The beach is empty, as usual. Tom walks across it in a swervy stumble, his feet changing direction quickly and often to avoid treading on stuff.
The beach is scattered with a lot of stuff – the odd shell, a broken flip flop, frays of seaweed, brightly coloured sweet wrappers (some from very weird and wonderful parts of the world) – but mainly, the beach is scattered with Tom’s thoughts.
Tom sometimes pretends that there are so many thoughts crashing around inside his head that some fall out of his ear. The swervy stuff is to avoid treading on them.
He scuffs his feet through the sand. One shoe digs deeper into the sand than the other and his leg comes to a dead stop, snapping into a funny shape.
Tom knows that at times like this he has two choices.
Option 1 – He falls over, which is nice and easy; not too cool but also not too complicated.
Or Option 2 – he stays precariously near the edge of falling over, locked in a strange position.
This second option also has two variations. In the first, he stays fixed like a statue but with one leg trembling a lot, possibly for hours, days, weeks; years.
This gives him loads of time to figure out how to explain to anyone who may be watching him how he got in that position in the first place. These people could at any point include beach walkers, friends, family, journalists, world news stations, Kofi Annan, the Dalai Lama; or Kathy.
In the second variation he stands on his trembling leg for a split second and then, genius of all genius, he just carries on walking – a miracle, like the ones in his RE book.
Option 1. He decides to fall over.
Lying on the sand near the sea, face down, and moving his limbs at various intervals is one of Tom’s favourite past-times. He likes the way he feels sandwiched between the earth’s molten lava middle, pushing upwards in search of volcano action, and the weight of the sky, and the various stratospheres, gravities, planets, and all of the milky ways, universes and the cosmos above it pressing him down towards the Earth’s crust. He is the filling in a Hubble meets M Theory sandwich.
The Cosmos. Tom had heard of a theory called Superstring Theory. Which sounded really cool. Having not the faintest idea what it was, he initially imagined it to be a cosmic version of cheese string. Genius.
He then wondered what it could be used for. He wondered what Cat’s Cradle would be like, if you played it with Superstring. Or used it to make one of those telephones from two cups or tin cans.
He rolls his head to the right and the white noise of the sea and earth turning closes down into a muffled buffeting rumble.
At times like this Tom feels that time stands still. Or lies still.
The salty air whips around his nose for a while and then enters it through his right nostril.
This is because his left nostril is mostly blocked by tens of thousands of particles of crushed rock, glass, coral, dinosaur skeleton, boat bits, rust, Nemo’s relatives, the shore lines of foreign countries, glaciers, fish bones, giant squid beaks, crustacea shells, missiles, plastic bags, submarines, pirate’s gold teeth, the Kraken, meteorites, asteroids, volcanic carbon deposits, Moby Dick, precious stones and bits of old car (or sand to you and I).
They have been wedged up there thanks to the downward motion of his Gulliver-like collapse meeting the upward motion of the Lilliputian beach.
The sun is warm on his back. He feels the last of the mud crust fall off his legs as he moves it. Freedom.
Tom turns over. Funny. The sky above him seems a bit confused, like it doesn’t know what it’s meant to be doing.
It’s blue; he’s sure of that. It’s the clouds that are the problem. Some of them are very high and stretched out; long, crispy and wispy. Cloud goujons. A couple of others are small and fat and bobble about a bit.
He looks up at the sun. The cloud shaped shadows it throws on the beach scamper around him.
Tom likes the sun. It reminds him of foreign places and the bit in films where the sun makes a big flare across the television screen like a flame. He likes the way that, when you close your eyes after looking at the sun, the shape stays printed on your eye-lids, like a smudgy, white circle, surrounded by lots of colours. He also likes the fact that if you wait a while the white circle turns into other colours; like purple and orange and blue and pink.
He likes the way that the sun makes walking from outside to inside feel like time or space travel – like he’s changing atmospheres or centuries.
Tom remembers that he is going to do something. What? Check the Tie? Re-tie the Tie? He’s not sure. He needs to see it.
He climbs up off the floor and dusts the sand from his clothes. The sand up his nose tickles as it falls out. Tom walks towards the place where the Tie is. At first he does not see it. A funny feeling immediately rises up in his chest. Now he does.
The large wizened peg is still in the ground where he left it. For some reason it looks a bit out of place all of a sudden.
The rope is nowhere to be seen. Tom looks out to sea. The sun is hopping across the waves now. It’s showing off: like the boys in the park. The little flashes and glints make it look like the sun is scattering bangers across the grey-green hills of the rolling sea.
Tom looks back at the Tie. Something’s different. Something’s changed. He’s just not sure what.
Tom squeezes his brain a bit. It is not just that the rope is off somewhere else doing something other than being tied to the Tie.
Nor is it the fact that unbeknown to Tom, the last sand granule falling out of Tom’s nose at that very moment will, in the not too distant future, undertake an extraordinary journey.
That one granule, breeze-blown across the beach to land on a piece of drift wood picked up by a dog who will deposit said chewed and slobber soaked piece of wood in the back of the family car where the grain of sand will fall off, only to be picked up again on an unknowing piece of luggage that will then get put on a plane with a load of other luggage, where it will then be flown to a peninsular on the south east coast of the United States of America, take a transfer coach journey and finally fall off the bag onto a sandal to be hopped, skipped and jumped to a nearby beach and settle not far from the very spot where 65 million years earlier (almost to the day) an Iguanodon, having totally ignored the portentious whooooompf noise that had echoed around the planet a week earlier and the rather ominous-looking dark, choking cloud gathering in the sky above it, promptly dropped dead on the spot, thereby starting its own journey from being a very large single piece of living, breathing dinosaur to becoming quadrillions of very small pieces of dinosaur; granules no less; one of which, with a wanderlust ucommon to the average particle, would travel far and wide until eventually landing on an East Anglian beach some 65 million years and 5000 miles later to get wedged up the nose of a rather extraordinary though largely unnoticed boy.
No: that’s not what’s different. Tom cannot put his finger on it. He turns and walks back the way he came, thinking of the character Sid from the movie Ice Age for some bizarre reason; and chocolate; but not necessarily in that order.
The cupboard broods in the corner of the room. Michael turns on his heel and walks back across the room, following exactly the same line along which he came, until he arrives back at the chair. He turns and lowers himself back into the seat, hovering for a second, slung in the holster of his leg muscles and ligaments, before he finally sits. Old habits and ritual tics.
The cupboard. Why this prison of childish souls should be in The Caretaker’s Office he had no idea.
All of those things – the colourful clutter of all of those individual moments of indifference, of dissent, of boredom – confiscated and crammed into, currently, six wheezing boxes bunched on shelves inside the cupboard’s matt grey shell. Dirty magazines were put straight into the incinerator. Knives or weapons of any sort were broken up or sent to the local police station. So what was left was the madness of pocket tattle that child after child used to amuse themselves through the monotony, the relentless drone of the curriculum played out through the lips of their teachers.
No wonder the cupboard seemed to suck the light out of the room. Michael draws the mug up to his lips. He sips the tea. There were a few other things of course that could be keeping all of the light for themselves, one in particular, wedged tightly in the bottom of the cupboard wrapped in a damp sack-cloth bag.
Michael wonders what The Old Man is thinking about all of this.
His sacred little island locked in place for so long, floating off into the sunset: and from the look of the last report (and a deft arcing left turn just before Norway), a distinctly Caribbean sunset at that.
Michael smiles. The Old Man would always use the ‘owned’ pronunciation of the word Caribbean: ‘ka- rib-ee-an’: the word’s colourful ‘ka-rib-yan’ butterfly wings clipped, its limbs hog-tied and its head bowed awaiting its next order.
The Old Man: funny. When Michael first met Peter Davis, The Old Man couldn’t have been more than forty; forty two at most. But he seemed so institutional to Michael, so enstated: his voice ground from the Rock of Ages and liberally greased with Jerusalem.
The role had been simple enough at first. Peter Davis required a driver as he intended to do a lot of traveling in the coming months – and he felt the need for a companion who could also ‘do’ for him.
Michael soon came to realise that the provocative nature of Peter Davis would require him to use some of that sterile, unfeeling brutality, nurtured and perfected through his tours of duty, and apply it pointedly against those that might ‘have a go’ at Peter Davis. Eventually he would be asked to apply it to those who had yet to even respond to Peter Davis. The ‘pre-emptive strike’ Peter called it.
“They may be doing nothing at the moment but mark my words they will, so we’re just, well, teaching them a lesson in advance, so to speak.”
Michael had been little bothered by the tasks at the beginning. Their dark dingy beerhall unpleasantness offset by the bright small joys of driving the girls around, taking them on trips, dropping them at school.
Over time, the girls became the only reason for him to stay. The bankrupt spirits of Peter Davis and his cabal of Little White Liars became wearing and twisted even to Michael’s troubled view of the world, the effervescence of his two daughters the only salve.
When he was within a few feet of the girls, especially B, the kaleidoscope of wonder that they emitted served only to pinpoint and amplify the smallness and ugliness of those men their father called ‘sound men and true.’
Watching the girls as they grew up and away from The Old man was one of the few pleasures Michael had towards the end.
He mourned the loss of their innocence but is some ways it freed them.
The girls were very special: and very different – but not in the Old Man’s twisted terms.
As they grew, so did B’s courage, with each new cause, each new revelation, each new hypocrisy of her father’s.
Viv’s reticence grew in spiraling counterpoint to B’s courage. Viv did not lack the courage of conviction. She just chose the path of least confrontation.
She also seemed better able to process and reconcile the truth of The Old Man’s beliefs. She believed they were not the first young people to be horrified by the startling ignorance of their parents’ prejudices. She just felt that she saw so many different kinds of ignorance, and that prejudice thrived in so many hearts, not just white ones, that it felt a little naïve just pillorying her father for his own version.
At first B challenged her father in small ways, teasing him. Not reacting immediately to the sound of his voice. Leaving things where she knew they would annoy him. Inappropriate language and phrases began to pepper her conversation. Willful and spirited they called it.
Then the small moments of anarchy became more layered and sublime. She began to wane in the subjects that her father loved and loved coaching her in.
B began to spend less and less time slumped in the cramped little corner of his library study with Viv, leafing through books and asking questions. B’s absences put hairline cracks in the ritual of their shared Saturdays. The death of their Saturday ritual, that of Peter, Viv and B orbiting quietly around each other in the library was a death from which Peter Davis would never recover.
Michael had watched this with a dispassionate eye to begin with. It was not his family and they were not his children. But he found himself beginning to quietly side with B in his mind. Perhaps he was jealous of her ability to hurt The Old Man so much with such a small gesture or act.
He was feeling more and more trapped in his relationship with the ostensibly warm Peter Davis.
There was a sense of something about him that had begun to disturb Michael a little and that was saying something.
Tom sits in the lounge. He is feeling brave. Dinner is over. There are meat straggles stuck between his teeth. One strand in particular is dangling down on the edge of his tongue. His tongue plays with the strand. The effect of the tongue strand on his facial expressions makes Tom resemble a nutter.
He turns and looks at his deranged face reflected in the dark rectangle of the lounge windows. He thinks the effect of the trees moving behind the reflection of his meat-straggle demented face looks brilliant. He turns back to look to the end of the room.
Along the left hand wall runs a low, modular ‘Bilbao’ shelving system: currently on special offer at his father’s shop due to sharp descent in imterest. A complete set of the Encyclopediae Britannica run along its lowest shelf.
Tom realised a while ago that if he ever had any great secrets or things to hide: like a million pounds from a bank-robbery or a blood soaked murder weapon or the Dead Sea Scrolls, that’s where he’d hide them. There was little danger of ANYONE in his family opening one of them EVER.
Yes, Tom is feeling brave this evening.
The source of his bravery sit at right angles to him on the ‘three-person Milano Signature Style corner-module sofa system’, locked in the bright all powerful tracker beam of the telly.
The television lights up the space on the sofa between them (as if it needed highlighting). Tom sits at his usual 47 degree half twist.
His dad had wired the telly into the super hi-tech sound-cylinder, but badly, so, subsequently the sound comes out in some schizophrenic shamble, partially from one of the 4 built in speakers and partially from the Sound-cylinder (but only the middle-range)
If you weren’t used to it, it would probably make your brain explode like an alien mind bomb wave. Tom had eventually trained his ears and exact body bearing to adjust to the audio visual 4th dimension his dad had created.
The together part of sitting together was of course a bit of an optimistic description that Tom liked to use to describe the event of both his parents sitting on the same piece of furniture.
Even in these rare moments he’d noticed his dad was a master in the dark art of the invisible shield technique favoured by some of the characters in Tom’s comics – a super power that allows him to be both present yet a million light years away at once.
Tom would normally be upstairs by now, slung over his comics. (He had, on one occasion, fallen asleep face down on one of them. It took two days, three baths, heavy flannel action and soothing Savlon before for the inky figure of Daredevil left his cheek.)
But tonight he is down in the thick of it. The weird feeling that came over him while he was standing in front of the Tie is still there, inside – strange but quite nice in a way. There has been a funny feeling wandering around inside him doing strange things since he untied the Tie.
And it’s doing it again. This time the feeling felt like it had sort of turned around and changed colour but that didn’t make any sense at all.
Tom chews the inside of his cheek. He looks back to the television. The news is rather odd today.
Frankly, the world seemed to have gone stark raving mad.
The old bloke who’s been on quite a lot recently talking about ‘the issue of cultural integration’ in a place called Tower Hamlets had just been on again.
Tower Hamlets. Tom thinks the place sounds quite exciting and medieval, the kind of place where knights, pirates, wizards and monsters lived, all galloping around on heavily-armoured steeds with pounding hooves wielding shafts of light and steel.
Tom doesn’t know any ‘muslims’ and only one Ali but he runs the slightly rubbish video shop his dad goes to sometimes and he doesn’t think that it is that Ali they’re talking about.
He certainly didn’t know any black people, not directly anyway; Diara, the boy at school in his year was far too cool for Tom to know him or anything about him.
And as for the people from the Balkans and Romania that the old man goes on about, that would require Tom to know where or what the Balkans and Romania are and that was a google search away at the moment.
(The Globe that sat on the far shelf in Tom’s room was very, very cheap, and to be fair its spelling of country names was not to be trusted – nor their position for that matter.)
Tom can’t quite make out why this old man is getting so upset about them. He had been on again, talking about ‘repatriation’ for coloured people, muslims, gypsies and ‘anyone else who doesn’t like it here’ which as far as Tom could work out meant sending them home even when they didn’t want to go
The place on the news, the ‘where they came from’ part of ‘send them back where they came from’ seemed sunny and tropical with lots of beaches but then again he thought perhaps that the nature and quality of the place was not the problem – that maybe the problem lay in the fact that someone was telling you that you’re not good enough to stay here.
Tom has noticed that every time this old man comes on (because boy had he been on a lot recently) his mother and father exchange funny looks and his mum ends up looking down at her hands a lot.
The old man seems familiar. He looks like he’s from the world that Tom’s granddad and grandma come from. In fact, he looks a lot like the old pictures of Tom’s granddad – but much older.
The screen flickers and a load of graphics whoosh around and now there is a man, a different man, with a map behind him. Whatever this is; it isn’t going to be the weather thinks Tom.
The man gestures to the UK generally, and then points to England and then to the vertical and horizontal lines that sit over it.
(‘Latitude’ and ‘Longitude’ says Tom to himself in his ‘bored in geography class’ voice.)
He thinks that the lines look like a big piece of string has been wound around the globe holding the world together.
Then it happens. As the man speaks and moves his arm the England and Scotland bit of the UK moves northwards. Not only that; as it does so it seems to leave Cornwall, Ireland, and all of the Scottish Isles in its wake (though strangely the Isle of Wight seems to be hanging in there somehow!)
The movement on the map is made double weird by the fact that it causes a massive single gasp from both his parents: the most they’ve done together in years.
The man is then replaced by real satellite pictures of the same thing happening.
The strange feeling inside Tom shifts again rolling around like hot lava in his stomach.
As they sit (along with a few million other people), their mouths slightly open, the front bit of their tongues becoming drier and drier, the man on the television smiles and then stops, realizing that this isn’t a weather report and this is not a smiling matter… …or is it?
Tom finds himself thinking about the Tie. It pops up in his head randomly. The screen flashes and they are back to the newsreader. Who looks left and the screen flashes again. There is another old man on the television now: he looks a little fierce. Not because he’s being fierce. He just has one of those faces. Itt is an outside broadcast: from Northern Ireland.
The man speaks so quickly that Tom has difficulty understanding him. The man is from somewhere called Coleraine. Tom has always felt that everyone else has far nicer names for the places where they live.
Tom pushes his hands deeper into his pockets, sliding further into the sofa, his one and only slightly cool T Shirt (Slip Knot) riding up as his back scrapes down the coarse sofa fabric. His right hand has found a small ball of fluff and some crumbs in the very corner of his pocket. He shifts uncomfortably as he watches the television.
His body crunches in the middle and slips left a bit. He lifts one cheek up off the sofa a little. A hot funnel of air creeps out of Tom’s bottom, an extra squeeze sending it rocket thruster like into the foam of the cushion.
Tom thinks that chuff is a great word. To chuff and To be chuffed were twinned like towns in Tom’s mind. To Chuff: to break wind and To be Chuffed: It covered all the bases: taking pride; being pleased with something/oneself.
Genius. To be chuffed about a chuff was therefore pure genius. (He also liked the fact that there’s no French or German translation for it.) Tom celebrated by knocking out another hot strangled parp of air into the foam.
The man on the television seems to be very upset about something.
Tom catches something about ‘her Majesty’ and ‘the Union’ but the rest disappears into the jumble of lips and teeth at the bottom of the man’s face.
Now the man with the map is back again. He points to the space between a place called Bangor and another place called Stranraer (there really are some silly names in the world thinks Tom).
The arrows running between the two do a squeezing together thing.
Well that’s just nuts. England or Gt. Britain, or whatever you want to call it, is a land mass that’s attached to tectonic plates that float on molten lava beds wrapped around an even more moltener centre. (Tom didn’t know exactly how you explained ‘more molten’ in a word.) It can’t just float off merrily without a by your leave?
Tom watches the light from the television as it beams across his parents’ faces.
He imagines the words pouring out of the television like trails wiggling towards them.
Something in the strangeness, the sheer weirdness of what the man on the television is talking about seems to have stunned them.
Even weirder, they seem to have shrunk – their feet suddenly barely able to touch the ground; their clothes sitting on them now the way Jaqui’s used to when she’d been in her dressing up box.
The look on their faces reminds Tom of a time when they had come across a small blonde boy waiting on his own by the coin operated Postman Pat ride at the supermarket. He couldn’t have been more that five years old.
Worrying that the boy might be lost and upset, Tom’s mum and dad walked over and asked “Are you Ok?”.
The blonde boy had turned and looked at them for a few moments before shouting. ”Fuck off!” At which point he ran off towards a rather ‘big’ (Tom always tried to avoid using the word fat) family loading a small car with large bags of ‘summer barbecue’ foods and beer while screaming “STRANGER DANGER STRANGER DANGER”, leaving Tom’s mum and dad speechless, still leaning down towards the space where the child had been.
Yes. It was that look. Tom thinks about his flannel in the bath and, for just a moment, a very, very silly idea crosses his mind.
All of these strange things going on: do they have something to do with The Tie? That, that would be NUTS.
The feeling inside him turns once more, getting bigger. The feeling seems to answer questions he’s asking himself. Tom rolls forwards and up off the chair, and leaves his parents locked in the beam of the telly.
He’d swear that they were now closer than before. A damp bramble smell floats through the space by the door to the lounge.
Tom walks through into the hall to find Ceasar at the bottom of the stairs half sitting, half walking in circles.
Ceasar looks up at Tom. Tom runs his hand across the top of the dog’s head and under it as Ceasar lifts his head up to land his face squarely on the now upturned runway of Tom’s hand.
He feels across the silky flap of Ceasar’s ear to the pinked inside. There seems to be something electric running along his arm into the dog’s head.
Tom wonders whether it is to do with the feelings he is having. As he moves his foot he realizes it isn’t; Tom is wearing a pair of striped socks that contain more man-made fibres in one toe than there are in the whole sofa.
The fur on Ceasar’s neck crackles as he draws his hand away.
Tom walks up the stairs towards the comics and the flapping fabric walls of his darkened room.
He stops. Come to think about it there was something odd about Ceasar though. No slobber. Ceasar’s mouth was as dry as a bone (which is quite an odd way of describing it when you are talking about a dog).
Tom walks into his room, his hand smarting from the shock off the handle.
He reels and spins, the snub nose round from the spitting barrel above crunches into his shoulder. He collapses across the edge of his bed, half on and half off, in a wheezing right angle. His cheek drags across the sheets as the weight of his lower body drags his upper body back over the edge of the bed to the floor below. His cheek jars against the divan and finally he slumps heavily to the ground.
His arm is turned under him, one leg at a right angle, trainer half off and his face turned towards the dark space under his bed. The dark brown pelmet brushes against his cheek.
Bourne stares down at him from the metal walkway railing of the deserted quayside warehouse above, shakes his head, and walks away. Exotic music plays somewhere nearby. The thoughts in Tom’s mind get foggy as he lies there
Somewhere in another corner of Tom’s mind he realises that it is possible to smell distance.
He realizes that he can recognise tiny shifts in the depth and density of smell between those at the far, shadowy cool-wall side of the space under his bed and those floating around closest to his nose.
The collective smells of hot shoes, old die-cast metal figures, brightly coloured lego plastic, various kinds of dusts and ink stained comic pages wrap around his face like a big smelly tape measure.
Should really be just one big smell: an under-the-bed, stinky, petridish smell.
But Tom was realizing that what should and what would were very different entirely even though he wasn’t sure why: or what for that matter.
The Tie. Tom enjoys the fact that the Tie might be linked – he might be linked to these tectonic events – to all of these events: to the news.
A small corner of him tucked away in there somewhere is sure of it. Not certain. But sure. Like a Should to the Could. But something bothers him. If his very, very silly flannel of an idea really was true then that was quite extraordinary, in the way the great wonders of the world are quite extraordinary because they are, well, extraordinary in a great big see them from space’ kind of way.
Tom felt a little bit sick all of a sudden and his head began to buzz, but not in a ‘big-fat-bumble-bee-on-a-sunny-day’ way.
Tom suddenly didn’t know whether he really did want to be extra ordinary.
What if something went wrong? What if England floated in the wrong direction? What if it crashed into something and everyone died?
What if they knew it was him? Or would anyone even believe it? Him?
Tom rolls onto his face. His nose presses into the carpet. He breathes in and immediately regrets it. An enormous pressure builds up behind his eyes. He sneezes. Mmmnn.
If the ‘island- floating-away-like-my-flannel-even -though-it-would-be-against-all-the-laws-of- Physics’ thing is true it means something even bigger than it being extraordinary. It means that right here and now, he’s the only person in the whole world who knows why.
Mr. Brilliant-I’m-So-Clever on the News who seems to know everything doesn’t know it. Stephen Fry doesn’t know it. His head Mistress doesn’t know it. OK, Stephen Hawking may have figured out the science of it but even he didn’t know it. Tom feels a bit dizzy.
Tom thought he was going to be sick.
To be the only person in the world who knows something; that was fine for people who think and do extraordinary things, like Einstein, Da Vinci, Eminem and David Blain.
To realize that you are the only person in the whole wide world, the universe even, with that thought, that knowledge in your head was fine if you were like them.
But Tom was crap at Maths: and he had mud under his school trousers: and had only sort of kissed Kathy: and he got slapped a lot.
Kapow! It got worse. Or just bigger. Perhaps he was also the first person in history to realise that he had realised that he was the first person in the history of the world to know something.
Tom’s head began to hurt. Good job he was lying on the floor.
He loved being on the floor. Any floor. He just likes being close to the ground. It helps him to think clearly. It makes him feel OK. Tom doesn’t feel lonely when he lies on the floor.
Tom thinks that maybe that’s why adults are so weird.
Tom thinks that maybe the problem with growing up is that you do exactly that: grow up and away from the ground. You got to look at the carpet really close up and put your ear on the ground and hear the sound of things that didn’t move or breathe inside the house – humming and booming and burring and rubbing and all the other weird noises you couldn’t quite put your finger on. You got to look at drops of water and bugs hanging on blades of grass and make grass look like it was fifty feet high because you can barely look over it, and the prickly bits would tickle your skin.
He pulls himself up into a squat, then stands up only to fall across his bed. The sheets are cool against his skin. He looks up into the corner of the room and its flappy shadows. It seems impossible: a piece of rope and piece of wood and England; and him. Tom sees the face of Nigel’s mum. She smiles at him from out of the shadows. Tom is smiling now, so much so that he doesn’t notice his eyes slide shut.
An Active Imagination
Michael looks to the far side of the room again. His eyes track down the front of the brooding cupboard to a point just beneath it where the darkness wells. Michael looks into the rectangular void.
The faint trace of a frosted line under the cupboard’s base offers the only evidence of the salt pool’s recent existence.
The frosted trickle running down from a small opening in the pressed box steel of the door above it reveals from whence the water came. He had soaked the floor overnight and cleaned it with detergents in the morning till barely a trace was left.
He looked to the right of the cupboard. On the far bench, pushed to the back against the wall sits a pile of used newspapers. All are meticulously refolded, having been read from the beaming masthead to the final line with any particular articles of interest cut out with the orange handled kitchen scissors resting in the drawer beneath the scarred table- top. Michael had been amazed at the lack of hysteria over the last few weeks.
At first, the newspapers had adopted their usual hyperbolic sensationalism, pumping up the fear and anxiety with doom laden stories of Armageddon: the island crashing into Greenland, a new ice age: the coming of new diseases and of course the role of global warming in the separating of Britain from its waspish perch on its Teutonic tectonic plate. Carbon Monoxide and rogue ozone holes were to blame apparently.
According to the Sunday Mirror’s Environmental correspondent – a curious position Michael thought – the rays pouring through the holes in the ozone layers had altered the temperature of the Gulf Stream to such an extent that it’s waters had, over centuries (already the flaws in the argument were large enough to drive an island into), loosened the strata of rock that operated as some sort of glue to such a degree that the Island had eventually loosened and simply ‘come away’ from its shelf. 20 points for insanity.
Such active imaginations. A part of Gt. Britain has proven itself to be a loosening scab finally dry enough to shed the skin on which it grew. The man wasn’t fit to write a classified ad in the East Anglian Times let alone a two-page special report full of bollocks in a National newspaper
Michael takes a slow sip of his tea, feeling the temperature change as his lips touch the cool lip of the mug. He luxuriates in the brackish taste, delivered by the flat blackness of the leaves powdering inside the bag’s ‘dynamic filtration systems’.
Michael lifts his left arm and brings the scratched face of the classic Longines watch to where he can read its dial in all its elegant circular charm. The watch had been a gift from The Old Man while their relationship was still young and while he still valued the difference between Michael’s opinions and his own.
23 minutes until he ventures out again. This prospect does not fill Michael with the dread it once did.
The invisible rope that ties him to the centre of this room plays out as far as he needs it to but never too far as to create any sense of panic in him. The one thing that does fascinate him about the way in which ‘the Action’ as he calls it has affected people is not the sheer immensity of the anthropological melt down it had engendered in every person in every street in every town up and down the country.
No, the thing that had really floored him was the seemingly infinite ability of particular Television Production Companies to take the best and worst that the world and its shambling humanity could throw up and figure out how to confect them into another tawdry piece of Asylum-eye candy.
One particular production company had taken a previously very successful but waning programme format of theirs and upgraded it for the inhabitants of the new ‘raft-like’ reality.
A newspaper article featuring a behind-the-scenes perspective of the programme had been very detailed, marveling as much at the engineering and the human choreography as at the resulting emotional collapse and random sexual acts the programme generated.
Michael consumed the detail quietly and thoroughly, his finger tracing line after line, his facing hand holding his interest at any one time on one of the many explanatory diagrams and aerial maps facing the article.
From what he could surmise, the old format featured a ‘closed’ house filled with randomly but particularly chosen people: there but for the grace of their various emotional fractures, flaws, social tics and proudly worn proclivities. A sort of boarding house for people with emotional and sexual Tourettes.
These people were then given jobs and activities to do jointly and severally that would begin to stretch their hearts, their minds and hopefully it seemed their libidos to breaking point.
Throughout this journey into the bowels of the human psyche Michael also gathered that an external audience would vote on whom they liked and disliked and who would be ejected until there was one person standing – they may well have crashing psychosis, claustrophobia and a sexually transmitted disease by that point but yes, they were still standing.
But the genius was in the programme up-grade: and their sublime use of two particular factors hewn from the new floating dream of their Island reality.
The first factor was one of Disorientation – to make the ‘house’ mimic the new floating-away status of The Great British Island, they had placed the whole compound on a floating platform, which could be (in the tiniest of increments) re-orientated in such a way as to be wholly unnoticeable to the housemates: not consciously anyway – their north could become south and their east west, all without them having any idea of why or how – all taking place under their very feet through the effortless brilliance of superior track and bearing engineering.
The organisers would hold parties or games that involved all housemates to enter into highly animated and very physical activity while the house was ‘shifted’ to its new axis.
The second factor was one of Identity – every housemate had been put forward by someone who knew of a startling and identity-altering truth that would or could be revealed at their most vulnerable point – the truth that you had been adopted for example, or that you were born with two sets of genitals. Something, anything that could pull the rug from under you.
The intention was that the house would be left in one position for just long enough for the primal sensors of the contestants brains to register those things that anchor us in our state of being: where the sun rose over the house, where the shadows fell at tea time, which way due north was, whose window the sun set through.
At that point, an event would be called and while it was in full swing the house would be shifted again. This resulted in the contestants becoming more and more disorientated internally, the feeling becoming more and more intense with the passing of each couple of days. The greatest psychosis coming from them being uncertain as to why they had begun to feel anxious, disorientated and upset in the first place.
(The incremental cruelties unleashed by this shift in the axis of someone’s very being was quite remarkable to Michael. The engineering of distress, far outreached the clumsy objectives of water boarding and the cattle prod. Entertainment fueled by extraordinary technology truly was both the blight and the light of human existence.)
As the contestant’s behaviour became more erratic, hurtling towards their various tipping points, the Identity grenade would somehow be dropped into the room.
In once such instance, Mark’ With a C’ as he liked to call himself knew nothing of his Identity revelation before he entered the house.
He thought he was just your average mixed-race (3 to be precise: Ghanaian, Portugese and Swedish) gay guy with an I.Q. of 110, and the potential to be the next Damien Hirst, raised in a one parent family by his doting bi-sexual artistic mother after his father had died of an overdose in Afghanistan.
And so he entered his third week still thinking as much. Until on the Tuesday afternoon, 15 minutes after the end a synchronized blind-folded belching competition, he was called to ‘The Room’.
It was difficult to hear what was being said after a while. His screaming had become so intense and high pitched as to render the human ear incapable of hearing anything.
The ambulance eventually arrived and at the point where sedation had overcome him (dramatically of course) the waiting audience discovered the true horror of it all.
Mark with a C, of The Factory, Homerton, East London had in fact been born Derrick with a D in Strathpeffer, an elegant greystone Victorian Spa Town long fallen for grace in the Scottish Highlands.
He had been raised in a loving two-parent household, his mother, a district nurse and his father, the manager at a local engineering firm doting on his every wish until, at 17 years of age, gainfully employed and with a charming young girlfriend called Tina, Derrick with a D had banged his head on a step ladder and subsequently found himself 600 miles from his immediately forgotten home and in Hoxton Square with blunt trauma induced amnesia, dressed in a stolen exotic dancer’s outfit and a fifty pound note.
The story revealed that, living hand-to-mouth, he had become somewhat of a local celebrity. At some point in the following two years he endured a deep dive ’holistic hypnotic’ memory reclaiming session with the locally infamous Maroushka at the invitation of a local artistic benefactor. Through this process, the ‘truth’ of Mark with a C was uncovered.
Bang. Shock. Hysteria. Crash.
The news rocked the world – and unsurprisingly, one small house in Strathpeffer in particular and the gay community of Homerton in general.
Cue public Soul searching. Fracture. Repair.
Interviews with parents ensued, two slightly shell shocked people somewhat overwhelmed by it all, filmed outside their small, neat Greystone cottage.
Tina’s weeping entreat for the return of Derrick with a D was splattered across an inappropriate number of news channels and newspapers. From the look of the hundreds of photographs and interviews she choreographed, the shock of Derrick’s discovery had turned her once mousy hair quite blonde, and her teeth a gleaming Hollywood white.
Her assertion, though admirable, that she would take Derrick with a D back just as he was, even if that had to be as Mark with a C, flew somewhat in the face of the wishes of Mark with a C’s two partners.
Is Derrick with a D lost for ever? Should mark with C prevail. Or should Mark with a C return to the life he once had?
Txt DERRICK on 8679 now. Or Txt MARC on 8468.
The day after whichever #REVELATION sewered out of the televisual pipe, Michael would find the papers filled with the minute detail of the previous night’s emotional melt down, embellished by the journalists ever outraged commentary, the confetti of advice and shared experience sent via texts and emails scattered across every page – and an interview with the most recent ‘victim’ of course.
Baseness was a repellant human trait that Michael could only marvel at. It demanded respect purely for the fact that its stamina and resilience far out stripped that off its polar cousin Civilization. The civility of any human being could be stripped away in very little time it seemed, to reveal a thick, gristled streak of almost impenetrable Baseness.
It seemed to Michael that however far you dug into the sewer of humanity, there was always another layer of Baseness beneath it, surpassing the last in both the weight of its vulgarity and the banality of its cruelty.
Michael had humanity pegged as a slightly worn grubby scratch card spinning through the cosmos. Cosmic Litter. And as with all scratch cards, when the shiny foiled surface was removed, the revelation beneath it was engineered to mostly disappoint.
It seemed to Michael that God (if, contrary to the protestations of Dawkins and Hawking, he, she or it really did exist) did indeed play dice with the universe.