Rat, tank, fallen angel. They’ll go in the book. Usually I walk down Bannerman and up the Easton road, but not today. I cut up the back lanes, it’ll make me late, but there you go. This morning I need a signal. On the bins by the Sweet Mart I find it – a bug-eyed alleycat with an electrode jammed in it’s head. The paint still wet to the touch.
I’m not sure why I keep going to school. They talk about spreading wings then put all their energy into clipping ours. Primary school? I spent most of that under the tables or staring at coat hooks outside one door or other – my first few months here too. Teachers were real pricks then. But once they put me in Stoney’s class it became less of a ball-ache. I’m not thick. Some of em are – I mean Minty and Sarah and Alex Beagle, it’s like someone dug em up – but we’ve all proven in our own way that we can’t cope among the bullies and the brainiacs. The Stoners, that’s what they call us. Half the kids in the room are on medication.
Stoney’s alright I guess, even let’s us call him that. He’s the only teacher I ever met who actually likes kids – and we ain’t the most likeable kids.
I belly under the fence and up and over the railway track. We call it the railway track, and maybe it was once, but it’s a cycle path now. No need for trains round here, no one’s going anywhere. It’s quicker going under the bridge, but there’s camera sharks sprayed on the road down there and they always spark a bust up.
I don’t even respond to Snicket’s sneered, “You’re late again Spinks”. I take the detention on the chin. The bad cat already sealed that.
Stoney’s extra perky when I get downstairs. He doesn’t mention the time. He’s trying to impress.
“This class,” he says, “is Elsa. She’s joining our happy family and I want everyone to make her feel at home.” Good boy. He’s the only one on the staff who can say stuff like this without sounding sarky. “Rachel, you stick by Elsa today, show her the ropes.” The new girl stares at the ground like she’s been brought here in handcuffs. She’s tall but dope-sick skinny and white like a window frame. Stoney, hoping for the best, ushers her to Rachel and Corrin’s table and she sits clutching her bag like government issue soap and makes no effort to brush away the shocks of red falling into her eyes.
“Morning Danny,” says Stoney turning to me. “Take a seat.”
I sit with Cross Eyed Michael and Jordan Cole – The Human Torch. We ain’t friends, we just sit together is all.
I take out my book and write, ‘rat-tank-fallen angel-bad cat. I put the day, the date and time. I go to close it then add, ‘late detention-new girl.
Elsa sits alone in the canteen feeding chips into her mouth and staring at her knee like it’s got a book on it. Rabbit Knight has his hand in her lunch. The hyenas perch on the tables all around. Rachel is nowhere.
“I do knows you,” says Knight. “Your Stephie Cox’s mate. You got slung out of Parklands for biting some kiddie’s ear off.” The hyenas lollygag about, hooting with laughter. “You’re a fucking nutter you are,” he says. More laughter.
“Why don’t you l-leave her a-alone Rabbit.” I mean it to sound like a suggestion. My wrists still haven’t healed from last weeks PE.
“Whoa. Danny Boy to the rescue.” Rabbit picks a chip off Elsa’s plate and flicks it at me. I go to palm it away but miss and it stings me on the cheek. This kills them, and they fall about. Even Elsa seems to stifle a smile. Knight springs off the table and Jack Sparrows up to me, close enough so I can see my reflection in his eyeballs. I look more rattled than I want to.
“Gonna put this in your book, are you Danny?”
It’s not that he scares me. It’s not that simple. But him being this close makes it hard for me to stitch a sentence together.
“Sh-she’s n-new. J-just give her a b-break why don’t you.”
He laughs hard at this. “Guh-guh-give her a buh-buh-buh-break?” he mocks. Then Ricky Pride grabs the tub out my hand and next thing they’re tearing the foil off the ham rolls I made this morning and spitting bites of my apple at each other. Then Mrs Fox from Student Services shoos them out. I retrieve the tupperware and a muesli bar from under the table. I don’t like leaving a mess for the cleaners, but I don’t want to start mopping up yoghurt with my jumper in front of Elsa either.
“Y-,” I start, then stop. I take a deep breath, hold it, count to five. “You okay?” I ask her.
She raises an eyebrow that says ‘course’ and goes back to plugging chips she’ll probably chuck up later. I sit on the bench and watch Rabbit and his cronies bare their bums at us through the glass behind Elsa’s back. After a bit she gets up and walks away. I eat the muesli bar, then take her tray to the racks.
I retrace my route home. Bad cat-fallen angel-tank-rat. I put them in the book – facing page. The symmetry soothes me. Like a long, slow breath out. The feeling of needing-to-be-somewhere-else that’s haunted me all day finally slips away. I feel like my Dad dumping his tools in the hallway and popping a can out of the fridge after work – ‘There’s that fucker put to bed,’ he used to say.
Friday morning I see two new tanks. One’s a red one on the key cutter’s shutters, the other’s silver and is painted on the side of a Police CCTV van I see stopped at the traffic lights by the Plough.
Whoever painted the silver one took the time to paint a black box first. I like this, artistic requirement overriding the need to flee. I think of the writer waiting in the shadows of a police station yard for the black to dry before sloping back out to stencil the silver on top.
The lines are neat. You can make out the laughing mouth and twitching pig tails of the little girl who sits on top of the tank directing its cartoon canon. And this canon has been fired – a bucketful of pillar box red has been sloshed down the length of the minibus and halfway across the windscreen. I look at the driver. It’s not a cop but a guy in overalls. Off for a jet wash. Pity.
At the school gates I see Elsa. Here we go I think and bristle for the clash.
“Hi,” she says, bright as a marker.
Snicket lurks behind the mares tails reflected in the swing doors.
“Spinks.” He puts it in his notebook. “Head in the clouds as usual. And?” He looks at Elsa. Elsa looks at him like he’s just asked her directions in Polish. He makes a noise he thinks is intimidating.
“Theowatishicanawa,” she says.
Snicket’s pencil hovers. Elsa’s face is milk. One per cent of him says she just may not be taking the piss. He narrows his eyes, purses his lips and hands us control of the moment. He should probably update his training.
“I take it you are the newest recruit to Professor Stone’s dream team?” He says, but Elsa’s switched herself off. She’s breathing, even swaying slightly, I can see that. But she doesn’t respond. Like Snicket’s not even there.
“Er. That’s right s-sir,” I say filling the silence. “New routines and all that.” He isn’t happy, but Snicket knows he’ll get another chance at us. I take Elsa’s arm – it’s like pulling a dog out a butcher’s shop . At six feet she eases up. At ten feet she’s happy to be led. By the time we pass the science labs she starts to run and when I get to class she’s already in her seat.