Day 1. Cope Muir High
16th September, 2001.
It’s the first day at my big school and I’m already in love! To be honest, I’m mildly disappointed. Love at my age should simmer gloriously over the course of several months, building up to an explosive snogging tryst behind the school wheelie bins. But I’m there. Already. Boom.
Not going to lie, this morning was scary. I’ve been home-schooled for the past 4 years, so it all came as quite a shock. This new school has prayers and a sanctimonious choirmaster called “Arnold” who looks like he’s straight out of a Brontë novel. Luckily I’d dressed for the occasion: Aunt Amandine woke me with a cup of tea, and laid out my new school uniform over the radiator. The steam from my Earl Grey rose across my eyeline anointing the razor-creased black trousers and crisp white M&S shirt like a weird baptism. Auntie A said this would be one of the hardest days of my life, but that it’d be ok, because later she’d take me to PC World on the Finchley Road and I could get a new word game CD ROM that actually works on my antiquated computer. ‘Mind Teezer for Windows’ is like a protein shake for the brain. If I confront new bullies (and let's face it – look at me - I invariably will) I’ll be able to club them with the sheer dexterity of my mind.
There’s something hospital-like about my new school. The walls are mint green and the corridors are endless and smell of Dettol and potatoes. My Hush Puppies squeak on the lino until they confront the odd squashed fluffy chip. There’s a bell that is obscenely loud at the foot of the main stairwell. It rings at the end of each period, and I’m sure its decibel rating contravenes regulations. Our little delicate pubescent ears are at risk. I’ve made a note to mention this to Headmaster once we’re are better acquainted (which we will be: I spotted an edition of Practical Railway Modeller sleeping furtively in a half-opened drawer during my interview last month. No one subscribes to PRM unless they’re a seasoned crafter of papier-mâché railway bridges.)
In the classroom my desk is in the centre column at the back row. I’m pleased about this; it is a position of unparallelled visibility and strategic prowess. From here I am able to spot the board rubber as it sails towards me giving me the maximum amount of allotted time to duck its trajectory. This happened today, on four occasions. If the autumn sun shines at the correct angle, I can just make out etched into my desk the words: some cheese-brain fucker spat here ‘97 alongside an arrow pointing into a circle. ‘Cheese-brain’ is a good, sturdy, underused insult. It feels edifying to know that another precocious wordsmith like myself once sat at that desk.
To the right of me is a baby-face boy. I think he name is ‘Fergal’, and he’s new too. He looks dead fragile – like the last autumn leaf about to fall and its only the bleeding first day. To my left is a boy called Curtis. He’s kind of fat, and his fingernails are rinded with dirt but no one knows these things because he’s perpetually in attack mode, his hands drawn into fists and his lip curled with spite like some insane riled-up hyena. His favourite word seems to me ‘Nonce’. Nonce used to be a quality insult but it has recently been degraded; ironically, by nonces.
And three rows in front, two columns in from the left, is her. If the desk-layout were a grid she’d be in square A4. On a chessboard, square A4 is where the queen lives at the start of a match. She is my queen. Her name is Hayley, and she has a ribbon in her hair, which is long and mousy brown (the hair not the ribbon). At break time, all the 3rd years flocked together. I stood on the periphery of a small clutch of us like a wandering satellite child, reading the situation before I knew how to interact. Hayley stood smiling in one corner, laughing quietly at intervals. A few minutes in, and I summoned my strength, and waded in for the killer ice-breaker line:
‘Hi, I’m Malcolm.’
She seemed surprised.
‘Oh, um hi, I’m Hayley. Good to meet you.’ She extended her hand to shake mine, in an act of civility that took me by surprise.
‘Hey whose the freckled dude?’
(That’ll be me I’m covered with freckles)
‘Hi, I’m Malcolm. Good to mee…’
“You’ve got a joke's face mate, did your mum shag a fox?”
A cackle of young laughter.
“I… um… no, not as far as I’m aware…”
“’As far as you’re aware?’ so she might have? Ha ha guys, this bloke’s mum shags foxes! Vixens or dogs ?….”
One problem with bullies is if they’re intelligent. Curtis was aware of the vocabulary that distinguishes the male from the female sex in the common red fox genus. Parents will always tell you bullies are insecure, and stupid, and that you can break them up like meringues with the sabre of your wit. Many times you can, but if they’re intelligent it makes it harder. This called for my best work. My best anti-bully-munitions. It was time for me to deploy my famed ‘Michael Burke The Newsreader” impression to win back the situation…
‘News just in of an overweight, slightly dirty boy hurling insults at Cope Muir High School. Sources have informed BBC News that the boy in question actually still wets the bed.
A roar of laughter. In my peripheral vision I spot Hayley giggling; the blondeish ringlets that flank her peerlessly white skin springing up and down. Curtis’s brows furrowed furiously. You are on fire, Malcolm.
“Yeah alright, f- f- fucking freckle-meister…”
“News at 10 have also learned the man in question has a stutter.”
The key to a success post-bully-takedown is to evacuate the scene as quickly as possible. I sidled out of view, as if this was just one of several groups I intended to hand out with this break time. I was in demand; my audiences were already awaiting me in formation baying for impressions. They needed me.
“Ow that’s lovely, darling!” said aunt Amandine as she shifted gear in her Ford Ka and drove juddering away from the school gate at 4.10pm. What’s her name?
“Lovely name. Hayleys are always attractive.”
“That’s what I thought. She also has perfectly white skin, too. And a slightly aristocratic face. I just saw her get into a 4x4 with a spare wheel cover that said Highgate Land Rover. I’m thinking of you as well, Auntie A. Her dad might be single. As a family, we’d be well looked-after…
“Now, darling, don’t get obsessive”
“Oh obsessive schmobsessive.”
“By the way I have an IKEA table for you to erect at home. And Muffin is back from the vets, though without cone of shame… She gnawed it off in the car on the way back from the vets and I couldn’t get it back on again.
Muffin is a cat of exceptional character. More on her later.
“Ow thanks, Auntie A. You’re the best”
I reached my hand over to her stout arm which remained on the gear stick, it’s Picasso-pink sleeve fluttering in the gentle breeze from the inch-opened window, as the wrestled the tiny car over the untreated pot-holes of a roadwork-inflected A-road.
“That’s alright, dear. I thought you deserve a treat. You know you have just lived through one of the toughest days of your life. Also, after PC World, I have your favourite dinner – the Beef Wellington thing.”
But, oh, if only it’d continued as it started. If only my status at this new school had been defined and cemented by the masterful subterfuge of wank-face-class-bully in day one. I had rolled a 6. It was beginners luck. Curse you, gods of Cope Muir High School! Go feast on someone else. After all, I was at the back of the chess board; a measly pawn surveying the masterful moves of the pieces in front, who were worth more and had omnidirectional movement capabilities. Hayley. Oh, Hayley. H-A-Y-L-E-Y. I wonder if I’ll still be thinking of her when I’m 50? I bet I will. Even if we’re not together I just know a part of me will still be thinking about you, like, all the time.