Do you remember that summer? You know, the one where it was so hot you used to run back into the house and stand on tiptoe to reach over the sink so you could manage to put your mouth directly under the tap. The one when Tommy Jones got knocked over by the ice cream van and we all got to visit him in hospital with our hair gelled down flat and the fat nurse smelled like the soap in the school toilets.
Well, that’s the one I’m on about. That was the one when I discovered death for the first time. I couldn’t understand it at first and me and Billy Jenkins just stood side by side for ages, looking down at the velvet clad corpse. We probably would have stood there an age more as well until Fatty Thomas barged through to see what we were staring at.
‘Worrisit?’ he asked, poking the body with a stick.
‘A mouse,’ said I.’
‘A mole,’ corrected Billy.
‘Wossa mole?’ I asked.
‘It’s like a mouse but lives underground eating worms.’ said Billy.
Billy had always been the clever one, and his mam said one day he was going to be a doctor. His dad even had a car and once, right, in the holidays he took me and Billy to the boating park to have a go on the row boats. It was brill, and me and Billy had a water fight till his dad shouted at us.
‘Worms!’ shouted Fatty Thomas, That’s deesgusting.’
‘How do you know?’ I asked, the words already out before I had time to think of the consequences.
‘Coz they are,’ shouted Fatty Thomas, cuffing me around the head, and that was that.
Fatty Thomas always had the last word in the playground. This was his domain, his territory and he prowled the glass strewn tarmac like a lion protecting his pride. He wasn’t all bad back then, as long as you were willing to be searched for sweets and gave up the swing when he demanded, you were usually fine, but cross him and you were likely to be beaten up. I lost count how many times my mam marched down to his house to have a row with his mam when Fatty had made my nose bleed.
That was funny when the grown-ups argued, and when they were shouting in the street, me and Fatty would go up to his room and watch them out of the window. My dad never came though, coz it wouldn’t have been fair, Fatty didn’t have a dad, well, he did, sort of. It was just that he lived with the pretty lady at the end of the street who wore the small dresses and the skinny wellies. He wasn’t allowed into Fatty’s house any more, ever since he hit Fatty’s mam for calling the pretty lady a tart.
Fatty Thomas bent down and picked up the Mole by the tail, dangling it front of us as we all inspected it in minute detail.
‘Look at its eyes,’ I whispered, ‘They are shut real tight.’
‘That’s coz it’s dead, you nutter,’ said Fatty. A tirade of abuse would surely have followed but for the timely intervention of Billy pointing out the pink paws.
‘Look at his hands,’ he said, ‘They are the same as ours.’
As Billy leant forward Fatty Thomas swung the recently deceased mole into his face, and burst into laughter as Billy screamed like a girl. Within seconds Fatty Thomas was chasing Billy Jenkins around the playground laughing at his victim’s terror.
‘I’m gonna make you eat worms,’ shouted Fatty Thomas, and chased Billy out of the park. I was horrified, surely not even Fatty Thomas would make anyone eat worms, it was against the law!’ I hurried after them, not quite sure what it was I could do to prevent it, but Billy was my mate after all.
That had been fifty years ago, and here I was, half a century older, sat on my own swing, in my own back garden, nursing the answer to my nightmares. A place of quiet and solitude where the likes of Fatty Thomas were forbidden, A place to recall sunburn summers and snowman winters, looking back to the days of innocence when the threat of being made to eat worms, made a boy’s face freeze in time.
I wonder what he would have looked like? Would he have grey hair like me, or would he be bald like Fatty Thomas? I would never know, I could only ever recall the Billy Jenkins that I knew back then. The clever seven year old who was going to be a doctor. I bet he would have made a great doctor, given the chance, perhaps even specialising in this growth that was consuming my innards.
‘No more radiotherapy,’ the doctors had said.
‘No more chemotherapy,’ I had decided.
‘Make your peace with God,’ the priest would have said, had I been religious.
I bet Billy Jenkins wouldn’t have given up. I bet he would have cured me, had he grown up to be a doctor. But he hadn’t grown up. He had slid under that bus almost gracefully, though there was no grace in the way his body was carried up into the wheel arch by the giant tyres. This time it was Fatty Thomas and me that stared at a body, our young minds not quite comprehending the consequences.
‘It’s your fault, ‘I said, ‘You were chasing him.’
‘No I wasn’t,’ said Fatty.
‘You were going to make him eat worms,’ I said, ‘You can go to jail for that.’
‘I wasn’t,’ shouted Fatty, and grabbed me by my collar.
‘Don’t you tell on me, four eyes,’ he said, his voice more threatening than I had ever heard it before, ‘Coz if you do, I will say it was you who dunnit,’ and just in case that wasn’t enough threat, he threw in the one thing he knew always worked with me, ‘And I’ll smash your face in as well.’
I was a coward then, and am a coward still so the story we told the policeman was one of an innocent game of chase. No mention of moles or worms, just a childhood accident. A tiny white lie that turned into a lifetime’s burden and one that I was reminded of every time I passed Fatty Thomas’s house on the way to the accountancy. Every time one of his brood scratched my car, or smashed my windows, I wished I had been stronger. But for fifty years I had been weak. Fifty years of turning the other cheek and ignoring the taunts of the bully of my youth, gradually replaced with those of his sons.
But that was about to change. Two months was the prognosis, two months until I saw Billy again. But first there was something I had to do. Something I had promised myself fifty years ago when I had looked down into Billy’s grave, holding my mam’s hand. Something that I had put off till now.
I peered through the conifer hedge, seeing Fatty Thomas’s four by four skid into his drive and I knew that this was it and at last, I would actually carry it out. This was my time. He couldn’t hurt me anymore and I had nothing more to lose. It was time he paid the price for killing my best friend.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said to Billy in my mind, ‘this time, he’s the one who’s gonna get his face smashed in.’
I slid the cartridge into the chamber of the shotgun and snapped the barrel upwards before marching out of the garden like John Wayne.
‘My name is Spotty four-eyes,’ I said out loud, ‘And nobody makes my friend eat worms.’