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One day there were seven pairs of underpants. They were not ordinary. They were evil.

At least that was the impression Gary wanted to give to anyone who dared venture near our den. He said any of the boys from the other gang would be terrified at seeing one pair of pants nailed to a tree, let alone seven. ‘They would be shit scared’, he said at our meeting. ‘The Wileys will wonder what happened to the kids who wore the pants and steer clear.’ The Wileys were the kids from the other estate, the Wiles Estate, which backed onto the woods. We were the Conneys, kids from the Conroy Estate and proud of it. Our estate also bordered their woods, which made them disputed territory.

The pants were ours of course. They didn’t belong to wedgied Wileys who dared trespass in our territory. Each of us gave a pair of our pants as a pledge to the gang and accepted the consequences from our mothers if they found out. It was better than doing the blood brothers thing. I’d seen Paul’s rusty hunting knife. You did NOT want to cut your finger on that thing. Gary borrowed a hammer from his mother and nailed the pants to the tree trunk. He was also the only one who knew really rude words so he used a marker pen to write a letter on each pair and spelt, ‘f-u-c-k-o-f-f’. When he had finished, the rest of us gathered at the tree, commando-style, and admired his work. I was thinking how scary it would be for any Wiley to come across such a warning. I also quite liked the feeling of not wearing underpants.

Our secret den was hidden in the depths of the woods, surrounded by impenetrable clumps of brambles that snatched at our clothes and pricked our fingers when we tried to take the blackberries. It had been built over a considerable time once the expeditionary force, also known as Gary and Paul, had discovered the ideal location. 

To find it you had to go under the sagging bough of an ivy-choked tree to which the pants were affixed, through a gap in a bramble bush, then dance on stepping-stones along a shallow stream for about twenty yards. Only then would you see a small, mossy clearing and the shelter made from saplings cut down using Paul’s Swiss Army Knife and old corrugated plastic sheets dragged there from a tip. We also had a blindfold made from Gary’s mum’s top tied to a branch in case we captured a Wiley and had to bring him back for interrogation.

The den was where we kept our weapons, stored provisions and plotted ways to get the Wileys. We built traps in the woods like pits covered by twigs and leaves with dog shit in them. Tim provided the dog shit as he had a dog. Some of the stepping-stones in the stream were booby-trapped, flat stones balanced on smaller ones that would collapse if trodden on and soak a Wiley foot. We also made trip wires from nylon fishing line attached to empty cans to warn us of intruders.

Each of us had a job in the gang. Gary said we were like the Magnificent Seven. As well as knowing more rude and swear words than anyone else, Gary was the eldest and bravest, and therefore a natural leader. His dad was in the army and according to Gary had shot and killed three men. He passed on all his unarmed combat skills to his sons, which was just as well as Gary’s elder brother, Clyde was in prison. We all knew that when it came to the battle, we would all be right behind Gary, in descending order of age. Physically strong, he also had a scar across his chin that he said came from a bar fight, but I found that a bit hard to believe. For a start Gary was only fourteen, but his sister told us he did it falling off his bike. Gary buried a large biscuit tin in the centre of the den and made us swear that we would not open it unless the Wileys got him. He told us that it contained the gang’s top secrets and the name of his successor in the event of his death. Robbie said he saw it one day and it just had cigarettes and nudie magazines in it

Gary gave us all jobs according to our strengths. Paul was in charge of equipment and traps, including dog shit, clearly. Tim was in charge of weapons as he could make good catapults and not so good bows and arrows. Paul’s knife was probably our best weapon when he let us borrow it. Ian was our camouflage and construction expert. He got this role because one day it took us an hour to find him in the woods, but we never knew if he was hiding or just lost. Nevertheless, he made sure our den was well hidden and impervious to eavesdroppers and enemy artillery like stones and arrows. Mike was our quartermaster, responsible for provisions because his parents owned a convenience store and we weren’t bothered about sell-by dates. Robbie was our medic because he went to St. John’s ambulance training and got a certificate. In the event of a Wiley invasion he was going to be pretty busy, but until then he bandaged knees and dabbed grazes with TCP when we came off our bikes jumping over poorly-constructed ramps. As I went to school regularly, helped the others with their homework and was the youngest, Gary made me the Intelligence officer. I could also climb trees and had a pair of plastic binoculars. Paul taught me to owl hoot so I could give advance warning of invasion. While it was pretty obvious Paul was Gary’s deputy, our leader had time for all of us. He once gave me a chalk stripe on my shirt for getting a ‘B’ for his maths assignment and told me I would be famous one day. 

Throughout the time we were in the gang, we never saw a Wiley. Gary said this was the power of the deterrent. The warning provided by our display of pants, the smell of fear and the probability of traps kept them away, he said, although Paul pointed out that the demolition of several Wiles estate tower blocks probably had something to do with it. A few of our pit traps got triggered, but they were by angry old men walking their dogs. We learned a few new rude words from them as they scraped the dog shit off their boots. 

We would spend hours in the woods, checking traps, sitting around the fire we never lit in case it revealed our position, going out on patrol and doing dares. Some of their dares were stupid, such as drinking from the stream, but others risky, like trying to steal dog or cat collars. Robbie said that in the event of an animal bite he couldn’t administer tetanus on the basis of his training and certification. 

The gang just fell apart one summer, disintegrating like the warning sign made of pants . Ian’s family emigrated to Australia and took him with them. Mike’s parents made him work in their shop even though he was under age and didn’t get paid. Robbie got a girlfriend and on the few occasions I managed to make myself scarce from the house and steal myself away to the woods, no-one was in the den. I tried the bows and arrows but they were terrible. The stepping stone traps had been sprung but nothing but neglect had invaded the den. The warning sign now just spelled ‘f-c-f-f’, which wouldn’t scare anyone. I never saw Gary again. His sister told me outside the chip shop a year after the gang split that her brother was helping the police with their enquiries. That was Gary all over, being helpful.

Nearly thirty years later I found myself back in the woods. I was driving along a familiar route in a now unfamiliar town to see a client and saw the old bus stop that used to mark the entrance to the woods, our Conney door in the hedgerow. I parked up and squeezed through the hawthorn bush that used to play havoc with my hairless, pale legs, stepping around the discarded beer cans and fast food wrappers before finding a path. In the intervening years, the woods had shrunk considerably in size and the brown wooden fences that announced the rear boundaries of newly-built houses could be seen on all sides. When I used to climb the trees and scout with my binoculars, the woods seemed to go on for ever. The lack of a canopy made the area much lighter and the musty smell of rotten wood and fungi had been replaced by the lingering aroma of spent barbecues and bus fumes. The few remaining bramble bushes had long since given up their fruitful bounty and were waiting their turn to be uprooted. 

Our stream had been swallowed by a concrete manhole cover and its former path was nothing more than a leaf-filled scratch in the terrain. I strolled along the dry bed, kicking the autumn debris with my toes until I reached a familiar sight. The tree that once guarded Hades was decayed and hollow, choked to death by the ivy that had also retreated in mutually assured destruction. My black leather shoe played with the ground like the nose of a truffle-hunting pig until it turned up a piece of rotting blue fabric. I bent down to inspect the garment and used a twig to turn it over. I could just about make out the letter ‘K’ in faded ink. Gary’s. There were no more pants in the leafy debris. Maybe the Wileys finally took the den and plundered everything. A distant bark made me look up from my crouched position. An old man walking his Labrador. Some things had not changed. The dog trotted up and shoved its wet, warm nose in my hand. It looked at me, knowingly, before cocking its leg on the rotting hulk of the warning tree and wandering back to its owner.

I could have turned away and gone back to my car, but curiosity got the better of me and I walked further along the dry bed, tracking the old route to the den and kicking up flat stones until I reached a patch of moss-like grass peppered by corrugated plastic shards. The end of my leather shoe, soiled by leaf mould, probed again, scuffing tufts of turf aside like a rugby place kicker. Not efficient enough. I crouched down and found a piece of flint, almost certainly one of Tim’s, and scratched deeper into the ground. A hollow sound excited me, forcing me to get down on my hands and knees, the dampness seeping into the knees of my new suit trousers. I scalped the topsoil, revealing a faded red plastic lid of a biscuit box, the Royal Collection. I ground out the perimeter using the flint and pulled at the decaying sellotape used to seal the container, scattering a few earwigs. The lid lifted with some resistance, seemingly unwilling to give up its treasure.

Robbie was mostly right. The musty smell of an opened packet of Players No. 6 cigarettes distracted me momentarily from the well-thumbed copy of Penthouse that rippled and bowed against the sides of the box. I had no desire to inspect it. Robbie also told me how he once saw Gary enjoying the magazine in a particular way. The only other object in the box was a faded blue envelope stacked vertically against the side. The adhesive gum had long since failed and the folded piece of paper was easy to extract. The words made me cry. There were no gang secrets written on it, just the name of Gary’s successor, mine.


 



 

February 20, 2020 07:04

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Pamela Saunders
18:51 Feb 23, 2020

I loved the funny details of how the teenage boys were thinking, and the ending was a sweet surprise, after the sad nostalgia from the grown man.

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