Andrew

by The Composer

Chapter 6

Today was to be the day of my interview at the new school. I let Charles choose the clothes I would be wearing, and he fussed over me until he was satisfied.

"Remember our cover story. Your mother led a distinctly unconventional life, and you found yourself being dragged along with her. There are times when she couldn't cope, and you were taken into care. She died recently. You found a letter from me in her papers after she had died. You wrote to me. I came and collected you, and now you live with me."

I nodded. It wasn't all that difficult a cover story, but I knew that I had to be careful and treat Charles as an uncle. It would mean being more formal with him. He drove us to the school and parked the car. All the pupils must have been in lessons, and there was no one around. I followed Charles into the school and he walked through corridors until he reached a door which was marked "Deputy Principal (Pastoral and Academic)", and below it was written a name: "Mrs Cox". Charles knocked on the door and I heard a voice obviously telling us to come in. I followed James inside and saw a woman standing by a desk. "Mr Forsyth. James." She was looking at me quite intently, and I knew I was being judged. She also looked quite formidable.

She waved at a couple of chairs, and Charles and I sat down, and she went round her desk, sitting down, folding her hands and looking at us expectantly. "James." I looked at her and nodded. "Your uncle came to see me yesterday, and told me some of your history. I gather you would like to attend Parklands School." I nodded. She looked at me again, expectant. She tilted her head to one side a little. "Does it speak?" Charles snorted very quietly at the school.. "All too often," I heard him mutter. I gave him A Look.

"I think my uncle has told you about my past history," I told her. She nodded. "I don't think I attended any school for more than a few months." She blinked. "And there were lots of times when I should have been going to school, when I wasn't." I paused. "Some of that was my fault. There were some schools I didn't want to go to. If you're from a council home or whatever, then you are dirt as far as lots of pupils, and some of the teachers, are concerned. You get bullied and pushed about in the corridors. I would just stop going."

"So what did you do instead?"

"It varied. Sometimes I would just walk around the town for hours, until it was time to go back. I remember one place," – and this was a true story – "it had a big library near the centre of town. A big, old-fashioned, brick library. I used to hang about outside until it opened. They had a separate children's section, and I could go in there, and choose a book and sit there and read all day until the library closed. There was a woman at the desk, and I thought at first she was going to ask why I wasn't in school, but she didn't. I remember her name, because she was wearing a badge. Mrs Cook. She started recommending me books to read. I could sit at one of the tables all day. That was good."

"What did you read?" she asked me.

"All sorts of things. When you're that age, you like reading about things like dinosaurs or astronomy. Mrs Cook gave me some other books, and even allowed me to take them away. I remember reading The Hobbit. There were some other books by the same man, but they were a bit weird." I glanced sideways at Charles, and saw him smiling faintly. Mrs Cox was smiling too.

"Tell her what you did yesterday," he said.

I was a bit bewildered. "I didn't do much. I mean, all I did was sit and read all day."

"What did you read?" she asked me again.

"A couple of books by a man called John Wyndham."

She raised her eyebrows slightly. "The Day of the Triffids?"

I shook my head. "I've already read that one." I told her which they were.

"And what did you think of them?"

I knew this was some sort of test. "I liked The Chrysalids. I could identify with some of that."

"Meaning?"

"People being persecuted because they are different," and I opened my arms slightly and gave her a wide smile. "It wasn't quite the same, because no one could see the differences in their case, but they can in my case." She looked slightly sceptical. I gave her a slightly sour smile. "Do you really want to hear what other kids called me in the corridors?" I turned to Charles. "Tell her what happened in the shopping mall on Sunday."

"That was because you looked as if you didn't fit in."

"Right. Like those kids in that book. And it's not even as if you had to look different. You could be different inside. Like gay kids."

She tilted her head to one side and looked at me. "Is that what you think? The book was about children growing up gay?"

I shook my head. "No."

"Why not?"

"Because it is about being different. Coloured. Gay. Whatever else."

"Fear of the Other," said Charles.

She looked at me, and I looked back at her. "And the other book? The Midwich Cuckoos?" she asked.

"A good story. Do books have to have meanings? Can't they just be good stories?"

She smiled. "Yes, sometimes they are just good stories. I think that sometimes we over-analyse them." She looked at me again. "You read both of them in one day?"

"They weren't that long," I told her.

"Even so." She carried on looking at me, and I felt slightly uncomfortable. "Why did you read them?"

"My uncle was going out, and I had nothing else to do."

"But why read books?"

"Because I like reading books?"

She sighed. "You're not quite what I was expecting, James."

"Did Charles tell you I was black?" She shook her head. "He should have done. How many black kids do you have here?"

"You would be the first. This is not exactly what you might call a diverse area."

"But you knew that I was rough. A back street kid. From a council care home. From a disturbed background? Whose mother died from too much sex, drugs, drink and rock 'n' roll. His language may at times be" – I made air quotes – "inappropriate. It's a wonderful word, inappropriate. It can cover anything that you don't like, anything that you disapprove of, but can't quite put your finger on."

She went on studying me, evaluating me. "Do you think you will fit in here?"

I glanced sideways at Charles, but his face was studiedly neutral. "I think my uncle can help out here, but this is not my natural environment. Most of the schools I have been to so far would be what you might call rough and ready."

"Do you think you will be able to cope with the work?"

"I don't know. I can tell you this. I will work hard at it. What I like to do is to take the books back home, and read them. Most of the time I was put into classes where the kids were studying something I never heard of. Pythagoras theorem. Quadratic equations. If you're starting in the middle, it's really difficult."

"You're going to be doing that here," she told me.

"I know, and it doesn't help."

"I can get some people to help you, to cover some of the work you missed."

"And why would they want to do that?"

"Because I ask them to."

I blinked. "What do you have over them?"

I heard a noise from Charles and glared at him. Mrs Cox smiled. "People do things for all sorts of reasons. People will help you if you ask them nicely." I raised my eyebrows at her sceptically. "Like your uncle here, taking you in and looking after you."

I had to look down hastily in case she saw my face. I muttered, "I'm very grateful to him. Without Charles, I would still be on the streets. And he does treat me – very nicely. Apart from the beatings, that is. He tells me that with my complexion the bruises won't show. Most of the time he's right."

"James has a very vivid imagination," said Charles, very dryly.

She was looking at me slightly open mouthed. "So it would seem." I gave her my sweetest smile. "You are certainly not what I was expecting."

"Preconceptions are never a good idea."

"Indeed. Well, when your uncle came to see me yesterday, I was not at all enthusiastic. I arranged the interview today more out of courtesy to him than anything else. But you have surprised me. I warn you, if you come to this school you are going to have to work hard, and you are going to have to live up to our standards. I will make it very clear to your classes that you should be treated with respect."

"Don't."

She stared at me. "Why not?"

"They can take me as I am. If they don't like the fact that I am a black backstreet boy, then that's their problem."

"Fair enough." She suddenly became brisker. "Have you any work from your previous school that you can show me?"

"No." I shook my head, lying. I wasn't going to show her those exercise books from Gosport. "When Uncle Charles came for me, the last thing I was concerned about was my school things."

"A pity. That would have been helpful to us." She stared at me again, then went on, "You need to get some clothes appropriate for school. We don't have a school uniform as such, but we do have dress regulations. We do not make boys wear ties. Ties give the possibilities for trouble."

"Peanutting," said Charles. I looked blank.

"Yes. And strangling. And boys can never wear shirts and ties properly. I once taught in a school where the major battle was to make boys do up their top buttons."

Charles sniggered. "I can imagine. Believe it or not," he said to me, "I too was a schoolboy once."

"We have a special design of shirt," said Mrs Cox, "it's really the only special item you need to buy. On the other hand, we do have dress regulations, and it would be a good idea to study them."

"What subjects will I be studying?" I asked.

Mrs Cox paused. "That's been a matter of some discussion between my colleagues and myself. Most of them were reluctant to take on a student partway through the term who has no prior academic record." She hesitated. "To put it bluntly, it has been very difficult. We think you should join the remedial maths group. Maths is something that you will need in later life. As to your other subjects – there is English, History, and Media Studies."

"Media Studies?" said Charles sceptically.

"I know it is thought of as an easy option, but it has become more rigorous in recent years, and to be frank, there are few other options."

"Economics?"

"What's his maths like?"

"Dreadful," I told them. "Leave it, Uncle," I said.

"I'm thinking of the boy's future,"

"I'm thinking of the boy's present," said Mrs Cox, slightly acidly.

I reached across to Charles. "She's right. I don't have the background knowledge for much else."

He looked unhappy, but nodded. The rest of the conversation was taken up by discussions about administrative things. She gave us a copy of the dress regulations, and the school regulations, which was a printout stretching to several pages. Charles wanted to get hold of copies of the textbooks I would need, so that I could look through them beforehand.

Mrs Cox wound up by saying, "We will expect James on Monday morning. I suggest you arrive quite early – about half past seven. We have a mentor programme, as I mentioned, and someone will be here to meet James and show him around before the school day begins."

Charles nodded, and I nodded, and we stood up. Charles reached across Mrs Cox's desk and held out a hand. "Thank you very much."

She took his hand, and said, "When you first came to see me, and told me about James, I thought this would be a nonstarter." She looked across to me. "I hope you are going to justify the faith that I'm putting in you."

I held out my hand in turn. "I promise you that I will do the best I can. If that is not enough, then I'll understand if you don't want me anymore."

She released my hand and smiled slightly. "Here at Parklands School we pride ourselves that if we take a pupil, then we keep him. There are, obviously, some exceptions to that rule, but I am relying on you. Work, and we will keep you, whatever your results."

I looked back at her. "I don't want to be kept here out of charity."

"Oh, believe me, if you are underperforming, then you will have me on your back. I'm supposed to be in charge of Pastoral and Academic Affairs. Without being rude, that means people like you. I'm going to be talking to your teachers to see what your progress is. I'm going to monitor how well you join our society here." She smiled, but I knew she meant it.

Charles went for the soft soap option. "We are very grateful for the opportunities which you are giving to James, and I hope he will fulfil them."

I was slightly less diplomatic. "My uncle keeps on telling me that he is trying to civilise me, but that is still a work in progress. But I promise that if you give me the books and the materials and the teachers, I would do my best."

She smiled. "I'm sure you will."

That was effectively the end of our conversation.

The rest was admin. Picking up booklists. Getting sheaves of paper on the school's routine, and all the rest of it. Eventually I touched Charles's elbow. "Come on, let's go home." We drove back in silence, and went into the kitchen, where Charles put the kettle on to make his inevitable cup of tea.

"Was it as bad as all that?" I asked.

"No. You played a blinder there."

"What is it then? Are you afraid that your pet project is going to turn out a disaster?"

Charles poured out the tea and brought it to the table without saying anything. Then: "Am I doing the right thing?"

I was taken aback. "What do you mean?"

"You've told me all about being a backstreet boy from council care homes. And now I'm pushing you into this – this competitive academic environment."

I took the tea from him. "Well, tell me what sort of future I would have on the streets of Gosport?"

He looked at me. "Is that why you want to be here? Is it just some sort of escape from Gosport?"

I suddenly felt anger rise up in me. "Charles, you can be a bloody idiot at times. I'm here because I'm under the delusion that you love me, and I'm under the delusion that I love you. Unless you want me to stay here all day polishing the windows and making the beds, then I need to do something else. Yes, that school's going to be a challenge. Okay, perhaps I can't cope with it. But at least give me the courtesy of allowing me to fail."

He looked at me across the table. "Is that what you want?"

"Yes, it fucking is," I snarled, and slammed my mug down. I was simmering with anger, and flung open the front door, striding down that gravel drive to the streets outside. I strode along, still bubbling. I had had to put up with that woman from school, and now I had Charles doubting that anything would ever come of it. I don't know quite why I was so angry. Maybe, as Charles had said earlier, it was just that it was all too much. Living in Gosport, life took care of itself. I didn't have to make any major decisions. But now I was under pressure, and I didn't like it.

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