It had become a bit of a ritual. A bit of a terrorizing, abysmal ritual. Every Thursday on the way back from work, a small group of children would ask me to buy cigarettes for them. It was a ritual much like forgetting my lunch every morning, or watching Jurassic Park repeats every Sunday afternoon; only much more disappointing, and with a distinctly crushing lack of dinosaurs. My route home led me through the centre of town, along a main road peppered with several Chinese restaurants vomiting slime onto the streets, as is their wont, and newsagents displaying signs asking for only two children at a time to enter the shop. This was probably why they were always stood outside, I thought- respect for cardboard shop signs was something which was apparently drilled into them from birth. Not so much a respect for human life, but always for cardboard shop signs. I supposed they had to start somewhere.
Whenever I passed them it always seemed to be dark and raining, my general sense of foreboding using my brain as a bouncy castle whilst continuing to wear shoes. I shuddered a shudder of horror and shudderance. They’d have their hoods up with thin trails of smoke emerging from the hollows where their faces presumably lay. Sometimes they would have dogs, but always they would have scooters- evidently the uppermost of the coolness apex. If I ever tried to cross one of them I knew they would chase after me, their tracksuit mentality two-wheeled slaughter vehicles running over my face, leaving the Ben 10 impressions from the safety rubber, all over my body. They were all about seven, and they were hungry for blood, and likely also ice-cream. Thursdays were the rainiest of days.
On any other night the newsagents would provide luxurious refreshment in the form of a Yazoo milkshake on the way home from work, but not on Thursdays. Each week the chubby ginger leader of the group would stand in my way and grin at me like a soggy, over-stuffed bag of week old sausage meat and back hair shavings. As he talked I couldn’t help but stare at his chin as it wobbled back and forth, gathering momentum until eventually it would whack him in the forehead. Eventually I would notice that he had been yelling, ‘Get cigs, mayte!’ for a few minutes whilst I had been mesmerised by his floppy face. It was like watching a lava lamp. But every week was the same: I would be confronted by the young ginger whippersnapper, threatened unless I purchased cigarettes, and then I would politely excuse myself and anticipate a petrol bomb on the back of my head as I walked away.
Yet for some reason, one week was different.
The ginger tyrant had stood in front of me as usual, but he hadn’t started to yell. Instead he just looked straight at me… and started talking. A fear gripped my entire body. If they were going to rob me, all they were going to get was a bag full of diabetes blood test strips and tampons, and I didn’t want to be there when they tried to purchase alcohol with them. But no; he was still talking… I wasn’t sure what to do with my face so I just started to nod. I literally had no idea what he was saying- I assumed the tale he was telling me was particularly tragic, something about a pet bear being sick, or his girlfriend’s baby’s baby daddy getting some kind of facial gonorrhoea , or something. It was like listening to a homeless man who had swallowed too much furniture polish on his way back from the dentists. Through his garbled shrieking I could hear that he was reasoning with me to purchase cigarettes; imploring me to buy them. Too befuddled however to say anything other than the words I had rehearsed a thousand times before, I politely excused myself and left, desperate to reach home alive. Yet curiously this time instead of the general petrol bomb fear as I walked away, I felt a tiny flutter of sympathy in my heart. It was the most piteous and horrifying flutter of sympathy I had ever had the displeasure of experiencing. Chav sympathy. I felt as though a badger had molested me.
For the next few weeks however, every Thursday the ginger chap would stand in my way and tell me more of his story. I still had no idea what was going on, but the way he told me of his step father’s ‘dog dat ‘ad eaten me sister’ and his strange ability to ‘shit oot stationary’ made me realise that perhaps buying cigarettes for him wasn’t such a bad idea. If I could bring this large, smelly child some kind of joy, then I could make would make the world a slightly better place. As I held my breath and walked into the newsagents to purchase the cigarettes I could feel the group’s eyes on me. For the first Thursday in months, the rain clouds had shrank to the horizon.
As I came out the shop with a smile on my face and handed 20 Benson & Hedges to my new friend, he greeted me by pushing a blade deeply, deeply into my spleen. ‘Iis illegal, buyin’ fags for minors, innit’, he commented as he took the cigarettes from my hands and walked away, leaving me bleeding all over the pavement. I was in a state of shock. Next Thursday was going to be really awkward.