When you are twelve, you lose interest in the difference between a stag beetle and a dung beetle. It’s not cool to like insects or play in fields anymore.
I had started ‘big school’ as Mum promised. I hung out with a group of five boys; we would play football in the playing field after lessons, staining the grey trousers that were ironed for me, green. Oscar introduced me to them.
He said, ‘guys, this is my friend.’
They nodded at me, fanned out in a horseshoe formation upon the playing-field, and I felt as though I visibly glowed, to be someone’s friend. I begun to go to his house after school, a lot of the time: Oscar. I liked his place. His room was dark and fluorescent.
It smelt of old PE kit. He had a big TV and two game controllers, so we’d click furiously at the buttons until his mum called us for dinner. She was a tall woman, with wide hips, and hair even brighter than her son’s. I used to blush when she spoke to me.
I went home from his house across the fields. It was by necessity, not choice. The year seemed to pass this way: in a flurry of homework booklets and spaghetti consumed under the TV light. It rained a lot.
The summer at the end of my first year as an adolescent boy, I no longer lounged around in the kitchen with the window open, listening to radio plays and readings with mum, visiting the farm shop, or exploring the hedgerows which lined the surrounding fields; but instead played with Oscar and the boys, moving between houses, aware of the summer outside, but resting in the dark nests we had created indoors. We howled at video games and speculated about the hottest girls in our classes. We could never talk to them, only talk about their body parts when we hid in our den. We’d chatter in hushed voices in case we heard the creak of a parent on the landing.
We never hung out at my house, no one wanted to walk through all the fields past our school to get there. It was easier to stay in the village, so I would trundle home at dusk.
My mum and dad would have eaten already when I got home. Sometimes they offered me dinner but I’d have eaten a pack of Oreos with Oscar and be too full to eat more. I’d walk straight upstairs to my room.
Mum discussed telling Oscar’s mother that she didn’t like how she fed us, but it became clear that she was too timid to bring it up. If we ever ran into Oscar and his mum in the shops, I would excitedly bound up to him, hoping for a moment’s play, whilst my mum glanced nervously at his. She’d pull her cardigan tighter, and move towards the frozen
vegetable aisle, looking intently for a frosty snack which didn’t exist.
One evening, in May, we decided to amuse ourselves in the fields, instead of the house. His TV was being replaced and his mum was selling his current one for a flatscreen, so that it could be mounted to the wall. I was jealous, but it meant we couldn’t play games on the floor anymore.
On our way to relocate my old tree-swing we found a large plasma of jelly, suspended on the surface of a small body of water. It was at the edge of the woods. The jelly was frogspawn, I told Oscar, my mother had told me about how it grew into frogs. We decided it was a good idea to take some each, and make a project of nurturing it, so we could have pet frogs. Without the familiar buzz of the games, this seemed like a sufficient way to pass the time. We ran to Oscar’s and got buckets of water, rushing back to collect a handful each. The jelly was cold and wet with tiny black dots in the centre of the embryonic goo.
Over the next few months, I kept my bucket of frogspawn under my bed. I didn’t want my mum finding them, as I had a feeling she would not approve. I took good care of my soon-to-be-tadpoles, dropping spinach and moss into the top of the water, and checking them every day after school. I would slide under my bed on my belly, retrieve them from near the wall, and watch them for a moment, moving them back under in a rush when I heard my mum moving around the house.
We saw less and less of each other, becoming involved in our own projects. Oscars family went away for a month, to Mauritius, on a holiday in June. On returning, his mother found the bowl of goo, in his wardrobe. He had forgotten about the tadpoles, and left them to rot. Outraged at the rancid smell and the sight of the decaying nuclei, she got the story out of Oscar, then reported back to my own mum.
I was in big trouble. My mum called Oscar and I over to the house one evening soon after. Oscar had only been to our house once before, and I didn’t want him coming back.
We were sat down and told about what we had done. My mum didn’t tell us off, only tell us about the tadpoles. She explained to us why tadpoles need specific temperatures to live, and why its cruel to take animals from their habitat.
We sat, arms rigid, on the wooden chairs at the kitchen table, listening to her story about how the mummy-frog wants to care for her tadpoles, and its not our job to care for something that isn’t our baby. I was red hot with embarrassment.
She then went on to explain that my tadpoles were dead too. They weren’t dead in the same rotted, blackened way in which Oscar’s were, they had died because it was too hot under the bed, and they weren’t in a proper container.
I remember the honeyed sway of my mum’s hair, and the animated gestures she made with her hands. My dad was in the room next door, watching TV.
Once our lecture was over, I walked Oscar half-way to his, ashamed. All we had wanted was pet frogs, and it had resulted in this infantile scolding of misunderstanding. The tadpoles were gone.
The light was fading, so I pointed Oscar onto the right path, and made my own way back. On my way home I passed a dead fledgling, sprawled out like a fan, a green shoot growing through its feathered belly. Red flesh was gored where its twig legs would have been. Closer to the estate, was a dead hare. It was dark and grainy. Flies scattered when I got close.
I went back up to my room to check under my bed. My mum had removed the container I had been nursing the transparent goo in. I got under the covers and fell asleep instantly, exhausted. I left the light on by accident.