Frail John lived in the Tall House on the street. It wasn’t much taller than the other houses – just a meter or so – but everybody knew it as the Tall House. Frail John was so named because he had been born with a weak heart or a hole in his heart, I don’t recall exactly, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a broken heart. We were all a bit young for that sort of thing back then.
Mostly we occupied ourselves with outdoor games of a violent nature. There was Haulage, for example, the game in which one fellow with a skipping rope tied noose-like around his neck had to ﬁght off the other players as they attempted to haul him to ground by pulling the rope. We had many games like that, but best of all we liked Rolling Whackers which was always played on the hill. The hill was some distance from our street, behind an industrial estate on the edge of town, and getting there felt like quite a trek. It was worth it though, for it was the only place for a game of Rolling Whackers.
The game was fairly simple in design: One player – the ‘roller’ would be fastened with ropes to a skateboard or sled, depending on the season, then armoured with a pillow over the upper-body and a bicycle helmet for the head. Thusly attired the roller would be given a hearty push by another player and begin rolling precariously down the hill towards the other players (the so-called ‘whackers’) who would attempt to strike the roller with a veritable armoury of sticks and clubs. Frail John was forbidden by his mother from joining in our games. He was too sickly, she said. On cold days he wasn’t even allowed out of the house.
The day we knocked out Nugent’s teeth was a cold day though, and so we were all rather surprised to see Frail John scampering mouse-like after us as we made our way towards the frosty hill. It transpired that Frail John’s mum had gone Christmas shopping (it was the end of November) and he had seized the opportunity to sneak out and observe our game of Rolling Whackers. There was no question however of Frail John being anything but a mere spectator – his heart couldn’t handle the strain of being a roller. We wouldn’t even let him whack.
In any case, it was Nugent’s turn to be the roller, something he seemed quite unhappy about if I remember rightly. He was generally a good boy Nugent was, well liked by teachers and parents both. He was one of those pillar-of-the- community types you hear about. Even he had his dark side though – he used to fart on people and laugh about it, throwing back his head and showing his big yellow teeth.
On this particular day in late November though, he was not laughing. Indeed, I would even say he seemed troubled and anxious as we tied his legs to the skateboard and the pillow to his chest. I seem to remember his teeth chattering
as we clipped on the bicycle helmet, but then it was a chilly day after all. In the end we allowed Frail John to give Nugent the push from the top of the hill, for that was the least strenuous role in the game.
I remember quite clearly, even now, standing at the foot of the hill with the other boys – there were perhaps ﬁve or six of us, our breath steaming in the crisp late morning air. I was holding a golf club, a ﬁve-iron, I think it was, and waiting for Frail John to give Nugent the push. There was a subtle movement of the ﬁgures on the hilltop. Was that the push? The acceleration was imperceptible. Nugent on his skateboard tipped slightly, ﬁrst to the left, then to the right, and then began to pick up speed. Just a little at ﬁrst, but soon enough he was really zooming towards us, the wheels of the skateboard thundered like the hooves of a cavalry charge. We raised our weapons. He was close enough that we could see his terriﬁed eyes open wide and his big teeth grinning idiotically through the fear. We swung.
It’s hard to know exactly what happened next. I’m pretty sure my ﬁve-iron thudded harmlessly into the pillow – it wasn’t a good swing.
But there was a sickening crunching sound, and an agonized screaming, and the vacuous, whispering shockwave sound of fear and confusion. Then I saw the blood erupting from Nugent’s mouth, and some of his teeth lying nearby.
Somebody vomited. Another boy, Martin, was staring at the cricket bat he was holding in his shaking hands. The distant ﬁgure of Frail John came hesitantly down the hillside.
An indeterminate length of time passed in which Nugent screamed and groaned and stuffed his ﬁngers into his bleeding mouth while the rest of us swore a lot and argued about whose fault it was.
Eventually we heard a big voice shouting something, and looking over we saw a grown-up striding over from the industrial estate. It was a man and he started yelling at us, asking if were complete idiots, and what the hell were we doing, that sort of thing. Then he took Nugent to his car and drove off, presumably to hospital.
Well, we all got a lot of vicious telling-off over the next few days. It seemed all of the grown-ups thought we were horrible and the game of Rolling Whackers was too. We felt bad for knocking out all of Nugent’s teeth, but all of this telling off felt a bit much. We already felt some kind of remorse after all, and in the end is that not punishment enough?
Nugent’s mother was furious. It was just the two of them, and they were quite poor. Nugent and his mother were ﬁnancially crippled by the cost of the replacement teeth, and her mortiﬁcation was complete when, two weeks later, we knocked out the new teeth in the very same way. Frail John’s mum shouted at Frail John so much that his weak heart gave out. I think everyone came to the
funeral except for Mrs Nugent.
When I think back now to those days so many years ago I feel a tremendous amount of shame. How foolish we were!
Why didn’t we realise that the game was too hard on the Roller? Of course the Whackers ought to have had a handicap of some kind!
These days when we play, the Roller is mounted on a motorbike and has a dustbin lid for a shield. I wouldn’t say the game is any safer, but it is certainly fairer.
Of course, we don’t play as frequently as we once did – the various widows in the town ﬁnd it too distressing. Plus, most of us have kids of our own now and it’s not so easy to ﬁnd the time. I guess we all have to grow up eventually.
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