… it’s the you inside of you
“Inside each of us it’s as though there’s a little man telling us what to do. But who is telling the little man what to do?”
Henry’s lower sixth class, a class of twelve discontented and disinterested teenage girls, looked at him with a combination of disrespect and confusion.
“…or a little woman?”
The monkey-puzzle tree which filled the middle window at the back of his classroom, its curving green branches, its stark shape against the open grey of the sky, allowed Henry a brief respite from the stark glares of the twelve girls, their subtle smiles, their not so subtle hatred of him, their obvious disgust at every word he uttered, their high amusement at the ridiculousness of his every expressed thought, the pointlessness of each word, the emptiness, the utter vacuity – how dare he open his eyes, open his mouth, utter one word after the next? How dare he?
“Tell me about your little men,” Henry heard his voice continuing. “An essay. Five-hundred words. My little man. You have the rest of the hour.” Henry folded his arms in order to draw a line beneath those words, give them the strength of a final sentence, a command, an ultimatum. This is what will be done. “You can start now. On your own.” Henry was in control. “No talking.” He had said the final word. “I said no talking.”
Henry knew that it wasn’t just idle speculation, that little man screaming sharply inside his head – it certainly wasn’t idling, such speculation, it was roaring, it was throbbing, it was banging against the insides of his head, threatening to burst out at any moment, an explosion of an aneurism, it wasn’t just metaphorical, it was medical, it was actual, it was a tumour growing, flowering, ballooning inside his head, within the confines of his skull, pressing against the inside, pressure building up all the time, ratcheting up, the tumour filling with one thought after another, two, three inflating anxieties, more billowing thoughts, gushing, pouring, building up. It wasn’t just a paranoid little man running riot inside his head. It wasn’t just anything – it was everything. Everything, every image, every object, every thought, each one screaming Henry’s ineptitude.
He is a fraud. The tables and chairs screamed it. The window blinds shouted it out. How deluded he had been when he saw a reflection of a different person in the staffroom window some days ago. It wasn’t a different person. It was him. Of course it was him. There’s no escaping himself. He’s everywhere. He’s staining every sight. Screeching in every sound. Distorting every thought. Twisting and twisting. It’s relentless – this experience of being Henry Bridgewater.
“Sir. D’you have any paper?”
Not one of the girls had started to work. All twelve of them just sat there staring at him as though there was something the matter. The one girl who asked for paper sat chewing her hair. But the other eleven, who just sat there, a writing pad in front of each of them, their pens on the table, their arms variously folded, hanging down at their sides or fiddling with their hair, their eyes unblinking, their faces blank – what was wrong with them?
“Will this be on the exam?” one of them asked.
How could such a question be so full of derision?
Henry closed his eyes and tried to recall how he felt the other day, when he was sure of himself, sure of how other people saw him, could see him, might see him, will see him, must see him, how he projected himself, was projected – just a little above everything else, just about looking down, not quite sneering, perhaps a little patronising, certainly calm and sober, definitely reserved, most definitely dignified, with just a little, a touch, a spark, a faint gloss of… A faint gloss of what? A faint gloss of what?
“Will it be on the exam?”
How do these twelve girls see you, Mr Bridgewater?
Remember, they cannot see the little man running around, tearing his hair out. They cannot see the little man huddled in a corner. All that is revealed thus far is Mr Bridgewater, sitting in front of them with a blank look on his face, his arms folded, his shoulders perhaps a little too hunched. True, there have been moments in the past when the little man spilled out onto the squares of dark blue carpet and danced his dance in front of them. True, they may remember how the little man baulked, spun, fell down, jumped up and down, threw his arms into the air, tripped over, rolled about on the floor, fell to his knees, shouted obscenities, went red in the face, puce, then pale, had to squeeze his eyes shut, push his fingers against his shut eyes, squeeze one hand in the other, look to the heavens, the floor, the walls, the windows at the back of the room for something, perhaps inspiration, perhaps release. But there was nothing. Not even hope of anything. His little man was without hope. Without recourse to anything. Without a chance.
“Exam?” Henry uttered, with what he hope was disgust.
But this was not enough.
“Will we be asked about the little man inside of people in the exam?”
As long as he didn’t panic. As long as Henry didn’t spill out words and words and words onto the squares of dark blue carpet. Because that’s what was inside him. That’s what was gushing, flowing, spilling, flowing. That’s what it was. Words. There were too many words. There were words. They were words. The words for a little man. The words for a little man tearing his hair out. The words for everything, the words for every possible scenario, straining to be played out. Sentences. Sentences which didn’t end. An unending sentence wrapping itself around his brain. Extending to infinity in either direction. How long is a piece of sentence? What’s the subject? Where’s the main clause? Just comma after comma and no sign of a full stop. He can’t see a full stop. No hope of a stop.
As long as he didn’t throw his hands up in the air and give up. As long as he didn’t go red. As long as Mr Bridgewater didn’t stumble over his words, loose a word, can’t think of a word, stutter, hum and haw, repeat himself, talk too quickly, mutter to himself, shout out random words, loose his thread. As long as Mr Bridgewater didn’t reply too quickly. Rush his words. As long as Mr Bridgewater didn’t sit in front of the twelve of them and say nothing… Nothing? How can you say nothing?
He would say nothing. Not say a word. Leave a brief pause extend outwards as though it would never end. And this period of silence now spreading out from him would take over the whole room. Speak his emptiness. His nothingness. His nowordedness. He had nothing to say. No reply. No comment. No words.
The briefest of knocks on the door was the only thing that could have happened next. This was quickly followed by the sound of the door opening, the appearance of Mr Kilpatrick and the words “Mr Bridgewater – a word.”
Foiled. Foiled once again. He was foiled. It was foiled. He had reached the ascendancy. The top. Was looking down. And then the whole mountain had been taken from beneath him. Didn’t exist. Wasn’t there.
“There seems to be a problem,” Tommy Kilpatrick said to Henry in the hallway.
Henry nodded his agreement.