This week I’ve decided to bite the bullet and publish an excerpt of something else I started writing last year alongside Prophecy on the blog. It is the seed of a story I have and have had for a while and it is very rough in its first draft. There’s no reason for putting it on here other than to allow myself to remember I have written other stuff which lurks on USB memory sticks – ironically often forgotten. Perhaps some of you will enjoy it and that would be a bonus.
Its working title is “A Life Just Ordinary.” Hope you enjoy.
Lily always felt she was different to everyone else. ‘Weirdo’, she would hear them whisper. But she knew it wasn’t because of the short, wavy mess of flaming auburn hair or liquid green eyes – though these features alone struck her far from the madding crowd of dull and mousey mediocrity which surrounded her in the classroom. Lily wasn’t entirely sure why she always found herself alone at playtime, circling laps around the perimeter of the yard internally singing obscure pop songs from the 1970’s, but she did. Most children her age wouldn’t even have heard of the songs she sung. If other children were singing it would certainly not be to the tunes Lily chose. No, they would be singing something by Michael Jackson or Madonna. Everyone knew they were the new stars. However inappropriate it was for a ten year-old girl to be singing ‘Like a Virgin’ at full pelt, that’s what most girls would be doing – had they been lapping the perimeter of the playground alone that is. Lily’s peers would innocently sing along and try to emulate their singers as only children can. ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood had been banned from radio play but ‘Like a Virgin’ hadn’t. The 1980’s were a time of contradictions and confusion. However Lily wasn’t involved in this confusing world because Lily occupied her very own world. Lily knew exactly what she was singing. Every lyric was clear and relevant in her mind. Sometimes she would sing them with such gusto and clarity in her head, she felt almost as if she were singing them aloud and that she would burst if she did not allow the song out. Could the other children tell? Did she even care? Did she sometimes sing out loud without knowing it? Perhaps that is why they called her weird. But it did not matter. She continued. She believed whole-heartedly in the sentiments behind the lyrics.
Round and round her head they danced like a ballerina pirouetting, weaving their magic and speaking to her like nothing else could. The wind rushed over her head as the autumn leaves tumbled down from the great sycamore tree which dominated the otherwise concrete yard. The tree was always a tricky spot to navigate on her circuit – the rest of the perimeter being so straightforward merely being a series of straight lines. Starting from the walls of the dining hall, Lily would stay as close to the massive grey breeze-block walls as she could. Upon reaching the infant’s small pebble-dashed dining hut she would turn right and follow it round to the point where double white lines painted on the playground meant the building could no longer be followed but instead she was forced to cut across to the perimeter fence.
The fence was bottle green and low with a criss-cross pattern ensuring that the busy road was visible. Lily couldn’t hear the road when she was head-singing, even though it was a main road leading into the city. Buses and cars, lorries and vans, motorcycles and pedestrians noisily passed by with a reassuring regularity. Ball games were banned on the playground because there had once been an incident (long before Lily could remember) when a boy had misjudged his own strength in throwing a tennis ball to his friend. The ball had catapulted over the fence smashing though the windscreen of a passing Ford Cortina, and hitting the driver in the face. The stunned driver had subsequently lost control of his car and crashed into a tree on the opposite side of the road. The head teacher had spoken gravely to the children the following day saying that, regrettably ball games were to be banned because, “even though the driver has not been badly injured and luckily there was nothing coming on the other side of the road when he lost control, I do not feel I could take such a risk again. Therefore it is with regret that all ball games are banned forthwith.” Most children knew the ban had been far more to do with the constant call on kindly passers-by to retrieve rogue balls from the pavement. It was common knowledge that complaints had often been lodged with the school, usually by aggrieved pensioners who could barely bend down as it was but never felt they could say no to the distraught school children hankering after their lost possession. The incident with the driver had been a good excuse for the head teacher to keep everyone happy; everyone that was except the children, who had resorted to many other forms of break time entertainment; most of which would, in the ensuing years of political correctness and health and safety, be themselves banned.
Lily was grateful that she didn’t have to navigate balls on her journeys around the playground. The sycamore tree was bad enough. Navigating other children who dared to get in her way was infinitely worse. If there were balls too then she really had no idea how she would ever complete even one circuit of the playground during a playtime. Why couldn’t the other children just stay in the middle of the yard? Why did they need to hang off the fence like monkeys in a zoo? Standing there, slouching, scowling – one leg up chattering and twittering on about Lord only knew what. Because she never heard what they were saying as she breezed past them, the lyrics of the same song dominating her thoughts; circling round and round in her brain. She stepped around her fellow faceless, nameless peers and then squeezed through the gap between the trunk of the sycamore and the fence, climbing over the exposed roots. The tarmac of the playground had started to crack. It would not be long before someone would see the need to chop the tree down lest its sprawling, untamed roots should completely destroy the yard. But for now the tree was a focal point for playing marbles. It made for perfect games having nooks and crannies which the marbles could snuggle safely into, rather than roll uncontrollably across the smooth, flat tarmac. Even Lily occasionally joined in – occasionally. The sycamore wasn’t so bad. She’d miss it if it was gone. But navigating it was still the bane of her life when she was in her own world.
Beyond the tree lay Lily’s favourite spot and here she would linger. No one really seemed to inhabit this spot very often – the furthest corner of the playground from the building. The corner where the main road met the small side road, lined with Edwardian terraced houses. The corner where the rusty old sign with the school’s name rose up high, perched upon two cylindrical metal posts – the royal blue paint peeling off them, weather-beaten and corroded. It was here Lily would linger – not stop moving but wrap her hands alternately between the two poles and skip round them as if dancing around a maypole – the melody of her songs still resonating in her head, until she did finally move away from her favourite spot.
It was at these times that Lily was her happiest. The road didn’t exist, the other children didn’t exist, the houses, the school building, the lunch time supervisors, the pensioners passing by; none of it existed. All she heard was the music in her head and all she saw was the blue sky or the towering cumulus clouds, the swirling leaves and the glory of the sun shining. All she felt was the sharp, cold wind whipping about her face and refreshing her soul before having to return to the real world of the classroom – the noisy wooden floor and the clitter-clatter of footsteps and the high-pitched Irish lilt of her teacher’s voice. The smell of musty old books lingered and the taste of chalk hung in the air choking those who passed the threshold. The wooden desks with the lift up tops and years of biro-ed graffiti with their long disused inkwells, some without the sliding metal cover told unspoken stories of times gone by. If Lily had to sit at a desk where the metal cover was damaged or missing, she felt unnerved. She couldn’t quite explain why, but knowing there was something missing that should be there did not sit well with Lily at all and it played on her mind. She could never quite work out why they couldn’t have ink and long feather quills to write with rather than the crude instrument of a yellow and black HB pencil they were made to use. The world Lily inhabited in reality was ordinary. The world Lily inhabited in her head was full of possibility. But the only escape from the ordinary world was in her mind. Not that there was anything to escape from. Lily had a very ordinary, normal life where nothing eventful ever really happened. She had a mum and a dad; a sister and two brothers. But it was only in her imagination that she felt truly happy; a melancholic kind of happiness; a happiness of what might be one day. Lily had no idea if other children felt like this. But she doubted it. They looked at her differently and so she felt different to them – unique in some way although not special. No definitely not special. She knew she was an outsider and she was happy to be so – for most of the time.
“Lily! Come and play ‘tig’!” Lily heard Claire shriek at her. She winced.
She hated playing ‘tig’. She was often asked to play. It was nice to be asked she thought and it was always Claire who asked her. Claire was all right Lily supposed and Lily had been to Claire’s house once or twice to play. Claire’s mum had fake brick wallpaper in the main sitting room on the chimney breast wall surrounding an electric fire with an even more fake coal effect and glowing red light. Lily felt quite depressed when she went to Claire’s home. It seemed darker than her own house – despite the fact the two buildings were essentially the same. Both were ‘two up two down’ Edwardian terraced houses. Each had a narrow back garden or yard with disused coal sheds and outside loos. Each had a galley style kitchen, neither of which was fitted. Lily’s kitchen may have seemed brighter simply because the cupboards were made of bright orange Formica; a throwback to the 1970’s, but still in a workable, usable condition. (Other than the third drawer down which had been broken for as long as Lily could remember.)
Everyone Lily knew lived in one of these types of houses; all a variation on a theme. She knew that other types of houses existed. If she climbed up and stood on the struts of her back fence, and craned her head over the top she could see two large semi-detached houses with long gardens and sweeping lawns. One of the houses even had patio doors. Lily knew she wanted one of these houses when she grew up and she spent endless hours sketching versions of the house over the fence on paper, dreaming of the day when she too would own a piece of the suburban dream – a semi-detached house. A roller blind would hang at the bathroom window; a green one she thought. Long curtains with tie-backs would adorn the patio doors from the lounge leading onto the garden. Lily lived the suburban dream in her head. It was, after all, only over the fence. Not too far a stretch of the imagination.
“Lily!!” Claire’s voice was coming closer and despite Lily’s best attempts to ignore it she knew that the inevitable outcome was a begrudged game of ‘tig’.
“So are you coming to play ‘tig’?” Claire was tugging at Lily’s arm.
“Only if I don’t have to be ‘on’ again, replied Lily scowling as she was led by Claire over towards the side of the playground where some of the other girls in her class were gathered. Rose and Jane, Sunnie and Misha and a couple of girls from the year below were standing up against the dining hall wall. Claire ignored this request and continued dragging Lily by the arm.
“Wicked!” remarked Misha as Lily approached alone; Claire having run ahead at the moment Lily had begrudgingly agreed to the game. “Silly Lily is here. Now we can finally play. You’re on,” Misha shouted at Lily as the group scattered to the far corners of the playground. This scenario had been repeated numerous times before. Lily was used to the name calling. She didn’t even particularly mind it because to her mind it lacked any imagination. Think of an insult and rhyme it to your name – not too inventive. She felt sorry for Misha in many ways. She didn’t despise or hate her. You had to care about someone to despise or hate them. Lily was indifferent to Misha and Jane, Rose and Sara. It was the fact that Claire never stuck up for her that upset her more. Not the name calling. Despite the bullying nature of the girls, Lily complied with playing the game each time she was asked – partly because she wanted to feel included in a group (any group) and partly because she didn’t want to fall out with Claire. It was also partly because she couldn’t be bothered to argue and partly because she could out-run them all and knew that within seconds she wouldn’t be ‘on’ anymore anyway. But that day, for reasons unbeknown even to Lily, she didn’t run after them. She stood in the spot where they had left her and didn’t move. She stared after them and waited. Waited to see what they would do.
“Come on Lily!” Claire’s voice suddenly shrieked in Lily’s ears. “You’re on. Don’t just stand there.”
Lily stood there.
Claire stopped running and stood next to Lily. “You’re ‘it’ Lily. You have to chase us.”
“Why?” enquired Lily with cool detachment. “Why do I have to chase you?”
“Because that’s the game silly!” replied Claire.
“I understand the point of the game,” said Lily matter-of-factly. “I was just wondering why it’s always I chasing you; rather than the other way round.”
“Because that’s how we play,” replied Claire in her simple naivety. “Now come on, let’s get on with it,” she said, once more taking Lily by the arm.
“Get off me!” snapped Lily, shrugging her arm from Claire’s grasp. “Why me?” she shouted. “I am sick of always been on.” She almost spat the words out. “Of always being the one who you all think will just do as you want, with no thought for me or how I feel. I don’t even like the stupid game! You’re meant to be my friend but you only play with me if they aren’t around or you want me to be on. And I have had enough of it; enough. Do you hear? DO YOU HEAR?!” By now Lily was red in the face and shaking with the sheer effort of articulating her words out in a coherent sentence with the anger and emotion that had suddenly welled up inside of her and with the effort of saying all these things without giving way to tears. As she had spat out the final words, Lily had grabbed Claire by the collar of her dress and shoved her up against the wall next to the dustbin.
Claire shook in fear, yelling at Lily to let her go.
Claire had never known Lily like this. They had been all the way through infant school and junior school together and Lily was normally so placid; so calm. She did everything she was told to do by teachers, hated the idea of getting into trouble. There had been that time of course when Lily had run out of the classroom and hid in the cloakroom when she had been shouted at for not doing her homework. They had all thought it peculiar at the time but that had been different to this. That wasn’t anger or aggression like this was now being inflicted on Claire. Lily was kind. She was giving. Not violent or vindictive. She would do anything friends or peers asked her to do. Once, Claire remembered, she had even drawn pictures of the Thundercats cartoon characters at the request of all the boys in the class because she was the best in the class at drawing. She didn’t ask for any money or sweets for doing them. No one offered anyway. They just knew that if they asked she would say yes. That was Lily. She would do anything for anyone.
What they, and Claire, didn’t know though was Lily was not being benevolent or a saint out of the kindness of her heart. She complied simply because she wanted a quiet life. Doing as you were told, whoever might be doing the telling meant a quiet life. Lily never shouted or sulked or stamped her feet. She got on with her work and left people alone. She did exactly as the teachers told her and never told tales on other children, even those who would thoroughly have deserved to be told on.
Upon hearing somewhere in the distance, through her blood filled ears, the shrill scream of a dinner supervisor, Lily released Claire with another shove. Claire fell against the steel dustbin and the lid fell off and clattered noisily to the ground.
Lily stood on the spot, breathing hard as the usual yelps and screams and laughter of children came back into focus and echoed about her. Claire was sobbing on the shoulder of the kindly dinner lady who had come to her rescue. “She just lost it!” Lily could hear her saying. “Oh I don’t think I’ve ever been so frightened in my life!” A slight exaggeration thought Lily. Lily knew what Claire’s dad did to her mum. Lily knew Claire had definitely been more frightened than that.
“Is this true?” asked Miss McClenny gently, directing her soft Irish accent in Lily’s direction. Miss McClenny was notoriously the nicest dinner lady there was at the school. She was smaller in height than most of the children, always wore a soft lemon-yellow cardigan and had short, dark brown hair with a perm in keeping with the fashion of women who had been young during the war. The fact Miss McClenny’s hair was so dark often surprised Lily because Miss McClenny must have been at least 60 by Lily’s reckoning. Lily’s mum had some grey hair and she was only 30, so Miss McClenny must have grey hair Lily reasoned.
“Yes,” admitted Lily as the soft voice asked the same question of her again. “Yes I did do it.” She hung her head and couldn’t look up. All her previous anger had dissipated and she was suddenly regretting her outburst.
“Well then perhaps you could tell me what all this has been about.”
It was hard to feel anger when Miss McClenny was around. She was like a grandmother on the playground – kind and cuddly and understanding. Lily explained what had happened. The details of the incident went no further. Lily had to apologise to Claire of course and Claire had to accept of course. No more was ever said about that day. But Lily was in some ways glad she had lost her temper. She was never asked to play ‘tig’ again.