By Jake Kale
I give up looking at the bays for the bus to Kingsland and ask at the information desk. A bearded man in a reflective jacket tells me I want the number 5 or 5A, leaving from bays B and D respectively. He tells me that the 5 stops at the Kingsland shopping area before continuing up Elwood Road, while the 5A goes all the way through central Kingsland and up to Sunset Hill, and advises me it would be cheaper for me to purchase a £2.50 day-saver ticket. I walk all the way back to the other end of the waiting area and take a pew as I wait for the 5A. I remember it used to be the 13. Unlucky for some. Unlucky for me.
As it is a Sunday I end up waiting forty-five minutes. The 5 arrives, and I toy with the idea of taking that bus to Kingsland and walking the rest of the way before it departs again. I may have conquered the weight problem that blighted my early adolescent life, but I’m still a lazy sod at heart. At last the 5A appears, and after waiting several minutes longer for its new driver to grace his few fares with his presence I board, pay for my day-saver and find a seat, steeling myself for the journey ahead. The bus pulls away and drives through the cavernous enclosed lane, orange ceiling lights flitting past and giving me the unsettling mental image of plunging deep into some dark, abandoned mine shaft. The bus briefly exits into overcast daylight, then turns left and enters the second lane before exiting again at the other end and driving back into Loughborough Road.
Then north, towards Kingsland.
Just as it had in the bus station, reminiscence cues on dimly familiar locations and objects, evoking impressions long forgotten, yet searingly fresh. I look to my right as the bus passes a set of traffic lights, and I think of how Elly, Ricky, Ian and I used to take turns pressing the button and jeering as the traffic came to a standstill. I catch a glimpse of Barrack Park slipping by, and I recall the time we took our bikes there, and Elly snatched the turban off Mr. Khayum’s head as we cycled back past his shop on Kittinger Street. And as I turn my head to watch said street recede I remember that final journey through this road, several weeks after what happened, when my mother decided it would be better for us to make a new start as far away from Kingsland as possible. She’d gotten an exchange with a family in Arrowhead, on the opposite end of Cranford, and within a couple of weeks we’d moved in there. Neither of us had ever looked back.
Now, sixteen years to the day after it happened, I sit on the number 5A bus travelling up Loughborough Road, tasting a faint metallic tang in the back of my throat as I look ahead through the windscreen and see the shops of the Kingsland Facade drawing near.
* * *
The weekend before it happened I’d gone to meet Ricky at his mum and dad’s house in Kinder Lane. Ricky’s parents were quite old compared to the rest of our mum’s and dad’s, probably around 40 or so, and they were very old-fashioned and very protective. They didn’t like him hanging around with Elly—they thought he was a bad influence. They liked me, though, so he was allowed out with me. We had to meet up with Elly and Ian a few streets away. Ricky’s parents weren’t too fond of Ian, either, because he’d once thrown stones at Ricky when we were in lower school. I was involved in that too, but while they forgave me they would never forgive Ian. I suspect his being half-cast had something to do with that.
Even after I left Kingsland I’d still see Mr. Northcott in central Cranford from time to time, but he wouldn’t talk to me after what happened. I never saw Mrs. Northcott again. I used to joke that that was because she too busy resting under the floorboards.
After we met up with Elly and Ian we headed for to the Facade, a short row of shops that preceded the point where Elwood Road and Loughborough Road split. Elly was still fuming about what had happened the day before. Elly’s family was a scruffy bunch, and Elly himself rarely looked clean. Friday morning he’d been particularly dirty—he had some kind of green stain in his left ear, and I didn’t even want to guess what caused it—and Mr. Spender had apparently taken one look and loudly ordered him to go and wash himself in the sink in the toilets. The rest of the class had roared with laughter, and we laughed when we heard about it, too, but Elly didn’t find it so amusing. As was often the case, his problems at school seemed to stem from problems at home. This was something all my friends had in common.
“I hate my family,” he said as we sat in the shadow of Rosewoods Supermarket. “Dad’s never at home, and all Mum does is sit on her fat arse all day. Lazy cow.” She was lazy, too—I’d twice gotten fleas after visiting their house.
“You should be glad your dad’s never home. I wish mine weren’t,” Ian said, and while he didn’t go into details we’d all seen the bruises, just as we’d seen the botched job the doctors had done while trying to repair his mum’s nose.
“My fuckin’ old man watches everything I fuckin’ do,” Ricky added miserably.
I said nothing. Compared to them, I’d had it easy. Like Ricky I was an only child (Elly had a younger brother who he despised, while Ian had two younger brothers, two younger sisters, and another child on the way) and I’d never known my father as he died when I was a baby. Mum had never let me see her grieve, though, and made sure to raise me in a happy, vibrant home, where I was well cared for and provided for. I moaned about my family life like the rest of them, usually about some toy or other object I wanted but felt I had been denied as my Mum patiently tried to instil in me the value of earning my possessions. And I moaned even more when she tried to get me to put some effort into my education, or to exercise. But I did this mainly to fit in with them. And I’d come to realize that deep down they all saw through it and even resented me for it, particularly Ian. So now I would bite my tongue whenever they started rattling off their list of complaints. Which happened a lot.
That Saturday morning was different, though, and Elly really sounded liked he’d had enough. “I just wish they’d treat us better,” he said.
“Yeah, but what are we gonna do about it?” Ian asked dismally.
Elly didn’t miss a beat. “We’ll run away.”
We all leaned forward and stared at him. He’d suggested this before, many times, but this time he sounded serious, and that made me nervous. “Where to?” I asked.
“We’ll camp out in the Fields.”
What we called “the Fields” was actually an old golf course that hadn’t seen a putt in decades and was now mostly overgrown with tall grass and irregular copses of trees, only a few remaining sand traps giving any indication of its former purpose. It was pretty large as golf courses in non-golfing areas go, extending from Kingsland all the way southeast to Abbeyville, what is now Sunset Hill to the north. We used to walk Nobby, my Labrador cross, there, and he used to love running through the tall grass that bordered the Fields and exploring the patchy woods. I loved it, too. I wouldn’t have wanted to live out there, though. “We can’t stay in the Fields!” I told Elly.
“We’re not gonna stay in the Fields!” Elly said. He’d obviously thought this through. “I’m only talking about a couple of nights.”
Ian looked disappointed at that. “What’s the point?” he asked.
“To make ’em miss us,” Elly explained. “Maybe they’ll treat us better then. Maybe the teachers’ll leave us alone, too.”
Ian looked far from convinced. Knowing what his father was like, it probably would have made things worse. “I thought you meant for good. I don’t wanna go back.”
“Me either,” Ricky said.
“You can stay there, then!” Elly said cheerfully.
The whole conversation was making me uncomfortable. It was all well and good to joke about running away, but I didn’t actually want to do it. “We can’t run away,” I said.
“Why not?” Elly asked.
I thought it was pretty obvious why not, and I explained my reasoning in classic schoolboy fashion. “Because we can’t!”
Elly narrowed his eyes and groaned. “Oh, don’t be such a chickenshit all your life!”
“Shut up, Elly!” I shot back. Unlike the others, I was too much of a goody two-shoes to swear.
Ricky had no such reservations—outside of his parents’ presence he swore at any and every opportunity, no matter how ridiculous he sounded. “I’ll fuckin’ go.”
Ian had also made up his mind. “Me, too. And I won’t come back.”
“Where’re you gonna go, then?” I asked.
“I dunno, but I’ll find somewhere!” he replied, more energized and assertive than I’d ever seen him before.
Now they were all looking at me. I could see they were all serious, and I didn’t doubt for a second that they were going to do it. But I didn’t want to run away—I had nothing to run away from. That wasn’t my only reason, though. As much as I was loath to admit it, I was scared, and I really didn’t want to spend even one night in the Fields. “I’m not going,” I decided.
Now Elly looked disappointed. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t wanna run away! My Mum’s alright!” I snapped. That was the first time I’d openly admitted that, and it’s one of about a hundred callous remarks I’ve made in my life that I wish I could take back. Ian and Ricky stared daggers at me. Elly looked wounded.
“Fine, you can stay then!” Ian spat.
“Oh, come on, Kevin!” Elly pleaded. “You’ve got to!”
“No, I haven’t.”
But Elly was an expert in convincing me to go along with his schemes, and if he couldn’t talk me into something through the power of his argument he usually fell back on appealing to my pride or my acquisitive nature. “If you do, your Mum might get you that MegaDrive,” he said, almost casually.
I’m ashamed to say that actually made me stop and consider his plan for a second. But only for a second. “No, she won’t. She says she can’t afford it.”
“’Course she can afford it!” Elly said.
“Yeah, your mum’s fuckin’ rich,” Ricky added.
“What, because we’ve got a colour telly? Your dad’s just tight.” That was number ninety-nine on my list of things I wish I hadn’t said. Ricky’s family, in fact all three of my friends’ families were struggling to get by on meagre wages or benefits, while mine was pretty secure. Mum had worked fulltime since I started going to lower school, and while we weren’t rich as Ricky claimed we were better off than they were. That was another frequent source of tension between us and it bothered me, though I did occasionally play up to it, too.
Elly always saw past it, though, and my various other shortcomings as well. He was probably the truest friend I ever had, and I knew he’d be disappointed if I didn’t go with them. “Come on, Kev! You can take Nobby if you want,” he said, and I looked at him sitting there hopefully and felt a cold swelling deep in my chest, because I knew I’d end up giving in.
The Treehouse by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.