He had always known he was clever. Well, that is to say, he could not remember ever not being aware of being clever – which is not quite the same thing, but might as well be. He could though specifically recall the first time his mum had realised he was clever. He had just turned five, and the parents were invited in to look at their work in the classroom.
‘Bloody ‘ell, Jayden,’ she’d said. ‘You don’t really get all this, do you?’ She’d been looking at some maths work in his book.
He’d looked at her incredulously ‘Of course I get it. What d’you think I am? A field mouse or something?’
It didn’t quite register at first, but then she’d laughed. A kind of choking sound that had stuck in his mind for the next six years. It had taken him a while to work out why the laugh had sounded so strange, until finally he’d realised it was because it was the only time he’d ever genuinely heard her laugh at all. Of course, it wasn’t the maths that made her choke – he knew that. It was the thing about the field mice.
It wasn’t long after this that she’d signed him up to the football team. He accepted it as a kind of penance for being different, and because he’d felt sorry for her – even then. She would stand on the side lines, shouting until she went hoarse. The dads eyed her up approvingly – if only their own wives and girlfriends took such an interest. It was sad really, her being all on her own like that. Sometimes they tried to make conversation with her, and she’d smile and laugh. Never the real laugh though. Jayden was still waiting to hear that again.
Jayden’s dad had not ever realised just how bright his son was. This was because, even if Jayden had bounced into this world calculating algebraic equations and reciting Shakespeare, Jayden’s father would not even then have noticed. This was because Jayden’s father had not stuck around past the first trimester – let alone until the due date.
By the time Jayden got to juniors, the football had stopped. He’d asked for books for his birthday. In fact, he’d helpfully supplied his mum with a list – children’s literature not really being her thing.
‘I haven’t got the money for books, Jayden,’ she’d said. ‘All that football stuff ain’t cheap you know – and you wouldn’t like it if I bought you Tesco’s own boots, would you?’
He’d quietly explained then that he didn’t really like the football – never had done. Was unlikely, in fact, ever to do so in the future. He would much rather have the books, and he didn’t care about brand names either – brand names were for losers who couldn’t think for themselves. So she got him Nikes for his birthday – the cheapest ones you could get. But they said Nike on them, so that was ok. She didn’t make him go back to football though.
The tuition centre was on the main road, just outside of town. Jayden knew where it was, because they’d passed it on the bus last summer holidays– when he’d had to go with her to the office cleaning job. She said it was best if he went to the classes on his own – the other kids might make fun of you, she’d said, if your mum takes you. He knew she was hiding something, but he didn’t want to think about it too deeply. If a parent can keep a laugh from you, they could keep anything a secret, Jayden thought. And there were some things – some adult things – that Jayden at age 10 did not want to contemplate. Things that were just outside of his grasp, that he did not yet want to reach for. Not like the other boys in his class, tripping and falling over themselves to get close to adult secrets.
Of course, when he got there, he was the only kid not to be accompanied – just as he’d thought really. The tutor – Mr Merrill – seemed pleased enough to see him though.
‘Ah, Jayden,’ he’d said. ‘Delighted, delighted . . . Yes, come in, come in, do sit down, we’ll be starting in just a minute.’ Jayden really hoped he didn’t repeat everything he said like that. They started twenty minutes later, just as soon as the parents had all finished telling Mr Merrill how clever their kids were already.
When he got back that night, he’d asked her again.
‘I told you Jayden,’ she’d said. ‘Why d’you have to keep on about it? I just happened to leave your report on the side at Ken’s (from when I was getting my fags out – you know that) and, when I went back the next time, he said you had potential.’
Potential. She sounded the word out slowly, as if she was teaching him something.
‘Count yourself lucky – how much must Tom Shore’s mum be paying out for his tutor?’
‘Tom doesn’t go to Mr Merrill – he goes to a proper tutor, in her house.’
She let it go. ‘Ken said it’s a shame, that’s all – it’s a shame to see all that potential going to waste.’
‘Are you doing his cleaning for free now then?’
‘He’s not charging, Jayden. He’s doing it to help.’
The trainers were wearing thin now, and he had to scrunch his feet up when he walked. He kept his toenails short, and his skin thick.
One night, after tuition, Mr Merrill told him to stay behind. He couldn’t, Jayden said – he had to get back before mum went out again to her night shift. They only had one key, you see. Mr Merrill had bent down over the desk; close enough for Jayden to see the pools of yellow spittle forming in the corners of his mouth.
‘You’re not making it very easy for me to stick to my side of the bargain, Jayden’ he’d hissed, straight into Jayden’s face. His breath smelt sour, of coffee and fags – and frustrated opportunity. Jayden felt pretty sure he wouldn’t have ever spoken to one of the paying kids like that.
Jayden sensed that the secrets were unravelling now, and that it would no longer be possible to put things back to how they were before – like a map that, once unfolded, would never lie factory flat again.
‘No one gets anything for nothing, Jayden,’ she’d snapped back at him that night.
‘But you said we would get it for nothing though, didn’t you? You said he wanted to help.’
She didn’t answer then, just kept right on surfing her phone. The conversation was over, and he wouldn’t ask again.
The next day, there was a fresh pair of Nikes waiting for him on his bed. Not the cheapest ones this time either.
Sometimes Jayden thought about the field mice. He thought that even the field mice must have realised where they were in the food chain – it didn’t take a badger to work it out. He wondered at the lack of imagination on the teacher’s behalf; that they might just as well have labelled them all 1-5.
The queue for the 11-plus wound all the way down to the corner, and into the next road. In spite of them saying he wouldn’t see anyone he knew, Jayden found himself just a few families back from Tom Shore. They gave one another a self-conscious salute. Tom looked nervous. He didn’t have to be – he hadn’t been a field mouse. But then he hadn’t been a badger like Jayden either.
They’d told him how it was all going to work a week before the exam. Not at the tuition centre – at Ken’s house. He’d sat on the sofa dinking lukewarm orange squash, like a five year old. It was all a bit of a mix up, Mr Merrill had said. The other boy had been registered, but Jayden hadn’t – something to do with the online registration.
‘You know what I’m like on computers, Jay,’ his mum had said.
Spent enough time on her new phone though, didn’t she.
‘Still – every cloud and all that,’ Mr Merrill had said. ‘No reason not to turn the situation to a mutually beneficial advantage.’
No one would even know who he was, they’d said. Just sign in, and use the other boy’s details on the paper. Easy. Jayden’s mum didn’t even look up during this conversation – too busy surfing Sleepless Singles.
Tom was placed just across from him in the examination room. He looks like he’s going to puke, Jayden thought. Of course, Jayden was well aware of Tom’s weak points – he’d been advising Tom’s mum on the 11-plus forum all through the summer. Well, ‘absentlewis’ had. Tom had needed lots of help with his verbal and non-verbal reasoning and, even now, his mum was worried he might not make it. The 11-plus forum site was an invaluable source of information and support – and not just for the 11-plus practise papers either. Everything you needed to know about online registration, right down to the programme for the day itself, were all there for the taking. Jayden could feel the scrunched up printout of the other boy’s name and number in his pocket, pressing into the top of his thigh. A reminder. Jayden was thankful it wasn’t Tom Shore’s name on that bit of paper. He didn’t think he’d have been able to go through with it if it had been.
‘Turn your papers over now, please.’ Jayden took one last glance over at Tom, gave him what he hoped was a reassuring smile, picked up the brand new HB pencil that Ken Merrill had sent him with, and began to write.
Name: Jayden Lewis Turner. Registration Number: 3781
He didn’t think his mum would mind – not really. Not in the end. And what could they do about it anyway? In fact, Jayden was even daring to hope that he might yet hear that choking little laugh of hers again before this year was out. After all, what did they think he was? A field mouse or something?