I always loved to hear the school bell at day's end, the beautiful sound of freedom. I would almost float with happiness through the gates on my way home. Today, I feared the school bell's clang. I sprinted through the school gates avoiding the other pupils. Heavy feet pounded on the floor behind me. Closer and closer. Panting, I collapsed against the shabby arcade wall and sank to the floor. My knees hugged my chest and my head dropped. He was next to me.
'I give up!' I screamed and shot both hands in the air to surrender. Two of my fingers instantly disappeared up Gnarler's nose. Talk about awkward. I tried to pull them out but they were well and truly plugged in. He must have leaned over me, but why…and with such large nostrils?
Aunty Billie says I'm a positive person, always looking on the bright side, but apart from not losing my entire hand up Gnarler's snout, things looked dark. The bully loomed over me, unmoving as if paralysed. His bulging eyes watered a little, before going cross-eyed to focus on my fingers, knuckles deep, up his sniffer. I could tickle his brain from here, maybe even bring a smile to his face.
A crowd jostled and shoved around us to get a better view. I'd never live this down. Come to think of it, I'd be lucky just to live.
Someone shouted, 'I hope the kid wasn't wearing a ring.' The crowd sucked in air at the thought.
Another one shouted, 'Put Gnarler down. He's not a finger puppet!'
Either through anger or a lack of oxygen the bully's face turned from pink to red to purple. It was hypnotising until he grabbed my bony wrist and with a powerful jerk, my arm hurtled towards the floor. Two loud POPS sounded as both fingers unplugged. I checked my hand to see if it was still attached to my arm. Phew! It would be fine after a good scrub. And loads of soap.
I smiled and looked apologetic. As my Aunty Billie always said, peace always starts with a smile. A hefty fist broke through my peaceful smile and bounced off my front tooth. My head fell back. I stared at Gnarler holding my mouth, eyes wide in disbelief. I guess he hadn't heard the saying. Gnarler reached his tree-trunk of an arm to me and offered out a hand. I went to grab it, but instead of lifting me, he pushed me back to the floor and nodded towards his hand. Clearly, this wasn't the hand of friendship. He wanted my lunch money, or as he always said his protection money.
'I've lost it,' I lied. I couldn't tell him the truth that I had spent my lunch money on…my lunch. The fish fingers and mash had smelt delicious.
'Cough up my money or I won't be able to protect you.'
The only protection that could save me now was a tank, and I was too young to drive.
'From what I hear you say? From me hitting you so hard you'll cough up your lungs through your eyeball sockets.'
I really doubted this was possible, but if anyone could replace my eyeballs with my lungs, it was Gnarler. I quickly turned out my pockets. 'I have nothing, I promise.'
'Alright, I'm not a monster,' Gnarler said, and waited for his friends to stop laughing at his comment. 'Just bring me a fiver tomorrow, instead.'
'Thanks, mummy's little wimp?'
That was it. My face flashed anger purple. No more. The time had come to make a stand. My heart pumped hard enough to crack my chest. I might be a mummy's boy, but I didn't have much choice since dad had gone. He wouldn't take this from a bully. I sensed him close — making me stronger, willing me on. I remembered what he said about bullies. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Well, today Gnarler would fall. And today dad would be proud.
I tapped Gnarler on the shoulder. 'The bigger they are…' I said. I leaned back ready to throw my hardest punch. 'The harder they—' and released the punch with every bit of anger inside me and enough power to break a wall, perhaps not a brick wall but still a wall.
Gnarler caught my hand — as if it were a leaf falling from a tree. '—The harder they hit!' he finished.
At the same time, his punch rocketed towards my stomach. But this time, to his surprise, I caught his fist — as if it were a tractor falling from a tree. My fist joined his as they both hit me in the stomach stopping only at my spine. My stomach decided there wasn't enough room for a couple of fists plus my fish fingers so it ejected my lunch the only way it knew how.
I vomited with the power of a fire hose. Gnarler dodged a flying fish finger and kept his distance as I directed my spew towards him. But I couldn't keep it up for long, school lunches didn't provide much ammunition. The moment I stopped, Gnarler calmly stepped around the mess towards me. With a shake of his greasy, brown hair, he roared and directed an almighty fist towards my eyes. For a moment I didn't think it was going to stop.
And I was right. It didn't.
'Now you're gonna bring me in a tenner tomorrow. Or next time I won't be so gentle with you.'
I nodded, already feeling my eyes closing thanks to his gentleness. Then I saw it. Gnarler could be hurt! His knuckle showed a speck of blood, probably from when I defended myself with my tooth.
'Ha!' I thought…out loud. Very loud in fact. The crowd spun round in disbelief. I knew what they were thinking. Who would dare laugh at Gnarler? Let us admire this brave hero of the people.
I crawled away so fast from Gnarler I was practically galloping on my knees. A rough hand clutched for the back of my trousers, missed and instead grabbed my Hulk underpants. Lifted clean off my knees, Gnarler suspended me in the air like a spinning piñata.
'Wedgey!' someone shouted. I didn't argue, partly because it was true, but mostly because I'd clenched my teeth so tight I couldn't speak.
'Ha? Is that what you said?' With Gnarler's face inches from mine, I could see his brown eyes were now bloodshot, maybe from when I'd dug out his bogeys earlier. It brought a whole new meaning to nose-dive.
Above the crowd's chant of 'Show us his lungs', I heard a familiar voice. A comforting voice. She pushed her way through the crowd and placed her hands on her slim hips. Oh, what a sight for sore eyes, quite literally, my bruised eyes were quite sore now.
'Release the boy!'
I slowly spun around still hanging by the elastic of my green underwear. My eyes locked with Gnarler's. He grinned and released me. I crashed to the floor and adjusted my undies so I could breathe again. Gnarler pointed at me and then punched his hand with enough force to break the bones of a small child. A child about my size.
Aunty Billie pulled out her phone. 'I'm going to call his mum, who happens to be the—'
'Headmistress. Yeah, so what?' Gnarler said as he strolled past the arcade with his vulture like friends circling him.
I checked my two fingers which had invaded Gnarler's skull. I'd never use them again, certainly not in my own nose. I might as well have a hook, at least I'd look cool.
Aunty Billie knelt down. 'Why haven't you told her? Your mum will kick him out of school so hard it'll take him weeks to remove her shoe.'
'I can't snitch to mum and he knows that. If any bullying incidents are reported she will miss out on the national prize.'
'Oh, not the prize again.' She straightened my blond, scruffy hair, moved it back, and then gave up. 'Does she still go on about that?'
'It's the only thing she cares about, since dad—'
'You know that's not true,' she said and walked in the direction of home.
I shrugged. 'I don't even know why she wants to win. So what if she meets the Prime Minister. She doesn't even like him.'
'She had a very different job before being a headmistress…' Aunty Billie paused for a moment as if stopping herself from continuing. 'I'm sure she has her reasons to meet the PM.'
I kicked a what looked like an empty coke can, it splashed my trousers. 'I need to find a way to beat Gnarler without mum's help, and if I can keep my lungs in my chest while doing it, even better.'
Aunty Billie placed her hand on my shoulder. Her nails painted red, almost as bright as her hair. 'Look, if you really don't want your mum involved, I'll help. But she'll be furious if she finds out.'
'She's furious a lot of the time anyway.'
'Then, let your mum win her prize, and we'll take care of the thick slab of muscle. And I mean thick in both senses of the word.' Aunty Billie produced a tissue from her sleeve like a magician and I half expected a pigeon to appear, instead she blew her nose.
'Nice underpants by the way. I might get some myself.'
'Oh, right. Good old Hulky pants,' I said. 'I'm not sure they're completely green anymore. But I'm glad I didn't wear my undies that says 'Fart Loading' across my butt.
'Well, they were more accurate than your Hulk ones.' Aunty Billie punched me softly on the arm.
I smiled. She always made me smile. 'I have an idea,' I said. 'Use your super spy skills to stop Gnarler's reign of terror.'
'Hmm, it does remind me of a time in Switzerland—'
'Oh no, not the Switzerland story again. I was joshing. You're not really a spy.'
'Well, I don't know how I got hold of this then.' She flashed her MI6 employee photo card. In bright red letters, it stated 'TOP SECRET Access to all Levels'. She often showed this when questioned about her adventures. 'All levels,' she said with a raised eyebrow, 'in case you missed it.' Being an inch from my eye, it was hard to miss it.
I loved Auntie's stories, but that's all they were, just stories. Most of the time they followed the same plots as the Bond films. I doubted Aunty Billie had ever been to an underwater spy base, let alone one with guard sharks. The identity card, her most prized possession, had always been a mystery though. It looked so real.
After buying some fish and chips from Cod Almighty Aunty Billie said, 'So, tell me about this bully.'
'Gnarler?' I replied, placing a hot chip in my mouth. Hot as in heat not in looks - I don't know what an attractive chip looks like. 'Well, he's not happy unless he's collected money from at least thirty kids a day.'
'Aaaand…' Aunty Billie prompted.
'He's always happy.' I threw another chip in my mouth.
'Gnarler. Such a funny name, but I guess he had a bit of a gnarly face. If he went to a zoo they wouldn't let him leave.'
'Yeah, they'd put him in with the gorillas.' I stopped walking. 'And he'd still be in charge.'
Aunty Billie ruffled my hair. 'It's OK. You'll beat him. I'm afraid the skills we're taught in MI6, or the Secret Intelligence Service would be too much. After all, he's still a young lad, even if he's big enough to make Godzilla scream. No, let's start with something like a gym and self-defence moves.'
'Orrrr…another idea might be…' I mused, 'you beat him up and tell him to stop. That would be awesome.' I gave a double thumbs up.
'It wouldn't solve anything,' Aunty Billie said.
'Well…not to disagree, but it kinda would. It would stop him hitting me.'
'Yeah, but you wouldn't learn anything.'
'I'd learn I prefer not to be hit, and I could learn to enjoy lunch again.'
'No, I mean you won't learn how to stop the next bully, say for example, when you leave school.'
Oh man, how many times will I be bullied? I threw the broken, battered fish in the bin and knew how it felt. Aunty Billie gave me a hug. 'I'll come to your house bright and breezy tomorrow. I know the perfect trainer.'
'I guess I have nothing to lose.'
'Except two hours of sleep, and some aching muscles.' She laughed. Her red hair bounced like rusty springs as she waved goodbye.
In my house, I called to mum in the kitchen making sure I stayed out of view, 'Hi Mum.'
'Hi Ollie,' she sang back.
'I'm beat today.' No lies there. 'Do you mind if I do my homework and have an early night? I'm also going to the gym before school with Aunty Billie?' I didn't want mum to see my bruised face.
'Sure. I have loads of work to do anyway. Say hi to Aunty Billie from me.'