I’m never normally that bored in lessons, but today history is driving me insane. It’s so long, and I swear we’ve been sitting here for at least a few hours. There’s boredom gnawing right inside of me, a tiny creature intent on turning me mad, mad, mad. I want to rip my hair out or rake my nails down the desk or scream until my lungs burn: just anything to cut away at the nothing. The teacher's voice drones, drones, drones, on and on and on and he just won't shut up. Everyone around me is falling asleep on their desks, and some people are tapping their pencils on the backs of their chairs and making the most infuriating ticking sound.
I try and force myself to concentrate. There's only ten minutes left of Monday, so all I have to do is keep my eyes open and try and make a few notes, and that's all. Stay awake.
I run my fingers through my dark hair, and then rub my eyes and brush down my school trousers and shirt. Then I straighten my school tie - a mix of violet and white - and fold my collar neater and then check my watch.
Five minutes. Only five minutes. Five, long minutes. I look across the desks at Alistair, who happens to be sleeping on his hand with his mouth hanging slightly open. Raf and Seiji are sitting at the back engrossed in a conversation, with Cael leaning and whispering across to them from the other side of the classroom. With my newfound knowledge of basketball, I realise they're making training plans. Cael - in his desperation to tell Raf exactly what is on his mind - keeps elbowing the poor girl next to him in the face. I roll my eyes. He's so rude, all the time.
I check the clock. Two minutes.
Make notes. Eyes open. Stay awake.
Mr Roberts is shouting at Cael to turn around, and the green eyed boy ruefully responds, before quickly shouting one last thing to Raf about Sunday's swimming regime.
Alistair seems to have woken up, a lazy smile on his face as he realises he's slept away twenty five minutes of history and manages to have gotten away with it. His eyes meet mine, and I somehow just know he's checking that we're still going to the cafe this evening. I nod back at him, and he smiles again.
The clock says thirty seconds remaining, so I begin packing up. It doesn't look too rainy outside, so Alistair and I should be able to walk comfortably enough.
The bell rings, and suddenly everyone's eyes are wide open, sound erupting from forgotten conversations and chairs scraping the floor and bags slung carelessly on to shoulders. I wait until the main throng of people have left the classroom, and then I walk with Alistair out in to the corridor.
Raf, Seiji and Cael are all waiting outside, and I groan inwardly. They seriously better not imagine I will be walking with them, because they're all so annoying and I won't resign myself to a half hour of irritating, sporty chatter.
Raf claps me on the shoulder, "You haven't been at practice in a while," he says, a quick smile flashing across his lips and then disappearing as fast it came. "You're not backing out now, are you?"
I swallow, because Raf's eyes are so bright and cold and calculating, despite the light dusting of freckles across his cheekbones and friendly chuckle on his lips. "Of course not," I say coolly, and then turn away.
"Good," Seiji says, and I feel myself glare in his direction, because the broad shouldered boy always loves to uselessly comment on other people's conversations. He doesn't even know I'm shooting him a black look because he's too busy staring into space with wide eyes - probably going over a basketball match in his head, or something.
Cael grins wide, and I can't help but compare it to that of the Cheshire cat: toothy and too big for his face. His green eyes are always glittering, and there's something about his slim, angular frame that makes me think he might pounce at any time.
"So, you still haven't forgiven me yet?" Cael says quietly, half of his face still laughing and the other pulled down in a grimace.
I tighten my jaw, "No." I decide to just say what's on my mind, because, quite frankly, the situation can't get much worse, "Do you have to all walk with us?" I ask flatly, pulling Alistair beside me so the three of them can see exactly who 'us' is.
Raf laughs, "No. We're going the other way," he says, gesturing to the second school gates. "Look after Alistair, now."
"I will," I say, even though I have no idea why Raf would ask me that - and why on earth the three of them are all snickering behind their hands. I look over at Alistair, and he's chuckling too, a slight blush creeping across his face. I roll my eyes.
"Come on," I mutter, walking in our direction briskly.
“Why are you so gullible?” Alistair asks me, when we’re out of earshot. “You’re so funny when you talk to other people.” He’s got that same mischievous grin on his face that he sometimes has when he’s confident, and I want to physically wipe it away because I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it when Alistair looks like them, the ‘others’, because he isn’t so disgustingly annoying as them and he shouldn’t look like it if it isn’t true. He shouldn’t lower himself to their level when he’s quite obviously better than them. I hate it, and I hate them. And I wish Alistair would be the Alistair with the beautiful voice and the understanding eyes that are silver like droplet stars.
I wish I didn’t have to go to school. It makes me mad. The people aren’t like me, and I shouldn’t have to listen to them all day because we’re not the same. They’ve got loud voices and big mouths and huge grins that stretch their faces to pieces and they laugh all the time and they touch other people without permission in the corridors and in the classrooms, and I hate it so much when they pat me on the shoulder or clap me on the back and when they poke fun of me. I don’t get it. They’re laughing at me and I can’t understand it, and I hate the way their eyes always flicker with humour that doesn’t involve me – it’s just against me.
I want to go home. Curl up and hide away and stay with my family who won’t laugh but who’ll understand, and I don’t want Alistair to be with them because maybe he’ll end up like them too. Maybe he won’t like me anymore, and maybe he won’t be able to understand me and he’ll just think I’m obsessive like everyone else. I don’t have anyone, and when I find someone, I need to keep them close. Or they might leave.
My hands are shaking a little bit, and there’s a stabbing pain deep inside my chest. It digs deep, an ache, and it shivers right down my spine and my stomach is turning, churning, twisting around like I might be sick. And I feel nauseous, and I wish I could just go home.
“Hira,” Alistair is whispering, and I’m not sure why. We’ve stopped in the middle of the pavement and we’re alone, and his hand is resting, light as a feather, on my forearm. “I’m sorry.”
“Tell me you’re okay,” he says, still quiet. He moves around to face me, his eyes moving quickly, like he’s frightened. “You’re shaking. Hira, seriously, you’re scaring me.”
I close my eyes and step back. I can feel the sickness again, and it’s turning me inside out like I’m a puppet or something useless and pointless and helpless. I want to cry, but I can’t, because people don’t just cry for no reason. I can’t, because boys don’t cry and I’m not weak. There’s a pricking in the corner of my vision but I close my eyes so tightly that Alistair won’t notice.
He isn’t speaking, but I can hear his breathing. It’s sort of fast, and I can feel it – warm – on my neck, so he must be close.
I’m so scared, and I don’t think I can breathe. The pain’s still deep inside, ravaging, and it feels like it comes right from my heart and I hate that this is feeling. That this is emotion, and it has so much control over me. I need to block it all out and forget it: harden and freeze this heart that feels so, so much. It hurts.
My fists clench and I drop my head so my chin almost touches my chest. Forget it. Forget them.
And then, suddenly, I’m engulfed in warmth, like someone just threw a blanket over me and blocked the world out. My heart feels like it’s slowing down to just a careful thud, and the pain washes away like a tide just came and took it and never let it come back. I should be afraid, because Alistair’s body is pressed right against mine, and his arms are curled right around my back, holding me tight. He smells of soap and fresh air and rain, and his hair tickles my face.
My hands are still by my sides, but I press my face into the crook of his neck. And then, to my absolute horror and disgust, I begin to cry. Right on Alistair’s shoulder. The tears seem to overflow, like I’ve been holding them back for years and years. They’re hot and salty and they sting, and even though I hate them more than anything, it feels good to let go.
I don’t make a sound, but my back seems to heave, and my throat constricts like I’m drowning. I can’t stop, now. I have to keep going. And I kind of want to hold Alistair back, but I’m far too afraid. I’m afraid if I move my arms around him, he’ll truly realise how desperate I really am.
Then Alistair shifts a little, and for one horrific second I think he might be moving away, and leaving me standing alone with tears pouring down my stupid face. Instead, his hands drop down and curl around mine, and pull them around his back, so we’re actually hugging properly. He grips me so forcefully that I don’t think we could be any closer to each other, and I’m glad.
I don’t know why I have to say it, but I say it anyway. “Don’t leave me,” I whisper into his shoulder, fisting my hands into his school shirt until my knuckles turn white.
“I won’t,” Alistair replies quietly, and his voice sounds so strong against mine that it calms me. He’s strong, and he’s here for me, protecting me. He can’t leave, now. Not ever, ever. He has to stay for me because I need him. I need Alistair so much.
I realise I’ve stopped crying, but my face must be a disarray of scarlet and dried tears. I don’t want Alistair to see me like this, but we can’t stay in this position forever. He slackens his grip a little, and then roots in his pocket for a tissue.
“Here,” he says softly, and when I can’t get it because my hands won’t let go of his shirt, he brings his hand up to my face and wipes my eyes for me. It should be more awkward, because my head is still resting on his shoulder, but somehow Alistair makes it work out. The tissue stings my face a little, but I don’t say anything.
Alistair puts the tissue back in his pocket. “Do you want to move?”
I nod slightly, and he pulls away ever so slowly. Before he can look at me, I turn in the opposite direction and bring one of my hands up to my face to rub away at my red eyes.
“You gave me such a fright,” Alistair says, “I didn’t know what to do. You were breathing all funny and you looked so angry.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, half under my breathe. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No, no- It’s fine, I just- I didn’t know if you were going to be okay,” Alistair takes a step towards me. “You’re okay now, right?”
“Yes.” I feel my hands play with the bottom of my shirt, and I stop them, and put them by my sides. I half turn, but not far enough for it to look like I’m not avoiding Alistair’s gaze. “Don’t tell anyone about this.”
“Of course not. Are you- Are you sure you’re okay? Do you want to go home? I could stay at yours again and- And make sure you’re okay?” Alistair says, stumbling a little on his words.
I shake my head. “No. We still have to do our homework.”
“Are you sure?” Alistair says, leaning in a little to try and face me, even though he probably knows I’m too humiliated to even look at him.
“Yes,” I begin walking forwards briskly, taking in my surroundings to make sure we’re still going in the right direction to find the Café. We are, thank Goodness. I straighten my tie, shirt and blazer until I look vaguely presentable, and straighten my back so I’m not so hunched over.
Alistair walks beside me, and I can tell he’s sneaking glances at me. And they’re not for him to laugh at, or gossip at - he’s doing it to make sure I’m okay.
I smile at him. “I’m fine. Stop doing that.”
He blushes. “Oh, okay. You’ve never smiled at me like that before. Are we friends?”
“Probably,” I find myself saying. “But-“
“You still find me annoying, and I’m not your friend for nothing, and you don’t make friends easily so I should probably not lose your trust?”
I almost smile again. “Yes.”
“Okay,” Alistair laughs, a large smile on his face, “You know, when I hugged you, I was kind of worried you might push me off and hate me. But you didn’t, which was kind of surprising.” There’s a bit of wonder, or perhaps disbelief, in his eyes, and I want to brush it all away and tell him he did the best thing for me he could’ve. But I don’t, because I don’t think I can stand stooping any lower that I already have done today.
“Let’s stop talking about it,” I say, because I can feel embarrassment making my face hot again, and I don’t want to think about how pathetic I’ve just been for the past twenty minutes. I can’t even believe I did that. I don’t even know what came over me, I just… Forgot what was important, and I got distracted. And it won’t ever happen again.
“Okay,” Alistair’s smiling constantly now, and his eyes are so bright they kind of remind me of sunshine. “I really like this you.”
“The one that smiles at me. You have a really nice smile.”
I roll my eyes. “Stop it.”
“You do! You have the cutest-“
I flash him a dark look, and he stops talking, even though the sentence finishes off in both our heads anyway. We keep walking, and even though I’m self-conscious, there’s something more important between us. I don’t get it, but I can feel it. It’s intangible, but it’s beautiful, and I don’t want ever to break it. It means a lot.
“The Café is at the end of this street,” I say, nodding at the row of buildings just ahead. They’re small, tidy little shops: grey stone, with colourful bursts of flora on the window sills. The doors are all painted different colours like toy houses you might find in a children’s play set, and the little knockers and letter boxes are all shining silver.
The end has a large L I T T L E C A F E sign on it, and I remember the whole story behind the unoriginality of the name. The non-irritating boy in Year Six told me all about his father named the business, and the arguments and fighting behind choosing it. His Mum made a huge fuss over it, but it stuck anyway, and it does pretty well, for a tiny Café off the main streets. Quiet, but with a surprising amount of customers.
I push open the door, and it’s like there’s a wonderland of memories waiting me. We used to come here all the time so the boy and I could play together until our parents forced us apart, but going to different high schools separated us. We still see one another, but not nearly as often as we used to.
He’s behind the counter, a pink cupcake between his thumb and forefinger, and he’s licking away the icing with tedious precision. When he hears the little bell above the door ring, he raises his eyes slowly to greet us, a smile dawdling across his lips.
“Hira,” he puts the cupcake on the counter. “I wondered when you’d be visiting again.” There’s something almost posh about the way he speaks, almost old-fashioned, even though he isn’t exactly the most traditional of people.
I half-smile, “Cress,” I say, “This is Alistair.”
Cress lets his eyes roam over to Alistair, slightly lazy, but confident. “Hey,” he says, “Nice to meet you.”
Alistair looks a little bit uncomfortable, but he smiles in response anyway. “Hi.”
Cress drops to his feet from one of the high stools and walks around the counter. He’s very slightly taller than me, to my disappointment, but with Cress, I don’t really care. There’s something about him that makes you not really care about anything else.
Cress tightens the tiny ponytail at the back of his head which sticks right out, a wicked grin now resting on his face. He dyed his hair jade green - kind of teal, or deep turquoise - at the end of Year six to his parent’s and the school’s shock, and it blends in to his pale blue eyes like the ocean.
“I’m half running this shop now,” Cress says, “What do you think of this uniform?” He twirls a little, showing off the white apron and shirt. It looks smart, and kind of like one of those stereotypical butler outfits you see in old films.
I shrug. “Fine.”
Cress looks over at me. “More than fine. I’m quite dashing, really. What do you think, Alistair?”
Another voice appears from the back of the shop, and I recognise it as Nora’s – smooth and clean, like she polished all the words before she spoke them. “You look beautiful, Cress. Please stop annoying the customers.”
“They’re my friends,” Cress says back, picking up his rose-pink cupcake again. “Hira’s brought a boy called Alistair.”
Nora comes out of the kitchen, dressed just as smartly as Cress. She’s got a calm, sure smile and clever eyes, like she can look at you and just know you. “Hi. I’m Nora,” she says, and holds out a hand to Alistair, who shakes it.
She also tightens her ponytail – it’s not particularly long, but it just falls around her neck, and it is deep gold, or maybe bronze. She smiles assuredly, and points at the menu. “Is there something you’d like?”
“Coffee please,” I say, and lean against the counter. I like being here. It’s all coloured in white, with pale wood and tiny splashes of colour like the icing on the cakes and the flowers by the window.
Alistair asks for a coffee too, and sits on one of the stools. He’s looking around like he needs to take everything in, and I’m not surprised, because Cress and Nora are people who seem to be incredibly interesting, even though they run a tiny corner shop together and probably don’t even go out.
Cress is a whirlwind, and Nora is like one of those huge oak trees that can withstand any storm – in the best way possible.
Cress is looking at me, his eyes narrowed slightly like he’s making an assessment of what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks. I look back at him, and he looks a bit different too. His jaw is more pronounced and he’s taller, and he’s still really slim, but he’s completely left behind the scrawniness of his childhood. He’s wearing a bit of make-up, and although I have no idea what kind, it looks nice, like he knows what he’s doing. I think there’s some silver on his eyes that shimmers a little, but I can’t be sure.
“You’re looking handsome as always, Hira,” Cress says playfully. “I’m always so jealous of your eyes. They’re all violet and dark. So pretty.”
I sigh, and turn away from him. He’s so childish.
Alistair laughs with Cress, and then Cress leans over the counter so he’s resting his head in his hands right beside me. “I’m serious, Hira. You take your beauty for granted. It hurts people like me, who can only dream.”
I move away from him because he’s so close, and his jokes aren’t funny because we all know Cress knows he’s good-looking. No-one has the bravery to die their hair jade-green unless they know it’s going to look perfect, and Cress knows it does, of course.
Nora passes me a coffee in a small white cup on a saucer, the cream swirled into the hazelnut on the top. “You know, I think Cress is right. You look different from when we last saw you.”
“So do you,” I say, flatly. “We all do.”
Nora smiles, “You should come round more often. We miss you when you don’t visit us.” Her dark blue eyes are so truthful that I can’t question her, and that’s what I like about her. That’s why I trust her, because she doesn’t make jokes but she’s still interesting, and she’s so honest that you don’t have to second-guess her.
Cress nods at Alistair, “Where did you two meet?”
“Basketball,” Alistair begins, but I quickly jump in.
“It’s a long story,” I explain, because Nora and Cress both have their mouths hanging open at the thought of me being even slightly involved in basketball.
Nora raises an eyebrow. “Tell us everything.”
I take a deep breath. “Fine. We’re in the same class so we vaguely knew each other, and Alistair fancies this person called Timo on this basketball team, and he asked me to help bring them together because Timo was interesting and apparently similar to me. I went to the team’s school and watched the basketball and met Timo, who I hate, and then we got locked out of the school by ourselves, and there was a storm. Then he came to my house and sat on my knee because he’s afraid of horror films, and he also asked me to sleep with him. And we’re friends, now,” I finish, stirring my coffee vaguely. “But Alistair can’t face my Mum, because she thinks he’s my boyfriend.”
Cress nods. “I only have a few questions. When you say Alistair asked you to sleep with him, did he mean literally or-?”
Nora frowns, cutting in- “And did you?”
Alistair protests loudly. “I didn’t mean to sit on Hira’s knee, and as for the ‘sleeping together’ thing,” he stammers a bit, “I didn’t mean actually sleep together, and also I was a bit tired and dizzy so I didn’t know what I was talking about. And no, we didn’t-“
I sip my coffee, confused by Alistair’s obvious discomfort. He’s probably embarrassed.
Cress nods again. “Yeah,” He looks at Alistair. “Why are you blushing? Hira and me once spent the night in a girl’s bathroom accidentally, and had to sleep in the same cubicle.”
Alistair splutters, spraying coffee all over the counter. He brings his hand to his mouth. “How on earth did that happen?”
Nora rolls her eyes. “That’s an even longer story.”
I smile again.