You didn’t mess with Billy Herzog. Once, a boy had called him a Nazi, one of the older boys, two years above him. “Look, it’s the Nazi kid,” he’d said.
“I’m no German,” Billy had replied, “I’m an Austrian.”
Mishearing, or misunderstanding, the older boy had broken into an impression of Rolf Harris as Hitler, or possibly of Hitler as Rolf Harris, it was hard to tell. “Ve haf vays of making you guess vot it iz I am painting.” He’d followed the impression with a funny, goosestep walk.
Billy, undaunted by the older boy’s age and size, had grabbed him by his tie, pulling him down to eye-level, before socking him on the jaw.
“You cheeky cock,” the older boy had said and he’d flung his fist at Billy, missing by a yard. He’d punched again, but Billy was agile, watchful, and ducked and weaved, not like a pro, but like a slippery survivor, until one time the boy punched too hard, fell half forward with the effort and Billy was able to catch him on the fall, using the boy’s weight, the force of gravity and the biggest swing of the arm he could muster, to cop the boy full in the face, bursting his nose, blood spurting out like puss from a squeezed spot.
After that nobody dared call Billy a Nazi, nor anything else for that matter. People who didn’t like him, which to be fair was most people, gave him a wide berth, when they could, or kept out of trouble, best they could.
Not that Billy wasn’t vulnerable. He was. Billy was alone more often than he would like, with numerous hangers-on but no friends, none that he could trust at least. And he had his weaknesses.
Englishness, that was his Achilles’ heel. You just had to play on his ‘I’m more English than you’ sass.
Like tripe. How the subject came up nobody could remember, but one day Billy revealed that he’d never eaten tripe. Never even encountered it, in fact. He didn’t know what it was, thought it was a type of fish.
This revelation was used to needle him. “I can’t believe you’ve never eaten tripe,” said Simon Bradshaw. “Mum always says it was tripe that won us the war.”
“Yeah,” agreed Steve Figgs , “it was the only meat I ever knew as a nipper. No wonder Hitler lost the war, full of goodness is tripe.”
The look on Billy’s face showed that their efforts to wind him up were succeeding. He was tensing up like a taught spring.
“Of course,” said Simon, “it’s an acquired taste. Not for anyone with a sensitive stomach.”
“I never said I ‘ad a sensitive stomach,” said Billy, rising to the bait. “I just said I ain’t ever ‘ad it.”
Simon held up his hands as if in surrender, indicating that his words meant no harm – a gesture that allowed him to get away with repeating the insult. “I’m just saying that a lot of people can’t handle it. I didn’t say you couldn’t, I’m just saying that if you’re of a delicate disposition you can’t eat tripe. That’s all I’m saying.”
“I can handle it, all right,” Billy shouted furiously. “I’m not delicate, I could eat tripe if I wanted. If I ad any to eat.”
“Is that a bet then?” said Steve Figgs.
“We don’t have any tripe,” Billy said, hoping furiously that the argument would go away.
“My dad’s a butcher, I’ll bring in a plate of tripe tomorrow. Fifty pee says you won’t manage to eat it during break.”
“Yeah, and I’ll bet you fifty pee an all,” said Simon.
Billy tried desperately to think of a way out, but he was cornered. The only way out was to lose face, to admit that he was repulsed by the very idea of tripe, and if he did that then he could be sure that the phrase ‘As British as tripe,” would enter the class vocabulary, and that people would start saying “They don’t have tripe where Billy comes from,” in a way they daren’t ever say “Billy’s a German.”
“All right, if you wanna give me free food and a free quid it’s your loss.”
The next day Steve brought in a plate of tripe, which he hid in his locker, where, warm and damp the tripe was able to become even more pungent, leaving behind it a smell that would linger in the lockers. ‘We are entering the tripe zone’, boys would say for weeks afterwards, until the joke finally wore too thin.
Breaktime came and a mob gathered round Billy, Steve and Simon.
“Here,” Simon said, sensing the tension and loving it, “is a spoon.”
He retrieved a spoon from the inside pocket of his coat, which he held aloft, like King Arthur brandishing Excalibur, or Mr Theakston brandishing his cane.
“I would never have known. Thank you for your spoon identification Simon.” Billy’s banter betrayed none of his nerves. “I thought it was a football, or possibly a stray dog.”
“And now the main course.” At his signal, Simon revealed the plate of tripe, a big fat, round, white ball of confused-looking jelly, like a giant, bleached bogie.
Billy looked at it, silently aghast, but said nothing.
“You’ve got twenty minutes,” said Steve. “That plate has to be wiped clean by the end of break or you’re a squid short.”
“You’d better shut up then, so I can start.” Billy tried his best to sound cocky, but didn’t feel it.
The smell was rancid, though in a surprising way, like a bale of rotting hay, rather than a meaty stench. Billy wasn’t going to give up that easily, anyway. If he was sick halfway through then that would be acceptable, but not to try it …
He took the spoon from Steve’s hand and the plate from Simon’s. The tripe wobbled and slurped as the spoon entered.
The key to speed eating, particularly with food that’s unpleasant or unusual to the taste, is simple to shovel it to the back of the throat as quickly as possible, with no time for it to linger in the mouth and set the tastebuds a tingling. However, the consistency of the tripe was like rubber, and he had to chew and chew before he could swallow.
Surprisingly it didn’t taste too bad, like a bland, watered down beef, a rubber-jelly beef.
It took a long time to chew. He was on a deadline, which actually helped. The need to chew through an enormous pile of tripe in twenty minutes means he had no time to reflect, to notice his body telling him it wants to vomit, to listen to his nose yelling ‘No’ at the smell, to his brain crying ‘enough, away vile jelly-belly’.
Time passes, the surrounding crowd dwindles, the pile of tripe disappears. Billy has long passed the point of humiliation, if he were to fail now he would still win respect, most of the tripe has gone from the plate. But he needs to win, not just for the money, though he can ill-afford a pound, but because Billy always needs to win. He speeds up, shovelling spoonfuls into his mouth like a professional speed-eater.
Billy beat the bell by about thirty seconds, he was still chewing on the last mouthful when the bell rang. But he had won. That’s all that mattered, he had won.
“See, easy. A free meal and a quid to spend how I like.”
Inside he didn’t feel so cocky. Inside, in fact, he felt distinctly queasy and sick.
Steve and Simon paid up without quibble, their respect won, if not their love.
Billy managed to get though the whole of the next lesson without vomiting, without rushing to the toilet. And he survived the next lesson as well.
By the time lunch came he was already a hero, talk of his feat had spread round the school the way such triumphs do. He lorded his way through the playground on his way to the canteen.
Yet, in spite of his triumph, there is sniggering in the lines. Steve and Simon are waiting for him by the till, with victory-grins on their faces.
It’s not until the food is on his plate that he realises what it is. Tripe and onions. He remembers now how the subject had first come up, ‘tripe for dinner tomorrow’ someone had said. It hadn’t registered. Everyone else had known all along.
Billy doesn’t get as far as the first mouthful. Just the sight of it on his plate is enough to make him violently sick, right there in the dinner queue, in front of the whole school.