There was, on the bus to school, a thin-lipped Romanian woman with bags beneath her eyes and prominent cheekbones: I was lucky on the days I sat next to her. A seat! Others were standing, pushing. The woman stared. She frowned. It was very loud at 8am. Everyone had to get to work. She would stand at her stop and shuffle past me without saying a word, eyes lowered.
I missed the bus. The next bus was twenty minutes later. So I arrived twenty minutes late. We were doing an exam. The teacher asked us to measure the periods of some pendulums. I felt bad about being late. I apologized. I measured the periods.
Faces: the boy who walked around with a briefcase and never tired of telling his school mates that nobody has free will: the laws of physics determine everything in advance—he killed himself; the boy who was unusually short and wrote “I’m gay, from John” on the backs of chairs and on soccer balls; the Romanian woman with the bags.
Bells all day, and after fifty minutes another one. Machine-boy. Jumping at every bell to rush. Who could say “stop”? We were busy: doing nothing. Sitting down at a desk only to get up again at the next bell. Loud! No wonder it is difficult to ever do anything. “He has ADHD” says the principal about the student. So do we.
“People need love,” and they don’t know they’re alive. Death-faces. The fat man who lived in a smelly house piled high with records, where I bought a ‘Diana Ross’ record: the man wheezed through his face and never looked me in the eye, like the Romanian woman. “Cheers,” I said and he closed the door.
Jon and Mark were friends—because they sat together and played video games. No talking. They didn’t have anything to say. They made ‘gay jokes’ sometimes but never hugged. Mark’s brother had just returned from overseas. “It was amazing,” he said. Always brighter horizons. There’s more life to be had: overseas.
You can’t escape death and being dead can be isolating. Mark didn’t know he was lonely when he sat on a bench playing with his phone in Hyde park. Overseas, finally, but so similar to before. His brother had escaped from life, and so had he: no life for Mark or his brother.
Or for the faces in the pews each Sunday. Women with their newborns, choked by plastic. The men who were boys: Steven collected old radios—he’s one of the elders; Jeff said “what’s next? They’ll make me marry my dog? I mean, two men: that’s ridiculous” after the marriage law passed.
Jeff on the gays, boys playing on the field, the beauty on Daniel’s face. He was older and I asked him to watch a film with me so that we could sit together, but he fell asleep and his mum told me about the importance of choosing ‘good friends’. But she’d never had friends, so how did she know? We were all alone, even then.
And in the side of the motorway, with steep banked sides, I waited alone, leaning against a car with a book in hand. John the pastor picked me up. We sat on a rugby field. There was nobody around. John told me a cautionary tale. A pastor, married, had gotten himself addicted to porn. “He watched porn all the time,” said John.
The first bell of school was for ‘form class’, where we answered to a roll. I sat next to Sam. He’s an engineer now. We drew little notes to each other. Not like the crude phalluses on the walls of the classroom: we did clever things—bridges, faces, urban sprawl.
One morning my teacher and I picked Sam up from home to go to a ‘Youth Conference’ where we heard lectures for ‘Talented Students’. (We were awash with fatuous labels, even then.) The first lecture was about how boys read pornography magazines and I thought the pictures did not look like women at all.
Bells. Bells. And gym class started in a changing room. (It took five minutes to change: leaving forty for running.) The floor was crunchy because dried flakes of deodorant spray were falling from the ceiling, which the boys had sprayed with deodorant until it dripped. Time to change. Running’s over.
Or there was a fire alarm. We stood on the field in rows while teachers yelled our names at us and I quietly walked away to the highway to start home. What does a name mean in a field of thousands? I turned off the highway to avoid seeing the bus go past. Quiet farm roads. No one around.
Until a car passed and they recognised me. “You’re easy to recognise,” they said, and I joined them because they told me that I had to. “How lucky that we saw you!” they said. And I hated them for stealing my walk from me. Their car got me home very quick. In those days, everything was fast, but nobody knew why.