As a child I remember garden parties; rich children in expensive clothes, their mothers choked in perfume talking about lunches and tans – all the pretty faces – and I, being poor, felt alone somehow, conscious that I was not like them.
But I remember, as well, the children from my block on my road, grinning and scruffy in their hand-me-downs. We played in the street. They would grow up to talk about ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a semi-conscious imitation of their parents. I never did that. I saw the world from both sides, and I never felt I belonged in either. So I laughed along with them, and I shouted and threw things, and I knocked on peoples’ doors or stole things and then ran away. But I always felt apart from it all somehow, because I was not like them.
I remember at school there were always the girls who wore pretty dresses and handed in perfect work. I could almost pass for one of them. I learned at a young age what a long way a smile and an innocent face can take you. But while I smiled, I always felt like a liar. Maybe they all do.
I was always top of the class. I barely needed to do any work to be miles ahead of everyone else, but the pretty girls with their perfect hair and their perfect stationary and their perfect curly cs in their round, faceless, perfect handwriting enjoyed putting the effort in. I never did. So I was a liar again. And no matter how much I smiled, and no matter how much I brushed out the creases in my dress and made sure my hair was perfect, as soon as they’d got what they wanted from me I was out of there, playing football with the boys, running down the street and clambering over fences, and I had mud on my dress and under my fingernails, and my hairgrips had fallen out, and all the while the perfect girls were still playing cats’ cradle, and I knew that no matter how much I wanted to be, I would never be like them.
I remember, when I was at secondary school, there was a girl called Elizabeth Winters. Her father was the deputy head of the school, and he was also one of those people who took their religion very seriously, and he didn’t let Elizabeth go out or wear any of the clothes that were deemed ‘cool’ by our peers. Consequently, she was always left on the outside, hanging around the edges of whatever was going on, peering in with a mixture of awe and confusion. Elizabeth would probably be shocked to know that I even remember her, because I had the right shoes and said the right things at the right times, but I never forget people like Elizabeth.
She went to art college in another town, and escaped the confines of her father’s beliefs. I ran into her one day when I went to visit a friend, and I ended up hanging around all afternoon in their studio, watching them all daub and tack things onto huge canvases, and prepare joints carefully – with a degree of skill most of them would never achieve in their art. Like a lot of kids with strict parents, Elizabeth, having made her escape, had gone completely wild. They all wore outrageous clothes. Elizabeth, however, was even more extreme than most, and in the way of most people like her, she somehow got it slightly wrong, and she was still on the outside, still aeons away from even remotely fitting in. I’ve met loads of kids like Elizabeth and half of them probably hate me, but I could never hate them, because although they’d never guess it in a million years, secretly, in some obscure way that I couldn’t even explain to myself, I am a bit like them. I am as much on the outside as Elizabeth has ever been, I’m just much better at hiding it.
I used to have this boyfriend who looked like someone from an advert in a magazine. I learned quite a lot from the relationship, mainly how to tell people not to waste half their youth in a relationship with somebody they could never possibly love. He was ten years older than me and never had anything to say. I went out with him because I liked this other boy, but I was too scared something bad would happen if I went out with someone I liked. He went out with me because I was skinny and blonde and ten years younger than him. Over time, we grew to hate each other, although he would always claim he loved me and I think he really believed his own bullshit.
For about two weeks, it was fun having someone like him on my arm. We walked past this woman once, and she asked me where I got him from, and said: ‘I want one!’ People used to compliment us on being a good-looking couple. I never minded that; it was just the complete lack of any kind of conversation that drove me crazy. I drove him mad, too, but for some reason he wanted to marry me, and he kept asking me, and I kept telling him it would never happen, and that made him even madder. He saw a future, he thought we were going to be together forever, and I never lied to him, I told him it would never happen, that it wasn’t what I wanted, because I wasn’t like him.
I never understood all the kids who ached to be different, and all dressed exactly like each other and liked the same music. I was not like them.
I didn’t really get all the ones who wanted to be the same, either. A million empty conversations later, you never really understand what’s going on in someone else’s head, and I doubt they have a clue what’s going on in yours.
I was sat around a table in a pub, not so long ago, and this guy I know said to a girl who was a friend of a friend: ‘I don’t like your coat.’ She eyed him acidly and with no humour. ‘Oh don’t you? Well, it’s only from Zara’ she said. Her voice still echoes in my head, because I’m not quite sure I’ll ever know what she was trying to say. I don’t know that girl, but I have sat down and listened to people talk about coats and dresses endlessly for hours, and usually I find it very dull. Mind you, the ones who talk about Sylvia Plath and French cinema are even worse. It was a nice coat, she was wearing nice clothes – we all were – but I was not like them.
by Roya Brehl