The assignment was to write about a rumour. I wrote down the title you can see at the end of this introduction. Then I spent a week or so staring at the title and wondering what came next. I doodled a bit with the scene where David meets Pauline for the first time, but I couldn't figure out what led up to that scene and I had no idea what came after it. My mind was a total blank. After a very frustrating week, I finally realised that everything I needed to know about the story I was writing was implied by the title itself. I'd just been too dumb to realise what was hiding there in plain sight. Once I finally realised what the story was actually about it practically wrote itself, and about three or four hours after I started typing, it was all done. It's probably the silliest thing I've ever written, but I like it a lot...
It was the first day back at school after the long summer break. David was fourteen years old now, and he was definitely starting to stoop from carrying the weight of all those years on his shoulders. He slouched through the school gate into the playground where he saw his friend Nathan playing with some kind of gadget. He hurried over to investigate. "What have you got there?" he asked.
Nathan looked up. "Oh, hello David," he said. "Thats a fine crop of spots youve grown on your face over the summer. They look quite ripe. They must be about ready to harvest."
"Pustules," said David.
Nathan looked puzzled. "Pustules?" he asked.
"Technically thats what they are," explained David. "Spots are just discoloured bits of skin. Pustules are spots that are filled with stuff that looks like custard, though I dont think youd want to squirt it over your sticky date pudding. Whats that thing youre playing with?"
"Thats my new rumour mill," said Nathan.
"Whats a rumour mill?" asked David.
"This is," said Nathan. "Its just like a pepper mill except it grinds rumours rather than peppercorns."
"Wow, that sounds cool!" said David, impressed. "Where did you get it?"
"From that strange little shop under the railway bridge," said Nathan. "Theyve got all kinds of weird stuff for sale there that you never see anywhere else. It cost me a whole months pocket money, but Im sure it was worth it. Here, take a look."
He handed the rumour mill to David. It was a small, grey box with a handle on the top and what looked like a speaker grille on the bottom. On one side of the box was a graduated scale. One end of the scale was labelled Fine and the other end was labelled Coarse. A lever could be moved up and down the scale. "How does it work?" asked David.
"You use the lever to select the grade of rumour you want to hear and then you twist the handle to grind out the rumour," explained Nathan. "Why dont you give it a go?"
David set the lever to the middle of the scale and turned the handle. "Theres a rumour that Pauline fancies you." said the rumour mill. It sounded smug.
"Gosh," said David, "thats intriguing. Nobody has ever fancied me before. Who is Pauline anyway? I dont know anyone called Pauline."
"Yes you do," said Nathan. "Shes the one who sits at the back of the class in French lessons because shes ashamed of her accent. She hopes she wont get picked on if she hides at the back out of sight. Its not a very successful tactic. She gets picked on quite a lot."
"Ah," said David. "Ive got her now. Shes the one who speaks French with a broad Yorkshire accent. Eeh by gum, il y a des problèmes au moulin."
"Trouble at t mill," said Nathan. "Thats her."
"Well if she fancies me Ill definitely have to fancy her," said David.
"Of course you will," said Nathan. "Youre fourteen years old. By definition you have to fancy anything that is warm and that moves and breathes. Like sheep, for example."
"Nonsense," said David. "You move and breathe and I dont fancy you at all." He gave the rumour mill back to Nathan.
"Im warm as well," said Nathan. "So Ive got all the right qualifications. Im really rather hurt that you dont find me attractive enough to fancy." He selected a rumour down near the Coarse end of the choice scale and twisted the handle.
"Davids telling fibs," said the rumour mill. "He fancies you something rotten."
Nathan grinned. "I knew you did," he said.
* * * *
When the next French lesson arrived, David made a point of moving to the back of the class and sitting next to Pauline. She looked at him suspiciously. "Why are you sitting there?" she asked. "Thats where Julie always sits."
David felt that this was hardly an auspicious start to a relationship, but he persevered. "I wanted a change," he said. "The front row gets rather boring after a while."
Pauline shrugged. "I dont suppose I can stop you," she said. "Its a free classroom." She rummaged in her bag and took out a pencil case which she put on the desk in front of her. David noticed that her fingers were very long and elegant with well cared for nails that tapered to a point. The fingernails were painted with a surprisingly vivid red polish.
"How do you get away with such bright nail polish?" David asked her. "Isnt it against the school rules?"
"Yes it is," said Pauline. "Mostly I keep my hands in my pockets so that nobody notices." She opened the pencil case and took out a felt tip pen. "Dont move," she said and she started drawing on Davids face with the pen. He jerked his head back in surprise.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Hold still," she said irritably. "Im joining up your spots to see if they make a picture. I cant do it properly if you keep moving your head around like that. The rumour mill says that if you do this and get a picture of Queen Elizabeth youll end up marrying the person whose spots youve joined together."
"Oh!" said David, surprised. "Have you got a rumour mill as well?"
Pauline gave him a blank look. "Huh?" she said.
"Never mind," said David and he held his head still as she wiped her felt tip pen back and forth across his face. When shed finished she examined him critically.
"Looks more like Kermit the Frog than Queen Elizabeth," she said. "I dont think you and I are going to be compatible."
"Lets give it a try anyway," said David and he put his hand on her leg, just above her knee.
Immediately she dropped her hand onto his and dug her sharp nails deep into his flesh. "Ow!" said David. "That hurt!" He tried to pull his hand away but she just dug her nails in deeper.
"Actually," she said, "Im not wearing any nail polish at all. That stuff on my fingernails is blood from the last person who put his hand on my leg without my permission. And now I need to touch it up a bit because the colour is starting to fade..."
* * * *
"I dont think she really fancies me," said David. "The rumour mill got it wrong." His hand had a fresh, clean bandage wrapped around it. The bandage was spotted with red here and there where the blood had seeped through..
"Why have you got a picture of Kermit the Frog on your face?" asked Nathan.
"Because Pauline used a permanent marker pen," said David, "and there isnt any way of cleaning it off. The doctors said they could graft over it with skin from my thighs, but that seems a bit drastic. The drawing will fade away all by itself in six months or so as new skin grows to replace it."
"Thats the price you pay for listening to rumours," said Nathan. "Everyone knows that they are wrong more often than they are right." He moved the rumour mill lever up to the Fine end of the scale and turned the handle.
"Theres a rumour that Im not always reliable," said the rumour mill, "but Im sure thats not true."
"Thats a moronic thing to say," said David.
"I think you mean oxymoronic," said Nathan, and he put the rumour mill away in his pocket.