was wearing him down. That parking was impossible, said Banana. These food court prices were a rip-off, announced Banana. Those lasses in Valley Girl were well shaggable, declared Banana. And is that kid wearing a Halloween mask, or does being that ugly come naturally?

He’d been hyper since getting back from Lanzarote. Rhys was almost sorry that the Spanish authorities had released Banana from his brief stay in police custody. He’d been caught flogging bootleg CDs in Tias, but unexpectedly allowed home with just a warning. ‘They kept my bloody CDs, though,’ Banana had grumbled, to Rhys’s incredulity.

The way today was going, he’d be behind bars again before lunch, they wouldn’t have the wedding coats hired, and they’d both miss this evening’s international at the Stadium to boot.

‘Hello?’ called Banana from the nearby changing room. He was poking his head around the curtain and trying to attract the blonde assistant’s attention. ‘Can you help me, love? The toilet roll has run out in here.’

Rhys struggled not to smile. The badge on the blonde’s bosom told Rhys that she was senior sales assistant Kelly. The prices in the catalogue told Rhys that his dad wasn’t going to get any change out of his wedding budget.

‘Sorry about him,’ muttered Rhys. ‘He’s my best man.’ Senior sales assistant Kelly’s tight smile made him wonder ruefully whether he’d made the wrong choice of best man. He’d considered the alternatives. Dozy Daf? Barry ‘Island’ McGinn with the stutter? No, on reflection, Banana was the least-worst man.

Rhys signed away a month’s salary as a deposit, and dragged Banana Boat out of the store. A group of four teenagers swaggered past, identikit grey hoods pulled up in defiance of the mall’s rules, and indifferent to the wake they caused in the crowd of shoppers. What was it about you lumpen hooligans, he wanted to ask, swaggering about like a pack of animals? Rhys clicked his tongue, but held it too; he could already imagine Gwen admonishing him, and she was a police officer who supposedly knew how to handle the little monsters. And she knew how to handle real, big monsters too, of course. That put things into perspective for him.

Banana leaned on the rail, peering down into Pendefig Mall like a fisherman surveying prospective catches.

‘It’s madness,’ Banana told him. ‘You said it would be quieter out here. Should have gone to Evans the Suit in town, like your dad said.’

‘Evans Suit Hire,’ Rhys corrected him.

‘Suit yourself,’ laughed Banana.

Rhys studied the till receipt from senior sales assistant Kelly. Too late for that option.

The escalators were crammed with overloaded shoppers, and the ground-floor walkway below seemed to quiver as snaking currents of people moved ceaselessly in their Saturday morning quest to consume.

‘Should have stayed in town,’ insisted Banana.

Rhys shook his head. ‘That’ll be worse. Especially when the football crowds start arriving at the stations.’

Banana wasn’t listening. He was pointing indiscreetly at the lower level. ‘Is that Sheelagh Thompson? God, I could drop a peanut into her cleavage from here. In fact, there’s room for the whole packet.’

‘You big kid. What are you, twelve?’ Rhys groaned.

‘I know,’ grinned Banana, showing his even white teeth, ‘I’m an animal. But she’s my type. I fancy a bit of blond on blonde. Just ’cause you’re getting married, sad boy, doesn’t mean the rest of us have stopped doing road tests.’ He gazed almost pleadingly at Rhys.

Rhys looked at his watch. It felt like they’d been here hours, but it was still only half past ten. ‘I think I can get the rest of the stuff myself, Banana. Why don’t you knock off now, and I’ll meet you later at the match?’

Banana’s grin got even wider. ‘If Gwen’ll let you.’ He pressed one thumb into the open palm of his other hand. ‘Like that, you are, mate! Don’t get caught!’

‘You can bloody talk!’ Rhys called after him. ‘Why not buy yourself some CDs while you’re here?’

Banana flicked a cheery V-sign over his shoulder as he strode off to the escalator, irresistibly drawn by Sheelagh Thompson’s tits.

Rhys had to keep an eye out. He’d promised Gwen he wouldn’t shop here today. It was unlucky to see the dress beforehand, she’d told him. He’d said that was only if she was wearing it, and she’d retorted that she was planning on trying it on first, thank you, and he should keep well out of the way. Somewhere else in the Pendefig Mall, she and that mate of hers from school, Megan, would be in one of the bridal-wear shops and spending a small fortune. So he could get this done, and still be back home in time to cook lunch, as he’d promised.

Rhys pulled a crumpled scrap of paper from his jeans pocket. He could leave the bridesmaids’ gifts for another time, but he had time to get a present for the least-worst man before he sneaked off home again.

He made his way up the escalator, nudging past the standing pedestrians on the right. As Rhys stepped off the moving stairway, a matronly woman beside him told her daughter proudly: ‘That there is the biggest shoe shop in South Wales. And I know the manager!’ Gwen would have loved that one – he’d have to remember it later.

Several angry shouts from the opposite escalator made Rhys twist around. A ripple worked its way down the line as someone shoved roughly past. Another kid in a hurry. Round-shouldered in his leather jacket, and wearing a stupid Halloween mask. Most of the bumped shoppers shrugged, fuming inside but too frightened to speak up. One old codger at the bottom was having none of it, though. Rhys watched in amusement from his position near the top of the opposite escalator. The old guy raised his furled umbrella and gave the kid a whack across the arm. The kid paused briefly to snarl through his mask. The old guy recoiled as though he’d been spat at, but gave the kid another smack with his brolly.

‘Ooh, that’s gotta smart!’ breathed Rhys in appreciation.

The kid hunched his shoulders, and loped off into the crowd of shoppers, knocking aside those who didn’t make way as he barged through. From the hand gestures they were making, it was clear the kid smelled none too good, either. Dirty, uncouth little yob.

The upper level had a row of toyshops. Where better, mused Rhys, to buy a joke gift for Banana, the big kid? If he couldn’t find something here, there were always the market stalls outside the mall’s main entrance.

The first two stores were for pre-school and infants, brightly lit and devoid of customers. In the far corner, though, was a smaller toyshop. This one had a hand-painted sign fixed precariously above the uPVC frame of its standard mall store front: Leonard’s Toys and Games. And, unlike the other stores, it seemed to be full of chattering kids. The front window was decked out in shades of orange and black, crammed with Halloween pumpkins, witches’ cloaks and hats, vampire teeth and wolf-man masks, liberally sprayed with stringy lines of cobweb.

Inside, old-fashioned wall shelving was stacked with board games and fantasy novels. Rhys saw no electronic games. Rotating wire racks were hung with blister packs of carved models, mythical characters that included gorgons, winged serpents, a Cyclops. The thin-faced shopkeeper smiled at Rhys as he meandered through the closely stacked displays.

There was a whoop from the rear of the shop. A group of young adults had crowded around a hand-crafted landscape. They positioned characters, painted versions from the blister packs, in competing formations. Each participant held a hand of brightly coloured, oversized playing cards. A rangy lad with spiked hair rattled dice from a cup. Whatever he scored, it caused another deep-throated cheer of encouragement from the crowd. Rhys could feel their energy coursing through the cluttered shop. ‘Geek power,’ he murmured.

He blenched as he almost walked into a figure by the tills. It was an old shop dummy, a reclaimed version of the sort you’d find in big department stores like Wendleby amp; Son. Its incongruously elegant hands poked out from the neatly pressed boiler suit, and a scowling full-face mask obscured most of its sculpted head. Rhys had jumped involuntarily because he recognised the tufted hair, deeply furrowed brow, and angular foam teeth. It was so like that creature he’d seen in the Torchwood dungeon. What had Gwen called it? ‘A Weevil,’ he said.

‘It’s a Toothsome, actually,’ said the shopkeeper. ‘From MonstaQuest?’ Rhys looked blankly at him. ‘I’m forever “translating” for parents. It’s the new trading-card game. Models and masks too, you know.’ Rhys obviously looked like he didn’t. ‘Bit of a craze with the older teens and upwards. Doing really well.’ The shopkeeper’s smile looked like a mouthful of baby teeth. He was younger than Rhys. Unshaven, with dark uncombed hair. Eager. ‘Are you buying for your kids?’

Rhys laughed. ‘No kids. Not yet,’ he said, and wondered why he’d added that.

He remembered what Banana had said before he left: ‘I’m a monster.’ Yes, these would do. And the joke was even better for him and Gwen, because they knew real monsters when they saw them.

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