27th November 1992
It was a ‘no jackets’ sort of lunch time, the wind stung James’ face as he ran after his friends, but he didn’t care. They hadn’t stopped running since they got outside, his hair stuck to his head with sweat, and there was a fire in his belly as he raced to ‘tig’ Scott, a boy so small and so fast they nicknamed him ‘Taz’ (after the Tasmanian devil cartoon).
No one at this school kicked James. Or stole his gym shoes. He didn’t have to spend lunchtime talking to the dinner ladies. He could even leave his coat in the pile by the railing and he knew it would be there when he went back for it. This place was like heaven.
There was only one really weird thing about Crieff Primary. It was something none of the other kids seemed to notice. James wasn’t the only new kid in school. Another boy, Marcus, had started a few weeks before James did. Marcus wasn’t the weird thing, it was the way everyone else treated him that was so odd.
It was like they had all known him their whole lives. He knew loads about people; could remember their names, what their favourite TV shows were, their favourite games. It was safe to say that Marcus made making friends look easy. He was like the perfect kid. James wanted to hate the guy but he just couldn’t.
Marcus slipped past him, narrowly escaping a ‘tig’. He swung round with a huge grin as soon as he was far enough away:
“Come on James! Let someone else get a turn being ‘it’.”
The fire bubbled in James’ belly and he forced his legs to sprint him ever-closer to Marcus. Eyebrows raised Marcus turned on his heel and jetted off.
The more James pushed himself, the more the November air bit at his lungs. It went beyond being fun and started to hurt. His temples throbbed like an ice-cream headache as he made his final lunge at Marcus. His fingertips brushed his shoulder as he forced the word ‘tig’ out of his aching lungs.
He knew Marcus felt it too but the ‘perfect’ boy shook his head with a laugh:
“You’ll have to try harder than that Jamie!”
What!?? They both knew he’d caught him. Marcus was ‘it’ now but he ran off laughing anyway. And what was he playing at calling James ‘Jamie’? There were two people in the world who called him ‘Jamie’; his mum and his granny (and his granny couldn’t call him it any more since she was dead).
James stopped running, blood rushing to his face as the fury swelled inside:
“You KNOW I got you!” he raised his voice louder, announcing it to as many folk in the playground as would listen:
“I GOT MARCUS! HE’S IT!”
A few girls took jumpy steps away from Marcus but most of the others just frowned. Marcus shook his head and made a face as if to say ‘so he says’ and most of the others relaxed. It was a tried and tested sneak tactic for some kids to pretend they hadn’t been caught. It was one of the ways slower kids could still join in.
No one seemed to believe that Marcus would fake it though. James could tell his face had gone that weird pink-speckled way it did when he was properly upset. He flung his arms out to his sides:
“Fine. I’m out. I’m not playing any more!”
Taz zipped towards James, a frown covering his face, clearly worried about his friend. That only got James more annoyed. Taz crossed his fingers (the sign that he wasn’t part of the game for now):
“You OK? Look, maybe you just thought you got him.”
Balling up his fists to keep the rage at bay James looked his best friend straight in the eye and swore. It was a phrase he’d heard a couple of times on the TV, he wasn’t even sure he’d said it right. The shock on Taz’s face left James ashamed but it was the yell from Mrs Eastwick (the playground supervisor) that really made James’ guts drop:
“James! Did you say what I think you did? That’s it, ten house points gone and you can go straight to the headmistress’s office!”
At least Marcus had the good sense to look sorry for what he’d done as James was paraded past him on the way into the school. Lunch time was over.
James had never been sent to the headmistress’s office before. He’d never even really been in trouble, either at this school or the old one. He could feel the macaroni cheese he’d had for lunch lurching up his throat a bit as he took the steps down to the front of the school.
The corridor outside the headmistress’s office stank of bleach. It didn’t help the sick feeling. Mrs Eastwick told him to sit on a spongy seat while she went in to see Miss Bruce.
The seat was way more comfortable than the ones they had at their desks. It was clearly an old one from the staff room, a ‘grown-up’ chair for people visiting the school.
James’ mum and dad had sat out here with him when they were asking about moving him to Crieff Primary. Miss Bruce had been smiling the whole time and had even got James a mug of hot chocolate to drink while they had talked about the school and about James’ hobbies and favourite subjects.
Miss Bruce was not smiling when she opened the door to her office:
“Come in James. Thanks Maggie, I’ll talk to James about this. You’d better get back up, it’s twenty minutes before the bell.”
Mrs Eastwick gave a sharp nod and hustled back up the stairs.
James was ushered into the office and given a seat opposite the desk. There was no offer of hot chocolate. No smiles. Miss Bruce sat down and looked at him. Not one word had been said since Mrs Eastwick left and James half expected the bell for the end of lunch to go before Miss Bruce would say anything. She sighed:
“James, what happened out there? I could hardly believe it when I heard what you’d said to Scott.”
James tried to explain about Marcus, and how he’d got him. He explained how no one had believed him. They all sided with Marcus. They all loved Marcus. Miss Bruce shook her head, and held a hand up telling him to stop:
“But it wasn’t Marcus you said that horrible thing to. It was someone who came and tried to help you, your friend. From what I can tell Scott seems to be your best friend?”
James nodded. There wasn’t much else he could say. Pins and needles prickled his face. He could feel Miss Bruce judging him. He felt ashamed.
She got up from her desk and made her way to a wall filled with strange little shelves. There were papers slotted into each one, photocopies of different forms and worksheets (it was where she’d got the forms for James’ mum and dad just a few weeks ago):
“I really hadn’t expected to have to write up one of these for you James. I’m sorry to have to do it.”
She placed a small pile of paper on her desk, the kind that copies what you write onto the layers below. James couldn’t remember the name for it. Miss Bruce looked up from her writing:
“OK, so this is a demerit slip. A copy of this will go to your parents and we keep this carbon copy in your school record.”
She pulled the two sheets apart. The copy sheet was blue and she took it over to a cabinet and sorted through to find a folder with James’ name on it.
He could see photocopies of different certificates and awards in there. There was even a copy of his certificate for winning first place in the Burns poetry reading in primary one. Now all the things he was proud of would be joined forever with his smudgy blue ‘demerit’ slip.
Miss Bruce closed the filing cabinet and was about to say something when someone knocked on the door. It was Mr Thomas the janitor’s assistant:
“Sorry Miss Bruce. It’s the boiler. I think I’ll have to call someone out to have a look at it.”
James was left in the office as Miss Bruce followed Mr Thomas out to inspect the problem. Despite the old radiators in Miss Bruce’s room James felt cold. His jacket was still up in the playground. His hands were white and numb.
He got up and went over to warm his hands by the radiator. Facing the wall his eyes had little to focus on. There were old pictures of the school decorating it. Most of them black and white. One of them caught his eye, there was a little card typed out and put behind the glass in the frame:
Pupils practising gas mask use. Crieff Primary. Picture from Strathearn Herald 4th November 1942
And there, right above the card, holding the rubber straps of his gas mask, was Marcus.
Chapter two of ‘Marcus’ will be available next Sunday. To get it delivered directly to your inbox click on this link.
Thanks for reading, let me know what you think, all the best, John