I’m a lucky girl. I’m white and, no matter what was going on with dad (story for another time – maybe), my mum did all she could to make me happy. She was also very determined for me to be an individual and refused to get me a primary school uniform – that’s Elementary school to most of you. “You’ve got years to conform, why do it when you’re a bloody child?” were her exact words, bless her cottons. Of course, I endured the head mistress’ snide remarks about “one or two people letting us down,” but that was really it, and now I can trot merrily in full on rainbow fluff past a group of cackling wenches and feel no shame. Thanks mum!
Not everyone feels the same, though, and some people believe horrible things. It’s obvious when you say it now but, like I say, I was lucky. I was aware from afar of people who believed horrible things but I’d very rarely met them, and they weren’t people I was supposed to be impressing.
I thought my boyfriend in college (around age 19) was the most amazing person ever born and that we were the first ever people who’d fallen in love. We made people sick and didn’t care. I thought he looked like Kurt Cobain – only happier and with less heroin. We wanted to know everything about each other and he took me to meet his parents in the summer holidays. It went really well and we got married. No, you know that didn’t happen.
We arrived in Fulham. For those who don’t know, Fulham is very well to do, being right near Chelsea. To me, who came from an ex-council house, it was as if I was visiting Royalty. A woman – his step mother – opened the door and gave me a look. I didn’t recognize that look at the time but I know now she was eyeing my tie dye trousers, blue spiky hair and nose ring, wondering what on earth her husband’s son was playing at now. “Hello,” she said stiffly, “dinner’s nearly ready. We’re having lamb.”
“Oh,” I cursed my boyfriend with all the might of one adrift at sea shaking his fist at God, “I’m vegetarian.”
“Right,” she stared at me as if to say, ‘of course you bloody are.’ She turned to my boyfriend and said, “I wish you’d told me you were bringing someone. Well, come in, we’ll sort something out.” If I could have stuck pins in him, never mind a voodoo doll, I would have done.
Their house was enormous and swallowed me whole, personality and all. If I were the woman of my dreams I wouldn’t have let it bother me, charming them with wit and warmth, finding common ground with which to make conversation or ask pertinent questions. But I’m me, and that’s fine, and I just sat there gulping like a fish thinking of things to say before dismissing them as stupid. She and my boyfriend ran through a list of well-practiced small talk: How’s college, it’s fine, how’s (insert however she spends her time), during which a man I can barely remember entered, greeted us and took his place at the table. My boyfriend twitched and fidgeted, eager to impress this Easter Island statue, but his attempts at interaction were met with only superficial interest. His wife did most of the talking which was a double edged sword. “So, what do you want to do when you finish college?” she asked me a she deposited vegetables and potato on my plate, which I remember being very nice.
“Really? What kind?”
“Um, not sure yet.” I was sure but I couldn’t say. ‘I want to write weird stuff’ didn’t seem like a thing that would go down well.
“I see,” she gushed hysterically. I felt sorry for her. We sat down to eat and, as I shoved a roast potato into my mouth, she said the words that smashed through the room and shattered any pretense of normality, “It said on the radio a plane crashed in China and, by the time they got to it, it had been stripped of everything. You can just imagine all those Chinese like a little army of yellow ants crawling over it, can’t you?” She threw her head back and guffawed. I looked up sharply, my boyfriend catching my eye. That was it, his look said, I can’t fool you anymore. This is my reality. His father chuckled along with his wife. I stared at her, remembered that staring was rude and tried to swallow my potato, which went badly. I sipped water and silently choked, that time-honoured British instruction pounding with the blood in my head, ‘for Heaven’s sake, don’t make a scene.’ I blinked back hot, salty water and stared into the middle distance, telling myself it was OK, I could go home tomorrow.
We trudged upstairs to the bedroom, where he promptly broke up with me. I immediately burst into tears – this wasn’t the usual sequence of events for this sort of thing, had he read the wrong script? I cried the entire night, stepping out into the cool, bright morning the next day having expended so much sadness that I had no choice but to feel happy. I even hummed as I made my way to the train station. We got back together later, then broke up and got back together again, not realizing until I was free that I’d been worshipping my own distant, Easter Island statue. I wonder about him, now and then, and wonder if he ever got through to his.
Madeleine Swann‘s novella 4 Rooms in a Semi Detached House is out now with StrangeHouse Books. Her novella Rainbows Suck was part of Eraserhead Press’ New Bizarro Author Series and her collection was released by Burning Bulb. Her short stories have appeared on the Wicked Library and Other Stories podcasts and in various anthologies. You can keep up with Madeleine at madeleineswann.com and Twitter @MadeleineSwann