Summerhouse land, p.7
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       Summerhouse Land, p.7

           Roderick Gordon

  Sam pretends not to notice.

  ‘Um …’ the sniffer begins.

  Oh, here we go. Just, please, leave me alone. But Sam suspects he’s being optimistic. He is.

  ‘’Scuse me,’ the sniffer says loudly, nasally.

  Sam’s reading grinds to a halt, as if the music playing in his head has suddenly stopped. Although his eyes still bump along the lines of words, they mean nothing to him anymore.

  Another ‘’Scuse me.’

  You had to ruin it, didn’t you? Sucking in a resigned breath, Sam looks up. The sniffer is young, a third former. He’s been in here with Sam for several days, his cold or flu or whatever it is showing no improvement. Sam wonders why his parents didn’t keep him at home.

  ‘Yes?’ Sam says.

  ‘You’re Sam White, aren’t you?’

  Sam nods.

  ‘Can I ask you something?’

  ‘I suppose so.’ Sam leans back in his chair to scrutinize the other boy, though not unpleasantly.

  The kid is small, as skinny as Sam, and dressed in a new looking uniform that isn’t a great fit. The collar of his gray shirt yawns loose at the neck, and the shoulders of his blazer are far too wide and have that tell-tale droop over the tops of the arms. His mother has purchased his uniform at least a size too big on the standard advice dispensed by the school outfitters, because her son ‘will soon grow into it’. He has a way to go yet.

  ‘Er …’ the boy begins hesitantly. ‘Ah …’ he says. He appears to be having second thoughts about talking to Sam but, no, it’s not that. He sneezes explosively, just managing to get his hand up in time. ‘Oh jeez, snot attack. Disgusting,’ he mumbles, inspecting his dappled palm. There is also the pressing matter of a drip swinging from the tip of his reddened nose.

  Sam has stayed on for an extra year to make up for all the time he’s missed so has the distinction of being the oldest pupil in the school, but with none of the expected status. Consequentially, the third form intake don’t quite know how to treat him. Of course these young kids tend to goggle at Sam because of his deformities, but they do so from afar, and it’s unusual for any of them to actually try to talk to him. He’s pretty much persona non grata to all but a few friends.

  The boy has dragged a crumpled handkerchief from his pocket and is using it.

  In fact, Sam’s treated like some sort of leper, confined to the dark recesses of the school buildings while all the other kids play outside in the daylight.

  Putting his handkerchief away, the boy gives a momentous sniff. He’s back in action.

  Sam sees the curiosity in his eyes, and prepares himself for the inevitable question.

  ‘Um, what’s wrong with you exactly?’ the boy asks. He doesn’t balk at looking directly at Sam, who is thankful for that. Now the boy points. ‘I mean that bandage. And your face. Why’s it like that?’

  ‘Acne,’ Sam says nonchalantly. ‘You’ll probably get it too, when you’re a bit older.’

  The young boy is eyeing the lumps on Sam’s face, as if he’s studying a map of a mountainous region. His gaze hovers on Sam’s top lip, which looks extremely swollen on one side, precisely as if he’s been punched in the mouth.

  Then the boy’s gaze drifts to the largest growth on Sam’s forehead, moving to the dressing behind Sam’s ear. From time to time, when the skin becomes tender due to the prominence and roughness of the bony callouses underneath, Mrs White takes the precaution of protecting them with a gauze dressing. Sam woke up that morning with a very raw place on the side of his head.

  The boy is frowning.

  ‘Yeah … you know – spots,’ Sam says, adjusting the headband of the gray wooly hat he’s wearing. It can get rather warm under the hat, another of his mother’s preventative measures to safeguard his head against injury at school. It’s not a heavy knit, and a similar color to the school jumpers and shirts so ‘it will blend in’, to use Mrs White’s words. It doesn’t.

  ‘Spots?’ the third former replies, not quite sure how to handle this response.

  ‘Yes, my skin’s really greasy. Tried everything …’ Sam says, doing his best to hide his smile as he shrugs, ‘… but I still get these stupid spots. Doesn’t look nice, does it?’

  Then the boy clicks that Sam is making light of his condition. ‘No way, those aren’t just spots. My brother gets them, and they’re nothing like that.’ He grins and sits up decisively in his chair, shaking his head. ‘Nah, it’s not acne, is it? Somebody told me you had a disease.’

  Sam grins back. ‘Yep, too right I do. It makes my bones grow these lumps. More on my head than anywhere else.’

  ‘Oh I’m sorry how did you get it can you catch it?’ the boy asks in one continuous outpour.

  ‘No, it’s not contagious, not like your cold. I was born with it – it’s a genetic disorder, which means my DNA has a coding fault, like a buggy computer program.’

  ‘I’m sorry,’ the boy repeats, then gives a big sniff. Sam sees he means what he’s saying, as much as a kid that age can empathize. ‘That bandage … does it hurt?’

  ‘It can do,’ Sam replies. ‘I get mega headaches, and pains all over.’

  ‘Is your face getting worse, because it doesn’t look so good?’ the boy says candidly.

  ‘Yes, it is, and the bones in the rest of my b—’

  ‘So why are you here, and not at a special school?’ the boy puts in before Sam can finish. ‘Wouldn’t it be better?’

  ‘For me, or for everyone else?’ Sam says, not giving the boy an opportunity to answer as he continues, ‘My mum and dad wanted me to be at a normal school, with my brother. You see my dad went here, and he’s given money toward the new art block. So I suppose they thought they had to let me in.’

  The boy thinks about this for a moment. ‘Where are you going next?’

  ‘Which school? Well ...’ Sam’s gaze slips beyond the boy, and up above the shelves of books with worn spines. Around the tops of all four walls in the room wooden shields are mounted. It’s quite difficult to make out what’s on them as the years have darkened the paint, but they’re the crests of all the boarding schools that the majority of the pupils will end up at after they leave.

  In the hours in the library while he sits out breaks, PE periods and afternoon games, Sam often stares up at the shields, seeking out the details which have become so familiar to him, such as an armor-clad arm brandishing a sword, or a trio of rearing griffins. Each of these plaques has a motto written below it in lackluster gilt. Sam knows them by heart. God Grant Grace, and others in Latin, Deo Dante Dedi, and Deus Dat Incrementum.

  ‘Well,’ Sam says again, surprised that he’s been so thrown by the third former’s question.

  ‘Don’t you know?’ The boy, fully of snotty eagerness, is looking at Sam for an answer.

  It hasn’t been decided, because the chances are I might not live that long …

  But Sam doesn’t say that, the realization dawning on him then and there that he’s never had a serious conversation with his parents about what’s next. Maybe they’ve lined something up for him, but if they have, they haven’t told him. Sam and his parents seem to just take each day as it comes, coping with whatever his condition throws at them. There isn’t too much time for forward planning.

  ‘Oh, maybe … maybe a tutorial college or something,’ Sam tells the boy, more to provide him with an answer than actually believing it’s the right one. ‘Mum and Dad think I need to stay close to home.’

  ‘Okay,’ the boy says, as if this is some sort of failing. He begins to talk proudly about the boarding school his spotty brother has gone on to, and how he’s going there too if he passes the exam, but Sam isn’t taking any of it in. He’s lost in his own thoughts.

  Being young is about having potential, about being able to make choices in a future that’s still open and undecided and largely unwritten.

  Because of his illness, Sam has already had many of these choices made for him. And not much of a future.

third former continues to talk animatedly but Sam still isn’t listening, until the boy stops abruptly and picks up the book in front of him. ‘What does this mean?’ he asks.

  ‘What does what mean?’ Sam replies. He can tell that the book is one of the tired volumes from the school library by the small index number taped to its spine.

  ‘What you’ve written in here.’ The boy opens the back cover and spins the book round, then slides it across to Sam. Sam peers closely at it. There is something handwritten in pencil on the yellowing end paper inside the cover.

  Sam White

  Find Curtis

  Remember this

  Then, right at the very bottom, it says:

  PS. When Begley says ‘To me, son’, make sure you DUCK!

  ‘See – there’s your name,’ the third former points out unnecessarily. ‘And Big Ed Begley’s too.’ As everyone in the school does, he runs ‘Big’ and ‘Ed’ together as he says the words; Begley is renowned for his alpha-male sporting prowess and is a common subject of discussion by pupils and teachers alike.

  Sam is staring at the writing in sheer disbelief, shaking his head. ‘I didn’t do this. I would never do anything like this.’

  ‘But isn’t it your writing? It is, isn’t it?’ the third former asks, glancing over at the uppermost exercise book in the pile on Sam’s side of the table, on which Sam has written the subject and also his name. ‘Certainly looks the same.’

  Sam’s head is reeling, and he’s aware that his face is flushing as if he’s been caught red handed. ‘Well … even if it looks like my writing, it can’t be, because I didn’t do it,’ he says in exasperation. He’s exasperated because unless someone has gone to all the trouble of forging his handwriting, and why would they? … then it certainly looks indistinguishable from his own.

  He feels a surge of panic that he is responsible for it, but has completely forgotten about doing it. It occurs to him again, just as it did when Rachel’s parents visited him at the hospital, that he really is losing his mind. Or having blackouts of some kind. ‘But what does it mean?’ he mumbles.

  The boy is unconvinced. ‘I thought you could tell me.’

  Sam shrugs. ‘Of course I know who Begley is, but Curtis … who’s Curtis?’

  ‘There isn’t anyone in the book called that,’ the third former replies.

  ‘So who is he?’ Sam asks again, because he has absolutely no idea. He examines the book cover. ‘The Light of Day. I haven’t read it.’

  ‘You sure?’ The third former is quietly amused. It’s no skin off his nose if Sam has been defacing books, although it is an interesting little snippet to pass onto his classmates.

  ‘I’m sure.’ Sam looks blankly at him. ‘I usually bring my own books from home, but I have read a few from in here.’ He’s staring at the gold lettering on the faded cloth cover of the book. ‘I probably will read it. I mean I saw it on the shelf once and nearly started it. I thought it looked quite g—’

  ‘It’s not. Don’t bother,’ the third former interrupts, giving an exaggerated yawn. ‘It’s bloomin’ boring.’

  Just then someone pushes open the door into the library.

  ‘What’s bloomin’ boring?’ the master booms, coming to an abrupt stop.

  The third former jumps in his chair. Sam doesn’t look round.

  ‘And what’s all this chit chat in here?’ The master was evidently about to head over to the smaller side door. It’s a route often used as a short cut from the common room to the stairwell that the pupils are restricted to, rather than the main staircase which is only for teaching staff.

  The master allows a second of silence before he speaks again, his voice oozing with sarcasm. ‘So sorry to crash in like this on your coffee morning, ladies.’

  The library door has begun to swing back on him, and with the leather-patched elbow of his sports coat he rams it open again. The door flies back against the wall with a resounding crash.

  ‘You know perfectly well there’s no talking in here. Or do you want to join your friends outside?’ The intimation is that they are both shirkers and that there can be no valid reason for them being inside at break time, but then the master is Mr Donaldson. ‘What’s meant to be the matter with you?’ he directs at the third former.

  ‘Got a cold, sir,’ the boy replies meekly.

  ‘You don’t look ill to me. And not exactly making the best use of your time, are you?’ the master sneers, because as Sam is still holding his book, the table immediately in front of the boy is empty. ‘Then, with a frown, he glares at the back of Sam’s head. ‘And you … you’re wearing a hat … inside? What’s your excuse? Chill on the brain?’

  ‘Well, for starters I have Proteus syndrome, sir,’ Sam replies.

  ‘Proty-what? Is that something you’ve made …?’ Mr Donaldson steps around the table so he’s able to see Sam clearly. There’s not much he can add as he realizes who it is. For a moment he and Sam simply regard each other.

  ‘But they also say it could be a very rare form of neurofibromatosis, sir,’ Sam tells him. ‘You see, my bones are also getting in on the act.’

  ‘Ah, yes.’ Annoyed that he’s been caught out, Mr Donaldson glances around the room, rattling the sheet of paper in his hand. ‘Yes … White’s brother, aren’t you?’

  Mr Donaldson always seems to wear pants that are a little too tight, and sports coats that are a little too short, as if he’s proud of his muscular buttocks and wants to display them to full benefit.

  He knows Jesse because he’s good at games and in the firsts for under thirteens’ rugby. Although Mr Donaldson is head of the maths department, he’s one of those teachers whose fanatical and overriding interest in the school is rugby or cricket, depending on the season. And if you don’t distinguish yourself at either, you don’t exist.

  Consequentially the master and Sam don’t know each other, except by sight. Sam has never been taught by him and couldn’t recall if they’d even ever spoken before. The master rattles the sheet of paper again, and makes a pah-pah-pah sound with his lips as he thinks. ‘Right, as you’re obviously both so busy in here,’ he says, ‘I need a volunteer to fetch me Begley from the yard.’

  At the mention of the name Sam immediately thinks of the writing in the book he’s holding, but at that moment the third former opportunely erupts into one of his ‘snot attacks’. He sneezes explosively several times in quick succession, then scrambles to get his handkerchief out to deal with the messy aftermath.

  Mr Donaldson looks down at him with barely disguised disgust, then switches his attention to Sam. ‘Appears that the task falls to you, White. Won’t take you a second. Find Begley and tell him to come to the common room ... I need to speak to him about the team for this afternoon.’

  ‘Sir, I’m not meant to go outside, in case—’ Sam begins.

  ‘Why ever not? Just fetch me Begley, then you can get back to your book.’ He angles his chin at the Eric Ambler novel in Sam’s hands, and the way he drops his intonation on ‘book’ reveals precisely what the teacher thinks about how Sam spends his time.

  Sam stands his ground. ‘But I’m not actually allowed to go outside. You can ask the headmaster or my form teach—’

  ‘I’ll do it, sir!’ The third former rises to his feet, still trying to mop up the fallout from his sneezing fit.

  ‘No, not in that condition, you won’t. Sit down, boy. Don’t want you spreading your lurgy to everyone on my team. White here is the senior of you two and I’ve nominated him,’ Mr Donaldson growls. He wheels toward Sam. ‘Criminy, it’s not as if I’m asking you to climb Mount flipping Everest. And break’s nearly over, so be sharpish about it.’ As he heads back toward the main door, his gaze hovers on the clock on the wall and he lets out a resigned sound. ‘Where does it all go?’

  In the calm after the master’s departure, the two boys are left looking at each other over the table.

  ‘So what’s the problem with you going outside?’ the third former asks.

p; Sam runs his hand slowly over his knitted hat. ‘My skull. Under here it’s stretched thin in places. If it gets knocked, even a small one, it might be …’

  ‘What, broken? Really?’

  Sam nods, his voice quiet. ‘Which could really mess up my brain.’

  ‘Jeez Louise. Listen, I’ll go,’ the boy says forcefully.

  ‘No, Donaldson told me I had to do it.’

  ‘It’s only the playground. It’s nothing.’

  Sam was shaking his head now. ‘Thank you, but you know what he’s like. It won’t just be detention; he’ll be out to get you … forever more. It’s really not worth it.’ Sam rises from his chair. ‘Sometimes you just stop caring.’ He drops the cloth-bound book onto the table and leaves the library by the side door.

  With an empty feeling in his stomach, Sam passes through the corridors lined with school photographs from forgotten decades, giving the one with the youthful version of his father in it the usual glance he always does. Then he descends the flights of chipped concrete steps to the ground floor, and another corridor leads him to a door out into a covered alleyway.

  The alleyway is simply the five-foot wide margin of land between the powdery red-pink brick walls of the school and the next house along on the street, over which corrugated PVC sheeting has been slung to keep out the elements. The sheeting is rather old and Sam is bathed in the sickly yellow daylight percolating through it.

  Halfway down the alleyway he’s forced to step over a small stream of marsh-brown water trickling from under the door of the changing rooms. From the smell it’s evident one of the lavatories has backed up again.

  He stops at the end of alleyway and, nudging open the pair of swing doors a few inches, peers through the gap.

  I’m not meant to be doing this. For someone that has only ventured into the yard after hours when it’s deserted, or for the obligatory once-a-term fire practice when pupils are corralled into their form groups, the view outside makes his head spin. The whole place is a melee of moving, hurtling boys. In this seething sea of gray pullovers it’s quite possible that some of the kids are standing still – Sam doesn’t notice them – because most seem to be tearing around like idiots, playing tag or kicking balls or practicing at the basketball hoops on the opposite side of the yard from him.

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