Piggy In The Middle
Justice and revenge are relatively universal concepts -- their forms only vary with one's relatives.
"Can you smell shit?"
"Yeah, pig shit." Dan Cooper sniffed deeplyand wrinkled his nose. He pointed in my direction and gasped for breath. "It's coming from over there."
I pretended to ignore them of course. I had been ignoring them for two weeks now, but things were not blowing over; if anything they were becoming worse.
I walked past feigning a total ignorance of their very existence, although inside my stomach there was a familiar knot of tension that was not founded on groundless fears. Already there had been both threat and innuendo, as well as the kind of practical jokes that just leave you cold. Yesterday I had arrived in school to find my desk and chair arranged neatly beside the bike sheds. They had left the exercise books out and I spent ten minutes picking them up off the playing fields where the wind had blown them. I have no idea what happened to my English exercise book.
John Tyler stepped out in front of me, his excess bulk obscuring my view of the road ahead as well as my path. I attempted to detour casually around him but he was not going to stand for that.
"Where you going then, pig-shit?" he asked. I ignored him. I was not going to answer to anything but my own name.
He grabbed my shirt collar and it felt like he was going to choke me, but Big John was slow--I knew that--so I swung for him. The problem was that Cooper was ready and he caught my arm, deflecting it away so that I seemed to be feebly punching the air like some weedy toad who had never hit anyone in his life.
"I asked you a question."
"Nowhere," I gasped, and now my heart was pounding and I suddenly wanted a pee desperately.
"How about a little walk with your friends, then."
My heart sank. Come on lads, I thought, just get it over with. You've been spoiling for a fight for long enough--no need to prolong your wait. Still, I knew that any fight (here or elsewhere) was going to be a one-sided affair. Maybe I could joke my way out of this. Cooper had a sense of humor.
"You don't want to go for a walk with me. I smell of pig shit." I tried to smile as I spoke, but all I managed was a warped grimace. Dan laughed though, and John smiled a little. Maybe I was in with a chance yet.
"Too right you do. Thanks to you my brother's going to court. Did you hear that? They're gonna charge him."
I had known, of course, and I should have been a little more careful about going out today. Maybe if I kept my head down for a few more weeks, things might have calmed down enough so that life might just have gone back to normal.
The thing was, the whole school knew I was a grass now and not one of them would lift a finger to stop Tyler (or anyone else for that matter) from giving me a kicking.
It was like that in our area. Not just among the kids, mind--the adults too. Some bloke had been shouting abuse at me just the day before, and the woman from next door had been going on at mum about how she would have slung her son out if he didn't know how to keep his mouth shut. As I walked along the street women pointed and stared, then they would ignore me. Except that in doing so they were so theatrical it was as if they had tapped me on the shoulder and said that was what they were doing.
The only person in our street who was still speaking to me at all was Mr. Singh from the newsagent's, and that was probably only because it was his shop that Tyler's brother was robbing when I called the police. Even Mr. Singh broke off his conversation with me when Mary-Ella Edwards came into the shop, turning up her nose at me as if I were something dragged from the gutter and she was the Queen. He just served me then, taking my money and giving me nothing more then a gruff "There's your change."
Oh, I regretted that call. Of all the telephone calls I ever made in my life that had to be the stupidest. Mum had said how I had done the right thing, but I could tell from the way she said it that she would never have done it herself. She was saying I was good and honest but she was thinking I was just plain stupid--a trait inherited from my father no doubt.
Now I had been just as stupid in walking slap-bang into Tyler. I suppose I had thought he would never dare do anything to me in a public street, but that was stupid too, because there was not one person in this street who would admit a thing to the police even if Tyler stabbed me on their doorstep and then knocked on their door to return the knife.
Now Tyler wanted me to come with him, and there was not much choice about it. I could run to the nearest doorway and beg to be let in, but I could guarantee they were going to be out. People in this street would be out to me even if they were in.
So I went with Tyler--and that was stupidest thing of all, because at least if I had waited in the street and been beaten up then eventually someone would give an anonymous call to the ambulance service, or perhaps mum would see what was going on and call the police. I should have just let him do his worst, but instead I allowed myself to be taken to the gasworks.
They were all there waiting too. I don't know how long they must have been waiting, or how they could be so sure that I would turn up, but somehow they knew. There was Matt Tyler, out on bail with three of his skinhead friends and all their current girlfriends. Elaine Cooper and two of her friends stood a little apart with a group of boys from my year in school, and as soon as I arrived they all began to cheer.
They formed a circle around me, and I found myself staring at Elaine. She was tall for her age, with her ginger hair cropped short and a ring through her nose. Dan had once told me how she would pick bogeys from the inside of that nose ring and flick them at him when he managed to annoy her (which was often enough). That was when Dan and I had been friends, which did not seem like all that long ago.
"Take your clothes off."
I looked at her, aghast, but Elaine was not someone you messed with. Still I did not comply--if they wanted the pleasure of seeing me unclothed then they were damned well going to have to take them off themselves, and I said as much.
"Take your fucking clothes of or else I'll kick your genitals into your larynx."
"I bet you've been practicing that expression all day." It seemed like I was never going to learn common sense--at least not before these people prematurely ended my life. Elaine was livid--probably the more so because I was right. She gripped my shirt and tore it open. Several buttons popped off and I heard the tearing of fabric. If I wanted any clothes left I had better comply, so I removed the shirt and my watch, shoes and socks.
As I pulled of my belt there came a tittering from the people behind me, but I was concentrating on Elaine, who had barely calmed herself. Her cheeks were flushed a deep pink and she looked like she was about to bite me or something. I hesitated before undoing the button on my jeans until Elaine moved a step towards me. Then I had them down around my ankles so quickly that Dan roared with laughter. Little runt--just wait. I'd have him for this.
The laughter calmed Elaine a bit, and she stepped back again, enjoying, I'm sure, the feeling of having power over someone. I stepped out of my jeans and stood there in my boxer shorts with their stupid "Roger Rabbit" design printed all over, and my cheeks burned with shame.
"Did I say stop?"
No. But I was not going any further. I shivered--not so much from the cold (although it was cold), but more from fear or hatred--I'm not sure which. They had had their fun now, and I was not going to give them any cheap thrills.
Then one of the skinheads wrapped an arm around me and pulled my head back by the chin while Elaine pulled off my shorts.
I covered myself with my hands as they all laughed at me. Oh, hilarious I thought, but I could not stop the burning in my cheeks or the liquid forming in my eyes.
There was a click and a whir behind me and the crowd laughed louder. Julia Day had a camera and was putting it to good use. I tried to turn my face away from her, as if that made much difference.
"Stay still and give us a nice pose." There was no damned way I was going to do anything of the sort and I turned away but Matt grabbed me and pulled my right arm behind me in a half-nelson. He was none to gentle and I shouted (or maybe screamed) with the agony. He pulled my left arm back as well; Julia shot off several more pictures before he let me go, and I allowed myself to fall to the ground.
Matt kicked me then--from behind, his foot landing in the back of my knee and I definitely screamed then. I tried to curl up into a little ball, exposing as little of me as possible, but no more blows landed. Instead, the jeering mob moved away, apparently satisfied.
I didn't dare move for a couple of minutes, but then I uncurled myself and surveyed the area through tear-stained eyes. I was blubbering now. (It's not as if I will cry at the slightest provocation, but the shock and the humiliation as well as the pain in my leg was enough to set anyone off and I could not control my sobbing.) I found my clothes, all except the boxer shorts, which they no doubt kept as some kind of trophy. My shirt was ripped around the button holes, and mum was not going to be pleased--that was a fairly new shirt.
I dressed quickly and then started for home when I saw Dan sitting a little way off, not looking entirely happy--and more then a little guilty. I changed direction, but Dan leaped to his feet and caught up with me.
"Elaine can be such a prat, you know."
Yeah, sure. I thought. Too bad that she has a prat for a brother too, but I just stayed quiet.
"I didn't know about this, you know."
"You're such a fucking liar." I shouted. I didn't really mean to shout, but I didn't seem to have much control over my voice and it was probably a bit squeaky too.
"Yeah--okay, so I knew some of it. But honest, I didn't know they were gonna have a camera, and no one was supposed to hurt you."
So what? Did Dan have any idea of what I had just been through? How could I show myself in school on Monday? By then everyone would know what had happened--and they would have the photos to prove it. It was bad enough having everyone hate me, but now they would all despise me. I could imagine the taunts now, only I decided it was better if I did not.
"Look, Tom, I admit that was a fart-arsed idea. I'm sorry I had anything to do with it. Come on, give me a break, will you?"
And being a total moron, and pretty weak-willed too, I did. In fact, that was inevitable from the moment he started talking to me again. Having no friends at all for a couple of weeks certainly provides plenty of incentive to do whatever you can to restore a previous friendship. We walked home, talking about TV and the latest films at the cinema, and acting for all the world as if the last half hour had never happened.
Things were bad on Monday, but not so very bad. Dan was talking to me, and he seemed willing to stick by me when the kids from our year were jeering and calling me a fairy. Someone had hung my boxer shorts from one of the netball posts, but Mr. Enright removed them during first period and gave them back to me.
I'm not sure if I would rather that he had held onto them, because when I realized that he knew who they belonged to, I knew that he probably had half an idea about how they had made their way up there, too.
I swallowed my pride and thanked him, stuffing them into my bag, just before Dan came running up to me.
"Tom, I've got some news."
"I know where the photos are."
Well, great. So what? I'm sure I'd rather not know.
"Julia got them developed at her chemist's and now she's left them in the shop. I heard her telling Elaine. She's well pissed off, 'cos she hasn't had the chance to show them to anyone yet."
That might just qualify as good news, just so long as the apocalypse happened before next Thursday's late-night shopping, but surely it only postponed the inevitable. Julia worked in the chemist's on weekends only, but she would only have to pop in on Thursday to pick up the photos. Then I really would be the laughingstock of the school.
"Don't you see?" Dan was getting so excited now it made me want to punch him--speaking to me as if I were some retard, totally unable to comprehend the simplest of notions. He just wasn't making any sense. "All we have to do is go get them tonight. Julia won't be able to get them herself. Just so long as we do it quick, we can be away with the piccies before anyone sees 'em."
"What makes you so bloody sure she isn't going there tonight?"
Dan gave me such a smug smile that I nearly did hit him, but I restrained myself as he produced a key from his pocket. I raised an eyebrow and he laughed.
"I nicked it out of her school bag. The shop closes at five, so she'd need a key by the time she got there--and I've got hers."
Sometimes Dan could be a deceitful little rat, I decided. And I smiled too.
We met up after school by the corner shop and took the bus into town. It was after seven and there was a drizzly rain falling, but the town was still fairly full of people, even down this end away from the main shopping precincts. We decided to go bowling first and I paid for Dan because he was being such a mate. We had two games and Dan thrashed me in them both, although I certainly wasn't on form--I could not even scrape a hundred in my second game. I guess I was too nervous about what we were going to do later on.
It was not as if we were going to do anything strictly illegal--I mean, obviously we were breaking into the shop--but we were not going to damage anything, nor were we going to steal anything. That is to say, we were not going to steal anything from the shop, at least.
All the same, I was nervous. No, more then nervous--I was scared stiff, and after losing a second game I suggested we go to McDonald's and get something to eat. I was just trying to postpone the moment when we broke into the shop.
Chewing a Big Mac, I suggested to Dan that maybe the photographs were just not worth the effort. Maybe we should just go home and let Julia do her worst. Dan pulled a face at that suggestion.
"If you think I'm sticking around with you while a bunch of photographs of 'Fairy Tom' do the rounds, you've got another think coming. I've got a reputation to keep, y' know?"
"Oh come on Dan, it's not such a big deal. I mean--breaking into a shop--that's criminal."
"And don't you just know it."
That was below the belt, and I clammed up. Matt Tyler had been thieving. What he had done was just plain wrong, and he was only doing it to pay for dope. No one seemed to appreciate this. I was the guilty party in everyone's eyes because I had reported him--that really pissed me off.
"Oh come on, Tom. Thirty seconds and we'll be in and out, and you can forget the photos ever got taken. It'll be all right... just thirty seconds."
"Yeah, I suppose."
We eventually got thrown out of McDonald's, and now it was half past nine. The town center was still half full of people, especially so near the pubs, but as we walked to the chemist's the crowd thinned out to nothing.
"Here goes nothing." Dan inserted the key and the door swung open. "Behind the counter--by the till. That's what Julia said."
I ran to the counter and reached over by the till. In the half light of the night lighting I could just make out an envelope that could well contain photographs, so I picked it up. I was about to check the contents when Dan whispered frantically from the door.
"Quick. Someone's coming."
I stuffed the envelope into my inside jacket pocket and ran for the door. Dan pulled it shut and removed the key.
"Yes." I whispered. Why were we whispering? There was no one around. Where was the person that Dan said was coming?
I moved a few meters up the road to look down a side street, but there was no one there at all.
Suddenly there was the sound of breaking glass, and I turned, startled. The glass door of the chemist's shop was broken just by the lock. Suddenly I could hear blood roaring in my ears and my heart was thumping so hard it was painful.
"Run!" Dan shouted and I complied willingly enough. We ran up the high street and down Princess street. Dan rushed into the King's Hall amusements and I followed.
We stopped now in the smoky half-darkness and I held onto a fruit machine as I gasped for breath. The arcade stank of smoke and sweat, although it was nearly empty. I looked around and nearly wet my pants.
"Like a lamb to the slaughter." Matt Tyler jeered. I was speechless. There they all were--John, Matt and Elaine. Dan had at once joined their company, gathered around a machine where John was concentrating on losing all his money. He seemed quite happy to have met them too.
"Took your bloody time. This place closes in twenty minutes." Julia remonstrated with him.
"Not my fault. He wanted to eat first."
"How does it feel to have committed a criminal offence, then, Carter?"
It felt bloody awful, and it was feeling worse every second. What were they doing here waiting for me? "Dan, what have you done?"
Dan looked a bit uneasy, but his answer was all the more cocky for any guilt he might be feeling. "Nothing more then you deserve, pig shit."
"Yeah, that's right." Matt picked up, "You're so ruddy green you never even thought about the security camera did you?"
"And the pigs know your face too. Even if it takes 'em a few days, they'll soon recognize your snotty little mug.
"What's more, if they don't put two and two together, you never know who might tip them off. After all, you don't know how to keep your mouth shut, so why shouldn't anyone else grass on you?"
"This ain't fuckin' fair, you bastards. You know I didn't steal nothing."
"Tough shit. And you did steal something, didn't you?"
The question was asked of me, but Matt looked to Dan for confirmation. Dan nodded and the older boy broke into a big grin.
I was about to turn tail and run, but Tyler stirred himself from his machine long enough to grab me by the arms, while Dan reached in and removed the packet from my inside pocket, doing so ever so carefully, as if he were afraid to touch it. He placed it in my hands.
I opened the envelope, and suddenly I wanted to puke. Instead of photographs there was a small wodge of notes held together by an elastic band.
"The notes from tomorrow's float. Probably about thirty pounds." Julia explained.
"Well, that's theft and criminal damage as far as I can see. And I nearly forgot--Dan's been with us since you came out of bowling. You had a bust-up with him, you see, since you're such a bad loser. Then he came with us and went to see a film." And they even produced the tickets to prove it.
"So Danny-boy has a watertight alibi. He isn't on the security camera 'cos he stayed by the door, so you're in deep shit, and no one's gonna dig you out."
With that John let me go. They turned and started walking away; all except Matt. He moved his face close to mine--so close I could smell stale meatballs and beer on his breath.
"Just think of it as a second chance. You take the rap like a man, and we'll forget what a fuckin' scumbag you really are. Don't try dropping any of us in it, 'cos the pigs ain't never going to get enough evidence to bring any charges against us.
"Keep quiet, take what's coming to you, and we leave you alone. Deal?"
I looked at him with utter hatred. They had dug me into a hole and they were right--there was no way out. I wanted to cry, but I couldn't. Not yet. I had to wait for him to go away.
Oh, go away Matt. Fuck off and get out of my life. But he wasn't finished yet.
"Deal?" He asked again, a little louder this time.
I loathed the sight of the zitty bastard. What could I do? Take the rap? It would be my first offense; it was not as if I was going to get locked up or anything. At least then the taunts might stop. Maybe I'd get some street cred too. Maybe I could say that was why I did it.
Maybe everyone would just call me a rat-arsed hypocrite.
Shit. Mum was going to kill me.
Stephen Kingston (firstname.lastname@example.org") is employed as a Technical Consultant for the Institute for Health Informatics in Aberystwyth, Wales. He surfs for fun and climbs mountains when he's worried about his waistline.
"Piggy in the Middle" is based on a televised interview with several people in Liverpool who were openly abusive of an old lady who had dared inform the police of a robbery in progress.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Stephen Kingston.