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Authors: Lisa Williamson

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BOOK: The Art of Being Normal
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34

The Year 11 kids return to school around three o’clock, while I’m in PE. I can see the coaches arriving from where I’m standing shivering on the football pitch, freezing to death in goal, but it’s too far away to pick out Leo from the steady stream of people pouring off the coaches.

After PE I head to the science labs to retrieve my phone from Dr Spiers. Before handing it over he insists on lecturing me on the general evils of mobile phones. When he finally winds up I have to fight the urge to snatch it from his hands. The moment I’m out in the corridor I check for text messages from Leo. Nothing. I can only guess he must be out of credit. I call his number but it goes straight through to a generic voicemail message. Unsure of quite what to say, I hang up.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ I say, as I slide into the back seat of the car after school.

‘No problem,’ Mum replies, starting the engine.

As we drive past, I look for Leo at the bus stop but the shelter is empty.

Livvy twists round in her seat.

‘Oh my God, did you hear about that boy in Year 11?’ she asks.

‘What boy?’ I say carefully.

‘You know! The one who got kicked out of Cloverdale!’

‘Cloverdale? Isn’t that your friend, David?’ Mum asks, eyeing me through the rearview mirror. ‘Leo?’

Livvy stares at me, disgusted. ‘You’re friends with Leo Denton?’

‘I didn’t know he got
kicked out
of Cloverdale,’ Mum says, frowning.

‘He didn’t,’ I say, anger rising in my chest on Leo’s behalf. ‘It wasn’t his fault. They made him leave for his own safety.’

‘And ever since he’s been at Eden Park he’s been pretending to be a boy, but he’s actually a girl called Megan!’ Livvy finishes, triumphant.

Mum raises her eyebrows. ‘Is this true, David?’

Half of me wants to defend Leo and present his side of the story, but the other half knows I’m on dangerous territory if I do. I let that half win.

‘How am I supposed to know?’ I snap. ‘We’re not even proper friends. He just helps me with maths sometimes, that’s all. It’s probably a load of made-up rubbish.’

I angle my body so I’m looking out of the window, but I can feel Mum’s eyes on me. I’m thankful when she doesn’t say anything more on the subject and turns up the radio instead.

*

It’s after dinner. I’m lying on my bed stalking Zachary’s Facebook page on my laptop, when my mobile buzzes. I lunge for it, desperate for it to be Leo. I let out a sigh of relief when I see his name blinking on the screen. His text is short.

 

Meet me @ the baths. 8pm.

 

Itching for more details, I ring him back, but it goes straight through to voicemail again.

I tell Mum I’m going over to Essie’s and taking Phil with me, promising to be back by nine thirty. She frowns but agrees I can go, providing I text her when I arrive, and when I’m leaving to come back. Before I go I nab the torch we keep for emergencies from under the sink, slipping it into my backpack.

As we sit on the lower deck of the bus, Phil cowering at my feet, I try to think of what Leo could possibly want. And while I hope he’s OK, I can’t help but feel flattered that I’m the one he’s called on in his hour of need.

A distant church bell is striking eight as I squeeze through the hole in the fence outside the baths. Phil whines a little as I drag him through after me.

‘Sorry, buddy,’ I whisper. ‘Nearly there, I promise.’

I flick on the torch, comforted by its fat beam, and start to pick my way across the rubble.

I discover Leo sitting on the lowest of the three diving boards, his legs dangling off the edge.

‘Hi!’ I call, heading towards him.

Leo raises his hand in silent greeting. Beside me, Phil’s paws skitter about on the slippery surface. I tie him to the metal steps before climbing up them and crawling along the diving board on my hands and knees, the torch wedged beneath my chin. Leo turns and smirks as he watches my cautious progress.

‘You all right there?’ he asks, the amusement in his voice clear.

I ignore him as I manoeuvre myself so I’m sitting on the edge of the board beside him, our shoulders touching.

I switch off the torch and place it behind me. I dare to shimmy forward a little, curling my fingers so they’re gripping the underside of the board and trying not to fixate on the distance between me and the rock solid surface of the empty pool below.

Leo fidgets beside me, a bundle of nervous energy.

‘Thanks for coming,’ he says.

‘Any time,’ I murmur, watching his knees jig up and down in the moonlight. This is not the Leo I am used to. The Leo Denton I know is still and solid.

‘So, what’s up?’ I ask, confused.

Leo turns to face me. His eyes won’t stay still in their sockets.

‘I found him,’ he says.

‘Found who?’ I ask.

‘My dad. Jimmy.’

I let out an excited gasp.

‘That’s amazing! But how? Did he get in contact?’

‘Not quite.’

‘Then how?’ I ask, watching as Leo’s feet get in on the act, his toes wiggling up and down, mania taking over his body.

‘What’s the name Jimmy short for?’ he asks.

‘James,’ I reply automatically.

‘Yeah, but it’s also short for Jonathan, did you know that? Cos I sure as hell didn’t. I’ve been searching for the wrong flipping bloke all this time.’

‘You’re joking!’

‘Nope. I found my birth certificate and there it was in black and white. I legged it straight down the library, typed his name into Google, and there he was, fourth bloody entry down. Jonathan Denton & Co Carpenters in Tripton-on-Sea.’

‘And you’re sure it’s the right one?’

‘His picture is on the website; it’s him all right.’

I take my iPhone from my pocket and type ‘Jonathan Denton Carpenters’ into Google. Seconds later I’m staring at a picture of Leo’s dad. He’s sporting a red sweatshirt with ‘Jonathan Denton & Co’ emblazoned across the front and wearing the same crinkled smile from the photo Leo showed me that day in the library. Leo leans in to look.

‘Yep, that’s him,’ he says, his voice glittering with pride. ‘That’s my dad.’

‘Where’s Tripton-on-Sea?’ I ask. ‘I’ve never heard of it.’

‘Kent. Some little seaside place. Which means my auntie Kerry was actually right, he did go to the coast after leaving Cloverdale.’

‘So now what?’ I ask.

‘What do you think? I’m going to go find him.’

‘How do you mean? You can’t just turn up on his doorstep.’

‘Why not?’ Leo asks, clearly annoyed that I’ve dared question his distinct lack of a plan.

‘Well maybe you should ring him first? Warn him?’

‘Warn him? Thanks a lot.’

‘I didn’t mean it like that.’

Leo shakes his head firmly. ‘Nah, this has to be done face-to-face. It could be any old crackpot on the phone, but if he sees me in the flesh, he’ll know for sure I’m his. You said yourself how much we look alike.’

‘I guess,’ I murmur, unconvinced.

‘Don’t you see?’ Leo says, shifting his position so he’s facing me side-on, making the entire diving board wobble. ‘It was almost like it was meant to be. I’m on the verge of running away to God knows where, and then I find my birth certificate and discover exactly where my dad is. I mean, I’m not usually into this kind of thing, fate and crap like that, but it has to mean something, right?’

‘Wait, you were planning to run away? Without telling me?’

‘You seriously expect me to stick around after what happened at school? In case you missed it, everyone knows, David. It’s like Cloverdale all over again.’

‘But you can’t go, not now.’

‘Are you not listening to me? I’m not setting foot in Eden Park School ever again.’

‘But Leo—’

‘Look, it doesn’t matter, David, none of that does. What matters is that I’ve found my dad, which is where you come in.’

‘Me?’

‘Yeah. Look, the thing is, I was wondering whether I could maybe borrow some money? Just a loan, until I get settled in Tripton.’

The thought of Leo leaving feels like a sharp slap across my face. I finally find someone who truly understands what I’m feeling and almost immediately they up and leave.

‘David?’ Leo prompts.

I realise I haven’t answered him.

‘Of course,’ I say, recovering myself. ‘How much do you need?’

‘Well, the train fare down to Tripton is seventy-nine pounds. Plus I guess I’ll need a bit extra, so I’m not just turning up empty-handed. Two hundred pounds maybe? Just to keep me going for a bit while I sort myself out.’

I try to remember how much I had in my savings account when I last checked. Including my birthday money there’s at least four hundred pounds in there. More than enough. I glance across at Leo. Although he’s right beside me, I can feel him slipping through my fingers. His head is already in this Tripton place, filled with thoughts of Jonathan Denton.

‘I’ll tell you what I can do,’ I say.

Leo nods eagerly.

‘I’ll lend you the money on one condition. That you let me come with you.’

Leo’s face crumples into a deep frown. ‘What?’

‘Well you can’t go alone.’

‘And how’d you work that one out?’

‘Because. You’ll need moral support.’

‘I’ll be fine,’ Leo says, folding his arms.

‘I’m not saying you won’t. But you can’t be too careful. I mean, what if your dad turns out to be a crazy axe-murderer or something?’

‘He won’t. He’s my dad.’

‘But what if something else happens, if things don’t quite go to plan,’ I say quietly. ‘You’ll need a friend with you.’

Leo flinches at my use of the ‘f’ word.

‘I can handle it,’ he says firmly. ‘Whatever happens, I’m ready for it.’

‘That may be the case, but my offer is final,’ I reply. ‘If you’re going, I’m coming too, the end.’

He stares at me. ‘You’re serious?’

I nod solemnly. ‘I want to be there for you, Leo. Please let me.’

I reach for his hand. Leo hesitates before letting me take it.

‘Please?’ I repeat.

There’s a pause before he lets out a huge sigh.

‘OK, but while we’re there we follow my rules.’

‘Fine.’

‘And you won’t tell anyone.’

‘Not even Essie and Felix?’

‘Especially not Essie and Felix. This is between us, OK?’

‘Deal.’

35

I choose to wait until the last minute to tell Essie and Felix, chickening out entirely by doing it over Skype. It’s Thursday evening and Leo and I are due to leave for Tripton first thing in the morning. Leo hasn’t been in school all week, persuading his mum’s boyfriend to ring up the school and tell them he’s come down with flu.

‘You want us to do what?’ Essie demands, her image slightly jerky on the computer screen. It settles to reveal her and Felix sitting on Felix’s bed. Felix is sitting cross-legged with Essie behind him, her chin resting on his shoulder, her legs wrapped round his torso and her arms dangling down over his shoulders. It reminds me of a wildlife documentary I once watched about frogs mating.

I sigh and repeat my instructions once more.

‘If my mum calls either of you for any reason this weekend, I need you to cover for me and say I’m with you, but can’t
get to the phone right now. And if anyone at school asks about me tomorrow, I’m at home sick. Apart from Livvy. Whatever you do, do not speak to Livvy.’

‘But why?’ Felix asks, his voice slightly out of sync with his lips. ‘Where on earth are you going?’

‘I’m sworn to secrecy.’

‘By whom?’

‘I can’t tell you.’

‘But we tell each other everything, David,’ Essie wails. ‘You know stuff about me no human being should know about anyone.’

‘I know,’ I say reluctantly. ‘And I’m sorry. I just can’t tell you this.’

‘You’re not going to meet someone off the internet, are you?’ Essie asks. ‘Did you not see that episode of
Hollyoaks
?’

‘Look, if I tell you where I’m going, will you stop asking questions and just trust me?’

‘Yes,’ Felix says, at the exact same time Essie says ‘no’. Felix pokes her.

I take a deep breath.

‘I’m going to a town called Tripton-on-Sea for the weekend. But that’s all you’re getting.’

‘Tripton-on-Sea? But isn’t that some seaside place in Kent?’ Felix says, pushing his glasses up on his nose. Trust Felix to have heard of it.

‘Are you positive you’re not meeting someone dodgy off the internet?’ Essie asks. ‘Because, I’m sorry, but this has dirty weekend written all over it.’

‘Look, it’s not someone off the internet. I’ll have my mobile with me,’ I say. ‘I’ll send you a text every now and again to reassure you I’m alive.’

Essie continues to frown.

‘And if you don’t get any texts, you have my permission to call me,’ I add.

‘How very generous,’ she says huffily.

‘Ess, please?’

‘OK, OK,’ she says. ‘But if you don’t answer, we’re coming to find you.’

 

On Friday morning Mum drops Livvy and I off at school as usual. Livvy kisses Mum on the cheek before darting off to join her friends.

‘Remember, I’m staying at Felix’s until Sunday,’ I say, as I clamber out of the car.

I’ve told my parents that Felix, Essie and I are working intensively on a science project all weekend.

‘Are you sure Felix’s parents don’t mind having you for two whole nights?’ Mum asks.

‘I told you, no.’

‘Do you want your dad to come and pick you up on Sunday?’

‘No!’ I cry.

She looks up at me in faint alarm.

‘No,’ I repeat, softly this time. ‘Felix’s dad has already said he’ll drop me back on Sunday afternoon.’

‘OK then. Well, have fun. And don’t let Felix’s mother force feed you too much quinoa or goji berries or whatever
super-food she’s got her cupboards stuffed with these days.’

‘I won’t. Bye, Mum.’

I slam the door shut and watch as Mum speeds off.

I drop down to tie my shoelaces and then, instead of going through the school gates, I take a sharp right, keeping close to the perimeter fence.

In the distance I can hear the bell ringing for registration. I take it as my cue to break into a light jog. A minute later I reach the relative safety of the mound of bushes that marks one corner of the huge fence that encloses the school. I poke my head inside first, to check it’s empty. The bushes provide a hollow space in the centre popular with couples, offering both privacy (to a degree) and shelter, as long as you don’t mind sharing it with at least six other people at a time. It smells of cigarette smoke and cheap aftershave and the ground is littered with cigarette butts and sweet wrappers. I set my bag down and remove my blazer. I take a navy hoodie out and pull it on over my school shirt. I remove my school shoes and replace them with trainers before stuffing them, along with my tie and rolled-up blazer, into my bag. Next I take out my mobile phone and, with suddenly shaking fingers, I dial the school reception. I select option two to report an absence and wait. There are a few bleeps before I’m put through to Miss Clay.

‘Hello, this is Jo Piper and I’d like to report my son, David Piper, absent today,’ I say, just like I practised last night. I wince, steeling myself for Miss Clay’s immediate suspicion but it turns out my vocal practice has clearly paid off because she simply thanks me for calling and hangs up.

I exit the bushes as discreetly as possible before legging it down the road, not daring to look back. I only begin to relax when I’m safely aboard the bus heading towards the railway station.

When I arrive, Leo is waiting under the clock in the entrance hall. He looks nervous, glancing about the place like he’s got a bomb strapped to his chest.

As I get closer, he notices me approaching and gives me a stiff nod.

‘Morning, travel buddy,’ I say.

‘Morning,’ he murmurs back, his eyes refusing to latch on to mine.

As we queue up to collect our tickets, Leo doesn’t say a word, just keeps his eyes fixed on the departure boards overhead, his eyes wide and unblinking.

Our assigned seats are at the front of the train.

‘You do know we’re only going for two nights, don’t you?’ Leo says as we walk along the platform, pointing at my bulging backpack. ‘What the hell have you got in there? A dead body?’

I look over my shoulder and lower my voice.

‘It’s girl stuff,’ I whisper.

‘Girl stuff?’ he repeats, his existing frown deepening.

‘You don’t mind, do you? It’s just that I thought this might be an ideal opportunity, seeing as there’s pretty much zero chance of me bumping into anyone I know.’

‘Opportunity for what exactly?’

‘Some real-life experience,’ I say.

I’ve been reading all about ‘real-life experience’ on the
internet. Sometimes the specialist doctors won’t let you start taking medication until you can prove you’re able to live in the world in your chosen gender. And so far the furthest I’ve managed is the bottom of the garden. But now I have an entire weekend ahead of me in a town where no one knows me. It’s too perfect an opportunity to pass up. Although the expression on Leo’s face doesn’t exactly seem to indicate his agreement.

‘I thought you of all people would be supportive,’ I say huffily.

Leo frowns. ‘I am, I just don’t want us drawing too much attention to ourselves this weekend. It’s meant to be about my dad, remember.’

‘And it will be, I promise,’ I say. ‘I’ve just brought casual stuff with me. I’m not going to be strutting around Tripton dressed up like a drag queen if that’s what you’re worried about.’

He continues to frown, but doesn’t say anything more and I persuade him to go ahead and find our seats. I board the train at the back and locate the nearest toilet. I look both ways, relieved to find my fellow passengers busy reading newspapers or talking on mobile phones. No one seems to be paying attention to the skinny boy hovering outside the toilet.

As the train begins to chug out of the station, I press the button and the toilet door slides open. I step inside and lock the door, checking it three times. I set my bag on the floor, pull down my trousers and sit down on the toilet seat. The metal is cold against my bum. I try to take a pee, but it’s as
if my insides are seized up with nerves and nothing happens. I give up and pull up my knickers, before taking off my trainers, trousers and socks. The air is cold and makes my skin goose-pimple. I bob down and take out a pair of tights from my bag. I gather them up in my hands before smoothing them over my legs and pulling them up high, over my belly button. I then fish a bra out of my bag and fasten it around my rib cage, twisting it to the front and hooking the straps over my shoulders, adjusting the one on the left hand side, so the padding I’ve carefully stitched into each cup lies flat against my chest and level with the right.

I take out my outfit, a green shirt dress with a belt and buttons up the front, another reject from Essie (from her very brief preppy stage), and pull it on over my head. It’s a little rumpled from where it’s been rolled up in the bottom of my bag but it will have to do. I ease my feet into a pair of grey Ugg boots, the only footwear I could find in my size.

I balance my make-up bag on the edge of the sink. The mirror is made from that strange misty sort of glass that might not be glass at all, the sort you find in scruffy public toilets and makes your reflection look like a ghost. The cloudy glass softens everything so I’m just a series of blobby shapes – a dark blob for hair, a green blob for dress, a white blob for face. To apply my make-up I use the tiny mirror in my powder compact, holding it up as I put on foundation, concealer, blusher and mascara. Every so often the train sways violently from side to side. Reluctantly, I veto eyeliner.

Finally I kneel down to retrieve my wig from its little netted bag. The train lurches suddenly and I have to put
my hand out and hold on to the rail above my head to keep myself from falling. I lower the wig on my head. It feels different somehow; putting it on here, rather than in the privacy of my bedroom. It’s not just dress-up any more; this is real.

I bundle up my boy clothes and shove them into my bag. I inspect myself in my compact and realise I have no idea whether I look like a girl or not. I have stared at myself in the mirror so hard and for so many hours at a time, I no longer know for sure which features are masculine and which aren’t. I wish I could see myself as a stranger might. I think of Leo, all the way in coach A, and wonder how I’ll look to him. My heart starts to race a little.

There’s a sharp rap on the door, making me jump.

‘Nearly finished!’ I call. My voice sounds like it doesn’t belong to me.

I take one last look in the toilet mirror, at the ghost girl looking back.

Another rap on the door, more urgent this time. I pick up my bag and open the door. It’s a young woman with a grizzly toddler under one arm and a big pink changing bag hooked over the other. I don’t meet her eyes as I squeeze past. On the way to my seat I keep waiting for people to look up at me, for them to clock my bigger-than-average feet, my jaw line, the false shine of my wig, anything that might give me away. I accidentally knock a man’s arm with my bag and he glances up, briefly annoyed, only for his face to relax into forgiveness when he looks at mine.

‘Sorry,’ I stammer.

‘No problem, love,’ he smiles, returning to his newspaper.

As I continue through the train, my palms are sweating and my heart is going crazy, pounding so hard I can’t help but think of those old fashioned cartoons, the ones where you can actually see the character’s heart booming out of their chest. But all the nerves and fear are cancelled out by blinding happiness.

Love.
That man, a complete stranger, called me ‘Love’.

I finally reach coach A. It’s the designated quiet coach. I creep past businessmen and women tapping away at laptops or dozing. At the far end of the coach, I spot Leo’s sandy head, facing away from me. We have table seats. Opposite, an elderly couple is bent over crossword.

As I slide into my seat beside him, Leo looks up and sort of does a double take. I feel my cheeks begin to burn all over again.

‘Do I look OK?’ I whisper.

‘Sure,’ he whispers back, before shutting his eyes.

For the rest of the journey, Leo sleeps or at least pretends to. He looks peaceful and younger somehow. I try to read for a bit but keep having to read the same paragraph over and over again.

Eventually we rumble into London. Once off the train, Leo leads the way, striding confidently through the station and towards the underground entrance.

‘How come you know your way around?’ I ask as we squeeze into a packed tube carriage.

‘I come down here for specialist appointments,’ he says in a low voice.

‘Does your mum come with you?’ I ask.

‘She used to. Not so much now.’

‘But don’t you get nervous? Coming all this way on your own?’ I ask.

Leo meets my eyes. ‘Never.’

Every few seconds I catch sight of the green material flapping round my thighs, or a strand of long hair, my hair, out of the corner of my eye, and it delights and terrifies me in equal amounts.

After two changes we get off the tube and board a second, quieter train. After about forty-five minutes, the tracks start running alongside water.

‘Look,’ I say, pointing, ‘the sea.’

Leo nods, his face blank.

I rest my forehead against the cold glass. The tide is way out, revealing wide flats of mud and silt the same colour as the dingy grey sky.

BOOK: The Art of Being Normal
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