HOLLY MIRANDA SMALE

Writer, photographer, "rapper" and general technophobe takes on the internet in what could be a very, very messy fight. But it's alright: she's harder than she looks, and she's wearing every single ring she could get her hands on.







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Saturday, 27 February 2010

Spotlight

This Sunday, I go on stage for the first time in roughly eighteen years. My last venture was as - I believe - an Oz Munchkin, where I managed to fall over the yellow brick road and thoroughly unimpress my drama teacher (who told me she was sorry she had handpicked me to 'represent the lollypop kids'). This time round, I am the drama teacher, so any falling over is going to be even more embarrassing. Frankly, it's bad enough that my 13 year old pupil prompts the majority of my lines, without landing at her feet with my Munchkin hat broken in half all over again.

There are times in life when your own age comes as a shock to you; where you suddenly realise just how big the gap between your brain and your body is getting. I'm not quite certain what age my brain stopped at - I'm still trying to work that out - but I'm pretty sure that it was around 12 or 13; just at the age when all of my insecurities were firmed up, my base personality formulated, my knowledge of men about as good as it would ever be, and my fashion sense about as diabolical. No matter what happened or will happen to my body from that point on - from the slow climb into attractive teenager, before hurtling downhill towards singleton, spinster and old lady (inevitably) - my brain will always be 13. More importantly, my brain will always be looking out of my eyes (because that's where the brain looks out from, obviously), and saying to my face "just a minute, what the hell is going on here?" Because - since the age of 13 - I have not looked 13, and - sadly - never will again. I had peachy skin at that age.

This, however, becomes tricky when you're working closely with a 13 year old every week. Especially a 13 year old who - I suspect - is going to reach about 19 or 20 in the brain before she stops developing, and will thus outstrip me by a long way.

"Are you okay?" I asked her during our dress rehearsal this week. She clearly wasn't okay: she was shaking from head to foot.
"I'm scared," she said, her mouth pressed into a thin line. "About Sunday."
"God, me too," I answered before I had a chance to register what I was saying. "Terrified. There's going to be so many people. What if I trip on something? What if you trip on something? What if we both just stand there and stare at each other?"
My student's eyes widened in terror, and I suddenly realised that she actually was 13 and was allowed to voice her irrational concerns; I was the 28 year old teacher with a 13 year old brain, and I had a responsibility - and possibly contractual obligation - not to.
"Only kidding," I said, even though I wasn't in the slightest: I'm genuinely bricking it. "It'll be great. And I know all the lines, in case you forget any. So I can help you out."
This time I was kidding, because I most certainly do not.
"Thankyou," she said, and I spent the rest of the lesson subtly trying to remember her lines instead of just my own (13 year olds are pretty selfish, you know: even the 28 year old ones).

It's going to be strange, up on stage, with a child, feeling exactly the way I felt when I was 13 except 15 years older. It's going to be strange, coming face to face with the kid in me while being simultaneously forced into confronting the adult (they're making me responsible for the props and everything). And I'm kind of looking forward to it. It'll be a nice challenge, seeing just which one wins out this time. And - obviously - whether there's a yellow brick road I can find and fall over.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Fashion

"It's strange," a friend commented on a train into Tokyo a couple of days ago. "I used to be pretty cool, back in Australia. I don't really feel it anymore. Japan has killed my fashion sense."
I looked down at my damp smelling, hole filled little £5 Primark jacket - worn through an entire Japanese winter - and my festering fake turquoise Crocs, similarly worn through a Japanese summer, and my cheap grey jumper, tugged on by 30 five year olds every day. I patted my hair, pulled into a pink scrunchie. And then I glanced at my reflection in the train window and confirmed that I wasn't just wearing no makeup again: I had to think really carefully to remember where in my flat it might actually be. I hadn't seen my mascara in nearly two weeks: nearly as long as I hadn't seen my tweezers or used a razor.
"Know what you mean," I replied, and pulled my hood over my head.

Japan is one of the most fashionable countries in the world, but it seems to have the opposite impact on most of the Western female friends I have. Surrounded by perfectly glossy, perfectly accessorized, perfectly made-up Japanese women, most of us foreigners have simply given up: we can't compete, we don't fit the clothes, and there doesn't seem to be much of a reason to bother anyway when we're so ill equipped to manage it.

The thing about fashion is that there is more than one point to it, but - for a Western girl in Japan - almost all of them are wiped out entirely. Fashion is about identity; about making yourself stand out. As a foreigner in Japan, you already do: thus the subconscious desire to make yourself even more conspicuous completely disappears. Fashion is also about being noticed, and here the impact is two-fold: not only are you noticed no matter what you wear, but you are also simultaneously ignored because Japanese culture dictates that nobody ever - ever - looks at anybody else. Whether you're crying openly on a train (done) or drunk (done) or dropping change all over the floor (done done done), you still feel invisible; so dedicating any time to impressing the public at large is totally pointless. Futhermore, as a (very tall, in particular) Western girl, you will rarely - if ever - attract the attention of a Japanese man (and absolutely never attract the attention of a Western man, because they're usually there because they like Japanese women), so any hope of using fashion to appeal to the opposite sex is totally redundant. Which, strangely - as fashion is the cultural equivalent of brightly coloured mating feathers on birds - makes a Western girl feel pretty much androgynous, no matter how much time she has spent getting ready.

Being a minority - as any sort of minority will tell you - is difficult. Trying to fade in instead of stand out shakes at the foundations of you; it drags inwards what used to be displayed on the outside, and - before you're even aware of it - you're a creeping, shamed shadow of who you used to be, and pride in yourself has taken a backseat to an overall feeling of insignificance and embarrassment.

It's shallow, and it's vain, but I've realised that fashion is important to me. It's not everything - it's just the coating - but it's a reflection of how we're feeling: of who we think we are. I miss wearing pretty things; I miss walking down a street and being looked at by girls who like my clothes and boys who like what's in them. I miss feeling good about myself, and I miss feeling attractive, and I miss feeling individual because of how I express myself, and not just because of my race. I miss not feeling completely and utterly invisible, no matter what I do, and no matter what I wear, and no matter what I say. Which is what I am in Japan: invisible. And, after eight lonely, unfashionable months, this is now also how I feel.

I'm ready to come home. The things that make me who I am - my family, my sense of identity, my ability to communicate to and understand the people around me - are not here. And while I love Japan for everything it has and is, I do not love what it has done to me. I do not love how it has made me uncertain of who I am, or what I have to offer the world. I do not like feeling as if everybody can see me, and nobody can see me at the same time. I do not like how it has made me whiney, and needy, and scabby, and depressed, and how it has made me feel utterly worthless. I do not like how it has drained me of everything I used to prize so highly - energy, a sense of humour, a love of life, the ability to find my mascara in three seconds flat - and filled me with the moaning, miserable complaints of the kind of person I used to avoid sitting next to in pubs.

It's time for me to come home, and it's time for me to make myself feel like someone worth being visible again.

And, frankly, it's time for me to relocate my makeup bag.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

A pain in the neck

"That," my sister said this morning, "is the second time you've referred to your heart as an orange. The first time round it was a chocolate one."
"I miss oranges," I admitted.
"Don't they have oranges in Japan?" she asked. "What kind of country doesn't have oranges?"
"They do, they're just expensive."
"Chocolate ones?"
"No."
There was a shocked silence.
"You need to come home," she said in a serious voice. "We've got lots here."
Then there was another little break in the conversation while we both imagined a world made up entirely of oranges, because that's how both our brains work.
"Have you heard anything?" my sister asked eventually - after the orange world had worn off - in the voice that all my friends and family now use whenever they refer to the Japanese boy: wary, worried and totally pissed off.
"A text."
"What did it say?"
"I don't really feel much right now, but I know I must be stressed because my neck hurts."
There was a pause.
"Wow. He's like Keats, Shakespeare and Thom Yorke all rolled into one, isn't he."
"Mmm."
"Sensitive prick," my sister added as an afterthought.
I didn't say anything. There's no point when there's nothing left to say.
"So," and my little sister cleared her throat. "You would not believe how much Marmite mum has bought in preparation for your return. Seriously. It's enough to give you a yeast infection just by looking at it."


And so that's it. Enough. This chapter of my life is now closed, and I am not looking back. It has caused me enough sadness, and enough pain, and enough damage. It has taken enough from me. I will not spend another minute of my life thinking about, or talking about, or writing about, a man who feels nothing.

It's time to move on and find happiness. And I refuse to pine for a man who measures the pain of a breakup somewhere other than his heart.

No matter how much his neck bloody hurts.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Oranges

When I was about eleven years old, I developed an obsession for Sunny Delight. I'm not sure where it came from, but - all of a sudden - I needed Sunny Delight. I craved it all the time. I bought it on my way to school, and I bought it on my way home from school, and I left the house in wind and rain and snow because I'd run out of it. And the more I drank, the more I needed it; it never eliminated my thirst, and every bottle just made me want another one. Side effects - spots, tiredness, weight gain - were duly ignored. For one strange month in my eleventh year, I must have spent my entire pocket money and probably some I stole from my parent's jar of change (sorry, mum) on Sunny Delight.

The highs were good, of course. It was a strange, dizzy, buzzy, temporary kind of happiness, but it was beautiful; and the amazing thing was that the more Sunny Delight I drank, the thirstier I got, and so the more I could drink and the more energy I had, and the happier I thought I was. And - because I was convinced in my naivity that it was slightly edited orange juice - I also thought that I was drinking my way into health and general wellbeing, and that my obsession was actually good for me; even though my body was giving me every possible sign it could that it really, really wasn't.

And then somebody - I forget who - pointed out the ingredients to me. They turned the bottle around, and they showed me that it wasn't, in fact, a slightly modified orange juice, but actually liquid sugar, coloured orange and made to taste like it had once been a fruit; despite quite possibly never having actually seen one before. They showed me just how much orange juice was in it (2%), and suggested that nothing in the natural world would ever be that shade without containing poison.

It had taken me one whole month to realise that I was actually poisoning myself with something that looked and tasted like the real thing, but was barely even related to it. One whole month, until I finally got a real orange out, squeezed it and abruptly came to my senses.

I never touched Sunny Delight again.

This time, it has taken me almost exactly one whole year. One whole year to realise that I'm in the relationship equivalent of a bottle of Sunny Delight. Looks like orange juice, tastes like orange juice, makes me pretty damn giddy in a sickly, temporary kind of way, but - frankly - it wouldn't recognise an orange if it got punched in the face by one. All the benefits of an orange - the taste, the goodness, the nutrition, the magical symmetry of it - aren't there, and all I've got is something masquerading as something it never has been, and never could be. Something that was packaged up very nicely nicely and looked good because I was so incredibly thirsty. Something that told me it was something it was not. Something that has done nothing but damage my internal organs from the very moment it first touched my lips.

I remember the exact moment I looked at that Sunny Delight label, and read the bit that said: contains 2% orange juice. I remember how I felt; how angry I was, how confused, and how foolish I knew I had been. And, similarly, I remember the exact moment I looked at the beautiful, magical boy I had flown all the way across the world for - who had cheated on me continuously, lied to me, abandoned me in a strange country, insulted me, exposed me to heartbreak and pain and humiliation, and failed to once protect me or cherish me or fight for me - and realised that he had as much in common with my perfect man as that bottle of sugar had with a piece of fruit. And that he had just been pretending, and I was too naive, romantic, in love and - frankly - damn stupid to see it.

The real danger of Sunny Delight isn't what it'll do to you when you're drinking it. It'll slowly poison you - yes - but it probably won't kill you (although it'll make you fat and orange hued like an OompaLoompa and it'll cause your teeth to fall out, which is nearly as bad). The real danger of Sunny Delight is that if you don't walk away from it, you might never touch a real orange again. And you might simply forget that they exist at all.

So, although it's the hardest thing I have ever done - and it has broken my heart and ruined my health - I have found the strength to put the bottle down, and I have finally walked away properly. And I will not touch it again.

I need nothing, now, but plain water for a long, long time. I need to detox and rehydrate, and get the taste of sugar out of my mouth. I need to learn how to feel happy again without that intoxicated, giddy buzz. I need to be careful of just hooking myself onto the next pretty package that comes along.

But when I do decide I'm ready to start again, I'll look for something different. I'm finished with the kind of happiness that comes from something fake. The next time I fall in love, I want it to be real.

And, even more importantly, I want it to be good for me.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Kou

There are people we meet, along the way, who change our lives and break our hearts or make them whole again. And - when they go, which they all inevitably do - they leave behind a piece of themselves snapped off in us, like the sting a wasp left in my foot when I was six that looked exactly like a dolphin.

I have met two of those people in Japan. One is the man I love, and one is the little boy.

He is three years old, and his name is Kou. He is the child that has made me love children. And when I leave Japan to start again, he is the child I will cry over. And the child that will be forever three, because that is the age he will be in March when I come home.

Children are like snowflakes; they're all different, and people never tire of telling us about it. It has never really felt like it to me, though. In Sainsburys, or in Topshop, or hogging the local swings, they all seemed much of a muchness: small, blank slates that would have a personality forced upon them at some stage later, either through bullying or adulation. They said the same things, they did the same things, they cried at the same things, and - as far as I could see - they weren't very bright either. Which upset my mum, when I told her.

"How bright do you expect them to be?" she told me crossly. "They're four years old."

This bright, I want to tell her now.

This morning, Kou and I had an exchange that left my assistant furious because she dislikes my little boy with a vengeance (he is not quiet, he is not obedient and he asks too many questions, and therefore flaunts every Japanese rule of cute childhood), and left me glowing.

"I can drive a car," I shouted, and we all - me, and my little army of half a dozen two and three year olds - held onto our imaginary steering wheels and brooomed our ways around the studio.
"Now stop," I shouted, feeling a lot like Max ("be still!").
And they all stopped driving, apart from one particular little wild thing who - for reasons only known to himself - decided that he wasn't quite done, and continued at full speed (much like a little old lady I once saw near a red light at a Tescos roundabout).
"Brrrroooooom," he screamed at the top of his little voice.
"Stop!" I shouted again at the tiny two year old.
"Brrrrrrooooooom," he replied, running as fast as his little legs could legitimately carry him.
"Stop, Kanata. Stop." The rest of the class were now standing and watching curiously as I chased after the teeny tiny child like some kind of gigantic spider after a surprisingly wriggly fly.
"Brrrrrrrrrr," he courageously continued, so - as I'm too big to make eye contact with him, even from a crouching position - I picked him up, held him at face level and said:
"Stop, you naughty tinker."
Kanata blinked a couple of times - as if he'd only just noticed that anybody else was in the room - said "K", and then went back to his normal routine (banging wooden blocks together and dancing to music that nobody else can hear).

Kou, in the meantime, had been watching the exchange carefully from under his little spiky fringe (he resents any time I spend with anyone other that him. As - shamefully - do I). Catching my eye, he suddenly launched into a loud "Broooooooooooom" and started racing around the room. Before I could even react, he promptly positioned himself in front of me, twinkled at me from his little black eyes and held his arms up so that I could pick him up and shout at him.

"Up," he said. "Mine."

When I leave in March, I will miss a lot of my students. But there is one little boy who I will always think about, and wonder where he is, and how he's doing, and how he's growing up. One little boy that I will always remember. Because he's the little boy who has shown me just how special children can be.

And his name is Kou.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Story

Under the shadow of a big mountain there was once a castle. It was as beautiful as any fairy castle, except that no fairies or princesses lived there. It was home to only ghosts, who had been there for so long that they couldn’t remember what they had been before they were ghosts, or where they had lived.

The ghosts loved their castle, except in the day when they were asleep. Sometimes they heard footsteps and laughter, and they were scared. It didn’t matter how tightly they tucked themselves under the bricks, and into the holes in the walls; it didn’t matter how hard they closed their eyes. They could still hear little people clattering around the castle, and they were too frightened to sleep.

After many days and many nights, the ghosts went to the mountain to ask for help.

“We are too frightened of these things they call children,” sobbed the smallest of the ghosts. “They are noisy and they throw things and they are awake when they should be asleep. We cannot live where they are.”

So the mountain agreed, and sent the ghosts up to the sky, where there were no children and nobody ever threw anything apart from a few birds, and now and then an aeroplane. From far away the ghosts found that they could be brave, and they watched the children in their castle. They watched and they watched, until they realised that they weren’t scared anymore. That the children just wanted to play, like they did.

And so the nights passed, and the days, and the ghosts gathered at the top of the mountain and asked her if they could go home again.“I cannot undo what has been done,” the mountain said sadly. “I’m sorry, but your home is in the sky now.”

But the ghosts were so sad – for the sky was too big, and too lonely – that the mountain relented.

“When the sun is out,” she said kindly, “and the warmth heats the snow from the top of me into rivers, you may go home to your castle and play with the children. But as soon as it gets cold again you must come back.”

And the ghosts promised and kissed the mountain, and went to play in their castle, for it was a sunny day and the sky was as blue as the sea underneath it. When it was cold again, they left the castle and went back to the sky, where they cried because they were homesick, and they had found they loved the children after all.

The children never knew about the ghosts, though they played in the castle every day. But they knew that when the sun was out, the clouds would kiss the top of the mountain and disappear, and warm air would sparkle on the castle ground in the light. They did not know that this was the ghosts saying thankyou, and playing with them.

And, when the sun went away and the clouds returned to the sky, the children did not know that the wetness they felt on them was tears.

The Write Girl

"You know," one of my best friends said on Skype last night: "a potential employer is going to take one look at your CV and strongly suspect that you are a flake."
"Mmm," I said.
"And then they're going to take one look at your blog and know, for absolute certain, that you are a flake."
"Mmm," I said.
"As well as a lot of other stuff that people don't usually put on their CVs," she added.
There was a pause.
"You know that you're supposed to be trying to make money out of writing, right? Not removing all potential of ever having any."
"Yeah."
She sighed.
"So can't you just give yourself a good write up now and then?"
(I worked with her in PR, incidentally. Giving things a good write up is what she does best. That and drinking six pints in one sitting.)
"Why?"
She sighed harder.
"So that you don't write yourself out of a future, Holly," she said crossly.
I frowned.
"But it would be lies."
"No," she said, putting her tea down firmly. "It would be fiction."

I write myself out of a lot of things. I write myself out of relationships (nobody wants to read about themselves or your feelings for them on a blog) and I write myself out of privacy. I write myself out of false dignity - the ability to pretend to my friends and family that everything is perfect - and I write myself out of false pride: the ability to pretend to the world that I am a success. I write myself out of love, I write myself out of heartbreak, and I write myself out of the chance of ever getting a 'proper' job again. And I write myself out of the life that everybody else has, because I'm so busy writing - or thinking about writing, or worrying because I'm not writing - that I'm never really part of it.

There are some things we cannot change: that are such a large part of who we are that without them we would be nothing. And I - in one shape or form, since the day I started my first diary at the age of 5 - have always been, and will always be, The Write Girl. Without writing, I am not happy. And without writing, I am not me. So - as far as I can see - whatever I write myself out of was never really meant for me in the first place. And as much as it hurts me, and scares me, I have to have faith in that.

"Maybe I'm writing myself out of a future," I said after a pause. "Or maybe I'm writing myself into one."
"Thank God," my best friend said, picking her tea up again. "Because that's exactly what I was hoping you would say."

Friday, 12 February 2010

Rigby

Every generation has things that cannot be said, and it is usually followed by a generation that says them as often and as loudly as possible. Sex, drugs, violence, deviance; all the things that were once whispered secretly about - that once caused books, and sometimes people, to be burnt - are now topics that are invited, celebrated, rewarded and shouted from the rooftops. There is no type of sex we haven't read about; there is no drug that hasn't been documented by somebody like Irvine Welsh. And so we take the things that could not be said by the people before us, and we say them until the silence stops.

But wherever there is a hole, something else will always come to fill it. And in this generation - a generation where people collect Facebook friends like stamps, and fill their parties with strangers, and know 600 people by first name and barely anyone by last; a generation where we have a million hobbies, and date a million people, and have a million jobs - the thing that cannot be said - the thing that generations before us admitted happily - is: I am lonely. Because, to this generation, it means: I have failed. It means: I am unloved. It means: in this life of constant building, and collecting, and presenting - like a giant set of lego - I didn't do it well enough. And my pieces are not enough, or scattered all over the room.

I am lonely.

I am the kind of lonely that is built into some people; the kind of lonely that finds you sitting in a corner of the playground at the age of five, when nobody sits with you and you don't know why. I am the kind of lonely that is lonely even when I'm not alone, and seeks to be alone even if I'm lonely. And, right now, I am the kind of lonely that is living in a bedsit in a country where I do not speak the language, in the middle of nowhere, with no family near and few friends, and only five year olds and strangers on the train to talk to. And I am - and have been since I got here - the kind of lonely that is a massive hole in the middle of you, where the person you are in love with is gone, or always going, or always somewhere else, and you feel lonely without them, even in a crowd full of people. The kind of lonely that happens because you've found somebody who - after a lifetime - finally makes the loneliness go away, and when they leave you or love you less or not at all it makes the loneliness even harder to bear and the hole inside you ache worse because at last you know how it feels when it doesn't.

I am a million types of lonely, and it's the one thing I have not been able to say. It's the one thing I have been too ashamed to write. Because it's too many types of lonely, and it's too many types of failure. And it's admitting that I need people, when I never thought I did.

I love Japan - I love the people, I love the children I teach, I love the culture, I love the craziness and I love the photo booths and toys and shoes and mobile phone accessories - but it is not where I belong. And so I'm going home, to decide where my next adventure will be. It might not make me any less lonely, and it might not be where I belong, but at least by leaving and starting again somewhere new, I will be one step closer to finding out where is.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Atreyu

There's a scene in The Neverending Story where - on their journey to the big white spiky castle where the creepy child princess lives - Atreyu and his white horse cross sinking sand, and the horse gets stuck. Atreyu stands on the banks, pulling and pulling at the rope, but there is nothing he can do: he watches and cries as his beloved horse sinks into the ground and slowly disappears.

Depression is painful, but watching it is even more so. It is poison, and when somebody you love is depressed it seeps out and touches everything and everybody around them. They drag their world into it with them like sinking sand, and you can throw a rope into the darkness for them to climb out, but – if, like me, you’re always teetering on the very edge as it is, with one foot in already – you never quite know whether you will be able to pull them out before they pull you in. Whether you can hold on tightly enough, or are strong enough, or can tug hard enough. And, all the while, you stand on the banks and you cry, and you cry, and you pull, and you pull, and you wonder at what point you have to let go before you end up joining them.

That’s what I have been doing since I last wrote this blog. Like Atreyu, I have spent an entire month - a month to terminate many, many months leading directly to it - holding onto the rope with everything I have and pulling and pulling, and forcing my toes into the ground so that I don’t slip in too. I have spent an entire month frantic: an entire month struggling. And there has been no choice - when you love somebody (and sometimes even if you don't), you can't walk away if there's any chance that you can save them - but sometimes it has been difficult to tell whether we've both been fighting in the same direction, or whether they just didn't want to be pulled out. Whether there was only one place we would both end up in, and it wasn't on the banks with a rope in our hands.

It is the end, now. I am physically, and mentally, exhausted. I am coughing up green stuff; I am unable to sleep and unable to stay awake; I am covered in a myriad of skin complaints; I am crying all the time; my right eyelid is inexplicably twitching at random moments. My heart hurts, my head hurts. I haven't quite fallen into the sand - I wrapped myself around real life firmly enough to be able to hold on - but it has been really bloody close, and has taken everything I have. I haven't written, I haven't eaten, I haven't laughed: I haven't seen anything but my horse and the rope that joins the two of us together for so long that I've forgotten that anything else exists. I've forgotten that it's possible to live a life that doesn't involve pulling on a rope and crying.

As Atreyu knew, there comes a point when it is time to let go: and that time for me has finally come. I have no strength left. I simply have to stop pulling, and wait and see if it has been enough to let them climb out on their own, or whether they will simply sink back in again without a struggle. Because otherwise that rope will be the end of both of us, and there is nobody waiting on the banks with another one for me.

At the end of The Neverending Story, Atreyu reaches the castle and finds his horse, alive and waiting for him. I'm letting go of the rope now, and I hope with all of my heart that when I reach the castle I find my horse there - alive and waiting for me - too.