‘On your marks…’
Two ten year old Scottish schoolchildren, a petite peely-wally boy with an unkempt golden haystack of hair hanging in his eyes, and a tall and lean girl with large pink-framed glasses and a dark cloud of curly hair, are poised at the end of a long corridor in Southwood Primary School.
They both loved to run. And race. And they would often have their own little competitions. Who is the fastest? And sometimes, who is the strongest? They had a special game, called Deid Arm, where they would sneak up on each and try to punch each other on the upper arm, so that it goes limp. A dead arm. They were evenly matched, the girl could give as good as she got. Many a time the boy would be engrossed in an assignment, when…Wham! The girl would catch him unaware with a right hook. And they would laugh as his arm would flop down by his side. She’d left many a bruise.
‘Go!’ the boy blurts, and they both tear away from their agreed start line.
First to the end of the corridor, the finishing line.
They both move like brats out of hell. Running in the corridors was against the school rules. But this added new stakes to the game. Who is the bravest? They enjoyed their little games together. And breaking the rules.
The boy, with shorter legs runs like a knackered hamster on a wheel. His mother’s burnt outsider breakfast offering had long worn off and the boy is already feeling the hunger pang sapping his energy as he runs. But he runs. He can’t lose against a girl.
The girl, with long lean legs, runs in an awkward manner, gangly with knees together, much like a young giraffe falling over its own feet, but she is strong and determined and keeping pace with the scrambling boy.
Halfway down the corridor, disaster. The girl ungracefully trips over her own feet and tumbles to the carpeted floor. The boy notices out of the corner of his eye and turns to her as he runs. She hits the ground hard. There is a brief moment where he sees opportunity and considers running on to another victory. But it is soon overridden with concern for his friend, and he skids to a halt. He turns and runs back to her. She is embarrassed and is already picking herself up off the floor to compensate, despite clearly being in discomfort. She grimaces as the boy helps her to her feet. He scoops up her glasses.
‘You okay, Dawn?’ the boy asks, handing the girl her glasses.
‘Yeah, I think so,’ she says, putting on her specs, and rubbing her elbows and knees. ‘I just fell. These damn legs.’
She looks down at them disdainfully.
The boy sees her frustration and tries to lighten her mood. He always knew how to make her laugh. Like the time he pretended that he had glued his hand to the table, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t move his hand, until she believed his hand was actually stuck. When he revealed he was faking, it was another small victory for him, and she knew it, but she laughed anyway. Fair play.
‘It’s like you want to go so fast that your legs can’t even keep up!’ he offers.
She smiles and glimpses at the boy. There is something in her eye that he does not recognise. She is hiding something.
The boy reckons that she may have hurt herself more than she is letting on.
‘Listen, maybe it was a dumb idea, we don’t have to finish the stupid race if…’
But before he can finish his sentence, the girl takes off down the corridor in one swift movement. The boy instantly realises what she had been concealing in her gaze, and he smiles. Fair play. He turns and quickly assesses the situation. She isn’t too far ahead. Perhaps he still has a chance. He runs after her, pumping his scrawny arms and legs for the win.
But as he gains on her slightly, he knows she has outsmarted him this time. She reaches the double doors at the end of the corridor, still at full steam ahead, and slams into the double doors. She really wanted this victory. Needed it. And she got it.
The boy catches up and they huff and puff, out of breath, for a short time.
‘Very nicely, and sneakily, done. You never cease to surprise me, Dawn,’ the boy smiles, trying to lose gracefully. ‘Not bad for a girl…with bandy legs.’
Dawn laughs unabashedly. She is beaming and elated with her win, but she has suffered for her effort. She reaches down and rubs her knees again.
‘Thanks, Robert,’ she says. ‘I paid for it,’ she says, grimacing slightly as she rubs her wrists, one after the other. ‘But it was worth it,’ she smiles, gazing into his eyes.
He smiles. Her eyes gloat, but she deserved this one.
‘Well, I thought it was awesome, falling and still beating me!?’
She beams again.
‘Yeah, yeah, you go ahead and bask in the glory,’ Robert says, narrowing his eyes. ‘It’ll be short-lived.’
Dawn just laughs, delighted with herself and the attention.
A teacher comes charging through the double doors, almost colliding with the children. She is short and dumpy, with short chestnut hair. In her fifties and dressed in drab grey office attire. She is the school receptionist, Mrs Stark. And not only in name. Also in nature. She pauses, looking down her long round nose at them, with suspicion.
‘What are you pair doing?’ she asks, bluntly.
Dawn seems to panic and shuffles, unsteadily, on her feet. She never could get used to authority. But Robert had long learned how to talk his way out of trouble, having been in a lot of trouble in his short life.
‘We are heading back to class, Mrs Stark, we were at the toilet.’
Mrs Stark considers the information for a moment and then seems to revert to the formal spiel.
‘It is strictly forbidden for children to congregate in the corridors.’
‘Yes, I agree, Mrs Stark, we can’t condone children casually congregating in the corridors,’ Robert teases, holding Mrs Stark’s glare.
Dawn lowers her head trying to conceal her smile and stifle her amusement.
‘Yes, well, children are expected to return from toilet breaks as quickly and quietly as possible. So I suggest you both do that,’ Mrs Stark says, her eyes rolling slightly and her eyelids fluttering as she struggles with her own sense of authority.
‘Will do, Mrs Stark,’ Robert smiles.
Mrs Stark just stares at him, leaning slightly away from him, as if he is a dangerous cobra that could strike any moment. She shuffles passed them and takes off down the corridor.
‘Better get back to class,’ Dawn says.
Robert gets another hunger pang and his stomach rumbles. He groans and holds his stomach.
‘You okay?’ Dawn asks.
‘Yeah, just hungry.’
‘Well, lunchtime is only an hour away.’
Robert takes a deep breath through his nose. There is a sweet and savoury aroma lingering in the air. He now becomes aware of the distant sounds of plates, cutlery and pots crashing, tinkling and clanging together. The dinner-ladies in full swing.
‘Race you back to class?’ Robert suggests.
Dawn laughs and shakes her head.
‘I think my knees have taken enough punishment. Quit while ahead, eh?’
They turn and push open the double doors and make their way back to class.
After an agonisingly slow hour, the dinner bell rings and Robert hurriedly makes his way to the canteen to see what goodies the dinner ladies have rustled up. He is hoping for pizza. As he enters the large assembly hall that doubled as the school canteen, the folding tables and chairs are all laid out and many seats are occupied. There is a steady din, as children and staff chatter and eat.
Robert looks at the blackboard where the daily menu is written in chalk. No pizza today. He is disappointed. He settles for brisket and potatoes with gravy. He had been dreaming about pizza and feels frustrated as he joins the dinner queue. But he soon lightens up when he sees Dawn, already seated at a nearby table, eating her lunch with a friend. She is always seated first. And she is completely unaware of his presence.
Robert knows he has a chance here. To get in a sneaky victory, in return for Dawn’s sneaky tactics earlier. He quickly tip-toes up to her and lands a right jab on her right arm. Her friend gasps, but Dawn just bursts out laughing as she holds her sore arm.
‘Deid arm!’ Robert cries, laughing, and hurries back to re-join the dinner queue.
‘I’ll get you back!’ Dawn warns, after him.
And Robert knows she will. But he grins, satisfied with having the upper hand for now.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ asks an infuriated red headed boy, standing in the queue next to Robert, who had witnessed the scene. Robert turns to him.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I saw what you just did.’
‘So? How would you like it if I came up and punched you in the arm?’
‘No wait, you don’t understand, I do that all the time.’
‘What!?’ the boy asks, taking a threatening step forward.
‘No,’ Robert says, raising his hands, ‘what I mean is that it’s a game.’
The boy looks even more exasperated.
‘That we both play,’ Robert adds.
Dawn and her friend have noticed the confrontation and are now watching. As are other children.
‘Seems a little unfair to me,’ the boy says, looking Robert up and down.
‘Well, because…’ the boy says, glancing over at Dawn. ‘Because she’s a…’
‘Girl?’ Robert interrupts. ‘Don’t worry about that, she’s given me a few crackers…’
‘I was going to say… a spastic! You can’t just go around punching a spastic.’
The canteen has fallen quiet as most of the children are now engaged with the commotion. Robert’s eyes meet Dawn’s. There is a deep sadness in her eyes and she blushes hard, embarrassed at the attention drawn to her disability. Dawn has cerebral palsy. It is slowly crippling her, and has already taken a major toll on her body. As a result, she is bow-legged and has mobility difficulties. But she can run, and she is fast. And she is strong. And her disability was never an issue or a focus in their friendship.
As Dawn and Robert stare at each other from across the canteen, they share an unspoken understanding of how the outraged boy has inadvertently offended and isolated her by trying to ‘stick up’ for her. Perhaps his heart was in the right place. But for Robert, he never treated Dawn like an invalid. Or a disabled person. Or a spastic. He treated her as an equal. And Dawn realised that their competitiveness and friendship was proof of this. She didn’t want special treatment. She didn’t want cotton wool wrapped around her. She just wanted to be treated like any other ordinary child, despite her illness.
As more of the children take notice, they gawk at Dawn.
‘What happened?’ someone asks.
‘He hit a spaz,’ someone else answers.
Dawn lowers her head and quietly sobs, overwhelmed by the awkward moment.
‘See,’ the redheaded boy blurts, becoming enraged. ‘You’ve made her cry.’
He rushes at Robert and they grapple.
‘You don’t understand…’ Robert tries to explain, ‘We’re…friends…’
But the children have broken out into a yelling rabble as they gather around the scuffle.
An unamused teacher is soon over, breaking up the fight.
‘What is the meaning of this behaviour?’ the teacher demands, a tall man, with tawny-brown hair and a moustache, and small but frightfully piercing dark eyes, called Mr Dobbin.
‘He started it,’ Robert says, poking a finger at the redhead.
Mr Dobbin turns to the boy.
‘Is this true?’
‘It is, sir, but only because I saw him hitting that spastic,’ he admits, and points to Dawn.
Everyone gawks at Dawn again and she lowers her head again, and begins to sob. Mr Dobbin turns to her and notices she is upset. He becomes very concerned and turns to Robert.
‘You did what?’ he asks, with a look of disgust on his face.
‘You don’t understand, it’s just a game…’
Mr Dobbin lunges at Robert and grips him by his shirt collar and begins to march him out of the canteen.
‘Let’s go,’ Mr Dobbin says, sternly, ‘you can explain this sick slap the spaz game of yours to the headmaster.’
Some of the children laugh.
‘Okay everyone, back to your lunch,’ Mr Dobbin says, raising his voice.
Robert and Dawn glance at each other again as he is brashly escorted out of the canteen. Dawn looks devastated. Robert winks at her.
‘In trouble again!’ he calls out to her, as he is dragged away.
And just before he is pulled away through the canteen double doors, he notices her eyes twinkle and she smiles. She holds her arm.
‘I’m due you one’ she calls out.
Robert smiles and disappears as the double doors swing closed.