Toby sat alone on the cold stone wall, watching the groups of teenagers gathering. Many of the boys looked like he did with their almost to the shoulders black hair and sweeping fringes. Their pale or tanned faces looking happy, sometimes with a touch of makeup making them look more mysterious. All but a few were long limbed and bodied due to sudden summer grown spurts.
They all wore similar clothes too as if it was their uniform that they proudly showed off. Old, torn up jeans with holes in the knees, legs and back, scruffy off white trainers or convers real or fake, t-shirts ranging from old band ones, to new bands, plain or strange.
The real thing that bonded the teens together was their skateboards. They held them under their arms, just above or on the floor holding tightly with fingers, or placed them right side or wrong side upon the ground. The boards themselves varied in colours and designs each as individual as their owner yet just another sheep in the flock.
From under his dark fringe, Toby picked out the handful of girls that were scattered in amongst the boys. They easily divided into two groups; those that looked like girls and those that looked like boys. The tomboys wore the same clothes as the boys and had short hair, often with streaks of neon colour/s, a couple even had skateboards. The girls wore short skirt and tops, saddles or shoes, their long hair loose and faces covered in makeup.
Toby glanced down at his trainers and skateboard, which he had resting in-between his legs with his fingers lightly gripping the top edge. The paint underneath was starting to peel again and the once orange wheels were grey with dirt. He thought about getting up and going over, perhaps joining in with a race or performing a trick.
Toby got a lump in his throat and memories flashed before him. He couldn’t do it, by joining these teenagers he felt he was letting down the friends he had left behind in Leeds. It had been five months since his mum and him had finally escaped their abusive lives to have a fresh start. He shook his head, forcing the memories back down and looked across Manchester’s Cathedral Gardens.
Some of the teens had started performing tricks using the low stone walls and taller stone benches. Others watched calling encouragement or laughing or beginning to join in. The sounds of the skateboard wheels scrapping echoed and passers-by started to give the groups wider berths. Toby turned and watched some office workers and shoppers hurrying passed on their way to Victoria train station. He saw how some of them stole glances at the teens before looking back to their phones or where they were walking.
Turning back, Toby swept a hand through his hair and watched two of the boys practising jumps. Picking up his board he put it across his lap and gripped it tightly. He played with the wheels, finding the action soothing. He carried on watching the scene before him shyly from underneath his hair. He had picked up some of the teenagers’ names and in his head had attached himself to a small ‘break away’ group. It was these three boys and a girl whom he liked to spy on the most.
There was Bailey, the leader, who had dyed dark red hair and a fake lip ring. His girlfriend, Steffi, who had soft brown hair, always wore jeans and seemed to distance herself slightly from the other girls. Lastly, there was Ivor and Ivan, the twins who always tried to out do each other. Toby wasn’t sure those were their real names, but it’s what they went by here. He liked their rainbow dyed hairs, which always changed colour when he saw them.
Right now, the four them had separated themselves from the rest and where standing in the shadow of the Urbis football museum. Toby longed to go over and join in their chatty conversation, but there seemed to be a glass panel between him and them. Instead, he pulled his small rucksack closer and unzipped it. Digging inside, he pulled out a can of coke and opened it.
He drink the cold fizz down and pretend that afterwards he’d get up to join Ivor and Ivan in a race. That didn’t happen and he spent the rest of the cooling evening where he was. At nine, most of the teens started leaving and Toby slinked into the shadow of the Corn Exchange building. Behind him the older teens hung back, drinking coffee or ice drinks, happy to have the place to themselves now.
Toby caught the bus home with the relief showing on his face that none of the other skater boys had made it on to his bus. He pressed his head to the side window on the emergency door and sighed deeply. His thoughts drifted and he imaged that tonight he had made that first step and everyone had welcoming him in. Shutting his eyes, he let the sounds of the bus spur that thought onwards.
When he got home, he went straight to his bedroom and abandoned his skateboard beside his desk. He started to take off his clothes then heard a soft knocking at his door. Growling, he let go of his t-shirt, went to the door and opened it a crack. His mother’s eyes stared worriedly at him through the slit of a gap.
‘Are you okay?’ she asked softly.
‘Yeah, just tried,’ he answered.
‘Things good in town then?’
‘And you’re still getting on with your new friends?
‘Well, there’s still some cottage pie left over if you want it. I’m going to the job centre in the morning, I’ll wake you for school. Okay?’
Toby rubbed his cheek, ‘fine. Goodnight.’
‘Goodnight,’ his mother’s voice came through the closing door.
Toby went to his bed and pulled off his clothes. He tossed them aside, feeling a spike of anger at her. He sprawled on the single bed and tried to remind himself that none of this was her fault. Hadn’t she risked everything to save his life and keep him safe? Toby moaned into his pillow and rolled over. It took him a long time to fall sleep.
He went back to the Gardens on Friday, knowing it was the most popular day for everyone to gather. He sat on the same stone wall and watched the teens coming together like water droplets before him. Toby clutched his skateboard in both hands and reflected on his day in school. It had been quiet, no one caring or bothering him and he had gotten most of his homework done during the breaks and on the bus home.
He dug a can of coke out of his bag then looked inside at the other things he had brought with him. There were a couple more cans, a large bag of crisps, a Mars chocolate bar and the rest of his stuff. He closed the bag and went to open the tin, but a soft coughing made him pause. He looked up and saw Steffi watching him. A small wave of panic rose in his stomach. He traced the keyring of the can then popped it open.
Glancing down, he tried to ignore the girl coming towards him. However, she purposely tapped the tip of his shoes with her own then sat down next to him. Toby smelt a light scent of flowers and maybe strawberries. He tried to un-freeze himself and act normal. She was only sitting next to him, like some of the girls at school did when there was no other seat.
‘Hey, can I have a sip of that?’ she asked.
Toby shot her a look then nodding handed the drink over. He watched her from under his fringe take a mouth before handing the coke back to him. Taking it back, he put the can between his knees and tried to think of something to say.
‘Bailey stole my money,’ Steffi suddenly burst, ‘he’s such a dick.’
‘But aren’t you two together?’ Toby mumbled.
‘Yeah, but he thinks he’s got that right.’
‘You’re telling me!’
Toby shrugged and from his bag took out one of the other cans. He offered it to her and she gratefully accepted it. As she opened it, Toby looked across the Gardens and picked out Bailey standing with some of his other friends further down were the little stepping stone stream was. Toby moved on and looked for the twins, which took him a lot longer to spot.
‘Where are you friends?’ Steffi cut in.
‘Back home,’ he replied simply.
‘Where’s that? I knew you weren’t from around here.’
‘Leeds. We moved.’
Steffi nodded and took a few sips of the coke, ‘you want to hang with us?’
Toby snapped his head up and just stared at her.
‘If you really wanna,’ she tagged on.
‘Sure…’ he almost stuttered.
‘Come on then. You can tell Bailey how mean he is,’ Steffi shot over her shoulder as she stood up.
Toby nearly on his feet, stopped and a brief look of fear passed on his face.
Steffi laughed, ‘kidding! He’s not so bad.’ She turned and began walking over to her boyfriend.
Toby feeling torn gathered his things and trailed after her. This was it, the moment he had been waiting for.