Joseph had been out of school for two days with a stomach bug. Admittedly there were better ways to claim two days off school than periodic vomiting – if only choice was a factor. Given that he had no choice, Joseph endured the initial onslaught on Tuesday night. By Wednesday lunchtime, free from all school-related activities and with his condition steadily improving, Joseph could relax on the couch, albeit with a bucket nearby should the need arise.
When his mum called the school early on Thursday to let them know he was still sick, Joseph was pleased to have another free day. “Don’t get too excited,” his mother warned, “You’re going back tomorrow.” Joseph tried to argue that it was not worth his while to go back for one day before the weekend. Was he fully recovered, really? He might make it through the day, but at half-health considering what the stomach bug had taken out of him. Another day to get fully right would be only fair. What was the use in going back for a Friday anyway? All these arguments landed on deaf ears, his mam wouldn’t hear a word of it.
Friday morning rolled around and his mum’s knock on his bedroom door woke Joseph up before his alarm had the chance. He lay there a while, hearing the front door close as his mum left for work. His alarm went off and Joseph quickly hit the snooze button instead of getting up for a shower. When he eventually lifted himself out of his bed, Joseph only had time for the appearance of hygiene. He wet his hair a bit, dried it roughly with a towel and gave it a comb, before spraying some deodorant under his arms and getting dressed. In the corner of his room, Joseph’s uniform rested over the back of a chair, as it had since he undressed after school on Tuesday. He gave each item a cursory shake as he lifted it from the chair and put it on. Standard-issue black trousers, plain white polyester shirt and school tie, a light grey jumper with school crest and the obligatory black leather shoes to complete the necessary outfit.
Having managed to get dressed, Joseph struggled to wake himself up fully over breakfast. Two days off from school and he had adjusted to a different standard of living, one without any schedule. The clock could not be ignored today, however, as Joseph was forced to leave swiftly. Through some miracle – in his own opinion – Joseph managed to make it to his bus on time and even had his choice of seats. Settling into a seat a few rows from the front, he dozed off for a little nap on the way to school. Joseph was jolted awake as the bus halted at his stop. All in a rush, he gathered his coat and school bag and hurried to alight.
As Joseph stepped out on to the path, with the school gates only a stones throw away, only then did he become aware of his surroundings. Everything was in its usual place as much as he could tell, but something wasn’t right. He looked around at his fellow students as they made the same daily walk towards the school gates. At least, Joseph assumed these were his fellow students. They all wore backpacks of one kind or another and they walked towards the same school gates. One thing was particularly different, Joseph realised. These students were not wearing the same uniform as he was. They were wearing casual clothes, outfits of their own choosing. Joseph took a moment to rub his eyes, still not convinced that he was completely awake. A recognisable face approached. It was his best friend Andrew, walking towards him with a deplorably smug grin. “Well Joey,” Andrew smirked, “You forgot about today, eh?”
Joseph’s eyes widened with terror as he felt an altogether different kind of sickness in his stomach. “The No-Uniform Day…” he groaned. Joseph had completely forgotten about it. Two days out sick had been enough to knock it out of his mind. Sometimes, students get away with forgetting homework or returning a signed note. But a student in uniform cannot hide on a No Uniform Day. There was always one, Joseph thought. An unfortunate one. Today, it was him. And so it was, Joseph was the only one in uniform as he walked through the main corridor. Even in his first class of the day, his teacher, Ms. Madden, was dressed more casually than normal. As the roll was taken, Joseph ignored the unsubtle whispers and snickering as his name was called. Joseph resigned himself to what would be a day of struggle from first class to last, only interrupted by lunch breaks which would be a greater humiliation.
Or so he thought, until there was a knock on the classroom door. Joseph grimaced. “Of course…” he sighed to himself. There was never a No Uniform Day that was not held for some cause. The door did not need to open for Joseph to know that it would be another student – in their own casual clothes – coming to collect for said cause. With collection bucket in hand, in walked Andrew – of course it had to be fecking Andrew, Joseph fumed. Andrew briefly addressed Ms. Madden who knew the rigmarole already. She simply waved for Andrew to carry out his business. As Andrew turned, his eyes landed on Joseph and widened, the smug grin returning with force. No question of which path he would take around the room, Joseph seethed. Indeed, Andrew made certain to start on Joseph’s side of the room.
“Too cheap for charity, Joey?” Andrew taunted, loud enough for the class to hear but low enough for Ms. Madden to pretend she hadn’t heard. Joseph felt his cheeks turn bright red as laughter spread throughout the room, the eyes of the class all turning to observe him. “Haha, no,” Joseph responded dryly, “Here you go!” Joseph took the money from his pocket and leaned over to the bucket to add his contribution. He locked eyes with Andrew as he did so, whispering so only Andrew could hear:
“Funny how my friend didn’t send me any message about a No Uniform Day… Here’s your pieces of silver, you Judas bastard.”
The coins dropped in to the bucket. Andrew carried on around the room, clearly shaken. Not that Joseph noticed as his eyes immediately returned to his textbook. Andrew might as well not have been in the room. He wasn’t as far as Joseph was concerned. That’s right, Andrew didn’t even exist. Leaving Joseph to hang, no reminder that it was a No-Uniform Day – it was betrayal, plain and simple. Joseph didn’t need friends like that in his life, he reasoned. People like that would leave you sick to your stomach…