Oh, woe is me.
The main problem with accepting that there is a crossed wire or two inside my head is that I accept it completely. Things go wrong and I point to the faulty wiring. My wife tuts, even though she has come to the opinion that I was never, ever, quite right. She has been reading some of the stuff that I have written and I have watched the dawning glow of realisation coming over her.
“Why didn’t anybody tell me that you were like this when I married you? I bet your family couldn’t keep their faces straight at the wedding.”
Actually, retrospect points me to all those faces that were not straight. Did she know what she was letting herself in for? Well, yes and no. So, here we are awaiting another car crash and it’s my birthday and I am feeling, well I’m feeling quite normal…so that’s the problem.
During the day, people have been wishing me well. My mother phoned up and wished me a happy birthday. My younger sister phoned and had a relatively long conversation. I put a fairly carefree tone into my voice realising that I was not being completely truthful. It’s difficult, however, to not kid yourself about yourself when you’ve been kidding yourself ever since you were born. My dad used to say, “Never kid a kidder,” but I must not have been listening.
To celebrate being another year older, I was going out for a cycle ride with my neighbour who is of the same age as me but is profoundly more successful. He’s a scientist working for a pharmaceutical company and seems to be always indifferently happy. I envy him that. His wife is the same and, having given up the rat race in which she was even more successful than her spouse, she now works at Tesco, stacking shelves whilst being happy. Oh, well. I could never imagine either of them falling into the psychological chasms that I have done. The bottom line is that I like these two, a lot. Decent people, the pair of them. So where did it all go wrong?
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury:
Mi Lord, you will be aware that it was the day that was set aside to celebrate the time of my birth. I cycled with my neighbour and he beat me up a steep hill. The new me told the old me that this didn’t matter, even if I considered myself the far stronger cyclist. It did not matter! Shake that mother of all competitiveness from your bones, old man and just enjoy the ride.
So far, so good….
However what began as a seed of optimism, for my long-awaited return to normality, ended with me at three o’clock the following morning, head in hands, bemoaning my crossed stars and the ill-fortune that decided to make me an emotional and social half-wit.
Alcohol had been involved. Alcohol and a mitigating mixture of anxiety-quelling drugs. The drugs kept me calm and the alcohol made me think that everything would be alright, considering that I was a normal fifty-five year old enjoying the company of my wife and two lovely neighbours come to wish me a happy birthday. I can’t remember when the lights went out. I must have been still sitting and talking when something flicked inside. One moment I was providing non-mellifluent accompaniment to my fellow cyclist’s incredibly good guitar playing and the next I was turning over in bed, actually on top to the duvet, fully clothed, without a wife at the side of me.
I struggled through the shallows of waking, against the rocks of oncoming realisation and went in search of my missing spouse. I found her in our middle daughter’s bedroom, sleeping on a mattress on the floor.
I tiptoed tentatively in and enquired as to her health and wellbeing.
“You should be ashamed of yourself. You need a doctor or an AA group. What possessed you to start swearing at our neighbours like that?”
I was dumbstruck. My first thoughts were that she was having a vivid dream. We had been sitting, eating and convivially drinking to each and everyone’s good health and somehow I had fallen asleep, still fully clothed whilst my wife had wandered into our daughter’s bedroom and fallen asleep on the spare mattress.
“Swearing?” I managed, weakly.
“Yes, bloody swearing. Can’t you remember calling Howard a (at this point I have to apologise for the oncoming profanity) something? You called Julie a something too. In fact you said that they were a set of somethings. I’m surprised that they didn’t leave.”
It was no time to split linguistic hairs but I did.
“Something? You sure I said Something?”
“You silly bastard, you really can’t remember anything, can you? You have got to do something about that drinking of yours in social situations.”
I had fallen, and how.
Why did I never see it when it was standing there all the time?
It’s a few days later and I am back at work; Eastonsea on brown water. I have just spent almost one hour on what could at other times be called a pleasant journey but as a day’s teaching lay ahead of me, the journey did not get the four stars that it may have been expecting.
As I pulled up into the car park of the school, Kevin, another supply teacher was unpacking his car. We are both about the same age which makes us a set of dinosaurs in the corporate world of modern education. Neither of us wants to be here. We are jobbing teachers, paid on a daily rate. The difference is that Kevin just lives around the corner so his journey lasts for about ten minutes, if he gets caught in traffic.
I have been assured that there is traffic in this coastal town that is situated just beyond the back of beyond. I have never seen it but one of my students told me about how peaceful the town was unless it was rush hour. Horns blared angrily, windows would be wound down in frustration and harsh words exchanged. Then everyone goes back to sleep again.
Being only a couple of years older than me, Kevin has a similar outlook. We get through the day, each day at a time. We don’t take any of the bullshit as the fertiliser for our personal professional growth nor do we launch ourselves into the communal pool of positive social interaction. Kevin talks a lot more to our English colleagues than I do, but he is that type of decent chap whereas I am probably not. Although I understand the need to be positive, I find it almost impossible to be so. Lately, I have been considering the possibility of me spinning off the road, landing upside down in a ditch and not being discovered until some future civilisation decides to build a set of eco-toilets on my resting place. Just what would the archaeologists make of me?
DNA samples would show me to be well into my fifth decade. I will have been moderately healthy with no life-threatening issues. If, and I strongly believe that it will be possible, they could test for a modicum of madness, then I would be a dead cert. The reason why I left such a quiet country road at such an hour in the morning was sadness. I had spent decades being sad. It was fact of my existence. Mix that with innocent socialising and a drop too much of the vino and you get regret. And a view point that sometimes couldn’t see the point. Long live my eco-toilet tomb.
Forget stray asteroids the size of football pitches. Forget super-immune viruses. Forget the rise of the walking dead. The end of the world as we know it could arrive one Sunday afternoon, post lunch, post BREXIT, and post Trump nuclear warfare. It could arrive in one overly long snooze in which the drinking classes clock off for ever.
So, this elephant is looking at me.
Do elephants have expressions? It’s looking at me with its two, too tiny eyes and its flappy ears. I am not sure if it’s come from Africa or Asia as there is no existing quota for such id-related apparitions; yet. So, I stare back at it and it speaks with the voice of my wife, who this morning pointed out the same beast in our bedroom. It was another of those deep morning conversations in which she discusses lots of the issues that she feels need discussing. We haven’t got over the neighbour thing yet, or, more to the point, we haven’t got over the elephant that was standing in front of our neighbours, excreting on the floor.
She started off with my pension. A low blow but perfectly understandable. I haven’t got much of a pension based on the false hypothesis that I would never grow old enough to need one. I am in need of one now.
I never listened to my dad when he said, “No matter what you think of yourself in terms of energy, when you get past a certain age, nature kicks in. You get tired. You become weary of the day to day routine. You stop believing that anything is possible. You even get a little fed up with yourself.”
My wife was right and I was wrong. Everyone who has ever spoken to me will agree with my comeuppance.
Forty came as a shock. Fifty; less so.
Now fifty-five has sat itself down at my table just when I thought I had it in the bag, but no! Fifty-five is the neither here nor there age. It’s being stranded on a beach as the tide starts to come in and you look out to it thinking that there is still some time to go before it reaches you, but as you are thinking that, you look around and see the safety of the sea wall and it is so very far away. No matter how fast you run, how hard you push yourself, the sea will always be that little bit faster and it will reach you before you reach safety.
“If I was in your shoes, I would leave me and get myself a better prospect for a healthy retirement. Honest. Look at me, what a fuck-wit. Nobody would blame you. In fact everyone would understand. Poor woman having to put up with him all of her life; when she could have done so much better. Even I think that.”
She gave me one of her you sad, pathetic gits looks and told me not to say stuff like that. I was being silly.
“Yes, that’s just the point. I am silly. I’m barking, round the bend and useless. I have an idea. Why don’t you just indulge my addiction and feed me a bottle of vodka each breakfast and another for supper. That way, you’ll only have a good eighteen months left of me. That’s a winner.”
My pension-pot ought to be placed beneath my bed for those really cold nights when a trip to the toilet is so unpleasant that it is almost out of the question.
“What are you going to do?” She asks.
In the past, there would have been a glass half-full response. It would have shot back at her in a toothy grin of self-confidence. It would have said something like, “I always think of something, don’t I?” But this morning the something was snatched from my sails before it had left port.
“And I’m past thinking that your writing will provide a lottery win.” Ouch! “You just write and never send things off. How on earth are you going to reach an audience if it always stays in your laptop?”
It’s probably a characteristic of types like me (and you, if you are reading this) that we prevaricate, procrastinate and generally prevent ourselves from doing things in case we truly fail. And the significant one is right. I am afraid of failure and my fear has been growing year upon year. My launching myself in different directions is not the work of an unfettered adventurer but is more concerned with the hastily constructed escape plans of one who sees his short-fallings as publically damnable and the possible source of ridicule. Now that I am in a corner, one that cannot be sidestepped, I don’t know what to do. My options have run out. I do not even have the simple choice of fight or flight.
Hoisted by my own petard.
I am looking across my teacher’s desk at a book I read to some students yesterday. It was World Book Day and one of the more vigorous and self-servingly strident female teachers, had organised for the department a chance to dress up as fictional characters to capture the imagination of those kids who wouldn’t read. I drew a big C on a piece of A4 and came as myself; The Old Man and the C. And, yes, I had to explain it. One guy thought that I had come as a character called ‘something’ and I could see his point. Others dressed as you would expect, projections of themselves. There was: Titania (queen of the fairies); an unusually orange Fagin, which did cause me to have some confusion, my newly found buddy dressed as Arthur Dent whom none of the kids had ever heard of; then there was Daisy from The Great Gatsby. The latter was the young woman who sought to rule the department. It did strike me that all of us secretly consider ourselves to be something other than what we are. There were lots of kids dressed up as themselves and there were decorated classroom doors but no visiting writers. That bit seemed to have escaped any notice.
Oh, I am looking at the book again: Skellig.
I read Skellig a long time ago and it struck me as a wonderful work of literature. It was the type of book I wanted to write. Simple yet complex, a children’s book yet one that could reward an adult reading. It must have left a deep impression on me because it not only seemed to shape some of my ideas towards my own book but also foreshadowed the purchase of our current and most important home. So, as I look across my desk and see this book, by the wonderful David Almond, things begin to click.
Skellig is one of those premier children’s books that I think of as a threshold text. It is about a young boy who moves, with his family, to a new house in a different part of his town. The house that they move into is almost derelict and belonged to a hermit who died alone and unloved. The family includes the boy, his mother, father and little baby sister who is very ill. In the ancient garage, a place that should have been demolished, lives an old man, barely alive and dubiously human. It could be described as a coming-into-awareness novel, a book about angels, a work about hope or a modern fairy tale. It is all of these and something more. I decided that it was time that I read this to my class of Year 7s.
The class is a nurture group with a mixture of literacy and emotional issues. One lad, my favourite, keeps making loud squawking sounds and never fails to inform me and the rest of his group about how bored he can sometimes get during the lesson. I thought I would risk it, having heard a respected, and best-selling, kids writer say that reading to children and young adults is just as enriching as them having to read. I read Skellig and my class listened with intent.
It’s odd that an activity such as this so rarely goes on these days. It’s wrong that teachers have been dissuaded from fostering the love of the written word with their passion for the spoken word. Books, books, books; I love them. I love reading them. I love falling into the pages of somebody else’s world and forgetting about my own. I love the feel of books and I love the smell of them. I love to be around them and to open old ones to allow a name of the original keeper to reveal itself, or a note to fall out. I have an ancient collection of the complete works of Shakespeare which is nice in itself. However, what makes it special is the fact that the binding has been made out of some older tome. I have only revealed a little of it for fear of overly damaging either of the texts, but my glimpse at the hidden text revealed a sort of ledger written in a fine hand; just one of the treasures of books.
Anyway, I began reading Skellig to my Year 7s and I heartened by their response. Like my complete works of Shakey, Skellig has lots of hidden extras that reward the reading and the re-reading.
On a wet afternoon on the far-flung coast of East Yorkshire, it is a pearl of a read.
Reading for enjoyment. Reading because it is there. Yet there was something else that I came across as I was reading that book; a retrospective déjà-vu. I hadn’t realised just how much of our lives had been written in the books belonging to others. Like the young boy’s family, we too moved into a house that had grown ancient around its hermit-like owner. He may not have died there, but we are pretty sure that something else had. And it was in our new-old-derilict-dwelling that I finished my first book. In The Piper another family moves into a run-down property only for the world to turn against them.
Reading and writing and huge coincidences or just plain copying, take your pick?
I can see my dead father’s head shaking in disbelief; he was never taken by flights of fancy.