‘I hate Mrs Fuller; she always gives us stupid work to do. And she smells, a lot. Like when my mum put garlic and cheese in that vegetable stew we had last week. Doesn’t she ever take a shower?’
Tom stared at the sheet of paper on the table before him. Around him, his classmates were already scrawling away, tongues stuck out in grim determination. Andy sat next to him, gripping his pen and scribbling hard, his pen digging into the paper like a shovel into soil.
‘You only say that ‘cause she always catches you reading a comic, or doodling, or pulling faces at someone,’ he answered, without looking up from his work.
Tom grunted, the colourful edges of his Max Danger comic book he was reading earlier peeping out from beneath his assignment work. He’d placed the work over it so Mrs Fuller wouldn’t notice that he’d brought it in from home.
‘Y’know, if we were next door, we wouldn’t be stuck in here doing these stupid “write about your holiday” assignments!’ he nudged Andy, his sudden enthusiasm sending his elbow deep into Andy’s ribs.
‘Cut it out, Tom!’
‘I’m serious! I hear them chatting away over the fence at playtime. In science, they use these things called, erm, bumsen burners, or something like that. And they have something called D and T. No idea what it means, but it sounds like they get to play in some kind of workshop! Imagine that! They get to use drills, and saws and hammers, and a bunch of other stuff!’
Tom was beginning to bounce in his chair, until an echoing ‘ssshhh!’ flew across from the lips of everyone on Tom’s table. Tom sank back, his smile slowly dripping into a frown. He gazed round the colourfully decorated classroom, walls adorned with the work of Tom’s classmates. He let his head spin round as he examined all he could see. The small bookcases, dotted around the classroom, each had thin strips of protective foam stuck on the jagged edges.
He gave the paper the hardest stare he’d ever given it all morning. He squinted his eyes so the words seemed to join together and change into a messy blur. Finally, he buried his head into the paper, letting out a prolonged, creaky groan. Tom stuffed his hands into his grey pockets, fingering the custom-built catapult made from a conveniently-shaped branch which, to that day, Tom persists he had no idea how it fell off the tree in his front garden and onto his Dad’s car.
‘If you don’t do your work Tom, Mrs Fuller will have you,’ Tom dragged his head back up and glared at the person in front of him. Billy sneered at Tom from the other side of the table, his wrinkled face scowling. ‘She’ll give you another detention, and you know what that means!’
‘Oh shut your face, Billy, I don’t need your grief.’ Billy thrust his tongue out in Tom’s direction as malevolently as he could. Tom buried his head back into the table, but then gave Andy a slight nudge. ‘Why did we have to get stuck on Billy’s table?’
‘Look, I don’t like him anymore than you do,’ whispered Andy. ‘But he’s got a point. You know how scary Mrs Fuller can be when she’s angry.’
‘Now then children, let’s see how you’re all getting on.’Tom felt Mrs Fuller’s voice piercing through his head. She floated over to the students, hands clasped to one side, and her smile almost a full circle instead of a simple half-curve.‘Ah, Harry, such fine hand-writing. You’re grammar is improving Sarah, well done! Loving the presentation, Billy. Fabulous stuff as always, Andy,’ she then noticed Tom, still dead to the world. ‘Whatever’s happened to Tom? Oh dear, oh my. Quick, someone fetch the nurse!’
‘Tom, c’mon, wake up!’ Andy jabbed Tom as discreetly as possible.
‘He’s skiving!’ Billy piped up. ‘He’s not doing his work on purpose, Miss!’
Tom rose limply, his head lolling on one side.
‘S’alright miss, I’m here.’
He shot Billy a sharp glare. Billy squinted and flashed his tongue out for a brief moment as Mrs Fuller was standing right behind him.
‘Oh Tom, you gave us all a fright then!’ She waved an arm across the table, all of whom still had their tongues stuck out. ‘Let’s see your work, then.’ She scrutinised Tom’s notebook. ‘Oh Tom, this really is the limit! How many more pages are you going to fill up with doodles instead of actual work?’ She skimmed through the book with her thumb. ‘You’ll fill this thing up with worthless drawings in no time!’
Tom straightened with a jerk, facing Mrs Fuller as grimly as his classmates who still had their tongues stuck out.
‘But Miss, I’m not learning anything I can’t do at home,’ he snatched the assignment work and waved it in the air. ‘“Write about your holiday”, I mean, come on! Is this what I pay you for?’
‘You don’t pay me anything young man,’ Mrs Fuller snorted. ‘It’s your parents that pay me, and I’m not looking forward to sending them another letter about your conduct.’ Tom slumped back in his seat, but just as his head made for the table once more, the school bell rattled into action. ‘Alright class, pack your work away neatly and then you can all go out and play. Except for you Tom, you’re staying in and finishing your work.’
‘More like starting it!’ came a hushed voice from the table, which Tom couldn’t identify. He watched his classmates bounce out of the room and pour out into the playground.
Mrs Fuller dragged a small desk from the window to her own and places several sheets of paper down on the surface. She then took to her own desk and beckoned to Tom.
‘Now Tom, sit over here.’ She pointed to a table right in front of her desk. Tom got up and slouched over to it, dragging himself to the point of over-exaggeration. ‘Right then Tom, you will do the work that is in front of you, and you will do it without distractions, is that understood?’ Tom snorted. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Yes, miss,’ came a throaty mutter.
‘You know Tom, you should be happy here,’ she leaned in, fixing Tom with a stony gaze. ‘I mean, would you rather be here, happy and content, or would you rather be in that beastly secondary school we have to share with?’ She nodded towards the open window next to her. ‘Honestly, whoever thought it was a good idea to convert this place into two schools, not even on the same academic level!’
Mrs Fuller’s head then seemed to disappear completely behind stacks of exercise books and she began scribbling in each one. Tom didn’t even look at the work in front of him, and instead continued to ogle through the open window.
Outside, he could see and hear swarms of classmates running, jumping and laughing. Several seemed to be playing hide and seek among the artificial trees, some were sitting on the warm, tarmac ground in a circle, each clutching a handful of Pokemon cards. A cluster were playing football, using a worn-out tennis ball and the rusting, greenery-covered fence.
He also noticed how the fence slouched against the woodland that was propping it up. Every time a goal was made, the fence crumpled inwards, while many of the intertwined patches within the fence were worn away. The woodland spawned gaps as well, revealing tiny sights of the adjoining schoolyard, where figures in black darted all around. Height-wise, many of Tom’s classmates barely reached the top of the fence, but on the other side, Tom could barely see above any one pair of legs.
Beyond the fence lay a vast row of zig-zag-topped buildings, all different sizes. Elegantly crafted windows adorned each building, each a different style. Some had curved walls and curved roofs, with multi-coloured bricks. The only building Tom was able to awe at in school was the very building he was in, the primary school division. A single-storey, rectangular shaped building that crumpled in next door’s shadows.
Shoving his hands back into his pockets, Tom felt the rough, hard catapult, with its elastic trigger, and a smile grew on his lips. Noting the classroom door was wide-open, and Mrs Fuller buried alive in textbooks, Tom hauled the catapult gingerly from his pocket, loaded a near-by rubber into it, pulled on the elastic, and opened fire.
The resulting crashes radiated throughout the cloakroom, which made Mrs Fuller jerk upright from her work. Piles of books flew everywhere, revealing the sight of Tom head down, pen in hand, scribbling hard. Mrs Fuller leapt up.
‘What on earth is that racket? You stay there Tom, and carry on with your work.’ As she jogged to the cloakroom, Tom pounced to her desk, grabbed the keys, and followed her on tip-toe. Mrs Fuller looked about her in shock. The pinging had died down, but coats, hats and bags were strewn everywhere, like some bloody battle that had been lost. ‘Goodness me, how did all this happen?’
Tom shot his arm out for the door handle and swung it shut. Turning the key in the lock, he flung the keys in the air and dashed for the open window. A furious succession of rapid-fire knocks came from the door. Clutching onto the frame, Tom thrust one leg over the open window and dragged the rest of himself into the outside. He startled as his grip loosened, and Tom slowly felt himself sliding off the window. He collapsed onto the playground tarmac, the impact sent a sting all along his back.
‘Tom? What are you doing here?’ clearing the water from his eyes Tom pulled himself up and noticed Andy staring down at him.
‘Oh, hey Andy,’ Tom stood up, dusting himself down. ‘Can’t stop now, I’m off!’
Tom tore towards the rickety fence. A small group of year threes were engrossed in a game of Pokemon, sitting on benches at the far end of the playground, when Billy wobbled towards them and leant on the back of the bench, it creaked horribly. The young kids looked up in fear at Billy’s round, puffy face.
‘Give us your cards,’ he snorted.
‘They’re not for you!’ piped up one of the little ones.
‘I wasn’t asking, you twerp,’ Billy reached over and snatched away a handful of cards from one of the kids, crumpling them in his plump, sweaty hand, the skin of his fingers overflowing.
‘Don’t ruin it, that’s my only Charizard!’
The little kid knelt over the bench and struggled for her card, but Billy stuck out his other podgy hand into her face and held the card away, facing the opposite direction. He smiled at his prize, but noticed something that drew his attention to something else.
Billy spotted a scruffy looking boy, school uniform not tucked in, hair unkempt, and making for the school fence.
‘Tom…?’ Billy stared after in, bemused. Then, through the open window, came the echoy sound of someone knocking with all their might on a door, and high-pitched wailings of “Tom! Tom!” floated over the playground. ‘Mrs Fuller…?’
Billy dropped the Charizard card and made for the classroom, leaving a battered and slightly torn card on the ground. The small group of kids crowded round it on their hands and knees. One picked it up as nimbly as possible and cradled it in her palms.
‘That… bully!’ she spluttered.
As inconspicuously as possible, Tom attempted to repeat how he’d exited the classroom with exiting the playground. On reaching the fence, he’d found that the holes were not quite as big as he’d hoped, and he’d had to throw away his school jumper once he’d torn it to shreds after attempting to crawl through one of the hole.
The fence was far wobblier than the window, so Tom found himself swaying side to side as he clung onto the fence, pulling his left leg over the top. With one leg soon over, Tom fell into the soft, clingy woodland soil, the back of his shirt dirtying instantly.
Tom picked himself up and began to crawl through the thin row of nature that separated the schools. Branches poked into his side and scratched his face, sending more stings throughout his body. Pushing low-hanging branches and shrubbery out of his face, he stopped in his tracks. His jaw dropped in amazement.
Before him was a swirling mass of black-clad students, black jumpers with black trousers and black shoes, all acting with more violence than those classmates he’d left behind. Kids had other kids in headlocks, some chasing each other with books drawn like swords, but all of them had psychotic smiles. He was so awed that he didn’t notice the school bell rattle away, and the black mass began moving towards various doors which led into the spiralling buildings, each chimney adorning a majestic crest of gold and silver.
Tom took his first step on big kid ground, and was instantly swept away, lost within the student’s towering figures. Elbows and stomachs smeared his face, while high-flung cackles crowded over his head. The uneven flow stopped suddenly as Tom felt himself being squashed as people filed into the building. Above, Tom caught sharp glances of the sky turning from a clear blue to a thick, crinkly grey.
Tom could just reach the open door, which would give him something solid to cling onto. He stuck his hand out as best he could but continued to be pushed and shoved in all directions from the faceless crowd. His fingers felt as if they were ready to snap off. He flicked the handle with his fingertips, until a huge, hairy hand dived from above and grabbed Tom’s soil-ridden arm.
‘Oi you,’ came a deep, grizzly voice. ‘Where’s your uniform?’
Mrs Fuller’s knuckles were starting to throb and her voice was getting hoarse. As she continued to knock on the locked door of her own classroom, she felt something tugging at her skirt. Twisting round, she saw the plump, breathless face of Billy gasping as he pulled at her.
‘Miss, Miss, Tom’s gone over the fence!’
‘What are you talking about, Billy?’
‘It’s true Miss, I saw him myself!’ Billy began waving his arms. ‘He ran across the playground and climbed over the fence and now he must be in the big school next to us!’
Mrs Fuller brought her hands to her face.
‘Billy, I know you and Tom don’t get along, but there’s no need to tell lies like this. If he really has gone, why has no-one else told me?’ Billy’s jaw dropped, then he tried to give her an answer but all he could muster was a splutter. ‘And who told you you could come back inside during break? You know you’re supposed to use this time to refresh yourself. Go back outside please and I’ll deal with this situation, go on!’
She turned Billy round and shooed him away. Billy wobbled away, jaw still hanging loose.
Tom felt himself being heaved into the school. He stabbed at the ground with his feet, trying to gain some balance, but the hairy hand overpowered him. Once inside, he was pulled upright and greeted by a face that mixed cloud-grey stubble with bright red cheeks. Eyebrows spiked up, thick and black, while patches of greasy black hair sprang up around its head, the top being completely bald.
‘You deaf or something, where’s your uniform?’
‘Er, haven’t got one.’
The creature gnarled its teeth to Tom, huge chunks of yellow grating against each other.
‘Haven’t got one?! Right,’ regaining its clutch on Tom’s arm, the creature marched down the corridor towards a compact reception area. Regaining his footing somewhat, Tom nearly collapsed backwards at what he saw. The students all dressed in black, once shoving into Tom as if he wasn’t there, now parted wide births, letting the creature and Tom stride on.
The students now seemed to acknowledge Tom’s existence, pointing, staring and giggling at him. Whilst being pulled along, Tom noticed how the corridor was far greyer than those back in primary school. They were empty as well; no colourful drawings sprawled all over. Only the occasional plastic notice board, adorned with several A4 sized posters, most of which were filled with words rather than pictures.
The creature stopped dead in its tracks and almost flung Tom on the desk. Finally regaining complete control of himself, Tom suddenly felt rather small when he realized that he couldn’t see over the reception desk.
‘Lost his jumper. Get him one from lost property.’ The creature snarled down at Tom as a wrinkled face lent over the desk and examined him.
‘Alright Mr Grainger, name?’ the wrinkled face enquired in a shrill, shaky voice.
Tom opened his mouth and then snapped it shut. He knew this was a chance for a fresh start.
‘C’mon, c’mon! Haven’t you got a class to get to?’ the creature barked.
‘Max. Max Danger.’ Tom answered with a smirk.
The wrinkled face disappeared back over the desk.
‘What class do you have now?’ asked the creature.
Tom spluttered and spun round the reception area, looking for any helpful inspiration. He stopped with a jerk as he saw a flight of stairs with a sign at the bottom; “To the Library”.
‘English!’ he announced with triumph.
The creature’s constant frown relaxed slightly.
Tom’s spluttering resumed.
‘Mrs, er no, I mean Mr, Miss…’
A black jumper was thrust into Tom’s face.
‘Here you go,’ said the wrinkly face. She tilted her head up towards the snarling creature. ‘Mr. Webster wants you in his office right away. He needs to discuss the mock exams with you.’
The creature snorted.
‘Fine, tell him I’ll be there in a second,’ he bore down on Tom. ‘Get off to class now this instant, and get that jumper on!’
Tom scurried down another drab corridor, his view partially blocked by him struggling to get the jumper on. It was too large and baggy, and on his first attempt, Tom found his head poking up through one of the sleeves. Burrowing himself back into the jumper, he punched away at it some more, all the while gambling down a corridor he didn’t know.
He also felt himself bumping into the walls and doors, unknowingly causing several passersby to stare oddly at him. Tom gave one final punch inside the jumper, sending him off balance and into a door handle. He twisted round it, letting out a sharp cry, before feeling the door give way and collapsing onto a carpeted floor.
Scrambling, Tom attempted to get back on his feet, but his whole body seemed enveloped by the jumper. He then felt the jumper being pulled up, and he was greeted with a sudden burst of light and the gazes of several students, looking up from their work. Tom spun round, at first gearing up for a speedy exit, before a flour-white hand picked him up by the arm and brushed him down.
‘Dear me, what an entrance! Did you only just get out of bed?’
Tom twisted away from the door to meet the voice, and his mouth lolled slightly at what he saw. He’d never seen a teacher like this before. Her curled, auburn hair bounced in his face as she fiddled with his jumper. As she did so, puffs of fresh strawberry leaped out of her curls and up Tom’s nose.
‘Now then sweetheart, what’s your name?’ Tom could only open and close his mouth like a fish. The teacher’s face then beamed. ‘Oh, are you the new student?’ Tom nodded his head as if he were being strangled. ‘Oh how lovely, we weren’t expecting you until next week,’ she ushered him to a desk. ‘You can sit next to Lucy, she’ll look after you.’
There came a knock on the door and it was opened by a tall, thin man, clad in corduroy.
‘Miss Penelope, those new stationary items you ordered have arrived.’
‘Thank you, Mr Tracy,’ she looked round the classroom for a moment, while Mr Tracy disappeared back into the hall. ‘Now then, who wants to give me a hand getting all our lovely new equipment in here?’
Tom shot both his arms up in the air like a rocket, stretching them as high as he could. He stretched so hard he felt himself almost lifting off from the chair. Miss Penelope laughed.
‘Alright then, Tom, you can help me, come on.’ Tom sprang from his chair, leapt to the door, and flung it open. Miss Penelope laughed again, calmly getting up from her desk. ‘Carry on with your work you lot, we shan’t be long.’
Tom flashed a toothy smile as he held the door open. The two of them strode out into the corridor. Tom clung to her side. They soon came to a large pile of boxes.
‘Oh, Miss Penelope,’ came a wobbly voice that Tom seemed to recognise. ‘Can you come into the office for a moment?’
Miss Penelope bent down to Tom.
‘You can start taking these boxes back to class can’t you?’ she smiled down on him in such a way that made Tom blush.
‘Uh-huh,’ he stammered.
‘Good boy, I shan’t be a moment,’ she disappeared into a small office, while Tom set to work on the boxes. Picking the first one up, he realized that he was back in the reception area, and that Mr Grainger’s crinkly face was frowning down on him once again from the other side of the desk.
‘What are you doing out of class?’ he growled.
‘Just moving some boxes for Miss Penelope,’ answered Tom. ‘She’s in the office if you don’t believe me.’
Mr Grainger snorted and disappeared from view. Tom skipped back to the classroom, his arms wrapped round the first stationary box. After dropping it off next to Miss Penelope’s desk, he skipped back towards the reception desk when he heard her voice floating through the office door, which was ajar. Tom tip-toed up to it and, cocking his head sideways, leaned into the door, ear first.
‘Is that the new kid you’ve got helping you?’ asked an unknown voice.
‘Yes, strange he came early without us knowing,’ Miss Penelope’s voice seemed to stroke Tom’s ears like a feather. ‘Odd little bugger he is too, keeps on looking up at me like some lost dog. And he doesn’t seem to be able to speak.’
‘How do you mean?’ asked the unknown voice.
‘Well, he sort of stammers and splutters his words, of course I’ve only known the kid for five minutes. Maybe the poor sap should’ve stayed where he came from.’
Tom almost slid down the door, loosing his thin grip. He trudged away from the office, and gazed round at the quiet, empty entrance area. The curved, grey roof sent a chill through Tom’s bare arms.
Tom marched up to the pile of boxes, which still lay untouched at the side of the desk. He took a few steps back, then ran up to them and gave them an almighty kick. The top row of boxes spewed all over the floor, their flaps bursting. Individually packaged paperclips, pens, pencils, rulers and rubbers engulfed the floor. Tom instantly grabbed his foot and shouted in pain, hopping in circles on the other foot.
He bounced around so alarmingly and with his eyes shut tight, that he didn’t see Mr Grainger pounce out of his office and stomp towards him.
‘Hey you, what’s…’ but he got no further as Tom swivelled into him and kicked Mr Grainger in the knee with his foot still dangling in the air.
At Mr Grainger’s gut-wrenching scream, Tom eye’s flashed open and he dashed back down the corridor and made for the playground. Arms outstretched, he burst open into the now pouring rain and instantly tripped over a loose slab in the walkway, sending him into a nearby puddle. His clothes wetter and muddier than ever, he dragged himself back to his feet and scuttled round to the fence he’d entered by.
He charged along with such haste that he didn’t notice another figure, just as soggy and filthy as himself, peer up from behind a bench. Tom sprang onto the fence and clambered over it, struggling to get a footing on the damp wood poles. Once Tom was out of sight, the plump figure jiggled towards the corridor entrance, when the figure and Mr Grainger crashed into each other. Mr Grainger clawed out at the chubby mess sprawled out in the rain.
Lugging the figure inside, Mr Grainger glared down at his capture with pride gleaming in his eyes.
‘A-ha! So you thought you could escape me, eh? Max Danger, pah! I bet that’s not even your real name!’
The fleshy figure squirmed in Mr Grainger’s grasp.
‘Please sir, I’m Billy, I come from the primary school next door!’
‘You admit it then? I thought you looked too small to be a student of ours. So your name’s Billy, not Max Danger then?’
Billy began to struggle free.
‘No sir, that kid wasn’t Max, his name’s Tom.’
Mr Grainger’s face radiated purple.
‘So you have three identities, you little rut? Just you wait till the headteacher finds out about all this!’
His grip around Billy’s collar grew tighter as he yanked him down the corridor towards the reception area.
Mrs Fuller’s shoulder had gone completely numb. She had resigned to telling the swarming students in the cloakroom to be quiet and calm, while several other teachers hammered on her classroom door. Shouts of ‘has no-one got a spare key’ and ‘are you sure that kid is still in there’ echoed all around the cramped cloakroom.
The door then gave way with a start and several teachers fell over themselves, toppling to the floor. Bursts of laughter came from the cloakroom, with Mrs Fuller again telling everyone to be quiet and calm. As the teachers clambered back to their feet, a small boy dripping wet and caked in mud, seemed to sprint away from them and land on a chair next to an open window. The teachers edged towards Tom, teeth gnashing, but Mrs. Fuller surged past them, her arms flailing.
‘Oh Tom, oh there you are, you poor little man!’ she wrapped herself around Tom, who didn’t have time to prepare for the smothering. ‘Are you alright? You must’ve been locked in there for ages! Didn’t you try to knock? Oh, I must’ve been so busy knocking myself I drowned you out!’ Tom looked up from her as if in a dream.
‘Oh, er, hello Miss,’ he said. ‘Yes I’m fine, thank you.’
A roar came from within the cloakroom, and Mr Grainger erupted into the room, still clinging to Billy.
‘Is there a Mr Tom Smith here, otherwise known as Max Danger?’ he roared.
Mrs Fuller gazed at him, perplexed.
‘Er, yes, we have a Tom, he’s right…’
She turned round, one arm outstretched to display Tom, but he was no longer there.
‘Look!’ Billy shouted, pointing towards the window.
The scrambling figure of Tom could be seen dangling from outside the open window. He let go of the frame, flopped downwards, disappeared for a moment, then sprang to his feet and darted across the playground towards the exit. He’d had enough of school for one day.