:: Article

A Ton of Malice

By Barry McKinley.

This is an extract from A Ton of Malice: The Half-Life of an Irish Punk in London (Old Street Publishing).

“A mother who loses her child can no longer believe in God”
– Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Sunday, May 6, 1979

The boy had a mouth like a twisted rag. He stood in the doorway of the house at Tottenham Green and looked us up and down. We needed engine parts for a Honda 175.

“It’s out back,” he said. “I’m breaking it for scrap.”

The boy led us through the house. His mother walked past carrying a ball of laundry. Her eyes were aimless. All she knew was that the world dumped pain and washing at her feet every day, and it didn’t matter that her son was leading strangers through the messed-up living room.

The back yard was full of junk. Sheets of delaminated plywood covered some of the wreckage, but most of it was out in the open: a blue bathroom suite; a wardrobe with a cracked mirror; a plastic fertiliser sack stuffed with shoes; a guitar with a missing neck; and two solid bags of old cement.

“Cool stuff,” said Kevin.

The boy didn’t get it. He puffed himself up with the pride of ownership. He pulled back a tattered Union Jack and revealed a smashed-up piano.

“Someday I’ll restore that, and I’ll play it.”

Kevin gave him a look that said, No, you won’t. You will never fix anything because you belong to a breed that breaks, wrecks, smashes and ruins, and then you collect the debris. Your father, your grandfather and your great-grandfather were damagers and destroyers and they passed down their toxic DNA in a series of short bedroom grunts – to you. You, my child, are about as useful as a fucking pogo stick in a minefield.

The boy grinned as he tinkled on a fractured key. There was a scampering animal sound inside the piano. The boy stepped back quickly and slammed down the lid.

“The Honda 175,” said Kevin. “We need the piston rings.”

The boy pulled aside the drum of an old tumble dryer and the wing of a car to reveal the barest skeleton of a motorcycle. The back wheel was missing, the petrol tank was missing, the indicator stems dangled from electrical threads, the handlebars were gone, and the speedometer glass was cracked. The engine was still in place only because the demon of carnage had run out of destructive energy.

“You’ll need a 10-, a 12- and an 18-millimetre socket,” said Kevin. “I know what I need, mate,” the boy sniffed. “I’ll go get my tools.” “You do that, mate,” said Kevin.

The boy went into the house and Kevin rolled a joint. “What do you think of Quasimodo?” he said. I was baffled. Kevin laughed. “You didn’t notice the hunchback?”

I said no, I hadn’t.

The door opened and the boy’s mother came out with another giant ball of laundry. Kevin nodded at the rusty drum that lay in the middle of the yard. “Will we pop it in the tumble dryer?” he asked, holding out the joint in her direction. She was a drab, thirty-something woman in apron and slippers with a life that had stopped moving sometime in the 1960s. She took the joint and stuck it in the side of her mouth. The big ball of laundry dripped on her hip as she took two deep drags. She blew a lungful of smoke into the space between us, and then chased it with a cough. She handed back the joint and went about her business.

We watched her hang the laundry, then prop it up with a wooden pole. She went back inside and the boy came out. He carried a tin bucket filled with an assortment of greasy tools: sockets, screwdrivers, a cold steel chisel and a clawhammer. The boy put a ring spanner on the 12-millimetre bolt and it spun without catching.

“Imperial,” said Kevin. “That’s half inch. You need metric.”

“I know what I need, mate,” said the boy.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the lump on his back. How had I missed it? It sat between his shoulders like the birth of another head. The boy tried to clamp the nut with a vise-grips, but the tool was old and rusty and the jaws wouldn’t lock. The boy reached into the bucket and pulled out the chisel and hammer. One by one, he sheared off the eight retaining nuts. Kevin winced every time. He wasn’t great with people, but he would never hurt an engine.

The boy lifted up the metal cover and grinned. “All right mate?” he said, and then he poked into the opening with a flat screwdriver and pried off the clip on the cam chain. The chain itself dropped into the depths of the gearbox. Kevin closed his eyes and shook his head.

“See,” the boy said, “that’s how you do it.”

The cylinder head did not separate immediately because the years had turned the gasket to glue. The boy smacked it with the hammer and a cluster of brittle cooling fins snapped off. He kicked them aside. He hit it again and the head tilted. Two more heavy blows and it fell to the ground, revealing the block and the pistons in their sleeves.

“There’s the pistons!” said the boy with some excitement. He reached in and tried to pull the engine block free. It didn’t budge. The boy kicked it with the heel of his shoe. Nothing happened. He tried to force the screwdriver between the block and the gearbox, but there wasn’t a razor blade of space. He couldn’t wedge, lever or force the obstinate lump.

“If I had penetrating oil,” said the boy, “I’d have it out in a flash.”

“But you don’t have penetrating oil,” said Kevin.

“No,” the boy replied, “but I do have petrol.”

Kevin looked at me and said, “He’s got petrol.”

The boy went to a shed half buried in trash. He pulled open the sheet of corrugated metal that acted as a door. He disappeared, and when he emerged, he was carrying a milk bottle filled with a yellowish liquid. He sloshed it into both cylinders. It spilled out over the gearbox and onto the ground where it formed a rainbow puddle.

“That’s going to penetrate,” the boy said, “and once that penetrates, the whole thing will slide away like butter. Like butter, mate. Wait and see.”

I didn’t know much about things mechanical, but I knew that petrol did not have the same properties as penetrating oil.

We waited.

After two or three minutes the boy said, “That should be enough.” He kicked the engine once more and the petrol sloshed out. The block was as tight as ever.

“Do you know what we need?” said the boy. “We need to force the pistons back down in the sleeves.”

The boy went into the shed and returned with a pickaxe. Kevin’s eyes widened.

The boy hefted the pickaxe over his shoulder. The handle rested on the ball of his hump.

“Heigh-ho, heigh-ho,” said Kevin. “It’s off to work we go.”

The boy didn’t get it. “One smack,” he said, “slap bang in the middle of the crown, that’s all it needs.” He turned to Kevin, looking for agreement, but Kevin remained inscrutable.

The boy swung the pick-axe and the sharp point tore through the centre of the piston. It smashed the aluminium and plunged six or seven inches into the very guts of the engine.

“Good shot,” said Kevin, lighting another joint.

“It was, wasn’t it?” The boy replied, but the piston hadn’t budged, not even a fraction. The boy took the end of the pick-axe handle and wiggled it. He rocked it, he shook it, he kicked it and he knelt upon it. “I’m going to take it out and try again,” he said. He grabbed the head of the pick-axe and tried to withdraw it, but it had become part of the motorcycle.

“Excalibur,” said Kevin, but the boy didn’t get it.

The boy climbed onto the frame, put all his weight on the pick- axe handle, and started jumping up and down. The motorcycle promptly keeled over and the boy landed awkwardly. The last dregs of petrol flooded out on the ground and rolled towards the piano. The boy swore. He took the hammer and bashed the seat. He bashed the frame. He smashed the headlight. “You’re a bastard,” he said to the motorcycle. “A bastard.”

There was blood on the boy’s hand from the fall. A splinter ofengine fin had lodged in his palm. He pulled it out and pretended to feel no pain.

“What we need to do,” the boy announced “is heat the bastard.”

He poured the last drop of petrol into both cylinders and then asked Kevin for his box of matches.

“Are you sure that’s wise?”

“Just gimme the matches, mate.”

Kevin tossed the yellow box at the boy. I had a bad feeling. The boy struck a match and flicked it at the motorcycle. The inferno was instant. Flames shot out of the cylinders and set the foam in the seat alight. The clutch cable turned into a fiery snake and the carburettor popped. The wiring loom started to melt and toxic floaters drifted through the air like miniature umbrellas. A molten drip landed on the rainbow puddle and a blue wave flashed across the yard and into the mound of rubbish. The dry tinder in the piano ignited and the creature living within scratched in panic, creating a noise not unlike improvisational jazz.

The boy was shocked. It was as if he had never imagined that petrol and fire could make such poor bedfellows. He grabbed the ragged Union Jack and started beating the flames, but the flag caught fire and he tossed it onto the pyre.

Kevin took a long drag on the joint and then, improbably, started singing Jerusalem: “Bring me my bow of burning gold, Bring me my arrows of desire; Bring me my spear! O, clouds unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire!”

The boy still didn’t get it. I looked to the kitchen window where the boy’s mother stood at the sink, watching the flickering blaze. She turned on a tap and filled a basin with no great haste.

She looked like a woman whose life would only get better if her house burned to the ground.


Barry McKinley‘s Elysium Nevada was nominated Best New Play at the 2010 Irish Theatre Awards. He has written for BBC Radio 4 and RTE, and was twice shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Award. His memoir, A Ton of Malice: The Half-Life of an Irish Punk in London, is published by Old Street Publishing.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 4th, 2018.