Fights at school were often caused by the prodding and goading of others desperate to find entertainment at breaktime…..
Butler was sitting by the tennis courts, elbows propped on his knees, waiting. He watched me walk up with Brian and dropped from the wall, unfastening a button on his cuff, running the sleeve up to his elbow.
‘You don’t have to do this,’ Brian said.
A crowd was forming; groups of threes and fours milling around for space. Scott Everett slapped Butler on the back. Butler grinned, cracking his knuckles. Scott was wearing a red and yellow Liverpool scarf tied tight around his forehead, to give the impression he was some kid of kung fu warrior. It was a style that was catching on: those that didn’t have football colours wore the straps of their sports bags pulled fast across the eyebrows. The weight of textbooks, jotters, PE kits and calculators stretched cheeks and fringes giving them the look of embalmed men.
‘You’re shitting yourself,’ Scott said, jabbing a bitten finger at me.
Brian stepped between us.
‘You can walk away,’ he said.
I handed Brian my bag. ‘I can’t walk off.’
Brian slung my bag over his shoulder so the straps crossed with his own like a Mexican gunfighter’s.
‘You’ll get a bit of stick. It won’t last forever,’ he said.
‘I’ll get laughed at for years. I won’t be able to show my face-’
‘Better than getting your face battered.’
I took my coat off and Brian held his arm out to take it.
‘You could be my butler,’ I said, ‘no pun intended.’
Brian bit his lip. Humour wasn’t defusing any of the tension. I stretched my toes inside my shoes. My feet felt like blocks of ice, cold and clammy, sliding against my insoles and cheap nylon socks.
‘Prick,’ Butler spat.
He was jogging on the spot, twisting his head from side to side.
‘Go and hit him, Butler,’ someone said.
I stepped back, relieved Butler didn’t see the tremor in my knee. Dozens of baying faces had formed into a tight circle, barely six paces across. At my feet was the number three in faded yellow paint. This area of the playground had once been part of the primary school. There was a long dormant game of hopscotch and a striped snake with a forked tongue. How I wished I was back at St Thomas’s now. Fights had been simple, random events then. Someone wanted your Matchbox car or stole your Breakaway biscuit and you shoved them or punched them. There were tears and it was instantly forgotten. At high school, or big school, as we used to call it, anger and hatred was allowed to fester and ferment. If you couldn’t fight you were humiliated in front of the whole year and left nursing scars, cuts and bruises for weeks.
‘Anytime today would be good,’ Butler said. He stretched an arm across his chest, pulling an elbow tight to the opposite shoulder.
‘Fight, fight, fight,’ Scott Everett chanted, thumping a fist into his palm. He beckoned to the others, clapping. Soon every member of the crowd was chanting too. You quickly get caught up in a mob. People I’d considered to be friends were chanting, baying for my blood.
‘Are you sure about this?’ Brian said.
‘No, I’m not.’
‘Knock his block off,’ another voice said.
This was the price for tackling Butler. Every one of those faces glaring at me was grateful they were not standing in my place.
‘Which hand?’ Butler said, holding out both fists.
‘Yeah which one do you want me to hit you with first?’
Scott Everett laughed showing his teeth.
‘Come on then,’ Butler spat, ‘let’s go.’
‘He’s scared. He’s crapping himself,’ Paul Bradford said.
I stared, daring him to step forward.
‘Get on with it,’ someone shouted.
‘You don’t have to do this,’ Brian whispered.
‘Like I’ve got any choice,’ I said, glancing over to Trent block, where the teachers would be taking their tea and digestives. Watery sun shined from the windows. I squinted but there was trace no movement; no banging on the panes; no rescue. The crowd tightened, prepared to push us together and make us fight. Butler shrugged, happy for me to come to him. I felt hands in my back, a surge of movement. I swallowed, clenching my stomach muscles. Porridge and honey stuck to my guts, stodgy, immovable like wattle and daub. Hands grabbed my belt, pinched and pushed at my back and shoulders.
‘Get on with it, the bloody bell will go,’ someone said.
‘You fight him then,’ I said.