Once dark fell, the other volunteers had sloped off, home or more likely Maccas. Excluded again, Andre hung on in hope of a lift home. Tommy and Morgan the Mouth were both in detention but that still left Zeke unaccounted for.
He passed the last hamper to Mrs Egerton and she bent deep into the little car to pack it in tight, her wide, flat bottom waggling behind her. Andre imagined a big round target on it like in cartoons. Pow! Arrow right in the centre!
The little hatchback was sitting lower than it had been when they started. When Mrs Egerton backed out it gave a little lift, but not much. The teacher looked guiltily at her helper.
“I’d offer you a lift but I’m late as it is. Are you sure you’ll be alright?”
He felt in his pocket for his beanie, careful to detangle it from that other thing, the back-up plan, before he pulled it out, put it on. Hood up over the top of that. Now he’d stopped moving the cold was seeping through his uniform. His breath was freezing in the air in puffs of icy smoke. A dragon that breathes ice, putting out all the other dragons’ fires. Shunned by his family. Forced to walk the world alone.
“Yeah, miss,” he said, too proud to beg. “Wouldn’t miss the walk, so much to see, innit?” Her face must have betrayed her: the boy grinned and shrugged, the smile lighting up an ordinary face.
“Fields of unicorns. Lamp posts made of candy cane. It’s a f…” He stopped himself in time, “It’s a wonderland.”
“Don’t go licking those candy canes,” she said, relieved. Andre shook his head.
“I know, miss, your tongue gets stuck.” Again that grin. She was tempted to stay and talk. There was something about this kid that got to her. She glanced at her watch and cursed.
“Andre, I have to go and so do you, before you catch your death. We did good work today, there’s lots of poor kids who’ll have a better Christmas because of you.” Impulsively she gave him a quick hug, felt him give easily into the embrace.
“Thank you so much for helping me”
“One cannot resist a damsel in distress,” he replied in a surprisingly good upper-class accent, bending to a bow. She laughed, “Go!”
He ambled off with a little wave. As he walked he wrapped his scarf around his face, carefully covering his nose and mouth with the thick wool. By the time his teacher’s car followed him out of the driveway and turned the opposite direction down the street, Andre imagined himself trudging through thick arctic ice, every breath laboured from the lack of oxygen. He spoke words of comfort to the last dog in his pack, knowing deep down that to survive another day he’d have to sacrifice the dog for food. The wool of his scarf made the air around his mouth warm and moist.
At home, a cold and empty flat awaited him. He’d walk in, turn on the TV and turn on the heating. When his homework was done, He’d go and find the supper his Dad left in the fridge before he went to work, and it would be ready about the time Mum got home from her shift at the hospital. They’d eat it together in front of the TV and he’d lie about his day to make her happy.
So there was no rush. But it was bitterly cold. Frost was already forming on the cars parked along the road. He weighed the odds and took the most direct route, radioing ahead to the recon crew to see if there was trouble.
“Coast’s clear, Cap’n!”
“You sure, boy?”
“Sure as I can be”
“You better be, boy!”
As he rounded the last corner, he saw him. The runt of Tommy’s gang, and the most vicious amongst them, loitering under the light of Manolo’s Garage, swigging cider from a two-litre bottle. His heart sank. He wished he could turn back, but it was too late, Zeke had seen him.
“Andre! Oh Andre!”
If he lived to be a zillion, Andre was pretty sure he’d never understand the mysterious alchemy that made some kids cool and some kids – not. He understood that the sing-song tones were somehow to infer he was gay but he didn’t know why. He dug his hands deep in his pockets and walked on.
His mother believed bullies were weak and that all you needed to do was stand up to them, so he stood straight and tried to make himself believe he wasn’t scared of Zeke. That Zeke hadn’t bested him before and wouldn’t again. In his pocket, his hand curled around the handle of the knife he’d taken from the kitchen drawer.
“Andre, where you been?”
“Why aren’t you answering, Andre? Didn’t your mother teach you manners?”
The smaller boy blocked his path. He turned to the left, to walk around, praying for an adult to walk around the corner, but Zeke danced across in front of him, taunting him. He ducked his head and stopped.
“I just want to go home.”
“Pay or play. You know the rules.”
“You know I don’t have any money.”
“Playtime!” Zeke cackled. Six weeks at the school, sixteen beatings. This was a good place, his father said, a place they could get ahead.
“Just let me go, OK?”
He meant it to sound strong, but it came out squeaky. He pulled out the knife just as Zeke launched at him and it slid through Zeke’s jacket and into something firm that seemed to suck onto the blade. Andre let the handle go, alarmed, as Zeke fell back, his punch going wild. The knife clattered to the ground. The blade glinted in the streetlight, sinister smears staining the surface. A dark blot was growing on Zeke’s jacket. Andre watched as Zeke transformed from monster to small, scared boy before his eyes.
“You stuck me?”
Andre shook his head. Zeke dropped to his knees.
“Help me, you gotta help me.” Zeke was crying, clutching his side, looking bewildered at the blood staining his fingers. Andre scooted around him, not daring to take his eyes off his fallen enemy.
“Andre, help me.” The boy was begging. Andre shook his head again.
“I just wanted to go home,” he said, his voice a ghost. Then he ran. He ran and ran up all six flights of stairs to their little flat, not minding the smell of piss, not minding about the noise, just getting as far away as fast as possible. He fumbled the key in the lock, his heart hammering in his head his chest his throat and fell through the doorway, slamming the door behind him, burying his face against the rough carpet in the hall.
When his heart rate slowed and he started to feel stupid lying on the floor, he got up and went into the bathroom. Pulled the cord to flood the room with light and inspected himself in the mirror. Nothing. No blood. Nothing. Maybe I imagined it, he thought.
His Dad had left curry sausages for supper and when his Mum came home the whole flat was warm with the aroma. Cosy. She gave him a big hug, bigger than usual, holding tight and not letting go. He could tell she was upset, worried, so he made her laugh making up stories about the adventures he had on his way home and then they watched Eastenders together.