“Come On! You’ve got to eat it! If you don’t you get shut out – forfeit’s a forfeit! Do it! Do It!” I looked at Skivver as he began to intone the forfeit rite.
“Do it! Do it! Do it!” The others took up the chant – Dinger, fat, four-eyed, shiny. Scun – a writhing little ferret with ferrety eyes and yellow ferret teeth. Baz – big Baz – with big hard knuckles and a big hard head. They all gazed at me with a rapt intensity, an animalistic fervour as they chanted.
“Do it! Do it! Do it!” I looked down at the twig on which a writhing brown slug was impaled and I felt a sheen of sweat prickle my upper lip as I hesitated and retched and gulped at the same time.
“He’s only going to hurl!” cawed Baz delightedly.
“No I’m not! I’m just admiring it!” I knew the words were unconvincing as soon as I said them but I had to pretend or be chucked out of The Shed Gang and The Hideout for failing on a forfeit, a worse fate than death for a skinny twelve-year-old Jewish boy living in 1973 Tottenham with no other friends.
“Aaahhhh diddums! No need to cry-y-y-y-y” whined Skivver in mock-sympathy. “Does oo not want your luurrrrrvvvly treat?”
I wasn’t crying – yet – but I could feel the involuntary pucker of the mouth and the spears behind the eyes. Any more delay and it would be too late! Closing my eyes I thrust the slimy sacrifice into my mouth, chewed down hard on the gristly thing and swallowed as quick as I could. Masking another retch, I put on a big smile, smacked lips sticky from the glistening slug mucous and said “Mmmmmm. Delicious!”
“AAArrrghhhh!!! He ate it! Sprat ate it!” roared Dinger as he and the others collapsed in lung-sucking, hysterical mirth on the musty damp floor of The Hideout.
“Sod off! Only ‘cos you’re too scared to.” I shouted, hating my gang name but stuck with it as it had been bestowed by Skivver. Because custom demanded it, I leapt on to them, flailing with my puny fists, connecting a couple of times before being half-stunned by a Baz special on my ear and a stealthy Scun elbow in my stomach. We disentangled, panting. Honour was satisfied. I had survived another trial in the Shed Gang.
I was allowed to chug down some flat Lucozade and Skivver handed me a couple of Spangles, a bit fuzzy from over-exposure to jeans pockets but welcome nonetheless. Skivver was the undisputed leader of our little group. It was he who decided what we would do each day, he who decided if any transgressions of his own unwritten laws had been committed and he who, after all, had found The Hideout.
Hidden behind ivy in a forgotten shaded corner of the allotments it stood. It had once been somebody’s shed but that somebody had not been back in a long while and the sour little patch of earth it stood on had not seen a hoe or a rake for a long, long time. You couldn’t even see it very well. Mr. Symonds who had the only plot nearby on the little dog-leg of land away from the main allotment was as short sighted as the moles he did constant battle with as they made mounds in his precious square of land. To us it was a haven. Dry enough in the rain, as safe from marauding rivals or grown-ups as it could be and a delightful treasure trove of weird rusty implements, bottles, pots, shelves, old sacks and a precious store of candles. We had sworn a blood oath never to reveal its whereabouts and we held Skivver in such awed respect that the oath held.
Dinger looked at the Timex strapped tightly to his fat wrist. “Its nearly five. Better go,” he said. We knew the rules – back by teatime and try to avoid too many clips over the ears from assorted elder brothers and sisters. Or worse when the various Dads, step-dads or dubious uncles turned up and lorded it over their tiny kingdoms. Or worse still – Baz was big but he wasn’t as big as his Mum’s new boyfriend and it showed in the puffed lips, black eyes or carefully-nursed ribs. These things were never spoken about. Nor were Scun’s pained silences and sulking tears. He had an uncle – Uncle Nigel. I had met him once and I knew. I knew as soon as I saw his eyes and how he looked at Scun and then at me. Both of them were on The List, kept by Skivver and there they would stay until we were able, if ever, to exact revenge.
We emerged carefully, blinking in the washed out twilight of a drizzly April Tuesday. A whole week left of the holidays before a return to School and its own particular set of perils. We edged along the narrow gap behind the back of The Hideout and out onto the overgrown path by the corner of Mr. Symonds’ plot. He was there, his big soil-encrusted hands clutching a garden fork as he jabbed away at his stony patch. He looked up, took his tweed cap off his bald head, wiped a streak of dirt across his forehead with the back of his hand and squinted at us. “Aright lads?” He had a funny accent like the ones off Coronation Street but other than a greeting, he didn’t bother us and we therefore didn’t bother him. How he could be unaware of The Hideout, even with his eyes, we couldn’t work out. We waved silently in acknowledgement as we went past and Mr. Symonds grunted and returned to his fork-jabbing.
We scrambled out onto the lane and went our respective ways. I headed home to an unnaturally tidy, furniture polish-scented house, a boring little sister, a spaced-out, faded mother and a 14 year old brother who specialised in Chinese burns. Dinner would wait until Dad was home from his accountancy firm and I wondered idly whether live slugs could be seen as Kosher. Probably not.
Everyone in The Shed Gang was doing something else the next day so there were no plans to meet but at around 4 o’clock I was looking for my Swiss Army penknife and realised that I must have dropped it in the scuffle at The Hideout. Unwilling to risk my most important possession being snaffled by Skivver or one of the others, I decided to brave the Tottenham streets alone and get it back. A mercifully uneventful journey saw me sidling down the path off the lane. As I was creeping down the overgrown route to the shed, I heard sobbing. I pulled open the door and, in the gloom of the dark interior, I could just discern Scun, hunched up in a ball in the corner. He raised a tear-streaked, terrified face to me, hissed “Get out, Sprat. You’ve got to get out!” He looked past me as, too late, I heard a stomp and a rustle and then a thunderclap and stars as something caught me a swingeing blow on the side of my head. I fetched up sprawled on the floor, my back painfully connecting with one of the old wooden seed racks. I squinted up, head throbbing. Looming over me stood Uncle Nigel, his slitted, calculating eyes glaring at me and a twisted self-satisfied grin spreading across his greasy, stubble-stained face.
“Well, look at this! Hello pretty boy. Come to help Derek have you?” I saw Scun edging towards the door. Uncle Nigel didn’t. As he advanced on me, I watched in despair as Scun legged it out of the shed. Uncle Nigel grabbed me fast and hard by the throat and hauled me up ragdoll-like towards his rancid mouth. “That’s better – you and me, we’re going to play a little game. A little secret game.” I went frozen cold and weak with fear. He threw me down and turned me on my front. I tried to yell but I couldn’t get any words out. I was barely even able to breathe as he pulled my jeans and underpants down. I mewled in outraged protest and he covered my mouth with a hand that smelt of cigarettes and shit. He then pushed me down into some sacking on the floor and I heard him fumbling with his belt with his free hand. I squirmed with all my might but his knees held me pinned and, terrified, I started weeing. Suddenly there was a sickening clanging thud and a snap as of a broken stick and the sound of something heavy hitting the floor. The weight trapping my legs was released and I scrabbled back and turned round, hauling at my jeans, trying to get them over my urine-soaked thighs. Mr. Symonds stood there, holding a heavy shovel. He was bending towards Uncle Nigel who was now an inert shape on the floor with his head bent at an unnatural angle and crushed into a shape no head should be in.
He touched his fingers to Uncle Nigel’s neck and nodded, his face expressionless. “Well lad?” He said calmly. “Did he hurt you?” Wide-eyed I shook my head, then realised it was still ringing.
“He hit me here” I managed, indicating my still-sore temple.
“Reckon you’ll be ok with that. Nothing else?” I shook my head again.
“How did you know…?” I began.
Scun. Thank God for that. He hadn’t deserted me.
“Went haring off as soon as he told me, though.”
“He’s gone to fetch Skivver” I said. “He lives near the allotments.” Mr. Symonds looked worried at that, then looked down again at the body.
“Don’t think anyone will miss that piece of shit. Do you?”
Again I shook my head. “No. Least of all Scun – Derek.” Mr. Symonds sighed with what sounded like resignation.
“Well, lets think about what to do next.” At this point Scun reappeared with Skivver. Both gazed at the body in horrified contemplation. Then at me.
“You ok?” asked Skivver. I nodded, still having difficulty saying much. Though I did manage “Thanks Scun.”
“That’s ok.” He answered. Then, ever the practical one, Skivver asked,
“What do we do now, Mr. Symonds?”
Mr. Symonds looked down at us, then again at the body. “Come with me.” It was as much a question as a command but obediently we followed him out and over to his shed in the corner of his allotment. He went in, rummaged and emerged with a fork and a couple more spades. He hesitated a moment, then said, “Fancy a bit of digging?” We looked at each other, then at him. Wordlessly we grabbed the implements then began to dig where he indicated, at an empty spot between some raspberry canes and a row of unidentifiable plants. We dug and dug that afternoon alongside Mr. Symonds. Not a word was spoken. I watched the corded muscles of his forearms digging swiftly and efficiently in the reluctant soil, a faded blue-green tattoo of a dagger between a pair of wings just visible below a rolled-up sleeve. We cleared the earth and dug and cleared and dug and cleared. At long last there was a pit about five feet deep. Again saying nothing, Mr. Symonds went back to The Hideout and re-emerged dragging the body on a large piece of sacking. He dumped body and sacking in the hole and we piled the earth on top. He then turned over the earth all along the same row so it all looked the same and pulled a rake over and over across it all while we cleaned the tools in his water butt.
“Don’t think anyone needs to know about this, do they?” he asked as we finished drying and putting away the tools. We all agreed with this and he solemnly shook each of us by the hand. Then he just went back into his shed and put his kettle on his little primus stove. We looked at each other and walked off towards the path. “Aright lads” he called to us and we waved our farewells as we left.
It was a subdued trio that made its way back to the lane. Finally Scun piped up. “I fucking hated him! I hated that fucker! I ran away when he came for me and he followed me to The Hideout. I never saw him until he was on me – then he heard you coming and hid-” he stopped abruptly. Skivver said
“You did great, Scun. And you, Sprat. We just need to keep quiet.”
“Do we tell Dinger and Baz?”
“‘Course we do! And we’ll swear a blood oath on this.” he added with a distinct note of relish.
I returned home, hurriedly stuffed my dirty clothes into the wash basket and cleaned up. I was in disgrace for missing supper and worrying my mother almost out of her stupor and told them I’d picked up my bruises from scrapping with my mates.
Scun’s mother reported Uncle Nigel missing but to everyone other than us, he seemed to have disappeared into thin air. No one in the neighbourhood was inclined to be very helpful to the police and though they conducted a cursory search of the locality, a freshly-dug allotment was hardly going to raise their suspicions and they concluded that he had gone off elsewhere and good riddance. His proclivities were not exactly secret and Scun’s mother seemed more relieved than anything else at his absence. Meanwhile, we had sorted out The Hideout, clearing away the signs of a struggle, ripping out the bloodstained planks we couldn’t clean and chucking them onto Mr. Symonds’ bonfire.
At the next gang meeting, we swore our oath and Skivver ceremoniously took The List out of his back pocket and silently crossed off Uncle Nigel’s name. A few months later, Mr. Symonds had bumper crops of raspberries and carrots.
Mark Finney was a banking lawyer in the City until 2016 when he decided to do something else with his life. A serious illness and a nasty heart op were a wake-up call and he left work for good in July 2016. He has written poetry and stories for most of his life. He sometimes showed them to other people. He is currently studying for a Creative Writing MA at Surrey University, is now sharing his work a lot more and may even try to get some of it published.