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Top of the Sixties
Sample PassageIt was a dreamy summer’s day. One of those days when anything could happen. It was a day on which older people sat dozing, dogs lay sprawled in doorways and the only sound was the murmuring of flies. The air was as heavy as syrup. It smelt of dry grass, lawn cuttings and rose bushes. The heat shimmered over the rooftops of Redhouse council estate. The streets were quiet. There was no traffic. No one seemed to want to go anywhere.
But if you listened very carefully, you could hear voices coming from the side entrance of one of the redbrick semis. The voices were shrill and excited and there was a rattling of bicycles being moved from their resting place against the shady wall. Those were boys’ voices, boys who wanted to be on the move, who wanted to feel the warm air blowing in their faces and through their clothes. The boys had grown impatient as, one by one, the grown-ups had dozed off, their heads on one side, a newspaper in their lap, the football commentator muttering softly as Sportsview with Peter Dimmock heated the little television sets.
They pushed their bikes to the wrought-iron garden gate and heard it clatter shut on its spring as they swung their legs over the saddles and pushed down on the pedals. The little gardens swished by. The boys did not speak, but now and then the one at the front would look round and smile. On the main Walsall Road it was strictly single file and all the tomfoolery had to stop. The boys felt the hot draught from passing buses, motorbikes with sidecars and lorries whining in low gear, struggling with sacks of coal.
Col watched his friend Graham’s legs pumping up and down like pistons, his short trousers flapping, one sock up and one sock down. Col was jealous of his friend’s bike with its many cogs and gears and its fancy drinking bottle on the handlebars. But he liked Graham, whose dad was a charge hand and therefore quite posh. Col’s dad was a drayman who rolled barrels about. He had big muscles but quite a small pay packet. Graham’s dad wore a cow gown over a shirt and tie. Col’s dad wore a vest and a flat cap.
After they had turned right off the main road and were heading towards Rushall, Graham saw Col take a packet of cigarettes from his trouser pocket and expertly tap one, filter first, into his mouth. Then, riding with no hands, he cupped his hands to his mouth and lit up. Graham caught a whiff of Park Drive. He wondered whether Col had forgotten him but didn’t care too much. He didn’t like smoking. He liked Colin because he knew about things, he was wise beyond his years and had the kind of canny smile which made him look much older. He sometimes patted Graham on the shoulder and called him ‘old son’. He wasn’t sure why Colin liked him, though. Colin was a popular boy and could go on a bike ride with lots of other people. Not that Graham was a loner, in fact people liked him, but for a different reason. Graham was a sensitive boy who read a lot and watched Robinson Crusoe on television. He was far less rugged than Colin but he had a growing lanky grace about him. Colin was destined to be a thickset man in later years but for the time being, at eleven years of age, he just seemed a tough guy to Graham.
They both cycled as close to the verge as they could, so as to let the grass stroke their calves and knees as they rode. Col would actually cycle onto the grass and stick his knees out in a bow-legged kind of way to make Graham laugh. Graham rode up alongside him, because the road was deserted, and roared with laughter to see him pull a face like a chimp with the cigarette pointing upwards towards his nostrils.
When they stopped, it was as if an unseen signal had been given, it just happened. Colin jumped off his bike and dropped it flat in the grass, announcing that he needed what he called ‘a slash’. Graham assumed he would walk off to a private place to be hidden from view but no, Colin simply turned his back and asked Graham, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Fascinated, Graham watched the pale amber stream spring forth from Colin and patter into the grass, causing a cloud of midges to rise into the sunlight.
‘Don’t know. I think I’d like to be a spaceman. I’d like to go to Mars.’ Graham half-hoped Col would turn before he tucked himself in, just out of curiosity, but he didn’t.
‘My dad wants me to be a drayman like him. He says it’s steady work.’
They remounted and rode on without a word, until Linley Wood appeared ahead on their right. When they reached the wood, they dismounted and walked with their bikes into the green twilight. It was like a cathedral with a tall, green vault that filtered the sunlight and let it fall in a sparkling mosaic on the cracked clay floor. They trod softly and spoke in a whisper, looking around them in awe. It was cool and silent. The woodland path was well worn and ran up and downhill, past huge fallen trunks, thickets of holly and tall tangles of briar.
‘There’s a field ahead where we can rest,’ whispered Col, although neither of them felt weary. Sometimes resting seems to children to be something they ought to do, because it’s what adults do. Resting can seem quite grown up.
They emerged into sunlight, propped their bikes against a giant oak, took a run to leap across a narrow ditch and stepped into a cornfield with golden ears taller than their own. The idea that they were invisible filled them with delight, as they ran through the corn with their arms outstretched, the tall dry stalks bobbing into their faces. After a few minutes Col fell flat on his back on the ground and stretched out his arms and legs like a starfish. The smell of damp straw rose all around them. Graham sank to his knees and looked at his friend. Col clasped his hands behind his head, screwed up his face with concentration and asked, ‘What does a spaceman do?’
‘I don’t know, goes into space and visits planets.’
‘Sounds bloody boring to me,’ laughed Col, breaking off a stalk which he used to poke Graham in the throat. Graham leaned forward and pinned his friend down by the shoulders but his arms gave way and he fell on top of him. They looked at each other, as the laughing stopped quite abruptly. They stayed in that position for several seconds, motionless.
Then Graham pulled away and sat up beside his friend. Without looking at him, he asked, ‘Have you ever had a girlfriend, Col?’
Col frowned, as if the question was a really difficult one: ‘Not really. Never had the time. When you have a bike, you just don’t have time for girls. Have you had one?’
‘No, I never really thought much about it.’
‘But you thought about it just now. Why was that?’
The conversation stalled, as they looked at each other, wondering what came next. Even time seemed to hold its breath. Graham was quite surprised at some of the things going through his head.
‘Do you want to go yet?’ asked Col.
Long into the golden afternoon they sat, as the world rolled slowly into dusk. Graham had taken his shirt off and had spread it under him. When at length he stood up on tiptoe, trying to see above the ocean of corn, Col watched him appraisingly. He took in the square, knobbly shoulders and straight, white back. He realised he was lost for words, so he said nothing. When Graham sat down again, Col patted him on the shoulder and then withdrew his hand as if burnt, finding his friend’s skin was surprisingly warm, although the afternoon had grown cooler.
‘Do you want to go back now, old son?’ asked Col, watching Graham, now on his feet again, struggling with his shirt. He realised his voice had caught slightly and he cleared his throat softly.
‘I think we should,’ Graham smiled down at his friend, with the odd realisation that he was somehow in control at this moment. Was it just because he was standing and Col was still sitting? No, it was something else, something he was quite unable to put into thoughts, let alone words. He held out his hand and Colin took it. Graham pulled him up to his feet. They stood and faced each other, their faces lit by the low sun, the endless corn stretching away in every direction.
They cycled home in silence, their strange, long shadows running ahead of them. No word was exchanged but now and then they would ride side by side and smile at each other, both aware that a bridge had been crossed and that they had taken several steps on their passage to the future and into the awareness of manhood.
Did you like this story? Well, buy Top of the Sixties to read all fourteem stories.
Number of pages: 165
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What was said about Top of the Sixties‘Ayres's portrayals of the inhabitants of this Midlands backwater are often touching and sympathetic ... his dialogue is excellent’ - The Short Review
‘From beginning to end, David Ayres shows his remarkable talent for description. His openings evoke strong imagery, while his characters are full of life.’ - Zouch Magazine
The book brought back those school days and the teenage angst about how to look cool, part time jobs, full time jobs, dating and the minefield that went with it. Thanks for a great read and for bringing those memories back to life.’ - editor FuerteNews
‘Much of what Ayres has to say about youthful exuberance, teenage angst and finding ones place in the world are universal.’
‘I thought of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as I read of a boy surveying his room in ‘Out of the Box’.’ - Karenlee Thompson on her blog
‘I really enjoyed the stories – very atmospheric.’ - Catherine Best, editor
‘Top of the Sixties is an interestingly constructed book and an easy read’
‘I did chuckle remembering the whole-life experience of getting a ‘Short back and sides’ in a local men-only barber’s shop, I could almost smell the Brylcreem!’ - David Elliot reviewing for Red Cap