Chapter One

Wesley got the cap offof the petrol drum. He got it off with the screwdriver his brother used for nicking cars. The screwdriver was bent and rusty and deadsharp on the end.     

    Give us your tanktop or I'll bloody kill you, I go to Luke Little.  

    We wanted to use his tanktop to dip in the petrol drum. To get the petrol out and set it afire.           

    No, he goes. It's brand new, he goes. From a shop, he goes. That means you're now allowed to burn it. That's a Law, he goes.    

    But we knew that wasn't a Law. And we knew his tanktop wasn’t new. And we knew it wasn't from a shop. It was from the jumble sale they had in the church hall last Saturday. We knew it was from the jumble sale because it smelt of jumble sales and had a hole in the front and another boy's name sown into the collar that we could see because Luke Little had the tanktop on insideout.          

    Pull it offof him anyway, goes Wesley. Let him like it or lump it.    

    And that was when Luke Little scrambled up onto the digger and crawled into the cab through the window that Wesley had busted in with a big flint stone.     

    Luke found the stone on the seat. He picked up. He held it up high. Said if we tried to climb up on the digger and tried to pull him out and tried to pull his tanktop offof him he'd throw the stone at us.  

    I aimed my stick at him. Wished it was a proper shoothimdowndead rifle. 

    I go, Put your hands in the air and come out or I’ll blow your bloody head off! 

    He still had the pink plaster stuck on his forehead. Dirty and curled at the corners now. On Sunday I said it looked like Paddy Devlin’s birthmark. But the bruise around his eye wasn’t black and blue anymore. It was the same colour as Mum’s fagfingers.     

    How d’you get that?

    Fight. 

    Who d‘you fight? 

    Somebody.

    Somebody who?

    Just somebody.

    Dippy Derrick?

    No.

    Gary Mooney?

    No.

    A spastic?

    No.

    Your dad?

    Shut up!

    Wesley tried to push the petrol drum over to let the petrol pour out under the digger. I thought he looked like the man in a film I saw once. The man was called Samson and he was the Strongest Man in the World. Then someone cut all his hair off and he lost all his strength and then his hair grew back and then he got angry and then he pushed over some stonepillars that held up a city and the city fell down and killed about a million people. 

    I felt like doing that sometimes. Getting angry and killing people. But getting angry was bad for my health. Getting angry could kill me. Laughing too hard could kill me, too. That's what Mum always said.

    Wesley had long hair too, but ginger not black. All down over his collar. But he wasn’t strong like Samson was strong and he couldn’t move the petrol drum not even a teeny bit. 

    He gave up and climbed up on the petrol drum. He sniffed in the hole where the lid came off. 

    I could smell the fumes. I go, Much in there?  

    Can’t see. Too bloody dark, he goes, pulling a box of Swan from his parka pocket and taking a match out and going to strike it.

    Don’t be a stupid bloody plank, I go. You'll blow us up to Heaven.

    Wesley grinned. He had crooked teeth too big for his mouth. All crammed in there. Like a mouthful of broken chalkstick bits. Like his head hadn’t grown to make room for his new ones after his baby ones fell out. Did you think I was going to, you plank?   

    He stood up on top of the petrol drum and beat his chest and put his hands round his mouth and hollered like Tarzan. He was good at hollering like Tarzan. He could do Cheeta, too. Scratching under his armpits and curling his lips and pretending to pick and eat fleas from your hair. That always cracked me up in my insides.

    He leaped offof the petrol drum. He stabbed at the air with the screwdriver and whoo whoo whooed! like a Red Indian. He landed on his feet and rolled over onto his back and then quickly sprung up again and held the screwdriver by its rustedsilver bit and aimed it at a tree. He threw it and the screwdriver spun head over heel and hit the trunk handle first and bounced back again and he had to jump out the way quick as you like. The screwdriver missed his foot but only just and stuck in the mud headfirst.

     You stupid bloody Gingernut spaz! I go and I pushed my bottom lip out with my tongue and made my arms short and flapped them like a Billy Smart’s seal flaps its flippers.    

    Wesley squeezed his eyes at me. He hated being called Gingernut even though he was the gingeriest Gingernut in our school. Once, he punched a kid in our year and gave him a nosebleed just because the kid called him Minnie the Minx. He’d got the Spoon for that. 

      Wesley lived with his nanna and grandad and his big brother Neville up The Close. I never saw his nanna and grandad when I went round because they were old and couldn’t get up offof the settee and they lived in the livingroom and never came out. Neville sometimes worked Up North and sometimes he didn't and when he wasn’t working Up North he wanted to show us how to play football. Even though he wasn’t very good at football. And even though no one liked him. But he was bigger than us and if we said we don't want you to show us or told him to piss off he’d punch us.      

    And sometimes he’d do worse.

    Neville wasn’t Wesley’s fullbrother he was only his halfbrother. Wesley said he had loads of halfbrothers all over the place but he didn’t know any of them because his mum had given them all away to charity. Wesley and Neville lived with their nanna and grandad because their mum couldn’t cope on her own and working nights and Wesley said she never wanted him or Neville anyway.

    We weren’t friends at first, me and Wesley. Nobody was friends with Wesley at first. But then he gave me Kevin Keegan because Kevin Keegan was the only card I didn’t have for the Reds and so then I gave him Pat Jennings because I had three of him anyway. Then he said he liked the Reds and I said I liked the Reds and we both said the Reds was the best team in the world. Then we spat in our hands and shook them together. Next day, Wesley gave me his Reds scarf and said I didn’t have to give him anything back. Not nothing. 

    Now we did everything together.

    I thought Wesley was going to grab me and wrestle me to the ground and give me a deadarm or a knucklehead but he didn’t. He gave me a sideways stare and sniffed and gobbed a greenie onto the ground. Then he snatched the screwdriver out the dried mud and started scratching his name on the side of the digger with it.   

    I jumped down onto the ground. Picked the petrol drum’s cap out of the furrow made in the mud by the digger's caterpillar tracks. I held the petrol cap with one finger curled around it like it was a small bit of flat flint I was going to skim over the river. But I didn’t skim it. I slung it upwards. Hard and high into the air. It went spinning towards the river and caught the sun and flashed like a Polaroid.    

    For a second I thought it was going to plop in the river and I’d never thrown anything that far before. But the thing turned on its side and spun towards the woods and landed near the trees at their edge.     

    Bugger!    

    I went to run after it. To pick it up and try again. But I heard Wesley shout.

    Plum! Stop him! Don’t let him get away!

    Luke was bunking it across the Waste heading for Old Mrs Flegg’s garden. Old Mrs Flegg’s garden was the garden we used as a shortcut to Graves End Lane and the Waste and the wood and the river from Alexander Road. Luke’s chickenskinny legs ran like the Roadrunner’s. Wesley started running, too, chasing him like Wile E. Coyote. Wesley was a superfast runner. The second superfastest runner in our school. Femi Upagumtree was the first superfastest runner in our school.

    Over the wooden gate and standing on Old Mrs Flegg’s garden path with your feet on the ground meant you were in the Safe Zone. That was a Law. But Luke only had one foot on the gate when Wesley rugbytackled him. Diving and grabbing him around the middle and pulling him offof the gate. So that didn’t count.   

    They fell to the ground and rolled around in a scribble of arms and legs. Luke wriggled and swore and tried to push Wesley offof him. But Wesley was bigger and stronger and he soon got on top of Luke. He pinned him face down with his knees. Twisted his arm up behind his back. Like he was going to cuff him.

    I quickly caught them up. I go, No use trying to get away yer ass is ours, nigger, in an American cop accent.

    Get off! Get off! Get off! You’re hurting me! Bloody get off! Luke kicking his legs up behind him.

    I put my hand over Luke’s mouth and nose to stop him shouting out. He shook his head and tried to bite me and so I pressed harder. He said something that sounded like Ban’t deethe! Ban’t deethe! but I didn’t stop pressing. I liked the scared look in his eyes.  

    Luke’s face started turning wintercoldblue. His eyes rolled back in his head. I grinned. Showed my teeth. Gripped him harder.

    Do you give in? I go.

    And he goes, Ahhhhhhhhhh!      

    Say it, I go. Go on, say it.   

    Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm! he goes, twitching like a bloody skinny spaz kid.     

    Say it or you’ll die. 

    He can’t say it, goes Wesley. Got your hand over his mouth.

    Luke got his legs up underneath himself. He gave himself a shoveup and Wesley lost his balance and toppled sideways and fell offof him. 

    I lost my grip, too.

    Luke gasped. Bloody bastard! he goes. Bloody could’ve bloody killed me, you bloody bastard!

    I shrugged and got up and stood over him.

    Give it here then! Give us your tanktop. Get it off or I’ll do it again, I go.

    He looked at me a long time. Looked at me like he wanted to punch me. But he knew if he did that I’d do worse back.

    All right, all right, you can have it, he goes and he pulled his tanktop over his head. 

    He stood in his mudbrown shirt. Half untucked. On his dirty cheeks were white streaks where his tears were running down. My finger marks were round his mouthskin.

    Bloody dad’s going to kill me! he goes and he started crying. Big heaves that made his shoulders jerk up and down. 

    A bubble of snot blew out his left nostril and burst.

◆◆◆

Mark Mooney’s and Trevor Mumford’s den was better than our den. Better than the one they’d bashed up yesterday. Nobody actually said it but we all knew it was the truth. They’d built it in the woods up against the back of the chickenfarm’s wall and so close to the river you could see silvery bits of it through the trees. We stood looking at it like it was a castle. It had a roof made from a sheet of nearly seethrough plastic and a camouflage nest of long sticks on top of that and walls made of pallets hidden by loads of leaning branches and an actual door that was a wobbly oblong of hardboard hinged with string that you could open and close and on the inside on the floor a strip of carpet and two cushions that would’ve stayed dry even if it rained.

    Go in and see if they’ve got anything in there we can nick before we burn it down, I go to Luke.   

    Luke had stopped crying now. I’d told him he could carry the stick we'd tied his petroldripping tanktop to. He huffed but didn’t argue or say no, or say, you go in. He gave me the stick and he crawled inside the den and the door swung closed behind him.

    He was in there ages. We heard gagging sounds. Like he was being sick.   

    Light the stick, goes Wesley, whispering in my ear. Light the stick and throw it on the roof and hold the door so he can't get out. I dare you. Learn him a lesson for not telling the truth about Neville.      

    He held the box of matches out to me. Rattled them.              

    Do it! he goes. Go on, do it.     

    But.

    Look what I found! 

    Luke ducked his head out the door and waved a magazine in front of him. The magazine was tatty and had a woman on the front. She had long straight yellow hair and no clothes on. 

    They got loads in there! he goes. Ten at least.

    We crowded round the magazine. Luke flipped through the pages. At the middle pages he stopped on a black woman. We stared. She had on purple eye makeup and HubbaBubbapink lipstick. She had a big bush of tight curly black hair on her head and a bush of tight curly black hair between her legs and jalopies like floppy rugbyballs with giant chocolate buttons stuck on them. 

    We tried to decide if there were any differences between a white woman’s bits and bobs and a black woman‘s bits and bobs and Luke turned the pages from one to another and back again.   

    She's got a hairier noona, I go.

    Like a bloody Brillo pad, goes Luke.     

    And she’s got the biggest jalopies, I go.

    Not as big as your mum’s, goes Luke.

    You haven’t seen my mum’s, I go.

    Have.

    Liar!

    When?

    Not telling.

    Liar! You’re a bloody liar.

    I’m not. I’ve seen them.   

    Don’t talk about my mum’s jalopies or I’ll bloody kill you, I go and the tingles started. In my fingers. Running over my head.    

    I snatched the magazine out of his hand. I flung it on the ground. Wesley had the box of Swan in his hand. He struck a match and phoooosh! the tanktop burst into flame. Luke jumped backwards.    

    What d’you that for? he goes. You said I could light it! You promised I could do it.

    I threw the burning branch on the den’s roof. It laid there on the branches. Flames reaching up. All around it the sundried leaves began to curl and shrivel and blacken like the corners of burning paper.

    The twigs caught. 

    The strips of hairy bark.

    Bloody trees are catching light. Look! Look there! goes Wesley. He cheered like when the Reds scored a goal.

    Yellow orange green flames spread quickly across the den’s roof and climbed upwards. Climbed higher. They twisted through and around the dry twigs and sticks and branches like dozens of grasssnakes let out of a sack. Smoke snuck through the treetops for the sky. I could feel the heat of the fire on my face. Burning scorching hot. Through the crisscross of branches and the gaps in the pallet I saw a smaller bonfire starting below. The pile of magazines Luke had said was in there had caught light and the den lit up like Dad’s Tilly lamp. 

    We’ve got to put it out, goes Luke. Before it gets worse.

    No, I go. We said we were going to burn their den down. Because of what they did to our den.     

    We didn’t say the woods and all. We didn’t say that, goes Luke.

    Shut up! I go. 

    I stared at Luke and I couldn’t stop the anger coming. Couldn’t stop it sneaking under my skin and start to do what it did to me. 

    I could feel it colouring up inside me. Could feel a cold clammy burning on my skin. My nose lips fingertips fizzed. My head fuzzed. My heart stammered hammered stuttered and skipped. Everything was blurry. Everything moved away. Everything got smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see anything at all. 

    Stop looking at me like that. You’re bloody scaring me, Plum, goes Luke. I'm going home. 

    You’re not going home, goes Wesley.

    You're not going nowhere, I go.

    We're going to bloody kill you, Luke Little, goes Wesley. 

    We're going to kill you dead, I go.

    We're going to throw you on the fire, go me and Wesley together. We're going to burn you dead because you didn't tell the truth about what Neville done to us. 

    I grabbed him by his hair and Wesley grabbed him by his arms. He struggled and tugged and yanked and pulled and screamed but we wouldn’t let him go.  

    We'd been waiting a long time to kill Luke Little.

From,

The Meaningless Killing of Luke Little

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