We met when we were six. The house we moved to, on Havelock Street, was opposite Stink’s house. It was a small street with about fifteen houses. Houses pushed together in a tight terrace, all with the same backyards. We were in number eleven and Stink’s family lived in number fourteen, the only real difference being the number on the doors. Stink’s mum invited my mum over. He was told to go outside to play with me, and we did, with the gravel that gathered at the kerb. We sifted the larger, rounder bits out of the dust, collected them in our palms in flat, loose pyramids, then cast them across the road into a drain opposite. It was his game, and he always won.
Inside the house, my mum sat in the front room with Stink’s mum. Tea and biscuits weren’t offered. They asked each other the usual questions asked of new neighbours. They were both born in Bridlington. Stink’s mum was two years older than mine, but they’d gone to different schools so hadn’t met before. They had mutual people they knew, had held similar jobs, shopped in the same supermarket. As they were talking, Stink’s younger sister, the youngest of four kids, walked into the room. She went behind the television in the corner, pulled down her shorts and underwear, squatted, and defecated on the carpet. Stink’s mum told mine that she hated all her kids. Especially this one. After the girl finished, she pulled up her clothing, and left the room. Her mother, having said nothing to her daughter, followed her out. A minute later she returned with an aerosol can of air freshener and seemed to empty a quarter of its contents on to the freshly laid mess behind the bulky television. Stink’s mum explained that it completely removed the smell, and then, when it went hard and white within about a week, it could be picked up, put in the bin, the carpet unchanged, no one ever noticed. She’d described this cleaning method with a proud smile on her face.
Me and Stink became regular friends and, because we were in the same catchment area, went to the same school. This was at a time kids didn’t care what they wore. All the same, everyone could see Stink’s clothes were scruffier, unironed, worn away on elbows and sleeves, occasional threads dangling. His jumpers increased in tightness on him as he grew, but replacements didn’t come often. We all got holes in our shoes, but his got bigger, had flapping soles, odd laces. That’s why everyone called him Stink. He didn’t actually smell, but he looked like he should.
Trouble started when we were ten. The first time was because of his older brother, Steven. He was the oldest of his siblings, five years older than Stink, and scared us. There was a quiet about Steven, a way of not moving much when he walked, of not saying much when he spoke, that told those around him he’d have no problem hurting you, or anything living, so you did what he said. That’s why me and Stink ended up darting into the back of Patty’s Newsagent, stealing fistfuls of Flakes from a box in the storeroom, running back behind a parked car, and stuffing our mouths with them. The officer went straight to Stink’s house to speak to Steven. He was known by the police; for what we never knew. He gave them my name immediately. The officer issued me a warning, telling me I was lucky, I was only ten, that in a few years anything like this would mean court, at least a fine, maybe DC; a detention centre that is. The clip I got from my dad, and the ban on playing for a fortnight, stopped me from doing anything like that again. For Stink it was more of a beginning.
His first court appearance was at thirteen. He’d been through a spate of breaking shop windows after closing time. No particular reason. Just because. He never stole anything, but by the time he was caught the nearby chemists, a used car showroom, Patty’s Newsagent, the fruit and veg shop, the chippy, the Chinese takeaway, and a funeral directors on the other side of town had all had to replace their front windows. He got fined twenty-five pounds for the offences and had to pay compensation of two hundred pounds. He didn’t get any bother at home. His mother didn’t care whether he was in trouble or not. It was Stink’s problem, not hers. She never hit him, and by extension his dad never dared to either. She was the law in their house, and it didn’t seem to be like the law the rest of us knew.
Later that year we got a job together, putting up two market stalls, one for clothes, the other for shoes. Every Wednesday and Saturday morning. We had to get up at five thirty to have the stalls up by eight o’clock. The shoe stand was the easier one, but because the bars were kept outside, it got harder in winter; sometimes the bars froze together and we had to kick them apart. We wore steel toe-capped boots and thick gloves, but our hands and feet stayed cold hours after we’d finished on frosty, dark mornings. The clothes stand was in a cellar, stuffed with cobwebs and dust, and took longer to do for that reason. We got paid seventy pence for the shoes stall and one pound fifty for the clothes stall. One pound and ten pence each per week. Stink had to give forty pence of his to his mum as board.
His next court case came up close to his fourteenth birthday, for kicking the left side doors of the mayor’s Rolls Royce. Nobody knew why. He had still over one hundred pounds to pay for the windows even though he’d been paying his whole stall assembling wages for close to a year. For this one he got another twenty-five pound fine, but four hundred pounds of compensation. Again, his mum wasn’t bothered, he was allowed out, she said nothing, at home it was like he’d done nothing. He had to find a way to get more money, and faster, so he started robbing.
He began with arcade rides, bubblegum machines, penny pushers, video games, anything in our seaside town that had a cash box he could prise open with the crowbar from his dad’s garage. Sometimes I helped him, as a lookout, but never took any of the money. I’d help him spend it, but wouldn’t take any of the coins off him. One time we bought two portions of pie and chips, with scraps and gravy. It was summer, and Stink was sleeping in his back garden in a tent his dad had got him. He was allowed in his bedroom, in the house, but he liked sleeping outside when it wasn’t too cold, a blanket was placed on the concrete yard under the bright orange tent, the pegs held with breeze blocks. We climbed inside, zipped up the doorway, sat facing each other, placed our newspaper packed suppers in the space between us, unwrapped them, peeled the plastic lids off the polystyrene pots of gravy, and slathered the sauce over everything. Steam rose from our feast, filling the tent with a warm mist, almost like we were in the pies ourselves.
Stink had recently turned fourteen when his brother told the police what he’d been up to. He hadn’t threatened Stink, hadn’t wanted a cut, or anything in return. Stink hadn’t even known his brother knew what he’d been doing, but he’d seen Stink with his frequent suppers, knew he was still regularly paying the compensation to the courts, so had followed him one night to see where the money was coming from. Luckily, I wasn’t doing any voluntary lookout duty that night. He’d seen only Stink attacking the metal cash box on the plastic giraffe kiddies ride, remove the coins, walk to the chip shop to get a bag of chips and a buttered bap, then follow him to his tent. The only conversation being Steven asking if he could have a chip as soon as Stink unwrapped them, taking one, eating it, then walking into the house. The police came two days later. Stink’s mum told them he was probably in his tent round the back.
The third time in court it was decided that fines were not doing the trick, that in fact some of his repayments had most likely come from his crimes. From his ill-gotten gains the magistrate said. He was old enough to go to a detention centre now, that it really was the only solution at this stage, they had no other choice, he needed to be sent down. He received a three-month sentence in Althrop Borstal. The policeman cuffed him in the court, his wrists in front of him, and marched him to his cell. Steven was the sole family member there, who smiled and waved at his younger brother as he was taken away. He was collected later that day and escorted straight to his internment. Stink was the first in the van which picked up two other boys on the way, both older, both larger.
In borstal all new kids were given a choice on their first night whether they wanted to do a chicken run, which meant running over one bed, then under the next, and repeating this pattern for two or three loops around the eighteen beds in the dormitory, whilst the other boys took swings and kicks at you. The other option was a dorm beating, for which you laid on your bed, motionless, whilst all the other boys gave you a kick in. Stink chose this one, thinking he could bundle himself up for more protection. He couldn’t have known they’d slip soap bars into the toe end of their socks and sling and bray those into him. The welts, that came close to breaking his skin, left growing, yellowing bruises on his torso, and lasted for two months.
There was one kid, a year older, a foot taller, and twenty pounds heavier than Stink who introduced himself as Belt, and doubled as Stink’s protector and bully. Every day the price of protection was his lunch and dinner puddings, which he had to deliver to whichever table Belt was sitting at. It was clear that the pudding payment only protected Stink from Belt himself. For the three months Stink stayed in borstal he didn’t eat a single item with sugar in it. With a few days to go Belt told him he’d have to give him a beating, thanked him for all the puddings, and sorry he had to do it, but any lad leaving had to get a proper boot in, so that his mother could see what he looked like after. It was agreed it would be the next night, in the dorm, around nine o’clock, three days before his release, to maximise the size of the bruises and swelling. When the time came, Stink cradled himself into a shell in the corner of the dorm, holding himself as best he could whilst he felt the full strength four puddings a day had given Belt. When he arrived home with his split lip, cauliflower ear, and left black eye his mother mentioned nothing about how he looked. By default, neither did his father.
Stink never went to borstal again. At age sixteen you could move into your own place, paid for by the dole office, as long as one of your parents signed that they didn’t object to you living independently. Stink’s mum signed his application for housing benefit on his sixteenth birthday and said that could be his birthday gift. He took the form to the social security office that day, got the necessary stamp, and walked down Sherby Avenue, a street full of guesthouses, until he found one with a vacancy for a tenant paid by government benefits. He moved in that same day. A room on the second floor, that shared a bathroom with one other tenant. In his room he had a single bed, a dresser with a small mirror, a wardrobe. His only belongings were a few clothes, and a Walkman with about three hours’ worth of battery life left in it, and three pounds eighty pence, all in coins.
We all left school at sixteen. We started working, mostly apprenticeships, but Stink didn’t find a job. He had to look for one to show the dole office he was trying, but knew he would lose his housing benefit if he actually got a job. His accommodation was covered, including a daily fried breakfast, and then twenty pounds left to live on, which he kept for joining us in the pub. It wasn’t enough to go drinking as much as the rest of us, so he’d usually join on a Friday or a Saturday only, not both nights. We did a set pub crawl, thirty-minutes per pint, starting in the old town, moving into the centre, and then, after the tenth pint in The George, to Smoochers Nightclub a few doors down. Stink was often spent up by the last pub and couldn’t join us further so would return to his guesthouse. One night, in his drunkenness, he decided to burgle the next guesthouse along. The front door was open. He staggered in, decided it would be a risk to switch on the lights, so lit his way with matches to see the way, flicking them on the floor when the flame finished its black descent to his fingers, and the sudden heat reminded him it was there. He searched the lounge, the dining room, found nothing, stole nothing, and went back to his bed.
An hour after falling asleep he was woken by another guest telling him to get out of the building. Blue light swarmed through his window into his eyes. On the street, still in all his clothes, except his shoes, he stood across the road with everyone from his house, everyone from the house two doors to the left, and everyone from the house between, which he’d attempted to burgle earlier that night, the ground floor of which had flames bursting out of it whilst two hoses poured water inside. As the flames retreated, he told his second-floor neighbour what he’d done, thinking it would gain him favour somehow. No real reason. Within minutes of Stink confiding to the other tenant, who he only knew by his first name, and only from stunted chats in their corridor, his neighbour was speaking to the police and pointing in Stink’s direction. He’d lived there for nine months. The hour of sleep he’d had that night was his last in that building.
He got three years in Lincoln Prison for it. The damage was in the tens of thousands, no one hurt, or he would have got longer. The prison was about seventy miles from our town. We could only visit if he accepted our request to see him, which he did once, and so we all travelled one Saturday to visit him in a car borrowed from one of our dad’s. On the way we bought two quarter pound bags of boiled sweets, cola cubes and sweet peanuts, and a pornographic magazine as gifts. When we arrived at the prison we went through the initial checks and were then told he’d decided to decline the visit. On the way back we polished off the sweets, teased each other with the magazine, which we put in a bin on the outskirts of town; none of us could risk taking it home. We never found out why he’d refused to see us having agreed we could visit. By the time he came out two and a half years later we forgot to ask. He moved into his parents’ house, his old room. He hadn’t seen them since his sixteenth birthday.
He was nineteen. He was violent. He was different. He was a shock to us. Like one of his organs, something in his guts, had hardened into something angry, a fury that owned a piece of him. A part of him had vacated, and something else had moved in. It was when he drank, and the more he drank the more it was. It first showed itself because we’d talked about going on a holiday to Benidorm without him. He found out we’d been planning it, but we hadn’t wanted him to come, and so his forehead crashed into my nose, blood sprayed onto my shirt, and the astonishment he saw on our faces made him run home to his mum and dad’s house from the pub. He came out the next week as though nothing had happened. One night he met a girl. They were necking in a corner of Smoochers Nightclub. When he tried to fondle her, she moved his hand, said no, and he punched her full in the mouth, telling her if she didn’t fuck, she could fuck off. We were relieved that he got barred. We started rearranging our pub crawls so that he didn’t know where to meet us, but he’d eventually find us each Saturday, buy a pint, sit with us, grinning, but saying nothing about how we’d tried to dodge him.
This weekly routine took us close to the start of our twenties. I moved away for a couple of years. Others settled down a bit. The group pub crawls stopped being every week, then once a month, then stopped altogether. Stink didn’t have a group to gatecrash anymore. I heard, on occasions when I went back home to visit, that he’d had jobs on and off, mostly on building sites, or in factories, but had physically threatened or hit people he worked with, so lost those jobs, and eventually became unemployable. I was told he got into several kinds of drugs, was an alcoholic, ended up on methadone plans, had a few short-lived relationships, and ultimately, because of the physical and mental damage he did to himself, moved on to permanent disability benefits. We completely lost touch.
I’m fifty now. We all are. Recently, I found out his mum had died just about a year ago. I wondered if Stink had gone to the funeral. I think he was, and still is, alive, but only because I like to think I would have heard if he’d died. I remembered the last time I’d been with Stink and seen his mum at the same time. We were halfway through a night out, between a pint in The Red Lion and The George, and we walked past her and Stink’s dad. They were on their way to their local. Stink was living in his guesthouse at the time, and hadn’t gone to prison yet, so we were not yet seventeen. Stink’s mum used to wear a lot of makeup, a huge triangle of blue for eye shadow, thick mascara and lines of eye liner, bright red lipstick, and blusher. On this night we saw, as she got closer and closer, that only one side of her face was made up, the blue, the red, the beige foundation, all down the left, but the right of her face untouched. As she walked past, she said hello boys, looking at all of us except Stink, and carried on, with her husband, who we had to assume hadn’t told her, or hadn’t even looked at her and seen her half face. It was glaring to look at, unnerving, disturbing to the point that we collectively didn’t say anything about it. We never mentioned it, even when Stink wasn’t there. For some reason it was the first thing I remembered when I wondered if Stink went to her funeral or not, but it didn’t help me decide if he had. I hope he didn’t.
Paul Kimm writes short stories. He has had publications in Literally Stories, Northern Gravy, Fictive Dream, and Fiction on the Web, with further upcoming publications in Literally Stories and Mono.