The Best Things Come in Small Packages

I have an unfortunate bedtime habit.

It takes me what feels like twelve thousand years to get to sleep, and I would rather have my skin peeled from me in strips than lie in the dark with my thoughts, so instead I have a habit of propping my phone on its side and scrolling mindlessly through r/politics or the Aliexpress app on my phone until I fall asleep, one fingertip still pressed to the screen.

(You might be able to guess where I’m going with this…)

On more than one occasion I have woken up having purchased some truly ridiculous items are not in any way necessary to my life: a stamped metal 3D puzzle of C3PO; ten identical tongue bars; a clockwork mouse; a set of enamel dinosaur pins; 30 whale-shaped bookmarks…

…And when I say ‘on more than one occasion,’ what I really mean is ‘regularly enough that I know to check my orders first thing in the morning in case I need to cancel anything.’

If you’ve ever used Aliexpress then you know that this is not the end of the world. Most items cost under $3, and truthfully the worst that can happen is that they unexpectedly arrive two months later, like badly-packaged surprise presents to myself. They arrive wrapped in what look like black bin bags that have been hurriedly repurposed, with curiously vague, Google-translated descriptions on the custom notes such as “needle beauty” (tweezers), “claws” (hair clips), and “stationery cat” (cat stickers).

The postman who delivers these questionable acquisitions to my door is an energetic man who bounds in and out of each building with superfluous energy, cheerfully swinging his crossbody satchel like a young, fit, baby-faced Santa Claus. Instead of ringing my doorbell, he often just hollers, “HELLOOOOO!” and waits for me to appear before whipping out some small lumpy package and handing it to me. It’s a loud and interesting interaction that often breaks up my day.

So, here I must rewind and explain that about two months ago I ordered a space hopper. That part is a long story so to shorten it I will just say two things:

  • This was only a half-asleep purchase; I did in fact sort of kind of maybe mean to buy a space hopper. I probably wouldn’t have bought it while wide awake but the fact remains that I made no move to cancel this order.
  • It was not for actual space hopping, it was for a craft project*.

By the time it arrived I had forgotten I had ever ordered it.

Last week, the postman bellowed his usual greeting and I popped my head out the door only to see him pull an irregularly shaped, flat, floppy package from his satchel. He handed it to me and, in an attempt to remember what it might possibly be, I flipped it over and read the description aloud:

“Toy balls.”

Except that even as I started reading it, my eyes had already jumped ahead to the next word. I could tell it was going to sound wrong. I suddenly remembered the space hopper, but I had already started reading and didn’t feel like I could really stop mid-word. My reluctance to finish the phrase slowed my speech down considerably, and so it wound up sounding more like:

“Toyyy….. baaaaaaallllllls……”

Followed by an awkward silence that stretched between us the way the Sahara desert stretches between the Red Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

I looked up and locked eyes with the postman over this limp black bin bag. He slowly nodded in amused sympathy.

“We were wondering down at the post office what that could possibly be, alright!” He said, eventually, when the awkward moment had stretched for so long that time had lost all meaning and we had simply become two blushing inanimate objects in an uncomfortable still life.

My mind flashed through a series of possibilities as to how this might play out. Should I open the package so he could see it wasn’t anything questionable? I could, but then I would have to unfold and reveal a lurid pink space hopper. And then I would have to explain the space hopper, which honestly almost makes me sound more insane than if I’d ordered something vague but kinky all the way from China. Or worse, he might think the space hopper itself was for vague but kinky purposes…

At this point we had been staring at each other for so long I was starting to feel like we had unwittingly entered into a relationship, so I just squeaked, “Thanks!” and dashed back inside with my “toy balls”.

I am now avoiding the postman, and I am also avoiding Aliexpress at night because clearly I cannot be trusted with late-night purchases or people.

Such is life.

Happy Friday, guys.

*The space hopper was too small for my craft project, and so was gifted to a small child who can actually use it for hopping.

 

“Relationships are Hard Work”

“Relationships are hard work.”

How many times would you say you’ve heard that phrase in your life? People say it to each other all the time; over coffee, over cocktails, in the middle of long, exasperated venting sessions and at the end of despairing exclamations. I’ve said it, and I’ve heard it, and every time there’s a nod of understanding and agreement, because it’s just vague enough to sound accurate.

Recently though, I’ve come to realise that the phrase isn’t specific enough to be true.

It’s a bit like when people say, “Well, sure we fight, but all couples fight.”

I always nod. They both sound pretty straightforward, but the truth is that actually they’re blanket statements broad enough to cover a multitude of realities, and I think we sometimes don’t realise that until far too late.

I was once in a really unhealthy relationship.

I remember the feeling of being stuck in the Swamp of Sadness that was my life at that point, the feeling of our relationship being an endless slog. It would be okay, and then slowly it would be less okay, and then not okay at all, and then terrible, and then there would be an explosive argument with tears and shouting and accusations and apologies…

And then we would be back to the start of the cycle and things would be okay again for a short while. You know, before it all went south – again – like it did every time. Everything felt difficult. If I tried to fix things or communicate why I was so unhappy I was “picking a fight” or ruining everything with my “complaining.” If I kept quiet in an attempt to keep the peace, then I had to swallow down so much resentment I almost choked on it, and everything was tainted by the knowledge that it was fake. All of it. Our smiles were fake, because they were smiles papering over the fact that things weren’t okay. Our memories were fake, because the thread of misery was there running through them all like the long, lit fuse of a bomb leading to inevitable destruction. I loved him, but it hurt, and it was hard, and I felt like I was pouring myself into a pit with no bottom, losing myself in suffocating darkness.

Every time I burst into frustrated tears, mired in this misery, I would say these two phrases over and over to myself like a mantra:

“Relationships are hard work.”

“All couples fight.”

These two phrases reassured me, they consoled me, they made me feel less alone… but they were so undefined. They were elastic phrases that stretched and stretched until I felt they covered my experiences. I know for a fact that they cover many more. 

Since then, there’s been a lot of life happening. I’ve been careful to keep my eyes wide open, and I still hear those phrases but now, for me, they have definitions.

Relationships are hard work. They’re hard work because they involve being less selfish, and always taking someone else into consideration. They’re hard work because they involve thoughtfulness and respect and kindness towards somebody else and as human beings we don’t always feel that way inclined. Sometimes we’re tired or grumpy or we’ve had a bad day or we’re in pain and we want to snap at anyone who looks at us sideways, and on those days it’s work to rise above it. They’re hard work because you have to do things for someone else, and sometimes they’re things you don’t want to do. They’re hard work because maybe they have a habit that drives you up the wall and back down the other side but you love them, so you work to ignore it. They’re hard work because all of your time is no longer your own and you have to learn to compromise. They’re hard work because life is full of unforeseen bumps in the road and sometimes you will have to carry the slack, and sometimes they will have to do the same. They’re hard work, but they’re not slavery. It’s not supposed to be constant misery. It’s not supposed to be something you put your all into without getting anything back.

Relationships are hard work but if you have it right, they’re hard work that you enjoy and get paid well for. 

It’s hard work that’s worth the effort. Your payment comes in the form of receiving the same effort from your partner; you’re repaid in support and respect and love and kindness and thoughtfulness. You’re repaid in knowing that someone has your back, that you’ve got a teammate in this Life Race and that you guys meet in the middle.

Which brings us to the second phrase.

“All couples fight.”

This is such a strange phrase. Let’s change it to, ‘All couples disagree.’ I think that’s a fair statement. All couples disagree. I think it’s also fair to say that all couples can get pretty heated when they’re disagreeing about something important to them, so I guess you could call that a fight.

I think that the word ‘fight’ has something more aggressive to it though. The word ‘fight’ makes me think of shouting, name-calling, throwing things and losing control, and if that’s the definition then no, I don’t think all couples fight. All couples can have disagreements, discussions, even arguments… but fights? Fights that are verbal altercations that end with one or both people crying, or someone having to apologise for having said something purposely hurtful out of anger? If this is something that happens regularly in your relationship, that’s a problem. If that’s what you mean when you say, “We fight, but all couples fight,” then you need to reassess. Not all couples fight dirty. Not all couples fight like that. That kind of unhappiness should only happen extremely rarely, if ever. The basic respect that you have for each other as people shouldn’t slip just because you have strong feelings about opposing views. You can be frustrated and angry and upset and still mindful of what you’re saying. 

If you’re angry and you lash out and say something that’s hurtful – even if it’s untrue – you’re not only hurting them. Once you’ve said something, you can never unsay it. They can never unhear it. You can apologise, but that doesn’t erase it. I really think that’s something more people could keep in mind. Sharp words hurt both of you. They chip away at what’s between you until there’s nothing left.

When I think about Past Me, I feel both sympathetic and annoyed.

I feel sympathy because she was so confused, and so miserable, and trying so hard in such futile ways. I feel sympathy because she didn’t know any better, and she was so, so in love. I feel sympathy because I know she did her best, even if her best was a disastrous emotional mess.

I feel annoyed because it took her so long to read the writing on the wall. It took her so painfully long to dig up the last scrap of her confidence from wherever it had been buried. It took her so long to realise that their relationship wasn’t a winding path, but a closed loop that wouldn’t – couldn’t – go anywhere. It took her so long to stop believing the nonsense.

Nonsense like, “relationships are hard work.”

Nonsense like, “all couples fight.”

 

DISCLAIMER: This is what I’ve learned from personal experience and that is none of this is to say I have it all figured out, because I don’t. I wish I did. If I had it all figured out I would be living on a private island somewhere with a small herd of pet alpacas and maybe a beehive so I could have a continuous supply of honey. I would never have any unpleasantness in my life, everything would be easy, every day would be sunny, and I would never have to consider the pros and cons of having cereal for dinner for the third day in a row.

Notes for a Younger Me

When I look at photographs of myself when I was younger, I experience a strange, out-of-body feeling. It doesn’t feel like I’m looking at myself. It feels like I’m looking at someone else. The child of someone I know, maybe, or a distant relative. It doesn’t feel like me.

Sometimes this slightly freaks me out, because it makes me wonder if this is how it will always be. In twenty years’ time will I look at photos of myself now and feel like a different person? Will I have changed that much? Will I feel like the experiences and memories and thoughts of Now Me are so removed and foreign that they might as well belong to somebody else?

*shudder*

I was sorting through old photographs a couple of days ago hunting for something in particular when I came across a number of photos of Baby Quinn. There I was meeting my godmother for the first time. There I was going to school. There I was building LEGO and jumping through a stream and walking around with a Pampers box on my head. I have chubby legs and big eyes and wild hair. I am wearing flowery hand-me-downs (which means the anti-feminine movement must not have been active until much later) from what must have been the set of Mary Poppins.

In many of these snaps I am looking at the camera head on. There is no expression on my face. I am just staring, wide-eyed, either straight down the lens or with my gaze turned slightly upwards at (presumably) the photographer. I look as if I might be waiting for something. Maybe waiting for someone to tell me something? Maybe waiting for the manual?

Since we all know the manual never made it, I thought I might tell her something now.

Baby Quinn,

You are a small, round little ball of pudge. Look at you! You weren’t always like that (I’ve seen the earlier photos where you look like an alien beamed down from another planet complete with tubes in your head; those photos are less than lovely), but from this stage forward you’ll basically look like this, only stretched.

Not stretched by much, mind you. We stay pretty low to the ground.

In case you’re wondering, that pouty bottom lip will never go away. Don’t worry, you kind of grow into it. Anyway, it will come in handy whenever you want to make your feelings known. For example, on your way to school…

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Yep, just like that.

You will have a brother. You get on very well except for a brief period during which he does nothing but scream for things at the top of his lungs and pinch you when your parents aren’t looking. Don’t worry, he improves.

Your first friend is a boy called Peter. You spend many hours flinging micro machines at walls of LEGO, and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This is an age during which you frequently collect worms and put them in your pencil case to “save them” from lashing rain and the indiscriminate stomping of children’s shoes. Please do not do this. They die from dehydration and you feel absolutely terrible when you have to shake their desiccated, hardened corpses out of the pencil tin. It’s very grim.

You also stop eating around this age. Why? Who can say? You hate food. All food. You are not a picky eater, you are a non-eater. You just can’t stand the horror of having to taste and chew and swallow. You can’t bring yourself to eat. Every meal is a battlefield. The very idea of a future filled with the torture of breakfasts, lunches and dinners looms ahead of you every day for the rest of your life.

Luckily, as with the worm infirmary, this too shall pass. I am happy to relate that I now enjoy eating very much. VERY much! Food is amazing. So are drinks (although stay away from the fizzy ones; you can’t burp, so fizzy drinks make you feel like you have a chestburster from Alien struggling to get free). Wait until you try a White Russian for the first time.

You make a best friend. She is awesome. She likes Oasis when other people like Boyzone. You spend a lot of time thumping up and down the stairs of her house and playing on her road. There are many sleepovers and late night chats. Mind her, love her, be good to and for her. She’s still our best friend. She’s still awesome.

With the help of many books from the public library, you reach your teenage years with a wealth of information at your fingertips. You are ferociously outgoing and impulsive to the point of stupidity. You make decisions that are questionable at best, downright dangerous at worst. You skate along safely though, blithely unaware of the disastrous consequences you narrowly avoid along the way.

You fall in love.

The first year or so is amazing and then it’s just one long, drawn-out, awful descent into misery. You follow your heart and it leads you right into The Swamp of Sorrow. You’re not experienced enough to recognise or understand the lies or the gas-lighting. It’s a long three years of crying and fighting and crying and feeling like an idiot and crying and being manipulated and crying. Just… a lot of crying. Prepare yourself. Invest in tissues, even though you don’t use them. Your heart gets irreparably cracked (although you don’t realise it then) and over time, words and actions bluntly bash at it until the cracks grow wider.

The last, powerful, brick-breaking karate chop makes sure it’s properly smashed into glittering shards.

You end it, too damaged and much too late. For three long years you’ve been told that this is what love is, that your idea of love – with respect, and honesty, and common decency – is straight out of the storybooks and that this is as good as it gets… but you (finally!) realise that anything at all is better than this war of attrition you’ve been losing.

There’s more crying, because your heart is still broken after all.

Let’s just speed through that part.

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If I could warn you about all of this… I wouldn’t. Yes, it SUCKS. It sucks. It’s honestly brutal. The lessons you learn are emotionally beaten into you with what feels like a sledgehammer.

But after all that, you do learn.

You’ve learned what you need to be happy, and so you go do that for a while. You spend time with nice people who love you and you slowly put yourself, your sanity and your heart back together. You become a real person, not just a tangled mess of emotions  and frustration strung together in human form. You make good decisions, or at least decisions that are good for you. You take your time.

You fall in love again, and it’s pretty great. Better than expected.

Better than the storybooks.

So here are a couple of the lessons that I’ve learned along the way, Baby Quinn. The things that should have come in your manual. Here are the lessons you learn along the way:

Stay creative.

It doesn’t matter what you do or how it turns out. Some part of you is always waiting to create something. You’ve drawn, painted, cut, carved. You’ve burned names into chopping boards and made cakes that lean like drunken towers and sliced paper into slivers. You are happiest making things with your hands, and the end result is not always delightful but it is always satisfying.

Play with gouache, with watercolours, with acrylic. Play with clay, and candle wax. Crafting is the one area in which you’re never afraid to fail, so keep trying. Keep failing! Every so often you’ll find something that you’re good at that makes people happy.

Do that. It makes you happy to see other people happy.

Fall in love.

You are an affectionate child. You love hard. Keep that with you.

As you grow up, you grow less willing to be open about how much people mean to you. You close yourself off. You still care, but you hide it. You get shy.

Fight that!

It’s nonsense. You still think about people you haven’t seen in years, and cry for people you don’t even know; the least you can do is reach out to the people you love and care about now, today. I know that it makes you feel vulnerable and you hate feeling vulnerable, but the alternative is letting them think you don’t care, and that doesn’t bear thinking about.

Fall in love, and not just with people. Let yourself fall in love with places, with animals, with experiences. Fall in love with lessons learned and dreams that dissipate five minutes after waking up. Fall in love with food (Italy will help), with adventure, with strangers. Fall in love with all of it.

Be excited about the future.

Sometimes things are really rubbish. Sometimes life feels endlessly terrifying and you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re going. You look ahead and all you see is an expanse of hopelessness. There are panic attacks and weeks of dull numbness.

DON’T WORRY.

I mean, worry – by all means worry; you’re going to do it anyway – but as Sunscreen says, know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. In the midst of all that worrying, be excited for the future! Even when things look grim and you can’t imagine what there might be to be excited about… be excited about the unknown, because great things happen.

Great things happen to you, I promise. You, I, we have fed pelicans at a zoo! We’ve played with a tiger cub! We’ve bumped around Goa on a scooter, and gone swimming with sea turtles in Gili Air, and seen Mayan ruins in Tulum, and eaten ramen in Tokyo, and galloped around the pyramids of Giza, and sat drinking mint tea in Marrakech, and had gelato in Rome, and lived in Heidelberg, and gone skiing in Bansko, and seen a fever of rays in San Diego, and, and, and…

… And we’ve had hot chocolates on snow days. We’ve read great books. We’ve had long conversations with our grandfather. We’ve had hugs when we most needed them. We’ve danced in the apartment alone, and talked with friends over cups of tea. We’ve discovered maltesers in salted popcorn (the only decent way to watch a movie), and combed the beach for seaglass after a storm. We’ve had quiet, happy slices of time where everything was just right, just for a moment.

Those moments are all you need.

We’ve had good times so far, Baby Quinn. We’ll continue to have them. In the darkest times you couldn’t even have imagined any of those moments ever happening, but they did. They continue to happen. Right now I’m sitting here typing this to you under a barrage of raindrops with a cup of tea next to me and a cat curled up at my feet. I’m more than okay. We’re more than okay.

You’ll be okay.

 

Staying Alive

The other day, while out walking with a friend, we took a detour on our way home and found ourselves in an old cemetery.

It was, as she put it, the sort of place Tom Riddle might show up to challenge you to a wand duel. The ground, bulging with overgrown roots, was uneven and covered over with long blades of grass that soaked us to the ankles. Most of the engravings on the oldest headstones were illegible; the inscriptions had been gently buffed to smoothness by the passing of time. Speckled with lichen and pushed by either weather or slowly shifting soil, the stones leaned drunkenly at different angles. We wandered between them, calling out unusual names to each other or pointing out particularly old dates. Some went back to the 1800’s.

We found a few sad ones; children, siblings, husbands who died in their thirties with wives who died in their seventies. We found a few interesting ones; a headstone marked the passing of a man named Lemon Booth who had died in 1910 (I pictured him as a kindly eccentric with a penchant for wearing yellow). We also found a slab of what we assume is a family crypt dug into the foundations of what used to be a church.

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Some people strongly dislike graveyards. They find them creepy, or depressing, or taboo in a way that makes their skin crawl. The thought of dead people underfoot gives them the heebiejeebies. Some people feel it’s almost sacrilegious to walk through a cemetery full of people you have no connection to, propelled by nothing but curiosity. Some think that cemeteries should only be for the broken-hearted. Some think that it should only ever be a private place for grieving and goodbyes.

I actually quite like them.

Not – obviously – during burials, when my heart feels like it’s being finely grated into ribbons of despair and deposited straight into the ground with the coffin… but after. Later. I find comfort in the fact that so it has been and so it will always be; humans losing loved ones and creating rituals to say goodbye, with something tangible to mark the passing of generally unremarkable people. That’s you, and me, and most people. We, the Wikipedia-entry-less.  We, the people who live important lives but on a private scale. We, the remarkable unremarkable. We live full, busy lives of friendships, and stories, and memories. We have favourite activities, and things we are most proud of, and quirks that are unique to us. We laugh and cry and develop habits and grieve and love and then, at some point, we die and leave it all behind.

Honestly, I hate the idea as much as the next person. Saying goodbye to loved ones has always been so hard, and although my grief stems from not wanting them to ever leave my life, a small part of it also comes from the sadness that comes with the thought of leaving my life. I grieve for myself, but I also grieve on their behalf, for their having to say goodbye to everything. I love this world, the colours in it, the smell of petrichor, the taste of freshly baked bread, the feeling of a badly-needed hug, the sound of a loved one laughing. I love this world, even with the really rubbish bits. Even with the tragedies. Even with the dangers. Even with the Trumps.

I like my unremarkable life. I like being alive.

They say you die twice. Once when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time. I always think of this as I read the names on headstones, shaping the consonants beneath my breath, taking a moment to wonder about the person behind the name, and the life that person left behind.

It comforts me to think that over a hundred years from now, someone might find the marker of my unremarkable life and say my name aloud, wondering about me…

Keeping me alive a little longer.

 

 

Memento Mori

 

When I was small(er than I am now), I went on a good many roadtrips with my father. Not to sound too twee about it, but these car journeys often led down long and curving country roads flanked by hedgerows and higgledy-piggledy stone walls and endless green fields. There were no streetlights or footpaths. Houses whizzed by at a predictable, rhythmic pace. Field, field, house. Field, field, house. Field, field, house. We sped through the countryside listening to Kris Kristofferson or the soundtrack from The Big Chill.

I loved it. I still do. Once I leave the last streetlight behind I always feel a little bit more free until I reach the next town. I find it calming to be out on country roads, away from bumper-to-bumper traffic and pedestrians.

But do you know what usually doesn’t fare too well on streetlight-free, pedestrian-lacking country roads?

Wildlife.

Every so often on these childhood roadtrips we would pass an indeterminate shape on the side of the road, and if I so much as caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye I would react as if I had been suddenly and unexpectedly shot.

“DAD! DAD! STOP! STOP THE CAR!”

“What?”

“STOP THE CAR! DAD! PULL OVER! YOU HAVE TO STOP!”

My father would dutifully pull the car over into the ditch, I would jump out, and – one of us walking (my father), one of us running (me) – we would trace our way back to the vague shape. I would crouch in front of whatever unfortunate creature had strayed too close to the road and search for signs of life in the glossy black eyes. Over the years we found badgers, pine martens, foxes, hares, crows, rabbits, ferrets, blackbirds, and hedgehogs; the scurrying creatures and the scavenging opportunists of the Irish countryside.

If the animal showed any sign of life at all, it was carefully picked up and placed in a cardboard box. I couldn’t bear to leave a living creature suffering on the side of the road. Instead it would come with us and suffer in the boot of the car until we reached our destination, where we would try – with absolutely no medical training – to fix it and put it up in a cardboard box lined with a blanket.

You might think this strange… and you would probably be right. Some of you might think my father deserves generous dollops of admiration for his endless patience and indulgence when it came to pulling the car over each and every time we spotted anything that looked like it might be something.

…It was his fault though…

Before I was ever old enough to call for emergency stops like a deranged infant paramedic, he would frequently pull over with no prompting to show me recently deceased roadkill. Together, we would hunker down next to a dead red fox, eyes rounded by terror, and my father would point things out to me; he would alert me to the white-tipped tail, the dark paws. I have hunkered down next to badgers frozen mid-snarl by death. I have hunkered next to wide-beaked crows, silenced in the middle of indignant squawks. If the animal didn’t look diseased I would touch it. My small chubby fingers would gingerly pet the silky feathers of a pheasant, or warily touch the tips of hedgehog quills. Even in death the animals looked beautiful.*

To this day I’m not squeamish at all (although there are a couple of things that make me uncomfortable**), and at night I scroll through news stories on my phone, reading about awful stories of unfortunate people in unlucky circumstances. I sometimes read them aloud to Scrubs, who inevitably balks and says, “Why do you read such horrible things before you go to sleep?”

Why indeed?

The other day my father dropped over for a cup of coffee. We were sitting around the table catching up when he leaned back in his chair and waved his biscuit in Scrubs’ general direction.

“Did you hear about that car accident earlier?”

Scrubs nodded. “Yeah. Awful.”

“FOUR dead. Three in one car.”

Scrubs nodded grimly. My father continued.

“And what about that young girl that commited suicide?”

“What young girl?”

“An eleven year old. Didn’t like the way she looked. Killed herself. Isn’t that horrendous?”

There was a brief pause as my father munched on his biscuit in contemplative silence. I stared off into the middle distance. Scrubs shifted in his seat.

“Has there been any more news about that journalist Kim Wall?” I asked.

“Who?”

“You know, the woman who got dismembered in the submarine?”

“Ohhhh,” my father nodded with understanding. “He said he didn’t kill her. Bit unlikely that he didn’t kill her but did hack her to pieces and sink the body parts.”

“The last thing I heard about it was that they found her arm,” I said as I reached for a biscuit of my own.

Scrubs looked from my father to me and back again.

“Obviously runs in the family,” he said.

A phrase cut short to exclude the implied ‘…you pack of weirdos.’

Since noticing this morbid curiosity that has evidently been passed carefully from father to daughter, I have tried to keep a lid on it. I try to stick to more wholesome parts of the internet when I’m looking for bedtime reading. I fight the urge to instantly share the last horrifying story I read about the latest lamentable occurence.

But I still get an urge to pull over every time I see roadkill, just to check whether it’s really dead or if it needs my inept assistance (or a call to the local animal rehab service).

I probably always will.

 

*Obviously if the animal had been dead for some time or looked obviously diseased or mangled or dirty I wasn’t allowed to go near it or touch it. My father was trying to teach me, not contaminate me.

**EYEBALLS. Damaged eyeballs give me the heebie-jeebies. Also maggots are revolting. It’s the way they move!

 

Life Lessons

 

There are certain people that come into your life at crucial moments and shape a part of you.

They smooth out a rough edge, or they shave off a section of your heart and cut another facet into your soul. They shape you. Some people add parts to you that you never knew you were missing, or cause you to grow a prickly coating to protect yourself from future encounters with nefarious people. People add and subtract from you as you go, making you more than or lesser than you were before coming into contact with them.

I went to the same school from the age of 4 to the age of 18. Junior school was one thing, but when I stepped into senior school I was 70% hormones and 30% terrified child. I wasn’t a particularly bad student, but I wasn’t a particularly good one either. I often said or did things that would get me into trouble… or at least, the sort of tame, mouthy things that get you into trouble in expensive private schools. I was late with my homework. I drew on my tests. I daydreamed, I sent notes in class, I got caught skipping P.E. I put no effort into anything, because I was afraid of trying hard and failing. It was easier and less embarrassing to not even bother; at least then the disappointment was purposeful.

There was one class in which I excelled however, and that was English.

My English teacher was not well liked. She never laughed with us. She didn’t drop by at lunch. She didn’t talk about her personal life. Her sense of humour was incredibly dry. Her comments were blunt and unadorned, and her criticism was often harsh and cutting. She demanded a lot from her students. Sometimes she demanded too much. Her punishments were always slightly more severe than those of the other teachers, and she was rarely lenient. She would give you a grade lower than what you felt you deserved, and then claim it was so that you always had something left to strive for.

And yet.

Of all the teachers at my school, of all the years that I walked in and out those doors, she was the only teacher that I felt ever really saw me.

I suppose the most likely reason for this is that I used my English homework as my emotional safety net. I would funnel myself and my heightened emotions into impassioned railings against the hopeless stupidity of Juliet or the bigoted hatred of Bob Ewell. I suspect that a lot of the time my homework gave more of an insight into my own feelings than those of the characters I was supposed to be critiquing.

Having said that, I never in my life mentioned anything personal. At school I was a happy-go-lucky, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl who never had anything ready or prepared and didn’t care. So I didn’t have my books. So? So I didn’t have my homework done. And? It was fine. I’d be fine. I was always fine!

The truth is I was struggling. I’d been struggling for a long time.

I remember one particular moment that knocked me off balance.

I had been getting in more trouble than usual. In our school, for every infraction you would get a “slip,” and once you reached three slips in a single semester, you were “on report.” Being on report essentially meant that for one week you had to get signed off by every teacher after every class, and at the end of each day your parents had to sign off to say they had seen the teachers’ notes and all the homework was done.

I wasn’t even halfway through the semester and I had accumulated seven slips.

Somehow this had escaped everyone’s notice until one day my English teacher asked if she could speak to me outside. In the middle of classtime, she pulled me out to the landing on the first floor and folded her arms.

“What is going on with you?”

I chewed the inside of my cheek and scuffed the toe of my chunky black shoe against the tile. I wasn’t sure what this was about but I knew it wasn’t good. I stayed silent.

“Quinn, you and I both know that you have seven slips at the moment.”

After a long pause, I nodded. I knew what was coming. I was going on report.

At the thought of this I started to feel a familiar panic course through me. I felt like my veins were on fire. I didn’t care about stupid pieces of paper, or having teachers sign me off. What I cared about – what terrified me – was the idea of my mother knowing. It’s hard to explain in isolation, but suffice to say I started to have a full-blown panic attack right there on the landing. I felt my eyes widen, and even though I shrugged and tucked my chin under so she couldn’t see my face, I couldn’t stop tears from just leaking out onto my cheeks. They streamed down and dripped from my jawline. As if removed from myself, I watched them splash against the tiles. I was numb. There was a ringing in my ears and I just wanted to leave, to hide in a bathroom cubicle and sink through the floor until I disappeared into nothingness.

My English teacher stood watching me for a moment, her arms still crossed.

“Okay.” She said.

I couldn’t speak because I felt as if I had swallowed my tongue. I was shivering so violently I figured she must notice, so I pulled my sleeves over my trembling fingers. I couldn’t think of anything to say because my mind had become a dense fog of fear. A small part of me somehow retained the ability to feel shame, and I did. I felt a red hot trickle of shame at what she must think of me, this overreacting, overly dramatic problem student who was having a nervous breakdown in the middle of the day over a few signatures.

“Okay.” She said again.

There was another pause as she contemplated me, and then she moved to stand right in front of me.  I watched her shoes stop in front of me.

“Look at me, Quinn. Look at me.”

I swiped at my eyes with my sleeve and reluctantly lifted my gaze.

“We both know you have seven slips at the moment-“

I was trying so hard to stem the tears that they pooled, turning her into a blurry collection of colours in front of me.

“Quinn. Listen to me. You have seven slips and you should be have already been on report not once, but twice. I should call your parents myself-“

I lost the battle and another wave of teardrops raced for the floor.

“But I know…” Her voice softened a bit. The most I’d ever heard in her years teaching me.

“I know that you don’t want me to do that. Am I right?”

My gaze dropped back to the floor as I nodded vigorously and gulped for air. Was I going to have to explain? Was she going to ask? Could she tell? What did she know? 

“You don’t want me to tell your parents.”

I took long, juddering breaths and tracked the lines of grout between the tiles.

“Quinn, listen to me. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to strike five of your slips from your record.”

I barely heard her I was so deep in my state of panic. She paused long enough for the words to sink in, and I slowly raised my head to look at her in disbelief.

“Yes. Look. You’re not trying. I know you and you can do better. You have to try, Quinn, and not just in my class. In all of your classes. To be clear, I’m not wiping your slate clean; I’m simply giving you a second chance. I am leaving two slips on your record, so if you get another this semester, you will go on report. Is that clear?”

I nodded.

“Alright.” She sighed, her arms still folded. “You’re excused, Quinn.”

I tugged at the sleeves of my jumper, still wordless, completely unable to believe that I had just received a stay of execution. Before she could change her mind, I went to duck past her into the corridor. She grabbed my elbow as I passed.

“I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Don’t let me down.”

I made a beeline for the bathroom where I locked myself in a cubicle, wrapped my hands like a boxer (if boxers used tissue paper) and silently cried my heart out, partly to release all the pent-up energy and partly from relief.

Ten minutes later I had splashed water on my face and managed to get my heart rate down. I returned to class with puffy eyes, and when I walked in my English teacher turned and looked at me as if the past twenty minutes had never happened.

“Back to your seat, Quinn,” She growled.

I somehow managed to avoid another slip that semester. I dodged that bullet. I tried harder, although not always as hard as I might have. I always tried my hardest in her class though, and she always kept an eye on me like she’d promised.

Once, before we reaching the Hamlet years, she stopped at my desk on her way into the classroom. I had my head bowed low over a book, and daisies I had picked at lunchtime were strewn across my desk.

“Sometimes you remind me so much of Ophelia,” she told me.

I asked her who that was, and she told me it was a Shakespearian character. I shrugged and went back to my book, but later I looked it up, and when I did and found a fragile girl who drowns herself in a lake, I was offended.

Now with the benefit of hindsight, I see it differently.

I was pretty fragile. I thought I was tough, but the truth is that I was brittle like porcelain and completely unaware of it.

I think of her often.

In the mathematics of my life, she added a lot. She made me more.

 

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DEPRESSING POSTSCRIPT: A couple of years after finishing school, I went back to tell her all of this. She was out sick, and I was going abroad, so I decided I would write a letter. I thought I might return again after my trip away and if she was still out, I could at least drop it off for her.

 A few weeks later, as I put the pen down on the seventh page of the long-winded novel of gratitude I had found myself writing, I got a message from my best friend to tell me my English teacher had been found dead.

I went to her funeral. I cried like she was my own blood.

She taught me one last painful lesson:

Don’t wait until it’s too late to say the things that matter.