Years ago, when I was still living in Leeds, I came home one Saturday afternoon to find my mountain bike had been stolen – again. By now, we were all living behind steel grille doors to make it harder for the burglars to break in, but that afternoon a student girl had moved into one of the flats below mine, and between her and her parents the front door of the house had been left wide open, and someone had seen an opportunity, and now the bike was gone.
As far as the student girl and her parents were concerned, it wasn’t their fault. And – tempting though it was – standing around arguing the toss wasn’t going to help get the bike back, so I got in my van and went out looking for it, checking bike shops and second-hand shops, and finding nothing. Then, as I drove back up the hill to the flat, I saw a big group of lads, and one of them had my bike.
In the time it took to think that this was taking the piss – that I lived here, that I’d lived here for years, paid my dues, and there was no way some lad was waltzing off with my bike in broad daylight – I’d stopped the van, stormed over the road, told the lad I was having my bike back, grabbed if off him, and was heading back to the van. Then it struck me that letting my fury take the lead might not have been too clever. And that was when they put the brick in the side of my head.
I didn’t know exactly what had happened, why the world had suddenly tipped sideways and I was looking at the tarmac, and I had no idea what I was doing on the ground, but I knew with absolute certainty that I couldn’t stay there. Fuck the bike. The only thing that mattered in my life was getting up, getting back in the van, and getting away. I had to get away.
Just. Get. Away.
As I turned the keys in the ignition, one brick bounced off the windscreen, another off the drivers’ window, and I floored the accelerator pedal, and was gone. Four hundred yards down the road I pulled up in front of my house, marched into the off-licence next door where my landlord worked, and demanded the phone. He asked me what had happened. I told him. He suggested I should go to hospital. I told him no way. I was getting some mates, preferably some mates with baseball bats, and we were going to give those lads a proper kicking. He suggested I should go to hospital. I said I was fine. I wanted revenge. I wanted my bike. Ideally I’d get both. At a push, revenge would do. He suggested I should go to hospital. And I put my hand up to my head and it came away covered in blood. Maybe he had a point. I put down the phone, drove myself to hospital, and spent my Saturday night in A&E.
I was reminded of this yesterday, when my dad rang to tell me what had happened to a family friend. The friend retired a few years ago, and he and his wife now live in the bungalow back in Ireland where his mother grew up, in the village where she and my mother were girls. The other evening he was in the house on his own, with the doors unlocked – they never lock the doors when they’re at home – and it was only when the lads hit him over the head with the rock that he knew they were in the house at all.
There were two of them, he tells me when I ring. Young lads, addict-thin and desperate, vicious and stupid. They knew just enough to wear gloves, but they left their footprints in his blood over the kitchen floor. They tied him up, took all the cash they could find, grabbed the bank cards and his wife’s jewellery, and threatened him with a knife when they couldn’t find how to get upstairs. He sighs. I had to tell them, it’s a bungalow, lads. When they left, he untied himself and called the Gardai. Then, as I did all those years ago, he spent his night in A&E.
I sit on my sofa with the mobile to my ear, and offer my sympathy, and ask him how he is. He tells me he’s shaken, and he’s sore, and he wants the boys to pay for what they did. He’s angry. Very angry. But on top of all that, he says, he’s sad. Because he knows those two boys are going nowhere fast. They’re at the bottom of just about every heap there is going, and if they don’t overdose, it’s only a matter of time till they get nicked and banged up, and once they’re in prison they’ll be meat for other men and the things they’ll have to do to score would make you weep. How, he asks me, how could you not be sad about that?
Life, he tells me, goes on. The cards have been cancelled, the locks have been changed, the kitchen floor mopped clean. The jewellery is gone, and it hurts to know how little the lads will have got for it, but what can you do? The Gardai have been great. The neighbours have rallied round. The bedding the lads pissed on before they left? That’s being replaced. He won’t give in to fear, he says, because if he does the boys have won. He’s not having that. But I know it’ll be a while before the memory of what happened fades, before he stops jumping at sudden noises, feeling anxious after dark.
The doctor in A&E who stitched my head back together all those years ago told me – in a quiet, matter-of-fact, you-should-probably-know-this tone – that if the brick had hit me one inch forward of where it did, it would like as not have killed me. I never got any mates together. If the kids ever got a kicking, well, it wasn’t from me. Instead, I had to come to terms with the fact I’d been attacked and been found powerless, that I was unable – for once – to maintain the illusion I was in control of my own destiny. I hated that. It was a bitter pill.
A few weeks later I saw some of the lads on the street and their gaze passed over me with no sign of recognition. The incident with my bike had already been forgotten, passed into a history no-one told or cared to know. So I watched them. And as I watched, I realised how fortunate I was not to be living their life, on a mean and cramped estate jammed between the university and streets of student homes. All around them they saw people their own age, blessed with advantage and education, passing through on their way to somewhere better. They were pressed up against the window of a world they couldn’t access, going nowhere very special, to a future they hadn’t asked for, where the jobs were dead-end and part-time. As I watched them, my need for revenge passed, and – over time – I found room for a little bit of sadness for them, too.
And I’ve a jagged scar in the hair above my right ear, something to remind me how lucky I am. A memory of those long-gone days in Leeds.