Chapter 3

Classmates
Chapter 3

 

‘Who’s that girl?’ I asked, prophetically enough, my dilated ten-year-old eyes captivated by the wavy-haired singer whirling a tambourine around the Philadelphia stage. 

Darren Fisher glanced up from Connect 4 long enough to answer, ‘It’s Madonna,’ in a sneering tone which made it clear I was piteously ignorant.  I disliked Darren Fisher.  He had appended himself to Karl’s gang of late: an oiky boy with a large mole below his left eye, and a dark, swotty prettiness that verged on girlish and beguiled teachers.

‘She’s terrific!  I love this song – dance into the groove, boy you’ve gotta prove….’

‘She’s a prat,’ Darren snorted, pulling a rancorous little face as Stefan clunked another yellow disc down to make it four in a row.  I have never encountered a less gracious loser.  ‘Girls can’t sing anyhow.  Queen were the best today.’

‘Not as good as Wham!’

‘My dad says Wham are a couple of jessies!’

‘Look, Daz, she’s got a big black spot just like yours!’ Karl lampooned, jabbing at the screen.

We all joyously giggled at this observation, yet my participation alone appeared to pique Darren.

‘Stop laughing, Taylor.  I hope you choke on your jam tart, you greedy fart!’

His insipid, unintentionally rhyming gibe provoked no effect besides further hilarity at his own expense.  I defiantly bit into Avril’s glorious jam tart, which had remained poised in my fingers midway between duvet and mouth as I knelt on Faye’s bed agog at Madonna.

We kids spent this historic July day bunched around the telly in Faye’s usually off-limits bedroom.  Karl swore he glimpsed his big sister on said telly, during a fleeting pan across the Wembley multitude, but I was unconvinced.

Boyfriends were Soppy, of course, but when Faye announced that her present one – a mechanic from Wolverhampton called Dean – had bagged a pair of Live Aid tickets, it occurred that they possibly had uses after all.

I’d idolised Faye since she chaperoned her brothers and me to see Frankie Goes to Hollywood at the Birmingham Odeon a few months back – but she had forgotten us today, which I considered decidedly unfair.

Nasreen and I spent the bulk of the day cross-legged on the bed, singing along with the stars in London and Philly; infected by the joyful atmosphere of a truly global party.  The lads, less riveted as the long afternoon segued into evening, were variously playing board games or sniggering over the problem pages in Faye’s Just Seventeen heap and yelling questions like ‘What’s an applicator?’

‘Hey, Taylor,’ Darren mocked at one point, nastily throwing a magazine at me, ‘there’s an article in here about diets – you ought to read it!’

I was now officially Fat, you see – because, while pop star love was ephemeral, food was my constant passion.  Chocolate, potatoes, fruit, cheese, yogurt, cereals, salads, bread, ice cream, eggs, roasts – there was virtually nothing I shunned, and I possessed a wolflike appetite.

There was more to me than gluttony, though.  I was an enthusiastic chef; I loved eating, so loving cooking seemed a natural consequence.  I spent hours in the kitchen attempting replicas of luscious recipes I pestered Avril for.  Mom heedfully supervised, and both she and Dad made suitably appreciative sounds when I dished up cup cakes or casseroles to their table.

My favourites to make were simple classics.  Good old British comfort food.  Sausage baps oozing brown sauce, or beans on toast with streaky bacon striped across the top.  My dad loved them.  Cowboy breakfasts, he called them.  ‘You gunna make us another cowboy breakfast this morning, our kid?  And I tell you what – I couldn’t half bost a cup o’ tay!’

(The latter part of his order was Black Country for ‘I would really rather like a cup of tea.’)

‘So strong yer could stand the spoon up in it?’ 

‘Ar!  Now you’m talking!’

I loved these little routines.  My dad was ace.

Our class once made bread – my favourite lesson in thirteen years of schooling.  Some kids found this exercise dreary beyond belief – they whined how they would rather be doing PE – but I was euphoric, wrist-deep in dough and bound into a flour-spattered apron.

I can still taste that brown loaf – all crusty and rustic, fresh-from-the-oven warm and smeared with silken butter.  I still do taste similar ones from time to time.  Neil’s final birthday present to me was a breadmaker, and the thick sliced supermarket alternative, I am afraid, just doesn’t come close!

Unfortunately, I learned too late that there existed a direct, merciless correlation between magnitude of meal and magnitude of belly.  By fourth-year juniors, acres of tummy protruded grotesquely beneath my T-shirts, my chest had sprouted what looked like a pair of water balloons, and Mom had begun making alarming remarks about ‘needing a bra.’

By while her observations were well intentioned, a certain Darren Fisher’s were decidedly not.  Following Live Aid, this pin-nosed prig became a kind of one-boy Blubber Patrol.  His mission: to punish me for being a ‘pig,’ by stamping on my toes in country dancing, stealing my pens (oh, my precious stationery), flicking up my skirt or hiding my lunch. 

He had subtler, but no less cutting, methods of conveying his distaste – such as his glares across the classroom or playground which suggested I was a leper encrusted with a particularly abhorrent crop of boils.  If I greeted or addressed him in company, he rudely looked away or cut me down to size with the curtest possible reply.

What began as innocuous teasing had escalated to major bullying.  Being a sly sort, Darren was careful to hiss and torment well outside the view and earshot of his greatest fans – the teachers. 

Little prick!  I’m sorry – just picturing that priggish, moley face makes me want to kick things even now.  Wherever he works these days, I bet he’s the company toady: the one whose head is jammed so far up the MD’s bum as to be tickling his liver; the one upon whom his colleagues joke that The Office’s Gareth must have been based.

I pinpoint 1985 as the year I first hated school.  I was in an alien situation: Victim was not a role in which I had ever been cast during my hitherto painless life.  I make no claims to be invincible, but neither was I one of the mousy kids upon whom Holly Lane’s bully population traditionally preyed.

Darren soon widened the scope of his scorn to include my looks as a whole rather than my weight specifically.

One Greek Mythology lesson, our textbooks were propped open at a page bearing Medusa’s petrifying likeness.  I sat up sharply as something serrated lanced me in the spine.  It was him, prodding me with his protractor.

‘She looks like you,’ he jeered, ‘only not quite so ugly!’

Laugh it off, that was what Dad advised.  But why did woundingly witty replies have a habit of eluding me at crucial moments?

A falsely offhand ‘I don’t reckon she does – I ain’t got snakes for hair!’ was the best I could do.

Now Darren had learned the name Medusa, it became his new nickname for me.  A nickname devised to not only cause maximum hurt but also demonstrate what an erudite swot he was.  He was clever like that, was our Darren.  (Though I had to admit ‘Medusa’ was a vague improvement on ‘pig.’)

I became wretchedly conscious of my looks; conscious that mirrors served other purposes than aiding my meticulous mimicry of Madonna’s dance routines.  I started using the one on my dressing table to daily inspect every square centimetre of face and body for vestiges of resemblance to mythological harridans.

I had never even regarded myself as plump or plain, let alone the Gorgon of Darren’s vision – yet now I felt repugnant.  I was once such a sociable little thing, but playing held dwindling interest for me now Darren had encroached the sacred posse.  The wild scurry out of my uniform to congregate in Andrew Street straight from school was replaced by a dawdle out of my uniform to read on my bed, or practice my cooking, or merely sit with Mom and Dad in the lounge.

My parents – who were mystified by this atypical clinginess – represented something so dependable in this suddenly unfriendly world.

Loved as I was at home, outside it my self-esteem shrivelled like a dying daffodil.  I like to think I was never an arrogant kid, rather that I possessed the kind of buoyant self-assurance inherent in childhood.  This now suffered its first dents – and seldom had ebbs been lower than in North Wales three weeks before my eleventh birthday.

 

 

 

‘You’ve lost your torch?’ Mr Bateman yapped, dousing my face in halitosis.  ‘Now that was a really intelligent thing to do before a trip underground, wasn’t it!’

I wagged my head, my smarting eyes resolutely averted from Darren, who I knew would be glaring smugly, daring me to grass him up. 

‘Well, was it?’

‘No, sir.’

‘No siree!  Honestly, you are getting yourself into rather a pickle this week, aren’t you!  Well there aren’t any spare ones, so you’ll just have to share with one of your less absent-minded classmates.  Karl Corbett – you can partner Miss Taylor and light her merry way.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Good.  Now slate, as I was saying, has been mined in this region since 18….’

‘Are you OK?’ Karl whispered, through Bateman’s droning narration.  

I nodded ambiguously, flushing from his caring gaze, and thinking with an indignant pang of the smart torch jangling about in Darren Fisher’s cagoule pocket.  My dad bought it from Milletts especially – he knew how keen I was about this annual fourth year Residential. 

The Resi!  The winter week that made younger Holly Laners impatient to reach the top class.  Five whole days free of parental intervention.  Canoeing, cycling, orienteering, midnight feasting in the dormitories….

‘I can’t wait for this,’ Karl had grinned, rubbing his hands with boy scout-like glee as, accoutred with packed lunches and sleeping bags, we loaded up the coach on that bracing February Monday, ‘we’re gunna have some bostin’ fun!’

It was ages since we had conversed to any great depth; Karl’s overture now restored a flash of my old confidence.  I was utterly dismayed, though, to find myself blushing.

‘Yeah!  I feel like one of the Famous Five.’

‘Which one – Timmy the dog?’ Darren heckled.

‘Where’s Nas got to?’ I wondered, ignoring him.  ‘She’s gunna miss the coach if she’s not careful.’

‘Miss Uppal has flu.’  A Yorkshire-accented snap announced the arrival of our dear Mr Bateman.  ‘Her mother has just telephoned to say she is too unwell to be joining us in Wales.  Come on – chop chop!  We should have left by now.’

‘Aw, what a shame.  I won’t have a partner,’ I pouted with real disappointment.  Not only was Nasreen was my sole true girl-friend, but there were few school stigmas worse than being On Your Own when everyone else was paired up.  ‘I hope she’ll be OK.’

‘Come on, Miss Taylor, and stop your chuntering!’

‘Sorry, sir.’

With a very dejected air, I deposited my ruck-sack in the boot, clambered aboard the bus and slunk into a lonely seat near the back.

‘Ah, poor fat Medusa’ll be all on her lickle lonesome.’

I feigned indifferent deafness to Darren’s taunt – whilst at the same time recognising the bleak truth of it.

I’d entertained this perception of myself as popular and boisterous, but in fact being so matey with lads was going to be little use in the unavoidably single-sex environment of a dormitory. 

Save for Nas and Faye, I never at that stage had much time for female peers – and I could tell by their private giggles and occasional pitying glances across the aisle that the feeling was mutual.  I may as well have sported a T-shirt imprinted ‘Norma No-Mates.’  I was actually shy around them; unable to be myself.  For the first time, I regretted my lack of affinity with own gender.  I wished I could bond with these girls, even to say hello would have been a start – but I, shamefully, had no idea how to.

There was one person here today whom I held in lofty esteem – and he was in the hallowed back seat, reciting jokes to a rapt bunch of boys, our brief discourse of moments ago forgotten.  I knew without looking that nasty little Darren would be part of the audience: all enraptured and sycophantic, ready to wet himself when Karl delivered the punchline.  I tried not to listen, unbearably jealous as I was of Darren and the others who were being thus lavished.

Why did his attention uniquely make me so strong and joyous inside?  As though nobody else mattered and nothing could wound me?  And why did I wither without it?

I slumped back in the coach seat, wishing it could camouflage me like a chameleon.  After months of looking forward to a sensational adventure, I would now have cheerfully swapped places with Nasreen, all swaddled and snotty in her sick bed.

 

The outdoor education centre was a purgatory of spider-riddled dormitories, shiny bog roll, temperamental showers, and food Granny wouldn’t have put down for Buster without risking a visit from the RSPCA.  The weather was vile also, even by February standards.  Sleety rain fell in bathloads virtually all week, accompanied by a vicious wind that seemed to slice at my body. 

None of these factors perturbed me in isolation; I would have laughed them off, had Nas been with me and had Darren’s clandestine hate campaign not curdled my sense of humour.

As it was, they merely aggravated my homesickness.  I longed for the nights, when I could coil up on the top bunk that should have been Nasreen’s, and sob yearningly into the clammy, anorakish material of my sleeping bag.  The yearning was for Mom’s homely smile; my snug bed; a tonic for my aching throat….

Whilst hill-walking on the Tuesday, my tormentor tripped me with his spiky boot, sending me spattering into a mud puddle.  Bateman, hiking on ahead in cosy conversation with Miss Evans, the jolly-hockey-sticks centre instructor, for whom he quite obviously had the hots, conveniently saw nothing.  He deigned, however, to halt upon hearing my yelp as I belly-flopped.

‘Tripped over our shoelaces, have we, Miss Taylor?’ he barked, seizing my fingers in his steak-sized hand and hoicking me upright.  ‘About time your mother taught you to how tie them, methinks!’

‘But – ’

‘No buts!  Your classmates and I would prefer to enjoy the remainder of this walk in peace.  All you have to do is place one foot in front of the other.  You sure you can manage that now?  Honestly!’  He stomped tutting back to Miss Evans at the head of the crocodile, no doubt pissed off by the interruption in their wax-jacketed tête à tête.  The woman clearly possessed no sense of smell, if she could stand being breathed over by his rancid maw.

I continued the ramble in fuming muteness: gloved fists clenching themselves into discreet V-signs at my sides; body stinging with both the force of the fall and acrid hatred towards Darren and Bateman.  Rage at the injustice of it all washed over me in torrents.  All this ‘your classmates’ business galled me – he loved to play us off against one another: me versus the form.

‘Bit of a clumsy cow, aren’t you?’ came a simper at my shoulder.

‘Why don’t you just sod off, Fisher?’

‘Ooh – naughty words!’

With a surreptitious kick to my already grazed shin, he galloped to catch up with Karl and the rest of the gang in which he had supplanted me.  Maudlin desperation to sob gnawed as I watched them all together.  Only visions of charging at Darren and smearing his smug pixie face in sludge whilst hollering from this Welsh hilltop about what a bullying little shit the class creep really was curbed my sobs.

A curious unwillingness to disillusion Karl was all that stood between me and doing just that.  To try and turn him against a friend would be unfair and underhand.

Moreover, it might backfire; Karl might disbelieve me and turn against me instead.  Which was too, too distressing to envisage. 

But why was it?  At what point had I turned into this martyr who readily placed a boy’s happiness above my own?

 

Thursday was our penultimate, most punishing day.  A disused slate mine was today’s destination – hence the need for torches.  Except Darren half-inched mine on the coach when all eyes were diverted.  I dropped it as I rose to dismount the vehicle.  The little lamp went trundling across the aisle; before I could retrieve it, his pin-like fingers snatched it and zipped it away.

‘Oy, that’s mine!’

‘You can have it back for a fiver, butterfingers,’ he spat, knowing I had no such fortune to my name, ‘and you’d better not tell old Bateman about this.  He’d never believe you anyway.’

This, I was wretchedly aware, was true.  Not that I’d have ever told in any event.  Telling was Not The Done Thing.  Such an action condemned one to a lifetime of being labelled a Grasser.  Thus when Bateman, inspecting us, queried my torchless status, I muttered evasively that I had ‘lost it, sir.’

What was happening to me?  The old Zoe could hold her own against any lad, but now there were all these inhibitions and limp stories.  My heart drooped with excruciating sadness as I imagined Dad; his poor disappointed face when I confessed his gift was gone.

Entry to the mud-mired mine was via a minuscule orifice, the size, shape and dampness of which invited crude comparisons I was too naive to make then.  The roof of this entrance was so low as to render even crouching impossible; there was no option but to slither in prone through the clotted sludge.  It was like sliding into a nose.

Once inside the pit, a labyrinthine tunnel complex was our thoroughfare across it.  One such tunnel was dubbed the ‘Corkscrew.’  Its structure resembled one of those tube slides found at water parks, only it was as narrow and fetid as a gutter, with a balaclava blackness that seemed to drown me.

This was not the most pleasant way of discovering I was claustrophobic.  I baulk now, just visualising how I wriggled, crying, down that interminable spiral.

‘Mind you don’t get your gut stuck in there, Medusa,’ came a hiss behind as we queued as though for a theme park ride, awaiting our turn – as it were – through the Corkscrew, ‘miners have died down here – maybe you will too!  You won’t be able to see without your precious torch, and you’ll sink in a massive mud pool!  That’ll teach you to be so clums– ’

Darren’s threat tapered feebly off.  A sinewy hand was pinching his skinny shoulder.  On the end of this hand was, as you might expect, an arm.  On the end of this arm was Karl Corbett.

‘Leave my friend alone, Fisher.’

‘You what?’

‘Leave her alone.  You’re always mythering her.’

‘I was only joking around.  She knows I don’t mean it, don’t you, Med– I mean, Zoe?’  His soft, girl’s lips formed a contrite, sham smile, but his disdain had vanished.

I couldn’t even reply intelligibly.  I was jibbering with colliding emotions – the dominant one of which was in fact joy.  I was Karl’s friend!  He said so.  The likes of Darren mattered not.  Darren was pathetic; beyond disdain.  With Karl on my side, I was as powerful as She-Ra.

‘Where’s her torch, Fisher?’

‘She lost it,’ he sulked, ‘you heard her.  Oooww!  OK, it’s in my pocket.  I nicked it.  Now can you let go, Corbett – you’re hurting me!’

‘He blackmailed me,’ I sniffed, impressing Karl with a new word I’d heard, ‘he told me I could only have me torch back if I paid him five pounds.’

‘Give it her back now, or I’ll flush yer head down the bog when we get back to our dormitory!’

Darren unzipped his waterproof pocket and tossed the torch to me in a defeated, babyish gesture. 

 

‘Why didn’t you tell me he was picking on yer?’ Karl asked on the coach back to the West Midlands next day. 

‘I thought he was your mate – Aatchoo!

‘No way!  You got a cold?’

‘Mmmfh.’  It was my fifth sneeze of the journey – and we were only in Llangollen.  I was gloriously happy, though, reinstated to the back row.  Darren, relieved of his position as the gang’s new prince, was relegated to a front seat, near Bateman and his tuna sandwich breath.

I sneezed again, and clamped a sodden hanky over my raw nose.  ‘Oh Karl, I feel proper poorly.  I think I’ve caught Nasreen’s bug.’

 

Karl Corbett might be the most powerful swimmer in our class, but he was no match for either the squally current that was flushing me progressively further out to sea, or the shark whose gargantuan mantrap jaws were snatching ravenously at my ankles.

I bobbed through the merciless ocean, my flaxen head barely breaking the surface as tide and then jaws sucked me down.

Kaaarl!

My feeble scream was swallowed by the wind, but his stricken wail of ‘No, Zo – you can’t die!’ was extraordinarily audible.

The beast opened wide to devour me.  The world turned black and I became aware of a heavy feeling, pinning me down…but it was just the duvet, and Mom’s soft palm brushing across my damp forehead.  She smelt of hand cream; her smile was just as soothing.

‘You’ve been zonked out for hours, sweetheart.  You’re ever so hot.’

I blinked dozy eyes at the Pink Panther alarm clock.  His scrawny feline arms were contorted in the nine o’clock position. 

‘Is it morning or night?’

Ooh – where was my voice?  This phlegmy rasp didn’t sound a bit like me.

‘Morning.  You’ve been asleep since seven last night, my little Rip van Winkle.  You dropped off straight after your tea.  Mind, you looked dead beat when you got home from Wales yesterday.’

‘I was having a nightmare,’ I wheezed.

‘Try not to speak just yet.  Drink this – I’ve made you a Lemsip.’

She gently levered the pillow behind me so I could sit up against it.  I found this simple movement shockingly strenuous.  Not only was I full of cold, there was now a feeble sensation in my bones. 

‘Fancy a bit of breakfast?’

Between snivels, and warming blackcurrant sips, I shook my head.

‘You sure?’  She sounded as surprised as I felt.  ‘I can boil you an egg, or make you a bowl of porridge.  Something nice and easy to eat.’

‘No thanks, Mom.’  For possibly the first time in my life, my appetite had deserted me.  ‘I had a nightmare,’ I continued, ‘about being eaten by a shark.’

Karl’s role in this dream was secret – I couldn’t explain why, it just was – so I made no mention of his ill-fated rescue endeavours.

I couldn’t have even if I wanted to, for I at that moment dissolved into a coughing fit.  The dynamic barks forced themselves up through my scratchy throat, leaving my little body pummelled and exhausted.

Mom swiftly relieved me of the jerking mug and administered a couple of neat pats to my back.

‘I expect going down that mine sent all kinds of bugs whizzing round your system,’ she said, ‘I don’t know what them teachers were thinking of, making you go through all that.  Come on, bab, let’s tuck you in.  I’ll get Dr Dunn out.  You know, when you were a tot you used to have nightmares about the man from the R. Whites advert hiding in our fridge, stealing all the lemonade.’

Despite feeling limp, I giggled.  Mom’s fussing could grate, but a week away from it had taught me just how wonderful it was to be petted.  During that gruelling Welsh odyssey, I’d made several mental notes never to take my parents for granted again.

‘I don’t remember that.’

‘You did.  You could never go to the fridge on your own in case the secret lemonade drinker jumped out in his pyjamas and started singing.’

‘How odd!’  I was startled by the lofty tone I adopted, as though it was years and years since I’d been ‘a tot.’  Whilst part of me was babyishly loving the nuzzly warmth of my soft little bed, the other part felt so terribly grown-up all of a sudden.  No doubt my week of challenges and independence was accountable – but I also sensed it had an awful lot to do with that dream featuring Karl and a shark.

‘You get some rest now,’ Mom clucked, jolting me back into childhood, ‘just shout if you need any more drinks, or books or anything.  Do you want the telly on?’

(So now I was genuinely poorly, she was encouraging me to watch the ‘idiot box.’  Adults could be most fickle!)

‘As long as that advert doesn’t come on!’ 

‘You can always turn it over if it does,’ she chuckled, laying the remote control on top of my blanket and dropping a kiss on to my chapped cheek.  ‘I’ll look in on you later, OK?’

All through Wacaday, I thought of Karl.  My eyes were focused on Timmy Mallett whacking kids with a giant foam mallet while being very raucous in a Hawaiian shirt, but my mind was on him, and the bizarre emotions he was starting to induce.

Dreams enthral me.  My shark epic was what I now recognise as my first vaguely sexual fantasy (quite literally, a wet dream).  Though I had not the vocabulary to express this at the time, it represented not – as might be expected from me – a tomboyish hunger for adventure in lethal seas, but a peculiarly feminine need to be rescued and protected.

After standing up to Darren for me in the mine (‘standing’ not being the operative word in that narrow chasm), Karl, my partner in crime, fellow tree-climber and gunge-mixer, took on a new, heroic mantle.  I relived that rather ludicrous underground scene a thousand times, until his masterfulness reached Greek god proportions in my mind.  Karl was just four months older than me, yet the manner in which he’d threatened to flush Darren’s pretty head down the loo was so dauntlessly adult.  Like a man – or a teenager at the very least.

To think I’d suffered in silence all those months, under the misapprehension that the Fisher dork was his new best friend!  When it came to the proverbial crunch, Karl took my side without question.  How could I help but admire and be grateful to him?

But was gratitude all I felt?

Had gratitude bred the flock of butterflies that appeared to have set up home inside my stomach?

Was gratitude the reason my face was blazing from merely thinking about him?  Even accounting for my current fluey temperature, I was disturbingly crimson.

A handful of the more mature girls in my year were ‘going out’ with boys: a practice which appeared to involve a good deal of hand-holding and sporadic, most unsavoury-looking kissing.  The girls who had yet to attain this worldly status spent their time mooning over lads and pop stars. 

I remained stubbornly immune to this Soppy epidemic that seemed to have struck down every other eleven-year-old in Sedgley.  Boys, as I explained previously, were playmates to me – nothing more.  I was never going to snog, or have boyfriends, or get married.  Neither was I ever going to wear skirts – except for school, where they were a compulsory component of our evil uniform.  Skirts and dresses were the preserve of the ‘pretty’ – and as the girls who were thus labelled tended to be the ones with boyfriends, I never wanted to be pretty either.

So there!

But beneath lurked a suspicion I might be developing – what was that awful term I heard Mom use…a squash?  No – a crush!  When she was not much older than me, she had one on somebody called Billy Fury. 

A crush!  It sounded like a sickly kind of orange drink.  I didn’t like it one little bit – and every nerve in my obstinate body was going to fight it.

Thus was I resolved as I sank into yet another sleep.  A tranquil, sharkless sleep this time.  I awoke to find Karl sitting on the edge of my bed.

‘Look who’s come to visit you,’ Mom was saying, from somewhere.

I was looking.  To the extent that I saw nothing else, not even Mom.  My flu-gummed eyes were fixed on him.  Perched on the bed in his West Bromwich Albion shirt, balancing a hoard of comics on his knee.  His grin was winningly cheeky, yet his gaze just as winningly kind – in short, all a girl could want in one face.

‘I’ve come to see how you are.  I thought you might like summat to read.  In case you get bored, like.’

I became shamefully conscious of my sexless cotton pyjamas and snotty face.  Things I would never have minded Karl seeing before The Shark Dream changed everything.  I chastely yanked my covers up until nothing below my nose was visible.

‘Ta, Karl,’ I coughed through the sheets.

‘I’ll leave you pair alone for a minute,’ came Mom’s voice from the door, ‘the doc should be here soon.’

All was silent for a stilted eternity.  Not a mutual silence between two mates, but a bashful pause between a Boy and a Girl.

‘Thanks for Thursday, Karl,’ I spluttered, better late than never, ‘you know, Darren and – ’

‘That’s OK.’  Unusually, he seemed embarrassed, modest.  ‘He was gerrin on me nerves.  Ha, did you see his face, though – how terrified he looked?’

‘He went white!’

‘And his little voice went all squeaky.  Oooww, you’re hurting me!  What a wet!  He can’t pick on anyone his own size, can he?’

I was sniggering devilishly along with Karl now.  His humour was more infectious than my germs, and good for thawing tension.

‘But I thought you were mates with him,’ I resumed my earlier theme.

‘He started hanging round with Shane a few months back – they live in the same street, see – then he kind of wormed his way into the gang.  I’ve never really liked him.  He’s a right little creep, always sucking up to the teachers.  But I didn’t know he teased you.  I thought you’d just stopped coming out ’cos you was bored with us, like.’

‘Nah!  It was ’cos of him.’

‘Well from now on, you’ve got to tell us if anyone starts mythering you.  Me and the lads’ll sort ’em out!’

‘Will yer?’  My lips couldn’t help stretching into a grin.  It was undeniably flattering to know a lad would cheerfully duff up a bully on one’s behalf.  ‘You’d do that for me?’

‘You’m one of me best mates, Zo.’

Am I?’

‘Yeh.  You’re a good laugh.  We’ve all missed yer.’

A lovely warmth swelled inside me like a rising cake.

Karl had missed me! 

I was one of his best mates, and he’d missed me!

I knew even then I would remember that moment for the rest of my life.

It was interrupted by Mom, with Dr Dunn the family GP, in tow, sporting his customary uniform of grave face and stethoscope.

‘You don’t have to go yet, Karl.’  There was a faint note of panic in my voice as he stood up.

‘I’ll come back tomorrow, mate.  Dad wants me to help him wash the car in a bit.  For extra pocket money, like.  Hope you enjoy the comics.’

 

I lived in bed for a further fortnight.  Getting up was barely an option.  It was all I could do to hoist my heavy head from the pillow.  After five days of scrambling over rocks and wading through pits, simple missions to the bathroom zapped me of the little energy I possessed. 

The doctor ambiguously diagnosed a ‘viral infection.’  Whatever it was, it knocked me about.  Every cough and sneeze was an effort, and sounded pathetically spluttery, like I was auditioning to be an orphan in Oliver.  I had never been so achy and lethargic – and, touch wood, never have since.

When I slept, which I did virtually continuously, I dreamed of him; when I awoke, I was capable of virtually nothing bar flicking through the TV channels or flipping through the Beanos Karl brought daily.

During the second week, a Mizz of Faye’s inadvertently found its way into this comic stockpile.  Not surprisingly, I had never read one before.  Though tomboyish pride barred me from admitting such a thing, I was fascinated.

Its pastel pages bore jaunty articles about acne, bras, diets, A-Ha and periods.  Ah, periods – they were those things we’d had a talk on last term.  A tall, horsy girl in my class by the name of Philippa Brown was known to have Started, and managed to wag PE once a month by virtue of being On.

This magazine was an education.  I acquired some worthy life skills – for example, that a pencil placed beneath one’s breast could determine whether one required a brassiere.

If the pencil stays in place, yes you do need one.  If it does not, you can go braless for a little bit longer.

Feeling strangely dirty and furtive, I slithered out of bed, stripped off my pyjama top and stood ceremoniously before the mirror to try the experiment.  A purple Berol was employed for the task, in the immediate absence of a pencil.

Despondently guessing my fat young boobs would be prime candidates for a heavy-duty support garment, I was amazed when the pen rolled down my ribs and landed, with a little somersault, on the carpet.

Where had my chest gone?

And where, I wondered, gaping at the withered waif in the mirror, was my tummy?  The potbelly that provided Darren Fisher with so many feeder lines was virtually concave.  Now I didn’t merely sound like an Oliver chorus member.

That reflection couldn’t possibly be me.  That little girl was scraggy and lanky, whereas I was the class colossus; an ungainly lump.

But come to think of it, I had taken virtually nil by mouth for weeks.  The meals in Wales were barely digestible – by turns charred, raw, stringy and pappy – then the illness rendered me too tired and tender to eat.  Only in the last few days had I progressed to the slurping-Complan-through-a-straw stage.  Even Avril’s ‘get well’ present, the bowl of ethereal-looking meringues she sent Karl round with on Monday, had proved an ordeal.

In that case then, it was not amazing at all that I should have so dramatically shed my body lagging.  No wonder either, I thought as I urgently pulled my top back on, that I was freezing.  Darren couldn’t call me pig anymore, that was for sure.

Darren wouldn’t be calling me anything for much longer – as I learned during one of Karl’s daily pilgrimages to my sick bed.

These pilgrimages – sometimes with Shane, or the recently recovered Nasreen, but mostly alone – intensified my secret hero-worship.  It is hardly surprising Karl lives in my heart to this day (albeit a hitherto sealed chamber of my heart) – he really was an absolute poppet. 

‘I’ve got some good news about Daz Fisher,’ he announced.  I was much better by now; still drowsy, but well enough to dress (today in jeans and a Garfield sweatshirt), eat solids and advance from my bed downstairs to the sofa.  ‘He won’t be coming up to Capewell with us lot in September.’

‘No?’

‘He’s going to The Beeches, you know, that snobby school in Wolverhampton.  His mommy wanted to get him away from us rough kids.’

Us rough?  He’s the spiteful little brat, more like!’

‘I know, but mommykins thinks the sun shines out of his…oh well, good riddance to bad rubbish, I say.’

‘Too right!  Er…Karl, it’s me birthday on Wednesday.’  Between all my dozing and sneezing, it had in fact escaped my mind that this was the case until Dad had asked how I might like to celebrate it.  ‘Me, Mom, Dad and Granny are going to a restaurant.  They said I could…er…bring a friend.  Wanna come?’

‘Yeah, all right.  Going for a Big Mac, are we?’

‘No, this is a proper restaurant.  It’s a Little Chef near Bridgnorth.’  Big Macs indeed!  McDonald’s parties were so 1982 – sophisticated eleven-year-olds went to Little Chefs and dined on cherry pancakes with ice cream.

It was a very no-frills meal, but my first for a fortnight that consisted of neither Complan nor soup, and for that reason I remember it as a feast.  My appetite restored, I devoured every last chip and cherry.  Granny Danks, noticeably distraught at the sight of my gaunt body, tipped her leftovers on to my plate also, whispering with a wink that I ‘needed fattening back up.’

School life took a marked upturn after my recovery.  I was the centre of attention on my first day back, with everyone – even girls – showing solicitous concern for my health, and astonishment at my dramatic weight loss.  A gruff ‘Are you better?’ even passed nasty old Bateman’s lips. 

Darren Fisher never so much as spoke to me again – for which I was highly grateful – though I suspected this resulted more from his awe of Karl than my having discarded the lard he’d spent so long deriding.  Since word had got around that Fisher did not exactly live up to his Blue Peter image, the class had ostracised him.  I now pitied rather than feared him, seeing him for what he was: a pathetic milksop who picked fights with girls.  He looked so lonely and shrunken in the front row desk, with his beauty spot and his neat rows of pencils.

My final term at Holly Lane Primary School was as carefree and placid as befitted my youth – all thanks to a certain boy.

He and I remained inseparable through a wonderful summer – at the end of which lay untold fun, games and dangers, as we made the transition to ‘big school.’

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