Uncle Cyrus had had a beef with the gypos ever since he’d come up short at dinging the strongman hammer bell a couple of carnivals past. He’d slapped down the mallet and it had only gone up half-way. Soon as that dinger starting falling, I knew sure as hell there was going to be trouble all right.
Uncle Cyrus was generally half-cut on carnival day even before the floats started their chug round the parade ring, and with a reputation like his to keep up there was no way he was going to stand there and take that kind of shit.
There he was, planting his feet square-on and ranting about how the fucking thing was rigged and the gypos were a bunch of thieving sponging bastards just as he’d always suspected, and how he was going to step right up and take his money back and a whole lot more.
Course, a fair crowd had gathered round at that point and up stepped one of the scrawny-arsed gypo blokes with arms like twigs and a bale of wild grey hair. He looked about as likely to ding that bell as Uncle Cyrus had ever been to turn down a drink.
Yet he stepped right up and one-handed sent that thing whizzing right up the pole and ding-ding-ding-ing right across the fairground. There was silence then, save for a right old splutter from Billy Lunn. Uncle Cyrus went over and decked him with a good enough right hook to ding bells in most other places.
Sticking your nose in someone else’s business always took a lot of guts in our house, but the way that wine bottle filled with petrol was perched on the side I reckoned it was left there to be asked about.
Uncle Cyrus swung down to my level and took hold of my shoulders in such a way that my chin was almost touching the seaweed-green tattoos on the tops of his knuckles. He said: ‘People who glue coconuts to their shies so kiddies like you can’t never win no prizes? Well, them kind of people deserve every kind of warm welcome they’re ever going to fucking well get.’
His eyes searched mine and he said, ‘besides, we’ve got unfinished business with them, don’t we?’
I croaked out a yes and I knew right away it sounded like a big fat lie. His eyes kept searching, then all of a sudden they lost interest, like someone flicked off the last weak glow-light inside his messed-up head. He stood up and turned away, mumbling something about real men under his faggy-beer breath.
Uncle Cyrus was right. Those coconuts had used up a heck of a lot of my pocket money at the carnival over the past two years, and I still hadn’t got a single one of them to show for it. Not that I ever worked out what I’d do with one if I ever got it. Probably hold it to my chest like a trophy and search out a couple of nice girls to parade it by. Then maybe I'd have lobbed it at the bare wall behind the greengrocers until it broke, and watched sour milk spew out over the potato sacks.
But there was never much chance of that because those coconuts never even wobbled if you hit them flush. They clicked off their sides like ping-pong balls. The gypo who ran the stall dropped your money in his pouch real slow and cackled at you through splintered teeth. We called him Hurricane Billy. We called him that because everyone said it would take a wind that strong to shift his coconuts.
Funny, Uncle Cyrus going on about the gypos being thieving sponging bastards like that, because he’d never done a proper day’s work since he moved in with us two years ago, after my real dad finally lost out to the cancer. Truth was my dad’s lights went out the day he had the accident up in the forestry and had to go on the disability. Since that day he’d given up on just about everything, including me. Seemed to figure drinking himself to death was as good a course of action as any. He turned yellow as a rape-field and his punches started to carry a lot less hurt. The day he found out he had six months to live he shook my mum and me from our beds to break the news. He got a bottle of cheap cooking brandy out of the cupboard and made us all swig it till we were sick to celebrate.
My mum hadn’t even had time to cash the compo cheque when Uncle Cyrus rolled up on the doorstep with a knock-off Head holdall full of his belongings. Said he was carrying out my dad’s dying wish to come and lend a hand through the hard times. That was a laugh as my dad had never been able to stand the sight of Uncle Cyrus since Uncle Cyrus let him take sole rap for a poaching charge when they were mid-teens old. Uncle Cyrus stopped sleeping on the couch after less than a week and from the sounds coming from the bedroom it was more than a hand he was lending in there.
Still, it wasn’t no worse than having my dad around the place, least not until the gypos came back. My uncle said gypos were like rats and if we didn’t do something to get rid of them now the next thing there’d be a whole plague-full of them scuttling around up there. They’d be robbing our shops and raping our women and there wouldn’t be two shits we’d be able to do about it by then.
That’s when I got some stupid-arsed idea that I’d make him proud. I knew how that strongman hammer bell was still dinging around in his head and I reckoned I’d take it upon myself to tell him how I’d got us even.
I muddied myself up good one day in the car park woods and crashed in on his beer-supping and said, ‘them gypos just jumped me. But I fought ‘em off.’
Well, it sure served to rile Uncle Cyrus up just the way I wanted. That bell was fair ding-ding-ding-ing all right in his wide-open eyes.
He rose to his feet. ‘Jumped?’ he said. ‘Where?’
I made up a right good tale about how I’d been traipsing through the car park woods minding my own business when all of a sudden they were on me, biting and scratching and shouting words I didn’t understand.
‘I threw out my hand,’ I said, motioning a feeble right-hook. ‘I heard a crack. There was blood. Then they legged it.’
Uncle Cyrus tried to fight a small smile spreading across his thin lips. He crouched down and searched my eyes again and hissed, ‘Gypos, huh?’ I couldn’t work out if he believed me or not.
That was a while ago and I thought things had worked out fine. Sure, the gypo story was all around the village but there didn’t seem no-one inclined to head up the lane to search out the truth.
Only when the caravans kept on coming did Uncle Cyrus’s mood go back to being a whole lot darker.
‘You’re not lying to me are you, son?’ he’d say, always searching my eyes while he said it. I’d shake my head and look away.
‘Show me your best shot again.’
I’d swing another pathetic right hook.
‘Bust his nose, did it?’
He’d snort: ‘Must be - what you call it - hee-mo-philics, them gypos.’
Looking back now, I reckon that wine bottle filled with petrol was Uncle Cyrus’s way of saying that he’d figured out it was all total bullshit on my part. Two days later I was down in Mad Harry’s woodshed at sunset, holding that bottle’s neck and getting ready to get us even whether I liked it or not.
‘How’s it feel, son?’ said Uncle Cyrus, looking down on me all proud like I was all set for heading out on my first push-bike.
‘Fine,’ I said.
Mad Harry had always scared the shit out of me. He lived up to his name. Anyone round the place who walked with a slight limp or peered out from behind a sliced-up face, it was a fair bet they’d had a run-in with Mad Harry some time.
Mad Harry held the wine bottle. He pointed to the sticking-out rag. ‘You set it light here, you lob it there, then.. boom.’
Uncle Cyrus laughed: ‘Boom!’.
We trudged out the other end of the car park woods for a bit of target practice. Brambles tugged the bottoms of my trousers. I puffed out second-hand fag smoke with the steam from my breath. They both wore big backpacks. Sweat stains spread from under. We climbed a barbed-wire fence and stopped in front of a tall oak tree.
‘See that tree?’ said Uncle Cyrus.
‘That’s the caravan belonging to them dirty little gypo friends of yours.’
‘See that woodpecker hole?’
‘That’s the window one of them kids who jumped you’s pointing his dirty little head out of right this minute.’
He handed me a bottle, corked and filled. It was almost too cold to touch.
‘Well?’ he said. ‘What are you waiting for?’
‘Aren’t you gonna light it?’ I said.
Mad Harry shook his head. ‘And luminate our plans for the whole place to see?’
‘Besides,’ said Uncle Cyrus, ‘it’s only a fucking tree.’
I stood up and dug my feet in the grass. I held the bottle tight round its neck and drew it back. I threw it as hard as I could. It somersaulted a few times in the air then fell to the ground with an unbroke thud.
Uncle Cyrus said, ‘Jesus wept.’
Two hours later their back packs were empty of practice bottles and their shards shone across the field like a first-thing frost. By the end I was hitting the woodpecker hole roughly one in three. Uncle Cyrus said so long as I got it in the general vicinity it would do its job.
My right arm burned more than I reckoned them gypos ever would. When I’d thrown the last bottle Uncle Cyrus slung his arm round my shoulder and hugged me tighter than just about anyone ever had before. He said, ‘this is our secret, kid. You just remember that.’ We walked home together, Mad Harry out in front. I don’t mind admitting it felt good all right.
I sat up that night with Uncle Cyrus for just about the first time. He ordered my mum to bring us each a whisky. When she complained, he pulled a face. ‘Kid’s gotta learn,’ he said. I laughed. We downed them in one. I had more, enough to make me sick and dizzy. Next thing, it was past one o’clock and Uncle Cyrus was shaking me awake.
I got my boots off the radiator and pulled them on and followed Uncle Cyrus out in the dark. We stood outside the back door and Uncle Cyrus cupped his hands and blew in them then lit a cigarette.
After a couple of puffs that drifted out into the dark he nudged me and held out the cigarette. I took a suck, held it as long as I could before I puffed it out. When Mad Harry came with his backpack we started tramping up the lane. The stars were hid. The hedge-tops hulked. I stumbled over tree-roots. There was no wind. I could hear Mad Harry breathing hard, ruttling a little like he had bits inside him coming loose.
After what seemed like ages Uncle Cyrus touched my arm to tell me to stop and we hunkered down in a clearing. Mad Harry took a hip-flask from his back pack and took a big swig and passed it to Uncle Cyrus and he did the same. Uncle Cyrus jerked me round and filled my face with whisky fumes. ‘See there?’ he said. I followed his arm and saw a light through the branches. ‘That’s them.’
Mad Harry scrambled up a small bank ahead. Mud soaked through to my knees. When we got to where we could see the caravans, Mad Harry turned round.
‘Don’t want to be waking them mutts.’
Mad Harry didn’t say anything.
‘What if they set them on us?’
Mad Harry ignored me. Uncle Cyrus gave me a shove from behind. ‘You run faster,’ he said.
There were three caravans. Their sides were white under outside lights. The windows were dark. I imagined the gypos sleeping inside. There was a pick-up truck and an old Cortina. A bigger truck was parked to the side. It was almost a lorry. It was half covered in a tarp, but you could just make out a painted sign peeping out of the end. The air smelled of old bonfires. A chain clanked.
Mad Harry jerked his arm to tell us to follow. We kept in the trees and skirted right round the back so the big truck was nearest.
‘Here,’ said Mad Harry, and sat down and began opening his back pack.
‘See where the tarp’s highest?’ said Uncle Cyrus, moving close again.
‘I reckon that’s more than likely the fucking hammer thing.’
‘What do you reckon you can hit the bullseye?’
I didn’t take my eyes off the tarp. I said, ‘easy.’
Uncle Cyrus patted my shoulder. He said, ‘make sure you hit it good.’
Mad Harry pulled out the wine bottle. ‘Once it’s lit, you throw it right away,’ he said. I nodded. He placed the cold bottle in my hand. ‘Then you run like a bastard.’
‘Dogs or no dogs,’ added Uncle Cyrus.
‘Down there.’ Mad Harry flung his arm into the blackness and began to stomp off.
‘Get through the trees and head up the path,’ said Uncle Cyrus. ‘They’ll more than likely figure we’ve headed off downwards.’
I held the bottle both at the neck and underneath. Uncle Cyrus struck a match and it went out in the wind. The second time it caught hold of the rag.
‘Go!’ Uncle Cyrus hissed. I looked at the top of the tarp.
‘Go!’ he barked again, louder second time.
I pulled my right arm back and threw it forward and let it fly just like I’d learned. I stood and squinted. I lost it in the dark. Then there was a crash and the top of the tarp lit up in orange flames. The dogs started barking. There were shouts from the caravans. I ran the way Mad Harry said. I turned and saw the flames lick up the sky. The shouts got louder. In the dark I heard Uncle Cyrus’s footsteps. They slapped through the undergrowth, getting further away each time.