Grenth Enterprise Academy
Mr. Jackson’s Classroom (2nd floor)
Tuesday: Quiet Reading
-a thin girl, some would call her pale, but people don’t tend to say that about students so well-endowed in PE even if it’s true. It’s not just that is the thing. Endowed, well, in just about every scholastic or athletic endeavour you could present her with, emphasis on scholastic.
But she’d been melancholy and with no reason for it. For as long as she could remember. Why is that, she wondered sometimes, to herself. No reason she could see. Any reason, besides the obvious, escaped her. Always. Escape—from her, not an escape for her which, she thought, anyway, what would that even look like? She’d read the books, all of them: been taken to Mars, through looking glasses, up magic mountains, into operating theatres, behind curtains, under covers (not that parents X and Y necessarily knew that their precocious child was nose deep in corrupting words/worlds) and so on. But she’d never REALLY left Grenth, at least not in any way that actually mattered (and, like, besides, not in the sort of headspace-y way that she was talking about). She could, and had when she felt less charitable, when the hard edge of sentiment butted up against the cold whetstone of reality, blamed her parents for the normality, the love.
For instance, when Scot Torvil’s mother had passed the year before from a carcinoma in her lung she’d felt, not exactly empathy, or woe, or sympathetic fellow feeling, or not only those things, but also a kind of jealousy if that didn’t sound too ridiculous. She’d wanted that opportunity, to crawl inside something like grief, something like the sensations she’d seen in her books, to walk around in those clothes, and when she thought about it OF COURSE she knew it was wrong, knew that in reality she was not just trivialising the very real loss of a classmate who was completely devastated, having been the primary carer for his mother over the preceding 27 months, but also condemning her own flesh and blood parents, both of whom she liked and wouldn’t want to wish an agonisingly slow, protracted death on (though she fancied herself a bit of an enlightened type who wouldn’t wish that kind of fate on anyone, but ESPECIALLY not her mum and dad). Of course, if the situation had been reversed, she’d be Scot and thus the carer and the semi-saviour, or at least very-good-guy, meaning that all of this psychic energy, and ridiculous coveting of True Grief, was perhaps just some kind of hope to feel like the bloody hero for once, even if the situation required (knocking on wood) the terrible death of one parent and likely incapacitation of the other due to understandable despondency. And she knew this and felt shame as a result; a deserved kind of shame that others, no matter what they said in parents evenings, and tutorials, and even, once, in an educational psychologist’s office, could possibly understand, all of which she brought to bear as she pored over her book, about a Japanese boy looking for his father amidst a jungle of Tokyo gangsters, and all of which inflected every single word with a sense that wasn’t exactly, but was almost undeniably, bittersweet.
And the book was good. It had everything you—or, really, she—could want. Yes, of course, the gangsters (called yakuza in Japan), the adventure, the plot, the experience of reading about a foreign country like Japan—which, she thought, if we ever even met, suppose, real-life Martians, how could they possibly be all that much more different, how could the gulf from us to them be any larger than the gulf between Grenth and Tokyo?
Yes, yes, it had all those things. But it also had more.
Once upon a time her uncle had gone off on a package holiday to Tunisia or Morocco or some such—which, of course, had sounded impossibly cool and fun and adventurous to her when she’d first heard of it as she’d never gone anywhere. But then, when she’d seen all of their pictures (starring, mostly, an assortment of rotund individuals of the type you’d likely see standing in the checkout at Sainsbury’s or something like it, except now shirtless and around a pool and reddening in the Mediterranean sun) she realised the humdrumness of that trip, which didn’t so much quash her desire to go to Tunisia or Morocco (or any place similarly far afield) but made her feel as though, maybe, perhaps, and at the cost of potentially sounding overly snobby—and yes, of course, only to herself, in her own head—that sort of trip is wasted on some people? Which, obviously, then made her feel like shit because her uncle was, after all, a Pretty Good Bloke. He’d brought her a kind of box back from the trip as a gift. It was carved entirely of wood but when you looked at it you realised that the box was not just a hunk of wood but was a number of pieces intricately carved and then configured into a box shape. It was a puzzle, really, when you came down to it, where you had to remove the pieces in the exact perfect order and if you did it then, and only then, you’d have solved the puzzle; but then also when she shook it she could hear something scrape-tapping along the sides, the interior sides, trapped-like, inside the box-cum-prison cell. Which gave her pause for about three milliseconds because, of course, she thought to herself what kind of box could this be? Yes, obviously, the figure inside was probably some just innocent-type bystander figurine. Maybe like a carved princess or knight, or, I dunno, a crusader but like on the other side? What would that be called? (Saracen, she came to know later, having remembered to look it up) Or, though, what if it could be like Pandora’s Box? Opening it would be fun—sure—but would it really be such a good idea? Could she risk it? And on the subject of risk, what if she couldn’t then put it back together again, like the proverbial king’s horses and king’s men (though she’d always wondered, ever since first hearing it, sitting on a carpet, head tilted upwards at an obtuse angle, what the hell kind of help they thought the king’s horseswere going to be in putting an egg back together) and thus had taken this beautifully crafted and thoughtful gift and rendered it into a slightly less impressive collection of box pieces. Or, perhaps, that one—what was it?—she’d read about, like, Schrodinger. She didn’t understand the why of it, exactly, but did know that his box had a dead cat in it. Which, ew. Could you even imagine? And then after those three milliseconds, she got to work, of course, because (a) she wasn’t the superstitious type, (b) it was a puzzle and that was most definitely her thing, and (c) she kind of doubted that her uncle—the PGB, last seen sipping daiquiris with some ‘stand-up lads, Geordies they were’ that he’d met on the plane over—would shop at the sort of place that sold curses and/or dead felines to unsuspecting tourists without it ending up all over the Mail or Mirror or Sun or one of the other newspapers. But which her point being: she’d solved the puzzle eventually and then put it up triumphally on a shelf in her room in proper trophy fashion and would sometimes look at it and think fondly of both the craftsmanship of it – i.e. the skill with which it had been originally created—but then also of the memory of her own solving it, hint-free (which, when she considered it, was another one of those conceited mini-back pats that she thought actually abhorrent and made her shudder at the same time that she was admiring the piece, like as in it was a trophy of her own sense of superiority which, obviously, then made her want to take it down but which action would then become in and of itself an admission of that sense of superiority, that she had somehow acknowledged in a way that was like subconscious that she did feel superior when in truth she didn’t know how she felt about most things nearly all the time and certainly—certainly—in most senses she didn’t go around feeling herself so much superior as, yes, intelligent, but also in some other and indescribable way almost totally inferior—or at the very least fundamentally broken—was the problem, the rabbit hole if you will, of thinking too hard in that particular direction).
But then of course she’d gone over to a friend’s house (Britney’s) whose family had similarly gone on one of these package holidays and she saw that she—i.e. Britney—had the exact same box in a not dissimilar position of prominence in her own house but in a familial area, which, again, is already more communal and public-spirited than the suffocating self-centredness of having a paean to your own intelligence and/or ingenuity on display in a location where no one can mistake the author of said intelligence and/or ingenuity; which is not to mention the fact that Britney’s family had not even realised that it was a puzzle, that they had, in fact, just bought the thing because they had admired its native, rough-hewn boxiness, which, when she’d picked it up, was also well crafted in the same way but, and more importantly, when she began to let her hands drift over the familiar bevels and curves, was also solved the same exact way such that when she got around to pulling the final piece from the puzzle (approximately 12.5 seconds later) and revealing the central figure (which had actually been a little tiger figurine in her puzzle, which had only doubled her back on prior anxieties re: setting something free vs. setting something loose) she felt, yes, that lingering admiration for the craftsmanship which had gone in to such an exquisitely composed article (though the near-perfect composition and matching between the two boxes gave her doubts, as opposed to confidence, in that she suspected perhaps that the boxes were less crafted by knife by hand by some grizzled local on a tatty mat and were perhaps the end result of an altogether more industrial process, and thus her admiring of the craftsmanship would be about as valid as walking around marvelling at the fact that her mother’s and Britney’s mother’s plastic dust pans—both likely bought, again, at Sainsbury’s—were themselves exquisitely equal in size/weight/colour) but more importantly a distinct failure to recreate the rush that had followed from setting free the tiger (although Britney’s was actually a monkey figurine), the rush which spoke to working through challenges, the rush which—if you got right down to it—was the thrill of discovering something altogether new.
Which, in the long and short of it, was how she felt about the book. Yes, it took place in Japan. And, yes, she’d never read anything set there before (or at least not in modern Japan—she’d read a series about samurai and shogun and a series of dynastic wars a few years earlier). But that was not really the main attraction. It was more that the author was taking liberties with, straining the idea of, what a novel was, to her, then. It moved seamlessly between reality and dream (or, more like, between the book’s reality—i.e. the reality as the characters would see it were they to—in dialogue—refer to ‘our reality’ and not actual reality, what with the whole story being fictional and all, and the whole thing being just a kind of exercise in imagination) such that it was pretty hard to tell at certain points which was which, which only pulled her in closer. She liked that the author respected her enough to make her work for it, to sift through the details in order to delineate the ‘reality’ from dream but then—and maybe even more importantly—to lead her to ask why do such a thing? Why would you call into question the difference between reality and dream? What was interesting about that? And even with all those questions swirling around it was still entertaining.
And that thrill is a very good feeling, yes, but not a feeling that is, on the whole, incredibly forthcoming or easy to pursue, at least anymore. Anymore because, she could remember, there was a time where near enough every book had some hint of the rush in it, something that she hadn’t known or heard or thought about. Near enough any cliche could give her that thrill, like, for instance, the end of the Wizard of Oz (watched, of course, on a distant Sunday at her grandmother’s house despite the (a) painful dullness of anything old and black and white—no matter for how long—but also the (b) absolute terror induced by the flying monkeys) when Dorothy wakes up to discover that the whole story was a dream. Except now, obviously, the entire class in English, whenever they had to write stories, which was frequently, was always writing stories that ended ‘… and then I woke up.’ which would have been entirely fine if not for the fact that, for as much as they were forced to do extended creative writing, they were also forced to do a large amount of relatively unstructured peer assessment which meant that she was reading a huge amount of—let’s be honest—banal stuff that ended in the most cliche way possible. And which, what’s more, forced her then to consider one of two strategic choices. She could either (a) pretend that the ending was good and surprising and just point out something else (e.g. ‘have you thought about including dialogue in your story?’) or (b) try to address the structural inadequacies of the story head on, albeit in the most kid-gloved and hushed-voiced way possible, without somehow hurting said peer’s feelings or veering into (c) giving up, throwing her papers in the air, and lamenting loudly for all to hear that she was working alongside students who could not pronounce the word cliche if they’d just sat through an entire lecture on the subject.
Which, obviously, was problematic.
For what it said about her and the already covered issues surrounding superiority/inferiority (although, take note of the self-centred turn in that line of thought; always and forever the issue is problematic ‘for what it said about her’! There’s no escape!). Particularly when that feeling, the above mix of competing choices and sentiments brought on by the stated requirement of, like, critiquing another student’s work was compounded by the fact that inevitably, and without fail, the other student—whoever it was—when the time came for that student to offer relatively unstructured advice on herwork would turn to her and say something along the lines of ‘I just don’t know what to say. It’s already so good.’ Which, of course, gave her that little prick of shiny, happy accomplishment—a feeling, again, not unlike the thrill of something new but somehow different in flavour or texture altogether—which fed back into and deepened concerns about such matters as the size of her head (in a figurative and not—usually—literal sense), and the degree to which she in her real true heart of hearts could be said to live up to or match the ideals that she liked to think she held, around equality and democratic fellow feeling and kindness and the like.
Mr Jackson—who had been having quiet conversations with students who, if she had to guess, had earned detentions over the course of the day—lurched in her direction.
“How’s the book?” his breath like something warm and rotten.
“Yes, very good.” She nodded as she said it. She could hardly tell if she’d whispered it or shouted it or some combination of the two. She looked around to see exactly no one looking at her, which, great, but still she had no idea how that would come across to Mr Jackson, standing there above her, or really at what volume she’d said it, or in what ratio of breathiness to, like, timbre? He screwed up his face as if considering what to say next, or because of indigestion or something, but then thought better of it, nodded to himself, and moved on.
Looking back down she realised that she’d read the same sentence over and over again for the last fifteen minutes. Which- What had she been thinking, anyway?
Ah, right, not about anything in the book so much as about the book. Admiring it. Which, like the box, well, that was sort of the point. Right now, here and in this moment, she was admiring this book. And in this moment she felt that already described sense of profound interest/engagement/attraction to both the particulars of plot/character/setting but also to the formal choices the author had made which- Well, which hit the spot. However. She knew that the very next time she picked up a book (by this author or another) and it attempted to do something similar in blurring that dream/reality barrier, she knew that it would somehow excite her less than the last (i.e. this) time. And perhaps if she picked up a third book that similarly tightroped out above the yawning chasm separating reality from dream that it would have even less of an effect and, perhaps, even no effect at all! She would have to move on to another type of book entirely, something less beholden to its genre or that did something entirely different. For instance, she already felt very little use for—had kind of worn out—conventional murder mysteries/high fantasy/paranormal romance. Which meant that any of the above had to really be doing something different or new or well to have much of a shot of knocking her hair back (i.e. having her stick around much past the first 100 pages). What it led to, she realised, was that it left her chasing a literary dragon (e.g. Smaug/Drogon/Kalessin) in a kind of fictional arms race for one, that mimicked in pattern and form (if not in real-world consequences) the creeping anxiety of a junkie for a bigger and better fix. Or at least that’s what it seemed like from what she’d read about junkies.
Which, then, she kind of wondered if that same concept could be applied to life in the wider sense. As in, whether or not life itself is built on a cascading series of new experiences that gradually, over time, come to lose their previous lustre in the same way that she no longer shined on Star Wars novelisations or Jacqueline Wilson books. For one thing, as evidence, it would explain a hell of a lot about the way most adults acted most of the time. But also, and beyond that, it would prove a troubling impulse to, like, keep in check, the constantly declining novelty of life and the pressing need to keep it up which kind of made her understand and or sympathetic as to why some people have one look at this whole life enterprise and decide to shave their head and sit it out, cross-legged, on a mountain top.
But then also, and at the same time, she wondered if it was very much just her. Looking around it often felt that way. Like she was different in a way that was not just by degree but by category, like everyone else was playing by ear a piece of music that she couldn’t read and could barely even register. Take, for example, the girls in her year. Or better yet, the boys. Or certain boys. Or boy.
She felt herself turning red.
What it felt like to her, well, it felt something like a weight—like the kettle ball that Mr Shearer used to hold open the door of the gym, just a solid block of lead—in the pit of her stomach when she looked at certain other members of the opposite sex. A physical, heavy, greasy-foreign kind of feel. Like vertigo, she imagined. But, and at the same time, she could find herself in groups of girls—friends, acquaintances, people in the toilet—and listen to their conversations aboutboys and feel like she was actually listening in on a foreign language, or—more like—another species, like someone had taught fish how to speak English and now they were speaking English but all they were discussing were fish-issues which she still didn’t understand, as in she could break down their individual words by their separate meanings but when she put them all together and added them up they just amounted to a kind of garbled nothing that she didn’t recognise based on her own (albeit limited) experience. Which, even, she wasn’t sure if the word ‘attraction’ applied to this stomach churn feeling, or, also, she wasn’t sure if the feeling was even what she might call a ‘natural’ feeling or if she had brought it on herself, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, like those people that you hear about who think they’re sick long enough that they become sick, like the brain is just a stubborn, obstinate thing that can’t help to be anything but right and which will go to great and terrible lengths to ensure said rightness comes to fruition. And, of course, if it wasn’t a natural thing, then maybe it was just a product of all of these books and films and programmes she’d watched which were all written by adults and which pushed back exactly these types of feelings onto the teenaged characters and now she wondered, then, if she was actually feeling these things or if, like, she’d only been trained to expect to feel things like this, which but either way did not do much or go very far to explain, or speak to, or assuage the fact that she still felt that she was lugging around this very strong and unpleasant metal lump of anxiety somewhere in the deeper recesses of her abdomen that she—who had always and forever been fairly quiet and nervous and anxious—certainly did not need to pile any more of anything remotely nervousy or anxietyish onto an already fraught frame, however athletic it may be.
Which then, again, was what she liked about this book, these books, the rapidly decreasing number which, when she set herself to it, could help pull herself out of herself. Like if her brain was humming along, like it normally does, her brain would begin to hum a different tune, the tune of the book, and the stream of thought that she was currently rafting down would change course, would merge with the author’s and would allow her to kind of sit back and just enjoy, for once, a steady and different hand on the wheel, was another thing, which was why she chose the moment to regather herself and finally, having been open to the page for close to twenty minutes now, read the damn book.
“On the steps to the thunder god shrine, spi-”
Bradford Clark is a writer who lives in Bristol, England by way of New York City, Daegu, South Korea and London. He previously taught secondary English for six years.
Twitter : https://twitter.com/BradfordSClark
Feature image by Public Domain Pictures from Pixabay
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