1: The Field
The afternoon we first met Ben Piper, dragons and spaceships appeared over town. In the normal fashion we’d snuck out the back way from school, through a hole in the thorn-tangled fence behind the slumped prefab buildings, and so avoided the brutal pandemonium of three-fifteen. A month ago, Dean, caught in the bottleneck at the tight main exit, lost every button off his shirt and had his Windsor knot peanutted into an emerald after being padlocked to the railing. This was not the first sign we didn’t belong.
We fled across town, using the cobbled side streets to the rugby pitches, where we slowed, and under the ragged cover of oak trees skirted the dead-ball line. Dean, gristly and thin shouldered, took his headphones out. If he wasn’t listening to something he felt bored, so he said. We understood differently, music calmed his nerves, internalised a world he found complicated, set it to an expected rhythm. The newest member in our group, Sam, finally caught up – as always, not quite in sync with our games. He was jabbering. ‘I never go to the west part town now. It’s basically an estate full of people like Bradley.’ We half listened not appreciating Sam’s identity had gone through various alterations since his parents’ acrimonious separation: townie, raver, emo, skater, geek, then spat out into our nameless lot. Yet at school – especially to the blingers and the chavs – we were lowly gamers. For us that was an empty label, and never to be used.
Sam continued to talk rapidly and we cut in with our opinions on his misadventures, usually mocking, getting our own back on people like Bradley. ‘Isn’t he inbred or something,’ ‘I heard his family eat Pedigree Chum for dinner,’ ‘why is it he walks like he’s got a chair leg up his arse’. We were just reaching the end of the grass-bare pitches when seagulls, standing knee-deep in a puddle, went kaw-calling up into the air and wheeled off southward towards their nests at the marina. We went north to the field.
At the jagged walls of the barracks we tightened up, knowing any one of our parents driving home from work could spot us from the road. Dean jammed his headphones back in his ears. Sam continued talking. He told us how the barracks actually housed the Royal Military Police and held prisoners under interrogation during the Falklands War. ‘I think torture is fine if it saves lives,’ he said plainly, adding, with a moment’s contemplation, ‘of course it depends what side you’re on.’ The rest of us were thinking of the wild things we’d see in the sky, if they’d appear realer than last time, more vivid, more our own.
Reaching the far gatehouse, we crossed into the copse opposite, and passed the information panels that once detailed the types of wildlife in the local habitat. The panels were sort of plinths now, the transparent coverings frosted like they’d been through a dishwasher a million times, and beneath, the barely visible pictures of toads, woodpeckers and pond dippers, so distorted with damp spots, appeared to us ancient signifiers for things long departed. And having made the journey from school unscathed we scrambled up the bank and entered the field from the copse end. The final part was a short dash over a path to the chest-high grasses, where we scurried like rats to the field’s centre, deafened (except Dean) by the sound of nylon uniforms scratching against spring’s course growth.
To us, our furtive entrance into the field was about secrecy. However, it was not a secret anyone was interested in knowing, even the adults who came to walk their dogs, never giving any attention to the haze of blue smoke drifting over the field, nor taking it upon themselves to investigate the source of the laughter cannoning out to the wood’s edge. The only person who did see us smoking weed was Bruce, a fifty-year-old bachelor who lived on Lynch Down. We’d foolishly sparked up before we got to the field, and he saw us loitering near the One Stop. ‘Can you get me any of that grass lads?’ he asked. Our eyes darted about like flies looking for a gap in a window. ‘We’re not drug dealers,’ muttered Sam. ‘Give us a puff then?’ He said, raising his shades. ‘It’ll make you impotent,’ Brendon replied, passing him the joint. And with that we continued on as if hunted by irrepressible beasts, leaving Bruce standing there in shin-length combat shorts and a snug gillet, smoking for old times.
In the field, we waited in a cocoon of rushes, looming spear-high over our heads, for Brendan to roll an airy reefer. The earth was peaty and smelt sweet. Our hearts began to tremble. Brendon went first, taking a long inhale, then passed the joint to Sam, who held it in a way he thought made him look sophisticated, between thumb and forefinger, like he was twisting the end of a needle moustache. He was new to weed and used the slow inhale technique to avoid the possible embarrassment of coughing. Something I’d taught him a week ago, when we’d gone to fetch Whams and Boosts from One Stop to satisfy the rampant munchies. I received the joint from Sam and after a heavy intake passed it respectfully to Dean, completing the line of boys. At which point the joint returned to Brendon, who liked to think himself our leader, and if there was anything left he would send it round again, before we stretched out onto our backs and looked to the heavens.
The conditions were perfect for conjuring fantasies. Cirrus clouds, caught by the wind coming off the Solent, scraped across the sky, leaving scrappy grey sketches deep with texture. It was the first instance of us experiencing a mood that none of us was able to shake for a long time to come, perhaps forever, a mood of anticipation and belonging, one that kids have probably been gripped by since the beginning of time, when they expect to transform the world simply by being alive.
Brendan saw something first, and as always it was a dragon, ‘A dragon! A fucking dragon! You see it?’ he squawked, an outstretched finger pointing up to a scraggily looking cloud. Dragons were the most exotic thing he could think of.
‘Carp. Sixteen kilos,’ said Dean.
‘Plank,’ someone said. Dean’s affection for fishing, something we found primitive and dull, never escaped punishment.
Sam, squinting quizzically, held out for a degree of certainty, ‘No, it’s definitely a spacecraft, smouldering on re-entry. Something from the 40k universe.’
‘D-Day landings,’ I said, ‘I can see the transports and the gunfire puffs pluming from the beaches.’ It was the kind of historical outburst I wouldn’t have dared say if I wasn’t stoned and lost in the moment.
For a long time, we lay in our own heads, seeing things we wanted to see, listening to the subtle hum and chirrup of insects, our school clothes slowly moistening in the mud. We chuckled when Mr Leroy, Brendon’s dad, out with their spaniel Molly passed by on the path and called the bitch, a ‘bad girl,’ and a ‘naughty thing,’ repeatedly and in seductive tones we knew were meant for no-one’s ears, though we didn’t stir from our gazing positions. These were the best times, away from the hierarchies of school, where we had piss-take names, like Justborn (Sam Moreau) because of his doughy features, Bender Boy (Brendon Leroy), and DEAN! (Luke Dean), and before we sat down to the deadening banality of dinner tables.
We were making a connection, if only with ourselves, when the clouds began swooning in on themselves and going nimbus. A giant greyscale spiral rimmed with colour formed at the south-eastern part of the sky, right in the corner of Sword Beach, and screwed our visions into a darkening vortex. ‘I’m entering a cave,’ said Brendon, ‘I’m being sucked into a black hole’ said Sam, ‘I’m circling...’ Dean began to say but couldn’t finish, falling to his side, splitting with laughter. We cackled too, our voices croaky from the hot scratch in our throats, our lungs gasping. The mud we rolled in caked our uniforms. Then, the otherworldly sound of a girl’s voice broke the cocoon.
The joke dissolved. We hushed. Sam’s pea-shaped head lolled about on his neck, still in a trance. Brendon stubbed out the joint and got to his knees, but was too short to see anything. We heard bodies tramping through grass, overlaid by the elastic sounds of a girl giggling.
Sam’s puckered lips quivered a little. ‘Have a look,’ he said to Dean.
Dean didn’t move.
Brendon stood up.
‘Who is it?’ Said Sam.
Dean’s wiry Brilo-Pad hair popped up next. The long I-shaped groove down his forehead, which always appeared to be in shadow, deepened and darkened in confusion. Still on the ground, Sam spluttered something. I didn’t know what was going on. Brendon then dropped to the ground, smirked at Sam, picked up the joint, pried a gap in the grass, and disappeared.
We always found ourselves following Brendon, not because we wanted to, but in case he did something we’d all regret. If, indeed, he was our leader, it was only because he cared less about repercussions than the rest of us. Head-first we set into the grass, our bodies’ weightless and blurry. Stem edges drew lines down our faces as we burrowed on. My hands felt bulbous on the spongy ground, like I had boxing gloves on. Whoever was up ahead were so involved in each other there was little chance of detection, not that we had the wherewithal or the skill to conceal our movements. The sounds altered the closer we got, became softer, internal, long animal moans and short intimate gasps. We should have realised straight away, but the weed had made us dumb and rabid with curiosity. About five meters away Brendan stopped. Two bodies were visible. A boy’s bone-white arse rocked back and forward over a girl, her stick-legs spread by his hands, clasped tightly about the knee joints. Her hair was long, dark and bunched around her shoulder, and her uniform splayed, exposing little brown button tits. Her hand moved under her skirt – fighting or gyrating something. None of us, at the time, was aware of what she was doing. To most of us, she was somehow giving greater pleasure. Little did we understand it was hers.
We knew the girl well; we’d all been watching her. In fact, she was a favourite of our group. Everyone in the Boy’s School had been eyeing her from Mr Rowley’s science lab, which backed onto the Girl’s School netball courts, ever since she started secondary school, but nobody gave quite the standing we did. Her chest was small and she was shy. She disappeared during breaks – when girls and boys met surreptitiously behind the grounds man’s shed or the abandoned agricultural studies barn -– and when we did see her she was always styling her hair, and for these reasons was considered high maintenance and stuck-up, but cat-eyed and model slim she grew in our adolescent minds into a kind of prohibited nymphet. Someone I imagined had many layers, if you could only get close enough to peel them back. To see her so full of life, then, was a shock. And to hear her laugh and moan didn’t come without a twang of jealousy.
Brendan looked at me and mouthed, ‘It’s Clementine and she’s fucking.’ This was a massive revelation. Not only had we pegged Clemi wrongly, and fucking was something we only saw on our family computer screens between porn stars and ripped hunks (usually at night or when the adults were shopping), but because she was in the year below and could be no older than fourteen.
‘Who’s the lucky cunt?’ Sam asked, prompting hushed opinion.
‘I can’t make him out.’
‘He’s blond, it’s got to be Smith, he’s always bagging the girls.’
‘Smith’s all talk, he only bags Woolworth’s pic ‘n’ mix.’
‘No, there’s bumfluff on his cheeks, Smith’s clean.’
We never pinned the blond-haired boy because his movements quickened into a frenzied climax and after a shiver from head to toe, he abruptly stopped and rolled clumsily to one side. Witnessing the sudden end of lust put us in a state of bowl-loosening self-awareness. Brendon flapped his hand at us and we shuffled backwards. Dean was the last to leave, his eyes lunar and moistened. I tugged his tie to get him to follow.
At the path, we checked for dog walkers before crossing into the woods and took the shallow ditch, clogged with the decomposing leaves of several autumns, in a large bound, stopping once we reached the bridleway and a place we called The Teeth. Four huge concrete cubes laced with rusty iron rods made up the Second World War antitank barrier. Now sculpted by erosion we thought they looked like the molars of a long deceased giant. We’d smoked here a month ago, until we’d noticed that the bridleway was basically a thoroughfare for adults on The Avenue and Lynch Down looking for a bit of nature to trot about in. Before that, we’d never thought of venturing further than the old Roman walls of the town.
Sam leaned on one of the cubes and said he wasn’t feeling well. The rest of us sat on the barrier tops and dangled our legs over, while Brendon fumbled with the crumpled joint. The sun was dropping and the fragile light in the wood wavered.
‘They didn’t see us, did they?’ Sam asked slapping his back, as if something had lodged in his oesophagus.
Brendon, not listening, shouted, ‘What a dog!’
Dean’s brow creased up in a single fold, crossing the I on his forehead and making a T. T for tinking we’d mock.
Sam spat on the ground, and a second time, before his back hitched up and a fountain of rainbow coloured vomit launched. We all reeled away, hopping to our feet and moving for the furthest concrete block. The volley of abuse, ‘lightweight,’ ‘greener,’ ‘Justborn,’ came in swift and relentless. And yet the reason for this sudden discharge appeared unclear, most of us assumed it was too much pot smoke clogging his pigeon lungs and his response, ‘not again,’ would seem to back this up. However, Sam told us in extensive detail later that week that it was an instinctual response to something wrong he’d witnessed out in the field. I did not believe this for a second, as always, Sam was trying to rewrite the past for his own ends. He thought he was cleverer than us, not because he was in better sets at school, but because he just knew. In Sam World, Sam was the only person that made any sense. On the woodland floor, he took one leaf at a time to cover up the sprout-smelling substance, and we snickered at his vague, absurd actions, like he was a tramp folding his mattered socks. If we knew anything at all it was that Sam wasn’t as clever as he thought he was.
Minutes later we heard forest debris being disturbed and saw Mike (Rose was her actual name) shambling down a bank, appearing Asian from a distance – as everyone’s parents liked to mention, no matter how many times they met her – due to the massed congregation of freckles on her face. She’d removed her navy uniform – to keep her dignity, she said – and replaced the knee length skirt and pallid shirt with a formless hoody and trousers, the kind that billowed more at the bottom making her look inflated from the ground up.
‘I tried you in the field?’
‘We had to shift,’ said Dean.
‘What’s up, being naughty boys again?’
‘Doing drugs and fucking squirrels, you know how it is Mike,’ said Brendon, skipping away from the group and onto another cube.
‘Let’s have a drag?’ She asked going after him, clearly now an extremely freckled redhead with hurried hair and sympathetic eyes. Brendon leaned down to her, as if to pass the fat stub, a twirl of smoke heading into the light scattered canopy. At the last instance, he pulled his arm back.
‘Fuckups,’ said Mike, as she always did, and not caring about the whorls of Nutella mud sat crossed legged on the ground.
It was then that Ben wandered into our group. We heard raised voices coming from a short way up the bridleway, behind a slight bend. An argument was ensuing; Clemi was upset about something, her voice slumped into faltering sniffles and half crying, before rising sharply into shrill squeals. The boy’s voice pleaded, then drifted off disinterested. There was no telling what the argument concerned because Clemi’s generalized castigation – ‘how could you,’ ‘it’s so unfair’ – and Ben’s generic placations – ‘it’ll be ok,’ ‘give it time’ – could be applied to any lovers’ tiff. Acting the way vermin do we ducked behind the barriers and hid. Clemi’s face blazed hot red, as if it had been turned inside out since the last time we’d seen her on the netball courts constructed of porcelain. Tearssnaked black mascara down her face.
Ben’s blond hair was dishevelled and he had his arm round Clemi’s waist, but rigidly, impressing the image of a stoic horse pulling a plough. I could be sure I’d seen him before, taking similar detours as us around town. I recognised the long pea coat and the bouncy way of walking – as Dean always said, ‘God stuck him on fast-forward.’ He was older than us by three or four years and his face was delicate, female nearly, and his eyes were hawky and incisive. Yet the thing about him that would scare us most was his lack of inhibition, unnaturally devoid of the adolescent herd mentality. The only teacher I liked, Mr Byrne, who I spoke to after everything had happened, told me about his first and only day at school, ‘he was not like the other boys, he walked up to me with this innocent, princely air and introduced himself. He didn’t seem too concerned about the flack he got for it, nor for raising his hand for every question. He even got a couple correct.’
At the bridleway, our five pairs of dozy eyes, like the heads of a single globular creature, watched unseen. But we’d set a trap for ourselves. Ben and Clemi wound through the cubes and straight into Brendon who hadn’t anticipated the change in direction needed to traverse the Teeth. The couple halted, and stared at him. Nervously, we appeared from behind the other cubes thinking we’d been seen, or maybe, we were, yet again, falling with our leader.
‘What you up to?’ Ben said, sneering slightly.
Brendon shrugged, ‘out walking.’
‘You look like a gang or something?’
We weren’t a gang but I liked that he said ‘gang’.
‘Suppose,’ said Brendon.
‘What you getting up too?’
‘Could say that.’
‘That’s ok, if you like it.’
Brendan shrugged again.
Ben then said if he wasn’t so busy with pressing matters – he winked so we all knew what he meant – he’d show us some interesting shit in the Downs. I wasn’t really listening. I’d never been this close to Clemi. She had stopped crying, and was now looking peevish and bored in our direction, pulling at her spidery, delicate fingers. They were futuristic compared to my chipolatas. Modelled from some kind of pliable marble. I watched them go under Ben’s coat, crawl up his leg, and pinch his side. It was galling.
‘See you round,’ said Ben, before they left. And to Brendon he gave a quick, loaded nod.
I watched Clemi lean into Ben as he hooked an arm round her neck, and I couldn’t help but admire the way he’d changed her. In his company, she was not the shy girl we watched giving evils to the sporty girls hustling on the netball courts, but the creature we longed for in our dreams. They disappeared in the shadows under the old moss-clad rail bridge and we returned to the Teeth.
For a while, we sat silently, the wind playing with our hair, and the canopy above muted into a solid dark blanket. I heard the creatures of the wood returning to their activities – finding food, building nests, scrabbling over birches – or more likely in our silence we noticed them for once: all those rustling sounds, the crinkle of leaves, birds hopping about robotically, pecking at invisible morsels. The endless perception of sniffing and crawling.
Dean never much talked about his feelings, he was quiet when we discussed girls at school or things we’d seen on the internet, but at that moment he threw his head back as if he had long flowing hair and stretched out on an imaginary sun lounger and said, ‘I think I love her.’
We all laughed.
‘What about Vicky Stills?’ said Brendon.
‘She was nothing.’
‘You said you were gonna poke her,’ Brendon said, his face taciturn.
‘Never did,’ shouted Dean and he twatted Brendon on the arm for lying.
Brendon shoved Dean off the block and he fell awkwardly on his shoulder. We laughed at him for saying, ‘that’s well unfair.’
Brendon told us it was gay to say ‘goodbye’ or ‘see you later,’ so when we dispersed into the square mile where we all lived, there were a few grunts, an upward nod or two, a glance, and gone.