Saturday, 8 April 2017

Where we were and where we are by Grant Harbison

It had all started when we’d reached high school. In primary school we’d viewed girls differently. It’s not that we’d disliked them or anything. They had just done their own thing, like playing with skipping ropes, while we’d played football. I think in the last year of primary school we’d started to see them differently. Not ones to perpetually tease as we’d done in previous years, but ones that were making us feel more and more awkward. One in particular had grabbed our attention. Emily Sharpe was her name. She’d blossomed quicker than the other girls and some of the braver boys had often tried to get her attention.
It had been the day when we’d all started high school that the boys had really taken notice. I don’t know what had happened in the six weeks summer holiday that we’d had, but she’d appeared very different. It could have been the new hairstyle or the self-confident way she’d presented herself, but whatever it had been, she’d stirred an excitement in the boys that had never been present before. Soon some of the boys had even gotten into fist fights over her. But the winner had been Eddie Walker, captain of our junior football team and by far the fiercest of the first year students. Suddenly all my friends had taken likings to other girls in school, but the whole thing had mortified me and my life had been turned upside down. I hadn’t been a weakling or anything like that. I’d played in the school junior football team, and I’d never once backed down when it had come to a scrap on the playground. But the thought of even speaking to a girl, let alone trying to chat one up, had utterly terrified me.
My friends had immediately noticed and had teased me mercilessly about it for a while, but soon they’d got bored with it and I’d been left alone. Alone had been the word. I’d never felt so alone in my life. Before that, most weekends had been spent playing sport, riding skateboards and generally getting up to boyish pranks.
Now everything had changed and weekends were for taking a girl to see a movie or meeting up at the dances that had been held at the local youth club on Friday and Saturday nights.
To say that I’d become bored at weekends would have been an understatement. Sitting in my room on Saturday nights watching videos had been amusing to begin with, but eventually I’d gotten very lonely and had waited patiently for the weekend to end so that I could get together with friends and play a bit of football.
One Saturday evening, as I’d been prepared to put a video in the machine, my mother had knocked on my bedroom door.
“Laurie!” she’d cried.
“Yeah, mum!”
“Steve and Brian are here to see you.”
I’d opened my bedroom door, and there had stood my mates and players in our football team.
“Hi,” I’d greeted. “What’s up?”
“Get ready, Laurie. You’re coming out with us,” Steve had replied. “You can’t stay at home by yourself every weekend.”
“No, I’d much rather stay in,” I’d said.
“Don’t be silly,” Brian had said. “How are you going to meet girls if you spend every weekend at home?”
“I don’t know,” I’d replied.
“Then it’s settled,” Steve had said. “Go get showered and dressed. You are coming with us.”
Reluctantly I’d done that and had gone with them to the local youth club. For most of the night, I’d sat alone in the corner, with paper cups of coke in my hand, which I’d occasionally top up with vodka Brian had managed to sneak inside. I’d just topped up another cup, and had smiled when my favourite song at the time had started playing. Although all my friends had been up dancing with their girlfriends most of the night, leaving me alone most of the time, I’d found some small comfort in the vodka and music. Lost in thought, I hadn’t noticed Melanie Anderson appear in front of me.
“Hi, Laurie,” she’d greeted.
“Hi, Melanie,” I’d responded somewhat nervously.
I had liked Melanie. She was very intelligent and probably the only girl in class who had ever spoken to me.
“Do you want to dance?” she’d asked me.
“I…er…” I’d stammered.
“Don’t worry, I understand,” she’d said, smiling broadly at me. “Can I sit here with you?”
“Yeah,” I’d responded, feeling my heart beat very fast.
My initial nerves had soon dissipated when I’d found out that her interests were very similar to mine and how easy she was to talk to. Soon we’d been talking like we’d known each other for years. That’s when my hell had begun, as Eddie and Emily Sharpe had suddenly appeared in front of us.
“Well, if it isn’t sorry Laurie and meek little Melanie,” she’d mocked.
“Oh, come on, Emily!” Eddie had cried. “Laurie is the star striker for our team.”
Emily rolled her eyes. “Let’s go,” she’d said. “I don’t want to be seen with losers.”
Melanie had merely patted my leg when Emily and Eddie had gone. “Don’t worry about her, Laurie,” she’d said. “One day she will be the loser.”
I hadn’t been able to understand that at the time. Emily had been the most popular girl at school amongst the first years, and Eddie had been the captain of the football team.
How could she ever lose? I’d asked myself.
That had been the start of my hell at school. It had been occasional remarks to begin with, but had soon escalated into something else.
“Ooh, Mr Clever clogs,” she’d mocked whenever I’d answered a teacher’s question.
Although she’d been reprimanded several times, it hadn’t stopped her continuing. Melanie had told me that I should just ignore her, as one day we’d all be out of high school, and that I’d never have to worry about her anymore. I’d found it hard to see it that way, as the laughter at her remarks had started coming from guys who were supposed to be my friends.
One day I’d managed to pluck up the courage and confront her.
“What is it you have against me?” I’d asked her.
“Everything and nothing,” she’d replied as she’d walked away with her friends laughing hysterically.
Worst was to come when the name, ‘Sorry Laurie’, she’d given me had stuck. Now everyone in our year had begun to refer to me with the same name. I’d been miserable. Not even Melanie’s sympathy had been able to console me, and worst of all it had affected my performance on the football field, causing much scorn from my teammates, eventually leading to me being dropped from the team altogether.
My life had been in ruins, and if it hadn’t been for Melanie’s help, my schoolwork would have probably suffered too.
Over the years, I’d suffered the torments, but in our last year at school, I’d seen some hope, knowing that I’d never see most of them again. Melanie and I had started out as friends, but our relationship had blossomed quickly because of everything that had happened. We’d promised each other that we’d always be together, and as the days had gone by and our time at school was almost done, we’d known that we’d known that we’d be rid of the torment and that university was just around the corner.
Two months before we’d graduated, Melanie had been attacked by Emily and her gang. She’d received multiple cuts and bruises and a head wound that had caused concussion. I’d rushed to the hospital every night and had sat with her parents holding her hand, feeling a love that I’d never felt before.
Emily and a few of her friends had been arrested and had subsequently been expelled from school. My main concern had been for Melanie at the time, and to my relief, she’d been back to normal within a few weeks. Even having missed so much schooling, Melanie had graduated with good grades like me.
Years later, after she’d qualified as a doctor, and I’d become a lecturer at the university, we’d gotten married and had two children.
Life was great and we’d to put those years behind us, even laughing about how trivial it had now become. Walking down the street one day, I’d heard a voice as I’d passed the doorway of a shop that had long closed down. The voice was like a croak, but I’d instantly recognised it. I’d turned to see Emily, dressed in rags and shaking a paper cup with change inside.
“Got some change, mister,” she’d asked not even recognising me.
“Emily?’ I’d said.
She’d stared at me for a few moments and then I’d seen something spark in her eyes.
“Laurie,” she’d said almost tenderly.
“Yeah, it’s me,” I’d replied, strangely feeling sorry for her at that moment.
“Got some change?” she’d asked.
I’d shaken my head and had walked away, but I hadn’t been able to leave it like that and had turned back.
“Why did you hate me so much?” I’d asked her. “I’d never done you any wrong.”
“Oh, sorry Laurie,” she’d said and had given me an almost toothless grin. “I never hated you. I loved you,’ she’d replied.
Feeling an extreme sadness, I’d taken a wad of notes from my wallet and had given her. “Take care, Emily,” I’d said before I’d walked away.  

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