Sheffield in the early 1980s …
Vegan anarcho punk Stiggy tags along with his mates to see top London Oi! band The Cockney Upstarts play their first ever northern gig at The Marples. He expects trouble when he sees all the skinheads who have turned up, but what he doesn’t expect is to meet Sally, the girl of his dreams. There’s just one problem — she’s a skinhead too, and her boyfriend is absolutely massive. He’s also ten years older than Stiggy, and very protective of his bird.
When the inevitable fight breaks out between punks and skinheads, Stiggy makes a swift exit before the riot cops arrive, taking Sally with him. But he soon finds out there is more to her than meets the eye. She’s hiding a dark secret, and the next time Stiggy crosses paths with her boyfriend it sets in motion a chain of events that will change all their lives forever.
With a unique blend of social realism and unashamed pulp fiction action reminiscent of those old NEL classics of the 1970s by the likes of Richard Allen and Peter Cave, Runaway presents a snapshot of a bygone era populated by punks, skinheads and Hells Angels. Blakeston’s writing pulls no punches, and will leave you battered and reeling by the story’s climax.
Contains scenes of graphic violence, very strong language throughout, and deals with topics that some readers might find upsetting.
Stiggy didn’t reckon much to the support band. And judging by the amount of beer and abuse being hurled at the stage, neither did anyone else in The Marples that night. It wasn’t that they were young and inexperienced, although the way both the guitarist and bass player had their backs to the audience the whole way through their set, and the way the singer kept stuttering his words all the time, certainly didn’t help. It wasn’t even that they couldn’t play their instruments properly. They were a punk band, after all, and a certain amount of rawness came with the territory. They just weren’t the band Stiggy had paid his two quid to see, and he wanted them to hurry up and finish so the Cockney Upstarts would have enough time to play their full set before he had to leg it down to the train station for the last train home.
Stiggy didn’t care much for the Cockney Upstarts either, but he had his own reasons for being there. The Donny punks had had nothing but hassle from skinheads for months, and he wanted to be there to back his mates up in case any trouble kicked off. And judging by the glares Twiglet kept getting from the mob of skinheads leaning against the bar, it looked like that was inevitable.
There were twelve of them in total, all dressed in regulation boots and braces with short-cropped hair and bleached jeans, like some sort of drunken regiment that wasn’t too fussy about who they let in. Even the solitary bird with them was dressed the same, except in place of jeans and T-shirt she wore a short denim skirt with red braces hanging down over her bare thighs, and a pale green plaid shirt with short sleeves and buttons down the front. Her brown hair was close-cropped, just like the men, the only nod to femininity being long thin strands at the sides, and a three inch fringe that partially obscured her eyes. She stood to one side of the group, sipping from a bottle of Babycham, while the men punched the air and chanted at the support band on stage.
“Off! Off! Off!”
Their leader, a huge, stocky man at least ten years older and a good six inches taller than the others, shouted the loudest. Bulging muscles threatened to burst out of a skin-tight Rock Against Communism T-shirt with every jerk of his massive, tattoo-covered arm. Dangling red braces and a huge pair of black Doc Martens with white laces completed the image of someone nobody in their right mind would want to mess with.
But Stiggy wasn’t in his right mind that night. He was still off his head from the bag of glue he’d had on the train down to Sheffield, and the three pints of cider he’d drunk since arriving at The Marples an hour ago gave him a sense of invincibility he never felt when he was sober. He smiled to himself as he imagined going up to the bald-headed bastard and booting him in the bollocks, then taking on the rest of his mob single-handed. Yeah, he could do that, no fucking bother.
But then someone would call the coppers and cancel the show, and Stiggy wouldn’t get to find out if what it said in the newspapers about the Cockney Upstarts throwing a dead pig’s head into the audience at the end of their set was true or not. He’d bet his mates a quid it was true, and told them he was only going with them so he could see a skinhead get smacked in the face by a flying pig’s head. But that wasn’t the real reason he had to know the truth.
If the Cockney Upstarts were using murdered animals as a form of entertainment there was nothing that would stop him bursting into their dressing room and telling them exactly what he thought of them. Then he’d write to Crass and tell them all about it, so they could spread the word and organise pickets outside their gigs, make sure they never played anywhere ever again. Maybe even get them kicked off their record label, or at least banned from Top of the Pops.
The skinhead boss draped his arm around the young girl’s neck and squeezed one of her breasts while he continued chanting. She looked tiny and frail next to him, and visibly winced. Stiggy wondered what she saw in an ugly brute like that. She looked about sixteen or seventeen, whereas the bruiser she was with was at least twenty-five, maybe even older. Every now and again she would flick her head to one side to swing the fringe away from her eyes. Each time it would just flop back down again.
“This— this is our last song,” the support band’s singer stuttered from the stage.
The young skinheads cheered. “Make it a fucking short one, you useless cunts!” one shouted.
The older skinhead drained his lager and hurled the plastic container in the direction of the stage, then pushed the young girl away from him and ordered another drink from the barman. Released from his grip, she wandered over to the far side of the bar and leaned against it with her back to the band.
Stiggy stared at her legs and wondered again what a tasty bird like her saw in a thug like that. It just wasn’t fair. Stiggy wasn’t exactly handsome in the traditional sense, and he knew it — his nose was too big, the area around his mouth was riddled with acne from years of solvent abuse, and his ears stuck out like those of a chimpanzee. But at least he wasn’t a fucking gorilla, like that skinhead she was with. So why didn’t anyone ever fancy him instead?
Some sixth sense must have told the girl someone was watching her, because she turned around and looked straight at Stiggy. Stiggy smiled and raised his hand in greeting. The girl’s face reddened, and she turned away. Stiggy shrugged to himself and brushed the dandruff from the shoulders of his Crass T-shirt before finishing off the last of his cider. After scrunching up the plastic container and tossing it on the floor, he leaned on the table and pushed himself upright from his stool. The small round table lurched to one side under his weight, forcing Colin, Brian and Twiglet to snatch their drinks up to save them from toppling over.
“Fuck’s sake Stiggy, watch what you’re doing,” Brian yelled.
Stiggy ignored him and staggered over to the bar for a refill.
The support band finished their set and unplugged their instruments. Nobody clapped, nobody cared. The skinheads shouted their final insults, then turned away and ordered fresh drinks from the barman.
Stiggy sidestepped closer to the skinhead girl and waved a pound note to attract the barman’s attention. The man nodded and held up two fingers while he finished off serving the skinheads — a wait your fucking turn gesture.
Stiggy pointed at the half-empty Babycham bottle standing on the bar in front of the girl. “You want another one of them?”
She shot a glance at the skinheads at the opposite end of the bar, then shook her head. Her hand trembled when she picked up the bottle and took a swig.
“You all right?” Stiggy asked. She seemed nervous about something, but he couldn’t imagine what. She wouldn’t even look at him, she just stared straight ahead at the optics behind the bar.
The barman finished serving the skinheads and wandered over. Stiggy ordered a pint of cider and took a long gulp. He stared at the girl’s profile, wondering what was wrong with her. Maybe she was shy or something.
“I’m Stiggy,” he said.
The skinheads turned away from the bar and glared out into the gloomy, smoke-filled room. It wasn’t long before they turned their attention to Twiglet again. A chorus of monkey sounds erupted. A young lad bent forward and swung his arms from side to side, hamming it up. Twiglet stuck up two fingers and looked away. He was used to shit like that everywhere he went; being the only black punk in Doncaster always attracted unwanted attention from skinheads.
But the skinheads were looking for trouble, and Twiglet’s cold shoulder routine just riled them up even more.
“You and me, cunt,” their leader yelled. “We’ll have our own fucking race war, right here.”
The younger skinheads laughed. “Do him, Joe,” one said. “Smash his fucking head in.”
Twiglet glared across at the huge skinhead and sneered. “Nah, you’re all right, Nazi. I wouldn’t want to get my fists dirty on your ugly face.”
“You what? What did you say, you fucking nigger?” The older man’s eyes bulged in their sockets. His teeth ground together. He clenched his fists and took a step closer to where Twiglet sat. The younger skinheads lined up behind him with their chests puffed out, voicing their encouragement.
“Leave it out, mate,” Colin said to the skinhead boss. “We’re just here to see the Upstarts, we’re not looking for no trouble.”
“Well you should keep your fucking pet monkey under control then, shouldn’t you?”
Twiglet’s eyes blazed. He rose to his feet and cracked his knuckles, then took out his skull and crossbones ear rings and put them down on the table next to his pint. “Look after these for me, yeah? I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Fuck’s sake Twiglet, just ignore them,” Colin said. “It’s not worth it.”
“Maybe not for you.”
Twiglet removed his studded wristband and wrapped it round his knuckles. Colin sighed and rose up next to him in a show of support. After a brief hesitation, Brian shook his head and joined them. Other punks nearby looked on with interest. Twiglet matched the older man in height, but not in build. Youth and agility would give him an advantage so long as he could dodge those huge fists of his opponent, but one thing Stiggy knew about skinheads was that they never fought fair. The others would pile in as soon as it started, they always did.
Stiggy put down his cider and stepped away from the bar so he would be ready to help even the score when the time came. The hairs on the back of his neck stood to attention, but his legs felt weak and wobbly. His stomach churned as he stared at the huge skinhead. Every instinct told him to stay out of it, let it run its course without him. But he couldn’t let his mates down like that, he just couldn’t.
The beefy skinhead peeled off his T-shirt and handed it to one of the others for safekeeping. More tattoos covered the man’s upper body. British bulldogs, naked women, Union Jacks and Swastikas all mingled together into one technicolour mass of ink. He pulled the braces up over his bare chest and snapped them into place over his broad shoulders.
“Let’s fucking have it, then, you cunts! I’ll take the fucking lot of you by myself!”
Twiglet sneered at him. “Come on then, you fucking Nazi prick.”
Stiggy clenched his fists, but it was more to stop his hands trembling than a show of strength. He could feel his bowels loosening. Beads of sweat dribbled from his armpits as he glanced from Twiglet to the skinhead and back again. Fuck it, he couldn’t just stand by and watch his best mate take a pounding without doing anything about it. He took a step forward, ignoring the wobbly sensation in his legs. Don’t think about it. Just do it.
“Oi, you two,” the barman shouted. “Behave yourself, or you’re out the door.”
The younger skinheads glanced at the barman, then at each other. Twiglet and the bigger skinhead maintained eye contact while they continued hurling insults.
Then a high-pitched blast of feedback came from the speakers either side of the stage and everyone turned to look in that direction. The Cockney Upstarts stood there. The guitarist tuned up while the drummer took his seat. The bass player plugged in his instrument with a loud electrical pop and slung it over his shoulder. The singer downed a can of lager, crushed the can in one hand, and tossed it to one side.
“All right?” his amplified voice yelled as he peered out from the stage.
The young skinheads turned to their leader for guidance. He seemed to consider the situation himself for a couple of seconds, then glared at Twiglet.
“This isn’t fucking over yet, cunt. I’ll see you later.”
“We’re all fucking upstarts!” the band’s singer screamed, and a wall of sound blasted from the speakers when the Cockney Upstarts broke into their top ten hit.
Punks and skinheads rushed for the stage, jostling to get the best position between the huge twin speakers. They leaped around together, their differences seemingly forgotten in an instant as the raucous music washed over them.
Stiggy sighed in relief as he watched Twiglet, Colin and Brian lose themselves in the swirling crowd, keeping well away from the skinheads. That had been too close for comfort. He looked at his wristwatch: half nine. That should leave plenty of time for them to finish before he had to leave for the train station. So he’d get to see if they ended their set by throwing a murdered pig’s head into the audience or not. And if they did …
The skinhead girl turned to Stiggy and smiled. Her green eyes seemed to twinkle in the harsh light illuminating the stage.
“I’m Sally!” she shouted.
“All right, Sally?” Stiggy shouted back. “You’re not into all that Nazi shite as well, are you?”
Sally leaned closer and shouted into Stiggy’s ear, “Am I fuck. I’m only here because Joe made me come. I don’t even like this sort of music.”
“Is Joe that big fucker who was hassling my mate?” Stiggy pointed into the crowd around the stage, where a group of skinheads were sieg heiling the band’s singer, their leader clearly visible as he towered over them.
Sally nodded. “Yeah, sorry about that. He always gets like that when he’s been drinking. Just tell your mate to stay away from him for the rest of the night and he’ll be fine. Joe’s that pissed up he’ll have probably already forgotten about it, anyway.”
Stiggy turned to watch the Cockney Upstarts play. It was one of their earlier songs, Aggro Boys, released a year before their appearance on Top of the Pops made them a household name and an overnight sensation. Back when they were still a punk band, and long before the skinheads latched onto them. Stiggy had heard it on John Peel’s radio show at the time, and quite liked it. But that was before he found out about the pig’s head.
The song ended, and the rest of the band took swigs from beer cans while the singer told the crowd about the time he was arrested and beaten up in the cells by a policeman who objected to the All Coppers are Bastards T-shirt he wore. It was a story most people already knew, because he had recited it word for word on their live album too, but that didn’t stop them from listening in rapt attention.
Stiggy turned back to Sally, who stood toying with the Babycham bottle standing on the bar. He took another gulp of cider to bolster his confidence, then the words just blurted out of him.
“So how come you’re wasting your time with an old geezer like that, anyway? A good looking bird like you could have the pick of any bloke in here, you know that, right?”
Sally turned to face him, an odd expression on her face, as if she were trying to figure out if Stiggy was just winding her up or not. She stared into his eyes. Stiggy stared back, but up close he struggled to get her into focus.
Then she smiled, shook her head, and turned away to watch the band, who had just started their next song. They watched together, side by side, sipping their drinks. Stiggy could feel the room spinning pleasantly, the cider doing its job on his already glue-fuddled brain. He bought another drink and resisted the urge to tap his foot in time to the music while he waited for any sign of a pig’s head to appear.
* * *
Forty-five minutes later, the Cockney Upstarts gig was still in full swing and Stiggy was starting to get anxious. He would need to leave in another fifteen minutes if he wanted to catch the last train home, and there was still no sign of the pig’s head.
The singer snatched the microphone from its stand and screamed into it, then dived off the knee-high stage into the audience while he sang. The crowd surged forward around him, desperate to have their go with the microphone during the chorus, to be a part of the band, even if it was only for a few seconds.
“Police scum, police scum, kill them all,” out of tune voices shouted. “Line the blue bastards up against a wall. Spray them with bullets and watch them fall. Police scum, police scum, kill them all!”
The singer continued into the next verse, but was cut short when a punk with a massive red mohican grabbed the microphone from his hand. A gruff Yorkshire accent took over the vocals. The crowd pushed and shoved, closing in on the mohican to wrestle it back from him.
The band’s singer stumbled in the surging scrum and disappeared from view. Boots trampled over him in their owners’ oblivious attempts to reach the punk with the microphone. The lead guitarist and bass player peered down from the stage, then stopped playing mid-song. It took the drummer a few more seconds to realise something was wrong and rise from his seat to see what was happening. The mohican punk continued singing his out of tune rendition of Police Scum as he dodged all attempts to grab the microphone from him.
The three band members jumped down from the stage and pushed their way through the throng, swinging punches at anyone who refused to get out of their way. Between them they managed to clear a space around the fallen singer and helped him back onto his feet. Blood poured from his mouth and nose as they led him away to the small dressing room at the side of the stage. The drunken singing continued in their absence.
Stiggy watched the dressing room door to see if the band would re-emerge with a pig’s head, but the door remained firmly closed despite cries for an encore. Roadies unplugged the instruments and packed them away. The skinheads gave each other Nazi salutes while everyone else wiped sweat from their faces and headed for the bar or the toilets. Stiggy sighed. Now he would never know if the story in the newspaper was true or not.
Sally started trembling again. She bit her lip as she stared at the group of skinheads by the stage.
“You okay?” Stiggy asked.
She nodded. “Yeah. Look, you’d better go, before Joe sees you with me.”
“Fuck that, I’m not scared of that wanker.”
Sally looked down at her boots and shook her head. “You should be. Please Stiggy, just go while you still can.”
“Are you frightened of him, is that it?”
Sally sighed. “It’s best if you just go, he’ll have a fit if he sees you talking to me. You don’t know what he’s like.”
“What does he do to you, Sally?”
“Nothing. Please, you have to go now. Your mates, as well. Before it’s too late.”
Sally cast another furtive glance at the skinheads and edged away from Stiggy. Stiggy closed the gap once more and reached out to grip her arm. Despite his glue and cider-fuddled mind he was sure there was something about the big skinhead she was keeping from him, and it wasn’t hard to guess what.
“Are you worried about what he will do to me, or are you worried about what he will do to you?”
Sally’s mouth dropped open as she turned to look at Stiggy. Her jaw trembled.
“I fucking knew it,” Stiggy said. “Come with me and my mates, we can save you from him.”
Sally wrenched her arm free and yelled: “I don’t need saving. You just need to get away from me, that’s all. While you still can.”
“Stiggy!” someone shouted from the other side of the room.
Stiggy turned to look. Colin and Brian were pushing their way through the crowd heading for the bar, Twiglet close behind. Colin’s eyes were wide and staring. He pointed over his shoulder.
“Fucking leg it, quick!”
Then Stiggy looked beyond his punk mates at the mob of skinheads hurtling forward, knocking people out of their way as they went. The huge, bare-chested skinhead’s face was purple with rage as he led the charge. He locked eyes with Stiggy and roared.
“Oi, that’s my fucking bird, you cunt!”