© Tony Foster
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The Fifth Dare. - 2324words
It is Shaun I see first, always Shaun. Creeping from the shadows at night, when I am alone, hunched over lamplight or sleeping off a liquid lunch. Ponderous Shaun, his chin an escarpment of decay, tumbleweed hair blown by ancient winds. He is eight, an eternal eight, and sometimes Jimmy is there too. Jimmy Macmullen, his eyes twin embers burning through the visor of his brother’s Vespa helmet. They simply wail in their blackened rags till I reach for the needle, the bottle, or the pill of sweet oblivion.
Owl Street: our row of terraced houses had an air-raid shelter at the top, a mossy blemish poking from the soil. It went underground, and my mother had a horror story for children who mentioned it. We had to content ourselves with mooching its periphery, sniffing the bricks and boards that kept us kids out and the mystery in.
Billy Geraghty had a theory about why it was off-limits. He said it was a storage bunker for the sweets of the corner shop, a few yards further up the hill. “So they can reach ‘em quick,” he expanded, “in an emergency.”
It was the subject of much speculation, and in the sun-drenched summer of 1969, we talked about the shelter almost daily, until its mystique outgrew its illicitness.
I wasn’t surprised when it came up as the fourth dare. It didn’t worry me so much as the other three either. The shelter was exciting and forbidden. Most mornings, I passed it on my way to the corner shop. Five unfiltered cigs for Dad, ten tipped ones for Mum. On Sundays, a newspaper: The People. Once a week there was a penny for me. A penny that gave you White Mice, Black Jacks and Fruit Salad, Raspberry Laces and bubblegum wrapped in wax paper, that opened out into a six-frame comic.
Those six frames were my life. Texas Pete rode the badlands with his sidekick squaw, Conchita. He was on the trail of cattle-rustling Mean Joe McGraw, but smoke signals brought redskins too. They were ‘heap big trouble’ according to Conchita.
I idolised Texas Pete and his bubblegum escapades, and couldn’t wait to find out how he escaped the impossible this time.
This day I was sitting outdoors, as usual, on the whitewashed step of number twenty-two. It was always sunny on our street, at least that’s how I remember it. I peeled gum from the pavement sometimes, and chewed that. It came away easily under the sun, was tangy and warm with a second-hand kick of spearmint. I was thinking about the air-raid shelter and wondering when the Geraghtys would dare me.
Someone had unblocked it. On my way back from the shop I noticed the beginnings of a hole, a picked scab in the shelter’s side. “You mustn’t swallow gum,” my Mother said. “It sticks to your insides, and you die.”
It was just another story so she didn’t have to be behind me all the time. Mum was always indoors, squeaking wet clothes through a mangle or sweeping ashes from the grate, too busy to notice whether I disobeyed or not. Trusting the stories to do their work.
I didn’t have to peel gum today because it was Sunday; penny day. I was about to unwrap the comic and learn what fate had in store for Texas Pete, when Billy Geraghty kicked the sole of my shoe, as I lay on the pavement in the shade of the house.
His brother Shaun was at his side. I pocketed the gum slyly, but neither of them looked at me. Their chins were pointing up the street, towards the shelter.
“You know why. You're newest.”
The rules were clear. I was newest. One thing I learned about reaching six and venturing out to play was that you had to prove yourself, and not just once.
“If you’re lucky,” Billy Geraghty said, at my initiation into the Owl Street gang, “someone newer will come along and take your place. Till then, you’re newest, and that means first.”
“Unless it’s in the queue for ice-cream,” added Shaun. “Then it means last.”
In a few short weeks I had already completed three dares. One when I swallowed gum, that didn’t kill me, and two when I leapt from the roof of our coal bunker, wearing Jimmy MacMullen’s older brother’s crash helmet.
“When you jump, a parachute opens, then you just float to the ground,” promised Jimmy, as I wavered on the high, burlapped ledge. Onlookers drummed their heels on the brick wall facing the alley.
“Go on, we’ve all done it.”
I soared, plummeted, and smashed my knee on the cobbles below. Needless to say, no parachute unfurled to break my fall.
“You cried,” said Jimmy Macmullen, when I hobbled into their midst. “It dun't count.”
A week later came dare three. Near the shelter was a puddle, blackened to oil by lorry wheels. This time it was Angela McPhee, carrying an empty bottle that we drank school milk from. It held a quarter-pint when full, and she dredged the bottle deep, whispered “Yam sing” and held it to my face. The others followed suit, their chant rising to a high, reedy quaver.
Yam Sing, Yam Sing! YAM SING!!
There was no point arguing. I shaded my eyes against the sun, took the bottle and drank the black mess. Grit clogged my teeth. Lumps of coarse jelly buttered my throat. It burned and was sweet. I finished it, smacked my lips, gagged, fell to my knees and threw up over the kerb. A fat worm wriggled out of the gloop.
"Ooh, close,” said Angela, looking down at me in thoughtful study. “But it dun’t count. Cause you honked.”
So this would be it, the fourth dare. Two planks were gone from the brick-topped shelter door, jimmied by a crowbar that Billy stole from a workman's tent. The gap was just wide enough for me to squeeze through.
“Cor,” said Shaun Geraghty. “It stinks.”
“It goes to Australia,” said Jimmy Macmullen. “According to me Dad.”
“Me Mam said there are goblins down there,” said Angela McPhee.
We all had our own story, a different reason for keeping away. But Billy said stories were just dares in disguise, anyone knew that. I was made to empty my pockets and Billy pounced, wide-eyed on my gum and comic.
“I ain't read it!”
His hand curled my smaller fist around the hook of the workman’s lamp he had filched from the same tent.
“Tell us what's down there, and you'll get it back."
“Gum an’ all?”
“Just let me have the comic?”
He shook his head. "Don’t want you dawdling. Need you back up here, sharp.”
“There might be more gum down there than you ever laid eyes on,” said Angela McPhee, a feverish light in her eyes. “Might there, Billy?”
I was bundled in by eager hands, still fretting about Texas Pete, whose story would reach its climax today in the dry, dry desert of the Midwest. The air inside swarmed with rusty motes and stank of old wardrobes. I wanted the fourth dare to be it. The end. No more ‘doesn't counts’.
Summer winked out like a power cut, and I was plunged into lightless cold. The paraffin lamp leaked its acrid smell, buffeting my knees as I descended the narrow stairs. The glow from its cherry-coloured lens cast bloody splodges on the walls either side.
At the bottom, I swung the lamp out in front of me, trembling with strain and fear. A small door lay ajar. A grownup would have to stoop, but it was perfect for me. I could stroll through, into the labyrinth beyond, the place that haunted my dreams.
“What can you see?” Angela’s voice made me jump. I thought her breath was on my neck, but she was high above, face pressed to the gap, where a solitary finger of sunlight pushed through.
I peered into the gloom of the main chamber. A low bench was carved into one wall, buried under layers of dust. Unplastered brick, dank with cobwebs. A mouldy table, curling with rot. It was no larger than our pantry, but there were at least seven seats. I had expected more, my dreams bespoke a maze of twinkling caverns, rat-running the streets and I felt disappointed, cheated even.
A voice replaced Angela’s. “Whassh down there, Jackie?” The lisp gave it away. Billy was chewing gum. My gum. Shaun would get half if he was feeling generous, the back of his ear flicked if not. Neither could read, so the comic wasn’t important.
The comic! Lamplight yawed as I flailed at the dead air, spilling crimson light into the dismal corners. I dropped the lantern, cupping my hands to my mouth. It hit the ground and the flame went out, plunging my cries into a void.
“Don’t lose it!”
I had left Texas Pete surrounded by redskins, warpaint gleaming, arrows trained down on himself and Conchita. He would save them, bring Mean Joe to justice and evade these whooping hordes somehow. It was hopeless, but that was the point. Pete always survived, it was just a question of how.
“Get your arse up here now!”
“Not till I get my comic.”
There wouldn’t be another penny till next Sunday, and by then the character would have changed. It would be Eskimo Jack or Johnny Jupiter, a new adventure beginning. I’d never get to find out what happened to Texas Pete, if he was ever coming back.
I looked up to see pale tatters circling the sunshaft like tiny buzzards.
“Here’s your stupid comic!”
I bit down on my tongue in the fetid dark, suppressing howls of anguish.
I couldn’t let them hear my sobs of rage or see the hot tears smudging my cheeks. Their cackles filled my lair with a hollow, mean-spirited glee. All the small injustices coalesced into one big travesty, one sweeping atrocity. My devastation lit the dark, outrage merging with the abyss.
“What if there are sweet shop sweets down there, and he’s keeping ‘em for himself?” I heard Shaun ask Billy, at length.
I smiled in the murky gloom, where plans uncurled themselves with new-found cunning. The moments elongated, and I grew to a startling size.
Angela almost saved them. Angela, with her Romany eyes and raven tresses, vowing, from the inky depths, that she would never do anything nasty to me again. Never ever ever.
It was almost enough to make me go back, unwedge the door and set them loose. Almost enough to break the spell, to forget the beating I’d receive from Billy or be told it ‘didn’t count’. Almost.
Then I remembered Texas Pete, his life in shreds on the floor of the sooty tomb. No cavalry for him, no rescue. I remembered Angela’s hand holding the milk bottle and her knowing, joyless smile. The pang faded, passed into history, was walked away from, down the sloping street and into number twenty-two. I took a bath, surprising my mother. Read The Beano. Slept.
Angela can be glimpsed in the corners of shaving mirrors in motel bathrooms, or in the windows of tube trains whooshing through the underground. Apart from the empty eye socket, she is a singular beauty. Poppy dress blowing filthily in the breeze, the pout still in place. She has nothing to say to me, but she says it very loudly.
I told them I didn’t care about the comic because there were all kinds of candies down here, fruit chews and sticky treacle toffee, lollipops big as manhole covers. I closed my eyes and described them in fine, inspired detail. After they piled in like dogs, I wedged the door shut with the hook of the lantern. That’s when the shouting began. Turning from threats to begging, to bargaining and then screams. All in the space of eight, earthy steps.
I heard them again at supper time, rising through the earth. I heard them well enough, but I was six. I was new. It was evensong. It was chamber music.
Worst of all is Billy. Vocal, vengeful Billy slurping gum whispers into my ear in the vacuum between nightfall and sunrise, promising all kinds of ends to my torment.
Occasionally, he appears with Angela, in betting shop windows or the full-length mirrors of department stores, tasking me with the fifth and final dare. They beckon with nailless fingers, the same, I understand that tore at the shelter door in the throes of a frantic doom. Never will I share those obscene intimacies, that bloody embrace. It doesn’t deter Billy, though.
“Come on, Jackie boy. Texas Pete gets the girl and there’s all the gum you can chew down here.”
“You can run,” said Texas Pete, “but you can’t hide.” So I move, forever travelling. Not because there’s a price on my head in any worldly sense, because they never did pin down the air raid killer. I only wanted to follow in the footsteps of my high plains drifter, trying to uphold law in a lawless time, only ever acting in the interests of justice. I never thought I’d end up like his nemesis, Mean Joe McGraw, outstripping the posse on borrowed time, scanning the horizon for tell-tale dust from the hooves of pursuers.
I travelled, I flew, even turning to God. Met a Baptist preacher in the Everglades, who eyed my sallow cheeks and hollow misery. Took in my skeletal form and needle-tracked arms, then summed up my dilemma like he’d speed-read my soul.
"The birds have their trees and the foxes have their holes in the ground, Jackie. But the son of man has nowhere to lay his head."
I thought about the fifth dare. The strange lure of the forbidden and its stories, which were just dares in disguise as any kid knew.
“Amen sir,” I said. “Amen.”