Short Story: No Chicken
I've been doing a silly amount of editing on The Sad Club, which is now up to draft number six. I'm hoping that this means it's ready to send, but there's still a part of me which is concerned that it's far too long to even be considered for a flick-through. I guess at some point I'm going to have to chance my arm, but I fear there's more work to be done on it.
Anyway, that's for another time, because I'm in writing mode, which I generally am over the summer. I tend to be more materially productive when the sun's shining, because autumn and winter don't agree with me at all. So beyond the odd few hundred words every few nights, I'd anticipate I'll be back editing what I've written over the last five weeks or so when the nights start drawing in.
As a consequence of the massive cutting exercise I've been involved in (The Sad Club has been cut from over two hundred thousand words to less than 160k, which is still twice the length of your average novel), I have a lot of material that I don't know if I'm ever going to use again. I'm certainly going to have trouble assigning it to new characters. The problem I seem to be having is that I have five incredibly rounded characters with huge backstories - I know exactly how they'll react to something because I know them so well now. But a lot of these 'flashback' chapters are no longer relevant to moving the story forward, so they have to go. I suspect I'll have a few more of these prop chapters in my doggy bag by the time I go to agent with it.
So, I thought I'd turn this one into a short story. I haven't actually done that much to it, and what you see is mainly what was in The Sad Club, draft number four. It involves my antagonist, Paul Tiler, who is the bully of the titular club, and it takes place in 1981. It was meant to be there to build sympathy with Paul, to perhaps show why he'd become harder and more aggressive as the years went by, but instead I chose to allude to that in the text I kept, and this chapter became redundant. However, I'm hugely fond of it and I'd like to offer it out to you.
A little footnote: elements of this story are based on something that happened to me on Red Nose Day, 1991. It wasn't on a railway line but I did take a savage beating by some kids I thought were my friends, in full view of a main road. I can name every boy who was involved in it still. I wanted to include it in The Sad Club because the book takes a lot of detail from where I grew up, and those that also grew up there will probably recognise it. I may as well get something out of a horrific experience.
By Chris Stanley
‘You ever played Atomic Chicken, Pindick?’
Paul shook his head. They were properly tall, these lot. He tried to push his chest out, look hard. You had to be tough on the Parko. He was eight, after all.
‘You know what Atomic Chicken is?’
‘Yep,’ he said. Bum. He sounded like a kid. He grunted and nodded.
A gnawing began in Paul Tiler’s belly as the group moved from the swings and the slide and started off towards the railway cut, which ran at an angle beyond the back of his junior school.
It was the third week of the six-week holiday, or was it fourth? He didn’t care. All he knew was long warm days, taking his football to the little patch of grass hoping for a game. Most boys from his class and his street had gone on holiday. Paul wasn’t going away. His dad’s leg was bad again.
He didn’t mind. He was okay on his own. He had his football, and his books, and there were plenty of people to talk to. Sometimes Mr Jones from the video shop would have an ice cream when he opened up the off licence in the afternoon. His mum would smack the backs of his legs if she knew: he was taking advantage of a stranger, and he would spoil his tea.
She’d smack the back of his legs if she could see him now, too. She had told him he wasn’t to move off the park, and if he had to cross the road, he should walk up to their street without leaving the pavement, sit on the kerb and wait. His dad would see him across from the living room window.
But he was eight, dammit! He used words like dammit. Swearwords tasted good. Better than ice lollies, perhaps.
He walked between two of the boys as they kicked Paul’s ball against the low walls of houses. Every now and again one of them would over-egg their strike and it would flop in amongst somebody’s flowers. Paul always felt a stab when they brazenly mounted the wall. At school, Mrs King would always ask the naughty boys if they would do their naughty things at home, and he had no doubt that these boys would. They would put their shoes on the sofa. They would burp at the dinner table. They would take Sandy Quinn into the toy cornershop and ask to see her knickers again.
Paul wasn’t a naughty boy. He got stars for putting his hand up, stars for his attendance, his uniform, everything. His mother was very particular about it. She didn’t praise him; it was just something he had to do, like washing and brushing his teeth. His dad had been in the Army, and now his brother. The Tilers were ‘better than here’.
But being good was boring. The bigger boys looked like fun. So he kicked his ball closer and closer, and they started asking him questions, like if he made himself spunk or if he’d ever kissed his mum’s pussy. The Tilers didn’t even have a cat.
He laughed. It was fun. It was summer, and it was hot. And then one of them asked if he’d ever played Atomic Chicken, and now here they were, heading for the railway line.
One by one, they squeezed through the gap between the electricity substation and the school fence. Paul found it easy. He was pretty skinny and very fast. He was one of the best at sport. Parkinson Road JMI was really, really good at sport. He was in the football team, and the running team, and he could climb all of the bars in the main hall during sports lessons.
They walked around the playground for a bit. It was mad to see the buildings when he didn’t have to be in school. They looked different. Smaller. Usually, they frightened him. His mum was a dinnerlady. Now he was here and she wasn’t, he could do anything if he wanted.
‘Hey, shall we smash all the windows?’
‘Yeah, fuck it, find a massive stone.’
Paul laughed, but ice froze him to the spot. No, he didn’t want to break all the windows! That was vandalism, and it was a terrible thing. Michael Maxwell in his class had poured an entire pot of mixed glitter into one of the big tubs of PVA glue once, and he had to go and work outside Mrs Danter’s office for an entire term! Imagine what would happen if he broke all of the windows at Parkinson Road?
Fortunately, there were no stones available (he knew where there was one, a big one - in the nature garden) and the bigger boys became bored. They beckoned Paul over to the fence, where he could see the railway line, and the rubbish that had been thrown either side of the track. Beyond that, the wall over to the industrial estate. At his back was the Parkinson Estate, running up the hill. It was miles away.
‘Come on, Pindick, you’re up.’
Pindick had been the name they’d given him instead of Paul. He didn’t really understand it; even his willy, which he knew to be another name for a dick, was bigger than a pin. Anyway, all you did was piss out of it.
With great care, a couple of the bigger boys helped him over the chainlink. It was curled at the top and rusty with age. They boosted him over, down onto the shale. He had never been this close to the railway lines before.
A few weeks ago, before the end of the year, Mrs Danter had bought them all into the hall and told them again about the railway line. She said it took the trains on it a mile and a half to stop. Then she’d shown them all a film about a kid called Robbie who had had both of his feet removed by a train. Some of the girls had cried. All the boys, including Paul, had laughed. Robbie was an idiot. And he was crap at football. They always told you about the railway line before summer. They don’t need to tell me, Paul had thought. My house is miles away.
Paul looked over at the Parkinson Estate. Was that a mile and a half away? If they were going to do what he suspected they were going to do, he really needed to know.
The bigger boys had all lit cigarettes and lazed in the weeds, smoking in the sunshine. Paul stood over the tracks, kicking the stones around the dandelions. He was torn between running away and standing his ground. His dad had always told him he had to stand up for himself, but he also knew this was a bad place to be. These kids were bad. But they were fun, and he was eight now.
‘Hey, fuckin’ hell - there’s a gear knob here,’ one of the boys said. ‘Who wangs a gearstick over the railway line?’
‘And a car aerial,’ one noticed, picking it up. ‘Eh, is there a Ford fuckin’ Cortina hangin’ around?’
Paul laughed. Maybe they’d forget.
Far in the distance, up the hill, they all heard a squeal as the train applied its air brakes. It was off towards Wales, probably carrying coal for the coast. The only times trains slowed on this line was far to the west, at night, when the waste train passed through the non-nuclear villages.
‘Get on the line, Pindick.’
‘Yeah, and don’t touch the rails. You’ll be toast otherwise.’
Paul shook his head.
‘Do it or you’re dead,’ the biggest one said.
‘Come on mate,’ another said. ‘Do it, and you can be in our gang. You can hang around with us.’
He could feel his cheeks starting to redden, and he stepped onto the sleeper closest to him. Every part of his body wanted to run, but he was too scared. He wanted to go home now. Take his ball and wait on the kerb.
But he also thought it would be brilliant to be one of them. To be hard, be a kid that could do anything. No matter how big others got, no matter how smart, Paul Tiler would always be able to say he’d done the Atomic Chicken, and he wasn’t scared of anything.
He took a deep breath and stood on the sleeper, facing the hill. The gang all cheered. One of them heaved the gear knob at Paul’s head, missing by feet.
There was a dark maw in the leaves closed around the railway line. Paul imagined the train jumping out there at night, like a wild lion; like a monster. He strained to hear. It could have been just been another noise, like a factory whistle. One of the factories kicked out using an old World War Two siren.
But then he saw the rails either side of him begin to shake, and they hummed and sang in a vicious, ugly whine. Get off, they shrieked. Get off. Get off, get off, get off GETOFFGETOFF.
He faced the mouth in the trees, and it took a breath. Did it move?
It moved. No, it didn’t. Did it?
The engine came ripping through the bushes and leaves, tearing them apart like an angry beast. The train hurtled towards Paul as if it knew, as if it was mad about somebody trying to pass the Atomic Chicken. It raced towards him at hundreds of miles an hour, faster than light, faster than he could move.
It’s not going to stop. It won’t stop. Move; please move! I want my mummy, I need my legs to move so badly…
A hellish burn split the air as the driver pounded the horn. He’d seen them, had seen Paul deliberately in front of the train, but there wasn’t enough time to stop. A mile and a half was too long ago.
The train kept coming, and Paul kept standing, and the train kept coming, and the train kept coming, and the train…
And somehow, Paul tossed himself to his right, landing awkwardly on the clinker, and pushed himself tight against the chainlink. He could smell the heat from the brakes and the burning oil as the train had tried to slow itself, and he looked up, and all he could see were dirty carriages with the words EUROPEAN DISTRIBUTION in red and black over and over and over again.
The boys were still there, laughing and clapping. One had his willy out and was pissing on the line as he’d pissed on the train, and the others were flicking the V sign and the other one, the one with one finger which Paul didn’t use because he didn’t know what that meant.
‘Well done, Pindick,’ the biggest boy shouted. ‘Fuckin’ mega, that was.’
Paul was elated. He’d done the Atomic Chicken and now he was part of a gang. How exciting was that?
‘Uuurgh,’ shouted one of the boys. ‘He’s fucking pissed his self!’
Paul looked down, and then put his hand there, and they were right. He had weed. Bloody eff, he’d weed himself!
He hadn’t meant to. It had just happened. It didn’t mean he wasn’t hard. He’d done the thing. They said he could be in the gang.
‘We can’t let that go, Pindick. There’s going to have to be a punishment,’ the biggest boy said.
‘What…what like?’ Please, not that again. Please.
One of them handed the biggest boy the car aerial, and he said, ‘Five of these, on the back.’
It happened even before Paul had time to ask them not to. The stinging didn’t register until the harsh throb seared itself onto his skin.
‘One,’ he said.
‘Three.’ Thwack. They had started to chant in unison.
‘Four.’ Thwack. It hurt too much to feel each blow coming individually.
‘Five.’ The biggest thwack.
‘Fuckin’ hell, don’t cry!’ chided the one who’d said the Atomic Chicken would be the price of his gang membership. He picked up the knob of the gearstick which they’d found, and this time, it found the back of Paul’s head as he tried to shield his face.
They then took turns to kick and punch him, their teenaged feet finding spots on Paul’s body that he didn’t know could hurt. One of his ankles took a belter of a kick, and it exploded in agony, making it feel like he would never walk again.
After a few more whips of the car aerial, the boys tired and climbed over the chainlink fence, leaving Paul grizzling and moaning on the stones. ‘Don’t play on the railway line, you little turd,’ one said, crouching down. ‘It’s dangerous.’
It was ten minutes before Paul risked moving. Immediately after the Atomic Chicken, he had been terrified of the train stopping, its driver doubling back and giving them all a telling off. Now he longed for that same man to come back and give him a hug, tell him he was okay.
But he was alone. He looked at Parkinson JMI. It was unbearably tiny. Even the estate up the hill seemed small. It was as if he’d entered another world where the rules he knew didn’t apply. Up was now down and black was now white, and your friends were your enemies and you could outrun trains. You woke up wanting to play football and went to bed not wanting to come downstairs again.
Paul edged his way along the railway line, taking care not to touch the rails. The vegetation was thick and gnarly, full of thorns and bracken. Eventually, as he reached some garages that backed on to the line, there was a tear in the fencing, like somebody had pulled a knitting stitch. Paul forced his aching body through the gap and popped out into freedom. From somewhere, he heard the thump of a car radio.
He walked a few streets until he found a row of shops much like the ones he knew, only these were tired and dirty. A chip shop, a barbers, a fishing tackle store. In the window, he caught his reflection. He was dusty but there were no bruises on his face. That was good. He didn’t want to have to tell his mother or dad. He especially didn’t want his brother to find out, because he would most likely kill the boys who had done this and he would go to jail and be chucked out of the Army, and it would be all his fault because he went on the railway line.
He stayed out for another hour or so, avoiding the park. But as much as he could, he kept to the pavement like his mother had told him. He was going to do everything she said from now on.
After ten minutes sat on the kerb opposite their house, Joe Tiler called his son over the road. Paul was never so glad to sprint over the tarmac and up the stairs. He went straight into the bathroom and pulled down his shorts, and yanked his top up. Red marks all over his body, tender patches on his back. He put his palms together, like at Christmas and Easter and Harvest, and he prayed softly to himself, ‘Dear Jesus, don’t let my mum see my belly and my back, or my legs. Amen.’
He took off his pants and hid them under his mattress. Then he put his head in his pillow and tried not to cry. Outside, the sun was still shining on a beautiful, golden summer somewhere in the West Midlands.