My Saviour, Mr Naylor
I was in a rebellious period. I´d long stopped my library camp outs (or rather, hide outs) at break times and swapped them instead for smoking and concocting ridiculously grotesque alcoholic “mixers” to consume at the back of the school field.
I was, as you might put it “in” with the “wrong crowd”. But in hindsight, I recognise that this chosen path was simply a cry for help following years of torment, abuse and control.
I was acting out. Testing the boundaries. Experimenting. To try, in some strange and illogical way, to make up for all the years I’d missed. The lack of permission that enable me to play with other children. The forced labour and violent household I’d trodden on eggshells to avoid.
I was free!
I had taken to wearing oversized clothes, bought on mum´s secret credit card from super budget store, Mr Byrite. Mr Byrite was a super low budget suit store for men. It was not the place to be seen, but I had no choice, we were, by all accounts, poor.
I chose navy blue suit bottoms in a size 40 waist, which dropped to my ankles without a belt to hoik them up. My mum rolled her eyes but smiled. She knew our lives afforded such little expression, so any amount of freedom I could muster meant the world, and might in some way make up for the misery of my early years. I don´t think she knew the reason I’d taken to baggy clothes wasn´t only due to my affiliation to 90s hip hop and r&b street style, but rather because a boy at school had publicly shamed me when he smacked my arse in front of the entire class and told them how huge it was, much to the delight of the bullies that tormented me for years before and after that incident. I considered the previous analysis of my body from family members and from strangers, and vowed to hide myself from that point onwards.
We compromised on a size 36 waist, and to avoid being heckled on the street in displaying the packaging of the “shameful” store I’d just bought from, I hastily rolled the bag into a sausage and squashed it into my school bag (which was actually a record bag because somehow I felt it important to represent that I was “into” music) and got home to catch up on my daily household chores before He got home.
My peer Nadine introduced me to spirits. I´d tasted white wine the year before, with our batty landlady who lived across the road from us. It was a rare “out” moment as a family, where we were trying to convince her that we were a normal happy unit and thus good tenants for her books.
I was used to the protocol and pretense of playing the role of the happy daughter, but this time decided to take advantage of being offered alcohol in front of my parents. I meekly looked at Him, and with no clear signs that he might beat me to oblivion, decided to take my chance.
I was giggly and happy, the haze of chardonnay made me feel grown up. Reservations aside. I didn´t have to quieten myself. Creep around making myself small, seen but not heard.
“It´s a mix” Nadine said, “brandy, whiskey, some vodka, a bit of sherry and mostly rum. I just took everything that was in my dad´s cabinet and put in. Then added a drop of coke.”
I nodded, trying to look with some authority like I knew what any of the other things were. Rum was familiar, as I’d served it in the shop I worked in, aged 11 in the Caribbean. The rest was foreign.
Nadine handed me a crumpled plastic water bottle that held her concoction. A kind of sad and inappropriate hip flask. She had wrapped a market stall blue carrier bag around the base of the bottle, and I thought about the clips of “the hood” I’d seen via Yo! MTV Raps which my friend Kellie thankfully used to record for me every two weeks on VHS because obviously we didn´t have cable.
I tentatively took the package and eyed the oily brown fluids that swilled within. Leaning in to smell the substance, I miscalculated the strength of the fumes from the drink and in shock, swerved my head away from the burning aroma. My eyes began to stream at once.
“You´ve never drank before, have ya?” Nadine was staring at me now with a smirk.
I gathered myself and frowned at her indignantly.
“Yeah I have, I was pissed on wine the other week actually. With my mum and dad there!”
“Really?!” Her eyes widened in awe.
“Yeah, they´re cool with it.”
To avoid being caught out as a fraud at my liberal and happy family fantasy, I focused on the task at hand and this time decided a sniff wasn´t going to do, I’d have to swig and swallow. I did so with bravado, which was immediately followed by an immense burning in my chest that made me cough and splutter into a crumpled stoop.
“JESUS! That´s really strong!”
She grabbed the bottle and carrier bag from me and followed suit. And her actions played out in the same way leaving us both clutching our chests and breathing heavily through our mouths.
“Oh my god! It IS strong! I´m totally feeling it right now!” Nadine gasped.
We looked at each other, quiet as we realised we were giving each other permission, to be free, in that moment, on that field, then began laughing and falling over to our sides and then onto our backs.
I gazed up at the sky, the bright blue, peppered with perfect fluffy clouds.
“Fuuuck…i´m totally drunk”
It had been three minutes since my sip. Not quite enough time to be thoroughly intoxicated. But I wanted so much to be seen to be out of control. To be witnessed breaking the rules. To be rebelling. As on this field at the back of the school was the only place I might be allowed to do that.
We pulled out our pack of 10 cigarettes (Benson & Hedges for her, Silk Cut with licked ends to make it stronger for me) and smoked to “increase the effects”.
Nadine proceeded to tell me intimate details about her time with a guy she was seeing. I listened, unsure if she were telling me the truth, then realised I was perhaps, well out of my depth. She told me way too much information about anatomy I had never seen, let alone touched. Thankfully we were interrupted by a shrill distant bell, followed by a gradual drifting of ant-sized pupils in the opposite direction of where we sat.
“That´s the bell! Should we…” I hesitated. Nadine was still on her back.
“Shall we bunk?” she offered.
I considered for a moment, the previous and only other time I had chosen to play truant with her. It ended up being the most frightfully boring moment of my school career. Sitting in a village bus stop, smoking cigarettes and watching her trying (and failing) to burn the plastic coating of the bus time schedule. Provincial vandals. I was her accomplice by simply being in her company.
“Nah, think I’ll pass. It´s art next and I like that subject, it´s a doss and I can just do my thing” I rescued myself from sounding too much like a boff. Sidenote: I guess I was a boff, as I really enjoyed learning, it was simply the power structures that school represented that made me resistant.
I began to shift myself up onto my feet and stumbled at the uneven ground. I decided to play it up.
“Oh my GOD! I´m SO drunk!” (more staggering)
Nadine humoured my clown act and laughed. She was still lying down.
“Come on, let´s go!” I reached down and grabbed her wrist and tried to help her up. We both went into the act now, falling around, rolling, laughing, hoping to catch the attention of the guys in the years above who were slowly making their way back into the school building. We wanted them to see we were grown up. Didn´t care about anything. Cool.
Except I was the furthest thing from cool that it was tragic. A poor, hermit, mixed race boff, wearing baggy Mr Byrite suit trousers, bad hair and and who hadn´t gone to any of the schools the other kids had in the area. Wasn´t a whole heap going for me.
Our physical theatre was interrupted by an unmistakable bellow from the field that was aimed to any of the stragglers a.k.a rebels that weren´t yet back in school.
“Shit. That´s Naylor! Fuck!” I exclaimed.
Despite my protests to authority out of the home, I was scared of disappointing my teachers. Anyone in fact. Let alone Mr Naylor, head of our year, with an unmistakable clamour you could hear throughout the school when someone dared cross his line.
I shed my drunken pretense and began to scurry my way towards the school doors, taking care to avoid going anywhere near Mr Naylor. I had grown up learning techniques to try and avoid being in the way of someone´s angry.
Nadine giggled at my side, amused at my sudden panic. “Don´t worry Dionne, it´s alright. Oi! slow down!”
I started to think of some kind of excuse to save my reputation, but it was interrupted by a humungous foghorn.
I froze, and slowly thawed my neck enough to turn it slowly in it´s direction.
“Oh. Shit. He called me Nadine! Did you hear that? What the fuck am I going to do?”
It was unmistakable. The colour drained from our faces, and Nadine gave me the same “oh-oh” look I gave other students who were caught in the brunt of Mr Naylor´s verbal fire.
He stood at the beginning of the field, no more words, simply action, his right arm diagonally protruding from his torso, hands formed in the beckoning finger shape, demanding I go towards him.
Magnetised by this movement I felt like an animal succumbing to a predator, knowing my fate, I was going to get “done” or “bollocked” and I was doing my best to breathe and keep my heart in my chest. But there was a part of me that still felt a bit dead and ready to take another beating, whether by words or other.
I slowly walked towards his direction.
“EVERYONE ELSE GET BACK IN TO SCHOOL….NOW!!!” he bellowed.
Every kid that was left was now giving me the “oh-oh” look.
Mr Naylor turned away from me now, and gazed back to look at the school. He was at the edge of the field which was atop a small slope. His stance was reminiscent of a king looking out over his kingdom.
Eventually I made it to him. He turned and looked at me.
The look he gave me bore down into my soul. It sounds cheesy but it´s so true. I don´t think anyone ever looked at me like that before. It wasn´t mean. It was…intense and concerned. I immediately felt disappointed. Disappointed that I had disappointed him. And desperately wished I had some chewing gum on me.
“Sit down” he said, firmly.
He joined me, and we sat side by side at the top of that mound gazing down at the school. Pupils had begun to fill up the rooms and I hoped they weren´t looking up at me.
I didn´t know what to do. Was I going to be bollocked? Could he smell the smoke? The booze? I wanted so much to not have taken those swigs or those tokes. And to also have gum. I was remorseful.
He bent his legs, feet on the floor, and hooked his elbows around his knees. Casual.
“What´s going on, Dionne? Everything alright?” he asked.
I was mute.
He turned his head and looked at me again. It was gentle. I felt even worse now, and suddenly began to feel some kind of effect from the alcohol. Everything was terrible. A bit sickly, and unstable. I wasn´t used to someone taking interest in how I was.
“How are you doing? Is all ok at home?”
I knew to look down and stay quiet in order to have an easier life. They couldn´t know. I hadn´t told anyone. I glared at a blade of grass, then reached down to grab it and pull it apart. My eyes began to water and I mustered all the strength I had to stop any tears falling and ruining my protective hardened shell.
“I´m concerned about you Dionne. You´re an intelligent girl…You could really go far… But you need to stay focused. It´s important you use your talents in the right way.”
Shit. Had he seen me drinking and smoking?? I was miles away! I couldn´t believe it. It couldn´t be. Oh WHY didn´t I have gum.
“You needn’t be concerned with the critics. You can´t let them get to you.”
He knew about the bullying. He knew…And now he´s going to show them that he knows by having me out here with him like a teachers pet. Oh god, now I’m going to get harassed twice as much as I do already…fuck my life is going to be hell!
“You see, the thing is Dionne, there´s something you should be aware of. In this life, you´re going to have to work twice as hard as everyone else. Do twice the amount of work and prove yourself twice over. One, because you are a woman, and two, because you´re black.”
I was floored. Dumbfounded.
“It´s not going to be easy, and it´s important you realise this sooner, rather than later. The world is unfair, and it´s not in your favour. So put the work in and prove them wrong. Understand?”
I looked at him and realised that he was looking out for me. It wasn´t in the way I’d been used to. Threatening or angry. He actually cared. He actually gave a shit. I was so used to rebelling where I could that I’d lost the point of the action.
We sat there silently looking over the school. He wasn´t barking me to get back to the building and class had been in session for at least 20 minutes. Eventually he turned to me and smiled. “Ready to go back in?”
I nodded and smiled, and we slowly made our way back inside.
I´ll never forget those words. Of course, at the time and during my school years, I’d recall his cautious heed, but I realise that those were the most profound and important words shared with me and have stuck with me throughout my life to this day.
So thank you, Thornton Naylor. For looking out for me. For guiding me back when I was on the brink of becoming lost and hopeless. For showing me a different path. I´m forever grateful.