A manufactured memory. Dispersed incidents and realisations that must have trickled in between the ages of about eleven and sixteen, compressed by the passage of time and recurring attention into a token I hold out or exchange, in order to explain something.
Two friends from my early teens, J and A. In the case of J, the term friend should be qualified by the fact that I was quietly terrified of her covert domineering, and eventually succeeded in distancing myself, by breaking our childhood routine of walking to school together.
What gradually coalesced was a perplexed understanding of how I was not like them; such that this is a story like countless adolescent stories of not fitting in.
The difference was that J and A appeared to me to be held far more tightly in place that I was by the roles and expectations woven for them by their families. There was never any question in my mind that sooner or later they would succumb to their placement, after a brief flaring of teenage revolt to test the power of their wings against their newly-bolted cage doors.
J was the last of four children born into an emphatically Conservative Anglican family with scientific leanings, who took tenaciously to playing the clarinet. She married her first boyfriend from church aged eighteen, and showed no sign at that time of following her three siblings to university. A had two younger brothers, was sent to private Catholic schools, and smoked on the side. She smoked not to rebel nor to keep abreast of peer pressure, but to relieve a stress that could not be spoken which the drama of her family imposed upon her, the oldest child and only girl. As much as I ever knew – I didn’t know much because it could never be spoken about, and around the age of eighteen I lost touch with her for good – it was to do with them not having nearly as much money as they felt obliged to pretend to, and so the strain of keeping together appearances that threatened at every turn to fall apart.
All this I watched askance, from the distancing end of the telescope. It was beyond me to understand why J and A didn’t simply see and break the strings and mechanisms which were pulling them into their preordained places, given that they looked, by smoking Silk Cut and playing the clarinet, to be angling for some alternative. All this before I myself went away to university and encountered smart Marxist theories of the reproduction of the means of reproduction and the ideological construction of the modern nuclear family, which no doubt appealed to me because they safely confirmed something I thought I already knew.
In my family, the invisible, implacable mechanisms that keep families in place from one generation to the next didn’t mesh. They were either left hanging slack, or forced into overdrive to compensate. The inconsistency has little to do with how well or badly I believe I was parented. My parents did well enough that I can sit here writing this; yet the conviction that they, we, formed this unit called a family, the seamless enactment of the whole social-emotional contract by which families bind themselves into what they are supposed to be and do, somehow eluded them. They couldn’t do it, or they couldn’t be bothered. Whenever they roused themselves to some felt responsibility to behave as a family, in telling ancestral stories for instance, the result would be clumsy, like badly-fitting evening wear. Why they faltered like this I can only speculate – a subject for anther post – but perhaps it was to make up for the evident pain which their faltering caused my parents that I became an unnaturally tame adolescent, as well as one superciliously tuned to every twist and gambit of the family charade.
To this day I’m not convinced, by families nor careers nor membership of political parties nor the virtues of listening to Radio 4 nor other givens I could name (though I’ve tried in many cases to be otherwise). Being free of conviction is many times a blessing but also implacably a curse. Always orphaned, pressing my nose against the cold side of windows watching others seem effortlessly at home, warm in their stories and skins. Orphaned too from admitting that no such feeling is ever alone, that others see believing and belonging askance and rattle the keys to their own lack of conviction.
A prison of receding mirrors, each reflection perceiving the next one as perfect, while picking at the tiny shattering flaws in its own glass.