My first day of school was spent in a sea of confusion. My dad was there for a moment and then he was gone. I remember sitting at a table of loud and dirty children, all smothered in orange sauce and brown smudges and paint splats on their clothes, and having to pick up toys and play with them. Reception: for the first few months no one notices anyone because there are too many aliens in the room; so many colours, new things to feel and to touch, eyes to stare into, new languages, new manners, wrinkled faces of ancient sewing teachers and round faces of food technology teachers and straight faces of maths teachers—and then there’s everyone else your age, too busy taking this all in to understand they are coexisting with classmates, and if they only took time out to ask someone a question, they would realise that everyone is just as confused as they are—and they will laugh, and make a friend for life.
My first day of year seven was spent in a lake of chatter. A girls’ school, I stood cautiously by my new form-room door and waited: new braids for the day, new shoes and a bag that I felt would preserve me as a vintage and stylish teenager. I stood and waited and watched as the older ones flitted past me: short skirts and milky knees, thin ankles with bracelets, short socks with coquettish flares, Kickers and Converses and dolly shoes. My eyes locked with a strange and dark pair: two girls who I later knew was from the year above me stared at my perplexed, stupid face until I grew hot and nervous, and then they left me there, alone by the door with their twisted, fox-like snickers echoing in my ears. If only I had tried to search for someone who looked like I did and was comfortably quiet. The rest of the week I tried to be with people bigger than myself and I fell away, a wilting offshoot, and ate my lunch in the toilets until I could go back into the fray and participate, rather than wait on a broken boat and hope that the waters will never be as tumultuous as my earlier childhood; that one day soon I would conquer something of significance.
Lather, rinse, repeat through six-form and work and life and church and every place I could go where I would be new and different and always near the point of drowning, hoping I would be better in social situations and that at uni I would discover my true self, the sleeping creature from the bottom of the loch.
My first day of university. I was washed away on a pebble beach: coerced into parties, tempted by alcohol and locked in cubicle toilets (it was the alcopops: high in caffeine and bad for my bladder). Mum and Dad and the family friend who had driven me 200 miles away from home left with little flourish and I unpacked my suitcases and arranged all my Argos-value gear around the room. I took a quick glance in the cupboards to see the spoils of my roommates’ food: tins upon tins, industrial sized everything, as if we were storing away for a nuclear disaster. I felt unprepared with a few sachets of Uncle Ben’s rice and my packed lunch that I had been too nervous to eat on the journey. I sat in my room and waited until we all introduced ourselves. Afterwards came the dreaded First Night and I felt alone standing in the middle of a dance floor that was not made for me, holding drinks that I pretended were regulars; slinking against the bar in a distorted imitation of real revelers. I returned home and sat down and read some books; the next day I bought more books and my student loan was almost finished within a month. So much alone time; so many books. Snippets of conversation passed me by during strange intervals of student life: instant-noodle couples arguing by the bus stop, a young man bursting through the doors of the doctor’s surgery, snatching a chlamydia kit from the STD awareness bin only to exclaim, “Fresher’s Week: what a bloody start!”; hearing a tearful girl explain to a counsellor that she was lonely and hadn’t made any friends and wants to go home.
If only I had spoken to her, then we would have realised that pretty much everyone was lonely and scared and paranoid, and we would have laughed, and gained a new friend for life.