THE FIRST TIME I saw you, you were standing at the far end of the playing field near the bit of fence that’s trampled down, where the kids who come to school along the wooded path cut across.
You were looking down at your little brown straggly dog that had its face stuck in the grass, but then you looked up in the direction of the tennis court, your mouth going slack as your eyes clocked her. Even if I hadn’t followed your gaze, I’d have known you were watching Alice Taylor because she had that effect on me, too. I used to catch myself gazing at the back of her head in class, at her silky fair hair swaying between her shoulder blades as she looked from her book to the teacher or said something to Katy Ellis next to her.
At that moment she was turning to walk backward, saying something to the girls who were following her, the sketchbook she took everywhere tucked under her arm. She looked so light and easy, it was like she created space around her: not space in the normal sense but something else I can’t explain. Even in our green school uniform it was obvious she was special.
If you’d glanced just once across the field, you’d have seen me standing in the middle on my own, looking straight at you, and you’d have gone back through the trees to the path quick, tugging your dog after you. You’d have known you’d given yourself away, even if only to me.
But you didn’t. You only had eyes for Alice.
I looked around to see who else had spotted you. There were loads of kids on the field, but they were all busy with each other, footballs or their phones.
I looked back at the windows of the school building. I thought I’d see a teacher behind one of them, fixed on you, like I know your game, sunshine. I saw Mr. Matthews walk past the History window reading from a piece of paper and Miss Wilcox one
floor down in the staff room talking to Mrs. Henderson.
Then the bell went.
I didn’t see your reaction because Robert pushed Dan into me, shouting, “He wants you, Doner—don’t deny him,” then staggered backward, laughing as Dan swore at him and tried to get him in a headlock.
I caught a glimpse of your blue jacket disappearing between the branches, though. The saying Saved by the bell came into my head because Dad always used to say it, and as I walked back across the field, I whispered the words slowly—“Saved by the bell, saved by the bell,” even though I knew that you weren’t saved by anything, that you’d be back.
* * *
My name’s not really Doner. It’s Yasmin. It’s just Doner at school—which is hilarious by the way because it’s short for Doner Kebab and as well as being overweight. I’m half Turkish. It used to be plain “Fatty” at junior school, then “Blubber-butt” when I came to Ashfield, or “Lesbo” till Mel Raynor and Natalie Simms started publicly making out, making lesbianism à la mode, whatever that means.
Anyway, I didn’t see you at school the following day, even though I watched for you. At break and lunch I sat against the games hut where all the PE stuff such as nets and balls and bibs is kept. I could see the whole of the fence that runs alongside the wooded path from there. I ate the chocolate Hobnobs I buy every morning on the way to school, chewing slowly and trying to ignore the fact that my bum was going numb from the concrete, scanning the trees for a bit of your jacket and listening for the kind of bark your little dog might make. I was vigilant, and I wouldn’t have missed you because of being distracted by friends, because I don’t have any. People look at me and think the same as I thought when I saw you: freak. So I figured, as well as feeling compelled to stare at Alice Taylor, being freaks was something else we had in common.
English is the only classroom I go to that overlooks the playing field, so I looked out for you there, too. I have to sit in the third row from the window, but I could just about see the fence at the bottom of the field if I sat up, except that it was difficult to look without being obvious about it—which I was, because Robert threw a screwed-up piece of paper that hit my ear, and because a few minutes later Miss Frances, my English teacher who’s really a Borg, said “Yasmin” in that sarcastic tone teachers use just to waste everyone’s time because they know you’re not listening and won’t be able to answer whatever it was they asked.
I looked at her, rolling my biro in my fingers.
What she was telling me with her ice-blue eyes and black triangular eyebrows was, I hate you, Yasmin Laksaris, and wish with all my frozen heart that you’d leave this school I have to teach in, but while you’re still here don’t think I won’t make you pay for it. What she said was: “Any ideas about why Robert Browning chooses to set his poem in a storm?
I thought about what the weather had been like when you were watching Alice. Dull and gray and so still it was as if the world had been sucked into another dimension where everything moved in silent, super-slow motion.
“She doesn’t know, Miss,” Robert said. “She’s a kebab” (said like shish a kebab).
Miss Frances didn’t laugh, even though I’m sure she found it quite amusing. She didn’t want Robert stealing her spotlight. She folded her arms till she had everyone’s attention again, then said, “Do you have any opinions about anything, Yasmin?”
I stopped twirling my biro. It’s chewed, the plastic split halfway to the tip, and the blue bit that fits in the end isn’t there (I’m a chewer as well as a freak). I thought about giving my opinion that her drawn-on eyebrows make her look like she’s a member of an enemy alien race that’s managed to infiltrate the education system. Then I thought about giving my opinion about you—about how you were watching our school and had your sights set on Alice Taylor and that, if I was asked, I’d say one day pretty soon you might even take her.
I don’t think I realized till that second that I did think you were going to take her. I knew it then, though. I knew the way you’d looked at her was never just looking. It was wanting. I bet it was wanting in a way you’d never wanted anything before. Like you’d never seen anything so lovely, never even dreamed about having anything quite that good—being able to touch her hair, slide your hands beneath her crisp white shirt.
Anyway, luckily for you I didn’t say anything. No one would’ve believed me in any case. I’d probably have been sent to Miss Ward, the Head, who’d have said something like I’ve told you about telling lies before, haven’t I, Yasmin? Which she has, several times. Instead, I looked around. Everyone was staring at me and I realized they were all waiting for me to answer Miss Frances’s question about having opinions. Dan sniggered.
“No?” I said. It came out like a question, like I didn’t know whether I had any opinions or not.
The whole class laughed then, and even though I couldn’t care less, I felt my face burn. I probably looked at Alice without thinking, instinctively, to see if she was laughing with the rest of them.
She wasn’t. She was the only one who wasn’t. She was just looking at me over her shoulder, her green eyes sort of observing me. I thought maybe in some parallel universe or via telepathy she’d heard my opinion about what you were going to do and that she’d understood somehow that I was going to save her, so I smiled. A small, secret smile. And even though she frowned and wrinkled her nose up before she turned away, I knew she’d felt it, too—the connection.