Halfway along the quiet terrace the houses stopped on one side and the trees in the corner of the park began. A cold wind was blowing from the east — it was late November — and the trees jostled each other as they bent away from its gusts. Only one of the four men, Lewis, knew where he was going. The others were his guests, strangers in the Scottish town. "This way," he said, and they followed him down a gravel path, splitting up around a cracked concrete bollard that listed to one side in its cement mount.
“So this is your old stomping ground then Lewis?” said Paul. “Somehow I can't imagine you running round in shorts and playing conkers — just ain't the Lewis I know.”
“Me neither,” said Seb, “I bet your mum used to nag you all the time to go play with the other little boys.” He burst into laughter; then, in falsetto, “Lewis, go outside and play with little boys!”
Lewis ignored them. He was busy remembering the layout of his childhood haunt, re-exploring it in his head. The wooded area was narrow and past it lay the bank of the stream, here called the burn, whose meandering course defined one edge of the park. Across the burn was a girl's school — mirage of his adolescence — with playing fields that flashed green through a line of trees. On Saturday mornings, he recalled, you heard the clack of hockey sticks and the shouts of young girls. On Monday mornings you walked to school yourself, with a rucksack you only wore on one shoulder, your top button undone beneath your tie. And on Friday evenings you sat on the swings, watching the sunset, wondering where the future would take you.
“We shouldn't laugh,” continued Paul, “it's tough to come home. I did the same thing when I lost my job — went home to live with my mum. And I remember how it feels: on one hand you're glad to see the old faces again, but on the other it's like…” he paused, searching for the right expression, “like you're murdering your own past.”
Lewis still hadn't spoken; but he had started to listen, it was obvious he had started to listen.
“Anyway,” Paul went on, “we're here now and that's the main thing: at times like this, you need your friends around you.”
“We're here to help,” said Seb, grinning.
Lewis veered off the footpath and started to cross the long wet grass. He seemed to be headed for the roundabout in the middle of the park, perched on top of a low hill. The roundabout was unoccupied, but can't have been for long, as it was still rotating slowly. The others shrugged and followed him.
“Tell you what,” said Seb, squelching on the grass, “it's fucking cold up here.”
He was talking to Iain, the last member of the group. Like Lewis, Iain was Scottish, only somehow he was more Scottish, with a thicker accent and a surlier face.
“Aye,” he said.
He was short and stocky and had lost enough hair that he shaved the rest. The skin on the back of his head was bristly and pink: in the cold, with goose pimples, it resembled a fatty cut of pork.
Ahead of them, Paul caught up with Lewis. From behind their bodies made different shapes, Paul squarely built and confident in his movements, Lewis taller and gaunter, a triangle of wide bony shoulders and long thin legs.
“I bet you've got some memories knocking round here,” Paul was saying, “I remember my old town like it was yesterday.”
“Yeah,” said Lewis, “a trip down memory lane.”
Water was creeping into their shoes, about to touch them through their socks. Among the clover and the damp green stems were the caps of tiny, slimy looking mushrooms.
“We used to play football in this bit,” Lewis said, “that shop there” — he pointed to a green wooden building fronting onto the terrace. The fence that surrounded it, tall wooden stakes strung together with wire, was breached in many places — “that's a barber's. He built the fence to stop us kicking balls off the back of it. So we'd always aim high, trying to smash the bastard's windows.”
“The things you get up to when you're a nipper,” said Paul, “your mum and dad give you hell, and you only go out and do it again.”
Lewis nodded. But he had a cynical, amused look on his face, as if he'd known that Paul would miss the point, and he had.
Paul lurched forwards and grabbed at the back of his neck. Behind him Seb and Iain were laughing: one of them had thrown the clump of turf that was dribbling down his shirt. As he grinned and swore and brushed dirt from under his collar, Seb started running with his fists in the air, his jumper pulled up over his head. What took the sting out of it was the way he slid along the ground afterwards, on his knees, as if he'd just scored at Wembley: now they both had mud to wipe off their clothes.
While Paul and Seb cleaned themselves up, the two Scots looked at each other. Iain grinned through a face that said, he's some boy that Sebastian, some fucking boy. And Lewis smiled too, but his eyes were a warning, a reminder that he wasn't playing their childish games.
There was a whirring sound, wheels on metal; a clunk, a pause, then the whirring again. A skateboard ramp had been built on the other side of the roundabout, some time after Lewis had left.
“Fag break!” shouted Seb. He offered a cigarette to Paul, who accepted, and to Iain, who resolutely refused. He started waving it under Iain's nose saying, “go on, have a sniff, you know you can't resist.” After pretending to strike a match on Iain's bald head, he lit up and took a draw. Then he turned to Lewis. “Cancer stick? Coffin nail?” Lewis grinned and shook his head. He didn't look away though: he was watching, waiting for an attack. Seb wafted a cigarette in front of him, exactly as he had for Iain, except a foot below his face. “Go on, have a sniff,” he said, “a good big sniff.” The men started laughing, Iain first and Lewis last, the tip of his big beaky nose twitching up and down.
They were still for a while. In the cold raw air all of them were puffing out smoke: the only difference was the colour, grey and translucent or whitish and thick. Before long two butts hissed out on the grass and they moved on towards the roundabout on top of the hill.
Soon they were standing beside it, chatting to each other, laughing, pushing the bright red bars back and forth. They had less shelter from the wind up there; like the tall reeds beside the burn its gusts seemed to animate them, making them slide their hands inside their pockets, turn their collars up, step forwards and back as they spoke. Ahead was another flat section of grass, then the path curved around an unkempt area where a few saplings grew above rings of orange plastic mesh. The ramp was visible now, and the skateboarders — teenage boys in dark baggy clothes — were huddled in its lee. They were smoking a joint, making a big deal of hiding it.
“I wouldn't mind some of that,” said Seb, “it's been a while.”
He knew this was contentious.
“I never touch that muck,” said Paul, “you've got no idea what it does to your brain.”
“Oh here we go, the moral crusader — you're happy enough with nicotine and alcohol… or is that cause you know they're bad for your brain?”
The two of them stopped arguing and cast around for support. Iain's loyalties were known, he didn't have to speak to voice his disapproval of non-alcoholic drugs.
“Et tu, Lewis?” asked Seb.
Lewis had sat down, on one of the wet wooden seats on the roundabout. He would have been disappointed if it hadn't been damp, if the metal bar he gripped with his hand had not been cold. It wouldn't have been his then.
“Each to his own,” he said.
With one foot he started the roundabout moving, propelling himself away from his friends. The park of his childhood wheeled around him. He saw the back gardens of the council houses, some neat and some messy, with wooden gates opening onto the upper path. He saw the two sets of swings, one tall with flat seats, the other lower with safety cradles to stop young children from falling. He saw a car flashing between the buildings on the terrace. Then he saw the three men again, standing together, watching him turn.
He had his back to the others when they decided to stop the roundabout turning. They grabbed a bar each and brought it to a standstill in a few scuffing steps. The halt was abrupt enough that when he stood up and turned to face them, their bodies seemed to drag themselves sideways, snap back, drag sideways again. To escape his nausea he looked down the hill towards the skate-ramp, where one of the kids was rolling into the bowl.
“You alright mate?” asked Paul, “you look like you've had a bit of a turn.”
He laughed and nudged Iain who glanced at Seb: Paul's jokes were always crap, that was part of being his friend. Lewis grinned though: he was glad his pallor had been blamed on the roundabout.
“Yeah,” he said, “I'm fine thanks.”
The warmth was rushing back to his face.
“I reckon we should head off though – I want to give you guys a proper tour of the town, you know, see all the sights together!”
“Together?” asked Seb, “are we going to hold hands?”
“Give it a rest,” said Paul, “we should be thankful he's invited us all up here.”
The others stopped smirking and nodded their assent. This had a visible effect on Lewis: his expression went blank and his knees seemed to tremble, as if he'd braced himself for an impact that never came.
“Sure you're alright?” asked Iain.
“Yeah,” said Lewis, “I'm… fine.”
“You dinny look it,” said Iain. And he didn't: his face had gone pale again, colourless as the sky.
Seb took a cigarette out of his packet, stretched it forwards: “helps you relax,” he said. Lewis burst into tears. “Guess not,” said Seb, and lit it for himself.
Between sobs, Lewis began to repeat something over and over. At first no-one could make out what it was, but when his voice got louder his words were easier to understand: “Too young to die,” he was saying, “too young to die, too young to die.” He continued his mantra for a long time, getting steadily more forceful, rocking his body back and forth. Then he broke off abruptly and straightened up, as if to announce that his pain had turned to anger.
Seb and Paul were smoking. The wind was making their cigarettes burn too quickly. Seb's black hair was lifting, dancing, flopping down.
“Too young to die!” Lewis screamed, “too fucking young to die!”
He ran at a plastic bin mounted on a post and kicked it with his heel. He must have practised this in his years as an adolescent, because the bin flew off with a single blow, releasing a spray of wrappers and beer-cans and wet plastic bags. He picked it up and shook it upside-down, shouting his slogan, kicking at the refuse that rolled across the park. When the bin was empty he hurled it down the hill and listened to the hollow thuds of its impact on the grass. Then he turned to his friends.
“We're here to help,” said Seb, grinning.
The others laughed: they weren't being cynical, only trying to deflate the tension.
“Deep breaths,” said Paul, and Lewis took three of them, one after another.
“Sorry,” he panted afterwards, “I lost it there. I'm sorry you had to see that — you must think I'm crazy or something.”
They all smiled and made the same face: well we weren't going to say anything, but… then Iain gestured at something past Lewis's shoulder. When Lewis turned he saw a teenage boy moving around at the foot of the hill. The boy was shuffling back and forth, making a high pitched noise, nodding his head like a pigeon. He was singing, that was the noise. The black lead of a pair of headphones vanished in his straggly hair, like a fishing line tangled on seaweed.
The men left the roundabout and started down the hill towards the boy. The gravel path glinted as if pieces of broken glass had been ground up inside it. By the time they had arrived the boy had stopped singing and was swaying in an almost imperceptible circle with his hands behind his back. He made no attempt to acknowledge their presence, either because he didn't think they were worthy of his attention or because he was too self-absorbed to notice them. They listened to the music leaking from his headphones. Over the sound of a guitar being strummed in a minor key, Lewis made out a short phrase being repeated over and over. Eventually he realised what it was: Too young to die, he mouthed, confused. Seb nudged Iain and they both glanced his way. Too young to die, they mimicked together. When Lewis saw them they started to laugh. Their laughter spread, infecting Paul as well, until a point when the music became much louder — with drums and power chords instead of acoustic strumming — and the boy started jumping up and down. “Too young to die!” he shouted out loud. His hair was like two greasy wings flapping up and down. Lewis's friends had stopped laughing and were avoiding his eye.
“What?” he demanded.
No-one responded; only Paul was bold enough to answer his gaze. Paul's expression was patient and pained, like a father passing on a hard piece of wisdom to his son. Lewis turned away — he didn't like to think of himself as needing anyone's wisdom but his own — and his jaw tightened as he pursued the meaning of Paul's look in his head. The boy continued to leap up and down, lost in a world of music. The way Lewis's emotions crossed his features, it was as if the park had poured itself into his face. The ripples blown through the grass, the trembling in the naked trees. The men stepped forwards, almost surrounding the boy. Seb's lips were pursed like he meant to whistle, but if he was making any sound it was inaudible beneath the hiss of escaping music, the thump and scuffle of feet. A few seconds later the boy stopped jumping and stood facing Lewis. His puny chest heaved up and down. He was tall for his age, but couldn't have been older than fifteen or sixteen. A decade younger than Lewis. They stared at each other with blue, identical eyes.
Above their heads a gust of wind picked up a flapping white gull, dragged it backwards, let it go again.
Lewis swung his fist at the teenager's nose. The cracking sound came first and the screaming came afterwards, like the pause before a dropped glass smashes. The boy threw his hands to his face and blood leaked through them, healthy and red. As he staggered from side to side, wailing, clutching his nose, the men turned to his assailant.
“Oh god,” Lewis gasped.
They rolled their eyes: he had always been melodramatic.
One of them threw the boy down on the grass. Kicks rained on his fallen body, frenzied at first, then settling to an even rhythm. His cries took the rhythm as well, going silent after each impact and reaching a crescendo before the next. Occasionally, a longer wail escaped him.
Every time his foot sank into the boy's flesh, Lewis felt a sense of liberation grow inside him. Each wet thud was like a step taken in a foreign land, like the start of a journey he had waited far too long to make. The beating went on for fifteen minutes. Seb was the first to finish, pulling a face and dragging one shoe along the grass, leaving a dark smear behind it. Then Paul and Iain stopped as well and Lewis was alone. Almost. The boy's head was so swollen he couldn't open his eyes.
Over by the burn, the others were smoking. At least Seb and Paul were: Iain was standing beside them, abstemious as ever, body straight above his stocky legs. Lewis looked at their backs for a moment then walked towards the skateboarders. He was very close before they showed any sign of acknowledgement; even then it was only enough so he'd know they didn't care either way. The metal structure shook as they rolled up and down it. Beneath one of the corners where the struts branched off a bar had come loose and was lying on the ground. The cuff that had held it in place was still attached, hanging open, a sheared-off bolt poking through it.
“It's getting late,” said Paul.
“It is,” said Iain, “and we're not getting any younger.”
The men had finished smoking and were watching the trees on the other side of the burn, bending in the wind. They moved in different ways, some curling over and rippling straight again, others creaking from side to side. When Lewis came he threw something that spun lopsidedly through the air and made a big splash in the water.
“Want one?” asked Seb, extending a white packet towards him. There were only a few cigarettes left, leaning together against the foil lined side. As Lewis took one and put it to his lips, Seb noticed that his hand was trembling.