Graham didn’t hear them at first.
He was walking fast, eating from his bag of hot chips as he went. Taking a detour via Reglan Street. The kind of street his parents had warned him never to be in. The kind of street where your footsteps echoed loud, too loud – because there was no one else about.
From either side the dark openings of the tenement building mawed at him. It was the beginning of May and fairly light at this time in the evening. But even so . . . Graham glanced around. The sky was densely overcast and shadows were gathering. He shouldn’t have lingered so long after football training.
Graham dug deep into the bag to find the last chips, the little crispy ones soaked in vinegar that always nestled in the folds of paper at the bottom. He wiped his mouth and, scrunching up the chip paper, he threw it into the air. When it came down he sent it rocketing upwards, powered by his own quality header. The paper ball spun high above him. Graham made a half turn.
Wait for it . . . wait for it . . .
‘Yes!’ Graham shouted out loud as his chip bag bounced off a lamppost ten metres away. An ace back-heeler! With a shot like that he could zap a ball past any keeper right into the back of the net. He grinned and thrust his hands in the air to acknowledge the shouts of the fans.
At that moment noise and shouting erupted behind him, and Graham knew right away that he was in trouble.
Coming down Reglan Street. Hard. Desperate.
Pounding on the ground. Beyond them, further away, whooping yells and shouts.
‘Get the scum! Asylum scum!’
Graham turned. A teenage boy was racing towards him. As Graham watched, the boy stumbled, tripped and fell. Tried to get up. Then, groping in his pocket, brought out a mobile phone. Started to dial, changed his mind. Looking round in panic.
At the end of Reglan Street nearest the playing fields, huge shadows danced. The outline of the hunters – distorted and elongated against the bright floodlights used for night games on the football pitches. Graham saw them gather together, become one monstrous creature, then break apart. Their twisted shapes thrown out ahead of them as they came. Seeking. Searching.
Graham’s legs stopped working. He was too far from the main road. Too far to run. This gang would catch him easily.
The boy got to his feet. Faltered. Went past Graham. Limping.
Now Graham was caught. Trapped between pursuer and pursued.
If he began to run the gang of boys would think he was running from them – might mistake him for the one they were after. His heart was hammering. He didn’t want involved in this.
He had to get off the street, find somewhere to hide. If he could get into one of the tenements and through to the other side, there might be a way out across the backs. Over a wall and down the maze of lanes and alleys between the buildings.
The victim had the same idea. Graham saw the boy stagger into one of the close entrances.
One of the gang ran past Graham, shoving him roughly aside. His face shone with sweat and excitement.
The baying of the other boys sounded nearer, shouting and jeering.
And then a string of swear words.
Graham jumped onto the pavement and over to the entrance nearest him. Most tenements and blocks of flats didn’t have open entries any more. But often, especially in areas like this, they’d be lying ajar because people didn’t bother, or the door catch was broken. This one was locked firm against him.
Graham pressed himself against the door, glad of his skinny frame. The remainder of the gang came down the street, veering onto the pavement as they spotted him.
One of them pushed his face up against Graham’s. ‘Where’d he go? Where’d he go?’
He had a knife in his hand.
Graham’s eyes widened in terror. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t take his gaze from the knife. The boy raised his knife. ‘Speak, ya wee—’
Graham shook his head. The older boy was half out of it with drink or drugs or both. The rest of them ran on. They shouted from further down the street.
‘We’ve got him! He’s here!’
Graham crouched in the doorway. He heard them dragging the boy from his hiding place. The thudding sound of someone being kicked. If he covered his ears perhaps he wouldn’t hear. Graham wrapped his hands and arms all the way round his head. To block out the sound. The noise. Grunting laughter of the attackers.
He waited. Whimpering.
Nothing. No scream. No cry for help.
Then footsteps. Running away. Diminishing.
Graham took his hands from his head. He stepped from the doorway onto the street. Went slowly forward to look at the huddled body lying on the ground. Beside the paper ball of his chip bag there was a puddle of liquid. Under the light of the street lamp it reflected dull red. It was seeping from below the body of the boy. Moving out towards Graham’s feet.
A dark stain spreading.