Chapter Three – A Load of Old Balls
The moment I had been dreading all morning arrived as I stared out of the window at the sea crashing against cliffs in the drizzle. The bell rang for lunch. I was starving but my packed lunch looked pretty nasty and I couldn’t remember where the canteen was. My tour of the school with Barry, the head boy, had lasted ten minutes before he’d ditched me outside the Languages block to go for a sneaky fag behind the shop around the corner. But my appetite was not the reason I’d been dreading that bell. It was the note I’d been passed during French.
The morning had begun pretty normally, and I was even in danger of enjoying myself during French with Monsieur Strange. After my “tour”, I was twenty minutes early for my first lesson and, consequently; I was first into the classroom. I took a seat near the back and watched my classmates file in just before the second bell for the start of class.
They appeared to be the usual mix of nerds, cool kids and ASBOs, all wearing their ties in the varying fashions of their respective tribes. The nerds wore their ties long, the cool kids rocked theirs short and fat and the ASBOs tended more towards the miniature knot with the longer back-piece, with one notable exception.
An enormous ginger girl was the last into the classroom, just after the second bell as if she’d been waiting for it. She joined her two chattering acolytes, marked by their ties as members of the ASBO clan, at an empty desk next to mine at the back. As the classroom filled up, I’d wondered why nobody had taken that table. The room had filled from the back to the front, but that desk has remained untouched, as though marked by an invisible reserved sign. Now, I could see why.
All three of the girls had lank, greasy hair, and wore off-white shirts that told tales of grass stains, mud and blood in the not too distant past. As Monsieur Strange stood at the front of the class and took the register, the little group snorted at the names of girls that wriggled uncomfortably in their seats near the front of the classroom.
The massive ginger girl answered to the name Jodie Craddock, and her acolytes appeared to be Samantha Smith and Kirsty Squabb, and nobody laughed when they answered their names.
Eventually, it was my turn. “Greg Wright?” the teacher asked, looking in my direction.
“Ah, Greg, you’re the new boy eh? Everybody, this is your new classmate, Greg. Keep your head down, and your chin up, and you’ll do fine.”
“And your head up Strange’s arse!”
The trio on the table next to me cackled like a coven at that. I was hated them already. Jodie stared at me when she caught me looking at her. It was a stare that dared me to say something. Keep your head down. That was good advice.
Monsieur Strange turned to face the white board and told us to take out our textbooks. I’d brought my old one which was, of course, completely different to the rest of the classes. Out the corner of my eye, I saw Jodie spit her chewing gum into the hair of a pretty little brunette in the row in front. The girl fingered it without a word, and didn’t turn around.
As Monsieur Strange took us through the world of voitures and bibliotheques, I settled in a little. I even began to answer one or two questions, it was easy. We’d covered this in my last term at St. Catherines. Every time I spoke, Jodie stared at me. It was not a friendly stare.
I’d learnt to keep quiet at St. Catherines. I’ve always been quite good at the languages stuff, English, French and German, but at school it is always best to keep a low profile. Nobody wants the universal hatred that comes with being crowned class swot, but here, I couldn’t help it. Here I was a nobody. I had to impose myself somehow.
Coming into a class midway through Year 11 is not an easy thing to do. Everyone knows each other, they know their places and roles, and they know what to expect. I was a random particle, a free radical; bouncing about their rigid structure (I’ve always been quite good at science too). I had to persuade them I wasn’t dangerous.
Jodie Craddock and her coven had made up their minds. A piece of paper hit me in the side of the head. Instinctively, I looked at Craddock. She caught my eye and mimed unwrapping it. I picked up the small ball and straightened the paper. It read (sic):
“Your ded frog boy! C u at lunch…”
I turned back to the window. I could hear them laughing at me. At first, I wasn’t too scared; they were just a bunch of stupid girls. What could they do, really? Throw mud at me, push me over? How bad could it be? I’d been in a fight before, in Year 9, with Daniel Cartwright, and he was captain of the rugby team. But as the lesson wore on, I began to worry. I couldn’t lose to a girl, but I couldn’t hit her either. And every time I looked over, Jodie and her minions stared back at me, whispering. It was unnerving.
After French, I found my way to double English without much trouble and doodled my way through the class. Morning break was a blur of introductions in the library as Barry paraded me around like a new phone, showing me off to the assembled nerds and library freaks. They didn’t seem too bad. James and Phil, Barry’s mates, were OK; they were fellow gamers too, even if they seemed to like FIFA a bit too much. We left together for double History before lunch. I didn’t mention the note.
Luckily, Jodie Craddock wasn’t in History either, although Samantha Smith was, but she sat near the front and didn’t catch my eye. Not so tough without her big buddy. We covered the Suez Canal, another subject I knew well, but it was really, really boring. Our teacher, Mrs Jones, droned on and on monotonously about the Suez crisis and President Nasser, stopping occasionally to polish her little round glasses on her pale blue scarf. The rest of the class scribbled notes in silence. I stared out the window at the wild surf and heavy rain. With any luck, we would have to stay indoors at lunch. I resolved to stay in the library even if we didn’t. Craddock couldn’t touch me there.
When the bell rang, I waited at the door for James and Phil. Safety in numbers. James came over as Phil stopped to speak to Mrs Jones.
“Having fun so far?”
He was a little tubby, but wore his shirt untucked and his tie short; clearly one of the cool kids. He had a rosy face which clashed with his bright red backpack, and short blonde hair. I nodded.
“Shall we head to the library then?”
“At lunch? Nah mate, we’re heading to the canteen, then down the playground. I’ve got my football; us lads always have a game at lunch.”
Phil detached himself from making excuses about his homework and joined us. As we left, I told them about the note. Phil laughed.
“Craddock wants to kick your ass? That fat bitch, she’s just pissed off because no one will go to the Prom with her. Don’t worry mate, we’ll tell her to fuck off.”
James was less reassuring.
“Remember what she did to Wojtek on his first day? She waited ‘til after school, beat him up and pushed him in the frog pond, just because he was Polish.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot about Wojtek! Poor kid left a week later. Still, maybe if he could actually speak English he wouldn’t have got his ass kicked. My Dad says that Polish are taking all his tax money anyway. All they do is sit around drinking vodka and having kids.”
I began to dislike Phil and his xenophobic father quite a lot. My great grandmother was a Polish refugee in the Second World War. I kept my mouth shut though. I needed a human shield in case Craddock came after me.
We made our way to the canteen. James and Phil argued about football, James supported Manchester United and Phil, originally from Birmingham, was a big Aston Villa fan. Being a Bristol City supporter, I kept quiet, damn glory hunters. I kept looking over my shoulder for a massive ugly ginger head with a hard punch and a predilection for ponds, but we made it to the canteen unscathed. I turned my attention to the pizza breads and hot dogs.
As we left the canteen, Craddock caught me unawares. She hauled me backwards bodily by my bag and hit me in the back of the head. A rapidly forming ring of pupils chanted as she kicked me hard in the balls, and I felt my stomach turn. Samantha and Kirsty inevitably led the mob like skanky cheerleaders, laughing and clapping in my face.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!”
James and Phil joined them; so much for my new friends, my human shield. Thanks guys. I fell to the floor and covered my head as she sat on my chest, raining down punches in the drizzle. She smelt like a sweaty dog in a fish market. Then, suddenly, as rapidly as it had formed, the crowd dispersed and I was free, squiggling like a worm in the mud.
A grey haired dinner lady had yanked Craddock off me bodily and was busy screaming at the giant girl, who smirked at me, lying beaten on the floor. Two more dinner ladies appeared and marched the ginger bully away to detention. She screamed abuse back at me as she disappeared into the building. I staggered to my feet.
“Are you alright boy?”
The dinner lady patted me on the shoulder. I nodded. I could feel my eye swelling, and my chest hurt worse than when I fell down the stairs on the way to the fair when I was eight. I saw James and Phil laughing with Barry as they turned a corner next to the playing field.
“You’re covered in mud!” The dinner lady tutted, disapprovingly, “Get that eye seen too in the infirmary and then get along to detention. We can’t have boys fighting girls. What’s the world coming too? Go on you bully, get out of my sight! Men like you make me sick!”
As I sat in the sick bay, waiting for the nurse to look at my eye, I thought about St. Catherines. I used to be cool, didn’t I? Well, not a total loser at least. I had my mates, I’d kissed a girl. I’d played for the football team. Now, in less than a month, I had nobody.
My misery was complete. I had been abandoned by my new “friends”, beaten by a girl, told off by an old woman, and given detention for the rest of the day. What a great first impression. I closed my eyes and hoped that, when I opened them, an asteroid would have obliterated the entire planet.
“Greg? What the hell happened to you?”
No such luck. I opened my eyes to a great bushy beard. It was Uncle Archie; a pissed off Uncle Archie. He took me home.