“Ball!” Tyson yelled. “I’ve got Ball!”
He lumbered to the front of the line, shoving aside a couple of kids that got in his way. David watched the intent with which the bully moved, instantly feeling his stomach turn to water. If Tyson wanted Ball, he always got Ball. And he always got the person with the ball, regardless of the rules. That was the law of the schoolyard.
David knew that it wasn’t coincidence that Tyson made his call when he realised that Nathan held the football. Another law of the schoolyard was for the bully to make certain that newcomers were treated to a bit of a roughing on their first outing. The fact that Tyson had waited this long meant that the roughing was going to be extra special.
Nathan didn’t seem too concerned. But he had no reason to. Thus far, all Tyson had done was just push a few kids around, before ambling off with a couple of mates for a quick smoke when the teacher disappeared around the front of the school on her perambulations. But never in that first five minutes did Tyson call for the “Ball.” Never had he moved in anything faster than a loping walk. Only now, like a wolf sniffing the scent of a lamb, did he jog to the front of the line, sneer in place, arms flexed, tense, ready to grab.
As if by magic, the opposition line suddenly kicked forward. As one they all moved, a thick wall of farm boys in work boots. Each kid announced their “tags” once more, their voices now cleared of any fatigue. The game was reaching matchpoint. And everyone knew what that meant. Everyone that is, except for Nathan Johnson.
With this knowledge, the rest of David’s team slowed down. Of the half who’d kept up with Nathan, only two remained in the line… and Paddy O’Sullivan was only there because he was in the middle of Nathan and David—he couldn’t see that none of his team-mates were tagging along. Why David kept jogging was a mystery to him. It probably would have been less painful had he simply stopped running like the rest of the boys.
Seeing the lambs making their way blindly to the slaughterhouse brought about a change to the personnel in the opposition line. There were two more “tags,” followed by some shuffling of the line. Next to Tyson appeared Vinnie, and next to Vinnie, was Damien, and before either Paddy or David could react, there was a loud whoop from somewhere on the farm boy line.
It happened in the blink of an eye. Three bodies crashed into three; there was a series of grunts, and then, a high pitched wail of pain. The ball bounced away, only to be kicked further away by a steel-capped boot. David felt knees dig into his back, and a pair of rough hands shoving his face deep into the soft, oozing mud. His hearing was blotted out momentarily, replaced with the roar of blood in his ears. In vain, he tried to roll, to lift his head out of the mud, but the pressure was too much…
“Ah, my arm! It’s broken!”
The howl split the air; everything momentarily stopped. At least long enough for David to wrench his face out of the mud. Damien, the oath that had tackled him was still kneeling over him, but his attention was not on the task he’d been performing. His face was a slack jawed expression of equal parts shock and stupidity.
“You broke his arm, fuckhead!” It was Nathan Johnson, who somehow had gotten back to his feet, and was shoving Vinnie hard enough to knock him back a few paces.
“Whatcha gonna do about it!” Vinnie sneered, shoving Nathan back. But before anything could escalate, a big meaty forearm suddenly crushed Nathan’s neck.
“I ain’t finished with you!” Tyson growled. He leaned back so that Nathan was hoisted off his feet, his legs kicking only air.
Stunned silence greeted the outburst. Paddy O’Sullivan seemed to have even forgotten the fact that his arm was numb from the shoulder down. The only noise breaking the silence was Nathan’s heavy wheezing as he tried to draw breath into his lungs.
“Hunnh, hunnh, hunnh!” he went, while his legs pathetically pedalled the air.
Tyson carried him a few awkward steps away, leaning himself back as if Nathan were a bag of barley that needed lifting into the tray of a truck. Nathan floundered in Tyson’s grip; his left foot snapped forward with enough force to dislodge his shoe. It spiralled into the air, before tumbling end over end into a large pool of water. And before he even realised it, Nathan followed his shoe… arse first into the largest puddle on the whole of the playground. And if that wasn’t humiliating enough, Tyson scooped up two handfuls of filthy black mud, and cupped them over Nathan’s face, rubbing it into his mouth, his nose and eyes, while he spluttered and coughed.
“Not even your rich dad can fucking save you now, city boy,” Tyson growled, rubbing the mud now into Nathan’s hair. “Why don’t you go back to the city, rich boy!”
“Yeah, city boy!” someone else said.
“Where’s yer fuckin dad, anyway?” Tyson added. He was now squatting over Nathan, who was clawing mud out of his face, which had gone from scarlet to the same pale white that graces the underbelly of a fish. “He too good to follow you and your bitch of a mother out here? Too good to live in the bush? Is that it? Or have your folks divorced? Is that it, rich boy? Your mummy and daddy not fuckin no more? Well? What is it?”
“What is it!” the echo screeched. And suddenly, the chorus was taken up by all of the farm boys; all of them leant over Nathan, who still sat in the cold depths of the puddle shaking black mud from his hair, shouting into his face.
Tyson, seeing his work as being done, backed off a few steps. He was still the boss. All the while the crowd began to increase in numbers as kids from other reaches of the playground came running over to add their two cents worth, for whatever reasons.
But Nathan ignored the farm boys yelling in his face. He even ignored the fact that some of the town boys had joined in the fracas; anything, perhaps to be seen in a similar (but not the same) light as the farm boys… look, we’re not really that bad… we have a common enemy now! When finally he picked himself up, and bellowed out, it was clear to whom he was addressing.
“The reason my dad isn’t home is because he is dead! He has an excuse not to be home, unlike your jailbird father!”
The colour drained from Tyson’s face the instant the last words faded into the now silent playground. Everyone who had been jeering and taunting Nathan stopped, their jaws slack, their eyes gawky. No one says that Tyson’s dad is a jailbird, all of their minds were saying, David’s included, for although he wasn’t among the group jeering Nathan, he had watched the verbal exchange all the same.
Nathan was not oblivious to the hush around him. He knew he had cut Tyson deeply with the words he had just said and knew what the price of saying those words constituted. But he also had a soft spot where his father was concerned, and as another unwritten law of the school yard goes: defend your father’s honour. And that’s just what he had done, despite the fact that as far as the silent group around him and Tyson were concerned, Nathan Johnson was a dead man.
Threat or no, Nathan smiled at Tyson, that cold smile that was patently his, the smile that matched his eyes, giving Nathan a frightening look. It was hard to believe that the eyes now locked onto Tyson’s firing green orbs were the same eyes that had held the year six audience captive while Nathan delivered a speech beyond reproach. The look in those cold eyes practically dared Tyson to do something and get it over with. Though an imbecile in class, Tyson knew better than to start something in the playground and risk bearing the wrath of the teacher on duty. Indeed, what he’d done already was going to cost him dearly. He knew deep down inside that every teacher in school wanted him out of there, and that even if he failed year six again, his promotion to high school was inevitable. Compared to Nathan Johnson, Tyson Maloney was Mount Everest. Broad, deep voiced with the onset of puberty; Tyson was more of a bull than a boy. There were rumours (which no one ever had a cause to substantiate) that Tyson had pubic hair. This naturally meant that because he was more mature than the other boys, he demanded their respect.
He fixed Nathan Johnson with his trademark grimace of disapproval that many kids had seen before having their lights knocked out. “You’re dead meat, arsehole,” Tyson growled. As the pièce de résistance, he hawked and spat a large wad of green phlegm onto the ground at Nathan’s feet before he turned and lumbered away.His cronies, the weak slavering hyenas that they were, laughed in Nathan Johnson’s face; Vinnie Dollabella and Damien Treloar, went as far as to point the index and pinkie fingers of their left hand at him, invoking the sign of the Evil Eye, proclaiming him cursed. Whether Nathan was scared or not, David couldn’t tell, for he hid it behind those cold eyes so well. When the crowd had dispersed, David went with it, knowing that there was little hope for Nathan to escape from the hole that he had just dug himself.