He was wearing Hi-Techs and his favourite bomber jacket. Always look trim, he would say.
The youth club was busy that night; the older kids were already outside smoking when he arrived. One of them, Keith, was in the year above him at school. Keith’s dad bought him cigarettes.
‘Nice shoes George,’ Keith said. ‘Couldn’t afford Nikes?’
George ignored the dig and went inside. He paid his two pounds and made his way through the room. Pool and ping pong were in full swing and there was a queue for the Megadrive.
She was wearing polka dots. It wasn’t what he was expecting but she still looked pretty. She always did. She was standing with Heather, his best-friend’s sister.
‘Ladies,’ he said in his smoothest voice.
They giggled and he couldn’t tell if they were taking the mick.
‘George,’ Heather said. ‘You’ve met Cheryl before, yeah?’
‘I have.’ He smiled and turned to Cheryl. ‘I like your hair.’
‘Thanks,’ she said in a dismissive kind of way.
George wasn’t sure what to say next. In his bedroom he had an amazing speech prepared but it had disintegrated in his mind. For a second he just stood there, awkward and afraid.
‘Do you use special shampoo?’ he asked, desperate to fill the growing silence.
‘Like, I use my mum’s,’ Cheryl said with a sneer.
He didn’t know what to do but he knew it wasn’t going well. He remembered those films where the hero is all suave and goes to the bar.
‘Do you want a drink?’
‘Yeah alright,’ Cheryl said. ‘What, juice?’
‘I’ll get you a Coke if you want.’ He tried to wink but the expression on her face told him it had failed. ‘Or, you know, whatever you like.’
‘Fanta,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ Heather added.
‘Alright ladies, coming right up.’
He walked away, forcing his shoulders back despite their desire to slump forwards in shame. All he wanted was to hold her hand, be close to her. Was that too much to ask?
At the tuck shop George bought two cans of Fanta and a sherbet dip. Perhaps Cheryl would like it. His pocket money was almost gone but it would be worth it to show her he cared.
As he turned around to walk back he saw Keith talking to them. Cheryl was giggling, but not like she did with him. She was twisting her hair in her fingers and swinging her shoulders from side to side. He walked over, determined to prove his worth.
‘Here you go, ladies.’ George handed them the drinks. ‘Cheryl, I thought you might like a sherbet dip.’
She snorted and Keith smirked.
‘What am I, twelve?’ The disdain in her voice hurt.
‘Nice try,’ Keith said. ‘Why don’t you go play board games with the other losers?’
George wanted to deck him, just punch him square in the face, but Keith was older and bigger and cooler and would get away with it. George would get banned, and then he wouldn’t be able to hang out with Cheryl. So he did nothing.
‘Are you deaf?’ Keith was staring at him, anger in his eyes. ‘You got a problem?’
‘Yeah,’ George said. ‘You.’
He didn’t see Keith’s elbow coming but he felt it. The breath flew out of him and next thing he knew he was doubled over and looking at the floor. He could hear a ringing sound and he couldn’t swallow any air. Black tadpoles swam around the edges of his vision.
Someone’s hand was on his back, tapping it. An arm went round his shoulders and he was guided to a chair. He sat down, lifted his eyes, and saw Heather.
‘You bell-end,’ she said. ‘What did you say that for?’
George finally took a breath, but it took a few moments before he could speak. He could hear the other kids laughing.
‘I like her,’ he said.
The tadpoles had gone away now. All that was left was the flush of his cheeks and the ache in his stomach. Embarrassment washed over him and all he wanted now was to go home, but he couldn’t leave. It would be so much worse if he left.
‘She likes Keith,’ Heather said.
‘What about you? Do you like me?’
‘Not in that way. I’ve got a boyfriend, anyway.’
‘I know, I’m sorry.’ He smiled at her and noticed she wasn’t holding her can of Fanta anymore. ‘Where’s your drink?’
‘I gave it to Keith.’
George looked round and saw his nemesis sipping from Heather’s drink. He had to mow the lawn to pay for that.
‘I’m going back over there,’ Heather said.
He waited a while, and then to take his mind off the situation George played some ping pong. He was halfway through a game when Keith walked up to the table and put his half-empty can on the edge.
‘My turn now,’ Keith said. ‘This is for winners only, not losers like you.’
George paused for a moment. He thought about throwing the bat at Keith, stood there, Heather’s drink on the table in front of him, but decided it wasn’t the best thing to do. The grown-ups didn’t see Keith elbow him but they’d definitely notice if George threw something. Instead, he put the bat down.
George slid the bat along the ping pong table towards Keith, hard, and it flew right into the can of Fanta. The drink fell over the side and poured all down Keith’s jeans.
‘What the hell?’ Keith stepped back and raised his fists in the air.
George looked around for a grown-up.
‘We need some help here,’ he shouted. ‘Keith’s had a little accident.’
Across the room, Cheryl giggled.
© 2016 Seb Reilly
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.