It was a trip to Kent, the first trip away for most of us. Our mothers had been talking about it in the playground. Some of those children have never seen the sea before. Some of them have never seen a cow before. I had seen the sea and a cow before, more than once. Some of the trip’s significance might be lost on somebody as experienced as me, I thought.
We were nine and ten, and we had each been given a number. There were about fifty of us. Every morning, in number-order, we chose between cereal and toast, between purple and orange squash, and between cheese and ham sandwiches for lunch.
We took our packed lunches and orange anoraks from our numbered pegs. Then, in numbered pairs, we set off into the countryside where we would get muddy, see cows and watch intently as a man handled crabs straight out of rockpools.
As a group, we got very worried about quicksand. “I think there’s quicksand here!” we’d shout and the rest of us would run, squealing from it.
When we were exhausted, we would come back for our dinner. Afterwards, we would be sent away from the adults to the bedrooms, where we’d play elaborate games on the bunkbeds. Then we would be summoned downstairs again for our evening activity.
One evening activity was a campfire around which we were to drink hot chocolate and show our talents.
Some children did dances and jokes. One did an impression of Homer Simpson, but most of us sang to each other. My number was in the second half, and I spent most of the fire taking indecipherable photos on my disposable camera, trying to decide what I should sing.
A boy in my class was numbered just ahead of me. He was to sing immediately before me. His voice was beautiful. It seemed to show us the transcendent goodness at his very core. We were completely quiet, adults and children, as our eyes flitted between his face and the fire. When he was finished, we broke into loud applause.
I saw how beautifully the boy had sung the song, how rapt his audience had been and how soft the air had grown around us as he sang. I wanted the same for myself.
I was white, middle-class and academic, and teachers usually told me I was right. The boy was none of those things, and he was often seen as naughty. Since he had applause for singing, I thought I would also get applause – maybe even more than he had – if I sang the same song.
I stood up and began. “I used to think that I could not go on,” my voice was child-sweet, but it wasn’t good. I could not hold long, pure notes like he could. The fire, and the group, seemed to readjust as I began to sing. I knew then that I had done the wrong thing. But I had started singing, and so I had to finish. “If I can see it, then I can do it.” It lasted for a long time. My voice grew weaker and more wavering as I went on.
At last, I was finished. There were a few polite claps from the teachers. I had tried to drag myself up the boy’s heavenly staircase of a voice, and I had failed. I was a copycat.
The boy smiled at me so graciously afterwards. He was nice to me all evening. I tried to smile back at him, but I was too embarrassed.
After the talent show ended, we were given chocolate digestives. I took one, but I didn’t want to eat it. I wasn’t in any kind of trouble, but I wanted to go to my bunk, alone, and think about what I had done.
As I was singing, I had glimpsed my own capacity for wrongness, for humiliation. My understanding of the world had come undone, and now I saw that the world and I were far more complicated than I’d realised. I was well-behaved and I got good grades, but I wasn’t better than anybody else. In fact, sometimes I was much less gracious, much less generous, and much worse. I’d never realised that before.
The next morning, in number order, we unhooked our lunches and our orange anoraks from the pegs. Then we filed onto a coach, sat down in pairs and were driven to Dover Castle. And I, with my new, wrong self, walked through this new place with a better curiosity than I had had before.
About The Author
Phoebe lives in South London. She has writing in It’s Freezing in LA!, Litro, Best Small Fictions 2021, Brixton Review of Books and Vivienne Westwood’s Climate Revolution Pamphlet.
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