This Short Story of mine was shortlisted for the BBC’s ‘Opening Lines’ competition in 2015. It has since popped up on-line as an example of an editor’s critique. I have since re-worked it a little. And so here it is. Oh, and that’s me on the right in the photo – can you see the matching tie! Well, it was the 1970’s!
I’ll Take The Aston
Ronny wasn’t born this way, no sir. He considers those negative months as the most beatific forty weeks of all the sixteen years what’ve followed.
He’s sat on a sun-bleached sofa worn down to the bones, pallid and bug riddled. I prefer to stand, reckoning it’s safer. Someone’s patched the hole in the roof with army-marked tarp, the window’s slatted with bust up bed, the air’s thick with stench. Once upon a time this was somebody’s home. Once.
Shiner’s wearing out the floorboards, his arse must be giving him jip cause he keeps scratching at himself, just like that foamy-mouthed mutt did one time we went out hunting and wound up lost in the rain.
He orders me to keep watch as he steps out for two minutes – that’s two minutes longer than the dog lasted. One shot took him out. Afterwards Shiner just stood there, whistling into the steaming barrel like he was Lee van Cleef, sayin’ it needed putting out of its misery. Ronny and I were just boys then, inquisitive and impressionable. We ran over and watched it die. It had a shiny copper nametag on its collar, so someone must have loved it; maybe the poor thing had simply lost its way. Ronny started covering it in damp leaves, shoeing them over its bloodied head. Shiner threatened to leave us there unless we got a shift on. We never shot any rabbit that day neither, and when eventually we got home, we slunk off to bed, damp, hungry, wordless, but with heads full of questions.
I’ll do as I’m told, but I know the kid we’re guarding isn’t stupid enough, or brave enough to try anything. For a start, he’s been slumped on that chair and lookin’ nowhere but the fagged-out carpet in front of his feet for the last hour, and although he’d swore he was seventeen, he’s still real small: half my size. He’ll have a hope in hell against me, never mind the two of us.
He’d managed about a week on the run, but Shiner, being Shiner, knew all the low-life folk to ask, and all the lightless crannies where to look. So when I picked him up, although he didn’t say anything, I reckon he was good and ready to be found. Those city lights he’d craved had proved not so bright after all.
“What time you got?” Ronny asks, lookin’ everywhere but at me. I know that he don’t really give a hoot about the time, it’s just that he can’t yet say what he really wants to, not straight out anyhow. So I’ll play along, cause he’ll soon clam up once Shiner’s back from the can.
“About eleven,” I guess, knowing it makes no real difference. “You see those pictures?” I point to the wall behind him. It’s covered with once-glossy pages torn out from old car magazines, “bagsy the red Ferrari.”
“Fine by me, I’ll take the Aston,” he says straight back, without even turning round. He’d made his choice hours ago. “What about you, kid?” Ronny asks, “what’s your name again? Ham, or something, isn’t it?” Ham plays mute; shrugs his shoulders once. Maybe he’s more of a Ducati guy.
Ronny – “Why’s he make us do all this?”
Me – “Who? God?”
Ronny – “No, you dingbat,” he stifles a snigger, “Shiner. What’s God got to do with anything?”
Me – “Because he can,” and then, “because we’ve let him.”
Ronny sighs and shakes his head. Looks over towards Ham.
“You doin’ OK there, Ham?” he asks.
“I’ll survive,” whispers Ham.
Ham’s right, he’ll survive. His type always do.
Shiner returns, wiping his hands down the front of his knock-off designer jeans. His mobile pings an alert, it’s the green light we’ve been waiting for. “Right,” he says, “up you get boys, time to get out of this shithole.”
Ronny tightens up. I yank the kid up from the chair. We’re on.
If Ronny had been given a chance, he could’ve been a contender, you know, just like Marlon Brando said in some movie so old it wasn’t even in colour. And that would make me the other feller, what was his name? … Charlie, yeah, Charlie, the big brother who let him down cause I watched him throw his chance away. Ronny don’t ever blame me though, knows he don’t need to. I’m reminded of it every day. I should have stepped in when no one else bothered. If I had, maybe things would’ve turned out different, for at least one of us.
We aren’t cut from the same cloth, Ronny and me. Lookin’ at us you’d never guess we were brothers. Me: I’m all barrel-chest, buzz-cut and brick-hard biceps. Always have been, well, at least since the first sips of testosterone kicked in, whereas he, well… this is Ronny: three inches taller than me, four skinnier. Everything he wears is ill-fitting and awkward hanging. He’s got dark brown hair that gets in the way, and eyes that prefer looking in. He’s no fist-fighter like Brando neither; his exit would’ve been by numbers. You see, he had this thing for math; found it all a breeze; fractions, algebra, formula, the kind of stuff that sent me dizzy. Every year at school they’d run out of textbooks for him, reckoned he was some kind of genius in the making. I was proper jealous of his talent, course I was, but I tried not to show it. Then, when I suppose he hit fourteen, the enormity of our ma’s premature death kicked in and nothing seemed to matter to him any more. As he started spiralling, everyone just stood about watching. And no one did any doing. Me included.
You see, the only thing I reckon thicker than blood is fear, and with someone like Shiner at the helm, that’s how it was. How it still is. Ronny and I have always needed each other, and we always will. Shiner’s not even our real pa, he was just the one to pick up the pieces when our mum died from the cancer, and as much as I despise the fella, a tiny part of me wants to be grateful. At least that’s what I keep tellin myself, but that inner voice ain’t carrying much weight nowadays.
Ham’s face has gone a putrid greeny-yellow, but by the way Shiner’s throwing the RIB about, it doesn’t surprise me. He’s crucifying the screaming outboard big time. Hitting the waves head on lifts us clean out of the water. My stomach lands long after the boat thuds back down on the surface. It’s crazy; the sea didn’t even look that rough when we set off. Ham turns away, his retching loud enough to hear above the cacophony. I’m all about holding on, trying to keep a grip on the rope that’s the only thing between me and a sure-fire drowning. Ronny’s sat opposite, his head hidden inside the elongated hood of a luminous orange, spray-lashed raincoat. I try to see his face but it’s like peering into a cave, but it looks like he’s sat solid enough. Shiner’s bug-eyed buzzin’, already spending the money.
I can see a small fire burning on the shore of the small cove we’re aimed at. Craggy grey cliffs rise up sheer behind the shingle beach. I can’t imagine there’s a way out of there on foot, and I don’t see another boat docked at the dilapidated jetty. Up high, wind-battered Guillemots cling to life on narrow ledges, and for reasons beyond me, a leafless old tree calls this unforgiving place home.
Shiner eases back off the throttle as we approach the island. There are two figures standing there, hugging the flames, both are wearing black woollen hats and long waterproof coats, those green ones posh people wear that stink of damp horses. They’re staring right at us.
When we were kids, Ronny and I would go beachcombing. We’d take the bus the five miles or so out from the city. I once pilfered one of those metal detectors out of an unlocked lock-up on the estate we were living at. I never really found anything of note with it, no buried treasure as such, just some old coins that I couldn’t spend, and too many rusty tin cans to count. My best find was a pitted old car fender that was jutting out from some scrubland. Ronny wasn’t that impressed; he said it was worthless. I liked it though, all of the curved edges and that. I took it back home on the bus; smuggled it indoors and hid it under the bed. For days I rubbed and buffered up the chrome. It came up really nice. I even sold it to Mr Johnson at the Jaguar garage for twenty-two fifty, and Ronny and I had a right good feast at the chippy three nights straight. Shiner gave us a right good lashing with his belt when he found out though, I’m not really sure why, he doesn’t even like fish. But he never needed a reason, especially once the whisky got hold of him. After the beatings I would hear Ronny talking to ma like she was still here. It was like he was praying. He’d lie dead still on his bed, face up, and whisper to her, loud enough for me to hear. He’d thank her for the precious time she was with him; that he knew in some way that she always would be with him. He’d tell her that he don’t blame her for how it all turned out.
Shiner hollers to the shore. A few seagulls get involved, welcoming the sudden excitement. His hellooo is met by furious waving from the pair stood by the fire. I see now it’s a man and a woman; I assume they must be Ham’s folks. Two of their hands are locked together; they continue to wave with the other, they don’t stop till we’re tied up to the jetty. Their faces look ashen and lined with sleeplessness, and they’re trying to catch a glimpse of their boy. Shiner points down and shouts out, he’s here. They turn to face each other and their worry turns to tears. Ham gets a little boot nudge from Shiner and raises himself up from the prone position he’d adopted since emptying his stomach. I rope the boat steady, and help Ham step on to dry land. Shiner’s forearm halts the lad before he can run. There’s a bit of business to conduct first. Ronny’s lowers his hood and sweeps his fingers through his hair. Without being told, we form a barrier between the boy and his folks as Shiner marches off. Few words are uttered, they all shake hands; it looks like an envelope’s exchanged, and Shiner turns and double-thumbs us an OK. Ronny and I divide, Ham runs. Parents welcome their boy into their arms. I watch on. I guess that is what real forgiveness looks like, what real family is, and I imagine what I see in their tear-filled eyes is that thing they call love.
Enough. I turn away, Ronny’s already boarded and re-hooded. I go and sit with him. Shiner is enjoying a celebratory smoke, lying on the shingle, staring at the sky. The fire’s now in its dying embers and the reunited family are heading off to the far end of the cove. I can see now that there’s a mud coloured Range Rover parked there, of course there’s a road out of here I chide myself. Ronny asks me if I ever wondered what it would’ve been like to have a proper family, you know, like Ham. I lie and tell him no. He says he can’t figure out what it was that Ham was running away from, or what he thought he was running to. I tell him I couldn’t say, just that in some way we’re all fighting our own battles. The Range Rover disappears from view.
Damn it all. I reach down and yank at the starter rope. It catches first time. Ronny gets wind and has us untied before Shiner’s even noticed. He almost slips as he clambers back on, but I’m there to catch his arm, steadying him. With the throttle fully open we make twenty yards in no time. Ronny slips his hood down and looks me right in the eye, and I swear he’s laughing like I’ve never seen him laugh before.