Madeleine Atkinson was asked to tell The Story of Me’ during a visit to the journalism department. Here she recalls an encounter with herself…
Her naturally blonde roots showing through her dark hair, long due for a retouch, Madeleine Atkinson looks tired and frazzled.
She’s 18. If she were like most people her age, she would be on the last few A-Level exams, but Madeleine is not like most people. Madeleine is a sixth-form drop out, and the memory of walking home from college in the bitter January cold for what she thought was the last time sticks with her.
Madeleine is animated, with almost comically exaggerated facial expressions and intonation patterns that resemble hills and valleys. She maintains eye contact slightly too long or not at all.
She can remember every room she’s walked into for long enough to have an eagle-eyed look around. “I can see the streets outside my house and walk down them in my head.” She can walk for miles until she’s at the sea. She can’t hear the cars or taste the salt but can see it vividly enough. “I can walk around my primary school, going down every corridor I walked through before I was ten, when I had already left.”
She takes another bite of the vegan sweet chilli chicken wrap she brought with her. She tells me about how it’s the only wrap she can eat sold at the college dinner hall where we are sitting, tells me about her allergies and gestures to her bag vaguely when she references her Epipen. After a second of deliberation, she recalls that January day when she left college.
“I was upset, obviously I was upset. I thought that’s why I couldn’t breathe, why my heart hammered. I just wanted to get home. I thought everything would be better when I could just sit somewhere familiar and pretend the entire thing didn’t happen, so I was walking as fast as I could. The fastest I had ever walked in my life, I thought, which was why I thought the world was spinning. Then I realised I genuinely couldn’t breathe anymore and I stopped. And the world kept spinning.”
She’s almost theatrical as she recalls the symptoms. She moves her hands and pauses in all the right places, building to up what she perhaps sees inside her head, known is the Chekov’s Gun – her Epipen.
“Then just as I realised the severity of what was happening, my legs gave out. My face was on grass and I watched the cars go past and I just felt so separate from everything. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I didn’t exist anymore.”
She recalls a woman asking if she was OK.
“You can tell I really was out of it, that I wasn’t sarcastic,” she laughs.
I can’t say I saw sarcasm on the day we met so much as self-deprecation. Maybe if I got to know her better, I would. After taking the longest slug of water, she said she imagined she’d be weird to get to know.
“When I returned to college I was in classes where I didn’t know anyone,” she says, her eyes wide again. I wondered later if the wide stare was an appeal to understand the subtext: she struggled in those classes.
“But I have another weird thing I can do,” she says. “When I’m in a room of people I don’t know, within about ten minutes I can tell who I have the likelihood of befriending and who I don’t.”
This is not a value judgement, she points out.
“Everyone is different, and people communicate in different ways and that’s OK. I feel like most people are good people, and just because I don’t think it’s likely we’d be friends, it doesn’t mean I don’t think they’d be great friends to others.”
Mostly she doesn’t imagine they’d want to be friends with her. With her radical politics (Communism) and her keen interest in Jewish studies, she admits she’s unusual.
I say that’s perfectly OK, and she fixes me with that wide-eyed stare, as if no one had ever told her that before.