It was a good place to look at girls, Neville said. If you hung over far enough you could see down their dresses as they glided by below. We'd watched a few already but Neville hadn't been impressed.
"Scrubbers, all of them." he scoffed.
Then he suddenly went quiet, just gazing down at this woman curled in the back of a punt like some exotic pet. Everything about her was slinky and tight-fitting, from her stretchy white top to the avalanche of glossy yellow hair tumbling down onto her bare shoulders.
"You're my angel," breathed Midge with awe.
At the back of the punt a powerfully built chap was crouching with the pole, a thick tuft of hair peeping out above the third button of his shirt.
"Lucky bastard," I said under my breath
Neville was unusually quiet.
The man shot a proud look at us. My gaze dodged his and lost itself in the soft skin of her tummy. For a moment I fancied my cheek was nestled in that warm spot. I was only vaguely aware of a sudden smell of lilac and, out of the corner of my eye, some sort of string stretching down then snapping off into a fat blob which now curved lazily through the morning air.
She twitched, lazily brushing whatever it was off her arm. The man glanced up, down and up at us once more and his expression turned slowly from pride to astonishment to . . . but we didn't see because we were already away, our feet slapping the warm asphalt of the road. At the High Street we lurched down an alley and bunched together, gasping for breath.
"Why did you do that?" Midge was furious. "What did you have to go and gob on her for?"
"To see the look on your face," said Neville, laughing.
"Her boyfriend will be after us now," I said.
"Who's scared of boyfriends?" Neville's scornful eyes were as blue as pigeon's eggs.
We loafed around the town centre for a while and then Neville spotted Jamie. He was shuffling along the pavement looking at his feet. He'd bought some new shoes, what did we think?
"Not bad," said Neville. "What you up to?"
"Nothing. I'm skint," Jamie turned his feet this way and that.
"Don't worry, Midge's flush. Aren't you Midge old mate?" Midge smiled shyly.
Jamie agreed to come with us to the White Hart. His bristly chin and gravel voice always help get the drinks in. We squeezed through the hole in the hedge and walked over to a wooden table like it was the most natural thing in the world. A couple at the other table stopped making calf eyes at each other and stared our way instead. Neville pulled a face and they looked away.
Jamie came out to the garden with the pints, feeling his way over the uneven stones with his big shiny shoes, just as Neville began telling us about this girl he had met. He was always telling us about this or that girl. This one was a friend of his sister Molly's and he could tell right away she was hot for him. So when Molly was out of the room he'd gone up to her and said, fancy coming up to my room later?
Midge swallowed. "What did she say?"
"She said yes. Well, I tried to stay awake but I dropped off, didn't I? Some time in the middle of the night I wake up and there's a girl in my bed. I tell you, she had this amazing body. Could have been a model any day."
"So what did you do?" I was glad Midge had asked it and not me. Neville's stories always made me feel funny. I wanted to know and I didn't want to know. I never let on I hadn't been with a woman. I'd even made up some stories so as not to lose face. If they'd been true maybe I'd have enjoyed telling them like Neville did his. Maybe everyone else would have felt good and bad together like I did then.
"What do you think I did, you sap? What do men and women do together in the sack?"
Midge pursed his boyish lips resentfully. If Neville liked women so much why did he go around gobbing on them, he wanted to know.
"Goody bloody two shoes. And is it nice to go nicking money off your Mum?"
Midge hung his head. "Gonna have a piss," he mumbled, shuffling off. For a moment I thought of going after him and saying something. After all, if Midge hadn't had his hand in his mother's purse we wouldn't have been sitting around drinking beer. I stayed put all the same.
"God that boy's a tosser. Why do we put up with him?" said Neville. "What's wrong with a bit of gobbing, anyway?" He grinned, leaned over and carefully released a gob of spittle into Midge's beer. He swilled it around a little, then passed it on to Jamie who stared at him stupidly. "Haven't you got anything to add?"
"Oh, yeah, right," mumbled Jamie. He made a horrible soup-dragon sound in his throat and hawked up some green stuff which also went in the glass. The couple at the next table had stopped talking and were looking over at us again. Jamie smiled back amiably. "Hold on a sec." He strained a moment, lowered the glass to his bum and let out a long fart. We all hooted with laughter. Neville took the glass and passed it over to me with a serious face.
"Your turn," he said. I hesitated. Midge was a nuisance, a bit of a wanker. But did he deserve this? Neville fixed me with his ice-blue eyes and I added my share of spittle to the glass.
Midge came back out to the garden looking like a dog someone had kicked.
"Drink up mate, it's your next round," said Neville cheerfully.
"Don't mind if I do," Midge said in a false, chirpy voice. He picked it up, foam bobbing around merrily, and took three deep gulps.
"Ahhh," he sighed, wiping his mouth. "Good stuff this." There was a moment's silence. Then a beery spray erupted from Jamie's mouth and set us all off floundering on the benches fighting for breath while Midge sat there wondering what the joke was but knowing full well that it was himself. "Good stuff! . . . it bloody is!" wailed Neville, slapping his thighs and almost rolling off his seat.
When Midge had almost finished his pint, Neville told him what his mates had done. Midge's mouth writhed and the folds of skin around his eyes went red as if he had swallowed something much more bitter than a mouthful of gob.
"Nah, nah. I was only joking. We wouldn't do something like that." said Neville hurriedly. But you could tell Midge thought we might.
The barwoman came out into the garden carrying fresh drinks for the calf-eyed couple . She began taking away ashtrays and empty glasses. She was a mean-looking old boot but her movements were as nimble as a dancer's. Her flea eyes jumped on us and I found myself fidgeting like a seven-year-old.
"How did you lot get in here?"
"Would you be so kind as to bring us another round of bitters?" said Neville his winning smile bouncing harmlessly off her flint face.
"We don't do table service here."
"What about them, then?"
"They're friends. How old are you? You got any ID?"
Neville shrugged off his false charm. "Old enough to give you a good seeing to," he said, smiling his mean smile. The barwoman turned her back and went inside.
I was all for going out the way we'd come in before there was any trouble but Neville didn't think she had taken his words badly. "Flattered, more like," he said.
So we sat it out until a man came and told us we'd had our fun and it was time to go. He had a waxy complexion with deep wine-coloured folds under his eyes and his waistcoat buttons seemed in danger of bursting as he leaned over us. Midge headed for the hole in the hedge.
"Not that way," said the man. "Through the door like civilised people." Out on the street he wagged a porky finger in our faces. "I don't want to see you lot here again, understood?"
We kicked our heels around in the weak autumn sun until Jamie said his new shoes were hurting and went off home. Midge wanted to go to the arcade. There was a great new game there, you get on this bike and . . .
"That's kid's stuff," said Neville.
We passed a corner shop run by some Pakis. It was the only place where the booze wasn't behind the counter. Neville told us to go in and nick a bottle of Scotch. He'd go himself only . . .
The storekeeper was crouched behind the till, motionless except for his dark eyes which followed me around the shop. I bought a packet of frazzles and dropped my change among chocolate bars in front of the counter. Midge came along beside me and bought a packet of polos. Once we were outside we raced off round the corner shouting and Midge proudly pulled a bottle out from under his coat.
"What the fuck's that?" screamed Neville. "It's green!"
"Cremdemont," said Midge proudly. "My nan brought some last Christmas. It's brilliant."
The thick green liquid tasted like toothpaste. I liked it. Neville said it tasted like shit, but that didn't stop him swigging off most of the bottle. We sat on a wall by the road passing it round and watching the street lights go on one by one. When it was finished, we put the bottle on the wall and threw pebbles at it. But we ended up with dead arms because we couldn't throw straight. Eventually Neville smashed it on the road. The tarmac glittered and the diamonds of glass winked at us with each passing headlight. We sat around for a while watching the cars drive over the jagged fragments and giggling like idiots.
"Let's go to the arcade," said Midge.
"Bugger the arcade," said Neville. "I've got a better idea," He took us round to the park and pointed to a couple of benches halfway across. There was a lonely figure sitting very upright on one of them.
"The girls that sit on that bench are waiting for a man to go and ask them for a fuck," he said.
"Get away," whispered Midge.
"It's true. Midge, this is your big chance to get your leg over. Just go up there and grab her."
"What if she's a real dog?"
"Beggars can't be choosers."
"I dunno . . ."
"Go for it!"
"It's just that . . . well . . . why me?"
"OK. Midge's bottling out. You game Steve?"
There was no getting out of it, no way without losing face. So I trudged out towards the bench, my shoes getting sodden in the grass. Maybe it wasn't a girl at all. If it was a man out there I could come back and we'd all laugh about it and go home. But as I approached I could see it wasn't a man.
I sat down on the other end of the bench and sneaked a look: her mousy hair trembled in the breeze and her tired eyes stared straight out ahead into the gloom. I inched my fingers out toward her thigh, my heart bouncing in my chest. She didn't start. She just gave me a long slow look then brushed my hand away.
"Go back to your mummy," she said, but not unkindly.
"Won't you go with me?"
"I don't go with kids."
"I'm not at school," I lied. "I left ages ago."
"You couldn't afford it, anyway."
"If I save up will you go with me?"
She frowned at me a moment, then a smile broke through like the sun on a winter's day. "Listen, you seem a nice kid. Find yourself a girl your own age. Only fools pay for sex. Now run along, your friends are waiting for you."
I walked back and this time I felt as if my feet were skimming several inches above the dewy grass. She'd liked me, there was no doubting that!
Neville was breathless with excitement. "What happened? Why didn't you go with her?"
She wanted money, I told him. Midge wanted to know how much I needed. He was sure he could get it and then we'd go together.
"Forget it, Midge. I don't need to pay to get laid." I said grandly.
We walked back through the town centre in silence. It was only nine o'clock but there was no one around and the streets were eerily quite. By the library we took a short cut to the bus station down the path behind the houses. A tang of smouldering leaves hung in the chill air. Up ahead there was a patch of orange light and beyond that two figures swaddled in darkness. We crossed under the throbbing sodium light and the two men eyeballed us closely.
"I think that was the guy who's girl you spat on," I whispered to Neville. We both glanced back. The two of them were still standing under the light, still staring at us. Then the big one gave a yell and ran towards us.
Without a word, we took off down the passage, our feet clattering on the concrete slabs. Midge was a few steps ahead and Neville a pace behind. Way up ahead a car passed on the road. Flat out, I cast a glance over my shoulder: they were only a couple of houses behind us and gaining fast. They'd catch us up way before we got to the end of the passage. Midge was pulling ahead.
"Slow down, you bastard," Neville gasped and Midge obediently went into a jog and floated back to us. Then I saw Neville's leg stretch out - it must have been an accident - and Midge went down, rolling over and over on the stones.
Neville slowed a moment then sprinted on. I turned in time to see Midge scrambling to his feet. He was on all fours but the men were on him now and the big one threw him to the ground. Midge's glasses fell off and he rolled into a ball as they began kicking him again and again.
I turned again and fled. A hollow patter of footfalls echoed down towards me. Neville was up there ahead somewhere. But the tears welling up in my eyes kept me from seeing exactly where, and I ran on half blind towards the shifting lights before me.