by Jack Wittels
`You can only go out to the woods if you promise to come back in time for dinner,' said Jimmy's mother. She had her red
apron on, and her soft hands were covered in flour.
`Okay,' said Jimmy, and he went through to the cupboard in the hall under the stairs and picked out the green wellingtons he had got for his sixth birthday. He also took a thick blue coat and some red mittens, it could get cold in the woods sometimes.
`And try not to get your clothes all dirty this time,' Jimmy heard his mother shout from the kitchen.
`Okay,' Jimmy shouted back.
He put on the coat, wellingtons and mittens, went out into the garden and closed the back door behind him.
Outside the air was cool and fresh. Jimmy followed the gentle downward curve of the lawn towards the row of conifer trees at the bottom of the garden. There was a little blue pond on the left hand side, nestled amongst the flower beds. Jimmy had helped his father to dig it in the summer, and now it was covered in brown and orange leaves from the enormous oak tree next door. Jimmy walked down past the pond to the end of the garden, and began to peer more closely at the wall of conifers. After a couple of minutes of searching, he found the tree he was looking for. It was the one with the funny `s' shaped trunk. He slipped in under its boughs.
Stray branches and leaves tried to scratch him as he made his way through. One spiky twig he didn't see in time caught him on the soft skin just under his eye and stung, but Jimmy stayed brave and kept going. It was worth it to get to the woods.
Finally Jimmy burst out from the last groping branches of the conifers into the world of the woods. He felt a pleasant breeze begin to sooth the still stinging skin under his eye. It made the branches of all the trees sway and their leaves rustled with them. Jimmy knew about the wind in the woods. Sometimes it was gentle and the sound of the leaves was soft and quiet, and sometimes it was fierce and the branches twisted and writhed so much that it sounded like you were standing underneath a waterfall.
He began to walk, listening to the sound of the wind in the trees and the crunch of his wellington boots on the brown leaves underfoot. Occasionally he shut his eyes for a couple of seconds. It gave them a nice rest, just staring at the nothingness in the darkness of his eyelids.
Then, somewhere to his left, (it was always difficult to tell precisely where anything was in the woods), Jimmy heard a strange scurrying, scuffling sound. He stood still and looked, but he couldn't see anything. It must have just been his imagination. Jimmy turned back and carried on walking, but in the distance he now saw a big man walking quickly towards him. The man was very tall and thin. He had black shoes like the ones daddy wore to work, dark brown trousers, and a black waistcoat over a white shirt. He had a moustache too, like daddy. But it was much longer and made his nose look pointy. The man stopped in front of Jimmy and looked down at him. After a couple of moments the man said:
`I can run faster than you.'
Jimmy didn't say anything. But he kept on looking up at the man.
The man repeated what he had said. His voice was deep and serious, `I can run faster than you.'
Then he said, `I can eat more than you.'
Jimmy kept on looking, but the man didn't seem to have anything more to say, so he stepped around the man and kept on walking. The man fell in step behind Jimmy, walking only a couple of paces behind. Because of his extremely long legs, the man took only one step for every three of Jimmy's. For every step Jimmy took, the man said another thing that he could do better.
`I can shout louder than you.'
`I can sing better than you.'
`I can hit harder than you.'
`I can see further than you.'
Jimmy kept walking through the woods, and the man kept following him and talking like that. The sound of the man's voice was a little annoying and Jimmy thought about turning round and going home, but the wind began to blow fiercely making the leaves rustle and sound like a waterfall, drowning out the sound of the man's voice. Jimmy began to forget that the man was there, and started to enjoy being in the woods again.
Then, all of a sudden, the wind grew gentler and Jimmy heard another scurrying, scuffling sound, this time coming from somewhere on his right. He stopped again to look and see what it was, and the man behind him stopped as well and was quiet. The sound had come from a green bush they were standing next to. As Jimmy and the tall man watched, a short fat man popped out of the bush and stood in front of Jimmy.
`I know more than you,' said the fat man in a high, squeaky voice.
He was smoking a cigar, and had spectacles on like daddy. He was so fat that as he stood there in front of Jimmy, one of the buttons popped off the waistcoat he was wearing and he didn't even notice. Jimmy didn't say anything, but he didn't look away from the new man.
`I always know what time it is, because I know how to read a clock. I know why you can only have three wishes from a magic lamp. I know how to tie a double bow. I know what's for dinner tonight. I know how Paul McDonald at school makes his conkers as hard as diamonds.'
Jimmy listened to the short, fat man. When he had finished speaking, Jimmy tried to step around the man as before and keep walking the way he had been going. But as soon as he took a step forward, the fat man in front took a step backwards. Jimmy took another step forward, and the fat man took another one back. The thin man behind also started to walk again, so that Jimmy was stuck between them in the middle of a strange sort of procession. What's more, for every step he took, both men would say something new.
`I can jump higher than you.'
`I know what makes the wind blow.'
`I can burp louder than you.'
`I know what's 56 minus 24.'
The two men were starting to annoy Jimmy. With them talking, he couldn't hear the sound of his wellingtons crunching on the leaves, or the rustle of the wind in the trees. And when he shut his eyes, images of whatever the two men were talking about flashed up in the darkness under his eyelids: he could see the wooden desks of the classroom where he had taken the maths test last week, and the orange skipping rope that he and daddy had used for their jumping competition. Jimmy didn't want to see any of these things, but the two men were much older and stronger. So Jimmy just kept on walking, trying not to listen to what they were saying.
Suddenly, the fat man in front stopped walking and was silent. Jimmy and the tall thin man stopped as well. Everything was perfectly quiet. Then, with a shudder, Jimmy heard two more scurrying, scuffling sounds, one on his left and one on his right. There were two new men, one on each side, and they were both walking quickly towards Jimmy.
The one on the left got there first. He was almost as tall as the thin man and looked down at Jimmy with deep blue eyes. His shoulders were wide and his arms were strong. The man brushed back his beautiful locks of dark wavy hair and began to speak in a voice that was more beautiful than any song Jimmy had ever heard.
`I am more handsome than you,' said the beautiful man.
He opened his mouth to say something else, but Jimmy was distracted by the arrival of the second man from the right and turned to face him. The newest man was shorter, but still much bigger than the fat cigar smoking man in front. He had messy blonde hair like Jimmy, shiny white teeth and a sparkle in his eye.
`Daddy loves me more than you,' said the new man.
Then the man on the left started speaking again in his lovely sing song voice, `I've got longer legs than you.'
The man on the right continued, `I'm the favourite boy in the class.'
Then the short fat man in front and the tall thin man behind joined in, so that all the men were talking at once,
`I know what makes the sky blue.'
`Mummy used to take me sledging in the snow.'
`I can do sixteen kickups with a football.'
`Teacher said I'm going to be a very handsome man.'
`I know what daddy does all day at work.'
`Mummy always buys me sweets on the way home from school.'
`I'm the tallest boy in the class.'
`I can reach the top lock on the front door.'
Jimmy put his hands over his ears, but even through the thick red mittens he could still hear them talking. He tried to see past to the trees behind, but they were standing too closely together and he couldn't see anything past their legs. The whole world had shrunk down into this tiny circle of men. It wasn't like being in the woods at all anymore. Jimmy began to feel as though the men's voices were pouring into him, like boiling water from a kettle, drowning and burning up his insides. Hot angry words sizzled in his stomach, images of what the men were saying cut into his brain. He could feel a hot angry steam beginning to rise up inside him, his body was trying to reject their words. The steam started burning up his throat, closer and closer, hotter and hotter. Jimmy quickly tilted his head back and opened his mouth to let it out.
As soon as he did this, the men stopped talking and leant forwards expectantly. They didn't know about the steam, they thought Jimmy had opened his mouth to say something.
Jimmy knew he had to fill the silence somehow, but he didn't know what to say. He stood still, mouth still open. The men all leant forwards even more. The fat man in front looked as if he would topple forwards at any moment, his over-hanging stomach was practically touching the ground. Jimmy remained perfectly still. The fat man began rolling the cigar over to the corner of his mouth, it looked as if he was going to start speaking again. The other men began to open their mouths as well, Jimmy felt the steam begin to rise up inside him. He had to say something to these men. Jimmy opened his mouth a little wider.
`Do you know what I can do?' he asked in a high, quiet little voice.
The men all leant in even closer to Jimmy, the tall man behind craning his neck so much that Jimmy could feel his breath rippling through his hair.
`No, we don't know,' said the tall, thin man. `What can you do that we can't, Jimmy?'
Jimmy looked up at each of the men in turn. They had crowded in so closely that they even blocked out the sky. The world had become a tiny dark ring of heavy breathing and expectation. Jimmy counted up to three in his head. Then he said to the men, `I can make all the water jump out of the bath,' he said. `In one, big, splash.' And he waved his arms in a gesture that showed all the water coming out of the bath in one enormous splash.
The tall thin man stood up straight and looked at the other three men.
`Can you do that?' he asked them.
`I've never tried,' said the fat man. `Can you?'
The tall thin man shook his head. `I don't know,' he said. `I've never tried either.'
You could tell from the expressions on the other two men's faces that they had never tried as well.
The tall thin man looked back at Jimmy. `Can you really do that?' he asked. `All the water in the whole bath? In only one splash? It sounds impossible to me.'
But Jimmy nodded up at the man. `Yes,' he said. `All in one splash.'
The tall thin man looked back at the others. They all looked very worried.
`What shall we do now?' he said.
Nobody responded. The fat man was puffing very quickly on his cigar, staring intently into the distance. The handsome man on the left had pulled a comb from his pocket and was running it rapidly through his hair. The man on the right had begun to rub his hands together, so fast that his palms were going pink.
Jimmy's eyes went back to the fat man. He was still puffing hard and fast on the cigar, hardly even breathing any of the smoke back out. As Jimmy watched, the man's whole frame seemed to be expanding, and his face began to glow red from inside. He must be filling up with smoke, thought Jimmy, just like I did with steam. Then just as the fat man looked as though he was about to pop, he opened his fat mouth and let out a little smoke. As he did so, he squeaked to the group in a very fast, high pitched voice, `I'm not going to waste any time standing here. I'm going home to run a bath, and when it's ready, I'm going to practice jumping in and knocking all the water out in one, big, splash.'
And with that the fat man turned around and vanished into the woods, still smoking his cigar. The way in front of Jimmy was clear, but he wanted to go home, not further into the woods. Then the blonde haired man on the right began to speak, `Mummy and Daddy won't love me if I can't make all the water jump out the bath like you can,' he sobbed to Jimmy. `I'm going to go and practice too. Goodbye everyone.'
And he began to walk off into the woods.
`Wait for me!' shouted the man on the left. `I will help you practice. You are the only one who tells me how beautiful I am.' And he ran off into the woods after the sobbing man.
Jimmy watched until the pair had become invisible among the trees, then slowly turned round, expecting to see the brown trousers of the tall, thin man waiting for him. But they weren't there, the man had already begun to walk off into the woods back the way they had come. And now it was Jimmy's turn to follow; the man was walking in the same direction as Jimmy's house.
Jimmy walked quickly and soon caught up. The man looked different from behind. The back of his shiny head was bald with only a thin arch of grey hair around the bottom, and his shiny black waistcoat had some ugly brown stains in the middle of its back. As Jimmy got closer, he could hear the man mumbling along to himself. `All the water. All of it. And in only one splash. A big splash though. Maybe I'll be able to do it first time. And if not? I will tie stones to my body to make myself bigger. He didn't say there were any rules against that. Or I could try jumping in from higher. The water will break my fall so it won't hurt too much. I'll figure it out. Sooner or later. And when I've got it, there won't be anything I can't do. I'll be the best, the best at everything.'
The man quickened his pace and his long legs carried him off into the woods. Jimmy carried on walking on his own, with the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, and his green wellington boots crunching on the dead leaves.
Soon Jimmy was back in his garden, he peered into the house through the kitchen window. His mother was laying the table for dinner, he had got back just in time. Jimmy went in and began to take off his wellington boots, coat and mittens. As he was doing this in the hall, his mother walked in and exclaimed, `Oh Jimmy, look how dirty you are! You're going to have to have a bath after dinner now.'
`Okay,' said Jimmy, and he carried on removing his dirty clothes.
His mother smiled and went upstairs to find daddy and tell him that dinner was ready. At the top of the stairs she called back down to Jimmy,
`And Jimmy,' she said, `don't go splashing all the bathwater out by jumping in like you did last time.'
`Okay,' said Jimmy. And he followed his mother upstairs to the bathroom to wash his hands before dinner.
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