[color=#008000]This story was commissioned and based on an idea by Sarah[/color]
Parkdale Primary School
School’s fine. School’s a piece of cake. What a place, what an institution, that wants you there, that wants to teach and prepare you for the rest of the world.
Mr. Gellar, the teacher, is soft as warm butter and he manages to keep the kids under control anyway. What’s the trick? Does he really care? Maybe that’s it. Or maybe he’s magic.
"Jenny, I can tell you worked really hard on this. Now have you thought about...?"
Yeah, even when he’s getting a pupil to do the work all over again, it sounds like high praise, like the brightest of games.
What a trick.
School’s a breeze. Even better, second time around. Of course I know it all. But like I said yesterday, like I said this morning at breakfast; I’m good at pretending.
I came out a long time ago. I didn’t waste too much time. Sure, I got my practicing in when I was sixteen and seventeen, two years at end of secondary school, including three girls and one of those lasting the entire last term. I know how to pretend.
Was it just making sure? Sorry, Leigh. Seriously, Katherine, I should’ve done better there.
I know one woman who treats her own teenage tryst with a boy who goes on to be gay as a favourite party anecdote, which is appropriate, because it was never about them.
Breaks my heart to think of those poor bastards who sweat and grind their way through a marriage and three kids before finally admitting their true selves.
Sort yourself out. Shake your life into a shape that makes sense. Stop lying, you don’t even see the damage you’re doing.
When I told my parents, there were no fireworks, no slamming of doors. My first year of university and I tell them I have news. Sitting opposite their two armchairs, I perch on the middle of the sofa and agonize for 45 minutes before finally saying the words.
And their reaction: not a Biblical condemnation, not an over-my-dead-body, but a visible deflation in my dad’s shoulders and a tightening of my mum’s frown.
I don’t think you understand how hard this is going to be for you. People can be very judgemental. What about your opportunities?
To their credit, they didn’t kick me out of the house. They didn’t even raise their voices. Maybe it would have been better if they had, because after a row, after a domestic blow-out, comes reconciliation. And even though my parents care about me, we’ve never come back together, not fully. We’ve never reconciled.
And maybe you’re thinking, so what if they don’t talk about it. Would they have talked about your orientation if you were straight? And that’s when I know that you don’t get it, and as long as you get in my face, and sure as hell as long as you don’t attack my husband, then I really don’t care.
It wasn’t much, my parents’ cold disappointment, their disengaged sadness. I’d said much worse things to my teenage self.
No one’s gonna love you.
I was wrong about that.
Fact of Riley.
"That’s disgusting," I tell the boy opposite at lunchtime. He’s laughing so hard at the worst joke, a non-joke that’s as funny as cancer and makes as much sense as a chicken crossing the road, that I swear he’s inhaled some of his custard and is now snorting it back down his nose.
He just laughs harder, and I remember, 8 year old boys are mostly revolting.
But I have to pretend, just like I have to enjoy raspberry sponge and custard as if it’s haute cuisine, so I move on from disgusting and start giving my five reasons my Chelsea can fancy their chances this season (this is the one topic boys don’t grow out of - you can ask a guy on his death-bed and about the off-side rule or goal-line cameras and he’ll still have something to say).
I’m at number three (Eden Hazard, a reason all by himself) when a crashing sound sends my thoughts back twenty years.
You never forget that noise, just like you never forget the vocal response.
I turn my head along with the rest of the lunch hall to spot the culprit, the victim.
A little girl looks down at her food tray, dropped to the floor, and then she lifts her face, reddening but defiant. As the kids jeer, a reaction that will seemingly never go out of fashion, she says something that is lost in the noise.
Where are the gentlemen? Lunch halls are like war zones. Keep your head down, don’t show weakness.
The girl is isolated, she is an island. She’s not crying, her face is crumpled but more angry than distraught, and I know that face. It’s my expression. It’s the road I’ve taken so many times.
But she doesn’t have to be so angry. She doesn’t have to go it alone.
I leave my tired football conversation and my sticky sponge and walk over to the girl. I’m first on the scene, before the supervising teacher has time to react.
We crouch at the same time, and we look at each other with bent knees and cupped hands as we do our best to put most of her lunch back on the tray. Nothing shattered, no danger, it’s all plastic, the school has seen this accident a thousand times before.
When we look at each other, I’m sure this girl knows something the rest don’t. There’s a look of sharp intelligence in her eyes, and surely she’s found me out. The disguise has fallen apart, she knows I’m not a little boy, of course she does, and she opens her mouth to sound the alarm.
"Thanks," she says. She gives me a polite smile. She picks up her tray (it’s done, it’s over, peas in her pudding bowl, custard on her chips, the only thing intact is a carton of Ribena) with sticky hands.
"Welcome," I reply and we stand up together as another girl arrives at her side with an expression that is half-protective, half-pensive. I give a little laugh at seeing them side-by-side. They’re identical, the only difference their hairstyles. The new girl is wearing pigtails, the spiller an Alice band.
"Alright," Pigtails asks.
"Fine," Alice band replies. And then to me, interpreting my smile as a smirk, frostily, "Never seen twins before?"
I’m ready to apologise when the teacher turns up, turning this into a crowd.
"Okay, Emma?" the teacher asks Alice band. And then to me, with a hand on my shoulder, "Superman to the rescue!"
I blush and look around self-consciously but the other children have all stopped watching. They have better things to do. They have football, dance, TV and custard to talk about.
I retreat to my table, re-immerse myself in a conversation that isn’t so different from the one I could have in a pub (less swearing here, and the passion seems more acceptable, and yes, sometimes someone will laugh so hard that custard comes out of their nose).
After lunch we go outside pack-style, roaming the playground for age-old distractions. Of course there’s football, and I could lose myself, give up my sweatshirt for a goalpost and see if I kick like a little boy, but I have different destination in mind.
I find Emma, with her sister and some other girls at the swings.
Emma’s hands are stuffed in the pockets of her puffy jacket.
"It’s Superman," she announces good-naturedly when I approach.
"Todd," I reply. I almost offer a hand to shake, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how greetings go down at primary school.
Pigtails smiles shyly at me and then her eyes widen, and I feel a lurch in my chest - this time, surely, my disguise has failed. Maybe it looks worse outside, maybe I’m more obvious in the sunlight.
But she looks past me and declares, "My turn!" and asserts her claim on the newly vacated swing.
Emma smiles after her. "That’s Hannah."
"Your twin," I say, as if I’ve made an amazing discovery.
Emma grins. "Yeah." She takes a hand out of her pocket and pushes hair behind an ear, revealing a plastic figure peeking out the top of her jacket pocket. A Barbie, maybe, but one with a scowling expression. Emma sniffs. "Thanks for at lunch."
"No bother." I step from one foot to another. Emma is smaller than me, of course, she’s just a little girl. But there seems more to her than the rest of them.
She reminds me of how my sister Ronnie looked at that age. The same You can do better than this expression. When I first got with Riley, I wanted to spend more and more of my time with him and his family, his cool, accepting family, and for a few months I didn’t see my own parents at all.
It was Ronnie who visited me and said, sharing a cigarette on the veranda, that it was my job to bring the families together. "You’re the piece in common, Todd," she said. "You have to make this happen. I know Mum and Dad are old-fashioned but you don’t get to punish them for worrying about you."
"You’re new," Emma says, bringing me back to the present. Her nose is red from the cold.
I nod. "Primary three."
Emma smiles at me. "My brother’s your teacher."
I frown. "Eh?"
"Marty. Mister Gellar. He’s my big brother."
It’s quite an age gap. "No way." I nod, but I’m not convinced. "Really?"
Emma makes a gesture and says, "Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye," with a tone that tells me she’s serious, that I’d better not laugh at her.
"Okay," I say. "He’s nice." I look over at the girls on the swings, at long hair streaming behind and shiny black shoes kicking the air. "He must be a lot older than you."
I’m rewarded with a laugh from Emma. "Long story. Well, not that long."
Either way, she’s not about to tell it.
I change the subject. "Don’t worry about what happened at lunch. I’ve seen that happen a hundred times." Children can be cruel, I want to say, but of course children don’t say that.
She shrugs. "I’m not worried."
I smile. "You looked a little angry."
She purses her lips. "I just don’t like being laughed at."
I touch her arm gently. "Know the feeling." And we smile properly this time, and for that moment I don’t worry about my disguise, about pretending. It’s always nice to make a friend.
I point at the plastic head protruding from Emma’s pocket. "Who you got there?"
Emma looks down and then squints at me, silent for a few seconds, as if she’s making her mind up about something, and then she grins and produces the plastic doll.
It’s not Sindy, the doll that could never quite compete with her American cousin. But it’s not Barbie either.
"Cool," I say, giving the doll dressed in red and blue an admiring look. I don’t ask if she’s allowed to bring it to school. The boys were swapping football stickers at playtime, perhaps another form of contraband quietly tolerated by teachers.
I puff out my chest in a mock-display of macho, imagining a red cap billowing behind me, and say in my deepest voice (which turns out to sound pretty high), "Actually, Wonder Woman and me are good friends."
Will Emma get the reference? No problem. She giggles and replies, "Of course, Superman," and hands me the doll.
I hold the doll up for inspection. "She’s got a funny expression," I say. "She looks a bit fierce, actually." I smile at Emma.
"Where’d you get her?"
"My daddy gave her to me," Emma says.
I nod. "Does she beat up your Barbies?"
Emma’s expression turns as fierce as Wonder Woman’s for a moment, but she seems to give me the benefit of the doubt and replies, "I don’t have any." She glances briefly in the direction of her swinging sister and whispers, "She sometimes beats up Hannah’s though."
We laugh together, momentarily partners in crime, and the doll feels so natural in my hand. I want to give it a flying motion, soaring through the sky. But that’s a Superman move, of course. Wonder Woman can’t fly. What can she do? Deflect bullets with her bracelets? Something like that. I should ask Daddy if I can watch her cartoon on Netflix. And maybe I can ask Emma to come home and watch it with me.
"Hey, it’s butter fingers." A voice behind us, and I turn to find two of the boys from my class making cross-eyed faces at Emma.
"Custard-fingers," his friend says, and they erupt into hyena laughter.
"Leave it," I say. I stand between Emma and the boys, and this feeling is utterly familiar. "Seriously."
"It’s okay, Todd," says Emma. "They’re just being stupid."
This produces more laughter from the boys, and I’m ready to punch both of them in the throat.
But I don’t. Because I’m pretending, and eight year olds are not efficient fighters. But still, my hands bunch into fists at my sides.
"Aw," custard boy says. He tilts his face at what I’m holding in my hands. "Nice dolly."
I swallow a growl. "She’s a friend." I can feel the kettle burbling and coughing inside of me. My insides are getting hotter.
"Thought you were gonna play football," the other boy says accusingly. "Waiting for a shot on the swings?" He asks the question in a teasing, sing-song voice designed for toddlers.
"No," I say, suddenly feeling guilty even though I’ve done nothing wrong. These swamp-like little boys, there were the same the first time around, picking and scraping at anything that didn’t fit into their tiny view of what made a "boy".
He snorts with derision. "Don’t get your dolly dirty, your mummy might smack your bum." And then to Emma, "See you later, custard-fingers."
I glance back at Emma, who looks furious.
I say nothing. My insides are boiling, but there’s no sense in getting provoked. It’s over.
Besides, I can’t fight them. I’m really an adult, just pretending to be little. I’ve got nothing to prove.
They start walking away, both of them, looking for someone else to laugh at. And one to the other, loud enough for me to catch it, "That’s so gay."
In two, three steps I have jumped after the two boys, my arms wide, driving them both to the ground. I am going to knock their heads together. I am going to drive them into the dirt.
[color=#0000FF]This story was commissioned (and based on an idea) by Sarah.
If you would like to commission your own Sebtomato story, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org[/color]