Poritahi consisted of a melting pot of Housing New Zealand tenants, middle-class mortgagees, and comfortable homeowners, with the latter two groups occupying most of the area. Mangle Street was the road situating the hive of the community: the dairy, bakery, Laundromat, park, and the local primary school. This advantageous stretch of land, however, was dominated by ‘Housing’ residents. The ‘Mangle Mob’, as they had christened themselves by spraying each other with cans of fizzy drinks, were a pack of Housing kids ranging from seven to twelve-year-olds. They were a fruit salad of imaginative, boisterous, and colourful kids.When whaea Anahera died, three white vans with cleaners, painters, and gardeners came and went throughout three weeks to erase fifty-six years of her existence in preparation for new tenants. One week after that, a big blue and yellow moving truck arrived and unloaded furnishings that looked nothing like whaea Anahera’s worn, but homely furniture. That was the day the Thompsons moved into Mangle Street. Pudgy, with greasy dark hair and crooked teeth, eleven-year-old Billy Thompson was an only child.
At first, the Mangle Mob readily invited the new boy to join them in their childhood adventures. But the invitations declined to wariness when Akinyi raced and beat Billy across the monkey bars. Akinyi laughed in her victory, teasing, “Sissy boy! Sissy boy!” Billy dropped to the ground, and yanked Akinyi by her dangling legs from the jungle gym onto the grass. Billy then dragged her kicking and yelling to the nearby ditch and tossed Akinyi rolling into the dirty creek, leaving a litter of broken and crying kids who had tried to rescue Akinyi in his wake.
The Mangle Mob’s wariness towards Billy turned into fear when Nassir rebuffed Billy’s command to hand over his last packet of fire-crackers during Guy Fawkes. Billy took revenge by aiming a mini sky-rocket at him. Even Nassir’s athletic agility couldn’t outrun or side-step a sky-rocket and the missile struck him square on his bum. Nassir’s parents rushed their son to the hospital where the staff treated and bandaged his left butt-cheek. Nassir made himself ill a few days later due to his refusal to do a number two, because the thought of accidentally wiping shit on his bandage was too “freaking gross” for him to bear.
Fear turned into hatred the day Billy coerced gentle Jack into letting him play with Jack’s prized fire engine. Jack had been engrossed with his toy on the footpath in front of his house that morning and didn’t see Billy walking towards him. Jack had received the bright red gift from his father two years earlier, before his newly-sober mum sent his dad “on a holiday” from which he never returned.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be careful with it,” said Billy, poker-faced.
With shaking hands, Jack held out the pristine fire engine to him.
“Please, don’t wreck it, Billy,” pleaded Jack. “My dad gave it to me. He said a man of the house needed a man’s toy.”
Billy’s expression suddenly darkened, and before Jack could stop him, Billy snatched the truck from Jack’s hands, smashed it against the concrete and threw it down a nearby street drain. Jack screamed, staring in anguished horror at all that was left of his father near his feet - an extendable miniature white ladder snapped in two.
Late that afternoon, ten-year-old Song and her parents arrived back to Poritahi from visiting relatives. Song grinned remembering the fun she had at her cousins’ place as she skipped to the park to seek out more merriment. She hadn’t gotten far when mischievous Sione and Nassir came hurdling over Mr Tanner’s hedge, almost knocking her to the ground.
“Ow! Sheez guys, watch it!”
“Sorry Song,” said Sione. “Have you seen that dick, Billy?”
“Nah. Why, what’s he done this time?”
Sione and Nassir relayed what happened between Billy and Jack. Gentle Jack who was the baby of the mob and wouldn’t hurt a moth. Song knew how protective the mob were over Jack.
Song gasped. “I just got back from my cousins’ house, so I haven’t seen him.”
“Jack’s mum blasted Billy’s parents, but Billy’s run off,” said Sione. “The mob’s looking for him so we can smash him.”
“You wanna come help us look for him?” asked Nassir.
Song felt sad. Of all the Housing kids, she was the most sensitive. She was the one who cried the hardest when Billy had hurt her friends. She cried when her parents had chaperoned the Mangle Mob to the movies, and Bambi’s mother was shot by the bad hunter, for Chrissake. The thought of poor Jack...and they all knew what that fire engine meant to him.
Sione rolled his eyes when he saw Song tearing up. “It’s okay, Song, you go home,” he said, “we’ll get him and pay him back.”
Song nodded wordlessly. She turned to walk back towards home as the boys took off in the opposite direction. Her desire for adventure at the park had evaporated.
Lost in her thoughts, Song looked up and was surprised to see she was in front of the Thompson’s house. She thought of finding a stone to throw at one of the front windows, but decided against it. It wouldn’t be worth the hiding she’d get if she was found out. Song was about to continue towards home when she heard a faint tinkling coming from the other side of Billy’s fence. Quietly, she opened the gate and crept forward, following the sound along the wooden slats under the house. She stopped near the front left corner when she heard murmuring. Song crouched to squint between the cracks.
There in the dusky space under his house was Billy Thompson. Spread on the dirt floor was a round tablecloth patterned with bright red and yellow flowers. Arranged in a semi-circle around the dim light of a silver torch, were: a doll’s cradle; a small table upon which sat two china cups with matching saucers and a ceramic teapot; and an old wooden highchair with flaking green paint.
Song swallowed the gasp that almost escaped her throat. Through the slits, she saw the same grubby, heavy fingers that had punched Sione’s eye black, daintily raise a delicate cup to an exquisite porcelain doll’s pursed, ruby lips. The doll had shoulder-length brown ringlets that bulged from underneath a crimson bonnet with white frilly trimming; the accessory matched the bulky silk dress.
“Drink carefully now,” Billy said softly, “so you don’t burn your tongue.”
Billy gently tilted the cup to the rosy-cheeked doll’s bow-shaped mouth. The doll responded with a blank stare from big brown pupils that suffocated the white parts of the eyes.
Song was enthralled with the expression on Billy’s face. Devotion.
“Hey Song, wadaya lookin at? Is it Billy? Is he there?”
Startled, Song yelped as she fell onto her backside. She heard the shattering of china and the shuffling of feet – then silence.
Akinyi and Tessa were walking towards the Thompson’s gate.
Song heard a sound that sent chills down her spine. It was a soft whimpering that reminded her of the time she and her parents had watched as the SPCA arrived at a previous neighbour’s house to take their injured mutt. Her dad had rang the SPCA after they witnessed the owner beat the creature with a two-by-four plank. The dog keened as it was carried gently by the animal helpers to the SPCA van. Blood trickled from its mouth.
Song sprung to her feet and hurried away from the sound, towards Akinyi and Tessa.
“N-nah, n-nothing here,” she stammered.
Song avoided looking Akinyi in the eye by dusting off the seat of her pants. She didn’t like lying to Akinyi. One time at school, Akinyi had given one of the rich boys a beating when he had made Song cry by teasing her about her “scruddy, poor people’s clothes”. She was Song’s best friend after Elsa, who had been her next door neighbour since kindergarten, but was away in Hamilton visiting her grandparents.
Far, where the hell is the egg?” said Akinyi through gritted teeth.
Changing the subject, Song half-heartedly growled, “Sheez, you guys scared the undies off of me.”
Akinyi laughed, “Sorry.”
“We should try looking around the bridge again,” said Tessa. “He likes throwing stones at people from there.”
Tessa had been a victim of Billy’s bridge stone-throwing. Twice.
“I’ve gotta go home,” replied Song, “sorry.”
Akinyi smiled, seemingly knowingly, at her friend.
“Okay, see ya later,” said Akinyi. She turned to Tessa, “We’ll go check the bridge then, aye?”
Tessa nodded, then turned to Song, “See ya, Song.”
“Bye guys,” answered Song.
Song watched her friends walk around the corner, then she swivelled around and stood there, watching the Thompson’s home. No movement or sound came from underneath the house. With a sigh, Song shut the gate behind her and started off home.
She wished she had stayed the night at her cousins’ place.
Winner of the '2016 Cooney Insurance Short Story Competition' as part of the 'Cambridge Autumn Festival'