I fled through the woodland like I’d just wandered onto Elm Street by mistake. I was thirteen, not esteemed for my speed or athleticism and being hounded to the point of extinction by three shadowy figures. I kept my head down and my legs moving; the darkness wrapping itself around me in the same uncomfortable way Joe did. I was out of breath, exhausted, yet somehow moving as fast as evolutionary law would permit. I tripped on a branch, half hidden in a heap of leaves, cutting my leg. The hunters accelerated, their shift in gears taking them ever closer to me. I struggled to find my footing in the long grass, unable to see more than a yard in front of me, when I fell.
They figured I was dead. Maybe they peered into the bottomless pit, saw nothing, heard nothing, got scared, turned on their heels and deserted their helpless prey. Either that or they simply didn’t care and went home, job done.
The next thing I recall was a foul stench sweeping over my bruised body. It was cold. I clambered onto my knees, stumbling slightly before I caught my balance in the sticky mire. My right arm was throbbing as I reached into the pocket of my sodden jeans, pulling out my mobile. I illuminated my surroundings enough to see that I was in trouble. The hole was deep and caked in gooey mud; climbing out looked impossible.
There was something waiting for me, in the darkness.
“Poo-yah-foo-yah!” it whispered, in a voice like the wind. I can’t remember being scared. The last time that happened was when a gang of kids on the bus took my phone and really beat me up. All because I was sitting by myself, a little black girl with my hair straightened, listening to music. They thought, “She looks innocent, she looks like a victim.” Now I usually carry a knife, because these days everyone’s a challenger.
I didn’t believe in things all dark and dangerous. Nights had never been graced by vampires and witches. I figured it must be an injured animal so I waited quietly, listening.
“Poo-yah-foo-yah!” it repeated. My eyes explored the bottom of the pit for the first time. It stretched far beyond the hole I had fallen down, its vastness unknown; just lots of dark places where something could hide.
I quickly changed direction with the torch. It didn’t look very scary as it squatted there, small and barely noticeable, with spaghetti arms and a large belly hanging only inches off the ground. Its colour was a grimy green, with pointy ears, decaying teeth and a sneer where a smile should have been. Its breathing was more of a wheeze and it was sad-looking, held prisoner by rusty chains nailed deep into the mud behind. I kept my distance as the glaring light started to annoy the creature. It disappeared into the darkness. I arched forward, spotlighting the creature for a second time.
“Stop that, you annoying jobbernowl.” it snapped, surprising me.
I just stared as it tugged and pulled at its chains, soon giving up, no doubt like the countless times before.
“Why were you running?” it asked. I opened my mouth but no words came out. “Well?” said the creature, gawking at me. “Don’t tell me my first guest in over two hundred years cannot speak.”
My torch searched for an escape route.
“There’s no way out,” he said calmly, “I’m afraid we’re teetotaciously banjaxed.”
Tea, what? I stared the creature in the face.
“Why are you down here, chained up like that?” I asked.
“Why were you running, causing such a conbobberation?” he replied.
“You’re weird.” I concluded.
“No, I’m Hush,” he said, “and I can help you escape.”
“I don’t believe you,” I told him, staring into his big eyes, “Two hundred years? You should be dead.”
Hush sunk slowly into his chains, refusing to speak another word. I was equally stubborn and after several fruitless attempts exploring the cave it dawned on me to actually call someone. I plumped for my best friend Tracy because my mother was ‘entertaining’ and wanted me out of the house. No signal. I tried several times but my reach was limited and I was getting more and more tired.
I gave up and eventually, against my wishes, I fell asleep.
My promised land above, at one time desolate, was now enriched by resplendent sunshine, and I wanted to be basking in it. I woke, briefly losing my bearings until the pain in my right arm snapped me back into reality. I felt around for my phone, finding it, but the battery had long since died. I searched the darkness knowing that I may have been asleep for some time, realising that the creature down there with me, Hush, could be anywhere.
“How do I know you won’t eat me?” I asked nervously.
The silence was broken by his laughter.
“I’d rather eat peas,” he replied, then, choosing his moment carefully, “Who were you running from?”
“Does it matter?” I asked, realising he hadn’t budged. He really was a prisoner. Hush took a meaningful pause.
“Secrets give me strength, slangwhanger.” he told me, “You must have a skeleton in your cupboard. It may give me enough strength to break these chains. Then we can escape.”
I tried to get my head around it. The plan sounded stupid but the whole situation was hardly normal, and what choice did I have? Climbing out was impossible, my phone refused to work, my mother was entertaining and probably didn’t even realise I was missing.
“Okay, I’ll tell you. But you have to promise me two things.”
“Promise me you won’t say a word.” I said.
“On my life.”
“And that you won’t eat me.” I added.
“I don’t like peas or children,” he said. Then he paused, and added, more or less as an afterthought, “But I am partial to boiled baby every once in a while.”
I ignored him.
“You might not like what I’m about to tell you.” I told him, but I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
My secret was as large as his bloated gut suggested, enabling him to break the chains around his ankles and support my bulky frame, just like he said he would. His shoulders were red raw as he watched me struggling to find my grip. He had ballooned in a matter of minutes, enabling me to feel the fresh air above on the tips of my fingers as he lifted then hurled me to freedom.
“Hurry it up, child,” he said impatiently, “I’m easily bored by mud.”
I dragged myself out of the hole, ignoring the fall of my mobile as it slipped out of my pocket and slapped down into the bog below. I was relieved to feel the brisk morning air on my face, grateful to a secret-guzzling faerie for his help. But I wasn’t that grateful.
“What are you waiting for? Reach down and pull me up.” he begged.
I had other ideas, helping wasn’t one of them.
“Snollygoster!” screamed Hush pitifully as I ran away, coiling between the trees like a cheetah that had drunk far too many cans of red Bull, leaving him helpless and alone for what should have been another two hundred years.
I was awoken by the sound of my mum talking to a stranger in the kitchen. He sounded different to the others, the men who would be there when I went to bed and be back again in the morning before I woke up. With a sense more of curiosity than anything else (they were always short on looks and one was almost sixty) I peaked to get a look at him. I was shocked to see he was a copper, sipping tea opposite her. A filthy mud-splattered mobile sat on the table between them.
“I know she’s had problems in the past,” said my mother, trying desperately to defend me, “but happy slapping?”
“We prefer not to use that term.” he told her, “There’s nothing happy about it.”
I felt sick as I listened from the hallway, nervously picking at the dried blood on my leg. I remember that day vividly. I was a bit depressed at the time and I saw this girl the same age as me and thought, “She looks so happy, she’s rich, she’s got everything she wants.” I wanted just to destroy her face a little bit and I really punched her; her face was bad. I filmed it too, just to show off.
“Are you going to send her to prison?” asked my mother.
“She’s thirteen,” he replied instantly, “You know we can’t send her to prison.”
I crept back upstairs and made my escape through a bedroom window. I’d often fit through windows, being so small and skinny, so they used me for burglaries. I never stopped to look behind me; I just kept running, unaware I was being chased by the copper. I ran until the buildings became all strange looking, sinking into the earth at obscure angles.
I found myself on a notorious estate. All sorts of criminal activity went on around here. A figure emerged from one of the blocks. Limping from the darkness was Hush, as tall as me now. He grabbed me and pulled me into a derelict garage. I was too tired to fight.
“You need to keep running as fast as your chubby little legs will allow.” he assured me, “At the end is your refuge.”
I wondered why he would help me, so I asked him.
“We’re not all bullies.” he replied, “And I trust you have learnt your lesson?”
He probably didn’t believe me but I nodded.
“Then go,” said Hush, pushing me away, “I will take care of the woodentop.”
I didn’t need a second invitation and I didn’t see the wicked smile that must have stretched across his face as he watched me run right into an old friend.
We stood on the estate, under the streetlight that made everything look ill and we stared at each other’s pasty yellow faces. A heavy hand clamped down on my shoulder, his other wandering in the same uncomfortable way. I felt my arms go weak as I looked Joe in the eyes.
“Trust is everything.” said Joe, with a hint of regret as two more from my crew joined him from the shadows.
If I was in the wrong territory I’d expect a beating. That’s how it is here. At the end of the day, I joined a gang thinking I would be safer. But it turned out I was far more likely to be a victim of violence from members of other gangs, or even my own. I realised this, and I knew that what I did to that girl was sick and gruesome and I tried to get out. I wanted to be that innocent little black girl again.
It’s easy to join a gang. Just try leaving one.
Lying in a pool of my own blood, I kept thinking about Hush, and I imagined him skipping across the woodland like a free man, singing a joyful song and dancing a merry jig. He had also beaten me.
I will always remember him, he did something that the YOT couldn’t, he helped me change my life, and every time I pick up a newspaper and read about the latest stabbing or another happy slapping, I always wonder, will he get to them too?