OMMEL threw a half-drank bottle of Coke at the first kid who refused, catching him on the knuckles and sending him home in a dusty tumult of tears. He laughed into the boy’s tailwind and turned back to the group, his face a challenge. ‘So is anyone else too chickenshit to go through with it? You? You?’ Nobody admitted to being afraid.
The same kid’s father had accosted Rommel a few weeks previously, playing soccer on the council green; he said, ‘I’ll break your head if you ever get my young fella into trouble again, and I don’t care who your father is. Fucking stay away from my son.’ Rommel laughed while the other children got nervous; shrugging and turning from the guy, saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. The big man. Just keep talking.’ Rommel never showed anything but confidence and defiance. Everybody envied this.
He pointed to a broken spike in the school gate’s ironwork, pale and crumbling in its centre. ‘See that?’ he declared, the proud initiate of arcane knowledge, secrets from the adult world. ‘That’s where Jimmy Feeney drove a spike through his foot. Years ago. He was climbing the gate and he slipped. Right through the bones. They had to cut it with an electric saw.’ V got that languid, baffled look on his face and said, ‘They cut off his foot?’ Rommel slapped him on the head, a few times. ‘No, you stupid shit. The gate. They cut the gate.’
A dreary village in a dreary time, a bloodless hamlet off a secondary road. There wasn’t much to do on elongated summer evenings – too far from the sea, Dublin was another planet, and nobody went abroad back then. Or at least, those who went that far didn’t come back too often. Nothing to do but mess around with time: kill it, waste it, watch it, get fed up with it, wish it were later, tomorrow, next year. Impose your will on time.
Rommel had a game, learned from an American cousin recently visiting. It was all the rage over there. This was scary and seductive; it exerted a magnetic pull on the imagination. He gathered the group inside the school walls as day slid slowly into evening, shadows lengthening, a murky projection of the creepy old building, the sky a bleed of orange and purple. It had been a hot day.
Four remaining, and all had a nickname. Eleven- and twelve-year-olds, immersed in fantastical comic books and dreadful TV shows…you had to have a nickname. Codewords for the exclusion of others. One called herself Ace; she couldn’t remember why, but it sounded cool. Rommel’s handle was an homage to the Nazis. It seemed daring and anarchic at that age to profess admiration for something so taboo; swastikas on bags and Hitler moustaches on the pictures in textbooks. V was named for a trashy science fiction series, and Nettley after the alleged coach driver for Jack the Ripper. (Also taboo, also irresistibly appealing to callow minds.) He was the only one who hadn’t chosen his own moniker; it had been conferred, by his friends, to his displeasure.
‘Stand in a line. Here, up against the wall. C’mon, get a move on.’
Rommel arranged the other three, hands on their shoulders, a nervous, giddy line-up. He smiled, handsome and dangerous. He had strong features, violent-green eyes, set deep in his head. Girls would go crazy for Rommel when he was older. He said, ‘Stand straight. Heads up. Come on, heads up. Chest out. Take a deep breath.’
V looked sideways at Ace. He was scared, unsure of why exactly, and Ace was always more kind to him than the others. V was a strange kid: not exactly unintelligent, but almost moronically naïve and credulous. He lived in a chaotic home with kind-hearted but dysfunctional parents and three younger siblings, all of whom bullied him incessantly. But he was a nice fellow, sweet-natured, who dreamed of joining the airforce. Rommel teased him about this; he would say, ‘My first cousin got turned down for the airforce and got four Bs and two Cs in his Leaving, and is taller even than Ace, and looks like Patrick fucking Swayze. So why d’ya think if they turned him down they’re gonna accept a humpy four-eyed goon like you?’ V would shrug and nod, as if in agreement.
An old man passed on his bicycle, rising and falling with his exertions. His ears, seen close up, were almost translucent at the top; they glowed in the sunlight. Rommel glared at his passing. He turned back to his friends and stared casually at Nettley.
‘Right, Netters. You can be first.’
Nettley was very small, puny and slope-shouldered. He had the physique of a pensioner, seemed deficient in vital minerals. He grimaced; he glanced at the others, a silent plea, unwilling to voice his fears. Ace took a step forward.
‘I’ll go first. I want to go first.’
Rommel frowned, a little put out. Then he shrugged and said, ‘Alright. You first it is. Obviously not a chickenshit like Nettley there.’
Ace said, ‘Leave him alone. Just do it.’
Rommel moved her shoulders back, her thin girl’s chest pushed forward. He stared at her and Ace met his stare. Rommel said, ‘Look at me. You have to concentrate or it won’t work. Focus on my eyes. Okay…take a big breath and hold it.’
She inhaled, smoothly and deeply, her lips pursed. She kept her eyes on his. Rommel whispered, ‘Breathe out…now’, and punched her hard on the chest a moment later. Ace reeled, bending over, her arm reaching for the wall to steady herself. A vortex in her head, tightness in the lungs. Points of the spectrum danced behind her eyes. She was aware that she was crouching; one knee on the ground, the other pointed forward at an angle. All sound had dimmed to a tinny return of a distant echo. She didn’t feel Rommel’s hand on her arm, struggling to lift her. Ace settled into a seated position, instinct moving the requisite parts of the body. She slumped like a discarded marionette and gazed at the middle-distance. Her mind felt unfocused, at a sickly remove from things around her. She closed her eyes and eventually came around.
‘…shit. That worked. It actually worked.’
V and Nettley sat next to her, the same disconcerted glaze on their eyes, the same paleness of the skin. She looked up at Rommel: he smiled, triumphant.
‘You were out for a few minutes at least. Fucking hell. I didn’t think that would work at all. You know, a kid died doing that in the States. My cousin told me.’
Ace said, quietly, ‘Your cousin…what?’
‘Frankie. He told me a kid died doing that. A classmate of his. Loss of air to the brain or something. Ha ha. You guys are some dumb bastards.’
Ace looked at the other two, resurfacing, Nettley shaking his head like a dog after a swim, V darting glances around him. He looked confused; he started to cry, his pudgy hands balled into his face. Ace put her arm around his shoulders; she said to Rommel, ‘Did you do it?’
He replied, ‘How could I do it? I’d nobody to hit me. You three were all…’ He whistled and spun his finger in the air.
Ace stood, a little unsteady. She breathed deeply and felt herself return to ground. It was noticeably darker; she wondered how long she had been out. The long evening had almost run its course and night was lurking around the borders now.
‘You had nobody to hit you. Of course.’
Rommel smiled, wolfish, very composed. He pulled a half-smoked cigarette from a shirt pocket and lit it. ‘Hey, if you can’t handle it, then fuck off out of the gang. Shouldn’t be any girls allowed anyway. Right, lads?’
V was still crying; he refused to look up. Nettley stood and dragged his friend from the dusty concrete, little fists kneading his eyes. Nettley swallowed and said, ‘I have to go home. My mam will have my tea ready.’ V murmured, ‘I’ll go with you.’ They tottered to the gate, around onto the pavement. Their heads disappeared as the wall swallowed them from view. Ace looked back at Rommel. He was still grinning, but turned away from her gaze. He laughed, sourly.
‘What? What are you so riled up about? I didn’t force you to do anything.’
Ace laughed herself. She nodded and said, ‘Right. Sure.’ She brushed grit from the seat of her pants and hoisted herself up onto the wall. Ace dropped gently to the other side. She wiped a drying smear of saliva from the side of her chin and began walking home. Rommel stood in the schoolyard, smoke rising from the cigarette butt, as shadows oozed forward, the fingers of night.