Conquering Hero (Published in Southwell u3a Newsline Dec 23)
Billy was eleven and a half years old. Everyone called him Billy, apart from his mum, who called him William. He had straw coloured hair that refused to take a parting, and freckles. His eyes were bright blue and normally smiling, because most of the time he was happy. He had lots of friends and the boys who weren’t his particular friends got on well with him. Billy lived with his mum, and never knew his dad, who his mum told him had run away to America when Billy was a baby. Sometimes he wondered if his Dad was a sheriff with a star, a horse and a gun.
Billy wasn’t bothered about football or cars. He liked to make model aeroplanes from kits and hang them in his bedroom, but what Billy liked most were trees. He loved to spend long, long days in the woods with his mates. They would make dens, dam streams, build tree houses and play complicated games of tracking each other. He was happiest coming home nettled, bruised and sunburnt, scratched, sweaty and bitten.
Uncle John was mum’s special friend. He didn’t live with them, as he had his own house a few streets away, but he did stay over two or three nights a week. He’d been in Billy’s life for the last three years, and Billy thought that he was great. John was funny, he always had time for Billy, and he knew lots of interesting things about nature, but most importantly he made his mum happy. Uncle John had an allotment, and Billy loved going there with him. He’d share John’s sandwiches, and they would drink tea together. It was here that Billy learned how to grow things. In the centre of the allotments there was a grassy area, with park benches, and In this grassy bit there was a towering horse chestnut tree. It was Billy’s favourite tree. He loved that it was always the first tree to burst out fresh green leaves in spring, and its piles of pink blossom, like delicious iced cakes. Most of all he loved conkers. Unbelievably beautiful satin conkers hatching from their morning star cases were the most perfect things that he had ever known.
One of the best things in his life was to sit on windless days in September, and watch the heavy, golden palmate leaves twirl and flag down, down through the still Autumn air, and to listen to the rattle of the conkers as they bounced through the branches to thump softly on the grass.
Billy had never seen any children at the allotment tree until one Sunday morning in mid-September, when he met another boy also scavenging cookers. Every little gust of breeze fetched more leaves and more conkers tumbling down. The boys charged around trying to catch them before they hit the ground. The other boy was called Henry. Billy liked him. He had the same attitude as Billy to conkers and making secret dens in the woods.
Henry was a year younger than Billy. He had short dark hair, and he was good fun. Henry told Billy about a conker competition that was being held at a local ploughing match in two weeks time. The boys decided that they would both enter.
The next two weeks flew by. As well as everything else, Billy was settling into his new school. He spent a great deal of his spare time getting ready for the conker competition. Uncle John found him a golf ball on a piece of string. Billy hung it up on a branch and spent hours practicing his conker swing with different conkers till he could hit the golf ball really hard every time. He had studied the rules of the contest, and each competitor was allowed just one conker that had not been “doctored” in any way. It was a knock-out competition, so each pair played till one of the conkers came off its string. The winner went on to the next round, until there were just two conkers left to battle out the final.
Now Billy needed to select his entry. Every morning and evening, he visited his tree, hoping for the perfect conker, but none were just the right size and weight for him. So far he had two possibles, which Uncle John had carefully drilled and strung on bootlaces. On the morning of the match Billy payed one final visit to his tree. There on the ground was a large, unopened conker case. Billy split it open to find the best conker he had ever seen. It was perfectly round, heavy and firm. This would be his entry. He called it King Conk 3.
The afternoon was dry, and lots of people turned up buy things from the stalls, watch the ploughing match and the dog show. There was a steam engine, issuing pungent smells of acrid coal smoke and hot oil that Billy would recall all his life. Mum and Uncle John were there to cheer him on.
There were sixteen entries in the Under Twelve section. Billy was very nervous; what if he made a fool of himself? At last it was three o’clock and time to start. He won the first round comfortably, but second round lasted longer, with twenty strikes before his opponent’s conker split in half. King Conk 3 was still unmarked. Now Billy was in the semi-finals, and his opponent was Henry, the boy from the allotment. Henry’s conker was looking chipped, and there was a definite crack around the hole where the string went through. Henry took his first shot with a mighty swing, and smashed into King Conk 3.
Crack! Henry’s conker exploded into pieces, but Billy’s swung round on its string and smacked hard into the back of Billy’s hand. Billy howled with pain, flapping his bruise hand. Mum and Uncle John rushed over. The first aid man bandaged up Billy’s hand and decided that it was too sore to continue.
Billy was so disappointed, and Henry was disappointed too, as he had lost his conker. Then Billy did something that made his mum and Uncle John really proud of him. He handed King Conk 3 to Henry and asked him to play in the final. The judges discussed it and decided that this would be alright as the competition was, after all, to find the best conker.
The final was tense, and there was quite a big crowd of onlookers. Henry played so well. He didn’t miss a strike, and after just six blows King Conk 3 was victorious as he dashed his opponent to bits. Billy watched the final, standing between mum and Uncle John. His hand throbbed, and he was pleased that Henry and King Conk 3 were the winners, but told his mum that he was disappointed that it wasn’t him being declared champion.
Then his mum gave him a squeeze. “You’ll always be my “William the Conkerer,” she said.
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