Frankie squatted down with his back against the redbrick wall, his knees pulled up to his chest, his fingers entwined and white at the knuckle behind his neck, his eyes screwed tightly shut. The noise around him was deafening even through the barrier of toilet paper he had managed to cram into his ears before playtime, but he wasn’t actually as aware of that as the voice inside his head yelling at the children to quieten down, even though he knew they never would. He didn’t really need them to. He didn’t even want them to. He just needed to step back from it. If he faded far enough away into the background, then the noise would no longer exist. Frankie could make that happen. That was Frankie’s superpower.
With the noise turned down, Frankie was able to think much more clearly. With his eyes and ears shut tight and his back to the wall, he could join in all of the playground games: the push and the shove, the running, the climbing, the tag and the chase – he was the virtual schoolboy. When played behind his silent wall, he loved football, he was good at it. He was Messi. It was as if the threadbare old tennis ball was tied to his boot and none of the other kids could push him away from it. Except for Maureen Jackson who was bigger than him – much bigger – and super-keen on inveigling him into a game of kiss chase that was both diminutive in the size of its teams and liberal in its interpretation of the rules. Once engulfed in Maureen’s over-zealous embrace it was entirely possible that they would never make it into school dinners again.
Not that that was a great concern. Even on his ‘quiet table’, tucked away in the corner of the hall, down by the wallbars, surrounded by the smell of socks and baked beans, he was engulfed by a discordant riot of sights and sounds that he found it impossible to process. Not even the foreknowledge of Spam fitter, lumpy mashed potato and tinned tomato, chocolate sponge and pink custard could calm his mind. Not even his superpowers could shield him on a pilchard day. That was the day of the headteacher’s study, a glass of weak orange squash and a biscuit that looked like a sheet of cardboard filled with flies. He didn’t mind flies. At least they didn’t try to kiss him.
Frankie enjoyed lessons at school, even if they often meant sitting alone. He was really good at spelling, and at maths he was second-to-none, but he wasn’t quite so good at sitting round the table and building with straws. He wasn’t good with scissors.
Mrs Cook, his teacher, often sat with him whilst Mrs Cass spoke with the rest of the class. She smiled a lot, Mrs Cook, and Frankie loved her. She helped him to understand the words he did not know and when he didn’t want to drink the warm, playtime milk, she didn’t force him, but she always left it there in case he changed his mind. He never changed his mind. Superheroes don’t drink milk. They drink acid or something like that. They eat girders. They can turn down the noise with the blink of an eye.
If he’d had the choice, he would have been Spider Man. Spiders can hear through their legs. If he was a spider, he would wear thick trousers. Jimmy told him about the spiders. He said they also have loads of eyes. Dozens, he said. A thousand, he said, like the night. Frankie didn’t understand that. The night doesn’t have eyes at all. The night is pitch-black, isn’t it? If it had eyes, it still wouldn’t be able to see. In the dark. Frankie liked the night. It was like the world was wrapped in cotton-wool; soft and mute like a swan, but without the capacity to break your arm with a flap of its wings. Sometimes Jimmy told Frankie that the two of them were put together because they were the same, but sometimes he said it was because they were different. Frankie wasn’t always sure that Jimmy really meant everything he said. Sometimes he made him mad and sometimes he made him laugh. He told jokes that Frankie didn’t understand – his favourite was ‘What’s the difference between a frog? One leg’s the same.’ – but it never really mattered because Jimmy didn’t understand them either. His jokes were their little secret. Nobody else got them. Nobody else even heared them. He never said them out aloud: that was Jimmy’s superpower.
The boy who never spoke and the boy who didn’t want to hear, two wise monkeys, faced playtime together, squatted down with their backs against the redbrick wall, their knees pulled up to their chests, their fingers entwined and white at the knuckle behind their necks, their eyes screwed tightly shut. The school bell rang and the two boys rose as one, for once welcoming the clanging cacophony. Side by side they joined the ragged ‘snake’ of children meandering its way back into class. It was afternoon, and ‘quiet play’. The two superheroes took their places at the big table in the centre of the class, alongside all of the other children. The voice inside of Frankie’s head was unusually still. With a wink, Jimmy told him a silent joke and together they laughed. Frankie smiled at Maureen and, hesitantly, together they began to build a house of bricks, whilst Jimmy, clearly happy, faded slowly away…