A gifted young man has no future, or does he?
I live in my own head much of the time. That's not to say that I don't enjoy coming back to earth, occasionally. I'm here more these days than I used to be, say, eight or nine years ago when I still went to St Bede's Primary and didn't have a single friend in the whole world. Back then, the only way to stay sane was to retreat to the place where I could have as many friends as I needed and where all the nasty stuff couldn't reach me.
When Kevin and Andy became my friends, after Joe Madden and his deputies broke my Jed Dolphus and Kev gave me his, I allowed myself to enter the real world, at least while I was at school or at their houses. At home, I still needed to tune out, because he was around, and it was the one way to escape from that - from the shouting and swearing and all the other things I'd rather not mention. I don't blame Mum for taking up with him; he had his merits, like the ability to protect her from the others, the ones before him, like my real dad, but I wasn't sorry when he went to prison. Mum was sorry, but I can't really say she was happy before. I've never seen her looking anything but sad, so I don't have any way to compare it. She's a good mum, though, for all her faults, and whatever anyone says, she's not a druggie or an alky. OK, she smokes too much, but as she says herself, it's her only pleasure these days.
I think she's proud of me in her own way. When I came back from school last week and told her my GCSE results she almost gave me a hug, and I think she would have if she hadn't been halfway through a ciggie. She squinted though the smoke at the sheet I held out, with the column of As and A stars, and just one B, (for ICT, which had always been my weak subject). 'That's quite good, Bill. You'll be able to get a really good job with that, won't you? Like working at the bookies or the cinema or something, where you get to wear a nice suit.'
I would have liked to tell her I'd rather go on to sixth form college and do A levels, like Kev and Andy, but I knew there wasn't any point, and I hadn't even given her the letters telling her about the 16-plus Education Information Evening at the start of Year 11, because I knew she wouldn't bother going. She'd never been to any other parents' evenings, not even in primary, so why should now be any different? The day after the Information Evening, my tutor, Mr Dixon, had taken me to one side, after registration, and I felt sorry for him, a bit.
'William, I was hoping to speak to your mother last night about your choices when you leave here. You are planning to go on and do A levels, aren't you? You're on track to get excellent GCSE grades, and I can see you coping easily with four or five subjects for A level, if not more, and then there's no reason you shouldn't get in to one of the better universities.'
I looked over at the whiteboard in our Tutor room, avoiding Mr Dixon's searching grey eyes, which always looked as if he was about to burst into tears. No reason, I thought, except that I can't. I just can't. How does someone like me, who's supposed to leave school at sixteen, and either go and work in a supermarket, like my sisters, or, more likely, straight on the dole like my brothers, go to any University, never mind a good one? Hasn't he heard of tuition fees? My mum had already mentioned a few times how she looked forward to 'another wage coming in when Billy leaves school'. But there wouldn't be any point in explaining any of that to this misguided, but well-meaning, teacher. It would take too long and anyway, he was probably only doing his job.
'I'll think about it,' I said, and I could see in his face that he thought I wouldn't. He was wrong. I would think about it. I'd think about it a lot, but that's all.
'Well, come and have a chat if you want to talk about it, William,' he said, 'I'm always here if you want any help.' I nodded and then hurried off to my next lesson.
In my head, I sit down and explain it all to Mr Dixon, and he comes round to my house and tells my mum, Mrs Watson, William is the most gifted and talented boy in the entire year, and in my head, she actually gets it, and she says, yes, Bill must carry on with his education, he'll go on to great things. In my head. And if I stay in my head a bit longer I can see myself sitting at a desk in my own room, with windows overlooking the old streets and buildings of Oxford, and not one where I share a bed with my brother Jamie, which smells of old farts and the spliffs he smokes all day. And in my head, I see myself standing on a stage wearing a black gown and a mortarboard, holding my First Class Honours Degree, rolled up like a parchment tied with a scarlet ribbon, and smiling down at my mum, who is smiling back, even though she probably can't wait to get outside and light up, bless her.
Of course, I never went and spoke to Mr Dixon about it. And now I've left school, it's too late anyway.
Mum shouts my name, bringing me back here. She wants me to go to Patel's to get her some fags because she's run out. Luckily, Mr Patel doesn't ask for ID so she's been sending me ever since I looked old enough to get away with it and save her the walk.
Outside the shop, I see the gorgeous Joanne Dixon, Mr Dixon's daughter, standing there, clutching a pile of Mr Patel's rental DVDs. Jo used to sit in front of me in History, and the smell of her strawberry scented shampoo almost sent me back into my head for the whole of every lesson. In my head, when I think of going to sixth form college, she is one of the stars of my show, because, of course, that's where she'll be, too, like Andy and Kev, come September.
'Hey, Will,' she says, grinning with the confidence of a girl who is not afraid to show the world a mouthful of braces, 'Fancy coming round to mine?' She holds out the DVDs. There's a bunch of us going to be there. Andy and Kevin are coming round, so I promise it's not all chick-flicks.'
'I'm not sure,' I say. 'Got to get some—shopping, for my mum.'
'Well, come along after you've dropped it off, then,' she says, coming over and linking her arm through mine, her strawberry hair-scent making me feel a bit giddy. 'Please!' She smiles up at me, her green eyes twinkling. 'My dad'll be there, but he'll keep out of the way. He's one of the good guys, and not at all teacherish at home.' She takes a little pad of heart-shaped sticky notes out of her tiny handbag and scrawls her address and her mobile number.
I'm fully outside of my head by this time, but part of me goes back in for a second or two as I see myself in Jo's kitchen, sitting on a stool, while the girls watch one of their chick-flicks, and I pour out my heart and my dreams to her father.
'OK,' I say, looking at the address. 'I'll be along in a little while. Thanks, Jo.'
If I can find the courage, perhaps what's in my head doesn't have to stay there, does it?
(or is it? You decide,)