He shouldn’t have been there. He knew that. It was a long time, many years, since he had been in the middle of town in the middle of the night. He looked at his watch. Way past the middle of the night, he corrected himself.
Down the centre of the road ran a long line of lamp standards, two brilliant lights to each pole, running away like lights at an airfield, getting smaller and narrower with distance. On either side of the dual carriageway, shop lights glared out. If you didn’t look up into the darkness above, it could almost be mid day.
There were small groups of people everywhere, lots of shouting and loud laughter, shrieking, really. He was unfamiliar with the way things were at this time of the night. Had the pubs just closed? Had the clubs just thrown their patrons into the streets?
In his day, it had been at ten-thirty. Sure, there were always a few people drunk and misbehaving, but not, he remembered, like this. He’d better get his money and get home out of it. It was going to be a long enough day tomorrow. He’d better get some sleep first.
He looked about sixty or so, not very tall and very overweight. He was wearing white joggers and an old track suit. Thick glasses made his face owl-like. His hair was cut short, making him look a little like Adolf Hitler, but without the moustache, and with heavy jowls.
A little way along was the ATM he was heading for. There was a small crowd of people there, forming a ragged queue across the pavement. They all looked to him to be very young, especially the girls. Some of them were drinking from bottles, and most of them seemed to be smoking. They were pushing and shoving each other, some of them laughing, some of them complaining. The girls, he was alarmed to see, were hardly dressed, tottering on heels so high that he couldn’t see why they didn’t stagger and fall. Blouses, mostly almost see-through, skirts or shorts so tiny they concealed hardly anything. Exaggerated make-up, false eyelashes curling grotesquely, lipstick in garish colours, mostly a little smeared.
He kept his eyes away from them as much as he could. He knew better than to ask for trouble.
The boys, though, were no better. Trousers so low they exposed their buttocks, tattoos and piercings through ears and eyebrow, noses and lips.
The queue moved very slowly. There were two machines side by side outside the bank, but it seemed that those at the front of the queue were mis-keying the codes and the instructions, perhaps because they were drunk, perhaps because their friends were distracting them with un-funny jokes and pushes and shoves, so that they had to start over again.
Another pair joined the queue behind him, two boys. He felt uneasy now, as though he was being surrounded by a slightly threatening alien tribe. He looked down at his feet, and thought of Helen waiting for him in the car, his sister-in-law suddenly sick a day’s drive away, and the need to get some money before leaving to be with her. It had seemed safer to leave the car, with Helen in it by herself, in the shadows of a side-street, but now he wasn’t so sure. He had twenty dollars in his wallet: that wouldn’t have got him far; he didn’t have much choice.
The queue moved forward again, and the two boys behind shuffled forward. They were both drinking from a bottle, passing it from one to the other. He realised that it wasn’t just beer, but spirits of some sort. The bottle was half empty. One of the boys staggered and bumped into his back. ‘What the fuck you doing, man?’ the boy shouted at him.
He turned and looked at the boy, who was nearly thirty centimetres taller than him, forcing him to look up steeply. ‘I do beg your pardon,’ he said, and turned away. This wasn’t the time to stand up for his rights.
‘Oh,’ echoed the boy in a loud falsetto, ‘I dooo beg your pardon.’
He turned and looked at the boy again, but he kept his eyes down, and his mouth shut.
‘What’s up, Clarrie?’ a voice came from the front of the queue.
‘This old fart’s just throwing his weight around,’ the boy Clarrie called out, and it seemed as though the whole crowd turned to inspect him, laughing. This was getting out of hand, he thought, and turned away. Better to find an ATM somewhere quiet, perhaps out in the suburbs somewhere. He hadn’t imagined it would be like this.
But Clarrie’s partner stepped in front of him as he tried to leave the queue. ‘Where d’you think you’re going, Grandpa?’ He was at least as tall as Clarrie, as they all seemed to be.
‘Leave him alone,’ a girl called out.
‘Fuck off, he just pushed Clarrie out of the line. Bloody old bully.’
The crowd laughed. The girl thought she had said enough, and took another sip from her bottle.
He didn’t answer, just kept his head down and tried to move to one side; the two boys obviously thought this was great fun, and jumped in front of him. ‘Look,’ Clarrie cried, obviously pleased with the attention he was getting, ‘he’s trying to push me over.’ Clarrie pushed him hard on the shoulder, and staggering backwards, he tripped over someone’s feet and sprawled to the ground.
‘Did you see him attack me?’ Clarrie shouted. ‘Didya see that? Christ, some people!’
Someone in the crowd moved to help him up from the ground. He was genuinely frightened by then, shaking. A girl dusted him down. ‘You okay?’
He nodded, then turned away and went to walk away, with the majority of the crowd, it seemed, jeering at him. Fear turned to anger.
Clarrie’s friend, perhaps afraid their quarry was escaping, ran after him and kicked him in the base of the spine, sending him sprawling, face down this time, onto the pavement. The pain was intense, but his anger blossomed and he turned, snarling. ‘You little shit,’ he blurted, and ran towards the boy.
The boy upended the bottle he was holding, spirit pouring from it, and held it like a club, advancing on him. He stood his ground. The boy smashed the bottle downwards, aiming for his head.
It must have been at least forty years before, but without any conscious thought his army training took over. He didn’t even have time to remember his trainer’s words: ‘Maximum force.’ His arms, crossed over his head, blocked the boy’s attack. Swivelling, he held the boy’s wrist and twisted it behind him, forcing him close to the ground. The boy screamed ‘My arm, he’s breaking it.'
Holding him there at full stretch, he kicked the boy as hard as he could at the base of his ribs, wishing he was wearing heavy boots instead of soft joggers. The screaming stopped, replaced by a whoosh of air, then a broken sobbing.
He stood, looking at his attacker in some surprise. He could hardly believe that he had been capable of that. And without breathing heavily, too. The crowd were silent, obviously taken aback.
‘You bastard,’ cried Clarrie, and he ran towards him. Two paces, and he aimed a kick at the fat man’s groin. Again without thinking he lifted his foot and caught the kick in mid-air. If he had been wearing heavy boots, he knew his attacker’s shin might have been broken; but it wouldn’t end there. He bent and scooped the leg from the ground with both hands, twisting it as it rose. Clarrie fell face down, and the fat man, still holding the leg high, kicked him as hard as he could in the groin. Clarrie screamed and curled into a tight ball, writhing in agony on the ground. The fat man let his leg fall to the pavement. The crowd was stunned.
He blinked and adjusted his glasses. No-one was using the ATM, and he moved towards it. The crowd parted letting him through. He took his card from his wallet and inserted it, punching in the PIN and his request for cash. The machine whirred. The crowd whispered as though in awe, and stood back respectfully as he moved away, stuffing the notes into his wallet. The two boys were still writhing on the ground.
He stopped and considered them, then looked at the crowd. ‘Can someone call an ambulance?’