I never wanted to go to Peckham Street School. I’d heard bad things about it: about kids who had been excluded; food fights in the lunch hall, teachers who hit the pupils and a headteacher who was possessed by the spirit of Voldemort.
I went to Hollydale during the academic year. It was a small primary school—two hundred kids in total—and it had an old feel to it. One could look at it and imagine something out of a fairy tale, like Handsel and Gretel, with its big bricks that looked like slices of cake; shiny windows that could have been glossed with honey and a dark roof that resembled chocolate. It was a magical school, really. There was even a haunted house at the bottom of the Top Playground where all the big kids played in. Just some abandoned extension of the school that no one—teacher or pupil—ever used. I once saw the caretaker go in there to get a basketball and was shocked to see the dark walls covered with ivy on the inside, and the weeds that grew from the door jamb. Someone dared Anton to go inside there to retrieve a football. He had actually gone in there, ran up the stairs, waved at us from the top window and ran back down again. It was the news of the school for weeks.
But come the summer, I usually went to the play scheme at mum’s workplace. PCS—a place I loved so much I would usually draw a calendar to count down the days till I could return there. But something had happened on this particular year. I don’t actually know what it was, but there was a problem which meant the play scheme would be closed for two weeks. For some strange reason, my parents thought it was best to send me to Peckham Street School, which held its own play centre, until PCS was ready.
We lived in Nunhead, which was on the outskirts of Peckham, so I wasn’t used to these ‘Peckham Kids’. Rude, they were, and mean-spirited. They all came from crazy Jamaican and Nigerian homes. I could emphasise with the crazy Jamaican part; my own dad, a headstrong Jamaican, could be a little strange sometimes, and his brothers and sisters were more than dysfunctional, but I was always quiet and I didn’t act like other Jamaican girls my age. Sometimes I look back on how quiet and reserved I was; how much of a pushover I was, and cringe. The older me looks down on the younger me with pity. It wants to grab the younger me by the collar and shout “man up!”
After a chat with the head of the play centre, my parents walked me out to the playground and deposited me next to a girl who looked like she ate insects. I watched them disappear down the street longingly before turning back to the girl, hoping we would be friends. She took one look at me and ran away into the concrete jungle, where there was a mass of pushing, spitting and hitting children. I slumped against the wall and started to cry. I stayed in that position for a long time; I didn’t talk to anyone all day and all week. Even during activities I kept to myself and I rushed towards my sisters at home time, thanking God that the day was over.
It rained on the last day of the week. We stayed inside. The room was baby-blue. It was filled with shelves of board games, Barbie dolls and Ken dolls and Cindy dolls and Sylvanian Family dolls and houses and guns and all sorts of tat that only kids with short attention spans would play with. For some strange reason, there was a pile of snooker balls in one corner of the room, red and yellow and black and purple and white, but no snooker table. When I entered the room, I looked around for it, but all I could see was pushing, spitting and hitting children, running about the cramped space and getting into all sorts. I scanned all corners of the room, but the green table was nowhere to be seen.
So intrigued was I by the lonely snooker balls that I picked up a black one and cradled it in my arms, as if it was some forgotten treasure or a packet of sweets. I was lost for a moment there; all sound was blocked out and everyone disappeared. All I could think about was the snooker ball. Like a cat, I began rolling it along the floor, catching it in my hands and poking and pawing at it. No one—not even I—will ever know what brought me so much glee, but the snooker ball had been the most exciting thing that had happened to me all week. It was heavy and round and shiny, like I was carrying around the whole world in my hands.
And then the world rolled too fast. I grasped madly for it in mid-air, but it was falling, falling, falling out of my hands, spinning madly towards the ground. I watched miserably as the future flashed before my eyes. I knew what was going to happen; I knew where it was headed, but there was nothing I could do. The boy’s head almost shone in anticipation, mirroring the snooker ball that was falling towards it.
I winced when it hit, just as the boy bellowed in hurtful anger. He looked up at me and I’m certain his eyes glowed. It was that strange Peckham disposition bursting out of him.
“Sorry!” I said.
I didn’t anticipate the punch he gave me, though. Right in the stomach. I was winded. I cried. Luckily, the carer on duty rushed over, just catching sight of this big, angry boy punching a seven-year-old girl in the stomach.
“Reece!” she yelled at the boy.
“What? Din’ you see what she-?”
The carer dragged him up by the collar and shooed him outside the room. He was told to go and play in the torrential downpour by himself for being a naughty boy. After this Reece person was out of my sight, I turned to the carer to thank her, but she already had her back turned to me. She walked towards another group of fighting kids and left me to play by myself again. I followed her around for a little bit until I finally got the message and went back to my snooker ball.
But it was gone.