Boy on the Hill
Avi stood in the wind, looking at the new house. It’s walls were stone instead of brick, the same grey, granite as the hill it clung to. He could just hear the stream, gurgling in its deep bed, at the bottom of the steep garden. He looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun, silhouetted against the sky was a tall tower and a small castle. Mum said the castle had been turned into a restaurant, he thought it was more likely, enemy headquarters.
His parents said he had to wait till he was a bit bigger, before he could go exploring the hill. So here he was, stuck in the garden by himself. He kicked a small stone and watched it sail out through the air. He thought about the old street, with all the houses joined together and washing hung across the road, like flags. There were always kids playing out and old men, sat in the sun, who would talk to him about the war.
In the mornings, Avi walked down the hill by himself. The lane was narrow and full of holes, the sides were steep rock, covered in grass and flowers. Out of the top grew small trees, that arched overhead. Gran called it a Cornish hedge. The light coming through the leaves, was green and gold, it was like being under the sea.
When he got down the hill, the road broadened out. There were factories and warehouses to either side. He saw other children, walking in groups. He heard their laughter and saw them messing around.
At school, he sat by himself. He tried to listen to the teacher, but he couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying. He was too busy, wishing that he had a friend to play with, when the bell rang at the end of class.
That afternoon, he followed a small group of children, out of the school gates. He walked along with them, hoping they would talk to him, they were discussing a computer game, it didn’t sound like the sort he was allowed to play. When one of the girls noticed him, walking beside her, he smiled. Her blonde curls shone in the sun, bright against her school jumper. She nudged her friend and whispered something Avi couldn’t hear. The girls ran away from, him holding their noses and laughing.
Avi pushed his thick, black hair out of his eyes and bit his lip. One of the boys shoved him so hard he nearly fell into the road, then turned away, following the girls. Avi felt his face turning red and he stared at the floor.
It seemed to take ages to get home. When he saw the house, on the hill ahead of him, he turned and kicked the stupid Cornish hedge as hard as he could. All he did was hurt his foot. He limped to the side door and let himself in.
The kitchen was warm, it smelt of bread and coffee, all he felt was a deep loathing. He threw his rucksack on the floor, kicked off his shoes and fell into one of the heavy, wooden chairs.
‘I hate it here. I want to go home.’
Avi hadn’t noticed Gran, sitting by the Rayburn. She rose up out of the shadows, like a bird unfolding itself ready for flight.
‘Oh dear. Someone’s in a bit of a pickle, aren’t they?’ His eyes stung. He was a thundercloud, filled with rain and electricity. Everybody ran from him. He looked at Gran, she looked serious. It was serious. His life was ruined.
‘I wish I had friends, like I did before,’ his anger flared. Why was he such a failure? He looked and sounded different to the other kids, he couldn’t think what to say to them. And now his Gran knew nobody liked him.
He looked at her sideways, she was thinking, leaning back against the Rayburn. She wore old jeans with holes in the knees, and a jumper she’d knitted herself, that had about a hundred different colours in it. His Gran didn’t care what people thought. Her hair had started turning grey, it hung beside her face in two long plaits, tied at the ends with string.
‘It’s the way you’re wishing that’s wrong, not you.’ She said slowly. ‘You’re seeing yourself as the boy who has no friends.’ Avi looked at her, his mouth slightly open.
‘I am the boy who has no friends.’ He shook his head. He couldn’t believe he’d actually heard her say that.
‘Right now, you are. But not forever,’ Gran patted his hand
‘No-one down here wants to be my friend,’ he pulled his hand away, brought his knees up under his chin, putting his feet on the seat of the chair and wrapping himself into a tight ball. A hot tear escaped the fortress of his misery. He wiped it away, hoping she hadn’t seen, but another one followed, and another, becoming a burning flood. Shame twisted his heart, but Gran said nothing. She waited till he stopped sobbing, then she looked him in the eye.
‘Avi. I’m going to teach you some Cornish magic. Now listen carefully.’
Avi nodded. She seemed bigger and brighter, lighting up the dark corners of the steamy kitchen.
‘The secret to wishing,’ she leaned towards him and lowered her voice. ‘Is in knowing where your wishes go. In that place, where the wishes go, there is no time. It’s like a great big bag, that holds all possible solutions to your problem. But you want the right one, eh?’
Avi looked at her with big eyes.
‘In there, you already have new friends. You’ve just got to choose that solution. Then say thank you, and believe in them, make them come true. Say: thank you for my lovely new friends, and really mean it. Okay?’
‘No Avi. You can change this. I want you to do it now.’ She looked into his dark eyes, with her piercing blue ones. What did he have to lose?
‘Thank you,’ his voice was quiet. ‘Thank you, for my new friends.’
‘Well done, boy,’ Gran smiled. It felt weird, but it had made him feel a little less wretched, so he said it again. Then he said it one more time, because it felt like a magic spell.
‘That’s better. You’re starting to sound like you mean it. Say that, before you go to sleep, and when you wake up in the morning. I want you to say it, whenever you’re sad or lonely. Say it and believe it. Be truly grateful for your lovely new friends.’
Gran got up abruptly and started filling the kettle, she put it on the hotplate and turned back to him, just as his mother came in from the garden. Mum looked tired, she was muddy and carried a number of small lettuces in a basket. Gran winked at Avi and seemed to shrink back to her normal size.
After school the next day, Avi saw the children who had run away from him. They were coming towards him, whispering, their heads close together. His heart leapt around in his chest, as he crossed the road. As soon as the school was out of sight, he heard one of them shout.
‘Get ‘im.’ The boy was bigger than Avi, with a sprout of ginger hair, that grew straight up from his pink and freckly forehead. Avi saw five angry children, pounding towards him, their faces ugly with hatred.
So much for Gran’s Cornish magic, he thought, as he took off down the road as fast as he could. They followed him, shouting insults, and slowly getting closer and closer. He looked for an alleyway, or another way off the road, as he ran, his eyes darting left and right.
There was a high fence running all along the side of the road, and after that the metal wall of a furniture factory. Finally, he saw a gap. Through it, he could see the side of the hill, with its scrubby bracken and great, grey lumps of granite. He darted round the corner, hoping there would be somewhere to hide.
Behind the metal building was a flat piece of ground. In a circle, on the short, muddy grass, were a number of old vehicles. They were rusty and oddly painted. Chimneys stuck out of their roofs at funny angles. He flew towards, what looked at a glance, like an old fire-engine. The wheels were huge, he ducked behind one of them, crouching in the rusty darkness, as the kids came tearing round the corner after him.
Close to his hiding place, was a set of steps. On the steps he saw a girl with untidy, brown hair. His heart sank, she was staring straight at him.
‘Oi! Did you see a dirty, little wimp, run round ‘ere, just now?’ It was Ginger, Avi recognised his voice. His heart was beating fast. He tensed his body, ready to run.
‘I ain’t seen nuffin’.’
‘You must ‘ave,’ said another voice, a girl this time. ‘He come round, just ahead of us.’
‘I never saw no-one,’ Avi couldn’t believe his ears.
‘You’re lyin’,’ growled a third person. We’re both for it now, Avi put his head against the cracked rubber of the tyre, ready for a beating.
‘Get lost. Or I’ll set the dogs on ya,’ She stood up, he heard her opening a door in the side of the vehicle.
Avi peered out from behind the wheel. He just got a glimpse of their backs as they hurried away. He came out and looked up, a door was open in the side, of what was definitely an old fire-engine. In the doorway stood a girl, in cut down shorts and a grubby red t shirt, great, brown tangles of hair waving in the wind, like a strange sea-creature. She was holding the collar of an over-excited collie dog. She looked at Avi and winked.
‘Don’t worry, he won’t hurt ya,’ she let go of the dog. He bounded down the steps and started running in crazy circles, bits of mud and grass flying into the air behind him. They laughed, and the dog joined in, barking happily. ‘Why was they after you, anyway?’
‘They go to my school. I don’t think they like me,’ Avi looked at her, to see what she thought of this information. She shrugged.
‘Don’t think you’re missin’ much,’ she laughed again. ‘Do you wanna see my tree?’ She set off, without waiting for him to answer. He followed her towards a great, oak tree, just beyond a caravan, that was parked on the far side of the circle.
‘What’s your dog called?’
‘Jester,’ she turned briefly. ‘What’s your name? I’m Rosie.’
‘Avi,’ he watched as she swung herself onto the lowest branch, disappearing in the thick, green leaves, the trunk of the tree was massive,.
‘Come on then Avi,’ he slipped his arms out of the straps of his rucksack, gripped the rough bark and pulled himself up. It was the sort of tree that seemed to grow branches just where you need them, soon he was high above the ground. He caught up with Rosie, sat astride a great limb, he sat next to her. He could see the roofs of the vehicles, with their rusty chimneys. The fire-engine still had a ladder that ran the length of it.
‘What’s that?’ He asked, pointing.
‘Solar panels. For the ‘lectric.’
‘Do you live in that fire-engine?’
'Yeah. Me an’ me mum. I was born in it.’ Avi wished he’d been born in a fire-engine.
‘Does your dad live in it too?’
‘Nah. Just me an’ mum.’ My dad lives over there, in that red van.’ She pointed at a small van, on the opposite side of the circle. The grass in front of it was dark, where a fire had been lit. Chairs, that looked like the seats from a car, and quite a lot of other stuff, spread out around the van.
‘Where’s everyone else?’ He looked around. The place was deserted, except for Jester, who now lay sleeping in the sun.
‘They went to town; I didn’t want to go. It’s boring. Lucky for you, I didn’t, eh?’ Avi nodded. ‘Shall we build a tree-house?’
‘You bet.’ They scampered down the tree, like a pair of squirrels, then ran around the site looking for wood and rope.
Rosie found a hammer and a big jar of nails. They spent the next couple of hours climbing up and down the tree. They carried wood from a big heap, behind Rosie’s dad’s van. Soon they had a floor and three walls. In one wall was a little window, with real glass, that you could open and shut. She said her dad wouldn’t mind them using it.
He couldn’t believe how good Rosie was at making things. When a bit of wood was too long, she found a saw and cut it to the right size, when it was too short, she joined two bits together. A heavy tape measure was hooked on the belt of her shorts. After measuring the wood, she pressed a button and it shot back into its case. Finally, they agreed it was finished. They sat inside, on a carpet of sawdust, admiring their work.
‘I’d better go home soon,’ Avi didn’t want to, but he knew his mum would worry. ‘Can I come after school tomorrow?’ Rosie smiled. Her face was very dirty, so were her clothes.
He swung himself over the edge of the tree-house and left her leaning back against the wall, with her ankles crossed, still smiling.
‘We’ll build more tomorrow,’ he heard her say, as he climbed down.
Every day, Avi came by after school. They made up long, complicated games, that went on for days. Rosie made him laugh, she was clever and brave, and the best friend he’d ever had.
One by one, Avi met all the other people, who lived in the circle of battered vehicles. They were grownups, but they were still good fun.
Old John lived in a caravan with his two dogs, Sally and Sauerkraut. The caravan had silver and blue stripes and the front was curved like the prow of a ship. When he played his mouth organ, his dogs would point their noses at the sky and sing along. They were definitely the worst singers Avi had ever heard.
Next door to him lived the artists, Jane and Petra. Their horsebox was so big, they had a whole room, just to do their painting in. Petra drew a sketch of the site and gave it to Avi to take home. Dad was going to get him a frame and hang it on the wall, he reckoned it was marvellous.
Simon was tall and skinny, with so many freckles they joined together, in big, gingery splotches. He was Rosie’s dad. Sometimes, Simon would climb up to the tree-house and read to them. The book was meant to be Rosie’s bedtime story, but he couldn’t wait that long, to find out what happened next.
Dom kept all the old vehicles going. His hands were black, even after he’d scrubbed the grease and grime off them in a battered tin basin, outside his bus. Avi and Rosie crouched down, watching him, as he knelt in the grass, in leather trousers that seemed to be part of him, up to his elbows in hot water. He lived in a long coach. It was easily as big as the one Avi went on holiday in, last summer. There had been about fifty people on that coach, and all their luggage. Dom had taken the seats out of his and now it had sofas, and tables and chairs in it, just like a normal house.
The grownups gave the children things for their tree-house. Chairs, with the legs cut down. Pens, paper, and a pirate’s chest to keep their treasures in.
Avi loved the fire-engine best of all, with its clever little rooms. They sat round the table with Rosie’s mum, eating tea or drawing pictures. She told them funny stories, laughing like a big kid. They picked her flowers, that she put in her long, dark hair. She wore big, black boots and baked brilliant cakes.
One day after school, Avi ran round the corner of the factory, as usual. He stopped short, his mouth hanging open.
All he could see was the hill. No trucks or caravans. No fire-engine. There was the remains of the woodpile, and the blackened earth, where the fire had been, but everything else was gone.
Avi ran to the tree. He climbed it quickly. The tree-house was just the same as yesterday. The little teapot they kept for orange juice, their cups, all still sat on the table they’d made, from an upturned, wooden box.
Beside the cups was a piece of paper. On it was a picture of a fire-engine and hanging out of the window, was a girl with brown hair, she was waving. It said, Bye Avi. Look after our tree-house.
Avi folded it up and put it in his pocket. Slowly he climbed back down the tree. Then he walked home and stuck the picture on his bedroom wall.
The next morning he went to school, without the normal rush of excitement, as he imagined what he and Rosie would be doing later. He wasn’t longing for lessons to be over, so he could run to the tree. The day dragged by.
Towards the end of it, he suddenly noticed there was a new boy, sat on his own at a desk near the window. He was small for his age, with an afro that framed his face like a mane. Avi had been so preoccupied with Rosie and the tree-house, he couldn’t remember the boy joining his class.
After school, Avi caught him up as he walked across the playground, his head bowed.
‘Hi. I’m Avi. Do you want to come and play in my tree-house?’
The boy smiled at him. ‘I’m Drew. Can we go there now?’
Jester barked in Rosie’s ear, waking her before it was light. They had arrived after dark and she had no idea where they were. Yesterday, mum had said they were going to park up somewhere nice. She said they should be able to stay for a while and Rosie could go to school. But she hadn’t said where it was, or what it was like, or anything.
Rosie put my hand on Jester’s neck, his fur was silky, he pushed his wet nose into her hair and licked her. Gross. He smelt like old socks and dogfood. She put her head under the duvet and dried her face. At that point she was thinking about normal stuff, like whether there was a good tree nearby, and where the nearest swimming pool was. That sort of thing.
She wondered what Jester was barking at, hoping there was no-one prowling around. The inside of the truck was very dark. She slid out of bed, slipping her feet straight into her trainers, avoiding the cold floor.
She felt her way out of her room, round the table and into the kitchen, putting her hand into a bowl of food that had been left on the side. She smelt her fingers, they smelled like apple-pie, so she licked them. She didn’t get apple pie last night. Rosie started a complaints list, putting that at the top. Then she pulled back a corner of the curtain and looked outside.