Illustration: Jonathan Gartmark
By: A. Elmi
27th of April 2023
There was no way to tell for sure whether the teacher wanted to scare him. But to anyone watching, it was obvious he feared her and did not want to do anything to earn her attention. Nonetheless, if there was one thing he couldn’t do, it was to avoid watching her. It seemed important to him to keep an eye on her, if only to make sure she really didn’t pay him any attention. He quickly forgot himself, however, his eyes leaving her face for her food. Sitting across from him, she stabbed her fork into the slab of meat on her plate to keep it from shifting around as her knife reduced it to cubes. The knife scraped and screeched, shoving the cubes into a puddle of gravy and rolling them around so that they started to look like fat beetles squirming and squeaking in mud. The knife rose out of the puddle, dripping, and her fork sank into it and came back up dripping. It went on drip-drip-dripping all the way up to her painted lips, which shrivelled into an anticipatory pout. His horrified fascination grew at the sound of her slow, wet chewing. It was all he could do at this point just to rein in his gaze, and as if freed from a drawn bow, his eyes flew up and locked on her narrowing gaze. He twitched, pinched his eyes shut, and turned his head away.
Their table jutted from a wall graced with drawings into a dark playroom. He pried his eyes open and quietly smiled at that darkness. As ever, it was ready to envelop him at his customary seat on the outer corner of the table and keep him out of the light and almost out of sight. Some days, like today, he was unsure, though, if the darkness really was protecting him. For, sometimes, it seemed more likely, in fact, that the light from the ceiling lamps shrunk away from him, as if to mark him as an outsider, and gathered around the other kids like a halo. Clatter and chatter rippled out from their bright circle and merged with the twin noise spilling out from the canteen behind the table. Like the others, he’d come to lunch feeling peckish. But whereas the vision and scent of the served dishes had animated everyone else, they had paralysed him with disgust and fear. And so, as usual, he’d helped himself with an unsteady hand as though he were scooping up spiders. He couldn’t tell how much time had passed between then and now, but he knew he couldn’t hold off his panic for much longer.
He wiped the sweat off his brow and began to shred the smelly horrors on his plate into mince, intent on carrying out his scheme. There was a rolled-up tissue next to his plate the size of his forearm. In sixty heartbeats, he’d create a smokescreen. He would shout ‘A wasp!’ and point away from himself. The other day, one had buzzed in through a window and stung another boy. It had generated such a commotion that he was sure the prospect of a reprise would send everyone into a distracting panic. Meanwhile, he’d unfurl the tissue, dump the chopped-up stuff on it, fold it, and slip it into his pocket. After excusing himself, he’d go bury it in the toilet bin.
But he never got very far.
Cutlery clanged down on the teacher’s plate as she muttered, ‘This damned darkie! I can never enjoy a meal in peace, not with him fussing with his food and staring around for trouble.’
He looked up to see her surge up from her chair then around the table. Her presence thickened like a growing storm behind him, and then she swooped down over his right shoulder. She commandeered his cutlery with the force of a bully, tossing his knife aside and spearing his food with his fork. Fully aware of what was coming, he clenched his teeth and clapped both hands over his mouth. Having wrenched his hands away, she rammed the fork into his teeth, again and again, then changed tack and used the tines to pry his teeth apart.
Grey-dusted red hair whipped out past his other side. Another teacher. She shook him by one shoulder and yelled into his left ear, even as the other teacher was pouring words into his right. He still recalls what transpired next as if it were happening now.
One hand clamps around his left arm, another around his right. His eyes widen, and he reaches for the table’s edge. The grips around his arms tighten, and his body launches up into the air. The world turns for a second, and then he’s being dragged alongside an off-white wall towards an orange door further down it. He is pulled up before the door and held there as the old redhead throws it open. A white-walled room that was sure to induce claustrophobia in anyone starts to inch towards him. Sunlight floods in through a window on the left-hand wall, and his eyelids shut against the glare just as the teachers give him a hard shove and let go.
As the door slams shut behind him, his chin smashes into the floor, and a bolt of pain shoots up into his lower jaw. After a minute or so, he takes a breath and starts gathering his limbs to sit up. He drapes a tentative hand around his face and works his jaws cautiously from side to side. As he does so, a metallic taste springs up around the stinging in his tongue, blends with his spit, and fills his mouth. Before he can stop it, a glob of spit bursts out and spatters blood on the floor.
A long squeak pierces his left eardrum and pulls his eyes round to the window. A cleaner is kneeling outside. He whistles and scrapes a blue squeegee across the outer glass a few more times before he sees the boy. His eyes dilate momentarily, then he taps the glass and crooks a beckoning finger. The boy climbs to his feet and shuffles over to open the window.
The man points at the boy’s face. ‘What happened, child?’ he enquires with an Eastern-European twang.
He cups his chin against the pain and mumbles, ‘It’s punishment.’
The man’s brows knit. ‘What for?’
The man shakes his head.
‘I’m afraid of food,’ the boy explains.
‘Yes. My mum says it started when I was two. I was eating pasta, and I choked on a big bug. I almost died!’ His eyes widen and drift sideways as he mouths the words to himself. ‘Where did the bug come from?’ he asks eventually.
‘It was in the food. Mum says it isn’t usual, but I’m not so sure.’
‘I see. You don’t eat anything at all?’
‘I can eat fruits,’ he says, then pauses briefly to think. ‘They hand out apples or pears at snack time, and I can have one but only if I’ve had lunch, but I can’t. And I can’t help it! The food looks slimy and alive. And there’s smoke coming out of it that smells very bad. The teachers say that I play with my food and refuse to eat – but it’s not true – and get very angry with me. They throw me in here,’ he says, glancing around the room. ‘Harris, my friend, told me it’s so the others know not to disobey them either. And when they let me out, they won’t let me eat anything and tell the others not to share their fruits with me.’
‘This happens every day?’
He bobs his head. ‘I don’t eat anything until I get back home, but I drink tap water from the toilet when I get thirsty.’
He throws his head back and stares at the boy. His shocked expression gradually changes into a thoughtful one. ‘You must be hungry.’
He gives a modest nod.
The man twists sideways and reaches for one of his bags. He has two, one shows the tools of his trade, the other’s zipped. He pulls the second one closer, opens it, and digs out a handful of chocolate-coated crackers. ‘Can you eat these?’
The boy gives another nod. ‘Good! Take them. And here,’ he says, pausing to fish out a tissue from a breast pocket. ‘Wipe the blood off your lips. Are you thirsty?’ he asks and, without waiting for a reply, dips into the same bag and produces a water bottle.
‘What about you?’
He smiles. ‘I have another.’ His face turns grave. ‘Have you told your parents about what they do to you here?’
‘No,’ he says quietly.
‘Then make sure to tell them today, okay?’
‘Okay.’ He takes the bottle. ‘Thank you, Sir.’
‘Amos,’ he says with a smile. ‘Call me Amos.’
‘Amos. And I’m Diric,’ he returns, smiling too but hesitantly. Until now, he’s never had a reason to smile at an adult who wasn’t his parent.