The Heart of Escher

by Jonathan Dance

Chapter One

The first thing James heard was his mum knocking on his bedroom door. It wasn’t a quiet knock either.

“Time to get up, sleepyhead,” she announced, opening the door and flinging the curtains wide.

James hid under his quilt as daylight bathed the room. “Do I have to go to school today?” he moaned, voice muffled by the quilt. “It’s not like we’ll be doing anything important.”

His mum pulled the quilt off him. “You only have today to get through before the summer holidays. I am sure you can manage one day. Now get dressed quickly or you’ll miss breakfast.”

Muttering, James made his way to the bathroom, cringing as he heard his baby sister, Rosie, wailing in his parents’ room. He was rubbing his eyes, still trying to wake up, when his younger brother flung open his bedroom door, cut straight in front of James and charged for the bathroom, slamming the door in his face.

Furious, James pounded the door. “Edward, don’t be a jerk!”

His mum shouted up the stairs. “Boys! Stop fighting.”

James growled and sat at the top of the stairs. Every morning he does this.

It was the usual manic morning in the Fisher house. James could hear his dad stomping around, probably in his underpants, looking for his work uniform. James wasn’t looking forward to school today but that made no change; school was a living nightmare. James had been picked on ever since an unfortunate incident in assembly, where he had fainted. Not that I was ever Mr. Popular before then.

He thought back to that day, when he really had been feeling ill. Not that Mum and Dad believed me. Yet this was hardly surprising, he had to admit, due to the many times he’d tried to claim he was sick just to miss school. Since that day, however, the resident bullies, Bill and Spencer, had taken even more notice of him, and taunted and teased him whenever they could. They even pushed and hit him when no one was looking. His teachers never believed him though; Bill was good at turning on the charm.

James’ dad climbed the stairs, jolting James out of his funk. He’d found his work clothes and was holding a bottle of milk for baby Rosie. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready for school?”

James scrambled up. His dad was broad but small and had a tendency to stomp. James didn’t want to get in his way.

Going to the bathroom door, James gave a quieter knock. “Edward, how long are you going to be?”

There was no reply until his mum called, “Boys, breakfast is ready.”

The lock released and the bathroom door opened. Edward shoved past James and bolted down the stairs.

“Edward, you’re such a jerk!”

Annoyed with his brother but relieved the bathroom was now free, James slipped inside. By the time he made it downstairs, Edward had finished his cereal and was starting on his toast. He pulled a face at James, who shot one back.

Mum on seeing James picked up her comb and set to work on tidying his tangled hair while he attempted to eat his leftover stale cereal. It was a rather soul destroying start to the day, made worse by Edward’s chuckling from the other side of the table. James had the last laugh, however, as mum’s next task was to deal with Edward’s blond curtains.

With breakfast finished, James went back up to his room, where he reluctantly got into his uniform. With a few minutes to spare, he slipped back into bed and waited to be summoned. Wrapped in his duvet, he wished he could just stay here all day, hidden and safe, but just when he was getting comfortable he heard his mum call, and he knew he had to go.

Marched into the car and finally ready to leave after some faffing with Rosie’s car seat, their dad popped his head through the front door. “You be good today, boys, this time tomorrow we’ll be on holiday, driving down to our sunny villa.”

James scowled. He knew he should be happy at the thought of going on holiday, but he wasn’t. His dad wasn’t the most patient of men and had an issue with road rage, so the long, boring drive to Spain would be no fun at all. Baby Rosie, who was sure to cry in the back all the way there, would only make matters worse.

His dad gave his mum a kiss and got into his car before speeding out of the close, with them following shortly after.

Dropped off at school, Edward ran through the gate full of enthusiasm, to be greeted by his large friend, Brian, and his other friend, Kara. James, far less enthusiastic, stood outside, watching the other kids run around with their friends. Everyone seemed so happy, playing and laughing before school, but James had found friends hard to come by since his fainting incident. He had become a loner and a target.

Being the last day of school before the summer holidays, a long-standing tradition had been instigated by the “popular” kids. The egg fight. This was usually held in the park up the road, and was meant to be a fun fight of two teams. However, recent years had seen it adopted by the school bullies, who thought it a hoot to “egg” weaker students on their way home.

James had discovered this last year, his first year, much to his misfortune. He’d been targeted so much that the egg yolks even found their way into his underwear.

Knowing what lay ahead, James stood as far away from the school as he could, dreading getting closer. Not only did he have this to look forward to, but since his fainting fit he found it increasingly difficult to be in large groups of people, especially classrooms and assemblies. He found excuses not to go in when he could, and when there was no way out of an assembly, he tried to find a seat as close to the exit as possible. When he couldn’t, he’d find himself trembling inside, his heart racing, and he’d go all sweaty, like he was on the brink of fainting again.

Just thinking about the egg ordeal and another day of potential embarrassment made him feel sick. Couldn’t I just leave now? No one will notice, will they?

But it was inevitable that one of the teachers would realise he wasn’t there. He couldn’t risk someone calling his mum. Hands and body shaking, James took a deep breath and walked into school.

As he made his way to his first class, down the sports hall corridor, Bill and Spencer, the school bullies, pounced on him from behind a door.

Bill pulled an evil grin. “Just look who we have here, it’s the school’s loser! I’m looking forward to giving you a good egging later, Fisher.”

Spencer, the bigger of the two, smirked. “Better not faint.”

He chuckled in a low, dumb way. Spencer wasn’t very bright and never added much to the conversation. His speciality was pain, as James found out again, when Spencer kicked his leg, sending him tumbling to the floor.

James landed heavily on his knees. His attackers laughed but quickly went quiet.

Behind them came the sound of footsteps, followed by a shout. “What’s going on down here?”

It was one of the teachers, Mr. Garibaldi, and James felt relief as he clutched his bruised leg.

Bill grabbed hold of James and dragged him up, while Spencer moved his large frame in front of them.

Mr. Garibaldi was head of sports, and also head of Edward’s Year Sevens, the year below James’. He had a weird dress sense and nearly always wore a purple tracksuit, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in the 80s. It didn’t flatter him, and his stomach often tried to escape it. He wore this tracksuit with everything, and today was no exception as he marched down the hall in black leather shoes that echoed loudly in the corridor.

By the time Mr. Garibaldi reached them, Bill had a massive smile on his face and his arm around James’ shoulders. Spencer held the door open for the teacher, an empty expression on his thick face.

“What’s going on down here?” Mr. Garibaldi repeated.

James tried to speak but Bill got there first. “Sir, we were just helping our fellow student, here. Fisher here fell over and we wanted to see if he was ok.”

James gasped. “That’s not true, sir! They pushed me over.”

Mr. Garibaldi frowned and Bill glanced down at James in mock dismay. “Nice! We’d have left you on the floor if we’d known this was how you’d thank us.” Seeing the teacher wasn’t buying it, Bill turned on the charm. “This discourteous behaviour reminds me of the recent match against Middleton school, don’t you think, sir?”

A smile crept across the teacher’s face. “You had a blinding game that day, Bill, it’s no wonder the opposing team resorted to hacking and fouling you. You were a shining example of talent and professionalism. I wouldn’t be surprised if the scout from City came calling soon. I hear their Under 15 development team is looking for rising stars.”

Bill grinned. “We would never have won without your great tactics that day, sir.”

James felt sick; he couldn’t believe what was going on. “Sir, they’re the ones who tripped me!”

Bill took his arm off James’ shoulder and pulled a face of horror. “Outrageous! Why would we do such a thing?”

Mr. Garibaldi frowned again, and just when James thought he would tell them off, he sent them on their way. “Off you go, boys, you don’t want to be late for class.”

James was shocked and hurt. “But sir—!”

The teacher snapped, “Enough! Get to your lessons or you’ll be spending your summer holidays in detention.”

He walked on, Bill and Spencer following suit. As Spencer passed, he elbowed James in the ribs, knocking him against the wall.

Tears in his eyes, James slid to the floor, with no one to ease either his fear or the pain of his bruises.

Ten minutes late for his maths lesson, James stood outside the classroom looking in. The room was full and he could feel butterflies swarming in his stomach. The thought of having all those eyes on him, laughing at him for being late, brought him out in a cold sweat. He couldn’t do it, he couldn’t go in. They won’t miss me, they’re in the middle of the lesson. I don’t have to go in.

He turned, only to see another teacher heading in his direction. It was his head of year, Mr. Dresden, with his bushy moustache. He would surely catch James if he tried to flee, so he had no choice but to enter the classroom.

He pushed the door open and the gentle hubbub of voices stopped. As one, the teacher and pupils turned to stare at him. James’ heart sank and he felt queasy.

“What time do you call this, James Fisher?” Mrs. Harris demanded. “Too good for my class now, are you?”

James tried to answer but his tongue got stuck in his mouth. He managed to mumble something about losing his books, but the teacher cut him off.

“Get to your desk, for goodness sake. And don’t think I won’t remember this next term. Any more lateness from you and it’ll be detention.”

The class stared and sniggered as James slunk to his desk. He sat down, shaking, his hands feeling numb. This worried him, but he tried not to think about it, focusing on the lesson. Yet his mind wouldn’t let him; all he could think about was the tingling in his hands. As the lesson went on, it got worse and worse, until he felt on the verge of fainting. He was about to stand up, try to escape the room before he fainted, when thankfully, a mobile phone started to ring. It was Joe’s, a boy only slightly more popular than him. As Joe desperately fumbled for the phone, with Mrs. Harris’ cold glare upon him, James was able to breathe a little easier as he felt the attention leave him.

The rest of the school day was uninspiring, at least until he reached his last class of the day: Art, which was one class he did enjoy. Being the last day of term, pupils were allowed to create anything they wanted.

Picturing the blue bird from his dream, James used the memory for inspiration. Making sure he had enough shades of blue to catch the vibrancy of the feathers, he keenly got to work.

Drawing was one of the few things he felt truly good at, and for one lesson he forgot the bullies and his loneliness. With the picture finished, the clock soon reached three, and that was the end of another school year.

James took his time to carefully pack his drawing. He was going to give it to his mum. James also hoped this tactic of lingering in his last class would make the bullies think they had missed him.

By the time he finally left the classroom, the school was pretty much deserted; just the last school bus disappearing down the road. He hoped maybe his dad would come and find him at the school gates if he didn’t arrive with Edward, but there was no sign of his dad’s car.

Standing by the gate feeling nervous, James wished his dad would park a little closer. It seemed so far away, especially when you just wanted to get home, but his dad always insisted he didn’t want to get involved in the pickup melee. James sighed. It was no good standing here. If he didn’t make a move soon, he would only have to face his dad’s wrath.

He made his way up the path between the houses. The route he normally took was dangerously close to the egg fight in the park, so James decided to take the slightly longer way down an alley behind the houses, which he and his brother sometimes took together.

His decision seemed to pay off; he could hear several kids screaming and laughing on the other side of the houses, but no one crossed his path.

Just as James started to feel more secure, a dog barked loudly at him through a fence. James jumped and gasped, his heart racing. He hadn’t liked dogs since their old pet Collie bit him some years ago. He couldn’t remember the dog’s name anymore, but he still had the scar on his hand. His parents never got another dog. Since then they had been a cat family, even though James knew his dad dearly wanted another dog.

He was nearly back to the main path running adjacent to the road when he saw his brother run across the alley exit. Edward stopped, pointed at James, and ran on. James frowned and called his name, but Edward was gone. James understood why when Bill and Spencer sauntered into the alley.

Bill’s skinny face wore a horrible smile, and Spencer’s had a look of pure evil. A bolt of fear shot through James and panic threatened. He didn’t know what to do, and froze on the spot.

Spencer stared at James, rubbing his fist into his big hand. “So, you thought you could avoid us.”

Bill came closer. “You know what happens if you try to dob on us, Fisher. You could have got us in trouble earlier and we can’t be having that.” Bill glanced down at the bag he carried. “We’ve got some eggs with your name on them.”

“And a fist,” Spencer added, giving his dumb laugh.

James’ muscles unfroze and he turned to bolt. He was no match for Bill, however, who played in the school’s football team. Bill caught up to him easily and pinned him to a wooden fence, while Spencer huffed and puffed to catch up.

James’ blood pounded in his ears as he struggled. “Get off me!”

Bill hit him low in the stomach. The air whooshed out of James’ lungs and he fell to his knees. The bullies stood over him while he sobbed and gasped for breath.

Spencer started chucking eggs at James, laughing as he did so. One of them splattered against the fence, spraying Bill. He shoved Spencer roughly. “Oi, watch what you’re doing!”

James was cornered, he couldn’t move. All he could do was cover his eyes to protect them from the flying eggs that shattered all over him.

Just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse, he heard the bullies laugh. “This will look great on the Facebook page.”

Oh God, they haven’t dedicated a page to me, have they? The utter humiliation made James feel sick.

Just when he thought they were finished, they closed in on him. Spencer grabbed him from behind around his chest and hauled him upright. Bill pulled James’ trousers down and tried to stuff an egg in his underpants. James shuddered with fear, but before they could humiliate him further, he managed to kick out, knocking Bill to his knees. The kick hurt James too, but the surprise move made Spencer loosen his grip, and James shoved himself away.

His leg throbbed with pain as he hobbled toward the alley exit, but he ignored it, running faster than he thought he could. Terror lent him speed.

He gasped as he was grabbed roughly by the hair, despair shooting through him. He turned to see Bill; the bully’s face full of rage. Grasping his school bag, James shoved it into Bill’s face, making him lose his hold. James fled for the alley exit, and the safety of the main road.

Bill and Spencer stopped at the exit, unwilling to come into the open. They shouted at the egg-covered James. In a display of rage, Bill flung James’ bag to the floor, where its contents spilled out. Loose pencils smashed against the pavement, and books flew onto the muddy ground.

Noticing the eye-catching colours of James’ drawing, the bullies laughed. “This your boyfriend, Fisher?” Bill firmly planted his shoe on the drawing and twisted, ripping the creation apart. James gasped.

Just when James thought Bill and Spencer would find the courage to chase him onto the main road, a gate in front of them opened. An old man with greyish, wispy hair stepped out.

“What on earth’s going on?” he shouted. “Clear off, you hooligans, play your games elsewhere.” He gave the boys an angry look, including James in his glare.

Bill and Spencer retreated down the alley while James grabbed his bag, leaving half its contents and the ruined drawing. As the bullies ran, he heard them laughing. “See you next year, Fisher!”

His pounding heart and gasping breath had eased by the time James reached his father’s car. Yet the journey home wasn’t any better, with his dad moaning and groaning about the egg stains. “I just had this car valeted. Don’t you dare get it dirty again.” James couldn’t help but think his dad cared more about the car than he did about what had happened to his son.

Edward sniggered when he saw James and teased him, but then seemed to realise just how upset his brother was, and left him alone. This suited James as he stared out of the window, tears in his eyes.

When they got home, James went straight into the back garden. Feeling betrayed and alone, he sat behind a tall oak tree where a dear friend of his was buried.

It was almost six months since his beloved pet cat, Samuel, had died. Tearfully, James remembered how Samuel had always been there for him. He seemed to have the knack of being around to comfort James when he was down; but now that comfort was gone for good.

James missed him so much. He wanted to hold him, to stroke the soft brown fur. Samuel was buried below his favourite spot, the tree where he would often come and sit during a hot day, shading himself from the summer sun. Being here made James feel close to Samuel, but it wasn’t the same as having the cat there to touch and to hold. He felt very alone right now.

He spent a good hour there until his mum, who had just got back home, came down to see him. She gave James a hug, and did her best to comfort him. He eventually allowed her to persuade him back into the house. She helped him out of his egg-stained clothes and got some food into him before sending him to bed. He went wearily, hoping to forget his horrible day.

Struggling to fall asleep, James tossed and turned in bed until he finally gave up. His mind wandered onto unpleasant thoughts, namely the Facebook page in his honour. I wonder how many people are laughing at me now?

Flustered by the thought, he went to open the window and stood there looking out at the stars. One very bright star caught his attention, shimmering and gleaming in a clear sky.

I wish I had a spaceship so I could leave this world.

James was about to head back to bed when he caught movement in the corner of his eye. Something small and black moved under the starlight, underneath the tall oak, but before he could make it out, it was gone.

Impossible hope gushed through him and he ran downstairs. Opening the back door, he called his cat’s name.

“Samuel, is that you?”

But Samuel didn’t come, and James knew he couldn’t.