by Ian McLachlan © 2002
I'd got myself a little post, high on a hill, from which I could see in all directions, North, South, East, and West. It was just an ordinary looking post made of clay and wattles and I lived alone there. It was a hut with four doors, one in each wall. It was a place where I sat and thought and waited.
Sometimes I would go out and fetch water from a stream on the side of the hill. And sometimes I would fetch honey from the beehives. But most of the time I just waited.
He came upon me in the evening. It was my favourite hour. I liked, when the evening was coming on, to stand and look out over the valley at the trees waving darkly in the summer breeze and the quiet hills. That night, the sky was red. The plain lay wide and still and desolate before me. I could hear the stream. I could feel a shadow on my face. And I looked up.
Later, newly weighed down, I walked off down the hill away from the hut, afraid, wondering at the new weight on me, unable to speak. I never went back there.
Debs is waiting for me at the gate. She's on her own. The only black girl in our year, she stands out. I walk up to her, she nods, and we both just stand there. After a few minutes of just standing there, I feel up to saying something.
"Hi", I say. I plan to say more and my mouth remains open for a bit until it becomes evident that nothing else is coming out. Then, I close it.
"Good opener", she says dryly.
"That's okay," she says. She's smiling. She's gauging my mood with a professional eye. The telling smile reveals what kind of mood she's in. I consider backing off.
"So," she starts up before I've had time to get clear. "How are you?"
We take a moment's silence. The question forces me back into myself, forces me to think
about my breakfast, about my weekend, about my life. I nearly hate her for it.
"Jesus Christ! I've told you not to ask me that!" I finally explode. And it's just me and her. The schoolyard no longer registers.
"I know," says Debs. "Vindictive, aren't I?"
"Why the vendetta?" I inquire curiously.
"Oh, no particular reason."
"Problems at home?"
"Was the starter-home raised again?"
We take another moment's silence to consider this. Debs parents are committed to her saving up for a starter-home. God knows why. It's not as if they're likely to let her leave home till she's about thirty. But it's something they've become increasingly fanatical about after a double-length special of "The Money Programme". Gasps of stormy boredom follow.
"Gotta take it out on someone," she replies glumly.
"I know," I say and look down at my shoes.
Some first-formers run past us screaming. Further down the road, older kids are getting out of cars at a discreet distance from the school. Their parents wave them shameless good-bye's.
"It could be worse," I say, but lack conviction.
"How could it possibly be worse?"
"I don't know. It could though."
"Well, you could be living with Ted Bundy for example."
"Yeah, I suppose."
"Well, there you are then."
"Hmm," she says. I haven't clearly convinced her.
"You could be living with Ted Bundy and your parents."
"Come on, Debs, you've got it good."
"Course you have."
"Yeah, I suppose," she says and smiles frailly.
We look out down the road again, away from the schoolyard.
There's something helpless about the way our heads keep turning in that direction.
"Never mind, Debs. You'll be happy in your starter-home one day," I venture.
"Oh, fuck off!"
The first lesson of the day is math. I've been trying not to think about it up till now. I amble into the classroom, sling my bag down on the nearest desk and am reasonably content when Dave and Mick get settled in the two chairs next to mine. They give me cover. Dave and Mick are tolerable creatures; thieving, acquisitive, covetous of bright, shiny objects, but generally alright. They're talking about last night down the pub. They always are.
"I got so pissed last night!" says Mick.
"Yeah, you were really out of it," says Dave, running a hand through his deliberately crested hair. "How much did you have?"
"More than you can take!"
"Fuck off! I could drink you under the table!"
Dave and Mick speak a primitive language. The basic symbols are: "drink a lot of beer" equals "very good"; "drink beer" equals "good"; "teetotal" equals "complete tosser". Inventing a couple of heavy nights down the pub is usually enough to allay their suspicions. This done, we chatter away amicably, and by the time Mrs. Braun arrives, we're just one big happy family.
Half an hour later, we're less merry. Mrs. Braun is writing on the board. Dave and Mick are flicking pencils around. Under the desks, feet scuffle. Occasionally, a knee bangs a desk or, more spectacularly, someone falls off their chair. To keep myself awake, I dutifully copy formulae off the blackboard into my exercise book, without really having the faintest idea what I'm writing.
Then, like a wounded animal, I stumble out into the sunlight and walk around. I unwrap a sandwich. Since direct sunlight troubles Debs, she'll probably be hard to find; holed up underground somewhere, no doubt. I decide to look for Olie instead. Olie makes no secret of his whereabouts at lunchtime.
Over to one end of the school grounds, by the temporary huts, there's a patch of grass where a few girls mortify their bodies with autumn sunbathing. This medieval practice involves lying on the grass and perhaps taking off their blazers if the temperature makes it above nought. Though considered a thoroughly decadent activity by the headmaster, a closer examination reveals it to be more like a physical endurance test.
Here, Olie is a conspicuous figure, sitting cross-legged on top of one of the temporary huts and writing his English essay. Every so often, he picks up a pair of binoculars his father gave him, and takes a long look at those girls. He's not remotely subtle about it, but that's because he's got no shame.
Not that it's entirely Olie's fault he's like this. As far as I can make out, he's just a disciple of his father, whose worldly philosophy includes such lines as, "Son, it's not how many girls you've got, it's making sure they don't find out!" Not a very noble dictum.
Occasionally, I've inquired if his mum's an equally enthusiastic advocate of the family code, but Olie doesn't really seem to understand the question. He seems to think of his mum as an old, familiar animal that shuffles about in hairpins and slippers and is unusually privileged to look after him. Perhaps he's right. I've never met his mother.
Anyway, since Olie's obviously busy with his essay and his "ornithology", I go and look for Mick and Dave instead. One of the temporary huts backs up against the old school fence, but leaves enough space in between to create a dark, moist lair, the haunt of polecats and weasels. They will be there, I think. And they are there, smoking and guilty. They always seem to be guilty about something.
My approach startles them, but when they see it's only me, they relax and don't disappear over the fence.
"I'm going to get really pissed tonight!" says Mick awkwardly, head down, shoulders hunched. Dave laughs, coughs, keeps laughing. Mick coughs too. Both of them seem to have permanent colds.
"What, again?" says Dave. Then, turning to me, "Are you coming down the pub tonight?"
"Go on, it'll be good. Olie's coming. And so's Anna."
"Oh well, perhaps I will come."
"You sure you won't be missing any royal appointments or anything?" he asks slyly.
"Nothing to trouble yourself about, Dave!" Dave doesn't really know what to say now. He's good enough at thinking of witty analogies, but never really up to sustaining them. Two seconds of inspiration, that's all Dave is.
"Meet at my house at eight-thirty, yeah?" is his eventual, considered response.
"Alright," I say coolly.
I stand with them while they finish their cigarettes, leaning against the fence, shuffling my feet in the vegetative slush that lines the fence, inhaling the smell of decay. After a while, I float away from the cigarette smoke and pale faces and humming traffic and muted shouting, but go too far so that, at first, there seems no way back.
And now, my life no longer seems my own, but some quite separate thing which holds my attention. However, I don't stay there long, but force my way back in a bit of a panic. These disembodied journeys can get too exciting.