Whoever designed my P.E. kit is a sadist: stiff, black shorts that ride up my thighs and a scratchy polo shirt that bobbles after each wash, and hisses with static as Mum shakes it free from the washing machine. The worst thing, though, is the colour. Amber, the egg-yolk yellow of flickering indecision, the moment between stop and go. No wonder we’re all crap at P.E; we are walking metaphors, traffic lights stuck in limbo, waiting aimlessly in muddy fields for the green light of adulthood.
I get halfway to school before I realise I’ve left my kit in a crumpled heap on the hallway floor. I could lie and tell Miss Little I’ve got my period, but if her maths is anything as good as her shot put, she’ll know it’s not possible to have a period for three weeks running. Unwilling to risk the wrath of my least favourite teacher, I press the bell and wait for the bus to stop so I can trudge the mile-and-a-half home in the spitting rain.
As I cross Norwood High Street I contemplate the chances of a four foot eleven woman being called Miss Little. Maybe it’s one of God’s pastimes, creating his own set of Mister Men down here on Earth. Doesn’t he have better things to do?
By the time I get to the front door, I’ve renamed each one of my teachers. Now there’s a knack to opening our front door. You have to push the key to the left before turning it clockwise in the lock, pulling the door towards you a bit, then shoving it with your shoulder. But it won’t budge.
‘Hello. Is anyone there?’ I shout through the letterbox.
Josh is probably at school by now, and Mum’s at work. I don’t want to walk to the phone box and spend my tuck shop money on a call because Dad can’t rouse himself from his lie-in. I’ve saved just enough change for a Toffee Crisp.
‘Dad, are you in there? Dad. Open up.’ I press the doorbell extra hard as if it will increase the volume.
Through the letter box I can see the kitchen door at the end of the hallway is closed. I scan the floor looking for my kit, squinting into the darkness. And that’s when I see him, lying on his back, only metres away from me. My eyes seek the things that make sense, the rolled up sleeves of his shirt, the glint of his belt buckle, and the thick soles of his shoes. And then they rest on the dark red patch blossoming on his chest, the blood on his hands, the floor, the walls.
I push all my weight against the door but it’s no use. Dad has bolted it shut from the inside.
Four Months Ago
I don’t want to go to school on the first day back, I want to stay at home with Dad and watch repeats of Give Us a Clue in my pyjamas. No matter how famous you are, no matter how beautiful, you can’t play charades without looking like a moron. It’s a leveller, the opposite of school, which has more layers than Mum’s trifle. To rise to the top, you need a Naf Naf bomber jacket and a fit boyfriend. It doesn’t take much to sink to the bottom.
Dad has settled himself on his side of the sofa as I’m leaving, his pale legs propped up on the coffee table, a move he only dares make once Mum has left the house. His dressing gown is getting too small and hangs loose at his sides – too many mornings in front of the telly with nothing better to do than dip Rich Tea biscuits into his coffee, testing how long he can dunk before the biscuit disintegrates.
I hold up my hand to him.
‘Five words,’ he says.
‘I’m saying bye, Dad.’
‘Oh right, of course,’ he says, his beard full of crumbs. ‘See you tonight. Usual spot, alright love?’
Whenever Dad collects me he parks round the corner from the school gates, incognito. Sometimes he takes it too far, covering his face with a copy of the Daily Mirror.
‘You’d better go or you’ll be late,’ he says.
I touch my nose with my right index finger and point to him with the other hand, charades-speak for, ‘Spot on.’
Our form room is a time warp. As soon as I step inside, the whole summer disappears. It’s like I’ve never been away from the science block, its scratched wooden desks and dying house plants.
Miss Gottlieb, my form tutor, is writing her quote of the day onto the blackboard, stopping every couple of letters to wipe her glasses clean with her fingers:
The boy sitting in my seat has never been here before. He’s wearing a bomber jacket = good, that is torn at the elbow and splashed with paint = bad, and drawing on the back of his hand in blue biro.
‘You’re in my seat,’ I say, drumming my fingers on the desk.
He doesn’t flinch, just adds a leg to the panther taking shape on his tanned skin. A tiny freckle has been circled to make an eye.
My second tactic – coughing – only succeeds in gaining Miss Gottlieb’s attention; the impostor doesn’t take his eyes off his artistry.
‘Is there a problem, Genevieve?’
I point to my chair. I’m Baby Bear staring forlornly at his occupied bed.
‘Neil is new to this class so I suggested he sit near the front,’ she says. ‘Go and sit next to Luke.’
Great. Luke is the class clown or more accurately, the class loudmouth. People leave him alone for one reason: his ogre of a dad is head of the Science Department. If we mess with Luke, Mr Ellis gets happy with a Bunsen burner.
I slouch over to my new seat, dragging my platform heels along the worn-out parquet. There is some comfort in knowing this path has been trodden by hundreds of people before me, former pupils that survived the experience and went on to bigger, brighter things. One day the marks I make will be all that remains of my time here.
‘Alright darling?’ says Luke, flicking his tongue in and out and winking at me in a way he considers suggestive.
‘I can see you,’ says Miss Gottlieb with her back to us, tapping the wing mirror she’s gaffer-taped to the side of the blackboard. We all know what prompted it. Last term, someone stole her plastic anatomy model, Penelope, from right under her nose. Poor ‘Penny’ showed up on the sports field, disembowelled.
‘Right everyone,’ says Miss Gottlieb, perching on the edge of her desk. ‘One privilege of entering Year 12 is the chance to represent your fellow classmates in the school collegium.’
‘The what?’ says Luke, his nose scrunching up in disgust.
‘The COLL–E–GI–UM,’ says Miss Gottlieb, stretching out each syllable, enunciating but failing to explain.
‘The school government,’ I whisper in his ear.
‘Government!’ says Luke. ‘Why would anyone want to be a part of that sleazy bunch of losers?’
Miss Gottlieb blushes, turns to Neil, who still hasn’t looked up from his drawing.
‘I don’t think all of them are like that. Some politicians are worthy, generous-hearted individuals who put the needs of the community first.’
‘I’m going to report this to the headmaster,’ says Luke. ‘Someone’s kidnapped Miss Gottlieb and replaced her with a party political broadcast.’
‘Yes, thank you Luke, very good. But how would you feel if I said all school children were indolent layabouts with nothing between the ears?’
I want to touch my nose with my right index finger and point at Miss Gottlieb with the other hand. From the look on his face, Luke’s searching the recesses of his brain for the definition of indolent.
‘I’m not asking you to march into Downing Street,’ says Miss Gottlieb. ‘I’m asking you to take part in the school council, to use your voice to make a difference, to improve the experience of each and every one of the two thousand students at this school.’
I know where you could start, I think: add a Tampax machine to the girls’ toilets, ban the hundred-metre hurdles for all time and take turkey burgers off the lunch menu.
‘You have ten minutes to get into pairs and prepare your speeches. Here are some questions to help you get started.’ She distributes pink A4 sheets she’s gone to the trouble of laminating. ‘When the time is up, you are going to put your partner forward as collegium candidate.’
‘What if we don’t want to stand?’ It’s Neil. He’s finally deemed us worthy of his attention. I was beginning to think he was mute.
‘Why? Got a problem with your legs?’ shouts Luke.
Neil turns and I see his face for the first time. One of his eyes is green, the other hazel. Depending on which eye I focus on, his face completely changes. Both looks are disarmingly beautiful, even when he’s angry.
‘I meant stand for election, you idiot.’
The whole class goes silent but I know exactly what they’re thinking: Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum! I smell the singed hair of the mouthy one. Someone should have prepped Neil; he walked into that completely blind.
‘Candidature for the collegium is not compulsory but everyone is required to participate in today’s class, including you.’
We’ve got an odd number of people in class so Miss Gottlieb volunteers to partner up with Luke and I’m with Neil.
When he looks at me it’s like he’s staring straight through me. I even turn around to check he’s not actually eying Penelope, who’s propped up on the shelf behind me, her blood-red mess of a heart on display.
‘OK,’ he says. ‘Let’s start with you.’