So there I am, sitting in Baldy Baine’s science class, staring out the window at a totally Z-list pigeon attacking an old sausage roll, when all of a sudden the Baldy One erupts.
“You, boy!” he shouts, and I turn round to see who he’s freaking out at this time. Unfortunately, it’s me. “Look lively!” he says. “How do you think I would proceed under these particular circumstances?”
I give the matter my full consideration.
“By sticking your beard in the Bunsen burner,” I almost say. Then I change my mind. The problem is, this is the third time he’s asked me a question since the lesson started, and it’s the third time I haven’t been paying enough attention to know what he’s talking about. I scan the room to see if anyone else is offering me a prompt, but they’re all just sitting there looking thrilled it’s me and not them in the firing line. Baine stares at me, the eyes blazing, and all I can really think of to say is, “What was the question again, sir?”
And that seems to be enough for him on this particular morning.
“Out!” he screams. “Stand in the corridor for the rest of the lesson. And if the headmaster doesn’t find you out there, I’ll deal with you myself afterward.”
I take one last look at the pigeon, still doing battle with its sausage roll, and then I head for the door. Busted. There’s a bit of cheering and a bit of laughing, and Baine goes off the head again, but by then I’m already out in the corridor and it’s got nothing to do with me anymore.
And then my life changes.
I’m just leaning up against the wall, staring across the corridor at this poster about not getting pregnant or something, when it suddenly hits me: the Big One. The brain wave I’ve been waiting for. An idea for an app that’s so brilliant, it’s guaranteed to make me a millionaire. A billionaire.
I pull my phone out and go online to make sure the app doesn’t already exist. While I’m flicking about I’m already thinking up names for the thing—the Minder, the iKnow, the Class Monitor? I’m firing on all cylinders, and all at once nothing else matters: not the embarrassment of getting thrown out of the class again; not the fact that it’s only a couple of months till the first exams; not even the knowledge that I probably haven’t taken in a single nanobyte of information all term long, in any subject. None of that can faze me now. This idea is going to set me up for years. For decades. For centuries.
It’s total genius.
And then, just when I’m getting into the finer details of how it would work, my thoughts are rudely interrupted by the bell ringing for the end of the lesson . . .
Randoms start pouring out of the door beside me, most of them making some kind of deeply witty comment as they pass. Usually, “You, boy!” or “Look lively!” Hilarious stuff. I keep my eyes fixed on the pregnancy poster, riding it out, just waiting to see what Baine’s got in store for me this time. But here’s the thing about Baldy Baine. I mean, he’s probably some kind of genius when it comes to chemical reactions and whatever, but that’s about as far as it goes. His head is so stuffed with scientific know-how that there’s hardly any room left in there for anything else—for all the normal day-to-day business like remembering to clean the food out of his beard, or for dealing with the pupil he’s thrown out of his class for staring at a pigeon. So, basically, he forgets about me. I wait till the randoms are all gone, and a couple of minutes later my main wingman, Sandy Hammil, comes gliding out of the class and gives me the all-clear.
“Forgotten?” I ask him, and he nods.
“I kept him talking about protons for a while at the end,” he says. “Then he just wandered away into the back room.”
I push myself off the wall and follow Sandy down the stairs, feeling pretty relieved.
“What were you up to in there, anyway?” he asks me. “You really need to start focusing. Two months. That’s all we’ve got now.”
“I know,” I tell him. “But it doesn’t matter. I’ve cracked it, Sandy. I had the Big One.”
He stares at me blankly. “What Big One?” he says.
“The Big One. The life changer. The idea I’ve been waiting for. It hit me while I was standing out in the corridor. Baine’s made me a millionaire.”
Sandy groans. “Not this again,” he says. “You’re not pulling me into another one of your crazy schemes.”
I shake my head. “This is the real thing,” I tell him. “This one absolutely can’t fail.”
“Like the bike thing couldn’t fail? Like the disaster you pulled me into with the dining hall trays? Like that couldn’t fail?”
“Relax,” I tell him. “This one’s nothing like that. Anyway, I don’t even need you on this one. You’re off the hook. This one’s an app. All I need to do is find a programmer who’ll work for free.”
He looks at me in a disapproving way. “Maybe if you paid attention in your computing class, you’d be able to program it yourself,” he says.
“Maybe,” I agree. “But if I’d gone in for paying attention in class, I’d never have come up with the idea in the first place. That’s what the app does. Stops you getting in trouble when you’ve drifted off.”
Then he says something that almost gives me a heart attack.
“There’s already something that does that.”
I can’t believe it. I couldn’t find anything like that online. My legs go all weak, and I have to grab hold of the banister and take a deep breath. Then I ask him what the thing is.
“Paying attention in class,” he laughs, and the good feeling starts to rise up in me again. I give Sandy a punch on the shoulder and mess up his hair.
“This is it,” I tell him. “This is what I’ve been waiting for all my life. This is the Big Time, Sandy.”
I’m Jack, by the way. Jack Dawson. Most people call me The Jackdaw. If they don’t, I tell them they probably should. I look like a jackdaw. My eyes are gray, and my hair is very black, with white bits in it where the pigment died. Probably from the shock of realizing what kind of life lay in wait for me when all this exam business ...