Authors: Christine Bongers
Christine Bongers has worked as a television journalist, documentary writer and media consultant, but is happier writing fiction. Her work was short-listed for the 2006 Varuna Manuscript Awards. She has a Master of Arts in youth writing. Her first novel,
was published by Woolshed Press to critical acclaim and is a Children's Book Council of Australia Notable Book for Older Readers.
Christine enjoys life in Brisbane with her husband and kids, their ageing cat Al, and a very bad beaglier called Huggy. No-one listens to her at home. At Saturday swim club, she wields a megaphone and no-one listens to her there either. More at
FOR CONNOR, BRYDIE, CLANCY AND JAKE
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She was waiting with a gaggle of mates, blocking the stairs leading back down from our classroom. Golden in the sunlight, with that curious blend of stealth and grace that marked the lion queens of the jungle. I lumbered towards the all-female pride, a wildebeest, hell-bent on his own destruction.
In nature, there were thousands of us, protected by numbers, sacrificing only the occasional member to predators that liked to feed on the weak. But here in the wildlife preserve of Perpetual Suckers, I was the only straggler. The odd one out. The one to be brought down, torn to pieces and consumed.
Not for the first time that morning, I cursed Mum, threefold, under my breath.
For renting a house, two weeks into first term, in the same street as the smallest, daggiest school in Brisbane.
For enrolling me, a non-Catholic (non-anything as far as I knew), in Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, a school that even Catholic boys knew to avoid.
And for not doing her homework â yet again â so that it was left for me to discover, during the drawn-out assembly and the class that followed, that I was the
boy in Year Seven.
There was no point in pretending I was cool with it. Mum always said that one look at my face and Blind Freddy could tell what I was thinking. The curse of a thin skin and a strong heart: that awful rush of blood that swept up my pale neck and engulfed my head at times like these.
Hot blood hammered an urgent jungle beat in my ears, competing with the breathy, singsong chant that started up at the head of the stairs.
Henry Hoey Hobson ... Henry Hoey Hobson
I buried my burning face in my bag, but there weren't too many places a lunch box could hide. Eventually I'd have to surface and face the inevitable problems of where to sit, and how to while away a twenty-minute break, with no friends and no prospects.
are you? Look, everyone â Henry Hoey Hobson is
The voice was incredulous, teasing, with the tiniest underlay of triumph. The same voice that had led the chorus. I'd made her day, revealed a weak spot; given her an opportunity to parade my private failing as a public event.
My heart sank. It only took one. One pushy personality to take a set against the newbie and the rest of the class would fall like dominoes.
A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed my worst fears.
It was her, the queen of the catty Year Sevens.
She was pretty â they usually were â with the sort of aggressive playfulness you'd see in a cat toying with a lizard in the sun. She tossed a thick blonde rope of hair over one shoulder as she turned to giggle back at her friends.
A name popped up out of the green jumble of uniforms, the red haze of confusion.
. Angel child.
I ran a sweaty hand through the straight black hair that fell from twin cowlicks on my forehead.
Girls never singled me out for anything good. Not at the last school and sure as hellfire not here at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
I squared my shoulders and my hair flopped back into its usual daggy centred bum-part. It was better to meet the challenge head-on. Six primary schools in less than seven years had taught me that much.
Might as well get it over with and try, yet again, to rise above my natural disadvantages.
Maybe this time, for the first time, I'd beat the odds, and fit in.
I stretched a tight-lipped smile over the new metal grill in my mouth and swung it in the direction of the catty pack blocking the stairs.
I was aiming for
would have settled for
and hoped against hope that, just this once, I could avoid
A burst of wild giggling set me straight.
I ducked my head, the loopy grin stapled to my teeth. Blood pumped furiously through my brainless skull, lighting it up like a red neon bulb.
Smiling made me look like a village idiot; why couldn't I just accept it and stop doing it?
I tried to rearrange my lips, but they chose that moment to stop responding to my commands. The metal cheese-grater in my mouth had been shredding the inside of my lips for the past week. Mum said it would get better when my mouth toughened up. Like my mouth could achieve what the rest of me had never managed.
Now my lacerated lips, dry as snakeskin from nerves, had stuck to the wires encasing my teeth. I could feel my face twitching with the effort of trying to get the stupid crazed grin off my face.
A fresh explosion of giggles spiked panic through my veins. I gulped like a stranded fish, trying to prise my lips off the metal cage on my teeth. On the third attempt, the skin tore loose, my poor ulcerated lips sagging in relief.
A high-pitched shriek cut short any hope of a reprieve.
âYuck! That's blood running out of the corner of his mouth! Omygod, run! Henry Hoey Hobson's a vampire!'
I splashed water on my face and stared at my reflection in the mirror above the washbasin.
I was alone with my cowardice, having ditched lunch box and morning break for the safety of the boys' toilets.
My lip had stopped bleeding. The high colour had drained from my face, leaving it pale against the black wings of my hair.
My eyes were blue marbles, too big for my face; âfreaky', I'd heard kids mutter when I stared too hard in their direction. So I'd learned to keep my eyes to myself. Spare them the attention; spare myself any further humiliation.
But here, alone in the whitewashed toilet block, I could stare openly at the strange creature in the mirror.
I no longer recognised myself; God only knew what other people made of me.
My last school had dubbed me Blowy Blobson, thanks to the baby fat that no amount of swim training in a succession of school pools had ever managed to shift. But somehow, turning twelve had achieved what six years of swimming laps had never managed.
The end of the school year and the long summer holiday that followed had seen great changes in my size and shape, but it was proving a mixed bag of blessings.
In less than a year I had sprinted through three shoe sizes, adding to Mum's budgetary woes. I had hoped that staying the same size in shorts and shirts for two years running would help balance the financial scales. But no such luck; not when we factored in new uniforms for the three new schools I'd attended in that time.
There was no escaping the scale of change. Where once size-fourteen boys' shorts had cut into the jelly roll around my waist and flapped self-consciously around my knees, now they exposed an alarming and ever-increasing length of white thigh, despite their low-slung position across the newly exposed angles of my hips.
Unfortunately, the disappearance of what Mum called my puppy fat had given me little to crow about.
My voice could no longer be trusted. Most days it would desert without warning, joining the traitorous ranks of thin skin and strong heart. Letting me down when I needed help most; providing ammunition to my enemies.
Henry Hoey Hobson blushes like a girlie and squeals like one too.
He flushes. He squeaks.
The latest recruit in Our Lady of Perpetual Succour's desperate drive to retain boys until the end of primary school. Henry Hoey Hobson: the perfect candidate, a pin-up boy for Perpetual Suckers.
A bloodsucker now, according to the latest opinion poll.
I plucked my lip away from the implement of torture in my mouth and studied the ulcers lining my inner cheeks. Getting better, I concluded, and let it go.
I pushed away from the basin and almost barrelled over the top of a tiny kid who had skidded in under my guard. On reflex I reached out and caught him before he fell.
âWhoa, little fella, sorry about that â you OK?'
He looked like a mushroom. All I could make out under the huge broad-brimmed hat were a couple of sturdy little arms and legs sprouting from the striped shirt and bottle-green shorts. I hoped he had a head. A headless prep kid would just about round off my first day as a Perpetual Sucker.
The hat tilted back and a pair of solemn brown eyes stared up at me.
âYou're vewy tall.' His voice was soft and growly like a lion cub's, but those eyes, they were one hundred percent puppy.
I felt the braces grate against my lips as I stifled a smile; the kid was cute. âAnd you're very short.'
âNo, I'm not.' He jutted his chin. âI'm Sebastian.'
Hard to argue with that. I stuck out my hand. âPleased to meet you, Sebastian. I'm Henry.'
He latched onto my hand and pulled me down to his level. He was surprisingly strong for a fungus. I dropped into a squat to avoid snapping my own spinal column. He leaned forward, right into my face, round eyes barely a handspan in front of mine.
âYou better be careful, Henwy.' He glanced about, dropping his voice to a throaty whisper. âThere's a vampire in the boys' toilet.'
He drew back to gauge my reaction, but for some weird reason I was more interested in his.
âA vampire, huh? So what are
doing in here then, Sebastian?'
He puffed up a solid little chest and roared like a miniature lion. âI'm not scared of any old vampire, mister.'
He risked another quick squiz round the empty washroom. âHave you seen it, Henwy? Is it here?'
I shook my head. âNah, I haven't seen anything.' I bit my lip, unsure if adding more information would help my case any, but my answer seemed to satisfy the toadstool.
âThat's good. 'Cos I really gotta pee. See ya.' He scampered off into an empty stall, the door banging behind him.
The curiously empty toilet block was beginning to make sense.
I pushed myself back up onto my feet. Better make a move before I precipitated a genuine alarm. The last thing I needed was to be responsible for a spate of little accidents from any small fry less adventurous than Sebastian.
I straightened my shoulders, took a deep breath and ventured back out into the Lion's Den.