Kosta’s Olive Tree is a charity that strives to help people whose lives are touched by war. They asked for stories about someone who stood up for something they believe in.
My story is about a boy who loved to play chess, but learned that life is a harder game to play. You can read his story here.
THE BOY WHO STOOD, by Helen Johnson
Billy put his head down and pretended not to see. But he could see. And hear.
A quiff of blond hair stood in a ring of heads. Billy smelled fear.
The heads closed in. One had an undercut hairstyle that looked like a dead ferret on top of the head.
Billy’s guts lurched.
“Give, pie-face. Great lard lump like you shouldn’t be eating, anyhow.”
There was the thud of fist meeting torso, the gasp of exhalation.
There was ringing in Billy’s ears.
He put his head down and hurried on.
School. Billy desperately wished he wasn’t there. Or invisible. Or that the floor would collapse and swallow him. Or that the school would burn down.
Anything, except to stand in front of thirty pairs of appraising eyes, while Miss Weaver’s bright voice pierced his head. “This is Billy, he’s new. You’ll all want to welcome him, and help him find his way around.”
She gave a fake laugh. “I’m sure you all remember your first day, how confusing it was.”
She pointed to the only empty seat. It was beside dead-ferret-head. “Sit there, Billy.” Miss Weaver eyed Ferret-head. “Now Zac,” she said, “You take care of Billy.”
Zac spread his arms wide and gave a big grin. “Yes, Miss.”
There was a gob of wet chewing gum on Billy’s seat. He hesitated.
“Hurry up.” Miss Weaver had a voice like a knife.
Billy perched on the edge of his seat to avoid the gum.
Billy walked as fast as he could. A car splashed through a puddle, drenching him in greasy black water.
If he went back to change, he would be late. Everyone would stare at him. Billy wanted to sneak in, unseen and unheard, until he could return home to safety.
Sodden trousers clung to his legs. He hurried on.
Across the road, heads gathered around the quiff.
Billy’s heart raced.
“Blubber- blob,” Zac taunted. “Fats. Didn’t oughter be allowed, taking up too much space on this earth.”
Billy’s ears buzzed.
Zac’s voice hardened. “Give.”
The quiffed head shook. Ferret head loomed. The quiff disappeared.
Billy’s innards plummeted. “Change schools,” his parents had said. “Change schools, and you’ll get away from all that crap.”
But here it was. All that crap.
But someone else. Not Billy.
For how long?
He forced his shaking legs onward.
Billy hunched into his jacket to keep the rain from trickling down his neck. He didn’t wear hoods because you couldn’t see if anyone was creeping up behind.
The wet road flared yellow in the street lights as Billy waited for the Pelican crossing.
A hooded youth emerged from the convenience store. As the youth approached, Billy’s hands slicked with sweat.
The youth spoke. “Hello,” he said. “You’re Billy, aren’t you? New at school.”
Billy willed the crossing to turn green.
“I’m Ollie.” Billy recognised the quiff.
“Going anywhere interesting?”
Instantly, Billy shook his head. Discovering where he went on Wednesday nights had caused all the trouble before. Geek. Nerd. Toff. Weirdo. And worst, paedo–bait. As if his friends at chess club would hurt him. They were the only friends he had.
Ollie grinned. “Me neither,” he said. “I’m just doing me Gran’s shopping.”
The crossing turned green. They crossed the road, and turned separate ways.
“See you tomorrow,” Ollie smiled and waved.
Next morning, Billy kept to the other side of the street as Zac gathered his gang. Their prey was Ollie, the lad who had spoken to him last night.
The lad who’d spoken to him like a normal person.
Like a friend.
Zac snatched Ollie’s bag. “What’s in ‘ere?” he demanded. “Oohh.” He pulled out a packet. “Biscuits.” He handed them to the lad with tramlines sheared into his head. “Here you go.”
Billy’s legs felt like jelly.
“And,” Zac was triumphant. “A pie!”
Billy felt sick.
“Give that back,” shouted Ollie, “That’s not mine. It’s my Gran’s lunch.”
Billy pulled his collar around his ears. But he could not cut out Zac’s voice.
“Nah,” he said. “We know who eats all the pies –“ The ring of heads laughed nervously. “It’s you, Fatso.”
Sweat soaked Billy’s armpits.
Ollie had been nice to him.
Breathe, Billy. Breathe. He leaned on the wall while he waited for the ground to stop shifting under his feet.
Zac passed the pie to tramline-head. “Share it all out, Aaron,” he ordered.
“But that’s for my Gran,” wailed Ollie. “Give it back.”
Billy should help Ollie.
Zac thrust his face into Ollie’s, nose to nose. “Shurrup. Shurrup, or you’ll get this!” He raised a fist.
Billy breathed the dust of the old Church hall.
His opponent moved a pawn.
“Your turn,” said Ken. Pale eyes, yellowed from decades of smoke, viewed Billy with interest.
Billy moved his King into the corner of the board. He surrounded his king with his most powerful pieces. Queen. Rook. Bishop.
“How’s the new school?” asked Ken. His pawn took Billy’s Rook.
“So-so,” said Billy. Here, amongst the old men, no-one troubled him. Here, all that mattered was to play the game.
Keeping his king safely barricaded in the corner, Billy moved his other pieces.
“Made any friends?” Ken picked off Billy’s Bishop.
Billy remembered Ollie’s cheerful smile. “Maybe.”
“That’s better, then.” Ken took another pawn.
Ken’s pieces crowded around the cordon Billy had built around his King. “Checkmate.” Ken’s knight leapt over the barricade that trapped Billy’s king.
Billy sighed. “Thanks for the game.” He rose from the table.
“A word, lad.” Ken’s watery eye fixed Billy. “Defence will never win you a game. You’re always on the back foot. To win, you must be bold. Strike. Strike again. And strike hard. It’s the only way.”
On the bus for the Food and Farming field trip, Billy ignored the seat beside Zac and sat next to Amina. She wrapped her scarf around her head and stared out of the window.
Ollie stopped when he saw that the only seat was beside Zac.
“Hurry up, sit down,” trilled Miss Weaver.
“But,” began Ollie.
Zac shouted. “I don’t want him next to me miss. He’s too fat.”
“Don’t be rude, Zac,” said Miss Weaver. “Sit down Ollie.”
Zac spread his elbows. “Miss, ‘ee’s squashing me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Zac,” said Miss Weaver.
Amina rolled her eyes. Billy twitched.
They arrived at the farm. “Everyone stay in their bus pairs,” chirped Miss Weaver.
The farmer showed them a barn full of pigs. “This is what makes bacon – and sausages,” he said.
There were cries of ‘phew’, ‘gross’, ‘yuk’. Amina said quietly. “Pig-meat is unclean.”
Zac turned to Ollie. “You should be in there.” He pointed to the pigs. “Seeing as you’re one of ’em.”
Miss Weaver’s voice was like sharp needles in Billy’s brain. “How many sausages?”
“Hundreds,” said the farmer.
Zac looked at Ollie. “Bet you’d make a trizillion.”
Ollie turned red.
Billy’s hands shook.
Miss Weaver took them to the break room. “Time to eat your lunches.”
Ollie didn’t have one.
“I told you all to bring packed lunch today.” Her voice pierced Billy’s head. “Why haven’t you got one, Ollie?”
Ollie hung his head.
Billy knew Zac stole Ollie’s lunch.
“Wait there, I’ll see if I can get something.” Miss Weaver’s voice sparked a flashing light in Billy’s brain.
As Miss Weaver left, Zac leapt up. “Here’s your lunch, Fatso.” He forced a handful of pig-meal into Ollie’s mouth.
Ollie spat out the pig meal. It stuck to his tongue.
Billy stood. “Don’t do that.” His voice didn’t work properly. It growled, then squeaked.
Zac whipped round. “What you say?”
Billy tried to swallow the lump in his throat.
The dead ferret brushed Billy’s hair as Zac pushed his nose into Billy’s face. “Yer what?”
Billy’s head was light. He was floating, far, far away. “Leave him alone.”
Everyone stopped eating.
Zac’s eyes bored into Billy. “Say again.”
Billy heard a roar like a train. There was a crash. Billy fell. Blood soaked, black, into his hair. A red pool grew on the floor around his head.
There was silence.
Then everybody screamed.
Zac stepped back. “I never touched him,” he stammered.
Amina grabbed a handful of paper towels. She pressed them to the gash on Billy’s head.
Ollie knelt beside Billy. “You alright mate?,” he asked.
Billy nodded – then winced.
“No-one’s ever stood up for me before,” said Ollie.
“He didn’t stand up,” said Amina, “He fell down.”
“Yes. No. But,” said Ollie. “You know. He stuck up for me.”
He stared at Billy, his eyes wide. “I never had a friend before.”
Billy grinned. “Neither did I.”