Thursday afternoons always filled me with dread. Maybe dread is the wrong word. They were ominous to me. Like the threat of something terrible happening hung over me like a fog. It would start around 10pm the night before, and last for half an hour or so after the lesson was finished. ‘You’re reading too much into it’ Andy would say, in that incredibly aggravating tone husbands and wives save for one another. ‘It’s just a job, you can’t bring it home with you.’ He went so far as to suggest that I talk about it with a therapist. Whether this was a signal that he was uninterested in me discussing it any further with him, or that he thought my anxiety was so unfounded it could only be attributed to some sort of mental deficiency, I am still unsure. There are some questions that should not be asked, for the sake of a marriages posterity.
She at least appeared to hear out my concerns, nod in all the right places. ‘School can be hard for all kinds of children for all different reasons’ she would soothe. ‘Whilst your concerns are, of course, valid, in lieu of any proof, there is not much you can do.’ When she saw that wasn’t cutting the mustard she would sigh sympathetically, talk about the duty of care thrust upon teachers, the budget cuts and workload. ‘You must be exhausted’ she would conclude with that therapist smile. Small, tight, empathetic, not amused. I stopped seeing her after a few sessions of this paid-to-be-patronised shit. After the girl’s body was found I felt like booking a session, just to see her expression. She would have heard all the gory details on the news, where she was found, how she died. I felt a vicious urge to make sure she knew all the details the media didn’t know, too. Her insides carefully, almost lovingly removed and arranged around her. What he did with her womb. ‘It must be exhausting’, I imagined saying to her ‘being a therapist when you have no fucking clue what you’re talking about.’
It was hard not to notice him. He sat at the back, silent, shoulders hunched forward like he was expecting an attack. If he was trying to appear innocuous, his attempts only made him more of a target to the other kids. I felt sorry for him, aware of my limitations in my role as biology teacher. An unimportant character in the scenes that made up his life. What kind of life was it, I always wondered. It was hard to imagine it was a happy one. Kids can smell weakness like a bloodhound, and life hasn’t yet blunted out the rough edges of that special sort of cruelty that only teenagers seem to enforce on each other. His cuffs had holes in, his shoes were muddy. He became impossibly tall, drawing more attention to his skittish manner, long pale fingers and – I can say this now he is no longer my student – odd smell. It preceded him, that smell. Sweet, in the way a pile of wet leaves and earth smells sweet. Knowing what I know now, I would say that it smelt like decay.
His shock of black hair, unkempt and seemingly impervious to gravity cut him a curious, disproportionate figure. Whilst he trained his eyes to rarely look up from the floor, I remember being struck by the intensity of them. ‘His pupils are white. Too white. Like a fox caught in a trap, you know? And then I saw him cutting the frog open. Jesus Andy, you should have seen it, the look on his face.’ Andy pulled a tart expression over his glass of wine, which I took to mean I should get to the point of my story. ‘His eyes’ I said determinedly, ‘they came over glassy, lazy. He had these flushed cheeks, breathing heavy like he –
The look on Andy’s face shut my mouth like a steel trap. For once he was paying attention, watching me closely with curiosity. Curiosity is the wrong word. But sometimes you have to tweak what you see, for a marriages posterity.
‘He used to be quite a good student.’ I remember saying that to the detective when I was interviewed After, because I remember it made him involuntarily raise his eyebrows, clear his throat. But he was, in the beginning. After that afternoon in the woods, nothing he ever did before or indeed after would ever count for much. An entire life in the dark, with one sharp, cold slat of light, resting on dead leaves. But he was my student for three years, in the time Before.
‘If we could all just keep an eye on him, that would be great’ Mr. Brookes, head of science concluded briskly. Ms. Marma quickly raised a hand before Mr. Brooks had the time to dispassionately conquer the next item on the agenda. I saw his shoulders tighten with the effort it took to look much less irritated than I knew he was. ‘Yes?’ he asked in a clipped tone. I smiled to myself. Small, tight, amused, not empathetic. ‘Yes – sorry – it’s just – well, I was wondering, do we know what kind of support the boy is getting?’ Mr. Brookes answered with a blank expression, as though she had made so little sense she obviously hadn’t finished her question. I remember wondering if he had attended a power pose seminar over the Easter break. ‘Well – you know – if his mums health is bad enough that the school has been notified, do we know what sort of support he has at home, financially, emotionally?’ Ms. Marma trailed off, looking almost beseechingly around the cramped teachers meeting for a head nod or murmur of assent. She was met with a bored, strained sort of silence. I wanted to say something. I should have said something. But I was new, and even though I agreed, I didn’t feel qualified to do so. Eventually she straightened her back. ‘I think we should be aware of any potential obstacles to his capacity to learn’ she said crisply, staring at no one in particular. ‘Yes, I quite agree, Ms. Marma’ Mr. Brooks offered with the magnanimity of a dictator re-elected. ‘We’ll certainly keep an eye on it.’
‘If he was such a good student, when did that take a turn for the worse, miss? Oh – sorry – If he was a good student, when did that change, Mrs. Crane?’ I remember that question because it pissed me off. ‘He was bullied if you want me to be honest’ I replied tersely. I could see Andy hovering in the doorway on the pretence of delivering the detective a cup of tea. Apparently the kettle had been boiling for twenty minutes. ‘Bullied. Right. I’ll write that down’ he said reaching for his fabled cup of tea. As Andy handed it to him he shot me a look, like I was a student talking at the back of his class. ‘Talk away’ I could imagine him saying ‘I’m not beginning until you stop.’ ‘Could you expand on that, please?’ the detective said, unaware of Andy’s eyes boring into the back of his head. ‘He didn’t have many friends – you know, the old uniform. He was different I suppose, a little sensitive. I’m sure you remember how cruel kids can be.’ There was an awkward pause. ‘Oh yes Mrs. Crane, I think we are all quite aware of how cruel kids can be. That is why we are all here, after all.’ He snapped is blank notebook shut. ‘Thank you for your time and your uh – unique perspective.’
It sounded like someone was dropping small bags of gravel around the side of the portacabin. I tried to ignore it. The walls were thin in my first classroom, the nights were chilly and I had a pile of marking to do before I could go home. It was only when I heard the muffled groans that I grew more curious than irritated. I don’t remember how I got from the portacabin to the narrow space in-between it and the bush that lined the edges of the playground. Over the years the memory has faded, reduced to the few key facts. It was raining, and Samuel was standing over him, kicking him in the stomach. In my memory, Sam is impossibly tall, and he was impossibly small, curled up on the ground in a resigned, almost bored sort of way.
‘What the hell were you thinking Sam?’ I demanded once we were all back in the portacabin. I remember all of us being wet, hair plastered to our faces. I remember hoping that the boys mistook my shivering for cold, and not the adrenaline and nerves it really was. ‘He’s two years younger than you, what possible excuse could you have for what I’ve just seen?’ Sam just sneered. ‘You’re new here miss, you’ll figure it out.’ Before my mouth had formed a response he was gone, slamming the door behind him. I let a few minutes pass to steady my breath. This was going all wrong. Teachers are supposed to be in control of situations like this. But they know I don’t know what I’m doing.
‘It’s not a problem, miss.’ He said suddenly, looping his backpack over his shoulder. ‘I should report this’ I told him. That’s a lie. I asked. Not directly, but I asked. The hesitancy in my voice asked him the question. ‘No, miss, please.’ He said stricken. ‘My mum, she doesn’t need the stress. See you next week.’ I’d like to say I didn’t report it because I wanted to foster a trust between him and I. Because I could see he was being failed by the adults around him – it was obvious, the too small coat, threadbare jumper, the shadows under his eyes, his tiny frame, withdrawn expression - In reality I was just embarrassed, reluctant to report my own inefficiency. In the time After there would be a lot of speculation about the events in his life that lead to that day in the woods. His mother’s sickness, his inability to make friends, the poverty and failed safeguards. I don’t know what he felt were the milestones on his road to the woods. But I’ve had enough time to see mine. Adjacent, marked with failures almost entirely unnoticed. If I could be excused my silence in that first staff meeting, my own condemnations would certainly start with this night. I imagine my part in his story as he sees it, indistinguishable from a blur of other faces, each one asking, not telling him; It’s going to be fine? It’s going to be reported? You’ll get the help you need?
He feels like it started in a dark corner where he couldn’t see it and now its spread all over him. The crack in the ceiling right above his bed. If he could add all the seconds, minutes and hours he spent looking at it he bets it would equal years. He bets it would. But somehow it has got bigger and bigger and he doesn’t think he even noticed until it was there all at once, crawling like a spider, looming over him all night in the silence. It has a life of its own now. There’s nothing he can do about it.
5 am. The light drizzling lazily through his blinds is grey, like the day doesn’t want to start. No one wants their day to start at 5 am. But his does and it always has. His eyes just open of their own accord, and he stares up at the crack in the ceiling until he hears her. She tries not to wake me, he thinks, but the metal of her bed frame is rusty and it protests loudly when she tries to drag herself upright. She can’t do it by herself, but she tries. It’s not her fault.
He goes to the kitchen and makes breakfast, taking turns choosing which foot must step on the icy tiles. One boiled egg and cornflakes. ‘I’m not hungry.’ He practices saying this out loud, scraping the last of the sugar out of the tin and into his mouth. ‘Honestly mum, I’m not hungry, you have it.’ Then he takes her to the toilet. Then he wipes her. Today he catches sight of himself in the mirror, and wonders how many other 14-year-old boys wash their mum’s privates in the morning. Probably not many. He thinks maybe that’s why the kids at school always stay away from him. Maybe they can tell. Or maybe they know. He doesn’t know how, but they could.
The sweating starts when the school emerges around the final bend in the road. And the shakes. He tries to breathe deeply in and out but it just makes him feel sick. He arranges his face carefully to look as blank as possible. He think he’s good at that, at least. Wearing his face like a mask. He sees Sam waiting for him. He feels his muscles starting to twitch, folding under the pressure, but his face stays unmoveable up until the first punch. He’s proud of that.
The bell goes for first lesson but he’s going to be late, again. Stuffing tissue up his bloody nose he looks up at the twitching bulb of the grey cubicle. He feels the anger rising up inside him like a hot balloon, getting bigger and bigger until he starts to shake, get The Feeling. He is scared of The Feeling. Just leave it. Leave everything how it is. He can do that. Retreat back inside his own skin, warm and slippery like how a rabbit feels.
He is given a frog to dissect today. He doesn’t have a partner, but for once he didn’t mind. He concentrates on the skin, cold and flabby to the touch. He slowly and deliberately pushes the scalpel into the body, feeling a little flutter in his stomach. When he pulls the scalpel down his breathing becomes shallow, excited. The feeling in his stomach intensifies as he pulls the skin apart, trickling deliciously down to his groin. He’s so close to its insides now he can see his heavy breath wobbling the guts and he swallows loudly. He puts his fingers inside it, slowly stroking the lungs, holding the gall bladder in between forefinger and thumb. He get lost in the touch, the familiar, secret, thrilling feeling –
- He knows this feeling, the only one he’s ever been able to get lost in, equal parts fear and surrender and he is dimly aware of small noises escaping his mouth but his hands won’t stop and the classroom dissolves in a swirl of lights blocking him from view so all he can see smell and taste is the body and his hands coated in fluids and –
Mrs. Crane makes a small noise and he crashes back into the classroom. He looks up at thirty sets of suspicious eyes and open mouths, and Mrs. Crane looking nervously at the organs of a frog that had been pulled out and arranged in a circle around its corpse.
He keeps his head down, rushing toward the gate as soon as the bell rang to signal the end of day. Somehow the frog incident had already spread around the school like wildfire, despite his Accident happening at last period. ‘Oi, Frog boy!’ He cursed his own neck as it automatically twitched to face Sam. Sam. Sam hated him more than anyone else. He wasn’t sure why. He had wondered many nights, staring at the spidered ceiling, to pinpoint what Sam must hate about him the most. He could only conclude that his existence just made Sam angry. But he couldn’t help but to notice there was something else in Sam’s eyes, behind the hatred, betraying him. It looked like fear.
He kicked dead leaves in the midst of trees overgrown by the disused railway he stopped by every afternoon before going home. The walk over the rusted tracks was treacherous, and the reward was small – half an acre of rotting woodland. As far as he was aware he was the only person to visit – at least – he had never bumped into anyone else, and he had been visiting for a very long time. Sometimes he speaks into the silence. Ugly and sad things, and there’s no-one to see. Just the trees, surrounding him, whispering soft vowels. But sometimes he thinks it would be nice, to have someone he could show the trees, the animals, The Feeling.
Sometimes he finds animals on the earth. Some are dead. Some aren’t. Mice curled like little babies or furry bats or birds or frogs. He doesn’t mind if they’re alive or not, it makes no difference. They are just as comforting; inside. Finding somewhere moist, something foetal, he can finally fold in on himself, all his atoms pinned to a singular purpose – to hide. To feel inside. He remembers with a thrill that he is made of the same pumping red luscious flesh that covers his fingers and in excitement he pushes his tongue inside the womb. His favourite part. The Climax, the Joining, the Return.
Something rustles in the leaves behind him and his head snaps upward. A chick has fallen from a nest above, a perfectly formed thing. It will be dead soon. He wipes his mouth and picks up his school bag. Mum is waiting. It’s time to go home.