by Mike Fox

‘Be kind to him.’

Mum was folding some clothes. She wasn’t looking at me directly.

‘But it’s just a laugh.’ I stood facing her. ‘Everybody does it.’

‘You’re not everybody,’ Mum said. ‘Just be kind to him.’

In the summer we played outside until the street lamps came on. My mum had brought some rubbish out to the bin in the front garden, and had seen what happened. She didn’t say anything at the time. Being tactful, she waited until I came indoors.

‘But he wears that stuff around his eyes.’ I had two older sisters, and they were always talking about mascara and eyeliner, but I wasn’t willing to use those words.

‘That’s because his mother only ever wanted a girl—it’s not his fault.’ Mum lifted the pile of folded clothes and took them upstairs.

I knew his name was Alex, but not much else. For some reason he walked past at the same time every night. Most of us had morning paper rounds, but perhaps he had an evening job in one of the local shops. Boys simply didn’t wear make-up in those days—it was before David Bowie even started singing about laughing gnomes.

On summer evenings my friends and I just kicked a football round for hours. I can hardly remember any cars, and we used the wall of Mr Dooley’s house as a goal. He was the local builder and roofer, known to everyone in the surrounding streets, and he and his wife only ever smiled at us if they came out. We were doing what boys were expected to do.

Alex was different in every way. He never looked scruffy, and his crisp ginger curls were never out of place. There was something careful, even hopeful about the way he walked, looking straight ahead and slightly upwards, as if he believed his short, slightly constricted steps might take him somewhere he really wanted to go. At a glance you could see he was irredeemably gentle.

I suppose Jimmy Dobrin was his antithesis. On our own little patch, if not elsewhere, he was the best footballer, and somehow he was the one we all deferred to. He had a cramped, urchin face, and though he lived in one of the big houses overlooking the park, he had an air of being just that bit on the wrong side of the tracks. If he made a joke about you, you were unlikely to answer back. I doubt if anyone gave this much thought, it was just how it was.

So the first time he made a comment we sniggered, obediently.

‘Here’s nancy-boy again,’ he said, without raising his voice.

It was difficult to tell if Alex heard. He simply kept walking and then turned the corner. The rest of us went back to a game of keepy-uppy, but Jimmy Dobrin continued to stare after the elfin figure, now out of sight. He didn’t look pleased.

The following night it happened again. This time Jimmy Dobrin put his foot on the ball, so everything stopped.

‘All right, pretty boy?’ He stared directly at Alex.

Alex’s steps seemed to lengthen slightly and become more staccato. But he still said nothing. Jimmy Dobrin looked round at us and we all laughed.

After that it got worse, in small increments, every night: ‘sweety-pie’, ‘doll-face’, ‘girly-kid’, the sneer in Jimmy Dobrin’s voice increasing by a tiny fraction each time. In its way it was subtle—never quite bad enough to suggest it wasn’t really a bit of a joke, as long as you were willing to see it that way. Each night Alex’s back and shoulders grew more rigid, his gait more a parody of controlled indifference. And every time we laughed. Once we’d all joined in, there was no going back.

Perhaps it might have gone on like that, but Jimmy Dobrin was not used to being ignored, and on the evening Mum happened to come out, he went one stage further. He gestured for the football, tucked it casually under his arm, then strolled over to place himself in Alex’s way, forcing him to step off the kerb to get past. I was the only one to notice Mum’s presence, and somehow, knowing that she was watching made the whole thing different. For the first time Alex dropped his head and looked downwards, and I couldn’t deny he was frightened. Jimmy Dobrin looked at us and laughed, and we all laughed too.

The following evening football didn’t seem so important. I’d had time to think—about what had happened and about what Mum had said. I had to admit that in my heart I felt the same as her. In consequence I’d made a decision not to join in. But as the light started to fade I found myself hoping that Alex had taken another route.

Unfortunately he hadn’t, and when eventually I saw him approaching from the far end of the street, I immediately noticed something different. He had a light blue leather bag, a cross between a satchel and a handbag, hanging from his right shoulder. As he drew near he reached into it, frowning, the way people do when they’re concentrating on something important. Jimmy Dobrin, taking his time, had once again crossed the street to block his path. Alex stopped before him and held out a tube of sweets.

‘Would you like these?’ he said. His voice was as I might have imagined, light, mild, and at the high end of alto.

Jimmy Dobrin smiled. He took the sweets without saying anything and for a moment I thought he was going to let Alex pass. But then he reached over and yanked the bag roughly from his shoulder. Alex’s eyes widened and he stood for several seconds as if he’d been abandoned by any ability to respond. Then eventually he swallowed, and spoke.

‘Can I have that back, please?’ He pointed at the bag.

Jimmy Dobrin just grinned at him. I could see he was enjoying himself.

‘Please can I have it back?’

Jimmy Dobrin smiled at him almost kindly.

‘Please,’ Alex repeated.

There was a pleading quality in his voice that I could feel in my own throat.

‘Please,’ he said again.

I didn’t foresee what was going to happen next.

I wasn’t much of a fighter, but I had one good tactic: if I got someone in a headlock they usually struggled to get out of it. The next thing I knew I had Jimmy Dobrin in a headlock. Then everything seemed to go into slow motion.

‘Fucking get off me.’

There was a note of strangled indignation in his voice that in other circumstances might have sounded funny. I could feel how strong he was, but I kept my right hand firmly clasped to my left wrist, continued to pull as hard as I could. He was bent at ninety degrees, and I noticed he’d dropped the bag.

‘I’m going to fucking kill you.’

I believed him. My arm felt like it was encircling pure rage, as if I’d set my will against something wild and savage. I should have been scared, but somehow I wasn’t. It was like being outside the normal parameters of time, with my whole focus on Jimmy Dobrin’s head. But I realised that at some point I would have to release my grip on it, and that thereafter things wouldn’t go well. So it made sense to hold on for as long as I could.

‘Fucking let go, you little sod.’

I could only see the side of his face, but it looked very red. He kept struggling, but he couldn’t get into a position to hit me, or to free himself. We seemed to remain like that for a quite a while, though it was probably less than two minutes. When my arm finally started to go dead, I decided to count down from ten silently, then submit to whatever would follow.

Ten—nine—eight—seven—six—five—four—three—two—one. I let go.

All I knew after that was a tornado of fists had somehow found its way to my face. I barely had the strength to raise my arms to shield myself, but strangely I didn’t seem to feel that much. When it finally stopped, I felt my vision gradually focus on the hunched figure of Jimmy Dobrin, stomping off, and then felt the warmth of blood as it pooled on the front of my t-shirt. I peered down at the bright red stain growing there and forced myself to concentrate. That was when the pain started.

I looked round. All my friends had gone. The only person left was Alex. He was wringing his hands around the leather handle of his bag, and staring at me with an expression that was two parts horror and one part something else. I realised it was the first time we’d made eye contact. I stood looking at him, his outline misty due to the swelling in my left eye. Suddenly, he took a step towards me, hesitated, then took another step. Once he was standing immediately in front of me, he pulled a pristine handkerchief from his pocket and began to dab at my mouth, while his eyes continued to search my face.

‘Are you alright? I heard him ask.

‘I’ll be fine,’ I said. Somehow it seemed important to reassure him about this. We stood close together, he dabbing and me accepting, until at some point he stopped and I realised he was going to put the handkerchief back in his pocket.

‘Don’t do that,’ I found myself saying, ‘you’ll mess up your trousers.’

Somehow that seemed important too.

‘My mum will wash it for you. Come on.’ I set off unsteadily towards my front door, and he followed.

Mum must have taken the situation in immediately.

‘Give me that, love,’ she took the handkerchief from Alex. Then to me: ‘Go to the bathroom and take your t-shirt off. I’ll be up in a minute.’

As I climbed the stairs I heard her offering Alex a glass of lemonade, and then him, very politely, saying thanks but he had to get home.

‘I’ll wash this and you can pop in and pick it up,’ I heard Mum say. ‘Then why don’t you come and have tea with us one day?’ I heard the door close and then her footsteps on the stairs.

When she joined me in the bathroom, she didn’t make a fuss or tell me off. She just applied herself to my face in a matter-of-fact sort of way, although between wipes and dabs I caught her looking at me as if I was something new, and more than once I thought she was trying not to smile.

‘Get yourself to bed now,’ she said, ‘and try to sleep on your back.’

I did as I was told. She came in and pulled the curtains, and when I got into bed the cool, clean sheets were like an embrace to all the parts of me that ached. She rested her palm softly on my forehead for a moment, then went to turn the light off before closing the door behind her. I looked up into the dark, and allowed a blissful, completely unexpected feeling of stillness to settle round me.

I’d just fallen into a doze when the door opened again. I heard a couple of steps, and then the clink of coins on my bedside table. I opened my eyes and saw Dad turning to leave.

‘Think I forgot your pocket money this week,’ he said. ‘Sleep tight, champ.’ The door closed and the darkness resumed.

I was old enough to know that Dad never forgot anything to do with money. I also knew he’d given me my weekly allowance two days ago. And he’d never called me champ before.

I lay there, thinking about the day, slowly getting drowsy again. My eye throbbed a bit but my lip hardly stung at all. Downstairs I could hear Mum and Dad talking quietly, probably sharing a whisky. It was a sound I was very familiar with: the nightly precursor to sleep. But now, as their voices floated up, I heard something else in them. For the first time I understood, with complete certainty, that they would always be the people I was most like in this world.

Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness.  Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath, first published in Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. or @polyscribe2.