By Simon Downham-Knight
Marcus lay on his side, in bed, staring at the buttery, early Summer morning light streaming through the gap in his curtains. He had been awake and in that position for the last half an hour. Despite the fact his bladder was full, and he was busting for a wee he had absolutely no intention of getting up. He felt an empty gnawing of hunger in his stomach but there was no food in the fridge and the cupboards were bare.
“Marcus,” he heard his mum call out from her bedroom. “Marcus, can you come here please?” The only part of him that moved were his eyes rolling into the back of his head and his lungs expelling a huge sigh. “Marcus,” she said, louder this time. “Please, Marcus. I need you.” Marcus looked over at his door and shook his head. “Marcus!” Louder this time. “Help me!” He drew in an enormous breath and exhaled loudly. As he did, his mother shouted out again, “Marcus! For the love of Jesus, Will you please come and help me!” He threw back his duvet
“Coming, mum,” he said and swung his legs round and shook his head. The last thing he wanted right now was to deal with his mum. He stood up and yelped out as he stepped on a small piece of Lego on the floor. He traversed the dirty clothes and broken toys that littered his bedroom floor and walked out into the hallway.
“Marcus!” His mother called out again.
“I’m coming,” Marcus said. He could already smell her through the door. He took a final gulp of fresh air and steeled himself before opening it and stepping just inside. Even with his breath held, he could feel the heavy stale air. The curtains were pulled tight and, in the gloom, he could see the enormous shape of his mother’s body, which took up the entire double bed.
“Could you bring me up a coffee and some breakfast, Marcus, love?” She said from somewhere behind the enormous mass of her body. Marcus cringed as he began to speak as he knew that he was going to have to breathe in the disgusting air in that room.
“There is nothing downstairs. Dad hasn’t been here and filled up the fridge since last Saturday. The cupboard is empty.” As he said this, his brain was trying to work out whether it would be worse to breathe in through his mouth or his nose. His teacher, Mister Vashista, had told him that his sense of smell was a lot more complicated than his sense of taste, which was limited to five basic things. As he breathed in through his mouth, he wondered whether shit, piss and sweat were included in the five, because this felt like the worst meal he’d ever had.
“When’s he coming, Marcus?” She said.
“He was due on Saturday, so he’s four days late.” He said. “Hopefully, he’ll come today and sort us out.”
“Can you call by and remind him?” She said. “I’m sick to the back bastard teeth of that man not honouring the promise he made to me when he left. That he would never see us go without.” She leaned forward and sat up, somewhat. This was the first time he’d seen his mum’s face in several months. “The bastard!” She said. He knew his mother always had extra food and snacks in a box under her bed. He had stolen from it before but thought better of asking her for anything out of there today. If he did that, what could she eat? Hopefully, he could find himself something to eat while he was out.
“Sure, mum,” he said. “I’ll call in on my way to Liam’s.”
“Before you go,” she said and his heart sank, as he knew what was coming. “Could you empty me potty?” He breathed in, through his nose this time. He thought that Mister Vashista was correct. It was so much worse through his nose.
“Sure, mum,” he said and stepped forward and picked up the ceramic potty that was on the end of her bed by its handles. He quickly exited and as he walked towards the bathroom he stared into the potty. Swimming in the dark brown urine were three small nuggets of shit, spinning round and sinking down and bobbing up to the surface.
Marcus stood on the doorstep of his father’s house and tugged down on the snug t-shirt he had put on, to see if he could stretch it so it covered all his belly. He was also wearing a pair of old jeans from the supermarket, that barely covered his ankles and a pair of Hi-Tech trainers that his dad had bought him, from the sports shop, before he left, that were becoming decidedly uncomfortable. He could hear a baby screaming as he rang the doorbell and took three steps back. After a spell, he could see the shape of someone moving through the mottled glass. His father opened the door and stood at the threshold bouncing the screaming baby in his arm, looking harangued and surprised to see his son.
“Oh, hi Marcus,” he said. Marcus was already walking backwards up the path. “What can I do for you?” He was slim, really slim compared to his mum, in his mid-thirties and wearing checked pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt.
“There’s no food at the house,” Marcus said. “You haven’t brought anything over since last Saturday. Mum’s starving and so am I.” Marcus’s dad shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“I’m sorry son,” he said. “Jessie here’s a real handful and Marie’s got post-natal depression, so everything’s on me.” He looked at Marcus with puppy dog eyes. “I’ll get it sorted today, I promise.” Marcus nodded at his old man as he caught a whiff of the large amount of shit that was going cold in the back of Jessie’s nappy.
“Make sure you do,” Marcus said. “I’m only eleven. Mum can’t sort herself out and I can’t sort her out if there’s nothing down there.” Marcus’s dad was rifling through his pocket with his free hand and pulled out a crumpled note. He looked at it before handing it towards Marcus who was already halfway up the path.
“Here’s a tenner,” he said. “That should keep you going until I get to the supermarket later and can stock you up.” Marcus walked back up the path, leaned forward and took the note from his father’s fingers. His father smiled sheepishly at him.
“Thanks dad,” he said and smiled back as his dad stepped back into the house with his new baby and closed the door. He stared at the note for a while before he folded it neatly and put it into his jeans pocket.
A few streets up was Liam’s house and he was more than happy to bound up the pathway and ring on the doorbell. Within a few seconds, Mrs McBean, an attractive black woman in her mid-thirties was smiling at him.
“And how are you today, young man?” She said and as Marcus was about to answer, his friend, Liam had squirmed his way past his mother and had biffed Marcus in the arm and motioned towards the pavement. Marcus looked back at Liam, who was now waiting for him on the pavement.
“I’m fine thanks, Mrs McBean,” Marcus said. He felt a longing from deep inside himself for a mother like her. One who would keep him safe and content. One who could get out of bed.
“I thought you might want this,” she said and handed him a warm paper bundle. He took it and felt a warm glow in his gnawing empty stomach.
“She must know how hungry I am,” he thought to himself. “How does she know? Do I look hungry?” He turned round to his friend who rolled his eyes and shook his head before looking down and staring at some trodden in chewing gum on the ground. “Thanks, Mrs McBean,” he said and shook the bundle at her with a smile.
“You go steady now,” she said, smiling as she closed the door. Marcus smiled as he enjoyed a smell for the first time that day. The smell of love and nourishment and family and it was all coming out of that bundle, in his hand, that was just for him.
As soon as they were on their way, Marcus had unwrapped the bundle and was ravenously tucking into a torpedo roll that contained bacon, sausages, eggs and mushrooms as Liam watched incredulously.
“Alright mate, slow down, it’s not going anywhere,” Liam said in disbelief. Marcus was barely chewing as he wolfed the roll down in a few minutes. When he was done his mouth was circled in a crown of grease and egg yolk. “Anyone would think you hadn’t eaten in days or something,” Liam said but Marcus didn’t care to tell him the truth. Now he wasn’t starving, he looked his friend up and down as he finished chewing his last mouthful. Liam was wearing a beautiful, brand new, pair of Nike trainers, that he had never seen before, a nice pair of jeans and a black Fred Perry shirt with orange trim and logo. His lack of hunger allowed for another emotion to bubble up: envy.
“Wicked trainers!” He said. Liam smiled and his chest puffed up with pride. He then looked down at Marcus’s Hi-Tech trainers and said nothing. Marcus felt a cold stab of shame followed by a hot flush of jealousy and he smarted as they walked on.
“Here,” Liam said. “Let’s go and torture that evil guard dog at the scrappie?”
“Them pikeys have given him a funny name.” Marcus said.
“Yeah, Sam O’Day,” Liam said.
“Sam O’Day? What the fuck does that mean?” Marcus said.
“My mum said that it’s a name for one of the big demons. Asmodeus. Y’know? King of the nine hells or something, so he’s well named.” Marcus shrugged.
“There might be some of them pikeys there.” Marcus said.
“There won’t be. They’re lazy cunts, they never start work before eleven.” Liam said. Marcus stood for a while weighing up his options.
“Come on then,” he said.
Just beside the twenty-foot wall they wanted to climb was a lamppost, that was even higher than the wall. The wiry and strong Marcus was quickly able to get up on the wall, by pulling himself up the lamppost with his arms and walking up the wall, with minimum effort, especially now his belly was full. He pulled himself up and sat on the top, looking down at Liam, who was still at the bottom working up the courage to make his first attempt to get up the wall. From behind him, he could hear the infamous Sam O’Day barking ferociously and throwing himself up the wall to bite into his soft flesh.
“All the gear, no idea,” Marcus thought to himself and smiled as Liam struggled to get more than a few feet above the pavement, before slipping down and landing heavily. He surveyed the wall again, then looked up at Marcus’s smiling face. He put one hand on the lamppost, the other against the brick wall and pushed himself up with his foot on the wall. One step on the lamppost, then another higher up on the wall. He was beginning to feel confidence well up inside him, like he was going to make it all the way to Marcus when a piece of brick broke away. He tumbled all the way down, scraping the side of his new trainers and landed heavily, rolling his ankle and tumbling over onto his back. Marcus felt a mean, gloating laugh rise from the pit of his bowels and emerge with a cruelty that surprised him.
“What are you laughing at?” Liam said as he rolled over and sat on his arse. He licked his thumb and tried to wipe off the brick dust and smooth out the scratches gouged into the side of his new shoes.
“Nothing.” Marcus said. “I was just thinking of the look on my dad’s face this morning. I reckon that Marie’s got him pussy whipped.” Liam looked wistfully off into the distance.
“Pussy whipped.” Liam said and found himself wondering what that must be like. Not altogether bad, he surmised.
“Come on, Liam. One more go! You know you can do it.” Marcus said and as Liam pulled himself up, Marcus gave him advice as to the best foot and hand spots, then, with a final push and a pull up from his friend, Liam was now sitting on the top of the wall and they were grinning affectionally at each other. Their attention soon turned to the pit bull terrier that was Sam O’Day, who had his front paws up on the wall and was barking ferociously up at the two friends.
“Look at him,” Liam said.
“Fucking idiot.” Marcus said. “If we chucked a cat down there, how long do you reckon it’d take that dog to rip it to bits?”
“Cats are fast, man. It would easily outrun that dopey fucker.” Liam said as Sam O’Day’s rage and blood lust continued.
“We’d have to do something, like break its legs.” Marcus said and Liam smiled.
“With its legs bust, not long. Five, ten seconds.” Liam said. They sat and watched the dog attain some kind of fury ecstasy as its eyes rolled around and it writhed in the dust.
“I’m trying to think of a dog that would be able to beat him. It’d have to be a big one.” Marcus said.
“Like a rottweiler.” Liam said.
“How about a badger?” Marcus said.
“Badgers are vicious fuckers. I’ve seen a badger taking out a fox on telly like it was fucking nothing.” Liam said.
“Maybe we’d have to break the badger’s back first.” Marcus said with glee.
“If you could get close enough to one.” Liam said.
“How about a tiger?” Marcus said.
“Where are you gonna get a fucking tiger from, you tit?” Liam said and slapped Marcus’s arm with the back of his hand.
“I dunno. Fuck off!” Marcus said and theatrically grabbed at Liam and they wrestled at each other. Marcus looked back down at the frenzied dog, which showed no sign of tiring.
“Noisy little cunt, though, isn’t he?” Marcus said.
“Sam O’Day is starting to get on my nerves.” Liam said.
“Come on,” Marcus said. “Let’s go and find a cat. I want to see some blood!” Marcus nimbly swivelled round on the wall, shuffled across on his bum and then slid down the lamppost like a fireman’s pole, landing spryly on his feet. He looked up to see his friend, who had somehow managed to manoeuvre himself round so that he was on his belly with his legs dangling down from the wall.
“If you lean over and grab the lamppost, you can slide down, like I did.” Marcus said.
“If I do that, I’ll mess up my shirt.” Liam said.
“Fuck your shirt.” Marcus said. Liam was immediately furious.
“You fucking would say that. You couldn’t even dream of being able to afford this shirt.” Liam said. Marcus was fucked if he was going to let him see how stung he was.
“You’re on your own coming down off that wall.” He said and slunk over to the corner. Liam was consumed with dread as he awkwardly shunted himself along the wall on his belly. He pushed himself up onto his hands and lowered himself down, so he was dangling from his fingertips. He swung his legs out and launched himself into oblivion. His body remained comically suspended in the air for a second, before dropping like a stone for the remaining fifteen feet. He landed heavily on his feet, which gave way, and he dropped to his knees; then rolled over onto his back. For the second humiliating time that day, he found himself grovelling on the floor, looking up at his friend. Marcus offered his hand; Liam took it and was pulled up onto his feet.
“Fucking hell!” Liam said as he fingered the hole in the knee of his new jeans. Marcus was unable to wipe the smile of relish off his face before Liam had spotted it. “What are you smiling at?” Liam said and motioned down to his trousers with both hands. “These jeans cost more money than you’ve ever seen.” Marcus smarted and was trying to think of a retort when he was distracted by a beautiful, dark, tortoise shell cat nonchalantly walking along a garden wall on the opposite side of the street.
“Hey look, a cat!” He said and Liam turned round in time to see it jump down off the wall and stroll behind a car. The two of them casually strode across the road and Liam motioned towards one side of the car.
“You go that way, I go this way.” Liam said and they tried to head it off, but it slipped under the car and was now sitting in the middle of the road, licking its front paw, leaving them on the wrong side of the car and nowhere near catching the cat. They bumbled around, bent over, with their arms outstretched, like a couple of idiots, trying to catch it but it was onto their game. As it ran between Liam’s legs, his arms floundered wildly, and it eluded him easily. He didn’t even manage to touch it as it bounded off, round the corner and out of sight.
“You fucking twat!” Marcus said.
“Me a twat? I didn’t see you get anywhere near it.” Liam said, giggling and Marcus picked up a milk bottle and hurled it at Liam. It flew towards him, but he easily sidestepped, and it smashed on the ground. Liam giggled and picked up a clump of grass and earth from a front garden and hurled it back at Marcus. Instead of landing on Marcus, it smashed into the passenger door of a parked car, causing the alarm to howl and moan. Marcus pulled a mocking, shocked face and pointed at his friend. Curtains twitched in the nearby house, as the elderly owner of the car looked out to see what was causing the commotion. When he saw Marcus and Liam so close to his pride and joy, with a muddy dent in the side of it, he opened the window and yelled out at them.
The boys scarpered round the corner and raced up the long urban street until their lungs screamed for them to stop but they did not stop. They were having too much fun. Marcus led for a while but soon Liam gained and then overtook him. The joy he felt as he sailed past his friend was quickly snuffed out as Marcus grabbed the neck of his shirt and yanked it down making a horrible cracking sound as several threads snapped. Liam stopped and surveyed the stretched-out neckline of a Fred Perry he bought with his birthday money and it was the first time he’d worn it. Liam was furious.
“Look at it. Just, look at it!” He said with his eyes blazing.
“Well, you really get on my tits with your stupid fucking clothes that you can’t mess up or get dirty. It’s fucking stupid.” Marcus said.
“Just coz I wanna look good and not like some little pauper.” Liam said.
“Twat!” Marcus said and Liam chest butted Marcus, catching him off balance and sending him down on his arse. Marcus grabbed Liam’s foot and overbalanced him. He then jumped on Liam and the two of them rolled around, wrestling and trying to make their punches land.
Across the street, sitting on a garden wall, was a middle-aged man in shorts, a t-shirt and trainers. He was enjoying the sunny day by eating a Mister Whippy ice cream with a flake, nuts and juice. He had been sitting there enjoying the sights of women walking past him, but his attention was grabbed by Marcus and Liam’s tussle. He quickly polished off his ice cream, stood up off the wall and strolled over to them. They didn’t notice him and continued scrapping on the ground. The man smiled and shook his head.
“What the fuck are you doing?” He said and they both looked up, startled. Where had he come from?
“Look at you. Rolling around in the dirt like a couple of little fucking poofs.” He said and Marcus and Liam stared up at him from the ground, dumbfounded. “If you’re gonna have a fight, have a fight!” He said.
“What?” Marcus and Liam said in unison.
“You heard me,” the man said. “Do it properly!” The man leaned down and grabbed the two boys by their arms and roughly manhandled them both onto their feet and shoved and manipulated them into a sparring position. They gazed at him in disbelief. “Don’t just look at me like a pair of fucking idiots, fight!” Liam and Marcus stared dumbly at each other; any anger they had felt for each other before was now gone. “Fight!” The man said with a malevolent smile. They looked back at the strange, hairy man in time for him to scream: “FIGHT!!!!” Liam shrugged and half-heartedly shoved Marcus in the shoulder. Marcus reciprocated with a harder shove back. “Go on then!” The man shouted and, without Marcus noticing, he propelled Liam from behind so that he went flying into Marcus in a boxers’ embrace. Marcus responded by roughly prising Liam from his personal space and throwing a good punch into his friend’s chest. “That’s more like it!” The man said, really beginning to enjoy himself now. “Next time you get a good punch in like that, follow it up with a killer blow!” Marcus was feeling confused. He was not used to adults speaking to him in this way.
“What?” Marcus said and as he did, Liam threw a punch into his cheek that ground all the soft flesh into his teeth and caused his head to ring and the inside of his mouth to bleed.
“That’s more like it!” The man said with a gleeful smile. Liam followed his punch by grabbing hold of Marcus’s arms in an attempt to avoid a walloping. The two of them crashed, wrestling, down onto the ground. Marcus was soon able to get out of Liam’s grip and the two of them struggled to get the upper hand over each other. The man growled with delight as Marcus overpowered Liam but then snarled and twitched with glee when Marcus got the better of Liam.
“Grab his balls. Grab his balls!” He said and Marcus looked up at him, confused. Liam took this opportunity to punch Marcus in the testicles; making him double over. “Twist ‘em. Twist his bollocks!” The man said. Marcus was still dealing with the pain in his groin when Liam hit him in the side of the head. “Bite him! Bite him.” Marcus bared his teeth, lunged at Liam and tried to sink his teeth into his shoulder. Liam shoved him away and Marcus’s eyes locked with those of the man who was goading them on. He could see how much this man was relishing this. Liam threw another punch at Marcus’s face but Marcus barely felt it.
“Scratch out his eyes!” The man shouted and Marcus saw his friend lunge at him. Marcus sidestepped and slapped Liam across the cheek, leaving a red hand mark. Liam spun round, leapt onto Marcus’s back and tried to climb astride him. Marcus was able to give him the slip. He looked at his friend, Liam and he could see that he was confused and scared. Liam looked at his friend, Marcus and could see that he was also terrified and their eyes locked in despair. “Now, what are you going to do?” The man said. Neither of them had any idea. “Hit him.” The man said to both of them. “Hit him!” Liam threw a half-arsed punch into Marcus who was jogged into life and clouted Liam across his ear. “Harder!” The man said. Liam punched Marcus square on the nose, sending him reeling. “Punch him!” The man said and Liam’s punches gained weight and force. “Don’t let him beat you, you little fucking pussy!” The man said. “Twist his fucking face off!” Liam winced in pain as Marcus attempted to do just that. Liam gave Marcus a one-two punch sending him reeling. Liam pulled his arm back to deliver his killer punch. “Do it! Do it now!” The man said and Marcus saw a window of opportunity open up and he gave Liam an uppercut that sent him flying onto his back. Marcus leapt on top of Liam and sat astride him, placing a knee on each shoulder, pinning him down. Marcus howled and raised both his hands above his head.
“Smash his face in!” The man screamed and Marcus’s brain flew into a blood orgy of blinding white light. He brought both his fists hard down onto Liam’s face, bloodying his nose. Marcus could smell blood and his ears were ringing, and he was filled with a sense of elation and joy as he punched Liam in the left eye, then in the right eye, then in one cheek, then the other. He rained more and more blows down onto Liam’s bloodied face.
Marcus felt something change in the air. He stopped, dead. Both arms above his head. What the hell was he doing? He immediately did not know. He knew only confusion as he looked at the swelling and bloodied face of his best friend.
Marcus and Liam suddenly became very aware that the man was gone. They were alone. He had disappeared leaving Marcus engulfed in the shame of what he had just done to his friend.
“I’m sorry!” Marcus said. He quickly rose to his feet and helped Liam up onto his. “I’m so sorry. That guy…” Liam wiped blood from his nose, looked at his so called friend and shook his head. He took off towards home sobbing.
“Liam!” Marcus shouted after him. “I’m sorry!” Marcus watched Liam run up the street and disappear round the corner leaving him on his own. He put his hands in his pockets and realised that the ten pound note his father had given him earlier was now gone. He scrabbled around looking for it but it was no use. He’d lost it. He thought about Mrs McBean and her breakfast torpedo roll. He was pretty sure he was never going to have another one of those. “Fuck, what an idiot!” He said out loud.
He wandered the streets for hours trying to shake off that horrible feeling. He had never felt that way before. Where had all that violence come from? He had no idea. The sun was low in the sky when he finally decided to head home, and he was starving hungry. He let himself into the house and was elated to find that his father had kept his promise and filled up the fridge and stocked up the cupboards.
“He might be pussy whipped, but he’s alright.” Marcus thought to himself as he popped a ready meal into the microwave. Minutes later, he was walking up the stairs with a piping hot ready meal in both hands. As he got closer, he could smell his mother but this time he didn’t mind. He was happy to be home and safe. He entered her room to find her sat up watching TV on a portable set. When she saw that he came bearing her tea, she smiled at him.
“Ah, thanks Marcus, love.” She said. “You’re a good boy.” Marcus sat on the corner of her bed and they ate their microwaved chicken roast dinners in silence. “Do you love me?” Marcus’s mum said when they were done.
“Of course, I do.” Marcus said and smiled at his mum.
“That’s nice,” she said. “As you love me, could you empty me potty?”
Simon Downham-Knight Copyright 2021