This is my first attempt at a story. I'd love to hear some feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to persons alive or dead are purely coincidental. All the usual disclaimers apply.
Apologies again for the long delay between chapters. I'll try to do better.
Chapter 11: New Boy (Part II)
It was immediately apparent, thanks to the maps and flags that were affixed to almost all of the available wall space, that this was a Geography classroom. There were even a few flags pinned to the ceiling. Most of the kids seated in the five rows of three two-person desks were engaged in animated conversations with their desk partners or neighbors or both.
There was no sign of the teacher and, as I stood next to Peter just inside the doorway, I didn't know what I should do next. I was feeling very exposed and self-conscious and deliberately avoided eye contact with any of the boys at the desks closest to us who, having noticed our presence were staring at us, or more accurately, staring at me with undisguised curiosity.
Sensing movement immediately behind me, I turned my head and automatically took a step forward to avoid obstructing the elderly man who was entering the classroom. He closed the door behind him and as it clicked shut another bell rang out in the hallway outside. The man paused briefly and peered at both Peter and I over the top of his semi-rimless half-moon style wire-framed glasses. Despite his age, which I estimated to be the early sixties, he had very clear and piercing pale blue eyes that implied there was a very active intelligence at work behind them. He shuffled past us toward his desk at the front of the room, casually addressing the class as he unloaded an armful of papers onto its surface.
"Okay, settle down you lot," he said, his voice only slightly louder than conversational.
The room quickly quieted. Apart from a few residual squawks from chair legs scraping against wooden floorboards as people turned to face the front, and the inevitable cough here and there, a hush had settled over the room. The man, who I had to assume was our teacher, sat down at his desk with an audible grunt leaving Peter and I as the only two left standing.
Everyone, including the teacher, was now looking at me expectantly. I knew I should step forward and introduce myself to him but instead I found myself rooted to the spot under the weight of everyone's scrutiny.
Peter glanced at me and must have sensed my hesitation because he walked over and started speaking to the teacher in my stead.
"Sir, this is Jonathan Barrett," he said, gesturing toward me where I still stood by the door, "he's the new student you told us about last week and I was wondering..."
"Thank you, Hawkins," the teacher broke in, "please take your seat."
"But Sir," Peter persisted, "may I swap seats so that we..."
"Sit down!" the teacher snapped suddenly at Peter, making him flinch, "I won't tell you again, Hawkins. One more word and you'll be rewarded with a detention for your impertinence." He waved Peter away from his desk dismissively, in the same way someone might do to an annoying insect.
Peter looked at me briefly with an apologetic expression and then walked back to the middle desk in fourth row, taking a seat next to a dark haired boy who was sat there.
I know we hadn't spoken about it but still I had assumed that Peter and I would be sitting together. How stupid am I? Of course he'd be sitting with his friends. It's not as if he's a new boy too, is it? I think he said he's been here for the last six months or so, which is plenty of time to make lots of friends. So where does that leave me?
"Ahem," the sound of the teacher deliberately clearing his throat roused me from my reverie. "Very well Mr Barrett, let's get the introductions out of the way so we can all get on with our day, what do you say?"
"Um... y..yes Sir," I said hesitantly and walked over to his desk, glancing towards Peter who met my gaze and tried to offer an encouraging smile.
Turning to face the class I took a deep breath an steeled myself to speak to them. I hadn't rehearsed what I was going to say if I was asked to introduce myself. I had thought to just supply a bare minimum of information about me so that I could get out of the spotlight as fast as possible. As it turned out I needn't have worried about it.
"Good, well then," the teacher continued before I'd even opened my mouth, "allow me to spare us all the usual awkwardness inherent in these situations by speaking on your behalf. No doubt it will save us all a great deal of time and effort.
Class, meet Jonathan Barrett, newly arrived from the United States of America and more specifically from the State of Rhode Island which, as I trust you all remember from the work we did last term, can be found in the north-east of the country within the region commonly referred to as New England.
Mr Barrett, meet the denizens of Form 3A1," he made a sweeping gesture with a gnarled hand, encompassing the twenty-odd boys before me. "A motley bunch of heathens and reprobates masquerading, not very successfully I hasten to add, as the brightest and best of your year group."
I looked at the teacher again following this odd introduction to see if he was pulling my leg. His expression remained neutral as he looked back at me over the top of his glasses. There was something else about his eyes that hadn't been there earlier; a softness that made me think that he wasn't quite the ogre that he came across as a few minutes ago.
I returned my attention to the class and, raising my hand in greeting, I offered them a simple 'Hello' and left it at that. There wasn't anything more I wanted to add to what the teacher had already said about me and anyway, he'd made it abundantly clear that he wanted to avoid a prolonged introduction. That was fine by me.
"Right then, Barrett," the teacher said, dropping the honorific, "My name is Mr Williams and apart from being the head of the school's Humanities department I also have the dubious pleasure of being your Form master for the rest of the year."
He craned his neck and scanned the room before him. "Hmm, why don't you take a seat next to Rees," he said, nodding towards the left-hand side of the room, "then we can crack on with morning registration."
I could tell which boy was Rees by the way his head had shot up when his name was mentioned. He was sat at the far left-hand desk of the furthest row and currently wore a wide-eyed 'rabbit caught in the headlights' like expression. An analogy only emphasized by his thick lensed glasses and slightly protruding front teeth. As I made my way down the leftmost aisle towards him he ducked his head just as quickly as he had raised it and deliberately avoided looking at me as I approached, apparently finding something on surface of the desk more worthy of close scrutiny than I was.
Although I was still smarting a little at being separated from Peter, as I sat down I took some comfort from the fact that he was just on the other side of the aisle from me, albeit one row closer to the front. As if reading my mind he looked back at me over his shoulder and silently mouthed 'okay?' at me. I shrugged, nodded an affirmative and mouthed 'later' back at him.
Mr Williams had started calling out names to the class so we both turned our attention to the front of the room. Hopefully we'd have an opportunity to speak properly on our way to our first class.
"...Atkins? Barker?" the teacher called out, each time met with a 'here' or 'present' response from elsewhere in the class, "Barrett?"
"Here," I called back to Mr Williams who, not even glancing up at me as he marked me present, moved on down his list.
I glanced at the boy sitting next to me out of the corner of my eye, knowing that he'd have to make his own response soon enough. He still had his head lowered and turned slightly away from me when his name was eventually called out. He answered as I had with a 'here', raising his head briefly to direct his response at the teacher.
Before he could fully lower his head again I seized the opportunity for an introduction.
"Hi," I whispered and offered my hand, "I'm Jon."
He froze with the same wide eyed expression appearing on his face again and for a moment I thought he wasn't going to respond at all.
"K..Kevin", he said quietly and without looking at me. He didn't offer to shake my hand though and even drew his hands closer in towards his body.
I withdrew my hand after a few more seconds and, letting out a frustrated sigh, I crossed my arms on the desk and turned my attention back to the teacher. A couple minutes or so later he'd finished calling out names and in the absence of any announcements he suggested that we use the remaining few minutes before the bell to prepare for our first class of the day.
I remembered that my first class was going to be History but I still took my timetable out of my pocket to confirm that I was correct and to see what else was in store for the rest of the day. Some of the others had taken out notebooks or textbooks from their bags and were busy thumbing through their pages. I recalled Peter had said something yesterday about having History homework to submit today and he too was busy shuffling papers.
As I glanced around the room I felt a little tug at the sleeve of my blazer and turned to find Rees looking back at me. He seemed to be struggling badly to keep his eyes from darting away from mine and his cheeks were nearly crimson. I could practically feel the heat radiating from them from two feet away.
"S..Sorry," he stammered, "I'm K..Kevin R..Rees. N..N..Nice to m..meet you, J..Jon."
That little statement seemed to have exhausted him and he was breathing heavily as he stuck out a trembling hand towards me. I looked down at it then back up into his face which seemed to have turned from a fiery red to ashen gray in a couple of seconds. I quickly grasped his hand before he could change his mind and tried to give him a warm smile. It seemed to do the trick as he visibly relaxed and his face returned to a more natural color.
"Nice to meet you too, Kevin," I whispered and pumped his hand gently a couple of times before releasing it, "and don't worry, I don't bite... much."
He smiled at my weak attempt at humor and shrugged bashfully before fishing out his own little pile of papers to organize. Thinking it best to let him get used to my presence in his own time I didn't press him for further conversation. Not that I would have had time anyway, as the bell sounded outside in the hallway only seconds later.
The noise level in the room increased dramatically thanks to a combination of many chairs scraping against the wooden floor as their occupants stood up, bags being opened and re-stuffed with books and papers and conversations resumed. I'd intended to stay put and waited for Peter to organize himself but I realized that Kevin couldn't get passed me unless I stood up. He'd finished packing his bag and was sat there with it perched in his lap waiting patiently for me to let him out.
"Sorry Kevin," I said, getting up and pushing my chair under the desk, "here you go."
"Th..thanks," he breathed and carefully squeezed past me, hugging his bag to his chest almost protectively and quickly making his way to the classroom door where other boys were funneling out into the hallway. He held back a little until there was a space for him to slip through and then he was gone.
I shook my head a little at his display of awkwardness.
"Don't mind Kevin," Peter said suddenly from beside me, making me jump, "he's not so bad once you get to know him. He's just self-conscious about his stammer, especially around new people. He usually sits by himself so it might have been a bit strange for him. Come on, let's get to class."
"He does seem a bit twitchy," I said as I followed Peter to the door, "I hope I didn't make him feel too uncomfortable".
"I heard you talking to him," Peter said, shaking his head, "It was over a month before I got a full sentence out of him, so you must be doing something right."
I looked back over my shoulder at the teacher who was taking out some papers from his desk drawer before whispering to Peter. "Is he always that grumpy?"
"Who?" Peter said before realizing where I was looking, "Oh, well he can be but he's usually okay later on in the day. Apparently he's got really bad arthritis and I think it must take a while for whatever medicine he takes for it to kick in."
We stepped out into the hallway and I let Peter take the lead again. We didn't have far to go however as Peter stopped just two classrooms along. As he reached the door he turned and took me by the elbow, easing me out of the flow of students and directing me to the window overlooking the quad.
"Jon, I'm really sorry about the desk problem," he said with serious expression on his face, "I should have realized it wouldn't be as simple as just changing seats."
"Hey, don't worry about it," I shrugged and offered him a reassuring smile, trying not to show him the disappointment I felt, "it wasn't your fault."
"I know but I still feel bad about it," he said, frowning to himself a little before visibly brightening, "but we should be okay in some of the other classes. Most of the teachers aren't as strict about seating as Mr Williams is and Paul's okay with me sitting with you as you're new and don't..."
"Who's Paul?" I asked, interrupting him mid flow.
"Huh? Oh, Paul's the boy I was sitting next to, Paul Smith. He's okay, you'll like him. He'll probably be joining us for lunch. Anyway," he paused to take a breath, "Paul said he's okay with us sitting together as you're new and don't know anybody else here yet."
"Peter, I don't want to take you away from your friends," I said, shaking my head. "That wouldn't be fair on you or them and I don't want to give anybody a reason to resent me. It's bad enough being the new kid in class."
"No, no, it's okay really," Peter said, nodding emphatically, "Paul's not like that, you'll see for yourself later."
"Alright then, if you're sure it's okay" I said, still a little skeptical.
Peter beamed at me. "It is, so stop worrying. We should be okay to sit together in the next two classes at least, that's History and French. In Physics I don't think it will be possible as we have assigned lab partners. Paul's my current partner and I don't think I'll be able to change that very easily. We work well together so I probably shouldn't change it anyway, if you don't mind, that is?"
"Of course I don't mind. Look, we aren't going to be able to spend all our time together," I said, trying to be rational about it, "and it'll probably be good for us to spend some time with others anyway. Don't you think?"
"You're probably right," Peter said, nodding his head before looking out over the quad, "I just wanted your first day to be a good one."
"Well, it's off to a good start, thanks to you," I said, placing my hand briefly on his shoulder. "I'm glad I that you have my back, it would have been horrible to have to do this alone."
Peter turned back to face me and I gave him my sincerest smile. He looked right into my eyes, as if he was trying to find something. "Come on," he said suddenly, "we'd better get inside before the bell goes off," Turning away from me he headed back to the doorway.
As I followed him into the classroom I let out the breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding.
Peter was as good as his word and sat with me during both History and French classes. Apart from introducing myself to the teachers in each class I didn't suffer any embarrassing moments. Neither teacher called on me to answer any questions and I didn't raise my hand even though I did know some of the answers. I thought it best to keep a low profile for as long as possible or at least until I felt more comfortable in the new environment. So I just sat and listened and idly thumbed through the text books I'd been handed by the teachers until the bell rang signaling the end of class.
At the end of the French class, as Peter and I were stowing our books in our backpacks, Peter's friend Paul came over to our desk.
"Are you coming over to the Cafe, Pete?" he asked, shouldering his own backpack.
"I'm not sure I'll have time today Paul," Peter responded, looking sideways at me, "I've got to track down my brother first. I'll try to make it but if I can't I'll see you in Physics, okay?"
"Oh, okay," Paul shrugged, before turning to me. "Hi, I'm Paul by the way. Pete's probably mentioned me."
"Um... hi, I'm Jon," I said, offering him my hand, "yes, Peter said you were his friend. It's nice to meet you, Paul." We shook hands and I think we both felt a little awkward afterwards. Neither one of us seemed to know what to say next. Thankfully, Peter spoke up and broke the tension before it stretched on for too long.
"Jon, you'd better get to the Head's office before a queue forms. I'll meet you out on the terrace, by the steps, okay? If I'm not there just wait for me. Simon's a sod to track down sometimes."
"Okay, Peter," I nodded, slinging my backpack into position, "I'll have to drop these books off in my locker on the way but I should be there in 10 minutes or so. See you then."
I headed for the door and remembering my manners turned back to say 'bye' to Paul. As I did, I think I heard Paul say something like "Does he know?" to Peter. I can't be one hundred percent sure because Paul's voice was hushed and he was also facing away from me. Whatever it was he said, Peter shook his head in response.
I turned again quickly and left the room before they saw me, not at all sure what to make of that exchange. As I made my way back down to the ground floor and into the quad I decided to forget about what I thought I'd heard and not jump to any half-baked conclusions. Besides, I was now in the quad and thought it best to keep my wits about me in case Ellis was lurking somewhere in the vicinity.
I made it the the Administrative Hallway unmolested and quickly made my way to the secretary's office. Two boys, one younger and one older than myself, were waiting outside the closed door. They stood stiffly against the wall and the younger one was chewing his lip, an anxious expression on his face.
I was about to ask them if I should wait in line or knock on the door to announce my presence when the door suddenly opened and the Headmaster's secretary poked her head out.
"Okay, Jones," she said to the younger boy, "the headmaster's ready for you now, please come this way."
The boy's eyes widened and he stepped through the doorway. As he passed the secretary she spotted me waiting in line and smiled.
"Hello Jonathan, are you here for your letter?" she asked.
"Yes, Ma'am," I responded politely, "if it's ready for collection."
"Yes, yes, I have it ready for you, please come in." She gestured that I should follow her into the office and I did so, leaving the older boy alone in the hallway.
"Just knock on the Headmaster's door, Jones, and try not to look so worried for goodness sake, he's not going to bite you." She said to the younger boy as she shuffled through a small pile of paperwork on her desk.
The still wide-eyed boy walked to the door she had indicated and looked back in our direction uncertainly. I gave him a little nod and a smile and he turned back to the door, rapping on it a couple of times with his knuckles.
"Come!" came the headmaster's voice from the room beyond.
I heard the boy gulp audibly before he tentatively opened the door and disappeared inside shutting the door after him.
"Ah, here we are," announced the secretary, holding up a narrow manila envelope.
I took the proffered envelope and slipped it into the front pocket of my book bag.
"Thank you very much, Ma'am," I said as I shouldered my bag once more.
"You're very welcome, Jonathan," the secretary smiled at me, "are you settling in okay?"
"Yes, Ma'am," I nodded, "so far so good."
"Excellent," she said as she opened the office door for me, "do let us know if you have any problems."
"Yes Ma'am, thank you Ma'am," I said as I was ushered out into the hallway once more.
The older boy was still there and I glanced at him as I headed back towards the quad. He was obviously wrapped up in his own business as he gave no indication he even knew I was there.
As I reached the doors to the quad I peered through the glass to see who was about. I was specifically looking to see if Ellis was around and was relieved to see no sign of him. I pushed through the doors and made my way quickly towards the hallway where my locker was located. When I got to my locker I fumbled with the combination lock and it took me three attempts to get it right. I quickly unloaded the text books I'd been given and also put the letter into my coat's inside pocket before locking the door again.
Shouldering my now much lighter backpack again I headed out to the terrace to see if Peter had managed to find Simon. I hoped that he'd be willing to hang out with us after school today, we really did need to sort out this... well, whatever it was that was causing friction between us and preferably without any more meltdowns on his part.
There was no sign of either of them as I approached the steps so I leaned against the balustrade to wait. I remembered to keep a wary eye out for Ellis and scanned the various groups of boys hanging around on the terrace every so often. Thankfully there was no sign of him as yet but I wondered how long my luck would last.
I did spot one familiar figure returning from the Cafe clutching a bag of potato chips. He didn't appear to have seen me though and, as he climbed the steps, I thought I should say hello.
"Hi, Kevin," I said brightly with a little wave in his direction.
You'd be forgiven for thinking, given the effect it had on him, that I'd crept up behind him and screamed 'boo' in his ear. For a second I thought he was going to back-flip off the steps. His arms shot out to the side and and his eyes bugged out. It's a good job he hadn't started eating the chips or they'd be scattered everywhere. At least he didn't scream. As it was, only a handful of nearby boys noticed his reaction. Some sniggered at him whilst others just rolled their eyes dismissively and went back to their conversations.
I quickly walked over to where he was now bent over with his hands on his knees, breathing deeply.
"Hey, are you okay?" I asked, "I didn't mean to scare you, Kevin, really."
He waved a hand at me and, looking up at me, gave his head a little shake. I wasn't quite sure if that meant he was okay and was dismissing my concern or that he wasn't okay and needed help.
He took one more deep breath before he spoke. "I'm o..okay."
I let out a sigh of relief and then couldn't help chuckling a little as I replayed his reaction in my mind. "Hehehe, Jeez Kevin, are you always this jumpy? You almost gave me a heart attack there for a second, phew!"
He'd composed himself enough to stand up and shot me a sidelong look, probably to see if I was making a joke at his expense. I smiled at him to reassure him that I wasn't and beckoned him to follow me back to where I was standing at the balustrade.
"S..sorry. I c..can't help it," he said, looking a bit miserable about it.
"Don't sweat it, I've been a bit jumpy myself lately," I confided and I wasn't just saying that to try to make him feel better.
"O..okay, well I've g..got to g..get my b..bag from my l..locker. S..see you l..later," Kevin said, turning towards the school to head back inside.
"Um... Kevin?" I said, stopping him mid-turn as a thought occurred to me, "We've got Physics next period and I was wondering if you already have a lab-partner? If you haven't, and it's no problem if you already do have one, but if you don't, I mean, do you think I could sit with you? You can say 'no' if you want, no pressure alright?"
Kevin looked at me, then he looked down at the ground and appeared to be chewing it over. I immediately regretting putting him on the spot like this.
"It's alright, Kevin. Don't worry about it, I'll find someone..." I began, thinking it best to back out of the request to save him the effort of refusing me.
"O..okay," he broke in, raising his head to look at me again.
"Okay," I echoed, "that's cool."
"Um, G..got to g..go," he said, backing away from me towards the school building.
"Sure, see you later then, Kevin," I nodded and raised my hand in farewell but he'd already turned and was hurrying towards the entrance I had used earlier.
As he disappeared inside it dawned on me that I wasn't at all sure if he was saying 'okay, you can sit with me' or 'okay, you should find someone else to sit with'. Thanks to a combination of my rambling approach to the question and his terse response I was effectively none the wiser.
I leaned on the balustrade and idly scratched at a gray-green patch of lichen on its weathered surface while considering my options. Asking him again would make me look foolish, regardless of whether he had meant yes or no, and would probably embarrass him too. But what else could I do? If I assumed he had meant 'yes, you can sit with me' and went and sat next to him, when he had actually meant 'no, you should sit somewhere else', he'd think me arrogant and possibly even a bully for disregarding his wishes. On the other hand, if I sat somewhere else after he'd agreed I could sit with him he might feel hurt, that maybe I'd just been stringing him along and was laughing at him behind his back. Dammit!! How was I going to fix this?!
"J..Jon?" Kevin's voice snapped me back to the here and now, "Are you c..coming now? To c..class, I m..mean."
"Oh, hi Kevin," I said, turning to face him, "um... no, you'd better go on ahead, I promised Peter that I'd wait here for him. If he doesn't show in five minutes or so I'll catch you up, okay?"
"Okay, I'll s..see you there," Kevin said and headed down the steps. "I s..sit at the b..back."
I gave him a thumbs up and a little wave as he headed off in the direction of the Cafe and the science block just beyond it. Confident that Kevin's return and invite more than implied he was okay with my sitting next to him, I let out a little sigh of relief. At least that was one less thing to worry about. Now if only Peter would materialize with some good news about Simon, that would be even better.
No such luck though. Five minutes later, and still with no sign of Peter, the bell signaling the end of morning break rang. Left with only a few minutes to get to class, and with no knowledge of which room to go to, I decided to head towards the science block and hope that I'd spot somebody from my earlier classes to tag along with.
Boys were streaming out of the Cafe; some running past me back towards the main school building while others headed in the same direction as me. I think I saw Peter's friend Paul a little way ahead of me. My spirits lifted briefly as I thought that Peter might be with him. I quickly realized that Peter wasn't among the group of boys he was walking with as they all had dark hair. Even though I had only known Peter for a few days I think that I still would have been able to recognize his dark blond hair at a fair distance, even from behind.
Paul and his group had just turned into the entrance to the science block and I hurried to catch up. I caught sight of them turning a corner at the far end of a short hallway and followed as quickly as I could. As I turned the same corner I spotted the last of the boys entering a classroom. I stopped and took a few deep breaths to settle myself before walking up to the doorway. From outside the class I could see Paul and his friends standing around chatting and I also recognized a few other faces from my earlier classes.
Confident that I was at least in the right place I walked in and looked toward the back of the room. Sure enough, there was Kevin, right where he said he'd be. He had his head stuck in a book so he didn't notice me until I took a seat on a stool just along the bench from his.
This classroom had five rows of long wooden science benches instead of regular desks and tall stools instead of chairs. The raised back of each bench was outfitted with an array of electrical outlets and pairs of gas taps. Similar benching around the perimeter of the room were stacked with electronic equipment and boxes containing glass flasks and tubes of varying sizes and other assorted scientific-looking paraphernalia.
"Hi Kevin," I said as I stowed my backpack under the bench, "how's it going?"
"G..good, th..thanks," he replied, looking up from his book long enough to give me shy smile.
"Cool," I nodded distractedly as my attention was drawn to the classroom doorway where Peter had just walked in.
The smile that his appearance provoked slowly faded from my face as I realized that something was wrong. He was limping slightly, although he was trying his best to hide it and his face looked flushed, as if he'd been running.
I stood up and was about to walk over to ask him what was the matter when he caught my eye and quickly shook his head. It was a clearly a 'Don't' signal so I slowly sat back down as he took his place on the second bench next to Paul.
The next hour and twenty minutes of our double Physics class was difficult. It was really hard to concentrate on what was being taught because I was worrying so much about Peter. The teacher, a tall and incredibly skinny middle aged guy who introduced himself as Dr. Ford, had to call my name twice before I heard him and realized that he wanted me to come to his desk. I don't remember much of what he said to me but when he was done I took the two particularly thick text books he held out to me and slowly made my way back to my seat, glancing in Peter's direction a couple of times on the way. I couldn't catch his eye though and I got the distinct impression that he was deliberately avoiding looking at me. He was just staring unblinkingly at the front of the class with a slight frown creasing his forehead.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Kevin looking at me quizzically a few times but I was too distracted to acknowledge him. When the bell finally rang I hurriedly packed my books away and stood up. I could see Peter packing his bag and I was torn between the urge to rush over to him and the fear that he might reject me if I did. I was still wrestling with this dilemma and trying to keep my anxiety from boiling over when Peter suddenly stood up and looked back at me. His frown was gone now but the smile he offered me was tight lipped and seemed a little forced.
Paul said something to him that I couldn't make out and then left the room. I waited for a few more boys to leave before I hesitantly made my way to Peter's bench.
"You ready for lunch then?" Peter asked in a cheery tone, as if there was nothing at all wrong.
"Lunch?" I repeated, a little befuddled by his suddenly up-beat manner.
"Yeah, you know, a meal usually eaten around the middle of the day...lunch," he said with a chuckle, "Paul's gone on ahead to get us a decent table."
"So, what happened to you?" I asked, totally ignoring the witticism.
"Huh? What do you mean?" he responded, cocking his head to one side enquiringly.
"You were limping, when you came into class earlier. What happened?" I asked.
"Oh that, well... it's nothing really. I um... just turned my ankle as I was rushing to get here on time. It was my own fault but it's fine now, see?" he said, extending his leg so I could see his foot as he wiggled it around a couple of times.
It was a reasonable explanation and would account for the limp and his flushed appearance but the way he avoided looking me in the eyes made me think there was more to it than that.
"Come on, let's get something to eat," Peter continued, turning and heading for the door.
"And did you talk to Simon?" I asked, following a few steps behind him.
"Hmm? Yes, I did," he nodded, "once I'd tracked the little bugger down that is."
"And?" I prompted him after a few seconds when no elaboration was forthcoming.
Just as we were about to exit the science block Peter stopped suddenly and turned to face me.
"Are you okay, Jon? You sound a little bit, I don't know, upset or something? Have I done something wrong?" he asked, the genuine concern in his voice making me feel guilty for doubting him.
"No. No, you haven't done anything wrong," I responded with a sigh. "I'm sorry, Peter. When I saw you limping I thought... well, I don't know what I thought, I was just worried about you. You sure you're okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine, really," he said, nodding his head, "but thanks for, you know, caring."
He reached out his hand and for a breathless moment I thought he was going to touch my face. At the last second his hand shifted direction and he patted my shoulder a couple of times and then withdrew it. Without further comment he turned and we both left the building and headed for the Cafe.
The place was quite full and I could see now why Paul had suggested he should go on ahead and save a table for us. As we each picked up a tray and joined the end of one of several lines for food I glanced around the room, trying to spot Paul amongst a sea of unfamiliar faces. After a couple of minutes I gave up and turned my attention back to maintaining my place in the line as we were nearing the servery.
"What are you going to have?" I asked Peter as I checked out what was written on the menu above the counter.
"Hmm? Oh, I think I'll go for a slice of Pizza and a side salad", he said over his shoulder, "the Pizza's usually pretty good here."
I followed his example and also went for the Pizza and side salad option plus a small bottle of sparkling water to wash it down with. We progressed to the checkout, picking up some cutlery en route, and paid for our food. Peter glanced around briefly before leading the way over to the far corner of the room. As we got closer I could see Paul sat at a three-seater table with his back to us. He was reading a book and must have been very engrossed in it as he didn't notice us approach until we started to sit down.
"Well it's about time," he said to Peter, putting his book to one side after folding down the corner of the page he was reading, "my sandwich was getting cold."
"Haha, very funny," Peter shot back, rolling his eyes in mock exasperation and taking a playful swipe at Paul's head which he deftly avoided.
"So Jon, what do think of the place so far?" Paul asked me, just as I took my first bite of pizza.
"Mmff," was all I could manage initially around my mouthful of food. I quickly swallowed it down though and after a sip of water was able to construct a more intelligible response.
"It's okay, I suppose," I shrugged, "I mean, the little I've seen of it so far has been alright and most of the people I've met seem nice enough." I couldn't help but glance at Peter as I said this and immediately regretted it as I felt a blush start up as he smiled back at me. I lowered my head quickly and made out that I was examining my side salad whilst hoping that no-one had noticed.
"Oh we're all pretty friendly here aren't we Pete?" Paul nodded, "Of course there's always a few morons who try to throw their weight around but..."
"He's already had the pleasure of meeting Ellis and his cronies, haven't you Jon?" Peter interrupted him.
"Crap! Really? That idiot's got a screw loose, I'm sure of it," Paul said, shaking his head disdainfully. "What did he do to you? I hope it wasn't as bad as what Pete had to..."
"Paul!" Peter hissed sharply, "Don't!"
"Shit! Sorry Pete, I wasn't thinking," Paul responded, glancing at me surreptitiously before taking another bite out of his sandwich.
For a moment I was really tempted to ask what Ellis had done to Peter but I held my tongue after seeing the dark look that Peter had shot in Paul's direction. After Paul's comment there was a bit of tension in the air and I didn't want to make matters any worse.
"Well, I'm not going to be new the kid forever, am I? I expect he'll loose interest soon enough. So Peter, how did it go with Simon earlier?" I asked in a deliberate attempt to change the subject.
"Hmph, not very well, he's still being a little brat," he said rolling his eyes. "He doesn't believe you really want him around, so he said he won't come unless you ask him yourself."
"That's okay, I don't mind. I'll ask him on the bus ride home after school," I shrugged, "it's not a problem."
"It is if he says 'No'," Peter replied, "because I can't really leave him alone in the house. So if he won't come, I can't come."
"Oh, well in that case I'm going to have to work extra hard to convince him," I said, trying to wiggle my eyebrows in what I hoped was a mischievous manner. I probably failed but at least it raised a laugh out of Peter.
Paul was looking a bit perplexed by the exchange so Peter and I explained about Simon's behavior this morning and my idea to try to make peace with him by inviting them both around to my house after school today. Peter touched on the drama of our first meeting in the field near the woods but thankfully he didn't give away any details that would have embarrassed me. He instead focused on the 'accidental' slap that Simon had received after taking me by surprise.
As our lunch break drew to a close we disposed of our garbage in the color-coded recycling bins near the exit and stowed our trays in a nearby rack. I let Peter and Paul lead the way towards our next lesson.
Just four periods to go until the end of the day and the bus ride home. By the time the final bell actually rang out I was semi-confident that I'd be able to talk Simon into coming over. Given how unpredictable he is proving to be I decided it was pointless trying to devise strategies to cope with whichever way he might twitch during the conversation. The best approach would be to just keep it simple and not over-think everything that could go wrong. Besides, it was giving me a headache and not helping me pay attention in class.
Along with a few more text books I also received my first homework assignments from my Math and English classes. Both assignments had to be turned in on Friday at the latest. Neither looked very difficult and I planned to do them that night to get them out of the way in case any more homework was handed out during the rest of the week.
The Art class in between the Math and English classes was your run of the mill Still Life exercise. We were split into four groups and each group was given a collection of old bottles, jars, pebbles and some irregular rocks to sketch. I'm not particularly artistic but my rendition wasn't too bad considering that I didn't know any of the kids in my group. Thankfully we were all perched on stools and, with a decent decent gap between each of us, interaction and any anxiety I might have felt being amongst strangers was minimal.
I got to sit next to Peter in Math and could have done so again in English if I'd wanted to. It would have been nice but at the same time I was feeling a little guilty for taking him away from Paul. So when he offered to sit with me I said that I needed to have a chat with Kevin, who was sitting on his own again, and that he should sit with Paul.
I really did want to talk to Kevin because I needed to apologize for the way I acted during our Physics class. I know I was worried about Peter at the time but it was still rude of me to ignore him, especially after I'd asked him if I could sit with him in the first place.
Kevin did look a little surprised when I sat down next to him and when the opportunity arose, as the teacher was writing on the white-board, I quietly said I was sorry for being so distracted earlier.
"Th...That's okay," he whispered back at me with a little shrug.
He didn't say anything else and I didn't get a chance to elaborate during the remainder of the class. The English teacher was one of those who likes to wander up and down the aisles as he spoke to the class, making covert chat practically impossible. I did get the impression though that Kevin was more relaxed about having me around and I'm pretty sure I even caught him smiling to himself a couple of times, although I shouldn't really presume that had anything to do with me.
The last class of the day was Geography which saw us back in our Form Room with Mr Williams and with me sitting beside Kevin once more. Maybe Peter was right when he said that Mr Williams was better once his arthritis meds had kicked in because there was little trace of the ill tempered shuffling old man I'd met that morning. This version of Mr Williams seemed almost jovial and, as he moved about at the front of the class pointing to different areas on various maps whilst telling us about the early expansion of the British Empire, there was no sign of the limp which was painfully apparent this morning. Maybe it was because this was his specialist subject but his enthusiasm was infectious and he had little problem engaging with his audience.
By the time the final bell rang I was feeling quite tired and was glad of the release it signified. I think that all the little stresses of my first day here were catching up with me. As I was packing my books away I remembered that I still had to try and talk with Simon during the bus ride home and almost groaned out loud at the prospect. I really hoped he wouldn't act the brat again. If he did I don't know how much more effort I would be prepared to make to try and be friends with him. But if that happened how much of an impact would it have on my growing friendship with Peter?
"You okay?" Peter asked. I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I hadn't noticed his approach.
"Huh? Oh hi, yeah I'm fine," I said, trying to sound more upbeat than I really felt. "I've just got a bit of a headache is all. It's been a long day."
I closed my book bag and stepped out into the aisle to let Kevin out. He'd been waiting patiently again as I finished putting my things away.
"See you tomorrow, Kevin," I said to his back as he slipped passed us.
He half turned and gave a shy little wave, his cheeks coloring up again, before being absorbed by the throng of kids milling around the classroom door.
"All set then?" Peter asked. "We've got about fifteen minutes before the bus arrives but we should put what books we don't need for homework in our lockers. There no point lugging it all home with you if you don't have to. Shall we?"
He gestured with his left arm that I should lead the way, so I did, with him a pace behind me until we left the class then falling in beside me as we made our way to our lockers.
"Simon will be waiting for us outside in the car park," he said as we left the stairwell on the ground floor. "Have you thought about what you're going to say to him?"
"I think I'll just keep it simple," I answered with a shrug. "If I try to be too clever about it I'll probably screw it up. I think it might be a good idea though if you sit with him on the bus ride home, that way..."
"I'd rather sit with you Jon," Peter interrupted, frown lines suddenly creasing his forehead.
I stopped and turned to face him. "And I'd rather you sat with me too Peter but until Simon gets used to the idea of having me around it might be best if you sat with him at least half the time."
"Maybe you're right," he said as we resumed our walk, "but if things work and you two bury the hatchet, he and I might end up fighting over the privilege of who gets to sit with you."
"Don't say things like that," I laughed, shaking my head, "I'm trying to end a war, not start a new one!"
We stowed what we didn't need in our lockers and I retrieved and donned my coat, double-checking that the letter was still in the inside pocket. When Peter was ready we walked back the way we came and left the building, heading over to where a crowd of kids were waiting for the buses to arrive.
"There he is, at the back as usual," Peter said, inclining his head towards the far side of the nearest group of boys to us. "Wait here, I'll go and fetch him. Won't be a sec."
Craning my neck I could just make him out. Simon had his back to us and was chatting excitedly with two boys who looked about his age. Peter slipped through the crowd towards his brother and as I waited for for him to return I glanced around, recognizing a few faces from class but no one I'd spoken with as yet. Not really wanting to catch anybody's eye I looked away from the crowd and back towards the school building just in time to see Ellis emerge from the door Peter and I had just used. Unlike Peter and I however Ellis didn't make any move to join the rest of the kids waiting for buses. He stopped a few paces from the door and leaned his back against the wall, his hands stuffed into his coat pockets.
I was kinda starting to feel a bit sorry for him. I don't know why exactly, especially given his previous behavior, but there was something in his eyes that made me think that he was what, sad maybe? Wait! Shit! His eyes! He was looking right at me! I'd been caught staring, exactly what I didn't want to happen has and with the worst person imaginable to be caught by. I ripped my eyes away from his and tried to pretend that I'd just been innocently looking around. With the blush I could feel heating my cheeks I doubt I could have made a worse job of it if I tried. I felt myself tense in anticipation of the confrontation that I was sure was imminent. After all this is just the sort of opening that bullies like him love to take advantage of. I'd broken the first rule for avoiding unwanted attention: 'Never make eye contact'.
The seconds ticked by and, when nothing had happened after about ten, I risked another glance in his direction. He was still leaning against the wall but he was no longer looking in my direction. In fact he seemed not to be looking at anything in particular, like you do when lost in thought. I quickly looked away again. So maybe he hadn't seen me. Maybe his head just happened to be turned in my direction and I had imagined the eye contact. It would be stupid to risk being caught staring now if I'd escaped the first time around.
So I turned around to face the crowd, partly to check for any sign of Peter's return and partly to avoid the temptation to steal another glance in Ellis's direction. Thankfully Peter was just emerging from the crowd as I was looking for him and, more importantly, he did have Simon in tow. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly to settle myself as they approached.
"Hi Simon," I said, as they stopped before me, "how's it going?"
Peter had stepped to one side slightly as if to signal that this was just between me and Simon. Simon shrugged in response to my question and did his best to avoid looking at me.
"So," I pressed on regardless, "I know that Peter told you that I'd asked him if you both would come over to my house after school today. I also know that when Peter told you what I'd said, you said that you wanted me to ask you myself. Well, here I am."
Simon was still looking everywhere but at me.
"Look, Simon," I said, unable to suppress a sigh, "I know we've gotten off to a bit of a rocky start but I did mean what I said, I really do want BOTH of you to come over after school. I'd like us all to be friends. So what do you say, huh? Can we start over?"
He had finally looked me in the face when I mentioned our rocky start and didn't say anything for a few seconds after I'd finished talking.
"I'll think about it," he said, in a flat voice then quickly walked back through the crowd to where he'd left his friends.
I might have thought that my effort at peacemaking had been all for nothing if I hadn't caught the hint of a smile on his lips just before he turned away from me.
Peter made to go after him but I grabbed his arm and shook my head.
"I think it'll be okay, Peter," I reassured him with a little smile, "I think he wants to start over too."
Our bus turned up a few minutes later and as we boarded I reminded Peter to sit with Simon for the trip home. He nodded back at me in acknowledgement but I don't think he looked very happy about it.
Simon and his friends had somehow managed to jostle and barge their way to the front of the line as the bus pulled up so they were already on board as Peter and I made our way down the aisle. Simon was kneeling on his seat and chatting to his friends in the seat behind him. The look on his face, as Peter casually claimed the seat beside him, morphed quickly from initial surprise to brooding suspicion and he glanced back at me questioningly as I was taking my seat in from of them. I chose to ignore the look and, trying to keep my expression neutral, settled myself in against the window.
The afternoon had turned chilly and the windows in the bus had completely fogged up by the time we'd turned onto the main road. I made a hole to look through by wiping my coat sleeve against the window but, as the view was still very blurry, I didn't bother to make another when the hole I'd made fogged up again a few minutes later. I hoped that Peter would know when to get off as I didn't know the area well enough to recognize any landmarks. Not that I could see them with these conditions anyway.
I leaned my head back against the headrest and closed my eyes, listening to the murmur of kids voices around the bus and reflecting on my first day in my new school. Everything was new but at the same time the rhythm of the school day had been pretty similar to what I'd known in my last school and I think that had been a comfort. That, and having Peter nearby, had made it much less traumatic for me and gave me a little hope that things could be better.
I felt a weight settle into the seat beside me and opened my eyes and automatically reached down between my legs for my book bag in readiness for getting off the bus. Thinking that it was funny how return journeys always seem shorter than the outbound ones, I turned to Peter to say that to him.
Only it wasn't Peter sitting next to me. It was Ellis.
To be continued...
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