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Alistair couldn’t have known exactly what was wrong with our school’s secretary when he went in there. Mrs. Tinsley had just put the phone down and begun blubbering at her desk—singsong sobs that at first sounded to me like she might be joking. But Alistair Duffy knew better than I did. Soon he had risen from his seat in the waiting room, walked into Mrs. Tinsley’s office, stood by the desk, and let her hug him. Alistair said nothing. Mrs. Tinsley only said, Oh and Heavens and Have mercy. Their embrace lasted roughly forever. The next day, our teachers told us that Mr. Tinsley had died at home from a heart attack. With a day’s worth of hindsight, the event became an earnest and soft-spoken Lesson on Death. But on that Wednesday when it actually happened, there were just the three of us there in the school reception. I sat there idle, watching through the service hatch that connected the office to the waiting area, looking at the strands of snot being left on Alistair Duffy’s school jumper, listening to Mrs. Tinsley sniff and weep for her newly dead husband.
I was there because I’d taken ill. Earlier that morning, my mum had ignored my moaning about an aching tummy. She had told me, as she always did, that I’d have to be at Death’s door to miss another day of school. I’d been held back for a year when I was seven after breaking my left hip and femur, damage caused after I tossed myself sideways over the upstairs bannister whilst pretending to be a contender on Gladiators.
During that year, three days a week, I would go to work with my mum at the city council. Her office, unlike our school, was wheelchair accessible. I couldn’t begin to tell you why that was the case. The inner workings of the council and even my mother’s job title at the time remain unknown to me. From those days spent at the office, I learnt only how to play Minesweeper and Solitaire on a decade-old PC, as well as how to be in a room with someone for seven hours and stay completely out of their way.
Four years on, I was still letting the injury define me until I could come up with something better. The time off made me the oldest in my year, and though I’d spent much of it with my mum or watching sitcoms on daytime telly, I believed I was somehow more hardened to the world than the other kids. I’ve seen things, I thought. I’ve stayed overnight on hospital wards.
I was quiet when I came back and hoped people would think that meant I had some kind of secret out-of-school knowledge. No one ever asked me what I knew. If they had, I’d have been able to sling them nothing more than a line from Norm on Cheers. “It’s a dog eat dog world and I’m wearing Milk-Bone underwear.”
I would have been too embarrassed to share the only real brush with grown-up turmoil I’d had in that year of absence. It happened at the council offices shortly after I had graduated from the wheelchair to crutches, the rhythmic clinks of which announced me everywhere I went. Between my mum’s office and the men’s toilets was a walk-in storage closet. Having been sent on the odd mission to retrieve paper clips since becoming a bit more able-bodied, I’d gotten to know the shoebox room fairly well. Whenever I had gone in there, the door had been unlocked for me by the office manager, Angela, a smiley cube of a lady who never failed to remind me that she also had a son and that he had once been a seven-year-old too. On the afternoon in question, Angela must have breezed into the cupboard without giving it half a thought. By the time I clunked past on my way to the toilets, she was trapped. I heard her ask if it was me on the other side of the door. I stood dead still and failed to answer. “Hello?” she called. “Luke, love. Are you there?” she said again. Pivoting away on my crutches, I really believed I could un-witness the pickle Angela had put herself in.
Back in my mum’s office, I didn’t mention her colleague stuck in the storage cupboard. Instead, I sat quietly at the spare desk, feeling for the first time like I needed to be back at school. As we left that day, we saw Angela in the car park and she gave us the same favourite-aunt smile she always did. In the car, before she could start the engine, I declared to my mother that I hated going to work with her.
It might have been my slightly advanced age that gave the teachers and staff the idea to make me the school dogsbody when I came back. I was in charge of the class headcount in the playground at the end of breaks. After PE lessons, I was the one to supervise the tidying up of equipment, lock the hall cupboard, and return the key to the specially labeled hook by the classroom door. On the Wednesday that Mrs. Tinsley was widowed, I made two trips to reception. The first was the usual business of being sent by Mr. Pearson to drop off the morning registration. Alistair was already in the waiting area then, his face between the pages of The Amazing Spiderman. Through the slender, wire-crossed window of the Headmaster’s office (next door to Mrs. Tinsley’s), I could see the bearded profile of the man who sometimes picked Alistair up from school. Alistair Duffy’s dad. He was smiling and shaking his head. As I left, Mrs. Tinsley thanked me and called me Petal. Alistair lowered his comic to get a look at who had seen him there.
I had to cross the playground to get from the main building to the mobile classroom Mr. Pearson’s class was stationed in. I’d left my coat off and the snap of the November air made me feel light grey and cold sweaty. Halfway between buildings my mouth filled with a flashflood of saliva and I walked on, hoping nothing else would follow. Seconds later on the bottom brown wooden step outside the caravan classroom, I chundered up that morning’s soggy Weetabix and a portion of semi-chewed spaghetti from the night before. The glass of orange juice my mum had made me finish as medicine that morning left an acidic sting in my throat and gave what thickly dripped down the steps a cartoonish colouring.
When I got inside, I must have looked like I was about to retch again. Before I could tell him about the mess on the steps, Mr. Pearson said, “Get yourself straight back to Mrs. Tinsley.”
“I feel a bit better. I—”
“Tell her I sent you. Tell her to ring home for you.”
“There’s no one at—”
“Off you go, Luke. Mrs. Tinsley. Now.”
Alistair Duffy was in the school reception that Wednesday because of the trouble he’d caused the Wednesday before. Alistair was new. He’d moved from Manchester during the summer holidays. He was new, but a week earlier he had made himself well known amongst the pupils and teachers at High Grounds Church of England Junior School.
Most days, assemblies took place in the school hall. All of us would sit cross-legged on the dusty floor to watch a class performance of a fifteen-minute play about the food groups, or listen to Headmaster Hickey read out Churchill quotations and talk in spirals, trying to explain what they meant. A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.
Wednesday morning assemblies, however, were always held at the church at the bottom of the road. Each week, bookended by our teachers and some volunteer mums, we filed down there in chatty, puffy-coated pairs. These assemblies were delivered in the form of a sermon, the local vicar, Reverend Ryan, sharing New Testament stories softened for a congregation of schoolchildren. He had a posh accent—Exeter or Hertfordshire—that droned through the lectern’s tinny microphone and hit flatly off the cold stone floors and walls. We stayed silent throughout his speeches, too frightened by the old building, the reverend’s collar and the crosses, to misbehave in the pews.
All church assemblies ended with the Lord’s Prayer, which, like my home phone number and the alphabet, I knew by heart but could not remember ever actually being taught. After the Reverend revealed the moral of his story, he would say, “Let us pray,” as though asking permission. Then the pews would give an orchestral creak as we all slid off them to kneel on solid leather cushions and mumble our way from Our Father, who art… to …and ever. Amen.
The week before I threw up and Mr. Tinsley’s heart gave out, as the Lord’s Prayer began, Alistair Duffy kept his backside in his seat.
He sat with his class two rows ahead of mine at the aisle-end of the bench. I mouthed the words of the prayer and watched as Ms. Jenkinson scurried over to ask in a whispered shout just what on earth Alistair Duffy thought he was doing. As though he’d raised his hand to answer the question, I heard him tell her that he did not think he believed in God and did not feel like praying to Him. Ms. Jenkinson removed her glasses and took a beat to stare into Alistair’s eyes, perhaps searching for something behind them. Then she grabbed him by the forearm and dragged him up the aisle and out into the churchyard without his puffy jacket.
Since Alistair Duffy hadn’t yet made any friends, the speculation about him after church assembly only lasted through lunchtime. In the queue for smiley potatoes and sausage rolls, I heard Stacy Enright tell her friends that she lived on the same road as Alistair. “His dad’s got a sticker on the boot of his car of a fish with feet,” she said. “And you know what that means.”
Stacy was the tallest girl in school. She had two redheaded disciples, Hannah and Harriet, who listened to everything she said as though they might later be quizzed. At home time, our mums, who had known each other when they were in school, would gossip until everyone else had left the playground. Stacy and I would stand there at our mothers’ sides, looking everywhere but in the other’s direction, exasperated, our bones itchy to go home. I wasn’t friends with Stacy or Hannah or Harriet, but I sat with them at lunch that day, the week before I puked.
“His mum must have died,” Stacy said. “You might not believe in God either, if your mum was dead. I bet he prayed for her to live and then she died. It’s only him and his dad that live there.”
“Just because his mum doesn’t live there doesn’t mean she’s dead,” I said. Hannah and Harriet looked at me. Then they looked at Stacy.
“Who asked you?” Stacy said. “And who told you you could sit with us?”
Alistair was made to eat his packed lunch that day at the naughty seat—a cramped 80s-era combination desk and chair, which always faced the wall right next to the door of the teachers’ staff room. I passed him as I went in to fetch the hand bell for Mrs. Marlowe, the head dinner lady, to ring in the playground. Sometimes, having carried the thing by the clapper so that it wouldn’t chime until it got outside, Mrs. Marlowe would then let me ring the bell to signal the end of lunchtime.
Alistair sat at the desk with his cheek resting in his propped hand, a scuffed purple lunchbox and a stack of lined paper in front of him. I couldn’t make out the sentence he’d been made to write out a hundred times—I must not NOT say the Lord’s Prayer in church assembly?—but the blue ink cursive looked as rail track neat as Mr. Pearson’s.
The naughty seat was bad; from there the next step could be suspension. It might have been that he was new, but sitting there, Alistair looked completely calm. Bored but not restless. His eyes faced the wall but seemed not to be looking at much. Does not believing in God mean you’re not worried about being in trouble with your teachers, Alistair? Are you not worried they’ll phone your dad?
Alistair didn’t get suspended. I kept an eye out for him in the playground for the rest of the week. He liked to sit at the same bench during breaks, the one closest to the blue, arched climbing frame. The bench that had been left vacant since two of last year’s leavers, Jack Sanders and Linden McKee, were spotted there kissing each other on the mouth on the last day of school. Alistair wouldn’t have known that bench was contaminated—no one had told him. At breaks he sat there positioned like a spy waiting for a dead drop. Legs crossed, foot bouncing, an American comic proudly held at eye-level, concealing his face.
I suppose if Alistair had been in real, proper trouble the day he decided not to pray, he’d have been sent to wait outside the Headmaster’s office. But it wasn’t until a week later that he ended up on a cushioned polyester seat facing the shut door of Headmaster Hickey and Mrs. Tinsley’s open one. By the time I joined him there, Alistair’s father was gone and the rest of the school, including our Headmaster, were headed down the hill to hear Reverend Ryan preach.
The phone was ringing when I walked in. Mrs. Tinsley might even have had her hand hovering above it, but once she saw me her priorities changed. She marched over with a big dinted tin bowl and a white towel, the bleating school telephone making everything urgent. She told me I looked like death warmed up. I didn’t get a word in.
“We’ll give your mum a ring as soon as I’ve taken this call, Petal,” she said. “You sit yourself down.”
The only other seat was the one next to Alistair Duffy. When I took it he lowered his comic and alternated his stare between my pallid face and the towel and bowl in my lap. He seemed about to speak. Something in his expression convinced me he was about to begin the sentence that would initiate our lifelong friendship. But then came the first strains of Mrs. Tinsley’s grief, and Alistair was called away to action. What were you saying, Alistair?
The way he hurled his head around towards her and gazed a moment was like two panels from a comic. Our hero hears the screams; draws back for an instant in preparation of his next assertive move.
Meanwhile, I was cured. My queasiness became a memory when I saw Mrs. Tinsley spin and tip forward in her office chair and clasp her frail arms around Alistair. I gripped the lip of the bowl with my hands and felt the cold tin turn warm. I felt the colour coming back into my face. I watched. Where should you look at a time like this? Alistair moved his arms from his sides to reach them around Mr. Tinsley’s back. He rested his hands there but did not pat or rub the surface of her wooly cardigan. Mrs. Tinsley’s crying continued but quieted after a time, as though turning inward as she pressed her closed eyes harder into Alistair’s bony shoulder.
The phone went again and the rings chimed weirdly in the quiet reception. When whoever was at the other end gave up, the last peal of the abandoned call hung in my head like newly obtained knowledge. Someone’s dead and Alistair Duffy knows what to do. When Coach died on Cheers they replaced him with Woody. I stayed there in my seat, looking on. All I know I can do to help is stay out of the way.
This was November of Year Five, the week after Alistair Duffy got banished from church assembly for good, the day before all my classmates started jumping over the steps I’d been sick on as they went in and out of the mobile classrooms. Pukey Luke, my new identity; Stacy Enright its originator. I doubt I am present in Alistair or Mrs. Tinsley’s recollections of that day. Who was I? My presence was about as significant as the colour of the carpet. Alistair and I never did talk. Is Mrs. Tinsley even still alive? Was Alistair at her funeral? No, they do not exist together outside this moment and I do not exist in either of their memories of it.
But I was there too. The towel and bowl were in my lap and Alistair’s Spiderman was there on the seat beside me. I leant over the arm of the chair to open the comic but did not pick it up. There was nothing extraordinary on those first couple of pages, normal city folk going about their day. I looked again at Mrs. Tinsley and Alistair. He had not moved since placing his hands on her back. Alistair Duffy: duty bound. He will hold her for as long as it takes.
Flipping through the comic, I followed the flow of the paneled pictures from left to right and tried to understand the story without reading the bubbled dialogue or boxed captions. Soon, I stopped hearing Mrs. Tinsley’s crying altogether, but Alistair did not come back to his seat. The illustrations kept me occupied until Headmaster Hickey returned to the reception. The Headmaster coughed and used Mrs. Tinsley’s first name—Brenda or Edna—then he asked me just what in the hell had happened now. I inhaled, about to speak, but he had already moved past me to stand in Mrs. Tinsley’s doorway. I started watching the scene again—the head of our school dithering at the threshold as Alistair Duffy turned to face him. Someone’s died, sir. You’ll understand soon enough.