The Saturday morning kick-about soccer practice had degenerated into a free-for-all whinge fest, Peter thought.
“There’s just no point, wearing ourselves to the bloody bone,” Philip Colbert said, aiming a half-hearted kick at the ball and sending it bouncing and splashing through the puddles between the goal posts. “Not while Southfield’s got that bent ref on their side!”
They hadn’t bothered to put up the net, so ball bounced erratically away across the soggy grass behind the goal. Martin Drake, their temporary goalie, trotted after it.
“Get a move on, Marty!” Peter yelled. He turned back to the mutinous faces of his team. “Look,” he said. “I know that ref favored his own side a bit. But it’s one thing to lose because of some bad calls, and something else to lose because of bad play. If you lot don’t put in a lot more effort then old Big-Bat’s going to pull us out of the match against Eastfield College and then we’ll be screwed for the inter-school cup. And don’t you start, Ginge!”
Geoffrey “Ginger” Brammington, their striker, had flushed practically the colour of his hair. “I’d like to screw them for the bloody cup!” he snarled. “That Wetherhall lot! They knew that first goal was offside! And that poncey centre forward!” He smacked one big, freckled fist into his open palm. “I’d fix him!”
“And get banned for the rest of the season!” Peter hated sounding like Mr Higgatt’s echo, but it was the truth. “Come on, Ginge. You came that close to sitting it out on the bench last time.”
Marty came trotting up at last and, grumbling, the team dispersed to take up their positions. “Trouble?” he asked as he handed Peter the muddy ball. He was a small, wiry boy with dirty blond hair that continually flopped over one eye. Barely chest-high to the other players, he was too small to be their regular goalie, or, as Ginge usually put it, “built like a girl.” He only got to play when they were practicing five-a-side like this.
Peter grunted. “That last match. You were there. What do you think?”
Marty looked down, his hair flopping over his mud-spattered face as he kicked at the sodden pitch. “I, I think you did really well, heading Ginge off like that. Or he’d have been sitting on the bench with me.” He sounded nervous, the way he always did when asked to express an opinion. Behind him, Ginger scowled.
“Yeah, well.” As always, Peter felt awkward in the face of the younger boy’s praise. Peter wondered, seriously, if he should dump Marty from the team: or at least issue an ultimatum, sickie-wise. He had a gnawing suspicion that his decision to keep Marty wasn’t really best for the team, and had a lot more to do with his own, disgraceful &hellipse; urges.
Not that he was a poof, or anything. Sure, yeah, he checked out his mates in the changing rooms. Gotta keep tabs on the competition, right? And sure, you’d got to join in the horseplay: team spirit and all that. As the captain you had to be careful to join in and be mates: more so, even, to show you weren’t stuck up or anything. Oh, not arse-bandit territory; just mucking about. Slap a guy’s arse, or grab for his goodies if he’s waving ‘em around too much. Fit, horny teenage guys got wood all the time; surest way to get spotted as a homo was not to look, not to join in and just stand there in a fit of pansy prevarication. Get you spotted every time, that would.
But Marty was different. Peter knew he noticed Marty. Oh not just the regular cock and bum noticing, no. He noticed the way Marty’s curly hair brushed the nape of his neck. He noticed the shape of his elbows for fuck’s sake, and he seriously had to watch himself when Marty talked to him. He had the softest, biggest brown eyes he’d ever seen — fuck! they made bloody Bambi look squinty-eyed. He could seriously lose track of conversations when those eyes dragged him in, and he’d find himself re-checking the pattern of the freckles that straddled Marty’s cute little nose to see if he’d got a new one.
He could sometimes pull back then, but if he didn’t, Peter knew he’d be watching those sweet pink lips. It was kind of reassuring that Marty’s lips gave him a hard-on whenever he looked at them. Blow-jobs meant he was thinking about girls, so it was a welcome relief from the queer-zone he knew he, well, he’d gotta be skirting, at least. The problem – the real heart and home of the problem was that recently, just sometimes, he was thinking about kissing those lips, and that was right next door to, well, kissing a boy, wasn’t it? The great neon-pink centre-tushie of Queerdom, that was. He might as well braid his hair and skip around the school humming show-tunes.
Peter blinked, realizing he’d lost it again. “You better get back in goal, then,” Marty,” he said, his voice coming out rougher than he’d intended. “That way we can get on.”
Marty flinched like he’d been slapped, and turned away, which maybe was just as well: Peter could feel the smile he’d winched up onto his own face for the bad fake it was. When he saw Marty give that flinch when he was talking to someone else, Peter had to hold back the red tide: he got this terrible urge to rush over there and belt the third party a good one while bellowing to watch the language, see? The kid’s delicate. Which was stupid on two counts: One, being the equivalent of donning a neon-pink muscle shirt with a big diamante “F” on the chest, and Two: yelling around Marty could scare him practically foetal. Just another of his cute little freakinesses.
Peter looked up at the hurrying grey clouds as he plashed towards the centre of the pitch. Another ten, fifteen minutes practice at most, he judged, before the rain got too bad. Oh well – an early hot shower would improve everyone’s mood.
In fact the rain held off for almost another half hour. Long enough for Dave and Phil to get into an argument, and for Baz to stir it, as usual; long enough for Antonio to try a trick-shot and mis-kick it into the drainage ditch, to high-fives from Leroy and “Sugar” Ray Williams and jeers from everyone else. Then, finally, the guys buckled down to burn off some of their resentment and started playing properly again.
The occasional rain spots were just thickening into a steady drizzle falling from the heavy dark clouds when Ginge lined up and loosed one of his “cannon ball” shots so feared by the goalkeepers of other schools. It skimmed across the muddy grass, and, rising to waist height at exactly the right time, knocked Marty completely off his feet.
Peter glared at Ginge, who looked back, radiating innocence.
“What?” Ginge spread his big, freckled hands wide.
“You bloody well know what!” Peter said, still glaring. It seemed a good point to end the practice. “Everyone back and get showered – we’ll follow on. Somebody get the ball,” he growled, walking over to where Marty sprawled in the mud, gasping.
“You okay?” Peter asked.
It beat him why Marty stubbornly hung on as their sub. The youngest kid on the team, he was so small he would always be at a speed disadvantage. He seemed to have a bit of natural talent — quick, good with the ball; such a neat little fox-terrier of a tackler.
The trouble was he just wasn’t reliable enough. He’d just be getting his attendance up, and then suddenly he’d pull a sickie, It was weird: he said he was “just clumsy” — had the bruises to show it, too — but all that just seemed to disappear on the pitch: fucking ballet with the ball he could do, when he put his mind to it.
Yeah, if he could get his sickies down to where he’d ever be allowed off the bench, sure – but the team would just turn to crap if they allowed the “turn up when you feel like it” sickie-culture to spread to other team members. Couldn’t Marty see that? Sometimes he just wanted to grab Marty’s shoulders and shake him ‘til his pea-brain rattled.
“Here.” Peter extended his hand. Marty hesitated, then gripped his forearm. Peter shivered as he similarly gripped Marty’s forearm: just like a biker-gang handshake, he told himself, nothing queer about it. Even through the rough cotton of his football shirt, Peter was sure he could feel he warmth of Marty’s fingers: tingles radiating from where he touched.
Roughly, he hauled the smaller boy to his feet. Marty stood, legs shaking, half hunched over. His face was fish-belly white and he couldn’t seem to get his breath.
Peter swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. He looked left and right, checking that the other boys were out of earshot. “You okay, Marty?” he asked, keeping his voice low. Fuck! he hated this. When one of the other players got a rough tackle, or bollixed something up he — well, he was the captain, and a mate too: of course he checked they were okay. But when Marty got hurt, it was different: more personal, like. He tried not to let on though — nothing wrecked a team quicker than a captain playing favorites.
He looked at Marty’s slight figure, still hearing the thump of leather on tender flesh, and his mouth seemed to operate on autopilot. “You can just get out of the way, you know — it’s only practice,” he said.
Martin jerked his arm out of his grip and scowled at him. “Only practice?” he said, incredulous. “You wouldn’t say that to any of them!”
“Well, no, but-” Peter began. It was true: he wouldn’t. It was the sort of thing his mum would say, right after she’d said it was only a game. He’d meant to say he didn’t want Ginge practicing his cannon-ball specials on other team members, but that sounded soft now, too.
“You really don’t think I’ll ever be good enough to play then?” Marty’s voice trembled. “Or is it just you think I’m a soft girl, too — a sissy?”
Peter tried to keep his voice reasonable, but he could hear the frustration creeping through: “I keep telling you – if you get your sickies down, you can play!” he said.
Marty did his little duck-and-retreat thing, and Peter tried not to grind his teeth: it was like he expected Peter to hit him; like he was accusing him, or something. Didn’t he have any idea how much that hurt? Well, okay — maybe not: Marty didn’t have a whole lot of friends to practice hurt on. At lunch he sat by himself; kept to himself generally. Straight “A” student — he’d once got a “B+” in French and skipped school for a week; sickies for two weeks more. Peter had totally, finally told Marty that he wasn’t pulling his chestnuts out of the fire if he pulled that again, and Marty had practically gone catatonic.
Thinking it over later, Peter had reasoned that out. The little kid was pure bully-bait. It was only the team rule that anyone clobbering one team member could expect to be clobbered in return by the whole team that kept the kid from being a Marty-shaped smear on the playground.
“You do!” Marty said. “You think I’m soft!”
“Well stop whining like a girl, then!” Peter snapped, pulling his hand away. The mud had spattered up Marty’s neck, he noticed, and there was a gritty brown triangular smear across his smooth, creamy skin where he’d pushed his hair back. He dragged his gaze away, willing himself not to imagine it dissolving under the pelting crystal drops of the shower. “You know the rules,” he said, harshly. “Just fucking follow them like everyone else and stop thinking you’re some kind of fucking special case!”
“You don’t — I mean, I thought-” Marty gulped, wounded Bambi eyes wide.
“What?” Peter felt his gut clench up. He hadn’t meant to snarl.
“I thought, with you helping me and everything, I thought you liked me—”
Was the kid accusing him of being a fucking poofter, or what? “You’re part of the team!” Peter said, loudly, stepping back. “That’s all! And sometimes, I fucking wonder about that, too!”
“You know what?” Marty said, his voice trembling, “you can stuff your bloody team! Why don’t you just fuck off, all of you! Just fuck off!” He turned and pelted off across the sodden pitch, only to spin around at the touch-line. “I hate you, Pete,” he yelled, his voice hoarse, “you fuckin’ LIAR!”
Peter stood numb as the roar of animal pain echoed round the pitch. Way to go, Marty, he thought. Two poofs having a love spat. Fuckin’ tell everybody, why don’t you? His stomach clenched into a numb fist in his middle and his shuddering heart pushed up into his throat so that his protest emerged only as a weak rattle of breath.
The other players hadn’t recovered the ball. Muttering, Peter slogged out and retrieved it from the mud lagoon it had rolled into, and then walked slowly back across the muddy pitch through the thickening downpour. The rain was now so heavy that he could barely make out the small, ugly, green-painted building that stood isolated in the middle of the council playing fields.
He tilted his head up, glad of the cooling rain on his heated face. The teachers grumbled about the inconvenience of the school having only a small, asphalted playing area as though shepherding the boys the ten minute walk to the park here was some kind of ordeal. Boys from the other schools complained too, saying that it was unfair having one team playing the whole time on the pitch where the finals were held.
Peter just wished old Higgatt would quit giving everyone earache telling them what a privilege it was being allowed out of the school grounds and how he, Peter, was responsible for the team’s behaviour. Sometimes he felt like handing his key back and telling them all to stuff it.
When he finally stepped into the hot, steamy changing room, the first thing Peter saw was the pale, lanky figure of Ginge, towel wrapped around his middle, the centre of an accusing circle of players. Marty seemed lost in his own little world, struggling out of his mud-soaked shirt with jerky, angry movements, his beautiful eyes like blank brown stones in his wet face.
Peter swallowed, wanting to go over there, but couldn’t think of a way to phrase his apology that wouldn’t sound like two poofters making up after a love-spat. Fuck! he thought. Maybe later, in private. Good idea to let him calm down, anyway. A nice hot shower, relax, mellow out. Maybe some of the guys would joke with him a bit: Marty really liked that whole family-team thing. Like when Baz had teased him about being short, and Leroy had, without a word, simply lifted the little kid up onto his shoulders and they’d chased Baz around the changing room until he’d submitted to Marty giving him a noogie from his new, superior height.
Peter realized he was staring and yanked his gaze away, feeling his face heat up. Marty always did that to him: he’d look away, and then not be able to think about anything but not looking.
He’d spend the whole time remembering all the occasions he’d looked before; the exact way that Marty would always tuck his socks into his boots; or the way he turned his head, or the way his ribs kind of spread out beneath his skin when he reached up. Then, after a while he’d realize he was looking again and have to look away, or turn around to stop himself looking again.
He got this jittery warmth in his gut, and an urge to put his arms around the smaller boy — just to check he was alright, like. Nothing poofy: he wasn’t looking at Marty like he was a girl; like Ginge said poofters did. Marty was all boy: he’d seen every muddy inch of him, and could see it again any time he wanted just by closing his eyes. Not that he wanted to, of course.
Peter sighed. In a way it would be better to get Marty off the team: in the kid’s presence he was turning into a total bloody basket case. He’d have done it too, if it wasn’t the same thing as handing the kid a fucking death sentence. One of these days Mr. Higgatt was gonna exercise the veto he had over all team members as sports master and yank this increasingly hot potato out of Peter’s hands.
“All right, all right!” Ginge said, his voice loud and irritated. “I’ll go say sorry. It was only a bloody joke!”
“Don’t bother!” Marty said, stuffing his kit into a his bag. “I’m out of here!” He glared at Ginge. “And don’t look so fucking pleased with yourself – you didn’t do it.” He turned, and Peter suddenly found himself the target of the hardest gaze he’d ever met. “He did!” Marty said, pointing. In the startled silence, he stretched up to take his shirt down off the peg and began trying to put it on, ignoring the muddy finger marks he was smearing over it. Peter could see his hands were shaking.
A heartbeat later, Peter felt Phil grab his arm, dragging him into a corner. “What the fuck did you go fire him for? We fucking need him!” he hissed.
Peter had drawn breath to deny the charge, but the urgency in Phil’s voice startled him. “What the hell, Phil? I thought you didn’t believe in lucky mascots!” Too late, he thought what Marty might make of that if he was listening. He looked over Phil’s shoulder, but Marty, his clothes and his soccer kit were all gone. He must’ve run out half-dressed into the rain.
Phil was shaking his arm. “It’s not that stupid mascot thing,” he said. “Antonio’s got a plan to fix that bent ref. At least,” he continued, glaring at Ginge. “We did have a plan, before mastermind here fucked it up!”
Peter gave Phil an irritated look. “Well, you haven’t exactly been the welcoming arms of brotherhood yourself, dickhead! I bloody know it was you snipped the elastic in Marty’s shorts last term!” The image still burned in his memory. Marty, bent over; his round, pale little buns, framed by athletic straps and looking so smooth as he bent to pick up his fallen soccer shorts. The sight popped back into Peter’s mind when he whacked off. Sometimes.
Angry, Peter gave Phil a shove. “Okay,” he said, eying the cluster of players gathering behind Phil. “So tell me about this fabulous plan, and why Marty would want to do a single fucking thing to help us now.”
Antonio laughed, flicking his long, curly dark hair back over his shoulders. With his trained body, dark eyes and smooth olive skin, he was model handsome, and he knew it: he’d be football’s gift to female fans if he had more than the meager bit of talent he actually had.
Peter was glad he was on the team though: it was comforting. Half the fucking pansies in the school hung around the sidelines drooling over Antonio, and the other half were probably round the back of the bike sheds whacking off while they thought about him. Yet week after week with Pretty Boy stark bollock naked in the same room with him, it was Marty he kept staring at. Therefore he, Peter, couldn’t be a bender. Simple.
Antonio did have a genuinely nice smile though, and Peter felt butterflies in his stomach as it was directed at him.
“Oh, that’s easy,” Antonio said. “Marty’d do anything if you asked him.” His perfect smile widened. “What, you hadn’t realized he’s a poof?”
“Christ!” Ginge sounded disgusted. “And he’s been fucking changing with us!”
“Oh, shut your arse, Ginge!” Phil said, glaring. “He hasn’t been ogling your furry orange balls – that’s what ‘Tonio was saying: he’s stuck on Pete, see?” He looked at Peter and shrugged. “Sorry, mate.”
Peter realized his mouth was hanging open and closed it. “Fuck!” he said, ignoring Ginge’s look of sympathy. “But I still don’t see how this helps with that ref though,” he added, anxious to get the subject off his sex life.
Antonio shrugged. “Well, it isn’t just that ref’s ethics that are bent, if you get my drift.”
“And how the fuck would you know that, pretty-boy?” Ginge demanded. “Oh.” He flushed. “Christ! They’re fucking everywhere!”
“Well, I’m glad you’re not!” Baz said, coming up behind them, his black hair sticking up in spikes from where he’d been drying it. “The fewer stupid bastards like you around breeding, the better!”
“Oi! Pack it in you two!” Peter said. “You can’t be serious, ‘Tonio. You don’t seriously imagine you could set that ref up?”
“Not me!” Antonio turned his hands palms up, shrugging. “He wouldn’t believe it after I smacked him in the balls, but-”
“Hey! No wonder he fucking had it in for us!” Baz said, grinning, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief. “Darn, ‘Tonio — if you swung even a little that way-” He paused from wiping down his long lean body to lightly punch Antonio’s arm.
”-but all Marty would have to do,” Antonio said, ignoring Baz and raising his voice over the hubbub, ”-would be to get that old perv to put his hand on his arse – or even on his shoulders, depending. My dad’s got a Polaroid camera: bingo!”
“So, what d’you reckon?” Phil asked. “C’mon Pete – if we can’t straighten that ref out, we’ve had it.”
“Fuck that!” Ginge said, screwing up his face in disgust. “Listen to yerself! Would you go chum up with an arse bandit, just for the fuckin’ inter-school cup? You wouldn’t catch me within a mile of ‘im!”
“You mean you wouldn’t do it, or you just wouldn’t get caught?” Baz flicked Ginge on the arm and fluttered his lashes. “Something you need to tell us, sailor boy?” he said, to a chorus of laughs.
Ginge went so pale it looked as if his freckles darkened. “Keep yer fuckin’ hands to yourself!” he yelled, backing away from Baz, who grinned wickedly and resumed toweling himself down. Baz had a lean, rangy, runner’s body, lightly dusted with dark hair on his legs and a thick black bush around his cock.
Peter jumped as Baz’s blue gaze turned to him. Caught! But Baz just sighed. “Okay, captain: I’ll lay off Ginge. But what are you gonna do about Marty?”
“I dunno.” Peter shifted uneasily. “What do you mean ‘do’, exactly? You mean you blokes want him back? In here?”
Leroy spoke up from the back, combing his dreadlocks through his fingers. “It don’t bother me,” he said. “What?” he said, looking around. “Sure, stateside we got people got a thing against fags, but I thought you Brits was cooler’n that, right Sugar Ray?”
It was odd to see Sugar Ray eye his buddy that way. Peter wasn’t sure, but it looked like he took a tiny step back, or at least wanted to. “Uh, I dunno,” he said, and it was the first time Peter had heard him speak without his wannabe American accent since Leroy had transferred into the school. He shrugged, plainly uncomfortable.
“Jeez Sugar Ray, you think he’s lookin’ to swing on your li’l pecker when I’m right there?” Leroy said, grinning. Leroy had no need to be shy in the shower, and wasn’t. “Anyway-” he made his biceps bulge beneath his dusky, shower-gleaming skin. “Ain’t like he’s gonna be forcin’ hisself on nobody here what don’t want it, li’l kid like that. Am I right, or am I right?”
There was a mixed growl of uneasy laughter, and Peter found Baz’s bright blue gaze on him again. “What’s this?” Baz murmured. “Fucking democracy?”
“Yeah,” Peter said. Baz was right: Peter was the captain. About time he started acting like it. He raised his voice. “Right, you lot, listen up! Monday, I’m gonna talk to Marty. He’s still on the team until any official announcement otherwise, got it?” There was a ragged chorus of yesses, though it didn’t sound unanimous – not by a long way. Ginge, for example, pointedly didn’t agree. He’d have to talk to him later. They’d been mates since forever. He wondered what the hell was burning old Ginger’s fuse.
Peter shook his head, wondering how this crisis had blown up from seemingly nothing. Still, as he began stripping out of his cold and clammy kit, he found he’d acquired a little butterfly, somewhere behind his navel. Marty liked him, huh? He wasn’t sure whether that flutter was unease – or excitement.
Peter wished he could do this more privately, but he didn’t share any classes with Marty except sport, and he didn’t associate with Marty outside school, so he had no choice. If he was going to talk to the boy — apologize — it would have to be in one of Marty’s hangouts. It seemed like he’d spent the whole of the rest of the weekend trying to think of different things to say or different ways to say, well, it.
Except he didn’t quite know what “it” was. Apologize for Ginge expecting Marty to behave like a real goalie? Or for treating Marty like a team member? He’d spent the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday hours trying to stop seeing the hurt in those Bambi eyes. That was what his gut told him he should be apologizing for, and no matter which way he looked at it, that kind of thing was what poofs would do. Crying and flapping their wrists about and then hugging each other better. Running off into the rain. Being cry-babies. Being stupid.
He swallowed in his aching throat. Today was the day Mum changed the bedding. He’d turned his pillow over, hoping it would dry out. If she did notice it was damp, she wouldn’t say anything: she never did, simply be extra nice for a while. He really hoped she wasn’t going to be extra nice now, because she’d be wrong about what she was being nice about. And what she was wrong about was increasingly winding itself into an ice-ball of misery in his guts.
He looked in the dining hall first, but Marty wasn’t at his usual table: the least popular one, nearest the waste-food bins. The nerds sitting there were blank and hostile: he couldn’t tell if they genuinely didn’t know where Marty was, or were just fucking him around.
The library was no better: the place was unusually crowded and had the stuffy, faintly acrid smell of wet, navy-blue school uniforms. Marty wasn’t there.
Peter walked the corridors, but the wet weather and the consequent permission for everyone to be indoors meant that there were just too many classrooms to search in a lunch-hour. He ended up on the topmost floor, glaring out at the gleaming black of the playground through the rain-shimmering windows.
It was only at the end of the lunch break that he had a little luck: he spotted a boy that he vaguely remembered as often being around Marty when he’d chanced across him on previous occasions.
“Hey! You in the same class as Martin Drake?” Peter called, walking over.
“Yeah. So what?” the boy brushed messy brown hair back out of his eyes and regarded Peter doubtfully.
“So what’s your lessons this afternoon?”
The boy frowned at him. “English ‘n’ French. Why?”
If Marty was still upset and avoiding him, then best not to say. “Nothing important – just gotta give Marty something.”
“Don’t matter – I’ve got to give it to him meself.” Peter grinned. “Hey, thanks: owe ya one, ‘K?” He went as if to bump fists, but when the other kid didn’t respond he converted it to a clumsy wave and walked off.
French for last period was a mixed blessing. On the one hand it meant that Marty had to be in the language lab, but it was unfortunately on the far side of the building from the classroom where Peter took Geography. He’d have to get out early to stand a chance of catching Marty, and Mrs. Crabshawe wasn’t a sports fan, so she’d only rarely cut him any slack as captain.
Meanwhile he had an hour of Maths to endure before Geography. He shared both lessons with Ginge, but just recently Miss Fischer had separated them both as far as she was able: he could barely see the back of his mate’s head from where he now sat. Peter ground slowly through the exercises, wondering what the hell use it was teaching him a counting system that only went up to eight.
He missed Ginge’s muttered comments: bloody funny his mate could be, sometimes, even if he did have a knack for making Pete laugh at the wrong time and dropping him right in it with the teachers. Truth was, if Miss Fischer was so bloody sensitive about her tits, she’d have done better putting Ginge back here and having himself sit up front. It was Ginge who was always on about how big they were. No argument there; but he couldn’t see the fascination, himself. They were just tits. Did that make him a bender?
The teacher’s sarcastic voice cut through his thoughts. Everybody was turned around, staring at him, waiting for him to answer. Except Ginge.
“Er, four?” Peter said, at random. Miss Fischer visibly stifled a sigh and turned back to the chalkboard. The answer, it seemed was eleven. Only it wasn’t really, because eleven was nine. Great. Really useful.
He stared at the back of Ginge’s head. He’d tried phoning on Sunday; got the machine. That wasn’t unusual. Sundays were busy around Ginge’s, what with his Dad playing the organ in church and everything, every Sunday was a Command Performance, and after church they either visited family or had family around their place. But when he left a message, Ginge usually phoned back. He hadn’t.
The trouble with sitting at the back was that when the bell rang everybody else got up, and got in the way between you and the door. It didn’t really matter, he told himself, Ginge not waiting. They were both headed for the same class anyway.
Usually he could rely on Ginge to lighten Geography. He knew exactly the things to say to wind up “Crabby” Crabshawe: pretending not to be able to read the map, or tempting Crabby into talking about her pet subject: glaciation and the cycle of ice ages, which easily segued into her passion for potholing. This afternoon though, Ginge seemed morose, and when Peter mentioned having to cut out early to talk to Marty, the look Ginge gave him was positively unfriendly.
“What’chu suckin’ up round that arse-bandit for?” he whispered. “You want to stay the fuck away from him!”
”’S fer the team, innit?” Peter had hissed back, and got a sharp look from Crabby.
“If everybody could concentrate on the written material please, Windram?” she said, her gooseberry eyes focused on Peter. “I will be asking questions after you’ve all read it.”
The lesson dragged on, with Peter mentally kicking himself for getting on Crabby’s bad side. No way would she let him out early now.
Sure enough, by the time he’d fought his way over to the language lab, Marty was nowhere to be seen. Well hell. He’d just have to go round to Marty’s place and hope nobody got to hear about it.
The steady rain pattered on Peter’s umbrella and dripped from the glossy, rain-heavy leaves of the rhododendrons as he carefully fastened the gate and then made his way up the gleaming crazy-paving. He’d never been to Marty’s house before – he hadn’t realized he came from such a posh neighborhood. The grey-stoned house was larger than he was used to; standing by itself, half-buried among dark trees.
Despite the brightness of the hallway light shining out through the fan-shaped window above the front door and the sounds of TV from the front room, it reminded him unpleasantly of those old houses you saw in horror films: bulging bay windows, a roof-tower like a witch’s hat and altogether too much funny fretwork in odd places. He swallowed, consciously looking about at the neat flowerbeds either side of the brick path, and the cheesy gnomes hidden here and there among the planting. Come on, he told himself. _No ax murderer ever had fucking gnomes in their garden!_
Peter walked up to the door and made himself immediately press the shining brass doorbell. He heard a distant “Bzzzt” somewhere and sighed: committed now. He stood for what seemed an age, listening to the patter of the rain on his umbrella and the sinister gurgle of drainpipes before he heard footsteps inside, and then the door swung open to reveal a tall, dried-out-looking ash-bblondwoman wearing jeans, a white silk blouse, and pearls. She smiled politely: “Yes?”
“Mrs. Drake? Uh, I’m Peter Windram — the captain of the football team? — I, um, just came round to see if Marty’s okay?” Peter heard his voice trail off weakly at the sight of her changing expression.
“Oh – you’re responsible, are you?” It felt to Peter as though the temperature had dropped ten degrees. He looked down, unable to meet the ice-blue gimlets that were her eyes. “He came home soaked; and bruised, and filthy!” Somehow she made that last seem the worst crime of all.
“I know, I-”
She glared at him. “You knew! Knew he’d been in a fight-” the lightening glance she gave his whole, unmarked skin blistered him with contempt. “While you-”
“Fight?” Peter said, bewildered.
“Don’t interrupt, young man! I’m not stupid!” she hissed, leaning down toward him. “I’ve got eyes! He came home, threw his things on the floor, and slammed his door!”
“Now, now, Mary; please!” The little, worried, balding man who had appeared behind her shoulder had Marty’s brown eyes and a placatory smile. “I’m sure this young man would rather make his apologies inside-”
Mrs. Drake drew back, making an irritated gesture like brushing a fly. “Oh, do be quiet Duncan!” Nevertheless she did back up two steps, crowding her husband as though he didn’t exist. “Well?”
“Uh, I am very-” Peter began, but she gestured irritably.
“Come in, for god’s sake – don’t just stand there like a fool!” She pointed at the black and white ccheckeredtiles and the large, brown bristle rug with “WELCOME” printed on it.
Peter was too unnerved to turn his back, besides being frightened that she’d take it as some kind of insult, so he just held his umbrella aside and collapsed it, trying to ignore the pelting rain trickling unpleasantly down his collar: it was warmer than her gaze, anyway.
He stepped over the ddoor sillinto the brilliantly painted white hall, and scuffed his feet thoroughly on the bristles. He drew breath to speak, but to his surprise, Mrs. Drake turned on her heel and began ascending the red-carpeted stairway without another word.
Duncan smiled some meek sort of apology and took Peter’s dripping umbrella with one hand, gesturing for Peter to follow his wife upstairs. He neither spoke, nor invite himself to follow.
Peter hurried to catch up, and followed Mrs. Drake as she turned right, immediately opening a door. He noticed she didn’t knock.
Marty was standing in front of an oval mirror set into the door of a large mahogany wardrobe, and from his twisted position it looked like he’d just been looking over his shoulder at the reflection of his arse. He was wearing little-kid ppajamaswith a red stripe which matched both his lips and his crying reddened eyes, now wide and brown like a frightened faun.
“I’m sorry mother!” He said, his voice trembling. “I’ll never, ever yell at y-” As his mother stepped aside, his gaze fell on Peter, and he flushed bright red with humiliation.
“Just be quiet!” She pointed at the clownface decorated quilt that covered Marty’s bed, and he trailed across the room and sat, wincing.
Mrs. Drake swiveled her head. “Well?” said, her gunmetal blue eyes drilling into Peter.
“I, I’m really sorry Marty,” Peter began. “I didn’t mean it like that! What I said, I mean, and we want you to come back -”
“No.” Mrs. Drake said, her voice cold steel. “It was a mistake to let him get involved in your council-estate kick-abouts, or with any of you hooligans.” She held Peter with her eyes. “Tonight we’ve seen exactly where that influence leads, haven’t we, Martin?”
“Yes,” Marty whispered, looking at the floor.
Her head whipped round. “Yes — what?”
“Yes Mommie,” Marty said, a little louder, his cheeks flushing scarlet, and obviously, desperately trying not to cry.
Her voice went quiet, but held no comfort at all. “What do sissy crybabies get, Martin?”
“S-something to cry about, Mommie.”
Peter saw the small smile on her face and turned his head away, feeling sick. He backed up, his flesh crawling as she crowded him out of that room, and the click of the bedroom door as she closed it in his face was louder than it should be. He turned and descended the immaculate, blood-red carpet, quiet as a funeral; conscious of her absence behind him as he fled the shining white hall; sick with shame as he pulled open the gleaming, polished oak door and stumbled over the WELCOME mat into the cooling rain. He was half-way down the street before he remembered he’d left his umbrella behind.
If it had been hard finding Marty at school yesterday, today it was bloody impossible. The weather continued wet, with all the extra places for hiding that allowed, and Peter spent a fruitless morning break prowling the building, poking into all of the ones he could think of. Now the lunch break was more than half way through and he hadn’t had any more luck.
“One more classroom,” Peter thought, “and then I’ll go get something to eat.” If the cafeteria was still serving. He ducked into the classroom and spotted the skinny little kid who’d helped him before perched on a desk in a circle of his friends.
“Hey!” Peter said, and felt an odd surge of disquiet at the way they drew closer together, like he was gonna kick their arses, or nick their lunch money or something. He made himself smile. “Got a ffavorto ask you, mate,” he said to the little kid, and jerked his head to the side. “Over there? Come on – it won’t take a minute.”
The kid looked at him doubtfully from under his brown cowlick of hair, but slid off the desk where he’d been sitting and followed Peter over to a quiet corner of the classroom.
“Look,” Peter said. “It’s just about Marty. Is he in school today?”
The kid shrugged, and flicked him a glance. “Dunno,” he said, but he looked shifty.
“Do you know where he could be? I’d really appreciate it.”
“Wossit to you then?” the kid said. “I said to him before as how you’d been lookin’ and he give me hell, he did.” The boy flushed. “Said I should mind me own bleedin’ business,” he muttered, his expression unhappy. It dawned on Peter that he wasn’t the only one who liked Marty.
“You’re a mate of his, then?” Peter said.
The kid shrugged again. “Dunno.” The unhappiness of his expression spoke volumes. “Not any more, I reckon.”
“Look,” Peter said. “I’m the football captain — it’s about the team.” Well, it was, mostly, he told himself.
“Yeh I know. After Mr. HHiggatthad said to him he looked awful sick. He shouldn’t of nicked it, I said he shouldn’t of nicked it, but-”
“Oh shit, I thought you knew!” The kid looked so panicky Peter thought he might run off.
“Well I know now, so you might as well tell me the rest.”
“The key. He took the key to them changing rooms in the park. Said he’d lost some silver chain what his Dad give him, and reckoned it was there. And now he’s gone — bunked off. I ain’t seen him all morning.”
Peter felt his guts chill. After what Mrs. Drake had said last night, there was only one thing that Mr. HHiggattwould have to say to Marty, and he was certain Marty had never worn any jewelry of any kind. He would have noticed.
The rain had lessened, though a roiling, heavy sky the colour of gunpowder smoke suggested that this was strictly temporary. The dying sunlight gleamed yellow-gold on the half drowned soccer pitches, making the greens of the trees and grass too bright, like a colour telly with the settings wrong.
Puddles splashed beneath his feet as Peter ran up the long mmetaleddriveway to the changing hut. Despite leaving his dark, heavy blazer at school, his shirt felt damp and clammy, though that was probably more from sweat than rain. He paused, wheezing outside the door for the “home” team changing room, pressing his hand to his side as he waited for his stitch to ease up. “More running, and less standing around shouting at the other sods for you,” he thought, and glanced up at the flicker of lightning behind the tall trees.
He turned the door handle as softly as he could. As he’d half-feared, half hoped, the door opened, not locked. The rain fell on Peter’s shoulders in large, cold drops as he stared at the dingy, short corridor that went past the bogs before opening out into the main changing rooms, with the showers beyond. Marty hadn’t turned on the lights, and he was afraid he knew why.
He stepped into the chill, dim interior with its familiar smell of stale, sweaty kit and pine disinfectant.
“Marty?” he called. “It’s okay, it’s me.”
No answer, only the stony echo of his voice, and the stutter of rain falling on the hut’s corrugated roof.
Peter’s mouth felt dry, but his skin was wet with cold sweat. He’d known Marty had it hard, but he’d never guessed about his home life. Well, you didn’t did you? You heard stories about bad homes, and what happened when things got too much, but you never thought it happened to your mates, in your school.
“Marty,” he called, and this time he could hear the fright in his own voice. “Please answer me, it’s Pete.” He made himself take a step forward into the chill dimness, regardless of what he might find. If things were the other way around, he’d want that, he thought. Or maybe he wouldn’t. He didn’t click the lights on. If there was something to find, then he was only brave enough to find it little by little, not all at once, the way bright lights would show it. Above him, thunder growled.
The day was darkening, the light from the small windows up near the ceiling rendering the changing room in soft shades of gray upon gray, like when he’d tried to draw with charcoal. The low wooden benches were dark slabs, the back-to-back rows of pegs mere blurred spiky planks at eye height. A forgotten jersey hanging from a nearby peg gave him a start, and Peter swallowed acid, trying not to think about the way it swayed. He walked a little further.
There was nothing hanging from Marty’s peg, but from the darkest part of the changing room, from the peg nearest the showers, the peg that he used, Peter heard a soft shift, as of clothing brushing against something, and a creak. “It’s a bench,” he told himself. “Ropes don’t creak like that.”
It was a nasty thought that Marty might have used his peg. As though he was making a point, like. Angry.
And he’d have a point, wouldn’t he? If you had trouble, your mates stuck by you, didn’t they? Not stand off, yell at you, tell you that you weren’t special.
He tried not to think about the showers, with those thick, overhead pipes for the spray nozzles you think you could jump up and grab, and swing from.
Peter heard himself swallow. His hands felt cold and clammy, his skin was like ice and his heart beat heavily in his chest as he forced himself to walk forward into the rain-pattering dark.
The doorway to the showers gaped at his left, more felt than seen, but he determined to check his own peg, first, to know if Marty had forgiven him, or— or not.
As he turned towards it, the room lit like a flashbulb, revealing the room in negative, black upon white and he flinched, less from the shattering crack! of thunder than what he’d seen.
He saw it now, in blue-greeney afterimages. The dark shadow on the bench below his own peg, like a sagging kitbag, a bundle of clothes, or a seated body, huddled head down on its knees.
It was easier to walk, now. Peter crossed softly to the bench and sat down, wincing at its faint, familiar creak; clasped his hands together and bowed his head.
“I, I’m so sorry Marty,” he whispered. “Not about the team, or, not so much anyway. I mean about lying to you, and what I said. Because you—” Peter broke off and swallowed, having so nearly said it wrong. “Because you are special to me.” Not were. “And you always will be. Because I love you, Marty, every mud-speckled skinny inch of you, and I always will.”
He leaned closer to kiss the wet, corpse-cold cheek and it sighed, leaning against him, the cold shock of water from the sodden blazer soaking Peter’s side. He braced himself against the weight, and realized he felt a response: a tremor that grew into an earthquake; shivering so violent Peter rrealizedhe could hear Marty’s teeth chattering.
“What?” Peter said, holding Marty as close as he could.
“T-t-t-telll m-me ag-g-g-ain-nn.”
So he did.