by The Composer

Chapter 9

Mrs Cox made good on her promise to find people to help me to make up the work I had missed. My history teacher set me all the essays I had missed, then sat down with me to show me how to write an essay. My early attempts were not very impressive. In media studies, Mrs Butler gave me copies of all the handouts I had missed, and that boy Hugo, who I had met on the first day, came along to our house for a couple of afternoons after school. Helen Summers was given the job of trying to bring my English up to scratch, and was alternately fascinated and horrified by the gaps in my knowledge. She would tell me that she had learned these things in primary school, and I would tell her that I hadn't.

I had to go and see Mrs Cox quite regularly. She was supposed to be keeping up with my progress not only in the classroom but in the school generally. One day, she handed me a badge. I knew that badge, because there used to be a senior boy at the bus stop each day, making sure that we didn't all pile onto the bus in a great mob, and that we let other people get on first. The badge was labelled 'Bus Prefect'. I gaped at her. She smiled back. "Starting Monday."

I turned the badge over and over in my fingers. "Why?"

"Because I am confident that you will do the job conscientiously, and I know you will be effective."

"You honestly think I can deal with the people here?"

"You really have no idea of how people here perceive you."

"What do you mean?"

"I've seen you with people, when they have annoyed or irritated you. You show it in your body language. You can be quite intimidating at times, you know."

Again I turned that badge over and over in my fingers. "Me? Intimidating?"

She smiled at me. "The big bad black boy."

I looked across to her. "That was a joke."

She shook her head. "No. That's how a lot of people here read you."

"You want me to do this?"



"Because at this school, we expect everyone to take part, to participate, to make the school run smoothly. And this is going to be your particular task."

If you were a bus prefect, you could leave lessons a little early, and I pinned the badge to my shirt during the last lesson of the day. The teacher saw it, and when I raised my hand ten minutes before the end, she nodded, and I picked up my bag and walked out. Again, I could feel all the eyes on me.

I went out to the bus stop, and stood there. I could hear the school bell ring, and everyone started moving out. There were a couple of people, adults, already waiting for the bus, and I stood behind them. I stared at all the boys and girls as they came towards the bus stop, and they saw me there, and began forming a line. This hardly ever happened. Usually, there was a mob, with one harassed boy or girl trying to keep order. I stood there, shoulders braced, staring them down, and suddenly realised that what Mrs Cox had said was true. They weren't going to argue with me.

When the bus came, I let the people already waiting get on, then stood aside, and gestured to the queue to get on. It was eerie. They did it in almost complete silence. When everyone had got on, the bus pulled away, and I waited. There would be another bus in twenty minutes time, and I was supposed to see that everyone got onto that one in an equally orderly fashion. I was the last one on, and found an empty seat.

I never got to the form period the next day, since I was waylaid by Mrs Cox. She took me to her office, and nodded me to sit down. She looked across the desk at me.

"I had a phone call from the bus company last night." I looked at her, slightly apprehensive. "The driver told them that he had never known a more orderly queue in the past."

"I didn't threaten people or anything else like that."

"I know. I talked to a few of the people who took that bus. When people saw that you were the prefect, they all formed a line. No one ever forms a line at that bus stop. Until they saw you."

I suddenly smiled. "Perhaps there are some advantages in being big, black and ugly."

"It's partly that. But what you don't realise is that you have a natural authority. I know you are hard pressed with the work, but I would dearly love to give you some positions of responsibility and authority, because I think you would learn from them, and I think you would be very effective."

"Maybe. But not just yet, please. I'm just keeping my head above the water. It's not only but I have to do the day-to-day work, but I'm having to catch up with all the stuff I've missed, and it's hard work."

She nodded. "You've impressed almost all your teachers. They took you on because I asked them to. And now they're impressed by your efforts, and by your progress. You're doing well."

Suddenly, I don't know why, I felt the tears welling up in my eyes. I had to look down. "If it wasn't for Charles…" I found myself saying in a thick voice.

"Your uncle looks after you well."

Uncle? If only she knew. But it was better that she didn't. I picked up my bag, and stood up. "Can I leave now, please, Miss?" I asked.

She was obviously surprised, but nodded.

One day I was late. There was a big gaggle around the bus stop. I pushed my way through to the front, and there was obviously something going on. There was someone, quite large, pinning a much smaller boy against the bus stop. I could hear him shouting.

"You're just a little gay boy, aren't you?" The small kid was squirming, trying to get away. "I don't like gay boys. Do you want to know what I do to gay boys?"

I grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him round.

"What the fuck do you want?" he snarled.

"One of the things that I really really hate are bullies," I told him. "Particularly homophobic bullies. You know, I always think that people who shout these sorts of insults are really gay boys themselves. I think you fancy his dick. I think you would like to take it in your mouth and suck it deep, deep. Or perhaps you would like him to stick it up your arse. I can just imagine a little gay boy like you squealing like a pig as your boyfriend comes inside you. Is that right?"

I was standing very close to him. He was an ugly bastard. The entire bus queue had fallen silent, listening to my every word. The small boy who had been persecuted was staring at me, open mouthed. "Form a line," I snarled at the crowd, and they did.

"What's it got to do with you, you black bastard?"

"I told you. I hate bullies. I hate boys who pick on those who were smaller than themselves. You are just an ignorant bully."

"You don't tell me where to get off," he sneered.

"You really want to make something of it, you useless piece of cock sucking shit?" I did my best big boy, black boy, rude boy swagger. "I don't fight clean like you nancy boys. I fight dirty. Want to find out?" He stared at me for a long long time. Then suddenly he snarled, "Later," and walked away. I let go of the breath I had been holding. I hadn't had a confrontation like this for a long time.

I turned to the kid. "What's your name?" I asked.

"Alan," he said.

"Has he been giving you a hard time before?" He nodded at me. "You know who I am?" He nodded. "If he ever gives you a hard time ever again, let me know."

The bus arrived, and I gestured for everyone to get on board. It was all very silent. I had to stay behind for the next bus, and Alan waited too. Other kids started arriving. I put my finger on Alan's nose and pressed hard. "You heard what I said. If he gives you a hard time again, I want to know." And then suddenly I gathered him into a deep hug. There was a gasp from behind me, and I let him go, and turned round. There were two girls looking at us, and one of them said, "So you are a gay boy after all."

I made smooching noises, and leered at her. "Do you want to find out, dear?"

"So why were you hugging him?"

I stared at her. "When you live in council care homes, as I did, no one gives you a hug. You don't have a mummy and a daddy to give you hugs. No one does. I like hugging people. Would you like a hug?"

She made a 'yuck' sort of noise. "You don't like being hugged by boys?' I asked her. "Perhaps you're a lesbian? Maybe your girlfriend will oblige?"

I felt a tugging at my sleeve, and there was Alan, and he whispered, "Please, don't."

I told him, "I hate bullies, and I hate people who sneer."

He nodded. The bus arrived, and we all climbed in in silence.

I arrived early at school next morning, and walked straight to Mrs Cox's office. She looked up and smiled at me as I came in.

"My word," is all she said as I set down.

"You've heard?"

"Several colourful versions."

I laid that prefect's badge on her desk. She looked at it in slight surprise. "Don't you want it back?" I asked.

"Why should I want it back?"

"Because I was coarse, crude, rude and vulgar, and I used language which might be considered…" I waved my fingers to make air quotes "… inappropriate."

"True I gather your language was indeed colourful but not entirely …" - she smiled at me - "… inappropriate."

"I hate bullies," I growled.

"Who was that boy?" she asked.

"The one who was being pushed about? Alan someone."

"Ah," she said, understanding filling her voice. "I think I know who you mean."

"A rather small wimpy kid."

"Who was being pushed around by someone much bigger."

I nodded, and said, "He was being called a gay boy."

"That upsets you?"

"In care homes, it was the standard insult. It really used to irritate me."

"From what I hear, you used a lot of that sort of language yourself."

I shrugged. "Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander."

She tilted her head and looked at me. "Were you really working up to a fight?"

I shook my head. "I've been in those sort of confrontations before. 99 per cent of it is simple posturing. Hence all the insults. The one who can shout loudest wins. He was an amateur."

That last comment brought a smile from her. "So, do you think I need to take some action about the bullying?"

"I don't know. Some kids won't own up to it – being bullied, that is. Or they think they shouldn't sneak."

"Can I call upon you to be a witness?"

I shrugged. "Sure." I stood up.

She pointed to that prefect's badge. "You will need that," she told me. "I'm thinking of making it permanent." I looked at her in horror. "We've never had better bus queues."

"Nor ones with such an extensive vocabulary."

She looked at me in amusement. "I rely on you to use your – extensive – vocabulary only when needed."

I hoisted my bag over my shoulder and grinned at her.

I was called into her office once again before school began. The small wimpy kid, Alan, was sitting there, looking miserable. Mrs Cox looked at me expectantly. I dropped my bag on the floor and pulled up a chair next to Alan, and then reached over to hug him. Mrs Cox did look slightly taken aback.

"How are you?" I asked him. He shrugged. "You know why we are both here." He shrugged again. "Look. I nearly got into a fight on your behalf. I think you owe me, don't you?" I was not above using some moral blackmail. He looked up at me, obviously surprised. "What does Mrs Cox want to know?"

"The name of the other boy," he whispered.

"So tell her."

"Do I have to? He'll just get back at me again."

"Has he done so since that time?" Alan shook his head. "Forget Mrs Cox. If he gets back at you again, let me know, and I'll sort him out." I glanced across to Mrs Cox and winked. I still had my arm around his shoulders. "So tell us who he was."

"Kevin Saunders," I heard him whisper. I could see Mrs Cox's eyes widen. This was obviously a bull's eye.

"What does he do to you?"

"He pushes me about and calls me 'gay boy' all the time. And …"

"And what?" I asked.

"He's been asking for money," he whispered.

I hugged him tighter. "Did you give him any?" He nodded very slightly. "How much?"

"Ten pounds a time." He was almost inaudible.

"How often?" I asked.

"I don't remember. Maybe – six or seven times?"

I looked over his head towards Mrs Cox, who was horrified. I pulled away from him, and took him by the chin, and looked him in the face. "Mrs Cox will deal with him. You don't have to worry. We're both on your side."

"Really?" He looked from me to Mrs Cox and back again. I felt like hugging him again.

"We will look after you, we promise. If he comes back at you, I will personally hunt him down and rip off his balls and stuff them down his throat." I heard Mrs Cox cough very loudly, and I grinned at her over Alan's head. I pulled away from him, and put my fingers under his chin, and looked him in the eye.

"And, look. Why did he pick on you and run away from me?" He looked at me as though I was stupid. "I stand up for myself. I stand up to bullies and people like Kevin Saunders. You walk around with your head down and your shoulders hunched, and you are a target for everyone. What you need to do is to stand up straight, put your shoulders back, and look people in the eye." I stood up. "Stand up," I told him. "Look at me." He was reluctant to look me in the eye. "Look at me," I said. "Now stand up straight. Stand properly." He tried his best. "This is something you're going to have to work at. You walk down the corridors of this school, and you put your head back, and you put your shoulders back, and you take no nonsense from anyone." He nodded, but I'm not sure how much of the message got through.

"Alan," said Mrs Cox gently. "I'm going to have to know details. You know that?" He nodded. She looked up to me. "Thank you, James. You really were a great help. Can you leave us now?"

I nodded and picked up my bag.

I was at the bus queue again, and I could see Alan halfway down. I walked along and looked at him.

"Head up, shoulders back," he whispered. This was obviously another work in progress.

The next morning, as I was walking into school, I saw Kevin Saunders and his parents. They had obviously just had an interview with Mrs Cox. When he saw me, Kevin broke out into shouts of, "Black bastard." I just looked at him, and his father was tugging at his arm, but he kept on swearing and shouting. I shrugged and walked on.

Inevitably, I was intercepted by Helen Summers. "Mrs Cox would like to see you in her office now."

I stared at her, and then turned round. I knocked and opened the door. She was sitting behind her desk, and Alan was also sitting there.

"I saw Kevin on his way out," I told them. "He wasn't particularly polite." I reached down and squeezed Allen's shoulder. "He's a toe rag. Move on."

"There's something else," he whispered. He was good at whispering.

"Speak up, lad. Speak up for yourself."

He cleared his throat, and said, a little louder, "There's something I need to tell you." He paused, and then went on, "Kevin used to go on about me being a gay boy." He looked up at me defiantly and then across to Mrs Cox. "Well, he was right. I am gay."

I reached down and put my fingers under his chin, and tilted his face towards me. "Who cares? Stand up."

He got to his feet, slightly shaky, but held my gaze. I put my arms around him and hugged him, and then held him at arm's length. "Who cares?" I repeated. "What business is it of mine or anyone else's?"

He held my gaze and then asked, "You really mean that?"


Suddenly he hugged me. I let him hold me for a few seconds and then pushed him away. "Don't get any ideas." He gave a slightly sad smile and released me. "Have you told anyone else?" He shook his head. "Do you want to tell anyone else?" He shook his head again. I looked across to Mrs Cox. "The two of us will keep your secret as long as need be. But there's one thing – have you thought of telling your parents?"

He looked horrified. "Why should I do that?"

"Well, you're going to have to do sooner or later, aren't you?" I could see him thinking about that, and then he shrugged. "Whatever problems you have at school, you can tell me or Mrs Cox. But you have to be brave. You have to walk down the corridors and look everyone in the eye. Stand up straight, and don't let anyone push you around."

He smiled slightly. "Easier said than done."

"I know. I had to do it to survive."

He looked up at me. I knew everyone knew about my past. He nodded, and then nodded at Mrs Cox, picked up his bag, and walked out.

Mrs Cox and I looked at each other. "You were very good there," she said quietly.

"As I said, I've been there, done that. If you let them walk all over you, you're done for. And Alan – well, if he comes out as being gay at school, then his life is going to be hell, and there's really nothing you or I could do about it. You can talk all you like about tolerance and the rest of it, but it's what happens in those corridors. Someone like Alan would get pushed and shoved, just because he's not like the rest of them."

"So tell me – what do we do?"

"You're asking me? Seriously?"

"You're probably the most streetwise kid in the school. And there must be other gay boys in the school. How do we stop them being picked on? Being persecuted?"

I stared at her. "It's one of those things which everyone has got to learn for themselves."

"So we can't do anything for them?"

"Like what?"

"That's what I am asking you."

"I don't know your school well enough to tell you that."

She raised her eyebrows. "That was an interesting usage."

"What was?"

"You said 'your school'. Not 'my school'."

"I'm still a work in progress, remember?"

"I'll talk to Helen," she said.

"Are you training her up? Is she some sort of apprentice?"

Mrs Cox smiled. "No. But she's very efficient, and very effective."

I remembered what I had said to Charles. "A cross between Hermione Granger and Mrs Thatcher."

"I can think of no higher compliment."

I snorted.

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