Copyright for this story is held by the author known as DesDownUnder at firstname.lastname@example.org. Personal one-off copies are permitted for private, non-commercial use. Any copying or use of this story or any portion of it that renders anyone monetary gain or profit in any form is prohibited without written permission of the author. My thanks to Blue for his encouragement and friendship.
Edited by Blue from Codey’s World - email@example.com
See more poems and stories by DesDownUnder at Codey’s World: http://www.codeysworld.com/desdownunder/.
School days are the best days of your life, his mother had told him. Not to mention his aunt and his grandmother, uncles, and other assorted relatives, including his stepfather. Even the postman had told him.
They were all wrong, very wrong he thought, as he walked towards the school, his head in a cloud of memories. Perhaps they might have been right, if he had not been an only child, or even if he had had a friend.
They, of course, had no idea of the hell schooldays were for him. They knew he was bullied, but they just assumed he would survive as they had done. After all, why should it be any different for him? They believed it had been worse for them. The memories of their school years had been dimmed by their struggle to survive, to work and live in an era of horrors, much like any other era. What memories remained, they had ameliorated into monuments of nostalgia.
He understood that, but wanted to know if he had done the same.
In the distance, he could see the sandstone tower that sat on top of the entrance to the school; the tower that both signified his schooling and his terror. It wasn’t the threat of some attack by a deranged student, like he had seen on the television news, which worried him. It was just the constant belittling that had eroded his own self-esteem.
He really didn’t want to go back to school, but something inside him was curious. With each step he took, his curiosity diminished, until he stopped walking. Then it would start again, grow again, urging him to move once more towards the school.
His thoughtful ambulation between desire and despair continued as he wondered about his expectations.
He knew there was nothing more they could teach him. He had learned it all. They had taught him everything; how to run, to hide, how to cry and even how to feel hatred.
He had tried to hold out against such emotions, but at times, they overwhelmed him. He was determined though, that he would not hate without good reason. He would set aside the examples of his peers. He would not submit to their bullying. If he did, he would have become like them. He needed to hang onto the small sense of worth that his family had given him.
His mother loved him. She told him she did and he had no reason to doubt her.
He had told her that the other kids called him nasty names. His bright red hair had inspired the name of “Blood-Nut.” She had taught him to respond to their teasing by reciting, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
He flinched as he remembered how that little rhyme earned him his first beating in the schoolyard. Of course, the teachers blamed him for starting the fight, because he had goaded the other kids with his mother’s words. She was so upset when she saw his black eye and bruised arms, she had to steady herself with a glass of wine; the wine that one distant day would hasten her departure from his life and her own. Until then, she loved her son, Wilbur, and he knew it. He would always remember, she loved him.
His bruises had looked worse because he had that fair skin that would not tan. Wilbur’s fair complexion was a constant source of jokes by his schoolmates about him being a ghoul. Zombie-Boy, they called him.
“What’s wrong Zombie-Boy, can’t get a tan like a living person?” chanted the school bully, Harry, who relished the laughter this brought from his classmates.
“My name is Wilbur, “he said, “And I am not a Zombie-Boy, so there! And you are all just being nasty to me.”
That was when he incurred his second beating. Again, the teachers accused him of being the cause of the fight, if you can call five boys bashing one, a fight.
“Get out in the sun and become a man, get a tan. Bloody sissy-boy,” one of them had yelled at him.
“You are a disgrace to redheads,” exclaimed, Archie, the strawberry blond with the natural golden tan.
Of course, Wilbur wasn’t the only one who was picked on. The bullies also loved to sling off at the only aboriginal boy in the school. He was called many horrid names. Wilbur had tried to make friends with him. But Kevin, that was his name, just pushed Wilbur aside and told him to, “Piss off, whitey.”
So Kevin, the black skinned boy, and Wilbur, the white boy were both in the wrong for being either too dark in skin tone or too white. It seemed strange to Wilbur that the other white boys were trying to outdo each other in getting a deep tan, whilst ridiculing Kevin for being black.
No one, he thought, wanted to be white, least of all him. While he was thinking this, he had looked at Kevin and wondered how he felt. Not needing to get a tan, seemed to Wilbur to be as bad as not being able to get tanned at all.
At night, alone in his bed, he had images of Kevin’s natural dark skin laying alongside his own pale complexion. He found it strangely exciting as he drifted off to sleep; a sleep in which he would have no dreams until he turned thirteen.
He did not sleep for long. The shouting would awaken him. He looked at the bedside clock: 1:00 am. He slipped out of bed and went to his bedroom door. They were shouting again. Every night they drank until they yelled at each other. His mother screamed at his stepfather. His stepfather slapped her. Wilbur flinched at the sound of knuckles against soft flesh. Silently, he opened his bedroom door. He didn’t know why he made his way towards the kitchen. Their shouts and rants were like a magnet to the boy’s natural inquisitiveness. He knew he had to be quiet. His stomach tensed into a thousand apprehensive knots. He felt compelled to listen to their argument.
“…You just don’t get it do you? I work hard all day, and for what? So you can lay about the house watching TV.”
“TV? Is that what you think? Who do you think does the cooking and the cleaning? How do you think the fridge gets food into it? Do you think the food walks here from the supermarket all by itself?”
“Yeah, well, I have to work all day so you and Weeb can live the high life.”
“Don’t call my son, Weeb, his name is Wilbur.”
“What the hell possessed you to call the kid, Wilbur?”
“It was his father’s best friend’s name.”
“It’s a nerd’s name.”
“It was the least I could do. He saved my life.”
“And then dropped dead. Pass me the wine bottle.”
He leaned across the table and took the bottle, never for a moment dropping his gaze from his wife’s face. They glared at each other.
Wilbur stood, helpless, listening in the half-shadows of the hallway. His mother and stepfather continued to shout at each other. How long had they been at it this time? Probably, he thought, since he went to bed. They always waited till he went to bed.
“You have the manners of a pig!”
“And what makes you think you earn enough money for us to live the high life. If you think it is easy keeping house, you stay home and I’ll go to work.”
“Yeah? What sort of work would you get…at your age?”
Glass broke, as a dish or a wine glass was thrown against the wall. They shouted their resentment of each other, at each other, in a slurry of wine. Then they were quiet. They swayed backwards and forwards, looking at each other. If they had been sober, you would have been able to see the look of love in their eyes, but the alcohol had narrowed their gaze into a distant, opaque, loathing.
“I’m going to bed,” announced Wilbur’s mother with a firmness her arguments had lacked. She had had the last word. Winning the argument was not the objective.
Wilbur knew it was time to retreat to his bedroom. It had ended as it always did. Shortly, they would stagger from their assault on each other and Wilbur must be gone before they saw him.
His heart was beating fast, his fear was nothing compared to the angst he felt inside.
Why did they yell at other? How could they yell insults at each and then go to bed together? He would never really understand it. He just wanted it to not happen. He crawled back into bed and escaped into another forgotten nightmare.
His memories halted his walk. His heart was again thumping in his ears. He looked around the street. A car drove almost alongside him. He hurried on down the street.
It wasn’t that much further to his destination. It seemed strange to him to be going back to school on a Saturday. He had only done that once before when he had tried out for the football team in sixth grade. He shuddered at that memory. The teacher, a new one called Mr. Symons had insisted he turn up for the pre-season trials. The teacher didn’t understand he was not the type to play football, but then Wilbur had not yet discovered that either. When he had arrived at the playing field in his new shorts and t-shirt, he ran up to the other boys, who were busy running and jumping on the spot. He was almost pleased to be there. His new football boots made him feel like he was one of the players. He had polished them all morning until the shiny black leather glistened in the sun. His nemesis, Archie, looked at him.
“What are you doing here, pansy-boy? We don’t want no pansy-boys playing football.”
Archie’s henchman “Grotty” Gary, whose hair appeared to never have been washed, had snuck up behind Wilbur and leaned down on all fours. Archie pushed Wilbur, who then fell backwards over the waiting Gary.
Grotty Gay wiggled out from underneath him and immediately held him down, while Archie and Harry, whose nickname was Hagar, pulled Wilbur’s new boots off his feet. Harry grabbed them and ran away towards his house across the street.
“Give me back my boots, please.” Wilbur called after him.
“Please?” said Archie, with as much sarcasm as he could. “Please? What sort of poofter are you? That’s it, isn’t it? You’re a poofta!”
The other boys all laughed and pointed at him. “Poofta, Poofta, Wilbur is a poofter,” they all chanted with a venom only the vindictive have for those they victimise.
Suddenly Harry came running back, waving his hands, “I got him some new shoes,” he yelled.
Archie turned to Harry, “Hagar, hold him down.” Harry did as he was told and held Wilbur down, as Gary tied the pink slippers he had taken from his sister’s bedroom, onto Wilbur’s feet.
“Ooh,” said Archie, “that’s better, now you have shoes to match your poofy pink skin.”
The other boys laughed and jeered.
“I want my boots back,” said Wilbur as he looked at them on Gary’s feet.
“What is going on here?” asked Mr Symons as he walked up to the group.
“He took my new boots,” said Wilbur as he pointed to Gary.
“Is that true?” asked the teacher.
“No, I think he is jealous of my new boots, and look at what he is wearing,” Gary said.
“Oh, very funny,” laughed Mr. Symons as he looked at Wilbur’s feet, wearing the pink slippers with the red pom-poms flopping around. “Take those off. You can’t play football in slippers.”
Everybody laughed. Wilbur ran home as quickly as he could. When he arrived, he told his mother what had happened. She was furious. The football boots had cost her as much as a case of her favourite wine; a sacrifice she had readily made for her son. She grabbed Wilbur’s hand and marched straight back to the football field.
She walked up to Mr. Symons and demanded to know what had happened.
Mr. Symons looked at her blankly.
“Why is my son wearing pink slippers?” she shouted.
Feeling the eyes of his football team on him, the teacher looked at the enraged mother and said, “Because he likes the colour?”
Wilbur could still remember the sound of his mother’s hand striking the teacher’s face.
She took Wilbur by the arm and led him home. He was crying all the time. When they reached home, his mother told his stepfather what had happened. The man looked at the boy and laughed. He poured a glass of wine and handed it to his wife. “Here, you look like you could use a drink.” She took the drink from him and downed it in one gulp. “Have another,” he said as he refilled the glass.
Wilbur saw what was happening and went to his room. He sat on the bed, listening to their laughter. Within an hour, their drunken mirth had changed to poisonous rage.
Wilbur had not only cried himself to sleep, he had lost his new football boots. Not that it mattered, he would never go near a football field again.
Wilbur had stopped his walk back to school as the memories welled up into his eyes. “Damn it!” he said, “I thought I was over all that. Why couldn’t they have let me join in the fun instead of making fun of me?”
Wilbur was shaking as he walked. His memories left him feeling vulnerable. A large white car pulled up alongside him. The side window rolled smoothly down. “Get into the car,” said a voice.
Wilbur looked as the face of a handsome middle-aged man appeared.
“No,” said Wilbur abruptly. He dismissed him from his mind as he hurriedly continued his journey back to school.
At last, he saw the big Moreton Bay fig tree sitting in the small park across from the school entrance. Instinctively, he crossed the road and stood behind the tree. He peered around the tree as he had done so many times before on his way to school, making sure the bullies were not laying in wait for him.
It was Saturday, there would be no problem. It was weekdays when they had ambushed him. Monday and Friday mornings were their favourites. He looked up into the old tree. He could almost see them as they had swung down from the branches. “Neanderthals,” He muttered to himself, half smiling as he remembered how Grotty Gary had fallen from the tree and broken his arm. Gary was going to jump on him and hold him so that the others could punch him. It was one of their most common attacks. Gary had made the mistake of calling out before he jumped.
“Hey poofter-boy!” he had yelled. Wilbur looked up to see who it was and stepped aside as Gary plummeted to the ground, twisting his arm as he landed on the massive tree root.
Wilbur stopped smiling as he recalled the scathing the headmaster gave him for causing the star footballer to break his arm. Harry had told the headmaster that Wilbur had failed to catch Gary properly as he jumped from the tree. The headmaster threatened him with expulsion from the school. Again Wilbur’s mother intervened. This time she went to the school board. They believed her concerns were valid and reprimanded the headmaster, before they suspended Wilbur, for not stopping Gary from breaking his arm.
That Friday night, his mother and stepfather came to blows when they started arguing over the incident, but their discourse ended over a broken bottle of wine. Wilbur found them the next morning, his mother asleep, soaked in wine, on the kitchen floor. His stepfather was snoring across the kitchen table with his fingers still holding a burned out cigarette in the overflowing ashtray.
It was a Saturday morning. It was going to be a long weekend, one of many.
Wilbur shifted his gaze from the innocent tree as he looked at the school. He walked from under the branches and crossed the road. He stood at the entrance and with a heavy, tentative sigh he pushed open the gate and walked into the schoolyard. He made his way to the shade of a small tree at the edge of the playground area. He could see them all standing around chatting, as if nothing was wrong; as if nothing bad had ever happened there.
He was back at school. How small the yard seemed to him now. He could remember how large it had appeared as he ran across it, trying to escape from his tormentors at lunch times. Harry would grab his bag of sandwiches, toss them to Grotty Gary, who would then kick them into a rubbish bin. Wilbur ran over to the bin where Archie waited to pick up Wilbur and push him into the bin.
The teachers saw him rummaging through the rubbish and had reported Wilbur’s parents for not supporting the boy with decent meals. It wasn’t true of course. For all their arguing and squabbling, his parents always saw that Wilbur had his meals. Of course, they argued about how much it cost to feed him, to clothe him and to provide him with his school books, toys and games.
Eventually, Wilbur’s parents had duelled each other into divorce, which at least meant some degree of peace at home, even though it was a struggle for his mother to provide for him. Still, he remembered her with a fondness only a boy can have for his mother. Now, he would have to face the people in the schoolyard on his own. He wondered why he was there, and then he realised he felt compelled.
As he made his way to the tables of food, he saw the faces of the old scholars, his fellow pupils. He knew they were older than when he had last seen them some thirty years ago; their bloated stomachs told him that. He was amused to find that he did not see their wrinkled, aging faces. He was, in fact, superimposing his memory of their childhood’s features onto those thickening necks that widened out into obesity. Archie approached him. Wilbur felt a familiar nervousness he had thought he could avoid.
“Wilbur, my old mate, how are you?” asked Archie, but before Wilbur could answer, Archie called out, “Look who is here, everyone, it’s Wilbur.”
Harry came waddling over, preceded by an enormous pot belly. “How are ya mate?” he inquired, as if they were long lost buddies rediscovering their friendship. Wilbur shuddered and smiled simultaneously.
“I’m okay,” said Wilbur, “How are you?”
“Just great, mate,” said Harry. “You don’t look so good. You’re a bit thin. Have you been sick?”
“No, I’m fine,” answered Wilbur.”
“You better get something to eat, mate, you always were a bit on the thin side,” said Harry, pointing to the tables filled with cholesterol and sugar treats.
Wilbur leaned away a little, looking around as he looked at the group who now stood near him. Then he saw him. He was there. He was uncertain if they would invite Kevin, so he had made sure the aboriginal man had been told of the reunion. He wanted to see him again. Wilbur left the group and went to greet Kevin.
“I’m glad you could make it,” he said to him.
“I might have known it was you who sent me the invitation,” said Kevin. “I couldn’t believe any of them would.” He glanced around at the herd of grazing adults, as they stood reminiscing about their schooldays.
The two men looked into each other’s eyes just long enough to remember those first few moments of discovery that young teenage boys sometimes have with each other. They smiled, then blushed with a giggle, long since abandoned by their journey into adulthood.
Wilbur leaned into the ear of the good looking black man, whispering, “Who are all these old people?”
“I am sure neither of us really wants to know,” said Kevin as he laughed. Then he pulled a petite woman to him, “this is my wife, Clara, and those two over there are my youngest kids,” as he pointed to two fine looking young teenagers.
“Your two youngest?” asked Wilbur, “How many…?”
“Five in all,” answered Kevin, “someone had to ensure the next generation.” Wilbur grinned at him, pleased his friend had survived the taunts they both had endured.
“What about you, Wilbur, is there a…?”
“Yes, Kevin, he is in the car outside the gate.”
“Why doesn’t he come in?” asked Kevin.
“I told him I needed to do this by myself. I didn’t want him to see me humiliated if they should still be like they were,” Wilbur said, as hung his head.
Kevin’s heart went out to him. He knew his pain. He turned to Clara and whispered into her ear. She nodded a smile at Wilbur and then walked off towards her two children.
“Wilbur,” said Kevin, “they don’t even remember me, let alone what they did to us. Gary asked me who I was.”
“What did you say to him?” asked Wilbur.
“I told him I was hired to clean up after the reunion.”
“You didn’t…what did he say to that?”
“I didn’t give him a chance to reply; I just leant over him and added, “Just like I used to mop up the locker room after the football games. You know,” I told him, “when you and Archie used to shower together.”
“You said that? I am surprised he didn’t punch you out,” said Wilbur. “Only you and I knew about their showers, and we never dared tell anyone.”
“Well, I am older now, Wil, and I’m not afraid of them anymore. Besides, he doesn’t remember any of it. He met my remarks with a blank expression. He has no idea what I was talking about. He has forgotten all about the showers, just as he forgot about me. All he remembers is that Gary and he played football together.”
“Harry remembers me,” said Wilbur; “thinks I am one his long lost buddies.”
“Don’t worry about them, Wil. Come, introduce me to your friend, unless you are ashamed of me?” Kevin asked with a twinkle in his eye.
“Ashamed of you, Kevin? Never, I have always loved you.” Kevin flashed a wide toothy grin.
Harry was standing nearby with the others and had overheard the conversation. He walked over to Wilbur and said with a smirk, “So it’s true, you really are a queer?”
Kevin went to move in between Wilbur and Harry, but Wilbur stopped him with his hand placed firmly on his arm. He suddenly found an inner strength. Maybe it was because Kevin was there. Maybe he just needed to make one last attempt to reclaim his self-respect.
“Yes, quite true Harry, You lot told me so often that I was a poofter, I thought I must have been one.”
“That’s sick,” said Harry, “at least I got married and had kids.”
“He’s probably been trying to have kids,” said Gary as he walked over.
“Should’ve tried it with a woman, then,” said Archie.
All three men started to guffaw, which caused their huge bellies to heave up and down.
Wilbur walked away. They had done it to him again; made him feel less than human. He needed to get out of there.
Kevin beckoned to his wife, who quickly moved to her husband’s side with their children. She saw Kevin’s troubled expression and looked at Harry. Clara was an intelligent woman. She knew when her husband was upset. She could immediately detect the tone of disdain that dripped from the downturned corners of Harry’s mouth, as he called out to Wilbur, “Goodbye…Wilma.”
Wilbur’s shoulders drooped with defeat as he continued walking.
Archie and Gary laughed as they waddled off towards the food.
Kevin looked at Harry. “Was that really necessary?” he asked.
Harry shrugged his shoulders and turned to follow Archie and Gary.
Kevin turned to see Wilbur walking towards the gate.
“He’s leaving,” said Kevin.
“Is he all right?” asked Clara.
“I hope so. His friend is waiting for him in the car at the gate.”
“Come on,” commanded Clara. Kevin and the kids quickly followed her.
“Wait, Wilbur,” she called out. “Wait!”
Wilbur stopped and looked at the woman as she rushed up to him.
“We are leaving too,” she told him. “Would you and your friend like to come back to our home for a while? I’m sure you and Kevin have lots to talk about, and I would love to meet your friend.”
“Wilbur looked at her. He was just about to decline her offer, when a tall man walked up and stood beside him.
“We would like you both to visit with us,” said Clara, guessing who the man was.
“She really wants you to,” said the man, as he put his arm around Wilbur.
“I know,’ said Wilbur, “and I think I would like to, if you don’t mind?”
“Of course I don’t mind,” said the man. “It would do you good and I would love to chat with this charming lady.”
Clara’s eyes sparkled at the man’s comment. Quickly, Wilbur introduced his lover to Kevin and Clara. “This is Paul; Paul meet Clara and Kevin.” They greeted each other as they all began walking towards the gate.
“So have you and Wilbur been friends for a long time?” asked Clara.
“We met in college,” replied Paul.
“So did Kevin and I,” said Clara.
Wilbur and Kevin walked on ahead.
“Are you staying in town for long?” asked Kevin.
“No, we will fly back tomorrow, but I am so pleased to see you again,” said Wilbur.
“Me too,” said Kevin.
Wilbur opened the gate that had once seemed so tall above him, but was now beneath his head. He walked through and held it open for the small procession of his friends to leave the reunion. As he closed the gate, Wilbur looked across the schoolyard at the men with whom he once went to school. Harry, Archie and Gary were trying to kick a ball like they had done, so many years ago.
Some people never really leave the schoolyard, thought Wilbur, as he walked away.
“Don’t let them get to you, Wil,” said Kevin, “Harry is still an arsehole.”
“I know,” said Wilbur, “but if it hadn’t been for you I would have….”
“Don’t say it, don’t even think it. We survived and look at them,” said Kevin.
“They think they are happy,” said Wilbur.
“Do they?” said Kevin, “it just seems to me, they have missed out on so much.”
“They have their memories,” said Wilbur as he looked over the gate at them, one last time, “They have their memories.”
It was true. The old scholars were busy reliving their memories…of the best years of their lives.