During childhood, but most specifically after being sent away to school at seven and a half years of age, I acquired several useful skills not the least of which was slinking.
Then, as now, slinking was much misinterpreted and not something one did consciously or even as a matter of natural course. Neither was it something one went out of the way to learn and it definitely didn’t feature on a bucket list of things to achieve before limping off this mortal coil. Nevertheless, as a schoolboy, miles from home, mastery of the art was a pre-requisite to survival.
I quickly learned that Slinkers must follow a rigid code of practice. Never look anyone in the eye, never speak until shouted at first, never, ever attempt to make light of “the situation”, never fail to take the blame, never squeal, answer back, blub or smile in the face of adversity. On entering a room, follow the strict procedure laid down for all past, present and future Slinkers: slide in to a room side-ways with the head bowed, clutching schoolbooks tightly to the chest as if for dear life and inveigle yourself into the nearest seat as quickly, quietly and unobtrusively as humanly possible.
Slinkers never speak above a mumble and never undertake any enterprise which might draw attention. Slinking involves no special ritual, no specialised training and no book of instructions. Slinkers are present but strive to be invisible to everyone but especially to fellow Slinkers. Slinking is a solitary skill, only requiring a broken spirit, a lonely heart and an overwhelming wish to be absorbed into the walls or the floor when inadvertently confronted by one or more of them. You know, them. Boys who ritually heaped humiliation and contempt upon my bony shoulders. Boys who were faster, cleverer and better able to deliver a punch than I was.
So too is the dress code of a Slinker fairly uniform: shoes scuffed, school blazers sporting at least one ripped sleeve, a once crisp white shirt stained with blood and ink and the back cut out with scissors, the cap should have no gold braid remaining in place and the lining must have been ripped out the first time it was worn, fingers must be sore and bloody from trouser pockets being stealthily filled with drawing pins then smacked hard with a heavy book, just for a laugh you understand. A Slinker’s homework is distinctive in that the paper itself is invariably stained, torn and wrinkled after having been rescued from a toilet bowl and hastily dried.
Bullying persisted until I reached the age of thirteen when it came to an abrupt end. Upon returning to school from the long summer holiday, I found I was at least a head taller than the tallest boy, much broader in the shoulders and by far and away fitter from almost three months of surfing, swimming and daily games of beach volleyball. True to say, it had always been likely I would inherit above average height and breadth coming as I do from a tribe of super-sized kinsmen, so, my sudden monumental physique was hardly a surprise to my parents and relatives. It was, however, a shock to the housemaster, teachers and my classmates.
I knew the tables had very much turned but I was not prepared for the gratuitous respect my mere presence now commanded. In a strange way it felt like a victory, a prize, a just reward for surviving all those years of snide remarks, jibes, jabs and tripping. Despite everything, though, I didn’t want revenge, on the contrary I was resolved to be benevolent and to use my physical prowess for good purposes. I was also determined to milk the situation for all it was worth. For me slinking was consigned to a painful and remote history and I was determined it should also be so for anyone else being bullied or merely “got at”. And so, it gave me intense pleasure to square up to oppressors, fists on hips, and watch their malicious provocation miraculously melt into insignificance.
A compelling and provocative novel by Rod McRiven: Swell