One red, one blue.
Nat beamed at them.
Technically he was only 8 years 364 days old (plus a few hours), but Mum had let him open these two gifts a day early. He knew who they were from, as it was only uncle Jack and uncle Paul who ever sent him post. They both lived a long way away and their birthday presents had a habit of turning up at odd times. He thought they both might be quite rich too as their presents were always top notch. This year was no exception. Mum had laughed when he opened the two boxes and it turned out both uncles had got him a hat, but Nat couldn’t be happier. They had to wear one at school in the summer and his old one had been looking past its best since Year 2.
He eeny-meeny-ed to decide which one he would wear. He did that extra bit at the end to fix it so it landed on the blue one, as he had already decided that was his favourite.
It felt stiff and new as he pulled it down over his hair.
He examined it in the mirror from as many different angles as he could manage (he tried upside down too but that ended in a bit of a crash and a yell of ‘What are you doing!?’ from Mum who was upstairs, and the hat fell off anyway).
He smiled at his reflection. Yes, it was definitely a good look.
‘Is that a new hat?’
Rosie – the girl who loved Nat – was the first to notice.
‘Yes,’ he replied in his matter of fact way. ‘I got it for my birthday.’
She didn’t say anything else but he guessed this must mean she liked it.
He put the rest of his things away and proudly hung the new blue hat on his peg until break time.
He couldn’t wait to wear it in the playground.
As it turned out, not everyone was quite so pleased with the new hat as Nat and the girl that loved Nat.
‘What’s that thing on it?’ asked his friend Harvey, who Nat often suspected wasn’t his friend at all. He poked a finger into the crest, which Mum had told him was the logo of Uncle Jack’s cricket club.
‘It’s a cricket hat,’ he explained, taking a step back from Harvey’s marauding, hat-poking finger. ‘My uncle gave it to me.’
Harvey said ‘hmmph’ as if he felt this was not a particularly good explanation. But break time was far too short to be bothered by such things so he let it drop.
They needed to play football, after all.
Nat liked school and he liked learning maths in particular. Which was lucky for him as Monday in their class might as well be renamed Mathsday. The whole morning was taken up with it in one way or another. Some of his friends were a lot less keen on maths and he could see them watching the clock in desperation as it slowly ticked away towards lunchtime. He could happily do maths all day, especially since his learning partner was Rosie who liked maths and him – though he suspected she might like maths a little more. He did keep a bit of an eye on the clock though, as lunchtime meant football-time and he was pretty certain he liked football even more than maths, or Rosie.
Lunch was macaroni cheese with ham, not one of Nat’s favourites, especially when they served it with carrots and peas which Mum always said was ‘insane’. But he bolted it down and was soon running outside to secure a patch of field for the daily Y3/Y4 football match. The rest of the players drifted in from various directions, and the two captains started to pick teams. They generally aimed for 5 a side but it got confusing sometimes when kids joined in uninvited, or someone got bored and wandered off to play something else. There were only six of them today as it was very warm indeed and only the real enthusiasts had shown up. They had just split into two fairly even threes when Miss Banks the lunchtime supervisor came over and told them they couldn’t play. It was, apparently, too hot for football.
There was A LOT of complaining about this.
‘But they play football in Brazil, that’s hot!’
‘And Spain. I went there last year and it was so hot my dad’s shoe melted. They play lots of football!’
‘They play it in Saudi Arabia too and that’s basically a big desert!’
‘Saudi Arabia are rubbish at football though.’
‘Well, yeah, but they beat – ’
‘BOYS!’ snapped Miss Banks, fixing them with The Look that mums and teachers all seem to know. ‘I don’t care if they play football on the surface of the sun.’
(They don’t thought Nat, that would be crazy)
‘You lot are not playing football here today, and that’s final.’
She strode off to deal with some year 6s who were having an alarmingly realistic wrestling match on the other side of the field, leaving the footballers sad and dejected.
‘So what do we do now?’ asked Ben, a boy with little or no independent thought.
‘How about this? Yoink!’
Quick as a flash Harvey grabbed Nat’s hat from his head and began sprinting away across the field.
Nat was in shock. His new hat!!
‘OI!!!’ he yelled.
But it was too late.
With whoops of glee, the other boys ran after Harvey and they started tossing the hat between each other as Nat tried to get it back.
Rarely had a lunch break seemed so miserably long.
When the whistle went Harvey threw the hat as far as he could in the opposite direction and went to line up with everyone else, a big grin plastered all over his pink, sweaty face. Nat ran to where it fell and tears stung his eyes at what he saw. His smart blue hat, clean and bright and straight out of the box that morning was dusty and dented where all the snatching thieving hands had passed it around. He was glad he had such a long run back to the classroom as crying was not something he did at school. Breathing deeply he jogged back towards the Y4 line. He felt about as hopeless as he had ever felt, but by the time he slotted into line behind Rosie – who treated him to a smile – no one would have guessed there was anything wrong.
There was, however, something very, very wrong.
It was a little cooler the next day and Miss Banks said they could play penalties. This was usually quite a hit, with some players striking screamers into the back of the net and others skying it humiliatingly over the cross-bar like an England penalty shootout. But it seemed that the fun had rather gone out of it. Having discovered the joy of the stealing-Nat’s-hat-and-making-him-run-after-it game, no one wanted to play anything else.
And so it went on.
Every. Single. Day.
He began to dread waking up to sunshine. When would it just rain for once so he could put his hood up and everything would be ok?
It was all a bit of a shock. Overnight he had become That Kid, the one who gets picked on and pushed around and has to spend his time pretending it’s all super-fun and hilarious that his brand new birthday present is caked in mud and grass stain and he never gets to wear it. How had this happened? And what, more importantly, could he do about it?
He considered the options.
He knew what Mum would say:
‘Just ignore them and they’ll get bored.’
But that was pretty easy for Mum to say, wasn’t it? What if they didn’t get bored? What if they just ran off with his hat and lost it and he never got it back? He’d be pretty sad about that since it was more or less irreplaceable, not to mention the fact that it was his and he liked it, so why should he run the risk of not getting it back?
In an ideal world he would just smash Harvey’s smug grinning face in and take the hat back, but there were a variety of issues with this. Firstly, while he probably had the element of surprise, he wasn’t exactly built for fighting. If Harvey decided to punch him back things would go downhill very quickly. In fact, even if Harvey didn’t decide to punch him back things would probably go downhill very quickly since he would get into enormous trouble.
Then there was the issue of the lunchtime supervisors. Should he tell them? Risk becoming known as a tell-tale? Alfie Bennett the biggest kid in the year made a beeline for the lunchtime supervisors every time someone as much as looked at him funny and it never seemed to do him any harm. But Nat only came up to Alfie’s chest, and he felt this was probably significant in their relative standing amongst bullies. If Alfie Bennett stood in the middle of the field and wet his pants he still wouldn’t get picked on. Even the meanest kids secretly suspected he could pummel them.
So he was stuck. The only thing he could think of was to ask Mum if there were any other hats in the house he could wear, as at least then the whole thing would be a little less painful.
He broached the subject carefully as they walked home from school.
‘Do we have any other hats?’
‘Hats? As in sun-hats?’
‘We have a few, why? Was getting two hats for your birthday not enough?’
This was going to be the tricky part. Lying to Mum was more or less impossible. She always sniffed out even the slightest untruths.
‘I just thought I could wear a different one to school. Save the others for, y’know, the weekend and stuff.’
She looked at him suspiciously.
‘You mean the weekend when you don’t actually have to wear a hat? As opposed to school where you do.’
It sounded a lot more stupid now he was saying it.
They walked on for a bit in silence. He noticed that Mum kept glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. He shouldn’t have said anything.
He didn’t raise the subject again but Mum clearly hadn’t forgotten. His old bashed-in hat that he’d dumped at the back of the wardrobe when the new ones arrived was sitting on his chair with the rest of his uniform when he went up to bed that evening.
He looked at it sadly. What a comedown.
Mum sat on the edge of his bed after they had finished reading together, just like she did when he was poorly.
‘Something’s up isn’t Natty?’
He shrugged – the child equivalent of yelling ‘YES!!’ very loudly.
‘You know you can always tell me what’s wrong don’t you?’
He paused. This was the moment. Did he just hand it over to Mum to sort out? She was friends with Harvey’s Mum so things could get awkward. And he certainly didn’t want her to tell Miss Lucas. That would be like he was a Reception baby or something.
So he opted for silence.
‘Night night Mum, I love you.’
The next day, red-faced and cross after spending pretty much the whole of lunch zigzagging around the field in pursuit of his hat, Nat began to wonder whether Mum might need to get involved after all. The different hat hadn’t made much difference, except that Harvey and the others were now mocking how rubbish his hat was as well as stealing it.
He took it off and thrust it into Mum’s hand as soon as she met him at the gate.
He couldn’t keep it in any longer.
‘People keep stealing my hat,’ he blurted out, desperately blinking back tears.
‘I knew it!’ said Mum. She crumpled the tired old hat in her hand and fixed him with her most ferocious gaze. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
He shrugged and stared miserably at his feet.
‘I thought I could handle it.’
Mum narrowed her eyes and muttered under her breath. He thought he caught a, ‘we’ll see about this’, but he wasn’t certain.
Whatever it was going through her head he couldn’t help feeling extremely relieved that they didn’t bump into any of the hat stealers as they strode across the car park. Mum could be a bit fierce at times.
They took a detour on the way home which brought them to the supermarket. This was a bit of a surprise given the circumstances, but a very welcome one, as Mum sent him to take his pick from the sweets aisle while she got a few other things that they needed. He took full advantage of this and was soon weighed down with sweets and lollies and chocolate. Mum didn’t seem to have bought very much at all, and she was behaving a bit oddly. Like most mums, she was quite an enthusiastic user of her phone and was often to be found tapping away at it and firing off emails and messages to various people. But this was different. She was very intently studying something as they walked along, pausing occasionally to type and then returning to her reading. He wondered if it had anything to do with him and the hat.
When they got in, Nat wandered into the living room to plonk himself down in front of the TV like he always did.
But Mum apparently had other ideas.
‘Nat, can you come and help me in the kitchen?’
This was unheard of. Mum regarded cooking as a solitary activity and tended to get rather cross if he or dad or the cat wandered in while she was doing it. The last time Nat had ‘helped’ in the kitchen he had managed to break a plate and drop six eggs on the floor, so he could hardly blame her for preferring to keep him at arm’s length.
He poked his head nervously round the door.
‘Do you have your hat?’ she asked as she spotted him.
It was a rather unexpected question.
‘Umm, my cooking hat….?’
Mum looked at him as if he was an idiot.
‘Do you even have a cooking hat? No. I mean your hat hat. The one from uncle Jack….or uncle Paul….maybe just bring both.’
Nat was extremely confused now. What was she planning to do? Bake his hats into a cake or something?!
He placed them down on the worktop.
Mum was heating up some water and laying out a fairly unappetising collection of ingredients next to the cooker.
She smiled at him.
‘Ah, there you are. Right, I want you to go into the garden and pick me some nettles and thistles. A handful of each will do. If you go down to the fence at the bottom there should be plenty. Dad never bothers to weed down there.’
Nat was about to ask what was going on but something about the determined look on Mum’s face and the mysterious gleam in her eye told him he should probably just get on with it.
The thistles weren’t too bad but the nettles, inevitably, managed to sting him about a million times. His hands were throbbing slightly as laid the two green piles in a little heap on the worktop.
But Mum wasn’t paying much attention.
Wielding a magazine and standing on a chair she had cornered a wasp that had invaded the kitchen and was trying to swat it. After a few failed attempts, a satisfying ‘Thwack!’ and a cry of ‘Aha!!’ indicated success. Mum-the-one-woman-wasp-killing-machine wasn’t a particularly uncommon sight in the summer – she hated the things and seemed fearless in her pursuit of them, usually while Nat and dad cowered somewhere at a distance hoping for the best. But what she did next was very much unexpected.
After gathering up the thistles and nettles and throwing them into her pan, she scraped the newly deceased wasp off her magazine and dropped that in too!
At this point, Nat could no longer remain silent.
‘Mum, what on EARTH are you doing? I don’t think I’m going to like wasps and nettles that much for tea!’
She started to laugh, stirring the evil-looking brew and pouring in more chilli before turning to face him.
‘This isn’t our tea, little Nat. This is the answer to your problems.’
He gave her a puzzled look.
‘How is this going to stop kids stealing my hat? I think even the stupid ones would notice if you fed them nettles and chilli and wasps.’
Nat peered into the pan as he spoke. It was a foul, stinking mush, and he must have got a little too close as he suddenly felt his nose tickling. Before he could stop himself he sneezed straight into the pan. A blob of snot shot out of his nose and landed right in the middle of the oozing, greenish-brown liquid.
He stared up at Mum in horror.
To his surprise, she continued laughing.
‘Well, that’s an interesting additional ingredient. It’s not in the recipe but I guess it might give it an extra kick. And no,’ she added as his face turned from guilt to horror, ‘I’m not going to feed it to anyone. Think of it more as….a lotion……’
Once he had established that Mum had not, in fact, gone mad, and was not planning to poison any of his classmates, he was a lot more enthusiastic. The plan was simple. They would paint the liquid on to Nat’s two hats and somehow – Mum seemed convinced – it would serve as a kind of bully-repellent, stinging the hands of anyone who tried to take his hat. Even if the stinging part didn’t work, the idea of Harvey and the others getting a mixture of nettles, thistles, chilli, lemon, ginger, salt and wasp corpse (oh, and snot, thanks to him) all over their hands was pretty funny.
Nat wasn’t entirely sure where you went to find such a recipe, and whether Mum’s evident skill at brewing the stuff indicated she was in some way magically inclined. But he just put it down to the fact that mums can basically do anything.
Magic or no magic, there was certainly something very unusual about this stuff. In the pan, it was slimy and sticky and stinky, and quite bright green. but once it had been painted on his hats it was completely invisible. Mum left a tiny little section clear of the liquid so she and Nat could pick up the hats without getting stung. They promised each other it would be their little secret.
That night, for the first time in days, Nat went to bed with a smile on his face, eager to wake up for school in the morning.
‘Yoink! Got your hat!’
By now it was a familiar routine. The other kids ran after Harvey and started to throw Nat’s hat between them. They seemed to be being extra mean now that the blue hat had returned, dropping it in the dirt and stomping on it before passing it on, and splodging a not-quite-finished lunchtime banana onto its brim.
Nat watched cautiously to see if the potion was having any effect. No one seemed to be getting stung. It was a little disappointing, but he chuckled to himself at the thought of all the gross stuff they were touching.
As the bell went for the end of lunch he made the long trek to the end of the field to collect his hat with a lighter heart than usual. As he passed Harvey and Ben heading the other way, he met their smug smirks with a knowing little smile of his own.
‘Is that something on your hand?’
Harvey looked down anxiously.
‘No, you blind?’
‘Oh, I just thought I saw a wasp or something…..’
The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully until it was time for assembly. They all trooped into the hall as usual and everyone apart from Year 6 and the teachers sat down cross-legged on the floor. Nat was sitting just behind Harvey and Ben and a few of his other lunchtime tormentors. They sang a song about loving everyone and being kind – the meaning of which was clearly lost on certain members of the school – then Mrs James the headteacher started to read out the names of the children who had won merit certificates that week. The little reception kids toddled up to get theirs, grinning and waving as if this was the greatest moment of their lives. As Mrs James progressed through the years, the recipients got less and less enthusiastic, until finally a couple of Year 6s slunk up on to the stage in what appeared to be extreme embarrassment and took their certificates before dashing back to their seats.
But there was something else going on in the hall too. Something that was distracting a growing number of the assembled children. It was centred on the row in front of Nat, on Harvey, Ben and the other bullies.
They were fidgeting crazily. Muttering and whispering among themselves which was, of course, forbidden in assembly. Miss Lucas glowered at them from the other end of the hall, embarrassed that her class should be making such a commotion.
She stood up and strode over to them crossly.
‘Shhh!!’ she hissed as Mrs James continued droning through the list of the week’s achievements. ‘What’s got into you?’
‘Miss,’ whimpered the nearest child, waving a hand in front of Miss Lucas’s face and scarcely bothering to whisper. ‘My hand feels like it’s on fire!’
Nat wasn’t a big fan of attention-seeking and had been trying to ignore his classmates’ antics in the row in front. But this caught his attention.
Six very specific children were squirming and wriggling where they sat, leaning over each other and waving their hands around in horror.
Could it be? Had it really worked?
He craned over Harvey’s shoulder to get a better look and had to suppress a great cry of ‘Ha!’ when he saw the other boy’s hand.
It was the reddest, itchiest, sorest looking hand he had ever seen.
It may as well have had ‘Hat Thief’ spelled out on it in ugly red hives.
And Harvey wasn’t alone.
Each of the six children who had touched his special blue hat were experiencing the same symptoms. It was the most gleeful sight.
Miss Lucas, whose face had quickly switched from anger to concern, started to usher the afflicted children out of the hall.
Nat could see that she didn’t want to touch any of them, presumably fearful that they might be infectious, like the lepers Mrs James was always reading to them about from the Bible. She waved a hand vaguely in the direction of one of the empty classrooms and motioned for Miss Banks, who was sitting nearby, to accompany her.
Nat was disappointed to miss out on any of the bullies’ epic downfall – especially as he had caused it – but he got the impression Miss Lucas wouldn’t be too happy with him tagging along.
By the time assembly was over there was no sign of the itchy, panicky hat thieves, who had presumably been sent home to scratch their throbbing hands and wonder how this sad turn of events had come about.
He couldn’t wait to tell Mum.
As it turned out, Mum already knew all about the incident at school. And so did dad. And so did everyone on Facebook and everyone who watched the local news. The mysterious ‘itching outbreak’ at a small village primary school was a very big story indeed.
Public health officials kept coming on to give their opinions about it and to make wildly inaccurate speculations regarding the cause.
They watched the story on a few different channels before Mum got up and suggested Nat come upstairs to help her with something.
He couldn’t imagine what she could need his help with since he was mostly pretty hopeless at stuff, but it turned out she just wanted a private chat.
‘So,’ she began, keeping her voice low and peering about her as if a BBC Midlands reporter was about to leap out of the airing cupboard. ‘I think it might be an idea to give those hats of yours a wash. I’m not sure I really want the Police or the public health inspector tracking down our little batch of homebrew.’
Nat nodded. This seemed like a sensible precaution.
He took the blue hat out of his bag and dug the red one out of his wardrobe. Mum stared at him in horror as he handed them over.
‘Nat!!’ she almost screamed. ‘You’re touching them!’
He had forgotten to pick them up by the special, potion-free strip on the side.
He dropped them both instantly and stared over at Mum.
He ran to the bathroom to wash his hands but seeing as all the other children had washed their hands at least once between handling the hat and developing the symptoms, he didn’t hold out much hope.
There are a lot of instances in history of people getting nobbled by their own poisons and blown up by their own booby traps, but this didn’t do much to help Nat’s spirits as he mooched around the house that evening waiting for the fire to start up in his stupid forgetful hands.
He went off to bed miserably. It wasn’t very fair, he felt, that his revenge should be so short-lived and come at such a heavy price.
But then….. nothing…..
He slept as peacefully as he always did and woke with the same soft, smooth, slightly grubby little hands that he had the day before.
Mum examined him thoughtfully as they had their breakfast.
‘So you’re fine?’
‘No itching or burning or swelling?’
She sipped her coffee.
‘You know what I think?’ she said at last.
‘I think you’re immune to it cos you sneezed in the pan.’
He looked at her like she was mental.
‘What do you mean?’
She pondered a moment then repeated pretty much the same thing.
‘Cos you sneezed in the pan, you’re immune to the potion.’
Since this didn’t seem to make it any clearer for him, she added, ‘You know, like with vaccines.’
Nat wasn’t exactly a leading expert in how vaccines worked – he was only nine after all – but he did dimly recall a conversation the last time he went for an injection, along the lines of, ‘vaccines contain a little tiny bit of the virus that makes you sick, and this protects you from getting the virus for real.’
He smiled at the thought of his own snot bravely fighting off the effects of the stinging potion.
It was like his own personal bully-repellent.
‘I wonder what else I could use it on…..’, he thought, his mind spinning through the endless possibilities.
But Nat didn’t need to use it on anything else.
That day, and the following several days, his hat stayed firmly placed on his head all lunchtime.
The six ‘Itch Mystery Kids’, as the newspapers were calling them, didn’t come back to school for over a week. In that time Nat found other people to play with: kids who had always wanted to join in with the football but been put off by Harvey and the others always being in charge; Rosie and her friends, who liked to sit and talk about stuff and pick flowers and play tag; and Alfie Bennett, who in addition to being the tallest kid in the year, turned out to be one of the most fun.
By the time Harvey, Ben and the others were back, Nat had almost forgotten about their hat-stealing ways. They seemed somewhat reduced upon their return, less boisterous and cocky and sure of themselves than they had been before. Nat guessed that having your hands suddenly turn into itchy stinging balloons must be a bit of a shock.
But it seemed that the lure of the hat was still too much for them to resist.
The first lunchtime back Harvey grabbed Nat’s blue hat – the first time anyone had touched it for days – and started to jog away with it.
But Nat was ready for him.
‘Do you think that’s a good idea Harvey?’ he called across the field. ‘You don’t know where it’s been. Touching things that aren’t yours can have a bad effect on your hands. Or so I’ve heard.’
Did he know? Did he guess?
It didn’t matter either way.
He dropped the hat instantly as if it had caught fire in his hands.
Nat strolled past him and picked it up.
‘I think I might play football with this lot today,’ he said, nodding towards his new friends who were already picking teams and laying out jumpers for goalposts. ‘You guys are kind of rubbish.’