A short story based on when I went to visit my old school a few years ago. I hope you like it.
The Half School
There was only one time in my adult life that I’ve experienced something that made me doubt reality, and believe that maybe, just maybe, something was being hidden from me.
I was twenty-three, at least I think I was, and I was revisiting my old secondary school. It was the school that had shaped me into a half-formed thing, and it was only after I left that I found the freedom and courage to mould myself into what I am today – not quite fully formed, ever growing inside, but a damn sight better than that hopeless, timid, weasely thing that fell about school like a lump from a vat, a science experiment gone wrong.
It was the school that had nurtured me, a surrogate concrete-and-carpets parent who didn’t know a thing about raising a child, treading always the fine line of abuse. It was the school that had scared me, sickened me inside, and crushed me to pulp, and it would hang over me like a great black cloak for the rest of my life.
I would dream of that school forever.
I’d moved eight times since then, three of which involved moving county, searching for something I never found. Which wasn’t surprising, as I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I hadn’t been back to the town my school nested in. There’d been no good reason to.
But the school and those distorted memories of it hung over my head, clouding my progress of self, and no matter where I’d go in my life I’d always see those corridors, those faces.
When you dream enough of a real place, and never give it the opportunity to solidify itself by visiting it, then the reality of the place starts to dissolve. It slowly ceases to become real.
This is what happened with the school. I have not re-visited my primary school, but I imagine if I did it would have a similar effect – stronger in some ways, even less real, but weaker in others, less inclined to bad memories and old, ugly wounds of the mind.
A friend and I drove up to the school. He had been there too, in the year below. We hadn’t really known each other then, only after.
I mentioned the dreams, but only briefly. I couldn’t explain properly, and I didn’t want to. There are some things you don’t try to explain, at least not out loud.
We walked in, knowing we weren’t supposed to be there. I was wearing a leather jacket, my hair purposefully messy. Already things were extremely unusual, to a degree beyond what I could have ever imagined.
I felt like I was walking in one of my own dreams. The fabric of the place was watery; I could run my fingers through the air that floated the corridors and I could feel it, I could feel my fingers passing through it like it came in waves of silk, but heavy, and blurry – everything was slightly blurry, just like it was in the dream. Not exactly blurry to the sight, but to the touch, to the senses: the sense of thought, the sense of perception.
I was in a submerged place, an ocean of learning and bullying, something that didn’t step to the beat of normal space-time, but flowed on its own lazy currents. I suddenly understood how the guy in The Truman Show must have felt, for it seemed that all along I had been in my own Truman Show, my own fake reality, but one constructed of thoughts and spaces. Each place built just for me, at just the right time for my use; except now I had broken the plan, going back to a place I was never supposed to return to.
They had not been expecting my coming, and so had had little time to prepare. As a result, this half-made thing that was the school and its people. Fragile and transient, and almost, almost translucent to the touch. It wobbled and it wavered, and the carpeted floors and the white walls never quite matched up. I would not have been too surprised if I could push through the walls, moulding them before me like soft clay. Then I would see what lay beyond.
I didn’t push through. I wanted to, in hindsight I should of, but I was carried along like you are in dreams, never really questioning, never really trying to push through.
I remarked several times to my friend how weird it was, how I felt like I was dreaming. The words seemed trite to my ears, in contrast to what was happening. He nodded and seemed to agree, but I knew he wasn’t the same, that this place was not acting on him as it did me.
Everything was so small, so strange, and if I had expected to point everything out in quick, delighted recognition, I was disappointed. I recognised nothing absolutely, but I couldn’t put my finger on what had changed. Everything seemed to be sinking, half in memory, half in the concoctions of dreams. I could put my hand on a wall and believe it was real, but the same could happen in a dream, and it was the same kind of awareness: being tricked by the mind, walking through water, never really knowing if you were recognising something from memory or something from another dream – or if you truly recognised nothing.
I wandered in a daze in this dollhouse, and as I did various dolls and moving mannequins stared at us, many of them stopping dead. I had expected attention, but not to the degree we got. Perhaps I was wrong in thinking we could have passed ourselves off as sixth-formers. But maybe there was more to it, they reacted with the kind of almost hostile wonder that figments in a dream do when they know you – the dreamer, the controller – are mentally awake and aware, and studying with far too great a gaze that which should remain waterlogged and fuzzy to the unconscious mind.
They could see the doubt ridden across my face, and their eyes followed me.
A clutch of teenage girls said hi to me as I passed. I said hi back, confused. A feeling was creeping up on me, a sensation of dust on me, of a gauzy layer of filth under my skin. I felt dirty, unclean.
I was sure that somebody somewhere, as though whispering it over a long-distance phone-call, was calling me a paedophile. Saying, in a hushed yet quite rabid tone, ‘Is this the Mail? Listen . . . there’s a strange old man wandering the halls of the school, he looks pretty dodgy to me . . . you know what I mean . . .’
That is not an encouraging sensation.
I am not an old man.
I’m not even a man.
We decided not to go upstairs to the next level of this place. We were slightly scared, anxious and trying not to show it. We knew we were not allowed to be there, but we hoped that being ex-students we’d have a good enough excuse to be sent out without getting into trouble.
Besides, the geography was all wrong. The way the place was set out, how one point would connect to another. I thought, having spent six years of my life with that school, that I would be on very familiar home turf. Instead I felt like an intruder, a parasite, leeching off the dull, warbling energy this made-up building and its grounds possessed. I didn’t know where I was, or what I was doing. My body seemed to remember, by instinct and muscle memory (left two three four, right two three four), and it led the way, and with each step my mind boggled and marvelled, at how something could be real and yet not.
We walked the outside of the school, by the playing field, and a tall boy stared at me harder than any other. I caught his gaze immediately, and I stared him down. He had an astounded, verging on aggressive what the fuck expression on his face, and I wonder to this day if his mouths actually formed the words. What was the problem, hadn’t he seen someone like me before? Did I have a horse’s face, did I have a tail and udders?
I continued to stare him down until we rounded a corner. I’d won. It was a microscopic victory by itself, not worth mentioning for most people, but to me it meant something, and I would always remember it. I’d never stood up to people at school. I guess what I’d really wanted in coming back here, was not to relish nostalgia, but to fight, fight my past, share minds with the child with my name who used to come here and to fight his wrongdoers and oppressors, fight and slay everybody who ever made him feel weak and small.
I couldn’t go back in time. But this place – I’m not sure time was even working here. When I checked my phone after we left, we’d only been there for minutes.
More girls looked at me.
I remembered when a friend at school – one of those friends who you’re never really sure if they even are your friend – once said I looked like a troll. I thought of those huge, misshapen things that lived under bridges. I wasn’t huge. And I didn’t live under a bridge. I never had.
I can’t remember if we were beckoned to the front desk, or we approached it ourselves. Either way we were done. We didn’t mind leaving. I was worried that something terrible would happen if I stayed; or something not terrible, but amazing and utterly uncertain, and that can be even scarier.
My friend chatted with the front desk receptionist while three teenage girls behind me giggled.
‘My friend thinks you’re attractive,’ one of them called out, or at least I think they did. I genuinely do not know if this happened or not. I do not know if any of this happened.
‘Thanks,’ I said, trying to be cool but feeling anything but. I didn’t ask which friend. They were too young by some margin.
‘How do you get your hair like that?’ the girl said again.
‘Um. Backcombed.’ I felt that slightly dirty feeling again, but staying in the front of the school and communicating with these people made me feel a bit more in control. The world was solidifying in this spot, relieved that they could structure and harden things around me.
There was the uncomfortable, greasy feeling, the self-convincing I’m not a pervert I’m just accepting a compliment, but I also couldn’t help but smile to myself, and feel bigger, brasher, confident and attractive.
I remember when a girl at school asked me out as a joke.
Balancing confidence and social discomfort is a hard act, and thankfully no more questions were asked, and I did not submit any of my own.
As we left, returning to my friend’s car, I felt such a myriad of emotions that I could not help but keep them at bay, lest they swarm and bamboozle me completely. How can one suffer such tangling, contradicting emotions as joy and loss, self-confidence and anger, guilt and empowerment, bewilderment and satisfaction? How does one wake from sleepwalking? I kept my head down, and talked idle nothings to my friend.
We left that dollhouse, that half school, and it hardened behind us.
Thinking back on it now, I can’t tell you what did happen, and what did not happen. I am remembering it like a dream of a dream. I have never known a place as it exists in the sleeping mind to exact itself so similarly in reality.
All I know is that there exists at least three people. There is the child who went to that school, who studied and didn’t study, who fidgeted and doodled and shivered with nerves, and was punched casually in the head at least once a day. That child is not me. He was never me. I simply replaced him.
There is me. I do not know what I am. Not yet. I only know what I am not.
Then there is a third person, who to that day I did not know existed. This is the half-person who was there on that singular visit to that malleable half-school. He was a sleepwalker, a vision quester, neither child nor adult, neither past nor present, but stuck in between, tied to all, and seeing the future.
I haven’t been back to that school. But if I want to find that person again, then I know just where to go.
I would dream of that dream of a school forever.