Image above is artwork from Persona 4, taken from the Shin Megami Tensei wiki.
This is a much less exciting and out-there story than most I write. Recently I have been thoroughly enjoying Persona 4, and although it inspired this writing (and indeed the picture I used above is from the game) the piece itself has little to do with the memorable plot of supernatural murders in a small town. That is, ultimately, only a small part of the game’s appeal. What I find much more interesting is the way the game plays out so many domestic sub-plots, people who are completely oblivious to the supernatural goings-on but nevertheless live lives full of worries and problems that often just need someone to confide in. It is for this reason that I chose the picture above; she is a side-character from the game that some players will never even discover or learn the story behind. There are similarities between the unnamed character I wrote about and this character above; both are actors, both are in school.
But there I think the similarities end. I simply wrote – and this story felt very easy to write – trying to draw in some of my own personal experiences. While I never specifically skipped school, when I was at university I would regularly take long walks to clear my head, and spent a lot of time when I did need to work working alone. So those personal memories are tied up with the well-crafted domestic storylines that really make the Persona games memorable in this piece of writing – an attempt to write something a lot more intimate, that does not rely on genre spectacle.
A grey blazer, with black trim and a badge partially visible from how it was screwed up on the concrete, acted as a wind-break, accumulating leaves that built up and then, once enough were there, broke like a wave of copper-brown and washed over it. Next to it, half-exposed in an open handbag, a mobile phone trailed a charm – a small plastic sphere with a face painted on – over the brim. It rang, breaking the hot early-autumn stillness, and laid unanswered in the process. The ringing was insistent, the sort of loud, trilling electronic screech that signified its owner was more interested in knowing that a call was coming in than looking cool.
Yet it rang into empty air; bag and blazer both, apparently, wholly abandoned. Silence resumed after the alloted seconds of disturbance and a red light began to blink on the phone’s case to inform the absent owner it had tried to get someone’s attention. Another wave of leaves broke on the levee, with one tumbling across the playground that neighboured the pavement and eventually, as it continued its crazy, wayward course, being stamped beneath a black patent-leather shoe brought down hard on the soft, rubberised surface of the play area.
The shoe was well-kept, clearly polished almost every day in this dusty transitional season. It had a plain silver buckle, without even a brand mark – and the sole, smooth and shiny, bore no makers’ stamp. Purely generic, unadorned and unpretentious. The unadorned shoe gave way to unadorned white stockings on long, dark-skinned legs, and a plain and modestly-cut grey skirt. Some people can wear a school uniform and impart it with personality, make it feel as if it is something fashionable they have chosen carefully to suit their day’s activities. This girl, tall – almost too tall to be fashionable – and impeccably dressed, wore her school uniform to blend in. Everything was as featureless and immaculate as possible. Her blouse still had straight, harsh creases in it as if it had just been taken from its cardboard backing. Its sleeves were rolled up a little, and held in place with pins. Her tie was so neatly tied as to impress a businessman, not truncated in resistance to the concept of smartness, not sloppily tied with a huge, failing knot, simply hung professionally down her front, a dark claret stripe on the white cotton blouse.
The leaf did not even register to her as she swivelled on her leading foot and began pacing in the opposite direction, back along the length of a climbing-frame she had walked from end to end dozens of times already. As she walked, her lips curled around words – trying, it seemed, to find the right way to express disdain and derision, to reduce frustration and hatred to sounds yet all the while remaining icy-faced and sneering. Possibly self-conscious of being observed in this rehearsal of hatred, the actual tirade itself was sotto voce, secondary to trying to appear angry enough to deliver it.
The ringing began again, and this time she did interrupt her back-and-forth to snatch it from the bag, look at the screen, and decide to answer. The ice and venom disappeared at once, and with a free hand she took up the blazer, draped it over her shoulder in a move that showed she was definitely unused to informality, reached for the bag and watched the blazer slip from her shoulder back to the floor. Being able to do this contortion – to wear a blazer on one shoulder and pick up a handbag while making a telephone call uninterrupted – was second-nature to most people she knew. Yet today, in the dry heat of an inner-city park, nothing was going right. Each time the blazer slipped it whipped up dust and leaves, and the crouching to recover it made a loose twist of hair fall from her bob and get in her mouth as she spoke, so before long she admitted stylelessness, looped the bag over her shoulder as it should be and draped the blazer over her arm.
It was the middle of the week, at the strange hour of the day when everyone is where they need to be, and yet the park was empty. Nobody came this way, really, and those that lived here wanted to leave as often as possible. A subway train rattled close on one of the overground bridges that looped through the district, stopping with a wheezing of brakes. The streets were so quiet she could hear – in a lull in her conversation – the few footsteps of people getting off.
She hung up from her friend, and fished in the bag for her purse. She should have been at school, but it had seemed dull and uninviting so it had hardly been difficult to slide out of the gates when no-one was looking and take some time alone. This was where her careful attention to detail mattered. Someone properly-dressed taking a call with the correct expression appeared to be on business, tragically called from school for some emergency or family problem. Some people, if they were out of school when they shouldn’t be, just looked like it was for a good reason. The bus driver hadn’t looked twice at a downcast girl waiting alone outside a school just after lunchtime. Of course, there was no reason, save it was a dull afternoon’s lessons and a beautiful Wednesday. She had things she needed to do that school could not offer, and so she had spent a fruitful couple of hours in this park where hardly anybody went rehearsing a speech she was unsure if she would ever need to deliver in quite this fashion. And now she walked, minutes slipping by under the sun as it shone on graffiti-patchwork walls, and she prepared in her mind all the details that would make that speech easier to deliver. She had to picture the face of the person she would be talking to, feel real contempt for it. So much easier when it was a mental image, not an actual person panicking about how to respond surrounded by distractions and interruptions. Every imperfection that was endearing to see had to be reduced to a reason to hate. A warm, welcoming smile had to be a vacuous, false one. Of course it was not real, it would return to normality once the performance was over, once the words had been said, but she needed to be able to effortlessly hate on demand, and that was so much harder than anyone could imagine.
There were still a couple of hours to kill before anyone would expect her home. It was Wednesday, she usually stayed late that day, and it was a sunny day so it would not be surprising if she stayed out later still. Her watch indicated it was just time for the first afternoon lesson to finish, and so she sent a quick text to her family saying she’d sort her own dinner out. You had to do these things right. A message sent at a time when class was in session would look out of place. That was one of the things that had seemed self-evident the first time she had simply walked out one afternoon to complete a few assignments that she would rather work on in peace. Another was that you didn’t leave to go and kill time somewhere where young people killed time. Someone in school uniform at an arcade, or a shopping-centre’s bookshops or games stores or fashion outlets was obviously not supposed to be there. But who would go to a park in the parts of town she enjoyed walking about? Even the children preferred to cross the river and go to the much larger, happier green spaces in the fancier parts of the city. This excuse for a park, a few hundred metres of patchy grass and an uninspiring climbing-frame and swing, had no draw.
Her friend had called at the end of their lunch break, wondering where she was. A formality, to gauge if she needed to prepare an excuse. The excuse itself was just as much of a formality, to be honest. It was the kind of school where if things got done by some reasonable deadline few questions would be asked, precisely the environment that suited her afternoon walks but made the attendance she did achieve so maddening. She ran through the speech in her head again, because there was little else to think about at this point. Preparing it had been her reason for escaping, but it had transpired she was far more prepared than she had thought. It did not matter. There was still a lot to do, in some place that was not the park. In an alleyway off a side-street lined with closed shops, between two buildings and busy with abandoned bins and empty crates that had once held bottles, she knew such a place. A door that was not locked because nobody cared about it led into a closed car park, an echoing, damp-smelling cave of concrete painted white and blue. It had a small office which contained a rusted chair and a cobwebbed desk and little else, and it was her study.
Perhaps the teachers had come to realise her disappearances were never quite authorised. Perhaps they assumed her to be off shopping or causing nuisance. Perhaps one day she would go home to questions from her family about the accusations that she was skipping school. The explanations would make no sense to them. Who would believe a student would skip school to study privately? Who would believe that she, the star of the drama society, rehearsed her roles alone under the sun in a children’s playground because she could not do it in front of her fellow actors? She wore her uniform unadorned and plain, depressing in its neatness, because she wanted to look normal. Because looking normal meant people assumed you were normal, and that suited her. And the afternoon walks were, put that way, what it took to let her complete the image.