Friday, 18 July 2014

Do Not Go Gentle

Once upon a time there was a girl who was 17 years old and who lived at home with her mum and dad and a dog and two cats.

The girl was at school and one day in a sixth form English lesson the teacher gave the class some homework to do.

“Go home and read the Dylan Thomas poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and write an essay on what you think about it,” the teacher said.

The girl went home and read the poem, which went like this:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

She sat upstairs on the landing, which was her customary place for doing homework. There was a step on the landing, just the right height for working at. There wasn't a desk in her bedroom. The only table was downstairs. Downstairs was her parents' domain.

Their voices floated up the stairs. The girl couldn't hear the words but that didn't matter. The tone was always the same. Her dad, snarling or sneering or shouting. Always furious, always right. Her mum, browbeaten, bitter, resentful.

She was living in a house where love didn't exist. Fear, anger, and confusion had taken its place. 

This was what she'd grown up with and it was all she knew. A bookish child, chronically shy, she had no real understanding of how isolated she was. Her older brother and sister had long since left home. Friends weren't encouraged – in some way that was never explained to her, they were always the wrong sort. She enjoyed school well enough, but never felt like she really belonged. The cats and dog were her lifeline.

More or less alone, then, and with no points of reference, while she couldn't put her finger on what was wrong in her house she still knew something was deeply askew. It felt like a sham. It felt twisted and sick and broken. The emptiness ricocheted. But what was normal supposed to feel like? She concentrated on the poem, and tried hard to block out the horror downstairs. Like she always did.

And then - my God. The poem. It was astonishing. It spoke to her, about her own situation. Grief, rage, anger, blindness, resistance - it was all there. It even had a cursing father up there on a sad height. It was unequivocal, a warning: don't get married! She read it again.

Adulthood spells doom, it said. Don't go there, with all its entrapments, it said. Do not surrender to marriage. Marriage will destroy you. It is the end of everything.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light: the proof was right there downstairs. 

She wrote her essay.

At the next English lesson, the teacher took the unusual step of not handing back the essays at the start of the class. Instead, she launched straight into a discussion of the poem.

A cold wave of horror overtook the girl as she listened. The poem wasn't a warning not to get married. It was about death. Everyone else, it seemed, had spotted his fact. How could she have been so stupid?

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Her dad's favourite accusation. Her least favourite word in the world.

She shrivelled in her chair, head bowed, staring at the desk. She didn't dare lift her head in case this roomful of normal, well adjusted people, with normal parents, spotted her shame. What an outcast. What a total, total failure. How could she have possibly thought this poem was about marriage? The shame burnt her face and made her feel sick. The lesson ground on. After an eternity, the teacher started to finish. At the last possible moment, the essays were handed back. She gave the girl hers last, shooting her a quizzical look as she did so.

The girl sat at the desk as still as a stone while everyone else filed out of the classroom. When it was safe, she picked up the essay and braced herself for the teacher's lacerating assessment.

There was just one solitary red question mark.

And that was the end of it.

Except that it wasn't. One day, when she was 35, the girl happened to be thinking about the poem, and the teacher, and this ugly shame at being useless and stupid she still carried round with her everywhere she went. About the gut-clenching loathing she still had for her dad.

And she felt sad. Sad for the 17 year old girl whose home life was so poisoned she'd believed a poem about dying was a poem about marriage. And she felt relieved, relieved and profoundly grateful to the teacher who had spared her further humiliation by waiting till the end of class to hand the essays back.

It took her another ten years to feel angry. Angry at her parents, both dead now, for failing to provide love, that most basic of needs. For planting her in a barren garden where nothing grew. Angry at the teacher who could have taken the girl to one side and quietly asked, “is everything all right at home?” but who said nothing, did nothing, and let the 17 year old girl carry on, adrift.


Anonymous said...

I've been reading these pages for a long time now. I love your words, all of them - the winsome ones, the excited ones, the sad ones and the powerful ones.

Thank you for writing them, for being brave enough to put these words into the world

x K

John Gojevic said...

LOVED it. And always loved that poem. I recited the bits I could remember to my father as he lay in a coma and slowly left us.
I came back to your blog today after a 6 year absence. I last heard your wit in 2008 when I was living in Wales. Lonely and homesick for Canada I wrote a blog to fill the hours and you and your lovely writing came along. I remember being jealous of your skill and was thrilled when you nominated a piece I wrote for "Blog of the Week". Winning was a highlight of my life.
Thank you for that and thank you for still writing...

One Fine Weasel said...

Wow and double wow for these kind words. It's been such a long time since I looked on here and finding these comments has blown me away. I never really think anything I do is any good so it really moves me when people say the opposite. It almost makes me believe...

John, I remember you. Your writing was pure brilliance: I hope YOU'RE still writing. What a beautiful thing to do for your father. Bittersweet memories, always with us.

K, I don't feel brave. I am so happy you find something here for you. Thank you so much.

Much love x