Jess scraped her feet along the pockmarked tarmac. It felt wrong to be cooped up indoors, in this rare September sunshine. Reluctant to think about the future of her teaching job, she focused on the day ahead. Maybe she’d take the children onto the beach, dress it up as a lesson on seaside flora and fauna. She rolled vague memories of beach creatures around in her mind, knowing she didn’t have enough to entertain them for as long as she’d like to be outside.
As she passed the allotments and reached the halfway point on the Parade, she heard a scream from behind the houses to her left. She froze then slowly turned, her glance scanning for signs of movement, signs of children playing.
Then, her heart stopped. There it was again. Unmistakable. A child’s scream.
She dropped her bag of books and sprinted between the houses, reaching the dilapidated playground in seconds. Two girls – Asha and Soria, sisters from the school –stood on the grass beyond the wooden climbing frame. Their mouths hung open. On top of the climbing frame, their backs to Jess, were two figures she didn’t recognise. Too tall and broad to be pupils in her class yet not grown men. They both wore grey hoodies. Stretched taut between their grips, a bed sheet.
“Oi! You two,” she shouted. “Get down from there. That climbing frame is for children under ten.”
They swivelled towards her, tangling themselves up in the sheet. Their pale faces , partially obscured by their hoods, weren’t ones she recognised. When they managed to unfurl their sheet and she read the text daubed across it, she knew.
Go Home Skum.
She sighed. Idiots. She approached the climbing frame and the two girls made a dash for her. Their small hands clutched at her trousers.
“Get down now, please. There’s no need to frighten these poor girls, is there?”
“Nah, nah!” one of them called, his voice a parody of her own. “Poor little girls. Children under ten. Eff off home, you parasites!”
She bent to the girls. Their houses were behind her; they wouldn’t have to risk passing the boys to get to safety.
“Run home, girls. Stay inside until I come and fetch you for school.”
Asha nodded and grabbed her sister’s hand, dragging her as she ran. Saria looked back as they rounded the first house, curiosity beating fear.
Jess turned to the climbing frame. There was a movement to one side of her. She’d been joined by three village council members. Colin, the rule-abiding council secretary, her brother’s best friend Sanjeev, and her own ally Toni. They moved to position themselves on the other side of the frame.
The boys were surrounded.
“Where’s Ben?” Jess called to Sanjeev.
“Right here.” Ben appeared next to her, eyeing the boys. Toni shot Jess a worried smile.
“Tell me what to do,” Jess muttered, her hands trembling. She didn’t need this on her first day as Steward.
“It’s ok,” Ben replied through gritted teeth. “I’ll sort it.”
He approached the climbing frame. She reached out to put a hand on his arm.
“No. It’s my job now.”
He turned to her, his eyes flashing. “You don’t know what you’re doing, sis. Should have thought of that last night.”
She blushed and followed him. As they neared the climbing frame, the villagers spread out, forming a loose ring.
“Hello there!” Ben called up, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the sun. “And what brings you fine fellows here today?”
The boys fidgeted in their eyrie. One of them nudged the other who leaned towards Ben, his face twisted.
“Fuck off back home! We don’t want you here!”
Ben sighed. “Oh dear. You boys aren’t very clever, are you?”
The boys exchanged nervous glances. The one who had spoken – the taller of the two – answered in a low growl.
“What do you mean? We’re plenty clever enough. Cleverer than you, anyway!” He pointed at Sanjeev. “Cleverer than that Paki.”
Sanjeev stiffened. Ben looked at him; he shook his head. Ben smiled at the boys and cast his arms out wide. “Well, you seem to think you’ve got some sort of safe vantage point up there, on your climbing frame for little kiddies.”
The boys stumbled backwards; the smaller one had to grab the other’s hoody to avoid tumbling off. “Yeah!” his companion shouted. “You can’t get us up here! Too big for this climbing frame, aren’t you?”
Ben smiled. “Ok, gentlemen, you have a point. But in case you haven’t noticed, my friend over there–” he nodded towards Colin, who had come to stand next to Jess “–has taken a photo of you. Plus, you’re surrounded. But we don’t mean you any harm. We just want you to go away and leave those poor girls alone. The girls you so bravely scared off.”
The boys shifted, drawing closer together. They said nothing. Ben continued.
“Now, you see, if you can just come down quietly and be on your way, we won’t hold it against you. In fact we’ll let you go and we can all carry on with our day. Yes, everyone?”
There were nods and grunts of assent. Sanjeev and Colin drew apart to make a space for the boys to pass through. Jess stepped towards her brother.
“Come down now, boys,” she said. The tall one looked at her and gave a hoarse laugh. She felt her face grow hot.
Ben turned to her.
“Let me handle this, eh? You’ve done enough damage already.”
She clenched her fists. “No, Ben. I’m the Steward now, not you. This is my job. I appreciate your help, but I think you should go. I can talk them down from here.”
He glared at her. For a moment she thought he was going to hit her, something he hadn’t done since his teenage years. Finally, he shrugged.
“Have it your way,” he said. “But don’t come running to me if they hurt someone.”
“I won’t,” she said, fighting the tremor in her voice.
He turned away from her, glancing at Sanjeev. He walked through the crowd that had gathered towards the village centre and the house he shared with Ruth and the boys. As he disappeared beyond the first house she felt the anxiety flow out of her body.
Sanjeev looked from Ben to Jess. “Mind if I go after him?”
She nodded and looked back at the others. Colin and Toni were focused on the boys, while the other villagers exchanged puzzled looks. The boys grinned at her.
“Come on then, bitch!” the tall one called. “Get us down if you can.” His friend snorted.
“We’ve still got you surrounded,” she said, approaching the climbing frame. “And there are more of us. You’ll be safer if you get down and leave quickly. So if you can just come down – oh, and hand over that sheet – we’ll let you pass and there’ll be no trouble. But if you don’t, if you carry on bothering our children, we’ll have no choice but to take that photo to the police.” She nodded at Colin, who was holding up his phone. “And to post it through some doors on your estate. You are from the estate just outside Filey, aren’t you?”
One of the boys nodded and the other gave him a sharp prod in the ribs. “Fuckwit,” he hissed.
Colin coughed. “Come on down now, sons. I’m going to make some space and you can leave us alone.”
“Ha! You shouldn’t be here, what kind of an accent is that?”
Colin’s nostrils flared. “Essex. And it’s you who shouldn’t be here. We don’t want any trouble. Now come on, lads.”
The boys looked from each other to the villagers. The smaller one had developed a twitch in his leg. People were staring out now from the surrounding houses. Pale figures, clutching frightened children and waiting for Jess to rid them of these invaders.
Colin moved further away from Toni and gestured with his hand. Jess backed away, her eyes on the boys. Slowly, the boys scrambled down off the frame and then darted through the space, pulling their arms in tight. They raced towards the village’s northern edge.
Jess motioned to Toni and she set off in a slow jog, to check that they’d gone and weren’t hiding somewhere. Jess’s heart pounded in her ears as she waited for her to return. The silent figures watching from their houses didn’t move, but the people around the climbing frame started to gather, muttering, some exchanging hugs.
“They’ve gone,” she panted. “Ran off across the fields.”
Jess turned back towards the community hall, remembering her dropped bag of books. She passed through the dispersing villagers, offering reassurances.
As she waved to a family huddled behind the window closest to her, she heard a woman’s scream.
“Help! Someone, help me, Quickly!”
* * *
Ben marched away, anger stirring in his stomach. How dare she talk to me like that?
Clenching his fists by his sides and lowering his face to avoid the stares, he rounded the first house and paused to gather his breath.
“Ben? Everything ok?”
He turned to see Sanjeev running up behind him, his face red. He frowned; he didn’t need babysitting.
Sanjeev stopped and bent over, his fists balled on his thighs. Finally he stood up and pulled back his shoulders. “It’s not her fault, you know.”
Ben grunted. Sanjeev owed Ben his life and would never turn his back on him, but last night had felt like something close to it.
“You didn’t exactly stop her.”
Sanjeev pursed his lips. “There wasn’t anything to stop.”
Ben squared his shoulders. How could he not see? His own sister, betraying him like that.
“You should have supported me. You said you’d support me.”
“I did. But then when Colin said about the-”
“Yeah, whatever. Just leave me be, ok?”
Sanjeev looked at him for a few moments then shrugged and turned away. Ben leaned on the wall of the house he’d been standing next to. He was tired.
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. A man was inside, calling to him through the glass. Wanting to know what was going on, no doubt.
He pulled on a smile. “Don’t worry. It’s all under control.”
The man – who was he? Ben prided himself on knowing everyone’s name but the memory had left him today – raised his arms in a question. Ben waved a hand dismissively.
Fuck off, alright, he thought. He heaved his weight off the wall and continued walking into the village.
He picked up his pace, heading for the Parade. How was he going to fill the day? Going home to Ruth was obvious, but then what? It wasn’t just his job Jess had stolen. His sense of purpose had left him, too.
He was soon on the main road, striding towards the village square. His house wasn’t far from the square, backing onto the sea. People would wonder why he wasn’t at the playground. But his front door was in view now. Sanctuary.
A scream rang out and he jerked his head backwards. He squinted, eyes scanning the blank houses. In the silence left behind the scream, all he could hear was the distant hum of the sea and his own shallow breathing.
There it was again. Another scream and a muffled voice. He broke out into a run, glad of something – finally! – to do.
“Ruth love, we need your help.” The surgery door burst open and Ben staggered in, carrying a boy covered in blood. Jess followed with Colin Barker and Toni Stewart.
Ruth dropped the medicine she’d been sorting as the panicked group crowded in. Ben was panting, sweat beading his forehead. The boy in his arms looked about eight years old and he was bleeding from a head wound. Toni was muttering to him and trying to catch his hand. Jess looked pale. Ruth cleared the medicine boxes from the table, placing her precious hoard on the floor. It had taken two months of planning to get her hands on this, to arrange last week’s black market trip to Scarborough. She didn’t like leaving it out in the open.
“Put him on the table,” she told her husband. “Jess, can you get me a towel?” Jess grabbed two towels from a high shelf and tucked one under the boy’s head as Ben laid him on the table. She handed the other one to Ruth.
Ruth gave the boy her warmest smile. “I’m Ruth. What’s your name?”
“Rory.” His voice was faint.
“He’s my nephew. Susan’s youngest.” Toni was standing behind him, her hand cradling his. The boy continued to stare at Ruth.
The door opened again and a woman shoved her way in, nearly knocking Jess over.
“Hey, my little man, what’s happened?” she wailed, kneeling at his side. He wiped his eyes and nodded at her.
“We’re not sure, Susan,” said Toni. “Ruth’s just checking him over.”
Susan stood up and twisted a finger into Toni’s shoulder. “Ok. You can go now.” Her voice was hard.
Toni looked at her sister for a moment then headed for the door, shrugging at Jess as she squeezed past her.
Ruth looked at Jess. She hadn’t seen her since last night’s council meeting but knew what had happened. There were accusations swirling around her head, but now wasn’t the time.
The boy blinked up at her. There was a gash above his eyebrow, bleeding into his eye. It was long and dotted with splinters but, she hoped, not deep. Susan knelt again and muttered into his ear. A smile flicked onto his lips and his breathing calmed. Ruth grabbed bandages, tweezers, cotton wool and disinfectant. She turned back to the table, pulling in a deep breath.
“Right,” she said to the boy, her voice brighter than she felt. “You look as if you’ve been in the wars. I’ve got something special here I can use to clean you up, and then we’ll take a look at what’s happened to you.”
She paused, cocking her head and smiling at him. “Ok?”
The boy nodded. Tears were mixing with the blood, making it look even worse.
“Now, it’s going to sting a bit, but you can be a brave boy, can’t you?”
The boy screwed up his eyes. His mother put her hands over his and made shushing sounds. She looked up at Ruth, her eyes wide.
“Can you hold him still for me please?” Ruth asked. “Hold his head? I don’t want to get this in his eyes.”
Susan stifled a sniff and moved her hands to her son’s head.
Ruth opened the disinfectant bottle and held a piece of cotton wool to it. She looked up to see the band of onlookers watching in blinking silence.
“You don’t all need to be here. Can everyone except his mum leave us, please?”
Ben threw a look at Jess, a look that said impostor. Jess was too busy watching the boy to notice. “Let me know if you need anything,” she told Ruth.
Ruth grunted, not ready to acknowledge Jess’s authority just yet. She looked at Ben. This would be hard for him.
Ben offered a thin smile in return and followed Jess outside. The bell over the door rang as it clapped shut. Colin followed, casting a meaningful look back at Ruth as he left. Ruth wondered why so many of them had come along with the boy.
She took a deep breath and surveyed the wound. She could hear the clock ticking on the wall above the door.
She dabbed at his brow with the disinfectant, feeling him tense beneath her touch. His mother held him still. Ruth eased out the splinters, examining them before dropping them into a metal bowl. Soon his forehead was clear except for the red line of the cut. She turned back to her medicine drawers and found a plaster which she smoothed onto it. The plaster had cartoon pictures of cats, designed to cheer the spirits of children who’d suffered bumps and grazes.
This was more than a bump through. Around the cut, his flesh was starting to swell and darken. And there were those splinters.
Rory’s eyes were fluttering open. Ruth smiled.
“That’s better. Now, d’you think you can sit up for me, please?”
The boy let his mother pull him up to a sitting position, skinny legs dangling over the edge of the table in his oversized blue shorts.
She grabbed a cloth and ran it under the tap. She handed it to Susan, who held it to her son’s head.
“Is it bad?” Susan asked. Her voice had lost its panic.
Ruth shook her head. “I don’t think so. There were some splinters but I got them out. The disinfectant will have cleaned it up so it won’t get infected. But he’s had a nasty bump to the head, so you’ll need to keep a close eye on him. Have someone sleep with him.”
Susan nodded, her lips tight. “You don’t think it’ll get infected?”
Ruth felt her face tighten. “No. We’ll need to keep an eye on it, though.”
“Have you got anything, if it does? Antibiotics?”
She shook her head. “Sorry. They probably wouldn’t work, anyway. Not anymore.”
Ruth remembered how blithely she’d handed packs of antibiotics to clients in her days as a veterinary nurse. How they’d shovelled them into pets with the slightest risk of infection; dogs with tooth decay, cats with flea infestations, even a rabbit that had been bitten by a squirrel. How she’d struggled to get them on the black market on the journey here, after Ben’s mother Sonia had taken ill. Now so many of those medicines she’d taken for granted were lost. If supplies hadn’t been wiped out by the floods and their aftermath, they’d been defeated by the bacteria, reproducing at breakneck speed and acquiring resistance to drugs that had once been life savers.
“Now, Rory,” she said, forcing breeziness into her voice. “Let’s go into the shop and see if we can find you something that will help make it better.”
“Thank you.” Rory’s voice was pale and reedy. He slid down from the table under his mother’s guiding hand and stood on the hard floor, swaying.
“Ready?” asked Ruth. He nodded and she led them out of the tiny pharmacy that now served as village surgery, into the village shop that fronted it. Pam Heston was in there, tallying ration sheets. She looked up at Ruth.
“Everything ok? We had quite a crowd trailing through here.”
This shop, in turn, was Pam’s dominion. She guarded it jealously, knowing how important it was to maintain control of stock, to ensure everyone got their allocation and nothing more.
Ruth gave Rory’s head a tousle. “All fine, thanks Pam. Sorry about the crowd. Rory here cut his head and they were helping out.”
Pam grunted. Ruth decided to ignore it.
“But Rory’s going to be back here tomorrow, with his mum, so I can check him out. Meanwhile could he have a lollipop? From my rations?”
Pam raised an eyebrow. “Sean and Ollie won’t be happy.”
“Sean and Ollie will never know. But Rory has been a brave boy and deserves a reward.”
“Hmmpf.” Pam stooped under the counter, placing a hand on her back. She scraped a box across the floor and took out a lollipop, handing it to Ruth, not Rory. Pam disapproved of people sharing their rations. But she wouldn’t want to anger the woman she still believed to be the wife of the Steward.
“Thanks, Pam,” Ruth said, handing the lollipop to Rory. “There you are. A reward for a brave little soldier. Now you can go outside with your mum.”
* * *
A crowd had gathered in the village square. A red-faced man pushed his way towards Jess as she emerged from the shop with Ben and Colin. Michael Walker, Rory’s father.
“What’s happened to my boy? Where is he?”
Ben stepped forward, but Jess slipped past him and raised a palm. “He’s going to be fine, Mike. Ruth’s taking good care and his mum is with him. He’s had a cut on the head but Ruth can clean him up.”
The man paled. He looked from Jess to Ben and back again. “What? How the hell?” He lowered his voice. “Is it infected?”
“Like I said, Ruth will clean it up. I don’t think there’s a risk of that.” She looked around the crowd before turning back to Michael. “Please, let’s not panic. You’ll see him very soon, once Ruth’s finished.”
“What happened to him?” A voice from the back of the crowd. Jess shrugged.
“Ben found him between his house and the playground. He was lying on the ground. I didn’t see what happened.”
There was a hush while people waited for Ben to speak. He nodded but stayed silent.
“I saw!” A woman pushed forward. “It was those thugs. From Filey. What are you going to do about them?”
The woman’s face was twisted and she jabbed at the air with a finger. Jess tensed. Next to her, Ben was drawing patterns in the dirt with his shoe, his head hung low. Jess let out an exasperated sigh.
“Ok,” Jess said, scanning the crowd. Sanjeev, in the centre, was watching Ben, waiting to catch his eye. She looked at the woman again. “We need to find out exactly what happened. D’you mind sitting down with me and telling me what you saw, please? We can get someone to open the JP, have a cup of tea to help us all calm down.”
“We don’t need to calm down! We need revenge. Those kids have been terrorising our village for weeks!” The woman was advancing through the crowd, jostling people aside. Ben cleared his throat in warning, but Jess ignored him.
“Please, everyone. The important thing now is not to overreact. We all know that our existence here is fragile. If we retaliate, we’ll be on the back foot. No one will believe our side of the story. Meeting their aggression with more of the same won’t work.” Jess could hear a shrill note in her voice.
“So what are you going to do? And why are you answering me, not your brother?”
Jess felt heat rise to her cheeks. Ben, still looking at the ground, smirked and stilled his foot. She waited a few heartbeats before replying, pushing a lightness into her voice that she didn’t feel.
“Good question. There’ll be a village meeting tonight following yesterday’s council meeting. I’d rather not be telling you like this, but I’ve been elected Steward. So I’ll be doing my best to”
“We need him right now.” The woman thrust her finger towards Ben. “A man who knows what he’s doing.”
Jess forced the tremor out of her voice. “The Steward’s term of office is two years. That meant we had to elect a new person.”
She looked over the crowd towards the houses opposite, where the other members of the council lived. She was still in the house on the village’s edge that they’d been allocated when they arrived, six years ago. The house where her mother died.
There was a movement in the crowd, people muttering to each other as they processed what she’d just told them.
“So”, she continued. “We need to get to the bottom of what happened here today.”
The woman was still glaring, but now her hands hung loosely at her sides. Jess swallowed.
“The first thing I’m going to do is ask you and anyone else who saw what happened to come into the JP, one at a time, and tell us what happened. Colin, can you help out?” She turned to Colin, who nodded and motioned to the woman to follow him. Sanjeev started threading his way through the crowd to join them. Ben looked up to watch his friend, his face hard.
“Thanks Colin. Sanjeev.” Jess’s voice was lower now. The crowd was breaking up. “Ben, I’d be grateful if you could come too. Let us know what you saw.”
He looked at her, startled. Defiance crossed his face. “I didn’t see anything. He was already on the ground. No one else around. Apart from Rita here.” He motioned towards the woman who’d been shouting at Jess. “She was standing over him, screaming.”
Sanjeev was with them now. He put a hand on Ben’s arm. Ben flinched.
“Anything I can do to help, mate?” Sanjeev asked in a low voice. Ben shook his head.
Jess approached her brother. “You sure you didn’t see anything else?” she whispered.
“Nothing,” he replied, avoiding her gaze. Then he looked up. “What about school?”
“Oh.” A weight dropped into her chest. “Er, the school won’t be opening for a bit – not until we’ve spoken to the witnesses.” She turned back; most of the remaining villagers had children with them. “Please can I ask parents to keep their children at home for a while while we sort this out?”
More muttering. This was something she’d have to find a better solution for.
“Thanks, everyone,” she said. “We all need to pull together as a community on this and I appreciate your help.”
She sighed and turned towards Ben, ignoring the contempt in his eyes.