Schadenfreude In Denim

It just so happens that I was walking down the street many years ago on a grey Saturday when I came across someone I knew from school. I was minding my own business, in a daze, and had my headphones on, walking quickly around town to buy some trainers, when I spotted this young man leaning in a doorway smoking a cigarette, and our eyes met. We could not resist acknowledgement, nor could we hide that we recognised each other, and had to strike up a brief conversation out of cursed politeness! Nowadays I would not entertain such etiquette, but I was softer back then. Removing my headphones and forcing a smile, the smallest of grins, I said hello. We did not shake hands, but spoke in staccato sentences, monotonous, refusing to invite question, comment or further inquiry; just impersonal pleasantries exhausted with mild effort. It was a most tedious encounter, although I was not awkward, but stood with a straight back, my feet apart, puffing my pigeon chest out. This whelp! he must have thought. I almost invited him to poke fun at the acne that plagued my face since leaving school, all sore, red flustered, and terribly unsightly. He would not say a thing! No, far too unimportant. Instead, he informed me that he was the manager of the store whose doorway he darkened, gesturing with his cigarette behind the large windows and fluorescent lighting. A manager no less! I looked at the shop and back at him. It was a denim shop. It sold all manner of denim wares. There were jeans; above those jeans were more jeans; in the back were jeans; different sizes and cuts and fits; denim stacked on denim hung on denim. There were denim jackets too, t-shirts to match, and some belts to go with your purchased denim. He wore denim, although it did not suit him at all, for I had only ever seen him in school uniform. Yes, the manager, he explained again. And me? I was home from university for a time, the Easter break, you know, to celebrate the death and resurrection of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ. Ah, yes, he knew him! We two Catholic schoolboys had grown.
    As if to draw the exchange to a close, I asked—‘Are you going to Smith’s birthday thing tonight?’ He told me that he was. That was that, then. He asked if I wanted to check out his denim wares, that he could offer me a discount, being that we were old schoolfriends and so on. Hah! how ridiculous, I thought that I almost smirked. As soon as it came for him to play salesman, he turned on the charm as if history was nothing whatsoever. I declined, was not out shopping for jeans, thank you. Before I had even finished saying good-bye, I had already pulled the headphones back over my ears.
    The young man’s name was M— Nixon, and he had been in my year at secondary school. He was the school’s goalkeeper and he had broad shoulders, cropped hair, rosy cheeks and nose, sparkling eyes. At the time he was very large and intimidating, but he had stopped growing while I was continuing, playing catchup, yet his frame was certainly more manly, I thought. He was boisterous and bold when I was not. But that is not the reason I hated M— Nixon. I hated M— Nixon because he bullied me.
    How I hated him! Seeing him in the street, outside of a shop, smoking a cigarette! The very fact that I had approached him to say hello made me nauseous with self-loathing. He had bullied me awfully. For a long while, as my life had gone on, I had forgotten about Nixon, just as I had forgotten about all the other young men who had bullied me and made me so miserable. Out of sight, out of mind indeed! Those five years were left behind with relief, with jubilation. The day that secondary school finished, I was so happy. When others spoke of how much they enjoyed school, it made me bitter. Why could I not enjoy school? Why could it not have been for me what it was for others? Because of people like M— Nixon, because of him and all the others. With great effort, I had forgotten everyone who bullied me, but the marks on my mind, the trauma, the impact on my character and personality, my nervousness, my tremors and confidence, could never be forgotten! As a prepubescent teenager, I dreamt of pushing my fist into their face, of fighting back, but I did nothing. I did nothing! There was only weeping and misery. My mother would visit the principal, and maybe they spoke to the boys, but nothing stopped. It continued. The only thing worse than being bullied was how sad it made my mother that I was being bullied, how sad she looked seeing me off to the bus-stop. I would rather die than go through school again!
    One particular event returned to my mind that day as I walked away from M— Nixon.
    The other boys used to play basketball during break- and lunchtimes. Always, every day, every free minute from class, they were to be found on half a basketball court. There was a hoop for each year. Someone brought a ball to school and they would play basketball. I was too lonely to play, too small they said, not good enough; so on my long loops around the school, I would often pause at the basketball court and watch my classmates play. They were athletic and agile. They were skillful. If it was a sunny afternoon, it was pleasant to just watch the other boys playing basketball. This particular day, Nixon was with a group of boys and girls next to the basketball court; not playing, but joking around and so on. They were giggling at something, but I endeavoured to ignore them. Without my having even engaged his attention – I thought he had not noticed me – Nixon approached with a sandwich in his hand. At the last moment, he separated the sandwich and slapped each half of it on either side of my face. I felt the soft butter and the cold ham stick to me. He laughed an inch from my nose and walked away, letting each slice cling to my face. All of the other boys and girls were laughing at me as Nixon returned to congratulations on a good prank. I flinched and swiped at the sandwich so that it fell on the edge of the basketball court. The feel of my skin, my own skin, all smeared with butter and ham, was horrendous and made me gag. The nearest bathroom was so that I had to walk past Nixon and all those laughing boys and girls, as I could sense the lumps of butter clinging to my cheeks, too stubborn to move but a glacial pace down towards my chin. In the bathroom, there were others in the years below who looked at me. Soap and scrubbing removes the butter. Cold water on my eyes. I told myself not to cry. Cold water on the eyes. Do not cry, like a loop in anger. I thought of where I could walk to once I had cleaned my face and calmed down. I sat in the dinner hall at the end of an empty table. There was a library book in my bag and ten minutes left of lunch.
    My mother dropped me off and said to have a good time, to say hello to Smith. A warm car, a night still winter-cold. The party, his twentieth, was being held in the garden of a local pub. A squat building in the nook of a junction, small windows glowing golden, chatter, music from inside. I said hello to many old classmates that I had not seen in several months, even years, people I saw every day, children then now young adults. While it seemed that everybody else was enjoying university or their apprenticeships, I could not help but feel out of place, as it turned out I did not enjoy university either and had failed to make friends even there.*
    University had me on the ropes. Quite alone, familiarising myself with depression, I was drinking heavily. I would forgo breakfast; at lunch I would have beer and whiskey before class; and in the evenings I would drink more, with weed to get me to sleep. My old classmates enjoyed university and the told tales of it; the parties and the girls and the bars and the flatmates. Because they drank to enjoy themselves, they leant into it, they succumbed to joy and merriness. I kept a vague shadow over the grass, about the wooden tables, hovering at the bar, circling the speakers I kept my distance and noticed my old classmates growing stubble.
    It was at this moment I happened across Nixon addressing a small group and went over to earwig, as one is inclined to do when they are uncomfortable at gatherings. What drew my attention, I did not know, but still I shimmied closer. Quite frankly, I had not been able to stop thinking about him since I had happened upon his tobacco smoke outside the denim shop. All day it had unnerved me, he had unnerved me! It was only for my mother insisting I attend that I almost avoided the invitation altogether. But there he was, beyond the bright lights of the denim shop, delivering a monologue to a small crowd who were catching up. He cut a different character in the company of others, and I did not cower as much. He looked at me, nodded, paused briefly, and continued with what he was saying.
    Would you believe it? Nixon had got himself into a spot of bother! He told all to the circle upon which I had intruded, and carried by social inertia he was inclined to confide in me by association! He could not silence now, nor could he change the subject, as his audience were hooked, so he must go on. What a twist of fate for the fool!
    And his story was this—
    Upon leaving school, Nixon was offered a place in the army, like many young men in the barrack town where I grew up. He excelled, having finally found his place in life, complete subordination and order, violence and instruction. He was happy, for he enjoyed the training considerably and was excited about his chance to join in the conflict that had not long begun in the Middle East. During a training exercise in which he and his fellow recruits were running up a beach, a gunshot rung out from nowhere and everyone fell face down in the sand. Only it was not a gunshot at all, but the sound of Nixon’s achilles tendon snapping! He collapsed in the sand, screaming in agony, calling out for assistance. He had never known pain like it, he said. ‘I knew right then,’ he recalled—‘That my career in the army was over.’ After his recovery, they offered him a deskjob but he would not accept it; more than anything, he wished to be on the frontline. But he could not, his hunger for conflict would not allow it. The tendon did not heal as well as it should, and would, the physio assured him, go again if he did not take it easy. His career in the army was over before it began. Returning to civilian life, he struggled, going out on weekends into town with whatever other squaddies were still around, reminiscing and catching up with their adventures, when one night he met an older lady who he, later on and quite intoxicated, accidentally impregnated! There was no doubt in her mind: she was going to keep the child, and he did not know what to do. His life had been turned on its head! All of this and then a child! However, as luck would have it, she owned a denim shop and was now in the market for new management, offering him the position he could ill-afford to turn down, what with the inevitable child support payments he would have to make. So he took the job, six days a week, and she took the payments straight out of his wages.
    The rest of the group, in the pub garden, with nineties dance music from within, a cold circuit in the air of frost and fog, listened most compassionately and interested, nodding when they were meant to, emitting sighs of sympathy. One man – Richardson – even reached out to stroke his shoulder! Shaking my head as if the tale, too, brought me much sadness, I clung to my glass of beer. Inside, I recognised that my nerves were sending off fireworks of delight!
    As the others comforted him, Nixon shot a glance at me. I held, no longer too timid to turn away. It was just long enough. And he sunk. He was wearing jeans and they were what I looked at, without pity, without fear. No one saw the smile that spread as I put the pint glass to my mouth. It was a small smile that could not be contained. It was the tip of something magnificent that rose up my throat.
    Everyone else was going to walk from the pub into town, and Nixon was drunk once more, but I would not attend. Already I felt depleted. My mother was picking me up. She rang me when she arrived. The inside of the car was hot, the fans blared and filled my lungs. I sat in my seat and took the buckle.
    ‘Good night?’ she asked, looking out of the window for someone she might recognise from back when.
    ‘Do you remember M— Nixon?’ I asked.

*The following term I did, in fact, and at last, make friends, dear friends, who I still see to this day. Please refer to Cassette Players & The State of the World