The Angel’s Head: Chapter 1 -- The Citadel
The Youngest stood at the base of the tree and looked up.
The tree was a Sycamore. It was twice as tall as the houses. Where the trunk finished and the big branches started, it was higher than the roofs. Right at that point you could see the rough planks that made the walls of the tree house. A grown up might notice that there were nails hammered in to the trunk but probably wouldn’t see that they were placed higher and higher in a crooked spiral all the way to the first branch.
‘Never call it a tree house. It’s not a bloody tree house. If the Elders hear you calling it a tree house, they’ll throw you in the nettles.’
‘What is it then?’
‘It’s the Citadel.’
‘Wow.’ The Youngest didn’t know what a Citadel was. But it sounded to him like a Wizard's castle, and that was good enough.
He looked at the ground. There was a scattering of leaves and some small stones but mainly it was dark soil. The soil was soft - if someone pushed you over into it or if you fell off a bike – as long as you missed the stones. Sometimes there were bits of broken glass, but he couldn’t see any around the bottom of the tree. Then he let his gaze rise, from the broad roots up and up.
The Citadel was ten times higher than his bedroom window, maybe a hundred times? Mum said that if he fell out of his bedroom window then he would be dead. Did that mean that if he fell out of the tree he would be a hundred times dead? He wondered if that was worse than just ordinary dead. He remembered touching Richard’s cat after it had been found dead. It was all cold and hard. It had frightened him but he hadn’t said anything to Richard. That cat was just ordinary dead. Not a hundred times dead.
‘I don’t want to.’
‘If you can’t get into the Citadel, then you can’t be in the gang. That’s the rule.’
The Youngest looked hard at the tree - really looked. The bark wasn’t even rough like some trees and it was covered with slippy green stuff. The first branches were higher than the wires of the telegraph poles. That was how high his bedroom window was. He had looked at those wires up close when his brother had dared him to climb out of the window and walk along on the ledge to touch the wires. He did it even though he was worried about electric, but his brother said it couldn’t be electric otherwise it would shock you when you picked up the phone. It didn’t hurt when he touched the wire and he didn’t die because he didn’t fall.
‘James, will you show me?’
‘Don’t call me James.’ James said.
‘Why not?’ ‘If you want to get in the gang you have to use gang names remember?’
James looked very serious when he explained about gang stuff. He was about a year older than the Youngest and about half the size of the bigger boys in the gang but he could run fast and was good at riding his bike. He could wheelie right down the Avenue. And even though he didn’t have his own skateboard he could still ride a borrowed one fast down the big hill that went down into the main road. He did it once even though nobody was at the bottom checking for cars. James had black hair and skin that always looked a bit dirty. Not brown or anything, just sort of dirty looking. The Youngest looked pale standing next to James, even though he was dirty looking too. But his dirt washed off every Sunday and left a grey ring around the bath after he pulled the plug out.
‘So what is your gang name again?’
”Jimbo” James said.
‘And I’m “Youngest”,’ said the Youngest .
‘You’re THE Youngest, until you get up to the Citadel, yes.’
‘What will I be then?’ asked the Youngest.
‘I dunno. That’s up to the Eldest.’
‘Ok,’ the Youngest took a deep breath, ‘I’ll do it but you’ve got to show me how.’
‘Now?’ James looked surprised.
‘Do you think we should wait?’
‘No, but I thought you might be chicken.’
‘I’m not chicken! I get higher than anyone on the garden tree.’
‘That’s an easy tree. You just get higher cos you’re smaller and don’t make the thin branches bend so much.’
‘Yeh, well I’m still the highest and that makes me a not-chicken.’
The Youngest was really angry. He wanted to punch James but he didn’t want to get punched back. Instead he screwed up his hands as tight as they would go and pushed his fingernails into his hands.
‘Ok.’ James held up his hands, pretending that he didn’t want to get punched either.
‘We can climb now if you want. But you’ve got to promise two things.’
‘What?’ ‘Promise that you won’t cry if you get scared.’
‘And promise that you won’t tell if you fall.’
‘I’d be dead if I fell, so I couldn’t tell anyway.’
‘Your ghost could tell.’ ‘I won’t tell, I promise.’
‘What about your ghost?’
‘He won’t tell either.’
‘Brilliant.’ James said, then sort of spat on his hands and rubbed them together. ‘Just follow me and you’ll be alright.’
The Eldest was sitting in his yard. He had come outside to start taking his bike apart and clean up the chrome. There were rust spots on the wheels and the chain was gritty again. What was the point of having the best bike on the avenue if it was left to go rotten? Jimbo had a rusty old bike that he just left lying in the mud. Every time the Eldest saw it, it made him wince. When he tried to have a word with Jimbo about it, the cheeky little sod just challenged everyone to a wheelie contest. The Eldest smiled at the thought. His own bike was way too heavy to wheelie properly but he loved to cruise around, especially when the sun was out making it shine.
‘I won’t tell, I promise.’ ‘What about your ghost?’ ‘He won’t tell either.’
The spanners were all laid out neatly just like his Dad had shown him. There were eight of them, starting with the smallest: an quarter inch, then getting bigger by a sixteenth of an inch at a time up to an inch. His Dad had another set of spanners marked in millimetres and some bigger ones too, but they were for the car so the Eldest knew not to touch them. Each of the spanners was placed carefully on an oily rag. The rag stopped the spanners going rusty. There was a square piece of hardboard under the rag that stopped the rag picking up grit from the floor. He had made sure that the rag was neatly stretched out on the oily side of the board. The other side always went on the ground. That way the gritty side never got mixed up with the oily side.
The Eldest didn’t like things getting mixed up or dirty. This was something he had learned from his Dad. His Dad liked things just right and he didn’t like to have to tell anyone twice. The Eldest knew what happened when you got grit in the oil. He touched at his cheek gently, remembering the time this Dad had made him understand better.
‘You see? Do you understand? Oil is to make it run smoothly! Is that smooth? Does that feel smooth to you?’
‘on my oil cloth?’
With each pause, the Father had rubbed back and forth with a relentless pressure. The Eldest could clearly remember the sharp little stones grazing at his cheek and the sting of oil and then salt as the skin opened up just a little, but in so many places.
‘Sorry? Don’t be bloody sorry! There’s no point being sorry. Be more careful. Then you won’t have to be sorry.’
‘I won’t do it again.
‘That’s right.’ The Father had released the pressure and pulled the rag from his son’s face. Then he had reached into his tool bag and fished out a clean cloth. He started wiping at the dirt and blood on the boy’s cheek, almost as hard as before.
‘Are you crying? You...’ and the rubbing became more violent.
‘No Dad,’ he had lied. ‘There’s some dust in my eye.’
‘Well, that’s alright then. Go and get yourself cleaned up before your Mother gets home.’ The Father straightened up.
‘That looks nasty son.’ His tone had changed completely and there was almost a concern amongst the gruff.
‘Did you fall off your bike?’
‘You know to be more careful now don’t you?’
‘Go on then. Use plenty of soap and a little bit of Dettol or something.’
He looked down at the rags in his hand: One was blackened, the other was clean but for a smudge of grey and a few flecks of red. ‘I’ll get rid of these. They’re no use to me now.’
The Eldest shook his head to eject the memory. He didn’t like thoughts that caused confusion. They were messy. He looked at the cloth and the spanners and at the rust spots on the wheel. Things got messed up if you didn’t keep on working at them. You always had to make sure you knew what was going on, otherwise the rust would spread. Then what would happen? The best bike on the Avenue would just be another bike; left in the rain and mud to rot.
‘Keep going.’ Jimbo hissed through gritted teeth. He had reached reached the last of the nails, and above him and to the right, a branch blocked the route. The branch stuck straight out for a few feet then bent upwards. It looked as thick as a grown-up’s waist, but a normal grown-up - not like Mrs Hopkinson.
‘Stop there Youngest and watch. This is the tricky bit: you need to hold on to the right hand nail with your left hand. See?’
‘Yep.’ The Youngest managed to answer even though his lungs felt tight. ‘Then put both feet on the same nail like this. Then...’ Jimbo took a breath and shouted: ‘Swing!’
The Youngest watched as Jimbo’s right arm curled around the branch and the rest of him seemed to follow without any effort, as if he’d been yanked up and away by a tree sprite.
‘How did you do that?’
‘Just like I just showed you.’
‘I still don’t know how.’
‘Just keep going until you get to the branch. You’re doing brilliant.’ Jimbo didn’t usually say nice things like that and to the Youngest, it seemed that the kindness was warming his tired, cramped fingers and making them strong again.
‘Okay.’ And suddenly he was directly under the big branch and Jimbo was leaning right over the walls of the Citadel and murmuring encouragement and directions. The Youngest shifted his left hand onto the right nail and let go with his right hand as he was told, even though it felt like he could fall at any time.
Jimbo’s tone changed: ‘Time to go!’
The words acted almost like a bunk up and without thinking he swung his arm around the branch. There must be something to grab up there. He didn’t know exactly but Jimbo wouldn’t let him fall. His hand found an easy grip. So easy. it was as if he was hugging the branch and the tree itself was lifting him into place.
Then he was there. He had made it. He would soon have a new name.
About the author
Russell McAlpine abandoned his polymath ambitions to concentrate on writing and living a quiet life on the South Coast.
The Angel’s Head is his second novel.
He is also working on the screen play of a low budget zombie movie for children and writes poetry that will go to grave with him.
He spends the rest of his spare time watching the horizon.
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