*Harry Hornbeam and the Demon of *
CHAPTER 1 6
CHAPTER 2 13
CHAPTER 3 15
CHAPTER 4 21
CHAPTER 5 28
CHAPTER 6 34
CHAPTER 7 36
CHAPTER 8 39
CHAPTER 9 50
CHAPTER 10 54
Copyright © 2016 Nigel Weight
This book is for my dad, no better man have I ever known.
[_The hero of this story is Harry Daedalus Hornbeam, and he is seven and a bit. His favourite things in life are playing video games, drawing pictures and reading (these last two when Mum won’t let him play video games, which is most of the time). _]
“I’m bored,” stated Harry to anyone who might be interested, “Bored, bored, bored!” He swung his feet up and manoeuvred himself around on the sofa until his feet were where his head should’ve been and vice versa. He would often turn himself upside-down like this, particularly when bored.
“Bored are you?” said Dad, peering up from his newspaper. “Holes are bored…are you a hole?”
“No, Dad, I am not a hole!”
“What about a sandwich?” Mum chipped in, “To fill up the hole.”
“Awwwgh,” blasted Harry in frustration. “I just want something to do. I want to go out like Dad promised. I’ve been on half term this week and haven’t been anywhere.” Harry put on his fed up and hard done by face.
“You know Dad’s been ill with that bug for the last few days, and I’ve got to look after your baby brother.”
“The bug by the way that I caught off of you.” Dad’s eyes again narrowed on Harry. “I feel a lot better today though, shame it’s been raining most of the day.”
“Yes, dear, maybe Dad can—”
“Park! Park! Park!” Harry yelled, thumping his feet on the wall above the sofa.
“Pack it in!” snapped Mum. The baby, Ned, or as Harry like to refer to him, Stinky Poo Bum, began to wail from the bassinet, which at eleven months old he was rapidly growing too big for, resting on the coffee table. Mum looked furiously at Harry, then at Dad.
“Errm, tell you what, let’s go to the library, see if they’ve got a book on the digestive system that you’ve been asking so many questions about lately,” spluttered Dad.
“Then can we go to the park after? I want to take my scooter.”
“Ohhh, I suppose so, but just for half an hour as it’s pretty cold and miserable out.”
“It’ll be muddy,” said Mum glaring at them again. Her naturally red cheeks seemed to glow hotter. She was thinking about having to wash Harry’s jeans again when they’d been fresh on that day. Mum had become very practically minded since Ned had arrived: from her short hair to no fuss meals, when time allowed, she’d transformed into a make-up free, multitasking, baby juggling, spew dodging, sleep deprived ninjette—with possible anger issues.
“We’ll stick to the paths,” replied Dad, trying to calm the waters.
“Yes, and I want to feed the ducks there too.” Harry was already right side up again and sprinting out of the front room. He weaved through the passage and kitchen collecting his necessary ‘stuff’ for the outing. “SCOOTERRRR,” he roared as he skidded up to it in his socks before snatching the remaining bread from the table, “BREADDDD,” pelting back down the passage to the front door and freedom at a hundred miles an hour.
Mum packed up some more bread and old crumpets into a bag. Harry put on his trainers and coat; Dad blew his nose in a tissue and quietly inspected the contents; Ned continued to cry as no baby had ever cried before.
The library was unlibraryishly loud in the children’s section. It seemed that half the children in Forest Hill had been dragged out. Harry managed to find a good selection of books for himself. Wedged under his arm now were such titles as Your Amazing Stomach, The Astonishing Life of the Common House fly and The 101 sandwiches recipe book—this one was for Dad as recently Mum wasn’t having enough time to make him dinners. Dad looked at it glumly, but resigned to his fate he left it in the clutch.
With the next few weeks’ reading matter sorted Harry and Dad felt they’d given more than a nod to academia and went back to dump the books in the car and drive on to the park.
Dulwich park this time of the year looked pretty sad for itself. As they drove past, the bare trees’ limbs swished their knobbly branches slowly to the commands of the rising and falling winds.
“Looks a bit blowy.”
“Yes, Dad, but at least it isn’t raining; and we can always pop to Gran’s after for a warm.”
“If you like.”
They pulled up as close as they could get to the huge entrance gates, which was some way down the road. Dad made sure Harry was zipped up properly in his coat, had his hat pulled right down and then helped him strap into his pads and helmet. His short dark brown hair was now fully obscured; his bright brown eyes eager, his small mouth tightly closed, he was raring to be let loose.
“You look like you’re about to go down Niagara Falls in a barrel,” said Dad. “We never had any of this stuff when we were kids. Knowing how much we could get hurt coming off made us more careful, I suppose.” Harry shrugged and jumped onto his scooter. As soon as they’d passed those big rusty gates Harry let loose, tearing off leaving Dad behind him shouting something about ‘too fast’ or ‘careful’ or something else he took no notice of. He felt free here in this park. Free with the few other kids on their rides escaping the drudgery of Autumnal holidays barricaded in the house watching kids’ TV and weather reports. Nature, Harry thought, was AWESOME. The fallen leaves on the path meant he could do some truly excellent skids on his scooter. He fell off, but was up and off again before Dad could catch up. His cheeks felt cold and warm at the same time as he panted with his exertion, the air cool on the back of his throat. He passed more dog walkers, bike riders and pram pushers until he was almost upon the boating lake. He caught his breath and waited for Dad to arrive. He noted disappointedly that there were now no boats to be seen anywhere on the lake.
“Where’s that little bridge where we threw the bread to the ducks last time, Dad?” he asked, not remembering if they’d gone to the left or right before.
“To the right,” replied Dad, and they walked around the lake, or rather, large pond, together until they came to the low walled stone bridge. Dad pulled out the bread and crumpets from the bag and Harry proceeded to have immense fun throwing clumps of the stuff at the various birds that came paddling over. A flock of pigeons descended too in a grey flapping cloud, but Harry could feed pigeons anywhere, so they didn’t get a look in. He hit a swan full on the beak with a large piece of crust, he hadn’t meant to, but the swan didn’t mind and gobbled it down in a second. He tried to pick which birds he wanted to feed individually and would throw the scrap to them but the birds he usually picked were the smaller ones, or ones that looked like they just needed it more. The bigger and quicker amongst them always seemed to snatch the morsel first. Dad watched Harry get frustrated at this.
“That’s life I’m afraid son, nature can be hard sometimes.”
A little boy came up with his mum and asked her for some bread to throw to the ducks but she hadn’t brought any with her. Dad gave the boy a slice of Harry’s bread, the boy squealed with joy and had a great time while the bread lasted then disappeared down the path with his mother.
When every last crumb had gone they moved on. Harry, having got his puff back, sped off into the distance again. When he got tired he’d wait till Dad was within a few feet and shoot off again. Eventually when the cold had bitten through his enthusiasm he let Dad catch up and they walked together in the direction of the big gates. They went over a longer wooden bridge that brought them within jumping distance of the small, heavily wooded island that was a feature of the boating lake.
“We’d better get a move on,” said Dad, “they’ll be closing the gates soon. You wouldn’t like to be locked in here all night I can tell you. Not with…”
Harry stopped in his tracks. “Not with what, Dad??”
“No, no,” said Dad, “I’d better not say, I don’t want you having nightmares tonight.”
“Tell me, tell me please, Dad. I like scary things, honest.”
“Well, if you’re really sure, then I’ll tell you.” Dad looked at Harry with his serious face. “You see that island there, that island that you could probably jump onto from this bridge—but nobody ever does—well, that’s where he, or should I say it, lives.”
“Who, Dad, who?”
“…The BOGEYMAN!” Dad paused for dramatic effect and raised his eyebrows.
Harry started to smirk. “Bogeyman?”
“Yes, the Bogeyman, and no he isn’t called that because he picks his nose a lot, or because he’s made out of bogeys. It’s a very ancient name. A very mysterious and dark force. And once those gates are slammed shut at 6pm no one comes in or out the park, not even park keepers come in to check on the park, they don’t have to you see, because no one wants to be in here after dark…when…when he comes out.”
“Really, Dad?” The smirk had left young Harry’s chops and there was a worried but trying not to show it edge creeping into his voice. Dad had hooked his attention like an angler getting a bite from a huge salmon.
“…Really. On that island, deeper into the thick trees is a gate, a white gate made entirely of his victims’ bones. And resting atop that gate’s pillars either side are two skulls.”
Harry was looking decidedly less sure of himself. He glanced back towards the island in the boating lake and sidled up closer to Dad.
“You’re joking me aren’t you, Dad?”
“Wish I was, son. He comes out when he hears the park gates clang shut and hunts around. If there’s no one in the park he’ll jump from tree to tree looking for squirrels or pigeons and go rummage through the park’s bins, dragging his knuckles on the ground. A drunk on his way back from the Three Crowns poked his doner kebab through the railings once. Foolish, very foolish. Everyone likes a doner…arm was ripped clean out the socket. He survived, poor old Lefty MacTavish, just. He still goes down the pub, has a beer, not on the darts team anymore though.”
“How does he get off the island?” Harry asked trying not to think about arms or kebabs.
“Well,” said Dad trying to think on his feet. “He has a canoe made of skin and bones that he paddles with his huge hands. Though he does wade across sometimes too, if the weathers nice.”
“For real? You do mean animal skins, don’t you?”
Dad didn’t answer the question but looked straight ahead towards the park’s huge gates as they came into the last stretch of overhung lane approaching the exit.
“Is that the park keeper at the gates?” said Dad slowly, then looking at his watch with a frown, “Must be closing early.”
“Where??” Harry was walking so quickly now that Dad was having trouble keeping up. He saw no sign of a park keeper but he was taking no chances.
When they reached the gates, Harry passed through them with a huge sense of relief, glancing back in the direction of the lake briefly before getting on his scooter to trundle slowly along next to Dad. Dad reminded him not to speed off and not to go close to the kerb, but he needn’t have bothered as Harry had no intention of leaving Dad’s side.
They made their way towards the car, resuming their conversation where it had left off.
“But why does he live in a park, Dad, the Bogeyman?”
“Well, you remember I told you about them dark-elves that live up Blythe Hill Park, when we went poking down those strange holes in the grass? Holes so deep they swallowed up our sticks.”
“Well, it’s the same with them. You see, all this area around here was ancient and magical woodlands up until a few centuries ago when London started to expand south. These woodlands became cut off, surrounded by humanity. Then those forested enclaves shrunk and shrunk until just a few areas of green were left.”
“Precisely. These beings have had to adapt, had to blend in to their surroundings, tunnel into the earth to make their homes, do what they had to just to survive.
“Then there was that little boy the other year…” Dad drew in a long deliberate breath for effect, just to magnify the terror of his story. Harry was wide eyed and quiet.
“He got lost, see, separated from his mum and dad up Blythe Hill as it was getting dark. He sat down crying near one of their holes. They love that sound, kids crying, it’s like a dinner bell to them. Shot out their holes like greased eels. Grabbed him. Started to drag him down, down, down into one of the larger holes hidden behind some bushes at the foot of a big tree. Luckily enough the screams of the boy brought out the gnomes. The biggest of them, catching the scent of the lad on the night air, charged from their own burrows and jumped down the elf-hole after him. I’m sure I told you all this before.”
“Yes, Dad. The tug of war.”
“Exactly, Harry. Each party concerned managed to get hold of an arm and leg each. They pulled and pulled him, just like a wishbone. SNAP! ‘Make a wish,’ shouted out one of the burrow dwelling dwarves, who had been drinking a particularly potent brew of gnome beer just before the smell had disturbed him.”
“Awww, Dad, I know your making up stories again, ’cos last time you said he ran away from them.”
“Well, son, he did escape, but he wasn’t in any state to be running anywhere. More like a slow crawl, like a rat dragging a trap. You see the gnomes love fighting almost as much as they love eating children, son, especially with the dark-elves. Them elves are pretty handy too in a dust up—which, by the way, is the real reason Father Christmas keeps them hanging around, but that’s another story. The temptation was too much and the spoils too great so young Eric—”
“Eric? You never mentioned his name before. Hey, he didn’t go to my school did he? There was a boy last year in the next class called Eric who stopped coming mid-term. But everyone thought he had moved…”
“Mmm, quite possibly, son, anyway, as I was saying, young Eric, probably that kid from your school, had almost made it to the edge of the park, another few painful drags and he’d have been at the pavement. But…”
“Go on, Dad, don’t stop. I’m not too scared, honest.”
Dad shortened his gait and slowed down a bit so as not to reach the car before he finished the tale.
“Well. Look, if you’re sure you’re not going to have nightmares again, I’ll continue.” Again a pause for drama and thinking time. “Well, there was a large black stray dog that was always seen wandering about the park at night, all the locals supposed the dog lived somewhere in the park, it used to howl something rotten of a night, but no matter how many times they sent the dog-catcher in there he always come out empty handed. Anyway, this dog appeared next to him and just sat there looking at him, eyes as bright as two slices of carrot, all dribble and saliva hanging down in long wobbly strands from his chops. ‘Here boy, here; good dog,’ Eric called, happy that the dog was there, he thought it might protect him if the creatures from the park finished fighting and came hunting him. He feared they may even put aside their differences, just for the night, spatchcock and share him. But he needn’t have worried about that, for though he couldn’t hear it the fight was still raging fiercely underground, as the dog’s left ear that twitched constantly could verify. But then, this was no ordinary dog. Suddenly the cur’s face changed into that of a hideous beast with a thousand teeth and several sets of eyes. Its body morphed into its true form, six foot high, sleek and slippery as a greased baboon. It was a shapeshifter.”
“A shapeshifter, I never heard of one of them, I’m a little bit scared now, Dad. You can stop now, I don’t like shapeshifters.”
“OK, son, I’ll stop,” said Dad. “But I don’t think that that Eric from your school will be sending you a birthday party invite anytime soon.”
“Just stop. Don’t talk about shapeshifters again, Dad, OK?!”
“Okay. I only told you that story because you asked.”
“I knowwww, but I didn’t know it would be that scary. Anyway, we were actually talking about the Bogeyman before and then you started talking about elves and gnomes and,” he couldn’t even bring himself to say the word, “and that thing you have promised not to mention again.”
“Ah yes, we were.”
“And…is it all true, about the Bogeyman?”
“Yes, if you don’t believe me you can ask Granddad when we get to Gran’s house.”
“Has he seen one then?”
“Well, that’s something you’ll have to ask him. Be nice to get in Gran’s and have a hot cup of tea, won’t it? Maybe she’s got some of those iced buns in that you like.”
They reached the car. Harry dismounted and took his helmet off, then helped Dad get the things into the boot. He was quiet on the journey to Gran’s, busy thinking over what a terrifying thing a Bogeyman was and how he hoped he’d never meet one. And as for the shapeshifter, he preferred not to think about that at all. Dad noticed how quiet his son was and tried to lighten the mood, correctly guessing he may have gone too far with his story telling. He talked about TV programs that Harry liked and what Mum would be cooking for his tea, but nothing broke Harry’s silence. As a last resort he brought up the latest video game that Harry had been on about getting for Christmas, Storm Trooper: Alien Meltdown. This did the trick and snapped Harry’s mind away from monsters as he told Dad all about the game for the umpteenth time. He was still talking about the game ten minutes later. Dad had heard just about all he could endure, what with lazerbows, cyberbandits, giant Samael spiders, galactic baboons and the like.
“Hey, what about a little bet, son?” Dad’s voice amplified in the confined space boomed. “For money. You might even make a few bob.”
Harry looked up. “What sort of a bet?” he said curiously. He knew Dad well enough by now to know that these types of offers had to be closely examined in detail before agreeing.
“Well, here’s what I’ll do. You pick a colour, and every time you see a car that colour you get a point. And for every point I’ll give you 10p.”
Harry sat up a bit and listened more intently. “And,” continued Dad, “I will pick a particular make of car, and every time I see one of those, you give me 10p. OK?”
“Well,” Harry had trouble hiding the grin appearing on his face and hoped Dad didn’t spot it in his rear view mirror. “OK then, that sounds fair… I’ll choose red.” It seemed to Harry like every few seconds a red car had been passing them, even the car in front of them now was red, that was 10p straight away he thought. He could hardly wait to start adding up the numbers. This would be like taking candy from a baby, he thought, after all, how many of any particular make of car could Dad hope to see, there were sooo many different types, but only a few different popular colours.
“OK,” said Dad, “and I’ll choose as my car, hmm, let me think…a Mini, yes, definitely Minis for me.”
“Sweet,” Harry laughed, “One… Two…” and was already counting and pointing. As Harry was hitting the early twenties, Dad indicated left and turned onto the busy main road.
“Twenty-three…hey, we don’t normally go this way to Gran’s.”
“Scenic route,” Dad said, “Oh, there’s another Mini, that’s four for me.” Harry made the quick calculation as he hit twenty-four red cars that he was now two pounds in clear profit.
The car seemed to be slowing. “Twenty-five, twenty-six reds,” Harry suddenly sat bolt upright as though he’d just seen a three-headed ghost outside the window, a three-headed ghost with a large sword, claws, vampire teeth, a nasty limp and a bloodshot eye. In fact there wasn’t a ghost, ringwraith, hobgoblin or scary thing of any description, it was the horrific thought that came into his head. He looked out of the window open-mouthed as Dad came to a halt next to the MINIS ARE US – THE SOUTH EAST’S PREMIER MINI DEALERSHIP forecourt.
The memory of the place now hit him like a hurricane, Hurricane Dad, at full spin and flattening every hope of victory in its path.
“Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” said Dad calmly, pointing to each one slowly, “eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen—what a spot of luck, for me that is—fifteen, sixteen…” with no sign or intention of slowing down.
“That’s cheating, you knew you’d come here when you asked me.”
“I started on the back row, do you want to count with me, make sure I don’t miss any? Might even be a red one in there for you, yes look, there’s one.”
“A setup, that’s what it is. Fine. Just do it then if you want to cheat,” fumed Harry and he sat back into his seat with a loud flop.
“Now, now, Harry, a bet’s a bet. Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven…oh, that was your score, wasn’t it, twenty-seven? I’m only on the third row. I believe this has the largest showroom forecourt in South London.”
Of Bogeys and Old Fogeys
Gran and Granddad were sitting at the kitchen table when they went in. Gran possessed the four things most people her age had, grey hair, glasses, spontaneous bum burps and a cardigan; the bum burps could be particularly problematic when she was coughing or sneezing—Harry tended to put off visiting when she had a cold. Granddad was rolling a very thin cigarette, trying to conserve as much tobacco as he could. It was becoming an expensive vice.
“Hello, Harry, how are you, son?” asked Granddad. The old man’s face was thin, as was his body, his nose long and pointed at the tip; three features that had passes down unhindered to Dad and would probably dictate Harry’s anatomy somewhere down the line.
“Hello darling,” cooed Gran before Harry could answer Granddad, “where have you been in all this cold?”
“We’ve been to the library and to the park. I was riding my scooter.”
Dad went to where the kettle was and clicked it on then took some cups out of the cupboard.
“Granddad,” Harry continued, staring at him, “have you ever seen a Bogeyman? Dad said there’s one that lives on the boating lake island in the park and that he comes out at night.”
“Well,” said Granddad adjusting his thick lensed glasses, “when we were kids they used to live in peoples cupboards under the stairs.” He tapped the cigarette butt down a few times on the table before loading it into his mouth.
“Awww don’t listen to them darling, there’s no such thing as Bogeymen. It’s just a myth,” Gran said, then she turned and spoke to Dad in a more serious tone, “Don’t tell him things like that, you’ll go too far one of these days with your silly stories.”
“But, just because it’s a myth doesn’t mean they don’t exist.” Dad protested weakly.
“Can I see what one looks like on the internet, Gran?”
Harry usually liked coming to Gran’s most because she would let him play some of the online video games on her laptop. She herself played bingo on it most days, so the laptop was nearly always on.
Harry sat in the chair and began to type in the word B-O-G-E-Y-M-A-N. A huge list of webpages filled the screen. He then clicked on images and sat back in his chair to take them all in. They were stacked row upon row, line drawings to full colour artwork that portrayed the beast in painstaking detail.
“But they all look different,” he muttered.
Dad had positioned himself discretely behind Granddad’s chair. Harry guessed what was about to happen. Very softly at first, Dad began to whistle. He didn’t look like he was whistling but he was; he blew his breath over his bottom teeth to create the sound, avoiding pursing his lips. He blew harder and gradually the high pitched whine increased. Dad had once tried to teach Harry how to do it but Harry had trouble enough whistling the normal way.
Granddad looked up from rolling another ciggy. He looked up at the ceiling. He looked around the room. He then, sure of the whistle, began to tap his hearing-aid with enthusiasm.
“Blimmin’ thing,” he cursed, taking the device from his ear and playing with the volume. Dad continued and then stopped suddenly.
“Ah, done it.” Exclaimed Granddad, putting the hearing-aid back in only for Dad to start whistling again. This time Granddad looked around and Dad began to laugh.
“Sorry, dad, couldn’t resist. Never gets old that one.” Granddad tutted and carried on rolling his cigarette.
“Senile,” Gran mouthed silently to Harry, “Always falls for it, can’t remember.”
Harry nodded at her, not sure whether to look amused or concerned. Gran gave him a big smile so he grinned back. He only part believed that Granddad fell for it, he quite liked to think that he was well aware of what was going on and was playing his own trick on Dad, kinda like how Mum and Dad played with SPB, letting him laugh at the same thing over and over…and over.
Square Pegs and Round Holes
For the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, right up till he went to bed, Harry was quieter than usual. There was no shouting, no running up and down the stairs so fast that it sounded like a bongo drum playing competition in the house, no skidding through the kitchen in his socks, no tormenting his baby sibling with silly faces when mum wasn’t looking. He didn’t even ask to play video games. Mum felt his forehead, as if she thought he may be ill.
“No temperature, Dad,” she looked at Dad confused. “Are you OK, Harry? You haven’t asked to play video games today.”
“Yes,” chimed in Dad, “you’re being far too well behaved and quiet. Have you broken something? You haven’t spilt cola on the sofa again, have you?” Dad went over to Harry and started lifting up the cushions on the sofa, only half pretending to be joking.
“No Dad,” said Harry, “I haven’t done anything wrong and I’m not ill.”
Dad took Harry upstairs for his shower and washed the boy’s hair without complaint.
In bed Harry became much more talkative than usual, he would start another conversation up just as Dad was finishing talking and about to leave the bedroom to go back downstairs.
“Harry, sorry old mate, but I’ve got to go downstairs, and you have got to go to sleep or you’ll be snoring your head off in class tomorrow.”
“Dad…” Harry gripped Dad’s arm as he rose to leave. “Dad, erm, you know that Bogeyman, the one that lives in the park, does he really eat people, I mean drag them onto his island and like, you know…”
Dad looked at Harry and realised that the reason he’d been so quiet was the stories he’d told his son were playing on his mind.
“Just stories, son. Sorry if I scared you with ’em. Did they really frighten you?”
“Erm…well, a little bit. ’Specially the shapeshifter. Could he, the shapeshifter, like turn himself into a spider, or an ant or something and crawl through a gap under the front door, then change back into that thing, its true shape?”
“I told you, Harry, I just got carried away. These things are myths, everybody knows the stories but no one truly believes them, they’re just repeated for fun, sometimes people like to feel a little scared. You are probably too young for these types of story.”
“Are you sure you’re not just saying that, to stop me being frightened?”
“Don’t worry about what I said, you know how I get carried away with telling stories. I enjoy reading you Winnie the Pooh too, but you’re never going to meet a talking stuffed bear, are you? Now get some sleep, you can’t be late on the first day back after half term. And no loud burping in bed, you’ll wake your brother up.” Harry looked over towards the wall, behind which SPB was by now sleeping soundly in his cot, or the monkey’s cage as Harry liked to call it.
“But, Batman would probably beat him, like in a fight, wouldn’t he, Dad, if he existed I mean?”
“Well, I think the Bogeyman would win that, he’s much faster, and his hands are huge and…” Dad paused, “Doing it again, sorry, mate.”
“But Iron Man would definitely beat him up though, I’m sure of it. Iron Man is the best.”
“G’night lad,” said Dad, trying to get out before he said something else that might upset Harry. He knew he shouldn’t scare Harry with stories, but sometimes he just couldn’t help himself, just couldn’t stop the story from rolling to its crashing conclusion. “I’ll leave the door ajar so it’s not too dark.”
“Okaaay.” Harry let his grip on Dad’s arm slip.
Harry tossed and turned as he tried, unsuccessfully, to sleep. He thought he’d never be able to drift off. Every thing in the room took on a sinister and spooky appearance in the gloom. ‘Shadows,’ he told himself a little unconvincingly, as faces and figures seemed to grow wherever his eyes lingered. The darker the corner, the stronger the feeling of something nasty lurking there. And as for the wardrobe, he couldn’t even bring himself to look in its direction. He closed his eyes tightly and hunkered down further under his duvet.
Harry yawned all the way through breakfast. Every other yawn he’d stuff a portion of French toast into his gaping gob and chew lazily as a grazing cow. He hadn’t managed to fall asleep last night until Mum had climbed into her bed next to SPB in the next room. Oh how he’d wished he could have crawled in with her. Hold her hand. But he was over seven, and those days were fading memories. Big boys didn’t sleep in their mums’ beds, everyone knew that. And now he was going to be tired all day, just like Dad had said.
Breakfast in the Hornbeam household was always a rush. Dad eating toast and Marmite whilst walking Stinky Poo Bum around on his shoulder as Mum got herself washed and dressed. Then Dad would kiss them both, shake Harry’s hand (Harry and Dad had come to an amicable agreement that they’d shake hands instead of Dad kissing his head, Harry had thought this more hygienic and totally less embarrassing for all concerned), and rush out of the door to work. Then Mum would start issuing commands to Harry.
“Harry, put your shoes on.” He complied, slowly.
“Harry, quicker, you’ll be late for school. Get your PE kit. Have you filled your water bottle yet?”
“Well hurry it up; you’re going to be late—as usual.”
“Yes, Mum.” He found that the best course of action during this part of the morning routine was to give short answers, normally ‘Yes, Mum’ or ‘No, Mum,’ any attempt to argue or offer alternative suggestions, like having the day off school because he couldn’t find his water bottle and might become dehydrated and die of thirst before the first break, just made the situation worse.
Being back at Livingstone Primary School (Ken not Doctor, if you were wondering) wasn’t too bad, he’d managed not to fall asleep in Liza’s maths class, quite an achievement on any day, and now he’d made it to break time. In the playground he’d met up with the other members of what he thought of as his gang, though they were not much of a gang. There was Lanky Kev, six feet tall at eight years old. Quiet Dave, who, as you may have guessed, didn’t speak a lot and was called Dave. I say didn’t speak a lot, though it is more accurate to say he didn’t speak at all, though he got along fine with the rest of the gang. He was a very accurate pointer, and by the casual shaping of two or three fingers and the raising of an eyebrow, he managed to communicate effectively enough. Some of the other kids picked on him, same as they did with the rest of Harry’s gang. They’d shout “SHUT UP!” at him all the time, even though he never said a word. For Lanky it was the usual ones of “What’s it like up there?” “If you fell over you’d be half way home,” and, “Did you fall asleep in a growbag?” which might not sound too mean, but when you hear that 100 times a day it’s not nice. Bill, who was Harry’s best friend, was called Ill Bill, he had long blond hair and overly bulky glasses that had trouble resting on his small nose, and his mainstay of lampooning was how much time he had off school due to colds and coughs. It seemed that every week he’d have a day or two off, and when he was in school he was constantly sniffing his snotty nose or worse still cuffing it. His cough ranged from dry and wispy to deep and rumbly and anything in between. Harry remembered one particular day in maths when Ill Bill had a particularly nasty bunged up nose, “What’s six times six…anyone?” the teacher had asked, “You boy, Atom,” Atom being Bill’s surname.
“Errm, dick dixes dar dirty dick,” came the reply, which everyone including the teacher found raucously funny. From then on most kids in the maths class had called him Dirty Dick.
Finally there was Big Justin, at least that’s what the gang called him, most of the trolls in school called him Ginormous Justin, or Lord of the Pies, but Justin wasn’t bothered, he’d just push them over and laugh. His hair was black and shaggy and so long that it covered his eyes to such an extent that no one knew what colour they were, it was a miracle that he never bumped into things. As wide as he was tall he used to avoid standing next to Lanky Kev, ever since a teacher had referred to them as doughnut and banana, like they were some sort of comedy act. Now, Big Justin was mainly good at two things, eating and video games. He was almost as good at video games as Harry, according to Harry anyway, which is why Harry liked to invite him around to his house every few weeks to have a games evening. When Big Justin was on the Xbox Harry and Dad used to watch the screen with their mouths open at his skills, whilst mum used to watch him open mouthed at him clearing the constant stream of plates that she brought to him whilst he clicked buttons and jerked thumbsticks.
Last time he visited Mum had asked him, “Would you like some more tea, Jester?” The illusion of Mum’s role as the attentive hostess was instantly shattered as Harry whispered angrily, “No, Mum, his name’s NOT Jester, I keep telling you. I even told you how to remember it…”
“Yes it is Jester! You told me yourself, Jester, as in Jester minute.”
“Nooooo, I told you his name is JUSTIN, as in JUST IN TIME.”
“It’s OK Missus Hornbeam,” said Justin feeling a little awkward, “it’s close enough, and yes I’d love some more tea, and do you have any more of those biscuits, and perhaps the rest of those sausage rolls that Mister Hornbeam was eating, and oh, some more crisps and those dainty little sandwiches that you always make would go down a treat too.”
Mum had said to Harry after he’d gone, “That friend of yours, Jester, can really pack it away.”
“Yeah,” butted in Dad,” I bet those Guinness world record people would be interested in his abilities.”
“Don’t be rude about my friend, Dad,” Harry had snapped, “and how many times do I have to tell you his name isn’t Jester.”
“Well, he scoffed all my sausage rolls.”
“Dad, are you a troll or something, you’re bullying my mate, stop it, he gets enough stick at school. We all do.”
“… Sorry mate, I shouldn’t have been rude, he’s a good kid. You know he’s welcome here anytime, just give us a bit of notice so Mum can go shopping.”
“Thanks, Dad, sorry I snapped but all of our gang get it all day every day.” Dad had looked serious and nodded.
Considering his own inclusion into this gang of misfits he couldn’t think why, couldn’t put his finger on it, but until Bill, had started talking to him in the playground in year two, he’d not had many friends at all. In fact he’d always, up until that point, found himself playing on his own. He’d have loved to have played with the other children, but they always seemed to exclude him. He’d remain unpicked and standing on his own when football teams were chosen; partnerless in the three-legged race on Sports Day; and always the one holding the teacher’s hand on school trips while the others were happily swinging a classmate’s along the road. In the end he’d just stopped trying, it made him too sad; he’d sit on his own and play or read, pretending he didn’t care what the others in the class were doing as he knew they didn’t want him.
As soon as the bell had rung for First Break he’d run to the usual spot in the playground where they always met at break times. He started blurting out the story about the Bogeyman, but he changed the name from Bogeyman to Demon. He thought it sounded scarier, and frankly he still thought Bogeyman sounded like a silly name for a monster.
“A demon,” said Bill, “what type of demon? My dad says there are two types of demons, those with yellow eyes and those with red.”
“Oh,” said Harry, “he has…completely black eyeballs.” Dad’s storytelling abilities were rubbing off on him.
“Now that IS scary,” said Bill.
So, with the undivided attention of the gang he retold the story. Their eyes widened as the story went on. When he was finished all was silent for a few moments before Bill spoke up.
“Ohhh, I bet you’d poo your pants if you met him, Harry. He doesn’t scare me though. I’d put him in a wrestling headlock until he said ‘SUBMIT’.”
Quiet Dave looked on, not appearing particularly interested. Lanky Kev looked like he was in shock. “Blimey!” was all he could say for the moment. Big Justin rifled in his jacket pocket and pulled out a half-eaten Curly Wurly for comfort and started to stroke it.
“Blimey indeed,” echoed Harry.
Quiet Dave began to point at his watch just a split second before the playtime bell rang.
“How do you do that?” said Harry, “Every day you do that at exactly the time the bell rings.”
“Yeah, you’re not a witch or something, are you?” chimed in Bill. Quiet Dave didn’t answer but instead wandered off in the direction of Block B.
Harry looked at Bill, “My dad said last year on Hallowe’en Night, when we were out trick or treating and some fireworks whooshed up into the night sky then exploded in a thousand coloured sparks, that the rockets were being let off by some witch hunters trying to shoot one down. He said that if my teacher, Liza, was walking with a limp the next day then she’d probably been shot off her broomstick.”
“And was she limping the next day?”
“Well, not really, but I should imagine that fireworks are difficult to aim. I asked her if she had a cat and she does! Though it’s not black, it’s ginger.”
“Mmm, I suppose she does look a bit like a witch. I wonder why witches fly about all over the place on Hallowe’en?”
“Dad said they’re on their way to their sabbat.”
“What’s a sabbat when it’s at home?” enquired Bill, followed by a sniff, a weak cough and the slightest of snot cuffings.
“He said it’s like a disco for witches…but they dance around a fire in the NUDE.”
Bill found this part particularly amusing and started spinning around as he imagined a witch might. “Ohhh, I’m in the NUDE, ohhhh, lucky this fire is here to stop me freezing.” The others snorted and chuckled at this and Bill himself had a little wheezy giggle.
The remaining boys headed back to their own classes and when Lanky Kev broke off and headed to Block D, Bill came alongside Harry. “Your classroom is the opposite way,” Harry barked.
“Harry,” said Bill slowly, placing his hand on Harry’s shoulder so that he stopped and faced him, “Harry, that demon. Can you take me there, to the island? I’ve had a brilliant idea. Unless, of course, you’re too scared to go without your dad.”
“I’m not scared of anything, ESPECIALLY demons. I will take you, and I swear, if we see it I’ll jolly well go up to it and tweak its nose,” blurted Harry, trying to appear brave, that comment about not going there without Dad almost made his blood boil. “What’s this brilliant idea when it’s at home?”
“Well,” said Bill with a big cheesy grin, “How would you like to be rich? Very VERY rich?”
Harry would like to be rich just fine, and very very rich even more so, but before he could state this most obvious of facts to the grinning Bill the booming voice of Mr ‘Stormy’ Robotham, the Assistant Head Master, came bellowing across the playground. He was nicknamed ‘Stormy’ as he had a voice like thunder and a hand—usually with something throwable in it—like lightning.
“YOU BOYS! MOOOOVE! YOU’RE LATE FOR YOUR CLASSES.” It made Harry’s blood freeze. In a state of confusion and panic they scuttled this way and that like whirligigs before running in opposite directions to their lessons. I bet old Stormy could scare a demon half to death, just by giving it one of those [_you’re late for class _]looks of his, reflected Harry.
All afternoon Harry wondered what Bill’s idea was, the idea that would make them both rich. He thought of all the ways he would spend the money: Super Pizza for tea every night, the latest video games, he could even buy the school and demolish it with a big yellow digger.
“Harry,” bellowed his teacher Liza, “What have I told you about smiling in class?! Cease it at once. If there’s any smiling to be done it can be done in your own time, not in the school’s.”
Harry would buy Miss Liza a present with some of his share of the cash, a one way ticket to the rainforest. He chuckled on the inside but kept a straight face. Yes, the Amazonian rainforest with howler monkeys and big hairy spiders and hissing snakes. She’d have to live in a tree he supposed and swing to the shops on vines, like Tarzan. He lifted his book higher to shield his face’s delight as his imagination bloomed.
At lunch break The Outcasts had hung out together and it would have made the others suspicious should Bill have taken Harry aside and whispered his moneymaking scheme. So Harry would just have to wait for the big explanation.
Harry Plotter and the Half-Baked Sphinx
At school the next day Harry and Bill spent all the playtimes together, just the two of them, away from everybody, including the gang, in a secluded corner of the playground next to the ‘Wild Garden’. They were planning. Planning something so exciting that it had to be kept secret—from everyone. Exciting and perhaps, if things were not planned to the last detail, a bit dangerous. The two boys had sworn an oath of secrecy at first break, sworn to secrecy with their right hands placed on top of the latest Harry Potter book, which were both their favourite books by miles. Bill had seen this done on TV in something his parents were watching one night. He’d pleaded with them to change the channel loads of times but they wouldn’t so he’d reluctantly watched it. It was set in a court and they swore an oath to tell the truth on a big black book.
Bill’s idea was simplicity itself, and foolproof. They would go to Dulwich Park in the middle of the night, sneak in and hunt down the demon. Harry would read up on the tracking section in The Boy Scout’s Companion and they would stalk it, trap it and take a photo, then run like merry hell. They would sell the picture to the newspapers, give TV interviews, write a book, print tee shirts, probably even get their own TV show, like Bear Grylls—but without the poo stuff and tarantellas; oh and make millions of pounds of course. Dulwich Park would become world famous and a magnet for tourists, and new age hippies would hold hands and sing shanties around stone circles. Loch Ness had its monster and Dulwich Park Boating Lake soon would have its demon.
“So, that’s about everything planned now, Bill,” said Harry, “I’ve been through it and through it in my head and I don’t think we’ve left any details out.”
“Yeah,” said Bill, “so it’s definitely on for Friday night. Are you sure you can stay awake?”
“Sure,” said Harry, his face serious, this was actually going to happen. No way to back out now.
Bogwaltz was an epithet festooned upon the school by some hack in the local paper when last year near enough the whole school got food poisoning. Nothing too serious, but the school was closed for a week and there was an investigation that led back to the kitchens. The only ones who didn’t get a bad tummy were those who brought in packed lunches. All the rest ended up with diarrhoea, ‘the trots’ as Mum called it—though Dad, of course, preferred to call it something else, ‘the squits’. Charming man isn’t he, Harry’s dad. The name had stuck. Harry Potter went to Hogwarts while Harry Hornbeam attended Bogwaltz.
“Are you sure you can get your brother’s Action Man walkie talkies?” asked Harry.
“Yes. And he put new batteries in yesterday.”
“So Friday it is. I’ll meet you by the lamppost halfway between our houses. Don’t forget to put cushions under the duvet and leave a note under the pillow, in case they discover us missing.”
“Yes, so they know we haven’t been kidnapped or anything by… Well, kidnapped.”
“Yeah, and don’t forget your packed lunch. I’m taking peanut butter sandwiches and you’re bringing ham ones—and no pickle, OK, I hate pickle! And don’t forget the camera!” Harry reminded, as without the photos who would believe them?
The classes that day seemed to drag on forever. In three days’ time it would be Friday, Harry felt excited and a little scared, but for now he had to clear it from his mind and concentrate on his class project, to come up with an idea or invention that would make a difference to world hunger, world peace or world poverty.
It seemed a bit silly to Harry that if the greatest brains in the world couldn’t figure these things out, how was he, or even his whole class, supposed to. Anyway, he had tried to give it some thought over the last week and had thus far come up with three ideas: one for each problem. If he managed to sort these things out maybe next year’s lot doing this class would be able to do something else a bit easier, also, he thought, there might be some money in it, I mean, if you wipe out world poverty there must be a little something left for yourself, right?
Idea 1. To wipe out world hunger he would legalise cannibalism, but to call the meat something appetizing like spange so that it wouldn’t put people off. The head would still get buried though, after all people did have feelings you know.
Idea 2. To stop all wars the countries that wanted to fight each other should each send a team of their best video gamers to do battle in a video war game arena with those new virtual reality 3D headsets. Harry, naturally, would qualify to fight—and win—all England’s wars, probably on his own, that’s how good he believed he was at video games.
[*Idea 3. *]To end world poverty he would make money illegal so that no one would be rich and no one poor. No one would be able to own anything and robots would do all the work, they’d build 3 mile high blocks of flats and do all the jobs so that people could get up late and watch TV all day, a bit like being on the dole.
He was sure these ideas would help. In fact he was starting to feel very proud of his input to solving these global problems.
As he was about to put pen to paper the class fell in to chaos. Chardonnay was leaning forward to grab the colouring pencils in the centre of the table and accidentally let out a squeaky bottom-burp. Her face turned beetroot under her golden locks as the class erupted in giggles and pointing fingers. Some of the boys started making squeaking noises until the teacher, Liza, threatened the culprits with extra homework. This knocked Harry’s concentration and he decided that it was a sign that he should think of a better idea than a high rise. Kofi, who sat opposite him on the table (they sat four pupils to a table), slid a folded piece of paper to Harry when he thought no one would see. Harry took the paper quickly and held it under the table. He opened it and peered down wondering what the secret message could be, perhaps an invite to a birthday party, or some information that no one else should see.
‘YOU SMELL LIKE A PICKLED ONION AND HAVE A BIG BOGEY COMING OUT OF YOUR NOSE!’
Harry was shocked, he didn’t even like pickled onions. He raised his hand and felt his nose for anything sticky. Kofi looked up from his book and burst out laughing, “Add something and pass it on,” he whispered, “Pass it on to someone else.” Harry laughed too as he got the gag and added his own insult, ‘YOUR FAVOURTE FOOD IS WORM STEW,’ he then half stood and slowly passed it across to Shadrach on the next table.
“HARRY HORNBEAM FREEZE!”
Liza had been writing on the blackboard when she shouted. He froze out of obedience and fear, but mostly fear. Dad had been right, she was a witch. She finished writing on the board and turned round.
“What is on that piece of paper you are passing to Shadrach, love letter, recipe for chicken fricassee, your thoughts on this year’s nominations for the Booker Prize?”
Harry’s mouth was as frozen as the rest of him. She walked slowly up and snatched it out of his hand. It’s rude to snatch, thought Harry. She read the note in silence. Then she went to the board. She proceeded to write out the contents in big white letters. She gave the contents of that paper a thorough going over for the next twenty minutes, spelling, punctuation, grammar, followed by a small lecture on the woes for teacher and child of participating in passing notes around in lesson time. All the time he was standing awaiting her final judgement.
“Hornbeam and Kofi do not forget to tell your parents tonight that they will be picking you up an hour later than usual this Thursday, due to your detention. And as you are so taken with notes I’ll have one for you to collect at the end of the day telling them why.”
Harry looked at the incredulous Kofi. Kofi looked at Harry. Both were mentally trying to concoct a believable story to tell their parents as to why they would be late leaving school on Thursday.
Thursday lunchtime came and the Outcasts had amassed themselves in the centre of the playground. Footballs pinged on the tarmac all around them, boys and girls whizzed about pulling each other and occasionally falling to the floor. Shrieks of fun and chatter filled their ears.
“Why are we meeting in this part of the playground,” asked Harry, “I feel too exposed. Let’s go over by the bins, no one will bother us there.”
“No,” said Bill, “haven’t you heard?? The Sphinx is back in school.” Harry went quiet. Of all the things he’d been dreading at school this was his number one.
“But I thought he was expelled months ago.”
“No, Harry, not expelled, suspended.”
“Yeah,” said Lanky Kev, “and now he’s back.”
“And that’s why we’re meeting here, in plain sight, out in the open where the playground assistants and everybody else can see. He can’t sneak up on us here or bash us without witnesses,” added Big Justin before ramming the last half of a cucumber, ham, peanut butter, jam, cheese and pickle sandwich into his gob with practiced finesse.
The Sphinx was the nickname of Trevor Wraggit, the biggest, baddest school bully in the history of schools. Even the teachers were scared of him. He once threw a scotch egg from one of the reception class kids’ packed lunch right across the playground to smash one of the playground assistants on the head knocking him out cold. Since then Harry hadn’t been able to bring himself to even look at a scotch egg. But what he was most famous for was his signature Death Grip. Practically every kid in the school had experienced it, and a few of the teachers. Harry thought back to the first time he’d got it, the very first day of year one. ‘Shake’, The Sphinx said holding his hand out, before gripping Harry’s neck and wrestling him around the playground for five minutes like a dog with a squeaky bone.
“That’s right, he’s only been back in the school an hour and he’s already got a detention for tonight.”
“WHAT?” cried Harry, “I have my detention tonight. I’ll be in the same room as The Sphinx.” His chin visibly wobbled but he held himself together.
“That’s too bad,” consoled Bill.
“Yeah, was nice knowing you Harry,” added Big Justin, “by the way, can you let me have that 20p you borrowed from me on Tuesday for the tuck shop now, you know, just in case…”
The Sphinx was in year five, he was nine years old but had the body of twenty year old body builder, and his grip, the Death Grip, so it was said, if he was really angry could break bones. Someone in year five even swore that he’d seen him squeeze a tin of baked beans until it popped open, spraying the beans all over the classroom; though quite what a tin of beans was doing there in the first place is anyone’s guess.
Just as the now silent Harry was desperately considering his options to evade coming into contact with The Sphinx, or rather, The Sphinx coming into contact with him (Bribery might help so he’d be hanging on to the 20p for now, thank you Justin), one of his friends suddenly spurted out something.
“Look out, Bandit’s at twelve o’clock,” said Bill, looking across the playground to where the girl stood watching them. She was in Lanky Kev’s class and had only been in the school a couple of months but had already taken quite a shine to Harry, much to his minor annoyance and severe embarrassment.
“Ooh là là,” chirruped Bill.
“Shut it Bill,” said Harry, his face already beginning to feel warmer. Bandit was a French girl whose parents had recently come to England to live and work. She spoke OK English but had a very thick accent. He’d made the mistake of speaking to her as she’d been all alone in the playground for the first few days; he knew how that felt and had said hello and chatted to her for a few minutes whilst waiting for his gang. She was, he imagined, quite pretty, if you liked that sort of thing, tall, long blonde hair, delicate features and so forth; and when she had started seeking him out every playtime he was secretly rather pleased but also very embarrassed as his friends took the mickey out of him for hanging around with a girl when he was a member of the Outcasts. When he was with the gang they avoided her, but he still let her talk to him a bit at home times, this was mainly due to the fact that Harry’s dad always chatted to Bandit’s mum whilst he was waiting for Harry to come out. Harry couldn’t quite work out why Dad smiled so much when engaged in conversation with her, maybe he found her accent amusing. He recalled seeing the whole family when he’d been going to Lewisham once with Mum and Dad. Their car had broken down and Bandit and her mum were standing on the path watching the dad who was leaning far over into the engine bay. “Look,” Dad had said, “there’s the Karots on the roadside. They’re a nice bunch, the Karots.”
“Yes,” Mum had replied as they’d passed by without stopping to help, “Very pretty isn’t she, Bandit’s mum. Pretty and French.”
“Is she dear? I hadn’t really noticed,” had said Dad as he’d turned up the radio and quickly changed the subject. If Harry hadn’t known better, he’d have sworn Dad had been blushing.
Harry had been working up to asking the gang to let her join. The plan he was formulating revolved around the gang needing her to join for some reason, he’d need to think on it a bit more, maybe next term.
As usual the Outcasts mooched, chatted, had lunch and mooched some more as the hour waned, but always on the outlook for approaching danger like a mob of meerkats.
When lunch break was over Harry left the others and drudged off to his classroom for the afternoon register, the grey cloud of his looming detention hanging over his head. He heard some footsteps approaching him rapidly and turned. It was Bandit. She had that big silly grin on her face that she always seemed to have when talking to him.
“Ello ’Arri, ’ow are you, mon petit?” She slanted her head a little, her long blonde hair lifting slightly with the breeze.
“Ohh, hi Bandit. OK I guess.” She looked at him and frowned
“But you don’t look OK. Has someone—”
“Detention tonight. Me and The Sphinx. Would you look OK?”
“Oh, sorry to ’ear zis.” She put her hand on his arm. “Try not to look him directly in ze eyes, I ’eard he goes berserk if you do zat.” Harry nodded and looked at the floor as he walked along, he figured practice at looking down might help him not catch his aggressor’s eye.
“I have a problem also, ’Arri. I was ’oping I could talk to you about it but you were with your friends, and zey don’t like me, I think. Can I talk to you after school?”
“Maybe first break tomorrow, if I make it to tomorrow that is, my chum The Sphinx may need me for entertainment purposes during detention. When he sees me he will be cracking his knuckles in anticipation. Pffff.”
“OK, ’Arri. Don’t let zat bully push you around, if he tries you ’ave to tell a teacher.”
“Yeah, see you, Bandit.”
“Au revoir, mon brave.” She waved and was gone.
At least the teacher’s already in the class, Harry thought as he approached the door to room 1C which was used for after school detentions. During the day it was the music room. He could see the broad shoulders of a man through the glass panels on the door. The figure was writing something, probably ‘SILENCE’, across the board, as was the custom.
Harry opened the door and entered. He walked to one of the desks at the back of the room and sat down looking around. Kofi was at the front but didn’t even look at Harry, his attention fixed firmly on the board.
The teacher spoke, it was Mr Ottway, the art teacher. Skinny, bald and possessing a humongous ginger moustache that looked like the head of a broom. “Boys, you will be seated in complete silence doing some schoolwork of your own choosing until four-thirty. There will be: no burping, no farting, no flicking bogeys, no sleeping, no talking, no passing notes, no doing anything other than schoolwork, is that clear?”
The class of four mumbled enough to satisfy Ottway and everyone got their books out and began to pretend to be doing some work. Ottway sat back in his chair, put his feet on the desk and pulled a fishing magazine out of his briefcase and started to read.
It was exactly ten minutes into the detention when the classroom door was kicked open to smash against the adjoining wall, accompanied by a deafening Tarzan yodel. No one looked up, just lowered their heads closer to their books. The Sphinx had arrived. He threw his bag across the classroom to smash into the instruments on the cabinets abutting the rear wall. He then strutted across the floor slowly “LOOOSERS,” he said as he passed the other kids. As he passed the teacher’s desk he stopped suddenly, stamped one foot to the left and the other to the right and leant forward slowly till he resembled a sumo wrestler getting ready to fight. BRRRRRRP…he flatulated a long drawn out squeak that signed off in a flourish of pops.
“That was A minor,” whispered Kofi, who was grade 6 in piano.
Nothing minor about that, Harry thought. The Sphinx straightened and carried on his strut till he reached his chair and sat down. He loosened his trainers and kicked them off in the direction on the black board, closely followed by his socks, before gnawing on his toenails with a disgusting clacking noise. When bored with this he took a short snooze, replete with snores so loud he woke himself up again, he then proceeded to burp, fart, pick his nose and flick its contents at Kofi, who was unfortunately near to him, and sing, only stopping to walk around the class rifling through the other students’ bags for food before emptying their contents on the floor. Ottway ignored it all, just kept reading with his head down like the rest of the detainees. Harry felt angry and sorry for Ottway at the same time. This after all was The Sphinx’s territory, his domain to roam and we all were guests here. He tolerated our temporary presence in his world. When only five minutes of the detention was left, The Sphinx, who had just been attempting to play all the displayed instruments as loudly as possible—all of them became percussion instruments in his massive hands—decided it was time for him to leave. He threw the trumpet he’d been bashing against his desk at the blackboard, got up, retrieved his foot apparel and, slapping each one of the boys a goodbye clip around the ear and snatching the fishing magazine out of Ottway’s limp grip on the way, left.
“Thank God,” stated the teacher with relief. “Everyone all right?” The boys nodded as they rubbed their heads. “Hornbeam, check out of the window, make sure he’s gone, then you boys get yourselves off.” Harry watched the bully exit the school, traverse the playground and go through the gates.
“Gone, Sir,” Harry reported, “turned left outside the gates.”
“OK boys, anyone who normally goes left outside the gates I suggest an alternative route home unless a parent is collecting you.”
The boys filed out of 1C, Harry, looking back, noticed Ottway practising a few karate moves through the door windows, as if it would have done him any good. Harry’s dad was indeed collecting him from the unscheduled emergency school team cricket practice, at least that’s what Harry told him it was. So instead of being upset, Dad had been chuffed that Harry was finally taking an interest in a sport, and in the school team no less. Dad was proud indeed, thought he hadn’t noticed that it wasn’t cricket season, nor remembered the fact that the only sports on the school curriculum were football and netball. Neither had he read the email sent to him by Liza, Harry’s teacher, reiterating what had been in her letter, Harry’s copy of which was by now floating around the school sewers in a thousand pieces, no doubt intermingling with Kofi’s.
Thank Flip it’s Friday
Everything seemed normal. Just another school day, breakfast in the Hornbeam household the usual everyday shoutfest, toilet queues, cold tea and toast laden semaphore contests of semi communicated aggression; clockwork it wasn’t; but today Harry let it slide. Today Harry had other concerns to worry about than keeping SPB’s drool from dangling onto his toast or finding a missing trainer or a million and one other things that seven year old boys had to endure at breakfast time. For today was the day. Demon Day.
At 10:15 all of Harry’s class run to the playground for their 15 minute morning break, Harry, however, strolled out; he was going to see Bandit at The Wall, where they always met if they wanted to talk a little bit without The Outcasts. The Wall was out of sight from the playground and was the low barrier that separated the main school from the nursery.
Bandit was already there waiting for him. She was sitting on the wall, crouched over and just staring at the grey tarmac.
“Hey Bandit, Ça va?”
“Ça va OK, ’Arry.”
She raised her gaze and smiled, her light green eyes standing out prominently against her tanned skin. “Sit down, ’Arry, I need to talk to you.”
“Oh yeah, that thing that’s on your mind.” Harry sat down next to her and listened as she spoke.
“’Arry, I am a little sad because my mother wants to move back to France.” She paused before continuing and in that pause Harry could feel her sadness. “I don’t want to go, but I ’ave no choice. Zis may be my last term ’ere. Wiz you.” She reached her hand and across and gripped his forearm. He felt a wave of sadness and didn’t know quite why.
“Oh,” was all he could say.
“It is my birthday on Saturday, ’Arri. I don’t ’ave a party because I don’t ’ave friends ’ere to invite, except only you. I wanted to ask you, if, if you will come to ze ice skating wiz me on my birthday ’Arri?”
“My mère can take us, and drop you back ’ome after.”
“Well…” Harry wanted to say yes more than anything, but going out with Bandit, just the two of them almost, was, well, like a date or something. He bit his lip. “Welll…erm, OK.” He knew he would have to keep it quiet, stop anyone finding out otherwise The Outcasts would be taking the mickey out of him forever about it. But, deep down he didn’t really care if they did.
“Zank you, ’Arri, you are zo kind. We will pick you up tomorrow; I know your street, number fifty-six right?”
She held his hand and squeezed it for a second, got up and went back to the playground. Harry sat there for a while trying to work out why he felt happy and sad at the same time, but more sad. It’s just ice skating, ice skating with a friend, who just happens to be a girl, a very nice French girl, he told himself, zut alors!
Bandit’s shock announcement was orbiting around his brain until lunch time, so much so that he’d hardly been able to put pen to paper in his maths and English lessons. His over-shoulder copying skills were not what they usually were, his concentration was shot. When the bell rang he made his way listlessly towards the source of the cacophony of clattering, chattering eruptions, the nasally disconcerting hub of kids stuffing their faces. It’s like a human zoo, he mused to himself as he entered and joined the line of tray wielding ravenous maniacs. Rotund ladies with facial hair scooped and spatula-dumped saltless, sugarless, tasteless victuals onto his plastic plate as he shuffled along.
Harry slunk down listlessly into the chair opposite Bill in the dining room, which was actually the main school hall. Tables as far as the eye could see, where good smells mixed with bad, the bad being predominantly stuffed lambs’ hearts, overcooked cabbage and the unavoidable flatulence produced by said cruciferous greens; the good those of custard and fish fingers.
“S’up ‘H’?” inquired Bill as he stuffed the last portion of lamb’s heart into his appreciative gob before moving on to scooping up a big spoonful of tapioca pudding to join it.
“Disgusting,” said Harry waving a fish finger at him briefly before stuffing the whole thing straight into his mouth. This they both chortled at as highly amusing to their preteen minds.
Bill leaned in close. “Don’t forget tonight. 3am.”
Harry nodded. He was hardly likely to forget. He thought he’d better change the subject in case someone overheard.
“Can’t wait to join the cubs next March, soon as I turn eight,” said Harry for the fifth time that week. He normally mentioned it at least once per day, and it was the first thing that had popped into his head.
“Me too,” agreed Bill. “Alex says they’re having a ping pong competition next meeting.” Alex being Bill’s older brother.
“Cool, I’m good at ping pong. But I’m looking forward to going camping the most: making fires, hiking, fishing, all that wildlife, and cooking your own food.”
“Yeah, and sleeping in a tent under the stars.”
“Yeah, that’s after the cocoa, cub sing song and the scary stories. Really can’t wait. Dad says his lot are going camping early next year too.”
“Will you go with him?”
“Nahhh, he says no kids allowed. Just his troop, the 1st Forest Hill Man Scout Unit: Jack Hargreaves Chapter. No under thirty-fives. But he says I can join when I’m old enough. And he makes the rules, after all he did invent it. He was a cub and a scout and even an adventure scout. When I said I wanted to join cubs he took me down there to have a look. It must’ve stirred up some memories ’cos next thing I know he’s moaning about how much he missed scouts and how there was nothing half as interesting for men his age to do apart from going down the pub or joining the Ramblers Association, Dad says they’re worse than train spotters.”
“Couldn’t he have become an Akela or something in the cubs?”
“Nah, he says he couldn’t stand being around a bunch of screaming kids.
“That’s when mum suggested he create man cubs. She was only joking, but a lightbulb went on in his head and he put an ad in the local paper. It grew from there, ‘bout seven or eight of ’em now, meet every Saturday night in the workshop at the end of our garden. Dad managed to get hold of a job lot of army surplus off of eBay, all khaki shirts and knee length shorts, even wear beige berets, scarves and leather woggles… Dad takes it far too seriously. He designed a seven pointed silver star as a cap badge as well as loads of activity badges, of which he awarded himself all of them, he’s literally covered in them. Mum calls them Dad’s Chindits, that’s like jungle soldiers apparently.”
“Dimwits more like.” Harry smiled at Bill’s joke but he didn’t like Bill being rude about his dad.
“They start their meeting by lining up, just like the cubs, and saluting the Union Flag, then they have five minutes of exercise—but some of the older ones sit that out—then they have like talks and stuff and plan their camping trip and achievement badges and stuff, then they go to the pub.”
“What still in those silly blimmin’ uniforms?”
“Yeah, Mum says people roll about with laughter wherever they go. Dad don’t care though, he believes in what he’s doing, says that the scouting code is an honourable basis for living your life by: honesty, self-confidence, courage, helping others, you know stuff like that.
“Sometimes they go to each other’s houses to test homemade beers, sit on homemade furniture and listen to old fashioned music from like the 1980s, so boring. They went to see one of the member’s train set that he’s built in his attic last Tuesday night.”
“Wow, the fun just never stops for ’em does it,” Bill said mockingly, “Like a bunch of overgrown kids, no offence, Harry.”
“It’s OK,” replied Harry, “Just keep your promise not to tell anyone, OK. Don’t think I could ever come back to school again if word got out my dad was a forty year old cub.”
Bill scraped his spoon around the edge of his bowl collecting the last smears of tapioca.
“Why not just lick the bowl?” Harry suggested jestingly.
“OK.” Bill lifted the bowl to his face and started licking it.
“BILL ATOM CEASE AND DESIST THAT ABHORRENT BEHAVIOUR IMMEDIATELY!”
Mr Edwards came stomping over, his hand going for the trusty cricket bat that was wedged under his right armpit like an oversized swagger stick. He was never apart from that bat. It had its uses of course, make shift walking stick, useful for getting things off high shelves, pointer for demonstrations, blackboard tapper, but its number one use was as a whacker. Yes, all the boys feared them two, the original Batman had Robin to help him keep order and Mr Edwards had his cricket bat. It had marks on it: notches on the handle and dents all over its once smooth face. Arthur had Excalibur, Bilbo had Sting, and Mr Edwards had Whacker.
The broad end of Whacker lifted itself up under Bill’s quivering chin and held its position.
“Whacker doesn’t like naughty boys. Look, he’s shaking with rage.” Indeed the bat was vibrating with some or other unknown force as Harry and the rest of the dining hall occupants, now hushed and staring, could attest.
The bat rose up, as did Bill who was attached to it. Whacker moved to the left, Bill dutifully followed. Whacker went for a stroll out the hall doors, down the corridor and out into the centre of the playground, accompanied by Bill’s chin. The human contents of the dining hall now lined the rear of the hall fighting for the best positions at the windows that overlooked the playground. Harry remained in the seat opposite Bill’s, still staring at the dropped bowl in shock.
WHACK went the bat, OHHHH went the hawking crowd, followed by one bright spark raising his finger in the air and declaring “OWZAT!”
WHACK, OHHHH, WHACK, OHHHH and so on, I’m sure you get the picture. It went on for a minute or two and then the diners returned to their tables and finished their meals in silence.
Harry felt guilty. He’d goaded Bill into licking the bowl. He rose slowly and went to the playground. He saw a throng gathered over by the Wild Garden and went over. Pushing his way through he saw Bill rolling around on the ground like a trod on worm rubbing his backside, tears still coming with quiet jerky breaths and trickling down his reddened face. Harry imagined that this would warrant a fresh notch on Whacker’s handle.
“Break it up, break it up,” he said to the crowd of gawping spectators. “Leave him with a little dignity, it could be you next time, could be any one of us.” He went to Bill and knelt down. The crowd was starting to thin. “Sorry mate,” he whispered. “Does it hurt?”
“OWWWWWW. Hurt, hurt? It’s on fire, Harry. This must be illegal. I thought he’d never stop. One day, Harry, one day I’ll have my revenge on Edwards and Whacker. All this because he never got picked for the West Indies eleven when he was a teenager, pathetic psycho loser.”
It was the most action Whacker had seen since the previous year when exercised savagely on Winston Smith of year six in what had become known as the MUB incident. He, young Winston, being in year six had been standing on the far right in the back row for the biennial school photograph. When the camera had started on its panoramic rotation, thanks to the old clockwork gear the school photographer insisted on, he held aloft a sheet of paper. When the camera lens had panned left a bit he ducked down only to reappear in the centre of the back row again with another sheet of paper to await the lens, and this was repeated one more time when he appeared on the far left of the row. Due to the nature of the camera’s exposure of film he appeared three times in that school photograph, holding up the 3 pieces of paper each with a large bold letter on it that when read from left to right spelled out the word MUB—He’d meant it to spell BUM of course, being the rude brat that he was, but in the necessary rush had got the sheets in a muddle. Had that old clockwork camera continued its journey left it would have, no doubt, photographed him running off, hotly pursued by the powerfully built Mr Edwards, who for a man of forty could shift, bat flailing wildly in the air, and further still would have caught the scene of one of Whacker’s proudest moments as it walloped poor old Winston. He’d been suspended from school for six weeks, saved from expulsion only by his spelling error, by which time it was the summer holidays and therefore he’d never returned as he had started secondary school after that.
“What’s wrong with him? Why would he do that? I wasn’t doing anything bad.”
“Maybe he doesn’t like tapioca.”
“Not funny, Harry.”
Harry comforted Bill until lunch break was over. They wouldn’t see each other again until they were to, if all went to plan, meet for their adventure.
Dad was waiting for Harry at the gates to take him home. There was a little spring in his step, his school bag windmilling as fast as he could spin it. It was after all Friday, the weekend beckoned, and tonight he was going off on an adventure, a mission like one of the spies in the books that Harry liked to read before bed sometimes. He hoped that some of the things spies did that helped them avoid trouble might still be lurking somewhere in his memory, and flood back if a situation presented itself.
Since it was Friday afternoon the ice cream van was, as usual, parked outside the school. It was always there Fridays, twelve months a year come rain, sleet or snow, and constantly busy. Dad normally got Harry an ice cream on the way home, if he’d been reasonably well behaved for that week.
“Ice cream, ice cream!” shouted Harry at the top of his lungs and ran to join the end of the long queue.
“Shouldn’t even be parked there,” said Dad under his breath, “Double yellows.”
Dad hadn’t stopped Harry, so Harry knew he must have been ‘reasonably well behaved,’ though for the life of him he couldn’t think when that might have been. As they neared the counter in the side of the van Dad stated quietly, “Just a small one, Harry, you know the drill. Don’t want Mum going on about dentists and stuff when we get back do we?”
“Okayyy,” said Harry, as he eyed the photos of all the ice creams available displayed on the sliding window. The boy in front of him had just been handed a huge ice cream, a double cornet with double flakes, one chocolate scoop and one lemon.
“Yes young man, what would you like?” asked the ice cream man.
“Erm…erm…” he cast Dad a sideways glance. Dad was deliberately staring hard at the double yellow line and hoping the ice cream man would see and realise he shouldn’t be parked there. The ice cream man ignored Dad. So did Harry. “A double, no, no, make that a triple cornet, one chocolate, one strawberry and one bubblegum flavour, with three flakes and bubblegum sauce, strawberry sauce, chocolate sauce, crushed nuts and hundreds and thousands…please.” The man looked at Dad, part in amazement and part to make sure Dad could afford it. Dad’s eyes were the size of saucers. Dad began coughing as if he’d just swallowed a big bluebottle or something, “I’ve come over all weak,” he said in barely a mumble. He began tapping his pockets trying to locate enough money to pay for the mega ice cream. Dad took a five pound note out of his pocket and handed it over.
“There you are my little man,” said the ice cream man with a huge grin ten seconds later as he handed it to Harry. Dad knew why he was grinning, it must’ve been the biggest ice cream he’d sold all month, maybe even all year, he thought.
When the man handed Harry the ice cream all the other children gasped, then one boy started to clap, then another and soon the whole queue was applauding Harry’s mammoth cornet. The dad behind them rested a hand on Dad’s back and patted him, “Way to go,” said the other father angrily, “now they’ll all blimmin’ want one!”
Harry needed both hands to carry the ice cream. He knew Dad would moan at him when they got home, well, a bit anyway. But today was Friday. Adventure Friday. He didn’t know what lay in store for him and Bill tonight. In fact, this could turn out to be his last ever ice cream. And that’s why he’d ordered the biggest cornet he’d ever seen. Harry could hear the children behind him as he walked proudly down the road, some shouting, “I want one of those,” some crying because they could only get a single or double cornet. Mums and dads tutting like a pod of dolphins. He licked his tripler and nodded to Dad, “Mmmmmm!”
A Nighttime Adventure
He made his sandwiches after he got back from school.
“Just making a few sandwiches,” he explained to Mum, who though curious hadn’t asked, “I might need a snack later when I’m doing my homework,” he added as he tried to spread some butter on a slice of bread but ended up tearing a big hole in it instead, “Blimey this butter’s hard.”
“Homework?” said Mum in disbelief, “Did you say you were going to do some homework?” Mum looked worried. She went over and put the back of her free hand against his forehead. “Are you ill?” she asked. SPB, ever the opportunist, turned the closeness to his advantage and slapped Harry on top of the head three times. “BOP BOP BOP,” yelled the great nappy soiling one.
“Oh Mum, you know SPB whacks me when you bring him near me.”
SPB cooed innocently in Mum’s arms. “CWIFF,” he shouted as if suddenly remembering something very important and Mum left Harry to contend with his sandwich making to dutifully comply with Ned’s order and hunt down a packet of crisps.
Harry’s sandwiches ended up looking like two lumpy wrestlers grappling between white sheets. The peanut butter was also hard straight from the fridge and formed two or three inch-thick clumps per sandwich. It’s OK, he thought, Bill won’t see them in the dark, then I can swap a few for some of his. He wrapped the misshapen mass into tinfoil and left it in the fridge, he also put a bottle of pop next to them. He manoeuvred a manky old cauliflower in front of the provisions to fend off interest. He looked to see if there were any more bags of crisps left, but Mum was just dangling the contents of the last bag into SPB’s gaping great gob. “CWIFF, CWIFF,” he yelled between mouthfuls like a Roman Emperor barking for more helpings of roast dormouse.
Harry went to bed without protest. Mum and Dad looked at each other with raised eyebrows. He was washed and in his jimjams in less than five minutes. He concentrated hard not to go to sleep, the mission ahead was far too important even for him to risk closing his eyes for a minute or two so he laid there in the dark going over the escape plan in his head. Once he was out of the house it would become a lot easier.
When Mum and Dad eventually went to bed he felt it must be halfway through the night already but it was only half past eleven or so. He closed his eyes and remained still. One of them quietly opened the door for what was probably only a few seconds but it seemed like it was ages before they shut the door again. He turned his lamp on once their bedroom door was heard clicking shut. It was a quarter past midnight when he was finally satisfied that the low rumblings on the other side of the wall separating him from his parents were the snores of Mum and Dad. Both unique, Dad’s was a long high pitched squeak followed by a short clacking raspberry sound whilst mum’s was more like a zombie moaning: MeeeeermM… MeeeeermM… went Mum, Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeee Prrrrrrrrt, went Dad, poor little SPB must’ve been deaf to sleep through that racket.
He got up and got dressed as noiselessly as he could before lying back down on the bed to wait until 02:30am. He then retrieved the note he’d written and left it on his pillow. That’ll stop them worrying if they realise I’ve disappeared, he said to himself. He crept downstairs and packed his knapsack before tackling the front door. He took the key from its hook in the passage, waiting until a car passed the house to put it in the door, then for another to pass before he turned it. At last, the door opened and he felt the cold night air force its way past.
Outside he slipped the keys into his pocket. The click as he closed the door seemed like a cannon shot in his mind and he closed his eyes and listened for sounds of Dad getting up. But he didn’t. Then he was off. The excitement squeezed his stomach into a tight ball.
Harry had to wait in the shadows close by the lamppost rendezvous. Had Bill fallen asleep? Had his Mum caught him trying to get out of the house, and was she right at this moment calling Harry’s parents…? But no, Harry made out the small figure running down the street, twin jets of steam rapidly snorting from his nose.
“Sorry I m a bit late,” he puffed in a whisper once he’d reached the lamppost.
It was a long walk ahead of them. Ducking down behind parked cars every time they heard a vehicle approach down the otherwise deserted roads. They moved slowly, carefully and deliberately along the planned route. Bill read the map. He’d been studying it for days and he almost knew the route by heart. Harry crossed the road so they could test the walkie talkies.
“Testing, testing, this is Ghoulhunter One to Ghoulhunter Two, are you receiving me, over?”
“HEY!” came the reply, so loud that Harry swiftly turned the volume down.
“Not so loud,” said Harry into the handset, “you’ll wake everyone up—and you almost blew my ears off.”
“But,” came the voice through the radio, “how come you’re Ghoulhunter One and I’m Ghoulhunter Two? They’re my radios, I want to be Ghoulhunter One!”
“Okay, okay,” said Harry reluctantly. You can be Ghoulhunter One, and you forgot to say ‘over,’ over.”
“Ghoulhunter ONE is receiving you loud and clear, OVER!” Harry had the ’ump now. Harry had wanted to be Ghoulhunter One, as it was he who’d done most of the planning. But Bill was bigger than him, and he supposed they were his radios. Next they tested their torches, shining them on the houses they passed, competing to see whose torch was the most powerful. Harry won on this count, and his torch’s beam could clearly be seen to illuminate the walls of some houses right down the road. This made him feel a bit better about being Ghoulhunter Two. The two boys rejoined each other to discuss their plans as they walked. They went over the battle plan, what to do when they found the demon, escape routes, self-defence moves and so on. The forty-five minute walk to the park flew by and they were soon turning into the picturesque and pricey Court Lane.
The road was still and quiet. The locked park gates were solemn and foreboding. Harry was scared. The few leaves that remained in the trees jingled like tiny foil bells as the wind blew gently through them.
“Let me give you a boost up first,” said Bill, “then I’ll hand the packs to you and climb up.” The part of the railings they were climbing was overhung by a very old tree that at least would provide some cover. The boys were over and ducking down as they disappeared into the foliage in no time. They kept to their plan now with military tenacity, their safety depended on it. When they reached the path they slowed down and, following it from its border, they made their way towards the lake.
“I’m not scared,” said Harry, feeling very scared indeed.
“Nor me,” answered Bill lying equally as unconvincingly.
“Let’s have a sandwich at the old trunk, then we can go through our backup escape plan one last time.”
The huge felled bole was a few steps off the path halfway between gates and pond. Harry and Dad nearly always rested there a little and looked out for squirrels and such like when returning home from the park. It was like a buffer zone, somewhere to acclimatise mind, body and soul before exiting out into the real world of concrete, glass and mobile phone masts again.
The plump tinfoil packages were soon spread across the trunk in-between the now sitting boys, the moon’s illumination surprisingly ample as the boys’ eyes had adjusted to the darkness. The drinks were opened and the friends started the nighttime picnic.
“Mmm,” said Bill, nodding his head, “These are awesome sandwiches, try.” He handed Harry one of his sandwiches and Harry reciprocated. Bill took it and inspected it looking rather worried again. He sniffed it, squashed the lumps between his palms and took the smallest of bites so as not to offend. “Erm, think I’ll save your one till later,” he said, “It’s a bit unconventional…”
As the pair sat engrossed in the practicalities of their munchfest, at their backs in the murky depths of the thickening trees something quite far off was moving. The grass beneath it and the branches it brushed betrayed the direction of its presence.
“Can you hear that?” whispered Bill, “Over that way, something’s moving.” They both held their breath in order to listen more intently.
“It’s prolly just a fox or something,” answered Harry in a whisper so shallow he had to lean in towards Bill’s ear. But Bill didn’t reply, for he was staring through the trees. He slowly stood up and put the sandwiches back into his back pack. He eased its weight onto his shoulders. Harry followed suit. “I saw something,” said Bill sounding alarmed. Alarm, much like a yawn, can spread quickly. They haunched down low beside the horizontal trunk. “I think it’s a shapeshifter.” Low grumblings were becoming audible as the suggestion of a dark form became more solid. Then all of a sudden an awful growl broke itself free of the shape and ascended in a misty breath.
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod, thought Harry as he hunkered lower still, it really is a shapeshifter.
Then the boys heard laughter, was the shapeshifter mocking them?
“Packet in, Gerald, you spongbasket. Your farts will wake the dead,” exclaimed a voice coming from the approaching shapeshifter, who, it was now dawning on the boys, probably wasn’t much of a shapeshifter at all.
“Yeah,” came another voice, “loud enough to wake ’em and stinky enough to kill ’em all over again.” Some other voices joined in with mumbled comments and subdued laughter. “Sorry lads,” came a gruff voice, one could only assume belonged to ‘Gerald’, “Thought everyone knew peanuts and lager when combined produce toxic gas.” The two schoolboys spied out from their nook as the vague black mass separated onto five distinct parts that then descended on a freshly planted flower bed not thirty feet away from Harry and Bill and began to kick and trample the leafy inhabitants with stifled laughter. Gerald laughing so hard he let out another fart, or rather a series of short ones that matched his chortles, ha ha ha haaa one end and prrb prrb squee BRRRRrrrrrp the other. The remainder of the adolescent gang turned on him kicking and throwing the uprooted plants at him. One of the clodded remnants was thrown so hard it came down with a thwack on the tree trunk right next to Harry. Harry let out an involuntary and panicked shriek. Bill put his hand over Harry’s mouth but it was too late.
“What the spong was that?” came one voice that seemed particularly angry to Harry’s ears. “There, over there,” came another voice. GH1 and GH2 peered out above the trunk.
“OVER THERE. Little kids. Let’s get ’em.” The gang of louts let out a god almighty howl as they screamed in unison and charged full pelt at the ghoulhunters’ hidey-hole.
“Scarper,” screeched Harry as he bolted off towards the lake closely followed by Bill who hadn’t needed the advice. Zigzagging across the grass and in and out of the sparse trees like small hares with snarling hounds after them. The plight of Simon in the Lord of the Flies book by William Golding that year three was reading this term came to mind and made him run even faster. As they got to the shrub laden verge of the lake they ducked into its leafy refuge. Bill hung onto Harry’s coat hem and the boys weaved as quietly as they could into the thick interior of the bushes.
The Bogeyman Cometh
They had nowhere left to run. The big boys were getting nearer, shouting, throwing stones randomly into the bushes. There was no escape, no way out.
“We can jump onto the island. It’s the only way to escape,” whispered Bill.
“But that’s where the Bog…I mean that’s where the black-eyed demon lives.” They looked at each other. Bill’s chin started to wobble a bit and tears welled in his eyes. “Please, Harry, I don’t want to get beat up.”
“OK then, we’ll splosh onto the island and run across it and jump onto the boardwalk from there…, they’ll never follow us onto the island.” He put his hand on Bill’s shoulder. “Don’t cry, Bill, I’ll get us home safely.” Bill nodded just as another rock whistled right past their ears and smashed into the undergrowth behind them.
“Now!” said Harry. The boys sprinted out of their hiding place holding hands and leapt like bionic frogs across what they judged to be the narrowest part of the water between park and island. They landed about halfway and splash-waded across the rest to jump up onto the bank. Harry landed OK, but Bill’s feet slipped off the muddy shore of the island and back into the lake where they became stuck fast. Birds nesting nearby began to honk and craw at the disturbance. Harry pulled and pulled and Bill pulled too. SLURRPSWOSH! Bill’s feet freed themselves from the bottom of the surprisingly shallow pond. The boys ran as quietly as they could into the dark interior of the island’s greenery. Amongst the thickening trees and bushes they rested to catch their breath.
“My shoe,” said Bill, “One of my shoes was pulled off by the mud. Mum’s gonna kill me.” Bill started to cry again quietly.
“Shhhh,” Harry hissed, “We have to be totally silent here until we get off the island on the other side. Bill nodded in the darkness, the moonlight sparkling off his teary cheeks. They continued cautiously as to not make any noise that the ruffians or, more importantly, to Harry, the Bogeyman, could hear. They though could hear the big bullies kicking up some more crocuses from their beds with great shrieks of amusement not far off the island. What horrible hooligans, thought Harry, making a mental note never to call Ned a snotty hooligan again. Maybe the Bogeyman would be woken by all their din and go and eat them. That would teach them. If they threw their stones at him they would just bounce off and make him angrier.
On the island they moved slowly into its recesses, some more nesting ducks quacked in alarm as they passed. “Shhh, stupid ducks,” hissed Bill as he clump-squelch clump-squelched past them.
When they got to what they calculated to be the centre of the small isle the herbage diminished into a circular clearing where there were signs of recent activity: two long logs sat beside the stone bordered darkened remains of a spent campfire. A little heat lingered. Littered about the logs were various bones and a few rusting beer cans.
“Bones,” exclaimed Bill, pointing, “Human bones.”
“Look a bit small for human, Bill, probably chicken bones, and where would the demon get the beer from?” he mused quietly.
“Someone must’ve thrown it here for him: probably an offering from the locals, to appease him.” Bill picked up one of the cans. “Sparrow Super, nine percent alcohol,” he read, “Yep, this’d probably do the trick.”
“At nine percent he’d probably be too appeased to walk, let alone chase anyone,” agreed Harry.
Something rustled; a large dark form was approaching them quickly through the trees. The boys froze in fright.
The huge dark figure exited the undergrowth into the clearing, “Nah, twenty-four hour minimart down the road. Eighty-five pence a can, thieving wotsits,” it said.
Harry whimpered and dropped his backpack. He looked like he was about to faint right there on the spot; Bill was trying to scream but nothing was coming out, he was scared screamless, and that’s a pretty darned, off the scale kind of sacredness.
The dark, smelly figure lunged the stick it was brandishing towards Bill’s contorted face. He fell to the floor, managing to squeak “Please, please demon don’t kill me, I’m only seven.”
Bill’s gunked-up shoe slid off the end of the stick and splatted down in front of him.
“Blimey,” said the figure, “you’ve got big feet for a seven year old.” Then when neither of the petrified boys replied the figure spoke again.
“Don’t be scared lads, I won’t hurts ya. I’m not a demon, though much demonised are we folk. No, certainly not a demon, or a wizard, changeling, goblin, elf or shifter. Hope you’re not too disappointed.” He let out a loud ringing burp that was accompanied towards the end with a squeaky fart. “Stereo,” the shape said and laughed. “That Sparrow Special isn’t for the faint of heart, weak of stomach or irritable of bowel if you catch my drift.” Both the boys were by now indeed literally catching his drift.
“Pworrrrrrrr,” exclaimed Harry, plunging his nose into the neck of his coat
“Don’t normally make my presence known if someone comes even anywhere near the island, but I was watching those yobs chase you. Thought you might need some help.”
Though still not the ideal situation, the two friends began to relax a little. The shape they could now see was no more than a down-and-out using the isolation of the island to doss in peace.
Bill rose shakily to his feet, caught his breath then put his shoe back on, which oozed mud up his ankle and squelched like it had been drinking Sparrow Special.
“But there’s supposed to be a demon living on this island,” he said eyeing the raggedy bundle, somewhere in which resided a man.
“So I’ve heard,” retorted the tramp, “Never met him myself though.” He winked and smiled a chequered toothed grin that would have had any dentist rubbing his hands together and cancelling his lunch break.
“Come and sit down till they’ve gone,” the tramp gestured towards the logs, “Take a pew, pilgrims.”
“So who are you,” asked Harry, the man, who wasn’t very tall, seemed friendly enough and didn’t seem to pose a threat, “and why are you living on this island?”
“Well, lads, my name is Blackberry; and I lives where I can, when I find somewhere quiet and close to nature, I set up camp until the wind changes.”
I wish the wind had changed a couple of minutes ago, thought Harry as he removed his nose from hiding. Bill and Harry took a seat on one of the logs. The log Harry sat on was indeed as hard as any church pew his rear had ever seen. A little heat was still coming from the cinder veiled embers of the fire. Bill picked up a stick and poked at it causing ash and smoke to rise up as a bright orange glow engulfed it.
“Thanks,” Bill was calming down a bit now, this night wasn’t going particularly how he’d imagined it might.
“Yeah, thanks,” echoed Harry, “Who are those nutters chasing us anyway?”
“Oh them, they’re always sneaking in the park at night; their gang’s called The Bovva Boys, a right nasty bunch they are too. You were right to run away.”
Blackberry sat down on the other log. A solitary dreadlock fell down from the side of his tightly packed bobble hat and was brushed away from the dirt tanned face by an even darker hand. He had a rugged face, though it carried a mild expression, hardened by the wear and tear of the elements and circumstance.
“No one ever disturbs me on my island,” he stated after a taking a long pause to stare intently at the embers Bill was stoking. “I think people are scared to venture on here. The ducks are my only company. Companions and guard dogs, they quack like merry hell if someone gets too close to the island. And their eggs, you’ve never even tasted an egg till you’ve tasted a fresh duck egg.”
“I think people won’t come because they think this island is where a black eyed demon lives.” said Bill.
“Or a Bogeyman or something,” said Harry looking hard at the tramp.
Bill looked at Harry, “A Bogeyman?” he sputtered, looking confused.
“I’ll explain later,” replied Harry, hoping that he wouldn’t have to.
“Well, boys, I have seen many things over the years, out in the desolate fields and along those lonesome country byways, far too many things to easily dismiss anything out of hand. However, stories of this sort are often associated with areas involved in criminal activity. Pirates and smugglers would often start these rumours about places that they wanted people to stay away from, hideouts or hidden contraband or…buried treasure.”
“Coo,” exclaimed Bill like an overgrown one-shoed constipated pigeon, “you don’t think a gangster or pirate has buried treasure here on the island do you, Blackberry?” The dream of making a fortune rising up like a phoenix in him once again.
“Never noticed anything.” Blackberry looked down and appeared a little agitated by the question.
“Pity,” said Bill, as his mind whirred trying to calculate the earliest he could return to the island with his dad’s shovel.
“Treasure? What would I wants with treasure?” he let out a chuckle that to Harry’s ears sounded forced. “Look. Look up there, boys.” Through the branches the boys could see the stars twinkling brightly in the night sky. “Those are my diamonds,” he said. “Breathing fresh country air, eating food I pick from the roadside, a fresh roast bit of roadkill on me camp fire, a cup of hooch and the company of good friends, those are the treasures of my life.
“I wants for nuffin. Anything I find belongs to me, the freely growing, the slung out, misplaced, lost and abandoned – Bona Vagrantia ’swhat I calls it, or finders keepers, losers weepers in common parlance. From hedgerow, bin, park bench or unattended picnic hamper, Fortuna is a bounteous goddess to those devotees with the keenest eyes.”
“Haven’t you ever seen anything scary on here?” asked Harry feeling both relieved and a little disappointed at the same time that there were no monsters of any description on the island. As for treasure he couldn’t see anyone burying anything on the island, the only holes dug here, he thought, were by the tramp to have a poo, something that Bill should’ve been taking into consideration for his return trip.
“And what about gates made of bones with skulls stuck on the top, seen those?” Bill shot an angry look in Harry’s direction as it was the first time he’d heard these details mentioned.
The tramp shook his head, “Nope. Few duck bones here and there. Never tasted food until you’ve tasted a freshly roasted duck,” said the tramp licking his lips.
“But how can you live on here? What about a toilet?” voiced Bill looking up from the fire.
The tramp waived a limp hand in a half circle about him indicating the trees and bushes. “I dig a little hole,” he said, “And plenty of leaves… Ahhh, you’ve never used proper toilet paper—”
“Till you’ve used a fresh leaf,” finished Bill anticipating the end of the sentence.”
“Exactly,” said the tramp. “Exactly. And the lake is my hand sink and bath. You’ve never had a pro—”
“Yes, yes, I think we get it now,” said Harry, cutting the tramp’s words short.
“I think it might be HIM who’s never had a proper bath,” whispered Bill to Harry.
“I heard that,” snapped the tramp. “We tramps don’t need to wash too much, it’s considered bad form most of the time—messes with your natural oils, y’know.”
“Is Blackberry your real name?” asked Bill.
“Good Lord no, who’d call their kid Blackberry?”
“That’s what I was thinking but I didn’t want to be rude. Did somebody give you it as a nickname?”
The drifter rasped his rough stained hands over his stubbled chops.
“No. I calls myself Blackberry Swift, that’s my tramp name. When you start out on the road you have to make a pact with Mother Nature. You stand in the light of a full moon, take a knife and cut your shadow off from your heels. Then you choose a new name and walk on, leaving your shadow and your old life behind. I chose Blackberry because I saw a blackberry bush as I was walking away from my shadow, tried a handful and they were magnificent, best I’d ever had. I gave myself my second name the next morning as I watched the swifts darting about overhead when I woke up.”
“But what’s your real name, your old name?”
“I told you, that person has gone. No need to mention his name.”
“But I can see a bit of a shadow next to you now,” said Harry, and it was true. The three of them looked at the tramp’s shadow.
“Well, I grew another one,” he said as if stating the obvious.
“Well, Blackberry, my name’s Bill,” said Bill. “Bill Atom.”
“And mine’s Harry, Harry Hornbeam of the Forest Hill Hornbeams. I think I would call myself Stag Beetle if I were to become a tramp,” stated Harry.
“Nice one, Harry, I wish I’d thought of that. I’d choose…hmmm…something like…” As Bill was trying to think of a name at least as good as Stag Beetle, and several times as good as Blackberry, a fly buzzed past his ear and towards Blackberry, where it promptly landed as if dropping in on an old friend, which it probably was. “Fly,” announced Bill. “Not just Fly but The Fly, The Fly Nightwind.” He was very pleased with it.
“Nightwind??” said Blackberry, sounds like a bout of nocturnal flatulence.”
Bill felt his cheeks flush. “Why won’t you tell us your original name, the old one? I mean if he no longer exists, what’s the harm, and anyway you know our real names.”
Blackberry’s eyes seemed to gloss over as he stared deep into the fire as if trying to recall a far off memory, or maybe it was the one of the long-term effects of prolonged exposure to Sparrow Super. He snorted, slowly hissing the air from his nostrils. “OK,” he said.
The boys waited for what seemed ages before the tramp levelled his eyes to Bill’s gaze.
“…CATFORD!” he barked, looking rather glum. “Yeah, that’s right, blimmin’ CATFORD, Catford blimmin’ Jenkins.” The two boys didn’t laugh though, there were kids with much stranger names than Catford at school. There was a boy in year two called Zyx, the last three letters of the alphabet backwards, because his dad thought it would be different and because the family name is Smith, so that he’d never get mixed up with another boy called John or Michael, after all how many Zyxs can there be, Smith or otherwise?
“Mum was born there,” explained the tramp. “Thought it would be nice. ‘Lots of girls called Chelsea,’ she’d say, ‘or boys called Kent,’ et cetera. Still, I suppose I got off lightly considering all things.”
“Well, dad was from Wales, he thought mum was onto something, naming me after the place she was born and bred, which turned out to be exceptionally bad news for my little brother. Me and Aberystwyth used to curse our names when we were in bed together at night. We shortened our names to Abe and Ford.”
“I think I’d have preferred Cat, that’s a cool name,” offered Harry. He quite liked his own name, but wouldn’t have minded being called Cat in the slightest, maybe he’d have added a Bob to it, yeah, Bobcat, even cooler.
“Hmm. We used to console ourselves that our parents weren’t from Booby Dingle and Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.” He had to take a breath half way through the second name.
“Anywayyy… Now we’ve all been properly introduced to your satisfaction…” Blackberry pulled something out from under his huge coat, a coat that looked like it hid many things. It was a plastic bottle. He unscrewed the lid and took a great gulp of the contents. Then he handed it to Bill.
“Swig!” he narrowed his eyes at Bill.
“Erm, is it acorn hooch? I’m not allowed to have alcohol.”
“Nooo, not my hooch, that’s only for extra special occasions, this is just cola.”
Bill took a huge swig, he could still taste that peanut butter sandwich of Harry’s and it’d made him very thirsty.
“Found it in the bin this morning, more than half left in it.”
Bill lowered the bottle as if his arm had been yanked down by Chewbacca’s big brother, grimaced for a few seconds and handed it to Harry.
Harry took it. “Erm…would you be terribly offended if I didn’t have any?” asked Harry.
“Terribly,” said Blackberry.
Bill leaned to Harry’s ear and held his hand to his mouth to whisper, “It could be like a tramps’ bonding ceremony type test, like what happened to Bear Grylls in series eight, episode nine, where he had to eat that Ethiopian rat’s head.”
“I’d rather have the rat’s head,” whispered back Harry.
“You too must have a swig, or[_ un gorgée_], as they say in France, Harry.” The tramp ignored their whispering.
“Oh, you speak French?”
“Naturellement,” said the tramp, his face adopting a mock air of pretension. “We men of the road are nomads, the clue’s in the title. Tramped all around Europe in my time. Rifled the bins in some of the best arrondissements in Paris, you know. Oh, la fromage, c’est magnifique, great big lumps of it just chucked in the bin. Fromage, that’s French for cheese, boys.”
Yes, thought Harry, just like your feet.
Harry ever so slowly and oh, ever so reluctantly raised the bottle to his mouth. He could just make out some crumbs or somesuch floating arrogantly on the surface of the black liquid that had long since lost any fizz. He closed his eyes and tipped the bottle back, pretended to gulp a little but in reality it only wet his lips, he didn’t drink any.
The tramp looked somewhat bemused. “Come on boy, have a real gulp at it.”
Blackberry’s breath caught him full in the face, and so bad was the pong that he felt his head spin and his stomach churn. How he hoped the crumbs in the drink had come from Bill’s lips and not the tramp’s. He took a full and hearty glug. He thought it might try to come back up, but it was OK, it stayed down.
“Errrrch,” Harry hadn’t meant to sound rude but he couldn’t help making the noise. He passed the bottle back to Blackberry who knocked back a further glug.
“Now we’re real pals,” he said.
“You have to take what’s going. The universe provides.
“You know, lads, there are two types of tramp, those that have lost their way…and those that have found it. The former have come to tramping through misfortune and their path is hard and dark; the latter, like myself, have been reborn into freedom, sloughed the cocoon of slavery. We spend our time communing with nature, contemplating stuff,” he adopted what looked like a painful yoga asana, the boys were not sure if he was having a joke at their expense. “We are monks, sadhus, hermits, holy men if you will, and like all ascetics, we use the art of being as opposed to the art of being used; you know in some languages the word monk is synonymous with beggar. Should a tramp, a real tramp, keep any of his wealth hidden, he will never truly let go. They just sorta dangle. You wouldn’t want to be a couple of danglers, now would you boys?” Indeed they wouldn’t. “No money, no ties and no links with the past—the Tramps’ Guild would never allow it. Oh no, that would never do.”
“Tramps’ Guild?” The boys’ eyes sparked up in the darkness like four windblown coals as they answered in unison.
“Is that like a Wizards’ Guild, like in Harry Potter?” Bill asked coyly, half not believing his good fortune to meet someone in an actual guild, even if it was only a tramps’ guild.
“Indeed, my new friends. I’m not surprised you haven’t heard about it. It’s a very ancient guild indeed. In fact, I’m not sure I should even be mentioning it to you, we’re very secretive—normally. Have to be, the hoi polloi, for the most part, are a bunch of hobofobic spongbags. Gots to rely on our own, see.”
“It’s exciting,” squealed Bill; all thoughts of the Bovva Boys had evaporated. “How did you become a tramp, and a member of the guild?”
“Now, that is a long and sad story, if I say so myself. However, one should never ask a tramp how he came to be a tramp. It’s very bad form. Whenever anyone talks to a tramp, we know what ever they ask us, that is the real question to which they would like to know the answer. All that I shall tell you is that like many of us ‘Men of the Road’, as we were more politely called in gentler times,” he peered at them for a few seconds as if waiting for his point to be fully got, “I once had a fair fortune.”
“What? You were rich?” asked Harry, though the dream of riches from capturing a Bogeyman had all but disappeared, he couldn’t quite let go of the thought of putting Miss Liza on that plane to the Amazon. “Have you got any money left? Something buried in a field?”
“Not a bean, sausage or egg,” said the tramp, making himself a little hungry as his mind wandered to an English breakfast. “I had it all before. Everything, everything that is except time. Money, possessions, great weights pulling you down to the bottom of a murky sea. The more you have the faster your descent. Had a wife too, till she left me. Took everything, even took the dog.” His eyes welled up and he looked back into the fire as he remembered. “I really miss that dog.”
Sensing the mood changing Harry tried to distract Blackberry from his maudlin thoughts. “Do you think that we could join, the Tramps’ Guild I mean, as well, we are sort of a bit like tramps as we both like walking and nature, just that we kinda, sorta, live in houses too.”
“But that’s not our fault,” tipped in Bill, trying to help the argument. “They are our parents’ houses. I think when they let me leave, then I’ll just live out in the open, like you.”
“Commendable,” nodded the tramp, visibly impressed.
“Yes,” said Harry, not wishing to be outdone on the tramping stakes, “me too, exactly that.”
“Of course you’d have to live by the Tramps’ Code, learn the secret signs and the catechisms: a catechism is how just by asking or answering a question with a set phrase you can tell if the other person is in the guild. I’ve already given you three opportunities to identify yourselves as fellow tramps.”
“Is the Tramps’ Code like the cub scouts’ code of honour?” asked Bill
“Ha ha, my dear boy, where do you think Baden Powell got it from?” He raised his eyebrows in mock amazement. “Of course he took out a few bits so as not to give away where he got it, like the section on curses and that bit about rope wrestling; took our bushcraft skills too he did.”
“Cool,” said Harry, “I know most of them already from that book Dad got me, Scouting for Boys. You see I’m joining the cubs in March. What about the signs?”
“There are three types of secret signs, first there are the lines, these are simple drawings, then there’s the knots—another one Baden got from us—we tie certain knots and dangle them from our clothing or leave them in places where a drawing won’t suffice. This one here,” he lifted an old piece of sting out from the neckline of his coat. He wore it as a necklace, it had many different things tied to it like animal bones, an acorn, rusty nail clippers, teaspoon, cheese grater, bicycle spoke and other oddments, it resembled a poor man’s Swiss Army knife. Right in the middle of these was dangled a large piece of slender rope in an unusual knot. “That knot there, if another man of the road was passed mid mosey (the word mosey comes from Moses, who wandered for forty years, he was one of ours), we’d both surreptitiously display our knots. Within this knot is info on my office in the guild, family history for the last three generations, star sign, favourite colour and last will and testament.” He sniffed proudly as he thumbed the intricate tangle.
“Lastly there’s the whistles, but I can’t tell you about those, all I would say to you though is never whistle near a man of the road, what you may consider an innocent whistle may to him be a sacrilegious affront, what I can say is that the first two bars of Beethoven’s 5th was stolen from us, and in fact it translates as ‘your great-grandfather never tasted eel’, a serious insult indeed. Group of German tramps got revenge though, beat him till he went deaf. So be careful.
“I’ll sketch you a few signs; you may spot some when you go camping with the cubs.”
He drew some lines in the moonlight dappled earth. “This sign drawn on the gatepost or wall of a house means ‘good for a meal’.” The boys looked on silently in awe. “This one,” more enthusiastic scratching, “offers food in exchange for work, and this, ‘food only given if you take a bath’…we avoid the last two, most of us’d rather starve. I can’t show you too many, in fact I shouldn’t really show you any, but you two boys are OK, and I know you’ll keep these things secret.”
“We will,” said Bill.
“To the grave,” added Harry with his sincerest serious look.
“S’pose I ought to teach you our battle cry too, just in case, it’s a bit like the cub scouts’ dyb dyb dyb bit…
“WUZZI WUZZI WUG WUG,” demonstrated the tramp, “To which the correct response is WUG WUG WUZZI. Now you try.”
The boys repeated it between themselves till they had it.
“Gooood, well make vagabonds of you yet,” he boomed with some delight.
“When can we join, for real I mean?” Bill’s shoe let out an excited squelch.
The tramp looked somewhat bemused. No one had ever asked him to help them to become a tramp before, true, most people didn’t want to come near him, but even so, it was still a matter for serious contemplation. He pulled out his necklace, slid it around until a large pipe could be selected and unslung. He picked some of the better leaves about his feet and stuffed them in, from his pocket he pulled out two dry used tea bags and a matchbox and ripped one open, pouring the contents into the pipe. “Running low,” he muttered to himself returning the last bag to his pocket. He tamped the mixture down with a thumb tip so blackened as to give away the frequency of his habit and lit it. Once the pipe was lit and the bowl was glowing like lava he took a long suck on it before blowing out a plume of ill smelling smoke.
“Ahhhhhh, that’s better,” he wheezed before coughing for a full twenty-five seconds. “Terrible habit, never take up smoking tobacco boys, a pipe is the devils instrument, and he’s been playing me with it for fifty years.”
“Erm…” hesitated Harry, “except that it’s not tobacco is it, it’s, well, tea.”
“Yeah, tried to wean myself off of tobacco with it then got hooked on the tea leaves. They’re a bit rough though.” He spluttered through another bout of wheezing and coughed out a few words. “The Devil, he uses what’s at hand to corrupt the innocent.” He sat back a little and entered a state of deep contemplation, his eyes set in a thousand-yard stare as brain calculated, cogitated and considered, his hand regularly and deliberately as a renaissance automaton travelled between mouth and knee, the puffs regular and measured, exhaling the pungent smoke like one of those smoking monkey toys that have long since been banned.
“Well,” he said at long last, “you boys could be in luck…I am not without influence in the guild.”
The boys were smiling ear to ear, so much so that they didn’t even hear the ruffians as they began to make their way across the wooden bridge that passed close to the other side of the island.
“I’ve been elected to serve as the third assistant to the Deputy Commissioner to the Viceroy for the whole of the Province of Kent,” he said puffing his chest out with pride. But the boys didn’t notice as the chest had three vests, six jumpers, two coats, a poncho and a pony blanket covering it. “Not an insignificant position, I’m sure you’ll agree. And, come the next Tramps’ Ball, I’ll be installed as such.”
“Wow,” said Bill.
“Crickey,” Harry whispered, “You could probably get us in. To the guild I mean.”
“Probably.” replied the tramp, “If you pass the tests.”
“Tests?” the boys said together. Both of them hated tests of any sort.
“Any maths in them,” asked Bill at last, fearing the worst.
“Nope, nuffin like that, it’s a practical test, it’s called The Survival.”
“The Survival, blimey, sounds a bit dangerous, is it?”
“Not a bit dangerous, son, a lot dangerous. If the test is failed then tramping’s not for you and the guild will not be open to you. Ever.
“I shall put your names forward, your new names, to be my apprentices at the next Tramps’ Ball. Then I’ll learn ya the ropes, gives ya the skills you’ll need for The Survival. He regained his focus and directed it at the boys. It will be intense.”
“Yes,” said Harry, “I told you that I’m joining the cubs so there will be plenty of camping in tents for practice.”
“Noooo, Intense, not in tents! I mean it will be very very hard.”
“Oops,” said Harry smiling.
“Err, what exactly is a Tramps’ Ball when it’s at home, and do they do that communal guzzling out of the same bottle?” asked Bill.
“Hmm,” said Blackberry. “How should I best describe it…”
“Is it like that witches’ disco thing, a sabbat, or whatever it is?”
“Quite similar in that we commune with nature…’cept we don’t prance about in the nude. Far too cold for that malarkey in the hop fields of Kent. S’pose it’s a bit like one of them scout jamborees.
“It’s the one time per year we’re forced to have a bath,” Blackberry said with a look of full blown disgust. “Of course, there are ways around it…” his body shook slightly as an uncontrolled shiver traversed his spine at the mere thought.
“Mind you, some of the other tramps do whiff a bit.
“Anyway, there it is, like it or not the guild insists we have a quick rinse before the Tramps’ Ball. An unnecessary evil if you ask me, something to do with Brussels probably I shouldn’t wonder.” Bill, who wasn’t that interested in politics, wondered what Brussels sprouts had to do with forcing someone to have a wash, though he’d always been very suspicious of the foul tasting orbs. The vagabond was now venting his spleen on the personal bugbear. “Trying to take over every aspect of the guild they are, but were not ’avin’ it, making the guild into a house of rules. Still, the king of the tramps is no pushover, ol’ Nigel Garbage. Oops, forget you ever heard that name.”
“What name?” asked Harry looking very pleased with himself.
“Good lad,” the tramp smiled again. “Pity I can’t take ya this time, to the ball.
“It’s a sight to behold, boys. More hooch than you can shake a stick at, and yes we do drink from each other’s flasks, Bill, it’s a sign of friendship and trust—especially when nudging back the post prandial aperitif; and the food, oh, it makes my mouth water just to think about it.” He sniffed in the night air as if imagining the fayre. “Mmm, freshly roast hedgehog, I can almost smell it now.”
“What, you ate a hedgehog?” Bill, being a strict part-time vegetarian furrowed his brow.
“Of course, it is after all a feast, and a hedgehog is called a hedgehog because the flesh tastes just like pork—only better, its fat oozes out, down your fingers and down your chops: all rinsed down with a healthy draught of homebrewed acorn hooch.”
“That’s gross, the hedgehog eating bit I mean. How could you do that?”
“Well,” said Blackberry, “very carefully,” he roared with laughter then repeated it again, “Very carefully, good one that, eh? Ha ha ha.
“Don’t you boys like pork?”
“I love pork.” Harry looked towards Bill. “Bill’s a vegetarian though.”
“Yes,” confirmed Bill feeling awfully proud of himself, “been one since the Friday before last.”
“Apart from Tuesdays,” chipped in Harry
“Yes, I have Tuesdays off, cos Tuesdays is chicken curry day at school, and I really like that, and anyway, chicken is actually a bit of a grey area for us vegetarians, ’Cos, like, a lot of vegetarians eat eggs, right? And, eggs are actually unhatched chicks, so, chickens are practically vegetables anyway, sort of.”
“Practically,” echoed Harry, “and then there’s Fridays, fish and chips, no one counts fish as meat.”
“Yes, and those ham sandwiches I made were purely for its practical protein, in case we had to, you know, wrestle with something in here; but it is very hard being a veggie.”
“I’m sure it must be.” Blackberry drew in the last of his smoke and reluctantly blew it out before tapping his pipe and returning it to its rightful place to drape warmly on his chest. “We eats what we can get our hands on, us of the Brotherhood of the Silver Moon, us Men of the Wayside (in every sense of the word). Do you know the collective noun for tramps?”
“Erm, I think I know,” spat Bill unconsciously raising his hand, “is it a stink of tramps?”
“Bit rude innit?!” exclaimed the tramp, his feelings bruised, “No it is not a stink, nor a pong or a whiff, a stench, hum, armpit or skunk, nor bin, skip, taint, gross (even when there’s 144 of us) or plop. It used to be, in darker times, a scourge or contagion, imagine having that nomenclature tagged to you. You have to have a thick skin in this game, and not just on the soles of your feet. The correct form nowadays is a liberation or bundle of tramps, takes your pick; things have changed a bit eh?”
A Touch of Bovva
As they were chatting something very heavy plonked into the lake followed by a splash. Blackberry held up his hand for them to be silent. The three listened intently. Soon they heard further plops as what were assumed to be rocks were hurled into the waters accompanied by the slapping of running feet across the little wooden bridge.
“They’re coming,” shrieked Bill, “The Bovva Boys.” Harry and Bill both looked at Blackberry, eyes the size of freshly peeled hard boiled eggs. Blackberry, however, said not a word but bolted off into the undergrowth, not an old man any more but a lithe Burmese jungle-rat.
Harry looked at Bill. Bill looked at Harry. Harry looked at Bill’s chin which was vibrating up and down at an alarming speed. “I want my mum,” Bill squeaked.
“Blackberry has spongging-well spongged off,” Harry offered, trying to make Bill smile. It didn’t work.
“Yeah,” said Bill singultously (that’s the official word for the teary-hics), “I hope he spongging-well spongs over into a big pile of spong.” This did the trick, both the boys tittering quietly then uncontrollably laughing; Bill’s teary-hics now giggle-hics. He laughed so hard he snorted, sending out a great milky jet of snot that had the boys laughing even harder.
Whilst the friends were having a giggling fit the Bovva Boys were climbing over the walkway railings and launching themselves across to the island one by one with various cries of “TOENAILS!” “SPONG IT BABY!” “MATTRESS!” and other nonsense that sometimes issues forth from the mouths of troubled souls.
Three random sacrificial shoes and five wet trouser legs later they were marching through the undergrowth bashing anything in their path back with sticks and shouting obscenities, Bill and Harry stopped their chortling and listened. “Oh blimey,” said Bill, “they’re close.”
“Yes,” said Harry, “and that language, I don’t even know what half of those words mean.”
The Bovva Boys moved in a tight pack in pursuit of their sport, very tight indeed, it was almost as if they were frightened to be on the island and were huddling for comfort. The Bovva Boys had spotted the fire’s few orange embers glowing through the thick bushes and jumped through them into the clearing waving their sticks and screaming as they ran towards their prey, their juvenile beer-guts juddering. It was at this precise moment that all hell broke loose. A stout hulking figure swung down from a tree into the open circle like Tarzan with the ’ump. The figure was covered head to toe in what looked like tangled wet hair, its small face in its massive head contorting like a wild rampaging ape glistened with yellow slime. Everyone screamed: Bovva Boys, Harry and Bill.
The Bovva Boys shot off, legs moving faster than a sumo wrestler’s chopsticks. Harry and Bill cowered frozen to the spot in fear. They waited in the darkness behind their clenched eyelids for the monster to tear into them and shred them up. But it was silent. Harry heard the Bovva Boys splash trough the lake and pad off over the bridge. Then he heard a snort, then a titter and finally a rambunctiously hearty guffaw. He snapped his eyes open to see the monster of the deep doubled up in hysterics and on its knees slapping the ground with delight.
“Did…did you see ’em boys? Wooohaaahaaaaaaa, blimmin’ classic that were, the big bad Bovva Boys scared of ol’ Blackberry like he was a blimmin’ Godzilla, King Kong and The Swamp Monster all rolled up into one.” Bill had now opened his eyes too. He was still clinging on to Harry’s arm shaking. “What the freak!” he gasped. “Blackberry??!!”
“At your service, young Bill. Scared ‘em off for you good and proper I did. No need to thank me boys, quite enjoyed that I did.”
Blackberry waved his hands about and shook his head “No, no, not necessary, really.” Bill looked down furtively towards a damp patch that had appeared in his trousers and quickly pulled his coat out to cover it before anyone noticed.
“Think they’ve gone for good this time.” Blackberry sat back down near the waned fire to get warm. “Isn’t nature a wonderful thing, boys?” he said smiling as he removed the duck’s nest from atop his bonce, fully intending to return it to its original owner just as soon as he’d had a warm and a swig or six of hooch—purely for medicinal purposes you understand. The pondweed drapings that Harry had taken for the beast’s hair were thrown unceremoniously towards the treeline where some of it splatted on branches and hung dripping slime. Finally he replaced the browned dental bridge back into his mouth where it wobbled loosely.
“Wonderful,” said Harry, edging back a little to evade the pony blanket’s vapours.
“Looks like you got to see a monster after all, eh? Me, the spongging Pond Monster, sure that one’ll soon spread about.” He roared with laughter and cracked open the last duck egg in his hand which he’d not managed to throw, pouring its contents straight into his uplifted gob. “Mmmmm. Sorry, it’s the last one,” he said with genuine remorse.
“’S’OK,” Bill said trying his best not to sound too crushed, which he wasn’t. “Err, I think we should probably be getting back now.”
“Yes.” The tramp stood up, collected his nest and led the way quietly back through the woodland to the shore of the island.
Blackberry lead them across to the wooden bridge showing them where to step on two submerged rocks that made Harry feel like he was walking on water, “Cool,” he said, wishing he’d been able to use them on the way in. Halfway across the park towards the gate he stopped at a large old oak tree.
“See here, lads. See that branch there just over our heads.” They nodded, looking. “Well, just above that branch where it meets the trunk there’s a small hollow. If you ever need me or just want to meet up and chat, leave a round stone in there with the number of the day you want to meet on it and come to the island on that day every month at midday until we meet. If it’s an emergency, and I don’t mean you’ve run out of milk type of an emergency, I mean a life or death situation, then drop a bright red stone in there with the letters ‘HB’ on it. If that happens, I’ll find you. We tramps check each other’s post boxes, and if a red stone appears then all the stops are pulled out until the tramp in question, him whose postbox it is, is found. In an emergency we help our own.” He winked at them. He then gave them a booster up each so that they could find the hole.
When they finally reached the gate the three darkened forms stood still. This is where they would part company. After some moments of silence the old tramp spoke.
“Thank you boys for your gift.”
“Gift?” said Harry a little confused.”
“Yes, your gift of friendship, your kindness of conversation and your politeness in the face of the unconventionalities of my life.” He paused, breathed in the cool night air and continued. “Now it is my turn.” He produced from his pocket two small green parcels and handed them, one each, to the boys. They examined the tiny packages which appeared to be made out of very green and supple leaves folded around something and tied off with a piece of string.
“A going away present. Open ’em one week from today, when the excitement of tonight has faded and when I’ve departed the area, migrating south if you like, like a bird. Oh, and cut the cord, keep the knot on you, on a keyring or around yer neck, never know when it might come in handy, might surprise you.” The boys dutifully put them into their pockets.
“Wuzzi wuzzi wug wug,” declared the tramp looking them testingly in the eyes.
“Wug wug wuzzi,” both the boys countered.
“Excellent, excellent.” He seemed suitably impressed. “Then fare ye well, brothers of the road.” With that he turned and walked back the way they’d come.
“We’d better hurry up and get out of here, Bill,” Harry was already moving quickly along the wall to the right of the gates. Bill silently followed Harry and they began feeling their way along the railings until they came to the spot where they’d climbed over into the park.
As they landed on the other side of the railings they heard a deafeningly loud WOOP WOOOOP followed by a booming voice, “STAY THERE!” Across the road from them was parked a police car. The headlights were now turned on. Two large figures exited from either side of the vehicle and approached the boys, their police radios relaying messages and beeps as they approached.
“Well, well, well, what have we here? Must be Indiana Jones and Davy Crockett on a night time escapade.” The boys remained silent.
The second policeman, who Harry now saw was actually a really large woman, so large in fact that she walked funny due to her barrel-like thighs, started to talk loudly into her radio. “7-4, we have the two boys. Apprehended on the southern perimeter.” She waited for the garbled reply before nodding to her partner, who then spoke.
“We had a report of two small boys on the loose in the park from an irate mother whose son, who is fairly well known to us, woke her up a few minutes ago regaling her with tales of monsters on islands and that it may have ingested two young boys. He’s terrified and sobbing like a baby. But I guess it must’ve spat you out again, ’cos here you are. Now then, names and addresses and parents’ phone numbers.” He took out his notepad and flipped it open.
The boys told the police all the details about their adventure as the man scribbled frantically in his book: being chased onto the island by the Bovva Boys and that they’d hid there until the bullies had run off. “Yeah,” said Bill, “scared of their own shadows, dunno about the Bovva Boys, the Blubber Boys more like.”
“Chased off the island by them ducks I shouldn’t wonder,” Harry added, “I certainly didn’t see any monster on there, did you Bill?”
“Certainly not, not even a small one, completely empty on there it is, just ducks, trees, and more ducks.”
“Probably too ashamed to admit that,” said the female police officer. “This won’t do their bad boy reputation any good when it gets out.”
The lady took the note pad from the man and went away a little bit where she called the boys’ mums and dads.
“We’re gonna take you boys back home. Unless that is you want a night in the cells?”
“No, sir, home is fine,” said Harry worriedly.
“Yes,” confirmed Bill, “home please.”
“Wouldn’t like to be in your shoes,” the policeman said to Bill.
“I know,” said Bill, “my dad’s n’arf gonna give me what for when I get in.”
“No,” said the policeman pointing down at Bill’s feet, “I mean them.”
“Oh…” Bill cottoned on and the four, one squelching, walked to the squad car.
Home for a Roasting
Harry had always wanted to ride in a police car. But not like this. He just felt like bursting into tears. No Bogeyman, no treasure, chased by the Bovva Boys and then taken home in a police car like a common criminal. A tear trickled down his cheek. The cubs would probably want nothing to do with him now. And perhaps worst of all there was no way he’d be allowed to see Bandit on her birthday. The tears multiplied and by the time the policeman in the stab-proof vest led him to the front door of 56 Branston Road, the only house in the street with its front room lights on, he was sobbing softly into the crook of his arm. The door opened before he could knock.
“I believe this small package belongs to you, sir.”
Dad nodded. Mum shot out and grabbed Harry as if worried the policeman might change his mind and take him off to the cells.
“Social Services will have to be informed of course; and one of our officers will pop round tomorrow, just a formality, but we have to talk to you, make sure this doesn’t happen again. Don’t worry mum,” the copper said. Mum was crying. “He’s OK, he’s fine, and kids get up to this type of thing all the time.”
Mum shook her head. “Thank you,” she said and hugged the copper there, right there in the street, much to SPB’s delight as while his face was being squashed in between them he somehow managed to grab a shiny tunic button from beneath the body armour and pull it off in one great yank, “Mine!” he shouted, gripping it tight.
“Oi you little…err,” the copper caught his reaction in time, “err, that’s OK, little lad, you can keep it. Strong little so and so, en’ he?!”
Harry looked towards Bill who was still sitting in the back of the police car looking super glum.
“It won’t happen again,” Dad shook the policeman’s hand.
“Boys will be boys. Don’t be too hard on the lad, eh… Now then, one down, one to go.” The policeman went back to his waiting car and Harry and his family went inside. They stood in the hallway in silence. The hiss of tyres and growl of engine disappeared taking the crime fighters off deliver Bill before, no doubt, tackling another burglary or misbehaving drunk.
“Go and sit down at the kitchen table.” Harry did as Dad told him. He sat on a chair and waited for the ordeal of the telling off to begin. Mum put the kettle on, still too teary to shout and visibly shaking. Harry wondered if it was relief or rage. He guessed a bit of both, but knowing his luck the ratio would be in favour of the rage.
Mum brought three mugs of hot chocolate to the table and took her seat then Dad took a seat too. The pair of them stared at him for the longest time, Mum still sniffling and wiping her nose. Even SPB was staring at him, having momentarily forgotten about the button.
So there they all sat around the table. The crying of Mum gave way to the telling off of Dad which in turn gave way to an awkward silence of how silly things had got and how much worse events could have been this night. The steaming hot chocolates were sipped; those gathered reflected on their thoughts. The chat was strangely calm after that, and deep down Harry realised just how good his mum and dad were, how much they cared for him; and it was this that made him promise himself he would never make them worry about him like this again. Then all of a sudden little Ned let out the most ginormous BURRRRRRRRRRP! They all looked at Ned then at each other then everyone just burst into laughter. The awkward tension was gone and heavy hearts became light again. Ned laughed too, and then proceeded to point at them one by one. Dad hugged Ned and then Harry.
“Sorry I shouted. Just, you know, I was so worried, thought something might have happened to you…” Dad’s voice wavered like a badly played violin. His eyes welled with tears. He coughed and blew his nose. “Blimmin’ cold, thought I’d got rid of that.”
Harry was put to bed after the telling off, inquisition and teary hugs. All his emotions had been exhausted, and when he hit the sheets he fell instantly into a long and dreamless sleep.
The next day he’d managed to sneak a phone call to Bill’s house. Bill’s mum had answered and Harry had pretended to be another of Bill’s friends; to disguise himself he put on a slight accent.
“Eh, hullo, this is erm…erm, Bill’s friend Dave, Dave erm…LeDangleberry, yes zat is it, Dave LeDangleberry, and I’m erm calling to ask Bill about some ’omework we were given to do over the le weekend.”
“Oh,” said Bill’s mum suspiciously. “Bill never mentioned it. I never heard of a Dave LeDangleberry in his class before, and that accent you have, it’s very unusual…”
“Yes, madam, I am recently arrive from Pariii, that’s in France you know,” Harry added, half dropping his French accent.
“So I’ve heard,” said Bill’s mum.
“Wee, I am ’elping Bill with his French ’omework, nest pah.” He’d heard that one a few times on the Poirot series on the telly. Once he’d started he couldn’t stop, “Madame, one second silver plate, I just take un gorgée from my mug of tea, that means a glug,” Harry explained.
“Billl!” shouted Bill’s mum on the other end of the line, “One of your friends on the phone, someone pretending to be French.” Harry’s cheeks burned, he’d thought he’d sounded like a real French boy.
“Harry Hornbeam, is that you? Because if it is Bill’s grounded for two weeks, and I’ll be talking to your dad when I drop Bill off at school on Monday.”
“Non, Madame, it is I, Daviiid. I never ’eard of this one, ’Arri ’Ornbeam, my little grey cells are…”
“Hi David, comment ça va?” Bill had taken the phone off his mum and Harry heard her footsteps going away.
“Bill, it’s me, Harry.”
“Yes, I thought it must be,” said Bill. “Oh my days did I get what for when I arrived home with a police escort. All the nosey neighbours twitching the curtains to see what was going on. I’ve been grounded for two weeks. Mum even hides the front door key at night now.”
“Same here,” said Harry, “It’s been very quiet here today though, no one is saying much, it was all said last night. If only that Bovva Boy’s mum hadn’t called the police we’d have been back home in bed last night and no-one would have ever known.”
“Harry,” said Bill sounding a bit miserable. “I’ve had enough of adventures for a while, let’s not have another one, at least not for a very long time.”
“Agreed,” said Harry, “but I’m still going to be a tramp when I grow up. Tramps are awesome.”
“Me too, we can be tramps together, meet up with Blackberry and travel around Europe.”
“Wicked. Me you and Blackberry, a liberation of tramps roaming anywhere we please without a care in the world. Hey, did you open Blackberry’s present yet?”
“No, he said to wait.”
“Well, the fuss has kinda died down a little bit, hasn’t it? And I’m itching to see what’s in the leaf.”
“I suppose so,” replied Bill with reluctance, who was also excited to see what Blackberry had given them, but didn’t want to go against the instructions to wait until the adventure was a little way behind them before opening the gifts. “I s’pose we have waited a bit.”
“And he’ll have moved on from the park by now, especially after the police car, I imagine he was struck with pure fear when he saw the flashing blue lights on the way back to his island.
“Wait, I’ll go and get mine and you go and get yours, we’ll open them at the same time.”
“OK, Harry,” complied Bill and both the boys rushed off to retrieve the small parcels they had been given.
When they had both returned to their respective phones they carefully cut the cords securing the small bundles of leaves.
“Bill… Have you got what I’ve got?” asked Harry, without telling Bill what it was exactly that he’d got.
“Erm, well, is yours round?”
“And erm, GOLD?”
“Oh my days. A gold coin each. Mine has a man on a horse slaying a dragon, cool.”
“Mine too. Must be solid gold.”
“Wait a minute, this is some type of treasure, real treasure,” squeaked Bill. “Where on Earth did he get this from? Tramps don’t have gold coins. Harry, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Harry.
“Do you think he found the Demon’s treasure, on that island, maybe he found it when he was digging a hole to…well, to have a poo or something. I mean, you’ve never had a poo until you’ve had to have one in a hole freshly dug with a stick on an island.”
“It could well be,” said Harry, who was thinking too hard about something entirely different to laugh, “… Do you think this gold coin could be enough to buy a one way ticked to the Amazon???”
THANK YOU FOR READING THIS BOOK.
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Also available by the same author.
Harry Hornbeam is seven and a half and is always up for fun and adventure—as long as it's not too dangerous. This time, however, he may have bitten off more than he can chew. Join Harry and his friends as they get into school-time scrapes, japes and close escapes. And find out how Harry gets sucked into a nighttime expedition to hunt down the fabled Demon of Dulwich Park and make his fortune—At least that's the plan.