this time around, when i set foot in the school foyer, the demons don't greet me with their usual burst of terror. in fact, they don't really greet me at all; instead i am soaked in a grey familiarity that trickles down my throat and instills in me a grudging sense of irritation. i don't have the patience to endure yet another recital of pre-exam rules, or the rustling of test papers as one hundred and fifty other students sit beside me, their silence and discomfort echoed by the white noise in my head. i am not dreading it, not this time, and i am relieved. but that doesn't make this whole ordeal any less relentless.
i meet gecko at the lockers and together we walk the hallways with only our keys weighing down our pockets, all other possessions left behind, as if we are prisoners, trapped, with tools to attach us to our previous lives but no means of getting back there. that's what it feels like, if i am allowed to think about it in such a pessimistic way: every time we come in for an exam it feels like we're leaving everything behind, like the only world that exists beyond the moment we cross this threshold is a world of facts and figures and dates, a world supposedly constructed to educate us but one with no connection to our present reality. i struggle to grasp the concept of such gruelling education; i give up after a while.
i tell gecko that i need to speak to miss mirlott before we start, and he doesn't comment, just follows me to her office. i realise that i'm one of the only people who knows where it is - one of the only people who actually requires her assistance (the word 'assistance' used in the loosest sense, what with her being a moderately disappointing and unhelpful giver of guidance, despite her job title). for a moment i am embarrassed. but gecko's gaze doesn't falter, he doesn't look uncomfortable or greedily curious. he is respectful, as he always is, and so i keep my head up and try not to let the doubt crawl in: if he doesn't think of me differently, why should i?
charlie! i squint at miss mirlott's blinding smile. (i have previously compared it to the red dwarf planet: deadly, though not nearly as fascinating. just as red, though, as a result of all the lipstick). maths exam today?
would you like to try it in the hall this time? or would you prefer to be on your own again?
this makes me hesitate. do i play it safe? or do i risk letting the demons attack again? i feel like an astronaut with their toes curled over the edge of their spacecraft, looking down at something beautiful and knowing that facing it could be the most dangerous thing. conquering the demons, even just this time, would be another step towards confidence, towards unbrokenness. but then again, it could break me. besides, broken or unbroken, i am still holding myself together, and i don't want to fall apart. taking this opportunity doesn't mean weakness, does it? maybe it does; but maybe there is strength in accepting that weakness. maybe the two balance out.
maybe you should decide soon, dude. gecko's words make me jolt from my reverie. he is angled away from me, watching crowds of students make their way towards the hall. the exam's starting soon.
i clear my throat. i'll do it by myself, i think.
the words hang heavy around me and already the doubt seeps in from the spaces in between: what about all we have is now? why pin all your hopes on next time? why not push yourself?
miss mirlott's syrupy voice drowns out my raging thoughts. alright, then, let's get going! she pulls shut the door of her office with one long finger and sets off past the library, babbling something about support staff and invigilators and special circumstances, high heels clicking like woodpeckers on the linoleum floor. gecko tosses me a sideways grin. have fun with her. good luck, mate. remember what i told you, alright?
i smile back at him, a genuine smile, a thankful one, but he's gone, quick and purposeful in his pursuit for the rest of the year-group (and most likely hoping to catch up with sven). miss mirlott is far ahead of me now, hardly aware that i'm so far behind, and as she beckons me to the solitary classroom in which i will carry out my first maths exam, i think of all the lessons gecko taught me; those which were school-related, and those which were so much more valuable.
an hour and a half later, with equations and formulae and numbers still spinning dizzyingly fast in my head, the exam is finished. the demons threatened to take over more times than i care to admit, but i pushed them away by staring hard at the exam paper in front of me, burning the ink into my eyelids so that i could see it even when i surrendered myself to darkness – i forced myself to keep going. i am proud; i have a long war ahead of me but in this battle i was victorious. by now i am accustomed to the pattern of small achievements and weighted failures thst make up each day; i don't let this blind ne with too much false hope, but allow the happiness to seep into my bones just enough to smile, to warm me like sunlight, to celebrate. and next time i will return to the exam hall and face the demons on a bigger battleground. next time i will have something even bigger to be proud of; more importantly, something my parents can be proud of, too.
since Mo has a different study schedule to me she cannot greet me outside the gates like usual, but i find sven and gecko there instead. catching the sheepish grin on my face, gecko slaps me on the back, saying: well done, you survived!
sven takes his lead. we survived! he chants. we are champions! he proceeds to recite some sort of victory speech as we walk. i haven't been around both sven and gecko like this in a while, not like it normally is, and it's nice. as sven's (impossibly long and unnecessarily complicated) words rain down on us, it is what gecko said that sticks in my mind. you survived. we survived. another one down, and i haven't given up the fight.
back to studying? gecko asks no one in particular, cutting off our swedish friend mid-sentence. i laugh – at both the cruel prospect of consuming myself yet again in education, and at sven's irked expression.
sven raises one eyebrow, his gaze fixed on gecko, dark eyes juxtaposing his shock of white-blonde hair. i was in fact describing to you my plan for studying tonight, before you so rudely discontinued my elocution -
interrupted! gecko throws his arms in the air, why can't you just say interrupted!
i stop. sven. gecko. you don't have to study tonight.
but i must - sven tries. gecko looks puzzled. what do you -
band practice. this evening. i'll call gavin.
i am met with an immediate stream of protests and excuses but i refuse to give in. my movements practically unaligned with my thoughts, i turn on my phone and finding gavin's number. he sounds startled to hear from me, but our conversations are only ever about music anyway, so he can guess what my request is; with a bit of hesitation and a distant conversation from the other end of the line, he confirms. then it's my turn.
dude, you know i'm not free on school days! gecko whines. my parents will never let me come.
i can't do tonight! sven is frantic. i must look over all the work i forced gecko to do for me!
i find myself caught up in the frenzy; why did i have to mess everything up? i don't have time for this. no one does.
but i want to have time. i want to do this. i want to enjoy myself amidst all of this pressure.
can we all stop thinking about exams for one minute? my voice is firm. i know it's a risk; i know we're all busy. but we deserve this. what's a few hours going to do to us anyway? we need a break. come on, guys.
and then, quietly:
besides. all we have is now.
my friends try to protest again but half-heartedly this time; they can tell that i've got a point.
tell your parents you're doing a study session at the library, or something, i don't know.
gecko nods. i guess...
sven shrugs. alright.
we part ways; i text Mo, and by six o'clock that evening we are greeting each other outside my apartment block, the night stretching out ahead of us in a tantalising way that i had previously forgotten after gcses took over.
hi, she says, the word moulding around her lips with a smile. i kiss her and taste those two letters, the consonant and the vowel, fading out on my tongue as i seal the air between us. she is soft and comforting and familiar like she always is, and i am cold and awkward but she makes me feel like i am everything that she is. i wraps my hands around her neck and she strokes my cheek with her thumb and under this streetlight on this inevitably ordinary night, i am content.
Mo pulls away slowly and i lean my forehead against hers, twirling her hair around my fingers. the purple tips are fading. i wonder how she will alter them next.
her hand finds mine and we walk, shoulders bumping as our feet collide with the grimy paving stones. her fingers curl around the worn leather of her philosophy book, etched into which is so many of the quotes i have come to love. with her hand still grasped in mine i point towards it, shaping a question without opening my mouth.
my exam’s tomorrow; i thought i could look over it while you guys were practising, she says, her head bent low, shadows cast like branches on her cheeks from the streetlights.
i nod. are you going to miss it? i ask. philosophy?
she smiles. of course. but i’ll keep it going, she assures me, in college. something draws her head up, some thought unfolding in her head that lifts her gaze to the sky. i don’t know.
i pause, and then ask: you don’t know what?
of course, there are an infinite number of things that i don’t know, and that Mo doesn’t know, and that no one in the world knows – but as daunting and as fascinating as that one inescapable truth is, i have learnt that sometimes it is necessary to go a little deeper. there are layers of truth and there are layers of fact but stitched into those layers are feelings, and emotions, and opinions. and those cannot be overlooked simply because they are not universal or unanimous.
i don’t know about my future. Mo admits. i don’t know about me or anyone else or how their lives will affect mine and how this now will affect my now in years to come. and i love that, I love all the not-knowing….. but have you noticed how many people just expect you to know those things? she grimaces. there are a surprising number of people who have not yet grasped the concept of human ignorance.
or maybe that’s the problem, i answer. maybe they’re too ignorant. maybe they’re blinded by all of the things they don’t know, and in that darkness they create their own truths, comforting themselves with things that must be correct because they created them. and then, when those truths don’t match up with someone else’s, they assume that the other person doesn’t know. but no one knows! sighing, i add: the only thing we can truly comfort ourselves with is that we don’t know.
it takes Mo a while to process my response (i have a feeling that despite it being deeply philosophical it was also deeply confusing) but she smiles once she hears them properly, once they fit together in her head.
yeah. she says. i like that. we learnt about it a while ago, actually; einstein said something very similar. he said, reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one. and i think that if we could know anything - apart from the fact that we don’t know anything – it would be that. because, if you think about it, everything is a human concept. no fact can be explained using anything except another fact, another man-made theory which we base our lives upon simply because we need rules, we need solidarity, we need to know. and so if, somewhere, there is another race living on another planet with another name – their rules would be completely different. our rules apply to our society, our world, and since we are narrow-minded enough to not think about anyone else, we tell ourselves that therefore our rules and opinions and values must be the truth – and so we live like this, dictated by these concepts, because we cannot afford to believe anything else. but in terms of all the humans, and all the things, there are an infinite number of truths and an infinite number of ways in which those truths can be contradicted.
i nod, making sure to take some time to let the words sink in. it is beautiful, knowledge, but it is so easy to neglect.
so, in conclusion… we’re all pretending? and nothing is real?
Mo turns to me, eyes sparkling, and plants the quickest of kisses on my cheek. yes, she answers. absolutely.
and that, i declare, as my gaze falls on a buzzing neon sigh up ahead, has brought us nicely to an end.
laughing, we run hand in hand towards the music shop, and towards our friends, our heads full of wonderful and impossible things.