Haring down the hill into the village on his five-speed; past the preparatory school, past the scout hut and the post office – then cornering tight right, hardly time to change down, past the hair salon.
Chasing back from the churchyard, only five minutes to the dead oak tree by the river even going the long way. Five minutes after the funeral. He wanted to get home, changed and in his room before all the others appeared in black.
The churchyard was soft; the path to it was gravel and made a pleasing sound under his feet. He’d left his bike behind the ewe tree the night before while his mother was drinking and reminiscing with her relatives, the ones who had made it down.
He had cycled up, slowly, after dark, around 5:45 to go and look at the hole in the ground. He sort of thought that his father’s body lay inside the church in a sealed coffin ready for the early morning off. It was three days before his 11th birthday, not that it mattered much, even he could tell that despite the fact that the aunties had been trying to make a fuss in advance.
Every word was agony. So, he’d cycled up and once he realised that there was no hole and the church was locked, he’d left his bike, unchained by the tree that he’d hidden behind once, and walked slowly to the riverbank.
Some kids were fishing further down, making little noise, smoking and drinking a little sweet cider. He walked past, unafraid until he reached the small footbridge where he sat down, dangling his legs over the side so the small stream beneath could chase over his trainers, and opened his own packet of ten fags. The single street lamp that had started life as a gas contraption back when the bridge was relaid and opened on July 21st 1902 by councillor Winslow Eade, shed enough light for him to count out what remained.
Five left before he had to pluck up the courage to visit the old man at the tobacconist in town or to steal a few from his mother’s bag here in the village. He chose one carefully and then reached into his anorak pocket for the box of matches.
“I didn’t know you smoked.” Looking down on him was a girl from school; Theresa. “I’m getting bored with the fishing, they’re after that pike that everybody’s always going on about. They’re always after him. When did you start smoking then?”
He was lost for words. She was, after all, a girl. Not only a girl, it was widely known that she was a girl who wore a bra and therefore, according to the football team, a girl with boobs.
“I didn’t think you’d smoke. You never seemed like a boy who would. You know, you’re‚ she tailed off but was obviously looking at the four remaining cigs in his hand.
He handed her one. “I’m what?”
“Well, what with your dad being a spastic and everything, I reckoned that you’d be all healthy.” She took out a Zippo lighter from her skirt pocket and lit their smokes.
“Why?” He was astonished that, without his every realising it, the rest of the village were calling him the son of a spastic. He didn’t know much about spastics, but he was fairly sure that despite everything, his dad wasn’t one.
“To stop it happening to you, ” she sat down next to him and looked into the water. “I reckon that if my old man was in a wheelchair and that, I’d try to stay fit.”
“Is that why you smoke then?” Reg could smell fish and cigarettes and something like perfume on her. Her ski-patterned jumper combined with the weakness of the lamp meant, however, that he couldn’t see her legendary breasts.
“Eh?” She kicked her legs back and forth and flicked a leaf into the stream, “Oh, I get it. Do I smoke because my dad isn’t in a wheelchair? I don’t know really. We all smoke, Kevin, Ian, me, gran, mum and dad. They don’t know me and Kev smoke, I don’t think so anyway. Don’t supposed it would bother them one way or another though. Has your dad always been a spaz?”
She didn’t let him finish; she rushed on, happy to be away from her brothers and their mates chasing the evil-toothed pike that had terrorised the swimming hole and its tributaries for ever, “Don’t suppose he could have been, or you wouldn’t be here.”