Creative

The Dinner Lady

People think I’m weird because I don’t like butter. They say, “what’s wrong with butter?” as if I could produce an answer that would satisfy them. “Nothing,” I always say; except the way it sticks to the bread, existing in this gross mid-point between solid and liquid, making my mouth feel wrong. “I just don’t like it.”

After taking a bite, I place my sandwich back down in my lunchbox, and slide it off to the side. I login to the computer – admin for both fields, because teachers are smart – and load up internet explorer. For the last week, I’ve been playing a flight game. I enjoy the way the plane rolls when I tap the keys, the way it rises when I hold the accelerator. I’ve gotten into a routine, tuned myself to the calming movement on the screen. I type in the address only to find the website has now been blocked.

“No one else today?”

My breath tightens for a moment, and I look up to see the Dinner Lady coming down the steps. She comes in some days, asks me about how things are. I know she’s part time, but I haven’t been able to work out any kind of pattern in her appearances. Don’t they give you schedules? I think they give you schedules.

“No one else today,” I reply.

“God, I don’t know how the hell you see in here,” she says, turning the light on.

“With my eyes,” I say, smiling. Unless my eating is particularly loud, people walk through the hallway without turning to notice the kid sitting in the alcove. At first I kept the light on, but I quickly became tired of people asking me what I was doing inside.

Behind me, she opens the door to the main hall, and steps inside. I hear her pulling off a chair from the one of the stacks along the edge of the room, and a moment later she returns, setting it down next to me.

“What happened to Elliot?”

“He’s sick,” I say, “He wasn’t in for register this morning.”

“That’s a shame.”

I take another bite of my sandwich. Usually I’m a fast eater, but with someone else present I always take the time to be extra careful. I pause, looking directly at the screen, so as not to talk with my mouth full. Mum tells me that it’s easy to forget, which means it’s important to remember.

“So what Joshua did was get bright idea of playing football inside the dining hall,” the Dinner Lady says. “Anyway, long story short, bam, he hits a table and now there’s food all over the floor. I came in here to hide.”

I sent my sandwich back down, turning to face her flicking me a guilty little smile.

“Is he going to get in trouble?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“Good,” I say.

The Dinner Lady says nothing. She maintains the silence until I move my hands away from the keyboard, her eyes intent on studying my reaction. I don’t know what she thinks she’ll be able to work out. I’m not very interesting.

“Was that the wrong thing to say?”

She shakes her head. “How you been doing lately? With everything?”

“Fine,” I say, which isn’t a lie. Ever since I got the diagnosis, people have been asking me big questions like this. They never sound big, they’re the same questions I’ve always been asked but I can tell that isn’t the whole truth. It would be a lot easier if adults said whatever it was they wanted to say, because when they don’t, all that happens is that old words become new. Why does anyone think that would make it easier?

“School’s gotten easier,” I say, realising that her silence meant I was supposed to continue speaking.

“Are people being a little nicer now?”

“I think so,” I say, taking another bite, expecting the Dinner Lady to ask something else, but she’s still sitting there, waiting for me. “Mum says that people just need to get to know me, and that it’s easier one on one.”

She nods, and rubs the left side of her face with her finger, my words only registering in so far as she can tell when I am and when I am not talking. I’m not stupid, I know she’s come here to say something specific, but she still hasn’t managed to work out the right way to do so. I used to be so sure that feeling went away as you got older.

“What is it?”

“Joshua.”

“Oh.” I look at the table, bite my lip. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to say it was good that he’s getting in trouble.”

The Dinner Lady laughs, for a moment, before placing her hand on top of mine. I tense up, but after a second I realise that she isn’t grabbing or restraining me. I can feel the slightest shiver pulse through her hand, and fall onto mine.

“Just tell him to sit somewhere else, alright?”

“What?”

“Tomorrow.”

“I, uh –” Her hand tightens around mine, and I look back in her direction. I don’t like to make eye contact often, it’s too much of a commitment. Her eyes look so much older than the rest of her.

“Okay,” I say, and she takes her hand away.

She gives the table one last tap before standing and picking up her chair. I turn back to the computer to find something new to do to past the time; there’s still thirty minutes of lunch left and I’m going to need to occupy myself somehow.

I call out to the Dinner Lady as she’s walking up the steps, making sure that she turns the light off before leaving.

3:14 AM

I can’t believe they opened
A new shopping centre
In 2015.

My chest hurts.

Who’s that guy
From that new TV Show
Who was once on
That old TV Show
His face, his name,
His credits elude me
Did I make him up?

My chest still hurts
I don’t want to die

OK
Let’s talk about tomorrow
Let’s make some plans
Let’s attempt to understand
The opportunities at hand
Let’s work with haste
And not waste our –

Oh.
I have work.
Never mind.

 

Berrylands Station

In between a massive pile of shit
And a beautiful suburb where rich people live
Sits a little train station from which you can take
A journey to London, if willing to wait
A little longer than either of those right next door
Which leads me to wonder what this place is for

‘Cause Berrylands station’s an odd little place
At the end of my road, it exists in lost space
Surrounded by the best in middle class luxury
Right next to the factory that processes poo. And pee.
Sorry. But I thought it was funny,
And besides I love that in this place of such money
Where anyone lesser is forced to disappear
(I might have to leave by the end of the year)
There remains this blemish, this promise unfulfilled
Something that must be killed, before they can rebuild
Something that shows that this town was once more
Is still more than a dull place that no one can afford
And what better than an eyesore, to defy such progress
As all around London, I see my friends less and less
Somehow ineligible to share in the success, the recovery
But hey, we were poor kids that got born in Surrey

So often, I think of my neighbours, offering advice
Oh so nicely enticing us out, ‘cause we lower house prices
I fall back on one thought to hold my frustration
I think thank god they have to go through Berrylands Station

 

Waiting Room

I had a bad summer, had a bad year, too
So headed to the Doctor to see what he could do
He said Jackson, I’m impressed, you’ve been in such distress
And somehow still progressed through your unhappiness
So let me take some tests, let me further assess
Your situation, your choices, you tell me what’s best

I said, why that sounds great, that’s such a relief
I thought this would hurt, but you’ve changed that belief
You’ve saved me such grief, I thought at the time
In weeks, I would know just how much he was lying

While sitting, shaking, in a waiting room
My body aching, my mind breaking
They’d asked me some questions, they thought I was faking
Then boom! A sound had arrived
Pricked us in the heart, made us want to cry
We looked to each other as if to ask why
These people who help us want us all to die
A radio sat in the middle of the room
They found a happy song and cranked the volume
It formed a vacuum and we started to choke
Was this meant to be funny, some kind of a joke
We were all broken people with brains just like mine
No one wanted to hear Walking On Sunshine

But then it happened, they called her name
And through the frame we all saw the same thing
We saw what laid waiting, some messed up Asylum
White walls and restraints in a place made of pain
Did they think us insane?
What were we to gain? How were we to heal?
Were we to know, in the present, these places were real?
What did they think any one of us would feel?
Did they really expect her to come to their heel?

She stood from her chair, walked firm and walked slow
Turned back to the room, so that we would all know
She did it for us, an unspoken alliance
And then she began her act of defiance
Right then they were on her, they dragged her away
They could not let her stay in the light of the day
She’d made a disgrace, she’d caused quite a scene
Been rowdy and obscene, yet looked so serene
As she at last disappeared behind the dark screen
We smiled, we cheered, we crowned her our queen
She had lifted the radio, smashed it on the floor
The silence then came with a deafening roar
It cracked into pieces she refused to pick up
And with her last she yelled, “will you shut the fuck up?!”
 

Car Park

You parked the car, the engine stopped
You stepped outside, we went to walk
Across the concrete to the door
Her eyes were looking at the floor
While I was standing to the side
Remembering how much she cried
And knowing she would cry again
Stood silent, and said nothing when
You struck her with the words you spoke
Extracting pain behind a joke
You paused for laughter, locked eyes with mine
Made me complicit within your crime
I'm sorry sis, for laughing then
I swear I'll never laugh again

The Door

The door swung open and didn't shut. No one entered, no one left, yet it stayed right where it was. At this time of night, none of us could tell what was outside. There was just darkness as far as we could see, which wasn't far at all.

The first time, Simon kicked the door shut and we didn't think any more of it. Must have been a breeze, maybe a loose screw. Who cares why, the answer isn't worth the time or effort it would take to find. The vast majority of us reversed our stance when it opened for the second time, and anyone else was safely converted by the seventh or eighth.

None of us moved, none of us spoke. We could stand up, walk over to the door, and shut it again, but what would be the point? Mark had found some bricks by the side of an old bookcase - god knows what they were doing there - and stacked them by the edge of the frame. The door still opened and pushed them aside like they weren't even there at all. So we were stuck with it, with this silent darkness staring at us. We all sat cramped together against the wall, staring back.

"Hello!" Simon yelled out, and was immediately greeted with a shocked chorus of gasps. "What?" he whispered, looking at the rest of us like nothing was wrong. But even then, he waited for a good minute before continuing, almost as if he was expecting some kind of reply. When it was clear that one wasn't coming, he just said, "someone should go out there."

I wanted to speak up, to tell him that was ridiculous, to tell him that we should just stick together, because it couldn't possibly be that long til morning. But I didn't, and neither did anyone else. We were all thinking the same thing, and before we knew it, turning back towards Simon.

"Oh, oh no no, not me." He brought his hands up, shook them in front of his face, sat down even further against the wall.

"It was your idea!" said Mark, and murmurs of agreement went around the group. Simon just shook his head, backed up even harder against the wall. So Mark stood up, and took a few cautious steps over to the bookcase. With us all watching, waiting with baited breath, he opened an old book, and began ripping out pages, and scrunching them up. He threw them on the floor in front of us. "Okay, everybody pick."

Gemma reached out first, but stopped before she chose. "What are we, what is -"

"Highest page number," Mark said. "Is that a good idea?"

No one objected. Gemma picked first, Amy next, and along the line we went until it came to me. There were only three scrunched up pieces of paper left, and I held mine in my hand, resting my hand close to my chest. Nobody had opened theirs yet, so I didn't either, waiting for the choices to be made.

"Do we all have one?" A wave of nods went down the line, and we started to unwrap the pages. The paper was old and brown, I was terrified it'd rip in my hand as I tried to straighten it out. As I opened it out, I began to notice some of the words and realised that I recognized them, Mark had managed to find an old copy of Lord of the Rings. Or The Hobbit. I couldn't tell, but I knew one of those books was long and one of those books was not, so I knew which one I was rooting for. 

I moved my eyes to the top of the page, and saw the number: 212. It was high, but not so high that I was without hope here. I looked around, trying to read the reactions of others, but only saw others who had the same idea.

Gemma went first. "185," she said.

We went along the line again. "124," then "15," then "208." I held my breath as we all read out our numbers in rushed tones, friends rooting against each other. My head sank when Simon read out his number, and everyone turned to me.

I looked up, and saw the door. I half thought it might have closed on its own, that in our distractions and our arguments and tensions we'd have forgotten about it and the problem would just go away on its own. But it didn't, the door was still there, as open and as dark and as empty as ever.

"It'll be fine," I said to the others, "nothing's out there. It's just a path and some leaves."

None of them said anything in response. They just sat, giving nods of encouragement, as I stepped towards the front of the room. I shut my eyes as I stuck my head out, only opening them once I felt the wind through my hair. I was fine. Everything was fine. So I breathed in, steeling myself, and took my first step outside, as the door shut behind me.

The Train

I used to love the train. It had a rugged movement, one that managed to instill a state of unease or comfort within its passengers, and I was so proud that it would always comfort me. Others would hold on tight to their briefcases, or consistently readjust themselves in their chair, or reach high above me and struggle to find one of those coathanger type things — I never did bother to find out what they were called — before giving up and leaning onto the one sliver of wall that remained. I’d look up to study the faces of my fellow passengers and wonder what it was that they found so uncomfortable, whilst smiling and letting myself rock back and forth to the movement of the carriage. On particularly long journeys, I’d manage to close my eyes and drift away for just a few moments, before my mother tapped me on the shoulder and said, “we’re here!”

‘Here’ could have been anywhere, but if we were taking the train, it was always somewhere I actually wanted to go. The car was tiny, the seatbelt dug into my shoulder and forced me back into the fabric, and at the end of the journey always lay some manner of disappointment, like school or Aunt Helena’s house. Yet the train held space to run and jump, to cause a minor havoc that nobody seemed to mind, before arriving at the museum, or the river, or the cinema. Why we ever bothered driving anywhere was lost on me.

When the carriage was empty, I liked to stretch my arms from one railing to the other, and swing myself back and forth. I wasn’t strong enough to lift myself off the ground, although I knew it was possible. I’d seen a slightly older girl, maybe nine or ten, show off to her friends and swing around to suspend herself upside down. They didn’t clap until she landed, the stunt itself far too nervewracking to appreciate in the moment. I smiled as her boots clipped the ground, thinking of how one day I’d have the strength to take off, and the friends to greet me when I reached the ground.

Then I turned around, and saw the doors slide shut. I barely noticed Mum screaming after me as I sped away, because I was focused on Dad, who stood behind her, throwing up his hands and rolling his eyes. I swallowed, and for the briefest of moments, I felt tears welling up inside me. I wanted to apologise, to tell them to go on without me, because I didn’t want to ruin their day. I was fine, and why wouldn’t I be? I’d ridden this train for years, I knew where I was, and I knew what to do. 

And what I had to do, was wait. I walked off the train as it pulled into Waterloo, and found a seat in the main area opposite WH Smiths. As I sat down, I seriously thought about asking Mum for some money so I could walk in and get myself a magazine and a milkshake.

In that chair, I realised I’d never really looked at the station before. I’d passed through this space that existed in between journey and destination, and I hadn’t allowed it to seep into my brain. In my head it was a collection of maybe five or six elements that I interacted with - two platforms, the exit, the shop in front of me, and the coffee stand. Now its enormity began to dawn on me. To my right lay something I’d never noticed before: the main exit, an automatic door leading to once glorious stone steps, the walls lined with the names of the dead (I didn’t know from which war). Whenever we came, we took the rear bridge leading directly to the South Bank. It never occurred to me that there might have been another more official route.

I watched the crowd swell and shrink, and as it began to thin I realised that Rush Hour must be ending. A Train Station is nothing but a room full of clocks, and I’d managed to lose track of time. I stood up, and began to panic - I’d been sitting here for hours, and nobody had come to find me. Maybe they did go on without me, I thought, maybe they wanted me to make my own way home.

My breath started to catch, there just wasn’t enough space in my lungs for the air I needed, and I couldn’t work out why. I held my leg to stop it shaking, my throat tightening, choking me from the inside out -

“This one?”

I looked up to see a Station Guard standing across from me, their shoulders sullen and their eyes heavy, as ready for this day to end as me. She pointed in my direction, and I was about to ask her what she meant, before I saw my Mum, alone, running in my direction. It was only after she reached me when she started crying.

On our way home, I sat with my head resting on her shoulders, both of us too exhausted to say a word. She ran her hands through my hair, and until we pulled into our station, I pretended to be asleep.

How I used to love the train.

Input Lag (Pilot)

This is a screenplay I wrote for my end of second year project in a screenwriting degree. It is, very nakedly, me doing a Sports Night But Videogames riff, and whilst I'm kind of embarrassed about the script, it is definitely an incredibly accurate Sorkin imitation. You know, for better and worst.

I've grown a lot in the time since I've written this, both as a writer and a person, so it doesn't at all represent my current status as a writer and a human being, but I think it's interesting to keep around as a curiosity, the more imitative writing I started out doing before I moved onto more personal work.

Read Here!