Most of the characters in this little tale have nicknames - some are explained, some aren’t…. you can use your imagination. The setting is based on an episode from my teenage years when I worked part-time at an old cinema.

I was in two minds whether to call it ‘How Chip Got Rich’ or ‘The Pits’ but then decided as above.

 

   
   

 

Chipton Faine was a mixed race kid; his dad Brin was first generation Jamaican immigrant. They lived in an old broken down rented house near the railway at the end of our street. His mum, who was English, had scarpered long before - this was back in the early 60s when mixed-race marriages, like same-sex relationships, were taboo - while all kinds of prejudice was legal and common. This meant Brin, and especially Chip, were obliged to tolerate the occasional offensive remark or worse.

Beyond the street a wide track, flanked by dense bushes, curved down steeply away from the railway for about half-a-mile. Here, beyond a thicket of trees, was what we called the ‘Pit’: a wide section of river - or rather, tributary - with lock gates and an open area where us kids would often congregate for a smoke or a bit of fishing. It was called the ‘Pit’ by virtue of its reputed depth, though me and Chip had been out on an old leaky punt we had there and dropped a brick tied to a length of rope. Nowhere was it more than 3-metres. A few bubbles rose with each test, which the colonel – a lanky kid with blond hair and always a fresh smile – reckoned was methane and best left undisturbed. 

The day I describe, it was early evening - a Saturday. I hadn’t seen Chip since lunchtime. Apparently, he’d failed to return home from an errand, and Brin came down the Pit searching.

Now, an adult at the Pit was almost unknown, so it was a big surprise to see him there. After some jeering, a kid named Bruiser aimed a remark at him on account of his weird stripy hair (hence the nickname) – and we all laughed: “Zebra-head.”

Brin stood his ground. He glared at Bruiser, who started to back-off. Then he turned to us others and asked very calmly, had we any idea where Chip was; this was a serious matter: he’d failed to return after being sent to pick-up from a 'colleague' of Brin's a bottle of dark Jamaican rum.

When we said nothing, Brin asked us in turn, as if to assess our honesty: first the colonel, then me and finally Tapper – a small wiry kid who suffered from mild Tourettes, which was manifested chiefly in him compulsively tapping things, especially when excited. 

“So none o’ you guys not know where’s Chip?” said Brin, drearily, “That’s sad, real sad.” and staring hard at Tapper who was alternately jiggling his hands and patting his legs, said, “What wrong wi’ this guy?”

Then Bruiser chirped-up, “He’s swallowed some of yer rum, an’ Chip’s sleeping it off in the thicket there.” he nonchalantly flicked his head to indicate behind the trees on the far side of the lock.

“Better not be.” snapped Brin, correcting his posture, “Anyhow,” he added after a moment of reflection, “I’d of smelt it. An’ you don’t look like you had none.”

“I know where he’ll be.” I said, “I’ll find him.”

Me and the colonel were about to leave anyway, and I started walking up the track.

“Where then?” Said Brin, brightening and striding out beside me. The colonel joined us and we left Bruiser with his fishing gear, and Tapper with his tics, and we walked away up towards the road.   

“He’ll be at the other pit.” said the colonel - a boy of few words - catching up.

“Oh?” said Brin.

“The flea pit.” I said.

“Ah, picture house.” said Brin, smiling for once.

“It’s where we go when the weather’s lousy.” I said, “Though other times too, when there’s a good film or maybe to hear the bands practicing… the best ones, that is.”

“Bands?” said Brin.

“Chip not tell you about the bands?” I said.

“He don’t say nothin’.” said Brin, “Not ‘bout that place, nor any place. I only knows the river from seeing ‘im go there.”

“The colonel plays in one.” I began, turning to the colonel, “Don’t ya? Lead guitar. And good too.”

The colonel blushed slightly and smiled.

Brin nodded, “Sounds a fine place, this flea pit. Bands, music, jazz… “

“We’re normally there in the evenings.” I said, “but tonight there’s nothing going on. And they don’t play jazz, just pop stuff.”

We were at the road now. This was where Brin waved and left me and the colonel to continue into town. “Don’t worry,” I called, “we’ll find ‘im. You’ll get yer rum.”

“Blimey,” I said to the colonel, shortly, “Do you reckon he’s drunk the old man’s booze and got scared to go home?”

The colonel peered sidelong at me, shrugged, then said, grinning, “You know him better than me.”

This was true. And that response got me wondering. The colonel knew Chip was gay, though I didn’t reckon he knew me and him were kind-of lovers.

Chip was a year younger than me, I’d noticed him at school when he first moved to the area a year or so earlier. But we only met properly at the flea pit where I worked Saturday afternoons, helping organise the matinee. He attracted many a furtive glance, often from the most unlikely people. Could hardly take my eyes off him either - nor believe my luck that he was unattached. We bonded so kind-of naturally. For me, him being a bit effeminate added to his appeal; he got teased - ie, crass imitations, etc., which he always shrugged off. He had a great personality too - not introvert, just gentle and thoughtful - the word 'composed' would not be amiss. His only fault: too trusting.

Soon after we got to know one another - this was almost a year before the Menace incident - he told me that what attracted him to me, apart from looks, was the way I ushered the kids and kept order during the matinee, treating the little ones always kindly and individually, even letting them in for free when they had no money.

It was nothing to me. The manager would never have approved, of course. If he wasn’t organising venues for the bands to play, then he’d be tied-up with working some new fiddle for bingo-night. 'Pound wise, penny foolish.' was his style. This meant a level of autonomy for us who worked there, of which we weren’t slow to take advantage: free fags, free chocolate, free love (for me and Chip, at any rate - in the storeroom, which had a lock - on big soft piles of packaging)... the flea pit was a favourite haunt for a whole bunch of us.

That day when me and the colonel arrived at the flea pit, there was no sign of Chip.

Babs, who sold the tickets and was tidying the kiosk, suddenly emerged and when we asked, said, “He was in the yard half-an-hour ago, when I got here. Then I heard the Menace turn up and tell Chip he had something really important he might like to see. The Menace didn’t know I was in here listening, not with the shutter down.”

The Menace, I should say, was a notorious pest. I never did discover his real name (I wonder if it was Dennis... though maybe Adolf would have been more appropriate?). He was a tough, thickset old bully, and a racist. There were a lot like him in those days. Not just old fashioned disciplinarians, but real Fascists. Nowadays his type would belong to the National Front or the KKK. I guess he was in his 60s. He had fixed outdated views on just about everything, and made no secret of it. He acted like he hated everyone, and was opposed to anything new or different. He seemed to despise young people especially, as if he saw them as a challenge to some glorious (or most likely horrendous) future or similar cause. Nor did he have any sense of humour, which meant he got taunted at any opportunity. I could never make out what the hell he was doing there, loitering and snooping around. Nobody liked him, and nothing could have been more incongruous. He had a nasty habit of appearing from nowhere at the most inopportune moments and shoving his nose in, trying to dictate like he was in charge.

The usual crowd, in contrast, were young - early 20s maximum - and comprised pop groups, music lovers, all kinds of trendy teens and various laid back hangers-on who just liked the atmosphere of the place and to hear the bands practice the latest hits…. it was carefree, open-minded and free-thinking… this was the 60s after all, wild liberating times of long-hair, hippies, flower-power, free love and lsd. 'What else are we here for?' I used to think (and still do).

Hiring-out pop-groups in those days provided a lucrative sideline for the manager, who was a mild, innocuous guy we rarely saw, though to manage that place he must have had some muscle. He fervently denied rumours that the Menace was spying for him - though I never did find out the truth of it.

“I could tell Chip didn’t want to go with him.” continued Babs, anxiously, “But the Menace threatened him. Called him a black pansy… then they went round the side and out of earshot.”

“The bastard.” said the colonel, “He threatened me last week for turning an amp up too loud.”

“What did you do?” I said.

“He was pretty scary.” said the colonel, “What would you do?”

“I’d like to rig some way to electrocute the sod.” I said, “Some of that gear looks definitely dodgy to me. We’d easily get away with it.”

“Maybe you should go and look.” Said Babs, ignoring my remark - or, by the way she winced, finding it distasteful - “You're wasting time, there’s no telling what that brute might have done with poor Chip.”

Chip’s delicate appearance did invite sympathy, but he was no wimp. In any kind of physical conflict against the Menace, though, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. The thought made me shudder… I was in love with the kid; I felt for him.

We started with the boiler house…. Nothing. Then the store-room, which was locked and silent. Then we scoured the rabbit-warren of half-dilapidated outbuildings: deserted just then, these consisted of three floors of a dozen or so dusty rooms where, usually accompanied by their most ardent and tolerant fans, pop-groups practiced the latest hits, drank beer, larked about and did a few other things besides which I won’t go into just now. Everywhere littered with old drum-kits, all kinds of guitars, various associated electrical gear, mostly in poor condition, some units with broken sides and lethally exposed circuit boards, crushed and otherwise damaged cables strewn everywhere across grimy uneven floorboards, and mostly ending in multiple adaptors that would have scared the pants off the most hard-boiled safety inspector ….numerous massive speakers, big old Vox amplifiers, copycats, several small electric pianos, broken mike-stands, split drum boxes, one room dominated by an ancient double-bass with no strings... We ended up out in the yard again our heads spinning, wondering where the hell next.

Then the colonel cried, “The outhouse!”

This was a brick shed at the back of the cinema where mops and buckets were stored. We charged round there immediately. The door was stuck… then we rattled it - and heard groaning…

One powerful kick and the door smashed through easily. As we burst in, there was a sudden overpowering waft of rum. Chip was submerged beneath a heap of rags, mops and dusters, surrounded by buckets and brooms and cans of cleaning fluid. He lay curled in a corner tied with a length of cable that held together and cut into his wrists and ankles.

Once we’d got him free, he hobbled, with our help, into the yard. He clutched his arms in pain, and his face was scratched with several broad grazes. I could see the start of bruising on one cheek - it was several days before we could snog properly again. And his clothes reeked of rum. The Menace, apparently, after exhausting his fists, had beaten Chip with a broom handle, then - presumably in an absurd attempt to implicate Chip in his own sorry condition - splashed rum over him, and scarpered with what remained, not thinking that taking the bottle would implicate him instead.

“But why?” protested the colonel, “Why? Why?”

Chip just shook his head and groaned.

“The bastard.” I said, “No way he’ll get away with this. He’s mincemeat!”

But the Menace didn’t appear again for nearly a month. People began to think they’d seen the last of him. To be on the safe side, Chip and me kept away for a couple of weeks. When we returned it seemed implicit that I – why me? - was suspected more than anyone of knowing what fate had befallen the Menace.

Then one day he suddenly reappeared. Again, it was a Saturday, late afternoon, after the matinee - and the day of the Grand National.

Babs, in the kiosk as usual, at first ignored him - she told us afterwards - then, quite uncharacteristically, he bought an ice-cream from her and, even more uncharacteristically, told her to keep the change from a fiver.

It was shortly after that when I arrived back from a wander round, following a very boring matinee. I spotted him through the art-deco front doors, lurking opposite the kiosk. Then I caught his eye and he immediately turned away. For my part, I made a swift detour through the side-door into that labyrinth of outbuildings. This was the perfect opportunity to carry out our plan.

The colonel and Chip were on the first floor. I didn’t know how much time we had, but I said to get ready: no-one about, so - as arranged - to alert Cal and Steve, drummer and bass-player of ‘The Wreckers’. Both big tough-looking guys, they’d suffered several altercations with the Menace due to the volume of their instruments, and had agreed to assist in our scheme - though, like us others, I don't suppose they thought it would actually come to fruition.

Chip said, “Is it really on? Are you certain?”

I nodded grimly, “You know what to do.”

The colonel charged up the stairs to find Cal and Steve, while Chip charged down. His task was to fetch a big old wooden wheelbarrow I’d stowed two weeks earlier when we’d conceived the idea, behind the cleaning store. (Luckily, the temporary absence of my dad’s wheelbarrow had gone completely unnoticed.)

Cal and Steve came into the yard, the colonel and me behind them with several rolls of duct-tape. They burst into the foyer; then - one each side - grabbed our unsuspecting quarry. I ran around between, wrapping the victim’s legs. A weird whining noise, presumably from shock, was all the Menace could utter. But as he keeled over he screamed out. That’s when I wrapped his arms tight into the body while Cal rolled him, and the colonel stuck a strip across his mouth to quell the screams.

Chip was out front by now with the wheelbarrow, waving. Cal and Steve dragged the squirming bundle into the yard and eventually, with some difficulty, managed to lift him in. I wrapped another length of tape to hold him there, wriggling as he was - and the colonel threw over a grimy old dust-sheet that had been kicking around for ages in one of the practice rooms.

Now we set off; Chip and the colonel, one each side, and me walking ahead. It was tough going. The menace was heavier than he looked. The streets were nearly empty, but we steered well clear of lingering shoppers. Soon we were taking turns with who walked.

Twenty-minutes or so later we eased the barrow down the steep curving incline towards the Pit. When we were almost there, Bruiser and Tapper with several other kids came to see what the racket was. The wheelbarrow legs scraped the gravel in our effort to slow our descent.

Someone flung the sheet away, and two very scared darting eyes glared out from the panicked face. Tapper ran alongside, enthusiastically explaining the history of the situation to the other kids. When we stopped at the edge of the Pit we had quite a crowd of spectators.

“Tip ‘im in then!” someone shouted.

“Unwrap the poor sod first.” said someone else, “Or he’ll drown.”

“Isn’t that the aim?” said another voice.

“We can’t drown ‘im.” said Chip, holding the barrow back from the edge. The colonel held one side and I the other, and we were tipping the handle up slightly against Chip’s attempt to push it down. We were more than ready to deposit our obnoxious load into the mysterious black depths - though unless the barrow was to go too, we first had to cut some of the tape.

Then Chip pulled the tape off the Menace’s mouth. “AHHHH! HELP! STOP!” he yelled, “I CAN’T SWIM!”

“We can’t let you get away with what you did, you bastard.” I shouted, “So what do you propose we do?”

“I’ll pay you.” He cried, his voice squeaky with fear, “I’ve got money.”

“How much?” said the colonel.

“Fifty?” squeaked the Menace.

“Fifty?” said Chip, relaxing his grip. Now the wheelbarrow jerked up at the handles, and tipped forward.

“Alright a hundred!” cried the Menace instantly.

That gave us ideas, so we tipped the barrow again.

“Two-hundred!” he yelled.

“More.” I said.

“Isn’t that enough?” he cried, “What are you trying to do to me?”

“We’re trying for some kind of justice.” I said, “after what you did to Chip. He deserves compensation.”

“How much you got anyhow?” said Tapper, “There’s a whole bunch of us here to pay off.”

“Where do you lot come into it?” I said, looking at Tapper and waving towards the crowd of kids, “But keep back, and you might get something.”

“Let me out.” shouted the Menace, “Then we’ll discuss it.”

“We discuss it first.” I said, “And how do you propose to get the money to us?”

“And when?” said Tapper.

“I’ve got it on me.” The Menace mumbled, almost incoherently.

“OK,” I said, pulling the barrow back slightly from the edge. We all glanced briefly into the ominous black void.

“Maybe we check how much you got." said Tapper.”

Then the colonel and Tapper set to work, going through his pockets.

“Get off!” cried the Menace, “You little bastards.”

Suddenly, out on the grass, spilled a mass of banknotes, bundles and rolls of them, and loose ones floating out separately…

A loud murmur and intakes of breath issued from the kids, not to mention expletives, as they watched the great bounty spread across the ground. Then they – all boys – rushed at it.

The colonel and Tapper struggled to fend them off.

“STOP!” I yelled. “LEAVE IT!”

To my amazement, they froze. “We share it properly and fairly!” I shouted. Then they drew back.

When all the pockets had been searched and emptied, we cut the tape that held the Menace in the barrow and tipped him onto the grass, still with his legs and arms tied, and writhing helplessly.

Chip wheeled the barrow to one side of the track, away from the Pit, while the colonel withdrew a carrier from his pocket, gathered the money and began shoving it in the carrier.

“Hadn't we better count it?” said Chip, “Then decide how we split it. We’ll have to dish out some each to everyone here.”

"You're too soft Chip." I said.

Distracted by the dough, I failed to register the curious way Bruiser was behaving. On reflection, I remember him hovering nearby, watching quietly, then moving surreptitiously around in an arc keeping his distance, but eyeing the colonel closely.

“Gawd,” cried Tapper, as the colonel stuffed the last few notes into the carrier, “There must be a grand there, at least. Maybe two!”

As the colonel stood up, Bruiser pounced. He grabbed the bag and ran. Pushing the other kids aside he barged through them and legged-it up the track.

Since I was about the only one who wasn’t scared of Bruiser, it was up to me to act. But it took a few seconds to realise what had happened, so I was slow to get started. Then I sprinted after him. I was a good runner too, but he had an easy hundred metres lead and had disappeared round the curve. Bruiser’s problem now was his sturdy build, weighing maybe 20Kg more than me. I knew I’d easily catch him before he could reach the road, so unless he was stupid he'd hide somewhere.

Then I heard a car. I’d never seen a car at the Pit before. Obviously, maintenance and emergency vehicles would need access to the lock, but this didn't sound like a lorry. Then it stopped, and someone was running on the gravel. Next a man’s voice shouted ‘Stop!’. After that I heard talking… distant and unintelligible. I walked on, braced ready to dart into the foliage the instant anything or anyone appeared. I could hear someone walking towards me and talking, then the car again. That’s when I leapt into the bushes. A cop car went by, followed a few moments later by Bruiser accompanied by a cop. Neither had the carrier. Was it in the car, or had Bruiser stuffed it in his jacket? Either way, the cops were bound to get it.

It seemed obvious that someone had reported us - probably suspicious of the squirming cargo in our wheelbarrow.

While I was wondering about this and what to do, I heard whispering, getting louder from the direction of the Pit. When I peered out, there was Chip and the colonel coming stealthily up the edge of the track. When they saw me, they ran, and we all ran up the track together…

“Didn’t the cops see you?” I asked.

“No,” said the colonel, “We chased after you in case you needed help, then dodged in the bushes when we heard that car.”

“They got Bruiser.” said Chip.

“I know.” I said, “I saw. But what about the dough?”

Suddenly the colonel skidded to a stop. “My carrier!” he shouted.

“keep yer voice down.” I said.

The colonel was behind me and Chip, so we’d missed it. He pushed between some bushes and emerged with the carrier, still bulging with cash. It hardly needs saying we were overjoyed.

Eventually, we managed to sneak it into Chip’s place. In his bedroom he had a box of weird possessions with a good padlock. He wouldn’t let anyone see in there except me. I can tell you it was all standard teenage junk, a fancy flick-knife, several badges, the usual trash. But that’s where we hid the dough. There was, in fact, £685 – which in those days was a fortune. We found out later the Menace had won it on an outsider in the Grand National that day – I wish I could remember the horse’s name.

We agreed to split the money so that Chip would have £600, me and the colonel £30 each, with £20 for Cal and Steve. I’d give the other five to Tapper for his help at the Pit. We also agreed that a low profile was essential, so no-one would spend anything significant for a few months, not that could provoke any suspicion.

The cops called at Chip's place the next day - why not mine? (and it was after I'd collected my dad's wheelbarrow) - but Brin knew nothing, and Chip was needle sharp. They never suspected a thing, and didn't return.

Six months later Chip and his dad moved to a smart house of their own, with a decent bit of ground. I believe Brin got a small mortgage that was less than the previous rent. Remember, in the 60s you could buy a house outright for a cool grand.

As for the Menace, we never saw him again – at least I didn’t. And a couple of years later Chip went off to college. And me, I went to work in another town and we kind-of lost touch…. The colonel, well, he became an electronics genius, so he did pretty OK… Then the flea pit was demolished to make way for a BIG NEW Woolworths – which, as who doesn’t know it, ended up folding. That was a couple of years back … so it goes.