Chapter 2: Animals
"...I told you Zook, a Stenson type of expensive thoroughbred horse," Henry says, rolling his eyes and skewering a mini sausage. Zook is slouching in the chair opposite and picking through a bowl of skittles for the red ones. I'm guessing this is his way of not fidgeting. We've been at the annual Saturday G&T (Get together) for about half an hour and none of us are having a good time. Hence the weird conversation.
"I thought that was a type of hat?"
Henry puts his head in his hands and Zook starts throwing green skittles at him. I don't want to admit that I also thought the same as Zook but I've been here for less than then two hours and so I'm just not saying anything. At all.
"God Zook, do you they not teach that in state school either?"
"Surprisingly not. Did they teach you that Ben?"
"No, I've never umm..."
I unfold my arms to reach for a drink as Zook jumps from his chair.
"See, see! You and your little posh life!"
Zook jumps on Henry; all 6ft of him versus Henry who is 5ft 8 and he gets Henry in a headlock and they start to playfight. Zook is everything Henry isn't. Zook is humourous and maybe a bit too friendly while Henry is sarcastic and cold . Zook loves to hug and to play fight and to ruffle people's hair while Henry is the biggest homophobe I think I've ever met. They are also polar opposites when it comes to background. Zook grew up on a council estate in Newcastle with his mother and five sisters while Henry lives on some fancy English Estate. Zook has almost no manners but is still polite while Henry has brought up on even more middle class manners than me and is yet still so rude. Zook also actually talks to me while Henry seems to be one of those people who couldn't care less about whether I was here or not. This is what I've managed to gather in the two hours that I've been here. I also like Zook because he gave me some noodles because I missed dinner and I haven't eaten since like midday.
"You posh twat-" Zook is now yelling and Henry twists his ear.
"Rather that than a chav-"
A girl comes barging through our circle of chairs to get a drink. She is in a short tight black dress with straightened blond hair (like every other girl in this school) and a nose stud. Brad who has been sitting here being silent and thinking of his studies, suddenly notices her and sits bolt upright.
"Have any of you seen Jel?"
None of us have any idea who she is. I don't even know who Jel is. All I know is that I'm sharing with Zook and Brad.
"Well if you see him, Rome wants a word."
They all look at each other.
"Now excuse me. Can I get through?"
"Oh err umm...sorry...oh...can I pass you one?"
Brad has only seen the results of her push up bra.
And with that she flounces off.
"Well go after her! Don't just stand there!" Zook says and we agree.
I don't think Brad has ever done anything remotely exciting or adventurous in his life. He looks at us and then at her.
"Do you want to be that nerd with no life?" Henry asks him.
They take that as a yes and shove him into the crowd after her. We decide to go and get some air and then we hear:
"Oh look. It's feeding time at the zoo. "
As the song changes to Use Somebody by King of Leon, out of the incrowd emerges a small scrappy guy with small square glasses and bad hair cut. He can't be no more than 5ft 5. My first impression of him is that he looks a lot like a rat. An ugly caught- on-a-bad-hair day blind scrawny rat. But that look he’s giving us, I wouldn’t dare say that. Not in a million years.
"What are you looking at, fat boy?"
Henry almost goes for Rome. Everyone crowds around in the a circle and the music changes. As well as changing the mood, it alters the tension as half of the room are going wild and the other half are thirsting for blood.
"Look. The penniless, the nerd, the fat and the ugly. Arkansas in a nut shell. And, yes Brad that does include you. You know Brad, my old friend, I used to think you were part of the crowd, one of us. Well this one is for you, you stupid twat. You think you know everything huh? Well then you should know why this is for you. "
And he hits Brad hard around the nose.
"Look at you! You cowardless worthless-" Rome laughs and the crowd join in.
"You little shit!" Henry yells and they start to brawl. We all cheer on and chant. The tempo of the music increases. Henry gives Rome a black eye so Rome manages to split his lip. There's blood everywhere. Henry takes Rome down by his knees and throws him into the crowd. Our jeering and yelling get's louder and louder. . The music drives the crowd into a frenzy. A wild, baying, blood thirsty frenzy.
"I'm gonna destroy you Henry." Rome says as he gets Henry on the ground and is about to stamp on his face.
The crowd all go silent and part like the opening of a cage and Jel strides through, all 6ft 2 of him. In a crowd of all pasty white people, being his height and I'm guessing mixed race by the much darker caramel coloured skin, I've never seen anyone so striking. Or so scary. The crowd all look up cause either because all the guys want to be him or all the girls want him. The way he looks down on Rome; it kind of reminds of me of bear baiting. All that needs to happen is now is one provocation; one word from Rome and Jel will rip him to shreds. He runs a hand through his shoulder length sandy hair and with a flash of some unnerving white teeth, he drawls:
"I asked y'all a question. Excuse me?"
A few things happen at once. Henry get's shoved back and falls on Zook's feet, resulting in Zook getting covered in his blood. Then someone trips me and I crash onto the floor, my glasses falling off and breaking in the process. Gwebe (Arkansas's resident punch bag) lets out a yell as the frenzied crowd knock him over. Jel then just goes for Rome, smacks him around the face. Rome goes for Jel's stomach and Jel smacks him hard on the floor where his glasses also break.
"And you know what Rome. Just stay away from us okay?"
Rome staggers up.
"From all of us."
Rome just looks at Jel who is standing with his hands on his hips and making unblinking eye contact.
"You have no idea what you've just done. One day, I'm gonna ruin you Jel! I'm gonna ruin all of you!"
and with that, he staggers off into the crowd.
We decide to go back to Arkansas. Our G&T was in the mixed comm of the other boys house and because the route we took was past what I guessed was the sports Hall, most of the school I haven't seen yet. We head in through the main door, through the entrance bit known as CC. I haven't quite managed to ask why yet and when we get up the stairs. Mr H summons us as soon we're on our corridor because of course, his office is at the end and his door is wide open.
Mr H is our housemaster and is pacing around his office and then shoving things out of his way so he can pace more. We snuck in through a back fire exit; Henry with blood all over his face, Zook covered in Henry's blood from trying to help, Jel with bloody hand, Brad with a bloody nose and me carrying my broken glasses. However, he's waiting for us from the moment we snuck in.
"In my office. Now." His face is a funny shade of burgundy
He herds us in and slams the door behind us. We all squish onto his burgundy sofa. He then starts berating us about misbehaving and how violence is not the answer. I look up at him. 6 ft '5'. Balding blond hair. Tiny glasses. Built like a wardrobe. Square. Solid. Huge. Someone who can't open up to anyone. Also full of shit and useless information that nobody ever needs. He stands towering over, the vein in his neck beginning to throb and slams the door.
"For Christs sake! You cannot spend the rest of your lives like animals. Gwebe has fractured his wrist because of this and you all look like you've been part of some murder-"
"So is Gwebe in the medical centre?" Jel asks.
"Yes. Ivy James took him."
None of us have any idea who that is.
"Now if any of you behave like this again, there will be consequences. Do I make myself clear?"
We nod in sync. He talks for a bit more but I zone out because there is still so much to take in.
Eventually, we head back along the corridor and I follow Zook and Brad in what is now, my room as well as theirs and Henry and Jel go into their larger room across the corridor. I'm still adjusting to sharing a room with at least two other people as I haven't shared a room with someone for at least 10 years. Our room looks like this:
I know it's a terrible drawing but it's the best I could do with a biro and cheap paper. It's a very small room, small enough so Zook can climb onto my bed, the one on the right, from his bed at the back, if he needs to, which I'm sure he won't. Brad only has a desk. And I'm not sure why. Zook changes, Brad checks his phone and I just sit on my bed, unsure of anything. Well apart from the fact that I should find my spare glasses and wash the blood off my hands.
"Right newbie, we're gonna go do something fun."
"Can I just find my spare glasses?"
I show him my broken ones and he hands me some sellotape.
"Right, time for some fun. Corridor cricket anyone?"
I hear Mr H's voice in my head:
"And for Christs sake! Just behave for once in your lives! Please!"
That turns out not to be possible.
"So we have science first?" I ask, checking my timetable again. It's Monday morning and just starting to drizzle as we leave Assembly and come out of the Chapel. Assembly is a daily occurrence from 8-8:30 with actual religious chapel only on Sundays. Yesterday I missed the Sunday assembly as I was doing lots of tests to see what set I'm going to be in for all my classes and getting my uniform sorted. In case you're wondering, our uniform also consists of a black blazer, white shirt, red tie, black trousers and very black shiny shoes.
"Yeah. You're in set one with Brad." Zook (who is batshit crazy) tells me. Then he drops his voice to a whisper. "It means you can always copy his homework." Zook is still the only person in Arkansas who makes an effort to talk to me and I'm glad I got him as a roommate. I follow Zook, Henry and Brad out of the Chapel and down the edge of the road. Jel has disappeared off with some of his many friends towards St Richmond's Quad and I get the sense this is a daily occurrence. Between the Chapel and St Richmond's quad, there are two cricket lawns and lots of trees all slowly coming into bloom, including both of cherry blossom trees outside of Chapel and Arkansas which are an amazing pale pink.
"Ah the humble gardner...so peaceful...doing what they love..." Zook says dreamily, pointing to someone in the distance, amongst the rows and rows of daffodils and crocuses lining the two cricket lawns. "Being at one with the earth..."
"Being on the mininum wage more like." Henry mutters.
"Coming from someone who has never done a days work in their life. Ah Ben, this is St Richmond's Quad."
St Richmond's Quad is four stories high, complete with three wings, a clock tower, a cobbled courtyard with a fountain in it and two arches in each wing so a road can run through it
"Why is there a falcon on the top of the fountain?" I ask.
"It's our school symbol. It's also on the coat of arms which is one your blazer as well as on every building in school. The guy, Sir Claud, who founded this school, his passion was his Falcon and also falcon pursue what they want until they get it, no matter what it takes." Brad explains.
"He's sounds like a lonely fucker if you ask me." Zook adds.
"A lonely drunk fucker." Henry corrects him.
"How do you know all this?" I ask.
"Trust us, by the time you've been here for a bit, you will know everything about it him. Every assembly seems to be about him or something he said."
"I always imagined someone following him around, writing down everything he said to make it into a quote."
Zook and Henry start laughing and impersonating him. As we walk past the fountain, I notice Latin inscribed in the bottom. Ab honesto virum bonum nihil deterret which is also on the coat of arms, above the falcon standing on the pile of books and translates ruffly to Nothing deters a good man from the performance of his duties. Biggest bunch of crap ever.
"Come on, this way. Brad, you're being very quiet."
"Are you think about Lulu?" Zook asks. Brad doesn't respond. He just keeps watching his feet as he walks and clutching books. Henry stomps along on Zook's other side, his arms also crossed and looking out through narrowed eyes.
"God. Everyone is in a bad mood. Come on Newbie, I'll keep you giving you the extended tour."
We go into the arch of the left wing and Zook stops for moment. If I didn't have Zook here, I would be very lost right now. Even though I came here yesterday, it was just a huge overwhelming blur.
"L for left wing, L for lessons. If you go that way, you get to Chapel and Wildfell, (one of the girl's houses)"
He points out of the arch and the direction we just came in. You can see Chapel across the lawn and the medical centre just next to it. The house nearest the chapel is Wildfell, one of the girls houses and as Zook called it 'a house full of sluts.'
"And if you go in the opposite direction to chapel and up that road into the trees, you'll get to the elusive house of Alvie. Girls there are much nicer, if you like them a bit eccentric."
We go through the door in the arch and up a lot of stairs. I remember from when I did my tests yesterday that the central part of the Quad is various offices, fancy rooms and places students don't ever go.
"As you can see, there is the clock tower which chimes every hour instead of a bell and forbidden to all students to go into.” Zook says.
“So everyone goes into it?”
We go along the corridor.
I remember when I came into here yesterday that the right wing has a sixthform boys house on the top and dining hall, the next floor has loads of important rooms where I sat my tests, the floor below that is where we had breakfast, in the middle and the basement is the bottom floor and runs all the way around to either arch. I check my timetable.
"I've Geography second, which corridor is that on?"
Henry (the iceman) replies: "It's next to History. It says G1 on the door."
I smile and agree. I have no idea where that is. Henry and Zook disappear and I hear Zook saying:
"What's wrong now?"
To which Henry replies:
"Nothing. I'm fine."
"Crap. Is it because I'm being nice to-"
"Come on, we're going in here." Brad says, the first thing he's said this morning.
He opens the door and there is no teacher but two guys chasing each other round, kicking chairs and trying to throw something at each other. I have no idea where to sit and because Brad has already sat down at the back, I just go for the first empty seat I can see and hope that nobody else is already sitting there. The two boys climb over desks and throw chairs and everyone starts to cheer. I sit down and check my phone in an attempt to look busy.
"What are they thrown at each other?" I ask the girl next to me. She turns to look at me and flicks her long dark hair.
"Our teacher had a chameleon but she had to get rid of it cause of all the stupid health and safety and boys, such as Shreya and Lance-"
She gestures to the boys jumping over chairs and crawling under desks." -think it's hilarious to throw it's food at each other."
"And what was that?"
She sees the look of disgust on my face and laughs. Then she flicks her hair back.
"Oh no, don't worry. They're dead."
I don't know to what to say. She crosses and uncrosses her legs.
"Our teacher is late every Monday morning so they always do this. Oh by the way, Shreyas sits there so you'll have to move up one."
"Who is Shreyas?"
She points to the smaller of the two guys who is still part of the chase. She suddenly looks at me, as though as her vision has been cleared.
"Are you the new kid? The one in Arkansas?"
She holds out her hand, as if she expects me to kiss it and I shake it. Her movement are precise and feline and she kind of reminds me of a Siamese Cat.
"When did you arrive?"
"Were you at the G&T on Saturday?"
I can't remember what G&T means.
She laughs a rather shrill laugh and does the leg crossing thing again. Yeah she has a ladder in her tights, she doesn't need to keep showing me. I take off my glasses and polish them.
"Sorry, I forget that not everyone knows what that means. It's short for Get Together. So, did you see the fight?"
‑"Yup. I saw the whole fight'."
"It was going to happen sooner or later. Henry and Rome absolutely hate each other-"
Shreyas comes through and sits in his seat and that ends my conversation with Valerie. I don't mind though, love biology and it's definitely one of my favourite subjects.
"Val, what do you have next?" Shreyas asks her.
"Geography. What about you?"
I decide that I'll subtly follow Valerie to Geography. I wait until we've left Geography and Shreyas.
She turns around.
"Are you going to Geography? It's just that I heard you and Shreyas talking and-"
"Shall I show you where it is?"
I have nowhere to sit in Geography and I considering just going and sitting with Valerie when a voice says:
"Don't even think of sitting with her. Come on."
My acquaintance with Valerie seems to have made Henry the iceman even more narky than usual and he doesn't want to talk to me at all. I keep thinking about Elliot. God. If he could see me now.
He would laugh. A lot. Particularly the fact that I get asked all the time how my glasses broke. A lot is my answer.
A few years earlier...
"Catch the ball four eyes!"
I run backwards, past all the other fielders, trying to guess where it's going to land. Every single one of my classmates knows I'm not going to catch it. And on this hot summers day in year eight, catching this ball is the only thing that matters.
"I said catch it ye one armed special! Catch it!" Darren yells again. Even Elliot, my best friend of about eight years, has his head in his hands. I watch as gravity takes it and it begins to land, I just don't expect it to land on the bridge of my nose. Oh and for it to knock me out.
.“MIDDLETON-JONES! HIT THE BALL!”
My coordination has not improved in the slightest.
I want to whack Miss Radlov in the face with my brand new hockey stick. Hockey is the worst sport I’ve ever played after rugby. At my old school everyone’s main goal every PE lesson was to get me in the mud as much as possible. Rugby is the only time you can bully someone and not need a valid reason. But Hockey, I loathe these afternoons with a passion. I’m this close to making sure my hockey stick comes into close and painful contact with her nose. When it eventually finishes, I’m soaked to the skin and starving.
We get back to Arkansas and the hot water doesn’t come until half-four so I get changed and manage to find my way to the tearoom cause Zook and Brad haven't waited. Zook is slouching, in a way my mother would hate and drinking next to Jel who is opening a packet Poptarts. Henry is being in a bad mood and scrolling through Facebook and Brad is eating toast and not saying anything. Jel gets up to put his poptarts in the toaster and I decide to look for a mug.
“Oh my god Jel, are they poptarts?” Zook jumps up and accidently kicks over his chair.
“Yunno how I’m like you’re best friend…”
“And how you love me to bits.”
“Err…hell no. None of you are getting any." Jel says, letting his hair down from it's man bun and running a hand through it.
"I didn't want any anyway." Henry says. "They're gross."
"God Henry. You're such a snob-"
"And a crap roommate."
Henry opens his mouth to say something but Jel keeps talking:
"Henry, why are you in such a bad mood?"
He's stopped scrolling through Facebook and is now just sitting in a huff, with his arms crossed. Jel takes his poptart out of the toaster and sits down next to Zook. I end up, because I was making tea, dragging a white stool to the end of the table.
"I'm not grumpy."
"And yeah, like Brad denying that he doesn't sit in maths, thinking about Lulu naked. Well, what is it?" Jel replies. Brad opens his mouth to retaliate but doesn't get the chance.
"If you really want to know, he's jealous." Zook adds in, stirring his tea.
"Jealous of what? You have everything, money, friends, an education-"
"Could do with loosing some weight." Zook mutters and he giggles. Henry lobs a used tea bag at him. I'm trying to work out the dynamics of these friendships because at the moment, it's baffling me. I look up and realise that they're all looking at me.
"What, you're jealous because Zook was nice to the newbie?" Brad pipes up.
I'm not worth being jealous over. I'm really not.
"I'm not jealous."
"You so are."
Jel and Zook agree with each other. Brad is thinking something but he doesn't say it. It's like Jel and Zook know exactly what he's thinking and that's why Brad doesn't say it. I take a sip of my tea.
"Why would I be jealous? I'm friends with all three of you and-"
"But Henry, I have lots of other friends. I always have-"
Zook interrupts loudly. There's a word for it, a conversation when everyone is talking and nobody is listening. I wish I could remember what the word was.
"Honestly. If it's about the noodles I gave him, well, I didn't want him to go hungry-"
"It's not that. I just don't-"
"Henry just doesn't like you having other friends." Jel says. "Particularly not Fresh meat."
"Fresh Meat. That's exactly what he is." Henry says and they all laugh. I feel like I'm watching a play about them talking about me and part of me wants to keep watching to see what they say and the other really doesn't. The door opens and somebody else comes in. He's tall, scrawny and has really bad acne and I'd say about 17 or 18.
He takes something out of the fridge.
"Do you mind if I have some of this milk? There's none in the Six A."
I have no idea what the 'Six A' is.
"Sure Michael, take as much as you want.." Jel says, finishing off his poptarts.
Michael comes over and ruffles my hair. ""Ah hah, Fresh meat. Welcome to Prison. Have to watch out now, make sure he's not a girlfriend stealer either too."
There's a very tense moment. I decide this is my moment. No matter where I go, if I stay the way I am, I'll be treated badly forever. I have to change. And no more bad treatment is my first step.;
They all look at me. I stand up.
"My name is Ben. Middleton-Jones. And I'm not here to take any girlfriends or steal any friends. I'm just trying to survive like any of you. There's a tense pause. I get up, leave my mug in the sink and walk out. I go back to my room and climb up and lie on bed. I check my phone. I still haven't managed to connect to the internet so it's just texts from my mum that I get. I don't reply. I think about everything that has happened in the past three days. A year and 3 months. That's all I have to do.
"Ah, this is where you are."
Zook comes bounding in.
"Don't mind about Henry and Jel by the way. We just haven't had anyone new for a bit and they're scared it will...upset the balance."
What balance? As far I can tell, there are far too many secrets. Brad is too quiet, Jel is too controlling and Henry is too rude. I wouldn't call that balance.
"I'm not asking for much, I was just wondering I could-"
"Ah Zooky, I was just coming to see if y'all were free." Jel says, opening the door and slamming it behind him. Then he sees me.
"He can stay."
Jel climbs up onto Zook's high bed.
"I don't think he can."
"It's my room too."
Jel gives me that look again; the oh-my-god-you-can-talk look.
"And where else can I go?"
"To Henry and Gwebe? No thanks."
"We can't chuck him out Jel, that's cruel."
Jel looks at Zook.
I've had enough of this. I won't be treated like dirt here. Not by anyone. I start to get down the ladder.
"Wait, we never said you had to leave." Zook says.
I gesture at Jel.
"Jel, let's talk about this another time. Please."
Jel really doesn't want to do that.
"It's important Zook. It's about, you know..."
"Jel. You want to protect your friends right? If we're not nice to him, you know what he'll do. And he's seen too much to do that. Way too much."
They exchange a look.
"Fine. We'll talk about this another time."
"No wait, I need a shower anyway."
I climb down the ladder.
"Which way down the corridor?"
I have a shower which is lukewarm and when I come back, they're watching something on Youtube. I took clothes to the shower to change into afterwards so I wouldn't have to get changed in front of Jel and Zook. The two naked guys having a conversation in there was something I had to try very hard to ignore.
After a moment, I ask.
"Zook, could you help me get onto the internet?"
"Zook, when you've done that, let's go for a shower?" Jel asks and they high five.
Zook then climbs onto my bed and Jel climbs down the ladder. When Jel leaves, Brad appears in his place.
"What does he mean by, going for a shower?"
"Don't you worry about that."
Zook get's me onto the internet and after he's changed it, he asks:
"You sure you're ok?"
"Give me a few days and I'll be fine. This is like a hairpin learning curve for me."
"I understand. What did you think of the G&T on Saturday?"
"A bit crap."
"It would be better with alcohol wouldn't it? But I suppose there might be more fights. We have fight with Rome like that every Saturday, before you ask. Just this one."
He laughs and then I do too.
"Ok, that's good to know. And yes, it would be much better with alcohol."
He ruffles my hair.
"You're gonna be quite a wee party animal aren't you? There's this old movie, I can't remember what's it called but there's this great quote. This women is like 'If you want to be a party animal, you have to be able to live in the jungle.' or something like that. It's true though, you've gotta be able to live in the Jungle if you're have any fun here. And on that happy note. I'm gonna go for a shower."
He scrambles off my bed and disappears out the door and down the corridor. I've had two cold showers while I've been here and I really don't feel like a third. About twenty minutes later, as I used to the school email system, there's a lot of running in the corridor and Jel going in and out of his room. Henry comes running in and hands me a large, fluffy, blue towel. Henry is also in a towel from the waist down.
"Here, hide this. It's Jel's. He's gone down to the other showers."
As soon as it's quiet, I go over to Jel and Henry's big room and hide it in Gwebe's desk drawer. Zook running in next.
"Where's the towel Ben?"
"In Gwebe's drawer. Where's Jel?"
"We were in the showers at the end of the corridor when Henry took his towel, as you know, and ran away. So Jel has gone down to the bottom ones with a different towel so we're gonna steal that too and turn the lights off."
"One day, you'll understand."
He slaps me hard on the back and changes into shorts and a Wimbledon t-shirt then disappears.
"Do they do this everyday?" I ask Brad.
"Oh yes. Almost."
Jel comes tearing back in. He's stark naked. I avert my eyes.
"Y'all, where the fuck is my towel?"
Brad and I look each other.
"I know you have it! I know you do!"
"Have you asked Gwebe? Or Henry?"
He goes storming back through and then he swears loudly. Brad and I go across the corridor and Jel's towel is sitting on his bed with a note saying; you may need this. G. Henry is changing and standing there in his underwear while Zook sits on his bed. Gwebe is drawing at his desk with his headphones in until Jel throws a pillow at him. He is so shocked that he falls backwards and his chair goes crashing to the floor. I think Jel would have done something much worse but the door is thrown open. Sixth formers obviously never knock. Lukas, one of the year 12's is standing there, with a clipboard and not at all alarmed that Jel is naked, Henry is half naked and Gwebe is lying on the floor.
"5:15 check in." He says in a very thick German accent.
"I thought we stopped that." Jel says, putting some underwear on. "I thought Matron threw the sheet away."
"Not ze new matron. So you're all here? Good good."
He ticks us off his clipboard.
"Why do we have 5:15 check in if Mr H ticks us when we go to dinner? Where are we going to go in 20 minutes?" Zook asks. The guy with the clipboard just looks at us:
"You zink I fuckin know? I'm just doing 'cause this I'm told to. Vhen you do thiz, you'll see how pointless zis is. God, I vish I'd stayed in Germany."
Poor Lukas. To be sent hundreds of miles to practically prison and spend your mornings and evenings putting juniors to bed and waking everyone up and your afternoons ticking people in as well as being ticked off a sheet by Mr H eight times a day. That's all it feels like we are sometimes; nothing more than names to be ticked off a sheet of crumpled paper that won't be kept more than a day.
He leaves and I sit down on Henry's chair. Zook goes to get his phone and Brad climbs onto Henry's bed and sits up against the wall.
"Henry, can I borrow your jacket? The brown one?"
"I got a new one so you have that one."
"What shall I do with the other one?"
"Whatever you want."
Henry and Jel's room has four beds: one against each wall, one behind the door and one at the other end. Between the bed on the left wall and the one against the far wall there is a little space filled with various tuck boxes (small plastic boxes for keeping food in) and home made seats. I found out later that this the favourite spot to sit in and to while along the long afternoons at school.
Jel gets dressed but Henry doesn't. He just stands there, looking in Jel's full length mirror that's stuck to his wardrobe.
Brad, do you want to put some music on? And something good I mean, not Fall out Boy-"
"And not Mika." Brad replies. I guess they have some sort of agreement.
"Let me deal with this." Jel says, plugging his ipod into his huge speakers and turning it up really loudly to annoy everyone in the corridor. "I say Henry, you're looking mighty fine." Jel says and he winks.
Zook comes back in and stands behind Henry.
"Jel's right, you're looking like a true curvaceous-"
"Oh fuck off, all of you you're just trying to tell me that I've put on weight."
Henry is not really fat, just, well, a bit stout. I'm still processing that they all shower together. I just can't fathom that. I just can't.
"I think you're just fine. A bit chubby but just fine." Jel says. Then it get's worse. Jel kisses Henry on the cheek. Like an actual kiss. I have my suspicions that Jel is most definitely gay.
"Jel, please, that's just...it's really not right."
Jel ruffles Henry's hair and throws him a shirt and a jumper.
"What's wrong Ben?" Zook asks.
"Nothing, I'm just you know, processing. This is all new to me. All this touchy feely ness. I find it a bit..."
Zook and Jel look at each other and then burst into laughter.
"Ha Henry! Ben think's you're gay!"
They laugh loudly for a bit. I notice Brad has actually left the room and I wonder if anyone else noticed.
"No Jel, I imagine Ben probably thinks you're gay, considering you go around kissing boys on the cheek."
Jel does it to Zook and Zook laughs loudly.
"And yet Henry, I'm totally straight. I have had many girlfriends."
Henry and Zook look at each other and sigh heavily. Then they say in sync.
"Trust me Jel, we know."
"There are five languages of love and the way they show affection and everyone has one. Mine happens to be physical touch. Henry's happens to be grunting."
That explains a lot. I go to get my shoes and Zook also comes for his.
"Hey, do you want this?"
It's a genuine blue Barbour jacket.
"But it's yours."
"It's really not. Henry get's them from Leo, his older brother who sells them and if they have something wrong with them when they arrive, they go to Henry. When Henry's done with them, I get them. So it's technically fourth hand. But it's yours if you want."
I try it on and run a hand through my hair.
"Also, don't go to dinner in the activity shoes. They make you look like a right tosser. What size are your feet?"
Zook looks in his cupboard.
"Here, these look much better. Jel gave me them and they've never fitted."
I lace up the baseball boots and join everyone in the corridor. Jel and Henry are still bickering and continue to do so, all the way to dinner.
"Does this jumper make me look fat?"
"Henry, you're fine."
"But is that why girls don't like me? Cause I'm fat?"
"Chicks secretly dig guys who are a bit chubby. They like 'em natural."
"Coming from the Adonis who has had loads of girlfriends? Like I'm gonna believe that."
"Henry, I think you're gonna be the first one of us to get married."
I had never seen Henry laugh like that until that moment. We go down the road and through the door in the Quad that takes us to the flight of the stairs which lead to the dining hall. However, we seem to be early so there is a huge queue stretching down the stairs. People continue to yell and rattle the doors and getting really fractious. Even the prefect can't contain us. There's a lot of shoving and barging and swearing and I honestly feel like a very small animal in a very large stampede. I don't realise that this is a daily occurrence. Then Rome starts abusing the prefect. I'm just tired, bored, squished and hungry. When we do get let in, Rome is kept to the back but he still barges through. There is a stampede to food that isn't even very good. Lasagne or noodles in some sort of soup. We all go for lasagne as the safe option and when we've all sat down and Jel has disappeared to socialise, I decide to ask what's been on my mind all afternoon.
"What's the Six A?" I ask. They all look up at me. Now Jel has gone to socialise so it's just four of us and with Brad gazing at Lulu, it's basically just three. Well, Henry isn't saying anything. So it feels like it's just Zook and I.
"On the top floor, the upper sixth or year 13, depending on what you like to call them, have their own little sitting room with a TV, sofas. Fridge and kettle. It's one of their privileges. They also get their own milk and butter and jam and bread." Zook replies.
"Then why did Michael use ours?"
"Hierarchy my friend. They're older than us so we have to do what they say."
Henry and Zook nod.
"In year 11, we have tearoom duty which is apparently the worse." Zook adds.
Jel comes back from his socialising for a moment.
"Ah Jel, just the person. We're talking about duties and hierarchy-"
Jel whispers something to Zook.
"No, no and no again. Not in a million years."
Jel goes back to his other friends. Zook has gone surprisingly red.
"What is it?"
"I'll tell you later Henry. Ben, we'll make you a list so you don't get confused. If someone asks you to do something, make sure it's your year group duty otherwise, don't do it. Like if someone asks you to get the phone, tell a year nine to do it. "
Ok. I can do that.
Brad shows me a list that's he made on his phone and then he emails it to me.
Year 9s: laundry duty, phone answering, shouting when it's a house meeting and outside tidiness
Year 10: Crockery collecting/sweeping stairs/hovering
Year 11: Tearoom duty
Year 12: Wake up duty/night rounds+ cleaning the mixed comm
Year 13: Captaincies and cleaning Six A
"Every Tuesday and Friday, we have to leave our laundry bags by the front door before breakfast and the year 9s have to make sure they're all in the big orange bags in CC and all tied up so they can get taken down to school to be washed in the laundry rooms down at school. Speaking of which, it's laundry tomorrow so we mustn't forget." Brad says.
They all laugh.
"CC, it's short for Checkpoint Charlie. You know how it was the only checkpoint to get through the Berlin Wall from East to West Germany. " Brad says. Of course he knows that. I understand; that door being the only door you're allowed out of and you have to do a lot of complicated signing out.
"Also, while you're going through Checkpoint Charlie, if it's after activities, as well as signing out with Mr H if you're going somewhere, you have to sign out in the book of lies." Henry adds.
They all laugh, reading the bemused look on my face.
"The clue is in the name, Ben."
"Hey losers." Jel says, putting his hands on Brad's shoulders. "Bradley Higgins, if you do not go and ask her out, I swear to fucking god, I am going to set you up with her the first moment I get."
"No Jel, please-"
"Oh Jel, we were explaining to Ben about the book of lies. As you've had the most experience with it, anything you want to add? " Zook asks. Jel sits down next to Henry.
"Yup. That's absolutely what it is. Trust me Ben, one day you'll be going to be make out with your girlfriend in a toilet or dark corner somewhere and you'll sign out saying you're going to music or extra geography or some crap like that and then you'll understand. I'm being summoned. See y'all later."
He disappears off in the direction of the in-crowd.
"I wonder what it's like, being popular." Zook mutters.
"I imagine it wouldn't be much different to this, just we'd have a lot more friends." Henry replies, picking at his lasagne.
"Oh my god, she's looked at me." Brad says, going burgundy red.
We all look at Zook.
"Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. It's just-"
"Is she still looking?"
We look over his shoulder. She very much is.
"Somebody just pointed-"
"Oh god, really?"
Henry clicks his fingers in Brad's face. Eventually, Brad looks up.
"You have been staring at her for like, half an hour. Shut up and eat your lasagne and play it cool."
"Oh shit." Zook mutters, looking over our shoulder. "Jel and Valerie are leaving together."
"Do you think they're get with each other?" I ask. Zook and Henry shake their heads.
"God no. Jel hates Valerie."
"It's a long story. Come on, let's go back to house."
We put up our trays and empty plates and wind down the long corridor, past a couple who break apart when we walk past. down the flights of stairs, past another couple who don't notice us this time, just keep being all over each other and out of the door and into the arch. We follow the road up to Arkansas, keeping an eye out for Valerie and Jel who may or may not be together. We go into the front door and into CC. Here, you can right up to the stairs to our corridor and the one above it, down the corridor under these stairs to the showers and other year 12 rooms or left, to Matron's office and beyond that, the glass roofed conservatory that is the mixed common room.
We go left past Matron's office and down the little steps into the Mixed Comm. I go to to sit down on the one of the sofas but Zook and Henry haul me up by a shoulder each.
"Not there. Definetely not there."
I follow them to corner of the room and they climb up onto the upright Piano. There is only just room for four of us.
"Why are we sitting here?"
"Hierarchy." Zook replies. "At least we're not on the floor anymore, fighting over that beanbag."
He points to the year 9s who have been banished to the floor and are currently wrestling over the one beanbag. It took me years to understand the hierarchy; why the year 12s all had to squash onto one sofa and an armchair when the year 13's got four sofas and comfy ones too. Jel comes huffing in and we all squeeze onto the piano. Zook decides to try and push Henry off which makes Henry do it back and Jel get's very cross.
"I can't wait till next year when we get the windowsill-" He mutters. "At least we'll all fit."
The year 11s all fit on the windowsill but only just. Someone has turned the TV on but nobody is watching; everyone is too busy wrestling, listening to music, gossiping, eating sweets or checking their phones.
"Actually, I'm move down." Jel says and he moves down from the top of the piano to sit on the lid of the piano with his feet on the piano stool. Mr H comes striding in and takes his place under the TV. The house captain; Rob sits on one side and Alfonzo on the other. Alfonzo speaks very little English but is very good at drinking and playing Squash. Mr H does yet another register to make sure we're all here. I'd say this is the 9th time I've been ticked in today.
"Right, we'll turn that rubbish off. Silence please."
Everyone keeps talking and giggling.
"I said SILENCE! God, can't you lot shut up?"
A sort of silence falls on the room. Bearing in mind there is over 60 of us, that is an achievement in itself. He starts to babble on about really boring things; cleaning the tearoom, laundry being out at the right time, to be in at close time. I make a list of all the time's I've been checked in today on my phone.
Check in times today
-Wake up at 6:30
-Breakfast at 7:20/7:30
-Assembly at 8
-After lunch between 1:30 and 2
-Going to activities at 2:30
-Coming back from activities 3:30
-5:15 check in
-Leaving for dinner 5:45
-7pm check in, after dinner
I notice Zook and Henry laughing about something and shoving each other. Then I notice they're doing Jel's hair.
"Ben, phone down! Thornton, you paying attention?"
Zook looks up, trying so hard not to laugh.
"I would hope so. Has anyone got anything to say?"
A hand goes up.
"What is it Grappleton?" Rob says, rolling his eyes. I notice that you call anyone younger than you by your surname but anyone older by their surname.
"We're gonna restock tuck shop tomorrow so we're gonna open up after activities. We're not doing tabs because in the girls houses, they have a total of £350 in tabs and some of you owe money to the Alvie tuckshop by the way." Alex Grappleton says. He's an awkward shaped kid with black spiked up hair and in year 12 I think. Zook looks at Henry and they mutter something and then high five. I'm guessing they plan to run tuck-shop one day.
"Ok Grappleton, can you find out who owes tabs to Alvie Lodge and we'll make sure they pay it back?"
He nods. Another hand goes up.
"Year 10s, can you be quiet on our middle corridor? We've got exams this term and we can't do it if you're screaming and playing music and running around from 6:30 in the morning to 10 at night-"
Rob cuts in.
"Ok Bygrave. Year 10, you have to be more respectful of the year 12s on your corridor cause they are revising-"
Mr H cuts in.
"My office is also on your corridor and you make so much racket. I have a good mind to put you all on different corridors next year. And yes Zachary, I'm looking at you."
The whole house looks at us. who has just tied Jel's hair into two little mouse ears on either side of his head, just has to hold in the laughter. A man comes rushing in, tall, pale and with a centre parting. He's wearing a long school scarf tied up high, a thick beard and a laptop.
"Sorry I'm late."
He stands awkwardly in the corner and although I know him by site, I cannot, for the life of me, name him .
"Right, next." Rob says. A timid hand from a year 9 goes up.
"What?" Rob doesn't even address him by his surname. "Is it lost property?"
After a moment, the year 9 nods. Rob swears under his breath as about 10 other hands go up, presumably for lost property.
"No. There will be a list on Dean's door, who is captain of lost property and he'll read it out tomorrow. Write it there because this has taken 25 minutes and some of us have stuff to revise for."
Everyone starts talking but the beardy guy comes forward.
"Sorry, I just wanted to say that I'll be coming around to see my tutees and at 9, we'll get together for some food."
Ah, so he's a house tutor. I wonder who my tutor is. We move out of the mixed comm in a great horde; a stampede going back to our rooms or to make tea and toast before prep. I'm still getting used to finding my way around. The evening passes very similar to last night when everyone watched netflix and I unpacked and there was loud music coming from every room. We have to stay in our rooms while Brad works, Zook watches a film and I stick up my posters. I have one of Jurrasic Park, a really funny one of the theory of evolution and a union jack flag to pin above my bed as well as lots of photos of Elliot and I and a couple of Emmy and I. I only have one of my whole family but I don't stick that up. I have to pin the flag between Zook and I's bed and he look's up, pretending to be disgruntled.
"If that falls down on me in the night, I will have a fit. Besides, you might not be allowed it. Mr H loves fire health and safety. It's about the only fire in his-"
"Zook, please. I'm trying to work."
Zook makes a face behind his back. I wonder why Zook doesn't like Brad. And I wonder how they're going to survive as roommates. Being quiet for Brad seems to be something we do most of the day so he can work and it's the one thing Zook can't do.
Zook writes something on a yellow post-it and passes it to me.
On the dot of 8:15, the music comes on. Brad can't have his way all the time.
I nod and at 8:15, that's precisely what Zook does. Brad almost flips a lid.
"If you can't be a good roommate Zook, I'm going."
As he leaves, Zook mutters:
Then he sees the expression on my face.
"I know you're wondering what's going on, why Brad and I don't get on. But I'd advise that you didn't ask. It's complicated."
"Does Jel know?"
There's a long pause.
He clambers down the ladder and changes into his tennis kit. I notice he is wearing hoodie, special athletic type top, and shorts which are all pale blue with St Richmond's College Tennis emblazoned on each thing and Zook's initials in silver underneath. He slings a bad of tennis rackets over his shoulder and looks up at me.
"Well, are you coming?"
I've got nothing else to do. I jump down the ladder and follow him. We sign out in the book of lies, wait for ages in CC for Henry and then Brad tags along too, in the hope of seeing Lulu. Jel and Zook were going to play but we end up playing strip tennis and then get shouted out by one of the coaches. I don't realise this is a daily occurrence. We get back at 9:00 and there's more nude showering but I don't join in. I assumed at that moment I'd never want to do that.
I shower separately and when I come back, Zook and Henry are running around, fighting and wrestling. I thought we had to collect crockery everyday but clearly that idea has been abandoned. Some poor year 12 called Harry comes around at 9:45 and looks like he's about to cry because we're supposed to be in our rooms and ready for bed.
"Zook, please, you're ruining my night. Please. Just get in your room."
As soon as he's gone, Zook and Henry go and make toast and I think Jel goes too. I don't to get in trouble so I stay in bed. Harry has to pick up Zook and give him a fire mans lift.
"Stay in here. Please. Just get in bed and I'll turn the lights off. Just stay here otherwise you'll have Mr H to deal with."
Zook climbs fully clothed into bed and Harry turns the light off. Once Mr H has been around, Zook goes back through to Henry's room and I don't sleep for ages. When I do, I have uneasy dreams. Very uneasy dreams.
Tuesday follow the same template as Monday. I'm woken at 5:45 by Zook going to play tennis with Jel then lying awake till 6:30 when Harry came around to turn the lights on. Zook comes crashing back, having showered and turns on Mika really loudly. His favourite song is called 'Live your Life' and he plays it all day, every day.
"Ben, don't forget your laundry. Oh and your PE kit."
He says, putting on his wellies and school coat. I decide to do the same.
"Yeah, it's chucking it down outside. Definetely a wellie day."
"Then why did you go and play if it's raining?"
"It's crazy, the things I do for what I love eh? Come on, let's go."
We have to drag Henry out of bed and spend ages waiting for him. Then in our wellies, blazers and under Jel's umbrella, we head to breakfast in the pouring rain. Eggs and Bacon. I've never been more grateful for a hot breakfast. Assembly. The Chaplin decides to show us some Youtube videos and talks some rubbish. Lessons.
French, business, break PE. The AstroTurf has flooded so we had to do fitness inside.
7pm check in. I meet Peterson, who is Assistant Housemaster and can't control anything. He's very high up on my sissy list.
Wednesday. Thursday. It swirls around and around. This routine. In, out. In, out.
Wake up, sign out, breakfast, assembly, lessons, lunch, sign in, sign out. Tick tock. Activities, sign in, 5pm check in, sign out, dinner. 7pm check in, prep, sign out, tennis, sign in, put to bed. Lights out.
Controlled by the clock in the Quad.
5pm check in.
7pm check in.
It goes around like clockwork.
"Come on, we have to go to housemeeting It's 8:15."
“I thought it was called check in?”
“No this is a proper house meeting. They happen at this time every thursday.”
It's Thursday night and I seems to have accumulated a lot of homework, all due for tomorrow. We all head down to the mixed comm and Mr H proceeds to babble for half an hour about cleaning up after ourselves, laundry, the tearoom, being badly behaved in assembly and a lot of people getting into trouble for not handing in homework on time. He's in a really bad mood, as usual. At the end, He get's up and lumbers off, leaving Rob to talk to us.
"Mr H wanted me to tell you that Alfonzo who was my vice house captain has been caught drinking and as a result, suspended. I won't go into detail but he'll be back in two weeks. Also, I know there is a sixthform and year 11 dance G&T this weekend so think very hard about drinking because Mr H is aware of alcohol in the house. Suspension is a very expensive punishment."
A year 9 puts a timid hand up.
Rob looks down suspiciously at him.
"Did Mr H not tell you?"
"He told me to read the code of conduct and slammed his office door in my face."
"Suspension is when you're sent to live with a local family for two weeks and you only come back in for lessons and activities. You're not allowed back in the house at all and your parents have to pay a large amount of money to pay the families and the taxis. "
"How much is it?" Someone in year 11 asks.
"2 and a half grand for a week. Well, that's what it was when I was suspended. Ah, fun times. Right all of you, back to your rooms and don't get drunk unless you're sure you won't get caught!"
We file out and head in our various directions. When it's just Zook and I again in our room , I ask him:
"What did Rob get suspended for?"
Zook laughs very loudly.
"Stealing Maryland cookies from the school shop."
I also laugh.
"You know Jamie in year 13? It was his mum who caught him, cause she was working there at the time. It was because of that that Rob and Jamie are best friends now."
Brad opens the door and comes in and sits down and plugs himself in, even though prep is technically over.
"What did Mr H mean by it being closed house?"
"What do you think?"
"He's not gonna lock us all in is he?"
"He does anyway. No, it's just that nobody in the house is allowed out to play sports, go for a run, go to other houses if you're in sixth form etc."
Jel comes striding in, slamming the door behind him.
"Zook, I need to ask you something."
Jel beckons him and they disappear. I take off my glasses and start to polish them. Zook comes crashing back after a couple of minutes and climbs onto his bed.
Zook climbs back onto his bed and Jel climbs onto Zook's chair.
"Yeah. Things are going badly between Jel and Valerie. He wants to get one up on her so she might leave him be. He just doesn't know how."
This is my chance. My chance to be someone and fit in in Arkansas. My chance to prove myself.
"Can I help? I'm in loads of her classes."
Zook looks up at me.
I put my glasses back on.
"If you get it, maybe you'll get a nickname upgrade. At the moment you can be Traintrack Jones."
Jel comes sprinting in.
"Zook, it's here."
Jel holds his IPad and Zook reads what I'm presumably is an email. I open my phone too and check. Sure enough, I have 1 new message in my inbox:
cc: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com see 8 more
Subject: Allborough tennis tournament and candidate qualifying information
As you are all aware, there are seven tennis players visiting next week from Allborough Tennis Academy, one of the most prestigious tennis schools in the world. The aim of their visit to find a worthy candidate to offer the possibility of a scholarship to. The candidates will play first here, at St Richmond's College and then, if selected, will play a number of final and deciding matches at Allborough Academy itself in Ohio. If chosen for a scholarship, the candidate or candidates who has successfully won a place will be announced in the spring of 2013. Students who wish to qualify as candidates must come along tonight for a meeting at 8:45 at the Astroturf and as there are only a maximum of 14 places at this stage of the process, only those who attend the meeting will be allowed to proceed further. Please remember that the students from Allborough Academy are our guests and should be treated with the upmost integrity and respect.
Mr P Simmons.
Head of PE
Tutor in Gallagher House
Zook practically jumps off his bed in excitement.
"Oh my god Jel, this is it!"
He's so excited he can't speak.
"I have to tell Henry. HENRY!" Zook yells, throwing the door open and throwing himself through the door to the other room. This is the first time I've ever seen Jel properly smile. This is the kind of chance you work your whole life towards. Jel seems to be reading my thoughts.
"It's the only proper chance he'll ever get." He says and disappears. I can hear Zook bouncing around next door with excitement and that means I can hear him coming sprinting back to get changed. He changes into his St Richmond College tennis kit, swings his huge bag of tennis rackets over his shoulder and disappears, clearly still so excited that he can hardly speak. Half an hour, he comes rushing back in, all red faced and possibly the happiest I've ever seen him.
"Oh my god, this is amazing. I can't believe it."
He crashes into his chair. In case you're wondering where Brad is, he's still in our room, plugged into his headphones but he takes them out to hear what Zook has to say.
"Mr Simmons told I was already a candidate. I told him that I wanted to play like everybody else but because I'm a tennis scholar, I automatically qualify."
He takes a sip of water from a Wimbledon bottle.
"Is Jel still there?"
"Yeah he had to stay for the whole meeting. First, everyone else will have to play a number of matches against each other to qualify for an interview. Then they all have to fill in a form and have an interview. Only a few people will get through to that stage-"
"Oh yeah. I have to fill in the form because that has to go to Allborough and then whoever gets it and goes to play at Allborough, has to do a very similar. I think that's the only reason Simmons is being so pretentious. Otherwise he would just choose the people he likes and get it over with."
"So what's the final stage?" I ask.
"Whoever beats the Americans or is the most impressive will possibly be offered a place at the second round."
"That's so exciting. Congrats."
"Cheers Man. I've been working towards this since I was 5 and this is my one and only chance. I can't screw this up."
He throws all the uniform that's on his chair onto the floor and then strips off, folding all his St Richmond College tennis kit neatly on the back of his chair.
"Oh Zook, don't forget, real Matron is back tomorrow so she's gonna start doing the room checks again."
"Wait, so the matron we've got isn't real?"
Zook slips into his towel and laughs.
"No I mean like, she's not our matron usually? That's so...confusing."
"Real Matron is quite something. She's just come back after her divorce so apparently we have to be really nice to her."
"Oh great." Zook mutters.
"So yeah Zook, you might want to shove that in a draw somewhere. My dad is on duty this weekend and he'll kick your ass if your room isn't tidy."
"I'd like to see him try."
Our chance for Jel to get one over Valerie comes the next morning, first period. That night was the first time I've properly slept well in months.
Zook get's up at 5:30.. Woken up an hour later. Get up. Shower. Find clean uniform. Wait for Henry in CC. Sign out in the book of lies. So damn repetitive. "Ben, laundry!" Zook has to remind me again.
It's bagels for breakfast which is apparently really exciting when we eventually get there.
"Oh Traintracky, we have hymn practice this morning." Zook tells me, buttering his bagel.
"Traintracky?" Henry asks, cynically, making his weetabix a mush.
"It's because of the braces. Traintrack jones."
"Coming from someone who eats cardboard for breakfast? At least I have some creativity in my life."
Zook and Jel both laugh. Henry doesn't.
"Yeah so we have hymn practice. Just go with it."
"If we have Murphy though, it's pretty difficult to go with."
"Yup. I'd rather Murphy being a drunk though than Heaverton being a creep."
I have no idea who these people are.
"Come on, let's go."
Hymn practice is exactly like what it sounds and is run by Murphy, who is a drunk and Jel was right, it is very difficult to follow. He spends most of his time talking rubbish and also, Mr H is tone deaf and his singing makes all of us giggle. It's tradition to sing it very loudly and very raucously, so we do. Our favourite game is swap hymn books while we're singing and occasionally shut them so you have to open it back to the hymn while you're singing. Then Jel almost shoves Gwebe off the end of pew and Mr H keeps us behind after hymn practice.
"For Christ's sake, what did I tell you about behaving? Can't you have a bit of respect?"
We are trying so hard not to laugh.
"I should ground you but because you have Headmistresses reels tomorrow, I can't."
Luckily the Scottish side of my family have taught me how to reel, otherwise I'd be terrified.
"Now get to Maths, otherwise I will ground you and I know you have a dance G&T coming up."
As we leave, Jel mutters:
"Ooh I'm scared."
"You should be, Mr H is a force to be reckoned with." Zook replies sarcastically. They start talking about the reels and who they might get with as we head up the road to St Richmond's Quad and to Maths. However the classroom is locked so we have to sit outside.
"So who else is in our class?" I ask. This is the only class all five of us seem to have together and therefore will probably be pretty chaotic. Zook and Henry are skimming through 9gag on Henry's phone while Brad goes over some of the homework which nobody else seems to have done. They all ignore me and I'm about to ask again when the door opens and a couple of beautiful girls stride in. The only one I know is Valerie.
"Ben," Zook whispers. "That's Celine and Lutra. I look at the girls that he has just pointed out and wow, they are beautiful. Celine is icy cold and very Scandinavian looking while Lutra is the opposite with long dark thick hair, olive skin and dark smoky make up. I bet they hate each other. Jel puts his hair up in a messy bun and goes over to talk to them. Lulu also comes striding down the corridor, her dyed blond hair in a high ponytail and her nose stud very much in. Brad just watches her every move.
"And you've met Valerie?"
"In Geography." I reply. Lulu looks over at Brad and winks at him. He goes so red he look's sunburnt. We all stifle a laugh. Zook and Henry have been annoying each other for a bit so when Mr Meyers let's us into the classroom, Zook goes tearing in with Henry in tow.
"Lucinda, piercing out. Zachary, do you ever stop running?"
Zook shakes his head and goes tearing his seat next to Henry.
"Well, walking is so boring."
"He's right." Henry agrees. Mr Meyers is about to say something else but then he sees me.
"Are you Ben Middleton Jones?"
"Wait, you're Roderick's cousin aren't you?"
The whole class goes silent and all look at me. I was told to keep that quiet.
"I thought so."
I got his uniform. And trunk which is why his uniform is so darn big.
"Let's just hope not this reputation." Mr Meyers laughs and I half laugh. Roderick was expelled, in case you're interested. Don't ask me why. We don't talk about it at home. There's a knock at the door which breaks the silence and a girl with long mousey brown hair that has gold streaks walks in.
"Sir, Mrs Greenwich sent me to find you. She said it' s urgent."
"Okay. Turn to page 125 and do questions 1-5."
Zook throws the huge textbooks around the class and most of them don't make it where they should. Brad, being the silent nerd immediately starts working but he is the only one.
We turn around to look at Jel who is sitting at the back with Valerie and the other girls.
"That girl, was Gwebe's girlfriend."
We all laugh. They do actually kinda look alike.
"Gwebe's girlfriend?" Valerie asks, in shock.
"They are seriously in love."
Lulu just looks at us and Brad stares at her.
"Ivy has never had a boyfriend in her life."
"Are you sure? Because we're pretty sure Gwebe is in love with her and we heard she is really into him too."
Valerie leans across the desk.
"I know they will never go out. In fact, we bet you that they will never go out."
Jel comes and sits with us.
"Team huddle." Zook says as we all gather in.
Brad is the only one who isn't keen. I think he just wants to get on with his maths.
Then he makes eye contact with Lulu and goes bright red. We consult with each other for a bit longer and then Jel gets up and sits himself on Valerie's desk.
"We'll tell you tommorow. At the G&T."
We don't actually get a chance to talk about it all day until there is just five of us at dinner. We forgot to sign out so we had to go all the way back because we know he'll ground us. Border control, as everyone calls it, is very strict.
When we do get to dinner and we finally manage to talk about it, as usual, Brad isn't keen.
"I don't know..." Brad is saying.
"Come on. It's just a joke."
Brad still isn't keen. There's a long silence.
"Is it Fish and chips every Friday?" I ask. They all nod. I get the sense they want to talk about something private.
"I'm gonna get water. Anyone want some?"
"No thanks, Traintracky."
"Nah I'm alright."
Henry suddenly jumps up.
"I'm gonna get some too."
Jel looks up.
"Can you me some more ketchup? And some more chips?"
"Oh H, can you get me a napkin too?" Zook asks. Henry reluctantly obliges. I go and get water and then I queue for some more chips. I can see Jel sitting up straight with his hands up behind his head and I imagine he is making unblinking eye contact with Brad cause he does that a lot when he's giving someone a hard time. I go back and sit down. Jel is still leaning back with his hands behind his head and his feet are now up on the table.
"We've made a decision. Henry, you chubby faced god, thank you."
As Henry puts the chips on the table, Jel kisses Henry on the cheek.
"Eww get off me." Henry throws a chip at him. "You're not doing very well in convincing me you're not gay."
"Now, I'll tell you what I've decided..."
On Saturday Night we all go to Mrs Lambert's Reels in The Reeling Room on the third floor in The Quad. We're told to wear smart casual so I go along with what Zook tells me to wear which consists of a white shirt, red chinos, black shoes and red braces (that he lends me) and the Barbour coat that I got fourth hand. I think we look really stupid. But I don't say that. We're talked through each reel and then we dance them at least twice, lead by the nice old man on the accordion who the school have hired in. The first dance which is called the Dashing White Sergeant, is sets of 3 so Brad and I end dancing with someone whose name I can't remember but by the end of it, she introduces herself as Lexie. You can tell who knows each other very well because there is some very violent spinning. When our three meets the one that has Zook and Jel with India in the middle, I wonder where Henry is and who he got stuck with. He's gonna be in such a bad mood later. The next dance is called the Reel of the 51st which I'm so shock everyone has do so well. It took me years to learn, it's so darn tricky. After that, I sit the next one out and after I've been to the toilet, I go next to door to the Red Room to find a drink. The red room is the most ostentious room in school with red walls, a red floor with the school crest emblazoned on the carpet and lots of portraits of famous headmaster. There is a silver sofa with two silver chairs on either side of it and a little table in the middle at one of the room and an identical set up at the end but the chairs and sofa are blue. I could have sworn this is where the snacks were.
"Are you Ben Middleton-Jones?"
I turn around. Of course. Only Mrs Lambert.
"Mrs Lambert. It's a pleasure to meet you at last."
"It's a pleasure to meet you too."
I shake her hand.
"Sorry I didn't manage to meet you earlier, it's just been one of those weeks."
"It's ok. Don't worry."
I don't understand how someone is virtually the head warden of a large prison can be so...friendly.
"I was wondering whereabouts the snacks and drinks are?"
"They're in the basement."
"Ah ok, thank you. Are you not dancing Hamilton House?" I ask. She shakes her head.
"This is the one I can never remember." She says and laughs. There's something very familiar about her that I can't name. She's about 35 or 36 and has a very slight figure with a lot of dark hair upswept into a bun. I think if she was blond, I would know who she reminded of.
"So, are you enjoying life in Arkansas?"
Errr, not really.
"Yeah. I'm adjusting."
She looks at me again and then squints her eyes.
"Wait, are you...Roderick's cousin?"
I nod. She takes a huge sigh.
"I thought you reminded me of someone. Well, Roderick was an interesting one, wasn't he?"
"Certainly knew how to get the school in the papers, that's for sure."
I remember it in the Daily Mail after seeing the article shared on Facebook. She takes another look at me.
"You look like him, you know."
I know that's not a good thing. With that she walks off. I go down the many flights of stairs to the basement and find Zook and Henry having what's probably a deep chat at one of the high up tables. They are the only people in there.
"Ben, Traintracky, there you are." Zook says and I scramble up onto one of the high chairs. "We were wondering if you were coming down. What did Mrs Lambert want?"
"Just to say hello."
Henry looks at me suspiciously.
"And then she told me I looked like Roderick which I don't think I do."
"You do." They both say in sync.
"Yes. If you got a bit taller, had no braces and drank all the time, you'd be exactly like him."
Zook's about to say something else but Jel comes striding through, a girl following in tow. A girl who Henry obviously knows very well. He goes bright red and his eyes widen as she walks in. She's in a floaty blue dress with long sleeves and very dark hair with a few blue streaks running through it. She also has lots of piercings and is tagging along behind Jel. Henry turns away very quickly and pretends to check his phone. He's also going very red.
"Thank you Thuglife that is very helpful indeed."
Jel comes up to Henry and puts an arm around his shoulders.
"She's wanted to copy my spanish homework and I told her to go away."
"Who was that?" I ask.
"Thuglife." Jel says and then changes the subject very quickly. "She did tell me one thing though that is very useful."
Jel climbs onto one of the chairs and joins us around the table. We look around to see whether anyone is around. Then we huddle around the table and Jel whispers:
"Apparently Rome is out to get some sort of revenge against us. That's why he went for us at the G&T. He think he's been wrongly accused of something. He's got Lulu on his side as well as all his Gallagher friends. We can't trust anyone but ourselves."
"What about the Alvie girls?" Zook asks.
"We'll see." Jel says, for a moment.
"Oh my god."
We all look at Henry.
"Brad. He mustn't get with Lulu."
We look at each other.
"No. He mustn't."
"Jel, what about this bet?"
He thinks for a moment.
"Yes. We must. The longer we can distract Valerie the better. She hasn't sided with Rome yet, but she may."
A few people walk the basement and we sit in silence for a moment.
Ok. It's just us now. And Brad, if he was here. Ben. You've heard all this now so-"
"I know, I know. What choice do I have?"
The door opens and Rome and Lulu come through, presumably from sitting in the alcove. Lulu has got her hair straightened and flipped over to one and her nose rings and earrings in. She's wearing a backless black leather dress with a plunging neckline and spike heels. I'm guessing she came wearing the leather jacket as well. Rome continues on upstairs but Lulu just stands there.
"Hey Arkansas, are you coming? Val wants to dance with you Jel and besides, it's the last dance."
"I'm not coming." Henry says.
"Yes you are, we always dance one dance together. Come on, I'll be the girl? Please?"
Henry has a look that says The things I do for love.
"So what are you going to say to Val?" Zook asks.
"If we win, she's gonna kiss Gwebe and if she wins, she pierces our ears." We head up the stairs and join the really long lines of boys on one side, girls on the other in the Reel Room.
"Wait." Jel says. "Brad, swap places with me. I need to dance with Valerie."
Jel originally manipulates it so he dances with Val and Lulu is dancing with Rome but then Rome drops out so Brad ends up dancing with her instead for some strange reason. She stands opposite him and winks at him and he avoids eye contact with her until she winks again. The dance is called Strip the Willow and probably the violent Scottish dance there is. Jel and Val are the top couple so they spin first and then Val spins the next boy and Jel spins the next girl and then they spin each other. Jel doesn't spin Valerie but rather throw her and we spin all the girls so hard before throwing them to their partners that we know they'll wake up with bruises.
"Hahaha look at Brad and Lulu. Aren't they cute?" Zook says.
"I suppose. Oh god, am I next?"
When Val is thrown towards me, I hurl her back to Jel and I hear Jel say to her:
"Ben, you're next. Go!"
This is the point I actually start to enjoy myself. I dance with Lexie again and she's very good and is ok with being thrown around very violently. I look at who is up next. Of course. Mrs Lambert. Dancing with Mr Fearn who is head of our year, in his school tartan trousers. I spin her and she makes eye contact with me just for a second but that look, it's like she's looking into my soul and has had a glimpse of the terror that will come. I wonder now, if she had any idea then that one day she'll usher me into her office and expel me. That I'd cause the most trouble she'd ever have. That she'd quite her job here. We continue to dance on, blissfully unaware of what will come. It seems to be the times we're not paying attention that decisions are made that we can never turn back from.