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 How Malcom Malone 

became the first punk in  Pontefract 

 Erinna Mettler 

Erinna Mettler is a Brighton-based  writer. Her first novel, Starlings, was published in 2011 and described by one critic as doing for Brighton what The Wire did for Baltimore. She is a founder and co-director of The Brighton Prize for short fiction and of the spoken word group Rattle Tales. Her stories have been published internationally and short-listed for The Bristol Prize, The Fish Prize and The Writers & Artists Yearbook Award.  Her career highlight was having a short story read by a Game of Thrones actor at Latitude Festival. Erinna’s new short story collection on the theme of fame, In The Future Everyone Will Be World Famous For Fifteen Minutes, is currently crowdfunding with Unbound Publishing.


When I got to Malcolm the make-up was lodged in streaks inside the cuts to his face. Beige, gold, pearlised blue, smeared into jagged red flesh and filming the blood droplets that oozed from the wounds. His face was a total mess. My first thought, when I saw him from the park gate, was that he was dead for sure. Marie had run into the art room as I was packing up. I’d spent an hour after school practising water colour shading for my A’ level portfolio; dropping water on saturated colour and brushing it out delicately until the paper swallowed it clear. My theme was birds of paradise. It’s the males that are colourful. The females are uniformly brown. They didn’t interest me; I wanted preening paradisaeidae, glossy manucode, puffball paratoia. I combined them with sketches of movie stars and models, artificial colour overlaying natural embellishment.

Marie was out of breath when she burst in red-faced, her eyes frenzied.

‘Elaine, quick, they’ve got Malcolm.’

She huffed holding her side.

‘They’re kicking the shit out of him in the park!’

I dropped my work on the floor. Our Malcolm. My beloved little brother. Sweet sensitive soul. I’d known he was doomed all along. He was too ethereal for our Northern town, too delicate and spry. I was doing The Tempest in English and I knew that Malcolm was Ariel as soon as I read it -

What is't? a spirit? Lord, how it looks about! Believe me, sir, It carries a brave form. But 'tis a spirit.


If he still did drama he’d be a shoo-in for the role - only they’d scared him off all that years ago. Sometimes I seriously worried that Malcolm wouldn’t live long enough to be set free.


He was lying limp on the grass by the fish pond. The rest of the park was deserted; unusual for a post school afternoon in July, as if the town had run indoors and pulled the curtains shut, afraid of being called to witness. I ran over to him calling his name. I stood for a second looking down at him mashed onto the ground.  One leg was twisted underneath him one arm bent back on itself, the fingers of the hand covered in dirt and blood. A dangly earring lay broken on the floor, his earlobe ripped in half. There was a boot-mark on his school shirt, grass stains on the starched white collar. I knelt beside him, flustered, unsure what to do. Remember first aid training, two days in the Temperance Hall. Check pulse and airways. Place the patient into the recovery position. He looked so still. Fearful, I lay my ear to his chest and heard his heart, its defiant one two one two. A cough crackled in his throat. A moan. I held his hand.

‘I’m here Malchy. I’ve got you. Marie’s getting an ambulance.’

Under the dirt and blood his face was covered in Maybelline, his hair hacked on top and long at his shoulders, dyed sunset orange, eyebrows plucked. I couldn’t tell if it was blusher on his cheeks or bruises.

‘What the fuck have you done?’ I said.

He opened one eye, the other a blossoming blue golf ball, and actually laughed, scarlet snot bubbling from a blackened nostril.

I heard footsteps across the grass and looked up, an elderly man with a little white westie, dressed in a coat and trilby despite the heat. He stood beside us, the dog whimpering and licking Malcolm’s trousers.

‘I’ve called the police,’ he said. ‘And an ambulance. Gang of boys it was. All bigger than him. I didn’t know what was going on at first. Thought it was football or something. Like wild animals they were.’

Malcolm murmured - his voice faint and sticky.

‘He’s trying to say something,’ said the man. ‘Tell us who it wa’ mebbe.’

I leant in closer.

Malcolm began to sing. His voice, no more than a whisper, somehow contained triumph.

There’s a Starman waiting in the skies. He’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our minds.


We’d watched it the night before. It was our Thursday ritual. We had tea then me and Malcolm washed up while Mum and Dad watched Emmerdale Farm over a cuppa in the sitting room. He’d tell me about his day, what had happened at school that sort of thing. He was a watcher. He stood quietly on the side-lines taking it all in. It hadn’t always been like this. When he was little he was the centre of attention, he sang all the time, was surrounded by little girls and always got the lead role in school plays, Gabriel in The Nativity, the lion in The Wizard of Oz that sort of thing. Things changed when they got to the age of ten or so. The girls all went off to bitch with other girls, the boys all thought he was weird because he didn’t play football. Malcolm went quiet. He stayed home and holed up in his room with the curtains drawn. He sketched and read and sometimes came downstairs to watch old movies when the sport wasn’t on. There was bullying of course, a couple of bloody noses, a bit of name-calling and casual tripping up. There was one kid in particular, Eric Caine, in the year above. He was a right bastard, geed everyone else up to torment our Malcolm. Got so bad he didn’t want to go to school anymore, kept inventing stomach aches and migraines. He was at the doctors more than he was at home. Then he came home one day with a black eye. Dad went mental. He was up at that school and when the head said it was just boys being boys he hauled him up from his desk and shoved him against the wall.

‘What’s this then,’ he said. ‘Boys being boys?’

The physical stuff stopped after that but they still called him names. Poof. Ponce. Woolley-woofter. Shut that door. Not original. Not clever. No threat to our Malcolm. He shrugged them off with his delicate shoulders and spent his time waiting it out in his bedroom, ripping out pictures from the NME to stick on his wall.

The blue guitar came first, all curves and shade, then the face, powdery and indistinct, images overlaid into a dream.

‘Look at the state of that,’ said Dad. ‘What is he wearing?’

I was in the middle, me and Malcolm wedged on one sofa cushion while Dad took one up to himself. As soon as the camera had focussed on David Bowie I felt Malcom tense. He suspended his breathing on the in. I looked at the face on the screen, clown white and high-cheek-boned, smoky eye-shadow on the lids, and the faintest gloss on the lips, parrot-red hair spiked and glossy. His tongue slipped slowly along his top lip. Malcolm still hadn’t breathed out.

‘They get weirder by the day,’ said Mum, slurping her tea.

I looked at the tall coat-hanger frame draped in its bright patterned catsuit and smiled.

‘I think he looks smashing,’ I said and nudged Malcom in the ribs. ‘What about you our kid?’

He let out his breath in a puffball and looked at me with wide startled eyes, opened his mouth but didn’t close it around any words.

When he looked back at the TV David Bowie had his arm draped around Mick Ronson and was looking into his eyes as he sang. There was a shocked silence in our living room. Dad coughed and looked at his tea. The arm was removed. Mum tutted. David Bowie looked directly at me and Malcolm and pointed his finger as if to say you, yes you, you and me - our time has come. Malcolm still hadn’t closed his mouth though he was breathing in and out now at least. That stopped a second later when Bowie draped his arm around Ronson again, more deliberately this time, lingering over it, his polished nails brushing the gold of the other man’s clinging catsuit. Malcolm slumped against the back of the sofa in surrender.

‘There’s no need for that is there?’ said Dad. ‘Are they poofs or what?’

Mum nodded. ‘Shouldn’t be on telly should it? In’t there a law against it?’

I forget who was on next. It all seemed so irrelevant after that. Malcolm’s face was burning and he was actually crying.

‘You alright luv?’ said Mum.

‘Not well,’ he spluttered, standing unsteadily and running from the room.

Dad pulled a face. ‘What’s up with him? Is it PE tomorrow?’

‘Go and see luv,’ said Mum, looking at me.

He was lying on his bed face down, his arms over his head.


He tensed. I went in and sat next to him, my hand on his skinny back.

‘What is it luv? It’s just the telly, it’s not real life.’

He looked up at me, his eyes darting.



‘Don’t say that Elaine. That was the most real thing I have ever seen.’

He sat up and hugged his knees. I could see a pulse in his neck, as fast as a hummingbird.

‘What I mean though is…’ What did I mean? ‘It’s just for the telly not for Market Street or school or owt. It’s alright for them, they’re pop stars. You’re not.’

He frowned then, sensing my concern, smiled and nodded.

‘I’ll take you into town on Saturday and you can buy it. Just us two. We can have a Wimpey.’


Marie handed me a biscuit. Mum and Dad were on their way. Malcolm was in surgery, internal bleeding, a broken leg and collar bone, a fractured skull. The doctors said he’d be okay but he needed fixing up and they’d need to keep an eye on the skull fracture.

I sipped the luke warm milk that passed for tea at the County Hospital.

‘What happened Marie? Why today? I mean we all know he’s different but I thought it had stopped. This, this was so brutal.’

‘You didn’t see him this morning then?’

‘What? No. He was up early. Left before I was even awake.’

‘He’s brave little bugger, I’ll give him that. He came to school in full make up with his hair dyed, nail polish on. I thought you must have helped him. Our Kevin said it went quiet when he walked into class, he just sat down as if he looked like it every day, then when Mr Matthews came in he sent him straight to the Head who suspended him on the spot. Everyone thought he’d gone home but he was in the park after school like he was waiting for them.’

I couldn't swallow my tea, had to spit it back out into the cup. I put it down on the floor under the chair. I tried to piece it together.

He must have waited til we were all asleep. Mum kept henna in the bathroom cupboard to cover for when the greys threatened to take over and my make-up bag had been downstairs in the lounge all night. It would have taken him hours to get his hair that bright and to hack it into shape. There are hairdressing scissors under the sink. I never heard a thing. I was dreaming of popstars and cat-suits and I suspect he was too even though he was wide awake.

‘David Bowie,’ I said.

‘Right,’ said Marie. ‘I saw it too. Like nothing else.’

‘It made a big impression on our Malcolm. He ran upstairs crying.’

Marie smiled sadly and sipped her tea. The double door swung open and Mum and Dad arrived, flustered and full of questions.


They were right about the recovery. It was July already so he wouldn't be finishing the school year. They kept him sedated for two weeks. Me and Mum and Dad took it in turns to sit by his bed. Gradually the cuts healed and the bruises faded. He looked so small and white, lying still in the bed, his pallor matched the starched sheets the nurses changed daily, lifting his plastered limbs carefully in their arms. He'd moan and roll his eyes but he didn't open them. The doctors said he was in shock and that he needed sleep to get over it. They'd repaired his battered insides with layers of stitches and all there was to tell the story was a thin red scar across his belly.

His hair was still orange though, shaved on one side for the stiches, and he had wonky teeth now just like his idol. His eye shrunk down to its normal size and the purple went blue and then yellow. I'd sit and talk to him about David Bowie, read from the NME and The Melody Maker, tell him who was on Top of the Pops and what the latest trend was, the summer’s hits and the new dance craze. I only did it when we were alone though, Mum and Dad wouldn't have liked it.

Mum and Dad never mentioned why he'd been attacked, not even when the police came round. A copper and a plain-clothes man, DI Glover, quite attractive as it happens. The copper drank tea and ate biscuits. DI Glover refused.

'Was there anything unusual about Malcolm's behaviour on the day of the attack?'

Dad shook his head. ‘No more than usual,’ he said.

I looked at him open-mouthed.

‘He wasn't like the other boys,’ said Mum, ‘but we thought the bullying had stopped.'

'Was there any boy in particular, anyone who had it in for Malcolm?'

'No that I know of.'

I knew though. I told them as much when the police had gone. We had a massive row. Dad told me to leave it, that Malcolm would be better off if we let it go, that he was asking for it, going around done up like a fairy, what did he expect?

I went to the police station the next day, asked to see DI Glover in person, told him I knew it was Eric Caine and his mates and that they'd always had it in for Malcolm. I told them where they lived. I didn't think it would be better for Malcolm if they got away with it. How could it be? How could it be better for anyone?

They took Eric Caine in for a line-up with the old man with the westie. He picked out the under-cover copper. I don’t know if they got to him or if his eyes really were that bad. Eric Caine’s cousin gave him an alibi and that was it. There were no other witnesses. Case closed. DI Glover said he was sorry.


We spent the summer at home. The back garden was our beach. For the first few weeks I pushed Malcolm outside in a wheelchair and I’d sit on a deckchair while we listened to Radio Caroline and if the ice-cream van came around I’d go and get us Orange Mivis to keep us cool. Malcolm had a plaster up to his thigh; he used to scratch inside it with a toaster fork. By mid-August, Malcolm was walking again but the only time he was away from the house was to go to physio at the hospital. His hair started to grow back on the side they’d shaved but it still looked funny, half mousey brown and half cherry red. I helped him dye it as it came through, much to Mum’s disgust.

We grew even closer that summer, our bond bathed in sunlight and birdsong, the paved square of the back yard our little fortress against the knob ends. We even got a little bit of a tan on our faces and t-shirt arms. We didn’t talk about the attack, just the recovery, how his bones were, how many steps he’d done, how far he’d swum at physio. Mostly we talked about music and fashion. David Bowie was on the telly again, and I bought Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory with my Saturday job wages. We played them over and over, signing along every time. Five Years was Malcolm favourite. The end of the school holidays loomed like rain-clouds over a blue sky.

He didn’t have to go back in September. He could have stayed off. The doctor would write him a note. He was fixed physically but he’d not seen a soul from school since his beating. On the 1st of the month Malcolm said he’d be ready for the first day of school on the 4th.

‘No point putting it off,’ he said, ‘best get it over with.’

I was set to start Art College in October so I wouldn’t be there to keep an eye on him. He came downstairs in his uniform; he kept his red hair but he didn’t wear any make-up.

‘Do you want me to walk you to the gate?’ I asked.

‘Nah, that’ll look worse. They won’t touch me. I’m last year’s news.’

I watched him walk down the path, a slight limp from his broken leg but his head held high.

Me and Mum fretted all day, cleaned everything in sight, drank sweet tea by the bucket load. At 3.30, a little late back, Malcolm rushed in and ran straight up stairs into the bathroom slamming the door behind him.

Mum and I looked at each other wide-eyed.

‘What now?’ she sighed. ‘That boy’ll be the death of me. You go Elaine luv, he won’t want me.’

I banged on the door.

‘Malcolm. It’s Elaine. Open up.’

It was quiet inside. I tried the handle but he’d locked it.


I banged and rattled the door knob.

‘C’mon luv. Did they hurt you? Don’t do anything stupid will you? They’re not worth it.’

He still didn’t say anything. I began to fear the worst and banged flat on the door so hard my hand hurt. Finally I heard the lock click.

Malcolm opened the door and stood frowning at me, a towel over his shoulders and black hair dye dripping down his face. The empty packet was ripped open and scattered behind him on the floor. He pushed passed me into my bedroom. I turned and saw Mum looking anxiously up the stairs.

Malcolm was sitting at my dressing table checking his blackbird hair in the mirror.

‘What happened Malchy?’ I asked from the door. ‘Did they hurt you?’

He dabbed at his hairline with the towel.

‘Huh? God no. It was awful though Elaine. Why didn’t you tell me? They all had red hair! Even Eric Caine. And earrings and I’m sure some of them had lippy on. The whole feckin school. Hard lads playing football in flares and eye liner. Why didn’t you tell me? No-one even noticed me. I was just like everyone else.’

He leant forward to scrutinise his rapidly changing hair-colour, pulled the flesh of his cheeks tight underneath his eyes.

‘Will you cut me hair for me Elaine? I fancy it short and spiky. And you can help me take my jeans in too. Drainpipes, like the rockers.’


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