Encounter

PROLOGUE

The young boy’s eyes fluttered open and focused on the tent flap swaying gently in the early morning breeze. The aroma of sausage fat on burnt coals and blackened marshmallows still pervaded the air from last night’s meal. He looked over at his dad still asleep in his sleeping bag. These were the best times ever.

Each year, for his birthday, Jonathon Smith and his father, David, would go camping somewhere in the mountains. They had pulled in late the night before and set up camp in a clearing spotlighted by their four-wheel drive. Jonathon had been taught how to make a good campfire and had one blazing in no time. During their meal his dad produced a small birthday cake that he had purchased on their way.
‘I forgot the candles,’ he confessed.

Undaunted, his son dived into his backpack and produced a bag of marshmallows. ‘We could use these,’ he said hopefully.
‘Could be a bit messy,’ his dad grinned.
Together they stuck nine of the powdery sweets on top of the cake. Jonathon retrieved a burning gum twig from the fire and attempted to light the marshmallows. Three scorched and blackened and the others would not light.
‘They still taste good,’ said the boy popping two of the dark morsels into his mouth and the third into his dad’s.
His dad just laughed. ‘Here, let’s try something else.’ He produced a packet of matches and set nine into the cake. ‘Quick Jono, light them and blow them out before they burn down.’
Jonathon did as he was told.
‘Did you make a wish?’
‘Yep.’
‘Want to tell me what you wished for?’
‘Nope! Won’t come true if I tell.’
His dad gave him a friendly punch on the shoulder, then with a wickedly mischievous grin began to tickle him. Jonathon burst into peels of uncontrollable laughter begging him to stop but loving every minute of it. David Smith laughed just as heartily as his son. They rolled around until they were exhausted. As the fire died down his dad commenced to tell one of his amazing stories. Some of his tales were scary, some of them funny and some of them were told to help Jonathon forget the sad things in his past.

As Jonathon wriggled quietly out of his sleeping bag, a movement outside caught his attention. He crawled to the tent entrance and peered out. There, beside the still smouldering embers was a fox kit gingerly sniffing the remains of a sacrificed marshmallow. The little fox bounded to the edge of the clearing and stopped. The boy moved slowly forward, picked up the sooty sweet and offered it to the animal. The baby fox hesitated then took off into the forest with Jonathon in hot pursuit. The youngster followed it as closely, not noticing that a mist was closing in and the forest was becoming denser. He stopped to get his bearings. His dad had warned him about these mountain mists; how quickly they could come in and how thick they could get. Cautiously he moved forward but the mist was so thick now he could barely see the ground in front of him. He had no idea where he was and wandered deeper into the undergrowth. Now and again he felt strange currents of cold air wrap around his legs and stir the mist, but not enough for him to see ahead. The mist muffled all sound and he could hear nothing but his own breathing. He peered into the whiteness wondering which way to go next. It was like a bad dream and his heart began to beat faster. He moved forward a little more.
‘Jonathon Smith, STOP!’ a voice commanded.
The terrified boy swung round in the direction of the voice. ‘Dad is that you?’
‘STOP’, the voice repeated.
The mist glowed pink then softened into mauve and finally into white again. Jonathon dropped to the ground afraid to look up.
Through the thickness that surrounded him Jonathon heard a call. Instantly he recognized his father’s voice.
‘Jono!… Jono!’ the muffled voice came a little closer. ‘Jono if you can hear me stay put…do not move…stay right where you are.’
The boy detected the urgency in his dad’s voice. With relief he stood up and waved his arms frantically as a pin-point of light came towards him.
‘I’m here Dad, over here.’
David Smith’s flashlight caught Jonathon’s silhouette against the impenetrable white wall of fog behind him. ‘Sit down Jono and don’t move!’ he almost screamed.

The boy obeyed immediately and collapsed his legs under him. A few seconds later his father was there embracing him. David pulled his son down beside him and the two huddled together until the mist began to lift.

As soon as they could see, David told his son to roll over on his tummy and follow him. Like two caterpillars they crawled forward a short distance. Gusts of wind blew upwards and as the last vestiges of mist cleared Jonathon understood why his dad had been so frantic. They were on the edge of a precipice and far below Jonathon could just make out the tops of trees and giant ferns. He gasped and wriggled back from the edge.

When they returned to camp the shocked boy sat on his bedroll and watched his dad pack up. Pale and clammy, he realized he’d had a very narrow escape. If it hadn’t been for his dad calling out to him when he did…his thoughts trailed off and a puzzled look came over his face.
‘Dad, why did you call me Jonathon Smith back there?’
‘What do you mean?’ David looked at him as he raked over the fire, making sure the last embers were out.
‘You know, when you told me to stop.’
‘Jono, have you ever heard me call you Jonathon Smith?’
‘No.’
‘Then I guess when I called to you it was distorted by the mist,’ his dad suggested, shrugging his shoulders.
Jonathon felt uneasy but was willing to accept his father’s explanation.

Later, as they folded the tent, he could not help stealing glances into the forest. He shuddered. What he expected to see he did not know…

CHAPTER 1

Twelve-year-old Jonathon Newman-Smith rocked his shoulders backward and forward in the heated sand, making his ‘nest’ a little deeper and more comfortable. He stretched his arms above his head and extended his legs one at a time, much like a cat stretching, then re-coiled his body.

A faint smile played at the corners of his mouth. How had he achieved such a coup? This was the most exciting thing that had happened to him in a very long time! His father and Annabel had agreed to let him stay with Aunt Jean for the remainder of the year, and joy of all joys, to attend a regular school and not boarding school, which he loathed so much. He loved Aunt Jean; she was so much like what he remembered of his mother before her disappearance some years ago. He was only four when it happened.

Jonathon rolled over on his side and gazed at the curling waves as they foamed and slid up onto the wet sand not far from where he was lying. He would soon have to move as the tide was coming in. He propped himself up on his elbow and searched among the swimmers for his cousin, Sarah. She was two years older than he was and already her budding figure was catching the attention of the young lifeguards who were on duty at Culburra Beach. He spotted her riding her body-board some distance out, then squinted as his blue eyes strayed further along the beach toward a rocky outcrop the locals called Kinghorn. A deep sigh left his lips as a confusion of events flooded his mind.

Although a little hazy, as a four year old he recalled that fateful weekend, in parts. The family had come to stay with Aunt Jean, Uncle Charles and Sarah for a few days away from the hustle and bustle of diplomatic circles in Canberra. He remembered curling up on his mother’s lap the night before and smelling the delicate lavender perfume she always wore. The small boy loved that scent and he had cuddled into his mother, breathing in the sweetness while she read him a story. She had hugged and kissed him then tucked him into bed, wishing him sweet dreams as she had always done. That was the last time his mother had held him in her arms.

The days that followed were very sad. He had asked again and again where his mother was, only to be told she had gone away to live with God in heaven. Jonathon figured this was not a good place to be because everyone was crying and he thought someone should go and get her and bring her home. In fact, he had suggested this many times but no one seemed to listen, instead they would pat his head or cuddle him or simply walk away and close the door behind them. It was three years later when he and his dad had a rare moment together that he insisted on knowing what happened to his mother. He remembered his dad placing an arm around his shoulder as they walked along a tree-lined street in Canberra. The man, his voice broken at times, related the story of his wife’s disappearance with great difficulty.

‘Well Jonno, it was a very sad time in all our lives,’ he had said. ‘On that Sunday morning, just as the sun was coming up, your mum decided to go for an early morning swim. I was too tired and slept on.’ There was a pause as he reflected, a look of anguish and regret on his face. ‘We think she took one of the body-boards from under the house and paddled out into the surf. The strange thing was that your mum was always a good swimmer and seldom took risks.’

His dad had gone very quiet for a while before he continued.
‘There was a pretty strong rip running that day and no one knows for sure what happened. The next day the board was thrown up on Kinghorn Rocks and your mum was never found.’ His voice went soft and tears came into his eyes. He had drawn Jonathon in close to him. ‘The police report simply stated that she was missing, presumed drowned.’
Jonathon had asked many questions as to how long they had searched for her and why no one had seen her on the beach as there was always someone walking or fishing there, even at sunrise.
His dad just shook his head sadly and replied wistfully. ‘The investigators searched for three days right along the shoreline and out to sea as well. They questioned all the householders whose windows overlooked the beach but no one saw anything. Two board riders were in the area at about seven o’clock but could not help the detectives. All they could do was to confirm that there was a big swell and a strong rip running.’
Jonathon remembered he and his dad finding their way to a park and sitting on a bench. They talked for ages about his mum. About the fun things they used to do together, and how they both missed her so much. He had looked up into his dad’s face and seen the sadness there and, although he was only seven years old, he understood.

It was the rocky outcrop of Kinghorn, away in the distance, that prompted these recollections. Jonathon’s eyes misted over and he felt a deep longing to be held by that beautiful lady, his mother, once more. To feel again the softness and warmth of her skin and smell her gentle fragrance of lavender. Just once more. Even if for no other reason than to say good-bye. His yearning almost overwhelmed him and it was some minutes before he could escape the painful memories. Allowing the breath to leave his body in another deep sigh, he turned his attention away from Kinghorn and back to the book he had been reading. An advanced reader, books had become his companion in the lonely hours he had spent at boarding school. He loved words and the way authors manipulated them to tell stories that took him away on an adventure about which he could only dream. His own vocabulary had grown, and was now well beyond his chronological age. He learned very quickly not to use his exceptional gift with words in front of his peers for to do so often led to his exclusion from their groups at school and, above all else, he needed to be accepted as one of them.

Jonathon brushed away the sand between the pages of “War and Peace” and placed the thick paperback in his canvas bag on top of his flippers and goggles. He focused on the young girl running toward him. Her yellow bikini was in sharp contrast to her bronzed skin, her strong shapely legs covered the distance over the sand swiftly and, as she approached, her face lit up in a bright smile. Sarah dripped with water and she mischievously shook her long hair over him.
‘Hey! Quit it, that’s cold,’ he yelled.
Sarah remained undaunted and began to tug at his legs, purposely dripping water onto whatever bare skin she could find.
‘Come on, don’t be such a nerd, come for a swim,’ she teased.
‘Okay, Okay, hang on a sec. till I get my shirt.’ Jonathon dragged an old shirt from his bag and pulled it over his head. It wasn’t so much the fear of U.V. damage that prompted this action, but more the embarrassment caused by curious stares from other bathers when they noticed how very thin he was. He felt as though every rib showed through. The boy convinced himself that as soon as he was old enough and had some money of his own he would go to a gym and build himself a respectable chest. He grabbed his flippers and raced his cousin into the water.

Sarah had this wonderful knack of making him laugh. They joked and frolicked in the water, occasionally dunking each other and catching a wave right up onto the sand. His cousin playfully wound a frond of floating kelp around his neck and through his tight curly brown hair.
‘The monster from the deep,’ she giggled and duck-dived out of his way. He tried to catch her, but even with the help of flippers he was no match. She escaped with ease; the sea was Sarah’s second home.

Kinghorn diminished in his memory and the feeling of elation returned. Disregarding the goose bumps, Jonathon remained in the water as long as the acclimatized Sarah did. He almost hugged himself at the thought that he would be staying with her and be part of a family, at least for the next few months.

Jean and Charles Fitzgerald, David Newman-Smith and Annabel were sipping coffee on the terrace when the two arrived back from the beach.
‘Well Jonno, how was the swim?’ asked the tall, tanned man brushing some cake crumbs from his trousers.
‘Great Dad, you should come with me after lunch, we could have turns on Sarah’s new board,’ replied Jonathon hopefully.
David looked at his son, then at Annabel. She raised an eyebrow then ever so slightly shook her head. The movement was almost imperceptible but David Newman-Smith had seen and understood.
‘Er… love to son, but I’ve got about an hour’s paper work to do before I can lock it away in my attaché case. Annabel wants to finish packing and the car will be here to pick us up at five p.m. so I guess that leaves precious little time for a swim.’
‘Precious little time for anything’, muttered his disappointed son under his breath as he stormed across the terrace and headed for his room.
‘Jonno, wait!’ The athletic forty-year old quickly rose to his feet and followed Jonathon to the side veranda that had been converted into a bedroom for the new occupant.

Jonathon threw himself down on the bed. This was the last day he would spend with his dad before he flew out for Istanbul. He thought his father would make a special effort to spend some part of it with him. In frustration he hit his fist into his pillow. Things seemed to change when his dad met and married Annabel almost two years ago. Annabel appeared to have taken over and had the last word on everything. She had encouraged his dad to have their name changed to include her family name, Newman. “Smith” by itself was just too common, she had said. It was Annabel who insisted that he attend the most exclusive boarding school in Canberra and who challenged him about his friends and whose homes he could or could not stay in at weekends. It was Annabel who selected his clothing, his recreational sport, and lately the books he should read in order to improve his mind. It was Annabel who argued against his staying with Aunt Jean in preference to his continued education in Canberra. Annabel finally condescended to his attending a school in Nowra as a day student, provided it was a highly regarded private school. Worse still, it was his stepmother, Annabel, who shared his father’s affection and, he suspected, was getting the bigger share.

Prior to Annabel’s arrival, whenever his dad returned from a stint overseas they would go camping and fishing together. Jonathon would count the days off on his calendar that hung inside his closet at boarding school waiting for the next trip they could take together. His favourite times were the weekend hikes in the Kosciusko National Park, a pristine white wilderness in winter and a wonderland of alpine meadow and bog plants in the summer time. David had spent some time with Jonathon teaching him the names of the more common plants and introducing him to the wildlife that was more visible in the summer months. Although his dad was frequently absent for weeks at a time, when he did come home on leave it was just the two of them. They did everything together, that was, until Annabel came on the scene.

All this seemed a long time ago and Jonathon missed the closeness of the campfire and his dad’s fantastic stories, a lot of them about countries and people in the Middle East. Sometimes his dad would make up stories that could have been used as a script for a James Bond movie. They would laugh together and Jonathon would tell his dad to write a book and include all his stories because it would be a best seller.

Jonathon’s recollections were abruptly interrupted when his dad knocked and entered the room.
‘Jonno, I’m sorry about all this’, he began.
‘It’s alright dad I understand, there’s no need to explain’. His throat tightened a little as he added, ‘I know you’ve been really busy with all the telephone calls and that from the office, and you have had to pack to go away… and it’s been really great that you were able to stay these last couple of days with me… to make sure I settled in kinda’ thing. It’s… it’s just that the time seems to go so quickly and you spend so much of it with Annabel.’ Jonathon was about to continue but his father cut in.
‘Don’t be too hard on Annabel, Jonno. Most of the time we are working on the same things, don’t forget we come from the same office and she will be assisting me in Istanbul. I know you feel a little distant from her, but she has your best interest at heart’.
Jonathon made no reply. He gazed out the veranda windows and down along the beach toward Kinghorn.
A look of concern had spread across the man’s face. He sensed the feelings of isolation his son was experiencing. He ran his fingers through his greying hair as he often did when he was agitated, particularly when things seemed beyond his control. There were times when David wished he could just walk away from his responsibilities but this new assignment in Istanbul was very important, many people were depending on him, and he in turn was depending on Annabel. He sat down on the bed beside the boy and did something he had not done in years. He took Jonathon in his arms and gave him a big hug.
‘I promise you we will be home for Christmas’, he whispered softly in his ear.

Jonathon felt the tears well up in his eyes and held his father close. Christmas was almost nine months away.

The hands on the clock in his room seemed to race forward as the hour for his parent’s departure drew close. From his vantage point opposite the doorway leading into the hall he could see Annabel tying airport tags onto the handles of the large cases that had been lined up against the wall. He sat in Aunt Jean’s rocking chair pretending to read a book but all the while observing his stepmother as she checked each label in turn. Almost as tall as his father, Annabel’s slim agile body bent easily over the cases. Jonathon begrudgingly admitted to himself that she was beautiful and that was probably why his dad had married her. Her long red hair was twisted up in a knot and held on top of her head by a mother-of-pearl comb-clip. Her milky white skin showed no sign of sun damage in spite of her love of the outdoors. There was not a freckle to be seen. Her eyebrows arched over deep green eyes and her full lips glistened with soft pink lip-gloss. Yes, Jonathon mused, that’s why his dad had married her. She was just like a movie star and more than once he had noticed heads turn when she entered a room.

Satisfied that all was in order, Annabel turned and moved gracefully down the hallway, disappearing into the living room. Minutes later she returned to the cases, this time carrying her jacket that she carefully laid over one case and perched her shoulder bag on the other. The boy noted how everything his stepmother wore matched perfectly. The grey slacks were the same colour as the jacket, while her shoes and purse were exactly the same colour as her fitted pink shirt. Even her stud earrings and bracelet toned in with the overall colour scheme. He detected her heavy musk perfume that was not like his mother’s delicate lavender.
Jonathon raised his book to cover his face and rocked the chair gently. Annabel looked up startled.
‘Oh, hi Jonathon, I didn’t notice you there.” She paused. Annabel was finding it increasingly difficult to talk to her stepson. ‘What are you reading?’
Jonathon had no idea what he was reading; he had just picked the book up off the side table beside Aunt Jean’s rocking chair. His stepmother moved towards him trying to read the title.
Her eyes widened a little. ‘Managing Menopause,’ she read. ‘Hmm…are you finding it interesting?’
Jonathon flushed red. ‘I… um… I just thought I would find out if it was worth reading,’ he replied, fumbling for an answer. He put the book back on the table and made a hasty retreat down the hallway. Annabel smiled as she watched him go.

Duly at 5.00 p.m. a black limousine pulled into the drive. With saddened eyes the boy watched as his father and the chauffeur loaded the cases into the trunk. Annabel had said her goodbyes to the family and settled herself in the back seat. David Newman-Smith looked long and hard at his son, embraced him, and then without looking back, climbed into the car beside his wife, closing the door behind him.

It was difficult to see the interior of the car, the dark tinted windows obscuring all but a slight image of those inside. Neither Annabel nor David attempted to wind down the windows as the car moved forward on the driveway, its heavy wheels crunching the red gravel and spinning slightly. Aunt Jean and Sarah each placed an arm around the forlorn boy as they watched the vehicle pull away from the cottage, move swiftly up the hill away from the beach, and disappear out of sight.
Jonathon’s throat tightened and he blinked furiously to stop the tears from making their unwanted appearance. He pulled away from his Aunt and cousin and made an excuse about needing to get something from his bedroom. He did not come out until he was called for the evening meal. The family had understood exactly how he felt and left him alone to compose himself.

Jonathon settled into his new school easily. He loved the relaxed attitude of his teachers and got on well with his classmates in Year 7. Each morning he would board the school bus with Sarah and travel the twenty kilometres into town, stopping to pick up students from other schools as well. Sarah attended a public high school so Jonathon had to travel a little further on the bus to reach the Shoalhaven College for Boys.

His school was set among stands of gum trees and Casuarinas. It had a long bitumen drive which swept up through well manicured lawns and native gardens to the main entrance and Administration Block. It was here, in the Admin. Block that he met Mr. Guthrie, a short stocky man wearing a white T-shirt, navy shorts and runners on his feet. Mr. Guthrie had asked him if he was lost, realizing he was a new boy in the school. He was extremely helpful and showed Jonathon the way to the canteen where the student could purchase the correct books for his classes.

At the end of the week, to his great delight, Jonathon discovered that Mr. Guthrie was his Physical Education teacher whose teaching specialty was Athletics, Jonathon’s favourite sport. Because the new student had joined the school at the beginning of term two, the P.E. teacher carried out private tests on Jonathon to determine his aptitude at sprints and long distance running. Jonathon was thrilled when he was selected for the Athletics club, which met Tuesdays and Thursdays at lunchtime for special training.
Mr. Guthrie’s sun-tanned and heavily lined face split into a smile after timing the young athlete’s run over 800 metres.
‘Well Jonathon, you might be a lightweight, but you have great stamina. How would you like to train for the Cross Country race? We have a carnival coming up soon against the other schools in this region and I think you would do very well. We will be sending a team of ten athletes from our school and I would like you to represent us in the Junior Cross Country.’

Jonathon was ecstatic. He was actually being invited to represent his school in a sport he loved. Of course he would accept, and he promised Mr. Guthrie he would train very hard and would not miss a single session.

The first six weeks of term two sped by. Jonathon was true to his word and did not miss a single training session, amazing the entire P.E. staff with his determination. Mr. Guthrie had selected a difficult track through the bush, up a steep hill and across dairy farms before returning to the school’s playing fields through the back gate. Not only did Jonathon continue to improve his own time, but also on one occasion, he managed to overtake several other older runners who were using the same track at the time. These senior boys were just as impressed with him as was Mr. Guthrie.

A couple of times the school newspaper reported his efforts in glowing terms and it was one of these articles, along with a half page photograph, that captured the attention of Alan (Bull Neck) Jergins, Danny Spiros and Michael ( Mick) Bellatose. All three boys were in Year 8 and had reputations sufficiently bad enough for the Principal, Mr. MacGregor, to intervene. He issued his last warning about their possible suspensions should their behaviour not improve.

The notorious trio hung over the track fence watching the athletes run their circuits. When Jonathon came near, Bull Neck Jergins lobbed a clod of dirt close enough for the soil to splatter over his runners and legs. The jogger looked back surprised but continued on as he was running against the clock.
‘Hey Bean Pole, what’s ya hurry?’ yelled Bull Neck, his pudgy fingers forming another dirt ball.
‘Yeah, get ya skinny legs over here and talk to us,’ joined in Mick Bellatose.
Danny Spiros took a quick suck on the cigarette he had been hiding in his semi-closed palm and offered it to Bull Neck. He looked annoyed when Jonathon ignored them and continued round the track. ‘He’s only been here a short while and thinks he owns the friggin place…stuck-up arse-hole. Well he’s sure to come round again and if he does we’ll get him.’ he assured the others.
The three boys hurriedly built up a pile of dirt bombs. They then stood up and scanned the group of runners coming towards them hoping to target Jonathon. As the pack ran past they recognized some senior boys among the group. There was no way they were going to mess with these Year 12 students.
‘Get down, quick,’ ordered Danny.
The three boys dropped below the rails hoping they had not been spotted.
‘Oh no! He musta’ quit’, sneered Bull Neck searching the runners as they jogged by. ‘Betcha` the yellow-bellied shit is scared out of his wits and is heading for the nearest teacher.’
Danny rubbed the dirt off his hands onto his trousers, then gave it a second thought and rubbed them off on Mick’s instead. ‘Don’t worry mate, we’ll just get him after school. I know what bus he catches. He won’t know what hit him,’ he said smugly.
‘What are we going to do’ asked Mick hitting Danny’s hand away.
‘I dunno’, but I’ll think of something by three-thirty.’
The bell sounded for afternoon lessons and the boys knew they had exactly five minutes to be seated in class.
‘What have we got this ‘arvo’?’ asked Bull Neck as they tried to trip each other over going up the grassy slope to the assembly quad.
‘I ‘dunno’, answered Danny, ‘I think its double maths’.
The three groaned in unison. They continued up the slope and along the path toward the quadrangle where they had left their bags. When they were almost there Danny grabbed the other two.
‘Hey look, there he is,’ he said, pointing to the freshly showered and changed small boy who was just about to enter his classroom.

Bull Neck couldn’t help himself. He sprinted across the quad and grabbed Jonathon’s backpack, pulling the boy up sharply.
‘Where’d ya` get to Bean Pole? Chicken out on us did ya`?…Run to a teacher did ya`? You’ll keep till this afternoon,’ he threatened, poking a stubby index finger several times into the startled boy’s chest.
Danny pulled Bull Neck away. He knew his friend had a short temper and could become quite violent. ‘Shut up you moron, you’ve got witnesses,’ he hissed.
Bull Neck looked around and saw that several other Year 7 students had come to the door; they were looking just as astonished as Jonathon. Danny and Mick herded Bull Neck towards the Maths block before he exploded. The thick red-necked boy tried to shake them off and complained loudly.
As soon as they were out of earshot of the Year 7 students Danny warned Bull Neck again to shut up and keep going. ‘I’ve told you before that I plan the action and call the shots.’ Bull Neck started to object but Spiros cut him off. ‘You just go friggin crazy, man. A second later you would have flattened that kid and we would have all got suspended. Remember what ole’ MacGregor said, ‘the next time we do something wrong, we’re out…suspended! Ya get me?’ Danny pushed his friend through the door just as the bell rang for the commencement of the lesson.

Peter Andrews was in Jonathon’s class and the two had become good friends. Unfortunately, being Thursday they would have to catch the late bus as both boys had extra Math coaching. That meant most of the school students would have departed by the time they walked down the drive to the bus stop. There would be no protection in numbers. Jonathon looked anxiously around him when they left their math tutorial. He had been so concerned about the threats made by the Year 8 boys he was almost tempted to tell the teacher.
‘Do you reckon those boys will come after me?’ he asked Peter, peering down the road to see if there was anyone waiting for the bus or hopefully a teacher standing close by. ‘Who are they anyway and what do they want with me?’
Peter was just as anxious as Jonathon. He well knew the reputation of the three boys and couldn’t think of a reason as to why they would be picking on his friend. He tried to remain calm although his furtive glances this way and that were a dead give-away.
‘They’re the school dregs and they are always in trouble. They’re losers. If you mess with them, they are likely to put your head down the toilet and flush it. That’s their idea of fun.’ Peter half whispered his answer, and although he knew of no actual incident of this happening, as Jonathon’s friend he felt it his duty to warn him of such things. After all, with the Spiros gang, it really could happen.
The stories of heads down toilet were perpetuated with each fresh batch of Year 7 students and Peter felt some satisfaction in the telling when he realized he had Jonathon’s complete attention. Their pace quickened a little, each boy glancing behind occasionally. Peter felt impelled to give his friend as much information as quickly as possible. To Jonathon, each tale seemed more terrifying than the one before. Peter continued his story telling all the way down the drive. Most of them were hearsay and loosely attributed to the Spiros gang. But some of them were true even though he had embellished them a little. By the time they reached the bus stop Jonathon could hardly swallow he was so scared. There was only one other student waiting at the bus stop, and he too was in Year 7. As though he could offer some protection both boys went and stood with him.

Hidden in a thicket of Mirror bush and Grevillea three stalkers inched their way forward. They had changed from their uniforms into their grey P.E. tracksuits, the better to conceal themselves. Danny Spiros was the first to arrive at their agreed rendezvous point and he had brought with him several drink bottles filled with water. By the time his friends arrived, he had already made a mound of mud balls each the size of a tennis ball.
Bull Neck and Mick grinned wickedly when they spotted the ammunition and quickly added to the pile. The thick red neck of Alan Jergins went redder still with excitement as they placed the semi-hardened balls into plastic bags. One collapsed in his hand and, as he remolded the clay, he decided to slip a stone in the middle to give it more weight and `fire’ power. He looked at the missile and convinced himself that all the balls in his bag would be better if they each had a stone inside. The three crawled forward, commando-style, on their bellies. They had spotted their victim standing with two other students at the bus stop and they were now in firing range.
‘Ya ready?’ Danny asked.
The two others nodded, grinning like Cheshire cats. The leader stood up ready to hurl the first mud ball.
‘Well, good afternoon gentleman.’ The voice of Mr. Guthrie behind them froze them in their tracks. ‘I see you have been doing a spot of gardening,’ he paused and smiled at their ashen faces, ‘enjoy gardening do you?’
Danny, always capable of thinking on his feet, made a reply for all of them.
‘Yes Sir. We have… er…chosen plant propagation for our elective in Agriculture next term and we were just collecting some clay for our experiments.’
Mick and Bull Neck looked at Danny in amazement but said nothing.
‘Oh good. Very good.’ Mr. Guthrie tapped the ends of his fingers together and looked up to the sky in contemplation. ‘You’re just the boys I’ve been looking for. I have a garden that is not doing so well outside the P.E. staff room and it is just begging for some attention. With your interest in gardening I know you won’t mind giving up a few of your lunch times to weed it and bring it up to scratch, will you?’
Bull Neck was just about to open his mouth and object when Danny interjected.
‘No Sir, that will be fine. When do you want us to start?’
‘Well, the sooner the better. Tomorrow, lunch time?’ The teacher had a wry smile on his face as he led the way up the hillside. ‘Let me show you the garden in question…Oh! I see you have left your experimental clay behind.’ He pointed to the plastic bags that had been dumped under one of the bushes. ‘You had best go and collect them otherwise you will be a day behind in your Agricultural assignment. By the way, I would love to read your report when you have finished, it’s not often we get students as keen as yourselves staying back at school collecting soil. I’m sure you will do very well. In fact, your efforts are deserving of some kind of recognition. I will mention your endeavours to your Ag. teacher… Mr. Gray, isn’t it?’
‘Yes Sir,’ they chorused. Bull Neck and Mick looked daggers at Danny who just shrugged.
Somewhere in the distance behind them they heard a bus pull up, then heavily change gears as it drove away.

From his staff-room window, Mr. Guthrie had watched, with great curiosity, the infamous Spiros gang as they scrambled down the slope and disappeared into the shrubbery at the front of the school. Danny Spiros had entered first followed a few minutes later by his pals, Jergins and Bellatose. At least half an hour elapsed and the boys had not emerged from their hiding place. From his position on the hill the teacher could see the sweep of the drive, the heavily vegetated area beside the school gates and part of the main road outside the college. His suspicions were aroused when he recognized Jonathon and another boy hurrying towards the bus stop. Intrigued by the secretive activities of the trio and armed with the information given to him by a senior student in relation to a dirt-throwing incident on the track earlier in the day, he moved swiftly down the slope unobserved and into the thick undergrowth. So it was with some satisfaction he put the boys to work on the garden at lunchtime knowing that his track students could train without interference and that the trio would stay out of trouble.
He could not have known that the gardeners were more convinced than ever that Jonathon had ‘dobbed’ on them and was the cause of their present physical detention. As they dug, raked and removed weeds they fumed and plotted an even worse revenge for the unsuspecting boy.
‘We’ll take our time and do it gradually so no one will know it’s us,’ said Danny menacingly. His eyes narrowed giving his sharp features a weasel like appearance. He shifted a large rock that had made its way to the surface. ‘If we rush it we’ll get caught again.’
The others agreed.

Jonathon and Peter kept a wary eye open for the gang when they were outside class. There were no more threats and, they noticed, the three boys seemed to be more interested in doing a job for Mr. Guthrie than harassing Jonathon.
‘They must have just been big-noting themselves,’ concluded Peter taking a lick of his friends ice block. ‘Probably puffing themselves up because you are getting well-known with all your running and stuff. If they can make you look silly it makes them look big, kind of thing.’
‘Well I sure hope they’ve lost interest in me and leave me alone,’ the other replied, retrieving his ice block for the third time before it completely disappeared. ‘By the way, it’s my birthday Saturday-week and Aunt Jean said I could invite a couple of friends. Would you like to come?’
Peter’s eyes lit up and his freckled nose wrinkled as he grinned broadly. ‘Sure thing, what time?’
‘She didn’t say, but why don’t you see if you can come for the whole day and we can go surfing together.’ Jonathon delved into the brown paper bag that had been offered to him by his friend. ‘Yum! Red jelly snake and there is a green one in there too. Bags the jelly snakes.’
‘Okay, as long as you leave all the aniseed black cats for me.’
The boys sat down under a tree and spread their maths books out so they could compare the answers to their homework before class.
‘Who else is coming?’ asked Peter, satisfied that their answers matched.
Jonathon closed his book and put it back in his bag. ‘I thought I would invite Jamie Redfern from the track team. Do you know him?’
‘Yeah! He’s really cool. He was in my Wood Technics class last rotation. He tells ‘sick’ jokes, and even has the teachers laughing because he acts out all the parts.’
Jonathon was pleased with this bit of information. He would have two friends coming to his birthday and they liked each other. Then he noticed Peter had a troubled look on his face.
‘What’s up?’ he inquired.
Peter gazed across the lawn to the P.E. Block at the three figures working in the garden.
‘I don’t understand it,’ he said at last. ‘Those creeps are still working on the garden…there’s gotta’ be a catch. The school or Mr. Guthrie must be paying them or something. There’s no way they would do that unless there was a good reason.’

With a birthday coming up, and everything at school going well, Jonathon couldn’t have been happier, and, except that his geography textbook went missing from his bag, he would say things were great. He searched for it everywhere at home and at school but it was nowhere to be found. He knew he would have to replace it out of his own pocket money and that was a bit of a blow. Then the strangest thing happened. The school caretaker found it in the bottom of a trashcan just as he was about to empty it into the incinerator. The puzzled boy tried to clean it up as best he could but the pages were stained, almost unreadable, and some pages were torn in half.
‘You will have to use it until the end of the year,’ stated his Geography teacher, ‘unless you want to buy yourself a new one.’
Jonathon had tried to explain to Mr. George that the book had gone missing and was found in the trashcan, but his teacher was not particularly interested in excuses.
‘You must learn to look after your things and if you can’t act in a more responsible way I will have to take disciplinary action.’
‘How much would a new book cost?’ asked the student timidly.
‘I would guess around thirty dollars.’
Jonathon knew that his pocket money did not stretch that far. He rolled his eyes and looked beseechingly into the stern face of Mr. George.
‘I’m sorry Sir, I don’t have that much money. Would it be alright if I paid it off bit by bit until the end of the year?’
The Geography teacher softened a little. ‘I’ll tell you what I will do. I will lend you an old one until the end of the year, it’s a bit battered but obviously in a better condition than yours. Just make sure this type of thing doesn’t happen again.’
Jonathon thanked Mr. George and silently vowed he would guard the replacement text with his life.

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