Sunday, 11 August 2013

Bully for me

Some things I never did as a child:

I never took the school hamster home for the holidays.

I never had a limb in plaster.

I never played Mary in the school nativity. I was never in a nativity. We never did a nativity. Sometimes I wonder if it was really a school.

I never shoplifted high-currency teenage items (lipstick, cigarettes, Monster Munch). Or low ones (Woman's Weekly, bird feed, Dentufix).

I never escaped through a secret portal in my bedroom into a magical land of benign but fantastical wild beasts who greeted me as their queen and leader.

Also, I was never bullied.

Occasionally, over the years, I've wondered how I managed to escape it. I was brainy and a bit odd, with a whole buffet of physical eccentricities for the persecutory to pick over – deathly pale, sparrow-legged, jagged-toothed, sharp-featured, frequently unwell.

At the time, of course, I never gave it a moment's thought. 'Are you bully bait?' was never one of Just Seventeen's interactive quiz elements – unsurprising, given the infinite matrix of boy-related trauma to exploit. I sailed along on peaceful waters of unadventure. Once, I remember, I stumbled upon a girl I liked a lot – she was quiet, funny, a bit nervy – having her arms pulled hard in opposite directions by the scariest girls in the school and shamefully hurried past, on my way to play an urgent game of elastics, I imagine. She became very ill some time after – one of those crippling viral mysteries that may or may not propagate from emotional exhaustion – and was off school for months. Even in my youthful ignorance, I was shocked by how weak she was when she returned, as I watched her being helped around the playground like a pensioner.

Now I think about it, though, I realise I always had a gang. Not a big one, or a cool one. We weren't sniffing glue in darkened shopping precincts or setting light to waste bins. But we were a tight and loyal pack, united by the serendipitous fact that we all fancied different members of Duran Duran. I was rarely separated from those girls – I never grazed far from the herd, was never easy to isolate for the purposes of Chinese burns and bogwashing. You would not have found me drifting alone, 'asking for it' in the wrong coat and bad shoes – just one more oath of unspoken thanks I owe my parents. Also, during the years when I may have had to flee, gazelle-like, for my life  – or my lunch money – across the playing fields, I was one of the fastest runners in my school, however unlikely that may seem now. (Clue: really very unlikely.)

I don't know which god of the playground was watching over me. (I like to think it was the giant floating head of John Taylor, huge hair shimmying in the heavenly currents – distinguishable from the real John Taylor because his hair would never bend in the breeze.) Anyway, the fact is I escaped.

Until last summer.

Anniversaries are having a moment at the moment, aren't they? It's a year since the Olympics.  It's ten years since Breathe by Blu Cantrell featuring Sean Paul was Number One. Let the human race still be remembering both these things in a hundred more years. I'm pretty sure they will. And it's a little over a year since someone was systematically behaving with cruelty and vindictiveness towards me, in order to get something they wanted, which they weren't entitled to, and shouldn't have had. Ahh, balmy, gilded 2012 summer days.

I can't say exactly what happened or who was involved. Regular readers who are familiar with the thrill ride of my life will assume it's some matter of international espionage, drug running or high-level sexual power games. At the very least, they'd assume I'm bound by some kind of super-super-injunction. I'd applaud them in this, because the truth is incredibly mundane. Yet the feelings the experience produced in me were every bit as stressful and emotionally painful as anything I've known in my life. The kind of proper, lying awake at night, heart bumping, soul churning, unable-to-think-about-anything-else upset that persists until it is outrageously, complacently claiming a place in the top ten worst things that have ever happened to you, unseating important, precious things that are genuinely worth your distress – bereavement, the wrench of a break-up, deep sadness for a friend. What a waste of the terrible times, having to spunk them on some idiot misguidedly intent on ruining your life.

The polite among you may be saying, 'How did it start, Miss Jones?' The rest: 'GOD, is she EVER going to get on with it? Because, seriously, I've read shorter Tolstoys.'

How it started was with a series of light psychological punches – no big deal in isolation – which I attempted to parry with the following mental blocks:


'That's a bit off.'

'I wonder why she would do that?'

'It will probably blow over.'

'Oh. It's really not blowing over. Oh well.'

'Hmm. She still seems to be doing that mean and very hurtful thing. How strange. She probably doesn't realise exactly what she's doing.'

And then, eventually:

'Oh. She does.'

All those little blows must have given me some kind of concussion because, for a few weeks, I couldn't see just what was going on. Instead, I doubted myself, thinking what was happening was probably my own stupid fault.

Of course, bullies love that shit. In the cold, clear light, I can see that's Bullying 101. It's Now That's What I Call Bullying. It's Bullying For Dummies (Although Bullies Are The Real Dummies, Which You Will Learn If You Buy Our Other Hit Book, How To Stop Being A Bully For Dummies).

But I'm nothing if not entirely British. My every cell loves tea and talking about trains and hates making any kind of a fuss. Even though being scared to open your email or answer the phone because of the repeated actions of one person probably does merit some kind of a fuss. I didn't feel that what was happening could possibly warrant the term 'bully' yet, by any definition (except those relating to the quiz show Bullseye), it absolutely did.

When confusion and surprise move out, hurt outrage moves in. Seriously, those guys can not share a living space. And it always unravels with the cleaning rota. I'm a nice person. Sometimes I tut at people on the tube and leave rubbish under my seat on the train, but I'm fundamentally a B+ at nice. Maybe even A-. And I consciously surround myself with other nice people. Yet somehow someone had breached this in order to target me. They had picked me out of all the people in the world to be horrible to. That is a shitty kind of a raffle.

As adults, we're rarely out of control unless we choose to be, with bungee rope, large amounts of alcohol, recreational drugs, or babies and young children. It's unlikely anyone will force us into a municipal swimming bath or over a gym horse, or order us to do any of the above in our underwear. There are acts of God and human tragedies, but most days we get to say no. Yet suddenly I was feeling powerless and frightened. This was not the adulthood I had been promised! Where was my sense of grown-up self-assurance and my wardrobe of cashmere?

And also this: before it all started, I was serenely independent and content (as Professor Higgins sings in I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face). Or, more technically, single. I had my own home, a career and a lot of friends. I walked tall. I ate alone in restaurants (I mean, not all the time, I'm not weird or anything). I was proud of all that. I depend on me (as Destiny's Child sing in Independent Woman Part 1). But I felt very strongly that none of this would have happened if I'd had a boyfriend or husband and wasn't plugging away at life alone. Or, in fact, if I were a boy (as BeyoncĂ© sings in… oh, I've forgotten the name of it now). I can't tell you how much I hate that.

Still, through it all, she remained – assiduously, relentlessly turning the screw. Like Miss Trunchball's less forgiving sister, the one people don't like as much as Miss Trunchball. But, crucially, not, in the eyes of the law, doing anything wrong. Because it turns out that behaving like a total shit is not in itself illegal. Really? There are small people living in a slim box in my pocket who can play any music in the world through my headphones, yet no one's sorted that out yet?

And the awful consequence of that is that you end up becoming a little more like her – hardened and spiteful – in response. Soon I was sitting in middle-brow restaurants with my friends, eating our aspirational mezze and making unthinkably dark jokes about the ways in which I might kill her, in order to end all this. Then going home and lying awake and thinking what might happen if someone actually did kill her; imagining the police questioning my best girls, seeing their faces as the investigating officer said, 'How would you describe Miss Jones's relationship with the deceased? Did she ever display aggressive feelings towards her?' 

It ended eventually. It always does. I stayed strong and I saw it out. 'Strong' is not conventionally defined as wanting to cry, do a massive poo and start running and never stop ALL OF THE TIME, EVERY DAY, which was exactly how I felt. Strong was purely superficial in this instance. But it was enough. I always knew superficial would have its day. 

In a manner of speaking, I won. This absolutely does not mean that I killed her and got away with it. It means I escaped from the situation and she didn't get exactly what she wanted.

In another, more profound way, she won. She got a little of what she wanted and I am left, still, with the aftershocks. I still feel a shiver when I travel through a certain part of town. Still spend morning showers and train journeys wondering what I would do or say if I ran into her. I'm less trusting.

But what, I hear you asking, Terry*, was the real secret of my (small, semi-) success?

I had a gang. Not a big one, or a cool one, but five-star, rock-solid back-up. Metaphorically, they held my coat while I squared up to fight. Literally, every single day, one or more of them was patiently telling me to hold my nerve, be brave, not rise to it; that I was in the right, that I was better than this, that it would soon be over.

There are more of them in the world than there are of her.

*Little Commitments throwback for anyone excited about the new Roddy Doyle book