The Nooker

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Mid-morning, the middle of the school holidays.

"I think I'll call on Mac," I said.

"OK," said Mam. "Don't stray too far."

My brother Colin was playing the Rolling Stones upstairs.

"Watch out for the Nookers!" he yelled.

I picked my football up and went out.

We were living in the maisonettes in Felling Square then: lovely new things with underfloor heating and wide windows that let great shafts of sunlight in. I'd just passed the 11-plus and would soon be at St Joseph's. Dad said that kids like me would make a brave new world.

Mac lived in the opposite block. He'd moved from Gateshead with his sisters and his Dad after his Mam had died. He was going to St Joseph's too. His older sister drove a little Fiat. She had Dave Brubeck albums and bookshelves full of Penguin Classics.

Neighbours nodded and winked at me as I walked across. I saw Phil Monto heading down to Felling Square. He stood still, stared towards me, then cocked his finger like a gun and gave me a thumbs-up.

I knocked at Mac's door and he opened it. He was skinny and brown and had a hooped tee-shirt on. His family had just come back from the south of France.

"Coming out?" I said.

"Aye."

He took a key out of his shorts pocket and locked the door behind him.

We went down to the garages. We used a garage door as the goal and blasted the ball at it. Then the bloke that owned the garage came down and shook his fists.

"What the Hell d'you think you're doing?" he yelled as we ran away.

We sat on a grass verge. Mac talked about the places he'd been to in France. He said a French sentence.

He said: "That means 'Good day. I am a traveller from England'."

I saw Phil again, coming towards us. He had his drainpipes and winklepickers on. He was combing his hair with a steel comb.

"He's called Phil," I muttered. "Just act normal."

I licked my lips.

"This is the kid from Gateshead?" said Phil, when he got closer.

"Aye," I said.

"What's he called?" said Phil.

"Mac," said Mac.

I pointed towards Mac's maisonette.

"That's where he lives," I said.

"So you're a Felling kid now?" said Phil.

"Aye," said Mac.

I clenched my fists with relief as Phil moved off.

"He's hard as bloody nails," I said.

"So am I," said Mac, and we started wrestling and laughing.

Then another kid came past, somebody I'd never seen before.

"Watch this," said Mac.

He pointed at the kid.

"Hey!" he said.

The kid stopped.

"What you looking at?" said Mac. "And where you from?"

It's what we used to ask and get asked all the time: what you looking at? Where you from? Give the wrong answer or get the wrong answer and you were heading for a fight. It had gone on for ever, in my Dad's time and in his Dad's time. Usually the fights came to hardly anything - a bit of scuffling, a bit of wrestling, a few little cuts and bruises. It's all ancient territory stuff, Dad used to say. It won't go on much longer.

"Where you from?" Mac said again.

The kid regarded us.

"Windy Nook," he said.

Mac stood up.

"Howay then," he said. "Just try it."

The kid looked at us. Then he went for Mac.

They wrestled and grunted and rolled on the grass. Soon the kid was sitting on top of Mac. He raised his fist like he was going to thump him in the face.

"Have you had enough?" he yelled.

I was just going to jump on him when Phil came back.

"Who's that?" he said.

The kid looked up at Phil.

Phil kicked him in the face, just like he was blasting a football. The kid tumbled off Mac. Blood burst from his nose. Phil kicked him in the face again, and again. The kid curled up on the ground and cried. Phil stood over him.

"Get out of Felling," he said.

He kicked him again.

"I told you to get out."

The kid crawled away then stood up and shuffled off.

"OK?" Phil said to Mac.

"Aye," said Mac.

"Why didn't you do it?" Phil said to me.

I just looked down.

"You're bloody hopeless, all of you," Phil said.

He walked away, combing his hair. We waited till he'd gone out of sight. We went back to the maisonettes. I couldn't stop trembling. We hung about kicking the ball uselessly for a while, then I said I'd better go home.

"Aye," said Mac, and he hurried back to his place.

I went inside. Mam asked if I'd been far.

"No," I said.

Mick Jagger was howling upstairs.

"Did the Nookers get you?" Colin yelled.

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