‘Now then’ says Alison next time I see her. ‘You were telling me about your school days. We may have to hurry it up a little if we’re going to get to the end in time.’
‘Oh. Ok, well, in that case I’ll tell you when things changed. I was nearly ten years old. It happened really quickly one day and I remember the whole thing very clearly. I was in a maths lesson. Mr Hendrick was our class teacher by then – he was a horrible sarcastic old man, the last of his kind.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, there a lot of old teachers there still when I started. I think they were left over from the war when schools had had to take pretty much anyone who wasn’t fit to fight. There was Miss Williams, Mr Philbert, Mr Hendrick. They were all a bit eccentric, and close to retirement. We didn’t start to get the new younger teachers until later on. Anyhow, I hated Hendrick. We all did. He didn’t have any time for anyone who wasn’t good at maths or science and I dreaded having anything to do with him. Anyway, it was quite early in the new year – January or February maybe and I remember I was sitting despairing over some geometry he’d given us and I was looking around the room as I often did – anywhere but at the page and I hear him say ‘Fortune’, in that supercilious tone he had. He strolled around to the front of his desk and leaned there, looking at me with those beady old man eyes, sizing me up, thinking about how he was going to humiliate me today. Luckily one of the girls put her hand up and he turned his attention to her, but not without giving me his ‘maybe later’ glance. I started on the lines and angles and tried to make some sense of it.
I remember the change as like a handover, or passing on of a baton. Up until then my old soul had been riding along up there in my head, observing but unable to exert much of an influence whilst my young self went about his usual childish business. It’s been difficult to work out which person to tell this story in. Sometimes I am the old soul, watching and seeing things happen against the backdrop of many previous lives and after-lives. Other times I am that young boy, oblivious of all this, coping alone, only vaguely aware of him, the old soul, trying to help. That was before.
It was during this lesson that that ten-year-old boy and the adult he grows into became the ‘I’ that is telling this story now. At that point the ‘I’ that had been telling the story (the old soul) slipped into the background and became a kind of a surreal dream-like memory, alongside my normal childhood memories.
The result was a peculiar double perspective – still very much the child I had always been but now suddenly with a broader perspective. I could not see into the future and make specific predictions but I ‘recognised’ things – people, places, events. Certain situations seemed familiar somehow. I’d be aware that something important was happening and I’d stand back, so to speak, and observe. Furthermore I found myself with abilities I’d not had before – new insights and ways of understanding. It was like being an amnesiac who, whilst having forgotten where he is or what day it is, nevertheless somehow retains the ability to read and speak. I had no memory of acquiring these skills but there they were. I looked at the page in front of me and saw that it was a simple exercise involving Pythagoras’ theorem and which wouldn’t take me a moment to sort out. I looked up and the girl, Matilda, was at Hendrick’s desk pointing to something in her exercise book. As I watched I saw he had his big, veiny old arm around her small back as he spoke, his coarse old hand on her tiny hip. She was a pretty blonde girl, popular with the boys, and with Hendrick too. I watched his hand move on her hip and pull her back onto his knee. I looked around the class. No one else seemed to have noticed and I realised that I wouldn’t have paid much attention normally either. I’d seen him do this many times before, and not just to Matilda, and we’d just accepted it because we knew no better. I looked again. The school uniform dress was short and he’d moved his hand onto her thigh. I saw her squirm a little uncomfortably and try to concentrate. Then I saw her get up and pick up her book and with a thwack on the bottom from him, go back to her seat. I couldn’t tell if she understood what had happened or not.
Hendrick rose from his seat and went to the board and said ‘Everybody finished?’ It wasn’t really a question. ‘Fortune. Finished?’
‘Yes sir’ I said, although I’d written nothing. I did the calculation in my head as he drew the problem on the board.
‘And what do you make the answer, Fortune?’ he said, evidently expecting some entertainment.
I’ll give him his due – he did look mildly impressed that I gave him the correct number, and he didn’t trouble me any more that session. As we worked our way through more such problems I looked around some more. I watched my fellow pupils scratching away. Hendrick was extremely strict about working in silence but the usual suspects were muttering and giggling and imagining he hadn’t noticed. I looked across at Adam and Geoffrey and Alan and Simon and Robert and Gordon, then over at Donna and Tina and Jessica and Sally. I remember enjoying my cool appraising observation, all the while keeping an eye on Hendrick himself. Somehow for the first time I could see the others perhaps as he saw them, or at least as other, less evil adults saw them. I liked Adam – he had a calmness about him and Jessica always wanted to make people feel better. Nicholas was an ignorant bully, Nigel a nasty little liar. Donna was a spoilt brat. Matilda thought Donna was her friend but she wasn’t. It was so obvious. They didn’t scare me any more. I knew what they were up to. I watched Jessica chew her pencil for a while then realised it was getting late and started on the problems.
‘I would have thought the change would have been rather obvious when they saw your work. Didn’t they – the teachers and your parents comment on this sudden transformation?’
‘It didn’t really work like that. For a start I was still me – uncoordinated, “off in my own little world” as they used to say... It was as much as I could do to concentrate and use my new insights a lot of the time. Mostly I was so lost in all this new stuff that I was as much “in my own little world” as ever. I just had different things going on in my imagination. It was the same with my social life. I’d been a bit of a misfit before and now I was a misfit again. The only real difference was now I was happy to be on the outside whereas before I’d always felt left out. Also I stopped doing weird embarrassing things in public.’
‘But they must have noticed a change, surely.’
‘I understood enough to know it would be best to pretend not to suddenly be a genius, but the thing is, I know now that I’d actually been fairly bright all along – I just hadn’t realised. And anyway I was only ever one step ahead – I just recognised problems as they came along and knew how to approach them. I didn’t suddenly have a whole school-life’s worth of maths in my head for example. The best thing though was that now I suddenly had the confidence to get on with it instead of panicking and making stupid mistakes. To be honest, at the time, I didn’t really think about it that much. You know what kids are like – things happen and they just accept them as normal. That’s what I did...’
‘What happened to Mr Hendrick and his thing for little girls?’
‘Oh, eventually he got fired for it. That was after we left. At the time I didn’t know what to do. I knew it was wrong and I knew he knew it was wrong. I remember thinking and thinking for ages about what to do about it.’
‘Did you come up with anything?’
‘No. I was just a little kid after all. I asked Jessica about it when we were talking on the way home but she changed the subject.’
‘Didn’t you talk to anyone else?’
‘Who? I knew my parents wouldn’t take it seriously. They’d say he was probably just being friendly or something and the other teachers weren’t exactly approachable. I remember looking at him very intently once when he was doing it but I don’t think he got it. At any rate he didn’t stop. I think mainly I used my new insight to stay out of trouble. It sounds selfish I know, but I was only ten.’
‘I know. I’m not blaming you. It’s just...’
‘I know, I know’ and I shrug because I still feel guilty about it but I really don’t know what I could have done to help.
‘What happened with you and Jessica?’
‘Oh, she was a sweetie. I got to know her pretty well. She moved away about the time we went up to secondary school and we lost touch.’
‘But she was your girlfriend?’ she says, clearly amused.
‘Well, in as much as twelve year olds can be said to have girlfriends.’
‘In my experience that can mean quite a lot.’
‘Well, this was the seventies.’
‘Yes, well we had some good times together. It was quite sexy I suppose. There was a school trip to Normandy when we were about twelve. That got quite steamy. And then the rest of the school found out so it all got blown out of proportion.’
‘Did they tell your parents?’
‘They sent a letter about an ‘incident with another pupil’ and, get this, my dad immediately assumed it must have been with another boy.’
‘I think he just assumed that since I wasn’t a proper boy it must be because I was queer. His word, not mine.’
‘Did you try to explain?’
‘It wouldn’t have been worth the agro. It sounds strange now but it really wasn’t up for discussion. He’d made up his mind and that was it. I’d have had to make a big scene and tell him he was wrong so I just left it. Or he’d have told me I’d misunderstood what he said or something. It didn’t actually change anything as far as they were concerned anyway.’
‘They didn’t care whether you were straight or gay? I find that incomprehensible.’
‘I think it suited them for me to just be this weird, incomprehensible child – like a changeling dumped on them by the fairies – not their responsibility.’
Alison nods as if recalling something and then writes something down. ‘Ok’ she says. ‘I see, that makes sense...So did it change things with your family – this change you’d been through recently?’
‘Not really. I remember coming home that night and looking at dad as if I’d never seen him before and thinking he didn’t even really say hello to me. He was bustling around in the kitchen, making dinner and he muttered something about letting cold air in and that was it and I remember thinking that we were different to other families. And then an hour or so later mum came in and they hardly spoke to each other either.’
‘And she didn’t say anything to you?’
‘I was standing watching her and she said, “Haven’t you got anything useful to be getting on with?” and disappeared.’
‘It sounds bad.’
‘Oh God no, not really, not compared to... well, you know, what other kids have to deal with. But it had been that way all those years. I’d just accepted it. I remember sitting at the dinner table that evening and my sisters were still living at home then and they always had these private jokes and secrets going on which I know really pissed mum off and Justine always wanted to know how I was getting on at school and so on and that day I just smiled at her and said “Really well actually” and I remember them all looking at each other like I was a talking goldfish or something. They both left soon after that, my sisters. Amelia got married and Justine said she couldn’t stand it any more and moved out soon after. That was really bad.’
‘Because you were left alone with your parents in the house.’
‘I think previously I’d really held it against them – leaving me behind like that, Justine especially.’
‘But this time?’
‘I knew it was right. She was twenty-two or something. She had wanted to go to university but then couldn’t for some reason.’
‘You don’t know why?’
‘I never did find out exactly but I can guess. For a start it wasn’t that common back then for working class kids to go to uni, plus she was a girl, plus mum and dad were getting close to retirement. You have to remember the government expected quite a big parental contribution for students back then and I think mum made it difficult for her. Anyway she moved out – only to Hove. It wasn’t the other end of the universe and she let me come and stay quite often.’
‘How did you cope in the house alone with them?’
‘I just stayed in my room, or I went out a lot – just around the town initially, then further on my bike – out in the country or down to the harbour. Some evenings I walked over to Justine’s place but then she got a boyfriend and so that wasn’t so easy.’
‘And other relatives. You haven’t mentioned any other relations as far as I can see...’ She stops to look at her notes. ‘Ah. Holidays, ok. What was that like?’
‘Oh, you know, relatives...’ I say. She gives me that look that tells me she knows exactly what I mean. ‘Auntie Jen was ok. She always wanted to see my drawings and things. Uncle Len was a bit of a arse though.’
‘Len and Jen?’ she says, eyeing me doubtfully and I have to laugh.
‘Len and Jen’ I say, reminiscing. ‘Actually she was alright, my auntie Jen. Uncle Len thought I was a complete waste of space. He used to refer to me as “The Prat” when we went over there. He thought it was funny.’
Alison is clearly not amused ‘Your parents never said anything about it?’
I shake my head. ‘They didn’t like to make a fuss.’ Alison sighs and writes something down.
I have this very clear memory of Uncle Len taking me aside one Christmas. I can’t remember what had happened – something I’d said probably, and he gave me a little conspiratorial wink and took me out the back, and I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I remember he said, in this very cool, man-to-man sort of voice ‘The thing is Gabriel, you insist on always doing things your own way all the time – it doesn’t make you interesting. Nobody admires you for it. They just think you’re irritating. I don’t know why you don’t get that.’
He was always one of those ignorant turds who think it’s down to them to ‘tell it like it is’.
‘What about your friends?’
‘That changed a lot. I started to try to make friends more at school, which was new. But really, it sounds dreary but I was quite happy just getting on with things on my own, in my room or down the garden or wherever. I was used to it by then.’
‘And your parents never wondered where you were?’
‘Sometimes, if I came in really late. Mum used to take the opportunity to get really angry and say how she just couldn’t understand me, and she couldn’t imagine where I got it from and maybe it was the kids at school or something.’
‘But never anything to do with her or your father of course.’ She tuts and slowly shakes her head. ‘I have to say it never ceases to amaze me how parents instantly leap to their own defence in these situations. It always makes me very angry. They’re so puffed up when their offspring are doing well, but anything bad and they’re instantly blaming the TV or the other kids being a bad influence or maybe a medical condition, but it’s never their fault. You’d think, if they really loved their children they’d be prepared to do anything to find out what was going on, but no... Anyway. Where were we?’ She sorts through her notes quickly. ‘So did you get into any serious trouble at all?’
‘Not really. A bit of trespass but they never caught me.’
‘And your school work?’
‘It was ok. I mean, it wasn’t brilliant but it wasn’t worse. A lot of the time I was just bored with it. I think the thing that changed really was just about my confidence. I just didn’t worry so much because I knew I could do it when I needed to. I think confidence was the thing that changed everything – making friends, getting away from home, getting a bit of pocket money, taking my painting seriously. I think before I just couldn’t think about any of it because it all seemed too complicated and like I was just this useless weird child who’d just get it all wrong again but now I didn’t worry about any of that. I knew I could do it at least as well as any of the others so I just relaxed and got on with it.’
‘And I bet you were more popular with the other kids too, as a result.’
‘I was. It was very cool, and I remembered enough of what I had been like to really appreciate it too.’