Mr Bull, our new teacher, arrived in the third week of summer term. He wore formal shorts and high grey socks and we named him Bullybum. He’d lived in the desert for three years before he came to our school, and when I said I wanted to be the prime minister, he didn’t laugh. The next day he brought in a thick glossy book called Our Nation and Its Leaders and handed it to me. He said, This is really for high-school kids but I think you’ll get it, Sally. He kept his hands on the book when he passed it to me, like we were posing for a photo. He said, Be careful with this, it’s powerful stuff, okay? He laughed when he said it, but I nodded like it was a solemn oath. I understood. It wasn’t the book that was powerful. It was me.
On those afternoons the heat made the air bubble like tar. Sometimes, the kids next door called out for my brother and me to come play street cricket or water fights and I’d obliterate the other team with my perfect aim, which always surprised people because of my wonky eye. I could only see it in photos, one eye looking straight ahead, one looking to the right, as though I was checking on someone offstage.
The youngest boy next door, the one closest to my age, was a year above me, in year 6. Roddy Broderick. He had freckles and a thick lisp, and he could catch one-handed and he never fumbled the ball even when he was looking straight at me.
I played less street cricket once I had the book. Instead, I would lie in the backyard under the grapevine where it was green and quiet, poring over each thick shiny page. It was mostly maps and graphs and photos of old men, with chapters about elections and history. Everything about it felt important. Sometimes there were pictures of women, and the women were wives or daughters. They smiled and shook hands, and the power was almost invisible. I studied the way the men looked at the camera while the wives and daughters looked at them. If you had a wonky eye, it could be an advantage in politics. No one would know where you were looking.
When Simon White called me an Ugly Walleye after sports one Thursday, I knew it was because I’d got him out in softball so I gave him two fingers and sang “Winner Takes It All”.
The word went round at lunchtime the next day. It was Angie Cowell who told me: Roddy Broderick was going to fight Simon White on the back field after school.
The back field was dry and edged by scrub and the smell of excitement was everywhere. Something was happening! When I arrived Simon was surrounded by a swarm of kids and a few of the boys were clucking at Roddy as he edged his way to the centre of the circle. A year 3 kid said, What’s the fight about? I said I didn’t know and that’s when Angie Cowell poked me on the shoulder and said, It’s about you, Sally. I looked at Roddy, but Roddy’s gaze was on Simon. The kid looked up at me, squinting his eyes together, and he said, You’re not even that pretty.
Angie kept her arm around me and said this was the most romantic thing that had ever happened in our school. Angie was allowed to read Dolly magazine and she knew how to make a boy like you and what to do if he stopped.
It didn’t seem romantic. It seemed like an ugly cartoon. Roddy punched first, barely connecting with the other boy. They punched and they circled and everyone except me shouted Fight, Fight. Angie squeezed my hand harder and I pulled it away because the boys in the circle were shoving and shouting, smacking at each other. It was a dance. It had nothing to do with me.
Roddy grabbed Simon in a headlock and began drumming at his face again and again, using his fist as the drumstick. I backed away to the outer edge of the circle. I thought I was going to be sick. When I looked up, I saw him, striding across the football pitch in his long shorts and his thick knee-high socks, but it was Angie who shouted the warning: Bullybum.
Kids started running, heads down, some of them leaving their backpacks behind. No one wanted detention. Bullybum was fast though, on us before we could scatter. He yanked at Roddy’s shirt, pulling him so hard that it tore, but Roddy let go of Simon and then we could see the blood smeared on Simon’s face and on Roddy’s hand.
Everyone had gone quiet. Simon and Roddy stood on either side of the teacher, staring at the dirt now made purple with their blood.
What the hell is going on here? It was the first time we’d heard Bullybum shout.
The year 3 kid raised his hand as though it were a times table test, They’re fighting over her, Sir, and he pointed a knubby little finger at me.
Bullybum hitched his shorts up and said, Everyone go. Simon and Roddy: to the office. Now. We’ll be speaking to your parents.
Everyone started drifting away, quietly, hoping that they could escape notice. Angie tugged at my hand, but Mr Bull called out, Sally. I turned back to him, fully around so that he could see both my wonky eye and my ordinary one. He shook his head, said: I expected better of you, Sally.
I stayed home sick the next day and I barely had to lie. My stomach churned all day and I must have looked the part because my mother didn’t even check my temperature. It was the weekend then and I stayed inside. I didn’t want to play street cricket or water fights. I didn’t want to see Roddy Broderick. I didn’t want to see anyone.
On Monday I took the book back and left it on Mr Bull’s desk. I didn’t leave a note. What would it have said?
The book was fine. The pages were glossy and thick. It was full of leaders.
But it wasn’t about me.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Side eye".
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