by Andrew Foote
I later told Pip and Callum about Ronny's offer of giving us some spent cooking oil, so before he handed over for the day we paid him a visit.
Callum and I borrowed Ronny's sack barrow and carted fifty litres back home while Pip went to buy a pair of tights.
I think he drew the shorter of the two straws as he returned red-faced with embarrassment!
"What a nerve! Did I want black, barely black, tan, skin, satin, shiny, what size was I, what denier did I want?
Oh, for heaven's sake!"
Both Callum and I creased up!
"So, what did you go for sweet thing??
I reckon tan, shiny and ten denier would look good on those legs. What do you think Ed?"
"I'm with you on the tan, but wouldn't you think satin might show off those sexy calf muscles better?"
"Nah. But if he was to go for barely black? Oh yeah! With you one hundred percent!"
"Alright, ALL-FUCKING-RIGHT ALREADY!
"Yeah, okay I'll go with the funny but can it why don't you!"
We played the waiting game until Bubba came back.
Bubba is one seriously big boy, not fat but built like brick shithouse and we needed his muscle power to help lift the oil drums so we could filter it into the fuel tank.
Unfortunately, Callum was still on a high.
"So, is it true what they say Bubba?"
"What's that man?"
"All you black guys are like, hung?"
"Nah. Us dudes is normal jumbo hotdogs. It's you white trash who haven't so much as a cocktail sausage to call your own!!"
That was it.
Bubba was shaking so hard with a fit of the giggles that tank-filling had to be put on ice until we'd all calmed down!
By the time we'd filled it as much as we dared, it was getting dark so we restarted the engine and went through to the big room for the evening.
Tonight, with the slow, erratic thumping of the engine, the glow from the table lamp and our fire taking the edge off the chill, everything was well with my world.
I read until I noticed eyes getting heavy, went through and shut the engine down for the night then crawled into our sleeping bag.
Callum smiled at me. Yes, he was smiling, not grinning. His jet black eyes radiated love, a tenderness I'd not seen before from him or from anybody else come to that.
He held open his arms and I fell into them.
Holding me close and with my head resting on his chest, he spoke softly to me.
"Are you okay Ed? It's been something of a day hasn't it."
"You could say that.
One moment everything is alright, the next? Something happens to spoil it, but then the Gods rain down on us and I honestly believe that right now, right at this minute, life could not be better."
"You're sharing a sleeping bag with someone who is technically an illegal immigrant, you're surrounded by difficult and challenged kids, you live in a hovel with almost no money, surviving each day with little hope of a decent future and you say life couldn't be better?"
"I mean it Callum. Let's turn that on its head shall we?
I know your story and okay, you were brought into this country illegally but you were only like what, two years old?
You can't possibly be held to account over something your surrogate parents did?
I think that deporting them was cruel. They did what they did because they had no other options open to them.
I know some of these guys have issues but then so do I, so do you, but let me ask you something.
When was the last time you saw any signs of conflict or nastiness? I haven't seen any, and I'll bet you haven't either.
We're all in this together, as individuals we're weak but together? We will get through it, and whether they're conscious of it or not, they recognise that deep down.
This place? It might be that one day they'll redevelop the area and we'll have to leave but for now, it's ours. Let's not think too much about the future, it'll be what it'll be and nothing we do can stop it from happening.
We must live our lives for the here and now, and right now, right this minute, if I owned a penthouse in Manhattan or a beach villa in the Caribbean, I'd trade everything to be here with you."
Callum buried his head in my chest and wept silently. I made no attempt to stop him.
Eventually we drifted off to sleep but not before I kissed each of his fingers.
Tomorrow? Another day and more challenges, but just for now…… I was happy.
"You awake Ed?"
"Just about. What's the time?"
"According to the church clock, a little after nine."
"Oh. We ought to think about getting up then."
"Can we just stay like this for a while please?"
"I'd stay like this all day given the chance! Yesterday was wonderful and a new day might spoil things."
"Ever thought that a new day could be even better than an old one?"
"Not possible. I don't believe that anything could ever come close.
We managed to get the genny running, we were offered an almost limitless supply of fuel for it, we've got light, Ronny helped me to get things straight in my head and I finally plucked up the courage to tell you what I should've told you ages ago."
"Yeah, okay it was pretty special.
Will you kiss me Ed?"
"Only if you can handle a touch of morning breath, I forgot to clean my teeth last night!"
"I can do that.
Sunday meant tidying up day.
It was easy to let the place get mucky what with there being nineteen of us living there so it was agreed that we would all pitch in and do our bit to stay on top of things.
We had an old watering can which we'd fill from the canal then sprinkle the water onto the floor to lay the dust then sweep it into a pile and shovel it out into the alley.
Boxes had to either be repaired or replaced, so trips to the recycling centre were made and it was this Sunday that two of the lads returned with something more than what they'd originally planned on scrounging. A set of Christmas lights.
"This bloke was about to chuck 'em so I asked if he would give 'em to us.
He reckoned four of the bulbs were fucked and he'd bought a new set…… some people have more money than sense if you ask me!"
I thought about this for a moment.
"What we need is a tree to string them up in."
"Nice one Ed but if you hadn't noticed, the Digbeth district of Birmingham ain't exactly awash with Christmas trees going begging!"
"Maybe, maybe not! I'm going out 'cos I'm feeling lucky!"
Back to the recycling centre and casting my eyes around, I concentrated on the skip marked Non-recyclable Waste and waited patiently. A few cars came and went before I stuck paydirt.
A family piled out of a large SUV and proceeded to offload the usual junk before one rather large artificial Christmas tree got pulled from the back of the vehicle.
I approached the kid who was struggling with it.
"Wow! Nice tree! Why are you chucking it away?"
"My brother stood on the base and broke it. No base? No point in hanging on to it.
Do you want it?"
"Well yeah, I do actually. We haven't got a Christmas tree and can't afford to buy one, so if you're offering?"
"Hang on, I'll ask my Dad.
Dad? Is it okay if this boy has our old tree?"
"If he can use it then fine, give it to him."
The kid grinned at me.
"Look as if you've just blagged yourself a tree! Here y'go and Happy Chrimbo!"
"And to you mate. Cheers!"
Blagging it was easy enough, getting it home was another matter…… the sodding thing was HUGE! It had to be at least six-foot long, and with no string to keep the branches tied back meant I kept tripping over them, but non-the-less, I persevered finally making it back without doing much damage to either myself or the bloody tree!
With some help from Pip, we managed to get it through the hole in the wall then set about the task of rearranging the branches so it looked like the real deal.
No cheap artificial tree this. No, this was seriously up-market stuff and must have cost an arm and a leg, but now came the problem of how to support it.
We eventually settled on cutting the top off an old water bowser from next door's yard then with a couple of the boys holding on to the tree to keep it upright, we packed the bowser with a mixture of lumps of concrete and clay dug from the canal bank then once satisfied our tree wasn't about to fall over, we stood back and admired our handiwork.
Impressive came to mind!
Next we tested the lights.
Four of them refused to light, but that was okay as these were outdoor lamps and came in a length of what I estimated to be around fifty feet, so more than enough to decorate our six footer.
It looked really nice but then Callum spoke up.
"It does look nice but there's something missing."
"If it needs a fairy to sit on top of it, you'd better figure out a way to get yourself up there!"
Callum poked his tongue out at him and laughed.
"Yeah okay, funny fucker!
No, what it needs is something for the lamps to reflect off. Any ideas people?"
Silence, then one of the younger lads put up his hand.
"CD's. You know, like used data discs. I saw it in a park once, someone had strung a load of them up in a tree and when the wind spun 'em around, the light that hit 'em looked just like rainbows."
"Fucking ace idea Parker, fu-cking A!
One small problem.
We don't have any."
"Why not go back to the dump?"
"Okay? Your idea, you go, and if you find some, I'll give you half a bag of sherbet pips!"
As Parks disappeared through the hole, I turned to Callum.
"Know summat? You might just regret doing that deal?"
"Oh, I do hope so. I really do hope so!"
With Callum now light of half a bag of sherbet pips, a crowd of us sat outside and began cutting the discs into four like little fans then using pen knives we gouged a hole in the pointed part and poked string through them and tied them off.
More kids came out and taking them away, got on with the job of hanging them up.
The upper-most branches presented a problem but one of the more enterprising lads had his mate sit on his shoulders and after about half an hour it was finished.
We probably had one more hour of daylight left to us so with no real need to waste fuel by running the genny, we didn't take a look at the finished article, preferring to wait until later, but then Mitch came up with an idea.
"As things stand, and with most of the guys out and about, they've not even seen the tree, let alone with it all lit up and decorated, so I wondered. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve so why not leave it until it gets dark tomorrow evening before switching it on.
You can pretty much bet that most, if not all of us will be here, and it would make for a really nice Christmas surprise.
What do you reckon?"
Pip looked at Callum and me.
"What do you think? Personally, I think Mitch's idea's really good.
Let's be honest, Christmas is normally a fuck-nothing day. Nowhere's open, not even Ronny's place, we've sod-all to celebrate except for Bobby who goes to church, so why not keep the tree as something special?"
I nodded my head.
"Works for me," then turning to Callum, "What say you then?"
"Yep. I like that idea muchly!"
"All sorted, but there's just one other thing although I think it might be nice if we keep it to ourselves for now.
Tomorrow late afternoon, I plan on hitting on Tesco to see what stuff they'll have to throw out, and if I get lucky, I might be able to scrounge a few goodies for Christmas Day.
Want to come along for the ride?"
"We're in…… aren't we Ed!"
"Bring it on!"
"Thought you might be!
Come on, let's get ourselves down to Ronny's 'cos I wanna get back and find out if <giggle> Callum Lee, super hero and all-round gay super-stud, manages to escape from the clutches of that totally insane and crazy I.S. terror group!
Love ya to bits really…… Mr S.A.S!!"
He did escape…… well he was always going to, wasn't he!
The kids loved it as well and so with book finished, I wondered what to go for next.
It had to fire their imagination but then I wanted to read something to them that made them feel good inside at the end of each chapter…… I call it the 'thank fuck for that' syndrome, not the fuzzy 'Oh, isn't that nice' thing of trashy novels, but what?
I decided on pure comedy and Tom Sharpe.
I've always loved the stuff he wrote, it was pure escapism, work that could always take me into a place where I could laugh no matter how much my life stank.
I must've read Porterhouse Blue a hundred times…… well maybe not really a hundred times but you take my point.
No, this was what I was going to go for next, but for now my thoughts seemed to prefer to dwell on Christmas' past when my parents and I were a cohesive and normal middle class suburban family, those times before the bickering turned into furious arguments, those times before my father stormed out of the house and out of my life, those times before my mother's steep decline into drugs and alcohol, and I wondered why I wasn't upset, but then, looking to my left, I knew why. I was looking at a beautiful if potty-mouthed Vietnamese boy, a boy who had openly declared his love for me and me for him.
I removed my socks, and slipping into our sleeping bag, I kissed him on the cheek.
"Sweet dreams Callum. I love you."
He muttered something then putting his free arm around me, I drifted off to sleep.
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