When I was fifteen I was sat outside my maths classroom on a windowsill reading a copy of Stephen King’s Misery, headphones firmly on my ears, huddled up against the cold rain streaked window. It was late morning and my maths teacher, Mr Williams, who had given up attempting to teach me roughly three weeks before this day, had asked me to sit outside the classroom where I could see him but where I could, and I quote – “keep my antics separate from those who intended to learn.”
We had an understanding. I would sit somewhere in view, his beady little eyes darting out at me from behind the small pane of glass in the door leading to his classroom and he would leave me to my own devices on the window sill until the bell chimed and I meandered through the halls clutching whatever life line it was I happened to be reading at the time and listening to the same mix tape over and over again until I was allowed to go home and do it all in the privacy of my own bedroom with a tasty joint and the music on my speakers.
This day, and I remember it well, as I remember all days when someone marks me with a label I enjoy rather than endure, I was sitting with my face in the book aware only of the slight numbness forming in my feet and the cool, gushing wind against the window that seemed to seep through and infiltrate the jacket I wore over my school shirt. I was at the bit in the book when Annie throws Paul down into the cellar and goes away and leaves him in the dark, alone and in pain. The doors at the end of the corridor opened as the door at the top of the Annie’s stairs closed and my eyes flicked up for a moment.
Mr Trigwell, a man who also taught maths and had never been flippant with my idiosyncrasies, though he was not often a man I could describe as kind, entered the hall way. He was from Leeds, I think. Everyone thought he looked like a Womble. He wore a brass band around his wrist for medicinal purposes I thought, though I may have been wrong and he had taught at the school I attended for long enough that my form tutor and IT teacher, Mr Claringbull, had been taught maths by the Womble too. He taught Design Tech, or woodwork, later on in my school career, but at that moment he was just Trigwell, a man of few words but many discerning facial gestures.
He was also the head of the maths department and wasn’t easily impressed by my bravado. I think that’s why I never walked out of his lessons or told him to fuck off, a luxury that Mr Williams was never afforded. There was something there, between the two of us, that at the time I thought was a tired kind of apathy towards me, an attitude of not being bothered by my refusing to placate the notion that anyone in that building had any considerable power over me. Looking back now, ten years later, I can see that it was slightly more than that. It was the knowledge of a man who had taught worse than me, and indeed, better than me but had never taught anyone quite like me.
I buried my nose in the book and hoped that if I didn’t make eye contact I would be free and clear. After all, Trigwell was in charge on that block and if he told me to go back in the classroom, I would have to go. He wasn’t a pushover like Mr Williams and he didn’t puff his chest out. He would ask me quietly and I would go because at that point, on that day, I too was exhausted and drowning in my own apathy. There would be no fight. Just a resigned sigh as I kicked my boots off of the window sill and walked back to my desk, instantly feeling tired and closed in the moment the central heating hit my throat and slicked it with heat. I leant my face against the cold, wet window and closed my eyes.
One of my headphones was popped off of my ear and I opened my eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“What are you reading?”
He paused. His eyes levelled and for a second I thought he was going to smile.
“Doesn’t have much to do with maths does it?”
“Pretty much sums it up to me, sir.”
Then he did smile.
“Did Mr. Williams send you out of the classroom?”
“Because you were disturbing the class?”
“I think I was disturbing him more than anything. The class didn’t seem to mind.”
“He sent you out of the class for reading?”
He took off his glasses and rubbed them clean on the inside of his grey and blue checked shirt. When his mouth moved his grey beard seemed to come to life like a Jim Henson puppet, moving with strings and pullies. You couldn’t really see his mouth but his voice was textured and rough. I imagined he would know how to hang a shelf straight or unblock a toilet, traits that may not seem all that appealing to a fifteen-year-old but to a twenty-seven-year-old who would probably knock a wall down trying to mount anything on it – they were respectable character traits indeed.
That’s the problem with being young, I suppose. You revere all the superfluous bullshit and rage against the literal machine. He’s wearing a tie, he’s the enemy. It’s as simple and as stupid as that. I’m happy now, content would be a more accurate word I suppose, that I never told Mr Trigwell to fuck off. Retrospectively, that seems like quite a noble thing for the fifteen-year-old me to accomplish.
“Are there any lessons you attend?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I’ve seen you – sitting on the bench,” he pointed out the window to the square of grass known as the quad. There was a bench in each section of the grass, split by paths to look like a window.
“I don’t do P.E. I’ve got a note,” I said, yawning, “or Science.”
“Do you have a note for science?”
“I don’t think my leg would get me out of science.”
“What’s wrong with your leg?”
“Do you want to see my note?”
I handed him a piece of crumpled paper with my mother’s juvenile handwriting draped crookedly across. As he read his eye brows, as grey and animated as his beard, moved up and down. The note wasn’t that long, it didn’t have to be. He handed it back to me.
“How did you do that?”
“You used to talk more.”
I just stared at him.
“When you first started here, you were impossible to shut up.”
“What can I say,” I shrugged, “I’ve matured.”
He shook his head.
I now recognise the incredulous look on his face for what it was.
“So the painkillers are strong?”
One hundred milligrams of tramadol.
My record was eight in a day.
“Does it make it hard to concentrate?”
“On certain things.”
“Not on that, though.”
He looked at the book still in my hands.
“No,” I smiled, “not on that.”
“Will you do me a favour Veronika?”
I stared back at him awaiting the proposition, a vague numbness in my throat.
“Will you look after yourself?”
I didn’t really know what to say.
And that was the first time, I really remember being speechless.
The bell rang a few moments later and I dragged my dead legs off of the unforgiving window sill and tucked my paperback in the inside pocket of my jacket. A few months later I would be expelled from school for pushing someone down a flight of stairs and I would be brought back, with a police officer on one side of me and my mother on the other, before my head teacher and my head of year, on the provision that I attended school for two hours each day after three o’clock when the other students had gone home.
“Will you do that for me Veronika?”
I put my headphones in and limped up the stairs through the doors that Mr Trigwell had walked through minutes before. I stood outside my art classroom waiting for the queue to form and my teacher to appear and let me in. Her name was Mrs Rydell. Judy. She would ask the same favour of me a few weeks later and I would let her down, as I did Mr Trigwell and as I did most anyone who asked anything of me then.
I stood listening to Cat Stevens sing about the world being wild and looked out of the window at the unrelenting rain and wondered when it would stop. When everything would stop, because although I dragged myself from place to place, shedding weight, losing hair, drifting further away from anyone really definable as a whole human being, the world seemed too fast for me then. The pills slowed it down to a crawl and I still found myself trying to play catch up with everyone and everything around me. I was out of my depth and I couldn’t see or feel anything around me. Like I was floating.
There are great patches of my adolescence that I can’t remember. A few years ago a friend asked me if I remembered the time that I headbutted someone in the car park or the time that that one teacher rolled a joint for me because I’d broken my thumb and it was in a cast and I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember these highly memorable moments that made me the person that people still remember when I walk into a room a decade later. “You’re the girl that…” is how all those conversations start.
And I just stand there and stare at them and smile when it seems appropriate and show remorse when the situation calls for it, completely oblivious to whether or not they are stating fact or fiction. I don’t remember headbutting that boy in the car park and I don’t remember a teacher rolling me a joint, though I do remember my thumb being broken. I do however, have such a clear and brilliant recollection of the way that corridor smelled and how my body felt, how my eyes felt swollen and itchy and how the cold ran through the window and down my arm as it sat against it.
And I remember the softness in his voice when he asked me to do him a favour.
More so than even that, I remember the sincerity of it.
So for all the lovers I’ve had that had pledged their lives to never leaving and for all the family members that proclaimed we would rise above the pettiness of our parents and our peers only to fade away and to all the friends that promised we would always be so and now are shadows on a canvas so scarred with these unintentional lies and half truths – I remember the words of a teacher who was never particularly kind to me, never really favoured me above anyone else and who would be as quick to tell me to tuck in my shirt as the next sack of hormones waiting in line.
I remember those words now, and probably always will.
Because he asked nothing of me.
But hoped for everything.
All he asked for was a favour.
A favour I intend to keep.
All these years later.