Making the journey to school, Tobey was deeper in thought that usual. For the first night in a long time, he hadn’t had the dream, instead dreaming of Cosmodius and Aramis, so he had woken unusually refreshed and thinking of them. The more he replayed their meeting in the woods the previous day, the more he realised how odd it was. Still, he was hopeful he might see them at school. A small smile played with the corners of his mouth shyly, as if unaccustomed to such liberties, as he contemplated the notion. It would be nice to have some new friends at school. In addition, this unexpected cheerfulness had also given him the first glimmerings of an idea for a piece of music he was composing. It was in a major key, unusually for him, and he was keen to get to school and experiment on one of the pianos in the music block. His thoughts were therefore a pleasant mixture of new acquaintances and dancing semiquavers, instead of being on the path ahead of him. In fact, he was so deep in thought that at first he didn’t hear the voice calling his name.
He looked up from the pavement to the other side of the road, from where the voice calling him came. He looked away almost instantly.
Slightly shorter than him, stockier, and aggressive-looking, Aden Murray stood there, backed up by Pete, Zak and Tristan. Even the gelled spikes of his hair seemed hostile and unwelcoming. The mock-friendly tone of his voice suggested unpleasantness.
Correction, thought Tobey, it would be nice to have any friends.
Head down, he continued on the path on the way to school, pretending to ignore the other boys. His good mood having evaporated, he tried to concentrate on the new melody he was composing, but somehow his enthusiasm had gone completely.
If only theirs had too.
He had hardly walked ten steps along the road when a hand was thrust onto his shoulder, roughly, in a manner completely unlike the way Cosmodius had grabbed him the previous day.
“Hey Tobes, how’s it going?” said Aden, scrabbling with his fingers in the hollow of his shoulder to find the spot which, when pressed, would cause acute pain.
Tobey forced his facial features into a vaguely normal expression, trying not to give away the fear and anger that were rising up inside of him.
“Fine thanks, Aden, and yourself?”
“I’m good. Isn’t your bag heavy?”
Automatically, Tobey’s hand went to the damaged strap, checking that the parcel tape was still holding. He had a vague suspicion of what might be coming and began to walk faster. If I can just make it round the next corner, there might be a teacher there who will stop them.
Zak stood in front of him, the gold chain thick around his pudgy neck, blocking him. Tobey tried to walk round him, but found Pete and Tristan obstructed him.
“It’s fine thanks,”
“Oh no, Tobes, of course it’s not fine. We wouldn’t want you to strain your back now, would we?”
He checked his watch. If the boys didn’t leave him alone, he’d be late for registration. Not that his form teacher, a dozy woman nearing retirement age, would notice. She rarely noticed anything, not even when the girls put forbidden make-up on in full view of the rest of the class. Not even when Zak had shouted to Pete about how ‘wasted’ he was going to get that weekend, so loud that the people on the other side of the classroom looked up from their last-minute, overdue, if-you-don’t-hand-it-in-by-break-today-it’s-detention-for-you-lad homework. Still, at any rate, he didn’t like being late.
“Where’s the box?”
He exhaled slowly through his teeth in a kind of exasperated forbearance. “My violin case,” he replied stiffly, “is at home.”
“oh, good. We wouldn’t want you burdened now, would we, Tobes?”
Tobey’s other hand found the non-damaged strap, and he tucked his thumbs under each protectively. There was no way he was letting them get it again. Not after last time…
“’course not,” agreed Pete, the violent silver curl of his lip ring bright against his yellowing teeth. His foul breath made Tobey take a step backwards, nearer to Aden. He realised his mistake, wincing as the other boy’s fingers found the spot.
“It’s not a burden at all,” he babbled, “really, it isn’t. No trouble at all,”
“I don’t mind carrying your schoolbag Tobey, it’s not a problem to me.”
Tobey’s fingers tightened around the straps of his rucksack until his knuckles went white. At the same time, his grey eyes scanned the street for someone-anyone- who might help. He saw nobody, just a few year sevens in their pristine uniform and a couple of year nine girls giggling at the sight of Aden. He thought he heard the word ‘hot’ mentioned a few times and not in the sense of the weather. He was alone. Friendless, he wondered if perhaps he could duck and run out of the circle of boys that surrounded him before they had chance to take his things.
“Give it here,” said Aden, releasing Tobey’s shoulder. For a split second, Tobey was so filled with the joy of being no longer in pain that he didn’t care that they were still around him. Then, Aden’s arms tugged at his bag from behind, violently. He stumbled, putting a foot forwards to get his balance, and as he did, he heard a loud rip. The parcel tape had given way and the rucksack was pulled, unceremoniously, from his back.
“Give it back, Aden,”
His voice sounded pleading even to his own ears, when he had wanted to sound authoritarian and bored by their childish antics.
“I think I’ll carry it to school for you, eh Tobes? Just because I like you.”Aden’s fingers, which he had already demonstrated were adept at causing pain, jerked the zip violently. It yielded with a high-pitched squeak, like a scream. “Got anything good in there?”
He answered his own question, rummaging around in Tobey’s bag. He opened his lunchbox before deciding that his lunch was too healthy to be worth stealing. He threw his P.E bag in a puddle. He stole Tobey’s bus fare, while Tobey stood by and watched, humiliated.
“Give it back, Aden.”
Bored by the game, or seeking a new way to torture him, Aden picked up the sodden games bag and stuffed it clumsily back in the rucksack. He zipped it up, carelessly, the broken strap dangling lifelessly onto the ground. It looked as limp as Tobey felt.
“You can have it back, Merritt,” said Aden, in the same mock friendly tone.
“yeah.” He said, holding it out so Tobey might take it from him. Tobey reached out to grab it, but Aden, with a triumphant flash of his dazzling white teeth, held it aloft and began to sprint along the road to school. “But you have to catch it first!”
No longer surrounded, he ran along after him, but he knew already that he was beaten. Aden Murray was the school’s champion at the 800 metres. Still, he persevered, skinny arms flapping at his sides, lanky legs whirling. While Murray’s powerful sprint was like that of a big cat, somehow elegant in spite of his speed, Tobey’s gait was that of a gawky cartoon character, all arms and legs, tripping over his own feet more often than not, and with Pete, Zak and Tristan in hot pursuit
“catch me if you can!” Aden jeered as Tobey picked himself off the floor, a rip in the knee of his school trousers and blood oozing from a gash there.
They approached the school where crowds of students milled about waiting for registration- evidently the staff meeting customary on Friday mornings had over-ran again. Aden cut a zigzagging path through the cliques, agile, able to change direction. Tobey’s red schoolbag, held aloft, was like a beacon as they ran, drawing everyone’s eyes to his humiliation.
“Murray, what are you doing?” barked strict Mr Perkins as he emerged from the main school building. Even Aden Murray stopped before his red face and double chin, and tried to look innocent.
“I’m just carrying Merritt’s schoolbag,” he said, sweetly although the expression on his face was more of a smirk. “It’s important to be helpful, don’t you think?”
“Well, yes, but give it back now, Murray, there’s a good lad.”
Reluctantly, he relinquished the rucksack and handed it back to Tobey. His cheeks were as red as the bag that he clutched feebly, exhausted from his sprint. His breathing came in ragged gasps which burned his throat, and his knee throbbed.
“And Merritt? Grow a backbone. Stick up for yourself.”
Tobey’s face flamed brighter. “Yes, sir.” Ashamed, he slunk away in the direction of his form room, refusing to meet anyone’s eye. He had been humiliated, and humiliated in front of a good proportion of the school. How would he ever live it down?
Later, when eating his now-soggy sandwiches on the steps, alone, he reflected that although he had been half-expecting a transformation, it was just an average school day.