Tombstoning by Emily Bullock


Short fiction by Emily Bullock


Danny wasn’t just a drug addict. Danny was a vegan. Once he even made us take the bus into town on a hunt for condoms. The normal ones use lactose, he said. He loved animals, chatted about them all the time. There are a million ants in the world for every human; there’s a species of jellyfish that reverts back to childhood after becoming sexually mature, making itself immortal; some seagulls have learned to save energy by hovering over bridges to absorb rising heat from the tarmac.

I know all sorts of things because of Danny.

He didn’t just talk about animals, he used to draw these cartoon scrawls of tortured rabbits and beagles. I don’t mean they were bad, they were good, really good, but in a twisted, scratchy, mangled way. Every market day he’d drop off a load with the anti-vivisection lot outside Boots. There must have been about fifty drawings each week because the pile always made this slapping noise as it hit the plastic covered table. They never put one of Danny’s drawings on display.

All the art and the trips into town, that was before Danny got into the hard stuff. He’d been smoking weed since primary. We met in year three. Danny didn’t really have friends but him and me hung out at the bus station after school, and sometimes we’d meet up on the weekend. I can’t remember why. Danny was the sort adults crossed the street to avoid and kids only went near if they wanted to score. He had a smile that showed both rows of teeth, his bottom lip curled under. A smile to remember all the more because I only saw it once.

I hadn’t thought about Danny for years before I opened the post this morning. My mum often sends me cuttings from the County Press. Weddings and births: people I don’t remember and those I’ve tried to forget. There isn’t even a note with the cutting I’ve just unfolded. The paper’s thin like old skin, ragged at the edges where Mum must have given up on the scissors and ripped it from the other pages. A couple of printed paragraphs circled over and over with red Biro. I imagine Mum sitting at the coffee table, pressing hard enough to leave tracks in the wood. I bet those twenty lines are the most anyone’s ever written about Danny.

I know why Mum sent it.

Christmas just gone, on my yearly visit back home, she found a teenth of Thai Stick in my rucksack. I only took the ten-bag with me to take the edge off crossing that narrow stretch of the Solent. You might know the place, a little island off the south coast: clean beaches, green hills, award winning ice cream, and penny slot machines lined back to back. If you’ve been it was probably a daytrip, or a week with your school – outward bound, climbing ropes, and orienteering in the dark. But when the grockles, and festival hipsters go home, winter always sets in early. I don’t live there anymore, it’s for the best.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming Danny; he’s not the reason I left. I’ve barely thought of him over the years, although I’ve never forgotten that day on the bridge. The seagull. All the trouble Danny got in, which is saying something because he was used to trouble.

He came into school one time, screaming about how he was going to kill us all. Turned out someone had stuffed dog shit through his letterbox. All I said was, Hi, Danny. And he hit me, right on the nose. After I got up, and my head stopped vibrating, I remember being pleased. Danny didn’t see me as a girl, not like everyone else. You can still see the break, if you look closely, like a fissure in weathered tarmac.

Island roads are different – that’s what he did with the vegan condoms, filled them with piss, threw them from the top deck, aiming at those road signs all the way home.

He lived in a terrace, two-up-two-down, with his dad; proper old man, older than all the other dads. But that’s what a lifetime of Bell’s Whisky for breakfast does to you. That row of terraces is a Morrison’s car park now. The first time I went there was with my mum, helping her with a Christmas shop. I remember sitting in the car (about where his kitchen would have been) and wondering where Danny had ended up. Now I know.

Back then, when Danny wasn’t in that dump of a house, he used to hang out at the bus station off season and in summer he could be found on Coppin’s Bridge. There are better places to go for a dip when it’s hot but the beaches throb with holidaymakers laying on dumb blue and pink dolphin towels, drinking Nescafe from polystyrene cups. Us local kids stuck to the river.

Every summer I’d lose some flip flops to those gluey black mud banks. Sometimes at low tide you’d see an old pair sticking up like the wings of ditched model aeroplanes. We all wore the same uniform of baggy jeans, hooded tops and flip flops. Not Danny, he wore his school clothes: blue trousers and grey shirt, the tie gone – because it was the holidays after all – and clunky soled shoes. He never wore socks, claimed he liked his feet to be free. It wasn’t until years later that Danny started shooting heroin into the soft flaps of skin between his toes.

I won’t tell you where Danny got the heroin from – it’s a small island, you probably already know. We all knew, even back then. Just like we knew Danny could score weed from his older cousin.

Danny turned up at my place once with his hair shorn right off. He asked my mum if she could tidy it up; she was a hairdresser not a miracle worker. He left with a belly full of McCain’s oven chips and a little pot of Vaseline to rub into the nicks. He told me later his cousin did it when he found out Danny had been selling-on his weed – it was just for family, the cousin said. It was one of those families you find rooted in the cracks of small places, who don’t find it small enough, keeping themselves clenched together. Danny was the only kid in our class who’d never been on a ferry to the mainland. I sort of wish I’d given him the money for a day return now, but what difference would that have made?

The day of all the trouble started bright enough. We must have been about fourteen. Danny and me stood on Coppin’s Bridge, not where the roundabout is but farther up where the tarmac arches over the river. There’s a point in the middle of the bridge where the Medina runs dark. We leaned over the railings, like looking into the mouth of… of something deep. Barges had long since stopped delivering to the quay, and it was too far away from Cowes and its deck shoe, Helley Hansen, wearing yacht types to have any boats passing under. But still we had to time it just right; a bit of mud bank could be showing but not the mooring rings. Danny nodded at me. It was going to be now.

No one else was jumping. Cars and caravans drove past in a shimmering kaleidoscope of fumes. The midday sun sizzling up shadows. Danny trod on the heels of his shoes, kicking them aside. I slipped off my flip flops. The tarmac was sticky and hot. We climbed onto the top railing, thick enough to balance on; a squared imprint burning into the soles of our feet. The temptation was to spread your arms like wings. I stuffed my hands in my pockets, locked my knees, held my balance. Danny kept his fists clenched to his sides.

Jump – that’s all you had to do. But it took some kids days to build up to it. Not Danny, he went in first time, every time. I followed.

Stepping into nothing.

For a second it all fell away. Floating; seagulls spinning past. But it couldn’t last. No time to stand straight. A cold blast of air whispering up from the river like a hissed warning.

We hit the water: a thud like the iron railing whacking against our feet.

Sinking. All breath thrust upwards: bubbles whirling towards the surface. Trousers sucked against hips, t-shirt trying to escape over arms. Dragged deeper by the cold current. Struggling under the weight of ourselves.

Danny was much heavier than me but he burst to the surface first. His white soles a ghostly glow above me. I forced my way up, gasping.

Floating on my back, staring into the sky. A bang rang out, scattering the seagulls. Something splashed into the river. I swam to the side. Danny was already out, a puddle evaporating about his feet. He leaned against the quayside railing, the shadow from the bridge touching him. I climbed the steps behind him.

Danny’s cousin and two mates stood beside their dirt bikes. Revving to drown out the sound of another day dripping away. Dust and grit swirled about their ankles. Deep tracks scored into the embankment where they’d driven the bikes down from the bridge. The cousin rested an air rifle on his hip like a cowboy. The mates juggled a chunky black shoe and a pair of flip flops.

The cousin said, ‘These yours?’ He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘Throw,’ he shouted as he bumped the rifle into his shoulder, aiming up.

The mate with the red baseball cap threw Danny’s shoe into the air. The seagulls dipped and trembled then jerked up, as if attached to invisible strings, high into the sky. Three shots, but the cousin never came close. The shoe splashed into the river. He tried again with my flip flops but didn’t hit them either.

The other mate, the one with the bleached hair said, ‘What we going to shoot now?’

The cousin rubbed at a spot on the barrel. ‘Could see which one of them makes it to the bridge first. Danny or his little – you a boy or a girl?’

I crossed my arms over my damp chest. The mate with the red cap picked up a stone, threw it at Danny; it hit his leg. ‘Hey, kid.’

Danny didn’t answer. He stared up, trance-like, at the gulls. I’m sure he never achieved such a trance state again until he took a hit of his first speedball. He swept a hand over his stubbly head, splattering water. I wanted to go home, burning up in my own skin standing there on the tarmac. But that’s when Danny said it,

‘If I hit a gull you’ve got to give me the gun.’

His cousin laughed. The mates egged him on. It was just like any number of other days in any other number of seaside places, where something to do was better than the lifetime of nothing squeezing the breath from your lungs. The deal was done. The air rifle handed over.

Danny raised the gun, aiming at the back of the flock. A black headed gull tipped its wings from side to side, going nowhere.

A crack echoed under the bridge, but they’d only been one shot. The bird plummeted. Thwack, it hit the dirt in front of the bikes. I don’t think anyone thought Danny would make the shot. The gull lay still, wings spread, body bloodied. A breeze lifted the broken flight feathers on its tail.

His cousin took a step towards the carcass, the bike leaned in too. The mates peered at the seagull dead on the ground. The one in the baseball cap slid it back from his forehead; the other one rubbed his chin.

Danny stood tall as his cousin came towards him holding out his arm. But he didn’t shake, he pulled back, punched Danny in the gut, catching the rifle as Danny reeled back.

Danny clutched his sides, panting. ‘You said you’d give it me.’

His cousin laughed. ‘You’re not getting nothing.’

Danny wiped his hand over his mouth, smearing a streak of red; he must have bitten his lip when he doubled over. He spat more blood onto the sweating tarmac, some hit the white feathers. Danny bent down, reaching for the lifeless gull; gripping it in his hand.

The bird seemed to fly once more before it hit the cousin’s face: rolling down his t-shirt, landing on his trainers. He flicked and kicked the carcass into the water. Danny took his chance, snatched the rifle back, embraced it. His cousin punched him in the chest, but Danny held on. The cousin kicked at his shins, but Danny didn’t go down. He held on tight.

The baseball cap one said, ‘Let the kid have it.’

‘Deals a deal,’ the bleached one said.

‘Piece of shit doesn’t shoot straight anyway,’ the cousin said, stepping away.

Danny raised the barrel above his head. And he smiled with all his teeth on display.

Well, someone driving over the bridge must have seen the rifle and called 999. The gun got confiscated. The RSPCA prosecuted. I’m not saying that was wrong, but Danny didn’t need court and cell time. There was a fine too; I don’t suppose it ever got paid.

They sent Danny to special school after he got out of young offenders.

That day on the bridge wasn’t the last time I saw Danny, but it is the last time I remembered until those paragraphs in the County Press. I rub my finger over the lines. The cheap ink smudges, but it doesn’t change what’s written there.

They found him in a bedsit, at the back of the bus station, above the model shop. Apparently, for a day or two, there was some excitement that he might have been done in (there aren’t many murders on that small island) but it turned out to be an overdose. The article said Danny was a drug addict. My mum underlined it, three times.

There is a funeral, I won’t go. I don’t suppose many will.

But that day on the bridge, Danny looked happy even as he spat blood at our feet. He beat us all, you see. That day on the bridge, Danny smiled.





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