‘The Great Wave’

Trust me to fall in love with Halil Çelik.

Halil. Çelik. The boy who made my first two years of high school one long, slow, undignified retreat back into my shell. Who made me and my friends eat lunch everyday crouched at the edge of the playground.

It’s not like he’s done anything to me personally – apart from stand there laughing at other kids’ jokes. But even so… One hundred and ten boys in my year, three hundred and seven in the years above, and I fell for him?

Typical disregard for logic, my friends say. Or would say, if they knew I liked boys.

Wait, it gets worse: I’ve fallen right on cue for Valentine’s Day. I know what you’re thinking: has it only been a year since we pulped a rainforest so that people could express their most basic of emotions in the most impersonal way imaginable?

I wish I could join you in a scornful shrug and leave it at that. I can’t. Yes, it’s a vacuous diversion from mankind’s impending self-destruction – but it’s a vacuous diversion from mankind’s impending self-destruction that’s off-limits to me. Try as I might, I can’t help caring.

My last Valentine’s was in primary school. An entirely innocent affair. Granted, I’d assumed she was pledged to marry me – and seem to have made quite detailed wedding plans in the diary I kept at the time – but I’ve always had an active imagination.

My fifteenth is different, though perhaps no less imaginary. I’m sending Halil a Valentine’s card. I’m going to protest this orgy of commercial crassitude and partake of it a little.

Only a few small niggles: what to buy; what to write; what to do when I’m caught, publicly humiliated, and get the crap kicked out of me.

That last one is maybe not so small.

On Thursday after school I went to WH Smith’s to buy a card. This might not sound like a big deal, but it’s huge. I left it late, partly from habit and to put off confronting the gaudy horror of it all, but mainly in the hope that I would have seen sense and dropped the idea. (No such luck.)

Standing in front of the cards, I couldn’t help feeling like any one I picked would be the ‘gay’ one. (What strangers think shouldn’t matter but it does.) Anyway, while I’m standing there paralysed by indecision, this really rough-looking bloke – he probably has ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ etched on his knuckles – reached past me and quickly grabbed the soppiest-looking heart-shaped card they had, all teddy bears and glittery cherubs. Didn’t bat an eyelid. How does he manage that?

I was more than a little envious. This was a minefield. I couldn’t get a jokey or cutesy one, because then Halil would think it’s one of his mates winding him up. It’s ok for a guy to give a girl a girly card, and vice versa. Why can’t there be a manly Valentine’s card? I should have thought this through before I came, of course, except that

I’ve never had to think about any of this before.

So, pre-empting the panic sweats, I plucked a card from the arts section. Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa.’

Halil does art. Hangs round with the arty kids. That’s his thing now, I guess. He must have some talent or the school would have kicked him out long ago.

The next minute I’m paying at the till, when…

“Neal!”

It’s only Eli. I sit next to him a lot. He’s harmless enough; all he wanted to tell me was how boring History was. Which it was (has he forgotten I was there too?). Alas, I think he saw the card. It became too big a risk.

I waited until he was out of sight, feigning interest in the bestsellers. “We’re closing,” the guy behind the counter said. I blindly grabbed a handful of cards from the Valentine’s section, the most generic available. Then I was off, speed-walking home like I had a severed head in my backpack.

Halil, Halil, Halil. I think he’s mellowed out in the past year or so. Seems to mix with a different crowd, thankfully. His old crowd gave us hell.

Something else I’ve noticed: he’s starting to look just a little dorkish. Big green anorak. Oversized aviators. Long frizzy hair. I know it’s all done for ironic effect, but it’s enough to give me hope.

I can’t rationally explain why Halil is who I think about while I’m spooning cushions. There’s a phrase, though, that’s stuck in my head, from this novel we read last term. This old woman remembers how, as a teenager, her tutor’s ‘chunky, golden, male-smelling body compounded her curiosity.’

I guess my curiosity must be pretty compounded for me to even think of doing this.

They were, without exception, the lamest cards you’ve ever seen. One of them had a meerkat on it, I kid you not.

Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t write anything meaningful beneath a meerkat.
Fortunately some unfamiliar defiance arose in me. I grasped the ‘Great Wave’ and thought…to hell with the consequences!

(Or, more accurately, to hell with slightly increasing the odds of specific consequences that I still wished, desperately, to avoid.)

After all, Halil might take the card round the whole school, showing everyone, and he might show it to someone who might mention it to Eli, who might remember bumping into me, and might choose to ruin my life on a whim. That’s a lot of mights. But you know what? It’s taken enough courage getting to this point. So I’ll take those mights.

A ‘Great Wave’ though… What does it mean? Be my tidal wave? Let’s go surfing? You overpower me, utterly?

Yeah, that last one will do.

It’s finally here, the acceptable face of deforestation, and P.E. may be my unlikely saviour.

Mid-morning in the changing rooms and everyone is hurrying, either to get started or to get it over with. But I take my time, and when I’m feeling especially brave or stupid or both, I peer into the chaos quickly, just to spot where Halil’s getting changed. When everyone spills into the sports hall, I’m ready with my ingenious excuse: I forgot my shorts.

Only, instead of lost property, I dash back to the changing rooms.

There are a few near-identical sports bags. I should have paid more attention. I’m fumbling to get them open. Find the name, find the name…‘PAUL BRYANT’. ‘LEWIS BAILEY.’

The next one won’t open, busted zip. I keep yanking it anyway, blinded by adrenaline.

I take out the envelope with trembling fingers. Boisterous voices echo from the hall, seeming, somehow, to be drawing closer.

‘What are you doing?’ asks a shrill voice in my head. ‘Have you lost your mind?’

Probably. But it doesn’t matter because the last bag opens. I see the name. A whistle blows. They’ll be coming past now, pouring onto the pitch. I slide the card in between two CDs. Zip it up. Done.

“What are you doing?” Matt’s voice – Halil’s  plosive-heavy, and not in my head this time. “Get away,” he grunts from the doorway. “Now.”

“Just…uh…” – I mumble for time – “looking for…uh…” –  but he’s gone.

My heart didn’t stop racing afterwards, or for the rest of the day. It just beat more heavily. Like a roof buckling under violent rain.

From Friday lunchtime to Monday morning, I pray that Halil wouldn’t find the card. That he’d toss the CDs into a drawer when he got home and forget about them. Forget about something he never knew.

What’s the alternative? I’m halfway through my GCSEs. My mum’s just started a new job. Everyone knows everyone in this crummy town. There’s no running away. But I was still afraid of running into someone from school. So I spent the weekend in the garden.

On Sunday I sat out on the sun lounger in coat and gloves, listening to my sister and her friends in the conservatory bickering about who had the most valentines. Should the tiny cards that came attached to gifts be counted separately?

What’s the exchange rate between flowers and chocolates?

Then they teased each other about the messages inside.

How embarrassing.

Who writes this stuff anymore?

OMG – I recognise that handwriting!

I drew my zip up to my chin. If girls can be cruel, what about sixteen year-old boys?

Monday morning on the school bus. It’s still dark. Proper February drizzle. Streetlights like smudges of yellow paint on the steamed-up windows.

At the first few stops, I’m jumpy. But nothing seems to have changed. Soon I give up glancing nervously down the aisle and all I feel is a cool, calm fatalism, like a great wave smothering a choppy sea and leaving total silence and stillness in its wake. I am, in short, resigned to my fate.

Just sit and wait for the first comment to strike. Act normal (whatever that is) until then.

I keep my eyes on the rain until we shudder to a halt outside the school gates.

Boys in front of me bundle off the bus in a chorus of moans, tugging at their broken zips and making unconvincing shelter under sports bags, when suddenly I spot a group walking down the pavement towards us. It’s Halil’s crew. I wish they would hurry past before I get out but I know they won’t. Caring about getting wet is still caring, and caring isn’t cool.

People push me from behind. I stumble into the rain and freeze in front of them. Mute, drenched and immobile.

None of them notices me as they pass, except Halil. He turns briefly, smiles, and waves.

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