Authors: Pete Kalu
‘I don’t care. You can grow as many moustache hairs as you like, you’ll always be my baby. The most beautiful boy in the world and I pushed him out into the world.’
‘I love my son! Did everybody hear that? I love my son!’ his mum shouted at the top of her voice.
‘Right. Tell the whole street.’
As he brushed passed her into the kitchen she tickled him in the ribs till he laughed. His mum was always happier at weekends. Maybe she felt bad about shouting at him so much yesterday.
Monday morning came round and Marcus sat with his mum in the taxi to school. Mum’s mood was not good and neither was his own. He thought about what had happened. Yes, he shouldn’t have sworn at Miss Podborsky and yes, he had not handed in two of her homework assignments. Still, there was no way he had been so bad that he had to be expelled. When they caught that boy on the playground CCTV scratching up the history teacher’s car, he hadn’t been expelled. When Leonard had slammed the art tutor’s door so hard an oil painting had fallen off the wall and shattered, he was only placed on report. When two Year 10 girls had fought at dinner break and one had ended up with a black eye and the other with a clump of hair missing from the back of her head, they had been placed in isolation for one week, nothing more. So why was he the one to be expelled?
They entered the school building and the school administrator showed them along a corridor to the Head’s office. The administrator said that the Head would not be long and to sit on the chairs outside.
Marcus watched his mum drumming on her chair with her fingers. Rap-a-tap. Rap-a-tap. Rap. Her breathing was wheezy again. She was trying to smile confidently but every so often she shot him an angry glance. She had hardly spoken to him in the taxi. Leah had puked a little on her work blouse. His mum had dabbed the puke off but the stain still showed in a hexagonal patch.
The Head appeared from behind her door. Ropey Face was all smiles. The happy executioner. ‘Mrs Adenuga? Marcus? Come in please.’
Marcus walked in behind his mum, dragging his feet. Mr Wrexham, the head of year was in the room too. Ropey Face and Ozone together. This was serious. Marcus wondered if Burnage Academy would have him. But which school took rejects from Ducie High?
Everyone sat down. The Head offered a glass of water to his mum, which she declined.
‘Shall we begin?’ said the Head. ‘By all reports Marcus is a very bright pupil, but we have had some concern about his progress this term.’
Here we go, thought Marcus.
‘I’ve told him to sort himself out,’ his mum said quickly, ‘if he doesn’t knuckle down, he’ll be grounded for a month and he’s on hoovering duty and making up the baby food as well, as extra punishment.’
‘Thanks, Mum,’ said Marcus, to himself.
‘I’m glad you share our concerns, Mrs Adenuga’, said Ropey Face.
‘He’s very sorry. I’ve never known him so sorry. You’re so sorry, aren’t you, Marcus?’
Marcus nodded and did his sorry face. In these circumstances his mum was a force of nature not to be messed with.
‘Give him another chance, please, before you expel him.’
The Head looked surprised. ‘Expel him? He’s one of our most promising pupils. Nothing could be further from our thoughts.’
Marcus’s mum looked to Marcus. Marcus looked back at her, as puzzled as she was.
Ozone weighed in. ‘His maths results are exceptional. Maybe there has been some confusion. This is not about expulsion, Mrs Adenuga, this meeting is about helping Marcus.’
Ozone was looking at Marcus encouragingly, shaking his spiky hair in a happy clappy way. Marcus was not convinced.
Ropey Face continued. ‘Mrs Adenuga, we have a system in place that allows us to monitor pupils’ behaviour in all their classes.’ She tapped a computer print-out. ‘It’s a new system from France. It tries to notice patterns and spot problems that may not be apparent to any one class teacher. We’re the only school in our area that has this.’
‘Isn’t that fantastic, Marcus?’ said Marcus’s mum. Marcus could tell from her voice she had no idea what the Head was talking about.
‘It was introduced by our Head of Innovation, Mrs Podborsky.’ The Head’s chin rose with pride. ‘And what this system is telling us,’ said the Head, patting the pile of printouts on her desk, ‘is that Marcus may have a slight problem with his hearing.’
Marcus frowned. This was rubbish. Typical Miss Podborsky, messing with him.
‘Okay, carry on,’ said his mum, suddenly upbeat. ‘He was at the doctors only recently with flu and they checked his ears for wax then. But that’s what this … system says?’
Marcus listened to his mum, suddenly talking to the Head as though she was close to completing a deal to sell the Head some double-glazing. It made Marcus laugh silently.
‘Yes, and we would like to propose a couple of things as suggested by the software.’ She patted the print-out again. ‘Firstly, if he’s already been checked for wax, then we’d want to book him an appointment for a hearing test at the local clinic. It’s a simple thing to arrange if you consent.’
‘By all means, I’m sure it’s a waste of …’ his mum said, but did not finish.
Ropey Face’s phone was ringing. Ozone picked it up, spoke briefly then put it back down.
‘And in the meantime,’ the Head resumed, ‘we’d like to have Marcus sit closer to his teachers, at the front of the class instead of at the back where he usually is.’ Ropey Face smiled at Marcus at this point. Marcus smiled back through tight lips. The Head spoke to him directly for the first time: ‘You do understand, Marcus, moving you towards the front of the class is not a punishment. It’s a temporary measure that may help you until you have had your ears checked. It’s just a precaution.’
‘So I can move back afterwards?’
‘Yes, of course,’ said the Head, ‘once we have eliminated this as a possibility. That’s a promise.’
The Head’s phone was ringing again. ‘Are we all agreed then?’ she smiled.
Marcus’s mum nodded. The Head looked at him. Marcus nodded too.
‘Okay Marcus, we will inform the teachers and make the arrangements.’ She stood up and shook Marcus’s mum’s hand. Ozone ushered them out.
‘All that over a bit of wax,’ laughed his mum when they were outside on the street.
Marcus felt relieved and troubled at the same time. He dreaded having to sit at the front of class. It was where all the goody two-shoes sat. And he didn’t want to be split up from Jamil either. They sat together in class always, and Jamil never sat at the front, he needed his sleep too much.
he day after the meeting with the Head, Marcus gobbled up his beans on toast and headed for school. His mum had calmed down and gave him a hug before he set off. There was just this nonsense about where he was going to be sitting at school to get through.
At the bus stop, he did keepy-uppy with his ATC. A small crowd watched him. He didn’t mind. The thing was, it was his last chance to practice before two hours of lessons. Some kid tried to take the ball off him but he dribbled around him four times till the kid sat down and crossed his legs, defeated. Marcus switched to headers. He rattled off thirty-six on the trot when the crowd started pointing and shouting. He nestled the ball between his shoulders and looked. A big black 4 by 4 with tinted windows had pulled over. Marcus recognised it. It went past most mornings. The passenger window had rolled down and someone was leaning out. ‘Marcus … if …?’ they shouted. He didn’t catch the ‘…’ but he thought he recognised the figure in the passenger seat. He flicked the ball into his hands and walked to the car. ‘Hi Anthony, wassup?’
Anthony was the captain of Bowker Vale. Last year Bowker had done the double: won the league and Cup. He’d met Anthony at the Gifted & Talented Summer Football School soon after. The first day of summer school, he’d been paired with him. They had got on fine, but when lunchtime arrived, Marcus realised he had forgotten to bring his sandwiches and drink. Anthony had refused to share his own sandwiches with him and instead pointed him to the vending machine even though he knew Marcus had no money. Marcus had shrugged it off.
‘It’s all good,’ Anthony replied, a toothy smile on his face. Marcus nodded to Anthony’s dad at the driving wheel. He had a sunbed tan and a Beckham haircut. He was wearing a pinstripe suit. It was the first time Marcus had seen someone wearing one in person and not on TV. He looked like a big boss.
‘Get in, we’ll drop you at your school,’ Anthony said.
The back door thunked open. There was someone in the back already.
‘That’s my sister,’ said Anthony. ‘She’s a pain in the arse but you’ll have to put up with her.’
His sister pulled a face at her brother. ‘I’m Adele,’ she said to Marcus, ‘please ignore my feckless brother.’ She patted the seat beside her for him to sit.
Marcus climbed in, buckled up and the car got moving. ‘How’s it going Marcus?’ said Anthony’s dad.
‘Good, good,’ Marcus replied warily.
‘I heard you played a blinder in your match last week,’ his dad said, ‘out of this world.’
‘We did okay.’
‘4–0, and you got three, that’s more than okay. They said you were Houdini!’
‘Who’s he play for?’ Marcus asked Anthony’s dad politely.
‘Like nobody could get near you,’ Anthony explained.
Marcus shrugged. ‘If they give us the space, we’ll play. That’s what the point of the diamond does. That’s my game.’
‘Out of this world you played, apparently,’ repeated Marcus’s dad.
Marcus felt awkward. Finally he said, ‘you were “Most Valuable Player” last year in the league, weren’t you, Anthony?’
‘Yeh,’ said Anthony proudly, then, ‘the scouts are all watching me now.’
‘He could learn a thing or two from you though,’ his dad said to Marcus. ‘How you were keeping the ball up back there.’
Marcus shrugged. ‘Our coach says it’s circus stuff.’
‘No, it’s good,’ said Anthony, ‘gets you out of tight spots, like being man marked. It’s good if you can control your headers, your chest cushions, your knee pull-downs, all your balls like that. The scouts like it.’
‘What’s wrong with Adele?’ their dad asked.
‘Can you “control all your balls” like that, Anthony?’ Adele said, giggling away.
‘Adele, raise the tone!’ said their dad. ‘What’s got into you?’
‘So, Marcus, how does it feel to know people are envious of your talent?’ said Adele, unfazed.
‘I’m not envious,’ snapped Anthony. ‘I’ve got my game, he’s got his.’
‘You are! You just said back there, “I wish I had the skills like him”, that’s why we pulled over.’
‘Adele!’ their dad interrupted.
Marcus didn’t like this piggy-in-the-middle feeling he was getting. ‘Anthony plays a different game to me,’ he explained to Adele, turning to look at her. As he looked, she cocked her head towards him, disarming him completely. She put her hand on his.
‘You were saying?’ she asked.
Suddenly Marcus was confused. His body flushed. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. ‘What I mean is, if we were ever in a team together, we’d be the …’
‘The what?’ Adele asked, moving her head even closer to his.
‘The dream team,’ Anthony finished for him. ‘Put it there!’
Anthony had turned and he and Marcus high-fived. He leaned back, glanced at Adele again and wondered how he could find himself fancying her even though he’d known her for only one minute. He sneaked a look at her. She was sneaking a look at him at exactly the same moment. They did a double take and she smiled. He shook his head, embarrassed, happy and confused at the same time. This was complicated. Trust Anthony to have a gorgeous sister.
The car purred on. It was air conditioned, with high leather seats, tinted windows and holders for mobile phones and cups. Anthony and his dad began talking about repairing a fence.
Adele nudged him. ‘Have you got your phone?’
‘Yep,’ said Marcus.
‘Bring your number up.’
Adele copied his number into her own phone. She dialled him and his phone lit up. ‘Nice,’ she said. Then she texted him:
Phne me 2nite f u dare!
He smiled at her and nodded. What was her game? He couldn’t date his rival’s sister. No way. As if replying to his thought, she pulled a funny face, her lower lip going one way, her upper lip the other and everything looking squashed in between. You had to smile. She was nuts, Marcus concluded.
The car pulled up. ‘Here you go, Marcus, have a top day at school.’
‘Thanks Mr …’
‘Vialli,’ Anthony’s dad said.
‘Thanks Mr Vialli.’
‘See ya!’ called out Anthony as Marcus bundled himself, his ATC and his school bag out of the car.
‘See ya!’ Adele called, mimicking her brother.
Marcus waved them off. Then he juggled his ball, left foot, right foot, all the way to the school gates, thinking about Adele.
At school, maths was okay. He and Jamil were moved together to a table closer to the front but not the actual front. They sat with Dinners and Zahra. Though Dinners was large, he could do the shuffle and girls were always laughing at his jokes. He was famous for burning his eyelashes off in a science experiment in Year 7. Sometimes he still plucked at his eyelashes. Dinners spent the maths class discussing mascara with Zahra in between both of them asking Marcus to help them with their geometry. The way Zahra twisted her hair when she was doing her work made him think of Adele. Adele’s skin was a light brown. Italian, he guessed, almost the same colour as Zahra’s.
In English, the tables were laid out in a horseshoe shape, so he was moved three seats closer to where the teacher most often stood, and he noticed the teacher spent more time standing close to him when she talked to the class than she usually did.
On Friday, Marcus braced himself – there was geography to get through and he groaned inwardly. He’d thought about staying off ill, but with the mood his mum was in, that was impossible. Besides, there was the league match after school: he couldn’t phone in ill for geography, then turn up for the match claiming a miraculous recovery.