Carl and Toby

  1. YOU’D JUST MOVED TO BLAKE STREET

and you were watching Dad and his mate Ellis carry a new settee. Mum was washing up. She’d just put Yvonne to sleep in her cot. There was a knock at the door. It was that kid you’d met on the way to the co-op.

“Are you coming out?” he asked. “Got summat to show you.”

You followed him to his back yard.

“What do you think of that?”

On the path was a home made go-cart. There were two big pram wheels on the back and two small wheels on the front.

The kid sat on the box seat. “This is how you steer it,” he said as he tugged the rope and pushed his feet to move the front wheels first one way then the other. Then he took hold of a stick on the far side.

“This is going to be the brake,” he said. You agreed it was fantastic. “Do you want a go?”

He stood up and offered you the rope. Before you could take it, an older boy in a leather jacket came into the yard. He spat a cigarette to the ground, stepped on it then strolled to the cart. He snatched the rope away from the kid.

“I thought I told you it wasn’t finished yet.”

“Sorry, Terry.”

He glared at you. “And who are you?”

“He’s just moved in.”

“Number 42?”

You nodded.

“What’s your name?”

“Carl.”

The older boy nodded. “Good name.” He strolled towards the door. “And Toby. Leave the cart alone.”

Toby waved you to follow him. There was no sign of the older boy. Toby opened the fridge, took out a bottle of milk and drank.

“Want some?” he said.

You shook your head. The thought of those little bits of sour milk on the top of the bottle put you off, to say nothing of someone else’s mouth smearing the glass.

He held out the bottle to you. “I didn’t backwash.”

“No.” You turned away from him.

“Tell you what.” Toby put the milk back in the fridge. “Do you fancy an ice lolly?”

You wondered what chilled milk would be like. You kept your milk on a shelf at the top of the cellar steps. Now he was offering a rare treat. Ice. Lolly.

He told you to stand by the door. “In case my mum comes downstairs.”

He took a chair, stood on it and reached up to the mantelpiece. He took a purse, opened it and took out a coin. Then he replaced the chair and you both left by the back door and Toby began to run. You watched him run away from you until he stopped and turned.

“Come on,” he called and waved a hand.

You stood motionless, not wanting or daring to move, as Toby returned to you. He asked what was the matter.

“Whose purse was that?”

He told you it was his mother’s but that she wouldn’t mind. “She knows how much I like ice lollies.”

“But.” You didn’t get any further. Toby grabbed your sleeve and tugged. You resisted but he stood very close to you.

“She’d want you to have one too,” he hissed. “Besides, I only had a lend. I’ll pay her back.”

Just before he opened the shop door Toby asked if you wanted a Jubbly instead of a lolly. “They’re bigger aren’t they?”

There was fourpence change out of the shilling he’d lifted from the purse and he asked to see the penny tray.

Soon, you were both sitting in the corner of the field, your backs against the black hut. The pyramid shaped block of orange ice was bigger than a lolly. Toby sat and slurped and giggled as it melted into the weird shaped packet. You sucked no pleasure from the Jubbly, pretended to squeeze too hard and drop it on the crumbs of earth. You drank the watery juice that was left in the bottom. 

“I go to St Francis Catholic Primary.” Toby belched and laughed. “Mum and dad think it’s a better school because our teachers are nuns.” He belched again.

“Let’s go get my go-cart,” he said as he handed you a blackjack and a fruit salad. Without thinking, you got the chewy sweets stuck in your teeth as you went back to Toby’s house.

All the wheels and all the wood was piled on the grass. Someone had taken the go cart to bits. You followed him indoors again. His mum sat by the table. She had been crying and she had a cigarette in the hand she leaned her chin on.

“Toby-ash,” she said. “What you eating?”

He stopped still, looked at you and then at his mum. “Nothing,” he muttered and shrugged his shoulders.

Mrs Barczak stood up and took hold of Toby’s arm. “I think you eat sweeties.”

“Oh.” He shrugged from her grip. “I thought you meant food, like a sandwich.”

“Where you get money for sweeties?”

He told her that you had used your spending money to buy some chews. “From the penny tray.”

Mrs Barczak turned to you. “That is very kind of you, to share your things in this way.”

You said nothing but looked over her head and saw the picture of Jesus revealing his heart. The chewy fruit sweet congealed as you gulped, swallowed. Now a white blemish would appear on your tongue or lips. Auntie Evelyn told you that’s what happened when you lied.

Mrs Barczak sniffed. She sat down again and held her head in her hands. Her back heaved as she sobbed. “I had to get food on tick,” she howled. “I thought I had money in purse.”

Toby grinned at you and winked.

ii) A COUPLE OF DAYS LATER

There’s a knock at the back door. It was that Toby kid.

“You coming out?”

You shook your head. “Busy.”

He kicked against the doorstep. “This aft?”

“Maybe.”

iii) THEN THAT AFTERNOON

You took your football into the yard and practised kicking with your left foot like Dad had told you. After a couple of minutes Toby appeared.

“Heard you kicking the ball,” he said.

You didn’t say anything but kept passing the ball against the wall from one foot to the other.

“Do you want a go on my go cart?”

You trapped the ball under your foot and glared at Toby.

“You told a lie about me,” you said. “Telling lies is wrong.”

Toby didn’t say anything. He bent over and picked at a scab on his knee. You started kicking the ball again but Toby stepped in and booted it really hard. The ball flew over the wall. You turned, grabbed Toby’s arm and hit him then pushed him backwards. He staggered and fell on his back. You towered over him, fists clenched. He put his hands over his face.

“Don’t,” he whimpered. “Don’t hurt me.”

“Go get my ball then.” Your fists were still clenched.

Mum came out, drying her hands on a tea towel. “What’s going on? Who’s this?”

“I’m Toby.”

“He’s just kicked my ball into the street,” you shouted, “and I’m making him get it back.”

“Sorry,” Toby said.

“You, Carl, can stop shouting and calm down.” Mum held a hand out to Toby. He took it and she helped him to his feet. “It can’t have gone far.”

“But he booted it on purpose.”

“I said calm down.”

You chewed the inside of your lip. There was a pink mark on Toby’s cheek. Mum swept her hand over his shirt.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

He nodded and went to get the ball.

Mum glared at you. “Sometimes,” she said. “I don’t know where you get it from.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s him you need to be sorry to. All he did was kick your ball.”

“You don’t understand.”

She waved a finger and shook her head.

“Tell him you’re sorry,” she said. “Now.”

Toby stood behind you with the ball in his hand. “Sorry,” he mumbled as he handed the ball over.

You stood and looked at the sky.

“Carl,” said Mum.

You said the word.

iv) BIG BROTHER’S STORY

“There was this old woman who lived where you live now and she had this cat. It was a great big cat the size of a dog. It went everywhere with her. She took it to the shops. She took it to the club. She even took it to the woods with her. I saw her. She had it on a lead. But when they got to the woods she let it off the lead and it sniffed around and sat and listened and the old woman sat on a toadstool and listened. They heard birds singing. They saw birds flying. They watched birds perch in trees.

Eventually the cat dashed off and disappeared. The old woman grinned because she knew what was going on. Soon the cat returned with a blackbird in its mouth which it dropped dead at the woman’s feet. She put the dead bird in a bag and stroked the cat.

Good girl she said.

Well, the cat caught quite a few birds and then the old woman stood up, brushed herself down and clicked her tongue. They walked back to her house. The house you live in now. And when they got there she took the beaks and legs and feathers off the birds. Then she used her long finger nails to rip them open and take their insides out. Can you guess what she did next? Well she cooked them and ate them. She fed some to the cat. It was their special treat.

Somebody told me her cat caught rats and took them to her, he whispered. But I don’t believe that. Then Toby’s big brother got really close, gripped your arm. Pinched you. His breath smelled sour, dirty. The old woman’s lips were red like blood. She always wore gloves. Velvet gloves. They’re quieter. Velvet gloves stained red. She vanished. Maybe she’s still inside. Nobody knows. Perhaps she’s been shoved in the cellar with all the dirt. I haven’t seen her for ages. Have you, Toby? Toby shook his head. She had a cat, he said, a great big hairy cat that went with her. Everywhere. They say it still lives in her house. Your house now.

So you’d better watch out.”

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