Tom likes walking along the beach. He also likes walking to the beach. He likes the smell of the earth in the woods that you have to walk through to get to it.
Tom has been going to the beach regularly now for almost a year. Well, 7 months. And a week. The main entrance to the wood that leads to the beach is just at the end of The Avenue – a road full of big houses that back on to the Golf Club.
His dad goes to the Golf Club – but only if someone invites him. Tom doesn’t go through the main entrance to the wood though. Tom cuts across the main road and in through a gap at the roadside.
The wood is big; the tree canopy high and the air is cool; and there is a big crater-like bit in the middle of it that with a bit of work could be something amazing – like a moon station or A Knight’s Lair.
There is an old camp made out of branches and bits of scrap stuck together into a dusty criss-cross thing full of shadows – but he doesn’t know who built it: it has been there forever.
There are tall peeling white trees growing up the sides of the dip. The trees have grown over in an arch, tunnelling the light down to a small bright torch-like circle of light at the end.
Tom likes the idea that there is a magic land where dragons might live or some such thing through the arch and into the circle: but not really.
At the other side of the wood, furthest from the golf course, there is a break in the bank and the barbed wire. Once through the gap, the earth gets sandier and the thicker trees transform to pine ones, their needles like a spongy mattress on the ground where the earth turns to sand.
Tom likes the way the smell of the air changes on a windy day as the sea breeze blows through into the woods. Salty pine.
Tom likes Pine trees. The other word they use for them – con-if-er-ous – Tom has to break down into pieces and say slowly, otherwise he tends to rush it and say carnivorous, which is silly as the trees are hardly going to eat a hamburger or sausages or something. But then again there are carnivorous plants that eat flies.
The air in the woods gets this weird rubbery whiff every now and then – which really throws him. This is a recent thing though – last week a boy at school showed him a condom: took it out of the pack and blew it up like a balloon. Tom tried to do the same but he suddenly felt a bit funny putting his mouth over the bit where you’re apparently meant to put your willy in. Then his lips and fingers got in a muddle and the ribbed tube of puffed air fired off around the playground, frootling and parping as it went. The wood sometimes smells like condoms.
The beach is the best place, ever. It is long and curves around a bit of land that sticks out into the sea: a promontory as the local national Trust map describes it.
The bit of land used to have a big house on the end of it but it’s been pulled down now with only bits of old rubble left. Tom knows because he climbed up there once.
Apparently, in the Second World War, a spy lived there and used to send messages to German U Boats with a torch or something. He was ugly and had a strange wart on his nose that people couldn’t help but look at apparently – but he was caught and put in jail or shot – or so the old man with the Labrador that Tom sometimes meets on the beach says anyway.
They talked a bit once. Tom hadn’t meant to. It was just that Ceasar and the man’s Labrador started doing the sniffing thing to each other and Tom and the man ended up standing by them as they sniffed. Then Caesar decided to jump on the man’s dog: which had all got a bit embarrassing. So they chatted to cover their embarrassment: well Tom’s at least.
Some days (increasingly), the beach looks like someone’s kicked their shopping down it . Once it looked like someone had actually kicked Tom’s mum’s shopping down the beach because, on closer inspection, the various wrappers, tins, packets, empty drink bottles, and the fish finger and cereal boxes, were exactly the same as the stuff Tom’s mum buys – exactly the same – except for the rotting dead seagull; and the half a flip flop, the discarded bike tyre: and a pair of broken funny glasses with the big nose moustache and eyebrows: but exactly the same otherwise.
Tom doesn’t only walk on the beach with Caesar. There is a bit of the beach furthest away that he goes to on his own. It is a funny bit of beach. All flat and quiet. He never sees anyone there. Which is fine. He gets to think about stuff: like Kathy, and the stealing problem; Nigel’s mother; and other stuff: like his bike being un-cool.
Today, Tom is thinking about Mrs. Goodrich, ready salted crisps and the school caretaker sorting that thing out with those boys who’d been pushing him around. Oh, and he’s picturing himself kissing Kathy but with the body of Daredevil. And perhaps with his blindness as well. That would make all of his senses super sensory. So the kiss would be to the power of like 100.
He kicks the shell in front of him. Tom likes the way shells leave soft shapes in the sand that just melt away; that disappear as if by magic.
He is on the special part of the beach today. The sea is very quiet and flat. He walks a few yards and comes up to the Tie. The Tie is his name for a great piece of heavy rope that comes up the beach out of the sea and ends in a huge knot tied to a huge wizened old peg in the ground.
It seems like a million years old, gnarled and polished. The knobs on it look a bit like Nigel’s stones.
The Tie is a kind of distance marker for Tom’s mood. If he’s slightly ticked off he might walk as far as it but no further. If he’s in a massive funk he usually walks straight past the Tie, for a little way at least, until he gets bored and turns back.
Today is no different. But Tom is feeling a little strange today.
He doesn’t like the way everything about his life seems so… so flat today. Not that he doesn’t feel that way most days but today he cant’s seem to fly away from his own head. His daydreams normally do the job. A small dream of pop stardom, Minecraft fame or maybe being really cool and Nigel’s mum thinking he was cool perhaps; Or just being on a flying dragon for a bit of a laugh, though of course they didn’t exist: not in East Anglia anyway; something like that usually sorted things. Just not today.
Sometimes he day-dreamed that he could make time stop so that he could go and kiss anyone he wanted too. But he used to get lonely very quickly in that dream; and anyway, everyone’s eyes reminded him of his dad’s eyes so he didn’t stay in that dream very long. He only really began the dream to be able to kiss Kathy without her pushing him away. It just went wrong and got a bit lonely when he could kiss everyone. He liked the idea of kissing Kathy. And the girl in the sweet shop perhaps.
While Tom is thinking of kissing, something happens that really surprises him.
As he walks back past the Tie he stops.
He looks at its gnarled knobs and the huge rope. As he does so a big fat fist of an idea, like Sandman’s huge sandy hand in Spidey 2, seems to punch him in the head. BOOM.
He will undo The Tie. Yeah. Why not.
He studies the huge flaxen rope for a bit. He wonders whether he can undo it. Tom is a little shocked by this sudden need to untie the Tie but he isn’t quite sure why. He leans down and touches the rope. He likes the way it feels under his fingers. The rope is very thick and frayed but it’s really soft to the touch. The underside is all slick with green slimy stuff and hangy-down green bits.
Tom flicks through the reference book in his head: algae. Or Zombie slime. He sees that some water and some grains of sand have clung to his sleeve where he’s reached around and under the rope. He pulls the sleeve up and tries to dust them off. The grains stick to his fingers, so he stops. They remind him of breadcrumbs.
He takes the end of the rope and pushes and pulls it a little: the knot is very loose. It slips through easily. He pulls the rope through, unwinds the last hitch and looks at the rope now undone laying across his left arm and into his right hand. The rope is really thick: as thick as his leg. But it is surprisingly light. He tosses it up in the air and it seems to almost float back down. He puts the rope on the floor, laying it alongside the Tie.
Tom looks at the Tie (though having untied it he wonders whether he now needs to change its name).
He finds himself hypnotized by it. The wood is veined and lined, like a long, wise face: a long ancient face in the sand. A tree face: like the long faces of the old trees in that film. He reaches out and runs his hand over its smooth surface. He rolls his hand into a soft fist, pushing it into and around the deep worn dent where the rope had been rubbing and pulling against it.
Tom finds himself wishing that he was a rope sometimes. Then he could just untie himself: well, the ‘himself’ that he doesn’t really like: the ‘himself’ that lives in that house with those parents and that sister: and that life. Tom will check his life to see if there’s any evidence of beautifully worn bits like on the Tie. Nope.
Being a rope doesn’t really fit into his secret set of super powers but that doesn’t matter as he is thinking of binning them anyway since he overheard Kathy calling John a baby for wanting to be like Iron Man.
He suddenly feels bored and hungry. Breadcrumbs. Fish Finger breadcrumbs. The rope: a long fishing line to great big fish fingers. Fish Fingers as big as ships. Fish & Ships.
With this expanding idea in his head, Tom shuffles off down the beach.
His mind wanders. It wanders over to Nigel’s mum. It did that a lot at the moment. Mrs. Goodrich also pops up again. He is feeling that funny feeling. He thinks that it is the same feeling that makes his sister want to meet boys: dangerous boys that she knows their parents won’t like – boys who wear expensive trainers while living in very small houses with their mum.
He kicks the next shell that comes up in his path. It skittles across the sand until its edge catches end on, turning sharp left into the soap-suds sea.
Tom walks on.
Unseen, the rope far behind him laying across the beach stirs. A million quadrillion grains of sand dislodged by his untying, shoal around the hidden length of the rope snaking in through a slot in the rolling grey back of the sea to some dark deep place beyond.
The rope’s end moves, a few millimeters perhaps? towards the sea’s edge – or perhaps not even a millimeter – maybe. But none the less, move it does. Withdrawing.
‘So unlike his Grandfather’ Michael had thought when he first made the connection between the boy and The Old Man.
At first Michael had thought the boy was just a born victim: one of those people that just seem to walk through life with a ‘kick me’ sign permanently attached to their back.
His hand traced across the bench surface to the edge of the paper towel where the spoon sat attentively, his distorted face caught momentarily in its shining upturned bowl.
Pursuit was something that Michael knew a lot about; the sound of it, the smell of it; the sheer lung bursting ‘mnng’ of it. Michael had often been the pursuer: and he was very good at it.
Eventually though he had become the pursued.
One day, with little warning, his conscience had turned on him, wild eyed and angry, dripping with such bitter vengeance that to spend even the smallest passage of time in the quiet black silence of his own company terrified him. Once started it had rarely let up; harrying him first through his sleeping and then through his waking hours.
It was only after many years of self-inflicted solace, willing himself to face the anger and shame naked, without distraction or excuse, that he had finally become able to spend much time alone and happily so. Michael had originally come here, to the school, to hide: his escape not from some act of criminality or legal wrongdoing – his country had demanded and he had obeyed – but from the product of his service. He had to untie the knots that his acts had sheeted through his heart and soul.
He had thought that the monotony of the school: the odd jobs: sweeping up the rubbish: fence painting amid the smell of the freshly petrol-cut playing field grass; dispensing acid blue tablet after tablet into each urinal every other day; wrestling the twin brush polisher and its acrid smear across empty parqued corridors; light bulb maintenance: quiet sanctuary found in desperately dull and repetitive acts.
Therein lay their beauty he had thought, their simple powerful attraction. Perhaps the monotony of these acts, the very act of becoming one of the invisible people undertaking the relentless and inane maintenance of things unseen; someone whose everyday was as far from his previous incarnation as one could of thought possible; that would save him. Save His Soul: S.O.S.
Blue Tablets. Urinals. That reminded him: there were some particularly nasty biro scratchings that he had to remove from a cubicle wall in the Girls’ Toilets. Girls were so different to boys in so many ways but both seemed to become one in their shared cruelty. Funny thing graffiti. Seemed a bit old fashioned now, hiding your own bitter insecurities by scratching some nasty words about someone else on a wall. These days Children teetering on the barbaric edge of puberty were far happier txting cruelty, circling a chat room or blocking and burning faceless avatars in digital hyper space. Old school graffiti seemed almost courageous in the face of the digital cowardice of the average teenage troll.
The graffiti referred to Kathy: the girl that the Davis boy hung around with. It would be removed before break-time, a small act of damage limitation. Kathy was worth protecting, if only for her rare taste in boys.
He had become so used to seeing the Davis boy alone. He was quite unusually taken aback the day he first saw them together. Michael thought that she would be quite overwhelming even to a young boy of exceptional maturity; and the Davis boy was about as far from that as you could get.
How the Davis boy interpreted her was beyond Michael; but so were many things. To Michael the girl seemed highly contradictory in her character: both tomboyish and yet at the same time very physically self-aware: feline almost. He also noted that though in some ways she struck him as street smart and worldly, in others she also seemed to be, consciously at least, devoid of any idea whatsoever as to why her chemicals and the boy’s might be wrestling so violently in the ever-decreasing space between them.
Tom loves teatime. It’s a great time of day; though a little weird sometimes.
Tom walks into a kitchen that smells of fish fingers. He loves fish fingers. He puts his earlier fish finger musings down to telepathy, one of the many superpowers that he hides from the world, along with his human form’s Silver-Surfer like ability to merge like molten shiny metal into the surface of the bath water and his ability to invisibly extend his stride to superhuman lengths, thus rendering him able to cover great stretches of ground while outwardly looking to anyone watching him as if moving at a normal human pace.
He has recently downgraded his cosmic ability to harness electric energy to sub super level 3. He had originally thought that his harnessing powers were far greater than could be explained by science. But, having taken Dr. Reed’s ‘empirical’ (February New Word No.17) approach to the science of super-humanity, a closer inspection of his socks revealed that they contained a far greater percentage of man-made fibre than his mum led him to believe. They were in fact supercharged conductors of electro energy all by themselves. His Intel Outside.
As if to prove the point, his socked foot scuffs the kitchen lino as his hand brushes against the oven door firing a static charge across his hair and teeth. There you go.
Fish Fingers. The essential and only rule regarding Fish Fingers is that they are super-crunchy; sometimes potentially a little burnt on the outside (which requires grilling them for 4 minutes longer than it says on the packet).
The achieving of this super crunchiness inevitably leads to shrinkage of the actual finger of fish meat itself which in turn creates the much prized ‘gaps’ into which the condiment of choice can be applied. When said piece of crunchy fish finger with shrunken fish stick gets swooshed around the plate on the end of a fork these ‘gaps’ collect the condiment of choice (ketchup in Tom’s case) surrounding the finger of fish inside.
Breaking the Fish Finger into three pieces is recommended as breaking it in half just makes for a high level of disappointment after just two crunchy bites.
The crunchy, crumb-iness is a key part of the whole fish finger moment.
The combination of slightly spongy fish stick and over murdered breadcrumb case, when chewed into one-ness a few times makes for a really toasty mash. Top-banana-full-enjoyment is achieved by allowing your tongue to turn the mash around for a while to get the most of the burnt-crumb-ketch-oven-fish-tray-ketch-bread-board- ketch-crumb-fish-burnt-fish taste before swallowing. Nice.
Tom shuffles into the bench seat at the breakfast counter. He does not understand why they call it a counter because counters are what they have in shops; but his Dad says that it is the American style of living. His dad loves America. He watches all of the American forensic cop shows as well as a healthy assortment of ‘supernatural-sleuth-meets-child- prodigy-who-becomes-a-Medium’ shows. His mum calls it ‘getting his NETFIX’
His Dad sometimes imitates the voices of the tough cops when on the phone to his friends. But not only are most of the really, really tough CSI/Medium/Cop people on telly women: but also he isn’t actually very good at sounding like the men ones he can remember – which makes Tom feel embarrassed when his friends or Nigel’s mum come around to visit.
Nigel’s mum doesn’t say anything but his dad usually ends up sounding a bit like the bloke with the funny accent at the Post Office (who is always drunk; apparently).
His mother, still in her work uniform but now wearing slippers, moves about the kitchen. Tom drops his arms into his lap and then puts his face sideways on the counter top. It feels cool and nice against his cheek.
The smell of the Formica reminds him of the way his skin smelt when he had chickenpox; a sort of sweet funny smell; like John’s Nan’s talc. The reason he knows what John’s Nan’s talc smells like is because they spilt it all over the floor by accident while nosing around in her bathroom cabinet last year. He can see some tiny grains of sand on the formica surface. They must have come off his sleeve. He feels for the wet bit. It is dry now; almost. He blows towards the grains and watches as they tumble across the Formica surface. His chest makes a funny wheezy noise at the end of the blow. Tom looks through his arms at the floor. He moves his head to one side as his mum’s feet scuff past. He hates her slippers.
Nigel’s mum wears shoes that are brown or black with pointy toes. Tom finds the way that she walks in them really nice. He thinks her ankles must be weak though because her legs seem to wobble every time she takes a step; which must be painful or uncomfortable. It also makes her bottom move from side to side a lot.
His mum’s ankles never wobble. Not because they’re all big. She doesn’t have ankles like the old ladies at the bus-stop, all puffy and wrapped up in a big bandage. Tom’s Mum is young really. She’s just got ‘not skinny’ ankles.
Wonder Woman has big shiny wristbands that deflect bullets and rockets. Nigel’s Mum has ankles.They are like the ones he sees on the women in the fashion magazines at the hairdresser where Tom’s mum goes to once a month.
The Vicar at the Christening they all had to go to recently – no Kathy and therefore rubbish – had said that there is a reason for everything in this earthly life.
So perhaps his Mum’s ‘not skinny’ ankles are a clue: to something.
Tom imagines that he has another mother, a real mother, who is an alien; and that she has left him with his Earthly Mum and Dad (agents of the Empire barely disguised as human) but only until she comes to claim him again on the death of his real father, the Grand Galactic Vizier, at which point Tom will take up his rightful place as heir, ascend to the throne and ultimately and majestically lead the Empire in a big Universal punch-up with some rather ugly aliens.
In this other world – a ghetto waste-scape that looks a little like an American version of Ipswich after a few bombs and the odd fire – everyone has Supercharged Subarus that convert into x wing fighters; which is quite useful.
This is all highly classified information of course. Tom remembers Kathy telling John that she thought that him wanting to be Iron Man or Captain America was childish so Tom tended to keep his intergalactic-ness to himself; mostly. His mum puts the fish fingers and peas in front of him. The fish finger joy backed up by a number of peas (straight from frozen) means Tom stays quite chirpy until the last pea explosion (you place the pea in the middle of your tongue and press the tongue upwards until the pea effectively pops with a little ping of pea-ness). Suddenly, Tom doesn’t want to be here. He wants to go to his bedroom.
At times like these, when his bubbly balloon suddenly pops and flops inside him, he notices that she watches him, his mum: looks at him in a strange almost otherworldly way. Not otherworldly as in the alien woman in Voyager episode last night. That would be weird. That woman was from the Phargel Constellation, had streaked blue hair, wears a short skirt and has an inappropriately tight top of strange scales that edge round her ribs and only half cover her ‘not small’ breasts. (Tom felt very grown up when he said or thought the word ‘breasts’.)
No; his mum just looked Otherworldly; like she was looking at him from the bottom of a bath full of water.
Tom could see her mouth making words to herself and pulling faces while she jabbed at the peas that had escaped into the sinkhole.
He recognised what she was doing because her face looked like his felt when he was having conversations with Kathy in his head – only realizing that his face was moving because people on the bus were staring at him.
The Lost Hours between a chirpy, fish finger scoop teatime and the nine o’clock news tended to pass unnoticed – hence their name. Tom spends them in random model making – a killer combination of coloured brick, old tat and mixed kit pieces – school-book leafing, cunning parallel universe Minecraft interjections (imagined) and daydreaming of course – nose pressed firmly to the varnish card cover of his science work book; though as the Lost Hours are by their very nature not recorded or measured you’d be hard put to piece together exactly what went on at any given time
The games console that he got last Christmas lies in a pasta pile of leads and controls to the right of his bedside cabinet. Being cheap, it broke within two days of him getting it so he just pretends that he is another ‘thumb crazy computer game kid wasting his life away, losing the power of both speech and physical movement in the process‘ as the newspaper his dad reads had it pegged.
The short walk upstairs is pretty uneventful though somewhere in his head he is vaguely aware that being 40 or so sock scuffs into the journey he shouldn’t touch anything metal. By the time he gets to the top of the stairs this brain wave has been over-ridden by the occupational hazard of his having to open his bedroom door to get in it. The massive static shock from the door handle makes him jump, as always.
Tom opens the door and looks at his room. The room doesn’t look like much. A box. It looks like a room someone has made up to pretend that a boy like Tom might live there but not really; which is true in a way.
All of his comics are tidied into a pile on the white and once flat packed desk that he had helped his dad put together. (Tom’s dad lost one of the plugs that held the side panel tight and Tom found it and his Dad squeezed his shoulder and he half put his arm around him until he stopped.)
The only computer in the house that is any cop is in his Dad’s office in the spare room. The computer in Tom’s room is really a glorified word processor from his Dad’s shop. It doesn’t have any graphics packages to speak of or anything like that and there are sooty edges around the input slots where it used to sit in his Dad’s stock room sucking up the dust from the furniture foam in the Returns room. (There was a lot of dust, as Bernie, his dad’s old and very wheezy, puffer-wielding warehouse man would tell you at the slightest opportunity.)
So the computer in Tom’s room just sits there, not doing terribly much. The desk was meant to be a way of helping him do more grown up stuff: a place to do his homework and ‘pursue interests’ he might be, well, interested in: like advanced model making, learning a new (Earthling) language. It should have also included Googling really difficult words or funny pictures – but that would require a computer that worked.)
Tom never really got further than reading his comics when he came to his room. He certainly didn’t do homework. He hasn’t told his Mum that he owes about 20 bits of it to Sausage Beard.
In the back of his mind somewhere, Tom reckons (though ‘hopes’ might be a better word) that something really monumental is going to happen – something that will make the world forget completely that he owes any homework. Maybe the stalking alien pod robots will arrive in a big bang of huge explosions and cause so much chaos as they chase people around the planet that everyone will forget everything:
His Mum and Dad will forget that they don’t like each other. His Dad will forget to take them to a Harvester for his mum’s birthday and take them somewhere brilliant and different instead.
Kathy will forget that Tom tried to kiss her in the woods.
And Tom will forget that he thinks he is rubbish.
The second hand on his plastic non-digital clock ticks noisily. It starts to get dark, as it always does about now. In the book Tom is reading in English the writer said that ‘darkness fell’ which they all though was a bit random; like darkness was an old person or someone with too much shopping. Tom also thinks it’s a funny thing to say: but it makes sense in a way because it is like someone drops a big blanket over the world; a big blanket that falls in super slo-mo.
When he switches on his table lamp the walls do this weird thing – where they change from hard white plaster with posters and stuff stuck on them to molten lava or big dark blankets that seem to move a bit when you look at them out of the corner of your eye. He picks up a comic.
He hears them downstairs now; his parents. They always try to keep their voices down but it never works. They always end up shouting in the end. Calling each other names. He knows when his Mum is upset because he can hear her slippers scuff, scuff, scuffing around from one side of the house to the other: she has a habit of walking from the lounge to the kitchen, turning around and walking back into the sitting room because she has remembered something else that she wanted to say to his Dad.
His Mum is scary when she gets mad. She uses words like some people use poison darts or ninja throwing stars. Maybe Tom’s mum is a ninja master of flying dagger words (Tom loves that film; sneakily watched it at Nigel’s house when his Mum was out).
When he told his Aunt Bea that when his parents argued his mum sounded like someone from one of those legal eagle or high court programmes on the telly, Bea had said that his Mum was naughty to do that. Bea didn’t know this but Tom overheard her having a go at his mum on the telephone telling her to ‘get over herself’ and to stop it – ‘you’re trying make him feel bad – like he’s stupid – and you know it. So stop it – its wrong’.
That seemed pretty fair to Tom – if she was picking on him because she knew he couldn’t keep up or match her, that was like bullying – like the bullies knowing that you can’t run fast – or pronounce a certain kind of word – or understand their riddles. His dad is a bit weird. But he is not stupid.
There was a time when Tom and Jaqui, his big sister, would still have bothered to sit downstairs during one of their parents’ fights, even though all of his Mum’s walking in and out of the room had never failed to make him feel a bit sick – like he was on a boat in a rough sea.
He puts the comic down on the desk after a few minutes: Creepy Tales. It is an American horror comic. It is brilliant: short stories of people who have boarded ghost trains and planes, fallen into the twilight zone, woken up with wings, played cards with the devil and some such.
Tom slump slides further into the chair at his desk. One finger reaches across the desk and catches the edge of the small plastic bag – drawing it back across the surface towards Tom’s face. The same finger rummages ina plastic fold and drags out a shining flat square from its interior.
He smells it first, the acrid plastic and ink: his new CD purchase. Genius. His previous weekend’s purchase.
Tom couldn’t resist taking it out of the bag, holding it up to his nose and thumbing the sleeve edge a lot on the bus home, the security sticker seal yet to be broken. He used to think that having a new CD was brilliant because it made him interesting. Until the rip download kids laughed at him. Ripping free music was all well and good but if you don’t have a proper computer and no smart phone, well, CDs it is!
He thought McFly rocked. He had planned the day perfectly. The purchase was made at approximately 11.15am on Saturday morning from the Resale/Second Hand music shop (the only half groovy place in his town, England, Earth and the Universe).
This allowed 15 minutes for the journey home and then a full one and a half hours of appreciation before lunch. The final act – placing the CD in the player (an old one of his sister’s) – took place only once you had checked the disc for scratched messages from either the band or the record label and made sure there were absolutely no smudges, scratches or bits on it.
Tom’s dad had found him squinting at a CD sleeve and started banging on about the lost treasure and pleasure of the record sleeve – how you took home the sacred vinyl – unwrapped it and tapped its heavily printed cardboard sleeve – how, you’d get into the real detail – the small print – of how all the credits in the sleeve note had to be read in full and memorized – The band members, the catchphrases and in- jokes, their instruments, track listings, track duration, guest musicians by track. Then there was the producer, engineer, assistants, coffee maker, clothing designer credits, studio/s (usually including a re-mastering at somewhere windswept and international like Montreux or L.A) the record company, the distribution company, rights reserved, the ‘with thanks’ listings with funny bits, the names of the tour manager, roadies, lighting company, haulage and equipment shipping(live albums only): every last detail to be read hundreds of times; searching for a new piece of information to be shared, something in the background of a picture unnoticed, the labyrinth of hidden jokes to be discovered.
Information was power his father said. Tom didn’t have the heart to point out that that was what Google was for.
Nigel has an i-phone AND i-watch of course so all of this was lost on him. He just downloaded. And Tom was at least one working printer away from printing out the sleeve notes, even if he had wanted to.
Jaqui just listens to the music. She reckons reading writing on the packaging is for losers.
As Tom studies the small writing it collapses into a big squeeze of black scratchy lines and blurry pictures.
He raises his head from the desk.
Umpft umpft umpft baa da da umpft umpft umpft baa da da umpft umpft umpft worp worp worp wa wa wa wa umpft umpft umpft
The banging tune seeps through the plaster-board wall between his bedroom and Jaqui’s. He knows it’s plaster board with an echoey gap because he had once tried to screw a large volcano clay model of his attached to a bit of chip board to the wall with his dad’s hammer. The hole stayed a hole for about a month.
It’s D Wayne or R. Kayne, Kanye K, Canned Key Or Key West pumping out of Jaqui’s room: which is good.
Not because he really likes Who Wayne Whatever. He doesn’t really know anything about him apart from the picture on Jaqui’s wall. It’s good because the general noise helps to drown out the voices coming from downstairs.
He gets up and turns towards his bed. Tom makes his body go straight like he’s been hit by a small caliber, high velocity bullet from a gun. The Sniper’s Choice. He falls face down onto his bed pretending to fall from a really high building, like the fat guy with the beard in CSI the other night. His face presses into the cool pillow.
Maybe he should learn to be a stuntman; spend all of his time falling off really tall buildings, leaping bikes over canyons and living in America somewhere surrounded by comics and being able to buy Frothing Blood capsules any time he wants to. He lets his arms and legs go limp.
He wonders if there is an exam in Stuntmanship. Or Stuntpersonship – Mrs. Field’s would never allow an exam for ‘anything-man-ship’ in her school. He listens to the sound of his own breathing for a bit. It sounds funny, like the sea. He thinks about the Tie for a bit. Maybe he should go back tomorrow and tie the rope back on.
His mind wanders to Kathy.
He wants to think about her in that way that makes him feel nice: but he just thinks of how she flicked his ear really hard as he walked down the corridor to Double Maths and then ran off laughing when the shock made him turn right, crash, into a locker and cut his lip.
Michael’s eyes pull focus, the bright wrap of air in front of him falling away into a featureless bleached blanket.
It’s nice here. In the white nothingness . He waits for his mind to play out any distinct memories of his own beginnings with girls across the white screen in his head. Small wisps of things flitted in and out of the edge of his consciousness. Always so difficult to recall these things he thought.
Michael spent a lot of time butterfly chasing memories across his subconscious, net flailing this way and that. He would, though rarely, sweep one towards him, just for a moment, hold it up towards the light, breathless for just a moment, before it quickly and silently slips the net and is gone.
These rare moments came in all manner of formats: a smell, a song, a flash of fabric, a passing movement, hair raised skin, a texture, a play of light refracting. A few skittish recollections shuttered up inside his head: of clumsy fumbling; fibs and bravado; presents promised; the slipshod clumsiness of pretending to know how things worked.
None of them are tangible enough to grasp and feed into the process running in his head – so he backs out of the realm of the butterfly catcher, and the wrap of white nothing comes back into focus. Graffiti. Michael believes that you can discover a lot about someone who indulges in graffiti: the highly personal and cruel kind of graffiti at least.
He had little to comment on the graphic vagaries or tribal tags that were regularly spewed across the side of railway tracks, tube tunnels, and, curiously, the walls that ran behind Supermarket.
He had daubed the odd wall himself. His neck ran hot with shame at the memory of some of it. He had become quite adept at hanging cruel ridicule on a wall, for all to see.
Spiteful; mean; spiky words fashioned to cut down a person where they stood. Or simply words set to inflame the simple minds of those most useful to his bright, all-white cause – those quickest to anger and confrontation.
There was no artisan skill, no crafting of Michael’s art. He simply carried the urge to render petty hatreds on any vertical surface he could find with him, from school wall to garrison latrine to public podium.
(It did not matter where in the world he peddled his trade: every encounter with them – foreigners – seemed somehow to hone the ugly little crusts inside him, and the twisted anthropology of his own superiority.)
He had found it a very short and simple walk from a wall to a pamphlet and from the pamphlet to a website forum and from there to the hustings.
As time passed, all those things that sat strangely in Michael, had begun to draw together:
To say Michael had a fragile sense of self and a troubled soul was a remarkable understatement – and there were a few things vying for top spot in the Why stakes:
his deeply buried insecurity, teased nicely into shape by his beautiful, elegant yet feckless mother – a woman who slashed the spiritual and emotional cord between them at exactly the same moment as she dispensed with the physical one:
his Tom Brown schooldays concept of manliness pumped into him on the playing fields and prefect studies of his desperately provincial major-minor school
the small-minded provincial bigotries of his father, and the mediocrities that passed for Member’s at his father’s club; trading smug little sips of superiority across the lip of their gin glass:
the shocking banality of war and battle and the cruelties; the staggering abdication of humanity and conscience that glory and winning demands; and the faces that never leave you.
It was that young man, with all those things rattling around inside him that The Old Man had spied that day as he passed the town hall.
Michael, his straight military back racked high on his hips, the thirst of his recent tours of duty being quenched by a little bitter-soaked British summer evening.
The Old Man had walked up to Michael and handed him the Manifesto.
Michael remembered how he had immediately felt unnerved by The Old Man’s look: the man who would in no short time become his ‘boss’ and mentor: and he remembered how quickly he had set aside the small red light that flickered in the back of his mind in the fix of The Old Man’s green grey eyes.
Michael looks up and away from the memory, as if to control it; moving it back into a manageable form; back into its box.
He looks across the room towards the corner furthest from the door.
One erupting crack runs through the linoleum between him and the cupboard set in the far corner – tracing the ragged line of his gaze: its erupted edges revealing the equally erupted concrete beneath it; as if a rope running under the floor between him and the cupboard has been wrenched upwards to reveal a deeper truth.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the process of publishing this story to the blog I am altering the original text of the Kindle Version. The blog published version will be the most up to date edition.