Dad had been right, I should have had more faith in myself. None of the questions in the English and Math papers were particularly challenging. The only thing I struggled with, although 'struggled' is probably too strong a word, was the essay. Even then it was more an issue of which, of the three topics to chose from, should I write about. I settled on 'Describe an experience in your life which you found challenging' and managed a little more than the target of 500 words that was specified in the instructions.
I had many 'challenging' experiences to draw upon, especially recently, but I deliberately avoided subjects which I thought were too personal or too painful to recount. Instead I focused on a physically, rather than emotionally, challenging experience and wrote about my recent effort to clear the path to the woods. The essay instructions asked me to use lots of descriptive language and to pay close attention to spelling, punctuation and grammar. I definitely exaggerated the amount of effort involved but the end result was a reasonable account of the task and overall I was quite happy with it. I made no mention of my encounters with Peter and Simon that day, nor did I include the weird shaking bushes incident, as I didn't want to give the impression I was making anything up.
Finishing with a little time to spare, I checked over my work for errors and fixed the couple of spelling mistakes that I'd made.
"STOP!" Mr. McPherson practically yelled at me, making me jump and causing the ruler I was twiddling between my fingers to flip out of my grasp and clatter onto the floor.
Thanks to the excellent acoustics of the practically empty room, the sound of the plastic ruler hitting the hardwood floor was particularly clamorous. Wincing, and probably blushing, I quickly bent to pick the ruler up as Mr. McPherson marched towards my desk.
"Time's up boy, hand over your paper", he demanded, snapping his fingers impatiently. I made sure that my outline essay plan was tucked inside the English paper before passing it over.
The Math exam was pretty straightforward too and the questions were all well inside my comfort zone for the subject. Once again I'd finished before the allotted time ran out. After I'd checked through my answers I sat back and crossed my arms, making sure that I resisted the urge to fiddle with the ruler again, just in case. I was expecting his stop command this time around but, even so, it still made me jump.
I'd noticed when glancing up from the Math paper that Mr. McPherson appeared to be checking through my English paper. He did the same thing with my Math paper once I had started on the Verbal Reasoning exam. This last paper was more like a typical IQ test and all the questions were multiple choice. I'd taken a couple of these type of tests before so there were no real surprises here either. Mr. McPherson made me wait at my desk after I'd handed in the last paper and again he checked it over. He used a colored plastic template with holes cut in it to overlay the my answer sheet and made a note on a separate piece of paper when he was through. Placing all the papers into a large envelope, he sealed it and walked over to me.
"Okay boy," he said, holding out the envelope to me, "take this envelope back to the headmaster's office and give it to his secretary. Make no attempt to open it. Is that clear?"
"Yes sir," I said, standing up and taking the envelope from him, "thank you." I made my way to the door but stopped just short of it when he spoke again.
"What sports do you play Barrett?" he asked, as he finished collected the unused blank paper from my desk and walked back to his own.
"Um, I used to play a little Football and Baseball, sir, though I wasn't very good at either. I was on the swim team at my last two schools, so I suppose I wasn't too bad at that," I shrugged.
"A swimmer, eh?" he said thoughtfully, "well, we can always use a good swimmer. I'll make a point of mentioning that to our swimming coach."
"Thank you, sir," I said, wondering if I'd made a mistake in mentioning the swim team. I hadn't swum competitively for a while now and wasn't sure whether I wanted to do so again, or even if I'd be any good at it. I'd lost a lot of weight since last year and I knew that was in a poor physical condition. "Goodbye sir."
"Oh, I expect I'll be seeing you soon enough boy," he said with a smirk, "maybe we can put some meat on your bones, eh?"
There wasn't a lot I could say in response to that remark, so I didn't say anything. I don't think he was being mean but, as I didn't know him, I couldn't really say for sure. Turning back to the door I pushed it open and stepped out onto the covered walkway once more.
As I walked along towards the doors to the Administrative hallway I noticed that there were a few groups of boys dotted around the quad again. As some appeared to be eating sandwiches I assumed it must be their lunch break. That means I must have been in Small Hall for nearly two hours, although it didn't feel as if that much time had passed. I do remember hearing the bell ring a few times during the course of the exams and I also vaguely recall Daines mentioning earlier that there were two periods between the morning and lunch breaks. So I suppose it did make sense after all.
A piercing whistle from my right interrupted my train of thought and I reflexively turned my head and quickly scanned the quad for the source of the sound. It wasn't difficult to locate, as every other boy in the quad was looking right at it, or should I say 'him'. I followed their gazes and found myself looking into Ellis's eyes for the second time that day. He was sat at the pond with the same two boys that were with him earlier. All three were staring at me and none of them were smiling. The other boys in the quad, one by one, were also starting to look in my direction as they realized where Ellis's attention was focused.
I quickly averted my eyes and concentrated on the glass doors to the hallway some 20 or so feet away. As uncomfortable as having everyone staring at me made me feel, I forced myself to maintain the same steady pace and resist the urge to run.
"Hey! Newbie!" I heard Ellis call out. Fifteen feet to go. I ignored him. I could see in my peripheral vision that he and his friends had stood up.
"Hey! Newbie! I'm talking to you," he called, as they started walking towards me.
Ten feet left. Just keep walking. There's no way he can get to me before I reach the doors. I started to relax a little, letting go of the breath that I hadn't realized up until that moment I had been holding in.
"What have you got there, Newbie?" Ellis's voice was so much closer than before.
I was briefly tempted to look over my shoulder to see just how close he was to me. If I hadn't arrived at the doorway at that moment I might well have done so.
With a relieved sigh, I pushed at the door to the hallway. It wouldn't budge. I pushed again, harder this time, but it still wouldn't open. I tried pulling on it in case it only opened outwards but that didn't work either. I was locked out and...
"Ahem," said Ellis from right behind me, "need some help, Newbie?"
I froze with my hand still gripping the long vertical brass door handle.
"I..I'm locked out," I said, the stress of the moment making my voice squeak, which didn't make feel any better.
"Really? Are you sure?" He said, reaching past me and taking hold of the handle himself. He'd placed his hand right next to mine on the handle and given the door an experimental tug. The bottom of his fist was just touching the top of mine and, even though it was a very slight contact, it still made me feel uncomfortable. So much so that I let go of the door entirely and, taking a half-step away, looked at him out of the corner of my eye.
"Hmm, you're right, this door does appear to be locked," he said thoughtfully, but there was a hint of amusement in his tone that made me certain that he was laughing at me.
"Can you read English, Newbie?" he asked, suddenly and grinned at me.
"Huh?" I said, trying to keep from staring at his chipped tooth.
"I said 'Can...You...Read...English, Newbie?' Are you deaf as well as stupid?"
"Um...yes, I..I mean yes, I can read English," I blushed, realizing how that might have sounded at first.
"Well then, what does this say?" he said, pointing at an A4 sheet of paper taped to the the glass on the inside of the door.
"Oh," was all I could say after reading the sign which, in large bold type, read 'Please use other door' and had a big red arrow pointing at the door adjacent to the one I had tried to open. How the hell hadn't I seen that? I could feel myself blushing again as I realized how I must have looked to everyone nearby.
"Oh...Right. Um...Sorry," I muttered and reached out for the handle of the other door.
"No, No. Allow me," Ellis said, brushing away my hand and taking hold of the handle himself then smoothly opening the door, "this way you'll owe me two favours," he added, winking at me.
I didn't know which was worse, the grin or the wink.
"F..favors?" I asked, regretting the question the second it was out of my mouth. I should have just walked through the door when I had the chance.
"That's right. One," he smirked, holding up the pointer finger of his free hand, "for pointing out what, to a normal person at least, should have been bloody obvious and two," he said, adding his middle finger to the first, "for opening the door for you so that you can slink away with your tail between your legs," he finished, waggling both fingers.
I didn't say anything. I just looked at him. Daines had been right, Ellis really was an 'arsehole'.
"So, go on then Newbie," he said, making an ushering gesture with his free hand, "off you slink."
I turned away and made to walk through the open door but he grabbed my upper arm roughly at the last moment, stopping me half-in and half-out of the doorway.
"Oh, and by the way," he hissed, his face now inches from my own, "never ignore me in future when I speak to you," he said, "that's very bad manners, you know? I'll let it go this time because I've heard how ignorant you Americans can be. If it happens again though, I might get a little upset," he squeezed my bicep, digging his fingers in hard enough to make me wince, "fair warning."
He let my arm go and with a shove to my back, propelled me through the door and into the hallway.
"See you around, Newbie," he called after me as I regained my balance and walked quickly in the direction of the headmaster's office. I could hear him chuckling to his friends as they walked away and the glass door slowly swung closed on its hydraulic arm.
I slowed down after I heard the gentle thud of the door closing. I needed to compose myself before meeting up with Dad again. Stopping next to the trophy display cabinet, I rubbed my sore bicep and wondered if there'd be a bruise. What the hell was Ellis's problem anyway and what was all that about favors? If he thought I'd be doing him any favors he'd have another think coming. Maybe I should say something to Daines the next time I saw him? After all he did say to let him, or any other prefect, know if things turned nasty, didn't he? But he had also said that kids would try to 'push my buttons' to see how I'd react. Should I have stood up to Ellis just now? Maybe told him to 'fuck off' or something? I don't think that would have worked with him; there was something about his eyes that made me think he'd have reacted badly if I'd done that. I think I'd prefer to deal with the problem myself though, if I can, before turning to the prefects for help. Maybe I can just avoid him and he'll forget about me, after all. I'm not going to be a 'Newbie' forever.
The door to the headmaster's suite opened behind me and I turned in time to see Dad step out.
"Ah, there you are kiddo, we were just about to send out a search party to track you down," he joked but his smile faded away and he gave me a searching look. "Hey, are you alright, Jon?"
I realized then that I was frowning. If my face in any way reflected my troubled thoughts about the encounter with Ellis then it must have been a really deep frown.
"Huh? Oh yeah, I'm fine Dad, I was just a little worried about the exam results," I shrugged and held out the envelope Mr McPherson had given me. "I've got to give this to the secretary," I said and tried to peer around him into the her office, "is she there?"
"No," said the headmaster, appearing in the doorway behind Dad, "I'm afraid she's just popped out for lunch, but if you let me have that we can review the results immediately," he said holding out his hand for the envelope, "how does that sound? Better than being kept in suspense, eh? Why don't we step into my office again for a few minutes." I gave him the envelope and Dad and I followed him through.
"So, let's see what we have here," he said, not bothering to take a seat and opening the envelope with a dagger shaped letter opener and removing the contents. "Hmm," he murmured, studying the top sheet of paper and flicking through each of my exam papers, "hmm, well I'm very pleased," he said at last looking at both Dad and I in turn, "very pleased indeed. These results are very encouraging young man."
I let out a sigh of relief and smiled at Dad when he patted me on the back.
"I'm afraid we prefer not to disclose detailed information to students or parents about Entrance Exam scores," he said slipping the papers back into the envelope, "but what I can tell you," he added with a smile, "is that you've exceeded the passing score by a significant margin."
"I'll have my secretary type up the official acceptance letter this afternoon and maybe Jonathan here can pick it up before registration or during the morning break tomorrow," he said, walking us back to the secretary's office, "how does that sound?"
Dad looked at me and I nodded. "That would be fine headmaster," Dad said, "thank you very much for your time today."
"Oh, not at all Professor Barrett, it's been an absolute pleasure to meet you," he said, shaking Dad's hand and then mine, "and you too Jonathan. I do hope that you will like it here young man. I'm confident that you have the capacity to do very well, all that we ask is that you meet us half-way. We'll gladly supply the knowledge and a stimulating environment in which to learn, if you'll supply the hard work."
"I'll do my best, sir," I said, and I meant it.
"Excellent!" He said, before opening the door to the hallway and escorting Dad and I out to the main entrance. "Oh professor, please give my regards to Mr Tan should you meet him today," he called out to Dad as we were walking towards where we'd parked. Dad nodded and waved and the headmaster disappeared back into the school.
"Who's Mr. Tan?" I asked, as we got back into the car.
"Hmm? Oh, he's the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Bedford that the headmaster recommended," Dad responded, as he reversed the car out of the parking spot, "apparently Mr Tan's son went to school here before leaving to study Physics at Imperial College in London. The restaurant's just off the High Street, in the Town Centre, and is pretty close to the shop we have to go to to get your school uniform. He even drew me a little map," he chuckled, patting his breast pocket. "I assume you still fancy Chinese food for lunch?" he asked, throwing me a questioning look.
"Yeah, Chinese still sounds great Dad," I confirmed with a smile, "but, um... are we okay for time though, I mean... don't we need to be home soon? You know... for that delivery we're expecting?" I really didn't want to miss out on getting my new computer desk and would be prepared to give up the trip to the Chinese restaurant if there was a risk that could happen.
"No need to worry about that, kiddo," Dad smiled back, "I arranged with the store to have everything delivered after five o'clock this afternoon. It cost a bit more, of course, to get a timed delivery slot but the alternative was to wait at home between eight AM and eight PM and that just wasn't practical today, as you know. So you can relax, okay? We'll be back home in plenty of time."
"Oh okay, that's cool," I said as Dad drove out of the gates and onto the main road.
"Sooo, tell me, what did you think of your new school?" Dad asked.
"Well," I shrugged, "I didn't get to see all of it but what I did see looked okay. It's a lot bigger than I thought it would be, with all those extra buildings for science, music and stuff. Oh, and they've got a large sports hall and a good sized pool too," I said, remembering what I'd been told, "according to Daines anyway; he's the boy who gave me the tour."
"It sounds like he did a reasonable job in the limited time available," he said, glancing over at me for confirmation.
"Yeah, he was friendly enough and didn't seem to mind showing me around. He did say that he enjoyed being at the school and I think he gave me some good advice too," I added, thinking about Ellis, "but I won't know for sure till I get used to the place."
"I expect it'll take you a few weeks to get to know where everything is. I'm going to be in a similar situation myself at the College," he said and gave a small shrug. "You do have one advantage over me though, you already know one of your classmates."
He was obviously referring to Peter and I suppose it was true, up to a point anyway.
"I've only just met him, Dad," I reminded him, "he seems okay but I don't know if we'll become friends or not yet. Besides, I expect he already has a group of friends that he hangs with at school, so I don't know if I'll be seeing that much of him there, even if we do share some classes."
We both lapsed into a comfortable silence for the last five minutes or so of the drive into the town center. Dad pulled into a large parking garage and chose one of the many empty spaces on the second level. I took my coat with me this time as we left the car, at Dad's insistence, in case any of the expected showers should catch us outside. When we emerged at ground level Dad took out a folded piece of paper from his breast pocket and opened it up, turning it this way and that and looking around at some of the buildings. I figured that this must be the map Dad had said the headmaster had drawn for him. I craned my neck a little so that I could see what was on the paper. It was quite a simple rendition but I could clearly make out the parking garage, a few named streets and a couple of arrows pointing at different locations.
"Okay," Dad said, finally happy with the orientation of the map, "according to this the restaurant should be just down here and in the first street on the left," he folded the paper and, slipping it back into his pocket, set off in the direction he'd indicated.
The map proved to be reliable and a couple of minutes later we were standing outside of Tan's Kitchen checking out the extensive menu that hung in the window. Not wanting to waste too much time we decided to go in and get seated where we could choose what we fancied in comfort. There were quite a few people already eating and the smell that met us as we walked in was very appetizing. A server, in a white shirt and black pants, approached us after dropping off several plates of food to a group of business types. Dad asked for a table for two and we were quickly shown to a table towards the back of the long dining room. Several tables had been joined together to make seating for up to twelve people, though none of these were more than half full. Our table was one of four in a row laid out for two people. All the tables had crisp, cream colored tablecloths and plainly folded beige linen napkins. Places had been set with both western cutlery and chopsticks, which I thought was a nice touch.
As soon as we sat down another server arrived and handed us each a menu. He proceeded to welcome us cheerily and point out what was on special and some of the meal options. We thanked him and, taking our drinks order, he left us to make our choices.
"Well," Dad chuckled, "there's certainly plenty to choose from. I don't know about you kiddo but I'm leaning towards the buffet option as it's our first time here. That way we'll get to sample a little bit from a lot of dishes. What do you think?" he asked, peering at me over the top of his menu.
"Sounds like a plan, Dad," I grinned at him.
So that's what we did. When the server returned with our drinks we told him that we'd decided on the buffet option and he told us to help ourselves to the plates and bowls stacked at the side of the long, walk-around buffet counter. Dad and I went up together and came back with a plate each of assorted appetizers. Dad had settled mostly for the crispy duck and pancakes, while I had a few sticks of chicken satay, some crispy wonton and a couple of small duck pancake rolls. All were freshly cooked and very moreish, especially with the addition of the tangy peanut sauce that I'd drizzled over everything.
As tempting as it was to get another plate of the same, I was conscious of the need to still be able to move after we'd eaten, so I resisted. On our second trip we each chose a little from several different entrée dishes. I added spicy noodles to mine whilst Dad opted for the egg fried rice. It is fair to say that we were both pretty stuffed by the time we'd finished and my plan to not eat too much was well and truly forgotten. I was fine while I was actually eating, up until I'd cleared my plate, then it felt as if everything had hit my stomach at the same time and started to swell inside me. I leaned back in my chair and, placing both hands on my belly, groaned out loud.
"How about some dessert?" Dad suggested, with a smirk.
I knew he was teasing me because he looked just as full as I felt, but I couldn't bring myself to smile at that moment. I sipped at my glass of water and it seemed to help a little.
"Don't mind me," I replied, nodding in the direction of the buffet and calling his bluff, "you go have all the dessert you want."
"Hmm, maybe next time," he said, rubbing his own belly.
We sat for another ten minutes to let our food settle a bit better before Dad caught the server's attention and asked for the check. When it arrived he paid by credit card and, while the server was processing the payment on his hand-held card reader, Dad asked him if Mr. Tan was around. The server shook his head and told Dad that Mr. Tan was out on business. We thanked him and I think Dad must have left a generous tip on the table for him as he was smiling happily as we left the restaurant.
It felt much colder outside now than it did earlier. I don't know if that was down to a real drop in temperature or the side effect of being full to the brim with hot food. In any event, I felt the need to zip up my coat against the chill as we walked to the end of the street. Dad had the map out again and appeared to be getting his bearings sorted out.
He led us back the way we came and took a left just before we got to the parking garage. Another turn to the right took us onto a main shopping street and we walked on for another five minutes. Unsurprisingly, as it was a school day, I didn't see anyone close to my age on the street. There were a lot of old people about though, in one's and two's, some trailing those wheely bag things behind them. There were also quite a few mothers with little kids in buggies.
"I'm going get some water," Dad said suddenly as we walked by a convenience store, "you want a soda or something?" He asked, fishing in his pocket for change.
"Some water would be great, thanks," I said.
"Okay, well I won't be a minute," he said opening the door to the store, "and don't wander off," he called back over his shoulder.
I rolled my eyes. I wasn't a five year old, for Pete's sake! While I waited for Dad's return I read some of the cards that had been taped to the inside of the window offering various services and things for sale.
Dad appeared after a couple of minutes and handed me a chilled bottle of water.
"Anything of interest?" he asked, peering at the adverts I'd been looking at.
"Nope. I don't want a kitten, even if it is 'Free to a Good Home', I shrugged, "and I don't need a massage either."
Dad chuckled and winked at me. "I don't think that's the kind of 'massage' you think it is."
"Huh? What do you...OH!" I blushed deeply when I caught on to what he was implying.
Dad tried to spare my embarrassment by pretending not to notice but he was having a very hard time stopping the corners of his mouth from turning up.
"Um, so where's this clothes shop we've got to go to?" I asked, keen to change the subject as rapidly as possible.
After coughing into his fist, in a poorly disguised attempt at hiding his amusement, Dad pointed down the street. "According to the map, it should be just around the next corner. Let's find out shall we?"
The map proved reliable once again and we found the shop right where it was supposed to be. The sign above the double-fronted shop read: H. Wilkes & Son, Quality Menswear.
Dad didn't wait for a sales assistant to pounce, choosing instead to walk up to the first one that he saw to ask for assistance. After he'd briefed him on what he wanted for me the assistant's face lit up. I expect he was thinking about the healthy commission he was going to be getting. Although he looked to be only in his early twenties, he had a very professional and attentive manner and, despite my usual dislike of clothes shopping, I found myself relaxing and even enjoying the process.
The only negative experience was being measured up for the uniform, specifically the pants. Having a stranger's hand firmly up in your groin while your inseam measurement is taken is not something I think I'll ever get used to. Even if it was over and done with in a flash, I was still grateful that I'd decided to wear briefs and not boxers today.
With all my measurements written down, the assistant, who introduced himself as Jason, zoomed around the store collecting armfuls of items for me to try on, hanging them on an empty rack next to the changing room. I rolled my eyes and groaned inwardly; this was going to take ages. Dad's cell phone rang during my third visit to the changing room and he excused himself to take the call outside, leaving me at Jason's mercy.
I regarded myself in the changing room's full length mirror and was much happier with the fit of this set of blazer and pants. The previous two sets I'd tried on had been either slightly too tight or too loose. These felt comfortable and the blazer's hem and sleeve length were just right this time too.
I stepped out of the changing room to show Jason the fit and he nodded in approval, pursing his lips thoughtfully.
"Yes, that's much better don't you think?" he asked, turning me this way and that to check out how I looked from several different angles. "Very handsome," he added and patted me playfully on the butt, "now go and get changed and we'll find you some shoes, eh?"
I was a little shocked by his over-familiar gesture and I think it must have showed on my face.
"Don't worry," he said, grinning at me, "you're far to young for me. Although, if I was your age you'd have to beat me off with a stick," he added waggling his eyebrows suggestively. "Do you have a boyfriend?" he asked casually.
I gaped at him and must have looked like a deer caught in the headlights. I didn't know what to do or say at that particular moment.
He smiled at me then reached over and, placing his finger under my chin, gently shut my mouth.
Finally remembering how to talk my initial instinct was to deny his assumption but my curiosity about how he'd figured me out won the day.
"Um, no I don't. How did you know that I was...you know?" I whispered, looking around the store quickly, afraid I might be overheard by one of the other sales assistants.
He shrugged. "I suppose it takes one to know one," he winked at me again, "and I have always had excellent gaydar. You're not that obvious, if that's what you're worried about," he added quickly, "but there are always signs if you know what to look for. Does your family know?" he asked, inclining his head towards where Dad was slowly pacing to and fro outside the store, totally absorbed in his phone call.
I nodded. "Yeah, I told them last year. They were okay with it," I said, hoping he wasn't going to ask me any more questions about that.
"Well, that's really good. There's nothing worse than feeling like you have to hide things about yourself from your family," he said and looked a little sad for a moment before rolling his eyes, "been there, done that.
Listen," he added quickly, as he'd spotted, as had I, that Dad had finished with his call and was coming back into the store, "if you ever need any help or advice, that you don't feel you can ask your family about, feel free to give me a call, okay?" As he was talking he had quickly scribbled down his name and number on the back of one of the store's business cards and slipped it into my blazer pocket just before Dad rejoined us.
"What do you think, sir?" Jason asked Dad, seamlessly switching back into sales assistant mode. "I think this cut of blazer and trousers are just right, wouldn't you agree?"
"Hmm," Dad had me turn around in a complete circle and then stretch my arms out wide, "I think you're spot on, Jason. We'll take three of each."
Jason, beamed at Dad and threw me another wink when Dad headed over to the shoe display, "Day or night, I mean it, okay?" he said, making a phone sign with his thumb and pinky finger.
"Okay, um... thanks," I said, smiling back at him as I went to the changing room to get out of the uniform. As I got changed back into my own clothes, I retrieved the card from the blazer pocket and looked at the number on the back of it. I really didn't think I'd ever use it, as I couldn't imagine having any issues or questions that I couldn't bring to my Dad. Still, it had been very nice of him to offer. I decided to keep his number, just in case, and tucked the card into my back pocket.
Jason was talking to Dad when I emerged from the changing room and I wandered over to join them. Dad was holding up two shoes, both black leather but with slight style differences. As I approached he held them both out towards me.
"Which of these two do you prefer?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Neither," I said, wrinkling my nose after a cursory inspection of the plainish objects in his hands, "I have shoes anyway," I waggled my foot so they could see the black Vans I had on.
"Sorry Jon," Dad shook his head, "they're quite strict on what what qualifies as acceptable footwear and casual shoes are definitely not permitted. Why don't you try these on and choose whichever is more comfortable?"
I reluctantly complied and, while both fitted me reasonably well, I chose the one that had a little padding around the back of the heel. I hoped that would avoid the chaffing that often accompanies new shoes.
Overall, I think we were in the store for about an hour and a half and were both laden with shopping bags when we left. I don't know why Dad insisted on buying so much. I was overdue for a growth spurt, to my mind anyway, so there was a good chance that this stuff wouldn't fit me in a few months time. Apart from three blazers and three pairs of pants he'd also bought 14 white long-sleeved shirts, three school ties, two pairs of shoes, three V-Neck jumpers, five white polo shirts and navy shorts for indoor sports, a couple of Rugby shirts in the school colors and black shorts, plus the Rugby boots that felt really weird when I tried to walk in them. I was grateful he'd decided to come back another time to get the Cricket gear I'd be needing. Not only did it save me from having to try more stuff on but it meant there'd be less that we'd have to carry back to the car.
I don't know what the total came to as Dad had pocketed the receipt before I could take a peek. I expect it was a lot though, judging by the price tags on some of the items I'd tried on.
Typically, the rain that had held off all morning had chosen the moment we left the shop to start up. Although it was just a light drizzle at the moment we still hurried, as best we could anyway, to get back to the car before the heavier rain that we could see in the distance caught up with us. I wasn't too worried about getting wet as my coat had a hood that I could unfurl from the collar if necessary. The paper shopping bags and their contents were much more of a concern. It was a close call but we were lucky and had only gotten slightly damp by the time we reached the parking garage. Dad loaded up the trunk and five minutes later we were on our way home again.
The rain had arrived with a vengeance and Dad had to set the wiper speed to max to maintain his visibility of the road ahead. I couldn't see much out of the side window thanks to the run-off from the windshield and a sheen of condensation on the inside. It got a little better after Dad turned up the heat and by the time we were passing the school again the condensation had all but disappeared. The view was still a little distorted though, thanks to the many drops and rivulets of water on the outside of my window. Maybe it was the poor weather that made the building appear bleaker to me than it had this morning or maybe it was the realization, accompanied by a stomach full of anxious butterflies, that time was fast running out. Tomorrow morning I was going to be walking through those gates for real.
"It won't be so bad you know?" said Dad, as I continued to stare out the window. "In a few weeks time you'll be wondering what all the fuss was about." He reached over and squeezed my thigh gently.
"I hope so," I replied with a sigh, "I expect it'll be alright, it's just gonna take some getting used to is all."
"Let me give you the same advice that my father gave me when I started there, many moons ago," he said, pausing briefly as if reminiscing, "keep your chin up, be yourself and treat others how you'd like to be treated and you'll be fine. Oh, I didn't believe him either and I expect I might have even rolled my eyes in just the same way," he added, giving me a pointed look.
Oops! Busted! I glanced at him nervously but relaxed at his grin and flashed him one of my own.
"He was right though," he continued, "within a month I had more friends than I knew what to do with." He squeezed and then patted my leg before returned his hand to the steering wheel.
The rain seemed to be easing off a little and before long Dad was able to turn the wipers off altogether. Visibility had improved out of the side window and I went back to watching the scenery slide by.
"Do you still want to take a peek at the village?" Dad asked, "there's a turning coming up I'll need to take if you do," he nodded towards a still distant signpost.
"Um, yeah, if you don't mind?" I responded, sitting up a little straighter.
"No problem, we've still got plenty of time," he said, glancing at his watch, "don't get too excited though, there's not a lot to see really." He slowed down and flicked on the left blinker before turning off the main road towards the village.
The first indications of habitation were a few small cottages, in one's and two's set back from the road slightly. The land rose slightly on the left of us and in the distance I could see a dense stand of trees carpeting the incline.
"That's the western edge of the woods," Dad volunteered, "they narrow considerably where they meet the the northern section of the village. You see this small bridge coming up?" he asked, indicating a narrow hump-backed stone built bridge that we were approaching, "well, the stream that runs through the woods is diverted around the village. There used to be a mill here many years ago and the stream used to power the water-wheel to grind grain. Over the years the force of the water reduced and became too weak to power the wheel effectively so the mill shut down. Have a look as we cross the bridge to see if there's any water in the stream bed."
I did as he asked and as he slowed down I craned my neck and was able to just see over the rim of the short stone wall lining the bridge.
"Yeah, there's definitely water down there, Dad," I said, settling back into my seat.
"Hmm, in that case there's a good chance that the pond in the woods that we used to swim in still exists," he said, nodding to himself with a little smile on his face. "You'll have to let me know if you find it the next time you go exploring, okay?"
"Oh, okay," I nodded, but I didn't think I'd be in any hurry to go into those woods any time soon, not after yesterday's weirdness.
Dad drove on and, as the road ahead gently curved to the right, we drew a little closer to the lower edge of the woods. The number of houses lining the road was increasing and although they weren't modern, they definitely looked more substantial than the cottages we had just passed. I caught a glimpse of a church spire through the gap between two houses and figured we were almost there.
We had to stop briefly behind a car that had been badly parked outside one of the houses so that a bus could squeeze by us. We were probably as close to the woods as we were going to get at this point and while we waited for the bus to inch past I idly scanned the edge of the wood, where the trees gave way to shrub and bramble, just as they did on the side nearest to our house.
What I saw, amidst a particularly dense clump of brambles about 100 feet away, didn't register at first and it wasn't until a few seconds later, once my brain had caught on that something wasn't right, that my eyes snapped back to that spot. There was somebody there, a boy I think, standing in amongst the brambles and looking off into the woods. I could only make out his head and shoulders as the rest of him was obscured by the vegetation. His features weren't very clear at this distance, especially in profile, but I could see that he had blond hair that appeared to be plastered to his head. What was he doing out there in this weather for God's sake and why the hell wasn't he wearing a shirt? He must be freezing. I squinted through the side window and wiped my hand across it, hoping for a clearer view. It didn't make any difference though, there wasn't any condensation to wipe away and his face remained indistinct.
Two things happened then. The boy suddenly turned in my direction and slowly raised a hand, as if he was about to wave. Even at this distance, even though I couldn't see his face clearly, I knew that he was looking right at me. That, in itself, was disturbing enough but it was the overwhelming feelings of misery and hopelessness that washed over me that caused my chest to constrict and my breath to catch in my throat. I closed my eyes tightly and forced myself to take slow, deep breaths, willing myself to calm down. Thankfully, when I closed my eyes, those awful feelings had vanished just as quickly as they'd come.
"Phew," Dad sighed, "I thought that bus might clip our bumper for a moment there."
Startled by the sudden sound, I'd opened my eyes wide when he'd started speaking and glanced across at him. He was twisted to the right and was watching over his shoulder as the tail end of the bus cleared the end of our car. He straightened in his seat and looked over at me.
"No need to look so worried, Jon," he smiled, "these bus drivers know what they're doing, most of the time anyway," he reassured me as he steered us out from behind the parked car and on towards the village center.
He'd obviously assumed that the bus was the source of my anxiety and I was briefly tempted to tell him about what I'd seen and felt. But, then again, what had I seen, really? Some kid standing by the woods that made me feel sad when he looked at me. Dad would probably think I was over-reacting and put it down to a delayed effect of this morning's stresses. Maybe he'd be right to say that? Maybe I was over-reacting? I looked to my left again, trying to get another glimpse of the boy but a row of houses was now obscured my view. I could see occasional flashes of the woods in the gaps between the houses we were passing but they were too fleeting for me to pick out any details. I shook my head and mentally told myself to pull myself together.
"So, here we are," Dad said as we rounded a corner occupied by a very old looking pub. The sign over the door read 'The Kings Arms' and the top half of the building was a patchwork of white walls and thick, black-painted timbers. "This is the High Street. I'll drive slowly so that you can take it all in, what there is of it," he added, chuckling to himself.
There wasn't an awful lot to see, really. There was a church, the spire of which I'd glimpsed earlier, off to the left and set back from the road. It was surrounded by a small graveyard and the wall around that had a funny looking roofed gateway. Probably the most substantial building on the high street was the Village Hall. Dad said that they used to hold village dances there in the summer when he was my age. There was a notice board fixed to the wall outside which had flyers of various colors pinned to it but they were too far away for me to make out what was written on them. The rest of the High Street consisted mainly of regular houses, a few of which had been converted into small shops, a cafe and a Fish and Chips shop. Apart from a combined Tesco Express store and gas station that we passed on the way out of the village, that was it.
I know Dad had said that there wasn't much to see but still, I thought there'd be a few more shops or places to eat than there were. It was disappointing.
Less than ten minutes later we were driving through the gates at the end of our drive again. Dad pulled up in front of the house and we both unloaded the trunk, placing all the shopping bags inside the front door.
"Why don't you take them upstairs while I go put the car away," Dad suggested, nodding towards the bags, "I'll be up in a minute and I'll give you a hand to put it all away, okay?"
"Okay, Dad," I replied, putting my coat away and choosing four of the lighter looking bags.
I was going to have to make two trips up to my room so I thought it best to leave the bulkier bags till last. Even though they weren't that heavy, navigating down the narrow hallway to the stairs wasn't that easy and I had to turn sideways on to stop the bags from bumping into the walls with each step I took. Once I got to my room I placed the bags on the bed and returned downstairs for another load. Dad was just coming in when I returned to the main hall and I was grateful when he picked up three of the remaining five bags.
Once back in my room, we unpacked everything and hung up anything that needed hanging. Dad suggested hanging the spare blazers in one of the spare bedrooms to save my wardrobe from getting overcrowded. With four full days ahead of me this week, he also advised that I should iron just four of the fourteen shirts and leave the rest until the weekend. That was fine with me, ironing four shirts was going to be enough of a chore as it was. I was spared having to start straight away as Dad said we should relax for a little while so, after I'd gotten changed into some sweats and a T-Shirt, I joined him in the kitchen where he fixed me a glass of juice and put some coffee on for himself. We sat at the island and I sipped at my OJ while Dad took out the bundle of my school paperwork from his briefcase.
"The headmaster gave me your class timetable while you were sitting your exams," he said, passing me an A5 size piece of paper. I took it from him and examined the printed table, curious to see what tomorrow had in store for me.
It was a bi-weekly timetable with 14 columns for the days and seven rows for the periods. I could see that I had a problem straightaway. Tomorrow was Tuesday but was it Tuesday in Week #1 or Week #2 of the timetable. If it was in Week #1 I would have History, French, Physics, Math, Art, English and Geography. If the Week #2 timetable applied, I should expect Spanish, English Literature, two periods of Games, Information Technology, Biology and Religious Studies. I asked Dad about it but he didn't think it would be an issue as he thought I probably wouldn't be expected to fully participate on my first day anyway. I hoped he was right.
We chatted for another 15 minutes, until Dad had finished his coffee, then I said that I wanted to get the ironing out of the way before my new computer desk arrived. It was just past four o'clock, so I still had plenty of time. I went upstairs to the spare room where we'd left the ironing board set up and, after topping up the steam iron's water reservoir, I unwrapped four of my new shirts, taking care not to lose any of the metal pins that fixed the shirt in several places to the card inserts.
God! Ironing is sooo boring! Still, I forced myself to take my time and make a decent job of it. I didn't want to turn up for my first day a mass of creases. When I had finished I hung each shirt in my wardrobe and headed back downstairs, making sure I'd turned off the iron first.
As I hit the bottom stair the front doorbell rang and I dashed up the hallway calling back to Dad that I'd get the door. My new desk was here and I could hardly wait to get my system all set up again. I hoped that the delivery guys would be able to get it up the stairs okay.
I practically flung the front door open when I got there and greeted them with a grin. Or at least I would have done, if it had been the delivery guys that I was expecting, instead of Peter, who I wasn't. Needless to say my grin didn't last very long.
"Hi," he said, smiling but looking a little uncomfortable at the same time.
"Oh. What are you doing here?" I asked, not able to hide my disappointment, as I frowned and peered past him down the drive, still looking for some sign of a delivery truck.
"Um... I just thought I'd er... stop by to see how you, you know, got on at school today and..." he said in a quiet voice or maybe I wasn't listening closely enough.
"Huh?" I interrupted, tearing my attention away from the driveway to focus on him fully, "Oh, school? Yeah... yeah, that was okay," I said dismissively before shaking my head slightly to clear away the last remnants of distraction, "Sorry, look I was expecting somebody else. So... do you want to come in?"
"Well, not if you're too busy, I don't want to interrupt or anything," he said, looking away from me and lowering his head a little.
"No, no it's alright, come on in," I said, holding the door open a little wider, "here, let me take your coat," I offered as he stepped over the threshold.
"Thanks," he smiled, shrugging out of his coat and handing it to me.
After I'd closed the cloakroom door I stepped into the main hall and held the door open for him again. He followed me in and looked about the place, much as I expect I did on my first visit. Like me, his gaze settled on the old grandfather clock in the corner and he walked over to it for a closer look.
"It works," I said from behind him, "but it's left unwound due to the noise it makes, apparently," I shrugged, "I'd better introduce you to my Dad, I suppose. Follow me," I lead the way down the hallway towards the kitchen, glancing back over my shoulder when I was half way there to make sure he was still following me.
"Dad?", I said as I walked into the kitchen with Peter right on my heels, "Dad, this is Peter, you know, from next door. Peter, this is my Dad."
Dad looked up from where he was sitting at the kitchen island, nursing yet another coffee, and smiled before standing up and walking over to Peter, his hand outstretched for a shake. Peter looked at me briefly then offered his own hand to Dad.
"Well hello, Peter," he said grinning and enthusiastically pumping Peter's hand, "I hear you and Jon are going to be classmates?"
"Yes, that's right Mr. um..." he frowned and his cheeks flushed a rosy red color, "um..."
"Barrett," I prompted him, unconsciously rolling my eyes.
"Oh yeah, um... thanks," he said, throwing me a little smile, "that's right, Mr. Barrett."
"Good," Dad said, nodding and releasing his hand, "I'm glad that Jon's going to have someone to show him the ropes. Being the new boy is never easy, you know? Maybe you could keep an eye on him, eh? Until he gets into the swing of things."
"Dad!" I hissed, mortified that Dad could even think of saying that, "I'll be fine. I'm not a little kid and I definitely don't need a baby-sitter. Come on Peter, I'll show you my room," I grabbed his arm and practically dragged him out of the kitchen, giving Dad my best 'I'm not happy with you' face on my way out.
Dad shrugged and tried to look innocent with his 'what did I do?' look.
I stomped up the stairs, only realizing when I was half-way up that I was still dragging Peter along beside me. I quickly let go of him and shot him an apologetic smile.
"Sorry about that," I said when we got to my room, "Dad doesn't think before he speaks sometimes, just forget what he said, okay?" I moved the empty shopping bags off of my bed and threw them into the corner, I'd tidy them up later.
"Nice room," Peter said looking around, "lots of space. Wow! You've got your own bathroom too," he exclaimed, "I wish I had my own bathroom, then I wouldn't have to share one with Simon, he's small but he don't half stink sometimes," he said wrinkling his nose.
"Ewww, too much information," I said holding up my palm towards him to ward of any further nastiness.
"Hehehe," he chuckled then looked over at my window as if noticing something. "Hey, you can see my room from here," he stated, pointing through the glass towards his house.
"I thought that was your brother's room", I said, "I've seen him in the window a couple of times."
"I've given up trying to keep him out. Even if I lock the door he just keeps knocking until I give in and open up," he shrugged, and moved away from the window. "So..." he said, walking back to lean on the bedstead, "how was it today, at school, I mean?"
I sat down on the bed and thought about seriously for a moment. "It was mostly okay I think, it's all new to me and it's a pretty big place so it'll take me a while to get used to it. I had a quick tour of the place today, a prefect called Daines showed me around, do you know him?" I asked.
"I don't think I know the name," he said, screwing his face up, "but I don't know too many prefects. They don't mix much with us younger boys, unless there's a problem that needs to be dealt with."
"Yeah, he did say to let a prefect know if I had any problems," I felt myself frowning as I recalled what had happened on my way back from the exams. "Do you know a boy called Ellis?" I asked, looking up at him where he stood at the foot of my bed.
Judging by his reaction he clearly did know who I was talking about. He frowned and gripped the brass rail that he'd been leaning on a little tighter.
"Do you mean Jack Ellis?" he asked
"I don't know his first name," I shrugged, "he's got a broken front tooth though, if that helps?"
"Yeah, that's him. Why do you want to know about him?" he asked cautiously, avoiding my eyes, apparently finding my floorboards fascinating all of a sudden.
"I, um... 'met' him today," I said, frowning myself. "I didn't like him. He said some stuff..."
"Ellis is all mouth!" he broke in suddenly and with a passion, "just tell him to piss off if he starts hassling you. If that doesn't work then threaten to speak to a prefect about him, that should definitely scare him off. I had some problems with him myself a few months back but he backed off quickly when I stood up to him. He's the same as all bullies, deep down they're all cowards. Don't let him get to you, okay? That's what he wants."
"Okay. Thanks," I said, "I'm sure I can handle him." I hoped I could anyway.
"Is your Dad driving you to school in the morning?" he asked, thankfully changing the subject. "It's just that, well, I thought that if you are going to be getting the bus to school, like I do, then I could meet you at the bus stop tomorrow and we could go together. If you want to, that is?"
"Um... yeah okay, I'll be getting the bus. What time should I meet you and where's the bus stop?" I asked.
"It's just down the road from here, about a five minute walk away," he said, gesturing towards the driveway. "Tell you what, I'll call for you in the morning, say at about seven thirty, then we can walk to the stop together, okay?"
"Isn't seven thirty a bit early? I mean, school doesn't start until eight forty-five, right?" I asked, thinking that I'd have to get up at six thirty to be ready to leave an hour later.
"True, but the school's cafe is open from eight fifteen, so we can have breakfast there if you like?" he grinned, "anyway, it's good to catch up with everyone before lessons start."
"Alright, cool," I agreed, nodding at him. The mention of lessons reminded me about that timetable. "Oh, about lessons? I've got a class timetable downstairs but I don't know whether tomorrow is the first or second Tuesday..."
"It's the first," he jumped in, "so we've got History for the first period tomorrow. It took me a little while to get used to that timetable too."
"Thanks," I smiled at him, "that saves me from bringing stuff that I don't..." I started to say but was interrupted by the front door bell ringing again which caused me to jump up off of the bed and rush towards the bedroom door. I turned back to him when I realized what I was doing and gave him an apologetic look.
"It's okay," he shrugged, "I've got to be going anyway, have to finish of some homework on the Industrial Revolution for History tomorrow. I just wanted to check with you about the bus situation." He joined me at the door and we walked down the stairs together.
I could see Dad's back disappearing down the hallway as he went to check the front door so we followed on behind. I could hear him speaking to a couple of men at the door as we entered the main hall and I was relieved to see that this time it was the delivery we'd been expecting. As the men walked back to their truck to open up the back, I fetched Peter's coat and he slipped it on.
"So," I said, as he stepped outside, "I'll see you tomorrow morning then?"
"Yep, seven thirty on the dot. See ya," he smiled and walked off down the drive. He turned back once and gave me a little wave before disappearing out through the main gates.
I sighed to myself and couldn't help smiling. Maybe we would be friends then after all.
To be continued...
This is my first attempt at writing a story. Any feedback would be gratefully received.
Apologies for the slight delay again. The recent spate of hot weather in London evaporated some of my creative juices.