It is a warm summer. She enters the room in a polo shirt and black trousers, her top button undone. He feels buttoned up in his shirt and tie and blazer. He won't take the blazer off, not even in this weather. She comes over and stands next to him, and he stands there and in her shadow. She feels closer than she is. There is an almost gravitational pull. She's talking to someone else and he's only just noticed and the hope that she was there for him is gone again. He shifts, turning away slightly as if it was just coincidence that they were stood together. His friends are talking about football. Forest are mid-table in Platt's second season. He doesn't know what that means, and he won't remember later anyway. He butts in, complaining of the topic, and is ignored. It doesn't matter – he's listening to her, really.
She's talking about the weekend. Evenings in pubs and clubs with her boyfriend. He gets a little thrill of danger just from listening. Danger and mystery and more jealousy than he understands. ID isn't a problem for her, she just uses confidence. She's describing how a bit of cleavage and a smile gets her in anyway. He's appalled and fascinated. Someone asks if he's done the science homework, and he says yes, and that it was a bit of a bastard. They compare answers. He's pretty sure he's got the right ones. They agree, but then they've got the same answers, more or less. Tiny wagers are made on who will get the best mark, with insult and shame as the ante.
He's still listening to her, talking about how much she drank at the weekend. It's new to him, but he's beginning to get it. They've been to the pub a couple of times, at lunchtime, and he spends a lot of time thinking about it. He will jump at any chance to go with her, and he hopes he will go with her soon. She picks up on the chat about the homework and peers across at the books. Leaning in her shoulder brushes his and she doesn't move away and he can't move, his heart pounding a little. He is afraid to move. He hopes she has noticed but thinks she probably hasn't, otherwise she'd have moved. She's got the same answers too. She thinks he will get the best mark and he smiles and says damn right. She calls him a smartarse and moves away, leaving him feeling like a disconnected battery terminal.
Lunchtime drags itself around. Morning wasn't too bad. He didn't get the best mark, but it's OK, he sees what he got wrong and it was a poorly worded question. Insults are traded and he comes out on bottom. Again he wonders why he is the recipient of so many joking harsh words from his friends. He's asked before, and they say it's because he can take it. He isn't sure if that's a thing to be proud of, or if he should reject it and their words. He settles on neither, because he doesn't know how to be proud of much, and because he doesn't know how to reject without inviting more. They talk about Spyro the Dragon and laugh at the funny-looking year eight kids and remember what it was to be small and unwise. He is happy to be near the top of the tree now. He thinks that as it gets harder, it gets easier.
In the common room, someone is playing Craig David on the CD player. He is first through the door and looks for her straight away. She's with her friends, the ones he doesn't really know, near the CD player. He doesn't want to go over there. He gets his sandwich and sits at a window, facing inwards. Someone is destroying a chair, for no apparent reason. The destruction is almost clinical, and precise in its violence. The guy takes chunks of stuffing out the back and strews it on the floor. Then the guy pulls the back off the chair, tossing down the wooden board. His friends laugh and he joins in, genuinely entertained and puzzled. The chair destroyed, its un-maker gathers up the loose rubbish and throws it away, leaving the more solid chair parts lying around. No-one says anything, but the room is quiet aside from a few small groups and Craig David. She is talking about what one of the teachers said and complaining that what the teacher said was wrong. Later he will mention it to her, and she will listen to his opinion, and she will not be surprised that he heard, because she knows that he hears things even when he looks like he's reading or talking, and she has told him this. This is one of the things he knows how to be proud of.
She comes over and sits down with him and his friends. A little small talk is made. She talks about a minor drama one of her friends is having. He doesn't say much. He doesn't like that friend, because that friend isn't attractive or clever and is besides quite mean and small-minded. She says lunchtime is boring here, and asks if anyone wants to go to her house tomorrow instead. His heart skips and he hopes his friends say no. He says yes. His friends say no. She tells him to bring Risk so she can batter him again, and he laughs and says in your dreams. You always roll well she says. Not as well as you he says, with your beginners luck. She sticks her tongue out and he thinks it is cute, which is odd because cute is not usually the right word for her. She leaves and he looks forward to tomorrow and the rest of the day is irrelevant.
They sit at her dining table. She's cooking chicken nuggets for them. He has not even remembered the sandwich he brought with him. He'll throw it away later, feeling guilty. The board is laid out in front of them and he is happy. She talks as she plays, about her dad and how foolish her dad is. He thinks she exaggerates, but later he'll learn the exaggeration is not all that great. She talks a bit more than he'd like, because he likes the game, but really this is two pleasures at once, and anyway he can concentrate on both, because only the two of them are here. He thinks he is winning. He can see what she's likely to do and he knows he can counter it. His side of the conversation is mostly questions. Why don't they like her dad? Does she mind? He mostly asks questions because he isn't sure what else to say. His own family is unlike this.
The food is ready and she gets up to get it. She keeps talking from the kitchen. She swears when she nearly drops the tray. He wants to ask if he can put a CD on put doesn't want to raise his voice to reach the kitchen. She comes back and lays out the food and they stop the game to eat. He watches her put the food in her mouth and likes it, though he can't yet say why. Later he will know. Later he will remember days like this where the sun and heat made his blood run warm and how she looked in her summer uniform. He will use the memory as a scenario for pleasure, but only once or twice, and never to full conclusion. Despite one day admitting to the situation, and then admitting the situation to her, thinking like that feels disrespectful and sordid. The memory of her and the presence of her is worth more than those kinds of thoughts, and also it is like the cat in the box which is both dead and alive.
They finish eating and go on with the play. She makes some strong moves and they play almost in silence for a while. The dice go her way and his counters are only half-effective. He still thinks he can win. She sees the push is over and they are back to a cold war. She starts to talk again, making a joke about multitasking. That's one of their favourites. She says he's like a girl, because he can listen and read at the same time. Neither of them has realised that it's only her he can do that trick with. He hasn't pointed out that his family likes to joke that when he's buried in a book the house could fall down around him and he wouldn't see. She talks about her boyfriend and gets up to put a CD on. Her boyfriend plays in a band. The CD she chooses is one of his though. Flavor of the Weak comes on and he nearly smiles at the irony. He has only met her boyfriend once or twice. He thinks her boyfriend seems OK.
She spends more time with him, though. This is deliberate because when they chose subjects last year he picked the same as her. There was one subject which she picked differently and he was scared and angry and he persuaded her to change, so now they have all the same subjects. He can't remember how he persuaded her. Probably he said it would be a better subject and a better teacher. Now they sit together in most lessons but it hasn't worked completely because in some she sits with her friends. This week is good. There was yesterday when they spoke in the common room and there is today at her house and there will be fourth period English this afternoon. Last week was not so good. She barely spoke to him. Those weeks are draining and stressful.
She has taken all of Africa. He has gotten distracted with her talk of her boyfriend and he has made some poor moves. He examines the board and sees there isn't a way to win now. A song by Garbage comes on the CD player and he knows it well and knows this is one of the songs he semi-consciously associates with her.
“If we sleep together/Will you like me better” Shirley sings.
He's always associated this song with her. He looks at the board again. He looks at her again. He takes the measure of the situation, and thinks of the cat in the box. He says nothing, and presses the skip button.