ACT II: TERRA INCOGNITA
“I write to be heard silently” Anonymous
“We must rediscover the distinction between hope and expectation.” Ivan Illich
“When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I could do it myself.” – Mark Twain
The journey to school to be one of stark contrasts: It begins in my ward. I’ll leave specifics nameless, suffice to state that the ward I reside in is in identified in the country’s top ten percent socially deprived wards (yet neighboured by affluence) and I’m sure you can take an educated guess. It’s surprising how the 236 bus route can radicalise your entire perspective of inequality. For ten minutes, we pass through my ward the every corner of my vision is saturated in decaying, unsightly buildings and deliberately idiosyncratic, achingly-hip apartments and gated communities dotting the stratified, continuously in-flux locality. These physical monuments of inequality come complete with gyms and under floor car parking for the over-worked professional/automaton (take your pick) constantly necessitating the ample factors for gentrification/colonialism at a domestic level. Again, take your pick. After these 10 minutes it’s the terra incognita, the unknown, forgotten lands of the journey. 1930’s semis divided by the monstrosities of a dual carriageways and overarching concrete skyways. Not dissimilar from those lying forgotten beside the A406/ North Circular. Slowly falling into disrepair and decay, these homes haven’t been cohesive community or neighbourhood in a generation. “Here was the collateral displacement of free-markets and porous frontiers” in the words of Faulk’s A Week in December.
After a myriad of bus stops and convoluted turns into little known roads, the gentrified neighbourhood creeps up silently: Once languishing in an economic nadir far below the abyss. Now block upon sash-windowed, white-painted block is crammed with artisan bakeries, pretentious eateries with similarly preposterous names (Nobuku?) and art galleries. Well, you get the idea: The thriving hub of the petite bourgeoisie. Achingly hip “yummy mummies” their wide dual bugaboo prams (their indispensable accessory) complete with toned yoga bums and vintage attire flood with the pavements which I navigate left and right to avoid and abscond quickly into the school building, located in this neighbourhood complete with church spire. It’s an all-boy’s comprehensive, formally a catholic about five decades ago. For a self-confessed “multicultural” area, it was certainly funny that I was a marginalised black swan among the white eyrar.
1230PM, ROOM 9
Mr Powell epitomised “The Man”: Bloated and red-faced, officiously middle-aged and unashamedly conservative (the cunt) and almost certainly racially prejudiced, he was everything I stood against. All this barely masked a seething sense of his insecurity and frustration. He had held his position as head of English for thirty-five years and frequently referencing his upcoming retirement: “I don’t need this! I retire in seven months!” Then he would go back to his copy of the Daily Mail.
Despite my love for English language and literature I despised him and he overtly despised me. Tuesday was the same formulaic paradigm of antagonism, framed upon another day: “Wake up Osei!” he would boom across the classroom noticing a relaxed hand sinking into a low cheek. This was just me being attentive. “I am awake” I would retort nonchalantly. This uninstructive discourse had ping-ponged back and forth for many months. “Ok, get your copies of Journey’s End out and we’ll start from where we left off” he boomed as the cliques shuffled and shoved their way through doorway and proceeded to their respective territories of the classroom where they began their isolated pockets of rapt “conversation”. I found a seat where ever there was one, in between the cracks.
Every day I modify my voice; disguise it, flitting between cockney-esque colloquialisms and working-class clichés in the locality of my neighbourhood in particular with Mr Gunawardena, the Sri Lankan newsagent proprietor such as “That’s it at the end of the day” before cringing internally for saying such stupid statements.
At school I seldom speak, and Cynthia Oséi rarely, correction never, attends parent/teacher evenings. As such I can re-invent myself, be whoever I want to be. A blank slate. The “fake” voice manifests itself as BBC bland and region flavourless, but nevertheless well-to-do and the suggestion of education is firmly laced with the crisp (often too crisp) elocution of vowels and consonants. We’ll talk more about this at Saturday’s tournament” Concluding his golf parley, not so silently so that everyone in the classroom, whether they liked it or not, heard. Martin as usual was seated adjacent upon the desk closest to Mr Powell and had been chatting familiarly during break time along with his two “friends”.
Martin. The Oxbridge twat. Although he hadn’t either attended Oxford or Cambridge it was held by everyone within the school that he would attend either one of these institutions in the (very) near future and subsequently achieve pre-eminence in whatever field he decided to effortlessly conquer that day. One of the best minds of my generation. Cure cancer? No problem. Re-plant the Amazon? It’ll take the afternoon. Fix global socio-economic, political inequality and injustice? No, don’t be stupid you cretin.
Okay, maybe I’m being a little facetious here as admittedly I was highly jealous (and underlying admired) Martin. Everything was in a divine, blissful orbital radius for him: academic excelling, highly popular (for questionable reasons, the sycophants had come out to play) and not at all dorky as you would have expected. Quite the antithesis in fact: a social life rivalling the most well-to-do glitterati, and no I’m not being hyperbolic. And so another lesson began and it was, suffice to say, highly uneventful.
“What’s Sherriff doing in this particular scene with Stanhope?” Powell asked around 10 minutes into the lesson. Not a hand is raised. Seconds go pass. “Anybody?” he demanded. Pained and reluctant, Theo raises his hand. Just to keep proceedings moving. With a malignant inflection: “Yes. Oséi”, pointing to Theo. “He’s being introspective and highlighting Stanhope’s emotional state” “He’s being introspective sir” Powell emphasised “and don’t attempt to be clever Oséi, it doesn’t suit you”. The class releases a collective chortle, in collective detest against Theo, not because Powell’s, the relentless merchant of his own terrible gags, was particularly amusing. “Then why am I here?” Every eye in the room swivels around to meet Theo’s. The response was unprecedented.
“To learn Theo” he edified with condescension
“… So, to not be clever?” Theo hit back with faux-ignorance “Get out Oséi!” “Why? Because I’m black?!” In retrospection I shouldn’t have pulled the pathetic race card.
“You’re not black you’re mixed race you cretin” Martin interrupted. Again, the class erupts with a laughs on all sides of the classroom. Even the real cretin’s laughed. For they knew not what it meant.
“Shut up” Theo retorts in futility to Martin. “Oséi, out!” Without reluctance and in abject silence Theo strode purposefully and exited, practically swinging the door off its hinges, 60 eyes tracked upon him until he was outside. And then class room, like the last minute and twenty seconds hadn’t occurred. After what seem like a perceived aeon, Powell cruised outside with a self-righteous veneer; his tense (impossibly thick and unkempt) brows moulded into a tight “m” and clenched folded arms screamed silently: “I’m in charge” over his beige argyle sweater and well-pressed slacks complete with pleats.
“Come back to this classroom after school”
“Yes, a detention Oséi! This is somewhat of mixed ability group Oséi, you know that” The shrilly bell rang leaving a welcome pause in conversation and another lesson wasted. “What’s the purpose in learning if there’s no challenge?” Powell exhales a futile sigh. “You’ll never learn. Come and get your bag”. Under his breath he added to himself: “The Rivers of blood, eh?” as he walked back into the classroom.
As the very last hues of sunlight vanished from the sky for another 13-14 hours, Theo left school. Alone. Detention could wait.
The journey home: Cramped and clammy, a buzzing, itinerant hive of morose workers and commuters. Lives returning home. It’s scary although equally reassuring how safe I feel in the presence of strangers. Maybe it’s because I have nothing to lose. Or perhaps something more profound: The small, surprising connections between strangers that remind us we’re not alone. I have yet to make a small, surprising connection.
The 236 encircles the estate, but never drives directly through the roads on which it’s situated (an apt metaphor for my life: wondering aimlessly in the middle of somewhere). As such I have to walk parallel to the concrete walls that encircle the estate (think ghetto walls rather than an impenetrable fortress) until I reach one of the four exits (North, east and so forth). I arrive from the west as the series of inter-connected walks and avenues converge upon the expansive concrete acres originally intended by the visionary, original 60’s architects to nod to a pleasant cohesive communal experience, now quite the contrary. The only thing that remained down here was the endogenous isolation inherent in its design as well as a kebab house and a newsagent frequently robbed by baseball-bat equipped opportunists fixated upon acquiring cigarettes and alcohol.
And there “they” were, smoking cigarettes, five of them, barely centimetre in length. No stretch of a simpleton’s imagination to identify cannabis consumption. They were blocking the only entrance into the tower (due to fire safety regulations the walkway counted as the second worryingly). Frequently referred to as chavs, yobs and scum in the mass-media. Though these words immediately dehumanise their subjects, They stared at each other. Across a chasm, not of ideological self-interest or even intelligence. Under all men lies a nethanderal, environmental conditioning comes secondary to overwhelm default emotion, sexual wants and personal desires. The primal half of the raging dichotomy. Theo was not so different from them.
“Look who it is” One said with delight attired in a black addidas tracksuit, rocking backwards and forwards on his BMX as Theo walked closely to the door, attempting to ignore them.
“Oi, Bruv” The other in the Nike tracksuit pressed against the wall made no discernible attempt to sound erudite. “Got any change on ya?”
“Don’t fucking lie” “I don’t” Theo insisted, pausing before the door.
“How ‘bout a mobile?”
“No, just fuck off okay?!” And that’s when the fist flew into my face and the remaining four joined in. A horrific beating ensues.