Heart of the heat
I met her in the library between the shelves, deep in concentration over some book. But, when I glanced at her quickly, she turned her head, her long brown hair trailing along the open pages of the hardcover. Then, when I turned to look at her again, it appeared wistfully, a small glowing smile.
Tugging at my inner nerves, I forced myself back to face the shelf and scan for JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, our set work for this year’s matric exam. But instead, where it should have been, were books slanted in on one another as if a massive slab of them had been removed from the shelf.
The final year’s exam was in just four days. Knowing my abilities it would take me at least two, to read the book. I panicked. My heart began pounding as sweat started gently running from under my armpits. I had cribbed all the class notes and exercises from a class mate, but right now I couldn’t exactly ask him if I could borrow his set work book, not at a time like this and especially not when he probably needed it too.
I began moving towards the computer console which housed the library database. By now my chest was rattling like a ten-ton truck hurtling out of control down a mountain pass. The blurring on the back of my retina had returned because I couldn’t see a thing. That’s when I tripped.
For a split second I was flying over her. When I looked up I was lying flat on my chest, my nose tunnelled into the dank-smelling library carpet. The librarians had gathered around me. They must have thought “Oh god, a drunk”. I was too embarrassed to say anything and climbing up, stumbled right out of there. Maybe I was destined to fail the exam, even though that’s not what my psychologist would’ve wanted me to think.
The clouds were moving in over the mountain as I walked back down the road and I couldn’t get my mind off that girl. The way I’d fallen over her, it was almost like a part of me had willed it. Back at home everything was quiet, as I sat in my bedroom. Then there was a knock on the door.
“Hey Andrew, are you ready? You didn’t forget, it’s Monday, we have that four o’clock appointment with Doctor Reese again, remember? Hurry up, I’m getting the car out.”
It was my mother. She didn’t come in because she knew I liked to lock the door. That’s how I avoided her lectures – rants about where my life was going or whether I had attended the school’s career workshop this week or not. Luckily I only had to drive with her when the odd shopping visit came up, or when I had my session with Dr Reece, the shrink.
In his office Dr Reece asks me how I’ve been, and whether I’ve had any attacks again lately. He’s sitting there, his legs crossed with a sketch pad or clipboard resting on his lap. I tell him about the library. He’s says how when I’m in public places that I should think of what he terms are, ‘beautiful’ things like butterflies flapping over daisy cups or my favourite holiday spot. He asks me to name just one beautiful memory. I tell him about the time I was in a airplane flying low over the Swiss Alps and looking down on the snow-capped peaks. He says for me to think of this. I try and picture it. I try and bring that image of the Alps to my mind, but it’s useless. All I see is that girl from the library, that nameless brown-haired girl. I feel a little bit better, but I know it won’t end, not yet.
I remember when the attacks first started. I was writing mock matric, the trial exams which precede finals. It was the Maths calculus paper. That’s when I first felt it. My heart had turned into an out of control gattling gun, spraying sweat from my armpits and my bladder had become a dam ready to burst its walls.
The only way out was to raise my hand to go to the toilet. But by the time it came to my third visit, the invigilators, two tired old women, began to grow increasingly suspicious of me. Out in front of a class of 100, they made me stand to one side while they called in the vice-headmaster who followed me, right into the boy’s toilet, standing with his back half to me as I stepped up onto the urinal and squeezed for all I was worth.
It continued like this right through the exams. I learnt only to cope by not taking in water in the short time from when I rose, to when I sat down to begin writing. It was when the school phoned home and spoke to my mother that she decided to look for professional help and that’s how I arrived at Reece’s office.
“What’s wrong with me Dr Reece? Nothing’s
getting better. It’s four days to my exams and everything is still the
“But you’re on the road there. It’s just your mind trying to tell your body that there’s a problem.”
“Yes, but I’m still getting palpitations. Every time I’m in school assembly, after two minutes I need to go to the toilet. Why can’t you just give me a pill or something?”
He frowned again like he always did and slumped back into his stool, which was like something out of a New York Art Gallery.
“Now Andrew, look, we discussed the medication option. You agreed it wasn’t the best idea. I can give you a beta block, but you know that’s not going to solve anything, it’s just going to mask your symptoms. The best way is for you to work it out your own way, okay?”
I nodded, like I always did when I didn’t know what else to say, a pathetic affirmation to the doctor’s knowledge of psychology and human thought. And that’s how the session ended.
As we drove home my mother mumbled something about next week probably being my last session. I didn’t hear or maybe I didn’t care. I was too busy staring out of the window, searching aimlessly for any sign of the girl, in case she appeared like some ghost ship floating down the pavement alongside Newlands Swimming pool or drifted out from the subway alongside the rugby stadium.
The next day I managed to find a copy of Disgrace at a library in a neighbouring suburb and three days on and I was sitting to write the final English composition paper, having just managed to get through the book and read some of the notes I cribbed from Alexander.
The sports hall was the same hall where I wrote mock matric. Yet I’d managed to pull through and everyone, including that psychologist, my parents and even my teachers had said if I got through mock matric okay, that I had nothing to fear for the finals.
Outside everyone was gathering for the looming exam. Sometimes the best was to arrive just on time before they called everyone inside. The worst is to have to stand around while everyone quizzed everyone else on what was going to be in the exam. Someone would always find out they had learnt the wrong section or had concentrated too much on the notes instead of on the photostat handouts the teacher had handed out. That’s why, right now I preferred to stand alone, away from everyone else.
When the bell rang and everyone began trooping funeral-like towards the wide open glass doors of the sports centre, I came in at the end. At the entrance I caught a glimpse of two of the invigilators talking to one another. My stomach jumped. These were the same two who purveyed over us during mock. I prayed they hadn’t seen me and quickly glanced at the linoleum floor. One of them handed me a piece of card, but I was careful no to look them back in the eye. ‘98’ it read, my desk number.
“Right to the bottom, go on, quickly,” came the
one invigilator’s voice.
This was it, I thought ,this was the final exams.
Then another boomed. “Can I have your attention. Would you all please make sure you have something to write with. Leave your bags at the wall on the far side. Any satchels next to your table will be immediately confiscated.”
As I sat at my desk, students were still trying to shuffle past me to get to the far wall to dump their bags. Right now me, I was trying to block everyone out around me , but from the corner of my eye I could see the invigilators staring at me like vultures, waiting for the wall of my bladder to collapse, so they can glare at me and hound me when I was forced to run to the locker room toilets.
“From now on, there will be absolute silence,” came the voice again.
Like a tripped alarm, my heart began pounding and hammering at my rib cage. Around me I could hear the two invigilators moving slowly from table to table, peeling exam questionnaire after exam questionnaire away and slapping them upturned on the tables. The one with the inch-thick bifocals, eyed me out like a piece of carrion before she slapped down the exam questionnaire before me. I twitched.
“Don’t start till I tell you to,” he voice spat, letting loose at a girl across from me.
Right now my heart is driving my blood, which is forcing everything in me to work overtime. My armpits are slowly beginning to fill up with perspiration. I look across at this girl. For a second my heart stops convulsing. It’s the girl, the one from the library. I can feel my shoulders tensing up like two lead weights squeezing my neck closed. And then I remember that we are sharing the hall with the nearby girl’s convent, because the convent’s hall is undergoing repairs.
Has she noticed me, I wonder? I’m staring at the white of the upturned exam questionaire, trying to imagine in them, the Swiss Alps. But it’s not helping. All I can think of now, is when my aching bladder will begin to throttle my concentration. But at least I’ll have nothing to piss out, because I haven’t taken liquids since last night. But then again how can I trust my body, with its clumsy limbs and insides, which have let me down more times in recent times than I care to remember. I think I can hear the girl sighing, but it might just be my anxious mind playing tricks on me.
“Silence. As from now there will be complete silence.”
This is it. I just have to take deep breathes. Deep breathes. It’ll all be over soon. All be over.
“It is now five to nine. You have three hours. We will stop at five to 12.You may begin.” The old invigilator’s words are reverberating through my head. I hear the girl. She’s picking up her pen, turning over the exam questionnaire as I read the first question, which says: “For 20 marks discuss Coetzee’s use of the female form in furthering the plot and meaning in Disgrace.” My eye drops to question two and then to the next one and then to the one below that.
The words on the page are beginning to frost over, like morning steam across the shower door. It’s, it’s happened. My bladder has spoken. My entire crotch is bulging and I try to cross my legs. I shuffle into a more reclining position in my plastic chair, but my led shoulders stand in the way. I try breathing, in out, in out to ease it up, like some Buddhist monk atop a mountain temple. I look up at the clock. I’m trying to relax and 15 minutes have passed and I haven’t even written a thing, just my name, exam number and the words “Question 1” in my exam book.
* * *
Andrew could hear psychologist Reece’s words. “Picture something beautiful. Something really beautiful.” He turns slowly to the brown-haired girl. Maybe he was wrong. The image he was after wasn’t the Swiss Alps, it was that of this girl. Why? Because the way her fingers curled around her silver Parker pen, or her hair flicked back around her small ears, made him feel at peace. She looked so at ease it made him feel like he almost wasn’t there.
And as his shoulders began to lower and his heart ceased to thunder, becoming instead a slight murmur and his bladder, turned from a raging sea to a tranquil mountain lake, a white sheet of calm descended over him. Peace. He was finally wrapped up in love of complete peace. That was when the girl turned to him.
The two were staring into one another’s eyes. But something
on the girl’s face was wrong. Her eyebrows were lifted, her face half-crumpled.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” she cried. “Hello, hey, get your eyes off my work!”
Andrew opened his eyes. He was at home now. A knock had sounded
on his bedroom door.
“Andrew open up, it’s your father,” a voice boomed. The door handle was jolting up and down wildly.
Even though he knew what was going to happen, he opened the door anyway.
“What was that all about, you think by hiding in here you’re going to get away from this? You know how I had to come down here, in the middle of work, because they called me from school, told me they’d caught you cheating. Cheating, I mean do you know how bad that is?”
Andrew, shaking, had edged steadily back towards the safety of his bed.
“What got into you Andrew?”
“Dad, it wasn’t like that…it..it was all a mistake,”
“What? You’re saying they’re lying now?”
Standing there, his legs apart with his belt in his one hand,
his father motioned for him to turn around, kneel and for him to place both
his hands on the bed.
“You’re still not too old, now bend over and take it like a man.”
The leather lashed across the seat of his pants as he gripped the duvet with his teeth clenched.
It was dark outside when Andrew staggered to the light switch to flick it off. He crawled slowly back to his bed, opened the duvet and rolled in, being careful to lie on his side, for his buttocks were still burning. But, no sooner had he settled down when his heart began pounding again, his back stiffened up and sweat began pouring off him. Yet as he lay there, the pain coursing through him, the image of that brown-haired girl returned to him once again, lingering like the morning sun in the stale night air, until smiling to himself, his eyes closed gently on the world outside him.
(And here's more from the Timm-pen...)