Tom’s dad had pulled the car over to the side of the road because Tom’s feet had started kicking against the backs of the front seats.
Tom heard the weird noises coming out of his mouth but they were some way away. He was too busy sitting in the deafening shock to pay too much attention to the weirdness his body was coming up with. Madness had come out of Tom’s mum’s mouth.
His dad had seemed a bit thrown himself about the revelation which in itself took Tom to a whole new level of freaking out – as if the first level wasn’t bad enough.
Tom was currently experiencing what he had previously only imagined, though in fairly great detail it must be said.
His spy/stuntman persona had on a couple of occasions previously become involved in plots that reached beyond the usual trapped in the underwater bunker forward slash laser torture forward slash fast filling air tight chamber forward slash fall from very high rocket fuel silo dot com. But this was a whole new level.
Tom had charted an emotional response matrix that he could draw on – a sort of Def Con 1 2 3 4 and 5 with 4 and 5 delivering the more complicated Luke/Darth I am your father type show stopping revelation
But to be fair that was movies; and what his mum thought she was doing swinging this bag of madness at him was beyond him currently.
One part of Tom had come over all Morgan Freeman for a moment – really chilled out and circumspect about everything. Doing the God thing. But that suddenly seemed a little over the top given the slightly biblical nature of what he’d unleashed.
It was the other part of him though that was making all the noise; doing all the heavy lifting and having the noisy and openly expressed nightmare.
The blood was pumping through his head so loudly that he felt like he was living inside an espresso machine.
Tom had thought his ‘mum’ was mental at first, like properly ‘lost her marbles, call an ambulance’ mental. So he decided to go into laugh hysterically in a rising pitch mode
Then the small tear cutting a tiny valley through her foundation told him that perhaps she wasn’t mental. Or funny. Tom had never seen pain in someone’s eyes before. He had read it in a book.
There’s tons of it in his mum’s eyes now. And fear – like she was being stalked by something.
His freak-out had eventually subsided, closing out with a bit of glass half full as his father calls it. In kicking the rear of the seat so hard that it suddenly jerked forward on its runners, Tom inadvertently revealed a Lego character he had thought lost or stolen by his sister.
Note to self: apologise to Jaqui for trashing her troll collection in revenge.
Careful what you wish for. All those spiteful rows. ‘I wish you weren’t my sister/brother. I hate you’. Would she be pleased? Dunno. That she might be made Tom suddenly terribly sad and also a little claustrophobic.
They continued to sit, parked weirdly at 40 degrees of the side of the road, All three of them, stock still, staring out into the field beyond the corrugated warehouse next to the roundabout.
After an hour a rather disembodied voice had appeared in the car. It was Tom’s. Slightly spooky as he wasn’t aware of either his mind or his mouth moving.
“I want to go to Bea’s now”.
Note to self: ‘What do I call her? Can’t call her mum!’
He didn’t mean to be nasty about it or hurtful. He just felt knackered all of a sudden. Very, very tired.
Extraordinary was exhausting business. No wonder Superman got pasted in the end.
They drove off, radio on, more news of the effects of Tom’s extraordinariness pouring into the middle of the car unnoticed by all three of them.
Shazam. Suddenly Tom is standing in Bea’s doorway. He steps forwards and draws the door up behind him. Tom feels sick. His legs feel funny. Jelly. Jelly legs. Tom has jelly legs and a bomb for a heart that had just blown up. He looks at Bea and everything and nothing makes sense.
Who are you?
You lied to me?
Who do I look like?
You look fat
Lots of things hurtle through Tom’s mind. The last one just popped up out of nowhere. She doesn’t look fat. It was a spiteful flash. A moment of hurtfulness. See how you like it
Is Tom happy? Yes. Painfully.
Does he love his mum? Yes.
Is Mum his mother? No.
Is Aunt Bea his mother? Yes. He thinks.
Is this all a joke. Yes. And No.
Does he love her? Yes. And no.
Does he trust her? No. Don’t know.
Does he believe in her? Yes.
Is he ashamed? Too bloody right.
Does it matter? No.
Jaqui isn’t his sister. Now he wishes she was.
Will Kathy like Bea? Yes.
Does he want Kathy? Not really.
Why did she dump him? Who knows?
Does he care? Yes. But he wasn’t really going out with her so…
Who’s his father if it’s not Dad? Ask Bea?
Is she crying? Yes.
Is everything all right? Don’t know?
Is that Bea’s favourite song playing on the radio? Yes.
Does it make him cry? Yes.
Should it? No. But he is crying too.
Their unspoken ‘yes’s and ‘no’s’ and ‘I don’t know why’s’ ping between them and the music in her ears and the feeling in his heart fill the space between them. As Tom and Bea stand in the cat’s cradle of their lives, twelve years of ‘why’ sitting in the middle of the Kitchen between them.
The doorbell rings.
Duh. Brilliant. Mum. (Or the woman known as Mum who is in fact his Aunt if the lunatics are to be believed.) Always forgets something. So rubbish like that. Tom harrumphs. Surly face. Snorts. Shifts slightly. And shakes one arm out. Shakes his sleeve down. It won’t go down. Half way up his arm. Loser.
He looks at Bea’s face. Nope. Not Mum. And a weird expression. Something moves behind her eyes. Who then. And the air changes colour.
Where’s she looking. At the floor? No, the door. The bottom of the door. Yes. Blimey. Never noticed that before. The door was old: cottage old. The number of times the wooden panels has been sanded and repainted could be measured in generations. The whole door bowed outward in the middle and to be fair resembled a rhombus more than a rectangle.
The light from the hallway spills in under the door. A flush of light, broken in two places. Toms life was starting to resemble the intro to one of John’s Zombie games. Creepier still was the fact that Bea never leaves the hall light on. Apart from Christmas when she was expecting a random set of visitors from the pub.
Tom reaches around and pulls at the door. The door is stiff. He can feel the tension run up from his arm into his neck. This is because contrary to the twist in his body, his eyes are still locked firmly on Bea.
Michael supposed that he knew it would come somehow. He was just a little surprised at the how.
He wasn’t a great one for the modern world of devices and screens. They seemed to suck the life out of people, purposeless vacuums that sucked everyone that used them into some feeling-less void of otherness.
Facebook. He understood the principle of it. That was simple enough. But it was the fetish of it, the addiction of it that surprised him.
He had against his better nature gone on line – the IT room at the school was ‘very good’ and the headmaster had always said, ‘please use it, just be respectful’. So, in a fit of modernity, Michael had gone into the musty room of electrified dust and exposed wires one day in the Easter break and ‘logged on’ or ‘in’ or whatever it was.
The small card with the passcode had been handed to him like some precious jewel, almost begrudgingly, as if this were the portal to a precious world that the likes of him wouldn’t know what to do with. Or perhaps they just didn’t trust lonely men with no seeming life who lived at the edge of society, thinking all manner of ills of him and what they might do with a passcode.
The process had been straightforward enough. Though he wondered how people found time to fill these screens with so much stuff. And all so personal. Like some permanent photo shoot – pictures of food, a foot in new shoes, smiling babies, another we’re at a party outside a club look at us doing stuff.
Was nothing hidden anymore? Was there no mystery? Or perhaps Michael just had lived inside so many mysteries and secrets that it had coloured his mind against anyone living an open-hearted life.
None the less, this still looked as if people vomited up their lives onto every screen and to every person they could.
Social bulimia. Millions of people bingeing on every experience they could, voraciously, ferociously, filled to bursting, a tsunami of immediate gratification, look at me look at me.
That was a lot of narcissism to consume. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps the social vomiting had to happen. Perhaps that was the saving grace. That to remain a vaguely functioning empathetic human being, you had to purge the toxic bolus of narcissism from you, lest it choke you.
Perhaps that was it – millions of people, incapable of keeping it inside, processing it, would bring it up, spraying it into every screen and onto every network they could. But sadly only to find the need to binge again, locked in the cycle of binge urge binge purge.
Michael had grown quietly used to tapping in. He had searched a few old regimental friends on it. A few had popped up. And he friended the regiments facebook page. Never engaged with it. Just observed from the musty room at the far side of the school.
Saw their kids and grandkids. Their holidays. The astonishingly normal lives posted by their wives and girlfriends.
How did they remain so unscathed buy what they did?
And Michael came to the conclusion that the more unscathed you were on the way in, perhaps the more unscathed you came out. Not much of a theory but it suited him.
Which is why when the world turned Michael wasn’t surprised. It made things make sense. It made Bea’s decision make sense. She wasn’t a coward. She was just waiting. Her irrepressible faith in the fact that the day would come, travelling through time, wholly intact. She went in with her belief unscathed. Even in all the turbulence. And the awfulness. Untarnished. Unsoiled.
But Michael was a believer now.
It had finally rung. His archaic Nokia 95. With its old school ring. Someone in the caff had told him he was fashionable again. Whatever. Christ. He’d even started using their slang.
It was a perfectly good phone though. Michael didn’t need Gigs of memory, the interweb, swipy interfaces or 4G. He certainly didn’t need a state of the art camera. What was that all about. If he was filling up his facebook pages with endless stuff perhaps. But no. Michaels photographic exhibition would probably concentrate on perfectly compressed tea bags and cracked lino.
He knew the phone was going to ring at some point. Not as a premonition. God no. Mysticism and spirituality were a luxury Michael had never riches enough to afford.
His facebook page had warned him. One day there was a message. Threw him rather. Boatboy7. Christ. He’d made it his facebook name. The Boatboy. But not so much the boy now. The really startling part was as he scanned the page the word Bear leapt out at him like a hammer fist. No-one ever called him Bear. Only precious Bea.
‘The world is turning Bear. Upside down inside out. Its turning and its time.’
The Boatboy had asked him for Bea’s address. He didn’t have it to give. But he was sure that he could find out somehow. The interaction was sparse, formal; but there was a gentleness in it. No, kindness. Kindness was a better way to describe it. Both men had tired of the alternatives and seemed happy to embrace a gentler demeanour in the world.
The address and the telephone number was duly found and duly sent.
Michael felt something strange inside him. Odd. If he didn’t know better he’d say it felt like something inside him had unbroken.
The earth had only ever moved once for Doug. Just once. Instantly and irrevocably. After the concert, he and Bea had snaked their way back to a room, the jumping sweat inside their clothes, in a hostel, secret as mice.
The small room bought with it a rush of fear in Doug. The room was just large enough for a single bed and a ply wardrobe, a wardrobe he sensed was about two joiner plugs short of full house, its top sloping a few degrees further to the right than its bottom.
On the chair to the side of the single bed there was a small temple to the world she came from. The hold-all bag looked expensive: knackered and well-travelled but expensive. This was no LV knock off from the local market. The small white earphones were top class. And the purse in faded milky green hide with a clasp and pink innards was neither cheap nor every-day.
Perhaps that was the source of the fear – while they were outside it didn’t matter, where she came from and who she was to others – she was without context, without past or present or family or friends – just the bare-foot girl with the green glow eyes and an attitude that reached into his middle and grabbed a handful of everything.
But in these clues lay a large screaming sign – he was out of his depth – he was treading water in a great big sea of her – and he was way out of his depth. As a small delicately fingered hand reached out and touched his neck tracing upwards to his face the trance like state of quiet fear popped, his cheek suddenly twitching, the affection in her touch hitting him like a cattle prod.
Some boys crave affection without ever knowing what it actually is – what actions and intentions form and shape it. Some learn to forget what affection feels like, the world prescribing that they jettison it on their journey to manhood. Some never know it at all, and others spend their years in terror of some perceived magical and dark natured power hosted within it – one with which they will be manipulated and coerced.
Doug simply collapsed – the valve popped open on his sea-soaked bouncy castle of a coping mechanism.
Suddenly he was swimming in the sea of her – shape and form lost their bearings and his compass of what was real and what was imagined left him – everything suddenly passing into rolling abstracts just beyond his field of focus.
They had agreed just one thing as the mist broke the following morning, the boy from the boats and the extraordinary bare foot girl (well, the bare foot girl had anyway).
In the months following he had pursued her, even after having promised he wouldn’t – because something inside pulled him towards her. The man, Michael, or Bear as she called him, had been sent to meet Doug.
He had passed on Bea’s words to Doug. Now was not the time: but that the time would come when the earth would turn, move again. When hope carried a flag and the shame was gone. And this time it would be amazing, extraordinary and revealing. And hope would free them both. He just had to be patient. Well he had been patient. Especially given that Doug had sensed that there was something beautiful about that night together. He just never realised that the beauty had a name: this sharp, funny awkward boy who fell to great heights; who dreams that the world will turn if we really wish it; and that our hearts are built only for beginnings.
Funny how you only need to move one small thing and you can change the world – and the people in it. Sometimes to go beyond dotting an ‘I’ and crossing a ‘T’ and you can do great things. Take the ‘I’ and move it two places to the left and Untied becomes United. Funny.
And the world turns and three people collide in the middle of a kitchen in a cottage by an AGA – a tinny radio ringing in the background.
Tom looks at the weatherworn man with the saline squint standing in Bea’s doorway. There’s something about him the makes the feeling in Tom’s middle flare and pop.
The finches scuttle through branches and fence posts. Sunlight dances across the scabs of peeling Plane tree bark. The American Collared Dove swoops from the roses to the beech, chortling to itself as it does so.
The un-ironed man looks out across his garden. His chair now sits under the open sky, no branches or vantage points above him from which small pungent criticisms can be dropped on his head.
The peaty soil has presented a beautiful thatched green lawn this year, stretching down on a slow slope to the babbling brook just out of sight. Sparks of fractured light splinter through the willow.
The sun is in the east now: it was the west but things have taken a turn for the worst recently: though he seems to be the only one to think so.
Satellite pictures paraded on the BBC had shown how England having turned on its Black Country axis as it approached the west coast of Norway wheeling around and then forging south.
The mid-Atlantic swell from the Americas now buffers the not so East Anglian coast. And suddenly everyone was OK with it: OK? What could possibly be OK with this dreadful human burlesque.
Typical, the man thought. No one has any allegiance any more. They’d turn on a sixpence if it benefited them. No wonder the country was going, or should he say floating, to the dogs.
Once people would have listened to Peter Davis, but not any more John-O-Groats is the new Penzance. God help us. The garden now facing due West had put paid to any triumphant Azalea growth in what was the most splendid corner of the garden.
He looks to the far end of the garden where two full-blown arboreal Rhododendron squat on their boughs. The long shadows of the two girls who once ran laughing around the young arboria are long gone, though the memory of them is sharp and clear. Those summer shadows would doubtless fall in different directions now to the ones imprinted on the sun-burned celluloid of his memory.
Death comes slowly as a rule, the light strangled out of the beautiful and the living in the end. Parts of the garden once bathed in beautiful light now lie damp, flat and shadow-less. The Nilotic tribes of Africa believed that to lose your shadow was a portent of death. And those people and things that robbed you of it were themselves evil.
Then again, if you were mad enough to be standing in the middle of the desert at Noon you would indeed lose your shadow, the sun directly above you. You would also lose your mind and soon after that, your life. Mad Dogs and Englishmen indeed.
The whole isle is slipping through its own wake at a gentle 16 knots now. The gulf-stream laps at craggy Pictish granite cliffs, the shadow dwellers tucked into their folds and wrinkles now startled by the brash, warm southern sun. The idea beggars belief. To the Indies – south towards the Wind-rush islands.
Bea’s words echo in his ears, the picture of her face as she said them clear in his mind. Careful what you wish for Daddy. He wonders how they are doing. The girls. Viv’s children or child to be precise must be quite grown up now. And Bea, his beautiful Beatrice: what of her? And that baby boy. What Viv had thought she was doing was beyond Peter.
He wondered whether Bea had made anything of her life. He wondered what had become of ‘that’ boy; the boat boy. So different both of them, in so many ways, and so tightly bound together in others: both polar points of his own compass.
His once-new-wife clatters crockery in the kitchen at the farthest point across the garden from where he sits. She still seemed to find quiet pleasure in cracking his first wife’s crockery – an act of joyous splintering passive aggression: though she was now down to three plates, two side plates, one serving dish and a soup terrine so a little economy would need to be applied in the therapeutic breakage area. Only a few to go but not a bad effort from a 60-piece set.
It had taken them sometime to rediscover some equilibrium after the tumult and the conflict of ‘The Great Divide’. She patently held him responsible. It was all ‘just ghastly Peter, the whole thing. I hope that you’re bloody well happy now. You’ve got what you wanted. Great. We certainly got rid of the fucking foreigners haven’t we. Won’t be getting any cheese eating surrender monkeys despoiling our precious shores now and telling us what to do. And we’re a lot closer to those bloody rib chewing soda slurping goddammit special friends of yours and their dreadful bloody chino shorts than we’ve ever been before.
The conversation had rolled on it that manner for a few weeks punctuated by some rather exceptional sugar bowl lobbing. There was even an incident involving his socks that didn’t bear repeating. She was not the most creative of people but her vengeances were sublime in their planning and execution.
Eventually they had wheezed their way into a comfortable stupour of routine again. The odd flare up but nothing too serious.
To potter through a life untouched by fierce emotions was quite an acceptable destination for all involved really. Well, for Peter anyway.
The fire had gone out of Peter Davis long ago.
The destination he sought was comfortable and without schism and fracture – irritatingly it was also a destination that echoed with the absence of the two things Peter held most dear.
In some ways he was glad that events had conspired to bring Viv and Bea together against him.
In a strange way it made him feel secure in the knowledge that when he wasn’t there any more at least they would still have each other, bound together, unlikely to drift apart and desert each other’s hearts, as so many people do.
He turns in his chair, the striped canvas creaking at the tilt of his weight. He raises the large heavy-based blue-green glass jug of lemonade. He pours the lemonade into the tumbler. His finger runs a drip of lemonade back up towards the glass’s rim.
He smoothes the rucked material in his trousers down towards the knee, then pitches one foot up and over the smoothed knee to descend into the snug of crossing.
The radio in the kitchen tips tinny music across the lawn towards him. It’s an old tune; one he particularly liked once upon a time – an anthem of ‘happy’ repatriation to be sung with ironic joy by every one of them as they left the sceptered isle, never to return.
“Whoa, I’m going to Barbados, Whoa, Lovely country, Whoa I’m going to see my girlfriend, In the sunny Caribbean sea”.
Music took you backwards at such a speed as to make your nose bleed and your head spin. Though some, as Peter now realised, took you forwards. Even when that was the last place you wished to go.
And then something quite particular happened. A small ripple ran along the rutted lips on the old man’s face. His eyes pictured a bare-foot girl dancing around a garden.
A long invisible piece of rope that had hung slung slack for so many years had tightened recently – noticeably and with purpose – and now the overwound fibres that ran between where Peter sat and the not so distant and confused young heart of a young man standing next to an Aga had started to do something remarkable: they had started to hum. Something twitched at the corner of Peter’s mouth. A smile.
Michael’s booted feet scuff through the last vestige of swept leaves gathered in a pile by the fence. (The rest had been dispatched either by buffeting breezes or bored trainers within ten minutes of Michael gathering them.) The sun has arched high across the school and is currently bathing the once dim and dank far corner of the playground in front of him where one of the pre-fabs abuts the fence in a brilliant warmth.
The mesh fence dividing the sprawling mercurial mess of pupils from the outside world turns up in various places along where it meets the ground, pushed up either by unknowing nocturnal creatures trying to get in or the feral kind trying to get out.
Michael’s long handled litter prod seeks out random detritus amongst the longer grass sprouting around the bottom of the fence; forensically tipping and scratching at the underbelly of various chocolate and sweet wrappers, crisp packets, pizza flyers, condoms, cigarette packets and stubs and the scatter of DS game card boxes, patently procured at some point in the recent past via light criminality.
One wrapper catches his eye. Years of training had honed his ability to identify even one micron of difference in the landscape confronting him – one shred of vegetation disturbed, one stone on a path displaced, one leaf on a bush disfigured, one door curiously shut, one window curiously ajar.
There was something about this luminous red green and blue wrapper that drew his eye – something of its madness that attracted him. He leaned in, the muscles across his back flexing and then tightening like a strap run up from his hip to his neck to secure the teetering tension just so.
The words on the wrapper were a little scratched and buffeted now – the luminescent ink fading slightly in patches here and there. The language was foreign he knew that, the topography of the words and the horizons of the sentences clearly different to the Anglo Saxon shapes and metre.
BraCao Ping. Bloody silly name.
Michael leaned in a little more towards the dark hollow where the wrapper sat, partially buried. He fixed his position again, a hand running down the side of his outer thigh, reassuring the bunched muscles that they should hold fast for a little longer. Strange world. Strange matters.
He would have once wondered how this sun-starched, sea-salted foreign wrapper from a foreign land fringing the Atlantic Ocean had come to be buried in this dank little playground corner of a playing field on the east coast of England facing the North Sea. But this dank little corner was now newly bathed by a sun it had until recently never seen before or even knew existed.
The shadows had changed and its north had become south and its east had become west. Now the traveller and the host had become one and the same in this transient existence: simultaneously capable of receiving new travelers while travelling oneself.
If geographic alignment, the latitudes and longitudes of bearing defined your sense of self then they had all become, by his reckoning at least, a foreign land and foreign people to themselves.
Indeed it was the wrapper that had travelled but a short way compared to them. To travel far while stationary was indeed a conjuror’s trick – but one that would open doors of perception and determination that would prove overwhelming, confusing and liberating all at once.
Michael was reminded briefly of a story he was once told; of an old woman who, even though she had lived in the same west country village for the ninety three years, two months and twenty days of her life, and had as a matter of certifiable fact never strayed more than 400 yards from the bed in which she was born and in which she also drew her last breath, an old woman who held more worldly wisdom within her; a more expansive understanding of the human condition and greater insight into the universal truths and machinations of our mortal existence than any diplomat, explorer, ambassador, adventurer or trader ever encountered.
So in their new mobile life; this land locked caravanserai, going nowhere had finally become windswept and interesting. Standing still was now rewarded with a new GPS location reading every second.
Michael looked at the wrapper one last time and then up and out across the playing field with its alien shadows and pools of light. As he did an extract from an old poem came to mind: one of the Old Man’s favourites, and it had taken on a rather unexpected twist.
“…That there’s some corner of a foreign field. That is for ever England.”
Michael smiled. Extraordinary.
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.