Daniel Soule: Little Man o’ War

Weaving between shadows, a dandelion sun grazed the backs of their uniforms. They crept along concrete slabs skirting a flat roofed single storey building. Passing unnoticed, being careful to duck under windows, Phillip had led them this far. He’d seen them through it all, escaping, evading capture in enemy territory, but time was running out and for the good of the group he had to do something before the alarm bell started ringing. Phillip was the leader, not that anyone had put him in charge, but in a place like this leaders emerge. Tommy was the comic of the group, with a habit of opening his mouth to get either him or someone else in trouble. James followed anyone and would carry out whatever order he was given, anything for an easy life. It’s the Tommies and Jameses of the world that mean the Phillips emerge as leaders. Then there was Jonathan. He wanted to fit in but found whichever group he tagged along with he never did, and so he had a habit of being a little too eager and a little too open. He thought he’d struck it lucky. Tommy was already a mate, he’d got him in with the rest of the guys and now they were escaping. But as big as he was, Jonathan looked like an easy target. With time running out some discipline was needed to keep the troop in order. Phillip brought them to a halt.

“What’s that say, then?” Phillip asked. He was seven, with copper red hair and a quick little mind. He liked being the leader and he meant to keep it that way. Jonathan was big for his age, tall, with hair that had started its annual change from chestnut to blonde in the sunshine of early summer. He stalled, silently working his mouth around the words that moved on the book cover Phillip was pointing at through the classroom window. Just as Jonathan was about to get out the sounds ‘m.a.t.h.s,’ his stuttering became Phillip’s weapon.

“Er, Er, Erm,” Phillip mimicked, putting on a slow, stupid voice. “Er, Er, I c… c… can’t read, I… I… I’m so s… s… stupid,” he scratched his head and armpit. It was a pretty good impression of the chimps they saw last week on their school trip to the zoo.

James and Tommy laughed along with Phillip, and a flush of embarrassment rushed into Jonathan’s face. It burnt and throbbed. He was sure the whole school could see he was bright red. His friends turned their backs and walked away. He was supposed to follow but didn’t, wouldn’t. Small fists clenched to hold back the water in his eyes. Girls cry, not boys, and so he made his retreat inside to the toilet. Alone in a cubical he sniffled until Phillip’s face loomed in front of his closed eyes. More than anything, he wanted to punch Phillip, punch him right in his smarmy, freckled face. The remainder of playtime was spent in a fantasy of vengeance, playing out a titanic struggle between foes that ended with a decisive and devastating exchange of little fists. A grateful crowd patted Jonathan on the back. Really, they had never liked Phillip.

The bell rang and Jonathan found himself hiding out back in the cubical. Along a brown tiled wall, dozens of little yellow, dissolving soaps waged a failing war against the smell in three tiny urinals standing sentry. The hostile smell clawed at that place that could be either the top of your mouth or the back of your throat. Jonathan had lost track of time. He shouldn’t have been inside by himself for so long. Maybe he could make it to the playground quickly enough and not be noticed. He made a run for it but by the time he got there everyone was already in their parade lines, teachers at their heads. The door slammed behind him. Everyone turned and stared. Caught in no-man’s land there was nowhere to hide and his teacher, Miss Guthrie, put him in her battle worn cross-hairs.

“Jonathan Sebastian Jones,” oh no, she’d used all of his names, “where do you think you have been?” Miss Guthrie’s back was turned to the lines of children. With the other teachers craning to get eyes on the intruder, the rest of the little soldiers were free to snigger and pull faces. Better him than me, some thought. Phillip stuck out his tongue and lolled it to the side of his mouth, as he jerked an imaginary rope up at the side of his neck.

“The toilet, Miss.”

“That’s odd: I don’t remember giving you permission to leave the playground unaccompanied.” Silence. “Well?” prompted Miss Guthrie.

“I, I, I was desperate, Miss.” All the classes broke into a snigger and Jonathan turned red again, but there was nowhere to hide and a retreat was not an option.

“That is beside the point. Now join the back of the line. I will deal with you when we get inside.” Jonathan hurried to the back of the queue with his head down, avoiding the smirking faces of Phillip and the rest of his class.

While her class settled in their seats, Miss Guthrie went to the store cupboard. Under the hubbub Phillip announced in his poshest voice, “Jonathan Sebastian Jones needed to poo, so he ran to the toilet.” The few that could hear erupted in laughter, apart from Jonathan who sank into his seat and concentrated on holding back the tears. Those who didn’t hear it in its original soon had the news of Jonathan’s alleged bowel trouble relayed to them. Though by the time it had got to the last of the class Jonathan had not only pooed himself but had also gone to the headmaster for a clean pair of pants and trousers.

“Settle down,” ordered Miss Guthrie and the class obeyed.

Once work had started, Jonathan was called to the front for his punishment. Some held their noses when he walked by. He was to write out one hundred times in the lunch break, ‘I must not go to the toilet without asking.’

“And every word will be spelt correctly or you will do it all again,” added Miss Guthrie. She seemed a particularly spiteful adult to Jonathan. She knew his trouble with words that wouldn’t stay still on the page for him. It took forever to put the sounds together and by the time he’d finished a sentence he’d nearly forgotten the beginning. Then by the time he’d got to the end of the second sentence Miss Guthrie had usually lost patience with him. “The word is ‘right.’ What is so difficult about the word ‘right?’ And the answer isn’t on the ceiling, you silly little boy.”

When the metallic sound of the bell announced the lunch break Jonathan was glad to stay inside, even with his punishment. He knew Phillip had not finished.

“Try not to poo yourself again,” Phillip said on his way out; his troop sniggered and theatrically held their noses. While everyone played football, Jonathan wrote his lines. The words moved on the page and he tired from checking and double checking that each word was correct. There was no time to eat his pack-lunch, but his rumbling tummy helped to wake him the couple of times his eyes lolled off with the effort of reading and rereading. He didn’t want to be caught sleeping on the job, on top of everything else. When the bell rang again he had just finished. His eyes were tired, his hand ached and his brain felt like it was in a plastic bag.

Last Saturday Tommy had played at Jonathan’s house, but on the way back to his desk he kicked Jonathan’s seat. “Alright, stinky?” he said. Jonathan didn’t reply but he wondered who he would play with now. He decided that it would probably only be his big brother, but maybe not once he’d heard the story that he had pooed himself. Mum and Dad would probably make him though.

More writing all afternoon so Jonathan buckled down and tried to concentrate. Phillip lent forward from the row behind, “Make sure you spell them all right, stinky Sebastian”.

Jonathan had had all he could take, and he searched for the worst thing he could say. “Fuck off,” he whispered deliberately. Phillip paused: he wasn’t used to resistance. He needed to respond. The others around were listening and he couldn’t afford to lose face, but then Miss Guthrie came to his assistance.

“Jonathan Sebastian Jones, what do you think you are doing? You have only just finished one set of lines; are you trying to get a detention as well?”

Jonathan didn’t care anymore. “I wasn’t doing anything.”

Now Miss Guthrie was taken aback at being spoken to so defiantly by a seven-year-old.

“Well…” she began but Tommy interrupted helpfully.

“He wants to fight Phil, Miss.”

“Fighting is not tolerated in this school.” Jonathan didn’t know exactly what ‘tolerated’ meant, he certainly knew he couldn’t spell it, but from the tone he knew it wasn’t allowed. Besides he’d never in his life had a fight, accept maybe with his brother, but that doesn’t count.

“I don’t, Miss,” appealed Jonathan. There was an honesty in his voice, which combined with the forcefulness of his previous comment, made Miss Guthrie think this was more trouble than it was worth to unravel.

“Turn and face the front and get on with your work. I don’t want to hear another peep out of you, and that includes you Phillip Ashton.”

It was too late: acceptance of Tommy’s rumour as fact spread quickly around the classroom, including the exact time, place and reason for the fight. By the end of the school day excitement was palpable. When the classroom cleared more quickly than usual, Miss Guthrie put it down to the sunshine. ‘Stinky’ Jonathan was the only one not to hear the rumour. He was in no hurry to get outside with the others and he took his time. He was looking forward to the safety of walking home with his big brother, Sam, who was three years older and in the big part of the school. Sam would protect him.

In the few extra minutes it took Jonathan to drag his feet to the gates, the rest of the school found out about the fight. Those being picked up were reluctantly piled into cars. Those with a parental chaperone took the way straight up to the old Norman church in the middle of the village. All the others who walked to school by themselves went via a path that skirted between the meadow and the old cemetery, away from grown up eyes.

“So you’re having a fight with Phillip Ashton then?” said Sam matter-of-factly.

“Er, no. What?” said Jonathan.

“You offered out Phillip Ashton for a fight. That’s what everyone said,” explained Sam. Sam’s way of saying this gave the fight an inevitability. It didn’t matter that Jonathan hadn’t asked for it, or that he didn’t want one. His brother’s opinion that he did on both counts seem to make it so. Ahead, Jonathan could see more children than normal and they were walking slowly as if waiting for something. This included a reluctant looking Phillip and his two older brothers, twins in Sam’s year.

“I didn’t. I told him to fuck off ‘cos he was making stuff up about me all day.”

“Well, too late now,” said Sam.

How could it be too late, thought Jonathan, nothing has happened yet? He didn’t actually want a fight, did he? He thought about it in the toilet in the morning break so maybe he did. But he never asked for a fight, or maybe he did. Everyone else seem so certain.

Children from across the years of the school milled around in a disorganised fashion at a natural stopping point on the path at the edge of the meadow. It was a little flatter here, with the bank of the hedgerow edging the cemetery flanking one side of the clearing, and the arch of the meadow rising up from the flatted ground on the other side.

Jonathan and Sam approached Phillip and his brothers. No one seemed to know how to proceed, but then helpfully, or perhaps hopefully, someone who sounded like Tommy shouted, “FIGHT”. It could have been an observation, or a command, or even a question? The group decided. Immediately, a chant began and synchronised with the small people moving to encircling Jonathan and Phillip, cutting off any escape route up or down the path. Once the taller children took the best positions at the front of the circle, the smaller ones scrambled up the raised ground on either side to get a better view. The older boys jostled and puffed up their chests, the smaller ones pulled at their willies and squirmed in the hedgerows or jumped up and down on the meadow’s bank to see over the puffed up shoulders. The girls bounced and grabbed at each other’s arms, pulling and pushing each other. As the circle closed, their agitated movements blended, becoming one unit, one mass, one thing, repeating the word over and over, rhythmic and insistent, “FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT.”

Jonathan’s heart pounded, the blood thumped in his ears and his legs felt heavy. He wanted to run away but there was no way out. Then Jonathan noticed Sam stepping back a few paces, blending into the battlement of chants. Phillip’s brothers did the same leaving the two little soldiers standing together in the middle of the battlefield. The chant demanded over and over, “FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT.”

‘I don’t want to fight,’ thought Jonathan and he began to take a step back. In relief, Phillip did the same. Without words the two boys had come to an agreement, an entente cordiale, but as they retreated from each other, someone from the crowd, probably Tommy, shouted, “Stinky Sebastian pooed himself again”.

The red flush became so intense, so powerful, it transmuted itself from a colour to a texture, spikey and sharp, and then to a sound like a bang of releasing pressure, exploding in anger. The bang rang in Jonathan’s ears, blocking out the chant. He took two strides forward and threw his little fist at Phillip’s small, freckled face, hitting his mark on the mouth. Knocked off balance more than anything, Phillip landed flat on his bottom, propped up on his elbows. The bang had stopped in Jonathan’s ears and so had the chant.

The battlements quietened. Was this how it was supposed to go? Did we like ‘Stinky’ Sebastian? Weren’t fights supposed to be more… titanic?

Phillip’s mouth was ajar. No one had hit him in the face before. The shock of it was far more significant than the pain, which was far less than the dead arms his brothers regularly inflicted on him. He put a hand to his mouth, smudging dirt across his cheek. He looked at Jonathan for a moment as if he was the only other person in the world that might be able to understand what had just happened. And although he was probably right, neither of them had the words for it.

Jonathan was okay: his heart slowed; his ears quietened; his legs felt lighter again. And with that the surrounding world came back, along with its rules. He wasn’t allowed to fight. Mum didn’t even like play-fighting. Sam and Jonathan weren’t allowed to push each other, let alone punch. Jonathan tried to work out the consequences of what he had done. Maybe Phillip’s brothers and the rest of his family would come to their home and beat him up; maybe they’d beat up his whole family; maybe he’d have to talk to the police or go to court or be expelled from school; or maybe he’d be taken away from Mum and Dad. He’d heard about those places that were like a gaol for bad children. His head prickled and burnt again, pushing tears out of his eyes. The battlefield had opened up and gaps appeared up the lane, and so he did the only thing that came to mind. He retreated for safety, running as fast as he could for home.

Sam picked up Jonathan’s satchel and jogged on behind.

Jonathan instinctively followed the map in his head of his little world. Up to the end of the lane past the graveyard. Onto the road at the old church and turn right for the long home straight. Running past rows of small detached houses on the right and older, larger red-brick houses on the left, which ended with a farm opening up to fields, reeking of slurry. Each stride pounded into the pavement and up through the little soldier’s body. He ran and ran until his muscles burnt and his lungs felt like balloons about to burst. Finally, Jonathan got to his gate, and his shoes bit into the pavement to make the sharp turn as fast as he could. Past the chlorophyll green Cortina and the old white campervan that wouldn’t start anymore, then briefly into the shadow at the side of the house and at last to the pastel blue backdoor. He pulled hard on the handle and got safely into the shelter of home.

His mother had her back to the door and was putting in or taking something out of the oven. She was forever telling the boys not to slam the doors or bash them into the walls, so the sound of the back door hitting the ledge beside the pantry produced the beginnings of a telling-off. She turned and interrupted herself. Jonathan could see she was puzzled at his distorted face. Her features softened; her arms opened. Jonathan sprinted those last few steps into his mother’s midriff, and she gathered him up, her little solider.

“Whatever is the matter, angel?” Because of the terrible thing he’d done, the loving reference felt wrong. Jonathan produced a loud stuttering intake of breath, which only fed more tears.

Sam entered the kitchen and dropped their bags by the washing machine and nonchalantly picked up an apple from the fruit bowl and began to flick it upwards out of the back of his hand like a leg-spinner. “He’s just smacked Phillip Ashton in the mouth”

“Jonathan?” She said, with a mix of sympathy and questioning exclamation.

“Oh, Phil deserved it, mum. He’d been telling everyone that Jonny had shit himself.”

“Don’t swear.”

“I’m not, that’s what Phil was saying, not me.”

The rest of the details were pieced together between the three of them and Jonathan felt ready to receive his punishment, however severe it may be. He fully expected his mother to call the police and have them come and take him away to gaol that night. He would miss them all very much and really hoped they’d be allowed to visit and wondered if you were allowed to watch cartoons in goal. Instead she picked up the telephone and called Phillip Ashton’s mother. Jonathan and Sam sat at the small kitchen table with a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive. They couldn’t hear the details of the negotiations but no one was shouting, in fact, mum sounded quite friendly.

She returned to deliver the verdict and stood by Jonathan’s side softly pulling his head to her hip, running fingers gently through his hair.

“You’re going to Phillip’s to play and for some tea after school tomorrow. Fish fingers and chips I think Mrs Ashton said.”

Once Dan was an academic but the sentences proved too long and the words too obscure. Northern Ireland is where he now lives. But he was born in England and raised in Byron’s home town, which the bard hated but Dan does not. They named every other road after Byron. As yet no roads are named after Dan but several children are. He tries write the kind of stories he wants to read and aims for readers to want to turn the page.Dan’s work has featured in The Incubator, Storgy and the horror magazine Devolution Z.

Dan Soule Author Profile Pic

Once Dan was an academic but the sentences proved too long and the words too obscure. Northern Ireland is where he now lives. But he was born in England and raised in Byron’s home town, which the bard hated but Dan does not. They named every other road after Byron. As yet no roads are named after Dan but several children are. He tries write the kind of stories he wants to read and aims for readers to want to turn the page.Dan’s work has featured in The Incubator, Storgy and the horror magazine Devolution Z.

You can read Daniel’s previously published short story ‘The Switch’ by clicking the link below:

https://storgy.com/2015/09/30/daniel-soule-the-switch/

Twitter: @grammatologer
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