His name was Anvil, the old homeless guy. At least to us kids. We called him Anvil because of watching cartoons; that’s how we knew what an anvil looked like. It looked like his hand, with the middle three fingers blasted away and the stump rounded into a hard grey ball, a stubby pinky and thumb protruding either side. Also, we once saw him punch his way through a door. So we called him Anvil, and we never ever pissed him off.
Anvil was one of a small group of street bums who’d stumble around the estate drunk. They never carried anything around with them but kept bottles in strategic locations, like mile markers on some fetid, decaying marathon. Sometimes under trees, inside electricity boxes or in ditches. If we ever found a stash – and it happened a few times – we knew to keep well away. Not even the bravest, hardest kid would dare touch the booze. To even look at them was to incriminate yourself, and you’d spend the rest of the day in hiding.
These are the memories I carry now, of kids who smelled as bad as I did, whose shirts and jeans were also ripped and stained. I had a kinship with them, that I never had with the kids at school whose shirts were so brilliantly white I had to look down at the floor in the corridors and the playground. The estate could be brutal to a kid, but you learned to duck quickly. When one lad decided to dig up part of his parent’s garden to make a little ramp for his BMX, his dad marched him out onto the green in front of the houses, pulled his pants down and smacked his behind over and over and over again as he screamed and wailed. I have this flashback whenever I read about public executions of the past, when crowds would gather to marvel at the blood and suffering or watch some poor bastard dance on the rope. We all stood in a line a respectful distance away, somehow feeling that we could be next, that we weren’t safe. I didn’t see the kid out again in over a fortnight and he constantly looked over his shoulder to the house, or the direction of the house if we couldn’t see it.
Speaking of executions, we tried to burn someone alive once. It was a game that got out of hand, of course. It started with his sister’s dolls, then his Action Man that’d already lost an arm in active service. Then Sloan, the simple kid who always had headlice and two shoes that didn’t match, volunteered to see what it might be like to burn. Luckily for us, the pathetic pile of twigs and torn up grass sprinkled over his feet didn’t take and we ran out of matches.
I drive through the old estate sometimes when I don’t want to go home. I circle slowly around the old streets, but I always speed up past one house in particular. It looks much the same as it did when I was a kid, only with all the years of neglect that comes from a house no one wants to live in. I have aged only marginally better.
The house belonged to an old man. We never saw him leave, but the curtains were always drawn and an enormous tree that took up his entire front garden blocked out the light. The bravest kids would tell us that all you needed to do was knock on his door and he’d give you sweets. They’d run down the path – at this point I was still too scared to even stand near the gate – and then come back with handfuls of chews, bars and lollipops. Gradually the rest of the group grew in confidence to go until I was the last one left. The kids never bullied or goaded me; they just sat eating their earned sweets with the lip smacking ostentaciousness of cocky swaggers.
Eventually, one day when I was playing alone, I plucked up the courage to go for it. I ran down the path and hammered on the door, then shrunk back. I heard a noise like a small child crying, and then realised it was the cracked, petrified sobbing of an elderly man whose dim shape I could make out through the frosted window glass of the door. A hand, as grimy brown and wrinkled as bark shot out through the letterbox pushing a few chews onto the floor at my feet. My heart racing, I looked down on them with a kind of confused awe. They seemed to glow and to feel threatening, like the bottles of cheap hooch scattered all around the estate on the tramp’s leylines. I picked them up and ran back down the path, my body shooting with a mixture of fear, adrenaline and guilt. I never tried it again. And a few months later, no one else would either.
One of the kids got into a conversation with Anvil and his gang as they shambled past. They let slip where the sweets had come from and who’d given them away. We watched as Anvil marched over to the old house, flung open the gate and stormed down the path. The other bums told us not to follow and then watched us suspiciously as we looked back at the tramps, a group of prisoners who’d overpowered their guards, unsure what to do next. We saw Anvil draw his hand back and smash the door open. Then he was inside, and after a brief strangled cry, all became silent and still. We all stood in a line, kids and old drunk men for another spectacle, this time hidden from view. It was only years later I found out that the old man who gave out sweets was called George, and that after Anvil had finished, the police could only identify him from a blood-soaked tooth that had rolled under the rotten couch.