by The Composer

Chapter 8

Monday morning dawned. This was the day when I was going to the new school. Charles had fretted over all the things that I would need, and I let him. It was easier than arguing. He wanted to drive me there, but I refused. I could have taken a bus, but instead decided to walk. It was about two miles, and took me about half an hour. I walked up to the front doors, pulled them open, and looked around. There was a girl sitting on a bench nearby, and when she saw me come in, she stood up and walked over. She wasn't pretty, but she was quite striking. She smiled at me.

"You must be James." I just nodded at her. "I'm Helen Summers, and Mrs Cox asked me to be your mentor." I raised an eyebrow at her. "A mentor is someone who helps someone else new to the school; takes them round, make sure they know which classes to go to, show them the layout of the school and so on." I looked at her, slightly wary. I think my silence slightly unnerved her.

"We don't normally get many people in the middle of the school year, but I gather your circumstances are somewhat unusual."

I was blunt. "What did Mrs Cox tell you about me?"

She was slightly flustered. "That you had a slightly unconventional background."

"Really? Then let me fill you in on some detail. My mother died fairly recently. Sex, drink, drugs, and rock'n'roll. I spent most of my time in children's care homes. My schooling is non-existent. I live with my uncle. He is the only thing keeping me from the streets. Anything else you would like to know?"

She was quite pink. "It's nice that you're being so frank with me."

"It's not that I'm being frank with you. I know the gossip that will circulate about me. I imagine that most of the people here will think that I am a chav. A black boy. A rude boy. A bête noire."

She was puzzled by the last one. "A bête noire?"

"I don't speak French, but I think you probably do. Work it out." I watched her face as she did so.

"I don't think people are going to think that at all." I raised a sceptical eyebrow. "Anyway, I'm here to take you round the school and show you things."

I suddenly realised how ungracious I was being. There was this girl giving up her time to show me around the school, and all I could do was to be rude to her. I stopped, and she turned to look at me.

"I'm sorry," I said awkwardly. "You arrive here early in order to show me round, and all I can do is to be rude to you instead. I apologise."

She tilted her head on one side. "It's okay. I don't mind doing this sort of thing. Come on, follow me."

She was nothing if not methodical. The more I saw of her, the more she reminded me of a cross between Hermione Granger and Mrs Thatcher. I can see that Mrs Cox would love her. It was probably mutual. She took me along corridors and pointed to rooms, and prattled on. I was taking in about a tenth of all this. "Anyway, it will really be quite easy, since we're in the same form for registration and so on, and we are also in English and history together." I remembered Charles's comments about media studies. I could well imagine that media studies would not be sufficiently academic for Helen Summers.

"The form room is this way. It's for registration and any announcements, but the school does expect you to log onto the intranet each day to pick up messages and so on. A lot of the homework will be set on the intranet, so if you don't read it, you won't find out what it is. Anyway, this is the form room." I went into the open doorway, and half a dozen pairs of eyes focused on me.

Suddenly I was back in one of those care homes. When you are new, and you walk in, everyone looks at you and susses you out. There are the wimps and the losers who don't meet anyone's eyes, and shuffle in, and sit down in the corner. Then there are the big boys who swagger in, broadcasting the message, 'Don't mess with me'. I never wanted to be one of the big boys, but neither was I going to be pushed around. You had to stand up straight, put your shoulders back and put on something of a swagger, and show them that you are not be messed with. I could feel myself instinctively going back into that posture, and I heard a slight intake of breath from Helen Summers. I stared at them all, staring them down. Startled eyes looked back at me. I could hear Helen from behind me, in a rather high-pitched voice. "This is James, who's just starting today. He's going to be in our form group."

I realised what I was doing, and tried to relax. I turned to smile at Helen, who was looking at me slightly anxiously. Then I walked slowly into the room, doing my best to smile as I walked. I was going to have to be with these people for the next two years. This wasn't a council care home. This was a rather posh school, where children behaved very differently. I walked up to the little group, and nodded. "I'm James," I told them. They all introduced themselves, but I didn't really make much sense of the names. I was still fighting that feeling that I should be asserting myself more, to prove that I wasn't a wimp to be pushed around.

Gradually the room filled up with people, all giving me curious glances. Then a teacher came in, and everyone shut up and sat down. I found an empty desk. He went through the register, pausing slightly at my name, and then when he had finished, announced, "We have a new member of the form today. James Forsyth." Neither of those two were my real names; one of them I had chosen for myself, and the other chosen for expediency.

I stood up. "I would like to introduce myself." All those heads turned round, and all their eyes focused on me. "I'm new to the area. I used to live in a council care home." I could see all those curious faces. "My mother lived what my uncle described as a rather Bohemian lifestyle. I spent most of my time in care homes. My mother died some weeks ago." I shrugged. "Sex, drink, drugs, rock'n'roll. It doesn't do much for your life expectancy." You could have heard a pin drop. "Luckily for me, I discovered I had an uncle, Charles Forsyth, and he's taken me in. He's the only thing standing between me and the streets. He persuaded Mrs Cox to take me in as a pupil here." I looked around at all the astonished faces, then sat down again.

"Well, James," said the teacher, "that was very – illuminating." I could see he wasn't very happy with me for saying all of that. Well, tough.

A bell rang, which signalled the start of lessons, and Helen Summers came over. "I'm not sure that was entirely necessary," she said, referring to my little speech. "Anyway, you've got media studies first, and I don't do that. Hugo is in the same group as you" – Hugo? What sort of a name was that? – "and he'll take you along."

The boy – Hugo – looked at me and nodded, then jerked his head for me to follow him. We walked down the corridors, then he turned to me. "Was all that true? All the stuff you told us?"

"That was the abridged version."

He looked at me curiously. "When you first came into the room –"

"if you're in a council home, and you come into a room for the first time, you need to establish a few things, like you're not going to push me around. That was my 'You're not going to push me around' act."

He raised his eyebrows, but before we could say much more, we had arrived at the classroom. We went in, and again I was getting all these curious glances. The teacher – Mrs Bruce – looked at me, and I knew instinctively that she didn't like me, even before she had met me, and that she didn't want me in her class, but had probably had her arm twisted. I gave her my sweetest smile, and went to sit down next to Hugo.

I had spent some time at the weekend reading the textbook. It was actually quite interesting, and Charles was taken with some of the ideas. We were starting a new topic today. Semiotics. Signs and signifiers. Charles had gone through the chapter with me, and in my mind's eye, I could see him nodding as the ideas unfolded. I sat and listened to her explanations. She was basically parroting the chapter. I sat there, with my fingers interlaced, resting my chin on the desk. She finished what she was saying, and then suddenly turned to me. "Well now, James, could you give us some examples?"

I sat up. "Yes, miss. Book covers."

She looked at me, slightly uncertain. "Go on."

"Well, you go into a library or a bookshop, maybe even WH Smith, and you look at the shelves. There are the fantasy books, with dragons and girls with swords, or thrillers, where you see a view through a telescopic lens with crosshairs, or maybe a romance book, with a girl with wild hair blowing in the wind, whilst a hunky man stands in the background staring at her."

Basically, these ideas had come from Charles, but once he had pointed them out to me, I could see where he was going. I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Mrs Bruce stared at me, uncertain as to what to say. Then, "Where did that come from?"

"A lot of it from my uncle. I read the textbook through this weekend, and we talked through that particular chapter. He gave me the idea, but I could see what he was talking about." I was being honest with her.

She stared at me again. "You read through the text book over the weekend?" I nodded. "Really?" I nodded again. "The class has to do a project. Would you like to make that your project?"

I looked at her with new interest. "I can do that."

She went on with the rest of the lesson, which, frankly, was not that exciting. The bell rang, the lesson ended, and we all picked up our things to file out of the door. Helen Summers was waiting for me. "Come on," she said. I knew we had English next, and that we were studying Shakespeare. Isn't that what all English classes do? Study Shakespeare?

We went in, and I took a seat at a desk near Helen. The teacher obviously knew that I was a new member of the class, and handed me a book. I looked at it. Julius Caesar. I knew something about him, but I didn't know the play.

We began at that scene where Cassius talks to Brutus about Caesar. I was immediately intrigued. You could tell this was the speech of someone who was jealous about Caesar, and wanted to convince his friend that Caesar had begun to be – what might you say? A tyrant? One of the boys in the class read the speech, and he read it in such a way that showed that he knew what it was about.

"I know that vertue to be in you Brutus,

"As well as I do know your outward favour.

"Well, Honour is the subject of my Story:

"I cannot tell, what you and other men

"Think of this life: But for my single self,"

He read it through, and then the teacher talked about it. What he was saying made sense. I had never been to a school like this before, where one of the pupils could pick up a speech like that and read it properly. Maybe they had done it before, but he read it making sense of the words, instead of just stuttering through them. We spent some time picking it apart, and then at the end of the hour's lesson, we were told that for homework we should rewrite it in modern English. He said it didn't matter what style we used, providing we could show that we understood what the speech was about. That was going to be hard work, but I knew I could do it.

There was a short break, and after that I had the remedial maths. It was the usual problem – I came along in the middle of a topic which I'd never heard of. The teacher did his best, but I was still struggling. Venn diagrams? For real?

Helen Summers came to collect me at the end of that lesson, and took me to lunch. I was in overload mode. We walked into the dining room, and lots of heads turned. They turned and they looked at me. I looked back at them. I was the only black boy in this room, and I was a novelty.

"We queue up here," hissed Helen.

I got a tray and some food, and then I saw they had some fruit. I asked for two bananas. The woman behind the counter was slightly surprised, but I left with two of them. We sat down at a table at the side of the room, and I knew they were all still staring at me.

I stood up, and held up the banana. "Watch the monkey eat," I said quite loudly, making even more heads turn. I slowly peeled the banana, and then I put it to my mouth, very lasciviously, making it very obvious what I was mimicking. There was a buzz of noise, and I put the banana down again, and then sat down. Helen was bright pink.

"What do you think you were doing?" she hissed.

"Showing people how monkeys eat bananas."

"Is that how you think of yourself? As a monkey?"

I shrugged. "No. But it's how many other people think of me."

"You are impossible," she hissed again.

I looked at her across the table. "But you love me all the same, don't you?"

The rest of the meal went in silence. At the end, I peeled the second banana, and bit it off in chunks.

"Do you like drawing attention to yourself?" asked Helen.

"If people didn't stare at me, I wouldn't bother. But if they are going to treat me like something from a zoo, then…" I shrugged.

"There's something a little circular in your argument."


The last lesson of the day was History. The teacher leant against his front desk and began talking. He kept on throwing out little questions, and he would get answers thrown back at him from the class. They kept on making comments as he went along, about whatever it was he was talking about, and he would smile, and pick up on the comments. I had never sat in a lesson like this before. It was more like a conversation than anything else. He was talking about Harold Wilson and the devaluation of 1967. The snag is that I had no idea what he meant by 'devaluation'. I raised my hand. I was probably the first person in the class to have done that. He noticed, and stopped.


"Sir, what you mean by devaluation?"

That took him aback a bit, then he smiled. "An excellent question. We're talking about the value of the pound." Everyone was turning around to stare at me.

"But doesn't that change each day?"

"Indeed it does, nowadays. But in those days, it was fixed. And it became more and more difficult for the pound to hold its value. Wilson changed it from $2.80 to $2.40. In those days, maintaining the value of the pound was incredibly important politically. But in reality, the pound couldn't hold its value. Hence the devaluation. But the political fallout could have led to his government collapsing. So he made a broadcast which was very unwise."

He pressed a button, and a big screen flickered to life. There was this pudgy middle-aged man talking to the camera. After a minute or so of the video, he switched it off.

"Almost every prime minister gets labelled with some slogan, and for Harold Wilson, it was 'the pound in your pocket'."

It was a lesson like no other I had ever been to. If history was going to be like this, then I wanted more of it. When the final bell rang, I packed my books into my backpack, and slung it over my shoulder. I turned to Helen. "Thanks for your help today."

She gave me a smile. "Oh, it's not over yet."

"What you mean?"

"You and I have an appointment with Mrs Cox."

I stared at her. "Seriously?"

She nodded. "Seriously."

Muttering mutinously, I followed her. She knocked at Mrs Cox's door, and we went in. Mrs Cox looked up at me from behind her desk. "James. How has your day been?"

"Interesting," I told her.

"Good. And to be more specific, how were your classes?"

I eased my backpack from off my shoulder and put it down on the floor. I nodded. "They were good."

"You think you are coping?"

I thought about that. "Yes."

"And you think you will be able to keep up?"

I nodded. She turned to Helen and raised her eyebrows.

"James does have a tendency to draw attention to himself," Helen said.

"Yes," said Mrs Cox, slightly dryly. "I picked up on that from various comments. Bananas, James?"

"So I like bananas? There's a problem with that?"

"I gather it's the way you eat them."

"Suggestive of - " Helen went a little pink "– fellatio."

I turned to her. "Miss Summers, I'm impressed."

Mrs Cox fixed me with a look. "That might have been appropriate behaviour in the sort of environment you were raised, but not here. I suggest you apologise to Helen."

"Actually, I've been rude and difficult with her all day, and you're right – I really do need to apologise." I turned to Helen. "I apologise for my behaviour at lunch, and throughout the day. You were making an effort on my behalf, and I was being ungracious."

"Nicely said, James," Mrs Cox told me. "Will things be better tomorrow?"

I nodded. "My uncle is on a mission to civilise me, but, as I said, it's still a work in progress."

"I'm sure Helen will help you there."

"I'm sure she will find it an interesting sociological exercise," I said slightly dryly.

"Being a big, black, ugly backstreet boy is a card you can play a little too often," Mrs Cox told me.

"And it's not even correct," said Helen. "You're not that big, and you're certainly not that ugly, judging by the way some of the girls have been looking at you today."

"So I'm a black, sexy, backstreet boy, then?"

"In your dreams," Helen told me.

"Okay, you two, run along and play," Mrs Cox told us.

Charles was waiting for me when I got home. I had been delayed by my interview with Mrs Cox. "How did it go?" He asked me.

I dropped my bag on the floor. "Later," I growled.

"Do you want to eat now?"

This was role reversal. "You got supper ready?"

He did look slightly embarrassed. "And why not?"

"No reason," I told him.

But I had all that work to do. He wanted to know what it was. I told him, to rewrite that speech which Cassius gave to Brutus.

He smiled. "Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves."

"How would you know that?" I asked him curiously.

"When I was at school," he began reminiscing, "I used to work in the theatre, doing all the lighting, which meant you got to hear the plays over and again."

"Your school had a theatre?"

"Oh yes. Quite a good theatre at that. And a very sophisticated lighting system."

"Good for you. Meanwhile, I've got this homework to do."

It took a long time. Eventually I printed it out, and Charles insisted on looking at it and started making suggestions. I shook my head. "No. If I going to hand work in, it's going to be my own."

"I am not a thief, and I am not a whore, and I don't let my uncle do my homework."

"Piss off," I told him amiably.

I took my printout of the homework into school the next day. I had no idea how it would begin to compare with the work of the others. We filed into the classroom, and the teacher started talking about that speech. "Well, you all written it again for home work, haven't you?" He looked round the class, and caught my eye. "You've done it, James?" he asked. I nodded. "Give us the opening lines, then."

I sat up, picked up my work, and began. I have never done this sort of thing before, and it took some time to get into my stride. Then, "For once, upon a cold and windy day, with waves upon the River Tiber, Caesar said to me, 'I dare you, Cassius, to jump into the river with me, and swim across to the other side …'."

"That was good. Comments, anyone?"

We argued a little bit about the meaning of 'Dar'st thou', which I had translated as 'I dare you', but it was all just quibbling. Someone else was asked to do the next section.

I don't know quite how I felt. I had held my own amongst all these clever, well brought up kids. I handed in my work at the end of the lesson with a strange feeling of relief.

Our sex life suffered. I would come home each evening, and Charles would have prepared supper, then I would have to begin my homework. By the time I had finished, I was worn out, and Charles was equally tired. We just climbed into bed, and fell asleep, and in the morning, there simply wasn't time. I began to live for Friday nights, when we would wash the dishes, and go upstairs, and I would enjoy him, and he would enjoy me. And we would wake up on Saturday mornings, knowing that we were going nowhere, with all the time in the world to make love.

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