Book excerpt from The Dark Of The Stars by William Hamilton, available to read for free on The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK.”
Written by William Hamilton
The Dark Of The Stars
1: Cotter Pins
Few people visited this house in London, and with good reason.
There was nothing remarkable about it. Hidden by weeds at the end of a short, cracked-asphalt drive, it was dull white, lacking all the warm touches of home, tucked forgettably away in a cul-de-sac. In fact, the mailman often skipped the place entirely. Robert himself never would have been here if it weren’t for a social worker, who’d insisted upon it. He doubted his foster parents would’ve minded much if he simply disappeared.
Eager to get on with it, he knelt at the end of the drive, by the kerb, hammering at the bolt in the pedal of his bicycle, the privet hedge where it leaned shaking with every blow. So intent was he in this pursuit that he barely heard the rattle of a milk crate, the garden gate click, feet passing him, and a bottle put down on the doorstep.
Returning, the footsteps paused, and a shadow fell over him.
“That’s no way to hit it out,” said a voice.
Robert did not look up but noted the pointed shoes of worn grey leather with pinkish dust in the cracks. He disliked that style of shoe, and almost felt the same about the slightly foreign accent of the speaker, but not quite as much.
To make the man leave, he muttered sourly, “We didn’t order milk for today. Won’t want any for a month. Sam and Linda left for Spain this morning, and I’m leaving as soon as I’ve fixed these blasted pedals.”
A pause. A tsk. “Well, flattening the bolt like a rivet won’t help. Give me the hammer and I’ll show you what to do.”
Robert tipped his head back and regarded the milkman, who was now squatting at his side. His hair was too long and billowed around his head like a vapour, and his chin suggested he’d never yet needed to shave. He seemed about three years older, a slight young man in frayed jeans and a shirt with a psychedelic pattern of rainbow colours. He was not like any milkman Robert had ever seen.
I suppose I have nothing to lose, Robert thought, handing him the tool.
“Sam and Linda, eh?” the milkman said, surveying the situation.
“Yes. The place is theirs.”
“They went off to Spain and left you.”
It wasn’t a question, so Robert didn’t answer. It wasn’t the first time he’d been left out of things by his foster parents. They made it no secret that while they found the checks Child Services sent them quite favourable, Robert himself was merely tolerable.
Placing the biggest hammerhead under the pedal, the milkman picked up the nut Robert had placed on the ground, screwed it a little way back on, and struck it with the light hammer. Removing the nut, he struck again, this time on the threaded end of the pin, which flew out and rolled upon the drive.
“That was neat,” said Robert, examining the pin. “You haven’t even damaged the thread. Thanks!”
He hoped his voice did not indicate his dislike of milkmen who dressed like this one and were smaller than him by at least a few stone. After all, he’d done him a favour. He added, “I’m in a bit of a hurry. I’ll replace this and leave the other pedal. It’s loose, but ought to hold.”
“It won’t. Fetch me a hacksaw and punch and I’ll fix it for you.”
“We’ve a saw, but I don’t think there’s a punch.”
“Then I’ll use the cotter pin I knocked out instead. Get the saw.”
“The what pin?”
“Cotter pin. That’s what pins that hold pedals are called.”
“You’ve worked in a bike shop?”
“No, but they’re called that.”
“Were you a builder’s mate recently?”
“Why do you think that?”
“Brick dust on your shoes. And you’re new to this milk round.”
The milkman laughed. “It’s not brick dust. I’ll maybe explain in a moment, but first, fetch the saw.”
Robert started toward the garage at the rear of the drive, but upon hearing the telephone ring inside, dashed into the house.
It was John, his friend. At first, he was glad to hear from him, but shortly into the conversation, the black mood he’d had while kneeling on the sunny drive, hammering the pedal, returned. After listening to a myriad of poorly-constructed excuses for a short while, he said, “So you’re not waiting for me.”
“We’ve waited for two hours already! Don’t sound so pissed off.”
“Might I find you tomorrow at Spalding youth hostel?”
“Yes. Hey!” said John. “I’d wait if it was only me but there’s four of us. And Vic has set his heart on getting to his girlfriend’s house this afternoon. He’s very keen on her, and her parents expect us.”
“I know. I understand. See you, I suppose.”
He did not suppose, truthfully, and did not go immediately back to the bicycle. There wasn’t much point, now. He’d be stuck in no man’s land, likely for the whole rotting summer. The milkman would’ve left by now, anyway. Why had his friends stayed at Victor’s house and not come to see what had delayed him? In that band of friends, he had always feared being one of too many. Now, he was sure of it.
He slowly climbed the stairs, at each step becoming more deeply certain that he would not be at the youth hostel the next day. In his room, Linda’s sewing room, which was barely more than a closet, two bicycle panniers and a rucksack lay beside the bed, with a partly rolled sleeping bag on top. His legs felt heavy as he reached for a family photograph—the only one he had—and stared at the kind faces of his parents. They weren’t beautiful, but they’d been his, and the way they’d wrapped their arms protectively around his chubby five-year-old frame had been rather a beautiful feeling. One he seemed to forget more and more, with every passing day.
He sat on the bed and at last bowed his face onto the bag—his father’s—inhaling the smell of feathers and his old sweat. Through his mind tumbled the words he’d heard from John, along with words he should have said back. Jealousy, divergence, lost comradeship, moments of lost happiness…
Behind his closed eyelids, he saw his parents, that day on the jetty. He’d seen a rock among gentle waves, a cracked mass that looked like a solid slab, though it tilted sharply toward the sea, slick and black with seawater. He’d stepped on it and turned back to cry to his parents how close he’d climbed to the waves, how brave. But with frost and the buffeting waves of winter, the rock mass cracked beneath him.
The broken rock fell, and he fell…
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