He was big for his age. Let’s face it, he was big for any age. Not yet sixteen, six foot seven and built out of girders. Alan had the impressive stature of a public monument combined with the easy grace of a bulldozer.
When he’d first turned up, close to the end of summer term, the rest of the class had fallen silent. Even the back row gang were left slack-jawed. His blazer sleeves stopped several inches short of his wrists and he needed to duck his head to avoid the top of the classroom door frame.
I was sitting next to Mike Collins who leaned across and whispered, “I’ll bet there’s a bolt through his neck.” It was a good line, I sniggered, wishing I’d thought of it and made a mental note to steal it for later use. Across the room I noticed Andrea with a hand over her mouth hiding a giggle.
For the whole of the morning we were in awe. As we trailed between lessons some of the bigger lads – a relative term since Alan’s arrival – ventured a half nod and a muttered, “Alright?” The rest of us kept quiet.
As the day progressed though it became clear that Alan’s size was in inverse proportion to his intellectual capacity. He never put his hand up to answer questions, I wondered if he was worried about damaging the ceiling tiles, and when pressed by a teacher he mumbled, stuttered and invariably got it wrong.
When we had to read aloud in English, Alan did so with his finger tracing the line and in a delivery so halting Mr Winnick took to consulting his watch in between words.
At lunch break Alan leaned against the wall of the science block almost as if he was keeping it from falling over. The afternoon followed the same pattern as the morning, Alan folding himself into chairs like some complex hydraulic bridge and taking little part in proceedings until it came time to reassemble himself to the vertical and leave.
By the end of the day, with the casual cruelty of a group of teenagers, we’d nicknamed him Lurch.
At the end of the second week he answered to Lurch more often than he did to Alan. The back row gang called him “Idiot boy”, but only when he was out of earshot, and I’d realised he was exactly what I needed.
Thursday afternoon double history represented the low point of the week at the best of times, but on a hot, sticky day it couldn’t have been less reasonable captivity had it involved orange jumpsuits and handcuffs. All the windows stood open but air movement remained minimal. My eyelids were growing heavy as Mrs Scott droned on about the Russian revolution. Then the bird flew in.
A sparrow. The girls squealed. It completed several fast circuits of the classroom looking for a way out before throwing itself at the glass with a thunk and collapsing in a sorry bundle of brown feathers on the floor.
Lurch moved faster than I’d ever seen him do before. He scooped the tiny bird into his huge palm. Mrs Scott held open the door and stood aside. With a scraping of chairs and a craning of necks we watched though the windows as he carried the bird to a bench in the yard, raised it to eye level for a second, then placed it down. He backed off a couple of paces and waited until it raised its head, worked out where it was and then flew off to perch on the perimeter fence. I’ll swear it looked straight at Lurch and chirped before flying away.
When he came back into the room Mrs Scott said, “Well done, Alan,” and led a round of applause that made Lurch turn a deep beetroot red. Andrea applauded louder than anyone and I saw her stand on tiptoe to whisper something in Lurch’s ear after the lesson. Whatever it was it brought on the beetroot impression again.
The sparrow was my ice breaker. A hint of the blush returned when I asked him about it as we waited for the bus. “I’ve always been good with animals,” he shrugged. The playground grapevine spoke of some dark and violent past at a previous school but after witnessing his bird whispering performance I couldn’t believe it.
“You know what they say, never work with animals and children.” I mimed the Groucho Marx cigar thing, which was pointless because no one but me ever got the reference.
“Why do they say that?”
“They just do, it’s not important,” I said.
“Well it’s pretty stupid because then no one would ever be a farmer or a teacher or a dog handler or…”
“Okay, okay. It’s not meant to be taken literally.” The kid was a natural straight man. I decided to make my move. “Son,” I said, which sounded silly since my head was only just above his elbow. “I’m gonna make you a star.”
A slow frown creased his forehead. “Out of cardboard and tin foil like at Christmas?”
I laughed out loud.
“What’s so funny?”
The bus drew to a halt with a hiss of air brakes. “Come on, bird man,” I said, “I’ll explain on the way.”
On the last day of term school tradition had it that there was a student concert in place of afternoon lessons. I’d volunteered to do a comedy slot. Of course I had an ulterior motive for this. The name of that motive was Andrea. Gorgeous, tall, blonde, languid, unattainable, aloof, gorgeous – did I already say gorgeous? Andrea Simmons.
The unattainable bit was proving a problem, every time I tried to speak to Andrea my brain would turn to mush and I’d be rendered incapable of comprehensible speech. But Mike had told me that a friend of his had overheard a friend of somebody else who’d overheard Andrea saying that she liked boys who made her laugh. So that was the plan, maybe I was short and a bit spotty, but I was going to win her over with the irresistible power of comedy. What could possibly go wrong?
Well for a start I couldn’t do it on my own. My kind of comedy needs to bounce off someone. I’d been looking for a willing victim to be my foil for weeks and now fate had presented me with Alan. He was comedy gold without even trying.
The other problem was that I knew if I rehearsed him too much it just wouldn’t be funny. If he thought he knew what he was doing it wasn’t going to work at all. I’d have to spring some new material on him on the day. Risky but worth it in the Andrea stakes.
I started with the simple stuff. “Knock, knock.”
“What do you think I am, a cowboy?”
“I don’t get it,” Alan frowned.
“Lass who? Lasso. A cowboy’s rope.”
“Right,” he said drawing out the word in a way that said “wrong.”
I shook my head, “Let’s try another. Knock, knock.”
“Don’t cry, it’s only a joke.”
He laughed. “Yeah, that’s funny.”
“You see, it’s not hard. A few more like that and they’ll be eating out of my… Sorry, our hands.”
“Crisps or nuts or something?”
“No, I didn’t… Oh never mind.” I patted him on the shoulder – or at least as close as I could reach – I could see I’d have to be careful with my figures of speech. Though it might be worth working one or two into the act for effect. Still, I had two weeks to get it right.
The day of the show and we had a prime slot towards the end of the bill. After Chris Edwards and his magic act, which usually ended in disaster owing to his rabbit escaping. And just before the school rock band closed proceedings by murdering its two Vampire Weekend numbers – and on a memorable previous occasion Chris’s rabbit.
We started with the stuff we’d rehearsed and it was going okay. Lurch was surprisingly good, he didn’t fluff a single line.
Then I decided to go off piste, “Knock, knock.”
“Doctor who, you idiot,” I hissed. It got an unexpected laugh.
“What’s Doctor Who go to do with it?” he hissed back louder.
The audience was falling about now.
“That’s the point. You say ‘Doctor Who?’ then I say ‘Yes, let me out of this TARDIS.’”
“Ha, ha, that’s good. Okay, Doctor Who?”
“It’s too late now they already know it.” I gestured towards the audience who were beside themselves. More to the point Andrea was on the front row and laughing fit to burst. This might just be going in my favour.
We did a couple more of the gags we’d rehearsed, but Mrs Crabbe the drama teacher was making furious wind up motions from the wings as we’d gone over our time slot.
“Thank you, you’ve been a great audience.” I looked straight at Andrea and winked, then dragged Alan into a clumsy bow and pulled him off the stage.
Mrs Crabbe patted me on the shoulder. “That was great, really funny. Well done both of you.”
I wasn’t about to tell her that the bit which got the biggest laughs was unplanned so I just said, “Thanks,” and breathed a sigh of relief that I seemed to have got away with it.
By the time everybody had packed up ready to go home I was still on a high. Alan’s screw up had been the best part of the act and I congratulated myself on my choice of comedy partner.
I rushed to get to the bus stop so I’d have plenty of time to talk to Andrea. I was waiting around wondering where she’d got to and then I saw her walking across the yard with Lurch.
I’d already worked out the lines to fend off brain mush. “So what did you think of the act?” I said as they came close.
“Hilarious,” she replied with a huge grin.
“Well, you know…” I shrugged and tried to look modest but I was grinning like a fool too.
“He was just brilliant.” She pulled Alan’s arm to activate the mechanism that lowered him a little, stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek. “I love a boy who can make me laugh.”
“But,” I spluttered. She’d given him a kiss. My kiss! “It was my act. I planned it. Lurch was just the straight man.”
“So how come Alan got the biggest laughs?” I’d never heard her use his real name before, Andrea’s eyes were boring holes in my skull.
I could feel myself turning red. “Because… Because he got it wrong.”
“Huh,” said Andrea as the bus pulled up.
“It was all my idea,” I said with mounting desperation, “he wouldn’t even have been there without me.”
“Loser,” Andrea turned away, took Alan’s hand and led him towards the bus.
“Yeah, loser,” he said as he passed, giving me a gentle push on the shoulder that sent me sprawling on my back. It got a big laugh from the rest of the queue. “Idiot,” said Alan.