On the coach home, Big Dave was relieved when the concrete receded and the familiar tree-lined hills of the Downs reappeared.
‘It’s alright for a day trip, but I wouldn’t like to live there,’ he said, trying to catch a glimpse of his reflection in the passing dark shapes.
Big Dave was answering his best mate Kevin’s excited declaration that the minute he turned 18 he was off to live in London.
‘That’s when you’re a proper grown up,’ said Kevin.
‘No,’ Big Dave said, readjusting the stuffed octopus on his head, ‘that’s when your life’s over.’
‘Don’t be so negative,’ Kevin said.
Big Dave grabbed Kevin by his delicate shoulders. ‘Listen, Kev,’ he said, in a tone the grown-ups used. ‘My dad says it’s best not to get your hopes up, that way you won’t be disappointed when your dreams don’t come true.’
Kevin landed his rocket key ring on his lap. ‘But… ’
Big Dave knew it would be a hard for his friend to understand, because, as everyone knew, Kevin Booth wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box. During most lessons, he could be found staring out of the window, or doodling dragons in the back of his exercise book. The teachers called him a dreamer; the kids nicknamed him ‘Wonder Boy’.
‘Someone needs to wake this bloody kid up,’ said Mr Birch, their Maths teacher, hurling a blackboard eraser at him and narrowly missing his head.
‘Wakey, wakey, lad!’ bellowed Mr Menzies, the PE teacher.
Big Dave wasn’t in Kevin’s class for PE, but he could hear Mr Menzies yelling at him from the block where he had double science. Kevin wasn’t very good at football; the ball scared him.
‘My mum says I can be anything I want to be, if I put my mind to it.’
Kevin’s voice was quiet but determined.
‘You what?’ said Big Dave.
‘She said it doesn’t matter where you come from anymore. You can do anything you want.’
Big Dave brushed aside a tentacle and laughed. ‘Don’t be daft! What are we ever going to do?’
Kevin pointed to his rocket. ‘I could be an astronaut.’
‘You an astronaut? But you’re not American, Kevin. Only the Yanks go to space, well, them and the Russians. Dad says you shouldn’t turn your back on an American. He says they’re all talk and no trousers.’
‘What does that mean?’ said Kevin.
‘I don’t know,’ said Big Dave. ‘I guess we shouldn’t trust them because they talk funny?’
Kevin became distracted by his new rocket keyring. ‘Five, four, three, two, one.’ He made blast off noises as the rocket rose from his lap. ‘Lift off. We have lift off of Apollo 11.’
‘I can’t believe you wasted all your money on that thing.’
‘I can’t believe you wasted your money on that octopus. You can’t even swim,’ Kevin said, as his rocket reached ‘outer space’.
Big Dave knelt on the seat and stared out of the back window of the coach. He watched two young women drive up in a red Ford Escort with a big spoiler on the back. They were singing Tina Turner’s The Best. He knew this because Tina was also playing on the radio in the coach. The women noticed Big Dave staring at them and smiled and waved, but when one of them blew him a kiss, Big Dave went red and turned back around in his seat. But Kevin smiled and waved back.
‘I can’t wait to get my own car,’ Kevin said, as he leaned his chin on the headrest and watched the women singing and weaving about the dual carriageway. ‘I’m getting a Ferrari 308. The one like Magnum drives.’
‘But they’re mega expensive.’
Kevin smiled. ‘I’m going to be an artist.’
‘An artist? What like painting and stuff?’
‘Well, I want to draw comics mainly.’
‘Comics? People actually do that for a real job?’
‘But does it pay well? My dad says you’ve got to think about your future and that you can’t just do any old thing you like.’
‘But what do you want to do, Dave?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said, with a shrug. ‘I’ll probably just do what my dad does.’
A bound stack of papers thumped onto the concrete, making Big Dave jump.
‘Jesus, Gary, you nearly gave me a bloody heart attack!’ he said, clutching his chest for dramatic effect.
‘Well, if you got off your arse and helped,’ said Gary.
‘Get off my arse? I’ve been getting off my arse since before you were born, mate,’ he said, in a mockney accent.
This was how all the men in the factory spoke, despite being seventy miles south of the Thames in dilapidated Bognor.
Big Dave pointed his chubby finger to his watch. ‘Look, you idiot, it’s tea time. They won’t pay you any extra for it.’
‘Ah shit!’ Gary said.
He jumped down from the loading dock and poked about the front of his overalls for his tobacco pouch.
‘You could’ve bloody said.’
‘I didn’t like to disturb you. You looked so happy in your work.’
Gary slapped Big Dave on the back and they both laughed. They could go on like this for hours: ribbing each other and calling each other wankers, but since the rumours had started the banter was tinged with unease. Big Dave heard about it from Slim Fast, who heard it from Big Nose Nigel, he was told it by his wife who’s friends with Big Mouth Tina in the office, who apparently heard it straight from the horse’s mouth. Big Dave didn’t believe any of them; he thought it was all bollocks.
‘I bumped into Tina this morning,’ said Gary, with a significant eyebrow raise.
‘Oh yeah?’ said Big Dave, as he dipped his Caramel Wafer into his tea and bit it in half. ‘Alright, is she?’
‘She wouldn’t divulge.’
Some of the lads were kicking a scuffed football about the sunny loading dock.
‘I reckon they’ve got to her. Heard she blabbed.’
‘This isn’t the Godfather, Gary. She isn’t going to wake up with a horse’s head in her bed.’
‘But doesn’t it worry you?’
‘We had all this a couple of years ago when the Americans took over. The Yanks are all talk and no trousers.’
‘But what if it is true?’
Big Dave shoved the other half of the Caramel Wafer into his mouth and bent over to pick up a comic from a spilled bundle.
‘You think I’m too old to go to college?’ said Gary.
‘Well, fuck me!’ said Big Dave, choking on a mouthful of chocolate. ‘Kevin Booth drew this.’
‘Who the hell’s Kevin Booth?’ said Gary, as he lit his cigarette.
‘I used to go to school with him. My dad said he had his head in the clouds.’
‘It could be a different Kevin.’
‘No, it’s him.’
Big Dave flicked back to the front cover. The comic was called Rocket Man. He shook his head and smiled.
‘He always said he wanted to draw comics.’
The smile faded.
‘Let’s have a look.’
Kevin grabbed the comic and leafed through it. Big Dave silently walked away and headed inside the factory.
‘Where you off to?’ Kevin shouted, but Big Dave didn’t reply.
The factory floor was empty and quiet; everyone was outside trying to catch a tan, smoking, or playing football. Big Dave stood in a shaft of sunlight that shone through a skylight thirty-feet above the floor. He watched an aeroplane cross the square patch of blue and thought of Kevin. He hadn’t spoken to him in twenty years. They’d met up a few times after school, but once their one common bond was removed their friendship felt awkward and uneven. Big Dave heard Kevin had gotten into university and moved away. He thought he saw him on Bognor high street a couple of years ago. Perhaps he was visiting relatives, but Big Dave never found out because he ducked into W H Smith before Kevin could pass him. Big Dave didn’t want to explain his life to Kevin. He didn’t want to think about his life at all. But as the sun warmed his face, he couldn’t help thinking what he might have done with it.
When Tina saw Big Dave standing by himself on the factory floor, her first reaction was to ignore him and look busy. She looked down at her clipboard and traced some numbers she’d already written. But when she looked up again, Big Dave was still standing in the same beam of sunlight looking up at a high window. He looked unlike she’d ever seen him before: thoughtful. A cheer went up outside. One of the men in the loading dock must have scored a goal. Big Dave snapped out of his thoughts and saw Tina staring at him. A blink restored his features to their familiar upward-pointing positions. By his second step away from the sunlight, his swagger was back.
‘Tantalising Tina!’ he said, announcing her name like she was on a game show.
‘Alright, Dave?’ she said. ‘You were away with the fairies there.’
‘Me? Nah, I was just topping up my tan.’
‘Inside? Why don’t you go out there?’ She pointed to the square of white light at the end of the factory where the loading bay was located. ‘It’s lovely today. I think we might actually get a nice summer this year.’
‘It’s too bloody noisy. The lads are playing football.’
‘Careful, you sound like an old bloke, Dave.’
‘I am an old bloke.’
‘I was only joking. You’re not that old, are you?’
‘I’ll be forty in March.’
Tina laughed. ‘That’s not old, you daft sod. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.’
Big Dave smiled, but the gesture didn’t reach his eyes. ‘How’s that boyfriend of yours?’ he said, abruptly.
Tina didn’t have a boyfriend. She only pretended to have one so blokes like Big Dave would leave her alone. Her fake boyfriend Owen did interesting things like surfing and kickboxing. She’d added kickboxing after one of the lads tried to feel her up at the Christmas party.
‘He’s fine, thanks,’ she said.
‘You and Oliver should come down the pub sometime. It’ll be nice to see you.’
‘Yeah, we should, but Owen is so busy lately.’
‘Owen, that’s right. Owen,’ he said. ‘I knew it began with an O.’
Big Dave nodded as he repeated Owen’s name, but he seemed distracted. Tina worried that he knew Owen wasn’t real.
That’s it, she thought, I’m going to have to dump him.
‘What was it you said he did again?’
‘He’s a sales rep for a tyre company.’
‘He’s hardly ever about though, is he? You need a fella who’s going to treat you right,’ he said, rubbing his belly, which toppled over his jeans.
Tina was surprised by Big Dave’s concern. He usually stared at her boobs or cracked crude jokes, but today he was more fatherly than pervy.
‘Are you alright, Dave? You seem a bit down.’
‘Down, me? Nah, I just keep chugging along, don’t I?’
Tina didn’t know if Big Dave chugged along or not. The truth was she barely knew him, or anyone else in the factory beyond their colourful front covers. She’d discovered there were many unwritten rules at Dragon Press. The main one being that questions should never probe too deep. This was why everyone in the factory had the same discussions week after week: the weather, last night’s telly, sporting events, and slagging off the boss. On a Friday they’d chat about their weekend plans, while on a Monday they’d rehash the same plans, only now they used the past tense instead of the future.
‘What would you do if you could do any job in the world?’ Big Dave said, suddenly.
His question took Tina by surprise.
‘Em…’ she thought for a bit. ‘Well, when I was a kid I wanted to be a teacher.’
Big Dave smiled. ‘I reckon you’d be good at that.’
‘I don’t know. It’s a lot of hard work.’
‘Listen, Tina,’ Big Dave said, looking intently into her eyes. ‘Don’t get stuck here.’
Tina was touched by Big Dave’s concern.
‘No chance of that.’
‘So it’s true then?’
‘I think so,’ she said, with a half-hearted smile.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘You’re too smart for this place, Tina.’
Big Dave patted Tina on the shoulder and walked off towards the coffee machine, his swaggering walk fading as he left the factory floor. As he walked along the orange-tinged corridor, he wished he hadn’t listened to his dad.
‘What would you do if you could do any job in the world?’ said Kevin.
Big Dave poked his head over the back seat. An old couple in a brown Lada Riva had replaced the women in the flashy Escort.
‘Well…’ he said, twirling a tentacle around his finger.
The coach entered a tunnel, bathing the kids in an orange-tinged glow.
‘I’d quite like to drive a bus,’ he said.
‘Or a train!’ Big Dave said smiling, as the sun reappeared and swept across his face.