‘War! Huh! What is it good for?’ exclaimed Mr. Brice.
It was a desperate routine he employed to drum up the interests of his less enthusiastic students. The same students he targeted with this opening act to his history lessons now responded with an apathetic chorus of ‘absolutely nothing’, which Mr. Brice relished before responding, ‘Wrong! Huh!’ and segueing into an incongruous Elvis impression.
But after this brief song and dance, Steven preferred to watch Adele Jones’ brown hair kiss the shoulders of her blazer, picturing himself kissing her neck, her wrists as they glided over her page, her breasts as they brushed her desk, and her ankles as they crossed beneath her chair. But this girl whom he loved, never noticed him. If he were a soldier he would wage war for Adele Jones.
‘War,’ Mr. Brice wrote on the board. ‘It can bring liberty, independence, freedom. The causes are always complicated and unpleasant, often entrenched in tragedy, and misunderstandings. Conflict is an unfortunate and perpetual cog in the wheel of life. But it can bring about change and periods of great peace and progress. Everything has its price. Now turn to page 73 please.’
Steven continued to think about Adele throughout the lesson. She was Helen standing on the windy Aegean shores; the ships were prepared and he, Paris, would soon ruin Troy for her. But war was prevented by the sound of Mr. Brice who, after seeing his students’ attentions had slackened, finished the lesson with a hammy rendition of Knocking on Heaven’s Door.
At lunch, Steven sat and unwrapped his sandwich alone. After a push, a shove, some wet tissue thrown at his head, he took a bite of his sandwich. When he first moved to the school a year ago, his shy awkwardness precluded him from ingratiating himself with others, especially Richard Briggs and the other cool kids; and then he stopped trying, made a name for himself as a loner, and for a short while found companionship with other outcasts, but over time, even they drifted apart.
‘You look like you need company. Mind if I join you?’ Adele sat opposite him. Her sandwich was full and luxurious, over-spilling with lettuce, tomatoes, and thick, rich mayonaise, the ham chunkier than his bread, her bread seeded and hand sliced. She thrust a bag of crisps in front of him. ‘Want some?’
Steven’s heart beat uncontrollably. She was in front of him. Talking to him. Smart and sexy Adele Jones. And he could only shake his head and chew his tasteless sandwich.
‘It’s pretty telling, isn’t it?’ Adele opened a container of assorted crudités and dips.
‘You know, that singing and dancing Brice does? It’s cringy. Some people just try too hard. A symptom of mid-life crisis in men, I’ve heard. I mean, have you seen that little sports car he drives? Guy can hardly get in and out of it.’ Adele held out a carrot for Steven and offered him some taramasalata.
Steven took it. ‘It’s all subjective, isn’t it?’ he shrugged. ‘Some people are just more successful than others.’ Another push, another shove from behind, his glasses dislodged, his bag kicked beneath someone else’s table. ‘It’s the way the world is. Some will always push others around. Some will always be misunderstood.’ He bit into the carrot. ‘Maybe it’s just a cry for help or something, and he doesn’t know how to say it.’
‘So he sings it instead, figures! What you reading?’ Adele peered over his lunchbox. ‘Huh, you read Kafka too? That’s cool. This dessert’s a bit insipid. Do you want it?’ Adele slid the yoghurt in front of him. ‘I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s yours if you want it.’
A group of boys led by Richard Briggs laughed and threw more food and wet tissue at his head.
‘Ignore them.’ Adele started packing away her lunch. ‘They’re idiots. Most will probably end up like Brice, fighting a mid-life crisis by the time they’re thirty, but you,’ she slurped her smoothie, ‘you’re fighting your war early. I can tell. Very wise, get it out the way and all.’ She stood up.
The canteen felt smaller. Everybody seemed to stop and stare. This was Steven’s chance. The big moment he had waited for. Incendiary thoughts and feelings tumbled and twirled from his heart to his throat and back. What should he say? How should he ask? Should he ask her for date, a film, or dinner somewhere. Perhaps she would like to borrow the book. Or maybe they should continue discussing Brice’s mid-life crisis and find commonality via another man’s distress.
‘See you around then?’ Adele said.
‘Yeah, see you around,’ Steven said and abandoned his sandwich. ‘Thanks for the carrot.’
He watched Adele walk away, with an ache in his throat and chest, desiring her more. She was right, they were idiots, he would never be like them, and they would never understand him, and that’s how the world is. But he would continue to fight his war; and like Brice said, although it’s always unpleasant, sometimes it’s necessary. He just hoped something good would come of it.