It’s kind of a cosy day. Outside, the sky’s pouring cold rain, but inside – my room is at 23 degrees, and we’re painting, and everyone is just kidding around and on that gentle, happy buzz.
I’m standing back a bit from the canvas, next to Zion. Slade’s taken control (of course) and Zion, who’s every bit as good, is patiently waiting for the moment when he can jump in. I say to him, sotto voce, “Come on Zion, better get painting…”
He just gives that little laugh of his; humble to a fault is Zion.
“Don’t let Slade do it all,” I insist. “He’s so bossy,” and Zion cracks up. He grins at me and takes a couple of steps towards the canvas.
Slade turns round, sees Zion: “Hey, wanna jam… come on Quest, jump in ge,” he says, just ‘casually’ and touching my heart a bit. For I know Slade likes to be in charge, and yet he willingly moves off to the right, giving Zion the C, M, P section, and leaving himself the smaller T, N, C.
Zion laughs again, which is his way of accepting the offer. He picks up a can and starts cutting away the top of the C. They bomb companionably, side by side for a while.
Just before the bell, Slade goes for a fast ciggie down the back of the block, because it’s too wet to get all the way to the car park. Zion stays and paints a Q on his bag. He tells me he doesn’t smoke, and I say, tenderly, “Good boy.”
Slade returns with Carlos in tow, and Carlos helpfully holds Zion’s bag up, so he can finish off the Q. Meanwhile Slade casts an appraising eye over the canvas. He mutters, “Not straight…” and quickly re-does Zion’s P.
I can’t help but feel amused by this, and Slade sees my expression and shoots me a conspiratorial grin. “Better now aye,” he whispers. “Zion’s tutu’d with it…”
I burst out laughing, and he looks pleased, both at his own sneakiness, and at the fact that somehow it delights me. He grins again, and I put out my toe and give his foot a little nudge, to tell him that Zion’s all good and so’s he.
The following morning it’s just Slade at school; we have a chat about the absent Zion.
“Don’t be critical of Zion,” I rebuke Slade, but only mildly – he has just pointed out some more slight ‘flaws’ in Zion’s piecing.
“It’s good to be critical,” Slade says, waving his can around with glee. “I’ve got can control – I can be critical, when I know what I’m doing.”
“Yeah, well Zion knows what he’s doing too.”
“Mm, he’s all good, I know. But… I’m just saying, he cut away that M a bit too much.”
“According to you.”
“Yeah, according to me,” and Slade begins an assiduous display of cleaning up the M. “I wouldn’t mind if someone was critical of me,” he continues. “If I caked it… but I haven’t caked it.”
“No, you haven’t caked it,” I agree. “But neither has Zion. You’ve just got different styles… and that’s only a small canvas.”
“True,” says Slade. “We’ve got different styles.” He eyes his work. “But I’ve got lots of different styles,” he can’t help adding, somewhat extravagantly.
“Well so has Zion – I mean you haven’t even seen him paint much, yet. Not on big surfaces I mean.”
“I’m all good on walls too…” begins Slade.
“Yes, I know you are,” I say patiently, then I sigh a little bit. “Slade,” I tell him. “You’re really good. You are. I know that. But so’s Zion… and I just, well, I guess I’m…”
Slade looks at me with interest.
“I’m kind of protective of Zion,” I tell him. “Probably ever since Mrs Kirk tried to kick him out of school a couple of times, last year. I had his back, and I’ve still got his back.”
Slade nods, in understanding.
“I think you’re really good, Slade,” I say again. “Honest, I saw that straight away. I’m just saying you should wait and see what Zion can do, too. He’s got a really good eye for those big pieces… and I think you two would be all good doing a wall together.”
Slade looks at me quite graciously, which makes me splutter with laughter. He can actually take criticism on the chin – which I think is one of the hallmarks of a real artist: Inia and Zion are like that too.
A couple of the boys come in to watch: Carlos, and a guy called Tyler (he just started at MC this week). We chat a bit, and, “I heard this school has a good principal,” he informs me.
“Oh,” is all I can reply, when put on the spot like that.
But something in my tone makes Tyler look at me again. “What?” he says.
I shrug, thinking something along the lines of, ‘If you can’t say something nice, better to say nothing at all.’
“Don’t you like Mrs Kirk?”
“I don’t,” puts in Slade. “She’s a bitch.”
“Nah, she’s alright,” I say, but can’t help adding, “In her own way.”
“You don’t like her,” Tyler says, with an ‘aha’ tone.
“She’s alright, in her own way,” I repeat, then for some reason finding myself in ‘I cannot tell a lie’ mode, “It’s just… not the same as my way, that’s all.”
And I think to myself, well, no point in pissing around pretending to be alright with everyone.
Slade makes a kind of a pitch for one of the leftover cans, the pink one. It’s the only full (ish) one left. He asks so nicely and unassumingly that I tell him, “Ok.”
“Can I really have it, Miss?” he checks.
“Yes, you can. But come get it after school, ok? I don’t like you walking round with a can in your bag.”
“I will, I’ll come straight after class!” he tells me, in jubilation at his good luck.
After school, Slade and Zion both arrive. I unlock the desk, take out the can, and give it to Slade. The boys know there aren’t any other fulls left, and they seem quite happy with just the one. I assume (because Zion’s there too) that they’re going to share it, anyway.
So off they go, but later I get a text: ur sad mis givn rook his own can haha, awguds den
Huh? I thought you were sharing it. You should have said.
nah yeah awguds miss haha, coz i feel stink asking for paint unless ur offering it an yeah rook wont share his can anywys haha,
I’m actually surprised by Zion’s text, and the way he’s thought about this. How he feels a little slighted, and can actually find a way to express it. So I respond at once:
hey sorry zion, I feel bad now. ok then, im offering that atmosphere can as a replacement il bring it tomorow
awguds mis u dnt hav 2, I dnt wanr be lyk hustling for it but yo mis only if u want to giv it,
No worries il bring it tomorow
It’s my only full can, and Atmosphere is my favourite colour. I’ve kept it back for some reason, and I’m happy to give it to humble Zion. I’m glad he could tell me how he felt. I remember when I first got to know him: little boy with big eyes; the way he used to slip about on the fringes, running for cover if anyone looked twice at him.
Zion and I share a little exchange next day which no-one else is aware of. He looks at me, I give a slight nod and point towards my desk, and he laughs.
After school he arrives on his own.
“I’m sorry about yesterday, Zion,” I tell him. “I really thought you guys were going to share that can. I didn’t know old bossy boots was intending to keep it for himself.”
“Awguds Miss,” says Zion, grinning. “Nah, he wasn’t going to share. And thanks, Miss.”
We’re interrupted by Slade knocking at the door, and Zion slips the can into his bag before opening up.
‘Old bossy boots’ I’m also extremely, extremely fond of. There’s just something about Slade that appeals to me. When he begins waving his arm around and holding forth on one of his pet topics (tagging, toys and biters) the self-confidence of this skinny, unselfconscious, unrepentant boy just intrigues and delights me. And as usual, I see beauty in all the little things, the things you start to notice once you know and care about someone.
Today, Slade tells us he had a job down the line as a bobby calf lifter. Then, after a minute, “Miss, do you know what a bobby calf lifter is?” he asks.
“Not… exactly,” I tell him.
“We had to put the calves onto the truck. There’s three levels. After you fill up the bottom, you have to lift them, and then kind of throw them up onto the next level…” and he demonstrates the manoeuvre.
“Do you?” I exclaim. “I thought they had a ramp thing, to walk up.”
Slade looks at me in disbelief.
“And do they go ‘mooooooo’?” asks Carlos, in a fair rendition of the probable sound.
“Yeah, just like that,” says Slade, and moos and flails around, showing us how the calves try to escape their fate. “Sometimes I just grab them and push them in, and they go down, like this…” He splays his legs out, making the boys laugh.
“Aw, what do you do that for?” I say, tsking.
“Cos, who cares – they’re going to be mince meat and hamburgers soon anyway.”
“Are they just going to the meat works?” I ask, half aghast. “Is that where they’re going?” I guess I just don’t have those country sensibilities.
“Yeah, from all over… the truck goes round everywhere, all the farms.”
“Ohh, that’s kind of sad.”
He shrugs. “Oh well.” (this is a favourite expression of Slade’s)
We all just sit round the front table and yak. No-one even picks up a pen. I feel so content, so content, so content.