‘She bought you an actual star? Big deal.’
It had taken a lot of work but David’s image in the mirror was just right. Blue eyes gazed coolly out at the world the way he’d seen Vin Diesel do so many times. The Tee shirt he’d stuffed down the bottom of his bed nearly a week ago was impressively creased. And just to add extra polish, his freshly torn jeans were faded in just the right places, even if they were so baggy that the waist band kept slipping below his hips making him waddle like a penguin. It didn’t matter. A week of not washing it had made his unruly blond hair achieve exactly the right greasiness. It itched a bit, but all the others said that was cool, and soon he’d be old enough to start getting spots. A final pump of his Hydro-Pneumatic Air-Trainers and he fled the house.
He was fairly pleased with his new hoodie. His mum had got it right for a change. Unlike the last one which must have been designed for a gorilla with a hump. The hood had been so big that it had kept slipping over his face making him look like a complete plonker. He didn’t really like wearing them but everyone said it was like a uniform, and if he didn’t he would automatically join the group at school whose days were spent in terror of the spectacularly nasty tricks which school kids were so good at. The idea of extracting his head from the toilet held little appeal; and as to what it would to his credibility didn’t bear thinking about..
His one insistence at individualism that made the ‘uniform’ bearable were the half dozen lurid badges of imaginary US fighter squadrons he’d found at a boot-sale. All in all, just the biz. Normally the stuff she got for him was about eight eons out of date. Last Christmas she’d actually bought him a pair of flairs!
Two whole days until school so there was a lot to do. Two days could last for ever when a really inventive mind was put to work, and if he was anything he was inventive. Aunty Joan had recently said that in the deliberately annoying tone adults usually adopted when they didn’t really want you to know what they were talking about. And although he’d never been entirely sure there wasn’t some kind of slur lurking within the remark, it sounded good provided you didn’t actually think about it too much. Anyway, who cared?
But this star thing his mum had given him. It was just a white dot in an endless sea of other white dots. He might not even have been looking at the right one. And why had it required a few clumps of his hair to pay for it? She was probably just winding him up. It wouldn’t be the first time. His mum’s sense of humour was sometimes as unfathomable as that of all adults; which is to say, not funny at all.
The glossy five by eight photo now lay in the wardrobe with all the rest of his treasures; junk mostly that he knew should have been chucked out years before, especially the stuffed frog. That was getting a bit pongy now. But it was also the one thing he couldn’t throw away because he’d given it to him. Still, he was fourteen now and if the lads ever found out they’d never let him live it down.
First stop, Edna’s Caff, the nearest thing they had to a burger bar in this wilderness so far away from anywhere even remotely resembling civilisation. His friends would be waiting, both eager to know what his birthday had brought in the way of stuff. And Sad-case, well he’d be just like he always was when someone got something he’d never had: scornful and unimpressed.
David would confidently have staked a year’s pocket money on how Sad-case would react to his news. On what he would say and exactly how he would say it. Even though he was one of David’s two best friends he was a real pain at times. If David’s birthday present had been the Empire State Building he’d have laughed scornfully and say he had two. Nothing could ever impress him since he had, and knew absolutely everything; or claimed to, anyway. He’d seen the film and bought the tee-shirt; although he hadn’t read the book. In fact any book, ever, as far as David could recall.
It wasn’t that he was thick or anything. Sad’s fundamental philosophy was: if there was time to do anything even remotely constructive, like homework, then why not use it to antagonise a girl, or, better still, annoy a grown up. And with his unusually large and heavily muscled body he usually got away with it. David had heard the science teacher whisper to someone a couple of months back that he was either a mutant, or a throw-back. He had no idea what either meant but guessed they probably weren’t compliments
Sad-case wasn’t his actual name of course – even his parents didn’t hate him that much. But such was his loathing of his real name and his complete refusal to respond to it even from teachers regardless of how many lines or hideous punishments they meted out to him, David had pronounced him to be a terminally Sad-case. His new friend had seized the tribute with a strange pride and thus he had become.
Of course such frivolous disregard of his rightful place at the top of the bullying hierarchy was not something Sad-case would have tolerated from just anyone. In fact few had ever dared and survived intact. But since David’s first day at school long months ago, when as the natural sovereign of his limited roost, Sad-case had considerately offered to beat him senseless. David, in return, had promised to give him an SAS sleep hold so effective that he would have to be woken up just to be buried. A grudging respect had quickly grown into a firm friendship. Still, his middle name should have been piles because sometimes he was a complete pain up the bum and there was absolutely no way the throw-back was going to spoil his big day. It only happened once a year and he was going to enjoy every moment.
‘Yeah, why not my own star. Beats a train set.’ That was true. The others nodded begrudgingly. A star of one’s very own was not to be sniffed at – metaphorically speaking.
Sad-case rubbed at a slightly swollen jaw which actually had the beginnings of some wispy fluff. He also frowned; a rather alarming sight since his brown eyes were completely bloodshot as a result of another severe slapping from his big brother. He hadn’t yet told them what he’d done to earn it, but he would in his own time.
His hoodie, which was made of actual leather, looked like it had been run over by one of those machines you saw tearing up old roads, and it had some strange scorch marks on the back. All of which, David assumed, were the result of a severe assault by the rasp he’d borrowed from school. And he’d torn his new jeans on the lathe, much to the consternation of their metalwork teacher who was currently getting the bearings fixed, again. He was one of the few teachers who were bigger than Sad and if he ever put two and two together, his friend was going to be dog meat.
The third member of their gang and bearer of the unfortunate name ‘Derrick the Div’, or variations thereof, burped loudly and filthily. His mouth and chin, totally covered by the triple extra-everything mammoth burger he was savaging, dripped half chewed meat into an already stained lap. He might have been wearing his obligatory hoodie but neither of them wanted to get close enough to look. As usual it looked like a mobile version of what you often saw on pavements outside pubs and curry shops on Saturday mornings.
‘What’s...oops.’ His arm, darting for his milk shake, splattered David’s cola all over his carefully prepared jeans. ‘Soz.’ He was very bright, much more so than David or Sad-case, who would both readily admit it, although never to his face, but he was also the clumsiest little noid in the known universe. Though “little” would hardly be the right word for him. He claimed to have an under active thyroid. Or some other equally intangible medical condition which apparently had nothing to do with the six or so double cheeseburgers he forced down his throat everyday. All David and Sad-case knew was that he was a bit of a lard bucket. But that didn’t matter. He was their lard bucket and nobody would dare mess with him when they were together.
That such disparate characters had found friendship might have surprised others but they had never considered the ambiguity. Good friends were hard enough to find when the streets, and the schools, were just teeming with people ready and willing to do you harm. And that was just the teachers.
Their usual eatery seemed particularly dreary today cowering beneath low, rain filled clouds apparently hovering about twenty feet above their heads. This wasn’t one of those big, bright fast-food joints adorned with enough mirrors to make it seem as if there were twenty thousand people in there like you saw on those telly adverts. Not Edna’s Caff. Built about the time of the Second World War, or the Boer War, Sad-case had once observed sagely, it was small and gloomy with a low cobweb-covered ceiling and badly cracked support beams. The whole rotting edifice was partially submerged into the side of a hill which sometimes juddered alarmingly and promised to come down on their heads if there was ever a really serious rainstorm. No pretty girls with bright uniforms here. Just ten cramped tables covered by garish and grimy plastic tablecloths huddled into an area about the size of David’s bedroom.
There was one mirror, though. It hung from three rotting screws above the grotty orange box which served as the counter. The large jagged crack running from one corner to the other made was filled with grease that was so old that it had grown hair, and upon which was scrawled in red crayon a list of burgers and various species of fried food. It had obviously been there for a while if one were to believe that a sausage sandwich had once cost ten shillings, whatever that meant.
Maybe Edna might know, but the small balding man of indeterminate age and possessed of an infinite collection of cardigans that ran this micro empire was clearly not Edna. Unless this long-suffering person had an even greater abhorrence for his name than Sad-case. He ran the café with such benign dignity that by unspoken agreement none of his patrons, usually the kids from the local school, could find it in their hearts to misbehave. Even Sad-case didn’t want to see a grown man cry.
After taking a long breath Derrick’s eyes sparkled mischievously.
Followed by about twenty words conjoined into one in a single staccato torrent which roared over them, followed simultaneously by half a mouthful of burger. They both knew what he’d said of course. They’d picked up the knack decades ago, but they always made him say it again anyway.
‘What’, he reddened, spluttering again and spraying both of them anew, ‘is it called? How far away is it? What’s its classification?’
‘How much did it cost?’ Sad-case’s usual question.
David absently extracted particles of mincemeat from his hair. ‘Dunno. It’s written on the back of the photo. It’s all just foreign words to me.’
‘You got a photo of it?’
They both ducked as a solid tidal wave of beef, or whatever they’d called the dog meat this week splattered them and the neighbouring tables. Much to the disgust of the three girls sitting nearby being far too cool to acknowledge the existence of mere boys and simply pretending that Derrick wasn't there. This was especially annoying since one of the girls was that pretty fifth former David had been surreptitiously eying for the past three weeks.
‘Yeah, yeah.’ He tried to dismiss the subject. He was tired of it already. There were things to do - important things. ‘So are we going to the pool or what?’
‘You betcha.’ As always Sad-case was willing, eager in fact, to peer through the hole in the girls’ changing room wall in the local swimming pool. Ever denying the coincidence that the hole seemed almost exactly the same diameter as the now mangled blade of a chisel that had briefly gone missing from the woodwork class after he’d been using it.
‘Not me. Howard’s got some new beta software.’ Surprisingly Derrick demurred. Normally he would have fought Sad-case for the chance to gaze upon girly flesh.
‘Better? What’s better than looking through the hole and seeing girls with no...’
‘Not better, beta,’ Derrick said slowly, enunciating both syllables carefully. ‘Bait...er. Bait, like what you use when you go fishing. Gerrit? It’s the final version of a computer game before it hits the street.’ He offered a superior smirk to David. ‘He wants me to test it. They don’t call me Fastest-Fingers-In-The-West for nothing.’ Actually nobody called him that, but he could always dream.
Sad’s eyes narrowed. Derrick was straying perilously close to pain country now, and Sad-case probably did have the strongest fingers in the west, which he would happily demonstrate if Derrick got too gobby.
‘Never been fishing, have I.’ He muttered belligerently, his neck surprisingly wide for one of his youth and beginning to glow red – never a good sign.