The Grit and Glamour
The clocks were striking midnight, and in The Lamb the third fist-off of the week had just turned bloody. Kite Morton couldn’t believe he was turning eighteen. It was here that the young man, the boy, was standing, over by the short bar. It amused him to imagine being involved in this regular occurrence. He nervously looked at each man taking part in the fight, his eyes darting across the room, almost entertained by the violence. He looked down at his half-full glass, and slowly sipped his cider. He swung around on the stool, imagining oblivious bodies on the floor, and saw a large bare-knuckled fist flying towards his nose. He glimpsed a flash of white, then stars, then darkness.
Before a second had passed, the whole pub was rattling; men were climbing on chairs shouting, the landlord was hiding beneath the bar edge, and there were at least two more punch-ups going on. Some old angry geezer had just lobbed their last unwanted glass directly at the scrawny teenage boy, and his son had thrown a punch. And now the sound of smashing glass was filling the squat little pub, emptying the boozer of all but those involved. Old women rushing, shuffling toward the open door, young women resentfully peeling their eyes from the pain of the fight.
The landlord’s disgruntled cries mixed with the sound of young men’s shouts, and echoing off the lacquered walls, unheard, it only served to cause more confusion.
From the corner of the pub, Bobby Grange rushed over to where he had seen the flying glass. Kite lay in a pool of brown bitter, the last dregs of the offending pint, and around him shards of broken glass lay at odd angles on the tiled floor. Beer had started to soak into his checked cardigan, and, mingled with a steady steam of blood from his squared-off nose, it had turned a sickly shade of yellow.
Kite warily open one bruised eye, he recognised the bloke, big tall menacing fellow he was, and father to the meanest kid at college, Graham Felon. He knew him from those big match days when hoards of red shirts would swagger down Holloway Road to see Arsenal clash with their latest rivals. He’d eye each one of them up warily from his bedroom window, noticing the large shoulders bulging from stretched fabric, knowing he was safe behind the skinny pane of glass. Graham knew where he lived and would always stick a pair of gangly fingers up at his as he strutted past, his father occasionally joining in with the ritual of offence. One hot match day his mother had noticed the father and son mouthing off at her son’s window, and had ran out in her kitchen apron, yelling at them to sod off and pick on someone their own size.
Bobby glared up at the fat old Felon patriarch, and the leering figure of Graham behind.
‘What the bloody hell d’you do that for?’
‘He was standing funny’, replied Stan, father to Graham.
‘Yeah’, added Graham, ‘like a girl.’
‘He dresses funny as well.’ Said Stan.
‘Oh, piss off!’ spat Bobby
Kite saw this whole conversation from the crack in his half-open bruised eye, and, soaked in beer and blood, marked it down as the point at which Bobby became, probably, his best friend.
Kite saw Bobby looming above him. In incensed arms he scooped up Kite from the floor of the dirty pub where the fight was still raging, and, ducking from the occasional flying fist, the two escaped the pub hastily. Kite had a bloody nose, possibly broken, and a split lip, and the blood was streaming down his face onto his white trainers, making him look like a character from a gangster film.
‘You look like a fight victim from Get Carter or something.’ Said Bobby jokingly.
Kite nodded embarrassingly; stifling his characteristic nervous laugh. They looked across at each other, Bobby’s eyes raised in disbelief, and both started laughing. This situation was far from funny, of course, but the boys usually played it off as lucky when this sort of thing happened, happy they hadn’t been worse off. I mean, a cut lip and a wonky nose is not the end of the world, is it. They ambled home, arms over each other, and Kite, the miserable wretch he was, thought it a relief to have a bleeding nose, an excuse to have the arm of Bobby propped over his shoulder.
The two boys had formed a sort of comradeship since Graham had picked Kite out as his next victim, Kite was, as he said, his ‘punchbag ponce’. He was often singled out for being ‘mincing’, a ‘namby-pamby’, or, simply put, ‘queer’, and behind the grey, barbaric school, on half-emptied concrete pitches, onslaughts of offence would knock the boy.
Bobby had generally stayed on the wayside of this confrontation. Kite would often look up from under the brutish tide of offence, and see Bobby there, sitting nonchalantly on a school bench, his eyes usually engrossed in book of some sort. Kite occasionally made out vague words. Once, when he was getting a heavy dose of derision, he’d seen a title, The Atrocity Exhibition, by J. G. Ballard, and had since been convinced of dark and mysterious forces within his world; so direct, so ridiculing, alone with his pain.
Kite never resisted the sort of bullying, if bullying’s what you call it, that Graham and his mates would participate in, but instead stoically endured every push, every stone throw, each pull of his tie, every thrown cigarette.
Never were these dark and mysterious forces so obvious as when Graham was passing around a cigarette behind the bike sheds, falsely inhaling the smoke, and puffing out the last dregs of the cigarette into the centre of the close-knit crowd, clouding the adulating eyes of his mates. The punk slogans on his long wax jacket were visible from miles off. Kill all Monarchs.
‘Where’d you get ‘em from, Grubby?’, asked Mark, one of Graham’s closer friends.
‘Got ‘em off me dad, didn’t I. Full pack of twenty silkies.’ Replied Graham, coughing slightly.
Kite was watching enviously from the back door of college which opened out onto the concrete rec and the sheds. The wooden doors swung outwards as a bunch of scantily dressed girls sauntered past to join Graham and his group of cronies. He offered one of them a cigarette, his eyes roving, his eyebrows raised, and Kite could read every word on his lips, ‘luv’, and ‘later’. Graham’s eyes caught Kite’s and he beckoned him over. Kite obeyed warily.
‘What the bloody heck you starin’ at, ponce.’ Graham pronounced each word with an inch of spittle.
‘Do you wanna smoke?’ He asked with a touch of malice.
Kite was surprised at this offer, but knew he had to be careful.
‘No, thank you, I don’t smoke.’
Then, without warning, Graham flicked his red-hot cigarette but onto Kite’s plain white shirt.
‘Well, have a try, why don’t you?’ subsequently turning his back. The end of the burning tobacco burnt a searing inch sized hole in the cotton, and singed Kite’s chest with a snap of intense, burning pain. The action brought on a wave of sadistic laughter from the onlookers, and Mark said he’d better go to the dry-cleaners, ‘or, better yet, see what ya ma thinks.’
In shock, Kite stumbled backwards, almost tripping, and glared at his antagonist with dark eyes. He was without words for the remainder of the day.
Back in class, in that hot, yellowing room: ‘You, Morton, stop looking out of that window, who was Henry’s heir?’
The boy’s blank face, motionless, faced the light.
‘I’m not sure sir.’
‘Well, Morton, that’s not good enough. Let me give you a clue, it comes after five.’
‘Um. Henry VI?’, replying hesitantly.
‘Yes! Well done. Now why don’t we all give Morton a clap.’
Kite stared hatefully at his teacher; he loathed every pitiful ounce of useless knowledge.
‘Next time, keep your ears open and you won’t have such a hard time.’
‘Yes sir. Sorry sir.’
‘Now. Moving on. Tudor England arrives.’
He sidled up past Kite, in his peaked cap and gown, proclaiming the dates and the places in logical order. And back down the aisle:
‘Oh. Now, Morton. What’s this on your shirt?’
Lowering his eyes disapprovingly, he condescended to Kite’s already rock bottom level.
‘To me it looks like a cigarette stain. Have you been smoking?’
Kite was silent, taciturn.
Asked again, Graham chortled in the affirmative.
‘Yes sir, we all saw him doing it. He was out by the sheds.’
Kite didn’t deny this, and spent the afternoon in detention, absent-mindedly flicking through the bent and jaded April 1971 issue of Harpers Bazaar, stolen from his mother; his mind drifting across the pages, forming bitter crests in his thoughts. The Tudors, the Elizabethans, the impatience of history, forgetting the oppressed, moving forward. Hurry up. Head out of the window.
Bobby had witnessed the entire incident, and waited by the gates that day after class until Kite left. Then the boy came slowly by with his short hair and denim jacket, his eyes on his boots.
‘Hey, kiddo, how’s detention?’, said Bobby.
Kite looked shocked to be asked a genuine question for once, and looked up expecting another cigarette in the face.
‘Oh, hi, pretty shit you know.’
‘Yeah, always is’, replied Bobby, ‘it’s a sinister institution. Especially when you get Sawbridge.’
‘I had Maynard, so just as bad really.’ Said Kite.
‘I saw that whole thing, why didn’t you deny it, huh?’
‘I don’t know. I guess I didn’t want to get in more crap with Graham. He hates my guts.’ Kite replied uneasily.
‘Yeah, I can see that, but he’s a prick anyway.’
Kite was surprised someone was finally taking he side. He’d been forever anonymous in that sadistic school, and by some strange miscalculation of Nature, here was an ally; someone to hate Graham with. It was almost as if he had just single-handedly fought off an entire army of Grahams.
The two boys walked on, leaving the grey stacks of bricks, a poor excuse for a learning establishment behind.
‘Do you think?’
‘Yeah. Them lot are all pricks, but you gotta just keep your head low, play it easy, and they’ll soon let you be.’
‘I try’, replied Kite, ‘but they always seem to single me out.’
‘Yeah, well that’s because you’re different from all those meat-heads, it’s a good thing, you know.’
The sky began to darken, and another late April shower came tumbling from the clouds, darkening the street in a haze of sketch like rain.
‘Come on’, said Bobby, ‘I’m getting the hell outta here.’
He began to run ahead, and Kite, in a decision that took mere seconds, decided to follow. He stumbled through the rain, the water blinding his vision, aware of the ghost like figure ahead. Leading him to unknown territories.
He’d never before been out of school with Bobby, had never before even spoken to him. He only knew him from his clever, witty remarks in class, managing, somehow, to stay on the good side of the Grit as they said. The Grit being the whole host of teachers at Fortismere High School, the Authority, the old establishment. Some of the things he said in class were so outrageous Kite would often shudder at the thought of the consequences: ‘But who cares what our bloody Prime Ministers have done, for all we care, we’re done for, over with!’ That got two lashes. But the worst was when he’d come into school wearing a dressing gown, and when sir had told him to go home, the reply was: ‘Why should I dress up for you old charlatan. I am my own master. I am King of this blasted school!’ They’d all laughed, but after being taken to the headmaster’s office, Bobby had come back down with a grimace. He never spoke of what happened, of how he had not been expelled.
Bobby’s head was shaven clean. Kite admired his precociousness, his utter disregard for power. He seemed to embody the general feeling of alienation on that long, precarious bridge between decades.
That night, still raining, now black, the two boys went to The Lamb on Holloway Road. Down the Old Suffolk Road, past the looming Victorian terraces, under the iron bridge they walked together, Kite slightly lagging, catching the older boy every so often in bursts of speed.
‘Wait, I’ve never been to this place before. Am I old enough?’
Between the grocer and the impossibly narrow houses appeared the pub, the ghostly white lamb lit by the moon in the half-light. Kite was still seventeen, a boy, but in that pub which served practically anyone, Bobby was convincing enough.
‘Look, Kite, you’re with me. I know Jimmy like my brother. He’s literally been drinking in my house since he was younger than you.’
Bobby pushed open the door with a squeak, holding it open for Kite to carefully follow him through.
‘Jim! Jimmo! How’ya been?’ Bobby almost shouted over the bar, Jimmy being deaf as a post.
‘Two pints of cider please. Ice in the cider. And two gins!’ Holding up a large V symbolising a two.
Jimmy smiled a toothy grin. It was almost like his words came out after he had mouthed them. It didn’t help with The Lamb’s rowdy punters.
‘Ahhg. Bob. How’sa goin?’
‘Yes, yes, it’s all swell gov.’
‘How’s the ma?’
‘She’s holding on in there, very obstinate though. Refuses to see a doctor.’
‘Huh. Works in a consulate?’
‘Ha! Not quite! And your Mrs?’
‘She’s a’right. Same old.’
‘Good. Right Kite. Let’s get this table.’ Pointing at the faded, faux oak table under the stained-glass window.
Bobby offered his friend a cigarette. They sat in silence for a minute or two, gazing at the women playing pool, sipping pints.
‘Well! How the hell have you not been here before?!’ Bobby suddenly exclaimed, slopping his pint.
‘Oh. I don’t know. I’ve just never been much of a pub-goer you know.’
‘That’s fair. But in my opinion. No young lad should go without a drink once in a while. Anyway, Kite’ he went on, ‘why do you not stand up for yourself a little bit more?’
A wave of giddy anxiety suddenly filled his chest, it had been building all evening, but now it swept down and suffocated him with it’s weight.
‘Um. Stand up for what.’
‘Oh god. Don’t beat round the bush. Why don’t you tell those wankers to go do one?’
‘It’s not that bad.’
‘It is. Graham chucked a bloody cigarette at you just today.’
‘I don’t know. Sometimes I feel so small. And. And so heavy. Like I can barely lift a finger to reach them.’
‘You gotta resist them man!’
This Bobby almost shouted. The girls at the pool table whirled round to see what the noise was in the corner. Just two boys, probably another argument.
‘I try. But I feel so alone sometimes. How can I stand up to the whole lotta em?’
‘Kite. You’ve got me now. If you get another piece of shit from that Felon prick. You tell me. A’right?’
‘Alright. Thank you.’
The two boys sat sipping the last dregs of the pints. Kite was imagining standing face to face with Graham. Laughing his head off, screaming out loud.
Bobby firmly drew back his chair.
‘Right. Jimmo. Thanks fella, we’re off.’
He was leaving The Lamb with his hand in the air, parading across the pub towards the half-open door. All Kite could do was chase after him.
They went home that night in the rain, through the dark streets that mingled with the water. And they became two vague figures.
Kite arrived home late that night, throwing himself onto the sofa in the front room. His denim jacket soaking into the cloth, leaving dark proof of his night in the rain. It was still coming down outside, past midnight. He flicked on the television. Top of the Pops came flashing on, lighting up the pale wet face of Kite, into the gaudily clad room. Filtered through a wobbly BBC signal that occasionally disintegrated into electronic snow, the flared jeans and beehive stack of hair that was Roger Daltrey jerked across the stage, We’ll be fighting in the streets with our children at our feet…Take a bow for the new revolution, smile and grin at the change all around… Kite lit a cigarette; he never smoked, let alone indoors, and the stain on his white shirt was still obvious. He wanted to smoke it away, the pain of the day floating across his eyes in a thin grey line.
Just like yesterday.
Bobby. Two earrings. Shaved head. Glinting in the rain all night. All night long. This boy from school had come to him. Why did it trouble him? This boy, so happy to be there for him, it troubled him. The closeness of the evening and his newfound ally made the rain falling past the window denser, more real. Here was something real he could grasp at. Yet Kite wanted to run away from it all, out into the town with its glinting cars and undeniable roads, routes away from the past. Then on the television; Behind Blue Eyes, The Who. A new single airing for the first time under the crackle of a storm-soaked antenna; it was all outside. The smoke continued to rise from his forgotten cigarette. A thin grey line on that black night, a line between past and present, and soon drifting into oblivion.
His mother had come down in the morning, shocked to see her son sprawled over the front room sofa, a burnt-out cigarette dropped on the soiled yellowing carpet.
‘Christopher! You have school to go to! Get up!’
He woke with a start, seeing his mother, now looking suddenly older, in the doorway. She loomed over his lame body like a saint, and her apron was crude.
‘Yes mother! Gosh, yes!’ He exclaimed.
‘What the bloody heck are you doing on the settee? And what is that on the floor?’ His mother’s stern voice pierced the dull morning.
‘Oh, that’s nothing.’ Kite quickly jumped up and, picking up the dirty butt, shoved his hands in his pockets.
‘Well, get yourself into school. It’s nearly eight!’ She cried. ‘We’ll be discussing this later.’
Sleep deprived, dirty and anxious, Kite ran upstairs and changed his shirt. Then without a thought, he flew out of the house, his half-tied tie covering his eyes and his satchel flapping. On the long run to the school gates.
Kite sat nonchalantly at the back of history class that day, staring at the back of Graham’s bony head. The Elizabethans. He looked sideways at Bobby. Graham was grit, he was glamour.