FRETS WORDS – Mars Bonding by Helen Johnston

MARS BONDING #1

The Boys Brigade meetings were always crap. Boring. A dusty hall stuffed full of mummy’s boys, badges polished to perfection, stiffly ironed uniforms standing to attention. He enjoyed the sports, but that was all. Most of the time he felt like an outsider. Every week he stood in his torn jeans and faded T-shirt as the weekly inspection took place, and every week he said the same thing – I’ll have a uniform for next week. Honest. He almost snarled it, like a threat. He knew they didn’t believe him. Where would he get a uniform from anyway? There was a handful of hand-me-down sweaters and hats in a black plastic bag in the cupboard but they were all tiny. As he had dug his way through the useless clothes, one boy he recognized from school had offered one of his tops, holding it out in an outstretched hand.

‘It’s a spare.’ He said. ‘It would fit you. You can have it.’

He had scowled, embarrassed, walked away.

‘Piss off. I don’t want one.’

What did he think he was? A charity case?  He didn’t need a uniform, he wouldn’t be here long enough. His plan was simple. Start coming to the meetings mid-November and then he would be entitled to attend the Christmas party. The parties were legendary on the estate. Everyone talked about them for weeks afterwards. The food, the cakes, the presents. The home baking brought in by the posh mums. As much as you could eat. You could literally stuff your face until you were sick and then go back for more. You had to play along in the poxy games too but that was a small price to pay.

He looked around. No uniforms tonight. The kids were dressed in their party gear – stay-press trousers, crisp white shirts, pencil thin ties. Hair slicked to the side like the guy from The Jam. He looked down at his jeans and felt ashamed. He had tried to wash them in the sink yesterday but he noticed now there was still the faint outline of a mud stain on his thigh – he placed his hand over his leg to cover it.  His stomach made a loud growl and he caught the eye of ‘Uniform Boy’ – feeling his cheeks sizzle with shame.

The leaders were laying the table with food. Big bowls of bright pink jelly, sandwiches loaded with ham and chunky cheese slices, marshmallow cakes. He could smell sausage rolls baking in the oven and his mouth watered. They always dished out plastic cups crammed with mushy peas and vinegar. It was the only place he ever got to eat them and he could hardly wait.  First though, they had to play a game.

‘Right!’ shouted the leader over the din of thirty over-excited teenagers. ‘Last game before tea-time. It’s the Mars Bar Game. You know how it goes. Throw a six on the dice then run up to put on the coat, hat, scarf and gloves.  Only then can you chop up the mars bar with the plastic cutlery. If someone throws another 6, you’re back to the start. First team to finish the last chunk of Mars Bar wins. OK. Everyone choose a partner.’

His heart dropped. He was the only boy in the room who looked like he’d crawled in off the street. A spare part. A nobody. They began pairing off, easy friendships from shared experiences, football teams, running clubs, golf clubs. All the places he would never go. He stared hard at the floor. He felt a movement beside him and when he looked up, it was Uniform Boy.

‘You and me.’ He said simply.’ Let’s win this’.

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