The Concrete Grove - By Gary McMahon


Shades and Shadows

“I don’t like it here. The closer you get

to the centre, the weirder it feels.”

– Hailey Fraser


HER NAME WAS Hailey. She was just fourteen years old.

And she was afraid.

No, that wasn’t quite right. Hailey wasn’t afraid, not exactly; she was sad and confused and worried about her mother, and all she really wanted was to be left alone. Just for a few minutes, maybe even as much as half an hour. She needed some time on her own, during which she could think about things and set the facts in order. The world always seemed a little less harsh when the facts were put in place, with everything lined up in neat little rows where she could see them properly. Like her books on their shelves or her stuffed toys sitting against the skirting board at home.

It was Hailey’s mother who was afraid. Even Hailey could see that. Her mother, she knew, was terrified.

Things had been tense around the flat lately – even Hailey, with her limited ability to empathise, was aware of this tension. Her mother chewed her fingernails all the time, and she lost her temper much easier than ever before – easier and more regularly. She was drinking a lot – cheap wine in big bottles from the local off-license – and Hailey could sometimes hear her crying at night through the thin walls of their crummy little flat in the Grove. In the morning she would pretend that she’d slept well and everything was fine, but Hailey knew that there were tear stains on her mother’s pillows.

Hailey walked slowly through the narrow streets, ignoring the youths who were perched on garden walls and loitering at the corners smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking cider from plastic bottles. She paid no attention to the fat man who always seemed to be watching her from a parked car near the shopping arcade, and blanked the old woman who stood on her front step shaking her fist at the sky and shouting at the birds.

Such sights were normal in the Grove – the Concrete Grove. Hailey had learned this. The people who lived on the estate were somehow different from the ones she had known before, in her old life, when her mother had a job and money wasn’t a problem.

These people, the ones she now lived among, were closer to the bottom of the pile than anyone else she’d met. That’s how her mother termed it: the bottom of the pile. As if society was just a big pyramid of people, squirming and shouting and fighting for position, and she and Hailey had slipped through the gaps to end up somewhere near its base. Sometimes, late at night, when she was unable to sleep, she could almost feel the pressure of all those bodies above her, pushing and shoving and nipping and punching… looking for a way to climb.

She quickened her pace and reached the north end of Grove Road, where the Bailey brothers lived. The twin boys, both fifteen and in the year above Hailey in classes, were possibly the worst bullies at her school. A month ago they’d put little Lloyd Jones in hospital, slashing his back with a straight razor taken from their father’s things. Hailey recalled the police visiting the school, when not one of the other pupils had dared say anything against the brothers – which meant, of course, that they had got away with their crime because there were no witnesses. They remained unpunished, even though everyone knew they’d done it. Even the headmaster knew, but he was just as scared of the Bailey family as everyone else in the area.

Was every school like this, or just the one she went to? She didn’t remember her old school being so violent or filled with such aggressive pupils, but it was so long ago now – a full eighteen months – that she could barely recall anything about the place, other than it had seemed so clean and bright and stress-free in comparison to her current educational establishment.

She was glad that school was over for the day, and that she could roam around on her own just to get the horrible prison air of the place out of her lungs. At her old school, she’d been happy to stay behind and help the teacher tidy the class, or play outside the gates with her friends before heading home for dinner. These days all she wanted was to be away from school,