The smell of long ago and far away
But something comes back to me every time I eat a packet of prawn cocktail crisps. I like prawn cocktail crisps a lot, but I seldom eat them. Until I do, I wonder why, then when I do, I remember.
I was small when I started secondary school. I was the youngest person in the year (so for my first year I was the youngest person in the school) and I had bad hair and unfashionable shoes. I didn't start my periods until I was 14, which now sounds like a total blessing, but until the hormones kicked in I had a flat chest to go with my flat feet, and would rather have been reading a book, whatever the alternative was. I wore glasses, except I didn't, so I spent winter running in random circles round a hockey pitch and summer looking in the wrong direction for a rounders ball while people screamed 'CATCH!' at me*. I also generally came top of the class. You can imagine how popular I was.
They used to call me Keeno. One of them in particular. Secretly, I didn't see what was so bad about being keen, I was quite interested in glaciation and fractional distillation and the industrial revolution. Still am. But I knew it wasn't cool to be seen to be keen. So I tried not to be seen at all. Generally, this was a successful tactic - I wasn't ginger or fat, I had no extreme physical defects, and some of the more sensitive teachers were careful about not drawing attention to my precocious efforts. But some of them (the pupils, not the teachers, the teachers were ok, on the whole) could tell I was small and not cool and didn't have any friends, not really**, and was scared, and was trying not to be noticed. One of them in particular.
He was one of the cool ones. One of the scariest cool ones, because he was also clever... clever enough to get by without doing very much work, and clever enough to to look like he was doing no work at all. He was one of those who'd hang out with the drop outs, but never actually drop out. He had the quiffiest quiff, the skinniest tie, the pointiest shoes, went out with the blondest girl. Our last names were calamitously close together in the alphabet, so in the more regimented classes we often ended up sitting next to each other. But all I wanted was for him to ignore me. That would have suited me just fine.
And most of the time, it suited him too. I really wasn't worth bothering with. I did my homework in purple ink, underlining salient points in green, and always had the answer if anyone asked, but I learnt not to sit right at the front, got a brutalist haircut and made my mother buy me a pair of huge clumpy shoes and a second hand boys' blazer three sizes too big. Project Nothing To See Here was generally a success. Lunchtimes were always a risk though, especially in winter, when we were more or less confined to our form rooms, which were randomly inspected by unpredictably corrupt prefects.
It was a lunchtime in my third year, and we were in Room P. I had made a trip to the tuck shop to buy a packet of prawn cocktail crisps - KP, green and orange packet, my favourites - and was sitting at my desk reading a book and eating them as slowly as possible. Crisps were both a delicacy and a pastime in those days, and I used to eat them by crushing them into tiny pieces inside the bag with my left hand, then tipping them slowly into my right and eating them crumb by crumb with the tip of my tongue. This way, I could make a packet last half an hour, while I read my book and ignored the mayhem going on around me.
I'd done this before. But this time, when I'd finished and got up from my desk and headed for the bin with the empty packet in my left hand and a right hand full of oily, prawn cocktailly crisp crumbs, I found my way blocked by the Beautiful One.
He was sneering. I said 'Can I get to the bin?'. He said 'No'. I said 'Please?'. He said 'No'.
There was a pause. I considered my options. There weren't many. And then something sort of snapped inside me. I looked up at him, and said 'OK'. And then I rubbed my oily, prawn cocktailly, crisp-crumby right hand all over his face.
There was another pause. He stepped aside. There was one of those silences that can make your bowels move. I walked to the bin, dropped my crisp packet in it, rubbed the rest of the crumbs off my right hand and walked out of the room.
I didn't spend a lunch hour in my form room for the rest of that year. And I paid for that action, in little ways, here and there, for the rest of my school career.
Deep down, I think it was worth it, even though 25 years later I just need to smell prawn cocktail crisps and I am 13 years old again, with my heart thumping in my nylon socks.
After I finished my prawn cocktail crisps, I googled him. He's bald now.
* To be honest, there was more than inadequate eyesight at play here, but it didn't help.
** Until the sixth form. I had real friends in the sixth form. Still my real friends, some of them.