When I was a kid I hated getting up in the morning. The adjustment to vertical life was agony. And I could never figure out why. In part I knew it was because I was knackered all the time because I went to bed too late, but I knew that was not the whole story. What was it? I didn’t hate school, although I was as susceptible to its amalgam of boredom and danger as everybody else. I was never bullied, unless the strident ranting of some of our teachers constituted a kind of institutionalised bullying. But I don’t think so: we were all yelled at with parity. And surely the essence of being bullied lies in being singled out. The essence of being bullied is not that you are in agony, but that you are alone. Graham Greene describes one of his characters as being “not one of the torturable classes”, and if it was a conceit that I held myself to be invulnerable, it was one that gave me confidence. I had sufficient popularity because I never courted it.
Not so the new boy, Stobo. He threw a tennis ball without warning at me in the playground and I did well to stop it but I couldn’t hold it.
He was extremely well turned out. The white shirt was freshly laundered and there was even a crease in his grey flannel shorts. He lived up in Kelvindale, in the street next door to my father’s friends Mr and Mrs Train. His father dropped him off at school in a Wolseley. None of it made any sense. He should have been at the High School, or the Academy. And he was a Christian. I had heard him “bear witness” in the playground. He carried a neat pocket-size New Testament. He asked me, “Are you saved?”
“That remains to be seen,” I replied, enigmatically. “You?”
Even at the time, his slang was anachronistic. He belonged to the interwar era of muscular Christianity. On the playing fields he would play hard, but never dirty, with an oval and not a round ball. A wing three quarter rather than an outside right. I looked at him pityingly and thought, “You are a martyr. Get out now before the wolves pick up your scent. Get your father in his Wolseley to drop you off at Kelvinside Academy where you can survive with your own.”
I had anticipated a siege, a war of attrition, or the slow wearing down of a lamed fugitive by a remorseless pack. I was not prepared for the suddenness, the viciousness, and the unutterable brutality of Stobo’s destruction.
He fell within the ambit of Taxi’s demesne, passed within the visual field of the Bad Thing, the school psychopath. Taxi’s nostrils flared. He sensed Stobo’s Otherness, and he was outraged. He tore him to pieces.
Stobo lay weeping and bleeding in the shadow of the playground sheds for half an hour. It wasn’t that my friends didn’t want to help him. They were waiting for leadership. I realised with a sinking heart that they were waiting for me. The lot was going to fall on me. Had already fallen on me.
I helped him up in his torn shirt and his bloodstained trousers and together we limped into the cloakrooms. Word must have passed through to the girls’ playground because Joyce Cochran came through and helped to clean him up with a wet handkerchief. Joyce was like Mother Theresa. She had taught me to tie my tie and my shoelaces when I was five. She had not humiliated me when I had poor sphincter control. I don’t think Stobo told on his assailant and we would certainly never have clyped, but word must have reached the teachers because the Wolseley drew up at the school gate, there were raised voices in the Headmaster’s office, and the shrivelled, pathetic bedraggled creature was driven off. We never saw him again.
I ran into Taxi at the school gate. It was inevitable. I gave him a long hard stare, all the time thinking, why are you doing this? He’s not your problem.
“You lookin’ at me, Jim?”
I just carried on staring.
Taxi took out his chib, a door hinge.
“Ah um gonnae rearrange yoor f****** face.”
“Oh no you’re not.” It wasn’t courage. It wasn’t even bravado. I was just playing a part in a masque. I was with my pals Adam and Wally. Taxi was alone. He had no friends, only a couple of weasel minions and they weren’t there. Adam said uneasily, “Let’s go.” Taxi made a couple of threatening passes at my face with the door hinge. I had a talent for brinkmanship and I knew they were only for show. He was certainly a very frightening boy. But there was a sense of caution there as well. My father had told me that all bullies were cowards. I wasn’t sure if that were so but I had the sense that they would always pick the easiest fights, like a big cat on the Serengeti selecting out the weakling, the runt, amid the panic-stricken herd. All you had to do was hold your nerve. We backed away from one another, slowly, saving face.
How can you develop an attitude towards your existence when you are not armed with criteria of value? How can you know to be out of kilter, malcontent, if you don’t know anything better? What is the origin of vision, of hope? You get up in the morning feeling like death; you eat a bowl of cornflakes in warm milk that smells of wet dog fur; you put on your duffel coat and walk through the drizzle, day after day, to a building that resembles a penitentiary. You have the prospect of doing this for thirteen years, a sentence handed down to you at a time in life when it might as well be an eternity. There is no perceptible end to it. Whence the resource that will confront your imagination with another existence?
Between the covers of a book.