He was odd. I knew that much the first time I’d met him, before he even started talking. Today he was wearing a long duster coat and cowboy boots, white shirt open nearly down to his navel, blue jeans. It was 1990.
The kid had lived up the road from me for years but had gone to a public school rather than mix with the rest of us in the festering pool of genetic freaks, shared girlfriends, and poor educational prospects delivered at the local comprehensive. Now we were standing outside the smokers common room at the sixth form college in a nearby town. It was sunny. Dust blew along the old surface of what used to be a tennis court. He was a few feet away, chest puffed out so it looked like he had some form of spinal problem. Inane grin showing too many teeth, arrow straight, like a nightmarish Muppet or a horror film cyborg. His chin extended far in front of his face, not helped by a sight underbite. Flattop hair, buzz shaved at the sides, sloped downwards and mirrored the angle of the chin. I was studying him, watching him leering at a girl he was talking to. I could hear him telling her lies about having signed up for the Army, being trained in close combat. She was disinterested, took a cigarette out of a packet, and went to light it. Like a gunslinger, in a blur, he took a matchbox from a pocket in his jeans, lifted up a snakeskin cowboy boot, and struck a match on the sole. He flourished it at her cigarette. I guess she was too overcome with the ferocity of the gesture and the stares from the people around us to refuse. He waved the flame out and tossed the dead match onto the ground with too much effort. Now she looked embarrassed.
His voice was kind of mid-Atlantic. Gravelly, too. Cross between Clint Eastwood and Eton. The accent took a lot of effort, and he spoke slowly, considering the vowel sounds and the tone of the thing before saying the actual words. He was trying to portray a superior air. We were all beneath him. He was leering again, his eyes flicking down to her chest when he thought she couldn’t tell. Most of the other people on their smoke breaks had stopped talking to each other by now and some were openly laughing at him.
‘Hey, Alastair. Why do you light matches on your fucking boots?’ someone asked.
‘If it’s for a lady, then I have to make an extra special effort,’ he replied, grinning at the girl. My God, those teeth went on forever. I wondered how many teeth a human head is supposed to contain and if he had broken some kind of natural order of things. She took a step away from him, her legs unconsciously moving her away from danger; primeval instinct of self-preservation. He had the same look in his eyes that I had seen on nature documentaries: a shark heading up through the surf and about to open its mouth before the first exploratory bite; the adrenaline keenness and focus of an apex predator. Like a San Francisco harbour seal, stranded from the safety of its own kind, she could sense a shift in the atmosphere, she looked scared.
‘Err…thanks for the light, Alastair. I’ve got to run, I’ve got an art lesson in a minute.’
‘I’ll see you on the bus then, my lady.’ He looked pleased. Okay, so he had missed the target in his first rushed attack, but he knew where the prey would be heading and he was going to make damn sure he was ready for the ambush next time. On the college bus, no-one could hear you scream.
The clock ran round to the hour. People began to leave. I had a free period and was going to smoke some hash on the playing field, so I was in no rush. I sat down against the wall and checked I had enough Rizla papers. I looked up. Alastair was standing there, blocking out the sunlight.
‘You know, Ben-boy, drugs are bad for you. They make you weak.’
‘The women prefer someone with class. Someone who can operate at maximum performance all the time. Drugs just slow you down.’
He fidgeted a bit, like there was some kind of internal struggle going on behind the crazy look in his eyes, then grinned again, pirouetted around on one of those high cowboy boot heels, and walked slowly down towards his GCSE retake class.