The world’s a weird place.
Sorry to state the obvious, but it really is. And it’s a lot to take in when you stop to think about it. Luckily, life is generally constructed in such a way that your world starts small and sensible and gradually gets larger and weirder. There’s a gradient, a logical, incremental process that expands your horizons and your perception bit by bit, so that it doesn’t overload your poor little CPU and leave you jibbering in a white room being fed thrice daily through a letterbox. This tends to be the way of things.
Except for when it’s not.
Exhibit A – my life. Up until I turned sixteen, my notion of ‘trouble’ was, while a relatively broad church, still a church preaching the gospel of ‘this is a small world getting very gradually larger’. You had your common or garden varieties of trouble, which might lead to harsh words from your parents or teacher, or maybe to detention, suspension or even expulsion, God forbid. You had your more hardcore varieties, which could lead to embarrassment, fury, heartbreak or serious injury, although I’d still count these as pretty common. Then you had stuff you heard or read about – old ladies being mugged, cars being jacked, animals being injected with stolen plutonium, or whatever – that you were fairly unlikely to experience first-hand.
But there’s also the other stuff. Stuff like:
Cowering behind a table while the room fills with bullets.
Brutal and chaotic battles to the death.
Superpowers. Although, having said that, they’re pretty cool.
Six or so months after I’d turned sixteen, I had cornered the market in trouble. In fact, I pretty much needed a whole new scale for measuring it, and my world had gone from small and – mostly – mundane to proper ‘save me Jebus’ weird.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Friday, September the twenty-third, the night before my sixteenth birthday. I had recently begun my last year of compulsory education and everything was leading up to exams. I was supposed to have mapped out my future, to know exactly where I was going and how I was going to get there. I needed colour-coded timetables and ring binders. I needed a plan. I needed dedication and I needed to be cohesive, and I needed careful structure and guidelines. I needed to be focused. Serious and organised. This would be The Most Important Year Of My Life, if you believed what my teachers were saying, and everyone’s parents were encouraging them to do well. To revise and get the best results so they could do exactly what they wanted when they left.
Well, almost everyone’s parents. My parents just wanted me to make some friends. They said that after four years in secondary school I should have friends. I think one friend would probably have done. Maybe they weren’t entirely wrong, but it’s not as though I minded, which should have been the important thing. Anyway, I had my dog.
I digress. It’s the night before my sixteenth birthday and I’m lying spread-eagled on my bed with a splitting migraine, heat prickling beneath my skin, and although I know my English teacher would mark me down for mucking around with tenses, it’s necessary, ’cos my perception is all a-wonk. My eyes flit around my room, the torn sketchbook sheets I’ve covered with charcoal trees and crumbling cityscapes during too many sleepless nights giving the whole thing an arthouse-animated-horror-film feel, decaying zombies shuffling across the foreground of my brain and the headache pulsating in my eye sockets. I’m trying to distract myself from the pain, thinking about what’s going to change, if anything. Thinking about the conversation I had with my parents this evening.
Mum: So, are you having a party?
Dad: Why not? You’re sixteen! You should be having a piss-up!
Me: I’m not having a party.
Mum: You can invite some —
Dad (anger rising): Friends? For Christ’s sake, Mary, he doesn’t have any friends!
Me (sorry to have caused an argument but not really in the mood to listen to it): I’m going to bed.
Dad slams his fist down on the table. Mum goes to the cupboard, presumably to get a bottle of wine and pour herself a glass. Or three.
I go upstairs.
A party. I’d barely been to enough parties to know how you acted at someone else’s, let alone how you went about organizing your own, especially with no real friends to invite. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t feared and loathed at school, at least not by everyone. I’m pretty sure some people liked me, and there were certain people who I liked as well. I just kept them at arm’s length. I didn’t let them in, they respected my very cool and fascinatingly enigmatic need for solitude. Or my social ineptitude, whatever you want to call it. They laughed when they needed to, I answered their questions, they left me alone. Well, most of them. A few refused to and that was why I had enemies. They don’t appear until later, though. So let’s look forward to that, eh?
The seconds are tick-tick-ticking. My clock counting down – up? – towards the sixteenth of sixteen fairly uneventful years.
Being a teenager is like this: an inspirational Hollywood-style montage interspersed with little bits of idealised sadness to give it some spice, scored to some sort of Taylor Swiftian ballad thing. Teenagers studying and laughing together, falling asleep on their beautifully-written essays. Attractive boys and girls kissing. Less attractive boys and girls kissing but in silhouette behind curtains because there’s a reason there is no such genre as ‘ugly-people love story’. Some kids crying and cradling each other in the rain because rain is always good for atmosphere, and crying in the rain looks good in trailers, and even though something awful has happened, their camaraderie ties them together, plus tragedy is character-building. Jumping for joy when their exam results come in, exactly the ones they needed to get into Wherever. Bullies making up with their victims at the end. Everyone getting a piece of cake. The world welcoming them with open arms: “Well done guys, you are now free to do literally whatever you want!”
Being a teenager is not really like that. Well, maybe somewhere in America? But I go to a small secondary school in Wales, so America might as well be a fictional country. So who cares.
One time my mum got extremely drunk on extremely expensive whisky and told me that the pain of labour was nothing compared to the pain of watching your only child grow up without friends.”
Maybe it’s more like this: a moodier, stylishly-lit montage, with images melting into each other like frames from a Frank Millerera Daredevil comic, scored to something like ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ by Nirvana if you want to take it seriously, or some kind of scuzzy emo anthem if you want to go the whole black-eyelinered hog. Subscribing to the Disaffected Outcast cliché where we all sit around in the dark and listen to Loud Music That’s Not Music, It’s Just Noise, and write really bad poetry about the dark pit where hope and love used to live before they were evicted by PAIN. Some of the shadowy space cadets smoke like they recently invented smoking, and in the gaps between re-watching Requiem For A Dream and not really understanding Sartre they read out that idiosyncratic alienated poetry in South Park Goth voices: “Love was a rabid cat, with pus where a kiss should have been. And my soul was its scratching post.”
Is being a teenager like that? Hopefully not. If anything, it’s probably somewhere between the two. Except with more texting, and the self-esteem issues turned up to eleven. Either way, visualizing montages is not distracting me from my headache.
And for the record, I don’t understand Sartre either.
I was born at exactly one minute past midnight on September the twenty-fourth, and one time my mum got extremely drunk on extremely expensive whisky and told me that the pain of labour was nothing compared to the pain of watching your only child grow up without friends, which wasn’t a mega-nice thing to say, although I didn’t really react. I just took the whisky away from her and went to bed, and when my dad got home there was a lot of shouting. I sometimes wonder why they’ve never divorced. Maybe they couldn’t decide which one would get me. Not that they don’t love me, I’m sure they do. It just sometimes seems like neither of them really knows what to do with me, which makes them anxious. It shouldn’t, though. I’m perfectly happy to be left alone in my bubble. Old people today, eh?
Thirty seconds until I turn sixteen. I’m not expecting it to be dramatically different from being fifteen. I’ll be able to get married, which is unlikely to happen. I’ll be able to ride a moped – I think – which is also unlikely to happen because teenagers who ride mopeds look like pizza delivery boys. I’ll be able to have sex legally. Also fairly unlikely, unfortunately.
I might have missed something, but if I can’t remember it then it’s probably not that important.
Ten seconds. The agony is nearly splitting me open. The two sides of my head straddle the San Andreas Fault and any minute now the back of my head is going to go full Scanners and spray my mattress with bits of skull and brain, and blood will pour, bubbling and steaming, from my mouth and ears and nose and eye sockets, and then my eyeballs will burst with a sound like someone biting into a grape and streams of gore will hit the ceiling, and if by some miracle I’m not dead I’ll drown in my own goop.
Happy birthday. Or penblwydd hapus in the original Welsh. I —
The migraine reaches a crescendo and the white-hot, bullet-kissing pain is more intense than anything that I’ve ever felt before. It eats me alive and spits me into a volcano and I moan, my vision going white. My whole body tingles like I’ve been charged with electricity, my skin fizzes like sherbet and my internal organs are immolated. I throw my head back… and hit nothing.
I open my eyes. The pain is gone, leaving a delicious coolness in my head, and I’m levitating a foot above my bed.
This is… not standard procedure.
Did I pass out? Am I dreaming? No… I know what dreaming feels like… don’t I?
Did I die?
Probably not. My migraines are bad, but they’re not that bad, my own hyperbole notwithstanding.
So… process of elimination…
I’m floating in the air.
I’m not sure how to react. A hysterical giggle slips out, far too loud, and I slap a hand over my mouth… and immediately drop back down onto my bed. Bed feels real.
This feels real.
Happy birthday, Stanly. We hope you like your present.
From Bitter Sixteen.
Stefan Mohamed is a 27-year-old author, poet and sometime journalist. He graduated from Kingston University in 2010 with a first class degree in creative writing and film studies, and later that year won the inaugural Sony Reader Award, a category of the Dylan Thomas Prize, for his novel Bitter Sixteen, which is now published by Salt Publishing in paperback, priced £7.99. Read more.