Do you remember Pavlos Maropoulos from school? Was in the same class as us all the way through middle school. I think you do, actually, because I seem to remember you seeing a girl for a while about ten years ago that you told me was Pavlos’ ex. I think. Wasn’t she the girl that used to live at the bottom of the hill next to the cemetery? It sticks out in my mind now for the fact that you told me at the time that she said Pavlos had beaten her up when they were together and that he was a loose cannon. I remember I believed it at the time, mostly because I hadn’t spoken to him since school but had seen him walking around the streets a few times and noted that he had looked angry and weird. He’d grown his hair long, was always dressed in black with angry slogans on his t-shirts, wore dog collars and spikes and stuff like that, and when he walked past you you could hear the tinny noise leakage emanating from the headphones that covered his ears, aggressive screamy metal music. And he had been lifting weights since we’d left school, had added a bit of bulk. He always looked like he might throw a brick through a glass bus shelter, just for the hell of it. So the idea that he would partake in a bit of domestic abuse was easy to buy into. Then again, though, at that age I used to pretty much believe anything I was told, so long as it was interesting. As I sit here now I’m not so sure that I believe the story. I’m not as prone to judge people on rumours as I once was. Especially considering how many tall tales used to get thrown around our neighbourhood. Anyway, the reason I ask if you remember him is that a couple of weeks ago he sent me a friend request on Facebook. Out of the blue. I hadn’t spoken to him in 15 years, not since we left school, and hadn’t thought of him in about ten years, not since you were seeing that girl.
Except I wasn’t concentrating on what he was saying because I was reading this article on the internet about a kid in New York who had been arrested on suspicion of stealing somebody’s rucksack, just 16 years old he was, and they stuck him in jail to await his trial, except his trial never came up, so he spent three years in this prison, three years! waiting for the opportunity to defend himself, his day in court, but it never came and in the end all charges were dropped as there wasn’t enough evidence to even prove he had committed the crime. So they just said sorry and opened his door. Like that kind of thing was alright. There’s no way they said sorry. And I couldn’t stop imagining that happening to me as a 16-year old. All the firsts I experienced between the ages of 16 and 19. First smoke, first pill, first sex, first job, first holiday without supervision. Exciting years; the world in front of you; free from school; young, able-bodied and full of energy, often misplaced, but full of energy all the same. A good time to be walking around the streets. This kid wasn’t afforded that luxury. But even worse, this kid’s time inside was horrific. He decided not to join any of the gangs that operated in the prison. Then one day a gang leader spat in this kid’s face in the canteen and this kid knew that if he didn’t stand up for himself then his face would be spat in every day, so he punched this gang bloke on the nose, bang, and within a couple of seconds this kid was having his head kicked in by like 50 gang members, and the wardens basically stood and watched. The attack went on for ages, this kid was beaten senseless.
The reason the story was being reported now was that CCTV footage of the incident had been released, showing the brutality of the attack, and this video accompanied the article I was reading, so I saw it. I’m not just going on hearsay. And after that day life in the prison wasn’t safe for that kid so the guards moved him to solitary confinement. And that’s where this kid spent three years for a crime that he was never convicted of. But the thing I found most interesting was that the person who had written the article seemed as outraged by the fact that this kid had had to endure solitary confinement as he or she was at the violence he’d been subjected to. I found this curious because to me solitary confinement seems like the perfect scenario to hope for if you ever get caught doing something naughty and have to go away for a bit. I always assumed everybody else was with me on this. This isn’t just something I think now. I have always had it in my mind. You remember how I was always in trouble when we were at school? Hardly a day went by that I wasn’t sat outside Miss Bleatley’s office on detention. Usually for fighting. Nah, it was for everything, come to think of it. Stuff that I had done and stuff that I hadn’t. How many times was I suspended from school! I felt like I couldn’t avoid trouble even if I tried, which on rare occasion I did, unsuccessfully. So my natural fear during those years was that authority would continue to pick on me after I left school, and that detention would be replaced by prison. It genuinely occurred to me. And so I had this plan ready. The first night of my stint behind bars I would do something fucked up, like do a shit on the dinner table, inside a Yorkshire pudding or something, and then vow to squeeze out a shit every time someone said the word sausage. Or cigarette. Or bird. Or another word. Some really messed up shit like that. Just to get stuck in solitary. Because the last thing I want to do in prison, just the same as on the outside world, is socialise with other humans. I wouldn’t want to know my fellow inmates, I wouldn’t even want to know what their faces looked like. I imagine the prison social club is an alright place to hang out if you’re like a natural criminal or something, they say that when you come out you’ve learnt from all the other criminals in there and you’ve honed your skills, ready to go back to your life and start doing naughty stuff again but only better than you did it before. But the thing is I’m just not a natural criminal. I don’t want to learn how to blow open a safe or nick a car without detection. I can’t drive. So I wouldn’t fancy it. I’m a disobedient little bastard, but not a criminal. Not a real one. I suppose this is obvious enough already for the fact that this prison story of mine is hypothetical. But what I planned to do in prison once I’d got myself sectioned off to solitary confinement was to spend all my time reading literature, teaching myself a foreign language or two, if they’d let me get the books from the library, and if not I would just meditate facing the wall. In peace. Not getting in any more trouble. Not having to talk to anyone. Not having to listen to anyone. I always thought that would be alright, actually. No one boring me. Just send the guard along twice a day to push my little bit of food through the flap in the door, I’d be sorted thank you very much. And I’d exercise a load, too. Push-ups round the clock. Healthy body, healthy mind. One thing my environment during adolescence taught me was that prison gave you muscles. Every single one of the kids from my year that did end up going down after we left school together went in there the same size as me and came out a couple of years later a gorilla. Seriously, arms like Popeye, every one of them. But this kid’s experience of solitary confinement didn’t play out like that. Another released CCTV tape showed the morning that one of the guards came to escort the kid to the shower. The guard had had a row with his wife or something before coming to work, had the right ‘ump, and so when he opened the door to the kid’s cell and the kid stepped outside, the guard just laid into him, slamming his head repeatedly against the floor. You don’t need that when you’re serving time without trial for a crime that you’re never going to be convicted of. All of a sudden solitary confinement didn’t seem like the paradise I had conjured it up to be in my mind. What’s the point of not having to worry about other prisoners if you still get kicked around by the guards? That’s even worse, cos you can’t really fight back. Well, you can, but you can’t win. I really felt bad for this kid, it moved me, made me angry and sad at the same time. And yea, I really couldn’t get out of my imagination that this could have happened to me. Only, it wouldn’t happen to me. Because I’m not black and I’m not in America, and what happened to that kid wouldn’t ever have happened to a white kid, of this I am positive. The system wouldn’t let it get that far. There would be press outrage for a start, and from the beginning, not just some article published more than three years after I was arrested. And that actually made me feel even sadder and even more angry. Anyway that kid’s out now.
The narrative above is fiction and just an excerpt from a longer story that I am currently working on. However, the story about the kid in America, sadly, is a true one.
Pain isn’t something I am skilled at dealing with. Escaping pain, however, I am as good at as an Irish traveller is at fighting. Shrooms being my route of choice these days. It’s where the love lives. When life gets too ugly for me to be able to look at it, I discreetly slip away from the world and pay a visit to the realm of contentedness. These past few weeks I’ve been going there more regularly than I would usually need to. I am feeling emptier than I have in years. My spirit has been extinguished. An ache that won’t shift. A constant nausea. Too many shit things all taking place at the same time. A friend, one of life’s good humans, is lying in a hospital bed while her young kids and husband can only sit and put their faith in doctors and medical technology. Christmas. New Year. And not to mention the rejection dealt to me by a woman, – well, two rejections. Just one woman. But I was fool enough to climb back into her bed the moment she let me and then in the morning deja vu – who has, although not intentionally, absolutely crushed any confidence or feeling of self-worth that I had in myself before I met her. Destroyed. Man, I was in such a good place before that girl came into my life and turned it upside down. These things combined have knocked me on my arse. Not that anyone will know it. I am not a talker. Friends trying to engage me in conversation about what’s going on in my life just make me recoil. They meet a brick wall. It is not my way. Nor am I a social user of anything. I don’t like to have company when I’m feeling the benefits of whatever it is that my body has ingested. I fly solo. A bit of Me Time. I wait until I know I have the flat to myself for a night, and if that situation doesn’t arrive I take a bus out to my mum’s house in the sticks. No city, no cars, no street lights, no noise, and most importantly no people. A retreat. A place where I can get under the covers, drink tea, get as stoned as I want without being disturbed, and float away with the aid of some shrooms and some psytrance. It gives me perspective. Helps me to remember, even if only for a short while, that I have been prescribed an extreme dose of good fortune and managed to escape the poverty by being given the opportunity to work again, after a few years of sitting in a damp corner, occasionally having food gifted me by charities, shoplifting at times, and at other times just going without nutrition. Makes me realise that surely that was a far less desirable situation to be in than the current one of emotional trauma over a woman. Emotion is forgotten when you’re starving. These days I can eat when I’m hungry. I can drink when I’m thirsty. And I can smoke weed when I’m…….. awake. Basically. This time last year I couldn’t do any of those things. Well, as my dad used to say to me as a kid, “There’s plenty of water in the tap.” So I could drink. But you get the point. Things have been worse. Even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.
A week or so ago when I didn’t have any work the next day, I travelled out to my mum’s with everything I needed to be able to chill out. In the evening I laid down on the settee in the living room, ate some shrooms, wrapped myself in a blanket, got comfortable, pulled my hood up over my head, put my music in my ears and closed my eyes to block out the telly in the corner of the room that my mum was sat on the other settee watching. She knew to leave me in peace to enjoy my trip. And then the usual vivid memories started to come over me. The ones where I am actually back there, experiencing it again but at the same time detached, like Scrooge stood next to the ghost of Christmas past. If that makes sense. I went back to a night almost 20 years ago.
Teachers are human beings. When I was a kid I had no idea. I’ve been travelling back in my mind to my school days a lot lately, replaying interactions teenage me had with certain teachers, and seeing things in a completely different light to how I did back then. I can step into the heads of those old teachers of mine, see where they were coming from. Because I am them now. I’m a teacher. How that happened I do not know, but it did, and it has been my profession on and off for ten years this year. And yea, teachers are human beings. Flawed. Unhinged. And with a beautifully twisted and well articulated sense of humour. That last sentence is open to accusations of writer’s bias. So be it.
I know that teachers are these things not only because I am one, that would be too small a sample section, but because I am also surrounded by them. Most of the things I do I do with teachers. I hang out with teachers, I drink with teachers, I get stoned with teachers, I discuss life with teachers, I argue with teachers, I sleep with teachers, I watch football with teachers, I get my advice from teachers. The woman currently the object of my attentions is a teacher. I even have a teacher for a flatmate. My living-room has a massive whiteboard on the wall and a fold-up table used solely for giving evening lessons. My living-room is a classroom with settees and a telly, for fuck’s sake! So I feel I am qualified to speak about teachers.
I was, for want of a better word, a challenge to my teachers. A pain in the arse. Although they must have liked my company, because they chose on an almost daily basis to spend an extra hour (sometimes two) of their time with me after the final bell had rung for the day, in detention. Man, in the winter I rarely got home before dark. And I only lived up the road. Detention. How is that allowed?
Lately, when I lie in the darkness at night smoking a couple of spliffs in bed and switching off from the day spent traipsing all over teaching my students English, I’ve been having vivid flashbacks to my childhood. Random stuff. Never anything particularly significant. But one memory always leads on to another, and I am there, back on the school field or sat in detention or on Western Road in Brighton doing Christmas shopping with my sister, my nan and my aunt. I can smell it. Hear it. Feel it. Tonight is no different, but for the fact that I don’t have to get up for work tomorrow morning on account of a chest infection, meaning I can sit up in front of my laptop and write some stuff down. I am aware that smoking with a chest infection makes me an idiot.
For some reason tonight my brain took me back to an eventful day in the early months of 1995, when I was 11, playing out like a film in my mind’s eye, with 3D glasses provided free of charge, scenes that had been absent from my memory for well over a decade. Bizaare scenes.
It’s about half past one in the afternoon and, unlike most of my mates, I’m not in class but rather the school hall. I’ve been excused from lessons because I’m in the school production and an emergency rehearsal has been called because the performance date is approaching and we’re shit, basically. Nowhere near ready. My role in the play is a small one so most of the time it’s other people rehearsing their bits while I’m sat on the floor with the other D-Listers. I keep getting told off for talking and pissing about and the teacher’s really starting to get on my tits. I’m not interested in the production, I only signed up for a part in it because I knew it would get me out of class occasionally. Also I’ve got something more important on my mind. In a few hours I’m going to be making my debut for the school’s Year 5 football team and, even more exciting than that, it’s against Manor Hall, our biggest enemy, the school from just up the road, the kids of which we fight in the park, the same kids that we went to first school with and were best friends with until we separated and went to different middle schools at the end of Year 3 and became sworn foes. This is a proper derby. And my nan’s coming to watch. And even better than all of that, we get to leave school early to get over to their school in time for the game. At 2 o’clock I’m sent to go and get changed with the rest of the team. I’m given shirt number 11. I wanted 8, because it’s Gazza’s number, but 11 is the next best thing, I’m not complaining.
There aren’t enough seats in the mini-bus for the whole team so those of us with bikes take them instead. Down Church Lane, cut through the graveyard, across the green, through the square, along Manor Hall Road. Say hello to my nan. Jog up and down. Start the game. And then a moment that will haunt me for the rest of my life, of this I am sure, almost 20 years after it happened. A cross is put in from the left wing. I don’t know by who, but it isn’t by the player that should be out there, our left winger, because that player is me, and I’m hovering about just outside Manor Hall’s box. The ball goes over my head towards our star player Ross and as it approaches him it plays out in front of me in slow motion, as I know that Ross is more than capable of taking the sting out of this with his chest and then laying it off to me, and the one thing that I pride myself on is my technique when it comes to volleying. I position myself and Ross plays it perfectly, it bounces just in front of me and sits up nicely and I take it on the half volley and connect with it more sweetly than I will ever connect with another ball in my life. I watch it fly from my boot and I know already that it’s going in the top corner. Everybody knows it. There is silence as the ball spins away deliciously to its target. The goalkeeper doesn’t even bother moving. I’m about to write my name into school folklore by scoring a wonder goal from outside the box against Them. Them from up the road. Them whose school jumpers are bright blue as opposed to our navy blue ones. And my nan’s watching. And she’ll tell everyone what she saw. She’ll tell my dad. What goal celebration am I going to do?
The ball smacks against the angle of the crossbar and the post and ricochets behind for a goal-kick.
I go into shock.
Back in the spring time I spent a couple of months staying at my mum’s house in the Valencian countryside. The experience taught me a lot. Such as how I enjoy the sensation of exchanging pleasantries with complete strangers. Who knew? I certainly didn’t before arriving in Spain. Allow me to take you there now, to a sparsely populated stretch of land, not far from the town of La Hoya, between the city of Elche and the Mediterranean coast, by way of a journal entry written on the day that it happened:
Out here I don’t see many other people and can sometimes walk for a couple of hours at least without coming across another human, not when I’m wandering about in the fields anyway, but occasionally I slip away from the fields to cut across the only road for miles around, that connects the city of Elche with the coast, and although the road is more often than not dead, it is still the place of work for prostitutes, who sit by the side of the road on a little chair under an umbrella, reading a book, and when they’re ‘busy’ their book awaits their return on top of their empty seat. There is one of these girls approximately every mile. Eastern European or South American. And these girls know not to take me for a potential customer as I approach them – I haven’t got a car, for a start. Plus I like to think they recognise me as someone who wouldn’t have to pay for sex. Ha! he says modestly! More likely they take a quick look at me and come to the conclusion that I couldn’t afford it – I’m just a scruffy and stoned thinking man, wandering about in his mind. And I have to squeeze by these girls at the side of the road, and I always do so in silence and with my eyes averted to the ground. And just the same, these girls completely ignore me. It is as if we don’t acknowledge each other’s existence. But obviously we do, or at least I do, or I wouldn’t be writing about it.
‘It’s like the film Being John Malkovich, innit?’ he said to the man standing over him. And then he remembered that the man didn’t speak his language. So he asked it again, this time in the man’s national tongue. The man’s response was ‘What?’ except it wasn’t exactly ‘What?’ because it wasn’t said in English. But it meant ‘What?’
‘You wouldn’t get it,’ he said, reaching down into the side pocket of his bag that sat between his feet and pulling out his ticket, which he handed to the man. The man took it, crossed it with a biro, handed it back, and carried on down the carriage. He turned his head to the left to stare out of the window, to lose himself on the distant horizon, to be taken there by the current and left to float over the edge, peacefully on his back, he imagined a bottomless waterfall, perpetual motion, the eternal drop. Would it be noisy, he wondered. What did it matter? He’d get used to it. That’s what you do; you get used to stuff. He had forgotten that it was past ten at night, that the sun had long since set, that the window at his side now only served as a mirror, revealing his surroundings, bright under the train’s lightbulbs, as it rolled along the tracks that hugged the shore line. He fought the temptation to check his reflection, he knew what he looked like; tired. And empty. But mostly tired. He didn’t need reminding. His eyes looked older than they were. As luck would have it, the rest of him didn’t. Not that it mattered. There were people, about eight in total, sharing the carriage with him. Eight other humans, possibly nine, and not a sound to be heard. Not a voice. Not a laugh. Not a sniff. Not a shuffling of papers. Not an itchy arse being scratched on a seat. Just faces looking at mobile screens. Or in the case of one lady, looking at the backs of eyelids. She was asleep. But she wasn’t resting her head on anything. She sat upright. And she dozed peacefully. He thought this must have taken training.
The woman sat opposite him was also surveying the scene via the reflection in the window. Their eyes met in the glass. She had nice hair, he thought, and pretty eyes, hooded, deep. No make-up. None needed. She didn’t smile, she wasn’t a smiler. He used to be. She just looked into his reflected eyes. The glass a bulldozer to the social No No wall that existed in the physical. Without the glass to act as a filter, this kind of behavior would not be acceptable. You do not stare at strangers on public transport. It’s bad form. She had started it, though.