26 December, 2005

Domain man

Almost twenty years ago I was sitting in a classroom at school counting the minutes until morning break, when for some reason the teacher started a discussion about favourite things.

She proceeded to work her way round the room asking all the pupils in turn to name the one thing they prized above all else, and to explain their choice.

I'm not sure under what part of the curriculum this clumsy, collective exercise in net curtain-twitching nosiness fell - 'personal and social development' perhaps, that briefly fashionable catch-all term which even turned up in Inspector Morse as shorthand for "young people stuff". It certainly wasn't what'd now be called citizenship, or social studies, or - erk- humanities.

But it got everyone animated and off watching the clock, with responses coming thick and fast: a pet, a piece of clothing, their bike, a musical instrument and so on. Everyone seemed to get the idea instantly and talked with remarkably articulacy for 11 and 12 year olds about the day they purchased this or found that or mastered the art of playing the other.

Everyone except me, that is. I hadn't a clue what to talk about. My mind just went completely blank. It wasn't so much choosing something to talk about, it was choosing the right thing to talk about. What would show me in my best light? What would call least attention to myself - yet also demand attention from everyone else? What wouldn't make me sound like a twat? All absurdly trivial yet earthshatteringly crucial concerns for an 11 year old.

Maybe the bell for break would go and save me. Maybe some of the others would talk for ages and the teacher would run out of time. Maybe I should just say something glib or stupid and spend breaktime boasting about it. No. No chance. There was going to be plenty of time for my turn, and for me to humiliate myself in as protracted a manner possible.

So I thought and thought and tried to pinpoint the one thing above all else that meant most to me at that stage of my life. And then I thought around the subject to see if there was a different way of coming up with the answer. Perhaps it should be something that only held significance for me. Something that nobody else could appreciate. Something - or somewhere - that I could always come back to whenever I chose.

And then I had the answer. Nobody else had said it, which was a good sign. I was sure nobody else would say it, which was even better. It seemed so obvious, I couldn't believe the amount of effort I'd expended on frantically levering it into my brain. All the same, I announced it to the rest of the class with not a little pride and self-confidence.

The ensuing cackles of derision were only just drowned out by the bell for breaktime.

Thankfully the whole spurious discussion and bizarre lesson was quickly forgotten. Nobody remember what I'd said. But I did, and still do. In fact, I'm sitting in it right now. It's my old bedroom in my Mum and Dad's house, and it's where I've ended up every Christmas since I moved away from home.

It's been redecorated a couple of times in the last twenty years, naturally, but the essence of the place - a refuge, a sanctuary, a retreat from the rest of the world - has always remained. As has its appeal to me, for precisely those same reasons. It's still a refuge and a retreat, except from a different set of circumstances than when I was 11 years old. I rather suppose it'll stay that way until my parents decide to move or the place is finally emptied of all my old books, papers, clutter and possessions. Which won't happen, perversely, until I've a place of my own that's large enough to house them all.

Until then, these four walls will continue to be an indisputable part of my existence wherever I am in the world. And like they've always made a room for me, I'll always make room for them.


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