They get called death knocks, and it’s always the youngest reporter that gets them. Peter didn’t recognise the address at first, but as he turned from the old high school, through the winds of the estate and into the driveway, it came back to him. The best of them had chased a boy around the playground and crowded in to watch his only friend pin him to the wall by the neck. After a minute or two the boy had made a noise that sounded like a quack.
Then, for years, in the school and round the houses, they would shout, ‘We’re hunting! We’re hunting!’ The boy, and whoever else fell into sight, knew to run before the best of them warmed up and began to enjoy themselves. The crowd would chase and one might peel off wide and herd the boy into a corner where he was pinned and strangled until he quacked or croaked or squeaked, they didn’t mind. They called him Duck, it suited him, and he seemed to like it, he always laughed.
On a death knock Peter had to look up the victim’s parents and chap their door. If he didn’t get them he had to try the aunts and uncles. The parents were always confused, but the wider family would shout, then threaten. By the time he went to siblings and cousins, the word would have gotten round and they would be waiting by the window. Sometimes that was easier, he would raise his hand to say hello and take a telling off, a warning, a chase up the street. Off he would go to the friends, then the co-workers, the teachers, the bosses, until someone would let him know that they were a good person, full of life, cut down in their prime.
Peter took off his tie and threw it on the dashboard. He left his notebook, but set his phone to record when he clicked it. Had he been one of the best of them? Not really. But he had tagged along. A fence ran right along the front gardens of that street. When they had just started at the high school, which was sunken into a divot at the end of the street, Duck had been chased by nearly the whole school. The best of them, and the hangers on too, anyone that liked a loud noise or a fast movement. Everyone seemed to know what was happening, but Duck had ignored them. As he started to walk, then run through the crowd leaving school, dozens of legs went out to trip him, and he danced through them. Legs were pulled back in for the boys pursuing. Duck ran into his garden and latched the gate. Kids laid siege to the fence, pouring over like a horde of enraged barbarians.
Duck’s younger sister, now in her twenties, answered the door. She stared at him through two long curtains of straightened hair. Peter lifted his press card and began announcing himself. *Knew your brother, lost touch with him, saddened to hear. *She stepped to the side just as she had for the paramedics and the police, and then the mourners. She pointed along the corridor to the kitchen table.
‘I’ll go get Mum,’ she said, and disappeared upstairs, into shadows tinted purple by the closed curtains.
Peter pulled out a chair and looked around at the kettle, the toaster, the fruit bowl and the stack of junk mail. The hunt had followed Duck into this house. The boys from primary had chased him into this kitchen, underneath the table where Peter now sat. But one of the boys from the year above, who already looked like a grown man, grabbed Duck’s legs and pulled him out, dragged him over the lino, round the corner and into the living room, Duck walked backwards on his hands the whole way. Then someone swept his hands away and he cracked his chin off the floor.
Peter remembered it in images that made it unclear where he had really been. Looking through a window or right inside amongst it? He wasn’t sure.
There was a pause then. No one knew what to do next. He got a few kicks, but Duck was lucky because before it warmed up his Mum came back from her work. Her car keys in hand, and a bag of shopping she dropped, she started screaming and pushing kids at random, then she noticed her son, and she powered her way through to him, past the crowd of boys running to either side of her and out the door she had left open.
She came downstairs in her dressing gown now, her face pale, her eyes twisted, her lips pursed. Peter let her know who he was, but she knew already. She took a seat opposite him and agreed to give a statement. Quietly, Duck’s sister entered and leaned against the counter behind her Mum.
‘Can I get you a tea, Mum?’ she asked, and set to make one while Peter asked his questions.
Duck’s Mum answered them calmly. She gave him the quote he needed, she said that Ducky was a kind boy who had tried to protect others. She said that people were cruel, that they didn’t care, the world was like that, you forgot and then you had to remember.
As the kids on the hunt had fled through the house, they turned on the taps, they opened the fridge, they stole fruit. One took a handful of cutlery and threw it in the garden, another broke a mug. A few boys were slapping the windows from outside as everyone ran out. Then they pulled the washing off the line and it was trampled into the grass.
‘And if I could get a photograph of you?’ Peter asked as he stood from the table.
‘What for?’ Her hand jumped up to her cheek, blotched and red, then her eyes flitted down to her jumper and joggers. ‘I can’t really. Not like this I can’t.’
‘It’s not a problem.’ Peter held his hand out and touched her elbow to calm her.
She laughed. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
The sister, whose name Peter must have known at some point, showed him to the door and he thanked her.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘I think it was good for her.’
Back in the car Peter checked through his phone in a tangled line that started with old school friends and led eventually to Duck’s page, now a memorial, then to her name, Lindsay, and a few pictures of her with her pals, on holiday and at home. He added her, then reversed out the drive.
Dozens of kids had been sat up on the fence, watching through the windows as Duck’s house was raided. A few fell backwards, tumbling over each other as everyone raced out the door and leapt the fence or battered through the gate. With all that weight pushing on either side, the fence bowed, then began to creak, then fell and dragged down one, then two, then three houses along, the whole fence, six feet of it split away from the gate posts, then uprooted and tore out the rest. Everyone laughed and cheered. Men from the houses ran out and screamed, flexed their arms and grabbed at random boys, dragging them by the backpack away from the house. They laughed, they threw things, they ran home, splitting up into smaller and smaller groups.