Eddie was pulling on his jeans.
‘You and Spinach Juice stay here. Richard’ll give you a bunk up, then yer can tie the rope and lower it down fer him.’
Squelching in his plimsolls, Eddie walked over to Richard who handed him the canvas bag of nails.
‘The rest of us’ll start on the other tree. Trev, leave some of the wood here. Paul, you’re with me. Titch, set up a look out post on the far side of the ditch next to them bushes.’
Trev, freckled and serious, leaned the wood carefully against the tree while his younger brother skipped after Eddie. Paul had a shock of blonde, curly hair which danced on his head with each bouncing step. Although he had a hare-lip, we no longer took any notice of it. The fact that he had a permanent snarl and a nasal twang in his voice were just accepted parts of him. It was only adults who made sympathetic noises or tried too hard to ignore it. Occasionally, other children could be cruel but Eddie’s patronage was usually enough to shield him from excessive bouts of taunting.
As I was the lightest, I was the first to climb onto Richard’s shoulders. Having hauled himself up, he began to push my thighs above his head so that I could reach out for the lowest branch. Wrapping my arms around it, I pressed my elbows against the rough bark and waited for Richard to shove at the soles of my wellies. My hands were slipping on the green mould which was damp and had a strong, musty smell. When the push came, I was able to lock both elbows, force my hands down and swing my leg over so that I finally came to rest sitting astride the branch. All around me the tree was swaying. As I plunged slowly up and down, twigs clattered together and leaf fans crashed like waves on a shingle beach. Shuffling backwards towards the trunk, I felt the pitching and tossing gradually subside.
‘Here’s the rope. Catch.’
Richard flung the rope which I caught at the second attempt.
‘And here’s a couple of bits of wood. See if yer can wedge them to make a platform.’
We could hear a dull thud from the other tree as Eddie battered in the nails, using a couple of his dad’s bed socks as a cover for the club-hammer to muffle the sound.
Having established a wobbling platform above me, I swung the noosed end of the rope round the branch I was standing on and threaded the rest of it through. After pulling it tight, I flung it to the ground. In the meantime, Chris had been launched into the tree and was now bumping on his buttocks towards me.
‘Heh, you two, get higher. I’m coming up.’
As we scrambled to the platform, we could hear the rhythmic creak of the rope as Richard started to pull with his hands and jerk with his legs. It was like listening to someone being hanged. The lower branches bounced and thrashed wildly to the sound of his grunts. Behind us, the trunk began to groan. Red-faced and breathless, he suddenly appeared beneath us. He took a few seconds to gather himself.
‘Right, you two, off you go. I’ll bring the rope. We might need it.’
Climbing in wellies was much harder than I had imagined. Solid and inflexible, the rubber soles slipped on the bark. Although it was still possible to test the strength and elasticity of a branch, my feet were numb to the finer contours beneath them. Consequently, every new step had to be judged visually. Rather than looking up, I found that I was forced to look down to check on the position of my feet. Even worse, the wellies were easily wedged into the angle between the base of the branch and the trunk. On more than one occasion, I could feel my foot slipping free.
It wasn’t difficult to spot a dead branch. On really rotten ones, a black ring would form where it met the trunk. You could tell the others by their rigidity or peeling bark. Long ones would rattle if you pushed them. Each time I came across a dead branch, I kicked at it, anticipating the loud crack and the crashing descent which ended on a bouncing thud far below. Big ones creaked and whined like a huge molar being wrenched from its socket.
The higher I climbed, the more nervous I became. Although the day was still and the sun shone in a cloudless sky, the tree swayed with a motion all of its own. Through the gentle rustle of the leaves and the racing of my heart, I could hear a low sighing as if the tree itself was breathing. My body tingled. Each time I moved or made contact with a fresh part of the tree, an electric charge pulsed through my skin and gripped at my stomach. Looking down made me hug the trunk even harder, my fingers digging deeply into the bark.
Chris and Richard were above me. They had been using the rope. I could hear Chris’s yells of triumph and the cautious note in Richard’s shouts of encouragement. Although I could see the outline of the hedges and the roofs of houses, I was only catching them in glimpses. I needed to get further away from the trunk, if I was to get a better view. Steeling myself, I belly crawled towards a fork in the branch where I could sit. As I pulled myself along, the branch started to dip and shafts of sunlight broke through the leaves. By the time I was comfortably settled on my perch, a window of light had opened up so that I could clearly see the world beneath me. Black and white Friesian cows dotted the field which burned yellow with pools of buttercups. The hawthorn hedge frothed like a river in flood. I could see the roof of my house, the cranes on the Docks, a single-decker bus on the road and the white hair of the Boggart in his fruit cage. Just at the edge of the gap, I could see the other tree, set back from the ditch in an empty field. The hammer was still thudding and I could just make out the orange of Trev’s jumper. I shut my eyes and swayed with the tree. The gentle rocking motion was soothing and soporific.
‘Heh, Nuts and Bolts, it’s about to rain.’
It was Chris’s voice. I decided to ignore it.
‘What did I tell yer?’
I could hear a pattering noise on the leaves above me. Then I felt a splash of something on my cheek. The maniac was urinating, scent-marking his territory, and his piss was now dripping onto my head.
‘Knock it off, you pillock.’
I could hear them both laughing.
‘It’s time to get down. I thought you might need waking up.’
As any climber of trees will tell you, the descent is always the hardest part. Dangling from a branch, your toe searching for the one below, can be an unnerving experience. Despite a couple of dicy moments when I was left swinging in the air for a few seconds, I got down safely, springing from the final branch into the carpet of dead leaves at the foot of the tree. Chris and Richard soon followed.
‘Enjoy that? Wont that great?’
‘Apart from you pissing on me.’
‘I was only having a laugh. You’ll get over it.’
Richard winked at me.
‘You got a long way up, Nuts and Bolts. Good on yer.’
Diplomatic as always, he made me feel better immediately.
‘Right, let’s go and see how the others are getting on.’
Keeping low, we zig-zagged our way to the other tree. Eddie and Paul were at the bottom but there was no sign of Trev.
‘He’s stuck. Sez he can’t get down.’
Eddie was looking anxious.
‘I’ve been back up, but I can’t get him to move.’
‘What are we going to do then?’
‘Nuts and Bolts, go and see Titch. Check on what the Boggart’s doing. Richard, you come with me. We’ll need that rope.’
When I got to Titch, he was lying against the bank, his head resting on the binoculars. A butterfly was sunning itself on his shoulder. He was clearly asleep.
‘Heh, wake up.’
I shook his elbow.
‘Trev’s stuck up the tree.’
Bleary-eyed, Titch sat up, swaying. He looked startled.
‘What’s Trev doing?’
‘He’s stuck up the tree.’
‘Do we need to call the Fire Brigade?’
‘Have you seen the Boggart?’
I peered over the top of the bank. Fifty yards away, bearing down on us, was the Boggart. As he hobbled through the buttercups, cows scattered before him. His walking stick was raised above his head.
‘I show this boyz. You go from here.’
I ducked down.
‘Shit, he’s here. Come on, we’ve got to warn the rest.’
Titch grabbed hold of my arm.
‘Don’t tell Spinach I was asleep.’
‘All right, I promise. Come on.’
The news of the Boggart’s impending approach caused pandemonium. Paul froze and instantly burst into tears. Chris flew towards the tree, threw back his head and howled.
‘Spinach, get down quick! The Boggart’s here.’
Above us, we could hear a frenzied scrambling, rapidly followed by a hail of broken twigs and a showering confetti of leaves. Eddie and Richard dropped in quick succession and tumbled at our feet.
‘Trev’s just behind us. Follow me.’
Eddie bolted across the field towards the watering hole. Chris bulldozed Titch in front of him as Richard caught hold of Paul, carrying him like a battering ram under his arm. Panicking, I hid behind the tree. The Boggart was cursing as he attempted to clamber out of the ditch. I could see the soles of Trev’s wellies and the arms of his orange jumper.
‘Hurry up, Trev.’
I was yelling in whispers.
‘That’s it, swing across to the branch on your right.’
The Boggart’s white hair rose out of the ditch.
‘I catch you. Then I call the polees.’
Trev just had the bole to negotiate. His face and lips were white and his freckles had lost their lustre, like the eyes of a dead fish.
I reached above me, ready to guide his wellies onto the last of the nails.
‘I haf two of you.’
I turned round and was instantly pinioned against the tree, the Boggart’s walking stick pressing hard into my chest bone. His throat was rattling. I couldn’t look at his white moustache. I looked down. His brown, zip-up slippers seemed incongruous in such a setting. Above us, I could hear Trev’s wellies slapping against his calf-muscles as he slipped from one nail to the next.
‘You boyz destroying this treez wis this nailz. Nefer again.’
Suddenly, a welly scraped down the bark and swung towards my throat. Trev squealed in pain. As if stung by a hornet, he hurtled from the tree and landed in a thrashing heap. He was clutching at a jagged gash in the flesh of his thigh. Blood seeped through his fingers as he settled into a high-pitched whine. Drilling even harder into my chest, Faggot leaned towards me.
‘You go. I look hafter him.’
Withdrawing the stick, he lashed at my leg.
‘You tell his muther.’
With tears in my eyes, I sprinted after the others. The top of my shin was still stinging as I crashed into the ditch. Turning momentarily, I could see the Boggart kneeling on one knee. He was holding a white handkerchief against Trev’s leg and muttering softly. The rest of the gang were waiting at the watering hole.
‘The Boggart’s got him.’
‘He’ll be sent to Borstal. North Sea Camp.’
Paul’s eye darted at each of us, his mouth wide open in a wildly crooked grin.
‘No, the Boggart’s taking him to his house.’
‘Did he tie him up?’
‘Trev cut his leg. The Boggart’s looking after him.’
Racing to the top of the bank, we could see Faggot guiding Trev through the gate at the corner of his garden.
‘He says you’ve got to tell your mum.’
Trev and Paul’s mum could have worried the tread off a tractor tyre. Consequently, any untoward event in the life of her family triggered flutterings of nervous energy which only dissipated once they had climaxed in an attack of hysterical sobbing. Only last year, I had launched a plastic spade-full of crew-yard cow shit into the air, which, unluckily for Trev, had scored a direct hit on the top of his head. My mum had made me go round to apologise. Trev’s mum had kept me at their front door for half an hour, pecking at me like a giant crow.
After she had retrieved her bandaged son from the Boggart’s house, we each received a visit. With Trev and Paul trotting behind her, she tapped at our door. Puffing herself up, as if taking a huge breath, she rattled like a machine gun, briefly peppering my mum, before levelling the full force of her attack at me. Re-loading in mid sentence, she deflected any attempt at an apology, maintaining a constant barrage so that our hallway echoed to the spent shell cases of her tirade. When she left, my mum cuffed the side of my head.
‘Thank your lucky stars she’s not your mother.’
Trev was debriefed two days later. We sat around him in the garage.
‘Well, go on then. What happened?’
‘What was his house like?’
‘Did her see his missus?’
‘The Boggart took me in his kitchen and his missus washed my leg with some warm water and TCP. Then the Boggart got a roll of cotton wool. He put a bit over the cut and wrapped a bandage round it.’
‘Was they speaking German?’
‘Yeah, but they used English words with me.’
‘What was his kitchen like?’
‘It was big with a table in the middle. And there was a cuckoo clock on the wall.’
‘Did he shout at yer?’
‘He wont there for long. His missus gave me some hot milk. She smelt like Palma violets.’
Richard passed round a bag of sports’ mixtures. Chewing on a green tennis racket, Trev continued.
‘His missus showed me some of his medals. They was in a case. Then she showed me his beret. And a photo of him in a group of soldiers. She said he was handsome Hermann.’
Titch started to bounce with excitement.
‘Did yer see his gun? Or a hand-grenade?’
‘No, that was all the war things. There was one photo with her son in it. Eric, she called him. He was nine years old. He was holding onto a wooden wheel-barrow. He looked everso funny. He had shorts on like pants. And braces and long socks with hob-nailed boots. There was some laughing girls in long, white socks. They had frilly dresses on and their hair was done up at the sides like ear-muffs.’
Eddie coughed and sniffed.
‘Where was the Boggart?
‘I never saw him again. When my mum came, I had to go through the hall. I could hear him in another room. I thought he was laughing, but he wont, he was crying. He sounded like a cow bealing.’
‘What, the Boggart was crying?’
‘Him a soldier?’
‘With all them medals?’
Eddie stood up and walked in front of the map of trees.
‘Course he was bloody crying. He was thinking about his son.’
From that day, the Boggart was off-limits. And, this time, it was Eddie’s decision. Picking up a garden cane, he whipped it into his left palm to emphasise the point.
‘Right, that’s it. No more nails and no more trees.’
He stared at each one of us in turn.
‘New plan. We’ve got a war machine to build. Which means nicking some wood from the timber yard. Meet back here at 9.30 in the morning. Don’t be late.’