The task was to dissect a frog. No blood. No guts. No scissors to slice up the flesh. Just a computer and a mouse, and a group of pupils clustered around a screen. Robbie stood at the back. He didn’t want to dissect a frog. What was the point if it wasn’t real.
The virtual frog lay belly up on its virtual slab, nothing more than a cluster of electronic code. Various people laughed and jabbed at the screen, leaving smears across the frog’s white stomach. A boy at the front grabbed the mouse and twirled the cursor round and round before pointing it at a tiny pair of digital scissors to the side. A dotted yellow line appeared hovering over the frog’s corpse.
‘Drag and cut where indicated,’ instructed the teacher. ‘Then continue as shown.’
Four virtual pins to secure the limbs. Four cuts, perpendicular. Tiny tweezers to pull back the skin. Then the extraction began.
Robbie looked away as one by one the frog’s vital organs were removed. Across the other side of the group the boy with the pink gloves looked away too. He didn’t seem to want to dissect a frog either. He was staring at Robbie instead. Robbie curled up his fingers inside his trouser pockets.
On the computer screen the virtual frog lay in bits, insides all out, miniature body parts floating in a pool of black pixels. Robbie didn’t have to look again at the boy to know that he wouldn’t be wearing the pink gloves now. They would be in his bag. The boy wore them to the school gates, then took them off when he got inside the grounds. Nobody said anything, but everybody knew. Robbie asked his mother about it once.
‘Why do you think he wears pink gloves?’
‘Maybe he likes them.’
‘Boys don’t wear pink.’
‘It’s OK to be different.’
Robbie’s mother always brought everything back to that if she could.
Inside the classroom, the bell rang. At once everyone turned away from the computer to pack their bags. On the screen the frog’s virtual heart lay abandoned. Robbie watched as the pupils crowded to the door. The boy with the pink gloves was first out, a latex glove scrumpled into a ball bouncing off the back of his blazer.
‘Here, add this to you collection.’
All the pupils laughed. The boy laughed too. But not for the same reason.
Robbie was the last to leave. He waited until everyone else had gone, then switched the monitor off and watched the heartless frog disappear.
At home, in the kitchen, his mother and his grandfather were arguing again.
‘It’s too late.’ His mother sounded fed up.
‘But what does she say?’
‘Oh Dad, just leave it.’
‘Have you not asked her?’
Robbie’s mother didn’t reply. Robbie heard the creak as his grandfather leaned back in his chair.
‘I knew it. It’s always this way with you.’
‘This way. Afraid to commit.’
‘What would you know?’
‘We’re not so different, you and I.’
Robbie stood in the hall and waited to see if they would mention his name. He had heard it spoken once before in an argument of this kind. It had made him wonder ever since if he was somehow to blame.
‘Why will you not marry her?’ His grandfather sounded fed up now.
‘I’m not the marrying kind.’
‘Well maybe it’s about time you tried it.’
‘You’ve changed your tune.’
‘I thought it was all the rage with your lot.’
‘What do you mean ‘your lot’?’
‘You know fine.’
On the hall table the gloves Mo had left behind three months ago were still waiting for her return. It was cold outside now. Robbie wondered why she didn’t come back to get them. Or why his mother didn’t put them away in a drawer.
The gloves had been a present for Mo’s birthday when she and his mother still kissed. The three of them had sat around the kitchen table as Mo put on the gloves and waved her hands in the air.
She reached over and kissed Robbie’s mother on the mouth.
Robbie got a kiss from Mo that day too, in return for a bottle of perfume he saved up for from his pocket money.
She held him down with a hand on each shoulder so he couldn’t escape. He was embarrassed, heat flaring in his cheeks, but he let her do it all the same.
That evening was the same evening Robbie had heard his name spoken. It was Mo who started it, as it always was.
‘It would be fun, don’t you think.’
‘To get married.’
‘God, not again Mo.’ Robbie’s mother groaned.
‘Why not. Everybody’s doing it.’
‘Why be like everyone else?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with being like everyone else. Besides, what about Robbie?’
‘What about Robbie?’
‘Don’t you think he’d like it too?’
Mo used to kiss him all the time when he was young.
‘One for me. One for you. One to give away.’
That was what she said when she dropped him at the school gates, laughing as she pressed her lips to his cheeks one by one. Robbie couldn’t remember the last time he had been kissed. His mother tried it sometimes, but he always swerved to avoid her.
Upstairs now, in his bedroom, Robbie shot a man through the head. Front on, a neat hole above the left eye. Red splattered out from the back of the man’s brain. The man’s eyes stayed open as he fell. The music continued to play. Robbie played on too. He shot five men before he got bored.
He pushed the consol aside and turned his hands over. Larger thumb pads. That was what distinguished the male frog from the female. All those hours on the computer. That was what the teacher said. Robbie picked up his school bag from the floor, pulling out his MP3 player and his homework. He plugged in his earphones and set about listing all the frog’s organs and their functions. Lungs, liver, heart, spleen. Oxygen, blood flow, digestion. The homework sheet was real. It still had to be completed, with a real pen.
The spattering came like rain against the dark glass of his window. Robbie pulled out his earphones and waited. The spattering came again. Then a pause. Then once more. Robbie pushed aside his homework and went to look. In the street there was a boy, standing. In one hand he held a pair of pink gloves. In the other a small, spreadeagled creature.
‘Robbie, is that you?’
Robbie’s mother was drinking wine now. His grandfather must have gone home.
‘Just going out mum.’
‘Nowhere. Dad’s maybe.’
‘OK. Let me know if you’re going to stay over.’
Robbie opened the door to let himself out into the night. This was the way it had always been since he was young. He could go wherever he wanted, no questions. He picked up Mo’s gloves from the hall table and stuffed them into his pocket. They were soft, with a pattern in brown and green.
The frog was already dead.
‘Where did it come from?’
Robbie stared at the little, white belly glistening in the streetlight.
‘Our neighbour’s got a pond.’
‘What are you going to do with it?’
‘Dissect it, of course.’
They took it to the school playground, empty now, all the windows black. The boy didn’t take off his pink gloves as they entered the gates. They laid the frog out on the concrete ground beneath the science block.
From his pocket the boy produced a small pair of scissors. Robbie stared.
‘Where did you get them from?’
‘They’re my mother’s. For her nails.’
The boy cut the belly first. A slice down the gut as they’d been shown. Robbie could see the frog’s insides glinting in the small square of phosphorescent light emanating from his phone. The frog smelled bad. Robbie felt sick. His hand wobbled.
‘Keep the light still.’
But the boy’s hand trembled too.
Robbie watched as the boy took a little pair of tweezers from his pocket. He giggled.
‘Are those your mother’s as well?’
The boy nodded and grinned, then reached down to tease apart the skin.
It took them two goes to lift out the stomach. Beneath it was the small intestine, curled up like a miniature red worm. Beneath the small intestine was the liver. And below that was the spleen.
‘Do you think we’ll find a soul?’ The boy’s face was pale in the darkness.
‘What?’ Robbie didn’t understand.
‘They used to dissect things to get to the soul.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘They thought it was a physical thing. Like one of these.’
The boy pointed at the array of miniscule organs. Robbie imagined himself dissected, bisected, anatomised. What would they find inside him?
Beneath all the other organs was the frog’s heart. A tiny thing, like a miniature fist. Both boys bent to see, heads almost touching. Robbie knew that if they cut the frog’s heart open it would have three chambers. One for blood. One for oxygen. What was the third for? Love. That was what Robbie thought now. He wondered if perhaps his mother had mislaid the third chamber of her heart and didn’t know where to find it. Underneath his school shirt, Robbie’s own heart beat like a giant human fist. He turned to the boy.
‘Are your parents married?’
‘No.’ Robbie shook his head.
His mother had never been married. Not to his father. Not to Mo. Not to anyone as far as Robbie knew.
‘She’s not the marrying kind.’
‘Oh.’ The boy began to gather the frog up again. ‘I’ll walk home with you if you like.’
Robbie shook his head. ‘I’m not going home.’
‘Where are you going then?’
‘To a friends,’ Robbie said. ‘To return something. You can come if you want.’
The boy grinned. ‘OK then.’
On the corner of the pavement, furthest from the streetlight, Robbie and the boy kissed. The boy’s mouth was cool. Robbie’s cheeks were burning. The boy held Robbie’s head to his, soft pink wool pressing into the skin of Robbie’s neck. Inside Mo’s gloves, Robbie’s hands trembled. As they kissed again, Robbie wondered how to tell his mother he was just like her. And how to explain to his grandfather that one day he might want to marry. In his pocket, inside a little plastic bag, was a dissected frog. All the pieces back together once more.
© Mary Paulson-Ellis, 2013