It can be terrifying being dragged into the adult world if you’ve had a carefree childhood. But it’s a vital part of conditioning and learning to deal with danger. I was threatened, and so were several of my friends, by a man who hung around our school for a few days and then was gone. He boasted about prison and I’ve no doubt he’d done time, but his greatest pleasure was the fear he could instill in kids. It went something like this……
Albert and Meg ran three chip shops in town – a fact that amazed visitors to any of their premises. A balding man with a squint and thick-rimmed spectacles spotted with chip fat, Albert shuffled across the frying area in a faded white coat and crimson carpet slippers. He’d pause and squint between filling the fryer and his hand would shake when he reached for portions of sauce. Customers from out of town thought they could take liberties with Albert, but they were wrong. His hand would snake out faster than a flyweight’s to snare small change, moving in a blur above the pale Formica. There was nothing wrong with Albert’s business sense either. People said he owned a pub, three other shops and a chain of hairdressers. Some said he’d sold land to the people who built AltonTowers.
Albert coughed and wiped his hands on his overalls. I was too hungry to care. Albert poured a bucket of chips into the fryer and pulled out a golden piece of cod. I ordered my cheese and chips. Mary, who worked weekday lunchtimes, glared at me from under her tight, frizzy perm. She hated us kids filling the shop and making her work harder. She begrudged us squeezing ketchup from the bottles on the counter. I’d heard her telling Albert he should charge us for sachets.
‘Change,’ she said, and slid the coins across the counter.
I prodded a chip with my wood fork and blew on it. Butler was running around outside making chimp noises with Danny Speed’s head wedged under his arm. A pensioner loaded with bulging carrier bags scowled at him and sought refuge in the bakery. At least Butler hadn’t seen me. I knew he’d be picking his moment. I went round the back of the shops and sat on the off-licence fire escape. The cheese had melted into the chips. I spiked a cheesy chip and swallowed it whole.
‘Don’t mind if I do,’ a gruff voice said.
I froze, feeling the touch of a hand on my shoulder.
‘I’m fucking starving, kid.’
The man from the Castle stepped out from behind a metal bin. I backed away as he walked up and snatched the chips. His ice-cold fingertips brushed my wrist and I jerked away.
‘You eaten?’ he said.
I shook my head.
‘Bet you ate this morning?’
‘Well I haven’t. You got any money?’
‘No,’ I said.
My voice broke, so it barely registered a squeak. He laughed and shoved more chips into his face.
‘Empty your pockets,’ he said.
I looked around. Butler was kicking a pebble.
‘Don’t mess around, son.’
‘I’m not,’ I said.
He thrust out a hand and gripped my chin.
‘Don’t fuck around with me. You wouldn’t like to see me angry.’
His breath was like sour milk. I patted my trouser pocket and showed him a handful of coins in my palm.
‘That all you got?’
He took the coins, dropping them into his shirt pocket.
‘Not going to get me far is it?’
‘I’ve done nothing to hurt you,’ I said.
He let go of my face and told me to sit down.
‘Shut up. You’re giving me earache.’
I waited while he finished the rest of the chips. Butler had gone. The bell would be ringing for afternoon classes. I thought about running but the bottom of the fire escape was blocked, and if I ran up the stairs I feared becoming trapped. He watched me as he gorged on the chips.
‘Can’t run away so easy this time.’
He grinned, revealing tobacco-stained teeth and a dark cavity in his gum. He filled the void with the last forkful of chips.
‘I haven’t eaten properly for days. Know why?’
I said I didn’t.
‘I’m on the run, that’s why.’