Authors: John Harvey
Five Leaves Publications
by John Harvey
Published in 2008 by Five Leaves Publications
PO Box 8786, Nottingham NG1 9AW
Â© John Harvey, 2008
Five Leaves acknowledges financial support from Arts Council England
Cover design: Darius Hinks
Typesetting and design: Four Sheets Design and Print
My thanks are due to Nat Boon, Joshua Held and Rebecca Ratty for reading earlier versions of the manuscript and making positive and useful suggestions; thanks also to Tom Harvey and Liz Simcock for musical advice and, especially, to Hylda Sims for sharing her memories of the early British blues and folk scene and her skiffling days â and nights â with The City Ramblers. Above all, thank you to my French publisher, FranÃ§ois Guerif, for the initial suggestion.
Four days after Nick Harman's seventh birthday, his father climbed onto a bridge high above four lanes of traffic, paused, then threw himself to his death on the road below. That was a little over nine years ago. Today Nick was sixteen.
The clock alongside the bed read 7:59.
Nick reached out an arm and switched off the alarm before it could ring. When he'd been small, little more than three or four, not yet started school, his dad had sneaked into his room while he was asleep and fixed stars in the shapes of constellations to the ceiling above his bed. The kind that shone in the dark.
Nick lay there now and stared upwards, trying to make out the faintest glow.
Not so much later he realised that his eyes had closed again. 8:07. He could have risked a few minutes more but he needed to pee. The quilt had become tangled around his legs and he tugged it free and swung his feet round towards the floor. He could hear music, blurred, from the flat upstairs; sounds of traffic, impatient, from the street. Wearing the t-shirt and boxer shorts in which he'd slept, Nick headed for the bathroom.
Fifteen minutes later, dressed, dark hair still tangled, he pushed open the kitchen door. The radio was playing, tuned to Capital, and he switched it to Radio One then XFM then off. Chris had lent him the new Radiohead album and would be on to him to find out what he thought. The water in the kettle was still warm and, setting it to boil, he reached down a mug and dropped a tea bag ready inside. If his mum had not already left for work, he might have had toast instead of corn flakes. Before she got this new job, seven to four six days a week behind one of the tills at the petrol station shop, that's what she'd made, most mornings, toast and jam, toast and marmalade. Time to nag him about being late, his homework, the state of his shoes.
The envelope was propped up against the box of cereal, not quite stuck down. A ten pound note folded inside the card.
Happy Birthday, Love Mum
. Nick stirred two sugars into his tea and glanced at the clock.
His rucksack was heavy as usual, weighted down with books, and he swung it on to one shoulder as he pulled the door fast shut and turned the key. The one time he'd forgotten to lock it, some opportunistic shit off the estate had been in there and out again before Nick, half-way to school, had realised his mistake and come running back. The forty quid that his mum kept for emergencies had gone, a watch, bits and pieces of jewellery she scarcely ever wore, the computer from Nick's room that wasn't yet paid for, the video and the TV. These last two had been replaced, but the only times Nick got to go on a computer were at school or round his mates' evenings or weekends.
From the forecourt outside the flats a narrow path led down towards the street. A car body shop to one side and on the other a patch of grass dedicated to the memory of some councillor who, if he saw the state of it, food wrappings and drying dog turds, would be turning in his grave. There had been some small flowers growing there a month or so before, white and purple, but now they had died away.
Faintly, Nick could see his breath on the air.
There were two comprehensives in the area, close together, one bog standard, the other Roman Catholic, and the road Nick walked along now was crowded on both sides with clusters of three or more pupils, talking, smoking, pushing, shouting, carelessly forcing anyone else off the pavement as they passed. The younger ones wore a semblance of uniform, the rest dressed in some combination of combats or track pants, t-shirts and hoodies, some with logos, some not; trainers by Nike or Adidas, occasionally Puma or New Balance. A scattering of girls wore calf-length coats in black or beige, short skirts over coloured tights; wide-fitting jeans hung low on the hips of some of the boys, hoods pulled forward over their heads. Nike again. Tommy Hilfiger. Gap.
Nick, in red tab Levi's and a faded denim jacket, his boots knock-off Timberlands from a stall on Camden Market, hurried on, snatches of conversation drifting around him.
“â¦that's shit, man, why d'you watch that shit?”
“Offside? Course he wasn't bloody offside!”
“â¦in the queue outside the Boston, wasn't he, just standing there, right, not saying nothin' and this bloke bottled him.”
“Fit, i'n it? Really fit.”
“Look at that, I wouldn't mind a bit of that.”
“Forget it, she's a slag.”
Nick saw his mates Christopher and Scott standing outside the school entrance, Christopher's head moving slightly to whatever was playing on his Walkman, Scott sharing a smoke with his girl friend, Laura.
Christopher was tall, almost six foot, only just beginning to thicken out; most days he dressed like he was about to go off and climb a mountain somewhere, anorak, waterproof trousers with a million pockets, walking boots with serious cleats. Scott was shorter, smarter, almost always in some variation of black and grey, laughing now at something Laura had just said.
Laura had a sharp face and blonde spiky hair and went to the Catholic school across the road. She and Scott had been going out the best part of a year â some kind of a record.
“You listen to the Radiohead yet?” Christopher asked.
Nick shook his head.
Laura's face brightened with a grin. “I saw Ellen just now,” she said.
When, a month or so back, Nick had asked who was the girl with the yellow waterproof and the black beret, Laura had walked right over and asked her if she fancied going out with one of her boy friend's mates.
“Sorry,” the message had come back, “she says you're not her type.”
And they'd laughed at the embarrassment colouring Nick's face.
A few days later he'd learned her name.
“Come on,” Christopher said, removing his headphones. “Else we'll be bollocked for being late.”
Nick nodded, hands stuffed down into his pockets against the cold.
Laura turned away and waited for the traffic to stop at the crossing and the three boys walked together into school.
The block of flats, five storeys high, where Nick and his mother lived, had been built in 1936. Whenever Nick read the inscription embedded into the wall of yellowing brick, he wondered it had stood that long.
By the time Nick's parents had moved in, roughly fourteen years ago, the estate had spread like a kid's game of Lego, long and narrow, tall and thin, none of the parts quite matching. Concrete and glass. The entrances to each block now had doors that locked, numbers that you punched in to gain admission. One look at the squares of garden or up at the balconies was enough to tell you who had been living there half a lifetime, who had been moved in by the council as a last resort. If anywhere stayed empty for too long it was squatted in or worse.
Most days after school, Nick hung out with Christopher and Scott, having a Coke or some chips at the same cafÃ© where they bought a slice of pizza for lunch. In the summer they'd go and sit on the grass in the open space which bordered the main road, sometimes kicking a ball about or just lazing round and looking at the girls. Talking about who they'd like to have if they got the chance.
More often than not, Nick would end up walking Christopher back to where he lived, a tall Victorian house on one of the tree-lined streets beyond the estate, Saabs and SUVs parked along the kerb.
On the way they'd chat about this and that, arguing over the respective merits of Arsenal and Chelsea, Eduardo or Ballack; Nick listening to Christopher as he rubbished some singer for her lyrics or the way she kept veering out of tune. Not that Nick cared one way or another. There was a poster of J-Lo on his wall and it wasn't there because he liked the way she sang.
Sometimes when they got to Christopher's they'd go up to his room and mess around on the computer, but this was one of the evenings when Nick worked so he headed back quite soon, following a ramshackle series of walkways through the estate.
“Hey, Nick! Nicky, where you goin'?”
“Yeah, man, what's your hurry?”
Hands in the pockets of his jacket, Nick continued walking, not breaking his stride. He could see Ross Blevitt and his mates standing round in the shadow of the tower block, hoods pulled up, the sound of Dr Dre or Ice T distorting from the open windows of the ground floor corner flat. Blevitt with his Burberry cap pulled well forward on his head and a surly smile on his seventeen year old face.
“Hey, Nicky. Chill.”
“He can't,” called someone else. “Hurry home to his mama, i'n it?”
“Yeah, Nicky. Give her one for me.”
Recognising the voice, Nick half-turned into the laughter and saw Blevitt, cap pushed back now, leering as he cupped his crotch with one hand.
Blevitt had started on him once, a year or so back, and Nick had stood his ground, the pair of them pretty evenly matched and neither willing to strike the first blow. Nick knew that Blevitt felt he had lost face and had been looking for a way of getting back at him ever since.
“He's a pussy,” someone shouted.
Slowly, Blevitt moved his hand up from his crotch, fingers extended then curling, beckoning him on. His crew behind him, seven or eight strong.
This wasn't the time.
Not hurrying, deliberate, Nick resumed walking, jeers and catcalls falling about his shoulders as he continued on his way.
“Nicky, is that you?”
Nick suppressed his usual âWho d'you think?' and carried on into his room, draped his jacket across the back of the chair and dumped his rucksack on the narrow bed.
His mum was sitting at the table in the small kitchen, leafing through one of her magazines. In the living room the television was playing to no one, volume low.
“There's tea in the pot.”
Opening the fridge door, he fished out a can of Lucozade.
“That stuff'll rot your teeth.”
“Like yours, you mean?”
His mother sighed and turned the page.
Nick took two slices of bread from their wrapping, rummaged some more in the fridge, then spread the bread with peanut butter and blackcurrant jam before pressing the pieces together. Forestalling his mother's complaint, he put the sandwich on a plate and sat opposite her, chair rocked back on its rear legs.
“How was school?”
He shot her a look and she caught herself wondering when the ritual response of “Fine” had been replaced by that familiar expression of boredom and disdain.
“There's oven chips in the freezer. I could do you egg and chips.”
“It's okay, I'll get something at work.”
Three evenings a week and alternate weekends, Nick had a job in the restaurant attached to one of the local pubs. For Â£4.50 an hour, cash in hand, he would clear the tables and wipe them down, load the dishwasher, dry plates and scrub pans; at the end of a session he would clean out the gunge and grease that had collected in the sump of the main sink, scald the chopping surfaces with boiling water, spray and polish the griddle till it shone.