by Paul Ellams
I always wanted to be like Bobby.
From the first time he came round to our house with my sister in 07; the way he wore his Bench Jacket, the way the gold chain dangled off his wrist as he drank his bottle of Becks, and the clinking sound the glass made on his sovereign ring. I wasn’t a teenager yet and had just started year 7; all gawky, awkward limbs and fucked up lungs—my asthma was still bad then—and there he was: a legend making his way in the world. Everyone either wanted to be his mate or get out of his way. He must have only been nineteen but carried himself like a man twice that age. Bobby took a shine to me that night, putting his hand on my shoulder and saying to my sis: “We’ve got a real man here, love.”
I can still remember his drunken red face in the living room, and the lamplight reflecting off the beige wallpaper.
I’ve never felt prouder than I did at that moment.
I started going round Bobby’s flat after school to play chess and watch him smoke. He lived with his dad, who was always in the pub, and his sister, who was never around. The place gave off a halfway house vibe: no adults, clothes stacked in random places, and tobacco permanently wafting in the air.
Bobby would always have music on loud and some dirty looking girl sat on the sofa, quietly gawking at him and laughing at everything he said. He’d open the door to me and shout “alright fella, come in! This is….” and point to whatever female was there.
The music would go off and we’d dive straight into our game. He’d lean forward with a cigarette between his fingers and before I knew it: “Check.”
I’d pause. Take my time. Slowly make my next move before he pounced on the board again.
“Check mate.” Bobby would fold his arms and sit back with a smile. “Fuck me, worried for a sec there. Thought I’d lost my touch.”
My face would go sour.
“If I let ya win all the time big man, you’d never learn how to lose,” Bobby said and then turned to the girl. “Put the tunes back on will ya?”
Knowing Bobby made me feel untouchable. I acted overconfident everywhere I could, imagining he’d deal with things if I ever got in a scrape. It was stupid and ended up getting me in trouble during the summer of 08.
Leaving school one hot Thursday, Darren Spindler came up to me with one of his mates. Darren was ugly beyond belief. He had goggle eyes and a sloppy mouth that took up too much room on his face, so his nose just had to find a way to edge in where it could. Every time he spoke a sea of phlegm followed like splashback while taking a piss. He wasn’t really that hard but his way for making up for it was to be as aggressive as possible.
“The fuck you lookin’ at?” he asked.
“Looking at? N-nothing,” I stuttered.
“N-nothing,” he said back at me. “You some kind of retard?”
“No,” I said, trying my best to sound defiant.
“Don’t be cocky with me lad, cuz I’ll just butt ya.”
Before I even had time to respond he implanted his skull in the centre of my nose. I fell on the ground to a hail of laughs before getting up and legging it over to the flats with blood spewing onto my trainers. The sound of that twat’s rubber lipped cackle followed me all the way.
Bobby answered the door and was horrified.
“What’s happened fella?” he asked, pulling me into his hallway.
“D-Darren Spindler butted me,” I cried.
“Who? What’s his name?”
“The little fucker. Where was this?”
“Just outside now.”
Bobby looked out of the window and saw the aggressive dwarf smoking across the road.
“That’s him,” I said, knowing that Bobby was going to sort this out for me.
There was a hesitation in his manner as he stepped back from the glass. He looked at Darren and then looked at me before taking a deep breath in.
“You let him hit ya?” he said.
“I-I…he just came up to me….”
“But you let him,” Bobby said, cutting me off. “If he thought you would’ve stood up for yourself, he never would’ve come near ya.”
“But…” I said, searching round for something to say.
“But nothing,” said Bobby, as he wiped the blood from my face with a dishcloth. “He thought you were a girl. Is that how you want people to look at ya? As some kind of bender who can’t stick up for himself?”
At the moment, how people viewed me was the last thing on my mind.
“The lads a skinny little twat! You could kill him if you put your mind to it. I can’t fight your battles for ya. What’s gonna happen when you’re older and someone starts on ya? You gonna run up here then and start crying for me to go and fight? If he’d have been some big lad pickin’ on a kid, I’d have dealt with it, but you’ve got to step up.”
Bobby went over to the side cabinet and produced a hammer from a drawer.
“Go out there and smack him with this.”
Staring at the hammer, I eventually gripped its handle. It felt so heavy.
“I- I don’t….”
Bobby grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and poked his face into mine. “Get out there and do it or don’t bother comin’ round again. I only hang around with men that can handle ‘emselves. Otherwise you’re not a fuckin’ man.”
He pushed me down the hallway and before I knew it I was on the stairwell of the flats and Bobby’s door slammed. No one was there to help me. I was on my own with my breathing and sobs. Darren’s laughing outside sounded horrifically loud. It felt like I was walking to my own execution.
The next clear image is of Darren’s ugly face about a millimetre from mine.
“What’s up, lad?” he said. “Been telling your boyfriend about—”
He didn’t have time to finish the insult. The hammer grazed his chin just enough to knock him backwards over the wall and into someone’s front garden. Jumping over with him I bought the hammer down again. This time it whacked his elbow as Darren tried to defend himself. I kept hitting him with the hammer on his chest, stomach, knee as he writhed around screaming and trying to get away. His mate yelled and ran off. An old man from the house came out in a blind panic, trying frantically to grab the weapon. It was all over before he had a chance.
“Get in,” Bobby shouted as I legged it up the stairs.
He took the hammer and grinned like a proud dad whose son had just won a footy match. Bobby looking down on me at that moment was like the glance of God.
Years later, when me and Bobby had drifted out of touch, I saw him driving down Kingsway in a clapped-out Nova with The Arctic Monkey’s blasting out of the windows. I was trying (and failing) to sell drugs to uninterested punters when he pulled over. He looked every inch the scally-come-good, with jewellery that cost more than his car, trainers that blinded you like magnesium, and “Bobby” tattooed on his neck. It was all cuddles and old times.
“I’ve just got out of prison so I’m in the mood for celebratin’.”
“What was you in for?” I asked, trying to sound hard as I smoked a cigarette and pretended to be waiting for a phone call.
“Just a bit of beak. Me probation officer’s sound though. Let’s me miss meetings and everythin’.”
“’ey, you know where I live: pop round yeah?”
“I will do mate.” And as he turned I shouted, “game of chess yeah?”
Bobby looked back and smiled.
In the passenger seat was a girl with olive skin and a whopper of a black eye. She looked absolutely miserable and had obviously been crying. Bobby looked at her as if he was about to give her another shiner and she looked at the ground. I didn’t like it. It made me feel uncomfortable. I wanted to go up to the window and tell her not to worry. Try to convince her that he wasn’t that bad. Underneath it all he was a nice guy.
Bobby started the engine and rode off in the afternoon sun.
I never did call round.
The Jockey and Whip is the type of pub most bastards wouldn’t even be paid to visit. I love it. You know whenever you go in there’ll either be a fight or everyone will be too stoned to move. The barmaid has shagged everyone from here to Saint Helen’s, and the landlord loves a dust up. He once offered me out for a scrap and proceeded to batter me all round the carpark. I didn’t go back with a hammer that time.
I’m not much good at dates. I find it hard to think like a woman and so I never know where to take em. At this point I’d met this bird called Kelly who, broadly speaking, was a nice girl. Not really what I was used to. She was training to be a social worker and had this saintly thing about her where you never felt good enough in her company. She also had huge tits.
Dickhead me thought it would be a good idea to take Kelly to ‘The Whip’ on our first date. Not for an all-nighter of course, just a nice meet up before our evening’s journey, which would hopefully end in her bed.
‘The Whip’ doesn’t even look good. It’s a shed positioned amongst a load of high-rise flats in a rough part of town. Fuck knows what I was thinking and I’m sure she thought I was joking when I suggested it; but, fair does to the girl, she turned up.
I was standing outside having a fag in the rain when she rocked up in a cab. Her thick frame looked stunning in a black dress. Like a proper professional woman. You could see her at some cocktail party in London hobnobbing with all those Guardian types. I think it was at this point I knew I’d messed up.
The place was dead apart from one geezer sat at the bar arguing with a woman, who got up and left in a flood of tears as we walked in. For one second I thought she looked familiar. I stopped thinking about her when I was overcome by the smell of weed smoke and men’s arses. Looking around nervously I said, “Erm, we’ll have one here and then we’ll shift on.”
“It’s alright,” Kelly replied, seeing the funny side of things.
“Pint of Stella and a G&T please,” I said to the landlord.
“Ice in the G&T?”
“Gay that,” came a voice from behind me. Great, I’d bought her to a rough pub and now Kelly was going to see me fight.
I turned, about to do my best hard man impression when that beaming face came back at me.
It was Bobby.
I ran down the bar and gave him a huge hug. He slapped my back and let out a wheezy laugh that sounded like a broken washing machine. He stank of stale booze and cigs and was wearing a mud-covered coat. His greasy hair and black beard hid equally dark teeth. It didn’t matter how he looked to me; I was glad to see him.
“Kelly,” I yelled, “come over here. I want you to meet someone.”
She came over with a nervous grin on her face.
“This is Bobby. When I was a kid he taught me everything. This man is a legend.”
“I hope you’ve been teaching him good stuff,” said Kelly, smiling.
“Always,” said Bobby, and kissed her cheek.
There was no sign that anything had changed other than his appearance. He was still loud and proud Bobby, same sentences still stained with the same swear words. And as he sat under those bar lights and told his stories of a wasted life he was more alive than I’d ever seen anyone. Kelly laughed and I laughed and for those brief moments it seemed like everything was alright. He ordered drink after drink and downed them all in the time it took us to finish one.
Much as I loved Bobby, there came a time for me to crack on with this shag business. ‘The Whip’ was proving to be a boner killer and I didn’t want to make my date bored by me constantly talking to someone else.
“Right,” I said after a while, giving Kelly a bit of a nudge, “shall we head off?”
“Where to?” asked Bobby.
“Fancy one more?”
I looked at Kelly. Whatever she thought of Bobby, she clearly was not into the idea of staying in the Jockey and Whip for another flat G&T.
“Ah, no,” I said, “we’re meeting people.”
“What? On a date?” said Bobby, picking up on the lie.
“Y-yeah.” I stammered.
“First date and you’re jibbing it off to meet with other people? Never were good with birds you lad.”
Kelly bristled. Bobby noticed and stared at her.
“Everythin’ alright love?”
“Well, it’s just….” Kelly was trying to come up with the least offensive objection possible, bless her. “I don’t like really being referred to as a ‘bird.’ I’m a woman.”
Bobby paused and then let out a huge, roaring laugh. “You should spend the night with me darlin’. We’d have a right laugh me and you.”
“I’m actually serious,” she said, her face hardening.
Bobby examined her as if she was dirt. “I think you need to calm down girl.”
“I think you need to watch how you refer to people.”
I wanted the ground to open up. This was horrific.
“Listen,” said Bobby, waving his arm, “let’s forget about it. How about I buy you another drink?”
“I don’t think so. Liam, can we go now please?” She grabbed my hand and started to lead me out.
Bobby suddenly clasped Kelly’s wrist and pulled her back. “Hang on a second Germaine fucking Greer, I’m talking here.”
“Bobby, back off will ya?” I said, placing my palm on his chest.
“Telling me to back off ya prick? I’ll rape the mouthy bitch if she wants.”
“Oh my god!” Kelly shouted and pulled away from Bobby as hard as she could.
He tumbled off the stool and she bolted out of the door. I never saw Kelly again. Last I heard she was married to a Drama Therapist. I don’t even know what one of those is.
Bobby climbed to his feet.
“What did you do that for?” I asked.
“I was only havin’ a laugh with the dozy bitch! What’s her problem?”
“You threatened to rape her!”
“I was jokin’! Christ, what is it with all these women walkin’ out over a joke!”
Finally, I got it. That girl crying as we walked in. I’d seen her crying before. In a clapped-out Nova, with olive skin and a black eye, when her boyfriend had been God and not a washed-up mess.
“You threaten that last girl as well then?” I smiled, trying to assert myself.
“The one leavin’ as me and Kel came in. Or maybe you didn’t need to since you’d already used her as a punching bag.”
A jackhammer crack went into my temple. My face hit the carpet. Bobby stood over me. He pulled me up by my collar till my back was a few inches from the floor and spat in my face. The goo smelled like diarrhoea as it dripped over my nose. Some nicotine-stained fingers were shoved down my throat. It felt like Bobby was trying to squeeze his whole fist into my windpipe. All I could do was gag hard and vomit on his hand.
“Go on, say somethin’ now you little prick! I fucking dare ya! Say somethin’!
“Bobby stop!” The landlord shouted and leaped over the bar to pull him away. “Get off him man! Not in here!”
Bobby let go and looked at me as I writhed on the floor, eyes burning, choking and unable to catch breath. He walked over to the seats in the corner of the pub, put his head in his hands and cried.
I’d never seen Bobby weep before.
When I’d finally managed the courage to approach him, he didn’t even look up. “Take me home mate,” he whispered.
The sound of early noughties indie and drum’n’bass had gone. There was no wallpaper and the lack of lampshades made every room as bright as a police holding cell. Everywhere there was dirty plates, takeaway wrappers, empty beer bottles, and crushed cans. No furniture, just upturned milk crates. The old armchair and the coffee table where we’d played chess had all disappeared. Everything that I loved in that flat was dead and gone.
“Sit yaself down lad,” said Bobby as he pointed to a milk crate. “Want a can or owt?”
“Er, yes please mate,” I said and sat.
He went into the kitchen and I scanned round trying to conjure up anything that could pass as a memory. I couldn’t. All I could do was listen intently as he hocked up some phlegm into the sink and then came back with two cans of Fosters.
He handed me a can and opened his while sitting on the other milk crate. “What you up to now then kid?” he asked.
I vaguely explained what I ‘did’ on a day-to-day basis and looked around. On the shelves where the stereo and speakers used to be was an old photo in a dirty gold frame. I went over to have a look. The photo must have been taken about 15 years ago and Bobby was the same age he was when I first met him. It had been taken in some back garden and he had his arm round a girl who I recognised straight away. Part of the photo had been ripped off exposing the back of the frame. Bobby was wearing the same Bench jacket he had on when I first met him.
“I remember that jacket!” I shouted.
“Nice wasn’t it? Fuck knows what happened to it. Probably that cunt sold it.”
He didn’t answer.
I kicked at the dirty carpet. “Your dad still live here Bob?”
That got his back up. He looked at me as if I’d just given him a slap. “No.”
“Oh, where’s he now then?”
“Ah, sorry to hear that mate.”
This threw me a bit and I didn’t really know how to answer.
“Believe me,” he said, “only decent thing he ever did was die. Got me the lease on the flat that did.”
“Fuck, didn’t get on, no? Always seemed fine when I saw ya with him.”
“Lad, probably cuz I was fuckin’ scared. Why do you think the photo’s ripped? Last thing I want is that prick lookin’ at me.”
I wanted to get the subject off his dad as it was starting to get tense. So I looked at the photo again. “How long you been going out with her then Bob? Old photo.”
“I don’t remember her that’s all.”
“It’s my sister mate. It’s Stace.”
I visibly started and looked at the photo again. Stace. She was young and the world had not got to her yet but she was clearly the one who had been in the pub tonight and, on doing some guess work, had been the girl with the black eye I’d seen Bobby with the day he told me about his prison time.
“I know, I know,” he said, nodding his head. “You thought I’d been knocking her round didn’t ya. Fuckin’ Bob whackin’ his missus. Let me tell you something son.” He got up and jabbed his finger toward the photo. “You think after watching that bastard kick the shit out of her every day of my life I’d ever hit a woman? Is that what you think?”
He was closer now, poking his finger in my chest and forcing me to smell his Chernobyl breath. Part of me wanted to say ‘I don’t think you’ve helped your cause threatening to rape a girl in the pub if I’m honest,’ but I couldn’t be arsed with the row.
“Bobby, man! I get it mate, I’m sorry,” I said, thinking he was about to start chinning me again. “I didn’t know he used to hit ya sister mate, honestly.”
He stopped and hit me with one of those deep stares that he was good at, as if he was about to hand over the hammer again and ask me to find a victim. “Hit her?” he said. “Hit her?” He took a step back. “And the rest mate.”
He knew exactly the type of pictures I was drawing in my brain as he went over to the window and turned his back to me. His head sank and he started to cry again.
“Shit Bob,” I said, not really feeling up to the task of therapist. “Shit… I didn’t know mate. I didn’t… I didn’t know.”
I put my hand on his shoulder and he turned round and started crying on me so I hugged him. That was it. What else was I supposed to do? His heroic days were his worst and I never ever even saw it.
After he managed to stop crying we sat on the crates as he snorted and wiped his nose with his sleeve. A silence thickened as we drank and tried to conjure up a time when life was good. We couldn’t. Neither of us.
I said my goodbyes and went home.
Two weeks later they found him hanging from the ceiling light.
We burned Bobby Tilbury today.
When we came out from the crematorium the sun was shining and I lit a cig. Stace was standing on the pavement in tears. She turned to look at me, rubbing her cheek aggressively with her knuckle. She was too proud to cry.
“Fancy a lift into town?” She sniffed.
“Yeah, alright,” I said and trundled alongside her in silence until we reached the car.
“Shall we go for a drink?” she asked while searching for her keys.
I paused. “Are the others comin’?”
“No-ones organised anythin’.”
I thought for a second. “Yeah alright. Shall we go erm….”
“No chance,” she said. “I have it on good advice that you should always let the woman decide where to go for a drink.”
I smiled and got in the car. The stuff she’d been through in life, it would’ve been pointless to argue.
Paul Ellams is a writer and poet from Chester, Northwest England. His work has previously been published by Amethyst and Write Out Loud. He currently resides in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, where he teaches at a local high school.