Portrait of a Boy

Chapter 1: Beginnings

I finished off picking up the rubbish, the inevitable scraps of paper that the boys recklessly left behind, and contemptuously threw them into the waste paper basket. It was as if they didn't quite believe that I would ever notice those surreptitious notes that passed between them; those illicit little balls of paper that sometimes flew about the room. The fact that we didn't allow them to use cellphones in the classroom had reduced them to communicating in the old fashioned way - good old words on paper, although of course it was inevitable that a fair amount of surreptitious texting still went on. As usual they had left the room looking like a disaster area, so that I had to go about the room straightening desks and gathering up the odd stray textbook that had been abandoned here and there. Like so many of their other antics, I had long since learned to turn a blind eye to it. Experience had taught me that it was easier to strike a balance, to reach a state of compromise with the boys, than to risk incurring their wrath. They could demonstrate quite unequivocally how ruthless they could be when they decided they didn't like a particular teacher, as they had done with a number of my predecessors.

After disposing of the litter, I returned to the platform at the front of the room and turned off the interactive whiteboard. Then I sat back down at my desk and closed the laptop. Once again I found myself staying behind, as I always did, with the vague notion of catching up on some marking. As the echoed shouts from the corridor began to peter out, with the last of the dawdlers eventually taking their leave, somehow the empty room suddenly depressed me. Surveying the now redundant classroom, I was aware only of the stark contrast between what had only moments before been a full and lively classroom, bustling with restless, chattering boys, and was now a desolate landscape of battered desks and abandoned chairs. Perhaps that was why the prospect of going home so daunted me - it was the very thought of leaving this hive of activity, which was ordinarily bursting with youthful energy and ringing with exuberant vocalizations, only to return to the relative silence and isolation of my big empty house.

Bored in advance by the thought of it, I slumped backward in my chair, my gaze falling on the irregular pile of papers in front of me. I had thought I would spend an hour or so getting a head start, to avoid having to do it at home, but now I found I had no stomach for it. Suddenly, the enthusiasm to get it over with had deserted me. I found myself simply unable to plough through all those convoluted and undecipherable compositions. I almost turned away in disgust. I merely pushed the little pile away from me and sat there for a few moments, palms over my face. I was tired; tired and depressed - the only two things I seemed able to feel of late. Tired from the wearying demands of my job, tired from the rigors of the day, tired maybe even of life itself. And, for perhaps the umpteenth time that day, my mind filled with fleeting memories of Joey. Perhaps this was a sign that I really was losing my touch; sinking deeper and deeper into disillusionment with my job and spending more and more time dwelling on the past. I was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate nowadays; so much so that at times, even while in the middle of a class, I was almost unable to hide my pain. Lately, it was becoming a battle to continue to do what had for many years come so easily to me. I found myself summoning memories I had played back to myself countless times already; perhaps every single day for the past few months. Every single day since the day Joey died.

But that was last October. It was now September. Almost a whole year had passed. I had hoped to have put the whole episode behind me by now, but if anything my problems had just started to come to a head. I was beginning to think I had really reached rock bottom. I had hit rock bottom, knowing that I had just had the worst year I had ever experienced, and it was probably the worst I would ever feel in my entire life. After Joey died I waited for that black, prospectless period to pass. I rode it out and suffered it and waited until I started to feel better, anticipating the day when I would stop feeling like that. I waited until so many days had passed, patiently riding out the storm. I waited and waited, but nothing ever changed. I waited so long that with each passing day the hope slowly drained from my existence. Weeks turned into months, and that day never came. It never came and I finally had to accept that perhaps it would never come. It would never come and I resigned myself to the certainty that I would never stop feeling like that.

Nowadays, even the simplest of tasks had become an effort. Simply going to work; the act of doing my job, took all the energy and concentration I could muster. Things which had previously held no challenge or fear now daunted and filled me with dread. There was a time, for example, when I had been the first one in the staff room in the mornings; wandering about, mug in hand, full of enthusiasm, engaging in polite exchanges with colleagues and kids alike. Now, I had to contend with constant lateness. Lateness was something the Principal wouldn't tolerate. In his list of teacher's taboos, lateness ranked right up there with what he might have termed 'fraternization' with a student. It was simply not done. Not only because it showed slackness on my part and caused disruption, but also because it set a very bad example. It was for that reason that I had been hauled in to see Perkins, the Principal, that very morning, to receive my sternest lecture yet. Perkins had delivered it in the tone of voice that he usually reserved for boys who committed the gravest transgressions. And that was exactly how I had felt: like a naughty schoolboy. It was a sentiment I didn't appreciate and even more could have done without. But the Principal did have a point: my lateness was becoming habitual and disruptive and he had to think of the best interests of the school. And yet, Perkins could have had no inkling of the problem I harbored. I could hardly, even had I been inclined to, admit to him that the problem was being caused by my habitual drinking. I could not even have begun to explain to Perkins what I was doing sitting in the bar every night on my own, obliterating my mind with alcohol because the thought of going home was too painful to contemplate. How could I possibly qualify such a story? Furthermore, how could I ever convince Perkins that it was only the alcohol that kept me going; that gave me the strength to face life on my own? Perkins would have given his standard diagnosis; the same diagnosis he gave to every boy who stood before him: he would have told him to stop this foolishness, to snap out of it, pull himself together. But it was alright for him. Perkins had it made. A few more years and then early retirement; a generous pension after forty years in the profession; a sixty grand car; nice big house; golf at the weekends. He had sailed through life; taken the accepted course. No such trials and tribulations for him. And yet, he was still Principal of the school, and because of that I had been obliged to meekly mutter an undertaking to try not to let it happen again. In reality, there was little choice but to appease him. To be fair, he had been lenient by not taking disciplinary action.

I rubbed my eyes, trying to throw off the shadow of that morning's encounter with Perkins. The very thought of it left me with a lingering feeling of distaste. I raised my head only to find that I was no longer alone in the classroom. Whilst I had been sitting there submerged in my thoughts, a small lean figure had stepped onto the threshold on the far side of the room, clutching the handle of the open door and looking as though unsure if he should enter. But I was not startled. It was a friendly face.

"Come in Dexy," I said.

"Sorry Mr Sheppard, I didn't mean to disturb you."

"Oh you're not disturbing me," I told him, "What can I do for you?"

I liked Dexy. He was a pleasant boy and a good student. I always had time for him. He was a bit of an oddity of a boy, somewhat aloof, with no real friends to speak of, something of a loner actually. But he was reasonably intelligent and never a problem. He was a little small for his age, very slight in stature and frail looking, which convinced me that puberty was still a little way off for him. He was a slightly shabby boy, not scruffy or anything, but with clothes that always seemed a little shopworn and didn't quite fit right. His pants never had a tangible crease in them and his tie was a little grubby. His shoes looked like they had never been polished and some of his shirt collars looked frayed. But he had this beautiful head of thick black spiky hair that was always sticking up, a little unkempt, like it resisted all attempts to comb it into some kind of order. Despite that, he was very pretty, with a handsome oval face and classic features with a neat narrow nose, thin, pink inviting lips and the most delicious gray-green eyes. He always had a wonderful sultry, almost detached expression about him, which sometimes made him look a little arrogant and cocksure. He wasn't of course, it was just the guileless way he looked which gave him this visage of dazed innocence. He was definitely eye-candy in the classroom.

He let go of the door handle and walked up to the platform, stopping to stand a few feet away with his hands in his pockets. The strap of his laptop bag was slung over one shoulder and it was hanging by his side, resting on the side of his butt. There was something cautious and reserved about his demeanor.

"I saw the thing you put up on the notice board."

His voice had a very alluring treble tone to it. He was so cute when he spoke.

"About the school play?" I asked.

He nodded.

"Yeah, I wondered like, do you need to audition or something?"

"We will be holding auditions, yes," I replied, "Are you interested?"

He shrugged as though unsure.

"I dunno," he said, "Maybe."

"Come here," I said, beckoning him closer with a wave of my hand.

I took my pen and reached for a sheet of paper from the pile.

"Here's a list of all the possibilities," I said, pointing with my pen.

It was a list of all the parts we were going to be auditioning for. I watched his pretty eyes focus on the paper on my desk as I turned it towards him. He hesitantly stepped up to the end of the desk and leaned over, his small hands resting on the polished wooden surface. He had beautiful fingers - what I liked to call writer's fingers - tactile little digits with fingernails so clean and pink. As he stood there looking down, scanning the paper on my desk, I noticed just how long and seductive his eyelashes were. He was standing so close to me that I could smell him - the unmistakable scent of boy: a hint of tangy sweat bound up with the faintly chemical whiff of his deodorant. It had been a long time since I had sampled that particular cocktail, a heady blend which reminded me indubitably of Joey. It was reminiscent of the closeness of the bond between us. Of course, there had been no boy since Joey. Indeed, how could there ever be another?

"So what do you think?" I asked him.

He shrugged again, lifting his gray-green eyes from the paper on my desk, and looked directly at me. He was very beautiful.

"I dunno."

"What are you not sure about?" I asked, resolved to get to the root of his ambivalence.

"Whether I can actually act," he explained, "And whether I can really spare the time."

I let out a dismissive little laugh, hoping to ease his hesitation.

"I don't care if you can act," I said, "this isn't Hollywood. But only you can decide if you can spare the time. If you do decide to get involved, I will expect one hundred percent commitment. I don't put up with timewasters."

He pursed his pretty lips and nodded.

"Yes sir. I know."


He looked straight at me, fixing me with his pretty eyes, evidently determined not to mess me around.

"Can I think about it sir?"

"Sure," I said, "But don't take too long. We're on a tight schedule."

Pressing the top of my pen with my thumb, it retracted with a click, indicating that we had finished, and I shifted my gaze back to the papers on my desk. I expected the boy to turn and leave, but he didn't. He stayed rooted to the same spot, regarding me with that ever-enquiring look of his.

I turned back to him.

"Don't you have a home to go to?" I asked, "Or do you really love this place that much?"

He shrugged again, this time dismissively, always calm and laid back.

"I've missed my bus now," he said, but in such a way that he made it sound as though it was of no consequence; a mere observation.

"Then you'd better go and wait for the next one," I said.

He turned, clutching his laptop bag, and glanced tentatively at the window. The sky was a menacing grey.

"Looks like rain," he remarked.

"Best get home before it starts," I added.

He turned to go, nodding in acquiescence, but still hesitant. I watched the boy go, shuffling back out of the door looking sad and dejected, and I wondered whether perhaps there had been something else on his mind.

After he'd gone, I made my customary visit to the staff room before leaving school myself. It was a good twenty minutes before I left the building. It occurred to me that I, too, was stalling. Gone were the days when I left the school in such a rush that I could barely contain my anticipation of getting back home to Joey. Gone were the days when I would drive home posthaste so I could be with my boy. How I longed for that vision of Joey in our private little sanctuary, eagerly anticipating my return. He would sit there listening for my key in the lock. Instead, the house was now devoid of the little boy laughter and vitality, and I thought of all the little boy paraphernalia that Joey had left behind, the bike that would never be ridden, the computer that never got switched on, the football that would never be kicked. I thought of the sheer deprivation of being without Joey's companionship. But most of all, I thought of how the house was now so cold and quiet and empty, how there was no longer a welcoming presence waiting for me and how the place was just so sterile without Joey.

It had started to rain quite hard by the time I left the main building. The yard was already awash. I sprinted over to the car which was sitting in the school parking lot, and rummaged about in my pocket for the remote. Once inside, and out of the rain, I deposited my laptop case and papers on the passenger seat. The car was quite cramped, it being only a two-seater. It was an Alfa Romeo Maestrale, a sporty convertible with a soft top. Not that that was of much utility in the rain. It had been Joey who had talked me into buying this car. He loved it. It had certainly seen us through some memorable trips. I stuck the key into the ignition and started it up, strangely delighted at the friendly whistling roar of the V6. That noise always made Joey smile.

I had driven no further than the end of the road when, through the mechanical sweep of the windscreen wipers, I spotted someone looking remarkably like Dexy walking quite slowly, seemingly oblivious to the rain. In fact I was sure it was him. I slowed down and pulled the car over just ahead of him and wound down the passenger window.

"I thought you were going to get the bus," I called to him.

He stopped in his tracks when he saw me and nonchalantly came over, peering in through the open window. He was looking somewhat dazed, his face saturated by the rain which was already dripping from his nose and chin.

"I am," he said.

"But you live in the opposite direction," I observed.

"I was just going for a walk," he lied.

"What, in the rain?" I exclaimed, "Honestly, anyone would think you didn't want to go home."

Dexy said nothing. He merely looked about him, first one way and then the other, as if distracted, and then a nervous smile crept onto his thin lips, apparently an acknowledgement that he hadn't succeeded in convincing me. He looked so disconsolate standing there. The hair which usually stuck up so insistently, was now plastered to his forehead, and his face was greasy from the rain. I couldn't help but to feel sorry for him. He obviously didn't want to go straight home, for whatever reason, and I suddenly felt a strange stab of pity for him; pity and affection. Affection because I had to admit that we probably had more in common than I thought.

I put on a conciliatory tone and opened the car door.

"Get in," I said resignedly, shifting the laptop and papers into the space behind the passenger seat.

He seemed to balk at my invitation, with a hint of terror and awkwardness in his expression.

"No, its okay sir, I prefer to walk."

"Don't be silly," I insisted, aware that I was sounding too much like a teacher, and said again, "get in."

Dexy was hesitant, but knew he couldn't conjure up a credible enough excuse for wanting to walk home in the rain. He seemed to draw a deep breath and then climbed in next to me with a look of resignation. He was apprehensive, but I could tell he was relieved. He closed the door and put his laptop bag in the footwell. Then he sat there, hunched up, with his hands folded neatly on his lap, dripping rainwater all over the upholstery.

"You're all wet," I said.

"I know," was all the boy would say.

On the drive, it was stop and go all the way. The traffic crawled tiresomely, speeds having been severely hampered by the rain. I was rather jumpily edging the car along. Dexy said very little in the car, but I guessed he was probably listening to the radio which was burbling away in the background. I don't know why, but I quite liked having Dexy there, sitting next to me in the car. It was only going to be a short drive, but it was strangely comforting. It was a little odd having one of my students in the privacy of my car. After all, a car was generally a very personal environment, an extension of your own home, like an additional set of clothes. And so, it was all the more alien to have sitting next to me a twelve-year-old who, if I really thought about it, I supposed I was quite fond of.

In the relative silence between us, I couldn't help wondering about Dexy. He was a good enough student; bright and philosophical. He displayed amazing insight and intelligence at times. On the whole, he was regarded as a thoughtful, well-adjusted boy, and he was never any trouble. I wished that I could say that about all my students. And yet, there was something about Dexy; something about the way he conducted himself and the things he said. There was something about his aloofness and the mysterious way in which he went about his business, to say nothing of his unique allure. His coming to see me after school had aroused that old teacher's alarm bell which instinctively warned you when things were not quite as they should be. You could always detect when there was some hidden agenda or ulterior motive. But I couldn't quite pinpoint what it was.

He was the first to break the silence.

"Just drop me off at the end of my road," he said, "I can walk the rest."

"No way," I protested, "What's the point of me giving you a lift if you're still going to get wet?"

"It's okay, really," he insisted.

"Don't be silly," I said.

He didn't bother with a rejoinder. He wasn't convincing me and he knew it.

There was another short silence, during which I wondered what was behind his protestations. I deigned to probe him a little.

"What is it Dexy, do your parents beat you or something?" I joked.

Dexy laughed.

"No, nothing like that."

He offered no further explanation. He was obviously not in the mood for discussion, and I was resigned to the prospect that I wasn't going to get anything more out of him, so we drove the rest of the way in relative silence; a silence broken only by the sound of the rain drumming against the soft top of the car and the mechanical clump of the windscreen wipers.

Leaving the busy high street, we turned into a series of side roads that constituted one of the less salubrious parts of town. The area was very run down, with boarded up shops and graffiti on the walls. This led onto a housing estate dominated by four nondescript tenement buildings that looked pretty forbidding. They were set equidistance apart in a barren concrete wasteland characterized by walkways and alleys, themselves adorned with dog mess and graffiti. Somehow the place looked even more depressing in the rain. Dexy pointed out the second block on the left, and I glanced up at the myriad of windows wondering which of these cubbyholes in the sky constituted home for him. It was a pretty deprived area, overrun by street gangs and drug peddlers, bristling with thieves and carjackers and with clusters of mean-looking youths hanging ominously in the alleyways. Undeterred by the rain, they watched as I slowed the car and pulled up to the sidewalk, huddled into their greasy hoodies, nonchalantly smoking cigarettes of dubious origin.

As the car came to a halt just on the edge of the pedestrianized precinct, I turned to Dexy and touched him softly on the arm.

"Dexy, I don't know what your problem is, but if you ever need anyone to talk to..."

He turned on me with a fierce expression, as though about to deny that there was anything wrong. As though he was about to tell me that I'd got hold of the wrong end of the stick. But he didn't. It appeared he thought the better of it and merely nodded meekly.

"Everything's okay, really," he said.

I nodded and then reached for the umbrella that I kept in the little luggage space behind the passenger seat. When Dexy saw that he again protested.

"Thanks, but I can manage from here," he said, indicating that he no longer required my assistance.

"Nonsense," I said, dismissing his hesitation, "I'm going to take you to the door and do the polite thing by seeing you inside."

Dexy got out onto the sidewalk, dragging his laptop bag with him, and slammed the car door, as all guest passengers tended to do. I got out as well, and unfurled the oversized umbrella. I ran around to him and raised the umbrella aloft, shielding us both from the relentless shower. I knew I didn't need to walk him to the door, but I thought it would be the advised thing to do, just in case he was seen getting out of my car. It would be only right to justify it to his parents.

We walked up a short little alley that led to the main entrance to his block. There was an open stairwell of concrete steps with cast-iron handrails that ran right up the length of the building. Once inside, I stowed the umbrella and followed Dexy as he bounded up the steps. Thankfully, his apartment was only on the third floor. The stairs and passageway had the musty smell of mildew hanging in the air, tinged with the faint but unmistakable stench of urine. Actually, it was an overwhelming cocktail of unpleasant odors, of which those just happened to be the most prominent. There was a definite whiff of burnt cooking emanating from one of the other apartments.

We found ourselves standing at the entrance of a rather grimy looking apartment, and Dexy knocked on the door. I soon found out the reason for Dexy's reticence. Perhaps I should have taken note of some of the clues. The door itself looked quite dour and rundown. The paint was discolored and peeling away from the wood, and the doorbell had long since ceased to work. Dexy was standing there with his head down, clenching his hands into little fists, a sure sign of apprehension.

When the door opened I was confronted by the sight of a small, wizened lady with a smoldering cigarette stuck firmly into the corner of her mouth. She looked Dexy up and down in the most disgusted and belittling way, and addressed him with a tone of cruel sarcasm.

"Oh, you've finally decided to come home, have you?"

She completely ignored me. Or else she didn't seem to notice that I was standing there too, in the close confines of the landing. She seemed not in the least bit curious as to who I might happen to be and why I was with her son.

"He missed the bus," I ventured, deigning to provide some explanation, "I gave him a lift to save him walking home in the rain."

I expected some gratitude, or at least a murmur of acknowledgment. But none was forthcoming. She merely glared at Dexy in an angry and vindictive way.

"Dawdling again!" she hissed, "You're supposed to be here to look after your little brother. You know I'm going out tonight!"

And with that, she grabbed his arm and pulled him inside, hauling him into the narrow hallway. Dexy stumbled in, and I couldn't help noticing the way he held an arm up to his face, as though to shield himself from any blows. Then she slammed the door.

I was left standing on the doorstep, the raindrops still very much sprinkled all over me, the door firmly closed in my face. I felt instantly aggrieved by this woman's behavior, and distinctly unappreciated. To think that this woman was expecting Dexy to babysit so she could go out, was a sure sign that she could not have been too concerned about his welfare. The way she spoke to him was bordering on abusive. She showed no concern towards him whatever, and the way she heaved him inside was almost tantamount to manhandling. Poor Dexy. If he had balked at the idea of going home, I now understood why.

Dejectedly, I turned and renegotiated the stairs, and sauntered back outside, once again hoisting up the umbrella. I sprinted over towards the car, braving the rain. I closed and shook off the umbrella, slotting it back behind the passenger seat, and then got back into the car. The ominous looking youths were still eyeing me suspiciously.

I started the car, but before I was able to pull away, Dexy came running out of the foot of the stairwell, back out into the rain.

"Sir?" he called out to me.

He ran up to the car, despite the rain, and leaned in through the passenger window.

"I'm sorry about that," he said, apologetic and embarrassed, "It's my mom... you see she...."

"It's okay," I interjected, "You don't have to explain."

He smiled, almost relieved that I was not offended.

"Thanks," he said, "And thanks for bringing me home."

Behind him I could hear his mother calling him, her raspy voice echoing down the stairwell from three stories up.

"Where are you? Get your ass back in here!"

He glanced back nervously, visibly cringing at the hectoring voice emanating out into the street. I pretended not to notice.

"See you on Monday Dexy," I said through the open window.

"Sir..?" the boy said, before the car was able to pull away, "...there is one thing you can do for me."

I waited expectantly, ducking my head down from the driving position so that I could see the boy and smiled at him.

"What's that?"

"Don't call me Dexy any more," he said, "I want you to call me by my proper name."

"Okay," I said, "See you on Monday... Ben."

That made him smile.

I liked the way Ben had taken the courage to do that, risking his mother's wrath to come back out and thank me. At least I knew he had good manners and didn't reflect any of the crass indifference of his mother. I appreciated the boy's sense of honor and his level-headedness, a rare enough quality in any twelve-year-old.

But as I drove away, it was with a distinct feeling of nausea in my stomach. I felt I had almost delivered Ben into the lion's den. Something had been struck between me and Ben. I wasn't quite sure what it was, but that was the exact moment that it started, right there, on that rainy afternoon on the steps of his apartment. He hadn't wanted me to drive him home and he insisted that I should not come to his apartment. He wanted to be dropped off at the end of the street. I had dismissed it as nonsense of course. The boy was just being polite. The more I insisted, the more downbeat he became. Now I understood why.

Everything seemed to fall into place for me after that. Having seen Ben's mother, it explained a lot of things. This woman was not even gracious enough to acknowledge me. I felt a distinct disparity in the polite appreciation I expected from her, for bringing her son safely home and for going out of my way to ferry him back in my own car and save him from the rain, and the actual gratitude I received which amounted to zero. She didn't even look me in the eye. I wondered just what kind of household this was. What kind of mother was she to be so unappreciative of her son, seemingly only concerned by how his behavior impacted on her priorities. Of course, I viewed her behavior in that way because I no longer had a son. I got back into the car and drove away in silence asking myself why it was that some people were so unappreciative of their children and were able to treat them with such contempt and address them with such disdain, when others would have given anything to have a boy like that. I would have given anything to have Ben as my son. Then in my mind, I pictured how I might have responded if some kindly teacher had brought Ben safely back to me, and how grateful I would be. I pictured how I might have thanked him, maybe even invited him in for coffee and talked about how Ben was getting on at school. Perhaps I might have sat with Ben next to me on the sofa, with my arm affectionately around his shoulders, maybe giving him the odd fatherly squeeze. I doubted Ben received any such affection from that harridan of a woman. Doubtful she knew what affection was, yet alone how to express it. And so it was that I drove away from Ben's place with a nagging, worrying feeling in the pit of my stomach. I knew then that there was something special about this boy Ben, and this wasn't the last of my dealings with his dragon of a mother. But more than that, I felt the questioning inconsistency and inherent injustice in the fact that this woman was able to take her boy for granted. She was abusive and inconsiderate towards him, and I wondered just what strange set of circumstances had transpired to allow this woman to be so abusive to her lovely boy, and to take his existence for granted. How was it that she was able to be so unappreciative of her son and to almost mistreat him? Why was it that others were never able to appreciate the children they had, and that she couldn't see how blessed she was to have this sweet boy of hers, whilst I was condemned to forever suffer the blinding grief of having lost mine?


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