I dashed into the building, trying not to be late for my first class, but hesitated as I crossed the threshold. What I’d taken at first glance to be ceramic tiles felt instead like hard rubber, slightly spongy underfoot and without the coolness of the rest of the floor.
“Ah, you noticed, excellent,” a nearby teacher said. “Most of our students are so preoccupied with sight and sound their soles are blind to what they’re walking on.”
“Huh? Oh right, thank you, sir.”
“Lorina and Mark put a lot of effort into creating such tactile surprises in the floors here. You might like to see how many you can find.”
“I will, yes.”
I followed him into the classroom, grabbing a seat right at the front. The drongo seat, a voice from the past echoed in my mind, but I pushed it aside, not wanting to let those creeps from primary school spoil the moment. Instead I forced myself to smile as the other kids ambled into the room.
The teacher called the class to order as an image appeared on the screen in front of us. “Does anyone know which planet this is?”
Half a dozen hands went up, including mine, but he picked out a boy on my left.
“Is it Eridani?”
“I’m afraid not; but think somewhere further afield. Yes, the boy at the front there?”
“Meridian,” I said, feeling smug and knowledgeable while hoping to goodness I was right. The last thing I needed was to make a fool of myself on the very first day of school; there’d be plenty of opportunity for that in the weeks and years ahead, I was sure.
“Well done. You’re, um, Mr Morison, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Joel Morison. That’s my name.” Way to go, kid, stating the bleeding obvious.
“So Joel, do you know which galaxy it’s in?”
“Err, the other one.”
“Yes, but there are more than two galaxies in the universe, you know. Can anyone be more specific?”
Loraine shot her hand up. “M33, sir, the Triangulum Galaxy, also known as NGC598.”
“Very good, excellent.”
“It’s not fair,” someone said from up the back. “She was born there.”
“The universe is never fair.”
Oh brother, I knew that well enough.
“It’s one of the few galaxies visible to the naked eye,” the teacher continued. “Can anyone name another?”
“The Magellanic Clouds.”
“Yes, very good. Any others?”
I thrust my hand up. “The Milky Way!”
Everyone stared at me.
“Technically yes,” the teacher said, “but our own galaxy could hardly not be visible to us, could it Joel?”
“Git,” someone said from behind me. I cringed, covering my face as all my blood rushed into it.
* * *
With great relief that the morning classes were over, I found a secluded spot under a tree and pulled out my lunch. I sighed while unwrapping my sandwiches, my hopes of starting afresh in a brand new school having been well and truly dashed.
Peanut butter and cabbage. Yuck.
A shadow fell over me as I took a tentative bite. I looked up to see Loraine standing before me.
“I felt sorry for you sitting over here all by yourself. Didn’t any of your primary school friends come here?”
“I, um, I didn’t have any friends at primary school.”
She stared at me, her mouth gaping in disbelief. “What, none?”
“My father’s a bank manager and we moved around a lot. We only came to Coolum Beach at the beginning of last year.”
“But even so –”
“There were two boys up the back who kept calling me names and tripping me up in the playground. Everyone else thought it was a great joke.”
“I’m so sorry; you must have been miserable.”
“Look, you should try to make some friends here. My brother would probably like you, given half a chance.”
I gulped. “Are you and David really twins?”
“Yes, but we’re not identical.”
“I’d have thought that was obvious.”
I glanced down at my sandwiches. “You, um, you don’t happen to like peanut butter and cabbage, do you?”
“I didn’t think so.”
She turned towards a group of girls in the far corner of the playground, signalling something to them with her hand. “I have to go now. Hang in there, Joel.”
I watched her dash off like a nymph, her toes barely touching the ground, before staring back down at the sandwiches in my lap. Yuck.
* * *
The bell rang. I hunted around, eventually finding a rubbish bin in which to dump my uneaten lunch. Outside the classroom, Loraine was having an animated discussion with her brother.
“He’s not a git!” she shouted at him as I approached, stopping me in my tracks. They both turned to stare at me for a moment before going inside. I waited, breathing deeply and forcing back the overwhelming urge to cry, before tightening the straps on my backpack and marching in to join the fray once more.