Sunday, 3 September 2017

Breaking the wall

It was bad enough that Nigel was not only called Nigel, he also looked like a complete Nigel. He was also the new pupil in school. He was odd and no one could really put their finger on exactly what it was that made him so.
In an adult his behaviour might have been called eccentric but in a child it was just plain odd. It was the way he held himself; almost as if he wasn’t quite connected to the Earth and that, if he didn’t concentrate, he would float off it into the ether.
It was the way his hairstyle changed. If you were watching minute by minute then you would never notice any discernible alteration but if you visited him again later then it looked somehow different.
It was the way he looked at you with an almost pained expression; but you knew that he wasn’t feeling any pain himself. It was as though he pitied all those who he came into contact with, whoever they were; as if there was something he alone knew about you.
It was the way he talked; a soft, deep voice; barely audible but the meaning was always clear. He only spoke when spoken to and only used as many words that were necessary.
It was all of those things that made Nigel odd to everyone else; but mostly it was because he spoke to himself.
He kept his own company and at first people thought he was shy and reclusive. He bothered no one and no one bothered him; not even those who were classed as the school bullies (and, despite the schools insistence that such behaviour would not be tolerated, there were several). Nigel was seen as an enigma; even by those who couldn’t even pronounce the word, let alone spell it.

It was after the first week had elapsed that Nigel was seen in the corner of the playing field talking. His deep voice carried strangely, and people wondered who it was that had actually befriended him. Upon closer inspection they realised that he was, in fact, talking to himself; or rather actively engaging in a conversation with someone… or something. There was no school play on and he was not thought to be the type to be into amateur dramatics, but if he was acting a part then it was a marvellously nuanced performance; there was no artifice in it.
If he noticed anyone staring then he didn’t pay any attention to it, he simply got up and walked away.
In class, with everyone now starting at him, he showed no signs of embarrassment about the incident. He still maintained his odd composure. And then he started doing the same thing in the lesson itself. When he was asked a question by the teacher he would behave as if the answer had been given to him by a third party; and his answer was always correct, even to the point where he actually corrected the teacher on a question regarding “A Tale of Two Cities”.
“Who wrote ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of foolishness, it was the age of wisdom?’” Mr Jupp asked.
“That was Charles Dickens.” Nigel replied, and then after another pause said, “And I believe that the quote was ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.’ Not the other way around.”
Mr Jupp was not amused and asked Nigel to stay after class.

Mr Jupp held a copy of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in his hands and looked at Nigel. “You were right, after all. I apologise.”
“I should be the one to apologise, Mr Jupp. It was remiss of me to call you up like that.”
“What is it that I hear about you talking to yourself? I wouldn’t have believed it myself, but I saw it happen in class. I think most children have an imaginary friend at one time or other, but they grow out of it. I’ve seen the way the other children look at you; they may not have done anything to you yet, but the more you draw attention to yourself…”
“I’m not sure that I follow you what you’re alluding to, Sir.”
“Nigel.. people fear what they don’t understand, and what’s more some people lash out at what they fear. You seem like a nice chap and I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“What is it that people fear?”
“They see you talking to yourself.”
“But I’m not talking to myself, Sir.” Nigel replied.
“I don’t understand.”
Nigel thought to himself for a minute and then said: “You know in the movies when the characters stop what they’re doing and talk to the camera.. and to the audience?”
“Yes, it’s called breaking the fourth wall.”
“It’s a bit like that.”
“That’s preposterous!”
“Why? Have you tried it yourself, Sir? Is that because you fear getting an answer, or not getting an answer?”

The next day in school everyone knew what had been talked about due to the power of gossip. Nigel was now looked upon with derision and scorn. Being odd was one thing, but being a loony was something altogether far different.
It started as a whisper as he walked into the playground. “Loony… loony… loony;” before rising to a cacophony. Nothing had ever ignited such a feeling before; all the pent up fear and frustration could now be released.
Nigel displayed no outward emotion and just walked from one end of the playground to the other and into the school itself. It wasn’t a tall building, scarcely two stories high and there was no way a pupil could access the roof. Despite that, everyone was horrified to see Nigel walk calmly to the edge of the roof and stop with the toes of his shoes overhanging the edge.
He spoke loud enough for people to hear: “I came here hoping that people would be ready to hear what you have to say, but their ears and minds are closed. Even their young are hard set in their ignorance, and I know what will happen if I stay any longer. I do not wish to be such a victim again. I respectfully ask to come back into the presence once more.”
Then a voice that seemed to encompass everything and everyone spoke briefly; and although all heard something different all understood.

And then Nigel stepped off the roof to screams and cries of anguish. Everyone felt the step as if it was themselves taking it; walking into the unknown. Nigel stepped off the roof and across to the other side of the wall.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Past saving

“You were never like this thirty years ago.” And that was true; thirty years was a long time.
“Well, congratulation; you’ve finally found the real me. You always said there had to be more to me, and now you know you’re right. Just like you used to be.”
Spend enough time anywhere, Len always maintained, and even Heaven would feel like Hell, especially if it was with the wrong person. The thing is, it didn’t start out like this.. or did it?
“What do you mean, used to be?” He snapped. It was supposed to be a quiet afternoon; a trip to the seaside; a walk down memory lane before they demolished the pier and eradicated the last of their happy memories.
“Well, you used to be right. Or, at least, you used to pretend you were right, and I suppose that I used to pretend as well.” Dot had taken some persuading, the news of the pier being demolished had hit her harder than he had realised. He was saddened by it, certainly, but she seemed almost inconsolable; nor did she want to talk about it; or indeed anything, which was very unlike her.
“Anything for a quiet life, I suppose.” He muttered. “How ironic.”
“What did you say?” She snapped suddenly.
“Steady on, old girl. What’s the matter?”
“Go to hell!”  I can’t, he thought, already there.. and what was worse, he knew that she felt the same. Neither of them wanted to end up this way, but it had still happened; slowly, inexorably: minute by damned minute. This trip might well have been a mistake, but what was one more? Unless this was the final one.
“Seriously, Dot, what’s wrong? You know I don’t mean it.”
There were still times when Len’s truth surprised her, where his real caring nature shone through, like it always used to. Not only did it make it easier to love him, but she knew that she could tell him anything, well.. almost. Now is where she would put it to the test.
“Do you remember Justin? He used to work at Wentworth’s with me for a while.”
Len shifted a little, uncomfortable with the way the conversation had suddenly turned.
“Yes, I vaguely remember him –or at least you mentioning him.” He lied.
“I found out that he passed away a couple of days ago. On Facebook, I mean… I found out that on Facebook that he passed. The funeral was yesterday.”
“I went.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” It wasn’t that she had gone without him; he had never stopped her living her own life. He had tried to make her happy, even if it meant that she did things on her own; but it was the fact that she hadn’t even told him. She’d never had any reason to be secretive before.
“I don’t know. I didn’t know whether I could go through with it myself, to be honest. I didn’t know… what I felt.”
“What do you mean, Dorothy?”
“Why is it that you only call me Dorothy in that tone of voice? You used to whisper my name during love making.”
“Don’t change the subject, what else haven’t you been telling me?”
“But I’m not changing the subject, don’t you see? As above, so below; one of your favourite sayings. Look at the detail to see the root of the bigger problem. We’re growing apart, Leonard. We’re not talking anymore, not like we used to. We bicker, but not talk… Justin and I.. well, we had an affair.. of sorts.”
“For God’s sake, why tell me now?”
“Don’t blaspheme!”
“Jesus Fucking Christ, your timing is as impeccable as ever.”
“Please, Leonard, don’t blaspheme.”
“Leonard, eh? Touché, old girl, touché. You know, I’ve often wondered why you got more religious the longer we’ve been together. What am I, the anti-christ?”
“Hardly… you’ve always encouraged me to find my own truth; the same way you have. You’ve never told me what to believe, and I suppose I’m grateful. But where you’ve found solace and truth and peace of mind, I’ve seen only emptiness.”
“You never did understand that life is what you make it; you only get out what you put it. You’ve never invested in your Self.”
“Well, neither did you…”
“I gave you your freedom. I’ve allowed you to be what you wanted; to have what you wanted.”
“Have you..”
“well… except that.”
“At least the church gives me a sense of purpose, tells me who I am.”
“I’m sorry that you need such a scaffold; I had hoped that you’d find the strength to do that on your own.”
“I must be a great disappointment to you.” Dot turned to look out at sea.
“Do you have to be so daft? I married you, didn’t I? Despite not believing in it; doesn’t that count for something? I’m still with you… I still love you; doesn’t that say something?”
“I don’t know any more.” She replied.
He took a deep breath, watched the gulls cawl and hackle at each other. “Are you going to tell me about him then?” He asked. “About what happened?”
“He was only there as a temp; six months. He was ten years younger than me but always looked at me with.. I don’t know… there was a wistfulness  in his gaze; something alive for me. I wasn’t unhappy, you mustn’t think that. At least, I don’t think so. You’ve always been distant… I know that you always loved me; but I don’t think you’ve ever been in love with me. You don’t put as much effort into the relationship anymore.”
“It’s always been about what you want, though Dot.” He interjected. “And I’ve never denied you anything; but, equally, I learned long ago that you’d never be completely satisfied. Early on you defined our relationship as being best because of the way I made you feel; not about me per se; but it was always about what you got out of it, or what I did for you. So I supposed he was different then.”
“He courted me, would you believe? Gently though, allowed me to time to make up my own mind. Strangely he didn’t want anything from me, just to give me love, and loving. We were together only for four months; on and off.. mostly off.”
“I know.” The silence struck her, it was as if the sea itself had stood still. She had never dreamed that he knew. All that time. “Well… obviously, I didn’t know the details, but I certainly suspected.”
“But why did you never say anything? Oh.. of course.”
She was quiet for a bit. The world carried on as normal; the sun played hide and seek with the clouds as children ran along the pier behind them. The smells of candyfloss, donuts and fish & chips would soon be nothing more than a tidal memory; an eddy on the minds of the lucky few who would remember.
“It wasn’t love that we felt.” She finally said. “At least I don’t think it was. We loved each other in the moment and then went our separate ways. The irony was that he was married as well; happily too, as I was led to believe, and with two daughters; and that was where the real rub was. He knew what I so desperately wanted and that was probably why he never slept with me. We enjoyed each other but never went all the way; even with him I was denied.
“What made it worse was the way he spoke about you… I mean, obviously we talked, but the more I explained about you and us, the more admiration he showed for you. How you’d given me flow; freedom and choice. And I suppose that’s true, otherwise I would never have met him.
“Of course, he moved away when his contract was up. We knew that we’d never keep in contact, and our last meeting was very much the same as our first… I swore that I’d never tell you; that I’d keep our secret to the grave.”
“And you have, pet.”
“Yes, I suppose I have.”
“And what do you feel now?” He asked.
“I don’t know. I never wanted to hurt you. I guess I felt empty when he left. It was about that time when you were researching hermeticism and I picked up the Bible, and just thought ‘why not?’ At least someone will love me.” She sobbed now, gently, like a lost soul might weep.
“I’ve always loved you, but –in hindsight- maybe not the way that you needed it. You want love like a child; constant attention. The only reason you want a baby so much is so it can take you away from the emptiness you’ve always felt. But it’s only ever a passing felling; you have to do that yourself.”
“But why? You’ve never really told me why you don’t want children. You must tell me, Len, I can’t go on not knowing. I can’t have them now anyway; please tell me.”
He looked at her then, his eyes full of compassion. Part of him wanted to say no, but that would have been unbearably cruel. He sighed.
“Once, when I was a boy of no more than thirteen, I went to a ghastly wedding.” He said, looking out to sea again. “It was with a bunch of family I didn’t know or care for; cousins, distant something or rathers. The reception was being held at some awful, run-down hotel when they didn’t seem to care about customer service or value for money. It was dingy and expensive.
“Anyway, I was claustrophobic –even back then- so I went outside. There was a veranda overlooking the Downs and a few younger children were playing, making lots of noise. I didn’t take too much notice; the view was so stunning.
“One of the children had a kind of motorised bird that flapped its wings when you threw it. This boy was deaf and had some form of mental retardation; I don’t know what kind –we were more ignorant about that kind of thing, back then. I was taller than most of the other kids, and he wanted me to throw this damnable bird, this flappy toy, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He kept tugging at my sleeve.
“My cousin, Bobby, was there and he was enjoying it; really winding me up; so I picked up this bloody bird and threw it as hard as I could out of spite, see? I never wanted to get involved but he wouldn’t leave me alone!” He could feel the tears now, a memory he’d hoped was forgotten was still just as painful. “The wind… I didn’t bank on the bloody wind taking it, did I? I mean, how could I have known?” My God, it was still so raw, it could have happened yesterday. Was it still happening now?
“What happened, Len? Please tell me, it’s ok. Let it out, it can’t hurt you anymore.”
“Oh.. and how do you know? You want to know what happened? I killed that poor lad, just as if I’d put a gun to his head; it was my fault. I threw that bird, that fucking bird.” People were staring at him; look at the old fool blubbing, well.. let them! “That bird, flew so very high on to the roof. I bet it had never flown that high in its life, and now it was stuck out of reach, never to fly again. There was no way I could get to it, nor did I have any inclination to, but the boy was having none of it. He wanted me to go and get it; after all, I was the one who had lost it. But there was no way I was getting involved; I hadn’t wanted to throw it in the first place, had i? So I tried walking away, but he wouldn’t let me; he tried stopping me… kids… we can be so cruel; all he wanted was his damn bird… He tried to grab me, tried dragging me back; he didn’t seem to understand that I didn’t want to know…  but he soon did though.”
“What did you do? What did you do to that poor boy?”
“See; you’re just the same. The poor boy…he was a menace. What I want to know, and what I’ve often wondered about afterwards, is where were his fucking parents? Why weren’t they looking after him? They were probably enjoying the free booze, getting pissed.”
“What did you do?” She persisted, quietly.
“Nothing.. pushed him away; that’s all.. and then walked away. Thankfully he didn’t follow. He fell to the ground, but I didn’t bother going to help him; to me the matter was over, but for him it had only just begun.
“I wanted food; I was hungry. Even back then I comfort ate, and by the time I’d laden up my plate I’d almost forgotten about it all… almost.  Then Bobby ran over to me, distraught. The boy.. he kept saying; The boy.. sobbing. I ran out with him. The boy hadn’t forgotten about that damned bird, after all. Seems it was his favourite toy and he wanted it back, so he tried climbing up the side of the building. Those old hotels; they all have the fancy walls with lots of hand-holds, and this boy tried scaling them. Obviously he fell; no one looking after him, no one caring and he paid the price.
“He didn’t fall far but the way his little body was twisted he must have snapped his neck. At least it was quick… But then, like the ultimate irony, that fucking bird came flapping back down because of a stray gust of wind. It landed on his body but he would never play with it again. That poor, poor boy.”
“But it wasn’t your fault, Len. How can you continue to blame yourself?”
“No one blamed me. Not even his parents. All the witnesses saw him hassle me, none of them remembered me pushing him down, but all saw me try to reason with him. The parents looked almost relieved that their torment was over. What they must have endured over the years, and the one time they turned their back something happened.
“I was inconsolable for weeks afterwards; I still saw his face accusing me. The parents let me keep the bird, they didn’t ask why; perhaps they understood.”
“No..; that’s.. you mean, that’s why you keep that mangy toy in the corner? I thought it might have been your favourite toy as a child; I never dreamed..”
“I swore that I would never put myself in that position again. I despised those parents; all the parents that turned a blind eye to that poor child. I despised myself for the same, and I knew that I could never bring a child into such a life.”
“But you wouldn’t have done. You would have been different. Oh, Len.”
“Really? I caused the death of that boy; I was the catalyst. I don’t know whether I could’ve gotten that bird or talked the boy down from getting it; but I didn’t want to know. I hated children, Dot… don’t you see? I despised them. Now? I don’t know; I pity them; they don’t stand a chance and things have gotten so much worse.
“Don’t you see? Our child.. had we… it wouldn’t have stood a chance. Between us, you would’ve smothered it before it could even get out of the crib and I would have abandoned it. Together I’m sure that we make a whole, but I couldn’t have subjected an innocent soul to that kind of torment. Far better to bear it myself.”
“But you haven’t, have you? I’ve had to bear it as well. This is why you’re always so distant.. why you’ve striven so hard to find meaning; and you’re just as empty as me. Oh, you put on these graces, tart it up in language to dazzle me but you’re still the same thirteen year old boy.”
“Yes.. yes..” He nodded, ashamed, but also relieved to finally have disclosed what he felt. “You’re right, of course.”
Dot smiled despite everything, or perhaps because of everything. Despite the pain, the recriminations, she actually laughed.
“That must be the first time you’ve ever said that… and meant it.” She said, still smiling.
“Do you think people can change, Dot? Do you think that we can? Or are we like this damn pier; just a skeleton; we weather the storms and high tides until its deemed we’re too unsafe and have no functional value. What do you think? Are we still of value to each other?”
“Justin dying has made sense of a few things, clarified them. I don’t think either of us have ever lived for the moment. We’ve both sought sanctuary elsewhere; escaping what we think is the inevitability of other peoples failings; but it needn’t be that way. What have we got to be scared of anymore? We’ve been scared to love because of what we might have to lose, but what have we really gained?
“I want more, Leonard. I want more from you, damn you. I want more love from you; I want to love you more.”
“Ha – that’s the first time I’ve heard you swear, m’love. Maybe there’s hope for you yet…For us. Do you think that we can change?”

“I fucking well hope so.”