It’s lunchtime at Summerbee Senior school and my friends Jonathan and Chris and I have gathered in a small, well-shaded corner of the playground to eat and discuss the relative merits of different hip hop albums - specifically, a series of compilation records we all love, collectively named “Electros”.
“I’m going with Electro 14,” says Chris.
“Why?” Jonathan asks.
“Two words: Skinny Boys.” We all nod our heads.
“It’s still 13 for me,” I persist. “I mean come on… Bambaataa’s Theme? And the transitions between songs… magic.”
One of Jonathan’s friends, Jones, overhears and approaches from the courtyard. “Are you talking about Electro? ’Cause 17's the best, hands down. I was breaking to it this weekend with my cousin.”
“You what?” Jonathan laughs. “You can break?”
“Yeah I can break!” Jones shouts, incensed. “Jackhammer, caterpillar, all that.”
“Go on then.” Jonathan persists. “Do a caterpillar.”
Jones is a short kid for his age. Stocky. One glance at the other two and I can tell we’re all waiting for him to fail. But he pulls it off - barely.
Jonathan immediately loses it anyway. “Come on mate,” he manages between wracking laughs, “you’re too short for that.”
“Yeah,” I join in with a snort. “You need to get a bit taller before you try that again.” Chris and I high five each other.
Jones pushes himself to his feet, takes a step toward me, and slowly curls his lower lip beneath his front teeth. “FUCK you, Walker,” he spits.
I point at Jonathan. “He said it first.”
Jones keeps his eyes squarely on me, breathing heavily, teeth bared.
“Come on Jones,” Jonathan says, putting his arm around his friend. “Stop making trouble.”
The bell rings. I don’t spare a second: I pick up my lunch box and stuff it in my bag and head to my next class without a glance back.
I’m unable to focus on anything for the rest of the day. I play Jones’s words in my head over and over like a busted record. I feel like I’ve been punched in the chest.
I don’t understand.
The final bell rings and I make my way gratefully to the exit at the back of the school. The doors open onto the school football field – on the other side is a wooded path that leads directly to Wordsworth Avenue, my street, my home.
I’m a step or two from the cover of trees when I hear it: “Walker!” I turn and see Jones running toward me from the school, his bag swinging wildly at his side.
I quicken my pace but I don’t run. It’s too far to run. My mouth is dry and my heart begins to thump ugly and painful, the pressure throbbing and poisonous in my ears.
Jones eventually catches up and walks alongside me. He says nothing but watches me, matching me step-for-step.
“That was funny earlier, yeah?” he says at last. I glance over at him: his teeth are still bared, his fists balled tight. “In the playground at lunch? That was FUNNY, right?” With that last he pushes my shoulder. I stumble lightly but manage to keep my balance.
“I’m sorry Jones,” I stutter. I sound pathetic, even to myself.
“Fuck you,” he says with another shove. This is the second time I’ve ever heard these words spoken directly to me. He shoves me again. Once again I keep my balance. “You scared mate?” he taunts. Another shove, harder this time.
Somewhere within the liminal space between shoves time slows to a crawl and I perceive the cruel absurdity of the situation before me. These woods are my second home. I know nearly every tree by heart - can map the branches from memory that lead most efficiently to each tree’s canopy. I can recall every summer spent with my friends perched on rotting strips of corrugated metal some thirty or forty feet above the ground, bragging about who’s seen Star Wars the most times while mashing saveloy and chips into our mouths in grubby fistfuls. I have been invincible here, a landowner of sorts, a King Of Trees, imperturbable as I dangle one-handed above leg-breaking nothingness. I have never been hurt here, and I have hurt no-one.
But Jones wants to fight me, and I know I can’t fight him back. I have no resources to draw on, no well of pain or injustice, and certainly no knowledge of my own power to resist him. I feel only shock that this is what he carries, that this kind of venom even exists, and that he has chosen to level it against me.
The path ahead curves and reveals the opening to Wordsworth Avenue. I begin to run but Jones grabs my shirt by the back of the neck and wrenches me backward.
“No you don’t, Walker. You’re dead.”
“God, stop, Jones, please…” I gargle grotesquely as I simultaneously scream and choke on my shirt collar. “I said I’m sorry...” tears are flowing now, marking fear and shame on my face.
“You’re dead!” he cries again.
“NO!” I scream back.
And my body clenches as I thrum with a sudden, overwhelming anger, and I swing my arm around and back and crash my fist into his face with all the force of my newfound rage.
I turn for a moment to see him fall and I gasp as I realize what I’ve done. And then I run. I hear him cry out, all death and fury, but I can’t make out the words.
There is only running.
I don’t tell my parents about what happened in the woods that day. I don’t tell my friends either. I wait and watch at my bedroom window each morning for my friends to pass on their way to school and I dash outside and I join them. I do the same thing after school. I try never to be alone. Companionship becomes my new life goal, my new religion.
Our school isn’t that big, and so inevitably Jones and I sometimes cross paths. But I am never on my own. He stands close-by as my friends and I talk, and he says nothing. It becomes clear to me that what happened between us that day will remain our secret, that he is as ashamed of his failure to punish me as I am of the fact that he has come to hate me so completely. Nobody notices as he stares at me minute after minute after minute, contemplating his moment that he seems certain will come. It never does.
Weeks pass, and a few days before the end of term I leave Summerbee Senior school and England for good. We are on the train to London, to Heathrow, to catch our trans-Atlantic flight to San Antonio, Texas, and it is only now that I believe I have beaten him at last.
We arrive in San Antonio and it is massive, hot, foreign. A million miles from Bournemouth. Jones can’t find me here, I think with a smile. But that’s when the nightmares begin.
I dream about Jones for years, his spiked hair and black bomber jacket and shining teeth a regular and vivid addition to my subconscious wanderings. In them he chases me again and again, but he never catches me.
He doesn’t have to.
Twenty years pass and I’m at work in downtown Austin and, on a whim, I decide to look him up on Facebook. I find him easily, a friend of old friends. In his profile picture he is stood on a stage wearing only a speedo, his muscles gorged, teeth still shining. A bodybuilder. I guess that makes sense.
I contemplate writing him, taking the high road and saying I’m sorry for what I said that day, for not fighting him fair, for punching him and running. But if I’m honest, I’m not sorry at all.
I shut off my computer and pick up my bag and head outside to find my car. The sun is bright and the city is quiet and I stop for a moment and listen as I hear the final, distant rumblings of a storm that isn’t even there.