"Turn it up, Andy, will you? I like this one."
Andy reached towards the radio, one eye on the road, but snapped his hand back onto the wheel as a car nudged out of its driveway a bit too fast and he had to swerve. Tapes, fag packets, papers, empty polystyrene coffee cups and all kinds of accumulated rubbish skittered across the dashboard and tumbled across the wide seat of the van. A few things flew out of the half open window on James' side and he twisted in his seat and poked his head out of the window, seat belt cutting into his neck, to see the paper whirl away behind the van and a cigarette packet fall heavily to the ground and thud against the curb. He threw the paper he was reading down on the seat next to him and started to say something, but Andy cut him off.
"Shit! Will you either keep that fucking window closed or clear this car?"
"Pull over, pull over, that was a full packet of fags."
"I think that---"
"Okay okay, I heard you," said Andy, shaking his head and heaving the grey, plastic wheel round to the left. He pulled in, blocking a steep concrete driveway with a skip in it. As James ran back down the street to pick up the fags, Andy got out of the van and threw a few things from the passengers footwell into the skip. A flat hand banging on the window of the house stopped him. He looked up to see the owner of the driveway hope and skip, making sod off gestures in the air. Alright, Mate, he mouthed and waved an arm in his direction, muttering, "fucking arseholes under his breath."
"Got `em," said James, coming up behind him.
"Great. Lets get on then."
Back in the van again, the sky was beginning to get light over the roofs of houses, as they pulled away and the traffic was getting heavier. As Andy turned sharply round a corner, buckets, spanners, lawnmowers and strimmers clanged against each other in the back of the van. James looked over his shoulder at them.
"Do you want to fucking drive?" said Andy.
"No, Mate, no. You're all right."
"So where's this school, then?"
"I dunno for sure. Not far."
"Weren't you there yesterday?"
"Nah. Mike and John went. They got the uprights done, but not the crossbars, so well have to do them."
"Just that? It's a bit of a fucking way to come just to put up some poxy crossbars."
"There's the pitches to be marked out as well."
"Have they been mowed?"
"No idea, Mate."
They stopped at traffic lights and James turned to look down the hill to his left, where the sun had turned the sky orange and blue. He reached under his cap and scratched his head through tangled blonde hair. A teenager was putting papers in a rack outside the news agents opposite. Further down the hill there was a queue forming outside the petrol station.
"Why are they queuing for petrol at this time of the morning?"
"Shut up about that and find this fucking school, will you?" said Andy, chucking an A-to- Zed in his lap. "Mellowfield something, it's called."
"What road did we just turn into?" he said, opening the map.
There was silence for a minute as James flicked back and forth through the pages. Then he said, "Meadowfield Secondary?"
"That's the one."
"Straight on for two more traffic lights, then left, then round a corner and turn---"
"---Fuck off just tell me as we go."
The suburban streets wandered past them, one much like the other as they made their way through the school-run traffic. Petrol station, news agent, Bot of Gold vertical tanning salon, garage, downsized supermarket, pet shop, pub, houses, school.
The van pulled in through the gates and swerved sharply left as Andy caught sight of the visitors sign and its arrow. He parked it outside the main doors, in between the two rows of parking spaces.
"I don't see no fucking rugby pitches," said James, looking over the edge of his paper.
"Well you'd better go in and ask them where they are then, hadnt you?"
He got out and walked towards the double doors, hiking, his white, paint-flecked jeans up higher around his waist, and tucking some stray greasy hair under the Superbowl 88 baseball cap he was wearing. Andy fuffed at him through the windscreen and picked up the paper, thumbing through to the back and rubbing the three day stubble on his chin.
"They're not here."
Andy looked up. "What'chu fucking mean, they're not here?"
"The pitches. They sold them to the supermarket."
"So what the fuck are we doing here?"
"Oh, they got new ones. Down the road." He flourished a biro map.
"Well come the fuck on then," said Andy, and turned the key.
The pitches were a mile or two away, set back from the road and surrounded on three sides by fields. Andy parked the van by the hedge and they both got out, Andy throwing the end of his roll-up to the ground and spitting.
"I'll go and have a look around."
"Right-oh," said James, who wandered off towards the wooden fence at the edge of the field. He pulled his cap down against the slight morning chill and stuck his hands in his pockets.
The fence separated the school's field from another field, which sloped down away from him towards trees at the bottom. Mist hovered over the grass at the bottom and reminded him of the kettle steam running along the underside of the cupboards in the kitchen. Three horses stood off to the right, a hundred metres or so away from him. One of them flicked its tail at something and shook its head. At the other far corner was a water trough. He wondered briefly if it was plumbed in, or if someone came to fill it up or even if it was filled by rain water.
"Did they give you a key?" Andy was walking towards him.
"Hey Andy, come and have a look at this."
"What?" he leaned on the fence beside James, looking down and shaking something out of his overlong brown hair. Like a horse.
"Look at them horses."
"What about `em?"
"pDunt look a bad life, does it?"
"What, standing about in a field all day? You can take it Mate."
"No, but that's just what they're made for innit? It'd be like us sitting on the sofa all day watching telly."
Andy took out his tobacco pouch. "So go on the dole, then."
"Nah, but don't you know what I mean? They just sit there in that field---"
"All right, they just stand there in that field, with the trees and the grass and all. It's what they was made for."
"No it ain't. They was made for running about on open land. Not for sitting in fenced off fields all day until some rich cunt decides he wants to go for a ride in the country. They're just as fucking trapped as you, Mate." He puffed on his fag.
"I didn't say I was trapped."
"Did they give you a key?"
"`Ey? Oh. Yeah. For the shed."
"Yeah. It's over there, with the crossbars in it. But there's some shit stuck on top of one of the uprights."
"What kind of shit?"
"Looks like a bird."
They were standing underneath the rugby posts, squinting up against the bright white of the clouds. The handle of a blue, plastic carrier bag was looped over the top of one of the poles. The rest of it was tangled and weighed down but flapped raggedly in the breeze. A grey-white feathered muddle was half falling out of the bag as it ruffled.
"It's definitely a bird," said Andy. "A sea gull, looks like."
"Why would someone put a sea gull in a bag and put it up there?"
Andy looked at him to see if he was joking. "I reckon the bag must have got caught up there on its own, then the bird got tangled in it," he said. "P'raps there was some food in it or something."
As they looked up, another flick of the wind revealed the legs, like twiglets.
"We'll have to get it down," said Andy, and turned back to the van to get the ladder.
"Couldn't we just leave it and say it got there after we left?"
"No. Come on."
As they were carrying the ladder back across the dew wet grass, James eyes were fixed on the small fluttering bird in a bag. The wind tossed it back and forth at the top of that pole -- up in the sky really -- almost as if it were still alive. Perhaps when they dislodged it, it would just fly away, free of the plastic bag and the white pole holding it down.
They put the ladder up, all three sections, and wedged it firmly into the ground, stamping it down with steel toe capped feet.
"Up you go, then," said Andy.
James looked at him. "Oh, no, Andy, I can't."
"Why the fuck not? Get up there."
"No, no. When I worked as a roofer--- "
"---When were you a roofer?"
"Few years back. Anyway, I had a bad experience."
"I don't talk about it."
"Jen says it gets me upset, so I don't talk about it."
"Oh fuck. So you mean I've gotta go up this fucking thing?"
"Oh, Jesus. Well, you just keep a good hold on the bottom rung, okay?"
"All right. Don't worry."
"Don't you `don't worry' me, you wanker."
Andy checked his back pocket to made sure his knife was in there, gave the ladder a shake, took a deep breath and put his foot on the first rung. Once he was a few up, James took hold of the sides with both hands and put one foot on the bottom rung. Above them, the dead bird fluttered again. Once he was higher than where the crossbeam would have been, each step Andy took rocked the ladder from side to side. James tightened his grip but couldn't keep looking up because it made his head spin and his neck hurt.
"I'm there," he heard Andy shout from above, but only looked up briefly to see a silhouette, black against the sky, tugging at the bagged bird. He looked down again and saw something strange.
Just in front of the feet of the ladder the grass was starting to bunch up and corrugate. He bent down to look closer and must have taken pressure off the ladder just slightly because suddenly he felt a jolt in his arms and then the bottom rung butted into the tops of his boots. His arms knew what happened before he did and they pushed the ladder back firmly against the post and his pushed all the weight he could down on the bottom rung, forcing the feet into the green ground again. Suddenly he was breathing heavily. Only then did he realise that Andy had shouted, "Fuck!" from above.
"Are you all right, Mate?"
"Just." He had flung both arms round the ladder and pole and had dropped his knife, but still held the bag, its plastic twisted through his fingers. "What the fuck was that?"
"The ladder slipped, but I've got in now."
"I'm coming down. Hold it."
"I am." He looked down.
And a crazy thought came over him.
He could feel the pressure of the ladder wanting to slip further. He could feel it pressing against his boot. He flicked a glance upwards and saw that Andy had only taken one step down the ladder. He looked back towards the van and all round the field. There was no one around. All he would have to do is move his foot. It wouldn't really be doing anything, just stopping doing something. He would only have to move his boot about three inches.
Suddenly he could see the whole thing happening before him. Andy falling from the sky and landing, dead dead on the floor at his feet, the twisted bird in his hand. There would be no going back. He couldn't go back to the depot without Andy. He couldn't go back to Jen as an almost murderer. He picks up the bird, pulling the plastic away from it and its alive! Andy's face on the floor knows nothing of birds.
He clutches the sea gull to his chest and runs with it to the horses field and jumps the fence, leaving the dead Andy and the dead van and the dead plastic and the dead life behind him. He runs past the horses and into the trees at the bottom of the field. The branches tug and tear at his arms, but welcome him. The bird at his chest disappears. And he can't feel the ground under his feet.
The boot on the bottom rung moved an inch and a half.
"I said hold it tight!"
"I am!" He shook his head and pushed his boot down hard on the bottom rung.
They put up the crossbars on the posts without any trouble, hefting them from the shed and rubbing off the cobwebs and dirt. They hung nets on the football goals. They marked out pitches on the long grass, although they knew someone else from the company would be along soon enough to mow it. They packed up the tools.
"Are you all right? You seemed a bit freaked by the ladder before," said Andy as they were getting back into the van.
"Nah, fine. Just get a bit funny about heights, that's all."
"Okay." He pulled out into the road and as he accelerated buckets, spanners, lawn mowers and strimmers clanged against each other in the back of the van.
"Turn it up, Andy, will you? I like this
© 2002 Peter Munford, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
"Three Inches" was written after I had been working for a while as a groundsman for a large land maintenance company. This obviously provided the setting but the key idea behind the story was one of asking how wide the gap is between what we may imagine doing and actually doing it. Any one of us may at one moment or other think of doing something fairly small which would have catastrophic consequences (such as jerking the steering wheel sharply to one side whilst driving at 70 mph) but we very rarely go through with it. It doesn't make us mad to think like that, because there's no outward sign and we can carry on as if it never happened. It's when we actually carry out what passes through our mind that the problems begin.