Protectors

My demise in those days began — as far as I know — the day a girl with brown eyes and beige skin got her protectors. She was, I believe, of Malaysian origin, although that to me was immaterial.

I was aware of her because she always set off home from college at the same time as me, walking in the same direction. Day after day she would walk about ten metres ahead of me, following the exact same route. Only, after she arrived at the rounded privet hedge outside her terraced house twenty minutes later, I had another three miles left to walk. I’d arrive at my own front door an hour later.

Every day, walking that same route, following on behind her, I’d be thinking to myself: “Talk to her. Make friends. Reach out to her. Let her know she’s not alone.”

But I was too inept and too shy to strike up conversation with a stranger, however familiar they had become. To me, she seemed quiet and shy too. Whenever I saw her around college, she would always be sitting on the periphery of every group of friends — just like me — looking on, quiet and excluded. I thought she was just like me.

I discovered I was wrong about that the day she got her protectors. That was the day after I’d listened to a friend who’d said, “Write to her.” That was the day after I’d listened to a mate who’d said, “I’ll introduce you.”

That was the day I discovered I had no common sense at all. For sure, I earned my own humiliation that day, for I was an idiot, so immature, embarrassing myself completely with just a few strokes of a fountain pen on a sheet of paper soaked in watercolour paint. I started that day optimistically, and went home feeling close to suicidal.

That was the day that girl went from loner like me — always, always on the periphery, always walking home alone, ten metres ahead of me — to one always flanked by others. That was the day she found herself with watchful young men looking out for her, demanding she sit amongst them.

Never ever was she seen on the periphery again, ignored by those around her. Perhaps I did her a favour in that regard. I thought she looked lonely and thought I should do something about it, and sure enough, as a result of my actions, she was suddenly surrounded by friends.

That was the day of my demise. My humiliation was total, but it was worse than that, for I had just accidentally wandered into a world that up until then I didn’t even know existed.

Unbeknownst to me, from that day forth, every non-white girl in the college would be defended against me, all of a sudden considered a predator to be vanquished. Which was odd, because I was just a hopeless nerd trying desperately to make friends with anyone, only to fail completely, over and over.

On the positive side — such as it was — I was too busy dealing with my own humiliation to actually notice any of that. I was a laughingstock for months on end because of that idiotic letter of mine. It was like the rambling of an eleven year-old, wallowing in self-pity and despair, asking very apologetically if she would like to be my friend. It was a debacle, revealing me to be extremely childlike, naive and depressed. The worst possible way I could introduce myself to a new college at sixteen, when it was important to be seen as cool.

Had I not been preoccupied by my unceasing embarrassment, I might have thought to ask why it was that the girl now had a band of defenders at her side, protecting her. For I had not penned a love letter, indicating that I wanted to jump in bed with her. Had I not been preoccupied, I might have thought to ask my mate: “What exactly did you say to that girl that day?” But that I never did because — did I mention this? — I was dying inside from my pure disgrace.

Blissfully naive, I was almost completely oblivious to the narrative that had taken hold all around me. No, not so: I was aware that something was going on.

One day, my form tutor asked me to help two female Bosnian refugee students, new to the college, access the computers for their studies. Though they seemed quiet and reticent, I tried my best, talking them through the basics. Little did I know that these simple acts of kindness would be judged the nefarious deeds of an immoral scoundrel with completely different intentions.

I don’t know how much these attitudes were the result of me being a hopeless nerd and how much because I was a white guy in a very white town, and which of the two was deemed worse. For sure, I had two nicknames then: the geek kid and dirty gora.

Geek kid was fair, because it captured what I was completely: an awkward weirdo, extremely immature. Gora, too, was accurate, but dirty gora: not so much, unless they were referring to the pong which follows most teenagers around. But, in any case, those attitudes stuck, and it became the narrative which defined the remainder of my time at college.

Nowadays, I am sure that all that happened then would be considered completely odd by all involved. I imagine they would be pretty embarrassed all these years later to recall that they once felt compelled to protect a girl from an imagined untoward relationship, only to later pursue such relationships themselves.

Today, we might ask ourselves, “Did that girl need protectors?” For I once encountered her again as an adult and, as far as I could tell, she was a modern woman, completely independent, in need of no man to fight her corner. There was nothing traditional about her lifestyle at all.

In any case, she was not alone. Virtually everyone I encountered in those days ended up in mixed-relationships, pursuing whatever their hearts desired. All that was once thought inappropriate is now considered the norm. That is how much the world has changed in thirty years.

Ironically, it seems that today I am now derided for pursuing the kind of relationship that girl’s onetime protectors claimed to be defending. Encountering me now, they would probably ask me, “Why did you take us so seriously?”

To which I would reply, “I didn’t. I was always seeking an honorable relationship anyway. Your intervention was not required. If only you had known!”

Though I couldn’t see this at the time, all that happened back then was good for me. I never did pursue the relationships the girl’s defenders believed they were protecting her from. I wasn’t found on the nightclub dance-floor, hunting. That wasn’t a world I wanted any part of.

It turns out they were actually protecting me. For I had to learn to wait my turn. Eventually, I would wait to be invited, and only then, respectfully and modestly, would I pursue what my heart desired.

So, in the end, my demise was not absolute. It was just a trial I had to go through for a while. After every hardship comes ease. Verily, after hardship comes more ease.

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