The boy saw everything from his cosy den inside the hedge. He'd found it months ago not far from his own street. He liked to sit there out of sight. School meant taunting, bullying, a gang of boys who were relentless, violent.
"Your mother would sleep with anybody. She's a tart. Does she do it for money?"
"Don't be stupid. His mother's too ugly!"
"She probably has to pay the men!"
This was followed by lots of rude looking gestures and pointing.
The taunting would be followed by lots of laughing, pushing and shoving between the bullies. Then they would nominate one of the group to beat him up on that particular day, Steve, Pete, Dan, Eddie or Jack. Even though they were in his class they were all much bigger than him.
Punches to the stomach, fingers bent back, kicks to the legs, feet stamped on. Each boy would try to outdo the last. As one bruise healed another took its place. All this going on in the playground under the nose of whichever teacher was on supervision. This made the boy angry. The teacher, any teacher should have put a stop to the bullying, to the beatings, but none of them ever noticed what was going on, as they spent their playground time on their mobile phones.
He would never have thought of his own house as a palace but at least it was clean and looked on the verge of being okay from the outside, but not even the neighbours knew what really went on inside.
He didn't want to be there either as the violence followed him home. What did he do to make children behave like that around him? He didn't know. His siblings made fun of him, but it had been like that for all of his thirteen years on this earth. His twin brothers, Micky and Davy, were fifteen so home was worse than school. They would trip him up or push him into doors, laugh at him or call him names.
His mother would always try to stop them.
"Can we have one day in this house when you are not both swearing at your brother? Wash your mouths out with soap! He doesn't deserve it. If the pair of you were younger I'd put you over my knee."
They just laughed at her but the boy still loved her for trying. His mother was brave to try to stop the twins. In return she'd had black eyes, bruises on the arms, even kicks in the stomach.
His father was long gone. He'd moved in with a woman in the next street. His mother explained that he had another two brothers but if they were like the ones he already had he didn't want to know them. He felt sorry for his mother and on her behalf he looked forward to the day when Micky and Davy left home. They were already known to the police for petty theft. He wasn't sure exactly what that was but if it got them locked up, he would be the one laughing.
He loved his mother with all his heart but home wasn't somewhere he really wanted to be unless alone. His truancy began as a way of avoiding the bullies at school and he thought if the house was empty then he could avoid the bullies at home too, but the school wasn't going to allow him to miss classes. They wanted his mother to make him go to school but she had to find him first so he would walk the streets at all hours, looking for food and shelter.
It had been Spring when he found the den in the hedge and he couldn't believe his luck. He brought some things from home to make it feel like his. Some blankets and a pillow to make a bed, some quiet toys to play with, and his colouring books. He even stole his brother Davy's watch and Micky's binoculars.
Looking out from the den he thought this hedge must belong to the worst house around here and it wasn't a very nice neighbourhood. The house was falling to pieces. It hadn't been fixed up for so long that pieces of wood were falling off the window panes leaving gaps that must have made the house freezing cold in Winter. There were slates missing off the roof that had smashed on the ground and the hedge that he was sitting in looked as if it hadn't been trimmed for years but he was glad as then he wouldn't have his den.
Everything here was filthy, paths unswept, the windows grimy, and although there were curtains they looked as though the act of pulling them across the windows would make them dissolve into dust. The front garden wasn't really a garden at all. Any plants or flowers that had been there had long since died or shriveled up like paper. Knee high grass was strewn with rubbish, as if it had been used as a general tip. There were probably rats scavenging close by, but the boy wasn't afraid. The den was still his favourite place.
He spent most of his time there, day and night, only going home for a wash or food when he knew the house would be empty and he couldn't scrounge something edible from a bin. He was always careful to check that he wasn't being followed back to the den. He missed his mother though.
The boy saw everything from his hidey-hole, the comings and goings of the many men who visited the house day and night. Some he only saw once but there were lots who were regular visitors. He thought the woman who lived there must be very popular to have lots of friends, though it was strange that no women ever visited. He knew it was a woman who lived there as he saw her whenever she opened the front door. She always seemed to be wearing very short see-through clothes.
Spring moved on into a hot Summer when he was sheltered, both from the school holiday bullies and from the worst of the heat as the hedge was very cool inside. The lack of trimming made it thicker. The extra leaves also blocked up all the drafts. This was a bonus as Summer turned into Autumn and Autumn into early Winter.
He hadn't been home for months other than to scrounge for food and he always made sure he wasn't seen. He wondered if his mum had reported him missing to the police. He felt sorry for hurting her but this was the only way he could avoid the things that had been happening to him nearly all his life. He was sure he hadn't been born to be a punching bag and life was so much nicer without the pain from the beatings.
There were still lots of visitors to the house. Some came for a while, some new ones arrived but there were still the old favourites. One particular man stood out as he was there nearly every night, always at around 11.30pm. The boy was proud of being able to tell the time.
He witnessed not only the men arriving, but all that he could see through the grimy windows. With the curtains always open late at night and the house lights on, he could see even more. That night the woman, wearing hardly any clothes as usual, opened the door to her most regular visitor with a fag stuck to her bottom lip. She always wore bright red lipstick. It made him think of his colouring books. He was far better at colouring between the lines than she was, as the lipstick wasn't just on her lips. The man was very tall with lots of big, chunky rings and spiky, ginger hair. He wore just checked shirts in all weathers, so he can't have felt the cold. He had lots of muscles. Maybe that was why.
None of the men ever brought flowers or gifts but the new ones always said exactly the same words. "How much love?" before going inside. Then the woman and her visitor went upstairs. The boy knew the drill, though not what it meant. Clothes flying past the filthy bedroom window. He was too naive to know what the woman was but that night he understood the door being flung open angrily. That meant the man in the checked shirt was not in such a good mood as when he'd arrived. He was fully dressed again, his hand holding a knife dripping blood.
The boy felt as if he couldn't breathe, dare not breathe in case he was spotted. He'd never seen a real bloody knife before and it was terrifying. The man seemed to be running towards him. The boy's breath grew even more shallow and beneath the cover of the hedge his face was very pale. He never saw where the man went as he blacked out in fear.
When he woke he saw sirens, lots of sirens, then he saw a covered stretcher being brought out. He'd seen enough cop shows as a truant to know what that meant.
His hiding place wasn't discovered. He was a clever, if immature, child for his age, but he didn't crawl out to tell the police what he'd seen. He would have made the perfect witness, but he had been both deaf and mute from birth.