by Brian Heys
espresso, or possibly a dirty chai
Some people have happy memories of school, forever wishing they could return to those carefree times.
I hated school, especially sports. Each week I got Mum to write a note about a sprained ankle, sore back, or ingrowing toenail. The games teacher recognised the weak excuses, and made me watch in the cold, where I stood, wishing I could be normal, running after the ball like the others, without my belly jiggling under my shirt.
Hugging my trombone case brought comfort, knowing I was good at music. That, and chess. I would look at my watch every few minutes, worrying I might be late for computer club. When Sir blew his whistle, I hurried to the changing room to collect my school bag, which stood out among the smart Gola and Head ones, a cheap, nasty thing, like my Tommy Balls shoes.
I was a typical target for a bully.
It began on the bus. I had my trombone case between my legs, cradled in my arms. There was a thump next to me as the boy who was about to become my bully plonked down and dropped his bag on the floor. I had never noticed him before, and he didn’t speak. He had no reason, until the bus turned onto the main road out of town.
The driver was going too fast, hurrying into a gap in traffic. I had let go of my trombone to push up my glasses, and as we swung to the left, the case fell and struck the boy on the knee. He yelled in pain, then punched my arm.
I was practising with the Junior Band in the music room during lunch break when that same boy came in, looking uncomfortable. Our music teacher made him wait in the corner until we finished playing.
‘Sir, I’ve done them lines.’
‘Read the first one out.’
‘I must. I must not disturb. Disrupt. The class by talking in lessons.’
He handed over pieces of paper, then noticed me in the brass section by the window. Our eyes locked until Sir tore up the lines without checking them.
‘Get out, Barnes. Next time it’ll be four hundred.’
The boy looked back through the glass door and bunched a fist at me, his cheeks flushed and hot-looking. I glanced at Sir to see if he had noticed, but he was busy handing out the sheet music for the next piece we were going to play.
When he got on the bus a few days later, I knew this boy was going to make my life difficult. His eyes sought me out among the other pupils, and he walked past several available seats to sit with me.
‘You were laughing.’
I hadn’t been laughing, and told him, but he wouldn’t hear it, just as he refused to hear my initial apology when my trombone case fell onto his knee.
‘No bugger laughs at me.’
I could smell breakfast on his breath. To take my mind off it I wiped away a patch of condensation as the bus drove over the River Calder at Cock Bridge. I loved seeing the morning mist that floated along the shallow valley in winter.
When I stood to get off the bus at school, my trombone clattered out of its case. He must have flicked open the catches while I wasn’t looking. I had to crawl under the seat to retrieve the mouthpiece which had rolled into a discarded Monster Munch packet. Pickled onion flavour. I hated pickled onions. Still do.
The bullying continued.
Several times a week, he sat next to me on the bus and whispered how disgusting I was, how fat I was, how I was gay, worthless, and how he was going to batter me if he saw me outside school. I tried to ignore him, almost succeeding.
I heard him though.
Everything went in. Some days he invaded my space, squashing me against the side of the bus when it turned and the centrifugal force pushed him into me. Then he would whisper again, digging his elbow into my side.
‘You’re nowt but a fat turd.’
He got on the bus after me, so I couldn’t avoid him. If I wanted to board after him I had to walk halfway across town. Too far. I sometimes wondered what would happen if I stood up to him. I was bigger, and could probably overpower him by weight, but aggression wasn’t an ingredient in the ongoing formation of my young character. I was never a violent person.
Until I eventually did run into him outside school.
At the start of Summer holidays, my friends and I had discovered a small hole in the ground on the old town tip. It looked like a fox burrow or badger sett until we returned with a torch and shone it into the hole, realising it was the open sunroof of a buried Bedford camper van.
We widened the hole and climbed in. Most of the interior was stripped, including seats, beds, and units. The dashboard was intact, but the steering wheel had gone. I was afraid of rats, but we soon discovered nothing lived in there except spiders and beetles.
The van made a great den until the novelty wore off and we discovered the excitement of sifting through the tip for old pots and bottles. We marked the entrance with a discarded red fire bucket so we could find it again, but that disappeared after a few days, and we forgot about our den.
Before we knew it, our mums were buying us new uniforms for the autumn term, and the end of the holidays approached like a speeding school bus.
It was early morning, and I was down at the tip for the last time that summer. Heavy drops of dew hung from the rosebay and cow parsley that grew in thick, tangled patches. My friends weren’t due for a couple of hours, and I was alone, far from home. Despite working solo, I had already found a few old poison bottles and laid them out on the bank where the rest of our day’s finds would collect until it was time to go home.
‘I said I were gonna do you if I saw you.’
My scalp tightened at his voice. I whipped round and lost my balance, tumbling down the slope, stopping short of a dense clump of nettles that swayed in anticipation.
He laughed. ‘Where’s your gay trombone today?’
I scrambled back up so he didn’t have the advantage of height. My hands clawed at the earth, and grainy soil compacted under my fingernails. My bleached jeans were stained with dirt that Mum would struggle to wash out, and my breath became gulps of air with the effort of climbing.
What I saw in his eyes changed everything.
The only person who knew I was being bullied apart from Mum, was an old fellow who lived a few doors down our street. He once saw me crying at the bus stop, and tried to cheer me up, telling me all bullies were cowards. That was easy for him to say. Adults never got bullied. I hadn’t believed him at the time, but at that moment on the tip I wondered if he was right, and Ewan was a coward too.
That was my bully’s name. Ewan Barnes. He was older than me, but shorter, slighter, and possibly a little bit scared of me without anyone around to back him up, if he needed it.
My fringe stuck to my forehead and my glasses had slipped down my nose. I pushed them up but the sweat on my greasy skin made them slip back again.
‘I’ll count to ten. Start running. Or are you too fat?’
I faced him at the top of the bank, noticing his cheeks were full of freckles. Songbirds began issuing warning calls in the scrub that bordered the tip, joined by the cackle-laugh of a magpie. The sun slid under a cloud and Ewan glanced up, distracted.
‘Is there owt between them ears besides shite?’
‘My friends are coming in a minute.’
‘You’ve no friends. Except fat gaylords, like you.’
I never intended to kill him. Only teach him a lesson.
My heart thudded harder in my chest and my ears. Muscles in my arms went rigid and trembly, and my breath came faster. To my right, I spotted a steel fencing pin sticking up from the ground. The attached tape had snapped and fluttered loose like a red and white ribbon. I reached out and tried to haul the pin up, but it was stuck.
Ewan jumped on my back and locked his arms around my neck. I fell backwards but kept hold of the pin, and our combined weight freed it as I collapsed back on top of him. He gasped, winded by my weight.
The fence pin was lying next to us. I rolled and grabbed it, using it as a lever as I staggered to my feet. Ewan crouched like an athlete on invisible starting blocks. He rose in one slow movement and beckoned with his hands.
‘Have a go if you think yer hard enough!’
He stepped back, and I swung the heavy pin at him. It swished inches from his chest, and he swayed, wide-eyed, then stumbled over an old piece of rubber tubing. I swung the pin again, and he fell.
I stood above him, with the point to his stomach.
‘I were only joking…’
I noticed Ewan’s arm bleeding as he stood. I jabbed the pin towards him again.
‘Get lost! Don’t come back!’
He walked backwards, keeping his eye on me and the fence pin. At first, I didn’t notice it, but after about twenty feet I saw the hole that was the missing sunroof of the buried van. Ewan was heading straight for it.
I could have warned him. Should have warned him.
Instead, I let him step into it.
The fencing pin had been one of many marking out sections of the tip, and a couple of weeks later, bulldozers and excavators appeared, accompanied by big yellow tipper trucks with wheels as high as grown men. The area was landscaped by Christmas, and a gentle hill buried the old pots and bottles, and of course, the van.
Apart from the nightmares, I had shut away what happened. The report in yesterday’s Evening Telegraph brought everything back. The remains of a body had been found by surveyors taking ground samples for a new business park being built where I played when I was twelve. The remains were identified as those of a teenage boy. After a brief inquest, Lancashire Constabulary issued a statement saying they were closing the case relating to the disappearance of Ewan Andrew Barnes who was reported missing thirty years ago, aged fourteen. The final verdict was death by misadventure.
I woke in the early hours of this morning for the first time in months, my chest soaked with sweat, the bottom sheet stuck to my back. In my dreams, the sequence of events is always the same. Ewan, stepping backwards in the direction of the hole. I advance with the fence pin. He falls in, his jaw hits the edge as he goes down.
I hear something snap.
After long seconds, I approach. My eyes adjust to the light, and I see him lying inside, his neck bent at an angle. Blood comes out of his mouth. A lot. I wonder if he has bitten through his tongue.
Then I notice his eyes, shining but unseeing.
Staring up at the open sunroof.
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