Francis David Watson, get back inside this house now!”
The neighbours chuckled at one another as the shout rang throughout the street, well used to it after so many years.
“Bugger it,” Tankie said, tearing up the street and letting the rusty gate smack back into its frame, cursing his Mam’s use of his full name, knowing that he would be in for a proper slap when he got back. He left her standing at the lounge window, hands on hips and irate at the sight of her youngest son racing off to get up to who-knows-what mischief when he was supposed to be cleaning his room.
Tankie slowed as he came to the crossroads, looking back to see whether she’d sent Pete to chase after him. With no sign of his brother, Tankie grinned and strolled on two streets to knock for Tott. It was a Saturday in late autumn and he had big plans for the gang: it was time for the monthly Slug Gun competition.
Tankie whistled as he walked down Tott’s street, hands jammed into his pockets. The council houses formed an unending frame of brick and corrugated iron walls, painted mustard yellow to give a false sense of cheer, with conker shells and dog-eared footballs decorating the front gardens.
Every now and then there was a broken window and the sound of kids playing in their back gardens.
Tankie opened up Tott’s front gate, taking far more care with the blue-painted iron than he did with his own undecorated one. This gate was Mr Curtis’ pride and joy; he’d painted it himself when Tott’s family had first moved in, and spent every Sunday morning oiling it. Tankie walked up the garden path, stepping over the few rebellious weeds that had started to sprout between the cracks. Mrs Curtis clearly hadn’t had a chance to get out the weedkiller this weekend.
“Hi, Mrs Curtis,” he said when the door opened, putting on his most charming smile for the woman who stood there, wiping the flour from her hands onto her apron. “Can Tott come out and play?” he asked.
“Well if it isn’t our Frankie; I was speakin to yer mam earlier – aren’t you supposed to be doin some tidyin?” she said, raising an eyebrow at the nine-year old boy.
“Ah well, you see… that is… I’ve already done it, like?” His lie came out as a question, accompanied by a nervous scratch on the back of his head.
“Is that right is it?” she said, an amused smile on her lips.
“Why-aye man it is!” he said, gaining confidence. “I was finished with it an hour ago!” Mrs Curtis opened her mouth to send him home to the scolding waiting for him when Tott’s face appeared in the doorway, popped through the gap between his mam’s waist and the wooden frame.
“Hiya Tott – you ready?”
“Aye man,” he said, pushing past his mam, “I’ve been practisin and everythin!”
“Practisin at what?” Mrs Curtis said, grabbing her ginger ball of mischief firmly by the collar.
“Erm… nothin Mam, just footie skills!” he said.
“Mhm,” she replied, eyebrows raised. Tott’s expression didn’t change and she gave in. “Alright then you wee scallywag but make sure yer back here by tea time alright?”
“Aw but mam!” Tott said.
“No buts, Terry Curtis! You’ve got homework to do before your nana comes tomorrow. And I want your room tidyin as well, you hear?” she said, staring hard at her son.
“Aye mam,” he said reluctantly as he slouched from her grip and made a run for it with Tankie.
“Now don’t go gettin in trouble!” she shouted as the two boys ran off down the road, shoelaces undone, socks falling down and laughing at whatever it was they had planned.
“Right!” Tankie called. He stood facing The Terrors just outside The Den, his posture oozing superiority as his followers stood to attention, slug guns at their sides and very serious looks on their faces. Torro even had an old tin army helmet on. “So are we all clear then? Spuggy’s refereein and if he sees any cheatin your gun is his, no naggin!”
“Erm… Tankie man, you haven’t told us what counts as cheatin,” Chiser piped up, scratching the side of his nose.
“I did Chiser but clearly you weren’t listenin so I’ll have to explain again,” Tankie said, sending Chiser a withering glance. “If you go for a baby it’s cheatin cos it’s too easy and if you actually hit the bird that’s cheatin too cos it’s who can get closest. And no hittin each other, unless I’m hittin you. Got it?” They all nodded. “Alright then, Calla you’re up first.”
Tankie moved to the side to stand in line with the other boys as Calla took up position behind the huge fallen oak trunk that served as their cover from imaginary enemies. Calla took careful aim at the blackbird sitting up in the tree just to the left of the group. He squeezed one eye shut and fired, the pop of the gun loud as the rest of the gang waited in baited silence.
“Way off!” called Spuggy.
“Nuts,” Calla said, slouching back into line. The bird hadn’t even flinched. Torro took his place.
“What was that, like? You needin yer eyes testin?” he teased. “Watch and see how it’s done proper,” he said, the tip
of his tongue poking through his lips with the concentration. “And… bam!” he shouted.
“One point to Torro!” Spuggy said, marking it down on the rock with a piece of chalk.
“Hey what’re you sayin man, that was at least a two pointer!” Torro said, hands on hips as he stared down at him.
“Oi I’m refereein and I say it’s just one point! The bird didn’t fly off the branch proper, he just kinda flapped,” Spuggy said.
“I’ll make you flap alright you buggerin-!”
“Enough!” Tankie interrupted, glaring at Spuggy and Torro who had begun to face off. “Pipe down the both of yers or I’ll have yers thrown out of the gang!” His threat was enough to make them back down, and with only a few dirty looks and muttered threats more they got back to the contest. “Right then, Chiser, your turn.”
“Righto boss!” he said, his upbeat manner improving the whole gang’s mood.
It continued this way for a good half hour: they’d take turns at almost slugging birds, moving from one tree to another whenever they’d exhausted the supply. Spuggy and Torro would fight, Tankie would rein them in and Tott steadily racked up the points, the practice he’d boasted of before paying off, until his aim got a little too close and hit a bird across the side of its head. It was stunned and fell off the branch to the forest floor with a sickening thud. It didn’t get up.
“Jesus Christ, Tott!”
“Have you not got the eyes God gave you, you bloody idiot?”
“Tankie, what do we do?” This last outburst came from Tott himself, face as white as his Sunday best shirt, gun hanging limply from his hands as he stared at the bird that lay dead on the ground.
Tankie looked at the bird, framed by a circle of six pairs of worn out leather shoes, all of them old, all of them sensible
and all of them bought with ‘growing room.’ Its head lay to the side, grey beak resting on the ground, the end digging into the soft earth. Its white crest however faced upwards, pure and proud, Tankie thought, unmarked by the dirty forest floor. The bird’s right wing was outstretched, the feathers bent back from impact in a way Tankie found thoroughly uncomfortable. The other wing had fallen across the lower half of its chest, as if hugging itself in its sleep. If it wasn’t for the eyes that lay open, black and glassy, Tankie could have convinced himself the bird was just knocked out. A deep pit of hot, roiling sickness opened up in his stomach.
“Tankie! What. Do. We. Do? Me mam’s gonna kill us if she finds out!” Tott cried.
“Give Spuggy yer gun, Tott,” he answered, not looking up from the fallen creature. Tott handed it over, mute. “All of yers keep quiet about this, you hear? Our mams will have our hides if they find out we were hittin birds, so no squealin.” Murmured agreement went around the circle. “All of yers go home now. I’ll take care of this.”
Tankie didn’t look up, even when he knew Tott was hovering nervously for a few seconds more than the others. Once Tott finally gave up hoping for reassurance from his leader, Tankie set about digging a small hole by the bottom of the tree with the butt of his gun. Once he’d made it big enough, finishing it off with his hands when his gun was making too little headway, he picked up the tiny creature and placed it in the hole, trying not to think about the fact it was still quite warm. He covered it with soil and heaped some leaves on top to make it look like a pile of leaves that had been blown together by the wind.
Tankie could hear his mam downstairs, clattering the pans, her way of telling him she was angry with him when she was too busy to scold him. Tankie just kept the tap running. He scrubbed his hands. He washed off the soap. He dried his hands. He put them back under the tap. He lathered them with soap. He scrubbed his hands. He washed off the soap. He dried his hands. He wet them again. Over and over he did this, wet lather rinse dry, wet lather rinse dry. He did it until his fingertips had wrinkled and his hands ached from the repetitive routine.
Tankie went to bed that night without any dinner, even if his mam had given him the choice he wouldn’t have eaten anyway; he wasn’t hungry. His window stayed closed all night so as not to hear the birds in the morning. He dreamt of stotty buns and school on Monday, plans for bonfire night next weekend and the football match with the Catholic school down the road on Wednesday. He dreamt the match was cancelled because the wind was blowing too many leaves onto the pitch.
The next morning, he woke up ravenous.