David had never worn a dress before.
He ran his hands down his waist and hips, enjoying the smooth, snug embrace of the yellow, boned cotton. It reminded him of the soft feathers of the canary he kept in a cage at home which his Dad didn’t approve of.
He peered out from behind the thick, dark red curtain of the stage wings, checking for any loiterers or unsuspecting staff. The musty silence of the school hall was reassuring, though his heart still thumped heatedly against his chest.
In the centre of the polished wooden floor stood a full-length mirror, shimmering in the half light of after-school dusk. It stood to the right of the mock fireplace that had been used for the recent performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. David had desperately wanted the lead role, but hadn’t had a chance to learn his lines properly, as the other boys always snatched them from him and called him names or slapped him round the head whenever they caught him practising.
He longed to perform. As far back as he could remember he had wanted to click his heels together on stage or pour out tenor notes amongst the likes of Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, or the old-school classics like Chaplin and Sinatra.
But stardom offered a lonely dream, which was only just visible to him in the solitude of night time.
He threw on a long, heavy overcoat (just in case) and, caught between fear and excitement, darted in front of the mirror.
Slowly, he pulled down the cold metal zip of the jacket, almost afraid of the floral print that seemed to be tumbling out from his collar bone. As he shrugged the coat off of his shoulders and let its weight fall to the floor, he steadily assessed himself in the tarnished glass.
The bodice felt tight and structured, almost formal, but he liked how it hugged him close, and the skirt seemed to float about his knees, teasing his calves, reminding him of summer and the way that the long grass in the hay fields stroked his legs.
He stood up on his tiptoes and pushed his teenaged torso outwards, and threw his head up, the way he had seen models do it in the ads. He enjoyed the curves his body could make, as he twisted from his waist and lengthened one leg out in front of the other.
He chuckled out loud as he spotted his tired grey socks gathered around his ankles, so incongruous to the pretty dress which moved like water. Then he noticed the bruises on his shins. The dress didn’t quite disguise the scars from the boys in class six. David hated those idiots; they were always looking for something to pick on him for.
Deciding not to dwell on those prats tonight, David let his imagination wander. He envisioned himself dancing through trees as the springtime sun filtered through the canopy, flickering warmth onto his face. He imagined the sound of excitable birds, twittering to his daft and carefree prancing. Contented and smiling and dreaming of yellow days and sunshine feelings.
Then, ‘click’; the unmistakable sound of a Nikon F shot through David’s reverie.
Heart, body, head; all seemed to fall to the floor at once as he scrambled to wrench the heavy coat over himself.
He swung round to confirm the source of the noise.
One last photo before they pounded out of the stage exit. The perfect portrait.
‘Click’. David’s heart stopped beating.
Convulsed with fear, he couldn’t move. Rigid and dry eyed, David remained standing; staring at the swinging door where they’d left; his mind bizarrely tranquil as his breath stopped short of his lungs.
A series of images steadily repeated themselves through his thoughts; one: posing on stage in front of the mirror; two: the shadowed faces of Jimmy, Seb, Frank and Bill leering in the wings; three: their school bags swinging on their shoulders as they ran away, cackling.
The paralysing shrieks of their hysterical laughter seeped slowly back into his conscious – no longer reverberating around the hall, they filled his insides instead. The cold twisting reality finally burst in his stomach, pounding through his capillaries as a surge after surge of terrifying emotions racked his body.
His heart was beating again now; louder and stronger than ever. David felt as though he might suffocate from the inside out as his thrashing heartbeats and inward breaths battled for space in the closing dryness of his throat.
He drew the coat tighter across his chest, digging the metal buttons into his palms as his salty, wet, torturous tears dripped onto the waxed material. Yet still he stood, transfixed by the door that had let the undeniable evidence out and into the world for judgement.
“Oi! Whatchyou doin’ ‘ere?”
Startled into movement by the gruff voice of the school’s cleaner, David grabbed his bag and clothes and ran. The beautiful dress was agony to him now as it flapped mockingly against his scrawny legs. All he could think to do was to just get home. Just get home and safe.
He pelted to the shed where he had left his bicycle in the morning, and, wedging himself between the laurel bushes that surrounded it he frantically tore the flowery cotton garment from his chest and battled into his starched grey uniform. Blindly, he jammed his key into the padlock of his bike chain, and wrenched it from the metal railings, desperate to pedal furiously back to his estate, only to find that the front wheel had been mercilessly buckled. He cried out loud as the obvious became apparent.
Of course they would mash up his bike. How stupid he was not to predict it.
He kicked the contorted spokes, trying desperately to realign them into the shape of a wheel, only to get his sensible leather school shoe stuck between them instead. Hopelessly distraught, he abandoned the mangled metal and loped homeward along the concrete alley.
As he rounded the corner into the estate his broken heart seemed to sink to the very bottom of his legs, weighing them down to a halt outside of his redbrick terrace.
A multi-coloured vision of graffiti stared back at him, splayed across the brickwork. The plant pots his mum used to decorate before she moved out, littered the small driveway, smashed against the tarmac, and now just a pile of weathered, painted terracotta and old, dried out soil.
The word sprayed across his front door etched itself into his head;
David could feel the eyes of Mrs Finney who lived across the street, heavy on his rounded shoulders. He pulled the keys from his trouser pocket, unlatched the door and let himself in, shutting out his shame.
He was numb and he was waiting.
Waiting for his dad to get in from his afternoon in the pub. Waiting for the stinging leather belt strap to gorge into his shoulder blades. Waiting, whilst his yellow, caged canary sang, oblivious.