Read by Michael Lyle
‘What choo doing, fam? You’ll break it.’
Leo watched Max run at the cleaning cart and jump into it, sending it skidding up the bowling lane and battering into the skittles, which jumped sideways and into the air. The sound as they smashed to the ground reverberated off the walls like bullets.
‘Your dad’ll kill you if he sees you doing that.’
‘Yeah, well he ain’t here, though.’
Max climbed out of the trolley, shook himself down and then trundled it back up the alley to the far end. He was a short boy and his tracksuit trousers hung too long over his trainers; his hair hung too long over his ears. He had a strange way of walking, with his arms swinging forcefully at his sides like a mini-major. When he spoke, which wasn’t often, it was in a low-pitched voice which seemed to belong to someone far older. Lots of the other kids laughed at Max: ‘Midget Max’, they called him. ‘Mad Max.’
‘Hey, Max, where d’you get your garms? Oxfam?’
‘Hey, Max, yo mum cut your hair?’
They didn’t know, as Leo did, that Max’s mother had died when he was young. And he never told them. Max was no victim, however, and he was never singled out for the more vicious kind of bullying that some of the other boys were put through. There was, Leo thought, something brutal and determined about him that he didn’t find funny at all.
Max’s father (similarly brutal, but taller with a worn, used-up face) worked as the caretaker at the bowling alley in the Elephant and Castle shopping centre and, when the place was deserted, this was where the two boys would hang out. Late in the evenings, sometimes mornings when they bunked off school. Max’s dad left them alone, so long as they didn’t break anything or make too much noise. He didn’t seem to notice they were there at all most of the time. Leo suspected he wasn’t quite right in the head, but Max never said anything about it and he wasn’t going to ask.
The alley had been decorated sometime in the ‘90s and untouched since then. Brownish-yellow paint peeled from the walls and the leather booths were scuffed and worn. The place smelt of a mixture of vinegar and disinfectant.
Leo sat down at one of the white Formica tables, opened his box of fried chicken and began to pick at it until his fingers ran with grease. Max looked at it hungrily.
‘You not eaten?’ Leo said.
As far as Leo could tell, Max lived off the food from the bowling alley kitchens, begging what he could and eating scraps that customers had left. At least Leo’s mum gave him money to buy stuff. When she was in, that is, and increasingly she wasn’t. Leo wasn’t exactly sure where she went. ‘To make some cash,’ she told him when she left in the evenings. ‘God knows, someone around here needs to. You’re plenty big enough to look after yourself.’ And he was, of course: he was twelve now. But Leo still didn’t much like being in the flat on his own.
‘What choo doing this weekend?’ he asked Max.
Max shrugged. ‘Not much. Just cotching.’ He picked up a red bowling ball and swung it back and forth before releasing it to roll under the seats at the far end of the room, slamming against the wall. ‘I’ve got an idea, though.’
‘Oh yeah. What?’
That was how it started. The Project.
Mr Qadir ran the corner store on a side street off the Walworth Road that Max and Leo passed on their way home from school. Leo had been going there since he was a young boy. Everything was laid out in careful order. The sweets and chocolates were placed in neat rows in front of the counter, their gold and silver wrappers shining under the spotlights fixed overhead. The crisps were arrayed according to make and flavour on the shelves below. The newspapers were stacked on a shelf to the left of the door, the redtops to the right, the broadsheets to the left; never a copy out of place. Mr Qadir kept the floors well-swept and clean, the freezer stocked with ice-creams and lollies, and the table outside was always full with fresh produce: gleaming apples, small bunches of yellow bananas and pitted oranges piled on top of one another.
Max said he didn’t hate Mr Qadir.
‘Nah,’ he told Leo when he asked. ‘It’s not to do with him. If we do it, yeah, it’ll be an achievement. We’re supposed to set ourselves goals, right? That’s what they say at school.’
Leo didn’t really understand Max’s logic, but he agreed it was good to have a project. It gave him something to think about. Something to do. There was only so long you could watch telly for.
The boys planned it carefully, drawing up lists and revising them. Max would bring a meat cleaver from the bowling alley kitchens and a knife for cutting smaller items. Leo would lift a mallet and a chisel from a neighbour’s garage and get a bump key from his older brother’s room. He suggested bringing in some of the other kids to help, but Max was against it.
‘No,’ he said. ‘We keep it just us. We keep it neat.’
They agreed they would dress similarly, in dark jogging bottoms and hoodies, and they would bring different coloured clothes to change into for the journey back. Leo’s brother, Nat, had given him that tip from his previous exploits. He hadn’t given him much else of worth. The occasional spliff; the odd ruffle of the hair. He was inside now – six months for assault. Leo had visited him a few times, but the institute was a depressing place, full of the smell of bleach masking something worse, and grey, hard-faced boys who looked through him like he was nothing. His brother was different too; vacant – as though part of him had been taken away. Nat had stopped asking Leo about mum. And she’d stopped visiting.
Leo and Max made several reconnaissance missions to the corner shop, noting the way in which the door was locked and bolted, and working out the location of the surveillance camera. Each time, they would make small purchases: a roll of Polos; a lollipop. Whatever time of day they visited, Mr Qadir was there, sometimes with his son, responding politely to his customers, no matter how rude. He was a thin man of unknowable age with shiny black eyes that darted nervously in his face. Watching him pass over packets of cigarettes and handfuls of change, Leo felt a twinge of uneasiness, but it went no deeper than that. This was not personal.
On the agreed night, Leo and Max met at the bowling alley and took the bus to the shop, their weapons stashed in their jackets, their faces shadowy in their hoods. Leo felt the adrenaline shooting through his veins, masking the fear that had been growing in him throughout the day. By the time they reached their stop, the blood was pounding so loudly in his head that he could barely hear what Max was saying.
‘Mind the CCTV camera to your left,’ Max said as they walked along the street. ‘Keep your head down.’ He was six months younger than Leo and three inches shorter, but tonight he was in charge. His walk had morphed into that of an older boy and his eyes glistened bright and dangerous.
It was Leo, however, who dealt with the locks on the shop shutter and the door, trying to use the bump key the way he’d seen his brother do it before. It took several attempts before he could get the lock on the shutter to budge and Leo felt beads of sweat forming on the back of his neck: surely someone would notice them; surely someone would call the police. Once the first lock was bust, the boys slid up the metal shutter, which made a grating noise so loud that Leo was sure someone would come running. The street, however, was deserted. Next, Leo worked on the shop door itself, using the key to force the pins in the lock. A pang of fear seized him as the door opened but, as they’d thought, there was no burglar alarm. Leo gave a short laugh of relief. After that, the only sounds were a siren far off and a couple shouting at one another in the next street. The boys didn’t switch on the lights, but used the glow from the street lamps to guide them, moving through the shop in the order they’d agreed. Both wore gloves.
Then it began, a smash shattering the darkness. Max took the rear of the store, using the mallet to knock down the shelves of cans, boxes of cereal and sacks of rice and flour, which spilled onto the floor like dirty snow on which he trampled. Leo started with the refrigerators, wrenching them forward so that they crashed into the shelves opposite them, the glass splintering and milk dripping into white puddles on the floor.
Max moved on to the fruit and vegetables, bringing the machete down on plantains and watermelons, red pulp bursting from their insides. The table was next, the thin wood splitting easily beneath the blows of the knife.
Meanwhile, Leo pulled shelves from the walls, sending the magazines and newspapers sliding to the ground in a heap.
They’d worked in silence up until this point, but now Max began to laugh – a strange high laugh. He took fistfuls of the chocolates and sweets from the shelves by the door and began to rip them open and throw them into the air. Leo joined him: Bounty Bars, Milky Ways, golden Twix and multi-coloured Jelly Babies showered down on them as they yelled and jumped. Max vaulted over the counter and smashed the machete down on the cash till. It sprang open to reveal only a few coins. Mr Qadir had cleared the till. Max shrugged and pocketed what change there was. It wasn’t what this was about anyway.
Then Max did something that they hadn’t discussed. He tipped the card section onto the ground next to the newspapers, took a bottle of barbeque lighter fuel from his pocket and poured it onto the pile. Squatting down, he set a cigarette lighter to it. There was a whoosh of fire as the collection took hold, the flames glimmering on the words – ‘To my husband’; ‘In deepest sympathy’ – before they disintegrated into ash. The newspapers and magazines were next, glossy women and tabloid headlines mingling as they burnt.
By the time the boys were done, the shop was a kaleidoscope of black embers, glinting packets and broken glass, which glistened in the dying flames like crystal. At the front of the shop, the freezer lay on its side, Cornettos and ice lollies melting into the flooring. Leo and Max stood back for a moment to admire their work.
‘It’s something, innit?’Leo said softly. ‘We really busted the place up.’
For a few seconds, Max said nothing. His expression was unreadable.
‘Let’s bounce,’ he said finally. ‘Someone might’ve seen the fire.’
As they left, the printed sign swung in the door:
Only two school children at a time.
Travelling home at the back of the night bus, Leo and Max unwrapped and ate some of the sweets they’d crammed into their pockets. In the seats in front of them, a group of students passed around a bottle of wine and called out to one another across the aisle. A girl pressed up close to her boyfriend, giggling. The whole of the top deck smelt of chips and farts and stale sweat.
‘Will your dad wonder where you are?’ Leo asked after a time.
‘Nah,’ said Max. ‘Your mum?’
‘Nah. She’s probably out.’ The chocolate stuck to the roof of Leo’s mouth, greasy and unpleasant. With the adrenaline gone, he felt suddenly tired and nauseous. For the rest of the journey, they sat in silence, Max tracing his name with his finger on the breath-fogged glass.
Leo got off at his stop, nodding a goodbye to Max, and then made his way back home along the rubbish-strewn street, dodging couples, arm in arm, and groups of youths, swaggering and shouting. His road, however, was deserted, and, when he was nearly home he saw that their flat was in darkness: no one was in.
Officer Bicknell clicked his mouse and watched the grainy footage once again. Two men, youths perhaps, one taller than the other, ransacked the shop and destroyed all of its contents in the space of twenty minutes. Both were hooded. Neither, so far as he could tell, had any distinguishing features. Bicknell had been to the shop twice now and was no further forward. There was no apparent motive, no fingerprints, no nothing. The usual story. He needed a new beat. He had even started talking to his wife, Sandra, about moving out to the suburbs, buying a house with a proper garden – somewhere for Sam and Jake to run off all that adolescent energy.
The shopkeeper, Mr Qadir, had been less than useless, of course. No, he knew of no one who had a grudge against him. No, he hadn’t seen anyone suspicious hanging about. No, he hadn’t left money in the till.
‘I don’t understand it,’ he’d kept saying, wringing his fingers. ‘Why? Why would someone do this?’
Well, why, Bicknell had wanted to ask him, didn’t you insure your shop? Bloody idiot. This would bankrupt him. Broken Britain indeed.
Officer Bicknell sighed and took a sip of his tea, now lukewarm. On the screen before him, the picture had become obscured by the smoke rising from whatever it was the youths had set on fire. He could see almost nothing. He would have to tell Mr Qadir that he was very sorry, but they would not be taking any further action: the hooded suspects could be anyone.
As he put down his tea, however, something caught the officer’s eye. He clicked pause and the film froze on the image of the two figures, just visible through the smoke. One stretched his arms above his head as though in triumph. The other punched his fist in the air. Something about their movement was familiar: a certain awkwardness; an undisguised excitement. Bicknell gave a twisted smile as he realised what it reminded him of: his own boys. Christ, he thought. They’re just kids.
(c) Anna Mazzola, 2015
Anna Mazzola’s short fiction has won or been placed in several competitions. She is working on a historical crime novel, The Unseeing, and is represented by Juliet Mushens at The Agency Group. Anna lives in Camberwell with two cats, two small children and one husband.
Michael Lyle's credits include work at The Old Vic, the RSC, Theatre Royal Bath/West Yorkshire Playhouse (History Boys UK tour), the Bush Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East. He has worked with BBC Drama (#TheLastHoursofLauraK) and BBC Radio (The Fix) out this month. He is currently rehearsing for a UK tour of Danny the Champion of the World.