It is the day of my execution. From where I have been positioned on the stage, I cannot help admiring all the work that has gone into decorating the assembly hall. My classmates have spent the week folding sheets of coloured paper and cutting snowflakes out of them, writing messages of encouragement and sprinkling them with glitter before sellotaping these Good Luck snowflakes to the windows. One of them reads AU REVOIR ET BONNE CHANCE, for we have been learning French and our teacher Mrs Hanrahan always makes sure to reinforce what we have been learning in all our activities. Whether it is asking to open a window or making farewell cards, always we are improving our French.
Mrs Robinson is going over the dance routine with First Class, reminding them to perform for the back of the room, while Sister Amanda opens a small black deposit box on a desk set up next to the doors.
The hall is always hung with tinsel and garlands for these sorts of occasions, and it is true that the snowflakes are not a new idea. But maybe because this time it is my execution I feel that there is something special about this one in particular.
My mother has arrived early so she can say a word to Mrs Hanrahan and save seats for my friend Rudy and his parents, who will also be here this evening. My brother has not been able to make it because of a long-running Dungeons & Dragons campaign at a friend’s house, but says hi. She sits alone on an empty bench, my mother, wearing earrings, eyeliner and a light billowy dress. My mother is in a good mood. She is waving up at me. Now she is mouthing something. I do not know what. I smile, but also I am trying to stay still for fear of the cone falling off my head.
There is only so much eye contact I can make with my mother before it gets awkward and we must look elsewhere. She adjusts her dress, finds a strand of hair or a fleck of glitter which she rubs out onto the floor. When the doors to the hall open, she turns to see if it is anyone she knows, a smile slowly fading each time as she turns back to consult her ticket, making sure that she is in the right seat, checking her watch.
The assembly hall is filling up nicely. There is much waving among the children and there is a kind of excitement among the parents, who lean over benches to shake hands with someone they have not seen since that birthday party or the parent-teacher meeting, how is your cousin and what happened with the veranda. Together they admire the work of the children. They agree that they have never seen anything like it, the French snowflakes, the gold loop-garlands, the use of pipe cleaners and googly eyes on the cone this year, and the other arts and crafts which the school has mobilised in a single collective effort.
My mother looks worried now. She does not know how much longer she can hold on to Rudy’s parents’ seats, and she is getting more and more embarrassed every time she must tell someone they are taken. She barely ever looks up at me. She turns the bracelet of her watch to read the time, turns to the back of the hall and sighs.
My best friend Rudy has arrived. He performs our secret hand signal as he and his parents pick their way through greetings, reunions, and impromptu catch-ups that will have to be continued at some later date. I think they have forgotten the arrangement with my mother for they have gotten into a conversation with Colin Sweeney’s parents and now are taking their seats with them.
The dance of First Class in their donkey masks begins. Sister Amanda dims the lights and plays the music. Mrs Robinson is motioning to her students to stay in position and to be as expressive as possible, but their timing is embarrassing. Their masks are cut from cereal boxes and look nothing like donkeys. They are merely disquieting. But it does not matter to the audience who have forgotten what a donkey looks like and clap along regardless. To think that I too was once in First Class. At Christmas, Rudy and I had to cover our mouths as we giggled through their production of the nativity. But I am not laughing now.
The bolt is not firing and my teacher, Mrs Hanrahan, who smells good and has dressed very nicely for the occasion, is gesturing to the principal that there is something wrong.
Mrs Robinson is telling First Class to keep dancing so as to buy Mrs Hanrahan some time. But the more they dance, the more they are out of time, the more amateur the whole thing appears. Mrs Tracy, the principal, has had to step in for Mrs Hanrahan, whose face has gone red because of Mrs Tracy’s impatience, which is starting to show like the brands of the cereal boxes from which the disquieting donkey masks were made. Everyone is taking a deep breath, I am doing my bit, the cone has not moved from my head, but it is a tense situation.
To keep my mind off the cone, I try to guess who has written the messages on the snowflakes. I do not think that I will ever know for certain.
Mrs Hanrahan, following the instructions of someone in the audience, turns everything off and on again. Mrs Robinson has finally told the donkeys to stop their dance and is trying to help, but she too is saying all the wrong things. I think that Mrs Tracy is under considerable stress due to the presence of the inspector. No one has thought to turn off the music. Mrs Timoney, who is substituting for Mrs Creevy, asks if Mr Curly could have a look since he is the one who deals with technical matters, repairs the radiators, scrapes the hardened chewing gum off the tables every summer. There is a man on the stage asking Mrs Tracy if he can help, maybe the firmware needs updating. Mrs Tracy is holding her head and dropping her arms in defeat. Soon we are joined by two other parents who must know each other from birthday parties. Mrs Timoney, acting as if the idea has just occurred to her, asks again why they do not call Mr Curly who set up the equipment. In the end everyone agrees with Sister Amanda’s idea of asking Mr Curly for his help, as he is the one who deals with these things.
I am wondering who it is who could have written AU REVOIR ET BONNE CHANCE on the snowflake and I conclude that it can only have been Anne-Sophie, with whom I share a desk, for it is exactly the sort of thing Anne-Sophie would write to impress our teacher.
I was supposed to be executed on Monday but because of corrosion to the bolt it has had to be postponed.
My teacher is whispering to me at my desk that I do not have to complete her fill-in-the-blank exercises anymore. I am free to go outside and play in the schoolyard during class time, or to draw to my heart’s content or occupy myself however I wish, for the school understands that my mother cannot take the time off work and an arrangement has been made that while I am awaiting the new date of my execution, the school will keep me on the premises. No more subjugation of the hand to the practice of writing, the mind released from the memorisation of tables, the reshaping of the spine by the schoolbag, straps cutting into the armpits.
I turn around to Rudy and fist pump triumphantly. As my first act in this new lighter state I raise my hand and ask for permission to go to the schoolyard. Mrs Hanrahan comes back to my desk and whispers that I do not have to ask for permission anymore. As long as I am quiet while the others are working, I can come and go as I please.
It is not clear from where I am standing in the middle of the schoolyard whether Rudy can see me fist-pumping, because of all these reflections in the windows, and so I pump my fists harder than before and bare my teeth again in case he is looking out at that moment.
Mr Curly’s clothes are drying on the roof of the school. I find half a tennis ball. The shrill voices of First Class are droning in the distance and I am fist-pumping.
I am admiring the card I got from my class before the execution. It reads ADIEU NOTRE AMI on the front and each letter is personalised by a different classmate. Crêpe paper frames the card and it is dusted with gold and red glitter in the most spectacular fashion. Match sticks and strips of felt, it cannot be denied, add an extra dimension to my farewell card. Inside are all the names of my classmates wishing me all the best. It is a spectacular card. The only one of its kind.
My mother is examining the most recent permission slip which she has to sign if my execution is to go ahead. The tickets from the first execution, I reassure her, will remain valid. Money is a perennial concern of my mother’s, the duration of showers and the turning off of lights a constant source of tension in our house. Whenever I ask my mother for anything these days she simply grumbles, and so usually I prefer to leave the permission slip next to her and slink out of the room.
I am standing in the doorway of my brother’s bedroom looking at the poster of an elvish woman in thin leather underwear, asking him if today he will help me write my Dungeons & Dragons character. It is not a game for homosexuals, he tells me, and so I continue to my room.
It is obvious from my mother’s silences, from the way she closes doors and turns off lights when I am still in the room, that she is not happy about something. It is ruining my enjoyment of the Rice Krispies, whose crackling I like to hold my ear to in the morning. Unfortunately, my mother will not be able to make it to my execution, she says, as Friday is the opening of the French Film Festival. This may be the last time we will see Alain Delon on the big screen for some time. I am trying to listen to my Rice Krispies and instead I must listen to my mother, when I know, as my mother knows, that she will be there earlier than the last time, regardless of the French Film Festival, because of how she thinks it would reflect on her that she did not attend her own son’s execution.
It is true that I am no longer obligated to wear the school’s uniform but I do not feel right going to school without it even if it does cause me routine discomfort. It is the same with the schoolbag to which I have become attached despite the constriction of the armpits and the pressure at the base of the spine.
I am sitting next to Anne-Sophie and I am raising my hand to answer a question, for that is what I have always done when I have had the answer. There is only so much aimless wandering of the corridors I can do. The schoolyard in reality is a windy place without the other bodies to shield you and there is something I do not like about the sound of women’s shoes echoing in empty corridors. Outside Mrs Hanrahan’s class there is nowhere to hide from the strange rumours and chantings of First Class. Though in many ways long division and French nursery songs do not apply to me any longer, as a matter of habit I cannot help joining in. And so I follow the lessons of Mrs Hanrahan, complete the homework and sometimes, even now, wake up sweating in the night thinking today is the long division test, and what will I do with the remainder. I am extending my arm as far as humanly possible, rising from my seat slightly, which Anne-Sophie says is not allowed. If I extend my arm any further, I am thinking, I will surely dislocate it.
I do not think that Mrs Hanrahan can see me.
At lunchtime, while the other boys throw gravel at each other and the girls rehearse dance routines, my best friend Rudy and I add to our already elaborate handshake. Now Rudy has invited the homosexual Colin Sweeney, and I look on as he tries to teach him our handshake, shaking my head at Rudy’s naivety, for I doubt if Colin will ever be able to grasp it.
Is it because of the uniform that my mother sees me as the embodiment of the school, I am thinking, and, according to her, the exorbitant demands made of the parents. Always you are springing something new on us, she says. We are always haranguing her. My mother is listing all the expenses on her fingers, of school trips, bake sales and no-uniform days, which though not mandatory come with a kind of social pressure and which, according to her, the school uses to extract money from the parents. Maybe the parents cannot afford to pay for a school trip, my mother says, and yet they must because of the rules of conformity. As soon as a bolt is corroded or the computer room needs new mousepads, the school invents a pretext to extract money, of which she is not made. You demand that we buy uniforms, and we buy uniforms, then you invent a day on which we send the children to school without their uniforms, the so-called no-uniform day. This is how my mother speaks, as if I am a representative upholding the logic of the school.
I cannot help feeling that something has changed in my relationship with Mrs Hanrahan who during the roll-call looks up and smiles at whoever is answering PRESENT but ever since my execution does not look up at me. I cannot be the only one who has noticed this awkwardness, where she stumbles over my name as if it is an obscene drawing someone has done in the roll-book. Is it because of the time I raised my hand in class and called out my mother’s name and some people laughed, I am wondering. Now, I am raising my hand for questions I do not know the answer to, knowing that I will not be chosen. I am trying to talk about this with Rudy on our walk home from the school, but he has invited Colin Sweeney and the two of them are talking about Dungeons & Dragons. Why has Rudy invited a homosexual, I ask him loud enough that Colin will hear it, but there is only a kind of unnameable silence. As we cross the main road to our estate I am thinking that Mrs Hanrahan wishes to forget what happened in the assembly hall, for even though it was not her fault Mrs Tracy was depending on her, and though it was not my fault either it must be that I remind her of this perceived failure. I walk ahead and for the first time I do not say goodbye to Rudy.
At dinner, my mother is holding her head over her plate. She is mashing her food in a hostile manner. Now and then she mutters something under her breath. There is a sense that things are about to come to the surface and my brother is looking at me shaking his head with level-ten enchanted daggers in his eyes as if I am responsible for the darkening of the mood.
Do we understand what it means to work and study for a management exam and have to do the shopping a second time this week because of an extra person, she does not think so, no, we do not know what it is like to be harangued for money by the minions of the school. I want to explain to my mother that she does not have to pay for the tickets again, but I know to keep my eyes on the cauliflower.
There is no less disregard, says my mother, omitting the first part of her thought.
My brother and I are eating as fast as we can, but I think that I have never seen so much cauliflower in my life.
Why do I not ask my father to sign the permission slip, my mother says, as I rise with my plate.
When I leave the kitchen my mother is still holding her head and playing with her food.
As I am hurrying up the stairs I hear my mother’s voice in the kitchen calling up to ask my father, ask your father to sign the permission slip.
We are watching television when my mother comes back from the kitchen. She tells me to choose a side. I choose the left wherein is revealed my second favourite flavour of yoghurt. She hands me a spoon and says that she will go to my execution but that she will not pay for new tickets, she is not made of money. She tells me to ask my brother if he wants to come and I fall asleep nestled in her side.
Sister Amanda has finished running through the procedure with me but I think that I would have liked to go over it again to make sure that I do not get anything wrong and that if I could I would ask her to please go over it all again one last time. I am concerned that it will be a repeat of the time the teacher asked me to bring her the blue crêpe paper and the yellow glitter for the Easter celebration display and instead I brought her the yellow crêpe paper and the blue glitter, which could not have been further from what she had asked for. What a humiliation this glitter-crêpe-paper mix-up turned out to be that to this day I cannot forget. I hope that the cone on my head will not fall off as it has done with other children in the past, that I will not make a funny face, for the eyes of the school will be on me, and some of the parents may want to record the execution for posterity.
Because of a long-running Dungeons & Dragons campaign at his friend Gerard’s house, my brother was not able to come and watch me die last Monday. If it had been any other day, said my brother, he would definitely have been able to come. And so now that my death has been moved to Friday, I think that my brother will have no option but to come and watch me in my final moments. But as it turns out, thinking I would be dead, my brother has already planned on going to the birthday party of a girl on our estate. My brother makes an hourglass gesture with his hands and a thrusting motion with which it is impossible to argue.
I am looking at the permission slip on the sideboard in the hallway and I see that my mother has written her name down as attending but has not yet signed. Every day the school asks me if I have gotten the permission signed and every day I must make up an excuse why my mother has not signed the slip of paper. It will not be possible to enjoy the crackling of the Rice Krispies until my mother does this very simple thing. She is saying that she never agreed to sign the piece of paper despite the fact that I heard her say so last night in front of the television.
Though I am to be executed on Friday, I cannot help worrying about the long division test. It is possible, I tell myself on the way to school, that the teacher will simply forget about the long division test, but also there is very little evidence that our teacher would ever forget, since she has never forgotten a single test to this day, unlike Mrs Robinson who used to forget about tests all the time. There is no avoiding it. The long division test is inevitable.
I am telling Rudy about how my brother, his friend Gerard and I are at a crucial juncture in our Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Then Colin changes the subject to his own Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I tell him that Dungeons & Dragons is not a game for homosexuals. There is a silence and I apologise to Colin for my short temper but I am under a lot of stress due to the long division test that is coming up.
We are chanting our conjugations when Mr Curley shuffles into the classroom. He does not knock or say anything to our teacher who pretends that there is not this old man standing in one of the aisles. We must continue chanting this dreary song the same as before, as if there is no Mr Curly looking around like he has forgotten something. He is bending down at the linoleum floor and looking into the forest of chair legs and table legs and children’s legs. We are doing the present continuous now and he is crawling around and I cannot help feeling that there is something I cannot name that is going on.
My best friend Rudy is explaining to me why he does not think he and his parents will be able to make it to the execution on Friday. I can only sympathise with my friend Rudy. This Friday, I tell him, is an especially inconvenient date as it is the opening of the French Film Festival. It is typical, Rudy, that of all the days the French Film Festival could have opened it had to be this Friday. Who knows when we will have a chance to see Alain Delon on a big screen again, I say, letting my arms fall to my sides with exasperation. But Rudy, it turns out, is not there. He is talking with Colin.
Examining the farewell card again, I find that the glitter has been applied to it willy-nilly. There is also crêpe paper on the card though it is barely worth mentioning because of how willy-nilly the application is. If it is worth saying anything about the crêpe paper on this farewell card it is how willy-nilly and uninspiring it is. It is hard not to see the imperfections of the card, the superfluous inclusion of the felt and the match sticks, glued or rather flung onto the card, weighing it down so that it is impossible to stand up and always flopping over like a pig’s ear.
Behind the door to my mother’s room, I hear crying. I open the door and find that my mother is sitting on the end of her bed, sobbing. I give my mother a hug, for I am not the only one under a lot of stress at the moment.
It is time to practise our French pronunciation, each of us repeating after Mrs Hanrahan who puts her head back and gurgles in the manner of the French. It is the most hilarious thing we have ever heard. Even Michelle, who is the shyest creature and is barely audible and buries her head in her arms, makes us laugh uncontrollably. There are tears rolling down our faces as it goes around the room, sounding more and more preposterous and less like the original every time. Now it is my turn to gurgle absurdly. Tears are rolling down my swollen face. I am ready to explode with laughter, but Mrs Hanrahan decides that we have had enough French for one day.
On the way to the school, I think that maybe I will step onto a bus and that instead of the school I will go to the beach, for it is the day of the dreaded long division test. There is a bus stop on the way to school where I am waiting with some other people who, like me, are looking for an escape. I have never skipped a day of school before. I do not know what I would do at the beach, where it will certainly be cold and windy, and what if I was seen by one of the parents and it was reported to Mrs Hanrahan and our principal Mrs Tracy. And so, in the end, I am unable to step onto this bus or the next.
The nib in my pencil has broken during the inevitable test and I must ask Anne-Sophie for her pencil sharpener, the embarrassing pink Clefairy pencil sharpener. Though it is sitting right next to me, it is not as simple as taking it, for Anne-Sophie has put her ruler down between us to divide our separate halves of the desk, there is no arguing with the three-sided non-slip aluminium ruler. And so I must whisper to Anne-Sophie in the hope of not being detected by our teacher. Anne-Sophie is pretending not to hear me. She will pretend not to hear me until I have called it by its full name, the pink Clefairy pencil sharpener. That is the rule. Every year I pray that I will be assigned to sit next to Rudy and every year our hopes are dashed.
I am trying to put the broken nib back into the wooden shaft of the pencil, like a tooth that has come loose in a dream. Anne-Sophie, I can see from the corner of my eye, is grimacing at my misfortune. Is it something about my essence that I cannot hold a pencil without the nib breaking again and again, I ask myself. I try to push the nib back in but it is like trying to smile with a wobbly tooth. What is wrong that my pencil keeps breaking and that I must sharpen it until all I have left is this, the tiniest nub of a pencil imaginable. Always, I think, I should stop sharpening this pencil. This time is the last time, I am thinking, the pencil is sharp enough. But then, as usual, because I feel somehow that a finer point is still possible, I perform what I tell myself is really the final twist this time. It is then, without fail, on this last turn of the pencil, just as I am about to stop, that the nib decides to break from the shaft of the pencil.
With the nib, I wish that my agonies would end, but instead they are compounded by the eraser which far from erasing merely smears what I have written. Have I been using an eraser all this time, I ask myself, or the rubber stopper of a chair leg, all over my work are these stains which cost me points on presentation. How is it that Anne-Sophie’s eraser remains in such immaculate condition, I am thinking. She will never let me use her eraser for fear of soiling its white immaculacy, its clean edges and perfect corners. And because my hands, she says, are not clean enough to hold it. If it were not for the non-slip ruler separating my half of the desk from Anne-Sophie’s, I think that I would take her eraser by force.
During our lunch break, I take a handful of the gravel and throw it at Colin Sweeney the homosexual’s face, who of course begins to cry, and now Mrs Hanrahan, whom I barely recognise anymore, tells me I must stay in the schoolyard until it is time to go home.
I am throwing pebbles at the windows of the classroom. Mrs Hanrahan is trying to ignore me but eventually she is forced to come out and tells me to stop as if there was never anything between us, and I am starting to scrunch up into a crying face.
At the end of school, I am racing to put on my coat and bag to catch up with Rudy, but he and Colin Sweeney are running away from me and I do not think that I will catch up with them. I am calling for them to wait, for with the bag on my back and the school shoes it is almost impossible to run.
My mother is standing over me saying that she will do her best to be at my execution on Friday, though she cannot make any promises because of the French Film Festival and Alain Delon. I am lying on my back under the rug in the hall. It is important to my mother that I know the sacrifices she must make, but I have other things on my mind and I do not feel like arguing.
Because I am not answering my mother she asks my brother if he has seen me anywhere, where has your brother gone, even though it is obvious I am lying under the rug at her feet.
How about this, my mother is saying. Tonight I can stay up until 10 o’clock.
My mother does not realise that I am done with speaking, that I have committed myself to silence and to lying still here under the rug in the hall, probably forever.
I can hear their whispering on the stairs and after a grumble my brother says reluctantly that he will help me with my D&D character.
I do not feel like speaking, I will lie still, covered by the rug.
My mother is sighing and lets her hands fall to her sides because of how difficult I am being. Because she has had enough, according to her, she turns and walks away, flip-flops slapping the soles of her feet.
Then, a few moments later, my mother returns. She says that though I have already had a last meal she has decided that exceptionally we will have my last meal a second time, but there will be no last meals after that.
It is difficult not to smile under the circumstances. Instead of the cauliflower to which I had resigned myself, we will have my beloved hoisin duck and egg-fried rice one more time. I am drying my face on my sleeve and trying to hide the smile from my mother, who is kissing me on the head.
Though I am to be executed on Friday, I cannot help feeling excited about the weekend. Probably I did better in the test than I first thought and I am looking forward to telling Rudy and Colin about my campaign. QUEL PLAISIR DE VOUS AVOIR CONNU MON AMI it reads inside my farewell card in the immaculate handwriting for which Anne-Sophie is well known. Anne-Sophie is a friend of mine, I tell my mother. She is the smartest in our class.