Scoundrel Time

A Prelude to Violence

He moved here because he wanted somewhere safe for the kids, away from the traffic and dangers of the city, but it’s the third time the blue Toyota has roared past the front garden in ten minutes, and Frank is furious. 

The village is a network of quiet streets behind the church that lead nowhere. Three branches, each concluding in a tight turning circle. Frank’s neighbours are largely older. Retirees who’ve moved to the countryside to get away from everything the internet tells them to fear. Immigrants. Scroungers. Young people. There are other kids in one of the cul-de-sacs and Frank’s boys head there after school to jump over things on their skateboards. 

It’s hot and airless today, and the skateboards are in the drive amongst the discarded bikes and scooters, a surfboard, and Frank’s van parked up against the garage.

He stands on the pavement and looks back at their home, pretending to inspect the roof, hands on hips. He can hear the car in the turning circle, the exhaust popping and then the tyres squealing, and he can picture it fishtailing on the gravel, heading back this way.

Eddie floors the accelerator and the back wheels leave a plume of blue smoke. It’s Badger’s motor but he’s too stoned in the middle of the back seat, and Eddie’s brother, Tomo, is too young to drive. 

“Fuckin’ ‘ave it,” slurs Badger, clinging on to both straps, his right leg juddering uncontrollably. 

“G’wan Eddie,” cries Tomo, willing the car to spin, for the exhaust to backfire, the crack of a shotgun in the deathly quiet of these streets.

The car slides and then finds grip again, wheels still spinning, but straight now. A clear run to the corner and the main road and the dare to pull straight out without looking. The odds are they won’t hit a thing. Might scare some old couple towing a caravan past the pub but the chances are they can slide out at speed before the humpback bridge. 

“Wanna be doin’ sixty at the bridge,” mumbles Badger. 

“But don’t fuck up my motor Eddie. Pride ‘n fuckin’ joy.”

“Hey!”

Eddie hits the brakes and the car slides to a halt at an awkward angle in front of some bald guy standing in the road. There’s just the sound of the engine burbling and that crow that’s taken up residence in Frank’s back garden.

“You lads – stop this. My kids play in this street.”

He’s wearing baggy shorts and a red and white striped football shirt. On his feet, bright green plastic shoes. 

“Fuck off granddad. Get outta the way.”

Frank can’t believe it. This is his street, that’s his front drive, his garden. That house is his. Bought after his wife left him and he had to sell up the family home in town. In the front room, the curtains drawn, his boys, bare-chested in the heat, thumbs a blur on their controllers. 

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard. Dangerous to be on the road granddad.”

Frank is fifty. He drives a van, does odd jobs. House clearance. A bit of gardening. His kids are eight and ten. He used to run half marathons until his knees went and he started smoking again. 

“What did you call me?”

Frank is blocking the road and strides towards the car. The doors open in perfect unison, like it’s a pop video, and two teenagers heave themselves out, the engine running.

Badger’s seen it all before and lies across the seat in the back, the world spinning pleasantly. There was a time when he would have loved to get involved. Scare the shit out of some old fella. Make sure he keeps his mouth shut next time. But he’s lost the will for sudden and disproportionate violence since his dad died. The weed is a salve for the pain he feels when he thinks about his old man standing on the parapet, the train rushing towards him at terrifying speed.

The kid that’s been driving is older and tougher looking. Frank moves towards the other one, the one with the jogging bottoms halfway down his arse. A curtain of straight black hair across his eyes.

“My kids play in this street. Someone’s gonna get killed.”

The granddad jibe is ringing in his ears, making his jaw tight, and he tries to sound laid back.

“It’s not your road. Your kids should be careful,” the other one says. The one with the buzzcut and a thick chain around his neck.

Eddie crosses his arms and surveys the man on the street. He’s barely got the energy and the man hasn’t yet crossed an invisible line beyond which there are headbutts or a kick in the nuts. But he’s standing his ground and that’s needling him.

“Fuck off inside,” Tomo mumbles into the space between the car and the bald man who seems frozen in space and time.

He can see the thick vein on the man’s neck pulsing, and another a crazy squiggle on one side of his forehead. He looks slow and stocky and Tomo doesn’t have a clue what happens next. He looks to his brother and snorts, impulsively, and then at the ground in front of the old guy in the Southampton top.

The man is rooted to the spot and Eddie takes a step towards him.

“You hear that Granddad? Fuck off inside. Like my brother says. Ok?”

Eddie’s channelling someone he saw once in a film. A kind of relaxed quietude behind which there is the potential for uncontrollable fury. 

“Eddie!” calls the voice from the car, slow and languorous, unseen behind the seats. Like it’s the name of a football team and he’s a few pints into the afternoon. 

“C’mon!”

Frank is running a series of equations. An obsolete computer triangulating angles, distances, speed. The voice in the car is another element that needs factoring.

“Lads. Come on. Have some respect.”

Frank’s trying another tack but he’s way out of his depth now. He can feel the adrenaline as something physical, hot and metallic in his bloodstream, across his heart.

Once, his now ex-wife had told him that he should think about getting a proper job. One his sons would be proud of. He’d been drinking a bottle of beer and had been overwhelmed by a desire to smash it over her head. He’d grabbed it by the neck and it was only his fright at his sudden rage that had made him stop. He’d replayed the scene, again and again at night in the spare room. The bottle gripped tight, the glass shattering in a halo around her skull. It sickened him that he’d even contemplated this. A man who used to open the passenger door for her, who massaged her feet, who took her for a weekend in Brussels on a train before they’d had kids.

He’d never thought of himself as violent. One time in the pub he’d been clonked from behind but that had been a misunderstanding and he didn’t start it. He’d been pissed and said something he regretted and, in the morning, woke with a lump on his head and a keen sense that he’d deserved it. Just that once, and the time with the bottle, gripped in his hand, a few weeks before she told him she wanted a divorce. 

A memory flashes. Pinned down by a group of girls on the playing field at the back of his primary school. Emma McManus astride his chest stuffing fistfuls of grass into his mouth, a hand clamped over his nose. The first time he’d felt that rage at a bully.

“Eddie, c’mon.”

The car is idling, the voice from the back impatient. 

The older kid, the one who’s driving, turns back to the car, and the other one, the one with the fringe, is an imperfect mirror. They return to their seats as one. 

Frank stands before the car, legs astride, hands on hips. A Superman who’s let himself go.

Eddie grips the wheel and pumps the accelerator. The exhaust cracks and pops satisfyingly. He pulls the vape from his back pocket and takes a long, tired suck on the mouthpiece. A vast cloud of thick white vapour fills the car and Frank can see that the kid’s as proud of this as he is the sound of the car’s exhaust. Everything he does is loud and noxious, an extension of his personality. 

Eddie contemplates the bald man again. Should’ve decked him, he thinks, his head spinning for a second from the vape. But he’s in the car now and to get out again, so soon, would be a dropped point in this unnecessary game. 

“Fuck off granddad.”

He says it like he’s being kind, as if he’s giving the man a break.

The car burbles and Frank can hear raised voices from the house. The boys will be fighting over something. A controller. Or the iPad with the cracked screen he refused to get fixed after one of them had dropped it.

“If. I. See. You. Again. I’m calling the cops.”

Frank says it through gritted teeth, his finger jabbing empty air between him and the side of the driver’s temple. 

He stands back from the car and waits for his words to settle. 

“Fuck off and fuck you Granddad.”

Eddie’s revving the engine, the exhaust crackling like the car itself is enraged. He floors the accelerator and the car rasps and pops. He’d like to dump the clutch and flatten the old guy. Pass it off as an accident. Two witnesses. He just stepped out of nowhere. 

There’d been one time when Badger had clipped a cyclist. Eddie knew he’d done it on purpose. Been moaning about how he’d taken up half the road. He watched in the wing mirror as bike and rider cartwheeled along the A74 causing the car behind to swerve into the oncoming traffic. He’d seen the rider get up and remembered a strange feeling of disappointment. He hadn’t wanted him dead. But to get up so quickly felt like a cheat. That the rider had played a trick on all of them.

The old guy walks backwards onto the pavement and turns to the front drive of his house. 

“Fucking paedo!”

Tomo has his fist out of the car. 

Frank stops like he’s been shot but isn’t yet dead. His driveway, on his street, outside his house. After all I’ve been through, he thinks. 

There’s a second-hand surfboard he bought off eBay resting on a stack of milk crates on the drive. He’d been waxing it, convinced that one day he’d take it out, teach the kids to surf. It’s been there a month, in suspended animation between the roof rack of the van and the back of the garage from where it may never return. The bloke he’d bought it off said it was from Hawaii originally, a classic longboard. Since his wife left him, Frank’s harboured an image of himself reinvented. Buff and tanned on the tip of a board, traversing the length of some glorious beach in Cornwall. At night he dreams of this guy, dreams so hard that sometimes, when he awakes, he thinks he’s become him. Laid back, attractive, fit, healthy. There’s a bar he imagines. It might be from a film, or a commercial, or an amalgam of different places he thinks he’s seen. The sun setting, an ice-cold bottled beer casually clutched between three fingers, an unnamed woman smiling. It’s this that gets him out of bed in the morning. That tricks his body into rolling onto the floor. And then the full-length mirror in the open wardrobe door, and the chill wind of disappointment at the man scowling back.

Eddie takes an exaggerated suck on the vape and sends a plume of lemon meringue Frank’s way. He wishes he could think of something to funny say. Or an action so smart, so unexpected, that an unseen bell would be rung and rung. Like at the end of a war, when all the churches give forth, peals falling over each other in celebration, in relief. 

Tomo holds his fist high, defiant. The leather bracelet that his brother gave him for his birthday represents something ancient, tribal, primal. It’s from the market in town and the guy does ear piercings too. He’ll get a tattoo next. From the place on the high street that doesn’t ask your age. Something that says he’s part of something, a leader in waiting, that he’s here, now. 

Badger’s impatience has faded. He’s high and numb, and wishes he were more so. His dead dad, a constant presence these days, his father’s pain his now. He wishes that he could remember to forget. That he could smoke so much that he could banish those images forever. His dad on the bed, a strap tight around his arm. His bloodshot eyes staring back at him, pleading to him to shut the door. To go away. Or the train. The bridge. The train. 

“Bobby shot me over and over and he says I have to play Minecraft because in the shooting game there’s too much blood and guns.” 

Oscar is eight and stands in the driveway in his underpants, his arms folded across his bare chest. He seems unaware of the car burbling on the street, the detritus scattered across the front garden, Frank’s surfboard a totem or a symbol, something solid, heavy with meaning. 

“He always gets to choose. It’s not fair.”

The boy is tugging at his father’s shirt, wining. He looks like a tiny bird, frail and unformed, skin stretched tight across his skinny ribs. 

For a second Frank wants to agree. It’s not fair. 

Eddie stomps the pedal, the pitch of the engine drowning out everything. Nothing’s fair. 

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David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer. He’s recently been published by The London Magazine, Litro, STORGY Magazine, Scratch Books, the Cardiff Review, Lunate, Bandit and Tiger Shark. He’s been shortlisted for the 2023 and 2021 Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prizes, the 2023 London Independent Short Story Prize, the 2022 Bristol Prize, and the 2020 Fish Short Story Prize. He lives in Brixton in south London.

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Photo by Ivan Shemereko on Unsplash