School was completely shit.
I need to get that straight from the very start. Filled with a bunch of tossers and the worst of them were the teachers. Sanctimonious know- it-alls spouting crap that was neither use nor ornament.
Surviving was all it was about.
What a waste of time.
Good job I had a good bunch of mates. We had a laugh. That was all there was. It was a case of getting through it and nothing more than that.
The day I left school was the best day of my life. I’d arrived. End of the bullshit. I was going to earn and a man that earns is a man to be reckoned with. This was it. This was all of it. I was on the verge of finding my place in the world.
I remember having a few cans with my mates in Kings Park, before heading down the Legion. We climbed over the fence because the park was shut. It gave us this feeling of exclusivity as we sat in the bandstand, lords of all we surveyed. We had youth on our side. We had an energy that the old have all but forgotten. We were celestial. Forces of nature. We’d only get stronger and more formidable from here on in.
Once we got to the Legion Uncle Billy bought me a pint and congratulated me. Further validation of my coming of age and the fulfilment of my destiny.
“Welcome to the real world, Jonny!” he grinned his grin and raised his pint. That grin of his was always cunning. I reckon Uncle Billy had a few foxes over in his time and I’m not talking about the ones who wore their hair long and got caught up in the legend that he was. Uncle Billy had a side to him. He never talked about work, but he always had money. There was something exotic and deadly about the man. I was in awe of him. He was my real life hero, not a poster on a wall that replicated tens of thousands of posters on the exact same drab and dreary walls. He was unique and his brand of special imbued me with something like magic and from that magic I drew confidence and just a little splash of power.
“It’s good to have finally arrived!” I said raising my glass and returning that grin of his. Mine was all the way genuine. I was happy in that moment. This was where I had always wanted to be. At the top table with all the big and terrible bastards.
I suppose that was why I hated school so much. Going to school defined me in such a weak and pathetic way. It never suited me being a school boy. Well, maybe it did when I was at primary school and didn’t know any better, but I grew out of it early doors and that left me waiting and waiting. Waiting for that phase of my life to be over so I could be where I truly belonged.
That night I got drunk. Properly drunk. That was another rite of passage. It had to be done, and it was good practice. My Friday nights were going to be like this now. Get paid. Head to the pub. Food might feature at some point. Curry or kebab. No women, though. Fridays was always going to be a woman free zone. That wasn’t just how it was done, it was a code and that code was a code of honour. Any mate who ruined the night by coping off was going to get dog’s abuse and face potential ostracization from the band of brothers. That really wasn’t worth it, but I supposed some didn’t get that. Another filter to sort the men out from the boys.
Then there was the fighting. Beers and fighting went hand in glove and that hand was clenched and ready to chin anyone who showed disrespect. A new pecking order awaited me, and I was very aware that I wasn’t all that far up it. Didn’t matter that my Uncle was Uncle Billy. Well, it did. That helped. It meant that I was virtually untouchable. But I would have to test myself all the same. I would have to go up against the hardest and show what I was made of. It wasn’t about winning or losing. It was about how you fought. You got noticed if you had something about you.
I had all of this and more before me. My real life was about to kick in with a vengeance. And I was more than ready. Even with a glorious hangover and sketchy recollections, I was on the cusp of the best part of my life.
The weekend dragged. Commencing the weekend feeling like a badger dragged through a hedge backwards did not help matters. But then I had the drudgery of life to deal with. I got an afternoon of respite from it when Gary called over and we walked into Town.
Town is alright. Mum and Dad talk about its heyday as though it was Ibiza or something. They actually rave on about the shops and what a buzz the place had because you could spend a day or more browsing and eventually buying an outfit for the next big night out. They’re a bit sad really. Wasting their time shopping when a quick search can get you anything you want these days.
What I like about Town is that I can picture myself in a first person shoot em up. The place is already half wrecked and the regulars shuffle around like bored out of their skulls zombies. There’s entertainment to be had here, you just have to go looking for it. This place makes me feel better about myself. This place reminds me that the world is my playground. It’s all for the taking, I just have to stay sharp and get what’s mine.
“All change on Monday then, Jonny,” Gary says this as we’re walking up East Street. East Street is a filthy river of humanity that dribbles into the town itself. East Street is where you go to die, only you’re already dead, you just don’t know it yet.
“How’d you mean?” I ask him. I already know. I know better than Gary, because these are my shoes and I am currently walking in them. I want to hear him out though. I want his angle, especially as his Monday is going to be more of the same for him. He’s not got an apprenticeship and he doesn’t seem all that bothered about it. I think he thinks nothing is a good option. That’s a lie and we both know it. I don’t want to talk to him about that bullshit. I’m not about to go down that rabbit hole.
“Well, you’re starting out in the world of work, ain’t you?” he states the obvious.
“Yeah,” I reply, “needs must and all that.”
“Ain’t you scared though?” he asks.
I slow, but I don’t stop. He has no business calling me out on this. My anger is broiling forth and for a moment, I have to control myself and prevent myself from chinning him. He’s my mate, but that does not give him a pass. He’s crossed a line and I don’t feel respected.
“Scared of what?” I manage to say this, but it’s clear that I’m pissed off.
Gary shrugs like he doesn’t deserve a bit of a kicking and I dislike him for his nonchalance and disconnectedness from me and the real world, “it’s a big step int it?”
“How so?” I ask. I know it is, but now Gary owes me an explanation and I owe it to him to allow him to crawl out of the hole he’s dug himself.
“Fifty years or more of work!” he blows out a breath, “that doesn’t compute in my tiny mind! That’s more than three times the amount of time we’ve lived already! And for the first few years of that we were helpless. Shitting our pants and bawling our eyes out. Why wouldn’t you be scared as you enter that?”
Now I shrug. I shrug because he’s put a bit of thought into this. More than I have. But then, as he says these words I know them to be true and that I already knew this. So I think maybe I have had this all under consideration and I’ve supressed it. And if I’m in this sort of denial then it goes to show that I am scared after all.
“Can we talk about something else, Socrates?” I say to him, a warning in my voice.
“Sure, but why am I a genius Brazilian midfielder?” asks Gary.
I have picked up my pace, keen to get into Town, grab some dirty food and sink a couple of pints to see me right, but now I slow again, “you what?”
“Socrates. He was possibly the best ever midfielder and a cerebral player at that. That’s why he was nicknamed Doctor Socrates. The guy was a genius and a legend,” Gary explains.
I shake my head. For an apparently slow and quite frankly thick lad, Gary has random explosions of intelligence, “you never cease to amaze me, mate. Why didn’t you put this sort of effort into your GCSEs?”
“I did,” he says simply.
Now I stop, “what?”
He looks a bit confused and shrugs, “I did. Why wouldn’t I?”
He may look confused, but this is my confusion. I thought he’d dropped out! I thought he wasn’t aiming at anything in particular and he was already losing at life. How had I missed this? How had he hoodwinked me? He was supposed to be my friend! Then I got it. I’d not been completely wrong. He probably wasn’t aiming at much of anything. My grievance was with him taking the poisoned pill of education. Of him being sucked into all that conformity with the false promise of betterment, when all it was, was state sponsored control. The creation of good little citizens. Gary wasn’t one of them though. He just wasn’t and I had to forgive him for the game he was playing. We all play the game one way or another.
I start walking again. Faster. Food and beer await. We don’t say much of anything for the rest of the walk. I’m still hungover and not just with last night’s beer. There are thoughts and feelings that drag you down and you just have to tough them out. Walking helps. Walking and the prospect of something better at your destination; fuel and the distraction of watching the sorry old world walk by.
The weekend was consumed in much the same way as I consume everything else. It entered me, I experienced brief sensations and then it was gone and forgotten.
The first thing that pissed me off about my first day in my brave new world was the bloody alarm clock. The siren call was all too familiar, as was my resentful moans and the scrabbling hand that eventually found the alarm and pressed the snooze button. The ritual of the snooze was observed three times and I felt all the worse for those snatched batches of eight minutes of fake oblivion.
As I scrabbled around my room pulling discarded clothes onto my body I remembered Gary asking me if I was scared. The alarm ritual depressingly reminded me that I was, let alone the chaos of my room. I didn’t live in this space. I hid. The mess of it reflected the mess of my life.
All of that was supposed to change, but the raucous herald that had brought me back to my stinking reality told me otherwise. I felt like crying and so I drowned that feeling out with anger.
Downstairs I made toast and washed it down with milky tea. The undue dilution of the hot broth was intended to cool it down sufficiently so I could throw it down my neck in several big gulps. It carried the partially chewed toast with it. None of it tasted good. I hate milky tea and I hate myself for wasting enough time to ruin any semblance of a decent breakfast.
My new workplace was a ten minute walk away. I left the house without seeing another soul. I could hear them all in their bedrooms, padding about, reluctant to face the day. Hypocritically, I didn’t like them for that even though I valued slipping away without seeing any of them.
The walk was quiet, which was not to say that the pavement was not busy with other souls heading to work also. This punctuated by the odd dog walker, some of which feigned a peaceful demeanour, as though being out at this time with a dog was a good thing.
When I arrived I had to go to reception. Not for me the works entrance. Not today. There were eight of us and we sat in silence communicating with nods and looks until a woman came along to process us. None of us liked this and I wasn’t the only one who took a gradual dislike to the woman. She exerted power over us unnecessarily, just like the teachers we had so recently escaped. This gave me an inexplicable sinking feeling and a saying swam through my distraught head; you’ve got to be careful what you wish for.
Forms were filled and we were given paperwork that we had to take home, read and then sign. Paper in this day and age! The worst of it was the cards. She handed them out like candy, smiling as though this was a gift from her personally.
“These are your clock cards,” she told us, “you’ll need these with you at all times as they also give you access to the building and serve as identity cards. Remember, if you’re late, you’ll be docked pay! Read the paperwork to see how the pay docking process works.”
What a bundle of fun she was. I was be glad to see the back of her. Before she left, she told us we would be collected by our mentors. What the hell kind of word was that!? I thought I’d have a supervisor and that was fine. Mentor though? That was seven levels of wrong.
One by one, we eight were collected. Someone somewhere was taking the piss because I was the last and I was made to wait a full ten minutes after apprentice number seven had been taken away to who knew where. The scale of this place was made all the more formidable by this small and sanitised reception area. The bulk of the factory loomed behind it and when the door eventually opened for me it was a gaping maw readying itself to swallow me whole. I wouldn’t even touch the sides as I was pulled through and digested.
The door wasn’t the worst of it though. Not by a long chalk. The door was context. The main act stood framed in it.
“Hello Bates!” said the man in the doorway, just the way he always had. He was grinning like a hellish crocodile and there was no life in those eyes. Something had happened to this man since I’d last seen him. Something dark and terrible that had stained and defined him.
“Mr Chiswick,” I stammered the name and made it a question when I had not intended to. My head swam and one thought screamed in my head over and over.
This isn’t fair!
“The one and only,” he said cheerfully, but there was no cheer there. This was the same voice that was trained into fast food workers so they could ask if you wanted fries with that and steal a little piece of your soul into the bargain.
He beckoned for me to follow him into the jaws of hell. For one maddening moment I attended to the exit that blurred at the edges of my vision and I considered making a run for it.
Where would you go?
That was the betraying thought that undid me and sent me meekly towards my nemesis. You see, we broke Chissie. He was weakest of the all the teachers. We smelt that on him and we exploited it mercilessly and incessantly. For us kids, it was a natural pursuit. It was sport. He was the mouse and we were fledgling cats learning how to be in the world.
We went on and on and on at him until one day he snapped. They said he’d gone off sick, but we heard he lost his mind. Nervous breakdown was what we heard.
How weak do you need to be to be broken by a bunch of kids?
That’s what we all thought.
But Chissie doesn’t look weak. Not one bit does he. He’s come here to this world of men and he’s gotten far enough along to be in charge of me. I’m to be his bitch for the next five years.
“It’s make or break time!” that’s what Uncle Billy said to me down the Legion.
Well payback is a bitch and it rides in on the wheels of karma. I helped break Chissie and since then he has made himself into something altogether different. Something bigger and stronger.
As I follow him into his domain I see the way the other men greet him. He’s the man here. The gaffer. He’s earnt their respect and he’s looked up to. There’s power here, power that I dreamt of, but it’s not mine and now I doubt it ever will be.
Chissie will break me, I’m certain of that. What I’m not certain of is whether I can pull off the magic trick that he did. I don’t know whether I can come back from this, and if I don’t then where does that leave me?