My daughter is wearing odd socks to school. It’s Anti-Bullying Week and the wearing of odd socks, if not compulsory, is strongly advised. I’m fairly pro them as a small gesture to a larger point, and it’s easier than the full non-uniform, which tends to cause a last minute panic. It occurs to me that wearing odd socks, whether by design or by accident, was exactly the sort of thing that might have got a person bullied back when I was at school. Maybe that’s part of the point, too.
I was bullied. At least, I think I was. It’s hard to be sure, looking back, because while the mechanics of it; taunting, hair pulling, mockery etc would be fairly bad now (at least by my daughter’s teachers’ rigorous standards) back then I suspect it was all fairly universal. I caught the bus to school, and it took an hour and a half there and two hours back. Left to their own devices, kids can be grim.
There were three of us in my year, the youngest on that bus, and I was the smallest, and we were like chicks in the nest, scrabbling and fighting, beaks and claws. I was the innocent, too, disturbed and appalled when, on the second day of secondary school one of the other two said, ‘What, seriously, you’ve never had an orgasm?’ and shrieked with laughter.
Even now, I think of her, with her pointed nails and plucked out brows, how impossibly old she seemed to me, then. Her glamour. Her scorn.
When I look back, my memory is of a life unbearable. The only time I can recall like it was in the days after the birth of my first child; the sense that every hour was something to be borne, that things could never improve, would always be as they were in that endless and impossible moment. The sheer weight of my unhappiness; each day a new and looming terror. It can’t always have been winter, but in my memory those days are very, very dark.
Maybe fifteen years ago, maybe twenty, I had an e mail from that girl, from her. She told me a little of herself, that she’d had kids, split with her partner, stayed in the same town. That life had been hard, for a long time, but it was getting better. She said that she wanted to apologise for how she’d treated me, when we were children. She was sorry.
I read it, and read it again.
And then, I replied. And I did not say, it’s OK, I forgive you. I said how happy I was, in London. How successful I was being, the fun I was having. It was not true, of course, or at least, only a version of the truth, a web that, far away now, I was in the position to spin. It was a reply of careful cruelty, designed to hurt her. I wanted to make her feel small.
For the truth is, I could not forgive her, still can’t. Perhaps, if we had met. If we’d spoken. I want to find out if she knew what she was doing back then, over and over. I think that she did.
Now, too, with my adult eyes, I can look back on details of her life that meant little to me then, know that she had been having a horrendous time at home, that she must have found it tough to be left to fend for herself for such a large part of the day. I can see that she, too, was eleven. She was so young.
I did not write the words she needed because I could not feel them. Instead, I wanted to say, despite you, despite what you said and what you did, I am OK. Better than OK, I am doing well. I am all the things you never thought I would be. I am no longer small.
But worse, I wanted to hurt her. I wanted to do deep and lasting damage.
She’s dead now. Perhaps I should have said that sooner.
So we’ll never have that conversation, or any conversation. It was in her power to hurt me, and she did, and then it was in my power to hurt her, and I suspect that I did. And it’s Anti-Bullying Week, and my daughter puts on her odd socks, and I think back to that time, and it’s over, and it’s not over, and it never will be.
And my girl goes off to school, leaving me with the other two odd socks in my hand. I can’t pair them up, can’t do anything with them. I hold them, for a moment, then throw them into the wash, and I feel like shit, about it all.
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