[In this excerpt from the ‘Kim’ half of my palindromic double-novella, the eponymous antiheroine Kim finds herself embroiled in a clash between two rival groups of music fanatics…]
It was the Early Beatlemaniacs who started it. Or so said the Late Beatlemaniacs, although inevitably the Early Beatlemaniacs took an opposing view. The Lateys had been pushing them for a while, they said. Taunts in the coffee bars. Mocking yells of “moptop” across the street. The late-night beating-up of a Ringo which had left him with a badly broken nose (and thus, ironically, a closer facial resemblance to the real thing).
All this, the Late Beatlemaniacs argued, was merely retaliation for the smashing of the window of a head shop run by one of their members, and an attack on another member—several sharp-suited Earlies against a lone Latey—which had put the fellow in hospital and, perhaps worse, resulted in the utter ruin of his blue satin fusilier’s uniform, which was the very one that Paul wore on the cover of Sergeant Pepper and hence one of a kind, irreplaceable.
Claims and counter-claims, and none of them containing a whole lot of truth (not least the bit about the blue fusilier’s uniform). Yeltley’s rival Beatle-fan factions had been bristling with such rumours and accusations for days, their antagonism slowly growing and with it the enormity of the misdeeds purportedly perpetrated by the other side. Conflict seemed unavoidable. A delegation of Pink Floydians had intervened in the hope of preventing such an outcome, but they had bored everyone with their talk of the senselessness of war and the stupidity of the herd mentality, and so had failed. An attempt at peace-mongering by some Dylanistas had met with a similar lack of success, largely because no one could understand a word they were saying. Meanwhile, the hardcore Hendrixers were urging the Late Beatlemaniacs on from the sidelines, while the Merseybeat Boys, a broad church that included Pacemakers and Dreamers and even a few Monkee-men, sided very much with the Earlies. Various clans of punks, mods and rockers simply rubbed their hands, gleeful at the prospect of a scrap, even if it was one they themselves wouldn’t be personally involved in.
Thus the battle lines were drawn. The two sets of enemies—each vehement in its belief that it embodied the true spirit of the Fab Four—were spoiling for a fight. All that was needed was a catalyst, a spark to set this combustible mix alight, and it came in the form of a conversation about God Dog, of all things. At the same time as Kim was meeting Dr Awkward at Room Seven, three early Beatlemaniacs had been ruminating in the street on the matter of the hundred God Dog fans who had camped out all night on the roof of the terminal building at Rotor City airport, waiting for the arrival of the band’s tour plane. Discussion of this event, which all three agreed was a pale shadow of the massive airport vigils that had occurred at the height of the Beatles’popularity, segued into a discussion of the debt owed by God Dog lead guitarist Lee Braithwaite to the jangling brilliance of Harrison and Lennon. Again, the comparison was unfavourable. No modern band, of course, could hold a candle to the Beatles.
“Pre nineteen sixty-six,” one of the Earlies added. Not that, in this company, it needed saying, but he was a fairly recent addition to the ranks and keen to show his devotion.
It was a harmless enough remark, not intended for the ears of anyone but his two companions. However, at the time the three Earlies happened to be passing a meditation shop inside which there happened to be a pair of moustachioed, kaftan-wearing Lateys, perusing mandalas. At the words “Pre nineteen sixty-six” the Lateys’ears pricked up. They glanced out at the Earlies going by, saw that they were young and rather puny, and decided they needed to be taught a lesson.
Ten minutes later the three Earlies stumbled into a coffee bar called No! Sirrah Harrison, where they knew they would find at least a dozen of their peers. They were bleeding, their suits were ripped, and one of them had lost a precious chunk of his pudding-bowl hair. Outrage and consternation flooded through the coffee bar. There were cries of “Yoko oh no!” and “O-bla-di hell!”. Espressos were ordered all round, and thus fortified and energised, a posse of the Earlies went off in search of opposition, while the injured trio made their way to various other Early haunts in order to drum up reinforcements.
The posse of Earlies homed in on an ashram, which was located next door to a foreign-language school where a special rate was being advertised for a course of evening classes in Malayalam. They formed a phalanx on the pavement in front of the ashram and demanded, in none too polite terms, that everyone in the building step outside. Out came a score of Johns and Pauls and Georges, swathed in beads and white robes and sporting Jesus-length hair and beards. They accused the Earlies of ruining their vibe and said that, although all you needed was love, in this instance the Earlies merited something a bit more drastic, in other words a good kicking.
And so it came to pass.
* * *
All this Kim remained blissfully unaware of as she traversed Yeltley, tracing a dog-legging diagonal course through the grid-pattern streets. The first she knew of the fighting was a distant commotion—voices braying, bellowing, yelping. She had an inkling of what this sound signified, and her suspicion was confirmed as every shopkeeper on the street she was on suddenly pulled down the window blinds, flipped the signs in their doors from OPEN to CLOSED, and shot the bolts. She looked back. She looked forwards. She couldn’t tell which way the hullabaloo was coming from and hence which way she should run. She hurried to the nearest shop door—which belonged to a retailer of macramé handicrafts, Straw Arts—and hammered on it. No response. No one came. She tried the next shop, a vinyl LP specialist’s called Minim, whose window displayed copies of the Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa and Rush’s 2112 and a couple of albums by Abba and A-Ha. No luck there either. At a third shop—which was a fishing tackle supplier’s with ideas above its station, name of Rod D’Or—an apprehensive face peeked out from behind the blinds and a hand waved Kim angrily away. She continued on along the pavement, not trying shops any more, keeping close to the side of the buildings. She wasn’t the only one stranded out in the open. Other pedestrians were skulking or scurrying. No one quite seemed to know in which direction to go. A mother with a pushchair had taken herself and her infant into the shelter of a doorway. Someone else was hunkered down between two parked cars. A very old man ambled on his way with a dignified air, as if nothing was happening, which suggested that he was either deaf, senile, or a war veteran who had experienced battle on a far greater scale and refused to be intimidated by the antics of a few street louts. Whatever its cause, Kim wished she shared his blitheness.
Her footsteps brought her to the end of the street and an intersection. She had a choice of three routes and no idea which of them might lead her away from the fighting, wherever it was. She decided to head right, but after a hundred yards the sound of fighting seemed to be getting louder and she doubled back. At the intersection, she crossed straight over. Again, the sound of fighting got louder as she progressed along the street. It seemed to be coming from two different directions at once. She turned to head back once again to the intersection and caught sight of running people at the far end of the first street she had ventured down. She spun round. More running people at the far end of this street. She started running herself. Within seconds she had reached the intersection, and she took herself down the third street. This was a mainly residential road, and the houses on one side all had small front gardens, yard areas basically, large enough for dustbins and maybe a bicycle or a motorbike. She took refuge in one of these areas, crouching down behind the low brick wall, hugging her knees to her chest and hoping to make herself very small and innocuous. This being Yeltley, she knew that, whoever was fighting, she herself was not dressed in such a way as to resemble a combatant on either side. That might give her immunity, but equally, in the heat of battle mistakes were made. There was really no such thing as an innocent bystander. Best to be hidden.
By now she could hear footfalls as well as voices—shoe soles clattering on tarmac. When she dared to raise her head above the wall, she saw a couple of dozen men at the intersection, laying into one another with fists and feet. With no trouble she identified them as Early and Late Beatlemaniacs, and a part of her sighed quietly. It was the very similarity between the two fan groups’likes, the fact that they idolised the same four musicians, that aroused friction between them. Schisms were never fiercer or more extreme than between factions who actually had more in common than dividing them. Kim only had to think of the differences between God Dog fans like her, who continued to keep up with the band, and Doom Rats, who refused to acknowledge any albums other than the two early ones released on Rotator Records, Doom Rat and Notton: Your Life, and attended God Dog gigs solely to hear the old stuff, remaining stalwartly mute during the new stuff. It was from Doom Rats that she received the most grief. Insults from other sources ranged from good-natured ribbing to out-and-out bile, but could be dismissed as the work of fools and ignoramuses. The animosity and invective that Doom Rats directed her way was somehow sharper and more stinging, perhaps because it came from a clique to which she had once belonged and from people who should have known better. Doom Rats, too, were more likely than anyone to threaten Kim physically, and she had lost count of the number of fights and near-fights she had got into, defending herself, the way she dressed, and, ultimately, the good name of Mik Dyer, after some snidey black-clad stick-in-the-mud had grabbed her or jostled her or contemptuously rubbed her hairdo.
From the looks of things, the two groups of Beatlemaniacs were evenly matched. Neither side carried weapons of any sort that might tip the balance, although Kim did see one Latey attempting to throttle an Early using his meditation beads. It was predominantly ruck-and-maul at the intersection, that graceless ballet of grabbing and yanking and flailing and buffeting and cuffing. Only one in every ten punches or kicks connected with anything like a forceful impact. The rest missed, skimmed, or were baffled by clothing. A lot of posturing went on as well, participants reeling back from the carnage, jeering at one another, taunting, gesticulating, challenging, and doing an awful lot to promote violence without actively engaging in it. Nevertheless, wounds were inflicted and blood flowed. Kim saw at least two individuals go down under a hail of blows, curling into foetal position on the ground and screaming for help. One Latey staggered away, his kaftan stained deep crimson down the front, his beard dripping darkly, his teeth red. Another retired from the field of combat nursing an arm that was twisted at a hideous angle.
Gradually, as more and more punishment was meted out, the fury of the fighting dwindled, until at last its force was spent. The two sides limped off in opposite directions, muttering threats and dire warnings of future action over their shoulders. Once the intersection was clear of Beatlemaniacs of either description, Kim felt it was safe to emerge from hiding. Silence hung over the streets as she tentatively resumed her journey, Yeltley holding its breath, waiting to see what, if anything, would happen next.
She had travelled perhaps three hundred yards when, abruptly, violence returned. This time there was no warning, no hubbub to alert her and give her a chance to take evasive action. All at once, out of nowhere, a half-dozen Lateys came charging towards her, hotly pursued by a similar number of Earlies. Kim leapt aside out of the oncomers’path, but the Earlies caught up with the Lateys just alongside her, and she was caught up in the ensuing imbroglio. Punches flew all around her. She glimpsed bared teeth, furious grimaces, fists brandished in the air. Then someone collided with her and she tumbled away, fetching up against a set of railings.
Her hand went to her shoulder without her realising it. She grabbed the backpack strap, swung the backpack off, brought it round, unzipped it, all in a flurry of instinct. Her self-preservation mechanisms had gone into override. Outnumbered, surrounded—how else to level the playing field? It was just at this moment that one of the Earlies spotted her, as she huddled against the railings with her back to him. His blood up, the adrenaline fizzing, it was easy for him to take her for a foe. The fact was, she wasn’t kitted out like him. Ergo, she must be one of them.
And at the same moment, a Latey caught sight of Kim and came to the same conclusion. Both Beatlemaniacs moved in on her, not able to see what she clutched in front of her in one hand nor understanding why she might be fumbling in her trouser pocket with her other hand. All they perceived was somebody frightened, trembling. Somebody dressed in a manner they themselves did not dress in. Somebody who needed to be, deserved to be, beaten up.
Thumbing the cylinder release catch, just as Rotten Ray had shown her. The cylinder flipping out sideways. All six chambers visible. A bullet, nose first, in it went. Snapping the cylinder shut. A hand seized her arm. Kim felt herself being hauled round.
“Ey, la’, wha’the fook’s this?” exclaimed the Early, peering at her.
“It’s no bloody Blue Meanie, that’s for sure,” quipped the Latey.
“‘If I had a gun,'” sang Kim, and up came the revolver, clutched in both hands, “‘I’d draw up a list.'”
The two Beatlemaniacs, as one, took a step backwards.
Kim curled her finger around the trigger. “‘If I had a gun, I wouldn’t waste any time.'”
The Early and the Latey looked at each other and intoned, simultaneously, “Revolver.”
“Help!” added the Early.
The Early being a George and the Latey a John, both were painfully aware (the latter the more so) of the danger presented by firearms. Fear left them physically paralysed, unable to move. Their companions were still battling away in the street, oblivious. No assistance would be coming from that quarter. The two Beatlemaniacs faced seconds of private, gut-clamping terror.
Kim, meanwhile, felt the exhilarating glee of the gun’s power. It was exactly as she had imagined on the bus. With Mik’s song still pouring forth from her lips, she relished the revolver’s cold, loaded weight, the way it bore down on her wrists and tightened her forearms, the ridge of the trigger beneath her index finger, sprung, ready. She wasn’t aiming at either Beatlemaniac and yet she had them both under her sway. Their eyes were white-wide with fright. Their jaws hung slack like—
A thunderclap, obliterating all other sound. Eardrum-punchingly loud. The door of a parked car in front of Kim caved in. Window glass sparkled down. The car’s alarm let rip with a whooping shriek. The gun had seemed to come to life in her hands. It had wriggled and bucked and she didn’t remember pulling the trigger at all, the gun had gone off of its own accord. She stared down at it, half expecting it to fire again even though she knew it was now empty. When she looked up again, she registered the damage done to the car, which was still shrieking like crazy, a wounded metal beast. The bullet-hole in the door was the size of a golfball, with a silver medallion of missing paint around it, and around that a dent as deep as though it had been inflicted by a good hard kick with a good hard boot. Of the Beatlemaniacs, any of them, there was no immediate sign, but quick glances right and left revealed fleeing figures. They were scurrying away as fast as humanly possible. Olympic sprinters would have had trouble keeping up.
Kim peered down at the gun again, and all at once it dawned on her what she had done. Not merely loosed off a gun in a public place. That was bad enough, but worse, far worse, she had wasted a bullet. She had had only three of the damn things to start with, and now she had only two. How stupid, how fucking careless, was that? Of course, in theory she still needed just the one bullet, but she had had a decent margin for error and now, at a stroke, it had been halved. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Still chastising herself, Kim stowed the gun hurriedly away, shouldered her backpack, and got moving.
Soon the car alarm was just a far-off bleat, mingling with the wolf howl of a police siren. Head down, jaw set, Kim pounded on towards Dray Yard Wharf.