‘Baggy’ by Barbara Jaques

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Danny is running fast again. The mess of russet that yesterday jumped about his face is unmoving, because today his hair is annoyingly short. Last night there had been a fight and the hefty weight of his father’s arm had won. The prize: Mum’s scissors doing their thing.

Smiling broadly, Danny looks to his friend as they skid to a halt. The plan is to climb the big old chestnut tree outside Mr Nash’s walled garden. From there, they can look in and spot anything worth scrumping. Mr Nash always has lots of apples that he never shares, apart from the big sacks he gives to the grown ups. Danny is bent double for a moment, waiting to catch his breath.

Soon he is high in the branches, peering down into the oasis; freckled face serious. The garden below looks lush and green, though the tree he stands in has already begun turning to autumn with a colour that matches his cropped hair. The girl who dared inform Danny of this fact was made to take it back, which in turn made her cry. Danny isn’t sure what he thinks of this girl now.

He looks about and chooses the best available exit, an open gateway on the far side, ignoring the fact he could also enter using this more accessible point. Then he aims a finger, so his friend can see which tree is the target, which one is loaded with the fruit they like. Danny is about to step across from a thick branch to the capped top of the high stone wall, when Mr Nash appears. The old man snatches up a faller, and looking to Danny throws it. Danny ducks. Mr Nash shouts, but he is only saying that Danny was meant to catch it. Preferring to think of war than friendship, the boy scurries down the tree and away as if under fire. Another apple lands nearby and he picks it up, offering it to his friend first before biting into its sweet, crisp, flesh. It doesn’t look like a faller.

The apple is munched until nothing more than a thin core remains. Still studded with pips, he offers it to his friend because Danny thinks there might possibly be a bite left in it. His friend doesn’t want it, so Danny tosses it into a bush. It’s okay to throw fruit, he knows, because it will rot, but it is not okay to throw empty crisp packets or broken things. It is nearly lunchtime. Time to go home.

Walking back through the village, he spots a light on in old Mrs Bailey’s tiny dark cottage. He looks to his friend and grins, and then picks up a freshly shed magpie feather before placing it carefully on Mrs Bailey’s doorstep. She won’t be going out today, he thinks. Mrs Bailey is not superstitious. She has a phobia. Any feather would have done.

He asks his friend what he’d like to do later, after lunch, but it is Danny who decides. They’ll go to the woods, he says, and hunt squirrels. He’ll bring his penknife to sharpen some sticks into proper spears. He has never caught a squirrel, not a live one; not one that didn’t require imagination to reanimate it.

*

‘You’re late,’ calls Mum the moment the front door opens.

‘I’m not.’

‘I said twelve thirty.’

‘I thought you said one.’

‘Did you now. Come on, wash your hands and sit up. Hurry, it’s gone dry enough as it is.’

Danny does as instructed, but his friend is still with him. ‘Can Baggy stay for lunch?’

Mum nods, ‘Sure.’ She plants a mound of fish fingers, chips and peas in front of Danny. Next to it lands another plate, but it is empty.

‘Baggy doesn’t eat air,’ he remarks, squeezing ketchup.

Mum sighs. Her hair, like Danny’s, is russet. But unlike his, it is long and groomed, the fading warmth of its hue recovered once every six weeks at the hairdressers. She has no obvious freckles, only neatly applied foundation. ‘Does your friend eat biscuits?’

‘Ask him.’

Mum faces the vacant seat, ‘Do you eat biscuits?’ her eyes flick to meet her son’s.

‘He does,’ Danny confirms.

She places one on the plate. ‘So how is your new friend, Danny? Apart from quiet.’

He shrugs, and with fingers shoving a fish finger into his mouth while talking, says, ‘He’s fine.’

‘Knife and fork, please. So what have you been up to this morning? Anything nice?’

Danny swallows and then glugs an enormous mouthful of squash. ‘Helping Mr Nash.’

‘That’s nice,’ but Mum’s expression suggests a different thought. ‘Be good, won’t you.’

Danny fills his mouth with a thick pinch of chips.

*

Belly stuffed, Danny heads off. He told Mum that Baggy was too full of apple to eat the biscuit, and ate it himself. It was a Jammy Dodger, Baggy’s favourite, which proves he was not hungry.

Danny doesn’t feel like running so walks back through the village, observing the feather is still where he put it, and that little Jimmy Walker has left his go-cart in the street again. He thinks about taking it for a ride, forcing ten-year old legs into a space meant for a toddler. He asks Baggy what he thinks, and then decides to take his friend’s advice and leave it. Last time he got into terrible trouble for just sitting in it. Part of it had cracked. Clearly it was rubbish.

Danny met Baggy for the first time last week, while chalking rude words on the wall outside the Walker’s house. Jimmy’s big sister, Lily, is a pain. Lily always keeps a place in the dinner queue for her friends and pushes in during PE and tells on people so much that even the teacher rolls her eyes. Danny had been caught chalking by the permanently cross Mrs Walker, and was forced to think on his feet. Cleverly, he said it was an anagram, part of a game he was playing with some other children. It was a clue. A clue? she had repeated. Yes, he had said. What is it an anagram of? she’d enquired, her usual ready-to-kill expression firmly fixed. London, he answered, triumphantly. Only after walking away did Danny think about it, only then did he realise that smelly cow and London didn’t really match. It was immediately after all this that Baggy had appeared beside him and said hello, although since then has said very little, seeming happy to follow.

But this afternoon Baggy is different. This afternoon he is taking charge. He says they are no longer going to the woods, where only last week Danny wore a tiger mask and terrified three teenage girls who were smoking. This afternoon they are going to the quarry.

The quarry is out of bounds, but such things don’t bother Danny because his new friend Baggy says they will be fine, and Baggy knows everything. He says they will take a quick dip near the rocky path, where it is shallow. Shallower than everywhere else, anyway, Baggy assures.

When they arrive, it is Baggy that checks no one else is present. It is Baggy that points to the best spot. It is Baggy that leads the way. It is Baggy that climbs up onto a high rock gripped by young saplings and weed. It is Baggy that hurls himself into the freezing black water. It is Baggy that watches as Danny does the same. By the time they leave, Danny thinks he has had the most amazing time.

Walking home, they pass through the village. The go-cart is gone, feather too. The light is off in the cottage. Danny looks about, hoping to see the feather so he can jam it in Mrs Bailey’s letterbox, but it is nowhere to be seen.

By the time Danny reaches the street where he lives, the muted shades of evening are beginning to form. Lights are on in the kitchen and even before he opens the front door, he can smell baking; the enticing warm aroma everything a home should be. With his mouth watering, Danny walks into the kitchen and speaks, but Mum doesn’t turn. She is making cupcakes, all to be decorated with the white icing she has made in a bowl, and topped with tiny pieces of homemade fudge. Danny knows some of the little cakes will be chocolate, and some vanilla, because they always are. Mum’s smooth hair is long and flat down her back, her head bent over the sink where she is washing baking pans. He leans over the rack on the table and pokes his nose as close to one cooling cake as he dare, sniffing at it quietly. But still Mum says nothing. All she does is check her watch.

So he spins on his heels and runs upstairs. Baggy is close behind. Laughing, they start sorting through Danny’s favourite things, proper things he has collected over his few short years. A catapult; a bow and arrow, sucker removed from the now-sharpened arrow tip; an empty coffee bean tin; a camouflaged water bottle; a pocket book on survival; a set of interesting stones. As they squat and sort, so the smell of baking becomes too much to resist. Baggy has an idea, and Danny thinks it is brilliant.

Silently, they descend the stairs, before sneaking into the kitchen. Mum’s back is still turned and the cakes are still cooling. Danny again leans close to a cake, and this time, sliding out his tongue, he licks it. The taste is sweet and delicious. But the icing looks very dented and wet. With his fingers, he tries to make it right, gently pushing and pressing, trying to remould that which only moments before had been perfect. But it looks worse than ever. He scrapes the icing off entirely, hoping Mum might think she has forgotten to do it, even though he knows it doesn’t look quite like an un-iced cake, and that she will not fall for it.

Danny straightens as Mum turns around, again looking at her watch. Her eyes dart to the table, to the naked cupcake. Danny prepares to run.

But Mum merely frowns as if puzzled, and, walking past Danny, goes to the front door. She opens it and calls his name. Danny can’t tell if she is joking. But she calls again, even though he answers her.

She calls again. Now he can’t tell if she is cross, or worried, or both. Often, she is both.

Danny turns to Baggy, seated on the bottom stair in the hallway. He is smiling and Danny realises he has not seen Baggy smile before.

‘Now we’re the best of friends,’ Baggy says, ‘you and me. We’re just the same.’

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