When I wake up, my room is a deep pink from the sunlight passing through the cherry blossoms that cover this place. It never fails to give me a warm feeling inside, as though the rays are diluted through the petals and into the cells on my bare arms and legs. It takes me back to a colder memory I often have from five years ago of a windy dock and a rotten jetty poking forlornly into the harbour, reinforced by a finger of steel pointing towards this pink dandelion island nestling in the middle of the bay. I took the boat with other kids all looking at each other with the curious mix of shyness and knowing – that our sunken eyes and strong brows gave us all something in common we all knew too much about. As we sailed towards the island where my new school was apparently located, we began to see that this beautiful marshmallow floating in the rough ocean concealed bright white buildings, whose small towers seemed to furtively whisper to each other at the latest intake.
It took me a few days to realise why I was here. Sitting through an easy math’s exam to determine our respective abilities, I finished early and glanced over my shoulder. I was the second of five rows with a sixth row of kids all attached to trolley drips – thin hoses to noses and arms. After the exam finished I took a wrong turn down a corridor looking for a bathroom and saw another exam hall filled with beds and machines all bleeping in unison, the participants propped up and scribbling frantically on trays attached to the sides, with far more invigilators than we’d had in our hall, dressed in brilliant white.
I was now a permanent resident at The School For The Dying, an institution that allowed kids with incurable ‘situations’, as the staff euphemistically called it, to see out their education. Anyone who couldn’t realistically continue their studies and who wouldn’t make it past graduation could be considered. Inhabitants stayed on the island in rooms of varying degrees of intricacy – mine was just a bed with a desk, drawers and a small sink and wardrobe – but others were the size of operating theatres with machines and instruments that meant we couldn’t have the lights on after 9pm every day.
I got up and stretched my thin limbs, shivering in the warmth from the window. Today is a good day – double History followed by double Art and a single English Lit lesson that will probably be silent reading. It took a while but now the rhythmic hissing of ventilators helps me to concentrate during the quiet reading periods. I also get used to seeing our single desks slowly become more and more empty as the school year progresses. We all make friends as quickly as we can, because we know that our lives exist on fast forward.
I dress quickly, wash my face and prepare my books. My classroom is just across the courtyard from this dorm block, but I take the longer way around so I can get a glimpse of the sea. From the outside the cherry blossoms seem impossibly beautiful, until you are inside them and you realise they are blocking the outside world. But standing on the right bench, when the wind is blowing in the right direction, you can see through the canopy and get a sniff of that salty air or, if there is a storm, maybe a splash of real, unfiltered water.
As I leave, I see Prof Maguire talking to a group of young girls. I sneak away to the outer path, knowing that walking too close to the sea is technically forbidden – not that anything is really forbidden here. Maguire is well known for scolding the girls who hide in the bathrooms to smoke, telling them it is bad for their health, but the arguments always end in laughter. There are no real punishments here because no one ever really misbehaves. Life is too short, it seems, to spend it being a cunt.
The outer path is cut by curious feet to wind between the mass of trees that separate the school from the sea defences. I tiptoe through the mud of a recent rainfall so my shoes don’t give away my location. The air is still today so all I can see is a noisy curtain of pink, but I can hear the roar of the ocean as it breaks on the rocks that guard us from storms. I stand for a moment and try to remember a landscape that I haven’t already seen every day. I see the paths between buildings and I try to remember a street. I see puddles forming after rain and I try to remember seeing a lake, for real, not as a picture in a book.
Eventually I make my way to the classroom and take my seat. There are not many of us left who are so close to the end of their teen years. I have already repeated the final year once, so when questions pop up I keep quiet because I know the answers and I know the way to the answers. A couple of the seats have been filled with new faces this past week, and the other empty desks sit sadly like dogs tied up outside a shop waiting for their owners to come back.
I lift up my desk lid, now covered in deep little carved marks, and add another one to the gathering army. I wasn’t supposed to see my 15th birthday, so after I had passed that milestone I started carving little notches to mark my ongoing, bewildering march towards irrelevance and a little headstone on the mainland – my marble ticket home. I have to carve them deep, the sawdust falling over my wrists, to distinguish them from the other lesions and scratches left by previous students who also marked their time, however fleeting or lingering, but it gets harder every day to have the strength.
I am 17 years, two months and six days old… and I am running out of desk.