Wednesday, September 25

Absentee

THE HALLS BORE an unsettling resemblance to old army barracks, lined up after each other, largely featureless, and giving the feeling that they were alive, breathing very slowly. Family cars were parked all around in the warm September park. On this occasion the fire-doors were opened, stayed by red fire extinguishers, a recent breeze breathed back into the building after a summer of dormancy; many entrances for the new students and their parents, carrying boxes of new crockery and mementos from home. Faint grass paths, which had attempted to resprout over the summer, were grazed open, patted by trainers going here and there from car door to empty room; and myself in the mix, staring, with a nervousness I had not known before, at this all in front of me.
   There was a smell in the halls all their own. It upset one’s nostrils and formed a gag at the back of the throat: bad cooking and worse ventilation, cobwebs, stagnant laundry. I unloaded my things. Without much care, I put all the boxes in my room; I would sort them out another time, after my parents had left.
   … After my parents had left.
   They would leave, eventually—until then my anxiety grew by the minute. I sized up my new hall-mates, not sure whom I would be required to follow, fight or fuck, as if my university career would depend upon it. All of it seemed like a grand mistake of mine, a miscalculation, and I was soon to pay for it. The buzz of the motorway cars over an A-road and a stack of trees, saddled the air constantly. Out of my window—both at the rear of the halls and the utmost edge of the campus—was a bare patch of ground, half-mud and half-pebble. The light pink-orange of the pebbles was plain to see, even in their desiccated state; weeds flew their flags in the cracks, a thin skirt of dying trees and then the neighbours, civilians, working people who, I had almost no doubt, already hated my guts, having never even met me.
   My mother and I ventured to the communal kitchen, through the bustling corridor without a single ‘Hello’ and a dozen home-smells caught on peoples’ bed linen. The smells were most noxious in the kitchen; breathe through the mouth; the windows only let in the warm, wet air from the trees. My mother began to look for a free shelf, which, like friendships, affections and drinks offers, were to be leapt upon at university, lest they end before they began. With a disgusted hand she pulled a pink heart-shaped Post-It note from a shelf; on it was written—‘Jenni x’. She studied it on her finger as though it were a dead fly—‘Ugh! Who is this? Stay away from her. She seems awful.’ ‘God,’ I said—‘don’t worry, I will.’ I wondered if I would ever strike up a romance with Jenni, from convenience and obligation more than anything.
   Caught between apathy and the intention not to create too much dirty laundry, I went out that evening in the clothes I had worn all day, dusty though they were and sticky with sweat. I heard people’s names and did my utmost to memorise them. I drank. The stink of the club was beating around me; lights; camera-flashes; the nauseating stench of someone’s vomit in the corner; toilets that couldn’t wait to be cleaned; untied laces that dragged in the piss; a d.j. lapping it up; all this nonsense going on for the first time of many. I sipped and partook, I suppose, not because I wanted to but because it seemed like the easiest way to get along and, above all, that seemed the path of least resistance.
   ‘So this would be it,’ I thought. I cast my eyes over everything and considered that this could be my lot. I remembered my nightclub debut, not a month previous, when I had, for the first time, realised that maybe everyone was getting it wrong or, on the more calloused hand, that I was dancing to a different rhythm, so to speak. I watched them dancing around me—I was stood, motionless, in the middle of the dance floor—and could not, for love nor money nor heavy drink, bring myself to dance. My flat mates, eager to appear jovial and fun, encouraged me to dance but I swatted them away and smiled as politely as I could.
   ‘This is rubbish.’
   Some of my new friends stared at me with uninterested eyes and drooping lids. The lights played colour on their shiny skin.
   ‘I could break out of here,’ I supposed—‘Look at them queuing!’ Outside the door a queue still stretched around the building. Their heads—bubbles in the light. When would they come in? Was my attendance as necessary as theirs? I was indeed a waste of an occupant. The drunks, enthusiastic and misguided, stumbling around, did not amuse me. Out there was exclusion; in here, acceptance. I would take my leave.
   I apologised, claimed I was tired and left. Guarded by doormen, the queue regarded me as a fool, someone who would dare to leave so early on a night such as this! the beginning of our little piece of forever. ‘Let them have it,’ I thought. I said to the doorman who nodded at my exit—‘Cheers. G’night.’
   The cold of the night startled me. Had autumn really arrived so soon? I went back along the unfamiliar path. The windows of the halls were alight, precious gemstones of yellow and closed curtains. The people behind them were thinking all sorts of thoughts.
   My room closed behind me, took me in its frail arms and withheld me. ‘This is some kind of hell.’ I lay on my bed.
   The vibration of a mobile on a bedside table is a most disgusting sound. I pressed it to my ear—
   ‘Hello, dear.’
   Mother.
   Of course my youth had prepared me: through the walls of her belly to extended school trips, the sound of my mother was a warm bath of love for which I could find no greater substitute. She was most disappointed and sad with me for leaving the club so early, though she did not say it, perhaps because she knew that it was not me and that I would be okay in the end. My newly upholstered bedsheets smelled of home and of her because she was a home larger than the house I lived in, many miles away, near the sea and all I was familiar with, plucked, unearthed and a little woozy; this was too much for me on my first night. I listened to her talk and gave it my all when it was my turn. She told me she loved me and I her.
   The silence after the click is often so awful that one might be tempted to hold the phone carefully as if it were a bone that had just fallen out of one’s leg.
   Tears came.
   Tears come when you don’t really want them to, yet you have to stomach them for the good of your jaw muscles.
   They came and came as though impersonating the ending to a good porno.
   After five minutes my jaw muscles started to hurt and I tried to control them, but it made my jaw muscles hurt even more.
   I brushed my teeth—breathing through my mouth—and opened the window—feeling the cold on my cheeks. Sleep didn’t feel like it did at home; it felt like the accomplice of exhaustion. As I closed my eyes and slipped from one thing into another, I heard the laughter talk tear-up footsteps of my hall mates arriving in from the club. Trying very hard, I blocked them out. There was a good wind entering the open window and waving all over my bed. I gave a school performance of sleep, not accurate or genuine but a good effort all the same.

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