Taking a break from The Inventor and The Wine Den (which have both had quite a big push of late), I’m showing here a short story for my collection Places we belong which form a part of the antithesis – the strange sense of not belonging.
The story below is based on a boy I knew at my primary school growing up. It’s also a part of my current series on reminding us to talk to each other, particularly in winter when suicide and depression rates peak.
Trigger warning for those that need it – nothing graphic, but topics as described above.
They say that when your coach, or your teacher, or your acting director stops giving you criticism, that’s when they’ve given up on you. They might throw all sorts of harsh words at you, and it might feel like an insult; but really it’s a compliment to their expectations of you. That you’ve not lived up to them is temporary – if they knew you were mediocre, they’d look at you with boredom and tell you how ‘fine’ you were.
When I was a boy, that’s just where I was in class. Mediocre. “He’s a lovely boy,” they told my mother on parent’s evening. “So well-mannered. So kind.” But I needed some extra help with my handwriting, because it wasn’t very good. And my times tables. I knew the numbers, but they’d swap around in my head. I remember thinking that 7+4 was 13, because 13 is also 1 p.m. so somewhere the little postman inside my brain who carries all the letters – emails, probably, because your brain’s electricity – was dropping these numbers all over the place. Shame no one told me that none of us would be holding pens in ten years’ time. I might have felt less bad about it. But they weren’t to know.
Part of me wonders whether it was feeling in the middle of everything, no way to stand out. Or whether it was the change in schools, from primary to secondary, where the middle is so much more middle, and nice doesn’t win you anyone’s love or attention. Or maybe it was hormones, because They say hormones can make you sad.
But really, I think it was the guilt. Because other people’s lives were so much harder than mine. It’s easy to be in the middle, you see. People at the bottom, like Georgie, needed a lot of extra help. They had to study all the time just to stay behind everyone else, and she couldn’t focus so I imagine that must’ve been exhausting for her. Then you had Patrick at the top – teacher’s favourite, I always thought he had it easy. And he did in class, but only because he’d done so much work at home. And everyone has such expectations of him, so he’d get all the people telling him how disappointed they were in him all the time. I don’t think I could handle that either.
But in the middle there’s not a lot of that. So I was sad, but I didn’t really have a reason for it. So I put on my smile, because when anyone asked what was wrong I couldn’t think of an answer, so why did I look so glum? It’s unfair on everyone else to bring them down too, so I wore a smile.
And the smile became my coach. My acting director. It believed in me for a long time. It had high expectations of my ability to act through my sadness, which I still couldn’t explain. It was just there, like a flu virus or a tumour, and people still don’t know how some tumours happen, but this isn’t the same – it’s invisible. And most people need evidence. I had no evidence. I was the scapegoat in the murder trial with no alibi.
My smile made me feel better sometimes, too. If I kept it long enough he rewarded me with a little burst of happy hormones, or if those weren’t available he’d tell me I was doing well for acting happy for so long – see how everyone else believed it. My smile was a ‘he’, definitely, because I was a ‘he’.
All on one Tuesday morning, the inevitable happened, and my smile realised how mediocre I was at acting. It stopped scolding me for letting everyone down and making them feel guilty. It stopped calling me a liar and a fraud for feeling down and just left me alone. I was alone. My mother had just gone out to work, but I could’ve called her back, if she’d understood what kind of emergency this was. My friends were just a call away, but I didn’t call. Not that morning.
Because they wouldn’t have understood. I had a reputation for smiling. Where would all this have come from? They wouldn’t have believed me, would they? It was the tragic, hilarious, perverse result of my years of training under the supervision of the implacable Mr. Smile.
All on one Tuesday morning, silence in my head, like a clear, winter’s sky. I had to get dressed and leave. I managed the first part, but half way through, the smell of my deodorant sparked a tragic, hilarious, perverse chain of events that led to some time off from school.
And silence on that Tuesday morning.