From: Wolf and Friends by Stephen Bigger. 2010.
The story so far: a group of children describe their lives and school experiences in 2009 .The Millenium Kids, since they were born in the year 2000, reflect on their stories as adults.
These sample chapters tell the story of Jake, who has a difficult start to life. Jake is loosely based on the lives of a number of real pupils.
Jake the Bully.
Jake Moore from Crudwell Road was in a bad mood. He had just had a row at home and been severely told off. He didn’t care in a way, since this happened regularly. Water off a ducks back, Jake echoed his mother’s despairing comment. He was proud of that. Despite her attempts, his light brown hair was wild, spiky and unkempt and his socks were crumpled round his ankles. He upset people. He was in charge, he was boss. He didn’t care, about anything. He pushed aside a couple of classmates, who shrank back, knowing better than to complain. Treat a bully like you would treat a poisonous snake. Most kept their distance, knowing that sooner or later trouble would flare.
Only Alan ("Al") in class would partner up with him. Al found Jake funny, especially when Jake was cheeky and threw his weight around; and Jake liked an appreciative audience. Al wasn’t like that himself, but sheltered behind Jake’s aggression. It made him feel strong and untouchable. And he was lazy and liked to be distracted from his work. Al had been spoiled at home, where he was not required to pull his weight by helping to keep the house tidy.
Jake’s mother had long ago given up the struggle to get him to be helpful, and Dad after years of hitting his wife, and Jake, had left home. If he hadn’t, he might even have ended up in prison, because Jake had a file somewhere official which said he was “at risk”.
“Shove over Titch”, Jake said roughly to Ellie, a tiny girl in the class. She scuttled off, looking scared and tearful. Jake smirked at this use of power. “And stop staring four eyes” – that was to Barrie with glasses. Barrie was used to this and although he minded, he no longer was hurt by words. The other children however were upset by these bullying phrases; but they didn’t stand up to him or tell him to stop, in case he picked on them too.
They saw in him a boy who had terrorised them for years; but Josh was new and had fresh eyes. He saw him as a problem to be solved. Fear is the greatest obstacle to overcome. He had known bullies in his last school, and how miserable they made people feel. By nature he was not timid or submissive. He noticed how other children, who were used to Jake’s ways, would not fight back. At first he was busy making friends and trying to get to know his new school, and Jake had not picked on him. Josh had left the really hard cases behind in London; Jake was a middle-sized fish in a small pond. A challenge, but one easily faced. So without thinking this through openly, he didn’t back down, and he put himself between Jake and his victims. He even learnt to anticipate who might need protection next. Jake was not yet sure enough of Josh, so watched for an opportunity to attack with impunity.
Monday was a difficult day for Jake. It was just before Easter, and the wind was still cold, although the sun was trying to shine. Josh had been in the class a few weeks now. At break, Jake stole Jaswinder’s crisps and pranced around eating them, taunting her. Jas protested.
“What are you going to do about it, eh?” was his reply. Something snapped inside Josh, because Jas was his friend. He quietly and in control went up to Jake, stamped hard on his foot and took the crisps in one movement. He gave Jas his own crisps saying, “Here. You won’t want these now he has had his dirty hands on them”, and emptied the rest of the packet into the bin.
To say Jake was angry was an understatement. No one had stood up to him before; but he had found a difficult enemy, determined, fair and tough minded who thought it important to protect others. Jake had a tantrum, shouting, rushing up to thump Josh; but Josh was cool and calm. He knew exactly when to sidestep, making Jake look silly. That afternoon, in class football Jake tackled Josh so hard and high that he thought his leg was cracked. Of course it was out of the referee’s sight. The other classmates had seen it though. It was a brief victory however. Josh was on his feet again and got the feeling back. Nothing broken. Then came a foul just outside the penalty area. Jake’s team lined up to protect the goalmouth, with Jake in the middle of the line. Josh came up to take the kick. He was a good shot normally, and kicked the ball hard and straight at Jake. Jake couldn’t dodge and was winded, and looked quite sick. The ball bobbed back and Josh chipped it over the defenders and into the net.
Walking home after school, this was the only thing they talked about. Why had Josh done it? Wouldn’t it make matters worse? Josh did not say much. “I couldn’t just stand there doing nothing” he said. “If someone is bullying me, I would want others to help me. Otherwise, the bullies take over everything and we will have no life and no freedom”.
Sophie replied thoughtfully, “Yes we have stood by for too long. You’re right”.
Al too was not having a good time. As Jake became more and more wound up, he took things out on Alan, because no one else would come near him. So Alan too began to move away, only to find that no one else in class would have anything to do with him. In school Jake’s behaviour became worse and worse. He refused to work, he shouted out in class and was rude to the teachers, using very bad language. Every day he would find himself outside the headteacher’s room, and every day Mrs Thursby would try to reason and end up very cross.
When Jake arrived home that Monday after school, his neighbour Mrs Clark met him.
“Now, Jake” she said. She did not like him too much because of his rudeness, but she was a nice lady.
“Your mother has been taken to hospital. She is not in danger, but things will be difficult for a while”, she said. She told him that his grandparents were coming over to look after him and his sister as long as they were needed. Jake pretended not to look upset, but really he was. His sister Tara, two years younger than him, was sobbing in the lounge.
His grandparents, his mother’s parents, arrived that evening.
“How are you getting on at school” Granddad asked. He had to admit that Jake was not his favourite grandson.
“It’s OK”, he lied. “It’s boring”.
“You all say that”, said granddad, “Now tell me how it is really going”.
“Not too good” Jake mumbled, remembering his humiliation earlier that day.
“Why is that?”
“Because the class don’t like me. Nor does the teacher.”
“Because they are unfair” Jake justified himself. “They pick on me”.
“Because... “. Jake began to crack. There was a pause. A hint of a tear came to Jake’s eyes.
“Because I am nasty to them”.
“Why? I’ve never thought about that. Its a habit, I suppose. Its the way I am”.
“We choose the way we are, although we don’t always know it. We are not born that way. Do you want to come fishing?”
Later, by the canal, they both sat, their rods fixed. Jake only fished with his granddad, and didn’t get to do it often, so it was a treat.
“You’ll need to look after your Mum a bit”.
“Will she be OK?”
“Yes, but it’ll take time for her to mend”.
“What about Dad?”
“You won’t see much of him. You have to help your mum and look after your sister. She’s upset”.
The sun was shining, and the canal was tranquil.
“When you are my age, what will you have done? What do you want to do with your life?”
“Crikey, what a question”.
“I’ve enjoyed my life. I’ve been married to your grandma for over 40 years. I worked on the railway, which was OK. I could have made more of my life though. It would have been nice to travel a bit, to go to different places and do more interesting jobs.”
“How could you have?”
“I was never very good at school. I always felt stupid, that I couldn’t do things. School was full of tests to be failed. And I used to think the teachers thought I was not very clever. I was better with my hands than with my brain. It took me a long time to find out that I am not so bad after all”.
“I can’t read too well”, Jake admitted.
“It takes practice. Can I help? I’ve some fishing magazines”.
So Jake and his granddad sat on the sofa with the magazines, looking at the pictures and Jake having a go at the captions. Jake had never known his mind so peaceful and relaxed. Up to know, his anger inside had always spoiled everything.
Mrs Moore was out of danger, but when she came home needed her parents to look after her for a while.
“Jake, your mum has cancer but they are able to treat it so we hope she will get better. But it will be slow. They say that it was made worse by stress, and you know that your father gave her a hard life.”
Jake said nothing, but remembered it well, the bruises and black eyes. And he remembered he had given her a hard life too.
“And you can help her by keeping your room tidy and not getting into trouble at school. What do you think? Think you can?”.
Jake realised that his anger had come from what his father had done, but his anger was directed not at him (he wouldn’t have dared) but at his mum and classmates. After fishing, the anger had somehow begun to disappear, and whenever it came back to him, he let his mind go back to the canal, on a sunny day, with the bait box wriggling, the sparrows and long tailed tits squabbling in the bushes, and the very occasional blue flash of a distant kingfisher. The anger soon passed, and after a mental chat with granddad, he soon calmed down and found a solution.
He took to spending more time
with his mum instead of running wild on the streets, and for the first time
ever she told him stories of her childhood. He realised too that he wanted his
sister to have better memories of her first few years.
Jake’s Difficult Day.
Jake left home early, and met up with his usual cronies, Al and Jed. Jake picked up a stick and swung wildly, knocking a rose from a bush overhanging the street so it lay in a crumpled red heap. He laughed and aimed at a purple buddleia flower, spoiling it without detaching it, and aimed unsuccessfully at a butterfly fluttering dangerously close. Al kicked a wing mirror on a parked car, and the ran onto the parkland towards the icehouse. They sat there a while, until Jed commented, aiming to hurt, “Is your dad out of prison yet, then?”. Jake didn’t reply, but moodily walked away. “My dad says”, Jed carried on, “that only idiots get caught”. At this, Jake ran back, knocked Jed over, and a wrestling match began, serious until Jake’s anger subsided.
“Come on, you two”, Al said, “I am going to the lake”.
They trudged on, a trio held together by distrust, showing off, taunting and egging on. As they came to the lake, clumps of bulrushes were just forming their new chocolate-brown heads, with last year’s dried seed-heads looking like a modern sculpture made of foam rubber. Al soon worked out that they pulled out easily, and after a mock battle with bullrush lances, that beautiful spot looked as though a hurricane had hit. As they flopped down, Jed idly through stones at a family of moorhen, fortunately too far away and keeping well clear. Seeing a swan, he started throwing stones in that direction too, but the swan was not amused and came head down, hissing, to attack the vandals.
Jake suddenly thought of his conversation with granddad, and wondered what he would think of the events of the morning.
“What are you doing all this for, Jake?” he would have said. “Why wreck things?”
To stop other people enjoying them, perhaps? To show off and look big? To break rules? To get pleasure from upsetting people? He recognized a little of all of these in his mind. He was not used to asking why too much, just do and damn the consequences. What consequences? People shouting, some even going red in the face in their anger, was fun. They didn’t break his arms or thump him. Only words. The more they shouted, the more respect he felt from classmates. They were afraid of him, afraid of answering back, or retaliating. Real respect. He could handle himself.
That got him thinking about his father. He never called him Dad or Daddy. From being little he had watched as father hit his mother, especially when drunk, and never had a pleasant word for her. As he grew up, he did the same, never wondering how his mother felt. Then one day, father took his belt of an threshed the daylights out of Jake. Jake couldn’t even remember what he had done wrong. His backside and shoulders were bruised blue for ages. That was shortly before he was arrested. His mind flicked to another incident. He had seen something, two men handing over drugs and money. Dealers. And they had seen that he saw them, and threatened to kill him if he told. Would they have done it? Who knows, they know how to make it look like an accident, like drowning in the lake. Suddenly the view didn’t look so peaceful.
A few days later, he saw those men again. They were not local, and he didn’t know if they would recognize him again. He dodged and slipped home. After a while, his mother complained he was under her feet, so he went to his bedroom. What could he do? He didn’t read, and had no television or computer in the room. He didn’t use computers much anyway because he couldn’t type or spell well. He made a decision: to go out but be somewhere where he was invisible. He made his way to the lake, and beyond it to a meadow and a wood beyond it. The trees, had he been able to recognise them, were oaks, ash, and beech, the leaves fresh in the early summer. He found for himself a dense bush, a tangle of box, spindle and brambles. The blackberries were just beginning to form, and the red clusters of spindle berries already showing. He found a way in behind the bush, invisible to passers-by, if anyone should in this isolated woodland. He felt safe there, and there was space inside for him to lie down. He would creep back home when it was dark.
The hours were long, though. He listened to the birds, the rat-tat-tat-tat of a green woodpecker, the angry shriek of an enraged magpie, the coo-coo-coo- c-coo-c of the wood pigeon, the busy chirruping of sparrows and blue tits. They sounded like a jumble, a cacophony at first, but gradually he could distinguish the different voices, and even spotted some of the smaller birds singing. He remembered his day by the river with Grandpa. The birds, the quietness, the swish of breeze on grass. Only the sound of water was missing. And he remembered the conversation. Where was his life going? Why was he so angry? He still had no answer. His grandfather came back to him now, in his head. He saw the river, and the fishing line. Grandpa’s face was serious. Your mother needs your help. She is ill and very sad. Then a long silence. He remembered his mother being shouted at and hit by Dad, but always put Jake first. And he began to understand.
He heard a noise in the wood, far off … then nearer. He stayed quite still. He could make out the sound of dog – oh, no. A head came through the bush, and he recognized Josh’s dog Wolf. He kept still. Did Wolf see him as an enemy, since he and Josh argued and fought. The head disappeared with a Yip! As human footsteps came closer. Josh’s head looked in. “Can I come in?” he said “I was just walking the dog”.
“What are you doing?”.
“Keeping my head down. If some toughs find me, I’m dead.”
“Why, what you done?”
“Nuthin. Just saw too much”.
“Yes, that was always happening in London. People were afraid to talk. Often they didn’t know what they were afraid of, they were just afraid.”
“I’ll stay here till dark, then go home. Be on the safe side.”
“And tomorrow, Jake? And after? Have you eaten today? Have some chocolate”.
Jake hadn’t, and chewed the chocolate bar hungrily.
“That’s OK. I’ll tell your mum that you will be late. Stop her worrying.”
Josh and Wolf moved away, headed towards the lake and stillness fell once again on the wood. As dusk fell, things began to move. A tiny bat flittered. Rooks noisily returned to their roosting trees, wheeling around the sky for twenty minutes before one by one they landed in their tree and settled. He made his way quietly towards the lake. A family of fox cubs were drinking, and then tumbling and squabbling. He stood quietly under the trees and watched for a few moments. The old Jake would have thrown stones or run yelling straight at them, causing them to run away. But today he felt still inside, a small living being in the vastness of existence, sharing a world with other living beings. He was not seeing beauty, but was simply part of what is, the great network of life, small in the vastness, yet significant to its purpose. He had been welcomed into a vast family, and this brought loyalties and responsibilities.
He made his way quietly along a side path so not to disturb the fox family, and made his way homewards, hearing for the first time the sounds and sights of the evening, the swifts up aloft in their noisy triumphal play, bats flittering over the water, picking insects off the surface itself, leaving only a tiny circle of ripple, the screech of a distant owl. Josh was right, though. What about tomorrow, and every day. Josh met life head on, not hiding and running. He was to return to the woods many times, alone and with new friends, to acquaint himself more deeply with this world he had glimpsed.
Jake suddenly realised that he was dead. He knew it because he could see his body down below on the road, with an ambulance flashing and paramedics working anxiously. He couldn’t quite remember how this state of affairs had come to be. He had been playing by the side of the road and he remembered the car. The driver was young, with a girl, and driving at 70 miles an hour through the estate, had half climbed out of his side window to insult the driver he was passing. He could see their speeding car too, upside down, embedded in a wall. There were two bodies covered up, on stretchers, with no one working on them. And there was blood all over. If they were dead too, why were they not up here? He would tell the crazy driver a thing or two. Perhaps they were but out of sight, or not visible. He was sorry for the girl -
Jake changed his position – you could float just by thinking about where you wanted to be – to see his own face down there, and wonder what the paramedics were doing. One was thumping his chest, another had a bag with a tube going into his arm. It seemed a curious thing, being dead. It didn’t feel of anything, there was no pain, no sadness. It just ... was. The paramedics were putting him in the ambulance; another ambulance had taken the two other covered bodies. The upside-down car still revealed its underparts.
Jake felt he was entering a tunnel. Every so often this would open into daylight and he would see something in the past. He didn’t find this strange, as it seemed natural. At the first stop he was baby, looking at a face, fixing on it, needing it. But the face didn’t smile much but looked quite sad. He knew that face as Mother. He felt sad now – he had not said Thank you, or even ‘I love you’. He just took her for granted.
Back to the tunnel. Soon another underground station. He was a a toddler, aged about two, it seemed. He was walking and running around a bit clumsily, but couldn’t talk to those around him. It seemed he didn’t know how to talk out loud, only in his head. His mother’s voice said “Don’t touch that” and “Don’t do that” so these phrases marked everything interesting. He understood that his parents did not approve because his father shouted and hit him, so he developed some cunning when he explored interesting things. Sometimes he got away with it, but he was a bit careful of Father.
Next he seemed to be about 4. He could now shout as loud as his parents, but he avoided his father, knowing that making him angry was not a good thing. He noticed that he had a bad temper, was angry with everyone around him and hit children and adults alike. He noticed how tired his mother looked.
The scene drifted on to infant school, where both he and the teachers were shouting a lot. “Jake”, shouted one exasperated teacher “you will make nothing of your life if your don’t settle down to learn how to read and write”. He noticed that he just stuck his tongue out. He could also see how no other child would come near him, and if he came near to them they would move away.
The next scene showed his mother rather happier, smiling even and it came to him that this was when his father was in prison for grievous bodily harm. This was a happier scene, with Jake out for a walk with his mum in the Park; but he noticed he was still bad-tempered and uncooperative.
Then he was with his Granddad fishing, and talking; and last he was with Josh, Jaz and the sheepdog Wolf. This was a strange episode, because Wolf was speaking to him clearly. She seemed to look straight into his soul – “What next, Jake? Where are you heading? What’s your life all about”. The strange thing was that this frank conversation did not seem at all strange. He had always communicated with Wolf. Wolf waged her tail and said, ‘Come with me’, which he did. His hand on her neck, they went together onto the estate. Jaz and Sophie were crying – they were not sentimental, but their affections were deep. “Its not fair”, Jaz was saying, “Just when he was beginning to relax and smile”. Jake wanted to reassure them, and tried to touch their arms, but of course could not. Wolf pulled his on. There was a newsteam speaking into a camera against a background of flowers. The dangerous driver was dead, and his girl. The occupants of the other car were shaken but safe. Jake was thrown into the air and was rushed by ambulance to hospital. Wolf said, “There’s a lot of folks who care. Don’t forget it.”. The newscaster was talking to witnesses, and people who knew the victims. The main talk was about the stupidity of show-off drivers. The girl’s folks were there, but too upset to be interviewed. “Come on,” said Wolf, “Let’s talk to the girl’s mother”.
So Jake found himself next to a crying woman. Wolf licked her hand, and she automatically stroked her head. Jake said to her, “I was not her fault”. Of course she didn’t hear, but perhaps she did. “Why didn’t I stop her” she sobbed “wasting her life with such a useless lump. Empty head, and empty heart. And now she’s dead.” Wolf stayed for a moment.
One more stop. Home. He needed Wolf now, as his courage was shaky. He remembered her pain when he was young. “Come on”, said Wolf. “You have to do it. Come on!”. He recognized his street, his gate, his back door. Funny he could go in without opening the door. Andso could Wolf. His mother was talking to his teacher. Wow! It was not long ago that would have meant trouble. But what was the teacher saying? “Much improved. Much happier now. He had some good friends!”
Had! I’m still here aren’t I?
“And he had begun to read. He was never happier, and we were never before so happy with him”.
“His granddad said that he seemed to pull himself together. A new friend Josh had something to go with it too, and his friends. Why, why, why?”
“I love you Mum” said Jake. “I’m gutted you can’t hear me, but I need to say it”.
Mum said to the teacher, “Its only been in the last few weeks that he became loving and attentive. He began to help around the house, which he never never did before”.
Jake looked up with a start. So perhaps he had told her, without knowing it. And the teacher said he could succeed!
Wolf looked at him. “This is the crucial bit now. Are you going or are you staying? Go that way, and you lose Mum, Josh, Jaz and the other friends, and a future that you teacher thinks you have. And you lose me. I go in four minutes, I have other work to do. Come this way, you have to be brave but there is a future you never dreamed of before.”
“That’s easy. I know my answer. And you’re the one who has fixed it for me. Thanks a bunch”.
Back on his ward, Jake’s body was kept alive by ventilators and tubes. His mother was at his side. From time to time a few children were allowed to sit with him, but never for long. In his head, with Wolf by his side, he said “What do you mean, what next? I’m dead!”, said Jake.
“Maybe”, was the reply. “See what you think”.
In the next tunnel scene, Jake saw himself as a teenager standing between a boy with a knife and other children. He was talking calmly, firmly, saying “Think what you are doing”, “Calm down, cool it”, and “Relax, let’s talk this through” – as the boy dropped the knife the scene dissolved. The next scene to open out was in a hospice, with young children who knew they were dying of untreatable illnesses. They were hungry to talk, to get the most of their last days and weeks and asking about Jake’s life, and friends, and how he coped with his difficult Dad. Most knew they had little time left and valued every minute. That scene faded into a hot searing sun. Jake was a young adult now working alongside his black African colleagues constructing wells of clean water and solar electricity for refrigeration. Working together gave him huge satisfaction.
“So”, said Wolf, “What’s your choice?”
The next day, a Thursday, Jake opened his eyes. His first impression was the light, the sun shining through the window. As his eyes adjusted he saw his mother, her cheeks stained with tears, but quietly dozing. Then he saw Jaz first, then Josh. “Hi”, he croaked, “tell Mum I’m fine”.
* * *
Jake told this story quietly after dinner. Has hand on his daughter’s head. Josh, and Sophie and Jaz sat stunned, with their children. “It was a strange experience”, he admitted “although like a dream it seemed quite normal, especially Wolf talking. Dogs communicate too, but in our heads and not our ears. I didn’t talk about it then – I didn’t want to get laughed at. Think, I was a toughy, and too scared to get laughed at! It helped me see what life might be, and how I could help to change the world in little ways. I never met the boy with the knife, but I talked many out of violence by being calm. I always remembered this vision and it helped me. I had the chance to go to Africa and help in areas of drought – I might not have gone if this experience had not planted it in my head.”