Two boys hold me in place, one on each arm bracing to keep me rigid. The other boy squares up in front of me, shouting taunts in my face. They’re laughing. They find it funny, these boys my own age. It’s entertainment to tease and mock the fat kid. The one who can’t run, who doesn’t know how to play football, who isn’t interested in same things they are - whatever they are. I never could properly connect with the enthusiasms of everyone else. At school I appeared stupid, easily distracted by the worlds inside my head, uninterested in the chalk marks on the board or the equasions and formula in the text book, illustrated to make learning engaging, I find myself being dismissive of the poor quality cartoons. Hardly the point.
Wham. The first punch connects with my stomach, the air floods out of my lungs and I feel tears prick against the edges of my eyes. I don’t want to cry, I don’t want to give them the satisfaction, but it is anger and frustration as much as pain. I don’t want to be fat. I don’t want to know who is playing up front for Aston Villa. I don’t want to be hit again. I don’t want to come to school. I’m not even sure I want to be normal.
I’m not stupid but school is boring. I am completely disengaged from what is happening around me and I tend to be lumped with other boys who look blank when asked a question, but aren’t cool enough to overtly play it up. I prefer looking out the window, letting the grassy slope up to the playing field transform before my imagination’s eye into something else, somewhere else. A gangplank to a pirate’s ship, so clear I can smell the seaweed hanging from the chain holding it in moor, like salty dreams. The base of shuttle launch site, bellows of steam rising, the heat so intense there’s a prickle of sweat in the small of my back even in the dead of winter. Somewhere, anywhere so long as it is away.
Back at the ends of the playing field there’s another taunt about who knows what. The hate feels real enough as though everyone that age must loath something even if there’s no real reason. At what age do we start to understand and tolerate difference? Why do we expect conformity? I don’t know, but these boys think they do. I’m superficially the same as them, but there are things which don’t quite match and that makes me ripe for punishment.
So I flex. I plant my feet firmly on the ground and tense my muscles. With a sudden surge of strength I throw off those holding me. A solid roundhouse fells the ringleader and his sidekicks are finished off with some swift punches. I am triumphant.
Of course, that doesn’t happen. That only happens in comics and TV shows, where the bullied are miraculously able to vanquish the bullies. Everyone always says that a bully is a coward. If you stand up to them or hit them back they run. In my experience that doesn’t happen. The bully hits you harder. And then his friends join in and you find yourself in this sort of situation.
Another punch to side of my head leaves my hearing rattling. My cheeks are wet and flushed now. The indignity makes me wince even twenty-five years in the future. The one boy holding me breathes heavily, as though prepubescently aroused. It’s odd what people find normal.
The ringleader lifts my chin up to swear in my face some more. I haven’t completely given up though and close as he is I manage to hoik a fat green globule of spit square into his eyes. I try to follow up with a kick to the testicles. I miss and only catch his thigh, not hard enough to do any real harm. I’m too held in place to get any weight behind it.
‘You are fucking dead,’ he snarls wiping the snotty spit from his eyes. I know he means it but the disgust on his face as he looks at the mess left in his hand gives me a faint dose of joy and I smile. Just a little bit.
His henchmen let go and the three of them lay into me. I get a few blows out, but it’s largely ineffectual. Only larger than life, comic-book heroes can beat more than one man at a time. For rolly-polly weaklings, there’s no hope. It doesn’t take long for me to be on the floor and the punches continue, but I curl up and cover my head, resigned to the end. Their target no longer fighting back, they lose interest. There is only fun to be had in the failing to escape, the pathetic nature of the counter-struggle. They stop. I glance up just in time to see the heal of the shoe coming straight in to my face.
I lie on the sunburnt grass as their cackling laughter disappears into the distance. Most of me hurts, but that’s nothing new. I rewind the scene in my head and I play it out again, only this time, again, I get a lucky blow in. In my imagination, I find myself pinning the ringleader down my knees into his shoulders and I punch him again and again in the face until the skin on my knuckles cracks and my own blood mixes with the pulped mess under my hands. Violence begates violence, but I am young and I hurt. I deserve revenge, don’t I?
The sun is warm and slides across me as I lie there, it offers a warm respite, and suggests that maybe the world isn’t so bad after all. Maybe there’s hope.
Slowly I get to my feet. Nothing seems too badly damaged. I touch my face. It is sore, but I don’t appear to be bleeding. I start to walk home, home where I can lose myself in a book, drift into another world, another life, before coming back to this one again, tomorrow, when it will all be the same once more.