They pulled up in front of the stately home in an old Cadillac, the paintwork faded and patchy, tailfins still standing proud either side of its rear end. Their arrival put everyone on alert. The headmaster — standing at the cavernous front door of his school greeting parents as they picked up their children — took half a step forward then held his ground at the top of the worn steps. Men, mostly given into thick-waisted middle age, stood at the driver’s side doors of their Jags, BMWs and Mercedes sedans trying to look calm. Their wives craned their necks to look from passenger side as the youths disgorged from the car. It was American, that much they knew, but in the depths of mid-70s Somerset, it may as well have been from outer space. As for the four who stepped out, long hair, leather jackets and lit cigarettes, they were aliens.
Arthur stood just to the side of the headmaster where he’d been waiting for what felt like most of the morning since chapel and breakfast. He heard Mr Heazel sucking at his teeth, something Arthur had only previously witnessed when the beak was deciding what sort of punishment to hand out to the latest miscreants standing before the dark desk in his office. Arthur was as concerned as the headmaster about these new arrivals until he recognised one of them. He slipped around the headmaster’s tan chinos, the man’s one concession to Sunday, and began to run.
‘Thomas!’ the headmaster said, piercing the quiet morning without raising his voice.
‘Art,’ the dark-haired former occupant of the front passenger seat of the car said, one knee on the gravel, arms outstretched in greeting.
Arthur picked up his pace worried that matron might rugby tackle him before he could reach his brother.
‘Gavin,’ he said as his brother scooped him into his arms.
Gavin stood Arthur up in front of him, holding his shoulders at arm’s length while he remained crouched.
‘Are you ready to go?’
‘Good. Let’s get out of here.’
Arthur looked behind him. Mr Heazel was still at the top of the steps by the open front door of the sandstone mansion. He turned back and Gavin was already at the passenger door of the car. Arthur skipped into step and ran over to him, climbing into the back seat.
‘Budge up,’ said the blonde one coming in from his right.
Arthur shifted his bum, hardly feeling the stiff vinyl of the bench seat through his starchy jeans, sharply creased at the front and never worn until today. The other one came in from the left side, Arthur heard the slam as the car doors closed. They took off in a spray of gravel and dust. Arthur looked back at the gaping mouths of the parents and his schoolmates until his neck started to hurt.
‘This is my band,’ Gavin said while they were still sailing through the school’s parkland heading towards the A303. ‘This is Phil,’ he said, hand on the shoulder of the driver, ‘and this one’s Scotty,’ he said nodding in the direction of the one to Arthur’s right, ‘and this is Brian. This is my kid brother, Art,’ Gavin said to the car in general.
Arthur didn’t say anything, he shrunk back into the seat, not making eye contact.
‘Hey, our kid, it’s OK, they won’t bite you,’ Gavin said as he reached back to ruffle Arthur’s hair.
Arthur shrunk back further into his seat but gave his brother a smile.
‘Here, you want one?’ said Brian, holding out an open pack of cigarettes.
‘The kid’s only ten,’ Gavin said, pushing the cigarettes away from Arthur. ‘But I’ll have one,’ he said, reaching a hand towards the pack.
The four of them lit up and Arthur wished he were older. He wanted to be part of the band. Gavin took an eight-track cassette out of the glove box and slotted it into the player in the middle of the car’s plastic chrome and faux wood dash. The cabin filled with the opening riff of the Eagles’ ‘Life In The Fast Lane’. Arthur had never heard anything like it before. He leaned back and closed his eyes letting the music wash over him, the acid of fresh smoke warming the back of his throat.
Arthur listened in while Gavin and his mates talked as the car cruised along the A road, Phil sticking to the left lane while traffic passed them by, most of the Cadillac’s horses long gone.
‘Remember Joe?’ Scotty said. ‘He lived in the flat below us for a while.’
‘Oh, fuck! He was a mad bugger, wasn’t he?’ said Gavin.
‘Yeah,’ Scotty continued. ‘Remember that time he told us he siphoned petrol out of a police car while the two plod were sitting in the front seat? By the time they realised, he was off down the road and they went to chase him but ran out of petrol.’
The four bandmates laughed with an uproar that filled the car to overflowing. Arthur kept his eyes closed, trying to decide if he should join in.
‘And he had that cat, didn’t he?’ said Scotty. ‘It used to crawl into the engine bay of his Escort and curl up on the crank case. One morning he got in and started the motor and the bloody thing got caught up in the fan belt.’
They laughed some more and this time Arthur visualised pieces of fleshy fur flying from under the bonnet of Joe’s car, parked in an empty street, frost lacing the edges of the grey asphalt. The image sank his heart and he began to wonder where they were going.
‘And every time we played, he’d bang on the ceiling,’ said Gavin. ‘Remember that time he came up and kicked the door in? He just stood there. You could see he couldn’t believe he’d been able to do it and then he looked at the four of us and just froze.’
‘Yeah, and we just kept playing,’ said Brian.
‘What happened to him in the end?’ said Gavin.
‘The police came for him,’ said Scotty. ‘I saw them coming up the path from the window. I think I was the only one home that morning. I fucking shit myself, I thought they were coming up to ours and I was getting ready to flush everything, but nothing happened. When I went back to the window, they were taking him away.’
The four mates contemplated Joe’s fate in silence for a while. Arthur took his opportunity.
‘Where are we going?’ he asked.
‘Artie, it’s good to have you back!’ said Gavin. ‘I thought you were sleeping. I was thinking I might need to have a word with your headmaster, tell him not to work you so hard.’
The thought of Gavin and Mr Heazel going at it rendered Arthur cold with fear. Gavin saw the look in his eye.
‘It’s OK, Artie, I won’t say anything to the man,’ said Gavin. ‘We’re going to Lyme Regis. Mackerel fishing.’
Arthur nodded and closed his eyes again. He thought about the first time Gavin had taken him fishing. They’d stood at the edge of an African lake and Gavin had taught him everything he knew.
‘When you feel a fish bite,’ Gavin had said, ‘give the rod a sharp tug.’
Arthur had nodded. He cast his line into the water and stared at the float resting on the silverblack surface, keeping as still as he could in case he scared the fish. When the tug had come, Arthur gave his rod an almighty yank. He’d felt the spray of water as the fish sailed over his head and landed in what passed for the branches of the distempered tree behind him.
‘Hold my rod,’ Gavin had said as he took over Arthur’s and disentangled the unfortunate fish. ‘Maybe don’t pull so hard next time,’ Gavin said to Arthur with a smile. ‘Here, show me your muscles,’ he’d said, bending his own elbow to flex his bicep.
Arthur imitated his brother, holding his bicep as stiff and tight has he could, while Gavin felt its size, his thumb underneath and index finger on top. Arthur felt the gentle pressure and strained to make his flesh as hard as he could.
‘You’re coming along, Art.’ Gavin had said. ‘You’re getting really strong.’
Arthur beamed with pride while his brother baited their hooks again.
They rolled down into Lyme Regis, the town revealing itself like a burlesque dancer as they crested successive hills. Arthur caught the tang of salt seeping into the hazy blue interior of the Caddy as he looked over the higgledy-piggle of watercraft in the harbour at the bottom of the final hill. Phil found a parking spot and brought the car to a ragged halt, its left side way over the line of the bay. None of the occupants looked back as they dismounted onto the cobbled road, stepped up onto the pavement that skirted the harbour wall and walked towards the boats. Those closest to the walkway had signs advertising fishing trips. Arthur looked at the prices and began to wonder if he should have brought money. He kept quiet as Gavin haggled with a deck hand over the price of three hours on the water.
‘You get sandwiches and hot tea, as well,’ the deck hand said, in an effort to clinch the deal.
‘Alright, that’ll do us,’ Gavin said, as he pulled some greasy looking notes from his wallet. ‘I wouldn’t lick those,’ he said as he handed them over.
The deck hand held the notes and gave Gavin a furrowed look.
‘It’s alright, Jimmy, he’s just pulling your leg,’ said the fishing boat’s captain as he appeared over the deckhand’s shoulder, his black donkey jacket blocking out the sun for a moment. ‘You are, aren’t you?’ he said, looking over at Gavin.
‘Yes, of course,’ Gavin said. ‘Just a joke,’ as the others, bar Arthur, snickered behind him.
As the boat puttered out towards the open ocean, the captain turned his head and yelled at them, ‘Hope you’ve got your sea legs, lads, it’s a bit rough out there today.’
Arthur studied Gavin and his mates. Brian was already looking like he wanted to be back on dry land, but the others seemed to be faring well enough. Arthur watched Gavin, who was staring ahead and out to sea like he was born to trawler life, his black hair rippling in the increasingly gusty wind, and decided that as long as his big brother was OK everything would be fine. As they headed further out to sea Arthur stood holding onto the side of the boat, practicing letting go for increasing periods imagining this was how he would get his sea legs. By the time he felt the motor begin to throttle back and the prow of the boat ease into the rippling ocean, Arthur felt like he had the knack of it. Unlike Brian who was leaning over the side with his head pointed towards the water making noises that surely indicated he was dying.
‘Here we are,’ said the deck hand.
Arthur looked around. Here appeared to be nowhere, out of sight of land, sea all around them. For a moment, the sky seemed to be impossibly high overhead and Arthur began to lose his legs. He looked over at Gavin who was helping the deck hand bait lines with what looked like hundreds of glistening hooks strung along them at regular intervals and wobbled over to him, finding his legs no more seaworthy than they were when he was last standing on dry land thirty long minutes ago. He watched the deck hand finish baiting a line of hooks which he handed to Gavin. Gavin looked up and handed the line to Arthur.
‘Here, Artie, make the first cast,’ Gavin said.
Arthur paused for a moment before taking the line in his right hand. He looked silently at Gavin.
‘Just drop it over the edge, kiddo,’ Gavin said. ‘Then we wait.’
Arthur watched as his line sank into the water, clear for the first few feet and then as dense as the air in his post lights-out dorm. When he looked up, everyone was over at his side of the boat with a line in the water. Everyone except Brian who was still hurling off the other side of the pitching craft. The captain stayed at the wheel making constant adjustments to the throttle to keep them roughly in place.
‘OK, let’s pull up and see what we’ve got,’ said the deck hand.
Arthur had been dreaming of swimming down after his line unaware of time passing. He watched the fish shoaling towards the slivers of meat, making passes, but too shy to bite initially. When one went for a hook the others came streaming in after it and Arthur was surrounded with dead, dying and discombobulated fish, those still off the hook swirling around him in frantic streams looking for a place to attach.
When his line got close to the surface, Arthur could see the flashes of silver coming up with it, twisting in the water like cutlery. He pulled the line until the first fish was just at the edge of the boat and then looked to his side, checking what to do next. He saw Gavin pulling a stream of fish up over the side, leaving them flipping on the deck behind him and around his feet. The deck hand, having already decoupled the fish from his own line came and unhooked Gavin’s and then tended to Arthur’s haul of seven mackerel. Once the fish were stowed in the cooler, the deck hand took some of the fresh catch and began to cut strips of meat off their haunches so he could start baiting the hooks again. Arthur solemnly watched the fish die.
The four anglers and the deck hand hauled in mackerel for the next few hours, every line a bonanza of sparkling fish. By the end of their time the wind had changed direction and freshened. Arthur began to feel the cold seep through the flannel of his white school shirt. On their way back to harbour he stood at the front of the boat with Gavin and quickly began a teeth-chattering bout of the chills. Gavin took off his leather jacket and draped it over Arthur’s shoulders. It came down to Arthur’s knees and the boy had to clasp it around his neck to stop it from slipping to the deck of the boat.
When they got back to the car, Phil and Gavin each carrying a large package of fish wrapped in newspaper, Arthur made to give the jacket back to his brother.
‘Put it on properly and let’s have a look at you, kiddo,’ said Gavin.
Arthur slipped his arms through the sleeves of the jacket and hitched it up around his shoulders.
‘You look great, Artie,’ Gavin said. ‘It really suits you. Keep it. I’ve got another one at home.’
‘I can? Can I really keep it?’ said Arthur.
‘Sure you can, kid.’
Arthur climbed into the back of the car and drew the jacket around him. On the journey back to school he listened into the four bandmates’ chatter while drifting in and out of sleep.
Arthur clambered across Scottie and out of the Cadillac, Gavin meeting him on the gravel where they’d stood just this morning. To Arthur it felt like years had gone by. It was well past teatime, and the driveway was empty. Arthur knew that the other boys on exeunt would have been back long before now. He stood with his back to the façade of the once-great hall delaying the moment when he would have to turn around and walk across the gravel to the front door.
‘Here,’ said Arthur, taking off the jacket and making to give it to his brother.
‘No, keep it,’ said Gavin. ‘I gave it to you. I want you to have it.’
‘I heard you talking to Phil on the way back. If you need the money, take it.’
‘Are you sure, our kid?’
‘Yes, it’s OK. They wouldn’t let me keep it, anyway.’
‘Thank you,’ Gavin said ducking his head and giving Arthur a small smile. ‘I guess you’d better go. We’re a bit late.’
‘Thank you for taking me out.’
‘It’s OK, kiddo. I’ll see you again, soon.’
‘I’d like that,’ Arthur said, his voice strangled by tears.
‘We’re heading to London soon, so it might be a while,’ Gavin said, ‘but I’ll get back to see you as soon as I can. Chin up kiddo.’
Gavin held Arthur in his arms, the weight of his jacket resting on his little brother’s back. When they released, Arthur went to say something, but the words wouldn’t come. He turned towards the mansion and began to walk. He heard the car door click shut and the sound of wheels on gravel before he’d reached the first step to the entry. Arthur took a breath and stepped up, left foot first.
Thursdays after dinner Arthur made sure he never missed Top Of The Pops, joining what felt like hundreds of boys crowded around the communal television in the library. Midway through tonight’s episode Alan Freeman introduced ‘newcomers, Orphanage!’ As the camera panned to the sound stage, Arthur saw four long-haired men. He was standing midway through the crush of eager boys and the television was smallish, the picture fuzzy. Arthur squinted, hoping to get a sharper image of the people on screen. When the camera switched to a close up of the singer, lip-synching like his life depended on it and hardly touching his bass at all, Arthur leaned forward trying to get a better view, almost toppling the boy in front of him.
‘Hey, stop pushing, Thomas!’ the boy in front of him said, giving him an elbow to the ribs.
‘Thomas, get over here,’ said the teacher on duty standing watching over the boys from the back of the library.
Arthur was reluctant to leave and stood his ground for a moment.
‘Thomas!’ came the voice from the back of the room again.
Arthur turned around and threaded his way towards the teacher.
‘Stand by me a moment, Thomas.’
Arthur stood next to the teacher, craning to try to get sight of the television, now just a square of light and movement in the corner of the room.