A (Lunch) time for Heroes
Ideally this story would have taken place somewhere exotic, perhaps with a stiff breeze to tousle the hair and a generous cloud of dry ice through which to emerge, but we both know life isn’t like that. And anyway, the breeze would disperse the dry ice.
So instead, you’ll have to make do with a damp grey day at a damp grey comprehensive school in a damp grey town. It was twenty-odd years ago: a time when there were only four television channels, pop-reggae was bafflingly popular and a packet of Space Raiders was still ten pence. A time for heroes? You decide.
That drizzle-spattered lunchtime, Chris, Tim and I were sitting on a bench, minding our own collective business. The transition to ‘big school’ had been recent and daunting but the three of us had gravitated together early on. We didn’t bother anyone else and they didn’t bother with us. With one major exception…
The first sign that something was wrong that day was a particularly heavy gulp from Tim. Tim was a nice lad but not the bravest. In fact, he was frequently the least brave in any given field. This included, on one memorable occasion, a literal field around which he was chased by several younger girls threatening to open a jar of angry wasps.
Nevertheless, as small fish in a big pond, Tim’s overdeveloped sense of peril came in quite handy because he operated like a miner’s canary. Often he raised the alarm unnecessarily. Not this time.
Chad Burkitt had all the malevolence and casual violence to be expected of someone who had had to endure being called Chad for thirteen years. He had made our lives a misery in those first few months, a state of affairs we couldn’t imagine changing any time soon. Chad was a year older and a foot taller than us and meaty, his shaven, cylindrical head sitting directly atop his shoulders like a bucket with a grumpy face drawn on it. His shirt was untucked, his tie was seditiously short and he was heading straight for us.
‘Oh oh…’ muttered Chris. Chris was neither a lover nor a fighter, and while the former didn’t bother him much yet, at least one of us being a fighter would have been extremely useful. Chris was particularly good with computers but not, alas, to the extent that he could programme a robot to kick someone’s head in.
Presently Chad was towering over us, reeking of fags and pickled onions. I remember praying wildly for a shiny bit of foil to blow past in the hope that Chad might chase it out of the gates, and in front of a car. You see, Chad was a vicious and sadistic bully but not the brightest spark.
‘Alright, bumtards?’ It was Chad’s standard opener and, ignoring the reprehensible politics behind the term, it has to be said that he was ahead of his time in the employment of portmanteau words.
‘You…’ Chad jabbed a meaty finger at me ‘…I need you to do my history homework.’ He thrust a sheet of A4 into my hands. I looked at it with dread.
‘But it’s year eight homework, I…’
Suddenly, explosively, Chad grabbed my ears and wrenched me northward. The pain was excruciating.
‘Do it, or I’ll batter you.’ Chad barked.
‘Okay! Okay!’ I squealed.
Chad dropped me back down and I clutched my throbbing ears.
‘Post it into my locker tomorrow morning before registration or you’re all dead.’ Chad’s finger jabbed at Chris and then at Tim, who flinched as if it might have ballistic capability.
Then he was gone, but his shadow remained.
In the uneasy silence that followed I looked at the homework. My heart sank: World War Two. I knew a bit (Allies = good, Axis = bad) but not enough to answer these questions without heavy research.
‘What are you going to do?’ Chris asked, at length and in a small voice.
‘God knows! I’ll have to go to the library and look it all up.’
‘But you were coming to mine to play Nintendo…’
‘I know I was! God… we can’t go on like this! I wish we could, I don’t know…stop him somehow.’
‘Us?! We’re not exactly heroes…’
‘And my mum said he used to be such a lovely little boy,’ Tim said, almost inaudibly.
‘Sorry?’ I asked, distractedly.
‘My mum taught him.’ Tim said.
‘Couple of years ago. She said he was one of her stars. Won a prize!’
I frowned as something began to stir between my stinging ears. It was rare that I had good ideas, so it took me a while to recognise it for what it was: a copper-bottomed, ocean-going belter of a good idea. When I did, I turned to Chris, smiling slyly.
‘I will be round yours tonight. But first I need to go to Tim’s.’
‘What about Chad’s homework?’ asked Tim, confused.
‘I don’t think that’s going to take as long as I thought. See you at yours fiveish, then we’ll go to Chris’s?’
‘Okay.’ Tim said, still confused.
‘You ever get that scanner and printer installed, Chris?’ I asked.
‘I think I might have a plan to get Chad to leave us alone forever.’
Neither Chris nor Tim looked convinced.
‘Maybe we’re not heroes, but we must be at least a third of a hero each, surely?’
‘What are you on about?’ asked Chris.
‘Come on,’ I said with what I fancied was an enigmatic air but was probably just irritating vagueness, ‘let’s get to afternoon registration.’
The next morning I walked to school with butterflies dogfighting in my stomach. I’d explained the plan to Chris and Tim the previous evening and secured their assistance. Chris was easy to win over because it involved his new computer equipment. Tim was tougher to convince and his cooperation was only achieved by my solemnly and disingenuously promising him that this would definitely not lead to his having his head flushed down the toilet.
This was an age before knife-wielding schoolyard anarchy so whilst a shanking was mercifully unlikely, an Armitage-shanking was not, despite what I had promised Tim. We all knew what was required of us, but this was a zero-sum game. If the plan went down the pan, so, in all likelihood, would we.
We convened before morning registration and my confederates watched solemnly as I posted the A4 sheet through the vent in Chad’s locker. This time we all gulped. Now there really was no going back.
Seconds after the bell went at lunchtime, I was sprinting pell-mell down the main corridor with Chad barrelling along behind me, in the manner of that boulder that chased Indiana Jones.
Skidding round the corner, I found myself staring at an alarmed fire door, so I dived into the empty, darkened classroom to my left and hurried to the far corner. Moments later I heard Chad arrive outside. He knew there was only one place I could be. And I knew he knew that. That was part of the plan. Nevertheless, I still whimpered as fifteen stone of panting malice filled the doorway.
‘YOU!’ Chad began to advance.
‘Not so fast, Burkitt.’ It would have been the coolest thing I’d ever said had it not been for my voice breaking four times during the delivery.
Still advancing with slow, tank-like menace, Chad’s face became an ugly, red fist.
‘I GOT AFTER SCHOOL DETENTION BECAUSE OF YOU!!’ He brandished the page ‘QUESTION ONE, 300,000 SOLDIERS WERE EVACUATED FROM WHERE IN 1940? ANSWER: YOUR MUM! QUESTION TWO, WHERE THE DID THE NAZIS INVADE IN 1941? ANSWER: YOUR MUM! QUESTION THREE, THE TWO ATOM BOMBS WERE CALLED LITTLE BOY AND…’
‘You didn’t read it first, then?’ My voice was shaking as much as my legs.
‘THERE’S TWENTY OF THESE, YOU LITTLE…!!’ Chad lunged for me but as he did so, I stepped back and jabbed at the switch that would, God willing, save me.
Light blasted into Chad’s eyes arresting his rampage and causing him to twist awkwardly towards the far wall. Then his jaw dropped. Really dropped. Like in a cartoon.
For a moment we both stared at the image emblazoned across the wall by the light of the overhead projector. It was Chad, a few years younger but recognisable. He was wearing a leotard… and he was doing a plié.
Now, we both know that there’s nothing wrong with boys doing ballet. Chad evidently realised that a school full of nineties idiots would disagree. So had I.
Chad glared, his chest heaving, his knuckles white.
‘Tim’s mum keeps photos of all the competitions her dance school ever entered. I’d seen them before, but never really looked at them. But when I did… there you were!’
Chad’s eyes bored into mine. I could hear his teeth grinding.
‘Leave me and Chris and Tim alone or I’ll show this to everyone.’
‘Or… I could just smash your face in and take the picture.’
Here it was. Do or die. I yanked open the blinds.
Outside, stood triumphantly atop a bench were Tim and Chris, waving wads of colour copies of the self-same picture. Chad faltered and then he seemed to deflate; deflate until he was almost boy-sized again.
‘There’s more where they came from, and Tim’s mum’s got the original. It’s over, Chad. Leave us alone.’
Chad looked at me for a moment with a look of such despair that I almost, almost felt sorry for him. But then I remembered he was a pitiless bully and only not spiflicating me because he was being effectively (if slightly unnecessarily elaborately) blackmailed. So it passed.
With a final bellow of impotent rage, Chad stalked out of the classroom, kicking his way out of the fire door.
Chris and Tim joined me, breathless and giddy with sublimated terror and triumph and the three of us just stood there. Together. Heroes.
It was a wonderful moment to be alive. There may have been a dearth of hair-tousling breeze, and there was certainly insufficient dry ice, but I did have two of the best mates a boy could have.
And Space Raiders were still only ten pence.