‘It’s all right,’ I say to Amy, and move back. Thinking green trees blue sky white clouds green trees blue sky white clouds…
‘Hi,’ I say to Ben, and sit down next to him. There are a few others from Group also, all sitting in a smiling tight cluster together at the back of the bus. All in the same maroon and black uniform as everyone else, though somehow on Ben it is different. Everything looks better on Ben. But no Tori?
He leans down, close to my ear. ‘Best to keep away from that girl,’ he says in a low voice.
‘Why?’ Apart from the obvious.
‘She’s a Slater Hater.’
Green trees blue sky white clouds green trees blue sky white clouds…
‘I’m sorry about that,’ Amy says when we get off the bus.
‘It’s not your fault.’
‘Well, I should have warned you. I—’
‘You’ve been warning me of things all weekend.’
‘Most of the time we’ll get a lift with Jazz, anyhow. He’s at the dentist this morning.’
Relief unknots my stomach.
Amy and Ben show me to the door of the Unit, then go off to classes. ‘Don’t look so worried, you’ll be fine,’ Ben says. Waves as he goes.
The SEN Unit: for students with special educational needs. Apparently that is me, until proven otherwise.
Inside there is a woman sitting at a desk, tapping at a screen.
‘Uh, hello,’ I say.
She looks up, doesn’t smile. ‘Yes? What do you want?’
‘I’m a new student.’
‘Another one? Name.’
I stare back at her. Name…what?
She focuses on my Levo, and sighs. ‘Your name?’ she says, slower and louder.
‘I’m Kyla. Kyla Davis.’ The new second name, same as Mum, Dad and Amy, still feels odd, like it doesn’t go with Kyla. But who knows what either of my names were before. Did they go together better?
She shuffles some papers in a box and pulls out a file.
‘Oh, yes. Brought forward a few weeks, weren’t you? I have just been trying to schedule you in with a whole day’s notice.’ She sighs. ‘Have a seat.’ She points at a chair, gets up, and disappears through another door with the file in her hand.
And so goes most of the day. I don’t get out of the Unit. I sit in chairs. People come and say hello occasionally; one tells me I’ll get a tour of the school tomorrow and do some tests, and where the bathroom is. I get pointed towards a room at lunchtime and eat the sandwiches Mum gave me that morning with a bunch of other Slateds, all younger than me; there is no sign of Amy, or Ben. Everyone smiles and chews, like a bunch of placid cows we drove past in a field this morning. Not much conversation with unnamed teaching assistants – TA’s – posted at both ends of the table. Watching and listening.
In the afternoon I get handed a History of Lord Williams’ School to read through. Mum had called it Lord Bill’s. It is old, really old: founded in 1559, so it will soon be five hundred. A boys’ school, then co-ed. It used to have an autism unit: is that where I am now? Before autism was eliminated. The school was shut for five years after the county riots; it was reopened by the Central Coalition with much fuss and ceremony twenty years ago, with new fields and running track in annexed land. Now it is a specialist agricultural college, like most secondary schools.
Amy and Jazz come for me at the end of the afternoon. I smile relief at Jazz, back from the dentist: no bus.
‘Well? How’d it go?’ Amy says.
I shrug. ‘It was boring. I just sat around all day, waiting for something to happen.’
‘Welcome to school,’ Jazz says, and laughs.
We walk down a footpath between brick buildings to a parking area, and along to a dented two door car. It is mostly red, but with bits patchworked here and there in other colours.
‘Ladies, your chariot,’ Jazz says, and bows.
I grab the door handle, and then think I’ve got it wrong.
‘Allow me, there is a bit of a knack,’ Jazz says. He pulls the handle and puts one foot up on the side of the car for leverage, and yanks hard.
Amy holds the front seat while I climb into the back, wondering if this is a good idea.
‘Where’s the seat belt?’
‘There isn’t one; it broke. Just hold on tight,’ he says.
Good advice, as Jazz screeches off up the road, then brakes hard at a corner. I lurch forward and grab at Amy’s seat in front. Gears crunch and we jerk along. I haven’t been in many cars, so maybe this isn’t fair. But Slater Haters aside, I think I’d rather take the bus.
Jazz turns off the road and goes down a winding back lane, then pulls in front of a lone house down a long drive.
‘We’ve got to get Kyla home soon,’ Amy says. ‘Mum isn’t back at work until tomorrow.’
‘Just a quick one, then,’ he says. ‘We’ll beat the bus.’
Jazz yanks the car door open again; Amy and I climb out.
‘We’re just visiting my cuz,’ he says to me.
‘Cousin,’ Amy translates.
He knocks once and opens the door.
‘Mac, you home?’ he yells, walks through, us behind, and opens the back door.
‘Yeah. Grab yourselves a drink, come out,’ a voice answers.
Jazz turns back, opens a cupboard and takes out brown bottles. ‘Come on,’ he says.
I follow them into the garden. At least, I know that is what is out most back doors, but this isn’t green. There is no grass, no trees, no flowers. There are bits of cars everywhere. Mac pulls himself out from underneath one, and Jazz introduces us.
‘Mac built my car from bits of other cars,’ Jazz says. ‘Drink?’ He holds a bottle towards me. No label.
‘Have you ever had beer?’ Amy says, and I notice she isn’t having one.
‘Want to try it?’ Jazz says. ‘Mac makes the stuff; it’s brilliant.’
I look at Amy and she shrugs, pulls a face that suggests it is not so brilliant.
‘All right,’ I say, and he takes the top off. I tip the bottle back like Jazz did with his, and it hits the back of my throat in a rush. I cough.
‘Well, what do you think?’ Jazz says.
Coughing still against the bitter taste, I shake my head, and hand back the bottle.
Mac laughs. ‘Not for little girls, this stuff; it’s seriously strong.’
Despite what he said, it is hard not to like Mac. His grin is contagious and a bit mad, though he looks a lot like one of his cars: made up from salvaged bits that don’t match. His arms and legs seem longer than they should be, brown hair a tangled uneven mess as if he cuts it himself and isn’t worried if it is straight, only that it is out of his eyes.
‘We really can’t stay,’ Amy says, looking at her watch. ‘The bus will be nearly there.’
‘Oh yes, the Dragon!’ Jazz downs his drink, then mine, and jumps up. We head back through the house.
‘Should you be driving?’ Amy says.
‘You shouldn’t have had two.’
‘Well, I couldn’t let it go to waste, could I?’
‘Let me drive,’ I say.
They both laugh.
‘Did you get your license at hospital, then?’ Amy asks, smiling.
‘No. But can I?’
‘Why not let her try?’ Jazz says. ‘Just on this back lane.’
Amy rolls her eyes. ‘You’re both bonkers. But it’s your car.’
Jazz yanks the door open.
‘Get in the back,’ he says to Amy, and she climbs into the back seat.
I slip into the drivers seat, Jazz next to me in the front. He starts a long explanation. Gears, clutch, brake…
I turn the key in the ignition. I don’t really understand what he is saying, but my hands and feet know what to do. Clutch, gear: reverse on to the lane.
‘A natural, she’s a natural,’ Jazz says, stunned. I ignore Amy’s protests and continue neatly on to the main road.
‘Must be my excellent teaching,’ Jazz says.
No. I remember. So long as I don’t think about it too much, my hands and feet take over; some memory locked into muscle that my brain has nothing to do with.
I know how to drive. And I’m better at it than he is.
* * *
‘Hi, Kyla? I’m Mrs Ali. I’m the teaching assistant who will be helping you get settled over the next few weeks, starting with a tour.’ She smiles and actually looks in my eyes with her dark ones, holds out her hand. I shake it.
School might be more interesting today.
I follow her out the door and around the school grounds.
She chatters and points out buildings: English block, library, agricultural centre. Maths, fields for sport and sixth form projects – growing new crop strains in the spring. The school’s ancient brick buildings mix with newer additions scattered about the large site, with grass and a maze of criss-crossing paths between.
‘Don’t worry if you get lost to start with; everyone does. I’ll be shadowing you for a few weeks, and can show you around.’
No. I won’t get lost. The map is firmly in my mind, laid out in a grid of paths and buildings. But I just smile.
She takes me to the admin building from the far side of the school grounds, through other buildings and past class after class of students, to the main office. There is a jumble of desks and cabinets, computers; ringing telephones; half a dozen harried workers.
‘This is Kyla Davis, here for processing,’ Mrs Ali announces to the room. Moments later a tall, unsmiling man with thick glasses appears from behind a row of filing cabinets.
‘Come this way,’ he says, and we follow him through another door.
Processing? I look at Mrs Ali.
‘Just getting your school ID sorted,’ she says.
But it is more involved than that. First my fingers are pressed one by one on a small screen for digital fingerprint storage. Then my head is held firm and I am ordered not to blink; a bright light shines endlessly in my right eye for a retinal scan. My eyes tear and vision blurs when it is over. A ghostly afterimage like the branches of a tree lingers, black on the white wall, white on the dark floor, then gradually fades. Finally a normal photograph is taken. Then he fusses with a computer for a moment, and a plastic card spits out the other end.
‘You must wear this at all times,’ he says, and slips it into a holder and puts it around my neck.
I hold it up, and there I am. ‘Kyla Davis’ it proclaims under the photo, and there is a red S after my name. An uncertain smile on my lips that Mrs Ali managed to elicit just before the flash.
‘There. You are officially a student of Lord Williams’ now,’ she says, like it is an accomplishment, or a choice. ‘Now we must go back to the Unit.’
We go out the front door of Admin this time. Nestled alongside the building is a large stone monument, rose bushes around, with 2048 carved on top: six years ago.
‘What is that?’ I say.
‘It is a memorial. To some students who died.’
I walk closer, somehow drawn to see, and Mrs Ali follows.
There is a list of names carved into the stone, with ages after. So many, from Robert Armstrong, 15, to Elaine Weisner, 16, and thirty or so names between. All my age or near enough. Stopped, still, silent forever.
‘What happened to them?’
‘They were on a class trip to the British Museum in London, and there was an AGT attack. Nothing to do with them; there were traffic diversions that put them in the wrong place, and the bus got hit. Not many survived.’
I stare back at her, unable to take it in. ‘AGT?’
‘Anti Government Terrorists: Fodders.’ Her lip curls when she says the words, as if they taste bad.
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