I find myself walking along the path toward the school gate with my anorak and leather satchel. The playground is already full of boys and girls running and shouting, waiting for the whistle to blow so they can go in. I guess I must be about nine and it feels like late autumn. The ground is wet and the sky is heavy, but the sun shines from under the clouds. I feel sick. I don’t know why but I feel like this every day. I guess it’s nerves. With every step I feel like running away but I know I can’t. There are other children running past me. Then the whistle is blown and I have to run to get in. This always happens. I’m always last. I don’t know why. I suppose I just don’t walk very fast. I walk up and stand at the end of the line and wait. Getting glared at by Miss Williams, I feel really embarrassed, again. The other boys are chatting among themselves, not listening and Miss Williams shushes them several times but they just don’t seem to be able to stop talking. Eventually she says ‘Nicholas. I won’t tell you again’ and finally ‘Nicholas, stand by my desk’ and he just grins at us and goes.
Inside there’s that smell of rubber and disinfectant and boiled food and something else – decomposing PE kits perhaps. The corridors are exactly as I remember them – long and echoing, with display boards showing the results of various projects and art and story-writing classes, all mounted on sugar paper and labelled with pupils names. There’s one of ours – something about wildlife. Miss Williams gave my piece on badgers eight out of ten and I put a lot of work into it – going to the library and looking things up. I remember being really impressed by how sanitary they are, badgers – making their latrines and so forth. I had this huge scheme worked out showing all the tunnels and the trees and the other wildlife and the cubs and everything – maybe a 3D diorama too. But I never finished it of course. My schemes were always “somewhat over ambitious” as they put it. Nothing ever got finished properly. Anyway it never got put up there because my handwriting was so messy and I gave it in late.
We enter the classroom and I sit down next to Simon, who is ostensibly my best friend. He’s talking to Alex and Adam across the way and gets shouted at for it. It occurs to me, my old self, that I’ve neither spoken to anyone nor been spoken to, which seems strange. It doesn’t seem to be bothering my young self however. He thinks it’s normal.
I look around the room. It’s fascinating actually, just as I remember it – all the art materials at the sink at the back – yoghurt cartons and palettes for paint and jars of paintbrushes, then the windows that fill the wall on the far side giving a panorama of the sports fields and the black sky and squally rain dashing in at us. We’ll be inside for playtime, which will be a relief. No standing in the cold.
‘Good morning children’ says Miss Williams.
‘Good morning Miss Williams’ we all reply. I look over at the girl’s table – Donna, Jessica and Tina and the others. It feels very wrong to be looking at little girls as an old man so I leave my young self to get on with it on his own. He’s clearly very taken with Donna anyway and it’s obvious why. She’s the one with the blonde ringlets and the rather haughty expression. She looks like bad news to me. He’d do better with Jessica. She’s quite cute and looks friendlier. Anyway, this doesn’t feel like a healthy topic so I look at the books along the wall opposite the windows. I remember I particularly liked Tove Jansson’s Moomin books – that little cosy Baltic world they lived in, with Moomin Mama and Papa always so generous and tolerant and Moomintroll – so wistful and sensitive. I always thought he was a bit soft actually. I preferred Snufkin because he was so independent.
My name has been called for the register and Simon elbows me. Miss Williams says it again, with exasperation. ‘Yes Miss Williams’ I say.
Simon shows me the new rubber monster he’s got on the end of his pencil and asks if he can borrow my pencil sharpener. I realise with horror that I’ve left my pencil case at home. I look at Miss Williams. I’ve done it again. I wonder how I can be so stupid, again. Unbelievable. She’s beginning to write something on the board, something about division. I’m going to need my pencil and my rubber. I’m going to have to borrow one, or ask Miss Williams. Simon hasn’t got a spare. I feel sick. Glynn (one of the boys from the line and a really unpleasant sneaky spoilt cry baby of a child) puts his hand up and says he’s forgotten his pencil. He thinks it’s funny. Somehow that makes it worse. I don’t want to be like him. I look at my exercise book and my mind goes elsewhere, I’m not sure where – Moominland perhaps. My young self hasn’t consciously thought that maybe she won’t notice, or that it’ll soon be over. His mind doesn’t work like that. He just knows she will notice and then he’ll be in trouble again. So he’s just switched off. He just looks at the page and waits for it to be over. Eventually he’s spotted not writing and gets given a new pencil and another withering sigh from Miss Williams. And looking on I realise that’s how it is – it just goes on like that, day after day. There was never anything very terrible about my whole school life – no shocking ordeals or cruel and unusual punishments, just, every day, a string of small mistakes and humiliations. He spends every day just waiting for the next thing, wondering which angle it will come from. And there doesn’t seem to be anything much to balance it – no fellowship, no chat, no one on his side, neither here nor at home. He puts up with it on his own.
I look around at the other children. Most of them seem to be getting on with it or having surreptitious conversations. Only one other child looks at it blankly, with that lost confused look on his face, and that’s Lawrence. No one sits with him because he smells and he’s thick. Even Robert is getting on with it. His work is almost as bad as Lawrence’s but he’s a good-natured clown and the teachers simply smile and shrug. I think maybe I’m thick too. Maybe I should be with Lawrence and Robert. But somehow I know that’s not true. I should be able to do this.
I don’t know what’s going wrong here. My older self should at least be able to intervene with the maths, make it easier for him, give him a hint. It’s only long division for God’s sake. It’s not quadratic equations, but he seems to have just stopped. He’s gone into a panic. He looks at the page and it’s all a big horrible mess and he doesn’t know where to begin and he doesn’t want to have to ask again (he probably won’t understand the answer anyway). I watch his paralysis, the normal classroom hubbub going on around him. Then, at last I see him pick up the pencil. I see him write the numbers, barely legible, but there they are. I watch him look at the numbers and begin the calculation. I can see him do it, step by step – fives into thirty-seven is seven. Thirty-seven minus thirty-five equals two. Bring down the six. Fives into twenty-six is five, remainder one. He’s right. He’s got it right, and he goes on, doing the others, rushing a bit, making a few silly mistakes, but basically getting them right. He comes to the last one with a couple of minutes to spare, completes it with the wrong remainder, closes his book without a backward glance and goes into a trance. He can’t bear to check his work. He doesn’t know what he’ll find there. He thinks they’re probably all wrong and he’ll be here forever, trying to work it out. It’s too horrible to contemplate. As it is he’ll get about fifteen out of twenty and be told to do something about the scruffiness of his handwriting. The teacher will fail to mention that he basically knows what he’s doing and just made a few daft errors because he rushed it and didn’t check his work, and she certainly won’t mention that only two others in the class did better than he did.
This kid seriously needs some help.