They had Literacy straight after break, and Kevin was on Red Table, the same Reading group as Billy. Red Group was the good readers, the top group, and it always surprised Kevin that Billy, when it was his turn to read, always did so in a clear voice, with no hesitation or stumbling over words, when all the rest of the time he looked at the ground and mumbled so hardly anyone could hear what he was saying. Billy was already sitting at the table, looking at the book they were reading this term, and Kevin slid onto the chair next to his.
He looked at Billy, who didn't shift his gaze from the book. Billy never looked up, even when Mrs Davies praised his reading, which was most days. Even in the playground, his eyes were fixed on the ground. Kevin looked at his greasy, unwashed hair, and his runny nose. He always seemed to have a cold. Even in summer. And his clothes, his too-big, bobbly, faded school sweatshirt, and his too-short school trousers, patched at the knees, always reeked of cigarette smoke. No, he doubted very much that Billy's mother who lived with Billy and her other five kids on the worst council estate in the town, could ever have afforded a Jed Dolphus. But it didn't stop him asking.
'Billy, have you got a...' he lowered his voice to a whisper, 'JD?'
Billy's sticky-out ears went two shades redder, and he wiped his runny nose on his sleeve. He lowered his head until it was only an inch or two from the book, and gave it an almost undetectable shake.
'You have, haven't you?' Kevin said, as quietly as he could, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice, 'It's okay, I won't tell anyone. I promise.'
Billy slid his murky green eyes over to Kevin, and took in his open smile. Some of the fear dropped from his features and he moved his eyes back to the book, before nodding. A tiny nod, and the smallest hint of a smile.
'That's brilliant. How did your mum manage to get one?' He was pretty sure Billy, like him, didn't believe in Santa any more.
Kevin had to strain his ears to hear Billy's mumbled reply. 'My uncle got it. Last summer when they first came out. He went on holiday to America and there was lots of them in the shops. He tried to get my mum to give it back just before Christmas so he could sell it on Ebay, but my mum told him to sling his hook 'cos she'd already wrapped it up for me.' Billy laughed, and Kevin joined in, causing a couple of girls on Green Table to turn and look at them and then at each other. Kevin wasn't surprised. He didn't think he'd ever heard Billy laugh, either. It was a good sound. Maybe he should try and make friends with Billy.
He couldn't remember Billy ever having any friends, not since their first day at St Bede's. He'd always thought it was because Billy liked it that way. He never tried to make friends with anyone else, just walked by himself or sat by himself, in the playground, and at the lunch table. But perhaps it was because Billy was scared that nobody would want him as a friend, so he didn't bother to try. It wasn't as if anybody was actually nasty to Billy. Well, no one except Joe Madden and his gang in Year 5, but they were nasty to everyone if they could get away with it. But nobody was actually nice to Billy, either. Perhaps that was just as bad, Kevin thought.
He opened his mouth to say something else, but was interrupted by Mrs Davies coming over and sitting at Red Table. He had been about to ask Billy if he'd like to play with him and Andrew after lunch. But when he thought about it, while Georgia King was reading, he thought he should check with Andrew first. What if Andrew stopped being his friend because he wanted to be friends with Billy? He didn't want to take that risk. Andrew had been his best friend since their first day in Reception class. By the time Literacy was over, he'd talked himself out of it.
Andrew and Kevin ate their lunch as fast as they could and ran to the walled garden. Kevin had spotted Billy leaving his usual place at the very end of the table nearest the door of the hall a few minutes before them, and wondered if he was going to play with his JD.
'Shall we search for the other JD, Kev?' Andrew asked, on the way to the walled garden.
He almost told him then, that he knew who the other JD owner was. But he'd promised Billy. Perhaps he should, It might be the perfect opportunity to suggest inviting him to play with them.
When they got to the garden, they saw them straight away. Joe Madden and his minders. They were gathered round a smaller boy, and Kevin's heart sank when he saw who their victim was.
'Let's go, Kev,' Andrew said, grabbing his arm and trying to pull him away from the entrance.'
Kevin pulled his arm away and went into the garden.
'William Watson. Smelly Willy Watson.' The big boys closed the circle around Billy, and Joe leaned over him. 'What did your alky mum get you for Chrimbo, then? A second hand teddy bear from a charity shop, was it, Willy, or did she shoplift you a bottle of whisky?' Joe's gang roared with laughter.
Billy stood still, looking at the ground. Kevin could see that he was clutching his PE bag close to his stomach.
'We have to help him, Andrew,' Kevin said. 'Go and get a teacher, or a dinner lady.' Andrew hesitated, and Kevin gave him a push. 'Go on. I'll stay here.' Andrew ran off.
'What's in your bag, Smelly Pants? Is it a Barbie? Or some chicken bones your mum fished out of a wheelie bin?' More laughter from the gang.
Kevin looked in horror as Joe grabbed Billy's PE bag and opened it.
'Ooh!' the ten year old cried. 'Look what he's got. It's only a bleedin' Jed Dolphus.' He held it up. 'That's got to be nicked, hasn't it? No way your chavvy tart of a mother could have afforded that, is there? Did she pinch it? Or was it one of your ASBO brothers?'
Joe had his back to Kevin but he could just imagine the evil grin on his face as he said, 'Well, it's our duty to take it off you, isn't it, William? I'll give it to my dad. You know my dad's a policeman, don't you?'
In a feeble, scared voice, Billy said, 'Give it back. It's not stolen. My uncle bought it. It's mine.'
'Liar, liar, pants on fire. Your uncle prob'ly nicked it an' all. No, Willy. It's mine, now.' And Kevin watched as Joe put the action figure behind his back.
Before he even knew what was happening, before he had a chance to think it out, or think of the consequences, Kevin darted forward and grabbed the Jed Dolphus from Joe's hand and ran toward the entrance of the garden.
'Get him!' Joe shouted, and Kevin felt the toy being torn from his grasp by one of Madden's gang.
'Joe! Catch!' the Year 5 shouted, but he shouted too late: after he threw the toy, and he threw too hard and too wide. The toy could have landed on the soft lawn, but it sailed into the air, and Kevin watched with dread as the precious Jed Dolphus Interactive Action Figure - one of only two in the whole school - crashed straight into the wall of the walled garden and dropped into the flower bed.
'Boys! Boys! What on earth is going on here?'
It was Mrs Davies. She marched over to Joe Madden, who seemed to shrink several inches under her glare.
'Joseph Madden! Well, I might have known it was you. Go to Mr Howard's office at once, and take your friends with you. Tell him Mrs Davies sent you, and I will join you shortly.' She watched as Joe slunk out and across the playground, then went over to where Billy knelt in the flower bed, cradling his fatally injured Jed Dolphus.
Kevin and Andrew edged over to get a closer look at the toy in Billy's arms.
The goiden Laser Lance was snapped in two, and the red-sleeved arm holding it dangled uselessly from its torso by a piece of wiring. Jed Dolphus's firm jaw was cracked and his nose missing altogether, A spider's web of cracks and splinters etched across the LED screen. Billy was toggllng the switch on Jed's right boot: on, off, on, off, on, off, and sinking further and further back onto his heels, a look of hopelessness on his pale features.
Mrs Davies put a hand on Billy's shoulder. 'William? Is that your Christmas present, dear?'
Billy held his dead StarTrooper to his chest and nodded, once, and a fat tear dropped onto the place where its nose once was.
'I'm very sorry, lovey,' she said, squatting down and putting an arm round Billy's shoulder. 'That is exactly the reason we ask you children not to bring expensive toys to school.' She stood, pulling Billy up with her, and turned to Kevin. 'Ah, Kevin, would you and Andrew please take William back into our classroom and look after him for the rest of the day? There's good boys. Run along now.'
Andrew surprised Kevin by putting a protective arm across Billy's shoulder, and he followed suit, and the three boys made their slow way back to the classroom. Billy sat on a chair, looking at his broken toy, until Kevin took it away and put it back in Billy's PE bag and hung the bag on the hook under Billy's coat, next to his own.
For the rest of the afternoon, Kevin and Andrew sat with Billy, none of them speaking, and Mrs Davies did not seem to mind that they didn't put their hands up to answer any questions, and didn't call on them, eiither.
Kevin only left them once, to go to the toilet. When he came back, he lingered for a few minutes by the coat hooks. Mrs Davies was helping one of the girls and didn't see what he did there, but Andrew gave him a strange look when he rejoined him and Billy.
The bell went for home time, and all the children in 3D rushed to get their bags and coats when Mrs Davies dismissed them. All but Billy Watson, who stayed in his seat. Kevin took Billy's coat and bag off their hooks and went over to him.
'I'm scared to go home,' Billy said. 'My mum'll kill me. I wasn't supposed to take it it school.'
'Yeah, I know.' Kevin gave Billy his coat, trying not to wrinkle his nose at the old-ashtray smell. 'You know, it'll be fine, Billy. Honest it will.' He handed Billy his PE bag and winked.
Billy looked up at him, frowning. He sighed. 'Yeah. Whatever.'
Kevin managed to keep the broken Jed Dolphus hidden under his bed for a week before his mother demanded to know where it was.
'You've lost it, haven't you? After we paid all that money... to Father Christmas... for it, you couldn't even look after it properly.'
'No Mum, it's not lost. I broke it. I'm sorry.' He brought it downstairs and showed her and she ranted for half an hour, but seemed more concerned about shoddy workmanship than about his carelessness.
But it was okay, because Kevin had a new friend, who had a Jed Dolphus he could play with sometimes.