THE JIGSAW PUZZLE
By Pink Panther
At last, Ian seems to have things going his way, but he still has Zav to deal with. How will that play out? Feedback is always welcome. Please send your comments to email@example.com and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.
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Anthony and I hang out together at breaks and lunchtimes pretty much all the time. We have so much in common. There's loads we can talk about. And it's not just art that he's good at. He is seriously clever. Apart from games, he's right up there in absolutely everything. It's strange. I used to think he was arrogant, but now that I've got to know him, he's not arrogant at all.
Although we've only been friends for a short time, I feel closer to him than I ever have to Mark or Andrew. Of course, a big part of the reason is that we're having sex. I go to his house every Tuesday and Friday after school. It's fantastic, even better than I dreamed it would be. Hanging out with him has proved an effective way of keeping Zav at bay too. After that first confrontation, he seems reluctant to take us on when we're together.
It's Wednesday lunchtime. I stroll out of the dining hall and make my way outside. This is the one time during the day that Anthony and I can't hang out together because Year Eight and Year Nine go into the dining hall at different times. Anthony's only just started eating. I park myself near the wall of the classroom block to wait for him. Seconds later, Zav's striding towards me, with Dean trailing along behind.
"Well, look who we've got here!" he sneers. "Not with your queer friend today then, gayboy?"
I don't answer. I'm too scared. He raises his hand as if he's going to hit me. I flinch, but all he does is run his fingers through his hair.
"Look at you!" he taunts. "What a little wimp! You're pathetic!"
If he was on his own, I'd try running away, but with my back to the wall and with Dean in the way I've got nowhere to go. Zav makes a fist.
"Not answering back today?" he taunts. "You're going to die, you little puff!"
He swings at me. I flinch again; I can't help it. His fist goes past my right ear. That's odd. It's like he never actually meant to hit me. Even so, I'm almost in tears. I can't bear to look up.
"Stop it Zav," Dean urges, looking alarmed.
Zav ignores him.
"Thought you'd got the better of me, did you?" he snarls. "Well forget it, bumboy! You're history!"
I can't deal with it. After school, I'll go to see Mr Ashton, tell him what's happened. Suddenly we've got company. It's Scott and David, Claire's friends that I met when I sang in the choir.
"You two!" Scott barks, putting himself right in Zav's face. "Disappear! Now!"
Dean starts to move away. Zav stays where he is. In the blink of an eye, Scott takes his feet from under him, dumping him on his arse.
"Which part of `Disappear now' don't you understand?" he demands. He turns to Dean, who looks like he's about to crap himself. "Get him out of here while he's still in one piece," he orders.
Dean helps Zav to his feet. The two of them slink away.
"Are you okay?" David asks.
"Yeah, thanks," I say quietly.
"If those two give you any more trouble," Scott says firmly, "You've got to tell someone, yeah?"
"Yeah, okay," I whisper, beginning to recover at least a little of my composure. Thirty yards away, Dean and Zav are arguing. It's probably because Dean told Zav to stop. He wouldn't have liked that.
Scott and David leave me to it. A minute later, Anthony appears. I've been scared and humiliated, but what do I do? I put on my bravest face and carry on as though nothing's happened.
The bell goes and I head into afternoon registration. The other kids seem to know what's happened.
"Zav's crazy!" Matthew whispers. "If Scott Paxton told me to move, I'd be out of there!"
I'm surprised. Scott's always seemed really nice to me, but what do I know? Zav and Dean arrive shortly before Mrs Vickers. They have to sit together because there's nowhere else, but they aren't talking. You can almost feel the tension.
0 o 0 o 0 o 0
Thursday morning break, I head outside to the place where Anthony and I usually meet. He's not there. I look around. There's no sign of him. After what happened yesterday, I begin to panic. I check around again. There's no sign of Zav either. I pull out my phone and call Anthony's mobile. Suddenly Zav's right there, snatching the phone out of my hand.
"Give it back!" I shout.
"Fuck off, gayboy!" he snarls.
"Zav, give it back!" Dean echoes.
Once again Zav pays no attention, busily punching numbers into my phone.
"Give it back!" I repeat.
"You gonna make me?" he sneers.
"No, but I am," a voice says from behind him.
He turns round to find himself eyeball to eyeball with Martine. She's got Claire on one side and Suzanne on the other. Natasha is a little way to one side, holding up her mobile phone.
"Hand it over," Martine says evenly.
"Fuck off!" Zav responds dismissively. "What are you going to do?"
Before he knows what's happening, Martine grabs his wrist, spinning him round and forcing his arm up his back. He howls in pain. My eyes are out on stalks. Man! That was so fast!
"It would have been much easier if you'd just given it to me," Martine says calmly, plucking the phone from his fingers. She passes it to Suzanne.
"See what number he was entering," she says.
She turns towards Dean. "You!" she barks. "Give Claire your phone!"
Dean fishes about as though he doesn't know where it is. Scott and David stroll up behind him.
"Don't make us take it off you," Scott warns.
Dean retrieves the phone from his trouser pocket and gives it to Claire. She scrolls through his contacts.
"Here it is!" she says triumphantly. "Zav."
Claire and Suzanne compare the number that they've found on Dean's phone with the one that Zav was entering on mine.
"What a surprise!" Claire says scornfully. "Same number, except the last two digits are missing. Let's just make sure."
She presses the call button. A phone rings in Zav's pocket. Claire nods at Martine to let him go. She squares up to him, her eyes locked onto his.
"You were going to call your phone from my brother's phone so you could get his number," she says. "Can you explain that?" There's silence. "Actually, you don't have to," she continues. "We know what you were doing. And to make sure you can't argue your way out of this, Natasha has been filming it, haven't you Tash?"
Natasha grins evilly, waving her mobile. "We're going to send it to Mr Broadhurst," she says, "you know, using the school website. We think he'll be very interested in what you two have been up to."
"You'll be able to collect this from Mr Broadhurst later," Claire says calmly, putting Dean's phone in her bag. "We're keeping it as evidence."
Dean's quite pale anyway. Right now he looks like he's seen a ghost.
"I'll need to keep yours for the moment too," Claire adds, nodding at me. She turns back to Zav. "Just in case you've got any silly ideas," she hisses, looking like a cat with its claws out, "let me spell it out for you. You don't so much as breathe on my brother!"
There's another silence.
"Off you go then!" Claire orders.
Zav and Dean move away. Claire turns to me. "I'll talk to you at home," she says, giving me a look of disapproval.
As Claire and her friends head back into school, Anthony appears.
"What was all that about?" he asks, looking bewildered.
Before I can say anything, the bell sounds for the end of break.
"I'll tell you later," I say, and make my way towards our history class.
News like that travels fast. When I arrive at Mrs Vickers' classroom, all the other kids seem to know about what's happened. Dean, sitting by himself, looks totally pissed off. Inevitably, Mrs Vickers is late again. I'm just trying to fend off questions when Zav appears. There's a chorus of catcalls.
"Hay Zav," Smudger calls. "Is Martine your girlfriend?"
Zav looks daggers at him. Some of the other kids start sniggering.
"Why didn't you just give her the phone?" Matthew enquires.
"She's a girl," Zav says huffily. "How was I supposed to know ?"
"Try taking your head out of your arse," Jane suggests.
"How far did you throw the javelin?" Matthew asks, smirking. "You know, during games back in the summer."
"I don't remember stupid stuff like that," Zav says, still trying to sound superior.
"Well I do," Matthew counters, "less than twenty metres. I won sports day throwing thirty three. She's thrown nearly fifty, and that's just a sideline. Her main thing's martial arts. You're lucky all you got was a sore arm!"
I keep my mouth firmly shut. Zav may have had his come-uppance, but I'm not going to crow. All I want is for the bullying to stop. Just at that moment, Mrs Vickers strides through the door. She glares at us. She must have heard the chat as she was walking along the corridor. We quickly come to order and the class begins.
0 o 0 o 0 o 0
At the end of the day, I spend ten minutes chewing the fat with Anthony. It's what I usually do when I'm not going to his house. By the time I get home, Claire's already there.
"Come to my bedroom," she calls. "We need to talk."
Rather nervously, I make my way upstairs and into her room. She points to the small sofa. I sit down.
"Why didn't you tell me what was going on?" she demands. "Those boys are way bigger than you. You're a good kid. You shouldn't have to put up with that sort of shit. If you'd told me we could have stopped it ages ago."
"It wasn't anything much to start with," I say defensively. "Zav just started calling me names. I ignored him at first, but then I got fed up of it and started answering back. He didn't like that. There was a bit of a confrontation in the classroom. After that he didn't do it anymore. Then last week he saw me on the playground talking to Anthony. There was an argument. I thought there was going to be a fight, but Zav and Dean just went off and left it. They never did anything else till yesterday when David and Scott stopped them."
"Did you know that Zav tried to get Andrew to give him your mobile number?" Claire asks.
"No," I respond. "Who told you that?"
"I saw Andrew and Mark at the bus stop yesterday afternoon," she says. "I don't know where you were. I asked them what had been going on and they told me." She pauses for a second. "And these names they were calling you," she goes on, "what names exactly?"
I don't answer. My face is burning bright red.
"They were saying you were gay, weren't they?" she insists.
"Zav was," I admit. "Dean never said anything."
"Oh, he's just a drip," Claire says scornfully, "but that Zav's a nasty piece of work. Suzanne remembers them from junior school. D'you know why he wanted your mobile number?"
"Not really," I respond.
"So he could send you texts," she explains, "you know, bad, threatening stuff, probably in the middle of the night. It's called cyber-bullying."
"But if he texted me from his phone, we'd know it was him," I counter. "He could get in trouble for that."
"Oh he wouldn't use that phone," she says. "His family's loaded, right? All he has to do is go into a shop and buy a cheap pay-as-you-go phone. If you pay cash, the phone's untraceable."
"D'you really think he was going to do that?" I query.
"Of course he was!" Claire says firmly. "What else would he want your number for?"
"So did you, you know, tell Mr Broadhurst, like you said?"
"You bet we did!" Claire says firmly. "And we sent him the video. We spent half the lunch break explaining it to him."
"Sorry," I mutter. "I didn't mean to put you to all this trouble."
"That's okay," she says smiling. "I just wish you'd told me sooner." She looks me straight in the eye. "But you are gay, aren't you?" she states. "Your friend Anthony definitely is."
It's the moment I was dreading, but there's no way out. I'm not going to lie. Claire would see straight through it.
"Yeah," I concede through gritted teeth.
"And you're sure?" Claire questions. "It's not just a phase or something?"
"I'm sure," I say quietly. "I've sort of known for about a year. You're not going to tell Mum, are you?"
"No, of course not!" Claire says reassuringly. "What you tell Mum is up to you."
"I don't think she'd understand," I say. "She'd want to `do something'. You know what she's like."
"Yeah," Claire agrees. "She would. I know she wants to do what's best for us, but sometimes she gets it all wrong and goes way over the top. Just remember, I'm here for you if you need me. If I were gay, I wouldn't be exactly thrilled about it. I know it can't be easy. So I'll help if I can."
"Thanks," I say, feeling mightily relieved.
0 o 0 o 0 o 0
It's twenty past eight. I leave the house and make my way to the bus stop. Mark and Andrew are already there.
"Thanks for not giving Zav my mobile number," I say quietly.
"Oh, we weren't going to get involved in his shit," Mark says huffily.
"Was Dean with him?" I ask.
"Yeah, but he just stood there," Andrew responds with obvious irritation, "never said a word."
That figures. Even though Dean's always with Zav, he never actually does anything.
"Anyway, we told Zav to piss off," Mark says, looking at me like he wishes I wasn't there.
"Thanks," I say quietly.
0 o 0 o 0 o 0
As soon as Mrs Vickers arrives to take registration I can tell something's not right. She glares at us, her eyes ranging around the room.
"Xavier Stanford, Dean Griffiths," she announces. "Mr Broadhurst wants to see you. Report to his office immediately!"
They leave the classroom. There's a general murmuring from the other kids. It seems they weren't expecting this to happen, like what happened yesterday would be the end of it.
We're halfway through maths, our second class, before Dean returns, looking very subdued. He hands Mr Bentley a note.
"Andrew Sherratt, Mark Welford," Mr Bentley announces. "Mr Broadhurst wants to see you."
They troop out. Twenty minutes later the bell goes. As we head off to French, Mark and Andrew still haven't returned. Unsurprisingly, Dean is the centre of attention.
"Where's Zav?" Matthew enquires
"Sitting in the waiting room."
"So has Broadhurst spoken to him yet?"
"What did you tell him?" Smudger asks.
"The truth," Dean says baldly. "He wanted to know what's been going on, so I told him,"
"You told him everything?" Olly queries.
"Yeah," Dean confirms, scowling. "If Zav thinks I'm going to lie for him, he can think again. I'm in enough trouble as it is."
"He's not going to like that!" Amanda cackles.
"Then he'll have to lump it, won't he?" Dean snaps. "I'm fed up with him dragging me into stuff."
"You're supposed to be his friend," Sophie says huffily.
Dean gives her a scornful look but doesn't answer. We arrive at Mr Ashton's room. The conversation's at an end. About ten minutes into the class, Mark and Andrew come back. They do not look happy. This time it's Matthew that Mr Broadhurst wants to speak to. It seems odd to me. I'm the one in the middle of all this, but he hasn't spoken to me at all. He'll want to speak to me later though, I know he will.
Matthew isn't out for long. He returns without a note. It seems Mr Broadhurst has not asked to talk to anyone else. Although the class continues pretty much as normal, everyone's on edge, eager to find out what's been said. Finally the bell goes for morning break. As we spill out of the classroom, the interrogations begin.
Mark and Andrew are reluctant to talk about it. It seems that they confirmed what Dean said, and that Zav, when last seen, was still kicking his heels in the waiting room. That's more or less it. They don't acknowledge me at all. It's like I'm not there.
"So what did he want you for, Matt?" Smudger asks.
"He thanked me for intervening when Zav lost his rag," Matthew says in a very matter-of-fact voice, "said I'd prevented what could have been a serious incident. I couldn't believe it."
"Quite right too!" Jane says, glowing with pride.
As it goes, I'm not as surprised as Matthew seems to have been. Mr Broadhurst's strict, but he's very fair. He wants Matthew to know that he did the right thing. The two classes after break pass off without interruption. I'm expecting Zav to appear at any moment, but there's no sign of him. As we make our way outside for the lunch break the word goes round. He's been sent home. That's a shock. Mr Broadhurst is taking this far more seriously than I thought he would.
0 o 0 o 0 o 0
It's afternoon registration when Mrs Vickers makes the announcement I've been waiting for. It's my turn to report to Mr Broadhurst. Well, at least it'll get me out of games. I know I'm not actually in trouble, but I'm very apprehensive. Mr Broadhurst's scary. As I walk along the corridor to his office, my heart's pounding. I knock on the door.
"Come in!" he calls. I step inside. He's sitting in a large swivel chair. "Sit down," he says quietly, indicating the chair opposite his.
"I'm not going to ask you much about what's been happening," he says quietly. "I've heard that several times already. As I understand it, the problem started back before Easter. Can you explain to me why you didn't speak to Mrs Vickers about it?"
"Sorry, sir," I say meekly. "Mrs Vickers isn't very easy to talk to. She always seems to be in a rush."
"I see," Mr Broadhurst says thoughtfully. "Now I believe that Xavier began by calling you names. When did most of this name-calling occur?"
"A lot of it was in afternoon registration, sir," I tell him.
"Really?" he says, pretending to be surprised when he's not. "So where was Mrs Vickers?"
"She was late, sir."
"Is she often late?"
"Any other times?"
"Sometimes when we were moving between classes, and when we have history after break."
"History, that's Mrs Vickers again. And she was late for that too?"
"So how did you respond to Xavier calling you names?"
"At first, I just ignored him, sir."
"I see," he says slowly. "Now I'm told that earlier this term you stopped ignoring him, and started answering back. Is that correct?"
"Why the change of tactics?"
"One day, he said something, I forget what it was. Jane Barnard had a go at him, said he was too much of a coward to pick on anyone his own size. He called her a stupid bitch."
"Well, it wasn't right, was it sir? It was my fight, not Jane's. I decided I had to stand up for myself."
"With some success, or so I'm told. So it moved from the classroom out onto the playground. Is that correct?"
"I believe that on the first occasion you were on the playground talking to Anthony Howes."
"How d'you know him?"
"From Junior Arts Club, sir."
"Fair enough. What about Scott Paxton and David Holbrook?"
"They're friends of Claire's. David and Claire used to go out together. David's been to our house a few times. They're in the choir too. When we had rehearsals after school we used to go home on the bus together."
"I see," he says, looking at me intently. "Now Dean Griffiths claims that before they intervened, he told Xavier to stop. Is that correct?"
"Yes, sir" I confirm, "but Zav took no notice of him."
"Dean also told me that yesterday morning he told Xavier to give you your phone back," he goes on.
"Yes sir," I repeat. "Zav just ignored him."
"Let's move onto something else," he says. "When you first came here you were very close to the boys you knew from junior school, but not anymore. So what happened there?"
"Nothing really," I say, trying to make it sound like it's no big deal. "We're interested in different things. I guess we just drifted apart."
"You're interested in design and fashion and pop music," he says evenly. "There's nothing wrong with any of that, but if you spend most of your free time sitting with the girls discussing it, you are going to get labelled. It's inevitable. Your friends told me this morning that they asked you to go to badminton club with them, but you wouldn't. Why was that?"
I hardly know what to say. I never thought for a moment that he'd have asked them about that.
"I'm useless at games," I say. "I'd have made an idiot of myself. I'm not sure they really wanted me to go anyway. If they'd tried to persuade me, I'd have gone, but they didn't."
"Friendship is something that has to be worked at," he comments, "and sometimes that means doing things that you wouldn't necessarily choose to do."
I understand what he's saying but why should it always be me that has to make those compromises? Over the past year, Mark and Andrew haven't done one thing that I wanted to do and they didn't.
"Your friends also told me that they invited you to go to the swimming pool with them on Saturday afternoons," he continues, "but you wouldn't do that either, even though they explained it didn't matter that you couldn't swim. So why wouldn't you go?"
My face is burning bright red again. This is so embarrassing!
"I'm scared of the water," I mutter, almost without opening my mouth. "I had swimming lessons when I was about six, but I kept having panic attacks. The teacher said I'd have to stop going because it was upsetting the other kids. Mum never bothered after that."
"Now let me say something here," he says sternly. "I've looked at your school reports. You've done very well since you came here, with one exception, physical education, where you've performed very poorly. I've spoken to Mr Saunders who tells me that you find games and gym very difficult, and because you find them difficult, you don't try. That is not acceptable. We expect you do to your best in every class." He pauses for a second or two. "When you're in junior school," he continues, "and even in the first year or two here, if you struggle in that area there's not much you can do about it. But you've reached an age now where you can improve if you're willing to put the work in. I'm not saying it will be easy. It will require a great deal of hard work, but it will make a difference. You'll be fitter, stronger and more confident, and less of a target for the likes of Xavier Stanford. The reality is that you'll find people like him wherever you go, and you have to be able to stand up to them or they'll make your life a misery. We've got excellent facilities here and Mr Saunders is more than willing to help, but it's up to you. We can't make you do it. The same goes for your fear of water. Take one-to-one swimming lessons. You'll succeed if you put your mind to it. Then you'll be able to go to the pool and enjoy it like your friends do."
This is not what I want to hear. Partly it's because I know he's right. I ought to try to improve. But I don't want to. I've always hated that sort of thing.
"Have a think about it," he says encouragingly. "You know the present situation is not satisfactory. It's up to you to do something about it. Now as you probably know, Xavier has been sent home. He'll be back sometime next week, after I've spoken to him and his parents about his future behaviour. For your information only, so I don't want you to repeat this, when he does come back, he'll be moved to a different class. He will be told very firmly that he is to have no contact with you. And you are to avoid contact with him. Is that clear?"
"If he does go after you again, you are to tell me immediately. Is that understood?"
"Right, well you'd better get off to your games class," he says, standing up to usher me out.
0 o 0 o 0 o 0
By the time I arrive at the playing field, it's so late that I'm told to stand on the touchline and watch. That suits me. It's pretty boring, but watching rugby is definitely better than trying to play it. After what seems like forever, the class finishes and the other boys troop off to the changing rooms.
"Make yourself useful and collect up the balls," Mr Saunders says, handing me a large net.
I gather the balls into the net and carry it to the store room.
"Put them up there," he instructs.
As I lift them onto the shelf, I can feel his eyes boring into me. Instinctively I look across at him. He's got a hard-on sticking up in his shorts. Wow! I definitely wasn't expecting that! It's exciting and scary all at the same time. In no time at all, I'm hard too. I've no idea what he's intending to do.
"Very good," he says, cooing into my ear. "Now go and bring the cones in."
I head back out onto the field, picking up the cones, you know, like the ones they use to mark out road works. By the time I've brought them back, he's disappeared. It's a bit of an anti-climax, but I guess we couldn't have done much with so many people around. And I'm pretty amazed at myself for even half-wanting to.
I put the cones away and wander outside to wait for the other boys to come out. After a few minutes they emerge. Spotting Mark and Andrew, I head over to them, thinking that I can walk with them to the bus stop before going to Anthony's house.
"We're not talking to you," Mark says aggressively.
For a moment I'm totally gobsmacked. My lips are moving, but even the word `why' won't come out.
"What happened yesterday on the playground was fair enough," Andrew says. "Zav was asking for trouble and he got it, but that's where it should have stopped. There was no need to get Broadhurst involved."
"That wasn't anything to do with me," I protest. "It was Claire."
"You should have stopped her," Mark counters.
Is he serious? I might as well have tried stopping a runaway train.
"Getting us involved in your shit," he goes on. "We don't need it, yeah?"
"You could have warned us this morning," Andrew complains, "but you didn't."
Well I guess I might have if I'd had any idea that Mr Broadhurst would want to speak to them.
"I'm sorry . . ." I begin.
"Sorry doesn't cut it," Andrew interrupts. "We're not hanging out with you anymore. This gay kid Anthony, you seem to think you can hang out with him when it suits you and with us the rest of the time. Well I'm afraid it doesn't work like that."
"You seem to spend most of your time with him anyway," Mark adds, "So you'd best go hang out with him."
They turn their backs and stride away. I'm devastated. Just when I thought that I was getting things back on track, they pull the rug right from under me. I can't tell you how much it hurts. I've been friends with Mark and Andrew for more than half my life, and it's not like I've done anything wrong. I still want to be friends with them, but I want to be friends with Anthony too. I don't understand why, but they're not willing to accept that. I don't like it one bit, but right now there's nothing I can do.