Grace Goldman is completely out of my league. It was Lenny who confirmed this. We were skipping pebbles across the duck pond, Lenny was beating me. I suggested that next time we could ask Grace to come. Lenny shook his head in amusement.
“You don’t know much about women, do you squire?” he said, taking a stone and plunging it into the water with a splash.
Lenny is my oldest friend. His mum used to look after me when mine was at her Salsa class. He was allowed to watch the TV channels that I wasn’t, and he would put his feet up onto the settee while he watched them. He’s a year older than me, and his mum used to give his clothes and boots to me when he outgrew them. But Lenny didn’t stop growing, and soon his jeans were catching beneath my ankles. I just rolled up the bottoms and got my mum to stitch them into place.
Lenny got his first girlfriend about three years ago. He had never shown any real interest in girls before then, but they were all fascinated by him. Lenny has that ‘just rolled out of bed’ look. The girls in my year think he’s ‘brooding’, but I know that really he’s just grumpy about what’s happening in Prison Break. Lenny’s the type of guy who gets four Valentine’s Day cards, but forgets to open them because his latest copy of NME arrived at the same time.
Rita is in my year at school. She wears layers of bright red lipstick, and she used to kiss Lenny in the park at lunchtime. He would still have slightly stained lips when I met him at the end of the day. She sat next to me in our English class, and wrote ‘I heart Lenni’ on the front of her notebooks. I whispered it was ‘Lenny with a Y’, but she just rolled her eyes and said it was his nickname so there was no proper way to spell it. I told Lenny, and three days later she scored the note out completely. I knew the spelling would annoy Lenny because it would have bothered me. Not that girls are writing my name in hearts on their English notebooks anyway, but if they were, they’d be the kind of girls who’d be spelling it right. Lenny agreed. Four weeks later, Peter Mullen came into class sporting a rouge pout, and a new name on Rita’s notebook secured she’d moved on, and I had my friend back.
This is Lenny’s last year at school. He’s a straight A student. Mrs Courtney said she’d write a Uni reference for him ‘in a heartbeat’. Mrs Courtney wears slightly too short leather skirts, and has the nickname Mrs Cougarby. But Lenny hasn’t decided what he wants to do yet, so he’s staying for his last year. And, I think Cougarby scares him.
I’m glad that Lenny’s staying. We’re going to be partners for our Biology class. When I get to the science labs, Lenny is waiting at a bench by the window. He's already an attraction for Lucy and Amanda, who've conveniently seated themselves at the bench in front. I always liked Lucy, but Amanda reminds me of Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction; I feel like she'd get me into trouble. She smiles at me as I walk past. Definitely trouble. Lenny looks up as I sit down, acknowledging my knowing nod at the girls in front with a non-committal grunt. Grace walks in. As she walks past I feel both my own and Lenny's eyes fall onto her. I wonder if she notices. And as I look at Lenny, I wonder if he's considering this too. Then I start to wonder why he's looking at her at all.
Grace Goldman is standing at the end of my bed. She’s sifting through my CD collection sighing softly, and sometimes sniggering. She turns around slowly, and I see her holding my copy of Coldplay’s new album disgustedly, like she’s found one of my old socks.
“This,” she says, nodding at the CD, “is a deal-breaker.”
I want to launch into my pre-prepared argument on the validity of Coldplay. I want to tell her that her disapproval is just the product of a Chris Martin hating conspiracy, carefully plotted by the publicists of Oasis, and by the work of Noel Fielding. It’s the same argument that I offered to Lenny when he backed away from me in HMV when I first bought the CD. I want to tell Grace about my theory, because I’m actually quite proud of it - and because I really do like Coldplay. But instead I tell her it must be my mum’s: Score 1 for Fielding. Grace rolls her eyes in reply, giggling as she lies down on the bed next to me. She kisses me softly, running her fingers through my ruffled hair, smoothing it down.
When I told Lenny about Grace we were at his house playing Halo on his Xbox. Lenny doesn’t usually like playing it. He only has an Xbox because his uncle works for the company who make the controllers, so he got it when his cousin, Noah, grew bored of it. I met Noah at Lenny’s mum’s fortieth. He was sitting alone at a table, inefficiently throwing place-settings into the empty wine glasses. He definitely looked like he’d be more stimulated with the cardboard box the Xbox came in, than with the console itself.
We’d been playing for about an hour, and I sensed Lenny was getting bored so I pretended to yawn and paused the game, checking the time on my phone-screen.
“Do you think I could ask Grace to come over?” I asked, hoping it sounded casual, wiping my finger across my phone’s contact-list to avoid catching his eye.
Lenny looked at me quizzically.
“Right squire, out with it,” he laughed, and whipped the phone from my hands.
Grace had been moved next to me that first week of Biology. Dr Alison had stormed into class ten minutes late, wearing a crumpled shirt and the smell of last night’s medicinal whisky. There’s a rumour that Dr Alison and Miss French from Home Economics are secretly together. The class went awkwardly quiet as he slammed his briefcase on the desk, and I heard Tony McKenzie whisper that ‘maybe Miss French wasn’t offering the Frenchy’. Everyone sniggered. Dr Alison glared at Tony venomously, and the class went quiet again.
“Seating plan,” he snarled vengefully, and the class erupted into cries of ‘but that’s not fair sir!’
“Quiet!” he barked, and silence fell as everyone scowled at Tony, whose eyes were conveniently fixed down on the notebook in front of him.
Lenny was moved next to Amanda, who elbowed Lucy off the bench to make space for him. He sat down with notable discomfort to a rapturous Amanda who grinned unabashedly at him. Then Grace was moved to the vacant seat next to me. She smiled genuinely as she sat down. Tony gave me a thumbs-up, grinning and winking lecherously. We had to dissect chicken wings. Lenny knows that I hate anything to do with blood. As does most of the school. A discovery made upon the demonstration of a pig’s heart dissection in my second year Science class, which prompted a not entirely masculine fainting on my part. Much to Tony’s delight, who spent the following months performing flamboyant re-enactments whenever he saw me. He would collapse dramatically, shouting “No! Please! Not the ventricle!” to the amusement of himself, our classmates, and on one occasion even soliciting a poorly disguised snigger from our Maths teacher.
The next week Lenny wasn’t at school, and he didn’t reply when I texted him. I figured he was ill and laid up in bed watching re-runs of Never Mind the Buzzcocks. I didn’t want to trek to the Burger Van with Tony at lunchtime. He was having girl problems, again. Mainly because he’s convinced that Amanda has a ‘thing for him’. Lucy told me Amanda does. But I didn’t want to tell him that. He’d be disappointed anyway. He likes ‘The Challenge’. So I had lunch in the canteen instead. Grace was sitting on her own, so I took my tray and sat next to her. She didn’t say anything, she just laughed, pointing at my choice of chicken sandwich.
“See, it’s hardly Shakespeare,” I mumbled embarrassedly, as I finished telling Lenny.
“True,” said Lenny, “you’re more Gatsby than Romeo, you stalker.” He grinned, nodding at the revision-guide that he’d lent to me for my English assignment. I struggled for a witty retort I wasn’t quite sure how insulted I should have been. I hadn’t actually made it past the first chapter of the book at that point, I just knew it was an insult from the way he was smirking at me.
“Are you going to see her just now?” he asked more soberly.
“I could invite her over here?” I suggested.
But he rolled his eyes at me saying “you really don’t know anything about women, do you squire?”
I haven’t seen much of Lenny since then. He hasn’t been at school much since the start of the year. Cougarby pulled me into her office to ask if everything was OK with him. I texted him, but he just said that he ‘couldn’t be bothered’. And when I warned him Cougarby might take it upon herself to come and nurse him better, he didn’t reply. I think about suggesting to Grace that we could go and see Lenny. But he’s being so grumpy recently that I can’t be bothered to. I pull Grace closer, and she uncurls her hands from my hair and slips one under the collar of my shirt, kissing me closely. I’ll text Lenny at the weekend I think, as I pull the covers around us, smiling.
Grace Goldman waits beside me at the foot of the steps. She reaches around the cuff of my leather jacket and links her hand into mine, squeezing it softly. I stand there limply, letting her hold me up. It’s quarter to three. Visiting hours end at four. I know we’re late, but I just stand there. I hate this place.
Grace speaks politely to the receptionist. She’s wearing her school shirt, but without her tie she looks too formal, like she’s come to a funeral. I didn’t go to school again today, but even in my jeans I feel uncomfortable. Last time we came, Lenny was still in his pyjamas. He had had the Arctic Monkeys hoodie I’d bought him for Christmas pulled over the top of Superman trousers his mum had picked up for him in Primark. He didn’t look right. I’d only really bought him the hoodie because I’d hoped that he’d lend me it. Lenny isn’t the hoodie-wearing type. He’s always been more Alex Turner than ‘avid fan’. He looked young. When I got home I took my Arctic Monkeys’ albums from my shelf, and laid them on my bed. Then I picked them up, and smashed each one against the wall. Grace didn’t say anything. She just waited until I stopped, and then she pulled me onto my bed and wrapped her arm around me. We lay there until she fell asleep.
This time Lenny is fully dressed. He’s wearing clothes his mum picked for him again. When we walk in, Grace hugs him closely, and then tugs at the hem of Lenny’s too-orange t-shirt, laughing.
“You’re taking this Prison Break addiction too far, Len” she jokes.
Lenny laughs softly, and Grace lets go, sitting down on the bed. Lenny walks over to me and we hug, awkwardly. Neither of us are normally ‘huggers’. My mum is. She always hugs Lenny when he comes round to our house, like she’s not seen him in months, rather than days. He still looks confused when she hugs him, like he thinks she’s forgotten to put on her glasses, and she was actually aiming for another boy, not him. Lenny and I never hug, but I feel like I’ve forgotten what we normally do. This isn’t normal for us.
Lenny was admitted two months ago. His mum came home from work and he was sitting on the floor of the bathroom, painted in his own blood. He didn’t leave a note. He told the doctor that he hadn’t wanted to die, he just didn’t want to live anymore. They sent him here once they’d stitched up the holes in his wrists. They said they thought he might try it again.
Lenny’s room isn’t right. He has a window, but it hardly opens. Lenny said it’s to stop them trying to smoke. It looks more like it’s to stop them trying to escape. He’s got a few posters blue-tacked to the walls, but they’re just the ones he gets free in NME. His mum told mine that she didn’t want to take him anything from his actual room to put in here. She wanted him to want to come back. I stood at the door and watched my mum hold Lenny’s while she cried. That night my mum came into my room and kissed me on the forehead, like she did when I was a child. She squeezed my shoulder tightly before she left. He’s got a few books lined along the wall, but he’s not allowed CDs. Lenny said the guy in the room next to him has a problem with food. He said he’s really loud, but they get on well enough. He said the girl opposite is shyer. He told us that she hears voices. There are a few cards on the window-ledge. Most say ‘Thinking of You’, but there’s one at the end that reads ‘Get Well Soon’ in large, colourful letters. I want to tear that card into pieces and throw them through the gap in the window.
Grace is sitting next to Lenny discussing their English class. She tells him about how Mr Elliott had got them to stage Romeo and Juliet as an episode of the Jerry Springer show, and Craig and Rory had got ‘way too into it’. I’d seen this too. Rory had come running into my classroom, chased by Craig who was shouting “Not this time Montague! That’s my daughter!” Lenny laughed genuinely, but gently. I wonder if he wants to hear about school. People keep asking me to say ‘hi’ for them, but I doubt if Lenny even knew most of them, so I rarely pass it on. It goes quiet and Grace sighs loudly, telling Lenny she needs to go and phone her mum. Grace’s mum has it in her head that I’m a ‘bad-boy’, and phones Grace periodically to check that I’ve not taken her joyriding or to my ‘dealer’s’ house. Grace squeezes Lenny’s shoulder, narrowing her eyes at me as she walks out. I’m still leaning against the doorframe and I haven’t said anything other than ‘hey’ since we got here. I’m suddenly really conscious that I’m alone with Lenny.
I tell Lenny about Grace’s mum’s conspiracy theories about me. He laughs, but we don’t meet each other’s eye and it feels false. It all feels false. It goes quiet again. I tell him Lucy and Amanda are both asking after him. He nods, but doesn’t look up. I tell him Tony asked Amanda to go and see Sherlock Holmes with him at the cinema. He’d hoped that it’d make him look ‘intellectual’, but he’d told her it’s because he ‘loved Agatha Christie’. Lenny smiles and murmurs ‘Classic Tony’, laughing. It goes quiet again.
“So, how are you Len?” I ask.
It’s a stupid question, but I feel more stupid just standing there, silent. Lenny’s my oldest friend, but the boy on the bed is a stranger.
“I’m fine,” he sighs. “You know, just, the usual,” he laughs, hollowly.
“Are they letting you come home soon?” I blurt out uncertainly.
Lenny looks up at me.
“No. Not just yet,” he says, looking back down at the bed.
It goes quiet again. I don’t know what to say. I want Grace to come back. She gets annoyed at me for how I am with Lenny. But we don’t discuss it much because I get angry, and then we fall out. Lenny looks over at me.
“How’re things with Daisy?” he smiles gently.
“Who?” I ask.
“Doesn’t matter,” he looks back down.
“Oh!” I laugh, “Grace!” Lenny smiles again. “We’re good,” I say, and pause thoughtfully. “We’re really good, Len,” I smile proudly, and I ignore the awkwardness and move to sit next to him on the bed.
I tell him about her mum again, and this time he laughs more openly. I tell him her brother thinks I’m tall, which he laughs at because Lenny always makes fun of me for being short. He laughs again when I tell him Grace’s sister, Emily, always asks me if ‘I’m bringing Lenny next time’, and blushes when I ask her why she wants to know.
“You’re in there, Len,” I smirk, nudging him, and he pushes me back, rolling his eyes.
Lenny’s still smiling, but he looks sad somehow again. It goes silent. I’m about to make another joke about Emily, but Lenny cuts me off.
“I want to come home,” he whispers quietly.
He’s looking down at the bed sheets again, and I can see his eyes watering. I’ve never seen Lenny cry.
“I just…I just don’t know how,” he shrugs.
I want to tell him that it’ll be alright, but I know it’s not enough just to say it. And I know he might not be. But I want him to be. He’s Lenny. I want him to be alright. I put my arm around his shoulder and pull my friend into a hug, feeling him crying gently against my t-shirt.
And I don’t let him go.