Sunday, May 24, 2009

A sense of belonging...

The cold blue light diffused outwards from the streetlamps into the ivory vapour of the early morning, swirling and translucent. Resounding beneath the girl's feet the crisp snow pronounced a staccato rhythm which echoed the beat of her heart. The air was filled with a sharp coldness which soaked underneath her skin and spread through her limbs, sucking her hope into its dark mass and dispelling it with her opaque breath, which clung to the air like a suspension of her existence. She was sure her turmoil was plain for all to see hanging in swaths in front of her, only disturbed by people carelessly blundering through it not realising its importance. The snow brought a radically different panorama, its universal shroud covering the usually recognisable surroundings. As she walked she felt the sensation of traversing a barren and unknown land.

Despite the cold, this was a sympathetic environment to her mood. It was as if the world was a mirror for her feelings, a river flowing through her soul, which she looked into now and saw herself quizzically staring back. She sighed with the foreboding of the decision which she had to make, with which even her own imagined reflection could give her no aid. Today, for the first time, she was required to cross the expansive wildnerness of her own heart. She wondered whether she'd notice the introspective turn to her journey, whether there would be a discernible difference between the outside adorned with frozen beauty, and the inside. Would that be frozen too? Or would she be able to reconstruct her life around her true feelings as she yearned to do, the emotions which she had denied for so long because they would create situations which she did not wish to confront.

The first stage of her reformation would bring about an irreversible change in her life. Today she must face the sweetest, most sincere and noble boy in the school and reject him. Reluctance nibbled at her bones, threatening to dig its teeth in deeper and to take an unshakeable hold. For she did not wish to hurt him. Perhaps a few days ago she would have agreed to a date to spare his feelings, but today she'd woken up with her own feelings at the top of the pile. She used to be so considerate that she would do whatever was required to make others happy. She was a chameleon, changing herself to suit the people she was with. Each individual person she knew had a different image of her, they thought they knew her. She has masks for every occasion, but not one was true and not one was right.

She preferred to sacrifice her own happiness for the feelings and pride of others. She'd been told this was passiveness, whilst she politely would wait for the opinion-deliverer in front of her to finish, wearing a mock appreciative smile and her passive Sunday best. She'd heard it all many times, that she needed to be assertive and that she was doing herself an injustice. Before today she'd never really felt enough compulsion to be anything different, but she knew that entering into it for the sake of the other, that excessive consideration and pretence, was no basis for a relationship. She knew she had to be honest, that the only way to be considerate to the other person involved was to be considerate to herself first.

By this time she had reached the bus stop. As she leaned against the reliable, upright post her eye was drawn to a red wisp in the tree above. She looked up to see the tree clutching on to its last leaf, without which it would be naked. She remembered when this tree was laden with blossoms, it had been beautiful and instantly adorable, standing out from the surrounding flora. Now it was just a skeleton of its former glory, yet it was not ugly. Standing there unveiled it was still the same tree and had not changed its substance, but had merely melted into the background. It no longer harnessed the eye with its plummage, but it was at peace with its wintery surroundings. She considered that perhaps permitting people to see behind her masks might give her a similar feeling of peace; that unveiled with the skeleton of her personality showing she might discover where she truly belonged in the world and more importantly amongst her friends.

She began to ponder what people would think of her. The kind boy and she had mutual friends, they had always existed in the same social circles. Her friends might become insecure and her friendships dislodged. They would give their sympathy to him and desert her. Instead of finding a place to belong she might alienate her existing friends and this sense of belonging would become a fleeting memory. It would melt from her warm palm like the snow, perfectly formed whilst observed from afar but unable to sustain its form once snatched from the ground where it lay or from the sky where it fell. She was filled with foreboding and her eyes began to well with frustrated tears. The snow began to fall again silently, settling lightly on her as if nature itself was extending a sympathetic hand.

Through her distorted vision, filled with tears and obscured by the dizzy flakes she caught a glimpse of a bus approaching. She brought up her hand to wipe the tears from her eyes, but before she had finished this action she noticed that it wasn't her bus but a coach. She often saw this coach on its way to the day centre and school for the handicapped. She was interrupted in the midst of what she was doing, struck by the comfort she felt from this familiar sight. Occasionally she would smile and wave as the coach passed. She could empathise with these children, life was difficult enough for her with the use of all her limbs and being able to communicate. She carried a steely lump of the uncommunicated parts of herself, which she dragged round some days with great difficulty, so she felt she could understand. She expected that her usually friendly face and cheery wave would gladden the heart of at least one of the passengers. If she could brighten someone's life just briefly then she could feel like she was an important part of the world.

This morning though she did not want to smile, the compulsion to spread joy to others could not overcome her trepidation, and yet she could not help looking up and staring into the wide-eyed windows of the coach. As she focused her eyes through the dancing flakes she locked eyes with a boy who exuded omniscient sympathy. Her hand never reached her face. It remained, floating between the pocket it had been shoved into to keep warm and her face, no longer the subject of her intentions.

Suddenly the coach screeched to a halt, braking heavily causing the passengers to be thrown backwards and forwards in their seats. The driver had not been paying due attention to the road in front and had narrowly missed ploughing into the back of a row of parked cars that he had mistaken for the general flow of traffic. The people on board the ill-maneouvred vessel treated this near tragic event with starkly contrasting reactions. A few were clearly very disturbed by the break in the expected routine and the bus was a sudden flurry of movement of carers tending to those who had decided to be vocal or physical in their reactions. The majority of the passengers had a very different reaction though and treated the event with varying degrees of nonchalance, bordering on indifference. For their lives were packed with surprises and every day was a swirling mess of hazards and joys haphazard enough to rival any snowstorm.

The coach had set off about fifteen minutes previously. The atmosphere inside the coach had quickly grown sultry, as for the majority of the occupants the ventilation system was a mystery. To some it was something to be feared; to the others it was often too difficult a task to communicate to any desired effect so it remained switched off. The boy often found this frustrating. The day centre catered for all types of disability, meaning that there were some severely handicapped children in both mental and physical ways. During these journeys he could almost forget his physical disability completely as he was just required to sit there until he reached his destination. At these times he felt like he was the same as the other children he saw sitting in the windows of the large comprehensive school they sailed past just before they reached the day centre. He would try to avoid being placed at window seats in the classrooms on the West side of the school as he could see this school physically, which he always saw in his mind every day: picturing his life as an agile pupil there, leaping up the stairs to the admiration of a gaggle of girls gathered at the top. His fantasies always seemed to involve climbing stairs. This was the one thing he wished he could do the most. People probably didn't particularly enjoy climbing stairs, but he would if ever he could.

He didn't really blame his schoolmates for their fears and their reliance on the daily routine. He had a strong character and had learnt to cope with his inhibitions, he understood that not everybody could accept the difficulties so easily. For some of them the trauma of leaving the familiar surroundings of their home every day and travelling to the day centre was phenomenal. He often wondered how they would cope if they had to live in the harsh reality of the outside world. He thought how easy it must be for able-bodied people, but was there really a fair comparison to be drawn? He always has resources to use and people to help who were there especially for the handicapped, but other people were just expected to cope. If he wanted to be judged on the same terms as them as regarding his abilities and his intellect then he should have to face the same struggles and traumas. This was the vicious circle of his position, he would never be able to live his life on his own terms and truly be alone. He fluttered over a different type of abyss. He would never be driven into the ground by poverty or sudden loss of ability. Instead his existence was threatened by the prospect of irrelevance, of always being a burden without ever really having to prove his own worth. He was given an unfair advantage, he'd been let out of the blocks early, like the kids in the playground giving headstarts to the slow kids or the fat kids out of fairness and to encourage those who were never really expected to finish the race. But these were notions of equality derived from childish dreams and niave standards of perfection. He wanted so much to compete on the same terms because the real world was based on fanatical materiality and ability and he didn't want to fight reality, he wanted to embrace it, he wanted to feel the desperation of failure and he wanted to understand longing and loneliness.

Most of the problems which he faced were prejudice and people's reluctance to forfeit convention for equity and intelligence. Some preconceptions were archaic, about the sound body equalling a sound mind for example. He often got talked around and ignored, or worse than that were the patronising piteous looks. Some people would talk about him in his presence, saying it was a shame because he was quite a good looking chap really, or would declare that they were glad they weren't like that, that they would rather be dead. At that moment he would rather they were dead as well, but he never wished it for himself, all he felt was frustration and anger, never self-pity. He had a capable brain, he was currently engaged in doing his A-levels, with special equipment and helpers he could study and communicate his thoughts well enough to rival any able-bodied pupil. He was just like "normal" people; whatever that meant.

Although he was well practiced in handling prejudice about his abilities and appearance, and he had a guaranteed prospect of a career with the mixture of his intelligence and the help he would receive to take advantage of positive discrimination, his love-life was a different story. There were no government grants, no special funds, and no able-bodied assistants to sort this out for him. Some girls felt intimidated by him and did not understand him, others didn't want to be laden with his problems. Yesterday he had finally gathered enough courage to ask a girl out, who lived down the street. He had admired her from afar for a long time and at last had come the recognition that admiration had turned into love. He had withheld his feelings for what had seemed like an eternity. This was the only part of his life where his fears overpowered his will and he was restricted by the cowardice which to him was painfully evident. This love had been like a rose, but he had never had enough courage to pluck it. He had been scared that it would wither within his grasping hand and so he had merely showered silent wishes upon its beauty. He had felt sure that this way rejection could never crush this flourescent effigy and its eternal sweetness would be retained unblemished. However silence and abstinence had made his obsession more intense and it could not longer be contained.

He had not really considered what he had expected to happen before he held his heart out to her. He had hoped and prayed that she wouldn't consider looks to be as important as personality, that she would take time to discover his inner character before dismissing him and that physical features would be relegated to practicalities instead of being used as excuses. He had been rejected by many girls, all of whom he realised he had expected this from. This girl was different, he felt sure of it. She enjoyed communicating with him, she made the effort and she seemed to be genuinely interested in him. He fanaticised that she would accept him for what he really was and recognise the things he truly had to offer to her. He had actually, in a moment of unrepressed relish, expected her to say yes. A girl had to sometime. Surely? He had finally found a relationship in which he felt he could really belong, all the pieces seemed to fit together, like a jigsaw which had been feared never to be finished because a piece had been lost. He had fitted the description of the perfect character to which he thought she could relate. But this cherished effigy of love which he had nurtured in his heart had been ripped away and crushed by one simple "no". He felt completely empty. His confidence had slipped through his numb and bumbling fingers; dragging his sense of belonging down with it; smashing into the floor into tiny shards which he could not help but run over with his chair and which he could hear splintering when people walked round and about him.

He had been looking out of the window with an oblivious stare for most of the journey. His attention was drawn outside when he noticed that the snow had started to fall again and at this point he spied the forlorn girl on the pavement. It was apparent that she had been crying, he could see the tracks of the salt water which had cooled her flushed face and now threatened to crack her visage into icy pieces. Standing there, punished by the hostile weather, for a sin which he couldn't fathom by looking at her sweet face, she looked like a monument to his own depression. He could not help but be drawn to her and he imagined alighting from the coach and comforting her. He would give anything to be able to walk at that moment, just for that one single moment, if only to approach her as an equal and give her the consolation which she seemed so desperately to need.

He was basking in imagining her endless gratitude when he was suddenly brought back to reality with a jolt as the bus jerked to a hasty stop, narrowly missing a serious accident. A few of the more skittish children were very disturbed by the incident and he swayed in towards the window as the carers rushed from the front of the bus to tend to them, but most of those on board seemed indifferent. He could not look at those faces blanked by unconcern. It did not seem right for them to be so negligent of their lives simply because they did not live in a world of consequences and responsibility. So his eyes remained transfixed to the window through which he'd been looking moments before.

Through the dashing snow which now had grown to a frantic but muted crescendo against the smooth, cold window pane, he looked more closely at the lonely figure of the girl leaning against the rigid post of the bus stop. She was perfectly still as if she'd been interrupted during an intended process and her continuation through time had been temporarily halted. The scene resembled a grainy black and white picture through the dancing snowflakes. In her stillness she received his attentions with an apparent aloofness which was in danger of turning his heart to cold smooth stone. A fear froze its way up his back which carried nagging realisation to his infatuated brain. He did not wish to shatter this one remaining dream by allowing himself to admit that this girl thought of him in the same way as all those before her. He was overpowered by a recklessness with which he was unfamiliar and a new-found confidence to ignore the risk of rejection. He decided to take a chance. He denied the risks which had restricted his past and smiled warmly at the bedraggled girl, trying to convey all his support and comfort into one single expression. A lone missive of intent.

Straining to see clearly through the falling snow, the girl studied the boy with the omniscient look more carefully. At first he seemed to be disturbed by her inertia, of both body and expression. She thought she had caught a change in his face and a glimpse of contempt in his eyes, which flooded her head with pungent sorrow, dampening her spirits still futher. Then he seemed to relent and he smiled at her. She could feel an aura of hope and irrepressible optimism burning a path through the wintry air, radiating from his genial face. She warmed to him immediately, she felt relieved that all of the world was not indeed against her now that she could see a friendly face. She absorbed the scene thirstily, becoming drunk on its potency. It elated her to think that she would always have another chance to get things right. She would embrace the dreaded task facing her today with a new courage knowing that the prejudice against her would at least not follow her back here, that she would have a minute strand of the world's tapestry woven here in her favour. There was a bond between this boy and herself which could not be broken by anyone except themselves, because they were the only ones involved. She heartily returned his smile and could see the delight in his incandescent face. She was amazed that such a simple gesture as a smile could brighten two people's lives so greatly and change them forever. It seemed so excessively romantic that it must be untrue. Surely this didn't happen in real life?

The distance between them seemed to be amplified by the snow which filled the space between their gaze, like a window clouded by condensation. Yet the distance between them did not matter because they were united in their minds and they had ignited each others' spirits enough to dispel the cold. He knew that she welcomed his supportive attention and she in return knew that he needed her adoration. The barriers in both their lives preventing them from pursuing their desires had melted away in the heat created by their intent stare. They were not frustrated by the absence of speech, or of physical closeness, because these were exactly the aspects of their lives which each in turn was finding to be causing so much heartache and uncertainty. The magical feeling they shared was there despite the lack of these things, or perhaps because of their absence. They both felt strengthened by each other's presence and they knew that the image of this moment, recorded and committed to memory, could easily be replayed in slow-motion in their most needy moments. Each moment seemed to have been augmented, filled with so much emotion and experience, that they felt like they had known each other forever.

They knew that life would be easier now that they had given each other strength to face this day. They had exchanged their admiration and had forged an indelible connection, which could not be ruined by either party's actions as they would never have a chance to share any more than a stolen moment together when their lives interchanged briefly. But they had given each other a new confidence and determination which could only ever grow day upon day as they saw each other for those perfect moments in time. They had given each other hope and a sense of belonging.