Billy Brown stood at his new teacher's desk and tried hard not to think.
Mr Manson looked him up and down, eased back in his chair, and moved a fat forefinger in slow circles.
'Face the class,' he said.
Billy didn't budge. Time stretched out like hot toffee as thoughts rush-tumbled through his head. He couldn't take his eyes off the teacher's moving finger.
Omar Khayyam, he thought.
Two pies are us.
As Mr Manson's finger circled an invisible centre Billy thoughts turned to orbits, loci, centrifugal force, centripetal force, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein. He'd read somewhere that if you stood high enough, fired a bullet fast enough, it would go right around the earth and blow your brains out from behind. He wished he was really tall - orbit tall. He wished he had a gun. If he'd owned a gun it would have been hidden beneath his bed last night and he'd have fished it out, brought it downstairs, and used it on Colin.
Mr Manson had a big finger. No, a huge finger. He had a pair of strong, pink, meaty hands that by rights belonged on the wrists of a butcher. Very like Colin's hands - but then Colin had been a butcher until about six months ago. 'Friday the thirteenth,' Billy's mother had said, her eyes bright with anger, when they'd heard he'd been sacked. 'He should have known better.'
Someone at the back of the classroom coughed. Billy could sense The Gab trying to get through to him, but not quite making it.
Colin had come in that Friday night after he got fired and pushed past Billy, leaving the stench of beer behind him. He'd parked himself in front of the TV, drinking more beer and grunting at nothing in particular. Tried it on once too often, didn't you? thought Billy. Got caught with your meaty hands in the till.
It was the same till that had rung when Billy's mother happened to walk in one grey, wet, unlucky day the previous winter. She’s been in search of half-a-dozen sausages and a pound of bacon.
Billy often thought about that first meeting. What if Colin hadn't been working that day? What if he'd been off sick? They might never have met. No meeting, no Colin.
But he hadn't been sick, and they had met - and after a while he'd started coming round to the flat, blood on him, smelling of it, stinking the place up. Sometimes he'd bring soft parcels, gifts, flesh wrapped up in red-pink paper. Mother-meat. Billy would be sent to his room, glad to go because of the stench. His mum never seemed to notice. Too busy laughing, stretching up out of her high-heels to plant kisses on Colin's thick, moist liver-lips. It sickened him to watch.
'Billy...' The Gab, yanking him back to the present, warning him.
The back-row cougher coughed again. Mr Manson's finger had stopped moving. Billy blinked, looked up and met raised eyebrows. There was no way out. He took a deep breath and turned around.
His new classroom leaned towards him, eager to swallow him whole. Four walls, no windows, many desks. A door, impossibly far away. An ugly place - unfamiliar, uncharted, unknown. Dangerous. A tank full of barracuda disguised as kids.
He swallowed. He closed his eyes and saw the kitchen, late last night: saw Colin standing over his mother, right foot drawn back, right leg cocked and ready. Billy willed him away, but he wouldn't go, not completely. He snapped his eyes open again.
A big dumb-looking boy in the front row was scowling at him. He had a fresh scab on his left temple, a pair of eyebrows that met in the middle. Colin eyebrows. Colin eyes. That same angry stare with nothing much behind it. Billy looked away.
His mum liked him to call them uncle - uncle Tom, uncle Dick, uncle Harry. He hardly ever did. In Colin's case, he never did. He was just the latest non-uncle in a long, long line, none of them a patch on his dad.
'Billy!'The Gab again. He ignored it, remembering his dad in little bits, in glinting, fractured splinters of memory. Remembering them fishing together one summer: sticklebacks, buttercups, hot rock under his bum. Another time, bouncing, riding high on his dad's shoulders as they ran down some beach.
It was a tatty collection of broken bits of memory, almost nothing really. But his dad had been better than any of the men who had come after. Billy's mum admitted it every time the latest uncle stopped coming around. 'Not a patch,' she'd say. 'Not a patch.'
He'd hoped Colin would stop coming around, but instead, a week or so after he lost his job, he'd moved in. Billy came home from school and Colin was sitting in the kitchen, his feet firmly planted beneath the table.
'Uncle Colin's come to live with us,' his mum had said, trying hard to meet his eyes. 'Isn't that nice, Billy? We can be a proper family again...'
'Right…' said Mr Manson.
Billy jumped, and wished for the millionth time that he was able to speak like that - able to open up his mouth and say 'right' with such ease. But he couldn't. His stammer mangled 'r' almost as badly as it butchered 'b'.
'Rrrright,' Mr Manson said again, this time bouncing the word's nose on his tongue before letting its tail escape from his mouth. 'Why don't you start by telling us all your name?'
The familiar wave of panic washed over him, cold and sickly, starting at his feet, rushing upwards. He tried to ride it, but he was lost and he knew it. He would drown in this windowless tank of barracuda, his name an impossibility in his mouth.
There were times when you could sneak up on a sound from behind, ambush a consonant, fool a vowel. On a good day he sometimes caught a whole word by surprise. But he couldn't do that with his own name. Not with Billy Brown. It was hopeless.
Stop thinking, he thought. Try. Speak.
He opened his mouth.
'I'm Bi…' he said, and his tongue locked.
'I'm Bi…' he said, and his guts turned to water.
He strained, desperate to push the rest of his name out into the world, knowing that to push was exactly the wrong thing to do.
It sounded ridiculous. He sounded ridiculous - like someone constipated. He sounded… funny.
The scabby kid who reminded him of Colin was grinning, nudging his mate, laughing. Billy heard blood pumping in his head and knew that the heat was visible. He felt it spreading over his face and down his neck.
So, that was it. Now everyone knew. Now his problems would start up all over again. Different school, different kids, same problems.
Billy, Billy, Billy, said The Gab.
He stopped trying to speak. He felt his shoulders droop. He stood in front of Mr Manson's desk with his head bowed, staring at his feet, waiting, listening for the sounds he knew would soon begin. Vicious sounds. The low, liquid sounds of circling barracuda.
* * *
Colin had caught him with the phone in his hand and grabbed him by the neck. He'd shaken him and bent down to whisper into his ear, close and intimate.
'Tut, tut, Billy Boy, Silly Boy.'
The scratch of whiskery stubble against his cheek, the smell of beer and whisky hot and damp and dangerous in his nostrils.
'P…p…p…police, is it?' Colin whispered. 'I don't th…th…th…think so.'
He'd snatched the phone out of Billy's hand and slammed it back into its cradle. 'Just another of your daft ideas, Billy Boy, Silly Boy. Another no-no. Against the rules.'
Colin liked rules. Ever since he'd moved in, Billy had found himself with more and more rules to keep, new ones almost every week. Sometimes Colin changed the old ones without telling you, just for fun.
'She's all right. She's absolutely fine. She slipped, that's all. Come and see.'
He steered Billy back into the kitchen, holding him by the neck, pinching hard with his big butcher's fingers.
Billy's mum was still on the floor.
'It's OK, love,' she said. 'I slipped, that's all.'
She'd crawled away from where she'd been when he'd come downstairs. The noise had woken him. He'd opened the kitchen door, looked inside, seen Colin kicking her in the stomach. She'd only crawled into the cooker corner, but to Billy she'd seemed a lot further off than that. Miles away. Almost out of reach.
'It's OK,' she'd said. 'You go on back to bed.'
She'd lain with her head resting against the cooker, her hands holding her stomach, blood in her hair, saying everything was OK. She'd tried a smile, but it hadn't worked, not with the blood and the fear and the right eye swelling. Everything wasn't OK. Nothing was OK.
'Go on now, Billy.'
Her eyes had flickered up to Colin, down to him, back to Colin. Colin's fat fingers had dug deeper into the soft flesh on either side of his neck. It hurt.
'Let him go on up, sweetheart,' his mother pleaded. 'He's got a big day tomorrow.'
Billy had stared at her. How could she do that? How could she call him sweetheart after what he'd just done? After what he did at least twice a week?
She couldn't look him in the eyes. She preferred the floor. He'd heard Colin sigh, and knew that later on the usual noises would be coming through the papery walls. Bedroom noises. Bed noises. He didn't understand. Was this what she wanted? Was this what she liked?
There were times when he hated his mother almost as much as he hated the uncles, almost as much as he hated Colin, almost as much as he hated his own useless tongue. Everything was going to be so much better now they'd moved, she'd said. A different area, a different school. She'd been getting his school things ready when she said it, stretching his shirt on the ironing board, smoothing his tie, folding his trousers. She'd seemed happy. A fresh start, she'd said. A fresh start for him, a new job at the supermarket for her, and Uncle Colin would soon get something. A fresh start for all three of them.
All three of them.
'Things will be OK now, Billy love,' she'd said. 'Just you wait and see.'
He hadn't said anything. He never spoke unless he had to. The steam came hissing out of the iron, and he'd watched it rise a few inches and evaporate into nothing.
With a final squeeze Colin had let go of his neck and crossed the kitchen. He'd done it in four quick strides. Billy had seen his mother flinch, but Colin had finished with her for now. He was a sweetheart. He'd lifted her up off the floor, stood her straight, and put his big right hand on her head, as if balancing a pencil on its point. He'd lifted his hand and she'd swayed - swayed towards him. Billy hated her for that. Not away. Towards.
She'd leaned on Colin's shoulder for support.
Colin had looked at him and winked.
Billy had felt sick.
'She's right, Billy Boy,' Colin had said, bending low to kiss her puffed-up eye. 'You've got a big day tomorrow. We've all got big days tomorrow. Time for bed.'
The noises finally stopped at about three a.m. A couple of times he thought he heard his mother laugh. Colin had grunted like the pig he was. At some point Billy fell asleep, and then it was morning.
* * *
He didn't try saying his name again. There was no point. His tongue had locked, his throat was rigid, his lips wouldn't move. He felt hot blood pounding in his head.
The classroom noises got louder. Why didn't Mr Manson say something?
I know what you're thinking, Billy Boy. And you'd better stop it.And there it was, finally, coming through properly now. The Gab. The voice inside his head. The stream of clear, easy words flowing free as water, always there if he chose to listen to it.
You're thinking you should have legged it when you had the chance. You're thinking that if you'd legged it you'd be passing the shops in the precinct by now. You'd be well on your way, half-a-mile from home, out of all this.His own voice as it was meant to be, untroubled by stammers and stutters. And as usual it was right. That was exactly what he'd been thinking.
But it's crap, Billy. You know it's crap. Colin would do you, find some way to blame her, she'd end up crying. And for what? Tomorrow, the day after, you'd just be back here again.Yes. That was right too. He'd have caused more trouble at home and still he'd be back here, like this, pinned to Mr Manson's desk, drowning in the barracuda tank. But it would be even worse, because on top of everything else he'd have run away, and they'd all have known about it. Better to get it over with here and now.
Do something, Billy said The Gab. Unless you want it to be just as bad as it was before, show them you're no dummy.He looked at the scabby boy and saw contempt in his eyes. Not just contempt, either. Trouble. The Gab was right. He had to do something.
He turned and looked at Mr Manson. The teacher raised his eyebrows and offered him a piece of chalk.
'Tell us your name,' he said, his voice a little softer than before. The stick of chalk looked tiny in his huge hand.
Maybe you read him wrong, Billy Boy. Maybe he's OK. Take the chalk.He stared at the thin white stick for a moment, then reached out and took it. The teacher nodded towards the blackboard.
Billy made his legs move.
The class had fallen silent again. When he got to the blackboard he didn't stop to think. He reached up as high as he could and wrote:
MY NAME IS BILLY BROWN.
He underlined what he'd written and turned around.
The scabby boy who reminded him of Colin grinned and raised his hand.
'Yes, Colin?' said Mr Manson.
Well, well, well, said The Gab. Surprise, surprise.'Can I ask him a question, sir?'
Mr Manson looked at Billy. Billy nodded.
'Go ahead,' said Mr Manson.
Colin stared at him and said, 'Why don't you talk proper? You some kind of a dummy?'
The class tittered. Billy looked at Colin, locked eyes for a moment, then turned back to the blackboard.
I'VE GOT A STAMMER, he wrote. SOMETIMES I CAN'T GET MY WORDS OUT. BUT NO, I'M NOT A DUMMY.
He paused, and then added.
BUT YOU KNOW WHAT, COLIN? I REALLY THINK YOU MIGHT BE.
He heard more laughter and his heart sank - but when he turned around he saw that they weren't laughing at him. They were laughing at Colin. And Colin didn't like it. He didn't like it one little bit.
Well done, Billy Boy, said The Gab. Chalk up a point.'Thank you, Billy,' said Mr Manson. 'You can go back to your seat now.'
'Oh, and Billy?'
'Yes, sir?' said Billy, turning, the words slipping out of his mouth without any trace of a stammer.
Mr Manson smiled. 'Welcome to your new school.'
Billy nodded again and returned to his desk.
Scabby Colin glared at him, but that was OK. There'd be trouble, of course there would. A fight or two up ahead, no doubt about it. But nothing Billy couldn't handle. In fact he had a pretty good feeling - a feeling that from now on he was going to start handling quite a few things differently.
You did all right, said The Gab.
Yes, thought Billy. I did.
Sliding into his seat, he glanced up and saw Colin staring, waiting to catch his eye.
‘You’re dead,’ Colin mouthed.
Billy smiled and shook his head. He wasn’t dead - and neither was his mother. Not yet, anyway.
One Colin at a time, he thought. One Colin at a time.