I can feel I am being watched.
You might think that is to be expected as Miss Rutherford has given us an exam paper to do and she is invigilating - making sure we don't cheat. But it is stronger than that. I feel I am being scrutinised not just given a cursory glance to make sure I am not 'swan-necking': trying to look at the answer paper of the person next to me.
It unsettles me enough that I have to look up. Yes, Miss Rutherford is looking at me and nodding to herself as if she has come decision or conclusion. Whatever it is, I suspect it will involve me being volunteered for something, a suspicion made stronger when her gaze moves and now appears to be directed at my boyfriend, Tony. A satisfied look crosses her face before she appears to relax and go back to watching the class as a whole. No doubt Tony and I will find out all about it in due course.
I turn back to the exam paper. Fortunately, I find the next question straightforward and it gets my mind back into concentrating on the test and not wandering to wonder what Miss Rutherford has in store for us.
When the exam is over I expect to be asked to stay behind, but this doesn't happen. Miss Rutherford is busy bundling up the exam papers and basically ignoring the crush of students suffering post-test stress all trying to leave the room at once.
I meet up with Tony in the break. He says he didn't notice Miss Rutherford watching him. He was too busy concentrating on making sure he answered the questions correctly and in full. I was just happy that I was able to make an attempt at the right number of questions and finished pretty much as the time ran out.
With all the usual stuff that goes on at school I forget about the incident by the next day.
Sometime during the morning, our friend, Donny, catches up with us and passes on a message.
"The Wicked Witch wants to see you in her classroom during the lunch break," he says.
The Wicked Witch is Donny's name for Mrs O'Reilly, the art teacher. Donny thinks that Merkin, the school's black cat, is her familiar.
Merkin is in her usual place, on top of the cupboard behind the teacher's desk, casting a baleful eye on us as we trudge into the classroom. Somehow, her face seems to change to a sadistic grin when she looks at me. I get the feeling she knows about something that is going to involve Tony and me.
As I walk towards Mrs O'Reilly's desk, I get too close to the cupboard and Merkin jumps down onto my shoulder. I can feel her dig her claws in - through my school shirt and into flesh - to get a grip as she lands. There is an amused tone in Mrs O'Reilly's voice as she tells me not to swear. At least I stop myself from trying to knock the cat off my shoulder onto the floor. Never mind that the Wicked Witch wouldn't approve, Merkin would probably shred my hand into bloody strips, the vicious animal that she is. As it is, she digs her claws in again as she jumps across to Tony's shoulder before dropping down onto the teacher's desk.
Mrs O'Reilly looks at us as she strokes the cat to settle it.
"Thank you for coming to see me," she says. "I have a little problem. My niece is coming over from the United States and I think you two are just the boys to help me with her."
Oh ho! I am not sure I like the sound of this. Is this going to be some sort of revenge for us eating those cannabis muffins of hers last Halloween?
She must be reading my mind as she continues: "Nothing to do with those muffins. I mentioned my problem to Miss Rutherford and she suggested you two as you are very close and..."
"We are boyfriends, if that is what you mean?" I interrupt.
"Thank you. We thought so," Mrs O' Reilly replies as she strokes the cat again. "But we aren't allowed to presume. You have to tell us.
"Anyway back to my problem. The U.S. school year finished at the end of June but ours ends next week. For various reasons my niece, who lives near Boston, is flying in this next weekend. I will meet her at Manchester airport on Sunday. I don't want her moping around the house on her own all day, so we have agreed that she will come into school for the last few days of term. We both think she will find it interesting to see how our school compares with hers.
"She is the same age as you so I am asking if you will be her chaperones and take her with you to your classes for those few days. I am not asking you to entertain her after the end of term as I have planned on taking her on a bit of a tour around so that she sees something of England and Wales. I suppose she will want to go to London as well."
Mrs O'Reilly doesn't sound very enthusiastic about that last idea.
"You could try taking her to Brum instead," I say with a smile. "That's pretty exotic."
"I don't think I'll get away with that! Birmingham isn't quite the same thing, is it?" she chuckles before asking: "So are you prepared to do this for me, please?"
"Yeah, I don't see why not," I reply. I am not sure I should have been so quick agreeing when Tony doesn't say anything. I look across at him and I can see he has zoned out. Something must have set him off. The look that Merkin is giving me also makes me think I have been taken for a mug.
"Good, Thank you," I hear the teacher say. "If you would meet us in here, ten minutes before classes begin on Monday, please. Now you had better go and get your lunch."
I am about to steer Tony through the classroom door when I am called back.
"Have you got a spare shirt in your locker?"
"Just a white t-shirt," I reply. "Why?"
"Because Merkin has made a bit of a mess of the one you have on. The t-shirt will have to do. I will write you a note in case anyone asks why you are not in uniform."
I twist my head to look at the bloodied shoulder of my shirt. The Wicked Witch opens her desk drawer to get out a pen and paper. She also pulls out at tube of antiseptic ointment and puts it on the desk.
"I've put that there," she says, pointing at the tube before she starts writing the note. "You can take it and use it if you want. Up to you." In other words she is saying I would be advised to use it but she is not allowed to instruct me or give it to me. I pick it up.
As we leave the room, she talks to Merkin.
"You're a naughty girl, Merkin. There was no need to be so enthusiastic when you put your mark on him."
I can hear the cat purring.
I finally get Tony and myself to the school canteen for lunch. Thankfully cook's super-hot veg curry is on the menu. It works its magic and brings Tony, spluttering and gasping, out of his funk.
"What caused you to zone out this time?" I ask as he reaches for a glass of water to quench the flames.
"I think it was when Mrs O'Reilly said we would need to be chaperones for her niece. She could have said 'show her around' but she used the word 'chaperone'. To me that implies that the girl will need watching."
"You mean sort of protecting her? From the likes of Roger 'Presscock' Prescott? He's bigger than we are." I say, thinking of the self-opinionated, self-styled stud of year thirteen.
"Virginia, his ex-girlfriend, can sort him out. But it might be worse than that. She might need protecting from herself, if she is the sort to do the chasing."
I am about to ask him if he means a predatory version of Virginia, but then I realise that concept would make him zone out again. Tony is nervous enough when Virginia is around as it is.
As usual after school, Tony and I go to my house to do our homework and some revision for another test. When we have finished we spend some time speculating on what Mrs O'Reilly's niece might be like. Dad comes home from work just as Tony is leaving. They just have time to exchange greetings and for Dad to ask Tony if I have done my homework before Tony says he must go.
Later, Mum, Dad and I are having our evening meal.
"Are you and Tony all right?" Dad asks.
"Tony seemed a bit distracted when he was leaving and you have been quiet tonight."
"Well, we have got a test tomorrow."
"I can see that might bother you a bit," Dad says, sounding concerned and not in teasing mode. "But Tony doesn't have anything to worry about on that score does he?"
"No, you're right. It might be something Mrs O'Reilly has asked us to do."
I tell Mum and Dad about the niece and being asked to chaperone her.
"A chaperone?" Mum chortles. "That's not something you hear of these days."
"Maybe she does need one." Dad is trying to hide a smile. "American girls used to have a reputation for being forward. Although some of the girls round here look pretty forward to me!"
"So when have you been looking?" asks Mum with her fake-annoyed voice. That leads into a round of banter between the parents. I know they are only joking. They have both told me before they don't sweat the small stuff, and allow each other to look as long as it goes no further than enjoying the view. Eventually they decide to come back to discuss my problem.
"I suspect Mrs O'Reilly only wants you to make sure she doesn't do anything stupid," Mum says. "Like walking out into the traffic because she has forgotten we drive on the other side of the road and looked the wrong way."
I am thinking that getting involved with Presscock would also count as stupid when Dad chips in with his two-pennyworth.
"She won't get anywhere with you two, even if she is on the hunt," he says. "That might be why they asked you."
"You might be right there," I reply. "Mrs O'Reilly did suggest our being together was mentioned when she was talking with Miss Rutherford."
"You've only got to look out for her for a few days," Dad says. "You'll not stop her if she is determined, but you can steer her away from those that might give her more than memories. So another case of care, do your best, but don't worry unduly."
Donny joins us in the lunch queue the next day. Of course, being the nosey kid he is, he asks why Mrs O'Reilly wanted to see us. Just to mess with him we stall until we get to our usual table. There are only three places left. Virginia, from year thirteen, and her friend Melanie, who is in our class, are at one end so we get them to move up in order that we can sit next to them, leaving the only spare place for Donny at the other end of the table.
"Where were you yesterday lunchtime?" asks Virginia. "We saw you come in late and have to sit on your own."
"Tony looked as though he was zoned out again too," Mel adds. "Did you have to get him the veg curry?"
"Yup. Worked a treat, as usual."
I think it might be useful to get the girls' viewpoint so I tell them that we had to see Mrs O'Reilly and being asked to chaperone her niece. I also give them a summary of last night's conversation with the 'rents as well.
"I think I agree with your dad's analysis of why you have been chosen," Mel offers. Virginia looks pensive.
"This might sound bitchy but I am not sure it is just Mrs O'Reilly's niece that risks unpleasant reminders of any encounter," she says. "There is the possibility she might give the boy cause for a trip to the special clinic."
"Okay, let's look at it another way," Tony sounds decisive. "Assuming she is looking for sex and is determined to get it, can we limit the damage and protect our friends?"
"You said she is our age," says Mel. "So we can guess that our year is where she will start looking. Who of our friends do we have to look out for?" She looks around the table. Most of our group are here. "Who's missing?"
"Raj," I say. "He said he had to go home to the shop as his dad has gone over to Birmingham and his mum will need a break."
"I don't think we need to worry about him," Tony says. "He will be too busy thinking up some business scheme and his brother, Nav shouldn't be a problem. If Virginia bats her eyelashes at him, he'll think all his birthdays have come at once."
Mel beats me to the punchline.
"I don't think it will be his birthdays that come at once!" she says. "You can do that, can't you, Virginia? We know he lusts after you."
"That's easy enough," Virginia replies, "Every time we eat at his uncles' restaurant, I think he wets himself if he's waiting on our table." She looks at the next boy along the table. "Bruno and Cath are solid. He won't stray, not if he wants to live!"
"Then there is Donny at the end of the table," Mel says before turning back to look at Tony and me. "I'm not sure, but I think he might play for your team. Just to be of the safe side, I can tell her to keep off, he's my bitch."
"I thought you said a few months ago that you fancy Paul?" I ask Mel.
"Only in the sense I can see his attraction. I'm not interested in chasing anybody at the moment. Not until I have finished school. I don't think Paul sees me as girlfriend material either. He would deny it if she asked him if he is my boyfriend."
"So what do we do about Paul?" Tony asks. "He's the only one left that we have to think about."
"Well," I say. "We know who he would jump through hoops to have as his girlfriend given half a chance - Susie!"
Mel and Virginia look at each other as if some unspoken discussion is taking place. Eventually Mel acts as spokesperson.
"Alright. We will have a word with her and get her to grab Paul if it looks as though the girl is making a move on him. You two, though, will have to pick up the pieces when Susie drops him again after she has gone back to the U.S."
We have to agree.
Something is bothering me. I mention it to Tony as we walk home from school.
"I'm uneasy about this thing. We haven't even met her and Mrs O'Reilly hasn't actually said anything about her - not even told us her name - and yet we are discussing her as if she is some predatory slag. Are we being prudent or are we actually being xenophobic or something?"
Tony thinks for a bit before he answers.
"Racial stereotyping maybe and perhaps a bit of added misogyny on our part. I don't think I would go so far as calling it xenophobia. But whatever you call it, you're right, it is a bit uncomfortable to realise we have made that sub-conscious judgment. On the other hand," he drawls, as he waves his hand around as if to demonstrate, "having perceived a potential hazard it seems sensible to take a few simple precautions to avoid problems and not have a mess to clean up afterwards."
Tony does like to use big words. I caught xenophobia off him. I think I know what he means by misogyny but I shall look it up when I get home. I mumble something about us being in agreement which makes me feel less uneasy.
"Of course," Tony continues. "We could be missing the point altogether. Perhaps she is gay and that is why Miss Rutherford suggested us. All will be revealed on Monday. No point in losing any sleep over it."
By now we have reached my house, so we settle down to do what we hope is the last homework of the year. When we have finished it, Tony says he has to head off to his house.
"I forgot to ask," he says as he is getting ready to leave. "How are those scratches Merkin gave you? No infection or anything?"
"No," I reply. "All healed up. Not a mark."
On Monday, Tony and I get to school yard ten minutes earlier than usual.
"Hi guys. You're early. What gives?"
We should have known Donny would somehow manage to be there already, although to be fair he is usually there before us.
"If you must know, Mrs O'Reilly asked us to come in early," I tell him.
"The Wicked Witch? You never told us what she wanted you for the other day. What does she want to see you for this time?"
"Well, you gossipy little perv," I reply, grinning at him to show I mean no offence. "You will no doubt find out after we have been to see her."
"Oh, come on! I'll bet you buggers know what it is about already," he moans.
"Buggers?" Tony says in a tone of mock outrage. "You need to be more careful in your choice of pejorative. We could take that to be homophobic and report you."
Donny realises he is being wound up.
"No," I say. "But we will go and see Mrs O'Reilly."
We both manage to give him a gentle swat on his bum as we pass him and heading towards the school door.
"Oi! What was that for?" he grumbles.
"We thought you might like it." We reply in unison.
Mrs O'Reilly beckons us into her classroom as we reach the door. She is sitting at her desk, a cup of tea in front of her. Merkin is also on the desk, engaged in an intense staring match with a very pretty girl with long hair. In the brief moments before we are introduced, I can't make up my mind if she is prettier than Virginia. But she is definitely attractive. So much so that, in spite of having Tony as my boyfriend and normally no interest in girls, I find I am interested! No sooner has that thought formed than I am distracted by a sharp pain on my shoulder where Merkin dug her claws in the other day. I move my hand to rub the place for relief.
My movement is enough catch the girl's eye and she abandons her staring match with the cat.
Mrs O'Reilly introduces us but doesn't mention that we are boyfriends. I suppose it is not her place to out us to a stranger. I thought she might have said something as it is family: her niece. Perhaps it is not important, but I decide not say anything either.
"Hi, I'm Samantha," the girl says after her aunt has told her our names. "But most people call me Sam."
I am watching her face as she looks over at us. Or should that be looks us over. We are being checked out and not just in the amateur way Tony and I boywatch over a coffee in the shopping centre on a Saturday morning.
"Nice to meet you," she says as she rises and walks towards us, all the time continuing her assessment of us.
I feel she is intending to give us some sort of hug. In defence, I stick my hand out hoping she will take the hint and just shake hands. Tony obviously has the same idea as he sticks his hand out too.
"You spoil me, Auntie. Two boys to take care of me! I'm sure I could have managed with just one," Sam doesn't take her eyes off us. "And so formal: wanting to shake hands," she gives a little grin. "I thought you English only did that in films."
The expression 'safety in numbers' springs to mind. I think we were right to plan our defensive strategy with the Mel and Virginia.
"Your mother did say you need an eye kept on you. I thought two might find it easier than one," Mrs O'Reilly replies. There is an amused tone to her voice. "They will show you round the school and take you with them to their classes. Wednesday is the last day of term and not much work gets done, but you should get an idea of how things are done here in the next couple of days," She turns to us. "You had better go and get ready for your first class. Please bring Sam back here at the end of the day."
"Let's go. See you later, Auntie," Sam says, giving her a wave in confirmation. "The first thing you guys can do is show me where the restrooms are."
Presumably in an attempt to be friendly or maybe more than friendly, Sam gets between us and puts arm round a shoulder each. Unfortunately she hits the spot where the cat got me and, involuntarily, I pull away in pain, nudging Mrs O'Reilly's desk as I do. As I straighten up, I feel that my uniform shirt is wet. Looking down at the desk I see Mrs O'Reilly's cup has fallen over near me and I have been splashed with the contents. I think it odd the cup has tipped over as it was only a slight nudge and I am sure the cup was further across the desk near the teacher.
"Oh dear," says a smiling Mrs O'Reilly. "I hope you've still got that t-shirt in your locker."
As she writes me another note to excuse me for not wearing a uniform white shirt I notice that Merkin is sitting at the other end of the desk from where she had been earlier. She is wearing that look of fake innocence that cats are so good at. I scowl at her but get no reaction.
While they are waiting for me, Tony and Sam are chatting.
"You said you wanted to know where the restrooms are," says Tony. "We'll show you on the way to class, but you should know we normally refer to them as loos...or toilets."
"Yeah, mom warned me that you have a lot of funny names for things. Yesterday, it took me ages to work out what my aunt meant when she said to put my case in the boot of her car."
"I'm sure that there will be lots of other things. You'll probably just about used to the common ones when it is time for you to go home!"
I join them and we head off to the lockers so that I can change my shirt.
"Sorry about that," says Sam.
"About what?" I ask.
"Invading your personal space so that you pulled back and hit the table."
"I suppose you did 'invade my personal space'. But the reason I pulled away was because you caught a sore spot. I thought it had cleared up but it is giving me some gyp today."
"Pain, trouble," I reply.
"Ah, it means 'swindle' or 'con' to us."
"It can mean that for us as well," Tony explains.
We arrive at the girl's loos and Sam goes in. Tony waits outside for her while I go to my locker. I get the impression she would have liked to watch me change my shirt but we haven't much time before class.
Donny catches me at my locker.
"Who was that girl I saw you and Tony with just now?" he asks. "She looks worth one."
"That was Mrs O'Reilly's niece from Boston..."
"Wahey! The Wicked Witch has a yellow-belly niece. She could cast her spell over me."
"Sorry you are all wrong there. Firstly, she's not a yellow-belly; she's from Boston, Massachusetts, not Boston in Lincolnshire. Secondly," I lower my voice and whisper in his ear, "we think your interests lie elsewhere -like Paul for instance if he played for our team."
That made him blush.
"Thirdly," I say returning to my normal voice. "If she asks, you're spoken for. You are Mel's boyfriend!"
"Who says?" He looks a bit horrified at the idea.
"Mel... and Virginia."
"Err, ah, err." Donny's mouth is moving but his struggling to make a coherent reply.
"You're not thinking of arguing with Mel, are you? Or Virginia."
"No," he gulps. He knows he would have little chance in a fight with Mel and would be lucky to survive in one piece if Virginia also came to play.
I give him some comfort.
"Don't worry. It's only until the end of term on Wednesday," I tell him.
We find Sam and Tony and go to our first lesson. It would just happen to be with Miss Rutherford. She makes no effort to hide her amusement when she sees Sam squeeze one of the spare seats in between Tony and me.
I used to like her.
After the lesson, although she didn't join in the discussions, Sam says she was impressed by the way Miss Rutherford was able to hold the attention of the class.
"Are all your teachers like her?" Sam asks. "I didn't see any kids inattentive and fooling around at the back of the class."
"The consensus is that she is probably the best teacher in the school, certainly the most popular," Tony replies. "Not all our teachers can handle a class as well."
"It helps that our group all seem to be interested in learning," I say.
"I think it helps that we are in a relatively small town," Tony adds. "Some of the stories of classroom chaos that get reported from the big cities sound horrendous. Sometimes the parents are worse than their kids at undermining the teachers."
As we navigate the corridors on the way to our history class, Sam starts by walking closest to me. Having put the idea in my head, I do feel she is invading my personal space and try to put a little more room between us but she closes again. Then she puts her hand on my shoulder once more. Of course, that sets Merkin's scratches off and I have to shrug her off. This time she seems to get the message and changes her attention to Tony.
When we get to the classroom, Sam has a spare chair squeezed between us again and before the lesson begins is trying to work a number on Tony. She has her arm draped across his shoulder pulling them closer and is looking up making doe eyes at him.
Although I am jealous, I am not really worried that Tony will be tempted. I am more concerned that her attentions will make him zone out. He must feel the same way because I feel fingers dig into my side below my ribs and I realise he is reaching behind Sam, wanting the support of contact with me. I manoeuvre my arm through the gap between the chairs, catch hold of Tony's hand and link our fingers. If we have to stay holding hands all through the lesson, I hope we don't have to take notes; I am not good at writing with my left hand.
The teacher calls the class to order. Mrs O'Reilly must have briefed all her colleagues about Sam joining us as I can see him scan the room until he finds us. He looks straight at Sam who still has her arm around Tony.
"Good Morning. You must be Samantha, Mrs O'Reilly's niece," he says to her. "Welcome to our school and this Year Ten history class. Now, if you would be so kind as to put Tony down, after all you don't know where he has been." It's the same comment I used to get from Mum when I was a little kid and had picked something up off the ground. We can tell he is joking and he gets a round of giggles from the rest of the class. Donny, of course is the loudest and dirtiest laugh. Sam drops her arm from around Tony's next and he relaxes enough to let me have my hand back.
"We have been studying Europe in the Napoleonic period: 1799 to 1815," the teacher continues, his focus on Sam. "I am afraid I don't know if it is part of your syllabus at home, but please feel free ask questions and join in." He changes his tone to address the whole class. "There are a couple of things I want to run through from the test last week."
The teacher quickly hands back our test papers and runs through the points he wants to discuss. 'Matters arising' Tony calls them.
"We have now covered all of the syllabus for this topic in your GCSE next year," the teacher says. "So I would like to spend the rest of the lesson talking about other things that were going on in the world during the same period. Anybody got any suggestions of things that were happening outside Europe?" There are no volunteers. "Anyone heard of the Louisiana Purchase?"
Sam is beginning to fidget as the teacher decides to put someone on the spot. "Tony, you look as though you should know something about it."
That's right; pick my boyfriend, the class swot.
"Er, The French sold their North American colony, Louisiana, to the US, sir," Tony answers, sounding unsure.
"And why would they do that, Donny?" asks the teacher picking on someone else.
"Because they needed the money, sir." Donny's flippant tone gets a giggle or two and a smile from the teacher.
"Actually he is right," says the teacher. "As we know, Napoleon kept having wars all around Europe and North Africa and wars are expensive. What land was involved? Cath?"
"Louisiana?" she queries, presumably wondering if this is a trick question. It is.
"If you mean the modern State of Louisiana, no, it was much more than that. Anyone?"
There are no takers until Sam sticks her hand up.
"I am so glad you volunteered," the teacher says, sounding relieved. "Since this lot are embarrassing me with their silence. Would you be so kind as to enlighten them please?"
Sam explains that it was actually a vast area, effectively the region between the Mississippi and the Rockies and north of Texas to the Canadian border. The teacher then expands on the background and detail and takes advantage of having Sam there to get a U.S. perspective on the deal. And a good deal it was too, costing the Americans all of eighteen dollars a square mile, or about six cents a hectare.
Having got Sam involved, the teacher obviously decides to take advantage of her different perspective on events when he changes the topic.
"Because our focus tends to be on Napoleon, we forget about other wars we Brits were fighting at the same time. Who else did we have a war with towards the end of this period?"
There are blank looks all round.
"Samantha, would you be able to help us out, please, and say something about the war of 1812?"
She says that it was a war between the United States and the British between 1812 and 1815. Between them Sam and the teacher explain the causes of the war: mainly the British naval blockade to prevent maritime trade with France and the press-ganging of American sailors into the Royal Navy, although it is said there were hawks in Congress wanting to annex Canada and push the British out. The action was primarily along the Great Lakes frontier and along the eastern seaboard of the United States.
"What was the most famous, or perhaps infamous, thing that the British did?" the teacher asks Sam. "Some might say we should do it again, only this time not let the occupants escape."
Sam laughs. "I think quite a few would agree with you there," she says. "It was the destruction of the White House and the burning of Washington DC."
We continue to discuss the war for a few minutes more before the teacher starts to wind up the lesson.
"That just about finishes thing for the year. But before you all go...," he says, stilling the shuffling of text books into bags and the squeaking of chairs. "Can I just say thank you to Samantha for joining us today and giving us a different perspective to our discussions." He starts a round of applause. When that dies down, he says his closing words for the year.
"Have a good summer, everyone. See you all again next year!"
Somehow the teachers in the rest of the classes before lunch all manage to get Sam to participate. Whether it is the effect of getting involved in the lessons or the history teacher's admonishment that she should put Tony down, reinforced by Donny's dirty laugh, but Sam is no longer trying to hang off Tony's shoulder as we head to the canteen for lunch.
We don't always appreciate Cook's offerings but she does a pretty good job of providing us with a choice of nutritious meals that both look appetising and taste good. Certainly better than the stuff we hear about from kids from other schools when we meet them at sports matches. Cook does let us have the occasional greasy treat though. Mum says she talked to Cook at one of the parent-teacher do's and couldn't believe what she manages to produce on the meagre budget she has.
When we join the queue at the canteen, Sam reads the board with the day's choices that Cook puts up by the entrance.
"No burgers," she asks.
"No. Not today," Tony replies. "Once a week. Usually Thursday."
"No mac and cheese either?"
"Macaroni cheese?" I say. "Cook tried that once. Nobody liked it, except Mr Sproat, the games master, who said it was really good. It was his suggestion. He said it was very popular at a school where he did some of his training."
As we are talking, Virginia comes up.
"I've snagged our usual table," she says. "Raj has gone to the shop and taken Nav with him so there is room for all three of you.
I am not sure why she needed to tell us that, but I suspect she really came to suss out Sam. It does mean Virginia won't have to get Nav all hot and bothered by pretending to be his girlfriend.
It gives me an idea.
"How are you getting on with Paul?" I ask. "Are you still keeping him dangling?" I roll my eyes towards Sam, hoping that Virginia will understand she should pretend to be the object of Paul's desires. That way there will be no need to involve Susie by getting her to play on Paul's feelings for her.
"Hmm. Yes. I had better go and give him a kiss just to keep him in line," Virginia says before she walks off towards our table.
Good. She got the message. I turn back to the others.
"So what are you two having?" Sam asks
"Oh, the veg curry. Every time it's on!" I reply. "If you like spicy food, it's great. A kick like a mule."
"What about you, Tony?"
We both look at him waiting for his reply. I notice that he has gone white. It must be the thought of Virginia kissing someone. He has experience of being on the receiving end. He hasn't been able to suppress the memory.
"He'll probably have the curry as well," I say. I will make sure he gets it.
"Okay. If you're both having it, I will give it a go."
I hope she won't regret that decision.
The line moves forward and it is our turn. Cook is supervising and helping serve.
"Three veg curries, please," I say as I am at the front of our group.
Cook gives me a quizzical look as if to ask if our guest can handle it. I nod back at her.
"It is the last time the curry will be on this term," she says. "So it's extra special." Her expression turns to a wicked grin.
When we get to our table, there are three seats left for us at the end of one side. We sit down with Sam in the middle. Mel is opposite Sam, with Donny at the end next to her, opposite me. He looks resigned to his fate. Virginia is on Mel's other side with Paul next to her. He looks a little unsure. Shell-shocked even. I see he has got the curry as well. He probably needs it. I wonder if Mel or Virginia picked it for him.
I introduce Sam around the table, mentioning who is with whom, including the two couples opposite us. I don't mention that these last two are only temporary arrangements. Sam looks along the table then cranes her neck to look around the room. I follow her gaze. At most of the tables we can see, the groups happen to be seated boys next to girls. Recognising most of the faces, I know it must by chance. There are usually several boys' groups and girls' groups.
"Do you have any fags?" Sam asks.
From our on-line reading I know what she is asking and I know Tony does too. From the look on his face Donny does as well, but before he can say anything I make sure he has to lean down and rub the pain away from his shin.
"Nah," I say, not wishing to acknowledge the insulting term. "No one on this table smokes."
"Cigarette smoke makes me feel ill." adds Tony. I see he is sub-consciously rubbing the place where Merkin scratched him last Halloween.
"What have cigarettes got to do with it?" asks Sam.
"Over here, a fag is the slang term for a cigarette," explains Virginia, who, judging by the rather hard look she is giving Sam, also knows what was originally being asked.
"Oh. I meant faggots."
I'm not going to rise to that pejorative term either, and I can tell Tony is uneasy about the conversation as he reaches behind Sam wanting to take my hand again. It's time for another vocabulary lesson.
"Not at this time of the year. Cook only does them in winter," I deadpan. "But I like them anytime. In fact I think Mum is going to make some for tomorrow."
There is a look of total confusion on Sam's face. Tony squeezes my hand. Donny's giggle is stifled when he has to rub his shins again: Mel must have done the honours.
"Faggots. Sort of giant meatballs?" I look at Sam, pretending to ask for confirmation that that is what she meant. "We also know them as savoury ducks."
Virginia decides enough is enough and puts the knife in. "There is no need to use derogatory names. I presume you mean gay?"
"Yeah." Sam does sound contrite at the reprimand.
Virginia looks at Tony and raises an eyebrow. I realise she is asking for permission to say something about Tony and me. I squeeze his hand to show I am happy with whatever he decides. He tips his head in reply to her.
"I won't say any more," Virginia says to Sam. "Except to suggest you look down behind your elbow."
Sam does and sees our linked hands.
"Oh! Er, sorry guys," she says, looking first at Tony and then at me. "I was being a bitch because I don't know how things are over here. My girlfriend and I always have to watch our backs in spite of living in one of the more progressive states."
"You still have to be careful over here," says Tony. "It's better than it was when our parents were young, but judging by the things you see on the news; it has been getting worse again for the last couple of years."
"Now that has cleared the air perhaps we can eat our lunches," the ever practical Mel says, putting on her best schoolmarm voice. "Eat up Paul!"
Now I know he has been set up.
There is a round of splutters and gasps from those having the curry. Even I have to reach for my glass of water. Cook's end of term special is pretty mind blowing. Tony puts on a brave face, but then he often has to have the curry so has some idea what to expect. On the other hand, I don't think Paul has had it before.
"You bastards," he says when he finally recovers the power of speech. "What did you set me up with that for?"
"Well, you did do a Tony on us," Mel replies. "And zone out after Virginia kissed you. It always brings Tony round and now it has worked for you."
I look to see how Sam is getting on with her curry. She is a bit red in the face and taking sips of water between mouthfuls, however she is smiling.
"You okay?" I ask.
"Yeah. It is a bit hot. I prefer something milder," she replies. "But I have had hotter. Mom took me to Texas last year, and they were having a chilli competition in the town where we were staying. Some of those were just mental." She looks across at Paul. "His reaction was brill, but he looks to be struggling."
"He's not used to Cook's curry. It can catch the unwary! I'll go and ask Cook if she has a lemon we can use to cut it back a bit. I find that sometimes helps." I get up and go to the counter.
"You're lucky," says Cook. "I need some lemons at home, so I called into the shop on the way here this morning." She cuts one in half and hands me the pieces on a plate. "I can get some more on the way home. Do you want some sugar as well? That can also help to tone it down."
Tony seems to think it is just a placebo effect, but Paul and Sam both say the lemon and the sugar reduce the pain level of the curry.
Things settle down between us during the rest of the day. We drop Sam off at Mrs O'Reilly's classroom and start walking to my house as we nearly always do.
"We got off to a bad start," Tony says. "But I think I quite like Sam."
"After she told us about having a girlfriend, I would agree."
Mum has a cup of tea ready for us when we get to the house. Since we don't have any homework we stay and chat to her. Of course she has to ask about Sam, so we tell her how the day went and how we like Sam. We do leave out the misunderstanding at lunch although it gives me something to think about.
"Did you say you were making savoury ducks tomorrow?" I ask Mum.
"Can I invite Sam round if she wants to try them, please? Will there be enough?"
"Are you coming as well, Tony?" she asks.
Oops! He does look as though he thought he was going to be left out. I had just assumed he would come. I should have mentioned him as well.
"If I may. Yes, please," Tony replies.
"Good, I know how you like them," Mum says to him, before turning her attention to me. "You may ask her. I'll make sure there is enough. Any we don't use can go in the freezer."
In the morning we arrange with Mrs O'Reilly that Sam will come to my house for supper. Sam manages to participate in most of the classes and seems to be enjoying the experience of being in our school. We find it interesting to hear how things differ in her school.
Sam enjoys the meal although she was a little unsure when confronted by mushy peas. She might have been more worried by the savoury ducks if she knew what was in them. Mrs O'Reilly had said not to tell her as she wanted to see Sam's face when she told her!
"There is a black cat sitting on our gatepost," Mum says, halfway through the meal. "I've just noticed it."
We all turn and look through the window.
"It looks like Merkin, the school cat," I say. "I thought I saw her following us home."
"I've noticed her around the school all day," Sam adds.
"That's unusual," Tony muses. "She normally spends all her time in your aunt's classroom."
Dad has to pass comment. "Probably amusing herself watching someone new," he says.
I keep to myself the idea that the cat might have been sent to watch.
"She's not the only one who I've noticed watching me," says Sam.
"Who?" Tony and I ask at once.
"The younger of the two Indian guys, whose parents have the shop. The slim one."
"Naveem," I tell her. "He does have an eye for a pretty girl. He's not creeping you out is he? He would be mortified if you said he was."
Sam laughs. "No, it's flattering to see him interested. I don't think he will try anything and if he did I get the impression his brother would sort him out."
"Probably true," says Mum, who knows both boys. "But best not to put the theory to the test. Eh?"
Dad decides to change the subject.
"What are you going to do for the rest of the time you are over here?"
"Aunt Clara says we are going for a tour around the UK. She did mention the places, but they mean nothing to me at the moment. Hopefully I will have more idea when I get back. All I can remember is that we finish up with a few days in London."
'Aunt Clara'. So that's what Mrs O'Reilly's first name is.
"I'm glad to hear that you are going to see something of the country," says Dad. "So many people come and never get outside London. I'm sure you will have a great time."
After the meal, Tony agrees to escort Sam back to her Aunt's house as it is on the way to his home. As they walk down the street, I am sure I see Merkin following them at a discreet distance.
Of course the 'rents have to have a laugh at my expense when my guests have gone.
"That's a first," says Dad. "You entertaining a young lady, and a very pretty one at that."
I get some revenge by proxy.
"Yes, mister. I saw you looking," she says as she playfully cuffs him up the side of his head.
Wednesday is the last day of term.
When we meet up Sam curses me and tells us that her aunt had a good laugh at her reaction when she was told what was in the savoury ducks. Sam does admit to having enjoyed the meal.
Having been tipped off we amuse ourselves watching Nav wistfully looking at Sam, even though we know he knows he has no chance.
At the end of the day, we take Sam back to her aunt's classroom. Merkin is in her usual place, on top of the cupboard. For once she looks benign, almost as though she is pleased to see us.
Mrs O'Reilly thanks us for looking after Sam and invites us to join them for a meal when they get back from their trip a fortnight on Friday. When asked, I suggest the Indian run by Raj and Nav's uncles.
"... then Sam will be able to choose something milder than Cook's special veg curry!" I say.
Friday fortnight soon arrives.
Tony and I make the effort to look smart for our evening out. We arrive early at the restaurant. Raj and Nav are working as usual. We explain to Raj that we are with Mrs O'Reilly and Sam and take seats to wait for the others. Raj disappears into the kitchen and we soon see his uncles waving their greetings from the kitchen door. They always make a fuss of us: partly because I gave Raj the idea for his family to set them up in business and partly because they enjoy seeing a couple of boys accepted in their relationship which they weren't. Raj comes back with the message that the uncles think we both look very smart tonight. The compliments make the effort worthwhile.
Nav comes out of the kitchen with some take-away orders which he hands to the customer. He is about to greet us when Virginia and her family arrive so he has to show them to a table. Although he is trying hard to be professional, we know him well enough to spot that, as ever, Virginia's presence has him flustered.
Sam and her aunt arrive. Sam looks really smart in her long dress. I have tell her so. As I do that sharp pain in my shoulder reoccurs and I instinctively massage it. Mrs O'Reilly smiles when she notices.
"You two scrub up well," she says. It's a compliment of sorts, I suppose.
Nav comes and shows us to our table. He is just as flustered showing Sam to her seat as he was with Virginia. He composes himself enough to hand us our menus and take our drinks order.
It is Raj who brings our drinks to the table. Nav is dealing with some take-away customers, he says. At Raj's suggestion no doubt, so that Nav doesn't get over excited having to serve Virginia or Sam.
"You may order from the menu if you wish," says Raj after he has finished serving the drinks. "But my uncles ask, as you have a special guest from overseas, if you would do them the honour of letting them prepare a selection of dishes and accompaniments and give a balance of flavours and heat to your meal."
Mrs O'Reilly seems confused by the suggestion and appears to be looking at me for guidance. I know it is an offer not to be refused, but I don't want Sam and her aunt to feel pressured into it.
"That really is a very kind offer," I say. "I know if I order for myself, I struggle to get a good balance."
"That's true. He always over does the hot stuff." Tony has to show me up but I hope the others take his comment as endorsing the offer.
"As long as it is not as hot as the one at school the other day," says Sam. Raj goes red in the face. I think it is because he is trying not to laugh.
"Although I enjoy Cook's curry," I say. "I don't think Raj, his uncles or his brother consider it authentic. I don't either." I hear Raj let out a sigh.
Mrs O'Reilly goes with the suggestion and asks Raj to inform his uncles that their offer is most kind and we are pleased to accept. When Raj has left to tell the uncles, she makes a comment.
"I am definitely pleased to accept. I never know what to order so letting them make the choice suits me fine!"
"I suspect we may get one or two dishes that aren't on the menu," I say.
When the food is ready, Nav helps to bring it from the kitchen. He gets flustered again when Sam starts to ask him questions about the dishes. Eventually he makes his escape, but doesn't manage to reach the safety of the kitchen. Virginia's table has stopped him to ask about something. He looks like a rabbit caught in headlights.
The meal is, as they promised, a delicately balanced collection of dishes, each complimenting the others. I am pleased to say that Sam and her aunt are suitably impressed. Tony and I are too.
We ask Sam and Mrs O'Reilly where they went on their trip. They had a busy time. Apparently they visited Cannock Chase on their way up to Lancashire, where they stopped at a bed and breakfast in the shadow of Pendle Hill. They crossed the Pennines to visit Knaresborough and saw Old Mother Shipton's Cave.
Later they drove down to Boston in Lincolnshire to see place some of the Pilgrim Fathers are said to have come from and the town that Boston, Massachusetts was named after. After that they toured down through East Anglia to Mistley, near Manningtree, and Chelmsford. Finally they visited the sights in London.
"Did you know that Marble Arch is near the site of the Tyburn gallows where the public executions used to take place?" asks Sam.
I find it strange that that should be the most memorable thing about a visit to London.
The evening comes to an end and we get Nav all flustered again when we thank him and Raj for the excellent meal and ask them to pass on our thanks to the uncles. In fact I had already sneaked into the kitchen to thank the uncles when I pretended to go to the loo, just to make sure they knew their efforts were appreciated.
When we get outside the restaurant, I ask Sam when she is flying back to the United States. She tells us that the flight is early evening the next day so she will not see us again as she will be busy packing in the morning and they have to drive to Manchester for the flight. Tony asks where she lives in relation to Boston. She tells us the name of the town and that it will take about forty minutes to get home once she leaves the airport.
We thank Mrs O'Reilly for the meal and say goodbye, which leads to hugs from Sam. Of course it has to set off Merkin's scratches again but never mind. After a final round of goodbyes, Tony and I head towards my house. He has got permission for a sleepover. As we walk he rests his hand on my shoulder. This time there is no pain!
It is still morning when we surface and drag ourselves downstairs for some breakfast. Dad is sitting in the kitchen and says he has finished his second pot of tea but will join us if we are making another. Tony makes the tea and I do the toast, including an extra slice for Dad.
Dad asks us about our evening with Sam and Mrs O'Reilly and if we found out where they went on their tour. Between us, Tony and I recite all the various places they visited. Then he asks about the meal.
"Raj and Nav's uncles did a special meal for us," I tell him. "It was absolutely superb."
"I hope you thanked them," Dad says.
"Of course I did," using the most indignant tone I can muster. "I went into the kitchen and thanked them personally."
"We did try to make sure you woz brung up proper!" he jests. "We weren't sure if we had succeeded,"
"Ha. Ha. Dad" I grump back at him. Tony is grinning. He has heard it all before.
"How were the boys? I assume they were waiting on again," Dad asks.
"They were fine," Tony replies. "Although poor Nav was getting flustered. Virginia was there and between her and Sam, he didn't know if he was coming or going."
Dad chuckles. "Coming, I should think."
That kills the conversation.
We finish our breakfast in silence. Intending to take them over to the sink, I gather up our plates and cups but I am interrupted by Donny bouncing into the house.
"Hi guys!" he says to us all as he plonks himself in the chair next to Dad. "How was your evening with the Wicked Witch and Sam?"
Tony starts to answer him, but instead of watching Donny for his reaction to what Tony is saying, for some unknown reason I am watching Dad. After a few seconds I see his eyes brighten and he breaks into a grin. He starts a spluttering cough. It's fake. I can tell he is trying to hold in and disguise his laughter. He picks up the pile of plates and cups and takes them to the sink. He gets himself a drink of water before escaping to the other room.
I am dying to know what set Dad off, but it takes ages to get rid of Donny. He ignores all my hints and only goes when Mum comes in and says she is going to make lunch and there isn't enough for him to stay.
As soon as Donny is out of the door, I drag Tony to find Dad.
"What set you off laughing?" I ask.
He starts chuckling again before he replies.
"It wasn't until Donny came in and called Mrs O'Reilly 'the Wicked Witch' that I made the connection and the pieces started to fall into place. When I was a child my parents used to reminisce about a 1960's TV programme called 'Bewitched'. The lead character was a witch who had married a mortal. She was called Samantha, or Sam for short, and she had an aunt called Clara."
"I suppose that is an amusing co-incidence," I say. "But not laugh out loud amusing."
"Ah, but there is more," Dad replies. "All those places you said that they had been visiting. Cannock Chase and Pendle Hill have long had associations with witches. Mother Shipton was a soothsayer and hideously ugly. I bet her detractors called her a witch. Chelmsford had a long history of witch trials and Mistley was where Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General lived and is buried. He operated throughout East Anglia. London witches would probably have been hung at Tyburn. About the only place they went to that's not known for witches was Boston and they had other reasons for going there."
Tony is smiling.
"Perhaps Donny is right about Mrs O'Reilly," he says.
"And finally," says Dad. "Where did Sam say she lives?"
I give him a blank look because I have forgotten. Tony blurts out the answer.
© Pedro July 2019
This story is part of the 2019 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: The First Cuckold of Summer?". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 8 March to 29 March 2019 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.
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