May 2017 is National Storytelling Month. HumberHelp and Emmaus Hull & East Riding have worked together with creative writer Michelle Dee to produce this short story. Huge thanks to the companions at The Orchard for their trust and openness in sharing aspects of their own lives, upon which this fictional story is based. Enjoy.
Johnny woke up on the floor of a broken lock-up, his cardboard sheets damp with morning. His mouth tastes like fags and stale booze. It’s another typical day in Johnny’s life. Only it isn’t, today he knows is his eighteenth, his mates had plied him with booze until early hours the night before. He shuddered remembering trying to dance on the table, trying to impress Steff the new barmaid. Rubbing his eyes, the right one felt tender to the touch, he remembered falling from the table and smacking his head. Had his mates left after that? Everything was hazy he couldn’t be sure.
Johnny checked his jacket pockets, two nicked stubbies in each one, he’ll have them later. In his jeans he found a good handful of baccy in a scrunched up pouch and a torn rizla pack. Had they really just gone off and left him there? He peered out from underneath the twisted garage door, the sky was grey and uninterested, he sat back down on the cardboard and cracked open a bottle. ‘Happy Bloody Birthday,’ he said out loud, letting the lager pour freely down his throat.
After half an hour of sitting there he’s made a decision. Carefully folding up the baccy, he stands up dizzy from the nicotine and beer rush and sets out for his parents’ house. Surely they’d want to see him on his birthday, his mum at least, wouldn’t they? It wasn’t like last time, he wasn’t asking for anything, well maybe a bit of breakfast, watch the telly in the warm, see Suze if she was in. Susie was his little sister, he didn’t regret much about leaving home, but he missed his little sister. He felt protective over her, in case his bastard father started on her like he’d done on him. Thinking about his dad made Johnny all tense, his head started pumping, his mind racing. He couldn’t think straight and nearly walked into some fella pushing a barrow of veg on Market Street. ‘Wotchit son!’
‘Sod off,’ came the reply from Johnny without thinking. He thought about calling out, telling the bloke he didn’t mean it, but when he looked back the guy had disappeared around the back of the stalls. Johnny trudged wearily towards what had been his home on Finkle Street, up until six months ago. Finkle means twist or bend in Saxon or Viking, Johnny remembered learning that in school, pretty much all he did learn though.
‘Well, well, look what the sea’s dragged up, bin fighting have yer?’ Johnny was stood at the back door, his mum had seen him just as he was about to knock, she looked tired her hair was untidy in a sort of bundle on top of her head. There was washing hanging up, filling the kitchen with a flowery clean smell which suddenly made him aware of his own stink. He hadn’t managed a bath for a week – catching sight of his reflection, he imagined what his mum was picturing. He stood in clothes from the Sally Ally, too big for him, falling off him, torn and ripped and stained with crud, from knocking about the streets, his eye was bruised for sure and his hair hadn’t seen a brush for ages.
‘Come in then, if you’re coming in?’ his mum said cautiously. This wasn’t the best start, but it would do. ‘Your dad’s gone out with Ted to fix the motor on that bleeding bike again.’ Johnny breathed heavily, this meant he would be out for at least a few hours, maybe he and his mum could talk for a bit, spend some time. ‘Go and get cleaned up, I’ll do you a breakfast, bet you haven’t eaten anything have you. There’s a card from your auntie Mo and Suze is up and about somewhere, she was asking after you again last night.’ They’d remembered, they’d remembered it was his birthday. He felt happy and sad at the same time, but managing a weak smile he headed off up the stairs.
A few hours later Johnny was sat in the front room of his family home. He felt a lot better washed, clean, with a cooked breakfast inside him: bacon, eggs and his favourite, hash browns dipped in barbecue sauce. The clock read twenty to eleven. ‘Here I got you these, they should fit,’ said his Mum handing him a shiny silver parcel. Inside were a brand new pair of jeans and two tee-shirts from the market. Suze had given him a big hug and an iPod, ready loaded with his favourite hip hop artists. Johnny grinned as he stood looking at himself in the hall mirror in his new clobber. Behind him the back door banged open. He spun round and saw his father stood in the doorway in his overalls, hands black from grease and motor oil.
‘Thought you might turn up,’ his Dad said, pointing a grubby finger at Johnny.
‘I thought maybe I could… well sorta, mebbe…’ Johnny struggled to find the words, he just couldn’t talk to his dad anymore.
‘Yer mam’s been spoiling you again as she?’ he demanded staring at Johnny’s new clothes. ’Don’t know why she bothers, you don’t care about us do you, do you?’ his dad said, jabbing his dirty oily finger on the new top. He moved towards Johnny feigning a punch, Johnny dodged the blow but knocked a bowl off the side, sending it crashing to the floor. ’Now look what you done you little prick,’ grinning at his son nastily.
‘Can’t you just leave him alone Frank, just for one day?’ his mum whispered.
‘If you bloody well think it’s alright for him to come waltzing in here whenever he feels like it, well I don’t know what. It’s my bloody house June, my bloody house and my rules: my rules June,’ grabbing her by the wrist and twisting it. Johnny felt his heart racing, this was exactly why he’d left in the first place. He stepped between his parents and pushed his father as hard as he could, he went flying backwards slamming into the fridge. Johnny saw the first fist coming and ducked low, just as his father’s boot connected with his head. Reeling from the impact, Johnny looked wildly at his mum, then at his Dad, then ran. He ran down the street, then the next street and the next, across the main road without looking, out on to the bypass, before collapsing in a heap on the grass verge. He began punching the ground repeatedly, shouting and yelling at the world.
The noise of the van engine drowned out any chance of interrogation. Johnny had hung about for an hour by the side of the road trying to thumb a lift out of town. He didn’t know where, he didn’t care, he just knew he needed to get out. Some old bloke had picked him up, said he was going North. That would do for a start. The guy’s name was Tommy and he just drove throughout the day, tapping out rhythms with his his fingers on the steering wheel. Early evening Tommy had explained that he wasn’t driving all night, that he was going to pull in at a pub he knew, where the landlady had rooms. Johnny could probably get one for nothing, Tommy had said, if he pulled his weight for a few hours in the cellar, shifting stock and that. Johnny had helped out a bit, and been rewarded for his efforts with a pint and a plate of pub grub. Turned out Tommy was a musician and he actually had a gig that night at this place. His name was written in large letters on a chalkboard ‘Tommy Knight and the Stealers’ ‘Cos we steal every lasses heart who comes to see us,’ Tommy had told him, his eyes full of mischief.
The music was alright, sort of loud rock music with violins in it, people had danced and when he’d explained it was his birthday, a few locals bought him a bunch of drinks. Tommy had wished him a happy birthday from the stage and everyone in the room had cheered and applauded. Later with the beer loosening his lips, he let slip to Tommy what had gone on earlier. He just nodded and smoked another fag, blowing the smoke out of his nostrils in two long wispy streams. Feeling more confident he told him more stuff about what had gone on at home, how he’d come home to see his mum with a broken tooth and swollen face. ‘Frankie always did have a temper on him mind.’ Tommy said startling Johnny. ‘I’m not excusing him, nobody should hit anybody like, certainly not little June… she was a looker, couldn’t believe it when ya dad hooked up with her.’
‘You, know my dad?’ Johnny had finally managed.
‘Yup sure do, he played a mean trumpet your dad, could do with that sound in the Stealers.’ Over the next hour Johnny learned all about how his dad had played in Tommy’s first band called The Drivers, in his teens. They’d cut a demo and they’d been played on Radio 1 by some bloke called John Peel. ‘Gerrin’ on Peely’s show was better than a number one in the charts any day of the week.’ Tommy talked about the gig circuit, playing cities across the country, even playing in London a few times. It was all going great guns for them when Frank had left the band, after finding out he was going to be a father. ‘Reckon that was round about the time you came along Johnny.’
‘Uhuh hmm yeah.’ Johnny mumbled, his mind reeling with all this new information. His dad had left the group, bought a house and settled down with his mum.
‘He still there is he on Finkle?’
‘Yeah still there,’ Johnny said.
That night in a strange bed in a room above a pub hundreds of miles away from his hometown, Johnny thought about his dad. He’d given up his dream as a musician to support him, from what Tommy was saying they could have been really good, they’d had that radio guy playing them. It was early hours before Johnny finally fell asleep, a decision and an idea forming in his head.
Johnny Shaw woke up at the sound of the alarm clock, sitting up he heard the sound of the waves crashing against the sea front. He bounced out of bed, he had to be up and out quick, he was Team Leader that day at the homeless project. He showered, dressed quickly, grabbed his mail from the door. He recognised his mum and his sister’s handwriting on two of the envelopes, birthday cards to be sure. Johnny would be twenty-one today but celebrating could wait, celebrating could come later. Susie was coming up to visit, he couldn’t wait to show her around the quiet little town he now called home, to introduce her to his work colleagues, and show her what he had made of himself. It would be a great weekend.
After that night in the pub with Tommy, he’d hung about with the band, then at the end of the week on the return trip with Tommy, Johnny had checked in to a homeless shelter himself and enrolled in college, choosing to study music. Turned out he had a knack for writing lyrics. Eventually he found himself doing workshops with young adults like himself, who were in danger of falling through the cracks. He decided that he’d make his parents proud of him, proud of his achievements. It wasn’t easy, but he’d worked hard and now was beginning to reap the rewards. The relationship with his dad hadn’t improved all that much, they could sit in the same room without going for each other now, which was a vast improvement. Susie was pretty certain that he didn’t hurt their mum anymore. Johnny knew he couldn’t control his parents relationship, Johnny couldn’t make everything rosy in the family, but he could try and change his life for the better. It was a typical day in Johnny’s life as headed out to make music, write lyrics and tell stories, to a bunch of noisy teenagers.
Michelle Dee – writer.
Emmaus Hull & East Riding.