The body lay in a heap, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Odd angles, twisted limbs: it sprawled inside the old barn doorway where the shadows were at their blackest. Jed wouldn’t have seen it himself if Gwen hadn’t screamed the place down.
“Oh my God, Jed! Look at that will– you look at that! Oh God, it’s horrible. I feel sick. Why did you bring me here?”
Well, that was a laugh. He’d brought her here to get his leg over but that was hardly likely now. They’d been out for a drink at the Eagle and Child and he’d wanted somewhere to take her afterwards if things went that far. The estate was hopeless. Everywhere you looked there were windows, staring down from all the high-rise blocks, and too many people milling about. Spilling out of the pubs at closing time, spoiling for a fight, or lurking on street corners with a pocket full of promises for the local dope-heads.
What he needed was somewhere quiet, somewhere without prying eyes. Some guys might do it out there in the broad orange light of night, propped in doorways or behind someone’s hedge, but Gwen wasn’t like the other girls. The barn was perfect – or had been until Gwen made her grisly find.
She was still screeching. “For fuck’s sake, will you shut up?” he said. “The farmer an’ everyone’ll come piling down here if you keep yelling and they’ll probably think I killed the fucker.”
The screeching stopped and Jed’s ears rang in the sudden silence. Gwen’s mouth closed, and closed hard, into that thin prissy little circle he hated so much. “Don’t swear like that, Jed, you know I don’t like it.”
He kicked at a nearby bale of hay. “Yeah well I don’t like dead bodies but it doesn’t stop there being one over there.” He was pretty pissed off if truth be told. He’d been seeing Gwen for weeks now and she’d never shown signs of coming across before. The dead body was typical of his particular brand of luck.
Most girls on the estate wouldn’t even look at him. Jed’s family were real, honest-to-God couldn’t-afford-a-penny-for-the-guy poor. He wore hand-me-down clothes and never had the latest gadget or mobile phone. At school the kids had laughed at him and called him names – Skinflint and Tatty-‘ead. When he was six his too-old trousers had split across the crotch; after that they called him Wee Willie Winkie or Tinky-Winky, then Stinky-Winky or just plain Stinky for short. It upset him at first but he’d saved up all his Christmas money four years on the trot and had bought himself a second-hand bike, and after that he didn’t mind so much. If they started on at him he just jumped on his bike and cycled off, and he found all sorts of places that no one else even knew about.
He found an old gun-emplacement from the Second World War, concrete crumbling and drunken roof covered with grass. He found a tunnel under the railway line, with ancient mattresses and a porno mag dating from 1983. And he’d found the barn while cycling down to the river in search of fish. It was too far from the estate for the local kids to explore. Most of them had been dependent on cars so long they’d lost the use of their legs.
There was a tug at his T-shirt sleeve and Jed jumped, teeth clamping painfully on his tongue. “Christ, Gwen, don’t do that. Thought you were the bloody murderer come back.”
“Jed, I want to go home. I don’t like it here. It smells.”
“Yeah, okay. In a minute. I just want to….” The body fascinated him. He’d watched CSI the same as everyone else but he’d never expected to be this close to violent death. He knew that if the rats didn’t get you then the maggots and bugs would, but it was a job to tell from this guy’s face whether the bugs had been at him or not. The pasty mess that had once been eyes and lips and nose were smashed together into one misshapen lump. The lower jaw skewed sideways, revealing a few cracked teeth, and an eye dangled blindly from a gaping hole. Jed didn’t think it was possible to survive injuries like that, but he had to be sure. He couldn’t go and shake the bloke, of course – he knew that from CSI as well – but he rummaged near the river and found a broken stick.
Poke – poke. No response, except a squeal from Gwen.
Poke – poke – poke. Still no response, not even a flicker from that ghastly eye. Growing in daring he prodded the stick into the jelly and watched it squish. There was a flurry behind him and the unmistakable sound of Gwen throwing up. Minutes later she reappeared, wiping her mouth on a handkerchief.
“Everyone was right about you – you’re sick. I don’t want to see you again.” She turned and marched away across the field, white sandals flapping in the grass.
Jed watched her go, taking his last chance of a quick shag with her. Then he shrugged, tossed the stick and lit a cigarette. He drew deep on the first lungful of smoke, trying to calm his jangling nerves. What should he do now? Phone the cops and run? Phone the cops and hang around, and hope to God they didn’t think he’d done it? Or did he drag the body to the river, tip it in, let the current do its work, and erase all trace of death’s stinking scythe from the barn? At least that way he might run after Gwen and persuade her to come back.
He wondered if she would have come across, and if she had, whether it would have changed his life. Did you get a different look when you’d had sex with a girl: a sign on your forehead, a badge of honour, universally recognised by all the guys? He’d never noticed with his mates but he didn’t need to because they boasted all the time – who they’d laid this time, how she’d come across. If Gwen spread her legs he’d be one of the gang at last. Surely they’d accept him if he’d screwed a girl.
A fragment of song echoed, something he’d heard his Mum singing along to on the radio the other day. God knew what it was – it sounded old enough to have come off Noah’s Ark. D’you wanna be in my gang, my gang, my gang…. He whistled it a couple of times, took a last drag on his ciggie and flicked the stub through the barn doorway into the sluggish river beyond. Fat chance of that carrying the body away, he thought. Choked by the debris of modern life, it was hardly moving at all.
Nobody had ever asked him if he wanted to be in their gang. There were gangs on the estate; at least two, who circled each other like wary tom-cats and divvied up the spoils. Neither of them wanted him, though – he was just Stinky Jed. “Fuck off, Stinky,” was a regular cry, when they weren’t thumping him for his packed lunch or throwing his only good pair of trainers over someone’s fence. He sighed and thought about lighting up again but he only had six fags left and they had to do him till tonight. Doubts crept in with the craving. He needed something that would mark him as one of the lads. Girls came and went. He needed to change his life for good.
The body still sprawled inside the barn door. A broken doll, a puppet off its strings. Suddenly Jed knew what he had to do. Sod the coppers, and sod Gwen too. He was doing this for himself.
Part way back to civilisation he lit another precious cigarette. On the estate he knew where the gangs hung out; sure enough on the kiddies’ playground one of the swings swung gently back and forth: Tommy Rimmer, bored. With his shaven tattooed head and sleeveless top he looked every inch the thug he was; normally Jed would give him a wide berth, but not today. Today he marched straight up, puffing on his fag. “All right?”
Tommy sneered. “The fuck you doing here, Stinky? Go back to the swamp where you belong.”
“Think you’re really hard, don’t you?” said Jed.
“I don’t have to think, I am.”
Jed tugged smoke deep into his lungs. “Yeah well, bet you’re not as hard as me.”
Tommy laughed so much he almost fell off the swing. “You? Pull the other one – you’re about as hard as a wet sponge.”
“Bet it’s true though. Bet you’ve never killed a man like I have.” Sudden silence. That had got Tommy’s attention all right.
“Don’t be fucking daft,” said Tommy at last, but he sounded less sure of himself than he had.
“If you don’t believe me come and see for yourself. It’s – he’s just down there by the river, in the old barn.” He set off walking, and didn’t need to look over his shoulder to know Tommy had left the sanctuary of the swing. Under the motorway bridge he picked up the broken stick, carefully smeared with blood and dumped, and held it like a torch to light the way.
“Fucking hell, Stinky,” said Tommy when he saw the lifeless figure for himself. “What the fuck have you done?”
Jed prodded the body with his stick and was pleased to see the older lad’s face turn a pasty shade of white. This would teach the bastards. Not just Tommy but anyone else who’d called him Stinky or laughed at him over the years.
“Just so you know not to mess with me any more.” And he brandished the stick in Tommy’s face.
All Tommy’s bluster had gone; he believed in the charade as though it was Gospel truth. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Yeah, okay, Stin- I mean, Jed. Keep your fucking hair on. You can hang out with us on Saturday if you like. We was going to give the feller that runs the corner shop a kicking.”
“Might do,” said Jed with a shrug, but inside he was on fire. He’d shown them at last, and he hadn’t needed Gwen or anyone else – he’d done it all himself. He had nothing against the old man in the corner shop, but he’d go along on Saturday night and do his share. The heady wine of belonging was bubbling through his veins.
Just before they left he jabbed the stick in the body’s congealing blood. He wiped some off on his thumb, and used it to smear warpaint on his forehead and cheeks. It would have to come off again before Mum saw it, of course, or he’d give her an asthma attack. But for now he had his badge of honour. He walked back across the fields, head and blood-stained stick held high, at Tommy’s side.
On the fringe of the estate they overtook Gwen, sandals still flapping and twin spots of red in her cheeks from her headlong run. She prissied up her lips as they passed.
Jed had had enough. He was one of the lads now; he didn’t need her to sneer at him. “What you looking at, cow?” he said, and raised his stick.
The red spots paled to pasty pink. “Leave me alone. Go away.”
The old Jed would have given up then. Even the new Jed paused. But Tommy was judging his every move and he couldn’t stop now. He raised the stick again, waving it in her face. “See this? It’s blood. Want me to paint your face with it too?”
Gwen gasped, then as he pushed it closer, screamed.
“Yeah, that’ll show the bitch,” Tommy said.
Jed knew his new mate was right. It would show her; it would serve her right for running off on their date. With the fierce joy of power surging through his limbs, he brandished his bloodied stick and chased her, shrieking, down the street.
Liverpool lass Tess moved away to work at a tender age. Since then her movements around the country have resembled a game of ‘Pong’, but she’s now settled in the far north of England, where she roams the fells with a brolly, dreaming up new stories and startling the occasional sheep.
Much of her work features revenge, but she’s never been tempted to get her own back on anyone herself. Except, of course, by writing them into her stories… several of which have now been published in the likes of Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter Online, and 81 Words.
You can follow her ramblings, both literary and literal, at her website: http://tessmakovesky.wordpress.com.