Come closer, let me tell you a story about brand loyalty.
It all starts on a school playground. I find that’s where most dictators’ idiosyncrasies are born. In this regard, I am no exception. I was nine or ten, I cannot be sure which it was – I’ll go with nine because this story will be more poetic if I am nine. It was a hot summer day, the dust on the playground was kicked up by a troupe of boys playing soccer, or some derivative of it that involved kicking the ball and trying to see whose diet was calcium deficient – I had seen a boy’s shin made three shades lighter by a tackle so I declined from joining in the toddler butchery of the soccer field. Instead, some smaller boys and I were acting out scenes from Transformers (I, of course, was Optimus Prime).
Our playtime was only half an hour long so every kid made sure that each minute was filled with as much playtime as could possibly fit into the thirty minutes that we had off from English, Maths and handwriting classes we had that day. Hence, the mad kicking and running that passed for soccer had no fouls, no penalties and no interruptions until the recess bell rang again to call us back into our academic prisons.
Similarly, amongst my group there was no time to argue about who would be Optimus Prime or Bumblebee – roles were decided early in the morning before school began to save time. In any case, I was always Optimus Prime and the other boys rarely chose to be any other character so our game was easy to slot into once we were unleashed onto the playground. A small group of girls who played at skipping rope skipped like they were being paid for it – the half hour recess was everyone’s favourite time of the day.
On this day though, playtime for me was different.
About 25 minutes into it – when you are nine with only 30 minutes of recess, your mental clock is accurate in ways that make Swiss watchmakers wet their pants – one of our teachers brought a new student onto the playground. At my primary school, new students were usually introduced to the class early in the morning. The teacher would choose someone to take care of them for the day, to show them around and make sure that they did not become toddler fodder on the playground; boys were assigned to boys, girls to girls.
For some strange reason or other, this student arrived halfway through the day. Nonetheless, exactly 25 minutes and 22 seconds into our recess, the teacher walked the timid student onto the playground and looked around for another harmless looking child to act as caretaker for the newbie.
Fate had put her underwear on the wrong way round today because she had placed a small group of five boys just twenty metres from where the teacher stood. She called over the first boy she recognised.
I cannot describe to you how angry a nine-year-old becomes when you interrupt him doing something he or she truly loves doing. If you were to interrupt a pair of lovers at that moment – you know which one I am talking about – you’d still come 600 emotions short. I was about to slice of Megatron’s head when a shrill voice, which I usually associated with some kind of punishment such as standing in the corner or being sent to the principal, called me over. My mental clock warned me that there were only three minutes left of playtime before we plunged into handwriting classes. The other boys knew I was a goner – they would not wait for me; the game would continue without me.
Someone succeeded me as Optimus, inheriting all of my powers and the glory that would come with killing the dreaded Autobots. I was quickly discarded and forgotten.
I walked over to the teacher, cursing her in my head the way only a nine-year-old can.
I walked over to her, trying to strike her down with my laser eyesight but she was impervious to it – she still stood there. Someone was with her. My mental clock ticked down: 2 minutes and 35 seconds left of playtime. When I reached her, she hurriedly talked to me and said “Rémy, this is Kim. I need you to look after for the rest of recess.”
Next to her stood a small wisp of a girl; she was all big eyes and ponytails. Shy, she stood clutching the teacher’s hand anxiously, her big eyes staring out all the children on the playground. She finally made eye contact with me.
My mental clock shut down.
Nine- year-old boys are hard to entertain (unless you are Optimus Prime, of course). They know everything that there is to know about the world, provided that it’s in an action cartoon. They cannot be fooled, they cannot be bought and they are fearless (you only need to look at the shins of the boys that played soccer at my school). In class, it is hard to make them keep quiet – at that age they can all be diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder of some kind. I was the worst of the lot – my detention rap sheet and folder was thicker than all of the archives kept by the school for the past five years. I was a legend. I had a knack for getting into trouble; good, clean, nine-year-old trouble. Like putting flour on top of the ceiling fan blades just before class started. There was no teacher who did not know of me. My younger brothers had a tough act to follow.
Yet, in that moment, when I saw Kim, everything around me slowed down, suddenly it was warmer. The kind of warm that will make you pee on yourself if you do not keep a tight control of your bladder.
In that moment, the rest of my life made sense. I could see the white picket fence, the Volvo and the Labrador. I could even see the china patterns. I was in love with Kim. And in that small space of infinite possibility and wonder, I vowed I was going to kiss Kim.
The recess bell rang. It was ringing from another place, another time. I vaguely remember children lining up and going to class. Like a half-remembered dream I recall attending classes that day. I went home, did homework, played with my brothers, showered and slept. But everything seemed slower and fuzzier – there was a blurry edge to everything, as though I was seeing the world through a badly focused camera lens. The next day was pretty much the same, I went through the day in auto-pilot mode barring the moments in which Kim was around. In those instances, I was razor-sharp; I could hear a kid fart from a mile away and I could anticipate a shin-bone about to be broken seconds before it happened. I was on some romantic drug that heightened all of my senses. Bradley Cooper in Limitless had nothing on me; all of them were dedicated to only one thing: Kim.
It was not just me that was obsessed with her. Every boy in the school had caught the Kim addiction. She had a Moses-like effect wherever she went. Where there was chaos on the playground, Kim would silently walk by and order would be restored to the universe. One day she wandered too close to the soccer field and the ball was accidentally kicked in her direction. Every boy on the pitch as one threw themselves in front of it to shield her from it.
She would open her lunchbox to eat her peanut butter sandwiches, and somewhere in the world, a war would be ended, someone asleep at the wheel would wake up and avoid an accident just in time – Kim was the chosen one.
I had vowed to kiss Kim – but I had no idea how to go about. It plagued me, day and night, night and day, morning, afternoon and evening. I dreamt about it. It occupied hours of school time where I should have been focusing on my multiplication. To this day, I think Kim is the reason why I find it so hard to multiply seven by nine.
Every thought was Kim, Kim, Kim and more Kim. Days passed. Weeks slowly inched by me and still I was nowhere near my goal. I knew what I wanted, but I did not know how to get there. Until one day at the end of term, before we went on holiday, an opportunity presented itself in the strangest way. There was a class party.
Back in those days, class parties were a highlight. They were the one time when school was cancelled and each class was allowed to host a small party to celebrate the end of term. Each child was required to bring something for the party. I remember I had to bring two packets of potato chips. On the allotted day, the desks were pushed against the wall to make a clear space where we could sit and listen to a story, or play a game if we wanted. The snacks where placed on plates on the teacher’s desk and all of us could help ourselves whenever we wanted. Kids stuffed themselves with chips and popcorn and drank themselves sick on cheap fizzy drinks. It was a blessed time.
At some point, the teacher left the class. I do not know why she left the classroom, but leave it she did, leaving 25 unattended nine-year-olds in a room full of food and fizzy Coca-Cola drinks. I don’t know what the outriding factors in the equation were, but there was a serious flaw in the Matrix. Perhaps a digit had been miscalculated, or a small virus had altered the otherwise unrelenting code of Primary School. But from the moment the door closed behind our teacher, reality altered, the small green numbers and symbols that defined our existences started flowing bottom to top instead of the other way round. Every one hundred digits or so, there would be a rouge red figure, floating amongst the program.
The code was faulty. Every nine-year old in the room could sense it. Good things were about to happen.
We ate, we drank, and we played some games. We ran around the classroom shrieking. We threw food at each other, two boys got into a fight, there was a paper war, we threw the litter on the ground, and I led a sortie and conquered a table with some chips and popcorn. The room was a pocket of perfect toddler chaos.
Then someone suggested that we play spin-the-bottle.
The rules were very simple: we would arrange ourselves in a circle with a girl in between every two boys; someone would spin the bottle and kiss whoever it landed on. The rules were clear and they were cruelly enforced; I know a pair of boys that cannot make eye contact with each other to this day. We spread around in a circle and sat accordingly, girl-boy, girl-boy. Kim was five people away from me on my right. A boy took a bottle off the teacher’s table and placed it in the middle of the circle: a 500ml bottle of orange Fanta. It was half-full.
The bottle sat in the middle of the circle untouched for five minutes. Everyone was too scared to take the first spin. Then one plucky boy picked it up and spun it. It pointed to a girl on the opposite edge of the circle. Nervous giggles went around the circle as everyone waited to see if the two would carry out their punishment. The boy stood and went into the middle of the circle. The girl did likewise. They stood looking at each other awkwardly for about a minute and then she puckered her lips and he brushed his against them. There! It was done. The circle laughed and giggled. The girl sat down blushing, the boy grinned sheepishly when he took back his place in the circle. A girl picked up the bottle and spun it.
A girl kissed a boy, a boy kissed a girl. The two boys had to kiss each other. One boy even kissed three girls. The game carried on. All around, kids took turn spinning the bottle. Only five people in the circle had not spun when, Kim picked up the bottle to give it a go; me, two of my friends, another girl and of course, the bewitching Lady Kim.
The circle was suddenly silent. Every boy sat up, hoping that a straighter back increased their chances of the bottle picking them out. Kim held the bottle in her small hand, half-spun it anti-clockwise, and then released it in the opposite direction with such ferocity I was surprised the bottle did not take off and hover in the air. She was four o’clock from me; I prayed that it was my time.
The bottle spun.
I was caught in another slow motion moment where every sound was audible; I could hear the 25 little heartbeats in the circle, the really loud ones belonged to the boys, each one thump-thumping the hope that Kim’s spin would land on them. I could hear the orange juice sluice around in the bottle, each molecule bouncing off its cousin, beating against the inside of the bottle.
I could see everything; each individual fibre of the carpet on which we played, the minute scratches on the glass bottle. I could read the serial number and trademarks on the bottle despite the speed at which it was spinning. I sent a silent prayer to heaven. If this bottle picked me out, orange Fanta would have my soul for all eternity.
The bottle spun.
I could feel everything. I felt gravity pulling at the bottle, the different forces acting on it as it spun around on its own axis. Mathematical formulas sprung before my eyes as it spun around. I could see vectors and Newtons. I did not understand what they meant, but I could sense that there was a purpose to them.
The bottle spun and started slowing down.
Everyone was on their knees now, waiting to see who it would land on. It pointed at me and then swung away again as it continued slowing down. The spin was starting to lose momentum and the friction of the carpet was about to point out its doom. It came around again, pointing at Kim, swinging away from her and onwards past me. It came around again, slower than before.
The bottle had expended all of its motion; it was going to pick someone out now. It was three people away from Kim, and then it was upon her, slowing down. It ticked past her. Four people away from me and it looked as though its energy was expended. I small part of me died inside. It pointed at Jaime on Kim’s left and ticked past him in its clockwise motion. Three people away.
It pointed at Mary and slowly swung past her. Two people away. It was almost Mark’s time but he missed the boat by a few seconds because it inched past him and moved on to Jennifer on my right.
A collective sigh was breathed by all of the boys in the circle, all of them relieved that Kim would remain unkissed by all of the boys.
But they breathed too soon. The orange clock ticked on.
Slowly, it ticked past Jennifer and pointed in the empty space between her and me: no-man’s land, which meant that Kim would not have to kiss anyone. My ears were filled with noise. Three kilometres away, I heard an ant colony three metres deep in the ground; I could hear the millions of legs scampering underground. I heard a construction worker drilling two kilometres away.
In the school building, I could hear other children having class parties; some were listening to a Roald Dahl story – Matilda if I remember correctly – some were watching a film, I think it was The Rescuers. In the room, I could hear one of the bubbles in the fizzy drink pop. As it popped, it sent a couple of molecules spinning to the left hand side of the bottle, their small impact against the glass wall spinning the bottle. I heard the groan of the friction between the bottom of the glass and carpet fibres as the bottle summoned up the last of its momentum and spun. The bottle covered the nothingness between Jennifer and me and pointed at a scrawny nine-year-old boy with hair that could break the strongest rake.
It was Rémy o’clock.
Since that day, I have only drunk orange Fanta.