Hello again! Do you remember your teen years? Were you among the less than perfect who suffered from acne? I vividly recall praying that the dreaded spots wouldn’t come out before significant events–like every day of the week! The ones on my nose were the worse. My dad would name them after famous singers from my record collection. As I recollect, Mama Cass took over a week to go away. No amount of cover-up helped.
My guest this morning is Margaret Ergot and her latest YA book title brought back memories of John, Paul, George, and Ringo along with a host other favorites from my teen years. But it also made me smile–acne, the great constant. It’s nice to know some things will never change, and no matter which side of the pond you dwell on, teenagers will always be the same too.
And Alex Still Has Acne
Life for fourteen year old Alex is OK most of the time. He enjoys school, has a best friend Sam, and a pretty and only mildly irritating younger sister, Nicky. But then Sam starts acting strangely, and so does Nicky – and both insist on sharing secrets with him and making him promise not to tell anyone. Then Nicky goes missing and only Alex feels he knows where to find her. But is Sam anywhere around to help?
The school bell rang to mark the end of the first lesson of the afternoon. Without showing a trace of sarcasm Miss Smith, the French teacher, thanked the class for being such an attentive bunch and, with a sigh of relief, gathered up her books and retreated for the staff room. A pity, she thought, that smoking was banned everywhere on school grounds – she could really do with a cigarette now. Year 10 were always hard work, especially first thing on a Friday afternoon.
Several students let out a whoop of delight as she left. In her rush to get out of the classroom, Old Smithers (she must have been at least 50) had forgotten to set them homework again. No doubt they would each get an email telling them to revise French verbs or something in time for the lesson on Monday, but they could always deny opening the email on the grounds they never switched on their computers at the weekend. As if!
Sam Rainsworth was slower than the others to collect his books and pens and stuff them into his school bag. He had hardly registered the start of the lesson, let alone the end. And Miss Smith, glad to have a quiet pupil not causing any trouble, had been happy to let him sit dreamily at the back of the class. He got up thoughtfully and left the classroom without speaking to anyone. At the corner of the corridor he found his friend, Alex, waiting for him.
“You OK? Thought you’d gone to sleep in Old Smithers’ class just then.” Alex loomed over him. A year ago both boys had been the same height, Sam just a little thicker set. But Alex had been going through a growing spurt and was now almost a head taller. He hadn’t grown out sideways though and looked chronically under-nourished despite an enormous appetite. ‘Legs like knotted string,’ his mother often said about him, much to his embarrassment.
Sam looked up at his friend. “Yep, I’m fine. I was just thinking, that’s all.”
Sam carried on down the corridor instead of turning left towards the labs.
“Hey, where are you going?”
“Dunno, home I s’pect.”
“It’s not home time yet, we’ve got double physics, remember?”
Sam gave a mirthless smile. “It’s an infringement of my human rights to have double physics last thing on a Friday. Besides I haven’t done the homework.”
“No, I mean you can copy mine during the lesson and hand it in at the end – Parky never takes the books in till the end.”
Sam paused for a moment, as if thinking about it. He leant down and pulled at one of his socks, then the other. Then he ran a hand through his hair, ruffling it up even more than usual. Finally he looked up at his friend and shook his head.
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not in the mood.”
He turned from his friend and set off back down the corridor. He wasn’t surprised though to hear lolloping footsteps behind him and to feel a hand on his shoulder. He knew who it was without turning round.
“So, you can resist the lure of physics too then?”
“I like physics, believe it or not,” Alex said. “But you don’t look right – I’m coming with you.”
Sam shrugged and continued walking in silence out of the school building, across the yard and down the short drive to the main road. Alex walked along beside him, hunched into his parka hood and whistling softly under his breath.
“I wish you’d cut that.”
“That stupid whistling.”
“Sorry, nervous tic. I was worried someone might spot us and haul us back.”
“Well, you’re safe now so you can shut up. You need more practice.”
“Someone’s going to catch up with you soon and write to your parents and then you’ll be for it.”
“As if they’ll care …”
“So your dad’s really gone then? For good?”
“None of your business.”
“Sorry, only my dad says …”
“None of his business either.”
The pair walked on in silence for a couple of minutes. Then Sam felt inside his parka and drew out a couple of cigarettes and a lighter.
“Where’d you get those from?”
“Mum. She’s started smoking again since Dad’s gone.”
“Won’t she notice two missing?”
“Nah. I took them from different packets earlier in the week. She couldn’t tell. She’s too pissed to notice much by bedtime these days.”
“You mean she’s drinking? I never thought your mum would do anything like that. She seems so…”
“Refined? Me neither. Never saw her drink anything more than a small glass of wine with a meal before. She’s different now – sort of lost.”
The boys continued for a while again in silence. Alex couldn’t help noticing that his friend too had a lost look about him. But he had no idea what to do about it. Perhaps just sticking with him for the rest of the afternoon would be a start. After a few long minutes he said: “Well, what are we going to do? No point going into town – I’m skint.”
“Me too, almost. Could we go over to your place?”
“Nah. Dad’s home. He’d slaughter me if I came home from school too early. He’s into school in a big way at the moment. Wants me to do well in GCSEs and so on and go to university. It’d be like his world had fallen in if he found out I’d bunked a lesson. What about your place?”
“Nah, not yet. Too empty when Mum’s not there; too gloomy when she is. Later perhaps – let’s go out on the town first. I’ve probably got enough for a burger and Coke at McDonald’s.”
“That’s settled then. I’m starving.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Alex’s appetite was legendary.
They turned their feet in the direction of the golden arch, a new sense of purpose quickening their step. McDonald’s was pretty full, plenty of people their own age, though their grammar school uniforms, badly concealed under their parkas, marked them out from the other customers. But, after chasing the last crumbs out from the burger wrappers and draining their cans, both boys felt better. Sam even smiled.
Alex belched as he finished his last drop of Coke.
“Oops, pardon – could do with another one of those,” he waved his empty Coke tin in Sam’s direction.
“Sorry, no can do,” he put all his money on the counter between them and counted it. “Only got 60p to my name until I see Dad.”
Suddenly his mobile rang – “Speak of the devil,” he said to no-one in particular and answered the phone. “Hello Dad.”
Alex leant back so as not to eavesdrop, and attentively brushed a mass of crumbs off his chest onto the floor. He watched as his friend grunted and nodded his head to the faint mumbling he could hear coming from the phone.
“Yeah, great,” Sam said eventually, without any visible sign of enthusiasm. “See you same time and place on Sunday.”
He switched off and turned back to his friend. Alex could see from Sam’s face that he didn’t want to discuss the call further. He straightened up in his seat as Sam concentrated on gathering up all their food wrappers and depositing them in the waste bin. He looked with mock horror at the ring of crumbs around Alex’s seat.
“God Alex, you’re a messy eater! Well what’ll we do now?”
Alex shrugged. “Dunno. It’s still too early to go home.”
“You can come back to my place for tea if you like. It’s not so bad really, and I’m still hungry.”
“Me too. What you got to eat at home?”
“Nothing, unless Mum’s stocked the fridge since breakfast this morning, which, I think not. We’ll have to get something on the way home.”
“But you haven’t got any money.”
“Sam, you’re not going to nick stuff are you?”
“All property is theft. Weren’t you paying attention in history last week? At least that’s what I think that Marx bloke said. I need to eat to live and if Mum is too drunk to shop, I’ve got to find other ways of feeding us.”
“Does your dad know?”
“Of course not! Do you think I’m going to shop her to him? Or myself for that matter.”
“I see. But surely he could do something about it, if he knew?”
“Mind your own business, will you? This is my problem and I’ll sort it in my own time. Now, are you coming back to my place for more food or not?”
Alex sat silently for several minutes. He had never knowingly broken the law before, apart from cycling on the pavement – but then his mother preferred him to do that than run risks on the road. He didn’t like the idea at all. But Sam was his friend, and he didn’t like to abandon him either. Moreover, despite himself, he felt a tingling of excitement at what Sam was proposing. Anyway, he could never knowingly give up an opportunity for more food these days.
“Where?” Sam knew his friend was not enquiring where his house was, and felt a glow of pleasure that Alex was in on this with him. He too felt a tingle of excitement, plus a mixture of guilt and fear – but not enough of either to stop him.
And Alex … is also available on amazon.co.uk.
Margaret also has a short story in the newly released The Food of Love anthology from Summer Solstice.
Chains of Magic is a delightful short story based on an imagining of Desdemona’s plotting to woo Othello through food (or magic if needs be). Whether this is a good idea or not on her part is left to Shakespeare to explore in his play!
Margaret has lived in the United Kingdom all her life. She has worked with the Probation Service, the Police Authority, as a charity boss, and as a free lance child protection consultant. She currently sits on the boards of two charities: one that runs assessment centres for families experiencing problems, and one that provides services for the elderly (well, you’ve got to think ahead…)
She enjoys reading and the theatre. She tries to keep fit by swimming and racing her cairn terrier round the park. He usually wins.