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On Hikers' Hill

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Chapter 2

Hail Mary and the Pet-rest

But sometimes, even Decko got me pretty angry.

“No,” I said when he told Ger and me to stop stalling and to take off to collect the ransom. “You said you’d do it.”

“Okay,” he said with a smile that forecast an oral whack to the side of the head. “She’s yours.” He motioned to hand me the thin piece of blue rope he’d attached to the dog’s collar.

Now whether Fiver was reacting to Ger standing next to me, or had realised that I repulsed it into justifiable outrage is something I’ve always wondered about.

The flat-faced, hairy, human baby crouched its oversized head to the ground, curled back its lips as much as excessive over-breeding would allow, and produced a nasally pneumatic snarl that snapped me from anger to cowardice.

“Hurry up,” Decko said, “and don’t come back without the money.”

The Pekinese gazed up at him and its sad, stubby tail wagged violently. With no tails to wag or droop, we left.

While walking past the Grotto and the blue and white statue of Hail Mary next to the priests’ garden, I did what Mam had taught me to do. Looking up at Hail Mary set high up in the rock-face, I blessed myself and said, “Holy Mother of God, forgive me my terrible sins.”

Ger stopped walking and laughed one of his lazy laughs.

“What’s funny?” I said, laughing with Ger anyway.

“I was just thinking,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, expecting him to tell me, but he was working himself into one of his rare laughing fits. He kind of collapsed onto the grass, the heels of his hands pressed to his forehead and his body shaking in slow motion. Next he was on his back, his legs pedalling the air.

I kind of dived on top of him. “C’mon, tell me,” I said, tickling him under his armpits. “What’s so funny?” But that just made him worse.

Suddenly exhausted, I lay back in the grass, the hot sun bathing my closed eyelids in blood.

Ger’s faraway voice pulled me from an instantaneous torpor. He’d said something about Aller.

“It’s the God honest truth,” he said.

“What is?”

“He said he’d like to give her one.”

“Who did? What are you on about, Ger Flanigan?”

“Aller. Aller said he wouldn’t mind giving Hail Mary one. Her being a virgin and all.”

“What?” I said.

“It’s true.” Ger did his impression of Decko doing his Aller impression, frowning and sticking out his lower lip. “I wouldn’t mind giving her one,” he said in Aller’s thick-tongued voice.” And he wagged and wiggled his tongue up at Hail Mary, his head to the side and his hands joined in prayer.

“Fuck off, Ger, you spa. You’re sick.”

“God forgive you,” Ger said in this little old woman’s squeaky voice.

“Suck my dick,” I said, which started us laughing again. “Hey, Hail Mary,” I shouted up at the statue.

This pulled Ger from his laughter the way I knew it would. His eyes were as big as 10p coins and his face bloated with expectation, daring me.

I hesitated, not yet sure if I had the balls to outdo even Aller and his scumbag mouth. But like the unstoppable momentum that takes you when you run down a hill, turning back wasn’t an option.

“Hail Mary,” I repeated. “How’d you like to suck on this?” I grabbed myself the way I’d seen skinners grab themselves, my hand clamped over my groin, and I made a Les Dawson face with sticky-out lips. “Suck my big, fat baldy one,” I roared at the blue and white effigy that ignored us from her perch in the manmade cliff-face.

That got us roaring so hard, I kind of pissed myself a bit, but who cared? This happened before. The day was hot. My underpants would dry out.

What did silence the pair of us, though, was a high-pitched voice shouting from behind the tall hedge.

“You boys. You boys,” the voice screeched. “You little blackguards. Wait until I talk to your mothers and fathers … when I get my hands on you …”

“The balaclavas,” I said. “Quick.” I pulled my woolly hat down over my face and shifted it so I could peer out through the holes I’d made for eyes.

“It’s him,” Ger said, dragging his mother’s stocking out of his pocket.

“Who?” I whispered. “Geronimo Hawk?” knowing it sounded absolutely nothing like the Hawk.

“No, you moron,” he said. “The Pet-rest.”

The older boys, the ones who had the priest for religious classes, had given the priest his nickname.

The hedge was very thick and was taller than the priest. It was about thirty yards to the entrance in the hedge that led into the vegetable garden. We were young and I was fast and knew it. I often raced buses from one stop to another and won.

“Run,” I said, half-consciously wondering why we hadn’t taken off the second the Pet-rest’s slithery voice shrieked into the evening.

We took off like a couple of collie pups released from a kennel. Strewn around the ground beneath us were half-grown pears that had fallen from the branches above. I kind of slipped on a pear but righted myself.

Despite his general sloth-like movements, Ger could move like an ungainly whippet when necessary. When a good few paces past the gate in the hedge, I swung round while still in full flight and roared at the priest.

“Preacher Teacher’s a Pet-rest. Preacher Teacher’s a Pet-rest.”

But the priest was also faster on his feet than I expected. He held that stupid black dress they wear up over his knees and pelted along like some caricature of a clergyman in a movie. His unexpected burst of speed dictated that we turn left instead of right at the gate of the church. Had we gone right we were on the straight path home to our road and to Mrs O’Gorman. By veering left we ran around the curve of the fence for at least one hundred yards. This meant the Pet-rest would hopefully remain too far behind to be able to identify us to our parents.

Naturally, we weren’t thinking this out methodically. Instinct was the ruler of our destiny in those days. But occasionally, only occasionally, the sun burst forth when you wanted it to, the pretty girl returned your smile, or the school burned down before the end of the holidays, but this wasn’t one of those moments. Not totally anyway.

We’d made it around the perimeter of the church’s curved fence, but the clomp, clomp of the priest’s healed and capped brogues told us he was determined to catch us. We often heard the older boys talking about how the Pet-rest was always chasing after young fellows, so we knew he had plenty of practice. But refuge was now just paces ahead. There were stacks of places to hide in the side roads off the large shop-filled street, which was the centre of our town.

Before reaching the shops, something completely unexpected happened. A sickening burning sensation welled up inside my stomach. My head felt dizzier than it would have had I been spinning on the spot for five minutes. Large black dots, perfectly round, jerked across my eyes and disappeared. I don’t know if I called out to Ger to help me, but he was crouched down beside me behind the garden wall I’d stumbled over, pressing me gently to the earth.

I dragged off the woolly hat and used it to towel my sweaty face.

Ger normally didn’t say too much unless he had something definite to say, but now he was totally silent. And, although my senses were too cloudy and my vision in particular too blurred, I knew he was indicating that the Pet-rest was near and that we couldn’t breathe.

But now that the burning ache in my insides was subsiding and the shadows before my eyes had lifted enough to allow me to make out the pink and white geraniums in which we were lying, my entire being was hijacked suddenly by a thirst that no amount of water could ever slake. Oxygen, not liquid, was what I craved.

Panic clutched me by the throat. I tried to inhale deeply, but the suffocating fingers gripped my neck tighter with every attempted inhalation until my windpipe seemed blocked and I would burn up. And then the garden gate creaked open. We were nabbed. I felt Ger’s reassuring hand, the hand that hadn’t left my shoulder, freeze.

“What are you two rascals doing?” a voice sweeter than I could’ve thought possible said.

Without realising it, I was breathing naturally again and my senses were as sharp as a carnivore’s canine. A girl Ger and me never saw before that day stood on the garden path with her hands on her hips. She smiled a smile from a mouth so crammed with big white teeth, I felt like crying. I couldn’t say why. She looked like a small adult.

“This is my house,” she said. “Do you two want to have a picnic with me around there?”

We craned our necks to look towards the rear garden, turned back to look at each other and then back at the girl and nodded our eagerness. That was how I first met Sarah Fernandez.

Now, I realised from an early age that the way to stay strong and survive is not to get too emotional about anyone or anything, because death takes everything away. It silences everything – movement, laughter, tears and talk. Yet when I think about the way Sarah was in those days, I feel a

happy-sadness or sad-happiness, I’m not sure. And if I catch a glimpse of my reflection when she’s on my mind, I’m smiling.

I studied her closely in the back garden of her house while she sliced orange cheddar cheese, peeled apples and poured orange juice into plastic cups. I regarded her with the intense fascination that a new species of bird or animal, one I’ve never seen before, holds over me. There was no girlieness about the operation. For Sarah, it wasn’t a make-believe game in which she had to speak in a motherly voice imitating a little girl’s fantasies about being a grown-up feeding her family of half-wits. She asked us our names, used them and spoke with us like we three had been friends forever.

“What happened your nose?” I asked her and consciously touched what looked like a fine scar across its bridge.

She stuck out her lower lip and turned her huge green eyes inwards like Clarence, the cross-eyed lion, as though she were trying to see the mark for the first time.

“I like playing with boomerangs,” she said, and exaggerated her smile to show me that it was a smile crease from bunching up the muscles in her face, the way some adults had smiling lines around their eyes.

“What’s your second name?” Ger asked her, which caused me to feel anger flushing my cheeks because his question was better than mine. I wanted Ger not to be alive when she replied.

“Fernandez. My father is Spanish.” She stood up and did a quick Spanish Flamenco turn. “Hey, here comes Jackie,” she said.

A muscular, white and brown Jack Russel dog sprinted towards us from the house. The significance of this four-legged reminder registered instantly.

“Decko,” I roared, “We forgot about Decko.” I pushed myself away from the table but my chair remained stuck to the ground like it had grown roots, while the table tipped over, spilling Sarah’s carefully prepared picnic to the ground.

“C’mon Ger, let’s scarper.” And we took off to the sound of Sarah screaming at us mingled with the confused growling-bark of the Jack Russel torn between his instinct to pursue the cowardly- fleeing taking second place to remaining and devouring the culinary delights scattered on the grass before him.

So we were on the move again, pounding along the main street, charging past the church, brazenly flinging a few expletives at the invisible Pet-rest, and ripping through the narrowing road for home.

“Decko will kill us,” I coughed out between quickened breathing and loud gasps for air.

“She’s really pretty,” Ger said through equally laboured breathing.

“Shut up, Ger,” I said, and pulled him to the ground by leaping onto his back while we were both still in full flight. “There’s Decko.”

Decko was outside old Mrs O’Gorman’s front gate and talking to someone inside the garden hidden by the pillar. Ger and me were too far away to hear their voices clearly. We played possum for a moment, lying half on a grassy verge, until Ger rolled over and asked me to get off him. But in the same breath he wondered if she had a boyfriend.

I slid back on top of him, looked into his unfocused eyes and felt the instant urge to want to pound in his face with my fists. He must have picked up on something in my countenance, or felt my body stiffen maybe, because he twisted himself over so he was on his stomach.

“Raz, let me up will you?” His tone of self-pity succeeded only in making me want to pick up a thin piece of broken plastic piping next to the kerb and use it to crack him across the back of the head.

“I didn’t do nothing,” he said. “It’s not my fault, Susu or the shagging Pet-rest.”

“Shut your stupid mouth,” I said, and I warned him not to move as I was leaning over to grasp the piece of piping.

I screamed out in pain when a large foot pressed my fingers, wrapped around the piping, into the ground.

A blinding yellow belt of sunshine, a streak of blue sky, Aller O’Callaghan’s gruff voice, his large silhouette and the sickeningly familiar smell of cooked meat from his sweaty hands crowded my senses as he dragged me to my feet.

With the pipe now pressing into my neck and my feet dangling free in space, Aller twisted me left and right, a human shield protecting him against a courageous Ger who was charging him with the fearlessness of a lynx pitted against a grizzly. The pain in my throat became intense. Unconsciousness or nature’s long sleep would’ve been a welcome release.

Aller’s chuckling died when Decco’s voice boomed through the street like a car crash.

“Aller, you’re dead,” he said. And I could hear his black boots tearing towards us.

He released me instantly. A switch might have been flicked. I fell to the ground, crumpled and without strength, my head crashed to the earth. But I was conscious yet. This was it, the confrontation that was written, and the clash that had to be. Decko in a fight with Aller, and I was there to witness it, the bout of my childhood, and perhaps my life.

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