Today is my birthday. I point the pistol I’ve been given as a present from the van window. I laugh and point at the head of a man who’s pulled up at the lights next to me. He thinks I’m going to kill him. He doesn’t see the plastic Sheriff’s badge on my luminous vest, or the plastic handcuffs I’ve hooked on the belt loop of my orange work trousers. He screeches through the red light, swerving traffic onto the hard shoulder.
I laugh, guiltily, turning twenty-four in a beaten up transit van.
Sunrise to sunset I resurface roads across the East Midlands, carrying pots of boiling tar, gluing hands and scorching flesh. Some days it feels like purgatory, waking up before dawn or not sleeping at all. I hop over bubbling pools with men who could be a gang of grim reapers, their crooked shadows formed from clouds of steam, shovels raised above heads.
My workmates and I, the drunks and addicts, thugs and thieves.
But then a lunch break, and I’ll find myself on the edge of a field eating sandwiches I made in the dark that morning, the sun-blessed corn in motion, the gang quiet and still, drinking tea from flasks or doing crosswords. These misfits, these terse and occasionally violent men, standing over a stream and naming the fish.
I like to write about these things. Secretly. I have a little notebook that fits in my back pocket. If any of the others knew I wrote they’d think me odder than they already do, a man with a degree shovelling stone.
I told Jez not to tell anyone I had a psychology bachelor, but he confided in Greebo, who confided in everyone. Now my nickname is Psycho. The more paranoid on the gang believe I’ll read their mind, discover what depraved thoughts linger in their subconscious, and have them arrested. Or worse, committed.
Jez got me the job. He cut ‘Jez’ into his arm with a broken bottle two years ago. You can read his name by the scars if you forget. He has that wired leanness between a junkie and long distance runner, a skinny kid with a drug habit and guitar.
He chants, “Greebo, Greebo, Greebo,” as he rolls another joint, skilfully crumbling tobacco as Greebo swings us through a roundabout.
Greebo has a steel plate in his skull. He failed to ride a motorbike through a patio door at a party, “Yonks ago.” That was in the heyday of 70s bike gangs, bearded drunks in pub car parks swinging chains like warring Vikings. Now his hair is grey and tattoos faded, his head hurts in the cold.
He drives us back to the country lane we sprayed and stoned this afternoon, a tour of the flatlands and industrial estates of the East Midlands, the dead canals and flooded quarries, pit towns that time forgot when the coal ran out.
White dust, thrown up from the traffic, hovers in the indigo sky. I hang off the side door, lift up the orange cones and throw them to Jez who stacks. When we see the pavement swept and loose stone rolled, there’s satisfaction, a job well done.
“Right,” announces Greebo, steering with one hand and knocking back a can of Tennants with the other. “Time to get gone.”
Until Monday morning we’ve finished resurfacing. Jez leans over to Greebo, that near the wheel he could drive himself. Greebo shouts, “What are you playin’ at?” as Jez starts singing, a worthy impression of Robert Smith from The Cure. “Tuesday, Wednesday heart attack, Thursday I don’t care about that.” Greebo tells him to “Gerrout out of it,” but Jez tugs on his beard and finishes the line, “It’s Friday I’m in love.”
The van veers over the white line as Greebo fights off Jez. “You need a pint, quick. That wacky baccy’s sent you nuts.”
We’re going to The Grove, a snooker club and bar. The rest of the gang will be there, the tipper drivers and line painters, the angry foreman with a smile on his face, all drunk in their work clothes.
And what you think you can smell the moment you open the rattling door and pass through to fags and beer, frying chips and stale ashtrays, is failure. You’re wrong. This is freedom. A retreat from gas bills and council tax, the leaky sink that needs repairing, the bastard boss and a nagging wife, a football team fighting relegation.
Not failure, but a refuge from it. And a place where miracles occur, where men on incapacity benefit lean over snooker tables and cannon balls into corner pockets. A bar you can walk out richer than when you walked in. Or poorer. Or in debt. A week’s wage won and lost on the deal of a card, that ball in the corner.
This is where I skipped class, messed up my A-levels. Instead of trigonometry from textbooks I learnt about angles with a pool cue. But this was before university, before I was a real student. Student, a dirty word here. A word that translates into ‘traitor’ in a roomful of men who’ve worked all their lives.
A place where an education does have value is on the quiz machine. Players call me over for a cut of their winnings. I know things like who wrote The Seagull, the founders of Cubism, in what book Holden Caulfield is the protagonist. A week ago I stood at the end of a job with a Stop-Go board in one hand, and The Catcher in the Rye in the other. I let the traffic pass every two pages.
But tonight we’re here to make merry, to get drunk and celebrate my birthday. Jez and I wear clean clothes we took to work in plastic bags, the tar and oil aftershave beneath a new shirt and jeans. Greebo washes the worst from his hands with a rag doused in diesel.
Then through that door, the bank of smoke, the music, always a ding-a-ling hit from the 1960s, time travel to the good old days – if you believe the barflies. Back to the golden age of a night out on a pound, ten pints and a bag of chips, and still change in your pocket for the bus fare home.
But this is now. We see Richie Reynolds lining up balls on the pool table. By day Richie works on the tar truck. At night he steals cars. One, maybe two a night. Add this up over a few years, and you have thousands. And never caught. For the moment he entertains himself setting up trick shots, a ball in every pocket and the white left spinning.
When he lifts his face from the cue, the first thing you see is the missing half of his left ear, grazed off when he rolled a convertible. Then the rude scars of unstitched cuts, the broken nose and missing eyebrow. But most striking of all is the impish grin of a cheeky boy trapped in a hooligan’s body. And with this grin, the glitter behind the mask of a thief, come the women who think they have him tamed. From fishwives of the estates to the kept women bored of rich husbands.
“This one I call the birthday boy.”
Richie chips the white off the table. I catch it before it hits the floor. All this is too much for Greebo, too fast for an old man.
“Enough of playing silly buggers with you lot.”
“Got your arrows?” asks Richie.
Greebo taps his top pocket. “I’d give you game if you were good enough.” He’ll be at the dartboard all night, lost in thud and subtraction, pints of mild.
We sit and Jez buys the first round of drinks. Richie looks across the room, no women but the dolled up with their husbands, a Friday night treat of public accompaniment.
Jez returns with three pints and a whiskey, “For the birthday boy.” We clink glasses and toast. I take a sip then set the beer down on the table.
“Drink up,” snaps Richie. “This place is a fucking morgue.”
We walk from The Grove, past the mobile burger van, over a crossroads with a pub on each corner, past the church and the Chinese takeaway, and into the poorly lit Conservative Club car park. Richie asks if I want to see a skeleton key and pulls a screwdriver from his pocket. Jez giggles, drunk and stoned. We walk the rows of cars until Richie suddenly stops.
“Did someone call a taxi?”
“Into town, boss.”
“And your bird?”
Jez laughs. Richie stabs in the screwdriver up to the hilt, twisting and turning until the buckled lock breaks.
He jumps in and flicks open the passenger door. Jez lifts the handle. “What you hanging around for?”
I’m about to run the other way when two men walk from the club.
And I do.
Richie rips off the plastic ignition cover. He tears at it like a child unwrapping a Christmas present. Then the wires, tugging out a handful from the steering column. He chooses two, touches the exposed copper and sparks up the engine.
“We have lift off!” shouts Jez.
Richie holds himself between the seats and looks directly through the back window. He reverses from the car park. The two men in shirts and ties run down the steps, shouting, calling out like good relatives with something we left behind.
From the entrance Richie whips the steering wheel, jams the clutch, and shifts into first. Wrong way up a one-way street, an oncoming car flashes and sounds the horn. Richie rocks up the kerb, drops gears and churns lawns, flaring mud and grass as we cut across a garden before bouncing onto the carriageway, screeching out a U-turn that spans all four lanes. I slide across the back seat and stick to the door. When Richie straightens to pull away, the tail end flicks out. He rights it hard and forces the car on.
“Still smokin’,” whoops Jez.
The wheels are spinning in third gear as Richie accelerates, weaving from lane to lane.
“Turn it in,” says Richie. “I don’t want it.”
Jez flicks down the window and flattens the mirror against the car. Richie slams up the rear view mirror, reaches out and smashes off the wing mirror. It hits the road and explodes into glitter. He engine brakes onto a roundabout and spears the circle, directly passing cars on the inside lane to cut them off at the exit in a fanfare of horns.
I ask about the mirrors, shouting over the thrashed engine.
“What’s in front what counts,” he answers. “Why look back when you’re goin’ forwards?”
“What about a chase?”
“Every time I look to see how close they are, I’m losin’ road. You’re a blind man drivin’ if you’re not lookin’.”
Street lamps brighten the dual carriageway, emphasising the black beyond the city, like a bridge of light suspending us over the dark.
Close to a hundred Richie adjusts his seat flat and tells me to take the wheel. He centres the car over the cat’s eyes and slips into the back, leaving us driverless and drifting towards the central reservation. I climb past and take the steering wheel, nervous, gripping too hard.
“Imagine you’re holdin’ an egg,” instructs Richie.
“A huge egg. If you grip the egg too hard you’re gonna crush it, too soft and you’ll drop it.”
I ease my grip, think of the precious egg, and stamp on the accelerator. I feel the floor of the car beneath the pedal. I can hear Jez shouting, no, singing, the tune and lyrics lost in the roar of flaming petrol and furious pistons, the tamed explosion at the end of my toes. I feel the whole thing could come apart in my hands, just the three of us jetting the blurred road, flying. No need for a car at the speed of light.
“Roundabout,” shouts Jez. He’s frantically pointing, afraid I haven’t seen the island. Richie tells me not to turn off. I change down gears heel toe, and power into the middle lane. I circle the island. Jez leans against the door as the car tilts and squeals.
“Now,” Richie shouts. “Next exit.”
I glance over my shoulder to a blaze of headlights. I hesitate, and then swerve from the roundabout, missing a van by inches. The traffic, the van and cars, slide to a standstill. All sound their horns.
“No way,” exclaims Jez. “How close was that?”
“Decisions,” says Richie. “No messing about asking yourself yes or no.”
Now the road is unlit, hedges and kamikaze moths stream the headlights.
“Boom,” says Richie. “Life. You do it then you’re dead.”
The beaten engine smells like burning rubber. Parked on the edge of town, behind a knitwear factory with broken windows, another abandoned warehouse, and a nightclub, we watch the stragglers leaving, kicked out or carried out, the drunks fallen asleep in the toilet, men with sick on their shirts. And the girls who’ve waited for a doorman to take them home, smoking, cold in cheap dresses on a late summer night. No clouds to hold the heat, but no stars either, blazed away by the amber street lights.
This time I smoke and convince myself it’ll clear my head. And not a cigarette. I hold my breath, exhale, feel the weight of a spinning earth loosen from my limbs. Richie takes back the spliff, inhales, then blows perfect smoke rings through the open window. “How’s your birthday so far?”
I tell him the time, that it’s over.
“You ain’t a year older till the sun comes up.”
“Anyway,” says Jez. “You ain’t had your present yet.”
“I can’t wait.”
Richie smiles. “You can write about it in your little book.”
I pretend to know nothing about “a little book,” but Richie never misses a trick. Nothing. I’ve been with him in the van on a motorway, followed his pointed hand to a speck on a blue sky, a kestrel, a red kite. For a man so casual with violence, a man who once kidnapped his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend and tortured him in a rented garage, he’s capable of such tender kindness. A week ago he scooped up a handful of orphaned ducklings from a hard shoulder, cheeping over a run-down mess of feathers. He wrapped them in his jacket, took them home and set them on his little pond. He fed and kept them in a shoebox. When they were big enough to return to the wild he took them to work in the van, flapping and quacking between the shovels and cones. He stopped by the reservoir and floated each one onto the lake, the look on his face like a mother watching her first child through the school gates.
“And what about my little book?”
“You tell me.”
I feel like a border guard. Richie is a man on the threshold of my secret kingdom, awaiting permission to enter.
He asks me to read something from it. “What’s the point in writing stuff down if no one else is gonna hear it.”
I take a chance. I let him pass. Or maybe I have no choice? I pull the notebook from my back pocket and read a poem about a badger we buried last week, a job for the council called in by a passing motorist who saw the black and white body on a verge.
When I finish reading it’s that quiet in the car I can hear tobacco burn in the cigarette as Richie inhales. I’m as a nervous as a convict awaiting sentence.
“That was sound.” Jez breaks the silence. “You gave me a proper buzz. I remember that badger.”
And even this much reaction feels good. But I wait for Richie, still smoking, down to the filter as always. He flicks the cigarette butt from the window, a flurry of sparks when it strikes the ground.
“Bearers of the dark,” he quotes. “I like that. How we picked him up and put him in the ground. All careful, like we were afraid of waking him up.”
Richie rests his hands on the steering wheel. He looks from the open window, checks the sky.
“You know what,” he says. “Time to go and get your present.”
We walk across the empty car park. The last taxis have come and gone from the nightclub. The eastern sky is tinged with cyan. And quiet, just the buzz of street lights, a distant police siren wailing across town. At the back of the building, over a barbedwire fence, we start climbing the metal fire escape. I ask where we’re going, and Richie stops, turns with a finger to his lips.
First, second, third floor. We’re heading for the club on the fourth. And I hope for something innocuous, like watching sunrise from the roof.
At the top, before the closed door, Richie stops, looks across town, the empty streets and derelict factories. Rows of slated roofs. He puts his hands on the rail like a preacher at a pulpit. I wait with Jez on the steps below, cold, shivering a little. Richie looks down, past Jez. I’m frightened by the force of his stare, his measured thought.
“Listen.” He says. “After you get this present, I don’t want you turning up for work on Monday morning.” He spits over the rail. “Get it?” I nod, though not sure why until he adds, “What are the the rest of us supposed to dream about if you’re shovelling stone?”
Then he takes a step back from the exit. “Happy fucking Birthday.” He lifts his leg and kicks, splintering the door open.
The club is deserted, an empty dance floor. No flashing lights or glitter ball twirl. Richie and Jez storm in. I follow, the reluctant robber.
Or am I? All I have to do is walk away. But the rush of breaking in prickles my skin. And the fact this is being done for me, my birthday.
Richie walks between the tables and chairs toward the bar, the register.
“How do you know they ain’t cashed up?” asks Jez.
Richie laughs. “Because I robbed the manager last month. Getting into his car with five grand.” He hops the counter, looks at the till for about a second, then hauls it onto the floor. He scans the room, the closed entrance. “Pass that extinguisher.” I heft the red cylinder over the counter. Richie grips the handle, takes a deep breath and lifts it shoulder high. And down. Deft with shovel or pick, he sets about smashing open the cash drawer as though digging up a strip of road.
Jez stands on the counter, reading whiskey labels. He snatches down a single malt, twists off the optic and swigs, screwing up his face. “Have a go on that.” I catch the thrown bottle and drink.
Richie is committed to finishing a job he’s started. The metal ring of extinguisher on register gets louder and louder, the buckled drawer coming apart with each blow.
Jez swigs from bottles of port and sherry, a magnum of champagne showered after popping the cork into the ceiling.
But then a real bang.
And this pop’s louder than a stopped cork.
Plaster showers from the ceiling. Jez dives off the bar like a goal keeper saving a penalty in a cup final.
I hit the floor. But before another shot caroms through the room, I do what the voice commands, “Get up!”
When I turn and stand, hands to the roof, I see that Jez and Richie reach up, too. Palms high before a fat man in a dressing gown with a smoking gun. One of those gleaming shotguns you see nestled in the crook of men’s arms with pheasants dangled over their shoulders. He sweeps both barrels from the end of the bar to Richie, takes a step closer. “I know your face.” He prods the barrels into his chest. “You cheeky cunt. Twice in a month.”
Richie doesn’t blink. “You got one cartridge. You gonna shoot us all with a magic bullet?”
The bald man laughs, a snigger. “No. But once your chest is gone I don’t reckon your mates’ll be up to much.” He quickly looks us over. “I dump the weight of them two before breakfast.”
Then he thumbs back the hammer. Jez shakes, wets himself, a dark stain down the insides of his jeans.
But this man doesn’t know it’s my birthday. That I’m twenty-four and carry a toy gun. He doesn’t know it won’t put a hole in his skull when I level it at his bald head, commanding he lower a metal shotgun with my plastic pistol.
I surprise myself, the way I walk with the toy as if I might really kill. The way I order him to his knees.
We take the money and leave him on the floor, a dressing gowned monk in prayer, his shotgun broken in two over the counter.
And so sudden we’re running down the steps of the fire escape, falling into each other on the metal landings, tumbling into the car.
As we screech away the man I held captive with a water pistol throws the extinguisher from the top floor. Richie swerves. It rings like a church bell when it hits the tarmac.
We shoot red lights and junctions, the dead ends and one way streets, till we’re clear of the city and heading into the glow of a new day. Jez pulls bills from beneath his shirt and throws them into my lap. Thousands of pounds. I say we should share it.
“Don’t be so ungrateful,” snaps Richie.
“It’s the thought that counts,” laughs Jez, still trembling, passing Richie the single malt he ran with from club. Richie tips the bottle and gulps before handing it to me. I drink and feel the burn to my stomach.
“Where are we actually getting away to?” I ask, the breeze from the open window fluttering money across the backseat.
Richie turns, smiling. “To pay our respects.”
Again we drive through the old pit towns, the patchwork fields of corn and cows, pig farms and reservoirs, acres of redbrick estates. Then past the council depot, the heaps of stone and grit, where the yellow trucks stand like ranks of troops.
“Take a good look at them gates,” says Richie. “Because you ain’t going through ’em again.”
And now he heads to the lane where we buried the badger, to the black and white flash of fur we’d silently lowered into the earth, the wooden crucifix I tied with string and fixed in the verge.
Mist hovers, grass sparkles with dew. In the hedgerows spider webs glint with dawn. Richie slows, winds down the window and pours a little whiskey onto the grave.
But he doesn’t stop.
I glance for the rear view mirror, the one he slammed away when we first got in the car, when it was still my birthday. Then Richie puts his foot down and fires us into the rising sun. That fast you’d think him afraid of the darkness chasing behind.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY was a runner up in the 2009 Bridport Prize. It is published here in memory of James Disney, the late and beloved friend who inspired the story.