The two friends decided not to play at the Pit for the next few days, just in case the ‘bullies’ made another appearance. Instead they met up with some other boys they knew, one of whom lived in a small cul-de-sac where the houses provided them with a perfect target for playing SLAM.
Craig had never been to the street before, despite it only being down the road from his own home. At the far end of Station Road, well away from where Copeland lived, it was quiet and secluded. The road split in two halves, separated by another, broad street that led down from the town centre. This part of Station Road proved much different to Craig’s end. Here the houses loomed larger, with expansive gardens at the front. Not unlike Ray’s house, but far grander. Perhaps that was why Craig felt like something of an interloper. These people owned cars, had driveways and garages. When he thought of his own, squat little terrace, he realised the gulf between his world and this. Nevertheless, he had been invited, and the opportunity was not one to be missed. If things turned out well, it could become a regular thing. He’d like to be accepted, have the chance to return to normality. Push the memories way back.
Craig waited whilst Ray went to the front door of the house and rang the bell. Soon, a gaggle of boys came outside, all smiling at Craig who returned their greetings and his heart began to swell. The day promised to be a good one.
They gathered around, the five of them. A good bunch, all happy to be off school, enjoying the fine weather. One of the boys, Davey, had provided the football, and proceeded to place it on the ground to begin a game of SLAM. To win you simply had to kick a ball on the first bounce against a wall repeatedly, each successful strike spelling out the word S-L-A-M. If you managed to succeed, without missing the ball or letting it bounce twice, you next had to try to spell out your name. Craig thought this slightly unfair, as most of them had bigger names than Ray, but nobody seemed to mind, least of all Ray himself.
‘Slam’ was a good game, and they took turns to play. Craig went third, after Davey and another boy called John. Neither managed to make it to the last ‘M’. Craig noted the various techniques. He wasn’t the greatest of footballers, but he could kick. Believing he had the game worked out, Craig positioned the ball with great care, ran his palms down the sides of his trousers, and proceeded to make a sudden, wild kick, hoicking the ball straight over the wall of someone’s back garden. Everyone laughed.
“You’ll have to go fetch it,” said Davey between guffaws. “But watch out – that’s old man Baxter’s house, and we all know what he’s like.” The group exchanged looks, more giggling.
Craig had little idea what Davey meant by that, and nobody offered any explanation, only further bursts of laughter. He turned to Ray, in the hope of support, but Ray gave no words of comfort, merely a shrug and a smirk. All of them seemed to be possession of some dark secret about this man Baxter. Was he a sort of ogre, a violent weirdo?
Craig’s stomach lurched. There was little choice but to get the ball back. After all, he’d lost the ball, and everyone stood and glared, impatient for the game to continue. The pressure mounted. He took a breath, moved over to the garden wall, looked up to measure its height, and groaned. Hopelessly high and nothing like Eagle’s Rock; not a single foothold to be had.
After a moment’s thought, he decided to try the back door. He took his time and eased down the latch.
Locked, he should have known.
With no other options available, he would to use the handle as a scaling aid. He glanced over to the assembled group, “Can one of you give me a leg-up?”
The boys shuffled around, heads down, some of them giggling. Not one seemed eager to commit to helping out, enjoying Craig’s discomfort. Finally, with obvious reluctance, Ray sauntered over.
Ray bent down and cupped his hands together. Craig put his foot in the makeshift hold and managed to get his other on the latch. Ray lifted his arms and, with a grunt, Craig hoisted himself to the top of the brick wall, and sat for a moment. He gazed down into the back garden to see a large, with well-manicured lawn surrounded by bushes and masses of different flowers, the ball nowhere in sight. He turned to the others, who jeered and beckoned him to jump down. “Hurry up,” said Ray, who rubbed his hands together, “we want to carry on with the game.” Craig blew out his lips, knowing he had no choice. His heart pounded in his chest, setting off a terrible throbbing in his ears. With no sign of anyone, Craig still had the feeling that lurking inside the house, someone watched and waited. Another shout from his friends caused him to move. He twisted around and, keeping his grip on the top bricks, lowered himself gingerly into the garden below.
He took a moment, breathing through his mouth, and listened out for any signs of someone coming to investigate his arrival. Nothing, only the gentle chirping of birds amongst the trees.
Thinking it best not to hang around for too long, Craig moved forward along the little winding path which led from the backdoor into the centre of the lawn. An ornamental fountain stood there. Not switched on, it appeared strangely sad and lonely, almost abandoned. Black slimy trails ran down the arms and face of the statue in the middle. A naked woman, with an urn on her shoulder. A Greek thing, Craig decided. He studied it for a moment and realised that although well tendered, the statue and the garden had known better, happier times. He sighed slightly and moved forward.
He kept glancing over to his right to where, across the spread of lawn, Baxter’s home stood, grim and silent. Large French windows dominated the back of the house, opening out onto a patio area, with an iron table and two matching chairs the only clue that someone lived there. Everything appeared orderly and very quiet. Perhaps there wasn’t anyone inside. And yet, that awful sense of being observed remained. Craig forced himself to relax, ease his breathing, and continued, but keeping low just in case.
Craig got to the fountain and crouched down. Surveying the bushes and flowerbeds he realised the ball might be anywhere. So many trees and shrubs marred his view, he had no choice but to get down on his hands and knees and rummage about under them. The whole thing was hopeless. His stomach knotted as the panic mounted. How long was this going to take? As each successive search proved as pointless as the last, he grew frantic, and pulled and ripped away at the undergrowth, desperate to find the ball. He began to curse, all sense of being careful gone, and the sound of breaking branches and ruffled leaves filled the once quiet space. At any moment, Baxter might appear, voice raised in a scream of outrage and that would be the end of everything. Police, Mum, a nightmare.
He stopped, breathing hard, slumped down and put a hand through his hair. An awful sickening dread filled him, coming from deep inside, the hopelessness of the situation, the shame. How to explain his failure to the others, waiting on the other side of the wall? He ran the back of his hand under his nose, the soil and snot smearing across his face. He didn’t care. His ‘new’ friends had invited him into their little gang, and he’d let them down. They’d never invite him again, for sure.
Scanning the far side of the lawn, he noticed a wheelbarrow, heaped up with old grass cuttings. A shape, a rusted bucket or something, caught his eye. Craig craned forward, eyes half closed to get a better view. His heart gave a little leap. Wedged beneath the barrow sat the ball.
He stifled a cry of triumph. Not pausing for a second, he got to his feet and ran over to the barrow. He attempted to kick it free, but only succeeded in wedging the ball ever more tightly, jamming it hard. He rocked back, and took a deep breath. Taking the strain, he tried to drag the barrow forward. But the old thing proved too heavy and awkward, ancient timbers groaning as if they might break apart at any moment. The reason why the barrow had not been moved for such a long time becoming clear.
Craig had little choice. If it collapsed, then so be it. He had to get the ball. He gritted his teeth, put his shoulder against the end rather than using the handles this time, and pushed. He grunted with the effort, determined not about to give in, not now. A tiny movement, a fraction at first, gave him a new surge of strength. The wheels slid rather than ran over the damp grass, and it began to travel. One last grunt and the ball drew closer to the rear end of the barrow, still lodged underneath, but not as tight. A well-aimed kick and it shot out towards the far wall. He didn’t pause, scooted across the grass and picked up the ball. He lifted his new trophy and grinned, the relief flooding over him. He drew back both hands, ready to throw it over the wall to his eager friends waiting on the other side. With a loud, guttural yelp, he launched his projectile high and wide into the air.
Craig was not a great one for football. He could kick, but only in a wild, un-schooled fashion, as proven by his ludicrous attempts to play the game of SLAM. Throw-ins were an even worse failing. The ball went up all right, high up, far too high up. He had totally misjudged the trajectory and he watched in wide-eyed horror as the ball began its all too rapid descent, hit the near edge of the wall, and ricocheted back at an impossible angle towards the French windows.
His closed his eyes, waiting for the sound of breaking glass. A fearful thud, nothing more invaded his ears. He sighed, the weight lifting from his shoulders, and opened his eyes again. Relief at the glass not being smashed proved short-lived, as everything happened very quickly from that point on.
A dog appeared, and threw the world into confusion. It bounded up to the windows, and yapped like it had lost its mind, hurling itself against the glass, out of control, teeth bared, saliva drooling, eyes mad with rage. Craig didn’t wait to see what would happen next. He rushed over and retrieved the ball. No football antics this time, just a desire to get away as quickly as possible. He almost reached the backdoor when the French windows tore open and a voice cried, “Oi, you! What the hell are you doing?”
With no time to stop or think, Craig threw back the bolt, ripped open the door and bounded out, the terrier dog close behind, snarling and snapping at his heels. In his rush to escape, Craig didn’t pause to close the door firmly. The latch hadn’t engaged and the little dog ran out in the street.
For one awful moment, he didn’t know what to do. Should he continue running, or turn and face his attacker. The thought of those vicious looking teeth decided it for him. His friends must have believed the same and when John screamed the only practical word, “RUN!” and they all did just that.
Barking maniacally, the dog rushed after the boys, first one way, then another as each of them zigzagged and took different directions.
Craig was one of the fastest, head down, football under his arms, and he made good his escape all the way down Station Road towards the safety of his own, wonderful alleyway. He dared not look back. A simple, but dreadful thought, consumed him, ‘I’ve done it again – I’ve let everyone down!’
Later on, Ray came round. He didn’t appear pleased, saying he only wanted Davey’s football. Craig handed it over, the misery making his movements heavy, slow.
“I’m sorry, Ray,” he said in a small voice.
“Yeah…well…” Ray took the ball without another word and disappeared into the warm, summer night, bouncing the ball as he went.
Craig knew he had lost the only real friend he had left.