My evenings with Mz Gregory were less awkward than I’d imagined they would be after the strange ‘coffee’ we’d had. I went through my homework, she even helped me on a few things – I was never very good at English Language or Literature. It seemed she had the same problems but worked out a few good tips.
“Pick out symbols; really you just need to…” She checked the room to make sure no one was nearby even though she knew it was empty. “Just bullshit it. Seriously think of the silliest things stuff could possibly stand for and get it in your paper. English teachers love that kind of thing.”
She had a quick read of one of the poems I was studying.
“Look, there see ‘I only know that a rook’. What does the rook symbolise? It doesn’t matter, think of anything. It’s black, so… death? Too obvious. Self doubt? Stuff like that. You can find the traditional meanings on the internet…
“Lets see, ‘Ordering its black feathers can so shine’, oh well the self doubt is obviously making her really obsessed about her appearance but on another level, always get that in somewhere, it suggests that It’s visible to others. Oh, that contradicting the first thing she says about ‘only her’ knowing, showing the narrator is imperfect. Something like that.”
I was laughing at her, but she did sound convincing. I had a go myself and it was a lot easier thinking of material for the paper, even though it kind of felt like cheating making stuff up like that.
Things not having a ‘correct’ answer disconcerted me, the idea that you could have someone in your final exams disagree with something you were saying and give you a bad mark? It scared me. Things like math, science – they were correct or incorrect. Binary. Safe.
When I’d done all I could bear I spent some time messing about on the internet to waste time. I was thinking about what Mike had said and wondering when you called a friend of a friend your own friend.
I thought of Beth and hoped her Cadets thing was going well. I reminded myself to ask her how I’d go about joining her, from what the Commander was saying it could be really important for my career.
For now though I double checked where the place Jim had recommended was. I was planning on going tonight, it said the gym opened at eight on the advert and it wasn’t too far from school.
I picked up my jacket and threw my bag over my shoulder.
“Do you want a lift home or anything Alexis? The weather is still pretty bad.” Mz Gregory asked as I went for the door.
“No, it’s fine. I’m not going home right away.” She raised her eyebrow at me questioningly. I said the first thing that came into my head. “I’m going swimming; I thought I’d try doing something fun.”
The idea of swimming sent a shiver down my spine. It was like gym, but instead of sweaty changing rooms you got sticky chlorine stinking halls and you were expected to change into a swimsuit. A swimsuit I had to steal from lost property and didn’t quite fit. The universal shuffle between underwear, t-shirts and costume all without flashing your privates was tricky with Haley on your back.
But hell, the gym in the advert was the one attached to the local pool. I figured ‘swimming’ was more innocent than any kind of marital art. It was close enough for Mz Gregory not bother with driving me and if she really insisted I could still pretend I was going.
“Oh, ok. Have fun.”
* * *
The walk was short but it was still cold, windy and the freezing sleet stung when it hit my face. I was very glad to get inside the reception of the ‘Sports Centre’.
It was pretty familiar to me. The school often came here for sporting events or for gym lessons where we needed certain equipment. I’d printed out the advert so I could double check at reception it was still going on and it was still in the same room.
The receptionist looked it up on her computer timetable and confirmed the details, giving me a few directions.
Places like this were always the same. The smell of old, stale sweat and the chemical cleaning products used to try get rid of it was as strong as in the corridors leading to the school changing rooms. The walls were the same white painted breezeblock and the lights even looked like the same brand of LED strip lights.
The smooth concrete floors squeaked underneath my wet trainers. I’ve always hated that.
I eventually found the room in the labyrinth after only a few dead-ends.
I stood facing the door, taking deep breaths psyching myself up. I should plan what I was going to say, how to introduce myself. I wasn’t really very good with new things. This was new things and new people. What if this person was really awful? What if he was a Haley?
No. I couldn’t think like that. Sure he might turn out to be like that but if I didn’t take an action because of what could hypothetically be the worst outcome in everything I’d end up paralysed, too afraid to move. Besides this was a unique experience for me, if I didn’t like it I could just walk away with no repercussions.
I made a decision to push open the door before I had a chance to think about anything else.
Inside was pretty much what you would expect. There were five people, all men, standing round in a rough semicircle around two men facing each other.
The shorter one was clearly in charge, he was talking to the others about some kind of move using the person standing opposite as a live dummy. He looked over when the door closed behind me and asked everyone else to pair up and try it out for themselves.
I waited for him to approach, looking down at my scrawled note to check his name ‘Ivan Becker’.
“Hey, a new boy,” He did a second take, looking at my face a bit closer.
“Yeah, keep going with what you’re thinking. Girl.” I replied, getting tired of being mistaken.
“Ok, fair enough. Hard to tell at your age. How old are you? 13?” Keep digging that hole of yours…
“I’m 16.” I said in a level voice. I would be soon. Kind of.
“Oh… Well, it doesn’t matter.” He rubbed the back of his head in an awkward manner. This was a good start.
“But yes, I’m here for your classes on self-defence.” I said to get the conversation moving in a more constructive direction.
“Well, good! I see you’ve already had the introductory course.” He nodded to the half healed bruise around my left eye and nose. “Took quite a knock there.”
“Yeah.” I said. “I won, not by much though, hence why I decided I’d get some kind of training or something… Oh, Jim recommended you. From the gunshop.”
“Jim! How is that old dog?” He laughed and didn’t give me enough time to think of an answer before carrying on. “Well, you’re free to come of course. Its $50 a lesson, pays for the room and some equipment. We come here most weekdays. You’re free to come whenever you want. Let’s call your first a trial, on the house.”
He turned and started watching the other men practice what he’d shown them. Unsure what to do, I just stood there.
“What do you think of em?” He asked, making me jump.
“Err…” I really wasn’t sure. Everything looked so… slow. Practiced. Methodical. I was beginning to have doubts about whether this would be any use to me. “I’m not sure. I’m really not an expert.”
“I don’t want an experts opinion kid, I’ve got that.” He looked at me sideways. “Just say what you think.”
“They are pretty slow, just kind of going over the movements…” I said.
“Yes, it’s important to train the muscles like that. Get practiced at the movements. But your right, this lot is far too relaxed. They’ve gotten used to this, there are other things just as important.
“How about we spice things up a bit?” He was grinning. “You reckon you could take any of this lot on? You’ve been in a fight or two right? These are my beginners class and they need some exposure to real life.”
“I dunno…” I knew this was the beginners class, that’s why I came tonight.
“Come one, it’ll be fun!” Before I could get a chance to object anymore he walked forwards and raised his voice to address the group. “Right boys, we’re gonna change things up a bit. This girl here says you’re a bunch of wimps, says she can kick any of your asses!”