It wasn’t until after tea that Stephen managed to escape on the pretext of going over to see his best friend, D’Angelo Robertson. He sped along Blackhawks Road and dashed under the old bluestone railway bridge, remembering at the last moment to hold his breath. The place always stank of stale urine from drunken fans returning home after Saturday’s football game.
Once out the other side of the tunnel, he slowed to a walk and picked his way across a vacant lot, pushing through waist-high knapweeds with purple spiked flowers until he arrived in front of the cooperage on Walker Street.
Stephen loved the woody smell of the new oak and the clash of hammers on metal. The names of the differently sized casks made by the coopers appealed to his imagination: hogsheads, firkins, puncheons, and rundlets, all primed to receive their precious cargo―whisky, cognac, sake and rum―which suggested faraway places. Through the security-wire fence, he could see some of the men in their work clothes, with leather aprons tied around their waists and sleeves rolled up, maneuvering finished barrels onto the back of a truck. He called out a greeting as he passed, but no-one looked up or waved back.
He continued on until he came to a familiar red-brick building. At one time, this had been a carpet factory providing work for the neighborhood, but it had lain empty for years now. Some of his pals had found a way in via a rear window last winter, and the main hall had been an ideal place to stuff around and play soccer when it rained or snowed. Unfortunately, some nosey-parker had tipped off the council, and they’d been caught and given a fair old scolding. Afterwards, the doors had been boarded up and the windows covered with wire mesh.
Stephen sprang and caught hold of a window ledge. Gripping the wire with both hands, he heaved himself up until he could peer through a jagged hole in the glass. Other than a few cobweb-covered cardboard boxes piled in one corner, the vast building was empty. Dust and animal droppings covered the floor and shafts of daylight barely penetrated the interior.
The sandals he’d worn to play soccer still hung from the light shade, high above, where one of the workmen had tossed them for a joke. Stephen sensed movement at the far end and craned his neck to see. A rat, the size of a small cat, was tearing at the feathers and flesh of a juvenile magpie. The bird was still alive, but the screeching and fluttering came to an end when the rodent’s teeth clamped onto its head. Stephen shuddered and dropped to the ground. The magpie hadn’t stood a chance. It was too young, too inexperienced to escape marauding nature. God, if there was a God, hadn’t protected it. The bird was as much a victim of its environment as he was.
At the end of Walker Street, the factories and other industrial buildings gave way to the open spaces and green acreage of the local soccer grounds. During the season, hordes of teenage boys would descend on the playing fields to practice their skills. Right now though, and for the next two weeks, one large corner of the park had been reserved by the council for the arrival of the visiting carnival.
As Stephen approached the perimeter, the sun sank beneath drifts of low clouds and the sky turned a fiery red, outlining the Ferris wheel and the Dive Bombers in halos of hellish light. People were streaming in and out of the fairground. Many of those leaving were families with young children clutching stuffed toys, balloons and other trophies, whilst those on the way in were mainly excited teenagers and young adults.
When he walked through the entrance, a jumble of noise assaulted his ears. Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog’ competed for attention with Frank Ifield’s ‘I Remember You’ and ‘Apache’ from the Shadows. The music mingled with the shrieks of screaming girls, the hum of portable generators, and the hiss of powerful pneumatics. The amplified voices of showmen encouraged punters to ‘Come aboard for the ride of your life.’ Stephen’s pulse raced in harmony as he took in the scene around him.
Multi-colored lights flashed hypnotically on rides and side shows, illuminating gaudy art images depicting wild and exotic scenes. Lions, tigers, and other ferocious beasts were prominent alongside larger-than-life portrayals of classic movies such as ‘Ben-Hur,’ ‘The Mummy,’ and ‘The Wild One.’ The names of the most thrilling rides―‘Sputnik Chaser,’ ‘Codona’s Speedway,’ ‘Whites Waltzers’―glittered like diamond-encrusted tiaras perched atop each attraction.
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