‘But what if?’ – A Short Story by Chloe Bayliss
Chloe is a first year university student studying History and Creative Writing at the University of Hertfordshire.
Chloe: “This story was inspired by the events of the current global pandemic. Set in the perspective of an A-Level student who is about to find out that her exams have been cancelled for the year.“
‘But what if?‘
There was a moment before it all fell apart when I still had a glimmer of hope. This small spark was dashed aside as quickly as it came. Nerves jangled in my chest, my asthmatic lungs wheezing against the racing beat of my heart as I struggled to focus on the task set out in front of me. Focus Melissa Biting the inside of my cheek to stop the flow of more tears, I grab my pen with a renewed sense of force. This is something I have control over, something to fight for. In this room, with books and an endless flow of knowledge at my fingertips, there is a way to maintain a sense of order. Normality. Glancing up at the wall to my right I read through my to-do list, noting the deadlines for course work, presentations and the final exams looming closer every day. Part of me hoped the worst would happen, just so all of this would go away, the constant work and pressure. It was overwhelming, a tightening noose around my neck growing ever tighter. It is my fault, I overcommit myself. I always regret it later. Scribbling away, I block out the whir of the news below but the strangled cries and outbursts of the public leak through. How did the world get this way? Full of corruption, racism and crisis. Despite my efforts to focus I cannot help my mind drifting, thinking of what is going on, of my friends, school. For years those gum encrusted hallways had been a stuffy over-crowded place full of intoxicating judgement, hypocrisy, pettiness and testosterone. Too many times have I found myself locked in a toilet cubicle struggling to breathe, sitting hunched against the graffitied door with a queasy wrenching in my stomach, the impulse to faint and throw up at the same time. You are weak. The voice in my head sneers. But what if there is something wrong with me? There are people who have actual problems, you are just being dramatic. Dramatic. I sigh, putting the pen down in defeat and rubbing my temples to numb the ache in my head. Whatever it is, it has been manageable so far. And if it is manageable, it is not a problem. Only one person knows about my ‘episodes’ and that is because they were the unlucky witness to one a few months ago, during the last mock exam season. It had been a rough month. February was cold and miserable. Physically and mentally tired, the numbing emptiness crept through my body, a dulling nothingness that gnawed away at my insides, leaving a hollow, empty pit. Weak. I flinch. There it was again, that self-destructive voice doubting everything, questioning, insulting, trusting nothing and no one, not even myself. I cannot even trust my own mind. The meltdown had come after the final mock exam, a Friday morning, my stress levels on edge, nerves rattled anxiously between each wheezing breath. Even your body is weak. Swiping the thought away, I zoned in on the paper, but the words swirled. It took all my strength not to scream out in frustration, pinching my arm to control myself. All around me the eager scratching of pens created a symphony of calm composure. Why couldn’t I be like that? Somehow, I managed to focus enough to answer all the questions with enough time to go back and insert the odd words I missed out in my haste to get my thoughts down while I still had them. But was it enough? You think you do badly every time and most of the time you do better than expected, top of the class. You are being over-dramatic. As they say, there is no possible way of knowing and I hate that, hate waiting, hate being judged and marked. It is exhausting. Leaving the exam hall, I snuck apart from the crowd, heading to empty music rooms on the top floor. Closing the door to the practice room, I had tentatively sat down on the piano bench, stroking the black and white keys of the old piano, letting the gentle plod of the notes soothe my nerves. With each chime of notes my heart began to quieten, the strangled wheezing easing enough for me to grab my inhaler from my pocket and take a few deep puffs. He must have sensed something was wrong. He had been pushing me to open all week when I was acting distant and snappy. Ben took one look through the glass window on the practice room door before rushing in to comfort me, saw me pathetically bawling my eyes out, hands gripping either side of the piano, knuckles white with the pressure. Nothing had worked, I panicked, spinning, chest heaving. A failure. Pulling me towards him, he rested my head against his chest, pulling my hands off the piano, stroking my hair. A soothing touch aided with the melancholic hushing of his deep voice. “It’s okay, you’re going to be okay, I’m here for you.” He had repeated, never once judging. Calming down, I regained my composure, laughed awkwardly to try and regain my damaged pride. He was never going to see me the same way again. But was that a bad thing?
What was Ben doing now during all of this? I hope he is okay. Curiosity gets the better of me. I push back against my desk chair, locating my phone that was thrown carelessly on my bed a few hours before. Clicking on the home screen, a handful of notifications greet me. A reminder about the news conference happening now, someone liking one of my tweets and an email from my bank reassuring me that my money was safe during the ongoing international crisis. Nothing that sparks any major interest. Flicking over to social media I scroll through my feed with feigned interest. Not taking anything in whilst pacing across my bedroom floor, resisting the urge to dial his number. Suddenly there is a loud outburst of voices yelling my name that drags me back from my daze. Still clutching my phone in my hand, I retreat downstairs. I see it before I hear it. The entire world is suffering from a deadly pandemic. My exams have been cancelled. Everything I have worked for, all that time, all the effort – all for nothing. After all the crap I put myself through, all those meltdowns and fears of failure and my future, it all led up to this moment. To nothing. This is the universe’s way of telling you that you are not good enough, saving you the misery of failing. The possibility of an early death, a meaningless existence with no purpose or definition or order. To almost definite chaos. But what if everything happens for a reason? There is no reason for this, this is pure spontaneous madness.