15: Lunchtime when I was

by Jane Carnall

This is what happened at lunchtime when I was fourteen. I always brought a brown paper bag with three slices of cold cheese on toast (my father made it for me, every day until the month before I left home). I hated eating where people could watch me: I felt they were looking at what I was eating and criticising it. Of course this is because they did: I ate non-standard sandwiches before I ate cheese on toast. Besides the cheese on toast, I usually had an apple. That was all.

I used to imagine large bowls of food, my favourites, there for me to eat, and only for me: mashed potato made savoury with mushroom ketchup, butter, salt, garlic powder, vinegar: baked potatoes dripping with butter and crusted with crunchy salt crystals: green peas, cheese quiche, baked cheese-and-potato pie: I seem to remember fantasising most about savoury things. Or else, as I munched my dry and satisfying meal, I would imagine I was a prisoner in a sealed cell, no way in or out, with books to read and paper and pen to play with, and food -- routine, dull, predictable food -- supplied at exact intervals. I would have condiments under my own control, but the food itself would be choiceless, always the same, and in exact portions.

Usually I had a book to read with me -- of course, it might be a book I was supposed to read for English, but more often not. After a while I had a notebook and pen, but I didn?t take to writing all that seriously until I was nearer fifteen than fourteen. Most of that year I didn?t write: I fantasised and invented and told myself stories, and at lunchtime I hid.

Sometimes a group of boys, intent on I never knew what, only that I wouldn?t like it, would try to track me and find where I ate lunch. On the first floor of the school, which was largely empty since it had been declared unfit for use the year I was born, there was a large hall, with a stage at one end, marked out for basketball and other games -- or so I think I remember. There were two doors, one at either end, the one at the end with the stage always locked. There were stackable chairs in towers three or four foot high, all along the wall that separated this hall from the corridor. The hall was twice normal height: the corridor on the second floor was a gallery, the open edge of which had a rail over which you could lean and look down into the main part of the hall on the floor below.

This is what I did. Our classes were on the second floor: I made sure to be out of the room ahead of the pack, and run down the stairs -- I had and have still a surprising turn of speed -- opening the corridor door with a bang so that the boys would hear -- and then quietly opening the door into the hall, walking quickly and silently along it, and sitting down at the far end, behind the stackable chairs, beside the locked door.

The boys would open the hall door, look in, and not see me -- nor see that there was any place where I could hide myself. They would try the other door, but it would be locked, so they would conclude I couldn't come in that way. They would go down stairs and discover I was nowhere in the playground. They would come back up and look along the corridors and into all the rooms with doors that opened. They would check the corridor above, sometimes, in case I had doubled back. But it never occurred to any of them to go to the rail and look down: if it had, they would have seen me, and I would have been trapped, in a much worse position than if I had run out into the playground and stayed in public view, when they could have jeered and teased, but I could have ignored them, or tried to at least -- they didn't like it when I buried my nose in the book and absolutely ignored what they had to say. I'd had books knocked out of my hands before this.

But they never found me where I hid at lunchtime: and I found this extraordinary, and so did they: one or two of them even promised, back in the classroom in the afternoon, that they wouldn't try to follow me if only I would tell them where I hid myself: they just wanted to know how I could possibly find somewhere to hide. But I never believed them, and I never told.

790 words

20 minutes

10th June 2000

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