We'd been told three times now, and I expected the fourth to be less than polite. Billy shuffled his feet and I noticed his eyelid twitch. I slammed my book shut and hoped the thump would send a defiant message to the librarian.
"Okay both of you, out!" she shouted. "I've told you three times to keep quiet in here."
We left the library slowly just to add another level of insolence to the situation, but it went unnoticed. I turned the volume up on the little radio that I'd slipped into my coat pocket, just to make a point. I don't think she heard, or if she did she didn't acknowledge it. My victory was tempered somewhat by her indifference.
Billy was more upset than I was because he didn't have many books at home, the library was his sanctuary and it meant more to him than anything else. I didn't care about the place so much because my mum would buy me all the books I could read, unless I asked for any of those 'romantic' books that she deemed inappropriate. I'd read some of that stuff anyway and had found it quite dull, especially compared to stories about scary clowns that lived in sewers, and banshees stuck in some place between life and death.
I felt sorry for Billy, not in a sympathetic way, more pity than compassion. Sometimes I imagined myself as him. I wondered what it would feel like to be irrelevant in a world where your status depended purely on an ability to make friends and to have to fight those who knew you couldn't. Nowadays they call it 'social interaction' or 'communications interface.' Load of crap to me. I wished he would pay more attention to his surroundings sometimes, more often than not he'd wander into the road or bump into somebody because he was preoccupied with one thought or another. You can't see the ground when your head's in the clouds.
Our school was more of a sentence than a learning experience, if you couldn't stand up for yourself in the playground you were dead meat. Given my diminutive height and stature I had learned to perfect a way around any potential confrontation that might arise during the course of a school day. (Like the time Gavin Tucker kicked me in the nuts when I refused to share my sandwich with him). On that, and other occasions I forced a wry smile and quoted a passage from one of my favourite novels, although I'd adapted it somewhat to fit my predicament.
"If love reflects a susceptibility, if you have somehow exploited a weakness in me, so be it."
Okay, so it didn't exactly make complete sense given the context but it bought me enough time to cause some confusion, and enough time to leg it away.
My strength was in my words, my fists were quotes from books I'd read, things I'd remembered from drama class, and the theatre. My aim was simple, buy time and run. It never failed. I guess to my foes the words sounded like a stream of disconnected syllables. They would become so preoccupied with their own sluggish thoughts that there would be no room left for anger, not even for a moment.
Billy on the other hand, suffered at the hands of almost everybody (myself included but I'll get to that in a bit). He looked kind of funny, just as short as me but with a face like a squashed balloon. Worse still he sometimes had to wear the sort of glasses that made his eyes look twice as big as they actually were. That, along with his pudding bowl haircut, second-hand uniform and facial twitch, was enough to make him prime fodder for the other kids.
Unlike me he hadn't learned a clever way to deal with the bullies, and he suffered for it (I won't go into details). It's true to say I felt obliged to protect him, and that's one of the reasons why we hung out together. We were both way ahead of our reading age and had already passed the English Literature exams with flying colours. But Billy was bright, really bright. He read Dickens and Shakespeare for pleasure at the age of eleven (for me, King and Koontz). His teachers knew he was destined for great things if he could manage to keep his head down. It was our shared enthusiasm for literature that kept us together and the school library was where we felt safe.
But there was more to it than that. I liked Billy because he was harmless, but I admit I sometimes exploited that trait for my own selfish amusement. It was a bit like supporting the underdog in a boxing match or a football game and enjoying it for the scale of the challenge, we all need to take sides to give an edge to our day, and it made me feel virtuous. There was only ever one other kid at school that I was friends with but he got expelled for setting fire to a desk during a history lesson and I never saw him again after that. Rumour was he had two mums, which was quite a rumour back in those days.
I said I was friends with Billy, well I was but it was only because we were similar not only in height but also in intelligence, and nearly all the other boys were rough. We weren't tough in any sense of the word but at least we could both string a sentence together. I had his back, but more often than not it did me no good whatsoever, I just enjoyed the feeling of righteousness. On one occasion I actually punched Wayne Browning on his arm, that bit below the shoulder and above the elbow that's really sensitive. That was when his gang had Billy up against the boundary fence, I ran from the other side of the playground to get there. You should have seen us laugh afterwards, it was hilarious.
There were other times too, most of which I'm ashamed of now. It was something to do with Billy's vulnerability, something that stirred in me a kind of sadistic, callous revulsion that I still don't fully understand. I guess it was because of his unfailing loyalty to me, and the fact that he held an unwavering faith in our friendship that stirred my cruel side. I found it quite irritating. Once or twice I'd say something nasty to him purely because it gave me a perverse feeling of power. But then we'd both laugh pretending it was just a joke. It wasn't a joke though, I did it because I enjoyed the sense of control. It confuses me all these years later.
One afternoon after a sports session Gavin Tucker whipped me with his wet towel when we were in the shower room. We'd had a miserable time on the rugby field and had come in soaked and freezing cold. Gavin had a cut above his left eye where someone had caught him with a boot stud which I suppose fuelled his anger. I knew about his tendency to allow his rage to spiral into madness but I still allowed him to thrash me almost to oblivion. I ended up crawling on all fours across the wet floor to get away, much to the amusement of both teams. I have to admit I was surprised by his savagery, as I think he was.
After I'd got dressed and left the changing rooms I met up with Billy just as he was about to return a book to the library. His hair was still wet from the showers and he hadn't bothered to change out of his (immaculately clean) rugby shirt. He had an annoyingly sheepish smile on his face that suggested sympathy at my misfortune, which I found particularly annoying. It's difficult to describe my state of mind at the time but I took his compassion as an indication of frailty. It was like he was making a hollow attempt to lighten my mood and I hated him for it.
The next thing I knew I was hitting him in his face, not hard, just below the bruising threshold. I was a little disappointed he didn't fight back, he didn't even put his hands up to protect himself until after I'd hit him for the third time. I saw the hurt in his expression, watched as he screwed up his eyes in an attempt at understanding, but the more I sensed his efforts to comprehend my aggression the more I felt compelled to punish him. I know, it makes no sense at all, and in a way I think that was the point. The attack had no logical explanation, no justification. It wasn't rational, or reasonable, and it certainly wasn't fair. But it felt so good. It was an act borne of anger alone.
Billy slumped down with his back against the door and then put his hands up to his face. I sat next to him and put my hand on his shoulder. It might have been this that caused him to start to cry, an innocent and conciliatory act that offered regret and apology in equal measure.
"Did you hurt your hand," he asked me.
"A little," I said.
A thin trickle of blood seeped from the corner of his mouth and dripped on to the floor. He touched his lip with the tip of a finger and held it out for me to look at. I looked away and wondered why I felt no sense of shame. Then he started to laugh, softly at first and then louder. I could tell it wasn't genuine because it sounded forced, like the kind of laugh that comes with sarcasm.
"I just wanted to show you what it feels like," I said.
I looked at his face as he dropped his hands and saw a mix of fear and surprise, but I felt only the slightest amount of guilt. I had satisfied my anger and that was enough to deaden the shame.
He didn't need much in the way of reassurance. He had no reason to feel a sense of injustice and felt no need to seek revenge. There was an awkwardness between us, of course there was, but I knew there was little I would need to do to gain his forgiveness.
We continued to be friends for most of the rest of the school year and I rarely felt the need to assert myself in that way again. He learnt from me and I respected him for that, although I still rescued him from the occasional sticky predicament. The incident had become a problem though. We never talked in depth about our shared love of reading again, at least not in the same way as before. And there was only one other occasion when we sat together in the library. I never felt any guilt as such, but I think there was an element of suspicion that had infected our companionship. We never mentioned the episode but the further we moved away from it, the more things fell apart. The intensity of my aggression had frightened both of us a little, and the wound festered for months. Although we never spoke of it we both knew things weren't the same, the balance of our friendship had altered despite us pretending it hadn't.
Billy seemed to gain confidence over the next two years and by now our companionship had all but dissolved. I watched him from a distance, more from curiosity than anything else, and I noticed his popularity spread throughout the final year students. There was something about his personality that the other children found attractive, an open, unassuming friendship that he offered to anyone prepared to accept it. While I knew he still had many reasons to feel inferior, there was no visible evidence of condescension. His talents became the focal point of the class and, despite our similar abilities, I felt myself relegated to the role of spectator.
Right at the end of the summer term and just before our final exams a group of about fifteen of us were getting ready to play a game of chain-tag in the playground. Billy had been picked for one of the teams and I had been designated the role of referee. Gavin Tucker (now the size of a small car) kicked off the game by whacking as many people as he could catch, kicking them as they fell to the ground. But suddenly and quite unexpectedly the game stopped, it was as if the collective will of both teams had joined in mutual judgement. We all stood completely still.
By the entrance to the playground a group of girls swung a skipping rope in arcs high above their heads to a rhythmic chant, two of them danced through it in quick, sideways movements. All at once they stopped their game and looked over to where we were standing. Closer to us a boy bouncing a basketball caught it and held it tight against his chest. The playground became silent. It seemed as if the whole world had stopped.
We all stared at Gavin as he stood with his foot poised above a boy that he'd just pushed over. We were a sea of faces with a comic-book range of expressions, angry, frightened and concerned. And then as the poor boy brought his hands up to cover his face Billy stepped forward. He took off his jacket, put his hand on Gavin's shoulder and pulled him around so that they faced each other. Gavin didn't even blink, his stare was so intense. Somehow I knew Billy's next move would be so brazen and unorthodox it would stop him in his tracks. Gavin stood in frozen shock and tried (probably for dignities sake) to betray no sign of emotion. The two boys were locked into each other's gaze, both determined not to look away. There was no question, Gavin's behaviour was dangerous and if it came to a physical struggle I had no doubt Billy would be on the ground in seconds with a smashed face, or worse. But I detected the possibility of another element, something that lay dormant but clever, behind the steeliness of Billy's stare.
Billy stretched himself up and whispered something into Gavin's ear, who just for a moment looked puzzled. The skipping girls and the boy with the basketball joined us we held our breath. Gavin stroked his hands down the lapels of his jacket, loosened the top two buttons of his shirt and surveyed the scene around him. None of us moved or made a sound. And then, as he shifted his weight lopsidedly between his left and right feet he pushed Billy's face away, pulled the boy on the ground back to his feet, and walked away.
Trembling a little now with anger and relief Billy started to move back into the watching crowd of boys. He had trouble getting back into his jacket and his shoelace had come undone. As he kneeled to retie it I could see his hands were shaking. All the pens in his top pocket fell out onto the ground, he scooped them up and held them in his clenched fist.
I knew the moment would remain with him and I suspected it would come to play in every recalculation he would make about his past. That one swift and brave act would most likely affect all the revisions or reviews he would come to make about his own history and his own weaknesses.
I heard the sound of the skipping rope slapping the ground and looked around to see the watching crowd shuffle back into their little groups. The game of chain-tag gathered pace again until the end of break time when we disbanded and went back to our lessons.
Billy left the playground with his hands in his pockets and a purpose to his stride. I felt proud for him.