Willing to Play the Game

Willing to Play the Game (Short Story)

Oh lordy, she’s started up again. I’m sat at the dressing table with fingers in my ears. La la la la la.

Aunty Doreen took the hint and disappeared down the stairs a while back. Not mum. She’s been going on all morning about how she thinks I’ve rushed into it and saying things like, “it wasn’t like this in my day” and “look what happened to Charles and Di”. Though what Charles and Di have to do with it I don’t know, but you know what Mother’s are like don’t you? Of course, dad doesn’t say boo he’s all for it, “About time you settled down. Don’t take any notice of your mother she watches East Enders too much.”

Mum’s just tipped a shoebox out now, scattering her picture-perfect memories over the bed. She sifted through each one in turn while supposedly helping with my dress. I’d given up on her at that point.

‘Oh, Beth, you look beautiful. You’re the image of your granny Lillibet on her wedding day—’

Wait for it.

‘Five years they were engaged before they got married. She’d be turning in her grave if she knew the way young people carry on nowadays what with having babies beforehand. Not to mention men having husbands and women having wives.

I’ve clicked the music video on now. Mum’s blubbing over my shoulder towards my bridal reflection. I don’t think she’s even noticed the matching earphones.

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Itsy bitsy spider – climbed up the waterspout…

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Down comes the rain – ah…and washed the spider out…

To tell the truth, I don’t see the likeness. For one thing, granny was plump and ginger. Me, I’m what you might call a willowy blonde. Dad always says I remind him of a female rock star from the 80s. You’ll have to decide that for yourself later? Mind you, bear in mind that was before I became a teacher. I used to be a singer in a successful band you see, in between studies at Uni. And in all fairness, I do keep my gym membership up to date.

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Out comes the sun – and dried up all the rain…

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And then Itsy bitsy spider – climbed up the spout again…

‘—and don’t keep your dad waiting,’ mum sniffed again, ‘he’s already halfway through the whisky bottle. Bag of nerves he is down there.’

‘I won’t mum. Now please go before Aunty Doreen comes up again.’

Oh my gosh! I had to literally push her out of the door otherwise she would’ve ruined her makeup for the second time this morning. At least I can have a little bit of me time before I go – plus music and G+T of course.

Let me say first, that I’m the last person on earth to put any credence in a whirlwind romance. I believe in love alright, but nothing stays the same does it? I mean, I’ve read the books, seen the films that kind of schmaltz, but it was down to Neo Jameson in the end – he changed all of that. Who would have thought a twelve-year-old could melt a grown woman’s heart.

Let me explain.

It was a little over ten months ago when I landed a new job at Walkington High. Naturally, I spent the first couple of months assimilating my new situation, especially where the kids were concerned getting to know them that kind of thing.

Two months in from that I had a new girl pupil to settle in when her family arrived from the states. I partnered the new girl with dimple-cheeked Neo thinking it would bring him out of his shell as he always seemed a bit lost for some reason. It turned out to be the right thing to do because the pair quickly became friends and Neo brightened up after that.

I was on playground duty one day, and there was a kerfuffle at one end and was surprised to see the normally shy Neo at the heart of the problem. Neo must’ve known he was in trouble the moment he felt the yank on his school sweatshirt. I didn’t know it then, but Neo had learned the meaning of real suffering four years earlier. As he emerged from the heap on the floor his watery eyes would’ve caught a glimpse of my pink suede loafers – the rest of the ensemble that day consisted; black cigarette trousers, grey check longline jacket and striped tee. Yes, I know, but we had an imminent OFSTED inspection due. Anyway, the boy wouldn’t know if the style were M&S or V by Very but judging by the look on his face he was pretty sure his new teacher would. It was as if he’d seen a ghost. Despite his protestations about rough handling from another boy, Neo stood before the one person he thought could ease his pain. Someone who might understand? How was I to know?

I found out later from Casper, (I’ll get to her in a moment) that my reprimand for the bold action was a crushing blow to Neo. Crestfallen, he focussed on tears that trickled down his sore cheek as he watched the fat drops pool on the tarmac below.

‘Look at me Neo.’

‘C… can’t.’

‘Neo. Look. At. Me!’

He sniffed hard then raised his head.

I exerted my authority then handed him a tissue, ‘Now smarten up and go straight to the classroom.’ Well, you need to be stern with them, don’t you? Even when they cry. Even when you’re having a shitty time because you found out your fiance’s been cheating on you. Even when you feel the knot twist a bit more in the pit of your stomach.

Next evening after school I stayed behind to see Neo’s dad who’d requested to see me over the playground incident. He seemed quite calm, to begin with. I explained the school’s policy on fighting and bullying at which stage everything went pear-shaped and Mr Jameson told me in no uncertain terms what he thought of my teaching skills and that I should be more considerate where other peoples feelings are concerned, including children. I swear he almost had tears in his eyes though not knowing his situation fully, I couldn’t understand why.

The day after I had another surprise encounter, in class this time. The thing is, Casper, Neo’s BFF is so mature for her age. Strike that – she’s American need I say more? Well anyway later in the day, in a quiet moment during reading time, I was marking books at my desk when Casper approached and whispered, ‘Scuse me, ma’am, it wasn’t Neo’s fault.’

I looked around the room everyone else had their heads in books. ‘What wasn’t his fault, Casper?’ I whispered back.

Another whisper, ‘The ruckus in the schoolyard ma’am. I’d like us to step out of the schoolroom so I can explain what really happened out there.’

See what I mean? Typically American. During sex education, Casper’s the only girl in the class who can say vagina and penis without going red or getting the giggles. I looked around the room again. Still heads down.

I led Casper into the corridor.

‘Well, Casper what is so important that can’t wait?’

‘It was Bully Brandon ma’am,’ she flicked her mousey bob out of her eyes, ‘he was having a go at me again – callin’ me cowgirl n stuff an’ pushin’ me offa the tyres in the adventure playground then when I fell an’ banged my head on a fence post he jus’ stood there laughing.’

‘So why didn’t you just go tell someone?’

‘Neo did that ma’am, don’t you recall? – You had words with Bully Brandon. Then, later the bully started on Neo saying how he ran off to his mummy telling tales…that’s when Neo punched Brandon.’

His mummy? What did he mean?’

Casper explained how Neo had described the time when his mother became ill, then continued.

‘Well, Neo once said to me how he wished he had a mum like you, Miss Cooper – an’ Bully Brandon heard him,’ Casper’s voice cracked, ‘ … an’ … an’… Neo said how he misses his mum. An’ that he’s frightened he’ll forget her.’

I told Casper to go to the toilets and freshen her face before returning to the classroom. The playtime bell rang before she came back.

I didn’t bother with the staffroom, and for some reason, I couldn’t explain – I sat at my desk to finish the marking and pondered for a while trying to picture the scene four years earlier when Neo would’ve been just eight years old. The more I thought about it, the more I began to realise what a tough time both he and his dad must’ve had in the months and years that followed. It all began to make sense to me what Mr Jameson had said to me that time. “What he thought of my teaching skills. I should be more considerate where other peoples feelings are concerned, including children.”

I visualised Neo stood firm and black-suited next to his dad on the sodden turf. A clear-cut Daniel Jameson mini-me. Their black curls would by now be stretched into shoulder-length ringlets. Instinctively the young boy would squeeze his dad’s fingers as the coffin lowered into a dark abyss. His father meantime would look down to his son. Amid tears and rain, Daniel would hoist the fragile Neo close to his chest where their racing hearts beat as one.

A month after that encounter I asked the class what they thought about starting up an after-school singing group and that we could enter ourselves into the local rock star challenge in the park competition taking place during the summer holidays. It took me the rest of the day to prise the kids from the ceiling, as you can imagine. Anyway, given my previous musical background, I got in touch with ex-band members to provide musical backing, and we started to rehearse on weekends in the school hall. It was Neo that suggested the song we should sing. He said he remembered it from when he was a baby. Get that! It always amazes me how kids of today think of themselves as being grown up before they’ve fully reached pubescence.

As it turned out, when I listened to the playback that we recorded after the first few rehearsals with the band, the kids sounded spot on. From there on in it just got better and better.

The young friends looked perfectly matched athletes in the park. We were there for the weekly park run. Neo was dressed in a red and black sweat-wicking tracksuit. Casper wore mottled crimson black and white tights with a tangerine muscle tank over a sports bra. We concluded the morning with a kick about while I sat on a bench and chatted away to Casper’s mum who I would often partner around the course along with a couple of other mum’s. The kids were now having a laugh and giggle as Casper showed Neo how to do a back bend kick over.

Breathless, they sat on the grass and Casper shook her mousey bob into some resemblance to order then she and Neo continued an earlier conversation which I could just about make out.

‘ Okay, so wadda’bout a dating site or sump’n like that?’

‘A dating site?’ Neo said.

Casper carried on. A random whistle passed through her buckteeth when she answered in her sing-song American accent.

‘So I went to gymnastics last week an’ after doing my like —’ she rocked her head side to side saying, ‘—my um workoutroutinekindathin, I overheard my mom talkin’ to another mom.’

She frowned which accentuated her dimples.

‘so I’m pretty sure it’s that – um yeah I’m pretty sure a dating site is kindalike – y’know like where grown-ups find a new partner. I’m pretty sure of that—’

She paused to consider Neo’s expression then smiled an awkward smile and finished with,

‘— y’know guy meets girl kindathin ‘an takes her out to dinner. So that’s okay dontcha think?’

I nudged Casper’s mum, and we both stifled a smile. Neo’s chocolate chip eyes widened at the thought then he squirmed his face.

‘Nah. Dad would never do that. My aunty said that to him once, and he got really mad.’

When I look at the video now (of the Rock Challenge), it’s plain for me to see that Neo had entrusted, Casper with his secret at this point. But anyway, Daniel turned up to take Neo home, apologising for being absent as he had a call-out from work. I looked straight into his eyes wishing I could read his thoughts nothing came except he said something completely random.

‘Green eyes. You have green eyes?’

The ball the other kids were kicking about interrupted the non-conversation that followed when it whacked Daniel on the head. He raced after the ball and Casper’s mum nudged me in the side.

‘What?’

Her eyebrows shot up as she tutted then jerked her head in the direction of the ball and Daniel.

‘What?’ I repeated.

She said, ‘it’s a sign.’

‘Sign. A sign of what?’

‘Doh!’ she shrugged her shoulders.

Before I dashed off, Neo came up to me all excited and said his dad wanted to volunteer to help out with the rock challenge preparations if I needed anything done. His dad was still busy having a kick about with the kids so didn’t get chance to thank him for the offer. I didn’t think any more of it after that, and we all headed home.

We made great progress rehearsing for the competition. As time closed in on the date for the performance which was to take place in the park – I suddenly realised that I needed someone to choreograph the children on the stage, then, if you remember, according to Neo, he’d volunteered his dad to help. Needing to finalise the arrangements I sent a note home with Neo asking if his dad could spare the time to come to the penultimate rehearsal in the school hall.

When he turned up, he looked a bit fazed by the set-up wondering why I’d asked him along. It seems Neo hadn’t mentioned anything to Daniel about the time in the park when his son had volunteered him for help. Daniel looked me in the eyes and replied with another of his random comments.

He said, ‘I’m willing to play the game if you are?’

***

Hundreds of people turned up at the park on the day. Perfect weather, the stage was set under a lavender sky accompanied by a warm breeze. What could go wrong? Well, nothing actually. Everything worked out a dream. The kids sang their hearts out. My old band were brilliant as I knew them to be. The event organisers recorded a video of the performance. While watching Daniel in the background, I realised what a fully loaded comment that was he’d made earlier. Everything flared up like a firestorm after that. And to top it all, even Daniel picked up a spare guitar and strummed along with the beat.

Who won?

I’ll get to that in a minute.

Oh and by the way, in case you haven’t already guessed. Do you remember the cheating fiancé I mentioned up there somewhere, you know when I was having a shitty time at school? I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know I took a leaf out of Itsy Bitsy Spider’s book. Climbed back up again to where I am now.

‘Beth, the cars here.’ A voice from the bottom of the stairs.

Oh oh, that’s me done. I’ll just finish the G+T and watch the video one last time. Why not join me in a song before I go?

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Itsy bitsy spider – climbed up the waterspout…

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Down comes the rain – ah…and washed the spider out…

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Out comes the sun – and dried up all the rain…

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And then Itsy bitsy spider – climbed up the spout again…

Sorry, the word count beat me. So if you’re “Willing to Play the Game” watch the School Video in the Park below

The Players:

Neo’s dad?  @ 00:39 into the video.

Dimples Neo gets his wish? @ 04:49 into the video.

Casper the girl looking at me? @ 04:58 into the video.

Credits: School Video in the Park.


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