‘Did you stop the tree surgeons from coming inside the house yesterday?’ asked the father to the mother, ‘because one of them did a massive shit on Cliff’s lawn.’ She was making herself a cup of tea and a piece of toast with it being past breakfast, but not quite time for lunch. 'I didn’t like the look of them Anthony,' she replied, ‘they all had different t-shirts on. No work uniform or nothing.’ He had just returned from the back garden and was now chewing anxiously on the end of a piece of marmited toast. He’d been in an over-the-hedge conversation with the next door neighbour, Cliff. The Merthyr Valley accent from over the other side of the hedge collided with his difficult to place, almost non-existent Mid-Walian one: the subtle difference of their vocal registers describing youth spent a few dozen miles apart.
‘They seemed shifty,’ she said, making her way into the conservatory.
‘So you didn’t let them go to the toilet, Sophie?’ he asked.
‘I didn’t know what they wanted to do here. I didn’t want to know.’
‘What exactly were they going to do then?’ he said. A few crumbs escaped his mouth as he spoke.
‘Steal things mun.’ She bit into a healthy wedge of raspberry jam on toast.
‘They could just as easily have taken the lawnmower or the strimmer from the garden if they wanted to steal things.’
‘Exactly. Have you checked?’
‘Well, no.’ he said.
‘There we go then.’ she replied.
‘But… that’s not really the point.’
Over the hedge, the neighbour was gesticulating with visible concern towards the father who, in return, was making a gesture akin to a teapot. Together their conversation became an uneasy Saturday morning tango between two mortgaged, home-owning and suburban men. Both men originated from a subcategory of man who refrained from saying anything other than the obvious, and would likely have been chatting about the weather or the rugby or the potholes in a proud yet indirect way of getting to the point that one had inconvenienced the other.
Having washed down a particularly dense piece of toast with a gulp of coffee, the father returned to the topic of conversation, ‘so instead of letting them go to the loo, they had to do it on the next door’s lawn. Bit much, isn't it?’
‘Well at least it wasn’t on our lawn.’ she replied.
He nodded in agreement, before catching himself and turning his nod into a disgruntled shake of the head. Not yet ready to align himself with his wife’s point of view, he replied, ‘again, I don’t think that’s really the point.'
Peering out of the window of his upstairs bedroom that morning, the young boy watched on as the over-the-hedge event unfolded between his dad and the dad of next door. Four yellow bollards demarcated a no-go zone at the far end of the concerned neighbour’s garden. It looked like the forensic aftermath of a crime scene. But, with eyes squinting and after having wiped the smudges clean from his glasses, it seemed like the crime was in fact a pretty large poo. This confused him. Did his father hop over the hedge and do a poo on the neighbour’s lawn, only to be caught by next door’s head of the household? It seemed improbable. Cliff continued flapping and gesticulating as his mouth moved quickly. At a guess it seemed he was repeating the word poo. Again this seemed improbable. Moving on from leaning on his radiator and watching his dad and his neighbour, he trudged over to a stale pile of clothes on the carpet, and fished out a suitable t-shirt and pair of shorts to brave the morning with.
‘Why couldn’t we have just kept the tree standing?’ the dad asked, now rounding up the crumbs on his plate before sprinkling them into his open mouth. ‘Well you know why.’ she replied. They both glanced over at the now barren area of earth which was until a few days ago hidden by a tall and proud conifer. From the rim of a filled bowl of cereal, the young boy looked up with mild irritation towards his parents in the conservatory, where each sat reading different sections of the weekend paper. His gaze moved beyond them, into the garden and rested on the empty patch where the tree used to stand. Edging his way out of the kitchen and back upstairs, he made sure to spill as little milk over the edge of his bowl as possible onto the carpet below.
Clambering through, scratching arms and ankles on spiky inner branches along the way, into the depths of the conifer’s middle, while the conifer still absorbed nutrients from the ground and converted sunlight from the green tips of its long, spindly tendrils into its energy, he pulled tiny cones, or things similar, off from their life source. He wasn’t sure what they were. Maybe they were seed pods but, there were no small offspring pushing through the surface nearby to confirm that hypothesis. They did, however, make great ammunition to disrupt the tranquility of one terrier patrolling the adjacent back garden. He pocketed a handful of the tree’s baubles and trod carefully to where its deadened inner branches met the border hedge between his and next door’s bit of rectilinear land mass. The combed leaves that dangled on the outer edges of the confier’s branches provided a shielding umbrella from wind and rain attack. And from time to time, when he was within the natural tent-like structure hiding from the rain, a robin would dart to and fro, puffing up its red breast while bobbing from one sturdy twig to another. He peeled off a ribbon of bark from the tree’s trunk, and on bringing it to his nose a powerful aroma of orange peel and strange medicine entered his nostrils. As he did so, a distant murmur slowly translated into words of a conversation being spoken from through the hedge. He peered through the twig and the strands of ivy to see two next door neighbour sisters, who had moved in not so long ago, and with whom he never really found the right words to strike up conversation with, lying horizontally on deck chairs, absorbing the day’s sunlight.
'D’you heard about Dai?' said the sister to the other.
‘What he do now?’ the other replied.
'He was steaming Friday night. Got into a fight with Scott, didn’t he.’
‘Oh my god.’ the other sister exclaimed.
‘He came off worse, black eyes and everything he did.’
‘Oh emm gee.’
One was reading a book, the other a magazine. Careful where he placed his feet, he took a step closer in their direction. A voice inside his head with a questionable level of authority explained that a short bit of spying was completely okay. In fact it was normal, expected even, the voice continued. He found a face-sized opening amongst the hedgerow bushes, but realised that if he could see them, then they’d be able to see him too. Only if they looked in his direction. He crouched down, counting his little conifer acorn-things, and looked up from time to time in their direction: multi-tasking was his alibi of choice.
‘But then the police turned up outside Cody’s, yeah.’ the sister continued.
‘Oh emm effing gee,’ said the other sister.
‘So they took him and Scott outside, shoved them in the back of the van, got some cheese’n’chips and told them to carry on fighting.’
‘No they didn’t.’
‘They did, I’m telling you.’
‘Oh my god.'
‘Why’s Dai always getting so pissed mun?'
‘He was as pissed as a fart he was.’
‘Oh my god.’
He knew he had taken in too much information about the older boys at school, those whom he knew the name and look of and also knew well to avoid if he did not want to be picked up and placed inside a bin between lessons. A chirp came from a branch above: the resident robin hopped between its favoured twigs. The sisters in the next door’s back garden continued their conversation. The boy stood up, wanting to get closer and enjoy a closer look at him. Shuffling on the spot, with his head facing up at the robin, he wobbled on the spot and, as he regained his balance, a twig snapped under foot. The robin tweeted in panic and flew off. ‘Uh, what was that?’ one sister asked the other.
He craned his head towards the hole in the hedge: the sisters had raised themselves up to attention by their elbows. Their legs were very tanned, he thought to himself, before turning away again. They’re looking directly into the darkness where he stooped. Panic set in him. Closing eyes wouldn’t work here. The older sister, now standing, moved slowly towards the hedge. Running away would be too loud and make it all too obvious. Realising that he had been staring vacantly at the one sister, who was still lying down and still in her bikini, he turned his head mechanically away.
A heavy rustling suddenly disrupted the conifer’s lower branches. His eyes darted towards his house. ‘Oi, what are you doing there?’ shouted a familiar voice from the outside of the conifer tree. Panic set it completely. How did he not notice her creeping up on him? Through a view broken by conifer branches, he could see his mother holding up a towel and angrily looking his way. She must have been putting the washing out.
‘I’m just looking at the tree mum,’ he pined.
‘No you’re not,’ she replied.
‘Yes I am’
‘You’re hiding in the hedge, I can see you.’
‘No you can’t,’ he said, panicking that the neighbours could hear the commotion, ‘I’m not here.’
‘Uh sis, what’s going on over there?’ the other sister asked. The sister who was now peering through the hedge at the commotion looked on at the entertainment of the mother reprimanding the son.
‘Don’t lie to me. I can see you right in there.’ His mother's hand reached into the conifer, grabbing his shoulder and tugging at him to force him out of his safe place. On being yanked out, his arms met the sharp end of the various old, deadened branches at arm height.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
‘Nothing,’ he said.
‘Don’t lie to me Hywel,’ she said, ‘you were spying your beady little eyes on the girls next door.’
‘No I wasn’t.’
‘You dirty little boy, get inside right now,’ she demanded.
‘I wasn’t. I was just looking at the tree, honest.’
‘Stop lying. I know what, we’ll just get the tree cut down.’
‘Ah no, come on.’
‘Yes, that’s what we’ll do.’
‘To stop you sneaking around, that’s why.’ she replied. To which he gave up his protests. The two neighbour sisters, now an avid audience of the commotion, enjoyed the spectacle while embracing the eventual sunburn on offer that day.
‘Get inside right now.’
And so a baron patch of deadened ground lay bare to the elements, where only one planetary rotation previously, a proud conifer once stood: one completely out of scale to the size of the garden. And only one adequate hiding place now remained. With his cereal bowl dripping milk along the way, he returned to his musky, airless bedroom. A haze of minute floating dust particles lifted as the light of the crisp blue day broke through his double-glazed window. Seagulls and blackbirds played passing vignettes of life existing beyond his domain. Out of the transparent puncture within the brick wall, perfectly white wisps sit on top of a vibrant blue canvas, suggesting a hot summer’s day to be had by those who muster enough willpower to exit their bedroom. Closing the curtains, he turned away to switch on the television and playstation and slumped into the curved depression in his sofa that had formed over years of gradual erosion. A smell of static charge entered his nostrils as electricity surged through the television screen. A diagonally reclined mass, in a floral dressing gown and slippers, fed itself cereal through the black reflection of the glass screen, as the channel loaded.
A god-like third person puppet master, he ran around town as a little figurine avatar gleefully murdering hundreds of other less animate avatars, which made for a striking contrast to his slightly gelatinous physical form that was unable to eat breakfast without milk dripping down his chin. His fictitious, two-dimensional world existed without concern for moral value. Yet he would often do nothing more than just walk around his digital realm, like a normal person in a normal world might well do. Hours of wandering through shopping malls, forests and streets simply to pretend to be someone else, or someone very close, but nonetheless significantly departed from who he saw himself to be. Hours at a time quickly drifted by when leading his second life in this second world.
As the sun bent around the horizon line, through the closed curtains, the boy began to fester and stagnate within his digital portal. His second world offered a great deal, but never quite enough to feel fully satisfied with giving up days of his time within it. What pushed him over the edge and onto two standing feet, was that well worn fear of missing out: the fear that something brilliant would come to pass for all his friends and he wouldn’t be there to share it with them. They would be at the park or outside the corner shop or in the underground car park at the recreation centre when everyone’s life would profoundly change for the better, went the narrative in his head. The fact that he got so very close to the end of a particularly challenging level, only to accidentally drive into a river and come to an untimely end, did indeed have some part to play in his decision making, too.
Static dropped in the air when he turned his devices off. He drew his bedroom curtains apart once again and through an open window invited in the hum of a lawnmower below, with his father pacing back and forth on their small rectilinear patch of back garden grass. This he understood as a signal that tensions had quelled between his and the next door’s household. The large poo and the yellow traffic cones protecting it had gone from next door’s lawn as well. Blue skies bet on a day without rain over this part of the world. Underarm spray filled the air with a boy’s idea of the smells of a proper man. Teeth were cleaned for the minimum amount of time a young boy considered acceptable and floss was left inside its plastic container deep within the cabinet: for another day. He was readying himself for the great outdoors. Sliding carefully down the carpeted stairs, so as to attempt as best he could to avoid the prying ears of his mother or father, he slinked into the front room. Picking up the phone from its plastic shell, pushing the buttons to a memorised sequence of numbers, he waited until the voice of someone else’s mother broke the satisfying nothingness of the dial tone.
‘Hullo?’ she said.
‘Uh hiya, is Ferret in?’ he replied.
‘I mean Simon.’
‘Yes, he’s in. Who’s calling?’
‘Okay… his friend?’
‘Yeah. Is he in?’
‘He’s in his room,’ she sighed.
‘Can I talk to him?’
‘Wait a second, will you?’
With phone to ear and remaining very still, he could hear the rustlings of another household: the mother shouting from the bottom of the stairs and a cooking programme on TV. Jamie’s doing burgers for lunch today. From staring at the phone’s base he moved his vision onto his father at the opposite corner of the room, who was perched in his wooden chair and tucked into his wooden desk full with ordered deposits of paper. His father sat silently, staring hard at a set of numbers. With his stare lingering on the hunched father figure, he realised it was actually Gary Rhodes who was the distant voice in his ear.
‘Alright?’ his friend said, breaking the hum of household sounds.
‘Yeah I'm alright. You alright?’ he replied.
‘Yeah, I’m alright. Fancy coming over? Play xbox?’
‘Well,’ the last few hours flashed stodgily before him, ‘Naw really.’ He returned to the curly, knotted cable between the phone to his ear and its base. ‘Thinking about going outside today,’ he said, ‘Sun’s out. S’posed to be hot today and all.’
‘Naw. Not sure about that man. I wanna get through Metal Gear Solid again. Probably it’ll take all day again.’
‘Come on mun! It’s gonna be twenty five degrees today. They said it on the tele.’
‘Uhhh…,’ Ferret replied, ‘dunno like.’
‘You did that all day yesterday.’
‘Yeah, so what? I wanna do it again.’
‘How about we go down Newbridge Fields, then over the road to the fayre? Have a look at what's going on,’ the young boy said.
‘Is the fayre today?’ asked his friend.
‘Yeah. And the sun is out mun.’
‘Hang on.’ Ferret, whose actual name was Simon, put the phone down on top of a dense knot of phone cable and walked from the landing, through the kitchen and into the conservatory. Condensation quickly collected on the inside windows of warm days there, and with the sun out and the sky an intense blue, a thick fog of water droplets had built up on the inside of the conservatory’s glazing. He nodded in appreciation.
‘Yeah maybe.’ replied the friend, returning to the phone.
‘You got your frisbee?’
‘Yeah. I’ll bring it. We can chuck it about down Newbridge on the way to the fayre.’
‘Meet at the top by the big steps in twenty minutes by the old fogies place?’ his friend suggested.
‘I’ll head off in a bit, like. Mum’s making me clean the toilet first, but it’ll only take a few seconds I reckon.’
‘I wanna check out the penny slots so make sure you got cash with you.’
‘Well, you owe me two pound thirty, dun you?’
‘No I don’t.’
‘Yes you do mun.’
‘See you in twenty minutes then. Bye.’ And with that the line went dead. Ferret had put the phone down and was already heading towards the toilet, with marigold gloves a size too big for his hands on.
He grabbed a few pink wafers, a chocolate caramel bar and his frisbee out of the garage. And as quick as you like, he was out of the front door. The wealth of daylight overhead and the radiant blue cast a spell of memory loss on every Welsh woman, man and child who’d ever before seen the grey tones that typically underscored their existence. Traditionally, as he marched along the network of streets from his home towards the park, the same Tabby cat would stare passively out of the wrong side of a glass window and the same grey Vauxhall Corsa would be parked on the street with the same grey polo shirt wearing man scrubbing its surface clean with the same bucket of the same soap and water. But on this occasion, everything felt different. Everything felt exotic. And everything felt new.
‘Alright?’ said his friend.
‘Yeah I’m alright. You alright?’ he replied.
‘Yeah, I’m alright.’
‘Right then. Let's give the frisbee a go in the fields on the way to the fayre, shall we?’
‘Fancy a wafer?’
‘What colour you got?’ asked Ferret. The pink wafer was presented outward in his other hand.
‘Pink it is.’ Hywel replied.
‘Aye, I’ll have one ta.’
They ran down the many steps, chewing pink wafers and racing the other within the large expanse of Newbridge Fields. One holding the Frisbee grew in distance from the other: he moved past the cherry tree that produces fruit only the blackbirds indulged in, and drew his hand back before pushing the disc forward into the air. The frisbee spun at pace toward the other boy, who knocked it to the ground with slight panic as it flew towards his head. The frisbee was thrown back from where it came, and back in the other direction after that. In the distant edges of the park, small squads of adolescents kick a ball back and forth. Old women and men wander, with Iceland bags in hand, along designated paths. Dogs run and chase a stick that’s thrown and these two boys move fluidly through the park, passing the spinning plastic disc between one and the other.
‘Sorry sir,’ he said sheepishly to the nearest man dressed in white, ‘d’you reckon we could have it back please?’ He had directed his frisbee towards his friend, but it had taken a dramatic miscue onto the bit of grass where a man dressed in white with a bat in his hand stood in front of some sticks. His friend clenched his teeth, making a peculiar grimace that worried the boy. A few adults sitting in portable garden chairs with magazines on their laps watched the frisbee slowly disrupt the adults’ game. ‘Yes, alright then boy,’ replied the nearest man in white, ‘But be sure not to do it again, do you hear me?’
‘Yes sir, won't do it again, we won't.’
‘This area is designated for the game of cricket.’
‘No other games are to be played here.’
‘And will you promise to leave this area if I give it back?’
'Go on then.’
And with that one of the men dressed in white handed back the frisbee to the young boy who immediately placed it deep into his backpack and suggested to his friend that they both find another path to the fayre. He pointed towards the trees, saying he knew a bridge they could walk over. The two boys meandered between lonely trees in open fields, heading beyond the land of freshly cut grass. One clambered on top of a cold, raw metal cylinder, with hands and knees scrabbling up and down as he tried to keep hold. The small torrent of the Ewenny tributary below threatened to absorb him. ‘Stop it Ferret, mun.’ he demanded, as his friend prodded him with a stick, ‘that’s not funny, is it?’ His friend laughed hysterically. ‘Hurry up, you’re going as slow as my nan.’ Sweat broke on the leader’s back as he limply sprung off the pipe, having survived the makeshift bridge, and landed belly first onto a bed of dead leaves. Laying foot on the littered ground of the previous season’s fold, the boys left the gaze of the sun and the blanket of the blue above for the mottled shade of a dense and mysterious woodland.
Heading towards the clatter and rumble of the road that separates woodland from their destination, the boys scurried through footpaths and over brambled short cuts, choosing to run rather than walk for the sake of wild abandon. Swinging from branches, falling over and laughing at one another, knees quickly grew brown patches of accomplishment. Over the barbed wire fence with wobbly ease, they passed abruptly on from organic coexistence to greyish tarmac with faded yellow stripes on the outer edges. Cars sped past as they braced themselves with buckled knees, holding tight until the right moment came for them to race across the dual carriageway and head further into gated fields along their path. Passing the main road between most of Bridgend on one side and all the different fields that looked the same on the other, they could palpably sense how close they were to their destination.
Stepping carefully to avoid fresh manure on shoe or a disturbance of aggressive golden horse flies rising towards them, the boys were presented with an introduction to the summer fayre. A multicoloured totem pole rose and fell behind the trees at the far end of the field in front of them. Distant screams added excitement for what could soon be theirs. Being a part of a self-elected group of locked in people, forming a band around the metal matchstick swinging fayre ground tower, as it erratically pistoned up and down while flailing far and wide was a desire almost too much for both boys to contain. In the saturating field composed of dense and sticky patches of mud, with the occasional tuft of grass rising through, at least two rugby teams of horses stood between the boys and their destination. Lifting tails up and down, blowing plumes of steam out of their nostrils, and occasionally adding to the ground matter; contrary to the rumble of fayre ground music, the field’s horses were acting like nothing of interest was going on at all. His friend walked up to one of the horses, studying the rich brown and black hairy tufts along its neck. Not yet tall enough to stroke the top of the animal’s head, he decided instead to prod legs and one of its shoulders. The horse puffed in short bursts. The boy with the frisbee in his backpack focused towards reaching their destination, attempting his best to avoid shoes sinking completely into the abyss of murky brown watery ground under foot. Myriad hoof prints punctured the ground, making clean shoes all the more challenging to maintain. Still being prodded, the horse let out a loud, irritable sound and pushed its head forcibly into Ferret’s arm. He stumbled back as the horse's head leaned further into him. Mucus shot out of its nose. Trudging backwards, with the snorting animal following with intent, the friend began to quicken his pace.
A great pack of horses were suddenly running behind him: forty or more wild beasts galloping after his friend. An incredible sight for this young boy, to watch his companion sprint towards him with panic stricken eyes, while he had now made his way through the worst of the mud. His friend let out a whooping, ‘shit,’ and was no more. Only a great density of horses now heading straight for him were in view. They must have squashed him flat. Brown, black, grey four legged animals kicked up an ankle high mist of muddy debris. He began running too. And soon the horses came for him. One to his left. Two to his right. Then a great many in front and in all directions around him. He ran with them for a moment: a wild calm within the storm. Slowing the pace, the animals recollected far beyond him circling the field, to then rest under the canopy of a few oak trees in the periphery. Coughing and spluttering, his companion joined him. He had not been flattened after all. He sighed. Whether their journey happened quite like this was open to debate: they decided this version of events made for much more entertaining a tale when they returned to school later that month, than walking through a field with a few sorry ponies hiding from the sun under a hawthorn shrub.
Climbing over another layer of barbed wire fences, trapped horsehair sailing in the wind, they moved through winding paths and followed the calls from Tom Jones through distant, tinny speakers. Knee-high nettles tried their best to spoil their fun along the way. Stepping over supermarket branded plastic bags, filled with an assortment of banana skins, tin cans and scrunched up toilet paper, their vision of trees broke into fairground stalls, once flamboyant in colour, inhabited by heckling men with accents similar to, but not quite from here. This was a kind of temporary settlement which these boys and these fields had not previously seen, with bearded men, orange skinned women, naked children running in and out of caravans and little terriers chasing one another, yapping as they went. The boys stood in awe at the delights. An open air ball pool, filled to the brim with toddlers fighting each other in a primitive act of survival, was marshalled by a group of peroxide hairdo adorned women, chatting amongst themselves, puffing on fags and watching on as topless tattooed rugby men showed off their latest patches of servere upperbody sunburn.
Top Dai’s Chippy Van offered the inviting smell of deep fried foods that comforted the air. The majority of a burger travelled visibly down the gullet of one lucky seagull, with its previous owner angrily shaking a fist towards the cheeky scavenger. The young boy’s friend whispered into his ear as they walked up towards the metal box that exuded satisfying smells of grease and cooking fat. The young boy took a glance at the 85p cost of a bacon butty, and wondered if he could make enough later on to pay for his dinner.
‘Would you take twenty five pee for a bacon butty,’ Ferret shouted out towards the metal box.
‘No.’ replied the box.
‘What about thirty five pence?’ shouted the young boy in reply.
‘Piss off lads, is it?’ said the box.
‘You’re rubbish, you are,’ the young boy shouted.
His friend held an expression between shock and surprise, and with their newfound ecstasy of attack the boys ran off around & through the maze of corroded penny stalls and penitentiary animal pens. A boy their age, whom they did not recognise, sported a haircut style which they had never seen before. They stopped in awe at this new cut. Both questioned where it could have come from and whether or not it would gain them positive credentials if they got that cut too. The boy with the strange new haircut, at that moment, was pissing on the only sheep in a small pen: considerately swaying from side to side to make sure all of the sheep was covered. The sheep, lying in the shade provided by a large rumbling speaker, barely acknowledged this happening. It lifted its head and exhaled a quiet bleat before dropping its head back onto the ground. A first prize rosette lay half visible under the forlorn animal’s body. The boy, seemingly with a lot of piss to give, carried on the sheep’s shower as our two moved towards a tent of penny slots. The tent blazed crackling pop music that seemed strangely familiar yet still unidentifiable to everyone in hearing range.
From a woman with a face that had forgotten the muscular movements necessary to produce a smile and who dwelt in a plastic booth that appeared smaller than her own contorted form, the boys exchanged their twenty pence pieces for a pot each of aged penny coins. All were to be pushed into the gregarious, strobe-light flashing slot machines that filled the tent. An alluring sea of one and two pence pieces gyrating temptingly back and forth whispered into the boys’ ears as to what incredible fortunes awaited them, with worn plastic dolls and crumpled five-pound notes lying dormant on top of the thick layer of pennies to sweeten the deal.
At calculated moments, the boys dropped their pennies into slots and watched with deep concentration as their small circles landed directly on top of a great pile of incarcerated ones. Only the slightest of consequential movements to the great pile were observed. They dropped their penies to very little avail. With a timing learnt through his short experience of losing, he released one of his last remaining monetary objects into the flashing portal. It danced its way seductively towards the festival of brown medallions of similar worth. This coin forced all others to move. An immediate clang, crash and wallop met the winner’s dish below and between his legs, a torrent of pennies began to flow. Most exciting of all, a sealed packet of Benson & Butler cigarettes broke free from the cage and into his possession. Looking around nervously in case an adult was about to confiscate his winnings, he fished out handfuls of his earnings and shoved them immediately into his jeans pockets.
Stationed on another penny island, Ferret was unaware of his success and was engrossed in the efforts of his own game. His last penny exited his ownership and clattered into the gyrating machine. The young boy hurried over to his accomplice, and in expectance of awe and wonder, uncurled two handfuls of pennies.
‘Got the mother load.’ he gloated.
He dropped the coins back into his pocket to then reveal a corner of the sealed packet of fags. ‘Jammy bugger,’ exclaimed his companion.
He told his friend with an earned authority that they were now too vulnerable in public: they had to find a secluded spot to discuss their newfound opportunities. And so, with the glee of the bear getting away with the beehive’s honey, they scurried off around the back of the penny marque.
In the darkened space between stalls, tents and caravans, he decanted handfuls of winnings into the cupped hands of his ally. Heady excitement of their elevated financial status led to their guard being dropped. And as if on cue, a threatening voice cast a shadow over them, ‘alright, boys, what have we got here then?’ The two boys took on the roles of a pair of mice caught stealing the cheese. Their ears immediately detected the dangers of a valleys’ accent: being a full nasal octave higher than the register they were used to. Behind the threatening voice looming over them, two more taller boys with pierced ears and scratched faces, all in adidas-striped uniform, took away the remaining daylight. The younger boys hid their hands behind their backs, but with every slight shuffling movement their pockets clinked to the sound of expendable cash. Further behind the older boys, a taller girl wearing a faded white jogging top and bottom looked on with indifference etched on her face. As she leaned on the grimey side of a traveller’s caravan, her mouth both masticated and puffed on the end of a fag.
The leader was significantly taller than the two Bridgend boys and appeared gangly and pale, wearing a burberry cap under the arc of a hood, with green stains on his elbows. He addressed his young captives, ‘so then boys, what are we doing where we shouldn’t be?’ The lack of grammatical coherence troubled the young boys momentarily. A glance to each other aside, they saw no benefit in questioning it any further. Behind the lead aggressor, the two henchmen acted as props to further confirm his control. One was distinctly rectangular and the other had an elongated form. Both wore crazed, cherubic grins and after each of their leader’s sentences, short bursts of nervous laughter shot out from their mouths. ‘Well? Shouldn’t you two be with ma and pa?’ the leader asked. The two boys nodded their heads in unison. ‘Little boys like you could get into trouble in places like this, couldn’t they?’ The two boys nodded their heads again. ‘So boys, you got any presents for us?’
Silence lengthened their time together. Being slightly further away from the leader’s reach, the young boy’s friend took a few backward steps, spun around and promptly ran off as fast as he could. Suffice it to say, he did not look back. The sound of pennies clinking together in his trouser pockets grew distant and, soon after, disappeared altogether. The hyenas’ howls filled the space between penny tents and caravans. The young boy had been deserted and so the leader leaned in. ‘Looks like you’ve been left on your own now, big boy.’ The hyenas howled.
Staring deeply into the worn plastic cover of the penny slot tent, the girl behind the remaining four boys pulled death casually towards her through the tobacco cylinders she was quite fond of. Her middle and forefinger tanned a degree further towards a permanent leathery yellow. She scratched at a chipped nail before speaking out in the young boy’s defence. ‘Leave him go Levi,’ she said.
‘What you on about now, Kirst?’ replied the leader, ‘we’re just having a bit of fun, aren’t we butt?’ The leader slapped the young boy’s shoulder as the latter flinched on contact.
‘So, butt ... what was you and your little mate sharing out then?’
‘Nothing,’ he mumbled, ‘ just some iced gems it was.’
‘Oh, is it now butt?’
‘Think we’re stupid, does you?’ The leader of the group stood over the young boy, casting a darkened shadow over his form.
‘Hand over the cash now, there’s a good boy,’ he calmly demanded.
‘Ah naw mun, I won this money fair and square. This isn’t fair.’ the young boy whined.
‘Life’s not fair, is it?’
The young boy dug his hands deep into his penny laden pockets and fished out handfuls of his treasure. With an outstretched finger, the leader signalled for his henchmen to take the offering from the young boy. He cupped the pieces of his brief lottery winnings and poured them into the unwashed hands of the two spotty henchmen.
‘Must be at least a pound here boss,’ the more rectangular of the henchmen said.
‘Right then, pleasure doing business with you good boy,’ said the leader.
‘Aye boss, good business acumen it is,’ the rectangular one continued.
‘What are you going on about?’
Irritation made its way onto the leader’s face.
‘What do you mean, boss?’
‘I means what I says, mun. What you doing saying stuff like… what was it?’ the leader continued.
‘Business acumen, boss,’ the rectangular boy replied, ‘well boss... see boss... it is… erm, it was a wise financial choice on the part of this little knobhead here, weren’t it?’
‘I don’t know what you’re going on about now.’
‘Was just saying, boss,’ he mumbled.
‘Aye. Well, be careful with your big words in future, is it mister doctor expert?’
‘Business acumen?’ the leader stared at the ground for a prolonged moment, ‘what’s it mean, then?’
‘Erm... well boss it’s like, you know when we nicked Sweaty Kevin’s bag?’ the henchman continued, ‘remember that, when we found his birthday money from his nanna?’
‘Well, it was good business acumen on our part to nick the bag full of his nanna’s money, see?’
‘Right. Got you,’ the leader said, ‘but still, I don’t want words like that being chatted about with me in charge, understand boy?’
‘Yes boss. Got you, boss,’ said the boy returning to his correct place in the hierarchy.
Whilst the principles of bullying continued to be played out, the young boy had been carefully shuffling away. He held his breath, readying himself for a stealthy getaway. Placing another step sideways, he saw his escape as he whistled to freedom around and out of the caravan corridors and into the bustling groups of people trying to knock over coconuts all with the ambition of taking home a goldfish. As he did so, he nervously trod up and down on top of a pile of filled plastic bags and the noise he made brought him back into the bully’s distracted attention. ‘Oi! Butt! Where’s you going then?’ The young boy with big panicked eyes through his thick glasses frames, froze again. He shook his head in apology. ‘Not wanting to leave, I hope?’ the leader exclaimed, ‘we don't want to say goodbye just yet, do we boys?’ The young boy was still shaking his head. ‘Naw,’ came from them, parrot fashion.
The leader picked up his accusatory passion, ‘Oh Kirst. What do you reckon we do with the boy, then?’ A beige bubble inflated and burst from the girl's mouth. Having absorbed the nutrients out of another fag and flattened it into the ground by the sole of her shoe, she pushed herself upright off of the algae coated caravan and walked over to the gang of taller boys with the one nervous, younger boy. As she came closer, Adam's apples protruded forward, stomachs were sucked in and arm muscles were tensed. She spoke in quick monosyllabic bursts.
‘Look mun. He’s only small. You got his cash, ain’t you? What else you gonna do now, Levi?’
‘He might have more presents,’ the leader replied, ‘for all we knows.’ She looked at him with mild disappointment on her face, and turned to the young boy who was still hemmed in by the two henchmen.
‘What else you got in your pockets, en lovely?’ she asked.
‘Nothing,’ he said.
‘Sure, butt,’ said the leader.
‘Probably for the best love, if you give me something nice,’ she said with a gentle smile. The three taller boys leaned in and stole the very last drop of daylight between their frames. He knew he had no other choice. His hand went down into his pocket and pulled out the plastic sealed packet of Benson & Hedges.
‘Aww, fags is it?’ the leader cried. ‘That’s a better present than pennies now, isn’t it butt?’
‘Well, aren’t you a sweetheart,’ she said, immediately squeezing his cheek. His face burst red.
‘You’ve gone made the poor little boy go all red Kirst, you have,’ the leader exclaimed. The three bullies howled. She moved closer towards the young boy. Algaed caravans framed her portrait.
‘Smoking isn't a good idea, see lovely. Let me take them off you, you don't wanna start smoking now, does you?’
‘But I won them,’ he protested, ‘they’re mine.’
‘Well, that’s fair enough,’ she replied, ‘but you’re too young to be smoking, see? And I’ve almost run out of fags.’
‘Go on butt, there's a good boy, give them to the pretty girl, is it?’ the leader said.
He accepted defeat, and after a brief moment cradling the plastic edges of the cigarette packet, passed it over to the girl, who stuffed them into the shiny handbag that hung from her shoulder. The girl took a few steps backwards, and in exchange, the leader stepped forward and lurched his face up close into the boy’s. Through fear, he continued to avert his gaze, choosing to inspect the tarpaulin and meandering woodlice below. ‘That’s a nice t-shirt he’s got on,’ said the rectangular bully. A twitch formed on the young boy’s left eyebrow. The moment shook like a rupturing eardrum. ‘Aye, I like them jeans he’s wearing too,’ said the tall one. Between the vast hues of blue, wisps of whitish grey rolled on by. Noises from different stands collected together, losing all coherency.
The moment, in its brooding silence, was lengthening too long for the continued interest of the three bullies. They began pushing one another. The rectangular one found himself in the headlock of the leader, exhaling with reddened concern. The long one, with a marker pen in hand, drew onto the surface of the caravan wall a small phallic diagram squirting out little black dashes. ‘Shall we get back to business then boys?’ the leader asked. The young boy looked on with panic. The rectangular one, still trapped in his leader’s bind, saw along the track of litter and puddles between the backs of tents and caravans in the distance, an opportunity for freedom crouched. ‘Oh. Look over there boys.’ They turned their attention towards a crouched figure: an older woman in the semi-distance, who had a small line of liquid shooting out between her folded legs. ‘There’s a woman pissing,’ the rectangular one shouted as he struggled to breathe in the leader’s headlock. They all burst out laughing. The distant woman, alert to an audience from their heckling laughter, appeared to drag a plastic traffic cone in front of her to try to avoid being seen. The young boy squinted at the crouched woman in disbelief.
‘Mum,’ he shouted. She called back, the liquid line still between her legs, ‘what the hell are you doing there, son?’ Panic entered the older boys faces.
‘Shit boys, we’ve been rumbled’ the header wailed.
‘Leg it before his mam finishes her piss.’ The rectangular and the lanky had already begun running off down the labyrinthine passages between the array of decaying caravans.
‘Don't be telling anyone about this now, good boy. Right?’ The good boy nodded. The leader ran off with the girl down their well trodden escape routes, both with cigarettes in mouth, and were quickly out of sight.
Pulling up her trousers, further along the fairground’s back alley, the young boy’s mother struggled for choice between anger or embarrassment. He ran towards her, tears running from his eyes. Away from the puddle she has created, his mother held her little boy’s folded body as he cried away his concerns. She spoke suggestions of brambles, blackberry picking and crumble with custard. He replied with a sniffling nose and a nod of the head. ‘Come on then,’ she said, ‘let's go meet dad, he’s finding out who won best jam this year.’ His head nodded again. She lifted him up as he wiped his nose with her cardigan. Between the algae green canvas tents and away from the penny slots marque, they walked towards the brambles and blackberries.