“Alf! You found yours yet?”
“No, I’m still looking,” said Alf. He looked into the branches overhead. The horse chestnut tree was a mile from his house. He was supposed to be helping his dad with the boot mending but he wanted to find the best conker around. It was important.
He threw the stick he’d carried with him up into the limbs. It made contact this time swiping the edge of the seed pod just hard enough to detach it. The stick fell at his feet followed by the huge pod. Inside he found a perfectly symmetrical conker.
“It’s beautiful!” he said aloud in his excitement.
“You found a good one?” yelled his mate.
“I got a winna here!” Alf yelled back. His mate was running over to take a look.
“Sorry, Bob, but I have to get to me dad’s workshop. I’m late as tis!” he yelled at his friend. He shoved the conker in his pocket and scooped up his stick as he headed back to his house and the shed at the back.
As he ran the pressure of the conker reassured him he had found a winner. He slowed to a walk nearing the work shed. He stopped and raised his head to the window. The shop was empty. Maybe he wasn’t in trouble after all.
He quickly circled to the door and slipped in. His head received a smack from the back of his dad’s hand.
“Where have you been, boy?” He was wrong. His dad had been in the corner retrieving some leather for the boot on the last.
“I’m sorry, dad. I got caught up with me mate.” He rubbed his head which was smarting from the blow.
“I don’t need excuses, boy. I need help getting these boots mended. They’re expected this afternoon so get to work.”
He took the leather from his dad’s hand and placed it on the table. The prize conker he put in his hat which he gingerly placed on a shelf out of the way. His apron was on the chair. A moment later he tied it at his back then sat in front of the last. The boot needed a new sole so he began measuring it for the cut needed. His knife slit along the line he had drawn on the flat bit of leather. For a young boy he was very good at this. He’d picked it up quickly. Even his dad had been surprised at his agility in such a short time. He was so good, in fact that his dad depended on him more than he liked.
After the leather was cut and placed on the boot he took a handful of tacks. These he placed in his mouth to be retrieved one at a time. His hands quickly nailed the sole firmly to the boot. He cut around it to bring the leather in line with the outer edge finishing up by filing the ragged trim to a firm line outlining the shape of the foot.
“There,” he said. “One down.” He tossed it to his dad to inspect.
“You amaze me, boy. I couldn’t do a better job meself but don’t get to likin’ yerself too much. Get on with it.” He tossed the finished boot in the bin. Those in this bin stayed until it was time to be polished.
Alf grabbed the second boot and finished it off faster than the last.
“And here’s the second.” He slipped it off the last reaching over to his dad.
“Already?” His dad asked in disbelief. “Let me see.”
A close inspection showed the work to be flawless.
“Get to polishing them, then,” he said finding no fault.
“Yes sir,” said Alf reaching for the polish. The boots took on a shine that made them look brand new. There were two other pairs of shoes in the polishing bin which he cleaned up and brought to a fine shine.
“Can I fix my conker now?” he asked.
“You’ve got no time for playing as long as there’s boots to mend. Those on the table need work. When you’ve finished them maybe you can go meet your mates if it’s light out.”
It was no use arguing. His dad expected him to do until done. He reached for the next pair.
As the sky grew violet his dad tossed his hammer onto the shelf and called out,
“Alright, son, time to knock off. Supper’ll be waitin’.”
Alf looked up. There was no light in the sky.
“Can I use the drill to put a hole in my conker?” asked Alf.
“Not now. Yer mum will be waitin’ supper. So put everything away and let’s go up the house, now.” He had hung his apron on the coat rack. He grabbed the hat on the table. It was Alf’s hat. The conker flew out hit the wall and fell to the concrete floor. It cracked.
“You’ve broken me con..”
“Hush your whinin’, boy. If it broke that easy it wouldn’t have won nothin’.” You can look again in the morning for another. Come on, now. Yer mum will be cross.”
Alf picked up the horse chestnut. The crack ran half way round. It was useless. He tossed it in the trash as he walked past.
The next morning at first light he was out the front door and a mile away under the tree before his folks were aware he’d left. He threw his stick high into the tree hoping to dislodge another perfect nut.
His wish was answered half an hour later when he heard his stick make contact with a pod. The loud crack was followed by the stickered hull landing at his feet. It was a giant. The shell split easily revealing a shiny brown conker the like of which he had never seen. It was a giant. The weight of it overwhelmed him. This specimen would make a ninty-fourer or even more. Clutching his prize tightly he ran the mile back home going straight to the shed.
The boring utensil was right at hand when he went through the door. Carefully he lined it up in the center and commenced drilling straight down and through. He blew air threw the drilled hole then held it to his eye.
“Perfect,” he whispered. “Now some string…”
The door opened. His dad came in.
“What are you doing in my shop?” he asked in anger.
He was answered with a cuff around the ear. The conker he slipped in his pocket as he regained his balance.
“I was looking to see what needed finishing up.” Alf said.
“Don’t get cheeky with me, boy,” he said.
“No sir. Wouldn’t think of it, sir,” said Alf standing straight with his hands behind him, fingers crossed.
His dad raised his hand but did not strike him again.
“See it doesn’t happen again,” he said. He hung up his coat and grabbed his apron. “Well, you’re in here. Let’s finish up what we started yesterday.”
The day went by quickly. Alf’s handiwork improved with each job he undertook. His dad looked at him secretly marveling at how good his work had become. It had begun to surpass his own.
In the afternoon his dad turned to him and said, “Why don’t you go meet your mates. You’ve finished up the jobs I had. I’ll deliver them. You go on, now. We’ll have more to do in the morning.”
“Are you sure, dad?” Alf asked flinging the apron over the chair back.
“Aye, I’m sure,” he said a faint smile on his lips.
There was no reason to ask twice. Alf grabbed his coat on the way out. He ran to the tree where his friends were standing under the largest limb. Walking up behind them he heard a loud crack.
“Bloody hell!” shouted Bob. He stood with a string dangling. The conker was a couple of feet away cracked into two pieces.
“Hard luck,” said the boy with the winning nut. “That makes mine a tenner.”
“Who says?” asked Alf.
The boy jumped.
“Who are you and what you mean sneakin’ up on me like that?”
“Didn’t sneak up. Just arrived. Who says yours is a tenner? I don’t know you so how do I know if it’s true.”
“I said it’s true,” said the new boy straightening his shoulders. He was a couple of inches taller than Alf. He raised up on his toes to be even taller. His face was a scowl.
Alf stood his ground.
“You callin’ me a liar?” the boy asked inching up on his toes.
“All I’m asking is who did you beat to become a tenner?” He leaned into the taller boy.
“You want to try to beat me?” said the boy.
Alf looked at the end of his string.
“I don’t believe that shriveled up thing is a tenner. It wouldn’t be worth my while to shatter it. I wouldn’t know how many wins I could claim but certainly no tenner.”
The boy dropped his string and swung at Alf.
Alf ducked and brought his fist up into the boy’s belly. As his opponent doubled over Alf hit him with a right. The boy fell flat his eyes rolled up into his head.
“Oh now you’ve done it,” said Bob.
“He’ll wake up,” said Alf.
“No, I mean there,” Bob said pointing to the road.
Alf’s mother was marching across the grass straight for him. Her stern look told him he was in for it.
As soon as she reached him she grabbed him by the ear. Bob had run. The stranger on the ground was sitting up shaking his head. He realized what was happening and laughed out loud.
“Yer mum had to come gitcha, huh?”
Alf tried to look back with menace but his mother’s grip was tight bending his ear in the direction of home.
“How many times have I told you about fighting? You are going to get a hiding you’ll remember for a long time.”
She held his ear tightly the entire way home. When they got to the house she went in still leading him by the ear.
“You stand there while I find a switch.” She left the room and came back with a doweling rod.
“Bend over that chair,” she said. He complied preparing himself for the first swat. It came with swift severity followed by nine others. He didn’t make a sound but the tears were streaming down his face when she stopped.
“Now maybe you will remember how I feel about you fighting,” she said as harshly as she could. “I let you off light this time but don’t let me catch you ever again or it will be even worse.”
Alf straightened up rubbing his backside. His snuffling angered her more.
“One more and I’ll have you leaning over that chair again.” Her face was set with grim determination.
Alf wiped his eyes. He allowed his nose to run.
“May I be excused now?” His face was red and wet but he was determined not to sniff again.
“Yes. Be certain you think on this.”
“Yes ma’am. I won’t fight again. Now may I go?”
“Get out of my sight!” she yelled at him.
He ran upstairs. In his room he lay across his bed upon his stomach. There he fell asleep until morning.
Saturday he stood while helping his dad in the work shop. He remained quiet the entire day.
“You did a good day’s work, boy,” said his dad.
“Thank you, sir,” answered Alf.
“I think you ought to go out and see your mates,” he said.
“Thank you, sir.” Alf slowly rose, removed his apron and grabbed his coat off the chair beside him. He felt for his conker in the pocket. It was there in its hugeness. It brought a smile to his face.
He walked around the house. As he rounded the corner there directly in front of his house was the boy he had KO’ed the day before. He stood at the gate with three of his friends none of whom Alf knew.
“There he is. His mummie had to come rescue him yesterday.” His words made his friends laugh.
Alf’s hands were tightening into fists when he heard a tapping on the window of his house. He turned to look. There was his mother shaking her finger at him, her mouth pursed and her brow darkly weighing on angry eyes.
He looked at her then looked at the boys who were moving quickly toward him. He received the first blow to his right eye. Several fists hit him in his midsection. He doubled over as a right came toward him. He ducked from that into a second fist which cracked his nose. As he fell to the ground several more fists from all directions pounded on him. Alf’s hands remained unclenched as he hit the grass. The lights went out for him.
He woke in his bed. He tried to move but his body was one mass of pain. Mercifully he fell asleep.
That morning his mother had gone to the grocer’s. Alf was awakened by his dad.
“Get up, boy,” he commanded.
Alf slowly rose holding his side.
“Get dressed,” he ordered. “I want to talk to you downstairs.”
Alf nodded gathering his clothes to dress.
When he got downstairs his dad was waiting for him. His fist caught Alf on the jaw. It lifted him up and over the couch.
“I saw you outside yesterday. You didn’t stand up to those boys once. You didn’t raise a hand to them. You just let them beat you silly. I’m going to tell you once again that I expect you to fight when the time comes. You don’t back off from a fight. You go at them. I’ve told you over and over that size doesn’t matter. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. You understand, boy?”
He stood with his fist clenched as Alf pulled himself up by grabbing the back of the couch.
“Yes sir but…”
“I don’t want any buts from you. If I ever see you allow someone to beat you like that again. I will let you have it.”
“Now go get some breakfast. We have a lot of work to do.”
There were boots and shoes enough lined up for repair to keep them both busy until the sun went below the horizon.
Alf’s soreness eased up over the day. The next day was a repeat of the last. Then halfway through the third day his dad put his tools aside.
“How do you feel today, son?” He asked looking his son in the eye.
“I’m doing better,” answered Alf.
“Good because you and I are going to take a little stroll.” He gathered his coat and hat then tossed Alf his.
“Think your mates are over at the conker tree?” he asked as they slipped past the house without being seen by his mother.
“Yes sir,” Alf answered. This did not bode well.
“Good. Let’s you and me find out.” He stepped a little more lively. Alf had to run to keep up. As they approached the tree the boys were cracking conkers and laughing uproariously.
His dad stopped and pointed at the group.
“Aren’t those the boys who laid into you in front of the house? Speak up, boy.”
His eyes bored into him.
“Uh..yes sir. That’s them.” Alf replied.
“Go teach them a lesson, boy. I’ll wait right here.”
Alf wanted to run away but his father’s anger would be too much to deal with. It was easier to go challenge the boys who had left him on the ground.
He slowly walked toward the group. One of the boys looked his way and pointed for the others to look. Smiles flashed across their faces.
“I have come to set things right,” said Alf. “I’ll take each of you on one at the time.”
“Why should we fight with you? We’ve already proved you are a sissy that won’t fight back,” said the big one.
“Try me.” Alf stood still waving him in.
“If that’s what you want,” he said. He ran at Alf fists flying. They met air but his jaw took a left which put him in the dirt immediately.
“Who’s next?” Alf challenged.
Another came running. He stopped to look down at his friend who wasn’t moving.
“You scrawny…” he yelled taking a swing. Alf weaved out of the way then brought his right into the boy’s midsection. A left cross took him out of the action.
The remaining two looked at each other. They nodded then charged in unison. One jumped to grab Alf but he side stepped him while slamming his left into the second’s gut taking his wind. Alf turned as he struggled for breath just in time to see the first’s right circling for his jaw. Alf deflected his swing then jabbed him in the nose bringing blood and a scream.
When Alf turned to finish the last boy he saw nothing of him but his back disappearing behind the tree. It was over in minutes.
His dad waved him over. He stepped over the two boys still flat on the ground. He had been untouched by any of them. It was a marvelous feeling but he would not let it show as he walked over to his father.
“Well done, boy.”
That was all he said as they walked side by side back home.
“I think you ought to take tomorrow off,” said his dad opening the front door. “We are caught up. I might just go to the boot fair in Sandwich. Care to come?” He looked down at his son.
“No sir. I have a conker that I want to try out.”
The next morning his dad drove to Sandwich. Alf entered the work shed. He found a nice heavy piece of string to thread through the hole in his conker. When he had finished tying off the heavy duty knot he slipped it into his pocket then looked around the shop for a few minutes. In the corner he found a can of paraffin which he took down and opened. The vapors rose heavy as he sprinkled it around the shop. He laid a trail up to the door. He replaced the top and put the can back on the shelf. He opened the door and stood for a moment looking at everything that had become so familiar. When he was satisfied he removed a box of matches from his jacket. He took one out. It spurted flame when he struck it. The flame took and began burning steadily at which time he dropped it onto the trail of paraffin. With a whoosh the fire flared and followed the trail lighting everything in its path.
Alf smiled. He closed the door. He moved with stealth in case the neighbors were looking in that direction. He was around front and halfway down the road before the fire was noticeable.
He wasn’t home when his folks came back from Sandwich. He had walked into the throng of boys and challenged all comers. He became the champion of the neighborhood. He had a true tenner that nobody could dispute.
“Lemme have a go,” said the big kid he had laid out the day before.“Why not?” said Alf. “I’m on fire today