The Rough Boys at School
The Rough Boys at School
Barry sat at the back of the old, school library, pretending to read a book about dinosaurs, while listening to the tape his Mother had given him. His mind wandered to the previous evening, and his encounter with the Wizard. He was lucky to be alive today, that was certain - if it wasn’t for Chris, he may never have seen another day. He was thankful for his new friend, and excited for what the future could bring. ‘A real Wizard!’ he thought to himself. He could hardly believe such a thing, but he knew, deep down, it was true.
The librarian, a young Polish woman with a funny eye, looked up from stamping a pile of library tickets and seemed to scorn in two directions. Barry lifted the book to his face and opened it to full width, concealing the two wires from his personal stereo which crept over his shoulders and into his ears. The librarian didn’t like music in her room. She didn’t seem to like people much either… just books.
It had been a slow, peaceful morning. All the other boys in the class had gone to a school football match in the next village, but Barry had a letter excusing him. Well, more of a petition; he was only in the football team once, as a goalie, and was substituted after three minutes for scoring an own-goal from a free kick. Toby Wright, the skinny boy with a hearing aid and one big shoe, replaced him. In the changing rooms, after the remainder of the game in frosty contemplation on the bench, the other boys kicked him so hard that his shin-pads split. Even Mr Brownlow, the sports master, gave him a quick boot as he passed to the showers, then he made everyone sign a piece of paper which was sent to the headmaster. Barry never played football again.
Barry tapped his foot lightly to the music, and sang in a whisper: "... every breath you take, every move you make..."
The library door creaked like a startled crow and Barry looked over the top of his book to see the headmaster enter. He greeted the librarian with an uneasy smile, and motioned with a finger towards Barry. The librarian nodded and went back to her stamping.
Barry clasped the centre of his open book with one hand and used the other to remove his earphones; pushing them down the neck of his jumper. He turned off the personal stereo and pretended to focus his attention back on the dinosaurs.
The headmaster stopped in front of him.
"Barry,” said Mr Thompson.
Barry looked up, feigning surprise. The headmaster was breathing heavily, and his shirt was hanging through his flies like a misplaced handkerchief.
"Yes?" asked Barry.
"Here..." said Mr Thompson, placing an envelope on the desk.
Barry looked at it cautiously.
"Your Mother just dropped this off for you."
Picking up and tearing the envelope, Barry poured the contents onto the table. With a clink, out fell the front door key to his house.
The headmaster moved to walk away.
"Thank you, Uncle John," said Barry, grasping the prized key.
Mr Thompson turned back, slowly, and fixed his eyes to the boy’s. The muscles in his jaw clenched. He leant over the desk and said, in a quiet, serious tone: "Barry, if you ever call me uncle again, I’m going to throw you in the boiler room and lock the door, kapeesh?" He stood back up and patted down the sides of his suit, then noticed the ear of shirt caught in his flies - with a tug and zip, he made himself presentable, but threw a sharp glower at the boy.
Mr Thompson sniffed hard, then paced out of the library.
The librarian scorned the cawing of the door.
Searching the envelope further, Barry pulled out a folded note and opened it. The familiar writing read: "Barry, if you lose this key, you’ll be sleeping in the cellar. Guard it like your life depends on it - which it does. I won’t be back until tomorrow afternoon. Your beans are on the kitchen table. Don’t answer the door to anyone, or the men from the laboratory will take you away for experiments... Mother."
He held the key before his eyes and rubbed his thumb against the jagged edge. It had never been entrusted to him before. Mother was particular about who could look after the key; she said that only people she could see in the mirror were allowed to have it, and the only mirror in the house was on the ceiling of her bedroom, but Barry wasn’t allowed in there... ever. He didn’t know why she’d changed her mind now, but he was glad. It felt like responsibility at last.
Arching back in his chair, Barry stuffed the precious key into his pocket, as far as it would go, then cast a suspicious glance around the library. The librarian cast a suspicious glance back, twice, but then returned to her books, seemingly none the wiser to Barry’s treasure.
The school bell rang for lunch.
Barry closed the book and stood up, lifting his satchel and throwing it over one shoulder. He picked up the book and walked over to the shelf, placing it back in the exact position he took it from. There was an approving burn of at least one watchful eye from the librarian. Although she didn’t seem to like people, she liked it when her books were treated with respect, and Barry always tried to keep on the right side of her, whichever side that was.
Skimming past the librarian’s desk with a nod of acknowledgment, Barry pulled the door slowly, in the special way he had learned that stopped it from creaking, and walked out into the foyer. Already, the bustle of children were pouring from corridors and swearing their way towards the canteen across the hall. Barry waited for a lull in the flow, and headed towards a corridor that led out to the tennis courts. He kept close to the walls, with his eyes fixed and down, and moved patiently until he came to his door, then pushed through, out on to the grey tarmac.
Blinking back the cool October breeze, he marched on, across the chalky rectangles that marked the courts, to a bench underneath the tree at the edge of the playing field. There he settled down, and twisted the satchel on to his lap to take out his lunch: a sausage roll, and a can of cola. He unwrapped the sausage roll, careful not to tear the plastic.
Into the distance, he watched the seagulls coasting in lazy spirals on the thermals rising up from the town, and wondered what it would be like to fly. He took a bite of the greasy pastry, and smiled at the thought as he ate. He knew it would be nice.
Wizards could probably fly, he pondered.
The sausage roll didn’t taste like sausage at all, he decided, and inspected the moulded, grey paste with a frown. It looked like the putty the two workmen had used to mend the broken window in the front door, just before they fixed Mother’s mirror.
Barry sighed, and continued eating until his lunch was no more than crumbs on his trousers. He folded the plastic wrapper and put it back in his satchel, then picked up and opened the can of cola. It tasted funny too, not like Coca-Cola, which was nice. He didn’t like his new lunch... with the £1 his Mother declared she was ‘forced’ to give him each school day, he used to buy a porkpie and a can of Coca Cola, but Mr Chapman, at the corner shop, had put his prices up, and now Barry couldn’t afford the nice food and drink - though, with the ten pence change from his lesser menu, he cheered himself up with some sweets as he walked to school.
"Barry the Bastard!" shouted a voice, just behind him.
Barry twisted in surprise; the cola can falling from his hand to fizz out on to the grass. It was Quentin Hardcastle, the soccer team captain, and behind him stood the sniggering, rat-faced, Paul Baxter - Quentin’s henchman. They were the two roughest boys in his year... and they didn’t like him.
Quentin stood in front of Barry, with a self-satisfied smile. "What you doing sitting out here? Aren’t we good enough to sit with then, Bastard?"
The football team was back earlier than expected. Barry would never have gone so far from safety if he had known.
"Cat got yer tongue, Bazza?" croaked the bucktoothed Paul.
"I-I just wanted to think..." replied Barry, nervously.
"Is that what that noise was...?" sniggered Paul, glancing for approval from his friend. Quentin appeared to ignore him.
"I think you were trying to hide from me, Bastard," said Quentin.
"No... I didn’t, I promise!" said Barry, rising to his feet.
Quentin’s outstretched arm deflected the momentum, and Barry bumped back onto the bench. He looked up at the two boys, and tried to stop the panic inside him from spreading to his face. It was an impossible task, and he knew they could sense his fear.
"Em... what was the football score? Did you win?" said Barry, attempting a swift change of subject.
Quentin sneered, and his face turned red.
Paul looked to Quentin, then sneered, but couldn’t quite manage the change of colour.
"It went in off one of their men - no way was it an own goal,” spat Quentin. “The referee was blind!"
Paul sucked in the saliva that was building on his lower lip, then looked again to Quentin. "Is he saying you’re crap at footie, Tinny?”
"No, no - I didn’t mean that at all," said Barry, though he was momentarily delighted to envisage Quentin sharing the same shame that had blighted him for all too long.
"I’m better than you, little bastard Barry," raged Quentin.
A flash of light accompanied the crack across his cheekbone, and Barry slumped on his side, his whirling head coming to rest against the cool, damp wood of the bench. He tried to roll off, to evade the next punch he knew was coming, but Paul had already pounced and pinned Barry’s shoulder. A backhanded slap stung his cheek, and he yelped out in pain as another blow hit him in the ribcage. Quentin added another punch, in the stomach, before the two boys stepped back, and allowed their disorientated victim repeal.
Gulping for air, like a fish in a vacuum, Barry heaved himself back up and pulled the satchel round to his stomach, clenching it like a shield.
"If I see you near this tree again, bastard, I’m going to kick your head in," said Quentin with conviction. With that, he turned and punched Paul softly in the shoulder, then began the walk back to the school buildings.
Paul cast a ratty, sniffing laugh at Barry, then followed the leader.
The two boys went away, without another glance back, but Barry watched them, deafened by his own breathing as he pulled in lungs of air, until he saw them go through the door to the gym.
A sudden thought hit him, and he flustered a hand to the thigh of his trousers and flapped it against his leg...
With relief, he felt the key was still there.
* * * * *
Barry was in the first-aid room as the bell rang for home time. He’d had another nosebleed. As the nurse daubed his mouth with cotton wool, and Barry tightly clasped the bridge of his nose, he spoke with heavy, blocked breaths.
"No, nobody hit me. It just happens like this some times."
The nurse looked at him carefully, and with concern. She was nice. She even smelled nice.
"Are you sure, Barry?" she asked. "What about this bruise on your cheek?"
"Oh, that’s nothing," said Barry. "A book fell off the shelf in the library. Mrs Sluttywitch saw it happen. Honest. You can check."
The nurse held back a laugh. "It’s Miss Sluszkiewicz... and I will check."
She finished mopping away the dried blood, and pulled off the latex gloves, dropping them in the yellow pedal bin. Barry lifted from his seat, and picked up his satchel as she washed and dried her hands.
The nurse regarded the boy with a tightlipped smile, and tore a lump of cotton wool from the bale. "Here..." she said, offering the tiny cloud. "If it starts again, just do what we did, and you’ll be fine. And you should soak that shirt when you get home."
Barry took the cotton wool and put it in his pocket, then looked down at the bloodstains on the front of his shirt, and the crusting purple spots on his blue sweater. Mother would be furious if she saw that he’d ruined another shirt.
"Thank you very much... again," he said, pulling on his coat, then throwing the satchel over his shoulder.
"That’s okay, Barry. You be careful now?" The nurse pulled open the door and patted the boy on the head as he passed through
"I always am," he said, with an upbeat, nasal chirp.
The door clumped closed behind him, and Barry’s face fell. He looked up and down the corridor, but all was quiet. The other children had left for the busses, or the walk home, but Barry preferred to hold back and make sure the coast was clear. He didn’t like to take the bus any more because Quentin and Paul stayed on until the stop after him, and they never left him alone. Paul had stolen his bus pass too, and the replacement his Mother had begrudgingly paid for - and he wasn’t going to ask her for another £5. It was nicer to walk, anyway; except when it snowed, or hailed or rained, or was too sunny.
He walked to the end of the corridor and into the reception foyer, where a large adjacent window looked out onto the car park. Observing a safe distance, he skulked in a shadow and watched as the last of the dirty, old coaches pulled out onto the main road, trailing a haze of blue diesel smoke, and slowly strained over the hill.
With relief, he zipped his coat and pulled the collar tight, then made his way out through the swing-doors. A cold breeze caught him, making him shiver, but he knew that once he took up a brisk walking pace, he would be warm enough for the journey.
Thinking while he walked, he wondered if he would really see the Wizard again. It all seemed such a dream when he woke up. Could it really have happened?
Mother came home at ten past seven in the morning. Barry was polishing his shoes, ready for school. Her hair looked like a crow’s nest, and her lipstick was smudged down her chin as if she’d put it on on a roller coaster. Barry nearly laughed, but her bloodshot glare took him back to the shoes. She walked straight through to the kitchen, and he heard her unlock the cupboard under the sink. Head down and shoulders raised, he polished with greater vigor.
"Barry!" she called with a snap, appearing in the kitchen doorway grasping one of her bottles, "Have you been near my cupboard?"
He denied all knowledge, of course, because Mother could get very angry indeed when people cheated her. For nearly an hour he pleaded his innocence, until she finally became enchanted again, and sent him off to school with a slurred good-bye and a thrown shoe.
And that was how he knew the old Wizard wasn’t just a fantasy.
With a renewed spring in his step, he increased his pace, and looked forward to a plate of delicious hot beans for his tea.
* * * * *
Ahead of him, just a few more minutes down the steep hill and across the river, was the small village of Mill Bridge. It looked like a postcard scene, with the bronzed leaves of the autumn trees under a powder-blue and purple dusk of sky. The high, whispery clouds were red from the glow of the setting sun, and the weathercock which sat on the spire of the church steeple, rising up behind the woods on the other side of the village, shone like a ruby.
At the foot of the hill, past the bridge the village was named after, he crossed the quiet road then clambered over a rickety wooden gate that led into the sports field. There were some children shouting, playing football far across the field, but Barry’s shortcut wouldn’t take him near them. He traipsed on through the short, stunted grass, humming to himself.
The word ‘bastard’ seemed like a whisper on the breeze... almost like a thought.
"Bastard!" repeated the distant voice.
Barry snapped out of a daydream, and jerked his head towards the yell. In the indigo half-light, he saw two indistinct figures running from the football pitch, straight towards him.
The voice was unmistakable, however: it was Quentin Hardcastle’s.
Barry’s heart leapt, and he was running before he’d even considered escape. The cold air burnt his lungs and his feet pounded the grass as he sprinted as fast as he could towards the far corner of the field.
"Bastaaard!" came the voice again, but this time closer. He glanced around for just a moment and nearly lost his footing. He could see them both now. Paul Baxter was trailing his keeper, but Quentin was gaining ground. Barry’s advantage of distance was being slashed with every powerful stride from his nemesis.
Reaching the edge of the field, he launched himself over the gate with a vault even his sports master would have been impressed with, but the strap of his satchel caught on a stanchion and snapped, pulling and tumbling him down on the sharp gravel path. He felt the stones break the skin of his palms as he stopped the impact, and immediately pushed himself back to his feet; the pain soaked up by adrenaline.
As he bent to grasp the satchel, he saw Quentin less than fifty feet away - his eyes angry and lips pursed open as he pulled in oxygen to feed his speed.
Barry turned and fell back into a run, cradling his satchel like a rugby ball. Ahead, the path broke in two around the woods: left into the village, and home; and right to join the church footpath. There was a crunch of gravel behind him, and he knew he couldn’t make it to the safety of either before Quentin caught up with him.
Wringing every last effort from his exhausted muscles, he ran straight ahead, thrashing through the saplings at the edge of the woods. He threw the satchel down and lifted his hands to protect his face as the branches slapped against him. He moved deeper and deeper into the darkened woods; slowing to navigate through the older trees; fallen leaves and dried twigs protesting like firecrackers under his feet; the blood in his ears roaring like the rush of a waterfall.
Then he stopped, dead, and hid behind a wide tree, crouching down into a ball to conceal himself further.
Eyes closed, and breathing deeply to control the panicked panting, Barry waited.
He heard footsteps in the leaves; slow and deliberate, but not close.
"Tinny!" called the voice of Paul. He sounded further away, probably at the edge of the woods still.
There was a long, silent pause.
"I’m here!" shouted Quentin in reply.
"Can you see him?"
Barry opened his eyes. He could barely see a thing so deep in the woods. Would it be possible for anyone to see him? He shivered, the sweat from his exertion chilling in the cold evening air.
Reaching down, he moved his hand in a slow search for a weapon, careful not to upset the leaves and reveal his location.
"Tinny?" shouted Paul again.
"Will you shut up you idiot - I’m trying to listen!"
Barry’s hand touched on a broken branch. He wrapped his fingers around it - it felt good and heavy - and held it firmly, ready to swing in defence if Quentin came too close.
The leaves began to crunch again, still slowly and a way off, but getting closer.
A warm dribble ran from Barry’s nose, trickled round his mouth and dripped from his chin. He could feel the soft pattering of blood on the taut fabric of his trousers, and taste the iron on his lips. The inside of his nostril tickled, and he knew he was going to sneeze if he didn’t do something soon.
Without a sound, he gently released his hold on the branch and rested it easy - ready for retrieval at a moment’s notice - then he dug his pocket and pulled out the cotton wool, lifting it to his nose to stop the blood flow. Within moments it was wet and tacky in his fingers, but the urge to sneeze had been suppressed. He held it in place for a moment, then swapped hands, taking grasp of the branch once again.
Still, the footsteps came closer.
"Come on, Tinny? This is stupid..." whined Paul from the edge of the woods, "You’ll never find him in there now. Why don’t you just wait ‘til school?"
"I said shut your mouth!"
Quentin wasn’t far away now. It sounded like he was just a few paces from the other side of the tree. Barry shuddered - partly through cold, but mostly through fear - and tightened his grip on the branch. He opened his jaw a little so his teeth wouldn’t chatter.
With a snap of twigs and a loud crunch of dried leaves, Barry saw the towering silhouette out of the corner of his eye. Quentin was right on top of him.
Barry didn’t dare breathe. Even the hurried thump of his heartbeat seemed loud enough to give his position away.
Quentin took another creeping step; then another; and another; moving slowly but surely away, further into the woods. Barry willed him on. He watched with unblinking eyes, ready to bring the branch up, but the dark figure in the shadows kept moving.
"Me Mam will kill me if I’m late for me tea, Tinny! Come on?"
"I’m going to kick your head in if you don’t shut the hell up!"
"You and who’s army?" braved Paul.
Quentin turned back towards the voice, and huffed. But he didn’t say a word. He just seemed to look.
"He’s here!" he shouted to Paul with triumph, then took quick steps towards the crouching shadow.
Barry dropped the cotton-wool, and used both hands to swipe the branch upwards in a whooshing arc. Quentin tumbled backwards, surprised by the attack, giving Barry the opportunity to stand and make a break for it again.
He’d taken only a step before Quentin’s hand wrapped around his ankle, pulling him back down into the leaves; and before he knew it, he was pinned to the ground. Paul arrived within moments, and dived in to join the attack.
"Barry the Bastard!" laughed Paul.
"You little tosser!" Quentin hissed, raising a balled fist, ready to make the first strike.
Suddenly, out of the darkness came a noise... a terrible hack of deep laughter. Quentin’s fist didn’t fall; the three boys froze like statues, and listened with terror.
The laugh came again: deep, and powerful; like thunder.
"Who dares wake the Guardian of the Dead?" boomed the voice, with an otherworldly menace. It seemed to echo through the trees, and shake the ground beneath them.
Then a red light spread from behind a clump of bushes, lighting up the eerie, bare branches of the trees, and flooding the floor of the woods like blood.
Paul was the first to speak: "Tinny?" he asked timidly, struck with fear.
There was a moment of hesitation.
"Run!" screamed Quentin, rolling off Barry and scrambling to his feet. He pulled Paul up in his trail, and they both ploughed through the woods, in the direction of the path.
Barry scrambled backward and pushed himself up against the tree he had hidden behind earlier. He shook with horror as the disembodied voice laughed again.
The red light disappeared, plunging the woods into a darkness blacker than before. With his night-vision gone, Barry was blind. He heard the heavy footsteps; branches being pushed and snapped; something stomping through the trees and bushes, straight towards him.
He was terrified; rooted to the spot in his dread.
Then, he remembered...
Staring into the darkness, he held out his arm with his stinging palm raised to block the monster, and stepped forward.
"You can’t hurt me!" he shouted, "I’m protected by magic!"
The footsteps stopped.
Barry stood defiant.
"That you are, young Barry..." laughed Chris, "That you are!"