Thief of Fire

as PUSH #12 is out this week, here’s the story i had in PUSH #11; a love story set on 15th march 1980…

 

West Ham petrol bomb

 

Age 15, all I wanted from life was the chance to talk earnestly about The Gang of Four and Velvet Underground with some of the small knot of shy posh, potential art student lasses in mohair jumpers, black eyeliner and scarlet lipstick from those big houses in Low Fell in our year who and studiously ignored us every single day at school. Once we left there wasn’t quite the chance, but there was the hope we could all be pals, as Little Wilka and Chris Parker had started cracking on to them at The Pop Group gig at the Poly the other month. Overcome by shyness and desire, I’d left them to it and spent the time rearranging the badges on my jumble sale Donegal tweed overcoat and avoiding eye contact with my personal goddess, Sadia Bashir; the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.

When she closed her eyes to sing, word perfect, along to Thief of Fire I learned what it was to be in love. I would have given my life up for the chance to bury my face in all her dark hair; to inhale and savour her odour of sandalwood, Gauloises and mystery. Through the decades, the years, all the sadness and failures of my life to come, that single image of one pretty girl, alone and significant amidst all that noise and all that chaos, still claws at my heart and my soul. It leaves me eternally weak and blind forever.

The 1980s began with me throwing up in a hedge on Rochester Terrace after Little Wilka’s New Year party. My own fault. Trying to save money for the football and records, I didn’t get a proper carry out. Nicked a load of the old man’s home brew instead. It got shaken up in a snowball fight on the way, but I still drank the lot, sediment and all, mixed in with a bottle of Old English I’d thieved from Wilka’s stash in the kitchen cupboard. Everyone went out of focus and I started falling around the place. It didn’t matter. Sadia wasn’t there. I had no reason to be dignified. Fell asleep behind the sofa for a couple of hours. Got woken up by Wilka’s big red and white brother giving me a good fucking shoeing in the small of my back. Telling me to get the fuck out, about 3 when their mam and dad came back from a lock in at The Columba. Stumbled down the stairs. Careering. Fresh air punched my lights out. Everyone else heading back up Holly Hill to look for somewhere fresh to gatecrash, I start retching. Bile sticky as albumen out my nose and mouth. Vomit parcels melting frost glazed privet. Howling. Keening at the moon.

Lyndsay Johnson was all concerned about me. I was out of it; told her to fuck off and leave me alone, but she didn’t. Nice lass, even if she hated football and listened to shit music. Odour of patchouli on her duffle coat.  Led Zep and Van Halen metal badges. Rush tour sweatshirt. She put her arm around me, kept me upright and steady. Bundled me halfway up the road, then cut off home along Victoria Avenue. Told me not to be daft when I lunged in for a kiss, but in a nice way. As she receded through watery blinks, I called out that I loved her and she laughed and waved. I didn’t mean it of course, but I sort of did when I promised I’d call round for her the next afternoon. She told me to make sure I cleaned my teeth properly if I wanted that kiss. But I let her down. Not even 16 and I was already a dab hand at treating women like shit. Went to the match instead. Watched us lace sunderland 3-1 in the chokehold of the worst hangover I’d ever known. First time I’d sweated in January.

At full time, I crept timidly through the outskirts of a 300 a side barney outside The Waterloo. Stench of anger. Grunts of strenuous effort. The ripping of cloth. The slap of fist on face. The thud of boot on bone. Screams. Wailing sirens. Moaning. Blood on a frosty paving slab. Big Wilka with his nose spread across his face. Dabbing at the wound with his red and white scarf. His despairing look checkmated my grief and guilt, while his brother stared the other way. This was war. I wanted to, but couldn’t apologise. Joined in with the endless chants of “Geordie aggro” instead. Clenched fist punching the viscous air, then thought of Sadia, her hair and closed eyelids. Her aroma cutting through the fumes of sweat and testosterone and beer. All the way back across the bridge, up through Gateshead, Deckham and down into Felling Square, I cried silently, hoping the smarting wind took the blame.

The rest of the crew, some back from the game, some just out of bed with adolescent hangovers, some angry at betrayal, hung around Joe Coral’s doorway. Lyndsay Johnson looked at me with burning hatred. I fled. Back home, fearful, alone and shaking, I spent the first week and a bit of January, up in my room, listening to Peel, reading NME and “The Outsider” and learning all the bass lines from “Three Imaginary Boys.” Didn’t see anyone, until we got back to school on the Monday.

Second lesson; History. Doc Rogers always made us sit alphabetical by surname and when he told us there was a new student transferring into this class (he never referred to anyone as boy or girl; we reckoned because he was an alien and not familiar with the concept of gender), everyone from me onwards had to shuffle one to the right to make a space for them. Just when the murmur of speculation about who the stranger might be became audible enough for Rogers to start screaming, in walks Sadia with the Head of Year. I’m sure I gasped. And then she sat next to me. The only lass in the room in a blazer.  The only lass with 2 badges on her lapel; NUFC and “Unknown Pleasures.” The only lass with those eyelids and that hair. And the aroma of sandalwood.

Disturbance over, Rogers droned on again about the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, while I watched Sadia carve her initials on the desk, inside a giant heart with Lvs Peter With underneath. I reached over and added the missing final E in biro, as she playfully stabbed the back of my hand with the compass. I licked away the blood; among the white corpuscles and platelets, the phagocytes and plasma, I could taste the iron tip of her affection and the Rhesus positive of my love for her. That term, I studied her form and savoured that scent, for three magical hours each week, as the British and European 1789-1870 syllabus grew closer to the end. A term that passed in a blur of lust and whispered gossip about football and bands we’d heard on John Peel the night before on transistors jammed under our pillows.

Without consciously joining, Sadia was absorbed into our squad; osmosis. Little Wilka, Chris, Lyndsay and the rest met up every Saturday morning in The Square for the bus to town. Record shops in the morning. Football if the Mags were at home or jumble sales and second hand shops in the afternoon. Hours of intense pleasure in our own company. Our own world. I was happy all the time. At night, near home, we’d wander the streets or drink cans on the steps of the bandstand in the park. We shivered as we drank or flirted. We thawed as we chastely held each other on slow walks home that coincided with a 10.30 curfew for those from good homes and 11.30 for the kids of drinkers.

Sadia was never there at night. I missed her, but said nothing. She couldn’t hang around with us after dark until she turned 16. Her old man made the rules. When we played Birmingham in the worst 0-0 of all time, on a Wednesday night in half term, her Fatha took her in the East Stand. We’d hopped over from the Gallowgate into the Paddock below and spent half the game waving up at her as she threw handfuls of boiled sweets down for us to share. I caught a barley sugar and put it in my inside pocket. I kept it. Still have it in a tin box full of badges, tickets, posters and set lists; the taste of youth I never truly had, but couldn’t leave behind. “Difficult situations are all part of growing up; learn to deal with them, student” was one of Doc Rogers’ catchphrases. We’d manically shout this to each other outside of school in a fake approximation of his accent.

But we were growing up. On March 1st Newcastle lost 2-0 to Watford. Played shit. Grimly moping down Pilgrim Street for the bus, a new Delta 5 single under my arm, Sadia broke the silence as she pointed out it was her 16th birthday in a fortnight; the day of West Ham at home and, the gig I’d been waiting for all year, The Mekons. We were all up for this. Even more so when she told us “no fucker” was going to stop her spending all day and night in town. The most exciting day of my life was less than 2 weeks away. And then I got sick.  

I felt bad from the minute I woke up on the Sunday. Sore throat. Headaches. Temperature. Tried learning stuff for the Biology test we had the next day, but nothing stuck. Hadn’t even been drinking on the Saturday. Our squad had acted all intellectual, going to see the RSC do “Romeo and Juliet.” It was on our Literature syllabus like and we’d got seats up in the Gods for two quid a head. When we’d told the teacher, he looked stunned for a second, then contemptuous the way they always did; “don’t you dare spoil it for the proper theatregoers by causing a riot.” Actually, the show wasn’t bad, what we could see of it like. Being honest though, I’d spent most of the night secretly eyeing up Sadia two seats to the right, while Lyndsay kept snuggling into my left hand side. Putting her head on my shoulder and that.

When I finished Sunday breakfast, it all came back up. Raced to the kitchen sink and spewed a load of cereal and stuff into the washing up bowl. The old fella, sympathetic as ever, reckoned I was putting it on (“been on the fucking piss or what?”), but Mam went predictably hysterical. Insisted I stopped in bed and had me down the surgery when it opened first thing Monday morning, meaning I missed the Biology test, which was sound, but also History. And that shredded my heart. 

The doctor reckoned it was tonsillitis, but took a blood sample as well. Gave me some penicillin. Said I had to have a week in bed and keep off the drink for a while. Him and Mam laughed at last, but I didn’t. A few months back the idea of time alone with my porn and record collections would have been cause for rejoicing, but everything had changed when I fell in love. Told them I hated stopping off school and needed to go in. Couldn’t afford not to. Doc tried to look sympathetic, nodded all concerned, saying I shouldn’t put myself under too much pressure and that I ought to take a few days to recover before starting my O Level revision in earnest. “Under no circumstances” was I to attend school before Friday. That’s when I laughed, but quiet like. Our house rules were clear; you stop off on a Friday, you stay in all weekend. And that was impossible to contemplate with Sadia’s birthday on the Saturday. Equally important; Friday afternoon was double History. The best lesson in the world.

Back home from the doctor’s I went straight up to bed, all wobbly legged and shaky. For the next 72 hours I didn’t move. Shivered then sweated by turns. Woke up every four hours to take another antibiotic. Thursday dinner time, Mam brought me a glass bottle of Lucozade wrapped in crinkly yellow cellophane and scrambled eggs on toast. First thing I’d eaten in days. There was also a get well soon card. According to her a few of our squad had called round the night before, but she’d not asked them in as I was still flaked out. That writing on frayed and brittle card has faded from navy blue to pale violet, but still I trace the indentations that announce “Please be well for Saturday. S xx” Two kisses. I wanted a billion from her, but would have settled for one. I think I still would.

Four days wasn’t enough to make me better, but I crawled to school on Friday. Chris told me I looked like I’d been in a Japanese POW camp. It didn’t matter; I was present for History. It wasn’t the thought of those fucking exams that were coming like a jail on wheels that sent me back only half recovered. It was love and lust and loyalty and all those things, because it didn’t matter a flying fuck whether you got all A grades or failed the cunting lot. Spring 1980 gave you two choices in life: YTS in a factory down the Team Valley or 2 years practising your pool skills in the snug of The Springfield opposite Gateshead Tech, while on some daft City & Guilds to “broaden your career options and further enhance your employability skills.”  

Doc Rogers had a load of reports to write, so he set us an exam question in silence. All lesson Sadia and I exchanged notes about Saturday. She wanted two chocolate éclairs from Crawford’s bakery instead of a cake, two pints of Woodpecker and black in The Senate before the gig and definitely a badge. I predicted the gig would end with “Where Were You?” as the last encore and Sadia said she hoped it wasn’t the b-side “I’ll Have to Dance Then On My Own.” I laughed at this and Rogers heard me. He gave me a clout across the back of the neck to show what I’d missed out on all week. It finished me off. I went home straight after school and was in bed by 8. Didn’t even have the radio on, because Friday was crap. Tommy Vance had taken over from Peel and just played that metal shite which Lyndsay loved and the rest of us hated.

It was a struggle on Saturday morning. When I stood up I thought I was going to fall, but I kept it silently together. Crept downstairs, trying to avoid detection and questions, then out the door unseen, just as the postman came down the front path. Exploited the distraction and headed down to meet the others for the bus. I still felt crap and hadn’t eaten, but couldn’t miss this day. Ten quid I’d saved from pocket money and not buying school dinners for the last fortnight, buttoned into the top pocket of the camouflage jacket I’d got from the Army Surplus shop on Newgate Street. A pile of loose change jangled in my strides. I could pay into the gig and the match with all the slingy and keep the note to get Sadia a present later on. She wanted a badge, so I fantasised about buying a Mekons t-shirt, then presenting it to her. Surely she’d kiss me then, or at least let me hug her, breathe her aroma and stroke her hair, as her eyelids blinked shut against my cheek.

There were almost 26,000 in St James’ Park that day. Big crowd. Sightseers. Even Lyndsay, who normally sat cross-legged with the hippies outside Kard Bar when the game was on, had come along, with it being Sadia’s special day. The queues at the Gallowgate were massive, so we got shunted round to the East Stand Paddock by the Leazes. It was packed. Unlike Wrexham or Cambridge or Fulham, there weren’t just a dozen old blokes in scarves and flat caps in the away bit. The Leazes was rammed as well. Chris, Little Wilka and Sadia were straight into it; singing, gesticulating, pogoing on the spot. Abusing West Ham. A shower of loose change from their end sparked a volley of glass and metal in return. Lyndsay was horrified. She’d only been once before, stood on a half empty Gallowgate step, chatting about life, half watching a meaningless draw with Oldham. This was different. This was real. Intense. She was scared. And angry; pulling her duffle coat hood up to protect herself from the incessant pouring copper, screaming “you fucking animals. Stop trying to kill each other.” Wilka and Chris pushing, jostling, elbowing each other. Trying to outdo the real hard lads from West Denton or Longbenton when threatening the cockneys the other side of the fence. Soft boys impersonating violent, heterosexual men. Sadia, no longer simply beautiful, but somehow frightening. Oblivious to us, spittle flecks at the corner of her mouth as she endlessly chanted words of violence and torment. Me, weakly acknowledging my sympathy for Lyndsay and my aching, waning lust for Sadia, unable to resolve this conflict.

Brutally torn, I felt worse and worse. Like watching events through mist or a silent newsreel. All the while, vaguely aware of Lyndsay still telling us to stop it, pulling at my sleeve, demanding I make our friends to behave “like normal human beings.” Caught between love, loyalty and fear, I failed to successfully connect with any of the competing factions. Mine the only silent voice in the ground. My hands wide apart, palms exposed, fingers splayed, gesturing slowly upwards, achieving nothing.  The only hands not clenched in anger or forming an inadequate shield against torrents of brick fragments and rusty debris, bolts harvested from factory floors. And then it happened.

A flaming bottle arced through the sky, describing a neat parabola above our fans, across the fence separating us, into the throng of Hammers who scattered as fire burst upwards. Someone had thrown a petrol bomb. A fucking petrol bomb. A scared kid with his Wrangler on fire was alone in the midst of this insanity. It was like Belfast or Derry, like you’d see on the news. Sadia going mental; singing along to “burn, burn, burn the bastard,” with her beautiful eyelids closed in rapture, as Wilka and Chris fought for the right to hold her or even her attention in a moment of climactic violence. I was now more scared of her, of who she was than the swarm of angry Poliss who burst through the crowd, scattering us. Arms aloft like some crazed preacher or stunt man, the burning Hammer stumbled across the terracing as those around him tried to remove his charred jacket, until he fell in freeze frame and bounced on the concrete steps. Then all went black as the noise and sounds were turned off by an instant, frightening power cut.

The ticking wall clock, like the ones we had in every classroom, said 5.45. The game was over.  Woozy, nauseous, I lay on a camp bed. A St John’s Ambulanceman looked down at me; “nils each, young’un. You missed nowt.” I was in the Medical Treatment Centre at St. James’ Park. No sign of my crew. They’d left me. Ages ago. I knew they’d be outside The Senate waiting for it to open, expecting me to show up and make the party complete. I tried to stand up, but the First Aid bloke gently pushed my chest down and I fell back on the bed. He gave me tea in a polystyrene cup and two ginger snaps. First thing I’d had all day. The First Aider told me that he’d sent “the lass who looked after you” away, because I was going home from here.

When the old man arrived, he actually seemed concerned, but still angry of course. Lyndsay had given the First Aiders who had carried me from the terraces our number and they’d phoned him to collect me, while she waited for me, glad to be away from the seething anger in sight of the pitch.  At first everyone thought I’d been knocked out by a missile. I hadn’t. I’d fainted, which was no surprise really. As I’d left that morning, the postman delivered my blood test results. Infectious mononucleosis. Glandular fever. Kissing disease. Some chance of that mind. Some chance of seeing The Mekons as well. Not when I needed “quarantining” for a fortnight, according to this latest medical bulletin.

The old fella complained the whole way home, giving me a load of bollocks about how I wasn’t going to any more football or pop concerts if this was what was going to happen. The news that night was full of shite about hooligans on the rampage at Newcastle versus West Ham, which just made him worse. Grainy still life portraits of the petrol bomb igniting and sombre a newsreader commentary. In the yellowed photo I snipped from the next day’s paper, you can see Chris and Wilka punching the air in delight, Sadia aloof and silent, eyes closed as if in raptures, Lyndsay covering her face with her hands and me, half turned from the pitch offering my useless speciality.  An impotent, placatory gesture that failed as usual.

Two weeks I was off school. Played my records. Listened to a 1-1 draw at Cardiff and a 3-1 home win over Bristol Rovers on the radio. Read stuff. Wrote poems and song lyrics about Sadia. Binned them. Missed the end of term piss up in the park. Eventually, someone remembered I was alive. Staring out my bedroom on the first Tuesday of the holidays I saw Lyndsay walking down the street, a record under her arm. I opened the window as she stopped outside our gate and asked her why she was alone. Turned out she’s at a loose end these days. Ever since Chris and Little Wilka got cautioned for hoying bricks at West Ham fans down Bath Lane at full time she’s cut them dead. Now Sadia’s dad has grounded her until she’s 18 for coming in pissed from The Mekons gig.

Lyndsay had left Sadia puking on the dance floor during the encore, “some b-side I’d never heard before.” Caught the last bus and not hung around with anyone since. Tried to do some revision for the exams. Hated it. Now as bored as me. I pointed out this conversation with me up here and her down there was a bit like “Romeo and Juliet.” She laughed, and then we both went quiet. Unsure what to say next, I suggested we maybe go see the rearranged Notts County game the next night. Lyndsay stared at me for a long time, blinking away disbelief that verged on irritation. Tilting her head to the side, she studied me carefully.

You’re not still infectious are you? I mean, I’d hate to catch anything with the exams and that

Me? I’m a hundred percent safe now. Come in for a coffee if you like. I guarantee you’ll be safe. You can even let me hear that shite hippy record you’ve got.

Cheeky sod. I bet you’ve never even heard Stephen Stills before. Get the kettle on and I’ll educate you.

Five seconds later, I was opening our front door and guiding Lyndsay down the hallway and into the kitchen. By the time the kettle boiled, we were about 3 minutes into Stephen Stills’s 1970 debut album. I closed my eyes and felt glad I’d brushed my teeth that morning, as we half listened to the end of the opening track. Love the One You’re With.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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