Jason crouches and covers his head, knowing as he does so that it is exactly the wrong thing to do: bullying should be countered with immediate and overwhelming force. Jason is pretty sure he could never summon up any overwhelming force, immediate or otherwise. Behind him the rough stone wall protects his back, and he hopes that his arms around his head will protect his face. Kicks smash into his legs and arms, and to his surprise he finds that he cannot feel them.
I am, as you know, a pimply nerd. While I would rather be neither of these things, it cannot be denied that I am skinny, underweight, uncoordinated and, finally, unpopular. I like to read serious novels. I keep up with politics. I like a certain amount of classical music, but do not have an MP3 player. I watch the news and science programs on TV, and ignore soap operas and reality TV. I loathe sports, all of them.
I have only one friend, Nathan, equally unpopular, equally nerdish, equally pimply but very good indeed at chess. We are outcasts. We are friends simply because no-one else will let us join them. It is true that I find Nathan boring, but I recognise that he finds me equally boring: we make a good pair.
Recently, however, an uncharacteristic move on my part appears to have changed my life. Not, as you will discover, for the better.
It was a Thursday just over a month ago. I was walking home from school by myself, Nathan being involved in a chess tournament—just because I am a nerd does not mean, contrary to general opinion, that I will be good at chess, or that I will even like it. I’m not and I don’t.
Anyway, I was walking home alone when I turned a corner and saw ahead of me the Droogs, a violent gang from my school who fancy they are living in the pages of A Clockwork Orange.
Normally I would run from them, because they seem to believe that all the pleasures in modern life come from the ability to terrify. They are, without doubt, exceedingly good at terrifying.
I say I would normally run from them, or slink away if they haven’t noticed me. However, on this occasion something clicked in my brain. Recently a variety of people have used as an excuse for uncharacteristic behaviour the phrase ‘I suffered a brain-snap’, and though I’m unaware that any court has accepted this as justifying anything, I understand what they mean. I looked at what the Droogs were up to and had a brain-snap.
The four Droogs were gathered in a tight semicircle kicking someone on the ground. They were doing this in absolute silence, except for the thud of their Doc Martens into the flesh of their victim, who was curled in self-protection, hands over his face, looking more like a slater (Note: Slaters, order Isopoda. Slaters, also known as Sowbugs, Wood Lice and Pillbugs are not insects, but crustaceans, closely related to lobsters. When under threat they curl tightly, exposing only their armoured backs. I have included this information to help you to understand the details of this story) than a human being. The victim was silent too, except for an occasional whoof of air from his mouth when a kick landed in some particularly soft area.
Without thinking, I ran towards them. They were concentrating on their pleasures, so had no idea I was approaching. I seemed to observe the whole event in slow-motion, each of my steps taking several minutes. I knew with certainty how things would unfold, measured my steps to arrive behind Alex, the leader of the Droogs, on my left foot, so that my right would be swinging in a perfect arc headed towards Alex’s balls.
He’s not really called Alex, of course. It’s Dwayne, actually, with his mother’s creative spelling. But he only answers to the name Alex, and, because he is so randomly, unpredictably violent, people acquiesce.
I can’t describe the feeling of elation I experienced as I rushed into this battle. It was the first time in my life that I had done anything so stupid. I had a pretty good idea that I was going to get a beating out of it, and I didn’t care. I had no idea who was on the ground, but that didn’t matter either: I was going to save whoever it was, I, Peter Harrison, the skinny nerd with the pimple-ravaged face* and the lank hair, the sunken chest, the spindly legs. It was I, Peter, who was for once unafraid. (Note: I have borrowed the descriptor ‘ravaged faces’ from Janis Ian and her song 'At Seventeen', a song which describes perfectly the life of one like me. Though of course I am not a girl.)
I saw in my mind’s eye how I would balance and swing my right foot, how it would brush between his trouser legs and sink into his crotch, how the toe would collide with either his balls or his arse, and, whichever, would send him sprawling in agony, surprise complete. The picture in my mind’s eye snapped to black after that, with no further revelations. After that, I would simply play it as it came.
It was the adrenalin, of course. I landed cleanly on my left foot, my right foot swung beautifully, the toe connected jarringly and Alex flew forward, sprawling to the ground beyond the victim, taking Brett Simpson, his 2IC, with him. Alex howled and curled, bringing his knees up to his chest. Brett took an elbow in the ribs which might or might not have broken as he fell. The other two Droogs froze to the spot in mid-kick, paralysed by my sudden, unexpected attack.I had no idea what to do next, except that I suddenly recognised how reckless I had been. I turned as though to run, until I saw in disbelief that the two Droogs still standing were rooted to the spot, looking at me in fear.The victim on the ground quickly uncurled and stood, looking at me uncertainly. I had never seen him before.
I caught his eye and offered a quick nod of agreement, and we both turned to the remaining Droogs. Without hesitation, I launched my fist at the closest one, and caught him full in the face. I felt something crumple under my fist, and suddenly there was blood everywhere, his blood. The erstwhile victim had simultaneously attacked the last Droog, a wide, swinging punch that caught the Droog behind the ear, knocking his head sideways until it connected with the wall with considerable force. You see stuff in cartoons about things smashing into walls and sliding down them like jelly, and that’s exactly what this fellow did. We watched as he slumped, apparently unconscious, to the ground, to lie over the feet of the other two.
Wow! I could hardly believe it. Both of us looked in amazement at the scene, the blood, the groaning bodies. We had done that. I felt my face split in a grin, and I turned and offered my hand to my ally. He took it firmly, grinning as widely as I was.
He turned and started to walk away, limping slightly and hunched forward, but turned to me after a few paces. ‘You coming?’ he asked.
You bet I was.
Jason wonders about his saviour. As they leave the battlefield he sizes him up from the corner of his eye. His right leg is killing him, and he has taken a kick deep in his belly which feels as though it has ruptured something, so he limps along curled slightly over his arms which are pressing into his belly. He can immediately see that his companion is ungainly and totally unfashionable. He is nearly six feet tall but wearing grey serge shorts and woollen socks to his knees. He is wearing a pullover which looks as though it has been knitted by hand, and by a remedial knitter, at that. He, too, is stooped, but it looks as though that’s his normal stance. His face is covered with zits, some of them bleeding. He is wearing thick glasses, and has an untidy mop of yellowish greasy hair which flops over his face, though the sides and back of his head are shaved almost bare. What a nerd, he thinks to himself.
We have turned three corners, and it seems unlikely that the Droogs will catch us now. His breathing is ragged, and I can see he is about all in. I suggest he sits on a garden wall for a few minutes, and he eases himself carefully onto it, still hugging his belly. I keep a sharp lookout the way we had come, ready to make another break if the Droogs come around the corner.
He nods, then looks up at me. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Well thanks, Pete. Reckon you saved me a real pasting. Bloody brave of you.’
I am embarrassed, and look at my feet. ‘I didn’t think, I just did it. Stupid of me really. Could have turned out both of us taking a beating.’
My ally nods.
‘So, what about you?’
‘Oh, Jason. Jason Belling’
‘Can you make it home?’
Jason sucks in a deep breath and winces. ‘Probably need a lie down and a Beck’s.’
Jason looks up, then realises. ‘Family joke,’ he tells Peter. ‘Mum says there used to be an ad for some sort of pain killer, and no matter what was wrong with you, some guy in a white coat tells you what you need is a cup of tea, a Beck’s Powder and a good lie down. Cures everything, apparently.’
I’ve never heard of it. ‘Where d’you live?’
‘Over in Lake Albert.’
‘Oh. Well maybe you should come home with me. I live just a few streets away. Reckon I can rustle up some tea and some painkillers, and I expect I could even find you somewhere to lie down.’
They move quite slowly towards Peter’s house, Jason with his head down and Peter watching their rear in case of a retaliatory attack.
‘I couldn’t believe it when I saw you charging in,’ Jason tells Peter. ‘You a footy player? You certainly looked like one. Timed it bloody perfectly. Did you get him in the balls?’
Peter grinned to himself at the memory. ‘That’s what I was aiming for. Carl von Clausewitz and his doctrine of overwhelming force.’
‘von Clausewitz. Prussian General. If you’re going to win, use overwhelming force and don’t count the cost.’ (Note: The Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz is widely acknowledged as the most important of the major strategic theorists. I guess you might not have have heard of him.)
This guy’s a bit of a nut, Peter thinks. Still, he did the job, and I’m not complaining. I’ve just about had it. Hope it’s not too far.
Peter stops just ahead of Jason, and indicates a house. It is a two-storey house with three steps leading to a door surrounded by a pseudo portico, half-pillars plastered to the brick-work. Tiny front garden surrounded by a steel rail looking like assegais standing, each six inches apart. Jason notices that one of the assegais is missing, and that someone has made a sort of web of steel wire to fill the gap, inefficient and very ugly. Peter opens the front door with his key, and they enter a dark corridor, coats hanging in a row from pegs on the wall on their left.
Ahead Jason sees a staircase and to the right the corridor narrows, growing darker. At the end of the corridor they turn left and Peter opens another door leading to a large, airy room lit by a huge window. The room, though large, is cluttered with all the paraphernalia of daily life: an enormous bookcase to the left, the upper shelves protected by glass doors; a large chest of drawers on which is a very old-fashioned-looking radio, all Bakelite and large tuning knobs; a coal-fired stove of some sort in a chimney alcove, the front door of which is open, the glow of radiant heat warming the room; a large dining-table surrounded by chairs, covered in a table-cloth itself covered with piles of all sorts: a bundle of knitting, the wool a violent purple; library books with a library card on top; a small stack of board games, together with a well-used pack of cards.
Peter points to a pair of arm-chairs, one on either side of the stove. ‘Here,’ he says. ‘Sit down. I’ll find some paracetamol.’
Jason sees that one arm-chair is loaded with clothes, obviously recently brought in from a washing line. The other is occupied by a large tabby cat, who peers at him from half-closed eyes, then gapes in an enormous yawn, stretching a leg in front of him, the claws bared and spread wide. Jason moves to the armchair full of washing, and Peter apologetically reaches around him to remove the pile, placing it instead on the dining table. Jason turns and lowers himself carefully into the armchair, finding it soft, resilient and remarkably comfortable, given its obvious age. The warmth of the stove seems to envelope him, and he relaxes, removing his hands from his belly. He closes his eyes, and gives himself over to the comfort of the moment.
I think this is the first time I’ve ever brought anyone here, and I’m just beginning to realise how peculiar our house is. Well, not so much the house, which is pretty ordinary, but the way we live, stuff everywhere. I suppose I’m used to the mess, used to having to move piles of stuff before I can do anything, even things like sitting down. It’s just the way my Mum is, I suppose. Untidy. More interested in life than in appearances.
I can see the way Jason looks at the place: he thinks it’s weird. Nathan would probably think the same. He calls around sometimes, but I never let him come in. We go round to his place, mostly.
I go into the kitchen and then into the pantry where mum keeps medicines and first-aid stuff, and root around in the box until I find a very old bottle half-full of codeine. I have an idea that this stuff has been off the market for a very long time, maybe forty years. But it’s good stuff, and I doubt it has lost its potency. Trust Mum to have such ancient stuff. I open the bottle, remove the wadding of cotton-wool and shake out three tablets. They look just like paracetamol, so Jason won’t notice.
I fill a glass at the sink, and go through to the living room. Jason has his eyes closed, but I can tell he’s not asleep. ‘Here,’ I say. ‘Take these.’
He doesn’t even look at them, just swallows them one at a time, each with a swig of water. He hands me back the glass and shuts his eyes again. I return to the kitchen to make a pot of tea.
I can’t get over the way I rushed in to that fight. How come I felt no fear? There was that moment, of course, when I just stood there, the realisation of the enormity of my action paralysing me for a while; but I very soon snapped out of it, and actually hit that idiot in the nose. I look down at my knuckles and notice that I have been bleeding slightly, but clearly I didn’t really hurt myself. Amazing.
Just as the kettle begins to boil there is a hammering at the front door. I freeze. Oh my god, I think, it’s them. They’ve found out where I live. The hammering continues, and I slowly move through the living room and along the corridor moving over the tiled floor as quietly as I can. I can see through the stained glass that it is just one person, near the door, at least. The others might be hiding in the street.
We have an old security chain, hanging unused forever, it seems. But I slip it into its socket on the door before turning the knob and peering through the crack. It’s not the Droogs, it’s Nathan.
‘I just heard,’ he says. ‘Unbelievable. How did it happen?’
I peer around him, looking for any sign of the Droogs. Seems safe. I close the door and remove the security chain, letting Nathan into the corridor. He looks around him in interest as I head him into the living room. ‘Spooky,’ he comments as we pass the darkest part.
Jason is sitting as I left him. He looks to be asleep now.
‘Who’s this?’ Nathan asks.
‘Jason,’ I tell him.
So I gesture him into the kitchen and give him a rough outline of the event as I make the tea. Nathan is listening carefully, I know, but he is peering around and taking in the weird, old-fashioned kitchen as he does so. As I describe my kick, his eyes open wide in surprise. ‘You did what?’ he whispers.
‘Yeah, I know,’ I warm the pot, put in three spoonsful of tea and pour the boiling water. The aroma of the tea fills the kitchen.
‘Hey, that smells good,’ Nathan says. I suppose like most people his mum uses tea-bags, or they have only coffee. There’s a lot to said for some of the old ways, and loose tea and tea-pots are two of them.
I splash some milk into three mugs, put them on a tray with a bowl of sugar and the tea-pot and we go into the living room. I clear a space on the table, gently encourage the cat to vacate the second armchair, sit Nathan in it and turn one of the dining chairs around.
As I pour the tea, Nathan is looking around interestedly. As I hand him a mug, he gestures towards Jason. ‘So, what’s wrong with him?’
I glance at Nathan and realise that he seems to be in a deep sleep, which is a bit strange. I lean towards him and shake him by the shoulder. He doesn’t react, so I shake harder. This time he lifts his head a little and opens his eyes. He seems not to know where he is. ‘You okay?’
Drowsily, he looks towards me. ‘Yeah’ he says. ‘Think so.’ He resettles himself in the chair as though he’s going to go back to sleep, but I get him to sit up and take his mug of tea.
‘Did he get kicked in the head?’ asks Nathan.
I see immediately what he’s thinking of, but my suspicion is angled more at the codeine... was that stupid of me?
But Jason seems to be pulling out of his drowsiness, and he’s looking at Nathan. ‘Hi,’ he says.
Nathan leans forward and hold out his hand to shake Jason’s. ‘Nathan,’ he says. ‘Friend of the world’s greatest Nerd.’
They both look at me for a reaction.
I attempt a joke. ‘Maybe Action Man might be more appropriate now,’ I say. ‘Or 007?’
Nathan shakes his head in disbelief. ‘Don’t get carried away,’ he advises.
Jason looks at Nathan, then at me. ‘Well,’ he begins, ‘all I can say is that I’m bloody glad you weighed in when you did. I tell you, I doubt I’d have the guts to do what you did.’
Nathan looked at me. ‘I can hardly believe you did it, either. What on earth possessed you?’
I shrugged. ‘No idea,’ I told them. ‘Brain snap, I suppose. But I tell you this much, I won’t ever be afraid of bullies again. You just have to stand up to them.’ I smiled, feeling confident and assured, both of these new experiences for me.
‘Two against four,’ Nathan said. ‘Not for me, I’m afraid.’
Jason nodded in agreement. ‘Nor me, either. I’m really glad you helped me, but I don’t think I could do what you did if the boot was on the other foot.’
I said nothing, but I was pretty certain that, now that I had shown how easy it was, both of them would be able to resist. ‘You haven’t told us how it started.’
Jason looked perplexed. ‘Beats me. I was just walking along, minding my own business when that mob came up behind me and started belting me.’
Nathan nodded. ‘That’s their MO,’ he told us.
‘Their modus operandi,’ he says. ‘No warning, no reason, just sudden attack.’
‘Bloody terrified me. I thought they were just going to steal my wallet, and I threw it at them, hoping they’d leave me alone, but they just carried on, maybe even worse than before.’
We each thought about it, and there was a moment’s silence. Then I asked , ‘Do you mean they still have your wallet?’
‘Suppose so,’ Jason said. ‘We didn’t hang around to find out, did we?’
‘What was in it?’
‘The usual, I suppose. About twenty dollars, a school ID, a credit card. That’s about all.’
He thought about it. ‘Oh shit. That means they’ve got my address, and of course my credit card.’
Nathan knows about this sort of thing. ‘The credit card won’t be any good to them unless they have the pin number.’
Jason shakes his head. ‘They can use it to buy stuff... just sign for it. No-one ever checks the signature. I’d better get to a bank and stop the card.’
‘Is it on your own account?’
‘No, my mum’s’
‘Better ring her and tell her what’s happened.’
Jason looks worried. ‘Maybe we’d better go back and look for the wallet. They might just have taken the money and thrown the wallet away.’
‘Sounds possible’, I said. ‘Look, ring your mum first, then we’ll go back and see if we can find it.’
The phone was a fixed line, and stood on a shelf in the corridor. I showed him where it was.
‘Don’t count me in on this,’ Nathan said when we were alone. ‘Not my scene at all.’
I smiled. ‘Come on, Nath. Don’t be like that. With three of us we’ll be fine.’
‘In your dreams.’
‘No, really, we’ll be fine. They won’t pick on us if we stick together.’
‘Hospitals are full of people who think like that, Peter,’ he said. ‘No, cowardice suits me fine. Count me out.’
Jason leaned into the room. ‘Mum says we should go and look for the wallet, and she’s contacting the bank.’
I looked at Nathan, wondering at the same time how I had suddenly become a leader. ‘Come on, Nathan. Help us out.’
Nathan was undecided, his lack of courage battling with what little pride he had. Jason appealed to him. ‘Look, I’m only doing it if all of us go.’
Clearly unwilling, Nathan finally conceded. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘But I’m not fighting anyone.’
Buoyed with my new-found confidence, I smiled at him. ‘Don’t worry,’ I told them both. ‘After what happened earlier they’re not going to mess with us if we stick together.’
‘I hope not,’ muttered Jason fervently.
We went quietly and quickly, leaving the house by the back lane and sticking to side-streets rather than returning the way we had come, discretion being the better part of valour... no point in asking for trouble. Despite my bravado, I knew we were all nervous, Jason particularly. He was, after all, still limping from the previous attack. Nathan hung back, and walked silently, almost tip-toeing along, and keeping to the inside of the pavements as though to have at least one side protected.
We reached the spot where the attack had taken place. Jason had been curled up at the foot of a tall wall which looked like the side of a factory. Beside the wall was a small garden with a fence similar to that at my house, but in better order. The garden beyond the fence was heavily planted with bushes and one spindly tree. We searched the base of the wall and then the gutter, but there was no sign of the wallet in the debris that lay all around. Nathan moved to the garden gate, testing the latch. It creaked open. Cautiously, we all three entered the garden and searched under the bushes, quite a job because the branches swept the ground all around, and had to be lifted out of the way before we could see. The three of us were engrossed in the search, but our heads shot up when we heard the voice.
‘Looking for something, are we?’
Our worst fears had come true. It was the Droogs. Alex, or rather Dwayne, was standing squarely in the road outside the garden. Brett Simpson, Alex’s 2IC, was no longer with them. Three against three, I thought. I swung through the bushes and through the gate, standing straight opposite Alex. In one hand he held the missing wallet, slapping it over and over into the palm of his other hand.
I held out my hand. ‘Give it to me,’ I told him.
He laughed, and turned his head to look at his lieutenants, then back at me. ‘Or what?’
‘Or we’ll have to take it from you.’
Behind me I could hear Jason and Nathan emerging from the gate to take up positions on either side of me, but even I could tell that both of them were shaking in their shoes. I was determined, though, that my natural nerdy fear would not get the better of me. I stepped forward with my hand out, looking Alex straight in the eye. ‘Give,’ I said sharply.
Alex stepped forward onto the kerb, holding the wallet out in front of him. ‘Come and take it from me,’ he said.
‘I notice Brett Simpson is missing,’ I sneered. ‘Gone home to mummy, has he?’
‘None of your business,’ Alex said.
‘Retired hurt, or did I put him in hospital last time?’ I heard a fearful intake of breath from the two behind me.
‘Don’t push it, Peter’, Nathan implored.
But I knew we had to make the Droogs nervous if we were to come out on top. I took another pace forward, trying to look as though I was moving to the right and flinging out my left hand as a sort of dummy move, and with my right I grabbed at the wallet. Alex wasn’t expecting this, and he lost his grip. I turned quickly and flung the wallet at Jason, then turned and sunk a spindly fist into Alex’s belly. It was like hitting a brick wall. My wrist bent and I felt the most awful pain as he grabbed my arm and swung me bodily into the arms of the other two Droogs.
Nathan and Jason stood rooted in fear, frozen. ‘Come on, help,’ I called, but they took one quick look at each other and ran, each in a different direction. The Droogs let them go, holding me tightly, watching my allies retreat.
‘Great gang you got there, Nerd,’ Alex sneered, then he took two paces back and I knew immediately what was going to happen. In the same slow motion with which I had witnessed my own kick earlier that day, I watched as his left foot landed perfectly and his right foot swung in a perfect arc. My last thought was of von Clausewitz and his doctrine, but no sooner had I registered the thought than my world turned to black.