I’m telling this older guy I’m sharing a smoke with that I turned fourteen yesterday, and he says I should go home. I don’t answer, though. I could explain why I can't do that but, really, does it matter? When the cigarette is finished we have nothing left in common and I move on.
It’s early April in 1981 and dusk is approaching. There’s a light drizzle falling; it’s seeping into my jean jacket at the shoulders. Even though the rain is light, my hair is already drenched from being out in it too long. I wish I had that CHUM ball cap back, the one somebody scooped from me while I dozed in a vestibule last night. I hope they needed it.
I’m guessing the temp is just about a click over zero. Drizzle turns to sleet and pushes down now, focused, intent, rather than just lazily dropping. I can tell by the look of the clouds rolling back in that this is just a tease of what’s to come. Maybe they’re not rolling so much as skulking. My ripped Adidas are already soaked through due to the puddles left by the first phase of the storm earlier on. I can still feel some of my toes but not all. The smallest ones are always the first to go.
I keep walking because standing still would be dumb and dangerous. Yet I know there’s nowhere to go; the cops know all the dry and slightly warmer places where kids like me like to hang when we want a little relief from the elements. They say it’s their job to ensure no congregating occurs there. That’s the word they use when they’re shooing us along, like we’re a congregation. Devout members of Our Lady of the Frozen Digits with a cult-like enthusiasm for misery. They say when we gather that we’re not only an offensive sight to decent society, but our congregations serve only to foster mischief among miscreants like me. They’re probably right. They know I’m bad. Everybody knows it. They can’t all be wrong so I believe them.
And I keep walking. To nowhere. It’s dinnertime in Old South London. I don’t think I’ve eaten since the day before yesterday so I try not to think on that. Sometimes I get lucky and get away with a Snickers or a pack of luncheon meat from Becker’s or wherever, but usually the only thing easy enough to steal is cigarettes from the handy counter displays.
So I smoke. It occupies my mouth when there’s no food. In a weird way, they’re my only comfort. All that I can rely on. They're pretty much my only true family, as they never turn their back on me or push me away. They’re a bit of an appetite suppressant, too, but mostly they’re something I can hold on to. I’m coming to depend on them a great deal and nicotine is about the least of the reasons why. I’ve heard they can make you die sooner, like that’s some sort of deterrent. And anyway, I like the smokescreen they create. A barrier so no one can ever get too close. Getting like that only sets you up for eventual rejection. Why would anyone subject themselves to that willingly? Fucking idiots.
I walk on. This part of Cathcart Street has a lot of large trees and the branches are sprouting buds. They’re still small, but the sheer number of them creates a bit of a canopy and if that helps to keep a little rain off me then at least that’s something. I’m not sure what the buds think of sleet. Does it help them burst out and flourish, or shrink into themselves and cower, hoping for a better day to come? They probably don’t know themselves what to do, which way to turn. But thanks to all the branches, the rain’s no longer dripping from my ear lobes, which is great because I can feel them burning. I think it’s funny the way the freezing always starts with burning. The saviour of my congregation has a wicked sense of humour.
I can’t help but look into the houses as I intrude on the quaint neighbourhood. Many of the front windows are lit up like huge television screens as I pass them, each telling a story in twenty-four frames-per-second all the way down the road. Each shows a different contented family, warm and dry, laughing, sitting down for dinner like it’s no big deal. Each screen is set to a different channel, all are fine-tuned and their clarity is impressive.
None of the characters ever breaks the fourth wall. To them it doesn’t exist, and that’s where I am: outside looking in. They’re oblivious to people like me—that we share the same theatre, just from different sides of the curtain. I’m merely an audience peering in from the dark. I could try to be the laugh track but no one would hear me. I’m a ghost. Or maybe just a stat if that’s a different thing.
A while later when I’m on Briscoe, it’s full dark and even colder. As I'd figured, the rain is coming down a lot harder now, mixed with ice pellets. My jacket is a month ahead of season and now soaked full-through, so I think I’m better off with the pellets than the straight-up rain because they mostly just bounce off instead of burrowing through the denim and into my skin, and deeper. I guess that makes me lucky. I know it’s the worst plan to stop walking but my legs need a break and there’s nowhere dry to sit. There’s a house party in progress on one of the screens. It must be Friday or Saturday. My aching legs convince me to stop and just take in the show for a few moments.
Everyone is pleased with themselves and each other, their animated hands and bodies expressing their joy at just being there, together. One woman reminds me of my mom a little. I miss my mom. And they’re all socializing, near the glowing fireplace with drinks in hand and randomly grabbing whatever-they-are off the platters as they talk and flirt and ingest the snacks’ sustenance practically without even realizing it. Many are just set down half-eaten and forgotten. I feel sorry for those ones even while I crave the opportunity to devour them.
I’ve been watching this show too long. I can feel my knees starting to seize so I push my legs back into motion. On to the next channel, and the next. I end up in a commercial area down on Wharncliffe maybe an hour later. I stop to light a smoke under the awning of a department store that has these fancy twenty-six-inch console televisions in the display window. I don’t even know why I pick up a rock and throw it through the huge plate glass but I guess that’s what bad guys do. No reason. Random, meaningless destruction from some asshole kid out for kicks. And anyway, running helps warm my toes a little as I hear the wail of approaching sirens.