Staleton is a small, boring, predictale seaside village. So it comes as a bit of a shock when an American teenager turns up at the local school.
I live in a village called Staleton. It’s a small place. Maybe about a hundred houses, give or take a few. Probably take. Around twenty.
Anyway. A few – by which I mean around half - of the houses are empty ‘cause it’s not really a desirable place to live. All the houses are detached and nice-looking to deter people from how stupidly cheap they are. The council are so desperate to have some kind of socially acceptable population that they probably just accept the first offer they get.
As for rest of the population, it’s holiday makers. In fact, most of the people inhabiting Staleton at any one time are holiday makers who want to visit the seaside in their high-tech caravans. As if we needed to feel any more incapable as a destination.
Personally, I think we do okay in our (mostly) friendly, well-spoken little community. I mean, anyone born into Staleton will have met everyone in it by the time they’re three. I was no exception.
When I first started school, I was delighted to find that my teacher was a close family friend, and that all the friends I’d made before school were in my class. Nobody was ever sad to be leaving Staleton nursery because they were taking everyone they knew with them.
When I was eight, my grandmother enlisted me into the village litter-picking committee, which is where my best friend Jim met his ex-girlfriend. I would have been bothered, but nobody leaves Staleton without being part of it. Every Thursday we’re called on to clear the beach and Caravan Park. It’s normally okay because we ourselves don’t drop litter so there’s nothing really to pick up except what’s been brought in by the wind or passers-through.
In the summer, our holiday makers come from inland places – London, Sheffield, places like that – and they treat the sand like a bin.
It’s pretty bad when the whole village is in the litter-picking committee. They’re the same seventy-odd you’re going to know until the day you die.
So, of course, it was little short of miraculous when an American teenager turned up at school in the dead of winter.
“Luke! Get up now! The holidays are over!”
I groaned at the sound of my mother’s voice, muffled by the duvet I had pulled over my head. School. What a pointless exercise. I swung my legs around to the side of the bed and yawned widely.
Someone rapped their knuckles on my bedroom door. “Luke, hurry up ‘cause I need to get my clothes from the wardrobe,” chimed my little sister Bettie. We couldn’t afford to get another wardrobe for her, so her clothes had always been in mine.
“Luke. Now please.” That was my mother again as she passed on the landing.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I mumbled. “Come on, Bettie.”
Bettie had already done her hair into a side plait and put her tights on under her nightie.
Still groggy, I was stopped halfway through pouring myself a bowl of cereal by my grandma, who told me that I would not be having that crap on my first day back. She ordered me to sit at the table and placed a mug of hot coffee firmly down in front of me.
Bettie skipped in five minutes later with a cute grin on her little face. “Can I have some of your drink, Luke?”
“No,” said Grandma. “You’ve got some milk.”
“But I already have teeth, Granny,” she replied. “Just a sip?”
Grandma nodded and she slurped a mouthful from my mug. I looked at the dark, sugary liquid that my grandmother called coffee. It was disgusting. It was disgusting every time she made it, but I never told her that because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
Bacon sandwiches were consumed with pleasure, along with several more cups of sticky coffee and three more glasses of milk for Bettie.
Upstairs, I had a quick shower and pulled on a t-shirt and jeans. My mum reminded me to put on a jumper.
While I was shoving all my school-related paper into my bag, Bettie skipped in and asked me to zip up the back of her woolly winter dress.
Our school could afford things like separate uniforms for winter and summer because they didn’t spend money on interactive white boards or computers. Or sports teams. Or school trips. Or uniforms for the sixth formers.
My kitchen had more electronics in it than school.
We exited through the back door because mum and dad were getting ready for work and were therefore in charge of the front of the house. It was snowing.
I walked Bettie all the way to her building, knowing that it would make me late for lessons. Staleton’s school is split into two buildings: Staleton Nursery and Primary School and Staleton Secondary School and Sixth Form. They’re both the same school, run by the same people. The council just thinks it makes the village look better to call them different things.
The primary school building is a good twenty minute walk from the sixth form but I didn’t care. Anything to spend less time in that dump.
It wasn’t that I hated school. I just knew that I’d be staying in this village for the rest of my life and having an extended education would have no bearing on whether or not I got a job.
I was already working for less than minimum wage at the local supermarket. The owner had already told me that once I left school and took up full time hours, he’d give me a raise. That was going to be my job.
Twenty minutes into the Chemistry lesson I didn’t really care for, I was still stood outside in the cold. It wasn’t fun. I knew that if a teacher walked out, I’d be in trouble and they’d tell my mum but I didn’t really care.
The girl walked into the yard just as I was contemplating going inside. A little blonde thing. She was wearing a purple bobble hat and Ugg boots.
She stopped about a metre away from me and I raised an eyebrow. I liked to make things awkward so I decided to make her start the conversation.
“Um… hi,” she said.
“Holy sh*t, it’s an American,” I replied with a grin.
“Yeah,” her lips twitched in a kind of cute little smirk and she shifted some snow with her foot. “You got it.”
“I bet you’ve been getting that for a while.” Cute? Had I really just thought that?
“About a month,” she smiled up at me.
“So,” I said, eager to continue talking to her. “What’re you doing out here an hour into the school day, then? Flunking?”
“Uh, I could ask the same of you.” She folded her arms.
Huh. Clever, this one. “Avoiding Chemistry.”
“Avoiding English,” a grin spread across her face, simultaneous with my own. “The, uh… The teacher keeps telling my I’m doing it wrong.”
She giggled, and I was far too pleased that she took the joke well. “Yeah, I know. That’s why I don’t like it.” She had very pretty eyes.
I opened my mouth to reply but the school bell signalling the start of second period made me forget what I was about to say. It hadn’t been important, anyway.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you around, Lucas.” Her hair brushed my fingers as she walked past.
A strangely warm sensation spread up to my shoulder, giving me goose bumps under my coat.
What an odd girl – I immediately blamed her.
“Wait, hey,” I tried to sound casual as I ran after her. “This door’s a bit awkward. It gets stuck a lot. Let me do it.”
Luckily, she had already tried the door by that point, but I did have a moment of panic in which I thought she’d think I was being a douche on purpose.
“Ooh, my knight in shining armour,” she said, her voice dripping with so much sarcasm that I had to check to see if she was smiling.
She was going to be difficult, I could tell, but I was determined to make her laugh again.
“I, uh, have Music next,” she said. “Do you think you could show me where it is?”
“I have that too,” I answered immediately, then decided it made me sound far too excited about it. “I mean, there’s only one Music class so yeah, you can just walk there with me if you want.”
“Sure,” she smirked.
We got to class early, so I introduced her to the teacher. Only three other people took Music as a subject and I was really looking forward to showing my newfound friend the basics, but as soon as Jim walked in I knew I wouldn’t be the one who got that job.
And I was right. Within five minutes, they were chatting animatedly, leaving me to stare at my handwritten sheet music and pretend not to care. Remember when I said the school didn’t have any technology? Yeah, I wasn’t kidding.
Not that I was alone. I had Lisa, the teacher’s daughter. She excelled at this stuff because her dad ran the church choir. She hadn’t left me alone since I first asked her for help back at the start of GCSE.
“Um, what’s it called when the notes get gradually louder again?” I asked after a while of her shooting glances at me from across the table.
Her eyes lit up behind her thick frame glasses and she jumped up. Everybody who needed glasses had the same style because a fashionable optician wasn’t near the top of the village’s list of priorities.
At the other side of the room, I could hear Jim and the little American stifling laughter.
“It’s a crescendo,” said Lisa. “One sec, I’ll bring my stuff over.”
Lisa had lived with her mother in Ireland until she was ten, but she’d been driven down here very suddenly when new job prospects had been put before her. She was older than me by five months, as I found out when she told me her entire life story as soon as we met.
“Um, your chord there is wrong,” she pointed on my score. “I think you meant to write a C in the bass.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I muttered. She wasn’t right but I was in constant fear of hurting her feelings.
Jim burst into laughter and I gave him a death glare.
“Is everything alright? You haven’t fallen out have you? That’d be awful.”
“No, it’s alright, Lisa. Can you show me how to modulate here? I’m not sure what I’m doing.”
She always took a lot of care when she helped me. When she helped anyone, really, but I was the only one who asked for her help over the teacher’s.
She was the sort of girl who wore jeans and woolly jumpers almost all year round. She cared a lot more about her music than she did about anything else.
“Elsie, I’d like to see your work now, please.”
“Okay, Mr Choirmaster.”
Yes. We are that stereotypical.