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Authors: Lisa Williamson

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BOOK: The Art of Being Normal
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8

My first day at Eden Park School goes more or less to plan. Apart from some Year 10 kid who tries to talk to me at lunch, no one comes near me all day. Not that I’m invisible exactly. All day kids have been staring at me. At first I can’t work out why, but then I notice the way they’re staring at me. They’re scared. So I play up to it. I act the hard man and stare right back, and every time they chicken out first. Who cares
why
they’re scared. As long as they leave me alone, I don’t give a toss what they think.

The bell rings for the end of the day. The corridor is packed but as I walk down it, kids scramble to make way for me, parting like the Red Sea. It’s as if I have a glowing protective shield around me, like I’m some new breed of super hero. It would actually be pretty funny if it wasn’t so weird. I’m almost at the end of the corridor when this girl appears out of nowhere and bashes right into me.

Her eyes spring open in surprise and I can’t help wondering what kind of idiot walks around the place with their eyes closed.

‘Jesus, sorry!’ she laughs, lowering the massive pair of red
headphones she’s wearing so they’re hanging round her neck. ‘I was totally not looking where I was going. Are you OK?’

She reaches out and puts her hand on my arm. When she doesn’t remove it straight away I have to force her to by folding my arms. If she guesses that’s what I’m doing, she doesn’t show it. She has black curly hair that shoots out in all directions, and light brown eyes almost the exact same shade as her skin. Basically, she’s gorgeous. I quickly chase the thought out of my head.

‘It’s just that I was listening to the most amazing song,’ the girl continues, ‘I’m literally obsessed with it. Want to hear?’

She thrusts the earphones at me.

‘No thanks,’ I mutter, squeezing past her, careful my body doesn’t touch hers.

‘Hey!’ she calls after me.

Reluctantly I turn round and raise my eyes to meet hers. Her lashes are stupidly long, Disney-Princess long. I hate that I notice this.

‘You’re new, right?’

‘Yeah, I’m new,’ I say reluctantly.

She breaks into a fresh grin.

‘Well in that case, welcome to Eden Park School, new boy.’

 

I arrive home to discover Spike’s bashed-up white Peugeot parked at a funny angle outside our house, as if he’s abandoned it at the scene of a crime. He stayed over again last night. This morning his Homer Simpson boxer shorts were drying on the washing line and the bathroom sink was full of black stubble. If I blurred my eyes, the hairs looked like tiny ants trying to crawl out of the plughole.

I push open the front door. Spike is sitting on the settee with Mam perched on his knee. He’s whispering in her ear and she’s giggling like a little girl. His hand is on her bum.

I slam the door shut. It makes the two of them jump. Mam glares at me and straightens her mini skirt.

She’s always going on about how she’s as skinny now as she was when she was fifteen, and insists on wearing the skimpiest of clothes to prove it. It’s her eyes that give the game away – dead and tired, like life’s sucked all the sparkle right out of them.

‘All right, mate?’ Spike says over her shoulder. He takes in my blazer and lets out a whistle. ‘Bloody hell, what are you wearing kid? You go to Hogwarts or something?’

I ignore him and wander into the kitchen. I open the biscuit tin. It’s empty apart from half a soggy custard cream.

‘Excuse me, Spike’s talking to you,’ Mam barks after me.

‘It’s the Eden Park School uniform,’ I say, replacing the lid.

‘Eden Park, eh? Very swish,’ Spike replies. ‘Clever clogs, are you?’

I shrug.

‘Just don’t go getting ideas above your station,’ Mam says. ‘Just because you’re wearing a fancy blazer it don’t mean you’re above us.’

‘Like I would dare,’ I mutter.

‘What did you say?’ she asks sharply.

‘Nothing. Can I go now?’

‘Please do, you miserable little sod.’

 

I find Amber sitting on her bunk, brushing her clip-in hair extensions.

‘Why aren’t you round Carl’s?’ I ask.

‘Argument,’ she says. ‘I found a load of texts on his phone from some tart from the ice rink.’

‘Oh.’

Carl and Amber have a massive argument at least once a fortnight.

I sniff. The room smells rank – of chemicals and mouldy biscuits.

‘Bloody hell, Amber, it stinks in here!’

‘Keep your hair on, it’s only fake tan,’ she says.

Amber reckons she’d rather die than be ‘all gross and pale’. When I was a kid I used to tan in the summer, but my legs haven’t seen the sun in for ever and these days they’re so white they’re almost fluorescent.

‘Well it smells nasty,’ I tell her, wrinkling my nose.

‘Soz,’ she replies breezily.

‘So how was school?’ she asks as I hang up my blazer and take off my tie. I drop to the floor and start to do my daily press-ups, banging them out fast.

‘All right.’

‘Are all the kids well posh?’

‘Some are.’

‘Do they all have names like Tarquin and Camilla?’ she asks, putting on a posh voice.

‘Not really.’

‘Did you make any friends?’

She’s relentless. I pause mid press-up to look up at her.

‘You’re as bad as Jenny.’

‘Well, did you?’

I think of the girl I saw in the corridor this afternoon, the one wearing the headphones.

‘Nah,’ I say. ‘I’m only there for a year. No point.’

Amber makes a face, but doesn’t push it. I flip onto my back and start to do my stomach crunches. I hear the bathroom door opening and closing and the shower being cranked on. A few seconds later Spike starts singing an old Elvis song. When he goes for the top notes he sounds like a strangled cat.

I crawl over to the wall and give it a thump.

‘Shurrup!’ I yell.

‘Oh, leave him be,’ Amber says with a yawn.

‘You’re joking aren’t you?’

‘He seems harmless enough.’

‘He’s a tool, Amber.’

‘He’s not that bad. Tia likes him.’

‘Tia likes everyone.’

‘He’s better than the last one at least,’ Amber points out.

‘Not hard,’ I snort.

Mam’s last boyfriend did a runner with our telly. But then Mam’s boyfriends always do a runner eventually. She’ll drive Spike away before too long, just like she did Dad. Not that I’d care if Spike did one. Dad is the only one I care about.

9

My first lesson after lunch on Tuesday is English, one of my least favourite subjects. I prefer subjects with wrong or right answers, formulas and rules.

I get there early, choosing a desk next to the window about halfway back. I sit down and begin to unpack my stuff on the desk.

‘Hey, do you have a pen I can borrow? Mine has totally just leaked all over me!’

I look up. It’s her. The girl with the headphones, sitting at the desk right in front of me. She’s twisted round in her seat so her elbows are resting on my desk, her chin cupped in her hands.

‘So, do you?’ she asks.

‘Do I what?’ I ask stupidly.

She rolls her eyes and laughs. ‘Do you have a pen?’ she asks again, separating each word for me.

‘Oh yeah, course I do, hang on.’

I fumble in my pencil case, trying to find the least chewed pen I can. I feel her eyes on me as I hand over a black biro.

‘Thanks, new boy! Oh God, how rude am I? I haven’t introduced myself properly. I’m Alicia Baker,’ she says, offering her hand for me to shake. ‘Excuse the inky hands.’

‘I’m Leo Denton,’ I say, shaking her hand once then dropping it.

‘Oh, I know who you are,’ she says.

The teacher, Miss Jennings, claps her hands to get our attention. Alicia smiles at me before turning round to face the front of the class.

Shit.

I’m not here to meet girls. Girls let you down. They trick you, manipulate you. Girls can’t be trusted. Fact. But at the same time I can’t ignore this weird feeling in my belly, a bit like when I used to dive from the ten-metre board at the swimming baths. As Miss Jennings takes the register, Alicia turns round and sneaks another look at me over her shoulder. I look away fast, pretending I haven’t seen her and fix my eyes on the clock above Miss Jennings’s head, so hard my vision goes all blurry.

I blink. Miss Jennings is saying my name.

‘Denton? Leo Denton?’ she asks, frowning, her eyes searching the room.

‘Er, yeah, here, miss,’ I say, raising my hand. Half the class turn round in their seats to look at me.

‘Stay awake please, Mr Denton,’ she says through pursed lips, unimpressed, before continuing down the register.

The rest of the lesson is taken up with handing out books, filling in forms, listening to Miss Jennings talk. I try really hard to concentrate, focusing on Miss Jennings’s skinny red lips moving like my life depends on it.

The bell finally rings. As I’m packing up my things, I can feel
Alicia watching me. I look up. She’s smiling again. She has a dimple in each cheek. Her teeth are crazy white. I really wish she wouldn’t.

‘Laters, daydreamer,’ she says, grinning as she puts her headphones on before linking arms with some blonde girl and gliding out of the classroom.

 

At lunch time I can’t face sitting in the canteen so I buy a takeaway sandwich instead and eat it on the steps outside the science block. It’s quiet here, away from the football pitch and other main lunch time hangouts. It’s also overlooked by the staff room so I can relax knowing no one would dare mess with me here. I finish my sandwich fast. Our entire family wolfs our food down like we might never eat again. I wonder whether speed-eating is in our DNA and if Dad is the same.

I look over my shoulder. Apart from a couple of goth kids sitting at the very top of the steps, there’s no one around. I take my wallet from my pocket and slide out the photograph of Dad.

It’s a full-length shot of him standing next to a red Ford Fiesta. He must have just finished washing it because it’s really shiny and there’s a bucket of soapy water at his feet. I wish it was at a different angle because then I might be able to read the number plate, but the photo was taken side-on, with Dad leaning up against the passenger window. He has his arms folded across his chest and is grinning proudly at the camera. He has good teeth – white and straight. I must take after him because Mam’s got horrible teeth, all crooked and yellow from a lifetime of fags. He’s tall with sandy brown hair, just like mine. It’s too far away to really see whether I’ve got his eyes or nose or anything else. On the back there’s a date
written in Mam’s scratchy handwriting. Seven months before Amber and I were born.

One New Year, tipsy on cheap white wine, Auntie Kerry let it slip that Dad was a carpenter. I like the idea of that, of him working with his hands and making beautiful things from scratch. Kerry also let it slip that she reckons he might have gone down south to live by the sea, but no one seems to know this for sure. Any time I ask questions, people clam up or get angry and the subject is always closed before it even gets started.

Behind me, the two kids are getting up. I shove the photo back into my wallet as they pass.

10

It’s Friday morning. English again. As I walk up the aisle I try not to look at Alicia. I’m almost at my seat when I make the mistake of glancing down at her. And there she is, smiling away again, totally oblivious to what it’s doing to my head, messing with it.

Miss Jennings dims the lights. We’re watching a film version of
Twelfth Night
, the play we’re studying this term. At first I try my hardest to concentrate on the film, but after a few minutes I find myself drifting and my eyes staring at the back of Alicia’s head. She usually wears her hair down but today it’s up and I can see her neck. I imagine kissing it. The thought makes me feel hot all over. I try to wipe it from my brain, like it never existed. I take a deep breath and try to keep my eyes on the screen.

Outside it’s raining and the classroom is warm. I lay the back of my hand against the window. The condensation feels good – cool and wet. When I take my hand away, it leaves a print behind. Next to it I draw a circle with my index finger. Miss Jennings looks up
from her marking. I pull my damp hand into my lap and wipe it on my trousers.

A second later Alicia twists sideways in her seat and adds eyes and a smiley face to my circle. Before I can stop myself I’m leaning forward, and adding sticky-out ears and a tuft of hair. And I can just tell, by the way the muscles in her neck contract, that Alicia is smiling.

‘Ahem?’

I look up. Miss Jennings is staring right at us, her eyebrows raised. Alicia lets out a tiny giggle. I fight my lips from curling into a smile and know I have to pull myself together.

For the rest of the lesson I force myself to look at the screen and nowhere else.

By the time the bell rings, my and Alicia’s smiley face has begun to run and slide down the window, the eyes all droopy, the smile now a frown. As I pack away my things, I can sense her watching me. Distracted, I drop my pen. I bend down to pick it up, but Alicia is faster.

‘Here,’ she says, pressing it into my hand.

‘Thanks,’ I mutter, jamming the pen into my bag.

I wait for her to move off, but she doesn’t. Instead she perches on the edge of my desk, swinging her legs and continuing to watch me.

‘Leo?’ she says.

‘Yeah?’ I reply, zipping up my bag and not meeting her eyes.

‘Can I ask you a favour?’

I swallow hard.

‘What kind of favour?’ I ask slowly.

‘It’s just a tiny one, I promise,’ she says, biting her lower lip. ‘It’s
just that I’ve entered this singing competition online and the winner gets the chance to meet a team of top record execs, but I need way more votes if I’m going to make it through to the final. So, I was just wondering whether you’d vote for me? I’ve been pestering everyone else on Facebook and Twitter, but I couldn’t find you.’

My skin prickles as I picture Alicia searching for me online.

‘I think it’s really cool by the way,’ she adds.

I frown.

‘That you’re not on Facebook, I mean,’ she continues. ‘I wish I wasn’t on there a lot of the time. It can do your head in sometimes, you know?’

I don’t answer her.

‘You, er, sing then?’ I ask instead.

‘Oh, yeah,’ she says, looking at her feet, shy suddenly. ‘I write my own stuff too, and post videos online, you know, on YouTube and stuff.’

‘Oh, right, cool,’ I murmur.

‘So you’ll vote for me then?’

‘What do I have to do?’

‘Give me your hand.’

Before I can say or do anything, she’s grabbing my hand and turning it over in hers. Her skin is soft and her nails are short and neat, and painted with clear polish. I let my hand go limp and hope she doesn’t clock my own bitten-down nails. She scrawls on the back of my hand with a biro, the nib of the pen dragging at my skin. When she’s done, she pauses. I have to fight the urge to yank my hand away. She looks up.

‘Freckly hands,’ she says.

‘Eh?’

‘I’ve always wanted freckles,’ she continues. ‘My gran reckons they’re kisses from the sun. Cute huh?’

I shrug.

Alicia taps the back of my hand with the pen.

‘Well, that’s the website. I’m listed as Alicia B.’

‘Alicia B,’ I repeat.

‘To vote for me, you just have to click on my name and watch my video. I’m about halfway down I think.’

‘OK.’

‘Amazeballs. Thank you, Leo, I really appreciate this.’

It’s only then she lets go of my hand.

 

After school, instead of going straight home, I head to the computer lab. Apart from one other kid and the teacher on duty, it’s empty.

I take a set of headphones from the stack at the front and sit down at one of the monitors in the back row. I type the web address printed on my hand into the URL bar. I scroll down until I find Alicia B and click on her name.

Alicia’s face flashes up on the screen. She’s sitting on the end of a bed cross-legged, a guitar on her lap and her face frozen in a smile. I press play.

‘Hi! I’m Alicia B,’ she says directly to the camera. ‘This is a song I wrote called “Deep Down with Love”. I really hope you like it and if you do, that you’ll vote for me! Thanks!’

She begins to sing. And she’s amazing, better than anyone on
The X Factor
or
Britain’s Got Talent
. I watch the video a couple more times, even though I’m only allowed to vote once. I’m about to go when I remember her talking about posting stuff on YouTube, so I
type in Alicia B and up come loads and loads more videos. Some are of her singing songs by people like Adele or Leona Lewis. But it’s her own music I like the best, all these songs with really sad lyrics about love going wrong. At the end of each one she always waits a few beats before breaking into a big smile to remind you it’s all pretend.

Because I’m pretty sure Alicia Baker is the sort of girl who breaks hearts, not the other way round.

 

When I get home, Spike is in the kitchen reading the newspaper and eating toast.

‘What are you doing here?’ I ask.

He has his feet up on the table. One of his socks has a hole in the toe.

‘Hello to you too,’ he says cheerily.

‘Where’s Mam?’

‘She’s got a shift down at the launderette then she’s having her nails done with your auntie Kerry. They’re having a girly night.’

‘That still doesn’t explain why you’re here,’ I say.

‘I offered to pick Tia up from school and make you kids some dinner.’

‘Right.’

I open the bread bin; it’s empty. I glance over at Spike’s plate. There must be five slices on there at least.

‘’Ere, have some of this,’ Spike says quickly, noticing my frown. ‘It’ll keep you going.’

‘No thanks.’

‘Don’t be daft. I can’t eat all this anyway. What’s yours is mine, our kid.’

‘I’m not “your kid”,’ I say under my breath.

I go into the living room and turn on the telly. It’s one of those programmes about people looking for houses abroad. I can feel Spike watching me. I look over my shoulder. He’s got up from the kitchen table and is leaning against the doorframe, balancing the plate of toast on his palm.

‘Bloody lovely,’ he says, nodding towards the screen. ‘Ever been to Spain, Leo?’

‘No,’ I mutter.

‘Fantastic place,’ he says. ‘Although I always say you can’t beat Thailand. Bloody beautiful country. The nicest people too. God, the times I had in Thailand, kiddo,’ he says, letting out a low whistle. ‘People are always telling me I should write a book about my travels, you know.’

‘Then why don’t you?’ I mutter.

I don’t usually stick around to listen to Spike but when I do, this is how he talks. Like he’s had all these grand adventures; Britain’s answer to Indiana Jones, only he never goes into any detail, he’s always really vague about it, as if he’s making it up as he goes along.

The other day he left his wallet on the coffee table and I had a quick nose through it. His driving licence says his name is Kevin. So much for Spike. The address on it is somewhere in Manchester. Apart from that there was a bit of cash, some receipts and a folded-up strip of photos of him and Mam taken in one of those passport photo booths. In the first shot they were grinning at the camera, in the second doing bunny ears behind one another’s heads, in the third and fourth, they were snogging. Rank.

Spike comes to sit next to me.

‘Slice?’ he offers. ‘Go on.’

The toast drips with butter. It smells amazing. In spite of myself I take a slice, but only cos I’m starving. I rip it in half and stuff the smaller piece into my mouth, swallowing it down whole. It scrapes the back of my throat.

Spike takes a bite and munches for a few seconds, his lips smacking against one another.

‘Actually, Leo, I’m glad your Mam’s out tonight. I think we got off on the wrong foot maybe. This might be a good chance for us to have a proper chat, you know, man to man.’

‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ I say, swallowing my other bit of toast in one go and standing up.

‘’Ere, Leo, wait, will ya?’

I turn. Spike is looking up at me. With his floppy hair and droopy eyes, he reminds me a bit of the spaniel Kerry had for a bit, until it weed in her underwear drawer and she took it to the RSPCA.

‘I’m really keen on your mam, you know that don’t you, kiddo?’ he says.

I just shrug. The idea of anyone being into my disaster zone of a mother seems pretty unlikely to me.

‘She’s a special lady, Leo, and I know it’s early days and that, but if things work out, and I hope they do, I’m going to do right by you and your sisters. I’m not like the others, I’m not going to bugger off the minute things get a bit rough.’

‘Whatever,’ I say, looking out the window. ‘I’m fifteen. In a few years, I’ll be out of here anyway.’

‘Of course, mate. I’m just saying, that’s all. I know it must be hard for you and Amber, not having a dad around and that.’

I spin round. ‘Keep my dad out of this. You don’t know anything about him.’

‘Now steady on, kiddo, I might know more than you think,’ Spike says, holding up his hands.

‘You know bugger all,’ I spit, heading for the door.

‘Leo,’ Spike calls. ‘Oh, come back, mate! Leo!’

I slam the front door behind me.

As I stomp across the garden I hear one of the upstairs windows open and Tia’s thin little voice calling my name. I ignore it and keep walking.

I know exactly where I’m going.

I’m heading for the old Cloverdale baths.

It’s still light when I arrive so I lie on my back on the bottom of the empty pool with my hoodie propped under my head as a pillow. Above me, the fading sunlight shines through the glass roof and warms my face. Already I feel a bit calmer. I spread my fingers out. The tiles beneath me feel cool and sort of damp, which is weird because there hasn’t been any water in here for a couple of years now. It still smells of chlorine though. I like breathing it in, taking big gulps and letting it fill up my lungs and nostrils.

When they announced they were going to close down the Cloverdale swimming baths a few years ago, everyone made a big fuss and signed a petition, but it did no good; the council went ahead and closed them anyway. They’re building a new leisure centre about a mile away apparently, with a gym and café and Zumba classes. It won’t be the same though.

I used to swim here when I was a kid. On sunny days like today, you’d get blinded doing the backstroke. But I liked it best when it was raining. I used to love how it got really dark and the water would thunder on the roof and you could imagine you were swimming down the Amazon in the middle of some tropical storm.

Gav used to bring me and Amber here on a Saturday morning while Mam stayed in bed and slept off her hangover. Gav was Mam’s boyfriend at the time. He taught us to swim in the shallow end – backstroke and front crawl. Amber never liked it much. She didn’t like getting her hair wet and would cough and splutter every time she got water in her mouth. But I loved it. Gav used to say I was a natural, a proper water baby.

I liked Gav. He was one of the better ones. Of course he was too soft and let Mam get on at him all the time, until one day he must have finally had enough because he left the house in the morning and never came back.

Even though I haven’t been in the water for five years now, I miss the way swimming made me feel – calm and in control. I miss the muffled sound of voices when my head was underneath the water. Sometimes I think life would be about a thousand times easier if I could do everything under water, with no one bothering me, everyone’s words distorted and far away, and me just under the surface, fast and untouchable.

As I lie there, Spike’s words keep echoing around my head: ‘I might know more than you think.’ Part of me wishes I’d stayed and asked him what he meant. But then Spike would only have Mam’s story and who knows what crap she’s been telling him.

No, the only person who can really tell me the truth is long gone.

BOOK: The Art of Being Normal
5.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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