The Square

Summer evenings in the six weeks holiday nearly always included a group of children playing a game of Polo, or IT in the square at the bottom of the flats. They were street children playing street games, which required a well-honed cunning and an imagination that stopped any boredom from growing. For they had no books to get lost in, no museums to visit, no musical lessons to occupy their time. Now that is not to suggest they weren’t cared for, or their time not worried about. In fact, it was quite the opposite. They were loved very much by their parents, and given what could be got, which was usually little. And while they weren’t learning about culture and art and “high” beauty, they were creating their own. That concrete slab and patch of grass, protected by a NO FOULING sign, was an amphitheatre, and the 4-level flats surrounding the square were an audience. They danced and sang to the mothers rocking their babies on the balcony air, and they showed off how fast their bodies could take them to the slow pensioners watering their windowsill plants. They took their lessons from the square their parents, and grandparents knew. And learned the same lessons they did…

 

August 1979 

The summer evening was just like the many others before it. Dogs barking not too far away, flat-cap- wearing fathers on their way back from work to the pub. The sky was lit with the golden leftovers of the sun, which had lost its earlier heat. I had new freckles on my arms and I saw that Sammy, my sister who is ten, and a year and a quarter younger than I am, had even more on her already speckled face.

We had finished our dinner at 6 o’clock and were making the most of our time between now and our holiday-special 9 o’clock curfew. Our group, made up of me, Sammy, our brother Martin (he’s 9), and a few of our mates who live in the block opposite, had spent most of the day playing with the new skipping rope my nan and grandad had bought us. The rope material was electric blue, threaded through with a shining silver. It was beautiful. As the eldest I tend to rule what we do most of the time, but as I had spent so long directing what skipping games could be played all day, I decided to take a break to let the others do as they as they pleased for a while.

As I sat down on the butt of a tree stump in the far corner of the square, I heard shouting in the distance, behind buildings. I followed the sounds of laughter, and a can clattering to the ground, until I quickly spotted the source. I recognised them immediately. The O’Connell brothers. The three boys were nasty – evil in fact. They were from the next estate and rode around on their bikes terrorising anyone they thought weaker than them, the old and the young. I stood up as they cycled into our square and watched carefully as they approached my brother and sister, and our friends,

“Look at these little dirty creatures!”

“What you got there? Let me have a look.”

“Yeah, let’s have a go, gissit here.”

They were still on the bikes, circling the group like sharks. Then the eldest of the brothers, Tommy, got off his bike, snatched hold of the rope and started to pick out the silver thread with his rotten fingernails. Sammy and Martin tried in vain to yank the rope from his grip, but he held it towards him and flexed his leg to kick Martin hard in his stomach.

Her reaction was instant. Just like blinking and breathing, Sammy defended our brother without even the need to think, “DON’T YOU DARE HIT HIM!”, Sammy shouted and swung her arm towards Tommy, only for the other two O’Connell’s to grab her by the shoulders and shove her backwards too,

“Get away from me you spotty faced cretin”, Tommy spat.

And then I lunged for him. I had caught Tommy and his brothers unaware, as they hadn’t heard or seen me coming. My rage was fire, and I intended to scald the bullies with it. I jumped on his back, hitting his head with my knuckles and pulling at his hair. All the time, screaming at the top of my lungs. He tried to shake me off but I clung on to him until we both fell down, hitting the gravelly concrete with a thump. I felt his pinches on my skin, whilst I scratched at his face and everything was blurred, but I could see the battered white leather of Tommy’s trainer coming closer. And then I heard my mother,

“Michelle! What are you doing? Get off. Get up!” I looked up from my spot on the ground, my mum was upside down, standing over me and the wretched Tommy. She caught hold of my wrist and hoisted me up,

“What the hell is going on?” she demanded.

“He kicked Martin mum, and he made Sammy cry. He broke our new skipping rope.”

My mum was about to reply, but she was interrupted,

“Your daughter’s a psycho. Just like the rest of your trampy family. Keep her away from me, you old hag.”

“You better watch your mouth and clear off before I get my husband down here. Don’t let me see you around here again, d’ya hear me?” My mother way not the toughest, and she might have even been a bit scared, but when it came to us, she would defend to the ground.

“You don’t know who you’re talking to”, Tommy clucked, “You might want to watch yourself and your kids, cos my dad’s mates with Jimmy Watson, and all I’ve gotta do is tell him what your daughter did to me, and he’ll come down here and do ya!”.

Jimmy Watson was known around our parts. He was a gangster, or at least that’s what I had heard people say. He was meant to be scary – but people liked him cause he stood up for the underdog, apparently one time giving a bloke a shiner after he saw him steal from an old lady on her way back from the bingo. As I said, Jimmy Watson was meant to be scary, but I only knew him as my uncle Jimmy. The man who bought us ice creams and took us to the circus last week.

“Alright, well, you can tell Jimmy Watson that he can come down here whenever he wants. I’ve got some washing of his that I brought back from the laundrette yesterday,” my mum said. I couldn’t read what she was thinking, but she seemed slightly smug.

“Yeah alright. And who is he to, you hag?”

“He’s my brother, and we grew up on this square. And if he ever finds out that you’ve been coming in here and terrorising his nieces and nephews, he’ll have ya. Now get lost and don’t come back.”

They scrambled for their bikes and left the square. In the ruckus, our friends had left – gone back to their safe flats – but my brother and sister remained, holding on to our skipping rope. My mum looked around satisfied, then looked down at us.

“Right, time for bed.”

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