Shrubs

Shrubs

A Story by Raef C. Boylan

(11:04)

 

I skidded down the last few feet of the dirt slope, dived through the overgrown entrance to ‘the Shrubs’ and encountered a living example of parental optimism: ‘Kylie’. Kylie Trent, hunched up over her knees in my corner, her short skirt riding up so that I got my first look at a girl’s thighs and underwear. They were light blue - her pants, not her thighs. Kylie wasn’t supposed to be here, I barely knew her. My big plans for the afternoon started to evaporate; The Catcher in the Rye, waiting for me in my school bag, might as well have been on another planet for all the enjoyment I was likely to get out of it now. I could feel a ball of anger start to expand in my chest. She hadn’t even noticed me because her stupid hair was hanging in her face.

Although I could have escaped without any hassle, there was nowhere else for me to go. Retreating a few paces, I perched on the edge of a concrete, rectangular flower-bed that contained more cigarette filters than plant life. Once intended as a picturesque communal eating-area behind the Art and Design block, ‘the Shrubs’ had since become a large, barren crater hidden by a dense network of shrubbery and tangled weeds; an afterlife for broken school chairs and faded crisp packets.

Kylie must have sensed the motion, because her head snapped up. “What?”

I didn’t get what ‘what’ meant. “Um, nothing,” I said. “Hi?”

“Piss off.”

I couldn’t believe Kylie Trent was glowering at me and telling me to piss off. It opened my eyes to exactly how far down I was in the school hierarchy. Kylie was Year Eight’s punching-bag. Kids could recite the litany of sexual services she’d allegedly perform for a cigarette better than they could their times tables. No one sat next to Kylie voluntarily, and if a teacher forced you to: Urrrghhhh! You fancy her! You’ve shagged her! Your kids will all be mingers! That’s bestiality, man! Woof! You’ll get AIDS and die! She’s an ugly, diseased slag and anyone who walks near her sans abusive comment and throwing something at her head must also have something wrong with them!

You get the picture. Like that, only less articulate.

I probably would have obediently pissed off, dogged closely by shame, if Edward Brown hadn’t suddenly swung into sight, dangling from the flexible branches of the sprawling trees that shaded the Shrubs. “Yes, B, nice one fam. Wagging footie again!” he yelled, and dropped to the ground. Classic Ed Brown entrance: a little surreal. Scrambling agilely to his feet, he saw Kylie. “Whoa, what’s going on? This a party?”

For a second I envied his loud, liberated attitude and how he didn’t even bother to brush the mud off himself - then I registered his shabby school trousers, hovering a good inch of flesh above the socks. Ed knew one more layer of dirt wouldn’t make a difference to anything.

“Alright, B?” said Ed.

“Um, why’d you call him Bee when his name’s Gareth?” Kylie asked pointedly.

“No one else calls him Gareth, do they?”

“Nah, they call him Buddha - ”

“Well then. F**k’s sake.”

I’d always assumed ‘B’ to be Ed’s abbreviated form of brother, the new ‘bro’. Kylie had shattered two illusions for me in the same number of minutes. Crestfallen, I stared across the small plain of cigarette butts and litter and locked my vision upon the surrounding bushes. Coca Cola, the international symbol of good times, winked at me in the overcast sunlight.

Enclosed within the trees and bushes, like a picnicking family protected by windbreakers, ours was a strange and fragile fellowship. ‘The Shrubs’ was our refuge from whistles, changing-room stares, endless, pointless laps and the deliberate bite of football studs into shins. During breaks and before school started, this sanctuary turned traitor and became off-limits; instead, it was an assembly-point for small crowds of hard kids, where they could pass time smoking and groping until the bell clamoured for them to get to class.

 

It was the third Tuesday in a row that I’d skipped PE.

 

 

 

(11: 09)

 

“Tur - Ed, can I have a f*g?” Kylie asked.

I watched Edward watching Kylie, wariness chiselled into his face by experience.

 “Not got many left.”

“Not even twos? Go on, please.”

 “Alright, twos,” he said gruffly.

This was an historic moment.

No matter how desperate a smoker might be, unwritten law of the jungle dictated that your lips must never touch the same object that “T**d” Brown’s had. Even if you went first, or simply snatched one from his packet, that cigarette was still classed as T**d’s property and therefore contaminated. Ed didn’t smell of s**t (I’d testify to that, it was all just an urban myth that had followed him from primary school and spiralled out of control) but he seemed to have a personalised odour. Living in the kind of house where only the empty shell of a washing machine existed, stripped down and tossed out onto the front lawn to rot amongst crumpled lager cans and the plastic limbs of amputated toys, he couldn’t help it.

Silence descended over us. Ed sat and smoked, his sprawling pose exuding a tough confidence that was sadly belied by his day spent dodging fists and kicks. Kylie, occasionally flicking rebellious strands of hair from her face with a practised toss of the head, was focused on the fast-diminishing cigarette between Ed’s fingers.

I wanted to cry. How had I, Gareth Berry, washed up at the age of twelve as ‘Buddha Belly’ - a miserable lump who spent his mornings hiding in the bushes with society’s other rejects? It was over for us, life. I knew it. Every time I looked at the other two, the future leapt out at me. Ed would become an alcoholic waster; Kylie a love-starved, suicidal teen-pregnancy statistic. I would die alone in my thirties from some obesity-related disease, probably with half a Big Mac clutched to my flabby chest.

From somewhere far off, we heard our childhoods play on in our absence: laughter, enthusiasm, teams. I spared a thought for the poor moron currently taking my place as the last to be picked, staring shamefacedly down at the grass, shifting from one foot to the other. Glancing at Kylie, I wondered if she ever did the same.

As if he’d read my mind, Ed saluted me with his smoking hand and said, “Cheer up, B. Best years of your life, mate.”

Involuntary laughter snorted out of me.

Suddenly, Ed pitched the cigarette and stamped on it.

“Aw, Ed, you’re well out of order!” said Kylie.

“F*****g hide. Someone’s coming,” he hissed.

My stomach flipped over like a lively pancake. To get caught wagging lessons in ‘the Shrubs’ by a teacher guaranteed you a detention and possibly a letter sent home, and I figured being found in ‘the Shrubs’ by anybody else would result in getting battered.  Ed and Kylie were already ducking behind the cluster of dense hedges at the far end of ‘the Shrubs’; grabbing my bag, I plunged after them, silently thanking whoever designed the school for including it. The blood was pounding in my ears like a war drum and I couldn’t stop panting; the tension cut into me deeper than the over-stretched waistband of my briefs. We stayed crouched behind the partition for about three minutes (although it felt more like twenty) and then Kylie suddenly stood up and said, “F**k this. No one’s coming.”

Ed scrambled to his feet too. “Alright, chill out. Could have been someone.” He bent down to retrieve his discarded cigarette and examined the squished mess of tobacco sadly, then held it out to Kylie with a grin. “You still want this?”

“Piss off, T**d.”

Something had changed. Potential danger had got our adrenaline flowing and it had swept through our fragile group, flushing us out as three separate, miserable islands.

“What’s up, B? You look proper depressed.”

Yeah well, I am, I thought. Take a look around at where we are and see if you feel like dancing a merry f*****g jig.

“Just thinking,” I said.

“You wanna pack that in, mate. Dirty habit.”

I flashed Ed the expected weak smile. Had we been friends, I’d have attempted to keep the banter going - but we weren’t friends, merely people flung together by pathetic circumstance. The other two now lapsed into a contemplative silence, as if this knowledge had simultaneously dawned on all three of us. The only sound was the grainy scratching of metal against plastic, as Ed traced swearwords onto the back of a three-legged chair with the edge of his lighter.

 

(11: 22)

 

Profoundly uncomfortable, I unzipped my bag and fished around inside without looking, faking nonchalance while keeping my eyes fixed on the mounds of cigarette filters strewn across the ground, some embedded in the mud like archaeological relics. Catcher in the Rye was suddenly forgotten as my fingers alighted upon a spiral-bound notebook that didn’t belong to me. I pulled it out, hoping that it might provide the three of us with a distraction.

Looking back I’m not sure why I had bothered picking it up in the first place: a scuffed, anonymous notebook lying in the middle of the busy corridor. Predictably, halting in the midst of predators, I got my hand trodden on and some comedian booted me in the arse while I was bent over. Yet I’d clutched it to my torso triumphantly and shuffled away, stuffing it into my bag as I ducked casually out of the building and headed for ‘the Shrubs’. Now, holding it almost solemnly in both hands, I scanned the front and back covers for clues as to whom it belonged to, but they were devoid of the mandatory doodles and heart-enclosed initials.

“What’s that, Gareth?”

Ed had taken no notice of me, still engrossed in decorating the brown plastic with obscenities, but Kylie - standing awkwardly to one side with shoulders hunched and arms folded across her infamous chest - was desperate to take the edge off our silence.

“It’s just a notebook I found in the Science block,” I said.

“What, someone’s homework?”

I shrugged. “Dunno. Haven’t looked yet, have I?”

Kylie nodded glumly and turned away, accustomed to her participation being unwelcome. I inwardly cursed my feeble communication skills; to hurt Kylie’s feelings felt akin to breaking an unwritten code, as if I’d brought the outside world into ‘the Shrubs’ with me. I hadn’t realised until that moment just how carefully Ed and I tended to step around each other’s fragile egos.

Clearing my throat, I asked, “Do you want to have a look with me?”

She answered in the affirmative by taking a few steps closer. I held the book at an angle so that we could both see the front cover. Kylie glanced from my face to the notebook and back at me again.

“You gonna open it then?”

“Yeah but…it’s probably just homework like you said, and that’s boring. So we chuck it in the bushes: Game Over, forty minutes left to kill. That’d be crap.”

“So?”

“So we have to make it last a bit. Like at Christmas when you don’t open a present straight away because you want to take a guess first.”

Ed looked up from his project. “Like when you want it to be an X-Box but it turns out to be a second-hand Hungry, Hungry Hippos, with all the little white balls missing, so they’re always hungry?”

“Yeah, except the opposite of that. So, OK, this is probably just homework but…it might be…Leanne Bridge’s diary.”

Leanne Bridge was a b***h. She and her elitist group of friends went out of their way to humiliate Kylie on a daily basis. A few days previous I’d seen them follow her all the way down to the school gates, barking like dogs and sprinkling things in her hair - pushing and shoving Kylie whenever she stopped walking in the vain hope that they’d go on ahead. They were probably the main reason why she hated PE so much. I could easily imagine thirty girls following Leanne’s lead; taunting Kylie as she tried to get changed, hiding her things, spitting on her. A session of netball wasn’t worth going through that even once, never mind two times every week.

Ed and I glanced at Kylie but she didn’t seem to grasp the potential significance.

“What?”

“It’s a game, yeah? If B had that evil f****r’s diary in his hands…her diary, yeah? We’d know what lads she fancies, the times she’s fingered herself, everything she doesn’t want people to know about…”

“Oh. OK, I get it. Soz. We could blackmail her or something.”

Kylie’s dull tone was a lesson in anti-climax. However wrong it might be to feel angry with a dim, miserable girl who was a moving target from the minute she woke up, I was a bit pissed off.

“Never mind, forget it.” I opened the zipper of my bag to push the notebook back inside.

“Aww, aww, give it here! B, give it us!”

I handed the notebook to Ed, puzzled by his sudden excitement. He gripped it tensely in both hands. “Dear diary, my name is Dan Miller and I think…I think I’m gay!”

We cracked up as soon as he’d spluttered the final, all-mighty G-word. Daniel Miller was one of the more aggressive tormentors from my tutor group. It had been he who compared me to a statue of Buddha in the RE textbook, effectively wiping out my real name.

Ed shoved the notebook back into my own hands.

“Er…OK, the reason I think I must be gay is because…”

Struggling, I only needed to glance at Ed’s eager expression to gain momentum. Dan had recently discovered a new hobby: repeatedly stabbing people’s backs and arms with his compass. Ed sat in front of him for both French and Maths.

“…because I can’t stop thinking about Mr. Houghton naked!”

Result. Ed hooted loudly and collapsed backwards, laughing so hard he got tears in his eyes; Kylie was giggling; my cheeks were aching like they were going to split. I hadn’t felt this good during school hours in a long time. The possibilities of this game were endless; pretty much everyone in Year Eight had screwed us over at one point or another, which meant we could exact individual revenge upon around a hundred and thirty kids.

“Give it us!”

I passed Kylie the notebook, which she promptly flipped open. Ed and I exchanged aghast faces. “Kylie! For f**k’s sake...”

“Go on then, what does it say?” I asked her.

“Nothing. It’s empty. What yuz on about, diaries and all that?”

Ed sprang to his feet and we both rushed to book-end Kylie, peering at the alleged diary as she flipped through a couple of pages.

“She’s right, nothing in it,” I sighed.

“Told you. What you want to check for? I ain’t that thick, I know what letters look like. Pricks!” She thrust the notebook in my direction and stomped a few feet away.

“What you on about? We weren’t calling you thick…”

Kylie didn’t turn around but it was obvious she was crying because her shoulders were trembling. I looked at Ed in dismay and he heaved the sigh of someone about to make a major sacrifice. He walked over to Kylie, tapped her on the shoulder and held out his crinkled packet of Mayfair to her.

“Save me twos though, yeah?”

Kylie sniffled a few times and said of course she would. She eased out a cigarette, stuck it in her mouth and flicked hair off her face with a skilful toss of the head so that Ed could light it for her, like the tough guys in old black and white films. Her eyes looked scary where the mascara had run but I decided not to mention it - Ed wasn’t the only gentleman in ‘the Shrubs’. We stood in a semi-circle, Kylie considerately blowing the smoke upwards.

 

(11:35)                  

“Bet none of them would keep a diary anyway,” Ed muttered.

“Yeah, too brain-dead,” I said.

“You ever done one?” he asked me.

“Only the ones they made us keep in primary school.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that! Had to put what you got up to at the weekend. Chips for dinner, watched telly, all that crap. Nosy b******s.”

“Is that all you’re meant to write,” asked Kylie, “what you ate and what’s on TV? I thought diaries was all your secrets and that.”

“Well yeah, but not when your teacher’s gonna mark it after,” Ed pointed out.

“Oh yeah.”

“And they used to show your Mum and Dad at Parents’ Evening,” I said.

“See what I mean? Checking up on you…”

I laughed. “Paranoid much?”

“Nah, diaries just get you in trouble. Because someone finds them, and then they got power over you innit, if you’ve wrote down all your secret thoughts.”

“Diaries are for girls and serial killers,” I scoffed. “I haven’t got any secret thoughts.”

“What you lying for, B? Everyone does. Here…” Ed snatched the notebook from me. “Dear diary, it’s me, Gareth. I wish Dan Miller was dead. If I had some poison I’d dip my compass in it and shank him, but they don’t sell poison at Asda so "”

“Pack it in.” I snatched the book back, feeling weirdly exposed.

“Well, what would you write then? If you had to do a diary, and it was just for you, what would you write? Basically how much you hate Dan and Mark and Jason and Leanne…”

“He ain’t gonna say, is he? Not to us,” said Kylie.

“What’s the point in writing something if no one’s ever gonna read it? I don’t get it. Pass my f*g, you’re nearly on thirds there.”

Kylie delicately handed the cigarette to Ed without burning either of their fingers.

“You do it then. For yourself,” I snapped, waving the notebook at Ed.

“I’m busy,” he said, gesturing to the cigarette.

Kylie was staring thoughtfully at the notebook. Softly, she asked, “If you ever found my diary, would you read it and tell everyone what it said?”

“Nope,” I said.

“No way.”

She held her hand out. “Can I have a go?” she asked shyly.

“What, you want to use this for your diary?”

“No,” she said, “I’m dyslexic or something. If I wrote stuff down it wouldn’t make sense.”

“So what you want it for?” drawled Ed, blowing smoke rings and watching them gently stretch and ascend towards the sun.

Kylie’s expression faltered. We’d done it again, ruined her trust.

“Nothing...” she muttered.

It was my time to sigh and sacrifice. I knew what she wanted. She wanted to erupt on us, for all the hurt and hate to spill out into ‘the Shrubs’ and drown us in irreversibility. I didn’t really want that to happen but for some reason, seeing the regret in her eyes, I didn’t want it not to happen either. It felt huge and important that Kylie should trust the two of us enough to do that.

I passed her the notebook. “Of course you can use it,” I said, trying to inject some friendliness and sincerity into those six words.

Kylie gripped the ends in her hands like an accordion player with stage-fright. I noticed for the first time how perfectly aligned her front teeth were as she gnawed nervously at her plump lower lip. In spite of everything - the dull hair, stooping posture, emerging clusters of acne - she was, in that instant, beautiful. Her eyes, usually sullen and downcast, shone with anxiety as she searched our faces for signs of acceptance. The impotent guilt felt familiar; I’d once been bombarded with it when my uncle took me to Battersea Dogs Home, walking down the Death Row of snouts desperately pressed against wire mesh. Fixing my gaze on Ed’s scuffed school shoes, I tried to arrange my face into an encouraging smile that she couldn’t mistake for mockery.

Kylie’s lips parted to speak, slammed shut before any words could escape then parted again. “D-dear Diary. You know the stuff people say about me, what I did in Lee Woolcott’s garage? I thought he liked me. But he went and told everybody and now they think I’m a slag. I don’t know what people want no more. Nobody likes me, swear my own mum wishes I was never born. Can’t do nothing right, can’t go anywhere without people starting on me. I’m sick of it. Yuz know what it’s like, I know you do.” Sniffling, she gestured towards Ed and me with the hand holding the notebook. “How come everyone hates us? For no reason, just decided to hate us. I try and be nice to people and they rub my face in the s**t. Try and avoid people and they come after you anyway. What’s the point in trying to be liked? What’s the point in any of it? I’m stuck on the outside.”

She was panting slightly, winded by the outpouring of all that verbal vomit.

“Hey, come on, it’ll be alright,” I said lamely. “Only three more years and we’re out of here. We can go to college in a different city or something. None of them will be there.”

“I’ve thought about it,” Kylie said. “Running away, going somewhere nobody knows me. But that’s just stupid. It won’t make a difference where I go. Things will still be s**t because I’ll still be me. There’s something wrong with how I am but I dunno what it is so I dunno how to change it.” She paused, anticipating a reaction.

Wincing, my mind flashed back to the morbid images I’d envisioned before, those early endings to our tragic lives. I waited for Ed’s kindness to save the day.

“So…what you guys doing for lunch?” he asked.

Shocked, I turned on him. He was looking away from us, face tilted towards the sky. I could see the glistening wet streak down his cheek, a shiny globule hovering on his lower eyelashes. And I realised that he wasn’t going to acknowledge the things Kylie had just said. He couldn’t, it was too painful for him.

As for lunch, I had no money. Dan Miller had pocketed my Twix during morning registration while sandwiches, lovingly prepared by Mum the night before, were being stuffed down the back of a radiator courtesy of his mate Mark Dougall. This was becoming a daily ritual; there was a good chance I’d be as skinny as Ed and Kylie by the time the summer holidays arrived. Since I had nothing to eat, I could avoid the canteen and outdoor areas. I would sidle into the library to claim a secluded table at the back behind the Sciences section where it was unlikely anybody would spot me, the same as every other lunchtime.

“I’ve got to meet up with some people,” I said.

Ed cleared his throat. “Yeah. And me, mate.”

Ed was always alone, except when surrounded by packs of hyenas in school uniform scavenging for any scraps of self-worth that still clung to him.

“What about you?” he asked Kylie.

She shrugged. “Got a lunch pass. Might just go home for a bit.”

And not return for afternoon classes, the same as every other day she could get away with it.

 

(11:59)

 

The bell in the Art and Design block warned us that lessons were about to finish. It was time to move. Ed peered cautiously around the side of the bushes, checking for teachers and other enemies. Then the three of us emerged from ‘the Shrubs’ and went off our separate ways.

 

 


© 2013 Raef C. Boylan



Author's Note

Raef C. Boylan
Let me know what you think, any improvements you can suggest? Cheers.

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Featured Review

hyenas in school uniforms and you have so well captured the footage of their yapping, bone munching heirarchy in this piece. Cracked up in some parts - the bit about Kylies pants being blue not the thighs - cringed at the name calling, the snapshots of poverty (that washing machine, the trousers up above the sox.) a formidable little story percolating here.

Posted 4 Years Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Raef C. Boylan

4 Years Ago

Cheers Tammy, glad the humour came through as well as the despair.



Reviews

Very well written. Sort of the more contemporary slap-in-the-face reality version of Lord of the Flies. While reading it, I wondered why I continued. But once I arrived at the end, I found the reason.

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

hyenas in school uniforms and you have so well captured the footage of their yapping, bone munching heirarchy in this piece. Cracked up in some parts - the bit about Kylies pants being blue not the thighs - cringed at the name calling, the snapshots of poverty (that washing machine, the trousers up above the sox.) a formidable little story percolating here.

Posted 4 Years Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Raef C. Boylan

4 Years Ago

Cheers Tammy, glad the humour came through as well as the despair.

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Added on August 19, 2013
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Raef C. Boylan
Raef C. Boylan

Coventry, UK, United Kingdom



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Hey there. RAEF C. BOYLAN Where Nothing is Sacred: Volume One www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/where-nothing-is-sacred-volume-i/1637740 I can also .. more..

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