Wooden Fortress

A lot of things remind me of you – things that would be of no significance to anybody but me. Just silly little things I cling to, as though I hope they will help preserve you in my mind, even though I know there's no point in pretending anymore. Little things like a song on the radio, a particular phrase, a certain type of evening when the birds fall quiet and the sky is painted in hues of sullen pink.

But nothing reminds me more of you than the smell of wood. Rough, freshly-sawn wood - that earthy natural smell that surrounded all our conversations, occasionally interrupted by other wonderful smells like drying paint, or solvent sprays, or hot, stringy glue straight from the gun.

Wood. Whenever I catch that familiar scent in the air, even in the middle of a crowded street, I stop, and I turn... Hoping, perhaps, to see you - I'm not really sure. All I know is that when I catch upon the breeze the scent of heated wood chippings, all I want to do is stand still, and get lost in the aroma that all thanks to you, I am eternally betrothed to.

When I smell wood, I'm safe. I feel protected, and cared about. Just like the times when I'd stumble in to see you, my mind swamped with my latest problem, so swamped I couldn't think of anything else. Before I walked in, I'd be a wreck; partially because of whatever incident had taken place to further screw up my life, and partially because I always used to be so goddamned nervous at the prospect of seeing you. But the moment, the very moment that I stepped into that warmth, that comfort, that wooden tranquillity, I would calm down. I would be safe again.

My wooden fortress. That room has heard so many of my deepest secrets, my fears and insecurities, but the promise of secrecy between us bonded us in that grey and white nakedness, strung together by the fact that I needed you to hear me. Trapped within fragmented secrets of my past, I built walls around us, kept our true faces from sight, locked within the fortress of no return. I didn't care that you probably didn't want to hear me. I didn't care that this was probably ripping you to shreds. I didn't care at all.

A lot of people forget the essential moments that influence the rest of their lives, like the moment they find out they're going to be a parent; when they first meet their significant other; when they realise they are not going to live forever. Not me. I wonder if you can even recall it? I only remember the incident because it hit me so hard – you, sitting there behind your desk, looking up at me with eyes full of concern, as I stood there staring back at you, struck dumb by the idea that somebody might actually care...

I needed someone, though I didn't know it then. It was the worst time of my life... the people I'd once proclaimed would be my best friends forever had outcast me from the group, bit by bit, and now every day was a living nightmare. They hadn't just thrown me from my security in my friendships, but had now taken it upon themselves to make it difficult for me to ever be happy again. They called me names, they stole and hid my things, they spilled ink over the only pieces of homework I actually bothered to do, and put rotten food in my locker for me to find and have to dispose of at lunch while they sat there, sniggering maliciously at me as I fought to keep myself from either bursting into tears or punching them in the face.

But you know, what I don't understand is how nobody noticed what was happening to me. I used to be so bright, so happy, so full of energy – I barely even remember that innocent little girl I used to be. Within a few months of that torture I became withdrawn, lazy and depressed. I would sneak food up to my room and gorge on it, trying to stuff myself to compensate for the aching hole inside me that I could never seem to fill. How did no-one notice that there was no essence to me anymore? I look back and I see so many things that someone should have picked up on – and you'd have thought the deep, bloody slashes made in pain and despair all over my body would have been a big clue, wouldn't you?

But no. Nobody noticed. Except you…

The terrible trio of Heather, Rebecca and Beverlie had eventually forced me to skip school. I used to skulk around my smelly, dingy and often dangerous hometown, Gillingham – most days I would go to read in Gillingham library when it opened. I just couldn't be in school anymore, with their never-ending jeers, their taunts, their deliberate attempts to get me in trouble – I'd rather have flunked school and ended up working as a toilet scrubber in a prison full of criminals than gone back to that hell.

Eventually I was caught skiving school and my parents were contacted. They were upset; but when they finally managed to get out of me what had caused me to be so desperate to get away from school, I think they understood. Unfortunately somebody had also reported seeing my arms cut to shreds, and when my parents found out that... well, needless to say they didn't understand. Nobody could really understand those desperate actions of self mutilation unless they knew the pain that seared behind it.

"Just please, sweetheart, don't do it again," my mum would say, smiling hopefully at me, her little fallen angel. Of course I didn't listen to her – why should I? She gave me no reason to stop. I hurt myself because in that one moment of blinding pain, you forgot all the other stuff. Physical pain was my outlet for whatever was hurting on the inside.

Anyway, the school had put me on report. Meaning I had to go to every single one of my lessons, and after the lesson the teacher had to sign to say I'd been there. Which leads me to the day I found you.

You had been my teacher for about three and a half months already, but I never paid you much mind – after all, Graphic Design wasn't exactly a favourite lesson of mine – and any male teacher in an all-girls' school was merely taken as a joke, something to pick on and laugh at. Most of our lessons would be spent giggling over your pink shirt, making fun of your slight Scottish accent, sniggering at your tiny blue car and flicking bits of wood shavings at you. But today you would change my life forever. I wonder – if you had seen what would happen in the future, would you still have reached out to me?

I handed over my Report Book and you looked at me, confused.

"What's this for?"

I rolled my eyes. I was sick of people, stupid people I didn't know and didn't care about asking me what was wrong, me having to explain I was a naughty girl who hadn't been to school and was now being duly punished. I retorted, nastily – "Because I'm a psycho depressed maniac, that's what for."

I felt a nice little stab of satisfaction, I remember it well – but it was cut short by that look in your eyes. The look of a deer caught in the headlights, which is when you quickly turned away from me, and opened the book and signed it.

As I took the book and turned to leave, you spoke once more. "You know, if you're depressed, you can come and talk to me about it… Anytime."

I threw you one last glare and left, a hollow silence in my wake. Not that the look I gave you would have showed it, but somehow you'd managed to weasel your way through my new steel exterior of bitter resentment and mistrust, and planted something deep inside me. You cared. You actually cared. That look you gave me, I remember it to this day. That look that was the dawning of comprehension patched up with deep, profound worry. You worried about me. Nobody had done that in a long, long time.

The next time you had to sign my book, almost a week later, you smiled at me tentatively, and asked me how it was going – not with the calculating eyes of the shrewd teacher who wants to know so they can pack me off to the school counsellor at any given opportunity – but with a look of concern, of trust. I knew then that anything I told you would go no further than the classroom. So I took down the walls I had built around myself to accommodate you and only you. I became a little more like the old me again – laughing, joking, smiling.

I really don't think you know what an impact you had on my life. Within a month I had gathered the strength to approach one of my old friends and start talking to them again. As it turned out, she had only pretended not to like me so that the Terrible Trio wouldn't cast her out either. We are still friends to this day, and if it hadn't been for you I would probably have stayed as the Child of Rage (as you once so affectionately called me), and been lonely and twistedly bitter forever. I gained a few more friends besides her, and although I never let them have even a glimpse into what was hidden behind my façade, it was just nice to have them back again, to be overlooked as one of the crowd rather than singled out and picked on.

By the end of that year, my visits to see you were a regular thing – and although the beginning of our relationship was caused by you offering to help with my problems, it was very rare that we ever got around to talking about them. Instead we'd talk about day-to-day things, life in general, and more often than not enter a philosophical debate about something or other (in which we'd always be completely opposed). I recall a specific example where we had an enormous debate over whether we thought that 'soul mates' really existed. I was all for them - searching for 'The One' appealed to my sense of adventure and romance completely – you scoffed at my immaturity and claimed it was far too idealistic, and what were the chances of ever finding them if you did believe in it? We'd eye each other with twinkles in our eyes, laughing silently at our obviously mismatched personalities that for some reason enjoyed being just so.

As we'd talk, the smell of wood would envelope me, wrap me in it's arms and hold me tight, whispering to me that as long as it was around, I would be alright. Nothing could touch me when I was with you, there building our wooden fortress together, dependant upon each other for friendship and good conversation.

Neither before nor since have I ever enjoyed company as much as I enjoyed yours. I could pop into your classroom for five minutes after school to drop off something I'd borrowed and leave feeling like I carried a bursting ball of streaming sunlight in my chest, because you were always going to be my sturdy beam, steady and strong – you looked out for me like a father, and treated me like your friend.

You had a girlfriend, but I didn't mind all that much. Even now I can't figure out why the thought of you being close with someone who wasn't me didn't drive me crazy. After all, in my head, you were mine, and mine alone. I remember the time you told me your relationship was on the rocks, and that you weren't sure what to do. I smiled – albeit a little sadly – and told you in my blunt way that relationships were hard work, and sometimes you need to go that extra mile to keep things from going wrong.

Being fifteen years old I didn't really know too much about relationships, but the way you hung your head now, your eyes glittered when you thought of her – what was I supposed to do? I knew all along, no matter how hard I tried to delude myself, that nothing was ever going to happen between you and me; and once you got past that, all that mattered was making you happy the same way you did for me.

Even though I knew we would never be together, I clung to you like a leech, sucking up desperately whatever you could afford to give me. I needed to be around you to feel alive. I no longer harmed myself, because you asked me not to, and though there were times I really wanted to give in, I never would. You were my source of energy now, and I took you for all you were worth. You were no longer my friend; you were an addiction.

I'd hang around outside your classroom, waiting for you to come out so I could get a smile from you – I would spend lunchtimes with the students who were in your form so I could see you before skipping back to my own classroom; late, but happy. I left notes lying around in little corners for you to find and read to make you smile. I bought you every single Travis single that came out through the duration of our time together. I tried to track you down through various websites on the Net, so there might be some chance of contact outside the school. I look back and cringe at some of the things I said and did to get your attention, just to make you realise I was there. I think maybe if I had just been happy with things the way they were, then I wouldn't have had to waste so much time apart from you later on...

Another few months passed, and my obsession with you was at its peak when you posted that message on the online message board I had told you I frequently visited. I don't really like talking about what happened that night (though I was closer to picking up that blade than ever before), as it completely threw me. In short, you asked me to leave you alone. For my own benefit.

I was crazy, driven to near-insanity with rage, passion and despair. Didn't you see I needed you around to live? Didn't you know my life was only worth living because of you? Didn't you know that I didn't give a shit if I was imposing on your life, but that I needed you, wanted you, and had to have you at whatever cost?

Bitterness and resentment returned to stay – I ignored you completely. You were the one person who had managed to get past my icy exterior - despite my better judgement - and yet you betrayed me, ripped down the walls from the inside, leaving me vulnerable and broken once more, by the person I thought my saviour. I never felt more alone in my entire life. I was a half, yearning to be whole.

Eight months passed. You had given up trying to smile at me as we passed in corridors, because my eyes would simply look through you, my mouth set in a firm line as I marched past, a raging fire roaring up inside me as I imagined with a sadistic glee how I managed to hurt you, hoping someday to make up for the oceans of tears you'd made me cry.

But on a hot summers' day, when the sun was beating down on us in it's unrelenting manner, I saw you walking across the courtyard, carrying a book in one hand, and a few students yelled something at you, and then started laughing. I couldn't hear what they said, though their tone clearly indicated it wasn't anything very nice - but I saw you clench your book a little tighter, and your mouth twitch slightly, as though you were trying to stop yourself from crying. My heart twisted in my chest, and as you walked past me, our eyes met, and when I saw the incredible sadness in yours, I nearly started to cry myself.

But you passed me by before I could say anything. The rest of the day I battled with myself, my pride fighting against my compassion – eventually my pride was dampened and as the bell rang to announce the end of school, I walked over to the Art Block and walked straight in to your classroom, with my usual cheeky smile and a twinkle in my eye. The smell of freshly sawn wood hit me with it's welcoming embrace – and you turned and noticed me standing by the door, eyes lighting up, neither of us hardly daring to believe that we were back together again.

"Hey hon, what's up?" I said casually, as though no time had passed at all, walking in and sitting on one of the tables, dumping my bag on the floor.

We never discussed what happened, but settled right back into our old routine. We teased, we laughed, we joked, and we loved. I was still besotted with you, only this time I knew the price for obsession was your friendship, and I wasn't willing to pay up. We met up once or twice every month, and on the day I graduated from school, you wrote the following in my Leaver's Book:

I don't really know what to say. Shall miss you heaps of course. You've always been a soul mate. Loads of love.

I haven't seen you since. I know you quit your job pretty much straight away, and you moved house too. It's weird, not having you around. There's nobody I can talk to the same way I talked to you, nobody to tease me or make me laugh, nobody to argue with for hours, and definitely nobody who'll ever understand me like you did. We were two of a kind, peas in a pod, and my life is definitely all the emptier for you not being in it.

But there are ways to make it seem like you're still here with me. I replay my favourite memories over and over in my mind; I play Travis 'The Man Who' and wallow in the soundtrack of our first year together; and I still have to stop myself from thinking you're nearby whenever I smell wood.

Wood is my passion, my obsession. I refuse to buy a piece of furniture unless it smells just like it should – old, and not at all manufactured. Unless it reeks of its earthen roots, I won't buy it. I can lie in my beautiful untarnished pine bed, and think of you until I can't smell the wood anymore. Then I leave, wait for while, and return there, to mull over my smoky grey thoughts of you.