, did they?
In the following years, Steve heard that Tony was incarcerated for attempted murder and rape after slitting a girl’s throat. The local paper reported that Matthew was stabbed to death near St George’s hospital.
Some years later, when about nineteen, Steve and Peter had been to the pub and were leaning against some railings about to part ways for the night.
‘Help! Help me!’ A young white man ran around the corner. ‘They’re going to kill me! Help me!’
Steve and his friend turned and were confronted by a group of black lads about the same age – about six in number. All parties stared at one another. You could say Steve faced them down or that he was frozen by shock. He’d like to make you believe the former but you’ll know better. The black lads backed off and walked away.
‘Thank-you, thank-you,’ said the young man. ‘You saved me.’
‘I didn’t do anything. I think you best be on your way, mate. Before they come back.’
He disappeared. Steve turned to Peter. ‘I don’t fancy hanging around here much, either. I’ll see you later.’
When remembering the incident, Steve does think of Larry. It was very likely the group had come from the council estate where Larry had lived when going to that school.
Some of the conversations have been paraphrased but names have not been changed to protect the innocent. No one is born evil.
I do hope that Larry made it.
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