Portrait of a Boy

Chapter 4: A Boy's Life

The alarm clock’s incessant beeping woke me, and I sluggishly and reluctantly emerged from the warmth of the comforter into the stagnant and chilly air of our unheated bedroom. Petey was still fast asleep, his tiny frame innocently nestled under the covers. It was almost a shame to have to rouse the sleeping little boy. I leaned over his bed and gently jiggled his shoulder. He came to with a look of surprise and confusion, as though it took him a few moments to remember where he was.

“C’mon Petey,” I murmured softly, “Time to get up for school.”

He yawned and executed a cute little boy stretch, quiescently resigned to the disturbance.

Once Petey was dressed, I took him out along the darkened passageway, past mom’s room, and I could hear Alan snoring away inside. They wouldn’t be up for hours. Indeed, they had nothing to get up for. It was left to me to get Petey ready for school. I took Petey to the kitchen where I gave him toast and cereal. Then, while Petey ate, I had my shower, and had a few moments of quiet reflection in the bathroom where I could prepare myself for the beastliness of the day to follow. I had no time to sit and eat breakfast. I barely had time to dress myself, followed by a frantic round of collecting up school bags, gym kit and homework, and we were out of the door just in time for the bus.

And so it was that I returned to all this after a quite uneventful weekend which had been characterized by me looking after Petey and keeping him entertained. The rest of the time I was sitting in my room on my own trying to work on my play, reading and skulking around on the internet. I emerged from that almost solitary weekend and stepped back into the schoolyard and I almost laughed to myself with a quite ironic thought. I wondered whether it was possible to feel lonely even in a crowd, for here I was surrounded by hundreds of other kids, but I was still on my own. Everyone else hung about in groups, chatting about what they did over the weekend and who saw what at the cinema. It was the same when they went in for registration. The chatter usually continued right up until the moment the roll was called.

If my life at home was rather solitary, at school it was somewhat insular. It was not that I was anti-social or anything like that, but I did find it difficult to make friends. I never allowed anybody to get too close and I became very mealy-mouthed if anyone ever asked about my family or social life. I kept myself aloof; worked hard; tried to please the teachers, and generally tried to keep on good terms with everybody. But that was as far as it went. I knew I was never going to be one of the go-getters; the high achievers; the academically accomplished. I was merely happy to go with the flow. At school I was always the quiet one who sat at the back. My grades were not spectacular and neither was my conversation. Whilst I was not exactly unpopular, neither was I regarded as one of the regulars. I was beyond the realms of the in-crowd, such as it was at school. For me it was mostly a lonely, frustrating experience during which I continually felt displaced. I was neither part of one thing nor the other. Typical of me really, always on the periphery of everything.

As I came in through the school gates, I half expected to see Mr Sheppard just getting out of his car. He was usually hanging around, ever ready to acknowledge the other boys who were always so eager to greet him. I thought instantly of our last meeting when he had dropped me home on Friday afternoon, and for a moment I almost doubted that the incident would even stick in his memory. Then I thought of how much the other boys liked him and I felt sort of happy; like that incident was a little secret between us. Out of all the other boys, I alone had had the privilege of riding in his car. Sheppard, always friendly, always smiling, would say things like “Did you see the game?” and “I hope you’ve got that homework for me.” He always had something to say to everybody; he was always cheerful and talkative, despite his own sadness. I don’t think Sheppard ever realized just how much he was liked. I looked for him, but this morning, for some reason, there was no sign of him.

As I slowly crossed the schoolyard, I spotted Tony Slater arriving for school. Tony Slater was one of the most popular boys in the school. He was always dropped off by his dad in the mornings and stepped out of the car every day with some item of sporting equipment sticking out of his sports bag. It was either a football, or a catcher’s mitt or a tennis racket – always some accoutrement or other. I had often watched Tony getting dropped off in the mornings, outside the school gate. I had come to recognize the silver-gray car. Tony’s dad was obviously a professional of some kind; quite a young man with a thick head of hair that was already turning silver at the temples, lending him an air of refinement and distinction. Alan, on the other hand, whom I could never really come to think of as a father, was much older, and was already mostly bald. I quite liked Tony’s dad. Something told me he was a good dad and had a good relationship with his son. Maybe even shared his interests. I could see they were close. Seeing Tony climb out of the big, shiny car every morning was a stark contrast to my own situation. Neither Alan nor my mom had ever set foot near the school, yet alone driven me there. Tony’s dad was a picture of health, in good physical shape, and he was tall and slim and always immaculately dressed. It was clear he looked after himself. He probably played tennis with Tony. Conversely, all Alan ever did was sit around in front of the TV smoking heavily and putting on weight. And Tony’s dad was obviously moneyed and had impeccable taste because he wore really smart suits and ties. Clearly he took pride in his appearance and I liked the fact that he wore suspenders with his pleated slacks. His shirt cuffs were crisp and neatly clipped together with monogrammed cufflinks, and he had a very expensive Rolex chronograph on his wrist. He also drove one of those big Volvos which he always kept neat and clean, whereas Alan kept a beaten up old Toyota which he could hardly ever start in the mornings and which was always breaking down. I watched the way Tony’s dad brushed a speck of fluff off his boy’s shoulder and straightened his tie for him – such affectionate gestures – which for me were truly symptomatic of what having a father was all about. Yes, Tony Slater was lucky. He had a father. And, as I watched him now with his dad, exchanging confidences and idle chat, I made my way into the school already feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t hold it against Slater that he was so popular. I just wished I could be one of the people who knew him. That saddened me because I knew I never would be. We simply had nothing in common. Throughout my school days there were always other boys I had looked up to; boys I envied and revered. Tony was the current one. And Tony was the most likely candidate because he was in possession of exactly all the things I lacked. Tony was outgoing and gregarious; had lots of friends; was always at the centre of anything that was going on. He was also one of the teachers’ favorites, especially in gym where he was always nominated to pick a team. He ran for the school and played in the football team. On top of that he had all the physical attributes that I held up as my ideal. Yes, I was jealous of him. How could I not be jealous of his popularity, of his good looks, his air of self-assuredness? Everything about him made me wish I could be like him. In fact, not just be like him, but become him. To live his life and be in his family, and to look like him. Tony was sleek and tanned and had a beautiful physique, whereas I was puny and white and skinny. Tony was sporty, agile and athletic, whereas I was clumsy and slow and couldn’t even catch a ball when it was thrown to me. Tony had this unruly mop of thick fair hair, a kind of ash blond. It was longish and wavy, and looked real good nestling against the side of his tanned neck, and he always had it brushed to one side because it had a tendency to tumble over his eyes, making him seem detached and mysterious. I loved the way he had a habit of flipping the hair out of his eyes with a quick flick of his head. I had hair that was short and spiky and jet black; hair that you couldn’t do anything with except crop it; mow it, like grass. I looked on Tony with that particular respect which only marginalized schoolboys know. I admired Tony from afar; was always looking out for him. And I had often thought that if I could be like any boy in the entire world, I would have chosen to be like him.

When I walked into homeroom I could already see the usual knot of people all perched around Tony Slater’s desk. Slater was like a magnet. He attracted everybody. This had always been something of a mystery to me, particularly because the only thing I really knew about Tony Slater was limited to what I could ascertain by watching him. I knew that he had a group of regular friends, any or all of whom were constantly by his side. He was never alone. I knew all their faces. If only I could be one of them. But I was daydreaming again; living out my life by fantasizing about other people. Well, sometimes I thought that was the only thing that saw me through the day. And I was going to need something to see me through because the first lesson was gym.

If ever there was a lesson which made me appear conspicuous it was gym. Ordinarily, I craved anonymity. I just wanted to be left alone. But no, here was a lesson strictly devised for participation and co-operation; guaranteed to reveal all my shortcomings and make me stand out like a sore thumb. Once again I had to tolerate the locker-room mentality of those boys who loved to stroll up and down in their underwear instilling their own brand of tyranny by flicking their towels at the other boys’ butts. And then I had to suffer the usual indignity of once again being one of the last to be picked for a team. There was a warm-up around the sports ground, followed by forty-five minutes of unruly soccer. I was put in goal. I never understood why. Maybe it was thought I would do less harm that way. But for whatever reason, I stood at my post in the freezing cold and tried real hard to stop the ball whenever it came close. I leapt and dived and pounced as much as I could, and got bruised and muddy. But it was never enough. By the end of the game I had let in three goals. The more I let in, the more demoralized I became. But I knew that whatever I did, the other boys would just shout at me. They all seemed to have this idea that they were entitled to bawl me out whenever they felt like it. I was always being bawled out by somebody. It was no fun whatsoever. On the way back to the locker room, weary and muddied, I strolled in last to the accompaniment of various quips and jibes from the other boys; “Oh well done Dexy,” (sarcastic), or just plain “Dexy, you’re useless!” And at times like that I felt pretty useless too. Gym wouldn’t have been so bad if the teacher had been sympathetic. But old Weller was nothing of the sort. He had no sympathy for anyone without any interest in his lesson. In fact, if you proved inadequate in any way, he seemed to take it as an affront; like it was a personal insult to his teaching abilities. After the game, he came into the locker room. I was the last one out of the shower as usual. Ordinarily I just wanted to get dressed and get out of there as soon as I decently could. But Weller came and stood right in the middle of the room, just as I returned to the wooden bench with nothing but a towel around my waist. I could immediately sense the commotion in the room slow down and the noise lowered.

“Dexy, have you got a problem?” Weller asked, in none-too-pleasant tones.

A tremor of laughter went up amongst the other boys.

I stood there, almost naked, water dripping from my hair. I knew what was coming.

“I think you have,” Weller went on, “You’ve got a problem boy.”

Yes, I certainly have, I thought to myself.

“Do you KNOW the rules of soccer Dexy? Because if you don’t, I’ll gladly teach them to you.”

I didn’t say anything. There was no point. If I had retorted in any way Weller would only have rebuffed and made me look even more foolish. Weller liked his own particular brand of sarco-humor. The other boys all played up to him. I could sense all eyes in the room on me. The din had hushed to a near silence. And there was Weller, glaring at me accusingly, clad in that eternal tracksuit of his, that stupid whistle strung about his neck. It was a shame, I thought, that we should find ourselves standing there as adversaries, because I knew that underneath, when he was not being a teacher, Weller was probably quite a decent man. At any rate, I had seen the way he related to the other boys, almost like buddies. He talked to them, took them into his confidence, shared jokes and related to them like they were on the same level, like he was their older brother or something; their mentor; ingratiating himself with all the jocks, all getting chummy with each other. But when I felt myself standing there, almost naked, and everyone looking at me, it was just painful. I wanted to cover myself up at the best of times. I was never one of those who flaunted my body. I hated my body. That was what made it all the more painful to suddenly find myself the centre of attention, courtesy of old Weller. I wished I could just energize out of there, but alas there was no Starship to rescue me. I merely limped back to my place and slowly got dressed. Slowly and forlornly, because I was starting to feel sorry for myself again. People were always doing that. I never bothered anybody. All I ever wanted was to be left alone. But apparently, in this sad existence of mine, that was not possible. No. As always, someone else was once again thoughtlessly making my life miserable.

The incident in gym tainted the rest of the day. It was no surprise. Just another one of the many little crises I had to deal with day to day. I had come to expect it. By lunchtime I was already weary and depressed. But even lunch was something of a chore. I hated lunchtimes. At the height of the lunch hour the noise in the dining hall could reach an almost deafening level and the heat became intolerable. Most days I would quickly finish eating and get out of there as quickly as I decently could. But this time, no sooner had I turned away from the servery counter with my tray, I headed for the usual quiet corner table where I was always guaranteed a seat, but I saw it was occupied. There were no spare seats. I hovered there uncertainly for a moment, scanning the room for a spare seat. As it happened, there was a table that was more or less in the center of the cavernous room with one empty seat. But I found myself hesitating. Tony Slater was there with two of his friends. I steeled myself and headed towards him. I meandered through the other occupied tables, filled with mild trepidation. For me this was not merely a departure from my normal routine, but totally uncharacteristic of me. It was exciting though. My trepidation was compounded by the uncertainty of not knowing what reaction I would get. Was the spare seat reserved for someone else?

I elicited some momentary glances from the two acquaintances Tony was sitting with, who were at that moment engaged in a game of cards. As I set down my tray I watched for Tony’s reaction. He didn’t notice me however. At that moment he was engrossed in a glossy magazine of some description. He’d finished eating, which was apparent by the way he had pushed his tray to the center of the table, and was sitting low down and well back in his chair, with his legs stretched out under the table. The magazine partially obscured him. I sat down without a word, merely a quick glance at his two card-playing companions, and made a start on the meal. Today it was some corned beef type concoction of uncertain origin. The type of mysterious amalgamation that the school servery was famous for. It was bland and lukewarm, but I ate it anyway. I hadn’t had any breakfast and dinner was still a long way away.

Tony’s friends continued with their rather disjointed conversation and their game of Blackjack. They largely ignored me. I watched them between mouthfuls, noting how relaxed they all were. I watched how they were laying cards on the table, exchanging remarks and witticisms and sometimes nudging each other as they went. Tony, who was not involved in their game, was talking about tennis and who he wanted to win the US Open. Since his gaze was firmly on the pages of the magazine, he could almost have been talking to himself. But the other two were listening and, in their own funny little way, carrying on this obscure and convoluted conversation. On the face of it, it was just ordinary schoolboy chitchat. Nothing much of interest to anybody. I knew next to nothing about tennis. But what aroused my interest was the way they responded to each other; like they felt really comfortable with one another. They were all smiling; relaxed; cheerful. They were GOOD together, that was what struck me. It was like they were really good friends; could really relate to one another. As I sat there slowly working my way through this questionable meal, it came home to me that I had never found myself in that situation. Perhaps that was what I found so attractive about the three of them; the fact that I had never found myself taken into anybody’s confidence like that. I knew I would never sample the delights of having my own little clique of friends. Somehow, I knew this was never to fall into my sphere of things. It was simply not in my nature, not in my destiny. I was condemned to be forever on the outside looking in. Who could have thought that simply sitting there reading and playing cards with your friends, just passing the time with idle conversation could mean so much? Simply to behold it was a pleasure. Well, it may not sound like much, but at that moment I longed to be one of them. I longed for the exquisite pleasure of simply sitting next to Tony; to be acknowledged by him; to be taken into his confidence; to know everything about him. I longed to tell him everything about myself; to pour out the details of my lonely existence; to be revered by Tony in the same way as I revered him. I would have given anything to have sat there amongst them, playing cards and chatting. I would even have talked about tennis, if that was what Tony wanted. But, all I ever did was watch. Watch and listen. That was my purpose in life; my raison d’être – the only thing I was ever any good at, for in all this time Tony had never once acknowledged my presence. For him, I didn’t even exist. And indeed, for the brief time that I sat at that table observing him, he never once raised his blond head to even glance in my direction.

The one ray of hope which shone out of the clouds of despair was English. It was my favorite lesson. So I was all the more relieved that English was the last lesson of the day. Altogether a pleasant way of rounding off what had otherwise been a pretty beastly day. I felt safe in English. I was good at it. Best of all, Mr Sheppard was the English teacher. I felt that Mr. Sheppard was on my side. But quite apart from that, I liked English because Sheppard was a good teacher. Not like some of the other teachers who spoke continually in patronizing tones and seemed to spend most of the time shouting above the din of raised voices trying to instill some kind of order. And he was not like those who could only teach by dictating or by making you copy from books or the whiteboard. He knew how to get everyone in the class involved, so that they were interested, discussing and asking questions, participating in the learning process. And when Sheppard launched into his explanations, he didn’t use such obscure language that it was impossible to take in what he was saying. Sheppard made it easy; entertaining even. Sheppard would never have done what Weller did; bawl someone out in front of everybody. He had more sense. More respect. He never resorted to humiliation. But then, he was so well respected, he didn’t have to.

Above all, English was the only lesson I shared with Tony Slater. Tony always sat at the front, a couple of rows in front of me and a little to the left, so that it was possible to see something of his profile. I always made an effort to be first into the classroom, so that I could watch him walk in, usually with one of his numerous acquaintances tagging along by his side. We had never actually spoken, except perhaps in passing, but I liked to feel that Tony’s presence there provided me with a strange sense of moral support. I knew that as long as we were there, I could look up and steal a glance at Tony whenever I felt like it and that by doing so it somehow bolstered me and gave me a lovely warm feeling inside.

As usual, I went to Mr. Sheppard’s room early. There was still a good twenty minutes before the start of the lesson. There was nobody around, so I took my usual seat near the back of the room and settled down to see if I could make any progress on my play. It wasn’t even a very good play. In fact it was all rather muddled and confusing. I knew that it was going to take more than the brief duration of the lesson to produce anything remotely coherent. One look at the papers spread before me only induced a sigh of despair.

I had not been alone for very long when Mr. Sheppard came into the room in something of a hurry, carrying a pile of books under his arm which he looked just about to drop. He proceeded to dump them somewhat clumsily onto his desk. I was happy to see him, having missed him that morning. I wasn’t altogether surprised to see him arrive early for his next lesson because I knew that Sheppard often took breaks in his classroom. For some reason, which I had yet to ascertain, Sheppard had a certain aversion to the staff room. Something told me that perhaps he didn’t quite feel welcome in there. Anyway, it was a few seconds before he noticed me sitting there across the room. But when he did his face seemed to light up, as though he was genuinely pleased to see me, and it was the first time we spoke since he had dropped me home on Friday afternoon.

“Ah, hello Ben,” he said, in a very warm and bright tone.

My heart soared. He had remembered to call me Ben!

I merely smiled, glad to be in his company again, and particularly glad that Sheppard had remembered to call me by my proper name. Somehow I hadn’t expected that he would. Nobody did.

“Did you want to see me?” Mr. Sheppard asked.

“No, just wanted to get a head start,” I replied.

“Well, well, you are eager, aren’t you?” he remarked.

Mr. Sheppard set about taking things out of his pockets and laying each item out on his desk. After the books, it was pens, keys, a half-eaten packet of jelly candy. Finally, he took off his jacket and hung it on the back of his chair.

“If you need any help just say,” he offered.

“What I need is inspiration,” I replied.

He looked up from his task of arranging the objects on his desk and smiled at me, as though I had just said something profound and amusing.

“I must say it’s good to see you being a little more talkative than you were the other day.”

I guessed he must have been referring to my rather mealy-mouthed behavior in the car on Friday afternoon. The memory of it touched off a twinge of guilt. Guilt because I knew that Mr. Sheppard had surmised rather a lot about my home life by that brief encounter with my mom. The thought of it made me cringe inside. I was all too well aware that Sheppard had tried to strike up a conversation with me when we were in the car and he had enquired if anything was wrong. But I just hadn’t felt like talking. I felt bad about that.

“Well, I’m sorry about that,” I said.

“You don’t have to apologize to me,” Mr. Sheppard exclaimed.

“Well, I just want you to know that I didn’t mean to be rude,” I asserted.

He shook his head.

“You weren’t rude Ben.”

“It’s just that…”

“Yes?” said Mr. Sheppard, getting interested.

“I’ve got a lot on my mind, that’s all,” I said, vaguely, and just left the sentiment hanging in the air.

Mr. Sheppard stopped for a moment as though pausing for thought, and smiled once again. He actually had quite a nice smile. There was something gratifying; reassuring about that smile, I thought. And that smile, coupled with the fact that Sheppard had actually called me Ben, made me feel as though some kind of understanding had been struck between us.

Mr. Sheppard then decided to come over to where I was sitting.

“Is everything alright Ben?” he asked, hovering in the aisle between the desks, “You’re starting to worry me.”

I shook my head, not really prepared to go into details. He knew there was stuff weighing on my mind, and he was probing again, but I really wasn’t ready to have that discussion with him. At least not yet.

“What is it, Ben? Bad day?”

“You could say that,” I conceded.

Mr. Sheppard gave me a concerned and really quite sympathetic smile and sat down at the desk across the aisle from me, leaning towards me attentively.

“Do you want to tell me about it?”

I thought about it for a moment, then shrugged, again evasively.

“Everything alright at home?” he asked.

Now he was prying. That was the second time he had asked me about home. But he had already seen for himself the rundown shack of an apartment that I lived in and encountered the hostile intransigence of my mom. He knew too much already. My instinctive reaction was to be coy and defensive. That was my way: to reveal nothing. Though I still remembered what Mr. Sheppard had said to me in the car: “If you ever need anyone to talk to…”, which was the equivalent of a standing offer; like it would always be there if I changed my mind. Truthfully, there was nothing I would have liked more. I would have loved the opportunity to explain it all to him, to pour out all my problems and concerns, but what would I have said? Was I supposed to tell him that I was lonely because I had no friends? Miserable, because the other boys had mocked me in gym? Frustrated because I was ugly and useless, or depressed because I had ineffectual parents who didn’t care about me and couldn’t stand the sight of each other? What? There was nothing really tangible there. I knew Sheppard wanted to help, but what was the sense in bothering him with it? He couldn’t have known it, but I was all too well aware that Sheppard had his own problems to contend with so how could I go to him with my relatively trivial tribulations? It was a shame because I knew Sheppard would have listened sympathetically. I liked him and looked up to him, and I couldn’t think of anybody else in the world I would rather have told my problems to. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. Because of the restrictions of time and situation, it just wasn’t right. And for that reason I took rather too long to answer him.

In the absence of any answer from me, Mr. Sheppard continued.

“You know Ben, you should try getting more involved; mixing a bit more. You seem to spend too much time on your own.”

This unprovoked advice worried me a little. It sounded as though Sheppard had already made up his mind as to the nature of my problems.

Luckily, he didn’t pursue it, much to my relief. He saw the papers spread out on the desk in front of me and his gaze seemed to be drawn towards them.

“What are you writing, a novel?” he asked.

“Well, it’s a play actually,” I confessed.

“A play? Let me see.”

I handed him the little sheaf of papers which I had covered in a neat, spidery handwriting, all in crystal blue ink. It was the beginnings of a one act play. Mr Sheppard studied the words for a few seconds and looked up, raising his eyebrows. He nodded to me, smiling encouragingly.

“Wow,” he said, genuinely impressed, “You even have narration and stage directions. It looks promising.”

I smiled back, chuffed by his compliments.

“Tell me,” he began again with a change of note, “You enjoy plays right?”

I nodded.


“So have you given any more thought to the school play?”

I shrugged, only now remembering the reason why I had gone to see him after school last Friday afternoon.

“Not really,” I confessed.

“Well think about it now,” Mr. Sheppard went on, “We’ll be casting the roles soon.”

I shrugged again, for the umpteenth time, aware that I probably appeared clueless and indecisive.

“Why not?” Mr. Sheppard enquired.

“I dunno,” I said, shaking my head, “Writing plays is one thing, but acting?”

“Oh, it’s not as bad as all that!” Mr. Sheppard said, with an expansive gesture.

“No, I’m really no good in front of an audience,” I insisted, remembering my embarrassment in the locker room earlier.

“Don’t turn it down out of hand,” he urged me, “At least think about it. It’s a good opportunity to get involved.”

“I don’t want to get involved!” I retorted, impetuously and perhaps a little too loudly.

Mr. Sheppard readdressed the issue with a different tone.

“What I mean is you’ll enjoy it,” he began, slowly, “It’ll be fun. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but we’ll have a good time. You might even make a few friends.”

I turned away, repulsed by his coercive tones. I think he sensed my discomfort and took a deep breath.

“Sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to pressure you. My problem is I have to get a cast together soon. We don’t have much time.”

“What’s the play?” I asked, suddenly curious.

“Lord of the Flies.”

“And what part did you have in mind? Just out of curiosity.”


“Jack!” I almost shouted.

“Yes, you’re just right for it,” Sheppard insisted.

“Is that supposed to be a compliment?” I said, almost comically.

Mr. Sheppard laughed.

“Ah well, look, Ben, the role is yours if you want it.”

And with that he leaned across the aisle towards me with a grave expression and looked at me searchingly, raising his eyebrows. I looked closely back at him, at his pleading expression; his eternal tinted glasses and that neat brown hair of his, and was torn for a moment between on the one hand my own selfishness, and on the other the opportunity to do him a favor. I didn’t really want to do it; but I didn’t want to let Sheppard down either. Jack for goodness sake! He was the antihero, probably the role I liked the least. I felt I had more in common with Piggy than with Jack.

“But why me?” I asked, not really understanding his motivation, “There must be plenty of others who’d love to do it.”

“I want YOU,” said Mr. Sheppard unequivocally, narrowing his eyes at me almost as though throwing down a challenge.

For a moment his statement hung in the air. It was almost as though those three words could have held an even deeper meaning. I cocked my head uncertainly.

“I dunno.”

“At least promise me you’ll think about it,” Sheppard insisted, determined to get some kind of undertaking out of me, “You’d be doing me a big favor.”

With a sigh of resignation, I finally nodded. But it was more a nod of acquiescence than of enthusiasm. And with that, Mr. Sheppard got up and went back to the front of the room to start the lesson.

* * * * * *

One acquaintance I could associate with at school was Marcus. Marcus was quite a gregarious boy, who was intelligent and likeable and was in my English class. He wasn’t what I would call a friend, but he was one of the very few people that I was on chatting terms with. At any rate he had always shown me respect by passing the time in conversation. Marcus was the kind of boy that was on chatting terms with everybody. He was popular because he was given to bouts of incongruity and horseplay and he loved rough and tumble games and practical jokes. Everyone thought he was funny. He was always at the centre of the general joshing and joking that went on in the schoolyard. When he was with his friends, and they were all together, all they talked about was things like football and things that didn’t really interest me. But whenever I caught him on his own, he could actually be quite good company. The best thing about him, of course, was that he often hung about with Tony Slater.

Marcus was sitting in the school library as usual. It was his favorite spot and where I knew he could always be found during free study periods. I went along with the vague notion of getting some work done on my play. Marcus was the only one sitting at the central table, with his back to old Preston, the librarian. He was engrossed in his laptop, leaning into the screen with studious fascination, his nose barely inches from the screen, and scarcely acknowledged me as I joined him. Old Preston’s eyes were already upon me, suspecting that some illicit whispering might develop the moment she spotted us together. She was always glaring out from behind her little desk at the far end of the room, flashing those round spectacles of hers at anybody who looked remotely disruptive. She enforced the rule of silence as far as she could, but because of her cowering demeanor, nobody ever took much notice.

“Hey take a look at this,” said Marcus, as soon as he spotted me join him at the table.

He turned his laptop around on his palm for me to see. It was a picture of a naked girl squirming about coquettishly on a bed. It must have been one of those cheesy porn websites that the other boys often raved about. The girl was tanned and had this unnatural matt texture to her skin, with incredibly long legs and a head of hair that was coiffed to within an inch of its life. I wondered if Marcus was aware that the school monitored the internet traffic on its wireless system.

“What a cracker, eh? Whadja reckon?” said Marcus, with a mischievous smirk.

Old Preston was already looking over, probably sifting the merits of whether to intervene. I ignored her and looked at the girl on the screen, trying to understand Marcus’s fascination. It was a very pretty young girl; in the event a naked young girl. A young girl with extremely large tits. So what?

“Wouldn’t half mind getting my hands on those,” Marcus went on.

“Assuming she’s into underage boys,” I said, with a tone of sarcasm.

“Quiet over there!” Old Preston called out, her voice as croaky as ever.

Marcus hastily turned the laptop back towards him and flipped the screen down, almost offended that I had not taken his remark the way it was intended.

“Whassa matter with you Dexy? Don’t you like girl’s tits or somethin’?”

“I’ve got nothing against them,” I replied, cryptically.

“Quiet, I said!” Old Preston again.

Marcus shook his head, more amused by my remark than anything.

“I dunno, you’re a strange one Dexy, you really are.”

Was I? Just because I couldn’t see why other boys were crazy about girl’s tits, that made me strange? In actual fact it was other boys I found strange. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. After all, what were they? Just two lumps, more often than not overrated, difficult to see how they wouldn’t get in the way. I was sure that if some alien were looking down at the human race from space they would probably misinterpret this obsession as having something to do with procreation. But it was nothing of the sort. Their function was purely secondary. So what was it they aroused in men that caused so much fascination? I wondered if I would ever understand it.

Having closed his laptop, Marcus pushed it to one side and pulled out of his bag a little paperback book and began reading. I spread the sheets of my unfinished play before me and prepared to engross myself in it once more. Old Preston went back to doing whatever it was she seemed to spend all her time doing. I could never understand exactly what it was she did, for she hardly ever left her desk and when she was not sticking bits of tape over the torn covers of books, she was either reading or making lists. But I never imagined this could be a full time job. I concluded that her primary task in life was to maintain the silence; a task she was infinitely unsuitable for since she was hard of hearing.

Before I had the opportunity to add even one word more to my play, I noticed the book that Marcus was reading. It was ‘Lord of the Flies’.

“What are you reading that for?” I asked him.

“I might be auditioning for the school play,” Marcus announced, smugly.

“Oh? What part?”

“Simon,” he said, beaming.

“Simon!” I exclaimed.

Old Preston looked up again. We ignored her.

“Yeah, Simon. What’s wrong with that?”

I shook my head.

“Nothing. Nothing at all. I might be auditioning too,” I added.

Marcus was genuinely taken aback.

“Really? What part?”

“Jack,” I said.

“YOU play JACK! I can’t imagine that.”

“I know,” I conceded, “I would much rather have played Ralph.”

“You can’t play Ralph. That part has already been cast.”

“Really?” I asked, interested, “Who’s playing Ralph?”

“Slater,” said Marcus.

That revelation struck me completely into a momentary silence.

“TONY Slater?”

“Yeah, of course Tony Slater,” Marcus nodded, with a belittling glare, “Y’ know any other Slaters around here?”


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