Matthew J. Metzger © 2018
All Rights Reserved
This was how everything started—on a Friday afternoon, at the very end of school, three days into the summer term and in the middle of an unreasonable, unseasonable heatwave. It had been a Friday like any other until Tom Fallowfield stuck his boot in.
It went a bit like this, to Max’s admittedly patchy memory of the entire incident.
At three thirty-one, the bell rang, and he was dismissed out of his maths class. Friday was a notorious day for people being bored and at a loose end, so Max had (as was his habit) hurried off to his locker to try to get out of school before anyone caught up to him.
At three thirty-six, Max reached his locker. His fingers fumbled with the lock in a hurry, the metal loose in his grip because it was so ridiculously hot. Sweat was dampening the hair at his temples.
At three thirty-eight, his fingers slipped on the waxy cover of his geography textbook and sent the whole pile tumbling to the floor.
And at three thirty-eight and a half, a dirty Adidas trainer pressed down on said textbook just as Max reached for it.
That was kind of when Max knew he was a bit fucked.
“All right, Fatso?”
He didn’t have to look up. The trainer narrowed it down to one of two people who would stomp on the textbook he was trying to pick up, and the deep, drawling voice—like some villain out of a film—narrowed it down to one. Jazz Coles. And Jazz Coles was bad news.
Max swallowed convulsively and gathered the rest of his things to his chest protectively. He staggered back to his feet and turned to shove them all back in his locker. His hands were shaking. There was sweat breaking out on the backs of his thighs and under his arms, pooling in the joints and fleshy bits.
“Oi. You gone deaf, Fatso? All that grease clogged your ears?”
“M’just in a hurry, Jazz,” he mumbled.
“I said I’m just in a hurry,” he said a bit louder and squashed his other books into the locker haphazardly. The corridor was slowly emptying, and the emptier it got, the faster his heart was beating.
“You’re fucking rude, you are. You ought to look at someone when he’s talking to you. You want Tom to teach you some manners? Tom’s good with manners.”
“Sorry,” Max mumbled, turning hastily before the threat could be carried out. The metal of his locker bit uncomfortably into his back, pressing grooves into his skin, and he could feel his shirt beginning to stick to him. “I’m in a rush, that’s all.”
All three of them were there. Jazz Coles, Aidan Hooper, and Tom Fallowfield. Fallowfield was in Max’s year, the other two the year above. They went to some football club or something together—Max wasn’t sure. All he knew was that Jazz was the clever one, with the orders and the insults, while Aidan was the sidekick who screeched like a hyena and kept them supplied in fags and weed on a regular basis from his older brother’s grow. And Tom…
Tom was the dangerous one. When the insults stopped, Tom started. And nobody wanted Tom to start anything.
“Not got time to talk to us, then?” Jazz drawled. “Why’s that? You busy?”
“I—yes. Yes, just busy, that’s all, busy weekend…”
“Busy doing what? Got a new girlfriend?”
Tom snorted. Aidan cackled and said, “Eurgh, Jazz, man, I’ll bring up my lunch.”
“Imagine that sweaty sack of lard slithering and grunting on some poor girl. You’d crush her, wouldn’t you, Farrier?”
Max’s face heated up, and his hair stuck to his scalp. He could faintly smell his own underarms, and the metal gluing shirt to back was beginning to heat up too, at Jazz’s cool, slow delivery.
“Fatso Farrier, the flat-fucker. ’Cause that’s what she’d be once you were done. Best stick to boys, yeah? Let your boyfriend fuck you, then nobody’ll suffocate.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend.”
“Would you like one?”
“I—no, I, uh—”
“Just as well,” Jazz continued blithely. “Nobody has a drowning-in-folds fetish. So if it’s not a girlfriend or a boyfriend with some sick kinks, why’re you too busy to talk to us?”
The corridor was empty. Max started to panic.
“Answer me, Farrier!”
“I—just—plans, you know, plans…”
“What plans? Sale on at Greggs?” Jazz asked. “New bakery opened up? Or is Mummy taking pity on her lonely little wobblebottom, and baked you a chocolate cake?”
Aidan gave a whooping cackle, and Jazz kicked the forgotten geography book towards Max. It skittered across the dusty floor, hitting Max’s shoe with a dull thump.
“Best not leave that here,” Jazz said. Hands in his pockets, pale face regarding him through narrowed blue eyes, he looked calculating—and Max couldn’t figure out what he was calculating. “Oi! Fatso! Pick it up, then.”
“Thank you,” Max mumbled, hoping it would buy him a bit of a reprieve from…whatever Jazz was planning, and stooped to pick it up. His fingers scrabbled uselessly on the plastic cover, wet with anxiety.
“Thank you?” Jazz echoed. “Very polite, Fatso. Might want to make it sound fucking sincere next time.”
“Here, Jazz, fancy a game?”
That deep rumble was the only warning Max got before Tom’s boot—because of course Tom, totally mad, sadistic Tom Fallowfield, wore boots to school on a regular basis—connected with the side of his head.
Max would have liked to say that pain exploded in his head, that he saw visions of God or heard the heavenly choir, that it was like dropping into a Tim Burton movie.
Actually, he just heard a massive bang.
And then he woke up in the back of an ambulance and knew he was in deep shit.
That was how it started.
“Max, get your trainers on and let’s go.”
Max blinked at the suddenly open bedroom door and Aunt Donna’s skinny frame doing an impressive job of filling the gap.
“I have errands to run, and as your mum’s at work and you’re not, you’re going to help me.”
“But Mum said I’m supposed to rest.”
“You’re perfectly fine,” Aunt Donna retorted. “They only kept you in to stop your mum fussing so much. There’s nothing wrong with you. Now get a T-shirt and shorts on and get in the van.”
“In the van? We’re going out?”
“That would be why you need trainers,” she returned and stalked out. Aunt Donna stalked most places, so Max tried not to take it personally, but…still. He had a headache. She’d have a headache too, if Tom Fallowfield had kicked her in the head with a pair of brand new Timberlands on.
But then, there was no arguing with Aunt Donna, so Max heaved his bulk off the bed—which groaned appreciatively—and switched off the TV. He’d been working his way through Ashes to Ashes, one of Aunt Donna’s favourites, but it would have to wait.
Max had been taken to hospital, because Tom had knocked him out. Mum had cried her eyes out, and they’d kept him in until Saturday lunchtime before releasing him. He’d just had a headache anyway, the doctor said, and he ought to be more careful when larking about with his friends. But it wasn’t the headache that was worrying Max. It was the whole kicked in the head thing. On purpose. He’d never lark about with Tom Fallowfield—he wasn’t suicidal.
Tom had never kicked him in the head. Shoved it into the urinals in the boys’ toilets occasionally, and he’d pissed on him once doing that too, but he’d never kicked him in the head. And Max could remember Jazz laughing. Jazz had thought it was hilarious, and what if it wasn’t just a one-off? What if…?
“Max! Hurry up!”
Max pushed away the what-ifs and pulled on a pair of shorts, the waistband cutting a groove into his gut. They were meant to be baggy, but weren’t really, and bunched up his boxers uncomfortably. The T-shirt was properly baggy, but the slogan had stretched from Max’s body forcing the shirt to expand with it, and the letters were misshapen and grotesque. Even his trainers were sagging. His fat ankles had pushed the tops open too wide, the laces struggling to hold the shoes tight over his boat-like feet.
But Max was used to all that. It was the heat when he lumbered downstairs and stepped out of the house that nearly knocked him flat.
“Oh my God,” he said to Aunt Donna, who was already in the driver’s seat of her battered work van. She smirked and jerked her head at the passenger seat, big sunglasses already in place.
“Bit warm, isn’t it?”
The T-shirt was already sticking to Max’s chest, sweat lines beginning to form under his breasts—and yes, he had them. Jazz particularly enjoyed throwing water at him at school so they’d show through his white shirt, and calling him a lardy girl disguised as a lardier boy. The seatbelt didn’t help, plastering a thick damp line right between them. Max rolled his window all the way down, barely resisting the urge to stick his head out like a dog, as Aunt Donna rolled the van backwards off the driveway and forced it into gear with a hefty clang.
“How’s your face feel?”
Max shrugged. “S’okay.” Half of it was brown and purple, but it looked worse than it felt.
“Enough’s enough, Max.”
Max worried at his bottom lip, twisting the thick flesh between his front teeth.
“Three schools you’ve been through, and all of them you’ve been bullied. You can’t keep swapping schools forever.”
“You’re already behind in your schoolwork, and your teachers are all telling your mum that you’re not pulling your weight in class.”
“You’re going to throw your future away—”
“It’s not my fault,” Max protested. “I don’t ask them to do it!”
“You’re a target,” Aunt Donna said firmly. “You don’t stand up for yourself and—”
“He kicked me in the head!”
“For goodness’ sake, Max, you’re a big man! You—”
“Fatso Farrier, that’s me.”
“I said big, not fat,” Aunt Donna returned. “You’re tall and broad, the weight notwithstanding. Even if you lost it all and turned into an Olympic athlete, you’d still be a big man. You’re like your father in that respect, and he wasn’t fat by any means. And a big man like you—especially at your age, you’ll probably get even bigger before you’re through, I reckon you’ll see six-foot easy—has no excuse for not even attempting to defend himself.”
Max squirmed uncomfortably. “I don’t like fighting,” he mumbled.
“You don’t have to like it, but you have to know how to do it.” Aunt Donna swung the van off at the wrong exit from a roundabout, and Max frowned in confusion as they headed away from the shops and any errands he’d supposed she had to run. Brilliant. The ‘errand’ was a talking-to where Mum couldn’t stick up for him, then.
“I can’t fight.”
“Everyone can learn how.”
“Well, I can’t.”
“Yes, you bloody well will. You’re letting smaller, cowardly little bastards beat you up for shits and giggles and not lifting a finger to defend yourself. It’s not your fault they look to you in the first place, but you have a lot of control over whether they come back for seconds.”
“But Mum says violence—”
“Your mum has had a nice, sheltered life where she’s never been truly threatened.” Her voice softened ever so slightly. “You and I know better, Max. Being a pacifist when someone’s trying to kick your head in is just stupid. You have to know how to defend yourself.”
“I could just fall on them,” Max mumbled.
Aunt Donna snorted and swung the van into what looked like an old warehouse yard. Little brick-built units surrounded a central parking court, with a garage at one end belching heavy metal and the shrill sound of drilling into the sticky-hot air. A greasy-spoon cafe was at the other end, blocked in by other, dirtier work vans, and farting the greasy smell of beans and burnt sausages over the melting tarmac.
“Breakfast?” Max asked hopefully.
“You wish,” Aunt Donna said. “Come on.” She jumped down, light as anything, while Max tumbled, nearly stumbling to his knees as the heat assaulted him again. “I know the bloke who runs this place—his brother’s a regular at the shop, television engineer or something like that…”
“Okay,” Max said as Aunt Donna rummaged in the back of the van and chucked a rucksack at him. “What’s that got to do with me?”
She just walked off. Kind of like the stalking around thing, that was Aunt Donna to a T, so Max shouldered the bag and followed her, thinking she was going to buy him a punching bag for the back garden or something stupid like that.
The unit Aunt Donna’s mate’s brother ran was between a building supplies business and a carpet fitters. It was barely a window and a door, paint peeling off the walls, and a damp little room beyond. Aunt Donna simply signed her name on a piece of paper on the unattended desk inside and stomped up a narrow flight of stairs into—
Into a huge, cavernous space—obviously the top floor across all the units in this row. At the end of the unnecessarily large lobby area was a manned, tidy desk, with a long corridor of doors stretching out behind it. There was music, and the dank mix of sweat and Lynx deodorant, and—worst of all—posters upon posters on the walls.
“No,” he said to Aunt Donna.
A boy at the desk looked up at his voice, and a huge, ridiculously white smile bloomed across his thin face. He was tall and skinny, maybe twenty years old, with long dreadlocks and a face full of metal.
“Auntie Donna!” he crowed in a faint Caribbean accent, oddly mixed with Cornish. ‘Auntie’ was ‘Anty,’ but ‘Donna’ was dragged out longer in the South West fashion, and Max blinked, startled at the mix. “How you been, Auntie? You been avoiding the scene?”
“Just busy, Cal,” Aunt Donna said, leaning over the desk to hug him briefly. “Got a wedding to plan, haven’t I? Can’t be playing the scene with seating arrangements in my head!”
“Ah, more fool you, Auntie Donna! Always play the scene,” Cal returned jovially and then beamed at Max.
“Cal, this is my stepson, Max. I called Lewis about setting something up for him. Is he around?”
“Second bag room,” Cal said, and Aunt Donna’s hand clamped down like a claw on Max’s shoulder. “He’s with Cian on warm-up—I can hear the music. Just go right in. Pete has the main classes today.”
“Special treatment for me, huh?” Aunt Donna shoved Max down the corridor. It was cooler there, but the music was louder—”Eye of the Tiger”—and there were no windows, giving it a slightly close, grim feel.
“I’m not boxing,” Max said.
“No, you’re not,” Aunt Donna replied. “This is Muay Thai, not western boxing. Far more intensive as a workout, far more dangerous in a street fight.”
“I’m not…Muay…Thai-ing either!”
“Yes, you bloody well are,” Aunt Donna retorted. “I’m sick of watching you coming and going from school like someone’s murdered your puppy every damn day, and I’m sick of your mum worrying and crying over it. You are perfectly capable of defending yourself, but you’ve let those bullies into your head. Your problem isn’t that you’re fat or you’re out of shape, Max, it’s your confidence. A kid who walks around like he owns the place doesn’t get challenged nearly as much as the kid who hides in the shadows. You have a bullseye painted on your back, and Lewis can get rid of it.”
“But I don’t want to—”
“You want to get kicked in the head by that idiot Fallowfield lad instead, is that it?”
“No buts. I’ve signed you up for sixteen weeks of—”
“—intensive, personal training with Lewis. It’ll build your self-esteem and your confidence, and that’s what you need, Max. End of story.”
“And if I refuse to come?”
Aunt Donna folded her arms over her chest. “If you miss even two sessions of your sixteen-week course here—no job at the shop when your GCSEs are over.”
Max paled. Aunt Donna worked in an independent electronics shop that offered electronics apprenticeships to any of the local teenagers who wanted to be a skivvy for shit pay. It was Max’s ticket out of school—if he was on an apprenticeship, he wouldn’t have to attend sixth form with Jazz and his cronies anymore.
“You wouldn’t,” he croaked.
“But—but Aunt Donna—I’d have to—I’d have to go to school!”
“You’d have to face those idiots for two more years,” Aunt Donna agreed. She stuck her chin out and raised her eyebrows. “So you can do that, with no tools to defend yourself, or you can do this and still have the chance to turn tail and run once you’re sixteen. It’s up to you.”
Except it wasn’t, because what kind of a horrible choice was that? Max stared at the floor, at his boat-like trainers, and scowled.
“Fine,” he mumbled and pushed open the door behind which “Eye of the Tiger” had clicked over into a fast-paced version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Just in time to see a stocky black man in red boxing gloves smash his fist forward, and a skinny blond kid go crashing to the floor.
“Max,” Aunt Donna said, “meet Lewis.”