THE END OF THE BEGINNING
An un-ironed old man sits sipping cool lemonade, a thick-rimmed glass tumbler clutched tight to his advancing stomach.
His forehead, beaded and shadowed under the broad rim of his Borsalino hat, wrinkles intermittently, a rippling rumba to the words inside his head.
Tinny music from his ‘new wife’s’ old radio crackles the length of the garden, alarming two finches flitting amongst the branches.
The finches remind the old man of two bickering children he once knew: girlish voices at the edge of his memory echoing through the shadows of his beautiful and very English garden.
A Sandpiper percolates between the rhododendron bush and the large privet hedge edging the west side of the garden.
Its yellowish legs and white shock belly flash in the half-light as it engages in a near miss with a portly Collared Dove flying in the opposite direction at a dignified 40 degrees.
The sound of the sea reassures the old man, its salted rolls riding up against the sandy shoulders of his small stretch of quintessential East Anglian beach below, just beyond where the green lawn drops away from sight.
The vast stretch of water in front of him is deeper in its hue than he remembered, the cool grey-purple pitches of the North Sea now long gone, now replaced by the obsequious blue of the Mid North Atlantic.
Once there was a time when he could see clear across the water to the skies of Nordic myth: Asgard used to float somewhere above his not very wild blue yonder as the setting sun warmed his back.
Now the sun sets across the water in front of him – and a thin thread of land runs like a sore across his horizon and a scar on his future, a small grey speck at its middle.
Titusville: ridiculous name for a town. And only a few miles from the launching pad of ‘Man’s greatest journey’.
They thought going to the Moon was something. Lord knows what they were thinking about this. He certainly knows what he thinks. And as he thinks it, the very large and very American Collared Dove, currently sitting above him in his very British ash tree takes a shit on the shoulder of his unstructured linen travel jacket, as if to simultaneously both underline his thought and file an objection.
There was a time when, if there was one thing he knew, it was that the Britain he loved was ‘going to the dogs’. That seemed like such a distant certainty now.
He had taken to wearing the linen travel jacket everyday as a totem of their ‘journey’ to wherever in God’s name they were going.
He looks at the bird slop edging down his lapel. The old wives’ adage crosses his mind.
‘Good luck my arse?!’ he mutters as he dabs at the dropping with a well-worn silk hankie.
Good Luck? Not for him. Not bloody likely.
2 DAYS EARLIER
The salt water at the base of the sand bank pools in swirls of ribbed green grey, its job done. The tide, having yet again successfully deposited tons of deep-sea detritus along the East-Anglian coast line, is now withdrawing to its place further out to sea to contemplate its next tidal ‘dump’.
A passing silver and blue sweet wrapper plasters itself against an very old, very gnarled, very large wooden peg (more a mooring post if you will) set half way up the beach, whipped there by a snap of breeze.
A heavy wrist-thick flaxen rope runs up from the sea to spool around the wizened peg, shining green dreadlocks knitted into its length.
Two knots, like staring eyes in the long weather-worn face of the peg, look curiously over the top of sweet wrapper, as if reading it like a paper.
BraCao Ping screams the bright writing on the front of the wrapper. BraCao Ping: a testament to the fact that no one can make confectionary quite like an impoverished South American country can; especially one with tons and tons of gelatinous and potentially toxic animal by-product to play with.
The wrapper’s haphazard graphic flag of madness flutters against the peg.
A light grasp of Colonial Old Spanish and Barrio vernacular would tell you that BraCao Ping is a ‘rip ping of sweet hot thing for your mouth’.
‘A Unique Flavour & Texture’ the pack says.
BraCao Ping’s principal ingredient is synthesized in a laboratory to do a smart and passable impersonation of a citrus fruit (though which fruit no one was quite certain).
The wrapper grows restless. There’s a whole beach to play on. And the large peg suddenly seems a little…well, inert.
The cloud shadows roll across the beach, their sun-burned fringes flaring about them. The wrapper sets off to follow them.
There was a time when the BraCao wrapper would have traveled almost six thousand miles to wash itself up on this beach – but not any more. Not even the half of it – or the half of the half of the half of it.
Funny old world really.
Cheeseburger. One of those words that starts to sound quite funny if you say it a lot.
Cheeseburger cheeseboorga chizzbirga chissbuwrga schisbuga, shisbugga, shisbugger. Bugger.
Tom likes cheeseburgers. He loves Nuggets. Loves Large Fries – especially the ones left right at the bottom of the cardboard sleeve because they are smaller and crispier and have more salt on them. The other good bit is that by the end of the box-bottom scrabble your fingers smell of friesnuggetfiletburgernoodlesbatterketchup – which means you can stick them under someone’s nose.
As Tom walks past the fast-food restaurant, he notices that the deep fat fry and plastic smell wafting across the pavement transforms itself to the sharp citrus medicinal shower product smell sliding out of the Chemist next door. Weird.
His Dad takes him to the restaurant sometimes for a treat. It has bright red plastic seats and a fat old lady who sits at the serving counter looking utterly disappointed with life. The restaurant is called Ken’s Lucky Fried Chicken but written to look like KFC; which is a bit of a con.
And they don’t just do pretend Kentucky Fried Chicken. They do pretend burgers, nuggets, filets o fish and Chinese take away.
His dad says if Ceasar (their dog) ever goes missing he’ll know where to find him. Or order him. Tom walks on.
He kicks at an old Ready Salted Crisp Bag skipping along the pavement towards him. Its open end closes itself around the toe of his trainer. Tom tries to kick it off but it just rolls down further over his trainer. It now looks like his trainer has pulled a rather jaunty red hat on. He looks around. He doesn’t know anyone. Thankfully he is on his own.
Tom spends a lot of time alone funnily enough. He walks everywhere because his bike is always broken. (Not really; it just isn’t a very cool bike so he avoids riding it mostly). He walks up and down the high street quite often and likes to look in the shops. Sometimes he runs up and down the high street because the cool boys from school try and put him in the waste bin outside the Library.
Tom looks around him: his eyes flick from one side of the street to the other. The sound of the crisp bag rackling on the end of his foot keeps him alert. It reminds him that smart phones are the Great Satan: and that he doesn’t want to be on Youtube; again.
The boys and the waste bin thing is embarrassing: but not as embarrassing as when the girls from his school do it. Which is why he spends a lot of time ‘not at the bus stop by the war memorial’ and ‘not outside the Sweet Shop’ where they tend to be.
Where Tom ’is’ is mostly defined by where he is not: in life anyway.
He likes to go to the beach near his house though. He goes there a lot. It is like a beach that he saw in an old film that his mum was watching one Saturday afternoon. His mum thinks beaches are ‘Romantic’. Tom was going to use the word romantic at school but he looked it up first, which was a good job; it turns out that it doesn’t mean what he thought it meant.
Romantic is a word Tom thinks but would never ever say: saying it would mean a ‘slapping’ from anyone close enough to deliver it: or Kathy holding him down and doing the ‘spit-dribble-on-to-your-face-almost-but-not-quite’ torture.
He likes the feeling of her sitting on him and he thinks she does too but then her face goes funny and she smacks his forehead as she climbs off him.
Tom likes Kathy. They kissed once – ish. She lives in a house just down the road.
He likes her a lot: fancies her maybe. She is nice looking in an eldest sister kind-of-way but not as in a weird fancy your own sister way but someone else’s sister.
Kathy makes him feel a bit weird in a nice way so, yup, definitely more than just a friend.
He does not have many other friends. John is alright in an OK way. They like the same things, specifically doing nothing in particular. John’s dad is very nice so they tend to talk about him most of the time. John seems to need to talk about his dad a lot (which is weird because, from what Tom can tell, his dad isn’t around that much so he can’t be that great). Tom does not like talking about anything much these days so it works out just fine. But John lives on the other side of the town and is only allowed to ride his bike over to see Tom once a week.
So he is a friend; just not a ‘see you tomorrow’, stones up at your window, back garden neighbour kind of friend.
There is also Nigel. Tom visits Nigel every now and then to keep his mum happy (Tom’s mum that is, though she says that it makes Nigel’s mum happy as well).
Nigel and his Mother live just two houses along. They used to live in a big house in the village near by. Nigel likes to polish stones and has a stone polishing kit. Tom knows that Nigel is a bit soft. He has a soft face, and his hair is very shiny and thick. Tom imagines that’s what rich people’s hair is like. Nigel’s mum has thick shiny hair too. Maybe that is what the advert means when it says a ‘rich, lustrous sheen’: maybe it means that the shampoo gives you rich people hair.
Nigel goes to a private school up the road. Some of the boys from the town shove Nigel around a bit when he is at the sweetshop, stealing his money and giving him kicks.
Tom’s mum feels sorry for Nigel’s mother who seems to be in their kitchen a lot – and cry a lot. Tom thinks she looks like a sad angel; like she should be an actress or something.
She tends to smile at Tom while he eats his breakfast. She sometimes smiles in a scrunchy-eyed-squeezy-tear-down-the-face way which makes Tom feel a little odd.
Roger, the man who lives across the road from Tom’s house drives a Yellow and White sports car. It is really smart.
The man likes Nigel’s mum too. His wife doesn’t though.
Tom thinks this is a little unfair and he can’t see why she gets annoyed when her husband takes Nigel’s mother for a drive to ‘cheer her up’.
Roger thinks he is above everyone else on the estate: including his wife.
Tom heard him calling her ‘silly cow’ once but not in public. It was only because their kitchen window opens on to a small alley that runs through to the parade of shops: and you can hear everything if the window is open.
Tom doesn’t like Roger.
Tom does like chocolate: but he likes stuff like the walnut whips his Mum gets at Marks’s the most – and biscuits, though they make him feel a little bit sick sometimes.
His Aunt Bea taught him to bite the top off a Walnut Whip and then lick out the centre which should be creamy but isn’t because the ones they’ve got have been in the cupboard for a while
Some of the chocolates at the Corner Shop are pretty duff.
Mr. Sharpa the shopkeeper probably buys old stuff so half his bars are usually a bit spongy and not good for ritual eating.
That’s why Tom feels OK about stealing stuff from his shop: because it is old (though he did take a whole new Box of Rolos once).
It’s ‘a cry for help’ apparently, his stealing; or so the lady that turned up at the school to talk to him said.
He’d been caught stealing again (big deal – it was only the third time) and the school had asked him to talk to her: Mrs. Goodrich.
She is about the same age as his Mum. But she is alright. She doesn’t look all worn out like his mum. She has shiny hair like the woman in the advert and Tom looks at her legs a lot.
Between not very nice Roger, Nigel’s shiny hair and crying mother and Mr. Sharpa’s duff chocolate, life can get into a little bit of a tangle as far as Tom is concerned.
But there’s always Kathy. And Mrs. Goodrich’s legs.
Tom loves going into Mr Sharpa’s shop.
He loves the way it smells. If he shuts his eyes, the smell of all the different sweets make mad coloured patterns behind his eye lids: like looking through his kaleidoscope, though the newspapers that smell like the compost bin at the end of the garden ruin it a bit.
Having a frozen statue kaleidoscope eyelids moment just inside the doorway of the shop isn’t always the best idea.
The fat bloke who smells of tea bags and waits until everyone has left the shop before he buys his newspaper walked straight into Tom, knocking him out of the way. Three times by last counting.
The fat bloke always seems ‘preoccupied’: the polite word Tom’s Aunt Bea uses for when you’re lost in your own little world daydreaming or something.
Tom doesn’t think Fat Bloke gets just how brilliant it is to have sweets that smell like kaleidoscopes.
The shelves with all the magazines on make Tom a little dizzy sometimes.
He found out from Dr. Benson – or Dr. B as his mum calls her – that this is possibly because the varnishes used on the magazines to make them shiny have quite a lot of chemicals in them.
Maybe that’s why the grumpy bloke who smells of tea bags bumps into him.
Maybe all the chemical smells from the magazines he takes off the top shelf have gone to his brain.
Funny place the top shelf. Very mysterious. Tom is not quite sure exactly what is so bad to be kept up there, but given what seems to be freely available for the dumb boys with smart phones at school to look at and snigger about the magazine stuff must be REALLY bad.
When Tom tries to look up at the magazines on the top shelf his neck ends up at a funny angle and his head feels really, really heavy for some reason, which makes his neck hurt and gives him a headache.
He doesn’t mention that to Dr. B though: just because.
He doesn’t go near the shops at the moment. Not that he wouldn’t like to given half a chance and an armed guard.
He’d like to go to the shop a lot more often: Mr. Sharpa has a young girl working for him who is really pretty and Tom would like to talk to her. Well, more than just the universal ‘Just those…oh and these. Ta. Thanks’ vocabulary of your average confectionary transaction, which was all he’d managed so far.
Not that he knows when she’d find the time to talk to him. She is always on her mobile ‘you know like yeah like, you’re kidding, never, I would! – laugh laugh – you never? – cackle caw – tosser’. She’s boom tasty.
He noticed the other day that she walks home along his road, so she must live nearby. He knows that her brother is called Vince and he works in the Greengrocer on the high street.
Tom is definitely interested in a ‘I know she’s not Kathy but…’ kind of way, though he’s not exactly sure what being interested actually entails.
So, it’s not because he doesn’t want to go to the shop. He does. And it is not because of the stealing.
It’s the hitting that’s the problem.
Shops that smell of Chocolate and funny smelling magazine varnish should have a health warning as far as Tom concerned; especially running up to Guy Fawkes’ Night.
It started when West goose-necked him after he didn’t hand over the contents of his pockets immediately.
West was after the usual of course: an expensive smart phone, until he copped a load of Tom’s ancient Nokia hand me down.
So after that he just moved onto pilfering any loose DS games, actual money (mental), cool pens, kit. Anything.
What West finally got out of Tom was £2.37 in assorted change, one Driller Killer badge with a broken pin stem (lifted off Jaqui’s last squeeze), a biro with Reed Employment written on the side, and an old chocolate coin from last Christmas.
Tom had found the shiny coin in the far corner behind his bed at the end of a ’machine-gunned spy falling from a helicopter down into the ice crevice with fading out scream to make it sound like he’d fallen a really long way’ moment.
Maybe that’s why West has decided that Tom was his new ‘bitch’. (Tom doesn’t get the use of the B word, given that West is most certainly white, never been to prison, isn’t in a proper like you see on the telly gang – and he doesn’t breed dogs.)
Being told by Miss Goodrich that ‘West is probably just a boy who obviously translates the inadequacy of his upbringing and his continuing battle with obesity into negative physical actions and demonstrations against weaker boys’ didn’t really help.
In Tom’s world, West is a fat bullying tosser. And Tom is his bitch. And that really wasn’t going well for him.
Things weren’t helped by the fact that Tom thought he was saying ‘batch’ at first. Afterwards Tom realized that West was actually saying Be-atch but how was he to know.
West got annoyed that Tom didn’t understand what he was saying at first, as if it made it less, nasty.
When the contents of Tom’s pockets finally lay scattered on the floor in front of West, Tom thought he might get laughed at for carrying around a Christmas Coin in the middle of June. But West was bored by then. And momentarily distracted. He’d spotted Nigel’s rich hair coming down the road. Nigel called to Tom but Tom just scooped up his debris and slunk off. No fear. Soz Nige.
Anyways, on most occasions West just hit Tom or nicked his sweets or most usually both. And to be fair to West, he did have some creative flair. West liked to give his bullying a seasonal flavor.
In November the light violence was brilliantly illuminated by gunpowder.
A load of rockets had been nicked from Mr Sharpa’s shop in the week before Guy Fawkes Day.
The Whodunnit question was answered the next day by the screaming whizzwhistle of a rocket as it hurtled past the sweet shop door on its way towards Tom’s head, fired from inside a nearby hedge.
It wasn’t just Tom of course. West also fired them at passing cars: oh, and cats.
West used to live on the estate on the other side of the town before he moved two roads along from Tom.
Tom’s dad said the estate was full of unsavoury types – dodgy he called it. Full of trash.
The dodgy estate has two-story houses made of red brick with slate roofs and scruffy old curtains in the windows.
Some of them seemed quite happy to have their trash actually in their front gardens.
Some have put a drive in with ‘crazy’ paving. Tom doesn’t know what’s so crazy about it. Something about the place made Tom feel really depressed. Tom thought that was probably what made boys like West unhappy and made them hit him and take his sweets.
He supposed that’s what the ‘physical actions’ were that Miss Goodrich had spoken about.
Tom has heard that West nicks mobiles off the older kids so, in one way, Tom is glad that he hasn’t got a smart one, but in another, he still feels a real loser when they all show each other stuff off the internet and instagram each other.
Tom knows the estate that West comes from because the bus to the open-air swimming pool goes through there.
Tom likes the swimming pool. He likes water. He likes to take a deep breath and make a star shape, and just sink to the bottom, the sound like a big wooly wet blanket around him, till his chest feels like its going to cave in and die.
21 Seconds is his best. But he thinks he might have forgotten to count 13, 16, and 17. He gets really dizzy so it is more like 18 seconds.
But the water isn’t as much fun as the sea. Tom loves the sea. He also likes the beach that the sea rolls up over.
Michael sits at a table beneath the window. He faces into the room’s interior, both feet planted squarely on the ground in front of him. His body tips slightly forward, the weight of it pitching down each leg, the pressure closing down the tiny space between the ball of each foot and the floor. He enjoys the feeling of connection.
A thin, flat light pours over his head, fixing it in a halo of bright, fragile air. The table at which he sits is set lengthways against the wall beneath the window, a chair placed at either end of it.
Michael sits at one end of the table, his back against the metal seam between the glass above and the steel panel below.
The table’s steel legs seem to hang beneath it, their patina of rust and chipping like long tassles to the floor.
(The whole school building is constructed out of concrete, steel panel walls sprayed pastel blue and green and windows set into peeling white steel frames – a mixture of clear and frosted wire security glass and toughened plastic panes slightly bowed by the sunlight of fifty some summers.)
The stiff, plaster-beige folds of Micheal’s work coat gather beneath his leaning frame. His left hand is set firmly on his knee: the other hangs, slung over the side of the cracked and chipped table-top.
Michael sits, a little lost in himself: as always.
The air hangs in a warm, hollow fold at the centre of the room.
The cooler stagnant smells of oil, electricians tape, stale tea, cooked meats, wood pitch and the inside of drawers hang like shadowed cloths around the room’s edges.
(The reek of the previous Caretaker’s cheap and profusely smoked cigarettes has finally lifted, though it has taken all of Michael’s six years here for it to do so; the pocked tar muddied ceiling tiles above him the only evidence now of the thick tobacco plumes that once stained the air.)
An inconsistent sun pours in through the frosted wired glass. It falls across the polished steel toe-caps of Michael’s work boots, creating two dark shadows which appear and disappear as the sun tides in and out.
He looks at the floor.
The cracked plastic flooring has begun to reveal the similarly cracked concrete beneath.
Michael is lost in thought until, quite suddenly, the present rushes into the room, with the escalating caw of the boiling kettle and the shrill whistle that always follows it.
Michael smoothes his hand across his mostly grey hair with its yellowing blonde temple streaks like sandstone welts through granite.
He shifts his weight forward and goes to stand. The tightly wound long muscle strands, unseen beneath the time-shined fabric of his work trousers, allow him to undertake this action with a lightness, pace and deftness that verges on the feline: an unusual physical characteristic to find in a fifty-something year old man.
It is a physical characteristic in which Michael still takes enormous yet silent pride. His own memory might fail him every now and then but his highly trained muscle memory never did.
As he walks across the room towards the sink, where kettle and mug perch, he is suddenly struck by a feeling of ‘ inconsequence’ so powerful and yet so banal as to, for the merest fleeting second at least, give him little reason to even complete the next step. He stops.
The feeling passes, unlocking his legs in the process
As he approaches the bench, something outside the room catches his attention.
The muffled sound of one pair of running feet swiftly followed by three or four more pairs in hot pursuit, spills in from the outside.
The sounds are accompanied by a frosted shape and then four more, rushing past on the other side of the glass behind him.
Though no external sign of interest in the outside events seems to invade the locked room of his routine, inside Michael every sense crackles and turns, unfurling their antennae to collect every miniscule scrap of information they can of the pursuit outside.
The sound of running decreases until the white hum of the ordinary returns.
The kettle coughs a couple of puffs of purposeful steam through the loose fitting lid and the cream and brown plastic switch pops ‘off’.
Michael absently flicks through the rolling file of young faces that he stores in his head, each carefully logged and categorised. There are many boys and girls that the first pair of running feet could belong to: many that spend the last ten minutes of every class hiding in the hollow bleak cavity of fear that bubbles up in their chest before break-time; a quietly worn fear that seizes them every time they come to having negotiate the space between one class and the next; every journey peppered with the potential for some kind of nightmare scenario: sometimes succeeding but mostly failing in getting past unscathed.
Michael looks at the wall, one hand on the kettle. Who’d be 12 years old – and weak.
Michael’s hands instinctively reach out to rest on the edge of the bench on which the kettle and mug sit.
He places his thickened palms face down on its cool surface .
The chopped and sawn indentations of a thousand small cutting and shaping jobs had removed the bench’s perfectly tooled right-angled edges a long time ago.
The candy-striped scores, ruts and scours in its surface filled with decades of every colour and hue of paint, present a jolly depth and subtext to the surface’s dull brown flatness.
He enjoys the familiar feeling he gets from setting his hands upon the bench, the bristling of it across his neck punctuating his thoughts.
The first set of running feet had been quite particular – a little clodding: as if a pair of outsized shoes strung from jangling trousers were being repeatedly thrown to the floor.
The Davis boy. T. Davis. Yr. 7.
At this moment of informed recognition, if you knew Michael’s face really well – if you could read the infinitesimal shifts his emotions rarely played up into his face, you would have seen a brief shift in Michael’s expression, an ill-defined echo of some deep-seated memory, a feeling, passing across his face.
Funny old world. Goes Around Comes Around.
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.