The Chisellers' Reunion
a novelette by Mark Morris
It's hard to talk about this story without sounding like a cliquey tosser. Basically the idea for "The Chisellers' Reunion" came from a visit that Nicholas Royle and I once paid to Conrad Williams at his then home in Warrington. Seven Arches, which appears in this story, is a real place, as is the condemned school next to Conrad's parents' home. For more Seven Arches-based fiction, read Conrad's excellent first novel, Head Injuries. About ninety per cent of what happens in this story is true. I'll leave you, dear reader, to decide where the fact ends and the fiction begins.
You know in cartoons when, say, Daffy Duck's terrified and he's been gripping something so hard that he has to peel his hands away with a sound like parting strips of velcro? Well, that was what my hands felt like on the steering wheel when I stopped the car in front of Conrad's house in Warrington.
It was weird and frightening. I hadn't been here in a year, and yet I had been driving almost on automatic pilot, as though I used this route every day, as though it had become second nature to me. It was inevitable, I suppose, that my mind should have been on other things, but it was still scary to think that I had negotiated the M62 without even being aware of it.
The reunion, of course, was an annual black day on all our calendars, but this year was made doubly worse by the shadow of Stuart's suicide. It had been Conrad who had phoned me up and told me the night before last, in a voice of such icy control that as soon as he said, "Hello, Mark, it's Conrad," I just knew that something terrible had happened. Apparently Stuart had driven his car at high speed into a brick wall. He hadn't left a note, but nobody seemed to be in any doubt that it was suicide. He hadn't been killed outright, but had died in hospital two days later without regaining consciousness.
As I replaced the receiver, feeling numb as though with cold, all I could think of was his poor wife, Wendy, what she must have been going through. I had been at their wedding five years ago, had seen the joy on her face, her undoubted love for Stuart and his for her. The wedding had come just two weeks after the reunion, and I for one was going through the euphoric stage, having survived the initial week or so of nightmares born from black depression and self-loathing. I never discussed with the others how the reunion made them feel, but I could sense the celebration in the air on this day, and not just because of the wedding. It was like being released from prison, knowing that there were fifty glorious weeks before the dreaded day rolled round again. The euphoria, of course, never lasted for long. The reunion was like the centre of time, sucking us inexorably in towards it year after year. It undermined the foundations of our days, of our lives even, with its dark twisted roots.
Anyway, getting back to Stuart. I wondered whether he had ever told Wendy anything about the reunion, or whether he had hidden his real feelings from her so well that his suicide had come right out of the blue. Knowing what I did, it was awful to think of her shock, her confusion, her frantic grief. Knowing that I could alleviate just a fraction of that grief by providing her with the answers to what must have been desperate, empty questions was unbearable. I dreaded to think what the consequences would be if I did tell her. I dreaded to think what might happen now that Stuart wasn't here, now that the balance had been disrupted.
I got out of the car, flexing my hands, the palms of which felt bruised. It was odd, but I couldn't even remember changing gear on the journey, though I knew I must have done. It was a dull day for early August, a granite-coloured bank of cloud dominating the sky, jettisoning the occasional spatter of rain. I looked at Conrad's house for the first time. Its neat suburban angles, low pan-tiled roof and clipped lawn dismayed me. It wasn't the house itself, of course, but the situation, the fact that we had been sucked into that dark centre once again. The house, like the school and the fields and the viaduct, was a symbol of the reunion.
"Oi, Marky Mark, you chiselling twatter!" The greeting had me spinning round as though startled from a doze. Standing by the open door of his car further down the road was Nick, looking healthy and tanned and relaxed, round-lensed sunglasses hiding his eyes.
I mustered a smile in response to his grin and wandered over. "Hi, Nick," I said. "How's it going?"
Nick lunged back into his car, grabbed something from the passenger seat, and re-emerged, thrusting whatever he'd grabbed towards me. "Here," he said, "cop hold of this." I instinctively reached out my hands and a six-pack of Beck's landed in them like a rock.
I looked ruefully at the beer, and thought, it's going to be the same as always, isn't it? Stuart's death's not going to change anything. "This isn't a fucking party, you know," I said.
"Then it fucking should be," said Nick, a second six-pack tucked under his arm. He locked the car door and pressed the button on his keyring which primed the alarm.
"I suppose you heard about Stuart?" I said, as we pushed Conrad's gate open and walked up the path towards the front door.
"Yeah, fucking chiseller. What'd he have to go and do a thing like that for?" To anyone who didn't know Nick, his words would have sounded callous, but I knew his heartiness was a bluff. Beneath it was genuine uncertainty, and a lot of grief. Nick got up a lot of people's noses, but he was all right really. We all knew that the reunion affected him as much as it affected the rest of us, and he knew we knew, but he would never have admitted such a thing.
"I guess he couldn't take any more," I said, and then I added hesitantly, knowing that I was venturing into a taboo area, "You can understand how he must have felt."
"Don't be a twat," said Nick, with a venom born of what I suspected was fear that Stuart's death might lead to the dissolution of the barriers that we built around ourselves to cope with this day. He hesitated, and then blurted, "This only takes a few fucking hours a year. It's not worth killing yourself over. I don't fucking let it bother me. The best thing is to treat this day as a bit of a piss-up and a chance to see some old mates. It's not as though we never do anything that we haven't done before, is it?"
"I suppose you're right," I said, and he was in a way, though that didn't make it any better.
"Course I am," he said. We reached Conrad's front door. Nick played the 'Match Of The Day' theme tune on the doorbell with his thumb.
When Conrad opened the door, Nick thrust his six-pack of Beck's into his stomach, making Conrad blow out his cheeks, an "oof" sound escaping his pursed lips. "You took your time, you chiselling bastard," said Nick, striding into the house.
Recovering, Conrad said, "Fuck off, you bald chiselling git. And what are you wearing those fucking sunglasses for? Are you blind as well as bald now, or are you just being a posey bastard?"
The repartee was raucous and crude as usual, though perhaps a little louder than normal, as though we believed volume could conceal the grief and fear we must all have been feeling because of Stuart's death and the hole it had torn in the established pattern of the day's coming events. We were always like this when we got together - lots of swearing, lots of insults. This was because we loved each other like brothers. Stuart's wife, Wendy, called it 'male bonding', and she also used to say that when we got together our conversation exhausted her because it was so competitive. Though these were my best friends, as the years had progressed we had seen each other less and less. In fact, I suppose it's true to say that Stuart's wedding had been a kind of cut-off point for us all. It was the reunion, of course, which had soured our friendship, just as it soured everything else. Seeing each other any time of year apart from on this day brought the reunion too close, made it seem as though it was hovering just beneath the surface of every conversation, even though, like typical men, we never talked about it, never talked about what was really important.
We filed into Conrad's house. Or rather, Nick and I went in - I'm still thinking in terms of us being four, still thinking that Stuart was here, which he wasn't any more and never would be again.
"Fancy a coffee?" Conrad said.
"Don't be a chiselling knob-end. Open the beers. Why drink shite when you can have nectar?" said Nick.
I guess before I go any further I ought to explain this 'chisellers' thing. The phrase was one that had endured from schooldays, though who first gave voice to it I can't really remember. If I had to put money on it, I'd say it was one of Conrad's weird expressions; he was full of them, including his own version of Cockney rhyming slang. It was Nick, I think, though, who coined the phrase, 'chiselling twatter', our most enduring and (we thought) hilarious insult. Of course, it was just one of those silly, cliquey things that cement kids together, that identify them as a gang or club or whatever. I suppose most people relinquish dumb stuff like that when they grow into adulthood, but we never had.
Which just goes to show what a bunch of sad individuals we are.
We sat in Conrad's front room for a bit, swigging beer out of the bottle and keeping up the volume and the insults and the repartee. We talked about everything but what was really on our minds - the reunion, and more particularly how Stuart's death would affect it.
Finally Conrad finished his beer and stood up. "Anyone fancy another Tyrannosaurus?"
"Tyrannosaurus?" I was a bit slow on the uptake; my mind was on other things.
"Tyrannosaurus Rex - Beck's," Conrad and Nick chorused, to which Nick added, "You thick chiselling twatter."
"Fuck off, you bald bastard," I said to Nick - sparkling wit or what? "Shouldn't we be getting over there?" I added.
"It's only six o' clock. We've got hours yet," said Nick.
"I know, but...I dunno. I'd like to get there. It'll make me feel as though we're starting to get it over with."
"We can't get it over with until..." Nick's voice faltered for the first time since we had entered the house. He glanced at Conrad, who was standing in the doorway, carefully peeling the label off his beer bottle.
"I know that," I said quickly, filling the suddenly uncomfortable silence. "It's just that I hate sitting around here. I'd rather be over there. I can't explain why. I just would."
"You're fucking weird," said Nick. "Tell him he's fucking weird, Conrad."
"You're absolutely Patrick," Conrad said.
This time Nick joined me in giving Conrad a blank look.
"Patrick Swayze - crazy," Conrad supplied obediently.
"At least I don't look like a cross between Roy Orbison and Kojak," I said.
Conrad whooped with laughter. Nick said amiably, "No, you just look like a total cunt."
The upshot of all this was that we went to Seven Arches a bit earlier than we normally would. My real reason for wanting to break the routine was as a way of...I don't know, acknowledging that Stuart wasn't here, that things were different, that the emphasis had changed. I didn't voice this, of course (I might have done if I'd got either Conrad or Nick on their own, but not when all three of us were together), but Conrad seemed to pick up on how I was feeling, agreeing that we might as well be over there as sitting around here getting stir crazy (his words, not mine). Nick just shrugged and said that he could just as easily get pissed at the viaduct as sitting around here. However he warned me that if it started raining again and he got wet he was going to rip my balls off with his teeth. I told him I'd look forward to it.
We took the beers and went out of Conrad's back door, then climbed over the fence into the playground of the junior school where we had all met over twenty years ago. It was abandoned now, most of its windows either broken or boarded up. Conrad said that developers were going to tear it down and build a new housing complex for old people, but he had been saying that for the past seven years. As we each set foot on the pitted concrete of the playground, still etched with the faint markings of netball courts, memories clustered around us as they always did. I guess officially the reunion didn't begin until Denton turned up, but for me it always started here. This was the equivalent of being a professional footballer and turning up at Wembley two hours before kick-off in the cup final. The nerves started to kick in as the preamble got under way.
Only we weren't here to play football. We were here to re-live the worst day of our lives.
Nick and I looked at each other, Nick's eyebrows raising above his sunglasses as if to say, here we go, as Conrad strode to the middle of the playground. We both knew what was coming next. In what used to be the centre circle of the netball court, Conrad halted and turned to face us.
"We all know what happened here, don't we, boys and girls?"
"Yes," I said as though I was incredibly bored and didn't want to hear it again.
This, however, was tradition. Conrad continued with his story, undeterred. "It was here that I, at the age of six, removed my purple-headed custard cannon from my undergarments and took a bangers and mash all over this very patch of concrete, watched by a large and adoring crowd. Only someone informed the cling peaches of my nefarious pursuits, didn't they?"
Nick and I were both nodding.
"And who was that, boys and girls?"
"The chiselling twatter himself," responded Nick.
"Correct," said Conrad, narrowing his eyes. Tall and thin and pale and dressed in black, he looked like a prophet of doom. "The chiselling twatter himself. And we all know what happened to that cunt, don't we?"
I gaped at him. This wasn't how it was supposed to be. I didn't want to hear this. Even though the memory of it went round and round in my head and always would, I didn't want to hear what we'd done put into words, and especially not by Conrad. If we started talking about it, started admitting to each other that it had happened, then we wouldn't be able to cope with it, we'd fall apart. I really believe this, odd though it sounds. They say a problem shared is a problem halved, but in this instance a problem shared would have been a problem doubled, a problem come to life. Just coming here every year and having to do what we did was bad enough without having to actually bring it out into the open, face up to it. It's hard to explain, and maybe you can't understand my feelings, but if you were in my situation, if you were me, you'd know.
Normally Conrad just told this story straight without putting any accusatory slant on it. I don't know why he told it at all, to be honest. It was just part of the odd, unspoken ritual that we all felt compelled to go through, I suppose, before the reunion got underway proper.
"Leave it, Connie," I snapped now. "That isn't fucking funny."
Conrad glared at me as though I'd done something to make him furious. He looked really weird, as if he was capable of anything, and that scared me. I mean, Conrad could be a weird fucking bastard at the best of times, but he knew the rules as well as we did and he'd never strayed from them before. You could hardly blame him for being a bit weird, having to look at Seven Arches every day when he opened his bedroom curtains. I often wondered how he could bear to go on living here, but maybe he felt he had no choice.
"It's not supposed to be fucking funny," he snarled. "It's supposed to be fucking tragic. Stuart's dead, you cunt, and it's because of that fucking chiselling fucking bastard twatting chiseller." He flapped an arm in the general direction of Seven Arches. "And I don't fucking care if he can hear me, and I don't fucking care what fucking happens any more. Stuart's fucking dead because of him, and that should be the end of it. We should be allowed to get on with our lives. But it's not fucking good enough for that cunt, is it?" He looked up at us, his eyes widening, as though an astounding idea had just entered his head. "Hey, why don't we tell him to go fuck it this year? Why don't we go down the rub-a-dub instead of over to fucking Seven Arches and drink ourselves into an FC Roma?"
He looked desperate, pleading. I looked at Nick, feeling embarrassed and sick and angry at Conrad for letting the mantle slip, the carapace crack. Nick didn't look at me. His cheeks were flushed and his lips pursed. I couldn't see what his eyes were doing because he was still wearing those stupid fucking sunglasses.
For long, long seconds, none of us said anything. Then in a tight, clipped voice Nick said, "You know we can't do that. Just tell us the rest of the story, Conrad."
Conrad's shoulders slumped. He looked a broken man. He'd made his stand, vented his fury, and we hadn't supported him. Now it seemed he had no defiance left. I felt ashamed, but relieved too. In little more than a murmur, he said, "Denton told Mrs Sykes, who made me stand on a desk in front of the class while she told them what a disgusting little turd I was. All the girls were giggling, and when I looked down I realised that my flies were open and that my shorts were wet where I'd accidentally pissed on them in my fleeting moment of triumph."
"And what colour underpants were you wearing, Connie?" I asked dutifully.
"They were a Paisley pattern in purple and pink. They fit me until I was eleven. They were voted the most hideous pair of underpants in the world in the 1977 Chisellers Awards." He looked up at us. "That's all."
"Okay," said Nick. "Now let's go over to the Arches and get pissed as fucking stoats."
His effusiveness had a hollow ring. Nevertheless Conrad and I both nodded. As Conrad trudged towards us, I realised he was muttering something.
"What you fucking rambling on about now, you chiseller?" said Nick with false bonhomie.
"I said, maybe it is over. Maybe Denton won't come any more, now that Stuart's dead."
Nick went barmy. He ran at Conrad and shoved him so hard in the chest that Conrad almost fell over. "Why don't you just fucking shut up!" he shouted. "He'll come. And while he keeps fucking coming, so will we. That cunt's not going to ruin my life. No fucking way."
He's already ruined all our lives, I thought, but I didn't say anything.
Conrad, however, like a fool, blundered on. "How do you know he'll come? Maybe he's happy now. Maybe this was all he wanted."
"I said shut up! Nobody wants to fucking hear it!"
Nick whirled and sprang at Conrad, who made no move to get out of the way. I started to shout, "Nick, no!" as I saw his arm swing round, but hadn't even completed the first syllable when Nick's clenched fist made contact with Conrad's jaw. It made a sickening noise, like a mallet hitting a thick slab of steak. Conrad just fell without even staggering, poleaxed. Nick stood over him, spitting out the words, "He'll never let us fucking rest. He's a vindictive little bastard. We stop coming, people start dying. Is that what you want?"
Conrad was conscious, but only just. His eyes were flickering and blood was drooling out of his mouth, and he was making a sound at the back of his throat as though trying to speak through a mouthful of dough. When I reached Nick, he was bent almost double over Conrad, his face bright red. He was muttering now, as though his anger was winding down like an old clock. "I don't want to hear any more about it," he was saying. "Understand? Understand?"
I reached out, hesitated a moment, then put my hand on Nick's back. Even through his jacket it felt hot and damp. "He can't hear you, Nick," I said. "You've knocked him into the middle of next week."
Nick straightened up and turned on me. For a moment I thought he was going to punch me too. But he didn't, he just said, "Why did he have to go on like that, Mark? Why couldn't he just shut up? Things are bad enough without...ah, fucking hell."
He pushed past me and staggered across the playground towards the condemned school. He slumped against a brick wall, kind of rolled to face it, his forehead pressed against its rough surface. He looked like a kid playing hide and seek, counting to a hundred while his friends scatter like startled mice. I knelt beside Conrad. He was groaning and spitting blood. He hadn't actually lost consciousness, but he would never have beaten the ten count if this had been a boxing match.
I did all the usual stuff - wiped the blood from his mouth with a handkerchief, asked him if he was okay (stupid question, but what else can you ask?), held up four fingers to make sure he wasn't experiencing double vision. Conrad didn't say much, but eventually he managed to sit up, shedding gravel from his clothes and his hair. I wasn't aware that Nick had moved from his place by the wall until he was squatting beside us, looking shame-faced.
"Hey, sorry, Connie. Sorry, mate. You okay?" he mumbled, reaching out tentatively to held me help Conrad sit up straight.
"Yeah," Conrad replied mushily, then abruptly twisted his head and puked up the beer he'd drunk. If that had been me, I thought, I'd have puked all over Nick's bald head.
Nick and I pulled him to his feet and walked him around a bit. Nick kept apologising and telling him to take deep breaths. Eventually Conrad was able to walk around himself, though we stayed close by in case he should stumble and fall. With his fingers he probed tenderly at the left side of his jaw, which was already discoloured and starting to swell.
"Ow," he said, "that hurts."
Nick grimaced. "Sorry," he said again. "Things just got out of hand, you know."
"I think you've broken one of my Hampsteads," Conrad said, poking about inside his mouth with his tongue. Suddenly he flinched. "Fuck me, you have, you chiselling twatter. There's something dangling around in here. I'm sure it's an exposed nerve."
"Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry," said Nick. "What can I say? I'll pay all your dental bills. I'll prostrate myself in your presence." He strode across to where we had dumped the beer prior to Conrad telling us his pissing on the playground story. He extracted the remaining three bottles from the first six pack and ripped off their caps with the bottle opener he kept in his pocket.
"Here," he said, "have a beer on me. I'm really sorry, Connie. No hard feelings, eh?"
We took the beer and drank, Conrad tentatively. He swilled his first mouthful around and then spat it out. It emerged pink and frothy.
"You disgusting chiseller," I said.
"Better out than in."
"I thought that was farts," said Nick.
We stood around in the playground and drank beer for a couple of minutes like teenagers whose exams had just finished. Desperate stuff, but like I said earlier we're a sad bunch of bastards. We were all twenty-six and had made little of our lives. Nick had already been married and divorced twice, unable to sustain a relationship, whereas Conrad and I hadn't even got off the starting blocks in that particular race. Career-wise we hadn't fared much better. Nick was one of those guys who are full of big schemes that, through a combination of bad luck and bad planning, never quite come off. Conrad worked as a clerk for North West Water. And I was currently unemployed, having drifted through a variety of jobs since leaving school: night-watchman, 'Pizzaland' waiter, book shop assistant. I even had a job in a sausage factory once, as a result of which I will never eat sausages again.
His beer two-thirds gone, Nick wandered across and picked up the remaining six-pack. "Only six bottles left," he said. "We'll never get pissed on that. Why didn't you stingy bastards provide any alcohol?"
"You can have mine," said Conrad. "Drinking makes my North and South hurt anyway."
"And I'm not that bothered," I added. "Like I said before, this isn't a Russell."
"Russell?" Nick raised his eyebrows.
"Russell Harty, you chiseller," said Conrad.
"Oh yeah, right." For a man who'd just been given a sizeable beer donation, Nick looked pretty put out. "Have you two signed the pledge or what?"
"Nah, we're just not in the mood," I said.
Nick looked at us in disgust but didn't ask why. He already knew the answer, and didn't want it spoken aloud.
He contented himself with muttering, "Chisellers," then the three of us made our way across the playground and behind the school onto the playing fields beyond which lay Seven Arches. The fields covered such a vast area that a kid playing golf was just a speck in the distance. Nobody said anything when the viaduct came into view. I shuddered, unable to decide whether the arches themselves were like eyes watching our arrival or black mouths sucking us in.
I was scared. Really scared. Things were different this year, things were unravelling badly. As we passed beneath a set of sagging goalposts, the ground in front of them churned to mud by Grobelaar wannabes, Conrad muttered, "Remember when I wrote a note asking Jackie Prentice out? We were all playing football here when she walked up with her mates and ripped the note into tiny little pieces. Chucked it all over me like confetti. I felt a right James Hunt."
Nobody responded and Conrad fell silent. As we got nearer to Seven Arches, it seemed to rise above the green horizon, like a great stone spider pushing itself from its lair.
And then, inevitably, we were there, at the centre of all things, scrambling down the weed-choked bank. A stream moved sluggishly through one of the arches, beyond which an incline led up to a secluded corner of a park that used to be wasteland when we were kids. All we could see from here was a bit of landscaping and a screen of trees beneath which nestled an empty bench. There were no people around, and no sounds except for the gurgle of water and the stealthy whisper of wind in long grass.
We passed beneath the viaduct, beneath stone walls that breathed out cold. Despite the vast openings at either end, the through draft of air, it always smelled under here, a damp stale sweaty smell, like a small room after a wild party. And yet it was freezing; it was always freezing. I hugged myself, feeling not only my skin but the muscles beneath tightening up. Used condoms lay among the rubble on the ground like bleached slugs; ancient beer cans rusted among the weeds. Scraps of paper clung to stalks of long grass, occasionally fluttering like ensnared moths. And on black walls thickly beslimed with some milky substance, graffiti swarmed, mementoes of clandestine meetings, first fucks, teenage summers.
Nick crouched down, parting weeds. "Still here," he said.
I stood behind him and looked down. On the section of wall he had uncovered, beneath a crude sketch of a woman performing fellatio, were our names in yellow paint: MARK, CON, STUART, NICK.
"Hey!" shouted Conrad, waving something in the air. "Look what I've found! A wank mag!"
We crowded round to look at the pulpy pages, at the bodies of over-developed teenagers, oiled breasts speckled with mould. One girl was a circus freak, tits big as coal sacks, hanging to her knees.
"Reminds me of my first wife," said Nick wistfully.
The three of us scrambled up the embankment towards the railway tracks. It was steep and fairly treacherous, layered with smooth white stones. Because Nick was carrying the beer and couldn't keep his balance properly, he nearly slipped back down a couple of times, ending up on all fours as stones rattled around him. By the time he joined Conrad and I, who were sitting at the top with our backs to the track, looking out over the valley, he was red and dusty and swearing a lot. He plonked himself down beside us and grabbed himself a beer.
"Actually I think I will have one," Conrad said brightly.
"Yeah, me too," I added.
"You can both fuck off," growled Nick.
We sat there for a while, chewing the fat, trading insults, trying to hide our increasing nervousness from each other. I was feeling Stuart's absence keenly, and not just because of what the implications might be for the reunion. It felt bad to be all together without Stuart. This might sound odd, but it felt as though we were excluding him somehow, as though we'd gone behind his back, met without telling him we were doing so. As we sat there it got chillier and the sun started to go down. The approaching Liverpool-Manchester train made the rails whine like an injured dog.
As the train roared by, just a few feet behind us, Conrad did his usual thing of moving his lips without sound, pretending he was holding a conversation. The train sound began to fade and Conrad said, as though it were the end of a story, "...licked off all the clotted cream."
Nick and I both laughed.
"How's your face?" I asked him.
"Fucking hurts me too," said Nick.
Below us was a sort of gully choked with weeds and rubbish. Beyond that the ground sloped back up to the edge of the playing fields. I picked up one of the smooth white stones and lobbed it into the gully, aiming at a discarded Tizer bottle. I missed by about three feet, hitting the edge of a rusting bed-frame.
There was a deep clang and the stone bounced into the air like a white mouse hitting a trampoline. Conrad snatched up a stone and followed suit.
"Person who manages to smash the bottle gets a blow job," he said.
"From who?" Nick wanted to know, looking at Conrad suspiciously.
"Er...Michelle Pfeiffer. I'll give her a bell when we get back."
As if believing by some miraculous quirk of fate that the prize could become a genuine one, the three of us snatched up stones and hurled them frantically at our target. Perhaps because we were all so eager to win, perhaps simply because we're a bunch of losers, it took a ridiculously long time to hit the bottle. Stones lay scattered about like petals, in the midst of which the bottle lay, intact. Nick's aim got steadily worse the more beer he drunk, and my arm started to ache like a bastard after a bit. I'm your typical Mr Average - average height, average build, average looks - but for some reason I've always had incredibly weak arms. I can never hold anything in the air for very long, and I sprain my wrists quite easily. However, weak arms or not, I eventually threw a stone that I knew, the instant it left my hand, was a winner.
The stone hit the bottle dead centre, and we were all treated to the incredibly satisfying sound of breaking glass.
"Champeo-nee, champeo-nee, oh way-oh-way-oh-way," I chanted. "Nice one," said Conrad. "The only thing I forgot to mention, though, is that I wasn't talking about Michelle Pfeiffer the actress, but Michelle Pfeiffer who works in the local fish-gutting factory. She's sixty-two, weighs twenty-three stone, has nostril-stinging B.O. and a face like a Yak's sphincter."
"Sounds like my kind of girl," I said.
"Oh, and she's only got one eye."
"And two noses."
"Pass me a Kleenex, I'm drooling."
"Hey, I know her," said Nick. "She once ate our next door neighbour's Doberman."
And so it went on. We all felt like shit and yet we kept the jokes coming. This is probably what it was like in the trenches, or the jungles of Vietnam. A laugh a minute.
It was getting quite dark now. Was it really four hours since we had arrived? As usual the time had just gone, disappeared, as though great chunks of it had been gobbled up. Nick only had two bottles of Beck's left, plus the one he was drinking. It didn't seem to be affecting him much, though, except in his throwing arm. Eventually the banter tailed off and we fell silent. Nobody was looking at their watches, but we knew the beginning of the reunion - the real beginning - could not be too far away now.
I closed my eyes, rubbed my hands over my face. My stomach was trembling.
And then I heard Conrad whisper, "Here we go."
I opened my eyes.
And saw the fire.
It was licking at the grass beside the railway track as it always did, startlingly white in the dusk. At first the fire was small, but it was already spreading, darting tongues of flame sprouting into new life in the undergrowth.
"We've got to put it out," said Conrad, and already his voice sounded different - younger, clearer, cocksure without him having to force it.
The change was upon us without us even realising it. We had stepped back on to the treadmill of time, and now nothing could stop the events that were about to unfold.
It's hard to explain how it feels. A friend of mine once went to a show given by a hypnotist, and was dragged up on stage and made to behave like a chicken laying an egg and all that kind of stuff. When I asked him what it felt like, he said that he knew what he was doing but that he couldn't stop himself. I guess that's how the reunion feels in a way, as if we're trapped inside bodies that we know are our own but which we have no control over. And yet it's not quite like that, not quite so clear cut -it's also a little bit like dreaming while awake. When you dream, you can be a child again without realising it until you wake up; you can see people who've died, can talk to them, and impossible though it seems later, you forget they're dead.
So it was with the reunion. Just for a little while, our minds slip back to that corresponding day twelve years ago when we were all fourteen. We don't actually fall asleep, and we don't wake up afterwards. When the reunion's over, we just kind of click into gear again, remember who we are, and worst of all, what we've done. And we don't remember it as a fading memory, as something long past, but as a fresh wound, a new trauma. The reunion is not only a nightmare, but a nightmare re-lived. Again and again and again.
So why do you come here year after year? I hear you asking. If it's so terrible, why not just stay away?
The simple answer is, if we didn't come here then people we loved would die. It happened on the eve of the first reunion. For maybe three or four weeks leading up to that day, I couldn't get the thought of going back there on the anniversary of what had happened out of my mind. It was more than an idea, it was an obsession, and at first I thought it was just me being morbid. At night I dreamt about going back; during the day I thought about it constantly. It was as though the place was tugging me towards it, as though it had me on the end of a long line and was reeling me in.
Anyway, eventually it got so bad I mentioned it to Conrad, and of course he too had been plagued by the same obsessive thoughts. And so, we quickly found out, had both Nick and Stuart. It was only now that we concluded that Denton was somehow doing this to us, and we decided there and then that no matter how bad the urge to return became, there was no way we'd go back to Seven Arches - we'd see each other through this.
But Denton, being the vicious bastard that he was, had other ideas. The day before the first reunion, each one of us had someone in their family die. For me, it was my grandad's brother who committed suicide by hanging himself because, so everyone said, he was terrified of retiring; for Nick it was his cousin's nine month old daughter who died of Cot Death Syndrome; for Con it was some old aunty or somebody who fell downstairs, and for Stuart it was his mother's cousin, who got killed in a motorway pile-up.
Ridiculous as this sounds, we might even have put these four totally unconnected deaths down to coincidence if it hadn't been for the fact that that night, the night before the first anniversary, we each of us had an intensely vivid dream where we were at the funeral of someone we really loved, not just some distant relative whose death was a quickly-forgotten shock. I was at my Mum's funeral. I was looking down into her open coffin. She was dressed in this blue sort of surplice with a ruffled collar and she had her hands crossed over her chest. She looked sunken by the disease which had ravaged her. And yet despite knowing about the disease, I had this awful unshakeable feeling that I'd done this to her by not going back, that she'd been punished for my mistake.
I woke up crying and sweating and thrashing about, and instantly I knew that if I didn't want my dream to come true, if I didn't want people to suffer because of me, I had to go back.
And so it has been every year. No doubt this is one of the reasons why none of us have ever managed to forge lasting relationships (except Stuart, of course, and look at what the strain of that did to him). To put it bluntly, the ever-looming shadow of the reunion has ensured that our lives are barely worth living. We just about cope, I suppose, by outwardly denying from each other that the reunion - the real reunion, the one that starts with the fire - exists until it happens. We endure our lives by bottling it all up, keeping it inside ourselves, where it buzzes and flutters like a trapped wasp.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here, becoming bogged down in explanations. The thing is, it always starts with the fire, and with Conrad saying, "We've got to put it out."
We all hauled ourselves to our feet and ran over to the burning grass and started stamping on it. It wasn't a big fire, but it was a stubborn bastard, and as soon as we stamped on one bit and reduced it to a frazzled, smoking patch of what used to be grass, new flames would pop up elsewhere, like fucking moles sticking their heads out of the ground. To this day, I don't know for certain who started the fire, though obviously I have my suspicions. We just happened along, mooched around a bit, climbed up the embankment and there it was.
Anyway, we were all stamping, and just about getting on top of the thing, when there was this blue-white flash of light that virtually blinded me, and no doubt the others too, and I heard someone shout, "Gotcha!"
My very first thought, which only lasted about a second, was that one of us had inadvertently stamped on a bomb or something that had gone off in our faces. For a few seconds I couldn't see a fucking thing because of the after-image of the flash, hovering in front of my face like a neon butterfly. However Nick, who was standing to my right, couldn't have been as badly affected as I was. I heard him say, "What the fuck d'you think you're playing at, Denton?"
He spat out the kid's name like an insult, and if Denton had been in your class at school you would have done too. The kid was - how shall I put this? - a total cunt. He had no redeeming features whatsoever. He stirred up trouble for everyone. He was manipulative, two-faced, snide, a bully to the little kids, a cheat, a liar and a tell-tale. And believe me, those were just his good points. He was the original 24-carat chiselling twatter.
He looked the part too. I'd be insulting rodents if I said he had a face like a sewer rat. As the glare from what I now realised was a camera flash faded from my eyes, I saw him standing there, half-way up the embankment. Only Denton could have scuttled up that pile of loose stones without anybody hearing him. "Getting evidence, what's it fucking look like?" he sneered in answer to Nick's question.
God, that fucking voice! I heard it every day at school, but it never failed to set my teeth on edge. The voice alone was enough to make you want to punch the wanker's lights out.
"Evidence?" Conrad said in disgust. "Evidence for what, Rat-boy?"
Nick and I laughed, but to Denton the insult was sewage off a rat's back. He must have had so many in his life that he had developed an immunity.
"You'll be laughing on the other side of your faces when I develop this film," he whined. "Setting fire to railway tracks is a serious offence. You're endangering lives."
"Since when did you join the Sweeney?" I said. Denton fixed his ratty little eyes on me, and just for an instant I swear they flashed yellow.
"Shouldn't you be at your mother's funeral?" he said.
A few seconds of shocked silence followed this remark. All the lads knew that my mum had cancer and had been in and out of hospital having chemotherapy for the last nine months. The doctors currently rated her chances at 50-50. It had been a very tough time for all of us.
It shouldn't really have surprised me that Denton would come out with a remark like that, but it did all the same. However much you guarded against Denton, however much you convinced yourself that he was a shit and that what he said didn't matter, he still had this knack of getting under your defences, sticking his knife into the places where you were most vulnerable.
I composed myself pretty quickly, but I could see by the way he smirked that he knew his remark had hit home.
"Why don't you come up here and say that, Reptile-breath?" I said calmly.
"What, and have all three of you on to me? I'm not stupid."
"Really?" said Conrad in apparent astonishment. "I always thought you were. Stupid and ugly and a snivelling little shit who hasn't got any friends."
Denton just snorted and shook his head as if to say: is that the best you can do? Then suddenly his face adopted a sly look and he said, almost mockingly, "Where's your other little bum chum, Stuart, tonight?"
I felt something lurch in my stomach, as though I had only just remembered something vital that I was supposed to have done. The feeling settled into a wriggle of unease and a sense of astonishment. Fuck, where was Stuart? Why wasn't he here? For the life of me, I couldn't think why he wasn't with us, or, more importantly, why I hadn't noticed until Denton had just pointed it out. I looked round at Conrad and saw that he was just as bewildered as I was. I had this feeling - no, more than a feeling, a certainty - that Stuart should be here. And following hot on the heels of that was the conviction that the fact that he wasn't here meant that something was badly wrong.
Then the moment, like a glitch in time, passed, and Nick said aggressively, "Who you gonna show that fucking photograph to anyway?" It was obvious that the matter was preying on his mind.
"The police. I'm sure they'd be interested. And I might send a copy to your dad."
Nick's dad was an evil bastard. If he wasn't off with some tart, he was at home knocking his family around. If someone sent him what appeared to be photographic evidence of his son setting fire to railway tracks, there was no telling what he might do. He'd broken Nick's mum's arm once, and quite often Nick had bruises on his back when he got changed for games. Once he came to school with a black eye and his body covered in bright purple marks in the shape of a belt buckle. I tried to persuade him to tell a teacher what was going on, but he wouldn't.
"The police wouldn't be fucking bothered," Nick blustered.
"Maybe not, but I'm sure your dad would," sneered Denton.
"Would he fuck. Anyway, we were putting the fire out, not starting it. Any cunt can see that."
Denton shook his head. "I don't think so. Anyway, why don't we let your dad decide?" He turned and started to pick his way back down the slope.
Nick started to go after him, but Conrad grabbed his arm. "Leave it, Nick," he said, "he's just a fucking chiseller. He won't do anything. He's just stirring it."
But Nick had that look in his eyes. He wasn't going to let this one go. He shook his arm free of Conrad's grip and began to lope down the embankment, stones scuttling in front of him as though trying to get out of his way.
"Give me that camera, you chiselling turd," he shouted. Denton had reached the bottom of the embankment now and was half-way up the slope that led to the playing fields. There was no way that Nick was going to catch him.
"Make me," said Denton, turning and flicking us a V. It was at this point that it occurred to me to wonder just why Denton had been carrying a camera around with him. I'd never seen him with one before. Had he set this up, maybe started the fire himself? I never found out the answer to these questions, and I guess I never will.
Conrad went and stamped out the last of the fire while Nick continued to scramble down the slope of the embankment in the vain hope of catching Denton. I stood on the top of the embankment and watched, and that was when the idea came to me. I stooped and picked up a stone and threw it at Denton's ratty little body. It missed, but only just. Denton paused in his retreat and turned round.
"Fuck off!" he shouted in that whiny voice of his. "If one of those hits me, I'll have the police on you for assault."
That was enough to make me pause, but not so Nick. In fact, Denton's threat only seemed to goad him further. He started picking up stones and hurling them with savage force at Denton, who was clinging to the grassy slope like a spider, screeching, "Fuck off! Fuck off! Fuck off!"
The first half-dozen stones that Nick threw missed his target, a couple of them wildly. Then a stone about the size of a cricket ball struck Denton in the small of the back. He squealed, and almost immediately started crying.
"Bastards!" he sobbed, dragging himself up the slope with renewed panic. "Bastards, I'll fucking get you. Bastards. Bastards."
Nick's next couple of rocks missed Denton, then he threw one that hit him on the leg. Denton squealed again, but he was almost at the top of the slope now.
I have to admit that at this point ten per cent of me was scared that we were going to hurt Denton badly and get into real trouble, but the other ninety per cent was viewing what was happening with a kind of savage glee.
Conrad must have felt the same because I heard him shout, "Don't let him get away!"
Then suddenly all three of us were picking up rocks and hurling them as hard as we could.
I don't know which one of us threw the rock that hit Denton on the head, but all at once he screamed - not just squealed, but really screamed this time - and sort of slumped to the ground. Immediately I flinched, feeling like an animal that has ventured too far and touched the electric fence.
"Fuck," Conrad said and dropped the rock he was holding. In a kind of wonderment he said, "Do you think we knocked him out?"
"Nah, he's moving, look," I said with a bravado I didn't feel.
And he was, though in a sluggish, unco-ordinated way, like a fish left on a beach when the tide goes out.
Nick reached him in about another ten seconds and dragged him round on to his back.
"Is he bleeding?" I shouted.
"Only a bit," said Nick disdainfully. "He's just being a fucking puff." He picked Denton up by the lapels of his jacket and dropped him again. I winced.
I heard Nick say, "I'll take that, thank you very much," and next moment he was coming back towards us, waving Denton's camera above his head.
He was half-way up the embankment when Denton stirred and sat up, holding his head. All at once he seemed to come to and realise he no longer had possession of his camera. "Give me that back, you bastard!" he screeched, in a voice that was raw and wild and hysterical. He sounded really, really crazy, as if he was capable of anything. Then he jumped up, ran down the slope and started climbing the embankment towards us.
We watched him coming, and I have to admit I felt a bit nervous because he really did look just like a loony from a horror film. Nick, though, didn't seem to care. He was still laughing and waving the camera about like an athlete with an Olympic medal.
"Come and get it, little Rat-boy," he crooned. "Ah, has diddums lost his toysy-woysy den?"
"You're dead, you cunt!" Denton screeched.
"Am I?" said Nick. "I wasn't the last time I looked."
Denton reached the top of the embankment. Now he was just a few feet away from Nick...
At which point Nick lobbed Denton's camera, like a grenade, towards the stream below. It landed in the scummy water with a loud 'splosh' and disappeared.
"Fucking hell," I said with a mixture of horror and gleeful disbelief, and put a hand to my mouth.
"Hole in one!" shouted Conrad. "And Nicky-boy takes the title."
Denton just turned and stared at the stream, unable to believe what Nick had just done. When he turned back, he looked momentarily shell-shocked, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. I heard the distant but approaching whistle of a train, and thought for a moment that it was Denton's escalating rage; I half-expected to see steam start blowing out of his ears.
Then, without a word, he launched himself at Nick, both fists pistoning out like Superman taking off. Denton was a weed, and he couldn't fight for toffee, but the attack was so sudden that Nick sprawled back in the dust and stones by the side of the rail track, taken by surprise.
Denton leaped on him and began to scratch and bite and pummel, making me think that this was how a rat must fight when confronted with a larger opponent. If this had been happening in the school playground a large and excited crowd would have gathered around the combatants instantly and started chanting, "Scrap, scrap, scrap, scrap." However there was only Conrad and me to watch the contest here (again, with a feeling almost of doom I wondered where the fuck Stuart had got to). I looked up the track and saw the lights of an approaching train, heard the rails begin to whine.
"Hey, pack it in!" I shouted. "There's a train coming! Pack it in!"
It was at this point, at this year's reunion, where the paths really divided, where Stuart's absence was really felt. To tell you what happened, I have to tell you first what should have happened. I have to tell you what happened on that fateful day, August 5th 1981, and what, until this year, had happened on every anniversary since.
What happened was that the three of us - me, Conrad and Stuart - dragged Denton, kicking and screaming, off the top of Nick. Nick had a scratch on his face but was otherwise unhurt. He looked more embarrassed than anything.
"Let me go, you bastards!" Denton was half-sobbing. "Let me fucking go!"
"Don't be a twat," Stuart shouted at him. "There's a fucking train coming."
Nick was climbing to his feet. We could hear the thunder of the approaching train now, see its headlights growing larger and larger. Denton went suddenly limp, as though responding to Stuart's words or realising he was defeated. As a result we relaxed our grip on his arms just slightly, and next instant Denton had torn himself free from all three of us and was lunging towards Nick with his hands outstretched, evidently intending to shove him into the path of the train.
It was Stuart who reacted first and saved Nick's life, Stuart who kicked out at Denton's lunging body. I know that Stuart only meant to trip Denton up, make him land flat on his face by the side of the track. But Denton had put everything, all his rage, all his strength, into his attack, and somehow he lost his balance and Nick dodged out of his way, and Denton's forward momentum made him stumble right into the path of the oncoming train.
It hit him with a bang like an explosion. It all happened so fast that I didn't see any blood or any limbs fly off or anything like that. There was just this bang, then this impression of something large flying through the air and landing with a crash in the gully below.
The air became filled with the stink of fumes and hot metal and the blistering squeal of the train's brakes. I felt like I'd turned to water. I remember looking down into the gully in the gathering darkness and seeing a dark bundle there. I couldn't believe it was Denton. There was nothing about it that seemed even vaguely human. I'm not saying there were guts all over the place or anything like that. It was just...a heap, that was all, could just as easily have been a mound of earth or a big bundle of rags.
Anyway, that was when we ran, and of course Denton's body was found and the whole thing was seen as a tragic accident, another kid playing silly buggers by the side of the railway track with friends who were never identified. And then, for us, the nightmares started, the odd thoughts and compulsions, the panic attacks, feelings of paranoia. All of which culminated, as you know, in the reunion, but I've already explained all that. Let me tell you what you may by now already have guessed.
This year, because Stuart wasn't there, there was no one to trip Denton up as he lunged towards Nick. Conrad and I grabbed at Denton as we had always done, but our hands encountered empty air. Nick, still a bit shaky and bemused from Denton's earlier assault, only half-raised his arms in token resistance. There was a thump as Denton's hands slammed into Nick's chest, and then Nick was falling backwards, right into the path of the train.
"Nooooo!" I screamed, hands flying to my face. I was still screaming when the train thundered over him, still screaming when my own horror was eclipsed by the screaming of the train as the driver applied the brakes. The train didn't just run over Nick, but picked him up like a swooping predator and dragged him half-way down the track. I saw something rip away from his body, something large, probably a leg, and tumble down into the gully. Something passed over me then too, not a train but a buzzing black cloud of nausea, and I passed out. The last thing I recall was the screaming of the world spiralling away from me before everything went silent.
When I came to I was shivering, despite the blanket that had been placed over me. My head was propped on something. I realised when I opened my eyes that it was the lap of a young policewoman whose face was looming over mine.
"Back with us, are you?" she said, not unpleasantly. I was peripherally aware of lights flashing, people shouting, lots of activity.
I groaned and tried to sit up. "Hey," she said, "take it easy."
I looked around. The train was stationary on the track behind me, curious faces peering out. I felt sick. "What happened?" I said.
"I was rather hoping you'd tell me that," said the policewoman.
"Nick's dead, isn't he? He fell in front of the train."
"What were you doing?"
"Nothing. Just mucking about. We're old school friends. We come back here every year. A sort of reunion."
"Had he been drinking?"
"About six or seven bottles of Beck's."
She sighed, and said, "Can you stand? I think we ought to continue this conversation down at the station."
My legs felt very wobbly, but with her help I got to my feet. She led me carefully down the embankment and across to where a police car was waiting. At her behest, I got into the back and she shut the door on me then got into the front passenger seat. A policeman who looked younger than me sat in the driver's seat, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. By my side sat Conrad, motionless, staring down at his hands.
The policeman started the engine and backed slowly along the track, away from Seven Arches. Once we were on the road, and putting miles between ourselves and the viaduct, I reached out and touched Conrad's sleeve. He turned to me, his eyes red from crying. He looked...weird, as though he'd shut himself off, as though there was a screen behind his eyes.
He took my hand and whispered, "Nick's dead, Mark. Denton killed him."
I saw the policewoman's eyes framed in the rear view mirror. She was frowning. I wondered if she had heard.
"I know," I said. "I know."
"So what happens now? Do we still carry on with the reunion or what?"
I looked out of the window at the uninspiring streets of Warrington. The world looked so fucking normal. I turned back to Conrad and squeezed his hand.
"Do we have a choice?" I said.
© Mark Morris 1995, 1999
This story first appeared in Mark's collection Close to the Bone.
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