The straw that broke the camel’s back was a tongue. A slobbering, pink tongue pressed against a piece of cling film held taut by two fat freckled hands. The tongue was pulsing obscenely, and she wasn’t sure why, but it made her feel uncomfortable and quite vulnerable. Like Thomas Haley and his snot-faced cohorts were finally going to hurt her. She grabbed her brother and sister by the hoods, spun around and marched them back towards the house.
“Are we not going to the park anymore?” Her brother asked, turning to look at the group of pale prepubescent boys who blocked their path.
“No,” she said. “It’s too cold anyway.”
Their voices rose in unison to whine but she did not break step until they were inside the safe confines of their house, the only space safe on the entire street from Thomas Haley and his reign of dough-cheeked terror.
She spent that evening reflecting on Thomas Haley’s offences. There was the time he continuously tried to hit her brother in the face with a ball while they played kerby in the street. When the leather football finally connected, he taunted the younger child mercilessly as the blood streamed. She also remembered the time he pushed her from her bike, calling her a “black shit” as he rode off with her prized possession. The bike was sheepishly returned a few hours later, but she still had a commemorative scar on her elbow. Then there was the name-calling, limitless in its scope and creativity. She was a “paki”, or a “blackie”, or a “paki-blackie-nig-nog” if the occasion inspired it. She was soon filled with a stony, silent rage, but she also had a plan: she was going to smash Thomas Haley’s head in with a brick.
The next day was Monday, so at 6 o’clock she slipped on her Girl’s Brigade uniform, left her house and was in position by 6.07. She was crouched in the entrance of the alleyway that ran from the main road down the side of Thomas Haley’s house before it split into a network of gullies that connected back gardens, side gates, and other roads in the neighbourhood. Her navy blue jumper and pleated skirt were practically indistinguishable from the shadows in the darkening blue of night. The Haley’s hedge that edged alongside the alleyway entrance provided more cover, and the path recessing into the dark gulley would provide her escape route. In one hand she gripped a broken brick retrieved from the crumbling wall next to the chippy, and with the other she fiddled with the woggle that held her Girl’s Brigade neckerchief tight around her neck. Pressed to the underside of the evergreen foliage, she soon heard the Haleys’ front door slam. Thomas would be wearing the same navy blue uniform, probably fiddling with his own woggle on his way to the church hall for Boy’s Brigade, but as she shifted on her haunches ready to pounce, she heard the unmistakable voice of his mother.
“I’m gunna ‘av a word with that Father Graham about this!” She always spoke like she wanted her neighbours to hear. “Two warnings in three weeks! I think it’s bullying, I really do – but you didn’t really spit on that little coloured boy, did ya?”
“No, Mom. I swear on Nanny’s grave!”
She heard the thick slap of his mother cuffing the side of his round head.
“What’ve I told you about swearing on Nanny’s grave? For God’s sake!”
She had seen Thomas Haley’s mother getting ready one day. She and a few other children from the neighbourhood had filled the Haley’s living room to watch an episode of Top of the Pops that someone’s cousin was rumoured to make an appearance in, and when she had gone to use the toilet she had disturbed Thomas Haley’s mother preparing for her weekly outing to the local pub’s quiz night. One of her eyes was ringed in black, but she hadn’t gotten to the other one yet. It looked watery and fragile, unadorned with its ring-fencing of kohl pencil and mascara, and for some reason this was the image that consumed her mind as mother and son walked past the entrance to the alleyway. She considered her next move.
After a while she crawled towards the main road and looked out into the empty street. She straightened up, took the broken brick in her hand, and lobbed it towards what she knew to be the front room window. She did not wait for it to make contact before she bolted down the gulley and towards her house.
The Haley House Bricking was the talk of the neighbourhood for a week or two, mainly because Louie, the Haley’s beloved bull terrier, had been hit by the broken glass from the window. Thomas Haley lapped up the attention and took an excessively bandaged Louie on walks any chance he got. Unfortunately, he remained far from humbled, and continued to bully and verbally abuse her and her siblings. One day she caught him trying to teach Louie to chase her little sister down the street on the command of “bite the monkey!”, while his crew of tag-alongs guffawed in the background. She went home and came up with another plan.
The following evening Thomas Haley’s parents would be down at The Old King and Crown drinking heavily and flirting with people they were not married to. Thomas Haley would be sat in the front room watching TV with the volume on extra loud while his brother shagged his current, former, or future girlfriend upstairs. So at around eight o’clock, when she knew that everyone would be in their respective places, she left her house and found herself back at the Haleys’ hedge, walking into the dark mouth of the gulley, feeling her way until she was at the fence that bordered their back garden.
She knew where the loose fence panel was from summer days spent playing football, dodging dog turds, and drinking cups of watery squash from the Haley kitchen. The sound of the panel being worked free caught Louie’s attention, and he diligently trotted towards the back corner. Before he had the chance to bark, she waved a handful of honey roast ham in front of his nose, and Louie greedily lapped up the wafer-thin slices that she dropped to the floor. While he was distracted, she took a length of rope from her pocket and tied it around Louie’s collar. With more slices of ham she coaxed him through the breach in the fence and led him away.
She imagined that it would have been the next morning that they discovered he had gone, when Thomas Haley’s father went out for his morning cigarette. He would be standing barefoot on the concrete slabs near the kitchen door, tapping his ash into an old barbecue grill abandoned to the elements, when he’d realise that he needed to walk the dog – but where was the dog?
Soon she saw the posters go up and even stood by silently in the launderette as Thomas Haley’s mother described to her own mum how empty the house felt without Louie. She watched as her mother laid a conciliatory hand on Janet Haley’s shoulder, and as Janet Haley dabbed at the rivulets of grey tears that stained her cheeks. She stayed mute as her mother turned, shaking her head as the launderette door swung shut. “These English people and their pets,” she sucked the air through her teeth, “I will never understand.”
And soon, before falling asleep in bed each night, she would imagine with great satisfaction the look on Thomas Haley’s face the day he found Louie’s swollen body swinging from a tree near the river, congealed blood clotted around his open mouth, fat-bodied flies buzzing around his thick, pink tongue.