Read Frozen Online

Authors: Richard Burke

Frozen (20 page)

Whatever it was, it sounded nice. And I slept around the cooling empty shape where she had been.

CHAPTER 20

SHE DIDN'T WANT to see me any more.

She had driven away rather than even be near me for the remains of the holiday. She hated me. It was obvious. She had been playing with me all along, using me. And now her classroom would be next to mine, she would be in the playground at break, in the corridors, at the tables during lunch. The last few days of the summer holiday were a miserable blur. Then the day came.

I was dragged from bed by an alarm clock, for the first time in months—and then by my mother, when I dozed off again. She was busy and anxious, rushing around with breakfast and bits of uniform, fussing at me when she saw my top button undone, yanking at my tie, tugging at my hair. In the end I yelled at her to stop it and sulked upstairs to get my books. When I came down, her eyes were smoky and she would not look at me. She gave me one last head-to-toe fuss-over and let me go, sniffing busily.

I have only realised as an adult—since Verity's fall, to be honest—that I was the centre of Mum's small world for all those years. What else did she have? There were old friends, of course; colleagues from the hospital used to visit for a while, but Mum's hospitality was now bereft of the frills and graces of north Oxford living. New friends came and went—girls from the pub where she worked after the Prof retired, even one or two of the regulars who propped up the bar. There was a trickle of strangers through our lives, but when each had gone, it was me who remained with Mum, listening through long evenings to the creaks and echoes of the house. The shadow of Dad was always there. Mum had moved the furniture, repainted the walls, scrubbed floors, but the imprint of him remained. His tools stayed in the shed, his camera in the loft. And I stayed too, because who else did Mum have? But, to my shame, I could hardly bear to be near her.

So, until the start of that autumn term, going back to school had always been a relief. Compared to home, school was easy and familiar: friends, gangs, flirts and feuds and grudges. Comfortable patterns, all of them.

But this term would be different. This term, Verity would be there.

In the two weeks between kissing her and the start of term, I went from longing to see her to dreading it. I had thought the kiss was real and the slap just a game. Now I knew better. Her laughter, I was sure, had been contempt. I was humiliated. She would be at the school gates with a crowd of friends, laughing, pointing, mocking me. (I knew that in reality she would be alone, that she knew no one in the village—but fear does strange things to your imagination.) I scuffed and slouched, delaying each step as long as I could. But the moment came; I couldn't avoid it.

And when I got to school, it wasn't Verity who betrayed me. It was Adam.

*

It was Oba who cast the first word. But they were all primed, with knowledge that only Adam could have given them.

“Harry's in
lurve
,” Oba sneered.

The others giggled, so Oba giggled too. Adam stayed well back, prowling the fringes of the group, smiling and simultaneously managing to look like it was not his idea. But I knew, and it hurt. Encouraged by the laughter, Oba carried on.

“Oh,
Harree
,” he warbled. “Do you
lurve
me, Harry?” He pretended to twirl a non-existent lock of long hair, and pouted. “Do ya, Harry? Do ya, baby?”

The gang held no fear for me anymore, not since I had knocked over Greg. The key was not to show pain.

I blew Oba a big fruity kiss and walked past, my neck burning. I heard laughter behind me, except from Oba, of course, who yelled something about how very funny it fuckin' wasn't, and ha fuckin' ha.

I waited for school to begin, alone. There was a lot of hunching around in groups in the playground and corridors, kids casually aligning with the circles of their choice, eyeing up other groups, shifting between them, the usual. The first-years had mostly gone in to claim desks and organise their new universe. They sat neatly, arranging the contents of their pencil-cases, casting nervous glances and smiles.

While the other year-two children gossiped in the corridors, renewing old friendships, one girl sat alone in the front of the classroom. I saw her through the window. Wounded brown eyes, small high breasts, pencil case unopened, pigeon-toed and self-contained. Her face was blank, her eyes wide and full of thought. I leaned against the window, shading my hand to see in. She didn't turn. I scurried away in an uneasy mixture of misery and relief.

I stared at my desk all morning. Ink stains seeped along the grain of the wood. Sharp letters, scratched with keys and compasses—“So-And-So Is A Git,” “I Hate Maths”... if I put a pencil along the groove where the desk hinged open, and tapped the desk leg, the pencil would roll all the way down the desk and into my lap. Again. Again. She had looked so vulnerable. She was alone. She would be picked on, teased, newcomers always were.

Poor Verity.

She doesn't want to see you, Harry.

Poor Harry.

I didn't see Adam again until morning break. He had changed too. No, that's unfair; he hadn't changed, but another part of him had come to the fore. He was confident and sure of himself. He had friends. They were mostly the bully gang that had once made my life a misery—and his. I knew them all: Wayne Smith; Dave Oliphant; Obafemi Olukojo (Oba, the school's only black kid—and huge, so no one picked on him, ever); Greg Winston, the leader. The gang was all right. I had fun with them occasionally. I had never enjoyed the collective bravado, or the teasing and bullying, but I had loved the madness of being spurred on to do something that you would never have dreamed of doing alone—and the crowing afterwards, the sharing.

Today I stood apart, against a wall, alone, and watched the playground's games. Adam split quietly away from the group. He came over and leaned against the wall next to me. “Didn't mean it, Harry. Sorry.”

I didn't answer. Why the hell should I?

“Want to come out after school?” he pressed. “We're going down the canal.”

I looked along the playground's length. At the other end, groups of first and second years were playing, neatly divided up into boys and girls. The boys had a football and were kicking it against a wall; the girls were playing tag. And one pigeon-toed girl sat against a bench in the shelter of the school entrance, neat white socks and skinny bare legs, mouse hair, wise eyes looking nowhere. I looked at Adam. He glanced away, embarrassed, and idly kicked at the wall.

“Yeah, all right,” I said.

He nodded, and moved back to join the group. They had stolen a ball from the new boys and were kicking it around, shoving the youngsters out of the way.

Through a whirl of children, at the very far end of the playground, I saw her in glimpses: her bony knees, her solemn face, her reddened eyes. And I wanted the summer not to have happened, and I wanted to touch her all over again. I knew what Oba and the gang would say if I went over to her. I couldn't even shove myself upright from the wall where I leaned. She caught my eye and held it—and the yards between us stretched into miles.

Eventually the bell went, and lessons began again.

*

After school, I wandered into the playground looking for her. She wasn't there. A big arm draped itself over my shoulder and Greg leaned his full weight on to me. “Coming, then?” He mock-punched my ribs.

Oba skipped backwards in front of us. “Takin' our bikes. Jump the swing-bridge. Smoke some fags an' stuff.”

The swing-bridge idea appealed, but not the smoking. I'd always had this problem with Greg and Oba's gang. They did fun things and stupid things in equal measure, but if you didn't do it all you were mocked. Well, so be it. They had mocked me earlier and I had survived. In fact, from a few hours' distance, it seemed like a kind of acceptance ritual, as though they had been testing me after a summer of non-acquaintance. The teasing had been over in moments, and Greg's arm over my shoulder told me that nothing had been meant. Adam would be harder to forgive. He had betrayed me, and no amount of denial by him could alter the hurt they had all seen in my eyes.

In my memory, all this seems so petty. Somewhere, probably within weeks, Adam was forgiven and the event forgotten. In fact, Greg's gang brought us closer. We often sat for hours together after the others had moved on. We were both quieter than they were, more introspective. And both of us had nothing much to go home to. We sat out in the evenings, watching the days grow shorter and the stars appear, cold, bright and uncaring.

“Dad smacked Mum around again last night,” he'd say, and I would say nothing. (He never talked about his own bruises—so obvious from how he moved, and sometimes visible on his face. No one else talked about them either.) Or I would say, “Mum's got that bastard Mark in tonight. I hate him.” And in his turn Adam would say nothing.

*

Verity slowly came out of herself, too. She made new friends. She played, laughed, became a new version of the mad Verity I had once known. But now I watched at a distance. If I came close when she was with her gang, she'd joke and flirt; they all would, all at once, calling out suggestions, giggling, pouting and blowing kisses. They did it to half the boys in the school; I was nothing special. If I tried to come closer or talk to her, they would all run off twittering.

Her clothes changed too. She wore her uniform as raggedly as the rest of them, tie undone and pleated grey skirt too short. Buttons gaped open down her blouse. Her hair grew long and tangled. She swanked in front of the boys, and they all stared at her with an anticipation she never fulfilled.

She played at the other girls' houses, never at home. Her garden was always empty, her house quiet. At night I would stand by the apple tree and stare over the tall hedge at the light in her window. I rarely even saw a shadow pass across it. I hugged the tree—pressed against its sharp, cold bark until my face went numb and my socks and trousers were drenched with dew or frost—and still nothing would stir.

Sometimes the serious Verity came to school, and she would sit on the bench by the entrance, knees tight together, toes and eyes pointing inwards. One day I went and sat next to her—and she let me. I didn't dare say a thing. When the bell rang, we got up wordlessly and went to our separate classes.

It became our custom. We would sit there while the others all had lunch, her gang and mine safely occupied. We said nothing for weeks. Eventually I found the courage for words.

“Why?” I asked.

The air was sharp and clear. Withered leaves gathered in drifts in the corners of the playground. She wrapped her arms and rocked forwards on the bench. Her bare knees were blotched with cold. She said nothing.

“What was it, though, Verity?” I urged. “What did I do?”

She stood suddenly and strode away, her schoolbooks clutched across her chest.

But the next day she was back, and we sat again side by side. I noted the passing of each dry leaf.

After school she would change again. She rushed out of class with her friends, chattering and whirling and laughing. They gathered round her and I would half hear as she laid out some plan; and then they would be gone.

I only spoke to her one other time on the bench, and that destroyed what little we now had.

*

As with everything else, it began with the treehouse.

Greg was bored with the swing-bridges. He was bored with the humps that led down to Port Meadow. He was bored with the old cement works. He was bored, and that meant we all were—because what Greg said went. We all sat on a low wall along one side of the playground after school, bored and cold and not saying much, because whenever one of us suggested something, Greg laid into them.

“Oh, that's a bloody
great
idea,” he'd snarl. Then, usually, he'd throw something at you.

When Jules Waters—younger than the rest of us, a hanger-on—suggested bike races down the ramps in the multi-storey car park in town, Oba chased him and threw him against a gatepost in an unenthusiastic way. That was the last suggestion anyone made. Until Adam spoke up. “I know somewhere,” he said lazily. He wouldn't look at me.

Greg heaved himself off the top bar of the climbing-frame and stood in front of him, threatening, waiting.

Adam was unconcerned. “Somewhere new,” he said. “But only if you've got the guts.”

I tried to catch his eye, but the game was already lost.

“Better tell us, then, hadn't you?” growled Greg. He weighed his fist in front of Adam's face.

“Wytham Woods,” Adam said.

“Ain't that fenced in?” Oba protested.

Adam shrugged. “Told you you wouldn't have the guts.”

“What's in there, then?” Greg asked.

“Come and find out,” Adam said. And he grinned. He dared to look at me—and now the flush was no longer from embarrassment; it was from triumph.

Verity and her gang were by the school gates. I don't remember what they were doing—hopscotch or something. Oba saw them first, and swung his bike round in a skid—he'd been practising it for weeks.

“Going down the woods, girls. Wytham Woods.” He leered at them. “Nice and quiet, know what I mean? Wanna come along, have some fun—like,
real
fun?”

He ground his hips on the bike's crossbar and pursed his lips in mock-ecstasy. The gang laughed—except me. The girls jeered and giggled—except Verity. She looked at me, full of shock and hurt. There was a kind of horror on her face that I can't quite pin down, even now. It wasn't an accusation, it was... I don't know. Loneliness, perhaps. I had wounded her, and there was nothing I could do about it.

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