Philip felt very hot and uncomfortable as he reached the edge of Kirkham Wood, and his glasses kept slipping down to the end of his nose. He had been in such a hurry to get to the wood that he had run almost all the way from his home in the village, even though it was a very sunny afternoon. Walking in amongst the trees, he took off his T-shirt, dried and cleaned his glasses on it, and then used it to wipe away the sweat that was running down his face from his mop of unruly black hair. Having replaced his glasses, he reached behind him and tucked his tee shirt into the waistband of his shorts. Then, after stooping and pushing his socks as far down as they would go into the tops of his trainers, he set off along the woodland path through the dappled shadows of the branches above him.
The cool breeze that Philip could now feel on his bare chest, arms and legs as he walked along gave him a wonderful sense of freedom. And he was free! Free to spend as much time as he liked in his beloved wood, where he could escape from the bullying that he had to endure almost daily at school. There, the fear of being picked on – and especially made fun of – often prevented him from attempting things that he just might be good at, but here, with only the birds and the scurrying creatures to see him, he could do anything that he wanted to do, and be anyone that he wanted to be, limited only by the scope of his imagination.
Further into the wood Philip went – now, in his mind, a steaming, inhospitable jungle – as he crept, pistol in hand, stealthily through the undergrowth, dodged from tree to tree, dived headlong behind bushes and ran erratically across open spaces in his pursuit of a gang of ivory poachers, exchanging shots with them as he went. He cried out in pain and went tumbling across the ground as a bullet caught him in his right shoulder, but he scrambled up and battled bravely on in his determination to bring them all to justice, his left hand clasped tightly to the wound in his shoulder in an attempt to staunch the blood that seeped out from between his fingers and ran down his arm. Suddenly, he was brought sharply back to reality by a figure that detached itself from behind a tree in front of him and planted itself, arms folded, legs wide apart, directly and arrogantly in his path.
“Does your mummy know that you’re out playing Cowboys and Indians in the woods?”
It just wasn’t fair! Here Philip was, hardly into the summer holidays, and he was already being confronted by Rick Henderson, his worst nightmare, who stood there sneering down at him. However, the one good thing about it was that the bully appeared to be alone. Philip was confident that, if he were to make a run for it, he stood a very good chance of losing him amongst the trees and bushes of the wood that he knew so well. He was just about to take to his heels when he became aware of movement behind him. Swinging around, he found that he was completely hemmed in by Hutch, Nosher, and Stew, the other three members of Rick’s gang, who had seemingly materialized from the undergrowth around him. For what seemed an age the four older boys just stood, menacingly, looking at him. Philip’s insides began turning over and over and his legs began to tremble. He hated the way they were making him feel, just like a frightened little boy instead of the grown-up twelve-year old that he was supposed to be, but Rick and his gang had always had this effect on him! Now, if this had been the continuation of his adventure – well – all four of them would now be lying groaning on the ground, downed by some well-aimed punches and karate kicks … but this was real life!
“Hey, Rick.” It was Nosher, the big tub-of-lard of a boy on Philip’s right, who had spoken up. “He hasn’t had our permission to come and play in the woods, has he?”
“You’re right, he hasn’t,” agreed Rick.
Nosher spoke up again, warming to the task of intimidating Philip. “How about we teach him a lesson for not asking us first.”
“Yeah! Good idea, Nosher!” Stew, the thin weasel of a boy, standing behind Philip, who had always seemed to him to lack the ability to think for himself, enthusiastically agreed with this suggestion. “I think we should teach him a lesson, Rick.”
“Okay, what shall we do with him then?”
It was Hutch, the stocky, thick-set individual, who was standing on Philip’s right and looking thoughtfully at his naked torso, who came up with the suggestion, “Why don’t we tree him?”
“Good idea.” Rick turned and looked about him. “That one, over there?”
“Just the job!”
The way in which Hutch had uttered those last three words – and the look on his face as he said them – straight away filled Philip with a deep sense of foreboding, but before he could do anything about it the four older boys grabbed hold of his arms and began to propel him swiftly across the ground towards an old, gnarled-looking tree. As they reached it, Rick and Hutch, who were pulling on his left arm, and Nosher and Stew, who were pulling on his other arm went either side of the trunk and slammed him into it, knocking the breath out of him and almost breaking his glasses. Hutch and Nosher then let go of his arms, leaving the other two heaving away on them with all their might, one foot braced against the other side of the tree trunk to give them extra leverage. They then made a grab for his ankles, yanked both his feet out from under him and, bracing themselves in the same manner as the other two, began heaving away at his legs.
Held spread-eagled against the tree by the four bullies hauling on his arms and legs from the other side of the trunk with sadistic glee, Philip began to experience real agony. His arms and his legs felt as though they were being pulled out of their sockets, the rough bark of the tree was cutting cruelly into the bare insides of them and into his chest, his neck was aching quite badly from the effort of him desperately trying to hold the one side of his head as far away from the tree as he could to prevent the arm of his glasses being snapped against it and to stop the bark from cutting into his cheek, and he was also conscious of a severe pain originating from between his legs, caused by the lower half of his body being pulled as tightly as it was against the trunk of the tree.
The four louts continued with their unmerciful heaving away at Philip’s arms and legs, and he fought as hard as he could to endure the torture that they were handing out to him. The last thing he wanted was to give them the satisfaction of him having to beg for mercy, but it was all becoming far, far too much for him to bear. Just then, however, through all the trauma that he was experiencing, he became aware that a deep, rumbling, menacing growling was intermingling with the hoots of glee coming from his tormentors, which steadily grew louder and louder. Suddenly, he felt them let go of his arms and legs, and he began slipping down against the tree. Frantically, he pushed himself away and landed with a bone-jarring thud on his back on the ground. Gasping for breath, he raised himself up on one elbow to see Rick, Stew, Hutch and Nosher backing around the tree towards him, their gaze firmly fixed on something in the front of them. As Philip continued to watch, the biggest, fiercest-looking Alsatian dog he had ever seen came stalking into view, the growling he had heard coming from deep in its throat. The dog’s whole body was low to the ground, as if ready to spring; its hackles were up and its lips were drawn right back to show two rows of very sharp teeth. The four older boys continued backing past Philip, almost falling over him, and as the dog drew level with him it broke into an absolute frenzy of barking and snarling and charged straight at them, causing them to turn and run for their very lives!
As one might expect, Rick and his gang soon disappeared into the trees ahead of them, and as they did so Philip saw a remarkable change come over the dog. It turned and came trotting up and stood in the front of him looking very pleased with itself, its tongue lolling out of the side of its mouth and its tail wagging. Encouraged by this, Philip reached up and cautiously began patting the dog’s neck.
“Thanks boy,” he said gratefully. “I don’t know where you came from, but thanks for rescuing me.”
“His name’s Prince and – actually, at heart – he’s really a great big softie.”
Philip looked up as the owner of the voice came into view from the other side of the tree. He was an elderly, stout, grey-haired man, dressed in an open-necked shirt with some kind of scarf at his throat. His trousers were tucked in below the knees into some long woollen stockings and he was wearing a pair of sturdy walking shoes.
“I wondered where he was off to,” the man continued as he crouched down by Philip. “We were walking just over there,” he said, indicating the other side of the tree, “when he just, sort of, took off and came running in this direction. I followed him and saw those boys treeing you, but it was obvious that Prince had the matter well in hand, so I just let him get on with it. I must say though that those lads seemed to be really putting you through it.”
“They’re always picking on me,” Philip replied. “They’re like all the other kids at school. I’ve been picked on all the time at the village school, and it’s got worse now that I’ve started at the big secondary one at Birchford.”
“Why does everyone pick on you?”
“They think I’m a mummy’s boy.”
“Why do they think that?”
“Because I don’t have a dad, and because I don’t like doing things like playing football or cricket and other things like that.”
Upon mentioning that he did not have a dad, Philip had been rather surprised to see a look cross the man’s face that straight away brought to mind the way he felt at times, when there just seemed to be this huge ‘emptiness’ inside of him, but before he had a chance to wonder just why this might have happened, the man said, “If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your dad?”
“I – I – I never had one.”
“Ah,” said the man, nodding understandingly. “So, you were brought up solely by your mother?”
“Hmm, I suppose that both those things could possibly go a long way towards explaining just why the other children treat you the way that they do.”
All the time that they had been talking, Philip had continued making a fuss of Prince, breaking off from time to time to dab at his arms, legs and chest with his tee shirt. Angry looking weals had appeared along the surface of the skin where the rough bark of the tree had cut into it when Philip had been pulled so brutally against the trunk of the tree by Rick and his gang, many of which were oozing blood. As he dabbed yet again at the arm nearest the man, it was gently taken hold of and inspected.
“If you don’t mind me saying so,” the man said caringly to him, “I think it would be a good idea if you took yourself off home and got your mother to have a look at these arms, legs and chest of yours.”
“Mum’s at work.” Philip replied. “She doesn’t get home till half past five.”
“Let’s see,” the man said, looking at his watch, “It’s only just gone half past three. Hmm! That does present rather a problem. You do really need something on these injuries of yours and as soon as possible really. You never can tell what infection you might pick up these days.” The man thought for a moment. “Well, there’s only one thing for it, you had better come home with me and let my wife take a look at you. She used to be a nurse, so you’ll be in safe hands. My car’s not all that far away.” Having said that, the man stood up and started to walk in the direction that he had indicated to Philip. However, upon noticing Philip’s reluctance to go with him, he turned back, saying, “Oh, I suppose that your mother has told you never to go with strange men.”
“Quite right! Quite right! Listen, how about if Prince sits in the back of the car with you. After already rescuing you once, I think that it’s highly unlikely that he would let anything else happen to you. Would you agree with that?”
On thinking it over Philip found that he had to agree with what the man had said, so he scrambled to his feet and, painfully, followed him, still dabbing away at his arms, chest and legs, the Alsatian walking along closely by his side. As they went along, the man kept a lookout for anything that might trip him up, and asked him from time to time how he was managing. Several times he suggested that they took a rest, which meant that it took them a while to reach his vehicle. When they eventually did Philip was rather surprised to see that it was a four by four which had obviously seen better days. The man opened the rear near-side passenger door for him to get in, taking his T-shirt off him as he did so. After he sat down the man opened his tee shirt out, draped it over his chest, asked him to hold it in place, and then carefully pulled the seat belt around him over it. As he fastened it in its socket, he asked, “What’s your name, by the way?”
“Philip … Philip Fletcher.”
“Right, Philip, now for your travelling companion.”
Having closed Philip’s door, the man then walked around to the other side of the vehicle and opened the opposite door for his dog to jump in. The Alsatian sprang in and straightaway settled himself down on the seat beside Philip, his head resting across his lap. Philip laughed at this and fondled the big dog’s ears as the man got into the driver’s seat, started the engine and drove out from under the trees and onto the road along which Philip travelled every school day from the village to the secondary school at Birchford. They were soon driving past the grounds of Kirkham Hall, the big country residence of Lord and Lady Kirkham, which lay on the opposite side of the wood to the village and from which the wood had got its name. Ahead of them were the huge, ornamental gates, which opened onto the drive that led up to ‘The Big House’, as it was locally known. To Philip’s utter amazement, instead of them driving past the gates, they turned in through them and continued up the gravel drive, towards The Big House!