The straw that broke the camel’s back was a tongue. It was 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, quite vulnerable. Like Thomas Haley and his snot-faced cohorts were finally going to hurt her. She roughly 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 briskly. “It’s too cold anyway.”
The twins’ voices rose in unison to whine “oowwww!” 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.
That evening she sat brooding over every incident, every name called and every threat filled with childish menace. She remembered when Thomas Haley called her brother a “paki nig-nog” and tried to hit him in the face with a ball while they played kerby in the street. She remembered when Thomas Haley’s older brother called her a “black shit” and pushed her off of her bike when she rode past. Soon she was boiling with a stony, silent rage, but she also had a plan; tonight she would smash Thomas Haley’s head in with a brick.
At 6pm she slipped on her Girl’s Brigade uniform on cue, and left the house. An alleyway ran from the main street down the side of Thomas Haley’s house and then broke off left and right running behind the houses directly parallel to the main street. The Haley’s hedge that edged alongside the entrance to the alleyway would provide her cover, while the path recessing into the dark gulley would provide her escape route.
At 6.07 she was in position, practically indistinguishable from the shadows in the darkening blue of night. 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, and 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 – you didn’t really spit on that little coloured boy, did ya?”
“No, mom, I swear on Nanny’s grave!”
“Don’t you–”, his mother cuffed him on the side of his round head. “What’ve I told you about swearing on Nanny’s grave, for God’s sake!”
His mother strutted past the opening of the alleyway where her son’s would-be assassin was positioned. She had seen Thomas Haley’s mother getting ready one day. Her and a few other children from the neighbourhood had filled the Haley’s living room to watch a videotaped recording of last week’s 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 she wondered what to do next.
After a few minutes she crawled to the mouth of the alleyway 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 pelted back down the gulley and towards her house.
The Haley House Bricking was the talk of the area 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 was lapping up the attention and took an excessively bandaged Louie on walks any chance he got. Unfortunately he remained far from humbled as he continued to bully and verbally abuse both the twins and herself. 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 was pub quiz night, and Thomas Haley’s parents would be down at The Old King and Crown drinking cans of smuggled-in lager and flirting with people other than each other. 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. At about eight o’clock, when she knew that everyone would be in their respective places, she left her house and found her way onto the dirt track that ran behind Thomas Haley’s house.
She knew where the loose panel was in his back garden fence from summer days spent playing football, dodging dog turds and drinking plastic cups of watery squash from the Haley kitchen. The sound of it being worked free caught Louie’s attention, and he diligently trotted towards the back corner and right over to her. 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 BBQ 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 back to her as the launderette door swung shut and shook her head. “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 body, swollen and swinging from a tree near the river; congealed blood clotted around his open mouth; fat-bodied flies buzzing around his thick, pink tongue.