Thursday, 24 March 2011

Andrea V – Life Choices

‘So what were you like, as a child?’ she says as I arrive.
‘Oh Gahd, do I have tah?’ I drawl, pretending to collapse with ennui.
‘Not if you don’t want to.’
‘I don’t remember. It was a very long time ago.’ I sit back and think. What was I like? Oh God. The horror!
‘I was useless – always sort of saying stupid things, always sort of wrong somehow, uncomfortable, out of place.’
‘Give me an example.’
‘I don’t know. Errrm.... I know – for a while there, when I was about fifteen I thought I was The Fonze...’
It’s nice to see her laugh at my pain, really it is.
‘I got this fake leather jacket and some sunglasses and a white tee shirt. I thought I looked so cool.’
‘You were finding your identity, identifying with a hero figure’ she says charitably.
‘Nobody else did anything like that though.’
‘What did your friends say?’ She’s still giggling.
‘They mostly ignored me. They were all useless tossers themselves anyway. At least I was trying to look cool. I had a Starsky cardigan too...’
‘Very stylish.’
I look at her smiling at me. It does seem funny now.
‘I take it the other kids didn’t play with you much.’
‘Well, I don’t know which came first – me avoiding them or them avoiding me. It is strange now I come to think about it. I wasn’t unhappy I don’t think, being on my own. It was just, when I did try to play with them or go and see them at home or whatever kids do, it was always somehow difficult. We never just relaxed and had a laugh or even a fight for that matter. I always felt uncomfortable somehow, like I didn’t know how it all worked, what to say, and I didn’t understand their games – I hated football, and I didn’t want to fight, and the girls wouldn’t play with me, so I suppose I was on my own a lot.’
‘So you had to use your imagination, invent things.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Sounds hard.’
‘I’m not saying this to get sympathy (but thank you anyway), I just never really thought about it before. It’s just like, I didn’t get it. Like I missed something – some vital piece of information.’ I think about it for a while, trying to think of an analogy.
‘I’ve got it’ I say. ‘It’s like, I’ve always been able to draw. I don’t know why, it just comes naturally. I never had any training, I just know how to do it – I understand how perspective works, and how colours combine, and how to put what is in front of me on a piece of paper, or make it in a piece of clay. I’m not saying it’ll be brilliant, but it’ll be recognisable, and I know, if I chose to, I could go to classes and become good. It’s something I always knew I could do. Now, you talk to my sister Amelia – she went to art classes for years and she never really got it. She can follow instructions, copy a picture, but stick her alone in a field with a pad and an easel and she’s lost.’
‘I’d be the same. I can’t draw to save my life.’
‘See that’s what it’s like. But I thought about it a lot back then, tried to work it out – how to be normal. I picked up some tricks. I learned to avoid certain kinds of people – most people actually – “real” men, uptight fussy anxious women, “right-minded” god fearing folk. Children... I learned to appreciate my own company. But it took a long time. Up until I was in my early twenties I just kept on trying, making a twat of myself, over and over again.
‘So, what subjects were you good at, at school I mean?’
‘I don’t think I really stood out at anything. Well, art and writing stories but that all stopped at secondary school really. Once they pointed out that actually my spelling and grammar were abysmal, well, you know... I enjoyed reading though.’
‘What about the art?’
‘I kept that up whether they wanted me to or not. That was the thing that kept me going really, and then actually I really got into languages later, Spanish especially, and my biology and English were ok. My maths was terrible and I always hated sports.’
‘And you took your A levels’
‘I failed my A levels.’
‘But you were entered for them. You can’t have been that useless.’
‘I suppose not...’

The next session, she starts with ‘One thing has been bothering me about your story Gabriel...’
Here we go, I think. I feel like I’m being held for questioning.
‘Given your family background and the fact that you don’t seem to have had a major drink or drugs problem or serious mental illness - well, going on the street seems pretty extreme... as a life choice I mean.’ She’s flicking through some papers on her lap. Evidently I am on file here as well. I’ll ask if I can have a look later. I bet she says no. But, anyway, I think about what she has asked. It’s a good question.
‘Well, it was choice, and at the same time it wasn’t’ I begin. ‘I couldn’t stay at home with my parents all my life. And I do mean “couldn’t”. We’d have ended up hurting each other I’m sure of it. But then, on the other hand I suppose I always knew, if things got too bad... they were there.’
I tail off unconvincingly. It’s not good enough and I know it.
‘But you didn’t have to live on the street is what I’m getting at. You could have stayed in a hostel or something.’
‘And I did. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to give you the impression I was out on the pavement the whole time. I stayed in squats a lot for example. It was just, sometimes... it didn’t work out, or I ran out of money, or I pissed someone off and I had to move out. I don’t know...’
She frowns. I know what she’s thinking. She’s wondering why I put myself through all that... all that brutality, because it was – really brutal at times, when I could have just gone home to Ma and Pa. Was I just too proud? It doesn’t seem enough. What the hell was I thinking? I didn’t really fit in with the other homeless either. It seems stupid but I couldn’t even be a proper homeless person. I couldn’t even get that right.
I look about for inspiration. I notice that the curtains here are the same as at my Auntie Jen’s place. I can’t think what to say.
She looks at me intently. She’s working something out. Here it comes.
‘I just don’t really see why an obviously intelligent person like yourself would let this happen, do you know what I mean? All that dirt and degradation, and humiliation. Why did you put up with it?’
I sit back and think about it briefly. Where to begin?
‘I just never really saw it that way.... I suppose, given the alternatives. People go on about the disgrace of it, signing on, queuing up for hand-outs, being dependent on charity, on your parents, whatever, but then if you get a job you’re still sucking up to the boss, putting up with a lot of arbitrary crap from ignorant customers. You’re still dependent whichever way you look at it. Going in to sign on once a fortnight - it’s not so bad.’
I see Andrea shift irritably, trying to decide which of the many obvious objections to this she wants to begin with. I let her stew for a moment and then say blandly ‘Obviously I’d rather have been doing something worthwhile with my time and I can honestly say, in all the years I spent as a drop-out, I don’t think I ever met anyone who genuinely wanted to just do nothing with their life. They’d have all wanted to do something worthwhile, given the choice. Of course people’s ideas of what counts as worthwhile vary.’
I think back to how I was then and it occurs to me that life would have been a lot easier if I’d been able to just do as I was told once in a while, know my place in life - get a normal job, a tolerable wife, some irritating kids, live somewhere safe. Behold the happy moron...
‘I can’t believe some of the crap I was offered at the job centre’ I muse casually. ‘I mean, the employers don’t put up with just any old employees. I don’t see why we should be expected to put up with just any old job. I don’t think the employers were even trying half the time... just expected it all to be handed to them on a plate...’
I watch for her reaction. Did she see what I just did there? Apparently not. Either that or she doesn’t want to give me the satisfaction.
‘Well I suppose...’ she begins wearily, ‘I suppose it’s about doing what has to be done, fulfilling a role...’
‘So the needs of the individual must be subject to the demands of the economy. Sounds suspiciously like totalitarianism to me.’
She sits back, looks about the room. She’s had enough, and so have I. I suddenly feel terribly tired. I want to stop. I lean back too, shrug, shake my head.
‘I don’t know. I suppose a lot of it was wanting to be independent, get away somewhere, be on my own, not have to deal with all that crap – parents, bosses, landlords, social workers, people in general.’
She stares at me for a while. I can’t imagine what she thinks of me.

‘You seem to be making friends here ok’ she says eventually. ‘What’s different?’
‘I don’t know actually. I have had friends before you know – later on in life. Not usually really close friends, but still, you know, acquaintances. And of course it’s early days still...’
‘You don’t think you’ll stay friends for long?’
‘I don’t know. But it’s different here isn’t it. I can be a normal person here – relatively speaking. No worries about money and status here, or “What do you intend to do with your life sonny Jim?” I can be me here.’
‘You’re happy here.’
‘You know I think I am. What have you got there?’
‘The papers...’
‘Oh, just some notes – to jog my memory – questions I want to ask, things that occur to me between sessions.’
‘Can I have a look?’
‘Be my guest.’ And she hands them to me and I’m flattered to see how much she seems to think about me. I hand them back and she smiles at me knowingly.

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A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.