Patrick was telling a story:
‘When they was coming to put us off, the first time, they sent along this kid. We knew we was good cause we was on a private road, and nobody can’t put us off there, or they couldn’t have till the farmer said and, you know, Shaun was keeping him off… The bike was only a little thing, like fifty cee cee, and if you rode it at the whoops then cranked the throttle you’d get air. Anyway. Small bastard comes and starts asking us who we was with and what we was doing, did we know the farmer. Well he’d not flagged down Harry, our Harry, and he was still going, tearing up the grass. He rides up behind where the bloke was standing whilst I explained it’s a road, so can’t do nothing, when Harry does what we was doing all day. He rides up behind us and cranks the throttle! As he goes up in the air, he throws a one hander, the motor scuffs the bloke’s jacket, and Harry takes the blokes cap in his hand and rides off with it.’
John and Bart started laughing. Looking happy with himself, Patrick let them laugh, silently checking the sunburn on his chest. When it had all but subsided, he said, ‘it was deadly.’
Tillie, who’d been quiet up until then, looked up and asked, ‘did you get put off?’
Just then a cloud drifted over the sun. A uniform hush in the chat and excitement of the day drifted over Brighton beach. As he’d grown tired of his story, and hadn’t much to say after that, Patrick was pissed at Tillie’s pressing. He wished Tillie’d stayed chatting to Queenie, and wished Tillie and Queenie had gone off with Jess and Lowri, to see the town, and had left the boys to it.
But he liked her. Continuing, he went, ‘of course, they called us the usual sorts and the three of us climbed on the motor and drove off.’
Tillie laughed in a way that the others were now not, saying, ‘like the circus.’
Brighton was hot, almost as hot as Portugal, but the breeze from over Worthing chilled them whenever it came. It chilled them especially when the sun went in, and then they would all think, why are we even at the beach? Patrick thought that often. He thought, I should go back to The Level, see how they’s doing. But just at the notion, a ray of sun would penetrate the cover and light the pebbles all around him so that, even though they were grey, they were bright. And then he’d think, leave it, cause it seemed like actual God telling him, ‘don’t mind it, another hour.’
That night he would be on the hook-a-duck, which was easier than the rides. Sometimes, yeah, you got wankers who would try sting you for another go, or would reach over and grab a prize even though they were worth nothing. But it was easy anyway, and besides, he liked kids and seeing them all cheery when they won a big bear or something. That was the only time they didn’t treat him like a stranger, when their arms were open to take the prize. Anyways. He liked watching the boys run around with the toy guns they’d won, pretending to kill each other.
Patrick was feeling stressed lately, like he was whipped or as if he had a tag on his ankle, cause Connor, his stepbrother but ten years older, had decided he needed discipline. Patrick’s dad was old. Definitely quite old to be doing what he was doing, or trying to do what he could no longer do. Dad had arthritis and had been drinking lately more than working, and he thought he might die for some reason. One day, he went to Connor—who had three babies with Patrick’s sister, and proved himself a tough father—and said.
‘When I’m gone, you gotta do to Patrick what you been doing with yours.’
Evidently, Connor had taken much pride in what his in-law asked. Rather than waiting for the old man to die, he’d decided, why not now? And so he’d been reeling in Patrick for extra jobs, like a gimp, and being pretty tough if he screwed-up, or had been arsy. Patrick didn’t really mind, but nevertheless, it bothered him. Horses weren’t his thing, yet Connor kept making him go check on them. They were hitched to a roundabout near Hayward’s Heath.
The cloud soon came off the sun and drifted along the sky alone. It looked like someone’s goz drifting in a lake, Patrick thought. But soon the brightness made him close his eyes and lie back, and stop thinking. As the ray lay on him a long time, he felt hotter, as if someone were pressing an iron to his chest. Reaching for his vest, he used it to cover himself. Then he turned to Tillie, who was looking thoughtfully toward the charred and broken pier.
Pointing an arm in her direction, but not touching her, he asked,‘oi Tills, what’s in the bag?’
Stirred by him talking, she felt the thin Aldi bag, seeing it weighed down, and said, ‘got a John Smiths.’
Shielding his eyes from the sun, Patrick said, ‘give it here.’
As she passed the tin, the bag was balled up by the wind, and cartwheeled off along the stones. Taking it from her, Patrick took a sip and thought, that’s alright. Then he closed his eyes and dozed a while.
Sam thought the beach was overcrowded. There were groups of all sorts congregating. Lighting up or drinking, the various gangs had brought their speakers, playing them simultaneously. The result was a gross amalgam. A blend of trap and grime beat all the way up the beach.
Stags were meeting along the promenade, ready to start the weekend, guys come down from London or from Eastbourne. They were older and monied, and wore blue cotton shirts with grey denim shorts. On their heads were similar dark sunglasses whilst on their fingers rings winked like chains. That looked cool to him. You could see it, they’d done their work and earned their cash, and now they could spend it on weekends like these, to escape work. What a life.
With Heidi, he thought, he’d pay for her to go home to Cornwall with the girls, while he’d probably come down here, go Gladstone, King and Queens, then Coalition. And he’d have his friends with him: Jamie, Ollie, and Ash, and then whatever mates they wanted to bring along, to make it a blowout.
They’d all chip in a hundred for coke and ket, and they could do it at Sam’s Dad’s house in Lewes, then get taxis down to the front. Perhaps they’d visit Platinum Lace.
Hooking his finger under the pull-cab, Sam opened his Stella and took a sip.
Just then, a boy stepped past and disturbed him. He’d tripped on the stones and knocked into Sam as he stepped over, feasting on whelks.
‘Oi, watch it, oi,’ Sam said. The boy seemed not to realise and walked on, forking another mouthful.
Time passed, with Sam drinking more, feeling to relax. But he couldn’t leave it. Someone had knocked him and just gone on without recognising the disrespect. Sam made sure to track him, watched him settle down with a group of kids. They looked rough.
The sun came out from under a cloud, blinding the beachgoers with this lemonish light, and though he’d been silent for a while, Sam nudged his mate beside him and said, ‘you see over there?’
Ash saw over there, but didn’t know exactly what Sam was indicating. This was the one place anybody flocked to on a hot day in Brighton, and the Uni students had just finished. Though Sam and Ash had graduated last year, they had no sympathy for the students. Ash and Sam banded together straight out of uni, and now they were working fine jobs at an estate agent. They were thinking of climbing up the ladder, aiming to become shop managers, and even had their sights on regional management roles. Each had a reason to work hard, to be steady. Ash knew his girlfriend wanted kids soon, and he suspected Sam needed the work to keep himself focussed, on the straight-and-narrow. Sam had been in prison, Ash knew that. He’d gone for maybe six months or a year when he was eighteen for GBH, for breaking someone’s ribs in a Chicken shop.
But that could be forgiven. Twat probably started on him: that’s how Ash rationalised it. And Sam was big, so how could he not almost kill? That’s why you should respect him, and if you disrespect him, why you should expect a lesson in respect. Ash was comfortable with that. He liked Sam, and thought him decent.
While Ash was searching, Sam nudged him and said, ‘them lot.’
Focussing on the group, Ash saw what he meant. They looked rough. The girl was blonde and trashy. Although her hair was thick and golden, she’d sprayed it to death and backcombed it huge. Under her eyes were deep strokes of paint, which was bait. As for the boys… Compared to Ash and Sam they were cheap. They wore really cheap vests and probably knock-off tracksuit bottoms. Ash saw them dozing and answered, quietly, ‘yeah.’
Patrick heard Tommy approach. Though his eyes were closed, he recognised the loud and clumsy footsteps. Opening his eyes, he turned to Tommy and said, ‘where you been?’
Younger, and reliant on his older brother, Tommy never really spoke much. If he was needed to lift things or move a van he was useful, cause you could just tell him. But he wouldn’t talk. In response to Patrick, he simply said, ‘whelks.’
Dangling his finger in the cup, he picked out a slug and waved it in the direction of Tillie, who went, ‘fuck off. Dirty things.’ Queenie laughed to see her repulsed, but when Tommy dangled it in her direction she screamed too, and nearly bolted.
Propping himself up on an elbow, Patrick said, ‘give us one.’
Tommy threw Patrick the one he’d used to taunt Tillie, and Patrick put it in his mouth. It was cold and gristly, and worked your teeth. Wasn’t like a slug though. Patrick hadn’t ever eaten a real slug, but he could taste the saltiness of the whelk and realised that a slug you’d find under stones wouldn’t be like that. Chewing loudly, he remarked, ‘it’s rank. You like that?’
Shrugging, Tommy spoke, ‘they’re alright, local culture innit.’
‘Well, don’t make a habit of it, you won’t have anyone kissing you with snail breath.’
To which Tommy said:
And Patrick replied.
They sat a while longer. The sun dipped slowly, though was no less hot. Patrick looked at Tillie and thought she looked fine, then placed a hand firm on her thigh and held it there. Tommy tried to grab Queenie and kiss her, but Queenie, her red hair dishevelled by the assault, smacked him. Silently, they hung around again. Then Patrick asked, ‘Tommy, got any fags?’
Smoke was rising from the group sat near Sam and Ash, and drifted into their eyes. Sam thought it a dirty habit, so muttered this sentiment to himself. Chimneys. Even though he smoked sometimes, like in clubs, he thought it dirty. Still, he couldn’t tell the group off for smoking, cause many of the groups around him had lit up. Being in Brighton, he could smell the skunk drifting upwind from a group of students near the tide. Even at Uni, he never smoked weed. Why bother. Why bother with the schizophrenia.
The smoke annoyed him, but not from everyone. It was that lot—the boy who’d disrespected him, the trashy looking girl, their friends. There was something about it: he hated her specifically, despised her lack of taste, the fact she could be pretty, but wasn’t, and was repulsive instead. The boys were even more offensive. Even though they were young, they looked older and possibly capable of stuff Sam was not, and they had these girls on their arms, which Sam had found hard before Heidi. They all looked loved up, or just comfortable with one another. Standing up, playing on the rocks, moving around each other with their cigarettes waving in the breeze, they looked slick, graceful, like dolphins almost. Didn’t look like they had jobs, no. Probably signed on and spent their time at the beach, which was out of order. It had been hot recently, really sweltering. If you stared off at the horizon, or if you were walking up Elm Grove and looked at the bonnets of the cars, you could see little heat lines buzzing over the aluminium like mosquitoes. And yet everyday Sam had to go to work. He watched kids, that age, not working, walking off in attractive outfits down toward the seafront. Yet he had to spend his days working hard, labouring in a shady space, talking to customers who were uncommunicative, who didn’t exactly like the houses he was being told to sell them, but didn’t offer any preference. It was fucking tiring. Especially when you consider they had more money than him. And they had the free time to come in on a hot day and ask Sam to sell them a house which they’d then refuse.
Sam tried to banish the thought. It was worth it. Work was worth behaving, and it rewarded you with cars and holidays and respect. Sam turned to Ash and asked, ‘another Stella?’
Ash smiled and nodded, saying, ‘I reckon we just stay here today, go pub in a bit, could go Coalition.’
Sam thought, yeah that sounds good. They’d go out just the two of them, maybe call up Christian and Jamie, go Coalition before the queue got too big. Then they’d hang there all night and maybe pull someone, or at least dance with some girls. Between the boys there was that sort of understanding. When Ash had first cheated on Sasha, he just started talking about it openly, and now the boys agreed that anything goes. They even encouraged it. Ash passed Sam an open Stella, which he drank quickly. He indicated the rough group with the cigarettes and said.
‘You know what the women do, don’t you?’
Again, Ash looked toward the girl. Ringlets spilled over her shoulder, and her pale skin was reddening under the sun. Seeing the lad’s hand on her thigh made him uncomfortable. The boy was young, and yet he had this bravado, kind of asking for it. Whoever had the whelks had tossed their rubbish behind them, littering. Noting a plastic bag drifting in the space between them two and the group, Ash said, ‘what d’you mean?’
Bolstered by Ash’s ignorance, Sam started:
‘I know a bouncer who works at Shooshh, which is where them girls go, and they have trouble with them fighting all the time. At one point, he said, they were bringing in knives and just sticking them in people’s kidneys on the dance floor. Blood on the bar, police outside every night, carnage. So they bring in that metal detector, which means the girls can’t carry knives anymore… but they get creative. According to my mate, the girl’s started sellotaping razors to their debit cards…’
Sam mimed sticking a blade to a card, then sliding it into an invisible wallet. He continued.
‘So basically, the girls would go into the clubs and they’d have a few drinks and then be starting on one another, and as a girl would go to fight, they’d swipe out a card and slash the other across the face.’
Ash gurned, feeling an imaginary pain. Rising his hand to his face, he said, ‘Christ, they’d look like the Joker.’
‘Like Voldemort,’ Sam replied. ‘They had a couple noseless girls, apparently. Michael Jacksons.’
Ash felt suddenly nauseous. Imagining his sister getting attacked in a club—cause she could sometimes start on people—he shook his head and said, ‘savage. They’re savage.’
Sam smiled, and opened another can.
Every so often the thought arose, like a carp softly breaching, that Patrick should return to The Level. Soon they’d be starting. It was all set up, but soon they’d be starting. Regardless, every time the thought arose, it sunk back down to his subconscious, cause the sun would get a little bit hotter and Patrick would say to the group, ‘Level’s only a short walk back.’
Patrick sent Tommy off to get some more beers. John and Bart who were twins, and already had grey hair—took Queenie down to the tide, where they threw heavy stones, making big splashes. In their absence, Patrick and Tillie started snogging, and Patrick thrust a hand up her thigh so close that he felt her pubic hair. It was wiry. He would marry her.
Eventually Tommy returned. Trudging noisily toward them again, the two stopped kissing. Patrick wiped Tillie’s saliva from his lips. When Tommy was within a metre of the pair, he threw the tinnies over. Misjudging their weight, they went a little to the right, hitting Tillie on the coccyx. She yelped, and said, ‘watch it, twat.’
‘Idiot.’ Patrick chipped in.
Tommy felt hurt by his brother’s turn on him. Perhaps his throw had been careless, but there was no need to call him that. There was absolutely no need for it. He shot back at Tillie, calling her a slag.
Immediately, Patrick squared up. As if he’d been tasered, he stood bolt upright and over Tillie, pressing his forehead close to Tommy before letting out a punch. When he was young, he’d been told, don’t fight with your head, so he stood back quick after going for a headbutt and pulled up his arms. There was no thought of pacing himself, he was only going to show him he could beat him. Tommy was no good to fight. He was drunk and his lungs weren’t good anyway. It wasn’t good fighting. With his right knuckle he knocked Tommy on the cheek, then closer to the eye socket, then struck an uppercut. John, Queenie, and Bart heard the ruckus, then run up the beach, all shouting encouragement at either party. Stunned, Tommy’s tongue was in his mouth as Patrick’s hand shot upward. As the knuckle connected, it pressed the teeth to the top jaw, though in-between it was the tongue. When it had gone on too long, Bart separated the brothers, Tillie joining in with Patrick, shouting at Tommy. As Bart pulled them apart and sat them away from each other, Tommy spat out the tip of his tongue. The whole organ felt fat in his mouth, like liver, and bled heavily.
Neither Sam nor Ash could believe the fight. The boys were small, but in those couple of seconds they had looked like dogs. The older boy especially. He reminded Sam of the dodgy dogs, those you see down The Level, walked by chavs. When they’d squared up in the first instant, and the foreheads had touched it was… well, Sam thought, it was sick. Good fighting from the big one.
Something about the fight had thrilled him. The moment the boys had started punching, Sam felt himself invigorated. He had to restrain himself from leaping in and joining the ruck.
But now, in the aftermath, he was panting, wondering whether anything else might kick off. Turning to Ash, he asked, ‘you can afford coke tonight?’
Ash smiled, then raised his eyebrows. Almost silently, he said, ‘I’ll ring Baz.’
Feeling drunk now, and ready for it, Sam watched the aftermath of the conflict.
Tillie stayed close to Patrick, holding him, adding a tone to the screams aimed at Tommy. Bart had opened a tin of ale and was using it to dilute the blood pouring from Tommy’s mouth. At first it was a vibrant red, like that on those old Marlboro packets, but with the ale it suffused. Eventually, the liquid spat onto the ground was brown.
Patrick was angered by Tommy’s actions, the fact he had had to throw a punch. To assure he’d never do it again, he was shouting, ‘you’re shite! You’ll never beat me. Know you will never beat me. Fuck off.’
As this continued, heads turned. Queenie silenced herself and tended to Tommy, before suggesting the four of them, Bart, Jamie, Tommy, and herself, return to The Level. Patrick was still screaming, ‘you’re good for nothing. Never start on me. Never.’
For the revellers on the seafront, the tone of their shouting had reached an intolerable level. Mums with their children, safe from retribution, rose their voices over the balustrades, telling them to calm down, to mind themselves.
Of the shouts that spiralled around them, all sorts were heard. ‘Police’ echoed to Patrick’s ears at least. Every one of them heard the derogatory terms, and the girls became embarrassed. They were used to it. But they were embarrassed.
At some point, the group felt little stones on their ankles or their backs. Patrick’s voice never dipped below his inflated tone, and so he was last to notice Sam and Ash tossing pebbles in their direction.
They’d first taken to the action with a heroic guise. As mothers had been pleading for quiet, and threats to call the police had been made, Sam thought he’d try quell the violence. He did this by throwing a stone.
In his hand, he took a relatively large one, about as big as a packet of cigarettes, and threw it a short distance, so that it would land near the troupe and bounce. He wanted the advantage. Certainly, he knew he didn’t want to lean in close, lest the boy stand up and move as fast as he had with his mate. So he threw it nearby. Of course, the stones that got their attention were the ones that actually hit them, scuffing the boys and striking the ginger girl on the calf.
When the stone hit Queenie, Tommy looked up. His mouth was, now, less bloody, and he managed to speak, suggesting they all gather their things.
Sam, now feeling buzzed and ready for the night, threw another one, hard. Laughing as he picked the stone up, it flew, hitting Tommy on the shoulder.
As soon as Patrick became aware of them, starting on his brother, his frustration with Tommy ceased. Immediately he recalled a thousand biased policemen, weary locals, and suspicious strangers all making assumptions and limiting his freedom. Whatever violence had been felt a while ago was subsiding, and he asked the guys, ‘oi, come on, leave it.’
They did not. In his hand, Sam took a large grey stone and chucked it in the direction of the group. When it struck, there was a moment amongst them gauging who was victim. The moment’s silence, and Tillie’s ensuing cry, reinvigorated Patrick, who stood upright.
What happened, happened. Suddenly they were like two alligators, latched against each other’s torsos, twisting and ripping. On either side, supporters were throwing stones. Looked almost like a cock fight. Tommy, Queenie, Tillie, and the boys all hurled pebbles at this nameless adversary, Sam. Within all the spinning and waving, the stones invariably struck Patrick, throwing him off. At one point, revellers from the promenade had chucked a pint of golden beer over the pair. Briefly, it fell from the sky like ambrosia, throwing out the sun in many directions before wetting the men, wrestling. Then they broke apart.
They separated for a second to breathe, before launching into a fist fight. Running around one another, briefly, Patrick landed two punches, before being pummelled by Sam. Landing three in succession, Sam caused the younger boy to stumble and tumble back. When he was free, he stepped through his crew, so that they could chuck the largest stones at their friend’s attacker.
A thought passed through Patrick’s head. It grew and formed, almost fully, before dissipating under each blow. The Level. Soon he would have to be at work, and he would have to be looking good otherwise they wouldn’t let him man the stalls, and Connor would remonstrate with him. Falling through his group, he tugged on Tillie saying, ‘let’s leave it, let’s leave it.’
Passing her, he walked down the beach to wash his face in the tide. Thinking Sam would tire, that he had been pummelled by many stones and that his face and body were ruined, he knelt in the small surf and began to wash. First it was refreshing, like settling your face in morning dew. Yet as the salt dripped over his neck and crept into his wounds it felt like ants. It stung on his lips and his jaw and under his brow, all on his left. He had a pretty good idea how mashed he was, no mirror needed.
The sound of stones in avalanche suggested itself as he fingered the wound on his lip. He turned, thinking, gotta go, and was faced with the sprinting body of his opponent, navigating the slope seaward.
Sam punched Patrick once, then twice, feeling such hate for the boy. Methodically Sam beat the younger one, then realising his strength, the boy’s youth, he pushed him down under the shallow sea, holding him down and bringing him up, then pressing him further. He never felt the boy go limp, but kept working his target, working it until he felt a girl’s hand on his back.
It was the blonde girl with the ringlets on her shoulder. She was crying loudly and shouting, and her horrible makeup had smudged onto her cheeks. Sam smiled and stood up from his opponent, who then lay wounded in the water. Taking Tillie by the wrist, gripping it far too tight and in full view of the world, he thrust a hand, with bloody nails, into the front left pocket of her denim shorts, where he saw a mild bulge. Just then he was blind to the various aghast faces. He was too occupied with proving his point. Teasing Tillie’s wallet from her pocket, he called to Ash, who stood just up the beach, his face wet.
‘Oi, Ash. Come look, see. See what they do.’
Unzipping the wallet, Sam emptied it of its few cards and gold coins, which dripped onto the stones, then into the sea. He fanned the cards out in his hand, eventually spilling them onto the pebbles when he was unable to see what he believed to be there.
Tillie crouched to her knees, and started pulling on Patrick’s leg. Patrick, stunned, turned his face out of the tide. A Tesco receipt flitted over him then drowned in the sea.
Four blokes on a stag now joined the group at the tide and restrained Sam. One knelt down to Patrick and called for a response. Soon Sam registered the shocked faces which composed his audience. Far-off, somewhere down the seafront, a siren sounded. Sam counted the charges. GBH, theft, being drunk and disorderly, fine, but he’d earned the lad’s respect. Surely he had. And that’s what mattered. Just look at him.
© Jude Whiley
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Jude’s interview]