It was a cold and rainy day. I held onto my little sister’s hand. We were both in a bad mood, and my brother was annoyed he’d not been able to watch the end of The Bill. He had a thing about watching the end credits of tv programmes. The Bill was his favourite, he liked the legs in tights walking along the concrete. We all have our quirks.
We were waiting for our errant father to arrive. The Italian was always late. Lateness wasn’t his worst quality though. He was only allowed to see us once a week and the courts said it had to be in a public place. He was- and there’s no other way of putting this- dodgy. My Mum softened us up for our weekly ordeal by taking us for a coke float at a cafe in town. We really didn’t want to see him. He made us feel nervous. I watched the ice cream make the Coca Cola cloudy knowing that once this delicious treat was over it was time to see the Italian, so I made sure I took forever to drink it. My mum is a woman of the world and she couldn’t be fooled. ‘I know what you’re doing you wee monster.’ There was no escape.
He was even later than usual. I looked up at my curly haired Mummy, clad head to toe in tie dye and said ‘He’s not coming, let’s just get the bus home.’ My brother and sister nodded excitedly. They didn’t like him either.
‘Sorry kids, you have to wait’ she said. Shattering my plan.
All of a sudden a dark shadow appeared and my heart sank.
Here he was.
Not Daddy, not Papa.
He looked hungover and pissed off. He was holding a gift bag. My brother and sisters faces lit up when they saw the bag. ‘Presents!’ They said with their eyes.
I had a feeling my gift wouldn’t be something to get excited over. I’d recently started to see through him. One day I looked at him and it all become clear. The man was an arse and I made sure he knew. The older I got the more I realised what a bad egg he was, the worst egg. Imagine that egg being a bit of a psychopath. The more my dislike for him became apparent the crapper my gifts were and the nicer my siblings gifts were.
This week he handed me a very creepy clown doll, so scary looking that even our friend’s boxer dog wouldn’t go near it. He gave my sister a beautiful fluffy teddy bear and my brother a hand painted train set. I wasn’t really that bothered but to be honest a decent gift would’ve slightly softened having to see him. Especially because me and my siblings had seen him take the money out of my mum’s purse the week before. She’d nipped of for a wee and he very smoothly slipped a £20 note out of her purse and then put his finger to his lips saying ‘shhhh, our secret’. He could’ve at least spend it on something good.
Us three kids gave my Mum a cuddle and waved goodbye to her as we followed the Italian into Rascals. Rascals was an indoor play centre. We were feral kids but the brilliant thing about Rascals was that we were never the naughtiest.
We got to the front desk and a bored looking girl with an orange face said ‘Three quid each.’ The Italian tried to charm her to get in for free. He attempted this every time. It never worked. He had plenty of money, stood there in his designer shirt and leather slip on shoes. You know the type, with the little chain on the front. I apologised to the girl and rolled my eyes, I thought I was so grown up. My little sister put her hands on her hips and said ‘That’s it, I’m getting mummy!’
The three of us marched outside, my teeny sister leading the way. My mum was still there, holding her purse. She knew this was going to happen. She handed us a £10 note and some extra pound coins for orange squash. This day was getting expensive for my mum. Bus tickets, coke floats, Rascals entry. His kids were not even worth £9 in his eyes. We said bye to our Mum again and went back inside. The Italian had left the counter and was already sat inside on a white plastic chair. He was chatting to a young woman who was breast feeding her baby, handing her a pen and a napkin to get her phone number. We’d only been gone a couple of minutes and he was already pulling. Fast work indeed. He spotted us and loudly said ‘My children, I missed you!’ He made sure to look at his new girlfriend as he said it. She fluttered her eyelashes at him and gave us a smile. I look back now and find it typical that out of all the women in there he chose to speak to the one with her tits out.
My sister, brother and I dived into the ball pool. We thought we were VIP’s with our Rascals wristbands. We climbed up a ladder and crawled through a glow-in-the-dark tunnel. The tunnel made everything sound you were under water and it smelt of warm socks. Normally it was empty and was our secret hiding place. Not today though, today the tunnel had visitors.
We could see four shaved heads and tracksuits. At first we thought they were grown ups but once we got closer we saw that they were about our age. We were very intrigued by them. They were not like the children in the village we lived in. They were town kids, which was a different breed altogether. I bet they got the bus on their own and had televisions in their bedrooms. I wanted to know more about them but was too nervous.
My brother and sister pushed past me and crawled towards them. My siblings asked if they had tried the Rascals orange squash. That’s probably the equivalent of adults talking about the weather. I’d been warned about the naughty kids at Rascals, I thought this might be them. I had a feeling they were bad news. I crawled further into the tunnel to join my brother and sister.
One of the shaved head kids introduced himself as ‘Bad Baz’ and pulled out a box of matches. My siblings and I gasped. In genuine shock I said ‘You’re too little for those and you’re not allowed things like that in Rascals. There’s rules.’
A great way to make friends, remind them of ‘The Rules’.
Bad Baz replied with ‘Yeah? So what? We do what we want’. The other matchstick kids nodded in agreement with Bad Baz. Baz was definitely the leader, he did most the talking whilst the other three nodded. I thought carefully and in my most annoying voice said ‘Yeah well, I’ll tell the people who work here.’ My little sister, four years younger but much more street wise elbowed me in my tin ribs and whispered ‘Shut up, they have matches’.
She was right, they had to be in charge. I backtracked and said ‘Only joking, I love matches’.
The smallest member of the matchstick kids asked us if we’d ever set fire to anything. My brother told him that it was on his list of things that he wanted to do but at the moment he was more into chopping worms in half. All of the matchstick members laughed loudly and said we could be in their gang. My little sister agreed immediately. She loved danger.
Did this make us cool? We were part of a gang, a gang not to be messed with. It had all happened so fast and I was torn. Do I go along with this or do I tell Linda, the lovely lady that makes the drinks? Linda always felt sorry for us having to spend our Saturdays with the Italian. She fancied him at first but then realised he was more like the baddies in the Godfather films than an Italian stallion. He’d always kick off that they didn’t serve good quality espresso and that the food was rubbish. He’d wave his hands around shouting in his thick Italian accent ‘The food a in England is a disgusting!’ Us kids would bury our heads in our hands, apologise to Linda with our eyes and then run and hide in the tunnel.
I think he saw the indoor play centre as a place to pull women and shout at people. Linda gave us extra chicken nuggets so in our eyes was God. It annoyed us when the Italian was rude to her. Surely extra nuggets meant I had to tell Linda about the naughty boys?
Before I could give it any more thought the matchstick kids handed my brother, sister and me a match each and taught us a very simple secret hand shake. We slipped the matches into the front pockets of our dungarees. It was official. We were in the gang. I couldn’t wait to tell the kids in the village about this. ‘What now then?’ I said with big eyes, looking at my fellow gang members. Bad Baz said ‘Erm, we just sit here and that’.
Being in a gang was slightly underwhelming.
All of a sudden there was shouting and banging. Every gang member’s eyebrows lifted. I crawled back to the tunnel opening and peered through the coloured ropes to see Linda frantically looking through a drawer. I shouted her name, and she beckoned me over. I mouthed ‘we need to go’ to my siblings. We did the secret handshake with the gang and said we’d be back. Then we climbed down the ladder and ran over to Linda. She said that The Italian was locked in the toilet and that she couldn’t find the key. She was trying not to laugh. This was golden. The four of us giggled, all huddled together.
We could hear The Italian, kicking the door and swearing loudly. He was huffing and puffing, shouting over and over again that ‘The lock is stupid because it is a English’.
Mums held their children closer and sipped their coffees. The wanted to know what would happen.
As funny as this was we had a reputation to uphold, we were part of a gang now. We even had matches. Something like this could effect our newly found street cred. I was sure Bad Baz’s dad had never been stuck in the lavatory, and if he had been then he’d have fought his way out.
I glanced back at our beloved tunnel and saw the gang staring. They looked like a skinhead totem pole. My little sister said ‘Ilaria, let them know to stay there’ I put on a big smile and gave the gang a thumbs up. ‘We’ll meet you in the tunnel next week!’ I shouted. They smiled, waved their matches and went back into the tunnel. Phew, we were still cool.
Looking back, they were odd kids.
Linda sent the orange faced girl on the front desk over the road to the mechanics to see if any of the men would come over and sort the toilet door. Linda sat us down and gave us extra strong orange squashes and a Jammy Dodger biscuit each. Everyone was staring and whispering but we didn’t care. This was brilliant.
Through mouthfuls of Jammy Dodgers, my brother said he’d be up for seeing the gang again. My sister and I agreed. This was great – orange squash, we had a gang, and The Italian was making a tit of himself.
Eventually two grubby, smiley mechanics sorted out the lock and released the raging Italian from his toilet hell. They tried to make a joke but The Italian was having none of it and kept shouting how this wouldn’t have happened in Italy. We slurped the last bit of our orange squash and watched him. What was he going to do next we wondered?
He hungrily put a cigarette to his lips and looked in his pockets for a lighter. He couldn’t find one in his expensive trousers, or one in his designer jacket. Linda shook her head, she didn’t have one either. He looked at the mechanics ‘Sorry fella, you didn’t laugh at our joke. See ya pal’. And they went back to the garage.
He needed a cigarette desperately after being locked in the toilets and being with his kids for more than five minutes. He was waving his hands around in a way only an angry Italian in need of nicotine can. ‘I need a match’ he said, ‘just one match’.
We looked up at him sweetly and shrugged our shoulders. What did he expect? We were children, and children aren’t allowed to play with matches.
As he stormed off to go round the tables in search of a light, I winked at my brother and sister, then tapped the front pocket of my dungarees. We did the handshake. No one messes with the Matchstick gang.
Photo Credit: (c) Andy Hollingworth Archive