It was an overcast and dull Saturday afternoon when I was attacked. I was twelve years old at the time and despite the threat of rain, we took to the streets as my friends usually did at the weekends. The neighbourhood always seemed safe and, looking back, it was a wonderful place to grow up; living in the vibrant shadow of the city centre (only a 15 minute train journey away) while the parks and quiet streets of our suburb, on the outskirts of that urban madness, provided plenty of places to explore.
That day, it was my two friends Andy and Stewart who had knocked on my door, asking if I wanted to head out for a while on our bikes. Both lived in the same street as me and for that reason we had been as thick as thieves since we were toddlers. We took to the pavements at first in plain sight of our parents, before turning a corner and showing off to one another on the roads, pulling wheelies and unimpressive bunny hops as most kids that age often do - I say most kids, I was pretty timid at the time, and while I loved hanging out with my friends, I never had the same sense of abandonment or recklessness which they thrived on. They would quite happily bomb down the highest, steepest hills we knew of without a care in the world while I would stutter behind, scuffing my feet on the ground to slow my own descent.
After buying some sweets, chocolate, and a packet of trading cards complete with cheap and brittle bubble gum from Jackie’s shop, we intended to head to King’s Drift; one of our favourite places to ride about on our bikes. But just as we exited the shop, Stewart noticed someone from his class. His name was Ricky, and he had moved to our school the year previous. We didn’t know him all that well, but we had hung out with him once or twice before. Stewart walked over and struck up a conversation with him for a few minutes before coming back over and picking up his bike. We turned to leave but, there was something that bothered me about that boy Ricky. He seemed, lost somehow. Stewart said that he was waiting on his mum coming out of a shop, but I could see that look in his eyes, something which I’m sure I had worn many times before myself. It simply said: “I want to hang around with you guys”. We all got on our bikes and, just as we left I shouted over to him.
“Ricky, do you know King’s Drift?”
“Yeah, I do.” He replied.
“We’ll be up there for the next few hours. Why don’t you get your bike and come meet us after you’ve helped your mum?”
Ricky seemed pleased to be asked and while he wasn’t certain how long he would be, he did say that he’d try and meet up with us at some point.
We said goodbye carrying our provisions from the shop in stuffed pockets and cycled off towards our destination. King’s Drift was where we were heading, and I couldn’t wait to get there. It was perfect. The street was long and straight, the road surface was uncommonly smooth, and it ended in a small circular cul-de-sac which resulted in little traffic if any to speak of. We could ride up and down all day without being disturbed, except on the few occasions that one of the grown-ups who lived there would get tired of us hanging around or sneaking into their gardens, playing tig or one man hunt.
But for the most part, that long secluded street was a fantastic place to get away from rules and complaining adults, yet only ten minutes away from our homes. We weren’t a gang or anything close to it, but that place was ours and while many of the other kids in the neighbourhood hung around a park or at the shops, we quite happily clung on to that perfect stretch of quiet tarmac which no one could take away from us.
Tearing up and down the road, cycling as fast as we could, Andy enjoyed showing off, pedalling quickly while putting both hands behind his head as if relaxing on a sun lounger. Stewart was no slouch himself and would dart about off kerbs and back on again, occasionally mimicking a character from an Australian soap opera that we often laughed at. The clouds knitted together tightly above, brooding menacingly, but the afternoon was not over yet as we continued to play and enjoy our patch.
After receiving an earful from one woman who just hated us sitting on her garden wall - especially when my other friend Stewart pushed Andy over it into her garden as a joke during her red-faced, ranting rage -, we finally traipsed along the street with our bikes by our side, cursing the woman under our breaths. A loud crash bellowed from the clouds above, and the hazed smell of ozone climbed up through the air. When I was a kid thunder storms always held a real fascination for me, and to this day they still do, but no matter how much I understand why it happens, when the sky opens up and a torrid torrential downpour threatens to drown all around, it still seems surreal to me, almost unearthly.
The rain streamed down in thick sheets and within a minute a thin layer of water began to flow along the street into the drains on either side. The complaining woman ran in doors quickly, her anger at us soon replaced by a desire to avoid being drenched. The noise of millions of rain drops smashing on the parked cars and concrete below became deafening as we were instantly soaked to the bone. It was clear that the day was over, and while Andy seemed keen to stay and pull a variety of skidding stunts in the water, Stewart just laughed, challenging us both to a race home. Off he sped at a rate I could never hope to equal, the water spraying out from under his wheels. Andy followed instantly, damned sure that he wouldn’t be beaten.
The crescendo of thumping water was now deafening and as both my friends pulled away into the distance, I clumsily climbed aboard my bike and pedalled as fast as I could. With each panting breath the rain fell harder until it streamed at such a rate down my face that I could barely see ahead. I shivered in the increasing cold and as I continued on I could no longer tell if my friends were near or far.
I cannot explain the feeling I had at that moment, perhaps it is hindsight which has bound it to the memory, but there in that horrid downpour, I felt isolated. Everyone with any sense would have ran for cover and locked themselves away happily inside their houses; and at the speed my friends had darted away at, I was sure by now they must have left the street, or have reached its end at least. An intense feeling of fear drove me on, because for me King’s Drift may have appeared remote, isolated in the blinding rain, but it did not feel empty.
In my panic my wild pedalling shook the bike from side to side, and just as I lifted one hand from the handlebars to wipe the rain from my eyes, something walked out from between two parked cars right in front of me. I swerved, squeezed the breaks, and as the bike screeched to a halt I was thrown forward, tumbling onto the ground, smashing my face and jaw on to the road surface in the process.
The rain poured in to my mouth carrying with it the metallic taste of my own blood. I let out a cry as I reached up with my tongue to feel nothing but exposed gum and broken shards of teeth that were surely sprayed across the ground. My injuries left me confused and disorientated, but as I screamed for my friends, it became clear that no one could hear me over the immense roar of the rain.
Then, the sky darkened, and that strange alarming sensation that I was not alone, proved correct. Someone was standing over me. A combination of tears, blood, and rain stung my eyes and while I couldn’t make out his face, I could tell it was a man. He was broad and stocky wearing denims and a dark brown coat, and while he wasn’t exceptionally tall his rain battered frame gave the impression of immense strength.
Despite the pain, despite the shock at losing teeth and cracking my head open, every fibre of my being told me to run, to get away. But I couldn’t. With the first movement of my leg, the man pressed his foot down on top of my knee with such force that bursts of excruciating pain shot up through my body; my screams of both agony and terror drowned out by the still-falling torrential rain. Why was he doing this to me? A grown man? He leaned over and grabbed my bleeding head by the hair, yanking forcefully upwards. No one can know the feeling of an adult exerting their full strength upon a child, unless you have been through it. The fear, the utter helplessness, the feeling of resentment and betrayal at a person who should protect but instead harms and hurts. No matter how much I struggled, no matter how much I flailed, my puny twelve year old body could provide no amount of strength to free me from his foul, overpowering grip.
But a bike thrown as hard as possible by two dear friends square at his face was more than enough to make him stumble backwards, causing him to slip in the rain and batter his back and body against the solid street surface. As the man staggered to his feet once more, Andy and Stewart grabbed me by the arms and forced me to run as fast as I have ever done.
We dared not look back for fear of our pursuer being close, we panted and heaved, and as the adrenaline surged through my veins, I forgot my injuries for a moment, and fled as quickly as any child ever has. As we reached the end of King’s Drift, Andy and Stewart ran round the corner without looking back. But not me. For curiosity has always been my sin, and perhaps my punishment. The rain calmed at that moment, easing off to nothing but the most subtle of droplets, and as I squinted through blood and tears, I saw at the end of the road the brutal figure of the man who had attacked me, disappearing forever out of sight, with the bloodied motionless body of poor Ricky over his shoulder.