“it’s fine, it’s fine”
Art Room 004 smelled. It had two distinct funks: weed and Febreze Air Effects (strawberry and fig), sprayed indiscriminately by Noah in the hopes of covering up the smell of weed. It was 8:15 a.m. and the air already stank of summer fruits. Sam, second only to Noah as the highest and least productive art student in the room that morning, giggled nervously to himself. He placed the boxcutter he’d used to clean his nails on his table and leaned across onto mine.
“She found my Grindr,” he said, holding up his phone to show a series of increasingly lengthy texts from ‘MUM’. Another buzzed as he put it back in his blazer. “She’s writing in Korean,” Sam, born Hyun-Ho, said, massaging his temples, “that’s how I know she’s angry. Spiky alphabet.” Sam’s parents had recently joined the Catholic Church near New Malden. “It’s a bunch of old Koreans,” Sam told me, “they don’t even get wine, just lager. Asian Flush. It’s like a box of lobsters.” Modern Family had mysteriously disappeared from the family TiVo. “She said it would turn me gay,” Sam shrugged, “and I didn’t listen and here we are.” At least once a week Sam would meander into the studio and stretch out on the sawdusty floor. “She’s crazy,” he’d say, throwing his arms straight up in the air. “Mum and dad just disappeared to France with their church all half-term.” Sam let his black fringe sit over his eyes for a moment, before turning to me. “I ate satsumas and cereal for five days,” he hissed, shaking his hands in exaggeratedly trembling half-fists. I snorted. “Why didn’t you just make pasta?” He paused. “That’s hard.” Sometimes he’d lie there the entire lesson.
“What’s the plan?” I asked on the morning of the Grindr incident. “I’ll tell her it’s a virus. I’ll run away. I’ll kill a man and go to jail where she can’t get me, then when I get out I’ll live in a hole like Saddam.” “I’m not sure that ended great for Saddam.” Well-kept shoe heels clopped down the hallway. “Freshen your breath before Hooper arrives,” I said, flipping my art book open.
The page was a Giacometti painting. A thin-faced man sat in the center of whirling gray lines. Wide eyes looked up at me as if I’d walked in on him in the bathroom. The door opened. Tom Hooper was our art teacher, and our head of year. Tall, pushing fifty, white hair buzzed nearly to the scalp—the you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit of male pattern baldness—three daughters, two from a previous marriage, spoke with a Brummie accent with a hint of childhood Afrikaans, and harbored a love for David Bowie and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. He was a man, despite his sense of humor, who was disliked by most students for his strictness. We were among the few who saw his good side. He’d come to 004 in the mornings, joke with us, talk about our art, tell me my work needed to be more punk, tell Sam his work needed to be more existent, and leave us to it. Like most teachers, he liked me. I was never trouble, I spoke in class discussions, I never missed a deadline. “Charles is a model student,” went my reports.
Sam came out to me near the start of that year.
“I’m gay,” he’d said.
“Huh.” I’d paused. “That’s a bit gay.”
“It is,” he’d agreed.
He was half a year older than me, but Sam had missed his matriculation grade, and was repeating year 12 when I entered my final term. The minimum grade requirement was two Bs and one C. He had one B and two Cs, the difference between a single correct answer and another. Everything had rested on our performance in our final exams—we went to a grammar school, selective but non-private. University, freedom, had slipped between Sam’s fingers. Two more years of intense work loomed before him. With too few students to justify dividing the class by year, the only time he was with people his own age was in the art room. There were four of us.
Noah smoked after school, during lunch break, in the toilets, between lessons, during lessons. “If you could live in a machine that gave you pleasure but nothing else,” I asked, thumbing through my philosophy homework, “would you do it?” Noah paused, but only briefly.
“Obviously, Downton Abbey.”
I was from South Croydon, land of leafy suburbs and lawn-signs reading ‘I’m voting Chris Philp!’ Noah was from North Croydon, land of the occasional riot and signs reading ‘foreclosed.’ “I just want enough money to buy five kilos of weed at once,” he grinned, rocking back on his chair.
“I’ll smoke it.”
The biology teacher next door told us to shut up.
Though artistic in a pinch, Noah was an entrepreneur at heart. He’d buy chocolate bars at a local corner shop and sell them from under the fire escape when we were twelve. Aged eighteen, I saw him convince a drunk man outside a pub to trade him a fistful of cocaine for three cigarettes by assuring the mark that the powder he had was mostly diluted with flour. As soon as the man was gone, he turned to me, held a sample to his nose and went wild-eyed. “Fuck me,” he’d said, “it’s pure.” He ran home.
After being held back, Sam took up smoking anything with even greater frequency than Noah could supply. He spent half of the school day bleary-eyed and giggly. “It’s fine, it’s fine” became his catchphrase.
That December, Sam wore a red jumper with a reindeer on it one lesson. “That’s a nice top,” I said. I have horrible taste. “Want it? It’s a bit big for me anyway,” Sam said, taking it off before I replied. Someone approached me in the canteen later that week asking why I was wearing their jumper. Kleptomania was added to the list of things that were “fine.”
I grew up straight in a secular household. I’m as pale as you can get without risking translucency. I’ve been labeled a good child without ever having been presented the stress, pressure, or opportunity to do anything a school or parent would see as particularly bad.
Noah’s dad, a drug dealer, had died before he was born. His mum was mute on the topic; he wasn’t sure what race he was, only that he wasn’t white, and without confirmation refused to be labeled. Like Sam, he had come out to me earlier that year when I’d walked in on him in the art room blasting “Dancing With Myself,” the Glee cover.
“We need to do something about Sam,” said David, the fourth corner of 004, as straight-laced as me. Noah, a libertarian by trade and a trader by ethos, could not be convinced to stop selling to Sam. David had architectural ambitions, had smoked twice to his immense guilt, liked ‘50s Italian music, and was openly distraught about his virginity. His studio wall was covered in renaissance-style drafts of a blurry-faced figure in a crucifixion pose. “He’s faceless because he could be anyone – we all project ourselves onto him,” David had declared. “You can’t draw faces, can you?” said Hooper. “No sir,” murmured David.
David and I had approached Sam before. “It’s fine, it’s fine.”
“After exams?” I offered David.
“After exams,” he agreed.
I built a statue made from newspaper based on that Giacometti painting, a twisted figure rising out of the ground and held together with chicken wire—the head fell off during evaluation. I’d left a sheet of wire out and, in one of his moments of melancholy, Sam had lain down on the floor, catching his shirt on the metal. He rolled over on the floor trying to reach his back until the wiring had wrapped him into a cylinder. Noah and David jumped up, and ran over to twist the wires at the end, trapping him. “You’re trapped!” I laughed, “it’s like a lobster cage for Sams!” “Sam Lee the Amazing Human Lobster!” cried David. “Roll up!” said Noah, “I’m adding that one to the list.” Noah produced a red marker and wrote “the Amazing Human Lobster” on the wall under ‘Sam’s Nicknames’ between “Satsuma Sam” and “the Spider-Man of Porn,” the stories for which I’ve forgotten. Sam wriggled free out the tail-end of his cage and looked down the list. “I preferred Hung-Low Lee”.
The trouble with Febreze Air Effects was that it made the classroom smell suspiciously nicer than the rest of the school. Sam trudged in one day, and sat down at my station.
“Me and Noah are suspended,” he said.
“Shit,” said I.
“Yep,” said Sam, pausing. “Maybe I needed this. A kick up the arse.”
A month later, Sam was expelled. He’d left his wallet in the art room, and a well-meaning caretaker had gone to hand it into the school’s lost and found when a small packet of pills fell out. Study drugs. Strike two. Sam was out. He was invited into Mr. Hooper’s office in Art Room 003, and told to empty his locker. I was sitting outside, painting. A small, circular mirror was propped between my knee and the canvas stand. I heard Hooper yelling from the small office room. The door was thick, but not thick enough. I heard the voice that joined us most mornings: “many warnings”, “disrespect”, “pathetic.” I sat quietly. Sam emerged. I watched him make the long walk through the room, down the corridor, across the courtyard to his locker. The office door was open. Mr. Hooper stood in the doorway. I met his gaze. A few moments later the rapping of Noah’s shoe-heels clattered up the hall. We three, in a triangle. Noah looked between us. Hooper gave him a sympathetic half-smile. I turned back to my painting. My incomplete reflection stared back at me. The form was there, but I was struggling with the color-mixing. The lips were too red, the eyes slightly too blue. A portrait of a model student, captured in a moment, still.