The night my life changed I wasn’t even watching the television, I was with friends. It wasn’t until the next day that people on my social media started to send me messages asking if I’d seen the TV talent show. I hadn’t. They said I must. More and more people directed me to catch up channels, until finally I watched it.
It was that guy from school. Toby, I think he was the younger brother of a classmate, a year or two younger than us. He was sweet, I’d met him a few times but not really thought much further about him. I was sort of embarrassed when I discovered he had written and performed a song on the Talent Show about how he had a crush on me. Maybe it was sweet and flattering but at the time 14 year old me struggled to be anything but embarrassed. I didn’t know this kid, he didn’t really know me and now he had connected us so casually and intimately on television.
The fact that we barely knew each other didn’t stop the judges on the show, the presenters and commentators from the audience suggesting that the song and his courage in singing it to a television audience of millions meant that I should go out on a date with him. That I owed it to him in some way. I was surprised, I was hurt.
Amongst all the comments on my media page from people asking if I’d seen it yet, I put up my one lone, and restrained, post – “Just seen Toby’s song. Very sweet, hope he gets on well in the talent show.” Within minutes I had more responses than I could read, my notification alert going off every few seconds. They started with questions on whether I had spoken to Toby yet, asked if I would be going on a date with him, through to rather vehemently written challenges that he deserved a date with me after what he had done. With no further input from myself, the comments went from eager interest to flat out hatred. By the end of the week I had experienced everything from protestations that I owed Toby a date to death threats. I deleted all my social media accounts.
Even before that, the next day in school, was horrific. The school kids had jumped straight to “why aren’t you going on a date with Toby you mean bitch.” Suddenly everyone had an opinion, and that opinion was I should relinquish my free will and submit to being some kid’s girlfriend because he wrote a song about me – after all that had been the opinion of the judges too. School was hardly bearable and on the Tuesday, on the way home, I was set upon by a gang of kids outside the school and beaten. I was in hospital for a few days and then my parents withdrew me from the school.
I’ve always wondered if that was a good idea. If I had stayed maybe things would have died down and life could have got back to normal. In the end, I started at a school in the next town and for a few months everything was fine. But then someone who was a friend of a friend at my old school recognised my name, or face, or story and it started again. I was the hold out, the bitch who wouldn’t give it up and just submit to the will of the public and the perceived fairytale ending that they wanted.
I changed school again. In fact we moved. Life had become unbearable for all of us. My dad’s car had been keyed, we’d had a brick through the living room window. And all the while people seemed to think this was my fault for not dating some kid I didn’t know just because he had a crush on me – he’d sung a song for me and I owed him.
The town we moved to was nice and the school was pretty good. I went from calling myself Charlie to Lottie in an attempt to hide myself. I changed my hair, cutting my long hair into a short bob. I changed as much about myself as I could so that no one would discover who I was. I went from loving music and going often to concerts, to telling people it was something I’d just never been in to. I went from taking classes in history and sociology to ones in business studies and ICT. I had never heard of this girl, Charlie Burns who loved boy bands and wanted to be a history teacher. I was Lottie Burns, no relation, I’m just not into music at all and want to work in some kind of computer job when I leave school. Though that was an unrealistic dream. The moving, the changes, the stress and interruptions during my last years at school meant that I went from having promising grades to barely passing high school. Dreams of college and university faded and I ended up working in a local shop. In the stockroom, I didn’t want to work in view, anywhere someone might recognise me.
That was many years ago now. I moved to a city a couple of years after leaving school, got a job in a shoe shop and found a bedsit nearby. I find it hard to make friends or have relationships because I can’t trust anyone enough to tell them my story. The couple of times I tried in the beginning I knew it was a mistake. The reactions were never as strong as those of my contemporaries back at the time, but often involved a chuckle and a comment of “well, you really should have just given him a chance.” I never learned how to deal with that.
Am I happy now? Not especially. When I’d listened to songs when I was younger had I pictured myself in one of the happier ones? I changed my name totally when I moved to the city, I won’t tell you what it is. I changed my hair again – started dying it brown – I changed my dress sense. I invented a whole new person. It’s hard to be happy when you’re not really yourself, when you are essentially a lie and constantly terrified of being found out. It’s lonely not feeling you can trust anyone. It’s sad not succeeding in the way you thought you would when you were younger.
This wasn’t the life my 14 year old self had imagined. This wasn’t the happy song I had hoped for.