I hadn’t seen much of Neil for several years. At the end of primary school he’d gone private and I’d gone comprehensive. I didn’t think of him often but a time came when my friends were being dicks, not bullying exactly but making sure I felt shit at least once a day; digs about my clothes, my ears, even my family. I’d become the focus for the group’s malice and it was getting me down, the constant drips of disparagement. I found myself thinking of Neil; he may have had his faults but he was never cruel. I gave him a call and we arranged to go for a bike ride.
It was good to see him again even though we’d both changed; he’d become more straight-laced while I liked to think I’d turned into something of a bad boy. I enjoyed his shock when I pulled out a packet of cigarettes. We’d stopped by a railway. It was a warm day and we’d eaten our sandwiches, chatting as though no time had passed.
As we cycled back I felt happy, like something had been fixed. The fact I felt so lonely at school didn’t seem to matter much anymore; my relationship with Neil would endure.
We stopped at Tytherington Quarry, leaning our bikes on the wall and gazing across the expanse of absent land, a vast play-pit of excavations, the creamy rock layered in lines and right angles. Blue water filled the bottom and here and there were huge vehicles made tiny by distance, all static.
Cars had been passing frequently so we didn’t pay much attention when a yellow Ford Capri crunched to a halt and reversed to where we were standing.
As soon as the man got out of the passenger door I knew we were in trouble. He was rangy, rat-like, with greased back hair and a moustache. The engine kept running but the driver and the woman in the back were watching and laughing.
“Hello, boys.” The man leered.
“Hello,” we both replied.
“What are you up to, then? Up to no good?”
“No.” We spoke in unison, our voices small, and I felt a surge of impotent rage and shame.
The man was enjoying himself. He glanced back at the car and laughed. I stared at the woman in the back. It seemed obscene that she should be laughing. Women weren’t like that, were they? I expected it of men, but women? She stopped laughing and gave me the finger.
“You staring at my bird?”
I shook my head.
“You fancy her?”
In my peripheral vision I could see Neil shuffling, twitching. I wondered if he was getting an asthma attack.
The man jabbed a finger in my chest and I staggered back a step, the point of impact burning. I could smell him, the tart bite of sweat, cheap aftershave, cigarettes and beer.
“You want to fuck her?”
I could feel my face flushing at the word, at the idea.
“No? What’s wrong with her? You saying my bird’s ugly?”
Laughter from the car.
“That all you can say? ‘No’?”
More laughter. The man looked back at his friends.
“Can you believe this little prick?” They laughed harder.
Neil was making himself as small as possible, eyes down, head down, drawing in all that could be noticed, happy, it seemed, that I was the focus of torment. Rage curdled within me, at his weakness, his refusal to help, that he was leaving it all to me.
“I want you to apologise.” The man smiled.
“What for?” He cuffed me round the head. Not hard but a ring caught me and my hand went up to rub it before I could stop myself. More laughter. My face burned in shame. “What for? For calling my bird a dog.”
“You fucking did.” Another cuff round the head.
Why was it just me? Why didn’t he turn on Neil? I couldn’t understand what I’d done, what it was about me.
“At least the little prick’s learnt to say something else.” He drew himself up, hands on his hips. “If you don’t apologise,” he paused, thinking, “I’ll pick up your bike and throw it over that fucking wall. What do you think of that?”
“Nothing to say?” He took a step towards the bike. I realised he might do it. He was enjoying himself too much.
The bike had been a present from my parents, the first time they’d been able to buy a new one. My eyes were watering and I was afraid to speak in case my voice betrayed me. I shrugged again.
The man spoke very slowly.
“I’m going to chuck your shitty bike over that wall and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“I can take your number,” I said. “I can phone the police.”
There was silence. The man in the car leaned over to the window.
“Come on, Tel. The little cunt’s going to start crying.”
The man leaned in until his face was inches from mine. He stank. I wanted to pick up a rock, to smash it into his face, over and again until nothing was left. I stood as motionless as possible, my eyes down.
“And I can throw you right after. Can’t I?”
It was a long moment. He straightened and cuffed me round the head, harder this time and strolled back towards the car. I didn’t look. The driver gunned the engine, the door slammed and with an explosion of gravel the car shot away, the woman laughing in the rear window, her middle finger up.
Dust hung in the air. We stood in silence, wondering if they’d return.
I heard the scrape of Neil picking up his bike. I grabbed mine, determined to be first, pedalling off without a glance, hoping he hadn’t seen my tears.
Somebody, I swore to myself, was going to catch it at school on Monday. Somebody else.
Matthew Roy Davey lives in Bristol, England. He has won the Dark Tales and The Observer short story competitions and been long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction award and the Reflex Flash Fiction competition. His poetry and fiction have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. His short story ‘Waving at Trains’ has been translated into Mandarin and Slovenian. Matthew is also an occasional lyricist for prog-rock weirdos Schnauser. He has no hobbies.