By Kate Larkindale
He was royalty. Exiled maybe, but royalty nonetheless. His kingdom: the stretch of High Street between Lombard and Grainge. Here he could stride proudly in his worn leather jacket emblazoned with words that made many in the neighbourhood recoil in horror. His jeans were worn, almost threadbare in places and fit him almost too well. Young girls giggled and flushed as he passed, but could not look away. His name could be found scrawled on notebooks and inside shakily drawn hearts on the walls of the high school girls’ bathroom. Best friends had come to blows over an imagined wink as he passed and a cool, blue-eyed glance was enough to keep a girl at the top of the lunch table for a week.
The younger boys hanging outside the video store watched him go by. Slouching against the wall they talked more loudly, swearing and spitting as they smoked their stolen cigarettes and tried to catch his eye. Once in a while he would select one of these kids to run an errand for him and this would subtly shift the centre of power within the ranks. They all hoped to one day be in his gang; would follow him to the death if necessary. Older ladies clutched their purses tight to their chest as he passed. Mothers dragged their daughters to the far side of the street as he approached. These were the same daughters who sighed his name as they went to sleep at night and secretly scribbled his name with their own on hastily crumpled slips of paper.
He seemed all confidence, his proud swagger down High Street reflecting his belief in his ownership of this stretch of the city. But it had been a long battle and it showed. The piercing blue eyes were shadowed and suspicious. This was a man who trusted no one and allowed nobody to get close to him. Like ancient emperors he expected assassination to come from any direction. Even his gang, the chosen few, were kept at arms length. The tests he set for anyone foolhardy enough to want to be in his gang were gruelling and often dangerous. You could not be frivolous about your desire to be in his royal posse; many had tried and failed. Others wore scars proudly, their badges of honour, their medals, their decorations for services rendered.
So who was this local deity? Underneath the shabby leather jacket that labelled him leader he was nothing, a tall, skinny kid with greasy, too-long hair. He could not honestly be called handsome. His features were too large for that. Eyes too big and a little too close together, nose just slightly too pointed, his mouth overly generous. His shoulders were broad but the arms that hung from them were long and thin. His strength took enemies by surprise. He looked as if a strong breeze would snap him in two, but he was wiry and used his frail appearance to his advantage. He would hang back when fights broke out, let his henchmen enter the fray first as if they were there to protect him, then strike when the others were not expecting it. It was this strategy that had won him his little patch of turf.
He lounged fearlessly on the bench in front of the post office, some of his gang reclining on the grass nearby, soaking up the last of the autumn sun. A gaggle of high school girls straggled by, slowing their steps and flipping their hair to get his attention. One of them did, but only because she did not giggle or wink or toss her perfectly groomed hair in his direction. She walked with her head down, ignoring both the boys and the girls she appeared to be with. He slid off the bench in one cat-like motion and was walking beside her before the others even realised he’d moved. She glanced up as she saw the booted feet fall into step with her own. He grinned at her, a crooked, mischievous grin that she could not help but return. He leaned down and whispered something into her ear. Shaking her head she clutched her books closer to her chest and hurried to catch up with her friends. He laughed heartily as he sloped back to the bench and the congratulatory hand shakes of his gang.