Alfie wasn’t a bastard when he was born, but he would spend his life being known as one.
No, he wasn’t a bastard, but he was most certainly an accident. And everybody knew it.
His mother, June, held him in her arms and he looked up at her in silence, waiting for her to love him. He’d spend most of his life waiting.
Her blood-orange hair tumbled over his little smooth chest and she noticed that the last four days of labour had turned a few strands of her hair white. She was the first of what would be many women to go grey after life alongside Alfie.
June peered down into his eyes, waiting for him to cry, but he just laid there on her chest, motionless, his blue eyes glowing against the white bedsheets like a wolf in the snow.
“Is he ok?” she asked the midwife, feeling guilty because she knew she didn’t really care.
“He’s just tired,” explained the midwife. “Enjoy it while it lasts. Get some rest.”
The words were lost on June. She’d already given birth to two children and knew the procedure.
Alfie developed slowly. He didn’t start talking until he was four, but he did begin to walk at an early age and would routinely raid any cupboards he could reach, running his chubby little fingers along the shelves and toppling June’s treasured teacups and “special” dinner plates to the ground.
June would find him sitting there sucking the serrated edges of the plates in his pink gummy mouth. It was the only time he ever made noise, when he was breaking something.
He could still barely write by the time he was ten and his teachers held him back a couple of years.
“We’re sorry, Mrs Draper, but Alfie just isn’t ready for the next step in his academic studies,” said Mr Aled.
“We just can’t let him move up to the next year. We understand if you want to try a different school, but for the moment we think he needs to repeat the year. Of course it’s for his own good, you understand.”
Mr Aled had a mop of thinning blond hair and a permanent tan, which June always thought gave him an air of mysticism. As if he’d been away to some tropical island for the weekend and not in the rain like herself and everyone else in the village. She trusted him, and though it was an inconvenience, she agreed for Alfie to stay longer at the school.
Alfie began to talk in class during his first resit year, but only in an attempt to impress the girls. He’d throw crumpled up balls of paper at them with words of love scrawled in his unreadable writing and pull their piggy tales in the hope that they’d laugh, or simply acknowledge him. But all they ever did was tell on him.
“Miss! Miss! Alfie’s done it again. He did it last week and my mummy told me to tell you the next time it happened.”
The teachers ignored him too. They’d grown tired of caning him and simply turned a blind eye now, hoping he’d get tired of repeating school years and start focussing on his work. Truth be told, they’d given up on Alfie years ago.
“He’s nothing like Peter and Delila,” they’d say over dark cups of coffee and Marlboro cigarettes in the staffroom. “Absolutely nothing like them. Different father maybe. He’s a lot like Mr Jeffries, that milkman who keeps knockin’ everyone up in the culdesac by the post office.”
Alfie tried hard to make friends in the playground, but the other boys laughed at the way he missed the ball every time he tried to kick it, or how he couldn’t for the life of him master the hand to eye coordination during tennis class. He tried to defend himself, but he stuttered when he spoke and it soon became easier to just say nothing. The other boys were one or two years younger than Alfie, but they were miles ahead in their studies.
“Maybe you should stay behind another year or two and see if Mr Jones can teach you how to use a racket,” they’d say, laughing and pointing at him until he fell still and silent, unaware of the fire inside hotter and hotter each time.
Alfie tried less and less with each term that past. The more he tried, the more they made fun of him. He’d wait until gym class to get his revenge. He wasn’t as smart as the other boys, but he was bigger and much stronger and had developed the physique of a young gorilla thanks to June’s boiled beetroot soup and roast chicken sandwiches, which she slathered with thick layers of butter and sprinkled with coarse grains of salt and white pepper.
The rugby field was his domain. It was his time and place to shine. He rarely managed to make contact with the ball, of course, but he always found a way to floor whoever did. He’d charge fearlessly at them, head on, and fling his thick neck and bulky shoulders directly into their waists so that they’d fold in two and crumple into the cold, sticky soil. It was the only time he felt the burning sensation in chest stop, the burning sensation that had been growing with each year that past at Eaton House School.
June’s hair was alpine white by this point and she often wondered if it was because of Alfie. She didn’t have the energy or desire to help him anymore, not that she’d ever really had it to begin with. Perhaps she didn’t feel bad because she couldn’t help him, she thought. Perhaps she felt bad because she simply didn’t want to. She’d done her bit, she thought, she’d brought him into the world, given him life. What more did he want from her? Didn’t he know how tired she was, how he’d ruined the years she had always planned to set aside for herself?
Alfie’s brother Peter and sister Delila had already made something of their lives. Peter was an engineer, like their father Winston, and Delila was just about to qualify as an accountant. They were both in long term relationships and June would gloat confidently to the neighbours that she’d be a grandmother in no time.
Alfie stopped growing at the age of eighteen. In his last year of school, he was still no taller than his classmates, even though they were two years younger than him. But he did weigh a good third more than any of them.
Before leaving the school on his very last day, he went to the staffroom to say thank you and goodbye to Mr Jones. He’d been the only teacher who ever gave Alfie any sort of recognition, and he never got upset with him, even when he was clearly venting rage instead of honing his ball skills.
He knocked twice on the door. The soft wood felt like felt across the back of his knuckles and he noticed he had left a slight indentation. He knocked again, a little harder because he wanted to see how deep his fingers would go into the wood. No one answered.
He took a few steps down the corridor and remembered all the beatings he had taken there. He thought back to all the lessons he had missed because his teachers had told him to go and stand outside the staff room door and wait for the headmaster to see to him with his cane. He stood in the exact spot where’d he’d stood, the spot that had become so familiar, and searched the graffiti. His initials were still there. “AD woz ere.”
“Fuck it!” he thought, and walked back down the corridor to the staff room. He knocked firmly again on the soft wood, this time not waiting to see the mark he’d left before letting himself in.
Inside, he was greeted with thick spirals of purple smoke that hung like a rain cloud over a blue sofa, on which Mrs Rees was stretched out on her back. Her golden blond locks almost reached the ground and she glanced casually at Alfie from behind what appeared to be a four-inch long spliff.
“I’m so sorry Mrs Rees! I was looking for Mr Jones. I just wanted to say goodbye. I’m finally finished!” he said shyly, pretending he hadn’t realised what she was doing.
Mrs Rees took another long drag, savouring the rich chocolatey taste as it hit the back of her throat, and said nothing.
“Please tell him I said thank you if you see him. I’ll leave you to it.”
Alfie was halfway out the door when Mrs Rees called him back in.
“Alfie. Are you sure you’re done here?”
Alfie froze. Done with what, exactly? What did she mean?
“We were starting to think you’d never leave, that you’d never pass your exams.”
“I got Ds in every subject except English, but it’s enough for me to go. At least that’s what Headmaster Aled told me.”
“So what will you do? Do you have any plans?” said Mrs Rees, sitting up an inch and tilting her head in his direction.
Alfie stepped back into the room. He looked down at her through the thick purple fog and traced the shape of her body. She wouldn’t be able to see where his eyes were looking, he thought. It was the first time anyone had ever asked him what he’d like to do with his life. It was the first time he’d ever really thought about what he’d actually like to do with his life. But instead of feeling any sense of concern that he had no plans, he felt a flood of hot blood suddenly pouring into his legs.
“I’m not sure, but my mother always says I’ll be fine as long as I’ve got my cheeky smile and laugh. She says my character will get me by. That I’m the salt of the earth. Maybe I’ll go to London, I don’t know.”
It was the first time he’d ever contemplated the idea of moving to London, but it felt good to say out loud and it gave him a sense of confidence and control, a sense of style.
“I love London,” Mrs Rees said, slowly pulling herself up another inch on the sofa.
Alfie wanted to respond, but he had nothing to say about London other than the fact that his uncle Jack had moved there, and that uncle Jack was the smoothest guy he knew. He kept shtum.
“You want some of this?” Mrs Rees asked, holding the joint out for Alfie to take.
He’d never tried it before, but he didn’t want her to know.
“Yeah, couple of tokes to celebrate my last day would be lovely,” he said, his fingertips sliding over hers like silk on silk as he took it.
He sat on the wooden coffee table in front of Mrs Rees and puffed away at it like he’d seen his father do at home with his cigarettes. Puff, puff, blow. Puff, blow. Puff, puff blow. He waited to choke, for the back of his throat to burn, but it glided into his soul like ice cream with honey.
Mrs Rees looked up at him and smiled, her brown eyes like black holes into another dimension, and Alfie found himself instinctively leaning in to see what he might find inside.
“Steady on Alfie,” giggled Mrs Rees as she gently took the joint from him, her fingers lingering against his for a second.
His head felt like a helium balloon attached to a body of lead and he slid off the coffee table to the floor, resting on his knees in front of Mrs Rees.
She finished the joint off in three puffs and leaned over Alfie’s shoulder to stub it out in the ashtray behind him.
Her red dress was low enough so that he could see the film of sweat that had formed on her chest. Her perfume smelt like Refreshers, his favourite sweets from the school tuckshop. And although he knew he should climb to his feet and leave, he let himself lean gently forward, into her, so that their chins locked and sank into the nooks of each other’s necks.
Mrs Rees pushed her body against him and the softness of her breasts against his chest were like nothing he had ever felt. For the first time in his life, it was something that he understood entirely. At that moment, he understood exactly how he was feeling and he understood, without a shadow of a doubt, what Mrs Rees was feeling.
Without a word, Mrs Rees slowly unzipped his trousers, the same trousers he had worn to her English class for the last year and a half, and found the reason for his sudden lightheadedness.
She held it steadily and spread her legs a little more, then pulled him slowly towards her so that their bodies touched, then grabbed at his hair and pulled his head back so that she could slide her wet tongue into his mouth.
Alfie was overcome with desire and grabbed at her waist and breasts, desperate to get as much of her flesh between his fingers and teeth as possible. He didn’t know if he wanted to kiss her or bite her.
While he sucked and licked and chewed on her neck and nipples, which were now hard and raw, Mrs Rees put two hands between her legs and yanked at her tights. Alfie didn’t know what she was doing until he heard the sound of material tearing, by which point his fingers were already feeling for her underwear. He found it and without hesitation yanked it sideways so that they were now free to do what they both so desperately craved. It was the first time he’d ever done it, but something took over his mind and body, a sort of primal intuition that guided him on an entirely subconscious level. For the first time ever in his life, something had come naturally to him.
In what felt like both an eternity and single breath all at the same time, Mrs Rees climaxed in a shudder of excitement. Alfie felt her body tighten and clamp harder around him, and he lasted not another breath longer.
“I always knew there was something special about you, Alfie,” said Mrs Rees as they both re-adjusted their clothes.
“And you were always my favourite teacher,” said Alfie, as if it were the smoothest, most charming thing ever said.
“Now you’d better go,” whispered Mrs Rees. “It’s almost home time and the teachers will be back any minute to collect their things.”
“OK. I’ll go. Thank you. Thank you for everything, Mrs Rees,” Alfie said before stepping back out of the staff room.
Walking down the corridor, where he could still smell the marijuana and taste Mrs Rees’s sweet scent, he broke into a fit of laughter. He clapped his hands and beat his chest with excitement, breaking into a half jog out towards the playground. Suddenly the world seemed like a much bigger place. Suddenly, it seemed, Alfie Draper could go anywhere, and be anyone.
Just as he was about to leave the building, Mr Jones came ambling through the doorway.
“Mr Jones! I was hoping I’d see you before I left,” Alfie boomed, extending a hand out to shake. It was the first time he’d ever shaken a teacher’s hand, but it felt right. Everything was different now. He was different now, and the way he looked at the world.
“I’m glad to see you too, Alfie. You did it! You’re free to do whatever you want now. Just don’t go getting into anymore fights!”
Out in the street, Alfie sat under an old oak tree and plucked fallen acorns from their sheaths.
“I’m free to do whatever I want,” he repeated to himself under his breath.
Over and over again.