ET TU, BRUTE
“Coming, ready or not.”
A giggle split the sky. Magpies – two for mirth – took flight. Leaves rustled as their wings disturbed the warm, late-summer air. Gnats hovered lazily. The daisies poking out from the long grass swayed daintily without a care. Neither friend nor foe to the little boy hidden under the jumbled planks of wood that created a dome in the middle of the scorched ground.
“Coming Toby, coming to get you.”
“Coming to beat you.”
“Coming to eat you.”
High-pitched laughter pierced each announcement.
The little boy quivered and bit down harder on his bottom lip, his chin trembling as it cradled between his raised knees. Arms banded round his legs and were held by an invisible padlock of panic.
Toby’s unadulterated fear had come to fruition. They had found his sanctuary.
Just as summer was beginning a new girl had started school: Angela. Blond hair, blue eyes, oh, she looks like a sweet, sweet angel Mrs Hutchinson their class teacher had said. An angel of death; four magpies had chirruped at the classroom window the day she entered, standing in front of Toby, twirling her hair around a finger as she rocked her hips from side to side. He had been drawing a funny face on the pad of his index finger; he was confounded as to why that had triggered her hate.
That was Monday, on Tuesday she had wheedled her way into his friendship group – Connor and Oscar – and on Wednesday those three were playing without him. Thursday saw him solitary in the playground and sniggered at in the classroom. The last day of the week they followed him home, jeering him, pushing him, but they didn’t chase him as he took flight.
The holidays then began and he was alone. For the first time ostracised and left confused to wander the woods building his castle for one, catching a fish dinner for one, training his army of one to fight the dragon with three heads.
“Toe-bee! Toe-bee! Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
No. No. No.
Please don’t come any closer.
“Beware, beware. Can you feel my stare? I know you’re there. Time to play truth or dare.”
Leave me alone!
An ant crawled around the rim of his trainer, bumping up and down over the running stitch pattern. This was a lone soldier, he belonged to no army. But he was brave; he travelled his own path facing the danger ahead with courage. Why aren’t I like that? thought Toby as he flicked the ant onto his finger and watched him change course, hurling himself off this unexpected ledge and, having landed, forged ahead once more.
Through the gaps in the wood, he watched as the three marched towards his castle.
A silver streak glinted in the muted sunshine. A slug’s trail. That’s what she was, Angela the slug. She left a vile stain wherever she went whilst she searched for food. She fed off others’ sorrow. Before she came along he had been happy. How can one stupid girl change that?
“Ah, you’re hiding Toby. Like a scaredy rabbit.”
“He’s crying for his Mummy,” Connor added.
“ Wah! Wah! Wah!” Oscar cried.
“Are you peeing yourself in fright Toe-bee?” Angela trilled.
The apex of his trousers was dry. He audibly exhaled in relief and then dared not inhale in case they had heard him. But they know where you are you fool! They know you are sat here, huddled under a pile of wood, hiding, scared, waiting for…..what?
He’d built the den the day after he had run home, the sweat of dread trickling down his back and the stench of his own terror chasing him. It was a private place, his den. Protection. Where popularity did not dominate, where people were invited – not that he had issued any invitations – and no one had prominence. There was no king of the castle. Yet, now, there was an evil queen.
The evil queen always died. Because she was stupid. Because her enemy challenged her. I can do that.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
The noise broke through his shroud of trepidation. She was just a girl. A silly one at that; his little sister had the same tinkerbell laugh. It was annoying, thought Toby . When his sister riled him he told her to shut up and go away. So why haven’t you done that with Angela?
It was clear – he wasn’t scared of Angela, he was scared of the power she wielded over his friends. They could hurt him with their distance, they had already. Of their own volition they had abandoned him and taken her side. Like all evil queens she was the coward , she used them, her henchmen to brandish her strength. Only their fists could hurt. Albeit her words were just as powerful with the barbs they left but only because he let it matter.
She was just a girl. Connor and Oscar just boys. He had made them the monsters when really the only monster was his imagination.
“I like your castle,” she sneered. “I’ll fight you for it.”
It wasn’t a sophisticated structure. Merely an overlapping of loose planks, erected to leave a gap large enough to accommodate his eight-year-old self. An old, frayed rope acted as a door knocker, door handle and lock. It was this that he held onto now as he scrambled out of his den.
“I’m here Angela.” Toby said standing tall.
“So you are.”
Another tinkling of laughter.
“What do you want?” he asked, taking a confident step forward.
“I want that den. I want to make it my palace.”
“With them,” he indicated in turn to his old friends, Connor and Oscar. They’d betrayed his trust, they were disloyal to him, stabbed him in the back for a mere girl. He was Julius Caesar; they were Brutus. Mrs Hutchinson had taught them all about the Roman leader.
“What?” Angela’s step faltered.
“I said: have it. It’s just wood. A simple den; they taught us how to make them at Cubs.”
“Well, I want it.”
“And I said you can have it. I can make another.”
“Goody. It’s mine then,” she said as she side-stepped him and pranced past. “Thank you Toe-bee.” Those words were sung into his ear on a mellifluous tone that rang hollow.
“You’re welcome.” To the slugs and spiders and stench of rotting fish…I am rather good at catching fish, must try harder to make fire though.
As he stepped forward he could hear her sigh of dismay.
“There’s just about enough room for you two as well,” Toby jeered as he looked his foes in the eye. “If you want to spend your time with a stinky girl, that is.”
Connor cast a glance at Oscar who merely shrugged.
They did nothing and, in that moment of indecisiveness and inactivity, Toby’s epiphany came. He realised that it wasn’t him, it was them. They were everywhere; weak people who blindly followed the shiniest light.
“Hit me if you want. Go ahead. I’ll fight back.” Oscar’s eyes had wandered over to where Angela was using a dock leaf to dust the top of the den. Connor was looking like he wanted to fight, but merely for the fun of it.
Two magpies flew overhead.
Toby walked away and he didn’t look back.
Photo by Tomek Dzido