Authors: Gerard Brennan
Danny felt the heat of his reddened face in his ears. His brother's calm and non-threatening manner made it harder for him to feign righteous indignation. Outright denial wouldn't carry any weight.
"And what do you think?"
"I think you better be very careful. McVeigh isn't listening to me. He just wants me to fuck with your head and guilt you into confessing. I can't believe you'd be so evil as to take money from defenceless pensioners, but he can't be convinced."
"What do you think I should do then?"
"Let your mates know about McVeigh and his crazy idea. It probably wouldn't hurt if you asked a few question to try and weed out the real culprits. But be careful about it."
"So you don't think I'm a Wee Rocket, or whatever they're called?"
Paul stood up and looked down on Danny. He put a hand on his little brother's shoulder and squeezed. The pressure hurt but Danny didn't flinch. Paul's expression changed from worried brother to scary motherfucker in a blink.
"No, I couldn't think that of my own flesh and blood." Paul's grip tightened, pushing his thumb further into the soft flesh beneath the collarbone. Danny couldn't hold his poker face. He hissed in pain like he'd just burnt his fingers on a hot plate. Paul leant in even closer. Danny could feel his warm breath on his face. "But if I found out you were running with those cunts, I'd cut your throat. It'd be an easy thing to do since I wouldn't consider you a brother anymore."
"Paul, please let go of me." Danny cringed at the sound of his own voice. Weak and small.
Paul loosened his crushing grip and slapped Danny's cheek. It wasn't a hard slap but it stung Danny's pride. His own brother, treating him like a bitch. Something he'd not forget in a hurry.
"I'm glad we got that sorted out," Paul said. "Do you want a tin of coke?"
Joe washed the scratches on his cheek. He wondered if he could get any lower. It depressed him to think that he might have bottomed out at fourteen years old. His ma hated him now; he was sure of it. He found no comfort in the mirror above the sink in the bathroom. His reflection stared back at him, ugly and ashamed. The moustache he was so proud of seemed tatty and stupid. A barcode. The swarthy skin the girls at the park whispered about -- just loud enough for him to hear -- seemed yellowy; like the skin of old men who spend all day waiting for buses outside the Royal Hospital.
He focussed on the three parallel lines running from cheekbone to chin on the left side of his face. He'd suffered worse in schoolyard scraps and street fights, but those shallow scratches hurt his heart. Even the physical pain of his assaulted balls had faded, but his insides tried to crawl out his throat. His mother's post-fight expression replayed on a loop in his mind.
He splashed water on his face to avoid looking at his tears.
His ma kept her sleeping pills in the bathroom cabinet. She was supposed to take one a night but had given them up after finding out he'd been inviting friends back for the night while she lay in her bed, dead to the world. Another black mark against him. Something else to feel shit about. Inside the cabinet, three full blister-packs of eight tablets invited him to party. To just... slip away.
In his bedroom, he sat on the unmade bed and fanned the little plastic packets like a short-changed poker player. Twenty-four little pills. He didn't know if it was a lethal dosage. Would it just make him sick? Would he sleep for a week and wake up to another kicking for scaring his ma? Was it overkill? Could he afford to leave one of the blister-packs to help his ma get through the week after finding him? What would he look like when she found him? Scary? Peaceful? Lying in a room full of dirty socks and empty Coke tins. Would she smell him first or his dirty socks?
He'd heard that people who hanged themselves shit their pants before they died. Nobody had ever told him what an overdose did to your boxers. He wondered who wiped dead people's arses. The thought of his ma cleaning him up for his funeral freaked him out until he convinced himself that there were probably specially trained nurses at the mortuary for that sort of thing.
He popped the first pill out of its little pod.
The porn! He couldn't leave his dirty magazines under the mattress, waiting to be discovered. The glossy pages would cause a blockage if he tried to flush them down the bog. If he burned them he'd set off the smoke alarm. He could throw them out the window, but someone would find them and only remember the day they found a bag full of free dirt. Not the day Joe Philips...
No, it wasn't a good time for it. He swallowed one of the pills to see what it was like, but put the others back where he'd found them. His ma would need more time to calm down before he ventured downstairs and begged for forgiveness. He climbed into his bed and lit a cigarette. Smoking calmed him a little. The simple act of inhaling and exhaling the warm, blue smoke, the nicotine fix, whatever; the coffin nail did its job. He waited for the sleeping pill to kick in and let his mind wander. As it often did, it found its way back to the Wee Rockets' first victim.
Missus McCauley. The French teacher.
Missus McCauley wasn't from France. She once confessed she'd never even been to a French speaking country. She was from Poleglass. When she was growing up, living that far up the Falls Road had been a mark of affluence. She'd inherited the family home and watched the area's infestation and damnation. Her street gradually lost its good reputation over time and this apparently caused her to wallow in bitterness. Most people subscribed to this theory. Joe thought the old fucker just enjoyed being a bitch. She'd been his form teacher in first year and always had something against him. One day she pushed the wrong buttons at the wrong time.
"Joseph Philips. Do you have a note for yesterday's absence?"
"I forgot it, Miss."
"It's Missus, Joseph. Wake up! How could you forget your note? Surely your mother knows you require one to account for every absence?"
"She does, Miss... er, Missus."
"So if your mother knows this, can I assume she was unaware of your absence?"
"You can if you want."
"What did you say?"
whatever you want, Missus."
Liam Greene sniggered in the seat beside him. Joe sensed the rest of the class home in on the confrontation, suddenly snatched from their early morning daydreams. It fuelled his resolve to stick it to the old bitch.
"I might remember to bring in the note tomorrow, if that's good enough for you,
Some of the other boys laughed. McCauley's lips disappeared; her mouth became a one-inch slit. She looked at Joe as if he'd hopped up on his desk and dropped his drawers.
"You're a smart-alecky wee boy, Joseph Philips. I doubt you'll ever amount to much. Maybe I should phone your mother and have her come in. There's a lot I'd like to say to her, face-to-face."
"She's at work. But I can ask her to phone you when she has a chance; if you ask me nicely."
"At work?" McCauley's tightened mouth loosened into a knowing smile. "But I've been handing you free dinner tickets every morning for a year. I didn't think employed parents were eligible for financial support from the Education Board."
Joe's talent for lying to people in authority was yet to blossom. His face went red and he stuttered a few syllables before finding his response. "She's on a training scheme. The Brew sent her." Too late. His hesitation gave him away.
"Oh really? I'm sure the Belfast Education and Library Board would be thrilled to hear that. I must contact them and see how it affects your entitlements. I should probably phone the Department of Social Services first. To get my facts right."
"You don't need to do that, Missus."
"Oh I think I do. It's my civic duty."
Joe's mouth opened and closed. She had him on the ropes. He couldn't think of one thing to say that would improve the situation.
"Of course," she said, "I could just mind my own business. All you need to do is apologise for disrupting this morning's class."
McCauley placed her hands on her hips and gloated. Joe had no choice. He would have to look into the beady eyes staring at him from over the rim of her ancient bifocals and humiliate himself. Lick the fucker's arse to keep her mouth shut. Blackmailing bitch.
He opened his mouth to begin his apology. Then Liam Greene piped up.
"Missus McCauley, can I go to the toilet?"
McCauley looked at Liam and then the clock on the wall behind her. "There's a minute left until the bell goes. Can you not wait?"
"Only if you want to swim out of here."
"Sorry, Missus, but my back teeth are floating."
McCauley made a face. "Oh, get out you filthy boy."
"Thank you, Missus. You won't regret it."
Liam bolted out of his seat and slammed the door behind him with dramatic enthusiasm. A few of the boys chuckled. Joe smiled. His fat friend had taken the limelight off his confrontation with McCauley. She turned her attention back to him, but the moment was lost. The other boys in the class were shuffling in their seats, waiting for the bell to ring. Joe's composure had returned and he raised his eyebrows at McCauley.
I dare you.
The bell rang.
The students were afforded five minutes before the next class. Joe went to the toilets for a smoke. As Joe suspected, Liam waited for him there.
"Can I have a smoke of that?" Liam asked.
Joe nodded. "So long as you've washed your hands."
Muttering, Liam soaked his hands under a sputtering cold water tap and wiped them damp on the legs of his black school trousers. Joe handed over the burning fag.
"Thanks for that, Liam."
Liam narrowed his eyes, expecting a punch line. "For what?"
"You helped me out. Just there now."
Liam tilted his head. "What do you mean?"
"Did you really need to go to the bog just then?"
"Yeah, I was bursting."
Joe shook his head. He'd overestimated the fat fucker.
"But here," Liam said, "I wish I could have stayed to see you sweat a bit more. What else did McCauley say to you?"
"Nothing. The bell rang."
Liam tutted. "It was just getting good too."
Joe snatched the fag off Liam, took a puff and flicked it in the urinal.
"There was still a few draws left in that, you!"
"Fuck up. Help me come up with some way to get back at that bitch McCauley."
"We should put on balaclavas and pretend we're the Ra."
"Aye, right. The midget battalion."
"Slash her tyres?"
"She comes to work on the bus."
"We could mug her on the way to the bus stop."
"Liam, for fuck's sake, would you..." Joe stopped for a second. "Actually..."
And Missus McCauley became the first victim. Joe talked Wee Danny into the plan when they sat together for maths. Liam recruited the Fegan twins. They bunked off their last class to go to Joe's, change out of their uniforms and into hoodies, scarves and baseball caps. They attacked McCauley yards from the school gate. It was over in an instant, turned up fifty pound in cash and left the bitch with a broken arm. She took early retirement.
McCauley had never been the most popular teacher in the school and the suspects were plentiful. Questions were asked by the principal for weeks after the attack, but the boys kept their mouths shut and it all blew over.
And of course, getting away with it once wasn't enough.
There was another mugging when someone threatened to phone the vigilantes because Liam got caught stealing a garden gnome.
Another when Wee Danny reported a dirty look from a neighbour.
Another when the Fegan twins needed new trainers.
Another to initiate a new member into the gang.