So, I've started doing the Neil Gaiman Masterclass on storytelling. Each chapter comes with a workbook and a writing exercise. I'm not sure if I'll be posting them all, but here's the one I wrote from the "Truth in Fiction" chapter.
A time when I was deeply embarrassed
As you write, pay attention to your inner register about what you’re writing, noting the particular things that make you uneasy. Try to be a little “more honest than you’re comfortable with.” Remember that being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared; it means you do it anyway.
A few years ago, I went back to my old school. I would say that, on the whole, I have an uneasy relationship with my schooling. It’s not that I don’t have fond memories of much of that time, because I do. I’m just embarrassed by it: I’m embarrassed that I received a private education and I’m embarrassed that I haven’t exactly taken advantage of any of the opportunities it might have presented me. My parents both came from fairly humble backgrounds and worked hard. They wanted their children to have the best possible education and were happy to sacrifice holidays and other luxuries so that they could afford it. What this meant for me is that I spent eleven years of my life at boarding schools. At the age of seven years old, I effectively left home in pursuit of this brighter future. I learned lots of things in this time, and I’m sure that it has afforded me many advantages in life. I’m privileged. I also think that it robbed me of a closer relationship with my parents and damaged my ability to form meaningful emotional connections with other people. I once mentioned to my mother that I would not send any children of my own to a private school and she cried. She only wanted the best for me and it must have been intensely difficult to send her young, vulnerable seven year-old son away to school and it was very upsetting to hear that same son effectively rejecting those decisions and those sacrifices.
I generally avoid reunions like the plague and I’m not sure what I expected from this one. I met various teachers and old school friends, but it was the smell of the place that really took me back. All it took to throw me back in time was the smell of the place, the changing rooms, the dormitories. They smelt exactly the same, and the scent brought the memories flooding back of the seven-year-old boy teased for his crooked teeth, his glasses and his puppy fat. No matter how thin I get, somewhere inside me is that child teased for being fat. I wasn’t fat then and I’m not fat now, but the damage was done. I can still remember some of their names. They would be fifty by now, and they were only twelve years old then, but I remember them, and I remember the way their teasing made me feel. The funny thing is that, in spite of everything I never really felt homesick, even in those early weeks. I feel guilty about that too. I suppose that’s the kind of self-reliance and stiff-upper lip that the British Empire was built on. You don’t get to rule over most of the world by talking about your feelings, do you?
On the very last day of my first term, we had a carol service in the village church. It was only a short walk away from the school, and the whole school processed there, all dressed up in our Sunday best and our bright, yellow ties, neatly scrubbed and brushed to within an inch of our lives for the set piece finale to the term. It was a very traditional, church of England kind of a carol service with the traditional songs and some readings: Once in Royal David’s City, The First Noel, O Come All Ye Faithful. You know the drill. In later years, I would be a member of the choir and would play a much more active part in the service, but this year, I was just one of the smallest members of the congregation and sat on a pew in the cheap seats. I don’t imagine that the service was very long, but at some point, I remember I began to feel the urge to pee. What started as a gentle nagging thought soon grew and grew until all I could think or feel was this terrible, burning necessity. Of course, there was absolutely no question that I could get up and leave the chapel. How could I? Everyone would be watching. Even if I did, what was I supposed to do next? I couldn’t just walk back in and take my seat, could I? I’m not entirely sure I’d know what to do if this happened to me now, but I definitely didn’t know what to do as a seven-year-old, so I sat where I was and felt this quiet desperation building inside me.
Somehow, I held on and eventually, the service ended and we all made our way back towards the school to be picked up by our parents for the start of the Christmas holidays. I can remember rushing out as fast as I could and making my way down the path through the woods that led back to the school. It was a dark December evening and there was no lighting through the trees, but I could see the lights of the school twinkling a few hundred meters away. I hurried along, probably pulling on the end of my penis, as little boys do and hoping somehow to make it back before it was too late. I can still vividly remember the moment I knew that I wasn’t going to make it back: I hadn’t managed to get very far from the church when I stopped dead in my tracks and my just bladder relaxed. I experienced an immediate relief, followed at once by a spreading sense of warmth and wetness in my pants and down my legs. Of course, the shame quickly followed. No one was there to see me, but this had now happened to me and surely couldn’t be kept hidden. I was seven years old, nearly eight. I was much too old for this to happen to me and now I’d made a mess of my best school trousers. I was going to be in trouble for this. Worse, I was going to be laughed at for this. I can remember running the rest of the way back to the school and heading straight up to my dormitory. I’d travelled so fast that I was the first person back, so I quickly stripped out of my sodden clothes and changed into the clothes I would wear to travel home. Without really thinking, I dropped the soiled clothes into the laundry basket and went home for Christmas. I did not tell a single person what had happened. From that day to this, this has been my secret.
I sometimes think about that. Presumably the person processing the laundry would have found it hard to miss the piss-soaked trousers? Heavy and wet and stinking of urine as they must have been. Like all my school clothes, they were also marked with my name and my school number, so how could this secret be kept hidden? Someone must have known what I’d done. Surely they would tell someone else and the game would be up and my humiliation would be certain. And yet no one said a word. At least, not to me. At the start of the next term, those clothes were clean and dry and folded with the rest. So I kept my embarrassment silently to myself from that day onwards, never knowing if anyone else knew. Perhaps they did and they just didn’t care.
That day wasn’t even the last time that I wet myself. After my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, I’ve experienced a few issues with my bladder and I now catheterise myself on a regular basis to make sure that it has drained properly. There’s something richly ironic about this because, amongst my friends, I’ve been famous for having a weak bladder for most of my life. I’ve always been the one amongst us who needs to go to the loo most often. I don’t know if I actually do have a particularly weak bladder, to be honest. Maybe. Actually I think it’s entirely possible that I simply developed a compulsion to take every possible opportunity to empty my bladder because of that night in the winter of 1981.
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