Meeting Lister was a serialised, illustrated short story I wrote and shared for fun with readers in the summer of 2018. It explores the events that led to Jimmy, Rowan, and Lister, lead characters from I Was Born for This, forming The Ark when they were thirteen. I hope you enjoy it!
If Jimmy and Rowan could have picked the last kid in school they ever expected to become friends with, it would have been Allister Bird.
They knew him, of course. You couldn’t not know who Lister Bird was. If there was a fight outside the school gate, Lister was probably involved. If a teacher was screaming at someone in the corridor outside your class, chances are it was at Lister. His appearance was so often messy that it had to be deliberate – loose tie, untucked shirt, and scuffed knees. And he was often spotted sitting outside the Head of Year 7-9′s office catching up on homework he’d obviously failed to turn in.
Lister didn’t seem to do much except cause trouble, scowl, and refuse to roll down his sleeves.
Jimmy and Rowan had no desire for a friend like that.
They had other friends, but they didn’t need to let anyone else into their inner circle. They were a duo. That’s how it had been since primary school and how it would undoubtedly stay. They spent their lunch breaks in the music practise rooms, playing Kula Shaker and The Killers covers, and their evenings in Jimmy’s grandad’s garage, making up songs. They were the school’s star music pupils – Rowan was taking his grade 8 cello exam aged only thirteen, while Jimmy was always called upon to play the guitar at school events.
And they never got into any trouble. Not on purpose, anyway. There were occasional encounters with bullies, but they preferred not to dwell on those.
They would have no reason at all to approach someone like Lister Bird. Would they?
If you needed to talk to Jimmy or Rowan, the school’s music department was the place to search. That was their hangout spot, always, even in the summer when most other kids would spend their lunchtimes playing football or lounging on the school field. Sometimes friends joined them, but often they were alone. They didn’t admit it to anyone but that’s how they preferred it. Unlike their other friends, Jimmy and Rowan were serious about music.
Neither of them were sure when the desire to start a band hit them. For Jimmy it had always felt like an inevitability – he’d grown up with his grandad’s love of seventies rock and his grandma’s love of the piano. Music was the centre of his world and he knew it always would be. But to Rowan it felt like a necessity after he started to enjoy playing the bass guitar far more than the cello. Rowan enjoyed playing the cello, but that had been his parents’ idea from the start. Bass guitar was his thing.
But there weren’t many bands that could thrive with only two members. Not the sort of band Jimmy and Rowan wanted to be in, anyway. And while they had a wide breadth of musical talent – Jimmy could play both the piano and the guitar with exceptional proficiency for his age as well as being a strong vocalist and Rowan could play most instruments he turned a hand to – neither of them could play percussion.
They had rhythm, of course. But Jimmy had terrible arm/leg coordination and could barely get a basic 4/4 rock beat going whenever he tried on one of the practise room drumkits. Rowan was slightly better but had no interest in learning to play it well – if he was going to be in a band, he wanted to play the guitar, or nothing at all.
They needed a drummer.
They asked all of their friends and acquaintances. Nobody was interested. They scoped out the private music lesson timetables up on the walls of the music department – apparently only four kids in their school had private drum lessons, and they were all in Year 11 or above. Jimmy and Rowan doubted they’d want to join a band with a couple of thirteen-year-olds.
For a while, they gave up. They went back to playing covers and dreaming about the day they’d find the perfect person to join their duo. Maybe when they were at uni. Or sixth form, even.
In fact, the day came much sooner than either of them expected.
It was a regular winter lunchtime. Jimmy and Rowan wandered through the corridors towards the music department as usual, ready for another hour trying to turn ‘Plug It In’ by Basement Jaxx into some sort of guitar duet. But as they approached the practise rooms, a sound caused them to halt in their tracks.
It was drumming.
For a moment, Jimmy wondered whether they were just listening to a recording. This was more complex drumming than he’d ever heard anyone play in school, including their music teacher, who actually used to drum in an amateur metal band.
But no. The sound was unmistakably real and it was coming from practise room 4.
Jimmy and Rowan shared an awed look. They knew exactly what the other was thinking, but voiced their thoughts anyway.
“Who’s that?” asked Jimmy.
“They’re amazing,” said Rowan.
They had to know who it was.
As quietly as possible, they approached practise room 4 and peered through the door window.
The boys took a breath.
“You have to be shitting me,” said Rowan.
“This can’t be real,” Jimmy breathed.
The drummer was none other than their school’s resident delinquent, class joker, and troublemaker. A boy who never did any homework, picked fights, and was constantly in detention.
It was Lister Bird.
Playing the drums like a god.
“No,” said Jimmy.
“Yes,” said Rowan.
Jimmy did not want Lister to join their band.
This was Lister Bird they were talking about. Wasn’t he a bully? He hadn’t exactly been nasty to either of them, but – well, Jimmy couldn’t say he’d ever seen Lister being nasty to anyone – but the rumours had to come from somewhere, right? There was no way Lister would want to be in their band, and even if he did, he was not the sort of person Jimmy wanted to be friends with.
Jimmy had good reason not to trust boisterous kids like Lister. Jimmy didn’t get routinely bullied, per se, but on the occasions that he was picked on for whatever reason, it was usually someone like Lister doing it. A loud boy who picked fights. So being around boys like that made Jimmy incredibly nervous.
Even if Lister could play the drums really well.
As they stood outside the practise room, Lister was racing through various styles and beats, from rock to jazz to blues to reggae, switching between them for no discernible reason. Jimmy wondered when he’d learnt all this, who had taught him. Or had he taught himself? That seemed impossible. Despite his objections, Jimmy couldn’t help but want to know more. There was clearly something more to Lister Bird than either of them had ever thought.
Rowan stared at Jimmy with big puppy eyes. “Can we at least ask?“
Jimmy sighed. They really had no other option. “Fine.”
Rowan couldn’t refrain from grinning. He turned away and looked through the door window again, less sneakily this time, and knocked loudly. The drumming immediately stopped and Rowan opened the door.
Jimmy trailed behind him, peering around Rowan’s shoulder. The sight in front of them almost made him flinch. Alongside his usual scruffy appearance – the nest of hair and untucked shirt – Lister looked deeply, deeply annoyed to have been interrupted. Good start.
“Hey!” said Rowan with his usual confidence, stepping into the small practise room. Jimmy followed anxiously, keeping himself partly concealed behind Rowan. “You play the drums?”
Lister seemed to take it as an attack. He scowled, standing up from the drum stool and crossing his drumsticks awkwardly in front of his body. One of the drumsticks appeared to have been snapped in half and was taped together with duct tape. “Yeah? So what?”
Rowan was undeterred. “We’re trying to start a band. We need a drummer.”
Lister’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, but when he spoke, his voice was a little softer. “Who are you again?”
“I’m Rowan and this is Jimmy. We’re in 9B.”
Jimmy was glad Rowan spoke for him. Lister was just too intimidating.
“What d’you play?” asked Lister.
Rowan grinned. “Pretty much everything! I mainly play bass, but can also play the cello and the piano. Jimmy’s an amazing singer and plays guitar and piano.”
“No,” said Lister, “like, what sort of music do you play?”
Rowan shrugged, then exchanged a look with Jimmy. “Loads of stuff,” he said. “Mainly rock and electronic, I guess? Those are probably the main two.”
Lister said nothing. He was still frowning, his shoulders hunched over.
“D’you like The Police?” he asked.
Jimmy’s heart leapt a little. The Police were one of his favourite eighties bands. Lister liked The Police too? That was surprising. He didn’t look like someone who listened to anything that wasn’t on Radio 1.
“Yeah!” said Rowan. “The Killers, Muse, Panic! at the Disco, Paul Simon, Radiohead?”
Lister considered these options, a small flash of intrigue appearing behind his eyes.
And then, for the first time, his gaze turned to Jimmy, untrusting and cold. Jimmy immediately felt himself sway backwards.
“What?” Lister snapped. An accusation.
Jimmy swallowed all his nerves and reservations and forced himself to speak up. “You’re really good. Best drummer I’ve ever heard in real life.”
The boy’s whole expression changed. The scowl dropped, eyes widened, and he looked a little uncomfortable, as if he wasn’t used to being praised and didn’t know how he was supposed to respond.
“Th.. thanks…” he mumbled. It was odd to hear Lister Bird, class joker, sound so meek. Maybe, thought Jimmy, maybe he wasn’t quite as bad as he’d painted him out to be.
“So d’you wanna be in our band?” pressed Rowan eagerly.
And then snap. Meek Lister was gone, and defensive Lister was back.
The boy shook his head wildly. “No. I’m fine, thanks.”
Rowan frowned. “What? Why?”
But Lister was already gathering up his bag, shoving his broken drumsticks into a rucksack covered in random streaks of highlighter pen. “It’s just stupid. I don’t want to be in some fucking stupid band. I don’t even know you.”
“But-“ Rowan couldn’t get another word out. Lister shoved past him, pushing both he and Jimmy apart in his rush to exit the practise room.
Jimmy caught his eye as he left. Lister looked away from him hurriedly. And Jimmy couldn’t help but feel that Lister, for whatever reason, was lying to them.
Rowan wasn’t quick to give in. He’d always been like that. While Jimmy had always been timid, it took a lot to stop Rowan getting what he wanted, and what he really wanted was Lister Bird to be in their band.
So Rowan tried everything. Rowan followed Lister to the bathroom one morning, only for Lister to shove him into a cubicle and run away. Rowan found out what school bus Lister got and cornered him at the bus stop, only for Lister to put headphones on and tell him to fuck off. Rowan sent him a bunch of messages on Facebook and Lister read all of them, but didn’t reply.
Both Jimmy and Rowan kept their eyes on the practise rooms during their lunch breaks. But Lister didn’t show up again.
Weeks passed and eventually even Rowan gave up. They were okay with it, really. They just went back to normal – the two of them making music in the practise rooms. The few times that they spotted Lister around school, in the corridors or in history or music class, he avoided their eyes.
Jimmy didn’t understand him at all. Was he embarrassed by being musically talented? Or did he find Jimmy and Rowan embarrassing? Thinking about it, it was probably the latter. Jimmy knew they were nerds. And Lister was at least trying to be one of the ‘cool’ people. Even though he was failing due to all the fights he started.
It bothered Jimmy. But he could do nothing about it now.
Or so they thought until a music lesson one afternoon in January.
Every year, Jimmy and Rowan’s music class were assigned a project to work on in groups based on the topic they were studying. In Year 7, they’d had to write their own ten-minute opera. In Year 8, they’d had to write a protest song. And in Year 9, their prompt was simply ‘Jazz’. Jimmy and Rowan both liked jazz and started discussing ideas before Miss Wilkinson had even finished telling the class about the project. In fact, they were so distracted by talking about their own ideas that they completely missed their teacher announcing that they had to work in groups of three.
As they prepared to exit the music classroom and find a spare practise room to get started on their project, Miss Wilkinson stepped in front of them, hands on hips, blocking their way out.
She raised an eyebrow. “Did you two fail to hear me saying you need to be in a group of three?”
Jimmy’s heart sank. Three? They didn’t have any other close friends in this class.
“But- but miss,“ Rowan spluttered, “we always do our projects just us two-“
She shook her head. “Not this time. We’ve got an odd number of students in this class this year. We need everyone to be in threes.”
Jimmy and Rowan exchanged a look. Rowan looked disappointed, but shrugged resignedly at Jimmy. Yeah. It’d probably be fine, as long as the third person wasn’t too annoying.
Miss Wilkinson glanced over their heads and beckoned at someone behind them. Jimmy and Rowan turned.
It was, of course, Lister Bird.
And he looked furious.
Jimmy physically took a step back as Lister approached. Lister kept his eyes on the carpet, his arms folded tightly across his chest. His school jumper had holes in the sleeves so he could poke his thumbs through the fabric.
“Allister,” said Miss Wilkinson, “you okay to work with Jimmy and Rowan?”
Jimmy fully expected Lister to just scream ‘no’ and run away, but Lister just grumbled what sounded like the word ‘fine’. It struck Jimmy then that Lister had failed to join anyone else’s music group. Didn’t he have any friends in this class? Jimmy tried to think of a time he’d seen Lister actively hanging out with a group of friends. He couldn’t. He could only picture Lister in a fight, or shouting out in class, or laughing at his own joke.
“Good,” continued Miss Wilkinson. “Off you go, then. We’ve only got forty minutes left of this lesson.”
The three boys left the classroom, Jimmy and Rowan walking ahead while Lister trailed a few paces behind. Jimmy and Rowan exchanged another look, this time one of panic and confusion. Lister wasn’t going to want to work with them at all, was he?
Jimmy tried to sneak a quick glance behind him at Lister, but Lister immediately caught his eye and snapped, “WHAT?”
Jimmy flinched and stammered, “Nothing,” before turning away.
The three boys entered practise room 6 in silence. Rowan sat down at the keyboard, Jimmy picked up the acoustic guitar from the corner, and Lister sat down at the drum kit, still not looking at either of them.
This was undoubtedly going to be the worst music project Jimmy had ever been a part of.
That first music lesson, Lister didn’t say more than one word at a time. A mumbled ‘yeah’. ‘Fine’. ‘Okay’. A nod of the head.
It was better than what Jimmy expected, at least. He expected Lister to protest, to question their every suggestion and maybe even refuse to play the drums at all.
But he didn’t do any of that. He just passively obeyed, not looking either of them in the eye.
Jimmy and Rowan did try to get him involved. Rowan in particular – he didn’t find Lister as scary as Jimmy did. Rowan asked him to share his opinion about their jazz piece, to suggest beats they could try, to decide whether Rowan should play bass or play keys. But Lister just shrugged and stared at his drumsticks. So eventually Rowan stopped trying.
And it carried on like that for their next three music lessons.
They got settled into a routine. Jimmy and Rowan would come up with a few bars, Jimmy would note down what they’d composed in his own weird hybrid of musical notation and scribbling down chord names, and Lister would just add in whatever drum beat he felt like, which was fine, because it was always absolutely perfect.
Things stayed like that until their fourth lesson.
Jimmy and Rowan had gotten into an argument. This was not uncommon. Rowan had a tendency to believe he was always right about everything, and Jimmy was a bit of a music snob and got upset if he felt they were stepping away from his artistic vision. And when Jimmy and Rowan disagreed – properly disagreed – neither of them would budge. Rowan felt that he should lead this section of their piece on the keys to shake things up, but Jimmy insisted they needed to keep the melody with the guitar and bass guitar, otherwise they’d change the tone of the whole piece. They’d been snapping at each other back and forth for a solid twenty minutes, getting louder and louder and more and more annoyed at each other, until:
“Would you both just shut the fuck up.”
Jimmy and Rowan both silenced and turned to Lister, who was sitting at the drum kit as he always was.
Lister had spoken to them, properly spoken to them with a full sentence, for the first time since they’d met.
He looked incredibly irritated by both of them.
“Look,” he said, and promptly stood up, walked around the drums, and snatched the guitar out of Jimmy’s hands. He held it to his chest and quickly played the main melodic motif of their piece.
“You-“ He pointed at Jimmy. “-play that at the same time as you-” He pointed at Rowan. “-play it on keys an octave apart for the first four bars, then a third apart on the next four bars. If you just do guitar or just do keys then it’ll sound the same as the other sections anyway. The whole point of jazz is that you don’t fucking know what’s coming next.” He shoved the guitar back into Jimmy’s hands and stomped back around to his drum kit stool.
Jimmy and Rowan stared at him.
Lister’s eyes flickered between them both, clearly nervous. “Well?” he snapped. “Go on, then.”
Without further ado, Lister began to play the drum beat leading up to their latest section. Jimmy and Rowan did as instructed – they both played the melody on the guitar and the keys. And Lister was right. It really did sound better than either of their options.
After they finished the eight bars, silence filled the room again.
“That was good,” said Rowan.
“Yeah,” said Jimmy. He shot Lister a little smile. “Thanks.“
“S’fine,” Lister mumbled, looking down at the carpet again.
“Can you play the guitar?” asked Jimmy, because that was all he’d been thinking about since Lister snatched his guitar.
Lister looked up at him again and Jimmy caught a glimpse of that vaguely curious expression that he saw when they first met him. An expression that said I want to be your friend, but I don’t know how.
“Uh, not really,” Lister said, glancing away again. “I just watched some youtube videos. I don’t have a guitar. I prefer drums anyway.”
“Can you read sheet music?” asked Rowan.
Lister shrugged. “A little bit, I guess. I had a book on it when I was little…” His voice trailed off, and he went a little red, as if this was a deeply embarrassing thing to admit.
“Have you studied any music theory?” Rowan pressed, leaning forward.
Lister snorted. It was the closest they’d got to a smile from him so far. “Uh, no. That’s useless nerd stuff.”
“But you’re really good at music,” said Jimmy. “You can play the drums, you know some guitar basics, you know what an octave and a third is-”
“That’s not that impressive,” Lister said, rolling his eyes.
“It is!” said Jimmy. It was getting annoying how much Lister didn’t want to accept that he was good at something. “You’re really talented.”
Lister went even redder. He tried to cover it up by leaning on one hand. “Thanks,” he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper.
Jimmy and Rowan shared a look, and in that look, they agreed not to ask Lister about their band. Jimmy knew they could broach that subject again later on, if they actually managed to become Lister’s friend. He was starting to realise that Lister was like a frightened animal. They had to approach slowly and quietly, otherwise he would just make a loud noise and run off.
So in the next four lessons, they focused on their piece. They named it ‘Rhapsody in Orange’, which Rowan and Jimmy explained to Lister was a play on words of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, one of the most famous jazz pieces ever written, but theirs was orange because it sounded like orange felt, and Lister agreed. And Lister joined in much more in their remaining lessons. He contributed ideas, solved Rowan and Jimmy’s disputes, and once, in the seventh lesson, even smiled when Rowan made a particularly funny mistake in the bass part.
He didn’t talk to them outside of their music lessons, but Jimmy felt that they’d made progress.
In their final lesson of term, they performed the piece to the class. They got cheers with their applause and a beaming smile from Miss Wilkinson. She handed them their mark sheets as they left the classroom, and the boys all stopped in the corridor outside to read their marks.
They all got full marks. 30/30. A*. On Jimmy’s sheet, Miss Wilkinson had written,
Jimmy has consistently shown that he is a strongly imaginative composer and employed varied melodies and surprising rhythms in this piece. Superb guitar-playing.
This wasn’t anything new for Jimmy, but it sent a warm feeling to his stomach nonetheless.
Jimmy glanced over at Lister’s sheet. On his sheet, Miss Wilkinson had written,
Lister is an incredibly talented drummer and has a mastery of rhythm. He clearly understood the jazz techniques we studied in the autumn term and implemented them in deeply creative ways in ‘Rhapsody in Orange’. He worked outstandingly well with Jimmy and Rowan and his passion for percussion shone through in this piece.
He looked up at Lister to gauge his reaction, only to find that Lister was just staring at the paper, slack-jawed and wide-eyed.
“I’ve… never gotten full marks on anything,” said Lister to no one in particular.
“You deserved it!” Rowan grinned and slapped Lister on the back, causing the boy to startle and look up.
Jimmy realised suddenly that this was the end of whatever the three of them had. They wouldn’t be working on a music project together next term. Things would go back to normal. Unless…
“We could meet up tomorrow lunchtime?” asked Jimmy. “Me and Rowan always have lunch in practise room 5.”
Lister froze. His mouth opened and then shut again.
And then he said, “Okay.“
Jimmy was excited. Properly excited. Because this was happening. He, Rowan, and now Lister, were going to start a band. Well, sort of. Probably. If Lister agreed to it.
They were going to be in a band.
Jimmy had been dreaming of this since he was six years old.
The day after their performance of ‘Rhapsody in Orange’, Jimmy found himself unable to sit still through all of his lessons leading up to lunchtime. In maths, he doodled the three of them playing music in the back of his exercise book. In English, he snuck a dictionary under his desk and tried to brainstorm band name ideas. In chemistry, he and Rowan sat next to each other, and got told off four times for talking in class.
And after what felt like an age, lunchtime came, and Jimmy and Rowan practically skipped to the music department and bundled into practice room 5 to wait for Lister so their first ever band practise could begin.
And they waited.
They waited for five minutes. Then ten. Then twenty.
After half an hour, Jimmy said, “Maybe he thought we meant the second half of lunch.”
After forty minutes, Rowan said, “He’s not coming.”
And by fifty minutes, with only ten minutes of lunch to spare, Jimmy agreed with him.
Lister hadn’t shown.
“Maybe he had detention, or something,” said Rowan hopefully, but there was no doubt in Jimmy’s mind that Lister had decided not to come. They’d pressured him into working with them in music class. He obviously must have hated it. He probably hated them.
“Maybe,” mumbled Jimmy, but both of them stayed in the music room until the bell went, just in case he showed.
Rowan was angry. He ranted all through fifth period, saying they never should have expected anything of Lister, and there was no way they wanted someone like him in their band anyway, and they’d find someone else eventually.
Jimmy didn’t know what to think. He just felt sad.
The next day, Jimmy went on a search around school for Lister Bird. He went without Rowan, who had given up. He went to Lister’s locker, to Lister’s coat peg, and eventually to Lister’s form room, but he was nowhere to be found.
Later, when Lister didn’t show up to their history class, Jimmy concluded he must be off school. Was he off sick? Was that the reason he hadn’t shown up yesterday? If he was sick, why hadn’t he messaged them on Facebook?
Lister didn’t show for the next two days. And then it was the weekend. Jimmy spent the whole weekend at home, thinking about being in a band.
It felt like a dream that was moving further and further away.
It was Monday afternoon when Jimmy and Rowan finally caught a glimpse of Lister. Home time. The two boys were getting their bags from the Year 9 locker area when they spotted Lister doing the same thing. The area was so crowded – as it always was at home time – that they could only see his head, but it was him. He was finally back in school.
And Jimmy and Rowan wanted answers.
They barged through the crowd to get to him.
“Lister!” Rowan called out. Lister turned – still just his head showing between other faces of kids in their year group – and his face dropped.
Not a good sign.
Jimmy, who had always been small for his age, couldn’t really see him properly, so focused on squeezing himself through the bodies and trying not to lose his schoolbag in the process. After a solid minute of ‘excuse me’s and ‘sorry’s, he made it to where Lister was still standing next to his locker.
Rowan was there too. He had frozen in place, staring down at Lister’s… chest? Something he’s holding? Jimmy was confused.
“What are you-?” asked Jimmy as he finally approached, and then he saw.
Lister’s right arm was bound in a red cast and was held against his torso by a sling. The only parts of his arm showing were the tips of his fingers and thumb and a small sliver of skin between the cast and his shirt. The cast was thick and looked deeply uncomfortable to wear.
His arm was broken.
Jimmy stared at it for a moment, and then looked at Lister’s face. The boy looked somewhere between embarrassment and annoyance – a familiar expression. Other parts of his appearance were less familiar, though. The boy didn’t look quite as unruly as usual – his collar was done up, his sleeves unrolled, and his tie was a mostly sensible length. Jimmy guessed that without the use of one arm, Lister couldn’t quite maintain his deliberately scruffy style.
“That’s why you didn’t come to band practise…” Jimmy said, more to himself than anyone else.
“…sorry,” Lister mumbled, looking neither of them in the eye.
He resumed trying to stuff his schoolbooks and folders into his school bag, which was a rather awkward feat with the use of only one arm. Rowan held out his hands to assist, but Lister batted them away.
“What happened?” asked Jimmy in a quiet voice.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Lister. “It’s not that bad.“
“Not that bad?” Rowan spluttered. “You’ve broken your fucking arm!”
“I fucking know that,” Lister snapped back. “I… just tripped.”
“You tripped and broke your whole arm?” Jimmy asked. He was struggling to imagine scenarios in which people could break their arm just by tripping over. Did he fall off something? Get hit by a car?
“It’s none of your fucking business,” said Lister, and it sounded final. He’d still looked neither of them in the eye. “I have to go. Sorry I can’t be in your band anymore. You don’t have to talk to me anymore.”
“Wait-“ Rowan called out to him, but Lister had already scarpered, leaving the two boys standing very still, more confused than ever.
He’d tripped, Lister had said.
Jimmy couldn’t help but feel that this was not the full story.
Lister had known from the start that the band thing with Jimmy and Rowan had been too good to be true. He was an idiot for getting his hopes up, and now karma had come to slap him in the face. Or the arm, he supposed.
That’s what he got for thinking something good could happen in his life.
He’d never really had friends. He didn’t need them. If people got too close to him, they ended up hating him anyway. He was happy to roll through life cracking jokes in class and picking fights with anyone who got in his way.
Then Jimmy and Rowan had happened.
They were nerds. Literally. You could not get any more nerdy than Jimmy and Rowan. Lister had vaguely heard of Jimmy – everyone sort of knew who Jimmy was because he was the only out trans kid in school. And he recognised Rowan because of his ugly glasses. They really were ugly glasses. They looked like Lister’s grandad’s glasses.
They didn’t seem to care about anything except music. It was almost freakish, how much they cared about music.
And because of that, Lister couldn’t help but feel a little intrigued.
Lister loved music too. He always had. His mum had a big bookcase of CDs and one of Lister’s favourite things to do when he was younger was pick one at random, lay down on the living room floor, and listen all the way through. His mum used to do this with him sometimes, but she stopped when he got older and she got too busy working.
Lister specifically loved drumming. He often wondered whether this was because he never had any other musical instruments to try apart from the plastic drum kit his aunt got him for his seventh birthday. In any case, he knew that drumming was his thing, and always would be.
And he got good at it. Very quickly. He’d listen to the percussion on his mum’s CDs and try them out himself. He’d search YouTube for drum tutorials and copy them. Eventually he started making up his own drum rhythms.
His plastic drum kit broke when he was twelve, and he begged his mum to get him a proper one, a real one, but she couldn’t afford it, and she said it’d be too noisy anyway. But his aunt, uncle, and grandparents banded together to get him an electric one. It was Lister’s favourite thing in the whole world.
The ones at school were real, though. He’d always fancied trying them, but the idea of someone seeing him – seeing his special thing that he enjoyed – terrified him. He didn’t want anyone to know he liked drumming. To be honest, he didn’t like people knowing anything about him. People knowing things about him gave them more ammo when making fun of him.
But he’d had to try one time. Just once, he wanted to hear the metallic ring of the crash cymbal. The hiss of the hi-hat. The boom of the bass drum.
And Jimmy and Rowan had caught him.
Being a part of their music project was probably the most fun Lister had ever had. Sure, he’d been apprehensive at first. He had a right to be cautious when it came to people being nice to him – often they were just trying to manipulate him. But eventually he realised that Jimmy and Rowan weren’t trying to do that – they were just trying create a cool song. And Lister had always wanted to be involved in something like that.
Getting that A* grade had been a miracle. Miss had probably given him extra marks just because he hadn’t caused any arguments, but still. It was the best mark he’d ever gotten in any class, ever. He felt so happy, even, that he stuck the mark sheet on the inside of his locker door.
That ended up being a big mistake.
They ambushed him at the bus stop.
It was, of course, Theo Wallace and his crew of Year 10s. They’d had it out for Lister ever since he threw a sandwich at Theo’s head four months ago. He didn’t care that much – he was mostly safe inside school, bar a few nasty words and shoves, and he’d managed to avoid them outside of school.
“Hey, Lister!” That was Theo. Lister wanted to shout back, but he didn’t really feel like being in a fight today. “Hey! I didn’t know you were a little fucking boffin!”
This got Lister’s attention. He snapped his head up, only to find that the group of older boys were closing in on where he was sitting at the bus stop. There was no escape.
Theo grinned evilly, and then held a piece of paper up to Lister’s face.
It was his mark sheet. He must have stolen it from his locker (which did not have a padlock on it).
Lister went to grab it instantly, but Theo pulled it out of his reach.
“Fucking GIVE IT BACK!” Lister shouted. He dropped his bag and leapt to his feet. He reached out again but Theo laughed and waved it away from him. He was a lot taller and stockier than Lister.
“Aw, all it took was you hanging out with two fucking nerds.” Theo grinned. “Are you and Jimmy and Rowan all best friends forever now? You best friends with the nerds?”
Lister wanted to punch him. But he took a breath and tried to remain calm. He said nothing.
And then Theo said something very, very nasty about Jimmy, using a horrible, horrible word.
So Lister shoved him with all the strength in his body.
Theo stumbled backwards and fell over, the mark sheet flying out of his hand. Lister snatched out from the air and stuffed it into his bag. It was crinkled, but at least it wasn’t gone.
Then the first punch hit the side of Lister’s head.
He fell to one side into the wall of the bus stop, only to be hit with another punch, then a shove, then a kick to the shin. He was outnumbered. It was at least six to one – Lister hadn’t counted them, so he wasn’t sure. Then Theo was in front of him, and he shoved Lister, nearly lifting him off the ground. Lister fell backwards, tumbling off the curb of the pavement-
Straight into the path of an oncoming car.
When his mum got to the hospital, she started shouting at him, more angry than he’d ever seen her.
Then Lister started crying, and his mum stopped shouting, and hugged him instead.
This could have been much worse, the paramedics had told him in the ambulance. You were lucky the car was only going twenty miles-per-hour.
He didn’t feel lucky. He’d never felt a pain like this in his whole life.
Theo and his crew had scarpered as soon as the car hit, of course. They didn’t want to be blamed. Lister hadn’t told anyone what had happened. He told his mum he tripped. He didn’t want anyone to pity him or think he was weak.
The car’s driver stopped and called an ambulance for him. To be honest, she seemed more panicked than Lister was. Lister supposed he was in a state of shock. The pain from his arm was numbing everything else in his brain.
At the hospital, the doctor had to realign the bone, which hurt more than actually getting hit by the car. The only good bit was when he got to choose the colour of his cast. Red.
It was nighttime by the time he and his mum got back to their flat. Neither of them were saying much. Lister didn’t think he had even been around his mum for this long in ages – she’d been so busy working lately. Maybe she didn’t like being around him anymore. It was probably his fault.
Lister skulked off to his bedroom, only to find that changing into his pyjamas was extremely difficult, being used to having two functioning arms and now only having one. After a lot of struggle, he got his pyjamas on, and then remembered that the mark sheet was still crumpled up in his schoolbag.
He took it out and looked at it. He almost hated it, now. He almost wanted to throw it away. Only almost, though. He smoothed it out and then stacked some books on top of it, hoping that would get rid of some of the crumples.
Then he caught sight of his drum kit and realised.
He wasn’t going to be able to play the drums.
One to two months, the doctor had said.
Jimmy and Rowan didn’t have any need to be his friend now.
Lister crawled into bed and curled up. His arm hurt so bad. The cast felt itchy and sweaty.
He started crying and couldn’t stop.
After a little while, his mum knocked softly on the door, then came in and sat on the edge of the bed. She hadn’t done that since he was little. She stroked his back, and then handed him some paracetamol and a glass of water.
Then she stroked his hair until he fell asleep.
Lister was surprised when Jimmy and Rowan came to find him on Monday once he was back at school. He’d assumed they would just forget about him.
They even seemed concerned. Like they cared about him. They were probably faking it, so he ran away before they could change their mind and hate him.
But they kept coming back.
On Tuesday, he found a ‘get well soon’ card in his locker, signed by Jimmy and Rowan. On Wednesday, in history class, Jimmy asked how his arm was doing. On Thursday, Rowan asked if he could sign his cast, and Lister grumbled a yes. Rowan drew a tiny drum kit on his cast. It was startlingly good. Jimmy tried to draw a guitar, but it was very out of proportion.
On Friday, Lister decided to go to the music department at lunchtime. He wasn’t going to hang out with them or anything, he just wanted to see if they were there and what they were up to.
He heard them before he saw them. Jimmy on keys, Rowan on guitar. They were playing some Sufjan Stevens, which surprised Lister a little. They’d only shown that they where into rock music, not much indie or folk.
He didn’t go into the music room to say hello. But maybe he could do that next time, when he’d spoken to them a bit more in class, or whatever.
Yeah, maybe. Maybe next time.
Lister, Jimmy decided, was basically a cat.
Often, he needed to be left alone. If Jimmy or Rowan came up to him at the wrong moment, they would be rebuffed instantly, possibly grumbled at, or even ignored entirely. But sometimes – more and more often, as time went on – Lister’s eyes lit up when they asked him to join them for lunchtime band practice, even though he couldn’t play the drums as well as normal. Sometimes he smiled gratefully when Jimmy asked if he needed help with their history worksheet. Sometimes, Jimmy even considered them friends.
When Lister joined them for band practice, Jimmy felt like anything was possible. Lister was very insistent that he could still play the drums, despite being temporarily one-handed, and more than once Rowan had to physically stop him taking his arm sling off to attempt to play with both hands. But, to everyone’s surprise, he could still play rather well one-handed, even if he had to keep his drum beats quite simple. And so they made music together.
“If we were in a band,” said Lister one lunchtime through a mouthful of apple, “what would we be called?”
There was a silence as they all thought about it. Jimmy didn’t really want to suggest any of his ideas – of which he had many – because Rowan and Lister might think they were stupid. Thankfully, it was Rowan who spoke first.
“How about Triad,” he said, waving one hand mysteriously.
Lister continued chomping on his apple. “What does that mean?”
Rowan shrugged. “It’s just a cool word for trio.”
“Oh. Well, that’s a bit obvious.”
“I’d like to hear you think of something better.”
“I was thinking something more like Death Lords.” Lister said this in a deep and dramatic voice.
Rowan raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t realise we played heavy metal.”
Jimmy continued listening to them trading ideas while munching on his sandwich. He kept his ideas to himself for now. He wasn’t sure if either of them would like them – some of them were sort of Biblical, and it wasn’t like they were a Christian band or anything. He’d share them another time.
As the weeks went on, their music improved along with their friendship. Jimmy and Rowan were becoming slowly more acquainted with who they were referring to as Real Lister, who was a boy who cracked jokes, laughed a lot, liked chatting, and loved playing the drums. The jittery, snappy, angry boy they thought they knew was fading away, and in his place was the real Lister, who was a little erratic, sure, but wholly and utterly lovable.
And Lister was getting to know them in return. He even accepted Jimmy’s offer to come round one rainy weekend to hang out in Jimmy’s garage, in which there was an old keyboard and drum kit set up. The three boys jammed for about an hour – as much as they could, what with Lister’s arm – before deciding to call it a day and watching YouTube videos in Jimmy’s room while Jimmy’s grandad brought them cookies to snack on.
Lister knew a lot of funny YouTubers, while Jimmy and Rowan hadn’t really watched much YouTube before. Jimmy found that he quite enjoyed watching them.
“Maybe when we write our own songs we should post them on YouTube!” suggested Lister with great excitement.
The idea made Jimmy immediately nervous, but what most surprised him about Lister’s suggestion was the when. Not if, but when. When they wrote their own songs.
Lister started hanging out with them more and more outside of their band practices. He started talking to them at break time, before school, after school, and in their few shared classes. He started replying to their messages in their group chat. After only a few weeks, he was rarely angry and nervous anymore. He was smiley. Excitable. Funny. Happy. Jimmy felt a small glow of warmth in his chest at the thought that he and Rowan were something to do with that.
But despite all of this – the smiles, the music, the laughs, the friendship – Lister still would not tell them how he broke his arm.
Jimmy’s curiosity was driving him mad. He knew something was off about Lister’s ‘I tripped’ story – every time Lister said it, his eyes shifted to the ground, and a dash of colour filled his cheeks. Jimmy didn’t think himself amazing at reading people’s emotions, but one of the things he had learnt about Lister was that he was terrible at hiding his emotions – his eyes flashed when he was annoyed, he smiled wide at the smallest thing, and he blushed very, very easily. His ‘I tripped’ story was obviously a stone-cold lie.
“Yeah, it’s a lie,” said Rowan, when Jimmy eventually explained his theory while they were supposed to be doing algebra equations in their maths class.
Jimmy waited for Rowan to elaborate, but he didn’t. “So… what do we do about it?”
Rowan shrugged. “Nothing. If he doesn’t want to tell, that’s up to him.”
“But…” Jimmy lowered his voice. “What if he was in a fight? What if people are bullying him?”
“I think he’s more likely to be the bully than be bullied.”
“That’s what we thought before but you know that’s not true now.”
Rowan sighed. “Yeah, I guess.”
“So don’t you think we should try and find out who was responsible? And… I don’t know… report them to a teacher, or something?”
The boy considered this. “Well… I don’t know. Maybe. Is it really any of our business?”
“Lister is our friend,” said Jimmy. He surprised himself how assuredly he said it, because until then, he hadn’t been sure whether it was true. But of course it was. Lister was their friend now.
It seemed to surprise Rowan too, perhaps for the same reason.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s true.”
It didn’t take them long to uncover the culprits. Jimmy asked around Year 9 while Rowan spoke to a few kids he knew in Year 10 and 11. They should have guessed, really. Theo Wallace from Year 10 – well known for picking on younger kids, starting fights, and generally being a dickhead. Someone in Year 11 saw them ambush Lister at the bus stop last month and start beating him up, before pushing him – perhaps accidentally, but Jimmy wasn’t sure – in front of a car.
Now that they’d found out the full story, Jimmy didn’t know where to go from there. Theo was not the sort of person you could just confront. It wasn’t like they had any evidence. And it wasn’t like they could bring it up with Lister, either. He might get annoyed that they’d been poking their noses into his business.
Rowan, however, was absolutely furious. And when Rowan had strong feelings about something, he was pretty much unstoppable.
“I’m going to Miss James,” he said, after they’d discussed their next steps during registration, and he stood up out of his chair. Miss James was their head of house and could usually be trusted to take bullying accusations seriously.
Jimmy grabbed his sleeve. “We don’t have any evidence!”
“So? We can’t just not do anything-“
“But what if Theo comes after us?”
Rowan wrenched his arm away. “Well I don’t know about you, but I’m not a coward.” He walked out of the classroom.
The comment cut deep. Was Jimmy a coward for being afraid of people like Theo? Maybe. But Jimmy was afraid of a lot of things. All the time. It was a constant buzzing in his brain, one that wouldn’t stop coming up with ‘what if’ scenarios and obsessing over tiny details and making everything out of nothing. He hadn’t used to feel like that. When he was younger, he was more carefree and less worried about things. But something in his brain had changed in the last year. He didn’t know why.
And this time, he didn’t want to let that get the better of him. Not when justice was on the line.
He stood up, and ran to join Rowan in the corridor, and together, they walked to Miss James’ office.
They both felt exceptionally pleased with themselves until three days later, when Theo and his posse cornered all three of them outside the sports equipment shed at break time. Jimmy felt a wave of terror as the larger boy approached where they’d been sitting and chatting, a sharkish grin on his face.
“All right, lads?” said Theo. “So guess who got called into Miss James’ office this morning? Heard you’ve been chatting shit about me to teachers, now!”
Nobody said anything, but Lister looked at Rowan and Jimmy, confused.
“Aw, doesn’t he know!” Theo laughed. “Your boyfriends Rowan and Jimmy have been making up shit to a teacher, saying I pushed you in front of a car. And now I’m getting suspended.”
Lister went red in the face. He met Jimmy’s eyes. “How did you know-“
“Well me and my friends don’t like liars!” Theo continued loudly.
He signalled to one of his friends, who walked up to them and grabbed Lister from where he was sitting on the floor, pulling him away from Jimmy and Rowan and pinning him against the brick wall of the sports shed. For a brief moment of terror, Jimmy thought they were going to start beating up Lister again – who still had a cast on his arm – but then Theo and his friends turned their attention to Jimmy and Rowan.
“Seems like I need to teach you a fucking lesson about lying,” said Theo.
“Seems like we need to teach you a fucking lesson about not being a twat,” said Rowan, standing up to face him. Rowan was tall, but still not quite as tall as Theo.
Theo seemed taken aback that a Year 9 would actually stand up to him. He faltered for a moment, before saying, “Oh yeah? What you gonna do?”
“This,” said Rowan. And then he swung his arm, faster than Jimmy had ever seen him move, and punched Theo square in the jaw.
Theo staggered backwards, more from shock than anything else, clearly not having expected Rowan to make the first move. His cronies bristled, looking to each other and trying to decide what to do.
“You little fucking cunt,” growled Theo. “You’re gonna fucking die.”
He stepped forward, raising a fist, but Jimmy saw it coming. Before he had time to process what he was doing, he jumped up, raised his leg, and kicked Theo in the crotch.
Theo let out a howl of pain and dropped to his knees, hands over his groin, and Jimmy heard Lister make a sort of startled gasp from where he was still pinned against the wall.
Rowan laughed, but it was short-lived. Theo signalled to his group of friends.
“Fucking kill them!” he all but screamed. There were four of them, not counting the one keeping Lister immobile, and they immediately started advancing on Rowan and Jimmy.
“NO!!” Lister shouted. “Don’t- don’t hurt them!!”
Rowan and Jimmy exchanged a look. They were not fighters. Even if they’d managed to temporarily take Theo down, they would not win this.
“JUST RUN!” Lister shouted at them, voicing their thoughts, but Jimmy knew they weren’t going to leave him behind.
As one of the boys swung the first fist, Jimmy ducked and rolled away from the group, while Rowan swerved the other way, barrelling his whole body into the boy holding Lister against the wall. Jimmy jumped to his feet, grabbed Lister by his good arm, and before any of the other boys had time to process what was happening, the trio were legging it across the school field and back towards the school building.
They didn’t stop running until they were safe inside Rowan and Jimmy’s form room, collapsing onto the floor against the radiator.
Jimmy couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. They’d just physically attacked Theo Wills, one of the most notorious bullies in school. He, Jimmy, had kicked a guy in the crotch. Deliberately.
“I- I can’t believe you punched him in the face-“ Lister stammered, “-and kicked him in the dick.”
There was a pause, and then the three of them were laughing.
Jimmy suddenly realised he was finding it hard to catch his breath, not from the running but from the panic, from the horrible, worried feelings he’d been finding it so hard to be in control of lately. Rowan started rubbing his back soothingly, which did help, but it took him a few moments to get his breathing back under control.
“You… you didn’t have to stand up for me,” said Lister, shyly looking up at them both from beneath his eyelashes. “I don’t want you to get hurt because of me.”
“Oh shut the fuck up,” said Rowan, rolling his eyes. He threw his arms around Lister, nestling his head onto Lister’s shoulder. Jimmy smiled and joined him, hugging Lister from the other side. The boy immediately went bright red.
“You’re our best friend,” said Jimmy. “It’s our job to kick people in the dick for you.”
Lister opened his mouth and then closed it again. Jimmy felt Lister’s whole body lose tension as he sank into the hug.
After a moment, in a very small voice, Lister said, “Best friend?”
Rowan snorted. “What, you never had one of those?”
There was a pause.
“No,” said Lister.
“Well, you do now.”
There was another pause. Jimmy snuck a glance at Lister. He was still flushed, but his eyebrows were furrowed. He seemed to be processing.
“So…” Lister swallowed. “You don’t just like me because you need a drummer for your band?”
Jimmy squeezed him a little tighter. “We like you because you’re funny and weird and cool. The drumming thing is just a plus.“
Lister blushed harder. “Oh.”
The boys separated, leaning back together in silence against the radiator. Despite what had just happened, Jimmy felt a sudden wave of happiness.
“I’m getting my cast off next week,” said Lister suddenly. “So we can have a proper band practice.”
“Yesss!” Rowan grinned excitedly. “That’s good because I’ve written a song I think we should learn.”
Lister looked at him. “You’ve written a song?”
“Yeah! You said we should try writing our own songs, right? Not just playing covers?”
Jimmy swallowed. It was now or never. “I had some ideas for our band name.” The other two boys turned to him and he immediately felt embarrassed. “Um… they’re in my notebook. I’ll show you later.”
“It’s not Death Lords, is it?” asked Rowan.
“Hey!” Lister whacked him on the arm. “I like Death Lords.”
“Okay, Alice Cooper.”
The boys all laughed, and that was one of the moments that Jimmy always looked back on, because it was the first moment that he knew. He knew that they would do something wonderful together.
Thank you so much for reading this little extra story about the formation of The Ark from I Was Born for This! I love and miss these kids so dearly and have had so much fun writing this. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it!