You are walking down the aisle of the school bus. The bus is dingy and narrow and everyone is bigger and happier than you are. Your brother is walking in front of you and you are following him so closely that your nose is almost touching the back of his blazer. He turns round and pushes you back.
“What are you doing?”
“Sitting with you”
“Year sevens sit at the front you retard, piss off!” He pushes you again in the chest, and the steady chatter that fills the bus dims slightly around you as people begin to watch. You turn and look to the front of the bus. Most of the other year sevens have taken their seats. You can’t see a free one. Older kids are now walking down the aisle trying to get to the back so you have to squeeze to the side to let them pass. The seats at the front continue to fill up. Eventually the passage of people stops and you are able to make your way back to the front. The only free seat is at the very front of the bus, on its own and separated from all the others, across the aisle from the driver. You do not want to sit there. The driver looks over her shoulder and sees you standing there in the aisle.
“Hey, kid. I can’t go until everyone’s sat down. Sit down, will ya?” You sit in the seat at the very front and the driver says nothing and moves off from the bus stop. The bus driver is obese with pink hair cut like a man’s and you do not want to talk to her. You stare forward through the large curved front window onto the winding road moving out of your home town towards the school forty minutes away and two towns over. The school is better than the local schools because it is Catholic. Your parents had to do lots of things to get you into it. You had to go to church every week for a few months last year and there was a letter they had to get signed by the priest, and you were baptised two years ago and received your First Holy Communion only last year. You can remember being baptised, which you find strange. An old family friend had been one of your Godparents (her son, you just realise, would also be at the front of the bus now; he is your age. If you had seen him perhaps you wouldn’t now be sat on your own next to the strange female driver). And you worry now, as you have done every night this past week, that the teachers at the school will suss you out and know that you aren’t really Catholic and you only go to church at Christmas; that you and your parents have conspired together to trick the school and you will all laugh at it behind its back the moment you get home later today; and the teachers will shout at you and shun you, or perhaps they will force you to work separately from all the Catholic students, in a dark room underground with the other students guilty of conspiring with their parents to trick the school (this scenario has now appeared twice in your dreams), or worse, they will expel you for good.
You look down and notice your shoes. Your stupid, nerdy shoes that you saw for the first time this morning. They had been waiting for you at the bottom of the stairs after you had put on your crispy new school shirt and had tied the thick tie around your neck. You weren’t going to wear them, you had said, but your mum had gotten angry and shouted, “You are wearing those shoes! They are brand new and you don’t have any others; you are wearing them!”. The shoes are rounded at the toes and have a strange ridged pattern along their sides and top. The word “practical” comes to your mind when you look at them. Words that don’t come to mind include “smart”, “normal” and “unnoticeable”. You know that as soon as you step off the bus the kids at school will look at your shoes and instantly mark you as a nerd and they will not talk to you and they will not be friends with you.
You tell yourself that it will be fine, that you’ve done this before. And you think back to your first day of primary school. You remember the small step up to the classroom and metal strip on the entrance’s threshold, and your parents’ hands – one on each of your shoulders – as you stepped over it. Mrs. Morgan was there to greet you as you came through the door, and she bent down with her hands on her thighs and smiled at you. To the left after you entered was an alcove containing a pile of schoolbags. You added your bag to the pile. The walls of the alcove were lined with red coat hangers each with a corresponding laminated name tag stuck above it. You saw your name and placed your raincoat on the hanger below it. That is all you remember. You wish the seats on the school bus had names. You tell yourself that it will be fine because you have done this before.
But it will not be the same as before. You will not stay sat at the very front of the bus on your own for long. Soon you will sit with the other kids, and Billy will literally torture you everyday to make the other kids laugh. He will grip the ligaments above your knee in the vice of his hand and pinch the soft flabby underside of your upper arm until you squeal like a pig and he will stuff you under the space beneath the seats in front – suffocating you – for the entire journey and every November for three years he will remove the pin holding the red paper poppy in place on his lapel and stab you with it in your upper legs, to make the other kids laugh. Small dabs of red will rise from your white soft leg every November, until Billy’s parents move him back to Ireland with them in the summer before Year 10. And you will fall in love for the first time on the bus. Day after day you will get on the bus and look for the eyes of Millie Arlot and most days you will find them looking up at you for just a second and they will excite you; and every evening you will look forward to tomorrow’s quest for the eyes; and one night whilst watching TV with your brother and sister on either side of you and a pillow over your lap you will dream about Millie and her eyes. And every summer crammed into the thin window seat on the bus you will make an effort to keep your arms as far away from your body as possible, to keep the humiliating dark crescents from forming under your armpits on the crispy light blue shirts. And you will do all manner of secret and strange and small conscious actions such as this in order to make the whole process a bit more bearable.
Until one day in a too hot summer you will step off the bus for the last time, and you will say to yourself “Thank fuck thank fuck I never have to sit in that fucking oven ever again” and you will want to run home despite the heat. But you will be wrong to celebrate, because by then the damage will have already been done.