Dermot sat at the same table every day. He rocked his torso and rolled his head aimlessly, humming and hawing in intense conversation that always looked so meaningful, except nobody else was anywhere near him. I couldn't sit with Dermot again. I had already witnessed two epileptic fits in class, the second of which bloodied my nose as his seizure flung him rigid to the side, his oversized helmet catching me square in the face as I instinctively turned my body to support him. His fits seemed so random, so completely out of nowhere. Even as a ten year old, I pondered what it must be like to live in such continual fear. My heart felt heavy with guilt every time I saw him. Eventually he left school for a more suitable learning environment, much to everyone's delight, including the teachers whose collective relief was reflected in their improved attitude toward our raised hands and inane giggling. His empty chair stayed empty, as if not to tempt some similar eventuality. To me, its image became a cruel epitaph to his time at school. I know I didn't try hard enough with him, as a kid I couldn't describe the feeling I got when glancing at his table. In adulthood, I recognise that feeling to be shame.
Not by choice, I was seated permanently with Ben in class. A gangly boy with an attitude problem, the kind of kid an adult would describe as having a chip on his shoulder and likely the son of a salesman, given his stingy lunch-box swaps. Always two of my things for one of his. I lost a lot of puppy fat in year 5 of junior school, my mothers strawberry compote sandwiches were swapped regularly with carrot and cucumber sticks. Ben, trading beans for cattle, became wide and unwieldy. His neatly cut hair, rose red cheeks and seemingly inexhaustible supply of pristine uniform, belied his stupidity. I detested every word that came from his mouth, especially when he sensed weakness or unease. Dermot was always easy pickings for Ben, a quick fix when verbally torturing other kids became too challenging for his limited intellect.
months into the school year, still sat with Ben, the headmaster
introduces our new teacher, Mrs Tapscott. The unruly class gradually
quietened to total silence as she sat at the piano with her tilted
head resting on the palm of her hand, smiling broadly. Mrs Tapscott
never had to ask for silence, her kind eyes and smile encouraged
compliance in a way the headmasters red-faced bellowing could never
achieve in school assemblies. She was a new breed of teacher. Absent
were the fire and brimstone hand waving demands for respect, instead
she adopted teaching principles that gently informed you of your
responsibilities, delivered in parabolic tales that seemed to have
been gathered from every corner of the earth and for every possible
indiscretion. For the first time in most of our young lives, we were
allowed an opinion and to form interpretation born of our own
discoveries and not those of our parents. Commonly held working class
principles became malleable and made way for versions of our elders
stories that were rooted in love, not fear. Ben, of course, saw no
sense in anything she had to say.
Our return from half-term holiday came with changes. The tables and teaching apparatus had been moved into a semi-circle and Dermot's table had been assimilated somewhere within the new arrangement. Ben's eyes widened as he closed in on the space next to mine and with typically irreverent ardour declared 'who will be sat at the spastic table?' Spastic was not a new word to me, my father had referred to me regularly as a spastic whilst shaking his hands limply from the wrist and moving his eyes upward, usually when I had returned from the shops with something similar to what I had been sent to get, but wasn't quite what was asked for. I understood it to mean a person with limited mental capability. I knew how it made me feel, I knew that Mrs Tapscott would feel hurt by its use. She turned her head in our direction, looked at me warmly and smiled.DAD
The telephone never rang at home, and if it did, someone had died. I expected this call to inform us of the death of my grandad who had recently undergone a cataracts operation, a minor surgery inflated in importance by the neurosis of my mother. My sister and I sat cross legged in silence as dad pushed on his thick forearms to lift himself out of the armchair and lumber toward the telephone. The receiver disappeared in his huge hand and looked as if he was holding just a fist to his ear. He answered in the same way he greeted people at the door, on the radio at work and whenever I looked like I had a question but wasn't brave enough to disturb his peace.'Yeah?' he barked. He turned his torso and the eye that I could see was looking up and down at me. I knew that look. I got the same one when I broke the shed door.
I knew nothing of my fathers history. Nothing about his parents and very little about his surviving brothers and sisters. Our extended family were distant, a select few gathering once yearly at Christmas in awkward silence. I remember a girl running over to me at school before the Christmas holidays, announcing that we were cousins. I had never seen her before. After sheepishly approaching my father with questions, I learned that my uncle Tom lived two streets away. Not wanting to push my luck with dad, I quizzed my mother and discovered we had six uncles and aunts living in the same town, all of them with children. It wasn't until my fathers death 30 years later that I discovered he and his siblings were subject to the tyranny of an alcoholic father, a shared trauma that bound them together as young people, but separated them as adults for fear of any discussion about experiences that they all took decades to recover from. In adulthood, I understood his demeanour. As a child, he was more frightening to me than any closet lurking monster could possibly be. Mum had an easy time of it whilst he was a work, the appearance of his hulking silhouette at our open bedroom door when returning from a late shift and having received a rundown of the days events, was enough to keep us all in line. Father was a senior detective for Surrey Police. A couple of visits to his place of work impressed upon me the need to communicate clearly with him, especially when you are in the wrong. Hard but fair was the crux of the collective eulogy on his life from peers at his funeral.
He never looked more like a policeman than he did looking at me with the phone in his hand. Despite his casual wear, I saw him in his uniform. I knew I was in for some questions, but also that I had done nothing wrong and that he would know I was telling the truth. I couldn't maintain any lie, my right eyebrow would wobble with the stress.
'Did he?, hang on a sec.' he said, placing the receiver on his chest, he turned to fully face me.
'Did you call some kid a spastic?'
At first, I made no connection between the claim and what had happened at school. I wracked my brain for answers. After an uncomfortable pause, it dawned on me what was happening. I spoke angrily in response.
'No. That wasn't me, that was Ben Arness'
My fathers face immediately turned into a half smile and he placed the receiver back to his ear.
'He says he didn't. Looks like he's telling the truth to me.'
His responses seemed so abstract, I couldn't work out what was being discussed. He then looked directly at my sister with his smile broadening.
'We were looking at a permanent place like that for him anyway, we caught him sucking a door handle when he was five.'
My sister blurted out a laugh and pushed me to one side. The event referred to, brought up as often as it could remain funny, made me embarrassed.
'Yeah, that's fine by me. Okay. Thanks, bye.'
'What happened?' I asked.
'You my son, are going on a little field trip.'
We were driving somewhere in rural Surrey. A thick morning mist made visibility poor and there were several stops to allow deer crossing the road a safe path into the adjacent meadows. Mr Column, the school caretaker, was driving, with Mrs Tapscott in the front passenger seat. My father had warned of the potential for travel sickness, giving a detailed description at the school gate of the time I projectile vomited onto the back of his head as we drove toward our static caravan in Great Yarmouth. Before too long, I could feel my stomach churning. Every now and then, Mrs Tapscott would turn her head around, smile and ask if I was doing alright. I nodded, afraid that opening my mouth might encourage a now liquefied breakfast onto the back of Mr Columns head. In reality, I only ever vomited once in a car. My fathers reaction and tall storytelling had filled me with anxiety. On every subsequent journey my imagination worked overtime to convince me there would be an outrageous regurgitation event. I then imagined puking so violently that my face bursts with the pressure and organs are ejected all over the windscreen, sending us skidding off the road to our deaths. I needed the journey to be over.
We turned off a main road onto a shingle path. There were lightly wooded fields either side. I became distracted from my thoughts by the people tending to flowerbeds. Many were joyful, raising their hands and clapping. Some were just stood staring at others working. One man was very close to the car on the side I was sitting. I turned my head to look as we passed. His eyes seemed too small for his face and his jaw was large giving him a grimaced look. Correcting my posture, I began to look closer at others as we slowly rolled by. Most of them had a similar appearance. I looked forward and caught Mrs Tapscott watching me in the rear view mirror. There was no smile this time. I had no idea what was happening, but remember feeling dread, despite the effervescent vocables that could be heard all around me.
The car began to turn with the path and a grand house partially covered in red creepers, came into view. The car stopped, with Mrs Tapscott exiting without a word to either me or Mr Column. She disappeared into the open half of a thick wooden double door and returned seconds later pushing an old lady in a wheelchair. She waved me out of the car and as I approached asked me to introduce myself to Mrs Rabasandratana. Dad warned me about people that looked like the old lady, claiming I needed to stay away from them or I'd end up being turned into a toad. He called them Gypsies. Her face was pursed and looked like my grandad did when he removed his false teeth. Her jet black hair was visible through an untidily fitted headscarf and her dress was navy blue with white dots. I remember her bare feet looked remarkably young, with pristine toenails painted pink and entirely absent were the thick green veins visible on my own grandmothers feet. I sheepishly said hello, before Mrs Rabasandratana took my hand and shook it gently, speaking words in a language I didn't understand. I was asked to roll her back into the building, but didn't quite have the strength to push the wheels through the shingle. Mrs Tapscott was about to take over when Mrs Rabasandratana stood up and and skipped inside. I had no idea what to make of it, but instinctively looked behind me for the exit. Mr Column had already gone.