Actions

Work Header

An Education

Work Text:

***

“The sight of her seemed an irresistible attack on his own habits, standards, and ambitions: something designed to put him in his place for good.” – Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim.

***

On his deathbed, in what would turn out to be the last few moments of his seventy-six years of life, his granddad Jim told him four things:

  1. A man makes his own luck and every day's an opportunity. 
  2. Make a woman laugh, and you can make her do anything. 
  3. Always keep one eye on the door, because everyone needs an escape route.
  4. Respect your mother, and tell her you love her every time you see her. 

A few moments later, he was gone, and all that Cook had left to remember him by was those words, a gold crucifix and a sure bet for the 3:30 at Chepstow, written on the back of a crumpled cigarette packet pressed into his hand. This was his inheritance, he learned, because there was no money to speak of, after it’d been gambled and drunk away. He’d ferried things back and forth between the house, the pub and the betting shop like the good little errand boy he was, never really knowing the damage he was doing by flittering away money like it was from JJ’s Monopoly set to Billy Vickers at the Fishponds with his tattoos and his Army stories; Rita at The Winning Post with her multicoloured nails and permanent tan from holidaying in Magaluf; and keeping things from his nanny Carol and his mum because he’d been sworn to secrecy.

As it turned out, the tip was duff and the horse came in last, just like he knew it would – the only way that horse could’ve done worse is if it had three legs. Still, he made the best of it, his granddad’s advice fresh in his mind. It did much matter that he was down a fiver, not once he’d finished with Shelley Fisher – Rita's granddaughter and his school’s gold star shag in the back office – finally getting in her knickers after a year of her playing hard to get and not hanging off his every word like all the other girls at Ashton Park. It was good while it lasted.

The rest of the advice? Well, it’s stood him in good stead these last few years, got him out of a couple of scrapes when he’s needed it. He hasn’t exactly kept his end of the bargain where number four’s concerned, but he’s not perfect, and his granddad was one of the few people who understood that and still liked him anyway.

***

Today’s an opportunity. Today’s full of them. Pregnant as they’d say. It’s the first day of college, which, people keep telling him, is a clean slate, a real chance to prove himself. He’s hated being cooped up in a classroom since he was five, and nothing’s really changed now he’s sixteen. The fact he’s passed any exam at all is a bit of a miracle, given that he doesn’t particularly try. It’s not because he’s stupid, it’s because he’s lazy; having coasted through and done the bare minimum, mostly because he knew it wound his teachers up. Nice to have a little bit of power. Even now, he doesn’t really care whether he gets his A-levels or not; he doesn’t see the point in tying himself in knots like JJ does over some silly bit of paper no one’s going to care about in ten years. For him, it’s the newness of it all that’s exciting: new faces, new places and new experiences; good and bad. If granddad taught him anything, it’s that life’s short, and you’ve got to enjoy it. Really get stuck into it and see what’s out there. The things that interest him aren’t things you learn in a classroom.

If it weren’t for Freddie’s dad, he wouldn’t be here at all, because unlike everyone else at school who’d been in his ear about his future and getting qualifications, Leo McLair actually knew what made him tick. He made him realise something he’d never even thought of: if he didn’t go to college, he wouldn’t be going anywhere, which meant there’d be no Three Musketeers if two of the Musketeers passed their exams and left Bristol for university. It struck him harder than anything the careers advisor, his form teacher Miss Perry, or his football coach, Mr Wise, had to say. He’s here because he’s got no other options. No, he’s here because he can’t bring himself to think of the alternatives. Too many people have left him behind, and there’s no way Freds and JJ were going to add to that list. So, here he is, enrolled at Sixth Form like he knows what he wants to do with his life.

***

Anytime he makes a decision, he pictures his granddad, cigar in one hand, Guinness in the other, urging him on with a “go on, lad,” and a wink, like he’s just had the greatest idea in the history of man. On reflection, he’s not quite sure if getting his cock out in the middle of assembly was a good one. His judgement’s a bit out of whack where that’s concerned, so that’s what Freddie’s for, he keeps him in check. This time, he got ‘the look’ and the patented McLair headshake of disapproval at the same time, which means he’s made a genuine twat of himself barely halfway through the new school year. In his defence, the Welsh bloke with the megaphone did tell him to do it, and people are always saying he’s got issues with respecting authority he never does as he’s told. In the spirit of fresh starts, how could he refuse?

Even so, the college director, Harriet or something equally posh, was less than impressed at his efforts, and yelled at him for fifteen minutes, hitting dolphin range once or twice – he tuned her out after a bit, said nothing when questioned, because talking just seems to make things worse – and he’s sure he’ll have bruises down there later on, but fuck it, he’s not the regretting kind. It was worth it for the little bit of chaos that unfolded and the look on all their faces. The way things are going, it’ll probably turn out to be the highlight of the day, of everyone’s day for that matter, so, he’s done his job and set the bar for anyone in possession of balls.

When he finally got out of her office and found his way through the maze of rooms to his tutorial – with some miserable bearded Irish bloke called Kieran – he walked in the room to a rather classy smattering of applause from the boys with fifty-fifty blushes and lustful looks from the ladies. He laughed it off, like always, and Freds sighed, like always, and JJ dissected the whole thing in detail, like always until he gave him a classic Cookie slap to snap him out of it. Everyone knew his name, his face, and of course, his cock. All the right ingredients for legendary status, all before lunchtime. Job done.

***

Later on, sitting in the canteen eating a burger and chips, waiting for Freds and JJ to reappear from their History lesson, he’s got a bit of time to think about everything else that Roundview’s got to offer in the way of extra curricular activities, namely, the many lovely ladies he’s cast his eyes upon already. Even with his newfound fame on his side, the window of opportunity is closing, fast. There’s a bit of a grace period, as JJ puts it, when everyone’s nice and wants to make friends because no one wants to be on their own all year, so the approach is easier than usual.

As it goes, he’s got a lot to pick from, both because Freds is a bit slow off the mark when it comes to actually doing anything about girls he fancies – he’s too much of a lazy git for all the chasing, but that’s the fun bit, sometimes the best part – and as JJ reliably informs him, there’s a higher boy to girl ratio that’s ‘advantageous.’ So, for once, quantity’s not an issue, but quality. He’s not really got a type where girls are concerned. It’s limiting, he thinks, just to stick to one kind of girl. If you stuck his exes in a line, none of them would look the same, and he likes it.

The girl from earlier on, with the none-existent dress, the long legs and the fantastic arse comes to mind first. Effy. She’s got a bit of mystery going on, and she looks like she’d be up for pretty much anything. He’ll have to be quick though; half the college has a hard-on for her already, his mates included. He hasn’t seen her since the induction stuff earlier on, so he’s on the back foot already.

As for her little blonde friend, Polly, no, Pan-fucking-dora, well, he’s not too sure; because she doesn’t looks like she’s off with the fairies. Still, he’s had a few randoms in his time, so she can go in the maybe column. Beer permitting.

Then, of course, he gets round to the twins – petite, perky and double the fun. One of them’s loud, thinks she’s something special because she’s going out with a Rovers player, that one they all fancy, Danny Guillermo. God knows why, he can play better in his sleep. She’d be worth the earache he’d get, given that she’s got mint tits and definitely looks like she knows how to have a good time. Unsurprisingly, her sister is the total opposite; quiet as a mouse and timid with it, but that doesn’t mean anything, some of the best shags he’s ever had are girls that look like butter wouldn’t melt. Always the quiet ones.

***

Elsewhere, there’s lots of average, pretty looking girls that he can’t be bothered debating the merits of, because Ashton Park was full of them, and they’re boring as fuck, as well as being boring fucks. They’re all too eager to please, their heads full of air and the problem pages in those girlie magazines. Whether he wants to or not, that’s the kind of girl he attracts, because he’s the good time boy, the one-night wonder, not the boy you take home meet your parents. He knows that, he’s alright with it; plays up to it even. That’s why he ends up being the cheeky bit of rough for the posh daddy’s girls at Westfield when they’re feeling a bit rebellious.

He’s had that. He’s had too much of that. He needs more.

That’s when it clicks.

There was one less than enthusiastic face in the assembly, and in Kieran's class now he thinks of it. That snarky blonde-haired bird, who grassed him up to the teachers. Naomi. Yes, Naomi Campbell, like the model. Now then, there’s a challenge. There’s something with a bit of interest. There’s an opportunity granddad would approve of.

***

Just then, he catches sight of a flash of blonde further up the canteen and heads off toward it at a leisurely pace. He smiles to himself when he realises he’s picked her out from six tables down after only seeing her twice. She’s got her nose stuck in a book, and her food’s barely been touched.

Sliding into the seat opposite hers, he waits for her to notice, but she doesn’t move a muscle. Going on this morning, that’ll change the second he speaks, and he’ll probably get a swift kick in the nuts, so he takes the opportunity to look while he can.

The girl with a supermodel as a namesake dresses the least like one. Every single thing she’s wearing clashes, and he has to stop looking at her jacket because looks like its escaped from one of his uncle Keith’s Hawaiian theme nights, and it’s making his eyes hurt, and yet; he likes it. Most of the girls in here look like they’re going on the pull or they’ve stepped off some invisible catwalk, and he’d have to give two weeks notice when he wanted take them anywhere. It’s not real and he’s not interested, but anyone who’s got the balls to be different, well, they’ve got his attention.

Finally, he clears his throat and makes himself known.

“Alright babe?”

She glances up briefly from her book, irritated. “You again.”

“Me again,” he gives a little nod.

“Again, I’m not a babe. I’m not your babe. I’m not anyone’s babe, got it?”

“Loud and clear,” he salutes with his free hand, grinning before adding a cheeky “babe.”

He can’t resist it.

“Tosser.”

“All charm, you,” he smirks, leaning back in his chair and sipping on his Coke.

It’s her turn to watch now. She lowers her book and looks him up and down, like she’s not sure what to make of him.

“Not going to get your cock out again are you? Given that we’re near food, I don’t think that’s hygienic.”

“Never know,” he leans forward and stabs at a chip, popping it into his mouth. “If you ask nicely, you can see it again.”

She makes a disgusted face. “I’m not after a repeat performance, thank you.”

“That’s what they all say,” he begins, taking a bite of his burger. “Soon change their minds,” he continues, despite the fact his mouth’s nearly full.

“I doubt that,” she says, with a sigh, turning over the page in her book before putting it down. “Lovely table manners.”

“Cheers. I try,” he shrugs.

“Speaking of manners, I don’t think I said you could sit here. Did you ever think I might not want to talk to anyone?”

“I don’t think, I just do, me.”

She rolls her eyes. “Obviously. If you did, you’d think twice about eating that burger.”

“Why’s that then?”

“Let’s just say there’s a low meat to crap ratio. Beef in name only.”

“Lovely,” he replies, scrunching up his face and pushing his plate away. “Still, looks better than that rabbit food,” he nods toward her own plate, heaped with salad and a baked potato. “I know it tastes better.”

“At least it won’t kill me, and something hasn’t been killed so I can eat it,” she turns away with that same disgusted look and focuses her attention on her food, beginning to clear the rest of the plate as if to prove it.

***

It’s hard work this, she’s giving him nothing except grief. He looks around for an in, something, anything that can get them past this. Unless he’s imagining it, there’s something going on. A feeling, a bit of energy, there’s probably a better word, but he doesn’t know it, and JJ the Walking Thesaurus is still MIA, so he’s got no one to ask. Then, his eyes fall upon it, the biggest bag he’s seen in his life; so big its got its own seat. A gift. ‘Warning: May Contain Ideas,’ is sewn on the front in different fabric letters. Ah, he’s got her now, she thinks she’s clever, thinks she’s better than everyone else. That explains the Ice Queen routine.

“What’s that then?” he gestures to the book next to her, because he daren’t ask about anything else.

The eco warrior, saving the planet stuff is a bit of a minefield, he knows from experience, but books are safe. Hopefully. He’s seen it mentioned before, remembers the spine on Freds’ bookshelf, but he’s never read it. They have to read enough for school, and rarely manages that, nevermind extra stuff. There’s no point when he’s got JJ to explain, saving him the bother.

“A book,” she smirks, and there’s a little glint in her eye. “I know it might be a strange concept to you, but people who come to college might actually like to read.”

“Funny,” he finds himself laughing, even if she is taking the piss. It feels like they’re making progress and he doesn’t want to derail it, so he lets it slide for now. It’s the first day, after all. “I know it’s a book, blondie.”

“Catcher in the Rye.”

“What’s it about?” he leans forward managing to keep her gaze. A small victory. It crosses his mind that she’s got quite nice eyes, when she’s not giving him death glares. They’re blue, just like that Effy girl’s.

“An obnoxious, self-centred prick. I seem to attract them.”

“Except his name’s Caulfield and not Cook, eh?” he replies, with a slight smile. In return, hers widens.

She looks mildly surprised. “Is that the start of an apology?”

“Nah, don’t really do those,” he shakes his head.

“Didn’t think so.”

The corner of her mouth quirks into a smile. It fades as soon as he notices it.

“Anyway, I’d be a busy boy if I said sorry to everyone. I’d never say anything else.”

“That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing,” she replies, dryly.

“Harsh, but fair,” he reaches for the last few chips on his plate and tips his head back before throwing one into his mouth. They’re cold now.

Before he can say anything else, the bell rings twice, signalling the end of their lunchtime. He fishes round in his pocket, checking the time on the screen, ignoring the lack of messages from either of his mates.

“Where you off?” he asks, a bit too quickly when he sees that Naomi’s started to gather up her things, his tray included.

“As lovely as this little conversation’s been, Cook, that bell means we have to go somewhere,” she stops to pick up her bag and pushes in her chair. “There’s this thing called a timetable, it tells you where you’re supposed to be.”

He shakes his head in disbelief watching her as she starts to walk away. It takes him a respectable count to twenty before he gets up and follows her, compelled by something. It’s more than just a chase now, it’s about pride. He’s usually smoother than this, but then, girls he talks to aren’t usually so defensive and wilfully immune to his charms. He expected it, to a degree, because people either take to him from the off or he grates on their nerves and they never get along.

***

There’s a bottleneck outside in the corridor, so she’s not as far away as he thought she might be. A quick bob and weave and he’s almost level with her. He squeezes through a small gap between a group of girls chatting away and the first bank of lockers to get to her before someone else does. She’s holding her bag close, gripping the strap tightly, head bowed.

“Where are you supposed to be later?” he leans over, probably a bit closer than she’d like, but he wants to make sure he’s heard over all the other noise going on.

She looks up barely, “English Literature, you know, for those people who like to read,” she picks up her pace.

He swings round in front of her in the hope she’ll slow again.

“Later, as in, tonight,” he clarifies.

“At home. Preferably alone,” she replies, dismissively, walking round him.

“That’s not very social, Naomi,” he grins. Her name sounds strange on his lips, but a nice kind of strange. “How’s about coming to a little get to know you session? You, me, my mates Freds and JJ, The Fishponds Tavern. Everyone’s coming.”

Everyone was a bit of a stretch, but Freddie’s no doubt charmed some ladies by now, and JJ will come where he’s told, so it’s just a matter of organisation. All it’ll take is a few well-timed texts to the right numbers. It’ll be infinitely easier than this.

“Jesus Christ,” she sighs. “Do you need me to write it in crayon or use smaller words? I’m not interested.”

“Ouch,” he makes a face and clutches his chest as if wounded.

“For future reference, I wouldn’t drink in that shithole of a pub if I was dying of thirst!”

He nods, feigning defeat and then wheels backwards, putting his arm out against the next locker, effectively blocking her path.

“Are you always this annoying?” she asks, defensively crossing her arms.

Maybe he was pushing his luck a bit now, but she hasn’t hit him yet, so there’s still room for negotiation.

“You always this stubborn?” he throws back.

She bites down on her lip, thoughtful, and he’s waiting for the sting to come from the next barrage. Only, there’s none of that at all.

“If I say yes, will you piss off?”

“Probably,” he moves back, nodding, letting her pass.

She goes on a little further, lets out a sigh and then turns around again.

“Fine! I’ll come!”

It’s the most grudging acceptance he’s ever gotten, but he’s worked for it, so he’ll take it.

“That’s what I like to hear!” he grins, catching up with her.

“I know,” she groans, exasperated, tacking on to the tail end of a long line of students filing into a classroom. She hangs back like she’s going to say something else, but changes her mind.

“Ladies first,” he sweeps his arm grandly, motioning for her to go in first. She looks confused for a moment, and then just shakes her head, half smiling. “Gonna give this reading thing a go, see what it’s like. Get some A-Levels perhaps.”

“Fuck sake,” he hears her say quietly, as she progresses towards the back of the classroom.

He sits on the next row across from her, leaning back on his chair, balancing precariously on two legs, craning a bit to see her. He winks at her, and she rolls her eyes, sticking up her middle finger at him.

“Classy,” he says, with a light laugh before he lets his chair drop and turns his attention back to the front of the classroom, where a women in a brightly striped cardigan and beret stands writing on the whiteboard.

***

Whenever he makes it home tonight, he’ll get off a stop early, and go to the cemetery to see his granddad. He likes to visit from time to time, and share what’s going on. It’s been far too long since he’s paid his respects, but he’s not had a lot to say that’s worth hearing either. Today feels different, feels better than he expected, like his luck’s finally about to change, and he’ll be able to walk in there proud of himself for once. He’ll take some Guinness and a cigar for old time’s sake, so they can celebrate together; maybe pick another runner from the racing pages, just to try his hand.