A great big hand swung down from on high and caught Big Bob in the side of the head.
'Why you bastard!' Big Bob rarely swore, but that hand hit him hard.
'What did you say, Charker?'
Big Bob glared towards the sky. But the sky wasn't there any more. Where the sky had been was ceiling, and a ceiling Big Bob knew.
'I said, oh…' Big Bob coughed, there was something strange about his voice now. And… He blinked and stared and gawped. From the ceiling to the walls, to the window, to the blackboard to the teacher Mr Vaux.
Mr Vaux, his primary-school teacher. Mr Vaux who had flown a fighter plane in the war that few remembered any more. Mr Vaux who had been a prisoner of war. Mr Vaux who had no truck with ten-year-old boys who swore.
'Sleeping, were you, Charker?' asked Mr Vaux. 'Daydreaming? Wistfully staring out of the window thinking of home time and Pogs in your own back passage?'
'I? What? How?' went Bob the Big.
'And what was that you called me?'
'I?' went Big Bob. 'I?' He looked and he blinked and then looked some more. His classroom' at Grange Primary School. And all the class were there. Trevor Alvy who bullied him. David Rodway, his bestest friend. Periwig Tombs with his Mekon head. Phyllis Livingstone the dark-haired girl from Glasgow, the very first love of his life. And there, over there in the corner, where she had always been, until her desk became empty, Ann Green, the little girl with the yellow hair, who had died in that final summer at the primary, when the swingboat in the memorial park hit her in the throat.
'I?' Big Bob gagged. There was something wrong with his voice. He raised his hands towards his throat and then he saw his hands. They were the hands of a child. His hands when he'd been a child. In the days when his hands had been skinny little hands. Skinny and grubby and stained with ink.
Nasty little hands, as his mother always said. 'Nasty little naughty little hands.'
'What?' went Big Bob, Small Bob now, in his squeaky ten-year-old voice.
'Oh we have been sleeping, haven't we?' said Mr Vaux and he caught Big, no it was Small Bob now, another clout across the head.
'Keep your hands off me, thou…'
'Thou?' went Mr Vaux, laughing. 'Are we "thouing" again? I thought we'd cured you of all that nonsense. One hundred lines, wasn't it?'
'This is madness.' Big, no, Small Bob rose to take his leave.
'Sit down, boy,' cried Mr Vaux. And Small Bob stared at him in awe. The class was laughing now. The boys and girls nudging each other, whispering behind their hands and laughing.
'Charker's a loony boy,' Trevor Alvy chanted. 'Charker's a loony boy, loony boy, loony boy.'
'Shut it Alvy,' shouted Mr Vaux.
And Trevor Alvy shut it.
'It's the headmaster's office for you, sonny Jim,' said Mr Vaux and he took Small Bob by the ear.
'No,' cried Bob. 'Unhand me. You understand not. Something's happened to me. I shouldn't be back here. I'm a grown-up man now. Not a child, I'm not a child.'
'Charker's a loony boy,' whispered Trevor Alvy.
'The class will remain silent,' said Mr Vaux. 'I am taking Charker to the headmaster's office where he will have his trouser seat dusted by six of the very best.'
'You'll do no such thing, thou odorous wretch.' Small Bob writhed and twisted, but he couldn't break away, he didn't have the strength. And there were tears coming to his eyes. Tears of rage and frustration. He glared bitterly up at Mr Vaux. The schoolmaster glared right back at him.
He was a helpless child, caught by the ear by a schoolmaster and now being dragged from the classroom.
'You don't understand,' he continued, as Mr Vaux hauled him along the school corridor. 'Something's happened to me. The tour bus crashed and I woke up in hospital. But the doctors couldn't see me and then there was this terrible voice and it said that I was in a game and…'
Cuff, went the schoolmaster's non-ear-gripping hand. Cuff about Small Bob's other ear.
'You're a dreamer, boy,' quoth Mr Vaux. 'A dreamer and a wastrel. You're no good for anything. Never have been, never will be. You're a waste of space.'
'No, I… no stop hitting me.'
Mr Vaux drummed a fist upon the glass panel of the headmaster's office. Sounds of hurried movement issued from within.
'Just a moment,' called the voice of the headmaster. 'I'm just attending to something. Just one moment please.'
Memories returned to Bob. Troubling memories. Memories of the headmaster. And what the headmaster had done.
It had been years after Big Bob left the primary school. He'd been in his early twenties. The scandal had been in the local newspaper. About the headmaster and how he'd 'interfered' with little boys for years.
'Release my ear, thou wretch,' demanded Bob. 'I will not enter the lair of that paedophile.'
Silence, terrible silence. The corridor seemed filled with silence now. Oppressive silence pressing in.
Bob stared up at Mr Vaux. The schoolmaster's face was cherry red, great veins stood out upon his neck.
'You foul-mouthed little piece of filth,' cried Mr Vaux, shattering the silence into a million fragments. 'You disgusting little
The headmaster's door swung open. A pale-faced youth pushed past, tears in his frightened eyes. He limped up the corridor and vanished into the boys' toilets. Mr Vaux dragged Small Bob into the headmaster's office.
Bad boys had to stand at the bench at break times.
The bench was in the main corridor. It stood between the showcase that displayed the trophies won by boys of athletic bent in many a county championship, and the barometer, brassy and mysterious inside its mahogany case. What were barometers really for? How did they work?
Big Bob had never known. He hadn't known when he was Small Bob. He was Small Bob now.
Small Bob stood at the bench. His face was streaked with tears. Tears of rage and frustration and from the pain. The pain of the terrible thrashing the headmaster had dealt him out.
Mr Vaux had had to hold Bob down whilst the head went about his torturing. The pain had been excruciating. It still hurt more than any pain that Bob had ever known.
And he was here. He was here. Really here. Back in the primary school. And he wasn't dreaming. You couldn't stand pain like that in a dream without waking up. He was here and he was him. Himself. Bob Charker. But Bob Charker, ten years of age.
'I was wrong,' said Small Bob to himself. 'So wrong. I got the wrong movie. This isn't like that Tron at all. This isn't even a movie, this is like unto that old TV series Quantum Leap. I've leapt back into the past. But I'm not someone else, I'm myself. And I am me. I am. I'm real, I can feel myself
He could certainly feel the pain in his behind.
'I have to think this through,' said Small Bob to himself. 'There must be some way to get forward again to the future. Some wormhole, or doorway, or something. I just have to figure it out. Then I can be free of this horror.'
Trevor Alvy walked past him. Small Bob lowered his eyes. It had never been wise to look Alvy full in the face. Trevor Alvy stopped, looked up and down the corridor then returned to Bob. He grinned at Bob, who tried to grin back, but couldn't.
And then Alvy kicked him right in the ankle and ran off laughing evilly.
'You bastard, you bastard, you bastard.' Bob hopped up and down. Til get you for that. Thou wilt suffer at my hands. Oh yes thou wilt.'
The corridor was empty and Bob wondered now whether he should simply run away. Why not? Just go, run home. Run home? Home to his mum?
Small Bob's eyes filled once again with tears. His mum. She'd died when he was fifteen. If he was a child again, he could see his mother again. And his dad too, although his dad used to knock him about quite a bit. But he'd really like to see his mum. In fact…
'In fact,' said Bob to himself. 'I should go and see my mum right now. In case I just quantum leap all of a sudden when I'm not expecting it. It would be \vonderful to see her. Even just for a moment or two. I could tell her…'
Small Bob paused and a lump came into his throat. 'I could tell her how much I love her. I never did when I was a child. I'm sure I never did.'
Of course the house seemed bigger now. That little house in Dacre Gardens. That little house with its well-kept window boxes and its sleeping tomcat on the window sill.
'Old boy Rathbone,' said Small Bob, ruffling the pussycat's head. 'Thou venerable mouser, it's good to see thee, boy.'
Above him his parents' bedroom window flew up and a pinched and troubled face glared down. Bob grinned up. 'Mum,' he said. 'Mum look, it's me.'
The pinched and troubled face continued to glare. 'What are you doing home, you little sod?' his mum called down.
'Who is it?' called a man's voice from behind her.
Bob's mother turned slightly. 'Shut up,' she muttered, 'he'll hear you.'
'Who's that, Mum?' called Bob.
'Shut up. It's no-one. What are you doing home now? You've bunked off school, haven't you?'
'Mum, I had to tell thee, 11-'
'You just wait till your father hears about this, he'll leather your arse with his belt.'
'Come back to bed Doris,' the strange voice called again from within.
'Mum, who's that?'
'It's no-one. It's no-one. And if you say anything to anyone, I'll bung you in the coal hole with the spiders for the night.'
'Go back to school at once.'
And the bedroom window slammed down shut and Bob was left alone.
'Mum,' he whispered and snivelled as he did so. 'Mum, I did love you. I did.' And Small Bob ruffled the tomcat's head once more, turned sadly and wandered away.
He wandered down to the Flying Swan. But then, remembering that he was now just a child, he wandered away from there. He wandered into the Plume Cafe and ordered a cup of coffee. The proprietor, Old Mr Lovegrove, demanded to see coin of the realm. Small Bob found that his pockets, filled as they were with such useful items as lolly sticks, pieces of string, bottle tops and a five-amp fuse, were bare as the cupboard of L. Ron's mum, when it came to the price of a coffee.
Mr Lovegrove hauled him out by the ear and flung him into the street.
Small Bob sat himself carefully down upon a bench in the memorial park. He would dearly have loved a pint and also a cigarette. His head was spinning, his ears were red and his backside smarted dreadfully.
'Woe unto me,' whispered Small Bob to himself. 'Woe unto Small Bob, helpless in a world of cruel and brutal adults. I never knew that being a child was really as awful as this. I'm sure I remember it being sunshine and coach trips to the seaside. Well at least the sun is shining, which is something. But was childhood really this ghastly? Surely not. Or perhaps it was, but we just took it for granted. Made the best of it and only remember those best bits when we grow up.
'What a dismal happenstance. But no. Holdest thou on there, Small Bobby Boy. This doesn't have to be a torment. Anything but. Surely this is everybody's dream. To be young again. But knowing all the things that you wish you'd known then. You'd be one step ahead of everybody else. Two steps. Ten steps. And you could get rich. Play the stock market, knowing what shares to buy. Invent some invention that was everyday •when you were grown-up but didn't exist when you were a child.'
Small Bob grinned and now began to rack away at his brains. What did he know, that no-one in this time knew about yet? There had to be something, and something he could profit from. Something that could make him somebody in this world.
But slowly the grin began to fade away from his small and hopeful face. He didn't know anything. He didn't know anything about stocks and shares. And how would he go about inventing some piece of advanced technology that was everyday in the world he'd just come from? He had no idea whatsoever.
'Well well well.'
Bob looked up and Trevor Alvy looked down.
'You bunked off school,' said Trevor. 'You're in real big trouble.'
'Go away thou foolish child,' said Bob. 'Thou art a bullying little buffoon. You will be sent to approved school when you're twelve and, by the time you're seventeen, to prison for stealing a Ford Fiesta. Dost thou wish this future for thyself? Come, I bear thee no malice. I understand now why thou behavest as thou dost. Rage and frustration. I understand well. Let us speak of these things. And… Oww!'
Trevor Alvy had him in a headlock. He dragged Bob down to the dust, grinding his face and squeezing his neck. Bob squealed and struggled to no avail. And Bob remembered well. It had been Alvy's torments that had made him train when a teenager. Go to the gym, lift weights, work out, learn the martial arts. Bully no man, but let no man ever bully him.
Trevor Alvy poked him in the eye. 'That to you loony boy,' he cried. And then he jumped up, kicked Bob in the ribs and ran away.
Small Bob lay there weeping. That was it. That was enough. That was all he was prepared to stand. He was going to get out of here. Run away to sea. Sign on as a cabin boy. Get away. Run. Run away.
Children were pouring into the park now. Laughing happy children. Children who were making the best of being children. Children who didn't know anything else except that they were children and this was the way things were.
Bob huddled there in a very tight ball, his fists pushed into his eyes.
'Bobby,' said a little squeaky voice. 'Bobby, are you all right?'
Bob peered up through his fingers. It was Phyllis Livingstone. The little dark Glaswegian girl smiled down at him. She had a front tooth missing and orange-juice stains at the corners of her mouth. And even from where Bob lay, or perhaps because of where Bob lay, he could smell her. Phyllis Livingstone smelled of wee wee. She didn't smell nice at all.
In fact, as Bob looked up at her, he could see most clearly now that she really didn't look very nice at all, either. Gawky, that was the word. All out of proportion. Children aren't miniature adults, their heads are far too big. If an adult had a head as big as that in proportion to its body, it would be a freak.
Bob thought of Periwig Tombs. Perhaps his head had just kept on growing along with his body.
'Are you all right, Bobby?' asked Phyllis again.
'You smell of wee wee,' said Small Bob. 'And your head is too big and I'm sick of this world and I want to go back to my own and… oh… ouch!'
Phyllis Livingstone kicked him. And she kicked him very hard.
And then, with tears in her little dark eyes, she turned and ran away.
Small Bob wept a bit more and then he dragged himself to his feet. He really had had enough. He ached all over. He was sore and he was angry. He wanted to go home. No, he didn't want to go home. He just wanted out. Out of this and back to his real self.
He shuffled to the playground and pressed his face against the wire fence. The children, happy, laughing, played upon the swings and on the climbing frame. A fat boy named Neville sat in one of the swingboats. Ann Green, little yellow-haired girl, pushed the swingboat forward. Up and back, she caught the swingboat, pushed it forward, up and back.
Small Bob watched her. He felt listless, hopeless, angry, wretched.
Up the swingboat went, forward up, then down and back again.
'There must be something,' said Small Bob bitterly under his breath. 'Something that will let me out of here. How didst it go in that damn programme QuantumLeap? The hero had to change something. Save someone. Put something right. That's how it worked. And then he was free. Well, free to leap somewhere else, into some other time the next week. But that was how it worked.'
Small Bob watched Ann Green pushing the swing-boat.
Forward, up, then down and back again.
'Look at her,' said Bob to himself. 'Silly little girl, pushing that swingboat. She doesn't know. Alvy will end up in prison and she'll end up dead from that swing-boat. And she doesn't know…'
'Oh.' Small Bob's jaw dropped open. Quantum Leap. Saving someone. That was how it worked. Ann Green would die, hit in the throat by that swingboat. And only he, Big Bob, Small Bob knew that it would happen.
'Thou brain-dead buffoonican!' Small Bob shouted at himself. 'That's the answer.'
Up went the swingboat, up and forward, down and back. Up and forward, down and back and up and forward and…
'Ann!' shouted Bob. 'Ann, get away from the swing-boat.'
'What?' The little girl caught at the polished metal as the swingboat swung towards her once again. Caught the metal bar and pushed it forward.
'Ann, get away. Get away Ann. Please do it.'
'Who's calling me?' The little girl turned her head. 'Who's calling me?'
Small Bob saw the swingboat coming down.
'Ann!' he shouted. 'Duck! Duck!'
The little girl's mouth was open. Wet, with orange-juice stains at the corners. Her eyes were blue. Her hair a yellow swag.
'No!' cried Bob.
The swingboat sailing down caught the little girl in the throat. It knocked her backwards, sent her staggering, but she didn't fall.
Bob saw the face. The eyes. The mouth. The golden hair. He saw her expression. Puzzled.
Up went the swingboat, forward, up then back and down again.
As Small Bob watched, it hit her in the forehead.
Blood upon yellow hair, the blue eyes staring.
Ann Green toppled sideways and lay dead.