Richard the First; that was the answer.
I can’t remember exactly what the question was.
My hand shot up to answer it, partly because I was a jumped up little know-it-all and partly because the answer was my name. Of course the teacher called on me.
‘Richard the First.’ Is what I tried to say but for some reason the words wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t speak so I just sat there with a dumb look on my face as everyone in the class started to laugh. They all thought I was playing some sort of weird joke by putting my hand up and then pretending not to know. I tried to play along by feigning ignorance but I knew I was going redder and redder as the humiliation burned in my cheeks.
I don’t know why I couldn’t speak, it just felt as though the words were stuck in my throat. And the more I tried to speak the harder it seemed until I knew there was just no way I was ever going to be able to say the words.
After what seemed like eternity the teacher got bored of whatever game I was playing and let someone else answer the question. I slumped in my chair, cocooned in shame and wished for the ground beneath the classroom to open up and swallow me whole.
I was 10 years old when that happened and it’s affected me, periodically, throughout my life. I’ve never been a chronic stammerer, I don’t do that machine gun style stuttering but I do trip over words a bit and just occasionally that overwhelming fear of not being able to say a word stops me dead in my tracks and I’ll have to select another word that is easier to say than the one I feel stuck on.
That’s part of the reason I now go by Rick instead of Richard. It’s easier to say. I read in the Stephen King novel IT, which features the character Stuttering Bill, that the one word that stammerers have the most trouble with is their own first name. I also have trouble with anything which starts with a vowel so, ‘I, Richard’ is a potential nightmare for me. Hence, I was quite nervous at my wedding.
Like I said, I’ve never really been a chronic stammerer. I’ve gone years without even thinking about it but every once in a while it just starts niggling at me. My mum mentioned it quite recently in a rather jokey and dismissive way, ‘Richard had a funny little stutter…’ I replied that it was most likely the result of some deep-seated emotional trauma caused by one or the other (or a combination of both) parents. I’m not sure whether my mum would’ve taken my reply as just a joke or as a deliberate swipe at her. To be honest I often can’t tell the difference myself when I’m talking, it’s a bit of a negative trait I’ve developed of being quite acerbic at times for no good reason. When I said it though I suddenly thought, for the first time, that I might have actually had a point.
My parents divorced when I was eleven years old and for at least a couple of years before that it had been very obvious, even to a young child, that their marriage was failing. More than that, it was obvious that they could no longer stand each other. Aside from the screaming arguments which would often keep me awake at night, there was the emotional game playing and pettily-vicious point scoring in which they were constantly engaged.
As things progressed they started trying to undermine one another in front of us, their children. This is classic politics – you don’t just attack your opponent directly – instead you distort everything that they stand for in the eyes of the voters. You subvert and vitiate and corrupt everything which that person represents before eventually annihilating them altogether. Winning hearts and minds can prevail over superior force. Divorce 101 for beginners.
What’s that? Ok I’ll give you an example you sick fuck, if you really want to hear about it. When I was ten years old my dad decided to get a motorbike. It’s a fact that motorbikes are reckless, dangerous, and totally rock and roll. Naturally my brother and I thought that the motorbike (and by extension my dad) was the coolest thing ever. Motorbikes are also pretty expensive and one of the things my parents argued most about was money so the whole motorbike thing was always going to be giving off sparks in the powder keg in which we were living.¹
¹ I got my first CD at around this time – a split LP of Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler’s greatest hits. Fucking loved it and used to listen to it on headphones whilst singing along to every song must’ve driven my parents nuts.
Now, for my Dad’s birthday (it was his 40th if I’m remembering this right) he wanted a leather jacket. Awesome right? You’ve got to have a leather jacket if you’re going to ride a motorbike and me and my brother wanted to go and help him pick it. So we all went out as a family to this big motorbike warehouse. We picked out loads of leather jackets and of course they were all super cool but while me and my brother were running round getting excited my mum and dad were talking in hushed tones whereby it was decided (I assume) that the leather jackets were too expensive and impractical. So the jacket which my dad went home with as his 40th birthday present was a bulky, black, kevlar-coated anorak. The kind of thing a traffic warden might wear in inclement weather.
That evening, we all sat down to enjoy a celebratory meal during which my mum looked up and asked;
‘Do you like your jacket then?’ to which my dad replied;
‘Well beggars can’t be choosers can they?’ Then they both went back to eating their dinner in silence.
I don’t know if they had any idea that I knew what was going on and actually at the time I didn’t quite understand it. Why did my dad not want a leather jacket? Why did he get that shapeless monstrosity that no one liked?
My mum had won that particular round, managing to transform my dad from a devil-may-care, leather jacket wearing motorbike hero, into a sad, middle-aged man in an anorak. I don’t know if I realised exactly what’d happened at the time or whether I thought of it as I got older but what I do remember is the sadness at that dinner table. Four people eating dinner together – two lonely parents and two confused kids.
At least that’s how I remember it but who knows, maybe I’m wrong? Maybe my dad had deliberately picked that jacket just to be a burning martyr and have something to complain about. Maybe the whole thing happened completely differently, or not at all. The thing with families is that they aren’t just the sum of their parts, they aren’t fixed or finite. Memory is imperfect – incredibly so. And therefore for most of us, the idea of our ‘family’ becomes our own personal mythology. We are the unreliable narrators of own lives and events get obscured and distorted over time, their significance becomes amplified or diminished as we observe them through different sets of eyes at different times in our lives.
What I do remember though is the feeling of sadness at that dinner table. Four people eating dinner together– each of them alone in some way.
I always thought I was coping with all of this. I guess that’s the thing with stress and anxiety is that you tell yourself that you are dealing with it. My parents tried hard to convince us that everything would be fine after the divorce, that not much would change. My younger brother was showing signs of obvious emotional trauma so I decided, almost subconsciously, to be the strong one. And in order to achieve this I took every emotion that I was feeling and I learned to push them all deep, deep down inside myself and lock them away where they wouldn’t hurt me and where I’d never have to face them. And I was doing ok, carrying on as normal.
Until I couldn’t say my own name.
Funny how it sneaks up on you like that. I didn’t even make the connection until twenty years later.
The night before my wedding I said I wasn’t going to drink, and I didn’t. I wanted to wake up with a clear head the next morning. Unfortunately it didn’t quite happen that way. We were hosting some pre-wedding drinks, a nice relaxing get-to-know-you for all of the main people who would be involved in the day. It was the first time my parents had been in the same room as one another for more than 15 years, the previous time being when they met in the police station after I had been arrested.
They stood at opposite ends of the room and kept themselves to themselves. I remember people kept asking me if I was ok which I found quite odd and was actually starting to stress me out a bit. ‘I’m fine,’ I kept saying in the kind of voice people use when they’re clearly not fine. I should’ve just had a beer to take the edge off but instead I decided that I needed some fresh air. So I got up from my seat and walked quickly towards the open French Doors which then turned out to be very much closed. I walked face first into the glass door and was knocked backwards onto my arse, chucking a glass of water over myself in the process and causing everyone in the room to immediately crowd round me and start making a fuss.
Looking at my face, people’s reactions were not good. The general consensus was that I had a huge lump above the eye which would most likely go black. All I could think was, ‘Oh shit I’ve ruined the whole wedding with my stupid face. They’re just going to have to photoshop me out of every photo and photoshop Professor Brian Cox in instead.”²
² The author does bear a pretty striking resemblance to the well known physicist, television presenter and former D-Ream keyboard player. Even my close family say I look exactly like him.
Your old friend anxiety will get you every time. Some people get mad, some people get sad, and some people smash their face into a door and lose the ability to say their own name.
Maybe it was nothing to do with my parents, maybe it was just the pressure of the occasion. I must’ve looked uncomfortable and that’s why people kept asking me if I was ok. My reflex reaction was to say “I’m fine” and then just sit there sipping my water and grinding my jaw in silence as I sank further and further in to the quicksand of my own emotions. I hate having to talk about my feelings. It makes me feel like I’m being interrogated, like I’m being put on the spot and called upon to answer a question which I know the answer to but for some reason cannot say.
I’m very pleased to tell you reader that I have an extremely hard face. I don’t bruise easily and by the morning of the wedding my face was unmarked and only very mildly swollen. I was not hungover, although my head was not exactly clear. I looked okay in most of the photos.
The main thing I remember about our wedding wasn’t the awkwardness of drinks with my parents or nearly breaking my face on a window. It was the moment that my wife Sarah entered the church. She always looks stunningly beautiful but when she walked into the church she just seemed to radiate a kind of peaceful happiness which made her even more so. I just focused on her and her alone, didn’t take my eyes off her. When she got to the front and stood next to me we held hands, which I’m still not sure if you’re supposed to do. I thought maybe it wasn’t showing the appropriate amount of reverence but I could’ve just been worrying about nothing. The point was that holding her hand gave me strength, it made me feel comfortable, at ease and certain that I was exactly where I needed to be. Then I felt like I could speak.
When the time came I was able to say, ‘I Richard…’
And then the rest came easy after that.
Rick White is a fiction writer from Manchester UK. Rick has previously had work published in Storgy, Honest Ulsterman, and Vice Magazine and is currently working on his first novel which he hopes to finish before he expires. Rick is thirty-four years old and lives with his wife Sarah and their small furry overlord, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Harry.