You will hate me. Not a dislike or disgust but a pure uninterrupted loathing without a trace of redemption. You say no. Say you’re open minded. You won’t judge. What do you know about water?
I moved through a slower world with flashes of orange in my peripheral vision, my arms outstretched as my legs wriggled and kicked frog like until surfacing. Air was my gift and my mum held me high as a trophy. There was only shrillness from the other kids, rubbing their eyes from the sting of chlorine then slapping the water to keep afloat. Not me. Slipping into that water was easy. There was a reluctance but mum let me go and I swam free leaving her and the other flailing kids behind. That was my first memory of knowing I was meant for great things in life.
I am a genius. I repeat this ten times over every morning in a mirror no bigger than a tea-towel. Not because I have to but the weight of the truth is a comfort. My intelligence is so fierce I make you look spastic. You heard. You’re thick compared to everything I know. And what I know is so vast yet infinitely detailed that it could light up the dimness of this room. You must find this hard to deal with but most ordinary people are like that, which is why I hide myself. I’ve been hiding since the start of school.
When you’re young your world only extends to the classroom you’re in: the sky is only as high as the ceiling, the horizon ends at the class wall where your picture hangs with a gold star. Everything you need is there. Every colour paint. Broken crayons. A rainbow of papers. There are bottles of milk and fruit for break. Nothing can harm you. Only yourself.
English was meant for the morning and maths after break time. Miss Silva set the first page of sums as quiet work – she said answers were easier to find in silence. My page was just ink on paper to me, and as everyone scribbled numbers here and there I sat motionless wondering if my mum would take me swimming that afternoon. The inert pencil was an alarm bell for miss and she soon sat beside me. ‘What’s wrong, Jay?’ I answered with a shrug. Those numbers seemed to stretch into a distance becoming meaningless, strange shapes with stranger values attached to them. ‘C’mon, love. You know this, fifteen divided by three.’ And after a moments silence, she took my pencil and began to draw fruit on my page. ‘So if there are fifteen bananas and three people want them how much will each person get? Circle them in groups of three.’
‘He needs the blocks, Miss,’ Varsha interrupted, and the other girls began to snicker at me.
‘Shut your face,’ I snapped.
‘Jay! Five points,’ Miss said, firmly. ‘Now, stop being silly and get on with the work,’ and she moved to another table. The girls were still giggling behind hands that covered their whispers. I felt aware of myself: my skin seeping heat, the heavy air falling from my mouth, my still hands and bitten nails. It was then I understood that to be conscious of yourself was realizing your shame.
Eight feet in a circle. A foot was your good-luck charm, your hope for that finger not to land on it as Arvin chanted, ‘Cinderella went upstairs to kiss a fella, half way up her knickers busted how many people were disgusted 1, 2, 3, 4…’
‘Wait,’ Varsha said.
‘What man?’ Arvin replied.
‘Why d’you stop?’ Sonia added.
‘He can’t play,’ Varsha said, with two girls behind her, pointing at me. ‘He’s slow.’
‘He’s alright,’ Sonia said.
‘Yeah but if he’s like…’ Ahmed began to say.
‘Forget it,’ I said. I’d had enough of all the attention and was about to walk away when Varsha called, ‘Your mum’s Cinderella! She does all the men.’ There were ‘ooos’ from the others.
‘Liar,’ I said.
‘Yes she is,’ Varsha continued, ‘My mum said white girls are easy and all they do is pop out babies. Pop. Pop.’
‘Shut up!’ I was bull-red with rage. ‘Stupid, bitch. At least I can see my mum.’
‘Racist. Racist,’ Varsha accused, with more ‘ooos’ from the growing crowd around us.
‘Yes you are, my mum says all white people are racist and that’s why they don’t work.’
‘Your mum doesn’t work.’
‘Stop cussing my mum,’ Varsha said, launching an artillery of tears.
‘Don’t man, don’t,’ Arvin stepped in and held me back. Before I could scream, a whistle ended everything.
‘Tell me the truth, Jay,’ Miss Silva questioned me after school.
‘I didn’t.’ The words came out coolly from the grit of my teeth. She hated it.
‘Then why did three girls said you have?’
‘I don’t need to,’ Miss Silva snapped. ‘You need to do the right thing and come clean.’
‘Jay, I’m not going to tell your mum but I want you to think about what you’ve done and we’ll talk about it tomorrow… to think you’ll be in Year 6 in a few weeks.’
‘I didn’t pull Varsha’s head scarf.’
The deep end, I remembered that afternoon, looked like another world; a slower place so dense that it would take hours for troubles to reach the floor. I made a dash for it until the net of my mum hands scooped me back. ‘Where are you off too?’ She said, trying to hold on to me as I wriggled fish like and pointed to the other end of the pool. ‘You’re not ready for that.’
‘I can do it,’ I pleaded.
‘Shallow end for now. Show mummy some more kicks.’ And I held the pools’ edge and kicked with little splash. ‘Well done. Finished?’ I nodded, meaning no, meaning I wanted this water to gather around me and let me float a while longer. ‘Will you be OK changing by yourself?’ Once more I nodded meaning no.
‘Macers alright for tea?’ mum said, driving while putting on her make up, ‘and while mummy’s at work George is looking after you.’
‘Yes, so be good.’
‘It’s his after shave. And mummy likes it.’
‘Why so much?’
‘It’s for work dear.’ I heard the stumbling in her words, ‘anyway, how’s school?’
‘I was the first to finish my maths,’ l brightened.
‘Aren’t you a maths whizz.’
‘I’m a super star, Miss Silva said so.’
‘So you’re going to pass your swimming test soon?’
‘You’re mummy’s hero, you know that…’ mum said, except her voice thinned and trailed as if the sound were nothing more than a few beeps coming from a satellite out in the deepest of space.
Level eight. Clocked. Level 10. Easy. Level 15. I could do this in my sleep. I’d almost finished the game when George called. ‘What?’ I said, coming out into the front room.
‘Pardon,’ George corrected. He sat on the sofa with a beer and wearing his bathrobe – I assumed he had no water in his flat for the last year – and he patted beside him. I sat and he turned on the TV and said, ‘Look at this.’ I watched for a couple of minutes, puzzled yet intrigued. ‘Why is he doing that?’
‘ ‘Cause she likes it. What you think?’ George said, placing his hands on his large stomach.
‘It’s alright,’ I said, not really sure if it was. ‘She hit him,’ I said, surprised.
‘He likes that. Bet you can’t hit me.’
‘Yeah. I can!’
‘Go on then,’ George said, pointing to his tummy and I punched him strong as I could. ‘Look who’s a boxer then. Here.’ And he showed me something. From then on it was a secret. Something he said we’d both enjoy. I should never tell. I never have.
What do you see?
I know this game. I give the answers you need to hear and you don’t worry a thing about me.
What do you see?
A mum and dad, holding hands. (Two splodges, actually.)
What do you see?
An angel. (A blob.)
And what do you think of that?
It’s makes me sorry.
A new terms’ start is always difficult. There’s an anxiety in knowing you’ve climbed the school ladder and now at the top: smarter, cooler, tougher, supposedly. At lunch, there were no more games, no more running and burning energy until our lungs ached and we we’re breathless from fun. Now we ‘hung’ places. We stood in the cold and talked about people; we took the piss out of the younger years and we formed groups according to coolness. ‘No way,’ Varsha said, as I stepped towards the group.
‘What?’ I said.
‘Sorry man,’ Arvin said. And then I noticed everyone’s bags. Reebok, blue and shiny.
‘You can’t hang out with us. Only Reebok,’ Varsha announced.
‘Mine’s at home. It got wet yesterday,’ I said.
‘You’re such a shit liar, Jay,’ Varsha said.
‘And you’re a dog.’
‘Your mum,’ she cussed.
‘She’s at home,’ I said.
‘No she’s not,’ Varsha said, speaking louder to her gathered audience. ‘She’s at home popping out babies. Pop. Pop. Pop.’ There were waves of laughter.
‘Yeah… yeah… at least she wasn’t married at two!’ Whoever it was came quickly to break up the argument. We were in for a talking to as a year group.
That afternoon, Miss Silva was laughing too much. Not a stream of warmth but a strained giggle. There was a man in a suit in the corner of the room watching us. He looked important. He had a clipboard. Miss would go around to each person at our computers and say, ‘Amir, look at how lovely your font is; Sarah, that’s a lovely picture, did you get it from clip art? Hannah, are you looking at sites for our project, well done.’ And each sentiment was followed by a nod and tick from the nameless man in the corner. We then turned our chairs inwards to face Miss when she gave three claps. Now, when I think about it, I’m surprised she didn’t throw fish at us each time we responded correctly and make us balance balls on our noses. ‘Kids, who can tell me why the technology is a good thing? Arvin.’
‘Uh… Gis’ us like information,’ he answered, followed by another tick from the nameless man.
‘Miss, miss,’ Varsha’s said, with a begging hand.
‘I think the internet isn’t always good…’
‘Really,’ Miss Silva replied, looking nervously at a piece of paper in her hand.
‘Yes. I hate pop-ups. They always pop up when I’m playing games,’ Varsha uttered, and first there came a trickle of smirks then a slow river of laughter.
‘That’s slightly off the topic, dear,’ Miss Silva said, trying to steer the conversation back as the man in the suit began to frown.
‘Yes but they’re always pop, pop…’ Varsha said, and I felt my breath grow heavy as if I needed gulps of air while my temples ached, my cheeks shone shame, my body was falling and ready to hit the concrete water below me.
‘OK, enough now,’ Miss Silva said, hushing the class.
‘Bitch!’ I yelled across the room.
What do you see?
A house. (It’s just ink, that’s all.)
What do you see?
And what you do think?
He’s crying. (Because you screwed him over!)
I recall sitting in the Headteachers’ office, and decided that bitterness was a waste of time. An emotion for the common people and I was soaring above the masses. In that large office, Mrs. Barnes looked at me with concern. ‘Now, there was that swearing incident the other day, Jay,’ she reminded me.
‘I know. And I’m sorry.’
‘How are things at home?’
‘Now, Jay, you do know the difference between the truth and a lie.’
‘And you’re sure this happened,’ Mrs. Barnes said, and I answered showing my bruised arm. ‘This is very serious, Jay.’
‘She’s always picked on me. Maybe I shouldn’t have told you.’
‘No. No you did the right thing. But you know I have to take this seriously and take it further. So, one last time. Look at me. You are sure, Miss Silva hit you?’
I didn’t care what happened to me. Miss Silva would be screwed. ‘Mud sticks,’ that’s what Andy, mum’s last boyfriend, told me when he was trying to find a job after he got out. And Varsha would probably be married at 14 to some fat ugly man and forced to pop out kids just like her own mum. See. I wasn’t concerned with bitterness, only justice. I paused. Took some deep breathes and tried to stare so my eyes would water. ‘Yes.’
Told you I was a genius.
I could read an entire library collection in an afternoon, so I force myself to slow down. I’m allowed four books a week here. I finish them in an afternoon, but lately I’ve taken to re-reading books. It’s like visiting the same city on holiday, each time you realize more and more, and everything that was once foreign becomes familiar.
Lately, I read about the solar system. The physics of stars, the celestial mechanics of galaxies, and the spinning pearls of planets made grain by grain; I understand it all. Bet you didn’t know all the known elements were made in a dying star. See, even my body is made from greatness. I comfort in knowing something so far away can be understood. People here say they understand but they lie. People aren’t built for pure truth. Shall I tell you? I should. You probably don’t read in the same why I do. Far out, in the deepest, icy-dark regions of our solar system is a jeweled planet. Saturn. Orbiting it is a moon, almost large enough to be a planet, shrouded with thick haze. Titan. It’s the only known moon to hold an atmosphere. And through the cloud deck there are stable bodies of liquid. It’s too cold to be water: -179°C. Water is hard as diamonds. No. Thick clouds of nitrogen and organic compounds rain methane. Can you imagine? Lakes of methane. With such a weak gravity rain falls like snow, and everything on the moon would move in slow motion. How can something a billion kilometers away become so familiar? I envisage swimming on Titan. You could swim for ages only to surface and find nothing had changed. Sometimes, I think of moments in my life that I could have changed. Problem is, you can only move forward through time and look back at the past. It leaves very little time to learn from mistakes.
Skipping secondary school altogether would’ve made me smile. Such a waste of life. Lessons here and there all with the same rant of only having one shot in life and passing your G.C.S.E’s was crucial. C and above. C and above every teacher harped on. So I swallowed facts. Spat them out. The lessons I really needed was how to avoid tossers.
‘Oi, gypsy, didn’t learn your lesson last time?’ Asaam said, cornering me with two of his idiots in a corridor at lunch.
‘I’m not a gypsy.’
‘Yes you are, look at your shit bag. Where you livin’ gypsy? ’
‘They’d put me your house but it ain’t clean for people,’ I snapped, knowing my error. Asaam’s streaked brow frowned and his chipped teeth hid behind tight lips.
‘Fuckin’ white trash,’ he spat at me.
A nod. Fists flew. I fell and crawled fetal. Crowds gathered, and from the squint of my eye I saw a teacher walk past. And as I heard a rib crack easily as a wish bone, I shut my eyes tight and detached. I’d swam through space for years, centuries, and found myself at Titan. A freezing world, only light as twilight, smoggy and slow; I’d stay there forever, and never lonely because no one would ever look for me. Rest. Unfound.
They once gave me a gold fish in here to teach me about responsibility and all that shit but I stapled it to the wall. It had it coming. Stupid thing wouldn’t learn to take its’ food as I held it at the surface. I’ve no time for stupidity. Idiots rot the world. That’s what Cliff said in so many words. He was mum’s ex, ex-army too. I was his ten year old cadet. He made me polish his medals until the silver shone his reflection. I’d get a few good slaps if I didn’t do a good job. He said it would toughen me. Make me a man. Give me backbone, but all I learned was that you didn’t need one. You didn’t need to stand up to people if you didn’t need them. Besides, it’s people who need me. I’m famous now.
It happened when I was fifteen. Tuesday morning and I decided to bunk school. I was with my aunt at the time, and I’d rather swallow sand paper than go home and spend any more time with her. I knew where I was but felt lost. I wanted to call someone but who would pick up? I’d catch the train and go to a museum or something. There it would be warm and I could read about things. Sit by myself.
The train station was nearly empty. I waited. Two trains went by before I shook myself out of my thoughts. A couple had just walked towards the exit. It was just me and another kid. He was small. Maybe twelve. I wondered why he was catching a train by himself and I noticed his bag. Shiny blue Reebok. It looked immaculate. It suited him with his brushed hair, new trainers, and ironed clothes. Shiny blue Reebok. And I went still. I became a pool of dead water. No ripples. No waves. No oxygen anymore. There was a train coming and the kid step to the platform. Buried with this stillness inside, I fell away from every single person in the world. The kid went up to the edge. There was no anger, no rage, just a tiredness. Living was a waste of life. I pushed the kid. I was bored.
There are visiting hours here but no one comes. They let me read, let me paint, they gave me a new name. Sometimes, I can swim. I do lap after lap and never tire until a guard taps the deadline of his watch. Water is saftey: it understands. It keeps you buoyant and its clearness understands that at times when I finish my laps I wish I might just dissolve. Why do you look puzzled? Are you even listening to me?
It’s the last thing I’ll say. It’s the last thing I can remember from when I was a kid. It was the end of primary school and I had my swimming test. My mum stood by the pool and cheered me as I swam all the way to the deep end and back. I’d swam the channel, swam around the world all for my mum. The other kids were still splashing and flailing as I got to the shallow end and rewarded with kisses. ‘My little swimmer,’ she praised. She was so happy she was teary. ‘Now, mummy is going to take a shower. You take one too and meet me back here.’
‘Can I do some more?’
‘Anything you want,’ she said.
I took a shower, annoyed at all the yelling and shouting from the other kids, and raced back out. I couldn’t see mum but I thought she was still showering. So I sat at the shallow end of the kids’ pool. I waited. And I waited. A lifeguard approached and asked where my mum was. In the shower I told him. He frowned at me and walked to end of the pool and spoke into his radio. I waited. I grew cold. My fingers began to prune. I ran to the door of the ladies and called for mum. No answer. I went back to the pool. I waited once more. Something in me grew heavy. I wanted to cry but didn’t. I just waited. Soon there were a few lifeguards around me. Talking to me. I couldn’t hear them. My mum never came back. All I could do was notice how shallow the pool was, and my dipped toes could touch the bottom. Hardly a teardrop of water yet it was enough to drown.