The ice moaned as Michael inched across the canal surface towards his red, woolen glove lying motionless in the fading light.
The further he went out, the further away it seemed to get.
“Just tell them you lost it”, called Neil, watching on from the bank,
“It’s only a glove”.
Michael stopped to assess his options as another voice called out to him,
“You need to come off there, mate”.
He turned to see Neil had been joined by a hooded figure reaching out from the water’s edge,
“Slowly, my mate. Nice and slow”.
His huge gritted hand pulled him to dry land.
“I need to get my glove”, said Michael, “he threw it there”.
Neil had warned him about this before.
After that time he’d walked home in tears wearing wet swimming trunks because his jeans had been stolen from the cubicle.
“What’ve I told you about grassing, you little prick”.
The man snatched Neil’s earlobe with his finger and thumb, guiding his lanky frame to the edge of the canal.
“Let’s see if the ice takes your weight as well as his, shall we."
Dirt was ploughed into his forehead with spikey teeth poking under a moustache, like railings from the schoolyard.
Michael secretly wiped his hand across the back of his leg,
“I think we can let him go”, he said.
Neil pulled his hood over his face before bolting away down the canal path,
over the bridge towards the concrete panels lining the ginnel through to their avenue.
“He’s sorry,” said Michael, “I know he is”.
“I can get it for you”, said the man,
“Tell me where you live, and I’ll fetch it round”.
Michael stared at his shoes.
Black slip-ons filled with bare feet, streaked with canal mud.
“It’s ok”, he said, “I’ll just say I’ve lost it”.
Michael pulled up his hood and scurried away down the ginnel, re-tracing Neil’s footsteps all the way to the corner shop opposite his house where his grandma was sliding the bolts closed on the front door.
Neil was crouched, panting against the postbox outside.
“Are you gonna tell your dad?” said Michael.
“No – and don’t you be doing either”.
The Krypton Factor fell into that select group of grown-up TV programs Michael was allowed to watch, along with Tomorrow’s World and Return Of The Saint.
His favorite part was the observation round, where a clip would be played from a film, and contestants had to pick out the incidental character from a lineup of eight imposters.
It’d be a waiter serving Robert Powell on a train or the window cleaner passing by Sussanah York’s bedroom window, and the real actor would always try to disguise himself in the line-up to trick the viewers and the contestants alike.
He slid the living room doors together to drown out the sound of his dad from the kitchen getting ready to leave for his night shift.
The sweet smell of Benson and Hedges crept through the gap in the doors along with snippets of kitchen conversation.
“We both know why they came, Christine”, said Michael’s dad,
“They’re doing the house-to-house thing but can’t say why.
Not until the family knows”.
This sounded like one of those grown-up talks he wasn’t supposed to hear, usually those from the top of the stairs when he should’ve been in bed.
That’s how he found out Janine had another dad somewhere.
One who she never wanted to see again, even though he kept phoning up asking for her.
Maybe he had another one too, just like his sister had.
“That's the third one”, said Christine,
“It makes me feel sick. How they could just let him out like that”,
Michael turned the TV volume down and crept to the kitchen placing his ear against the closed concertina door.
“He’ll still be about somewhere.
They say his own brother’s got empty milk bottles laid out round all the windows in his house.
We need to make sure Janine stays in tonight", said Michael's dad.
Michael thought of Simon Templar piecing together clues from a bugged conversation.
The bedroom door always had to be slightly open.
Just enough so a single yellow wedge from the landing shone through the gap.
‘You’re the man of the house now’ his dad would always say when he left for work, but not tonight.
Michael stared at the bedroom ceiling.
It was hard not being a grass when everyone told you to be one.
The gap of three school years between him and Neil had grown wider with each passing half term.
Worse since his best friend had gone to the school where they wore blazers and had to catch the bus to get there.
Michael lay in the darkness trying to fathom why anyone would put milk bottles around their windows.
He didn’t notice the landing light going out.
No sound from the TV as silence whistled through his ears.
He crept onto the landing, before slipping an eye into his mum and dad’s room to find the bed was untouched in the dark.
She’d never leave him on his own.
Auntie Jean used to do that with their Nicola and was often debated in Gran’s shop.
Janine’s bed was empty too.
He flicked the switch before realising the landing light must’ve been turned off downstairs.
Mum and Janine must’ve gone over to his gran’s without telling him.
He peered through the gap in the curtains of his mum and dad’s room, waiting for the sight of his mum to appear crossing for home any second.
The street lights struggled to hit the pavement like dying orange candles.
A single light flashed through the blackness of the shop window like a fly bouncing against the glass.
Michael watched it dance around the back walls where the jars of American cream soda and Kola Kubes were stacked.
He waited for the shop door to open.
There was the door lock, then the bolts, and that big key she kept under the meat slicer.
Gran must’ve moved it again, rotating the location in case word ever got round where it was.
A crack hit his ears as the shop window burst open, spewing orange-tinted glass into the night.
Amongst the wreckage, a figure lay face down on the pavement.
It definitely looked dead.
“Mum!” he screamed.
The figure moved.
Pulled its legs into its chest before slowly rising from the bed of razors, standing defiant in the debris.
Michael felt the blood flow back to his fingers on realising it was a man.
He frantically tried to compute a description.
One glance was all he needed and it’d be as good as any photograph.
Balding, late thirties maybe.
The figure re-cloaked his hood, leaving a fading clack as he pounded the pavement and disappeared into the night.
It could have been a moustache, he thought.
His front door banged open as his Mum ran across towards the shop window and figure now inspecting the damage.
“Brian!” she yelled.
The lights came on revealing the ginger hair of Michael’s dad, peering out from where the word ‘Hovis’ used to be painted.
Micahel heard Janine spinning the phone dial.
“Police”, she pleaded,
“You have to come now”.
Michael leaned over the banister to hear the voices from the front room.
Two of the police were wearing suits and there were ones in uniform parked outside the shop in two cars and a van.
His dad smiled as he climbed the stairs.
His left hand was wrapped in a bandage held together with a giant safety pin.
“I saw it, Dad”.
His dad rotated his injured hand and then extended it to let Michael touch the fresh wound on his knuckle.
“They’ll get him, son. They won’t let him go this time”.
“Why are you not at work?”
“Mum thought it best, I have a night off”.
He placed his bandaged hand on Michael’s shoulder, and held up a clear plastic bag containing a red woolen glove,
“Is this the one you lost?”
Michael’s heart thumped against his pyjama top as he scanned the contents,
“I must’ve dropped it”, he said.
“Ok my mate.
The Policeman found it inside the shop and wanted to know whose it was”.
Michael waited for the sound of the living room door to close, then crept downstairs.
He reached out to the front doorstep and then returned to his bedroom, before making sure his door was fully closed.
He opened the curtains, carefully placing each of the empty milk bottles he’d smuggled upstairs in a neat row along his window ledge, flush against the glass before forcing his eyes closed in the darkness.