Custard Creams by Joseph Clegg

Addi had her elbows on her knees and her face in her palms.

‘Oh my days, Brye. You’re wearing one now.’

That morning, I’d bought myself a chain and slung it across my hip. This is a skater accessory: to keep keys attached while you catch air on your board. I guess so, anyway – I don’t actually skate. As I approached, she stamped her heel on the dry ground.

‘Have you ever even stood on a board?’

I shrugged. I could feel myself grinning.

My friends were sitting on the half-pipe, sharing cheap, colourless cider, dressed in long-sleeve tees and primary-colour hoodies. Their chains glinted in the late afternoon sun: some worn validly, by Addi’s dogma, but not all. We were in the park behind the college, gathered to skate and drink, laugh and smoke. It was the Saturday after the end of term, and the wind was quiet and warm.

Addi passed me the bottle. I took a used Starbucks cup from a jacket pocket and decanted a helping of cider. As I poured, Casper emerged from the nearby clutch of beeches. His khaki trousers brushed each other with every stride. A default frown pulled down his facial hair so that it entirely covered his mouth, except when he spoke.

‘You look like a bunch of tramps.’

Addi set her jaw and whacked a finger into a palm.

‘Don’t shout, Casper.’

When he got to me, Casper stopped. He reached out, prodded my stomach. ‘Planning to show your face in the workshop today, mate?’

A dent that I’d squashed into the bottle popped back. I was like, ‘Sure, I will. In a bit.’

‘Good man. Where would I be without my lieutenant?’

Casper thumped me on the shoulder, then reached into a pocket and pulled out a kind of like walkie-talkie thing. He gave an emphatic hm and flicked a button, looking around expectantly. The walkie-talkie emitted a short, staticky bark. When no one commented, Casper walked off towards the workshop.

Addi looked up at me, shielding her eyes from the light.

‘What was all that about?’ she asked.

‘Casper is making a radio,’ I said. ‘I’m building a cabinet for it.’

‘I meant what’s that toy he was playing with.’

‘Oh. Think he got it to test the transmission.’ I yawned. ‘Last week I pretended to know what it was, so it’s too late for me to ask.’

Addi stood, picked up her board and climbed the ramp. I looked at the design on the board’s underneath: mountainsides, cascades of water, craggy divides. Things not readily found at this end of suburbia.

‘Casper might be a berk.’ Addi spoke down to us from her podium. ‘But at least he’s not wearing a chain!’

The workshop was actually an old municipal outhouse in a nearby corner of the park. Through a combination of sweet jaw-work and knowing the right people to annoy, Casper had managed to have the place converted and provisioned at the college’s expense. I was impressed, but equally it annoyed me that everyone called it ‘Casper’s workshop’, when it was supposed to be communal. This was just how things were, though: I’d had an idea that we could make use of the space for student projects, and it ended up with Casper basically owning it.

We were 13 when, on a scouting trip, he borrowed my new notebook. He had an entourage back then, five or six henchmen. I’d only known him a couple of weeks. We played war, and the notepaper was for ranking: General Casper and his colonels. I made sergeant: Sergeant Bryan. When I got that notebook back, my birthday present which I had not yet used, I rubbed out his name and put myself as the general.

The workshop was lit by a series of red bulbs fastened to the wood-panel wall, each covered by a casing of wire. When I entered, an hour or so later, Casper wasn’t present, but Cintha was, lounging on the workbench in jeans and one of Casper’s moth-eaten hoodies. She saw me and pulled her earbuds out; a greeting flickered from her eyes through the red light. I knew I needed to stop having fantasies about her, but I hadn’t yet succeeded. Kinky ones involving dessert food were particularly recurrent. Since she and Casper had been going out for some months, the closest I’d attained was eating custard-themed items in her presence. That was nowhere near, obviously.

‘You alright?’ I asked her, sipping cider from my cardboard cup. ‘Casper not around?’

‘Nuh,’ she replied, in her syrupy drawl. ‘He’s gone to get his dinner.’

‘What about you – have you eaten?’ I asked her. ‘If you’re hungry I have some custard creams.’

I held out the bag. She was leant back on one elbow, with a hand in the parting of a blue metal vice. On one side of her were my saws and sandpaper scraps, on the other Casper’s soldering iron and coils of copper. The hem of the hoodie rode up, exposing a band of skin on her belly. She’d sat like that the time we kissed on the stairs of an otherwise featureless house party, a vodka-flavoured kiss that, it turned out, had been erroneous. It wasn’t long afterwards that she started with Casper.

Cintha and I ate the biscuits, then the crumbs lining the bag. She bit softly and chewed slowly, as though there was still something undecided about the act. A smell of machine oil lingered around the room. I asked her why she was holed up, alone, in this oily shed, where there was nothing for her to do, rather than hanging out with us on the ramp. Inwardly, I wondered if it had to do with Addi: the two of them hadn’t been close since Addi’s runaway episode; I’d never been able to figure out why.

Cintha brought out her iPod. ‘I’m not just sitting here in silence, you know,’ she commented, through a mouth of biscuit.

‘I know,’ I said. ‘I just didn’t like to think of you needing company and not wanting to ask.’

Outside the window, the light was fading, a peachy lid spread on the clouds. We watched those fat bags of steam, squatting in a harmless sky, for a couple of minutes. Then Cintha said she was going to go home. I thought about her house – her place to eat, try on clothes, watch a different section of the sky – and I felt a sharp twitch of jealousy. But I couldn’t very well argue with her about it.

It was quite dark, two or three hours later, when I gave up waiting for Casper to show, to text back, or even bother to call off our arrangement. He always professed to have fingers in many pies, evidently he’d decided to stick them somewhere else today.

Still picturing how Cintha had pooled her hair in her hood when she got up from the workbench, like she’d grown it just to fit in there, I hung up my saw and stepped out the workshop. Our college was on the other side of the park, and its walkway lights never got turned off. Their illuminating white cast across the lawns, reflecting off the steel half-pipe. Someone was sitting at the top of a ramp, on one prong of the U. I walked closer and saw it was Addi.

The night was quiet enough that you could have heard a fox, but she pretended not to notice me. She was rolling a palm on one wheel of her upturned skateboard, which lay across her lap. I reminded myself that Addi had real, serious preoccupations, rather than self‑inflicted, dessert‑based ones, and that I should be careful with her.

‘You’re still here,’ I said, rattling my chain to get her attention.

‘And so are you,’ she replied. ‘No?’

‘Well, yeah.’

‘Yeah,’ she emphasised. ‘Yeah.’

This clearly wasn’t getting us anywhere. Still feeling reckless from the afternoon’s cider, I tried a different course.

‘Have you run away from home again?’

Addi’s board clattered down the ramp. She turned the sharp white of her eyes on me, her heel clanging against the metal. I noticed the blue plastic bottle clutched between her thighs, catching the walkway light, mostly full. Three-quarter shorts hung loose around her legs, and I fixed my eyes on her bare shins and ankle socks. Neither of us had ever mentioned it, how she’d run away ten months ago and no one knew where she was the whole weekend. I had this image of her, pelting through the fields that backed onto her house, crossing into the wooded tracks at nightfall, arriving at the main road on the other side of the copse, screaming at cars to stop, to slow down, to carry her onwards, before curling up, covered in scratches, on a riverbank. But I don’t know, maybe she went to a hotel.

My eyes flicked to her face. ‘Addi.’

‘Just go away, Brye.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Sorry.’

I started to go, but had only made it a few paces when I heard a voice behind me. I turned round.

‘Huh?’

‘What?’ Addi looked up, her lips shaking with impatience. ‘What do you want now? Can’t you leave me alone?’

‘I thought you said something.’

‘I didn’t.’

The voice, wherever it came from, was still talking, except that it didn’t sound much like words, just a distorted, strangled moan, like a song on a chewed-up tape. Faint as it was, I realised it was coming from the workshop. Plainly, so did Addi, because she shuffled down the ramp, took up her board, and walked past me towards the shed. At the door, which I’d left hanging open, she stopped and faced me.

‘Any idea what this weird noise is?’

I shook my head. ‘Casper’s radio, could be. But I haven’t turned it on. I actually don’t know how I would.’

We stepped into the red glow of the shed, in its disarray of wire and nails. Casper’s radio was stowed on the floor at the back, a shoebox-sized form covered in a sheet. The noise was indeed coming from there, indistinct and fluctuating, as though someone was tuning the dial, but the moaning was always discernible. It had a dynamic, pulsing quality to it, and it occurred to me that maybe Casper had accidentally put his transmitter on while in Cintha’s bedroom, and what we were hearing were the resulting squeals of pleasure, broadcast on the amateur airwaves.

Addi took a drink from her bottle, then bent down and placed it on the floor. It made a satisfying clunk as it touched the wood. Then she pulled the sheet off the radio. The sound became crisper.

‘Is that – screaming?’

‘It definitely sounds,’ I hesitated, ‘like some sort of screaming.’

She flinched back from the radio. Without the casing I’d promised it, this was a naked-looking contraption, just a board and a couple of coils of wire, connected to a plastic cone. I heard Addi’s breaths mount up. She reached towards me and grabbed my sleeve. Red lamps flickered. The moaning noise was building to a… Well, let me just say it was building.

‘Jesus,’ Addi whispered. ‘It’s like they’re torturing someone. Make it stop, Brye.’

‘I don’t know how. Let’s just go.’

She shoved her hand into the front flap of my hoodie and grasped a wrist.

‘Please. Make it stop.’

‘I don’t –’

‘Please!’

I turned to her, and my heel caught the edge of her cider bottle. It toppled down and whacked onto its side, sending effervescence all over the floor and Casper’s radio. I heard Addi go aah. The wailing was replaced briefly with static, then a tinny, angry buzz that slowly died away.

‘Oh gawd,’ I said, swallowing the chill that had filled my throat. ‘Casper is going to annul me.’

Addi gave my wrist a squeeze. ‘Don’t worry. I won’t tell him.’

‘He is going to punch me in the face,’ I said. ‘And I probably deserve it.’

‘Only if you’re stupid enough to admit it was you.’

Addi and I passed down the deserted high street, me on foot, her on skateboard. We climbed to the top of Woolworths car park and shared a can of export lager, while we counted the pylons on the horizon. I was mentally itemising the ways Casper might revenge the destruction of his radio – wallop me with his fists, ban me from the workshop, impregnate and then marry my beloved Cintha – when Addi said, ‘You think I ran away from home, right?’

‘Er.’

‘That is what everyone thinks.’

‘Your mum rang round all our houses,’ I said. ‘She told us you’d –’

‘And that’s the way I wanted it.’ Addi’s eyes flickered with every word. ‘But hearing you actually say it just now, that I had run away from home, it sounded like – I don’t know – you were describing a completely different person. Not me.’

‘Huh,’ I replied. ‘Well, like I said, I’m sorry about coming out with that.’

‘That Saturday, dad and I went on a bike ride. We were an hour or so late home. I don’t remember why – maybe we stopped for ice cream or something.’

Addi’s hand gripped the railing, her body swinging lightly back and forth. Her voice rasped through the air.

‘At first, we had no idea mum had been ringing all the parents, telling them I’d gone missing. She just seemed overly happy to see us arrive home. But then one of them rang her back. As soon as she lifted the phone, she went into panic mode. “Have you heard anything at all from our Adeline?” Mate, I was right there.’

Addi crouched down and reached into my bag, grabbed a beer and stood. For a moment, she seemed unsure where to rest her gaze. She coughed into her fist, a matter-of-fact little blast, then cracked the can open. I felt superfluously present, as though there were four or five of me here, uninvited, gate-crashers in Addi’s private thoughts.

‘It was the first time me and Dad realised something was up. He wanted to call back and explain, but I’d already decided. I’d prefer for you to all think I’d run away from home.’

Addi took a sip and smiled at me. That vision of her in the woods behind her house, screaming down the dual carriageway at speeding cars: I now knew it was untrue, but it still wouldn’t leave my head.

‘And is your mum – you know?’

Addi laid her arm around my shoulders, with what I took to be finality. I felt an urge to remove my key chain and throw it off the building.

‘What’s your thing, then, Brye?’

‘I want,’ I replied, after a brief consideration, ‘to cover Cintha Lorne in custard.’

‘I see.’ Addi patted me three times on my arm. ‘You sick, sick little freak.’

Joseph Clegg grew up in St Albans, England, and now lives and writes in Haarlem, the Netherlands. His fiction has been published by Bandit Fiction and his essays on jazz and hip hop have appeared in BRICK music magazine. He is seeking representation for his first novel. 

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