© Barry W Litherland
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I've just completed the first draft a new novel written in a different style - first person, present tense. I've made some amendments based on feedback from reviewers, for which I'm very grateful.
‘See him? See that guy over there? He’s staring at me, the guy drinking red wine at the table by the window. See him?’
‘Sit down, Wayne. No-one’s staring at you. Look at the girl he’s with. Why would he look at you?’
‘See that! He looks this way then starts smirking and laughing with his mates; now they’re all laughing.’
‘Sit down and finish your drink. No-one’s looking at you.’
Wayne sits down for a minute but his eyes slip back to the group by the window. The landlord glances at me. I know what he’s telling me. Get him under control or get him out of here. Through the mirrors behind the optics and the glass shelves I watch the scene is if I'm outside looking in - which is pretty much where I want to be right now.
For a moment Wayne is calm and I think maybe we’re okay but then up he chirps again.
‘He’s wearing a fucking waistcoat.’
‘What’s that got to do with anything?’
Wayne is very loud now and people are looking at us. A couple move towards the end of the bar, near the door, just in case. Two young guys watch and grin. Sitting alone, a heavy guy with tattoos and stubble looks up from his Daily Mail. He has the Neanderthal look of a man whose lips move as he reads – not a man you’d want to sit too close to.
The barman leans over and speaks. ‘Get him out of here,’ he mutters.
Easier said than done; Wayne is a limpet.
‘C’mon, Wayne, let’s get out of here – get a game of snooker maybe, or a Chinese?’
‘He’s wearing a fucking waistcoat and he thinks he can laugh at me.’
‘It’s a waistcoat not a City top – and he’s not laughing.’
Now he stands up, swaying a little, holding the edge of the bar.
‘You,’ he yells, ‘fucker in the waistcoat – are you a City supporter?’
He lurches aggressively forwards. The pretty girl looks anxious, the guy in the waistcoat bewildered and unsurprisingly embarrassed. The rest of the party inch back, the men gathering space to move if they need to. The women look ready to shout abuse or leave. Everyone is watching.
‘Are you looking at me?’
The guy looks at his friends, maybe for reassurance. ‘I am now,’ he says with a nervous, half laugh.
I wince. That was a mistake. Humour goes right over Wayne when he’s in this mood – stratospheric. His eyes are heavy and bleary and he’s swaying to and fro but he’s fixed the waistcoat with a stare and he won’t let go.
‘Why the fuck,’ he grunts, ‘are you wearing a waistcoat?’ He snorts a strange laugh and looks around the bar for support. There is none. Mostly people look away, find something they urgently need to talk about and avoid eye contact.
The door closes behind the nervous couple. One or two others are reaching for their coats.
‘Come on, Wayne.’ I drag at his arm but it’s like trying to weigh an anchor. He pulls away and stumbles against the table and a drink slops down onto the pretty girl. She screams and the guy clambers to his feet – defensive mode, protecting what’s his, alpha male...
...which is pretty much what Wayne wants.
Nothing ever goes well from here.
Wayne assumes an aggressive – defensive stance.
‘Guy in the waistcoat thinks he’s tough,’ he slurs and snorts.
Trouble is that anyone is a tough guy compared to Wayne in this condition. Anyone who can stand upright and focus for long enough to throw a punch is a tough guy. This one is tall and pretty athletic and to make matters worse the landlord has thrown a towel on the bar and is coming over. He looks seriously pissed. Anyone who isn’t Wayne can see how this will end.
Another trouble with Wayne is he doesn’t know when to stay down. No matter how many times he gets hit he always stands up again. He’s had a lot of practice even back in primary school when I first met him. Nobody could ever really beat him because he always came back, the next day, the day after until his opponents got bored and walked away.
‘They’re too scared to fight me,’ he would crow, eyes bruised, lips cut and swollen. ‘They can’t beat me...’
...which was true - after a fashion.
Twenty minutes later Wayne and I are limping down the city street towards Wayne’s flat. He’s bleeding from nose and mouth but he’s laughing too. I’m not laughing. That’s another pub from which I’m barred on account of Wayne. There aren’t many left – and this is a big city with a lot of bars.
‘You’re going to get yourself killed,’ I mutter.
‘I beat the fucker though, didn’t I?’ he laughs.
‘Yeah, I could see the look of defeat in his face as he stepped over you on his way out.’
‘He couldn’t keep me down, though.’
...which again was true enough.
‘Let’s go to the new Thai restaurant.’ He stops in the middle of the road and grabs my arm as if he’s just had the best idea in the world. ‘Let’s celebrate.’
Now he’s dancing drunkenly in the street, shadow boxing. A car swerves past him and the driver swears. He turns and feigns a punch or two at me. I duck and get an arm round his shoulder so I can direct him towards the pavement.
I talk him out of the Thai restaurant with the offer of a pizza when we get back. He’s compliant now he’s got out of his system whatever it is that’s in there.
So I’ve got my arm round Wayne and I’m half dragging him up the stairs to his flat. The lift is out of order again but that’s no surprise. The surprise is when it’s operational. I don’t use it even then. That lift is either broken or about to break and about to break is probably worse.
The flat is on the second floor which is not so bad unless you’re lumbering up there with a drunk on your shoulder. He stops to urinate. I look back down the stairs and then up ahead. This might not be a select neighbourhood but people still don’t want you urinating on the stairs.
They’ve got standards.
Well, some of them have.
Wayne’s flat is surprisingly tidy. I can never make that out. There are no clothes scattered on the floor and there’s no unwashed crockery in the sink. The carpet is clean and recently vacuumed and the furniture, albeit sparse, is spotless. How come an aggressive binge drunk like Wayne has the energy or the commitment to clean and tidy? I just don’t get it. And there are books, lots of them. I wonder when that started. Then I think it was maybe way back, with Tina Oldfield.
It’s the same with work. I don’t think Wayne has missed a day in the four years since he got the job. It’s nothing special, just a factory job, food processing, but he started off on agency work then they took him on full time, quite an achievement at times of austerity when the best you can hope for is a sixteen hour contract.
Politicians are bastards. Conservative politicians are the biggest bastards of all.
I drop him on the sofa and go through to make coffee. The cups are on a rack and they gleam. I’m fastidious when it comes to cups. There are lots of places where I’d rather die of thirst that use the crockery but not at Wayne’s. The worktop is wiped down and there are no teaspoons lying there and there are no coffee granules in the sugar.
By the time I get back he’s sitting watching rugby on Sky Sports, as if nothing had happened. Congealed blood on his nose and lips, swollen eye, bruising – and he’s watching the rugby. And that’s how we spend the rest of the evening, sitting watching rugby like two normal guys after a night out.
This is how it is, about once every couple of months. I wish I could see it coming but I can’t. There are no tell-tale signs, at least not until after the fifth pint when something like a black cloud descends. Then I know alright. But by then it’s too late.
I wonder why Wayne and I are friends. I’m always wondering that. It’s not as if we have much in common except a long history and a death - though I suppose a death is a pretty strong sort of bond when you think about it, especially a death like that.
Still, our friendship does go way back, like the beginning of this story.
‘Philip,’ my mother calls, ‘Philip, it’s time for lunch. Tell your friends to go home and come back later.’ She stands in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on a floral, cotton tea towel. She is smiling. She always smiles, my mum. I turn and wave to Stevie and Wayne and I run in from the garden.
Stevie is my friend but not Wayne. I don’t like Wayne at first; nobody does. Whenever we go out to play he appears amongst us, following one or another like an ugly shadow. His thin, wiry body and narrow, pinched face and shifty eyes lie between us like a disease, something to drive us home in case we become infected.
Wayne doesn’t go home when my mother calls.
‘Why don’t you go home?’ I ask.
‘No point,’ he shrugs, ‘there’s no-one there.’
He hangs around the lane at the end of the garden, idly throwing hands full of gravel from the drive towards the trees or at passing birds. Occasionally he straddles the fence or swings over the gate but mostly he throws stones.
‘There’ll be no drive left the way that boy carries on,’ my mum says, watching him from the kitchen window which overlooks the garden. ‘Still, what can you expect with his background? Poor love.’
‘Why doesn’t he go home?’ I grumble. ‘I hate him. He spoils everything. My friends go home when he turns up. Only Stevie stays. Stevie feels sorry for him. I don’t.’
‘We could invite him in for some lunch,’ mum says doubtfully. He looks like he could use a good meal.’
‘No,’ I answer hotly, ‘no. He stinks. We’d never get rid of him. He steals things,’ I add. ‘He took my car and my tennis racket and my football. He stole money from Stevie’s house. He steals from everyone.’
‘Perhaps he doesn’t have much of his own.’
‘I don’t care. He fights too and he spits and he swears. He’s cruel to animals. The other day he found a frog and he...’
‘Don’t tell me.’ Mum holds a hand up and turns away. She looks out of the window. ‘Oh, what is that boy doing now? I do believe he’s urinating on the lawn.’ She knocks on the window and gestures him away. He glances insolently and immodestly towards the window and then grins and casually drifts towards the fence. He takes out a penknife and begins chipping away at the wood. Mum knocks again. ‘I feel sorry for him but there’s a limit.’
‘I wish he’d go away. He’ll expect me to take some food out too. Why doesn’t he go home for lunch like Stevie?’
‘I don’t think he’s particularly well cared for. His mother is out a lot, when she’s not asleep in bed. His brother...well... there’s not much good to say about him. Wayne seems to look after himself mostly. Maybe there’s nothing for him to eat.’
‘His house is a tip. No-one ever washes pots or clothes. We don’t go in there. It’s filthy.’
‘Perhaps you should feel sorry for him too, like Stevie.’
‘I’ve tried that; it doesn’t work. He spoils it by stealing sweets or toys or fighting someone or breaking something. I hate him.’
By now Wayne is half way up the beech tree at the corner of the drive. He is struggling from branch to branch close to the trunk, stretching a leg one way and an arm the other, twisting his body into impossible shapes until he sits in a fork between thick branches swinging his legs. He sees us looking and waves and then clambers out on a branch and drops suddenly backwards until suspended only by his calves and the crook of his knees. Mum can’t repress a cry of alarm. Her hand flies to her lips. I don’t flinch. Wayne climbs trees like a monkey. He never falls, even when we wish him to. He turns his head upwards towards his feet and waves his arms then he swings back around and pulls himself up and slides across into the fork of the trunk. He drags himself to his feet and continues his ascent.
‘I can’t look,’ mum says. ‘He’s bound to fall.’ She raises a hand to knock on the window and then hesitates. ‘He might be startled and fall and it would be my fault,’ she says.
‘He won’t fall’. I turn back to my lunch, scrambled egg, hot and steaming on thick buttery toast. ‘If he did,’ I say between bites, ‘he’d land on his feet.’
‘I’ve never seen anyone so supple. You have to admire him. He’s so fearless too’.
‘I suppose so.’ I think of the games of chicken he tried to teach us, running across the road in front of approaching cars. We were all pathetic and cowardly. We would be across the road before Wayne stepped off the pavement. Wayne wasn’t happy unless he heard the squeal of brakes, the blaring of a horn and the oaths of angry drivers.
‘What is that boy going to do with his life,’ mum fretted. She’s like that, my mum. Waifs and strays are her speciality and she collects them without compromise – injured birds, stray cats and dogs. She gives Wayne some of my clothes when I outgrow them and she gives him sandwiches and biscuits when he has no lunch. It just makes him worse. He comes back for more and he comes back again and again.
‘He says he’s going to be a burglar when he grows up or maybe join the army. He wants to have adventures and kill people.’
‘What a noble ambition,’ mum said. ‘Perhaps he’ll grow out of it. I’m not sure giving him a weapon is a good idea.’
‘He has a catapult and a ball bearing gun and a baseball bat he stole from a shop in town. He hunts cats and birds. He stalks them like a sniper and then....’
‘I don’t want to know.’ Mum looks anxious. ‘Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps you’d be better not to play with him this afternoon. I’ll go and tell him.’
I shake my head. ‘He won’t listen. He’ll just wait for a chance to break our windows just to show he doesn’t care.’ I glance up. ‘I’ll need to take some food for him. He’ll ask and he’ll keep asking.’
I’ll make up a few sandwiches and some fruit and biscuits.’
I finish my lunch and go outside.
‘Why do you have lunch when everyone else has dinner,’ Wayne asks sharply, ‘and why do you have dinner at tea time? Are you posh or something?’
That’s another problem with Wayne. He’s always asking questions, annoying questions, personal questions, the sort of questions you don’t want to hear let alone answer.
‘It’s just words – different words to describe the same thing.’
‘I have dinner and tea. Everyone I know has dinner and tea except you. Have you got something for my dinner? I’m hungry.’
‘You’re always hungry.’ I hand him the neatly wrapped bag mother prepared and he tears it open without ceremony. He stuffs the first sandwich between pointed, predatory teeth and chews open mouthed.
‘Crisps and biscuits and an apple too,’ he says. ‘I like your mum. She’s always good to me – not like the others. She smells nice too. She has soft skin. My mum’s hands are as rough as a dog’s paw. I like your garden. It’s better than a yard. Do you have your own room?’
‘You must be dead rich. I share with my brother.’
For a fleeting moment I feel sorry for Wayne. His brother is Tyrone. He’s eight years older than Wayne and has all the charm of bee sting. It’s like having to share a room with a deranged psycho – which is what he probably is.
Perhaps that’s why we really are friends, despite my protestations. Feeling sorry for someone is the first step, I guess. Imagining what it’s like to be them is the second.
Tyrone is well known to the police. He’s pretty well known to everyone, come to that, and not in a pleasant way. My friends and I steer well clear. He’s the sort of person you don’t want to meet, even in a group. He makes Wayne’s misdemeanours look like the errant foibles of an excitable pixie. He likes hurting things – animals, people and Wayne - especially Wayne.
I notice the fading bruises above Wayne’s eyes and the small, round scars on the backs of his hands. I don’t ask. There’s no point. The answer is always the same - our Tyrone.
‘What do you want to do?’ Wayne asks.
I shrug. ‘Wait for Stevie, I suppose. He’ll be here soon.’
‘We should play football.’
‘Someone stole my ball, remember?’ I say pointedly.
He grins and projects his tongue through a space where had tooth had until recently resided. ‘Let’s go to the precinct. I’ll get you another. I’ll get some sweets too. You can be lookout.’
I shake my head quickly. Others had made that mistake. Wayne has a turn of speed and a slippery quality which makes him impossible to catch; not so his friends. More than one has been detained by security staff or shopkeepers in the precinct while Wayne rounds a distant corner clutching his prize.
‘I wish my mum was like yours,’ he says. ‘Mine smells of stale beer and fags. You’re lucky.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘I wish I was you.’
No you don’t. You’d hate it. You’d have to tidy your room and wash. You’d have to do homework and go to bed at nine o’clock.’
‘Maybe I’d like that.’
‘No you wouldn’t.’
He turns suddenly. ‘You can come to my house if you like. My mum’s out and Tyrone is in court. I’ve got a football. You can have it if you want. It’s just like yours.’
I’m saved from having to answer when Stevie turns the corner and runs towards us.
‘We’ll get a football from my house and go down the rec to play,’ Wayne shouts.
Wayne is enthusiastic about everything.
Stevie nods. ‘Okay.’
I look at Stevie and I look at Wayne.
‘You and Stevie are my best friends,’ Wayne shouts. ‘We’ll be best friends forever and ever.’
Wayne can’t find the football so we go to the precinct instead and two hours later I’m at the police station and mum and dad are there and they’re talking to a serious looking officer with red hair and freckles. They glance across and I know they’re talking about me and I know they’re not pleased. Mum looks upset; dad has that look he uses when he’s talking business and he’s trying to keep calm. When he looks at me I can see flames and smoke and a volcano on the point of eruption.
It erupts when we get in the car to go home.
But before that the ginger pc curls a finger towards me and I stand up and shuffle across. He leads me down a corridor to a locked room. He doesn’t speak – not in words anyway – but his look tells me everything I need to know and I’m starting to sweat. He turns a key and opens a door onto a small, bare cell with a skimpy looking bed at one side and a toilet at the other. The floor is bare and there’s no window.
‘See this?’ He asks.
How could I not?
I nod quickly.
‘Do you want me to lock you in here?’
I shake my head even quicker.
‘Fuck, no,’ I think but then I look up quickly. I hope he didn’t hear me thinking that. My mum and dad don’t like me swearing. They say I get it from Wayne which is probably true. If you did a word frequency analysis of Wayne’s conversation, that one word would come out way above any others.
‘Then I don’t want to see you here ever again.’ Ginger bends forward and shakes a finger in my face – a ginger, freckled finger on a pale, hairy hand. ‘Your mum and dad have told me they’ll think of a suitable punishment and I believe them.’
‘I believe them too.’
‘Stealing is wrong,’ he tells me, as if I didn’t know. ‘This time you get off with a warning but next time...’
He lets me finish the sentence for myself but whatever the police can do pales into insignificance beside what’s in store when I get home.
‘But I didn’t...’ I start to say, ‘I was just waiting...I didn’t know someone would...’ Then I see the look he’s giving me and I shut up. I’m only going to make things worse.
It takes two days to persuade mum and dad that I was an innocent bystander. When Wayne shot past me like a hare escaping dogs and shouting, ‘Leg it!’ at the top of his voice, instinct took over. I started running. But instinct, on this occasion, lacked acceleration and I was grabbed and held by a burly operative from the store. He was sweating and breathing hard and, for a moment, I thought he might collapse and loosen his grip; but my luck has never been good – especially around Wayne.
I follow a well trodden path. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last.
Still, I keep quiet about Wayne when the police ask. I tell them I don’t know him – which is partly true. I wish I didn’t know him. It’s my dad who grasses him up.
It’s a week before I see Wayne again – partly because I’m grounded, then banned from seeing him, then avoiding him. But eventually we meet. It’s inevitable really. He’s with Stevie who managed to avoid all the excitement by heading quietly in the other direction.
‘Where did you get those bruises?’ I ask Wayne. They were healing now but his eye was a nasty shade of blue and his lips looked like they belonged on a Holywood actress after a failed beauty treatment.
‘I fell,’ he winks.
‘Where from? An aeroplane?’
‘The police came round to question me,’ Wayne says. ‘They searched my room. I wasn’t to know our Tyrone had stashed some dodgy gear under the bed.’
‘I bet their eyes lit up when they saw that,’ Stevie murmurs and grins sideways at me. ‘So what happened?’
‘They’d got nothing on me – nothing definite – just someone who might’ve been me running away. Tyrone got charged, though, receiving stolen goods. He was on parole too.’
‘And when he came back from the station...’ Stevie starts to say what we were both thinking.
‘So what happens now?’ asks Stevie.
‘Another social worker, I suppose. There’ll be a meeting and they’ll make a plan.’
‘What did you do to your hand?’ I ask. He has a soiled bandage wrapped loosely round it and tucked in on itself. It looks like he did it himself – hardly a professional job.
He pulls it back to reveal a nasty, round burn with a flame of red growing around it. You don’t need a degree in medicine to see it’s infected.
‘That looks bad,’ I say. ‘Does it hurt?’
‘Course it hurts,’ he grins.
Wayne has other burn marks like this one but they’re old and mostly they’ve healed up. He’s got some on his arm and a few on his legs. He doesn’t get changed for PE at school and he doesn’t go swimming. I think it’s so no-one sees. The teachers gave up reminding him. Better he misses swimming and does PE in his school clothes, I suppose. Otherwise he just wouldn’t turn up.
‘Do you want my mum to look at that?’ I ask. ‘She used to be a nurse.’
He nods. ‘Get a plaster and some cream,’ he says.
Which seemed like a good idea until my mum sees the burn and gets all serious in a smiley, reassuring sort of way. She manages to catch a glimpse of another mark on his arm by pushing the sleeve out of the way to wrap the clean bandage.
‘Does that feel better?’ she asks but I can see she’s thinking about something else.
That evening she’s whispering to dad in the lounge so I sit on the stair and listen and I learn she’s called social work. I hear her say, ‘cigarette burns’ and I wince just to think about it.
I use one of those words which I’m not allowed to use but it’s inside my head and not out loud so I suppose it’s okay.
When I next see Wayne he’s still grinning. ‘I’ve got another care plan,’ he says. ‘The social worker thinks I’m self harming.’ The grin turns to a laugh although I don’t think Wayne really gets irony. ‘Was it your mum phoned the social?’ he asks.
No point denying it. ‘Yes,’ I say.
‘I like your mum,’ he says, ‘but she’d better keep away from my mum for a while.’
‘What about Tyrone?’ I ask rather anxiously.
‘He’s back inside.’
Relief is a powerful emotion.
It’s a few weeks after the incident in the bar when I see Wayne again. He’s walking through the centre of town in his lunch hour and he looks serious. He’s frowning and his head is lowered and he doesn’t see me until I run across and call his name.
‘I can’t stop,’ he says, ‘meeting someone.’
‘Who?’ I ask.
‘Come with me and see,’ he says with a conspiratorial grin.
I look at my watch. I guess I can spare half an hour.
‘Yeah, okay, If it isn’t far.’
‘The coffee shop in the precinct,’ he says and gives me a grin.
‘I hope the old woman doesn’t recognise you, after you borrowed her family heirloom.’
‘I’ve been in a few times. Her daughter runs it now.’
The incident of the photo is typical of Wayne. He can’t just argue about something and let it go at that. He has to prove he’s right because he’s stubborn through and through. He thinks it’s a virtue.
Three weeks ago we were in the precinct and decided to grab a coffee. ‘Maggie’s Coffee Shop’ was close by so we ducked in there. On the wall facing the door Maggie had hung a single framed photograph. She told everyone it was a prized possession. It showed her shaking hands with the Queen on a lawn outside some country house. There were tables and marquees and a lot of posh looking over-dressed people standing in groups. They were sipping what I assumed to be champagne from glasses which look as if they cost more than a small house. Beside Maggie stood a man with a head that looked strangely incompatible with his body - rather too small, ill connected, hunched.
I’d seen it before so I just walked past but Wayne stopped and studied it closely.
‘It’s photo-shopped,’ he announced as we sat by the window and drank our coffees.
Maggie O’Neil, proprietor, sixty years old and built like a mausoleum, fixed him with a stare that could pierce bone.
‘That guy’s head looks like a marble on a bottle. No-one could look like that – not in real life.’
‘He’s in uniform,’ I mumble. ‘Maybe he’s a war hero or something.’
‘Maybe he’s just had his peanut head photo-shopped onto someone in a uniform,’ Wayne said.
It was too much for Maggie. She strode over. ‘I think I’d like you to leave and take your offensive opinions with you. That’s my husband. He was awarded the military medal for Korea.’
‘Korea?’ Wayne whistled. ‘Okay.’
Maggie looked as if anything short of a lightning strike would be a disappointment. It was time to drink up and leave.
It was only when we were a hundred metres down the precinct that Wayne opened the front of his coat to reveal the photograph – eight by six in a dark wooden frame protected by glass. He started laughing and wouldn’t stop. He fell rather than sat on a bench outside a chain chemist.
‘It won’t take her long to figure out who took it,’ I told him but Wayne didn’t care. He was prising the back off the frame to remove the print.
‘I’ll show you,’ he said. ‘I’ll prove it.’ He dropped the frame and glass in a waste bin. ‘We need a hand lens.’
‘Sod off, Wayne. I’m going home,’ I told him. ‘I like that cafe. My mum goes there too. I won’t dare go in there for months now.’
‘Come on, I’ve got a lens back at the flat.’ He was totally absorbed in his investigation so he ignored me.
‘I’m going,’ I said.
And I did.
But when I looked back, Wayne hadn’t moved. He was holding the photo to the light and scrutinising it.
That’s Wayne; once he’s got a grip on an idea he won’t let go until he proves he’s right. Like I said, he’s stubborn.
When we walk into the cafe today we notice at once that another copy of the photo is back but it’s adjacent to the counter where it can be guarded.
‘I knew it was photo shopped,’ Wayne says smugly.
I glance round nervously in case Maggie suddenly appears from the kitchen. There’s no sign of her so I breathe a little more easily and follow Wayne to where a young woman is sitting. She’s our age, long dark hair and dark eyes and a smile that would melt lead. She’s slim and, to be totally frank, the prettiest sight I’ve seen since.... Suddenly I recognise her and my jaw drops stupidly. I imagine it resting on my chest. I hold out a hand like a beggar seeking alms. She takes it and laughs and it’s the same laugh from the same mouth through the same teeth.
‘Tina?’ I say.
She nods and that laugh travels though me like a warm day. I sit down heavily, my eyes nearly as wide as my mouth – or so it feels.
‘Hi Wayne,’ she says. ‘You’re late.’
‘I met a friend,’ he smiles. ‘Remember him?’
‘O course,’ she says, turning to me again. ‘Hi, Phil, how are you?’
My mouth still hasn’t closed properly and my eyes must have the glazed look of someone who is only just catching up on events which have spiralled well out of control. Wayne moves his hands to the centre of the table and holds hers and everything spirals away again, so far and so fast that I have no hope of catching up with it. I resign myself to a passive role, an onlooker at a scene so improbable I might just be dreaming.
‘So what’s the emergency?’ Wayne asks in a voice so gentle it seems to stroke her hair. ‘Your phone call sounded urgent.’
‘Alasdair’s been burgled,’ Tina whispers.
‘Alasdair?’ I ask.
‘Alasdair Riley. Remember him?’
‘He’s my ex,’ Tina says, ‘if you can count a two date dalliance as worthy of that title. Let’s say we had a brief flirtation.’
The spiral has reached another dimension. Alasdair Riley? I glance at Wayne but he’s not looking. Alasdair Riley was school football captain, school cricket captain, tennis champion and supreme athlete. He was also self satisfied, egotistical, six foot three and popular. There was a queue of envious boys who hated him. I was near the front – just behind Wayne.
‘He works for my dad, does the paperwork, looks after the money side of things and so on. My dad’s a practical man. He’s no good at office work.’
Tina’s dad is a builder. He also owns a lot of property around the town and I think it would be fair to describe him as loaded. Their house is the size of a small castle which I know because I went there to her birthday party – when she was nine. It was a house you could get lost in. Her present was a swimming pool.
‘Did he lose much?’
‘Some money, his wallet and cards, a laptop and phone, an expensive watch, some rings and keys; he had to change all his locks - but that’s not why I had to see you.’
‘So what is it then?’
She looks down and then back at him. The words seem hard to say. She breathes deeply. ‘He says he thinks it’s you. He’s told the police.’
Wayne looks at her for a moment. His mouth is almost as wide as mine. Then he rolls back his head and laughs so loud everyone turns and stares.
‘Bastard,’ he says.
Tina sits at the year 5 desk opposite me. I’m next to Sandra. I’ve known Sandra since I was a baby – if babies can be said know each other – and I plan to marry her when I’m old enough. At least, that’s my plan until Tina arrives from another school and takes up her place at our table. Then – fickle lover that I am, even at nine years old – poor Sandra gets relegated to the role of supporting actress in a drama which is all about me and Tina.
Wayne has an old double desk all to himself at the front of the classroom. They must have dragged it out of the boiler house where it’s been stored for at least a generation. It has names carved on the top and the sides. People in those days must have done nothing but carve things on old wooden desks. No wonder they can’t use computers or the internet – like gran and grandpa. I make a note to ask grandpa when he comes to dinner on Sunday.
Is that dinner or tea?
Wayne has got me confused, not for the first or last time.
Tina is the smallest girl in the class and at first I think she’s shy and quiet - shy and quiet and really pretty. After a week she’s still pretty but now she’s clever and funny and has more energy than a whole football team, including reserves. The classroom seems to have sprung to life and learning things suddenly seems incredibly cool.
Even Wayne has caught the bug.
Mrs. Goddard, who hasn’t been known to smile in all the time I’ve been at the school – which is forever – allows her face to crack sufficiently to betray a hint of gentler emotions beneath. She covers them up pretty quickly but they were there, I swear it.
Tina asks questions too, like, ‘Mrs. Goddard, why does Wayne have to sit by himself?’ but even for Tina that’s a step too far. Wayne sits on his own because Wayne doesn’t know how to behave and he’ll always sit on his own until he does behave – which will be never. Wayne is condemned to a lifetime at that desk at the front of the class, six feet from Mrs. Goddard’s terrifying stare.
After that, Tina plays with Wayne whenever she can. She has a strong sense of justice and fairness and she’s decided life hasn’t been fair or just to Wayne. But that leads to trouble. Some people, like me and Stevie, play with Wayne and now there are others too and it’s suddenly fashionable. But others, like Carl Jeffreys and his pack of playground hounds start sneering and snarling and snapping, probably envious of the attention he’s getting. Carl has never liked Wayne anyway. They fight a lot. I think the score is 43 to Carl and none to Wayne but that doesn’t make Carl feel like a winner. Wayne always gets up and he always comes back and he never stops. So Carl picks on Tina as well now.
That’s when ‘Teeny Tiny Tina’ gets her nickname.
And that’s when Wayne gets to play the knight in shining armour; except when Wayne clambers on his high horse and charges at Carl Jeffreys he is soon brought down to earth – literally. Life seems to have settled into a familiar routine. Wayne gets up, falls down, gets up...
‘Come on, Carl,’ I cajole. ‘Leave him alone.’
Carl doesn’t leave him alone. Wayne falls down, Wayne gets up...
‘Come on, Wayne,’ Stevie says.
Wayne won’t come on. Down again.
Then things start to happen. The next few minutes bring Carl Jeffreys a well earned suspension and a sore scalp, Tina a reputation as a pocket battleship and Wayne a vision of the girl of his dreams. By the time Mrs. Goddard stamps and snorts her way across the playground, leaving children scattered in her wake, Tina is dragging Carl back by his hair and Wayne is clambering to his feet. In a moment of incredible folly Carl lashes out and lands a blow on Tina. The collective in-drawing of breath that follows could bevel walls. It leaves an entire playground speechless. Tina lets him go and then dusts her hands and walks away.
No tears from Tina – not in full sight anyway. I run after her but she vanishes where no boy dare follow.
Two weeks later Wayne has achieved a record breaking spell of good behaviour and has been rewarded with a seat at our table opposite me and next to Tina. The look of satisfaction on his face is so wide I could slap him.
The impeccable behaviour goes on and on. Mrs. Goddard who normally has the look of someone fed solely on cabbage water now has the look of a successful teacher. Wayne is working, finishing tasks, concentrating and reading books. He still won’t do PE or swimming but, hey, what the hell, take what you can.
Then two months later we go to Wayne’s house to collect a football and everything goes to hell. Stevie lies dead on the floor. I’m running down the street and screaming like a baby and Wayne is just sitting there, his back to the wall - staring at the body, blood trickling from his nose and mouth, and tears rolling silently down his cheeks.
He doesn’t return to school. Weeks later I hear he’s been taken into care. He’s with a new family, miles away. No-one knows where.
I don’t see him again for five years.