I’m sick today. Not life-threateningly sick, just bad enough that I didn’t even want to get out of bed. So here is the story I wrote for the Story Guide podcast. If you want the “behind the scenes” on this one, you’ll just have to listen to the original episode, I’m afraid…
It’s a hot day, the sun’s beating down on me.
Exams are coming and the day has been long. Revision, revision, revision, going over again and again subjects I already feel I know. Either bored at the regurgitated knowledge, or despairing at the lack of knowledge.
And then the bus home.
For five years the bus has been a particular lowlight of the day. The screamers at the back, always play fighting. Remember the glass ornament on the school trip, I ask myself? I nod. After half an hour of throwing my bag around, it was powder.
The worst part of the bus is looking away. Some farmer’s son with fists like hams and rocks for brains decides someone looks at him the wrong way and must be punished. Besides, that’s what swots are for: they’re not going to inherit the farm, so who needs them? He doesn’t need them, or their knowledge, doesn’t need them except as a punchbag, as a plaything. And look the other way or you’ll be next.
I sigh. The bus itself is old. Must be from the mid-60s at least, but without the charm. No “I hate you, Butler” here: no laughing. Not on this bus.
I remember the weeks of being isolated. Travel sickness will do that to you. If I hadn’t been sitting behind the German teachers and been sick on their notes, I wouldn’t have got that seat all to myself. Nobody else dared sit next to me. It was bliss.
I look into the bus. The usual suspects are there. Punches are thrown. Screaming.
I look down. One foot is on the step.
“No,” I say to myself, softly. “Not today.”
And I start walking.
I can do walking, I’m good at it – at least, I am now. As a kid I had a problem with my spine. It bent over. I felt sick all the time if I tried to stand up. Two years of a day every six months stripped down to underwear being x-rayed, talked about by consultants as if I wasn’t there, cold and miserable. And that resulted in a built-up shoe. More bullying. But I could walk.
I turn, head away from the bus down the lane. On my left, the stark brutalist concrete of the 1970s British comprehensive; on my right, the dry stone wall of the rural Devon idyll. This, I think, will be easy. And I marvel that I’ve lived in this area for five years, and never walked this. I don’t know why. It seems short. I just walk down here, turn right past the garage, then left past the hardware shop and I’m almost there. Easy.
It feels nice to take a break. Right now, I’m not the one they don’t pick for the football team. I’m not the one they picked my fat friend first and the other team said “we’ve lost”. I’m the master of my own destiny.
And as though called forth by my own thoughts, there he is – my friend who get teased for his fat belly, reading a novel at the bus stop. How do you defend someone against that? “I’ve eaten his mother’s cooking,” I said. “You’d be fat too.” It doesn’t work: they always came up with something. The changing rooms are the cruellest: anyone with a small penis is at the bottom of the ladder, just below anyone who hasn’t grown pubic hair yet. I just try not to get involved, on either side.
We talk for a bit. It feels good: we haven’t really done this for a long time. We haven’t had chance. Life is revision, exams and panic. He wants to be a writer, writing war novels like Sven Hassel. We both know this won’t happen, that he’ll go into the ambulance service, because he’s already halfway there having been a volunteer for years. Not only did he correct the teacher doing CPR training, he then took over the class and explained why the training was out of date. He was good at it too.
I turn to the right, down the main street. It’s heading for four now, just over half an hour since I left the school. They changed the hours to start at eight thirty a while back; my chronic insomnia never forgave them. Still, it means finishing earlier.
I start walking. The park is on my right and there’s a few kids there playing football, or just running around hiding in the bushes (hide and seek? Yeah, that’s going down). I alternate between them and monitoring my progress by the petrol station. I think it’s the only one in town, for a good few miles at least. Some of the locals go out of their way to go and save maybe 2p on a gallon of petrol and why? Are they willing to drive all that way just to save ten pence? Is their live of so little value? Or, alternatively, will they use more money in fuel than they save money? I toss that puzzler around while I walk down.
I don’t really remember the park as being so big, but eventually it ends. There’s the road that leads to my friend’s house. On the left, the old cinema that’s now a sweet shop. That always bothered me. I never had much of a sweet tooth, but I’d have been in the cinema all the time, especially if they showed silent movies. It rankled with me. But that’s the perils of what in America they’d call “small-town living”.
I cross the road over to the Gateway supermarket. It always looks downmarket, dull and scruffy. I’ve never been in; shopping is usually something that happens while I’m at school. I’m not going in now; the crossing is here and if I don’t cross here I have three other roads to cross, so it saves time.
I look at my watch and it’s already later than I thought. Past four. For some weird reason, I thought I would be home by now.
I’m walking past the hardware shop – I’ve been in dozens of times, among the pans and screws and hammers and tools and useful things I can’t even tell you the name. Past the newspaper shop where I had my short-lived job as a paper delivery boy: after three days of delivering newspapers to all the wrong houses, I quit before they fired me.
I keep walking. Past the houses. I don’t go down the street I used to live on, before the financial crash. It hurts a bit too much to see that comfortable little house, with its thatched roof, and think of someone living in it who paid so little on a loan my parents will be paying for years yet.
The sun is blazing down. I’m beginning to sweat, wearing my big coat, maroon final year jumper and white school shirt. I can’t not wear the coat. I feel the cold too much.
Slowly, town gives way to country, which gives way to seaside. Urban roadsides melt into grassy banks and into sand dunes as I float along the roads and up the hill.
The view from the top of the crest on the road is marvellous, looking down into the bay, watching the rolling waves crash onto the beach, the surfers riding with practised ease. I don’t want to go further up the hill because it’s steep, and looks dangerous. Falling straight onto the road into the way of a passing car would not be a good idea, given there is no space here for pedestrians. Still, this is a piece of road I’ve been up and down thousands of times and never stopped to look. And onwards I go.
Downhill is much easier, and eventually some space reappears where I can walk away from the oncoming traffic. The surfers stop being blobs and start turning into actual people. One of them notices me.
“Hey – have you walked all the way from school?”
“Yeah,” I reply, straining a little over the waves. “I just couldn’t stand the bus today.”
“Wow,” he shook his head. “I couldn’t do that.”
He took his surfboard and went back into the sea. To my surprise, I’d impressed one of the “cool kids”.
The rest of the walk now took me another twenty minutes. The familiar lanes, past the post office, the shop, the pubs , until I got to the new estate where my landlord and landlady lived.
“You’re late,” she said.
“I missed the bus,” I lied. “Had to walk.”
And that was it. No questions, no repercussions.
And nothing had changed, and yet everything had changed. I had changed. For once, I had proven to myself that I can do it: I’m stubborn, not easily defeated, and I’m not afraid to take the hard way out. I’m not defined by what other people think of me, only what I think of myself.
Looking back now, I realise it’s one of those many lessons nobody else can teach you about yourself. Nobody else can tell you who you are, or where your strengths lie.
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