“Julie’s got fur!”
The taunt echoed off the cracked off-white tiles and mould-spackled plaster of the shower room, over the cries and shouts of the group of naked boys pushing, showing, and cowering under the lukewarm water falling from above.
Julian — quickly christened ‘Julie’ by the gawky hormone-imbalanced fringe of the class — was new, only having arrived last week.
I looked up, evaluating the danger level. Around me the others had turned their backs to the disturbance, engaged in scrubbing themselves clean, and looking at the walls. I clenched my fist around the bar of gritty yellow soap, and started over towards the group in the corner.
Mostly, I managed to keep out of trouble. Keep your nose down. And clean. Work your grades. Check your exits. The basic rules for survival in school. And then there was, Hit first and make it count. This last one was the only advice Dad had ever given me when I had started getting picked on.
“Most people pull their punches,” he said, staring down at the kitchen table in his smart blue security uniform, and nursing an instant coffee. “It’s involuntary, natural. Just before the impact, they flinch.” He looked up at me then, the cold rag I was holding over my swollen eye. He’d be leaving for work in a few minutes, but already he looked tired and grey. “So aim for the bloke behind, not the one in front of you. Make every punch count. Hit first, and make sure it hurts like hell.”
And so I had managed to clear a space around myself. After the first few fights: rough, dirty affairs with bloody noses and split lips — mostly mine, but I still kept hitting, and more importantly, hurting — Andy and his ‘gang’ just left me alone and moved on to easier prey.
Which was why the only empty seat in class was next to me.
Mr Baker — Ted, he always told us to call him — had presented Julian to the class, and then told him to take the only available place.
School legend said that Ted Baker had been in the Navy before taking up teaching. Theys were supposed to be able to get in with lower qualifications. But anyway, he liked to pepper his speech with expressions like ‘shipshape’. And he called us ‘his crew’. At the end of the day, he limped slightly.
“David, I’m counting on you to take care of Julian. Show him the ropes. Keep him out of trouble.”
So that was how it fell to me to teach Julian how to survive school.
I shouldered the boy in front of me in the small of the back, weighing in with a punch to the kidneys. He slipped on the tiled floor, flailing arms and legs as he tried to scramble up.
Through the gap, I saw that Julian really did have fur.
Looking back, for us boys, that year, hair had really become an issue. Some chins were already stubbly, where others sported downy moustaches, and yet others still were as peachy as a baby’s bum. Under the showers the differences were even more apparent. Under arms, crotches, some even had straggles of hair on their chests.
But Julian had fur. Thick patches mottled his naked body. If you stopped to think about it, it was weird.
So I didn’t.
I slipped my hand under his armpits and pulled him up, the patches of wet fur rubbed against me.
“Leave him alone,” I said. I always found a quiet voice to be more effective than shouting.
They were hesitating.
I weighed the cake of soap in my hand, shifting it slowly. That gritty school soap pretty much qualified as a lethal weapon, and experience had shown I wouldn’t hesitate to use it.
Andy shifted back, opening his palms wide in front of himself. The others moved back. They pulled the one I’d pushed over, back to his feet, and swaggered off, noisily punching each other in the shoulder, and slapping backs.
“Thanks,” said Julian from behind me.
“Dry yourself quick and get out,” I said without turning round. “You might not be so lucky next time.”
After that he got some new nicknames: Wolfman, Wolfy, or the Werewolf, depending on the moment. The girls blinked unknowingly, then giggled behind their hands when someone obligingly explained why.
Julian learnt quickly. He kept to the walls with his head pulled down into his shoulders. There wasn’t much else he could do.
“It’s a family thing,” he said when we were sitting on the edge of the playing field, taking a breath of fresh air, and keeping out of the way.
“I don’t need no explanations,” I said, sucking on a blade of grass. “Not my problem…”
“Well, thanks anyway,” he said. “Without you I…”
He didn’t need to finish.
“Should get a note from your parents,” I said. “Excusing you from the showers. Other kids do it.”
“Not a good idea,” he said, his chin on his chest. “I saw a specialist about it. The sweat glands there are different. If I don’t wash the sweat away, I stink.” He paused. “I can’t smell it. But the others do, and they don’t like it. So, no. I can’t really skip the showers.”
“Tough,” I said, and spat out the chewed grass.
The bell rang and everyone trailed back into class.
And shortly after, Julian’s troubles started for real.
I never bothered with the rumours and the chit-chat around the lockers. If it was bad news, I’d probably learn about too soon. And if it wasn’t… Well, so much the better.
So, as I walked into school that morning, dragging my bag heavy with books and homework, I ignored the kids whispering along the hallways. Until I overheard a certain word. Then I spun round.
“What’s that?” I interrupted.
The two first years looked up at me, their mouths gaping.
“What did you say?” I said, stepping closer.
“Nothing!” said the one in a gaudy tee and baggy jeans, looking up at me.
“A werewolf,” said the other. “They say there’s a werewolf about. And last night it attacked someone.”
“Rubbish!” I said, pushing the kid away.
“True!” called his friend. “You didn’t see the Police car outside? I figure they’re even looking for it here…”
Now that he mentioned it, there had been a Police car left carelessly across two places in the parking car park outside.
“Doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “They’re probably just looking for you. Where were you last night, anyways?”
The kid flipped his hand at me, dismissing me, and turned back to his friends. I hitched my bag onto my back, and set off to look for Julian.
“I’ve already seen them,” he said when I cornered him in the toilets. “Came round to the house early this morning.”
“Out!” I called as a first year stepped through the door. “Go next door!”
He stopped, taking in my order, and evaluating the danger.
“It’s the girls’,” he said finally.
“Just right for you then,” I said. “Get lost!”
I made to move towards him. He dashed out.
“My Dad opened the door. They told him they were checking up on everyone from the school.” I shook my head, they hadn’t come to my place. “Dad shouted at them. Called it discrimination and harassment because of my condition… They didn’t get in.”
“So what’s it all about?”
Neil — he was in the next year up, but his name didn’t ring any bells — had been returning home after practise. He took a shortcut through the park. Parents always warned us of this, but he was older, probably thought he’d been fine. That part of the story seemed clear enough.
He was attacked by something. Not someone, but something. Half man, half wolf, the rumours said. Covered in damp fur, and it stank. But it ran on two legs.
And it had claws. This Neil got cut across his face, shoulder, arm. His hands where he tried to protect himself. In fact, it severed several tendons in his hand and the surgery was going to be tricky. They think it was going for his throat, but he twisted out of the way just in time.
“You’re not telling me this!” I exclaimed.
“Straight up!” he said. “Dad told me. He got it all from the policeman on the doorstep.”
We left the safety of the toilets and scurried along the hallways to class before the bell rang. As we passed, I noticed people turning, looking, pointing. At Julian.
The next attack happened less than a week later. Luckily no one was hurt.
A bunch of first years were down at the abandoned sheds by the railway track. The creature came out of the shadows, but something alerted them. They ran off before it could do any harm, throwing bricks and broken bottles at it as they scampered away. But half of those who heard the tale dismissed it, saying that the kids had just been spooked by a tramp, or a cat. And just as quickly the story was forgotten.
Then Neil was back in school. His arm in a cast with wires and nobbles sticking out of it as the tendons were pulled back into place. Parts of his face were red and raw and twisted.
He cornered Julian on the second day.
“Little bugger!” he spat, pinning Julian to a locker, with his plastered arm across the smaller boy’s throat. “I know it was you!”
I pushed my bag on top of some nearby lockers and palmed my key ring, the tips of the keys emerging from between my fingers.
“I thought it was a bloody great wolf thing…” I said in his ear, speaking from just behind him.
He jumped, loosening the pressure on Julian’s neck.
“Of course it was,” he hissed. “Near killed me.”
“Then get a good look, Dumbo! He’s half your size…”
He looked down at the red-faced boy he was crushing, then withdrew his arm, and walked away.
“I think I preferred it when they called me ‘Julie’,” said Julian, once he could speak again.
The next time the creature attacked, it was all over the papers. They were calling it ‘the Wolfman’, or ‘the Werewolf’, now. But things were altogether more serious.
The victim had been a homeless guy who lived in a back alley just behind the dustbins for a Chinese restaurant. He had died before anyone found him.
The Police statements were all non-committal and ongoing investigations, but the papers, citing anonymous sources, said the face and the body had the same dreadful gashes as Neil. Except he hadn’t been so lucky.
When the news broke, Julian’s father wanted to keep him at home, safe. Julian wasn’t having any of it, telling him that it would just make things worse, that half the people at school would take it as an admission of guilt, or, at least, of having something to hide.
In the end, his parents called Dad.
They said that they appreciated that I seemed to be a good influence on him, and they’d appreciate it if I could continue helping him keep out of trouble.
With Dad we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Although they couldn’t bring themselves to say it, or simply didn’t know how, they were asking me to act as his bodyguard.
He didn’t say anything, but I could see in Dad’s eyes, in the wry grin on his lined face, that he was proud, glad I could look after myself, and that others found me dependable too. He just gave me a big, silent hug before leaving for work in that impeccable uniform.
At the bus shelter where we’d agreed to meet up before school, Julian couldn’t have been more apologetic for his parents.
“Don’t think about it,” I said. “They’re just trying to show how much they care for you. You’re lucky. Not all families are like that…”
Julian just sat there, looking at his feet.
“I don’t think I was entirely honest with you about my… medical condition,” he said at last.
I so do not want this conversation, I thought.
“So what?” I said. “I don’t see what that changes… C’mon, let’s get to school.”
I stood up. He still hadn’t moved.
“It gets worse,” he said. “Like with… puberty, like. It’s genetic. In the family and… both of them. My Mother’s family as well as my Dad’s. So they weren’t too surprised when I… Well you saw the fur.”
“OK,” I said, wondering what he meant when he said it gets worse. “So you end up covered in hair. That’s fine. If you get bullied again we can call the RSPCA…”
He looked up and gave me a sort of half smile.
“Thanks, but I wasn’t thinking of that. I mean, there’re others like me. And it could be one of them. Someone from my family even, doing this…”
“Great. Tell the Police. I’m sure they’ll know how to deal with it.” And then it started to sink in. “Hold on… You mean… like Werewolves. For real?”
He just nodded.
I sat back down.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s about it… You see, the attacks are getting worse, and it’s the full moon in a few days — I checked. If this is really someone like me, then it’s gonna be really bad…”
“Julian. What can you do about it? No disrespect or whatever, but you’re barely bigger than a midget—”
“I can explain. I mean, I know how it must feel. Try and help…”
“Transform? No, not yet.” He sniffed.
“I don’t know if this is reassuring or just more disturbing. But there is no way that idea will work.” I looked around.” We’re late for school. But maybe it’s better like that. A couple of detentions should keep you out of trouble!”
We got up and dragged our feet off to school.
I’m still not sure how we found ourselves in the park then, two nights later, sitting on swings with the full moon peeking through the trees.
At one point I thought his crazy idea was off completely. And I’m not afraid to admit I felt all the better for it.
Julian had turned up the next day, as pale as dough, and about as lively. His eyes were red, and he had blue-grey bruises under them. He also seemed to be running a fever and would pick up a conversation fifteen minutes after we’d spoken, or, at other moments, disappear completely inside himself.
It looked to me like flu.
“No, no. I’m fine,” he said. “It’s nothing. An allergy probably…”
I looked at him sideways, but said nothing more. And, effectively, the next day, he did look a lot better.
That evening we dumped our school bags, then scuffed our heels along the streets until dusk when we climbed over the railings into the park.
“How do you plan to catch him? Our werewolf?” I asked.
“His smell,” he said. “My sense of smell is very developed.”
I gave a small laugh.
He jumped off his swing and stood in front of me. I slipped off my swing to avoid hitting him, my heels digging into the ground. He sniffed.
“For breakfast you had bacon and baked beans,” he said, then turned and resumed swinging.
“And what did I have for dinner?” I asked, a little in awe.
“Macaroni,” he said. “I was sitting next to you in the canteen, remember?”
Dusk turned to night. Shadow slowly filled the park.
The swings creaked as we sat and waited.
“There’s someone in the park,” whispered Julian.
“We should go and hide then,” I said.
“OK,” he said. But then… “No, if we do that, he won’t see us. You, go and hide. I’ll stay here.”
“But… Is it our..?”
“I don’t think so… I can smell… a dog?” he said, his face lifted up to the night sky and the moon, taking in the odours of the park.
“Maybe it’s just someone walking the dog, then…”
I’ll admit I felt relieved.
I slipped away into the bushes, crouched down and watched.
Then the shadows started to move.
At first it was just the movement that got your attention, but as I watched, I started being able to make out a vague shape. First of all I saw wide, heavy legs. But they were just legs, with knees and ankles and feet, not like a dog’s or a wolf’s. Human legs.
It was after that that things changed. As I made out the top it appeared bulky, and crouched, and with a long flattened head. Jutting out at the end of each dangling arm, I could just make out — with difficulty at first, but then more clearly as it got closer, and the pieces slipped into place — four long claws extending from each paw.
It was somehow, half man, half wolf.
Even I could smell it now. It was wet fur, like a dog coming in from the rain, but there was another smell too, something sweet, something rotten.
Then dashing through the moonlight was another form: a large, lean dog. It bounded forward and stopped, as if looking, smelling, enquiring. I could hear a low growl.
The shadow made a move, and the dog was onto it. Biting, clawing, jumping back, and attacking again. The shadow jerked, then crumpled to the ground.
The dog howled.
It was inhuman, like crying and baying, but at the same time. Then it bounded away.
Julian! In all this I had completely forgotten him. I looked over at the swings.
He was gone.
I ran over, a curious crouching march to keep myself out of the way. Scattered around the ground here were Julian’s clothes. The mound laying further out on the grass gave a groan. I froze. Then I grabbed Julian’s things, wrapped his trainers in a tee-shirt, and ran for the railings. There, I shoved his things through, clambered over, and ran for home.
I’m the first to admit I’m not proud. But I was way out of my depth, and not a little scared.
I got the end of the story in the paper at breakfast next morning. It wasn’t front-page news, curiously enough, but tucked away on page five.
Local Schoolboy found injured in Park
John Smettering, a retired long-distance lorry driver, was out walking his Labrador, Mindy, last night when the dog called his attention to a local school boy, laying injured in the closed Park.
Emergency services quickly arrived and established that the boy — the Police are currently withholding his identity — had several broken ribs, multiple fractures on his arms and legs, and was suffering from severe blood loss, and shock.
“If not for the dog, he’d have been a goner,” said an ambulance worker.
This was not the only surprise waiting the Police as they examined the scene. The injured boy was found to be wearing large ‘claws’ that appeared to have been pieces of a leaf rake, attached to his hands and wrists. Furthermore, he was also dressed in the bloody skin of a large dog, probably an Alsatian. When asked if this disguise had any relation to the recent series of ‘Wolfman’ attacks, a Police spokesperson declined to comment, except to say that at this stage in the investigations, nothing could be ruled out.
The boy is hospitalised and under guard, pending a psychiatric examination, and although conscious, hospital staff noted that he has so far declined to speak. […]
As soon as I got to school, I found out the name of the ‘local schoolboy’. It was none other than our own Andy. I didn’t even have to ask as it was the only subject of conversation in the halls and around the lockers. And while the place was shocked and under a cloud, there was also an undercurrent of hope that this would put an end to the most vicious bullying, and violence.
Julian was nowhere to be seen, however. I skipped off assembly, his clothes still in a plastic bag under my arm.
But when I got to his house, it was empty. No curtains at the window, the bell didn’t work, and no one answered my knocking.
I stuffed the bag into a dustbin and walked away.
This is the first of my stories here that draws on something personal. No, I am not revealing now, after all those years, that I did in fact share a desk with a werewolf. But there was a year when body hair, in all its forms, or should I say, in all its places, was an obsession for us. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea, it’s probably just a puberty thing.
Anyway, years later, this is the story that I have built on that memory. And I rather liked the idea of someone else’s ‘growing pains’, being far removed from one’s own. I also happen to like the shift in balance in the friendship between the narrator and Julian as the story moves on.
All in all, one of my preferred stories so far. What’s your opinion?
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Last edited: Monday, September 14th, 2009blog comments powered by Disqus