CHRONICLES OF HALDEN, IV

The Little Friends

by

Robin Gordon

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"

-  Auksford, 2004  -

Copyright Robin Gordon, 2004
The moral rights of the author have been asserted

For Donna, tart little friend and inspiration


Charlotte sometimes vaguely wondered if she were to blame for what happened to Robin. Every other year they had celebrated Edith's birthday at Edith's house on the far side of the village, but this year she had felt that it wasn't fair for Edith to make her own birthday meal. She wanted to do something nice for her mother, and, perhaps at the same time show her that she was perfectly capable of arranging a birthday dinner. Edith always seemed to treat her as if she were still a little girl with nothing in her head but music and boys, even though she was married with two children, the eldest already fifteen, almost a man. And with Dick always away on business she had brought up Robin and Sheila virtually as a single parent. Of course she was capable of arranging a proper birthday party, a nice roast with all the trimmings, and a first-rate apple pie.

So Edith had agreed to come to Charlotte's house, though it was smaller than her own, and she had first driven into Halden to pick up her sister Libby. It had taken longer than expected because Libby had forgotten her pills, and they were already at the turn-off to Geddonthwaite before she realised they weren't in her handbag. So Edith had driven all the way back into Halden, and Libby had searched her kitchen for several minutes before remembering that she had put the pills on the hall table so that she wouldn't forget them.

Charlotte meanwhile had been trying to keep the lunch warm without letting anything get overcooked. Sheila was a great help. Somehow Sheila stayed calm in every crisis, much like her grandmother, Charlotte ruefully recognised, while Charlotte herself tended to forget things, then flap.

Robin was bored. Typical boy. He'd gone wandering off towards the woods, promising to keep an eye out for his grandmother's car and come home at once as soon as he saw it.

Edith's car arrived soon after, and she and Libby came into the house and kissed Charlotte and Sheila, and then Edith immediately took charge of getting the meal onto the table, with Sheila running backwards and forwards between the kitchen and dining room, somehow transformed into a ball of energy by the arrival of the commander in chief, while Charlotte sat around talking to Libby.

Everything was ready, but there was no sign of Robin. Charlotte went out into front garden and called him. Edith brushed past her impatiently,

"He'll never hear that feeble little voice of yours," she said, then marched down the gate and called loudly and clearly: "Robin! ROBIN!"

As Charlotte knew would happen, Edith's voice brought an immediate response. Fat old Mrs Pond from next door suddenly appeared from behind the fence where Charlotte knew she had been lurking, pretending to weed her flower beds while she watched and listened.

"Hallo," she said, "oh it's you Mrs Clover. Hallo, Charlotte dear. Having a family party?"

"It's my birthday," said Edith. "I'm 73. Charlotte's prepared a beautiful lunch, but now we can't find Robin."

"He went into the woods," said Mrs Pond. I don't know why they all go into the woods. Up to no good, some of them I think. Not Robin of course, but that Radcliffe boy and those friends of his. You should tell Robin to keep away from them, Charlotte. I'm sure he could find nicer boys to play with.

Charlotte smiled weakly, and Sheila boiled with fury. What business of Mrs Pond's was it what Robin did, or Daniel Radcliffe for that matter. Nicer boys to play with indeed, as if Robin were a little boy of nine or ten with a batman suit, like little Kevin Oldham.

"You should go and have your dinner," said Mrs Pond. "Robin will turn up sooner or later. Serve him right if he has to have his cold. But boys get hungry quite quickly, don't they, so I shouldn't think he'll stay out long. He's probably on his way back. I'll just look along the road for you."

The road from Geddonthwaithe out to Geddon Hall curved slightly and Mrs Pond's house was right on the bend. She lumbered over to the other side of her garden and peered through the bushes towards the end of Geddon Wood.

Then she screamed.

Over and over she screamed as if her lungs would burst. Edith, Charlotte and Sheila raced out of the gate and along to the corner, and Libby came tottering out of the house ashen faced and demanding to know what had happened.

Robin was hanging from a tree.

He was still jerking. Perhaps he wasn't dead!

They raced towards him, screaming as loudly as Mrs Pond.

Then Sheila saw that the rope wasn't round his neck. It was round his wrists, pulling his arms up above his head, and looped over a branch. His toes could just touch the floor. He couldn't call out. He was gagged. She stopped and stared, unable to take her eyes from him. Robin was trouserless. With his arms pulled up his shirt was too short to cover his groin. Everything was on show.

Edith and Charlotte reached him and began to pull fruitlessly at the knots. Robin's weight had pulled them tight. There was no way of undoing them. The branch swayed up and down as they pulled, bouncing Robin with it. Sheila stared, and Robin saw her looking and flushed fiery red. Edith pulled the gag from his mouth - it was his underpants - and Robin began gasping, "Don't look! Stop her looking!"

Edith pulled off her apron and tied it swiftly round his waist, then she came over to Sheila. "Go and get knives," she commanded, "sharp knives, to cut the rope."

By the time she got back they had put Robin's underpants on him and covered him up. Edith cut quickly through the cord that looped over the branch. Sheila saw that her brother was crying. As soon as he was free, he clamped his hands tightly over his groin and fled for home in a scuttling, crab-like run.

He ran straight to his room, wouldn't come out, wouldn't let anyone in, wouldn't even talk through the door.

It was a sombre meal. Who could have done such a thing to poor Robin? The women agreed that it must have been Daniel Radcliffe and his gang. They were always in the woods. Mrs Pond often saw them there. Mrs Pond had warned them to tell Robin to keep away from them. Mrs Pond may even have seen them that day, seen them with Robin. Sheila gained the distinct impression that she had. Mrs Pond had probably seen Daniel Radcliffe and his gang lurking in the woods, waiting to ambush Robin. Well, thought, Sheila, sooner or later, she would make Daniel Radcliffe pay.

They never did find Robin's trousers. Daniel Radcliffe must have taken them as a trophy.

***

If no-one else had seen Robin's humiliation Sheila might have tried to keep it secret and perhaps not even told her gang why she wanted them to spy on Daniel Radcliffe. But Mrs Pond had seen. Mrs Pond had seen everything. She had seen Robin hanging there without his trousers, naked from the waist down, and, perhaps worst of all, she had seen Sheila staring at him and heard Robin tell his mother and grandmother to stop her looking. Mrs Pond must have told other women in the village, and they told their friends, till even the girls of her own age knew.

Jean Radcliffe came up to her in the street, with that sort of sneering smile of hers, and her two tough girl friends with her. "Hey, it was your brother hanging there without any pants on wasn't it? I bet you got a good look before they sent you away! Did you? Did you get a real good look?"

"I don't know what you mean," she said, and walked off .

So now there was no point in not telling her gang, at least she thought of it as her gang because she was the one with the ideas and the punchdrive, but everyone else called it Duncan's gang. It's official leader, Duncan Hall, was thirteen like herself and the other members: Harriet, Helen, Neil, Alan and the rather drippy Alison. Harriet and Helen had heard about Robin's experience, of course, Alison hadn't, which wasn't surprising, and no-one had mentioned it to the boys at all. They looked rather embarrassed when the girls began talking about Robin without his pants, so Sheila quickly changed the subject to revenge. They still had three weeks of the long summer holiday, and during that time they would spy on Daniel Radcliffe and his gang, and see if they could find a way of avenging Robin. It would be dangerous. The Radcliffe gang were big fifteen-year olds: they could make mincemeat out of any of Duncan's gang.

***

At that precise moment Daniel Radcliffe was in the space under a huge clump of thorn bushes somewhere in the middle of Geddon woods. In front of him was a tin biscuit box, and round it crouched Harry Gurning, Robert Sharpe and Ron Potts.

"It's Gareth's" said Daniel, with a grin. "It's his secret hoard of porn."

"Let's have a look!"

Daniel opened the box and each boy took out a magazine.

"Wow!

"Naked women!"

"People DOING it!"

"Doing it? Let's see! COR!"

"Where d'he ge'it all?"

"He buys 'em in Halden."

"Who's 'a thought it of Gareth?"

"Yeah, holy Gareth, with all these mucky magazines."

"Oh, look at that, look at that!"

"What? What? Let's Have a look!

"Phwor!

They sat down on the ground, shared out the magazines, lit up their cigarettes, and settled down to enjoy Gareth's collection.

***

Over the next few days Daniel, Harry, Robert and Ron enjoyed many similar sessions. Gareth was in holy mood that week, practising with the church choir, conversing with the vicar and the curate, performing little acts of kindness here and there, and generally seeking to purify his soul. If the thought of the secret hoard in the biscuit tin ever crossed his mind, he spurned it and prayed earnestly to be cleansed. He did not cross the threshold of the old washhouse, where he had left it beneath a pile of miscellaneous junk, at all, though the strain was sometimes almost too much for him. Daniel's gang were therefore left in undisturbed possession of their treasure.

What they didn't realise was that their steps through the wood were dogged by a gang of younger kids: Duncan's gang was faithfully carrying out Sheila's instructions, and their first mission was to try and discover Daniel's den. They needed their bikes, of course, for Daniel and his gang didn't just enter the wood at its nearest point to the village. They cycled a mile or so along the road, left their bikes in the ruins of the old gamekeeper's cottage, which was rumoured among the local children to have been destroyed by a stray German bomb in the war, but had in fact simply been abandoned, fallen down through desuetude, and had its bricks and stones carried off to repair farm walls or form hardcore for drives.

Daniel would cycle into the village from his home on the far side of the railway line, meet Harry, Robert and Ron, and then the group would pass Sheila's house, pass the tree where Robin had hung in trouserless humiliation, and continue out along the road that led to Geddon Hall. Duncan's gang could not just follow them openly or they would have been easily spotted, as Sheila pointed out. They had to wait for the older boys to reach their destination then go after them and try to spot where they had parked their bikes. Cycling, they quickly discovered, was no good at all. They had to walk along the edge of the wood, making frequent forays into likely areas. On the third day they found the other gang's bikes. Neil was all for sabotaging them, letting down the tyres or even taking them away and chucking them into the nearby ditch, but Sheila called him sharply to order.

"If you sabotage the bikes they'll know we're on to them. We'll never find their den."

"Why do we need to find their den? If you want revenge we can get it now by smashing up their bikes."

"That's not enough. I want them really to suffer, like they made Robin suffer. I want to find their den, find out what they've got there, what they do there every day. You agree, don't you Duncan? We don't want them to know we're after them?"

Duncan agreed, and the others all supported Sheila as well, so Neil had to agree.

"What we have to do," said Sheila, is find somewhere to hide so we can see which way they go, then we'll come up here when they're doing something else and have a real good search."

***

Gareth was always his grandmother's favourite. She made no secret about it: in fact she had very little time for Daniel and regarded Jean as an impudent little baggage. Jean was an impudent little baggage, there was no denying it, not that Jean would have wanted to. She was proud of her impudence and wouldn't really have counted any day really successful unless she had annoyed Gareth and sent her grandmother into one of her rages.

Old Mrs Radcliffe seemed to be very old indeed. As a toddler, before he could speak properly, Gareth's attempt at "Grandma" had come out as "Gaga", so Gaga she became and Gaga she remained. She loved it when Gareth called her Gaga, but Jean put such scorn into the reduplicated syllables that Gaga boiled with fury every time her granddaughter addressed her. Gaga knew that Jean was implying that she was gaga, a senile old woman with no mind left. Well, Gaga knew that she was definitely not gaga, just as she knew perfectly well that Jean would come to a bad end, pregnant at fifteen, on drugs by sixteen, and probably dead in a ditch before she was twenty.

The only one with any brains in the whole family was Gareth. Gareth read books, real books, not the magazines that the rest of the family called books. And Gareth shared Gaga's devotion to the church. From an early age Gareth had gone to church with her and lisped the responses. He joined the church choir as a boy treble, stayed on as an alto, and was now a reedy and uncertain tenor, but still faithful to the church. He joined the cubs, and then the scout troop run by the curate, and he stayed a loyal scout into his teens, despite the jeers of certain village boys, (including his own younger brother), who ridiculed his shorts and bare knees. Gareth had passed for the grammar school in Halden - he had caught the bus from Geddonthwaite every morning at twenty-five past eight and returned at about a quarter to five, hurrying furtively along the road towards his home. Occasionally he was seen by jealous former classmates who pursued him mocking his yellow-braided school blazer, and once, when he was fourteen, they even ambushed him in the cutting below the railway bridge. His screams brought Gaga bursting out of the cottage brandishing a carving knife, spitting sparks and howling like a banshee. The village boys fled, leaving Gareth sprawled on the ground, sobbing, but unharmed.

Daniel, of course, jeered at his brother. Daniel called him a sissy and a weakling. Daniel told him the village boys thought he was really a girl. Daniel told him they were going to debag him to find out.

"What does debag mean," said little Jean.

"It means," sneered Daniel, "that they're going to get hold of sissy Gareth, and they're going to get him down on the ground, and then they're going to pull his trousers off. He won't be able to stop them 'cos he's so feeble. They'll get you, won't they Gareth? They'll push you down on the ground and sit on you, and Gaga won't be there to protect her little favourite, will she Gareth? What'll they do to you, Gareth? Why don't you tell us, Gareth? They'll take your trousers off, won't they Gareth? And your underpants. See if you're really a boy. And you won't have Gaga to protect you.

But Gareth did have Gaga to protect him. The sight and sound of his scrawny grandmother rushing to his rescue with a knife had terrified the village boys and given rise to a new legend. She had almost caught one of them, it was said. She had grabbed him by the hair and almost cut his throat. Some said she had cut off one boy's ears in her fury, but as there was no earless boy in the village that tale wasn't widely believed. Others claimed she had whirled like a dervish in the midst of her grandson's tormentors, slashing wildly and inflicting horrific wounds. Little children avoided the railway bridge and the Radcliffe's cottage, and older one's warned them, "Don't go down there or Gaga Radcliffe will get you!" No bogeyman or headless ghost could be more terrifying than little old Gaga Radcliffe.

Gareth no longer found his homeward path dogged by catcalling youths. Gaga got out her old boneshaker the next day and cycled along to the village shop, but the street was deserted and she saw Gareth walk home unmolested. She was there again the next day, and again not a boy was out of doors. After that she gave up her watch, but Gareth came and went as he pleased, protected by the tales of what Gaga had done and what she would do.

Neither Gareth nor Gaga had any doubt that Daniel was right: if Gaga hadn't been on hand to rescue him Gareth would have been detrousered. Gareth had felt his attackers hands fumbling around his waist, while for Gaga the incident had called to mind a long forgotten event of her youth, when she had joined an eager pack of young hunters to harry and pursue her cousin Jacob through the woods. He was brought down by a rugby tackle and disappeared under a struggling gang of lads, then flattened on the ground, with lads sitting on his arms and his feet while Molly Blackburn eagerly unbuttoned his trousers and pulled them off.

Daniel knew he was right too, and he never let Gareth forget the incident-.

"Still got your trousers, Gareth?"

"Not been debagged yet, Gareth?"

"Mebbe this afternoon, Gareth, when you get off the bus."

Jean would snigger. "Yeah, this afternoon, Garth. The girls'll all be there to watch.

Jean had taken to calling her brother Garth. The only things she ever read were the Beano and the cartoons in the Daily Mirror. The similarity between her weedy brother's name and that of the musclebound hero, Garth, was too good to miss. So Daniel called him Garth, too. Jean's friends called him Garth, and so did Daniel's. Even the scouts started calling him Garth.

"It's Gareth," he insisted, "GarETH! ETH!"

"OK, Eth," someone said, and after that he was called Eth or Ethel.

It was about this time that he started his collection. He began with articles cut from the News of the World, which at that time, in the absence of the sort of celebrities, famous only for being famous, who were to grace its pages towards the end of the century, concentrated on sexual shenanigans: vicars without knickers and bored housewives who seduced schoolboys. It was a revelation to Gareth, who raided the dustbin, retrieved the discarded papers and cut out the juiciest bits.

His school friend, Winston Greatbatch, encouraged his mania, and found for him a shop in one of the back lanes of Halden where trustworthy customers could buy magazines from the back room. It was then that he acquired an old biscuit tin and made a place of concealment in the disused washhouse.

***

That biscuit tin now lay wrapped in an old cycling cape in a hollow in a bank under the spreading branches of a tangled thicket of massive thorn bushes and brambles, and, day after day, Daniel, Harry, Robert and Ron crawled in along their secret tunnel through the undergrowth, unwrapped it, spread out its contents, lit up their ciggies, and made themselves comfortable to read the stories and look at pictures.

Sheila and her gang had succeeded in tracking them to the general area of their den, but not yet in finding it. The only thing to do was to get to the woods when Daniel's gang were otherwise occupied, split up and comb the area. They decided to search the woods during the mornings, knowing that the older boys rarely stirred much before lunch. They combed through the trees in a spread out chain, but it was Duncan, on the outer end, who came across the entrance to the tunnel. He called Sheila and they examined it. Something was obviously in the habit of crawling along it regularly.

"That's it," said Sheila.

"Could be animals," objected Duncan.

"Not that size!"

"Bears mebbe?"

"Not in England!"

"Wolves?"

"Not in England! It's them. Come on!"

Sheila plunged into the tunnel, and Duncan, after a moment's hesitation, followed her. The summer had been dry, and the ground was hard and clean. The tunnel angled through the brambles, twisted, then opened out into a hollow. The tangled vegetation covered it completely so that the lower leaves had all died off, and the older boys had broken back the dead branches to enlarge their cave.

Sheila looked around carefully. The sides of the den were impenetrable. Brambles and thorns grew in a natural barrier, and the lads had reinforced it with the broken branches. Another tunnel led out from the far side, so at least they had a way of escape if anyone should start along the entrance tunnel. She looked round, hoping to see Robin's trousers. Since his humiliation her brother had stayed silent, morose, moody and totally uncommunicative. He stayed in his room for much of the day and refused to go out of the house. He was pale and unhealthy-looking, and when Charlotte began urging him to go for a walk, or tried asking him to pop down to the village shop for her, he would snap that he didn't want to and retreat to his bedroom. Sheila hoped that if she could find his trousers and give them back to him it might cheer him up. At least he would know that his attackers didn't have their trophy any more.

She'd asked Neil, Alan and Duncan if boys always went into a decline if they were debagged. Wasn't it quite common at boys' schools? Neil was at the grammar school in Halden, so he must have seen lots of debaggings, musn't he?

"Not really," said Neil. There's sometimes a bit of horseplay in the changing rooms, but that's just between friends - and there's a place over the fence from the school field, called the cockpit, where they used to have debaggings in the old days. They still threaten lads with taking them to the cockpit, but I don't know when it last happened. Years and years ago."

"It's being seen by girls," said Duncan. "It's not so bad being debagged by other boys, but to have girls seeing you...!"

"Yeah," said Neil. "It's no wonder Robin's in a state. Being strung up in a tree without his pants, and everybody seeing him, and his own sister staring at him."

"I was not staring!" Sheila had said, but she blushed.

Anyway, now she had the chance to make amends. She would give her brother back the trousers that had been taken from him and tell him she'd robbed Daniel Radcliffe's gang of their trophy. That would make him feel better. The only trouble was: the trousers were nowhere to be seen. She had thought they'd be hanging on a branch in a prominent position, displayed for the gang to look at and laugh over what they had done to Robin.

Duncan drew her attention to a grubby bit of tarpaulin or something, pushed halfway into a hole in the bank that ran along one side of the den. Together they unwrapped it and found an old biscuit tin. Sheila pulled the lid off, but there instead of trousers all she found were some old magazines. Duncan picked one up and opened it. His eyes widened.

"Dirty magazines!" he breathed. "Dirty pictures!"

Sheila glanced at it. There seemed to be pictures of people with no clothes on, mostly women. She moved away and began to ferret round the edges of the den. Robin's trousers must be hidden somewhere, perhaps in another whole in the bank. Duncan was no help. He was sorting through the contents of the biscuit tin and seemed to have forgotten everything else. His eyes were wide and gleaming, his mouth open and his cheeks flushed fiery red.

Suddenly Sheila heard something. Boys' voices, big boys' broken voices, and a rustling in the undergrowth. The gang were early.

"Duncan!" she hissed. "They're here! Come on!" - then she wriggled into the passage at the far side of the den and crawled along it as quickly as she could. Had Duncan heard her? She didn't know.

***

Duncan had never seen pictures like these. There were dirty jokes in plenty among the boys at school, and stories of the sexual delights that awaited them when they were grown up and could do what they liked - but these pictures! They showed naked women in full detail. Not wearing bikinis, completely naked! Not covering their breasts with their hands but showing everything! And other pictures showing men and women together, locked in passionate embraces, even doing IT! And there were stories too, descriptions of people doing IT. His heart was thumping and the blood was pounding in his ears. Sheila was saying something, calling him to look at something, but he didn't think he could move.

"Yeah, yeah," he muttered. He'd have to stop. It would be too humiliating if she saw how red and excited he was, but he couldn't stop looking at those pictures.

Then, suddenly, he heard what Sheila had heard. The big lads! Coming!

He panicked. His excitement vanished. He dropped the magazines and hurled himself over the bank and into the narrow space between it and the tangled thorn-bush roots. He had no idea where Sheila was. All he knew was that Daniel, Harry, Robert and Ron were in the den, and all that hid him was a two foot dyke.

Robert was first in. He gave a roar of rage.

"SOMEBODY'S BEEN AT THE TIN!"

"WHAT?!"

"Somebody's been here! Look, the mags are all ower the floor!"

"We'll kill them!"

The four lads scooped up the magazines and pictures, sorted them into some kind of order, grumbling all the time, shoved them back into the tin, wrapped it hastily in the old cape and pushed the package back into the hole. Daniel's head was barely eighteen inches from Duncan's. The frightened boy held his breath. Something was crawling up one of his legs, several somethings. Beetles? Ants? They must be ants. Well, he could stand a few ant-bites. At least they were only English ants, not like the American fire ants he had read about, that crawled up people's legs and then all bit at once. People bitten by fire ants would leap up screaming in agony and tear their trousers off to get rid of them, no matter where they were. He moved ever so slightly, and an ant sank its mandibles into his leg and injected a painful dose of formic acid. Duncan lay absolutely still.

The big lads were deciding what to do.

"Go after them!"

"Yeah, we'll catch 'em!"

"Scrag 'em!"

"Worse than that!"

"What?"

"Hang 'em in the trees without their kegs!"

"Yeah! Like Robin!"

They were gone. He crawled out of his hiding place and looked around. How long should he wait to let them get clear? He could still hear them outside the bushes. Then he felt a sneeze come on. He gripped his nose and tried to stifle it, but in spite of all his efforts it came out as a muffled snort.

"There's one of 'em still in the den!"

"GET HIM!"

They were coming back. There was no escape! He looked around wildly, and at last saw the other tunnel. He scuttled into it.

"There he is!"

They were after him!

The tunnel curved through the undergrowth then emerged into the open woodland. He hurled himself through the trees, but he knew he hadn't a chance. The older boys would easily outrun him.

"There he is!"

Pounding footsteps, then a crash from somewhere over to the right, and another one.

"THE BIKES!!"

Another crash.

The big lads stopped, hesitated, then three of them turned off towards the noise. One was still after him, but he had a good start and he soon lost himself among the trees.

"We'll get you!" yelled the big lad - it was Ron, he thought - "We know who you are. You can't hide from us forever. We'll get you. We'll take your pants off and throw you in among the girls! We'll get you, Billy Oldham!"

Billy Oldham! They thought he was Billy Oldham! It wouldn't be him they debagged, it would be Billy Oldham. Exuberantly he burst out of the wood, crossed the road, climbed over the gate into the field and scuttled along in the shelter of the hedge. Sheila was there waiting for him.

"Should keep your mind on the job when you're detecting," she said. If I hadn't started smashing up the bikes, they'd have got you. What were they shouting?"

He grinned. "We know who you are! We'll get you and debag you and throw you to the girls," he said.

"Doesn't that worry you?"

"It's not me that should be worried," he said. "It's Billy Oldham. They think it was him."

"Shouldn't we warn him?"

"Naw! It'll only make him miserable. Let him enjoy the last couple of weeks of the holiday."

They found the others at the tree, waiting anxiously under the bough from which Robin had hung in shirt-tailed humiliation. They had scattered and fled on hearing the big lads arrive, met at the tree, which had become for them a place of ill-omened fascination, and waited with growing anxiety for the latecomers.

***

Edith was in a towering rage.

"We could have been killed!" she said.

"Oh, don't! Don't," wailed Libby, sprawling on the couch with a couple of aspirins in one hand and a glass of water in the other.

"If it had hit the windscreen," snapped Edith, "it would have shattered. My face would have been cut to ribbons. I'd have been blinded. The car would have gone out of control, crashed off the road, into the bridge. We should both have been killed."

"I don't want to think about it," sobbed Libby.

"What's happened?" Sheila demanded.

"Libby and I were almost killed," said Edith, "by some lunatic throwing stones at traffic from the railway bridge on the Halden road."

"Uh!" sobbed Libby.

"Luckily they missed," said Edith.

"I heard a stone hit the roof!" said Libby.

"They missed the windscreen," said Edith. "That's the main thing. Otherwise Libby and I would have been lying in pools of blood with our necks broken and our faces lacerated by broken glass."

***

They were under Robin's tree again. Sheila was telling them how her grandmother and her great aunt had almost been killed by someone throwing stones at cars from the railway bridge across the Halden road.

"It's given me an idea," she said. "The railway line crosses the road out to Culthwaite, just near the Radcliffes' cottage. Daniel has to go under it every time he comes into the village, every time he goes to the den. Suppose we were on top of the bridge, and when he comes through we let him have it: flour bombs, water bombs, rotten eggs, the lot."

"Great," said Duncan. "We'll plaster him!"

"Great revenge," said Neil, "but still not as bad as what he did to Robin."

"Wait," said Sheila. "We bomb him with balloons filled with water and bags of flour. We knock him off his bike. We keep on bombing him till he's groggy, then we hop down off the bridge, grab him and pull a sack over his head. Then when we've bagged him, we debag him!"

"What?!!"

"We drag him to the edge of the village, and we hang him in a tree, like he did to Robin."

"Hey, great!"

"There's just one thing," said Neil. "What about Gaga. We don't want Gaga coming after us with a carving knife like she did when those lads ambushed Ethel."

"I've thought of that," said Sheila. "First of all, the lads that got Ethel waited on the Radcliffe side of the bridge. We'll get Daniel when he comes out on the other side. They won't hear anything in the cottage. But if you're still worried, we'll do it on Friday. Gaga always gets the early bus into Halden on Fridays, and she doesn't come back till late afternoon."

***

It was a plan that needed lots of thought and lots of practice. They would need to get the ammunition to the bridge, and they couldn't very well carry water-filled balloons through the village.

"I've still got that old pram we used for the guy last year," said Neil. "We could use it."

That gave Sheila another idea. "After we've bombed him and debagged him," she said, "we'll load him onto the pram and tie him down, then we can wheel him right into the village. We'll take him to the rec and make sure all the kids get a good look at him."

"The grown-ups 'll stop us before we get there," said Alison.

"Yeah," said Neil. "You can't wheel a lad through the village wi' no pants on and not get stopped."

"We'll cover him with an old blanket," said Sheila.

"It'll never work," said Helen gloomily.

"It will," said Sheila. "I know, let's go out towards Ulverthwaite. There's a farm track there goes under the railway. We can practice."

Duncan, the biggest of the boys played the part of Daniel. He cycled out from under the bridge. The others let fly with imaginary missiles and loud "Ker-pows!" Duncan's bike slewed round and he fell. The others hurled themselves down the bank, grabbed him, mimed removing his trousers, and, in the absence of the pram, carried him along the lane.

The next day they tried again with the pram. This time Duncan was bombarded with balls of screwed up newspaper. He fell, rose to his feet, staggered under the hail of missiles and collapsed. He was grabbed and an old potato sack pulled over his head. Swift hand movements represented his debagging, and then he was dumped in the pram. Detailed discussion followed before his ankles were secured to the struts and a rope tied across his chest and under the pram. He struggled and announced that he was trapped.

After that he was freed and the whole performance was repeated several times more.

"There's just one thing we haven't practised," said Harriet, "and that's getting his trousers off."

"Ooh, yeah!" squeaked Helen. "We've got to practise debagging!"

"NO!" shouted Duncan. "Nobody's taking my trousers off!"

"We'll leave your underpants," said Harriet.

"We won't look at _ anything," said Alison.

"NO!" yelled Duncan -- and he refused to practise any more, just in case they tried. Neil and Alan wouldn't do it either, and the girls all refused too in case the boys saw their knickers when they put them in the pram.

"It's only just us," said Helen. "We wouldn't laugh at you.

"NO!" said all three boys together.

"Anyway," said Alan, "Daniel Radcliffe wears long'uns. They're more difficult to get off than short'uns. There's more to get tangled round his feet."

"Hey," said Sheila, "I've got an idea. I'll bring an old pair o' Robin's. The boys can take turns at wearing them over their short pants. We can debag 'em but they'll still be decent."

The next day they were at the bridge on the farm track again. Duncan cycled out wearing Robin's old trousers. A barrage of paper balls knocked him off his bike. He fell beneath it and they swooped down on him, hurling themselves onto his arms, legs and chest. Neil and Alison pulled the sack over his head. Sheila and Harriet pulled at his belt and fumbled with his fly buttons. The trousers were down, but not off. They were tangled round his shoes and it took several minutes to get them untangled.

"Not good enough," said Sheila. "Next time we get his shoes off first."

Their next attempt was better, and over the next couple of hours Duncan, Neil and Alan were all several times knocked off their bikes by paper balls and loud ker-pows, beaten groggy by the continued barrage, tumbled to the ground, sat on, stripped of Robin's trousers, picked up, dumped in the pram, tied down, covered with an old blanket, wheeled along the lane to the field that represented the village recreation ground, uncovered and exposed to the jeers of several dozen imaginary children.

"We're ready," said Sheila triumphantly. "Tomorrow Daniel Radcliffe is going to get what he deserves.

***

Early that Friday morning they were up on the railway bridge in Culthwaite Road with a stock of water-filled balloons, paper bags full of flour, eggs, rotten fruit, a potato sack and a length of stout cord. The ammunition was all stacked along the village side of the bridge, and the pram was hidden inside a field gate a few yards along the road. Alan, Duncan and the four girls were in position ready to begin hurling, while Neil kept watch on the Radcliffe side. He could see the upper windows and the roof of the cottage. The front garden was screened by shrubs, but the gate was in full view.

"He's coming!" hissed Neil, and darted over to join the others. They grabbed the first balloons, and, as soon the front wheel of the bike appeared from under the bridge, they let fly. Six direct hits and one near miss. The bike slewed round and toppled over. Seven bags of flour exploded onto the sprawling figure on the ground - and a shrill unearthly screech shattered the still air. Rooks rose cawing form the woods, and blackbirds chinked in alarm. Dripping with soggy flour arose before their horrified eyes the scrawny figure of Gaga Radcliffe.

She saw them on the bridge. Still screeching she scuttled at the only place where it was possible to climb up from the road and began scrabbling at the bank. They rushed across the bridge to climb down on the Radcliffe side, but it was hopeless. Gareth, Daniel and Jean were on the road below. Gareth ran under the bridge to find Gaga, but Daniel and Jean had seen them and ran to the bank. Their only way of escape was along the railway line, then off across the fields.

Daniel and Jean were up on the bridge already, and Daniel was after them. He was much bigger than any of them and they all knew they couldn't outrun him.

Jean stopped on the bridge where she could see both Daniel and Gareth. She too knew that Daniel would catch one of the kids, and he'd probably bring him back. If he did Jean would be ready with helpful suggestions for what they might do to him. In the meantime there was more fun to be had with Gareth. He was trying to brush the flour and eggs of Gaga, but she was still screaming and scrabbling at the bank.

"Look out Ethel," Jean called. "You're getting muck all over your lovely clean blouse."

Gareth flushed, and Jean stuck out her tongue at him and at Gaga. "Serve the old bitch right," she thought, then turned to see how Daniel was getting on.

She was just in time to see him leave the track and plunge down into a field. He was definitely gaining on the kids who had bombed his grandmother. Sheila looked back and saw him, and an idea struck her. There was only one of him and seven of her gang. They hadn't knocked him silly with water bombs, but seven to one was good odds and there was no-one to stop them. They could still strip Daniel of his pride and his trousers.

"Hey!" she called. "Let him catch up and we'll get him!"

"Catch up," the others heard. They glanced round and saw Daniel close behind. With a sudden wild shriek they scattered in all directions, leaving Sheila alone to face the avenging fury.

She had slowed, and now she had to force greater efforts out of her body to escape. Her only hope was the row of houses along the edge of the field. She hurled herself towards them and dragged her aching limbs over the fence.

Daniel was close behind. She fled across the garden and over the fence into the next, then again into the next. An old man appeared from the house brandishing a garden fork, but she was past him and over into the next garden. The old man was between her and Daniel. She heard his roar of rage, stopped, turned, and saw Daniel retreat. But she knew he would come along the field, so she limped across the next garden, heaved herself over the fence and saw at last a way through to the road.

She couldn't go any faster, and Daniel was already climbing the back fence, then a woman's voice came from the house: "George! There's kids in the back garden."

She was round the corner of the house when she heard a male roar of rage and a yell of alarm from Daniel.

She was in the street, and Daniel was probably back in the fields for she could hear George Henderson yelling at him: "Come back 'ere ya la'al bugger. Ah'll teach thee to trample fowks' gardens. Come 'ere!"

***

They met again the next morning, apprehensive. They had bombed a grown-up with water and flour bombs and rotten eggs. At best it would mean a sound thrashing from their fathers, the sort they'd been threatened with but never experienced, that would leave them unable to sit down for a week. They'd probably be forbidden to see each other for the rest of the holidays, forbidden to play together after school and at weekends, made to do chores instead of going out.

Neil had another worry. The boys were expecting to go into long'uns when they went back to school. What if they were kept in short trousers for the term, or even the year? It wouldn't be so bad for Duncan and Alan, who were both at the local school, but he'd have to travel in to the grammar school in Halden. He'd be the only one in his year still in short pants. Everybody would laugh at him -- and on the bus! The bus was bad enough at the best of times, but if he was still in short pants!

"They won't keep us in short pants," said Alan.

"Maybe not you," said Neil, "but my father said next time ..."

He stopped. He hadn't wanted anyone to know about that.

"It'll be borstal," said Duncan gloomily, "then we'll all be in short pants, cos that what they make them wear".

"Not the girls" said Helen.

"No," said Duncan. "You lot'll probably get off. They'll just blame us and we'll get sent to borstal."

"Maybe Gaga won't tell anyone," said Sheila.

"Course she will," several voices chorused.

"She's mad," said Sheila. "If she tells maybe they won't believe her, but maybe she won't tell. She can't 've told yet or they'd 've punished us. Maybe she'll try and get us herself"

"With her knife!" moaned Neil.

"No," said Sheila. "She'd never get away with murder, and she's not so mad she doesn't know that. She'll get Daniel and Gareth to come after us."

"What'll they do?" wailed Alison.

"How do I know?" said Sheila. "Probably string the boys up in trees without their pants."

The boys groaned.

"What about us?" wailed Helen.

"I can't see that they can do anything to us," said Sheila. "Boys don't beat up girls, and they can't strip us or they'd be in dead trouble. If nobody's said anything to us by tomorrow it means she's not telling. So we've just got Gareth and Daniel to worry about.

More groans.

"And they can't touch us girls, so that means they'll have to go after the boys. So we've gotta make sure they don't get them. Stick together. I think we can forget about Ethel. He'll probably just pray for summat nasty to happen to us. We've gotta watch Daniel and his gang, just like before."

"Only not go anywhere where he can get us," said Neil.

We gotta watch him," said Sheila, "and ... yeah, we gotta get him before he gets us!"

"What?!

"Show him he can't muck around with us. We're still out for revenge, don't forget. We've still got to pay him back for Robin. Yeah, don't look so scared, Neil. If we get him first he'll never touch you. What we gotta do is teach him a real lesson so he leaves us alone."

"That's how we got into this mess," said Duncan.

"Yeah, and that's how we'll get out of it. Think about it. If we don't do owt, Daniel's gang 'll pick off the boys one by one. But if we get Daniel first, that'll be that."

"I suppose so," Duncan agreed.

"But, said Helen, "us girls are safe anyway, so we'd just be doing it to save the lads, and I don't think I want to risk any more trouble ..."

"One for all and all for one!" said Sheila, who had read The Three Musketeers. "Anyway, he might think of some nasty trick to play on us."

The others agreed and Helen was outvoted.

"And what's more," said Sheila. "There's to be no putting it off. "We've gotta get Daniel before he touches any of our lads. We didn't get his trousers this time, but next time we will!"

***

The opportunity came sooner than they expected. The next day dawned, and there was still no trouble from the adults. They didn't seem to have heard that old Mrs Radcliffe had been plastered with flour and water bombs. It seemed that she wasn't going to tell but rely on her grandsons to avenge her.

The gang followed Daniel and his friends to the woods but stayed at a safe distance from the den. Sheila and Duncan had told their friends all about the porn-chest, so it was easy to imagine how the older boys were passing their time. Then, suddenly, to their astonishment, Gareth came hurtling along the road on his bike. He flung it down and stormed off towards the den yelling for Daniel.

"How does Ethel know where to find them?" Duncan wondered.

"Never mind that. He does. Summat's up, and we've got to find out what it is," said Sheila.

What was up was that Gareth had discovered the theft of his precious biscuit box. He had had a very trying time with Gaga whining at him to find out who bombed her and punish them, and Daniel telling Gaga that it was no good relying on Ethel for anything like that, and Jean just being generally annoying and jeering at him. When he finally dragged himself out of his bed that morning Daniel was already out, but Gaga was still nagging and Jean was still sneering. He ate his breakfast in frustrated silence and decided to go out to the washhouse, collect his tin, and take it out along the Culthwaite road to a little copse where he had a den under the bushes.

The box had gone!

Gareth swore loudly, and Jean appeared at his side.

"What's the matter, Ethel? Aw, somebody taken your filthy magazines? Ah wonder who it could be?"

"You!"

"Naw, not me. Ah'll tell you who it was. Daniel!"

"Ah'll kill him!"

"You'll have to find him first."

"Where is he?"

"At his den. In the woods. "Ah'll tell you where it is."

Jean didn't mention that Daniel would have Harry, Robert and Ron with him. She rather hoped that the confrontation would turn out to be more unpleasant for Gareth than for Daniel.

And so it proved.

"Daniel! Come out here, ya little bugger! Where's my tin?!"

Gareth was in such a rage that he didn't stop to think. He scarcely saw Harry, Robert and Ron. All he saw was Daniel and the magazine in Daniel's hands.

"Tsk tsk, Gareth, and you such a good boy too," said Daniel. "Whatever would the vicar say if he saw these dirty books?"

"GIVE 'EM BACK!"

"You gonna make me?" Daniels pale blue eyes gleamed almost silvery as he dangled the magazine insolently in front of his spluttering brother.

Gareth lunged forward, and Harry, Robert and Ron went for him.

"Ethel, dear," drawled Daniel, "it really is too bad of you! What would the vicar say if he saw you dressed in trousers like a boy."

"We gonna debag 'im?" said Harry.

"That's just what we're gonna do."

And they did.

Daniel held up his brother's trousers.

"I'm gonna hang these on the swings in the rec," he said. "You lot bring him in through the fields. Don't let grown-ups see you. Put the mags away then bring 'im."

***

Sheila and her gang waited until the porn was safely stowed and the three lads had dragged Gareth out of the woods and into the fields on the other side of the road.

"Victory is ours!" said Sheila. "Duncan, go in and get the tin. Don't open it. We've no time to waste. Then we follow Daniel."

The tin was swiftly found and carried off to be hidden under a hedge, then they grabbed their bikes and peddled madly for the village, past Robin's tree, past Mrs Pond's house and Sheila's own, along the road, then off to the left round the back street that led to the recreation ground.

Daniel was standing up on one of the swings, hooking Gareth's trousers over the main crossbar.

Sheila went over to him.

"Is that someone's trousers?" she said.

Daniel recognised her.

"It was you bombed Gaga!" he raged and leapt down to grab her.

Sheila fled, but she hadn't a chance of outrunning Daniel. He almost had her but she changed direction suddenly and he overshot.

"Ah'll get thee!" then he smiled. She obviously didn't know the rec that well. She had run down behind the scout hut. There was only a storage shed there, no way out. He strolled after her.

"You're trapped," he sneered, his slivery eyes glinting.

"You can't hit a girl!"

"Can't Ah, though? Ah'll not leave any marks on your pretty little face, so no-one'll know owt about it, but Ah know lots o' ways to hurt people. Ah've only used 'em on lads till now. Be a bit o' fun trying 'em out on a lassie."

"You're a coward and a bully and you deserve all you get," said Sheila, "and it's not me that's trapped -- it's you!"

He glanced around as she pointed.

"Ah'm not scared o' you and your little friends," he said. "How old are you, anyway? Eleven? Twelve?"

"Thirteen," said Sheila, "and there's seven of us and only one of you."

Daniel put his hands on his hips, breathed in and expanded his chest. He certainly looked very big.

"Seven la'al kids," he said, "and four of 'em lassies. Against me! You three la'al lads had better run before Ah start, or Ah'll hang your pants on the swings an' all."

He had turned to face them as he spoke. Duncan suddenly pushed him, and he went over. Sheila had run in and crouched down behind him and his knees had buckled over her back. Before he could move they were on him. They had practised it so often it was easy. They had lost the original sack at the bridge, but a replacement had easily been found, and now Alison and Helen pulled the sack over Daniel's head while Neil, Duncan and Alan sat on him. Harriet pulled off his boots, and Sheila busied herself with his trousers. Off they came.

"What now?" said Duncan.

"To the swings," said Sheila. "Bring him to the swings!"

They hauled Daniel to his feet and hustled him out of the storage area and over to the swings.

"Get him up!"

They hoisted him up onto a swing and tied his ankles to the ropes. Then Neil scrambled onto Duncan's shoulders to pull Daniel's right arm above his head and make it fast to the rope at the top. The same was done to his left. The miserable youth was now hanging helpless, and his shirt, pulled up by his raised arms, was too short to cover his groin.

"Get the sack off!" Sheila ordered. "I want them to see his face. I want them to know who it is, and I want him to see them all laughing at him."

Two or three small children who had wandered into the recreation ground now came racing over to see what was happening.

"Go and fetch all the other kids," Sheila said. "Tell them Daniel Radcliffe's been debagged in the rec. Don't let any grown-ups know."

The small fry raced away.

Sheila turned to Daniel.

"In a few minutes," she said, "this rec's going to be filled with kids, all laughing at you, hanging there with no pants on. This is to pay you back for what you did to my brother -- and if you try anything with any of us, we'll get you again - even worse!"

Then the whole gang ran off for the gate to the back street, leaving Daniel to his fate. They ran along it till they got to Geddonhall Road, where they waited while Alan took the two pairs of trousers into his house and up to his bedroom. He looked around for a hiding place, then opened his cupboard and pulled out the box containing his treasured collection of comics. Old Wizards, Rovers, and Hotspurs were pulled out onto the floor. He folded the trousers, laid them in the bottom of the box and piled the comics back in. It would take him hours to get them back into order, but it was a good hiding place.

Alan rejoined the others outside, then they strolled casually down to the main street, making sure plenty of adults saw them, before joining the throng of children heading for the recreation ground, to arrive as latecomers who obviously had nothing to do with what had happened.

A milling mob of jeering children of all ages between five and fifteen had surrounded Daniel, and some of the bigger boys had set him swinging violently.

Just as Sheila and her friends arrived a new excitement arose. Harry, Robert and Ron came through the hedge, pushing the trouserless Gareth in front of them. The kids spotted Gareth and surged towards him. Harry, Robert and Ron stood rooted to the spot. They saw the swing go up. They saw a trouserless boy tied to it. Daniel! They saw the mob surging towards them - and they fled.

Some of the big lads grabbed Gareth, frogmarched him over to the swings and hoisted him up.

"Who's got string?"

But before Gareth could be bound in place the adults arrived. Some woman let out a piercing scream, then George Henderson strode into the mob, cuffing children right and left and roaring. The kids fled. Sheila and her gang hung around near the adults, occasionally making remarks like "Who could have done such a thing?"

Henderson marched over, shoved Gareth to the ground, then produced a knife from his pocket and cut Daniel down. The boy collapsed on the ground sobbing, while Henderson ripped the sack into two pieces and flung them at the Radcliffe brothers.

If they expected sympathy they found none. From the edge of the field Sheila could clearly hear Henderson's harsh voice: "What's the matter wid' ya? Stop your snivvelling and cover yoursel's up."

Gareth grabbed a piece of sacking and fumbled it around his loins, but Daniel just sobbed.

"Stop bubbling, thu la'al bugger!" roared Henderson. "There's women here and la'al lassies that diven't want to see thy prick. Cover thisel', does thu hear?"

Daniel did, and Henderson grabbed both boys by the hair, hauled them to their feet and marched them out of the rec and up to the main street.

"Get yoursels hame, ya dirty buggers!" he roared, sending the two lads staggering forward with no option but to continue along the main street, past the shops and the pub and the church until they could escape along Culthwaite Road.

***

It was, thought Sheila, a famous victory. The only pity was that no-one could know whose victory it was. They had covered their tracks well, and the grown-ups did not seem to suspect.

"I suppose it must be some sort of feud with the boys from Ulverthwaite," said Edith, "but they've really gone too far when they string each other up naked in the recreation ground."

"It's very offensive," said Libby. "Boys running round with no trousers on! Anyone might see ..."

"Probably the same boys who stripped Robin," said Mrs Pond.

"First Robin, now those Radcliffe boys," said Libby, "I don't know what the world is coming to. Young people these days are just out of control. It wasn't like that in my young days."

"Oh, I don't know," said Mrs Pond.

"There was never anything offensive."

"I remember a debagging," said Mrs Pond. "You remember, Edith, don't you. Nasty little boy. Used to kill nestlings and torture kittens. He was a cousin of Gaga Radcliffe's."

"Oh yes," said Edith. "We chased him into the woods and the boys took his trousers off."

"No," said Mrs Pond. "The way I remember it the boys caught him and held him down but it was Molly Blackburn that took his trousers off."

"I'd forgotten that," said Edith, "but you're right. It was Molly Blackburn.

"What was that boy's name?" wondered Mrs Pond.

"Jacob," said Libby, "and we ran back into the village with his trousers and threw them up on the inn sign."

"So we did," said Mrs Pond, "and his name was Jacob Tyler."

"No, no," said Libby, "it was Jacob Slater."

"Thatcher!" said Edith. "Jacob Thatcher. He was a cousin of Winnie Radcliffe's, but that didn't stop her joining in the chase. She was Winnie Thatcher in those days of course. Incomers."

"Oh yes, from Ulverthwaite," said Mrs Pond.

"No: incomers to Swardale. Maybe generations back, but incomers."

"What makes you say that?"

"Well," said Edith, "just think: when have you ever seen a thatched roof in Swardale?"

Sheila, listening quietly in a corner, took it all in. Interesting, she supposed, that her grandmother's generation had been as wild as hers, but the main thing was that they thought there must be a feud with the Ulverthwaite boys, so that was who would get the blame, and she and her gang were in the clear.

The old ladies were now discussing the genealogy and relationships of the Thatchers and the Radcliffe's, which wasn't very interesting at all. Winnie (she supposed that must be Gaga) had married Ted Radcliffe almost as soon as she left school, while Jacob had gone away to Halden and married so late that Winnie was already a grandmother before his son was born.

"Strange boy," said Edith, who was the real expert on who was related to whom. "Probably one of those ..."

Sheila slipped away to take the good news to her friends.

***

Early next morning Sheila sneaked away on her bike, heading for Daniel's den. The box of pornographic magazines and pictures still had to be dealt with, and she was determined that neither Gareth nor Daniel should ever have it again. She had a box of matches with her to make sure.

She left her bike in the usual place and was surprised to see Duncan's, Neil's and Alan's already there. Sheila slipped quietly through the trees to alongside the hedge that separated the woods from the road. She heard a murmur of boy's voices, and then she saw them, kneeling on the ground and passing round pictures from the box.

She strode forward.

"Oh good," she said. "I'm glad you remembered the box. We've got to make sure the Radcliffes don't get that stuff back, whatever it is.

"We could hide it at my house," suggested Alan, then blushed even redder than before when Sheila looked at him.

"Not a good idea," she said. "If your mother found it she might think it was yours. No, there's only one thing to do."

She picked up the tin and tipped out the contents. Nasty pictures, she saw at a glance: women with no clothes on posing in very unladylike positions. She brought out the matches.

"We'll burn them!" she said.

The boys watched in silence as the flames caught and consumed Gareth's hoard of mucky magazines.

"Now, Duncan," she ordered, "You know where the box was. Go and put it back, but first put some of the ashes in so they know what's happened to their precious mucky mags!"

He obeyed, then they rode back to the village and went home.

"Boys!" thought Sheila. "They need a firm hand!"

***

School started again in September. The holidays were over, and Sheila had very successfully avenged her brother. She hadn't recovered his lost trousers, it was true, but, wherever they were, they weren't being flaunted as a trophy. Robin was back at school in Halden, and, with a bit of luck, his humiliation would be forgotten. Sheila had given the village something else to think about with the much more public humiliation of both Gareth and Daniel Radcliffe - and she had got away with it too: everyone in Geddonthwaite, apart from her own gang, thought that the Radcliffe boys had been debagged by lads from Ulverthwaite as part of a long-running feud.

Old men told stories of how they had sneaked into Ulverthwaite as boys and carried off the piles of branches stockpiled for the village bonfire. Middle-aged men bragged about how they had caught Ulverthwaite boys raiding the Geddonthwaite bonfire, chased them captured two, blackened their faces, dressed them in old shirts, scarves and hats, put them in go-carts with old sacks around their legs, and paraded them round as guys, to collect money for fireworks. The unfortunate guys, they added, had been unable to escape as their captors had taken the precaution of removing their trousers. The traditional feud, it seemed, went back for generations, and, although the grown-ups had thought it had long died out, it seemed obvious to them that it had been simmering quietly all the time. As for Daniel himself, he never denied this version. Sheila supposed that he considered it less of a shame to have been detrousered by lads of his own age in circumstances that almost made him a fallen warrior than to admit that he had been debagged by a gang of younger children, most of them girls.

Daniel and his gang had, in fact, stayed as unobtrusive as possible ever since that day, and rarely, if ever, showed their faces in the streets. They would not be back at school either, for they had all started work: Robert on his father's farm, Harry with a builder on the outskirts of Halden, Ron with a carrier, and Daniel himself at the Collerford and Slattery factory in Halden. There was no danger of meeting any of them. She and her gang had triumphed completely.

Then, just as she was coming out of the girls' toilets one morning, she met Jean Radcliffe, with Valerie Moffat and Mary Threlkeld, two of her tough-girl gang.

"Well," said Jean, "If it isn't little Miss High-and-Mighty. Don't know what you mean! Well I expect you got a good look at my brother, didn'cha - when you debagged him. Oh, yeah, don't look so surprised. We know it was you and your gang that got Daniel - AND we know it was you lot that bombed Gaga. She's been having turns ever since, silly old bitch. Not that I care. Her turns keep her off my back. I can do what I like now. Gaga's having her turns, Ethel's just peculiar, and as for Daniel, well he's in the nut-house."

"What?"

"Yeah. That's 'cos o' you. He started work at Collerfords, and when the lassies came to initiate him he went berserk, pulled a knife and stabbed one of 'em. So they've taken him off to the nut-house. - What'cha looking so worried for? Aw, I see. You're the lass that bombed me grandma and gave her funny turns, you're the lass that debagged me favourite brother and sent him round the bend, so you think I'm just about to stuff your head down the lav and pull the chain. Well forget it. You can bomb Gaga as much as you like, I hate her. And you can do what you like to Ethel too. It's a pity about Daniel. I quite liked him, but he's only a boy, and you really got him, didn't you? He won't tell, don't worry about that. It suits him if people think it was Ulverthwaite lads got him. He's not going to tell people he was debagged by a gang of little kids and most of 'em were girls. That suits me too."

"Why?"

"Well, there was a lad from Ulverthwaite came into Geddonthwaite to buy summat at the shop yesterday. The lads were waiting for him on the road back. If it hadn't been for me he'd have gone home wi' two black eyes and a bleeding nose."

"You stopped them?"

"I made sure he went home wi' two black eyes, a bleeding nose -and no pants on. Now the Ulverthwaite lads'll want their revenge. We're gonna have fun. There was a feud long ago, and now you've started it again."

"Me?"

"Yeah by debagging Daniel and putting the blame on Ulverthwaite. Boys are so stupid. They'll never stop to think. We'll have the pants of all of them between us."

She moved out of Sheila's way and Sheila went out into the yard. Jean opened the door again and called after her.

"Oh, just one more thing: it wasn't Daniel that debagged Robin. It was us!"


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