Chapter 3: Titanium
Against the back drop of a rare blue sky, a tennis ball served at 65 mph reaches it's peak. As if thrown in slow motion, it pauses for a moment and comes into focus. Then it plummets down so it can be smashed across the net to Jel's poised racket. It's been ten days since we had the reels with Mrs Lambert and ten days of the usual lessons, check ins, assemblies, tennis and bullying Gwebe. Henry and I have spent most of that time being ball boys or giving running commentary. Today, it's the latter.
"And for the Wimbledon weather for today, we'll pass you over to Traintracky."
I look up at the blue clouds with wisps of clouds floating across.
"As this is Scotland, it will probably rain later. But that of course, will not stop our world number 1's coming out and training. Tell me Henry, can you see any famous people in the crowd?"
We look around the Astroturf at our PE class, none of whom are during very much.
"I can see Valerie, the slut. Oh, I think that's Brad, the world class nerd trying to get laid and oh my god, who the heck is that?"
We both turn.
"Are they even in our year?"
"Oi! Ball boys! Make yourself useful!" Jel yells and Henry and I obediently go through and collect up the balls for them.
"Hitting the balls might help."
"Thanks Henry, Thanks."
Henry and I are getting on much better terms. I'm not sure why but I'm pleased we're actually talking.
Zook scores a point and Henry smiles and yells:
“Jel you suck!”
Jel gives us the finger and Zook shoots Henry that smile.
“I wonder if everyone knew he was on a tennis scholarship, maybe people would treat him differently.” Henry says.
"Is he actually? I did not know that.”
“Did you not?”
“He gets so excited for the tennis season. The first day back, he came to my room and woke me up 5:45 like we did last year and he was bouncing off the walls.”
“I remember. Brad and I were sleeping pretty deeply before Zook practically fell out of bed with excitement and then two minutes, you came thundering in."
We watch them for a moment.
"Still. I'm glad he has someone he can properly train with. I was pretty crap."
What neither of us decide to say out loud but we both are secretly desperately hoping that all of Jel's expensive training and fancy equipment won't over shadow Zook's dedication and raw talent.
"Oh hey Brad. Given up trying to get laid?"
"At least I'm trying!"
Henry shoves Brad into me and I try not to fall off the bench.
"God. I think if people knew that he is the under 16 North of England-”
“Oh my god, how oblivious are you?”
“Excuse me but we don’t talk about this sort of thing very often.”
“Do we not?”
I shake my head.
“Anything else I should know?”
They look at each other.
“You have no idea.”
They’re interrupted by Jel letting out a stream of curses and throwing down his racket and Zook doing his celebratory dance. Jel then runs after Zook and chases him around.
“Shake hands like men!” Henry yells and Jel drops Zook and they shake hands.
“Come on, let’s go and get changed."
“You didn’t have to wait. Henry can you hold this?”
Jel passes Henry a water bottle and I put the tennis balls back in the basket which I presume are Jel’s as Jel and Zook pack up their things.
“Jel this may shock and surprise you but I actually like taking an interest in what you’re doing. Here’s your water.”
They go and get changed and when they come out, we set off, both of them looking very sporty and us just tagging along. Basically we looked like the most mismatched and out of place group of friends that you can get. We’re also really late for our next lesson. Brad and I have history next which is so boring. Like seriously. I swear science is the only thing I’m good at. We set off down the road from the sports hall, past the Astroturf and the turning into Arkansas.
"So Jel, when is your interview?"
"Thursday, at break.
“So if we’ve history next, what do you have?” I ask.
“Design. Jel you’ve got Spanish don’t you?”
“My best lesson of the day, mainly because I don’t have to spend it with you losers.”
“Well Jel that is why Zook and I enjoy our design lessons because we don’t have your stupid jokes and sexual references.”
“My sexual references are awesome. And I wouldn’t say that Zook is an active member of your design class.”
“How dare you.”
“Too far bro. Too far.” Brad adds in.
“I’ll let you know that I made a table which I gave to Henry-”
“With three legs.”
“I got the design a little bit wrong.”
“A little bit?”
“To miss out a leg, yeah you must have done.” I add in and they all laugh.
“Ummm TJ what have you made? A wonky bookend?”
I’d forgotten I’d told them about that.
“What can you do with one wonky bookend?”
Their criticism of my bookend is never ending. It's brought up twice more and I have a feelings it's going to be a third as we walk into lunch an hours later but that's when we spot Ivy.
We decide to take our chance so we follow Ivy into the queue for Kentucky fried chicken. It’s perfect; Gwebe is there then Valerie, her soon to be boyfriend Lucas and Lutra then Ivy then us, right at the back. I don’t think she knows who are so we take as much as advantage of the situation as we could. We play rock paper scissors and Brad loses so he has to talk.
“Brad, come here.” I whisper.
“You have a streak of mud just there.”
After much discussion, Zook licks his finger and tries to scrub it off. He doesn’t do much of a good job but it will do.
Ivy is so totally distracted by what’s happening with Valerie and Lucas that I think she takes what happen with us as a bit of a surprise. She turns around and stares, obviously she isn’t used to being approach. I hear Zook mutter to Henry that it’s the mud. Valerie eyeball me and I smile.
“Do you like Gwebe?”
She looks very taken a back and spends a moment deep in thought. Valerie and Lutra turn around and Gwebe automatically reacts to his name.
“I don’t really know I’ve never really met him.”
I couldn’t tell whether Gwebe is confused, relieved, piss off or all of those. He is generally pretty emotionless all the time. Ivy get's her food and comes through the queue but Zook trips her a tiny bit so she 'accidently' knocks into Gwebe and gets food all down his front. Then Gwebe tries to make an exit and slips on his way out. Everyone just stands and laughs. I hear someone say:
"That's true love just there."
Even the dining hall staff laugh. Ivy takes a deep breath, goes bright red, gathers her things and disappears off and sits with a few other rejects, one of whom I recognise but can't quite place.
We sit at our usual table so we can watch them from afar. We're still laughing.
"That's made my day. It really has." Zook says, wiping the tears from his eyes.
"A million times better than throwing things at him during prep."
"A billion." Henry replies and him and Zook high five.
"Wait, isn't that Thuglife she's sitting with?"
Zook and Henry both turn to look and then glance at each other.
"Why is she so disliked?"
Zook and Henry look at each other.
"It's cause she's a real hipster. She think's she's so cool for being different and edgy but actually, it's just fucking annoying. Everyone is right to dislike her."
"Oh here he comes...the Alpha male..." Henry changes the subject as we observe Jel coming in with a few of his friends from Spanish. He pretends he doesn't see us.
"Shall I throw something at him?" Zook asks.
"No it will make him cross."
"Oh Brad, stop being the peacekeeper for once and lighten up. What shall we throw?"
I'd forgotten Brad was here.
Henry replies as I hand Zook a bit of very stringy kentucky fried chicken that my braces couldn't process and he chop's it up so it's quite small. Brad just sits there, his head in his hands.
"Oh wait, I have a rubber band." Zook says. "TJ, hold this."
Zook hands me a knife and fork in each hand and stretches the rubber band between them. While Henry perfects the aim, Zook puts our missile in the rubber band and they're about to fire when Brad stops them.
"Please. Give it two more minutes."
We follow his line of sight to where Lulu is standing, queuing for water.
"No Brad. She'll just have to duck or get hit. That's the just the way of the world. "
Brad rolls his eyes.
"Can't we just go?"
"Oh stop moaning Brad. You're so sullen these days and Lulu is never going to want to go out with you if you don't lighten up and stop complaining."
That shuts him up.
"Right. Target is in place." Henry mutters and Zook fires our home made sling shot, hitting Jel right on the back of his head. He turns around and we gesture to Ivy and the fact that she is leaving. He gives us two fingers.
“Target is moving.”
So we get up and follow them out as inconspicuously as we can.
We turn around and Lulu is beckoning him over. His faces lights up, like a golden retriever who has just been summoned to sit. We trail behind. A mass of popular people coming swarming through the door in a heard and we move out of the way so we don't get trampled in the stampede.
"Where are you going?"
"Errr...back to the house."
"Do you want to stay and have lunch with me? Please?"
She does that sulky face.
"Give me one second."
"Do I stay with her?" he asks and we all shake our heads.
"Come back to house with us."
"Yeah. She doesn't actually need you."
"Henry's right. She has like seven friends with her."
He looks back at her and she twiddles her hair and pretends she isn't looking at him.
"Wait, isn't one of the American tennis players arriving soon? Don't we have to be there to meet him?"
Of course this is the biggest lie in the world. But strangely enough, Brad believes it.
"Fine. Let's just go then. It wasn't like I wanted to spend time with her anyway. Lulu, I'll see you at tennis?"
She gives him a fake smile and flicks her hair. God. The way he looks at her. He's completely smitten. But then we realise, Ivy and Thugllife have long gone. We go outside and run straight into Jel and India-Jane, having some sort of important talk.
"Hey Losers, wait for me why don't you?"
"Okay, give me two minutes."
I think India-Jane is one of his closest friends outside of Arkansas and she is stunning. She really is. She has fluffy light brown hair, nearly always tied up which I don't think she ever actually brushes but what make her really irresistible is her personality. India-Jane is in that rare class of girls who isn't easy (so she doesn't just get with any boy)and are therefore very hard to come by. She has a sense of dignity, of loyalty and of privacy that makes her both irresistible and impossible and you can tell when she get's in a relationship, she's in it for the love, not the lust.
"Doesn't she have a boyfriend?" I whisper as Jel hugs India very publicly.
"TJ, I think it should be, didn't she have a boyfriend." Henry replies.
"If they're such good friends, why don't Jel and India just go out?" I ask. Zook and Henry laugh loudly.
"They could never go out. There are a few reasons but the main is that it would be an absolute trainwreck. God. They would break up within days." Henry explains.
"Also India hates you and you and Jel decided that she wasn't worth breaking up your friendship over." Zook adds.
"And that. Brad, shall we go?"
Brad looks up from his phone and rolls his eyes.
"Why does India hate you?" I ask.
Henry laughs rather ruefully. We head out into the corridor outside the dining hall and down the stairs.
"I once made a sexist comment. Once. In year 9. But because she is such a feminist and all that, she holds it against me, still. She's the type of person who would have been suffragette and is always posting stuff on Facebook about the wage gap between genders and what not."
"Henry, you are still really sexist." Brad says. We come out of the door and Jel is sitting outside the comm with India. She gives Henry a death stare and then disappears off to Alvie.
"Okay let's go," Jel says, draping one arm around Zook's shoulder and smacking Henry's bum with the other.
"Do you mind-"
"Wait, Jel, did you hear how your interview went?"
"I didn't get it."
"Oh man, I'm sorry."
"It's ok. Zook, this is your moment, remember?"
We come down the stairs and right outside the door, we walk into a huge commotion.
"How much shall we bet that this is all Rome?" Jel mutters.
"Excuse me?" says an American voice and whole crowd goes quiet.
Rome is staring down somebody who is much taller than him, much buffer and could easily beat him in a fight.
"I said, oh my god, this school, they let any old riff-raff in."
Zook bristles up beside us.
Jel cracks his knuckles.
"Black kids, eh? They're all the same." Rome says but the crowd doesn't laugh.Jel pushes his way through but the new kid stops him.
" I've got this. Look. I don't know who you are, what your name is or why you're picking on me, but I have been here for less than an hour so just lay it off alright? I will not be picked on and especially not by someone who is scrawny, ugly and looks like a sewer rat with chicken legs and a bad hair day!"
With that, he storms off. Rome bristles up too. Nobody ever says that to him.
"Rome, are you trying to ruin yourself?"
Rome looks up at him.
"Luckily you've already done that for me. Oh, and that black kid, he's yours." Rome replies and the crowd shove the poor guy in our direction. He looks at us, and we all stare back at him. Of course. This must be one of the tennis players.
"At least we won't treat him like some animal Rome!" Henry yells in return but Jel shuts him up before he can say anything else.
"Come on. Let's get out of here."
He looks so confused at everything that has just happened.
"Where are we going?"
"To our house," Brad says. "You're in Arkansas right?"
"I don't know what that is."
"Well, you are now."
We drag him back to Arkansas so we can ask Mr H what to do with him. Of course, when we get there, there is absolutely no staff around. Well, not unless you count Matron who does absolutely nothing. She just sits there, eating biscuits and flirting with the maintenance men who are always loitering. They are always pretending to fix things while the broken showers, dodgy heating and the increasing mice problem in the Upper sixth's sitting room (The 6A) get's worse.
"Matron, this is-"
Then we realise. We don't actually know his name.
"Myers. Trent Myers. I'm one of the American tennis players. I'm Anthony Meyer's nephew-" We all share a moment of -that-explains-a-lot.
"That's lovely poppet," Matron replies in her thick Scottish accent, halfway through a custard cream. She doesn't even look up. Trent looks so done with this place, and he's only been here for under an hour.
"Hang on; I'll just sign us in," Jel says. Matron hands him a parcel, and he has to open it in front of her so we sit down on the coffee table. Trent wanders around CC and inspects the noticeboard with all the activity lists, laundry days and times and the year 13 captaincy lists
"So am I staying in this house or what?"
"We'll just say that you are. Come on; we have a spare bed."
We go up the stairs and beckon for him to follow us.
"So how many floors does this house have?"
"Three but the one on the top the juniors aren't allowed on."
"It's home to the year 13s and year 11s, and they don't really want us."
We go past the tearoom, through the doors and into Jel and Henry's big room.
"Wait, so I'm just staying here?"
"Well, would you rather stay in the same house as Rome?"
"Scrawny guy who insulted you, you know, bad hair, glasses,"
"Oh, the guy with the chicken legs."
"Oh okay. No way am I sharing with him."
In the space between the left bed and the bed at the end, there is a space with a window that looks out across campus and in this corner of the room is where we spend most of our free time in Arkansas. I sit down on Henry's tuck box and beckon for Trent to sit down.
"Wait, I don't even know you guy's names."
"That guy with the white teeth is Jel, Henry is the ugly posh kid over there who wears really horrible sweaters, that freak with the afro is Zook, Traintracky is our resident ginger, and I'm Brad. So your name is Trent?"
"And you're Mr Meyer's nephew?" Brad asks.
"And before you ask, he's my step-uncle hence why he is white, and I'm black."
We were all thinking that; I know we were.
"So are you named after the American football player, Trent Richardson?" Jel asks, sitting down in his usual spot.
"Or after the bus company?"
"Or the river?"
"Henry, why would my parents name me after a river?"
I don't think he paid attention to Zook's suggestion about the bus company which when we googled it later does exist if you lived near Sheffield but we don't tell him that.
"Well, it's an unusual name."
"You mean you think it's weird."
Henry and Zook look at each other which means yes.
"And that's coming from a Jel, Zook and Traintracky? God this country is weird. So far, I've been abandoned, laughed at and insulted, abducted and now told my name is weird. What is wrong with this place?"
We all laugh ruefully.
"You have no idea. And we didn't abduct you; we saved you. Once Rome picks you out of the crowd, that's it, your life here is practically over.."
He looks terrified. Brad kicks Jel.
"Well it's true. I mean, that's why we stick together. He doesn't target groups.Shit, it's 1:50. Let's get ready for tennis?"
We all jump up.
"Wait, is that where we're going now?"
"Well Jel and I go and warm up at 2 and then because TJ and Henry are really lazy, they come with Brad at 2:30."
"I have no idea where I should be."
"So where's your coach?"
"My coach? Have you guys not been told anything about us visiting?"
Jel answers for all of us.
"My coach didn't come. We're getting coached here."
"So you have no adults with you?"
He shakes his head.
"All the coaches are needed back at school. We flew here, just the seven of us and I'm the youngest. I've never been to this country before and I had no idea what this school was even called. We arrived at that big building with the fountain and I was going to go and get some lunch when all the others disappeared off and I was confronted by Rome.
We look at each other.
"So you've flown on an international flight for almost ten hours and you haven't eaten or slept?" Jel asks.
We look at each other for a moment.
"Where abouts is the restroom?"
"I'll show him." Brad volunteers and as soon as they've gone, we all look at each other, wondering what we are going to do.
"Okay, I'll take charge. Zook and I are going to tennis in five minutes-" Jel thinks for a moment and then goes over and opens his tuck box. "Here, make him a toastie with the rest of my cheese. Ugly, do you have spare bed sheets in your closet?"
"I sure do."
"Zook and I will make him some food before we go. Ugly and TJ, make him up a bed."
Zook opens up his mouth to protest.
"We don't have a choice Zook. Who else in this dump is going to be nice to him?"
He has a point.
Half an hour later, Trent is has crashed in Gwebe's bed and Zook and Jel disappear off with Zook to train, leaving Henry and I to make awkward conversation. I think Brad may have gone to meet Lulu Every Tuesday afternoon they go to Orchestra together because apparently Brad now plays the piano. Jel and Zook train until 4:30 and we wait patiently, scoring, collecting tennis balls and running commentary. As they finish up, we see Adrian the arse, the captain of Tennis approaching and Henry and I suddenly wish we'd gone earlier.
We both turn around and pretend we've only just seen him.
"Us? Not them I mean?" Henry says and as soon as he's said it, he realises how much of a retard he sounds.
"Yes, you two, the boys who show up here almost everyday and never actually play any sport. "
Neither of us know what to say.
"I was wondering, as you frequent here so much, if you would be interested in being part of a novice tennis ladder?"
A novice what?
"Oh come on. You're put on a ladder and you play the people above you to work your way up and if you win, you go up. The two people at the top will play each other."
"How many ladders are there?"
"Two. One group meet on a Tuesday Night and the other on a Thursday."
He hands us a list with a group of scribbled names in two columns.
"I'm gonna go on Mondays." Henry says. "Cause I have extra Rugby on Thursday."
I take a good look at the list.
"Okay you can keep Gwebe company on Monday. I'll go on Thursday and make Brad come with me."
I don't think Henry sees my logic so I'll have to explain to it him later.
"YOU SUCK ZOOK!" Jel yells and Adrian just looks at them. Zook starts throwing tennis balls at Jel and chasing each other around.
"So mature, as always. Well I guess I will see you on Thursday Henry. I cannot contain my excitement."
Henry mutters something under his breath as Adrian strides away.
"I hate him. I really do. But I think he hates me more."
"Candice went out with him and dumped him in front of everyone. Also, Leo once helped pack up his room into suitcases and hide them around the house so when Adrian came back from wherever he was, his room was bare and he had to come and find all the suitcases."
I laugh maybe a bit too much.
"Why? Just why?"
"Year 9 Initiation. It's what they do in Gallagher."
Leo is Henry's oldest brother.
"I'm so glad he won't be here when Doug arrives."
And Doug and Verity are Henry's younger twin siblings.
"Let's get out of here?"
"Shouldn't we wait for Jel and Zook?"
"They're talking to Adrian about something and they can catch us up."
"So remind me why I'm suddenly baby sitting Gwebe?" Henry says we set off.
"Remember what we agreed on house exped?"
"Oh yeah." He murmurs, thinking for a moment and clearly having no idea.
"You know, the thing about setting them up in public without going out..."
"Oh yeah. I'm with you.
"So you see my logic with the whole Thursday, Monday, Gwebe-"
"Yup. I see it now. It's a plan."
"Hey losers! Wait for us!"
Jel and Zook come running and Zook jumps on Henry's back. We tell the plan on the way back and when we go in, Zook and I go into our room and Jel and Henry go across the corridor into theirs. I go to the toilet and when I come back, I hear Brad saying:
"You shouldn't slag her off like that."
Henry and Zook are sitting on Henry's bed and Brad is sitting in a huff in his chair.
"Trust you to say that Brad.!" Zook says and they both laugh.
"I mean it! Lulu is actually so nice and talented. She's one of the best musicians in the year and she's gonna go to music school one day. That's more than either of you. She's not just some sex object for you to slag off."
With that, Brad get's up and leaves. I climb onto my bed.
"He won't be saying that once they've-"
"I heard that!" Brad yells from the corridor. Zook laughs.
"Henry, shall we get ready for dinner?" Zook asks.
"Yeah, I'll go and find Jel."
"And Trent." I add.
"And Trent." Henry mutters to himself as he climbs down and heads across the corridor. Trent is still sleeping and he sleeps all the way through dinner and through housemeeting. At dinner, Zook is babbling on about how excited he is to be in the tennis tournament and how rubbish everyone else is. Jel isn't saying anything.
"And you know, none of them will be as nearly as good as those I beat last summer in the regionals. There was one guy Jel, oh my god, you should have seen his backhand..."
Zook keeps babbling and Jel smiles, pretending to listen.
"I'm gonna get some water, does anyone want some?"
"No thanks." We all say in sync. As soon as he's gone, Henry moves up to sit next to Jel.
"You got in, didn't you?" Henry whispers.
"What do you think?"
Jel doesn't say anything.
"He'll know you lied to him."
"Err Henry, you're sitting in my seat."
I think Zook knows something is up but doesn't say anything. In housemeeting, Rob is handing out what I assume are our house Letterman Sports Jacket that we ordered the weekend we had those reels with Mrs Lambert.
"Ben," Rob says, beckoning me over. "They had to change the nickname on yours. They shortened it to just TJ, is that alright?"
He hands it to me. It's white with red cuffs and on the back is emblazoned TJ and underneath in smaller letters it says:
Arkansas House. Est. 1984.
"I think TJ is a much better nickname for you." Jel says. And so TJ I became.
Poor Trent, much like I was, is thrown with maybe a bit too much vigour into life here but unlike me, he has spent the past few years mainly playing tennis so getting him into the habit of lessons again is going to be quite tricky. I don't think he appreciates either being woken up at 5:45 by Jel going to play tennis with Zook and then again at 6:45 by the rounds person. Cause Zook and Jel are out and Brad sleeps in his Dad's flat, it's my job to get Henry out of bed which is never fun. Despite the fact the light has been turned on, neither Henry or Trent want to get up. Even when I steal Henry's duvet, he still doesn't get up.
"Henry, do I have to squirt water on you? Come on. I'm hungry."
I've showered and dressed by the time Henry eventually sits up and I haven't started with Trent yet.
"Come on, I'm hungry."
"I heard you the first time."
"Then why didn't you get up?"
"I was going through the pros and cons of being lactose intolerant."
I'm too tired for this.
"God TJ, you're hopeless at this." Brad says, coming in and also ready for breakfast. "Ugly, get your fat arse out of bed! Now! And Trent! GET UP!"
We practically have to drag Trent by his toe and throw him in some our old uniform. He's only semi-conscious as we go to breakfast in the rain. We meet Zook and Jel at breakfast and everyone is really grouchy about something or other so we don't talk very much. In assembly, Mr Lambert our headmaster stands up after the hymn and announces the arrival of the tennis players.
"Now I just want to make it very clear that we are to make them as welcome as possible. They are as much part of this school as you are and you are to look after them as well as you can. Everyone who comes to visit always commends you on how welcoming and friendly you are and I want this to extend to the students from Allborough Tennis Academy as well."
Trent looks so angry that he lets the hymn book he's holding crash to the ground and everyone in our pews turns to look at him.
"Welcome my ARSE." he mutters. After Assembly, Jel disappears with India after caus she was crying again so the four of us take Trent to the director of curriculum, a really scary women called Mrs Foster to sort out his timetable. Then we head off to English, still lots of angry vibes in the air. Henry seems particularly cross and as we get into English, he checks his phone and goes from cross to angry.
"You've done what Zook?"
Zook doesn't meet his eye contact as he sits down.
"It's my decision Henry!"
Zook never calls Henry by his real name so things must be bad.
"Are you trying to ruin your life?"
Jel comes in and sits down.
"Guys. Chill. We'll talk about this later."
Our teacher comes around, looking for the prep. We all give it in, apart from Zook.
"This isn't good enough Zachary. This is the second time this has happened I'll give you one chance to get it into me by 5 PM other wise it's detention. . You need to get yourself together Zachary and sort yourself out, You really do."
That sets the tone for the rest of the day. From that point until the beginning of fourth period, I've never seen things so tense in Arkansas. Second period I have chemistry which I have with Henry but we sit in twos and he sits right across the room from me. I love chemistry, it's one of the only things I'm good at. The girl next to me, I've never seen before in my life and I think she doesn't want to be friends at all but I know she copies my work.
"Right, before you get your test results back, who can tell me how to test for the difference between an alkane and an alkene?"
I don't put my hand up when I know I should.
"Middleton-Jones, do you know?"
The whole class turn around. Mr Bradshaw just looks at me.
"Errr...using bromine water. The alkenes will turn bromine water colourless cause of the double bond but it stays brown if it's an alkane cause there is no double bond."
He brings out a pile of papers.
"Maybe you should have written that then."
He brings over the test I did last week and places it on my desk. There is a massive D scrawled in red.
"Poor performance Middleton Jones. You should be getting an A."
I want to rip up and throw it in his face.
"Right, you can look over them later. Put your lab coats and goggles on."
We do just that and we work it so the copying girl next to me and Henry and India are working next to each other. Henry and India seems to hate each other with a passion and can not agree on one thing, not even the test tube their supposed to be using.
"I think it's your turn to measure out the bromine water."
"No it's your go!"
"No, I did it last time!"
"God! You're difficult to work with!"
"Oh, I'm difficult to work with?"
Henry sigh's heavily.
"Fine! If you won't do anything to help, I'll go and get the alkane!"
On his way back, I make eye contact with me and rolls his eyes.
"God. I hate her so much." He whispers. He's about to say something else when he notices the girl next to me.
"Hey Abbie. Long time no see."
She just looks at him.
I think Henry is so done with today and it's only just gone ten.
"Look TJ. Don't mention anything to Brad."
"About the thing with Zook?"
Out of the corner of my eye, Abbie's eyes flicker towards us.
"Yeah. Don't say anything."
. So I don't. The morning continues to pass without much more drama and at lunch, Trent joins us but Jel doesn't. Jel is so lucky cause he has so many other friends to go to but we are still forced to hang out with each other. Luckily, Trent has ten million questions about this place so Zook and Henry don't have to talk to each other. Brad is sitting with Lulu and her friends and Jel is sitting at a different table with his lads.
"I need to go. I'll see you guys later."
Zook picks up his tray and Henry copies him.
"Yeah we'll see you guys back at the house."
I notice Jel follow them out, leaving just Trent and I.
"I feel like I'm really missing something."
"Trust me, that make's two of us."
"So they didn't tell you either?"
"God no. I've only been here since the middle of February. Those three have known each other for years."
"So a lot of history."
"And what about Brad? Where does he come in? He just seems to chasing that girl all the time."
"He wasn't always. When I arrived, he was the nerd of the group and I think he is trying to change that. Let's go?"
We put our trays up and head into the rain.
"Well if I suppose if Mr H is your dad, you'd do anything to be someone who isn't him." Trent says.
"Oh my god. Is Mr H his dad?"
"How did you not see that? It's so obvious."
That makes me SO much sense.
"It explains why Brad is so afraid to do wrong and why he is so afraid of authority."
"TJ, who is Candice?"
I stop and look at him.
"Well I met her in the lunch queue and she asked me if I was her friend on facebook and I said no. Then she said she'd message me. And she has."
"What did she want?"
"She wants me to teach her tennis."
I stop outside the door to Arkansas.
"Look. She may not be looking for tennis."
"What do you mean?"
"Just be careful."
I put the code into the door into Arkansas and we step into CC.
"Please, don't agree."
I turn around to break the silence.
"You've agreed to it haven't you?"
He avoids my gaze. I sigh heavily.
"Well in that case, we're not going to tell Henry."
"Because Candice is his sister."
As we go up the stairs, we are greeted by the sound of raised voices.
"You promised you wouldn't drop out!" we hear Jel saying, continuing to raise his voice.
"I'm not going in it because there is no point! I've told you this already! Christ Jel! You know I'm going to get nothing from it!"
"Oh that's what you think is it-"
"Look Zook, just stop acting the victim okay!" Henry yells.
The voices stop.
"You're not a victim anymore so why are you acting like one! Nothing is stopping you and you could win this whole goddam tournament if you got your shit together!"
Then there is silence. Trent looks so confused.
"Jesus christ Zook. It's not where you come but where you go from there." Jel says. "Why do you care so much about what people think of your background? They're never going to know. No-one is going to steal your glory. I promise."
At dinner, everything is as normal.
"Have you spoken to Val recently?" Henry asks.
"Henry, you know I don't talk to Val unless I absolutely have to. I think she's heard on the grapevine that Gwebe and Ivy are very into each other and so she's not pleased at all."
"Are these people actually into each other?" Trent asks. We shake our heads.
"Then how are you going to make them into each other?" Trent asks, poking his fork around his beef wellington. Then he pushes it away.
"Well, I suppose if absolutely everyone tells you something, including your best friend, it eventually becomes a reality. Who are you more likely to believe, what the masses are fed and what they tell you or what one loser like Gwebe denies quietly. If everyone tells Ivy that Gwebe likes her, she'll eventually start to believe him and who knows, she may feel like she has to go out with him." I say.
"So manipulation of the masses-"
"Oh my god, Candice. What the hell-"
"Not you Stumpy. Trent, you owe me a game."
"What? You and-"
"Don't worry Stumpy. It's nothing serious. Trent is teaching me how to play. Come on."
And with that, they disappear off, arms around each other.
"Now that is weird." Henry mutters. I have a feeling nothing good is going to come of this.
"Right losers, are we off?"
"Yeah let's go."
We head back to house, our nicknames in red emblazoned against the white so everyone driving down the drive can see. And that includes Mr H who deliberately makes us part so he can drive through and yells out of his window.
"GET OFF THE ROAD! OR I'LL GROUND YOU!"
"Charming, as ever." Jel mutters.
"Why did nobody tell me he was Brad's dad?"
They all look at me.
"Come on TJ, how did you know that? You've been here for months."
"Yeah Jel's right, how did you not know?"
"You should have seen the look on his face when Trent told him."
"Okay Henry. And Zook and Jel, for your information, this shock and surprise you but I don't actually talk to Brad very much."
"Trust me TJ, these days, none of us do."
"Now, about these plans for Friday..." Jel says as he drapes an arm around Zook's shoulders and
with that, we turn up the road into Arkansas until we go round the elbow until we're completely out of sight of the road.
At 7pm check in that evening, Mr H stands up.
"Now, there is something I want to announce. Is Jel here?"
The whole house looks at him.
Jel clambers off the piano.
"I would like everyone to give Jel a round of applause for getting into the final stage of the tennis tournament. Apart from Zook, he is the only one who has made it through."
Everyone claps and cheers and someone wolf whistles. Zook clambers off the piano and shrugs the tennis racket off his back. I'm guessing Jel gave it to him. Zook presses the racket into Jel's arms.
"Not gonna steal my glory huh?"
Jel doesn't respond.
Zook storms out. So Jel did lie. And to do what? The noise dissolves into silence. The silence fills the air. In that moment, I see how Jel and Henry and Zook's friendship was more fragile than I ever realised and could be destroyed in an instant. We head back to our rooms about and there's a knock on the door about 20 minutes later. Jel has been about twice to try and apologise and Zook has spent most of that time hiding in the cupboard and of course, I have to pretend I don't know where he is.
""TJ, can you see who it is? If it's Jel, tell him I don't want to talk to him."
I go up and open it just a crack. Jel is standing there. I shut the door and beckon Jel down the corridor. Then we head into the toilets; the best place to go for a private chat.
"Jel, I think he's gonna need a day or two." I say, leaning against the sinks.
"Do you think he'll come around?"
"Well, you know him better than I do. Has this happened before?"
Jel reties up his hair.
"Once or twice. But we've never argued about tennis. Never like this."
Jel puts his head in his hands.
"What am I going to do? I didn't want any of this. I just signed up because I like tennis. I wish sometimes there was a button that you could press to choose to how people will react if you make a bad choice. If would make my life so much easier. I would be so much more in control."
This is the longest conversation Jel and I have ever had just the two of us. I get a message from Henry telling me that him and Zook have gone down to the computer room. I don't tell Jel.
"You know when I arrived, I came from the smallest town in remote Alabama and I went from being the one mixed race kid in the area that everyone was too afraid to speak. Damn rednecks. And then I came here and I suddenly what felt like the whole world wanting to be my friend. Do you have any idea what that feels like?"
He looks at me. I shake my head.
"Any idea to what's it like to become the most powerful person in the year in 24 hours? I could control anyone I wanted to and get away with it."
"Are you not still the most powerful person?"
"I don't know TJ. I don't know anything anymore."
Jel and I had no idea that this was the only beginning.
"All I know is that I have to use this power for good."
I realised then in that moment that everyone has a different perception of what's 'good'.
"Right I'm going back to revise for our mocks next week-"
I make my way towards the door.
I have a flashback of one my first days and Jel talking about how his language of love is physical touch. I know what would make him feel better.
"Would you like a hug?"
"You known TJ, I never though I'd hear you offer that."
"Trust me, I'm more surprised than you are."
I have never given a guy apart from my dad a hug before. I greet everyone with a firm handshake. A few weeks ago, I would have never ever done this. I go in for it and Jel seems to be the bear hug type which I find very alarming.
"There, is that better?"
"Much better. Thank you."
I pat him on the back. I'm finding this so awkward. God. Why did I offer to do this.
"Oh by the way. I'm thinking of having a party at the end of August at my cousins house near Edinburgh. Would you like to come?"
"You bet I would. Thank you so much."
I let him go.
"But I shouldn't be first on your invite list. Ok, I'm going to go and revise. Jel, you're not alone in this. Don't forget that." Then I leave him and go back down the corridor. I know Henry is going to have choose a side soon. Then the year 12's all yell at us to keep it down on our corridor. In the midst of the commotion, of all of Jel's lies to Zook, Henry's lies of whose side he is on and Brad's lies about Lulu, I meet Trent in the corridor at 8:30. He's showered and wearing very strong cologne. He's got two tennis rackets slung over his back.
"Trent?" I call down the corridor. "Are you-"
He presses a finger to his lips and disappears off, down the corridor and out of sight.
To this day Nat, I have never confessed to Henry things could have been different if I had learnt my lesson.That was how I became a proper member of Arkansas I guess; I lied to protect myself about something so trivial. I lied that I hadn't seen Trent. We were all hedonists and liars in Arkansas and now I was one of them. But I was part of something; I was someone other than the loser I was in Filey. And that was honestly, the best feeling in the world.