My Temporary LifeBy: Martin Crosbie
I think I first smelled booze on Gerald when we were eleven, and as far as I know he’s been drinking ever since. We’re thirteen now, almost fourteen, and he still carries a mickey to school a couple of times a week. I know how he does it. He told me once. He raids his parent’s liquor cabinet and takes a little from every bottle, making up a toxic mixture of alcohol. He’s small, and wiry, almost invisible really, so it’s probably quite easy for him to sneak around his house, stealing things, unnoticed.
Once, he flashed me a rare sinister-looking grin and offered me a sip. “Try it, Malcolm. Try it. I cannae gie ye much, but try a wee bit of it.” The taste was harsh and strong and had no flavour. It burned my throat and reminded me of the oil that we use in the big old heater that sits at home on our hearth. I politely gave him his little bottle back, hoping that he’d never offer it to me again.
He drinks his booze after we eat our twelve o’clock dinner. We always sit across from each other in the dinner hall, and when he’s finished eating his lukewarm potatoes and dried-up meat, that Kilmarnock Secondary School provides us with every day, he sneaks away to the boy’s toilets to drink his concoction. When I meet up with him later, on the school grounds, his face is red and his breath is foul. He says it makes him numb. It’s what he likes, what he needs.
Although we’re all students in Second Form and we’re all twelve or thirteen years old, the Masters separate us into two different sections. Form 2A has the regular children, the children that are easy to categorize. Gordon McGregor is in 2A, the tall, red-headed son of the local butcher, and so is Stuart Douglas, with his holier than thou smirk, and chin covered in pimples and peach fuzz. They run the school. Everyone is afraid of them, even some of the masters. McGregor is in charge, but Douglas is the dangerous one. He’s the one who does the dirty work, and he’s always talking, always stating something. He’ll widen his fingers and raise his hands after one of his statements, challenging anyone to contradict him. Then he’ll seal it off with a look over at his friend, Gordon McGregor, gesturing for his approval. McGregor always does the same thing. He smiles back at the frozen, waiting look on Douglas’ face and says, “Aye, you’re right. It’s us against them Stuart. Always has been, always will be.”
Sometimes he’s alluding to the English and the tenuous relationship that the Scots have with them, or sometimes it’s the Masters, and sometimes it seems to be directed at me, or those like me. I never have felt as though I’m a part of the “us” and I certainly never feel that I’ll ever be one of “them,” or at least not in their eyes.
Form 2B is my class, mine and Gerald’s. We’re the segregated children, the ones that the masters, and the school I suppose, don’t quite know what to do with. In our class we have children whose mothers look young enough to be their older sisters, or fathers who are away, just away, whatever that means. And we have criminals, young criminals anyway. These are the boys who are already legends in the school because of the violence and criminality their last names are associated with, boys who carry knives to school, and use the stories of what their big brothers and fathers did the night before to intimidate the rest of us.
The rest of us are from broken homes. That’s how I ended up here. My mother left my father and returned to Canada four years ago. That’s where she’s from. She met my father while on holiday in Scotland, then shortly afterwards, I came along. Then, when she tired of Scotland, or my Dad, or me, I’m not sure which, she went home. So now I spend the summers with her in Vancouver, Canada, and my school year here in Kilmarnock, in Scotland, with my Dad.
I’ve never really been sure why Gerald is in 2B. He has a mother and father and although he’s poor and his clothes often look to be in the same, unwashed state week after week, he’s still no poorer than the rest of us. He’s small though, very small, so perhaps the Masters thought that he wouldn’t fit in with the regular kids. Perhaps they thought he needed to be segregated too.