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  • It was October 1978 and I was lost. Not lost in the physical sense of the word, but absolutely lost in terms of who I was and where I was going. Four months earlier, my mother had died after a long battle with cirrhosis of the liver. It was a much-misunderstood illness at the time, and it still is. The assumption is that it's an illness that you bring upon yourself, usually through excessive drinking. In my mother's case, it was a combination of bad genes (all too late, they found that she had unusually thin bile tubes), bad timing and bad luck. She's had a nervous breakdown when I was very small, and it was at the time when everything could be solved by a 'happy' pill. Growing up, our medicine cabinet was full of prescription drugs like Librium, Nobrium and Valium. When I was 10 or so, my mum started having stomach pains which was misdiagnosed as 'nervous stomach' with the prescription being ever-stronger pills. It took a further 2 years before they found that her gall bladder needed to be removed, but by that time, the damage to her liver had been done.

    From that day, my mum's illness became the unspoken centre of all of our lives. She was to live a further five years, where she bravely struggled on, keeping her full-time job and hiding behind her tinted spectacles. Her illness made her jaundiced, and as it progressed, the whites of her eyes turned yellow. She couldn't cover that up with make up, as she did her skin, and she would get very depressed about it.

    It was October 1978 and I was lost. I was back at school.. the school that had done such a disastrous job of helping me to deal with my mother's death. Just 2 days after she'd died, my brother John paid a visit to the school, meeting with the Head of the Sixth Form. I'd pretty much skipped much of that term to be with her as much as possible. We were nursing her at home, and once people knew that she was dying, she'd stopped getting visitors. Thankfully, I think that things have changed now, but back in the late 70's, it felt as if everyone was afraid to be around someone who was dying; as if every terminal illness was contagious. My brother had told Mr. Sutherland about our's mother death, and asked if I could be excused from taking the mock A-levels that were scheduled for the following week. He was told that it would be too inconvenient for me to sit them another time, how would they ensure that I wouldn't get to know the questions in advance, and that it would be too much to have to set different papers, just for me. Instead, I was to take the exams as planned, with my brother being assured that my special circumstances would be taken into account.

    It's probably fair to say that I attended the exams, but I didn't really take them. I went through the motions, signing my name on the front sheet, arranging my pens and pencils on the desk, carefully reading through the questions, and then proceeded to stare into space for the next 2-3 hours. I just couldn't focus.. not on the exams, not on the subjects.. not on anything. When the results were announced, it was no surprise that I'd failed all of them, and not just marginally failed them. The marks were single-digit for each and every one of the exams. What was a surprise was at the end of the following morning's assembly, my name was among those read out as being requested to go to Mr. Sutherland's office. I don't know whether he'd ever been in the military, but he did his best impression of a drill sergeant that morning. He had us line up, and one by one, he got within about three inches of our faces and asked the same one word question over and over again. "Why?" If someone didn't respond immediately, or responded with "why what, sir?", he's get in even closer, close enough to smell the stale pipe tobacco on his breath, and get hit by the rapid fire spray of his spittle.

    As he worked down the line, and he became increasingly frustrated with everyone's lame excuses, he was getting angrier and angrier. I was the last person, and I still kept clinging to the hope that it was a case of mistaken identity, or that I'd been asked there for a different reason. He got to me, and paused for a moment. He was so consumed by anger at this point, that he had to stop and catch his breath. He drew closer to me, and we locked our eyes. I was not going to look away. I was not going to look down. "So.. Ford... your results were an embarrassment.. to you, to the school, to everyone that knows you.. why?" I felt the color drain from me, and fighting back tears, I gave him my answer. "My mother died.. the week before the exams.. my brother came to see you". It was Mr. Sutherland who broke the deadlock by turning away. No apologies. Nothing. Just a weak "you'd better all get to your lessons.. now go"

    It was October 1978 and I was lost, and looking to lose myself in something, in anything. My dad was lost in his own grief, and we rattled around the family home, which was too big, and too full of painful memories. There was a school trip to London, and I signed up. There was not a single person on the bus that knew me before that day, and it was liberating. I wasn't the kid that you had to feel sorry for any more. I didn't catch people looking at me out of the corner of my eye, or hear their whispers.

    I'd made a decision to reinvent myself that day, to be someone other than myself, to shed my outer shell and the pain along with it. As the day came to a close, we all met back together on the bus, and proceeded to show off our finds. I'd returned with two big bags of clothes, and a head full of ideas. I pulled out my prize find, a pair of scarlet jeans, and held them up for everyone to see. One of my new friends teased me that while the color was great, I'd bought myself a pair of flares, and that they were so out of date. I explained that I planned to convert them into drainpipe jeans. I could tell by the look on her face that she didn't believe me.

    That weekend, I went through the treasure trove of my mum's clothes-making stuff. My parent's had run a corner shop before I was born, one of those that stocked everything, and after it closed, all of the unsold habadashery items (buttons, beads, needles, thread, hooks, eyes.. you name it.. we had it) took up residence with us. Add to that, that my mum ran a fabric store for about 10 years, and so that added cupboards and drawers full of fabric, and sewing patterns. I found what I needed and set about the task. My first attempt was an embarrassing failure, as I cut so much fabric out of the legs that I then couldn't get the jeans over my heels. I though for a while, and then I had it.. I rummaged back through mum's things until I found a pair of zippers, and painstakingly sewed those into the ankles of the jeans.

    That night, I went out to a punk / new wave event in Chesterfield, and I found that I became what I wore, and no-one longer noticed the person underneath. I found it so liberating not to have to be me any more. My dad couldn't understand what was going on, and why I'd changed so much. He couldn't understand that this was my way of dealing with my grief. People who knew me were worried that I'd lost my way. They'd come up to me in the street and say "what has happened to you? You used to be such a lovely lad". I'd tell them that I still was, that nothing had changed. What I learned was that so many people just cannot get beyond appearances. What I learned was that I had more in common with my new friends (such an unlikely looking bunch of individuals - all pins, peroxide, and punk attitudes) than I'd first realized. We were all running or hiding from something.. all of us lost.. and then we found each other. For that, I am eternally grateful.

    Thanks to Benny Guypens for the incredible image. I don't know why it feels right for this story (at least, to me it does), but I just kept coming back to it.
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