Peter Anthony Brophy baked in his thick plum Watson Prickard blazer. It had been the last day of term and his hands were full of bags of coursework and pens and D&D rulebooks and whatever else had been in his locker, so what was he supposed to do with his blazer? Had he half a brain, he would have bundled it into his school bag, but he only had a quarter-brain, which was enough to deal with school, but deficient when it came to dealing with his parents and the outside world and especially his unrequited love for Ruth Fisher, which had provided the bassline and rhythm to his life for the better part of three years.
A babble of year seven boys bustled nearby at the bus stop. They looked so small. He loomed over them. He had grown four inches in the past year. Shot up, Dad had said. He must have been sleeping in a gro-bag, Dad had said. You’re nearly as big as me, Dad had said. Tony Brophy was wrong. Peter was already half an inch taller and half a shoe size bigger than him. At this rate he would be seven feet tall by the age of 21.
He thought ahead to his fifteenth birthday, only a few days away. He was the second youngest in his class, which had been a disadvantage when he was little. He had barely turned four when he was pulled out of his comfortable life as Mum’s constant companion-slash-sidekick and plunged into the whirlpool of Mrs Hughes’s Infant 1 at Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception RC Primary, while other children were knocking on the door of the age of five. But the difference between four and five was much greater than that between fourteen and fifteen, and things had levelled off. Besides, Peter could count on the fact that his birthday was never on a school day, and that had to be worth something, hadn’t it?
He smelled them before he saw them. A heavenly waft of vinegar and fat drifted towards him, borne aloft by the heat rising from the pavement. He looked up, and saw Andrew Rooney and his coterie of utter bellends arriving at the bus stop, carrying open parcels of chips. He felt a stab of pain in his gut, the adrenalin flowing. He had spent the last half-term avoiding these people, leaving home a little early, staying in at lunchtime to play Dungeons & Dragons, leaving school a little late. He was so close to succeeding it was infuriating.
‘Here he is, Sophie,’ said Andrew Rooney. That was quite good for him, so he must have picked it up from one of the coat-holders and minor bullies in his orbit. ‘Are you all right, Sophie? Do you want a chip, Sophie?’
‘Nah, you’re all right. I…’
Peter felt a chip hit him in the face. ‘Aw, look, he wasn’t ready. Give him another one, Smig,’ said Andrew Rooney. Ryan Smith smirked as he picked out another chip from his paper and threw it at Peter’s face. It sailed past his ear.
‘You missed, you fuckin’ queg. Give us them,’ Andrew Rooney ordered Smith.
‘Fuck off,’ said Smith, ‘they’re mine.’ Andrew Rooney glared at him. ‘All right, here y’are, Roo, lad,’ said Smith, and hurriedly he handed over the chip paper.
‘Open your mouth, Sophie,’ said Andrew Rooney. He threw a chip straight at Peter’s face. It bounced off his cheek. ‘I said fuckin’ open your mouth.’ Peter boiled with anger and humiliation. He wanted to hit him. He stared up at him. Rooney was half a head taller than him. This was progress, Peter used to be a whole head smaller than Andrew Rooney. But even so, could he really hit him? Of course he could not. It would be like poking a lion in the eye. The element of surprise would be quickly swamped by the element of getting one’s head kicked in.
Peter decided to go for peaceful non-cooperation. Jesus would have been proud, had pride not been a sin. He clamped his mouth shut. ‘Open your fuckin’ mouth, you bell, or I’ll…’
‘Roo, the bus.’ It was Shaun McGovern. Peter never knew for sure if he had come to his aid on purpose. They had been friends at Our Lady’s, had tea at each other’s houses, back when they were little. But they were split up on the first day at St Vincent de Paul’s, streamed into classes of different ability, fell in with different friends, and had hardly given each other a thought since that game of rounders.
Rooney grunted and turned away from his prey, and he and his posse barged through the Year Sevens, scattering them like seeds from a dandelion clock, and boarded the bus.
When Peter stepped on board, he looked up the aisle. Rooney and the others were upstairs. Downstairs was filled with pensioners caught unawares by the early end-term closing time, and girls from St Mary Magdalene. He stood near the baggage holding section, and watched the bus fill up with Years Seven and Eight. This was good. He could get off the bus a couple of stops early, cut across Queens Drive and the Mystery, and be home without running into Andrew Rooney again.
‘Move down, you little sods,’ cried the bus driver, who hated being on the school bus route and had been waiting for this day for months. Peter and the tinies surrounding him moved a couple of millimetres down the aisle, and the bus moved on. Peter felt safe. It was going to be OK.
At the next stop, more pensioners poured onto the bus, kicked out from bingo.
‘There’s seats upstairs, you soft shites.’ The driver pulled over. ‘What’s going on, driver?’ asked a little old lady from the comfort of her seat.
‘I’m not moving till them little gets go upstairs,’ the driver explained, switching the engine off.
Had Peter more than a quarter-brain, he would have got off the bus and waited 20 minutes for the next one. Yes, he had to be home to put the tea on, now that Mum had started working, but he had finished school early. He could have waited 20 minutes and still been home an hour earlier than usual. As it was, with leaden legs, he trudged up the stairs to his fate.
He stepped onto the top deck and scanned it. Strewn across the back row were Andrew Rooney and his courtiers. And a few rows in front were girls from St Mary Magdalene, including Jade Woods, June Chan, and, inevitably, Ruth Fisher. Perfect. ‘Haaa! There he is, the fuckin’ queg!’ Ryan Smith pointed out, before launching a chip down the aisle.
Peter sat next to a bearded man reading the Echo and kept his gaze rigidly forward. He felt another chip hit his ear and ignored it. ‘Why aren’t you sitting with us, you queg? Fucking gay boy. Turn around and open your mouth,’ shouted Rooney.
‘Yeah, I bet he would. I bet he fucking loves all that,’ said Ryan Smith.
Peter kept quiet, his face was burning, clashing with his purple blazer. Only three more stops and he could get off the bus. Why did Ruth Fisher have to be seeing this? At least, he thought, she could see how nasty Andrew Rooney really was these days. And how much of a coward Peter was. That was not fair. He was not a coward. He just had nowhere to turn, and no way to hit back. Why should he get beaten up just because a bully felt like showing how strong he was?
He started stuffing the books into his bag. He just about pulled the zip shut. Two more stops. Another chip hit him. Ignore it, he told himself.
One more stop. Peter stood up, and started to shuffle down the deck towards the stairs. ‘Where the fuck do you think you’re going?’ Rooney strode up the aisle.
‘I’m getting off,’ Peter said. He could see Ruth Fisher behind Rooney. Did she look concerned? Was that worry?
‘You don’t get off here. You get off at our stop. Why are you getting off here?’
‘Look, I don’t want any trouble. I just want to get off the bus.’
‘What do you mean “trouble”? We’re just having a laugh, aren’t we? Can’t take a fucking joke, can you? Sit down, you fucking queg.’
‘No, I’m getting off. I need to…’
Rooney pushed past Peter. He took root in front of the stairs. ‘Nah, you don’t get off till I let you off.’ His back seat posse were sniggering.
‘Aw, leave him,’ said one of the girls. Was that Ruth, coming to his aid? ‘Don’t.’
‘Fuck off,’ replied Rooney. ‘It’s nothing to do with you. Just having a laugh.’
‘Andrew, just let me past,’ said Peter. ‘I just want to get off the bus. Come ‘ed, let me off.’ Peter definitely became more scouse when speaking to Rooney and his idiots. It was a sort of defence mechanism, however unconscious, a way of reassuring Rooney that he was not the enemy.
It did not work. Rooney planted his feet into the deck and pushed Peter down the aisle.
‘Aw, don’t,’ said Ruth Fisher, ‘Leave him, it’s arlarse.’
‘I told you to fuck off, you slag. It’s none of your fucking business, you fucking prozzy.’
Maybe it was that. Maybe it was the panic that he would not be able to get off the bus. Maybe he had just been pushed too far. In the end it didn’t matter whether it was rage or fear or panic. It happened anyway.
Peter marched up to Rooney. His face was inches away. ‘Let me off the bus, or I’ll fucking twat you,’ said Peter.
Rooney started laughing. The boys at the back started laughing. And Peter balled his right fist, the way Our Gerry had taught him months before. He swung and connected with Rooney’s left cheekbone. He was ready to knee Andrew Rooney in the balls, which had dropped before anybody else’s in their year, but it was not necessary. When the events of that day were discussed with him in the weeks afterwards, Rooney insisted that he had fallen over a bag in the aisle. Whatever the truth of the matter, Peter’s blow knocked Andrew Rooney flat, between the two front seats.
In that moment, Peter came to his senses. He recognised the feeling afterwards. It was like the moment after he had tugged himself to orgasm, when he suddenly realised how ridiculous he looked, and how wrong it was to do it. He had poked the lion in the eye, and he had no plan for afterwards.
Retreating seemed wise in the circumstance. He grabbed the banister and stumbled down the stairs as the bus pulled to a halt. But Rooney too had regained his senses, and he lashed out with his foot. Had he been wearing the regulation school footwear it could have been a lot nastier. But Andrew Rooney would no more wear the correct school uniform in the correct manner than he would wear a pinafore dress, and so the cushioned trainers he had on softened the blow a little. He kicked Peter in the side of the head. The other side of Peter’s head connected with the bus’s wall. He smelt the blood in his nose before he felt the pain, and, dazed, he fell down the final few stairs. ‘I’ll fucking get you, you queg,’ Rooney promised, as Peter staggered off the bus.
When Mum and Dad got home, they nursed his bruises and begged him to tell them who had hit him, but Peter refused. What could they do? What could anybody do?
Peter spent the next few weeks in fear of running into Andrew Rooney, and having him fulfil his promise. But he was untouched until the accident.
And, in any case, after that, after the accident, and the services, and the floral tributes and incongruous stuffed toys tied with red ribbons to the lamppost next to the dual carriageway, Andrew Rooney was never a threat again.