Niall is the worst of us. Hes meaner, more vicious, more crazy.
He hates everyone: Jamacians, Asians, queers.... Chances are he
hates me as well. His Dad had been a violent waste-of-DNA and
Niall intends to make us all pay. He doesnt care about anything...and
yet, only last Saturday, when me met up as usual, I found him
anxious and attentive to every stranger on the street.
For half an hour, wed been hanging around the launderette, hoping
to spy at least one of the Jones twins, in their short skirts
and ankle boots. Rain came down fine and bright in the orange
warmth of the street lamps, and I felt colder than natural for
an August evening. Jimmy sat on the bus stop bench, drinking.
The canopy sheltered him from all but the strongest gusts. Somehow
hed got hold of a bottle of Woodpecker. Niall tried to light
a cigarette in the open doorway of the launderette. He mumbled,
"Shit, shit..." as he battled with the wind. Then he turned suddenly
and gazed up the street.
Whats your problem? I said.
He cupped his hand around the lighter. The wind....
No...you seem edgy. Are you expecting someone?
Maybe...I dont know.
He tried again to light the cigarette. Shit!
Give it up, I said. Or come inside.
Andy...dont be an arse.
I smirkedI could see my face reflected in the window, bright
against the blackness of the bus depot wall across the street.
The manager enforced a Strictly No Smoking rule here. Shed banned
us once before, thanks to Nialls mouth, and I knew he would not
risk it happening again. In Selby, at night, warm and dry places
are hard to come by.
Eyes watched me through the glass. Outside on the pavement sat
a skinny ginger cat. I dont like cats. Theres something unmasculine
about a cat. You can train a dog to attack, or at least to bark.
Yet cats clearly believe they are superior. A cat can look up
at you, and down its nose, at the same time.
Niall had the cigarette lit. He dragged on it like a drowning
man on a lifeline. Jeez, Andy. Ive got to have food. I didnt
doubt himhe always looks hungry. Niall has the drawn, fat-less
face of a prisoner of war. How much cash have you got?
Im skint. Im sure he knew I was lying.
He launched rings of smoke into the wet wind. Whats this...?
Hed spotted the cat, and the cat had spotted him. Damn thing
looks hungrier than me.
Looks smarter too.
Niall ignored my jibe and stooped in front of the cat. They stared
at each other. Niall held out his hand. Here, cat. Maybe Ive
got some food. Cautiously the cat approached. As it neared, Niall
put the cigarette to his mouth, leaned forward, and blew smoke
into its eyes. The cat ran and Niall laughed. Never trust anyone.
Jimmy came over. Whyd you do that? He waved the cider bottle
in Nialls face.
Niall snatched the bottle and swigged the last of the cider. Never
trust anyone. He tossed the plastic bottle away. It rolled under
the bus stop bench.
Lets move, I said. Nothings happening here.
Where to? asked Jimmy.
Niall screwed up his cigarette pack and threw it down with the
bottle. I need more smokes. Lets go to the Odeon. Niall would
scrounge for cigarettes amongst the filmgoers. He strolled off
down the street.
Jimmy retrieved the bottle and followed Niall, slyly slipping
the bottle into a bin out of the hard-mans view.
I moved out of the doorway and stood in the street. I liked the
feel of the rain in my face. It was cleaner than I deserved. It
challenged the staleness of my ambition. Why did I hang around
with a loser like Niall...?
I zipped up my leather jacket and watched their retreating backs.
A shuffling noise made me turn. At the opposite end of the street,
just this side of the all-night service station, someone stood
in the shadows. I thought of Nialls edginess, then laughed. Crazy!
Someone else on the street.... So what?
I turned to follow the others, but Niall had stopped walking.
I could tell something was wrong. He threw his shoulders about,
twisting, tugging, as though trying to lift his feet. "I cant
move," he said. I cant move!
Jimmy began to laugh.
Im not joking! Niall yelled.
I walked up to join themI refused to run, only to have Niall
make a fool of me.
And then he broke free. He stumbled forward. I thought I was
sinking...like in mud. He examined his shoes. I...I just dont
The paths concrete, I said.
He looked at me as though he could kill, then glanced up and down
I checked around for company, but no-one lurked, either suspiciously
or innocently. Everything seemed normal. I began to rationalise.
Perhaps a muscle spasm, an involuntary movementor lack of movement.
Not my problem, anyway.
* * *
An hour later wed wandered down to the car park at the back of
The Coal Shaft, a schizo pub which segued from grey fifties drinking-den
at the front into eighties plastic Tudor tavern. The rain had
retreated into a starless sky and a cool breeze carried the scent
of garlic and chicken. A muted radio sang in the pub kitchen.
Jimmy scanned the beergarden tables, but, thanks to the rain,
hed find no drinks to sweeponly abandoned ring-marks in the
wood. Niall showed interest in a flash red Peugeot soft-top. He
planned to educate me in the art of joyriding. A smart car, no
denying it, but still I felt reluctant to get drawn in. My mother
already disapproved of my friendship with Niall and I would not
give her any more ammunition - besides, my father would kill
Jimmy spotted the stranger first. I read his wide eyes and turned.
Between the tall stone gateposts at the entrance to the car park,
a man had appeared. Small and bearded, he wore a limp grey suit
with an open-necked shirt and scuffed brown shoes. On his head
he balanced a tartan cap.
Niall came up behind me. I was right...I knew I was being followed.
I heard the flick of his knife opening.
I span to face him. Put that away. Dont be an idiot all your
life...just chill out.
Dont ever call me an idiot! Niall punched me on the shoulder.
I rubbed my armthough more out of habit than discomfort. One
day I would hit him back.
Hes probably just a tramp...after a handout, I said.
Why would a tramp be following me? His words sounded calm, but
he held up his knifehand and I saw the skin stretched tight and
white over his knuckles. If I hadnt known him, I would have said
he was scared.
Niall pressed the knife to his own templeI dont think he realised.
A bead of blood squeezed onto the blade.
Maybe he knows you, said Jimmy.
Niall nodded. Oh...he knows me all right.
Nialls bullshitting, I said. I laughed uneasily. Its what
he does best.
A car drove past the entrance and, for an instant, I thought I
could see the headlamps through the mans eclipsing silhouette.
I rubbed my eyes.
The night had turned colder.
Andy...ask him what he wants, said Jimmy.
You ask, I said.
You jokers make me laugh. A pair of girls. Niall slashed the
air with his knife. I could tell he intended to use the weapon.
I understood Nialls way of thinking. Hed let himself be intimidated
- even if only for a momentand now he wanted revenge. Lets
cut him up! he said, and marched forward.
I followed him. Id always followed him. I found him difficult,
often cruel, but he had guts, no-one could deny that. Besides,
the strange man must be a fool. He deserved whatever he got for
messing with us.
Carefully, the man folded and pocketed his cap.
Then he ran.
Niall charged after him, and I followed along as if tugged on
an invisible string. Jimmy yelled, but didnt leave the car park.
Hed never had the guts for trouble.
The man sprinted across the road, skipping puddles, and turned
down past the Health Centre. But Niall had youth and anger. He
would not let the man escape.
We trailed our quarry down a dark alley behind the bus depot,
where our footsteps reverberated like slaps on a steel drum. The
pursuit took us across another street and onto the waste ground
which surrounded the derelict Coal Board offices.
It had all happened too quickly. We needed a moment to think,
to grasp the meaning of these sudden eventsbut I could hardly
manage just to grasp my breath. Niall charged on.
But I knew he would not stop for me. It seemed he couldnt even
stop for himself.
We approached the dilapidated Victorian building. Formerly a merchants
extravagant celebration of hard-won wealth, the grand house had
served as the local coal industry office for decades. Now it boasted
boarded doors and gaping windows and an interior as gutted as
the lives of the pit widows.
The man disappeared through a window opening.
Niall slowed down. He had his enemy trapped. I caught his arm,
but he shook me off.
Wait, I said. I saw his face thenswollen-eyed and white. Fury
and fear. Yes...fear. What the Hell is wrong with you?
Im going to cut him out of my head. He took his breath in gulps.
He hasnt done anything to you. Whats your problem?
Exorcism. He got his foot onto the window sill.
Hes my Dad.
But...your Dad is dead. You told me.
He vanished from his locked bedroomlocked from the inside.
Niall fixed me with eyes as insane as his answer.
Hes just a tramp...thats all.
Niall struggled for breath.
I wont let you do it, I said. Theyll put you away.
Get lost, Andy! For your own sake.
He went through the window.
To Hell with Niall. Id done all I could. The puppet string had
snapped. I could run, leave him to his craziness. Id spent too
long being the restraining grip on his knife hand. Hed end up
inside, for sure. He didnt have a chance.
And the tramp didnt have a chance....
I vaulted over the sill and into the darkness.
We all knew the story of his DadNiall had told it often enoughapart
from this new question over the exact degree of his deadness.
Hed been retired early on the grounds of mental health, after
an incident in the lowest shaft of the mine. Something odd had
happened down therehis Dad had the burns to prove it. Yet the
company had resisted all attempts to investigate. It had been
inevitable, therefore, that his Dads story would find eager ears.
He told of how the rock floor had grown soft. His feet had sunk.
Hed only just managed to grab an overhead cable when the ground
opened up and hed looked down into another world...a fiery world
existing within, or beneath, or alongside ours. He claimed to
have seen a burning river and felt the blast of fire and glimpsed
creatures as tall as men and as angular as stick insects. Hed
become terrified that, one day, that world would return to take
The company said he was sick.
Niall had hated him too much to care either way.
Now I could hear Nialls voice coming from above me. I waited
a moment, suffocating in the stench of tomcats. Then I made my
way to the staircase and went up, my feet scouting each step for
I could hear Niall shouting: I always knew youd be back!
As I ran along the bare boards of the landing, light from a glassless
window threw my shadow onto the wall. I could hear Niall on the
top floorstill one more flight to go.
His voice trembled. I used to think I could hear you, slithering
below the floor of my room.
I took the final flight in five leaps and discovered Niall blocking
the open doorway to a room. I moved closer, but didnt touch him.
I didnt trust him at the moment.
He wont talk to me. The room took his words and tossed them
from wall to hard wall.
I glanced past Niall into a room vast and empty, apart from the
dark shape of the man who moved near one of the giant frameless
windows. Hes probably terrified.
Niall kept his gaze into the room. How can two different worlds
be in the same place? They didnt teach that in school.
Would you expect them to?
Ive thought about it a lot...Ive heard scientists say similar
I shook my head. Forget the crazy stories. Youre not a kid anymore.
He believed itI know he did. Then he vanished, and now hes
Your Dad was a monster, not a magician. Id never met his DadNiall
had moved to our street with his Mum only last yearbut I knew
hed been an intimidating bully. Whatever happened to him, I
hope he got what he deserved.
After hed gone, I always felt he was close. Hed put the idea
into my head, and it sank deep. I could scare myself at the slightest
sound. Every night is a nightmare.
You cant believe this is him...hes just a tramp. You shouldnt
let your Dad get to you anymore.
Niall finally looked at me. I have to make it stop. I have to
Id never seen Niall so distressed. He appeared about to cry.
Its not fair! he yelled. I shouldnt have to still be scared.
He held up the knife and charged at the man.
I threw myself forward, catching Nialls leg. He came down with
a crash and a curse.
I got to my knees. The tramp backed up against the low sill of
the window opening.
I felt burning in my right bicep. My jacket gaped open, slashed.
Niall had cut me. I put my hand to the pain and there was warm
wetness. You bastard....
Get away from me! Niall scrambled up, but I had his arm and
grappled with him. I pulled myself up and grabbed his knife hand.
He tried to push the blade into my thigh, but I held him back.
We stumbled towards the tramp, who dodged to avoid us and, as
I watched, rolled slowly backwards across the sill.
I pushed Niall to the floor.
The man fell from the window. He made no sound.
Weve killed him! I flung myself onto the sill to look down
the outside of the building.
Behind me, Niall sobbed. Ive killed him...Ive killed him....
He said it maybe ten times before he stopped for breath.
I turned my back to the window and watched Nialls sunken body
rise and fall with the rhythm of his breathing. Eventually he
looked up at me. His lips hardly moved as he spoke.
My Dad wore a tartan cap.
* * *
I dont want to see Niall again. I cant forgive him for that
fight. The wound on my arm is a reminder that nothing and nobody
in this ill-defined world can be trusted, least of all your own
I also dont want to see him because hes not the Niall I used
to know. Hes lost the edge, the dont give a damn I admired.
His hate has turned inwards. He doubts his memory and he does
not want to know mine. I phoned him midweek and asked how he was
doing, and he replied flatly, Sinking.
And I dont want to see him because what I know, what Id shielded
him from that night, would break him apart.
When Id looked down from that window, Id expected to see the
tramp hitting hard stone. Instead, I saw the ground open below
him to reveal a distant flaming river, meandering across a scorched
red plain. The tramp twisted lithely in the air, then transformed
with a shrug into an attenuated twig that floated down through
the rising heat. The muddy path closed above it, leaving only
an acrid breath of hot air in my face and a silence all the louder
for Nialls sobbing.
The fear is inside me now. I hear the slithering sounds at night
and lie sweating in my bed. Yet in my dreams it is not Nialls
Dad who rises up from the ground, but Niall. He tells me not to
worry about the world belowthe world within...the world within
all of us.
But I do worry. I worry about sinking into Nialls world of fear
The ground no longer feels solid beneath my feet.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this story may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any informational storage or retrieval system without express written permission from the author.
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