The Tide That Turned in Spring
Chapter 1: The Scientist
Apparently, we carry our prisons with us. Nat didn’t believe that until tonight. The other guy who is now sharing his cell is sitting with his head leaning against the wall and his eyes behind those hipster glasses are shut. His short ginger hair contrasts strongly with his green boiler suit and Nat guesses he’s no more than maybe 19 or 20. He’s also sweating profusely across his forehead and has a constant tremor in both hands.
“How long have you got?”
The Ginger doesn’t respond. Nat leans back against the wall. He’s still numb. It hasn’t sunk it yet. There’s an awkward silence. After ten days, Nat decides they can’t sit in silence every night.
“I can’t believe it. Ten fucking years, in here.”
Then the Ginger speaks.
“I’ve been in prisons all my life. This one doesn’t make much difference.”
He has the poshest accent Nat’s ever heard.
“What do you mean?”
“Small town…boarding school…this…it’s all the same.”
Nat sits up.
“Wait, you went to boarding school? Was it like-“
“No, no and no again. If it had been like Hogwarts, I wouldn’t be here.”
There’s another awkward silence.
“I’m Nat by the way,” he says. After a moment the Ginger sits up and wipes the sweat from his forehead with a very shaky hand. He did this a lot. “Ben.”
“You can get treatment for that you know.”
“The shakes, the sweat-“
“No…I’m fine. I just need a drink and then I’ll…I’ll be fine. I’m not ill. I’m not.”
Nat only knew because his dad had been exactly the same. And it always ended so violently. Nat decides to change the subject.
“So what was your school like?” Nat asks after a moment.
“It’s a long story.”
“Well, we do have ten years.”
That figure. Ten years. Nat thinks miserably for a moment about his life and how it’s ended up. Then he looks across at this poor guy; someone who was given life imprisonment at birth. He lights a cigarette.
It begins and ends in an airport. It’s the 14th April 2012, and I’ve managed to pack up my whole life of 14 years and 11 months into one suitcase. Inverness Airport is the third airport I’ve been in today and compare to Leeds and Aberdeen, definitely the worst. I have a real urge to write CLAIM ME on my forehead just to see if anyone notices, but there’s no sign of life anywhere. Not a sod. I consider getting up to go into W.H.Smith, but I can read the headlines from here anyway. One says ‘FRENCH JOURNALIST MURDERED IN SYRIA.’ Another says ‘Is there increasing Class Conflict Growing in U.S. Between Rich and Poor?’ I’m trying to decide which one sounds more interesting when my Blackberry vibrates.Hope you had a good flight. Text me when you get there. M xxx. That’s the fourth text she’s sent me since I left Leeds Airport this morning and the 4th text I’ve not replied to. If she thinks four kisses are going to make up for this exile then ha, she’s mistaken.
“Are you Benedict Middleton-Jones?” I look up, and a middle-aged airport attendant is standing over me. What? Why is she eyeballing me? I feel self-conscious. I think it’s what I’m wearing. It’s not my fault I’m travelling in my Hunter Wellies because they were too big to pack and I’m wearing my one and only Jack Will’s hoodie. Oh yeah, and I happened to have fixed my glasses together up with sellotape? What is her problem? Is the whole world still out to get me?
“Yes.” I squeak.
“Your taxi’s here.”
I thank her then grabbing my one suitcase, I head out into the sleeting rain where my taxi is waiting.
It’s about an hour and a bit to Strathcarron, but it feels a lot longer. Luckily I have two Coldplay albums to keep me occupied. We drive through Strathcarron which is a tiny village and then through two heavy stone gates which clang behind us. We make our way along a twisty drive until we turn a sharp corner, and there’s nothing until the first lights of Arkansas house are visible. Arkansas was built in the 70’s, a huge red brick building with three floors and two wings-
“Woah, woah. Stop. You’re a terrible storyteller.”
Nat stops Ben in the midst of his slightly delusional storytelling.
“Arkansas, do you have like a photo or something? It would make my life so much easier if I can see it.”
“Here, pass me a pen and paper.”
Nat passes a reporter pad and a biro and Ben sketches for a moment
Nat looks over it and suddenly understands what Ben was rambling on about.“There’s a tree in front of it too, but I haven’t drawn it in…it was cherry blossom…”
What a delusional weirdo, Nat thinks. Ben is still rambling.
“The sticking out building on the left was the mixed comm…then the right wing was…”
“Look.” Nat takes the drawing. “You can draw me floor plans later. Can you just get on with the story, please?”
“The Taxi driver drops me off, and the first thing I notice is the tree which is directly outside of Arkansas and was slowly blossoming into a delicate shade of pink. Cherry blossom. My sisters
favourite. I wonder how many times I’ll see it bloom. I stand for a moment, next to the tree, looking up at the front door and beyond to the two other stories above it. With the Scientist by Coldplay playing in my ears, I begin to sweat, first on my palms and then on my forehead. For the first time in my life, I’m on my own with no parents to tell me what to do. I’d rather be anywhere but here. I don’t see why my mum couldn’t have sent me 20 minutes down the road to school in Scarborough. My stomach ties itself into a massive knot. I just have to do it. I just have to take out my headphones and go in.
Chapter 2: Animals
“…I told you Zook, a Stenson type of expensive thoroughbred horse,” Henry says, rolling his eyes and skewering a mini sausage. Zook is slouching in the chair opposite and picking through a bowl of skittles for the red ones. I’m guessing this is his way of not fidgeting. We’ve been at the annual Saturday G&T (Get together. It’s a weekly thing as a year group) for about 45 minutes, and none of us are having a decent time. Hence the weird conversation.
“I thought that was a type of hat?”
Henry puts his head in his hands and Zook starts throwing green skittles at him. I don’t want to admit that I also thought the same as Zook but I’ve been here for less than then two hours, and so I’m just not saying anything. At all.
“God Zook, do you they not teach that in state school either?”
“Surprisingly not. Were you taught that Ben?”
“No, I’ve never umm…”
I unfold my arms to reach for a drink as Zook jumps from his chair.
“See, see! You and your fancy pants life!”
Zook jumps on Henry; all 6ft of him versus Henry who is 5ft 8 and he gets Henry in a headlock, and they start to play-fight. Zook is everything Henry isn’t. Zook is humorous and maybe a bit too friendly while Henry is sarcastic and cold. Zook also loves to hug and to play fight and to ruffle people’s hair while Henry is the biggest snob and homophobe I think I’ve ever met. They are also polar opposites when it comes to background. Zook grew up on a council estate in Newcastle with his mother and five sisters while Henry lives on some fancy English Estate. Zook has almost no manners but is still polite while Henry was brought up on even more middle-class manners than me and is yet still so rude. Zook also actually talks to me while Henry seems to be one of those people who couldn’t care less about whether I was here or not. This is what I’ve managed to gather in the two hours that I’ve been here. I also like Zook because he gave me some noodles because I missed dinner and I haven’t eaten since like midday.
“You posh twat-” Zook is now yelling, and Henry twists his ear.
“Rather that than a chav-“
Zook and Henry break apart. Zook just looks at him.
“Too far Man, too far. We’ve discussed this. A lot.”
Zook is verging on being quite pissed off. Before we go any further,
a chav is a British term and the most derogatory way of describing someone who less well off. It’s something that shouldn’t be used, ever. Only snobs like Henry use it.
“What’s the problem? Everyone uses it.”
“You mean, people like you.”
“No, people like us.”
My mum does that; refers ‘people like us.’ Brad who has been sitting very silently and thinking of his studies, leans forward and says:
“Henry, you wouldn’t call someone a peasant so why would you call them a chav?”
“This isn’t like the feudal tricone or whatever you call it Brad.” It’s 2012, not 1415-“
“Triangle Henry, it’s a feudal triangle,” Brad replies in his thick Scottish accent. “Beneath the monarchy, there were landowners like you who look down on the knights and merchants, and they all look down on the serfs. However in 15th century Japan-“
Brad suddenly shuts up and sits bolt upright.
A girl comes barging through our circle of chairs to get a drink. She is in a short tight black dress with straightened blond hair (like every other girl in this school) and a nose stud. Brad’s eyes expand and he very obviously checks her out.
“Have any of you seen Jel?”
None of us have any idea who she is. I don’t even know who Jel is. All I know is that I’m sharing with Zook and Brad.
“Well if you see him, Rome wants a word.”
They all look at each other.
“Now excuse me. Can I get through?”
“Oh err umm…sorry…oh…can I pass you one?”
Brad has only seen the results of her push up bra.
And with that, she flounces off.
“Well go after her! Don’t just stand there!” Zook says, and we agree. I think they only do it because they assume that Lulu will not show the slightest bit of interest in a dork and to them it will be super funny. That’s what they thought. I don’t think Brad has ever done anything remotely exciting or adventurous in his life. He looks at us and then at her.
“Do you want to be that nerd with no life?” Henry asks him.
They take that as a yes and shove him into the crowd after her. We decide to go and get some air and then we hear:
“Oh look. It’s feeding time at the zoo. “
As the song changes to Use Somebody by King of Leon, out of the crowd emerges a small, scrappy guy with small square glasses and a bad haircut. He can’t be no more than 5ft 5. My first impression of him is that he looks a lot like a rat. An ugly caught- on-a-bad-hair day blind scrawny rat. But that look he’s giving us, I wouldn’t dare say that. Not in a million years.
“What are you looking at, fat boy?”
Henry almost goes for Rome. Everyone crowds around in a circle and the music changes. As well as changing the mood, it alters the tension as half of the room are going wild and the other half are thirsting for blood.
“Look. The penniless, the nerd, the fat and the ugly. Arkansas in a nutshell. And, yes Brad that does include you. You know Brad, my old friend, I used to think you were part of the crowd, one of us. Well, this one is for you, you stupid twat. You think you know everything huh? Well, then you should have worked out why this is for you. “
And he smacks Brad hard around the nose, knocking him to the floor.
“Look at you! You worthless coward-” Rome laughs and the crowd join in.
“You little shit!” Henry yells and they start to brawl. We all cheer on and chant. The tempo of the music increases. Henry gives Rome a black eye so Rome manages to split his lip. There’s blood everywhere. Henry takes Rome down by his knees and throws him into the crowd. Our jeering and yelling get’s louder and louder. The music drives the crowd into a frenzy. A wild, bloodthirsty, delirium.
“I’m gonna destroy you Henry,” Rome says as he gets Henry on the ground and is about to stamp on his face.
The crowd all go silent and they part like the opening of a cage and Jel strides through. Zook told me he was half American and half Brazillian and considering he is 6ft 2 of pure muscle, I’ve never seen anyone so striking. Or so scary. The crowd all look up cause either because all the guys want to be him, or all the girls want him. The way he looks down on Rome; it kind of reminds me of bear baiting. All that needs to happen is now is one provocation; one word from Rome and Jel will rip him to shreds. He runs a bronzed hand through his shoulder-length sandy hair and with a flash of some unnerving white teeth, he drawls:
“I asked y’all a question. Excuse me?”
No one says anything. Jel cracks his bronzed knuckles.
“I have Deja vu. Haven’t we had this discussion?”
Rome is bouncing on his heels, itching for a fight.
“If you’re talking about that one time when you ruined my life-“Rome stands up on his heels and pokes Jel in the chest. “have Deja vu. Have it all you fucking want.”
“You know what happens when you mess with me, Rome-,” Jel says, eyeballing him.
“You know what. I’m scared. I’m fucking scared.”
“Oh, you should be.”
“At least I know I did nothing wrong-“
Jel smacks Rome around the face, and they start beating the shit out of each other.A few things happen at once. Henry get’s shoved back and falls on Zook’s feet, resulting in Zook getting covered in his blood. Then someone trips me and I crash onto the floor, my glasses falling off and breaking in the process. Gwebe (Arkansas’s resident punch bag) lets out a yell as the frenzied crowd knock him over. Jel then just goes for Rome, smacks him in the face. Rome tries to punch Jel’s stomach, and Jel slams him hard onto the floor where his glasses also break.
“And you know what Rome. Just stay away from us okay?”
Rome staggers up.
“From all of us.”
Rome just looks at Jel who is standing with his hands on his hips and making unblinking eye contact.
“You have no idea what you’ve just done. One day, I’m gonna ruin you Jel! I’m gonna ruin all of you!”
and with that, he staggers off into the crowd.
We decide to go back to Arkansas. Our G&T was in the mixed comm of the other boy’s house which is called Gallagher House and because the route we took was past what I guessed was the Sports Hall, most of the school I haven’t seen yet. We head in through the main door, through the entrance bit known as CC. I haven’t quite managed to ask why yet and up the stairs. Mr H is our Housemaster and summons us as soon we’re on our corridor because of course, his office is at the end, and his door is wide open.
“Year 10! In my office. NOW!” He yells. His face is a funny shade of burgundy, and he is pacing around his office and then shoving things out of his way so he can pace more. He herds us in; Henry with blood all over his face, Zook covered in Henry’s blood from trying to help, Jel with a bloody hand, Brad with a bloody nose and me carrying my broken glasses and slams the door behind us. We all squish onto his burgundy sofa. He then starts berating us about misbehaving and how violence is not the answer. I look up at him. 6 ft ‘5’. Balding blond hair. Very Scottish. Tiny glasses. Built like a wardrobe. Square. Solid. Huge. Someone who can’t open up to anyone. Also full of shit and useless information that nobody ever needs. He stands towering over, the vein in his neck beginning to throb and slams the door.
“For Christs sake! You cannot spend the rest of your lives like animals. Gabe has fractured his wrist because of this and you all look like you’ve been part of some murder-“
“So is Gwebe in the medical centre?” Jel asks.
“Aye. Ivy James took him.”
None of us have any idea who that is.
“Now if any of you behave like this again, there will be consequences. Do I make myself clear?”
We nod in sync as he talks for a bit more but I zone out because there is still so much to take in.
Eventually, we head back along the corridor, and I follow Zook and Brad in what is now, my room as well as theirs and Henry and Jel go into their larger room across from us. I’m still adjusting to sharing a room with at least two other people as I haven’t shared a room with someone for at least 10 years. Our room looks like this:
I know it’s a terrible drawing, but it’s the best I could do with a biro and cheap paper. It’s a tiny room, small enough so Zook can climb onto my bed, the one on the right from his bed at the back, if he needs to, which I’m sure he won’t. Brad only has a desk. And I’m not sure why. Zook changes, Brad checks his phone, and I just sit on my bed, unsure of anything. Well apart from the fact that I should find my spare glasses and wash the blood off my hands.
“Right newbie, we’re gonna go do something fun.”
“Can I just find my spare glasses?”
I show him my broken ones, and he hands me some sellotape.
“Right, time for some fun. Corridor cricket anyone?”
I hear Mr H’s voice in my head:
“And for Christ’s sake! Just behave for once in your lives! Please!”
That turns out not to be possible.
“So we have science first?” I ask, checking my timetable again. It’s Monday morning and just starting to drizzle as we leave Assembly and come out of the Chapel. Assembly is a daily occurrence from 8-8:30 with actual religious chapel only on Sundays. Yesterday I missed the Sunday assembly as I was doing lots of tests to see what set I’m going to be in for all my classes and getting my uniform sorted. In case you’re wondering, our uniform also consists of a black blazer, white shirt, red tie, black trousers and very black shiny shoes.
“Yeah. You’re in set one with Brad.” Zook (who is batshit crazy) tells me. Then he drops his voice to a whisper. “It means you can always copy his homework.” Zook is still the only person in Arkansas who makes an effort to talk to me, and I’m glad I got him as a roommate. I follow Zook, Henry, and Brad out of the chapel and down the edge of the road. Jel has disappeared off with some of his many friends towards St Richmond’s Quad, and I get the sense this is a daily occurrence. Between the chapel and St Richmond’s Quad, there are two cricket lawns and lots of trees all slowly coming into bloom, including both of cherry blossom trees outside of Chapel and Arkansas which are pale pink.
“Ah, the humble gardner…so peaceful…doing what they love…” Zook says dreamily, pointing at someone in the distance, amongst the rows and rows of daffodils and crocuses lining the two cricket lawns. “Being at one with the earth…”
“Being on the minimum wage more like.” Henry mutters.
“Coming from someone who has never done a days work in their life. Ah, Ben, this is St Richmond’s Quad.”
St Richmond’s Quad is four stories high, complete with a clock tower, a cobbled courtyard with a fountain in it and two arches in each wing so a road can run through it
“Why is there a falcon on the top of the fountain?” I ask.
“It’s our school symbol. It’s also on the coat of arms which is one your blazer as well as on every building in school. The guy, Sir Claud, who founded this school, his passion was his Falcon and also Falcon pursue what they want until they get it, no matter what it takes.” Brad explains.
“He’s sounds like a lonely fucker if you ask me-” Zook adds.
“A lonely drunk fucker.” Henry corrects him.
“How do you know all this?” I ask.
“Trust us, by the time you’ve been here for a bit, you will know everything about him. Every assembly seems to be about him or something he said.”
“I always imagined someone following him around, writing down everything he said to make it into a quote.”
Zook and Henry start laughing and impersonating him. As we walk past the fountain, I notice Latin inscribed on the bottom. Ab honesto virum bonum nihil deterret which is also on the coat of arms, above the falcon standing on the pile of books and translates ruffly to Nothing deters a good man from the performance of his duties. Biggest bunch of crap ever.
“Come on, this way. Brad, you’re very silent today. Are you think about Lulu?” Zook asks. Brad doesn’t respond. He just keeps watching his feet as he walks and clutching books. Henry stomps along on Zook’s other side, his arms also crossed and looking out through narrowed eyes.
“God. Everyone is in a bad mood. Come on Newbie, I’ll keep you giving you the extended tour.”
We go into the arch of the left wing and Zook stops for a moment. If I didn’t have Zook here, I would be very lost right now. Even though I came here yesterday, it was just a huge overwhelming blur.
“L for left wing, L for lessons. If you go that way, you get to Chapel and Wildfell, (one of the girl’s houses)”
He points out of the arch and the direction we just came in. You can see Chapel across the lawn and the medical centre just next to it. The house nearest chapel is Wildfell, one of the girl’s houses and as Zook called it ‘a house full of sluts.’
“And if you go in the opposite direction to chapel and up that road into the trees, you’ll get to the elusive house of Alvie. The girls there are much nicer there, if you like them a bit eccentric.”
We go through the door in the arch and up a lot of stairs. I remember from when I did my tests yesterday that the central part of the Quad is various offices, fancy rooms, and places students don’t ever go.
“As you can see, there is the clock tower which chimes every hour instead of a bell and forbidden to all students to go into,” Zook says.
“So everyone goes into it?”
We wander along the corridor. Zook has very kindly drawn me some floor plans of St Richmond’s Quad which look like this:
INSERT FLOOR PLANS
I check my timetable.
“I’ve Geography second, which corridor is that on?”
Henry (the Iceman) replies: “It’s next to History. It says G1 on the door.”
I smile and agree. I have no idea where that is. Henry and Zook disappear, and I hear Zook saying:
“What’s wrong now?”
To which Henry replies:
“Crap. Is it because I’m trying to be nice to-“
“Come on, we’re going in here,” Brad says, the first thing he’s said this morning.
He opens the door, and there is no teacher but two guys chasing each other around, kicking chairs and trying to throw something at each other. I have no idea where to sit, and because Brad has already sat down at the back, I just go to the first empty seat I can see and hope that nobody else is already sitting there. The two boys climb over desks and throw chairs, and everyone starts to cheer. I sit down and check my phone in an attempt to look busy.
“What are they thrown at each other?” I ask the girl next to me. She turns to look at me and flicks her long dark hair.
“Our teacher used to have a chameleon, but she had to get rid of it cause of all the stupid health and safety and boys, such as Shreya and Lance-“
She gestures to the two guys jumping over chairs and crawling under desks. “-think it’s hilarious to throw it’s food at each other.”
“And what was that?”
She sees the look of disgust on my face and laughs. Then she flicks her hair back.
“Oh no, don’t worry. They’re dead.”
I don’t know what to say. The girl crosses and then uncrosses her legs.
“Our teacher is late every Monday morning so they always do this. Oh, by the way, Shreyas sits there so you’ll have to move up one.”
“Who is Shreyas?”
She points to the smaller of the two guys who is still part of the chase. She suddenly looks at me, as though as her vision has been cleared.
“Are you the new kid? The one in Arkansas?”
“Valerie.But you can call me Val.”
She holds out her hand as if she expects me to kiss it and I shake it. Her movements are very precise and feline, and she kind of reminds me of a Siamese Cat.
“When did you arrive?”
“Were you at the G&T on Saturday?”
I can’t remember what G&T means.
She laughs a rather shrill laugh and does the leg crossing thing again. Yeah, she has a ladder in her tights, she doesn’t need to keep showing me. I take off my glasses and polish them.
“Sorry, I forget that not everyone knows what that means. It’s short for Get Together. So, did you see the fight?”
“It was going to happen sooner or later. Henry and Rome absolutely hate each other-“
Yeah, I had kind of figured that.
Shreyas comes through and sits in his seat, and that ends my conversation with Valerie. I don’t mind, though, I love biology, and it’s definitely one of my favourite subjects.
“Val, what do you have next?” Shreyas asks her.
“Geography. What about you?”
I decide that I’ll subtly follow Valerie to Geography. I wait until we’ve left Geography and Shreyas.
She turns around.
“Are you going to Geography? It’s just that I heard you and Shreyas talking and-“
“Shall I show you where it is?”
I have nowhere to sit in Geography and I considering just going and sitting with Valerie when a voice says:
“Don’t even think of sitting with her. Come on.”
My acquaintance with Valerie seems to have made Henry the Iceman even more cross than usual, and he doesn’t want to talk to me at all. I keep thinking about Elliot. God. If he could see me now. He would laugh. A lot. He would also find it hilarious that all of my first day, people would ask me how my glasses broke. A lot is my answer.
A few years earlier…
“Get the ball four eyes!”
I run backwards, past all the other fielders, trying to guess where it’s going to land. Every single one of my classmates knows I’m not going to catch it. And on this hot summers day in year eight, catching this ball is the only thing that matters.
“I said grab it you one armed special! Catch it!” Darren yells again. Even Elliot, my best friend of about eight years, has his head in his hands. I remember I watched it as gravity took it and it began to land. I just didn’t expect it to land on the bridge of my nose. Oh, and for it to knock me out.
“Oi newbie, could you try hitting it?” Henry asks me angrily. My coordination has not improved in the slightest, and I wish I’d known sooner I’d spend almost every afternoon playing tennis. It feels like nothing has changed. I’m still the worst out of everyone. Zook is a tennis protégée, probably the best player in school and Jel is the only one of us who is good enough to play him. I feel so sorry for Henry and Brad who got stuck playing with me. After tennis, we get back to Arkansas, and the hot water doesn’t come until 4:30 so I get changed and manage to find my way to the tearoom cause Zook and Brad haven’t waited. Zook is slouching, in a way my mother would hate, and drinking tea next to Jel who is opening a packet of Poptarts. Henry is in a bad mood and scrolling through Facebook and Brad is eating toast and not saying anything. I wonder if it’s like this everyday. Jel gets up to put his Poptarts in the toaster, and I decide to look for a mug.
“Oh my god Jel, are they Poptarts?” Zook jumps up and accidently kicks over his chair.
“Yunno, how I’m like you’re best friend…”
“And how you love me to bits.”
“Err…hell no. None of y’all is getting any.” Jel says, letting his hair down from its man bun and running a hand through it.
“I didn’t want any anyway,” Henry says. “They’re gross.”
“God, you’re such a snob-“
“And a crap roommate.” Henry opens his mouth to say something, but Jel keeps talking: “Also, Henry, why are you in such a bad mood?”
He’s stopped scrolling through Facebook and is now just sitting in a huff, with his arms crossed. Jel takes his Poptart out of the toaster and sits down next to Zook. I end up because I was making tea, dragging a white stool to the end of the table.
“I’m not in a bad mood.”
There is a collective oh-really eyebrow raise.
“And yeah, Brad denies that he doesn’t sit in maths, thinking about Lulu naked. Well, what is it?” Jel replies. Brad opens his mouth to retaliate but doesn’t get the chance.
“If you really want to know, he’s jealous,” Zook adds in, stirring his tea.
“Jealous of what? You have everything, money, friends, a good education-“
“Could do with losing some weight.” Zook mutters and he giggles. Henry lobs a used tea bag at him. I’m trying to work out the dynamics of these friendships because, at the moment, it’s baffling me. I look up and realise that they’re all staring at me.
“What, you’re jealous because Zook was trying to be welcoming to the newbie?” Brad pipes up.
I’m not worth being jealous over. I’m really not.
“I’m not jealous.”
“You so are.”
Jel and Zook agree with each other
Brad is thinking something, but he doesn’t say it. It’s like Jel and Zook know exactly what he’s thinking and that’s why Brad doesn’t say it. I take a sip of my tea.
“Why would I be jealous? I’m friends with all three of you and-“
“But Henry, I have lots of other friends. I always have-” Jel says but
Zook interrupts him loudly. There’s a word for it, a conversation when everyone is talking, and nobody is listening. I wish I could remember what the word was.
“Honestly. If it’s about the noodles I gave him, well, I didn’t want him to go hungry-” Zook says.
“It’s not that. I just don’t-“
“Henry just doesn’t like you having other friends,” Jel says. “Particularly not Fresh meat.”
“Fresh Meat. That’s exactly what he is.” Henry says, and they all laugh. I feel like I’m watching a play about them talking about me, and part of me wants to keep watching to see what they say, and the other half really doesn’t. The door opens, and somebody else comes in. He’s tall, scrawny and has really bad acne and I’d say about 17 or 18.
He takes something out of the fridge.
“Do you mind if I have some of this milk? There’s none in the Six A.”
I have no idea what the ‘Six A’ is.
“Sure Michael, take as much as you want…” Jel says, finishing off his Poptarts.
Michael comes over and ruffles my hair. “”Ah hah, Fresh meat. Welcome to Prison. Have to watch out now, make sure he’s not a girlfriend stealer either too.”
There’s a very tense moment. I decide this is my moment. No matter where I go, if I stay the way I am, I’ll be treated like crap forever. I have to change. And no more bad treatment is my first step.;
They all look at me. I stand up.
“My name is Ben. Middleton-Jones. And I’m not here to take any girlfriends or steal any friends. I’m just trying to survive like any of you. There’s a tense pause. I get up, leave my mug in the sink and walk out. I go back to my room and climb up and lie on my bed. I check my phone. I still haven’t managed to connect to the internet so it’s just texts from my mum that I get. I don’t reply. I think about everything that has happened in the past three days. A year and 3 months. That’s all I have to do.
“Ah, this is where you are.”
Zook comes bounding in.
“Don’t mind about Henry and Jel by the way. We just haven’t had anyone new for a bit, and they’re scared it will…upset the balance.”
What balance? As far I can tell, there are far too many secrets. Brad is too quiet, Jel is too controlling, and Henry is too rude. I wouldn’t call that balance.
“I’m not asking for much, I was just wondering I could-“
“Ah Zooky, I was just coming to see if y’all were free,” Jel says, opening the door and slamming it behind him. Then he sees me.
“He can stay.”
Jel climbs up onto Zook’s high bed.
“I don’t think he can.”
“It’s my room too.”
Jel gives me that look again; the oh-my-god-you-can-talk look.
“And where else can I go?”
“To Henry and Gwebe? No thanks.”
“We can’t chuck him out Jel, that’s cruel.”
Jel looks at Zook.
I’ve had enough of this. I won’t be treated like dirt here. Not by anyone. I start to get down the ladder.
“Wait, we never said you had to leave,” Zook says.
I gesture at Jel.
“Jel, let’s talk about this another time. Please.”
Jel really doesn’t want to do that.
“It’s important Zook. It’s about, you know…”
“Jel. You want to protect your friends right? If we’re not nice to him, you know what he’ll do. And he’s seen too much to do that. Way too much.”
They exchange a look.
“Fine. We’ll talk about this another time.”
“No wait, I need a shower anyway.”
I climb down the ladder.
“Which way down the corridor?”
I have a shower which is lukewarm, and when I come back, they’re watching something on Youtube. I took clothes to the shower to change into afterwards so I wouldn’t have to get naked and then dressed in front of Jel and Zook. The two naked guys having a conversation in there was something I had to try very hard to ignore.
After a moment, I ask.
“Zook, could you help me get onto the internet?”
“Zook, when you’ve done that, let’s go for a shower?” Jel asks and they high five.
Zook then climbs onto my bed, and Jel climbs down the ladder. When Jel leaves, Brad appears in his place.
“What does he mean by, going for a shower?”
“Don’t you worry about that.”
Zook get’s me onto the internet, and after he’s changed it, he asks:
“You sure you’re ok?”
“Give me a few days and I’ll be alright. This is like a hairpin learning curve for me.”
“I understand. What did you think of the G&T at the weekend??”
“A bit crap.”
“It would be better with alcohol, wouldn’t it? But I suppose there might be more conflicts. We don’t have a fight with Rome like that every Saturday before you ask. Just this one.”
He laughs and then I do too.
“Ok, that’s good to know. And yes, it would be much better with alcohol.”
He ruffles my hair.
“You’re gonna be quite a little party animal aren’t you? There’s this old movie, I can’t remember what’s it called, but there’s this great quote. This woman is like ‘If you want to be a party animal, you have to be able to live in the jungle.’ or something like that. It’s true, though, you’ve gotta be able to live in the Jungle if you have any fun here. And on that happy note. I’m gonna go for a shower.”
He scrambles off my bed and disappears out the door and down the corridor. I’ve had two cold showers while I’ve been here and I really don’t feel like a third. About twenty minutes later, as I used to the school email system, there’s a lot of running in the corridor and Jel going in and out of his room. Henry comes running in and hands me a large, fluffy, blue towel. Henry is also in a towel from the waist down.
“Here, hide this. It’s Jel’s. He’s gone down to the other showers.”
As soon as it’s quiet, I go over to Jel and Henry’s big room and hide it in Gwebe’s desk drawer. Zook running in next.
“Where’s the towel, Ben?”
“In Gwebe’s drawer. Where’s Jel?”
“We were in the showers at the end of the corridor when Henry took his towel, as you know, and ran away. So Jel has gone down to the bottom ones with a different towel so we’re gonna steal that too and turn the lights off.”
“One day, you’ll understand.”
He slaps me hard on the back and changes into shorts and a Wimbledon t-shirt then disappears.
“Do they do this everyday?” I ask Brad.
“Oh yes. Almost.”
Jel comes tearing back in. He’s stark naked. I avert my eyes.
“Y’all, where the fuck is my towel?”
Brad and I look each other.
“I know you have it! I know you do!”
“Have you asked Gwebe? Or Henry?”
He goes storming back through and then he swears loudly. Brad and I go across the corridor, and Jel’s towel are sitting on his bed with a note saying; you may need this. G. Henry is changing and standing there in his underwear while Zook sits on his bed. Gwebe is drawing at his desk with his headphones in until Jel throws a pillow at him. He is so shocked that he falls backwards, and his chair goes crashing to the floor. I think Jel would have done something much worse, but the door is thrown open. Sixth formers apparently never knock. Lukas, one of the year 12’s is standing there, with a clipboard and not at all alarmed that Jel is naked, Henry is half naked, and Gwebe is lying on the floor.
“5:15 check in.” He says in a very thick German accent.
“I thought we stopped that,” Jel says, putting some underwear on. “I thought Matron threw the sheet away.”
“Not ze new matron. So you’re all here? Good good.”
He ticks us off his clipboard.
“Why do we have 5:15 check in if Mr H ticks us when we go to dinner? Where are we going to go in 20 minutes?” Zook asks. The guy with the clipboard just looks at us:
“You think I fucking know? I’m just doing ’cause this I’m told to. When you do this, you’ll see how pointless this is. God, I wish I’d stayed in Germany.”
Poor Lukas. To be sent hundreds of miles to practically prison and spend your mornings and evenings putting juniors to bed and waking everyone up and your afternoons ticking people in as well as being ticked off a sheet by Mr H, eight times a day. That’s all it feels like we are sometimes; nothing more than names to be ticked off a piece of crumpled paper that won’t be kept more than a day.
He leaves, and I sit down on Henry’s chair. Brad climbs onto Jel’s bed and sits up against the wall.
“Henry, can I borrow your jacket? The brown one?” Zook asks.
“I got a new one so you have that one.”
“What shall I do with the other one?”
“Whatever you want.”
Zook goes to get his phone and disappears with Henry’s brown jacket over his shoulder. Henry and Jel’s room has four beds: one against each wall, one behind the door and one at the other end. Between the bed on the left wall and the one against the far wall there is a little space filled with various tuck boxes (small plastic boxes for keeping food in) and home made seats. I found out later that this the favourite spot to sit in and to while along the long afternoons at school.
Jel gets dressed, but Henry doesn’t. He just stands there, looking in Jel’s full-length mirror that’s stuck to his wardrobe.
“Brad, do you want to put some music on? And something good I mean, not Fall Out Boy-” Zook says.
“And not Mika,” Brad replies. I guess they have some sort of agreement.
“Let me deal with this,” Jel says, plugging his iPod into his huge speakers and turning it up really loudly to annoy everyone in the corridor. “I say, Henry, you’re looking mighty fine,” Jel says, and he winks.
Zook comes back in and stands behind Henry.
“Jel’s right, you’re looking like a true curvaceous-“
“Oh fuck off, all of you. You’re just trying to tell me that I’ve put on weight.”
Henry is not really fat, just, well, a bit stout. I’m still processing that they all shower together. I just can’t fathom that. I just can’t.
“I think you’re just fine. A bit chubby but just fine.” Jel says. Then it get’s worse. Jel kisses Henry on the cheek. Like an actual kiss. I have my suspicions that Jel is most definitely gay.
“Jel, please, that’s just…it’s really not right.”
Jel ruffles Henry’s hair and throws him a shirt and a jumper.
“What’s wrong Ben?” Zook asks.
“Nothing, I’m just you know, processing. This is all new to me. All this touchy feely-ness. I find it a bit…”
Zook and Jel look at each other and then burst into laughter.
“Ha! Henry! Ben think’s you’re gay!”
They laugh loudly for a bit. I notice Brad has actually left the room, and I wonder if anyone else noticed.
“No Jel, I imagine Ben probably thinks you’re gay, considering you go around kissing boys on the cheek.”
Jel does it to Zook and Zook laughs loudly.
“And yet Henry, I’m totally straight. I have had many girlfriends.”
Henry and Zook look at each other and sigh heavily. Then they say in sync.
“Trust me Jel, we know.”
“There are five languages of love and the way they show affection, and everyone has one. Mine happens to be physical touch. Henry’s happens to be grunting.”
That explains a lot. I go to get my shoes and Zook also comes for his.
“Hey, do you want this?”
It’s a genuine blue Barbour jacket.
“But it’s yours.”
“It’s really not. Henry get’s them from Leo, his older brother who sells them and if they have something wrong with them when they arrive, they go to Henry. When Henry’s done with them, I get them. So it’s technically fourth hand. But it’s yours if you want.”
I try it on and run a hand through my hair.
“Also, don’t go to dinner in the activity shoes. They make you look like a right tosser. What size are your feet?”
Zook looks in his cupboard.
“Here, these look much better. Jel gave me them, and they’ve never fitted.”
I lace up the baseball boots and join everyone in the corridor. Jel and Henry are still bickering and continue to do so, all the way to dinner.
“Does this jumper make me look fat?”
“Henry, you’re so self-conscious, jeez, .”
“But is that why girls don’t like me? Cause I’m fat?”
“Chicks secretly dig guys who are a bit chubby. They like ’em natural.”
“Coming from the Adonis who has had loads of girlfriends? Like I’m gonna believe that.”
“Henry, I think you’re gonna be the first one of us to get married.”
I had never seen Henry laugh like that until that moment. We go down the road and through the door in the Quad that takes us to the flight of the stairs which lead to the refectory. However, we seem to be early so there is a massive queue stretching down the stairs. People continue to yell and rattle the doors and getting really fractious. Even the Prefect can’t contain us. There’s a lot of shoving and barging and swearing, and I honestly feel like a tiny animal in an enormous stampede. I don’t realise that this is a daily occurrence. Then Rome starts abusing the prefect. I’m just tired, bored, squished and hungry. When we do get let in, Rome is kept to the back by the prefect, who Rome is still abusing and he still barges through. There is a stampede to food that isn’t even very good. Lasagne or noodles in some sort of soup. We all go for lasagne as the safe option, and when we’ve all sat down, and Jel has disappeared to socialise, I decide to ask what’s been on my mind all afternoon.
“What’s the Six A?” I ask. They all look up at me. Now Jel has gone to socialise so it’s just four of us and with Brad gazing at Lulu, it’s basically just three. Well, Henry isn’t saying anything. So it feels like it’s just Zook and I.
“On the top floor, the upper sixth or year 13, depending on what you like to call them, have their own little sitting room with a TV, sofas. Fridge and kettle. It’s one of their privileges. They also get their own milk and butter and jam and bread.” Zook replies.
“Then why did Michael use ours?”
“Hierarchy my friend. They’re older than us, so we have to do what they say.”
Henry and Zook nod.
“In year 11, we have tearoom duty which is apparently the worse,” Zook adds.
Jel comes back from his socialising for a moment.
“Ah Jel, just the person. We’re talking about duties and hierarchy-“
Jel whispers something to Zook.
“No, no and no again. Not in a million years.”
Jel goes back to his other friends. Zook has gone surprisingly red.
“What is it?”
“I’ll tell you later Henry. Ben, we’ll make you a list so you don’t get confused. If someone asks you to do something, make sure it’s your year group duty otherwise, don’t do it. Like if someone asks you to get the phone, tell a year nine to do it. “
Ok. I can do that.
Brad shows me a list that’s he made on his phone and then he emails it to me.
Year 9s: laundry duty, phone answering, shouting when it’s a house meeting and outside tidiness
Year 10: Crockery collecting/sweeping stairs/hovering
Year 11: Tearoom duty
Year 12: Wake up duty/night rounds+ cleaning the mixed comm
Year 13: Captaincies and cleaning Six A
“Every Tuesday and Friday, we have to leave our laundry bags by the front door before breakfast and the year 9s have to make sure they’re all in the big orange bags in CC and all tied up so they can get taken down to school to be washed in the laundry rooms down at school. Speaking of which, it’s laundry tomorrow so we mustn’t forget.” Brad says.
They all laugh.
“CC, it’s short for Checkpoint Charlie. You know how it was the only checkpoint to get through the Berlin Wall from East to West Germany. ” Brad says. Of course, he knows that. I understand; that door being the only door you’re allowed out of, and you have to do a lot of complicated signing out.
“Also, while you’re going through Checkpoint Charlie, if it’s after activities, as well as signing out with Mr H if you’re going somewhere, you have to sign out in the book of lies,” Henry adds.
They all laugh, reading the bemused look on my face.
“The clue is in the name, Ben.”
“Hey, losers,” Jel says, putting his hands on Brad’s shoulders. “Bradley Higgins, if you do not go and ask her out, I swear to fucking god, I am going to set you up with her the first moment I get.”
“No Jel, please-“
“Oh Jel, we were explaining to Ben about the book of lies. As you’ve had the most experience with it, anything you want to add? ” Zook asks. Jel sits down next to Henry.
“Yup. That’s absolutely what it is. Trust me, Ben, one day you’ll be going to be make out with your girlfriend in a toilet or dark corner somewhere, and you’ll sign out saying you’re going to music or extra geography or some crap like that, and then you’ll understand. I’m being summoned. See Y’all later.”
He disappears off in the direction of the in-crowd.
“I wonder what it’s like, being popular.” Zook mutters.
“I imagine it wouldn’t be much different to this, just we’d have a lot more friends,” Henry replies, picking at his lasagne.
“Oh my god, she’s looked at me,” Brad says, going burgundy red.
We all look at Zook.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just-“
“Is she still looking?”
We look over his shoulder at where Lulu is sitting, and sure enough, she is staring back.
“Somebody just pointed-“
“Oh god, really?”
Henry clicks his fingers in Brad’s face. Eventually, Brad looks up.
“You have been staring at her for like, half an hour. Shut up and eat your lasagne and play it cool.”
“Oh shit.” Zook mutters, looking over our shoulder. “Jel and Valerie are leaving together.”
“Do you think they’re getting with each other?” I ask. Zook and Henry shake their heads.
“God no. Jel hates Valerie.”
“It’s a long story. Come on, let’s go back to the house.”
We put up our trays and empty plates and wind down the long corridor, past a couple who break apart when we walk past. Then is’s down the flights of stairs, past another couple who don’t notice us this time, just keep being all over each other and out of the door and into the arch. We follow the road up to Arkansas, watching out for Valerie and Jel who may or may not be together. We go to the front door and into CC. Here, you can right up to the stairs to our corridor and the one above it, down the corridor under these stairs to the showers and other year 12 rooms or left, to Matron’s office and beyond that, the glass roofed conservatory that is the mixed common room.
We go left past Matron’s office and down the little steps into the Mixed Comm. I go to sit down on one of the sofas, but Zook and Henry haul me up by a shoulder each.
“Not there. Definitely not there.”
I follow them to a corner of the room, and they climb up onto the top of the upright Piano. There is only just room for four of us.
“Why are we sitting here?”
“Hierarchy,” Zook replies. “At least we’re not on the floor anymore, fighting over that beanbag.”
He points to the year 9s who have been banished to the floor and are currently wrestling over the one beanbag. It took me years to understand the hierarchy; why the year 12s all had to squash onto one sofa and an armchair when the year 13’s got four sofas and comfy ones too. Jel comes huffing in, and we all squeeze onto the piano. Zook decides to try and push Henry off which makes Henry do it back and Jel get’s very cross.
“I can’t wait till next year when we get the windowsill-” He mutters. “At least we’ll all fit.”
The year 11s all fit on the windowsill but only just. Someone has turned the TV on but nobody is watching; everyone is too busy wrestling, listening to music, gossiping, eating sweets or checking their phones.
“Actually, I’m moving down,” Jel says, and he moves down from the top of the piano to sit on the lid of the piano with his feet on the piano stool. Mr H comes striding in and sits down under the TV. The house captain; Rob sits on one side and Alfonzo on the other. Alfonzo speaks a tiny amount of English but is superb at drinking and playing Squash. Mr H does yet another register to make sure we’re all here. I’d say this is the 9th time I’ve been ticked off Mr H’s checklist today.
“Right, we’ll turn that rubbish off. Silence please.”
Everyone keeps talking and giggling.
“I said SILENCE! God, can’t you lot shut up?”
A sort of silence falls over the room. Bearing in mind there is over 60 of us, that is an achievement in itself. Mr H then starts to babble on about really dull things like cleaning the tearoom, laundry being out at the right time, to be in at the correct close time, etc, etc. I make a list of all the time’s I’ve been checked in today on my phone.
Check in times today
-Wake up at 6:30
-Breakfast at 7:20/7:30
-Chapel at 8
-After lunch between 1:30 and 2
-Going to activities at 2:30
-Coming back from activities 3:30
-5:15 check in
-Leaving for dinner 5:45
-7 pm check in, after dinner
I notice Zook and Henry laughing about something and shoving each other. Then I notice they’re doing Jel’s hair.
“Ben, phone down! Thornton, you paying attention?”
Zook looks up, trying so hard not to laugh.
“I would hope so. Has anyone got anything to say?”
A hand goes up.
“What is it Grappleton?” Rob says, rolling his eyes. I notice that you call anyone younger than you by your surname but someone older by their first name.
“We’re gonna restock tuck shop tomorrow so we’re gonna open up after activities. We’re not doing tabs because in the girl’s houses, they have a total of £350 owed to them, and some of you owe money to the Alvie tuckshop by the way.” Alex Grappleton says. He’s an awkwardly shaped kid with black spiked up hair and in year 12 I think. Zook looks at Henry, and they mutter something and then high five. I guess they plan to run tuck-shop one day.
“Ok Grappleton, can you find out who owes tabs to Alvie Lodge and we’ll make sure they pay it back?”
He nods. Another hand goes up.
“Year 10s, can you be quiet on our middle corridor? We’ve got exams this term, and we can’t do it if you’re screaming and playing music and running around from 6:30 in the morning to 10 at night-“
Rob cuts in.
“Ok, Bygrave. Year 10, you have to be more respectful of the year 12s on your corridor cause they are revising-“
Mr H cuts in.
“My office is also in your corridor, and you make so much racket. I have a good mind to put you all on different corridors next year. And yes Zachary, I’m looking at you.”
The whole house looks at Zook and Henry who has just tied Jel’s hair into two little mouse ears on either side of his head, and we just have to hold in the laughter. A man comes rushing in, tall, pale and with a centre parting. He’s wearing a long school scarf tied up high, a thick beard and a laptop.
“Sorry, I’m late.”
He stands awkwardly in the corner and although I know him by sight, I cannot, for the life of me, name him.
“Right, next,” Rob says. A shaky hand from a year 9 goes up.
“What?” Rob doesn’t even address him by his surname. “Is it lost property?”
After a moment, the year 9 nods. Rob swears under his breath as about 10 other hands go up, presumably for lost property.
“No. There will be a list on Dean’s door, who is captain of lost property and he’ll read it out tomorrow. Write it there because this has taken 25 minutes and some of us have exams to revise for.”
Everyone starts talking but the beardy guy comes forward.
“Sorry, I just wanted to say that I’ll be coming around to see my tutees and at 9, we’ll get together for some food.”
Ah, so he’s a house tutor. I wonder who my tutor is. We move out of the mixed comm in a massive horde; a stampede going back to our rooms or to make tea and toast before prep. I’m still getting used to finding my way around. The evening passes very similar to last night when everyone watched Netflix, and I unpacked, and there was loud music coming from every room. We have to stay in our rooms while Brad works, Zook watches a film, and I stick up my posters. I have one of Jurrasic Park, a hilarious one of the theory of evolution and a union jack flag to pin above my bed as well as lots of photos of Elliot and I and a couple of Emmy and I. I only have one of my whole family, but I don’t stick that up. I have to pin the flag between Zook and I’s bed and he look’s up, pretending to be disgruntled.
“If that falls down on me in the night, I will have a fit. Besides, you might not be allowed it. Mr H loves fire health and safety. It’s about the only fire in his-“
“Zook, please. I’m trying to work.”
Zook makes a face behind his back. I wonder why Zook doesn’t like Brad. And I wonder how they’re going to survive as roommates. Being quiet for Brad seems to be something we do most of the day so he can work and it’s the one thing Zook can’t do.
Zook writes something on a yellow post-it and passes it to me.
‘On the dot of 8:15, the music comes on. Brad can’t have his way all the time.’
I nod and at 8:15, that’s precisely what Zook does. Brad almost flips a lid.
“If you can’t be a good roommate Zook, I’m going.”
As he leaves, Zook mutters:
Then he sees the expression on my face.
“I know you’re wondering what’s going on, why Brad and I don’t get on. But I’d advise that you didn’t ask. It’s complicated.”
“Does Jel know?”
There’s a long pause.
He clambers down the ladder and changes into his tennis kit. I notice he is wearing a hoodie, an athletic type t-shirt, and shorts which are all pale blue with St Richmond’s College Tennis emblazoned in silver on each thing and Zook’s initials underneath, also in silver. He slings a bag of tennis rackets over his shoulder and looks up at me.
“Well, are you coming?”
I’ve got nothing else to do. I jump down the ladder and follow him. We join Jel in CC as we sign out in the book of lies, wait for ages for Henry and then Brad tags along too, in the hope of seeing Lulu. Jel and Zook were going to play but we end up playing strip tennis and then get shouted out by one of the coaches. I don’t realise this is a daily occurrence. We get back at 9:00 and there’s more nude showering, but I don’t join in. I assumed at that moment I’d never want to do that.
I shower separately, and when I come back, Zook and Henry are running around, fighting and wrestling. I thought we had to collect crockery every night, but clearly, that idea has been abandoned. Some poor year 12 called Seth comes around at 9:45 and looks like he’s about to cry because we’re supposed to be in our rooms and ready for bed.
“Zook, please, you’re ruining my night. Please. Just get in your room.”
As soon as he’s gone, Zook and Henry go and make toast, and I think Jel joins them too. I don’t want to get in trouble so I stay in bed. When Seth finds them, he has to pick up Zook and give him a fire man’s lift.
“Stay in here. Please. Just get in bed and I’ll turn the lights off. Just stay here otherwise, you’ll have Mr H to deal with.”
Zook climbs fully clothed into bed, and Seth turns the light off. Once Mr H has been around, Zook goes back through to Henry’s room, and I don’t sleep for ages. When I do, I have uneasy dreams. Very uneasy dreams.
Tuesday follow the same template as Monday. I’m woken at 5:45 by Zook going to play tennis with Jel then lying awake till 6:30 when Harry came around to turn the lights on. Zook comes crashing back, having showered and turns on Mika really loudly. His favourite song is called ‘Live your Life’, and he plays it all day, every day.
“Ben, don’t forget your laundry. Oh and your PE kit.”
He says, putting on his wellies and school coat. I decide to do the same.
“Yeah, it’s chucking it down outside. Definitely a wellie day.”
“Then why did you go and play if it’s raining?”
“It’s crazy, the things I do for what I love eh? Come on, let’s go.”
We have to drag Henry out of bed and spend ages in CC waiting for him. Then Henry realises that he hasn’t put his laundry out so we have to wait for him to do that. He throws it into the huge orange sack with the rest of the laundry bags and then in our wellies, blazers and under Jel’s umbrella, we head to breakfast in the pouring rain. Eggs and Bacon. I’ve never been more grateful for a hot breakfast. Assembly. The Chaplin decides to show us some Youtube videos and talks some rubbish. Lessons.
French, business, break PE. The AstroTurf has flooded so we had to do fitness inside.
7 pm check in. I meet Peterson, who is Assistant Housemaster and can’t control anything. He’s very high up on my sissy list.
Wednesday. Thursday. It swirls around and around. This routine. In, out. In, out.
Wake up, sign out, breakfast, assembly, lessons, lunch, sign in, sign out. Tick tock. Activities, sign in, 5 pm check in, sign out, dinner. 7 pm check in, prep, sign out, tennis, sign in, put to bed. Lights out.
Controlled by the clock in the Quad.
5 pm check in.
7 pm check in.
It goes around like clockwork.
“Come on, we have to go to housemeeting It’s 8:15.”
It’s Thursday night, and I seems to have accumulated a lot of homework, all due for tomorrow. We all head down to the mixed comm, and Mr H proceeds to babble for half an hour about cleaning up after ourselves, laundry, the tearoom, being badly behaved in assembly and a lot of people getting into trouble for not handing in homework on time. He’s in a really crap mood, as usual. At the end, he get’s up and lumbers off, leaving Rob to talk to us.
“Mr H wanted me to tell you that Alfonzo who was my vice house captain has been caught drinking and as a result, suspended. I won’t go into detail, but he’ll be back in two weeks. Also, I know there is a sixth form and year 11 dance G&T this weekend so think very carefully about drinking because Mr H is aware of alcohol in the house. Suspension is a very expensive punishment.”
A year 9 puts a nervous hand up.
Rob looks down suspiciously at him.
“Did Mr H not tell you?”
“He told me to read the code of conduct and slammed his office door in my face.”
“Suspension is when you’re sent to live with a local family for two weeks, and you only come back in for lessons and activities. You’re not allowed back in the house at all, and your parents have to pay an enormous amount of money to pay the families and the taxis. “
“How much is it?” Someone in year 11 asks.
“2 and a half grand for a week. Well, that’s what it was when I was suspended. Ah, fun times. Right all of you, back to your rooms and don’t get drunk unless you’re sure you won’t get caught!”
We file out and head in our various directions. When it’s just Zook and me again in our room, I ask him:
“What did Rob get suspended for?”
Zook laughs very loudly.
“Stealing Maryland cookies from the school shop.”
I also laugh.
“You know Jamie in year 13? It was his mum who caught him, cause she was working there at the time. It was because of that that Rob and Jamie are best friends now.”
Brad opens the door and comes in and sits down and plugs himself in, even though prep is technically over.
“What did Mr H mean by it being closed house?”
“What do you think?”
“He’s not gonna lock us all in is he?”
“He does anyway. No, it’s just that nobody in the house is allowed out to play sports, go for a run, go to other houses if you’re in sixth form, etc.”
Jel comes striding in, slamming the door behind him.
“Zook, I need to ask you something.”
Jel beckons him, and they disappear. I take off my glasses and start to polish them. Zook comes crashing back after a couple of minutes and climbs onto his bed.
Zook climbs back onto his bed.
“Yeah. Things are going badly between Jel and Valerie. He wants to get one up on her so she might leave him be. He just doesn’t know how.”
This is my chance. My chance to be someone and fit in in Arkansas. My chance to prove myself.
“Can I help? I’m in loads of her classes.”
Zook looks up at me.
I put my glasses back on.
“If you get it, maybe you’ll get a nickname upgrade. At the moment you can be Traintrack Jones.”
Jel comes sprinting in.
“Zook, it’s here.”
Jel holds his IPad and Zook reads what I’m presumably is an email. I open my phone too and check. Sure enough, I have 1 new message in my inbox:
cc: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com see 8 more
Subject: Allborough tennis tournament and candidate qualifying information
As you are all aware, seven tennis players are visiting next week from Allborough Tennis Academy, one of the most prestigious tennis schools in the world. The aim of their visit to find a worthy candidate to offer the possibility of a scholarship to. The candidates will play first here, at St Richmond’s College and then, if selected, will play a couple of final and deciding matches at Allborough Academy itself in Ohio. If chosen for a scholarship, the candidate or candidates who have successfully won a place will be announced in the spring of 2013. Students who wish to qualify as candidates must come along tonight for a meeting at 8:45 at the Astroturf and as there are only a maximum of 14 places at this stage of the process, only those who attend the meeting will be allowed to proceed further. Please remember that the students from Allborough Academy are our guests and should be treated with the utmost integrity and respect.
Mr P Simmons.
Head of PE
Tutor in Gallagher House
Zook practically jumps off his bed in excitement.
“Oh my god Jel, this is it!”
He’s so excited he can’t speak.
“I have to tell Henry. HENRY!” Zook yells, throwing the door open and throwing himself through the door to the other room. This is the first time I’ve ever seen Jel properly smile. This is the kind of chance you work your whole life towards. Jel seems to be reading my thoughts.
“It’s the only proper chance he’ll ever get.” He says and disappears. I can hear Zook bouncing around next door with excitement and that means I can hear him coming sprinting back to get changed. He changes into his St Richmond College tennis kit, swings his huge bag of tennis rackets over his shoulder and disappears, clearly still so excited that he can hardly speak. Half an hour, he comes rushing back in, all red faced and possibly the happiest I’ve ever seen him.
“Oh my god, this is amazing. I can’t believe it.”
He crashes into his chair. In case you’re wondering where Brad is, he’s still in our room, plugged into his headphones, but he takes them out to hear what Zook has to say.
“Mr Simmons told I was already a candidate. I stated that I wanted to play like everybody else, but because I’m a tennis scholar, I automatically qualify.”
He takes a sip of water from a Wimbledon bottle. I had no idea Zook was a tennis Scholar. I mean, I knew he was good, I just didn’t realise, he was that good.
“Is Jel still there?”
“Yeah, he had to stay for the whole meeting. First, everyone else will have to play some matches against each other to qualify for an interview. Then they all have to fill in a form and have an interview. Only a few people will get through to that stage-“
“Oh yeah. I have to fill in the form because that has to go to Allborough and then whoever gets it and goes to play at Allborough, has to do something very similar. I think that’s the only reason Simmons is acting so pretentious. Otherwise, he would just choose the people he likes and get it over with.”
“So what’s the final stage?” I ask.
“Whoever beats the Americans or is the most impressive will possibly be offered a place in the second round.”
“That’s so exciting. Congrats.”
“Cheers Man. I’ve been working towards this since I was 5 and this is my one and only chance. I can’t screw this up.”
He throws all the uniform that’s on the back of his chair, onto the floor and then strips off, folding all his St Richmond College tennis kit and placing it neatly on his desk.
“Oh Zook, don’t forget, real Matron is back tomorrow so she’s gonna start doing the room checks again.”
“Wait, so the matron we’ve got isn’t real?”
Zook slips into his towel and laughs.
“No I mean like, she’s not our matron usually? That’s so…confusing.”
“Real Matron is quite something. She’s just come back after her divorce so apparently, we have to be really nice to her.”
“Oh great.” Zook mutters.
“So yeah Zook, you might want to shove that in a draw somewhere. My dad is on duty this weekend, and he’ll kick your ass if your room isn’t tidy.”
“I’d like to see him try.”
On Saturday Night we all go to Mrs Lambert’s Reels in The Reeling Room on the third floor in The Quad. We’re told to wear smart casual, so I go along with what Zook tells me to wear which consists of a white shirt, red chinos, black shoes and red braces (that he lends me) and the Barbour coat that I got fourth hand from Zook. I think we look idiotic. But I don’t say that. We’re talked through each reel and then we dance them at least twice, lead by the toothless old man playing the accordion who the school have hired in. The first dance which is called the Dashing White Sergeant is sets of 3 so Brad, and I end dancing with Lexie, who is a quiet girl in our year and a good (ish) dance. It’s a lot more violent and energetic than when I learnt this with my various family members. You can tell who knows each other very well because there is some very violent spinning. When our three meets the one that has Zook and Jel with India in the middle, I wonder where Henry is and who he got stuck with. He’s gonna be in such a bad mood later. The next dance is called the Reel of the 51st which I’m so shocked everyone can do it so well because these dances took me years to learn. After that, I sit the next one out, and after I’ve been to the toilet, I go next door to the Red Room to find a drink. The red room is the most ostentatious room in school with red walls, a red floor with the school crest emblazoned on the carpet and lots of portraits of famous headmasters. There is a silver sofa with two silver chairs on either side of it and a little table in the middle at one of the room and an identical set up at the end, but the chairs and sofa are blue. I could have sworn this is where the snacks were.
“Are you Ben Middleton-Jones?”
I turn around. Of course. Only Mrs Lambert.
“Mrs Lambert. It’s a pleasure to meet you at last.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you too.”
I shake her hand.
“Sorry I didn’t manage to meet you earlier, it’s just been one of those weeks.”
“It’s ok. Don’t worry.”
I don’t understand how someone is virtually the head warden of a large prison can be so…friendly.
“I was wondering whereabouts the snacks and drinks are?”
“They’re in the basement.”
“Ah ok, thank you. Are you not dancing Hamilton House?” I ask. She shakes her head.
“This is the one I can never remember.” She says and laughs. There’s something very familiar about her that I can’t name. She has a very expressive face, but the most distinctive thing about her is her eyebrows and definitely the first thing I notice. Age-wise, I’d say she’s about 35 or 36 and has a very slight figure with a lot of dark hair upswept into a bun.
“Do you know what time this G&T finishes? Nobody has given me the memo?”
“Ah ok. I just want to get back and see my kids, you know?”
“How old are they?”
“Beth is 7 and Calum is 8. They’re at Lochcarron Primary school, but I only want what’s best for them. I worry when they’re teenagers that there won’t be enough for them if they don’t want to come to school here.”
She seemed like the type of person who, if she weren’t my headmistress, we’d totally be sharing a cigarette somewhere other than this horrible room.
“So, are you enjoying life in Arkansas?” She asks, changing the subject.
Errr, not really.
“Yeah. I’m adjusting.”
She looks at me again and then squints her eyes.
“Wait, are you…Roderick’s cousin?”
I nod. She takes a huge sigh.
“I thought you reminded me of someone. Well, Roderick was an interesting one, wasn’t he?”
“Certainly knew how to get the school in the papers, that’s for sure.”
I remember it in the Daily Mail after seeing the article shared on Facebook. She takes another look at me.
“You look like him, you know.”
I know that’s not a good thing. With that, she walks off. I go down the many flights of stairs to the basement and find Zook and Henry having what’s probably a deep chat at one of the high up tables. They are the only people in there.
“Ben, Traintracky, there you are,” Zook says, and I scramble up onto one of the high chairs. “We were wondering if you were coming down. What did Mrs Lambert want?”
“Just to say hello.”
Henry looks at me suspiciously.
“And then she told me I looked like Roderick which I don’t think I do.”
“You do.” They both say in sync.
“Yes. If you got a bit taller, had no braces and drank all the time, you’d be exactly like him.”
Zook’s about to say something else, but Jel comes striding through, a girl following in tow. She’s in a floaty blue dress with long sleeves and very dark hair with a few blue streaks running through it. She also has lots of piercings and is tagging along behind Jel. Henry checks his phone then he shows Zook something funny on facebook and they laugh like nothing is wrong, which I’m guessing it isn’t. I think this is one of Jel’s many ex-girlfriends.
“Thank you Thuglife that is very helpful indeed.”
Jel comes up to Henry and puts an arm around his shoulders.
“She’s wanted to copy my Spanish homework, and I told her to go away.”
“Who was that?” I ask.
“Thuglife,” Jel says and then changes the subject very quickly. “She did tell me one thing though that is very useful.”
Jel climbs onto one of the chairs and joins us around the table. We look around to see whether anyone is around. Then we huddle around the table and Jel whispers:
“Apparently, Rome is out to get some sort of revenge against us. That’s why he went for us at the social. He thinks he’s been wrongly accused of something. He’s got Lulu on his side as well as all his Gallagher friends. We can’t trust anyone but ourselves.”
“What about the Alvie girls?” Zook asks.
“We’ll see,” Jel says, for a moment.
“Oh my god.”
We all look at Henry.
“Brad. He mustn’t get with Lulu.”
We look at each other.
“No. He mustn’t.”
“Jel, what about this bet?”
He thinks for a moment.
“Yes. We must. The longer we can distract Valerie the better. She hasn’t sided with Rome yet, but she may.”
A few people walk into the basement, and we sit in silence for a moment.
“Ok. It’s just us now. And Brad, if he was here. Ben. You’ve heard all this now so-“
“I know, I know. What choice do I have?”
The door opens, and Rome and Lulu come through, presumably from sitting in the alcove. Lulu has got her hair straightened and flipped over to one and her nose rings and earrings in. She’s wearing a backless black leather dress with a plunging neckline and spike heels. I’m guessing she came wearing the leather jacket as well. Rome continues on upstairs, but Lulu just stands there.
“Hey Arkansas, are you coming? Val wants to dance with you Jel and besides, it’s the last dance.”
“I’m not coming,” Henry says.
“Yes you are, we always dance one dance together. Come on, I’ll be the girl? Please?”
Henry has a look that says The things I do for love.
“Lulu, can you tell Val I’ll be 2 minutes?”
She gives us a thumbs up.
“So what are you going to say to Val?” Zook asks.
“If we win, she’s gonna kiss Gwebe, and if she wins, she pierces our ears.” We head up the stairs and join the really long lines of boys on one side, girls on the other in the Reeling Room.
“Wait,” Jel says. “Brad, swap places with me. I need to dance with Valerie.”
Jel initially manipulates it so he dances with Val and Lulu is dancing with Rome but then Rome drops out so Brad ends up dancing with her instead for some strange reason. She stands opposite him and winks at him, and he avoids eye contact with her until she winks again. The dance is called Strip the Willow and probably the most violent Scottish dance there is. Jel and Val are the top couple so they spin first and then Val spins the next boy and Jel spins the next girl and then they spin each other. Jel doesn’t spin Valerie but rather throw her, and we turn all the girls so hard before throwing them to their partners that we know they’ll wake up with bruises.
“Hahaha look at Brad and Lulu. Aren’t they cute?” Zook says.
“I suppose. Oh god, am I next?”
When Val is thrown towards me, I hurl her back to Jel, and I hear Jel say to her:
“Ben, you’re next. Go!”
This is the point I actually start to enjoy myself. I dance with Lexie again, and she’s ok with being thrown around very violently. I look at who is up next. Of course. Mrs Lambert. Dancing with Mr Fearn who is head of our year, in his school tartan trousers. I spin her and she makes eye contact with me just for a second but that look, it’s like she’s looking into my soul and has had a glimpse of the terror that will come. I wonder now if she had any idea then that one day she’ll usher me into her office and expel me. That I’d cause the most trouble she’d ever have. That she’d have to quit her job here. We continue to dance on, blissfully unaware of what will come. It seems to be the times we’re not paying attention that decisions are made that we can never turn back from.