Today’s prompt asked me to write about why doing something right ended up feeling wrong. I’ve interpreted this rather loosely with a somewhat ASD narrator who needs everything to be ‘right’ and inadvertently causes problems for othes in the process.
Stuck in the Midlands With You
Guilt was the glue that held our relationship together.
When people ask me why I hung around so much with Helen Sutcliffe when we were in high school, I never tell them the truth. “We lived near each other,” I’ll say; or, “We both liked the same band”. The real story is far more sinister, but I can’t keep on living a lie.
I was an anxious child at eleven years of age, fearful of everything and two weeks into secondary school still without a proper friend. I didn’t fit in, you see: I was small and skinny and clever, and the girls who were popular all had the right shoes and the right bag and the right make up – yes, some of them wore mascara to school at that age – and an easy confidence which enabled them to sashay around in their unflattering uniform as if they were strutting the catwalk in the latest designer outfits.
The boys in my year group were an unruly bunch – they were still suffering from the immaturity that made them think flatulence was funny or that pulling up a girl’s skirt to see her knickers was an acceptable mating ritual; and when I was forced to spend my hour’s lunch break with them in the school playground, my misery knew no bounds. By the end of the first week, I’d developed the art of hiding round the back of the science labs, as far away as possible from the raucous games of football and the shouting and screaming that seemed to be the expected form of communication.
That’s where Helen found me. I was standing a few feet away from the wall, bouncing a tennis ball back and forth in a complicated game I’d devised for myself. “Can I have a go?” she asked. I flinched, not liking the idea of anyone else invading my private world.
In the end, I let her join in – not because I wanted her there but because she simply refused to go away. She ruined the game too, claiming that my rules were far too complicated and that my final challenge – back to the wall, legs apart, bouncing the ball and then twirling around in time to catch it as it rebounded – was ridiculous. I could tell she thought she was doing me a favour by replacing ‘double bounce, on the wall, clap and catch’ with ‘left-handed throw’, but it just wasn’t the same. I spent most of the next week trying to avoid her, but she always found me.
And in fact, it was her fault that the whole incident happened. Luckily she was in a different class to me – we weren’t set for subjects until the following year so we were taught in mixed ability groups, chosen by surname: I was an ‘A’ and she was an ‘S’ – and I didn’t have to do any lessons with her. She was always waiting outside my classroom door at break and lunch time though … After a while, I wondered if she left her lessons early on purpose – just to make sure of catching me.
Anyway, on this particular day, she didn’t even wait for me to come out of the classroom – she just stormed in while everyone else was leaving and decided to help me pack away so I could get out faster. (I’d started tidying my desk fastidiously in the hopes that it would keep me in the classroom and away from her for a few more minutes.) Completely ignoring my established routines and rituals, she grabbed a handful of the felt tipped pens I was lining up in alphabetical order and stuffed them randomly into my pencil case. I was so traumatised by this anarchic behaviour that I panicked and dropped my ruler – and then Helen stepped back and trod on it and I suddenly found myself in possession of two pieces of ruler. What was worse was that the ruler had cracked unevenly, leaving me with one part that was much longer than the other. I almost cried with despair.
For the rest of lunch time, I was too upset to speak to Helen. I had prided myself on my perfect school equipment; and the thought of those two bits of plastic made me physically ill. I still have an uneasy feeling in my stomach even now when I think about it.
It must have been about five minutes before the bell went when Helen had her bright idea. “You could Sellotape the pieces back together,” she said.
I knew that Miss Jones, my form teacher, had a roll of Sellotape in her desk, but I didn’t want a taped-together ruler that looked like one of Doctor Frankenstein’s experiments. What if she had something better than Sellotape though? I was pretty sure I’d seen a tube of glue in her drawer when I stood by her desk as she was hunting for a red pen the other day.
My mind was made up. I would go to the classroom now and ask Miss Jones if I could use her glue. Relief flooded me; the solution brought a smile to my face.
Annoyingly, Helen followed me back into school. “Where are you going? Why aren’t you talking to me?” She was still asking her inane questions as I reached my form room.
Her eyes widened as I opened Miss Jones’ drawer. “You can’t touch the teacher’s stuff!” she hissed.
My fingers closed around the tiny tube – I knew I had been right; but was there enough in here to do the job?
Taking the two pieces of ruler out of my bag, I laid them on Miss Jones’ desk. This should only take a few seconds, I told myself, but although I squeezed the tube as hard as I could, nothing seemed to be happening.
“You have to pierce the end with something sharp,” Helen told me. I hadn’t realised she was an expert in household repairs. She wrested the glue from my hands and studied it. “There should be a pointy bit on the cap. … Here.”
She handed it back and I took it from her gratefully, realising this was the only time in my life I’d actually been pleased to have her around.
Flushed with success, I squeezed again, expecting a tiny dribble to drip onto the piece of plastic I was holding in the other hand. To my horror, what looked like the entire contents of the tube suddenly squirted out in a joyous bid for freedom – right onto Miss Jones’ chair.
Frozen in shock, I gazed at the clear liquid, wondering if I could dip the broken end of my ruler in it before it started to set. Helen looked at me unsympathetically. “You’ll get in trouble for that.”
She was right. My careless accident would be viewed as an act of vandalism. “Don’t tell,” I begged.
She looked at me slowly, Machiavellian wheels already spinning in her brain. “Okay,” she agreed, “but you’ve got to start being nicer to me. I want you to be my best friend.”
The bell sounded before I could reply. As the rest of my classmates streamed in through the door, Helen slipped away quietly, and I slunk to my seat. With any luck, no one would notice I had already been in the room when they entered.
Moments later, Miss Jones appeared and made her way towards her desk. I felt my heart start to flutter. Would she notice the mess on her chair?
Apparently not, because she sat down on the gluey substance without even noticing it and began to take the register.
It was only later on, when she tried to get up from her chair and start writing on the board, that I realised the full implications of my mishap. Try as she might, Miss Jones couldn’t extricate herself from her seat. The veins stood out on her forehead as she exerted every last ounce of energy, but she was well and truly stuck.
Looking back, I realise that I should have said something, but I was so mortified at what I’d done that I couldn’t speak. The superglue had effectively moulded my lips together so that all I could do was watch in horrified silence as she pulled and tugged, growing increasingly more frustrated by the minute.
One by one, the rest of the class began to catch on. The quiet whispering became a louder murmur as pupils turned to their neighbours, nudging them excitedly and speculating about what was wrong until finally, with one last, superhuman effort, Miss Jones wrenched herself free from the chair, leaving most of the seat of her trousers behind her.
I don’t think she realised what had happened because she strode confidently to the board, turned to face it and began writing down simple equations – all the while affording Class 1A a spectacular view of the frilly pink knickers she was wearing on that particular day.
The boys started the sniggering, but the girls joined in pretty quickly too. Before long, most of the class was laughing hysterically while poor Miss Jones kept on writing, every now and then turning around to glare at us for being noisy. It was only as she returned to her desk that she caught sight of the remnants of trouser material stuck to the chair and knew that she’d been inadvertently flashing us for a good ten minutes.
Miss Jones went home early that day and was “off sick” the following week. In the meantime, my year group had a special assembly in which the headmaster castigated us all for the malicious trick that had been played on one of his teachers and threatened to cane the culprit – once he caught him. I stole a quick glance at Helen when he said this, but she was sitting demurely, making her face look as ignorant as everyone else’s – she might have been annoying, but she knew how to keep a secret.
So that’s how Helen and I became best friends. For the next five years, she stuck to me like that damned superglue, boring me to death every break and lunchtime with her eternal anecdotes about her guinea pigs and her horse riding lessons. She didn’t even take the hint when the boys in our year group started growing up and became worthy objects of affection: I had to invent after school flute lessons just so I could meet up with Martin Jenkins in one of the music practice rooms at the end of school instead of walking home with her.
We parted company after O levels: I was going on to do A levels at the girls’ grammar school in Kings Heath and she had an apprenticeship lined up in hairdressing. We promised to keep in touch, but we never did – I suppose that was one of the benefits of living in a pre-internet, pre-mobile phone era.
I never did mend my ruler.