A story for Valentine’s Day, though oddly set at Halloween. I suppose strictly this is for the youthful market, but anyone over twenty could excuse themselves by noting the clever links to Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. (Cue: clever LINK.) But truly, you don’t need to bother about that, except to say do look out for the donning of armour and the battle scene.
Please read on and, anyone who had a heart, enjoy…
Brains or Brawn?
It wasn’t even my idea. It all goes back to that stupid quiz Polly made me do in the IT lesson. That’s what set it all in motion. And then once it got going, it seemed to grow all on its own with no help from me. It grew and grew and grew some more, from one teeny tiny harmless little thought, until it became my only thought and all the sensible thoughts were squeezed so small they vanished. Well almost vanished.
We had a supply teacher, last thing on the Friday before the half term holiday. He just stayed put at the front desk, hiding behind his large hideous tie. I can’t say I blame him – spreadsheets and year 10 don’t mix well any day. So it was easy enough for me and my best friend Polly to duck down behind our screen and chat. Polly pulled her phone out of her bag.
‘What about the spreadsheet?’ I protested.
‘I’ll knock it off later then email it to you. Don’t be so worried, sweet Emily.’
Polly’s cool at computing. She’s cool at lots of stuff actually, just pretends not to be. It lowers people’s expectations she says, and then she does something really smart and impressive and everyone loves her for it. I’m the quiet one, working away beneath my curtain of perfect blond hair, rain or shine. She’s such a sensible girl, that Emily, never needs attention, not like her loud friend Polly.
Anyway, the quiz. Brains or Brawn? it was called. Designed to save you years of heartache.
‘You have to do this Ems!’ Polly commanded, which is what Polly does.
‘I so do not!’ I challenged feebly.
‘Look you can’t waste your spot-free days chasing brains, scuttling around in sensible shoes with a dictionary under your arm, when deep down it’s a bit of brawn you fancy.’
So in the face of her amazing powers of persuasion I crumbled and did the quiz. Well we both did. Polly has a boyfriend already, so she’s supposedly made her choice. He’s at some posh school up in town doing umpteen A-levels, but I’d still say Polly is the brain behind that coupling.
‘No harm in checking,’ she said.
I, on the other hand, most definitely do not have a boyfriend. According to Polly, I’m way too clever and pretty to waste on the local lack of talent. Truthfully, I’ve always been too shy with boys. Well not all of them. There’s Polly’s big brother, Toby, but I’ve known him years and years, ever since dive-bombing-the-paddling-pool stage. And some boys in our year are all right, like Jimmy who always has the right homework copied down, but is also quite good-looking with it. But neither of them counts obviously.
Anyway, the quiz. It had all the usual unlikely scenarios.
Your idea of a romantic first date is
- a) a trip to the fair where he wins you a giant teddy bear
b )a barefoot walk along the beach to watch the sunset
A trip to McDonald’s and a grope in the park is about your lot round here. But we did the stupid quiz anyway – it was a long boring Friday afternoon, and what harm could it do? Anyway, I came out as very balanced, not too far either way.
‘Lucky you, Emily,’ said Polly. ‘Brains or brawn!’
I should have objected then while I still had a chance. I’m not that stupid. I knew my results meant I should go for a boy who was a balanced mixture of brains and brawn, sort of like a balanced meal. Jimmy maybe, but even thinking about that made me squirm with embarrassment and I certainly wasn’t suggesting it to Polly.
Even I knew it didn’t mean I had twice the field open to me.
By the time we were discussing my perfect partner, IT was over and we were weaving our way through the crowds in the corridor and then taking our usual short-cut right through the staff car park. If any teachers notice us Polly gives a little wave and I smile my nice girl smile. She figures any teachers leaving straight after the last lesson feel guilty enough anyway. Tonight it was Mr Peterson and Mr Musgrave climbing into a car together.
‘I didn’t know those two were friends,’ I said.
Small besuited Mr Peterson is our lovely Maths teacher and towering Mr Musgrave (tattoos and tight black T-shirt) is our Head of House. Where muscular Mr Musgrave is loud and dramatic and very definitely scary, pretty Mr Peterson is all sweetness and enthusiasm, tripping around the classroom on his size 5 feet, filled with the joy of Mathematics.
‘Look there you go, Emily,’ said Polly. ‘Two perfect examples of pure brains and pure brawn; cute Mr Peterson, with his pretty shirts and numbers are pure poetry nonsense and ex-convict Mr Musgrave.’
‘He’s not an ex-convict,’ I objected. ‘He’s just taught English in prisons.’
‘Whatever,’ she shrugged. ‘But two fit specimens, you’d have to admit. And which one is for you Emily?’
I laughed and waved along with Polly as they drove out of the car park. It was the Friday before the half term holiday after all and it was just a very silly quiz. There was no point taking it seriously.
I could blame it on that stupid quiz. I could blame it on boredom. I could blame it on Polly for going away at half term. In fact I definitely blame it on her, or at least her inconsiderate parents for whisking her and Toby over the sea to Skye, and then on to the remotest of remote holiday cottages – no wi-fi, no phone connection. I usually spend half my time at Polly’s, either upstairs hanging out in Polly’s room or playing on Toby’s computer, or downstairs chatting with her Mum in the kitchen.
But whoever or whatever caused it, that’s when it really started, in the half term holiday. That’s when one tiny suggestion, one silly joke, started to grow into something else.
As I lay in my warm bed on those cold October mornings it was so, so easy to picture Mr Peterson, all brains and loveliness, sitting at his desk at the front of our Maths class. I look up from my work and I catch him watching me, with just the hint of a secret smile in his blue eyes. I shyly return his smile, then hook my hair back behind my ears and bow my head over my work. Or I choose Mr Musgrave, the embodiment of brooding masculinity, flashing a dark smouldering look in my direction as he clears a path for me through a horde of rowdy kids in the canteen.
I’d doze and wake from muddled dreams, full of strange, anxious feelings. I watched my reflection in the mirror as I wriggled my jeans up over my hips. I placed a palm on my flat stomach and felt a shiver run down my arms as all the tiny downy hairs stood on end. Whose hand was it? Mr Brains or Mr Brawn? Which one should I choose?
I sat at my window, looking out at nothing as I turned the pages backwards and forwards in the English text on my knees – the Knight’s Tale from Chaucer. How was I supposed to cope with that? When I tried to work or read, whole made-up scenes, whole conversations played out between my eyes and the page and I’d give up and climb onto my bed. I’d pull the duvet back over my head, push my cheek down into the pillow and wrap my own arms around my bony shoulders.
But that still didn’t answer my question.
Would it be brains in the small perfect shape of Mr Peterson, or brawn in the protective muscular bulk of Mr Musgrave?
On Sunday the clocks went back and Mum coaxed me downstairs with an offer of hot chocolate and Top Hat on the television. She loves those old movies. I snuggled under a blanket as the dusk began to fall at four in the afternoon, matching my melancholy perfectly.
Walking to school on Monday morning after a week of this I knew I was heading back to reality, but I couldn’t help myself. Just one last little daydream, I thought.
Snuggled in my Parka, on the way to Polly’s house, it was easy to find Mr Peterson in the softness of the fur lining, or Mr Musgrave in the rasp of the zipper teeth across my cold cheek. I could be sweet Emily, giggling under a blanket, kisses soft as butterfly wings fluttering up and down my neck; or bad Emily, fingers knotted into handfuls of hair, kisses hot and hard as bruises.
‘Whatya been doing sweetie?’ Polly asked.
‘You know. Chilling mostly. Bit of homework. How was Skye?’
That was easy, I thought. So now back to the real world. As if it could really be that simple.
And so began the worst week of my entire life. To be fair there were moments of normality, but not when I was anywhere near either Mr Peterson or Mr Musgrave. I’ll spare all the embarrassing detail, but to put it briefly, to my normal everyday sort of shyness I managed to add serious blushing of the head, neck and general all-over-body kind, not to mention extreme stammering. Then there was the tripping down non-existent steps, dribbling food down my front in the canteen and a sort of general air of brainlessness and clumsiness that followed me around like a bad smell. Sometimes I combined several skills at once, like when I entered the Maths class, tripped, kicked over Mr Peterson’s briefcase and bashed my head on his desk, all the time with him sitting at it of course.
‘Are you all right Emily,’ he said as I stumbled to my seat, blushing so hard I thought the roots of my hair would begin to sizzle.
No I was not all right. I was a crazy girl who just wanted her head, and the body attached to it, to return to Planet Normal.
On Friday in House Assembly I backed into a skinny Year 7 boy, knocking him to the floor like a tiny skittle. When Mr Musgrave laughed and said something about men falling at my feet I started breathing so oddly he sent me to the medical room.
I knew Polly knew something was up by the way she didn’t ask me what was up.
‘What you need is my special Friday night rescue package,’ was all she said.
Then she took out two pieces of orange card -– tickets to the Year 11 Halloween disco.
‘But Year 10’s aren’t allowed,’ I said feebly.
‘Use your pumpkin, Emily dearest,’ she said. ‘It’s Halloween, so we dress up. And tell me Emily my dearest love, do I know how to dress up?’
Polly didn’t really need telling. She knows she’s the queen of the catwalk, the high- priestess of gorgeousness. And more to the point for gatecrashing a party, she’s the diva of disguise.
I stared up at the ceiling of the medical room and smiled for what felt like the first time in ages.
At nine o’clock that night we were sneaking down Polly’s stairs, ready to shout our goodbyes to her parents. I had made a remarkable recovery, even if it didn’t show through my green face paint. In fact nothing showed, especially when I added the large warty nose. That was the point. Be my old self again? No better than that, be someone else entirely. Polly had lent me her strappy little black dress and any bare flesh (an area not quite as big as a football pitch) was camouflaged in green glitter. So actually the same colour as a football pitch. She assured me I looked lovely; lovely and green and totally unrecognisable.
As the girl said, ‘From now on I’ll be green with envy whenever I think of little you in my little dress Emily. And the nose job! What can I say about the nose?’
Polly herself was amazingly restrained in one of her Dad’s suits and a flubbery Frankenstein’s Monster mask. Although I noticed she didn’t actually stop to ask her Dad’s opinion of her costume.
Toby was already waiting in the drive in his Mum’s car as instructed, with the engine running. I opened the back door and shuffled my shrink-wrapped bottom along the back seat.
‘And there was me thinking it was fancy dress,’ he quipped.
‘I can see that,’ I said.
Toby’s extreme bad taste in second-hand clothes is legendary, going all the way back to when he played the Artful Dodger at primary school. That’s Polly’s theory anyway.
Polly climbed into the front passenger seat. ‘Ooo, mildew green,’ she said. ‘The new black.’ She gave his cord jacket a sisterly stroke. ‘And what is that smell? Moth balls? No actually, please don’t tell us.’
But it was a ride. And by the time we’d shrieked our way over every speed bump between Polly’s house and school we were ready for action.
Monster mask on, green fringe over green face, we flashed our tickets at the door and we were in. I wouldn’t say the hall was transformed beyond recognition exactly, but it was loud, dark and crowded.
‘How about a drink?’ I said.
It’s always odd which teachers actually want to come to these events. Of course I’d known they (as in Mr Brains and Mr Brawn) might be there, but I’d not let that thought in, not really. Well at least not more than once every minute since Polly had first flashed the tickets.
Mr Peterson was behind the bar, all smug and domestic, with his very pregnant wife by his side. They were both in smoochy pink, petit Mr Peterson in a frilly shirt and not so petite Mrs Peterson in a huge blobby T-shirt. In fact she reminded me of the inflatable Mr Blobby Toby keeps in his bedroom. I grabbed two weird looking purple drinks from the end of the table furthest from the happy couple and headed back to Polly. And I can proudly say I didn’t so much as tremble, let alone spill the whole lot over anyone.
It wasn’t until we were dancing, bouncing up and down in the mass of strangely dressed bodies, that I spotted Mr Musgrave. I’d have to say fangs and a black cape were definitely his thing. Looking at him lounging against the wall bars I felt a familiar weakness around the knees and a certain pounding inside that couldn’t be explained away by the loud music or Polly’s severely restricting dress. I needed to go and sit down somewhere quickly. But Polly had other ideas.
‘Let’s ask him to dance,’ she shouted above the din.
Polly grabbed one green arm and I had to follow. I was in disguise after all. She stood on tiptoes to whisper something in his ear and then before you could say Back Dracula! he was leaping about, arms and legs pumping like some huge black insect in distress. I felt that panicky feeling welling up again, but this time it was different. Smouldering, dangerously cool Mr Musgrave was doing an embarrassing-dad dance, a sort of cross between everyone’s favourite uncle at a wedding and a wind-up chicken!
I started laughing: laughing and screaming and jumping and shaking my green hair manically all at the same time. Deep down Mr Brawn himself was not so much one of the cool undead as one of the dead uncool. I hung on to Polly and hurled myself higher and higher.
Then suddenly I’d had enough, more than enough. I wanted out.
Blame it on that evil brew of E-numbers in the purple drinks or the gut-churning bass. Or maybe an allergic reaction to Mr and Mrs Pink Peterson. For once in my life I made a decision, I actually made up my own mind. Just for once I wasn’t pushed, I jumped.
Well I ran for it anyway. I rounded off a perfect week by starring in my own brief, but dramatic, exit scene.
I pelted across the dance floor, pushing a path through the pulsing scrum of bodies and crashing into a life-sized cardboard zombie. And then I was out through the door, taking half the orange and black streamers with me. I clattered down the corridor, cursing my heels and that silly dress, swung right at the ornamental fish tank and heaved open the swing doors to the car park.
So finally I’d really escaped, I was free of it all. I slowed down to walking pace, tugging at the tangled mess of streamers in my hair and taking in deep gulps of cold air as I headed for the gate. That’s when he stepped out of the shadows, blocking my way, a figure straight out of a creepy sweaty nightmare…
But that’s what I’ve left behind, my nightmare week. He’s not part of that. He’s here, he’s real. And now his arms are round my bare shoulders, holding them to stop the shaking and pushing aside a dangling lock of green hair with his lips to whisper something I can’t take in. I’m burying my face in soft worn corduroy and giggling into his chest, although I can’t really tell if I’m giggling or sobbing. All I know for certain is he’s holding me really tight and close and through a large warty nose I’m breathing in the weirdest most amazing smell, of second-hand shops, after-shave and take-away curry.
So which is it, brains or brawn? Neither of course, just pure unmistakable lovely Tobyness.
Did I say the worst week of my life? You know, I could be wrong about that.
M J Lewis ©2015