it is seven am when i am woken by my father leaving for work. i have two exams today, and the thought of repeating the events of yesterday make my stomach drop to my feet, and i am drenched in cold fear. because i am aware that not-knowing is important, but when i am stuck waiting whether the demons will attack, stuck thinking of the aftermath, stuck hoping that i will keep it together... that is when not-knowing seems less like a good thing and more like something i wish i could change.
i begin to shiver, my head aching as every thought is amplified to the extreme. i can't panic. not now. i hide under the blankets of my bed and wait for quiet, wait for numbness, wait for calm. i picture Mo's face: i concentrate on painting every freckle and every mark, every crease in her lips, every sloping curve of her features. i close my eyes and succumb to the darkness; i feel love spread through my veins, so intense that it burns away the fear. i can breathe normally again. that is, until my mother enters the room.
charlie, she she says quietly. charlie, you need to get up.
and it all comes crashing back down.
no, i reply hoarsely, scrabbling among the blankets. you can't make me. i can't do it!
she reaches for my hand; i turn away. charlie, you know you have to do this.
i can sense the pain in her voice. i think of her waiting even after my father left, waiting for me. did she think that i would be like this? does she understand me more than i thought she did?
charlie, she says again, each letter laced with desperation, each syllable breaking with sadness. charlie, please. there's nothing you can do. it'll be better today, i promise.
i shake my head; i have no more words. i suppose that she is right, that i cannot escape this. no amount of procrastination or pleading will mean that i do not have to walk into that hall today, and tomorrow, and every day until it is over. i am not an exception; i am simply a number, the signature of yet another candidate in yet another school who is signing away their future. but i am afraid, so afraid of what might happen if the demons take over again.
please, my mother says. her voice cracks. please, charlie. for me.
and there it is. her final card. every round has been played, every trick drawn and defeated, and this is what it comes down to: guilt. it's almost funny, how, even after all this time - after the arguments and the therapists and everything else, after how distanced i am - i still don't want to be the child who makes their mother cry.
wordlessly, i raise my head; i hold my mother's gaze, match those lifeless eyes with my own. i hope she realises how twisted this is, how the only motivation i receive is that if i do this, if i try again, it is only so that i do not leave my parents in pieces. i wonder if they realise that i myself am already in pieces.
after i am dressed and ready - as ready as i can convince myself i am - i realise that i am forgetting one thing. passing my mother in the hallway with a blank glance, i reach for the rubiks cube and slip it into my bag. then i leave the apartment without saying anything at all, handing my mother the cold fate to which i have become tragically accustomed: the painful emptiness of a silent home.
the corridors are far from silent when i reach school; the bustling crowds make my skin crawl. i arrive substantially early to my physics exam, hoping for a chance to compose myself beforehand, only to be dragged off to miss mirlott's office for a meeting. if i was despairing about the exam, i am now in even more despair. it is ironic how my i dread the guidance given to me by my guidance counsellor.
charlie! she greets me with a smile so sickly that i want to gag. i think we are both nervous about what happened yesterday and the prospects of what could happen today. (as if sitting in this stupidly bright office in front of this stupidly positive woman is going to help that.) i try my hardest not to roll my eyes at her as she pulls out a leaflet with the words stress management printed on the front in glossy rainbow letters.
it's a bit late for that, isn't it? i say dryly. miss mirlott laughs politely. (is there anything about her that isn't fake?)
i thought you might like to read this in light of yesterday's... episode. she says carefully, proffering the patronizing monstrosity between two lacquered fingernails.
if you call that an episode, you certainly don't want to see the whole series, i think, taking the leaflet with an equal amount of distaste. i cannot think of anything to say which will make miss mirlott understand how hard it is to keep the demons at bay, or how difficult it is to prepare myself for a situation in which i have previously panicked. a panic attack cannot simply be postponed as if it were a programme on television; there is no schedule to this cruelty, and thus there is no way to stop myself from panicking: i never know when the tsunami will hit. unfortunately my guidance councillor seems to be unaware of this, which i assume is the reason why she is good at neither guiding nor counselling.
despite this, she is, for once, a bearer of (somewhat) good news: we've arranged for you to do today's exams alone, just to get you comfortable, she informs me cheerfully. but hopefully after that you can go back to being in the school hall. how does that sound?
i let out a breath i did not even know i was holding. so much for battling the demons: today, at least, i don't have to worry about panicking - at least not in front of people. and all we have is now, right?
of course, there a far too many chances of me still panicking, and this news doesn't stop the anxiety from making my heart race and my blood run cold in my veins. but it introduces some small (but no less significant) chance that maybe i won't panic. maybe i'll get through this one. and with all the unfairness and frustration obliviously handed to me by my mother this morning, after she tried to motivate me in that sick way of hers, i need all the optimism i can get.
so. miss mirlott (rudely) interrupts my thoughts. how about we do a bit of meditation before your exam?
i grimace. i think i'll pass.
miss mirlott doesn't seem to hear me. she crosses her slim legs over one another on her chair and starts counting to ten in a slow, soft voice. her eyes are closed. carefully i scrape back my chair and tiptoe out of the room before she can open them again.
i pass by the school hall on the way to my classroom, realising with a strange sort of disappointment that i haven't seen sven or gecko at all in the last few days. i immediately spot sven's shock white-blonde hair amongst the throng of people and make my way towards him.
charlie! he nods at me in the most sven-like way possible: a curt tip of his jaw before an influx of ridiculously posh and complex words: good morning. i hope you have convalesced after yesterday's rather unfortunate turn of events?
i raise my eyebrows. um. yes? (i have found that in most cases it's best to just nod and smile in response to sven's questions, as it is difficult to work out what he's saying without using a very large dictionary.)
excellent. he replies.
just about, i grin weakly. it's hard to know when sven's being serious and when he's being casually light-hearted. i decide that today it's the latter.
hey, where's gecko? sven and gecko, despite constantly arguing like a married couple - that is, if married couples argue about computer game scores and model cars, and call each other 'dude' - also rarely go anywhere without each other. it's endearing in a very odd way that i have yet to understand. i'm not sure if want to.
sven's eyebrows knit together. actually, i'm not sure. he went off somewhere. sven glances around, then goes back to singing (what i assume to be a swedish rap song) under his breath. i resolve that finding gecko myself is the best option.
the first place i look is the library, and, unsurprisingly, it turns out to be the place gecko's hiding. he's slumped at a computer desk, his shirt creased, his face grey with worry. i know that face too well. something's wrong.
hey, i say flatly.
hey. he replies. wasn't expecting to see you today.
can't exactly take a sick day during gcses.
gecko looks away, his eyes dark. wish i could.
what do you mean? i say dazedly. gecko has always been the studious one, the one who never misses a deadline, never forgets a task. i can't imagine him fearing these exams; he's easily the most prepared in our entire year.
he says nothing.
i sigh. look. you've been studying for this forever. what have you got to be worried about?
i don't know, he says in an exasperated tone. not passing. not doing well enough. not getting the grade which i've convinced everyone i'm going to get...
...because you haven't convinced yourself? i finish. he nods minutely.
gecko. i say seriously. this must be easy for you! honestly? i thought you'd be sort of looking forward to these exams.
he gives a heavy laugh. yeah, right.
c'mon. we all know you're going to ace every test.
gecko turns sharply, his eyes darker, glinting with anger. yeah? and what if i don't? what if i fail to live up to these ridiculously high expectations that everyone's set me? he throws his arms up. hell, where did this reputation even come from? i work hard. i have to. that's what people expect, so i do. but what if i disappointment them? what if they're mad?
gecko, i cut in hesitantly, gecko, no one's going to be mad at you if you don't come out of here with top grades. at least you will have done your best -
but that's not what they see! gecko shouts. that's not what my parents see; it's not what anyone sees. one step out of line and suddenly i'm heading for a terrible college application, an awful university and a job that doesn't pay enough. he shakes his head. who was it that decided that 16 year olds have to determine their fate by a bunch of stupid exams?
tell me about it. i say quietly.
he doesn't seem to hear me. it's just the pressure, he says. the pressure of being good all the time. i don't want to ruin it but at the same time i want to break away from it, you know? i don't want to always be expected to just ace everything, because... he sighs, looks at his feet, rubs his eyes; he says: because you just don't know.
i cannot think of anything to say; i never expected gecko to stress like this. he's always been the one who has it under control, the oke who everyone is secretly envious of. i guess they didn't realise how hard it hit him.
i am suddenly reminded of yet another of Mo's quotes; one which we discussed on our walk home one afternoon. she was talking about a friend named Lily, a girl at Mo's school who is just about as shy and quiet as me. she's so reserved, Mo said as we walked. she's hardly noticed by anyone who doesn't bother to stop and appreciate her. everyone just sees her as the lonely girl. but i was sitting with her at lunch and i - i remember Mo stopped then, smoothing over the crack in her voice with a cough. i saw scars on her arms. Mo said. this beautiful girl, this wonderful, thoughtful girl, and the only thing she can bear to burden with her troubles is her own skin. Mo looked at me with eyes full of sorrow and sincerity. everyone is fighting their own battles, charlie, she said. battles that you don't even know about. so be nice, and tell good jokes.
the words emerge from some distant part of my mind in that moment when i struggle with what to say as gecko sits in front of me. everyone is fighting battles that you don't even know about. so be nice, and tell good jokes.
i shift in my seat and finally bring myself to look gecko in the eye. all i can do is repeat his words; i don't think mine will be of any help. you're right, i say honestly. you just don't know. but there's some comfort in that, i guess, because no one knows. we're all as blind and helpless as each other. but we can try to know. and no one can blame you for not trying hard enough.
the shadow of a smile flickers across gecko's face. we're all blind and helpless? great pep talk, dude.
i shrug, embarrassed. i decide to try another tactic. knock knock? i say, without much conviction.
gecko shakes his head with a laugh. fuck it. let's just go and do this exam.