If you listen carefully you
will hear it; the beating of my heart as its lifeblood gushes
and slops against my ribs. Gradually it moves, thumping
and pumping along the endless tubes and caverns of its journey,
to the centre of my mind. Thump, thump. Slop, slop. Today
and yesterday. Tomorrow and forever. Fear.
It is morning and I allow
my eyes to lie shut and think of Jamie. He is the voice
inside keeping me sane; keeping me from the hopelessness
that threatens to engulf me, keeping me alive. I listen
to the soft movements from the kitchen below where my mother
prepares breakfast. Our house is small and every movement
reverberates through its frame which means that when I cry
I must be careful to pull the duvet tightly around my head.
I am thirteen, and crying I have learned is only for wimps
and nerds. Jamie never cries.
Muffled voices seep through
the floorboards and a door closes downstairs. My father
has gone to work. He used to come and kiss me goodbye, but
once when he saw me scrunched within the duvet, he closed
the door and never came again. This I understood and it
never diminished my love for him. My mother calls, “James,
get up or you’ll be late,” and I bury myself
deeper beneath the covers listening to Jamie saying, “Come
on James. Get moving – you’ve a bus to catch,”
and because I know I have to, I comply.
It is October and autumn leaves
crackle beneath the soles of my shiny black brogues. I walk
to catch the bus; up Chester Avenue and past the crumbling
gateposts of the municipal park. I am in no hurry but Jamie
is vying for attention in my head, encouraging me to speed
up. Then I see them standing in silhouette, lounging carelessly
against the wooden bus shelter as smoke from their cigarettes
drift slowly outwards in staccatoed pockets of puff. The
one who is closest turns her eyes on me. And so it begins.
Jamie hisses the words I have
heard in my head every day for nearly a year. “You
can do it today. Do it today.” But I am James and
know that today will be the same as any other. Four pairs
of eyes are on me now and like heat seeking missiles they
hone in on their target with perfect precision. Backs straighten
and cigarette butts are obliterated beneath designer heels.
The attack begins.
“We like your shiny
shoes James,” purrs the first, malice sticking like
cream to her glossy lips. “Mummy clean them for you,
did she?” And the others close in, smelling the scent
of the kill and waiting excitedly for this morning’s
share of the spoils. I feel the moisture on my back as sweat
sucks at my clean shirt but today I am saved by the bus
as screeching brakes herald a sudden scramble for the doors.
The survival of the fittest - strong to the back seats;
the weak, standing room only at the front. It takes twenty-two
minutes to get to school. I have timed it on my ultra sophisticated
diver’s watch my parents bought me for my birthday.
It is hidden beneath the chewed cuffs of my jumper and I
feel its pulse travelling up my arm; one second for two
heartbeats marking the growing apprehension churning in
the pit of my stomach.
Jamie says, “we’re nearly there.” But
I cannot control my rising panic and feel the sour taste
of sick rising up in the back of my throat. Up ahead I see
the school gates and hold my breath in an effort to prevent
myself from throwing up. My lungs are burning but I manage
to hold on until the bus pulls up and we pour out onto the
gum-peppered pavement. A large glob of spit hits me on the
back of the neck, seeping down the collar of my shirt and
resting at the top of my spine. Jamie does not miss his
chance, “Get the bastard’s name James. Glob
the bastard back.” But I can only feel the slow drag
of my feet carrying me through the gates and into hell.
The locker area buzzes. Forgotten
rugby kits spill from holdalls in sweaty bundles and are
kicked contemptuously across the floor. A girl from my year
walks by and unexpectedly stops to ask, “Can I check
with your maths homework James?” Her name is Hazel.
She has the skinniest pair of legs I have ever seen, but
she is nice. “Later,” I say and she continues
down the corridor, her skirt swaying effortlessly as she
“Oooh, James has got
himself a girlfriend then. Tasty bit of stuff, is she?”
It is Billy Greg, king spitter. We stand eyeball to eyeball,
our lips practically touching.
“Tell him to piss off
James,” urges Jamie from somewhere faraway in my head.
I want to. In fact I want to hit Billy Greg so hard that
I smash his beautiful straight teeth right to the back of
his throat. But I can’t, and I won’t, and I
know I never will.
“She’s not my
girlfriend,” I tell him, reaching to close the locker
door and make my escape. It is a mistake. Billy glimpses
the watch and grabs my wrist like a vice. His fingers are
unbelievably soft and I sense Jamie sniggering at this unexpected
“And what’s this
James?” Billy snarls, “A nice new watch from
mummy and daddy. You kept that one a bit quiet.” I
am getting scared now; the smell of the locker room is overpowering,
the tension unbearable. Some of the boys have gone to class
but none of those who have stayed will champion me. I am
on my own with a stupid voice in my head and a useless body
to go with it. The vice–like grip tightens.
“Give me the watch nerd,”
Billy whispers, his breath hot in my ear but I do not want
to relinquish the watch. It is the only possession I have
managed to keep secret and I do not know how to explain
its disappearance to my parents. Jamie screams at me, “James.
Punch his lights out. Keep the watch. It’s ours,”
and for a fleeting moment I almost feel like I could do
it. But the bell rings and the moment is gone, my bravery
banished by the reality of an ever-present threat even Jamie
cannot erase. I remove the precious present from my wrist
and place it into the hand of my tormentor.
Jamie. He will not speak to me until later when his disgust
at my weakness diminishes. Billy saunters away and the others,
disappointed that there has been no bloodletting, make their
way to class. My eyes remain dry. There are no tears left
for me to cry. I am thirteen years old and I wonder what
it was; the terrible thing I did in some past life, to pay
such penance now. My parents tried to help but their intervention
only made things worse and in the end I pretended the bullying
had stopped. The only one I share it with now is Jamie but
today his silence makes my isolation more intolerable and
even Hazel has forgotten her earlier request to cross check
our homework. It was such a little thing but I feel the
hurt of her forgetfulness acutely and the fear in me melts
into a kind of resigned despair.
Today the journey home allows
some respite. The big, tough, macho boys remain in school
with the big, tough, macho rugby playing teachers. The girls
don their makeup and gossip together on street corners.
Nobody is interested in James Baker anymore. Our house is
empty. My mother has left the key beneath a flowerpot and
I let myself in. The house smells nice. Everything is tidy.
Outside I hear the familiar noise of the traffic trundling
down our road.
Jamie begins to forgive me
and starts up a conversation in my head, “Tell them
you lost it at PE James. Get it back tomorrow.” But
his voice is coming from a distant place and I am not listening.
I go to the closet beneath the stairs where my dad keeps
his toolbox and I rummage to find the old rope he saves
‘just in case’. I wonder if it is long enough.
Thump, thump. Slop, slop. Strange that the fear remains
when I feel nothing but absolute calm. Strange, too, that
for the first time Jamie has begun to panic. “Don’t
James. Don’t let them win,” he screams, but
I tie an end of the rope to the banister and tug it tightly,
feeling my weight on it and testing its strength. I make
a kind of noose with the other end and place it over my
head. Will it hurt? Will it be immediate?
You know what? It really doesn’t