“You think I’m crazy or something, always following you around,
You think I’m a hopeless case, run an obsession into the ground.”
The Bangles, ‘Following’, 1985.
So I suppose following him wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but then I don’t profess to be the smartest person in the world. Not when it comes to the opposite sex.
We had art in the last period before lunch and there he was. Apparently, our old teacher had been rushed to hospital over the weekend and he was taking us until she was better. What can I say? It’s an ill wind indeed. An ill wind that blew in Mr Stone with his thick blond hair and gorgeous green eyes. Instantly I was in love.
“Stuck?” He leant over my shoulder and took the pencil from my hand, sketching in the missing bits of a face that I’d drawn from an awkward angle.
Our hands brushed together and I could smell his smell. A man’s smell. Not like the boys in our class. This was the smell of a man. A man who shaves. Who uses aftershave. Suddenly I loved that smell and drank in as much as I possibly could before he pulled away. It left me dizzy.
At lunchtime, keeping a discreet distance, I followed him back to the staffroom, desperate for a reason to detain him before he entered the forbidden teachers’ sanctum, but my mind operates on a two-hour delay: it would be at least afternoon break before that one, unbelievably cool thing to say finally popped into my head. I faltered as he disappeared inside, forced to add this to the ever-lengthening list of wasted opportunities that seemed to characterise my life. A teacher swept past me and followed him in, leaving the door open a crack and I was able to peek inside, bodies floating across my line of vision.
“Andy, you want sugar?”
It was him. Mr Stone. Andy. I could hardly breathe. In under two hours I had met him, fallen in love with him, found out his name – Andy, Stone, Andy Stone – and that he took two sugars. In what? Coffee? Tea? Hot Chocolate? I simply had to find out as much as I possibly could about this Divine Specimen of Man.
“Maddie, do you want something? Are you waiting to see me?”
I jumped back about a foot and a half, nearly swallowing my tongue in the process. Mrs Butler, my form tutor, was suddenly there in front of me, blocking my view. She seemed a little concerned.
“Did one of the teachers ask you to come?”
Brain Freeze. Total Brain Freeze. Right then if she had asked me my own name I don’t think I could have told her. Instead, I switched to plan B, which was to just stand there like the village idiot, like one of the ‘special’ kids in our school’s ironically named ‘merit’ group who get smiley-face stickers for being able to do up their own shoe-laces, the kids whose school uniforms never seem to fit, the sweatshirts either ten sizes too big or with sleeves that only come halfway down their arms. Yup, I just stood there like a smiley-face lemon, scratching my head and without a single thought in my brain. I think I might have muttered something along the lines of ‘I, er, um’ but that was it.
“Are you here to see one of the teachers?” she prompted again. “Maddie?”
I finally shook my head. “I was just going actually.”
“Oh, okay. Well look, before you do perhaps I could have a quick word,” she said. “I’ve been meaning to speak to you anyway.”
“You have? What, now?”
I might miss him.
“Well, yes.” There was that look again, as if something was not quite right. “Are you in a rush? It’ll only take a minute or two, I promise. Then you can get back to whatever it was you were doing.” And she cast me an odd sideways glance that shot an uncomfortable feeling down my spine.
I followed her to an empty classroom, then watched as she proceeded to sit on a desk, letting me know that this was an informal chat, woman-to-woman or something like that.
“Sit, sit,” she smiled and reluctantly I dragged a chair out from a desk and perched myself on the edge, like I might need to make a run for it at any moment.
I wondered what I had done to warrant this unprecedented honour. I generally crept my way through school pretty much unnoticed by teachers and fellow-students alike.
“Really I just wanted to check that you were all right. You look tired. Are you sleeping well? Getting enough sleep, I mean?”
I tugged self-consciously at the skin around my eyes wondering how bad I looked and whether Mr Stone had noticed it too. I liked to think of myself as pale and interesting, but clearly, to other people, I just looked tired.
“I’m fine, really.”
“It must be hard for you now that Holly’s gone. I know you two were very close.”
I shrugged. Holly was my best friend. My only friend, really. She used to butcher her arms with scissors and nobody knew but me. It was our secret bond. She said it was a form of blood-letting and that she felt better afterwards. I was worried for her but at the same time I kind of understood where she was coming from – in some weird, warped, Holly kind of a way. And now she was gone…not gone, gone…up-country gone.
“You seem very distracted these days,” Mrs Butler noted. “Is anything bothering you?”
“Everything’s fine.” I managed an awkward smile.
“Good, well that’s good, then,” she nodded. “And so what about your mum? How’s she doing? I was hoping we would have her support again at last week’s fund-raiser.”
“Oh, yeah, the fund-raiser. Wow, yeah. I guess she was just too busy,” I lied. “You know how it is.”
“Business must be good then,” she beamed and I smiled again, not wanting to dwell on the fact that I hadn’t actually passed the details of the school fund-raiser to my mother this year.
I was quite happy to keep the world of school and the world of my mother completely separate. Last year they had come dangerously close thanks to her involvement with the annual fund-raiser, and Mr Roberts, the senior gym teacher, had been smitten enough to send her a bunch of flowers afterwards. Then he had started smiling at me, which is just too gross for words. The idea of my mother hooking up with a PE teacher is about as bad as it gets in my book, and there was no way I was going to risk that for a second consecutive year. My mother attracts men like iron filings to a magnet. She can’t seem to help it. Half the time I don’t think she even realises it’s happening.
“I suppose spring must be a busy time for you,” said my tutor, conversationally, as if this was all quite normal, as if I were one of those students that teachers seem to go out of their way to talk to.
I felt uneasy but tried to be nonchalant about it, the way I like to act about most things. I don’t always pull it off.
“Yeah, it’s quite busy from now until about October usually. We have a lot of regulars that come all year round as well, but yeah, we are kind of busy at the moment.” Lies. All lies. I’m surprisingly good at them.
My mother runs a guesthouse on the seafront. It’s not much, just three guest bedrooms, more of a B&B than a guesthouse but Mum thinks that sounds too common. It’s amazing what you can do with a few pot plants and dwarf palms. And believe me, there’s nothing common about my mother.
“I couldn’t do what she does,” simpered Mrs Butler, fishing for a new angle. “Not singlehandedly.” She shifted position on the desk. “What’s your dad up to these days?”
“He’s still making his film,” I nodded, looking around the room as if this were the first time I had seen it.
“A film? My goodness. In London?”
“California? Wow, California! I guess he must be serious about his movie-making then.”
Films and film-making have always been my father’s passion. Maybe that’s where I get my love of old movies. He’s done a few low budget things, arts movies I think you’d call them, but now he’s looking further afield, to bigger and better things, he says. More mainstream. That’s why he’s gone to the States. Because sooner or later that’s where everyone goes in the movie business.
“The next Steven Spielberg, I dare say?” smiled Mrs Butler, encouragingly.
“I think he sees himself more in the Francis Ford Coppola mould, actually.”
“Oh.” She nodded, like she understood the difference. “A name to watch for the future, eh? Will we see him on the red carpet then, one day?”
“Hope so,” I nodded, avoiding her gaze.
The red carpet. One day I too could be rubbing shoulders with the big-name stars at glitzy movie premieres and wild parties thrown to celebrate his latest release to ecstatic reviews. Then everyone would know his name. And mine too, for I am his daughter, his first-born. Then my life will well and truly begin. I might finally have become somebody. Of course, I have absolutely no doubt about my father’s ability to succeed in making his movies. You follow your dreams, wherever they lead you. It just so happens that his have taken him to Hollywood.
My parents are separated, but that isn’t Hollywood’s fault. They had split up a good year before Dad took off for Tinsel Town. Mum said trying to pin Dad down and get him to do proper grown up, dad-type things was like trying to knit with fog. She said after a while it felt too much like hard work being the only adult in the family and that’s when they started to drift apart. That’s how she explained it to me anyway. But they’re still friends. They have what they both call an ‘amicable separation’. They still talk on the phone every week when Dad calls to speak to me and Natasha, my annoying little sister.
“Actually, that brings me onto another thing I was going to mention,” said Mrs Butler, clicking her fingers in an exaggerated gesture, as if this idea had only just popped into her head. “The end-of-term play. Now with your theatrical background, how about auditioning? As I understand it, two of the cast have pulled out so they’re in urgent need of someone to step into the breach, so to speak. You’d be a natural with your insider knowledge, I’m sure. I know it’s all very eleventh hour, but that’s just the way it is this year – total mayhem!”
“Me? Really?” (‘Over my dead body!’ is what I was actually thinking). The thought of being on stage with hundreds of people looking at me was nothing short of abhorrent. “I don’t know.” I shook my head. “Really, I think I’d probably be better behind the scenes.”
“Well, there are plenty of other jobs involved in putting on a play. It’s not all acting – as I’m sure you of all people know. There’s the lighting, the sound system, half the costumes still need to be made, and of course all the scenery still needs painting, I know Mr Stone would be glad of an extra pair of hands – he’s been somewhat lumbered with everything since Mrs Harry went sick.”
My face burned suddenly at the unexpected mention of his name. I looked away in case she could see inside my head. Inside my thoughts.
“I guess I could think about it,” I mumbled.
“I guess you could,” she smiled. “We’d all be very grateful for the extra help. It’ll be a miracle if this production ever makes it to the stage this year, and who knows, it might even bring you out of yourself a bit more.”
My breath caught in the back of my throat and I squirmed with embarrassment as everything snapped painfully into focus, the reason for this odd little chat becoming horribly clear. Bring me out of myself? What kind of loser did she think I was? The warm glow from seconds before vanished, giving way to the most humiliating kind of sickness: teacher-pity-sickness. Was I really so different because I didn’t hang round with the ‘in crowd’ at lunch times and discuss ‘Love Island’ whilst taking endless, filtered selfies for my insta-feed? Because I listened to old records and watched black and white movies? Did they know that about me? I had always been happy to be different so long as I was still ‘cool’: alternative cool – too cool to care about not being cool, that kind of cool. But it was easier when Hol was around, me and Hol against the world. These days, without her, I felt disconnected from everything, not sure of who I wanted to be anymore.
“Why don’t you at least think about what I said?” Mrs Butler beamed a kindly smile at me. “I think it would be good for you to get involved in something for a change. Meet some new friends.”
I nodded weakly, unable to hold her gaze in case my eyes suddenly welled up, but promised I’d give it some thought. As she ushered me out of the classroom my legs had turned to wood. I didn’t hear anything else she was saying. Everything about me seemed wrong. I walked with her as far as the staffroom and she turned and smiled back at me. A pity smile. Ugh. I felt like ripping out my insides, tearing off my face.
“Give it some thought, won’t you?”
And then at that exact moment Mr Stone appeared in the doorway behind her: a bright light in the dark corner of Hell that my life had suddenly become. Hot pink needles pricked at my cheeks. (If Dad ever makes a movie of my life, this moment will be accompanied by the sound of an angelic choir somewhere in the background.) I nodded to Mrs Butler, a mush of feelings churning round in my stomach. Andy Stone. Still as heavenly as he was fifteen minutes ago. Oh yes, I was definitely going to think about it but probably not for the reasons she had in mind.
Holly would have understood, I thought, as I trailed out into the afternoon sunshine. She understood everything. She didn’t want to hang about outside the cinema or on the pier with the so-called ‘beautiful people’ any more than I did. She didn’t think I was weird for choosing to write real stories up in my bedroom, word-packed stories with beginnings and middles and ends instead of taking endless snaps for social-media stories where every character is the same, pouting like a porn star, posing like your world is oh-so perfect. We made our own imperfect world, Holly and me, and we were perfectly happy with it.
Why did teachers assume that unless you aspired to be exactly the same as all the other clones, you were a sad loser? Bring me out of myself? Mrs Butler’s words clanged round in my head. I’d thought I’d made my position clear when I opted for ‘pale and interesting’. But I hadn’t pulled that off at all, had I? The teachers had me down as a sad, shy loser with no friends: Maddie-no-mates. That’s all I was to them.
Across the car park Mr Stone was just disappearing down the hill into town and with no other plan of action in my head I decided to follow him again. Natasha jumped off the wall when she saw me.
“Where are you going? How come you’re not going home?”
I was walking quickly so as not to lose sight of Mr Stone. Andy. I was in private investigator mode. My mission? To discover as much as possible about the delectable new art teacher.
“I’ve got to go into town first.”
“But Dad’s phoning tonight.”
“So? I’m not going to be long.”
“Can I come too?”
I shrugged. “So long as you don’t slow me down.”
Natasha trotted obediently alongside me. Every so often she ran a couple of paces to keep level. Her legs are not as long as mine.
“Who are you following?” she demanded and I slowed a little, not wanting to make it so obvious. Andy’s pace had also slowed as he reached into his trouser pocket to pull out a ringing mobile phone. I strained to identify the custom ringtone, like Shazam, desperate to uncover something else about my mysterious man.
“I’m not following anyone.”
“Yes you are.” The cogs in Natasha’s suspicious brain whirred into action. “Is it that teacher? Oh God, don’t tell me you fancy a teacher. He’s gross. You’re gross. Why d’you keep doing this?”
“Sshh. Keep your voice down. And I don’t fancy him anyway.”
“Oh Maddie, please don’t go making a fool of yourself.”
“Excuse me? How am I going to make a fool of myself?”
“I don’t know. Following him round like a little dog. Writing him silly love notes.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.” For an eleven-year-old, she could be quite astute sometimes. “Please don’t embarrass me,” she hissed. “It’s bad enough as it is.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I faltered for a moment and almost lost sight of Mr Stone as he rounded the next corner.
“People already think you’re weird.”
I looked at her. “What people?”
“Everybody,” she shrugged. “Hanging round with Holly Henson last year didn’t exactly help, you know. She didn’t have any friends either. Apart from you. I heard once, a boy went out with her on a date or something and she didn’t speak to him for the whole three hours. Not a single word!”
“You heard all that, huh?” I shook my head.
She glanced at me. “People talk! You know, having a big sister’s supposed to be a good thing. You’re supposed to give me advice on boys and dating and all that kind of stuff and what do you do? Lock yourself in your room all day on your computer, listening to a bunch of scratchy old records, stinking the place out with your joss sticks, watching old videos that no one’s ever heard of. FYI that is so-oo lame.”
“Yeah well ‘FYI’ I don’t care what you think. I don’t care what anyone thinks.”
I picked up the pace again and Natasha started to lag behind.
“Good,” she shouted. “Because everyone thinks you’re weird. And I’ll probably have a boyfriend long before you get one, so I’ll be the one giving you advice, not the other way around.”
“I don’t think so,” I scoffed but it was a worrying thought just the same.
An overturning of the natural order.
“I think so,” she shouted, no longer running to keep up. “I’m going to tell everyone you fancy that teacher.”
But I knew she wouldn’t. First of all, she was too scared of what that would do to her own precious, evolving reputation. Natasha places great emphasis on being accepted by her peers, especially as she was put up a year in primary school (on account of her being exceptionally bright – allegedly) and this makes her very conscious of being twelve months younger than everyone else in her class. And secondly, she doesn’t mean half the stuff she says. Me and Nat get on quite well really, especially when you consider how different we are.
In town, the kids from school began to thin out and disappear, as best they could, into the shopping crowds or the pockets of holidaymakers left over from last month’s Easter break. Every year people are drawn down here to the coast once the weather gets warmer. You see them sitting in their cardigans on the pier, retired people mainly, people who don’t have jobs to get back to and schools to attend.
I kept a safe distance from Mr Stone, conspicuous in my uniform, but far enough away for it not to look as though I really were following him. It gave me a strange kind of buzz, spying on him like this, outside of school. It was like seeing him without his clothes on: naked, real. I could have followed him all afternoon. How I would love to be totally invisible so I could just follow people all day long and see how their lives worked. That’s me, the watcher. I watch people.
A car pulled up alongside Mr Stone and honked its horn. I immediately pretended to be looking in a shop window, in case I was spotted. Not that there was any real danger of that – he, like everyone else, was blissfully unaware of my existence. I heard the passenger door slam and turned just as it was moving off again, whisking him away from me. I strained my eyes to see whether the driver was male or female, black or white, young or old, but it was impossible to tell. So that was that. Another of my life’s near misses, and instantly I felt deflated. Not that it was ever going to be any different, mind. It was easy enough in the stories I wrote. You could pretend that people fell in love and lived happily ever after in stories. In stories, teachers could fall for their students, but stories were not real life, were they? People in real life got ‘amicable separations’. Teachers in real life worried that I needed bringing out of myself. That was real life. My life at any rate.