In the calm light of the rising sun, the morning is crisp and cool. The wound on my arm has clotted at last, and I have time to breathe again. I sit in the cool of the sheltered cloister and work my way through another bottle of wine. I don’t usually drink for a purpose, but at this point I am certainly in the mood for drinking to forget. Except that that never works: all I can do is remember, and recall.
I thought that it would be a walk in the park being at school as a grown up: I have my head together; I know a lot more; I have the confidence which comes with being the oldest person in the room. Only that wasn’t how it played out. My mind keeps going back to an incident in an art lesson, where I just couldn’t handle it. The wine is not the best aide memoire, however, so it may get a bit hazy.
I was sitting at a table with my oldest friend – another who had driven his own path, not that any of us knew so at the time – and a couple of new girls. They had transferred to our school when theirs had closed down. It would become a particularly nice little housing estate, popular with first time buyers, but not for a few years. Instead, our school had an influx of new blood. It was different.
The girls had been paired up with Peter and I as we were both friendly, nerdy lads, and the class teacher (about the same age as me, I’d wager) didn’t agree with the segregation of her classes. Conversation was stilted, as it was always going to be. The now closed school was always viewed as being the rough one, while ours was viewed as the posh one. There was almost a class division.
We were drawing faces, just for added difficulty, and we started talking about how face shapes differ between the genders, if at all. Peter is a fantastic artist, and just shrugged. It was not something he had ever studied; he just drew what was in front of him. Everybody looked different, so he just took it all as it came. Sage nods, and murmurs of approval rose from the whole of the table. Excellent.
The thing is, although I can draw well, I have had to study what makes things up, as I tend to draw what is in my mind, rather than what my eye is seeing. That is the dividing line between a good artist and a crap one, or so I have been told. “I find that women have pointier chins, and men have flatter ones” I expressed. “Shut up and don’t be so sexist!” was the response I was handed back to me.
First time round I remember trying to explain further, telling that my mother had studied art, and that she had shown me that images of the feminine tended to have longer, thinner faces, tapering down to a point, while images of the masculine tended to favour a more square jawline. I was told to shut up, and that I was digging myself a deeper and deeper grave. That was the first time round.
This was not that first time, yet the memories of it came flooding back: the blue of the desk, the height of the chairs, the scratchiness of the uniforms. I remembered feeling utterly humiliated by the conversation; talked down to by people who were meant to be my equals. I didn’t know what I had said wrong, and I just wanted to express myself. They just shut me down, and I was ashamed of it.
Instead of responding as I had the first time, I stood up, cleared my throat, raised my eyebrows a bit and walked out of the room. I may have done some of those in a slightly different order, but I did all of those things. I walked out of the room, and out of the building and on to the cold, concrete yard. I stood with my back to a favourite set of railings; looked out at the buildings before me. Breathing.
I knew these buildings so well: I had studied in them for seven years first time around, and now I was back in them, building a new life. I could see the RE classroom where a teacher had made me kneel on chalk. I could see the Geography classroom where I had burst in to tears in first year, unable to cope with the stress of “big school”. I could see the sixth form block, where I would spend some of my happiest, most terrified, most formative years. They would have been fun to do all over again.
Every inch of this yard was steeped in memories for me. It had a brutal, almost industrial edge to it, spliced with century old brick. In the future it would feature a lot of steel and glass, as funds found their way in, and regeneration started. And still I was breathing, and still I was working through the pain and humiliation I had experienced as a teenager. If this was a causal situation, I would no longer have any memory of that event, yet the recalled pain of it had burned my flesh just moments ago.
I drew comfort from that. This was a new quantum reality; a spin off from the perceived main time line. It meant that my family might just be safe and well and together after all. Breathe deeply.
I was just about to head back in when the young teacher came out to see me. I remember her going through some bad times with some students later this year, and leaving this school. I was sad: She taught us with consideration and empathy. That was the same today. She asked me if I was alright. That was what I needed: the opprobrium of teenage relationships was too much for me to handle at the moment. I explained to her what had happened, and she explained why the girl was offended.
She knew I wasn’t being insensitive, but that my actions hadn’t been all that helpful. When I told her how I had wanted to shout and scream, but chose to avoid that, she told me that she understood; that I had taken the better course of action. That I was thinking about things like a real grown up.
I didn’t share the irony of that one with her. I smiled, expressed my thanks and went back in to the familiar classroom. I smiled to the rest of the table, and continued with my drawing. It was as if the tension had been broken, and the conversation started to flow more freely. I began to draw the face of my daughter, now able to realise her likeness, as I finally started to drift off to sleep, bottle empty.