A moment that changed me:
I was school-phobic – until I met Martin

One particularly distressing morning, aged about seven, I ran screaming and crying around our flat, on the middle floor of a large gothic red-brick in Nottingham. I held a kitchen knife pointed at my stomach, and told my mum that I would plunge it in if she made me go to school. I meant it. Throughout my primary school years I suffered from school phobia: a deep, irrational fear. No one bullied me. The teachers weren’t mean to me. I couldn’t explain what terrified me so – any more than an arachnophobe can account for their fear of a harmless creature.   

Much later, as an adult, I read an article which explained the syndrome in terms of family dynamics. My grandmother, a wealthy woman who lived in what we were sure was a haunted house and who called me “Jimmy” because she couldn’t be bothered with my actual name, kept my mum at her beck and call. She punished her for having five children by absent men, only the first of whom was a somewhat known quantity back then. Nils Kindberg was father to us all, my mum insisted, but he was unavoidably detained abroad. He was indeed my eldest sister’s father and married my mum but, I later discovered, the Soviets killed him in action in 1940 during the Winter War. 

And so in turn under the operation of her unconscious, according to the article, Mum kept me at her beck and call. It was for her sake that I stayed in the flat and didn’t go to school. She loved us but, an emotionally damaged woman with no friends, no work and barely enough to live on from her mother, couldn’t cope. She hid from the men knocking at the door and demanding payment of arrears. We lived in a degree of disorder which I never let outsiders see. Multiplying cats roamed the flat, often not house-trained. We were lacking curtains and lampshades. We mostly ate from cans or frozen food which we heated up ourselves. 

I still have school reports which record 20 or 30 days of absence per term. I didn't have the courage to go in on Mondays but, later in the week, a point was generally reached when the combination of mortification and loneliness equalled my dread, and I went through the gates with my tail between my legs. Usually nothing bad happened; I even had some friends who, however much they gave me stick for my lame excuses, accepted me.

Primary school ended. My mum haplessly sent me to a public school for boys, whose rugby players with black eyes, gowned masters and formal Latin terrified me. I lasted a term. Then there was a Steiner school, where I mostly remember standing in the playground, frozen in loneliness and fear – despite all the gardening and eurythmy. Mrs Till, the headmistress of my primary school, agreed to take me back. I was placed in a room beside her office, for the third term of what should have been my first year of secondary education.

No one knew what to do about me. Despite giving Mum insufficient money to pay the milkman, my grandmother was willing to pay for private school for us – perhaps so that we wouldn’t grow up to embarrass her even more. But what school could such a child possibly go to?

One day my mum and I were in our garden when we saw a boy about my age with his parents, looking at new houses next door. The adults struck up a conversation. Their son, Martin, was evidently in need of a friend. It was arranged for us to meet.

Martin was a boy who farted out loud in any circumstances, and who set light to anything he could find – although he failed in the case of his farts, despite repeated attempts. He had not fully developed mentally to match his age and showed little sign of catching up. Whereas I, my mum's stay-at-home companion, was grave and old beyond my time. We got on like a house on fire. With Martin I was suddenly free to enjoy a return to a largely missed childhood. We burnt stuff up without a care, making bonfires and raiding building sites for bitumen and other incendiary materials. We never harmed anyone; we simply had fun with flames, which seemed to burn away my sadness and fear. 

Martin went to a nearby school, Nottingham Coaching College, which occupied a small wedge of a building near the gates of Nottingham Castle. I was keen to join him so Mum sent me there as well. It was a school for local misfits and for foreign students learning English, run by the Sainsburys. Mrs Sainsbury seemed to do all the work; Mr Sainsbury occasionally appeared from his office with a lapdog nestling in his arms. 

I loved it there, still desperately shy but never once afraid to go. Sadly, Martin’s parents moved him to a secondary modern school about a year later, and we lost touch. But I stayed. It was time for me to take flight, under the nurture of inspiring Science and English teachers. The Sainsburys loved me back, because I proved to be a relatively able student. Keen on reporting exam results, they entered me for an ‘O’-level (the precursor to GCSEs) in English at the age of thirteen, which I passed with grade 3. Then a 1 in Maths at age fourteen, and so on, one or two ‘O’-levels at a time.

For the sixth-form I asked Mum to take me to the entrance exam for the stiffly academic Nottingham High School, which I passed. I was daunted but no longer cowed. I had to fight my way up the sets but I gained ‘A’ grades in Maths, Physics and Further Maths, and I took the Cambridge University entrance exam. On the 17th of December, 1976, I received a telegram which I still have as a mark of reclaiming my education: “Congratulations. Awarded Exhibition. Senior Tutor St John’s”. I had been given a minor scholarship, and went on to obtain a Maths degree.

I've been plagued by anxiety and depression for much of my life. The flat still wants me back. Many Mondays I have to overcome a dread of the outside world. But in truth, I made it. I've even taught in schools and universities. As well as following a career in digital R&D I'm a writer, mostly of stories about lonely misfits who struggle but make a connection in the end. Thanks Martin, wherever you are. Without you and your escapades, setting light to whatever you could find and leading me to somewhere I belonged, I might still be looking out through a curtainless window.

Tim Kindberg writes gothic sci-fi. His latest novel is Vampires of Avonmouth, Nsoroma Press. His other writing is here.