B.Obby, by Michael Robertson
A new contributor gives us a reminder that not all bullies are in the classroom and not all friends can be seen. Fiction Editor
B.Obby, by Michael Robertson
Sitting on the packed and sweaty school bus, staring intently at his peers like a cheerful little mole, Bobby is close enough to the back to hear what the older and cooler kids are saying, but not so close as to be ejected from his seat by someone higher up in the social pecking order. While staring at a boy two years above him at school, listening to his conversation about getting drunk, Bobby laughs and says, “I know exactly what you mean.”
The conversation stops dead and they regard the eager twelve year old with utter contempt. The boy then snorts a laugh and returns to his conversation. Bobby pretends not to be hurt by this, runs a hand over his cropped fuzzy hair, and beams his broad and indomitable smile at his peers. None of them notice.
I’m watching over Bobby because the big man has asked me to. He’s a high priority so he gets an angel full time. I’ve just finished helping an eight-year-old girl cope with the death of her baby brother. It was a long a heartbraking assingment. Bobby is my next job. My main task is to hold his hand as much as I can, like we’re supposed to, like we were taught to. Sometimes, it can make the world of difference, sometimes they don’t even realise that you’re there.
The bus, like it does every day, drops him off at his grandma’s house. It’s cold out, so he scurries up to the front door and knocks as he shivers on the doorstep. I slip inside and see the cruel woman look up from her paper, glance through her window into the wintery dark, and then continue reading. He knocks again and there is still no reply. After five minutes of knocking, she finally gets to her feet and screeches, “Okay, I’m coming, stop banging will ya.” When she opens the door, she doesn’t even acknowledge him, she just walks away.
Bobby steps out of the cold and I hold his hand in the hallway as he shouts, “Hi Grandma, how was your day?” We’re swallowed by the silence.
Grandma’s house is all doily’s and crystal ornaments, and he has to make sure that he touches nothing. It also smells musty like an old coat at the back of a wardrobe.
Bobby and I sit on the hard sofa watching television. He only moves when he needs to go to the toilet, and even then, he waits for as long as he can because he doesn’t want to give her any excuse attack him.
Having spent too much time on her own, Grandma has lost the ability to compromise and is stuck in a rigid routine that she refuses to deviate from. It’s her way or get lost. Bobby is quietly compliant.
At four forty-five, she gives Bobby dinner on the same tray that he had yesterday. It has a wildlife scene on it that has worn away from years of use. The rim is chipped and broken underneath, making the white plastic jagged. It digs into his small legs, but he tolerates it. The dinner, as always, is straight from the oven. He has chips, peas and some form of breaded meat. He doesn’t ask what meat it is because it doesn’t really matter, the grey salty mush all tastes and looks the same anyway. Whilst chewing a bland mouthful, he says, “Thanks for dinner Grandma.”
Her reply cuts through the air like a bullwhip, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
There’s a quiz show on the television hosted by an ageing actor who is doing his best to pretend that he’s happy, but he’s not. Highly polished white teeth and a grimace of a grin isn’t enough to fool an angel. Nothing is in fact, we always see the truth. That’s one of the perks of the job. Or, if you’re in the company of a woman like Bobby’s grandma, then it’s one of the downfalls. Her dark heart is like fossilized excrement and being in her company leaves a horrible aftertaste.
“It’s Nixon,” she shouts at the inanimate object. “The answer is President Nixon.” Her raspy voice feels like a dentist’s drill into my skull and her bony body that’s perched on the chair, along with her thinning black hair, makes her look like a vulture in its twilight years.
“No, it’s not,” Bobby says. “It’s President Clinton.” He instantly regrets speaking.
When the depressed television host concurs with Bobby, his Grandma hisses at him, “Shut up boy. I didn’t ask you for the answer did I?”
Bobby drops his head and mumbles at his knees, “No Grandma, you didn’t.”
Staring at him like she has murder on her mind, she adds, “Remember that you’re here as a favour to your mother, not because I want you here. Have you got that?”
This woman will have some serious questions to answer when her day comes to leave this earth. I hope I’m called upon to give evidence.
“You would also do well to remember that children should be seen and not heard. Living by that mantra never did me any harm.”
Bobby stares at his plate and bites his tongue. He then takes another mouthful of the foul tasting salty food, a light gag lifting his stomach as he swallows.
Sometimes his mum is punctual, but today is like most days where five o’clock comes and goes and there is no sign of her. Five o’clock is Grandma’s time to start on the gin and it’s the worst part of Bobby’s day. For the next hour, the only sound in the house is glass clinking glass as she tops her drink up, and the only place she looks is at the side of his tanned face.
After ninety minutes, she’s halfway though the bottle and her piercing blue eyes have turned predatory. She shakes like a sufferer of Parkinson's, but she doesn’t have that disease, her ailment is a bitter mind and an acid tongue. Her trembling is a fight to contain her fury. Then her sharp blue eyes narrow for the kill and she starts muttering indecipherable ravings that sound like satanic incantations.
He stares straight ahead, her glare making it feel like the side of his face is on fire.
After two hours, she speaks more clearly, “Your mum doesn’t love you you know.”
Bobby stares at the screen, his brown eyes pinching at the sides from the pain of hearing this. This is the only reaction he shows her, but I feel the hurt in his chest and the nausea in his stomach.
Her thin lips curl down and she says, “She’s probably busy with whichever man she’s trying to line up as a replacement to your dad. The sex is more important than you.”
I can see him tremble, luckily for him, she’s too drunk to notice and gives up on the insults.
After three hours of the poisonous old woman’s company, he’s finally watching her house get smaller from the passenger seat of his mother’s old white BMW. She drives fast like she’s trying to get him home in record time so she can go out again.
The speed makes him feel sick, so he takes a deep breath before he speaks. “Why is Grandma so cruel?”
Hunched over the steering wheel, her face a fierce mask of concentration surrounded by off blonde hair, she says, “Ah, you know that she doesn’t mean all of the things that she says, don’t you honey?” She calls everyone honey, he’s not special.
Although her expression is as bland now as it always is, he sees the lie. He even understands it. To admit that she’s a horrible old woman, is to admit that he shouldn’t be going there every night, and she’s clearly not prepared to do that.
The smell in the old car is sweet and sweaty, and it threatens to turn bad like souring milk. An adult would recognize it instantly. All Bobby knows is that it makes him uncomfortable and he continues staring into the darkness ahead.
He goes to his room and turns his computer on the second he gets home. He listens as the front door slams shut and her car starts up outside. She doesn’t even tell him that she’s going out. His small frame sags at the thought of another night alone. I hold his hand. He doesn’t feel it.
The virtual world of his online fantasy game is where he thrives, where the real Bobby, hiding behind an avatar, comes to life. This is where his true friends are, and although they’re cyber companions represented by virtual avatars of buxom women or stacked men, all of them attractive, powerful or intimidating, all of the things their creators are not, they’re kind to him and he belongs in their ranks. Bobby’s name is Deathbringer and his avatar is an axe-wielding hulking necromancer. His friends, like him, are on every night. They give him the consistency that a twelve year-old boy needs, and because of his game playing ability, the praise that he doesn’t get anywhere else.
The next day in school, he sits at the front dreaming up online strategies to become the best assassin. The seat next to him is often empty, so he is surprised when a boy takes it. The boy’s name is James Hernandez and he’s a popular kid.
Laughing, Bobby says, “So you decided to sit up at the front today James?”
The look from the shaggy haired boy shows his latent anger. “No B.Obby, Miss said I have to,” he spits out.
Slightly confused by the pronunciation of his name, Bobby leans back in his seat, put his hands behind his head, which receives a look of aggression from the moody boy, who is staring directly at his sweaty armpits, and says, “Ah it’s not all bad up here. You get to hear what the teacher has to say.”
James ignores him.
His eyes flash wide and sparkle as he adds, “Sometimes you get to see down Miss’ blouse.”
Having heard this, Mrs. Brown points to the door and says, “Bobby. Out.”
Silently compliant, Bobby leaves the room to stand in the hallway. For some this isn’t a bad punishment, but Bobby loves to be around people, so solitude is torture for him. I hold his hand. He doesn’t feel it.
That night, when he walks into his Grandma’s house, she pulls a sticker off his back and reads it aloud. “Hi, My name’s B.Obby and I stink.” Sniffing the air, a cruel smile lifting one side of her face, she says, “Makes sense,” and leaves him standing in the kitchen on his own with nothing but the low buzz from the freezer.
Desperate to discuss it with his mother in the car on the way home, Bobby tries to talk to her, but she spends the entire journey on the phone to her boyfriend, scowling at him every time he tries to interrupt. The reason for the smell making his skin crawl may have eluded him, but the giggling and innuendo… For the first time he wonders if his mother realises that he exists.
The next night his Grandma finds him by her purse. “What are you doing?” she snarls.
“I’m putting some money back.”
“You’re putting money back? Why do you have to put money back?”
“I borrowed some, Grandma, and I’m putting the change back.”
Grabbing his wrist with a pincer like grip made him drop the money on the floor. Pointing at it, she says, “Pick it up boy.” Bobby obediently obeys and when he bends down, receives a whack around the back of his head. “Now give it to me you horrible little urchin.”
Rubbing where he’s just been struck, his head spinning and tears standing in his eyes, he hands it over. “I was just buying --”
“Sweets I bet. You fat little brat. Sweets.” She then leaves him on his own in the hallway.
Pulling a huge breath into his body that smells of dust, Bobby stares at his feet. “Deodorant,” he whispers, the gentle throb on the back of his head staying with him as a reminder of her cruelty.
“I can’t repay her you know.” His mum says in the car on the way home. “That was her food money for the week and you stole it from her. You won’t be able to go back there now. You’ll have to go to the library after school from now on.”
He doesn’t try to explain.
Walking to the library after school, ‘the little thief’, as he was now referred to by his family, shuffles slowly because he doesn’t like books. He’d much rather play video games.
Although he hated going to his Grandma’s house, standing in the large sterile space of the library makes him feel like a spare part. Like he doesn’t belong. All he can do here is count books and try to ignore the smell of disinfectant.
After two weeks, he’s worked out that each shelf holds approximately seventy-five books and there are seven hundred shelves. Pleased with this knowledge, he walks over to the librarian and says, loudly, “Did you know --”
But before he can finish, she scowls at him and says, “Shhhh.” He’s heard that before.
The library’s open for another half an hour, and he’s supposed to stay here until it closes, but because his mum’s never home when he gets in, he decides to leave early and hope that today isn’t the day that she has her boyfriend over. He’s never seen her boyfriend, but he knows what he sounds like because his television won’t go up loud enough.
As he walks home, he fantasizes about a hot meal on the table and a warm hug from his mum. He imagines her saying how pleased she is to see him and that she loves him. I hold his hand as we walk, and for the first time, I think he feels it because I see his little hand curl slightly.
It starts to rain so we break into a gentle jog, well, Bobby does. I float. The large rucksack on his back flick-flacks like a wild pendulum as he dodges puddles and tries to ignore the cold water seeping in through the holes in the bottoms of his shoes. He makes it home in record time, and when he gets into the kitchen, he shakes his head like a dog to lose some of the excess water.
After five minutes, he still feels out of breath, and his chest is tight like an elephant is resting on it. Sitting down, he drags thin breaths through his ever-closing throat.
After fifteen minutes, he looks like a fish on a riverbank with wide watery eyes bulging from his panicked red face.
Instead of getting better, it gets worse, the panic tightens his throat. Stars form in his eyes. His heart hammers. He turns purple.
His mum comes home several hours later, eating a McDonalds that she has no intention of sharing. She finds Bobby as white as paper and slumped on the floor. His pulse is as absent as she has been for his entire life. She doesn’t cry, she just stares, devoid of emotion and chewing her burger. Before calling the emergency services, she thinks about her dog that died when she was a child and tears rise to the surface. Now she’s ready to make the call.
I hold his hand as we watch her frantically tidying the place before the ambulance arrives. She puts make up on and doesn’t give him a second glance. I stand by his side and wait. I will wait for as long as he needs me to. That’s my job.
Once they take his body away, he turns to look at me. Although his big brown eyes are full to bursting, he’s ready to go. Kneeling down and putting my hands on his small shoulders, I look into the sad face that knows more pain and neglect than a child should ever feel. I then lead him towards the white light. As we walk, I look down on his bowed head and rolled shoulders. “So Bobby, tell me about your day.”
He can hear me now for the first time. Looking up with a frown, he eyes me suspiciously. When I don’t look away, his features soften and he almost smiles. Drawing a gargantuan breath, he begins, “Well, I worked out that there are probably over fifty thousand books in the library.”
Putting my arm around his shoulders, I smile and pull him close as we walk together. He definitely feels it this time.