…what you are made of
Oh, by the way, Henry had started smoking again; he considered it preferable to living with the possibility that his good friends would once again surreptitiously addict him to nicotine. It also gave him something to do. Having nothing to do was a particular worry of Henry’s at this time. Very often, Henry found that he had nothing to do. There were probably a lot of things he should have been doing, like marking pupils’ work and other such things, but doing it never occurred to him. On more than one occasion this week, Henry had found himself at a lose end; the worst thing about being at a lose end was looking like you were at a lose end. Henry was worried.
And even though it was Henry’s natural state to be worried, to be very worried, to be overcome with anxiety, for some reason he felt this worry in a way that he hadn’t felt worried before: the thought of being known to have nothing to do, worried Henry at a level he had never known. So when Julia Madden, the stocky gym teacher ratcheted up her level of interest in him, and when Bill Simmons, the very strange history teacher sidled up to him in the car park, and when a re-addiction to nicotine suggested itself to him, Henry was eager to get involved.
Worrying about having nothing to do, which was worrying about having nothing to worry about, was just too much for Henry, as it would be for any person. However, rather than dismiss such a fragile and insubstantial and groundless and baseless and pointless and ridiculous second-order-worry, what could be termed a meta-worry, being worried about worrying, or not worrying, Henry jumped in head first and grappled for something slightly more substantial to worry about in order to ease the high pitch of anxiety he had thought himself into. Henry had decided to worry about getting caught smoking. And just in case that worry would exhaust itself, he fully endorsed the need to worry about Julia Madden, who he smiled at, in a manner which he thought could be construed as alluring. It would be. Must be. And then he frowned in the direction of Bill Simmons, a frown that could only be construed as one of serious disapproval: the frown of someone who you should be wary of. An enemy.
Lost in the tangle of the rhododendron bushes, smoking a rather dry and bitter confiscated cigarette, getting more and more light-headed with every drag he took, loosing himself in his favourite addiction, crouching down because of his intense fear of discovery, Henry pondered the dangers he had cast himself into: Bill Simmons was sure to orchestrate his demise and Julia Madden was sure to orchestrate his deflowering. What a wonderful world.
It was the barely audible crack of a branch which marked the beginning of all of Henry’s troubles. If Henry wasn’t so caught up in the feeling of the smoke hitting the back of his throat and the feeling of light-headedness which was overcoming him, he might have heard more than one branch cracking, because he was in fact being approached from more than one direction. But even if he heard every branch around him all of a sudden crack in two, Henry would have thought it unlikely that even he would have to worry about a multiple discovery – being simultaneously discovered by two or more people. Such an outcome could only be the product of paranoia far in excess of his own. The worst that could possibly happen at this point, as Henry was just now thinking, would be the sudden appearance of Mrs R P Merryweather, headmistress, suspended beneath the billowing mass of a parachute. For her to be accompanied by his tut-tutting parents, the leering Julia Madden, the sneering Bill Simmons, his third form class and a pack of rabid dogs, was the stuff of gross fantasy.
But an attack from the air would not occasion the cracking of a branch – so Henry could dismiss that possibility with little more than a slight shrug of his shoulders. Never before had the slight shrug of his shoulders sufficed to dismiss a worry. So Henry felt the tingle of what might have been empowerment pass through his frame, though it was most likely the spread of the effect of the nicotine: light-headedness spreading throughout his body, rendering his arms and legs light, his shoulders and chest light and his centre of gravity light, such that his rising from that spot and through the tangle of the rhododendron bushes was the thought which filled his conscious mind completely – until Julia Madden appeared before him, bursting with reality and ruthless breathing.
Henry, assuming a tone of approbation in her voice, for the sake of his own fragile mind, adopted the smug look of someone very used to approbation, someone who encouraged it and who thrived on it. He needed it. And he was so busy was he dealing with this approbation that he didn’t have time to counter Mrs Madden’s initial advances, and before he could manoeuvre himself out of danger, her ample bosom was crushing his hand and the cigarette it held to his chest.
The “Mrs Madden” he just about managed to get out was all but smothered by the raw flesh of her neck and her cheek, though what emerged of his utterance had all the characteristics of a breathless expression of joy. This was responded to in kind – an ardent “Mr Bridgewater” filled with the emotion of a love repressed for too long. Allowing him the space to breathe and to take in her flushed face, Julia Madden got lost in Henry’s watering eyes, her nose twitching at the smell of fresh tobacco smoke and the smell of burning synthetic fibres.
“So, it’s true?” Julia asked of Henry’s pale face. “Of course it’s true,” she answered for him.
Henry was more taken aback by the speed at which this all happened than the fact that it had happened at all. He had expected a move from Julia, he had expected a forceful thrust, but he was overcome by the manner in which she had succeeded in sweeping him off his feet. It would be some minutes before he would register the pain consequent of the cigarette tip burning through his nylon tie, shirt and thermal vest. It would be a similar length of time before he would have the wherewithal to blush. It would be quite some time before he would work out the implications of what he had just done. For now, his pale face and hanging open mouth would have to serve as the only comment he was willing to offer.
Stuck as Henry was for a word, Julia supplied her own, many of which would have made any man blush, let alone Henry.
What would have taken whatever wind was left in the world out of his now limp sails, was the sight of Bill Simmons, his face nestled between two clumps of glossy rhododendron leaves. The look on Bill Simmons face was one of supreme evil. As Henry would later relate to Oscar: “It was as though all the evil in the world settled for a moment on his features.”