Playtime, my short story, is set in a junior school in East London where I grew up, and through it I hope to draw attention to today’s harsh reality of growing up in heavily urban areas. The story exposes the increasingly more potent issue of gun crime not only in London, but nationwide, and through the traumatic encounters of the protagonist, Joshua, shows how children today are being denied a sacred period of blissful ignorance during childhood.
A lack of sensitivity, prospects and opportunities in London schools during the last fifteen years has given rise to a generation who resent the educational system which turned its back on them. Although London schools have now improved due to increased funding, many former students still terrorise the area, and my story highlights how this issue is being ignored through the school’s headteacher. She notices only the social problems which affect her, such as gender equality in the working world, and whilst this is still a pertinent issue, I believe we should identify all problems facing our society as a community without focusing on the most personal to us, so that we can begin working on solutions together.
Joshua Abyaz was nine years old when he heard the gunshots.
He was sat in class Green Four of Saint Bartholomew Junior School, in the middle of doing a maths test. Josh was a quick thinker, but when it came to algebra and isosceles triangles, he didn’t know where to start. When would he need to use half of this stuff outside of a classroom? He was short for his age, with a dusting of short black curls on his head, and had an innocent smile. As a baby, Josh’s Baptist had shed tears of joy looking down at the beaming child in his arms. ‘This one has blessed cheekbones,’ he said to Josh’s large family gathered around the font, hands intertwined. And the Baptist had laughed, an infectious and bellowing laughter brimming with happiness and pride. Joined by Josh’s family, the holy sound of laughter, real, prophetic laughter, had reverberated off the church’s rusting bells, rising upwards. The doves above had cooed in exaltation. The sun had shone through the church’s stained windows, colours of every shade enveloping the gurgling baby and his family in jovial warmth. And with red cheeks and pure hearts, Josh’s family began to sing. His song, his special song. But like a favourite song, good things must come to an end.
Once Josh had started school, he became aware of other people; people who disliked him, and didn’t laugh in celebration and joy. Josh’s family came from Nigeria, and older kids at school made sure he remembered that. “You don’t look English,” they would tell him. “Not like us.” But if ‘English’ was a spotty and greasy face, with a crooked smile distorted by a thick, clacking mouth brace, why should he be like them? Often confused, he’d run into his kitchen one Sunday morning and cling to his mother, the flour of her apron sticking to his tear-dampened cheeks.
‘These boys at school said I don’t look English,’ he sobbed. “What do we look like Mama?”
“You are beautiful Joshua,” his mother told him, her voice like warm milk and honey, soothing his whimpers and confusion. She softly stroked the top of his fuzzy head. “And don’t let anyone ever tell you different.” She ran the side of her thumb down his cheekbones, wiping away the flour that had whitened them. “It’s almost time for church now,” she said with a smile. “Come on, let’s go and sing.”
Josh looked up from his maths paper. He was stuck on the first question, and doubted he would have any success with the others. He peered around the room instead, in search of some inspiration. As its name suggested, the walls of Green Four were painted a mossy green, and still smelled slightly of spirit from a recent recoating. A huge world map was pinned to the wall on his left, coloured in by everyone in his class. The map was a mixture of various levels of patience: Some children had carefully coloured within the outlines of the image, but to Josh it was obvious that most kids had abandoned these, madly scratching the page and leaving streaks of crayon and felt-tip pen in random arcs. Josh had coloured inside the lines.
At the front of the class sat Mr Davis, his teacher. Between erratic sips of black coffee, he was frantically typing away on his computer sending emails, the monitor blocking his tired face from the rest of the class. Mr Davis was a tall, gangly man, whose grey trousers did not quite cover the full length of his legs, leaving straggly hairs protruding from under the cuffs. Accompanying these trousers, he wore a loose green flannel shirt left untucked at the waist. Mr Davis would have been branded a nerd in school; he desperately needed a shave, and his strained brown eyes, as well as his skinny limbs, revealed a man who spent too much time behind a screen. Josh’s gaze shifted to the right, past the other children intently staring at their tests, trying to make sense of the numbers on the page. His eyes settled on the windows to his right. He squinted to see outside in the bright mid-morning sunlight. An empty playground. He hoped it would be playtime soon; he could almost hear the thumping sound his foot made connecting with the ball as he took a goal kick; could almost feel the wind in his hair as he ran in a game of Runouts.
Josh was snapped back to reality by a deafening siren, the sound reverberating down his entire body and back up to his ears. The fire alarm had gone off.
By now Josh had gone through his fair share of fire drills at school: they took place once every term, and he hurriedly made his way to the playground, chatting in a hushed voice with the boys next to him whilst being shushed by an irritated Mr Davis. ‘Fire drills are great,’ thought Josh. It was like an early playtime.
The alarm still rang throughout the hallways, now muffled by the loud murmurs of two hundred and fifty adrenaline-filled children, who proceeded to line up outside on the chalked assembly lines of the playground. The headteacher, a burly woman, who looked to be in her late forties, spoke to them through a megaphone whilst stood on a box, which was used to keep footballs and toys for playtime.
“Quiet down now, please,” she asked in a firm tone, and raised an arm in the air until the children complied shortly after. It’s a strange thing, the way that being taller than the children, and simply displaying this, quietened them down. Maybe it even scared them. Sandra Williams was the head of Saint Bartholomew Junior School, and she was proud of it. Starting her teaching career as a substitute teacher, she would put in more hours than half of the school’s male staff. After insisting to the school that her desire was to become a teacher, and not a secretary, the children had been more used to seeing her than the teachers she’d covered for. She had worked tirelessly. One thing she’d learnt through her years of teaching was that kids listened to you when you had their respect. It didn’t matter what you were teaching. It didn’t matter if you were a woman. Earning that respect had not been easy. As she wetted her plump lips to speak again, the revving of an engine could be heard echoing off the school’s surrounding high-rise apartment buildings.
“Now,” she began with a curt smile. “Fortunately, this was just a drill, and there was no actual fire in the building.” The head now lowered her arm and placed a pudgy hand on her hip. “Had this been a real emergency, I don’t think we’d all still be standing here.” To this, the children began turning around in their lines, looking with confusion at their friends and teachers to find out what the woman meant by that.
“We need to be quicker next ti-,” stated the head, though the low growling of a car on the school’s street interrupted her. Seemingly outspoken, her face reddened, and took an irritated expression, her narrowed eyes scanning the street behind the lined-up children for a culprit. The noise of the engine became louder. Josh could almost smell its exhaust fumes: The car just sounded unhealthy. For the first time since the fire alarm had gone off, Josh was completely silent, concentrating only on the growl of the nearby car, which was slowly becoming a roar. The other children were still haggling Mr Davis and the other teachers about the head’s words.
“What does she mean by ‘next time’?”
“Is Ms Williams going to set the school on fire?”
“Why do we have to be quicker?”
The car was very close now, and from the ferocity of its growling engine, had also picked up speed. The shouts of men could faintly be heard from the same direction as the car. Josh turned around to see the front tyres appear behind the school’s black metal railings. Over the deafening roar of the engine, a man screamed out:
Three shots fired from a pistol that were so loud Josh gasped in pain, clutched both his ears and crouched to the floor, his face twisted in confused agony. He heard screams from every direction. Everyone began to run in panic. Josh remained crouched, staring at the ground spinning beneath him. Josh’s innocent, underdeveloped mind struggled to process the madness enveloping him, his eyes streamed tears, and his nose ran. Everything was a blur, as if he were crouched in the eye of a typhoon, looking out at a hazy rendition of the world, contorted by too much motion.
After what seemed like an eternity, the haziness of Josh’s vision faded and the storms began to cease behind his eyes. Looking up from the concrete of the playground, he saw the headteacher lying dead in a congealing pool of blood. Like a burst carton of juice, she was slowly oozing blood out onto the dusty concrete playground, still clutching her loudspeaker in her right hand, now a pale white. Chaos had erupted in the playground. Children were screaming, Mr Davis was screaming, and teachers were doggedly rounding up their classes, making sure everyone was still alive. The school nurse now knelt beside the bullet-ridden headteacher, sombrely relaying the news to a 999 operator. Josh looked around in desperation. Left. Right. Left again. What was going on? Was this a real emergency, like what the head was talking about? His breathing quickened, his forehead felt like bursting open, releasing all his unanswered questions. His mother was at work; he had no milk and honey to aid his confusion and panic. That special song from his baptism was a distant memory. Now, all Josh could hear was sobbing, screams and the faint wailing of an approaching ambulance.
Playtime would never be the same again.