1: YOU KNOW MY NAME
I remember very clearly the first time I ever got any attention for writing. It was on the first day of primary school. I actually recall very little about starting primary school itself but I do have it in my head that my first teacher was extremely old. Not unlike that scene in Psycho in which we are first introduced to Norman’s mother.
What happened was, I was so bored - possibly after being swamped with a dull monologue on how children were expected to behave like it was still 1943 - that I took to drooling on the desk in front of me, creating a small pool of spit-ink and smartly writing my name in it.
For this, my reward was to stand outside the classroom which (presumably) I was quite upset about. I was a quite a sensitive kid after all. Disciplined for being the only one in class who could write their name on the first day of school? It seems as wrong to me now as it did then.
That aside, primary school was the best of times. I had some good friends there - not that I’ve seen any of them since I moved to another school a couple of years later - and that was because we moved house and not because I couldn’t keep my drool in my mouth.
There was a strange event during this time in which the headmaster - who was called ‘Pop’, though time has also taught me that this possibly wasn’t his real name - pulled me and my friend Paul from a morning assembly queue and told us that if we picked up all the litter in the school yard, he would give us a money belt. Why he would want to give us a money belt, I don’t know. Was that going to be one each or something we would have to share?
A money belt. That’s what I heard.
Imagine my disappointment then, with the schoolyard spotless of crisps packets and Cresta bottles (it’s frothy man), we reported back and got nothing but a nicotine stained finger telling us to get back to class.
All these years later, I still wonder what really happened that morning. Was I lied to? Did I mishear? Did I hear what I wanted to hear? I never wanted a money belt before (or after) that morning, so why I would choose to mishear such a thing is a mystery. Either way, there was no money to be had, inside of a belt or out.
This incident, far more than the dribbling, was my first experience in how authority could wield a power over me that was totally unnecessary.
I’m a decent guy - and I was a decent kid too. If he’d simply asked me to clean up the yard, I would have volunteered out of respect because that’s how things were in our house. Instead, what I heard was a lie in exchange for good work and that’s more or less how I’ve seen the world turn since then.
Sometime during the second year of primary school - shortly after I had moved to the new school - a new kid started. I don’t remember what his first name was but his surname was Tobianski. Despite sounding Polish or maybe Czech, he was Australian - or at least that’s what he told everybody. You don’t question things too much at that age. He was popular from day one and this became mildly frustrating because my first week was not the same as his by a long stretch.
I cried on the first day and a kid named Kevin was assigned to me to show me where everything was. He showed me where to hang my coat and on that first day, I sat next to him in class like a stone content to let the river of the day wash over me. The only real interactive moment we shared was when he showed me the outside school toilets, which, we both agreed, was a good place to visit as infrequently as possible due to the things that may or may not, live in there.
Tobianski on the other hand was one of the cool kids. Turns out he was pretty good on the football field which is an automatic ten points with boys, girls, teachers and probably even homeless people in Chile. Even his hair was cool - in direct contrast to my own Sagittarius hair that did its own thing at every available opportunity.
His clothes were cooler than mine. He could make a 1974 brown zig-zag, zip-up cardigan look like it was made to measure. The best I could manage in one was looking like my grandfather. If there’s a ‘cool’ gene, Tobianski had it. Some are born with it. The rest of us are either too stupid to be aware of this or blindly spend the rest of our lives trying to figure it out.
Years later, I heard that he had gone on to try out for a premier league football team but it didn’t work out so well and he could now be found mixing cement on a building site. Not that one is more noble than the other in my eyes but those are the kinds of things that people talk about when you’ve left school.
As we shall come to see, both of these things were a lie.
For what it’s worth, I did stay friends of a kind with Kevin right up to and through big school. Turns out, he was pretty cool in his own way and now works for either Texaco or BP as some big shot chemist. Cool comes in many guises and sometimes doesn’t manifest itself until years have passed.
It’s easy to look back now and see how things were and would come to pass. Tobianski would play football hoping it was something he could do for the rest of his life, Kevin more than likely played with a chemistry set under the covers hoping that one day he could make money by doing it for real.
Me? I guess this story needs to play itself out for you to see how seeing what shouldn’t be seen can save the world. At the very least, the world I live in.
There are also occasions in life in which you hope the Gods will throw you a bone. Such a morning existed at school just before the end of term. The headmaster was dishing out canings in the assembly hall. As we filed in, who should we find standing front of stage but Tobianski. His crime? Spitting. With the dribbling incident not far from my mind as we were all given a lecture about this disgusting habit, I actually felt some sympathy for him. It must be hard being the cool kid who slipped on a rung when he was almost at the top.
Both palms were outstretched in front of him and then came six strikes of the cane in quick succession. The bastard didn’t even flinch as the willow whipped through the air with a thin whistle and welted his palms. Not even once. Not even as he was dismissed from the stage. He kept his eyes front the whole time and calmly walked from the hall.
Maybe he hadn’t slipped on the rung at all. Maybe he had just been given a free ride in a cable car to the top of Mount Doom. Authority had screwed over my sense of justice again. Not that I would have traded places with him for all the cool points in the world. I was no street kid from the other side of the world. I was the kid who liked killing time with his grandfather pulling vegetables from out of the garden.
But there were some things that I was better at than others - reading for example. Not a classy ‘girls throw themselves at your feet’ kind of skill, granted - but it got me through some rough patches and when we had to bring our own books in from home, while everybody else seemed happy flaunting their age appropriate titles, I made a big deal of a very simple thing by arming myself with a copy of a Roy Rogers adventure, then The Mabinogion and the week after, a Simon Templar novel by Leslie Charteris. Whatever message I was trying to send, they got it loud and clear. I was never asked to read again and left to my own literary devices in the corner. Again, not something that was exactly going to propel me into the cool club but I was getting used to the hints I was dropping never hitting the ground.
Luckily, there were kids much lower down than me on the ladder. There was the kid who peed his pants in morning assembly - he never got over that. It haunted him through school until the day he left and maybe it still does. There was the kid who impaled his testicles on a railing spike while retrieving a football and there was the kid who lived up the street from me who was such a geek, he later spent an entire summer holiday building a life size version of Doctor Who’s K9 out of mahogany. It was quite an achievement, but still.
He was also the only kid who outstripped me with books, having read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. These were obviously very appropriate books and not frowned upon in the same way that cowboys, welsh legends and international thieves were.
Then there was the kid whose personal hygiene was so bad, I never saw him with a friend. Ever. After we had left school, I heard different stories about him too. One was that he was now a wealthy property developer, the other that he had killed himself. I guess both could be true.
Finally, there was the kid who was born with a hole in his heart. We called him ‘Polo’ - affectionately of course. I don’t know what his real name was and I’m not sure I ever did.
As for the girls? I don’t remember much about them really. There was one girl whose head was way too big for her body and she was the first kid I knew who wore a bra - at primary school! Talk about out of control genes. I found out what happened to her a few months back. Nothing at all happened to her. She still lives in the same street she grew up in and had a couple of kids who will more than likely do exactly the same. Nothing wrong with that if it’s what you want - I just don’t get why most people are content to live such small lives when there are storms to be pulled from the sky.
My two primary schools both had one thing in common - and that was a very distinctive smell. It must have been some kind of industrial cleaner or disinfectant because every now and again, I’ve come across it outside of there - normally in a hospital and it sends me right back there every single time. This, along with the smell of chimney smoke in the eager beginnings of autumn, are my two favourite smells from being small.
People should look after their noses. Sometimes you can smell when something is wrong long before you see or hear it.