ADOLESCENCE Identity crisis
In search of myself
Closed doors, secret diaries - teenagers crave seclusion while they search
through whirling feelings for that elusive sense of who they are. Award-winning
novelist Lucy Rees recreates the sensitive inner world of the adolescent.
On the day the exam results came I didn’t get out of bed. My body just lay there. It was like one of those dreams where you try to run from the foul fiend but your limbs won’t work, as if not only immersed in treacle but made of treacle too.
I wasn’t afraid, though, merely lying in a delicious wash of lassitude. Lethargy, Apathy, Bone idleness, some would call it. Above me the patches of damp on the ceiling formed their old familiar faces, the Gorgon, the camel, the Black Death measling its way across the wall like a rash of nuclear missiles. It’ll engulf us all one of these days. I wished, as so often, that I could make something of them but I never can. Anyway, my mind was disjointed like those pictures in car mechanics’ manuals where everything’s exploded so the cogs don’t mesh any more and all the bolts have blown out of their holes. Sometimes I seriously think that one day I won’t come back out of that limbo: there’ll be no stub-fingered oily hands to coax the gears into place, to make the bolts clean and tight, to wipe me over and restart me. They’ll realise I’m mad and file me away. It doesn’t seem to happen to other people: they chug along their little tracks as if there wasn’t any other way to go. I don’t seem to be the same two hours running: I’ll never make a real person.
Mam was clattering and yelling but the sound floated meaninglessly over me. You have to switch her off or go demented. It was the sound of the rain that seeped into me as I lay there drifting. We wouldn’t be carrying John Hafod’s second crop of hay then… The hay had been heavy. It’s lovely to stop exhausted at dusk with a barnful stacked, thinking of it warm and sweet for the cattle in the winter, the men laughing softly together before going to the pub; lovely to be old enough to go in with them - though suddenly the bond snaps: they have their beer and their farm-talk, I my lemon-and-lime and the corner by the fruit machines with the other kids, aimless as ever, waiting for something to happen. Drifting, drifting.
Mam whirled in like a yowling tomcat, galvanizing me into frenzy. Late already. Pigsty of a room, where’s the hairbrush, second sock? Four minutes to the kitchen:
‘But you can’t go to school like that!’
‘It’s not school, Main, there’s no classes. We’re only collecting exam results.’
‘Exams your future depends on - and in your jeans. Have you no shame?’
Shame, Main, that’s what I’m made of:
ashamed of the way you go on, of the way he sways when he’s had a few, ashamed of my shame, of my inability to feel the love and respect normal kids are supposed to, of my inability to do anything. ’I’ll wear my school mac then.’ Down the road, gymshoes squelehing already through the holes, cramming dry toast down a dry throat.
The bus was waiting. I slowed at the corner to see the others in my form - Dai Psycho, bold Bethan, Splodge - pretending to be overcome by nerves as they queued to get on. Suddenly the predictability of their chatter, of that same old school bus where you know the rips and chewing gum on every seat, seemed intolerable. The energy drained out of me, leaving me stranded in the bushes. Helpless as a beached whale, I watched the bus pull away. Bethan would collect my results, surely.
I turned, and there was Main coming down the road, string bag over her arm, heading for the shop. I shot backwards into the bushes, crouching down in the brambles, hearing her purposeful tread. Two pounds of sugar and a half of that nice cheese: that’s her life, day after day. She doesn’t end up hiding. She passed, and I was free.
Ha bloody ha. Who’s ever free? They say we’re a product of our genes and our environment anyway, circumscribed as bindingly as I was by brambles, caught by the coat of my learning, weighed down by heavy clouds. There’s got to be room for a me in there somewhere, because I am. I tore myself out. At least it had stopped raining. I didn’t want to go and see anybody, nor wait at home to face Main: I started up the old miners’ track that leads through the forest to the deserted quarries high on the mountain. There was a line of cloud above the blanket of trees: I could lose myself there. They couldn’t get me in the clouds.
Because they get you all the time, don’t they? From the moment they slap the nappies on you they never leave you alone, nagging you into their shape, whittling away at that bit of you that’s really you until it’s hardly there any more, only boredom and resentment at the way they push you around. And when they reckon they’ve got you softened up they start in with the questions: what are you going to Do? You can’t live on air. You can be a nurse or a hairdresser or a policewoman, a caterer or a sixth-former. You can have any pudding you like as long as it’s ice-cream: vanilla or strawberry, the chocolate’s run out. Who are they trying to kid? You can be moulded for one of their slots so that if you’re ‘lucky’somebody’ll be getting richer off you while you pay your taxes and the mortgage and switch off in front of the television. You can go straight on the dole, which is probably where you’ll end up anyway. Or you can get pregnant so that at least you’ve got something of your very own: another one, poor sap.
I don’t want to be an ‘a’ at all. I want to find me: I can’t be just a permanent rebel about the way the world’s organised, or a paralysed mindless goof. I’m frightened of knowing, but I’ve got to find out whether I really am mad: it’s not just my imagination: I can see from their eyes they think I’m not right in the head. When they say, exasperated. ‘We’re trying to help you: tell us your interests at least,’ I want to say: I’d like to know what China smells like (‘you could always train as an air hostess’); I’d like to be left alone, not to have to become a pawn in your complicated mess; to learn from my own mistakes, not be prevented from making yours; to know if letting my thoughts drift on would get me nearer to any of the answers; to see, feel, hear things, read books, meet people I don’t even know exist; to know if what the romances say about love is true, because it might be - and yet the sweaty back-seat embraces that should be a prelude to passion degenerate into embarrassing, sloshy struggles.
I’d like not to find everything so awful, not to be depressed, not to be useless. I’d like people not to starve while others grow fat. But you can’t say that: they only repeat their ‘strawberry or vanilla?’ bit. Even that’s a farce. Even if you want to be one of their slots, like Dai wants to be a doctor, it’s pretty pointless because they’re going to blow us all up sooner or later. They’ve got us fixed all right. But couldn’t we live first?
I trudged on miserably.
They say the miners used to walk up this track singing on their way to work. I can’t imagine why. They hardly saw the sun for half the year, got ripped off and diseased and all they did on their one day off was go to Chapel. You can’t believe in God now: you can’t have God and the Bomb, and the Bomb’s real. At least they had hope.
As I sloped up towards the cloud it was lifting, rolling back off the mountain. My legs were soaked from the bracken; the wind drove through my back, but my feet kept on up the ridge above the forest, heading up still. Bored with whining, I shut my mind up but it started feeding me that old song about counting goats, over and over, and the changing rhythms had me skipping round the rocks and bogs like a goat myself. Suddenly I was singing out loud, even the end bit where it goes faster and faster as you re-count the goats, the red-tailed, the blue-tailed, the white-tailed, and I ran out of breath and turned.
Sun! Beneath the cloud there was a horizontal corridor of light streaming over the sea, silvering it round the black outflung arm of the peninsula. All around, the mountains glowed, running in their craggy folds down to where the farms start, and then the villages, ridiculously tiny with their tiny people and their tiny worries, so ludicrous it made me laugh: these gaunt old mountains have seen so much, been scarred by greed and yet emerged triumphant, drifting head-in-clouds like me. But our heads were clearing now. You can see for miles up there: the ridges and the wind go on for ever.
I scrambled up the shining rocks to the top, where the south face of the mountain sweeps up from the valley in a dizzy incline, overshooting itself in a series of bristling teeth. Hungry as a weasel I perched in light and air, a world away from their little boxes. You can see how it should be from up there. Quarrelsome world leaders should be sent to mountain-tops: they’d understand about peace and harmony then.
I heard him first: a deep ‘craac’. A raven, perched like me. He glanced at me, peered over the gulf and fell outwards so that the wind sweeping up the face caught him up, turning him over helpless as a leaf. I thought him wounded or incapable, the way he twisted and rolled, and blamed myself for disturbing him; but then I realised he was playing, steadying himself in the eddies above the ridge before nose-diving down again in crazy, glorious spins, showing off his mastery. Claws tucked against his belly, he porpoised in his element, spreading his glossy wings to fly upside down, careering off again in tumbles of delight, and my heart went out to him.
When next they come at me with their questions I’ll tell them straight: I’d like to be a raven. It’d be much simpler, and more fun.
Lucy Rees is the author of Horse of Air, published by Faber & Faber, an award-winning novel about the adolescent crisis.
Worth reading on... ADOLESCENCE
Fit for Work? Colin and Mog Ball look at how schools fail to prepare young people for jobs - or life in general. Lively and approachable, it offers positive alternatives to existing practice. Chameleon Books, Writers and Readers Publishing Co-operative.
Childhood and Society. Erik Erikson applies his psychoanalytical insights to cultural anthropology, with special reference to the Sioux and Yurok Indians. Difficult but stimulating reading. Triad Granada.
Child labour series. Each slim book in the Anti-Slavery Society’s excellent series focuses on one country (eg. Italy, Morocco, Thailand) and provides facts, statistics, interviews and analysis. Succinct and informative. Anti-Slavery Society, 180 Brixton Road, London SW9 6AT.
For a global overview, the ILO’s 1983 Report of the Director-General is not only authoritative but unusually sympathetic to radical political change as essential if child labour is to stop. Available direct from ILO Publications, CH-1211 Geneva 22, Switzerland or through major booksellers.
On Disobedience, Erich Fromm’s last book, is a must. It shows the importance of challenging the status quo: without disobedience society would not evolve - and, in the shadow of the Bomb, we may not even survive. And Fromm’s Fear of Freedom, well-known to NI readers, is worth another read. Both from Routledge & Kegan Paul.
And now for something completely different. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole - Aged 13 ¾ (Methuen) is side-splitting. Sue Townsend’s perceptions are as immaculate as her comic timing. Her hero - the dour and laconic Adrian - experiences first love, parental adultery and reconciliation, rebellion at school and more.
Sound Effect - Youth, leisure and the politics of rock’n’roll by Simon Frith (Constable) is the most intelligent and readable study of rock music and youth culture available. Frith is both a sociology lecturer and a music journalist, and he manages to mix analytical distance with passion for rock’n’roll in about the right proportions.