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Authors: Anthony McGowan

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BOOK: The Knife That Killed Me
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But they can do other things. One of the things they do is humiliate you. If you shame and degrade a kid, you know the other kids will do the rest for you. For some reason the teachers never seem to bother much with the hard kids, the troublemakers. The ones they hate are the quiet ones. Not just any of the quiet ones, but the quiet ones who aren’t interested in them, the ones who are always looking into themselves.

The lost kids. The freaks. Yeah, you got it: Shane and his gang.

I never quite got why the teachers hated them. Maybe it’s because people don’t like it when they aren’t in on the secret, and the freaks went around like they had it—I mean, the Big Secret, the one we all want to know.

The best example of a teacher who loved humiliation, who relished and ate it like some sickly delicacy—Turkish delight, or marzipan—was Mrs. Eel. After break, after my talk with Roth, I had French with her. Mrs. Eel taught French to the kids who weren’t very good at French, and I think that pissed her off.

You learned pretty quick to be careful around her.

A big mistake was calling her Miss—rather than Mrs.—Eel. The way she’d react, well, you’d think you’d called her Mad Bitch or something. Another mistake was to
find whatever exercise she had set too easy or too hard. If you made a mistake like that, she would talk quietly to begin with, so you strained to hear what she was saying, and then suddenly she’d scream, and her eyes would be insane, and sometimes a little bit of spit would fly out.

Other days she’d just be bored, and then she’d pick on someone for no reason at all, some pathetic loner, some harmless wisp of a boy, or a shy girl struggling to come to terms with her body, or a fat kid, or one raddled with acne.

Having found herself a victim, she would spend the entire lesson mauling him or her with a feline grace it was hard not to admire. And the worst thing was that she would draw the rest of us into it.

I went into the class with my head down. Mrs. Eel was sitting behind her desk with her back to the class and her feet up on the windowsill. That was bad news.

The class was all right, meaning there weren’t any kids there to be scared of, just Mrs. Eel. But there was one thing about the class. I sort of said it earlier. That girl was in it, the one who got hit by the football.

Getting hit by the ball was typical of Maddy Bray. She was unlucky. The most unlucky thing about her was how she looked. I mean, how she looked combined with her name. Bray isn’t a beautiful name, and maybe someone called Bray is always going to get some stick. But if you’re called Bray and you have a long, horsy face, well, then you’re in trouble.

You know that thing you can do, when you have to put everyone you know, or everyone who comes through a door,
into one of two groups—currant bun or horse. Currant bun means round face. Horse means long face. Well, Maddy was definitely horse.

But that makes her sound worse than she was. Because horse can go either way. I mean, sometimes horse can be bad, but sometimes it can be good. Currant bun is usually in the middle somewhere. I don’t think you could say that Maddy was beautiful to look at. But there was something about her face that made you want to look at it, that made you want to stare. And I don’t mean the way you would at something terrible, some really bad birthmark. It was just the feeling that you could never quite get to the bottom of her face. Sorry, that sounds stupid. I don’t know what I mean, really, except that her face was something I found it hard not to look at.

Like I said, Maddy was in the Shane gang, but she wasn’t that good at it—being a freak, that is. She never got the look quite right. She was tight where she should have been baggy, and baggy where she should have been tight. And she knew this—knew that she wasn’t there—but didn’t know enough to put it right. She was so conscious of her failings that she spoke to almost no one, and moved silently, like a shadow, through the school, looking at nothing but her own big feet.

Maddy was clever, or at least she was in the top set for most things, so I don’t know how she ended up in Eel’s class with me. I suppose you can’t be good at everything. But the trouble was that even if she wasn’t great at French, she was better than the rest of us, and that was a dangerous thing
with Mrs. Eel. And so Mrs. Eel loathed her. Someone who knew all about what goes on inside other people’s heads might say that she hated her because she feared that she might be a little bit like her, and that can be reason enough for hating if you’re afraid of what you might be. And someone with a simpler view of things might say that she hated her because she was a hating person, and that asking why Mrs. Eel hated Maddy Bray was like asking why a kid likes the taste of sugar.

All year I’d winced and squirmed as Mrs. Eel tormented Maddy. She’d make her read out the most difficult passages, things that no one else in the class would have got anywhere with. And Maddy would struggle through, with Mrs. Eel not just correcting her every word, but actually laughing at her, laughing in her face.

And there were other, slyer tricks.

There was a kid in the class called Mark Hampson who stank of piss. I don’t know why he stank of piss. He didn’t look dirty. Usually looked quite smart, in fact. Maybe he was a bed wetter or something. Mrs. Eel made us sit in alphabetical order. Quite a few teachers did it, as a way of making sure you couldn’t sit next to your friends. About halfway through the first term, by which time she’d worked out both that Hampson stank and that she hated Maddy Bray, she changed the system so that it was based on your first name, which meant Maddy and Mark were together. It was little touches like this that made Mrs. Eel special. Attention to detail, I suppose you’d call it.

I was sitting at the back of the class, keeping my profile low. Mrs. Eel had written up an exercise on the white board. She hadn’t even spoken to us, but just waved at the board. My mind wasn’t on the class—it never was. But now I had more to think about than usual. The chewing gum in my hair; the strange talk with Roth.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Mrs. Eel was starting to fidget, leaning her chin first on her right hand, then on her left. I guessed that this meant trouble, and I slipped further down in my chair. And then I saw Mrs. Eel fix her gaze on Maddy Bray. Maddy had finished the exercise, and had made the mistake of putting her pen down.

A little smile flickered across Mrs. Eel’s mouth, like a cockroach skittering across the lino.

“So, finished already,
she said, her words hardly a whisper. But she’d managed to make the word Maddy sound like something you’d scrape off your shoe.

“Yes, Miss … Mrs. Eel.”

That was lucky. Sort of.

“It would seem we’re not really stretching you in this class, are we?”

“No, Mrs…. I mean, yes, Mrs. Eel.”

“Perhaps we’re boring you?”

The rest of the class were alert now, aware that something was happening. And I sensed the general relief that it was happening to this outsider, this half-emo girl.


“Yes, Mrs. Eel?”

“Do you know the French for ‘donkey’?”

“No, Mrs. Eel.”

“Do you know the French word for the sound a donkey makes?”

“No, Mrs. Eel.”

“Can you make a sound like a donkey?”

“No, Mrs. Eel.”

“Yes you can, Bray.”

“Please, Mrs. Eel, don’t.”

“Make a sound like a donkey, Bray.”

“Please …”

“Bray, Bray. What does a donkey look like, Bray?”

“Don’t know, Mrs. Eel.”

“Look in the mirror, Bray.”

All sounds a bit lame? You forget the power of humiliation. You don’t realize what a gift this was to the class arseholes. But more than that, all of us were sucked in by the teacher’s dominance and contempt. The class was half loving it. It was a Christian thrown to the lions, and we were the people of Rome, cheering on each bite. Except there wasn’t any cheering, just silent glee.

I couldn’t stand it. There were kids in the class who might have deserved that kind of treatment, but not poor long-faced Maddy Bray. And I think I still had some leftover anger from what had happened to me earlier. Anger mixed up with the embarrassment of not having done anything about it, and then of feeling overpowered by Roth.

If I’d been a different kind of person, I might have been
able to say something funny or clever to make it stop. But that’s not me. I’m not funny or clever. So I did something else. I didn’t know what it was going to be until I started doing it, although the truth is it was something I’d day-dreamed about before, as a way of escaping. I’d even looked it up on the Internet, seen some photos and even a couple of short video sequences.

So I fell off my chair. Then I started shaking. Really shaking. I didn’t have any way of making my mouth foam, and drooling seemed way too gross, so I kept my mouth clamped shut, like that was part of it. My arms were rigid by my sides, and I tried to make the shaking seem like some terrible irresistible force that I was fighting against.

I sensed the commotion all around me. There were screams and shouts and the noises people make when they’re faintly disgusted but also fascinated. I heard Mrs. Eel, her voice high with indignation and anger. I’d ruined it for her, ruined her fun with Maddy Bray.

“Get back, let me see,” she said. “Has he done this before?”

“No, miss.”

“What did you say?”

“No, Mrs. Eel. Really sorry, Mrs. Eel. It was him freaking out like that.”

Then I thought I’d done enough. I stopped twitching and just lay there.

“He’s stopped, Mrs. Eel.”

“I can see that, you stupid girl.”

“Peter, Peter, can you hear me?”

“His name’s Paul, Mrs. Eel.”

There was a small silence. I imagined the look that Mrs. Eel was sending out.

“Paul! Paul!”

I felt her hands on my shoulders. She began to shake me. That probably wasn’t the recommended treatment for an epileptic.

I groaned.

“Mrs. Eel. We should put him in the recovery position.”

I recognized the voice. It was Maddy Bray’s.

“Well, go on then, girl.”

I was on my back. I felt new, softer hands on me, rolling me over, moving my legs. I felt her breath on my cheek. I opened my eyes. Her face was so close it covered up everything. When she saw my eyes, she looked startled for a second. And then at long last, after all these years, I did the right thing, did a cool thing. I winked. And Maddy Bray smiled quickly back at me. She shared my secret. She knew what I’d done.


I was
in the sick bay. The sick bay was a horrible little room where you got sent if you puked or had a headache. There was a kind of bed to lie down on, a special sort of medical bed covered in black plastic, and a bucket to throw up in, and another bucket full of sand. There was also a dummy person in there. It didn’t have any legs, just the head and the middle bit with the arms attached. I don’t know what it was for—maybe teaching about the human body or for learning the kiss of life or something. But someone had drawn a dick going into its mouth. I say “it,” but it was really a she. You
could tell from the head, which still had long hair, although a lot of it had fallen out. They’d tried to clean it off—the dick, I mean—but you could still see it. So now she just lived in the corner of the sick bay. She looked a bit sad. Yeah, a bit freaky.

I was lying on the bed, not really knowing what to do with myself. The vinyl covering of the bed had burn holes and tears in it, and I really wanted to pick at them.

Mrs. Eel had obviously been glad to see the back of me. I don’t think she liked the idea of someone dying in her classroom, even though by then I’d recovered—I mean, pretended to recover. I even climbed back onto my chair. But Mrs. Eel said I had to go to see the school secretary, and that was that.

It was the secretary, who was called Miss Bush, who sent me to the sick bay. She asked me if it had happened before, and I said it had, quite often, and it was always fine after a few minutes. Then she’d told me to lie down and stay quiet. I said that, really, I was all right now, but she seemed to think that as long as she got me to lie down in the sick bay then she’d done her duty, showed that she was caring and all that. Probably covered herself against getting sued. Lying down and staying quiet was as far as medical treatment went at our school. I’m pretty sure that if you turned up with your head under your arm, Miss Bush would still tell you to lie down and stay quiet.

There was a creak, and I looked over at the sick-bay door. A head peeped round. I didn’t know what to expect,
and if I’d had a hundred guesses I would never have got it right. It was Shane, the leader of the freaks.

“Can I come in?” he asked in a soft voice. “I mean, I know how ill you are, and I don’t want to, like, put back your recovery.”

He said it with a completely straight face, but he got across the message that he was joking. It made me laugh.

“Did you bring me any grapes?”

“Nah, just monkey nuts and hard-boiled eggs.”

I didn’t understand that, but I knew it must be a joke, so I laughed again.

“I heard what you did. Maddy told me. That was cool.”

BOOK: The Knife That Killed Me
7.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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