I was just sauntering into the social area one sunny Friday, having spent half my lunchtime changing for swimming, and half getting back into my uniform, because the pool cover ropes were unsafe and the caretaker wouldn’t allow us to touch anything lest the whole contraption came down altogether.
I was alone, Lalla and my other friends not being swimming enthusiasts, and in a neutral mood—irritated, but resigned to the everyday aggravation of a wasted half-hour. Perhaps my lack of immediate emotion made me more sensitive to another’s. I don’t know.
When I entered the social area I saw that it was comparatively empty. A small cluster of ‘chavs’ huddled in the corner, and a couple of quiet-natured boys were half-heartedly kicking an orange down the far end. Jill Gates stood in front of her open locker, simultaneously downing the contents of a water bottle and scrolling through her phone inbox, or some such.
It isn’t an uncommon sight to see one lone figure standing amidst an oscillating ocean of bags, half-staying and half-going. But something about the way her hips were slanted in an awkward ‘cool’ pose—and how her head was down and her shoulders hunched, eyes roaming with an empty gaze as aloof as it was cold—something about her told me that she was killing time. Something had happened and she was showing the world she didn’t care. She would be alone if she chose. She could strike a pose and text her friends, and repel any forthcoming gestures of kindness as she attracted those of deceit.
“Are you okay?” I said as I approached, my locker being just a few along from hers.
Her hard eyes flickered upwards; then they dropped and melted and silent ribbons of tears spilled over.
Abandoning my swimming kit, I slipped an arm round her waist and guided her away from the impartiality of the sultry grey-scuffed social area and its oblivious grey-hearted occupants. Down the corridor we shuffled, her fingers at her face and interlacing serenely with the feather-fine tears.
Luckily the toilets were empty, for, once there, any brevity she had hitherto shown was quick to dissolve, and she erupted in sobs as noisy as they were wet, clinging to me as if I were the sole motionless island across her darkened sea of confusion and heaving madness.
There wasn’t much talk at first. I didn’t ask, and she didn’t say. Maybe she’d had some tiny friendship spat or something, as she begged me so earnestly not to fetch her friends when I offered—one of the kind that hurts beyond bitterness at the time, and rankles forever afterward, though anyone else looking at it would think perfectly natural. I think Jill’s loyal—if it was to do with friends, she wasn’t going to betray their blindness to anyone, even a lucky comforter.
When the sobs quieted, she proceeded to wipe her eyes with a wad of rough toilet roll and bathe her mouth in the lukewarm jet of the water fountain. I suggested that she wash her face properly and drink from her bottle, which had ended up in her pocket, but she merely shook her head and passed her sleeve across her mouth.
“I prefer the water fountain stuff,” she said in a trembling tone, even as she grimaced for the water’s sourness. Then she turned to the mirror and began to re-apply her make-up, an activity I would never have guessed of Jill Gates. I said so, but her face had regained its passivity—softened, perhaps, but cheerless.
“It gives me confidence,” she said. “All people see when they look at me is intelligence. And I don’t want to be that way. I want to be me.”
“But isn’t that part of you?”
“No; it’s part of what people have made of me. I want people to see me as a human being again.”
“Does it help?”
“It gives me confidence,” she said in a voice which desired to sigh but was adamant not to bow to the longing, “but I don’t think it changes the way people see me.”
“Why do you want to be anyone except yourself?” said I.
“I don’t know how to be me. I don’t know who I am. Depression seems part of my identity. Make-up is my mask to hide the wreck that I am. I’m cyclothymic, according to one of the internet tests I took, and not one of my friends knows it.”
“I don’t know whether you can trust the internet,” I was going to say, but I didn’t, and she continued.
“You’re the first person who hasn’t assumed,” she said. “Just because I don’t smile doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. Just because I smile doesn’t mean I’m happy. You are the first person this week who has actually asked me whether I was okay, and has actually been kind enough to wait for an answer and care about it.”
Through the mirror I saw that her eyes had brimmed again, but she pressed her fingertips tightly to her eyelids.
“No one else realises I have a problem. They all think I’m over-reacting. And perhaps I am. I’m depressed to make something of myself. I think pinging rubber bands on my ankles till they’re red and sore will make Jill Gates mean something. And it does: worthless. I’m so ridiculous I can’t even handle my own problems.”
“We’re under a lot of pressure with exams and stuff at the moment,” I offered.
“Pfft!” she hissed, and I wondered what I’d done wrong. Well, of course, Jill Gates is never under pressure when it comes to exams!
“They all think I’m clever,” she said bitterly, “but I’m not at all! I just go along with it because I don’t know any other way to prove myself. What other way can I be victorious but using exams? And yet I couldn’t care less about the damned things, because I know they’re not the way to happiness. They just always gain the upper hand over what might be good and happy. They’re killing me! Where’s Jill Gates in this crazy race of skill and speed? She’s the robot, batteries charged to win every contest. The robot doesn’t have a mind of its own. It’s just a lump of metal. That’s me. The lump of metal.”
“Oh, Jill,” I said, but I couldn’t comfort her, for she had finished with her compact case. The mask was back, that horrible misleading mask, her only safeguard against the change which she both craved and feared.
“I want something to happen,” she confided as she turned to the door. “But I can’t make anything change. I can’t let anyone down. I do it enough, and I never learn from my mistakes. I have to be always conscientious, or I’ll let people down. That’s why I can’t tell you anything.”
“Jill, you never let anyone down—ever!” I cried to her. She did not turn.
“Thanks for being kind,” she said as she exited, but her tone portrayed little gratitude. “Sorry about the melodrama. I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m not usually that emotional. I really don’t have any problems. I’ve heard a bit about you, and I’m sorry how selfish I am, hogging all the sympathy and attention when other people have far worse problems. Real problems. Please don’t waste any more time on my attention-seeking.”
She departed, and I stood bemused. I didn’t see her again; I was back on the hilltop with scarlet Jean and bony Elspeth by Monday, and when I returned to Yeighvor, it was to find that Jill Gates had moved away and had found another school. At least she got her change. I can only hope it was for her benefit.