underneath the hawthorn tree, the falcon and me

By Iain McLean

We were nine. We weren't a gang. We were the ones nobody else played with and sort of gravitated towards each other. Shaun, Bradley, James and me. We were hometime mates with a secret. We knew who would ruin it but none of us dared confront him because his brother had been in jail.

Even though Shaun walked home with us, we kind of wished he wouldn’t. He’d separate one of us from the rest then punch us or put us in a headlock or push us into a rose bed. He never used to be like that. He used to smile. Shaun never had a dad. James's dad ran a meat factory. Bradley was adopted so he sort of had a dad and sort of didn’t. They were both normal. My dad was the handyman. He’d hand-painted it on his beat-up wreck of a panel van and the kids at school loved to remind me. What’s more, I was not normal. I had legs a gazelle would envy and the teeth of a goat. I was a bully's dream.

Then Shaun changed his name. Just like that. One day he came to school and his books had Hurst crossed out and Fielding written over it. Hurst suited him. Feilding didn’t. It was like he’d been given a hand-me-down that someone else had seen the best of. He became a different person and we had to get to know him again. Shaun Hurst was relaxed and funny. Shaun Fielding bristled with anger and spite. It was just after his name changed that we found the treasure under the hawthorn tree.

The hawthorn tree was in the park, surrounded by bushes. The bag was under one of the bushes stuffed full of magazines. We knew immediately we’d hit the jackpot. Porn. Women of every shape, colour and size in various states of undress. The women of our dreams had materialised. We’d been using sticks as sabres, slashing branches off trees as we walked home when we came across it. We counted twenty three magazines. The four of us sat in the bushes passing them around, captivated by the images. Excitement had given way to a pensive silence usually found in university libraries during exam week.

Apparently it was important for ladies to keep their shoes. “My mum doesn’t let us wear shoes in the house,” said James. No one answered. We’d all noticed but were trying to act nonchalant, like we’d all seen it before.

“I’m going to marry Rebecca. She looks like her,” Shaun said, holding up a picture for us to see. He was right. The woman in the magazine looked like Rebecca from school, or to be more precise, she looked like a pastiche of a future Rebecca.

Bradley sniggered, “In your dreams.” When he laughed, his neck sank into his shoulders and his head bobbled around a lot.

James was getting worried. He had to go straight home every day. His mum always knew when we’d had a sneaky game of knock-and-run. She was like that. We agreed to put the magazines back in the bag and hid it under a different tree and agreed to tell no one.

Things that were simple all of a sudden became complex. Overnight girls at school looked differently at us. Conversations took on a new edge. No longer happy just to see who can run fastest, we started competing for attention from girls. None of us knew what we were doing, but whatever it was, we knew it had to be done. It had become a race. It consumed everything we did. The rules were innate: the first one to get to the invisible finish line would live on forever with the legendary status that he had beaten the rest. He’d be the alpha and unable to be challenged by us for the rest of his life. Careers are built on the confidence that stems from being first. Shaun, Bradley, James and I found ourselves in a race when we found those magazines. We just didn't know it.

I had seen sex scenes in movies and paid close attetion to the opening titles of James Bond films when the silhouettes of naked women slid down the barrel of a gun. But nothing prepared me for what I saw in the back of that old Ford Falcon. Not even the magazines under the hawthorn tree.

The Ford Falcon had been reversed down a muddy track that any normal person would avoid because it was in a council tip and it stank of rotten dead things. Beyond the tip was a disused railway line, overgrown with trees and blackberry bushes, that we played on that linked the streets James and I lived on. Nobody ever went down there unless they were in our gang or they were trying to catch rabbits. But there it was, a blue Ford Falcon, parked in the dirt. I rode my bike past it one Saturday morning on my way to James’ house and thought nothing of it until I thought about curtains in the rear windows. They looked like old caravan curtains and didn’t fit properly. I left my bike in the dirt, walked back to the rear driver’s door and stared at the curtains.

It was dark inside the Falcon. I couldn’t see through the reflection of the sky in the glass so I leaned in closer, cupping my hands on the glass and shielding my eyes. My heart instantly became a hollow thud when I saw her slender arms. My brain was slow to process the image. For a few moments, it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. She was on her back, arms braced between the back seat and the rear of the passenger seat. He was on top of her, between her legs. I watched, unable to move, as the woman’s head rolled to the side, her eyes opening and meeting mine. She let out a yelp and pulled herself upright. I saw his head snap around but my legs had already made a decision to run.

I panicked, grabbed my bike and began pedalling as fast as I could to get away. I disappeared down the old railway line heading to a stand of trees that I knew no one could see into. I ditched my bike before it came to a stop, letting it fall into the long grass, and ran into the trees, crouching down, out of sight. I never made it to James’ house that week. I crouched on my haunches for hours, too scared to move. They could be waiting for me. If I left the safety of the trees they’d spot me immediately and who knows what would happen then. They were probably criminals. My mind raced through all possible scenarios. After lots of deliberation I felt it best to wait as long as I could because it was obvious they would kidnap me. They’d toss my bike into the tip so no one would be able to tell it apart from the rest of the mess, and they’d shove me in the boot of the Falcon and drive somewhere to dump my body. They’d probably dump it behind the shoe factory in town. Eventually I summoned the courage to leave the cover of the trees when the combination of low light as dusk fell and an overwhelming urge from my bowels proved more intimidating than the possibility of being tortured, killed and my body dumped where my mates would find me.

*

“Bullshit,” Shaun said.

We were using branches as sabres to whip the tops off flowers from the garden beds of houses we passed on the way home. We knew we didn’t care if we got caught. We were famous. We’d discovered porn. I’d told them that morning about the Ford Falcon. Bradley hadn’t said barely two words all day, he just smiled at me a lot, with his silent chuckle, as he rubbed his hands together. He did that a lot too.

James, well, he just kept asking the same question, “In a Ford Falcon?”

I had blown their minds. By lunchtime I had more friends than I thought possible. A couple of girls had even spoken to me, in full conversation, as an equal. The attention I was getting appeared to push Shaun’s fury to the surface and I knew it. It had become apparent to Bradley, James and I that we didn’t need to go along with what Shaun told us any more. The three of us transpired to walk home without him. We’d set off quickly when the bell went. But a few streets away Shaun turned up, out of breath, spurting all kinds of nonsense that he was harder than me, and he’d bash me if I tried that again.

We walked home in silence, headed for the hawthorn tree. Every day for two weeks we’d been stopping at the tree on the way home. James was whipping the heads off flowers as we passed people’s gardens. Bradley grinned.

“Why’d you set off without me?” Shaun issued the question standing in the middle of the street to prove the point how hard he was. We didn’t rise to it. A few steps further, he leaned into me as I walked, staring at me.“What did her fanny look like then?” It wasn’t so much a question as a test.

“I couldn’t see. They moved. I think she saw me, so I ran away.”

“See. He’s lying. You never saw nothing. You’re lying.”

The rift developing between us had become apparent. It dawned on me that I had done something so far beyond what any of us had considered remotely plausible a few days ago and none of us knew how to react.

“I’d have watched and joined in,” Shaun proclaimed.

“No you wouldn’t,” said James, laughing. “You’re a shorty with a pointy willy. You’d run away too.”

“Fuck off, fatty.” James wasn’t fat. Shaun walked a few steps ahead of us. Still in the road.

“Pez!” James hated being called fat. And everyone knew Shaun hated being called a pez. It was the one thing guaranteed to get a reaction, calling him a peasant. We had no idea what a poverty line was but just looking at him, you could tell he was on the wrong side of it.

“Did you see boobs?” asked James.

I nodded, smiling. The other three danced around as we walked, cheering.

When we got to the hawthorn tree the bag was shoved under a bush but it was all but empty, save for a few tatty scraps of paper with slug trails on them.

“Where’s the rest?” I asked Shaun. He gave us one of his I’m-better-than-you smirks.

“Yeah, where are they?” demanded Bradley. Shaun ignored him and swished his stick, lopping a geranium in its prime.

“He’s got them at home, and he pretends that they’re Rebecca,” Jame laughed.

Shaun whipped his leg. The red welt came up immediately. James just stood there. He didn’t cry, but we knew he wanted to. Something inside me vented. It wasn't anger. It was something else. It zinged in my ears. It hummed in my chest.

I shoved him so hard his head snapped backwards. He was stunned. We all were. Unsure what to do next, panic started to course through me, the zinging in my ears, deafening. Something crumbled inside him. We all saw it. He turned and walked home alone, never with us again.

The next Saturday, Bradley, James and I met early. We rode our bikes through the tip. The Ford Falcon wasn’t there. Thing is, I wasn’t interested in the car. The world had noticed me, at last, and had issued the challenge and I had risen to it. I had arrived. Even though I had stood up to Shaun, all three of us had crossed the threshold together. We were men of the world now. And we had lands to conquer.