Bill Cagney by Harrison Abbott

The child learned that a man was to be killed on Friday. His father read the headline from the newspaper, addressing the child’s mother, who was by the kettle. “Oh,” she said. Followed by a period of silence. Father shuffled to the next page. Mother brought the coffee to the table and sat down. The child had stopped eating.

“He’s going to die?” the child asked his father, who looked at him.

“Yes, sadly …”

“Do you mean the same man that’s been in the news all the time?”

“Yes, Bill Cagney. The police caught him and he was sentenced, son. They’re going to execute him. It’s grim, I know.”

Father drank his coffee. Mother looked into her son’s silent face.

“He was an evil man,” she said.

Nothing more was said on the subject of the criminal Bill Cagney. And the child went to school. 

Throughout the classes and in the playground, he said nothing. It was Monday, and that meant in four days’ time, this man was to be killed by the police. The child couldn’t stop thinking about it. He couldn’t do the Math problems fast enough in his last class that day. And the teacher shouted at him because he wasn’t engaged. The child barely noticed the row, and he went home in the same silent mood. 

That night when the child had retired to bed, he looked through his window. The clouds covered the stars, but he always thought about space when he looked at the night sky. He knew that space flumed on into infinity. There was no ending in space. No final wall or drop where everything tipped off.

The child felt the same way about Bill Cagney’s execution. Except, this world was real; this was something that could have an end. With this, there didn’t need to be just one end.

He put his blanket under his doorframe so his parents wouldn’t see the light. And he got to making his plan with paper and pens. He worked fast and made the writing neat, put boxes around each point. When the alarm went in the morning he awoke instantly, filled with adrenaline, and took his plan downstairs to show his parents at the breakfast table. 

“What’s this, son?” Father said nervously.

“It’s my plan to save Bill Cagney before Friday.”

“What do you mean, ‘save’?”

“Save his life before he gets killed.”

The parents looked at each other. The child narrated his plan. He and his parents would go around the neighbourhood and ask everybody to meet up, near the police station. The child would ask his teacher at school if he could speak to his classmates too. And the classmates would bring their parents and siblings, all to the police station. 

If they got a big enough crowd, they would enter the police station, and not allow Bill Cagney to be killed. They didn’t have to do anything violent. They would simply prevent the police from killing him. 

“We’ve got three days to do this,” the child said, “and we can do it, right?”

“Son …” Father hesitated. And he turned to his wife for support. 

“Listen,” Mother said, “this man. This Bill Cagney. They’ve decided to execute him because he committed some horrific crimes. I know it’s sad. But we can’t stop it.”

Why can’t we stop it?” the child said.

“It’s the police, son,” Father said. “They have the final say.”

The child angrily left the table. He’d developed a full blush throughout his parents’ response. He smashed the door shut as he left for school. 

When he got in to class, he was the first student there. His teacher was at her desk and the child went to her and asked if he could speak to her. He asked if he could speak to the class today, and get them all to do something with him. 

“Umm, what do you want to speak to them about, honey?” she said. 

He told her he just wanted to tell them something, if he could have five minutes – that’s all he would need? The teacher said that if he wanted to tell them something during the snack break, she would introduce him and tell the kids to listen – how would that be?

It was 90 minutes until the snack break, and the child sat at his desk, revolving his speech in his mind. 

The teacher announced the break. The kids began eating their chips and chatting to each other. Watching the teacher, the child thought she might not grant him his speech. But when she caught his gaze, she stood up and spoke to the class, and invited him to come up to the desk to say his part.

He felt strong when he went up to the desk; in his feet, the floor felt solid. But when he turned around and felt the eyes of the kids on him, he began to shake. He began by asking if they would all do him a favour. His voice met the sound of the crunching chips in their collective mouths. The child told them that everybody needed to do something important this Friday. And then he mentioned the name Bill Cagney.

In order to stop his killing, the children should tell everybody they knew to make a big crowd. They would go to where Cagney was being held, they would speak to the police, and be adamant that this man was not going to be killed. Through numbers, and will, and goodness, they could do this. 

Gradually, the chip packets had stopped rustling, the fingers having stopped prodding them, the munching noises deceased.

“I’m not meaning that Bill Cagney shouldn’t go to prison,” the child said, “I just think that we should all do -.”

The teacher said his name from behind his back, and then she took his arm. “Come with me a second, honey,” she said to him, and she led him out of the class through the desks of children. “Just get back to your snacks: Math is back on in five minutes,” she said. 

She shut the door behind her, and when she spoke to the boy her voice was in a whisper:

“Listen, honey. I know you’re being brave, and you have something you care about … But you’re not allowed to speak to the class like that, I’m afraid.”


“It’s not allowed.”

“But why?”

“Because I’m saying it is! Now, get back inside, and finish your snack before Math!”

The kids must have heard the teacher raise her voice, because they’d all gone silent when the child walked back in. They’d nearly all finished their chips anyway.

This latest teacher-row properly weakened the child. His Math teacher had never blistered him before, and she was his favourite teacher. The rest of that Tuesday for the boy was spent in raw trauma, over the row. Over the failed speech he’d made to the classmates. 

At home, that night, his parents had made a big meal for him. They couldn’t pull a sentence out of him. His mother made him Ovaltine before bed and kept asking if he was okay. 

He slept with berserk dreams, and time overlapped and curled in the a.m. hours as he tried to sleep. It was around 6 a.m. when he gained some clarity. It was an hour before his parents usually woke up. He sneaked downstairs and he ate a can of beans as fast as he could, and followed this by drinking a full jug of milk.

He crept back upstairs, to the upstairs toilet. Bent over the toilet, and poked his fingers down his throat. It took four gags for the vomit to appear. He left the door open so his parents would hear it. And, then mother appeared. She held him and carried him back to bed.

“So that’s why you were so under the weather last night – you must have some stomach bug. Poor boy.” 

Mother stayed at home that day to mind him. 

Early on the Thursday morning, the child made the same vomiting trick. He did it three times, and succeeded in fooling his parents to strike him off school for another day. His mother couldn’t take another day off work, so she asked a neighbour to come look after him instead. Mrs Fields, the old lady from down the road. 

Mrs Fields was a nice woman and the child knew this. He also knew that he must deceive her, as he’d deceived his parents: it was all necessary for his next plan. When the old lady came around in the morning, she checked on him in his bedroom. He told her that he was tired and that he’d like to rest a few hours; she said she would bring him some lunch later on. 

During his faked illness, he’d felt a thrill over lying to his parents, and avoiding school. Yet, there was a physical side which he knew wasn’t fabled; he really wasn’t able to sleep, and often it was a struggle to stand up without trembling. He didn’t know why he was trembling; it was as if mere consciousness made him tremble.

It got to 10:30, and the child climbed out his window. He dropped down into the back garden by climbing down the drainpipes. It was all tense and enjoyable and he felt like he was in a film. Mrs Fields hadn’t noticed anything. He had taken all his pocket money with him. He knew where the police station was; he could get the bus into town.

On the bus ride he felt the sun through the windows. This was the first time he’d ever gone into town on his own, and it was brilliant. When he got off into the main square, he hoped he’d dressed fine enough for the police station. 

And when he went up to the reception desk, the lady looked at him, with, what he hoped was genuine respect.

“I’m here to see William Cagney, please?” the child said.

The lady blinked, and asked him to repeat himself, and he repeated the words. She then asked him if he was here on his own? Weren’t his parents with him? He said he was, and then she got a male colleague of hers, in a different uniform, to come speak to him. This colleague was an extremely tall man, who took the child into a new room.

In this new room there was a little table with two chairs. The tall policeman pulled his chair up beside the child and asked him why he’d come to the station. The child told him he wanted to save Mr Cagney from being killed. The tall policeman listened with kind eyes; he listened to all the child had to say.

Then he told the child that Mr Cagney had already left this prison. He’d been taken to another institution, the day before. Wherein he would be given an injection tomorrow afternoon, at noon. This would happen many, many miles away, and Cagney would not feel anything when it finally happened.

The child asked the policeman how many miles away the city was. If they drove, they could surely get there on time? The policeman’s face shrank. He pondered what he could say to the boy. But never answered. He quietly asked the child if he could tell him his home telephone number, so he could call for his parents.

The child screamed. A long wail, which made the policeman jump and start from his chair. The child’s tears lashed off his face, and his body sank onto the floor. He sobbed with such momentum at first, which died with each pointless surge of his sorrow. So that the floor couldn’t mop his tears, or the policeman’s silence aid his fall. 

And in the end the child only breathed. He just breathed, concentrating on the lift and lurch of his lungs. 

 Harrison is from Edinburgh, Scotland, and writes prose and poetry. He has been published in a range of journals and magazines, including Here Comes Everyone, Literary Yard and Collage Collective. Links on where to find and purchase his work may be found in his old blog:

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