, they called him. Mongrel. Traveller.
He stared hard into Hightowler's icy eyes, his best Death Glare. It was like school again, but different people, different place, different reasons.
'All right, then, breed?'
This was the rubbish they always fed him. All right, breed? You startin', then, filth? Your kind eat dogs, do they? They eat cats? You going to eat my cat, breed?
He imagined himself in a mirror, with the skinny neck and too-large nose. Greasy black hair and eyes to match. A Traveller's eyes. Not his mother's blue. He thought of Uncle Henry and Aunt Aggie in their flat. Cold soup and stale bread. Milk far past its expiring date. Travellers settled in a town that didn't want them. He thought of Father roaming France, of Mother dying. He thought of punching out Hightowler's crystal eyes.
'You talk, breed? C'mere, I've heard you talking. You like flowers, breed? I've seen you sneaking flowers into that filthy place your lot have got the gall to call a fl - '
His fist had moved faster than he imagined. Flying, hitting, pulling back and reeling up for another blow. Hightowler grinned, clutching his cheek. 'You going to fight me, breed? Your kind, they fight dirty, do they? Like pigs and dogs. Filthy, nasty little mon - '
Again, he surprised himself. Hightowler only showed him that horrible, cold grin. He could see everything in that grin. His life meant nothing to them, the boys around them, their mothers, their fathers. He swung again, this time blocked by a strong hand, not Hightowler's. Woolcroft smirked, and then Hightowler smirked, and soon the lot of them were smirking at him, eyes narrowed, lips thin.
He knew each punch thrown earned him another in his face, his chest, anywhere they could get at him. They pinned him down, a boy on each knee, Hightowler pushing into his elbows as Woolcroft kicked with heavy black school shoes.
'That - breed
- is for coming to - my
- town and stink - ing it up - and - THAT - is for looking at - my - bloody sister
- you disgusting - pafectic
- little - pikey
Ah, pikey. That was his favourite of all the names, better even than breed.
'Give it to him, Woolcroft!'
'Kick his head in!'
'Kill him! Kill him!'
They had worked up a nice chant now - kill him! kill him! kill him!
Time passed in a daze of heavy blows and mocking laughter. He no longer felt the punches to his face, his stomach. Somewhere, very far off, he knew it hurt. Somewhere below the numbness, the wanting to cry and holding it back, he knew he ought to be feeling pain. A sharp sting in his gut, a deep, ingrained throbbing beneath his eye. Just like school.
Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!
'All right, then, breed?'
They strode off, laughing, joking. Did you see his face? Did you see his bloody face? Crying! Poor ickle Pikey crying for his mum!
He hasn't got a mum.
That's the better! Ickle Pikey's got no mummy. Poor fing.
Did you hear him whimpering? Like a soddin' baby.
Got that right.
He picked himself up, like he always did, smiling. What difference did a smile make? What difference was it if he lie on the ground forever, moaning and feeling sorry for himself and trying - oh, sweet Merlin - trying
not to cry.
And the thing was, it made no difference at all. No one else cared if he smiled or not, but they didn't like it. They liked tears and pleas and muffled cries. He smiled with swollen lips and thanked Hightowler. Always thanked them afterwards. It confused them. It gave him the power and made him feel, for a brief moment, that a smile and a mumbled thanks could tip the world on its side. The tables turned. He smiled because he could.
He thanked them and headed home to the flat that smelled of cats and celery and millwork, to the uncle who waited by the door and the aunt who wanted to know why anyone would want to hurt a boy like him. Her sweet nephew, her angel. He smiled at her, too, when she asked where he had been, who had been bothering him this time.
Who's been beating you up, then? What have you been doing? Look at the state of your clothes! Those were new trousers! I'm not a millionaire, you know, and - oh, my - are you all right? What have they done to you? Are you hurt badly? Bring the ice, Henry. I don't care if we haven't got any ice, bring the pork for tomorrow's dinner! What's happened to your shoes? Who's been taking your shoes? Who would want to hurt a boy like you, hm? What have you been doing?
'Nothing, Auntie. Nothing, I'm fine. Just normal things.'
And that was that.