Mother’s medical condition flared up. I knew
she was in pain. Her skin had become almost
transparent. There was agony in her eyes. Father
began to cook dinners. I was shocked. Invariably
he fried fish and made an awful stink. I watched
how the dishes piled up and thought how Mother
would be mortified if she saw this. However
Mother stayed in her room. I was encouraged to
let her rest. Sometimes I heard her groaning
behind the door. The cancer was eating her alive.
One morning I rose and came down for breakfast.
Father was slouched morosely at the table.
Mother, he mumbled, had been admitted overnight
to hospital. I froze. This was profoundly upsetting.
She’d made thick marmalade sandwiches. They
were extremely comforting. Nowadays Mother
treated me with kid gloves. I think she thought
I might crack, like brittle porcelain. Mother never
brought up the subject of Elizabeth. She had
become taboo. I felt sure Mother hated her, for
sullying her beautiful son. I was free, however, to
share my school experiences with Mother. She’d
never judge. I said I was settling in, that my peers
were all kind. Mother nodded with obvious
pleasure. She drew the curtains, it was getting
dark. Father would be home soon. It was a mystery
how he spent his days, since unemployment had
taken him. I didn’t think he’d turned to the booze.
But his eyes were often bloodshot, his chin stubbly.
He liked to swing a verbal fist my way. He’d wish to
know my school was like a jail. I ran over some lies
in my head. I wouldn’t disappoint.
Cycling home, I saw Clarissa at the bus stop.
She gave me a hearty wave. She was standing
with her friends. They waved too. There was no
irony or spite, just plain open friendliness. It was
hard to believe my good fortune. I pedalled home
in elation. I glided up the hill towards home, like
I was on air. No doubt there would be a complete
interrogation. Instinctively I felt I shouldn’t divulge
to Father how much I’d enjoyed my day. School,
Father thought, should be like a hair shirt. There
was no room for pleasure. I wiped the wide grin
off my face, padlocked and parked my bike, and
resisted the urge to canter upstairs. Mother would
be waiting with tea.
A girl named Clarissa was buddied up to me, to
show me around the school and make sure I could
find all the classrooms. She was a gawky thing,
almost goth, bubbling over with energy, and not
one bit surly. She made me feel welcome, and
stuck to me like a limpet. Classes were mostly dry
affairs, but the teachers were consistently normal,
without a hint of eccentricity. Maths made me feel
stupid. I didn’t understand a single fraction or
formula. At break time I expected to be dumped
and wander the playground like a leper. This didn’t
happen. I was drawn into Clarissa’s circle of
friends. It seemed like school could really be a
pleasure, not some sort of adolescent torture like
before. I might even be happy.
Father quickly enrolled me at the local
comprehensive school. He made it clear that
it was a step down for me. Mixed schools, he
said, bred slovenliness, lewdness and drug taking.
They had no tradition to draw upon. As far as
Father was concerned, my life would be a shabby,
uncultured mess from this time forth. I was fitted
out with the bottle-green uniform and voluntary tie.
Only wasters, Father judged, went without a
perfectly neat tie. I felt compelled to wear mine
with pride. On my first morning, I cycled up late
to the main entrance. I was shocked to see
students who looked happy. Covens of nattering
girls watched as I dismounted. They giggled.
Relaxed teachers stood on the steps smiling.
Nobody was troubled by my lateness. Already
I liked this place. I wheeled my bicycle to the
back of the school and fitted my padlock. Father
had said they would be a bunch of crooks and
thieves. A bell rang. I hurried inside, to search
out my form room. The hallways buzzed with a
I felt like a cornered animal. I wanted to lash out.
The Headmaster was very matter-of-fact. I’d
stretched the boundaries too far. My parents had
been called. Expulsion was the only avenue now.
His deputy nodded sagely beside him. Rage fought
inside me. I looked desperately at all the old boys’
pictures lining the walls. These were men who had
achieved something. I was trash. After fifteen
terrible minutes, sat shivering in the great leather
chair, Father walked in. The Headmaster explained
the situation with distinct relish. Father simply
nodded. I was told to stand. I should fetch my
satchel and leave now. My ties with this hallowed
school were severed. I must live with the shame.
I was expelled.
I wheeled my bicycle to the school sheds. The
Headmaster had commanded cyclists dismount
on entering the school gates, to avoid unnecessary
accidents. I knew Akers would be there, supported
by his cronies. He was loafing by the wall,
aimlessly kicking the filthy brickwork. He sneered
massively when he saw me. He taunted me, calling
me fat-boy. I’d had enough. I swung a wild punch,
which caught him in the throat. Akers was
doubled-up on the deck. I was amazed. I booted
him in the ribs. Suddenly the woodwork teacher
came out of nowhere. He yanked at my ear
painfully. It was the Headmaster’s office for me.
Akers was dusting himself off. His trousers were
torn. His credibility was lost. I regretted nothing.
Father had taken to mooching around in his
pyjamas. I thought it weird. He didn’t rush away
to work, but lingered at the breakfast table, his
spud-like face grotesquely unshaven. Father
growled over his cereal and slurped his black
coffee vulgarly. I could only assume he’d been
fired. I wondered what was going to happen to
our family. Father out of work, and Mother clearly
ill. I couldn’t imagine myself becoming the bread-
winner. I’d never had a job. I hadn’t even been
allowed to take a paper round. The awful muddle
of this world was growing more tangled and
desperate. Elizabeth was effectively gone. School
was foul torture. I was at a low ebb. Something
simply had to change.
Mother was clearly unwell. I had noticed how
sallow she’d become, but I said nothing. It would
have been improper to comment. Mother’s hair
was getting thin and dry. I supposed she was
ageing. Her face was always puffy and dark baggy
rings were etched under her eyes. Father belly-
ached all the time, and I supposed this was
wearing Mother down. When we sat down to
breakfast in brittle silence, I could hear Mother
wheezing hoarsely. She was thin as a skeleton
and pecked like a bird at her peppered food.
I rushed my meal and bolted out the door to ride
to school. It was impossible to imagine my parent
was ill. I cast the thought away, and pumped on
At school I was met with a new problem. A burly
new boy had taken a powerful dislike to me. I’d
done absolutely nothing to him. The boy was
named Akers. Everyone hero-worshipped him.
He excelled in sports. He spoke confidently and
towed behind him a gang of acolytes. I wasn’t
really impressed by his charms. I figured that this
was the reason he hated me, and why he singled
me out for bullying. It always happened before
school. Akers would hang around the bike sheds
with his roughs. My chest stung where Akers’
fingers had prodded me. My face was flush from
his slaps. I thought of reporting it, then dismissed
the idea. Even the teachers venerated Akers.
I would have to suffer silently. To be honest, I felt
like I deserved this abuse, for letting down
Elizabeth. School had also become a sorry hell.
I licked my wounded pride and said nothing.