Just that morning he had arrived at school—the new boy—with a clean, freshly ironed shirt, leather shoes and a tie fastened round his neck, in total contrast to a lot of the other boys, who sported stained shirts and work boots. Right from the beginning this new kid was different; and things weren’t going to get much better.
The news that the Johnson kid was coming to school on that particular day spread through the student body quicker than a brush fire through dry grass. So thoroughly was it known that the front yard of the school quickly became filled with one hundred and two eager faces waiting and watching, wanting an early glimpse of the new kid, to take a measure of him.
Their arrival was no different to the arrival of hundreds of other kids. The family car—a well loved and albeit, well-used Ford station wagon—pulled alongside the kerb, idled for what seemed an eternity before finally spluttering to a halt the way cars do in the middle of winter. The front doors opened and you could almost swear that the wider the doors were thrown open, the more pronounced the collective sigh was among the horde watching.
And suddenly, there he was. Nathan Johnson, stepping onto the footpath, bag over his shoulder. He stared at his new school without any emotion showing on his face. To this day it was unknown what his first impressions were, whether it was or wasn’t what he expected, whether he felt lost, annoyed, or even flattered by the presence of almost the entire school. He merely turned around to face his mother, who slung her handbag over her shoulder and moved over to the other side of the car.
Nathan led the procession with his mother in tow; just looking at her confirmed to all that the stories going around town were true. She was rather ordinary to look at in a pair of jeans and a shirt, her face fixed in a rigid smile unlike the face of her son. She walked with a precise, measured step, as did Nathan; both had long legs and arms that made them look both fragile and strong at the same time, the fragility being illusionary, a misconception due to their height. Mrs. Johnson’s eyes showed nervousness as they darted left and right inside their sockets, scanning the crowd that had gathered to watch her son’s entrance. They relaxed immeasurably when the principal, Mr. Frump, appeared at the top step of the front office, looking a little too neat in shirt and tie, dress he wore only on special occasions. He guided them inside his office with a wave of his hand, bringing the grand event to an end.
David Gray chewed his lip and shook his head.
“That’s it?” someone said, breaking the silence that had held them so completely over the two or so minutes that it had taken for the Johnson’s to arrive and disappear.
“Who did you expect, you dolt?” A terse reply. “The fucking president?” It was only Tyson Maloney who would say something so barbaric. “You should’ve seen all ya faces as Boy Wonder strolled up the path like a fuckin’ little king.” He snorted derisively, before storming away with his “gang” in tow.
David watched the small group of boys leave, crowding around Tyson who stood out because of his sheer size. Every school had a school bully, and Tyson was theirs. Like so many bullies, he was larger than most of the kids in school, only because he was two years older than the second oldest kid in school. And like so many other bullies in so many other schools, Tyson was not “brain” material. In fact, you were doing him an injustice to call him stupid. The teachers disliked him, and having made him repeat twice, decided that even if he fails year six again, next year he was going to high school.
David could imagine the intense relief both staff and students would feel with Tyson out of their midst. The playground would be much quieter, and Frump would have so many afternoons free instead of having to watch over Tyson at afternoon detention.
But that was next year. Right now, Tyson reigned supreme and made no effort to hide the fact. He was fourteen years old, and that meant that everyone else owed him respect. Those who didn’t respect him, he dealt with severely. It wasn’t hard to imagine exactly what was going through his mind as he vanished around the back with his loyal band of misfits, who hung around him like snapping hyenas. There was Vincent Dollabella for instance; a jelly-spined coward if ever there was one. Why Tyson accepted him was one of those infinitesimal mysteries of the world. Maybe it was that oily charm of his, or just his oily hair. Either way, Vinnie (as he liked to be known) could almost have been Tyson’s second man had it not been for Damien Treloar. He was everything Vinnie wasn’t; strong and good looking, except for the way his left eyelid twitched occasionally. It was a well accepted fact that Damien would inherit Tyson’s mantle as school bully when Tyson was promoted (along with Vinnie) to high school, though try as he could, Damien would not have the same power that Tyson possessed.
There would only be one thought predominant in Tyson’s mind that morning. Nathan Johnson, and more importantly, what to do with him. It was plainly obvious that a new student worried him, particularly one in the sixth grade, one that just might threaten Tyson’s balance of power. Was Nathan Johnson one of them, or wasn’t he?
There were really only two groups he could belong to: those Tyson beat up on, and those he didn’t. David was one of the kids Tyson managed to leave alone, for reasons he knew not. His main target seemed to be the kids whose fathers were well off financially, for these kids were often just as spineless as Vinnie Dollabella, as if all the money their fathers’ hoard robbed them of their strength. It was these kids who paid for Tyson’s lunch when he was strapped for cash—which was nearly every day because any pocket money he earned was spent on cigarettes. Another reason why David wasn’t a target for his provocation was that when he needed the money, he simply wasn’t around. Living just around the corner from the school meant that he was one of the few privileged students to have a lunch pass.
Lunch, however, was the last thing on his mind at the moment, for equipped with the full knowledge of Tyson’s past, David felt sure something was going to happen. So too did David’s friends, who sat with him in a small group, looking around with smiles on their faces. They all lived out of town, like a great majority of kids in Rand, on farms where they helped their Dads doing farm stuff, like driving tractors and exciting shit like that. In fact, David was probably the only one in sixth grade who couldn’t drive a tractor, or worse yet—couldn’t ride a motorbike. Working on the farm explained why most of them were built like tanks and wore work boots all of the time and felt like they were being strangled when forced to wear a tie. It was also partly the reason why all of them would be going to Boarding School next year. The other reason was to do with money, which most of the farmers seemed to have in abundance, even in bad years.
So, the question began. What was to happen to Nathan on his first day at school? If his pristine uniform was the first benchmark of separation, then the second was to occur only minutes after entering the classroom for the first time. No sooner had he seated himself, opened his book, dug out his pen from a brand new pencil case, was he required by the teacher to stand up and give an impromptu speech to the class. It would seem that from this moment on, in this cold and frosty auspicious July morning, that Nathan Johnson’s day would be marked with humiliation on top of humiliation.
Cowed on by the class, with Tyson at the very back adding his two cents worth, Nathan had no option but to rise slowly to his feet and walk to the front of the classroom. Again, he walked with that dignified action, each foot precisely placed on the ground, giving off a slight squeak as his new leather shoes began to wear in. His uniform was brand new, every crease fresh from the manufacturer, giving him an over neat appearance that would have destroyed him at that very moment were it not for the way his tie now dangled loosely from his neck. He pawed at the hanging piece of material earnestly, a smattering of colour rising to his cheeks that may have first been construed as embarrassment. Nathan was not exactly the sort that girls would throw themselves at. He was ruggedly handsome, with a strong face, blonde hair that was razor straight and a short nose. His only vice was his eyes, those cold icy eyes that stared with the intensity of laser beams. He raked the class of seventeen with those impeccable eyes. He was assessing the class as much as they were him to the extent that the excited cheers intent on embarrassing Nathan soon wound around to embarrass the person from whom they came. When he spoke, it was in a clear, even voice. He was a natural public speaker, something which most of the other kids found arduous at the best of times. Once he overcome the rigidity of his audience, he delivered a fine speech full of wit and dripping with so much honey that he could have almost won them all over. Almost.
Nobody had counted on lunchtime lasting those extra five minutes. Least of all Nathan Johnson. Nor would those involved realise the significance of those extra five minutes; for three people, it would mark a turning point in their lives.