Copyright Adam E. Smith
Noah Tucker did not know what he was expected to say. “It was your first day at big school,” his dad said, draping his coat over the banister. “I bet the other kids have got something to report.” But Noah didn’t know enough about school yet, so he sneezed. Then his dad looked through him, to the wall at the bottom of the stairs. It was as if the sneeze had made Noah disappear. The inquisition stopped. His dad mumbled that Noah should open his eyes more and then trudged deeper into the house.
In the morning, most people on the bus could not see Noah Tucker. The torsos and newspapers of others concealed him. Squirming away from a man’s elbow, Noah withstood the surge as two more passengers boarded. The side of his face pressed against the arm of a woman whose earphones emerged like creepers from behind her scarf. She scowled at Noah.
The bus gasped, fenced on four sides by other buses, taxis and vans. Noah could see into the bus beside his, could study the other compressed people in dark coats through two windows. One seated lady dozed. When Noah noticed this, his eyes moved away with embarrassment, and then crept back to look at her again. He smiled – no one would see that – and turned his head towards the check pattern on the scarf of the lady beside him.
After three more stops, the bus spewed its cargo. Noah watched the backs of people as they alighted. The collars on the men and the women were the same: neat, stiff and propping up their occupants’ tired necks. Passengers become pedestrians as they stepped off the bus and into the stream of colleagues and competitors pacing towards the stone or glass buildings. Noah sat as the hollowed vessel took off. He watched the city elapse as the bus escaped into the area he knew and where passengers boarded once again.
Noah was the only passenger to alight outside school; the others were adults going somewhere else. He stepped across the pavement, perpendicular to the flow of mums and their prams, and crossed into the schoolyard. Here, other children darted to and fro or stood in tight circles. The teenage girls wore the same tight trousers, but their faces looked different.
Noah walked through the centre of the yard towards the brick building. He leant against the hard wall and watched a football as three boys his own age punted it to one another. Another boy tackled it from them and a game commenced. Players chased the ball as it scraped over the concrete. Within seconds, a new boy dropped his backpack and sweatshirt to the floor to improvise a goal, picked up the ball and kicked it back into play. Lads shouted, dodged and ran, their tongues poking through clenched lips.
An electronic buzz called an end to the game and a start to the day. The footballers gathered their bags and tucked in their shirts as they walked through the school doors. The teenagers’ circles dissolved. Noah Tucker made his way to his form room and took a seat at the end of a row of four. He listened to the thirty-two names and heard the thirty-two responses and tapped on his knee the rhythm they made. The teacher mentioned the weather, smiled to herself as if remembering a fond story and opened her mouth to share it with the group.
The buzzer cut her off as if she were a slow contestant on a game show and the group rose, shambolic but in unison, coats and bags and untied shoelaces tramping towards the first scheduled lesson. In the classroom, Noah Tucker took a seat as the religious education teacher, a round-faced and young man with a beard, called for calm.
The teacher handed out notebooks and instructed the pupils to write their name on the cover. Noah repeated this exercise he had completed five times the previous day. “The right place to start,” announced the teacher, “is to learn which religions everyone here belongs to.” Someone groaned. The teacher reeled off the names of popular religions, and everyone but Noah answered to one. The teacher looked at Noah, who stood up and said, “Sir, I’m an atheist.”
The girl beside Noah read the name on his exercise book, then lifted her face and said, “Noah Tucker, the lonely atheist.”
Noah glanced around the classroom and nodded. And then he sneezed.
Thanks to the enchanting Jason Steel for the idea.