Chapter two
The gnome  

The summer holidays had crept unaware upon Niklas and his friends, as usual. Even though they had been looking forward to the holidays for weeks, they were unprepared. The Saturday morning, the first day of the holidays found Niklas lying in bed looking at the sun peeking through the curtains and wondering what plans to make for the day. His eyes were half closed and his mind was wandering so that he did not notice when Jason came creeping into his room, silently and on tiptoe. Jason was almost to the bed before some slight sound or movement gave him away. 

Jason came creeping to Niklas' bed. 

Niklas started to turn, too late, as Jason leapt onto the bed and on top of Niklas, capturing his hands above his head and sitting on his belly. 
"Got you, lazy bones. You should have been up hours ago instead of wasting the first day of the holidays in bed." 
Niklas smiled a lazy smile 
"But I like being in bed, especially with you." 
"But you were in bed before I came!" 
"Only because I was waiting for you." 
"And how did you know that I would be coming?" 
Niklas grinned. 
"Because you always do. You always come for me in the mornings, and you always jump on top of me!" 
Jason pulled back a little and looked down at his friend. 
"In that case, I'll let you off with a kiss," he said and bent down to touch his lips lightly to Niklas for a brief moment. Niklas strained up to meet him and prolong the kiss but his arms were still held and he was pinned too tightly to the bed to reach Jasons' disappearing lips. 
"Hey, no fair," complained the struggling Niklas," That's no kind of kiss!" 
"It's all you deserve lazybones. Hurry up and get out of bed, we're all meeting down at the Bowling Green." 
While Niklas dressed, Jason opened the curtains and looked out of the bedroom window, over the back gardens. 
"Hey, there's all kinds of little men in the garden next door!" 
Niklas barely looked up. 
"They're Mr Donners' gnomes, he talks to them." 
"Gnomes? Like those little plastic things that people put in their gardens?" 
"Yep, exactly those. What do you think, shorts or jeans?" 
"Shorts, definitely, it's hot enough. And he talks to them?" 
"All the time." 
"Weird. Has he talked to you?" 
"No, I'm keeping out of his way, just like mom said. She talks to him sometimes." 
"He can't be that bad then, if your mom talks to him. Are you ready?" 
"I'm ready. I don't know though, she talked to that vicar last year and he was slimy." 
"Yeah, but he was vicar, you've got to talk to vicars. Come on lets go before they start without us." 
And the two boys raced out of the room, down the stairs, past Niklas' mother with hardly a word and out of the front door. If only their bikes had engines, they would have made scorch marks across the concrete as they set off. 

At the Bowling Green, everybody was there apart from Niklas and Jason. There was Fabian and Jonathon, Sniv and Keith and Martin (with his little dog, Fix). Jonathon was trying to ride his skateboard down the steps leading up to the green. The others were watching him with resigned concern. At each step, Jonathon caught the middle of his board on the lip of the step and swayed, waving his arms in the air to keep his balance.

Jonathon was trying to ride his skateboard down the steps.

Jonathon was on the last step when Niklas and Jason pulled up outside the small green gate. The two newcomers watched, Niklas resigned, Jason concerned, as Jonathon slowly shifted his balance on the board, trying to put one end on the ground before the other came off the step. There was a slight grating sound as his skateboard slid lightly down the edge of the step, and a slightly louder gasping sound as Jason gripped the gate in worry. The tip of Jonathons' Board touched the ground and stopped, Jonathon shifted his weight once more, twisted and jumped just right and landed, on the ground, on his skateboard and erect. 
"See! Told ya I could do it." Jonathon looked up for the first time and saw the two newcomers. "Hi Jase, Hi Nik, did you see?" 
Jason sighed and Niklas giggled. They could not help but be affected by the younger boy's infectious grin. 
"Yes, we saw," said Jason, with a smile. 
This was Jonathon's cue to strut, his chest thrust out and his head held up, with his skateboard held tight to his side and looking almost bigger than he was. 
"I told them I could do it, they didn't believe me, but I could. I can do anything on a skateboard." 
As he walked his out-thrust chest and pulled-back shoulders gave him the air of a victorious Caesar. Behind him Martin grinned at Keith and then parodied his movements, exaggerating each bounce and jerk. Keith tried to look disdainful but could not stop the corners of his mouth twitching upwards. Fabian just grinned wickedly at the oblivious boy's preening back. 
"I could do it again for you, it's easy!" 
Jason's face dissolved from his prior concern into one of adoring delight at the boy's antics but Niklas could no longer hold back his giggles. 
"What?" The indignant Jonathon said, "what did I say?" 
Behind him, the silently smiling Sniv picked up his ball and bounced it gently off his friend's head. 
"Come on hero, lets play soccer." 
Jonathon tossed his head in a fine display of pique and overacting. "Huh! You're not worthy." And then turned to race up the steps to the bowling green. "Come on, can't catch me." 
The other boys followed Jonathon, running and laughing but unable to catch the dodging, hyperactive youngster. Martin soon fell behind, his smaller legs unable to keep up the pace, and left it to his dog to keep his place in the game, a small yapping bullet that still seemed unable to reach the boy. Niklas and Sniv were the next to drop out of the chase, exhausted and breathless. Only Fabian, Jason and Keith were able to come even close to the nimble Jonathon; Fabian through the speed of his long legs, Jason though his inborn athleticism, and Keith through an uncanny ability to anticipate the small boy's dodging and darting path. Even these three were having no luck actually catching the boy. 
Finally Sniv, laughing at their inability to catch his friend, threw the football that he still held and hit the fleeing boy square on the back. 
"Hey!" yelled Jonathon indignantly, glaring at Sniv and trying to twist his arm up his back to rub where the ball had hit him. 
"Gotcha!" shouted Keith, grabbing the ball and throwing it at Jonathon. 
Jonathon quickly side stepped, avoiding the ball. The ball was taken up by Jason, who also threw it and narrowly missed the dodging boy. The game was gleefully taken up by all the boys and Jonathon was soon surrounded by a circle of his friends all trying their hardest to bounce the football of the nearest part of his body while fighting off their own growing laughter. 
All to no avail. The grinning Jonathon seemed to be immune to all the boys' best tactics, easily avoiding even the most skilfully thrown ball, taunting them all the while with an almost obscene little dance and wiggling his bum as a target for them. 

You can't hit me!

Eventually, Jason, overcome with laughter, fluffed a throw and the ball went high and then bounced to end up just short of the side stepping Jonathon. Jonathon turned quickly and kicked the ball before it had even come properly to rest, sending it in a wild trajectory towards the gates of the bowling green where the green's proper patrons, a line of white dressed elderly men and women, were just ascending the few shallow steps. 
The boys looked on in horror as the ball sailed majestically into the sky and then came down as if guided straight into the moon face of a fat white dressed man, who had at that moment just reached the top of the steps to the bowling green. The ball hit the man full in the face and knocked his wide round glasses askew then dropped flat to the ground at his feet. 
The man paused, and the trail of elderly men and women behind him also stopped, while he took his glasses of, cleaned them with a handkerchief from his pocket and replaced them on his face. Fix, oblivious to the atmosphere, ran growling and yapping to the ball at his feet and proceeded to chew futilely at the tough leather. 
"So," the man said, "this is who has been making plough furrows in our nice green lawn." 
The boys guiltily looked down at the grass, which was indeed showing signs of wear and tear from their activities of the last few days. 
"It takes a lot of time and effort to get a bowling green properly flat and smooth, and to give it the right bounce. A lot of my time and effort." The man took his glasses off once again and peered at the boys without them. "Don't you boys know better than to play soccer on a Bowling Green? Aren't there enough soccer fields for you? Hmmm?" 
The boys hung their heads and muttered their apologies. 
"I should really report you to the park authorities, or to your parents." 
The man paused and considered the boys for a moment while they shuffled uncomfortably, and guiltily. Most of the boys were worried to some degree, though only Martin was really afraid of what the man might do. Jonathon, though contrite, had no fears over what the man might tell his aunt, she had long since given up her last desperate hope that he might turn into the angelic child she had always longed for. Keith stared at the man with growing and barely concealed fear and fury. 
"No, I don't suppose that would accomplish anything." He booted the ball gently away from Fix and towards Sniv, the nearest. Fix followed it. 
"Go on with you, and remember in future that a Bowling Green is for bowling not for soccer." 
Sniv took the ball off the excited dog and shuffled guiltily passed the queue of glaring elders on the steps towards where the boys had left their bikes, head bowed and followed by the rest. 

A few minutes later the boys pulled up, en masse, in front of Niklas' little house, still subdued but recovering. 
Niklas led the way into the house and through into the kitchen. The house had an empty feel but Niklas shouted anyway. 
"Mom, Dad, are you home?" 
There was no reply. 
After waiting a few moments to listen, the boys went out into the garden while Niklas and Sniv poured drinks. 
"Damn the man," spat Keith, once back in the open air, "does he think he owns the park? Who made him god so he could tell everybody else what to do? " Keith stamped his foot, hard. "I should have made him EAT his damn bowling bowls, 'cept he looks like he already has!" 
The others looked at Keith in shock as he began his tirade. Martin recovered first, slightly more used to Keiths' outbursts than the rest and settled back with a resigned sigh to let him burn himself out. Fabian tried to pull Keith into a hug but was brushed off absently as Keith started to recite catalogue and verse of the darker possibilities of the fat mans ancestry. Jonathon stared in unabashed awe as Keith moved on to the possible futures the man might have, and the place of bowling ball in them. Fix followed Keiths' stomping feet, yapping and snapping at a trailing shoelace.

Fix managed to grab hold of Keith' shoelace.

At that moment Niklas and Sniv emerged into the garden, carrying drinks, and stopped, shock still, to listen to Keith in mid rant. 
"Anyway, he looks more like a beach ball than a bowling ball. He looks like he had an accident with a bicycle pump, yeah that's it, he probably swallowed it and everytime he sits down it pumps him up a little bigger. Well he better watch it 'cos one day he's gonna sit down once too often and BOOM!" Keiths' arms flew recklessly apart, miming the explosion, "There he goes, blood and big fat guts all over the room!" 
The other boys listened, and watched his ever more expansive gestures, with horrified fascination and a growing amusement as Keith became more fanciful. Jonathons' eyes widened and his nose wrinkled above the wide grin that stretched his mouth. Sniv eyed the boy with analytical respect, as if awarding marks out of ten. Even the horrified and slightly awe-struck Fabian had to stifle a giggle. Martin seemed to be taking notes. Eventually, the yapping Fix managed to grab hold of the shoelace he was chasing and Keith fell with a yell to the ground. No longer angry he sat up, looking relaxed and slightly bemused. Martin took two cokes from the tray held by the dazed Niklas and went to sit beside him 
"Here, " he said, gently, offering Keith one of the glasses. 
Keith sniffed and smiled and then gratefully took the coke The other boys also took their drinks and lay or sat on the ground drinking them The boys formed a loose circle on the lawn, all except Jonathon who sat between Jason's legs and leaned back against his friend's body. At first the boys were awkward, as the air still seemed to hold the echoes of Keith's ranting, but as the sun warmed their bodies, the air cleared and they relaxed 
It was nearly midday now and the day was becoming hot, not uncomfortably so but with the promise of a summer of burning, languid days and warm evening breezes. Jason moved his friend's body forward just long enough to take off his T-shirt. Sniv and Jonathon followed suit, Jonathon smiling up at Jason as he did so.

Jason and Sniv took off their T-shirts. 

"I think he was alright, that guy," said Fabian, "I mean he could have told on us there and then but he didn't so I don't think he will now." 
"Nah," said Jonathon, "he won't say nothing! He was cool." 
Keith shrugged. "Well I wasn't really worried anyway, just a little..." Keith broke off with a shrug. There followed a short and awkward silence as each boy tried to think of some safe subject. 
"My Aunt says they're going to build a new soccer pitch where the old tennis courts used to be." 
"That's an old plan, they've been going to do that for years but they never managed to find the money." 
"My Aunt said some rich guy promised them a million dollars to do it with." 
The other boys looked at Jonathon, and then started talking all at once. 
"Never, who'd want to give a million dollars for a soccer pitch." 
"It would never cost that much." 
"Nobody's got that much money." 
Sniv just looked at his friend in disgust and then picked up the soccer ball from between his legs and tossed it at the other boy. The ball hit Jonathon on the top of his head, bounced up and hit Jason's downward looking face. 
"Hey!" Jason jerked backwards in shock more than pain and looked hurt towards his little brother. Sniv lowered his head and covered his mouth, half in contrition and half to stifle his giggles at the expression on his brother's face. Jonathon looked daggers at his friend and then dived out of Jason's arms to grab the ball. 
Sniv looked alarmed, "hey, wait, it was an accident, I didn't mean to hit him. 
"No," scowled Jonathon, taking aim with the ball, "you meant to hit me, and you did." 
"Hey, wait, no." Sniv was just a little too slow getting up and the ball bounced off his back and over towards Martin and Keith. Martin kicked the ball wildly away from him and it shot off at a tangent down the garden, closely pursued by Jonathon and Sniv, wrestling and giggling trying to keep each other from getting to the ball first. 
"Hey you two, watch my mothers flower beds," shouted Niklas as a tackle from Jonathon on Sniv send the two boys rolling helpless with laughter down the remaining length of the lawn. Jonathon, under cover of the wrestling started tickling Sniv, who was soon gasping with laughter under his onslaught. 
Jason looked at Niklas, Fabian looked at Jason, Martin looked at Keith, and soon there were five more small bodies hurtling down the lawn to join the ticklefest, attacking first Jonathon, then Sniv, and then each other in one indiscriminate mass of reaching hands and giggling flesh. 
Jonathon, left alone for a brief instant climbed out of the writhing mass and went for the ball, dancing around the mound of friends and bouncing the ball off any surface that presented itself. At first the other boys, too wrapped up in their pleasure, did not notice the bouncing ball. 
"Hey!" yelled Martin as the ball bounced off his upthrust buttock. He stared at Jonathon in indignation then rolled off Jason to reach for the ball, a little too late. Jason felt Martin's weight move off him and looked around to see where the boy was going. He caught sight of Jonathon lining up the ball for another shot. 
"Watch out, Jonathon's loose and he has the ball!" 
Realising at last the liberties that Jonathon was taking the mass of boys broke up, spreading out and chasing the joyfully laughing Jonathon. 
Jonathon dodged and rolled, evading the boys with ease, bouncing the ball at every opportunity off some back or head or buttock and catching it an its return. But even the hyperactive Jonathon could not keep up the pace forever. Gasping and shaking with laughter he bounced and missed, sending the ball off Niklas back at an angle towards Jason. Jason grabbed the ball and grinned evilly at his little friend, he feinted left and then right, and then with Jonathon totally off balance and confused he threw the ball straight at the boy. Jonathon made one last desperate attempt the evade it and lost his footing, lashing out wildly with his foot as he fell. 
The foot made contact, square on the ball, sending it powerfully up and over the next door fence. In the sudden silence the boys clearly heard the unmistakable crash of something fragile and expensive breaking. 
In the silence that followed, Keith's quiet, agonised groan sounded unnaturally loud. 
For a long time nobody moved, then Niklas, as host, slowly moved over to the fence and peered cautiously over it. He stayed there, looking, for what seemed like an age. When he turned back to the boys, his face was blank, his voice bleak. 
"One of Mr Donner's gnomes." 
The other boys rushed to the fence, lining up to peer over it. 
The ball lay in the middle of Mr Donner's neat and tidy garden, at the feet of a headless gnome, the obvious cause of its headless state. The boys regarded it with sinking hearts. 
"What do we do?" 
There was a pause. 
"We'll have to go and apologise. If we offer to pay for it, maybe he won't be too angry." 
Niklas and Fabian gulped and looked at each other. 
"I'll go," said Niklas, "It's my house so I should go." The others shifted backwards and forwards on their feet. 
"We'll all go," said Jason. And so they did. 

Niklas raised his reluctant finger once again and pressed the doorbell for the third time. In the silence that followed the boys held their breaths and waited once more. Still there was no reply. The house lay silent and still, exuding an air of emptiness. 
"He can't be home." 
"When does he come back?" 
"I don't know." 
"Maybe," and here Keith nibbled worriedly on his bottom lip, "Maybe if we can replace it before he gets home?" 
"How much does a gnome cost?" 
"How much have we got?" 
There was a quick count up. 
"Twenty Seven Dollars." 
"Is that all?" 
"I have some more at home, I was saving up for a new basketball." 
"How much?" 
"Only another seven dollars." 
"Does anybody else have any more at home?" 
Martin thought he had three dollars left from his birthday money, Fabian's mother had left him ten dollars for food. 
"That makes forty-seven dollars, can we get a gnome for that?" 
"I don't know but we have to try." 
"Hey," said Martin, "where do you buy gnomes?" 
"That's easy," replied Fabian confidently, "they sell them in the garden centre at the end of Oak Tree lane. I saw them there last week when my mum went to buy some herbs." 
"Right," Niklas took the lead, "Fabian, Jason, Martin, you go home and get your money, the rest of us will meet you there." Amid nods all round, the boys parted.

Never play soccer with garden gnomes!

The four remaining boys wondered up and down the aisles of the garden centre until they found the gnomes 
"Hey, look," said Niklas, "there's some gnomes here for only thirty dollars." 
Fabian arrived at the entrance and headed straight for the four boys. From the other end of the plot a tall dark-haired man was also heading their way, putting on a professional smile. 
"Are there any that look like the one that got broken?" 
Niklas frowned. "Not here, not that I can see." 
Fabian arrived at the group first, closely followed by the man. 
"How can I help you boys?" 
Niklas looked quickly to his friends but was elected. He wet his drying lips and then spoke. 
"We're looking for a gnome." 
The man painted on a cheery grin "Gnomes we have in plenty, boys. Take your pick." And he waved an expansive hand towards his stock. 
Niklas frowned and bit his lip. 
"We were looking for one in particular," Niklas blushed, "you see, we had a little accident." 
The man frowned, "Perhaps you could describe this gnome." 
"Well," thought Niklas, "It had a yellow jacket and a red and black checked waistcoat and it had a cheery grin." 
"Deep Blue trousers?" asked the man with a tilt of his eyebrows and a more serious expression on his face. 
"Yes," said Niklas in surprise, "do you have one?" 
"Ah," said the man, deep sorrow in his voice, " I recognise that gnome, they don't make that one any more." 
Jason and Martin had just arrived and listened with silent concern. 
"You don't have any left at all?" asked Niklas in wistful hope. 
The man hesitated, considering his answer, then spoke reluctantly. 
"I'm afraid they never made many. Never mind boys, I'm sure it'll be alright." 
"Oh no," Niklas voice was full of disappointment. " It belonged to the man next door, and he's really grumpy. He's going to be really angry." 
This seemed to amuse the man for some reason; his eyes twinkled with mirth though he kept his face straight. 
"Don't worry boys, I'm sure his bark's worse than his bite." 
Niklas sighed and turned, walking with the group back towards the entrance of the garden centre. The man watched for a little while a smile of merriment playing across his face, then he turned towards the small office cabin and broke into a grin before walking briskly towards it. 
Outside the garden centre the boys stood in a dejected group, silent for once. 
"Well," said Niklas, "there's nothing for it, we'll just have to face the music." 
Keith frowned, "Well I can't tonight, my stepdad's picking me up at six and I daren't be late." 
Niklas frowned. "No, that's alright, in fact it might be better if it was just me that met him, he might feel sorry for me." 
Slowly, reluctantly, the other boys agreed. 
"Okay," said Jason, "but we must all share the punishment, it wouldn't be fair otherwise." All the boys nodded. 
"Okay," said Niklas, "We'll meet tomorrow and I'll tell you what he says." 
"Not me," said Keith, "You'll have to wait 'til Monday to speak to me." 
"Okay," said Niklas, "We'll see you Monday." 
There were nods all round and the boys parted. Jonathon grabbed the back of Jason's and Sniv's bikes, his skateboard pulled along between them. Fix bounced along beside Martin occasionally snapping at the wheels of his bike. Niklas, Fabian and Keith rode slowly off, their paths together for a while. 

Mr Donner looked up as his son walked back into the office of his small garden centre, a huge grin spread over his face. 
"Hummmph. And what has amused you today?" 
The man pulled over his chair and sat down facing his scowling father. 
"Nothing, nothing. But did you happen to recognise any of those boys that were just here?" 
"I may be old but I'm not yet blind. Unless I miss my guess, that was the young lad from next door and some of his friends, why do you ask?" 
"Well, it just happens that they were after a garden gnome," The man's grin grew impossibly wide, "it seems they had a little accident." 
Mr Donner narrowed his eyes at his son, "Which one?" 
"The one with the yellow coat and the checked waistcoat." He was grinning insanely now. 
Mr Donner shuddered. 
"You mean that horror your auntie June foisted of on me last Christmas? My god how I've longed to smash that thing myself!" 
"No need to now, it's been done for you, and you can tearfully regret to June how you've lost your favourite sister's best gift." 
Mr Donner scowled, then frowned, then his face lit up with a now-unaccustomed evil grin. 
"Still," he said, "it was act of wanton vandalism and it should not go unpunished." 
His sons' grin faded, to be replaced with a piercing glare. 
"What are you up to you old fraud?" 
"Nothing," chuckled Mr Donner, "it just strikes me that there's an awful lot of work to be done in a garden and I'm not as young as I was." 
The man stared at his father. 
"Hmmm. Maybe I should have sold them that replacement." 
"What! You wouldn't!" he paused, a look of comprehension dawning on his face, "You didn't? You did!" He stared at his son in sudden betrayal. 
"Sorry old man, June bought the ugly thing from me, she wouldn't take any others. It's the only one I ever sold. I've still got the rest of the batch hidden in a shed somewhere." 
The old man glared and aimed his outstretched fingers as if they were loaded. 
"And they can stay there! If that thing turns up in my garden again, I'll come looking for you!" 
His son chuckled, "Another drink before you go get the silver bullets and crucifix?" 
"Don't mind if I do," grinned Mr Donner.