By Doreen Duffy
I hated my new school. A nun all dressed in black had brought me up to fourth period and put me in a seat next to a boy with big sticky-out teeth and bug eyes.
“You can sit here beside Seán Molloy,” she said.
When the nun left, I pushed my teeth out over my bottom lip and stuck my two fingers up at him. He turned a lovely bright shade of red and hid his face in his books for the rest of the day.
I spent my time sneaking looks at my watch, counting the hours and the minutes until break time, until lunchtime and until the bell would ring and I could get out of there. They did this thing where the teacher would get two of the boys to lift a heavy board covered in black felt and lay it in the chalk groove on the black board, then she would get out pictures of people and things and in turn we each had to go up and stick the pictures on the felt and make a story in Irish. Up there at the top of the class with nowhere to hide, and as soon as I opened my mouth to say anything the class would coil up laughing at my effort at Irish in my accent, and she left me there, bitch, my cheeks burning. She didn’t stop them from laughing, barely hiding her own smile behind her hand.
As time went on, I realised there was a freedom in not having friends. It didn’t matter who I sat beside. They couldn’t get inside my head. I didn’t bother telling Mom about how things were at school, but one day, after she’d been to the parent teacher meeting, she sat down beside me at the kitchen table. When I looked at her, I saw all the lines on her face and how thin she was.
“You should ask a friend home to play, or, seeing as it’s your birthday next Saturday, maybe you’d like a party.”
I felt weird and kind of mixed up. I’d given up on the whole ‘making a friend’ thing, but somewhere inside my head I really wanted to have that party. I pictured Mom making the cake and setting the table, making a fuss. I nodded slowly. We went straight out to the shop and bought a packet of invitations. They had pictures of coloured balloons all around the edges saying, ‘Can you make it for my party?’ We sat together writing them that night, and I gave them out the next day.
On Saturday morning, I was up and dressed really early. I remembered some of the games we used to play when I had parties in England: “pin the tail on the donkey,” “pass the parcel,” “musical chairs.” I knew that Dad used to switch on and off the music for the musical chairs, and I thought Mom might not be feeling too much like doing all that, so I organised the wrapping and rewrapping in layers and layers for pass the parcel, and I drew the donkey myself on a big piece of white paper, and then I waited and waited for the doorbell to ring.
The waiting was the hardest part, as the hands on the clock creaked around and still no one came. I sat inside the front room window, the skin on my thumb raw from biting it, until I saw Seán Molloy getting dragged up our drive by his mother.
As my mom opened the door, she looked really frazzled, wiping her hands on her apron, brushing her hair back from her forehead. She spoke to Seán’s mother quietly for a few minutes, wringing her hands, and after closing the front door she brought Seán through to me in the front room. Seán half-shoved a present into my hands, his serious face making his big teeth look goofier than ever. My mom left the room, saying something about drinks and stuff. I glared at Seán; there was no way I was going to ask him why no one else came. He shuffled from foot to foot. I saw the brightly coloured wrapping paper ball of “pass the parcel” on the floor at the settee. I stuck the TV on and threw myself down on the armchair. After a while, I saw Seán out of the corner of my eye edge his arse on to the arm of the settee and sit down. Mom came in and left food and drinks on the coffee table. Seán started to eat. The sight of him working those giant teeth through the cakes and biscuits made me feel sick. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I asked him to come out to the garage with me. I said I’d show him my new bike, and he could have a go on it if he liked. The bike was leaning against Dad’s tool bench. We’d brought that in the truck from our old house.
Seán stood the bike up and whispered a big, gommy “wow.” I told him I had been given the tool bench as well for my birthday, said my dad left it to me. His eyes stretched wide. I said we could make something, something he could bring home with him. He couldn’t wait. I went and got a piece of wood from the log basket, a hammer, and a jar with long silver nails in it. I told him I’d go first and show him what to do, and that he must hold the nail nice and steady. I lifted the hammer high, swinging it down; I looked up and waited for Seán’s face to change from shock to pain. The sound was like a sheet of ice cracking in a basin. His head jerked back and his body twisted, and then the screams came. I hummed, “Happy Birthday to me,” and I threw the hammer down.