My daughter Effie and I were tidying the attic, shifting some boxes of my old things, when she came across a photo of my high school graduating year. It shows a dozen rows of sixteen year olds, each in varying states of readiness for the adult world.
Some of us deadpan. Some amused. Others cocky, stoned or arrogant. Some looking like children and others like airbrushed versions of their own parents. I looked exactly like what I was; a young man who had never kissed a girl but proudly owned a large collection of ‘choose your own adventure’ novels.
I’m smiling, although I know that I was not happy. Perhaps I was hysterical, having had a premonition that I would not lose my virginity for another 3 years.
Or maybe it was the knowledge that our family would soon be leaving the small Suffolk town that I had once adored and relocating to Yorkshire, where I was hopeful of starting again. Not realising that you can’t run away from yourself.
“Is that you?” Effie asked, pointing me out. I nodded. She smiled. “Really?” But her amusement turned to a wrinkle of concern and I saw the photo through her eyes. Transformed into a campaign poster highlighting the ravages of adolescence. My gawky features making her fearful about her future.
“Who’s that?” she said, changing tack. Picking out a girl sitting in the second row, pouting beneath a teetering privet of back-combed hair.
Her name escaped me but I recognised her immediately as someone who had once looked on and laughed when I was being beaten up in a school corridor. I recalled the thrill on her face as the punches landed and her smirk as I cautiously got to my feet and headed to the toilets to see if my lip was as big as it felt.
Effie looked at me, waiting for an answer. “I don’t remember,” I told her, because that was all she needed to know. “It was a long time ago.”
I‘d been telling myself for years that the drama of high school was behind me. When discussing that time I would talk rationally, explaining that I understood the insecurities that led children to behave like vicious monsters and that, with this knowledge, I had moved on. It disgusted me to discover that I hadn’t. How much of it still hurt.
Effie selected another face but the doorbell rang and she suddenly lost interest, rattling down the loft ladder to answer the door. It was her friend from across the road. She yelled a goodbye and the door slammed, leaving me alone to pick out the faces that still haunted me.
I looked for David first. Who had claimed that I’d touched his leg under the table during History class, igniting the homosexual rumour that would dismantle my life for the next two years. Leaving me friendless, shunned and scared. Skipping classes and faking sickness. Leaking awful poetry.
Prior to this David and I had got along. We sat at neighbouring desks and often ate lunch together. But at some point it seemed that he needed a target and I, bespectacled, comic-bookish, bad at sport, seemed ideal. The reaction he got from starting this rumour was so immediately big and satisfying that he couldn’t give it up. And so, for months, he stirred the pot.
He’d stalk me through the corridors between classes, bracketed by his snickering friends. Issuing reminders that resonated through the building.
“Queer,” he’d snarl, “Fucking queer.”
If I’m honest, my own behaviour strengthened David’s case against me. I made no secret, for example, of the fact that I greatly admired my mother. Or that upon completing a careers questionnaire, I had received the suggested job of flower arranger. I ran like a girl. Squealed like a girl. Preferred the company of girls. Still, I don’t feel I ever presented as gay. I was too grubby. Too lacking in style. Too deficient in all the cliches one expected of a gay child.
There were much better targets than me. Like Christopher (back row, centre), who displayed all of those cliches and more. His voice was soft and feminine and he minced as if determinedly grinding coffee beans between his buttocks. But he escaped attention because he rose above insults, shutting his accusers down with fierce, biting responses. Benefiting from an intelligence I didn’t have and a tall, meaty physique that hinted at an ability to pluck off human limbs. So I, lacking Christopher’s defensive qualities, chose to deal with it in my own way; by hitting David with a chair.
This sounds more impressive than it was. There was no satisfying impact. No KA-BONG! But something more closely related to the disappointing phut of a failed firework.
We’d been sitting in class listening as the teacher called the register, responding as required.
I opened my mouth to respond but David spoke for me in a camp, broadcasting voice.
As the classroom rattled with the laughter of children who were just grateful this wasn’t happening to them, I felt my rage rise. The sound began to muffle as if I was sinking underwater. Months of torment boiled. I grabbed the closest thing to hand, the chair beside me, abandoned by a former friend who now considered me too toxic to associate with.
David saw the chair coming and blocked it with casual ease. School chairs, I realised, were not designed for swinging and I was not designed to swing them. When it came to issuing violence, I was every inch a flower arranger.
“Adam!” my teacher barked. “Go and stand in the corridor!”
“I’m not interested,” she said. “I will not have that kind of behaviour in my classroom.”
I stood there, a failure. David grinned. Everyone grinned. I pursed my lips and flounced out of the classroom. Outraged. Indignant. But from a visual standpoint, everything that David said I was.
The next day I was moved to a desk at the back of the classroom to sit on my own, away from David and his friends. But still within reach of the balled up scraps of paper they regularly threw at the side of my head. After a while I stopped opening them up to read the messages within, already sick of seeing the word queer written with angry force.
I moved on from David, scanning across the rows of faces. Trying to find another specific person. Each set of features I encountered along the way carried their own potted history. Some I associated only with the tragedy that befell them.
I saw Andrea, who slit her wrists and was not found in time.
Melanie, who leapt from a window.
Stephen, who died in a car crash just months after the photo was taken. By the time I found out, he had been dead for longer than he’d been alive.
Eventually I found the face I’d been looking for. Dan. The boy I had wronged. His broad, cat-like face tilted back slightly. His eyes rolled to the heavens.
Dan was different and this being high school, he paid for it. He was mocked and pointed at. For being the school’s only vegan. For always wearing a single, tattered BMX glove and a Parka in all weathers. For the way he ran with his legs half bent, as if peddling an invisible bicycle.
He took to eating his lunch alone in the corner of the playing fields. The farthest possible point from the school. Outed and marginalised, I recognised a fellow outsider and began joining him, quickly learning that we shared a mutual love of Prince.
We began trading albums, but where I would just copy them onto a C90 and leave the rest of the tape blank, Dan would fill the excess. With conversational chat. Book reviews. A story read verbatim from the pages of Razzle magazine. Inevitably, I guess, he became bold.
Prince’s “Dirty Mind” album is only 30 minutes long and this gave Dan 15 minutes of blank tape to kill. He began with a lecture, adopting the persona of a character he named Sigmund Foond, who spoke in a sozzled, plummy drawl. Over ten minutes he issued a freeform lecture about the sexual qualities of three girls in our class; Vicky, Clare and Gaynor.
“Men have died for these women,” he said. “Cities have crumbled. Civilisations have fallen.”
He described their curves. Their skin. The elegant fall of their hair. And how history had been dominated by the male desire for their forms. With every passing minute, every new mention of “breasts” his breathing grew heavier. Until suddenly, suspiciously, he became calm.
“As I lay here,” he said, sighing gently. “Feeling my suit. Licking my tie. I believe I have reached nirvana.”
There was a dull click as the tape was paused then unpaused, and that was when Dan began to sing. Clapping time with a rhythmic, whipping beat. It was primal. Filthy. His musical tribute to the three girls he adored.
At first the lyrics were pretty conventional, detailing his desire to sleep with each girl in turn and then all at once. The evidence of a sexual imagination reared on dirty magazines. But it quickly escalated into the kind of performance that a Hollywood screenwriter might have put into the mouth of a caged sex offender.
“Tie me in a sack, Jack me off, Jack me off, Whip me, kick me, kick me baby, I want your whips tonight.”
This was issued in barks and sing-song gasps, backed by the persistent beat. Like a lone cheerleader, willing him on with steady handclaps. It reached a panting crescendo just as the tape was running out.
“Under the stars, Under the night, I want you baby, Every night, I want you, I want you, I want you…”
Having received this gift, this revealing of Dan’s innermost, I knew what I had to do. The way I saw it, I had no option. I couldn’t cope anymore and had been presented with a way out.
So I betrayed him.
I made a copy of the tape and played it to Vicky the next morning. Who played it to Clare and Gaynor. Who played it to the whole class. By the end of the day there wasn’t a child in our year who didn’t know what Dan had done. And I was no longer the focus of cruel attention.
I felt bad for Dan. Who had been so open and trusting. But it seemed worth it. Sitting at the back of the class, I went unnoticed and for that I felt justified in selling my soul.
For his part, Dan took it in his stride. He didn’t shout or swing chairs. He didn’t look for another patsy to take the fall. He took his lumps stoically and with the minimum of fuss. He didn’t even seem angry with me. In time the radiation of his notoriety reduced and at the end of the week I felt something familiar and sudden on my cheek. The sting of a paper ball. I opened it up.
My respite was over.
I considered this old photo of myself. Of this smiling boy. So distant and unfamiliar. And I realised that while I couldn’t run away from him, I could place him in a box along with everything that defined him, seal the lid and store him in the attic. My guilty secret. My own insecure, vicious monster.
ADAM FARRER is a columnist, short story writer and spoken word performer whose work has been published on The Real Story and as part of National Flash Fiction Day 2015. He read ‘School’s Out’ at The Real Story: Live 3 on August 19th 2015, headlined by Michael Symmons Roberts.