Rain always threatened.
No matter how the weeks had passed since they first began at St Agnes’s, the boys still waited for the inevitable to…inevitably happen.
Sharp pellets of rain shot down upon the knots of students scattered around the playground. With their backs turned against the weather and the world, they looked so much like penguins huddled against the storm.
For the weaker ones, the weather was the least of their worries. It was the gang members, wandering with impunity, who had to be avoided. Boredom and bravado meant that an attack could take place at any moment. Even in this time of odd peace, there was still some danger. The teachers, who were supposed to be on duty, were hidden away in doorways and recesses. Everyone knew who ran the school. A certain Joel Podrall stood at the heart of his lieutenants and accepted the homage they paid.
At fifteen, he was already becoming a man. His fingers told of a habit of cigarettes and cannabis whilst his breath and eyes betrayed his liking of stronger spirits. For as long as anyone cared to remember, Podrall had been the main man; or boy. He had been the recipient of his father’s genes, a father who no longer enjoyed the liberty of the outside world, and this had enabled him to develop a strength that was beyond that of many of his peers. His size and stature made him stand out in a crowd and this had the added benefit of drawing attention to himself. Whenever there was trouble to be had, Podrall was sure to have it. Older boys and men would single him out as the one to beat and would pay for their trouble. Anyone who he could not cope with on his own would be dealt with by his gang who would spring to his defence. In his fifteenth year, Joel Podrall feared almost nobody and knew that the world owed him big style.
For more than a month now, he had followed the orders of his leader.
Flowers was not to be disobeyed. He had been told to lay low, not to create any real disturbance, just to keep it normal. Normal for Podrall was usually mayhem. His need for violence continually craved satiation. More than anything else, he wanted to have a go at the eldest Andrews’ brother; the one who had escaped him on the first day.
Something had happened that was not right. A glance in the other lad’s eyes, just before the intended attack, had unnerved him. He had sen the same in the eyes of another; Flowers. What Podrall could not accept was the memory of the sudden bolt of fear that had run along his spine. It had stopped him in his tracks just moments before the water sprinklers and fire alarms had exploded. And he knew it had been Andrews boy.
An easier target was the younger one. Flowers had told him that he wanted their efforts to be directed at Chris, the footballer. Without spelling it out in any real depth, Flowers had suggested that it would make a bigger impact if one of his meanest gang members made mincemeat out of him. It needed to be public and it certainly needed to be an event.
What Flowers had not told his general was that he was testing his enemies for weaknesses and that, by default, the younger brother was the weakest link. Sheer physical strength and agility was no match for some of the other attributes that Flowers now prized so highly.
Turning to one of his more menacing compatriots, Podrall shot out his order,
“Teally, I want you to kick the footballer in. Make him know he’s not wanted around here. If his brother interferes, you all set on them.”
A snigger of laughter ran through the pack and they set about the operation.
An important part of understanding how the school worked was to understand how the tactics of terror could be deployed in the playground. Podrall was following a tried and tested formula when he sent his lads off to welcome the newcomer. His pack let it be known that they were about to make a sacrifice and the rest of the school responded enthusiastically following as if in a religious procession towards the scene of carnage.
For those teachers who cared to interfere, the gang had created diversions that would lead them away whilst the real business was taken care of. Fortunately, most of the teachers were too afraid, or too careful, to interfere.
As Michael and Chris walked unsuspectingly across the yard, they heard a voice from behind.
“Hey, are you that Chris Andrews who had trials for United?”
They both turned to discover a meaty looking gorilla of a boy approaching them.
“I said, are you that Chris Andrews who had trials for United?”
“Yes,” Chris innocently replied to the one who was now rushing towards him at speed.
Before he could truly react, he had taken a glancing blow to the side of his head that felt as if he had been hit with a goal post. Stunned, he managed to stay on his feet for long enough to avoid the next intended blow and to duck down out of his assailant’s reach.
A well-maintained athlete, Chris was able to switch into automatic-pilot mode, allowing his body to respond before his mind had determined the course of action. Being much slimmer than his attacker meant he was much faster and far more agile. As Teally’s second swing wildly missed its mark, Chris swivelled around and was able to aim a sharp jab into the kidney area of the larger lad. He was aware of the protection afforded to his adversary by the additional weight he was carrying, yet was also in possession of the knowledge that surprise could wind an opponent just as much as a winning punch.
Michael had been a bystander during these initial exchanges, becoming conscious of the dire predicament the brother had found himself in. Around them had gathered a baying crowd. Big ones, little ones, boys and girls, all chanting, pleading for the spilling of blood. Then there were the others who were with the big kid watching and waiting to pounce. Michael had seen this before and knew that it was a no-win situation. Michael also knew that they had underestimated Chris.
Sooner or later, Chris would put the big kid down and then the pack would descend upon him. Unlike Chris, Michael was a thinker first.
The big kid had started to take a few well-aimed punches without being able to find a suitable reply. Chris was moving around his man, choosing his moment to strike and making Teally look like a drunken uncle. His reactions were slow and getting slower yet he still had strength that could be dangerous. Chris was thinking now and seeing the outrage that was written on the faces of the big kid’s mates. They wouldn’t let this go on much longer and he knew it.
Soon, they would be all over him like rats.
Michael spotted the movement before he had decided to make it himself.
It was the ginger-haired kid who had moved. He was the one who would throw himself upon Chris and give the signal for the rest to follow. Michael had caught his eyes, weighing up the proceedings and had seen how the others looked to him for their lead.
Throwing thought from his mind, Michael rushed forward and caught Ginger with the sweetest and most crunching of blows right between the mouth and the nose. In fact, the blow had been complemented by the initial impetus of the ginger kid in his eagerness to set upon Chris. The result was a devastating delivery that not only halted the charge, but laid the attacker out flat and cold.
At moments like these, audiences often stop to admire the sheer audacity of the intended victim. The noise had ceased but appreciation was far from their minds.
From his position at the back of the crowd, Podrall knew that all had not gone to plan. Now, there were teachers coming. More to the point, there was Mr Hunter, ‘old bite yer legs’, who showed Podrall no fear and no respect. He’d stick his nose in where it didn’t belong one of these days and he’d know about it.
By the time Hunter had made his way to the centre of the crowd, it was already dissipating. Only Teally, the two brothers and the out-cold ginger kid remained.
“What on earth has been going on here? Jesus, this lad’s unconscious. You, Teal, get the nurse quickly.”
As the teacher bent down to administer first aid, he barked at the brothers to go straight to the headmaster’s office and to wait for him.
During the melee the mobile phone that Mum had bought fell from Mike’s pocket. It landed face down in a cushioning patch of mud. While Hunter was dealing with the others, Podrall walked across to where it lay and ever so casually picked it up.
The eldest of the brothers turned at the exact same point just as Podrall had managed to conceal his pickings in his trouser pocket. He had given him a look that he certainly did not like, but he wasn’t going to do anything about it now.
There would be another time, he swore to himself.