I’m working on a collection of stories with the theme of ‘Living with Learning Difficulties’. It shows the viewpoints of the different members of one family. The latest story below shows an experience in school from the perspective of an outsider. To read the first story which gives us an insight into the world of Margie, the Mother in ‘All Day Breakfast’ click here
The Barber of Our Lady’s
At primary school, I was ready with words. But I ended up writing and crying on the first day and I think that set the pattern for my life really. I drew out each letter of my name carefully, chewed on the pen, felt the uncomfortable plastic chair struggling even with my small frame. But I was ahead of myself, and unfortunately ahead of the teacher, Mrs Hedgerow, who hated me for it.
‘What are you doing you stupid little girl?’ she ripped the page of carefully formed letters from my desk and watched me cry.
Of course I was the opposite of stupid, especially in that school. Someone on my table had even started eating the paper like a rabbit. I had picked up the pen and passed six months of her lesson plans. School made me slow down.
Neil Thompson played tick with me on the first day he arrived. He turned up one day a couple of months into this madness, just out of the blue. Me, Neil and Jenny Roberts who had long golden hair and regularly wet herself, ran around the playground with a sense of freedom that later became unknown when the Rat Pack established themselves as the leaders of our school year.
Thomas O’Brien was the male lead and insisted on being called Uncle O’Brien by everyone, at the age of six. He ran a kind of playground ‘Sopranos’. Lisa Matthews, ran the WAGS section of this.
One day she made everyone sit down so she could cut their hair. I look back on that scene and see Lisa as the perfect camp commandant. She even had the listless eyes.
Snip, snip, snip. The teacher noticed two haircuts later. Jenny Roberts was the first victim. Yellow hair mixed with yellow wee. I was victim number two. I had been a willing victim.
Dad was livid. Absolutely did his nut. Mum told me I didn’t have to do things to fit in. I felt like telling her that nothing would help me fit in. I didn’t want to fit in with these people, playground Sopranos and Sweeny Todds like Lisa Matthews. Although I did really. The haircut was a moment of lonely madness. I did something far worse than the haircut anyway. I cut off Neil, not his short locks of brown hair, but his friendship, constant smiles and podgy hand ticking at my school jumper.
He was good at tick but not at anything else. The teacher had trouble pinning him down, getting his hand to fit around the pen, make letters on the page. A few weeks in and Neil was only coming to our school a couple of days a week, Our Lady of Martyrs, no one who came out of that school was a martyr believe me. We asked Mrs Hedgerow, we all referred to her as hedgehog more as childish simplicity than precociousness, where he went on those other days.
‘Bunny-rabbit school.’ she said, lips closed around the words inviting no questions.
Everyone was jealous. This made things worse for Neil.
He would be dropped off by taxi, walk up to the school entrance with a woman who was not his Mum, because she came at the end of the day, knock on it and be let in. He never came to morning playground. One day, the door opened before he could knock and a person came out. Rather than go in through the open door, he returned to the taxi and began the routine again. The woman would follow and say nothing.
We were the three misfits, except Jenny reshaped herself after the haircut. Nobody minded the occasional slip of wee through the knickers. She became a twat when she realised that was the way into the Rat Pack, losing locks was not enough to sustain her new position. She soon found it in Neil.
‘It’s cool this.’ Jenny said about the new line tick game we had invented.
’It’s not cool at all. I’m really warm.’ Neil had answered smiling.
Jenny laughed. ‘Haha he’s a mong.’
‘He must be a mong.’ That was the word on the playground. No one really understood it apart from that it was bad. Jenny was proud that she had brought this in. Lisa Matthews let her play with the Rat Pack. We were overheard.
‘Who taught you that word?’ Mrs Hedgehog asked, glasses on the end of her nose.
‘My Dad,’ she answered with unsure pride. A letter went home.
Neil loved art. I say art but we were all finger-painting nightmares. He used to draw attention to himself by refusing to wear the shirt to protect his clothing – the feeling of the fabric against his skin caused him distress. His parents agreed with his school that he can wear a loose-fitting apron instead.
‘Mrs Mong,’ Lisa Matthews called him. Everyone laughed. She said it just to us so that the teachers didn’t hear. I was one of the ‘us’ by that stage.
Even for those two days a week in Our Lady of Nutters, his life must have been hell. Neil tried to smile at everyone again even when the word didn’t leave.
‘Eee stay away from that big, fat mong.’
Uncle O’Brien pushed him away from the games. Neil looked at me hopefully, touched my arm in a tick. I looked away from him.
‘Are you with that mong?’ Lisa Matthews persisted.
‘No.’ I couldn’t look at Neil. I was allowed to join the game.
We were like cats on that tarmac playground, fought over territory and never helped each other out; line tick, running across the white lines while the boys kicked footballs past us and at us.
Neil’s Mum came to the school.
‘Georgina is your friend isn’t she?’ she said pointing at me. I wanted to be. But I wasn’t. Neil shook his head from side to side. His Mum wasn’t looking.
At dinner times Neil went back to the classroom and sat with the teacher. We sat in the canteen with lumpy mash and sad sausages, cakes that looked like they’d been around for too long, icing tainted with boredom, cherries that were glazed over instead of glazed, fudge cake that was fudged when being delivered and was always squashed against the plate, ice cream that drooped in bowls. I didn’t know what mong meant but it was bad. Neil’s smile faded.
Dinner time bullying was dished out for most people anyway.
‘Want a sweet?’
‘Suck your feet.’
‘What’s a mong?’ I got there before the letter. Mum had a pinny on which was layered with drawings of cakes and loaves of bread. She never cooked those things in her life. The deep fat fryer with its globs of white-yellow fat, the freezer with its ready food and the microwave were her main weapons.
‘Don’t use that word.’ She looked at me for a moment. ‘Who’s taught you that?’
‘Lisa Matthews was saying it in the playground.’ I lied. I couldn’t say it was Jenny. I invited Jenny around for tea instead of Neil. I wanted to be just like all the other kids, a cruel bastard.
‘Oh the barber of Our Lady’s learning new words now is she?’ Mum never liked Lisa Matthews.
‘Can I have a friend around for tea?’
Mum smiled, thinking I meant Neil. She must have thought that I was turning over a new leaf.
When I was younger I just thought things had to be. I didn’t know about choice. I didn’t know that I could be friends with Neil anyway if I wanted to be. Jenny enjoyed tea at mine but Mum would’ve had Jamie Oliver in tears. We had hot dogs from the tin warmed in the pan and chips cooked in a deep, fat fryer. There was no mention of salad. If it couldn’t be frozen, deep-fat fried or microwaved it could feck off basically. But I loved that style of tea. My lunchbox which was only ever healthy, fruit and sandwiches. The only benefit was that years later when I laughed I had no fillings and all my own teeth.
Neil was beaten up in a park when he was fifteen. I imagined him smiling at the wrong people and the next thing finding himself on the ground in a ball taking punches. His face was in the Liverpool Echo, black and blue and unsmiling. What they didn’t mention was what happened next. His Mum met mine in ASDA buying Alphabites for deep-fat frying. We got the story from her. Neil had walked, crawled or whatever he must have done to the local youth club that he had started going to. It was in a rough area; it had bouncers that gobbed at the pavement and glared at newcomers. They liked Neil because he was so straight-forward. They found him funny. When they saw him arrive that night battered with blood streaming from his mouth where a smile usually formed, they went vigilante. Neil told them what had happened as they called an ambulance then a group of them tore down to the park and found the first gang they encountered and proceeded to break their faces, kick at their bodies. I prayed, which I never do now but I did for this, that they’d got the right people.
Our punishment in Our Lady’s all those years before was that we all had to go to church and repent for using the awful word. We all had to go to church with school anyway so they made that up for a start. No one really minded so it didn’t feel like a punishment. Even Lisa Matthews loved her Communion dress so she wanted to practice for the ‘ceremony’. A letter went home still. The school secretary typing out that word that ostracized Neil and copying it out again and again for the parents to say in their heads or out loud at home, cutting into their lives for a brief moment.