“Let’s go up that hill”, Steve said, pointing at a grassy knoll just visible behind a row of houses. I was staying with Steve at his mother’s house in Cambridge, spending half term at her cute little cottage in the country. Steve was not my best friend or anything: it was the only offer I’d had to get away from the prison-like restrictions of our all boys boarding school in the wilds of Scotland. We’d walked towards the city, with the idea of trying to get into a pub Steve assured me would serve us, even though we were both only fifteen. I was not really keen on a climbing expedition, in fact I was bored, but followed him up a winding path through some rhododendron bushes that stank of piss to the top of the hill. It was only a few hundred feet high, and had a few sheep grazing on the sloping grass meadow on the top. The ruins of an old stone folly were perched on the top. We sat down on some rubble from the ruins. We had a view of the whole valley, and could see two other villages in the distance, the rolling hills, soft in the thin drizzle that was falling, looking much as they must have centuries earlier, an effect spoiled however by the livid gash of a motorway about five miles away.
“Surprise!” Steve said loudly, pulling a bottle from his pocket. It was a half bottle of whisky, unopened. He twisted the top off, took a swig, and passed me the bottle. It stung my throat, made my eyes water, burned my nose as I stifled a sneeze. I coughed and passed him the bottle, feeling the liquor burning its way down to my guts.
“What the fuck is that stuff?” I asked.
“Finest malt, my boy. Glenlaggan.”
I’d never heard of it. We lit cigarettes and sat there silently for a while, passing the bottle back and forth and surveying the rural scene around us. Two curious sheep stood about ten feet away from us, watching us.
“What happened to your dad?”, I asked, then immediately regretted it. Normally I don’t ask people questions like that, in case they say they’re dead, and then you don’t know what to say. A pained look flickered across his face, and for a moment he looked much older.
“He ran off years ago”. Steve said, with an air of sadness. “I’ve never seen him since.” He took a large swig from the bottle and passed it to me, then walked off towards the sheep. I felt a bit embarrassed. Steve got down on all fours and inched towards one of the sheep, which looked at him quizzically, a bit confused. He got to within ten feet of it, then it turned tail and ran off, startling the other sheep which all ran off behind the folly and down a slope on the far side. Steve came back, and took the bottle off me, standing with his legs apart facing me.
“Neb, do you ever think about what you’re going to do when you leave school?, he asked, swaying sideways. He’d stuck his finger in the neck of the bottle, and was swinging it back and forwards in time with the swaying of his body.
“Not really”, I answered, “Haven’t a clue, really.” Actually, I did think about it sometimes, but everything I ever thought of was impractical. Sometimes I wanted to be an actor. I practised whenever I could, with strangers, pretending I was someone else. Most of all I wanted to be an astronaut, but since Britain didn’t have a space program, it seemed a bit unlikely. “Why? Do you?”
“No. Sometimes I think I should. I used to want to be a criminal, a bank robber or something, but I couldn’t stand the thought of going to jail. I’m not as clever as you, so I guess I’ll end up doing something really boring.”
“Lots of clever people have boring jobs”, I replied, not liking where the conversation was going. My parents were always on at me about career choices. I was too young to be thinking about the rest of my life. I’d just fall into something eventually. Sometimes I envy people who know where they’re going, and sometimes I pity them. I was sure I’d end up all right.
“Why are you talking about this now?” I asked, snatching the bottle from his finger. It made a strange “whoop” noise as his finger came out of the bottle. The whisky was nearly finished.
“Oh, I don’t know, I just sometimes wonder what it’s all about. You know, you see these married couples with kids looking like they really hate it, or single people looking lonely, and there just don’t seem to be many choices. You’re fucked whatever you do.”
“You’re too young to be thinking like that, Steve”, I answered. I’d never seen him get maudlin before. “For fucks sake, you’re sixteen and nothings happened yet, so shut up and enjoy yourself while you can!” I was beginning to get a bit pissed off with him. I downed the rest of the whisky and threw the bottle away behind me, heard it break. I hoped none of the sheep would stand on the broken glass. It wasn’t their fault I was annoyed. Steve sensed my mood.
“Bars are open!” he exclaimed, looking at his watch. “Last one down the hill buys the first round!”
We raced each other down the hill, laughing like little kids. I was in front until I tripped on a root and tumbled headlong into some rhododendrons. I extricated myself and walked the rest of the way down the hill. Steve was waiting at the bottom, wheezing. He wasn’t the fittest person I knew. We went into a bar called the Red Dragon. An old guy with unkempt grey hair sat reading a newspaper behind a small wooden bar. He put down his paper and stood up.
“Morning’ lads”, he greeted us in a West Country drawl, “What’ll ye be havin’?” He only had about three teeth, which were yellow and black. He was wearing a woollen jumper, even though it was stiflingly hot in the bar. There was a log fire burning in an old fireplace on the right hand side of the bar. I surveyed the line of pumps.
“Two pints of Adnams, please”, I said, then took off my coat and sat on a rickety wooden stool. There was no-one else in the bar.
“You’re both eighteen, are you?”, the barman asked as he pulled our pints.
“Oh yes”, I replied,” In fact it’s Steven’s eighteenth birthday today. You’re pouring his first legal pint.”
“In that case, his first one’s on the house”, the barman said, ceremoniously putting a pint in front of Steve. “Happy birthday, young man!” Steve lifted the pint, which hadn’t settled yet, and took a sip.
“Cheers”, he said.
I was already feeling a bit pissed from the whisky, and for some reason was feeling a bit depressed. The beer tasted like it was full of rust, and my left eye was sore. I went for a piss, and afterwards looked at my eye in the mirror. It was a bit red, but I couldn’t see anything in it. I looked at myself in the mirror. Straight on, I didn’t look too bad, I supposed, but my profile view showed up my nose, too big, and hooked, like you see on some of those old Roman statues. Years of being referred to as “Neb” had probably given me a complex about it, and my lack of luck with girls hadn’t helped. I was terrified of girls. The last holidays, back in Botswana, I had once plucked up the courage to ask a girl out. Her name was Betty, and she’d been born in Botswana , though her parents were South African. She was quite popular, and had gone out for a while with Terry Dutoit, who always had his pick of the young white girls. She’d burst out laughing at my invitation to go to the movies, not helping my confidence. Bitch.
Steve and the barman were talking about punk rock. Steve thought it was an artistic expression of teenage angst and despair. The barman thought it was crap. Without noise silence could not exist. In five days I would be back at school, uniforms, punishment and tedium. I could think of better ways to spend my five days of freedom than listening to a geriatric alcoholic barman expounding his views on youth culture. I drained my beer glass and put it down with a loud whack on the bar counter, picked up my cigarettes and put them in my jacket pocket. The duffel coat had been rubbing my neck raw. Steve looked at me.
“Where are we going “, he asked.
“I don’t know. I’m bored.” The barman scowled at me. He’d just been getting going. Steve got up and we left, just as a bus pulled into the bus stop across the road.
Half an hour later we were on the top storey of a multi-storey car park releasing huge bombs of gob at people walking fifty feet below. You had to take account of the wind, the size and viscosity of the droplet, and the speed of the passing pedestrian. Steve dropped a huge one which exploded with a loud splat we could hear from above, in the path of a woman pushing a pram. She looked up, and I waved at her. She scowled and walked off hurriedly in the direction of the shopping centre. Then I released one I had spent a few minutes preparing, sucking phlegm out of my nose and collecting it in my mouth. I was just getting over a cold, so the consistency was like jam. I lent out over the concrete wall, and slowly forced it out of my mouth, my tongue and lips forming a low pressure nozzle. I could see a bald guy in a suit , rushing along the pavement, a high-speed target. The massive ball of phlegm and gob hung from my lips like some chemical weapon poised to wreak havoc. Too soon. I sucked the ball back as I watched the man. Now! I ejected the lump and it spiralled downwards, with a long spermatazoic tail trailing in its wake. Steve was doing a commentary.
“It’s going to hit, it’s going to hit!”, his voice rising as the two objects closed. I wondered what the terminal velocity of gob was. For a second I lost sight of it as the bald pate , almost the same colour, appeared directly in the trajectory of my missile. Then a loud splat, almost the same sound as Steve’s shot hitting the pavement, and the mans hand went to the top of his head and came away covered in green slime and clear saliva, like someone had just broken a lava-lamp over his head. He wiped it on his trousers and looked up, a menacing scowl appearing on his face as he saw our grinning faces leaning over the parapet above. He turned round and disappeared from view below us. We ran off laughing like maniacs, down the concrete stairwell to the next level, burst through some double doors into the next level. A woman was struggling to get a pram in the boot of her car a few feet away, holding a baby with one arm and not being able to get the right angle to swing the collapsed pram up and over the lip of the boot. She swung it up and it crashed into the back of the car. The baby started screaming at the top of it’s voice, a primeval wail that echoed around the concrete and sent shivers up the spine. She looked like she was going to cry. Steve was looking through the little rectangular pane of wire-reinforced glass in the door to see if my target was coming after me, oblivious to all except the wild entertainment of the last few minutes. I walked over to the woman, who shied away like a timid dog that wants to be stroked but is scared it will get a whack instead.
“Can I help you?”, I asked her, and she looked straight into my eyes, hers big white ovals, a whole world of suburban reality staring at this young unkempt misfit from hell standing before her in a grubby black duffel coat with snot on the right sleeve. I gently grasped the pram, and for a second she resisted. She was quite small, and reminded me of a rabbit staring at headlights, not sure which way to bolt. I lifted the pram into the boot, closed it, took the keys out of the lock and handed them to her. I reached across, and she flinched as I touched the babies face lightly, making silly baby sounds. The baby stopped crying, and smiled softly.
“Oh thank you, thank you!” she gushed, backing round the car towards the drivers door, smiling insincerely. She strapped the baby into a child seat in the rear of the Escort, flipped back the seat and got in. I waved at her as she drove off, and she waved back as the car dipped down the ramp to the next level. I could hear the little bursts of acceleration as the car reached each succeeding level. I felt really weird. Steve was standing looking at me as if he’d just seen a miracle. It was like first contact between alien species. I couldn’t help wondering if her profuse relief was at the fact that I wasn’t a homicidal juvenile rapist or at the help I had given her. I knew she’d think about it all day. Maybe she wouldn’t assume all teenagers were hooligans in future.
Probably to her cost.