Tom opens his eyes. Morning.
His room is warming up nicely, the sun fuzzing through the gauzy primrose yellow curtains.
He looks at the ceiling and his eyes follow a small crack in the plaster running in a squiggly line outwards from the plastic cornicing.
Cracks: the house was moving. Not a surprise really. Even the house wanted to go and live somewhere else.
Tom runs his tongue over his teeth; they feel weird.
He cups his hand, puts it over his mouth and breathes out. His breath is a bit smelly. Ok, more than a bit – it mings.
He slides one leg out from under his steaming bedcovers and dangles it in the cooler air. He moves his toes: they hurt but he’s not quite sure why.
He slides the other leg out and swings his body up and out of bed adopting a zombie like posture as he does.
He is a zombie. He is dead from the neck up at least. He’s a head zombie. A head zombie-mind-reader. A mind-reading-head-zombie-body-stealer.
He crosses his room to the ‘thresh-hold’ – and steps out onto the landing on his way to the bathroom. His feet scuff the carpet. They feel heavy. He can hear the clatter-ding-caw of breakfast stuff going on in the kitchen downstairs. And the muffled sound of his parents below speaking ‘at’ each other.
Some people think his parents are talking ‘to’ each other but Tom knows better because there is this thing they do – a ‘not listening’ thing – where they just talk over the beginning and ends of each other’s sentences, like Mr. Baker does when Tom starts wanging on because he’s taken so long to answer the question that he’s half forgotten what the question was.
Tom looks in the bathroom mirror. An average boy glances back at him..
He stops brushing his teeth. He looks at his hair in the mirror. It is really average brown-ish and cut in a weird shape around his head, like a space helmet but without the really cool bits.
His face sits in the middle of his head. He leans close in to the mirror. He tries to look at his face properly to see what he really looks like but his face gets in the way. He makes his eyes go in and out of focus a lot and waits a bit to see if his face changes at all.
He’s stayed up late one night and watched a Greatest Movie Moments programme that was packed full of film clips. A woman talked about great movie ‘silhouettes’ – like Indiana Jones with his hat and his whip. And the man from a film called the Exorcist, under a street light.
He tried a few of them out. Weird.
Sometimes he thinks that if he stares hard enough his face might warp into someone brilliant looking; but no. Nothing. Just average, dull, boring him.
And now his eyeballs feel really achy at the back from him making his eyes do weird stuff.
His body isn’t much better. He lifts his arms up. He does Hulk power arm shapes. He lets them flop down again. He hunches himself over so his shoulders go all round and sloped.
He is skinny and he looks funny in his matching Y fronts and vest.
The bang on the door makes him jump.
It is his Dad. He is in a bad mood. Something about being late and ‘what do you do in there all day?’
Tom thinks that’s a bit unfair. Jaqui spends much more time in here than he does. He puts his toothbrush under the tap, rinses it and puts it back in the holder. His Dad bangs again.
Tom’s dad is pretty much the same as all of the other dads in The Close: same looks, same clothes, same interests. It’s like there is a secret dad shop somewhere in town where all the dads go to get kitted out.
Tom can’t understand why his dad wants to look like the rest of them given how rude he is about them. He mows the lawn, washes the car, stands by his fence nosing about other people’s visitors. Just like them.
Like all the other dads he seems to have a lot of passing conversations with Mirka, the Au Pair at Number 23 about nothing in particular: certainly from what Tom can make out anyway.
Mirka is a teenager from the Czech Republic and she says she is studying.
Tom made the mistake of saying Czechoslovakia once. He wouldn’t be doing that again. He wasn’t sure whether the hot prickly feeling that had crept up his neck onto his face was because she shouted ‘stupid know nothing dumb ass’ really, really loudly and everyone heard or because he thinks she is very attractive.
Tom’s dad has a super power of sorts. He is the Invisible Man. They were at the pub once and his dad was trying to get served and even though he was right in the front of the queue almost every one else got served before him.
The barmaid girl whose eye his dad was trying to catch actually asked Tom what he wanted and he had to the do the nod and eyes thing in the direction of his dad.
His dad’s face had gone red. Though Tom wasn’t sure whether it was anger or embarrassment: hard to tell really. Sometimes Tom’s dad’s went red but then he would let out a huge fart and his face would go back to normal. This wasn’t one of those times
Tom’s dad is quality.
Tom overheard his dad and mum talking about a dinner party they had been to. He felt really bad after a while because he allowed himself finding it hard to imagine the other people at the dinner party finding his Dad really funny and interesting.
He couldn’t imagine anyone saying ‘That bloke is really interesting: funny, bright; yes, I really like him’ about his dad; which is a bit harsh as his dad must be a bit of a laugh to be invited in the first place.
Tom’s dad has two pairs of nice trousers and wears his leather coat with everything. He drives a silver French car and wears a fancy french after-shave on special occasions. Whenever the commercial for it comes on the telly he strikes the pose of the male model and whispers the name.
He has slightly bow legs and pigeon toes but won’t admit to them claiming that he has “misshapen muscle mass due to playing football semi-professionally… which, by the way is one of the many reasons we don’t see your grandfather; ever, because I’m a football man and he’s a rugby union snob and anyway, let’s face it, he’s a twisted old…” at which point Tom’s Mum would shoosh or nudge his dad into silence.
Tom had never really considered why he never sees his grandfather. He supposes he should do but what you don’t have you don’t miss perhaps.
Come to think of it none of his friends had their grandparents.
Well, Nigel did – a grandfather – his dad’s dad – but he was up in the North somewhere – pretty rich by all accounts – but since Nigel’s mum and dad had split up Nigel didn’t really see him.
Tom’s dad runs a small furnishings shop in the town specializing in ‘styles for modern living’ (as claimed in his small ad in the small ads bit of the local paper) – Tom thinks the stuff is OK but there’s a lot of corner units made out of something called plywood and, to be honest, he’d heard his Dad say that they would go up like November the 5th if you dropped a fag on them.
Tom can sense his dad leaning into the bathroom door preparing to hammer even louder this time.
His mum shouts up at his dad to tell him not to shout at Tom.
Her voice sounds funny – it’s got a sort of ‘leave him alone’ and ‘don’t be mean’ tone This confuses Tom as she’s not really a softy like Nigel’s mother.
Tom thinks his mum looks a bit lost sometimes. Tom thinks lots of things about his mum: some of them are not very nice which then make him feel bad inside for thinking them.
He’s decided that she is a lovely person who just got sidetracked into being not very nice or a bit mean sometimes, like Doc Oc’s nanoparticle electro-molecular conflation experiment accidently going horribly wrong, turning a totally decent professor bloke into a marauding genocidal maniac.
Aunt Bea says Tom’s mum has got a lot on her plate. As far as Tom can see that’s half the problem. She doesn’t. She’s got too little as far as Tom can see. She always eats funny little portions and goes on strange diets that feature in her magazines and she just gets more tired and really grumpy
Tom’s mum works as a manager at a local supermarket. She likes her job. She has a couple of friends from work who pop round sometimes. One of them, Tina, sticks her chest out a lot and she wears a lot of makeup.
Tom’s dad calls her an ‘old tart’ under his breath when he thinks no-one’s listening– but the other one, Annie, seems alright.
Tom’s Mum likes to make the house just so: not that his dad ever notices.
She is not that old. Tom thinks that she is pretty; just not like in an actress kind of way. If you look at her closely there are millions (OK, maybe thousands: three thousand or something like that) of weeny blonde hairs covering her face which her powdery foundation sort of hovers on top of. Maybe it’s hovering for a reason.
Even from upstairs her can tell that she is not happy.
Tom’s mum has little explosions of loving Tom too much, and sometimes not much at all. Sometimes she seems disappointed in him: or she doesn’t like him; something anyway.
Tom’s dad doesn’t help. He seems to look straight through her with x ray vision. It’s as if he believes somehow that if he doesn’t focus on her for a bit and then does again she’ll have turned into someone else. His dad’s eyes are like those of an android programmed to kill without conscience.
The photo albums are full of photos of Tom’s parents having a laugh. There are a few with his Granddad and Grandma, not that he would he be allowed to call him Granddad if he ever did meet him – because “he would think it sounded common”.
Tom knows that something bad happened. If you’ve got a dad why wouldn’t you see him? And his mum and Aunt Bea seemed very close with each other. Why wouldn’t they be close with their dad?
Funnily enough they do look quite grand, his Granddad and Grandma. Tom wonders whether that’s where all those complicated words in his mum come from. They sound like they come from the world that Granddad looks like he comes from.
He looks a little bit like the Attenborough bloke that his dad always watches on the telly: but after a few too many family buckets of Ken’s Lucky Fried Chicken.
Maybe it’s a good job that they don’t see them and they never talk about them. Tom was told that the first time his Granddad held him Tom pooped his nappy with a massive farty bubbly noise and then vomited all over his Granddad’s trademark linen suit and expensive Italian hat.
The situation was made worse apparently by his Aunt Bea saying, “Sick, yes, but what insight, what a critic!”
His father is normally crying with laughter by the time he gets to this part of re-telling the story and Tom has never had the courage to ask him what’s so funny. Insight is a word he doesn’t really get. And why would a baby throwing up be critical?
Anyway. He reckons it might be to do with his Granddad being a shit or something. That was what Aunt Bea had sort of half shouted in a bit of a shouty conversation with his mum on one of their curry nights in.
Tom is dressed now. He walks down the stairs, his hand sliding along the edge of the glossy-white banister.
He looks out of the window that looks out over the Close; at the houses that look just like Tom’s. Tom’s house is pretty average.
It is a sandy brick and white weatherboard ‘new build’ house on the edge of a market town by the sea.
His dad had told Tom that the town expanded in the late 1950s – that’s when their house was built. The only reason his dad had told him this is that Tom had seen a house off the high street with a small stone shield in its front brickwork with ‘built in 1815’ engraved into it. When Tom had asked his dad why their house didn’t have one of these his dad pointed out that writing 1968 on the front of the house wouldn’t be quite as cool.
Tom’s family went to visit a cousin once down in the West Country – somewhere near a place that sounded like a Cider drink – and their road looked exactly the same as his but just the other way around, sort of.
Tom thought that perhaps that made their house a bit like a McDonalds. You could go anywhere in England and find the same – same road, same house, same families. Just in a different place. Which was a shame because when they had driven down to Devon once for a summer holiday Tom realised that all the old houses and buildings looked slightly different from one place to the next. Maybe that’s why old people looked so confused. They come from a time when their houses and streets looked like theirs – not everyone else’s. Maybe they knew where they were once. And didn’t anymore.
For a while Tom thought that maybe all their houses looking the same makes England look a bit dull (apart from the nutter at the end of St Margaret’s Road who put paving slabs across the front wall of his house and some weird plastic bird in a small pond at the front being attacked by old toy wrestler and superhero figures and a Tamiya model of a WWII Tiger Tank).
But then on a school trip to look at European Cathedrals (weird idea really) they had driven through Belgium and all their houses were the same too – different to Tom’s, but the same as each other. So maybe everyone liked being the same.
The upside was that Tom did quite like having to write out his address or say it out loud
Someone had obviously thought it would be good to reflect some local piece of history in the road names on the estate: in Tom’s case it’s a bit of Roman and Saxon thrown together – the excuse being that there were the remains of an old iron age hill fort and burial mound nearby.
So, at No. 23 Ethelburga Close, off the Boudicca Through Road (and just across from Legionnaires Drive) on the Wessex Estate, you’ll find Tom, his mum and dad, his sister Jaqui; and Ceasar.
Distinguishing house feature? A small tuft of Pampas Grass in one corner of the front Garden. The people who lived there before them had planted it and Tom’s dad couldn’t be bothered to dig it up, even though he hated it.
The Wessex Estate is sandwiched between the main road coming into town and Seaway along which you’ll find the rubbish football club and sports centre and the VW dealership full of shiny cars they can’t afford.
Everyone seems to admire them but Tom’s dad says VW a bit too smug for his liking and he seems to always hope some strange fate will befall them. Maybe he’s just jealous.
Between the Wood and The Golf Club is a track leading to the sea that smells of damp bark and burnt rubber.
Beyond that is a smart road called The Drive that snakes into the south side of town, with the Golf Course spreading either side of it. The Drive is full of very big houses where everyone looks like they have just been on holiday.
When you’re in the middle of the Wessex Estate you could be anywhere (or No Where thinks Tom).
Eventually you might realise that you’re near the sea because of the seagulls.
You can also tell because some houses have small covered boats in the drive or in their garages; and windbreaks and beach stuff in brightly-coloured plastic and stripy canvass. There is one house with a cool Volkswagen Van outside sprayed kind of bright orange and sea blue.
So; kind of could be anywhere seaside-ish but no great shakes.
Tom is frozen on the stairs eyeing the pampas tuft flopping in the wind. He hears the sound of distant pounding.
Jaqui rushes past Tom on her way up the stairs. The static from the man-made fibres in her crop-top and mad tights meets with the buzz of his just scuffed sock shuffle skin. The air fuses in a static lightning flash.
She punches his arm. The smell of brambles fills the air.
Tom’s sister, Jaqui, is pretty average as girls go. She is older than Tom. He wishes she wasn’t his sister. He can’t understand why she doesn’t feel the same. How can she bear to be Tom’s sister. She hates Tom (or that’s what he’s decided). Her friends laugh at Tom and throw things at him. When Tom’s sister gets annoyed she hits him with her trainers or those mental cork wedges she loves, which he thinks is funny. This annoys her even more.
He did not find it funny the other day though because as he tipped out the backdoor into the garden with her in hot pursuit he tripped over the hose reel lying across the path.
He fell on the bit you wind the hose around and the tap went into his ribs. He thought he might throw up it hurt so much.
He laughed. Not because he was going to throw up but because in her rush to spam him across the forehead with a random trainer she tripped over Caesar’s water bowl and twisted her ankle.
She got really angry with him and his laughing didn’t help.
He said that she was just angry because she was probably going to meet Dangerous Boy and she wouldn’t be able to go to the wood and snog him if her ankle was twisted. He knew because he had seen her.
That didn’t go down well.
She only stopped hitting him on the head with her trainer because their dad had come out and pulled her off him. He thought she had over reacted a bit but thought better of saying anything else.
He knew why she was really upset. Her best friend Tina (who Jaqui quietly believed was much prettier than her) was seen with Dangerous Boy last week. Jaqui was frightened that Tina was going to get off with him: he’d heard her say so when she was talking to Chivaughn, Chavayne of Chardonnay or whatever her name is.
Once Jaqui had been dispatched and things calmed down Tom noticed that his dad smelt of that after-shave from the blue bottle and he was wearing one of his new shirts – so he must have been on his way somewhere special.
As he walks away Tom sees two huge slobber marks across the back of his dad’s smart brown trousers. Nice.
The pounding of something heavy up the stairs follows the smell of brambles.
Ceasar gallops up the stairs after Jaqui. He passes Tom, another static flash and a huge swipe of slobber is left clinging to Tom’s school trouser leg. The slobber is undecided as to whether it should run down his leg as gravity dictates or follow the static upwards towards the light flash emanating from around Tom’ s head.
A damp woody, rotten smell fills the air.
Their dog, Caesar is pretty average apart from the fact that his name is the same as a Roman Emperor. He fits right in at Ethelburga Close opposite Legionnaire’s Drive.
There is nothing imperial about him. He is an average everyday mix of retriever and terrier. He smells of damp brambles and has bad breath.Caesar came and licked Tom’s face while he was watching the telly last Saturday and Tom had to wash his face with Dettol: twice.
Tom is frozen in static shock on the stairs. He sees his face reflected in the window glass. He looks like a nutter. His hair has breached the vice like grip of hair product, and is now sticking up proudly, ignited by static, The awfulness of his life, which Tom is never slow to celebrate most of the time, is put to one side as the sheer genius of static electricity fills his head.
He imagines building up enough static to be able to stick balloons and small cuddly toys to himself and walking into his Physics class, introducing himself as the lesson for today at school: that would be genius funny.
Tom’s school is a comprehensive secondary school called St Michaels. It is built out of prefabricated steel and glass. It’s got different coloured plastic panels which are all a bit faded. The colours are all apparently called things like Mute Blue, Ethereal Yellow and Whist Green.
Tom found out the name of the colours from the caretaker once while waiting to go into see the Head Mistress. Tom thinks that the caretaker is strange. He watches Tom a lot. Sometimes it makes him feel really uncomfortable.
He might be a nutter John said.
What if he ended up like that child on the front page of his dad’s Sunday Paper that is otherwise full of pictures of half dressed women.
Tom, the obedient child, buried under the floor of the sports hall by the caretaker. John had got a little carried away to be fair. But the caretaker is kind to Tom so that’s fine.
When they started bullying Tom a lot, the caretaker seemed to always be just where Tom needed him; and he was brilliant at making the boys leave Tom alone without winding them up; which was more than he could say for Mr Poulter, the Art teacher who always managed to just make it worse.
The thought of school fills Tom with a big fat ‘so what’. He arrives at the bottom of the stairs and swings right.
The radio is on in the kitchen. Tom takes a bowl from the cupboard and the third box from the left in the line of cereals.
It is vitamin enriched which apparently gives you a happy heart. Tom thinks that maybe he should eat a box, call customer services, demand a psychological assessment and then threaten to sue them under the Trade Descriptions Act.
The smell of old cooked food wafts out at him as he takes the milk from the fridge. There is one really nasty smell in the middle of the overall waft. Tom can’t quite put his finger on it. Judging by the smell he reckoned that even if he were to put his finger on it he would probably require a paramedic.
He scans the fridge. It is most likely to be the cheese that his dad bought home the other evening. It was drippy and yellowish. It smelled like a dead person – not that Tom had ever smelt one but he’d seen them on the telly and they look pretty smelly.
“A cheese with its own postcode” Tom had said.
He thought that was very funny. He had heard someone on the television say that about someone’s nose because it was so big. He thought it kind of worked for the cheese.
His dad said that his comment just showed what an ‘oik’ he was. A look passed between his mum and dad, which resulted in his dad going quiet; but not for long.
“This is a fine cheese” his dad said.
Tom assumed that it was like those posh cheeses in the ‘Finest’ section of the supermarket. Tom said that it was fine as long as it was nowhere near him; which he thought was equally funny.
Tom eventually spies it, lurking just behind the half empty soya milk (yeecchhh) double wrapped in cling-film, sweating. Tom closes the door leaving the cheese to sit unpleasantly in the dark emanating its cheese violence.
Tom imagines that somewhere in the labyrinth of one of the computer games that he doesn’t have there is a level which requires you to traverse a sea of this stinking cheese.
He sits down at the counter. He starts to shovel in the cereal. He can hear Jaqui stamping around upstairs. The plasterboard ceiling creaks and groans. She has lost her ballet shoes. Funny.
The kitchen radio drones on over the wet gravel crunch of Tom’s cereal eating.
There is a man on the news. He is from somewhere on the south coast – a ferry skipper. You can hear the whistling of the wind in the background as he speaks. He is all worked up about his ferry trip taking 10 minutes longer than usual and him being late and he’s never late and how something’s odd with his compass.
The Bermuda Triangle is mentioned a lot. Tom’s dad is not quite sure why the man is so upset. “10 minutes late? If the 7.37 to Liverpool Street was only 10 minutes late I’d eat my shoe”.
Speaking of which, Tom hears a massive thud upstairs. Jaqui has either fallen over the dog or one of her legs has dropped off. Tom hears the dog charging down the stairs.
He squeezes slightly further along the breakfast counter and puts his left arm lengthways, protectively along the side of his bowl in readiness.
There is a politician bloke on the news now. He is talking about the ‘special relationship’ between the British and Americans reaching right back to the war.
He talks about ‘slipping the yoke’ of Europe, which reminds Tom of some of the language that comes up in English Lit. All very Shakespearean.
Another politician, a lady this time, says that the relationship is not as good as we think and only the Americans really benefit from it. She says we should be ‘aligning ourselves more with the European Community’.
Tom makes a note in his head to look up ‘aligning’ to make sure that it means what he thinks it does because it sounds like ‘malign’ which he vaguely remembers is bad.
The woman blahs on about economic superpowers and import tax, isolationism and agricultural grants: and not getting closer to the Americans being a good thing.
Tom tries to gather in a rogue piece of cereal with his tongue from its current position,stuck to the outside of his lip like a crusty spot (not dissimilar to a thing Jaqui had on her lip for a week and about which she got all weird and went mental with with cover up and stuff.)
His tongue slips over the oaty circle which drops to the counter top in a small blob of milk.
Tom’s father would love the British to be closer to the Americans. He’s always going on about ‘dodgy foreigners, bloody French! And the Italians! All big pepper mill, alo beoootifool layydee and sparkly eyes on that holiday in Rimini”. Toms mum always gives a little smile when he brings this up.
Tom reckons his dad was angry because they couldn’t really afford the holiday so he felt better if he told himself that they were all dodgy and ripping him off.
And as for the Germans “Don’t start me on the Germans. Bloody EU. Bloody Edward bloody Heath” was what it all boiled down to with his Dad. Tom isn’t sure who Edward Heath is but he admires his ability to irritate his dad.
Tom becomes nervous. Tom thinks about the Tie a lot while listening to the radio and ambling around his cereal. Maybe he would go to the beach after school and see the Tie. Maybe he should re-tie the Tie.
He couldn’t really think of a good reason other than maybe he shouldn’t have untied it.
Ceasar’s smell precedes him like an Early Warning System. Tom feels the weight of Ceasar against his left thigh as a slurry of slobber trails along his left arm.
Tom sees Ceasar’s black nose sniffling across the top of his arm. He turns and places the bowl with the little cereal and milk left in it on the floor. Caesar wags his tail, licks his lips and farts.
Ceasar licks the bowl swishing it from side to side across the tiles and towards the other side of the kitchen with furry pink swipes of his tongue, clatter scrape clatter as it goes.
The DJ on the radio introduces a golden track from the archive.
‘Ohhhh, I am going to Barbados, Woooh, lovely country, Ohhh I’m going to Barbados, Woooh, by the sunny Caribbean seaaaaaaaa’
Tom is pleased that no-one can see him sitting, listening to Old Bloke Music
Michael had ceased to be amazed by the cat’s cradle of life a long time ago: the way by all things are connected. How the fingers of one’s life continuously turn and twist, yet the string is the same string, never changing its length, thickness or design; continuous, steady, fixed.
The padlock across the cupboard doors glints in front of him.
The flat grey sheen of the cupboard’s sprayed steel surfaces seem to almost glow. His gaze shifts across the room to the table opposite.
A bucket, a small plastic bottle of detergent, made misty by the chemical, and some wire wool sits beside a random tumbling stack of blue latrine hygiene tablets.
Michael remembered the first time he came across words about the Davis boy scratched in the loo cubicle. The usual thing: questions of sexuality; acts privately undertaken.
Michael wondered whether the boy’s grandfather had any idea that he was ‘that one’ in his class. The outsider; the loner.
Not that his grandfather would or could be of any help: he had chosen the degree of his involvement (or the absence of it) a long time ago. Not that he would know what to do with him anyway.
The minutiae by which young people navigated life; the small intuitions required to help them do it: these would be utterly alien to him. To the Old Man youth was ‘another country I’d heard of long ago’.
He was only good for the puffed chests of little men. He was only good with grand gestures and flattery: cajoling thin-spirited people into turning his ugly little ideas into actions (Michael never could bring himself to use the word Ideal when it came to The Old Man). Bierkeller Cod oratory designed to turn a man against someone who couldn’t help but stand out to be seen; that’s what the Old Man was good for: very good at making other people the butt of everyone’s disappointments: especially his own.
Michael reaches up and runs the coarse palm of his hand around his face: his calloused fingers bump across the lines and the rents of skin that gather below his cheek and under his jaw.
Michael had, for a very short while, wondered whether he should contact the Old Man: to let him know. A word had not passed between them since the day he turned on his heel and walked away from the planning table at what was laughingly called their HQ; scattered with scraps of pamphlets, slogans and statistics: ‘massaged’ facts and figures on and about everyone seen as ‘not quite Right’.
His hand traces up and around his eye, the hard skin of his finger-tips running over the crow’s feet, like tyres on a cattle grid.
Michael has long since lost the habit of flannelling his open hand across his face and over his high forehead; the physical tick of the fractured and the damaged.
He has not lost his habit though of reading the lines, rolls and pocks in his face while he thinks, as if in the braille of them somewhere an answer to the questions stumbling around inside his head will be found.
The men in that room: that funny little room packed with the purveyors, the guildsmen, of the Little White Lie: every motto another Little White brick with which they would rebuild their little England: their little island locked fiercely and immoveable in the top right hand corner of the right part of the world, just above Europe.
For them being above Europe was always so much more than just geography.
Their absolute belief in their superiority was faintly ridiculous, arch revivalists of some misty bygone age where all things good were good and whole and unsullied by others: outsiders.
Michael picks up the kettle, the weight of its boiling cargo tipping it forwards in his hand. The tea bag is already in the mug, waiting, perfectly positioned at a right angle. The thick funnel of boiling water pours over it, drawing out the perfect pitch of colour and taste. He uses the spoon to scoop and squeeze the sodden sack against the side of the mug before hoisting it out. The spoon descends again to stir. Meticulous. Military precision always. Even in the making of a cup of tea: especially in the ritual of a cup of tea.
The two girls had been with the Old Man outside the hall that summer evening. B was two years old at the time, wrapped tight in a light blanket over a baby dress of country cottage cottons.
Viv was four, or five perhaps: he could never remember the exact difference in their ages. For all her floral swaddle, B was spirited and contrary even then, wriggling to break free of her ‘mother’s’ grip (the beautiful, eternally patient and ultimately screwed over Anne), her small pudgy arms flailing and grasping at invisible sparks of life. Viv just stood anchored to her father’s leg, taciturn and disappointed by everything even then.
The sound of more running feet tumbles through into Michael’s consciousness. Again, he turns his head slightly, as an animal might, reading the intention and objective of the pursuers and assessing the victim’s ability to spoil it.
The passing laughter that accompanies the running feet jangles and claps between the walls of his building and the one opposite. Michael turns back and continues with his tea ritual.
When Michael first realized who the Davis boy was, he had promised himself that he would watch out for him: not for any particular reason and certainly not as any mark of respect for his previous employer: he would ‘just because’.
(For years Michael had believed that the laws of fitting in; the codes of similarity, were the things to be protected and defended at all costs. Now, difference was all that mattered to Michael. B had been right all along. It had just taken him a while to realise.)
As time passed, Michael grew accustomed to the boy, gradually allowing the recognition of his presence into the cloistered monotony of Michael’s routine. Over the recent months he had become quite attached to him and his characteristic quirks and geeks.
It became patently clear that the boy was, in many respects quite odd: certainly to someone like Michael.
Michael had been brought up to believe that all boys should be upstanding, blindly loyal to Queen and country; honourable; mischievous sometimes, certainly, but never showy: and certainly never extraordinary or different.
The skin at the corner of Michael’s mouth gathers upwards in an unexpected smile; the tiniest movement; barely discernable but a smile it was. Those silly rules: Never stand out. Be a ‘man’. Don’t be too good with books.Ideals are dangerous: especially those of the more extreme political, religious or aesthetic kind (unless of course it is the unspoken and wholly understated one of a fine white Christian kind that Idyll and Empire are built upon).
There had been little room in the little empire that was Michael’s schoolboy heart for quirks and oddities – boys who demonstrated them were usually ‘straightened’ through some form of attrition; emotional, physical or both.
Some things never changed: the running feet animated proof that to be different, to be extraordinary, to be more than everyday was viewed with deep suspicion and, for the person being extraordinary, a wholly dangerous past-time.
By some strange reverse Michael had begun to find himself viewing the boy’s quirks and oddities in a positive light: and as time passed they became more; greater; turning and morphing until they revealed themselves as ‘good things’ – quirly little beacons of redemption.
In some twisted reverse of logic they brought to mind all of his brittle traits and rituals that B used to tease him about: the way he always wore the same shoes with the same suit or jacket on the same day: the way his hair was always combed to attention via a series of four identical sweeps of his comb choreographed with the same immaculate precision every time; his penchant for eating exactly the same pub lunch everyday – a sandwich of honey roasted ham on white bread, heavily buttered and smoothed with English mustard, two pickles, and a sliver of farmhouse Cheddar set to the side; the way his broad bear-like shoulders always rolled in a shrug executed with military precision – Bear – how he loved that she called him Bear.
The bubbled water laps up the sides of Tom’s thighs.
Tom likes to jump into the bath early before it has barely begun to fill up. He enjoys the feeling of the water level creeping up his body, slowly welling around his ankles and creeping up the outside of his thighs. It tickles and feels slightly odd in the fact that his skin below the water is warm while the skin above is chilly, prickled with goosebumps.
Tom imagines that he is a spy strapped into an icy flood chamber in the subterranean grotto, the laughter of his evil nemesis echoing around the chamber as the water creeps ever higher.
The school day was pretty ‘not’. Tom spent most of the day enjoying the farmy grass smell floating up from the playing fields into the open windows, closely followed by the sharp tang of the fumes from the two stroke engine of the clanking machine cutting it.
He jams his arms down along the outside of his thighs, wedging them against the milky avocado plastic of the bath. They could at least have changed the bathroom. Everyone on television keeps making jokes about avocado bathrooms.
As the bath fills up, Tom gets that weird sensation of having hotwater whooshing around his legs, while his back pushes against the cool plastic surface.
The faded yellow flannel floats over his hips, barely touching. It bobbles and ripples a bit but the tiniest contact with Tom’s Thing keeps it fixed in place. Immoveable.
This little island of floppy yellow cotton is quite important to Tom.
Tom does not cover his Thing with the flannel because he’s shy. It’s just that everyone in Tom’s house acts like he isn’t there. They just walk into the bathroom, do stuff: sometimes even talk to him.
But that’ll change Tom thinks. He’s not sure when but he has a vague feeling that it will: soon.
He thinks about the Tie. Doing so makes his stomach feel funny. His toes, the right ones in particular, are the keepers of the water level. They, wholly independent of whatever is going on inside his head, monitor the water and act as required, knowing just when to turn the water off to maintain the perfect depth to ensure the flannel stays put, hovering over his privacy.
Tom is still amazed that he untied the Tie. It’s been there forever. Maybe since the beginning of the century. Maybe longer.
And what’s at the other end of the rope? What does it do? Tom senses that it is something really important. He senses that it might have something to do with the really extraordinary thing that he is going to do one day.
Maybe it’s a clue. Maybe he has to look for other Tie clues. Maybe he will find a lost treasure. Maybe there’s a rock tied to the end of it that will give him brilliant superpowers.
To be honest his current slightly average superpowers are getting him down. Maybe he has said maybe in his head too many times now and the word sounds funny to Tom, like a made-up word that he hasn’t really heard before.
That happens to Tom a lot. If he stares at a silly everyday word long enough or says it enough times, it begins to sound like a made up word, or a foreign one. Shoe for instance.
He thinks about the Tie a lot: and his untying of it.
It is quite hard to concentrate on what he is thinking because his whole face is in pain
from pulling a Maori war face one hundred times in the mirror. He saw some Maoris doing them on the news his dad was watching last night.
The face pulling is called a Hakka and it involves pulling faces that mean that you are going to gut and chop into pieces anyone who crosses you. It was part of the Maori Welcoming Party for a visiting Royal, which Tom finds a little confusing. Gutting you seemed a rather unwelcoming promise.
Tom tries pulling another killer warrior face to see if doing one more cancels out the pain of the first one hundred. As he does so he wonders again what on earth the great big piece of rope could be attached to: a fish perhaps, like a big fishing line: for giants. Or maybe there’s a boat somewhere, out in the middle of the North Sea that had anchored itself in a Bermuda Triangle like zone, lost on the other side of the fourth dimension, the only evidence being this big anchor rope that just appeared out of nowhere. Which Tom had just slipped free.
But that was just silly.
The Tie itself was so old and wizened.
(Tom loved that word: wizened. It should have been onomatopoeic – another word, one of Tom’s showing off words, that he loved – once he knew what it meant. But, ‘wizened’ just looked like it sounded, and was a bit like ‘wizard’ which was the name for old blokes with long wrinkly faces, which was cool still. It just made it an adjective apparently.)
Perhaps its magical? But Tom couldn’t figure out why; or how.
Tom sponges a trickle of bathwater into his mouth, swills it and fountains it in a big arc back towards his toes. It leaves a taste like the water in Aunt B’s kettle.
Tom’s sixth ‘toe’ sense has lost sight of the water level for a moment. As his toes crab up to turn the dimpled plastic tap left in three and one half turns something unusual happens.
The flannel ripples along one edge, and without much further ado, bobs a few millimetres to the right. Unlike before though, it continues to do so.
Toms feels the vague tickle of disengagement and then nothing.
The flannel seems to stall for the briefest moment, and then heads off towards his feet, rippling down its sides like the Manta Ray that he’d seen on one of his Dad’s fave Blue Planet programmes.
Tom watches it closely. He cannot get the Tie out of his mind. A very, very silly thought suddenly occurs to Tom as he watches the flannel bobble on un-attached.
No. That’s a ridiculous idea.
The flannel bobbles and sinks, a small wash-pool of water filling the dip at its centre, only for the centre to float up again, the whole thing turning slightly and then righting itself. It continues, still heading south towards his toes, which now sit one set hiding under the other, a little sheepish at their recent failure in the tap department.
Tom suddenly feels very, very chilly. He draws his knees up to his chin, the sponge clutched in his fists and held tight to his lips. He sucks the bathwater through the sponge, feeling the air travel through the porous bits as it does.
His mind wanders.
The chatter of the automatic weapon fire clattering across the tiles of the chamber startles him but he makes no sign of it.
Suddenly the large moustachioed henchman reaches into the freezing water, fixing his scarred, muscular fingers around the pale noble neck as he drags the young Bond out from the ice pool, gouts of water rolling off the struggling form. The young Bond’s body collapses, folding over the sharp, brutal edges of the frozen ice pool.
They had tortured him for 48 hours. He had said nothing. His body glistened with a mixture of sweat, ice flakes, droplets of blood and victory. The light flares and fades. The young Bond’s eyes begin to close.
(After a rather protracted conversation with John about Bond Vs. Bourne, Tom had stuck with Bond, more out of loyalty to his father’s childlike love of From Russia With Love – especially the theme tune by some bloke called Matt Munro.)
Would Verushka find him in time, help him escape from the Evil Island and bathe his battered body lovingly and adoringly back to health in her exotic villa?
The massive hammer blows on the door rouse the young Bond. He reaches weakly for his coral pink towel with the small tear half way along it, the result of some previous over-vigorous back toweling.
Verushka would come soon he knew. He just had to be patient. (He’d considered changing the name as it sounded too much like Veruca but he couldn’t think of any others)
“Get a bloody move on. Your sister needs the loo.”
Funny. Verushka’s voice had taken on a manly angry tone not dissimilar to his father’s.
In the fading light, the last thing he sees is the foaming scurf from the flood chamber trickling down the muscular strands of his arm, twitching and pulsing.
He is floating now. The sky is the sea; the sea the sky. As his eyes mist over, the white out of death almost welcome, he sees the sandy yellow edges of the Evil Island floating into the distance.
Is he floating way from it? Or it from him.
Three explosions echo through his head.
“I said get a BLOODY MOVE ON!”
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.