A Story by featherstone

A story set in London of two boys, November 1959



(1560 words)



Keith Starbuck and Luke Longhurst were born in the same East London street within two doors and eight months of each other. They had different mothers, of course, but local gossip claimed they could have shared a father. Starbuck senior never had the opportunity to defend his honour, or his wife’s reputation. A sniper’s bullet took him while involuntarily serving his king and country, before Keith was born. The letter she wrote telling him the truth was returned unopened. That was eleven years ago. Sid Longhurst had taken it upon himself to support both families, Starbuck was his friend, the baby needed a father, It’s what you did according to Sid’s code of honour. But gossips talk, rumours spread. The two boys grew up as brothers though. They shared a dad. Whether they shared blood, they neither knew nor cared.


November 1960. As the nights drew on earlier, Luke’s mother had, once again, to endure the boys whining.

     “Starbie’s mum don’t mind,” reasoned Luke.

     “Starbie’s mum hasn’t just given him his tea. Starbie’s mum don’t know where he is, or care, probably.” She was determined not to give in, not this time.

     “Aw, go on Ma, just for an hour,” they said in unison, and then pulled their pleading eyes faces. It always worked.

     “Oh all right then. Half and hour mind, not a minute longer, do you hear?” She could never resist the pleading eyes.

     The boys were out the door almost before she’d finished issuing her order, and went straight to the coal shed. They’d already dressed in their darkest clothes, now they needed to black their faces before they pulled down the balaclavas to complete their camouflage. It was their most daring assignment to date, and had to be performed with military precision. If they had watches, they would have synchronised them.

     “I’ve heard the Brocks’s are going mob-handed to raid the Comanche bonfire tonight so there won’t be any guards,” Whispered Starbuck as they stealthily approached the pile of old wooden beams, sofas, packing cases, and assorted rubbish that loomed two stories high, illuminated only by the moon.

     The two boys were members of Company C gang - a crack commando squad - hand picked as the most daring bonfire raiders that Wapping had ever seen. Their mission: to remove as much as they could from the Brocks’ bonfire and transport it to their own site in Cable Street. Timing was critical, as the Brocks’ was the most feared gang on the housing estate. To be caught robbing their bonfire would mean certain death, or at least a bloody nose. The Brocks’ would be returning soon with their own loot taken from the Comanche.

     The attack signal went up - a call similar to the sound of a cuckoo being raped by a squirrel - and they went into action. It was just as Starbuck had predicted; no one was there to stop them. Grabbing the choicest items from the pile, they made their escape. “Piece of cake,” “Easy peasy,” “Brocks’s are barmy,” and other various cries of triumph echoed through quarter mile of streets as they repaired to their own site with objects to add to their bonfire.

     It was a ‘right lark’, and part of the tradition and rituals that led up to fireworks night. Each little gang had their own bonfire site among the derelict buildings and bombsites that littered the East End of London for decades after the devastation of World War II. They world beaver away for weeks leading up to the November fifth climax, when their effigies of Guy Fawkes used to collect money - “Penny for the Guy” - were burned, pitched ceremoniously on top of the bonfires, to meet fates deserving of anyone who dared to plot against the Government.

     Suddenly, their revelry came to a halt as they approached the Company C site. They could see the bright red flickering glow from a street away. Tossing their pillaged goods to the ground, they raced towards the result of their own folly. No one had thought to leave a guard. Rounding the last corner, their worst nightmares were confirmed. A week’s worth of searching, pinching, carting and piling - up in flames �" Their bonfire was ablaze and it was already November the fourth.

     Standing before his handiwork stood a lone figure. He was big, but they were many. Silhouetted against the flames he stood facing them, hands on hips, feet apart, defiant. Company C charged; he stood his ground. The charge came to a sudden halt as they realised it was an ambush. The Brocks’ gang appeared from different hiding places. They were surrounded

and outnumbered, their bonfire was gone, and they were soon to be beaten into a pulp in the bargain.

     “Who’s your leader?” demanded Billy Brocks.

     “We ain’t got one,” Luke replied.

It was true, Company C didn’t have a leader as such, but true to his character, Luke Longhurst took the initiative by announcing the fact to their most feared enemy; Billy ‘One Eye’ Brocks. His statement marked him out as the leader, a role he didn’t seek, and at that moment, certainly did not desire.

     “What’s it to be then, all out bundle or your best fighter against ours?”

     The choice was between black and a very dark colour. Luke had few options. “Starbuck!” he shouted.

     “Get lost, I ain’t fighting Cyclops.”

     Billy Brocks bristled at the insult.

     Starbuck immediately regretted his slip of tongue, but wasn’t about to offer an apology even if it would have done any good.

     Luke stepped in again. “Alright then, bundle.”

     “Get lost, Longhurst,” Company C protested in unison.

His moment as unelected leader was over. “Alright Billy, it looks like you and me.”

     “No, no, no, it don’t work like that, leaders don’t fight, they select their best fighters to do combat. You choose your champion and the weapons.”

     Luke had no idea which rulebook Brocks was working from. But, he did know there would be hell to pay when they got home for being well after curfew. If that was, they got home. The Brocks’ gang edged closer, each holding a variety of weapons. They were well armed with plastic swords, wooden Tommy guns, and home made bows and arrows of willow twigs. 

     “OK, I’ll fight. Let’s get this over with: I choose fists as my weapon,” Starbuck volunteered.

     “Atta boy.” Billy Brocks was gleeful. “And I choose... Knocker.”

     Brian ‘Knocker’ Mullett emerged from the crowd that surrounded the very nervous Company C, all five foot six of him. He was easily the biggest in Billy’s gang and had Starbuck regretting his folly for agreeing to represent his gang in mortal combat. It was too late to back down, had the thought even occurred to him. Company C and The Brocks’ each immediately merged and formed a circle, jostling each other for the best positions.

     Cheers of encouragement went up as the gladiators entered the ring, eyeing each other like savages. Starbuck was first to make a move, charging Knocker and grabbing him in a headlock. They were a fair match in size, Knocker just an inch taller and a couple of pounds beefier. They matched each other in age too, both having just turned eleven. Knocker swiftly countered Starbuck’s offensive, getting a headlock of his own.

     The two of them scuffled around trying to get the advantage, kicking at each other’s heels to trip their opponent, dust and ashes flying from the now smoldering remains of the Company C bonfire.

     The surrounding ring of warriors screamed the name of their champions. “Starbuck! Starbuck! Starbuck!” “Come on Knocker, stuff him!”

The fighters remained locked together, their heads firmly held in the crook of each other’s arm. Neither of them would go down, both knowing if they did, it would declare them the loser. Their breath became heavy and the sweat made a paste from the coal dust on Starbuck’s face.

      Their supporters cried out in wild frenzy, excited cries---that turned into screams of terror. The Company C bonfire exploded with a shattering blast, sending a ton of earth, smoldering beams, and burning debris in all directions. Shrapnel and shards of wood, brick, and metal tore into the flesh of young boys as the legacy of Nazi hatred found targets among a new generation.

     An unexploded mine, parachuted into the docklands twenty years before, had lain buried beneath the compacted rubble, waiting for the moment to fulfill its purpose: indiscriminate mayhem. The heat from the fire had ignited it at last, loading the night air with thick smoke and dust as the surrounding tenements and cottages spewed their occupants out in panic. Fearing what had happened but praying it wasn’t so, frantic parents scrambled among the wreckage, searching and hoping. Names were called out in desperation and tears of joy shed as beloved children were found and hugged. But it was not so for all.   

     Three boys were killed that night in what the newspapers later described as a “tragic mishap”. Their names printed in bold type and included William Brocks, age 13. Six others were detained at the East London Hospital, two in a serious condition. One of them was to later loose a leg.

     Knocker and Starbuck, showing signs of concussion, were among those detained over night for observation. Luke rode in the ambulance with them, together with Ma Longhurst. She cuddled Luke, grateful her son escaped with no injury, but concerned for darling Starby, and the other boy who both lay on their stretchers, each staring into nowhere, in stony, stunned silence, scared and confused, deep in their own thoughts.

     Knocker eventually broke the morose atmosphere with a sample of his dark humour. It was the opening move to what became a lifetime of friendship. He reached out slowly, took Starbuck’s hand, and with a wink in his voice said,

     “Guess we’d better call it a draw, then.”



© 2012 featherstone

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Very well written, you had me hooked from beginning to end :)

Posted 9 Years Ago

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Added on August 31, 2012
Last Updated on September 7, 2012
Tags: Story, London, 1950s, Bonfire night, Guy Fawkes, November 5, friendships



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