You Name It

Entry by: Seth Dinario

2nd February 2018
School class photos have a distinct brand of nostalgia about them. Stage-managed and disingenuous, they capture little of the real world of the adolescent: that ever-moving, high-octane, raucous domain. Bagging up some shabby clothes for the charity shop the other day, I discovered one of mine: Carseknock High, 1979, 3B2. I couldn’t stop staring at it. Still can’t. I keep glancing up at it now, as I try to write this.

The photo is a smorgasbord of half-remembered faces: there’s Jemma Elliot, finest girl in the class. Sigh. She regards the camera with a cool expression that suggests she knew damn well how gorgeous she was, even then. Next to her, my eye drawn to the juxtaposition as if a circus freak had popped up next to a lingerie model, is Louise Spriggs. Unfortunate. Then there are the dead eyes of Spencer Derby, who joined our reggie class that year. In the photo, he’s sitting next to our tutor, Mrs Markham. She looks terrified, and I don’t blame her. He was something else, alright. But then I remember what happened to Spencer, and it involved Graham Torrance (back row, toothy smile, massive) and weirdly, Louise. I stare at Graham, his huge grin echoing across the intervening decades. Nothing remarkable about him other than his size. Rugby player. Not in my circle. He seemed a nice enough lad.

Carseknock Academy wasn’t always the jewel in the crown of West Lothian’s secondary schools. Attending there, I remember the old sign, ‘Carseknock High’, with the ‘C’ and the last ‘k’ spray-painted out and the second syllable turned, inevitably, into ‘knob’. The current headmaster, something Francis I think, had the good fortune to arrive as the school was being changed into an ‘Academy’ and the good sense to raise the sign high enough on a pole to deter would-be graffiti artists.

Rude signs aside, during my time, the buildings were in dire need of improvements, there were fights daily, teachers were frequently threatened by pupils and I lost count of the arson attempts. It’s a miracle I got out alive, let alone with five Highers. And to think I’ve become one of the most respected lawyers in the city, on several Parliament steering groups and with the ink drying on the deeds to a holiday home on the Cote d’Azur. (No thanks to Arseknob High.)

So. Spencer Derby came in our third year, and went into the remedial class, with Louise and about four others. Remedial, as it was called before the word acquired any pejorative connotations. A bit like ‘spastic’, which is what most people called Louise. I remember her as having wiry, scraped-back hair of an indistinct brown, no friends, an unfortunate habit of breathing loudly through her nose, and crossed-eyes bridged by thick black NHS specs.

Louise was bullied by most in our year, I’m ashamed to say. The usual extra jostling in the corridors and freezing out of any social group (cool or nerdy; it didn’t matter, she was so low on the food chain). Adults tend to forget how unkind kids can be. But I’ve never forgotten, because that year Spencer arrived and made everyone else’s efforts seem amateurish. He was quite big for a teenage boy, with a slow, deliberate way of moving that could turn fast and violent in an instant. He rarely did any school work, his brain instead used for muttering sly and vile insults to anyone who fell into his cross-hairs. He knew he could have anyone in a fight, and proved as much by sending Aaron Davis, the hardest boy in the year, running home to his mum with a busted nose in week one. Spencer had come from some island through in the West – we used to joke that he’d been quarantined there for the good of society, but had escaped to wreak havoc on the mainland.

Spencer made Louise’s life even more hellish. He robbed her dinner money, mimicked her walk and her stammer. He called her every horrific name he could think of – he really was quite talented at this – and got away with it all; in class, in the corridors, the playground, wherever. The teachers at Carseknock were as scared of him as we were.

Around that time, there had been a spate of muggings in the community, marked by their unusual violence. Victims had been left with facial injuries even after readily handing over their wallets or jewellery. The assailant was known simply as ‘Mr Balaclava’, and the police were looking for a man of medium build, medium height. The only other thing they had to go on was that he always used a knife and – now and again – wore bright red gloves.

Naturally, we all speculated as to who this could be. Various brothers and uncles were weighed up, defended, brought back into the frame again. We were kids, we were rubbish at it, but we liked playing detectives all the same. At assembly, our headmaster, Mr Scripps, a thin man with a brown suit and a stoop, warned us to not walk home unless in groups of three or more. Mr Balaclava was the bogeyman of Carseknock, it seemed, and nobody could stop him.

One day, I was leaving the school late after Chemistry study class. Everyone else at the study class was well gone, because I’d stayed even later to talk to Miss Fletcher, one of the teachers. I came round the corner of the Sports Hall and found Louise Spriggs, sobbing and trying to pick up her glasses, the frames having been snapped into several pieces. Her bag had been emptied out and her things scattered around. Trampled into the mud. Wrecked. She was also holding her wrist, making the retrieval of the glasses extra difficult.

I’d never spoken to her while it was just the two of us. I picked up some of the pieces and tried to help mend her glasses but it was useless. I don’t think she knew who I was. I didn’t want to touch her and I felt helpless, like a bystander. ‘Spencer?’ I said, and she just nodded.

Just then, coming out of the Sports Hall after using the gym, Graham Torrance strode straight up to us. Now, Graham wasn’t Louise’s pal or anything, but surveying the wreckage of her school life and noticing she’d had her arm hurt, not to mention her ruined glasses, he quietly confirmed the identity of her attacker as I had. Standing there in the fading light, I perfectly recall the intensity of his gaze and his bunched jaw muscles as he approached us. He seemed even bigger than usual. ‘Do you want me to sort him out?’ he asked Louise, dropping his kit bag near my feet. The zip hadn’t been fastened properly, and I remember looking into it.

‘W-what do you mean?’ stammered Louise. ‘What could you do?’

Graham nodded grimly to himself, jaw muscles working away. In his bag, I’d glimpsed a pair of bright red gloves. I took a few steps away.

‘You name it, love. You name it.’