At the bell announcing lunch, I gathered up my schoolbag and hurried out of the classroom, down the hallway and through the doors outside to the open fields in the sunshine.
I was having another bad day at Avondale College.
I’d only been in New Zealand a month. I’d only been at Avondale College two weeks, but I was a miserable, lonely little schoolboy.
I didn’t want to speak to anybody or see anybody. I was sick of their taunts and insults. I was tired of being the foreigner they all laughed at. I wanted to be by myself. Finding a secluded place on the fields at the far side of the cricket pitch, I lay down in the grass, on my stomach, and tried to read.
I was reading a James Bond novel. I was reading them avidly at the time, having acquired all the cheap paperback editions I could find at the bookshop of the SS Oriana. They were ridiculously cheap, marked down to three-and-six and dumped into rotating wire racks which stood twirling in front of the ship’s little bookshop. What a wonderful pleasure to read the thrilling stories in the beautiful, sun filled lounge at the stern of the Oriana. I’d sit in an oversized chair with the sun streaming through the large windows and read for hours and hours. Now and then I’d look up from the book and admire the frothing wake the huge ship left behind.
It stretched all the way back to the horizon.
Bond, James Bond.
How very English on this very English ship. I’ve never met a book I didn’t like and there’s always time for reading, but sometimes one is lucky enough to come across the right books at the right time. The Bond books were perfect to pass the time on the voyage. From them I was gleaning a look into the world of travel and glamour and sex.
Things I've found interesting ever since.
They were first books I ever read that were spelled in English English, by the way. You know, tyre for tire, colour for color, that kind of thing. These little things gave them great sophistication in my eyes.
To a reader little things can mean a lot, but I suppose, you being a reader, you knew that already.
Today though, it was difficult to concentrate on the book as I kept reliving the events of the past two weeks. What a mess my life was in! Ever since arriving in New Zealand, things had gone wrong. At school I was laughed at by the students and punished by the teachers. At home I confused and infuriated my parents while my younger brother and sister thought I was going cuckoo.
I closed the book and lay there, feeling the warmth of the sun through my clothes and on the backs of my legs. (The silly school uniform sported short pants, which looked absolutely ridiculous on me, for I was a tall, gawky kind of kid.) I lay on my stomach and cradled my head in my arm, using the Bond paperback as a pillow. I could hear the other schoolboys at play kicking a ball, shouting in fun. Closer by, I could hear the wind droning through the oleanders at the field’s edges.
Lying on the warm earth, listening to the boys play and the wind drone while the sun was beating down on my back, I fell asleep in the soft grass.
“Hey! Wake up! You asleep?”
I opened my eyes. It was Hugh’s voice, coming from above. All I could see of him was a pair of black school shoes, just like mine, only scuffed and considerably smaller.
“The bell’s gone,” said he. “Didn’t you hear it? Bloody hell! You’d better get moving, mate, if you’re going to class.”
I scrambled to my feet. I was in a daze from the sleep and for a minute I didn’t know where I was, literally.
It had been a deep, black, dreamless sleep.
“Right,” I said more to myself than to Hugh. “New Zealand. School. Avondale College.”
“I’m not bothering with any more today,” bragged Hugh. “I’ve had enough of their crap!” He sniffed and rubbed at his nose, then pronounced, “I’m wagging school this afternoon!” I noticed he was smoking, a cigarette was dangling from the stubby, nail bitten fingers of his left hand. He raised it to his lips and puffed nervously.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me, too.”
Now, while I truly believed that I had been dealt a load of undeserved crap over the last two weeks, as Hugh had just said, when I said ‘yeah, me too’ I meant it only rhetorically. I wasn’t going to skip school. I had never skipped school in my life.
That was what bad boys did.
Bad boys also smoked and cursed and left it for others to take the blame.
That very morning I’d been caned for smoking in the toilets, when it had been Hugh who was smoking in there, not me. He’d handed me the cigarette while he tired his shoelaces, then he’d hidden under the sink when Mr Hamilton had suddenly appeared.
Mr Hamilton caught me in a room full of smoke with a cigarette in my hand, and I was caned for it.
Now Hugh had stopped to find out what kind of trouble he was in, if any. He’d probably stumbled upon me accidentally while crossing the playing fields on his way out. The selfish little so-and-so, I thought to myself, he couldn’t even show human compassion at the misery of others, meaning me and my misery of course, when he was the outright cause of that very misery!
Hugh was impressively self-centered, I thought with admiration. I’d never met anyone quite like him.
“Ah, I wanted to, ah, ask you how it went with Mr Hamilton,” he stammered. He gave me a worried look. “You know. You gettin’ the cane. Haha. You didn’t mention me, did you?”
“Your name never came up.”
“Really?” His face completely changed, now creased by a big smile. “That’s great!”
“Hugh, believe me, nothing I could have said would have availed me,” I said and I laughed as I said it. 'Nothing you can say will avail you now.' That was exactly what Mr Hamilton had said before he caned me.
I think the beginning of the dark, ironic side to my sense of humor was born that day.
“Bloody great, mate,” said Hugh, all smiles now. “I owe you one. Well, I’m off. Cheerio!”
Saying that, he turned and walked away, instantly forgetting that he owed anyone anything.