The Angel’s Head: Chapter 2 -- Top of the Tree
The Youngest, excited and breathless, started to gabble.
‘Am I in the gang now? Can I come up here any time I want? This is brilliant, we’re so high....
And then his words ran out as the blood in his ears and the thump in his chest quietened too. They were very, very high. Right up in the trees, almost looking down at the roofs. He could see into all the gardens, even the Hopkinsons’ who guarded their lawn with high fences and the threat of shears to burst any stray footballs that might land in their flower bed. Now that the Youngest could see down there, he didn’t know why they bothered. Their grass was the scruffiest of the lot. Maybe they were ashamed of it? Maybe it was easier to build a fence than buy a new lawnmower.
It made it sound as if what he had been asked to do was serious, and difficult, like joining the army or starting at big schoolHe could see over some of the roofs too, to the houses on the far side of the canal and river. Those houses seemed to crouch against the hillside. Above them were the smooth, rounded hills that everyone called The Glenn.
Then his focus came down from the hillside. Back to where he was sitting - a king, or maybe just a prince, in his castle. It wasn’t much of a castle to be honest, but he didn’t dare say that after all the struggle to get here. The floor was made from six short, wide planks. At the furthest edges they were still rough and splintered but in the middle they were worn smooth. It had been so easy to make that last bit of the climb because, at the entrance, thinner pieces of wood had been nailed into the plank so that wherever your hand landed as it made its blind leap, it would quickly find a hold. The walls were made of the same wide planks. They were nailed where they rested against thick branches, and tied with blue plastic string in places where the branches were too thin, or maybe too soft to hold a nail.
Jimbo’s favourite bit of the Citadel was the frame holding a square of chicken wire that formed a window. It was angled outward so that you could see straight down to the base of the tree trunk. He had told the Youngest over and over how easy it would be to drop water bombs, mud or rocks on anyone stupid enough to try and invade.
The Youngest liked the window too, but for another reason. He had helped in the daring night raid to get it. That had been the time that he had really started to think he could get into the gang. The Elders had a word for it: Initiation. He liked that. It made it sound as if what he had been asked to do was serious, and difficult, like joining the army or starting at big school.
The night of the Initiation was chosen. It was a Saturday so the Youngest had asked to stay the night at Jimbo’s. His Mum had said yes but she always said yes on a weekend. Sometimes she let him stay on a school night, especially when his Dad was away. The Youngest liked staying at Jimbo’s. His Mum Mary let them stay up late and their dog was good fun. It was a floppy eared spaniel that could catch a raw egg in her mouth without breaking it and if you got her too excited she would wee on the carpet. That wasn’t the fun bit though because then she got told off, even though it was sort of the Youngest’s fault.
Mary had let them stay up to watch the Hammer House of Horror. At first she had said no but they both kept on at her. Jimbo had whined a bit but the Youngest was nice. You can only moan at your own Mum, not at your friends’. Eventually she said that they could have the black & white portable in the bedroom as long as they were quiet. Any messing about and she would take it back.
The boys couldn’t believe it.
‘Watching telly in bed! This is something I’m going to do all the time when I grow up.’ Jimbo said as he wriggled into his sleeping bag. They always used sleeping bags when the Youngest came to stay. That way it was more like camping out. They did as they had been told and kept quiet. This was partly because they were a bit nervous about the mission they had been given but mainly because they were watching the telly and didn’t want to mess this up. Hammer House of Horror had a girl who was hitch hiking. Then a man in a sport scar stopped to give her a lift. Then the man was lying in bed and the girl took her clothes off. Jimbo and the Youngest thought that they would start kissing but instead, she picked up a big knife and stabbed him while he was laying there. The Youngest was pleased that it was a black and white telly because there was loads of blood. If it had been red, it might have made him feel sick. Jimbo said it was rubbish because, even though the girl took her clothes off, you couldn’t really see anything - just her back. The Youngest thought that the girl was really pretty, until she started stabbing the man. She had straight black hair and was dressed a bit like a Red Indian and that wasn’t particularly scary. Even though she had a big knife, she was still really pretty and you couldn’t get frightened by that, Maybe if he had been a grown up with a sports car it might have scared him more. The episode where the blood started pouring out of pipes was the one that really got to him. It was just an ordinary house but then blood started squirting out of the pipes into people’s faces. He couldn’t sleep after watching that one. It didn’t help that he had watched that one on the colour telly so the blood looked properly horrible.
After the programme finished they switched the telly off and pretended to be asleep. The Youngest found it easy to stay awake because he was so excited. He had been feeling like that ever since the two of them had been given the mission.
The Eldest had explained that it wasn’t stealing because Mr Hopkinson didn’t use it.
‘What’s the use of having a chicken coup if you’ve got no chickens?’The Eldest had said. Then Purr-man had said that it was still stealing because it belonged to someone else and the Eldest started to get angry.
‘He doesn’t use it and we need it for the Citadel. What’s up Purr-man? Are you scared that you’ll get in trouble?’
Then Mouse said: ‘You could say that Mr Hopkinson is stealing from us,’ and everyone said: ‘What?’, which often happened when Mouse spoke.
‘How do you work that out?’ Purr-man was outraged.
‘Well, he’s got something he doesn’t need and he’s not using. And we need what he’s got and we would use it if we had it. You see?’
Mouse used his hands to draw imaginary diagrams as he spoke. ‘If you think about it, not as who the thing belongs to, but who needs it to use, then it’s ours.’
Purr-man looked confused. Mouse’s Mum was a teacher and wore big cardigans and lots of beads. She never shouted at Mouse either. Maybe that’s why he was always so quiet and clever.
‘That’s exactly what I was saying.’ The Eldest said and somehow that meant that the matter was closed.
‘Now that we’ve decided it’s ours, who is going to be the one to get it?’ At these words, the Youngest looked around at everyone. It was then that he realised that everyone was looking at him.
Sneaking out was easy. Jimbo’s bedroom window looked out over the flat roof of kitchen that stuck out at the back of the house. Then the garden sloped upwards to a stone wall. The layout of the garden meant that if you took a good jump, there wasn’t much of a drop from the roof to the grass below. It was the sort of thing they did for fun, even though Mary would go mad when she caught them.
There was no way they could climb the Hopkinsons’ fence but that wasn’t a problem because they shared the same back wall as Jimbo’s house - it ran along the length of the terrace separating the gardens from the back road. Cars hardly ever used the back road. It was just a dirt track with big pot-holes that filled up to knee deep when it rained. There were no street lights on the back road either and standing at the wall behind the Hopkinsons’ house, the Youngest could almost feel the darkness drift out of the woods behind him to rest on his shoulders.
He noticed that the blackness around him gradually began to shape itself into things he recognisedThe stone wall was the usual kind. In the fields up on the Glenn, they were everywhere. Dry Stone Walls they were called. This one wasn’t dry. It was stuck together with cement, but there were still lots of rough and uneven rocks that made climbing easy even though it was so dark. The Hopkinsons had an old shed at the end of their garden. Most people would have called it the bottom of the garden but that didn’t make sense because of the way the gardens sloped upwards. On the other side, where Purr-man lived, the far end of the garden was definitely the bottom. On that side, the gardens sloped downwards so steeply that they had to have their lawns on two or three levels. Purr-man’s Dad didn’t bother with lawns. He just used his garden as a place to let old cars rust. It was brilliant down there. There was an old transit van and Jimbo always wanted to hold gang meetings in the back but Purr-man didn’t want to because they would get done if his Dad found out.
The Youngest and Jimbo crouched down behind the shed. They could have jumped up and down and still no one would have noticed, but crouching seemed like the right thing to do if you were out burgling. He noticed that the blackness around him gradually began to shape itself into things he recognised: rocks, plants, wood slats and window panes, and soon their eyes were completely used to the darkness.
‘Time to go.’ Jimbo whispered.
‘Are you sure?’ The Youngest didn’t feel scared at all. But he sort of felt that he should be - almost as if it was expected of him.
‘Yes, look: all the lights are out. They’re old giffers. They won’t hear anything.’
‘Alright. Have you got the screwdriver?’
‘Yep, and the pliers. Have you got the pen knife?’
‘Check.’ The Youngest said and did a little salute.
They didn’t need any of their carefully prepared equipment though. Mr Hopkinson’s chicken coup wasn’t even fixed together. It was just the square frames of chicken wire placed on the ground against each other like a little tent. They only took one of the frames, even though that meant the one it was leaning against would have fallen if they hadn’t made sure to rest it on the bushy plants that the frame had covered.
Jimbo carried the stolen frame back behind the shed then the Youngest held it while Jimbo climbed the wall, then he passed it up to him while he leaned right down to grab it. Then it was easy to hide the frame in bushes near the Citadel tree. They had done it.
The Youngest was bursting, partly with excitement, but mainly with pride. He felt like a wild cat prowling with a sure footed grace and deadly night vision. They had been out hunting and made a kill. Now he wanted to explore this new wild world.
‘Let’s go into the woods.’ He heard himself say.
‘Let’s go exploring.’
‘Don’t’ be daft. It’s the middle of the night!’
‘But I can see fine now. It’s weird isn’t it?’ The Youngest opened his pen knife. ‘I want to go hunting.’
‘You’ve gone mental!’ Jimbo whispered but the Youngest could see that he was smiling. ‘If my Mum checks on us in the night and we’re not there...’ he didn’t need to finish the sentence. The sense of adventure hissed out of the Youngest like a back tyre puncture and he was happy to scramble back up onto the kitchen roof and through the window as quickly as possible.
Jimbo told him later how the others had hoisted the frame into place with a long rope and that the Eldest was really pleased. That was when Jimbo told him that he could join up just as soon as he made the climb. And now here he was: In the tree, and in the gang.
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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