Chapter One: Luke Walker and the damsons
Ow! That was a thistle. Luke poked and scratched at it with a stick until it broke away from its roots and could be pushed aside. He then rubbed his grazed wrist and forged ahead, emerging moments later on the other side of the hedge. Simon Butler’s back garden.
It wasn’t the first time Luke had gained illegal entry to Simon Butler’s garden but if all went well it might be the last. He’d been eleven times before, to visit the rabbit. Simon kept his rabbit in a small wooden hutch at the end of the garden, near the dustbins. He used to let her out to play when he first got her but after a couple of months, when the novelty had worn off, he only visited his pet for five minutes once a day to refill her food and water. Luke felt sorry for her. He could see the hutch from his bedroom window next door. When he borrowed his dad’s binoculars he could even see the rabbit.
“She must be so sad and fed up. And bored,” he said to the Robin Hood poster on his wardrobe door, “I’m going to visit her.”
A couple of times a week for the last month and a half, Luke had endured scratches and scuffs, and the hedge had endured bends and breaks, so that the rabbit could have a bit of company. He always took her something from Dad’s vegetable patch – a bit of lettuce, or a carrot maybe – and after the first few times she seemed pleased to see him. She put her face close to the wire and eagerly tugged at the treats he pushed through to her. But he had to be careful not to get caught.
Simon was a smarty-pants who always did his homework and always got good marks. He was good at sports and he was good at maths. He was always the first to put up his hand in class and his shoes were always clean. Irritating though all of that was, Luke could have let it go if Simon hadn’t done something unforgivable.
Luke’s best friend, Joe, was not very fast and he was not very clever. He was last to be picked for every team game and first to be told off in every lesson for not knowing the answer. But he always took it on the chin. He shrugged it off. Sports weren’t his thing. Maths wasn’t his thing. He wasn’t especially enamoured with science or history either but that didn’t worry him. He was the best friend Luke had ever had and was totally reliable. He had kept his mouth shut when Luke tripped over his shoe laces and knocked Mrs Tebbut’s mug of tea all over her desk; he had kept it to himself when Luke accidentally cracked Mrs Tebbut’s windscreen with a cricket ball. He was the kind of friend who could always be depended on.
So when Smarty-Pants told Mrs Tebbut that Joe had copied his test and Joe got sent to the Head Master for cheating, Luke was very cross. Simon Smarty-Pants Butler was a tell-tale and a liar. He could never be trusted. And he didn’t like Luke any more than Luke liked him. It was vital that Luke didn’t get caught.
He crawled across the lawn feeling like Robin Hood or one of his band of outlaws, risking everything to save the innocent.
“I don’t care if Mrs Tebbut don’t think I’m Robin Hood material, that jus’ means I’m doin’ a good job foolin’ ’em,” he rationalized as his knees slid through the mud. “It’s good that I’m goin’ to be Sheriff of Nottin’am’s Guard Number two – then no one will guess that I am actually an outlaw in real life.”
When he reached the hutch he glanced towards the house to make sure he wasn’t being watched. The windows looked dark so it was impossible to tell. He’d have to be quick and hope for the best. He opened the hutch and reached for the rabbit.
“Shh shhh, it’s ok, I’m not gonna hurt ya,” he whispered reassuringly, “I’m savin’ ya, like Robin Hood savin’ damsons in distress from the Sheriff’s dungeon.”
He tucked her safely into his shirt and hurried back to the hedge. The rabbit wriggled and squirmed uncomfortably, her heart beating hard and fast.
“Ow! Stop scratchin’ me!” hissed Luke before regretfully adding “I’m sorry to tell you off, but it’s for your own good. I’m bein’ firm but fair,” and he crouched down to exit the way he’d come in.
As his left foot followed the rest of his body out of the Butler garden it knocked over a rake, which struck a gnome, which fell from its pedestal and broke with a crash. Mrs Butler opened the back door.
“Who’s there?” she shouted.
But no one was.
In his own back garden, Luke headed for Dad’s vegetable patch.
“Here you go Scratcher,” he said to the white rabbit as he closed the gate, “this is your new home.”
He placed her gently among the lettuces.
“There’s plenty to eat ‘ere see, we don’t mind sharin’. Dad’s always tellin’ me to share.”
Scratcher hungrily and gratefully tucked in. Nearby, between the carrots and the peas, a reddish brown rabbit and a grey rabbit watched with moderate interest as they nibbled and chewed. Luke made introductions.
“And there’s friends for you to play with. I rescued Rusty yes’dy but Ash just come today like you. They’re quiet but I think you’ll get on alright with ’em.”
It transpired that Luke, though quite new to outlawdom, was not one to procrastinate. As someone who hated being confined to his room, he sympathised with anyone imprisoned alone and was determined to help them. Ash and Rusty had been housed similarly to Scratcher in two different back gardens adjacent to the playing field. Spotting them during ball retrieval operations, Luke had decided that those damsons needed rescuing and was certain he was the outlaw for the job.
Luke kept his new friends company for the next ninety-eight minutes until the sound of his mum’s voice calling from the house reminded him that it was nearly tea time.
“I’ve got to go in for me tea now,” he explained, “but I’ll see you tomorrow,” and he showed Scratcher where she could sleep when she got tired.
Ash and Rusty didn’t need to be shown, being already aware of the small hole in the side of Dad’s shed made by Luke with Dad’s hammer. He had been very considerate in making the hole, ensuring that it was at the back so as not to look untidy to the casual observer; and making it just rabbit-sized. He was confident he’d thought of everything.
“Dad on’y uses it at weekends,” he concluded, “so you won’t be in nobody’s way in there at night.”
Feeling very satisfied with his first week of outlawing, he said goodnight and went inside. Mum had her back to him when he stepped into the kitchen.
“Is tea ready?”
“Yes, just about. You’d better go and wash your hands,” she said as she turned to face him. “Luke!” she gasped.
“Whaaat?” said Luke, frowning at his frowning parent.
He wondered what on Earth he’d done to deserve such a reception as he stood, with muddy face, muddy hands, muddy knees and muddy shoes, at the end of the trail of muddy footprints on the tiled floor.
Being considerate in all things, Luke complied with Mum’s vehement suggestion that he wash more than just his hands, and came to the table in clean clothes. Jared, his older brother, looked at him curiously as if wondering what he’d been doing and Luke returned the look without enlightening him. Mum served up their tea but, as usual, didn’t sit down with them. She would wait for Dad to get home and eat with him.
Luke was dismayed to see bacon on his plate again. He had recently discovered what bacon really was: not food at all but slices of dead piglet. He was horrified. The fact that his parents, who had always told him to be good and kind, would choose to eat it was very confusing. He thought at first that they must not be aware of what it actually was, but when he explained it to them they were not surprised. They told him that people need to eat meat but that he shouldn’t worry because the animals were killed humanely (which they said meant ‘gently’ ). Luke was unconvinced.
“Killed gently! So they don’t mind you killin’ ’em then, is that what you’re sayin’? They like it do they? They look forward to it I suppose because their murderers are so gentle!”
After some lengthy discussion in this vein, during which Luke’s parents failed to persuade him to see reason, his mum effected his silence by sternly insisting that she knew best and Luke must eat his meat. Luke said no more at that time but was determined not to.
Again faced with the need to be rid of his bacon, Luke discreetly took a rasher and held it below the table for Dudley. Dudley, his dog, very obligingly took it from him. At that moment Mum reappeared in the doorway.
“What did you just do?” she demanded angrily.
“Whaaat? Nothin’. I dint do nothin’.”
“I was on’y feedin’ someone what was hungry,” Luke explained innocently, “jus’ bein’ generous, that’s all.”
“You know very well that Dudley has already had his dinner and if you keep giving him yours he’s going to get fat!”
Dudley ate fast. Mum went on.
“Don’t ever do that again! You’re a growing boy Luke, you need to eat your meat!”
Luke stuck to his guns.
“I don’t want it! I’ve got Prince Pauls!”
He’d heard the vicar talking about living by one’s principles in the school assembly that morning. It meant having values and putting them into practice; it meant actions speak louder than words; it meant if you love animals you don’t eat them. Luke had never heard of Prince Paul before but knew he must have been a good bloke.
“Prince who? What on Earth are you on about?”
Mum had obviously never heard of him either.
“I’ve got veggietarian Prince Pauls.”
Mum was not impressed.
“Oh give me strength!” she said, “well, you can explain that one to your Dad.”
“But he won’t be home ’til after bedtime right?” asked Luke, hopeful that he wouldn’t have to have that conversation tonight.
“He’s already home. I just saw him walking down the garden. Checking on his lettuces no doubt.”
Luke, suddenly not so confident that he’d thought of everything, became pale as it dawned on him that Dad might not understand that it was a good idea for the damsons to live in the veg patch. He felt sure that, in time, his new friends would be welcome additions to the family, but knew that his dad was not one to take to something right away and it would be better for everyone if they did not meet just yet.
“LUKE!” His dad’s booming voice reached the house before he did.
“How did he know it was me?” Luke wondered.
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