When I was in Year 9 at school (which would put me between 13 to 14 years old), the Head of Year held an end of Year assembly. The Head of Year was (and still is. RIP Mr K), a local legend. A giant of a rugby player who’d suffered damage to his larynx so couldn’t raise his voice above a hoarse stage-whisper. When he spoke, the room would fall silent not just out of respect for his broken voice, but because so often what he said was worth listening to.
I can’t remember the bulk of what the assembly was about, but I imagine it would’ve been a summary of what had happened over the previous terms, thanking us all for not being absolute twats, and wishing us well for the years to come.
And then he called me and one other pupil to the stage.
(There wasn’t a stage – our assemblies took place in a canteen that was all one level but you don’t need to know that for this to work)
So there I am, me and this other pupil in front of the rest of the year group, in the shadow of this colossal man, wondering what manner of damage we’re about to sustain. The Head of Year goes on to tell everyone that over the previous year he’s had reason to speak to, or come into contact with, everyone in the room. Whether that was for academic achievement, sporting prowess, or because they were hauled up for getting in trouble.
Apart from, that is, me and this one other pupil.
He wanted us – and everyone else – to know that even though we hadn’t done anything to stand out over the course of the year, and even though his path had never crossed with ours, he had noticed us. He wanted to acknowledge us and thank us for not adding to his workload.
So we both got a bag of Skittles. And we returned to our seats.
I ate that bag of Skittles, somewhat perplexed by what had just happened, and I folded the empty wrapper into my purse. My purse has changed over the years, but that wrapper has stayed with me ever since.
A lot of people I know in meatspace have heard this story before. I tell them it was the time I was rewarded for being a non-entity.
I love the series Red Dwarf. I haven’t watched any of the more recent series or specials, but series 1 – 7 were formative on my development. I won’t judge anyone for not liking it or not getting into it if it wasn’t a part of their childhood; the shoestring budget effects, very British humour, and relatively slow-paced (by modern standards at least) delivery would make it difficult to get into if you don’t have a high tolerance for such things.
One thing I would object to though is anyone who denied how tragic the entire set up is, and how existentially terrifying many of the episodes are. Sure they’re played for laughs, but underneath the whole thing is a desperately horrible premise.
But I’m not here to talk about Red Dwarf generally. I just want to talk about one episode: The Inquisitor.
You can read the episode synopsis here, but for the sake of pulling things together, I’ll give a quick summary: Our ragtag group of characters are intercepted by an augmented being, the Inquisitor, who lived until the end of time. Having seen the end of existence the Inquisitor concluded that “there [is] no God, the only point of existence [is] to lead a worthwhile life”. The Inquisitor now jumps throughout history, judging individuals on whether or not they’ve accomplished all that it was possible for them to accomplish given whatever fate had given them. If he decides that they have failed to live up to their potential, he erases them and replaces them with a different version of themselves.
The second sperm to reach the egg gets a chance to live in their stead.
When he hauls each of our characters off to be judged, he opens his trials with the line “Justify yourself” at which point the characters then talk about the life they’ve led, the obstacles they’ve overcome, and their excuses for not having done things differently.
You can watch some of the salient part here.
Then the rest of the episode plays out. Hijinks ensue and normality is restored.
Whether your existence has been “worthwhile” or not isn’t judged on whether or not you’ve been a Nobel award winner, on whether you’ve managed to save children from a burning orphanage, or if you’ve been an Olympic athlete. It’s gauged on whether or not you’ve been the best version of you that you could possibly be. The most You version of You. It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete wanker, providing you’ve aspired to be the best wanker you’re capable of.
I also won’t bother getting into the moral/ethical debate of this set up. That’s far too big of a subject.
I find myself circling back to this episode from time to time. When I’m having a shower or feeding the cats. When I’m doing the same routine actions I do multiple times a day or week. It creeps up on me when I’m doing, by rote, the dull necessities that mark out the hours of my day.
When I was seeing a counsellor last year I told her that my life was marked by emptying litter trays. That I rarely had more existential doubt than I did when I was flushing a cat turd. Between the mild oxygen deprivation of holding my breath, the mechanical action of scooping then flushing, the roar of the cistern emptying then filling, I would be hit by a dizzying deja-vu. That there was a loose thread running throughout all of my days that decisively knotted at those moments.
Since then I’ve made an effort to add more to my schedule. I do a bit of housework every day. I try to remember to eat three times a day.
I’ve attempted to add a few more knots to the thread.
I still have a lot of free time. Too much, really. Time I don’t know how to fill and that I completely struggle to give meaning to.
My days pass in vague hours, punctuated by the same routine actions until I go to bed and tell myself that maybe tomorrow I’ll go for a walk.
This isn’t a cry for help, by the way. Far from it, although some might read it that way. This is more like a continuation of the last post I made where I expressed how frustrated I am at my brain for preventing me from doing more. And, these days, how frustrated I am at my body for joining in on the action.
Could a different version of me have done better?
Maybe they wouldn’t have been born with wonky joints and a more focussed brain. Maybe they wouldn’t have skirted the line of being hospitalised for ten years, or maybe they would be an even bigger fuck up. Impossible to say.
They wouldn’t be me, though. They wouldn’t have learned the things I’ve learned, or seen the things I’ve seen. They wouldn’t have loved like I’ve loved, laughed like I’ve laughed, and flushed as many cat turds as I’ve flushed. They would have their own flaws and formative experiences.
While I do feel like I have a fair few things stacked against me, I also feel like I’m not making the most of what I have. That’s where my biggest underlying frustration is. I still don’t know who I am so I don’t know if this is all I have to give.
I love how much my cats love me, I love how much my fiancé loves me (and I love him). I love my girlfriend, I am grateful for my comfortable life, and I am thankful for the skills and talents I have.
But I don’t want an empty bag of Skittles to be the only thing I have to indicate I was ever here. I’d rather be like the man who gave the full packet to me all those years ago.
It’s been a while since I raised money for charity. Maybe that’s something I should do this year to make me feel better.
Y’know – while I’m waiting to write a book.
And until then I need to spend some time figuring out who I am.
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I’m in a very similar mindspace right now. I know I can do more with what I’ve got. I’ve been trying to make music and fighting through the frustrations of not know what the fuck I’m doing is An Event in itself.
I keep thinking back to this one time at a rock night in the Warehouse where someone said to me “You’re a natural frontman” and wondering if he was just talking shit or if I actually had something.