Jay’s father, the Bread Baron who made his fortune with Trimble, a well-known slimmers’ loaf, had never quite made enough money to make up for his lack of pedigree, hiding his insecurity behind a façade of bluff, cigar-smoking cheer. He, too, embarrassed Jay, with his East-End vowels and shiny suits. Jay had always seen himself as a different species, as something hardier, nearer to the raw. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
There were three of them. Taller than Jay and older-fourteen, maybe fifteen – with a peculiar swing to their walk as they strolled along the canal towpath, a cocky strut which marked the territory as their own. Instinctively Jay snapped off his radio and crouched in the shadows, resentful of the proprietary air with which they lolled on the jetty, one crouching to poke at something in the water with a stick, another popping a match against his jeans to light up a cigarette. He watched them warily from the shadow of a tree, hackles pricking. They looked dangerous, clannish in their jeans, zip-up boots and cut-off T-shirts, members of a tribe to which Jay could never belong. One of them – a tall, lanky boy – was carrying an air rifle, slung carelessly into the crook of his arm. His face was broad and angry with spots at the jawline. His eyes were ball-bearings. One of the others had his back half turned, so that Jay could see the roll of his paunch poking out from beneath his T-shirt, and the broad band of his underpants above his low-slung jeans. The underpants had little aeroplanes on them, and for some reason that made Jay want to laugh, silently at first into his curled fist, then with a high, helpless squawk of mirth.
Aeroplanes turned round at once, his face slack with surprise. For a second the two boys faced each other. Then he shot out his hand and grabbed Jay by the shirt.
‘What the fuck thar doin ere?’
The other two were watching with hostile curiosity. The third boy – a spidery youth with extravagant sideburns – took a step forwards and poked Jay hard in the chest with an extended knuckle.
‘Ast thee a question, dinty?’
Their language sounded alien, almost incomprehensible, a cartoonish babble of vowels, and Jay found himself smiling again, close to laughter, unable to help himself.
‘Atha deaf as well as daft?’ demanded Sideburns.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Jay, trying to pull free. ‘You just came out of nowhere. I didn’t mean to scare you.’
The three looked at him with even greater intensity. Their eyes looked the same non-colour as the sky, a peculiar shifting grey. The tall boy stroked the butt of his rifle in a suggestive gesture. His expression was curious, almost amused. Jay noticed he had tattooed letters on the back of his hand, one letter pricked out across each of his knuckles to form a name or nickname: ZETH. This was no professional job, he understood. The boy had written it himself, using a compass and a bottle of ink. Jay had a sudden, startling vision of him doing it, with a dogged grimace of satisfaction, one sunny afternoon at the back of a maths or English class, with the teacher pretending not to see, even though Zeth wasn’t bothering to hide. It was easier that way, the teacher thought. Safer.
‘Scare us?’ The bright ball-bearing eyes rolled in counterfeit humour.
‘Astha gotta fag, mate?’ Zeth’s voice was still light, but Jay noticed Aeroplanes had not yet released his shirt.
‘A cigarette?’ He began to fumble in his pocket, clumsy with the need to get away, and pulled out a packet of Player’s. ‘Sure. Have one.’
Zeth took two and passed the packet to Sideburns, then to Aeroplanes.
‘Hey, keep the packet,’ said Jay, beginning to feel light-headed.
‘Matches?’ He pulled the box from his jeans and held it out.
‘Keep them, too.’
Aeroplanes winked as he lit up, a somehow greasy, appraising look. The other two drew a little closer.
‘Astha got any spice, anall?’ asked Zeth pleasantly. Aeroplanes began to finger nimbly through Jay’s pockets.
It was already too late to struggle. A minute earlier and he might have had the advantage of surprise, might have been able to duck between them towards the jetty and up onto the railway. Now it was too late. They had scented fear. Eager hands searched Jay’s pockets with greedy, delicate fingers. Chewing gum, a couple of wrapped sweets, coins, all the contents of his pockets rolled into their cupped hands.
‘Hey, get off there! Those things are mine!’
But his voice was trembling. He tried to tell himself that it didn’t matter, that he could let them have the stuff – most of it was worthless, anyway – but that didn’t stop the bleak, hateful feeling of helplessness, of shame.
Then Zeth picked up the radio.
‘Nice,’ he commented.
For a moment Jay had forgotten all about it; lying in the long grass under the shade of the trees it was almost invisible. A trick of the light, maybe, a freak reflection on the chrome, or just plain bad luck, but Zeth saw it, bent and picked it up.
‘That’s mine,’ said Jay, almost inaudibly, his mouth filled with needles. Zeth looked at him and grinned.
‘Mine,’ Jay whispered.
‘Course it is, mate,’ said Zeth amicably and held it out.
Their eyes met above the radio. Jay put out his hand, almost pleadingly. Zeth withdrew the radio, just a little, then drop-kicked it with incredible speed and accuracy over their heads in a wide, gleaming arc into the air. For a second it gleamed there, like a miniature spaceship, then it crashed on the stone lip of the jetty and smattered into a hundred plastic and chrome fragments.
‘And it’s a goo-aal!’ shrieked Sideburns, beginning to dance and caper amongst the wreckage. Aeroplanes chuckled sweatily. But Zeth just looked at Jay with the same curious expression, one hand resting on the butt of his air rifle, his eyes cool and oddly sympathetic, as if to say, What now, mate? What now? What now?
Jay could feel his eyes getting hotter and hotter, as if the tears gathering there were made of molten lead, and he struggled to stop them from spilling over onto his cheeks. He glanced at the pieces of the radio twinkling on the stones and tried to tell himself it didn’t matter. It was just an old radio, nothing worth getting beaten up for, but the rage inside him wouldn’t listen. He took a step towards the lock, then turned back, without even thinking, and swung as hard as he could towards Zeth’s patient, amused face. Aeroplanes and Sideburns were on Jay at once, punching and kicking, but not before he had launched a good solid kick into the pit of Zeth’s stomach, which connected as his first awkward punch had not. Zeth gave a wheezing scream and curled up on the ground. Aeroplanes tried to grab Jay again, but he was slippery with sweat and managed to duck under the other boy’s arm. Skidding on the remains of his broken radio he made for the path, dodged Sideburns, slid down the banking and across the bridle path towards the railway bridge. Someone was shouting after him, but distance and the thick local dialect made the words indistinguishable, though the threat was clear. When he reached the top of the banking, Jay kissed his middle finger at the three distant figures, dug his bike out of the undergrowth where he had hidden it, and in a minute was riding back towards Monckton. His nose was bleeding and his hands were torn from his dive through the bushes, but he was singing inside with triumph. Even his dismay over the loss of the radio was temporarily forgotten. Perhaps it was that wild, almost magical feeling that drew him to Joe’s house that day. He told himself later that it was simply chance, that there was nothing in his mind at all but the desire to ride into the wind, but he thought later that it might have been some kind of crazy predestination which pulled him there, a kind of call. He felt it, too, a wordless voice of exceptional clarity and tone, and for a moment he saw the street sign – POG HILL LANE – light up briefly in the glow of the reddening sun, as if somehow marked for his attention, so that instead of cycling past the narrow mouth of the street, as he had done so many times before, he stopped and wheeled his bike slowly back to stare over the brick wall, where an old man was cutting jackapples to make wine.