In 1979 my family moved from the city to a seaside village, one of those places with a tourist trap waterfront grafted on to a necrotic mass of shacks and bungalows with filthy yards. My parents went there to escape the crowding and expense of the city. I was ten.
We bought a two story house with an acre of property, most of it swamp. I quickly discovered I could hop from stone to stump and cross the swamp without ever touching the stagnant water. Next to the swamp stood a little grey shed leaning slightly at an angle with a tarpaper roof and an untreated wood door clearly salvaged from some more ancient shed. A single window set in the back let in a beam of soft sunlight, but even so the shed was never brightly lit, the illumination somehow absorbed by the cobwebs in th corner. The inside smelled of mildew and motor oil. Wasps built nests along the eaves and underneath the shelves.
I loved going out to the shed but feared it slightly. Partly I feared the pendulous paper nests that wasps built every summer. I feared the dust-furred Mason jars with inscrutable objects inside that lined the shelves. Even the old broken pieces of equipment loafing in the corner gave me a complex thrill of fear. They bore the stamp of long-gone inhabitants, people who led alien lives. Our family came from away, and even if we'd stayed there for decades we'd still be from away. The items in the shed were artefacts in a forgotten museum, and even though we lived there now and owned the property, we never truly owned the shed.
Eventually my father began to fill up the shed with his from away items: metal flasks of WD 40, a bright red jerry can, a weed whacker, blades for a table saw, racks of two by fours. The museum had been taken over, and only the smell of mildew and the wasps remained.
After a year or so my father decided that the grey shed wasn't big enough to contain all the wood that he was storing in it, so he used the wood to build a bigger shed. This one was roomier and cleaner and smelled of treated pine, with a rough splintery floor. The old shed went back to the wasps and the glass jars and the rough dirt.
By this time I'd picked up some friends from the neighbourhood. Their names were Willie, his brother Duane, Derek and Darren. We started to spend our afternoons in and around the shed, hanging out in there, staining the seats of our rugby pants on the dirt floor but safely out the upper-air wasp traffic (they ran the top half of the shed, we ran the bottom). Eventually we decided that we'd formed a club, and we lacked only a name to make it official.
Willie decided that our club name was to be The Cobras. He said he could even get us shirts with Cobras written on it. This was particularly cool name, I realized, because with a deadly name like The Cobras we weren't just a club - we were a gang. Ain't no one gonna mess with a bunch of ten year olds and their tilting-over shed if you see COBRAS written on the shed door. Especially when we all step out in our jackets with COBRAS on the back, snazzy gold script with a golden cobra poised to strike emblazoned beneath. We were a long way from smoking, drinking, drugs, crime, cars, girls, sex, and shaving, but the jackets, even a few shirts, were a head start. All we had to do was give Willie two dollars each. Within a week we'd be up to our upturned collars in gang chic.
I had to go through only a small amount of begging for the two dollars.
“It’s for our gang!” I said.
My dad pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and withdrew a pink two dollar bill.
“He’s giving the money to Willie,” my mother said.
“Think of it as a learning experience,” Dad said, and handed the money over.
About a week after we pooled our money, Willie showed up at the clubhouse with a white 3/4 black sleeve T-shirt, the kind that usually had AC/DC or Ozzy Osbourne transfers. Across his front, in blocky blue iron-on letters, ran the word C O B R A.
Willie sat down and pulled out a pack of Export “A” cigarettes. He unwrapped the package and handed one to each of us.
“We’re a gang now,” he announced. “We’re The Cobras. We’re gonna smoke”.
He placed a cigarette in his mouth and waited until we had all done the same. Then he lit a match and motioned us in.
“We all have to light our cigarettes off the same match”.
Duane held back for a moment. His skull sort of sloped up to a point, and when he searched for a thought it seemed to increase the pressure on the sides of his head.
“I heard it’s bad luck to light all your cigarettes off the same match,” he said.
“You’re a pussy!” Willie yelped. “You’re a pussy if you don’t smoke!”
Duane considered the options and leaned in to the match. We lit them up and leaned back, clouds of foul-tasting smoke dribbling from the corners of our mouths. I could feel the blood leaving my face and sweat beading on my forehead.
“Okay,” Willie said. “I’ve got some stuff for us to do. Darren, you bring your hockey sticks and your net. Derek, you bring some darts. Duane, you steal some of dad’s Playboys”.
"Why don't you get the Playboys?" asked Duane.
"I went and got us the shirts!" Willie snapped.
“You got one shirt made”.
“I got us the cigarettes!”
"There's no room to play darts in here," I said.
"Don’t be a pussy," Willie explained.
“I don’t know if I'm hungry or sick,” Derek said. Then he leaned forward and shot an abrupt jet of puke through the air. We piled out into the bright sunshine and ran into the swamp. My dad hosed out the shed.
That was our first day as The Cobras.
As the summer wore on it became clear that we were not getting our Cobras shirts. Nobody asked about them, but with every afternoon meeting the tension grew, especially since Willie insisted on wearing his C O B R A shirt all the time. The longer it went on the more defensive Willie would get, pressuring us to do more and more of the work and all but daring us to bring up the subject of the shirts. Eventually the B started peeling off, threatening to turn our club into the Coras. Duane grew sullen, staring into the corner as Willie outlined our list of tasks. Darren left early one day and never came back. Those missing shirts were slowly destroying our gang.
I didn't care. As soon as Willie had stepped through the shed door with that Cobra shirt, I recognized the huge gulf between what I had imagined for our gang and what our gang really was - a few kids hanging around a smelly shed. There were no purple jackets with gold emblazoning on the back, no great vistas of coolness. There were only a few old Playboys and Mayfairs, which in a fit of guilt I handed over to my parents. My dad spent the afternoon leafing through them at the dining room table, occasionally snorting through his nose.
The gang officially disbanded that day Willie's father Harold bought our shed. He had a plan to put it behind his barn and use it as a smokehouse. He ran a length of heavy chain around it, hooked the other end onto his truck and drove. The shed lurched and jumped through the air as if kicked by a great invisible boot. It thumped down on its side and dug into the ground, which was soft and damp from a day or two of rain. Even across the lot I could hear Harold swearing as he gunned the engine. After a few minutes he and Willie showed up with planks to wedge the shed out of the ground.
Willie had grown over the summer. His body was shifting from skinny to lanky, and his chin was mottling with pimples and stubborn dark hairs. He was still wearing the shirt, which by now said C B R A. A strip of tape held the B in place but the C had begun to peel as wel. I figured Willie would finally throw it out when it read B R A. He lugged bright new chain and balanced planks of wood on his shoulders, like a yoke. We didn't speak.
After a lot of grunting and kicking, they had the planks wedged in under the shed. Willie gave me a nonchalant wave as they headed back to the pickup. They pulled away and the shed leapt free again from the planks, airborne and tumbling, wreathed about with bright metal, until it hit the ground once more, alternately bouncing along and digging in like a reluctant dog, until the truck pulled it out of sight. And that was that.