Mister McNamara told us what his name meant in Gaelic during the second week of classes. We’d already noted his stormy tendency to huff air through his fiery moustache whenever his authority was trespassed, but it was that name that cemented our collective 9-year-old awe in place. ‘Son-of-a-Sea-Dog…’ we’d whisper reverently to the kids from other classes, ‘how’s life with Ms. Gaye?’ His name and humourous teaching methods galvanized our class-identity to near-mythical proportions. Though we were as much a muddle of misfits as the next class, we somehow had the playtime edge: we appointed ourselves administrators and acting-judiciaries of ‘It’, ombudsmen to any of the larger trades made in those spontaneous playground-bazaars, and all-round McNamara deputies.
Two things about our class had immediately caught my attention. The first was that there was a new girl, Corrine Hill. The second was that I actually found this interesting. I’d peek across the room to where she sat radiating, and I’d swear she made everyone else see-through: hair of muted flax; adoring sky-eyes, as big and wide and blue; and a triumphant overbite that gave the impression her body had yet to grow around her teeth. She struck me as the Platonic Ideal must’ve struck Wagner, and I made sure to send a sigh over to her every time she evoked it.
Our North London school had a fine policy of sweetening Friday afternoons: after lunch, we’d assemble in our respective homerooms, and, jumpers smelling vaguely of rancid milk, pair up and file off towards Regents Park. We’d leave the old convent that was our main school building, and trundle through heavy traffic until reaching the flaky iron gates of the park. Once there, the teachers hastily pointed out the boundaries before retreating to their smoke-bench. We’d go ape-shit: horsey girls would gallop off in one direction, while the lads would throw down goalposts in another. McNamara’s class would either congeal into open-field warfare ‘It’, or break into expedition groups and map the park.
One Friday in late September, McN4 started queuing up to march on the park. Being nine exempted us from the mandatory hand-holding that the grade 3s suffered, sulkily trailing snotty fingers of their free hands through the passing hedgerows. For us, this meant that boy-girl couples were gloweringly acceptable. During the customary jostle to find the favoured partner, I slipped out from under Tetsu’s questing eyes and instead went to quiver next to Corrine. Because pointedly standing next to a girl suggested that I might’ve gone mad, I offered only what I construed to be a smile. Corrine acquiesced toothily, if not with pink cheeks. Then the pied-piper lurched forward into the dark halls, she and I a pair in its midst.
En route silence was strictly enforced. This was a good thing, as I had dinosaurs in my belly and felt I’d squawk if I opened my mouth. But every sidelong glance I stole revealed a new expression: a bitten bottom-lip, flicked hair, a purposeful gaze on the distance. It was a long walk and Corrine was MSG to my senses; black splodges of paved gum; bright bird chirps; the susurrus of bike couriers… all scrubbed fresh in the apple-juice light of a balmy afternoon. Our steps were synchronized by the time we approached the final zebra-crossing. There our hands clasped. I don’t know if we let go until we got back to school.
The following few months were awash with euphoria. The weather was mild and felt buoyed by my elation alone. Corrine and I spent most playtimes together, she was even more smiley than I first reckoned, but had a hard, mature edge to her keeping us a little more formal than I would’ve liked. This showed itself in my vain attempts to impress her (like running past her really fast or doing a skit about eating a caterpillar in the school assembly). The best I ever got for these stunts was a rather benign smile, not the typical stunners I so craved. I soon tried other acts of desperation, and tried ignoring her. Once, while reviewing the answers to a particularly hard maths question, Mister McNamara asked the two people who’d solved the correct answer to put up their hands. To my astonishment, one of them was me. The other was Corrine. Seeing her prim hand swaying in front of me, I balked and made a show of looking around the class for the other hand. McNamara, however, was looking directly at me, a slightly bemused look on his face.
The production of this juvenile romance was really the work of our mums. They took turns arranging weekend activities for us: pantomimes and trips to museums and parks. They quickly dropped the idea of inviting our other friends, who’d wander amongst the family like a bruised stepchild. Because of this, our dates seemed to get more and more exclusive, and with that, more quarrelsome. Once we went with her family to ogle Guy Fawkes Night fireworks on one of the Thames’ many bridges. On tiptoes, we put our chins on the guardrails and watched the willowing rocket-dust trace the sky. ‘They’re so beautiful’ I murmured, only slightly disingenuously. ‘Tom,’ she said, fixing me with twinkling eyes, ‘am I as beautiful as those fireworks?’ The complex array of psycho-semantics that interlaces all inter-gender communions had yet to occur to me, so I went for the obvious. ‘No’. But caught her mid-harrumph with some blustery cover-up about women being beautiful and girls pretty, and that I was quite sure she’d grow up to be absolutely stunning. Next week at school, she told me I’d changed.
Though still together, she and I stopped partnering-up to go to the park and rejoined the greater game of playtime. I started to see her affections come out for Michael Haywood, the class ne’er-do-well and all-round bad-boy. He was the fastest runner in the grade. Horrified, I hounded her until I unwittingly secured our breakup by extorting a confession: she had a crush on him. I replied she couldn’t have both of us, she’d had me and now she could have him. And strutted off to the trailer-classes, where all the kids went to cry. The next day I came to school and announced to everyone I had a crush on Lucy Porter. I said it was because she had nice teeth.