After assembly it take ages for everyone to get back to class. People keep coming up to us even after the bell has gone, to congratulate us and to talk to Lael about her speech. I wouldn’t be surprised if they started asking for autographs.
Then the bell rings again, a bit longer this time, as though someone is trying to make a point.
“Okay, we’d better get along to Afrikaans,” I say, tugging at Lael’s arm. But she has just spotted someone.
“Hang on a minute,” she says. “There’s James Ellison – the guy we owe it all to. I’ve been dying to thank him. James!” she shouts. “Hey, James, wait up!”
I turn around smiling. I’ve been wanting to introduce James to Lael for ages now. And she’s right. We do owe it all to him. Without his help, our brilliant plan to pinch the shield would still be just that – a plan.
Now, where did she see him? I scan the thinning crowd of students, looking for his familiar face.
Oh dear, she’s got the wrong person.
Lael has gone up to some completely arbitrary guy and is chattering away to him. Not surprisingly, he’s looking completely puzzled by what she’s saying. I rush over to them and pluck at her elbow.
“Lael!” I say. “This isn’t James. You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“No I haven’t,” she says indignantly. “Your name is James, isn’t it?”
“Last time I checked,” he says snootily.
Okay, I know what must have happened. Lael can be such a dweeb sometimes. She started shouting, “James! James!” and this dude turned around, so she thought he was James Ellison.
“Listen,” I say. “He might be called James, but he’s still the wrong person. Trust me, I know.”
Lael looks from the guy to me and back again, puzzled. “Let’s put it this way – are you or are you not James Ellison of the Gumede House Grade 11 dormitory?”
“I am,” he says.
I feel as though I’ve been punched in the stomach. This guy looks nothing like my James. He’s shorter and chunkier, and – I can’t help noticing – he’s got one black eye, and some discoloured bruises down the right side of his face. “But … but…” I stutter like an idiot. “You can’t be.”
“And yet I am,” he says with a sneer. “And if this was your way of getting me to notice you, can I just say that it really isn’t working.” Then he turns on his heel and walks away, leaving me gaping after him like a goldfish.
“Trinity…” Lael says. “What’s going on?”
“I … have absolutely no idea.”
“Are you telling me that’s not the guy who’s been helping us steal the Gumede Shield?”
“Absolutely not. They don’t even look slightly alike. My James is thinner and much better looking. And he has this, like, sweep of hair over his forehead,” I make a swooshing motion with my hand across my face. “And it’s kind of gelled at the back. And he’s a really snappy dresser – all retro and vintage-looking. And he’s much nicer than that obnoxious ass.”
“And where did you ever get the idea that your guy was James Ellison?”
“I don’t know!” I rub my hands over my face. “I can’t remember.”
We are now the only people still standing in the quad outside the hall. I can see a couple of teachers headed our way, so I start walking towards class, pulling Lael along with me.
“Listen, we’ll talk about this later,” I say. “If we don’t get to class right now, we’ll get detention.”
By the end of the school-day, I think I’ve managed to piece it all together. And, not surprisingly, it’s all my brother’s fault.
I can clearly remember asking Aaron at the beginning of the year who the racist, obnoxious guy with brown hair and retro clothes was, and he was the one who told me it was James Ellison. He even warned me against him, I remember, like I was going to rush out and start dating him.
Well, the real James Ellison is certainly obnoxious, I’ll give him that. But for the rest, he doesn’t fit the profile at all. And now I’ve spent the entire term thinking that my unknown friend is called James.
But I still can’t quite get my head around this.
Have I really been calling this guy by the wrong name all term? Why didn’t he correct me? In fact, come to think of it, have I ever actually used his name? Surely I must have said “James” to him at some point? You can’t have whole long conversations with someone without using their name, right? Or can you? I honestly can’t remember.
Maybe I’ve been saying the wrong name for months and he was too polite to correct me. But then his face pops into my mind, and I find myself smiling. No – politeness is not exactly his strong point.
It’s a bit weird to realise that I now have no idea what his real name is. It’ll be easy enough to find out, though. I know he’s in Grade 11, and I know he lives in Gumede House. All I need is a list of the students in the Grade 11 boys’ dormitory and I’ll find him.
Back in Sisulu House, I make a beeline for the common room. I have to sit down for a minute before I lug all my stuff upstairs. There’s no one around. Everyone is either at extramurals or upstairs chilling in their dorms. I’m dying to talk everything over with Lael, but she’s got tennis matches the whole afternoon. I’ll probably have to wait until suppertime.
I sink into an armchair with a happy sigh. What a day! I’m still glowing from our triumph in assembly this morning. Lael and I gave an interview to the school newspaper at break, and they told us that the local community paper, the Sandton Chronicle, would probably be calling for an interview as well.
As I sit there feeling the warmth of pride in our achievement, I realise how long it’s been since I felt this happy. Come to think of it, I’ve been pretty miserable for a while now. I just didn’t realise it until I started feeling better.
I close my eyes for a moment, and when I open them again, I see Zach coming into the common room. Just when I thought this day couldn’t get any more perfect! He probably wants to congratulate us on the shield. I’ve BBMed him a few times already, but he must have had his phone off, because there’s been no response.
“Zach!” I jump up and run forward to give him a hug.
“Trinity.” He touches my arm briefly and then steps back.
My happy glow fades. Something is wrong. I’ve become fluent in my boyfriend’s body language. I’m a world expert on his facial expressions, the tone of his voice, and the way he moves. And right now, everything about him is saying “angry”.
So instead of hugging him, I stop short and give him a big smile.
“It’s so great to see you!” I say. “Have you got time for a chat? I can make some coffee if you’d like.”
“I don’t want any coffee.”
Okay, something is definitely wrong. A little whisper of unease curls up my spine. Is he angry because I went ahead with the shield plan after he told me not to? But it all worked out so well. And I didn’t get expelled, or even punished, which is what he was worried about.
“Sit down anyway.” I make a sweeping gesture with my hand, like a waitress in a restaurant.
“I don’t want to sit down,” he says through gritted teeth.
“Okay.” I bite my lip. “Is … is something wrong, Zach? You don’t look happy.”
He takes a step towards me. “No, I’m not happy. I’m not happy at all. Do you want to know why, Trinity?”
He takes another step towards me, and for some reason, I find myself taking a step back.
“Um … why?”
“Because you never listen, do you? Even after I’ve made it one hundred per cent clear that I don’t want you to do something, you go behind my back and do it anyway, don’t you?”
For a moment, I think about asking him to explain what he means, but there’s no point in playing dumb. I know exactly what this is about.
“You … you’re talking about the Gumede Shield, right?” I say. “The thing is, Zach … it all happened so fast that there wasn’t time for me to ask if you minded. James arrived so suddenly and told me about the opportunity, I didn’t have time to…”
“James!” he snaps. “That fool. He’s asking for another stint in the san.”
My brain feels like it’s short-circuiting.
“So … it was you,” I say, without thinking. “It was you who pushed him down the stairs. And he wasn’t even the right person.”
“What are you babbling about, Trinity?”
“It wasn’t James Ellison,” I say desperately. “I got his name wrong. The guy who helped me was someone else. Someone completely different.”
“Oh, really? Who?”
“I don’t know. I still don’t know his name.”
“Nice try.” He laughs harshly. “You’d do anything to protect him, wouldn’t you? I didn’t want to believe that you were sleeping with him, but now…”
“Sleeping with him?” I gasp. “Of course I’m not sleeping with him. I’m not sleeping with anyone.”
“Liar!” He shoves me hard in the chest so that I stumble backward. “You lie and you lie and you lie! I don’t think you even know what the truth is anymore.”
“Zach…” I put a hand to my chest, which feels bruised. No one has shoved me like that since my brothers and I were still young enough to get into physical fights. My gaze flickers around the room and out into the deserted corridor. There is still absolutely no one around.
“Don’t you ‘Zach’ me,” he goes on. “You’ve betrayed me in every possible way since the day we started going out.” He’s getting closer and I can feel the hard edge of the fireplace surround against the back of my foot.
“I didn’t mean to,” I say, as tears flood into my eyes.
“Liar!” he says again, and this time when he shoves me, I fall backwards onto the stone tiles of the fireplace surround, and feel the edge of the grate slam into my back. I gasp and wince, too stunned by pain to think for a moment. Then I roll off the icy grate and look up, expecting to see Zach horrified by what he’s done, maybe reaching down a hand to help me up.
It was an accident, wasn’t it? Yes, he pushed me, but he couldn’t possibly have wanted me to fall like that.
But he just looks even angrier than before.
“You tripped, you stupid bitch. You should look where you’re going.”
He bends down over me, and for the first time, I feel real fear. His hand is clenched into a fist. He’s going to hit me. I can see it in his eyes. My boyfriend is going to hit me.
Then I catch a glimpse of movement behind him, and see James Ellison coming into the common room.
No … not James Ellison. I shake my head in confusion. My friend. The one whose name I still don’t know.
Relief washes through me like a wave. I’m saved! Thank goodness! He looks so calm and competent, like there’s nothing he couldn’t handle.
“Oh, thank goodness!” I blurt out.
Zach stiffens. His head flicks around and he looks straight at my friend.
“He was going to hit me,” I call out. “He was really going to hit me. You saw it, didn’t you?”
My friend doesn’t answer. He just stares at me sadly.
“Who are you talking to?” Zach demands. “There’s no one there. You’re trying to trick me again, aren’t you?”
He turns back to me and grabs me by the arm. Then he shakes me until my eyes roll back in my head. When he lets me go, my head is spinning, but I can see him clenching his hand into a fist and drawing it back.
“Help!” I scream. “Please help.”
But my friend just stands there.
Zach smirks. “There’s no one here to help you.”
He draws his fist back and I close my eyes.
Then I open them again. Zach has spun away from me and is clutching at his neck as though something is choking him. He coughs … and he coughs again. Then he starts clawing desperately at his collar.
I don’t understand what’s happening. Did he have something in his mouth? Is he choking on a piece of chewing gum? I want to help him, but I’m afraid of being grabbed again. He lets out a strangled wheeze, and stumbles around the room pawing at his neck. His face is getting redder and redder, and his eyes are starting to bulge.
“What’s going on?” I say, looking wildly around. “What’s happening?”
But my friend just stands there, watching Zach lurching around. There is anger in his face as well as sadness. Then he turns to me.
“Don’t let him get away with it, Trinity,” he says, slowly and clearly. “Whatever happens – don’t let him get away with it.”
I take a half-step towards Zach, who is now lying groaning on the floor. What should I do? Should I call someone?
I turn back to my friend. “I don’t know what to…”
Then I stop. He’s gone.
An icy shiver ripples down my back as I run blindly out the room.