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language. The four hours a week spent studying the subject were wasted time to an unremarkable boy of fifteen. Why study something that people used without thinking? At least with French or German or Italian, there was some knowledge involved, vocab and hard facts, but to study his own language was like studying chewing or standing-up. Language was a tool. Books were what you read on the beach when the sun was too bright for the screen on your phone. Of course Douglas Miller was bright enough to know not to say this kind of thing out loud, and certainly not to Mr Arnold, his sour, tobaccotoothed English teacher, but this is what he thought each week as he sat and stared unseeing at the pages of Pride and Prejudice, To Kill A Mockingbird or, worst of all, the love sonnets of that clown Shakespeare; My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun Coral is far more red than her lips red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun: If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head… Hugo Barrett, the classes self-appointed poet was reading aloud in that fluty, lilting voice of his, all swoops and glides, tossing his poet’s hair, widening his eyes coyly at the word ‘breasts’ to the delight of the drama-girls who sat pouting, chins cupped in their hands at the sheer depth and beauty of it all. Douglas felt the chewed end of his biro crack between his teeth, and turned instead to the sports field where a scrappy, half-hearted soccer match was being played by sodden third-years, shoulders hunched uselessly against the rain. It resembled a scene from a prison film, yet even that would be preferable to poetry… ‘Miller? Mr Miller? If I can drag you away from the match for one moment?’ Douglas felt the suck of his hand on his cheek as he jerked straight. ‘Could you repeat the question, sir?’ Giggles in the front row.
‘The Bard!’ Mr Arnold was the kind of teacher who delighted more in his pupils’ failure than their success. ‘Please paraphrase into good modern English his meaning in the first quatrain, by which I mean - anyone?’ ‘The first four lines,’ bellowed Hugo Barrett. ‘Indeed, the first four lines. So - Douglas?’ Douglas skimmed the words. ‘He means…he means his girlfriend is nothing special.’ ‘Thank you, Mr Miller’ drawled Mr Archer, verbally patting him on the head. ‘You have the soul of a poet!’ Douglas bit down hard on his biro and tasted ink on his lip. An average boy of average ability, Douglas swam in the middle stream of an adequate school, causing neither anguish nor excitement in his teachers or fellow students. Of medium height, his hair was somewhere between brown and beige, his complexion averagely flawed for a fifteen year-old boy. His face…well, in the unlikely event of Douglas committing a crime, the witnesses would have a hard time describing his face, his features tending towards a not unpleasant flatness. He looked like…a boy, thought like one too, sometimes happy, often sad, occasionally filled with fear, anxiety, shame, rage, confusion and lust, all of which he did his best to conceal. In his introspective moments, of which there were many, Douglas felt nostalgic for the earlier years of his childhood, long days that revolved around TV and action-figures and modelkits, rather than the far more troubling controversies of friendship, popularity, girls, desire. But now adolescence was working its way through his year like scarlet fever. You could smell it in the corridors. This was the chrysalis stage, personalities forming beneath oily, broken skin; one boy was transforming into the class comedian, another the heart-throb, another the political activist, this girl the genius, another the heart-breaker. The athletes performed their push-ups and squats, the actors and arty-types noisily found their voices, their rich inner-lives and poetic souls. The windows of the music room rattled to outbreaks of Adele-ish singing at lunchtime. Yet Douglas remained as dull and straightforward as lined A4. He never expected to be hoisted aloft on the shoulders of his schoolmates, but neither did he expect to be flicked with wet towels. The laws of physics meant that no human-being could ever be
invisible, but still Douglas tried. Then, with the new term and the spring, Ms. Wizneski arrived. Everything about Ms. Wisniewski was different; the defiant buzz of the ‘Ms.’ and the bundles of high-scoring consonants in her name as she spelt it out on the white-board, the way she perched on the edge of her desk rather than hiding behind it, the way her dark eyes took them in one by one, all of them, not just the poets and actors of the front row. ‘Good news and bad news, I’m afraid. The bad news is that Mr Arnold won’t be teaching you this term. Ill-health has meant that he’ll be taking some time off. He may return, he may not, but while he’s gone you’ll be in my hands. That, in case you hadn’t realised, was the good news.’ The class laughed ingratiatingly and Douglas Miller laughed too. They turned once more to Shakespeare’s sonnets. Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediment. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds Or bends with the remover to remove… He watched her as she read, holding the book high and pinched between finger and thumb like a chorister. She was fairly old - twenty-eight, thirty maybe - with black hair cut in a geometric bob, and skin the colour of…of…he couldn’t think what her skin reminded him of, but her name confirmed that there was something foreign about her, East-European, Polish or Russian. The eyes fractionally wider apart and surrounded by dark skin, the pleasing wide plains of her face, it all suggested the kind of face you’d see in a spy film, beneath a fur hat. Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come… Perching on the desk she tugged and twisted at a long, tight skirt in some kind of heavy, dark-grey material, tapering tightly to her calves, drawing attention to ankles which were dark-skinned and dappled with the kind of
bruises and cuts that you get from bicycle pedals. Through the toes of her elegant scuffed shoes the red of her nails matched the colour of her lipstick. Lipstick. She wore lipstick to class. What was she doing here, amidst the bad skin and awful hair, in this fug of cheap sausages and coffee-breath and overactive glands? Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks But bears it out even to the edge of doom… She was pretty, but not magazine-pretty, the magazines that Douglas stacked in a pile beneath his bed. To the extent that a fifteen year-old boy could be said to have such a thing, Ms Wisniewski was not Douglas’s type; it was hard, for example, to imagine her playing volleyball, though he would no doubt try later. But to sit and look at her on a damp Tuesday afternoon, to drink in her face and her voice - a confiding, musical alto like a voice you might hear on a radio late at night or, even better, in your ear, close and warm - well, that wasn’t so bad after all. He rested his head on his hand and closed his eyes, and actually listened. ‘You’re not asleep are you? I’m sorry, I don’t know your names yet…’ He realised that she was talking to him. ‘Douglas, Miss. Douglas Miller’ ‘Douglas, have I put you to sleep already? A new personal best.’ She was smiling with tight lips, mock scolding him. ‘No! I was just listening!’ ‘Yeah, right’ smirked Hugo Barrett. ‘So what did you think of the poem, Douglas?’ ‘Um…’ The class were twisting in their chairs now, twenty-eight faces looking at him doubtfully. ‘What he means is, if you fancy someone, and it’s proper love, then nothing can change that.’ There was a silence and she frowned, unimpressed. ‘Well that’s a version of it I suppose. But that’s not what I asked. I asked what you thought of the poem, how you responded to it.’
‘Oh. So – was what I said wrong?’ He wanted very much not to be wrong. ‘Not wrong, but…can everyone look at me please? Everyone?’ The eyes of the class shifted away, as Ms. Wisniewski smoothed her skirt down - how could she bear to touch herself like that? - and placed a hand precisely on each knee. ‘I don’t know how you’ve been taught up until now, but I want you to shake off this idea of translation. When Shakespeare wrote ‘To be or not to be?’, he didn’t really mean ‘shall I kill myself or not?’ He meant ‘To be or not to be?’ He liked the t’s and the b’s and the rhythm and the symmetry of it. Shakespeare wasn’t deliberately being obscure to spoil your Tuesday afternoon. He was expressing himself in the most vivid and exciting way possible.’ She held on to the edge of the desk, leaned forward. ‘Studying literature isn’t about taking something rich, complicated and ambiguous and turning it into something easy, a slogan or a tweet. I want you to embrace the language, the sound it makes on your tongue. The beauty of it.’ In science, Douglas would sometimes find himself looking down a microscope at paramecium spinning through pond water, propelled by the fringes of cilia towards food or away from the heat of a Bunsen burner, or watching speeded-up footage of a broad bean splitting and sprouting towards the light; hydrophilic, photo-philic, basic survival instincts that he could comprehend. In Maths he knew the satisfying click as the unknowns in an equation revealed themselves. In French, it was reassuring to learn that ‘chien’ equated to ‘dog’, ‘chaud’ to ‘hot’, ‘je t’aime’ to ‘I love you’, or was it ‘I like you’? Perhaps that was a bad example. But certainty, constancy, yes and no, right and wrong, ticks and crosses; these were comprehensible and reassuring to Douglas. The square on the hypotenuse equals the sum of the square on the opposite two sides and the capital of Australia is Canberra. After all, he was fifteen-years-old, his body and brain churning, fizzing and sprouting in ways that alarmed and appalled him. Wasn’t life complicated enough already? The following week, the class arrived to find old, scuffed paperback copies of David Copperfield on each desk. Douglas weighed it experimentally in both hands. He turned to the last page. Eight hundred and eighty-nine
pages of thin paper. He opened it at random, narrowed his eyes at the tiny print. Fear was spreading through the class. Were they actually going to be asked to read it? It would be easier to eat it. ‘Don’t panic!,’ said Ms. Wisniewski, perching her wide, soft bottom on the front edge of the desk. ‘It’s not part of the exam. I’d love you to read it of course, but even the Victorians didn’t swallow these down in one go. They read in instalments, a section at a time, with Dickens writing madly to stay ahead of them. They were like soap operas, only much, much better.’ She took the book in both hands and sighed ‘Ah - ‘David Copperfield’’ as if it were the name of some wonderful old lover. ‘Just out of interest, has anyone actually read it?’ Hugo Barrett’s hand punched towards the ceiling. ‘Hugo – why doesn’t that surprise me?’ There was laughter, but Hugo blinked sulkily. ‘Now, turn to Chapter One. The opening sentence. Who’d like to read? Not the usual suspects, please? Alison, is it Alison lurking at the back there? Alison. The first sentence please.’ A little dazed, Alison Murray licked her cherry lip-balm, squinted at the page and read, haltingly; Whether I shall be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. ‘Should I stop there, miss? Miss?’ ‘‘The hero of my own life,’ said Ms. Wisniewski, breathily. “The hero of my own life’.’ Isn’t that a wonderful idea? Who here believes they’ll be the hero of their own life? You don’t have to answer! Hugo, put your hand down. Just ask yourself the question - that’s what Dickens wants you to do.’ So Douglas asked himself the question. He began by rolling up the sleeves of his blazer. He parted his hair this way and that, tried fat and skinny knots in his school tie and decided to go for skinny. He didn’t volunteer to read in class, he didn’t answer too many questions, he merely sat and assumed an air of charismatic intensity as Ms. Wisniewski talked about sonnet form and iambic pentameter, alliteration and ambiguity, similes and metaphors. He discovered that Animal Farm
was not really about a farm, that a word could have more than one meaning, sometimes many more, and that happy endings weren’t always as happy as they first seemed. He cried at Of Mice And Men, but in a quiet, manful way, not like Hugo Barrett, who practically had a nervous breakdown. That night, he surprised his mother by asking if she could buy him some alfalfa. Of course, English Literature wasn’t all high-minded contemplation - occasionally his mind would slip from the terrible beauty of Wilfred Owen to the terrible beauty of Ms. Wisniewski’s bra beneath her blouse, or to wildly inaccurate speculation about her sex-life. But even so, he felt himself becoming…deep. ‘You show a terrific sensitivity to language, Douglas’, she had told him, returning an essay on favourite characters in Romeo and Juliet. Alison Murray gawped in amazement, Hugo Barrett glared into the wall. Douglas wondered if the hot, tight feeling in his chest was pride or love, and decided to call it love. The first poem that Douglas wrote for Ms. Wisniewski was a patchy, lolloping affair. Locked in his room, he lit the candles his parents reserved for back-garden barbecues, turned to a new page of his brand new exercise book and began by brainstorming a selection of images and characteristics, writing in a new and extravagantly loopy hand with his father’s fountain pen, pausing now and then to smoke it like a fat cigar. What should he compare her to? How would he find the ways? Red lips. Lovely red lips, scarlet lips, crimson, vermilion. Lips like…what was red? Roses? Strawberry ice cream? Too cold. Hot ice cream; was that paradox or tautology? Something soft. Lips like small…red…cushions? Cushiony – was that a word? Raspberry cushiony lips, or just raspberry cushions? Traffic lights? He said the lines aloud, tapping out the dum-di-dums, just as she had taught him. ‘Lips as red as traffic lights, except they don’t say stop’. Like many, more experienced poets, Douglas decided to abandon the rigours of the sonnet in favour of free verse. He closed his eyes. Sometimes, he had noticed, a little stripe of Wisniewski’s lipstick would find its way onto her front teeth. He wrote red scar white teeth want to wipe it off.
- which seemed dirty in a way he couldn’t quite define, and he quickly obliterated the words with thick ink. This poetry lark was harder than he’d first expected, even with candles. It was like a game of chess, where the first move opened up a galaxy of possibilities, except in chess there were only sixteen pieces to choose from, rather than the whole of the English language. Like a true writer, he went online in search of inspiration. As a good, solid modern establishment the school had a website, and he quickly locked the door of his bedroom and summoned up the webpage that introduced the staff - a ghoulish parade of snaggled tannic smiles, dotted pores, awful hair and there she was, rose amongst weeds. He stared for a long time at her image, his face so close that he could see the individual pixels even in high-res, stared as if attempting to pull her through the screen. A glance to the bedroom door and he leaned forward and kissed her. Warm static, a little dusty. ‘I’m afraid I have some good news and some bad news. As some of you may have already heard, I’m pleased to tell you that Mr Arnold’s health is greatly improved and he’ll be returning to teach you next term. In other words, my time with you is over. This week will be our last together. That, in case you hadn’t realised, is the bad news!’ She paused for laughter but none came, least of all from Douglas Miller, whose heart had snapped neatly in two. That night, as his family watched TV, he snuck into the bathroom and dabbed his face solemnly with his father’s aftershave; cinnamon and nutmeg, musty, lightly curried. In his room, he lit his candles once more, took up the fountain pen and produced a postcard, a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that he’d furtively bought from the stationers on the High Street. He took a deep breath and, with a fluency that seemed almost mystical, wrote To Ms. Wisniewski I can’t believe you’re going to go. When you’ve only just arrived. Before you do, you ought to know How much you’ve changed my life.
I think you’re really special, Ms. And I’m sad to see us part. You’re lovely, Ms .Wisniewski.... For the first time he hesitated. The next line, he knew, should go ‘and something something heart’ but sounds in the hall had broken his trance and he quickly turned the postcard over. His father stood in the doorway, frowning. ‘Your mum says you’ve been lighting candles.’ ‘So?’ Douglas pouted. ‘So, blow them out. They’re dangerous!’ His father flicked the light switch and a 100-watt bulb drove the muse from the room. ‘We have electricity now, Shakespeare. Oh – and have you been you wearing my aftershave?’ The last day of summer term arrived, humid and grey, but Douglas didn’t dare to remove his blazer for fear of mislaying the postcard. Throughout the day he would slide his hand into the pocket to check its safety, making it ragged and dog-eared and greasy. He kept his hand there throughout the class too, barely taking in the subdued discussion of Lord of the Flies, instead concentrating fixedly on her face like a movie camera, storing Ms. Wisniewski away for the hard times ahead. The bell tolled three times, and lesson was over. ‘Goodbye everyone,’ she said. ‘It’s been a pleasure.’ The class groaned and sighed sentimentally and Douglas took the poem from his pocket, and smoothed it out against his thigh beneath the desk. Thanks, Ms., Bye Ms., It’s Been Great, Ms. The sycophants and goody-goodies made their protracted farewells while Douglas loitered awkwardly at his seat, packing and unpacking his bag until finally they were alone. ‘You’re still here.’ ‘Yes.’ Pause. He walked towards her, bumping tables with his hip along the way. ‘Your name, Ms. Is it Russian?’ ‘Polish. My grandparents were Polish.’
Douglas nodded wisely. ‘Polish. Thought so’ Pause. ‘Well…was there something you wanted to?…because I have to go.’ ‘I wrote something for you’ he blurted, holding the card out straight in front of him, wanting to be rid of it now. ‘A postcard? That’s nice.’ ‘A poem. I wrote you a poem.’ ‘A poem?’ She stared at the card doubtfully. ‘Really? Really?’ she said, reached out and took it between finger and thumb, and almost instantly he wanted to snatch it back and tear it into little pieces. At the exact moment that the poem left his hand, the realisation took hold that it was awful, terrible, embarrassing, absurd, and in the same instant he knew that all he’d felt had been ridiculous too. This wasn’t love, not proper love, not really, not yet. All that sincerity, turned in a moment to trash. Too late now. She began to read. He watched her eyes intently as they scanned left to right, praying that she wouldn’t visibly wince or squirm or, God forbid, laugh in derision, even though this would serve him right. The reading took much longer than the eight lines demanded or deserved, but finally she seemed to reach the end. She turned the poem over, smoothing it down against her thigh, looked at him sideways with narrowed eyes and in a low, amused voice said, ‘Well, well. Douglas Miller, you are a dark horse!’ He laughed with something like relief. ‘It’s complete shit, isn’t it?’ She laughed too, but he didn’t mind. ‘As a piece of poetry, it probably needs a further draft or two. But as a sentiment…’ She placed the postcard against her chest, at a point between her breasts and pressed it there. Oh God, he thought. Oh my dear God. Douglas Miller wrote nothing else that summer, but early in the autumn term he began work on a more ambitious poem, in free verse this time. He had started to dissect a frog in Biology, sharing the tiny pale corpse with Sharon Murray, and he thought there might be something in it.
A Little Soul is David's story written for Too Much Too Young, the second volume from Book Slam, London's leading literary shindig, collecting new
writing from some of the event's alumni into a quite beautiful, limited edition, cloth-bound hardback, each individually numbered and signed by every author. As well as David's contribution, 'Too Much Too Young' features new stories from Diana Evans, Jeremy Dyson, Marina Lewycka, Emylia Hall, Nikesh Shukla, Jesse Armstrong, Jackie Kay, Craig Taylor, Patrick Neate, Salena Godden and Chris Cleave. Book Slam is celebrating the publication with three launch parties across London on November 27th, 28th and 29th. See bookslam.com for more details and to order your copy.
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