by Tom Husband.
If the spirit of adventure had led me into my unfortunate meeting with Randall, I might have handled it better. I’d strayed off the beaten path down a gloomy alleyway that ran between the back of the science block and the perimeter of our lavish school grounds. I could have been carelessly wandering our lush green field but instead I was mooching past the neglected flower bed that lined the boundary fence, with its shrivelled foliage and faint smell of compost. A pain like a bee sting erupted on the back of my thigh.
Struggling not to flinch, I turned to see Randall, who’d just joined the school in year 9. He had a plaster over his left earlobe, which I realised must cover a contraband piercing. Randall had used an elastic band to flick a tightly folded piece of paper at me and it stung like venom. The week before, footballer Eric Cantona had kung fu kicked spectator Richard Simmons for calling his mum a ‘French whore’. I would have just ignored Richard Simmons until he went away. That’s what I did now: pretended the paper bullet hadn’t hurt and hoped that Randall would go away.
By year 10 I was in a friendship group with Randall and two other lads, called Ellis and Dougal. Ellis had a chin that could split paving stones, while Dougal was preternaturally mature. He’d become the man of the house after his dad left. As a result, he was quite like Cantona. He would not tolerate jokes about his mum and if pushed, he settled his disputes the same way. I was invited to take up a vacancy in the group on condition of three explicitly-stated terms. One: don’t be so posh, two: don’t be so clever, three: reject rock music and my dodgy torn jeans, and instead embrace the sub-culture of rave music. They met more girls than I did, so I accepted.
Randall felt he led the group, just because he had so much more life experience than the rest of us. Like he had lost his virginity eight times. He only managed to tell the truth if it hurt someone’s feelings, a motivational speaker for our already screeching inner critics.
‘So what went wrong with you and Jenny last night?’ he might say.
‘What are you on about? We were getting off with each other and then we went back to chilling with our mates.’
‘Not another girl who thinks you’re a shit kisser?’
‘No, she didn’t say that.’
‘She said it to Ellis when she was getting off with him.’
‘Thanks for that.’
But he was not without a conscience. ‘Oh no, have I gone and put my size nine boot in it?’
‘Get lost, Randall.’
‘I’m gonna dance anyway, love this song.’
You’re no good for me, I don’t need nobody, don’t need no one, that’s no good for me.
We were all having tea before setting off for the roller disco one evening, when I made a club sandwich with peanut butter, cheese and honey.
‘That’s a mingin’ sandwich,’ said Randall.
‘Nah it ant,’ I said, enunciating my Ts with elocution to make the queen shimmy with delight.
‘Nah-i-aint,’ said Dougal, rolling his eyes.
‘I beg your pardon?’ I said.
‘It ain’t, “nah it ant”,’ said Randall, aping my posh voice, ‘it’s “nah-i-ain’t”.’
‘Oh I see, with a sort of glottal stop?’
Dougal heaved a sigh and slapped his own forehead.
I began eating my sandwich. ‘Chaps, this is delicious. Um…, innit?’
‘Nah-i-ain’t,’ said Randall. ‘I made well better sandwiches than that.’
Randall was unable to recreate these culinary masterpieces because all the spreads and fillings he’d used had since moved away to other cities. He scraped his chin-length blonde hair back into a ponytail, exposing the shaved sides of his head.
I went to the bathroom and a clean plate greeted my return.
‘Where’s my sandwich?’ I asked.
‘You’ve ett it,’ said Randall, shrugging.
‘Nah I aint,’ I said.
Dougal was flicking through a motorbike magazine, gazing at pictures of the new Suzuki Bandit.
‘I’ll rack you.’
They both laughed. ‘It’s, “I’ll rag you”, not rack.’
‘Right, well, I’ll rag you. Innit?’
‘Is it?’ said Randall.
Dougal looked me up and down and then returned to his magazine. ‘It isn’t,’ he said. We all knew I wasn’t going to be beating anyone up.
‘Are you sure you didn’t eat it?’ asked Ellis, who’d been gazing at himself in the mirror, eliminating blackheads.
‘Yeah,’ said Randall. ‘Remember the other day you was bangin’ on and on about how much you was enjoying your toast and then you looked down and you was all, “where’s my toast?” and we was all, “you’ve ett it”, and you said, “I thought I had another slice left”, and we said, “you was so busy goin’ on about how lush it was you never noticed you ett it.”’
‘Probably what’s happened here,’ said Dougal, without looking up from his magazine. He turned the page to reveal a biker doing a wheelie on the fabled Bandit.
‘It does sound like something I would do,’ I said, looking upwards. ‘I guess that’s what’s happened. Innit.’
‘Nah-i-ain’t!’ said Dougal, grinning, ‘I ate your sandwich!’
‘Ooh you blighter!’ I said, shaking my fists. ‘I mean, you…, bell-end!’
‘Did you a favour mate, it was mingin’,’ he said, making me shake my fists even harder.
‘Ooh, I’m gonna….’
‘What?’ asked Randall. ‘What you gonna do? Rag ‘im?’ Dougal, Randall and Ellis all sat around laughing. I mentally encoded this information to my long-term memory, so it could percolate into revenge. Now I had two wrongs to right: Randall’s and Dougal’s. I was so busy thinking about the problem that I got in trouble in physics class. ‘Husband,’ my physics teacher said, an elfin lady with a salt and pepper pixie cut. ‘You’re not listening! What did I just say?’
‘You said that materials expand when they get hotter.’
‘Yes, but why?’
Randall and Dougal shot me ominous looks that said don’t go being clever now. I racked my brain for something plausibly dim. ‘It’s because the particles expand.’
‘That’s precisely not why the materials expand!’ snapped my teacher, ‘I’ve been saying that all lesson!’ Dougal and Randall gave me approving nods.
The following Friday evening, we went to the park and drank cider. Randall was telling us about a hot lunch date he had the next day, with a girl so beautiful she would turn us blind if we looked at her. At some point I whispered to Dougal: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if you let down Randall’s bike tyres so he couldn’t get to his date…, er, innit?’
‘Oh yeah, that’d be hilarious, he’d get all larey and pick a fight. Sounds brilliant!’
‘Nah, but you’re really good at denying stuff. No one can tell when you’re lying.’
He smiled. ‘Yeah, I am really good at that, inn-I? Alright, I’ll do it.’
We all slept at Dougal’s that night. The next morning, I woke to the glorious sound of Randall stomping round the house shouting. ‘I’ll kill ‘im. I’m gonna rag ‘im.’
I scampered downstairs. ‘Whatever’s the matter Randall?’
‘He’s only let dahn my tyres innit?’
I skipped outside to the patio to inspect the bike, a big grin on my face. The tyres stared back at me like slouching bloodhounds.
‘I can’t get to my date now!’ said Randall.
‘Surely Dougal’s got a pump?’ I said. Randall pointed at the outhouse and shook his head. ‘Can’t you take the bus?’
‘Ain’t got no money left.’
‘Where are you taking your date? For tap water at the homeless shelter?’
‘Mate, you’re the tramp.’ He nodded sternly at my torn jeans. ‘I was gonna go home, wonn I? Shit, shower and shave and cadge some cash off mum. I’m gonna kill ‘im.’
‘Where are the others?’
‘I dunno, but when I see Dougal….’
Randall simmered in the living room, hatching plans for ironic revenge, like pumping Dougal up with a bike pump until he burst. In fact we were so busy exploring Randall’s rage that neither of us noticed Dougal sneak up and wheel the bike away. A little later Dougal walked into the living room with Ellis.
‘I wanna word with you!’ shouted Randall.
‘You’ve let my tyres down!’
‘No I didn’t.’
‘So why are they flat for?’
Dougal shrugged. ‘Coz they’ve got no air in ‘em?’
‘I’m gonna flatten you in a minute.’
‘Easy tiger!’ said Dougal, laughing.
Randall stormed over to his bike. He started to jab his index finger at the front tyre but then stopped, like a policeman returning a too hastily drawn gun to its holster. He glanced at the back tyre. Both were now fully inflated.
‘That ain’t possible. You must of pumped ‘em back up,’ said Randall.
‘What, using the invisible pump in the shed?’
Randall paused. ‘This is bang out of order.’
‘Oh, officer,’ said Dougal, talking into an imaginary phone. ‘I’d like to report a crime. My tyres are fully inflated.’
Randall squared up to Dougal. ‘You’ve let my tyres down, admit it!’
‘Your tyres are fully inflated!’ shouted Dougal.
Randall’s accusation and Dougal’s denial went round and round, louder and louder, until Dougal’s dog started barking.
‘I did not let down your tyres. Your tyres are fine, leave me alone,’ said Dougal, barging past Randall and taking a seat outdoors. We all joined him on the patio, except Randall, who went to use the bathroom.
Once Randall was out of earshot, I asked Dougal what had happened. ‘I couldn’t be bothered with it, mate. Just went and pumped ‘em back up at the garage over the road.’
Ellis said: ‘If you’ve got a problem with Randall, you should fight your own battles.’ It stung. I wished I could choose not to fight rather than simply being unable.
I went to find Randall. ‘I wanna word with you mate,’ I said.
‘What?’ said Randall, shrugging.
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ I asked, my fleeting bravado already spent.
‘Nah, never mind that. Listen, you know the tyres?’
‘Do you reckon, like where it was cold this morning, the air in ‘em’s shrank? And then it’s got bigger again as it’s got warmer?’
It was a really difficult thing to hear, because he’d said something so stupid but I couldn’t share it. I couldn’t be the boffin who scuttled off to Dougal and Ellis, joyously proclaiming, Oh chaps, Randall’s just made the most preposterous blunder. His estimate, if you can call it that, was out by three or four orders of magnitude! I wasn’t allowed to be clever. So many wasted jibes. The only way that would work, Randall, is if the air was as dense as you!
Instead I said: ‘Dunno, don’t get physics innit.’
A look of pride passed over Randall’s face, inspired by all the progress I’d made pretending to be someone else.
I found my courage. ‘You know you really pissed me off when you flicked me in the leg with that paper bullet.’ It took him a moment to remember the incident. It had been more than a year.
‘Well you pissed me off last week.’
Now it was my turn to struggle with memory. I couldn’t think of anything. ‘What did I do?’
‘You said: “Just because the condom split.”’
I remembered at the time he quietly left the room and returned a few minutes later. I’d thought he was just ignoring me until I went away. Now I realised there was an unacceptably large kernel of truth in this joke about his conception.
‘We mates?’ he asked suddenly.
I felt really bad. I’d said something really out of order. If ever I deserved a punch it was now and none of us doubted that Randall would beat me in a fight.
‘Well yeah, of course.’
‘Nah, but, you and me, you’re not just here coz your mates with Dougal?’
‘No, course not.’
We did an elaborate handshake, blithely misappropriating African-American culture, which we’d unwittingly suffused with a handshake used by homosexuals to discreetly indicate their persuasion to others.
‘You should get going on your date,’ I said.
‘It’s too late now,’ said Randall, looking at the space on his wrist where we both colluded to see a watch that wasn’t there.
‘Just call her and say you’ll be a bit late.’
‘Nah, she was…, we was only gonna meet for an hour, because…’
‘Is this the one who’s moving away?’ I asked, quoting an imaginary exchange.
‘Yeah, yeah it is,’ said Randall, nodding vigorously. “I’m well gutted.”
‘Innit,’ I said.
Meet the author:
Hi, I’m Tom Husband. I’m a writing addict. I first started writing in 2001. Back then it was just novels and the odd short story. I was sure I could keep it under control and I promised myself I’d never publish anything. But then I started getting news articles printed in the Southern Daily Echo, sometimes features too, even late opening pharmacy schedules – anything I could get my hands on. Things took a turn in 2010 when I developed a science writing habit, at one point publishing six educational articles in one year. In 2017 the Royal Society of Chemistry published my book, The Chemistry of Human Nature, and that’s when I realised I had a problem.”
Meet the artist:
Sam Hall is a full time builder/part-time artist, he would rather like it to be the other way round. Here is his website which merely serves as an online memorial garden for his creations, by all means pop by and pay your respects: www.samhallartwork.com