yes. I mean, yes, Boss Skinner.’
‘Do I need to get my hound here to help you remember?’ He exchanged significant looks with Gustav, who stood alert and ready to strike. He definitely had the look of a sausage dog that wanted to eat some ankles.
Now the whisper was back, like a breeze through a forest of razor blades.
‘You brought food in here.’
‘You brought bad food in here. Forbidden food.’
‘Boss Skinner, I didn’t—’
The hand came up again. It was impossible to carry on.
Boss Skinner took off his trainer.
He looked at the sole. He held it up to me. There were mashed donut crumbs squeezed up into the tread. He brushed the crumbs onto the floor. Gustav moved greedily towards them, but froze as his master whispered, ‘No!’
‘You lick it up,’ he said to me.
‘What, Boss Skinner?’
I glanced along the line. Most of the other kids were staring straight ahead. But the Chinese kid was looking at me. His eyes were wide open and he shook his head, as if in warning.
‘I said lick it up. Unless you want to spend a week in the cooler.’
Whatever the cooler was, I didn’t want to go there. And more than that, there was something about Boss Skinner that made it impossible to stand up to him. So I got down on my hands and knees . I was actually about to lick the crumbs off the floor, despite the envious growling of Gustav, when I realized that something was happening. There was movement all around. I looked up. The other kids had all got down on their hands and knees, too. They looked like a herd of cows.
I glanced quickly at Boss Skinner. His face had turned even greyer than before, and his lips had completely disappeared. If you were going to enter a competition to paint the Most Evil Face Imaginable by the Human Brain, and you handed in a picture of Boss Skinner looking like he did right now, you’d definitely win. Or at least come third, assuming the top two spots had gone to Adolf Hitler and Lord Voldemort.
I think at that point one of the kids actually mooed. You know, like a cow. And then someone else did, and soon the whole herd of fatties was mooing. Plus giggling, which slightly spoiled the cow-effect, the bovine race not being known as big gigglers.
Gustav didn’t like the mooing, and he backed off, whining. Maybe he’d had a bad experience with a cow.
Anyway, the upshot was that Boss Skinner’s attempt to destroy me on my first day had turned to farce. He ground his teeth, and then spun round and marched out of there, with Badwig and Gustav on his heels.
I got up, and most of the others got up as well, although the dough-faced boy stayed on to finish up the crumbs.
‘Thanks,’ I said to the black kid. ‘That was decent of you. I mean, doing that cow thing.’
He nodded, his face still impassive. ‘Like I said , hut buddies gotta stick together. ’Specially against Boss Skinner. That man’s a psychopath, even by the standards of this place. Anyway, you owned up for the donut, and that gets you some respect around here. What’s your name, kid?’
I thought for a moment. Dermot or Donut? I was called both at school.
‘Call me Donut,’ I said.
He chuckled and put out a chunky hand. ‘I’m Jermaine. They call me J-Man. Meet the gang.’
He gestured to the Chinese kid.
‘This is Dong. His parents sent him over here from Beijing, and he don’t speak a whole lot of English.’
Dong gave a little bow.
‘Hello, old chap, delighted to make your acquaintance,’ he said in perfect English.
I look quizzically at J-Man.
‘Yeah, he starts off well, but that’s it: you now heard the sum total of his conversation.’
‘Hello, old chap, delighted to make your acquaintance,’ Dong said again, as if to confirm this.
The dough-faced boy came forward. ‘This is Florian Frost,’ J-Man said. ‘We all call him Flo.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ said Flo very quickly, in a high-pitched squeaky voice. He was looking at the floor again.