© Mark Vector
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I used to love the sweet sound of the school bell ringing out freedom, football, and family films. I’d leave school with a smile so wide, I had to walk out sideways just to fit through the gate.
That was before Gnarler arrived.
Today, I dreaded the bell’s clang of fear, fright and a promised fist fight.
I sprinted out of class and slipped through the school gates.
Chasing feet pounded the pavement behind me. Heavy like a T-Rex with a tank perched on each shoulder — only more dangerous because the feet belonged to Gnarler. Worse still, he was catching up.
Panting, I collapsed against a shabby arcade wall and sank to the floor. I hugged my knees and dropped my head. Then silence. I sensed he was close.
‘I give up!’ I shouted and shot both hands in the air to surrender. Two of my fingers plunged deep up Gnarler’s nose.
Talk about awkward.
I pulled on my arm, but both fingers were plugged in tight. He must have leaned over me, but why, with such large nostrils?
The bully loomed above me, unmoving as if paralysed. His brown bulging eyes twitched, before going cross-eyed to focus on my hand, knuckles deep, up his sniffer. To break free, I wiggled my fingers and in the process tickled something smooth and round. It had to be his brain because it was tiny. Every time I moved my two fingers, different parts of his face twitched. I stopped when his left eyebrow lifted and lifted until it merged with his hairline.
The crowd edged closer for a better view. I’d never live this down, assuming I’d live at all.
A guy from the crowd shouted, ‘Put the chunky kid down. He’s not a finger puppet!’
Then a woman at the back shouted, ‘After a nose dive like that, I hope he wasn’t wearing any rings.’
The crowd winced at the thought and sucked in air through their teeth.
Luckily, Gnarler didn’t inhale or else I’d be elbow deep in snot.
Either through anger or a lack of oxygen the bully’s face changed from pink to red to purple. All very hypnotising. Until he grabbed my wrist. With a powerful jerk, he whipped my arm towards the floor. Two loud pops shot out across the crowd and my fingers unplugged from Gnarler’s skull. Thankfully, both fingers remained attached, just in desperate need of more soap than I could ever afford. I could never use them again and certainly not in my nose.
I smiled at Gnarler offering my most apologetic face. As Aunty Billie always said, peace starts with a smile.
A hefty fist shattered my peaceful smile and bounced off my teeth. Eyes wide in disbelief, I stared at Gnarler. I guess he hadn’t heard the saying.
Gnarler reached out his muscular arm. I leant forward to grab it but he slapped my hand away. I didn’t have time for patter cake. His arm returned, this time with a growl. Clearly, not the hand of friendship. He wanted my lunch money.
‘I’ve lost it,’ I lied. I couldn’t tell him the truth. He’d never believe me. To spend it on anything other than his protection was crazy. But the smell of the canteen’s fish fingers had been too much to resist. I’m only human. A fish finger loving human.
‘Cough up my money or I can’t protect you.’ Gnarler cracked his knuckles. Each one as loud as a shotgun. ‘With a single punch, you will cough your lungs out of your eye sockets.’
First of all you don’t cough through your eye sockets. And secondly, not even Gnarler could make that happen. Two punches, yeah maybe.
He grunted and polished his fist.
‘I have nothing.’ I turned out my pockets. ‘I promise.’
‘Fine. I’m not a monster…’ Gnarler had to wait for the crowd to stop laughing at this comment before continuing. ‘Tomorrow, you owe me five pounds.’ He patted my ginger hair. ‘Such a wimp. Just like your mummy.’
Oh no he didn’t. Mum wasn’t a wimp. My heart pumped hard enough to crack a rib. Dad would never allow anyone to speak badly of Mum. I had to make a stand. Dad had always hated bullies. I felt him close — filling me with courage. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, he would say. Well, today Gnarler would fall and Dad would be proud. Or I’d be meeting him very soon in Heaven with lungs instead of eyes.
I tapped Gnarler’s lower back, as I couldn’t reach his shoulder. ‘The bigger they are…’ I pulled back my fist. ‘The harder they…’ and punched with enough rage to break a wall made of Lego, loosely put together, but still.
Gnarler caught my hand — as if it were a leaf falling from a tree.
‘—the harder they… HIT,’ he finished.
His knuckles rocketed towards my stomach. I caught his fist — as if it were a tractor falling from a tree. My hand joined his and together we both hit me in the belly stopping only at my spine. My stomach decided there wasn’t enough room for two fists and four fish fingers. So it ejected my lunch the quickest way it knew.
I vomited with the power of a fire hose. Gnarler dodged a flying fish finger. I made a mental note to chew my food better. I couldn’t continue the vomit attack for long, as school lunches don’t provide much ammunition. When the eruption reduced to a dribble, Gnarler shook his greasy, brown hair and directed an almighty fist towards my eye. For a horrible second, I didn’t think it would stop.
I was right. My skull bruised his fist, well I hope it did because my head almost cracked in two.
‘Now, you’re gonna bring me ten pounds tomorrow or next time no more Mr. Gentle.’
I nodded, as my eye started to close thanks to his gentle fist.
Then I saw it.
His knuckle showed a speck of blood, probably from when I blocked his punch with my teeth.
Gnarler could be hurt!
‘Ha!’ I thought… out loud. Very loud. So loud, in fact, the crowd spun round in disbelief. I knew what they were thinking. Let us admire this brave hero who made Gnarler bleed.
I, the brave hero, crawled away so fast I galloped on my knees. Impressive but sore. I made good distance until a rough hand clutched for the back of my trousers, missed, and instead grabbed my Hulk underpants. Lifted clean off my knees, Gnarler suspended me in the air like a spinning piñata.
‘Wedgey!’ someone shouted. I didn’t argue. Partly because it was true, but mostly because my teeth were clenched so tight I couldn’t breathe.
‘Did you laugh at me?’ Gnarler’s bloodshot eyes glared.
Above the crowd’s chant of ‘lungs instead of eyes’, I heard a familiar voice. A comforting voice. A lady pushed her way through the crowd and placed her hands on her slim hips.
It was a sight for sore eyes, and I meant that quite literally, my bruised eyes were really sore now.
‘Release the boy!’
I spun slowly, hanging by my green underwear elastic.
I crashed to the floor and adjusted my undies so I could unclench my teeth.
Gnarler pointed at me and punched his hand with enough force to break every bone of a small child. A child about my size.
Aunty Billie pulled out her phone. ‘I’m going to call his mum, who happens to be the—’
‘Headmistress? So What? We don’t care and neither does she.’ Gnarler turned and strolled past the arcade. His friends circled him like vultures.
Aunty Billie knelt down. ‘What’s he talking about? She’ll kick him out of school so hard he’ll need a team of surgeons to find her shoe.’
‘Mum can’t know. If any bullying is reported she’ll miss out on the prize.’
‘Oh, not the prize again.’ She tried to straighten my curly hair only for it to spring back. ‘Is she still obsessed with that?’
‘It’s the only thing she cares about, since Dad—’
‘That’s not true’ She put her hand on my head. ’Your mum also loves to play jigsaws.’ She punched my shoulder.
‘Meeting the Prime Minister is everything to her.’
‘She wasn’t always a Headmistress…’ Aunty Billie paused. ‘Let’s just say, I’m sure she has her reasons.’
I kicked an empty Coke can. ‘I need to stop Gnarler without Mum’s help, and if my lungs stay inside my body, even better.’
‘Gnarler? That’s his name?’
‘He has other names like, ‘Sir’ or ‘Oh Wise One’ but most people call him ‘Nastiest Poop Stain Outside a Toilet’ — obviously, that’s when he can’t hear them.’
Aunty Billie placed a well-manicured hand on my shoulder. ’Look, if you absolutely can’t tell your mum, then, of course, I’ll help. Let your mum focus on winning the prize. But she can never know I helped. Or it will be me who will need a team of shoe-finding surgeons.’
‘Why are you holding that arm out like that?’ she asked.
‘Because these two fingers got stuck up Gnarler’s nose.’
‘Good reason.’ She looked at my fingers. ‘Get a replacement. Something like a hook. Hooks are awesome. Think of how many shopping bags you could carry.’
I thought for a moment. ‘I’d need to be careful, though. No more clapping and I don’t even want to think about going to the loo.’
‘Eek! Forget the hook. Very green underpants by the way.’
‘Hulky pants?’ I said. ‘After that scare, I’m not sure they’re completely green anymore. I’m glad I didn’t wear the undies with ‘Fart Loading’ written across the butt.’
‘At least they would have been more accurate.’ Aunty Billie punched my arm again softly.
She always knew how to make me smile. ‘I have an idea,’ I said. ‘Why not use your super spy skills to stop Gnarler?’
‘Hmm, that reminds me of a time in Switzerland—‘
‘Please no, not the Switzerland story again. I know you’re not really a spy.’
‘Well, if that’s true, how did I get hold of this?’ She flashed her MI6 employee photo-card. ‘TOP SECRET - Access All Levels’ written in thick red letters across the top. She often showed this when questioned about her supposed adventures. ‘All Levels,’ she said with a raised eyebrow, ‘in case you’re blind as well as disbelieving.’
I loved Auntie’s stories, but that’s all they were — stories. They all followed the same plots as James Bond films. I doubted Aunty Billie had been to a water park, never mind an underwater spy base to wrestle robotic sharks with lasers. The identity card, her most prized possession, had always been a mystery though. It looked so real.
On the way home, Aunty Billie bought a takeaway from Plucking Great Chicken. Their tagline read, ‘Fried Chicken so good, you’ll lick other people’s fingers’. I wouldn’t even hesitate.
‘What’s this bully’s story?’ she asked, biting into a drumstick.
‘Gnarler?’ I replied. ‘Well, he’s not happy unless he’s collected his own body weight in lunch money.’
‘He’d need to be strong.’ Aunty Billie said. ‘Aaaand…’
‘He’s the only kid leaving school with a smile.’ I threw a chip in my mouth.
‘Hmm. What to do? The skills we’re taught in the Secret Intelligence Service are too much. After all, he’s still a young lad, even if he’s mean enough to make a Happy Meal cry. Let’s start by visiting a gym and learning self-defence.’
‘Orrr…’ I rubbed my hands together. ‘You can beat him up and tell him to stop. That would be okay.’ I raised two thumbs.
‘It wouldn’t solve anything.’
‘Well… it kinda would. For starters, it would stop him hitting me.’
‘Yeah, but you wouldn’t learn anything,’ Aunty Billie said.
‘I’d learn life is better without bruises.’
‘But you won’t learn how to stop the next bully, say… when you leave school.’
‘What? There’s more bullying after I leave school?’ I threw the battered chicken bones in the bin.
Aunty Billie gave me a hug. ‘Let’s meet at the gym tomorrow. I know the perfect instructor.’
‘I’ve got nothing to lose,’ I said.
‘Except two hours sleep,’ she said, laughing. Her red hair bounced like rusty springs as she waved goodbye.
At home, I made sure to keep my black eye out of view. ‘Hi, Mum,’ I shouted.
‘Hi Ollie,’ she sang back.
‘I’m beat.’ In more ways than one, I thought. ‘I’m going to have an early night, as I have to wake early for the gym with Aunty Billie.’
‘Okay. I've got work to do anyway. Sleep well.’
The street lamps fought back the early morning darkness. Aunty Billie tugged her red bobble hat to rest above her green eyes. In the dark gym entrance, stood the only man visible from space. Big letters stretched across his huge chest. It said, ‘I didn’t get This Butt by sitting on it.’
I looked at my chest and worked out the only words which would fit across my chest would be, ’This Butt’. I wouldn’t be buying one.
He leant forward, took Aunty Billie’s hand and kissed it.
‘It tickles,’ she said.
He leant forward to me. I shoved both hands in my pockets so fast I broke a nail. Instead of a hand kiss, he slapped my back, hard. My tongue jumped out my mouth and I half expected internal organs to follow. Aunty Billie wiped a bucket’s worth of saliva from the back of her wrist. I cringed, thankful for the back slap.
The Instructor stepped back to open the doors. In the gym light, his face was now visible, and one thing stuck out — a lot! The Instructor was more moustache than man — and considering the size of the man that was saying something. A fully grown bear would have looked balding next to what sat on his upper lip.
‘Aah, the nephew,’ he said, leaning down to face me. Straight away I knew this man played by his own rules, like not cleaning his teeth.
I held my breath so as not to appear rude by collapsing.
’So you want to be a fighting machine?’ He laughed, breathing heavily over me. My eyes watered. I had a choice to make. Either suffocation or breathe. It wasn’t a difficult decision. I chose suffocation. But my body cheated me and breathed anyway.
It was him who stepped back - at my breath! ‘Good God! What is that stink?’
I wanted to say mint toothpaste. It stops you smelling like there’s a dead squirrel rotting under your tongue. Instead, I shrugged.
‘Sooo, this is Ollie.’ Aunty Billie ruffled my hair.
‘I didn’t know they made boys this small. Does he need to be inflated or something?’
‘He may not big, but he’s a quick learner—‘
‘You’re not kidding. I’ve got larger action figures at home… erm… I mean, my little boy—’
Aunty Billie continued, ’—and he knows self-defence will take time.’
‘Stonehenge took time,’ the Instructor said. ‘Unless he’s immortal, he has no chance.’
Aunty Billie cleared her throat and flashed a stern smile.
The Instructor took a step back. ‘I’ll do my best, but I can’t make anyone look as awesome as me. Here’s a treat.’ He removed his shirt and tensed his body. Both arms lifted above his head and millions of lumpy muscles jumped to attention. Thick blue veins pulsed across his neck and face. He strained so hard, I wondered if he should move closer to the toilet because that’s how accidents happened.
‘Phooweeee,’ he said. ‘I don’t give everyone a free ticket to the Gun Show.’ He kissed his biceps and winked at Aunty Billie.
She shivered. ‘I’m going to exercise. Good luck, Ollie.’ She ran to the far end of the gym.
‘Right, let’s get your heart pumping with some cardio.’
At the jogging machine, the Instructor motioned for me to jump on.
The treadmill started moving before my foot touched the belt. As the speed increased, my jog turned into a run and finally into a battle not to shoot off the back.
‘Too fast?’ The moustache sneered and like a good puppy received a stroke. The Instructor pressed the ‘bleeping’ button again to go faster. To be clear, the button ‘bleeped’ when pressed. The word ‘bleeping’ did not mean a naughty word was being ‘bleeped’ out.
Only when I stumbled and grabbed his moustache to steady myself, did the ‘bleeping’ Instructor reduce the speed.
After ten minutes of combing his moustache while I jogged, he said, ’I’m bored.’ With a scan of the gym, he wandered off towards two ladies using rowing machines.
‘I’m sorry, but did you women just fart?’ he asked.
In disgust, they shook their heads.
‘Because you just blew me away.’ He winked. After no response, he took out his phone. ‘Ladies, this new phone has a problem and I was hoping you might help.’ He waited in silence. ‘It doesn’t have your numbers in it.’ He winked again. ‘Well, it doesn’t really need your number.’ He nodded to the older lady. The girls rowed their machines to the other side of the room. Impressive, considering they were bolted to the floor.
He returned with a sway of his moustache. ‘They’re the ones missing out. Am I right? I bet they can’t do this.’ He tensed his left chest muscle. It climbed up and perched on his shoulder like a parrot. He pointed to a dumbbell. ‘Lift that ten times. It’s a woman’s weight.’ He laughed. ‘I know what you’re thinking. They should lift pans and babies.’
The older lady gave a death-stare, and shouted, ‘You’re lucky I don’t have a pan right now.’
‘Poor thing. She must be a terrible cook.’
I grabbed the dumbbells. I didn’t know about it being a woman’s weight, it felt more like the weight of a woman — and not a small one. My body trembled and my arms strained. I couldn’t lift them above my knees. And considering I was kneeling, I think it’s fair to say I wouldn’t be invited to any weightlifting clubs.
‘I normally ask my students not to strain in case they pull a muscle. But you actually need a muscle before it can be pulled. So strain away.’ The Instructor directed me towards a section full of complicated levers and pulley systems. ‘Let’s try the machines. If these are too heavy, we’ll go to reception so you can shoulder press a stapler.’
Aunty Billie wandered over, wiping sweat from her brow. ‘Are you going easy on him? Don’t forget he’s not at his strongest, yet.’
‘It’s a miracle he can lift his shoes when he steps.’
Aunty Billie dropped her hands to her hips.
In an attempt to impress Aunty Billie, I sat at the machine and pushed the handle forward with all my strength. It moved. In fact, it was easy. Aunty Billie clapped.
I knocked out three repetitions before the Instructor shouted, ‘Stop pushing you dimwit! You almost ripped my finger off. I haven’t even attached a weight yet.’
With no moving parts attacking him, he slotted a metal pin into the fourth weight. He might as well have cemented them to the floor and welded them. It was only after he moved the peg to lift a single weight could I move it, barely. I managed six reps. My arms fell to my side and violently trembled. If I had wings for arms I’d have banged my head on the ceiling.
The Instructor smiled and seemed genuinely surprised. Clearly, I’d impressed him.
‘I am amazed.’ His wide eyes confirmed this.
I raised an eyebrow because I didn’t have the strength to lift anything else.
‘I genuinely believed no one could be this weak.’ He shook his head and led me to a set of blue mats. ‘Time for the big event; Self-Defence.’
The Instructor crouched and raised his fists.
‘Your Aunty wants you to defend yourself, but if I had a body… like yours.’ His face shrivelled up as if he had just sipped water from a dirty toilet. ‘The sensible choice would be to surrender.’
‘But I don’t want to just roll over when things get hairy.’ I immediately regretted my poor word choice.
‘Well, if you don’t roll over, a thug will roll you over with a single punch.’ He pointed to my bruised face. ‘You should have rolled.’
‘I did… mostly,’ I said.
‘Fine. It’s your face.’
Out of nowhere, a hand slapped me across the head. I fell and rolled off the mat. The same hand that slapped me now tickled the moustache.
‘Why did I hit you?’ The Instructor asked.
’Good question.’ I rubbed my head.
‘Because you invited me.’
I didn’t remember asking for a slap. But I was just hit in the head by a hand heavier than a pregnant whale, so my memory was understandably foggy.
‘Be ready for the unknown,’ the Instructor said. ‘Always, and I can’t say this enough, be ready for the unknown.’
He leapt forward. I froze. He placed his arm around my neck. I gurgled from inside a headlock. ‘How many times do I have to say it. Be… Ready… For… The… Unknown.’
I nodded with a gurgle. Squashed between slabs of muscle, my breathing laboured, until he tensed his cannonball bicep, at which point my breath stopped. I tapped his arm, as the birdies circling my head suffocated and crashed to the floor. Nothing. I slapped him harder. Sight faded. Finally, he threw me to the floor. I gasped for breath. My lungs filled with air while my undies almost filled with something entirely different.
Aunty Billie waved from the chin up bar and continued chinning up with her left arm.
I waited for the room to stop spinning. ‘I’m ready to learn the headlock.’ I placed my arms in a circle.
The Instructor laughed. ‘I’ll never get in there.’
I looked at my arm circle, nodded, and doubled the size to include his moustache.
‘Because you’re too weak. McDonald’s straws are thicker than your arms.’
‘But why show me the move?’
‘Because you’re a victim. You’ll always be in someone else’s headlock. I simply wanted to show you a professional one.’
‘But I need to learn how to escape them.’
The instructor thought for a moment. ‘Fine.’ He bent down, his moustache swept the floor as it hung low. ‘This is how to break free from someone bigger than you. So… in your case, anyone over the age of four.’
Time to see if he enjoyed not being able to breathe. I tightened my arms around his neck with all my strength and then squeezed harder. I waited for his slap begging me to loosen my stranglehold.
‘Okay, now go ahead and tighten your arms,’ he said, without a hint of strangulation.
I couldn’t even answer I was squeezing so hard. It was like trying to choke a tree trunk with overcooked spaghetti. I should have known his neck muscles were solid. After all, he had to carry that moustache round all day.
He thrust both hands upwards and followed through with a punch just below my belly button. I collapsed making screechy noises as I searched for my stolen air.
‘Your turn,’ He produced a bulging bicep to rest my head on. It resembled a pillow, filled with solid lead.
Aunty Billie jogged over and cheered, ‘Do your worst, Ollie.’
‘Don’t worry, he can’t get any worse.’ The Instructor laughed.
I slotted my neck into the crease of his muscle. His arm tensed and locked into place. If he slipped, he would twist my head off like a bottle top. My new friend ‘Dizziness’ returned as blood rushed everywhere, except to my head. I focused and struck upwards with both hands clasped together, as shown. I loosened the Instructor’s grip and even managed to suck in some precious air. My second upward thrust broke his headlock. But I forgot to strike below the belly button.
Aunty Billie shouted, ‘Take him DOWN!’
My next try also broke free but I punched too high. My final attempt was perfect, except I may have punched too low. The Instructor’s blue face squeaked like Minnie Mouse. An excellent impression, except Minnie Mouse would never swear.
‘What happened?’ Aunty Billie asked.
‘Someone once told me,’ I said smugly, ‘to always be ready for the unknown.’
The Instructor leapt forward. A clawed hand reached for my throat. I didn’t have time to blink before Aunty Billie’s manicured hand appeared in front of my face. It deflected the massive arm. Then with a delicate spin on her pink trainer, she gripped the Instructor’s wrist and twisted it. He performed a perfect back somersault, until the crunch landing on his head.
‘Right,’ Aunty Billie said. ‘That’s enough for today.’
The Instructor groaned.
‘Go for a shower, Ollie.’ Aunty Billie looked at the beaten man on the floor. ‘I’m getting a refund.’
In the changing room, I whipped my towel like Indiana Jones. A heroic feeling rushed through me. No headlock could hold me. Call me the Bully Beater!
I finished getting dressed. A distant voice forced me to gulp as my stomach tightened. I peeked into the gym. Gnarler hung upside down from his feet, while the Instructor punched him three times in the gut after each toe touch. I couldn’t compete with that. Even Batman would take notes on how to improve his workout. No amount of training could prepare me to beat him.
Gnarler sprung off the equipment and talked to the Instructor. They both looked over to changing rooms. I ducked back in. The only other exit towered above me. A tiny window, for a tiny person. Ha! Who needed muscles?
Sweat beaded my forehead as I struggled to pull myself up to the window. Impossible. Okay, so I admit having some muscle could be handy.
‘So you think you might know him?’ I heard the Instructor say, getting closer with each word.
‘Oh yeah,’ Gnarler answered. ‘He owes me money and I owe him a beating.’
I stepped on the toilet and clambered up the door frame until I balanced on the edge of the cubicle.
‘Hello, friend.’ Gnarler grabbed for my foot. I jumped. The open window seemed so far. But, somehow, I reached. With a squeeze, I pushed myself through until my trousers caught on the latch. I pushed harder and launched myself out to land on a patch of grass, which broke my fall and almost both of my ankles.
Gnarler’s face filled the window.
‘I’ll catch you at school,’ he said before leaving.
Things couldn’t get any worse.
I dropped my head in defeat only to see my Batman underwear. Oh great! My trousers had a whopping hole from being caught on the window latch.
With my coat wrapped around my waist, I headed home to collect a less breezy pair of trousers.
Time to show Mum my bruises from yesterday and hopefully get a day off school. I yanked my tie down and unbuttoned my shirt. I limped into the kitchen like I’d fought off a zombie apocalypse.
‘How was the gym, Sweetie?’ Mum faced the wall as she prepared sandwiches.
I hobbled closer. ‘I learnt muscles are useful, but small people can still beat big people. Oh, and I need to learn how to shave because I never want a moustache.’
‘Odd, but OK,’ Mum said. ‘We need to leave soon. Are you ready?’
‘I’ll be fine as soon as the room stops spinning.’ I placed the back of my hand against my forehead.
‘Sounds like you exercised too much.’ She placed a tomato on the bread. When she turned to me, she slapped her open palm against her chest and let out a yelp as if injured. ‘What happened to you?’
I hated lying to Mum, because it’s wrong, and also, I’m just so bad at it. ‘Not much. On my way home, I knocked over a motorbike.’
‘Do you mean a motorbike knocked you over?’
Oh man! That sounded much more believable but too late now to change my story. ‘No, I knocked over a motorbike.’
‘What?’ She looked over my wounds. ‘How? Are you a secret Transformer?’
‘Well, I tripped into a parked motorbike with my face.’ I pointed to my black eye. ‘The motorbike toppled over and into another until, like dominos, all the motorbikes fell over.’
‘All of them? How many were there?’
‘Hundreds.’ I scratched my head, wishing my mouth would stop speaking. ‘Also, two cars exploded.’ Now I really felt dizzy. ‘I couldn’t do anything but erm… watch in horror. The owners of the motorbikes ate their breakfast in the Grease Bucket Cafe as they erm… also watched in horror. Four of the bikers choked on their bacon sarnies, which I erm…’
‘Let me guess, watched in horror?’
‘I know, lots of horrors.’ Mum tried to interrupt but there was no stopping me now. ‘Then all of the bikers swarmed out of the cafe waving swords and flaming torches. One carried a rocket launcher on his shoulder, but it might have been a large sausage roll—’
‘Wait. How hard did you hit your head?’ Mum escorted me to the medicine cabinet. She stuck plasters on anything that looked injured, including a mole and my black eye. ‘I’ll call the police to find these crazed hooligans. Oh, and I hear Batman prefers to work in the shadows.’
‘What?’ Had she also hit her head?
‘So please find a pair of trousers where he can hide.’
I looked at the hole in my trousers and crossed my legs. ‘No need for the police. Aunty Billie sorted it out.’
‘By fighting?’ Mum asked, her back straightening.
‘Only with fighting words. Most of the bikers covered their ears. While a brave one held up a bar of soap and suggested she should clean her mouth out.’
Mum nodded. ‘She knows how to control a situation.’
‘Is she really a spy?’ I asked.
‘Let’s chill at home today and forget all about school.’
‘Mum,’ I said, refusing to give up. ‘Should I call her Jane Bond?’
‘Enough!’ She flashed the ‘don’t even bother’ look.
I gave up.
‘I know what’ll cheer you up.’ Mum looked at the wall above the fireplace where the family photo hung. Aunty Billie took the picture in Disneyland a week before Dad’s accident, almost two years ago. Shame he was screaming, but he’d always hated roller coasters. Mum’s school certificates surrounded it. They congratulated the Headmistress for another term with zero bullying incidents.
’Spot anything new?’
‘Is it another certificate?’
‘See. I knew it would make you happy?’
Happy? Sure. But I’d have been happier with an actual zero bullying incident school. ‘Nice one, Mum.’ I hugged her. ‘No one’s safe when a bully’s around—’
‘Sorry, I mean, no bully’s safe when you’re around.’
‘You’d better believe it.’ She raised her tiny fist. ‘One more term without bullying and I get to meet the Prime Minister.’ Her focus drifted to the family photo. ‘It’s been a long road.’ She shook her head as if a fly had landed on her nose. ‘Right, welcome to home-schooling. Any homework you need to finish?’
‘We had to write a limerick about a dictionary. But I finished it last night.’
‘Let’s hear it then,’ Mum said.
‘I once knew a bully tough as brick
With a punch so strong it made you sick
So I learnt how to fight
And with all of my might
I kicked him real hard in the dictionary.’
Mum dropped her head in her hands. ‘Oh, my! It doesn’t even rhyme.’
That evening, I popped over to Aunty Billie’s. She opened the door and glanced down both sides of the street.
‘Don’t worry. Gnarler goes boxing today. I feel sorry for the poor chump in the ring with him,’ I said. ‘Oh wait, that’s kinda me.’
Aunty Billie pulled me into her flat. ‘It’s not him I’m checking for.’ With the door closed, Aunty Billie returned to her usual bubbly self. ‘Gnarler must struggle with boxing.’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘I doubt it.’
‘Well, every time he knocks someone out he has to count to ten. And he can’t even use his fingers because of his boxing gloves.’ She took my coat. ’So, how was school?’
‘I stayed at home.’
‘By the way, if Mum asks, you stopped loads of angry bikers with swords, flaming torches, and a sausage roll.’
She nodded. ‘That’s a silly place for a plaster.’ With a girly scream, she ripped off the plaster covering my black eye.
And yes, the scream was all mine.
‘Quicker is always better.’
‘Not if I wanted to keep the eyebrow,’ I said, feeling my forehead. ‘I was attached to it.’
‘Well, it’s attached to this now,’ Aunty Billie said holding up a hairy plaster.
I took a seat. ‘That’s all right, I have bigger worries. After you left the gym, Gnarler arrived for his ninja training.’
Aunty Billie made herself comfortable on the sofa. ‘Did he see you?’
‘Yeah, but I escaped through a window.’
‘Sounds like a pane in the glass.’ Aunty Billie smirked. ‘Anyway, don’t worry about Gnarler. I have a solution.’
I could only think of one ‘adult’ solution, two if weapons of mass destruction weren’t so expensive. ‘Please don’t ask me to talk to him or try to be his…’ the word caught in my throat, ’… friend.’
‘It’s probably what you’re supposed to do, but let’s ignore wisdom.’ She pulled out a small jewellery box from her pocket.
‘Please don’t say there’s a wedding ring in there? Because I’m not marrying him.’
Aunty Billie frowned. ‘Be warned. This is extreme. But I don’t see much choice. Are you sure you don’t want to involve your school or your mum?’
‘Positive. I want to stop Gnarler. With your help, of course.’
‘Right.’ She looked around the room as if checking for hidden cameras and then slowly opened the box.
I didn’t know what to say, well, not without being rude. ‘It’s, well, it’s lovely? Not my colour, but—’
‘It’s a green bracelet.’
‘It sure is.’
‘But, it’s not a normal bracelet.’
‘It’s from work.’
“—a real spy gadget from MI6?’
Aunty Billie nodded.
‘Does it shoot lasers? Because I might stand a chance against Gnarler if it shoots lasers or tiny missiles.’
‘It turns you invisible.’
I put the bracelet on. ‘Can you see me?’ I asked pressing, pulling and prodding it.
‘Oh. Is it broken?’
‘It’s not broken. First, I need to explain a few things. Do you want a cup of tea?’
I shook my head.
She returned and dipped a digestive into the steaming tea. ‘The gadgets increase the number of brain neurones from 86 billion to… well, more. The gadget allows the person to access areas of the brain that ungadgeted humans can’t access.’
The tea looked tempting. I didn’t even know there were digestives available.
‘I hope you’re listening,’ she said. ‘The first time you use the bracelet, it will inject guanine crystals thingymajigs. This is to help the physical side of invisibility. It’s like when a taxi driver trains for years to learn the roads of London, his brain actually grows. This does the same, only much better and in a fraction of the time.’
‘So, I’m injecting thingymajigs into my brain?’
‘I can’t remember the actual name. But it’s perfectly safe. Well, not perfectly, but close.’
‘And all I need to do is press a button and I turn invisible?’
‘Correct. It just works, like when you turn on your TV. ’
‘Except I can’t find the button.’ I squashed, squeezed and squished the bracelet.
‘Scientists believe after years of using the gadget maybe the brain will produce the same results without any help from the gadget.’
‘If I ever find the button, how long will I stay invisible?’
‘The best scientists managed a full minute.’
‘Whaaa? I won’t have time to tie Gnarler’s shoelaces together in sixty-seconds.’ I imagined myself re-appearing next to Gnarler’s foot and me gulping.
‘Don’t be so negative. Spies around the world would literally kill to have this tech.’
‘You’re right. I’m sorry. Please thank your boss for letting me use it. You must be very convincing.’
‘Yeah well, moving on…’ Her biscuit broke off and drowned in the hot tea. ‘You may have even less time than a minute invisible because your brain isn’t fully formed yet.’
Did she just call me stupid?
‘So the side effects are,’
I’m not stupid.
‘abdominal growth, followed by stomach noises and finally,’
Sure, my concentration can wander at times. I might even miss a thing or two, but I’m in the top set of maths.
‘excessive flatulence or in other words a sudden release of gassy wind. Understood?’
Invisibility would be awesome, though.
Aunty Billie clicked her fingers. ‘I’ll take your silence that you understand the side effects. One more thing, the gadget makes you invisible but it can’t do the same to your clothes.’
‘I’m not going anywhere naked. No way!’
‘Of course not. The scientists created this…’ She lifted a pair of bright green shorts and a rucksack from the same material.
‘I might as well be naked wearing those. They’re tiny.’
‘They stretch.’ She pulled them apart as far as her arms would reach. ‘Also, I forgot to mention, you won’t suddenly re-appear without warning. You only return visible once you press the button to stop the gadget.’
‘That’s a relief.’
‘But don’t stay invisible too long. Or you’ll get the side effects, which might make you want to stop.’ From her pocket, Aunty Billie revealed a small remote control. ‘The bracelet has a timer built in showing how long you’ve been invisible.’ She pressed the remote button. The bracelet tightened on my wrist. Two needles punctured my skin and the thingymajigs entered my body. I felt weak but put on a brave face.
‘Are you going to faint?’
‘No, this is my brave face.’
‘Then why is your brave face so pale?’ Aunty Billie looked at the bracelet to check everything was fine. Then handed over the remote. ‘The first time it’s turned on, it’ll take over an hour before anything happens because it needs to rejig your brain.’
‘Fancy a cup of tea now, while we wait?’
‘Yes please,’ I said, holding the shorts up to the window to make sure I couldn’t see through them. ‘So tiny.’
‘Get changed in the toilet and see if they fit.’
Aunty Billie returned after a few minutes and placed the tea on the table next to me. I stared at my hand. She looked over her shoulder and without even hiding it, picked her nose. I didn’t know where to look. Sure, everyone does it, but there’s a time and place, at least that’s what I’m told when I’m caught. I focused on my hand, but it was difficult with her digging away. We both waited in silence for a few minutes. I would check my hand and Aunty Billie would check her nose. Then at the top of her voice, she shouted, ‘Have you run out of toilet-roll?’
Wow, what? The only thing around here that needed a roll of toilet paper was her nose. ‘I’m good, thanks,’ I said.
She screamed and jumped as high as the ceiling lamp. ‘You’re here? Well, you’re not here. I mean, you’re invisible. Why aren’t you in the loo?’
‘I find the sofa more comfortable. Did you say I’m invisible?’ I checked my hand. Still visible and solid.
‘It shouldn’t have happened so quickly.’ Aunty Billie looked at her watch. ‘How long were you sat there?’ She wiped her nose.
‘I’ve been watching my hand the whole time,’ I said, happy to forget the nose thing. ‘Which, by the way, I can still see perfectly.’
‘I can’t see your hand or any part of you. Your brain is responsible for your invisibility, so it counters this by ensuring you can always see yourself. Very clever stuff. However, mirrors show you what others see.’
I ran to the closest mirror. Nothing. I didn’t exist. I danced an energetic mixture of twerking and walking like a chicken. I liked being invisible.
Aunty Billie clapped. ‘Ooh, you’re right. They are bright.’
‘Please say you can’t see me,’ I said.
‘The battery must have run out,’ she said. ‘Gadgets stay charged for about a week. This one must have been kept in storage for some time.’
I removed the bracelet and changed into my clothes.
‘You realise you stayed invisible for longer than a minute and suffered no side effects? Only the gadget inventor did that.’
‘How long could the inventor stay invisible?’
‘Ten minutes, before the final side effect kicked in.’
‘Maybe it’s because I’m so brainy.’
‘Well, the MI6 lab guys are geniuses.’ Aunty Billie laughed. ‘So, definitely not.’ She laughed harder. ‘No way.’ She wiped a tear away and controlled her laughter.
‘Wow! Thanks for letting me down easy.’ I folded the shorts and placed them in the green rucksack. ‘So, are there different gadgets?’
She nodded. ‘Hopefully, you’ll only need this gadget. The only one I haven’t seen is the Devastator.’
‘Ooh. Sounds dangerous.’
‘You might be right. The scientists always get nervous whenever it’s mentioned.’ She opened the front door and checked down both sides of the street. ‘Only the Head of MI6 and the Secretary of Defence have access.’ She ruffled my hair. ‘Recharge the bracelet with any phone charger. After school tomorrow meet me at the travelling funfair. I absolutely must return the gadget back to work tomorrow.’
I started walking home when Aunty Billie opened a window and shouted, ‘Good luck with you know who.’