Hello lovely people, and happy Sunday.
This week was a tough one in a few ways for me. My nerves can make things difficult, sometimes. I tried to channel some of that into a little positive piece. It's for a young audience really, so let me know what you think of the slight change in genre.
Also, I wish for everyone to have a Grandpa Jim.
Two hundred sets of eyes. Two hundred sets of ears. Two hundred people to hear her every stutter and stall. And not just any two hundred - her parents, the head teacher, Benjamin Simmons...
Nicky gripped the toilet seat with white fingers as she retched again, making sure to hold her carefully straightened hair out of the way as she did so. The only thing more mortifying than fumbling her words or tripping over or getting mind blank in front of the whole school, was to smell like sick while doing so.
It was the morning of her reading. A couple of months ago, there'd been a competition run by a national newspaper to find the UK's most promising young journalistic talent. Nicky had won first prize, along with a summer internship at the paper before she started university in September. When the head teacher had found out about it, he'd insisted Nicky read her winning piece at the end of year assembly.
"What an opportunity, Miss Cunningham. Think how it'll inspire the rest of your classmates!" In the grip of his overly enthusiastic handshake, she'd felt unable to say no.
It's going to be fine, she reassured herself, dabbing the side of her mouth gingerly with toilet paper. It's going to be marvellous. It's going to be... terrifying.
As she retched again, she let herself concede that the head teacher was right. Anyone else would be excited to read their work aloud - or else, they wouldn't be becoming intimately acquainted with a toilet bowl instead of practising.
But for Nicky, nerves like these were a part of daily life. The incessant gnaw at her core, the jittering in her veins like fuses crackling. The feeling like she had no control over the shaking of her hands or the quivering of her voice. Sweating now, she let herself slump backwards, leaning against the bathroom wall. She closed her eyes. There had only ever been one person who'd been able to calm her down when she felt like this. Grandpa Jim. With his ruddy cheeks, cable-knit cardigans and faint smell of gingerbread, being in his company had felt like the safest place in the world.
"You're alright, Nicky love," he'd tell her with a funny wink. "You're braver than you think."
When Nicky was 7, her dad had got a new job and they'd all moved down south to Cornwall from London. On her first day of school, her classmates stared at her, nudging each other gleefully when she greeted them in her faraway accent. Every day for the next week, she'd cried each morning on the way to school, refusing to enter the gates without a fight. And every day, she ran away at lunch time - only to be dragged back in by her mother when she arrived home.
One day, Grandpa Jim wrote her a letter to take with her. He told her that she was only allowed to read it if she could just make it to the end of the day without running away. Nicky kept her promise, unfurling it as she sat alone in the playground after the bell rang. "Have heart, little one," it had said. "Being brave isn't about never being scared. It's about being scared, and doing it anyway."
School didn't seem so bad after that. Not if Grandpa Jim thought she brave.
Back on the bathroom floor, Nicky opened her eyes, and hauled herself off the cool tiles with a sigh. She glanced at her phone. 8:35. She'd have to leave in ten minutes for the school; but ten minutes was enough time.
She crossed the hall to her bedroom, opening the top drawer of her desk. Tucked within a notebook there, lovingly folded and protected between the pages, was that old letter. Grandpa Jim had died over a year ago now, a heart attack in the night that had stolen him away without any of them expecting it. Without any of them being ready. Although, Nicky suspected that she never would have been ready.
It had been a while since she'd read the letter. She smiled at the dried tear splotches that patterned the page, relics from a time when the monsters in her belly had run riot, just as they did now. Running her fingertip lightly over her grandfather's scrawled words, she let them envelop and comfort her from across the years.
"Do you feel your heart beating in your chest?" The letter read. "Go on, put your hand on top of it. Feel it beat." Nicky did, imagining her child-like self doing the same in a lonely playground a decade earlier. She felt the faint panting beneath her palm, her eternal rhythm. "That's the truest thing there is, and the oldest. You've got the moon and the stars and the heartbeats of all the people who've lived before you right there in your chest. See? You can do anything."
Nicky watched as a new wet droplet hit the page, blurring the word "anything."
"Thank you, Grandpa Jim," she whispered.
Slowly, she folded the note, but instead of placing it back into the notebook, she tucked it into the top pocket of her shirt.
In the mirror, she pinched her cheeks to flush them with colour, straightened her school tie, and felt her heart beating.
"Anything," she reminded herself with a smile, turning to leave. "I can do anything."