I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe in hauntings, in the lingering insidious presence of something malignant. Spectres of endless doubt, old thoughts as oppressive as any vengeful wraith. I believe in parasites, prodding, cold and primal, stirring distant failures and shames that strike when the mind relaxes, or into nightmares that will wake you, febrile and slick with sweat.
All of these dark creatures are no more complicated than old memories, and I believe in them like I believe the earth is round.
I believe because I knew a bully.
He singled me out for reasons that were his own. I didn’t like the things he liked, and I liked things he did not. I didn’t look like he looked; I was thin, lean and pale, where he was pug-nosed, stout and peppered with freckles. I was clever, and he was not. That’s not a brag, or an indictment. I largely saw school as a means to an end, and worked, and even enjoyed it, whereas he saw it as an unfortunate mandate. He sat at the back of the few classes we shared, those that weren’t banded by ability, and he sniggered and railed against the simplest of tasks. That was when he sat at the back at all. Often he’d be relocated, or absent, or serving a period of exclusion for wrongs that didn’t involve me. His presence wasn’t pervasive, but when it was there, it was ever a threat.
He played a slow game, and his moves were often uncoordinated, without much forethought, simple lashings-out, like the first, where he struck from behind while I stood peeing at the trough and cracked my head against the wall’s peeling paint, stumbling, exposed, breaking my fall with a hand into the gully of warm amber and weak disinfectant. I scrubbed for five minutes before I returned to class. Then it was verbal, insults that barbed my physicality, or lack thereof: the gangling frame, the hair too curly for his tastes, a tiny hereditary kink in the shape of my right ear lobe, unnoticeable until it’s noticed, then mined for meagre gold.
It was always there during PE.
The PE changing rooms were a twice-weekly hell, a timetabled trip to ten-minutes of judgment and punishment for crimes you couldn’t control. Who had muscles, who had hair? Whose puppy fat hadn’t yet hardened? Whose nipples were too big or too small? Who wore expensive underwear and whose came from the catalogue? Pushing, shoving, tweaking and whipping. Walls lined with awkward flesh changing outfits as quickly as possible, desperate to do it without being noticed.
Before the lesson, a crucible of scrutiny. After the session, a litany of faults. Backslapping for the winners, lambasting for the losers.
“You’re too dry,” My Bully said in the changing room one day. He crossed the room to tell me, leaning in suddenly. It was loud enough for a pocket of his cronies to hear, and they sneered and cackled like well-trained vultures. I pulled down my red tee-shirt quickly, exponentially more self-aware. Did he mean my skin? Did I have flakes and lesions on my back I’d never noticed? But he peeled away quickly and lumbered into the adjoining toilet area, positioning himself at the trough.
Too many possibilities went through my head. A repeat of being pushed against the wall while I peed, stumbling clumsily into the trough. Him thundering back through with a cup of his own piss to douse me with. Him finishing up and hauling me in and pushing my face down into the steel channel flowing with yellow froth. I hopped myself into my trainers as I left the room and followed my friends to the field for football . . .
Break the Cycle is an anti-bullying anthology of 14 stories by 14 different authors. Each story features a different scenario.
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