How did I spend 2002? Smoking on my own, screaming at my mum, and dropping fistfuls of gravel off the top of the car park in the town centre. I did other things too, obviously, but those three were my… hobbies, I suppose. The things I did in my spare time. That’s a question Madame Higgins would ask me in our French lessons – ‘qu’est ce que tu fais pour loisirs, Emma?’ I’d roll my eyes and say ‘je joues au tennis, je vois mes amis, et je vais au cinema’. I would have told her the truth, but we hadn’t learned ‘gravel’ or ‘car park’ yet. We never did, actually. Girls at my school weren’t expected to know about gravel and car parks. Maybe no-one learns the French word for gravel. Maybe it’s all paved over there.
Of those three activities, the gravel is the one I still think about. I’m nostalgic for it, in a way. Which is a shame, because it’s not the sort of thing you can go back and do again as an adult. My manager was in the Berkshire Youth Orchestra, and the string section still gets together 15 years later, to drink wine and eat lasagne and play the viola or whatever.
If I ever think about the screaming, I well up with shame, so strong it’s like a physical presence in my mouth and lungs. Something thick, maybe glue, or olive oil. Mr Simmons taught us that Mussolini’s fascists would fill their enemies up with olive oil, pour gallons of it into their bellies as a punishment. We didn’t buy olive oil in 2002, because dad had lost his job and we were on a budget. Mum talked about being on a budget all the time, or so it seemed to me. Holiday? Sorry Emma, we’re on a budget. Can’t buy you new shoes, we’re on a budget. I remember hearing about Fascist Italy and thinking, well, at least they had olive oil. God, I was awful.
2002? Don’t know mate. Mixed. Very mixed. Six months in adult detention. I’d done youth before, but not adult. Had my little boy though, my little warrior, and they couldn’t take him away from me, no fucking judge could take him away, ‘scuse my language. They’re alright I guess, most judges. But when they hear about my little boy they give me this look, as if I don’t know what I’ve done to him. As if I don’t think about him every minute of every day. As if the way they slag me off is ever going to hurt me like the look on that boy’s face when he hears I’ve been put away again. So yeah, I do know what I’ve done to my little boy, you stuck up, posh, wanker.
Sorry. You’ve got me going now. Anger problems, that’s what Dr Faysal said. That’s another thing from 2002. I met Dr Faysal. Against my will, mind. When they sent me down I was raging, but I knew if I sat tight I’d be out before Christmas. Then they tell me I should see a shrink. See if I’m loony, or whatever. No fucking chance, I say. You gave me six months, fair play, but now you want to tell me I’m crazy as well? Piss off.
Josh agrees. He’s the lad in my cell. I say to him: ‘thought adult would be better than youth for this – thought they’d leave you alone, stay out of your face.’ He smiles and gives me his Bible. Says: ‘this is better than any doctor – this is the only prescription you need, brother.’ I say I’ll give it a try, and he believes me, I reckon. Could have told him I was no good at reading, but you don’t want to let people down, do you? And he could go off, Josh could, so there was that too.
Nothing against church, and Jesus, and all that. Used to go when I was a boy, when I lived with my Gran. Liked the singing, but I could never get my head round God – one minute he’s supposed to be right next to you, then suddenly he’s everywhere. How’s that work, then? Gran said God was like a dad, a dad for the whole world. Once, I ask the vicar if Gran’s right. If God is like a dad. Vicar smiles and says, well, God is actually more of an idea than a physical presence. That’s a yes then, I think. Nice old geezer, the vicar. Used to see him puffing away round the back before we went in.
The gravel came from three cracked concrete troughs that sat opposite the ticket machines at the top of the car park. The troughs probably had some plants in once, but by 2002 all they held was hundreds of thousands of tiny, milky grey stones, as well as a few cigarette ends and rusting cans. I went up there once or twice a week, climbing four flights of urine-smelling stairs with my headphones rammed tight in my ears. Not many people parked on the top floor, and the ones who saw what I was doing looked away quickly. At the time I thought they were scared of me, of my black hoodie and defiant nihlism. Thinking about it now, I’ve got a horrible feeling they were trying not to laugh. Mum rarely asked where I was going. This was infuriating, as it denied me a chance to scream at her about minding her own business.
I dropped the gravel into a quiet alley that ran between the car park and a DIY superstore. Some days I’d let the stones slip slowly through my fingers, one every 30 seconds, as a cigarette burned untroubled in my other hand. I rarely inhaled my cigarettes, on account of not really liking the taste. On other days I’d dump whole fistfuls of stones off in one go, then stomp back to the concrete troughs to grab some more.
First time I meet Dr Faysal, he’s going through my file. I sit down and say ‘well, if you read that, you’ll think it’s all bad’. Bit of a joke, you know? And he gets it, too. Looks up and gives me a big grin. I’ve tried that line with a few doctors now, probation workers too. They all love going through your file. Get off on it. But none of them ever smile. He was alright though, Dr Faysal. Let me bang on about any old rubbish – about my boy, about Josh, about the food in the canteen. His sort are normally just waiting to tell you how it is, ‘cause they think they’ve got you worked out the moment they see you. But he never told me how it is. I mean, he did in the end, but by then he’d sort of planted the seeds of what he was going to say in my head. So when he tells me I’m angry, been angry since I was a kid, I believe him. ‘Cause it felt like my words coming out of his mouth. And I’m no liar.
So I don’t mind seeing Dr Faysal. Even ask my probation worker if there are doctors like him on the outside. Good ones. She says there is, but there’s a waiting list or something. And I can see in her eyes it’s never going to happen, not for me. Stuff like that does my head in. Makes me want to kick off. That’s what got me arrested the next time, kicking off. Judge said criminal damage, but that’s ‘cause judges can’t put ‘kicking off’ on the forms. They got rules too, same as the rest of us.
The gravel thing was about control, I suppose. The year before I’d tried throwing up on purpose, when everyone at school was doing it, but I could never get my fingers down my throat properly. Even after Jess Hardwick showed me how, in the toilets before double maths.
I never went down to the alley where the stones landed. I told myself it was because I didn’t care, but really I was worried there would be cars with chipped paintwork or smashed windscreens, and someone would ring my parents. Worrying was my other big thing in 2002. Worry got me out of bed and propelled me through the day. Once, for reasons I’ve maybe forgotten but more likely never knew, a teacher asked my class to write down all the things that made us anxious. Jess Hardwick wrote ‘giving bad blowjobs’ in massive letters, and all the girls around her started shrieking with laughter. Other people were putting things like getting fat and exams. But I didn’t write anything. I thought: who has the luxury of discrete, neatly-divisible worries? Mine were tangled into a thick revolting mass, like the slimy globs of hair you pull from a plughole.
Of course, deep down I was scared that my list might be the same as everyone else’s. I clung tight to the singularity of my life – how could my gothic self-portrait survive if I acknowledged my worries were shared by millions of other teenagers? The same logic drove my bizarre pastime. Who but a uniquely tortured soul would stand at the top of a commuter town car park for four hours, grimacing as the wind turned their face to cold metal? I was an effect searching for a cause. I was all back to front.
There was a neatness to my hobby, too. The smell of cigarettes stayed on my body, but after the day’s last stone fell to the ground – through drizzle, winter fog or the heavy air of a summer evening – I could skulk back home bearing no trace of my other, odder activity. Some of my friends cut themselves, hiding or exposing their scars in line with social rules that changed on a daily basis. The thought of marking my body like that, of carrying the me of today into tomorrow, made me shudder. I was not desperately unhappy in 2002. I was just waiting to start, as all 14-year-olds are.
The screaming outlasted the gravel dropping, but only by a few months. Soon I’d look back on both with confusion and embarrassment. Years later, as my parents prepared to move house, my mum unearthed the black hoodie at the back of a cupboard. ‘Your cocoon’ she said with a grin, as we drank coffee in their new kitchen. I rolled my eyes, for old time’s sake.
Been out two weeks and I’m in town. Saturday afternoon, so it’s rammed. The boy’s mum calls. Giving it all that. Because I ain’t rung her, because I don’t have no credit. Like if I try harder I can pull phone credit out of my arse, like I’m David fucking Blaine. Try to do my breathing, like Dr Faysal showed me, but I can’t. Not with everyone in my face. They’re all staring at me, watching me get wound up. She loves it. Calls me a dozy prick, says a sperm donor would have been more use. And that does it, sets me off, right off, and I chuck the phone across the street. Not hard. But hard enough, I reckon, ‘cause it goes right through a shop window. Then this Indian geezer come out, crunching the bits of glass under his feet.
I run. And now breathing’s easy, because when you’re legging it your breathing takes care of itself. Everything does, really. So I feel good. Well good. Like I’ve found my place of calm. That’s one of Dr Faysal’s – when the anger’s coming on, find your place of calm. Not a real place, but a place in your thoughts. A feeling you turn into a place. In your head. You know what I say to Dr Faysal, when he tells me about turning feelings into places? ‘And they think I’m the loony one’. We had a good laugh about that. He was alright, Dr Faysal. Anyway, I never thought I’d find my place of calm, until then. Just goes to show. I run past some plastic police outside the bus station, community officers or whatever, and soon they’re after me too.
Get to the alley at the back of the old car park, and my legs go. Plastic police getting closer, but I don’t mind. Place of calm, see? Hear a rattling, then something falls on my head. Like a raindrop, but sharp. Then another one, and another. Little stones. It’s raining little stones, next to the big DIY place in the middle of town. I look up, and I nearly get one in my eye. As the plastic police come round the corner, I remember what Josh says the night before I got out. He had some funny ideas Josh, after he’d smoked a bit of something. Anyway, he says we’re living in the end times, the end of the world, like in the Bible. Says soon there’ll be rivers of blood and people turning to snakes and rocks falling from the sky. So I’m smiling, even when I’m on the floor with the plastic police on top of me.
Josh was wrong, of course. There’s no end times. No beginning times either. ‘Cause nothing ever changes. Not really. You try telling that to the head doctors and probation workers though. They’re always asking about the future. ‘What are your goals, Mr Matthews? Where do you see yourself next year, Mr Matthews? How about in five years’ time, Mr Matthews?’ Makes me laugh. On and on about your future, like it’s anything to do with you. Lying in that alley, under the plastic police, I felt bad for Dr Faysal. ‘Cause he really believed in it. In all of it, in the breathing and the place of calm and the thinking about the future. But the future’s just like God, or your old man. It’s everywhere and nowhere, all at once.
Craig Burnett was born in Dundee and lives in South London, where he writes about awkward conversations, nasty surprises and the weight of the past. He has short stories published or forthcoming in Noble/Gas Qtrly, Tincture Journal, The Flexible Persona, Headland, the Glasgow Review of Books and elsewhere.