A Short Story by Simon Downham-Knight
I’m at my new friend Stan’s for a barbecue in his garden. His kids have eaten their fill and are now indoors on the Playstation and his wife, who has been drinking since lunchtime, has fallen asleep on the sun lounger. He’s finally getting round to cooking some burgers for us, when a wasp starts bothering him. He freaks right out trying to swat this thing but all he manages to do is make it really angry and it stings him on the nose. Stan is almost apoplectic with rage and he goes into this long rant about how much he hates wasps and how he won’t be happy until the blight of wasps are wiped off the face of the earth forever, when I decide to tell him about it.
Here is what I tell him.
I was bullied at school, and not just a little bit. I was put in hospital several times from the various kickings, shovings, beatings and steamings I received. It got so bad in one school, that I was moved to another school. It wasn’t long though, before it started happening there. By the time I was a plump thirteen-year-old, I got to feeling that I was cursed somehow. A marked boy. They could see I was a victim as soon as they laid eyes on me. I would be beaten up in school. I would be beaten up on my way home by kids from other schools. I would go home, and my father would beat me, and my mum would watch. I told the teachers and they told me they’d keep an eye out, but it never happened in front of them. I told my mother and she told me to turn the other cheek, like Jesus said. One time, I came home after a particularly nasty beating and she forced me to say that I forgave them for what they had done to me. I then had to pray for them. In a lot of ways, this hurt me more than the beatings. Thanks mum. There was no escape from it.
A new P.E. teacher started at the school, Mister Burns. He was short, athletic, very ginger and covered from head to toe in freckles. He appeared to be friends with the sitting P.E. teacher, Mister Hines. One day, while waiting in line to go into the gym, a load of boys decided to steam me. This meant that I was completely surrounded by around seven boys and they would all punch down on my face and body until I had collapsed onto the floor; then they would give me a proper kicking. This happened regularly and the trick, for me, would be to go down as quickly as possible and curl up into a ball, so their kicks would just be on my back, not in the face. On this particular day, Mister Burns saw this happening and broke it up.
“Oi, oi, what the hell are you doing?” He said, as he dramatically pulled the boys apart and helped me to my feet. As he dusted me down, he said. “You should be ashamed of yourselves. What has this boy done to deserve this?” He looked around at my assailants, waiting for an answer but received none. They just stood around looking gormless. “Huh?” He said, eyes now blazing the colour of his cheeks. Still, nobody said anything, so he took me by the shoulder and led me along the line of gawping boys into the gym building and into a small office that had a desk, three chairs, a kettle, some mugs, tea bags, sugar and milk. He sat me down in one of the chairs, then yanked one of the other chairs over to me with a scrape and lifted his leg over the back of it and plonked himself down astride it, backwards.
“Are you ok, son?” He said.
“I guess so.” I said. “A bit sore all over but I’ll get over it. It’s nothing that hasn’t happened before, like a thousand times.” He leaned across and touched a scrape on my cheek. I flinched away from the pain.
“Sorry.” He said and smiled. “You’ve been in the wars.”
“Yeah.” I said. “They get me when I’m waiting in line before classes. Especially P.E.” He tapped his forefinger on his bottom lip.
“Would it help if you didn’t have to wait in line?” He said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Well, you could come straight in here and sit with me until they’re all getting changed and you could slip in and join them.” He told me he would keep an eye out for me. Protect me. And he did. I didn’t have to get my head kicked in before P.E. He would let me sit in his office and make me cups of tea. Sometimes he’d have biscuits. First a packet of Rich Tea, then Bourbons, then a four pack of Wagon Wheels and best of all a Rover Assorted Biscuits tin.
“What, the whole pack?” I said, incredulously and he smiled and nodded as I ripped off the sealing tape and tucked in. I couldn’t believe my luck.
I’m not saying that the bullying completely stopped. It didn’t but things definitely calmed down there for a while. I think the kids could see that Mister Burns had taken me under his wing and doing me over was more trouble than it was worth for them. In fact, the only kids that would pick on me were the older ones who had no idea about me and Burns’ little arrangement.
One day, Mister Burns seemed a bit skittish and wasn’t chatty like he normally was. He hardly said anything before lesson. Just as I was going in to have a shower and get changed, he asked me to come to his office before I left, so I did.
“I’m having a little party at my house.” He said. “On Saturday afternoon, and I’d like you to come along. I have some people I’d like you to meet.” It made my tummy turn over and I felt funny inside. Unsettled, like.
“Okay.” I said. “Sure, I’d like that.” He smiled nervously and pushed a folded piece of paper into the breast pocket of my blazer. When I got outside the gym, I unfolded it. It had an address on it with 3pm underlined, twice.
That piece of paper burned as it sat in my breast pocket for the rest of the day. I had never been invited to a teacher’s house before and had never heard of anyone else being. Was it okay? Is that something they’re supposed to do.
“I’ve been invited to a party at a teacher’s house on Saturday afternoon.” I said to my mum later that day, when I got home.
“Have you, dear? That’s nice.” She said breezily, as she sprayed Pledge on the sideboard and polished it.
“Is it okay if I go?” I asked, actually hoping that she would say, no.
“I don’t see why not.” She said and carried on with her polishing. It evidently didn’t seem weird to her, so why should it seem weird to me? Does it seem weird to you?” I asked Stan, who now had a big red swelling on the end of his nose that he had smothered in anthisan.
“Yes, it seems weird.” Stan said. “Fucking weird. And even more weird that your mum didn’t find it weird.” He stuck his spatula under the burger and flipped it over with a mighty sizzle.
“Well, she didn’t, she had this total trust of people in positions of power, which rubbed off on me, up to a certain point. I think a lot of people from her generation did. Teachers, policemen, priests, people who worked in children’s homes, they all got a pass. It didn’t even cross her mind that someone like that might have something dodgy in mind. I did feel a bit funny about it but because she seemed to think it was all right, I thought I would go.”
On the Saturday morning I went to my friend Lucas’s house. I was wearing an electric blue hoodie with a kangaroo pocket in the front. I had an Alba personal stereo that just had three buttons, play, stop and fast forward. If you wanted to rewind, you had to flip the cassette over and fast forward. It came with headphones with a chrome headband and bright orange foam over the speakers. I had been listening to the Pipes of Peace album by Paul McCartney that I had bought with a WH Smith voucher I got for Christmas. We lay around in his room reading his collection of 2000ad comics, drinking sweet tea and trying to outdo each other with our drawings of muscular men brandishing big weapons. I hadn’t told him about the party and the piece of paper continued to burn a hole in my pocket.
“Do you think it’s normal for a teacher to invite a student to his house for a party?” I said and he stopped drawing and looked at me.
“If I was a hot girl and a teacher invited me over, I might be suspicious.” He said. “If it was Miss Spargo inviting me to a party at her place and it was a party for two, I’d have no complaints. She could have me any time!” We both giggled as we thought about the very strict but very curvy and beautiful Miss Spargo sorting out Lucas in her flat. “Why do you ask? Lucas said, seriously. I felt my stomach turn over again and thought about saying nothing for a minute.
“Mister Burns has invited me to a party at his place, this afternoon.” I blurted out. He looked confused.
“Burns?!? He said. “What’s the deal with you and Burns?”
“What do you mean? Nothing.” I said.
“I’ve seen you in there with him.” He said. “Drinking tea. Eating biscuits. It doesn’t seem right, like odd. It seems even worse now you’ve told me about this party.”
“Odd how?” I said. “He just doesn’t want me getting steamed all the time, that’s all.”
“I dunno.” He said. “It just seems odd to me.” He looked at me seriously. “I wouldn’t go.” I felt really conflicted. We continued our drawings for a while.
“He’s really helped me though.” I said. “It’s like, he’s been protecting me from all the attacks. I can just go to school and get on with it. I feel almost normal. What if I don’t go and he stops letting me in his office. It’ll all just start up again.” Lucas maintained eye contact for a while and then shrugged and went back to his picture.
Later on, we went to the park for a bit and at two o’clock I told Lucas that I was leaving for Mister Burns’ party.
“Really?” He said.
“Really.” I said. He shrugged and we headed back towards his house, which was also on the way to Mister Burns’ house. As we approached the corner, I heard a buzzing and felt something angrily bouncing between my neck and the chrome headband of my headphones. I shook my head and shoulders and grabbed the neck of my hoodie and gave it a good shake. That seemed to do the trick; the buzzing stopped, and we continued on our way. A sharp, searing pain in my middle back caused me to jolt upright. What the fuck was that?!? Another one and then another had me running up the street, screaming out and trying to get my hoodie off, leaving Lucas standing there, dumbfounded. Another, then another, then another, then another. In my panic I dropped my personal stereo on the ground but continued running up the street, screaming. I kept losing grip of my clothing and it just kept on stinging me. By the time I had managed to get my hoodie over my head and watched that bastard fly away, the wasp had stung me nine times. Nine times!
I sat on a wall and waited for the pain to subside. It took a long time and by the time I felt well enough to walk, three o’clock had come and gone. When I told Lucas I wasn’t going to Burns’ party, he looked relieved and I felt relieved. I went home to my mother where she confirmed, from the red swellings on my back, that I had, indeed, been stung nine times. She washed the stings in soapy water and put hydrocortisone cream on them and made me a mug of sweet tea for the shock. On Monday, I went into Mister Burns’ office and told him what had happened.
“That’s a shame.” He said, not looking up from his Daily Sun. “It was fun.” After that, his office was always locked when I went there before P.E. There were no more cups of tea. No more biscuits. No more protection. As it turned out, it wouldn’t be too long before something snapped inside me when I was being picked on and I turned round and punched the kid in the face knocking him down on his arse. I lost that stink of fear that day and was never bullied again.
Soon after that, Mister Burns disappeared. So did another boy, called Colin, who was also being bullied. When Colin came back to school months later, he was changed somehow. I heard some playground talk that Mister Burns had invited Colin to a party at his house on a Saturday afternoon and stuff had gone down. I think of that story whenever anyone gets stung by a wasp or talks about how evil and useless wasps are. I thought Mister Burns was saving me, but it turned out the wasp saved me from Mister Burns and then I had to save myself.
“That’s a crazy story.” Stan says but I can tell he’s uncomfortable, and I start feeling odd, like I have over-shared. Said way too much to somebody I have only been friends with for a few weeks. “I wonder what the scores are in the Arsenal Chelsea game?” He says and I shrug, take a bite out of my burger and look up at the big black storm clouds that are heading our way. “I fucking hate wasps!” He says.
Simon Downham-Knight – Copyright 2021