Like many kids at secondary school in the 1980s (and, I guess, like many kids at secondary school in every decade since secondary schools were invented), I spent quite a lot of my time being scared. I was afraid of several teachers, of nearly all the boys in the years above me, of physical education and communal showers, and of the innumerable species of failure, punishment, embarrassment and ridicule that are indigenous to schools. But above all, I was afraid of a boy called Connor.
Connor was in my year, but not in my class. He was ginger-haired and pale-skinned, wiry and restive. The word on the corridor was that he was a trained boxer, though just how trained he could have been at the age of 12 is a fair question. At any rate, he came out on top of a few lunchtime brawls and was thereafter acknowledged by everyone to be hard.
I remember him as facially scarred, but I wonder now if that’s an embellishment of memory. I’m more confident in my recollection of his rictus-like smile: it was as if someone had lodged an invisible Mars bar lengthways between the corners of his mouth, preventing any movement of his mimetic muscles. A smile to keep you awake at night.
I started at the school a term later than everyone else, and Connor took an instant dislike to me. I don’t know exactly why, but I was middle-class, academically accomplished, loud-voiced and over-groomed. For a time, I had a briefcase and a quiff. Think Will from The Inbetweeners and you won’t be a mile off. It takes no huge leap of imagination to understand how my existence might have been an irritation to Connor.
So he began a protracted campaign of intimidation that ran the familiar gamut from jeers and taunts, through threats and invective, to shoves and kicks in the dinner queue and the bike sheds. Things eventually came to a head when I agreed to meet him for a fight after school in a nearby graveyard. Our entire year came along to enjoy the spectacle and, as Connor’s mates jumped on the wheels of my bike, he set about giving my head the same treatment. Mercifully, the baying crowd attracted the attention of a couple of passing prefects, who pulled us apart before my beating became too severe.
I left the school in 1988 when my family moved to another town, and I never saw or heard from Connor again.
Out of the blue
Until, that is, a week ago. Out of the blue, after 28 years, he wrote to me to apologise. He said he’d behaved appallingly towards me, that I’d done nothing to deserve it, and that he was truly sorry.
My initial reaction, I think, was just the usual blast-from-the-past euphoria you feel when someone from your distant past gets in touch again. Notwithstanding the undertone of fear, I recall my schooldays with fondness, and I rather like being reminded that the people I shared them with are still out there somewhere.
But as the nostalgia rush subsided I became aware of a deeper, more powerful emotional response, one that seemed to intensify as the day wore on. Relating the story to a colleague over lunch, and to my wife that evening, I was conscious of something akin to mild intoxication, and of having to work quite hard at not grinning like an idiot.
I’m now fairly sure that the emotion Connor’s apology stirred in me was relief. It was difficult to recognise at first, because I wasn’t aware of being in the sort of distress an apology might be expected to alleviate. I was terrified of Connor at school, but I have not been conscious of carrying my terror with me through adult life. I’m not particularly nervous or neurotic; I shrink from confrontation no more than the next middle-aged Englishman; and prior to last week I hadn’t thought about Connor in my waking hours for several years.
But if something looks like relief and feels like relief, it probably is relief; and perhaps it isn’t far-fetched to suppose that there are burdens of which we only become aware when they are lifted from our shoulders.
The truth is that being bullied at school has, if not exactly harmed me, at least haunted me. Connor has been a regular visitor to my dreams, smiling his dreadful smile or pursuing me through the gravestones. He has personified for me the idea of a hatred that cannot be fathomed, reasoned with, appeased or escaped.
Learning of his remorse, after all these years, has weakened the grip of that idea on my imagination. Maybe boundless hatred does exist in some benighted human hearts, but I realise now that I have never encountered it.
What I encountered at school was just the unkindness of an insecure boy, expressed in acts of aggression that, it turns out, have weighed on him as heavily as they have weighed on me. Connor’s apology brought me relief, as best I can tell, because it banished a spectre I’ve been reflexively summoning for three decades. I’m glad he took the trouble to get in touch.