THE ANGEL'S HEAD: CHAPTER 15 -- Sunday
Sunday was hot. Worse than Saturday even, with low slow clouds that seemed to be letting the heat of the sun through, then holding on to it. All the grown-ups had been talking about a thunderstorm coming and Noj was laughing because his Mum had insisted he bring a coat out with him. ‘So I can either get soaked by the rain, or drown in my own sweat,’ he said.
The Youngest was excited by the idea of a storm. He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but there seemed to be a crackle in the air. Was that an electrical build up, or the anticipation of getting caught up in a real-life fight?
‘Shall we make some water bombs?’ Purr-man asked when they had all arrived at the back wall.
‘Don’t be dim,’ said Sparrow. ‘We can’t carry them around all day.’
‘Besides,’ the Eldest said, ‘the time for water bombs has passed.’ He stood astride his bike and pounded his fist into his palm.
After the cheers had died down, Mouse spoke.
‘Where to then?’
‘Down to the canal first,’ The Eldest said, ‘along to the Severn Arches then back through the woods in a big circle.’ Everyone nodded. ‘We’ll come back through the cemetery. If we don’t find them on that route, then we can maybe head into town. Ok?’
‘Yeh but there’s no point going into town.’ Purr-man said. ‘Everywhere will be shut.’
‘And the Crescent wouldn’t be there anyway,’ Sparrow said, ‘they’re too poor to buy anything.’
‘They could always go shoplifting.’ The Eldest said. ‘That’s their family business isn’t it?’ He smirked as everyone else giggled, then he pushed forward and set off on his bike. There was no creaking or clanking, just a smooth ticking from the gears and hum of the tyres on tarmac as he glided away. Everyone else followed. It wasn’t difficult to catch the Eldest up, he always rode at a stately cruising pace as if he was a Prince being chauffeured through his kingdom.
Two hours later they stopped in the cemetery. It was even hotter but there was still no sign of rain. Mouse and Noj had brought bottles of water with them, but they were the only ones who had. They were happy to share but that meant there wasn’t much to go round. By the time they arrived the water was long gone and they were all thirsty, fractious and fed up. They were close to the gate by the river where new graves were being dug and a lot of the shiny marble headstones still had fresh flowers beside them. There was a standpipe here that visitors could use to keep the flowers alive. Every day people would arrive with more and dump the old ones in a big wire litter bin to mingle with crisp packets and cider bottles. It was a way of measuring time that had stopped for the permanent residents. The boys drained the two bottles, refilled them and passed them on. Slowly everyone got to drink as much as they wanted.
‘No sign of the Crescent here.’ Purr-man said.
‘Let’s go to the rope swing next.’ The Eldest said. He was really sweating in the heat. He poured the best part of the whole bottle of water over his head before handing the empty to Purr-man.
‘Oh, thanks for that.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You just gave me an empty bottle!’
‘So? Go fill it up!’
‘Why don’t you fill it up? You’re the one who just wasted it, like some selfish greedy fa….’
Purr-man didn’t see the punch coming. The Eldest fist slammed into the side of Purr-man’s head, just above his ear and he was on the ground before the rest of the gang knew what was happening. The Eldest was standing over him.
‘Never…..’ the Eldest kicked and Purr-man curled up to try to protect himself.
Jimbo was quickest to react. He didn’t even shout he just piled into the Eldest’s ribs as he swung his foot a third time. Already off balance, the Eldest nearly ended up in the gravel too, but he took a stumble sideways then regained his balance, wheeled around and came back with both fists swinging. Jimbo, alert and nimble, skipped sideways and backwards out of reach. The contrast was startling, the Eldest was twice Jimbo’s size and it looked all wrong that these two could be getting ready to fight. At that moment though, the Eldest didn’t care about appearances. Bright red and breathing heavily, his eyes had taken on a glazed look. He stepped over Purr-man, moving again towards a retreating Jimbo.
Mouse and Sparrow stepped forwards, as if they had rehearsed the move. Sparrow stood in front of Jimbo, but it was Mouse who faced the Eldest. Purr-man was sobbing. His arms were covering his head and his knees were drawn up to his chest. A stone vase had been knocked over when he fell and the ground around him was scattered with red and white plastic roses.
‘Don’t you ever!’ The Eldest screamed. He seemed to be shouting at nobody in particular or maybe at everyone. He moved towards Mouse with those dangerous fists still clenched.
Mouse stood his ground.
‘We’re a gang.’ Mouse said. ‘You’re our leader.’
‘Yeah, and I’m…’
‘You can’t do that though.’ Sparrow said. He looked over at where Noj was helping Purr-man up from the mess of roses and blue marble chippings.
‘I can do whatever I ….’
‘No!’ Mouse shouted him down. Mouse never shouted. There was silence. The Eldest looked stunned. So did everyone else.
They all looked from one to the other, waiting for Mouse to speak. It would have to be good or those fists were going to start swinging again. Jimbo caught the Youngest’s eye and he nodded. They silently agreed that if the Eldest started on Mouse then they had already chosen whose side they were on. The Youngest wasn’t sure what they would do about it, but whatever Jimbo did, he would join in, no matter what.
‘You’re our leader,’ Mouse spoke in a clear, calm tone, ‘but you can’t push us around like that.’
The Eldest took another step forward. He was too angry to speak. Mouse held his ground.
‘It’s like the Army,’ Mouse said. ‘The soldiers follow the rules, but the officers have rules of command too. Officers and men,’ he paused and gestured around him. The rest of the gang were listening intently. ‘If any one of them goes against those rules, then the whole thing breaks down. If that happens then the army turns into a mob.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Then it’s just a bunch of nasty bullies. I’m not going to be a part of that.’
‘Nor me,’ said Sparrow.
‘Nor me,’ said Jimbo and the others repeated the words in a sort of chorus. The Youngest almost shouted and his high voice rang out louder than everyone else. When the Eldest glanced in his direction his heart almost stopped.
The Eldest didn’t speak. He picked up the bottle that Purr-man had dropped. Then he walked with a purposeful stride to the standpipe. He turned the tap and refilled the bottle letting the water overflow and pour over his hand. Then he walked back to the gang. Everyone was standing closer to Mouse. Purr-man was back on his feet and Sparrow had an arm around his shoulder.
‘Sorry.’ The Eldest handed Purr-man the water. ‘That was unacceptable..’ he faltered then took a deep breath, ‘an unacceptable breach of discipline.’ He seemed to warm to the military jargon. It gave him a way out – a way to back down but still remain in command.
‘Jimbo,’ the Eldest said, ‘that was very brave of you. Well done.’ Then he nodded stiffly and Jimbo did the same, even though it seemed to the Youngest that he stayed on his toes, ready to spring if necessary.
‘You alright?’ The Eldest asked Purr-man. He nodded and took a glug, letting the water spill from the bottle over his chin. Then he wiped his mouth and the rest of his face with the back of his hand and smeared away the tears and spilled water together.
The Crescent gang weren’t at the rope swing and they weren’t on the back road. They didn’t ever go on the back road, apart from that one time when they had given the message to Jimbo and the Youngest. There was no point even going up there, but there they did. The Eldest huffed and blustered for a while and then, without making any announcement, he freewheeled down the hill and turned the bike right, into his own yard leaving the rest of the gang staring after him.
‘Does he want us to follow?’ Purr-man asked.
‘Go home,’ said Mouse.
Jimbo looked across at the Youngest, who shrugged. Then he nodded in the direction of his own house.
It was still hot and they sat outside where the yard was still in the shade and leaned against the cool stone of the kitchen wall.
‘Well, that was crap.’ Jimbo said. He took a glug from a big Tupperware cup of orange squash. It was nice stuff that didn’t taste of dust or catch in the throat. The Youngest’s Mum had even put ice cubes in and they made a dull sort of clunk against the plastic of the cup and tickled his top lip as he drank.
‘I thought he was going to kill Purr-man.’ The Youngest squeaked slightly as he spoke, then it rose even higher, as if fear had raised the pitch of his voice. ‘Then I thought he was going to kill you.’
‘So did I.’ Jimbo said. He said it quietly though.
‘So, what did you do it for?’ The squeak had gone from the Youngest’s voice. Instead there was a tone of amazement, or maybe admiration.
‘Purr-man hadn’t done anything to deserve that and I wanted to stop him getting hurt for nothing.’
‘I’d already run into him by the time I’d thought about it. Then when I saw his face…’
‘And his fists!’
‘Yeah, those too. Well maybe if I’d thought about it first, I wouldn’t have done it. At that moment, to be honest, I wished I hadn’t.’
They both laughed and then took another drink.
‘You would have been alright.’ The Youngest said.
‘Yeh. If he was going to thump you, he would have had to catch you first.’
‘I suppose. There were two good reasons to move quickly; one at each end of his arms.’ More laughter.
‘I dunno Youngest…’
‘Don’t call me that.’
‘”Youngest”, “Young ‘Un”. I’m fed up of it. It’s stupid. I want a proper name.
‘That’s the Eldest’s job.’
‘Yeh well,’ The Youngest paused and took a breath. ‘It’s also his job to not go around beating up his own gang.’ He stared ahead, slightly scared of what he had just said out loud. Jimbo looked at him and grinned.
‘Well said “Boy with No Name”.’
‘Oh no! That’s even worse.’
‘All right then Youngest,’ Jimbo was still smiling. ‘You’ll have to wait.’
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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