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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How to Die

Some people are just born restless, I guess.

They’re the baby that never slept and the toddler that always got stuck trying to fit through unexplored spaces. They’re the five year old that flooded the bathroom trying to make a swimming pool and the nine year old that broke their arm climbing the fence to see what was on the other side. They’re the pre-teen that can’t sit still in the classroom or keep their mouth shut when they need to and they’re the teenager that experiments tirelessly with all those fantastic things like sex and drugs and alcohol whilst they’re still young and blind enough to see the high gloss these first precious follies into the land of adulthood wear for a time.

It’s rebellion, they say.

A phase.

They’ll grow out of it.

Most of us learn how to suppress every exciting instinct we have by the time adulthood kicks in proper. The vast majority of these restless children figure out a way, all be it and most often subconsciously, to remove the shrouds of mystery and wonder from the even the most common of common place things. The kids that started out with safety pins in their ears and green streaks in their hair grow up and grow tired of the extraordinary amount of effort it takes to be extraordinary. Their futures suddenly begin to stretch further than the weekend and the debauched revelry crammed so tightly into those two days that used to make them salivate now makes them nauseas. The idea of spunking their weeks wages up the wall instead of squirreling some of it away for the ominous “rainy day” that they always heard their parents speaking of when they were small, terribly behaved children, now fills them with dread.

Preparation.

The Prepared Generation.

They have learned from the financial fuck ups, crashes and collisions of their fathers and their grandfathers and now owning their own house and being able to keep up with the mortgage payments is a far more seductive midnight thought than playing to a crowd of a hundred thousands fans screaming the lyrics to their songs back at them or packing a bag and hitting the road Kerouac style. That instability that used to be so ethereal and enthralling is now a nightmare of monolithic proportions.

Stability.

Safety.

And, comfort.

They don’t want the world, these people.

No, they just want a little four bedroomed piece of it with a patio out back and room for two cars on the driveway out front. They want to marry nice people and have nice children that will then go on to populate the world with more nice children. They want to leave a legacy of niceness now, instead of neurosis. They want to go on holiday, all inclusive of course, because anywhere out of the resort is dangerous, especially in all those terribly trendy places like Cape Town and Dubai. They want to drink wine with their lunch on a week day and feel like buying the bottle is a daring feat of absolute insanity. They count every calorie and work off the red playing sports that they don’t really enjoy or fully understand, like badminton, or heaven’s forbid – squash.

And when they’re not on some court or another they pay a portion of their monthly wages for all inclusive membership to some shiny shit hole known as a Health Club (always capitalised, of course, ‘for these are the only places where one can purchase Health with a capital letter) where they run on treadmills like rats in cages never really getting anywhere or anything but heart palpitations and sweat in uncomfortable places.

They spend hours cooking elaborate meals for people that they have known for years and hardly know at all and they spend more money than they ever would have spent on a ten bag and few pints down the pub in their younger years, but it’s a worthwhile expense because it’s all so dreadfully sociable and lovely. They compare their children to other peoples children, but not in a candid or even remotely honest way. If Susan just graduated from Brunel with a BA in Mathematics then Benjamin better be working on his fucking doctorate in molecular biology from Oxbridge, quick sharp. Won’t have the likes of that bastard Benjamin showing me up to Terry and June from the Health Club.

It’s all about appearance, you see.

But then again, it always has been.

And your parents did it with you.

I know it’s hard to believe but when your parents first got together, they couldn’t keep their hands off of each other. Even worse, still, your mother, beloved mummy has at one point or another had your fathers cock in her mouth. Shocking, but true. What’s even more shocking is that the dirty bitch fucking loved it. Your old man probably grabbed a handful of her hair and tugged on it when he shot his load at the back of her throat and depending on what kind of woman your old lady is, she may or may not have gobbled that goo right up.

We’re all interesting when we’re young because we’re dangerous.

And we’re dangerous because we’re stupid.

And we’re stupid because, for the first twenty five years of our lives or more – we have absolutely no fucking idea what we’re doing. And I’d love to tell you that we reach an age of enlightenment when some magical light bulb dings above our heads and we suddenly know exactly what to and where to go and who to be but for many, hell, for most, it’s a slow and arduous trudge to the finish line. Some of us, crippled by the weight of this hopeless disorientation, cash our own chips and punch a one way ticket to the end of the line long before our time, but the comfortable and contented masses wander aimlessly towards death, treating it with a weird breed of apathetic inevitability like taxes or hiccups.

Everyone dies.

It happens to the best of us.

And the worst.

It’s what ties us all together, isn’t it? We’ve all got a whole heap of shit in common with each other. We’ve all got a mother and a father out there somewhere, whether we were raised by them or by wolves, at some point in time, two people came together, figuratively and literally, and boom – there we were. A cluster of tiny cells brimming with infinite potential, cooked for nine months and heaved out screaming and naked and clueless. We were all taught how to do even the simplest of things like tie our shoe laces and write our names and fry an egg and open a window. These weren’t things we were born knowing and at a time in all our lives we were novice egg fryers and amateur shoe tiers.

Repetition, if not necessarily practise, made us into the beautifully broken people we are today. We were taught tact and how to read people’s emotions. We learned slowly and through this art of subconscious repetition, the difference between angry faces and sad faces and happy faces and later on we learned a tonne of new faces like stoned faces and drunk faces and come faces. We learned how to read people around us and how to interact with them like we once learned how to interact with the building blocks we had when we still got a round of applause for shitting in a bucket with feet in the living room.

And whether you were brought up or dragged up, we all learned how to make coffee and how to make out. Some of these things were learned by the art of education, by someone showing us how to do something or by teaching us about it had been done before and hoping that we would have the same successful outcomes were we to re-enact their battles. Others were learned by the brute force of experience, trying something once, realising that you ballsed it up, rewinding and going again until you got it right, or if you couldn’t get it right, you got it better than you did the first or third or fifth time.

Some things, though, even the most intelligent and interesting of people have absolutely no idea how to do. There are some things during the course of all of our lives that no matter how much we prepare or practice for them, when those things come around, we’re just as fucking clueless as we were when we were cutting our teeth.

How to feel.

How to forgive.

How to die.

That last one is probably the most important. I mean aside from being born, the second most significant day in our lives is when we are effectively unborn – when we die. Yet no one prepares you for it. You’re not taught about it at school and your mother never sits you down when you get to an impressionable age and explains that one day you’re going to close your eyes and you’re never going to open them again or that your heart’s going to stop beating and your lungs are going to stop breathing and more than likely you’re going to shit yourself.

They never prepare you for the fact that one day you might find yourself sitting in a little magnolia office somewhere with a doctor whose name you cannot remember and couldn’t pronounce even if you could remember it, being told that you’ve got something really fucking aggressive and nasty living in your breasts or bowels or bones that’s going to kill you pretty damned soon.

And when you’re a kid and you go to bolt across the road and your old lady yanks you back just in time to save you becoming road kill, she never says – “Look, Timmy, if that car had hit you it would have killed you and we would have had to scrape your skull off of that pavement and bury you in a black bag to keep all the leftover wet bits of you together.” And because your parents never tell you that, you’re not scared of a car slamming into your tiny body at fifty and rendering your once wonderful life pedestrian pate on the side of the road. So when you’re mums not about, you cross without waiting for the green man.

That’s universally a very early and very common act of defiance.

A sign of things to come.

But if, if, your old lady had said that to you the first time you did it and put the fear of endless darkness and death into you, you’d probably have grown up to be a much more cautious kid than you were. You wouldn’t have hung upside down off of the monkey bars or climbed loose limbed trees in the sunshine to survey the forest from the heavenly plinth usually reserved for birds and squirrels. You’d never have found the biggest hill you could have and rode your bike or scooter or board down it as fast as you could. And you’d never have jumped off of countless bridges and piers into the perilously shallow waters below to cool off when the air was still and the heat was fierce.

If you’d been warned about the inherent permanence of death as a child, you never would have taken that unknown pill at that party or a bummed a drag of that strange kids long, loosely rolled cigarette in the park when you were a teenager. You wouldn’t have known the bittersweet sorrow of that first, barbarous hangover or felt the pleasant shame of coming inside someone bareback or indeed having someone else’s come drip down your thighs and as a result, you’d never have found yourself alone in your bedroom trying to make your body do what it did with someone else’s hands on your body with your own hands.

And that’s why we don’t tell kids about death.

We don’t want to scare them.

Because it’s hard to live when you’re so preoccupied with dying.

Just Like Everyone Else.

When I was a kid I used to get called weird a hell of a lot, as I am sure most of you mutants reading this surely did. Now, I’m talking about when I was a little kid, before I knew what a bong was and during the sadder stages of my life when I would not have been able to pick Bob Dylan out of a line of old men, let alone utter a single word of Klingon. The phrase was most definitely “weird” back then, when pop music still ruled the air waves and Harry Potter was not even a movie yet.

To ask me why I was called weird I probably couldn’t tell you, because I thought I was perfectly normal. I thought that all ten year old girls had posters of Meat Loaf on their walls. I thought that all ten year old girls were teaching themselves Latin. I thought that all ten year old girls wanted to be Sherlock Holmes when they grew up. I thought all ten year old girls attempted to read the Times before school in the morning. I thought all ten year old girls wore orange jeans and BCR’s in their ears instead of little gemmed studs. I thought that all ten year old girls sat on their window sill listening to the radio and wishing they were a million miles away from where they were, who they were and what they would inevitably become. I thought I was just like everyone else.

I was oblivious (as most ten year olds are) to what adolescence would not only bring, but what it would take away. It brought all the things the things I was warned about, as I knew it would – puberty, secondary school, stress, homework, hormones – but it took away a lot more than I thought it would. It took away the innocence of the word “weird” became something all together more negative, making the now freakishness everybody spoke about more and more apparent as my friends began to grow up without me, but still I thought I was normal.

I thought that every fifteen year old girl had posters of Bob Dylan all over their walls. I thought that all fifteen year old girls were teaching themselves Klingon. I thought that all fifteen year old girls wanted to be Allen Ginsberg when they grew up. I thought all fifteen year old girls attempted to read Rousseau’s Discourses before school in the morning. I thought all fifteen year old girls wore hot rocked band t-shirts and BCR’s in their lip. I thought that all fifteen year old girls sat on their window sill listening to the radio wishing they were a million miles away from where they were, who they were and what they would inevitably become. I thought I was just like everyone else.

Then something shifted and I was no longer adorably weird or standoffishly freaky. I became this new breed of strange that still to this day I don’t understand the connotations completely of. I became a “geek”. Now I always thought that geeks were typically people with a deep and unrelenting not only appreciation, but understanding of space, time and science but somewhere the wires of definition have been crossed and sparks have begun to fly. I have found myself tirelessly unpicking the meaning of this word, that so many people label me with and I have to the conclusion that “geek” actually means “enthusiast”.

There are millions of people who think that being a geek or a reject or an outsider, a freak or weird whatever way you want to spin the barrel – they think its cool to be on the outside of the social norm. But take, lets say, a long haired, Satan worshipping metal head and put him in a room with a your typical imaged obsessed teenage drama queen. Now neither one of them are conventionally “geek” material but when placed side by side they show a remarkable reality and that is that we are all enthusiasts and therefore geeks.

The girl will know more about clothing brands, make up techniques and reality television history than the metal head, but he will know how to stretch an ear lobe the right way, why Metallica and Megadeth are linked and just how Tony Iommi lost his fingers – because what they care about, what they are enthusiastic about, they are completely obsessed with. Isn’t that what makes a geek a geek? The unrivalled and slightly unnerving obsession with their chosen fields of expertise and interest?

Now the metal head will think the girl is shallow, superficial and self righteous. The girl will think that the metal head is arrogant, should shave and wear less black but the point is the same. The popular kids bully the geeky kids, we’ve seen it a million times, but what made having knowledge about the planets more socially unacceptable than having knowledge about the price of shoes?

I think as a species, humans have failed at even the most basic of tasks the main one being social identity. Surely the human beings with the insatiable appetite for knowledge based around the advancement of the race – science, medicine, literature, philosophy, politics, law – should be at the top of the social elite, as they have the most to bring to the table. Surely they should be made reality stars, fame should wash over them, they should make headline news and they should be adored as the genuinely interesting people that they are? Why do the people, the real rejects, the real freaks, who have little or no interesting characteristics or ascertainable incentives to live, make their way into our living rooms, our newspapers and our lives with their incessant and frankly boring idiosyncrasies?

We have ended up in a world where the geeks that used to get bullied for being weird as ten year olds and freaks as fifteen years olds writing the articles about the popular kids, stuffing their chests with silicone, reporting about them side by side with war and famine – the geeks end up enabling the popular kids to remain just as egotistical and obsessed with their own enthusiasms as they were as ten year olds and fifteen year olds.

I could now start rambling about how its cool to be a reject, an outsider, a freak – but it really isn’t and those who claim to be proud of being just so, are bullshitting themselves and you my friends. No one wants to be those things and no one wants to be told that they are different. There is no strength in being in a minority and no courage found in adversity. Cynical, maybe. True, debatable. But if you have ever felt what it truly is to be one of these people, you will know exactly what I mean.

The scars of being different never heal, instead what they do is create a mangled barrier of broken flesh around you, eventually shielding you from the constant over analysis of you compared to other people. People mistake this protective layer of damage for strength, some would even say pride, but it isn’t. My friends, my loves, my fellow geeks, freaks and weirdo’s it is only our enthusiasm that gets us through life in no less than a million pieces.

Geeks are the people who never realised that they were not like everyone else. Once you realise it and wear the badge of “I am not normal” proudly, you are no longer a freak, a geek or indeed weird – because you are simply pointing out what the rest of the world already did. You have accepted that you are not normal and by that standard you have made yourself a reject, an outsider and indeed a social oddity. So those of you who claim to be proud of being any of those things, who think that to be a social retard you cannot be popular, to love video games and comic books means you cannot like football or actually want to touch a member of the opposite sex, to wear Pokemon pyjamas to bed or find Anime foodstuffs alarming adorable – you are just as normal as the rest of the world.

Truly original people, freethinkers and disbelievers do not even recognise the word “normal”. I am completely normal. All women in their twenties have posters of Stephen King on their walls. All women in their twenties are teaching themselves Elvish. All women in their twenties want to be Iron Man when they grow up. All women in their twenties attempt to translate Spanish war time transcripts before work in the morning. All women in their twenties wear peace sign shoe laces and spikes in their face. All women in their twenties sit on their window sill listening to the radio and wish that they were a million miles away from where they are, who they are and who they will inevitably become.

I am just like everyone else. Difference is, I have the balls to admit it.

Pillow of Stones

He found her when no one else was looking. He promised her dragons and delivered her glitter. Talking never of what he came to say his mind wandered as did her own, never quite meeting up at the meadow in the middle. She never really saw his face, the shadow cast from the bulb above her door stunning it into mystified brilliance. And he was always cold. So cold. And smiling. Always smiling.

Dressed in black and always standing his laughter filled her head and made her body want to crumple to the floor. How cruel to place two such likely souls within a fingers grasp only to place a plateau of indifference between them. And how cruel to spin such a yarn of unbridled adoration only to cut the tethers and free the fear. And he was smart. And she was sad.

They read the same books and watched the same films, their tastes invariably the same but miles apart. He spoke to her for a moment like she was a person, a real walking talking breathing living human person, not the drunken marionette she had come to see staring back at her from sun slicked puddles on blindingly hot but brutally damp days. And he laughed at her jokes.

A part of her, a very large and honest part of her, wanted to tell him to run from the others who wore black and trekked the streets in search of lost sheep and riddled cattle. This part of her begged her hands to find his to take off the gloves that perpetually clad them and throw them into the street, bringing him inside into the warmth where all the good things about life – food and art and love and laughter and sex and wine and incense and music – lay dormant waiting for his spirit to wake them.

And there was spirit there. He had labelled it one thing and she had come to know it as another. How strong could she have pulled before he snapped like a brittle twig beneath the boot of her tyrannical paranoia? And how far could she have gone to keep that smile near her, where she could coax it out at a moments notice to light the darkness that sometimes crept in and all around her whilst she lay unable to fully drift away, her head sinking into a pillow of stones?

And how long will he be there in her mind? This translucent dream of an encounter that as days pass becomes more like a dream, a chance meeting on a train platform, a strangled hello in a coffee shop, a burnt scaffold of what it is to be young and to be reckless and to have within you the power to change a person for your own warped and sometimes selfish realities?

Another time and another place come to the forefront of her mind and she recalls in solemn prayer an alternate plain where he wears white as bright as his teeth and she laughs as loud as the thunder.

And where he is available to adore.