The Westdale Olympics
My name is Jesse Cartwright and I went to school at Westdale Community College – which was a state comprehensive on the outskirts of a town called Hallomby. Hallomby is about an hour’s walk from Hadrian’s Wall (some of the houses were even built from limestone stolen from the Wall) and another hour or so from the Scottish border. You wouldn’t expect it but that place had a fair reputation in nearby cities for being somewhere to send your drug supply. The veins that ran with heroin, amphetamines and cannabis led right into that quiet market town and it became known in surrounding cities as the “Brown Town”. An unsuspecting country drop-off where the sense of community had bloated like a heart clogged with tar and the warm blood from Saturday-night fights. It was one of those places that looked like it might’ve been nice once, only now the cobbled streets were spotted with chewing gum and dead flowers had withered and died in the hanging baskets. The blue public pool was empty and littered with brown glass bottles, the cinema was closed down and boarded up and the clouded windows of Hallomby Town Hall had been potted by folk who’d fallen on the wrong side of justice. This was the nearest town to the village where I grew up and my closest breath of civilization.
There was a grammar school up the road that had entrance exams for choosing its pupils and a lot of the brighter kids went there. It was like we’d all been lumped together at Westdale, this strange mix of rejects and leftovers. A lot of the kids at our school came from isolated parishes on the fells and they were set on being farmers or whatever it was their dad’s had been. It worked differently in England to America; in America they have the Deep South and here we have pockets of the Deep North. These are communities of gardens and pubs, flowers and ales, wandering cows and rampant chickens. Most of the men have hairy hands that could fold you in half and they speak a deep Cumbrian dialect and every word in the English language can be substituted for “aye.” You don’t get much in the way of crime out there, just some dodgy dealings in rusted caravans and a few tears in the eyes of the lady sheep. That’s why I can’t really say my school was bad. We didn’t have to worry about knives or guns like some city schools; we only had to fear boredom and boredom was what made Westdale into a circus. Everyday something happened that had everyone excited, like a toilet-paper fire starting somewhere or someone climbing onto the roof of the science block. I felt like I’d arrived at some weird Olympics; watching everyone running and vaulting and climbing everyday and sweaty teachers chasing year sevens through crowded hallways. It’s hard to throw a community together and expect them all to waddle dutifully in the same direction. It’s no wonder Ofsted put us under special measures – when you’ve got a kid who was driving a tractor before he was walking, and you’re telling him to bake apple crumbles in Home Economics and compete in summertime athletics competitions.
When I first started at Westdale I didn’t know anything about what was going on. I didn’t know what heroine or weed was. I didn’t even know what drugs were. I just thought some folk looked sleepier than others and red eyes were a sign of tiredness. I taught myself not to watch the skinny shadows bent in sideways and passages, or knelt wide-eyed, clasping horror and insanity, or the pale angels that spoke with husky breathless voices and sometimes collapsed on the pavement and screamed at passing cars.
“Don’t be scared,” my dad would say, “come the rapture, we’ll all be outta this fucking place.”
He always looked terrified when things like that happened and I think he was mostly talking to himself, not me. I didn’t the reassurance that every disbeliever was going to die. It was a morbid, sociopathic idea and I didn’t like it at all.