They were doing 1984 in 1983.
Red megaphones and scuffed Penguin spines appeared all over the room as Mr Young shuffled in and the class pulled out its copies of the novel. Alex had read it in a day or two at the start of term, and was bored of the terminally slow chapter-by-chapter progress they had made since, grubbing aridly through the entrails of the novel.
Sharing his table was Tamás, whose laugh was a cartoon guffaw. Alex loved to hear it, except when it was turned on him – this seemed to happen particularly during chemistry lessons, when Tamás would deliberately try to contaminate their joint experiments, while Alex was striving to achieve grade A in one of his favourite subjects. Tamás didn’t much care either for novels or science; his passion was extracurricular – the movies.
Alex glanced around from his position on the extreme right of the front row of the class. He scanned his classmates, none of whom were mates, exactly, Tamás aside. He avoided eye contact with Stephen, his most consistent oppressor, his persecutor-in-chief. Red-faced and blonde-haired, Stephen initially appeared soft and docile but it had not been long before he revealed himself to be mentally as cutting as a saw, and physically as strong as the steel of which that saw was made. One day in the lunch queue, Stephen had commanded Alex to pass him a glass; absent-mindedly Alex had handed him a spoon, and ever since, Stephen had called him ‘Spoonhead’, losing no opportunity to cuff him with one.
Alex assiduously avoided eye-contact with the girls, too. Melanie Abbot, cruelly sat next to Stephen, had just had her long brown hair cut short for the first time. It curled around the perfect curving symmetry of her face, and he was no less drawn to it today than he was yesterday. Of course he had barely ever uttered a word to her. A couple of tables along and one row behind him sat Roberta Brown, whose hair was red, and colouring pale. Alex wasn’t entirely sure why he was attracted to her, but she could be both serious and funny and she never singled anyone out for ridicule. He wished there was a way he could become friends with her, but though he was much less in awe of her than Melanie, he still hadn’t the wherewithal; his wits froze before her, and he never gave himself the chance to say what he thought of the band over which she was enthusing, even though he might love them just as much.
Mr Young coughed discreetly. It was hard to imagine he ever had been young. He rode a scooter which wasn’t a Vespa or Lambretta and dressed in tweeds with greying curls dropping over his forehead. On the way into and out of school he topped this unfashionable garb with a yellow crash helmet. His soft voice, hardly combatant enough for the classroom, only escaped sounding as compressed as a sponge when he was caught up in a novel he loved. From his battered brown briefcase he produced a sheaf of yellow Photostats, and told the class to put 1984 away; as it was the last lesson before half-term, they were going to do something different today – a personality questionnaire. After answering it, the plan was to go through the questions together – ‘but remember, there are no right answers’. Alex groaned inwardly as the rest of the class voiced its excitement and happily returned the novel to their bags. ‘I filled one of these in when I joined Dateline,’ quipped Stephen, as if he were already a veteran of the dating scene.
Alex wasn’t sure what his personality was, and felt none the wiser having answered the questions; he had no sense of any overriding force pressing him to answer one way or another. Meanwhile Tamás was answering each question with apparent ease and confidence, soon laying down his pen and peering across to see how Alex was answering, further inhibiting the Boy with No Personality. Alex’s head was a battleground between art and science. Words and music ranged freely in between the two sides, which ought to have given him a clue as to where his loyalties might lie in future. Yet chemistry still attracted him. He had a facility for understanding molecules and compounds and valency and atomic mass; but what he really loved, just as everyone else did, was to see sodium or potassium dropped into water and burn with an orange or lilac flame till it exploded with a pop. That was what had really sold him on chemistry.
But chemistry could tell him nothing about the main preoccupation of his mind, which was love. 1984 could. He remembered Winston’s surprise on reading Julia’s ‘I love you’ note, and – a sort of chemical reaction in itself – his mind leapt between it and the sight of potassium meeting water. Was that what love was, the lilac flash of a moment alone? But the flash of his infatuation never seemed to die down. Perhaps then it resembled air and water and how they met once the element was burnt; how those substances which remained necessarily expanded to fill the spaces allotted to them. How water was dependent on air, and air was nothing without the rain which fell from it and the sea it pressed this way and that; the sea from which it drew its moisture content.
Orwell stamped his narrative boot into the faces of Winston and Julia and their impossible love. As did Whit – the one Oxbridge certainty in the classroom – his critical Doc Martens. In an earlier lesson, he had scorned Julia’s note as utterly improbable; she had hardly set eyes on Winston. Alex wasn’t sure enough of his ground to brave contradicting him, but felt the urge to suggest that maybe Whit was so tied up in facts and the wonder of his own intellect that he was blind to the possibility of love at first sight. That’s all Alex had needed where Melanie was concerned; a single sighting.
Surely the important thing was that despite its necessarily rushed beginning, Julia and Winston had loved; had against all the odds escaped the constraints of society for time together. Society personified by O’Brien had then crushed them, but surely whatever became of Winston and Julia, it would never stop love flaring anew, over and over. He would never have dared voice this in class, but Alex believed that love remained in the world of 1984, and that love of the right to love would one day coalesce and be strong enough to overthrow Big Brother, or any powerful tyrant, real or imaginary.
With an effort he returned the focus of his daydreaming mind to the questionnaire, and came to the last but one question. ‘Do you consider it more important (a) to be individual, no matter what the cost, or (b) to be able to compromise as life demands?’ As he read the question a second time, the arguments which had raged between his mother and his father rose in his mind. Their inability to compromise had left his mother deeply unhappy; and in turn, Alex and his siblings too. Surely it had to be better to compromise than to pursue your own path so blind to the feelings of others? And yet he hesitated, uncertain as to whether this would be the majority answer or not, and as he did so, his grasp of what the concepts of individuality and compromise meant seemed to desert him. It was an agony, submitting to such questions about yourself. And the greater agony of going through the answers together was to come. In the end he did not answer truthfully, or otherwise; he answered only as he could respond to a question whose answer seemed to lie outside the realms of whatever his own personality was.
As soon as Mr Young allowed, Whit criticised the test for its limited options and vague wording, while Stephen lost no chance to ridicule Melanie’s answers as betraying an absence of self-awareness. Their teacher struggled to control the rising hilarity; an overlong monologue on the pros and cons of what he told them were called psychometric tests was required to restore order.
As they came to the penultimate question, Alex sensed a rustle of anticipation. Mr Young grinned as he requested a show of hands. ‘Who believes it’s more important to be individual?’ Everyone’s hand shot up. Everyone’s except Alex’s. Glancing round, he slowly extended his arm, but too late. Laughter exploded about him, potassium meeting water, and there was no way of controlling the fiery way his face burnt as derisive comments and pointing fingers were turned on him. He stared doggedly to the front, ashamed and yet in that moment truly aware for the first time of what it was to be an individual, and what it was to conform. Too late a riposte came to him, that he was simply proving he was the only individual in the room. As he finally turned to face his tormentors, he caught sight of Melanie laughing too, and it was a dagger to his heart. At least Tamás was not laughing. Tamás, and (he fervently hoped) Roberta. The class began to file out, but never one to hurry, Tamás remained seated, and Alex was forced to endure more taunting. ‘Spoonhead!’ said Stephen, inevitably, as he passed.
Finally, with a sigh, Tamás got up. ‘See you on the bus, Al.’
Alone in the classroom, Alex drew out 1984 from his bag. Opening it randomly, he began to read; began once again to lose himself in another world and another sort of oppression, not yet fully understanding that this was the day everything changed.
‘There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad,’ he read.