When we were nine years old, Billy Jones was one of us. It’s important you know that. Billy played football in the playground, he talked about everything and nothing, and he spent his fair share of time on the naughty chair. He was clever enough, and daft enough, if you know what I mean. Billy was a normal kid.
The story really starts one day in September. We were third year juniors
We were back in the classroom after lunch: everyone except Billy, but we all knew where Billy was. Billy was sitting under a tree beside the playing field. He’d been sitting there all lunchtime. He didn’t even want to play football. He said he was thinking. We just left him to it.
he caretaker.Mrs Robinson was taking the register when Mr Henry brought Billy back to the classroom. Mr Henry was t
“Where have you been, Billy,” said Mrs Robinson.
“Sorry, Miss, I was thinking,” he said.
“What were you thinking about, Billy?” she asked.
“Things, Miss: lots of things.” Billy took his seat and started thinking again. You could tell by the expression on his face.
The next day, before school, Billy was under the tree again. He sat cross legged, not really looking at anything. We could have asked him what was up; Billy was a mate after all, but there was a football that needed kicking and we didn’t have much time.
We brought him in with us, though, when the bell rang. He said he’d been thinking again. I asked him what he was thinking about.
“Life,” he said, “and how the world works.”
He was under the tree again at break, and at lunchtime. And he went back there after school, thinking, until Mr Henry told him to scram.
For the first few days we just left him to it. He wasn’t doing any harm and if he wanted to think then there
s nothing wrong with that. We were nine years old and there were a lot of things to think about. I wasn’t the only one in our class who thought Billy was probably onto something, only most of us didn’t have the patience to sit under a tree every day.
Billy didn’t say much in class any more but he did pay attention. Sometimes he paid too much attention. One afternoon we were doing maths. Mrs Robinson asked the class what an isosceles triangle was. Everybody put their hand up except Billy.
“Billy!” said Mrs Robinson – ‘cos teachers always do that – “Billy, what is an isosceles triangle?”
“Sorry, Miss,” said Billy. “I was thinking about shapes. I was thinking that the whole world is made up of shapes,” said Billy. “And I was thinking about how the shapes all fitted together.”
“Well we’re just thinking about triangles today, Billy,” said Mrs Robinson, and then she asked me what an isosceles triangle was. It turned out I didn’t really know.
Billy carried on thinking all through the autumn term. Every lunch and every playtime he would sit under the tree in the playground; thinking.
There was one day we needed Billy’s help.
“Billy,” we said, “could you come and sit over here instead.” We were short of a goal post. Billy came and sat where we would normally put a coat or a jumper and he stayed there for the rest of playtime. The ball hit him a couple of times but he didn’t seem to mind.
“What were you thinking about Billy?” I said as we made our way back in afterwards.
“Football,” he said.
This was good. It was getting harder and harder to talk to Billy these days but I could talk about football all day long. “Did you see the match last night?” I said. City had beaten Newcastle one nil. I was a big Newcastle fan.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” said Billy; “they’ll only play again anyway.”
This didn’t really console me but it gave me something to think about. Billy was right. Does it really matter who wins if all they are going to do is play again anyway?
Normally Billy didn’t tell you what conclusions his thoughts had led him to. He might tell you he was thinking about clouds, or space, or God, but he never actually told you what he thought about clouds or space or God. If you pressed him for an opinion he would just say, “I’m still thinking about it.” He wasn’t trying to be evasive; it was just that it seemed there was a lot more for Billy to think about first. One day he said, “I think there may be four noble truths,” but he didn’t tell us what this meant.
Eventually Billy was sent to see an educational psychologist. Billy’s parents had been in to school a few times. His parents were worried about him and so was Mrs Robinson. That’s when they decided they needed an expert opinion. When Billy came out of the meeting he told the psychologist she’d given him a lot to think about, and he went to sit
under his tree to think about it.
Billy carried on thinking all the way through juniors and he was still thinking when we went to secondary school.
They were ready for him when he got there. At the back of the science labs there was a sort of a greenhouse and they gave Billy a chair where he could sit under a very tall yucca plant. Billy would go there every break and every lunchtime, to think his thoughts.
Billy got on well with the science teachers and he would sometimes ask them questions. His favourite was Mr Evans. Everybody liked Mr Evans. If you asked Mr Evans a question, Mr Evans would sometimes say he didn’t know and he would need to think about it. Sometimes he would find out the answer and tell you later. Usually Mr Evans would tell you to find out and then you had to share what you’d learned with the rest of the class.
One day, when we were in third year seniors, Billy came into the yard at lunchtime. We were playing football, as usual.
“Can I play?” he said.
Billy Jones had been thinking for nearly four and half years and now he wanted to play football.
Not surprisingly we wanted to know what he’d finally decided. I mean, four and a half years is a long time to be thinking about anything so whatever it was it had to be good.
It turned out he hadn’t worked anything out.
“I made a mistake,” said Billy.
We didn’t know what he meant.
He told us.
Billy said it was a bit like doing a really long multiplication, like 4 x 6 x 9 x 7 x 5 only the sum went on for pages and pages. “The thing is,” said Billy, “that, metaphorically, on the first page, there was a ‘times zero’, and I missed it.”
I knew what happened when you times-ed anything by zero. You got zero. “So it was all a waste of time?” I said.
“Most of it,” said Billy.
“All that time sitting under a tree?”
“Pretty much,” said Billy.
I thought that was the bravest thing I’d ever heard. I didn’t know anybody who could spend half their life doing something and then admitting it was all based on a simple mistake.
And then something crossed my mind. “Billy,” I said, “what was your zero?”
Billy laughed. “I thought there must have been a point to life:” said Billy, “a reason why we’re all here, but
there’s not. It turns out it life is an accident. It is a chance combination of chemicals, energy and evolution.”
Now that should be the end of the story, only it wasn’t. You see, not only did Billy stop thinking but Billy really stopped thinking. He figured he’d wasted four and a half years already and he wasn’t going to waste a second more
. Billy started to do whatever popped into his head without thinking about it first.
At first this was little things, like singing in class. We’d all be quietly getting on with history and suddenly Billy would belt out the first line of a Beatles song. I don’t know why but he only ever sang the first line.
The teachers didn’t know what to make of this change in Billy’s behaviour. For the most part they just ignored it. He’d always been a weird kid and this was just a new manifestation of his weirdness.
Then one day Billy stood up in the middle of a maths lesson and left the room. We all watched him go. The teacher, Mrs MacDonald, sent me after him. I tried to get him to stop but Billy carried on walking, out of the main sch
ool, across the courtyard, into the PE block, down the corridor, through the double doors and straight through the little chlorine footbath thing. He then dived into the swimming pool, still wearing his full school uniform.
“That was great,” he said afterwards, dripping on the school steps while we waited for his mum to collect him.
Then there was the incident with the frog and the Deputy Head. Billy was sent to see another psychologist after that.
After the appointment, Billy was waiting outside the Headmaster’s Office.
“What happened with the Ed. Psych?” I said
Billy grinned. “He wanted me to think about the consequences of my actions. He said it was attention seeking behaviour and it didn’t matter if the attention was positive or negative. He said he was a trained therapist and he could
emotionally distance himself from whatever we talked about so I could shout, scream or say whatever I wanted and he would remain professionally detached.”
“What did you say?” I asked.
“I didn’t,” said Billy; “I grabbed his crotch. He screamed.”
“What were you thinking?” I said.
“I wasn’t,” said Billy.
Billy was expelled from school the same day.
I didn’t see much of Billy for a year or two. They tried to send him to a couple of other schools but Billy didn’t go. There were rumours that he drank and smoked and took drugs, and he kept getting in trouble with the police.
He said it had been a laugh but after ending up in hospital one time too many, Billy had finally decided that not thinking wasn’t the answer either.One day, when we were both sixteen I ran into Billy at the local technical college. I was doing a BTEC in engineering and Billy had signed up for some GCSEs.
He said he didn’t know what the answer was but he suspected it had something to do with getting the balance right. And Billy had finally worked out that even though life itself might not have any meaning, we only get one life each and it seemed foolish to waste it.
Billy wasn’t so smart. I’d figured that out by the time I was eight.
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