Up the stairs – ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, Yes! Here it was. It was still here.
The private place of quietude. Of introversion. Of pleasant melancholy. Where one could be sane and get away with it. The thing was (he thought, as he listened to the far-off squealings of clarinets and saxophones several carpeted floors below him), if the place wasn’t here – had never been here – he would have gone off and found somewhere else which fit the bill, because it was important. Important, for the reason that it was profoundly un-important.
He wriggled his feet, and off slid his trainers. They were grey, pallid things, though they had formerly been white. He sat on his favourite chair in the Place; it was the only chair. It was high-backed, lime green… and it swivelled. As he thought, he swivelled, and as he swivelled he thought, frowning.
As a door on the same floor he was on swung open and a man, close yet out of sight, coughed, he thought: the place was unimportant to them. Them, you know, them. The guys his age who knew how to talk to girls. The girls his age who knew how to be a unit among units, fellow vessels of flesh and chatter. Them. For them, the place lacked panache and pizazz, it must, and anyhow it was sixty steps and six floors up so why (they might ask) would anyone make the journey in the first place? By themselves? Alone?
He knew why someone might make the journey because he himself made it frequently. As of yet, nobody else had, which was unfortunate. Expected, but unfortunate. Here were the hard facts: he didn’t enjoy school a bit. It wasn’t exactly a secret, because ‘it’ showed on his face. What was ‘it’? ‘It’ was anticipation. ‘It’ was, in its own delightful little way, fear. ‘It’ seemed to suggest ‘I don’t think you want to be friends with me. Don’t even come near me. If you don’t talk to me, I’m not going to talk to you, so that’s fine. No need to worry!’ All that, in one anticipative, fearful expression. That was the Way. But he knew that he would shuffle in every day and stick at it because it was important to.
Wasn’t it silly (he thought, swivelling), to avoid education? To deliberately refuse it in the belief it wasn’t meaningful in one’s life, not important? Well (he thought, swivelling and frowning), he had quite recently heard about something relevant: he had termed it The Case of the Snooker Player and his Stupid Brain. That would make for an interesting movie title, wouldn’t it?
What had happened was this: he’d read on BBC News that some snooker player had left school at sixteen. Left, because he’d known what he was going to be since he was four years old – a snooker player, and a really, really good one – and nobody (he had reasoned) needed a C grade in Maths to play really good snooker, and win money and trophies and whatever else came with Fame. This snooker player (he’d read on BBC News last year in February, or perhaps March), had left school with this overwhelming and admirable belief that he was going to make it big with snooker, and no education was needed. And what happened to this chap? He practiced, and he practiced, and he won money, and he held up trophies and smiled for the cameras, and he (presumably) got whatever else came with his Fame. The good stuff. All this, despite a lack of education! (Though it must be said that his vocabulary – oh! his vocabulary – in interviews was rather terribly limited.)
Conclusion: He must have been lucky. Lucky with a capital L. (Cliché phrase, the boy thought, swinging his legs.)
So, did he need education? Did he really need it? Couldn’t he be like that snooker player, and turn away from it altogether?
A quick thought, before he could quash it: You don’t know snooker. Well, true! He didn’t! He’d never even hit a ball with a cue, let alone pot one! But if he thought outside the box a little, did he have any comparable talent? One which burned within him, demanded to be given a voice, and let loose on an adoring fanbase? Well – aha! – no. He didn’t.
Therefore, education it was, and Q.E.D. the place was important, and he’d already spent ten minutes thinking about the topic, which happened to be the same stuff he thought about every time he came up here, which was pretty much every day, and by the way, what does Q.E.D. stand for?
The boy, fifteen years old, stopped swivelling and got up. He tried to stop thinking about stuff. Just… stuff. He sighed. Stuffing his hands in the pockets of his faded jeans, he listened to the clarinets and saxophones somewhere on the school’s ground floor, making sounds familiar and distant… but obnoxious. Their tinny voices shrilled up and up, through the various floors of stained carpet and lino, one, two, three, four, five, six, slipping into his ears and greeting the drums, murmuring like sirens, ‘You could be having fun right now, Mr. Lonely, but you aren’t, are you?’ He stared out of the window and tried to admire the view he’d already seen countless times. It was a nice view; great, even. The window was right at the top of the school building and embedded in the centre of a blue door marked EMERGENCY EXIT. It looked out on the centre of the city and beyond, an urban sprawl which, despite everything else, held an odd appeal for him.
As mentioned there was the centre itself: a large bustle of brick and glass and shoppers, a few isolated buildings dotted here and there on its outskirts. Beyond: the green countryside. Just a little glimpse, but tantalising. It was untouched, save for a few wind turbines, all in a row, and some rural cottages. These were tiny, and looked to the boy like crumbs which he could pick up and consume in mere seconds. He held up his thumb for a comparison; his thumbnail swallowed the cottages whole, as a star would dwarf a planet’s moons. There were fields of yellow and green, healthy and lush, packs of grazing mini-cows and, further on, a glimmer of a hill.
For all this grandeur, the door marked EMERGENCY EXIT opened out on to something rather too plain: a balcony, all grey stone and steel railings. It connoted raindrops of a heavy and irritating nature, and a chill wind. There were a few pebbles lying around, waiting to trip the unwary traveller and send him or her flying over the railing, onto the streets below. To the boy they served no purpose; they were certainly not beautiful in any sense. It was of such a depressing nature that even the most joyful person’s ecstasy might leave the mortal world and dissipate into nothingness. In fact, it was so tremendously, spectacularly uninviting as a balcony that he’d never even been tempted to open the blue door and step outside. To feel the wind on his cheek, look over the edge; to watch the little people – the units – on the streets below.
An aberrant voice in his softly idling mind: You might think of suicide.
Yes (he thought, sighing, careful not to be heard), there was that possibility. He was young, only fifteen, but he kept his options open. Trust him to think of such an option. He was – what was it? – an existential boy. One who was a bit mopey. Really quite intelligent – his reports were favourable in that sense, hooray and all that – but distinctly mopey.
Hark: the Sun! Who could possibly be mopey on a late Spring day such as this one? It was a day of mirages, of heatwaves, of shimmers on tarmac, and glinting car roofs! Nothing was shadow, everything was open, bared to the elements, and suffused with glorious light! Surely the sun banished such thoughts and left them lying in ditches, in the darkest realms of 20th-century Glasgow, perhaps?
The boy’s eyes dropped from the sky and alighted on an impossibly distant car. It was red, and seemed small compared to the other cars beside it. Just a little. Perhaps it was a… Mini Cooper? Was that it? What make was it? He didn’t care. He hadn’t bothered to learn much of cars, which was just another point of difference between him and the Others. He could tell it was driving pretty fast, though he didn’t have to turn his head to follow it, not one jot. Just a flick of the eyes, barely perceptible, and he was following it. Keeping track. Feeling like a spy, operating with keen eyes behind windows.
It was almost fun.
Who was in that car? A family? Or someone alone as he was? Old? Young? The answers to these questions (he thought, with his hands jammed in his pockets) didn’t really matter. It was just interesting to… speculate.
As members of staff shuttled from office to office on the floors directly below him, the boy gazed almost apathetically over the ‘interesting’ contemporary buildings which had popped up in the last year or so, taking in their designs without a great measure of excitement. He held up a hand to shield his eyes after a glass building thoughtlessly reflected the Sun’s glare back at him. He looked at the people and the cars, travelling fast along what passed for the main road in the city centre. It was a big road, certainly. It reminded him of what he’d read about America (and he’d read quite a lot): apparently it was big roads, big people, and big pavements. No, sidewalks. They were called sidewalks, because you walked on the side. By God, it was like… New York. Los Angeles. Or Chicago! One of those big American cities, with glitz and glamour! If he just squinted…
As he looked at the Big Busy Road in the city centre from his high vantage point, strains of Copland’s Appalachian Spring (a record which his mother had enjoyed playing, for a time) floated up quite suddenly through the school floors to his ears, and he grinned. A Shaker melody. American spirit. Old Wild West, and rodeos, and barns. Boy, that sounded good. It was only one tinny clarinet playing on the ground floor, but he could pull the accompanying lines from his memory. He had an ear for music, he and his parents fancied; a younger version of himself had remarked upon hearing Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto ‘It’s beautiful!’. It didn’t mean he enjoyed music lessons, of course. The Copland seemed to complement the view in some profound way, though he knew he might never be able to articulate exactly what that way was, or why it was profound. Another reason to keep up English lessons, though the teacher is ridiculous. And that guy she always puts me next to in her ‘special seating plan’… yuck. Maybe she hates me. Well, I hate her.
He was getting distracted. ‘Shake the head, clear the mind’. Was that a phrase? He fancied he’d coined it, which induced a glow of pride somewhere within him. At least until he considered that it wasn’t exactly witty, funny, or even catchy.
Where was he? Oh, yes. America. In his thoughts, he was there, large as life and loving every second. Big, beautiful America, the land of freedom, and flags, and sidewalks. Oh, and the Statue of Liberty. And, eagles? Bald ones maybe?
It was at times like these that the boy reflected on his own, short life. He thought of when he had been a little boy, just a few years of age. Something terrible had happened, across the pond in America, and he simply hadn’t been able to understand it. He’d known someone had knocked over a building, and maybe a second one – but the rest had just been incoherent haze. Someone in his class had cried. That was clear in his mind because that someone had been a bully, and it had pleased him to see the kid sobbing openly. Where was his dignity, he thought? Where was his power? He remembered the teacher had hugged the bully, and some of his good thoughts had soured.
Fast-forward to the present. He knew the significance of such an event now. He was able to comprehend its impact, and able to place the bully’s tears in some sort of context (though he didn’t feel a jot of sympathy for him, even now). So: what did he think of it at the present moment? What impact did it make on him now, standing here as he was, watching people, cars, countryside? The answer to that question came easily, as he comprehended the sprawling view with a calm look: he thought it was terrible and misguided. He thought it showcased the absolute worst of human nature. He thought it amplified his awareness of mortality, and his awareness that death might strike one’s body and soul at any second it chose. These things were clear, and would remain so. They seemed rational, immovable.
Yet… the event had also been big and exciting. It was big and exciting, as he thought about it. Things like that, massive, grand things – they were dangerous, and shot straight through with boyish adrenaline. It was an event which had Changed the World, and it had been in Manhatten (may it be praised), one of the biggest bustles of all. Chock-full of skyscrapers, yellow taxis, and life. Teeming with it!
Yes, this was how he thought of it. It thrilled him, and whispered silky-smooth into his ear, telling of action, adventure, and how to live.
But (he thought, as he squinted at the big road, imagining himself speaking in a patented Hollywood American Accent), he was a small person, absolutely miniscule, in fact, and he most definitely wasn’t in America. Not even close. So what did this mean?
It meant that, for the time being, he’d just have to be content with reading about it in books, and watching it in films… at least, until he was older. Then, he’d travel.
But he knew what had to be done.
Like a mantra to repeat in a mirror: Education first.
He tore his eyes from the view, stepped back, and glanced up at the door. Stared at the words above it, frowning. EMERGENCY EXIT.
I wish it was an exit out of here, he thought, not without a hint of bitterness. I know I’m not in an emergency, but it would still be great – more than great – if it really was an exit.
He shuffled backwards and, toe-first, slid his feet into the two bellies of the worn trainers. Anticipating the school bell, and the end of the break. Thinking hard. Frowning; just a little.
He barely noticed that the clarinets, saxophones, and the Copland Shaker melody had stopped.
If the door really was an exit, I’d like it to open up on somewhere nice. I’d prefer it to be in America. Away from the balcony, grey even when the sun shines. And when I get there, I’d want to meet people my age who I get along with. Not boring people who feel like they have to talk All. The. Time. Who seem to have lots of friends. Instead, they’d be people like me. We’d talk about stuff, and stay up late. We’d have parents who’d actually let us do that. We’d have McDonald’s all the time – I’ve read that America’s got loads and loads of McDonald’s, but that could just be a stereotype because most of ’em are fat – but we wouldn’t get fat. Not me and my friends. We’ll be skinny our whole lives. Who’d want to be fat? You just die sooner, right?
The bell rung.
Who’d want to be stupid, as well? I’m not like that snooker player, not at all, because I’m actually going to learn. It’s just silly to miss school, I mean, I don’t like it, but I’m still here, and I’ll get clever because of it. Even if I can’t play snooker – or anything like it, yet – it doesn’t mean that I’m not as good a person as they are.
The bell was still ringing. The sound was getting louder as he trudged down the sixty steps which would take him to his lesson. Faintly, from the depths, he heard a teacher call. From the sounds of it, he was male, and unfamiliar. “Come on, kids, get to class! The bell’s ringing, let’s go, come on!”
The sign’s lying. It shouldn’t say EMERGENCY EXIT, it should say BORING BORING OF BORINGNESS because that’s what it is, it doesn’t go anywhere interesting, and it never will.
The male teacher was bellowing over the bell. It was still ringing. But the boy wasn’t listening. He’d slung the strap of his bag over one shoulder and was trying to hold himself a certain way. Stand a certain way. Walk down the steps in a certain way. Getting the look just right.
He knew, deep down, that he was trying to look cool. He’d sooner fling himself over the balcony’s hard, unforgiving railing than admit it to anyone, though.
Even though the door’s not an emergency exit – the sign’s lying – and the balcony will always be there, I’m still coming back up here, tomorrow, and the day after that. Until I make a friend, that is, but I haven’t made one so far, so I’ll probably keep coming back up here for a while. Even though it’s boring. When I get a friend, I’m never going back up.
But he knew better.
“Bye bye,” he said, aloud but softly, not wanting anyone to hear. Like the Place, this utterance should be private, and personal, and his own. He trudged down the well-trodden stairs in silence, away from the Place, the private place of quietude, of introversion. Passing the second floor on his way down, strains of Copland came to him once more, now filtered through the oncoming wash of sound (stampeding children; it was obnoxious). The music was purely in his mind – nobody was playing any instruments. But he’d have to go down to the ground floor, mingling with the noise, and he’d enter the classroom, and it would be cast from his thoughts and replaced with the mindless drone of his education.
But for now, on the steps! A piano, leaping, bounding, joyful in dance and dialogue with spirited strings! Copland! Da-da-daa, da-da-daa, da-da-da-da-da-da-daa! Music, imbued with the energy of America, the American spirit! Didn’t it just fit with the glinting, multi-coloured view from the sixth floor (though he couldn’t explain how they fit so well, like adjacent pieces in a jigsaw)? The jubilant Sun, with its intensely focused light, coming hard and fast on surfaces of glass and metal! On car roofs, on buildings! Forming bright pinpricks of sheer light, reflected in his fifteen-year-old retinas; a spark of something, kindling inside of him! Adventure? A naïve sense of freedom, of misplaced patriotism, for a country not his own?
As he finished his trudge down the stairs from his high place of solitude to the lessons down below, joining the stampede to lessons, he grimaced. And, as he grimaced, he thought about things. Things American.
Any day now, I’m going to have an Emergency, and I’ll want an Exit. I’ll run up those sixty steps, to the Place, and, if that door isn’t a real exit, then… I’ll stare at the big road again, and think. Or I’ll stare at the countryside. America’s got countryside, too, hasn’t it? Lots and lots of it. Must have, it’s a big place. Do more people live in cities, or countryside? I wonder if America has got wind turbines, and people my age who aren’t total losers, and no boring balconies, and doors marked EMERGENCY EXIT where I can hang out in case I need another Exit, and, oh, skyscrapers, there’s loads of them, I’ve seen pictures. Not like here where it’s boring, and – I wonder if I can have a weapon like in a video game? You get a gun, right? And, oh I might even be able to do education without having to go to school! And I wonder if…
10 pages (350 words/page)
Sheffield, UK, 18th – 19th October 2014
Rev. 31st December 2014