September 1986, and England has been treated to the rarest of things: a good summer. Days had been hot, nights long and warm, the air filled with the smell of barbequed meats and freshly cut grass. Mike Tyson became the youngest world heavyweight boxing champion, capturing the imagination of the sporting world. The space shuttle Challenger exploded on take-off, killing all on board, the harrowing footage played on television screens worldwide as the investigation into what happened begins.
Nintendo finally released their NES entertainment system in Europe, its lead game, Super Mario Brothers, featuring a mushroom eating plumber looking to rescue a princess proving to be all the rage with schoolchildren the world over. Movies which will go on to be iconic are screening in theatres. Top Gun featuring a young Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer is getting rave reviews. The sequel to the Karate Kid is also showing, once again featuring a fresh faced Ralph Macchio in the lead role as he plays the humble, but talented, Daniel La Russo.
Television too is seeing a surge of new and colourful programming imported from the United States, from George Peppard leading his band of mercenaries called the A-Team in their weekly exploits against evil, to light hearted family comedies like the Cosby Show and Cheers.
As the August days began to shorten and the oppressive heat had started to fade, bringing with it the first slight bite of winter, thoughts for many of the children who had enjoyed one of the best summers on record turned towards the dreaded return to school.
For most, the first day back was something to dread. It meant that winter was on its way, and as the summer had been a spectacularly good one, the majority of the pupils at Evanshaw Middle School were not happy to be back. Nine-year-old Dillon Thomas, however, was looking forward to it. He walked towards the red bricked building, hands thrust in jacket pockets, last year’s Transformers lunchbox nestled in his school bag, his Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle toy figure hidden amongst his school things, despite his mother’s insistence he leave them at home. Dillon didn’t like to go against her wishes, but he had been playing with them all summer and it seemed a shame to leave them at home.
Things in the house had been difficult since his father had left them. Although his mother didn’t know it, sometimes Dillon could hear her crying on a night when she thought he was asleep. If she came into his room to see if her cries had woken him he would lay perfectly still, eyes closed and pretending to be asleep. He thought it was better that way. Easier for them both. He didn’t really remember much of his father anyway, and whenever he tried to ask about him, all she would tell him was that he wasn’t a good man and that they were better off without him. Dillon had seen pictures of him though, and his mother reluctantly admitted that the two of them looked alike, both slim with blonde hair and sharp, inquisitive blue eyes.
His mother did her best to run the household on her own, working part time at a restaurant in town, but times were hard and money in short supply, so Dillon was forced to go without the latest things. His shoes were battered, beaten, and had been repaired more times than he could recall, his jumpers and trousers were years old, and were already starting to get too short in the arms and legs respectively. By no means popular anyway, Dillon was constantly teased by his classmates about the circumstances at home and the way he was forced to live. They were absolutely merciless, picking out his tatty shoes, frayed sweaters and repaired trousers as valid reasons to tease him. As a result, he had few friends, most of the other pupils shunning him for fear of being seen as a sympathiser and, by default, picked on too. This is the dog eat dog world of mid-eighties middle school in the U.K.
The one exception to the rule was Billy Lawrence, who was a year older than him and, like Dillon, was the butt of most of the jokes in his class too. Either by necessity or a shared need for companionship, the two had become friends, helping each other through what had proved to be a turbulent two terms at school. Because of his lack of other friends, Dillon always went out of his way to seek approval from his classmates and change their opinion of him. He tried to be nice, tried to offer help to them, but nobody wanted to be seen with him. He had, it seemed, already been singled out as the unpopular member of the class, and had also now attracted the attention of Ron Spengler, who although the same age as Dillon was much taller and already had a reputation as a bully. At the end of the previous term he had shoved Dillon down the steps leading to the playground, the fall causing him to tear his school trousers on the knees (the same ones he was wearing now, complete with patches to repair the damage). As angry as he was, he, like most of the other kids, was afraid of Ron, and the best way he had learned to deal with it was to ignore it and hope it went away. For a while, that had worked, but Ron, it seemed, had marked Dillon out as a long term target for his humiliation and bullying.
Dillon approached the school, its reddish walls contrasting against both the concrete playground in front and the fields and trees behind where they would play sports during P.E.
Dillon’s excitement about the new school day halted as he walked through the gates. Ron was standing with his friends by the entrance, yellow Sony Walkman earphones hanging around his neck. For a split second, Dillon wanted to turn and run, maybe enter the school by the side entrance, which would take longer but prevent a confrontation. It was too late, however, as he had already been seen, and Ron and his friends were watching like a pack of hungry lions as Dillon walked towards them.
“Still not got any new trousers have you, tramp?” Ron asked, enjoying the chuckles of his companions. He was big, his chin seeming to morph straight into his shoulders where his neck should have been. He had a buzz cut, and his face was littered with spots.
Dillon said nothing. He knew that to answer would only provoke them more. Instead, he did the same thing as always in situations like this. He lowered his head and tried to shoulder past them and into the relative safety of the school.
“Wait. I’m talking to you,” Ron said as his friends closed in around him.
Dillon sped up, scared now about what they might do and desperate to get inside the building. Someone stuck out a foot in front of him and before he could stop himself he stumbled over, crashing to the ground on his hands and knees.
Not just by Ron and his friends, but others in the yard too. As he knelt there on the floor, the embarrassment far more painful than the sting in his palms, Dillon’s excitement for the new day was gone. Now, he wished he was anywhere else in the world. Maybe at home playing with his Masters of the Universe figures, or at Billy’s house, although he was also probably on his way to school now too, so that was a non-starter.
He started to get up, feeling sick, afraid, and unsure how to react.
Ron, it seemed, could smell the fear and with a growing audience watching to see what would happen, shoved him back down. “Nobody said you could get up.” He grunted, looking around for approval.
Dillon didn’t fight it, and waited on all fours as the laughter continued.
Always the laughter.
Never any offer of help.
They just watched and let it happen.
“You stay there like a good dog.” Ron said, clearly enjoying the attention. He was everything that Dillon wasn’t.
Dillon could taste it in his throat, something he was all too familiar with.
Bitter and strong, intense and all consuming, it hovered there, making him incredibly aware of everything around him. He could feel the blood surging around his body as his heart thumped its high tempo rhythm. He hated that taste. He had started to forget its flavour over the summer but now it had come back stronger than ever.
It was more than just teasing now, more than just verbal jibes. The new school term had brought with it a new, more physical side to Ron. It seemed that, for whatever reason, verbal taunts didn’t cut it anymore and he was looking for new, more physical ways to get his kicks
“Kiss my shoes, Dog,” Ron said, grinning at his friend, a short, greasy-haired boy called Damien. “Kiss them and you can get up.”
Dillon shook his head, wishing the others weren’t watching, wishing they couldn’t see him crying. Most of all, wishing they would stop laughing and help him.
“Kiss them or I’ll make you sorry.”
He knew he would have to do it, and then they would have something else to tease him about. He could only begin to imagine how it would be if the rest of the year went on like this. He squinted up at Ron, the sun for a second masked behind his head so that his form was a shadowy, featureless mass against the pale morning sky. He leaned close to Ron’s outstretched shoes, the bottoms caked with mud, the tops wet and covered in tiny blades of grass.
Ron walked across the fields to get to school from the council estate where he lived. Dillon could smell that wet grass and fresh dirt smell, which as strong as it was didn’t overpower the fear which seemed to be hanging at the back of his throat. There was no way out of it now. He would have to go through with it and deal with the aftermath later.
“What on earth is happening here?”
The laughter stopped, and just like that, the spell was broken as those watching dispersed, leaving just Ron, his friends and Dillon behind. Mr Ashley, the head of science, stood at the entrance, hands on hips, tweed jacket open and exposing his gut, which strained against his slightly yellowed shirt and threatened to pop off the buttons holding it back. The little hair he had was combed over, a salt and pepper series of strips pasted from left to right across a shiny dome of a head, in what looked to be a failed effort to cling on to a long lost youth.
He looked from Dillon to Ron, then back to Dillon. “Well?”
“Nothing sir,” Ron said, hiding away the bully everyone knew was there and trying to play nice. “We were just playing a game.”
“Is that true, Thomas? Were you and Spengler playing some kind of game?”
Dillon got up, checking his knees and brushing the grit from his pants.
“Well?” Mr Ashley said, his coffee and tobacco breath pungent.
Dillon shrugged, which was all Ashley needed. He turned towards Ron. “I’ve told you about this before, Spengler. See me in my office after school.”
But sir,” Ron started, glaring at Dillon. “It was just a game it was just -”
“I don’t want to hear another word. My office, after school. Understood?”
“Yes.” Ron mumbled.
“Good. Now get to class, all of you.”
With that, Mr Ashley was gone, perhaps to grab another coffee or quick smoke before the school day started. Ron’s friends too dispersed, glad to have been let off the hook. Ron looked ready to explode. His cheeks were spotted red, eyes cold and emotionless. He walked past Dillon, pride bruised but lesson learned.
As he walked past he leaned close, eyes sly and full of venom. “I’ll get you for this, Tramp,” he whispered.
Dillon didn’t reply, he simply watched as his bully disappeared into the building. He wasn’t quite sure how to react to the threat. He was sure that Ron would soon find something else to focus his attention on other than him; even so, it still didn’t stop him from feeling absolutely terrified about whatever Ron might do to get his revenge. The first bell rang, and the other children started to filter into the school. Dillon tried to shake off how afraid he was, then picked up his bag and went into school. He had started the school year hoping to have a better year than the one before. Already, he was just hoping to get by without getting a beating.
It was three weeks later, during Friday morning registration, that Dillon received both good and bad news almost at the same time. The bad news was that Ron was due to return to school the following Monday after being suspended for fighting with another pupil. He had already been given a weeks’ worth of detention after the incident outside the school with Dillon, and the word amongst the pupils, if you chose to believe it, was that he was waiting for the opportune time to get his revenge and beat Dillon to a pulp.
For a few days, Dillon was sick with fear, but if the rumour was true then Ron didn’t show any signs of living up to it. If anything, he mostly left Dillon alone, which in itself might have been just a ploy to make him lower his guard. Despite the reprieve, Dillon still expected that one day soon, Ron would take his revenge. Of course, just because Ron was currently enjoying a quiet phase, didn’t mean that life was perfect for Dillon. No matter what he did, people still laughed. They still pointed at him and insulted him. They still called him the same hurtful names and laughed at the way he was dressed.
"You’re an easy target,", his mother had said when he’d told her what was happening. "You need to stand up for yourself and show these people you won’t be bossed around."
He couldn’t explain to her that it wasn’t like that. He couldn’t make her see how cruel a place the school yard was and how, no matter how hard he tried, they wouldn’t accept him for who he was.
He was sitting in class, thinking about his mother’s words when his teacher, Mrs Simons, called out his name. He looked up at her, eyebrows raised, ignoring the whispers and chuckles aimed at him. The seven words she said next were ones he'd been waiting to hear for what felt like an eternity.
‘Dillon, you’re the milk monitor on Monday.’
It took all of his effort not to scream in delight. This was what he had been waiting for. This was the opportunity to prove to his classmates that he was more than they thought he was. He smiled, and even the whispered insults combined with the way John Groves kept snickering and kicking the back of his seat seemed distant.
To Dillon it was a massive responsibility and one he was looking forward to completing as best he could. The rest of the day went by like a hazy half-dream. At lunch, he sat on the table with the other children who were shunned and ridiculed for various reasons, eating his sandwich from the tatty red Transformers lunchbox with the broken handle. The job of milk monitor was one of responsibility. Whoever had that job would command the respect of the other students. He would be in charge of distributing the morning milk to the rest of the class and anyone who misbehaved wouldn’t get a bottle. It was a school rule. His mind tried to turn its attention towards Ron’s imminent return, and what that could mean to the period of relative peace. For Monday morning at least, Ron would have to do as he said. Accept the milk that he chose to hand over and be nice about it, or go without.
Finally a sense of worth.
The idea alone excited him.
Monday couldn’t come quickly enough.
The weekend was spent mostly thinking about his special task on Monday morning.
He had spent Saturday riding his BMX with Billy, both of them making sure to avoid the places where they might bump into other kids from the school (Ron especially). They had talked as always about their favourite shows, the cartoons they liked, the action figures they had and wanted, but Dillon was never quite engaged in the conversation, his mind fixed firmly on Monday.
They had talked about the latest episode of the A-Team, and who their favourite characters were. (Billy couldn’t look past B.A Baracus, whereas Dillon was more of a 'Howling Mad' Murdoch fan). They had swapped a few Star Wars figures, Dillon reluctantly trading his Luke Skywalker in Storm trooper disguise for the Yoda figure from The Empire Strikes Back, which he had wanted for a while but didn’t have the heart to ask his mother for.
On Sunday, after eating dinner, Dillon sat outside on the back step, enjoying the solitude of the overgrown yard as day melted into night. The sky was clear as the fading day finally revealed the first stars. It was perfect. He was excited, looking forward to what the next day would bring. It seemed like he had been waiting for this forever, for this one opportunity to show that he was something special. The idea of Ron coming back didn’t even bother him, not anymore. He could handle whatever he wanted to dish out, just like he always had.
Dillon pulled his knees up to his chin and smiled.
Nothing was going to ruin his big day.
Nothing at all.
He woke early on Monday morning, setting his alarm for five thirty. Daylight was already bleeding into the sky, and as he looked out of the window he was sure it was going to be a perfect day. Dillon decided to leave for school early for the simple reason that he wanted to avoid any kind of run in with Ron that might ruin his day. He had kissed his mother goodbye and set off on the ten minute walk to school. Being out so early was bliss. There were no other children around, none of those who laughed at him or pointed. None of those people who used him as a way to make themselves feel better by insulting his clothes or his hair. It was almost like it was a secret time of day designed just for him, the perfect start to his perfect Monday.
He approached the building, hands in pockets, loose sole of his shoe slapping against the concrete. He would have to have his mother glue them again as he knew she didn’t have the money to replace them yet. The building had a very different feel when its yard was devoid of children. It was strange to see it so bare. It almost made him feel like a trespasser as he walked towards the entrance. He could see a scattering of cars in the car park, Mr Ashley’s Ford parked close to the gates. Dillon wondered if he'd made a start on creating his uniquely pungent morning coffee and tobacco breath for the day. He smiled at the idea of his teacher standing in front of the mirror and brushing his teeth with coffee flavoured toothpaste. It was funny, and he reminded himself to tell Billy about it later, if he remembered. He entered the school, the cavernous corridors long and quiet, polished floors echoing as he walked them, loose sole slapping a unique rhythm.
He went first to his classroom, poking his head into the door. Mrs Simons wasn’t there, but her red coat was hooked over the back of her chair. He counted the desks, mouthing the numbers to himself as he tallied up the numbers. Twenty-three pupils including him. He repeated the number over and over in his head, committing it to memory. The last thing he wanted to happen was for him to miscount and for someone to have to go without. Not after he had waited for so long to do such an important job. He took a deep breath, inhaling the slightly musty, polish smell of the room. To see the building so quiet was almost like exploring a place for the first time. It was like the time he and Billy had wandered the woodland behind the school pretending to be explorers like Indiana Jones, only this time it was a solo mission for him alone. Billy was probably only just getting up to start the day anyway. Dillon nodded to himself then closed the door and walked down the corridor towards the dining hall. Like the rest of the school, it seemed so much bigger than he remembered. Empty tables and circular desks waited for children to inhabit them. He glanced at the spot where Ron had knocked his food tray out of his hands, spilling gravy and potatoes all over the floor. The laughter then had been awful, amplified by the high ceilings. He had gone hungry that day, but the pain inside had been worse.
He shook it off, determined not to let anything ruin his good mood.
The kitchen was at the back of the hall behind the serving area. He walked there, sole of his broken shoe still flopping against the floor. The clock on the wall said it was just after eight thirty. School started at eight fifty five. Plenty of time. The kitchen was cool, and other than the buzz of the fridge, was silent and deserted. The crates of milk were on the table, one for each class. He wasn’t sure what time it was delivered, but assumed the caretaker, Mr Ruddock, let them in. The dinner ladies wouldn’t be in until at least mid-morning, meaning that, for the time being, the kitchen was his alone. He walked around the table, running his hand across the crates, each containing the miniature bottles of milk, one crate for each class in his year. On the counter top beside them was a bulk pack of blue straws. Dillon went to these first, recalling the number he had memorised and counted out twenty three of them, taking them to the first crate. He paused, flicking his top lip with his tongue as he counted the bottles, lips moving in silence. There were thirty bottles in the crate, and so he removed seven of them, putting them on the counter top.
Satisfied, he shrugged out of his backpack,set it on the floor and took out the box he had brought from home. He set it on the counter and opened it, removing the syringe and one of the bottles of liquid that were packed along with it. He traced the word on the bottle with his finger, struggling to spell it in his head.
His mother had to have it when she was feeling weak. The doctor had given her it as he said she was dibetric, or maybe it was diabeteric, he couldn’t recall the right word for it. He remembered the way she had taken him aside and shown him how to use the syringe, and said that if for any reason he came home and she was asleep and couldn’t wake up, that he had to inject her with it. She had, of course, warned him that it was dangerous, and that he wasn’t to touch it unless it was in an emergency. She made him repeat it, to tell her he understood. He had asked her how dangerous, and she had told him that if it was given to someone who didn’t need it, they could die. That had scared him, and he hadn’t touched the box that was kept in the fridge until that morning.
He took the syringe and pierced the lid of the bottle, pulling up the plunger and filling the tube with the clear liquid. He held the syringe up to the light; unable to believe it could be so dangerous.
It looked just like water.
Carefully and methodically, he injected the syringe into the silver foil cover of the first milk bottle and squirted it inside, the insulin mixing into the milk without any trace. He nodded, satisfied. It was all going to work out exactly as he had planned it. There were three bottles of insulin in the box he had taken from the fridge, and he used them all. When it was done, he took the pack of blue straws and pushed into each of the puncture marks he had made, hiding any evidence of what he had done. He was calm as he worked, humming the theme from The A-Team as he carefully arranged the bottles, setting his own, unspoiled milk towards the back of the crate and away from the others.
When it was done, he put the syringe and empty bottles back in the box, then the box back in his bag. He stepped back and admired his handiwork. It was perfect. And although the wait to do it had been long, it was worth it. He stood in silence, watching the clock and waiting. At eight fifty-five, the bell rang, and he listened to the thunder of feet and chatter as the school was filled with pupils.
Normally, he hated that sound.
Today, it filled him with joy.
He thought about them, the people who had let him be bullied, the people who had laughed at him and called him worthless. There was a sadness in him, but no regret. None whatsoever. He heard the other milk monitors coming towards the kitchen, chatting and joking, ready to count out their straws and prepare the milk for their classmates.
Colin Decker was first through the door, followed by Laura Perkins and the other five milk monitors, one selected from each class. They gave him that look, the one he was used to.
None of it mattered anymore. Dillon picked up his crate and walked to the door.
“What happened here? Did you do this?” Decker said as he looked at the table. Dillon followed his gaze. Each of the crates had already been prepped, each bottle of milk pierced with blue straws. He locked eyes with Decker and nodded.
“Oh,” Decker said, glancing at the others. “Thanks, Dillon.”
He nodded again. It was always this way. Laughter and jokes, finger pointing and ridicule when there was a crowd, but fine and civil when there were less of them. He had seen the pattern. Dillon walked out of the kitchen, pushing it open crate first and headed through the hall. He could hear the other milk monitors laughing at him as he left, but it was okay. Let them laugh. By the end of the day, he was sure he would be laughing too.
He walked through the dining hall and out into the corridor. He paused there for a second, taking it all in, savouring the moment, then set off, milk bottles rattling as he walked towards his classroom. He started to hum the theme tune to the A-Team as he entered the classroom and gently nudged the door closed behind him.