It’s 1983 and I’m sitting in the food court of the Rideau Centre, Ottawa with three of my friends. All around us conversation hums, the clatter of cutlery, the crunch of plastic. We’re all feeling pretty cool, sitting there in our pastel outfits. Just to be extra cool, today I’m sporting my entire collection of Duran Duran pins – five on my top (one for each member, though Simon’s my favourite), with the remainder adorning the long strap of my turquoise bag.
Then a girl walks over to us. She’s older than we are, probably seventeen to our thirteen, and she looks pretty amazing. Her auburn hair is slicked back at the sides and spiky on top, her eyes lined with three different colours of eyeliner – pink, brown and black, elongated Cleopatra style. Her outfit is made up of artfully tattered layers held together with a studded belt, Roman sandals on her bare legs going up to her knees (this is way before Rihanna). She is flanked by two boys, studded and spiked and bristling with teenage menace and her expression, which has settled on me, is distinctly unfriendly.
‘Do you have a staring problem?’ she says, aggressive as hell. I am in shock, feeling my face flame red as my friends all look at me in horror.
‘No,’ I manage to say, still holding her gaze (why do I never back down in these situations?)
‘No?’ She echoes my response, looking briefly surprised. Then the sneer is back. ‘Well, you’d better stop looking at me, or I’m going to give you a f*cking staring problem.’
‘OK.’ I nod, feeling sick. Her voice is loud and her appearance such that most of the food court is looking at us. Her two hulking sidekicks snicker, then the three of them turn and walk away, leaving me and my friends stunned.
‘Were you looking at her?’ This is my closest friend, wide-eyed across the table from me, mildly accusing. I shake my head, not able to speak. I mean, I probably was, but at the same time I could have just been staring into space, thinking about something else. And what’s the big deal if I was? I didn’t mean any harm.
‘Screw her,’ said another friend, looking annoyed. ‘We’re not leaving. Don’t let her spoil our day.’ I loved her for saying that, but still couldn’t eat any more of my fries, sickness and embarrassment curled in my stomach instead.A short time later we left the food court, careful not to look at the girl except for my ‘screw her’ friend, who glared at her as we walked away.
I’ve written before about the fact that as writers we need to observe people, whether at the bus stop or work or out shopping or wherever – in fact, I love to people watch, fascinated as I imagine what stories they could tell. I know it’s rude to stare so I try not to, my dark glasses coming in very handy at times. And I remember the girl in the food court, the embarrassment still there if I choose to look for it, even over thirty years later. What a crappy thing to do to a kid who had done nothing wrong. Bullying and mean girls were a theme in my early teens and it shows up in my writing – the first book of my Ambeth series starts with a bully, a single violent event propelling my protagonist into another world. I drew from life experience there as well, remembering three older girls threatening me on the way home from school. There will be those who argue that it’s ‘part of life, part of growing up.’ But you know what? It shouldn’t be. If my daughter is ever involved with doing anything like that she’ll be very, very sorry. But hopefully I’m bringing her up to be a decent human being, someone who can see another person’s point of view, not take her rage or sorrow or dissatisfaction with life and vent it on others.
And it doesn’t stop with school. Bullies are everywhere, in the workplace, in the queue at the bank, at the park with their kids. My cousin is in music management and one of the bands he works with is The Enemy. Recently Tom, the singer, was bullied (there is no other word for it) in the press, so-called professional writers taking cheap shots at his appearance for no apparent reason whatsoever. Tom wrote a heartfelt response piece to it, and has now withdrawn from public forums, wanting to move past it all.
So while this post is an observation, a rewriting of an event that made an impression on me it’s also, hopefully, food for thought. Bullying others, whatever your age or twisted reasoning, is never acceptable.