When I was 11 Roland gave me one pound. Unlike mine, Roland’s school shoes were shiny and were replaced during the school term. His school bag was leather, his uniform pressed and his packed lunch was not made from Sandwich Spread. He had a fist full of coins and dished them out to five of us in the playground.
I had 20 pence a day to buy a bag of sugar – Rainbow Dust (brightly coloured sherbet) or Pineapple Chunks (bright yellow cubes of fruit flavoured sweets) - from the newsagents. There was a tuck shop where Currency = Cool, since I had no money I wasn’t cool. On this day I strode into the tuck shop and handed over cash as though I did it all the time. I bought Orange Fanta and a bag of crisps and still had change. I giggled a bit.
That day I rocked the free world - until my form teacher saw me.
Where’d you get that?
Where’d you get the money for that?
My poverty was known from the fact that this teacher had given me football boots and a rugby top from lost property. Given I have an inability to lie I said that Roland had given me a pound.
Why’d he do that?
I had no idea. Roland had given me the coin out of the blue. The teacher did not view this as positive an occurrence as I did.
The following morning Roland and I were called in. He asked Roland where he had gotten the money and Roland confessed to stealing it from his dad’s wallet and started to cry. He asked why he had given the money out and Roland had shrugged and cried some more. He asked me if I was bullying Roland and I looked at my spaghetti arms and I said no. He asked if Roland was buying my friendship and I said no (I had gone from bully to prostitute in 2 questions). He asked Roland to name the others he had given money to and he sobbed and named names. A few minutes later 4 others stood with us, staring at Sobbing Roland and SuperGrass Me. The teacher said we had to pay Roland back and they shelled over a pound each from their pockets. I said I would have to pay over 5 days and the teacher frowned. He itemised my Orange Fanta and Cheesy Quavers and said - You’ll pay for it.
Not being able to pay immediately made me the most guilty of “The Playground 5.” I had needed that Fanta too much!
Two years later Manesh bounded over to me during break. He gave me an iced finger bun. He had a Tupperware container full of them. I quite liked Manesh, we weren’t close but we sat next to each other in Maths and occasionally swapped jokes about the English, Irish and Scots. I took the bun, I ate the bun, I enjoyed the bun and just as I was finishing it a teacher pulled me aside.
Where’d you get the bun?
Round a mouthful of bun I said Manesh had given it to me.
Why’d he do that?
I said I didn’t know. I was confident there was no way they could make me repay a bun.
Are you bullying Manesh?
Again I looked at my spaghetti arms.
Are you friends with Manesh?
I said sort of, we did Maths together and before I could tell the teacher about the racially profiled but funny English, Irish & Scots jokes he asked -
Are you not friends with him because he’s black?
I didn’t know how to answer. Manesh was darker skinned but I had never placed any importance on this. When Roland had given me the pound there had been no mention of skin colour.
I said no - I wasn’t not friends with Manesh because he was not white. The teacher frowned and told me racism was a terrible thing. I should think long and hard about racism, if I was being racist he assured me You’ll pay for it.
I became wary of people giving me things. A redheaded girl wanted to dance with me at a school disco. A huge African kid offered to hit someone who’d said I had Hitler hair. I turned them both down. I was burned, I was bitter, I was driving in the rain staring fixedly at the white lines ahead, I was a man on the edge, fearful of generosity - and then I was no longer in school.
I was working my first job. One of my co workers was a flamboyant male. He wore bright shirts and sang a lot. He was pretty funny and one morning he gave me a chocolate biscuit. We sorted the post and talked about movies, music and alcohol. The manageress wandered in and saw me chomping chocolate digestive. She sent Stuart to the 4th floor to collect something and once he’d gone the she turned to me.
You and Stuart getting on ok?
You know you need to be careful yes?
I frowned. Careful about what?
Stuart’s a Poof. Be careful about being too friendly with him. You don’t want to end up in an awkward situation. If you’re not careful (she nodded at the melting biscuit in my hand) – let’s just say you may have to pay for his friendship.
I still had spaghetti arms and was rocking a long pony tail. Being friendly with girls had never led to unexpected payments. I was unsure how having a laugh with “Gay” Stuart meant I may end up Paying in the Mail Room.
A friend’s father had been livid when a British Olympic swimmer came out as gay. The friend related his fathers concerns as What if the swimmer visited our school promoting sports and health and then tried to touch us in the changing room? I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t think Gay worked that way. I didn’t think Gay Stuart was hopping around the office touching every male who ate a chocolate biscuit with him.
Stuart came back and the manageress left, winking at me as though we had entered into a quiet agreement. Stuart asked what that was all about and, unable to lie, I said – You’re gay and I have to be careful about awkward situations or I may end up paying.
Stuart laughed and assured me that my pony tail and spaghetti arms were pretty ruinous. No one liked my pony tail. Then he told me the manageress was shagging the Managing Director and it became apparent that everyone I worked with was shagging someone else in the office bar me.
The use of race or sexual preference when denouncing people seems so ridiculous and unnecessary. I can offend folk at 50 yards without resorting to such epithets.
We once saw two men arguing in Waitrose in the UK years back. They were fighting about who had been first in the queue and their argument escalated. were almost coming to blows when one of them bellowed “you nigger bastard” and the whole shop held its breath. The lady who lives above us, arguing with her neighbour about nothing bigger than a washing line, shouted “Oh you black bitch.” These phrases seem to still come spilling out but hopefully for no longer than another decade or so as the bigots die out one by angry one. I'm sure by the time my kids are 18 such racial vitriol will have abated and we can go about disliking each other for other things.
The same with gay marriage, which seemingly every rational person in the world is for. By the time the kids are 18 it has to have been resolved. Now though, despite being legal, it is still bringing protest that seems to come from the most atavistic of thoughts - “They already have civil ceremonies, why do they need more?” - which I guess shows that it’s comforting to say we’re all equal as long as some of us are a little more equal than others.
In epilogue –
Roland is still rich and now married with 2.4 kids and a tractor (according to my briefly accepting a Friend Request on Facebook; I un-friended him before he could start sending tainted money).
Manesh I lost all contact with, but I am guessing he is still darker skinned then me.
Stuart, his ambition was to go on Stars in Their Eyes and win by singing a Morrissey song. I have no idea if he ever managed it but in general I don’t like people who go on television shows and I can’t stand Morrisey.
Me, I’m older than Bill Hicks was when he died. I still love his idea of a People Who Hate People Party and if I didn’t dislike people so much I’d try and start one.