Records, Records

I was 12 when Punk first hit me. I was on holiday, in Invervargill, to visit my best friend, Jonty (now known as Johnny), who had moved there a year previously when his Mum had met her new husband. Stepping off the Southerner train at the station, Jonty greeted me holding two records he had just bought, The Clean’s “Boodle, Boodle, Boodle” EP, and “I Love My Leather Jacket” by the Chills. Jonty and myself had always bonded over a shared loved for music and soccer, being first obsessive KISS fans, and then in 1983, David Bowie. So, I was naturally curious about these records he had tucked under his arm, not in any shop wrapping, but exposed so everyone could see these thoroughly cool LPs. Jonty said he would play them for me when we got back to his place, and so off we trudged back to his suburban home.

He started with the Clean, and those strident acoustic chords of “Billy Two” hit me, hard! I’d never heard anything like this. It sounded rough, raw, basic. “Who are they?” I asked. “They’re from Dunedin!” “What?” “Dunedin?” That was my home town. They make music there? I must have known that there had to be bands in Dunedin, but I had never consciously heard any, so I was genuinely surprised that any Dunedin band had made a record. Next up was the Chills. It was a long time ago, and memories tend to lose exact times and meld into one, but I’m sure I had previously heard “I Love My Leather Jacket” as it was a bit of a hit and played on ‘Ready to Roll.” But like the Clean, I had no idea they were also from Dunedin. I liked the A-side enough, but it was the flip-side, “The Great Escape” that made a greater impression. It had a deep melancholy and other-worldly sound, with the ambient slide guitar and wistful organ ( much later, I recorded my own version of the song for a NZ underground music tribute album). To repeat myself, this was new to me, like nothing before it had mattered, and my eyes and ears had finally opened.

Jonty then pulled out another record and put it on the turntable. The cover was lurid, neon yellow with pink lettering that spelt out, “Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks.” What the hell was this? The cover certainly didn’t inspire anything in me, and to be honest, it just looked a bit cheap and trashy. That opinion changed when the first marching beat of “Holidays in the Sun” announced itself. And then those crashing guitar chords. That voice! Where the hell did that come from? It was even rawer than the Clean, but had more punch and energy. Fuck! Is this music? Yes, it was. Pure, vital and direct, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Then “Bodies” came on. Bloody hell, he’s swearing, a lot! Is that allowed? “Anarchy in the U.K” – snarling, pissy, dangerous.

Later that same trip, I made a mix tape of the records in Jonty’s collection. Jean Paul Sartre Experience, Tall Dwarfs, and naturally some Bowie I’d not yet heard. I walked around with my Walkman on, blasting “Bodies” deafening loud, feeling all-so rebellious as we walked through the town, laughing to myself that no-one knows what seditious music this puny kid was listening to. I was locked inside a private world of discovery and adventure.

On my return to Dunedin I wanted to find some of these records for myself. I had never really had my own records, just a single record each by KISS and Bowie, birthday or Christmas presents, as I didn’t have money to buy them myself. We didn’t have pocket money because my parents couldn’t afford to give us any, so I relied on my their collection of Pink Floyd, Waylon Jennings and Little Richard records. Somehow though, I had the money to buy my own records for the first time. I’m guessing the money was left-over from the Invercargill trip, although it must have been a paltry amount as I always had a tendency to spend it all whenever I was lucky enough to get any, usually on lollies! I knew the major record store in town, The EMI Shop, and even the D.I.C had a record department, but I hadn’t really explored them as I had no money, so what was the point. I had ‘Ready to Roll’ and the radio to keep me informed of the latest sounds, so I had no idea of any underground scene going on.

However, my search through EMI was fruitless. They didn’t have those records I had found in Invercargill. As I walked through the Octagon, I looked up to Stuart Street and recalled there was a small record store up there. I had never been to Records, Records, so I had no idea what records they had in stock, but it was worth a try. I arrived at the terraced building and walked into what looked like used to be someone’s lounge. It didn’t look like EMI. It was quiet too, and there was, what looked to me, an old man with a beard, standing behind the “counter”, staring out the front window. Ok. This isn’t what I expected, but they had records, a lot of them, so I might be on to something here. Rather than looking through the endless boxes of records, because I’m simply didn’t know where to start, I meekly asked the old-man for the records I was after. The “old-man” was of course, Roy Colbert, someone I later learned was a pivotal figure in the emergence of the underground music scene in Dunedin, both through his promotion and reviews of local bands, and the advice and encouragement he offered these groups and individuals.

I had to work up the courage to ask Roy about the Clean and Chills records I wanted. For a start, I was still unsure how to pronounce “Boodle, Boodle, Boodle”, or too embarrassed say it. I stepped up and asked for what I thought was the latest release from the Clean. Roy seemed a little confused by what I meant by “latest release”, as I was to later find out they had split some years before.

“It’s the one with ‘Billy Two’ on it, with the cartoon cover.”

“Ahhhh, yeah, yeah,” Roy replied. “I think we have it somewhere,” he said.

“What about ‘I Love My Leather Jacket’? I asked.

“Yeah, probably. Give me half an hour to have a look for you”, Roy said. I thanked him and made my way to the public library across the road where I knew I could easily “waste” thirty minutes waiting (the library’s own record collection would soon also become a major source of inspiration and discovery).

I didn’t even know if I had enough money for these records (the source of these funds is an absolute mystery, and I know I’ll obsess over it for days after I’ve written these piece). Hearing the toll of the Town Hall clock, I left the library and headed back to Records, Records. Roy had found the records. He gave no indication that he was surprised that a small, straight-laced-looking twelve year-old kid would be buying such obscurities, but it must have been an incongruous sight. That’s probably wishful-thinking on my behalf though, me wanting to project my insecurity and confusion on to another’s experience of what was most-likely, an everyday transaction. Maybe. But, I had the records, and taking them home I immediately put them on the family’s old stereogram, not caring what anyone else would think of them. My brother was instantly impressed, however, and it would lead to us finally bond after years of not really knowing each other, despite sharing bunk beds and playing soccer together, normal brother things. This lead us to buying records and tapes by the Clash, Public Image Limited and Sex Pistols ( I would save my lunch money to be able to afford these purchases), a small collection that was eventually confiscated by my mother because she couldn’t stand the music we were listening to, her tastes aligning more with Queen, Deep Purple and opera. I say “confiscated”, but really she just put the shoe box of tapes in her wardrobe and we would just help ourselves to one or two whenever we wanted, eventually not even bothering with that, and just taking the whole box and not returning it.

Before I heard these records, I didn’t know I could to make music. It maybe a cliché now, but before Punk, playing in bands seemed impossible because many of us believed you had to be a virtuoso, and our early, naïve fumblings would never cut the mustard. Punk allowed us to believe that we could have a voice. You didn’t have to play blues solos a thousand miles an hour or have equipment worth more than the average house. Just having a few chords under your belt was enough. You could write a song with those chords, and it didn’t have to be “good,” to sound like it should be on the local AM radio or Ready to Roll. Punk  should always been seen as a year zero, a tearing down of the artifice of the music industry, allowing the everyday kid to become extraordinary , even if it was for just three and half minutes. Those early punk or punk-influenced records lead me to discover so many other bands, to open my ears to another way of making and listening to music. Those first glimpses of rebellion changed everything for me, and I owe so much, not just to those bands, but the individuals who introduced me to them, Jonty and Roy.

Victoria Falls

I can’t cry. At least, I cannot shed tears at my own misery. No matter how dark my world has become, the ability to express that emotion has been blocked. The only occasions when I am able to weep is at others’ misfortune and heartbreak, be it close friends or watching Real Stories on Youtube, a channel that highlights the tragedies of ordinary lives; mental illness, disability, disease, poverty, victims of crime. Perhaps that is why I watch so many of these films, to feel something, or rather to bring out the emotion that is so locked away inside of me. It’s not a struggle to cry when witnessing such sad tales. I find that I am ready to cry at the seemingly easiest of provocations, and the release can almost be intoxicating or even addictive. I don’t think that I am grief junky. I don’t revel in other peoples’ misery, quite the opposite, but I am still drawn to films and I do feel a sense of guilt with that. I just need that outlet, the opportunity for release, to remind myself that I can feel.

When I was a child I cried so easily. Any time I was admonished, however gently, or physically injured, the tears would flow. And then, almost as soon as they had started, they would cease. There were other occasions where the hurt hit a lot deeper, but I could always be trusted to “blubber” whenever confronted with a wrongdoing or insult. My family believed I was just doing this for attention, or that I was just a “cry baby”, and the more they admonished me for doing so, the more I felt the hurt. I was just a sensitive kid, that’s all, and I think to a certain extent I was following my Mother’s lead in expressing emotion. One does need to be careful not to paint oneself as a victim, but the times when it was worse was my family picking on me for my malformed front teeth. I had bucked teeth, a noticeable overbite, and I was incredibly self-conscious about this. My older siblings taunted me, calling me “Bucky”, mimicking Bugs Bunny and laughing to my face. This hurt, and naturally I cried. Who wouldn’t? This fed my increasing sense of isolation within the family and the retreat further into my imagination, my escape.

At around the age of 12, I made the conscious decision to never cry again. I had enough of the taunts, the bullying, the accusations of me being “too girly”, and I resolved to never show that weakness ever again. That’s fucked up, yeah? And you know what, I kept my vow. I became resolute, stoic, never allowing anyone to see how sad I could be. It is, of course, an inevitability that something had to give. All that pent up emotion building and building until I would completely break down and lose all control. This happened on a handful of occasions during adolescence and I’m sure my parents began to understand that something wasn’t quite right with me, although I would guess they may have just seen it as typical teenage hormones gone haywire. And this would continue into my twenties and thirties. An unhealthy, and at times, destructive cadence. I bottled-up so many emotions, unwilling and unsure how to express them without leading to another dark night of the soul.

This is what I learned, what so many boys have been told is correct behaviour. Don’t be such a wimp and toughen the fuck up! I don’t blame my family though. They were just aping their own learned behaviour, what they had been taught is right for boys. As cruel as their taunts were, I know they loved me and just didn’t understand just how deeply this hurt. I also need to stress that it wasn’t always like this, as despite so many emotionally fraught episodes in my young life, I was usually considered a rather happy, energetic child. A bit strange perhaps and even distant sometimes, but bright and warm, nonetheless.

Although I may struggle to visibly express sadness, and that a close friend once commented that I appear quite emotionally closed off, I do believe I am better at it now. There is so much darkness in my life and it can be overwhelming, but I have learned to talk about it. Perhaps the “block” is a side-effect of the anti-depressant medication I have been on, a kind of levelling of moods that keep everything in check, but I know that the tears are still inside me and will flow, given the appropriate stimulus. At least it’s something.

Another dawn…

The first time I was diagnosed with a depressive episode was in 1997. I was in a loving and stable relationship and working in my first proper job at a record store. Sadly, our beautiful grey short-haired cat, Zen, had gone missing, and after two sleepless nights we were informed that he had been taken to a vet clinic by a neighbour after being hit by a car. Zen’s death hit us hard. We had decided that we needed some time away together to begin process such a devastating loss, and we accepted an invite from a friend to spend a few days with her in Nelson. This necessitated me taking a day off work, and although it was short notice I never anticipated that this would be a problem due to the circumstances and that after a year and a half at the store, I had taken any significant leave. However, my Manager turned this request down, despite my pleas that I desperately needed the time off. We had already booked our flights as we honestly could not believe my leave request would be denied. We were young, and I guess, naive, and had faith in basic human decency, that such a genuine appeal for understanding would be something my Manager would accept. There was no backing out. The decision had been made and we were going to Nelson that weekend. Perhaps it was the grief that made us so determined and unable to see the bigger picture, but we needed this and there would be no stopping us.

I was so disappointed by my Manager’s decision that we made another fateful decision – I would quit! The grief had so overwhelmed us that we were not thinking in practical terms. Everything was emotional and we had each other, and that’s what mattered. I turned up for work the next day, emotionally distracted, but I got through the shift. At lunch I walked to the mail box a few metres down the road and posted my resignation, on a postcard! Writing this now I know that this was not the right way to go about it, but logic and rationale had long departed and emotion ruled.

On Saturday we boarded our flight bound for Nelson. I was very anxious about what I had just done but I had the support of my partner so that helped to ease some of the distress. We enjoyed a peaceful and healing three days with our friend, but on the first night as we we went to bed I began to panic, my body shivering like I was sitting outside in an Arctic blizzard. It was a panic attack, and it wasn’t the first, or last in my life. However, – and I remember this so clearly with great fondness – my partner wrapped herself around me, telling me that we would be okay, and that she could afford to take care of us until I was ready to return to work. That gesture, the feeling of those arms around me, I can barely describe how that felt, but it calmed me and we drifted of to sleep together and woke to a new day that promised some hope. When you are with someone you truly trust and feel safe with, you can get through almost anything together.

Upon our return home, we knew I had to face the music. I called my Manager to ask if I could meet her and try to explain. As I walked into the store, a work colleague had told that me when our Manager read the postcard, she began crying and stayed in her office for the rest of the day. The guilt hit me. I never wanted to hurt her, but I was desperate and I admit, even quite angry. We talked, and I apologised, but there was no chance of me ever coming back to work. My Manager felt betrayed. I felt betrayed. I had collapsed under the strain of not only Zen’s death, but working six days a week for over a year and on reflection, I had burned out.

The next step was to find some income support. I knew that there would be a mandatory six week stand-down period for anyone who had quit their job before any government assistance would be considered. But with my fraught emotional state I was sure that I would be eligible for a dispensation with a medical certificate. The GP agreed that I was suffering from mental and emotional exhaustion and I was granted an immediate benefit, which was of great relief to my partner and I. Although I had been diagnosed as going through a depressive episode, that’s exactly what I believed it was, an episodic breakdown brought on by Zen’s death and overwork. I didn’t think for a second that I had a mental illness.

It seems incredible to me now that I couldn’t see that. When I look back through to my adolescence, there were clear indications that something wasn’t right with me. I had a breakdown during the Summer of 1990 when I was about to start my final year of high school. I sat in the sun on top of my mother’s garage, staring at the horizon and began weeping uncontrollably. I didn’t want to go back to school. The place had become a nightmare for me, always avoiding having to avoid the attention of several boys who were determined to beat the shit out of me because of my weird haircuts and obvious physical shortcomings. I also felt under immense pressure from my Father who had placed all his hopes on me being the first in the family to go to university. I didn’t know what I wanted back then. University actually seemed like an attractive prospect, full of adventure and the chance to escape the claustrophobic confines of my dreary, isolated suburb, but I wasn’t ready. The prospect of another year in that hell-hole of a school brought me to complete emotional collapse. I pleaded with my Father to allow me to leave school, but he refused. He didn’t want me to end up on the dole or work in the kind of jobs he had, manual labour and always being subject to the “bosses'” control. I can see now that he was right, but I was distraught and began to switch off academically, barely putting in any effort and relying on innate intelligence, charm and a flair for creative writing to get me through. Socially, I masked my emotions, but always felt an outsider, even within my group of friends. An attraction towards more sombre and darker musical forms was growing, and after news reports of a spate of teenage suicides, blamed on Gothic Rock, I became intrigued with this hitherto unknown to me sub-cultural expression.

Almost twenty years after Zen’s death and my subsequent breakdown, I had only then begin to understand exactly what was happening to me. My life had been typified by occasional periods of stability which would then lead to malaise, and eventually, breakdown. I was unable to maintain romantic relationships due to that malaise, being emotionally closed off and not fully giving myself to my partners. I was good at masking, at least among friends. To them, I’m always “Matty,” laid-back, funny and always laughing. Although I am hiding something deeper and painful, those states where I was happy were genuine, for the most part. I truly revelled in the company of the very few close friends I have, but I would always go home and feel incredibly drained and empty. I awake every morning disappointed that I didn’t slip away in the night, something I believe could be a very real prospect due to my ill-health. We all know that it is a problem when you are hoping for that, an almost incidental suicide. With the prospect of financial ruin due to a lack of full-time work and my physical and mental exhaustion making it hard for me to hold down such work, that wheel keeps turning. I’m sometimes too ill to work, but the stress that causes makes you even sicker, and not having the emotional spoons to cope with a relationship, but the overwhelming sadness of not having someone close, I spiral down into inertia and then utter emotional collapse.

What good will it do to write all of this? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps it’s the innate desire to be understood, to be both comforted and be comforter to those who may read this and also see they are not alone in what they’re going through. I may have to accept that I will be medicated for life due to this mental illness, and that I may not have the life I so fervently crave. I have always had the ability to try to pull myself away from the edge of abyss, but resilience dims as we grow older and I’m scared of the day when that well runs dry. Until then, all we can do is to get up every morning, put one foot ahead of the other and keep trying.

Sleep Comes Down.

One thing I love most in the world is sleep. That’s because it can be such a rare commodity for me, and so when it does come, it’s like gold. I have struggled all my life with a sleep disorder, either not being able to nod off or waking prematurely, sometimes hours before it’s due. I have a brain that runs at 100kph, all the time. If thought were exercise, then my mind would be taught, muscular and always ready for action. But of course, it doesn’t work like that. The brain needs sleep to reset itself and re-energise, so that no matter how well-toned it is, it simply will not function adequately without rest.

And so with the end of Daylight Saving here in New Zealand, it is the bitterest pill for me to swallow. Whereas some find the transition relatively comfortable, I become severely disoriented and it can take up to two months for me to fully adjust. And knowing this, I can go to bed in a state of heightened anxiety, unsure if I will sleep tonight, or if I do, that it will only last a few hours and I will awake at 4am, fully alert with my senses working overtime and I will never fall back to sleep. And with the prospect of starting a new job tomorrow just as the clocks go back, I can feel that agitation again in my sleep.

I wear my fatigue on my sleeve. It manifests in my gait, my posture, my eyes and ability to concentrate. This is why I am worried about starting work tomorrow, that I will not be able to take in all the information you can expect to be thrown at you in a completely new role. The premature waking has already begun and as the season progresses, it usually gets earlier and earlier. I am in limbo, a place where I believe that if I just lie there, tiredness will eventually take over and I will fall back asleep. Of course this happens five minutes before the alarm rings and with an incomplete sleep cycle, I am prone to making mistakes and I become even more anxious. This feeds into the next night’s sleep, and then the next, and the next…

With a brain that never slows down, I can almost feel my head about to combust with all this hot electrical-neural activity and a stroke of somesort is imminent. That’s what an anxious brain does, imagines all the worst scenarios, getting stuck in a paranoid feedback loop and upping the temperature. I have tried all the suggested methods, no bright screens an hour before sleep, no caffeine or eating before bed, and having a completely darkened and quiet room. But in that isolation, my mind becomes more acute and the previous distractions that allowed me to push aside my anxieties are gone, leaving it in a wide open space to roam and pick through the litter of the day.

I had a job where I was starting at 6:30 in the morning and I managed to hold that down for many years, which is incredible considering I was averaging three to four hours sleep every night. Somehow I managed to get myself into a position where I could perform on automatic and get through the workday without too much incident or error. But that is not enough for me. Although I have learned over so many years to function on such a lack of sleep, just getting by left me feeling inadequate and bored, but I knew that I couldn’t perform any better feeling so fatigued. A poem by John Cooper Clarke began to find resonance with me with the refrain, “yesterday he was in the groove/today he’s in a rut,” and I truly felt that hopelessness and inertia. It was up to me to dig myself out, to find the tools that would allow me to sleep and from there, to fully be myself.

The past five months without work have been incredibly stressful, but I have been able to sleep, often without medically prescribed aids, and I feel the sleep deficit I had built up over the past seven years is beginning to diminish. Daylight Saving will be the biggest test of that, and I guess it couldn’t have come at a worse time. But everyday I am peeling off the layers of stress and anxiety, resetting my priorities and reimagining a more positive future, albeit one day at a time for now. I hope that such ceaseless angst about the unseen and unknown will eventually dissipate and will make room for sleep to come down.

Used To Be A Sweet Boy.

As I was planning the blog intended to go out yesterday, I received some incredibly exciting and welcome news about a job. The almost five months of interminable struggle may soon be over! It was because of this that I neglected to write yesterday’s article as I wanted to take the time to allow this to soak in and take stock of the journey thus far. But with the celebrations, there was also a sense of guilt. I had intended yesterday’s article to pay tribute to those people in my life who have passed away in recent years. It was a very strange feeling of elation and relief, tempered with regret and loss. I felt as though I had betrayed those memories of whom I had lost and abandoned them by having this sudden elation. It didn’t make sense, this response, and I spent most of this morning contemplating it, asking myself why I felt such shame for such a short moment of joy? It showed that I still had a long way to go, understanding and accepting myself, that I was still struggling to stay in the present moment and not allow myself to turn further inwards towards the past or the future. 

The greatest tribute I can pay to my lost friends and family members is to continue fighting and kicking against the pricks. It is certainly what my father would have wanted. He had a lot of hope for me, that I would achieve something worthy of my intelligence and talents. I have spent most of my adult life believing I had disappointed him. Although I was the first in our family to go to university, I failed miserably, spending all my time that year discovering a world outside of the confines of the suburbs and high school. It wasn’t until much, much later that I went back and earned a Degree and I hoped that I had re-instilled some amount pride in my father for me. He was never all that demonstrative with his praise, being incredibly stoic and often asking if I could do a little better, scoring an A instead of the A- I had just presented to him in my latest school report. Did he have too much faith in me, or did he know that someone with an A was more likely to succeed over me with just an A-? Was he looking out for me?

I also knew I had made some life decisions that he neither understood or approved of. I felt that I had squandered so much of my talent and was living a life of mediocrity. I was also terrible with money. Growing up without any, the moment I began to earn, I collected all the things I believed I had missed out on and as a result, would sometimes get myself into awkward positions. My father believed I was living beyond my means, and often he was right. But he also never realised just how expensive it can be to live in a large capital city, that rents and utility bills could be a massive financial strain. I definitely made some bad monetary decisions though, and with that lack of true financial literacy and resentment at being poor as a child, I had a tendency to overspend and sadly, ask Dad for help. I felt shame, not for asking for help, but because I had told myself not to make the same mistakes again, and yet here I was, doing just that. I could hear the disappoint in his voice when he would yet again acquiesce and send me the cash I needed. 

So it was when I had found out about the job yesterday that I wanted to tell Dad what I had achieved and that I had learned so much about myself and was taking steps to ensure that I would never repeat those mistakes. I wanted him to be proud of me again, like the time I won a trophy for soccer, not for being the top goal scorer, but for being the best sportsman, someone who exemplified the spirit of the game. That was more important than being the star of the team; it wasn’t what you achieved, but how you achieved it. Circumstance may dictate that I may not be wildly successful in any chosen profession, that there will most likely be other struggles I will have to contend. But I make this promise to my father now that I am determined that it will not be due to any error on my part. I maybe promising too much, putting immense pressure on myself , but so long as I continue to strive for change, I know he will understand I am trying my hardest. I will continue to be the deserving recipient of that best sportsman trophy, the one he placed with pride on top of the TV cabinet so he could see it everyday and think of me.


The Anti-Social Network

Last weekend I was asked if I was going out to Cubadupa, a Wellington community street party. I said “no,” adding “urgghhhh, people!” I’m not a misanthrope, far from it really. The most joy I get is from the peculiarities and quirks of humankind, the immense cultural diversity of this planet and what we can learn from that. It’s just that I don’t want it all in my face at one time. I can struggle at large concert events, feeling hemmed in and shoved around, random hands making contact with my body. I’m happiest when I learn a concert will be seated so there’ll be less chance of unwanted physical human interaction if I have my own dedicated space with a minimum of at least 15cms between the next stranger and me. There is also a certain anonymity being swamped by a large crowd. You’re just one of many and the level of social interaction is minimal and all you have to contend with is the cloying physical closeness. If it’s a smaller gig or party, then that’s when the panic sets in.

I use props. A glass, not necessarily filled with alcohol, can act as a buffer between myself and those sharing the same space. Where once I would use alcohol, usually a few beers quaffed down in haste to get to a level where I feel I can function without wanting to run away, now all I need is that glass prop. When I am socially awkward, my hands begin to fidget and look for something to hold, to touch. That’s due to all the nervous energy accumulating in my body, and that energy has nowhere to go, no outlet, so it externalises in my hands and other extremities. It is also believed to lower the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, so it very much becomes an unconscious act to fidget. Mobile phones are of course another buffer to direct interaction, giving your hands something to play with and distracting the anxious mind with external content away from the source of discomfort. This is not a preferred method for me to utilise as I can become suddenly very self-conscious, particularly in darkened areas like a pub or club,  that the phone is illuminating my face and attention will be drawn to me. I guess I’m a luddite when it comes to social avoidance.

But this begs the question, why am I so uncomfortable with socialising? If I am with a small group of close friends, I am often the complete opposite, being louder and more bon vivant than I would be at a gig or party. This is because I feel safe around my friends. I don’t mean that I am paranoid about physical attack, but rather that I am comfortable to be fully open and expressive with myself. A set of unwritten and unconscious rules has been established whereby we accept the myriad eccentricities of our closest friends, and certain boundaries are understood within the group that will not allow for transgressions involving personal attacks or anyone taking a joke too far. These are subconscious but deliberate “safe spaces,” environments that although very much follow the established rules of social interaction, allow for total self-expression and liberation outside of the public sphere. I can have my goofy laugh and not be afraid that someone will poke fun at me for doing so. Or that I prattle on about the fall of the Assyrian Empire or any other current fascination of mine without being judged as some nerdy weirdo. 

And this is why I find socialising in public spaces so stressful. There are too many unknowns in that equation, too many variables. I probably don’t know 90% of these people, and of the other 10%, perhaps only a few (if I’m lucky) with whom I have previously established a rapport and have some amount of comfort in talking to them. Whilst small talk can always be used to lubricate social interactions, to find a place where conversation can begin, I ran out of it pretty fast if no connection is made and I turn to my trusty glass to get me out of it. It’s even better if there is a band playing as you can just turn your attention to that (even though it’s probably really awful), and there is very little chance someone will be offended if you cease talking to them. They’re probably relieved to have the same distraction and a way out of the conversation.

At this point, there maybe some acquaintances of mine who may be questioning their past social interactions with me. I can just imagine this being an awkward topic of conversation at the next party I’m invited to (if, after writing this, I am ever invited to another party ever again). I do make an effort to make every meeting with these people positive and interesting. I will try to find something of interest for both of us to talk about and more often than not, that’s usually the case. It’s just that I can become very self-conscious about the topics I am discussing, whether someone finds them boring and I will try to read the signs that tell me just that. I exist in a mindscape where I am forever questioning what is appropriate to talk about, especially with strangers or acquaintances, so I will always second guess what I am about to say and instead just clam up.

It’s not you. It’s me! It really is. I don’t find you dull. In fact, I’m a nosy fucker who wants to know all about you and will even inadvertently attempt to dig a little too deep for comfort. Forgive me. I’m an introvert with an anxiety disorder and who is most likely on the spectrum, so socialising can be extremely exhausting where I use up all of my energy just to make it through the night. The next day is needed for rest and most likely, self-recrimination about how I believed I behaved the night before. I am aware that sometimes my silence can be seen as arrogance or aloofness, but this is very rarely the case. It’s a method of self-defence, being able to get through an evening without falling apart or running away. We may actually be one-in-the-same and we don’t know it, both of us fumbling through a stilted conversation about something meaningless, where in fact we both want to talk about LHC or the English Civil War. I tell you what; next time, let’s do just that! 



Don’t Lose Yourself.

It can be very easy to lose myself in a relationship. My sense of identity becomes fragmented and I can allow others to force me to change how I look. However, I am certain that my moral and spiritual identity has not shifted due to these outside forces. One can be influenced and even challenged by new ideas that a partner may introduce, but I have a firm ethical and ideological basis on which I can rely on and cannot be so easily dissuaded from, unlike my appearance. For me, my external makeup, the part of me that everyone else can see, reflects very much who I am internally, all the cultural nuances that have shaped how view the world. So, it is of some concern that I could be persuaded to alter my appearance to suit how someone else wants to present me to the world, and I believe this points to a very fractured and damage ego, one that can be molded to fit whichever relationship demanded of it.

I had my first romantic relationship in my early 20s. I had met someone with a very strong aesthetic sense and I reached a point where I was consciously shifting my external identity. I had spent the past three years dressing as a Goth, replete with Robert Smith-style backcombed hair, copious amounts of makeup, black clothing and winklepicker boots. This was an extension of my interest in Glam styling, feminised looks on boys and also a challenge to accepted gender norms. I also loved to wear dresses, partly due to a fuck you attitude, but mostly because I thought the dresses I chose to parade in were beautiful and I could think of no reason why could not wear them. (There is a legend about me wearing a figure-hugging, lime-green spandex mini-dress which my flatmates would not allow me to wear out of the house for my own safety. I cannot remember this, but like a repressed memory, there are glimpses and I shudder at the thought of wearing such a lurid colour!) I had reached a “saturation point” where I was unsure if this was completely who I was. I knew however that it definitely formed some part of me because of my initial attraction to not only the look, but the music and aspects of the subculture. 

At that age, I was an empty canvas. Even though I was identifiably Goth, like others in the subculture, I included references to other pop cultures and was not afraid to compliment this maudlin look with splashes of outrageous colour floral designs, mostly in shape of blouses and shirts bought from the Salvation Army op-shop. There was a lack of cohesiveness, a mish-mash of styles, a very obvious attempt of someone searching for something. All I knew was that I wanted to look glamorous, but conversely, not in an overtly showy way. The mind was as confused as the outfits I wore.  For the first year and a half of my first serious long-term relationship, this aesthetic continued, with little variation, although gone were the Robert Smith tresses, to be replaced by raggedy long hair past my shoulders in tribute to Ian Astbury. I was unemployed and yet to get my first job. Looking the way I did, that wouldn’t change. 

This was 1995 and it was a watershed year for me in terms of musical appreciation and my cultural influences. What was called Britpop was beginning to take off and being the Anglophile I was, I was ripe for this new milieu. Pawing through the pages of Face and Select, I could sense a new and exciting aesthetic and I was immediately drawn to it. I was already passionate about Manic Street Preachers and Suede because they had a certain femininity which also spoke to a new masculine aesthetic.  Although I abhorred the borish, laddish aspects of Britpop, I could still find enough in it to point me in a new direction. Hair was short but shaggy, feathered and dyed a variety of bright colours. I returned once again to the op-shops, but instead of blouses, it was vintage slacks and blazers, Adidas trainers and two sizes too-small retro t-shirts. The eyeliner stayed. My partner had an immaculate eye and would constantly bring home new and used textiles she knew would not only amplify my look, but progress it, move it beyond the 70s fashions I adored, and into classic male looks from the 50s. Once again, it was a melding of different styles and eras, but it had achieved a cohesiveness that the previous Goth look had lacked. 

This was the healthy aspect to allowing someone else to mold you, complimenting an existing identity, enhancing and giving it impetus. This was coming from someone who understood and believed in me, and wanted me to be that person that I we both knew I could be. I wear my influences on my sleeve, quite literally. The external presentation of self is important to me as it is part of my creative personality. I do not separate how I dress from the music I make; they are complementary, often one-in-the-same. An artist or musician is always open to outside influences, new experiences and ways of not only looking at the world, but existing in it. That maybe pretentious,  but it makes being alive so much more richer and adventurous. 

When it becomes unhealthy is when those external forces push a change on you that is not wanted and is harmful to the psyche. Because of chronic low self-esteem, I was vulnerable to be consumed by a much more dominant personality, and that happened with a new relationship. In time, I had allowed someone to dictate what I would be wearing on a night out, buying the clothes for me or putting on pressure for me to purchase clothing I could neither afford or wanted. This was done in the name of conservatism, of fitting in and obscuring myself. Eyeliner was not allowed as that was “embarrassing” and others might find it “weird.” The other party could look as wonderful and glamorous as they wanted, I was to be the “straight man,” the one who wouldn’t stand out and make a fuss. It was not only in what I dressed. My personality had become lost in our house too, to the point where a close friend remarked when visiting “do you actually live here, because I can’t anything of you here.” It was an uncomfortable moment, and typically, I laughed it off and made a joke out of it. 

It was also a moment of awakening. I couldn’t stand the boring Hallensteins shirts and trousers and comfortable loafers I was wearing. It is easy to quip that this was not me, but would that be true? There has always been a part of me that wants to be anonymous, to not attract attention and just blend in. There’s nothing wrong with that all. There are times, especially if you’re an introvert like me who also suffers from near constant anxiety, when the feeling of being looked at and scrutinised can be overwhelming and it is safer to just hide and become part of the furniture. When it is wrong however, is when this is something imposed on you, and your own passivity plays a part in burying an identity that was hard fought for. This is my fault. There was a deficiency in my character that allowed this to happen, to be consumed by someone else’s personality. This is not to say that it was a conscious decision, or that I deserved it, but rather that this was a problem laid at my door and had neither the wisdom or capacity to deal with. The longer I allowed this to continue, the lower my self-esteem sank and would eventually manifest in resentment towards my partner and myself. 

Coming out of that relationship, I would like to say I learned a lot of lessons. Certainly, I made a very conscious decision to never again allow someone else to tell me what to wear. But I never addressed the reasons for why this happened. I continued to make the same mistakes over and over, being passive and allowing myself to be dominated. But this time with my renewed determination to truly be myself, it would occasionally get muddled in my brain and I would resist others’ insight into my personality and heartfelt suggestions for change. I was defensive, a legacy from being ridiculed and made fun of not only in my childhood, but from a previous relationship. Any attempts to confront those shortcomings were met with a resentful silence and barely veiled contempt. If I’m to be completely honest, the contempt I felt was really for myself because I knew they were right about me needing to change and I was just too passive to do it myself. This does not make you a healthy partner to someone. It is one thing to have a clear sense of external identity, but this needs to be coupled with a strength of inner character and well-being. I have made peace with the former. I am now confronting the latter so that I can remain always whom I intended to be. Untitled collage

A Gift.

Let’s make a deal. Every Friday, instead of writing about all the torment and trauma in my life, let’s reserve this day those things that give us joy. It’s those things that I live for, and although there are definitely times where I struggle to see that and I question the point of it all, I always manage to hold on these gifts I often take for granted. This grounds me, takes me out of my gloom and re-energises my spirits. 

So today, I thought I would start with something that has come into my life very recently; my cat, Pickles. Or Atticus Pickles, to be precise. We found each other at a time when we both needed someone to look after ourselves. He was a stray, and I was…astray. Pickles had been on the streets for some time before finally being rescued and taken to the SPCA. Although healthy, it was obvious that he had been malnourished for some time and from an early age. He was four and half years old, and yet he looked like a six month old kitten, underweight and small boned. We don’t know how long he had been out on the streets for, but he certainly wasn’t feral. Pickles is incredibly affectionate, a sign that he had been socialised with people as a kitten, and so he was an excellent candidate for immediate adoption. 

When I first met Pickles at the shelter, he was ensconced inside a play tunnel, erected high above the ground. I had seen an ad for him online, and although already smitten, I knew I had to take the time to meet him and some other cats first. He allowed me to tickle his chin whilst he hid inside his tunnel nest, but he would not come out to say hello, still very wary of strangers. There were many other beautiful animals there, including a group of three tabby sisters who were tucked away together, sheltering each other from any danger. My heart broke for them, but I knew that I was not in any position to take them home with me, as much as I wanted. I just hope someone had the space to give them a forever home.

After going back and forwards a few times between the different rooms and each time giving Pickles a tickle (he had been given the name “Sherlock” by the SPCA staff as he came in with no tags or collar),  I knew he was the one for me. Although initially timid, coming into a new home and hiding under the bed for the first two days, he was always up for a pat when he came out for some treats. He loves his treats. It was simple bribery; each time we shook the pack of treats, he would rush out from his hiding place and hoover them up, staying out long enough for quick cuddle and tickle. Now, such deception from me is no longer needed. In fact, it’s almost impossible for me to sit anywhere without running up and jumping on top of me, often on my head. I may protest half-heartedly for a few seconds, but then that pur starts up, I feel his soft fur on my face and I give in. 

And this has been one of the most important aspects of my recovery and beginning to feel hope again. I now have the responsibility for another life, an entity that depends on me not only for food and shelter, but for love. This took me out of myself, away from all the anxieties circling inside my head, and I have now begun to fully see the value in my existence. There are of course small moments of worry where I catastrophise and think of the day when I have to say goodbye to him sometime in the future. But I know I need to live in the now, to be where I am right now, and his smooches always bring me back there. He is a blessing, and I think he sees me in the same way. I am beginning to see the worth in myself, like he and others close to me can. Pickles is my present, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Pickles

The Star Child & I

I have just finished the audio book of Paul Stanley’s autobiography, “Face the Music”…all 10 discs of it. It was excruciating. The amount of detail it contained, especially those chapters concerning his childhood, was actually quite pleasing. His lack of true insight and empathy for others was not. Stanley was at pains to reinforce how traumatic his childhood had been, being born with only one ear and deaf in the on that side. He was continually taunted by his classmates, and stared at in disgust by adults, being cruelly named “Stanley the One-Eared Monster.” You really did have to feel for this kid, especially having emotionally distant parents and a psychotic older sister who was frequently violent towards him. However, there was something deep inside him that he managed to push back against all the bullying and develop an air of defiance and resolution that no doubt lead to his immense success as a musician. Stanley worked hard, very hard to get where he is now, despite admitting to social anxiety (due to his deafness which made socialising very difficult) and being incredibly defensive, having no sense of humour about himself. He eventually made a concerted effort to overcome his emotional shortcomings and his fear of intimate emotional attachments, lamenting that for the most of the 70s and 80s with KISS, he was lonely and isolated, albeit a self-imposed segregation in which he had no real close friends. Kudos to him for not only recognising this, but also finding a way to overcome these obstacles.

There’s just one problem. Stanley is a bully. Despite having these epiphanies about his psychological make up (no pun intended) and the pleas for our understanding, Stanley continues to perpetuate the most hideous aspects that can manifest in those with low self-esteem. He continues berates his former fellow band members and those closely associated with the band, lacking any real empathy about the issues they were dealing with themselves. Stanley has become “enlightened” but this has blinded him to how his own demanding and controlling behaviour impacted everyone around him. In his mind, now that he has received the “wisdom” of his own hindsight, it is inexcusable that others have not. He tells his five year old son, “weak people hide their emotions!” No Paul, damaged people build walls around themselves to hide from self-righteous bullies like you! It is not a sign of “weakness” to want to protect yourself if you have been traumatised. It’s natural human instinct. Saying someone is weak for having a damaged psyche further victimises them, puts them deeper into a state of submission. That tough love bullshit you espouse just doesn’t work! And no, it’s not about enabling a victim mentality, keeping people in a state of dysfunction. Stanley was fortunate enough to have some kind of innate characteristic that allowed him to find the strength when he needed it to fulfil his dreams. Not everyone is like that. If commanding someone to “toughen up and get over it” really worked that instantly, wouldn’t we all just heed that call and life lives of unbridled promise and fortune? It’s the mentality of “it was tough for me too, but look at me now! There’s no excuse for being a loser – we can all be millionaires if you just work hard!” 

It has taken me a long time to recognise my own trauma and find a way through it. To label someone like me “weak” for being emotionally reticent is insulting and unhelpful. Weakness is further victimising someone when they are already damaged, projecting your own insecurities on to those you feel threatened by. The weakness is not in being the victim and the very natural response to trauma. It’s in how you treat those who have also suffered. It’s a measure of your empathy.

I was a very big fan of KISS when I was young. I discovered them when I was five and was immediately attracted to the other-worldliness and drama of their look. From then until I was 10 and David Bowie came into my life, KISS was everything! My best friend at primary school was also a massive fan, and we would spend hours in his living room, curtains drawn and playing air guitar to “Double Platinum” or “Alive!”, standing on the Ottoman stools his mother had, pretending they were the epic risers the band used in their concerts. We had scrapbooks full of clippings and we would draw endless caricatures of the band, scrawling the logo wherever there was any free space. But he was a bully too. The first day we met, we got into a fight. I don’t remember what it was about, but I vividly recall him pinning me to the ground on a lawn in front of a neighbour’s house, slapping me around the head whilst the others kids went past on their way home from school. The next day we were best of friends! Perhaps that fight should have been a warning to me.

My best friend had a neighbour, a slightly older boy called Matt Brown whom we both thought was really cool. He has all the KISS albums so it was natural that we hero worship this kid. He was also incredibly protective of the other children in the neighbourhood, and around him we always felt safe. I spent a lot of time at my friend’s house. He only had two KISS records, and I guess that was enough for him. From a very early age, I had been fascinated by the iconography of rock ‘n’ roll, the imagery and tactile nature of records. I knew there were more KISS records out there, and I knew Matt Brown had them all. As I was leaving my friend’s house, instead of turning left and up Dovecote Avenue to go home, I went right and down to Matt’s house. I had worked myself up to it all afternoon, trying to find the will to knock on that door and ask to borrow a record. He opened the door, and it took all my courage to ask him. He invited me, said I could help myself and borrow the records for as long as I wanted. If you’re a fan of records (and I mean specifically LPs, not just the music, but the actual physical medium of vinyl), then you’ll understand just how exciting this was. I pawed through his collection, my fingers running over the gloss cardboard covers, mesmerised by the colours. Which one do I chose? He said I could take as many as I liked, but as soon as I saw the cover for “Dressed to Kill,” I knew there was only one I wanted. The album cover had to strangest photo (remember, I was only six) – KISS in full make-up but dressed in suits. The juxtaposition was jarring and it fascinated me.

“Can I have this one?”

He let me take it and showed me to the door. I hugged the record as I left the house, immersed in how it felt and smelled. Making my way up the hill, my friend was standing by his letterbox.

“What’s that?” he asked.

I froze.

“What is it?!” he demanded.

“Ummm, it’s a…Matt Brown gave it to me. It’s a KISS record. ”

“He’s my friend! Did I say you could ask him?”

“I, ahhh…he said I could borrow it though,” I pleaded.

My friend was being possessive of what he saw as his exclusive friendship with Matt Brown. I was an interloper. Matt was his neighbour and he knew him better than me!

I tried to walk past but he blocked my way.

“You’re not taking it!” he demanded.

Each time I continued to get through him, he blocked my way, pushing me back. I tried to get around him but he would just stand in my way, trapping me. This seemed to go on for an eternity. I continued to try to get past him, pleading with him to just let me go. I just didn’t understand it. He was physically bigger than me and standing above me as I was downhill from him, the blockade seemed immense and impassable. It was also getting late, and I began to worry that I would be in trouble with my Dad if I was late for tea.

His older brother then came outside. He had seen the confrontation from the bedroom window and ran out to intervene.

“What are you doing?!” he yelled at his little brother.

“It’s Matt Brown’s record – he stole it!”

I did what?

“No he didn’t” his brother said. “You’re a fucking liar!”

With that, he pushed his little brother violently to ground and motioned for me to get past, asking if I was alright. I got home and put the record with the others in the old stereogram’s shelf. The excitement of having the record had gone, and now it had been tainted. I left the record in the shelf for a week, never listening to it or picking it up again until I took it back to Matt. I never asked to borrow another record from him.

We never spoke of it again, my friend and I. Our close friendship continued and we still perform air guitar to KISS in his lounge and played soccer together. There were other incidents of bullying – him forcing me to do things I was uncomfortable with – until his family moved town when he was 11. We wrote to each other and I spent school holidays with his family in his new city. The bullying stopped, I think because we spent less time together so that wasn’t a lot of opportunity for it. I also believe he genuinely missed my company and didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise any further contact.

When he was 14, a massive personal tragedy hit him. By this time, I had begun to see him less and less, so was only peripherally aware of what had happened. He came back up to Dunedin to go to university, and we reconnected, but he was different…really different. Where once he was confident, arrogant almost, and he had been aggressive and domineering, now he was reserved and unsure of himself. That personal tragedy he had experienced had changed him forever, instilling in him a sense of immeasurable loss and regret. The change was jarring. Now I was the one who was domineering and confident, and that’s saying a lot! I was a nervous, angst-ridden teenage wreck, especially now that I had been removed from the protective cloisters of high school and my friends there, and had to find a way to master all the social skills needed to navigate this new world. Our connection was still music. In fact, I have to credit him for introducing me to the Sex Pistols and all the Flying Nun bands I love when I was 12 and on a visit to him. Gone now were the bullying tactics and insistence on hierarchy. He now spoke in a softer tone and I spent almost everyday at his student flat near the university, listening to records instead of going to lectures.

It wasn’t until much later that I began to understand why he treated me the way he did. Although his family seemed outwardly happy and functional, I always sensed an air of unease and sadness in the house. He had struggled too, and as is always the case, the oppressed punch down. I was his release valve, his chance to get back at the world. I had forgiven him long ago for this, but now I had insight into why he behaved the way he did. He wasn’t”weak” for being hurt, for struggling to come to terms with his own trauma. The weakness was in all of us not being able to see a boy who was troubled and needed our help. The weakness was in those who had created the trauma and dysfunction he had grown up in. His strength though is in the love he carries in his heart and his gentleness with others. His strength is in being my friend still.




The room downstairs.

She wished that she had brought a coat with her. Although the party was only a couple of streets away from Lucy’s house, it was only when she was walking there that she realised that most of her time there would probably be spent in the garden, the only place Tim’s parents allowed his friends to smoke. She had spent most of the day at Lucy’s, where it had been sunny and warm and she hadn’t expected to go out tonight, so hadn’t bothered grabbing a jacket on her way out the front door. She was wearing her favourite t-shirt, the Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow one she had worn almost every day since she got it two months ago. She wore it so often with her faded tapered blue jeans and sneakers that it had become almost like a uniform. It defined her, gave her a presence. She had been given the t-shirt as a Christmas present, and wearing a jacket or something else on top of it was an afterthought as it was too hot to wear anything else during the day. The only coats she had that she liked anyway were her black duffle-coat with peg buttons, a bright blue puffer jack and her school blazer. They were either too heavy or bulky to wear during the Summer or just not cool enough to match her new, indie-chick look.

She really didn’t want to go to this party, but Lucy had cajoled her into going, badgering her that school was starting up again the next week and that it was their last chance to have some fun before they went into the 7th form. And he would be there. Maybe. Lucy had agreed to meet Shane, her new boyfriend, at the party so there was a good chance he would tag along. It still took a lot to convince her to go. Tim was an idiot, always showing off in front of his friends who were just as imbecilic. Imagine spending an entire evening surrounded by that! It was bad enough that she would have to see them again at school for the New Year. The party was going to be predictable. There would be a keg, a bonfire would be lit in the backyard, Tim and his mates would get pissed, take off their shirts and jeans, and leap through the fire. They would vomit, pass out, piss themselves and someone would inevitably shave an eyebrow off a comatose mate. Yay. But Lucy was insistent, and if there was a chance that he might be there, then perhaps they could hang out for a little while and talk.

He had already had a couple of cans before they left for the party. After a few beers, he felt brave enough to go into his sister’s bedroom and rifle through the makeup on her dresser and have a go and putting on some eyeliner. He hadn’t done it before, so his attempts were a little shaky, but he had seen enough pictures of Robert Smith to know that the slapped on effect was cool, preferable even. He liked the way it looked, how it made him feel. If he ignored the acne, braces and unfashionable haircut, narrowed his focus to just his eyes, then he looked pretty good. It suited him, he found. His green, almond-shaped eyes became more open and full, especially after he dared to add just a little eyeshadow and mascara to the look.

But something had to be done about that hair. It was a thick mop of dark waves, cut in some sort of poor approximation of Ziggy Stardust, without the outrageous colour, texture or grandeur. It waved too much at the back, curling up slightly as it reached just past his neck, making him look a little daggy. It didn’t take much for Shane to convince him to get the scissors out and hack at it. The alcohol was beginning to free him, bring him out of himself and be less cautious about what he said and dared to do. First off, Shane went to work on the back, shearing off the wavy mullet, leaving some jagged, shorter pieces that gave it a more haphazard look. Next he started on the crown and the top, snipping random lengths as they both laughed into the mirror about the potential disaster about to unfold. “Fuck it!” he thought. “Let’s see what happens.” He began to feel liberated. When Shane had finished, he grabbed a can of mousse standing on his sister’s dresser. He had no idea how to use it, how much he needed, so at first he was careful not to apply too much. When that amount didn’t have the desired effect, he sprayed more of the can into his hand, filling up his palm and soaking his hair. That was better, but it made his hair a little too limp. It gave the texture he wanted, but not the height. Picking up the hairdryer lying on the floor, he put his head forward and down, aimed the nozzle and turned on the heat, brushing his fingers through the hair in an upwards direction until it felt stiff and elevated. That was better. It was a more punkier Morrissey-esque quiff, but with the cut being so chaotic with random lengths all over, it looked weird and angular enough that it wasn’t obvious that he had tried, and failed, to emulate his Mancunian hero.

By the time she got to the party with Lucy, Tim was already well beyond drunk. He had started early, as soon as his father dropped off the keg, and then someone had brought a bottle of cheap vodka and he had begun to do shots in the kitchen. When Lucy saw him like that, she wanted to go as she couldn’t stand Tim when he was like that. Although she had been excited to go the party, she began to feel apprehensive about what might happen with these guys so pissed up. Tim was rambling, could hardly stand up straight and had drips of saliva seeping down his chin on to his collar. But she convinced Lucy to stay. During the short walk over, they had talked about him, and she had become excited to see him again after enjoying his company during the holidays.

She had noticed him at school the previous year. Although they had been at the same school for almost three years, they had never spoken to each other. It wasn’t until Lucy began to go out with Shane that she paid attention to him. When Shane and Lucy hung out during lunch break in either the library or music room, he was there too. Shane had befriended this weird, quiet kid earlier in the year when they ended up in sitting next to each other in English and found they had a shared love for indie music, especially the Smiths. This was his first close bond with anyone at this school. Although he had some friends there, those relationships were confined to the classroom or yard, and rarely did they hang out after school or during the weekends. But with Shane, it was different, and they spent most of Summer break together, watching music videos taped from the TV and even attempting to make their own with him wrapped naked in a white sheet, miming to U2’s “Bad.” It was bad. But there was something easy about this friendship, that they could just be themselves around each other and be those oddballs they had always been.

But whenever he was around anyone else, it was different. He became more insular, less likely to join in on the conversation or whatever was going on. He was this insecure weirdo, unsure of what to say in case he looked stupid, or his voice cracked in an adolescent squeak. But she had seen the Smiths badge on his lapel and the names of several other bands she liked scrawled on his khaki army-style satchel.

“Cool badge!”

“Oh, ahhh, thanks,” he muttered in return.

“Where did you get it?”

“Ummmm, EMI. Yeah, it’s pretty cool, eh” as he smiled a little but then immediately put his eyes back to the ground. Their conversation was stilted as Lucy and Tim disappeared into their own universe, but he managed to make her laugh a little with his self-deprecating quips and comebacks. He’s cute, she thought afterwards. An oddball, but cute. He was smitten. He had been for some time as he had seen her around school for a while, but finding out she was also into the Smiths, the Cure and Felt- it was just amazing.

Lucy and Shane were together a lot over the Summer. It was becoming harder for her to catch up with Lucy now that Shane was on the scene, so she ended up tagging along with the two when they hung out in the town centre or at Lucy’s place. Sometimes, he was there. In fact, he was there quite a lot eventually and that was another reason why she didn’t mind sharing Lucy with Shane. He was still painfully shy and found it almost impossible to make eye contact with her, but he was funny and a little goofy, and she didn’t mind the awkwardness between them. At times when Shane and Lucy left them alone to be by themselves, he would freeze and not know what to say. He needed that buffer of Shane to start up a conversation and without him there, he would seize up and stare at the ground. But she wasn’t as uncertain. She could see in him something else, something beyond the mumbling and awkward glances. She found that once she began talking to him about their common interests, he would become a little more animated, confident in what he could say to her about them. And again with those almost imperceptible smiles. He wasn’t aware of it because he thought his smiles aimed towards her were well-mannered and low key. But she found that he did it all with his eyes, that he gave everything away with those hurried looks in her direction. She adored it. And he had a goofy laugh, one full of that spark that she could in his eyes when he looked at her. “Oh, God! I think I really like him” she thought. “You think he likes me too?”

He arrived at the party with Shane a little after 10. The initial rush of confidence he felt with the booze and had begun to wear off and he was beginning to feel a little more anxious as they approached the gate to the house. They let themselves in after ringing the bell and knocking on the door several times with no one apparently inside hearing them. The hall was strangely quiet with all the doors to the rooms closed. There were a couple of empty plastic cups scattered across the hall, but no real signs of a party. As they opened the door to the dining room and kitchen, there was a rush of heat and the stench of alcohol. There were some people lurking in the dining room, but the party seemed to be mostly happening out the French doors, past the patio and on to the lawn where a small bonfire had been lit and everyone had gathered around the keg nearby. “Let’s get a beer!” Shane urged, and they passed through the dining room, grabbing two styrofoam cups on the way. Shane pumped the keg and filled both their cups. One or two of Tim’s friends gave him derisory looks, but their attention was mostly on the skulling contest taking place with a way-gone Tim and two other too-drunk to care guys.

Shane moved to say hello to some guests whilst he remained in situ, shuffling his feet, eyes pointed towards the fire, taking large gulps of the beer. He wanted to go. Almost the second he walked into the party, he felt uncertain and paranoid. He had seen the way those guys near the bonfire had looked at him with his eyeliner and ragged haircut. “They’re going to smash me!” he thought and panicked, turning and rushing towards the patio door. But then she was coming out the French doors, looking for Lucy. He had been looking behind him and off to the side in case someone was coming after him, so he didn’t see her at first and sped past.


He turned warily towards the voice, not knowing if it was one of the guys from the bonfire. He was relieved to see it was her, but then he felt a wave of anxiety as he realised that he was totally unprepared seeing her in this panicked state.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Ahhhh, yeah. Cool,” he stammered, his eyes darting across the yard.

“I’m going to get a drink – do you want one?”

He stood there, frozen and stared down into his empty cup.

“I’m good, thanks.”

“Fuck, look at these knobs!” she said, motioning towards Tim and his mates who had found the yard glass and were spilling beer all over themselves and anyone else near.

“Yeah,” he murmured.

“Look, I’ll just grab a beer and I’ll be right back. Are you sure you don’t want one?” she offered.

“’k, yeah” he said. She wasn’t sure if he meant he was fine, he didn’t need a drink, or that he had changed his mind and did want one.

“Ok, wait there” and she went to the keg to help herself.

He stood there, halfway inside the dining room and the patio door, unsure of what to do next. She had filled her cup but had been distracted by Shane asking her if she had seen Lucy. She came back with Shane and said she was going to the basement lounge where Lucy was with a couple of friends. As she said this, she lifted her eyebrows expectedly, intimating that she wanted him to follow. Shane moved past them to the stairs off the kitchen going down to the basement, whilst she nodded her head and gave him a little push to follow, her hand lingering just a little longer on his shoulder than she thought she should. He felt electricity. Such a seemingly innocuous gesture as that had fired his brain and snapped him out of his panic about the party. He followed her down to the bottom of the stairs where they came to a narrow doorway. Lucy was inside with Shane and a few other kids from school. It was a lot quieter than upstairs and the atmosphere wasn’t quite as drunken. There was only one seat left on the couch whilst of two other armchairs were full with another couple occupying one and Shane in the other. He looked around and found himself a spot on the floor, sat up against the wall, directly across from the couch.

The conversation centred on Tim and his mates, his parents and how rich they must be to afford a three storey house. He didn’t know what to say. He was still charged from her touch and began to question what he should do next. The group began to talk about how creepy they thought the guys upstairs were, that they were a bunch of sleazebags and how could any girl possibly fancy morons like that.

“You get what you pay for with those guys,” she quipped.

“What do you mean?” questioned Lucy.

“Well, we all know what idiots they are and they don’t really pretend to be anything else, y’know? Like, you know exactly what they’re thinking!”

The group all nodded and agreeing with her.

“I worry about those guys are not like that really. I mean, the ones who just sit there and stare at you without saying a word. It can be a little creepy.”

The panic rose in him again. Was she talking about him? Is she? “I thought she liked me” he thought. “Fuck, does she think I’m a creep now?” He became all too aware that he had been sitting on that floor during the entire conversation, not saying anything, but hanging on to her every word, gazing intently at her. She had seen this and became incredibly self-conscious.

“Oh shit! I touched him in the kitchen and now he’s acting all weird, well, weirder. Should I have done that? I thought he liked me.”

She turned to him, to silently give him some encouragement to engage with her and the group, to see if he was alright. He sat there, looking blankly at the opposite wall, above her head. He wanted to get out of there. “She thinks I’m a creep. I’m a fucking creep!” The faster his thoughts raced through his head, the more intently he stared at the wall, daring not to look at her in case she caught his eye and saw his panic.

“What’s wrong with him?” she worried. There was something between them, she had felt it, but he’s just ignoring her, not even looking at her. “Have I fucked this up?” Had she been too intense with him earlier? Maybe she had. But it was nothing, just a friendly hand on the shoulder. Is he that fragile? The conversation among the group downstairs was becoming more animated and louder. Yet despite this, she couldn’t hear a word they said. She was too lost in her own thoughts, the seemingly innocent moment of that touch upstairs replaying in her head, over and over. He was doing the same, thinking of what happened before they came downstairs. He wanted to feel that connection with her again. But he was now convinced it was nothing, that the touch had no deeper meaning than just an unconscious but friendly gesture to let him know she was heading down to the basement. There was nothing in it. He had got it all wrong and she was just a mate, all she would ever be, if he was lucky. Had she noticed they way he had jumped a little when she put her hand on his shoulder? That’s probably why she thought he was being a creep. She realised that he liked her but didn’t feel the same, and now it’s fucked, he thought.

Seeing that everyone’s attention was elsewhere, he took the chance to get up off the floor and leave the room. He hoped no one would notice, least of all her. He didn’t look back, just aimed for the door and the stairs and made his way through the dining room, to the hall and out the door. He can never go back there again. He’s made a fool of himself acting so weird and she’s probably scared of him or something. He went through the open gate, turned right and walked across the football field back home. His head was down and he found himself beginning to run, not stopping until he got to his front door where he felt safe again.

“He’s leaving!” He didn’t even say goodbye to me, or anyone else. She didn’t get it. Was he that unpredictable, that sensitive? Was she that wrong about him, about what she thought he felt about her? He just walked out without saying a fucking word, not even a look towards her and she just felt so confused. And angry. How had she gotten it so wrong all over again? She had spent the entire Summer thinking about him, how she adored his awkwardness, found it compelling. But was that all there was about him; that she was wrong in thinking there was really was something behind all of that. She thought she had seen glimpses of it, but perhaps she had totally misread him and he wasn’t likely to ever relax around her, open up and reveal those hidden depths she believed he possessed. She thought that she had been a really good judge of character, but then began to worry that she had been blinded to his shortcomings by projecting her own desires for an enigmatic but confident boyfriend on to him. “That’s it” she mouthed to herself. She would never make that same mistake again.