Sincerity

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?”

“Reading.”

“What are you reading?”

“Misery.”

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.”

Silence.

Then he did smile.

“Did Mr. Williams send you out of the classroom?”

I nodded.

“Because you were disturbing the class?”

“I think I was disturbing him more than anything. The class didn’t seem to mind.”

“Mind what?”

“My reading.”

“He sent you out of the class for reading?”

“Yes sir.”

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?”

“Fell.”

“Sounds painful.”

“It is.”

“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?”

“Pretty 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?”

“Yes sir.”

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.

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Other People’s Battles – Why They’re Not Worth It.

Out of all of the fights that I have had the pleasure of being in during my life, I can count on one hand the amount of times I landed a punch on someone’s jaw because of something they did directly to me, and though, in my old age some would say, I have become a docile creature more likely to cry when confronted now than start cracking her knuckles, I, and more than I would care to count, could assure you that I was not always like this.

I broke a boy’s nose when I was fifteen because he threw a rock at my best friends head and called her a lesbian. The rock barely scraped her, but the door handle I smashed his face into made up for the former lack of blood. Needless to say, he had nothing to say after that. I pushed another fifteen year old girl down a flight of stairs because her little sister made my friends little sister cry. I punched a girl in the face within the first three minutes of my becoming a prefect (my only three minutes of being a prefect) because she started rumours that I was using heroin…yeah, I was that kid. I head butted a boy for telling everyone he slept with one of my friends which would have been less retarded if my friend hadn’t actually had slept with him. Twice. I once again head butted a boy for pushing my little brother over, placed another upside down in an outside bin for being a general dick to him and slapped, smacked and stared down countless others, all in the name of defending my own.

But I wasn’t just some underappreciated teenage hero in the game of fighting for the underdog – I was a genuine nut bar and in the great grand scheme of hindsight, I hurt a lot more people who did nothing wrong than those that did. And there’s a whole heap of ‘em out there right now rocking scars that they didn’t deserve to get because they were foolish enough to be a witness to my uncontrollable rage. And if I never I apologised then, I apologise now.

Because as I said, I’m not that person anymore. I was lost for a long time. I was scared for a long time. And I spent my whole life feeling like there was not one motherfucker out there in this big wide world who would ever understand my warped brain or my fragile heart. Then, a little short of six years ago to the day, I gave birth to my best friend and slowly, but surely, she proved me wrong and loved me right, whitewashing all that rage and I can’t remember the last time I threw something across the room or screamed myself hoarse, let alone the last time I put my hands on someone in anger. But this blog isn’t about the fights I walked away from – it’s about the fights that left blood on my hands.

My violent outbursts and seemingly endless disregard for any convention whatsoever landed me up in the office of my head teacher with my mother on one side of me and a police officer opposite us, accompanied by a slight, balding man who ran my school and had little time for my sarcasm or sincerity. This dude didn’t like me on sight, and as an adult now, I can kind of see why…I wasn’t just a poster child of teenage angst, I was like a walking talking H-Bomb of what you hope your kid doesn’t turn into but on the flip side of that I was one of the most intelligent (and I fucking knew it, man) kids in that place and as such I commanded much more patience with the staff than other more retarded nut bars did. I abused this intelligence more than I used it and I got away with a hell of a lot as a result of my wayward genius (my English teachers words, not mine). In short – the school was going to kick me out permanently a few weeks before my final exams and my mother made a deal with them, a deal which turned out to be a rather breaking one for this particular psychopath’s soul.

My mother’s deal? Let Veronika come into school at a time when there are no kids around for her to punch in the face, like maybe, after school has ended? Yes. They loved that idea. What they loved even more than the idea of my only being around for a few hours was the notion of laying claim to my grades and flaunting them to the local press who hung around the car park on exam day at that particular school just waiting to proclaim how hard these poor, disadvantaged students had failed. So the school got to keep my statistical smartness and I got to…well, I don’t know what I got out of it save for the ability to sleep until one in the afternoon and watch Diagnosis Murder before I slipped off to school at sunset to smoke cigarettes with my English teacher and eat peanut brittle for three hours with my art teacher.

Sounds like a pretty good deal for a kid that was seconds away from getting arrested doesn’t it? Well, it wasn’t like that. Not at the time. And not now with the added pepper of ten years hindsight. You see the issue was, that all those kids, all my friends, that I had stuck up for and defended, all those people that had used me like a rabid Rottweiler on a long leash for their defence and kept me tucked away like a loaded gun for their own peace of mind – well, they all kind of disappeared when I did.

I remember one particular instance when I had broken my foot by kicking a wooden chair six feet in the air in a fit of hulk like rage and then staggered, stoned and seething to my school for whatever faux lessons my teachers had planned for me. I made my way through the dining hall, dressed in a Bob Dylan t-shirt and ripped jean shorts, my faithful shitkickers screaming on my broken foot – in short I was a mess. A group of my friends stood in the space between me and the doors that led to my classroom. On their backs they wore white school shirts signed with Sharpie. They were laughing and drinking cans of Coke and taking the piss out of each other and generally enjoying their last days as a school kid. And they looked straight through me.

I wasn’t in uniform, because I wasn’t technically at school. I wasn’t laughing, because I wasn’t anywhere near happy in any capacity. I wasn’t drinking Coke, I was…well, coke meant something different to the teenage me. I had become invisible to the people that I had once been invincible too. And it stung more than my pride. I felt my eyes begin to brim with hot, frustrated tears and as I limped in agony past them, slamming my hands into the double doors and sending them crashing into the walls of the staff room, I let the tears fall as I crumpled into a heap at the bottom of a stair case. Within moments my English teacher (and general Veronika-wrangler) had been alerted and swept me up the stairs into the sanctuary of his classroom where I screamed my eyes dry and ate bourbons for an hour or two listening to his new album…yeah, he was that teacher.

I faded away on the brink of burning out and it’s a thought that still creeps into my mind all these years later when the sun hits my face in the dead summer or when I bump into someone from school who remembers me fondly as “fucking mental”. But if there is something that I have learned as an adult that I never knew as a teenager (aside from drugs being bad, M’Kay) is that it doesn’t matter whether you burn out or fade away – the moment you’re gone, everyone moves on.

So, needless to say, I never got my shirt signed and I spent my prom with my foot in a cast, eating Dorito’s, reading Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption waiting for the Season 2 finale of House to start. The day was balmy and I was perilously close to overdosing on tramadol and self loathing. I found out as an adult that my head of year had actually called my mother on the night of the prom and given me permission to go. My mother told me that when she came to tell me the news and found me lying on the grass in the sunshine with my headphones on, book in hand and baby rabbit friend asleep on my chest – she already knew what my answer would be.

And for all the fights I ever fought, and for all the punches I ever threw, I had nothing to show for it. No tight knit group of amigos who had my back when I needed them like I did when they needed me, no band of merry men hell bent on defending the weak and pathetic, no one to harass the teachers and the tyrants that took me from them…because in reality, I hadn’t been fighting for them or because of them. Every single time I lost my shit and did something ridiculously impulsive and violent, I did it because I wanted to do it. I wanted people to need me in a way that no one else could ever be needed. And yeah I could make them laugh and they could copy my work and we could share CDs and I was always a one stop shop for smokes, but no one else was willing to physically knock somebody out for them – which meant I loved them more, right?

Wrong. It meant that I was an incredibly manipulative and volatile kid, with an immensity of anger issues that are all but resolved as I write these words. I still get angry. I still want to smash the place up. I still feel my hands go cold with rage. I still bite my lip just before I’m about to lose my shit. The only difference between now and then is that there aren’t a whole lot of battles that seem worth it anymore. So I take a deep breath. Or I go for a walk. Or I call someone and cry for a moment down the phone to them. Then I mentally slap myself round the face and carry on with my day.

Because no one remembers the battles you fought and lost.

But they do remember the battles you fought and won.

And something I learned from all of this?

The only person worth fighting for is the one that looks back at you from the frozen puddles on the forgotten streets you walk each and every day. Alone and alive. Whether you like them or not, they’re the only one that’s got your back. And they’re enough. Most of the time.

“This is what you shall do…”

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labour to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

– Walt Whitman

…just in case you were wondering what you shall do.