‘Easy word. I mean, come on, man----- how can she get it wrong?’ Mikey whispered fiercely.
‘Let it rest, you know what her temper is like,’ I whispered back.
I elbowed Mikey. Gently, because my twin brother wasn’t very strong.
Some lads had caught our whispers. They were giggling behind hands clamped to their mouths. It only needed Miss Clutterbuck to turn around and, once again, Mikey would be in trouble for being a wise guy.
Suddenly Mikey began breathing in little gasps. It sometimes happened when he was upset. He had chronic asthma. Why should such a small thing upset him? No idea. That’s Mikey for you.
He spoke again in my ear, wheezing like a broken harmonica.
‘Hey, Mattie. Think of the guys whose spelling isn’t so hot. They’ll think it’s right......’
‘Why should you care? Just shut it, will ya!’
Too late. Miss Clutterbuck had turned around and noticed the little island of unrest in the spreading sea of faces. She went quite still. Only her eyes moved, probing this way and that, twin missile launchers seeking a target.
‘Yesssssss?’ she hissed.
I could almost see wisps of steam escaping from the missile loading bays. Complete silence. High tension.
It was Gavin who cracked first.
‘Please, Miss, it’s Mikey. He says potato should not have an “e” at the end.’
Miss Clutterbuck’s head snapped towards the whiteboard. A tide of pink seeped upwards from her neck.
‘Does he now! I know what. Would you like to come and teach, Mikey? Obviously I’m not very good at it.’
Mikey squirmed. A titter swept across the classroom. Miss Clutterbuck banged the whiteboard duster on her desk once, twice. The tittering stopped.
Much to our surprise the lesson then went on as if nothing had happened. It wasn’t at all like Miss Clutterbuck to forgive so easily. Curiously she didn’t correct her spelling of potato. I remember thinking that this was not a good sign.
After a while the lesson ended. Miss Clutterbuck gathered up her papers. She tossed a shapeless cardigan over one arm. Then, just before she disappeared around the door she paused, looked back, and I could almost hear the air sizzle as she threw Mikey a scorching glance.
‘Uh-oh, She’s got it in for you now, pal,’ I murmured.
But Mikey had already seen it. His usually pale face had gone even paler. From his pocket he took out his Ventolin inhaler and gave himself a good, long blast.
‘Look what she’s done to me, dammit,’ he muttered as tiny clouds of vapour popped around his head.
‘Yeah, well. It’s your own fault. You couldn’t leave it be, could you.’
Ignoring the hurt look in my brother’s eyes, I turned and walked away.
‘See ya,’ I added over my shoulder.
I headed for a group of guys I sort of knew but didn’t really hang out with much. They were standing beneath a gnarled old tree that I knew had several hiding places. Chiko, the human chimney, was holding a lit fag behind his back. With the other hand he was replacing a disposable lighter in a convenient woody hollow. “Dippy” Patterson gave me a watery stare as he knocked something back from a cloudy plastic bottle. I caught an unpleasant whiff; it reminded me of my mum’s nail polish remover.
‘Oi, Matto, you got a quid?’ he called. ‘I ain’t had no breakfast this morning, see.’
‘Nope.’ I shook my head automatically.
“Lumper” Johnson gave me a gap-toothed grin. He had lost two front teeth tripping over while being chased for shoplifting from a music shop. Frankly I didn’t know why I even bothered with them.
Anyway, their conversation soon became boastful and obscene, and I got the impression that I was supposed to join in their coarse, moronic laughter. What finally made me leave was when Lumper began showing me a picture of a kitten that he had printed off. Apparently it was the new family pet. I looked up from the picture. That soppy imbecile Lumper had such a stomach-churning grin pasted on his face that it was all I could do not to throw up.
‘Very cute,’ I managed as I pushed the grimy-edged photo away from under my nose. ‘Mind you don’t sit on the poor animal, won’t you, Lump. Bye, chaps.’
With this I wandered off vaguely.
I found myself drawn towards the gym.
Sure enough, just outside the gym was the very fit Allegra with her friends. I lay down on the grass. Today her chestnut hair looked all on fire in the sun. Not that she would ever notice me, Mr Average. But that didn’t stop me from dreaming.......
I was on a Kawasaki 1200cc with Allegra’s arms around my waist. “Faster, Matt, faster,” she whispered in my ear. I gunned the throttle and the Kawasaki leaped into the air. “Wow!” breathed Allegra. “Matt, you’re amazing.” “Matt.....Matt.....”
‘Yeah?’ I looked around dreamily.
Allegra had vanished. Instead, slap bang in my line of vision was no other than short-ass Nigel.
‘What is it?’ I snapped at the little nerd.
‘Er....Matt, it’s Mikey. I don’t think he looks right.’
‘Whaddya mean you don’t think he looks right? You think maybe he needs a cosmetic surgeon, yeah?’
Nigel fidgeted with a key ring that had a little plastic dog dangling from it.
‘Um....no. You know, he’s looking poorly. I couldn’t find nurse. The sick room door was locked.’
I sprang to my feet with a prickle of alarm running down my spine.
‘Okay, where is he?’
Nigel turned his back on me and began running. I resisted a sudden urge to plant a foot in his backside. It was worrying to think about all the time he had wasted first looking for the school nurse and then searching for me.
‘Hurry up, Nige. Mikey has asthma,’ I yelled from behind.
Nigel’s little legs pumped harder.
Mikey was sitting propped up against an outside wall. I was shocked. I had seen him looking poorly before, but never this bad. His face was grey and puffy and his eyes were all groggy. All his energy was concentrated in drawing enough air into his lungs. There was nothing funny about the musical noise from his chest now; it was just plain scary.
‘Where’s your inhaler?’ I demanded as I squatted down beside him.
‘D....doesn’t do any good,’ Mikey wheezed.
‘Is it empty?’
‘No, it’s full.’
‘Do you think he’s dying?’ piped Nigel from behind.
‘How the heck should I know?’ I yelled at the poor guy. I must admit that he had me spooked. The very same thought had just flashed through my brain.
‘Look, you stay with him, Nige. I’ll go get help,’ I added in a softer tone.
Leaving Nigel sitting beside Mikey I ran into the school building. There was plenty of noise coming from the Staff Common Room. It was crowded with teachers, big, fat, thin and small. Quite naturally they, too, were letting off steam after lesson time, perhaps more than was spiralling up from the tea urns on the tables.
‘Excuse me.......?’ I called.
No one heard.
Then I heard the clip-clop of high heels down the corridor. I was in luck. It was Miss Clutterbuck, she was coming for a cup of tea. This was great, because apart from being our English teacher she was also our class teacher. Mikey was her responsibility first.
I ignored her suspicious stare.
‘Please, Miss, it’s Mikey. He doesn’t look well. I don’t know what to do. I.......’
‘If he’s unwell then take him to the sick room. What do you think I can do for him?’ she snapped. ‘In fact why hasn’t he gone there already? He seems more than clever enough at other times, doesn’t he.’
‘But Miss.......’ I went on as she turned to go, ‘nurse isn’t there. The sick room is locked.’
Miss Clutterbuck whirled towards me.
‘You know, Matt, I’ve a notion he’s not nearly so bad as he’s making out to be. He’s always making a fuss about little things, that one. Attention seeking, that’s what it is. Well, I’ve had it up to here with him today. I need a cup of tea. You lot have given me a right headache.’
‘Miss, you’re wrong. He isn’t......’
‘Yes, I’m always wrong, aren’t I.’
With that Miss Clutterbuck stepped into the Common Room and slammed the wooden doors in my face.