In Winter the teachers stop patrolling the school grounds. They stand in huddles, hands wrapped around steaming mugs, finding relief in the alcove out of the wind tunnel. Every now and then one will do a lap of the oval, admonishing rough play or hatless kids. They walk head down, with purpose, then retreat to the cosy calm of the windless nook.
Us kids roam free, whacking sticks and slinging mud.
I am mean. I feel tough. I like saying nasty words to people. Words that cut and slice. Sometimes I don’t even know what they mean, I just like the sound of them. I like how they feel. My second favourite trick is kicking shins. I run in fast, then back away even faster so I don’t get a sock in retaliation. I relish the thrill of my foot making contact with small bones. Fear and respect are similar when you’re nine years old. They smell the same.
On Friday the wind is biting and the clouds are thick with purple anger. It’s freezing. The teachers don’t even bother to perform the perfunctory admonishments to those of us without headgear. We are cold and bored, listlessly wandering. A year six boy asks if anyone wants to play dodgeball. My hand shoots into the air. Me! I do! A group of us cluster around him.
No rules. No out of bounds. Just don’t get hit.
We all start at the edge of the oval. The year six boy stands behind us, throwing the ball between his hands, threatening. We have a 10 second head start.
A rhythmic pounding fills my head, the cold air biting my lungs as I puff out steam clouds. My feet crush plants and ants, scrambling over sandstone and dead gum leaves. Our school backs onto a national park, bush land for kilometres. I can see flashes of colour through the trees; a red hat, blue jumper. Evidence of those not as good as me. Shouts of anguish when people get hit echo in the trees; but I don’t falter, I run until I find an embankment I can hide behind. I crouch, peeking over the edge to see if anyone is on my trail. My view is clear, so I fist pump and think I am awesome.
But waiting brings boredom, and boredom brings anticipation and then anticipation brings fear. What if they find me? I don’t want to loose. I have to prove I’m better than the others. Just as I think I’ll start to move, start to become the hunter I hear a crunch. Crack. A silent whisper. I peek and see the pack moving towards me, formation stretching to accommodate the trees.
I leap to my feet and pelt through the bush. Shouts and cries follow my trail. A ball whizzes past my head. ‘Get her!’ they cry. My lungs feel tight with the cold air, but I don’t stop running. I run and I run and I run.
A stinging pain hits my left cheek, waves of hurt rolling through my head, bone deep from the cold.
Cheers erupt, we did it! Woohoo! But I am anger. How dare they gang up on me. I hate them. So I call a boy a name, and then I laugh at him. Someone chuckles, bolstering my confidence. I call another name, and then others begin to join in. Soon the pack is jeering and chanting at the boy. I feel proud, look at what I’ve done! His eyes look frightened but he doesn’t retaliate. He’s not like me.
Someone pushes him. He falls, twigs breaking at the impact. Tensions hangs in the air, as thick as eucalyptus. We are dogs, waiting to be let off the leash. Spittle flying, teeth gnashing. The damn breaks and we converge. Thumps of flesh on flesh echo deep into the bush. The boy curls into a ball, but we don’t stop. I kick him, but am pushed out of the way by bigger kids.
My hands are shaking and fear rumbles in my belly. Is this what I wanted?
I don’t know. So I move in closer kick him again, to be sure.