Thomas Harrowbeer kicks a stone along the pavement. He is bitterly disappointed. He knows it was good. He'd knocked himself out over it, read it over and over and it thrills him. It's the best essay he has ever written. She had read it out, deliberately stumbling over some of the words and pretending she didn't get it. And the whole class laughing at him, even though they're all retards.
Thomas gives the stone a vicious kick, harder that he meant to, and it flies high and straight into the door panel of a car parked at the kerb. The noise is incredible, and everyone stops to look, to see the scar on the door of a nearly new Honda, to see the look of horror on his face and know it was him. A big powerful hand grabs the back of his jacket and nearly hauls him off the ground. 'You little bastard. I saw that. What the hell's wrong with you?' And the hand begins to shake him and now everyone around him is still and watching as the man with the big hand is deciding what to do.
'Get off,' Thomas shouts, and he sees a policeman further up the pavement turn to look at what the fuss is about, and Thomas knows he's for it now.
The big hand clenches tighter and Thomas knows there is only one way in which to escape. He kicks backwards and feels his heel connect, and at the same time he drops his bag, wriggles out of his coat and he's away, stooping to reclaim his bag as he ducks under the arm that ends in the big hand, away down the street, swerving to dodge the outstretched arms of people trying to stop him, even if they haven't a clue what he's supposed to have done.
His name isn’t in his jacket so he'll be safe for a while, he thinks. He's glad he managed to grab his bag back, because it contains the two things most precious to him: his iPhone and the noise-cancelling Bose headphones he had stolen a few weeks before. Better not get caught with those in his possession. These thoughts are belting through his brain at a million ks an hour even while he is running and dodging. He turns into Beaumont street and he has left his pursuers behind for a while. He runs on, his arms pumping and his legs flying and he knows he can keep it up for longer than they can. There are some things he really is good at.
The small lane cutting across to Fern street opens on his left, and he swerves suddenly, stopping at the edge of the first house to peer back the way he has come: his pursuers have just appeared around the corner of Main, and they are looking around for him. They split, some going north and some going south. Anyone would think he'd murdered someone.
He turns and sprints to the end of the lane, then along Fern and back to Main. He's far from the scene of the crime now, and he waits for the lights to change before crossing Main at an easy and casual walk. He strolls along Meadow street certain that he's in the clear. His heart is still pumping, and the adrenalin is belting through his veins. He feels great. That showed them, he thinks.
But as he cools, as the adrenalin subsides, so does the exhilaration, and fear begins to take its place. There is stuff in his jacket pockets that will identify him, he knows. Maybe his mother will deny that it is his jacket, and though she'll give him hell, she'll protect him from worse. Or maybe for once his dad will simply pay for the damage to the car and just give him a ticking off... hell, he hadn't done it on purpose, it was just an accident. It could have happened to anybody.
But he knows that neither of those possibilities are going to happen. He'd better get rid of the headphones, or else he'll be in serious trouble. He heads towards Tonkin park. There's a storm gully winding through the park, and it ducks underground to pass under Flanders street. He's been there before, and he knows there's a dark ledge in one part of the tunnel where he can hide the headphones fairly safely for a couple of weeks until all this blows over. Thomas wonders if he should wipe them to get rid of any fingerprints.
In the park he sees some small kids on the swings and on a seat nearby two women supposedly keeping an eye on them, but in reality gossiping away to each other. They are only ten metres from the only spot from which he can get into the storm gully, and they are facing that way. Bugger, he thinks. He turns and walks back the way he came, crossing Flanders street and looking to see if there is a way into the gully on that side. He walks for five minutes, but the gully is protected by a corrugated iron fence two metres high. He can't see over the top. He wonders if he should go back to the park. After a few minutes more, he turns and retraces his steps.
He crosses Flanders again, but as he steps onto the kerb a car screeches to a halt ten metres away. His heart nearly stops as he recognises it as the Honda that he hit with the stone. All four doors open at the same time and three men and a woman emerge, the woman screaming and the men turning towards him, leaving the doors open and starting after him. Thomas turns and runs, the adrenalin pouring though him again. He is fast. He has rested sufficiently. Mostly, he is scared. His bag bobs to and fro on his back as he tears along the pavement.
A hundred metres on he sees another car approaching, and, judging it perfectly, swerves in front of it and crosses the road. The driver jams his brakes on and the car screeches into an uncontrolled sideways slide. He doesn't have to turn his head to realise that the crumpling noise he hears is that of the Honda taking collateral damage from the sliding newcomer. A horn starts blaring. I didn't mean that to happen, he tells himself, and he realises that things are going from bad to worse.
However, his pursuers have paused, and he gains maybe fifty metres on them before they gather themselves and follow. He ducks down a back lane running like the wind but beginning to tire now. He must get away from them. He must find somewhere to safely stash the headphones, or at worst to dump them without his pursuers seeing him do it. He comes to the end of the back lane and into the street ahead, pushing himself to reach the next back lane before they see him turn into it. He makes it, panting now, and throws himself around the corner.
Twenty metres away he sees a dustbin standing beside someone's back gate. He adjusts his pace as he approaches it, springs to land on it one-footed and with his hand on the top of the gate vaults cleanly over it, only to land in a jumble of rubbish on the other side. His face is cut by the sprocket of a broken, rusted bicycle, and he feels a tearing pain in the calf of his right leg. He ignores both of these, however, knowing that he must remain silent. He lies there, hoping that no-one in the terraced houses that back onto the lane notices him there.
He hears the heavy racket of their running feet as they run down the lane, their deep and laboured breathing as they pass the dustbin, obviously suspecting nothing as they continue down the lane. They slow some distance away and he hears their voices, broken, as they gasp for breath, discussing what to do. Thomas cannot hear what they are saying, but he can tell they are giving up the chase. He holds his breath as he hears them walking slowly back the way they had come, breathing heavily. He hears the words 'bastard' and 'hooligan' as they pass.
Thomas lies unmoving for what he guesses is five minutes. All is silent in the lane. Slowly he disengages himself from the jumble of rubbish, easing himself away from the rusting bicycle and standing uncertainly on a patch of thin, dusty grass. The gate to the lane has a padlock on it. Climbing back over the fence looks difficult.
He turns to survey the house. There is no movement. Somewhere, perhaps from the house next door, he can hear a radio, as though through an open window. There is the hem of a curtain blowing out through the bottom of an open window two doors away.
Thomas moves towards the house along a cracked concrete path. There is a child's tricycle on its side near the back door. He reaches the door and slowly pulls open the screen. It is well-oiled and moves silently. He reaches for the door-knob and turns it gingerly. Like the screen door, it opens easily and silently. He moves through it and closes the door silently behind him. He is committed now. He is in a laundry; a rusty washing machine stands open to one side, and a pile of soiled clothes litters the tiled floor. A sliding door opens into an untidy room with a television, a sofa and a pair of grubby easy chairs. A newspaper lies untidily on the edge of the sofa, a few pages tumbling to the floor. A cat, a tabby, lies curled in one of the easy chairs. It opens its eyes and looks at him without reaction, then stretches one foot towards him and yawns, tilting its head backwards and hinging it's mouth widely. It looks back at him, unconcerned.
He crosses the room. As he does so he hears steps above his head. He stands beside the door, his hand on the knob, horrified. He hears footsteps descending a staircase and coming towards the room in which he is standing. He is paralysed.
He hears another door opening, and the footsteps retreat. He realises that he has been holding his breath, and forces himself to relax. He listens. He can hear nothing, but suddenly, quite loudly, music starts mid-chord, as though a radio has been turned on. He waits a minute or two, then cautiously tries the doorknob, turning it slowly. He opens the door a crack and puts his eye to the opening.
He sees a corridor leading to what looks like the front door of the house. On the left he can see another room, its door wide open. It is from there that the music is coming. He opens his door a little wider, then slides through, hugging the wall opposite the open door. As he does so he hears footsteps coming towards him, and suddenly a woman is there in the door frame, a baby on her left arm, a kitchen knife in her right hand. She stops abruptly as she sees Thomas, and emits a little scream. She clutches the baby closer to her, and thrusts the knife forward. The radio is playing an old song, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. The woman is young, Thomas thinks. She is wearing a flowered apron, and her blonde hair is held in a short pigtail behind her. A few strands of hair hang down over her face.
'Please,' Thomas says, his voice hardly audible. Please what? Please don't be afraid? Please don't scream? Please put the knife down? He holds a hand out, the palm open and facing towards her as though to act as a shield if she were to lunge with the knife. She steps back quickly as though thinking he is going to attack her, and in doing so trips on the edge of a floor-rug, falling backwards. The baby's head hits the edge of a table as she falls, and she drops the knife and clutches the baby with both hands, crying out in a long, loud wail. She rolls as she lands, holding the baby before her, ignoring Thomas, staring in disbelief as the baby lolls in her arms, unresponsive.
Without thinking, Thomas stoops and picks up the knife. The woman is wailing continuously now, and Thomas can see that the baby's head lies at a peculiar angle in her arms. He turns and runs to the front door. The wailing behind him rises to a crescendo, and he slams the door shut behind him, muffling the sound.
How did it come to this? he wonders. A kicked stone, a car crash, and now this. It will be the end for him. He starts running, running as fast as he can, running though he is quickly exhausted, his lungs bursting. Oh God, he cries to himself, Oh God. He heads towards the park once more. He crosses Flanders street at a run, and a long way up the road he sees the Honda, and behind it a police car with its flashing light, a policeman taking notes surrounded by a small crowd of gesticulating people. They are too busy to notice Thomas. He runs on until he comes to the park, and this time the playground is empty. He drops down into the concrete storm gully, and quickly moves along it until he reaches the shelter of the tunnel under the road. He can hear the voices of the crowd around the Honda. He heads for the centre of the tunnel, the darkest spot, where he plans to stash the headphones.
Thomas stops, alone in the gloom. He can hear nothing but a low rumble every minute or so as a car passes overhead. He is gasping for breath. He slumps to the floor, resting his back on the sloping side of the concrete.
As his breathing slows, he realises he is still holding the kitchen knife. He looks at it in dismay, as though it is somehow proof that everything in the last half hour has really happened; in a strange way he had found himself hoping it had all been a bad dream.
There is no hope for him, he realises. He hadn't meant to do any of those things, but they have happened. No, he admits to himself, he has done them. He will go to jail, maybe worse. He starts to cry, his head hanging. Without thinking, he puts the flat of the blade on the inside of his wrist. This isn't just a spot of bother, he thinks bleakly.