Life on the Suburban Fringe by S.R.Noss
Early Saturday morning, November 4th 1989
‘I tell you Marty, it’s the newest, coolest, sweetest, hottest thing in Japan right now.’
He held up the chunky plastic box and told me to take it. A green screen glowed and on it a series of different shaped blocks fell downwards, each needing to be placed correctly in an ever growing pile.
‘It’s called a Nintendo ‘GameBoy’ and it’s what you would term a state of the art mother-fucker.’
The blocks started falling faster, piling up quicker than I could place them and before I knew it the little handheld beeped at me and declared game over.
‘Looks like a pile of crap,’ I said, passing it back to him. ‘It doesn’t even have a colour screen.’
He raised his eyes in mock frustration.
‘You’re not a technological connoisseur are you Marty boy?’
‘Well, I’m just saying it’s not as good as you made it out to be. A personal opinion, that’s all. Give me my Amiga any day of the week.’
He clearly didn’t agree with my opinion and sullenly put the GameBoy back into its case. Once that was done he picked his pen back up and called out the next question in his crossword.
‘Twelve across; a symbol of defiance for student China, two words, a nine and a six?’
He looked at me quizzically. ‘What’s that, a place or something?’ Sometimes Cal really did amaze me.
‘Tiananmen Square, back in June, load of students demonstrated so the Chinese government sent in tanks to break it up. Big bloody massacre doesn’t ring any bells?’
‘Nope, not at all,’ he replied then scratched his chin. ‘June you say? Well I was in the bay of Biscay about then, real choppy, threw up a lot if I remember rightly, it probably passed me by.’
‘For fuck’s sake Cal,’ I said, ‘don’t you care about what’s going on in the world?!’
He shrugged his shoulders as if to say ‘why should I’ and looked back down at his crossword. I wondered if I had offended him.
‘So what was Japan like?’ I asked, trying to get the conversation back on a more even keel. He thought about it for a moment before answering.
‘Fucking small but big at the same time, if you know what I mean. Lots of skyscrapers and full of some very hot ass. All in all, pretty amazing’
I laughed at his answer. ‘About sums it up then doesn’t it,’ I said. ‘So how long were you there?’
‘Long enough to visit a few shops and have a look around Tokyo. Now that’s big city, with a hell of a lot of little shit in it. I tell you Marty; you ain’t ever seen nothing like it. You look up and the buildings just go on and on forever till they touch the sky. Fucking A it is.’
I doubted I would ever hear a place so eloquently described again. Cal laughed at that and, feigning anger, lunged over the counter top to grab me, but was too late as I retreated down the herbs and spices aisle.
‘Come here you sarky fucker,’ he shouted at me, but there was no fear of that.
‘What’s that, some sort of dodgy Japanese rock band?’ I shouted back, laughing all the while.
‘Come back here and I’ll get you I will, just you see,’ he hollered, clenched fists shaking in parody, before leaning back on the counter and laughing hard, mouthing ‘sarky fucker’ to himself as if it was the funniest thing he had heard all year.
Down in the spice aisle I laughed as well, enquiring further if he had met a nice lady boy to go with his GameBoy, realising deep down just how much I had missed Cal.
Cal had been my best friend since we were ten. Our first meeting was the stuff of legend; Cal’s legend mind you. My role was to be the victim, laid out flat on the floor of a park in ritual humiliation. Being ambushed on my way home from school had become a weekly occurrence. Why they picked on me I never knew but I assumed I was an easy target as I went to a different school, lived in another neighbourhood and walked home alone. I didn’t have a lot of friends back then and kids can be the most brutal of tribal animals.
A low rumble filled the afternoon air as a skateboard slalomed down the pavement. I couldn’t see very well as my feet obscured my view from the ground. The skater ground to a halt and kick-flipped the board into his hands. His tread was light and bouncy as he crossed the grass to where I laid. He came to a stop above me and lent over, a freckled face blocking the sunlight.
‘What you doing down there?’ he asked. His voice still had a soft Irish lilt to it back then. A voice still fresh from the bogs, Cal had called it. I wasn’t sure how to answer, having never seen him before. He could easily have been mates with the lads who’d just left and come for easy pickings. To answer the wrong way would have given him all the justification he needed to kick me in. The problem was I wasn’t sure what the right or wrong answer would be.
‘Just laying here and looking at the sky,’ I’d answered ambiguously. Just let him try and take offence at that. He thought about my answer for a moment and briefly looked up at the sky, then down at me again.
‘See anything interesting?’
‘Nah, not a lot,’ I said, ‘even though I reckon I saw one of those satellites go past earlier.’
He didn’t seem all that impressed.
‘Right,’ he said, his tone dubious, ‘well have fun.’
With that he walked back to the pathway, dropped his skateboard to the ground and rested one foot on it. Just before he pushed off he looked back.
‘If you want my advice fella, next time you fancy taking a look at the sky, I’d take a swing at the fat one first. Get him to do some cloud watching and your walk’ll be a lot quieter.’
Then he was gone, a blonde blur boarding off down the pathway and that was my first meeting with Cal. I took his advice as well and a week later, when confronted by the same three boys, had swung first at the ringleader and knocked him to the ground. It didn’t do me much good as more enraged they made sure I got a damn good going over. But it had taught me one thing; come what may, you had to stand up to those sorts of things.
A week later Cal and his mum moved into the house across the road from us, and much of the rest, as they say was history.
Cal laughed when I reminded him about that, saying that wasn’t his point at all. His had been to just stand up to the fucker and beat him, not tickle hime and get even more smacked up, simple as that.
‘You think way too much sometimes Marty,’ he told me.
He was right, as always, I did over think and complicate things, it has always been a character trait of mine. Not that Cal’s bull-headed approach to life necessarily made it any easier. That’s what sent him to sea in the first place. He lost his temper and put a local lad in hospital, he wouldn’t walk without a limp again and it was only because he joined a merchant ship that sailed a day later that he was able to get away with it.
Not that the police agreed with him. They waited day and night for him to return home, ready for the arrest. The lad Cal had beaten was ready to testify against him, so Cal stayed away, travelling the world on which ever ship would take him, until word reached him that the lad had been ‘persuaded’ to retract his testimony and there was no longer a case to answer.
By that time Cal had been gone for nearly two years and, if I’m honest, we had all started to really miss him. His was an infectious presence in life.
The shop bell rung as a late night punter strolled on in. I was busy browsing the biscuits and a trail of cookie crumbs littered the ground to show where I had been. A crunching sound charted the progress of the shopper as he made his way across them.
‘Packet of Specials mate,’ he said to Cal at the service desk, ‘and make sure they’re extra strength.’
Cal rummaged at the bottom of the cigarette cabinet and then passed the customer a brand of cigarettes I’d never seen before. The bloke gave him a note and headed out of the shop without waiting for his change. I walked over the desk, munching cookies and spilling more crumbs everywhere.
‘What are you up to?’ I asked, waving the biscuits at him to make out I had guessed. He shrugged his shoulders, feigning indifference.
‘Nowt Marty boy, just doing me job and selling cigarettes to those that come in.’
He manipulated the pen through his fingers like the Iceman in the film Top Gun, rolling it from end to end. I knew he was lying as he always fiddled when guilty of something.
‘No, there’s more to it than that,’ I said, ‘What about if I wanted one of those packs?’
His eyes narrowed slightly as he knew I was trying to back him into a corner.
‘Well then, sir, I’d recommend that you stick with your regular brand, such as Camel or Marlboro’s, considering you like and know them.’
I dug in my pocket for change, wanting to call his bluff.
‘No, do you know what, I think I’d like to try something new actually, so why don’t you give me one of those Special packs.’
I placed my shrapnel down on the counter and pointed to the bottom of the cabinet. Cal froze, an animal in the headlights of indecision, when the bell rung once again and a harsh brogue growled.
‘Well if it isn’t me old mother fucker Marty.’
I closed my eyes as a friendly slap hit my back.
‘Hello Connor,’ Cal said and the big, rough handed man came on in.
When Cal and his mum moved over in1976, Ireland was still at the height of its troubles. The Londonderry and Belfast riots of the sixties and more recently Bloody Sunday were still fresh in people’s memories, so it was unsurprising that locals gossiped about the new family minus a father. Some said he was on hunger striker in an Irish prison whilst others that he was a Provo killed on the Belfast streets. They were all wrong. Cal and his mum were simply running away from him.
The family, of course, stayed quiet, letting the rumours fill the void of a rational explanation. Indeed, at school, Cal let them breed until they grew to take on a life of their own. Kids feared or respected someone like that so never tried picking on him. The truth, when Cal eventually told me a few years later, was far less glamorous. Old man Doyle was an aggressive alcoholic who demonstrated love for his family through the use of his fists. Cal and his mum had simply done a runner and found somewhere to start again.
With no man to provide for them Stella Doyle, Cal’s mum, took in lodgers to help pay the rent. A succession of young, down at heel men filled the house, ruffling a young Cal’s hair and making themselves at home. To a man he hated every one of them. Any opportunity he could find he riled them, taunted them or silently abused them until they left the house and his mum went mad at the loss of yet another paying guest.
I never understood why he had acted that way until the summer we were thirteen. It was a balmy august night, warm and sticky on the skin but liable to break into monsoon rain and thunder at any moment. I stayed over Cal’s that night and Stella had bustled us out into the garden to camp beneath the stars. Unfortunately for Stella thirteen is an age when boys did their damnedest to do the opposite of what the adult said and so, later that evening after the downstairs lights had gone out, we had snuck back in.
The house was eerily quite and Cal wondered if his mum had snuck out. That would have been typical of Stella, he grumbled whilst siphoning Jaffa cakes out of the kitchen cupboard. Just then we heard a floor board creak upstairs and we froze mid-pilfer. Cal turned to me with a worried look on his face that said it all. Just then another floorboard creaked, then bed springs pinged and a female voice cried out. I felt Cal tense up, ready to rush upstairs to the aid of his mother when the female voice laughed and was joined by a male Glaswegian voice. I put my arm across Cal’s chest to stop him. I felt his muscles tighten as his mind raced but his imagination did not have to suffer for long though as the bed springs began to squeak rhythmically and both voices moaned. We were both worldly wise enough to know what that meant.
I giggled, unsure what to say or do but Cal didn’t stay. For the only time in his life he turned tail and ran, far away from those sounds, out into the garden and back to the safety of our tent. I followed him out and peeked through the unzipped entrance. Cal sat with hands around his knees, shaking gently. His eyes were red with tears yet defied me to say anything. He stared at me waiting for words that did not come. Should I condemn, condone or commiserate I thought, what would be right? I went into the tent and closed the zip.
Inside was silence. I wondered if they had heard us indoors and stopped, listening for sounds beneath; the lodger and the housewife caught in merry amusement. Cal continued to rock as a solitary tear rolled down his cheek and it occurred to me then that it wasn’t the first time he had caught Stella in such an act. I wondered how many times it was, how much it had hurt him. This was different though, I had heard it as well.
For a while Cal continued rock and stare at me then he leant over and rummaged in his rucksack. He pulled out an old Swiss army knife and fixed me with a serious stare.
‘What you heard in there Marty, you can’t be telling anyone about, understand?’
I nodded my compliance. He then leant forward and took my hand, laying it on top of his.
‘You got to swear to silence Marty, swear an oath on your life.’
Once again I nodded, emphasising my seriousness. Cal unpicked a long, sharp blade and touched the tip against my skin.
‘Do you trust me?’ he asked, all the while holding my eye. ‘It’ll only hurt a bit.’
Again I nodded as a mute as he sliced the tip across my palm. A tiny trickle of blood rolled out. It stung as sharp as a paper cut but I didn’t make a sound. Then he did the same to his and closed our hands into a grip. Minute drops of blood pooled on the floor of the tent.
‘Now we’re brothers, best friends for life,’ he said, voice serious with the occasion, ‘Never to betray the other, stand by them always.’
I remember his eyes were the colour of emeralds and within them a power seemed to exist. I knew from that moment we were in this together, not just concerning Stella, but in life, forever, always outsiders, the children of émigrés, to be blood brothers come what may.
‘What the fuck are you doing mixed up with them?’ I hissed, “They are serious fucking shit.’
Cal was leant against the counter nonchalantly using a cocktail stick to clean his nails. He shrugged his shoulders in that ‘who knows?’ kind of way he dis. Out back we could hear the heavy ham-fisted Connor clomping around as he counted and bagged the evening’s takings. Even so I kept my voice low.
‘Why didn’t you mention this place was owned by the bloody Devlin’s?’
More shrugged shoulders. ‘It didn’t seem important,’ he said.
‘Didn’t seem important? For fucks sake Cal, the Devlin family are a bunch of mentalists, why would you want to go working for them for?’
He didn’t seem to have any answers beyond a job being a job but that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The Devlin’s were well known for having their hands in every dirty business going back then and then some. Paddy Devlin, Connor’s father, had run Irish navvy gangs in the sixties working on the motorways. He was a hard man you didn’t cross and it was rumoured that provisional cash and not a few bodies had been laundered through the concrete back then. No one in their right mind would have worked for them unless they had no choice and so I wondered what the allure was for Cal. Clearly the threat of violence was not a big enough deterrent for him.
‘What’s the deal Cal, what’s in it for you?’ I asked voice hushed so Connor wouldn’t hear. ‘What’s the deal?’
It clearly concerned packs of Specials but he wouldn’t tell.
From out back we heard the sound of Connor’s footsteps approaching and Cal signalled for me to be quiet. So we leant against the counter top and pretended to be studying the half completed crossword.
‘Nine down; someone perpetrating the ultimate act of disloyalty, one word, eight letters?’ I stared at Cal as I read it. ‘What do you reckon Connor?’ I called out to the big man as he walked back onto the shop floor, ‘Ultimate act of disloyalty, what do you reckon that would be?’
Connor stopped where he was and thought about it for a minute. When he spoke his voice growled like a car crunching on gravel.
‘Reckon that would be betrayal, eight letters, b-e-t-r-a-y-a-l. Does it fit?’
He walked on over to where we were stood and looked over my shoulder as I wrote it in.
‘Yep, fits like a glove Connor, just right. Betrayal, nice one.’
Connor nodded his heavy head, evidently pleased with himself then turned towards Cal. ‘Right, I’ve counted and bagged the money; it all tallies so I’m off to me bed now. Remember to lock it all up properly and put any small change into the safe. Got that?’
Cal nodded and Connor busied himself locking the money case he was carrying. His biceps bulged as he made sure it was closed tight, a big guy who people would think twice about messing with, even if he was carrying a case of cash on a dark empty night.
The door swished shut behind him as he left and once again Cal and I were alone. I helped him tidy up the counter area and shut the valuable stock back behind its metal casings. Out back Cal put the small change from the till into the safe and set the alarm. A series of beeps sounded as it counted down to activation and we scurried out of the shop, stopping to douse the lights on our way. With a resounding clunk Cal locked the door just as the long, drawn out beep that warned the alarm was activated.
Cal was back at Stella’s so we walked back homewards together. Ice was beginning to form on the ground. As we approached the church on the hilltop I told Cal about the odd things that had happened during the last few days. Cal was silent for a while then from inside his pocket he produced a joint, lit it and took a long drag.
‘Help you sleep that will,’ he said as he passed it to me. The smoke filled my lungs and caused me to cough once again. ‘Bit too strong is it?’
‘Nah it’s all good,’ I replied.
‘So did Toni call back?’ he asked as I passed him the joint back.
‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘He was one the phone within an hour.’
Cal laughed. ‘Sure sign its valuable then. What did he say it was worth?’
‘About a grand.’
Cal laughed again. ‘Sure sign its worth two then.’ He took another long drag and passed me the joint once again. ‘Be warned though Marty, I heard on the grapevine that Big Toni’s in for some serious G’s to a boxing syndicate at the moment. They’re the sort of people you don’t owe for long, so Toni’s going to be looking for some ready fast cash. Careful he doesn’t try and bite that watch off of your arm. I wouldn’t put it past him if he’s desperate. He’s like a fucking Rottweiler when there’s something he wants; impossible to shake off. Just be careful, ok?’
I promised Cal that I would. ‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘it’s not mine to sell anyway, even if the delivery company are adamant they delivered it to the right address and don’t want anything more to do with it. I’m not going to have someone come along and accuse me of selling stolen goods or something. That would just be bloody stupid.’
Cal grunted his agreement but I knew if it was him he’d be all for selling it. In his view I was too honest by half.