Please Note: This is Ep.8

Please click here for Ep.7

(As everything I write is true, certain names have been changed to protect identities.)

8. Sweet Retreat 

A switch had been flipped. Although at the time I thought all households were like mine, I knew something wasn’t right in me anymore. I wasn’t happy and carefree all the time like I used to be. In any case, I was an expert at masking my feelings in front of others, especially at school. I’d been an exceptionally bright student at Stag Lane primary and middle school in Edgware, and my teachers loved me. I wouldn’t say I had many real friends there; however, my best friend since nursery school, Heather, had moved away with her family, and my best friend since then, Jaimini, had turned on me all of a sudden.

The school had appointed me as Deputy Head Girl, and when it was announced, not only did Jaimini distance herself from me, she ganged up with the ‘cool girls’ and bullied me. They would do things like skip past me in a line and smack me on my head one by one. They’d talk about me and titter in huddles together. I was a ‘teacher’s pet’ and a ‘nerd’. I wasn’t ‘cool’ enough for them.

I didn’t understand jealousy then, I didn’t understand why my best friend had turned on me. I didn’t know then that girls who are incredibly insecure act that way. We were eleven years old. This was also the year I’d come of age. I’d gotten my first period and I was only the second girl in my year to get it. I was a ‘woman’ now, and this added fuel to the fire and broadened the divide even more. I was heartbroken.

I wish I could have told myself all the things I know now. That it was about them and how they felt about themselves and not about me, that that’s how bullies operate. I wish I’d been able to talk to someone, to dust it off and only focus on succeeding.

I found no solace at home because of all the fighting and tension in the house, and I found no solace at school.

I would lie to my mother that I was going to ‘so and so’ friend’s house in the school holidays and sometimes convince her to give me 20p to spend on treats or sweets.

The truth was, I wasn’t going to any friend’s house. I’d take the 20p, go and buy as many penny sweets as I could, then sit on a street bench and eat them. Eating sweets alone became my drug. Over time, I’d beg my mother to up my allowance to 50p or £1, so that I could buy more sweets and sit alone somewhere to eat them.

I don’t remember ever talking to anyone about this. I couldn’t talk to anyone at home because they were all dealing with their own issues and I didn’t bother talking to anyone at school. My teachers didn’t think anything was wrong; I aced all my tests, got good grades and performed my Deputy Head Girl duties with no complaints.

Nearing the end of my time at Stag Lane, my teachers tried to encourage my parents to send me on to Henrietta Barnet, the best all girls, state school in the country, where they offered subjects like Ancient Greek and Latin (one of my cousins who lived close to Henrietta Barnet studied there, she went on to Cambridge University), but it was a few stops away on the train, and my parents were, quite rightly, concerned about sending a twelve-year-old girl on a daily, train commute to school alone. They both worked and wouldn’t have been able to take me themselves.

Canons High School was within a safe walking distance from our home, and my brother was already enrolled there, so that’s where I ended up.

By this time, however, the closeness my brother and I had shared as little kids had all but disappeared. Although we attended the same high school, we never walked to school together. We were twelve and thirteen years old now, and I suppose he was too much of a lad to walk with his sister, plus he was struggling with his own trauma just as the rest of the family were. We never talked about it though, we didn’t ask each other how we were doing after the fights at home. Even when I was being beaten, he usually looked on with his hands in his pockets, saying nothing, then shut himself in his room. He also never mentioned the old man and neither did I. My brother lived in his own bubble and I lived in mine. I remember, he would pristinely iron his uniform the night before, make his own breakfast, and be washed, dressed and out the door, playing football in the school playground before classes started, long before I’d enjoyed my first stretch and yawn of the morning.

At school, we never hung out, and we never walked home together. I was a pretty young girl and I never saw this as a good thing; girls in general, were mean to me, and my brother’s school friends would often tease him about me, or worse, spread rumours. Words like ‘slag’, ‘slapper’ and ‘whore’ were commonly said about a girl whether they had ever kissed a boy or not. (Boys who get rejected can be really nasty sometimes, and incidentally, a boy in the same situation was called a ‘stud’ and applauded by his mates). I guess this made my brother see me in a different light and it was hard for him to deal with.

We were no longer as close to our friend circle as we had been as kids either. We were all coming of age and it was like the curtain of childhood was drawn back all of a sudden and we saw each other very differently. I was no longer one of the boys; even games like hide ‘n’ seek now meant that one of the boys might try to hide somewhere alone with me. The childhood games we’d played together had lost their innocence, showing us that boys and girls were indeed different. In any case, kidulthood had set in and everyone was busier, caught up with their own lives and school work now.

When we got home from school, we ate dinner, usually in front of the TV and we watched all the after-school TV programmes until the early evening. It was the norm for us at that age: come home, watch telly. If the weather was good: hang out outside for a while, then watch telly. If the weather wasn’t good, which in England, it usually wasn’t: watch telly.

After-school activities, or extracurricular activities were something we just didn’t do. The immigrant dream was over and reality had kicked in, the mortgage and bills needed to be paid. My brother was allowed to go to Boy Scouts, and I did start martial arts classes and Girl Guides but I had to stop as we couldn’t afford them anymore. I’d been in the choir and the band in middle school and was learning to play the trombone (because it was the only instrument left to choose from) but if I wanted to continue, I had to buy my own, and again, we just couldn’t afford it.

My father was a heavy smoker and I wondered if he quit smoking, would the amount saved be enough for our activities. I was sure it would have been but I didn’t dare say anything. We even stopped getting the daily and Sunday newspapers to save money. I’d loved reading the children’s magazines in them and although I was far too young to understand it all, I read every page of the paper. In primary and middle school, I had been a complete bookworm and would devour every children’s book that I borrowed from the school library. Every day I’d proudly carry my clear-plastic book folder with the colourful zipper and my name on a sticker at the front, and check out new books. Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl were my favourites. I didn’t even want to stop to eat when I was reading Matilda. I think I read it in a single afternoon. Everybody knew that for birthday and Christmas gifts I’d be happiest with books. But the passion for everything dwindled and I lost focus and interest once all the drama at home started and I hit high school.

So, every day, once we’d eaten dinner and my brother and I had done our homework – which I also did sitting in front of the TV sometimes (don’t try this at home kids!), if there were no fights that day, we’d all settle down for the evening in front of the telly and watch the family shows till bedtime; mostly game shows like Blankety Blank, The Price is Right, Blind Date, Blockbusters, Catchphrase, Family Fortunes, The Generation Game, Telly Addicts, (which is exactly what we were, and yes, there really was a programme called that), and more.

School – telly – school – telly: a constant stream that had only one outcome, a dulling of the mind. We obviously didn’t learn to communicate well. We stood by and watched each other suffer. We didn’t talk about the darkness that had taken away our childhood innocence. We didn’t talk about our father’s temper or our mother’s tears. We didn’t talk about my secret sugar dependency, our friends, or our struggles at school.

The volcano was quietly bubbling away inside. The thick, dark smoke was clearly billowing in front of my eyes, enveloping us all. I didn’t know yet what a volcanic eruption felt like. I was about to find out.

Please click here to continue to Ep.9