The Reluctant Friend

The Reluctant Friend.

By Angharad.

“How was school?” Mary Phillips asked her thirteen year old daughter.

“S’okay, I guess.”

“No one said anything?”

“Not yet, haven’t worked it out yet, give ’em time.”

“Meet anyone interesting?”

“They were all a bit curious, didn’t tell ’em anythin’.”

“Find out who you can trust first, eh?”

“If it’s anything like last time, I don’t think I’ll trust anyone ever again.”

Mary smiled at her daughter but she understood, Fern was old enough to work out who was and wasn’t trustworthy with the family secrets, not something you can do after first meeting.

They had dinner and during it, Fern remarked that the class loser appeared to be a boy who most of the rest of the class seemed to laugh at. He looked a bit of a geek with glasses and longer hair than most of the boys, who spent much of the time playing with his smart phone. No one spoke to him except in a derisory way and that annoyed Fern, but it didn’t seem to affect the boy whose name was Paul Rogers, she discovered that much. Judging by the names the boys called him, the skinny geek was presumed to be gay.

The following week, they ended up sitting together for an art lesson. It was the first time Fern had actually tried to speak to him. They had to do a still life object which was a vase of flowers. Drawing or painting were not Fern’s forte and she glanced at Paul’s effort and was astonished, in minutes he’d sketched the vase and its contents.

Fern gasped, “How d’ya do that so quickly?”

Paul shrugged. He was already drawing the other people in the class around the edge of his still life.

“Could you show me—how to do it, I mean?”

He shrugged again.

“Please.”

“If they see you talking to me, you’ll be contaminated.”

“To be able to draw like that, it would be worth it.”

“You haven’t seen them in action yet.”

“What d’you mean?”

“When they get tired of slagging me off they get physical.”

“What—they hit you?”

“This is the third pair of glasses I’ve had this year.”

“Doesn’t the school have a policy on bullying?”

“In theory.”

“Get your dad to threaten them with a law suit.”

“That costs money, besides my dad left us when I was a baby.”

Fern was about to say, ‘Well get your mum to...’ when she realised money was probably an issue for the young man’s family. Instead she said, “I won’t let them.”

“I don’t see how you’ll be able to stop them, no has so far.”

Fern was as good as her word and standing before two boys who were going to hit Paul, she dared them to hit her first because she wasn’t moving. They eventually tired of the stand-off and left. Paul and she were becoming friends but the rest of the class were now treating her to pariah status as well, but she was firm in her decision to stand by him, though she didn’t know if he was grateful or not.

“I’ve kept my part of the bargain, now it’s time for you to keep yours,” she said to him at the end of an English lesson. It was her strong subject along with History and Geography.

“What bargain?”

“To teach me to draw like you do.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I can’t, okay.” He got a bit grumpy and walked away. She didn’t speak to him for the rest of the day, unsure of who was avoiding who but the next morning he arrived with his glasses stuck together with tape and bruising on his face.

“What happened?” she asked him.

“I fell, all right?”

“Helped by someone’s fist, no doubt.”

“What’s it to you? Who said you had to be my defender—I don’t need it so, just go away, before they get you too.” The last part was almost a whisper.

“What d’you mean?”

“Nothing.”

“Okay, who hit you?”

“Never mind, I wasn’t hurt.”

“I do mind, they can’t hit you just because they think you’re gay.”

“I’m not gay.”

“I didn’t say you were.”

He walked away and she was left on her own. Later that day she overheard two of the girls talking in the toilet about how Grainger Banks had beaten up Poofy Rogers last night because he wouldn’t pay the protection money. She stayed in the stall until she heard them leave.

“Did Grainger Banks hit you?”

“Why?”

“I heard some girls talking.”

“You know as much as I do then.”

“They wanted you to pay them to leave you in peace.”

“It’s none of your business, so just leave it.”

“Yes it is, I don’t like my friends being bullied.”

“I don’t have any friends.”

His response hurt a little but she had some understanding of how he felt, or how she thought he felt with its implied issues of trust. She still felt drawn to his plight and she knew that Grainger Banks was in the year above them and quite a bit bigger than her or Paul. However, her strategy of full frontal attack was improvised when she almost bumped into Banks in the corridor.

“Did you beat up on Paul Rogers?” she asked him, looking up into his eyes quite a way above her own.

“What’s it to you?”

“He’s a friend of mine.”

Banks laughed in her face. “He don’t have no friends, let alone a girlfriend. He don’t do girls.”

“He does now.”

Banks laughed again. “Wastin’ your time there, girl.”

“He refused to pay you some money, I hear.”

“Butt out girly, it’s none of your business.”

“It is if I offer to pay what he owes.” Fern maintained eye contact with the larger boy despite feeling scared rigid.

“Okay.”

“How much?”

“Five quid a week.”

“That’s outrageous.”

“Protection is expensive—for seven, I’ll include you in it.”

“I don’t need protecting.”

Banks looked around and seeing no one in the corridor he pushed her against some lockers. “What if you’re wrong?” he asked holding her by the shoulder.

“What if you are?” she replied trying not to show he was hurting her.

“I’m never wrong about women.” He said smugly just before he hit the floor. Her knee made contact with his groin followed by the stiff fingered jab to his throat and the elbow to the side of his head.

Grabbing his hair she said quietly but with menace, “Ever come near me again and I’ll kill you,” she let his head fall with a thump on the floor before walking off rubbing her shoulder where he’d hurt her. Banks was nowhere to be seen the next morning but in assembly the headmaster declared, “The gang of thugs who left a boy badly beaten in the corridor would be found and prosecuted.” Fern nearly wet herself and was sure other girls noticed her blushing. She’d been taught a form of self defence after the last school where it was shown that surprise was one of the first components and nothing was ruled out as a target or a weapon. Banks was only the second person she’d ever hit, the first was another girl who bullied her mercilessly but stopped when Fern punched her square on the nose breaking the cartilage.

Mary gave her hell for using violence. “So why did you send me for training then?”

“The intention was to stop you getting into one, not starting them.”

“She won’t bother me again.”

“I know because we’re moving.”

“Not again—but I like this school.”

“The headmaster said you could finish the term.”

“Big deal.”

“He was going to exclude you.”

“She started it.”

“Not the way the school saw it.”

“They didn’t do anything when she hit me before, or called me names.”

“I thought I taught you better.”

“Yeah, well John taught me better still,” John was her self defence instructor—‘Make every blow count the first time, you might not get a second chance.’

“Bit o’luck about Banks, eh?” Paul mentioned in art.

“Who?” asked Fern trying to understand how he could make a few strokes with a pencil and it represented something but if she tried it, it just resembled a few strokes of a pencil.

“Banks, the bully—some kids duffed him up.”

“So? How d’you do that?”

“Well I’d like to thank them, that’s all. No you’re doing it all wrong, look have an idea in your head of what you’re trying to do, then just do it...”

“Gee thanks,” she answered in exasperation. “Mine still looks like a mess, yours is brilliant.”

He shrugged again, “I don’t know, it looks like a nice dog kennel.”

“Dog kennel, it’s supposed to be the cathedral.”

“Oh, my mistake...”

“You wanna come round to mine tomorrow, Mum’s doing a roast dinner and her partner’s away for a few days.”

“I dunno, I’m...”

“Go on, you can help me do my maths homework.”

“I dunno...”

“Go on, please...”

“Okay, just this once.”

“Great, I’ll tell Mum, you like roasties?”

“Uh—yeah, I like most things.”

“Great,” she beamed.

“Is this a good idea, Fern?”

“Paul is okay, he won’t tell anyone.”

“I hope not, the garden has cost a fortune to have done and I don’t want to have to move again.”

“He’ll be okay with it, I promise.”

“I hope so, just remember adolescent males can be very conservative and judgemental.”

“He’ll be okay.”

“You haven’t told him already have you?” Mary looked anxious.

“It’s okay, I promise.”

“Well all right then, he can come to dinner.”

“Geezuz, you don’t live here do you?” Paul stopped at the gate to the old rectory, a large Victorian pile not far from the Anglican church.

“C’mon, it’s not haunted an’ Mum’s expecting us.”

To his pleasant surprise Mary Phillips was both friendly and good looking only surpassed by her cooking and Paul ate his fill very quickly. Fern dragged him off to the study to do their homework, he glanced at a series of photos on the wall. “Where’s your dad?” he asked casually.

“God knows.”

“Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to pry.”

“It’s okay, my dad was a sperm donor, okay.”

“Wow, I don’t think I ever met someone who told me that before. Don’t... nah, never mind.”

“Never mind what?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does, now what were you going to say?”

“Nothing.”

“You were going to say that’s how gay women have babies, weren’t you?”

He blushed furiously. “Uh...”

“It’s okay, Mum is gay her partner is Jane Dalrymple the novelist. Please son’t say anything, as soon as people find out I get bullied, we’ve moved three times in the last five years.”

“I won’t say anything, honest.”



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