We are pleased to share the winning entry ‘Whiz Bang’ by the talented Olivia Collard on our official website, which is featured in our debut autumn issue. We hope you enjoy reading’Whiz Bang’ as much we did!
Please note: although ‘Whiz Bang’ is middle grade fiction, it does feature some darker themes, so it is down to reader discretion on whether they would like to read on.
I hate bonfire night.
I hate the booms and the pfffts and the horrible screeching. I hate the way the big ones make the windows rattle and I hate the way I can still hear them through my headphones.
What I hate most are the crowds.
Anna gets upset that we have to stay home every year, because otherwise I close my eyes and scream when people push past me, and I get hitty. And gougey. I don’t understand how anyone can be around so many people zipping up coats and laughing and shouting and pushing and slushing and apologising and other kids crying. Not to mention the pop, pop, popping of the wood as it burns.
Anna still has the scars from last time.
I love animals, because they make a lot more sense than people. People ruin everything. Scientists can explain nearly everything about animals, like how tigers are stripy because it makes them harder to spot in the tall grass, or how anteaters have long tongues that can move like fingers so they can grab termites out of their big mounds. Or how termites live in big mounds to keep away from anteaters.
I love animals. Animals don’t talk with their faces.
Miss Hayes smells like burnt coffee and dust and lemon marmalade and always wears a necklace with a hare on it because her mum gave it to her, and her mum is dead now. I know that because she told me so and when she told me, a drop of water fell on her chest, which was probably a tear falling from her chin. I don’t know for sure though, because I don’t look at people’s faces when they talk to me, and I was more interested in the fact that hares are better than rabbits because hares don’t need to live in groups.
I like to be alone, too.
Miss Hayes says I’m too smart to learn about photosynthesis the way we are in class. Putting cress in a cupboard and watching as the stems predictably start to spiral and turn yellow isn’t stimulating enough for a girl who reads at a Year 9 level, so she gives me my own projects to work on alone.
I’m not allowed to do group work, anyway.
The other kids get frustrated when I can’t hear them through my headphones, even though that’s the whole point of them. When they come at me with their marmite sandwich hands and try to take my headphones off, I get hitty and maybe a little bit scratchy. Sometimes, if the smell of marmite is too strong or their sticky hands touch my hair, I get a bit gougey, too.
Gouging is not allowed at St Bernard’s Primary.
So, I work on my own projects. My project last year was about hedgehogs.
I like hedgehogs. They have little mousey faces and big hard spikes and their name makes sense. They’re called hedgehogs because they grunt like pigs do and pigs are sometimes called hogs and hedgehogs live in hedgerows. So, we call them hedgehogs because it sounds better than hedge-pigs. It’s a very literal name. I have been told I am a very literal person.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal, which means they are awake when it’s dark. Things become nocturnal because it’s harder for predators to spot them in the dark. For my project, I wanted to learn why hedgehogs bother to be nocturnal when they make so much noise grunting like they do, anyway.
When an animal evolves without predators, they don’t develop the same defences as other prey creatures. They can’t leap like gazelles. They can’t sneak like mice. They can’t shoot hot acid out of their bums like those caterpillars on David Attenborough documentaries.
Blue Dad says the kiwi birds in New Zealand have this problem. I call him Blue Dad, because he has blue eyes. My other dad is Tall Dad, because I used to call him Brown Dad, but Aunt Sally said that sounded racist. My dads are the only people I look in the eye, because they don’t look away when I stare too long.
Blue Dad says kiwis can’t fly, they’re nearly blind and nearly deaf, and they stumble around loudly like Tall Dad does when he gets home from the pub on a Friday evening. Because the main population of New Zealand, for millions of years, was birds and insects. No predators to hide from. But then people came along and ruined everything, because people always ruin everything.
British people brought hundreds of rabbits 11,617 miles on their boats, because they missed the rabbits in the countryside. Which, if you ask me, is a stupid reason to bring rabbits 11,617 miles on a boat.
Rabbits get seasick. Rabbits also breed very quickly, so suddenly there were too many rabbits in New Zealand. So, they brought weasels and stoats 11,617 miles, to eat the rabbits. But the weasels and stoats ate the loud, blind, flightless kiwis instead, because rabbits are harder to catch.
Unlike people, weasels and stoats aren’t stupid.
What I learnt doing my project at the back of the class, aside from the fact that Casey Ludlow stepped on a slug and was getting slime all over the floor, was that hedgehogs aren’t quiet because they don’t need to be. Even though hedgehogs, unlike the poor kiwis, evolved with predators like badgers and foxes. Their big spikes are a good enough defence alone. When they curl up and spike out, they look like little brown fireworks, too dangerous to eat.
But again, people ruined everything.
Hedgehogs like to hibernate in big piles of sticks, because they’re safe and warm. Or they used to be, anyway. Before people all over Britain started building piles of sticks every year and setting them on fire. Even the hedgehogs’ big spikes can’t protect them from burning.
Last year, our dads took us to the fireworks.
They said that because I had gone a long time without hitting and my headphones were helping to keep me calm, that we should go and see them for Anna. I said yes, because I love Anna. They said it was just a little whiz bang.
When we got there, Anna took my hands like she does when she needs me to look at her face. So, I looked at her face.
‘Jessie,’ she said. ‘I love you.’
‘I know,’ I said.
‘Can I please go to the front with Blue Dad? I’ll come and see you right after the display?’
‘Okay,’ I said. I squeezed her hands, because that’s how I show that I mean something when I say it. I’m still learning how to understand the things people say without words.
I stayed at the back with Tall Dad. It’s not good for me to be in crowds. He got on one knee even though it was muddy so I could look into his eyes.
‘I know I normally say you have to hold my hand when we’re out, Jessie,’ he said. ‘But if you think holding your headphones down will help to keep you calm, you can do that. As long as you stay close. Are you sure you don’t want to go back to the car with me?’
‘Yes.’ I squeezed his hand because, at that moment, I was sure I was okay.
‘You’re amazing,’ he said.
‘Isn’t your knee getting wet?’ I said, clamping down my headphones.
Then the display started.
Even at the back with my headphones on tight, it was hot and loud and there were so many people moving around us. Everyone was cheering. It smelled sweet and smoky of fire and mulled wine and bad hotdogs and it was too much. And with every boom my body shook and with every person pushing past I closed my eyes and screamed as I remembered the hedgehogs, hedgehogs, hedgehogs.
Tall Dad tried to take my hand, but I ran forward anyway. Through the crowd. To Anna. To the fire. To the hedgehogs.
I don’t know for sure what I did, but Anna still has the scars.
Anna doesn’t love me anymore.
Olivia Collard is an MA Writing for Young People student at Bath Spa University. She’s an aspiring lesbian aunty, a coffee hater, and is currently working on her first YA novel about two girls falling in love. You can find out more about what Olivia gets up to on her blog, or by following her on Twitter.
Illustration by Rayan Rhys Phillips