I never thought the day would come when I would look forward to getting back to school, but that September, I found myself staring down the days ahead with a sense of urgency to return there. There was a mundane and solid kind of normality about school, a sturdiness within its walls that made me feel safe, as I walked through the doors, with my headphones on. I breathed out, this massive sigh of relief, I guess. At school there would be no need for tiptoeing around, no need for craning my head around doors before I entered rooms, no need to exist in a state of constant anxiety and fear. I felt it drop from my shoulders as I walked through the entrance, and I hadn’t in truth realized until then, how much it had been hanging over me. I was an addict to my headphones by then. My Walkman went everywhere with me. Wherever I went, my music came too. In my room, the stereo remained on, and when the lights went out I pulled on my headphones and let the voices and the lyrics sing me to sleep. I walked into school, feeling haunted and hunted. I’ll start this off without any words, Kurt was booming into my ears, I got so high I scratched til I bled, love myself! Better than you! I know it’s wrong, but what should I dooooooo…I’m on a plain… I kept walking, hearing nothing but the music, staring around at the place as if seeing it for the first time, feeling odd and disjointed, like I was not the same boy anymore.
I had been existing in an unforgiving state of paralysis. I was waiting, waiting for repercussions, waiting for payback. Some nights I would wake up in a sweaty tangle of sheets, convinced that a shadow hung over my bed, wielding a knife or a hammer. Who would notice? Who would care? I would have to get up, check the lock on the door. I could feel him waiting, you see. I could see it in his face, in his eyes when they rolled in his face like glass stones, watching me, always watching me. I could hear it in his voice, when it dripped with promise and menace, when it lowered to nothing more than a hush, when he promised me pain, promised me lessons. My mother was tearful and anxious all of the time. She was convinced I was some kind of pot head. She looked at me as if she pitied and feared me, as if she wanted to hold me under the shower and wash me clean. I did not speak to her, not ever. I could barely even stand to look at her. Howard was working longer hours, and his absence made her wring her hands and tug at her hair. When he was home he hissed his rage through his teeth at me, and I knew that he was just waiting, that he was just refuelling his weapons. I wondered if I ought to be doing the same. I had Michael, and Anthony, and when I remembered this I could breathe again. But they were not there with me at night, when I saw the shadow that lingered outside my door.
I wandered into school with my folder of writing tucked nervously under my arm. We had a special assembly that morning, just for years ten and eleven. Mr. James took centre stage in his usual sombre manner, his hands linked at the small of his back, his chest thrust forward as he walked from one side to the other with his eyes on us all. I sat with my legs crossed, my folder on my lap, and my eyes and ears transfixed on the big man as he stalked back and forth. He gave the feeling that he was about to reprimand us all, wipe the floor with us even. There was anger in those eyes, and in that walk and it fascinated me. “I want to talk to you about potential today,” his deep voice boomed out upon us. “What it is, what it means, who has it. For half of you sat here, today marks the beginning of your GCSE courses. Today marks your chance to wipe the slate clean, to start again, to show us what you can do, to try your very hardest even when things don’t come easily, to take seriously what you did not before, to decide on your goals and your aims, and how to reach them. And for the other half of you sat here, today marks the start of your last year in this school. Your final chance to buckle down, to do what you need to do to get the results you need, to secure the college places, the apprenticeships and the jobs I know you are hoping for. I hope the importance of this day is not lost on any of you. I stand here today and I look at all of you.” He stopped pacing then, stood in the centre of the stage and glared out at us. “And I can see your potential. I can see it. You may not be able to see it at times, you may not always believe in it, but it is real ladies and gentlemen, it is real and it exists in every single one of you. Potential. That’s what you have. All of you. Every single one of you sat right there now, you have the potential to do great things, to make your dreams come true, to do anything that you want to do.” He started stalking again then, and it felt to me like he was getting angrier. I squirmed just a little on my arse on the hard hall floor. I couldn’t help but feel like he was talking just to me. That he knew about the other little trip to the police station, that he knew about drunken parties and trying pot. I swallowed guilt. “I want you all to think about this, to try to recognize your own potential today,” he went on. “You have no idea how it angers and saddens me to see potential wasted. When I come across people who had all the chances, all the possibilities, all the potential to succeed, but who for whatever reason, threw it all away, let it slide, didn’t bother, didn’t try. This is your time people. Make no mistake, do not forget that this is a vital time in your lives. This is your time to work hard, to reach those goals, make those dreams come true. You have to put the effort in now, you have to work hard, stay focused. You have to believe me when I tell you that every single one of you sat here in front of me today is capable of great things. Of amazing things.”
I swear to god his eyes landed on me when he had finished his speech. I swear to god he looked right into my soul and told me to buck the fuck up. I swear to god he fixed his eyes on my knotted hair and my grimy nails and my roll ups in my pocket. I tightened my grip on my folder, on my potential, and when first break rolled around, I marched it right on over to Mrs. Bakers office. The school newspaper had their after school meetings in the IT suite that led off from the library. I found Mrs. Baker there, drinking coffee and ploughing through paperwork. I felt out of place and stupid as I sidled on in, glancing around at the wall to wall computers and printers. She beamed at me when she saw me though. “Ooh hello there Danny, are you here to take me up on the offer to join the paper after school?”
“Well yeah,” I said unsurely, shuffling in a little further. “I just brought some stuff I’ve been writing over the summer. Nothing much.”
She immediately reached out to me, reminding me then of a small child reaching out to grab sweets from someone. She looked so delighted, so excited, that I felt a bit embarrassed, and had the slight urge to hug my folder to my chest and hang onto it. I didn’t though, I passed it to her and stuffed my hands into my pockets. She held the folder out in front of her, and I felt like I had just handed over a piece of my soul. “How exciting! Well Danny, if your essay writing is anything to go by, these should be excellent! Well done, and thank you so much!” She was a very excitable kind of person, I suppose. I shrugged and headed back for the door, but she called out to me then. “Would you be able to come back and see me tomorrow Danny? There’ll be a few more things we need to discuss.”
She shook back her grey curls to smile at me reassuringly. “Oh not much really, it’s just the board of parent governors are very involved in the newspaper so..”
“Why are they involved in it?” Already my back was going up, you see. Already my defences were kicking in.
“Oh well,” she made a face and stroked her chin and glanced up at the ceiling as if hoping to find the answer up there. “Well they always have been,” she said eventually, grinning inanely and shaking her grey perm again. “They’ve always been right behind us. Very supportive I have to say. With funding as well! But it’s not a problem!” she cried then, biting her lip and giving me this patronising and sympathetic look. “They’ll be so pleased to have some fresh talent on board!”
After school Billy roped me into coming back to his house. I didn’t really need much roping to be honest. Jake had declined the offer, complaining that his father had arranged yet another job interview for him, so off he went. Michael was in detention for being disruptive in class. I could have kissed Billy when he’d asked me to come back to his. It wasn’t just the relief of deferring my return home, it was the warmth that spread through me when I thought about walking through his front door. It was only a little terraced house, exactly like ours, but why did stepping into it feel like I was stepping into another world? My nostrils twitched, as soon as the front door opened and the wind chimes jingled up above it. Burning incense, and spicy food on the stove. Scents and sounds that intrinsically linked me to Billy’s house, to Billy’s life; one I was painfully jealous of.
You walked in and June was there, there to greet you, always with mess on her like paint, or yoghurt, mucky handprints or splashes of dinner. She didn’t give a shit. She didn’t do her hair, or her nails or her makeup like my mum did. She was just how she was. Willowy and gentle and bathed in calm. The kitchen was small, just like ours, but somehow it seemed bigger with the amount they had crammed in. An old pine dresser she had repainted pale blue, stuffed with mismatched and brightly coloured crockery. Spider plants bloomed across the windowsill, side by side with cacti and herb pots. The walls of the kitchen were covered in old band posters and the spiky spidery artwork of children. Billy rushed by it all, because it was always the same for him, so he thundered on up to his room to put some noisy guitars on, but I lingered, I paused, I went slow. She had this little radio on the kitchen windowsill and she kept it tuned into this classic station, classic fm or classic rock and roll or something. Sometimes she would just be stood there, wooden spoon in hand, staring out of the window whilst lost in song. On that day I was pulled in too, taken gently by the elbow by some pure little melody that led me to the kitchen doorway and made a pain swell in my heart, made a clutch for my soul. She sensed me there right away and turned and smiled and laughed at herself, as she twirled a length of pale blonde hair around one slender finger. “Oh!” she laughed. “Hope you didn’t hear me singing!” I shook my head to let her know that I hadn’t. I didn’t know what else to say, because there wasn’t anything, I just wanted to listen to the song. “Do you like this too?” she asked me then, turning to face me. She tapped the wooden spoon against her palm. I shrugged, and smiled. “Billy hates it,” she said, grinning widely. I nodded. I wanted her to be quiet so I could hear it properly. It was just the chorus that kept getting me, it was so sad, so desperate, at the same time full of a kind of gutting hope; ah well I may as well try to catch the wind. It was like the singer knew what he wanted was impossible, and that hurt him, but yet he knew he would try to catch it anyway, and he would do it smiling. “It’s by Donavan,” she said, when it had finished too soon. “It’s very old. But somehow, whenever I hear it, it’s like time has stood still and I am transported back, and I’m a teenager again! Funny eh?” she grinned at me. “How music can make you feel?”
Like an idiot, I just nodded and smiled, because I had no words for her. There was nothing I could do or say to explain to her how the song had made me feel, just hearing it for the first time. How it had lured me towards her intensely private moment, how it had made me feel sad and happy at the same time, and how crazy that was. I went up to Billy after that, tried to join in the conversation, while he blasted Nevermind at our eardrums at high volume. It made him all aggressive, you could see that. He was a short little kid who felt big and tall and snarly when he jumped around in his bedroom to screaming guitars and snarling lyrics. But that was the day I discovered Bob Dylan too, and things got exciting after that. Because there was always something new, always something unexpected and beautiful, something to lift your soul above the shit, something to smile about.
I’d just gone down to get us drinks, and Billy’s dad was sat in the lounge, in his special arm chair, with his eyes closed. Until he told me, I had no idea who the singer was, I only knew that the songs were gentle and yet fast, and the lyrics intelligent and beautiful, the kind of lyrics that made me want to rewind the song to hear them again, to understand them. Not wanting to disturb Donald, I climbed into the other armchair. His was positioned in the corner of the room, in his music corner, right next to his record player. The player was surrounded by piles and piles of records and cassettes. He had shelves on the walls above, where he kept all of his seven inches, and gathered along either side of the player were all of his twelve inches. He had so many that they were stacked on the floor as well, propped up against the wall and running along the bottom of the cabinet. I knew for a fact they were all in alphabetical order, and that he could find whatever record he wanted just like that. With his head back, and his eyes closed, he would have appeared asleep, if it had not been for the glass of rum and coke in one hand, and the fingers of his other hand which drummed against the arm rest of the chair in time to the music. He smiled and mouthed along to the words of the songs.
Billy had appeared, outraged and indignant, grimacing around the door at us. “What are you doing listening to this lame old hippy music?” he had demanded scathingly, as his father opened his eyes and laughed. “Not enough guitars or drums! Come on!”
“I like it,” I shrugged at him simply. I got out of the chair and Donald nodded at me in thankful approval.
“You have fine taste young man,” he said. “And despite my sons best efforts you refuse to be narrow minded about music. You want to try some Johnny Cash yet?”
“Noooooo!” Billy yelled in frustration, running across the room to grab my arm. “No bloody country music dad! Just stop it!”
Donald rose from his chair then, this ear splitting grin across his freckled face. He started rifling through the records nearest to him. “What about some Velvet Underground or Cream? The Kinks!” He was laughing as his son groaned.
“The Rolling Stones then? The Sex Pistols? Come on son, where do you think the music you love came from?”
Billy let me go and I was at the records in a shot, while he shook his head at the pair of us. “For gods sake,” he murmured, knowing it was too late.