13th September 2018 at 11:07 am #54224
I’d love any feedback you might have on the opening of my novel 99 Ways to Be Happy. It’s finished at about 80,000 words and is aimed at the upper age bracket of YA readers. It’s the story of Lucas, a boy dealing with the onset of Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s a serious depiction of the disorder but with a positive underlying message. I should probably point out that it is in no way autobiographical though I have had a lot of contact with people who have suffered from the condition. So feel free to be as savage as you like with your critiquing! I’m posting the prologue and first chapter. I hope it’s not too much for you to get through and I really appreciate your help.
99 Ways to Be Happy
I’ll start with an ending.
On the day I tried to kill myself, Cancer Boy died. His real name was Brandon Blake, but for a year before his death he’d been defined by the disease that was eating his brain.
No one showed much interest in Brandon before he got ill. He’d been in every class with me since I was eleven but I barely knew him. He was one of those people who blended into the background – never catching your attention, never standing out.
It’s a shitty thing to say but having cancer was the most exciting thing about him. He set up a blog describing his treatment in disturbing detail and whenever he was strong enough to make an appearance at school, we flocked around him. He was a rock star and we were his fans.
After he died, his very normal face was projected onto the stage behind the headmaster for a week of assemblies. The school was in tears. Kids comforted each other in the corridor at break time and Miss Hale had to walk out in the middle of a lesson on tidal erosion, her eyes pink and glassy.
Worst of all was that every student at Stanley Hall suddenly found some link to Brandon.
“We did a history project together and he always seemed kind of sad.”
“We went to the same dentist.”
“I used to think Brandon was cute but never had the guts to say it.”
There was a tree planted in his honour and a metal plaque fixed beneath it with a sappy quote from Gandhi on it.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
People in Hamden still talk about his death like it was some famous hurricane or a really cold winter. I felt bad for Brandon, I honestly did. There are no words for how mind-fuckingly unlucky you have to be to die of cancer as a kid. And yet, if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here.
When I decided I wanted to die, my head felt like it was on fire. I’d royally pissed off my friends and I just about hated my family. So I stole the strongest bottle of alcohol my parents owned and a bunch of pills from the medicine drawer but Brandon beat me to it.
I was lying in my bathroom, the gin half drained, popped blister packets all around me, when my phone started buzzing and didn’t stop. There were notifications from everyone in school and links to an online tribute. People had posted selfies they’d taken with Brandon, inspirational memes and crappy little poems. As the pills and alcohol did their worst, I read the heartfelt messages and all the he will be missed sentimentality. The thought of being memorialised terrified me. Instead of praise and pretty pictures, I imagined the comments my classmates would post.
“I remember Lucas from Spanish class. He was kind of a dick.”
“Dear Lucas, wherever you are, I hope it’s less depressing than your life was.”
“Will not be missed.”
At least Brandon had enjoyed a year of fame. His illness, though horrific, had awarded him a brief spell of popularity. I would be Suicide Boy, remembered for my final moments and nothing else. I didn’t want anyone planting a tree for me in the memorial garden, so I ran to the sink and did everything I could to puke my guts out.
There are things I can do to stop from losing control. I’ve learnt a whole load of techniques to keep my brain working the way it’s supposed to and my personality under check. My first therapist told me to write down everything I could think of that makes me happy. Some of the things are sentimental – my mum’s laugh, the way my little sister looks at me when she’s grumpy – and plenty more are stupid – cat videos on YouTube, binge-watching old comedy series, my friend Claire’s impression of me. But there are a few that can transform the way I’m feeling and so I ration them out each week like tiny doses of medicine.
When life seems about as appealing as a glass of vomit with a cocktail umbrella, I go to the fields behind my house and scream at the top of my lungs for as long as I can so that my vocal chords buzz in my throat and my voice gets all distorted. I guess it helps use up all the extra energy that’s fizzing around inside me because, afterwards, I don’t feel like breaking stuff or being a bastard to my family. It’s not a cure, but when it works, the world doesn’t seem like such a nasty place anymore. I’m lighter, freer, more human again and that’s why it’s number three on my list.
There is only one thing I have found which could make me feel that way for any great length of time. And as I don’t want to get too deep into the gloomy bullshit yet, I’ll start with that. I’ll start by telling you about the first time I fell in love. Not an adolescent crush, or holding hands in the playground. I’m talking about the first time I was heart-achingly, bone-shakingly, head-numbingly obsessed with a girl.
Brandon Blake had been in the ground for ten months and I was seventeen. I lived with my mum, my stepdad and my half-sister Katy, who was far too likeable and I couldn’t forgive her for it. I’d spent my whole life in our boxy little semi-detached house in the world’s most boring road, in the world’s most boring town, fifty miles from the centre of the universe. There was over a year to go, but I was already counting down the hours before I could piss off to uni.
When you live near a famous city, it gives you an inferiority complex. Everything that happened in Hamden took place in the shadow of the capital. We weren’t close enough to claim London as our own or far enough away to avoid being swallowed up by its giant black hole. There was the odd nutjob who liked to say that our town was a better place to live – we’ve got tonnes of the big shops and it’s much easier to park – but most people accepted that Hamden was an absolute shithole.
Aimee Dhaira had been there the whole time. Right there on Blenheim Avenue was the girl I would fall in love with and, somehow, I’d barely noticed her. The Dhairas lived three doors down on the other side of the road, but their kids went to the posh school by the ponds. They drove every morning, while I had to go by bike. They spent their weekends going on cultural visits – to museums, galleries, stately homes – which were just the kind of thing Mum was too knackered to plan by the time she got home on a Friday.
As families go, we were the Hamden to their London.
Aimee and I grew up in parallel. She was a year younger so we’d ended up at the same birthday parties when we were little. Mum has a photo of us with cake all over our faces but, for whatever reason, we didn’t have much to do with the Dhairas and they didn’t have much to do with us Deans. I’d seen them about over the years, my stepdad occasionally borrowed garden tools from Aimee’s mum, but that was as far as the friendship went.
One of my problems, as you’ll quickly learn, is that I get really hung up on details. One single thought can take control of me so that it’s the only thing I can focus on for hours. Like, when I think about how my dad died before I was born and all the ways it could have been avoided. Was he driving too fast? Did he really need to be out of the house in the first place? If he’d taken Mum’s car would he still have crashed? I lie on my bed sometimes and let the day disappear in a fog of what-ifs.
In the case of my first love story, the thing that got stuck in my brain was the image of a bright red shopping bicycle. It was a Saturday in April and I was on my way into town to spend my money on stuff I didn’t need. I grabbed my own very normal mountain bike from the shed, wheeled it along our side alley and came out in the street at the exact moment Aimee Dhaira went past.
Our road was leafy, not to mention branchy and trunky. The houses were heavily curtained with smiley front doors and roofs which cut sharply down like an emo kid’s hair. I caught strobing flashes of her through the trees.
Her bike was kind of old fashioned, with a basket on the front and chunky tyres. It was impossible to ignore how bright and new it was. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything so brilliantly red in my entire life. It would have looked at home on a Christmas tree.
We rode along for a while on opposite sides of the street from one another – in parallel once again. It was obvious that I’d seen her but I wasn’t going to start chatting to a girl I hadn’t spoken to in over a decade. Our road isn’t very long either, so I pressed on, hoping she’d turn off when we got to the crossing.
No such luck.
“You’re Lucas, aren’t you?”
The street we’d taken was quiet and narrow and it was getting stupid that neither of us had said anything until now.
“Last time I checked.” Why did I say that? Sometimes I can be such a prick.
Like a roulette wheel in a casino, her bike spokes click-click-clicked in place of a reply. Our silence was worse now we’d spoken and it was my job to make it right.
“I like your bike. It’s really red.” I don’t normally have any trouble talking to girls. This was not my finest hour.
“It’s new.” And then she came to a stop. She literally just stopped her bike there on the pavement. What kind of a selfish person would do that? Couldn’t she see what a struggle it was to come up with the nonsense I’d already been spouting?
I stopped too. “Was it a present?”
I looked at her closely for the first time. She wasn’t all that attractive. In my head right then, she was full-on ugly, made all the worse by her dreadful personality and thoughtless behaviour. I told myself I’d never liked dark hair – not true – and that she was too tall for a girl anyway – absurd, misogynistic and outright nasty of me.
“Yeah, I got it for my birthday.”
She kicked off the pavement and did a slow circle around me in the road. Show off, I thought, but I asked the obvious question all the same.
“When was your birthday?”
“Yesterday, I had my presents today though.”
“You had to wait a whole day? I’d properly lose it if my parents did that.”
“I tried. They wouldn’t listen.”
Her voice was as smooth as running water. She barely changed her tone, never quite seemed excited or upset and it was hard to imagine her going off on one. The calm that Aimee had perfected is one of the things I love most about her. At the time, all I could think was, Stuck-up little ice queen. I bet she’s never lost her temper in her life.
“You’re at Stanley Hall, aren’t you?” she asked and we began a short recital of facts that we knew about one another.
“Yeah. You go to Collinghurst, right?” She nodded silently. “Did you just turn seventeen?”
I was aware that she was a year younger than me but I didn’t want to sound too stalkery.
“No, sixteen.” She tucked a loop of hair behind her ear. “I’m starting my GCSEs next week.”
“That must suck, having exams and your birthday at the same time.” She had stopped cycling round me and we were walking our bikes between us like futuristic pets. “Are you doing anything to celebrate?”
“Not till after my exams.” She kept the steady melody in her voice but glanced down at the wheels. “Mum won’t let me.”
“Maybe you should look for new parents. Yours sound kind of mean.”
She laughed. It was a sudden eruption of sound that came out of nowhere and surprised me.
“I’ve considered it.”
And then I liked her. I liked everything about her. From her red bike to her frizzy hair, the intense darkness of her skin and the way she managed to seem so confident, as if nothing in life was that difficult after all. I liked the way she kept changing her grip on the handlebars and the half skip she made every other step. She was a shaken-up bottle of happiness with a permanent wonky-toothed smile. I liked her positivity.
“Okay, Aimee. Your name is Aimee, right?” Obviously, I knew her name but I didn’t want to sound like I spent my evenings peering through binoculars at her window. “Aimee, I’m taking you out. We’re going to any one of Hamden’s fine dining establishments and you can have all the drinks and side dishes that you want. Are you up for it?”
For a second, I thought I’d misread the situation and made a prat of myself. She looked at me like she was trying to work out what kind of idiot she was dealing with, then shrugged.
“Alright, but I’ve got to be back home by two. And my parents will kill me for not studying, so you better fork out for dessert or it really isn’t worth it.”
Her smile was infectious.
Another of my fun little quirks. I’m quick to form opinions but just as fast at changing my mind. Close friends that I’ve known for ages can be my favourite people one minute and obnoxious, unbearable monsters the next.
We had lunch at a crappy café with tea-brown walls and coffee-stained tables. She must have chosen it in an attempt to save my skinny wallet from malnutrition. We sat in a booth by the window and ordered off the ageing cardboard menus.
“So, Aimee Dhaira.” I sounded like a chat show host. “Tell me what it is you really hate?”
She must have thought I was taking the piss.
“Aren’t we supposed to talk about the things I like?”
“Boring. That’s what everyone asks. How does knowing your favourite band or app help me get an idea of who you are? I find people’s dis-tastes far more personal.”
“Okay, let me think…” I let her and she did a very good impression of someone thinking.
At some point, our elderly waitress had delivered our drinks. Two strawberry milkshakes had gone unnoticed on the table. My eyes were fixed on my companion and wouldn’t let go. Aimee was already looking a lot prettier and I was probably staring a bit too obviously.
She had skin as black as volcanic rocks and I was as white as tropical sand, so we went perfectly together. I have never, not in movies, online or in real life, seen anyone with eyes like hers. They were dark abysses which trapped me inside, leaving my limp body to drift about in some vague hypnotic state. They were brown.
“I hate business studies,” she eventually came up with. “My mum made me study it because she thinks it’ll be good for my career.”
“Come on, Aimee, that’s hardly an insight into your soul. Tell me what makes you foam at the mouth. What makes you so angry that you scream at the telly and pull out your hair?”
She smiled and I could see that she would rise to the challenge.
“Right… I hate injustice. I can’t stand seeing others suffer when people like us are so fortunate.” She spoke faster, finally letting her passion come to the surface. Gripping her cutlery with both hands, she banged it on the table to punctuate her sentence. “And I don’t just mean in other countries, which is bad enough, but right here in front of us.” Bang went her fork. “There’s an old man who lives near my school and he spends all day walking around town on his own.” Bang went the knife. “I want to go up to him and check he’s not lonely but I’m far too British to talk to a stranger so I walk by without saying anything. And I hate that too.”
Bang, bang, bang went her two hands together.
“Keep going. What else?”
“I hate that we all complain so much about tiny little things that don’t matter and I hate that we can’t say anything on the internet without someone starting an argument. Oh and I totally, with a deeply rooted passion, hate the fact I spend so much of my free time reading about stupid celebrities who I have zero interest in.” Throwing her words across the table, she was really worked up now. It was as if she’d never had the chance to say what she was thinking and it was too good an opportunity to miss. “What about you?”
A very beige woman in the far corner of the café was clinking a spoon around in her mug. I waited for her to stop before I spoke.
“I hate Taylor Swift, she’s so overrated.”
Aimee kicked me under the table and I knew I was in love.
“Don’t be stupid. Tell me.”
The old woman returned with macaroni cheese and a double-bacon burger. Our waitress had a sad, slow way about her which made me want to leave a big tip that I couldn’t afford.
“Oh, you know; same same. World hunger, the destruction of the rainforest, all that good stuff.” My voice was shrunken like a crisp packet in a microwave. We were having such a good time, I didn’t want to show her my dark side yet.
She looked up from her burger. “I thought we were being personal. Spill.”
I was trapped in those twin voids again and did as I’d been told.
“Last year, I got carried away. I signed as many petitions as I could get my cursor on. Deforestation, desertification, overfishing, overpopulation, general human selfishness. I read everything I could find about global warming, endangered species and pollution at sea. I was obsessed. Some people have problems with drugs or alcohol, well this was my addiction.”
“And I spent months doing no school work, barely going out – travelling from one page to the next because I thought it was more important than anything else.”
She’d taken a big bite and had to talk with her mouth full of meat and bread and sauce. It was ridiculously cute. “It shows you care, though.”
“No.” Why had I brought this stuff up? “It shows that I care too much.”
“You’re pretty intense, aren’t you?”
“I guess you could say that.”
She smiled her incredible smile. “Better than being boring.”
I’d like to sketch out a clearer picture of this girl I was busy adoring. Except for the fact she has a red bike, right now I’ve given you as much information as you’d find on her library card application form. But how can I put across in words exactly what it was that made her special? How can I explain why a messed up boy would fall like a lemming off a cliff, so hard and so quickly?
Aimee was simply a person who made me feel good about life. Back in the dark days of my hardcore clicktivism, I wasn’t trying to make the world a better place, I was collecting lost causes. The Sumatran tiger, the leatherback turtle, the Javan rhinoceros. With Aimee there, it felt like even those poor bastards would stand a chance. And maybe I would too.
After dessert, with extra ice cream, I had her home by two o’clock as promised. I didn’t stick around to see whether her parents were angry. We didn’t kiss goodbye or make plans to hang out again. In terms of the world’s great romances, it wasn’t exactly earthshattering but it left me happier than I had been for weeks and some of Aimee’s calm confidence stayed with me for the rest of the day.
Until about nine o’clock.
I’d spent the afternoon cycling aimlessly around town with my friends (No.11 on the list), trying not to think about her. I did pretty well too, but, when I went upstairs after dinner, Aimee Dhaira invaded my head. I lay on the floor in my monastic cell of a room, reliving our time together. I tried to recall every word of our conversation and to identify the weird pain in my stomach, which I narrowed down to lovesickness or food poisoning.
And then I found my insurmountable detail, the image that would haunt me until I saw her again. The red bicycle flashed in my head, its spokes click-click-clicking around my brain. I was having trouble coming to terms with the fact that, if Aimee hadn’t been given the bike, I might never have noticed her.
My heart was beating too fast.
The most perfect girl in the universe was living fifty metres away and, if her parents had bought her a laptop for her birthday, I would never have discovered how great she was.
Every time I caught sight of something red my stomach lurched.
Why hadn’t I taken her number? Why hadn’t she given it to me? Did she have a boyfriend already? Or a girlfriend? Maybe that was it, maybe she was gay and she had no interest in me whatsoever. Or maybe I was gay and that was why I hadn’t even asked for her number. Or, maybe…
I had to stop thinking. Stop obsessing. I breathed slowly in, then out. I did it five times, took my pills and forced myself to go to sleep.
24th September 2018 at 11:24 am #55553
There were quite a number of comments on this excellent piece last time I looked, but now they’ve all disappeared. Is there something wrong with this site?
13th October 2018 at 4:55 pm #59891
I am a big fan of the first person narrative style, especially when the person is not entirely normal. I am not a fan at all for YA fiction. In fact until I joined Jericho I had never heard of it. So this may not in itself be my kind of book.
But the key thing that shines through this piece in spadefuls is that you, sir, can write! I absolutely love it.
Go get published.
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