Danny Rogan, nine years and three months old, was sick of his life. Facing his second fight in a week, he wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else, as long as it was home. Games were stopping around the village schoolyard, as boys, and a few girls edged towards them. Eyes hopeful, mouths gaping in anticipation.
Max Hindley’s pudgy face was six inches higher than his own, pure sneering malice. Big, hard and round, Max was a boulder about to roll over Danny. A boulder with fists, all set to begin their merciless pounding. Another bleeding nose? More torn clothes? More anger when he got back to the cottage?
Danny was sick of his life.
And it was all Hitler’s fault.
If it wasn’t for Hitler, his Dad wouldn’t be in danger in the merchant navy. Bombs wouldn’t be falling near his street, and his mother would not have let him be sent out here into the unfriendly countryside. “Where it is safe,” she had said.
Looking up at the threat of the towering Max Hindley, Danny wondered what being safe meant.
“Nacky, aren’t ye?” Max Hindley challenged in that thick growling accent.
True, he was a bit scared, but would never admit it.
“Not of you, fat-face.” It just blurted out. It had only been a thought, but somehow it had escaped through his clenched teeth. Oh, how Danny wished it hadn’t, as Max’s fist struck him on the forehead sending him sprawling on the dusty concrete, head throbbing, knees stinging.
“Fight!” From an excited voice, and others joined in. A wild cacophony of shrill sound. A haze of eager faces swarmed around. Just like Monday when Miss Watson had arrived to rescue him from a second punch from Vic Samms.
Crouched on the rough surface, Danny considered getting to his feet. Not a wise move. His chances of charging at Max? Nil. Of taking him by surprise? Zero.
Longing to be a brave battler, he knew, deep down, that he was just not big enough for this pit-heap of a lad. Silently, he prayed for the miracle of Miss Watson’s arrival again.
“Get up!” some kids yelled.
“Do him, Maxie.”
“Come on, Roguey.”
Slowly, unwillingly, Danny struggled to his feet, knowing exactly which lone voice was supporting him. But Max was swooping at him again, arms flailing like windmills. Big, but clumsy. Danny ducked under the fists.
Desperately, he wrapped his arms around that massive waist, his fingers rasping over hard corduroy. The sheer force of Max’s attack drove Danny backwards. Whoosh! Air hissed from his lungs as his back smashed against the uneven old stone of the school wall. Spectators roared their approval.
Hang on to that waist. Don’t let it go. Danny’s mind worked frantically, while his lungs refused to take in air. Gasping, he saw the fist raised. A snake’s head poised to strike. Not the nose again, not all that blood.
“What on earth is going on here?”
The icy tones of Miss Budgett, the headmistress, broke into his despair. Gloating faces vanished like steam on the wind. Max Hindley broke away from Danny’s loosening grasp, leaving him bent double, still straining for breath.
Why wasn’t Miss Budgett’s intervention more of a relief? Simply because Danny knew exactly what was coming next.
“Daniel Rogan, you again! Just what are you playing at, boy?”
As he expected, he was the prime target. The outsider always took the blame. Danny raised his head and tried to focus that this stern face. He tried to reply, but only a bagpipe screech escaped his breathless mouth.
“He started it, Miss, “Max growled, taking advantage of Danny’s inability to protest.
“Well, I’m putting an end to it, Hindley. You get along to Mrs Trimmet and tell her about your part in this.”
Max gave Danny a final smirk of triumph before swaggering away. Danny knew that Mrs Trimmet was such a kindly old lady, that it was like letting Max off.
Danny managed to squeeze some air into his lungs. His head hurt and his gloom deepened as he took in Miss Budgett’s disapproving face.
“You have clearly come out of this the worse for wear,” she said, her eyes enlarged behind thick lenses. “But then you did the other day. You don’t learn, do you?”
At home, his teacher had told him he learned very well. But out here, it was so different.
“What makes you town boys so aggressive? Isn’t there enough war in the world?
Filled with misery, Danny allowed his head to nod. Nobody could reason with the cold logic and vague questions of a teacher.
“Now, Daniel, I am going to insist that you promise there will be no more repeats. Otherwise, I will contact the Flints. They’d be most upset, wouldn’t they?”
Not the Flints. The hard, callous features of Albin Flint loomed across his mind. Danny looked at her in despair. No, not that.
Miss Budgett insisted on everything. He hated being called Daniel, but he couldn’t tell her that.
Daniel nodded his head as his fingertips explored his aching brow for bumps. Miss Budgett’s lips made a “Tut” before she turned abruptly and walked away. June sunlight filtered down on him through the sycamore trees. An unwelcome balm.
There was little sunshine in his heart. Home was what he wanted. For the first time his lips puckered, and his eyes moistened. No, he wouldn’t give them that satisfaction.
Norma, a year younger, but an evacuee as he was, and she approached him rather shyly now. But she was a slender link to happier days. The green of her dress had Danny thinking of the green privet hedges that lined his street. Miles away. Beyond reach.
Something ached inside him. Ached more than his back, his forehead or the scrapes on his knees. To be home. A hopeless dream.
Norma, with her pale ginger hair, and pale pretty face, crouched beside him. “I’m sorry, Danny,” she said quietly. “It was my fault, wasn’t it”
“No, not really.
”Max was teasing me and you stopped him.”
Danny shook his head, “I just told him to stop it.”
A pigeon waddled along the wall in their direction.
“And what did he say? Something about me, wasn’t it?” Her gentle moss green eyes held his.
“No, he didn’t,” Danny lied. What Max had said was something dirty that Danny would never repeat to her. “I just don’t like him.”
“You’re not a fighter though, are you?” Norma observed. On the wall, the pigeon appeared to nod its head in agreement, before giving him a look of contempt and flying off to the peak of the grey school roof.
“More like a punch-bag,” Danny muttered glumly. That made Norma giggle, but back home fights just never came his way. Here, he could not adjust to the mocking village kids.
Norma stood up and asked, “Are you walking up the lane after school?”
Danny knew he would relive a little envy as the walked the lane. Norma was housed with the Phillips, a kindly old couple, who took her out at weekends, and bought her cakes and sweets when they were available.
And Danny was cursed with the Flints in their dreary cold cottage. His tough luck.
Stretching his legs out in front of him he noticed the grazes on his knees below his short trousers. Round, wet, pinky scrapes and the left one trailed a thin river of dark, hardening blood. If he’d had long corduroys like the village kids his knees would be protected. But his mother had declared that he had to be eleven before he had long pants.
“You all right, Roguey?
Danny looked up to see the tall, thin Frankie Keyes, who was twelve-years-old and who had been evacuated to the Atkin’s farm that could be seen from the Flint’s garden. Frankie was very friendly and had been the lone supporting voice during the fight.
A couple of times Frankie had taken him across to the farm and they’d had a great time sliding down the hay in one of the barns. Now, as he settled alongside Danny, he repeated something that always surprised Danny, “Stinks here, doesn’t it?”
It was a statement that always surprised but also pleased Danny, because those feelings so matched his own.
“But you’ve got the farm to play on.” Danny knew this conversation was following a pattern that they’d shared many times.
“I’d rather be home with my own pals. The kids here don’t like us townies.”
“I had noticed that,” Danny replied, with such fervour that Frankie laughed.
Then the thin face became serious as Frankie said, “I’ve got to get away from here.”
Frankie’s declared intentions of running away had fascinated Danny. “You’re still thinking about that, then?”
“Think about nothing else, Roguey. You know that.”
Then Mrs Trimmet appeared in the yard, swinging the handbell energetically. The clanging immediately had the other kids lining up.
“Come on, Roguey,“ Frankie said, jumping to his feet, and offering Danny his hand to pull him up. “Another half day to get through. You never know, somebody might shoot Hitler tonight and we can all go home.”