Salt Cuts in Winter

Back then, there was snow in winter, in the eighties – loads of it and that Christmas holidays the cobbled streets of the colonies were packed hard. Despite the weather many residents rode bikes to get around and the tyres cut dark salt gashes through the glassy pavements.

I lived at number 23 Bell Place with my brother, Adam, and my parents.  I say Adam, because technically he lived with us, but it didn’t feel like it. He’d been away a whole year, been awarded a scholarship to a posh boarding school in the middle of nowhere and we were all dead proud. At least we were meant to be – proper celebrities – no one in our street had been away to school before and for a bit it was exciting.

But that wore off soon enough. Adam kept writing, asking us to let him come home. Mum tried to be brave, tried to believe he’d get a better job in the end, like everyone said – be happier. But my life felt over. Adam was as much a part of me as the house was, or my room – or anything at all. Once he’d gone, I had no-one to play with, no-one to make apple-pie beds for and no-one to share those secret looks, the ones that got us through our tea when Dad was in one of his moods. And then we got a letter to say that he’d made a friend, and asked if he could bring him back for Christmas, and we were all chuffed to pieces.

Batuk had never seen snow before – he came from a desert, he said, where there was only sand. But for me, in the beginning, the snow meant it was like living in my beloved Narnia and I would often pretend that Mr Tumnus was about to hop out from behind a lamp post or imagine I could hear the dreadful queen whooshing towards me in her sleigh.

But then it stopped snowing, froze at night and froze in the day and Edinburgh soon turned into some sort of snowman cemetery, or so Adam said, as he poked around in the dirty heaps. Snow body-parts, we called them – of all shapes and sizes – discarded scarves, mittens and hats snaking through drifts or hanging from branches like funky snow fruit.

On sunny days we’d work the snow into slush and make ice balls, filling polythene bags with them, pelting unsuspecting passers-by from behind parked cars. One time, while Adam and me were replenishing stock in the back garden, Batuk chucked one at Dad just before he turned down our path – he hadn’t seen him get out the van, didn’t know his clumping walk, didn’t recognise the great coat or his woolly hat pulled down hard. The nut of ice caught his cheekbone. Batuk rushed to apologise, but Dad barely looked at him, balled Adam out instead. Now of course it’s easy to imagine what my father must have felt (an Enoch Powell fan) when this dark skinned boy got off the train with his son, how humiliating it must have been  – the whole street would have been mutterin’ – and with the way things were, he most likely thought Adam had done it on purpose.

But whatever unpleasant undercurrents were swirling through the house those holidays, I felt none of them – not at the start. All I knew, was that my brother was back from boarding school for a few weeks with his friend, who was unlike anyone I’d met before – a kind funny exotic prince, quite different from all the other hateful boys in the street.

Most days we would go to the park. Mum usually came with us,  but that day we were alone.  The coalman was due and she needed to pay him. She gave us money for hot-chocolate and told us to be good. The park was grim: butchered snow families were everywhere making it look like one of them mass murder scenes from off the telly, except funny. For a while we sat on the bench beside the swings, pushing our breath out in long funnels of smoke. The sky was heavy like lead, like a monstrous wave held back by the row of trees running along the top edge. We pictured it bursting through, gathering us up like so many dolls, splattering us against buildings, carrying us cartoon-like through the city and out into the Forth.

We were early. It could be a couple of hours before the local kids trickled in with their mates and probably not till after lunch before mums with pushchairs would swap a bitter hour in the cold for a little peace and a blether.  To pass time, we decided to make a body-part camp. Within the hour we had a solid triangular fortress and a mountain of ammunition.  We would wait for the enemy – any enemy, but none came.

We fooled about on the swings for a while. Then I remembered the money Mum had given me, asked if I could be the one to buy hot chocolate from the café on Dundas Street. I felt so made up; as I left the park they whistled at me, cheered and whooped. How my heart nearly burst from the sheer joy of just being me and being part of them.

So much has happened since then.  I shift my weight to my other side and put my feet up on the stool. Been married four years, about to drop my second baby. I’m double the size with this one. If it’s a boy, it’ll be Adam, we’ve settled on that at least. Adam junior. It’s almost five, his lordship will be home in an hour – I’ll need to put the tea on. Ten more minutes, then I’ll get up.

Seriously though, that may have been the last time I ever felt like that.  So a part of everything, so, so complete – even now with a baby on the way it never feels like that – most of the time it’s all just one big hassle.  I don’t do philosophy, leave that sort of thing to Mum, but I can’t help wondering all the same if  that’s when everyone gets their last taste of it, happiness that is, around ten or eleven  – before all the shit starts to really sink in, before you clock stuff about life that drowns all that rubbish once and for all. Like an inevitable part of growing up.

I must have been about ten minutes getting the chocolate. I’d just gone through the gates at the end of the playground fence. I could hear shouting coming from behind the wall high above the side of the park that runs along the lower end of Scotland Street. I couldn’t see much because of the trees, just sprays of snowballs fanning out and crashing onto the grass, but instead of vanishing into the snow like our ones did, small stones rolled and bounced across the frozen ground.

I recognised some of the voices though: lads from school – lads Adam would have known in primary. Then Adam and Batuk streaked across the grass towards the camp, covering their heads with their arms to avoid the loaded snowballs and I sneaked over the path to see better, to reassure myself that this was still fun. It was then I saw Danny, just his profile, caught in the cobweb of bare branches.

Danny was about fourth oldest out of seven, eight maybe – still at school.  I didn’t know that much about him, but I knew enough to be scared, too scared to do anything but edge closer into the fence and duck down behind some sort of evergreen bush. Nine faces I counted then, nine in all. I couldn’t see the camp, not fully, where Adam and Batuk were, but I could see them, thugs, not boys anymore, as they filed out through the gap in the wall. Could see them swagger and hear them laugh, could see the bulging poly bags thumping against their sides like a warning. Then half way down the slope they bunched up. I couldn’t make out what they were doing, but when they turned around, some of them were pinching their noses or bending over, hands on knees like they were steadying themselves against a strong wind, started shouting and pushing each other down the icy cobbled path.

I squatted lower, pulled back deeper into the undergrowth and watched them pelting each other with snow, jamming great glupes of the stuff down their jumpers and shirt fronts, whooping and laughing, swearing like their owned the place.

‘Cooeee Adam?’ That was Danny’s voice.

I saw Adam wave – felt his blush.  One of them began making Red Indian noises, his hand fluttering against his mouth. They tiptoed towards the camp, exaggerated, trying not to giggle.

Heart thumping in my jaw I found myself preparing to sprint home for help, but my legs wouldn’t work.  One of the bigger lads stopped and kicked out at the fortress. Others joined in. Then Batuk stood up and gave them his wonderful open brave smile. I shut my eyes then, covered my ears, tried to imagine myself invisible, but I couldn’t shut out Adam’s voice, yelling at them to stop – to leave him alone,  or the chanting ‘Pa-ki, Pa-ki Pa-ki’ over and over.  Too frightened to look but looking anyway through a crack in my fingers, I saw some of the others turning away, coming straight for me.  And all the while behind the sniggering I could hear the choking and sobbing and someone, probably Danny, issue orders to shut him up, and then a yelp. I wanted to run over but I was too scared. One of them started battering the camp wall again – taking a couple of quick-march steps my way and then turning back, putting the boot in, turning and turning again. But then others looked scared, I could tell, looking round like someone might see …

I should have gone for help. If I’d gone as soon as I’d seen them coming down the hill, as soon as I saw Danny, I might have been back by now with my mum but I didn’t, and now they were doing something terrible….

It was then I stood up, kicking over the bag of drinks and saw Danny, laughing, doing up his fly, slapping his mates on the back, picking up his bag of snowballs, leaving… But I couldn’t see Adam, couldn’t hear anything. I swung my scarf over my mouth and nose, pulled my hat down, jammed my fists into my pockets and made straight for the camp, right past them.

Adam and Batuk were sitting on the ground with their knees into their chests staring down. I did the same.

‘You okay – did they hurt you?’

As they stood up they said they were okay – that they were fine.

‘So tell me.’ I said going crazy with not knowing, looking for clues, bruises or cuts. But they just shrugged, said not to say anything to Mum, made me promise.

From then on I could tell they didn’t want me around. They’d stay in Adam’s room most days, Batuk teaching Adam the guitar. Mum never minded the racket, but come evenings or weekends, if I was in the front room reading I’d watch Dad’s face with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  At first he’d look up once or twice with a shrug of tolerance, then he’d tut tut a few times shaking his newspaper but it wasn’t long  before he’d leap out of his chair, grab the poker and bang on the ceiling, shouting at them both to get out the house. My heart would quicken, perhaps they would take me with them this time – but they never did; they’d go quiet for a bit, that was all.   Batuk still smiled at mealtimes, bobbed his head politely, but I began to see it as pathetic rather than sweet. So that was it really, something was over. The only time he’d go out was if we went as a family.

In the end their presence was like having a cut that won’t scab.  I couldn’t wait for them both to shove off back to school and I could tell they were pleased to be packing. When Mum heard me crying the night after they’d left, I told her I’d had a bad dream.