When I was a kid I had my first near death experience. It was a Thursday, the clocks had just gone back. It was cross country club after school so by the time I left it was already dark, and cold. It was year 9 and I had just turned fourteen, the age where even your teachers look sexy, there was a rumour that Ms Hills had had sex with one of the sixth formers on the school ski trip which turned double Maths into an hour and twenty minutes of adjusting my trousers. She had been wearing this perfume that smelt like honeysuckle and her skin was soft and sweet (I imagined). Henry Jennings had asked for help with something easy like a quadratic equation and she had bent over to help him, leaning her arm on my desk, her hair brushed against my hand. I wanted to make a nest in it.
I was still warm from cross country when I left but by the time I got to the foot of the hill I was acutely aware of the nip in the air. My blazer was made of polyester and was too thin, the cold breeze rattled through the sleeves like a fan and I remembered that I’d left my winter coat on the peg in the changing room. It was ten to five so it was unlikely I’d catch the five oh five train even if I pegged it, and the bollocking I’d get from mum for leaving my coat behind was worse than the bollocking I’d get for making her wait at the station for half an hour, so I turned around and trudged back up the hill. The wind was blowing in my face from this direction and it made my eyes sting and my nose run. I walked back past the hedgerow that concealed the smokers’ hole and the small white buds in the leaves made me think of Ms Hills perfume again.
By the time I had got back to the school gates the light in the reception building had gone off. The gates were at least seven feet high and made of iron that had been wrought into straight lines that pointed up like arrows, then curved to the left and right to make an arch. The paint was black and beginning to flake off. The quickest way to the changing rooms was through the main hall but I could see from the yellow porchlight that the large oak door had been shut, so I had to walk round through the car park. This was normally off limits during break and lunch, alien territory, once I had followed it round the building to the end of the maths corridor I got lost. I thought it would take me to the gym and the tennis courts but it just took me to a dark and empty car park.
The car park was for teachers only and we’d only ever get to see it when our parents would come in for parents’ evenings. My parents were always obsessed with getting a good parking spot so we’d always arrive dead early and get one near the maths corridor. I’d therefore never been round to the overflow area so it took me a few seconds to get my bearings. If the maths corridor had ended what came next…? I could only remember the changing room on my mental map – I had forgotten about the staff room.
I only once saw the interior of the staff room when I’d been in year seven and Matt Boyd had broken my arm in rugby practice. It was so embarrassing, he was one of the weediest kids in our year and he’d mangled my left arm into right angles. It was (of course) my own fault for trying to break my fall when he tackled me, but who in their right mind would let themselves fall face first without trying to cushion the blow? My arm was proper broken, it looked like I’d grown a new elbow between my old elbow and my wrist, so Mr Smith had paused the PE lesson and rushed me to the staff room. I remember it didn’t hurt but just weirdly tingled, the doctor later told my parents it was because the bones were rubbing against my nerves. Nerves are long stringy sinews of impulses that run through your body and my broken bones were trying to play them like a violin. I’d ended up sitting in one of the assembly chairs, holding my arm in front of me like I was halting traffic, while Mrs Baker had tried not to throw up looking at it. Seriously, it was a total mess. Apparently I was lucky the bones hadn’t come out through the skin.
After a few seconds peering into the darkness I remembered about the staffroom and the detention room annexed onto it, and realised I had to loop round and round again to get to the changing room exit. I had no idea what the detention room looked like, I only ever got one After-School and that was a year or so after the events of this particular evening, so it made sense how I’d forgotten about that. Once I made it round to the changing room exit I was careful to pick my way across the metal grill that you were supposed to scuff your boots on. Large clods of turf were stuck to it and I could do without an additional bollocking for scuffing up my school shoes, I’d only had them since a few days before term and they needed to last, I wrecked the last pair by playing football in them. I was at that awkward age where I’d started going through growth spurts and my mum was still working as a cleaner and my Dad down the window factory, so they’d wait until the last moment to buy my uniform in case I grew out of it. They’d make the worst fuss when I needed new shirts or trousers, like it was my fault for growing so quickly, but it was because they were strapped for cash after my sister’s school trip to Ghana. As a teenager with growing pains I stuck it on my list of mouldering resentments. As an adult with hindsight I feel guilty.
By the time I’d picked my way across the muddy sluice, got the coat, retraced my steps through the deserted car park and made it back to the school gates I spotted three hard kids coming up the hill towards me. Even though the wind was blowing away from them I could smell the Lynx Africa and wet effect hair gel from here. I immediately one-strapped my oversized rucksack, holding my gym kit in the opposite hand to offset the weight, and set my steeliest look on my face. As I got closer I recognised them as Fat Matt Cooper, Jacko and that gangly ginger git that always hung around with them. Fat Matt lived on the estate in town and our parents had once been friends. When we were growing up I’d even gone round his house (according to Mum) and we’d borrowed each other’s Thomas the Tank engine toys, though I doubt that shared memory would save me from a beating if he was in the mood to dole one out; it’d probably just make things worse. He’d stopped getting invited to my birthday parties when he’d done a shit in the pool on my seventh or eighth, most of the kids had found it hilarious but I thought it was gross, Mum did too. Probably another memory to keep to myself.