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Authors: Lisa Williamson

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BOOK: The Art of Being Normal
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13

Mr Toolan’s office is different to how I remember it – smaller and darker. In the centre there is a large and messy desk covered with paperwork and coffee cups. Framed photographs of his wife and grown-up kids, tanned and good-looking, on skiing holidays and at graduation ceremonies sit to the left of his computer screen. A half-eaten sandwich sits to the right. Behind the desk, Mr Toolan is looking at my file and frowning.

My left leg is jiggling up and down. Most of the time I can disguise how I feel, rearranging my face and body to throw people off the scent. But my left leg manages to override my brain every time.

Mr Toolan puts my file down on his desk and sighs. ‘I’m not going to sugar-coat this, Leo. This is not a good start.’

I flex my hands. My knuckles are red and tingly.

‘I hoped
never
to see you in this office and yet barely two weeks into your first term, here you are. And for hitting another pupil no less,’ Mr Toolan continues.

I look down at my shoes. I’m still wearing last year’s pair. They’re scuffed at the toes and the laces are starting to fray.

There’s a knock at the door. It’s Miss Hannah, Head of Pastoral Support.

‘I came as soon as I heard,’ she says, slipping into the seat beside me.

‘Are you going to kick me out?’ I ask. They’re the first words I’ve spoken since I arrived.

Mr Toolan and Miss Hannah exchange looks.

‘How about you tell us what happened first?’ Mr Toolan asks.

I clear my throat and lean forward in my chair.

‘This kid was getting picked on you see, really getting laid into. And no one was standing up for him, not properly anyway. Like, there were loads of kids standing around watching but none of them did anything, they all just let it happen.’

‘So at this point why didn’t you alert a teacher? Why did you take it upon yourself to sort it out with your fists?’ Mr Toolan asks.

I close my eyes. But it’s still a blur. All I can see are flashing images; the kid’s face, the one who came over to me in the canteen last week, all hurt and humiliated, on the verge of tears, then the other kid, the one I punched, looking all smug and proud. The next thing I remember is me standing over him as he lay on the floor, blood pouring from his nose, and a couple of teachers grabbing one arm each and marching me out of the canteen. Everything in between is hazy.

‘Well?’ Mr Toolan says.

I open my eyes.

‘I dunno, sir. I just … lost it, I suppose.’

‘Well “losing it”, as you put it, is simply not acceptable behaviour.’

I look at my feet again.

Mr Toolan takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. He has red marks either side of his nose. I glance at Miss Hannah, trying to work out exactly how much trouble I’m in, but she refuses to meet my eye.

Mr Toolan puts his glasses back on and props his elbows on the desk, his chin resting on his clasped hands.

‘Do you know why I accepted you as a pupil here, Leo? When several other schools had been reluctant?’

‘No, sir,’ I say.

‘It was not just your clear aptitude in mathematics that secured you a place here, I saw something special, something worth taking a chance on. I saw a young person who wanted to work hard and keep his head down.’

‘And I do! Look, sir, you weren’t there, you didn’t see what really happened. He was asking for it!’

Mr Toolan holds up his hand to silence me. I grip on hard to the wooden arms of the chair, so hard my knuckles turn from red to bright white.

‘Leo, I don’t think you’re comprehending the seriousness of the situation. You’re fortunate Harry’s nose wasn’t broken.’

He’s the fortunate one, I want to say. But I’m skating on thin ice already. I take a deep breath before speaking.

‘Look, sir, I get that I maybe shouldn’t have hit him. And if I could turn back time, I wouldn’t have. But you didn’t hear what he was saying to that kid, he was destroying him and it just wasn’t right!’

‘I don’t care, Leo,’ Mr Toolan interrupts. ‘The bottom line is, Eden Park pupils do not physically attack their peers, end of story. Do you understand me?’

‘But, sir—’

‘Do you understand me, Leo?’ Mr Toolan repeats.

My nails dig into the arms of the chair, anger still hot and bubbling in my belly.

‘Yes, sir.’

The room is suddenly very quiet apart from the ticking of an unseen clock.

‘So are you going to expel me?’

Mr Toolan sighs. ‘No, I am not going to expel you, Leo. You will be in detention for the next month, starting tomorrow, and on probation for the remainder of your time here. If you take even a step out of line, I will have no choice but to take more permanent action. Does that sound fair?’

All I can do is nod my head.

He begins to scribble in my file.

‘That’s all, Leo. You’re dismissed.’

I nod and stand up. My left leg is still trembling.

Outside Mr Toolan’s office, Harry is sitting with his head resting against the wall and a massive wad of tissue held to his nose. Some blonde girl is practically straddling him as she coos in his ear and strokes his hair.

‘Maniac,’ she spits over her shoulder as I pass.

I give her the finger. Her eyes bulge but she doesn’t say anything else.

On the other side of the glass, in the secretary’s office, the notebook kid, whose name I can’t remember, is writing his statement. When he notices me, he breaks into a smile and waves.

‘Thank you!’ he mouths.

I ignore him, pushing open the door to the empty playground.
Afternoon classes have already started. The fresh air hits my face – cold and sharp.

I haven’t been expelled. But I’ve got to be extra careful now. Any more slip-ups and I’m out. Mr Toolan is right; if I got expelled from Eden Park, no other school would touch me with a bargepole. I’d end up in one of those pupil referral units with all the other maniacs and dropouts. I’d never get into sixth form college after that, never mind university. I’d be stuck in Cloverdale for ever. Good grades from Eden Park are my ticket out. I need to keep my head down, need to keep in control. But at the same time the unfairness of it all burns in my chest.

Miss Jennings must know about my visit to Mr Toolan’s office because when I slip into English over half an hour late she just looks up from her marking and nods. I can feel my classmates watching me as I make my way up the aisle to my seat. I try my best to appear cool and live up to the reputation they’ve built for me. I sit down and take out my creative writing folder. After a few moments, Alicia twists halfway round in her seat. She is wearing different earrings today, tiny silver ladybirds in place of her usual gold hearts.

‘I heard about you,’ she whispers.

I try to read her face. I get the feeling Alicia Baker might not be the sort of girl who gets turned on by violence.

‘Oh yeah?’ I say, trying to sound nonchalant.

‘Yeah, defending that Year 10 kid.’

‘Oh that. Stupid of me. Dunno what I was thinking.’

‘It wasn’t stupid at all. I think it was sweet of you.’

I swallow.

‘Yeah?’

She nods.

‘Mr Toolan didn’t think so,’ I say. ‘Detention for a month, starting tomorrow.’

‘Harsh.’

‘Tell me about it.’

I don’t mention the probation.

Miss Jennings looks up. We both look down at our books. She frowns, but returns to her marking.

‘For what’s it’s worth though, I mean it,’ Alicia continues to whisper over her shoulder. ‘It was well sweet of you to do what you did. Not enough people stand up for the underdog round here. That Harry Beaumont kid is a right dickhead too. It was about time someone gave him a taste of his own medicine.’

She checks the front of the room before twisting all the way round again.

‘Leo, can I ask you something?’ she says, playing with the silver chain around her neck.

‘Er, yeah, OK.’ I say, shifting in my seat.

‘Why did you really move schools? There’s that stupid rumour going round, about you chopping off a teacher’s finger, or something crazy like that, but I don’t believe it for one second.’

Over the past few days I’ve overheard snatches of the same rumour. I have no clue where it came from, but figured there was no harm in letting it fly; anything to reinforce my image as the tough guy from the wrong side of the tracks.

‘So why don’t you believe it?’ I ask carefully.

‘Because. You’re not like that.’

‘What makes you so sure?’

‘Oh, I don’t know, let’s just say I’m a very perceptive person,’ she says, smiling.

I don’t smile back.

‘So come on, what really happened?’ she asks.

I check the front of the room. Miss Jennings is talking to Lauren Melrose.

‘Come on, you can tell me. I won’t blab it around, I promise, cross my heart and all that,’ Alicia says, running her finger across her chest.

But Alicia doesn’t know what she’s signing up for. The truth is bigger than she could probably ever imagine.

‘OK,’ I say, leaning in for effect. ‘But you really can’t tell anyone.’

‘Your secret is safe with me,’ Alicia replies solemnly, mimicking my action and moving in closer. God, she smells good. All the time my mind is whirring for something to say.

‘The thing is,’ I begin, my voice lowered. ‘I got in with a bad lot at my old school. And I could see how stuff was going to go for me, you know, if I stayed. And, well, I didn’t want that for myself, so I got a transfer.’

‘You can do that?’

‘Under special circumstances, yeah.’

Alicia sits back. ‘Wow, that’s a pretty grown-up decision to make.’

I shrug, as if it’s no big deal.

‘Why don’t you tell people that then?’ she asks. ‘Why do you let them go round making stories up about you getting expelled?’

I shrug. ‘None of their business. I figure they can think what they like. The most important thing is that I know the truth, you know?’

I look down at my fingers. There’s a splodge of ink on the pad of my right index finger. I can feel Alicia watching me.

‘Miss Baker, is there a problem?’ Miss Jennings calls.

Alicia rolls her eyes at me and turns to face the front of the class. I dare to breathe out.

‘I voted for you by the way,’ I say, when the bell rings ten minutes later and we’re packing away our stuff. ‘In that singing competition.’

‘You did?’ Alicia asks.

‘Course. You were great.’

‘You really think so?’

‘Definitely. Best on there by miles,’ I find myself saying.

‘Aw, thanks Leo,’ she says, pink and pleased.

And it feels sort of good to have made her feel good.

‘You know who you remind me of?’ I continue. ‘This singer my gran used to like when she was alive. Shit, I’ve forgotten her name now, Ella something …’

Alicia grips hold of my arm.

‘Oh my God, not Ella Fitzgerald?’ she whispers.

‘Yeah, that’s it.’

‘Ella Fitzgerald is like my inspiration!’ Alicia says, her eyes shining. ‘You honestly think I’m like her, Leo?’

‘I said so didn’t I?’

She beams.

‘Leo?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Can I ask you something else?’

‘Er, OK,’ I say, putting on my backpack.

‘How come you don’t do PE? It’s the only other class we have together and you’re always on the bench.’

I am totally aware PE is the only other class I share with Alicia
and how good she looks in that tiny pleated skirt and tight polo shirt.

‘Knee problems, from a football injury a few years back,’ I lie smoothly, in the swing of things now.

‘That must be hard, not being able to play any more,’ she says, the classroom emptying around us.

‘It’s not great, but what can you do? It’s not like I was good enough to play professionally or anything,’ I say with a modest shrug.

She pauses and folds her arms.

‘You’re interesting, Leo Denton, do you know that?’

And Alicia is looking at me as if I have all these layers and the whole time our eyes are locked together. And for a moment I forget all about Harry Beaumont, and Mr Toolan and being on probation, and my million other problems. Even the voice in my head, the one warning me to make a run for it and that girls are no good, is fading by the second. Because everything is cancelled out by my heart going wild in my chest, like it’s going to burst out of me and dance right across the room.

14

When I come out of Mr Toolan’s office, Felix and Essie are waiting. They jump up from their chairs and fling their arms around me like I’m a soldier returning from battle. I get a big mouthful of Essie’s hair. It tastes of her perfume and chemicals.

‘Oh my God, are you OK?’ she cries, holding me at arm’s length, inspecting me for injuries.

‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘What are you guys doing here? Shouldn’t you be in art by now?’

‘Art, schmart,’ Essie replies.

‘What the hell happened, dude?’ Felix asks over her.

I start with the ear flicking and end with Leo getting carted off to Mr Toolan’s office, a mixture of anger and bewilderment on his face.

‘But why was your inspection book in your bag in the first place?’ Felix asks. ‘I thought you kept it locked away?’

‘It wasn’t on purpose,’ I say grimly, ‘believe me.’

‘Did Harry see much of it?’ he asks.

‘Just a few pages I think.’

‘That’s something at least.’

‘I still can’t believe that Cloverdale kid punched Harry Beaumont!’ Essie interrupts, shaking her head in wonder. ‘Was it amazing? I bet it was amazing!’

‘I don’t know. I had my eyes closed,’ I admit. ‘It sounded pretty amazing though. It was a proper punch, really loud. And Harry’s nose was bleeding loads afterwards.’

‘Awesome,’ Felix says, his eyes dancing. Harry broke Felix’s glasses back in Year 8 and Felix has been patiently waiting for his comeuppance ever since.

‘You should totally invite him to have lunch with us,’ Essie says.

‘Who? Harry?’ I ask.

‘No, you idiot!’ she cries. ‘What’s-his-name! The
junior-hacksaw
wielding maniac!’

‘You mean Leo?’ I reply. ‘I thought you said he’d had his opportunity?’

‘But that was before he stood up for you and punched Harry Beaumont in the face!’ Essie exclaims. ‘The boy deserves a medal!’

‘Fine, I could ask him in detention I suppose. I don’t know if he’ll say yes though.’

‘Hang on a second, detention? How come
you
got detention?’ Felix demands. ‘
You
were the victim!’

‘For making Harry bite his tongue,’ I say, rolling my eyes. ‘A week. For what it’s worth, Harry got a week too. Leo got
an entire month apparently. For a single punch. That’s pretty harsh, don’t you think?’

Essie shrugs, swinging her legs. ‘You know what Mr Toolan’s like, always banging on about how we’re “young ladies and gentleman”,’ she says, imitating his deep voice.

‘Essie’s right,’ Felix adds, ‘he has a really low tolerance for physical violence.’

‘Psychological torture on the other hand …’ Essie says. ‘God, things are messed up in this place sometimes. If the teachers had any sense, they would have socked Harry in the face themselves years ago. Eurgh, he’s such an animal.’

We sit in silence for a few moments.

‘It is strange though, when you think about it,’ Felix says.

‘What is?’ Essie asks.

‘That the school would accept Leo as a pupil in the first place. They make out places here are like gold dust and yet Mr Toolan, who prides himself on running such a “peaceful” school, goes and lets in some kid with a history of violence. That’s weird, right?’

‘I suppose,’ I say.

‘And what’s weirder still is this,’ Felix continues. ‘Do either of you know what a junior hacksaw actually looks like?’

Essie and I shake our heads. I don’t think either of us paid particular attention back in DT in Year 7, far too busy messing about with the glue gun when Mr Hampton wasn’t looking. Felix takes out his phone and after a few seconds of tapping, passes it over to me and Essie. We peer at the picture on the screen.


That’s
a junior hacksaw?’ I say. The saw on the screen is a flimsy little thing, nothing like the massive weapon I’d envisaged Leo swinging about the corridors of Cloverdale School.

‘It looks like it could barely saw a Kit Kat in half, never mind a finger,’ Essie scoffs.

‘Exactly, my friends,’ Felix says, folding his arms, sitting back in his chair and looking rather proud of himself. ‘Exactly.’

BOOK: The Art of Being Normal
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