The Last Stag

He first learns that the boy who lies is getting married when the best man sends a group email about the stag. It has been some time since he heard from either of them. The last time he saw the boy who lies was on a weekend trip to Ibiza. The last failed attempt to reconnect with their youth. À la recherche du temps perdu. After moving to Scotland, direct contact with his oldest friends has slowed virtually to nought, save for one or two rare moments of reaching out, or being reached out to. Most communication with his friends passes through the filter of a WhatsApp group, a repository of toxic bantz, pornographic GIFs and various memes of an African man with a two foot long penis. Things they wouldn’t want their wives to see. Things their daughters would be ashamed of.

The stag is to be held at SNOWBALL, a music festival in the French Alps. Attendance, the best man’s email suggests, is non-negotiable. Fancy dress is compulsory. He cannot understand why the stag wants to go to a ski festival when hardly any members of the stag party can ski. All-in, the cost per head is phenomenal, even exceeding that last debauched trip to Ibiza. Yet any ambivalence he has about the stag weekend is counterbalanced by the possible ramifications of not going. This would probably mean curtains for him. Knowing that he will almost certainly regret it, he confirms by email that he will be there. He scrapes together enough cash to settle the deposit. A few months later, the best man asks for the final balance. Last one to clear their balance has to pay a forfeit. It takes him a fortnight to clear it, and is only able to after dipping into his children’s savings. Shortly after, the stag posts a message to the WhatsApp group informing everyone he is already married. It later becomes clear that several members of the stag party already knew this, having been at the wedding. He knows the best man will not cancel the stag, and there is no reserve list, no one else to take his place. He has to go.

The day before the flight, he drives to his father’s house near Manchester airport. He is having dinner with his father when he receives the first of a series of panicked messages posted by the stag in the WhatsApp groups. The stag has either misplaced his passport, or it has been stolen. The inference is that this has been done by someone very close to him. Given his propensity for bullshit, no one is entirely sure what to make of it. The real and imagined calamities which have befallen the stag in the past continue to endear him to a number of the stag party, but these sort of antics, losing his passport the night before his stag do, a stag do that the other participants have signed up to at not inconsiderable expense, stretch the patience of even his most committed cheerleaders. Considering the stag’s past history, the whole thing could be a hoax. Either way, he knows that the stag knows that the best man will sort it out for him. Such is the nature of their relationship. So he checks in online for his flight, switches off his phone and goes to bed.

His alarm wakes him at an unearthly hour. His father is already up, ready to take him to the airport. They pick up one of his friends on the way, and the three of them discuss the passport debacle. His father is entirely unsympathetic.What an idiot, his father says, shaking his head. When they get to the airport, he reaches into his rucksack to retrieve his own passport, only to find it isn’t there. He checks the bag several times, hoping it may magically appear, trapped in the folds of the fabric, but it doesn’t. Then he remembers leaving it on the kitchen table before he went to bed. He takes out his phone and calls his father. You’re not going to believe this, he says. But I think I’ve left my passport on your kitchen table. You’ve done what? His father says. Fucking hell. How’ve you managed to do that? I don’t know, he stammers. I checked in online, and left it - it doesn’t matter, please can you try to get it for me? Bloody hell. Alright, his father says, and hangs up.

He waits. The rest of the stag party drop their bags and head to security. The flight information screen says Go to Gate. He waits. Walks in circles, clenches his fists. The departures area slowly empties. The flight information screen says Now Boarding. Still he waits.

Twenty minutes to go until his flight departs, and his father hasn’t returned. As he begins scrolling through Sky Scanner for alternative flights, his father phones him. I’m here, he says. At the barrier, I’ve got your passport, you’ll have to come and get it. He runs outside and up the ramp to where his father’s car is waiting the line for the drop off. His father winds down the window and hands him his passport. What are you? His father says, shaking his head. I know, I know, he says, taking the passport and running back inside. The flight information screen says Last Call. At security, the line of passengers waiting for their bags to be scanned is backed up beyond the belt barriers. He begins working his way to the front, waving his priority boarding pass in the air and apologising to the travellers as he nudges their ankles and treads on their toes, and tries not to meet anyone’s eyes. He throws his hand luggage into a tray and hurries through the body scanner, which mercifully stays silent, then runs for the gate, reaching the plane just as air bridge is about to be detached.

He is thinking about the origin of the term schadenfreude when two members of the stag party pass him on their way to the toilet. One Hands him a black cap and says, You have to wear that. For your forfeit. They laugh and walk off towards the toilet. He looks at the cap. I love big black juicy dicks is stencilled onto the front. He puts the cap under his seat. When they disembark, the best man asks him where his cap is, and he pretends to have forgotten it. This is the first of many contraventions of the stag rules.

The second is not drinking with the others in the hired minibus. Gay, someone mutters, and he shrugs apologetically. The stag party slowly wind their way up the mountain. At the snowline, the temperature drops, and the first faint flakes of snow begin to fall. Half an hour later, a few kilometres from the resort, they drive into a blizzard. The road becomes blocked by haphazardly parked cars, as other drivers caught out by the sudden snowfall struggle to fix their snow chains. When their own minibus becomes stuck, the driver reluctantly does the same. Everyone stumbles out in the snow to take photos and drain their bladder. They message the stag for an update. A short time later the party arrives in the resort’s vast subterranean car park. Half have been booked into a luxury hotel, the other half with less money, which includes him, are in a utilitarian self-catering complex some distance away. There are no streets in the resort, so in the swirling blizzard, they stagger through ankle-deep snow to find their accommodation.

An hour later, they are sat in a bar, supping beer and chewing cheeseburgers, when they receive another series of panicked WhatsApp messages from the stag. The stag has successfully located the lost passport, but failed to board his replacement flight. The best man rises from the table, mobile in hand, and goes to call him. When he returns, looking vexed, one of their party spots someone sniffing and gurning at another table. They strike up a conversation, and the guy, who has an Estuary accent, introduces them to his friend, another Essex boy in a baseball cap and bulky ski jacket. You’re not Old Bill are you? the boy in the baseball cap asks, laughing. Less of the old, comes the reply. The boy in the baseball cap and another friend disappear to the toilets.

After sampling the wares of the boy in the baseball cap, they almost forget about the stag. Then the next wave of panicked WhatsApp messages come through. Back in Britain it is snowing, and the stag’s second replacement flight, from an entirely different airport, has been cancelled. The stag sends them a photograph of the airport, and a picture of himself looking fed up. The airport website, however, indicates that the stag’s flight left on time. This causes some confusion Is he coming or not? Someone asks the best man. He’s trying to get here, comes the reply. Why don’t you believe him? No one says anything. A few more rounds of jaegerbombs later and they’re ready to move on to a club, but they are far too early and the club is completely empty, just a handful of punters, spectral and faceless in the gloom. As the DJ plays staccato hip-hop, they lean against the bar, gripping their beers and grinding their teeth, while the best man throws shapes on the dance-floor, resembling a chimpanzee balancing on a wobbly branch.

Early the next morning, after missing three flights and catching one which is diverted from Geneva to Lyon, and thereafter paying four hundred Euros for a shared taxi, the stag arrives, looking every bit as road weary as his selfie from a few hours earlier. The stag is not suffering fools. When he hails the stag, the stag tells him to fuck off. The word appears to be out that no one thought he was coming. With everyone suited and booted, though apparently still under the influence, they head to the slopes. He leads four of them across a small slope of powder snow, and watches each of them crash onto the piste. It takes them half an hour to get to the bottom of the short blue run. He waits by the chair station, looking up the hill. The entire slope is littered with collapsed skiers, drunken, drugged or simply incompetent. He watches a laughing blonde woman in a white one-piece slither down the entire run on her back, like a spider in a sink’s watery vortex. He thinks about helping her up, but then her friend comes to her rescue.

They ski for a few more hours, then head back for shits, showers and shaves. They meet for dinner wearing their fancy-dress outfits. The outfits give the impression of the wearer piggy-backing on a cartoon character, as if each member of the stag party is riding on the shoulders of their spirit animal. There is a sumo-wrestler, a baby-face, an elephant, a chicken, a rat. Each has been carefully selected by the best man for its associative properties with the stag party member’s individual character. The stag’s is a pig, as in pigs might fly. His is a Scotsman, replete with full Scots regalia, tartan kilt and red beard, which was not what the best man had chosen for him. The best man had chosen a troll. A nonentity. His old self.

Making up for lost time, the stag orders the first of several large rounds. Soon the table is crowded with half-drunk pints and empty shot glasses. As they eat, they debate going to watch the festival headliner. The general view is that they should go, but the stag is not so keen. If they don’t go, they’ll simply stay in the bar all night, doing coke and running up a ridiculous bill. Ordinarily he wouldn’t have a problem with that, but they are here for the festival, they’ve paid for it and they should get their money’s worth. This is what he says, but it gets lost in the clamour of disagreement. In the end, the best man casts the deciding vote. They leave the bar, and trudge through the snow to the main stage’s VIP area. Some of the group are annoyed about this and refuse to dance. and after the DJ wraps up his set, yet another protracted debate follows over where to go next. The stag and the best man head to a club with a handful of the others, while he and the rest retire. He wants an early night. The weather forecast for tomorrow looks good.

When he rises the next day it has stopped snowing and the slopes are lined with deep powder. The rest of the stag party are aiming to go to a breakfast brunch event, with unlimited champagne and most likely more cocaine, but the snow is simply too good to miss. As he skis through the heavy marshmallow snow , he can feel the after-effects of the previous night, and it is a strange sensation, gliding along still slightly wired. He stops to catch his breath, his heart beating like a bass drum inside his chest. He is not as good at this as he was twenty years ago. Back then he felt feather-light upon the piste, weightless, like he might ascend to the heavens at any moment.

Alone on the chairlift he wonders what the others are up to, and thinks about all the cocaine he has taken in his life, weekend benders and midweek casuals, the special occasions and surreptitious snufflings, and all the other times, too many to recall, too unimportant to mention, that he has taken it, on his own or in the company of friends, if he took every single bag or wrap he has consumed and tipped it out, how large would the pile be, would it look like a little mountain of off-white snow, or simply a hillock, a small mound, barely enough to cover the seat of this chairlift, and yet he thinks about how prevalent it has become, it truly is everywhere now and everyone is on it, it seems, even up here in the mountains, thousands of miles from its source, it has spread and continues to spread, freely available to those in the know, something inconceivable a couple of decades ago, cocaine is everywhere, a constant buzz of feeling surrounding him, like the snow-capped panorama only visible from this elevated height. A panorama of self-oblivion.

From the chairlift, he watches the other groups of skiers puttering around. It is gone lunchtime, and the slopes are teeming with people skiing unsteadily, rolling about on the snow, laughing. Some in fancy dress, others retro ski suits. He is envious. This is what he had hoped would happen with his friends on the stag, something he had always wanted to do with them, specifically them, for he has other friends who ski, but to ski with his very best friends was always something that he felt they as a group of friends were missing out on. Now he accepts it was an unrealistic expectation. Apart from a school ski trip and another holiday with a handful of friends after university, skiing has never piqued the collective interest. It has always been something he has done on his own, separate from their shared consciousness. Skiing is definitively his thing, something which he is good at outside the confines of their group, but sitting on that chairlift on his own, skiing, one of the few things that he has been able to have just for himself, suddenly feels profoundly joyless.

Gradually the cloud creeps back over the resort, flattening the light and restricting him to just one or two runs where he can still see. Anglophone voices float out from the fog, calling out for lost or fallen friends. He decides to call it a day and head back.

When he returns, the rest of the stag party are in a brasserie, cramped around a small table. All are completely drunk, and talking loudly. The stag hails the waitress in English and orders a round of beers and a round of sambuca. While the waitress takes the order, one of his friends, his jaw working overtime, tries to call the boy in the baseball cap. One of them has his sunglasses on indoors, and there are minute flecks of cocaine in his beard, and when the waitress departs, he retrieves the baggie from his pocket and tips a little clump into his palm, before snorting it. There are families with children the same age as their own in the restaurant, groups of friends who do not have cocaine on their face. His friend begins waving the bag of cocaine around, so he decides to leave, but now no one will let him out from the cramped table. When the best man tells him to stay, he tells him to fuck off. As he leaves the table, the best man calls him a ski cunt.

He leaves the restaurant, goes back to the bar from the first night and sits on his own. He is tired from the skiing and possibly bummed from the drugs, and possibly a little paranoid from them too, but the bottom line is that his friends no longer feel like his friends anymore. All the fraternal feelings he had on the chairlift have disappeared like a handful of blown chalk. He thinks about to calling his wife, but then the stag party come in, walking past him and heading to the other end of the bar. He waits a little while before joining them. No one says anything. The best man has passed out in his chair. The stag’s facial tics are working overtime. They finish their drinks and discuss what to do next. Some want an early night. The stag wants to stay out. They think they have an agreement about going to bed, but when the best man wakes up and discovers this, he blows his top.

As a compromise, they head to a trendy wine bar near the luxury hotel, where they sit in awkward silence. The stag is unhappy. This is supposed to be my stag, he laments. The best man sits at the head of the table, fuming, singling people out and calling them cunts. X is a cunt. Y is a cunt. This is supposed to be his stag. No one else speaks. To keep the peace, he and a couple of others agree to carry on drinking, so that the others can go to bed. At the first bar they come to, the stag orders five beers, five shots of sambuca and five jaegerbombs. I’ve lost my credit card, the stag announces, so I can’t pay. At the next bar, the stag slumps down at a separate table, and passes out. They wake him and hit another bar, which he hopes will be the last. The friend with cocaine on his face disappears to the toilet and returns with what’s left of the cocaine cupped in his sweaty palm. At least he hopes its sweat. It just fell out, his friend explains, before licking it off.

On the long walk back to the apartment, they pass the club they visited on the first night. He prepares himself for the inevitable, and as if on cue the best man blags them to have one last drink. Looking at the sizable queue and the state of the stag, he mumbles his excuses. While the best man is distracted, he and another friend decide to make a run for it. Back at the apartment, he bolts the door and puts the security chain on, though he knows if the best man really wanted to get in, he could still do so via the balcony window. It is not beyond the realms of possibility.

The next morning, everyone gathers at the luxury hotel for the minibus transfer back to the airport. While they stand mutely, waiting for the stag and best man to materialise, one of his friends says, I’ve had a really great weekend, lads. I paid two grand to be called a cunt. No one says anything. The stag and the best finally man appear, looking like they’ve slept in each other’s clothes, and everyone lugs their bag into the subterranean car park where the minibus is waiting. He volunteers to sit up front with the driver, an English ski guide, chatting to him as they wind their way back down the mountain. It seems that they have much in common. At the airport, lifting their bags out of the boot, the friend who paid two grand to be called a cunt nods towards the driver and says, You were well up his arse, weren’t you?

In the airport, the shuffling stag cuts a disconsolate figure, as if he has forgotten something, left an item of vital importance up on the mountain. Perhaps he has, though it isn’t his passport, unbelievably he has that, so it must be something else. Then it transpires the stag isn’t booked onto the return flight, so he and the best man wander off to find the airline’s information desk. Everyone else proceeds through security and waits in the departure lounge. He buys some chocolate for his children. They spot the former Manchester United captain Gary Neville waiting to board they flight, and one of their party goes over to ask for a photograph. The former footballer does not look happy about it, but manages to smile for the picture. As they board their flight, there is still no sign of the stag or the best man. He has no idea if they’ll get home. On the return flight he feigns sleep, and imagines skiing home to his family across the surface of the cloud top.

And Sons

Man hands on.

i.

On a dull spring morning, he was driving to the supermarket. His youngest son was in the backseat. His son often accompanied him to the supermarket, as it meant he could charge around the aisles with one of the miniature shopping trolleys. A weekly habit his little boy had grown accustomed to. They were a few minutes into the journey when his son asked him, apropos of nothing, if he was a builder. The question hung in the air for a moment, before he replied, laughing, No, I’m not a builder, and returned his attention to the road. His son appeared to consider this for a moment, before continuing, You are a builder, you built our house. I’m sorry to say, he replied, that I’m really not a builder. His question answered, his son resumed staring out of the window. He wondered what had prompted the question. The boy had a very limited understanding of what building was, what being a builder meant. He knew his grandfather was one, and his great-grandfather too, which meant his father might also be one. Perhaps it was important to him to know, to establish the lineage, the line of inheritance, in much the same way a child is surprised to find they share a name with a long-departed relative.

A building had drawn them to Scotland. Specifically, a Victorian-era villa in a state of severe disrepair, in the same family for almost a century.. He and his wife were looking for a way out of London, and they had found it in this large stone dwelling, twice the size of their own home, and half the price. That it required extensive renovation was part of the appeal. They had swiftly fallen for its dilapidated charms, believing that it gave them cause to leave the capital, to abandon their rapidly gentrifying postcode and moderately hedonistic London lifestyle in pursuit of mortgage-freedom and self-sufficiency. Ascetic behaviour and hair-shirted restraint.

After quickly selling their modest semi in the furthermost south-eastern enclave of London, a house they had over-stretched themselves to acquire, they boxed up their possessions and headed north, driving the length of the country in a little under three days, and taking receipt of the keys to their new home the week before Christmas. with dust-encrusted pantries, cracked stonework and corroded cast iron drainpipe, it was clear that the house was in far worse shape than they imagined. It was a wreck, a near-ruin which had been empty and partly open to the elements for the two years since its previous owner passed away. They had viewed the house the previous summer, but now in the depths of winter, in the short dark days of northeast Scotland, the reality of the work required to rehabilitate their future home finally dawned upon them.  He had seen the Tom Hanks and Shelly Long comedy The Money Pit. He knew what lay in wait.

He had worked on the renovation, incrementally, solidly, for almost a year, cracking his fingers and scraped his knuckles and bruising his knees. He breathed in so much dust and lime that he got a chest infection that flared up again once the air went moist and the nights drew in. In those early weeks, those halcyon days of uncurbed enthusiasm, each day was spent deconstructing, peeling back another layer of the house to expose its fissures and possible pressure points, the places where unanticipated, unmitigable disaster might be lying in wait. They filled two skips with plaster rubble alone. Every stick or lump of reusable material was conserved. Once the interior had been stripped out, and the exterior made water-tight and weather-proof, there was little of long-term concern. The house was structurally sound and free of dry-rot, and what little damage had been done through decades of neglect, neglect purely for the want of money, was easily remedied. They then set about reconstructing the house from the inside out.

In the first week their youngest son came with them to the house, watched them dismantling its interior piecemeal, and attempted to help with a tiny hammer. When the electrician came to price up the job, he followed him around with a small notepad and pencil, even though he could neither read nor write, and had no idea what the electrician was doing. By the end of the week it was clear that the work was far too messy for their son, and he was left in the care of his maternal grandmother, with whom they were living while the house was renovated, only witnessing his father’s endeavours through the narrative of his return, covered from head to toe in dust, as though each day he had walked through a fresh plume of ash from a hitherto dormant volcano. From time to time, he and his elder brother came to the house to see what little progress had been made, asking inevitable questions about when they would be able to move in,  Later, when they moved into the house, with one room as a make-shift living room and kitchen consisting of a microwave, and the entire ground floor largely out of bounds to them, such was the jumble of discarded materials and protruding nails, the fine layer of plaster dust that crept into every corner and even up the carpet into their bedroom.

Each morning his sons watched him rise for his breakfast and then immediately set to work on the next task needed to push the house a little further on, move it closer to completion. Even though he had done all that, it still didn’t make him a builder. He was only playing at being one. Being a builder was something else entirely. He could understand the confusion. For his part, he was disappointed that he hadn’t been able to give his son the answer he wanted, to be able to say definitively that he was a builder. Yes, I am. Yes. And one day you might be one too. For, in essence, a father was a builder. Someone who brought security and warmth to the lives of his children by providing the emotional and physical protection their needed, in the form of money or bricks and mortar. And there was something in the method of his son’s enquiries which moved him. They moved him so much, and in a certain way, that for a moment he was overcome by emotion, and had to quickly wipe away his tears so that he could see the road ahead.

 

ii.

A memory came to him then of being his son’s age. It was one of those memories that is usually obscured but from time to time returns unbidden, always bringing pleasure with it. He is sitting beside his father in the cab of an old Transit van. It is a midsummer’s day, dry and warm. Perhaps his brother is with them, but he’s unsure, he can’t picture or place him. It seems to be just the two of them. His father is at the wheel, driving with the driver-side door drawn back, the black tarmac rushing past a few inches away. He likes the door being open. There is something carefree and reckless about it. Sometime slightly rebellious. Something typical of his father.

Air blusters in through the opening and riffles the fabric of their t-shirts. Occasionally an inquisitive fly flits into the cab, while others splatter like gory raindrops against the windscreen. In the back of the van is something destined for the tip. Garden waste, most likely. A bundle of barbed hawthorns, pruned shrubs and disinterred roots. For his five-year-old self, it is a great adventure. He still remembers the thrill of excitement trilling through his small body. He has been desperate to go to the tip, a place of myth and mystery that only adults are permitted to visit, for some time. He is still not sure what he will find there.

The van is heavy and unwieldy, with grumbling engine and reluctant brakes. Juddering velocity. Jutting up from the floor of the cab is a slender gear stick with a small, round knob, which vibrates violently whenever the van idles at a junction. His father reaches down to change gear with a broad and tanned hand, etched with fair hair, a hand perhaps more familiar with the rub of tools and machinery than the shape of his son’s head. The palms of his father’s hands are calloused below the fingers from swinging sledgehammers and pushing shovels. In places, his father’s fingertips are cracked, and his nails bitten almost to the quick. He has decided that he will one day have hands like his father’s.

The interior of the cab is stuffed with till receipts and loose screws and old tabloids and oily rags and empty fag packets. A skip on wheels. It has a strange odour which he will later trace to the combination of grease and dust and smoke and sweat. The smell of men at work, of straining and lifting and hammering and sawing, of knocking down and raising up and putting right. The smell his father brings home with him every evening he walks in the door, in time for his dinner, like a burnished deity.

 

iii.

When he was his youngest son’s age, his parents moved their family from a house on a quiet suburban street to a new house in an unfamiliar part of town. It was less than a mile from their old home, but it felt like a world away. Their new house was older, small, with less garden and located on a busy main road some distance from the town centre. Too far, and too dangerous, for his mother to continue walking them to school. The previous owner had been an elderly widow, not long deceased, and the house had an air of abandonment and protracted decay, with lace curtains studded with dead flies in the windows, carpets worn through to bare floorboards and a wild, overgrown garden, with several unruly, entangled rhododendrons. By happy coincidence, the garden backed onto the golf club where his father, and grandfather, played regularly. With the first tee just beyond the garden’s threadbare privet hedge, and the hallowed clubhouse a few yards away from his back door, it was clear his father had his eye on this house for some time.

While work started on the house, the family moved into temporary accommodation. This consisted of a touring caravan taken on loan from his maternal grandfather, parked up on the driveway of their new home. An arrangement his mother was not altogether thrilled about. They lived in that caravan for two to three months. There is very little he remembers of that time, other than vague memories of fraught dinners around the formica table, corroborated by his father’s account of returning home from work to see a saucepan, specifically a pan of carrots which had boiled dry, being thrown out of the window, at which point he reversed out of the driveway and went to the golf club. His father, a pragmatic optimist, often saw the funny side of these things. His mother, struggling to cope with the new reality, did not.

Their bijou campsite quickly became a building site, a boggy morass of demolished brickwork and excavated clay. Much of the back garden was dug up, with trenches scraped out of the ground for an extension which would double the size of the house, and a neighbouring garage. For him and his younger brother, the building site became a playground. A small excavator was left on the site for a few days, and together with his younger brother he spent hours sitting in the driver’s seat, fiddling with the levers. Later they ran along the corrugated concrete in the footings for the extension or made tracks in the building sand for their cars, which inevitably found their way into the brickies’ mortar. Scores of his father’s golf buddies came to inspect the work, peering over the hedge as the extension began to take shape, the blockwork rising from the morass like a life-sized Lego construction. Once the inside of the house was made watertight, a kitchen hurriedly installed and a bathroom plumbed, to his mother’s great relief they were finally able to move out of the caravan, which was hitched to the back of his father’s car and returned to his father-in-law, and into the confines of a house no less chaotic, and no more liveable.  

Other houses followed 125 Middlewich Road. One Manor Road. The Old Coach House. Each property a little grander than the last. More ornate features. A bigger acreage. Each a bigger commitment than the last, requiring more investment, more materials, more manpower hours, more time, more chaos after they moved in. As he became older, his own involvement grew, until with the last house his parents bought, a large Victorian era coaching house, he could say definitively that he had put some fragment of himself into it, like a fingerprint pressed into wet cement. He had made his mark.

 

iii.

He took his sons to a building site close to his old home. It was a small site, barely large enough to accommodate the two small detached houses on the plot. Both were in modern red brick, with slim front elevation, apex porches and narrow front windows. A temporary metal fence fringed the site’s perimeter and leaning against the fence was a small sign bearing his grandfather’s name, the name of his father’s firm. Unfinished buildings like these had long been part of his life. He felt at home in their cold, darkened spaces, the exposed brickwork and rough concrete screed. The smell of sawn timber and wet plaster. Building is in the blood, his father sometimes reminded him. Building is in the blood. Home is where the heart is.

As they pulled up in his car, he embarked upon a little speech he had partly prepared, which even though he knew they couldn’t possibly understand now, he hoped they might remember in a partial way. You see these two houses, boys? These houses have been built by your grandpa. Your grandpa is a builder, remember? Well, these two houses are the last your grandpa will ever build. The last two. And the firm that has built these houses, that firm was set up by your great grandpa, my grandpa. So your grandpa, and my grandpa, have built a lot of these houses over the years. Hundreds. And these are the last two. And when these two are finished, grandpa is going to retire. Remember these two houses boys. These two houses represent the end of an era.

After almost forty years at the helm, his father was shutting up shop. He’d wanted to retire for years but kept putting it off, something he felt he couldn’t do while his own father was still alive. Then there were his employees to think of, some of whom were like sons to him, who had joined the business straight out of school and now had children the same age as them when they started their apprenticeship. Now most of his workforce had already gone, taken the redundancy pay and set up on their own. Some were leaving the trade altogether. There was one joiner left snagging and fitting out these two houses, a lad who joined the firm as an apprentice and stayed for almost thirty years. Once he was gone, the business which had survived three financial crashes and several recessions, be no more. Not for the want of work, but for the want of someone to take it on. For the want of a successor. For the lack of an heir. His father had done all he could to find one. And when push came to shove, the fault for this lay not at his father’s door, but his.

 

iv.

In 1953, almost a decade after the end of the Second World War and a few years before Harold Macmillan’s never had it so good speech, his late grandfather set up his building firm with little more than a wheelbarrow and a bag of lime. It was a story he often liked to recount in his later years, irrespective of whether the audience was unfamiliar or well-versed in the mythology. The humble beginnings were of critical importance to the story, and the humble beginnings were without question. Born between the wars to a publican and his wife, his grandfather was the youngest of nine children. Eight boys, and one girl. All eleven family members squeezed into the rooms above a coaching tavern on the outskirts of a Cheshire market town. Spit-and-sawdust territory. It was a lively environment, and being the youngest, his grandfather was a sort of forgotten child, closest to his only sister. The biographical details of his elder brothers, and the extended family they sired in Cheshire, the Potteries and beyond, remain a mystery.

Upon leaving school he became an apprentice bricklayer, narrowly avoiding conscription in the dying days of the war and later fulfilling his national service as an air cadet. Once demobbed he returned to the building trade and established his building firm a few years later. His grandfather’s life story, and that of his father, begins with his courtship of his wife-to-be, a local farmer’s daughter. They were married in the early 1950s, and his father was born, the first of two boys, part-way through the decade. Macmillan’s benevolent observation aptly summarised their lives. They moved to a large house in a small village just outside their home town, to the back of which was a large plot, known colloquially as the yard, which became the focus of his business operations. In addition to his office, there was a carpenter’s workshop, which he remembers his grandfather leading him into as a boy, and proudly showing him off to two of the men working in there.

A successful local businessman, his grandfather was an active part of his local community, with a large circle of affluent friends, highly regarded by those he met through the Rotary Club, Probus, the Golf Club, or his local Methodist chapel. His grandfather taught himself to play the piano in his family pub, revelling in both the applause and the free drinks. Over time he became a skilled pianist, though one unable to read music prevented him from finding employment in the entertainment industry. In later years he could still be called upon to play the piano or Hammond organ for the pleasure of family and friends. One Christmas, sometime after his grandfather had retired, he happened to accompany his mother to the local bank, where she had gone to pay in a handful of cheques for his father. As they approached the foyer, he could hear someone jauntily playing Christmas carols on a portable keyboard, and when he walked in, he saw it was his grandfather, working up and down the keys with his nimble fingers. Perched at the end of the keyboard, a bowl of Quality Street confectionery, which he insisted his grandson dip his hand into. There was something wonderfully incongruous and sweetly serendipitous about it, as if it had been orchestrated by his grandfather solely for his benefit.

 

v.

By the age of sixteen his father was desperate to leave school. He intended to take a course in bricklaying at the local college, with a view to entering the trade, though whether he would be entering the family firm was not altogether clear. With his grandfather, he attended an open day at the college. Discussing courses with the enrolment officer, his grandfather interjected and informed the enrolment officer that his son didn’t want to be a bricklayer, he wanted to be a quantity surveyor. The enrolment officer explained that the quantity surveying course it required A-levels, which his father didn’t have. It would be possible to take the course, but his father would need to pass his A-levels first, in order to complete the QS course. For his father, this would double his expected workload, an unfortunate eventuality for a teenager who had left school specifically to dodge A-levels. His grandfather didn’t seem to think that it would be a problem, and his father was enrolled on the course. A few weeks later, his father met one of his former English teachers in a local shop. His father was no lover of literature, and he and the English teacher hadn’t got on particularly well. When his father explained to the teacher that he was attempting to pass three A-levels in less than a year, the teacher said, But you’re not A-level material, before turning on his heel and walking out. By the end of the year, his father had his two A-levels. When his father passed the exams for his QS qualification, he was the youngest in the country to do so.

 

 

vi.

By the end of the Seventies, his grandfather had successfully expanded his building firm to a medium-sized business with a fleet of vans and a payroll running the gamut from brickies, roofers and joiners, to plumbers, plasterers and labourers. He was by now under a lot of pressure. Each morning his grandfather lined up his employees, young apprentices and old lags, for their daily bollocking, before dispatching them to site with a flea in each ear. If anything, the firm had become too successful, and had grown beyond his capability, or the capability of anyone, to manage it single-handedly. He was having anxiety attacks and heart palpitations. After his GP advised him to take a nip of whisky whenever he felt an attack coming on, there followed a number of incidents where his father or uncle had to pick up his grandfather from some layby or other, after he’d experienced a panic attack while driving and had one nip too many. It was a difficult time. The business was doing well but his grandfather appeared to be driving himself into an early grave. His father had swerved joining the firm and found work with another firm, his first job after college. His grandmother, terrified of the effect the business was having on her husband’s health, asked his father to help ease some of the pressure. If he didn’t, she warned her eldest son, the business would kill him.

 

vii.

When he was eight years old, his younger brother brought chicken pox home from school. Both he and his brother were kept off school for a fortnight, and being highly contagious, they rarely left the house. Coming in the weeks following Christmas, he viewed having chicken pox as a pleasing extension to the festive break, save for the agony of the persistent itchiness, which preventing him sleeping at night and made him irritable during the day. His brother, not known for his tolerance of discomfort, seemed to fare worse, than he did, and he came to loathe the sickly smell of chamomile lotion, the milky solution his brother wallowed in at bath time.

Sometime during that fortnight, he and his brother were left in the care of their father. Their mother had some unspecified appointment, possibly a hairdressing job for an elderly customer where the presence of two pox-ridden children would have been inconvenient. Not that this wasn’t of considerable inconvenience to their father, who had several appointments of his own to keep that day, which precluded nursemaiding his sickly progeny. It appeared he had lost the argument over this matter, as he and his brother were dabbed with chamomile, wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing, and bundled into the back of their father’s crimson Saab 900. His brother was inconsolable.

The January weather was particularly miserable that week. Just a couple of days before he had sat in their best living room doing his homework in front of the fire, with the crisp light of the new year warming the room. Now heavy rain lashed the windscreen of his father’s car like a plague of wet flies, which the Saab’s oscillating wipers swatted at furiously. Apart from instructing his brother to keep the noise down, their father drove in near silence. Eventually they pulled up at a red-brick building, a half-finished house without windows and doors. Their father explained that he had to go into the building for a little while but would be back as soon as possible. He left the key in the ignition and the heaters and cassette player on.

In the car they had been listening to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. The one with a metal guitar hovering in the air. It was one of their father’s favourite records and had become his and his brother’s too. It was fair to say his father favoured a certain type of music. Guitar-driven, bombastic rock, often with a gruff vocalist. Dire Straits. Chris Rea. Simple Minds. U2. Music by men, mostly for men. Almost all his early encounters with music had taken place in his father’s car. He was fascinated with the music cassettes with their silken tape and the spools with their little teeth. That these produced the music he was listening to boggled his little mind.

Dire Straits were a band formed by two Geordie brothers of Celtic heritage, Mark and David Knopfler, whose relationship fell apart almost as soon as they found success, and whose fractured fraternity remained unreconciled at the time of the recording of Brothers in Arms. When he came to listen to the album again much later, this sundering animosity underscored the album’s tone of lachrymosity. The world-weary ‘So Far Away From Me’, the noodling intro of ‘Money for Nothing’, with its falsetto refrain and noodling synths surrendering to the track’s staccato drum solo and a crescendo of power chords, the chirpy keyboard line and jubilant woo hoos of ‘Walk of Life’, the upbeat anomaly among the album’s pervasive doom and gloom, the curling, seductive saxophone of ‘Your Latest Trick’, the gently persuasive melodies of ‘Why Worry’, the faux-militarism of Ride Across the River and ‘The Man’s Too Strong’, rolling thunder of the title track, Mark Knopfler’s grass-soft vocals, and the war-torn melancholy.

Now the sun's gone to hell and

The moon's riding high

Let me bid you farewell

Every man has to die

But it's written in the starlight

And every line in your palm

We are fools to make war

On our brothers in arms

With nothing else to do while they waited for their father, he opened the case and removed the sky-blue insert to read the song lyrics. These had been printed in pink, which against the sky-blue made them barely legible. Some of the words didn’t make any sense to him. There were big words like antidote and , and others, like faggot, which he didn’t really understand but took to be like a swear-word. The lyrics offered him a glimpse of a kind of poetry. They weren’t poetry, but they aspired to be. The album sold in the tens of millions, but few who bought Brothers in Arms were buying into Knopfler’s jaundiced world-view. They just wanted to that intro to ‘Money for Nothing’. They wanted their MTV.

Side One finished and Side Two began, then Side One returned, and after that Side Two again. His father remained in the building. His younger brother was still sobbing, curled into a ball on the backseat, crying for their mother. That is what he remembers most clearly of that morning. The cold rain, the fogged windscreen, his brother on the backseat and the spools of the cassette ushering in the next track, as he stared at the half-finished house and willed his father to emerge.

 

 

viii.

FUCK FUCK FUCK OFF YOU FUCKING SHIT FUCKING CUNT

Now in his teens, he is at home, playing computer games in his room on the Amiga 500 he shares with his brother. It must be the holidays, or perhaps he is on study leave, for it is the middle of the day and he has the entire house to himself. Both parents are out, and his little brother is elsewhere, either at a friend’s house or with his mother.

FUCK CUNT FUCKING FUCK

The game he is playing, Lotus Esprit Turbot Challenge, is a street racing game. Straightforward, if a little monotonous, with clunky graphics and the tinny sound redolent of an early Casio keyboard. For almost an hour he has been completely absorbed, too distracted to notice if either of his parents have unexpectedly arrived home.

OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE

no matter how hard he tries, he still cannot get past one particular level, a not especially difficult level but one that continues to frustrate him, even though his eventual victory will be ultimately pyrrhic once the game is over and the computer switched off, but his persistent inability to overcome this obstacle to self-realisation causes him to become more and more angry, with himself and with the game.

CUNT FUCKING TWAT

His gaming ineptitude in comparison with the intuitive skills of his peers, and even his brother, is profoundly infuriating, and when his Lotus is once more halted by one of the computer-operated cars in front of him, he cries out with a roar of invective as shrill as it is indignant.

NO NO NO FUCK YOU YOU STUPID FUCKING CUNT FUCK YOU FUCKING FUCK OFF

At that precise moment his father appears at his bedroom door. He is unable to gauge what sort of mood his father is in, if he is going to instruct him to turn the game off and do something else, or shout at him, but before he has chance to offer an apology for swearing, his father has crossed the threshold to his bedroom and punched him hard on the left arm.

DON’T. YOU. USE. LANGUAGE. LIKE. THAT. IN. MY. HOUSE. EVER. AGAIN.

The words are accompanied by additional blows, and he flinches in anticipation of a slap around the head, feeling it almost inevitable, but it doesn’t come. Instead, his father leaves his room, walks back along the landing and down the stairs, out of the front door, gets into his car and returns to work.

 

ix.

His father wasn’t a violent man. He never abusive, nor an alcoholic, nor a drug addict. His family didn’t live in a climate of fear. On the occasions that his father lost his temper, it rarely manifested itself as destructive rage, and never as physical danger. Excluding being smacked once or twice as a child, it was the only time his father took a hand to him, and given his behaviour, perhaps it was understandable. That didn’t make it any less shocking. It might have been that there was something else going on that he didn’t know about, something cumulative about his behaviour that had caused his father to snap, or simply something frustrating which had happened at work that morning. For his father, work always came home, whether it was materials being stored in the garage or one of his men turning up in one of the company vans or customers calling in the evening or his father rising early at the weekend to prepare an estimate while the rest of the family slept. That they moved home every four or five years to properties in need of extensive renovation didn’t help. But when his mother stopped her hairdressing business to help his father with the firm’s administration, the family home came to feel like an annex of the office, one in which he and his brother frequently got in the way. It inhabited the space of their home, altered the shape of the things within it. Everything held an intrinsic value, everything came at a cost. Once he and his brother were told off for wearing jeans on the sofa, as the upholstery couldn’t cope with the rugged denim. Another time, they broke the base of a different sofa by practising dropkicks while watching Wrestlemania. Everything came at a cost. Especially children.

 

x.

Something had happened when his father came into the business. Something that remained unspoken. His mother referred to it, cryptically, as causing bad blood and almost splitting the family, though she was, on occasion, partial to over-exaggeration. Whatever it was, it left of trace of a fracture in their relationship that was never wholly settled, even at the time of his grandfather’s death. Certainly there was frustration and resentment on the part of his father, a sense that he had been compelled into a course of action against his will, a decision which cost him financially, tied him to the business for the rest of his working life, and set him on a course that he had tried to resist. That it made him a wealthy man was irrelevant. His working life had been one of stress and struggle, of strained family life and the pressure of his inheritance, the urgent need to keep the firm profitable and his employees in work. Spotting opportunities. Raising capital. Buying land. Reinvesting. Visiting clients and preparing estimates. Earning a living. A phrase that frequently cropped up around the family home when he was growing up. Earning a living. As though life itself had a monetary value attached to it. When he was ten years old his father was hospitalised with pneumonia, the doctor’s diagnosis was that he was working too hard. He was advised to take it easy. It took him almost a month to recover, and he never regained the good health of his youth. The façade of his invincibility was irrevocably damaged.

 

 xi.

There must always be a struggle between a father and son, while one aims at power and the other at independence. It was Samuel Johnson who identified, with typical incisiveness, the schism between fathers and sons. Difficult, distant or disciplinarian fathers. Errant, feckless or infuriating children. As was customary, he scoured literature for rough approximations of the strained relationships within his own family. Daedalus watching his son tumble into the Mediterranean. God hanging his son out to dry. Lear calling for his daughters’ compliments. Polonius, the eloquent windbag. Claudius, the smiling, damned villain. Pap Finn driving his son Huck into the wilderness. Mr Mortmain in his dilapidated castle, selling off his furniture to buy food. Captain Jack Boyle unable to work due to the pain in his legs, and another Jack, Torrance, stalking his young son with a mallet through the corridors of the Overlook Hotel (in Stanley Kubrick’s film it became an axe). Lascivious fathers, like Humbert Humbert infatuated with Lolita, and Michael with Amber, not his daughter but no less inappropriate. AN Dyer trying to escape mortality by cloning himself. Old Nick stepping into the room. Failed fathers. Failed men doing what they do best. Behaving badly.

Troubled childhoods blighted the biographies of many writers he admired, pushing into the position of outsider within their own family, detached observers of their own pain. Henry Bukowski beat his son every day with a razor strop. Sydney Larkin collected Nazi memorabilia. Tony Harrison’s working-class father struggled to come to terms with his son’s scholarly proclivities. Frederick Cheever turned to drink when the New England textile industry went into decline. Samuel Auster was a reluctant grandfather. Kingsley Amis dispensed with his copy of Money when his son Martin appeared in the narrative. Sir John Mortimer followed his father into the legal profession, fearful that his writerly ambitions would be pooh-poohed by his formidable patriarch. With his mother and maternal grandmother, he saw a West End revival of Mortimer’s A Voyage Around My Father, which detailed the writer’s fraught, yet ultimately respectful relationship with his late father. Towards the close, after Mortimer’s father had passed away following a stroke, the young Mortimer observed, You walk into the sun and no-one is taller than you, and you are in no-one else's shadow. But I know how I felt. Lonely.

For every difficult, distant or overbearing patriarch there was an equivalent mild-mannered, benevolent or nurturing paterfamilias there to rebalance the cosmic order. King Priam. Atticus Finch. Pop Larkin. Mr Bennett. Bob Cratchit. The elder Bazarov tolerating his son’s interruptions. Thomas Schell placing a final call from the World Trade Centre. One Christmas he had watched the TV film of Roald Dahl’s book Danny, the Champion of the World, one of the few he had failed to read, perhaps on account of its lack of overtly grotesque characters. Danny lives with his widower father William in a gypsy caravan in a small village, where his father ekes out their hand-to-mouth existence by working at a filling station and garage. After a wealthy landowner tries to force them off their land, William plots to poach the landowner’s prize game pheasants using poaching techniques he learned from his own father. In the film, as in Dahl’s book, William is a valorised as a caring, gentle father, and it was notable for being the first time he had ever seen a father tell his son he loved him, on television or in real life. Danny’s father William was played by Jeremy Irons, with the role of Danny played by his own son, Samuel. It was several years before he realised that there was an interesting duality at work in the film, an acting dynasty being forged in much the same way Peter Bogdanovic’s comedy-drama Paper Moon catapulted Tatum O’Neal, cast opposite her father Ryan, to superstardom, winning her an Oscar and ruining her life in the process.

Dynasties and empires. Emperors and heirs. The pressure of inheritance.

 

xii.

Much of early life had been spent on some building site or other, either his own home or some agricultural ruin, or a newly-minted dwelling, sometimes the back of someone’s garden, out in all weather, sun burning his shoulders or rain water dripping off his nose, developing callouses and biceps of equivalent size, back aching from the constant bending and lifting. Digging foundations, pushing around wheelbarrows loaded with earth and cement, dressing bricks by the pallet-load, unblocking sewage pipes, smashing apart interior walls, collapsing ceilings, installing land drains, battening insulation, laying York stone paving, breaking rubble into hardcore, tiling, underpinning, painting and decorating, endlessly sweeping sawdust and dirt. What some of his friends viewed as dead-end jobs for school-leavers, he saw as rewarding work which exercised both mind and body, requiring physical strength and a bit of nous. In the building trade, nous was always valued over intellect or scholarly impulses.

He first began working for his father in the summer following his GSCE examinations, a few weeks after his sixteenth birthday. In a sense he had already been working for his father for several years, undertaking household chores for his weekly allowance, but now he was formally stepping into the world of work via a heavily masculinised environment of graft and sweat, cracked fingernails and sunburned backs, tea and tobacco-stained teeth, filthy clothes and filthier language. He had first overheard his father swearing while on the golf course, but he noticed immediately that he switched gears in the company of his employees. The Men, as his mother referred to them. For there was something of the playground about some of The Men. Brought into the business as apprentices, now with wives and girlfriends and young families, still bickering and sulking and grousing and goading each other like schoolboys. Reprobate and for the most part hard-working, some were still preoccupied with the habits of adolescence. When they were acting up, they reminded him of the academically disinterested and disruptive personalities from his school. By and large they men saw further education, education of any kind, as a waste of time, and money. What you learned, and earned, on the job was enough. Being a student meant having either your head in the clouds, or your head up your arse. There was no small amount of truth in that.

With other building firms, employees came and went with the seasons, but there was some longevity in his father’s firm. For over a decade, a handful of men formed the beating heart of the business. There was Steve the plumber, his father’s cousin, twice removed, nicknamed Honky McTonkey from the time that he returned from holiday with a deep tan, he had a mischievous look to him, a glint in his eye, like there was a joke he was always in on. Two joiners, Big Simon and Little Simon, the former with a mop of straight black hair, thick set, intimidating and loud, the latter a chain-smoking miniature version of Ali Campbell from UB40. Bricklayers Belly and Nigel, chalk and cheese, one a neat and tidy worker who in a certain light resembled a young Frank Sinatra, the other a work-shy refusenik and frequently shoddy bricklayer, who in a certain light resembled a senior officer of the Third Reich. Then there were the apprentices, Rich, or Nobby as he was nicknamed by Big Simon, who joined the firm as a chubby school-leaver with a short fuse and over time became one of his father’s most trusted, hardworking employees, and Dave, the brickie, a stacked prop forward who once clobbered him over the head in school, a little slow on the uptake sometimes, but steadfast and dependable.

At any given time, his father had two labourers in his employ. Fetchers and carriers, labourers were always at the bottom off the pecking order, given the unskilled jobs like mixing cement, shovelling gravel or cleaning up after the brickies. One labourer was a curly-haired scouser who drove to work from Merseyside every morning. When this labourer worked, his sweat gave off the tell-tale sweetness of a heavy drinker, as alcohol from the previous night’s session seeped from his pores. Whenever the labourer stopped working to light a rejuvenating cigarette, which was often, his hands trembled. The other labourer lived locally with his disabled son and younger second wife in a small terrace in the centre of town. His first wife died in childbirth, and their son left with a severe disability. He was always angry. He looked like a furious heron that had been clad in grotty grey overalls. The pale skin of his hands and forearms were daubed with ancient tattoos, blue velvet splotches against his sinewy limbs, like his veins had run to blots. He was so quickly riled, about anything, that the other trades tormented him for fun. It broke up the monotony of everyone else’s day, made it go faster, although it meant having to wait until he had cooled down before he could be called upon to do anything useful. Even his father had difficulty convincing him to work.

When with the men, he tried to keep his counsel as best he could, did his work, ate his sandwiches and steered clear of the politics. He wondered that they thought of him, whether they viewed him as a worker or a shirker, or someone who would be issuing orders in a few years’ time. At that point he had little intention of going into the business. He had convinced himself he wasn’t built for it. It was a question of class, being working class or middle class. His family straddled the two. Working class roots, middle class aspirations. Even if building was in his blood, bossing others around wasn’t. Besides, he didn’t want to give any of the men the impression that he thought this was his birth-right, even if, to all intents and purposes, it was. It was his grandfather’s firm after all. A few had been with his grandfather before his retirement, and still held him in some affection. His father was a different kind of boss. He needed the men, true, but some were only there for an easy number. A cushy ride. They had to be licked into shape or kept on a tight leash. In his view, the work the men did, the bricklaying and the sawing and fitting and the welding, was as critical in keeping the business afloat as his father’s efforts in preparing estimates, keeping customers sweet and glad-handing suppliers on the golf course. Without the business there would be no men, but without the men, no business. He didn’t need to read Marx to work that one out.

One thing he quickly worked out was that he could ill-afford to slack off. Outside of the piss-taking and name-calling and general bitching, usually each other and sometimes about his father, there was a competitiveness to they way the men set about their work which had to be respectfully observed, and wilfully submitted to. One summer day, in roaring heat, he and Little Simon, Dave and labourer Ian tried to break up the concrete base of a demolished garage. They had one sledgehammer between them. For a couple of hours they took it in turns to hoick the hammer over their heads and smash it down into the concrete. While one man worked, his sweat-sodden t-shirt wrapped around him like a second skin, the others watched, smouldering fag in hand. Using a sledgehammer was much like splitting logs. Swinging the hammer over your shoulder, in a style reminiscent of a celluloid chain-gang, slowed the momentum of the head and overbalanced the user, thus decreasing the power. The legs had to be set far apart, and the head of the hammer drawn up quickly up before being pulled down hard to deliver a solid blow. Using the sledgehammer in this way required good core strength. It was, therefore, exhausting. Between them they succeeded in breaking apart a small corner of the base, revealing the mesh of a steel reinforcement. It was enough to convince his father it would be quicker, and easier, to hire a pneumatic drill.

At Christmas the men got a bonus in their pay packet and a bottle of whisky, and drinks down the pub after knocking off at midday. One Christmas Eve, he joined them in the pub. Some had already gone home, and those remaining had a distinct lack of seasonal goodwill. The apprentice brickie stomped outside for a fag, and while loitering in the entrance took exception to something a visibly underage lad said to him as he tried to get past. He watched the exchange unfold through the glass in the door, saw the brickie’s demeanour switch from drunken blankness to the kind of dulled, brute fury he’d seen in countless playground fights. Before anyone could stop him, the brickie punched the boy repeatedly in the face, knocking out his front teeth, and he fell through the open door holding his mouth. He pushed through the melee of the pub before returning with two agitated older men, his father and uncle, who stormed out of the pub door. He didn’t see the brickie again that night, but one of his friends returned to the pub with tears streaming down his face. The boy’s father and uncle had found the brickie pissing in the alley next to the pub and jumped him. Go and see him, he said to the men. He’s outside, go and see what they’ve done. He never was that smart.

In the summer after university he spent three drunken weeks with the brickie and the apprentice joiner on a fireproofing job in Swanage. Installing foam perlite fire protection was a specialist service, one very few firms were able to provide, so his father could pretty much name his price. Frequently it involved rising at 5am to travel to a site, before returning home late. Many of the bigger, more lucrative jobs involved a week away from home, but many of the men shied away from it due to the nature of the work. Perliting was a grubby, dusty and relentlessly demanding job. It paid well but it was hard graft, pure and simple. You earned every penny. One team-member worked the perlite mixer, while the other/s carried eighty litre bins filled with cement-perlite mix into the pump, which then squirted the compressed grey foam between the exposed floor joists. Both required the wearing of overalls, dust masks, rubber gloves and the obligatory hard hat, making it intolerably hot during the summer months. The mixer and pump were absurdly heavy to lift, particularly to the first floor of the various properties where the work took place. The pump couldn’t pass the materials quickly enough, so its pipe always became clogged with solidified cement. From time to time Grains of perlite hung in the air of the mixing room, and the bonding cement burnt the exposed skin of the carrier’s wrists. Come home time, there were grains of perlite lodge under his eyelids, his body ached from running bins full of the pumping mixture up flights of stairs, and he had to fight sleep in the van on the way home.

For the trip to Swanage, his father had booked a static caravan on a campsite overlooking the bay, the Dorset hills sloping down to the coast. It was a stunning location, perfect walking territory, though he knew there was little chance of being able to slip off into the countryside. They were there to work and drink, and in that first week, the three of them treated the first week like an 18-30s holiday. At times it reminded him of being in Newquay with his friends. The banter, the booze, the talent-spotting. After a long day pumping perlite, the evenings involved a lengthy pub crawl followed by a nondescript dinner he could barely remember, before staggering back to the caravan to pass out. The next morning they would call in at the café with an attractive female owner to collect their breakfast toasties, choking them down while they sat in the van and tried to drum up the enthusiasm to put on their filthy overalls once more, before sweating out their monstrous hangovers shuttling back and forth between mixer and pump. Come home time, they would be ready for another pint, or a can from the fridge. He hadn’t drunk as much since Freshers Week, and when he calculated that all his wages were going to end up gushing into the fetid urinal in some seaside nightclub, he dropped a handful of ten-pence pieces into the campsite call box and asked if he wouldn’t mind having a quiet word. It never occurred to him that he could have said it himself. Towards the end of their stay, he fell into conversation with a group of undergraduates on the next table, found himself talking about going to Glastonbury and liking certain bands. The two men, unable to participate, started to take the piss, and he chided them in their ignorance, addressed them with his father’s words, put them in their place.

 

xiii.

For even the most caring parent, children can be a blessing and a curse. Sometimes he was simply an ungrateful little toad. After much pleading, his parents had relented and bought him and his brother the Commodore Amiga 500, the first computer his family owned, as a joint birthday present. For £399.99 it would have been possible to buy a good quality used car for the same price back then. Perhaps that was why his father insisted he and his brother had to contribute fifty pounds from their birthday money, money given to them by other relatives. This, he felt, was a little unjust. Other friends had simply been given one for their birthday. All were blessed with gracious, generous fathers who were less insistent that their children come to terms with the cost of living. Middle class aspirations, working class roots. They died hard with his father, even if he once labelled Blackpool a working man’s slum when his younger brother asked that they holiday there.

Any sting he felt at handing over the money was swiftly soothed on his birthday, when he excitedly opened the box containing the Amiga. The computer came in a Batman-branded bundle which included the new Batman movie tie-in game, F/A-18 Interceptor, which he only ever used on demo mode, and the delightful New Zealand Story, his favourite game, which he finally completed when a school friend told him about the infinite lives cheat function. For a time, he played around with pictures using Deluxe Paint 2 and wrote embryonic stories on the word processor while listening to Dire Straits, albeit stories heavily indebted to others he had read. He had in his mind the idea of writing some kind of novel involving a young protagonist holidaying with his father in a hotel which is attacked by terrorists, but he didn’t make it past the first twenty pages. Before long he was using the Amiga solely for gaming. When more his dexterous friends came to visit, they played games together, or he sat and watched them complete levels he was incapable of.

Early on Christmas morning, a year later, he was trying to play a new game, one he received as a gift from his parents. The Amiga kept crashing. Losing his temper, he smashed his fist into the keyboard, damaging the underlying circuitry. He spent the rest of the morning shedding futile tears of contrition while his parents tried to mollify his ridiculous behaviour. Unable to repair the computer, in the new year his father put in a claim on the household insurance, and the Amiga was replaced with a new enhanced model, the Amiga 500 Plus, which he and his brother soon discovered that, due to upgrades in the operating system, was incompatible with most of the games in their collection. After days of begging his father to send it back, he eventually relented, and a new Amiga 500 was acquired.

By now, the Amiga brand was unable to compete with more sophisticated gaming consoles, such as the SEGA Megadrive and the SNES, machines with better graphics and more intuitive controls. A year later, he and his brother bought a SNES, chiefly because its version of Streetfighter 2 didn’t come with eight floppy disks. After that, the Amiga was consigned to the loft, much to his father’s chagrin. Well that was a complete waste of money, his father said, either about the Amiga or the SNES, possibly both. Playing computer games was anathema to his father. He didn’t even pretend to take an interest. Some of his father’s friends did, drunkenly joining in at Sunday barbecues or on New Year’s Eve, but his father wasn’t interested. As far as he was concerned, if you were gaming, you weren’t helping around the house, or in the garden. You weren’t working.

His father had been right. Computer games were a waste of money, and a waste of time. It pained him to look back on the summer days squandered and pocket money frittered through the console in his room, which was a portal to nowhere. Losing his temper and throwing his joystick across the room every time a little sprite died. Lost hours resulting in mediocre coursework and poor exam results. All the pound coins slipped fruitlessly into various machines in arcades across the country. Dungeons and Dragons. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Time Crisis. All for the hallowed space at the top of the leader board. The promise of being number one. Of being somebody in a world where there was always a second chance. Infinite lives.

 

 

xiv.

In his first summer working for his father, he was paired with an older guy called Len. Len was a casual labourer whom his father often called upon for smaller jobs that weren’t worth troubling his permanent, skilled employees with. He first encountered Len a couple of years before. He and his father had gone to revive the overgrown garden of their old family home, which had been neglected by one of his father’s tenants. Shortly after arriving at the house, they were joined by a short man with close-cropped white hair, a trim moustache and a slight stoop. This is Len, his father said, he’s come to help. Len was five foot six, blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, with shoulders like the trunk of a tree and arms like its gnarled bough. He looked like the pocket-sized version of Steinbeck’s namesake. Labour was etched into his body, his hands were the colour of teak, his fingertips ingrained with dirt. As he and his father set about trimming the hedges with electric shears, Len worked through the tall grass with his scythe, tracing low arcing strokes to topple the high blades. Up to then, the only time he had seen a scythe was either in a museum, or in the hands of William Paterson, the actor who played the Grim Reaper in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Now, for the first time, he saw one being put to its intended use, and it felt as though he had travelled back in time.

Several years later, when he read the passage in Anna Karenina where Levin mows the fields alongside his workers, it was Len he pictured cropping the grass:

The old man, holding himself erect, moved in front, with his feet turned out, taking long, regular strides, and with a precise and regular action which seemed to cost him no more effort than swinging one’s arms in walking, as though it were in play, he laid down the high, even row of grass. It was as though it were not he but the sharp scythe of itself swishing through the juicy grass.

There was something of the noble savage about Len. Not primitive or backward, or indeed primal or aggressive, although according to his grandfather Len had been a bit of a rum bugger in his younger years, always getting into some altercation or other. It was his careworn, near-spent physicality which bespoke decades of hard work. Operari ergo sum ego. The physical effects of these decades were visible on his hunched and stooped body, the way he shuffled and ambled and grunted his greeting from a near-toothless mouth, how he bit into a tomato or smoked a cigar, or his broad, flat hands, twice the size of his own, which recalled an ape’s feet, his skin, tanned and leathered and toughened, as if he had been buried in peat for several millennia, like the Lindow Man, who had been unearthed in nearby Wilmslow a decade or so ago. It was work which defined him, made him corporeal, as year after year he gave more of himself back to the earth.

Their first job together was replacing a cracked drain for an elderly lady in Crewe. Len was supposed to pick him up first thing from the yard, but he arrived sometime after the rest of his father’s the men dispersed, pulling up in a wheezing Vauxhall Astra with rust spots and a missing wing mirror. Behind the car was a box trailer containing a range of earthworking tools bordering on the antique, and a registration plate which was attached by a wisp of string. After taking some time to negotiate the confines of the yard, shunting back and forth as to straighten out his trailer, Len finally switched off the car’s juddering engine and hauled himself out. He was wearing a torn red t-shirt which had faded to pink, and a pair of sagging brown trousers several sizes too large, which were held in place with a loose belt and had to be repeatedly hitched up to prevent them collapsing around his ankles. On his feet were a pair of flattened and scuffed shoes that looked like they had come out of production half a century ago.

In receipt of their instructions from his father, they set off for Crewe in Len’s car. Len drove incredibly slowly, perhaps due to his partial sightedness. Given his apparent disability, he wondered if Len should be driving at all, a question which continued to nag at the traffic massed behind their car. His driving technique was defined by an his obliviousness to the needs of other road users, and a rejection of the impulses and temporal demands that caused many, including his father, to drive at speed. He wasn’t a dangerous driver, he simply had no interest in being a good one, creeping up to T-junctions at ten miles an hour, pulling out in the too high a gear and bringing the oncoming traffic to a halt as he fumbled at the gear stick. Turning his deaf ear to the blaring horns and yelled curses, he would simply drive away, unperturbed, without altering his pace or uttering a word. As he came to learn, there was little sense of urgency with Len. He had one speed. Leisurely.

By the time they arrived in Crewe it was almost break time. They began excavating the cracked drain in the front garden of the grateful old lady, who had doilies on her windowsills and kept them in cups of tea as they worked. She and Len were of similar vintage, but he set about digging the soggy clay with the gusto of a man half his age. They made good progress, and had almost unearthed the damaged pipe when Len’s shovel struck a water pipe close to the drain, which was hidden just below the surface of the wet clay. The pipe began to emit a loud hissing noise. He stopped digging and rubbed his chin, rested an arm on his shovel as he peered at the pipe, and muttered, Is that gas?, before stepping clear of pressurised water spraying over the lady’s privet hedge and into the street, all the while grumbling and mumbling and rubbing his chin. Finding the cover to the stop value in the pavement, Len knelt down with some effort to lift the cover and turn the water supply off. Then he wandered off to find a phone box and call his father. An hour later, Steve arrived with to repair the pipe. Did you do this, or was it Len? Steve asked him, with a conspiratorial wink.

Doubtless they made an odd couple, Beckettian or Pinteresque, him barely sixteen and Len well into his sixties, but he saw now that his father had deliberately teamed him with Len as the muscle to his wise mind, the monkey to his organ grinder, or, more accurately, the eager chimp to his sage ape. For Len had no interest in yielding to the vale of restful sleep and continued to maul about heavy York stone at the age most men reach for pipe and slippers and TV remote. Len often like to smoke a cigar as he worked, and once the twig-like cheroot had been reduced to a stub, he would slip into his mouth and grind it between his teeth. Tobacco juice leaked from his gurning maw whenever he leaned over, or suddenly erupted into a fragment of some song, dimly recalled, which reflected the Sisyphean nature of their task. Usually it was some bastardisation of the Merle Haggard hit ‘One Day at a Time’. One day at a time sweet Jesus / That’s all I’m asking of you, which he would finesse with some nonsensical couplets of his own. Sweet Jesus You know / I heard him go / One day at a time. It was fair to say Len enjoyed having a working companion. It gave him a captive audience. Work slowed to a crawl as he recounted his past escapades, arguing with some figure of authority or besting an aggressive drunk in the car park of his favourite pub, or the time he slung one of his children’s teachers over his shoulder and carried him in to see the headmaster after the teacher had insisted the schoolchildren pick up litter which had collected in playground.

Some of his father’s younger men openly mocked him, as they sat trying to eat their sandwiches or read their copies of The Daily Star or The Daily Sport, while he rabbited on at them. If there was one thing that got Len’s back up, it was having his intelligence insulted. He had frequent run ins with Nigel, the porcine brickie with a brush moustache, who frequently treated Len with contempt, believing himself above such lowly work, and rarely offered assistance if someone needed it, something Len prided himself upon. Len and Nigel’s personal philosophies continually clashed and jarred. They were polar opposites. Arch enemies. He had a clear sense of right and wrong, dishonour and justice, and was interested in sport, particularly the repeated failures of Tim Henman at Wimbledon, and politics, if not holding a clear political, or what you might call ideological, view. To him, politicians were all the same. Untrustworthy careerists. Whenever they worked together, Len would suddenly stop shovelling, look at him with his good eye, and say, What do you think about…? Before setting off on some lengthy, digressive monologue, a slim proportion of which was audible, or even comprehensible, which he would to listen to while trying to look busy in case his father unexpectedly turned up. There was something in Len’s delivery of these monologues which was frequently hilarious, his repetition of certain phrases, his incredulity at the stupidity of his supposed betters. In regione caecorum rex est luscus.

After his grandmother died, his grandfather built a new house on a piece of land he had owned for several years. His father, much to his chagrin, was asked to do it, and together he and Len, he worked on his grandfather’s garden patio, cutting the stone and pointing up. His grandfather liked to see him working at the house, and he recognised that his being there would have brought him pleasure. His grandfather had reservations about Len however. Most people of his grandfather’s generation in their town knew Len, or if they didn’t know him personally, they knew of him, his reputation preceding him like a wet fart wafted on the wind. Class was at the heart of it. Many of his grandfather’s friends had striven to raise themselves out of the same class as Len, and now saw themselves as above him, even though they were dependent upon him to do the jobs they would not, or no longer could. Some years later, when Len was in his grandfather’s employ as a gardener, they had a bitter falling out, one which didn’t seem to resolve itself before Len’s death, peacefully, in his sleep, which was not a metaphor but precisely what happened. Finally yielding to that restful vale.

 

xv. 

Driving to his father’s building site they passed a vast residential development a short distance away. Little more than a year earlier, the development had been a field of gently grazing cows. In their place, rows of identikit houses, eighty in total, townhouses and semis with postage-stamp gardens, packed tightly into the plot like penned-in cattle. A large advertising hoarding broadcast its aspirational marketing blurb. Bucolic Cheshire village. Unspoilt countryside views. Quaint local amenities. Excellent schools. Perfect place to raise a family. A little further down the road there was another large development, by a different housebuilder. Sixty dream homes awaiting their owners. Huge tracts of farm land around his home town had been lost to redbrick and tarmac. Property development was lucrative, and not just for established businesses. As soon as a large detached house came onto the market, a developer snapped it up, demolished it, and squeezed several houses onto the plot. This was not about returning derelict buildings into use. This was about the pursuit of profit over the needs of people, over the ability of the town to absorb the change. Local services running at capacity, traffic backed up for miles. There had been protests and planning objections. Still the houses came.

It was a good time for his father to get out of the game. It had always been impossible to compete with the large housebuilders, something he had never sought to do, but the proliferation of major housing developments around their hometown was now leaving little room for manoeuvre. After scaling back the business he took over from his grandfather, his father resisted expanding a firm which much like an unwieldy Transit van had grown too large, too hard to control. Instead the firm entered a new phase, a second coming, one focused on the renovation of abandoned and out of use farm buildings. In the era of the Cheshire barn conversion, his father was king, his success the profitable consequence of spotting this opportunity, this gap in the market, while maintaining the firm’s reputation for quality craftmanship, professionalism and reliability. He had made a name for himself in the industry, and not simply as the son of his father. Nevertheless, for all his achievements, it was still his father’s name on the company stationary. Embossed on his business card. Stencilled on the white vans parked up in the yard.

The pressures of inheritance. At times he felt an enduring sense of enduring disappointment in himself; of having done ‘the right thing’ by himself, and not by his forebears. These two houses should have been built by him. As the first-born son of the first-born son, he was next in line to take the firm established by his grandfather into the next century. To take up the legacy of all the homes built and renovated and refurbished and extended. Seeds sown in labour, yielding blooms of brickwork. To cement the good work already done. This was his inheritance, his responsibility. His father hadn’t had the same luxury. When he was compelled to go into the business, he complied. His father had done his duty. Now it was been his turn. And he had walked away. Guilt churned inside him like the maw of a cement mixer. This was his inheritance, and he had turned his back on it.

If there was a point at which he could have realistically joined the business, it was after university. Living with his parents after graduating from university, working in a bar, deciding what to do next. From time to time he worked for his father, fireproofing or labouring, when he should have been in the office, learning the rules of business. He half expected his brother to show an interest, but then he had not worked for the business. For months his father had been pushing him on his plans, and all he could do was resist, dissemble, deflect. Playing dumb. The truth was he had no plan, other than smoking weed, listening to music, reading books and writing poems. It must have been profoundly frustrating for his father, who perhaps had hoped he would one day join the family business, to watch his eldest son become distracted by literature, his ambition nullified by weed. For his part, he knew what his father wanted to hear, and he knew that he would never be able to say it. One night, over dinner and several glasses of wine, his father seemed to concede defeat. Son, you can do whatever you want to do, his father told him. As soon as he said it, he knew he was being given permission to walk away.

As he showed his children those last houses, it was with the knowledge that he had been a feckless son. Feckless and indecisive and above all, a failure. He had failed to achieve what he set out to do when he turned his back on the family business. But the more he thought about end of this particular era, the more he began to understand that what bothered him most about it was that it demonstrated once and for all that he was no longer young. All the assurances and certainties and frustrations and loneliness of his youth had been encompassed in the fortunes of the family business. At times, his father had been unable to see beyond it. This altered slightly when his grandmother passed away, irrevocably when his mother became seriously ill. Now it signified that there was now absolutely no possibility of him upholding the family tradition. It was characteristic of his indecisiveness that he would only become concerned once this possibility was gone, and the new reality an indelible fact.

Sometimes he liked to speculate about the existence of an alternative version of himself, out there in a parallel reality, who left school at sixteen or dropped out of university, and went into the business full-time, became a builder like his father, and his father before him, who married his childhood sweetheart, had children young, him working all the hours and her tending to their infant son. They’d have had no money at first, but he would have worked very hard, spent long hours away from home to provide for his family and make a success of his inheritance, and little by little they’d have become more comfortable, affluent even, and as the first of his son’s came of age he would take him to site, introduce him to the men, young apprentices and old lags, usher him into his world of bricks and mortar, put a trowel in his hand and show him how to point up.

The vicarious drama of those tied to mundane, prosaic fates. Why should his story be of any importance, and to anyone other than himself? It was question he kept coming back to, again and again. There was no great tragedy, no trauma to speak of. His father was no more or less difficult than the next man, no more unreasonable, no less loving, undemonstrative or not. Yet the nature of their relationship was, inevitably, one of power and independence. Should he have followed his father into the business? Yes. No. Maybe. Whatever decision he had made, it would have still been the wrong one.

Echoes and mirrors. Walls and bridges. In the narrative of self-consciousness, nothing can be taken at face value. Truth does not necessarily follow telling. All is unreliable. Everything can be misremembered. It is not a perfect world. 

xvi.

Back at his parent’s house, he came across a stack of old black and white photographs, many dating from the years following the end of the Second World War. After his grandfather’s death, his uncle had found them while clearing out his house and passed them to his father. Among the photographs were several of his father as a toddler, knee-deep in snow or building sandcastles with his brother and father on the beach at Abersoch. In one photograph, most likely taken by his grandmother, presumably then pregnant with her second child, his father has been sat, awkwardly, on the bonnet of a large, dark-coloured car, possibly a recent purchase, and his grandfather has his arm around him to prevent him slipping off. Both are wearing heavy coats, and even though the drab winter light obscures the two figures, he can still make out his grandfather’s familiar smile. The face of the little boy is less clear. More uncertain, perhaps confused by the camera, of having to pose, stay still long enough for the camera to complete the exposure. With a full head of hair his grandfather resembles a young Eric Morecambe. Clearly it a time of great optimism for his grandfather, being happily married, with a booming business, one healthy son, another on the way. New car, fancy clothes. He has every reason to be happy.

Then, a different picture of his father, in the same coat, behind the wheel of a toy car, looking sidelong at the camera, smiling faintly, with a slightly unfocused look which gestures towards the poor eyesight he will develop later in life. There is something about the way his father looks, his facial features, particularly about the eyes and the rosebud of his mouth, which prefigures those of his own son, his youngest, as if this photograph of the past offers a glimpse of the future. He cannot help wonders what memories from that time his father retains. For his father, it is as if that time never existed, the period of great optimism, of never having it so good, and as he stares at the photograph he begins to feel very sorry for that little boy in his little car, knowing what he knows now about his father’s unhappiness, and he wants to step into the frame of the photograph and pluck that little boy out of his toy car, lift him up into an embrace, and not let go.

Fraternity

i.

His earliest memory. Aged two. Bouncing on the backseat of his parents’ car, a red Ford Cortina with a cream interior. His father is driving. They are on their way to see his mother and new baby brother at the hospital. This is what he remembers, through the prism of self-consciousness, what he has long understood to be his earliest memory, but now, entering his fifth decade, he is unsure if there is any truth to this memory, which pivots upon certain images and sensations, but he cannot be sure if they are real or imagined, or if it what he remembers is simply a reconsolidated memory, or merely the memory of a dream. If he and his father were going to collect his mother and baby brother from hospital, was it just after his brother was born, or after his brother was readmitted with gastro-intestinal reflux, which prevented him from taking his mother’s milk and necessitated an operation when his weight plummeted? Did his father make the journey? Was he even present in the car? He does not know. When he focuses on the memory, it disappears almost entirely from view. Still he clings to it. His father is driving, and he is bouncing on the backseat in excitement. They are on their way to see his mother and his new baby brother at the hospital. This is what he remembers.

ii.

Aged four or five. Playing with the boy from next door in his parents’ back garden. The boy from next door is almost a year older than him, with straw-coloured hair, a stocky physique and piggy eyes. Like him, the boy from next door is an elder sibling, with a younger sister. Neither of his parents are there, nor his younger brother, and left to their own devices, he and the boy from next door have invented a new game: hitting his parents’ labrador with the hollow plastic pipe from a hoover. Out of sight of the kitchen window, they take it in turns to call the dog to them, so that the other can strike it across the hind legs. Emitting a low growl, the dog circles them uncertainly, before one further hit causes it to snap its jaws and chase them across the garden, where they take refuge in the low branches of the small apple tree. The boy from next door is faster, stronger, and more adept at climbing the tree. His family do not own a dog, nor any other pets. He does not have many other friends. Hitting the dog was his idea.

iii.

Aged five or six. He and another boy are led from their classroom by the teacher and seated at a table in the corridor outside. The teacher explains to them that a new boy will be joining the class today, and that she would like both of them to help him settle in. After a little while, the new boy is ushered to the table by the teacher, and introduced to them. The new boy has dark brown hair, prominent teeth, narrow eyes and large ears that protrude from the side of his head. He looks a little like a rodent, and speaks with an unfamiliar accent. The new boy tells them that he is from Yorkshire, and that he has two brothers, one older, one younger. The new boy likes football, though he supports a team from a lower division, which neither he nor his classmate has heard of. They return to the classroom, and sit next to one another. He notices that the new boy writes with his left hand. Aside from his own mother, he doesn’t know anyone else who is left-handed. The boy’s birthday also happens to be the day after his mother’s, and only a few days before his own. The coincidences fascinate him.

iv.

The few things he remembers from infant school. A doctor touching his penis in his preschool examination. The scratch of carpet tiles against his bare legs. The crisp sound of a teacher prising apart the pages of a new book. The coarse green of the toilet’s paper towels. Lessons taken under trees on warm summer days. Country dancing on the parquet floor of the large assembly hall. Sunlight pouring through windows smeared by small hands. Of the Nativity play in which he had a starring role, only the sheets containing his highlighted lines, and the spotlight shining in his face. Later, the names of the Three Wise Men. I’m Melchior / I’m Caspar / and I am Balthazar. The wilderness area with the thornless gorse bushes and their furry husks. Scurrying beetles. Dissecting the heads of dandelions, tasting the bitter white fluid inside their stalks. Blowing away the seeds of a dandelion clock to reveal its sad head. Marching arm in arm in a troop of boys chanting, Who wants to play at war? WAR! No girls allowed! Lying on the grass looking at clouds, someone kisses him on the face and runs away.

v.

Aged eight or nine. He and the boy with brown hair and big ears are now good friends. Best friends, perhaps. They now sit on the same table at school, alongside two or three of the more popular girls in their year. He likes this table, and he enjoys school. Their teacher is a stout Norwegian woman with a smoker’s voice. A friend of his grandmother, she looks upon him favourably. His best friend is no longer the new boy, but a popular, if infamous boy in his year. Infamous for getting into trouble. For pushing back against authority. For turning a blind eye to the school’s rules. This makes him interesting to be around, but sometimes this gets him into trouble too. Occasionally he and his friend fall out. One day, for a lark, he puts a drawing pin on his friend’s chair. After sitting on it, his friend angrily circles the table and upends his seat, leaving him lying on the floor. He gets up quickly before the teacher sees. His friend doesn’t speak to him for the rest of the morning, but by the end of the day they have patched things up. That is how things go, for a while.

vi.

He and the boy with the brown hair and big ears are stood before a full length mirror in the dark hallway at his parents’ house. It is after school, and they are in their school uniform. He has asked the boy with the brown hair and big ears to help him style his hair into a side parting. His friend, whose hair is thicker and more readily given to being styled, has been wearing a side-parting for a few weeks. Using mousse from his mothers’ hairdressing kit, the boy with the brown hair rubs the mouse into his own blonde hair with his fingers, before attempting to style it with a hairdressing brush. His hair resists, and flops back into its customary shapelessness. They are stood very close, only a few centimetres apart, so close that he can feel his friend’s breath against his face. At that moment, he becomes aware of the fraternal bond he has with his friend, a nurturing affinity that he imagines is akin to having a big brother. His friend is someone who is naturally better at things than he is. Funnier. More intelligent. Sometimes he wonders why they are friends at all.

vii.

Chasing a boy across the playing fields at primary school. An older boy in his year, recently arrived from South Africa, faster than he is. When they reach playground, he flicks out his foot at the boy’s trailing leg, tripping him and sending him sprawling across the tarmac. He watches as the boy comes to rest in a crumpled, bloody mess. As the dinner ladies gently lift the crying boy off the ground, he realises with horror what he has done. He too starts to cry. At a football party for a friend’s birthday, his wrist is broken when he saves a ball struck by one of the other boy’s fathers. It is as if a blade has been driven deep into his forearm. His mother picks him and takes him to hospital, where an x-ray confirms the break. It splintered like a sapling, the doctor reports. Disappointingly, he is given a cast with a mesh bandage, meaning he and his friends will not be able to draw on it. While he is still in the cast, a bigger boy by the name of Jude pushes him over on the playing fields. His friend with the brown hair and big ears rescues him, throws the other boy to the floor and squashes his face into the dirt.

viii.

Aged eight or nine. He is at the home of the boy with the brown hair and big ears, his best friend, playing with the action figures in his younger brother’s room. His friend leaves the room to go to the toilet, and doesn’t come back. Wondering where his friend is, he walks out onto the landing and calls for him. He checks his friend’s bedroom and his older brother’s bedroom. Both are empty. Still calling his friend’s name, he saunters into his friend’s parents’ bedroom. On a previous visit he and his friend had watched Belle and Sebastian together in there, and he thinks that he might be switching the telly on. When he walks into the room, the boy with the brown hair isn’t in there, but his mother is. She is getting changed next to the wardrobe, and has removed her blouse. She is wearing a black bra. His friend’s mother glances at him when he enters the room, then jumps in surprise and covers her breasts with her forearms, before exclaiming, Excuse me. Mortified, open-mouthed, he manages to bleat an apology as he backs out of the bedroom.

ix.

Aged eight or nine. The summer holidays. He is at the home of the chubby boy with the sand-coloured hair, playing in his bedroom. The smell of warming sunflower oil seeps through the bungalow. The boy’s mother is making fish fingers and chips for dinner. A novelty for him, as his own family rarely have cooked food at lunchtime. Only sandwiches or cheese on toast. As his friend’s mother fries the food, he and his friend and his friend’s sister take their places at the small formica table in the centre of the kitchen. His friend holds court, ordering his mother about and mocking his younger sister. His mother’s responses are sharp with threats, but ultimately ineffectual at silencing him. He eats his own dinner without saying a word, recognising that his friend is putting on a show for his benefit. Were he to address his own parents in this way, he could expect a clip around the ear. It surprises him that it does not come, perhaps only because that day the boy’s father is working at the local factory. As he shovels the oven chips into his mouth, he wonders what will happen later when his friend’s father comes home, and feels afraid.

x.

Aged nine or ten. His mother has allowed him to bring a friend over after school. Another new friend, who has recently moved to the town. When his friend was born, only the thumb and little finger of his right hand were fully developed, so that his hand looks like a crescent moon. Some children at the school have taken to mocking him by raising their hand to their faces, as if indicating the sign for telephone. The new boy doesn’t seem to care. His parents are wealthy enough for it not to matter. He and the new boy are in his brother’s bedroom, still in their school uniforms, playing with the toys. They are teasing his younger brother. His younger brother is very forthright in his opinions. He is also overweight. This makes him an easy target. At some point, his friend and his brother disagree about something, and his friend strikes his brother on the leg with the receiver of a plastic telephone. When his brother asks him to stop, his friend hits him again, and again, and again, until eventually his brother starts to cry. Fearful of his mother’s intervention, he hushes his brother and they continue playing.

xi.

He has another friend. A gentler boy, more considerate and polite. The youngest of four brothers. Once a wearer of glasses. The friend his parents like. This friend has shown himself to be more interested in books and films than sport and daytime soaps and pop music. Enough for him to be viewed with suspicion by his other friends. He also has a disabled brother, the brother born before him, who has a condition which makes him expressively childlike, more childlike than the child he is. He is a placid soul, with a gregarious personality and somewhat slurred speech, which reminds him a little of his grandfather. His friend’s brother attends their school, but is taught in a special class. His other friend, his best friend, the boy with the big ears and brown hair, likes to make derogatory impersonations of this boy’s disabled brother. It amuses his classmates, and wins him new friends. One day, without realising, he makes the mistake of doing this in front of his friend’s second eldest brother, a bullet-headed boy in the Combined Cadet Force. He doesn’t do it again.

xii.

The boy with the crescent moon hand has a habit of turning up on people’s doorsteps unexpectedly. One day, he arrives at his house with a new computer game. The boy with the crescent moon hand does not have the same computer as he does. The boy with the crescent moon hand asks him if he would like to buy the game. His friend is very persuasive, so he agrees. The next day asks his mother for the money. At school, he tells his best friend, the boy with the brown hair and big ears, about the game, and his friend tells him that the boy with the crescent moon hand stole this game from his house the day before. He asks for the game back. That night, his father speaks to his friends’ mother on the telephone, and the money is returned to him. A week or so later, the boy with the crescent moon hand starts bullying his brother at school, pushing him around and calling him names. He tells his other friends about this, and the next lunchtime they isolate the boy with the crescent moon hand in the playground and rough him up. He watches from a distance, as if it has nothing to do with him.

xiii.

In the final year of primary school, he discovers girls. Or rather, they discover him. There is much talk of fancying members of the opposite sex, as if they know what it really means. A new girl arrives, a tall girl with pale skin and hair whiter than his own. The popular girls like her, and for a couple of weeks he sees her in the playground with an arm round a sequence of more popular boys. Eventually, the girl with the pale skin works her way to him. For some time, his friend with the big ears has been going out with one of her friends, the prettiest girl in the school. At lunchtime the four of them sit together in the fire escape porches. The girls are obsessed with Kylie Minogue, and convince him and his friend to participate in a dance routine for a school assembly. They spend Christmas Eve watching Labyrinth at one of the girl’s houses, throwing mistletoe at each other and kissing. After Christmas she moves onto someone else, and he finds a new girlfriend, a brunette Brosette. He likes the press of her body against his, the way her fingernails brush against his ribcage. Her soft kisses. The inkling of something forbidden.

xiv.

A few weeks after his eleventh birthday, he begins secondary school. When his father learns of the House he has been placed in, writes to the headmaster and asks that his son be moved to his old House, away from his other friends. Nevertheless, he begins school with some enthusiasm, rising early and proudly donning his new school uniform, but it is a boys-only school, and the threat of violence is ever-present, not least among the unfamiliar boys of his year. In time, he learns to avoid the areas of the school where threatening older boys loiter. The over-confident boy of primary school becomes an anonymous first year. His misses the Brosette. Happily, he and his three closest friends are placed in the same form, though his parents view this as less of a blessing and more a curse. Through his other friends, he is makes new friends, but the constellations of friendship have already realigned. There are many noisy, disruptive boys in the year, whose only interests appear to be fighting each other. He clings to that which is familiar, to those who make him feel secure. Safe. Protected. In history, they learn about feudalism.

xv.

The summer of his first year. He and his friends, along with a number of rougher lads from his form, spend their lunch break goading groups of older kids into chasing them. They stand at one remove from the older boys and shout Get your little maggot out, until eventually the boys react, whereupon they scatter. Occasionally one of their number gets caught and put in a headlock for a few moments. Being a coward, he stays well back. On one particular day, they target a group of hard-looking fourth years. One of the older boys grabs one of his classmates by the shirt, but another one of their group, one of the harder boys in their year, steps between them and quickly bests the older boy with his fists. It is one of the more brutal fights he has witnessed in his short time at the school. In the early weeks of that first September, each day the hardest boys from the different primaries fought to establish dominance over the others. His friend with the straw hair had tried to fight this boy, and bottled it. This is the first time he has seen a younger boy beat up an an older boy. The other boys are jubilant. He doesn’t like it.

xvi.

A few weeks later, on a hot day in June, he and a group of other boys tie a classmate with learning difficulties to a tree on the school fields, and pull his trousers down. They poke at the boy’s private parts with sticks, and someone hangs a coke can on his penis. At home, the boy tells his parents. The next day, he and the other boys are pulled out of their classes and interrogated by the incoming head of year, a territorial army sergeant with a brush moustache. It is a serious matter, and he is terrified that he will be expelled. The incoming head of year is determined to find out who pulled the boy’s trousers down, and the other boys have decided to shift the blame to his friend, the boy with the brown hair and big ears. When asked to corroborate this, he agrees, even though, in truth, he cannot say for certain who it was. After he goes home and tells his mother what has happened, she writes a letter to the headmaster, begging him not to suspend her son. His best friend, the boy with the brown hair and big ears, has to see the headmaster with his parents, and narrowly avoids being suspended. He himself escapes punishment.

xvii.

He was one of those poking at the private parts of the boy who had been tied up. He lies to save his own skin, because he is afraid, and ashamed. And in his confusion, he mistakenly places another friend at the scene, the boy with the glasses, who in fact wasn’t there, wasn’t involved at all. He too is brought before the incoming head of year, and interrogated at length. Despite the master’s threats, he protests his innocence and refuses to name names. His friend with the glasses knows his own mind. However, the boy with the brown hair and big ears and the boy with straw coloured hair form a new allegiance which is explicitly against him, the former friend. Everyone is angry with him, it seems, and he senses a permanent rupture in their little fraternity. That night, the boy with the glasses phones him to reassure him that he bears him no ill will. He is grateful to his friend for his ability to turn the other cheek. During this time, no one spares a second thought for the boy they tied up, who has been off school since it happened. The indignity. The humiliation. By the time he returns to school, the matter has been dealt with.

xviii.

His form is a haven for misfits. Rare is the lesson without one boy having to spend its duration out in the corridor. Eventually, the entire form is put on on report. He learns to stay out of trouble. Anonymity ensures that he is not bullied or beaten up, but within his form his eldest friend, the portly boy with the straw hair, has established his own small fiefdom, a hierarchy of fraternity in which their friendship is predicated upon sycophancy. When his best friend, the boy with the brown hair and big ears, has his ears pinned back over the summer holidays, the boy with the straw hair instructs him not to speak to him. He meekly complies. Some weeks later, the allegiances have switched, and he finds himself outside of the fold. After the boy with the pinned back ears insults his parents, he loses his temper, and they square up after a French lesson. His friend warns him not to touch his ears, which he ignores as he rams his head into a locker. In response, his friend punches him in the face, and he falls backwards, dazed. Someone lifts him up, as another boy announces that a teacher is coming. The fight stops. They go their separate ways.

xix.

Pornography fever takes hold. Several of the older boys in his form bring in softcore magazines with titles like Men Only. More for amusement than titillation, they wave them in the air during lessons while their teachers are distracted. His friend with the straw hair excitedly recounts finding a porno stuffed in a hedgerow while out on his bike, describing its contents in fine detail. For him, there is something disturbing about these magazines, something false and artificial about the way the models flaunt their breasts and genitals. Later that year, a classmate ups the ante when he raids his elder brother’s hardcore pornography collection. At lunchtime, his classmate and a number of other boys are caught in possession of a magazine whose cover shows a brunette woman preparing to fellate a tumescent cock. The magazine is called Snobs. The boys are carpeted by a balding, bespectacled deputy head with a fearsome temper, who is reportedly so furious that his face turns puce and the thinning strands of his hair stand on end. When he waves the magazine at them, the boys stifle their laughter, as though their lives depend on it.

xx.

The politics of friendship is inherently, necessarily, Machiavellian. They make for an unhappy quintet, he and the boy with the pinned back ears and the boy with the straw hair and the boy with the crescent moon hand, and his other friend, the boy with the glasses (who no longer wears glasses), who from time to time finds himself pulled back into the cycle of mistrust and spite and stupidity. For Christmas, they each receive bikes from their parents. For a time, he thinks this will make them like The Goonies, but this proves to be a false dawn. In the run up to Christmas, the boy with the straw hair reports that he will be receiving the most expensive bike in the local shop. When he and his other friends receive less expensive bikes, this gives him ample ammunition for mockery. The boy with the pinned back ears bears the brunt of this, and while they are in the park one weekend, to curry favour with the boy with the straw hair, the boy with the crescent moon hand discretely and deliberately disables the other boy’s brakes, in the hope that he will crash into his garage door upon returning home. (He doesn’t.)

xxi.

School life becomes rife with hormonal activity and, in the absence of the opposite sex, self-abuse. During a personal and social education lesson, one of the more maladjusted boys in his form takes out his penis and starts masturbating under his desk. A number of boys in his form have already entered puberty, including the boy with the straw coloured hair, who displays his negligible armpit hair like a preening silverback gorilla. For him, puberty seems a long way off, and he remains as hairless as a Sphynx feline. His only solace is that the boy with the pinned back ears shares this misfortune. In PE and games, he furtively records the other boys’ development, comparing it to his own. Sometime later, a number of his friends delineate the joys of masturbation. When he experiments at home, despite repeated attempts, he is thwarted by his biology. A few days later he tries again, without realising his fervid ministrations can be seen from the garden through the bathroom window’s frosted glass. He is just about to climax when the first of several pebbles thrown by his father pings against the window.

xxii.

A microcosm of his hometown, the school’s complexion is overwhelmingly white. Of the handful of black and Asian boys in the entire school, two happen to be in his form. A boy of Mauritian heritage, and an Indian boy. He becomes friends with both. Changing for PE, he enquires about about the large scar on the Indian boy’s ribcage, and he tells him it is from a slate thrown by primary school classmate, in India. Tall and long-limbed, the Indian boy is not well-equipped for their school’s physical rigours, but he is a dedicated scholar, with a laser-like focus to following his father into the medical profession. Inevitably, the Indian boy’s intellectual gifts stir resentment, derogatory comments delivered in cod-Indian accents, and in his supine need to fit in, he sides with the tormentors. In home economics, when the Indian boy brings in a cake he has baked at home, few deign to taste it. His garden, which backs onto the school playing fields, is used as a cut-through by a number of boys as they head home. After a playground argument escalates and he is beaten up, the Indian boy slips quietly out of their social group, and finds his people.

xxiii.

His interests are guided by the interests of his friends. Their likes are his likes. He follows their lead. Through them he becomes aware of certain clothing brands. Bodily self-conscious, as his refuses to yield to puberty, he buys a chest-expander. In the winter, they go to a youth club run by a couple his grandparents know from chapel, where they mimic the moves of their favourite WWF characters on the crash mats. He likes one of the girls who goes, a blonde twin, and sends her a Valentine’s Day Card. She informs him she has a boyfriend in the year above. In the summer, he and his friends play each other in a series of highly-competitive tennis matches. The school tennis courts are always busy, and they try to hustle other players off their court by insulting them, hitting their balls away. The other boys are fearful of the boy with the straw-coloured hair, and curtail their games. Once on the court, his friends are far superior tennis players, and he rarely wins a game. When he finally manages to beat the boy with the straw-coloured hair, after months of trying, his enraged friend smashes his racquet into the net.

xxiv.

He and his friends attend a youth team trial at a local cricket club. The team is run by an overly-tactile GP who once conducted his preschool physical examination, and a coach whose cousin played for England. The cricket coach insists that the boys practice for their matches using tennis balls, presumably for health and safety reasons, but when they play against teams more familiar with the flight of a cricket ball, they usually lose. The boy with the straw-coloured hair is a fast bowler and aggressive batsman, and his friend with the pinned-back ears is a solid all-rounder. He is a nervous cricketer, terrified of the ball. His friends make the team, while he is given the role of twelfth man as a consolation. On the rare occasions he makes the team, he proves his ineptitude as a cricketer. One afternoon, after arranging to go to the cricket nets with the boy with the straw-coloured hair at school, he comes home to find that their elderly dog has been put down. Later, when bowling to his friend, he remembers how they hit the dog as children, and he has to hide behind a side screen so his friend won’t see him crying.

xxv.

He falls out with the boy with the straw-coloured hair for the last time, and no longer cares, for a new circle of friends has emerged, each with their little histories and distinct identities, behavioural norms and codes of conduct, affiliations and hierarchies. Feudal lords and flunkies. Courtiers and court jesters. This is his new centre. There is the boy from Mauritius and and the blonde boy with the Antipodean twang and the ruddy boy with the cherubic face and the handsome boy who is good at football and the other handsome boy who is good at football whom everyone thinks is gay and the boy with prominent teeth who looks like a camel and the boy who already resembles a man and the boy with the jam-jar glasses and gypsy blood and the pale lanky boy with brown curtains and the baby-faced boy who is maddeningly better at cricket and golf than he is and the boy who plays paintball on the weekends and the new boy who looks like another boy in their year and the boy with the pinned-back ears and him, the one they call the white-haired freak, trailing in their wake.

xxvi.

Through his friendship with the Mauritian boy, he befriends Joe, a whip-smart rebel with a mess of curly hair. Joe is diminutive, tenacious and aggressive, like Scrappy-Doo in human form. His father is a market trader, and he has a fearsome older brother at the school. In their first year, when the Headmaster asks a group of them about the meaning of the school motto, What you sow, so shall you reap, it is Joe who answers, drily, Summat about a crop, Sir. In the middle of their first Maths lesson, Joe headbutts his neighbour for farting. By the third year, Joe is no longer interested in computer games or porn or football. Joe likes gangster rap and smoking weed and going to jungle raves. His other friends don’t like Joe. They don’t like him hanging around with Joe. With Joe he feels more confident. More himself. When he spends Sports Day glued to Joe’s side, he is called him a lamb by his other friends, who bleat at him and upon finding him in the changing room afterwards, mock him. One squares up to him, and he is certain he will be hit. He changes, and slinks away. For a while he is frozen out of the group.

xxvii.

At the weekend he joins Joe and the other teenagers who loiter and lurk in a leisure centre car park, smoking and spitting and downing the high percentage alcohol acquired for them by their older-looking peers. Thunderbird. Gold Label. Two Dogs. MD 20 20. One particular Saturday, he and Joe and their Mauritian friend, along with a group of other lads, gather in a local park to get drunk before heading to a disco at the leisure centre. He drinks a three litre bottle of cider in under an hour, and is so drunk he can barely stand. A girl from the year below, whom he has been sort of seeing for the past couple of weeks, helps him inside, and they spend the rest of the night French kissing to a soundtrack of thumping Europop. Her tongue is sticky and salty, a strangely irresistible sensation. He works one hand under her bra, and after the disco he is bragging about this with another friend when he hears his father saying his name, sharply, from across the car park. Once in the car, he is unable to conceal his inebriation, and tells his father someone spiked his drink. On his way to bed he trips, and throws up on the stairs.

xxviii.

Friendship is a fluid, slippery thing. Difficult to hold onto. After reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, he decides to keep a diary to record his unhappiness. Even this decision is guided by the emotional realm of another. He is beginning to understand that he is naturally predisposed to introspection and melancholia. It is in his genes. His blood, and bones. When one Saturday, he cries, pathetically, at another disco, being drunk and depressed at his girlfriendlessness, it is Joe who consoles him, putting his arm around him and telling him gently that it doesn’t matter. Perhaps his friends are right, that he is a little bit in love with Joe. But then he loves all his friends. They are as brothers to him. Older brothers. More experienced, better looking, stronger, taller brothers. But with some friends, he cannot be certain or confident that they like him. There is always the risk of being cast out. Sometimes he feels like Joe is the one person who likes him for himself, even though, in his heart of hearts, he knows that they won’t remain friends. Joe has no plans to stay in school after his GCSEs. Once he leaves, they will fall out of touch.

xxix.

In English, they are reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. He is taught terms such as parable and allegory. Microcosm. Fascism. From Golding’s book, he learns that selfhood is a product of the clash between the individual and the group, morality and immorality, peace and anarchy. Weakness and power. The pressure of conformity. Fault-lines cleave the fabric of his school, like subsidence cracks in a brick facade, or a spider-diagram of differences. Those systemic and formally embedded in the school’s hierarchies and rules, and those informal, the cultural imperatives which the boys have identified and established themselves. Small distinctions hold sway. Wearing a blazer with a sewn-on school badge or a blue shirt instead of a white one. Having ill-fitting clothes, or a cheaper brand of trainer. Bringing a briefcase to school, instead of a bag. Living on a council estate. The boys give names to their tribes. Scrubbers and swots. Bum-lickers and binners. Gay Lords and mongs. The rhetoric of coercion. Fear and othering. This is their common endeavour. A new society in the making. Ut severis seges.

xxx.

Golding’s island is painfully familiar. He can see shades of himself in Ralph, and Jack and his feral acolytes. Near the end of Golding’s narrative, when Roger drops a boulder onto Piggy, killing him, he imagines the rock falling upon his own brother. There is much of Piggy in his younger sibling. His obstinacy, and lack of athleticism. He cannot read the book without picturing him. In truth, he has spent much of his early life tormenting his brother, principally because his brother will not bend to his will. Not that anyone else does, but there is something about his brother’s intractability that is particularly irritating. Infuriating. When his brother arrives at the all-boys school, the bullying by two twins from his last school continues. After his brother returns in distress from a first years’ weekend away in Conwy, the next morning he tracks down the twins as they wait for form registration. Without breaking stride, he thumps one twin, and warns the other he will be next. That afternoon, he is called to the Headmaster’s office. The bullying stops.

xxxi.

A gang of them decide to camp out in a small wood on the outskirts of town. They have camped out in back gardens, but this is the first time they have camped out without a parent being close at hand. He walks the couple of miles from his home to the wood, carrying his beers and sleeping bag and a ghetto blaster. At the wood’s edge, he discovers the remains of a sheep which has entangled itself on barbed-wire. When the others arrive, they light a fire and start drinking. Before long they are wrestling in the dirt and dead leaves, and dancing by fire-light. The last thing he remembers is jumping over it. When he wakes, he is inside a tent and in urgent need of a piss. It is pitch black, and there is a sour smell of co-mingled alcohol, sweat and vomit. Unable to find the zip, he takes his house key from his pocket and rips a hole in the canvas large enough for him to pass through. When he returns, he thinks someone has been sick in the tent. But it is the large tear in the inner sheet which makes for a bad atmosphere the next day. His cherubic friend is furious, and he offers little in the way of apology.

xxxii.

Aged fifteen. In his bedroom. He teaching himself to juggle. Supposedly he is revising for his GSCE exams, but his mind rarely stays focused on that simple task. While not yet familiar with the term procrastination, he began juggling as a physical aide memoire to his revision, a means of fixing the reams of notes in his memory, the various subjects he is juggling in his mind, but now the actual juggling has superseded the metaphorical, dominating the time he spends alone in his bedroom. More than playing on the computer, or even masturbating. Lassitude has long since overridden all his good intentions. There are some subjects he knows he will do well in, specifically English Lit and Lang, and others, such as Maths and Geography, where he has all but given up hope of getting anything better than a C. For the first time, he is conscious that in certain subjects he has reached the limits of his intellectual ability. Come results day he finds he has juggled his way to three As, three Bs and three Cs. Most of his friends do better. As he considers if these grades constitute a failure, the school-leavers of his form erupt in raucous celebration.

xxxiii.

After their GSCEs, he and his friends spend a week in a static caravan in Newquay. His first holiday without his parents, and he unsure about going, being one of the youngest of the group, certainly the youngest looking, his face still untroubled by stubble. There are limited spaces in the caravan. He is one of the privileged few. This is important. They travel to Cornwall in a cramped and stifling overnight coach, arriving very early and very hungover. On a drizzle-flecked beach they smoke and stare at the unpromising sea, then schlep to the caravan site on the edge of town. As they wait to check in, a tractor runs over his friend’s suitcase. The site is strewn with beer cans and takeaway boxes, music blasting from every caravan. It is paradise. By day they idle at the site or sunbathe on the beach, then shower and head off to Berties or Sailors or Tall Trees, him positioned in between his more mature friends as they enter, before joining the caravan of drunken teenagers straggling back to the site, slurring the lyrics from ‘Born Slippy’. It is as though he has stepped into a new world. On the last night, his friend with the suitcase pops his cherry.

xxxiv.

That autumn his school holds auditions for O! What a Lovely War, the annual stage production directed by the rotund deputy head with a furious temper. He joins they boy with the pinned back ears and the other A-level drama students at the reading. Flushed with self-confidence after the week in Cornwall, he reads in a number of regional British accents, and is cast, somewhat incongruously, as Sir John French and Kaiser Wilhelm II (on account of his blonde hair). He soon finds that being a passable mimic is not the same as being a passable actor, and as rehearsals move from being a bit of a lark to a matter of life and death, his terror at what he has committed himself gives him a stress migraine. In the latter stages of rehearsals he becomes so ill with the flu that he ponders pulling out, but the deputy head, like a porcine Colonel, is capable of such spectacularly explosive bollockings that he decides to soldier on. Miraculously, by the opening night the flu is gone, and he makes it through without fluffing his lines, and with his voice cracking only the once. Maybe twice. He has prevailed. His German accent, however, convinces no one.

xxxv.

In late September, the lower sixth are taken by their school to York University for an orientation weekend. Cutting over the morbid, fog-occluded Pennines in their coach, they pitch up in the cold, clammy city. He likes the university with its stone edifices campus and sterile halls, its promise of the future. After their faux-lectures, they cluster in small groups in the halls, listening to music and self-aggrandising, already comporting themselves like undergraduates. A few sneak off to the pub, which is now a regular fixture in their lives, the centre of all social activity. On Friday and Saturday nights, he and others orbiting loosely around the drama boys colonise the Lower Chequer, a small tavern just off their hometown’s cobbled market square. There is a collegiate feel to these evenings. It is as if a weight has been lifted from him, as if a space has been made for him in the world, with his Ben Sherman shirts and donkey jacket and packet of Embassy Number One and pint of John Smiths. Then, disaster strikes. He is barred from the Lower Chequer by the landlord, who knows his father. Always the ghost at the feast

xxxvi.

In a early lesson of A-level English they are invited play the rest of the class their favourite song, and explain why the song appeals to them. The teacher is a Liverpudlian NQT in his early Twenties, who owns a convertible VW Golf, and openly admires Oasis. He on the other hand is still deep into a maudlin nostalgia trip through Eighties pop culture, so chooses Girls on Film by Duran Duran. In these classes he first encounters what he considers to be real literature, experiencing a series of epiphanies, as if his consciousness is exploding. TS Eliot, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sean O’Casey, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Hamlet. The other half of the A-level is taught by the new head of English, a haughty blonde woman, also in her Twenties, whom he fails to build any kind of rapport with, a problem exacerbated by the more polarising texts her lessons focus upon, text of subtle complexity offering a rebuttal to the male-dominated literary canon. Wuthering Heights. Streetcar. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Christina Rossetti. Texts which when read aloud by his hapless, oafish classmates cause him to howl out in anguish.

xxxvii.

He is no more comfortable in the company of the opposite sex than he is his own. He fancies one of the girls from the drama production, the buxom sister of a friend, but after she signals her disinterest by taking up with the former boyfriend of the Brosette, now grown up, he invites the Brosette to the sixth form ball when another girl knocks him back. She accepts, with the stipulation that things remain purely platonic. They spend the ball not talking to each other, and at the end of the night she dances with another boy. The tangled webs of a small town. Elsewhere he has little joy. The nearest nightclub is Valentinos, a relic of his parents’ courting days, in Hanley. Each week they board a coach and guzzle alcopops en route to the sticky-carpeted meat-market. Other boys circulate round the dancefloor, grinding up against the girls, the law of averages bringing great success. Often he leaves the club early, on one occasion as soon as he arrives, calling his mother to come and collect him. Otherwise he waits outside for the club to close so he can go home. He has been listening to The Smiths much of late. Perhaps too much.

xxxviii.

The British module of A-level politics is taught by the head of history, a diminutive blonde man with an Estuary accent, which everyone mistakes for Cockney. Unashamedly left-wing, he has scant regard for the policies of Margaret Thatcher. In the dying days of the Major government, he and the rest of the politics students journey by train to London, where they first visit the Imperial War Museum, then head to the Houses of Parliament in time for Prime Minister’s Questions. It is a surreal experience, watching the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition standing only a few feet away. It feels slightly like being on a movie set, with the performance of each man, Major and Blair, protagonist and antagonist, belligerent and defender, determined by that of the other. In the spring of his second year of A-levels, a general election is called, with the date set for late May, a few weeks before he will be eligible to vote. Asked by the head of history who they would vote for, he and a few other boys come out for the Conservative Party. The head of history says nothing, but entering their classroom on the morning of Labour’s landslide victory, he greets his class with a smile, and quips, Things already feel a bit better, don’t they?

xxxix.

When he and his friends return to Cornwall the next summer, he has a complete emotional breakdown. From the beginning, things augur ill. Some of those excluded last time make the trip. His Mauritian friend is joined by his girlfriend. There are too many of them for one caravan, so they split into two groups. One group hit the town every night, while those in the caravan, including himself, prefer to stay in. A series of intrafraternal pranks culminate in the ransacking of their caravan. The two groups face off, and only the laughable ridiculousness of the situation stops them coming to blows. Feeling marginalised and unloved after another evening of excessive drinking, he starts a vicious, recriminatory argument with the boy with the pinned-back ears. They exchange insults and he goes to bed, where he is woken a little while later by his friend violently shoving him. They are separated, and he lets his mouth run off again. He is unable to stop, until he does, and cries, for the first time in several years, while his bemused friends watch. He cannot bear it. He wants to be someone else. Not himself. A person who cannot be said to exist.

xxxx.

His school has identified twelve A-level students with exceptional projected results who will be groomed for top-tier universities, possibly Oxbridge, under an extracurricular cultural programme. When his friend with the jam-jar glasses is named in the Elite Twelve, he is beside himself with envy, even though he is a less-than-exceptional student, and still has his collar felt from time to time. For instance. The American module of his politics A-level is convened by the Headmaster, a hard man to read, jovial one moment, austere the next, whose openness in discussing OJ Simpson’s guilt or Bill Clinton’s sexual proclivities he soon learns is not an invitation to over-familiarity. Queuing for the refectory at lunchtime he notices the Headmaster is monitoring the line, and when he draws close breaks into a raucous rendition of an Oasis song, believing it to be a joke between them. The Headmaster calls him back and gives him a severe dressing down in front of his mirthful friends. At the next parent’s evening, when the Headmaster declares to that he finds him to be an enigma, it is to highlight his shortcomings. Politics of a different kind.

xxxxi.

The foreign languages and politics A-level students are dispatched with the Elite Twelve to a euroscola event at the European Parliament. On the overnight ferry to Zeebrugge, while he and some other boys watch Independence Day in the ship’s cinema with the teachers, the rest of the party are either in the bar or in the casino, gambling with soldiers from the Belgian army. By the time the film finishes, several of the boys are pissed. One of their number passes out in the public toilets. They are sent to their cabins. When they arrive in Strasbourg, a group of them pass on a walking tour of the old city to smoke hash in their hotel room. Afterwards they use the internal phone line to prank call the other rooms. There follows an interminable morning listening to the translated speeches of countless earnest teenagers in the parliamentary chamber. A huge flag is unfurled, and outside balloons released. Its all a bit try-hard, and he is nonplussed. Promised a visit to the trenches of Ypres on the way home, they arrive late in the town, only having time to glance round the small museum. By the time the Last Post sounds, they are already on the ferry home.

xxxxii.

When their eldest friend turns eighteen, they hire a minibus and head to Newcastle-under-Lyme, an unfamiliar town, to celebrate. While queuing for a nightclub, the boy with the pinned-back ears tries to discard a bottle, smashing it. They are refused entry. Crossing the city centre on their way to different club, they spot another group of males coming from the opposite direction. When this group see the boy with the pinned-back ears embracing his younger brother, they begin shouting insults, then turn their attention to their Mauritian friend. At which point it all kicks off. The tallest of his friends, a gentle giant, is punched to the ground. Someone grabs his shirt, and as he tries to back away, a Donkey Kong-sized fist belonging to the boy who lies crunches into the other boy’s face, sprawling him on the deck. Others pile in. For some time he has wondered how he would fare in the heat of battle, and now he knows, as he slinks away to join those who have already fled the combat zone, while the boy with the pinned-back ears and the boy who lies overwhelm and rout the aggressors. They are euphoric. Several months prior, the boy with the pinned-back ears had been severely beaten by another gang of lads cut from the same cloth. Now, in this explosion of violence, his friend finds a kind of catharsis, a psychic transformation.

xxxxiii.

Discussing his UCAS application with the Deputy Head with the fearsome temper, he is steered away from studying English, his preferred subject, towards the more nebulous Politics. A subject which will stand you in good stead for a career in journalism. Though a career in journalism is not what he truly want. He wants to be a writer. Both choices, course and career, are a means to that end. He is advised that his predicted three Bs will not get him into the best red-bricks, so he applies to Exeter, Liverpool, Sheffield, Stirling and Warwick, with Newcastle-upon-Tyne as a reserve. Each make him a conditional offer. He has no idea if he will go. His mother insists he must. No other family member has been. You’re not having a year out to doss around. When the boy with the jam-jar glasses and the lanky boy with curtains and the boy with pinned-back ears all make Sheffield their first choice, he follows suit. After spending much of his study leave playing Warcraft II with his brother, on results day he receives an A in English, B in Politics and a lacklustre C in History. D in General Studies. Back at home he phones Sheffield. He’s in.

xxxxiv.

Freshers’ Week. He is sat on the top deck of a half-full double-decker bus yelling GET YOUR CUNT OUT at girls passing under the open window. For the entertainment of his new friends. This is how he makes himself visible. This is how he disappears. He has mumbled and stuttered and sat mutely through the first days of university, the uncertain introductions and bogus bonhomie and heavy drinking. After just one night socialising with the boys on his corridor, he seeks out the safety of his old school friends. All are in Ranmoor, a huge a hall of residence modelled on a Swedish prison, where his parents left him unpacking his boxes, his father cheerfully bidding him farewell, his mother giving him a last tearful look. Already he is homesick. He misses them and, surprisingly, his younger brother. University, he has been told, is about finding yourself, and what he has found, what he has in fact always known, is that he is afraid to find out who he is. Compelled to socialise, he drinks too much and shouts obscenities and vandalises things. This is how he makes himself visible. This is how he disappears.

xxxxv.

After diligently attending his first classes, where he sits alone in nervous silence, he begins skipping lectures. During the day he buses into the city centre, or sleeps off the night before. He and his school friends have become part of a motley, mongrel-looking bunch of young men. Most share a corridor with the boy with the jam jar glasses. They befriend a group of girls from the next corridor up, and some pair off, but not him. He envies those who are making the most of undergraduate life. The friend-making and bed-hopping and self-reinvention. He feels unable to say anything without sounding idiotic, and by now it is clear there is something unremarkable about him, something physically absent. When another student night at the Roxy leaves him feeling depressed, he decides to drive back home. The boys with the jam jar glasses and the pinned-back ears hitch a lift. They get lost. Just outside Buxton he is overtaken by a car driven by a former schoolmate. Egged on by his friends, he gives chase, but approaches a hairpin bend much too fast, and smashes into the crash barrier.

xxxxvi.

Someone always has to be excluded. After helping himself to several packets of another boy’s crisps, a boy from the West Midlands called Chris is renamed Crisp to mark the event, a sobriquet which inevitably becomes The Cunt when some members of the group turn against him. After a water-fight breaks out in the communal kitchen of the boy with the jam-jar glasses, it is The Cunt who is shoved directly into the spray of water by the boy with the Jesus beard. Later, the boy with the pinned-back ears renames Chris, and he becomes the boy called pigeon, on account of his beak-like nose. The boy called pigeon reveals a tremendous capacity for consuming illicit substances. In the closing months of that first year, most evenings they gather in the boy called pigeon’s room, smoking weed and playing Lemmings or Doom on his PC, or listening to progressive house, giggling over blissed out flights of fancy, shedding old skins. No one calls the boy called pigeon the cunt anymore. That dubious honour now passes to the resident weed dealer, an autocratic trustafarian and former head boy who renamed himself Jools in their first week.

xxxxvii.

By the second year, he is living in a house share with four of the boys from the corridor, one of whom is the boy with the jam jar glasses. He has been given the smallest room in the house, a room the width of his outstretched arms and the length of a single bed, which he has to sit on to work or roll a joint. Still, he is happy in there, with his stereo and his books and his squidgy black. He is lucky. When they started looking for houses at Christmas, he was still at home and was very nearly left to fend for himself. Only the intervention of his school friend prevented it. Now he goes home less often, spending most weekends stoned in the communal lounge, watching Jaws or The Thing or South Park. Studies sporadically and pleads for essay extensions. Sometime in the spring, the house is burgled, and his stereo taken. After a midweek student night, four of them drop acid and gibber in a bedroom, taunt the unpopular housemate through the shared wall by shouting Jesus Beard. When they go to Spar at first light, they see something burning in the sky. As he starts dancing in the middle of the road, a squad car pulls up.

xxxxviii.

His other housemates are two uptight southerners, the boy with the spiky hair and the boy who explodes. He feels great affection for both, though he shares the greatest kinship with the boy who explodes. They like the same music, read the same books, and have similar aspirations, and the boy who explodes lets him use his computer to hammer out his overdue essays. The boy with the spiky hair is the house clown, a hapless, spluttering buffoon who becomes the victim of their occasionally cruel pranks. They smash his favourite cereal bowl and the boy with the Jesus beard farts in his face as he eats his pasta. One afternoon, stoned and bored, they convince him that they have trapped a mouse in his bedroom and refuse to let him go in. On his Twenty-First birthday, they head to a student night at a local club, where several lads hoist the boy with spiky hair onto their shoulders and ceremonially debag him in front of a girl he has been trying to pull for weeks. When one of his tormentors comes to his aid, and attempts to help him put his trousers on, the boy with spiky hair punches him in the face, breaking his nose.

xxxxix.

His brother has a small role a school production of The Royal Hunt of the Sun. The Deputy with the fearsome temper is once more at the helm. It is a lavish, highly ambitious production, which the school takes on a cultural exchange trip to Hong Kong. He is pleased for his brother, but also incredibly jealous. Now in the sixth form, his brother is self-assured and funny, with a large circle of friends. When he loses weight after a bout of glandular fever, his brother becomes increasingly popular with members of the opposite sex. It is clear that his brother will lose his virginity before he does, before he goes to university even. This should not be important, but it is. Critically so. He becomes fixated upon winning the affections of a girl from his course, whom he has never spoken to and is only aware of because the guy who supplies him with weed tried to sleep with her in Freshers’ Week, and failed. She always seems to be in the library stacks, so he heads there most days. If she isn’t there, he is disappointed. If she is, he ignores her. Its ludicrous, but at least his grades improve. He doesn’t follow her home.

l.

New year, new house. The boy with the Jesus Beard is gone, and the boy with the jam jar glasses on a placement in France, so he moves into a house share with his two remaining friends from home and the uptight southerners. Every Wednesday the others play five aside football while he watches films and gets stoned. One week, the boy who explodes goes in too hard for a tackle, dislocating his knee-cap. He is on crutches til Christmas, seriously hampering his burgeoning relationship with a girl from his course. With his housemates, he sees in the New Millennium in Sheffield. A group of school-friends come up to go clubbing, but he and the university crowd celebrate in a pub in town. On the stroke of midnight, one of their number, the boy they call weasel, smashes a pint glass, and a shard hits the foot of the girlfriend of the boy who explodes. She spends the first hours of the New Year in A&E. Weaving along the street on their way to a house party, the boy with pinned back ears, who is in a funny mood, throws a can of beer at him, hitting his shoulder. The next morning, watching footage of the Queen’s desultory Auld Lang Syne, it dawns on him that, a little further to the left, the can would have smashed into his jaw.

li.

In the summer of graduation, he along with the boys with the pinned-back ears and the jam jar glasses, and the boy they call the pigeon head to Glastonbury, without tickets. When they arrive at the site, it feels like half of the country is already there, milling around in the drizzle. A gregarious, light-fingered Liverpudlian sneaks them in, and they tramp across acres of brown sludge to pitch their tent. On Saturday, the fierce sun burns his exposed skin, and a passing girl with wild hair fondles his genitals. That night he is but a few inches away from a visibly strung-out Elliott Smith, mutely gaunt and haunted beneath his beanie hat and beard. On Sunday night, with the boy with the jam jar glasses and the boy they call pigeon, and everyone else who is at Glastonbury, he watches David Bowie close the festival on the Pyramid Stage, though he doesn’t particularly care for Bowie and would rather be nodding his head to Rae and Christian. As the set unfolds, it dawns on him that he is watching something monumental taking place, something historic, the like of which will never be repeated. He determines, finally, to embrace his youth.

lii.

When he turns twenty-one, a couple of weeks later, he is back working for his father, digging holes and pushing wheelbarrows and painting walls, eking out the last of his skunk while contemplating the cosmos. Come the weekends, they descend on their local town, sparking up in The Wheatsheaf like they own the place, or driving out into the countryside to get stoned in the shade of a hedgerow, or in the carpark of the church near his parent’s new house, the house he is working on while he figures out what to do next, filling the confines of a car with thick coils of dope smoke. He feels as if they are all on the cusp of something, though he’s not sure what, it could be magnificent or it could be a disaster, but whatever happens next, they will be able to shrug off the clutches of their home town and join the human murmuration flocking to the capital whenever they want. He knows what he has to do, but he doesn’t feel ready yet. They have time, they have so much time, and come what may, no matter what, they’ll live like this forever. That autumn he applies for a job in a bookshop. This is it, he thinks. Life begins.

liii.

A year later, he is working in a local cafe, when the deputy head with the fearsome temper comes in with friends for lunch. He waits on the table, awkwardly interrupting their conversation to take the order. The deputy head with the fearsome temper barely glances at him, and he is not sure which is more mortifying, that the deputy head does not recognise him, or that he is not prepared to speak to him. Sunday nights at the cafe are funk and soul nights. The DJ is a self-styled vinyl aficionado called Tom Funk. He likes Tom, and his circle of friends, who are older and more sophisticated, who have jobs and own homes and still take drugs, but this is his hometown and he is restless to leave. Some lads from his politics A-level have reconvened after university and formed a psychedelic band. In need of a permanent drummer, so he volunteers to sit in on a practice session, but when he does he is barely capable of keeping time, much less playing fills, and at the end of the session he says he cannot commit to the band, even though he knows he will regret it. He can feel the town closing in on him, fixing him in place.

liv.

He moves to Liverpool to study journalism and become a socialist, sharing a two bed flat in Kensington with the son of a vicar. The vicar’s son is studying English. He has a pierced eyebrow and likes Emo music. There is no living room in the flat, and neither of them have any money to go out, so they spend most of their evenings in the kitchen, smoking roll ups and watching Fame Academy on an old black and white set. When it rains, the roof of the lean-to bathroom leaks. Walking through Kensington, he sees his first burnt-out car, and the local kids throw chips at him. He loses interest in his course, and instead spends much of his time studying the poetry collection in the Central Library or browsing the shelves at News from Nowhere. Interested in the work of Adrian Mitchell, he begins writing protest poems, poorly-constructed screeds of polemical drivel, which he occasionally performs at the Egg Cafe. There is a direct action group in the city named People Not Profit, and he attends a number of their meetings, until two other members mock him for smoking liquorice roll ups. After that he doesn’t go back. At Christmas, he boxes up his possessions and comes home. When the landlord tries to take him to court, his father pays him off.

lv.

Sometime after moving to London, his sole female friend from university gets married. The bride has a huge circle of friends, and he and the the boy with pinned back ears, the boy who looks like a worm, the boy who explodes and the boy with the spiky hair travel to Gloucester for the nuptials. At the wedding party, surrounded by people from university he recognises but never spoke to, he is reminded of all the opportunities he has missed. He takes some speed and avoids talking to anyone. Heavily hungover the next day, they try to play golf at a small municipal course, hacking about in the rough and drinking cans of warm lager. Though overcast, the sun is strong and his arms and face burn to the colour of raw bacon. Later they join the wedding party at a local pub, where he becomes noisily drunk, shouting out nonsense and putting a stuffed fox on his head. The local patrons do not like it. Nor do his uptight former housemates. When they remonstrate with him in the taxi back to the hotel, he insults the boy with the spiky hair, and the boy who explodes puts his elbow across his throat. He is furious, as if a line has been crossed. Back at the hotel the boy who explodes banishes him from the room, and as he leaves he hears the boy with the pinned-back ears coming to his defence.

lvi.

It is the era of weddings. His Mauritian friend is to marry his childhood sweetheart in Italy.

lvii.

A decade since his last visit, he is back in Newquay for a stag do. The boy with the spiky hair is getting married. On a bi-prop, short-hop from Gatwick, he squeezes past the attendants struggling with the trolley service on a flight that barely levels out, and does a little bump in the cubicle. He is using cocaine frequently these days, cannot be without it when drinking, even though it makes him edgy with strangers, and awkward with friends. Back in his seat, he tries to hide it, but knows they know. They check into an over-priced, run-down B&B, which sleeps four to a room, and stump up the exorbitant security bond. He and his school friends, the odd-men-out, find their room and change into their Baywatch outfits, red shorts and white vests. The boy with spiky hair is dressed as Pamela Anderson, with a blonde wig and fake breasts. There is a pained expression on his face. Once in town, he spots another group of lads in similar outfits. Younger, fitter, better-looking. They stagger from pub to club, necking pints and downing shots. He slips away and hails a taxi. When the others return to the B&B, the boy with the pinned-back ears shoves him out of bed, and onto the floor.

lviii.

How relationships are maintained. Performative masculinity. Beer lairiness and casual lines. The nexus of fraternity. At a house party in London, he smashes beer bottles against a garden wall. In Paris, he goes one toke over the line and flakes out on his friend’s bed. In Sheffield, he exposes himself in a chip shop. In Warsaw, he spills strawberry daiquiri down the back of a girl in a cream sweater. In Sheffield, he vomits clear liquid into a hotel toilet. In Nice, he marches through the old town chanting Allez les Blues, and is pelted with glass bottles from the balconies above. In Barcelona, he scores baking powder off a bald, bespectacled and very sweaty Catalan. In Benicassim, he helps a dealer with a ketamine trail under his nose pick his pills from the floor. In Manchester, his last E kicks in as he waits to buy a newspaper in WH Smiths. In Amsterdam, he vomits clear liquid over his shoes. In London, he is caught snorting cocaine by the groom’s father. In Chester, a man in a red van arrives with more drugs. At Bestival, he vomits into a plastic bag. In Ibiza, he misses his flight and has a panic attack. All the things that happen. All the things that do not.

lvix.

An early flight from Inverness to Manchester on the occasion of a joint fortieth. A luxury apartment has been rented and a table booked at a high rise restaurant promising modern British dining and cocktails and sweeping views. In advance of dinner, they tour the bars of the Northern Quarter, play crazy golf at the Junkyard. Cocaine is ordered, though no one really wants it, and when it arrives it is shit coke, heavily cut. At the restaurant, they wait over an hour for their food, and the table grows unsteady under the weight of untouched drinks. Among the surfaces of the restaurant, the clusters of wealthy millennial diners, he feels like the Piltdown Man. Perhaps its just the shit coke bumming him out, but when he looks at his friends he sees that their lives are running different rivers now, out of confluence with each other. While he considers this, one of their number snorts cocaine off a side-plate. They go on to a lap-dancing bar, where he pays for a Brazilian girl with butt implants to grind up against him for a while, but his heart isn’t in it anymore. They return to the apartment. He retires, but he cannot sleep. When he says goodbye the next day, he knows that will be that. End of an era. Close of the chapter.

The Lost Child

His mother had left him playing with his toys on the lawn. When she returned, holding his younger brother, he had disappeared. At first she thought he was playing hide and seek. She searched the garden, calling his name and trying to remain calm. Then, when all the obvious hiding places in the garden had been exhausted, she searched the house, starting in the kitchen and small pantry, then through to the living room which they only used on special occasions, upstairs in the bathroom airing cupboard, and finally in her bedroom, under the wrought-iron bed she shared with her husband. A note of mania crept into her calls as she became increasingly panicked, terrified, that he had wandered out onto the street, and God knows where. Now, as she stood on the driveway, looking down the street, there was no sign of him.

It was only when she returned to her youngest son in the back garden that she noticed the laughter of two boys playing next door. She vaguely knew the mother and her son from playgroup at the local chapel, but the mother wasn’t in her circle of friends. The husband worked at the truck factory in the centre of town, on the shop floor, and the family didn’t have a car, or a telephone. Their gardens shared a boundary hedge, but the house itself, a small bungalow, was some distance away, on the next street over. The mother was from Scotland, and it was her sharp Glaswegian accent his mother could hear now, calling her son’s name and that of the other boy in the garden. Gathering up her youngest child and placing him in a pushchair, she walked at speech around to the bungalow, where she found her son running in circles round the lawn with the other boy.

He leapt out of his skin at the sound of his mother’s voice, surprised by her presence in the boy’s garden. Right away he knew he was in trouble. There was a ferociousness about her demeanour which he had never seen before. She was shaking with an anger which made him afraid. All he thought he had been doing was having fun. The other boy watched as he was taken by the arm by his mother and marched from their neighbour’s garden back to their house. Possibly she told him on the way, That was a really stupid thing to do, and I was worried sick, and Don’t you ever do it again. Possible, too, that she smacked him, either in the boy’s garden or in the street or back at home, he couldn’t say for sure, but he could remember that her being angry with him hurt more than her grip on his wrist or her hand-print upon his backside, that her unhappiness was something he would have to flinch from, or swerve.

The Dream

That night he dreamt about his mother. In the dream, he was visiting the bungalow she shared with his elderly grandmother. As he was talking to his grandmother, his mother sat up in bed, effortlessly slid her legs over the edge, and lowered her feet with the certainty and determination of an infant copying an adult. Then she stood and up and held open her arms, as if to say ‘ta-da’, and she a little dance, like a Flapper girl, shimming from side-to-side, waggling jazz hands. That was when he knew he was dreaming. In the dream, he knew he was dreaming, even saying to himself, This is a dream. The joyfulness. His mother rarely gave herself to moments of frivolity or over-exuberance. She had always measured out her joy with care, like a scant teaspoon of sugar in her tea. In the dream, he could see her dancing in a grove of green trees. Everything was back to normal, except it wasn’t. That morning, after he woke, he retained the feeling that it had all been a joke, an elaborate hoax, that she might walk through the door at any moment.

Spinning straw from gold

It wasn’t that he hated weddings. He just objected to their ubiquity. Their tyrannical hold over one’s social life and financial well-being. The inescapable stag dos and hen dos, and the banter and bad behaviour, the drinking and drug-taking and debauchery everyone pretended didn’t happen but which were as transparent and obvious as a lapdancer’s décolletage. The notion that selfhood could only be defined through the narrative of normative matrimonial bliss. The moment at the altar which one’s early life supposedly built towards, piously intoning vows and mumbling hymns which bore no relation to the agnostic and amoral married life which frequently followed. The grotesque self-indulgence. The wealth signalling. The unbridled narcissism. The latent sexism. The awful photography.

And now another friend was getting married. This time an former work colleague, who was finally settling down to a life of respectability with his French girlfriend. They were to be married in France, just outside of Montjean-sur-Loire, in west Brittany, where the bride spent her childhood and her extended family lived still. Their relationship began as a classic meet-cute. His friend, spotting the woman who was to become his future wife across a crowded restaurant, became instantly smitten, and not being the overly self-conscious type, he sent a waiter over with a scribbled note, written in French, asking for her mobile number. They started dating and soon became inseparable, and very much in love, a reminder that even in an age characterised by algorithmic dating apps and nauseating #swipelife, romance wasn’t entirely dead. At least, not yet.

Despite his scepticism about the mechanics of matrimony, he was delighted to hear the news and wished them well. The wedding was scheduled for early summer, by which time France had been in the grip of a severe heatwave for several weeks. Cruising over the northern departments, he was surprised to see the verdant Breton pastures looking parched and yellowed as one of Van Gogh’s wheat fields. Mature trees bent like saplings as winds gusted in from the north, rippling the surface of the River Loire and harassed the plane on its final approach to Nantes airport. As the fuselage juddered and the plane pitched and rolled, prompting him to grasp tightly the arm of his airline seat, it occurred to him that bringing the children might have been a mistake.

They certainly weren’t supposed to be there. When he received his invitation, he had asked his friend’s fiance, who was organising the wedding, if they might be able to bring their two boys, with the idea that they could remain in France for a family holiday afterwards. His friend’s fiance, possibly being too polite to say non, had agreed, while no doubt while pondering why anyone remotely interested in having fun would willingly bring children to a wedding, particularly one intended for grown-ups, sophisticated, well-heeled and gainfully-employed grown-ups, and it was only later that he realised his request was precisely sort of unthinking, entitled behaviour that parents of young children display in certain situations, precisely the sort of unthinking, entitled behaviour he had, up to that point, always tried to avoid.

Children had no business being at weddings. They bounced around them like loosened balloons, knocking over champagne flutes and tripping up waiters. They were noisy and inconsiderate, and could always be relied upon to throw a tantrum at some point, usually during the ceremony, or to be openly rude to the bride or groom, or foul themselves at the least appropriate moment, often during the wedding breakfast. He’d lost count of the number of times a preschooler flower girl had upended upended her basket of confetti before the bridal march had even begun. Even at his own wedding, his eldest son, then only a few months old, had been as good as gold in the morning, but by lunchtime was refusing to play ball, and had to be breastfed by his wife in a private dining room, while he ate lunch at a table with his parents and in laws, inwardly-screaming at being on his own.

One of his earliest memories was being taken by his parents to their friends’ wedding, two bohemian teachers who kept goats and liked to sunbathe in the nude. Getting to the wedding had been fraught, as his father had been working and his mother seemed to take an inordinately long time to get ready. It was also a hot sunny day, traffic was bad, and his father had trouble parking. They arrived at the church just in time to see the bride and groom kiss. At the after party, held in the happy couple’s large garden, he and another little girl were caught stamping on some seedlings behind their greenhouse, and he had a vivid memory of being reprimanded by the furious bride, who was still in her wedding dress.

It wasn’t surprising that his propensity for inappropriate behaviour and poor decision-making had been present from early childhood. He didn’t buck the trend for his friend’s wedding. Not content with inviting his children along, he followed this up with some dubious sartorial choices. Given the debilitating heatwave, he had decided that no one in their right mind would be wear a lounge suit to the wedding, so he had packed a white Oxford shirt and blue chinos to wear. Both had been severely crumpled in transit, each now resembling the surface of the wind-harassed Loire, and the latter, being a cotton and elastene composite, seemed to cut off the circulation to his legs. Shirt and chinos were complemented with a pair of slightly-scuffed white plimsolls. His wife had chosen an elegant yellow dress, and his children had been coaxed into more appropriate attire.

When he arrived he realised he was indeed under-dressed, critically so, with most of the male members of the congregation wearing tailored suits or at the very least shirts which had seen the press of an iron that morning. Some of the guests he knew from his old life in the property world. He’d fallen out of touch with them after he quit his job and burned his bridges. It was possible some had their noses put out of joint at the manner of his departure. He had worked with both the groom and best man, considered them close friends and confidantes, but both were hungrier for success in that world than he was, and both had left to go on to bigger, better things while he remained at the same organisation. Then he had written the letter. Moved to Scotland. Gone to ground.

He and his wife congratulated the bride and groom, and chatted to some of the other guests, the best man and his fiance, a real estate lawyer, whom he had met briefly before, and another former work colleague and his partner, another former colleague who was once an intern at his organisation and now a communications director in the San Francisco, and others he knew either from his old job or via the groom, the property industry diaspora, and while he was very grateful that his former chief executive wasn’t there, which had been his great fear, the thought that had nagged at him in the preceding months and given him a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach all morning, each introduction of his wife and children, each explanation of what he was doing with his life now, since he had left the industry and left London, became just that little bit more awkward.

Feeling self-conscious, he and his wife took their explore the grounds of the chateau. Within a small grove of beech trees they found a neglected climbing frame with a swing, and a rusted trampoline which was covered in beech husks. His boys played with these cursorily, before losing interest. Several hammocks had been strung between the tree, and one had already been claimed by a softly-snoring middle-aged man. He hauled himself into another hammock and lay there for a while. A tall, lissom French girl ghosted through the grove with a book in her hand, a French relative presumably, one of the bride’s family and friends lining the periphery of the wedding party in Pierre Cardin couture and Chanel sunglasses.

As they walked down to the lake they passed several round hay bales, left behind by the groundskeeper who was threshing in the next field, driving his tractor in circles over the dry ground and stirring up clouds of exhaust and dust. When he attempted to roll one of the bales, shoving with all his weight behind it, trying to show off to his children, he managed to drive a small splinter of dried grass into the palm of his hand. They stood at the lake for a little while, he and his wife watching the boys dipping sticks into the water, making small ripples on the surface. The enduring fascination of children who are unable swim with bodies of water they could easily drown in.

When they returned to the chateau, the wedding ceremony was underway. They took their places on the chairs arranged on the lawn, four seats at the back. The groom and best man stood in the shade of an arbour in a small orchard, in matching sky blue suits. wearing a white summer dress garlanded with wildflowers, the bride approached from the direction of the chateau. Arm in arm with her father. On an acoustic guitar, one of the groom’s musician friends tenderly finger-picked the chords of a familiar song by Neil Young. It was incredibly hot. His legs felt like two softly broiling hot dogs, and his shirt stuck to the sweat on his back. While he was glad not to be wearing a jacket, a jacket would have hidden patches of sweat massing near his sacrum. Glancing at his children, he could see the glare of the sun on their bare arms. They weren’t wearing sunscreen. He hadn’t wanted to ruin their new clothes.

The minister made his pronouncement and the bride and groom kissed. With that the guests began to disperse and return to the chateau for drinks and photographs. Their eldest son asked if he could have one of the white balloons which had been tied to the chairs for the ceremony, and were now bobbing like marker buoys in the warm breeze. His wife untied a balloon from the chair and handed it to her son. This prompted their youngest boy to asked if he could have a balloon. Another balloon was duly untied by his wife. With their balloon trailing behind them, the boys chased each other in circles around the lawn, their blonde heads glinting gold in the sun.

Almost inevitably, his youngest son’s balloon burst a few moments later, pricked by a rose thorn in the ornamental garden as the guests gathered for a photograph. He reached down at the confetti and took a fistful, then dropped it back onto the floor. A little while later, his eldest son’s balloon slipped from his fingers and wafted off over the beech grove, and disappeared from sight, never to be seen again. So another balloon was untied from another chair and presented to him. It floated beside him throughout the dinner of barbecued chicken and dauphinoise potatoes, which his eldest son consumed with ravenous fervour, while his youngest son, always a slow eater, picked over his food like a pathologist. His wife was deep in conversation with another new mother on their table, while he had been seated next to the obligatory obnoxious guy who was drunker than everyone else.

As soon as his plate was cleared, his eldest son asked his mother if he could take his balloon outside. Fine, she replied, but don’t go down to the pool with it. Once the best man had finished his speech, he placed his folded napkin on the table and went outside to see where his son was. Sure enough, he found him down by the natural pool. His son was stood at the edge, lowering his balloon onto the surface, where he had discovered that if his balloon came into contact with one of the small fountains which fed water into the pool, the balloon would whirl round, the gold confetti forming a sort of aureate cyclone, a spinning ring of gold.

A twilight hush had fallen over the grounds of the chateau. Mosquitoes agitated the moist air. From either side of the pool came the rolling croaks of frogs concealed in the reed beds. The muted thrum of music started up behind him. He decided to stay by the pool. His son still couldn’t swim, and he was worried he might fall in. He couldn’t risk leaving him on his own. In the dimming light, it was hard to measure the depth of the murky waters. And given the choice, he’d rather stay there with his son than drag him back to the party to endure a conversation with the obnoxious drunk guy on his table. So instead he watched his son continue his game with the balloon. He knew he wouldn’t be missed.

Presently his eldest son asked if he would like to have a turn, offering the balloon to him. When he ran the balloon under the water, he took care to do it incorrectly, so he could ask his son to show him how to do it properly. Then he tried again, once more getting it wrong. His son chided him. You’re not doing it right. You need to do it like this.

You’re so much better at it than me, he said, as they watched the balloon whirl in the rushing water. He ruffled the boy’s blond hair and put his arm around his small shoulders. We’re spinning straw from gold, said his son, and he realised the boy was referring to Ace Dragon Ltd, the Quentin Blake book they read together on the flight to Nantes. In the book, Blake had reversed the Grimm Brothers’ fable of the Miller’s daughter with a dragon of limited powers, one of which was the ability to spin gold into straw. On the plane, he had been unsure if his eldest son enjoyed the book. It had gained only muted approval. Now it pleased him to know for certain that he had. Spinning straw from gold. The boy was half-right. If anything the reverse was true. They weren’t spinning straw from gold. They were spinning gold from straw. The precious thread of memory.

Another small voice called out in the gloom, and he just about made out the figure of his youngest son running across the lawn towards them, followed by the best man, who was grinning from ear to ear. His youngest son ran around the pool to him, hugging his leg. The best man drew up next to him and smiled for a moment, before exclaiming, in his lightly-drunk Long Island accent, I just had to wipe your son’s ass after he took a shit, and erupted into laughter. He smiled at his friend and apologised. Then then best man reached for his phone and took a photograph of the three of them standing at the edge of the pool, him with his arms around the boys, gathering them close to him as if his life depended on it, although he was simply holding them in position until the picture was taken. He shook his friend’s hand and thanked him, then returned to the party with his children to find their mother.

Birdwatching

On a cold, grey Saturday in late April. Walking on the beach with his wife and children. The fine weather of the previous weekend, a unseasonably warm Easter, long since departed. They were supposed to be helping on a post-Easter beach clear up, but among the white grains of sand there was surprisingly little rubbish to collect. The odd end of a smoked cigarette, some slivers of foil, a single glove. He had expected to find more. It was disappointing. He was disappointed. The bleakness of the beach depressed him.

Sand is overrated. Its just tiny little rocks.

As they moved further up the near-deserted beach, he noticed a small group of people up in the dunes some distance away. At first he thought they were a local camera club, but as he walked nearer he saw that it wasn’t cameras that they were holding of to their faces, but binoculars, pointed in the direction of Cromarty firth across the water. One or two had jammed tripod-mounted minoculars into the sand, and were hunched behind them like lensmen at a land camera. All were wrapped up in hats and gloves and heavy winter coats. As he drew closer, he could hear a male voice, belonging to the leader of the group, lending a voice-over narration to the birds’ behaviour.

Those are cormorants over there. And to the left of them a couple of gannets. Its not uncommon for the two to be confused. We’d usually expect to see more at this time of year. On the beach, we have some red-billed oyster catchers.

Good morning, he said to the group. Either you guys are birdwatchers or you really dig oil rigs.

This produced a satisfying ripple of laughter. Where have you come from?

We’re from the States, said a friendly woman in sunglasses and a fisherman’s hat. California. Where it is much warmer. Much much warmer.

He liked this assemblage of people with their binoculars and heavy coats steadfastly surveying nature in the cold and gloom, so he lifted his camera up and took a picture of them.

Are we rare birds? The woman from California asked.

Some people like to watch rare birds. I like to watch rare people. He smiled. Its a similar kind of thing.

He said goodbye and walked away, and was about to take another photograph from a position a little further away when one of the birdwatchers peeled off the group and started running across the sand towards him. Through the camera lens he could see it was an older woman, in her mid to late sixties, dressed almost entirely in grey, with a grey beanie atop her head, and turquoise Corbusier-styled glasses. When she was almost in front of him she held out her hand and yelled, STOP. He lowered his camera uncertainly, hoping she wanted him to take a photograph of the group with her mobile phone. But he already knew what she was about to say. Before he chance to greet her, she began to breathlessly upbraid him in the inimitable tones of a native New Yorker, all the while jabbing a finger at him, and at his camera.

I wanted to say that I found what you did back there incredibly intrusive. I don’t know who you are, I don’t know where you’ve come from, I don’t know what you do, I don’t know what you are going to do with that photograph, I don’t know what you’re going to use it for, but what I do know is I don’t want to see any photograph of me or any photograph with me in it published or printed anywhere. You have no right to take my photograph. You didn’t ask my permission. If you want to take a photograph of me you need my permission. Period. You have no right to take my photograph.

Then she turned on her heel and strode victoriously back to the dunes, and he spent the rest of the day thinking about what he should have said in response. Some erudite monologue which started with Daguerre before moving on to Helen Levitt and Vivian Maier and the thousands of photographs uploaded to social media every single day of which this one would barely register, before taking in cybersecurity and CIA surveillance and FBI wire taps and the Patriot Act and extraordinary rendition and American exceptionalism, Boomer arrogance and declining bird numbers, all capped with a suggestion that she and the rest of her generation go fuck themselves. Instead, he had settled for yelling, You are a very rude woman, as she walked away, to which she shot back, Yeah, well you’re ruder. The sand listened in silent judgement.

Once home he looked at the photograph he had taken of the group. He could just make out the turquoise of the woman’s glasses behind her binoculars. It wasn’t a particularly good photograph. Nevertheless, he wouldn’t delete it. He wanted to remember what she looked like.

The Reader

He found his wife in the kitchen, sitting at the table with the laptop open. She was not typing, but reading, with a look of disquiet he had seen many times over the course of their marriage, one usually reserved for resolving conflicts between their children, or when listening to one of his misanthropic complaints, and he wondered what was causing her disquiet, this troubled countenance, maybe an email from a relative disclosing a serious illness, news of another man-made catastrophe or the latest statement from their joint bank account. Skirting the edge of the table, he asked her what she was reading, and she raised her eyes from the screen and replied, I’m reading you, now considering him with a different look, as a nurse might a hypochondriac.

The woman he had loved for over a decade, whose love he depended on, the only person whose opinion meant anything, and even now he couldn’t ask if this endeavour made sense, made any sense at all, to her gracious, gentle mind. I’m reading you. Those three words mattered more than anything else.

The Househusband

i.

More than a few eyebrows were raised at the prospect of him becoming a househusband. When he spoke to his colleagues and co-workers about his intention to leave work and care for his children, they looked at his askance, as if he were behaving strangely, as if he had suffered a blow to the head. Caring for your children, isn’t that your wife’s job? In truth, he suspected that few were sorry to see him go. He had always been the odd man out around the office. Non-committal and insubordinate, cynical to the point of superciliousness, hot-headed and self-aggrandising, prone to bouts of festering silence. Most were aware he had long harboured a desire to disappear, and they acknowledged that disappearing might make him happier, however briefly.

Since becoming a father he had been unable to wear the friction between his home life and his work life, the two continental shelves of selfhood continually grinding against one another. His employers expectations would never match his responsibilities as a parent, the love he had for his wife and son always overrode the bullshit nature of his job, the presenteeism, the arbitrary power structures, and the obtuse human resources procedures which made him feel useless and invaluable. Powerless. Invisible. Perpetually unhappy. After years of suppurating cynicism, before he left he made a public statement which accused the industry he worked for of unparalleled greed, of social cleansing, of confusing avarice with altruism, something which he hoped would make him feel heroic, but which had the precisely the opposite effect.

He had written a letter, a letter which when his organisation’s new chief executive saw it caused all the colour to drain from his face and made him swear profusely, a letter which was published in a trade magazine with a 60K circulation (100K for its digital version) on the morning of his employer’s high-profile fundraising event at City Hall, the day before his planned last day at work, an event which, rather than face the music or be forced into contrition, he had fled from like a naughty child that evening, switching off his mobile phone and going to ground, leaving work without saying goodbye to those colleagues who had made his time at the organisation tolerable, if not truly enjoyable, those who had found his company tolerable, if not truly enjoyable, and who no doubt spoke ill of him once he was gone.

A letter which guaranteed that he would not be able to call on either of his previous employers for a reference, should he be fortunate enough to find another job in the future. He had intended to leave his job on better terms and with a glowing reference, but that was before The Letter, written and sent impulsively and without forewarning his wife, who had reluctantly agreed to him leaving work in the first place. When he delivered the news of its imminent publication, he face fell momentarily, before she regained her composure and wrinkled her forehead in sympathy, and told him, It’ll be okay, and We’ll manage, even when, by her own admission years later, she had been terrified. She was a good friend and a wonderful wife, too good for him in fact, as undeserving of his behaviour as he was undeserving of her love.

 

ii.

He wasn’t overly concerned about becoming a househusband, as he had always viewed himself as being sufficiently domesticated. Growing up, his parents had been fastidious about maintaining their property. If you look after things, they’ll last longer. This, along with Cleanliness is next to Godliness, had been drilled into him from an early age. His mother cleaned constantly, compulsively. For him, creative pursuits always gave way to the demands of his domestic duties. Disorder made him anxious, unable to focus. Though more relaxed about dust and detritus than his mother, outside the office his home life felt like one long to-do list. He hoovered and dusted and swept and wiped. Changed the bed and scrubbed the bath and hung out the washing. Emptied the dishwasher. Cleaned the windows. Mowed the lawn. Kept up appearances.

His father had done little to help his mother around the home. For his father, labour consisted of that which could be physically observed and financially rewarded. Cooking, cleaning and caring for his children were not considered work. Renovation work, yes. Domestic duties, no. When his mother left him and his brother in their father’s care, she often returned to find them in bed, with his father reading the newspaper, at peace. His father worked fourteen-hour days on site or at the office, late at night and even at weekends, and believed he would do whatever he wished with his limited free time. Once he insisted she find someone else to help with his eldest son’s birthday party as he was playing golf. Eventually he burnt himself out and was hospitalised with acute pneumonia in his mid-thirties, and after his brush with death, he slowed down a little, but not enough to re-balance their marriage.

On his birthday, his wife had given him a book by The Guardian’s Weekend columnist Tim Dowling, How to be a Husband. At that point in their marriage, he believed things were going fairly well, but evidently he was mistaken. At the beginning of the chapter titled ‘Fatherhood for Morons’, Dowling wrote, You may wonder what kind of father you are going to be. Don’t worry: you are going to be your father, more or less. Not likely, he thought, determined he would not repeat the mistakes of the preceding generation, that he would change nappies and read bedtime stories and prepare feeds, care about his children and tell them that they were beloved.

From the very beginning, he threw himself into fatherhood, with his customary paucity of common sense or forethought. On the first night at home with their new son, his son woke in the early hours in some distress. He lifted his son, writhing like an enraged sphynx cat in a cloth sack, from the Moses basket and carried him through to the spare room, where he attempted to wipe away the meconium gummed to his tiny scrotum using a wad of cotton wool dipped in cold water, which caused the mewling child to scream uncontrollably and urinate all over his sleep suit. Sometimes he thought his eldest had never forgiven him for that, the traumatic memory rooted deep in his unconscious.

In the coming months, when his son woke early for his morning feed, once his wife had finished breastfeeding he would carry the boy downstairs and lie him on a blanket, where he would watch him, kicking his legs in the air, making small noises. Contented and carefree. As that first year progressed, he changed his son’s nappies, dressed him and prepared his bottles. In the evenings he and his wife split the bathing and bedtime story ritual. Placing his son in his crib, he would play him Satie’s Gymnopédies, Chopin’s Nocturnes or Brian Eno’s Music for Airports on the small stereo in his room. If he heard his son cry, he would rush to him, stroke his soft, warm head and calm him with soothing tones.

Later that year his wife transferred two months of her maternity leave to him, and they spent a blissful first Christmas together, the days drifting by in a post-natal daze of having little to do other than tend to the needs of their infant, and being kind to one another.

 

iii.

Two years later, their second son was born. To their incredible good fortune, he and his wife now had two happy, healthy boys. Overnight, everything changed. Caring for one small child on his own was just about manageable. Caring for two small children was akin to juggling two water balloons filled with wet shit, with one hand tied behind their backs. Every day brought a new configuration of unanticipated calamity. Irrational tantrums. Explosive diarrhoea. Nocturnal vomiting. Nothing had prepared them for the onslaught, the sheer relentlessness of raising two children. The irregular sleep, the near-permanent fatigue, the inescapable odour of excrement, the heightened state of irritability at everyone and everything, especially one’s spouse. The physical and financial inability to do anything other than feed and clothe and spend time with his children.

Before his second son was born, he had worried about the effect this would have on their relationship with their first son, and his relationship with his sibling. Those first two years of parenthood had been unnaturally calm. Bucolic, almost. He hoped that becoming a househusband might bring about a return to those days. Hours of play with his children, followed by long naps and hours at his laptop.

He knew from caring for his children outside his time at work that most essential child-rearing tasks could be undertaken in a half hour. A further half hour could be allotted to activities related to work, rest or play. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all took a half hour. Bathing his boys and reading bedtime stories. Trips to the park, play around the house or in the garden took in excess of an hour, but very rarely two. Far from being mechanistic, it enabled him to map out his day and fit his work in around his children. He was still supposed to be researching and writing his PhD thesis. If he could find a few hours each day to work, then he would be able to make steady progress.

He should have known that was far too optimistic. In the first week after he left his job, his wife found some supplementary work as a dresser at London Fashion Week. It was a financially lucrative job, but physically demanding. Each morning they rose and breakfasted as a family, then his wife would depart for work, leaving the boys in his care until late in the evening. Some days she was out of the door before first light, on others not back until almost midnight.

In that first week, their settled routine he had envisioned was obliterated by the complexity of getting his eldest son’s to nursery every day. It was ludicrously problematic. A few months earlier, he and his wife had registered their son at a nursery the next street over from their former home, but had then moved to a new house a couple of weeks before he was due to start at the nursery. As the nursery was close to the home of their childminder, who had looked after their son since he was a baby, and who while he and his wife were at work continued to collect their son from nursery, and as they were fearful that he would miss out on a nursery place if they tried to move him to one closer to their new home, after he left work they had to take him to the nursery in their old postcode each afternoon.

Because they didn’t have a car, and because the local bus service was so infrequent as to be virtually non-existent, taking his son to nursery each afternoon involved a round trip of almost three miles, a half hour on foot each way, pushing an erratic second-hand buggy across several south London locales renowned for their elevated views over the capital. They were almost always late setting off because one child or another had either refused to eat his lunch within the half hour he had allotted for the purpose, or soiled himself at the point of departure.

To begin with he pushed both children in the buggy, the youngest in the chair, chugging on his lunchtime formula, and the eldest, who was always reluctant to go, stood on the buggy board at the rear. His eldest son, being three years old, was still napping in the afternoon, and on a couple of occasions he arrived at the nursery to discover he had fallen asleep on the protective hood of the buggy, before gently waking him and leaving his groggy little boy in the care of the nursery assistants.

After exhausting himself over the first couple of weeks, he transferred his eldest to his micro scooter, and pulled him along using a leash. He had envisioned his child happily scooting on the level sections of the route, lessening his endeavour when they reached one of the many hills but instead his son clung to the buggy on the hills and on the flats.

When he did manage to convince his son to scoot freely, they were still required to avoid slow moving elderly couples, rampaging shop-mobility scooters, parents or childminders with multiple children advancing along the pavement in some disarray, impatient joggers, mobile-distracted teenagers, wheelie bins strewn across the pavement awaiting collection or return to their driveways, looming lampposts, inevitable crops of dogshit, and a selection of kerbstones, loose flagstones, tree roots, pebbles, sticks and twigs that jammed into the wheels of his son’s scooter and sent him sprawling painfully, tearfully, onto the pavement.

When he got home, if his youngest son was still asleep in the buggy, he might get half an hour or more to work on his PhD. If his youngest son woke up at the nursery, as he was wont to once perambulation ceased, or particularly when he was being carted down the steep run of steps from street level down to the nursery building, or even once back at home, parked in the narrow alley beside their house, where a change in the atmosphere or gentle breeze playing upon his face might wake him, and for that hour and a half between arriving at home and having to set off to collect his son again, he wouldn’t be able to work.

Sometimes his son, on waking and finding himself strapped in his buggy, would erupt with the righteous rage of the falsely imprisoned, and calming him usually took a half hour. Then he would put him back in the buggy and set off to collect his brother.

Come evening, once his children were in bed, preparing and consuming dinner with his wife, home from work, took a further hour. After that, he had two hours to work on his research. Then another half hour to read before sleep. If he made it past the first page before his eyes closed. Sometimes he and his wife made love. More often than not, they didn’t.

iv.

Many years before, he had caught the end of a TV screening of Mr. Mom, starring a very young Michael Keaton. As he watched the film, in his youthful naiveté, he thought it would be fun to be a stay-at-home dad, even though the premise of the film, a standard fish-out-of-water concept, implied otherwise.

After being made redundant from his Detroit car plant, engineer Jack Butler, played by Keaton, has to become care for his children when his wife Caroline, played by Teri Garr, returns to work. As a young father, Jack struggles with the most basic household chores and childcare duties. Loses his children in a supermarket. Battles with self-aware domestic appliances. Treats a dirty nappy like a nuclear clean-up. Becomes engrossed in daytime soaps. Plays poker with other housewives. Fends off the amorous advances of a divorcee neighbour.

In each scenario, Jack’s prior masculine identity and social standing were drawn into conflict with his newly-adopted role as househusband identity. Early in the film, Jack and his wife attend a corporate party hosted by Caroline’s boss. Once there he is goaded by her boss into competing in an obstacle course race, an annual event organised by her boss to reaffirm his authority. Near the end of the race, as Jack closes in on the finishing line, with victory in sight, he realises the effect that could have on her career, and instead of racing for the line, he throws himself to the ground, conceding victory to his wife’s boss. By allowing Caroline’s boss to win, Jack symbolically throws of the competitive facets of masculinity. At the close of the scene, when Jack leaves the frame, he is accompanied by his children, who celebrate his loss as if he won, reinforcing this paradigm shift within the narrative.

The film also contained several ironic reversals of the social expectations and pressures placed upon new mothers. One evening, when Jack brings Caroline something to eat as she works upstairs, she takes him to task for, as she perceives it, letting himself go, by sporting a shirt and beard which looked to have been modelled on Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack of American folklore, and symbol of the frontier mythos. Take a look at yourself, you’ve really thrown in the towel, Caroline chides, to which Jack replies: My brain is like oatmeal. I yelled at Kenny today for colouring outside the lines. Megan and I are starting to watch the same TV shows, and I’m liking them. I’m losing it.

In a later dream sequence, he imagines Caroline shooting him for reciprocating to his flirtatious neighbour’s advances. Not long after this scene, which can be read as the narrative’s crisis point, normality is restored. First Jack casts his lumberjack shirt onto the fire, bidding farewell to his slovenly interim persona and masculinised delusions. Then, Jack’s employers accept they made a terrible mistake in letting him go, and offer him his old job back. Caroline, meanwhile, tired of working in advertising, and returns to being a housewife.

Everyone loves a happy ending.

Mr. Mom was an early foray into feature script-writing by the late American filmmaker John Hughes, inspired in part by a weekend spent caring for his children without his wife’s assistance. The film bore many of the magic realist motifs which were a hallmark or Hughes’ work, and an early treatment of the male Kidult trope that Hughes and others such as Richard Linklater and Judd Apatow would profitably mine after the former’s death, from a sudden heart attack, in 1998. By that time, Hughes had redefined the coming-of-age teen movie market, co-authoring and sound-tracking the formative years of countless Gen Xers, sensitively essaying their segue from childhood and adolescent lassitude into the anomie of adulthood.

As a late Gen Xer, born in 1979, Hughes’ film had merely coloured his own consciousness, rather than overtly remoulded it. He had missed most of the classic Hughes films of the 1980s, being first too young, and then too sneering for the likes of Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller, Weird Science. The later Hughes films encountered were humorous, if largely saccharine. The Great Outdoors. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Uncle Buck. Home Alone. When Beethoven was released, Hughes’ career appeared to be on the wane, and his coronet as the friendly, benign uncle with the uncanny ability of mapping the emotional terrain of young people passed to Pixar’s John Lassetter, whose game-changing animated movie Toy Story came out the year after Beethoven, effectively obliterating the market for live-action kids movies almost overnight.

By then, he was too old for Hughes’ child-focused films. It wasn’t until much later that he understood the genius of Hughes’ early work, his distillation the permeable boundary between adolescence and adulthood, through the tropes of teenage identity, platonic love and social status. Hughes’ vernacular was unmistakeably American, like Mall culture in celluloid, yet it was irresistible to the transatlantic yearnings of his own angst-ridden adolescence. In his late teens, he had finally watched The Breakfast Club, and watched it over and over, almost obsessively, for much of that year, until he could quote from it at length, even though he had no one to quote with, as none of his friends, all boys, had the remotest interest in it. The script zinged and the sentiment soared, and he fell ever-so-slightly in love with each of the characters and the actors, who were already a decade into their careers by the time he caught the film.

The Nineties and Noughties were not kind to The Breakfast Club Brat Packers. All endured career lulls as they struggled to transition from teen pin-ups to serious adult actor. Formerly Hughes’ muse, after turning down the lead in Pretty Woman and Ghost, Molly Ringwald moved to Paris to study and act in low-budget French films, working only sporadically for the next two decades. Judd Nelson’s movie career fizzled out after St Elmo’s Fire. Hall’s stalled after a spell in rehab for alcoholism, and when he returned to the screen he had lost his boyishness, bulked out. Sheedy’s promising career lapsed into substance abuse and a well-publicised addiction to sleeping pills, before a brief redemptive return as a drugged photographer in High Art in 1998. Success at an early age is far more difficult to handle than failure, Nelson later remarked.

Of The Breakfast Club cast, only Emilio Estevez managed to make meaningful work in the Nineties, the profitable consequence of having a father and sibling already in the business. Then, like the others, he too disappeared.

Michael Keaton knew something of disappearances. Though critics such as Roger Ebert derided Mr. Mom, the film made him a household name, his performance notable for early flashes of the comedic persona he deployed in movies such as Beetlejuice and The Dream Team. While many critics highlighted his performance as an alcohol and cocaine addict in Clean and Sober, released the same year as Beetlejuice, as his finest work, in commercial terms his career peaked when he was cast, much to the annoyance of die-hard DC Comics fans, as Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s production of Batman. An inferior sequel followed a couple of years later, and after walking out on the second sequel in pre-production, his career never really recovered. A string of mediocre movies followed in the late Nineties, followed by several unmemorable outings in the Noughties. By the end of that decade, he was talking up the possibility of doing a Beetlejuice sequel.

It wasn’t until 2014, when he was cast as Riggan Thomson, the protagonist in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a washed-up Hollywood actor trying to shake off the ghost of his superhero past by staging a Raymond Carver production off Broadway, that Keaton’s career regained any kind of traction. In fact, the film, to all intents and purposes, Birdman was written about and for the actor. When Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu originally conceived the film as a single shot in a theatre, in the mode of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, he did not have a specific protagonist in mind, but one he and the other screenwriters had concluded the script development process, they believed that there was only one actor that could play Thomson. When Iñárritu first approached Keaton, the actor reportedly asked if the Mexican auteur was making fun of him. Sensibly, rather than taking offence, he agreed to do the picture in less than 30 seconds.

While the movie is a phenomenal cohesive work and a highly-theatrical ensemble piece, with exceptional performances from all involved, casting Keaton elevated Birdman from an intellectually-interesting picture to the level of high art, adding a further layer of metacinematic reflexivity to the picture’s postmodern apparatus. The casting of other actors either against type (Zach Galifianakis as soft-hearted agent Jake), or to emphasise particular traits in their character (Ed Norton as talented, arrogant, script-altering buffoon Mike Shiner) added to this metacinematic frisson. As Riggan argues with his cast members, agent and daughter, rages against his alter-ego and displays apparently authentic moments of supernatural power, which may or may not be hallucinatory flights-of-fancy, the film invited the viewer to speculate upon the depths Keaton was prepared to plumb for Riggan’s disintegration.

Commercially successful and critically lauded, Birdman won several awards, including the 2014 Academy Award for Best Feature. Keaton himself was nominated for numerous lead actor awards, winning several which placed him firmly back in the A-list firmament. Back where he belonged. Above them all. Everyone loves a happy ending.

iv.

Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) had begun with an epigraph:

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

He was already familiar with Raymond Carver’s poem Late Fragment. There was a beguiling ambiguity to it, and he couldn’t decide what Carver’s feeling of being beloved referred to. Was it platonic or romantic love? Godly love? The love of his second wife Tess Gallagher? Of his children? The feeling of self-transcendence, of elevation to a sublime spiritual state? Of self-knowledge? Self-love? Or was it critical appreciation, the cultivation of a readership who appreciated his art, that his work and his name would endure, that its reputation would transcend the temporal limitations of his ontology? He couldn’t decide. That the poem had been chiselled into Carver’s gravestone accentuated the ambiguous close of Birdman.

Then he thought of another poem he had first read many years ago, like that of Carver, by the Beat poet Gregory Corso, the youngest member of the Beat Generation’s inner circle. When he read both poems, he had no designs on becoming a parent, and simply assumed, due to his incompetent attempts at wooing the opposite sex, that he would never become one. Corso’s poem always stuck in his mind as his first encounter with literature by a male author which directly, and apparently without irony, addressed the male Messiah complex, what others referred to as toxic masculinity, others the patriarchy, a term he was only beginning to comprehend.

‘She Doesn’t Know He Thinks He’s God’ was taken from Corso’s 1960 collection, The Happy Birthday of Death.

 

He is God

John Rasin is God

He stands by the window smiling

Watching a child walk by

‘I am God!’ He screams. He knows

 

His wife taps him on the shoulder.

‘John the baby is sick will die

His fever is up. Get a doctor.’

 

John Rasin stands as though he were dead

With the health and freshness of life

Exaggerated in his deathness

He stands a man stunned with the realisation

That he’s God. He is God!

 

His wife pleads screams stamps the floor

Pounds her fists against the wall

‘John the baby will die!’

 

Corso had been abandoned by his mother as an infant, left in the care of Catholic Charities in New York, where his garment-maker father found him and placed him in a foster home. Corso’s father had been abusive to his mother, and informed his son that his mother was a prostitute who had been exiled back to her native Italy in disgrace. Corso was regularly beaten in foster care, and again on the rare visits from his violent father. During this time, he received a putative education through the Catholic church’s parochial schools system. When the US entered the Second World War, Corso’s father brought his son home as a means of avoiding the draft, but when he was drafted and sent overseas, Corso became homeless, living on the streets of New York, sleeping in the subway in winter or on the city rooftops in the summer. He was eleven years old.

Corso was a survivor. Imprisoned several times as a teenager, he had the knack of talking himself out of situations, or ingratiating himself with those who could offer him protection. He was first taken under the wing of a powerful Mafiosi while in prison, and then, after his release, by an infatuated Allen Ginsberg, then a student at Columbia, who found a twenty-one year old Corso writing poetry in lesbian bar in the Village. Possessed of a compelling streetwise vernacular, rebellious authenticity and the gift of the gab, Ginsberg and the other Beats, Burroughs and Kerouac, adopted Corso as one of their own. Later, when the autodidact Corso was bumming around Harvard copping a free education, he managed to convince dean Archibald Macleish not only to let him stay on campus, but to make him an unofficial poet in residence.

Decades later, Corso found his estranged mother thanks to the detective work of the filmmaker Gustave Reininger, who was planning a biopic of the Beat poet. Corso’s mother, Michelina, explained she fled the city after being brutalised and sexually abused by his father. Being unable to support herself and her son during the Depression, she left him in the care of the Catholic church. She started a new life in New Jersey and remarried, never revealing she had a lost son to her new husband. Corso and his mother were reunited on screen for Reininger’s film, rebuilding their relationship for just a few months before Corso was diagnosed with the bowel cancer which would claim his life at the age of seventy-one.

Corso’s negative thoughts on fatherhood were cemented in another poem included in The Happy Birthday of Death, ‘Marriage’:

Yet if I should get married and it's Connecticut and snow 
and she gives birth to a child and I am sleepless, worn, 
up for nights, head bowed against a quiet window, the past behind me, 
finding myself in the most common of situations a trembling man 
knowledged with responsibility not twig-smear not Roman coin soup-- 
O what would that be like! 
Surely I'd give it for a nipple a rubber Tacitus 
For a rattle bag of broken Bach records 
Tack Della Francesca all over its crib 
Sew the Greek alphabet on its bib 
And build for its playpen a roofless Parthenon

No, I doubt I'd be that kind of father

Carver’s own death from cancer, of the lung, at the age of fifty, followed decades of alcohol abuse and heavy smoking. Like Corso’s parents, Carver had married young, becoming a father at nineteen. Both he and his wife Maryann worked to support the family, with Carver working initially as a delivery man, janitor, sawmill worker, and library assistant, and his privately-educated wife later taking jobs as an administrative assistant and high school English teacher, saleswoman and waitress. Lower-middle class occupations. Keeping the family afloat. Strangers in a doomed marriage. Like characters in one of his stories.

At the outset of the marriage Carver wasn’t writing, or indeed drinking, but both began in earnest when he enrolled at Chico State College in the early Sixties. He started drinking heavily in 1967, the year his short story ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ was published and he moved with his family to Palo Alto in California. Carver’s life up to that point reads like a list of missed opportunities and silly mistakes. Studying half-heartedly, working occasionally, moving his family from town to town, all exacerbated by his ever-increasing inability to lay off the drink. While incapable of holding down a job, he proved himself capable of putting pen to paper, enjoying modest publishing success. By the early Seventies he was no longer writing, but simply drinking. The short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, was published in 1976 at the height of his dissolution. A minor miracle given the circumstances.

Carver’s wife Maryann put her own career on hold to care for their children so her husband could intermittently study, and work, and write, and drink. She packed fruit at a supermarket for two weeks to buy Carver his first typewriter. Few people remember that when they talk about Carver being a literary God, or the progenitor of contemporary short fiction, or while they pore over Gordon Lish’s edits to determine which of the two men was the true author of Carver’s stories. None of this would have happened without Marryann propping up the crumbling edifice of their marriage. In the narratives of notable authors’ lives, their nearest and dearest, the first wives and spectral young children, are always reduced to bit-part players.

Maryann Carver put her husband through college. She stood by him when he had an affair with Diane Cecily in 1972, after which he ramped up his drinking and physically abused her, including smashing her over the head with a wine bottle when he thought she was flirting with another man at a party in 1975. She dropped out of her PhD and drove him to his teaching classes at the University of California when alcoholism overtook him. After he was hospitalised due to his drinking, three times between 1976 and 1977, she helped nurse him back to health.

In 1977, Carver stopped drinking and started attending AA meetings. That same year, he met and fell in love with the poet Tess Gallagher. In 1982, Carver and Maryann finally divorced, a lag of five years from learning of his latest and last infidelity, as if she was still holding out for that belated reconciliation. I never fell out of love with him, she wrote in her memoir. Then it was Gallagher’s turn: Instead of dying from alcohol, Raymond Carver chose to live. I would meet him five months after this choice, so I never knew the Ray who drank, except by report and through the characters and actions of his stories and poems.

What do we talk about, when we talk about love?

v.

No sooner was his youngest able to walk than he wanted to scoot like his elder brother. He wasn’t remotely ready for a scooter, but it was no bad thing, his eighteen-month-old’s determined push for a different form of hypermobility to that of his brother, as it meant that the bedevilling travel pushchair that had long been their default mode of child transportation could now be consigned to its new home in the loft. The flimsy canvas and steel contraption had the nasty habit of tipping over backwards whenever additional weight was placed upon the handles, specifically otherwise-innocuous objects like his camera or the change bag, resulting in whichever child was strapped into it being flipped backwards and left lying prone, and at an inverted forty-five degree angle. It had caught him out several times, almost braining his children by dashing their head against the pavement.

As much as the pushchair was a source of stress, that was nothing next to his youngest’s erratic scooting, which terrified him to the point of mania. Like a three-wheeled heat-seeking missile, his little boy seemed preternaturally drawn to danger, and persistently strayed toward the deep fissures and irregular bumps and uneven paving slabs that lent the streets of south London their character, and which inevitably brought him crashing to the ground. He quickly learnt to use his son’s scooter like a miniature Segway, leaning over and manipulating the handlebars to slow his approach to any obstacles, moderate inclines or fellow pedestrians which might prove hazardous. In so doing, he discovered that lumbar pain brought a new level of discomfort to his vexed existence.

School drop-offs and pick-ups were indubitably the most taxing times of the day, a confluence of social anxiety, inconvenience and fear that his youngest son would be trampled in the stampede of marauding parents and oblivious older children. In principle, the primary school he and his wife had chosen for their son had established a carefully-honed system for the collection of children after school. In fact, there were two systems at work. The first was a finely-tuned framework designed to prevent the abduction or escape of children from the school’s grounds, and the second was an absolute clusterfuck, perfectly-calibrated to cause maximum chaos at home time.

Parents and carers were to wait outside the school grounds until the bell signalling the end of school was sounded. Once it was sounded, a small electronic gate would be remotely unlocked by the reception staff, enabling parents and carers to enter the school grounds. Once through the gate, they were to proceed to their child’s classroom, where the teachers and classrooms assistants would hand their children over to them. As there were almost five hundred children at the school, every afternoon an equivalent number of parents and carers assembled outside the gate. If the gate didn’t unlock immediately, this was enough to trigger a growing ripple of annoyance among the gathered throng. If the gate didn’t unlock at all, this ripple of annoyance built to a crescendo of clucking and tutting.

Eventually, a member of the reception staff had to come down from the school building to manually open the gate. As the gate was only large enough to allow one person through at a time, by the time the first parents and carers had collected their children and returned to the gate, there was still a large crowd waiting to get through. This created a bottleneck, and a stand-off between the respective groups of parents and carers. Those with children, and those without. Arriving early lessened the inconvenience, but in arriving early he might find himself being drawn into conversation with another parent, something he wanted to avoid at all costs. There were some parents he did want to talk to, but their children were in different classes, and they were often through the gate and away by the time he’d managed to collect his son.

Once the gate was open, he and his youngest son, who was still groggy having just been woken from his nap, would make their way to the allotted spot where they would take receipt of their fatigued and grubby offspring from the teaching staff. Now there formed a micro-throng of parents in front of the teaching staff, each being eager to retrieve their child and get away as quickly as possible. He would stand to one side with his youngest and wait for the least patient members of the crowd to collect their kids, then move forward to greet his son, who each day greeted him with the query, Where’s mum?

vii.

After dropping his eldest at the primary school at the end of their road, he and his youngest had the day to themselves. Mondays and Wednesdays they went to the playgroup in the church around the corner from their home. St Michael’s and All Angels. A modest, modernist building in London brick, the gable end facing the street, with high windows lining the side walls. Without stained glass, it was more like a chapel than a church. Inside, a small area of the nave had been cordoned off for the playgroup. There was a large sofa and a couple of careworn rugs for the smallest children to sit on, plastic chairs round the perimeter, and a kitchen with a kettle and tea and coffee for the adults. Occasionally the vicar came in to say hello, his friendly manner and soft voice almost enough of an inducement to pop along one Sunday morning. Almost, but not quite.

The playgroup was run by a no-nonsense childminder called Kath, a tall, slim woman with a knotted pony-tail and a commanding voice, who didn’t suffer fools gladly. There was always a couple of other carers, Shelbie and Karen, two large and loud south Londoners, each with a retinue of preschoolers and a charmingly blase approach to minding them. There other parents were mostly mothers. Another south Londoner whose daughter had red curls and a blood-curdling scream. A woman with a dark bob who had adopted orphaned boy twins from India. Her gym bunny friend who had a suspiciously-enduring cold, and a little boy who threw spectacular tantrums. A blonde with her mini-me daughter in pigtails and pink.

Very occasionally there would be another father there. Whenever there was, he and the other father would circle each other uncertainly, as if sizing up their claim to the territory, before one of them felt compelled to break the ice with a genial, if guttural, Alright, mate? They might chat for a half hour or so. After that, he would never see the father again. In truth, he preferred it that way.

Monday was his favoured day, as the playgroup was almost always half empty. When they arrived, his son would immediately make a bee-line for one of the Cozy Coupe plastic ride-in cars, of which there were two, a police car and pink princess, but his son had already worked out that the other boys wanted to sit in the police car, which had more bells and whistles, and wasn’t bright pink. With his son safe behind the wheel, he would go into the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee, before retreating to the same quiet corner each week, away from the rest of the group, close enough to overhear their conversations but not so close that he would have to participate. There, he would try to crib some notes for his research, while keeping half an eye on his son.

Wednesdays were the exact flip of Mondays. On Wednesdays, there being no other playgroups in session that day, every exhausted mother or carer in the entire postcode threw themselves at the doors of the church, as if upon the mercy of God himself. On Wednesdays, the playgroup became without fail dangerously overcrowded, with children squabbling over toys, treading on or falling over one another, crying at length and soiling themselves while their parents or carers were distracted.

If Mondays were the perfect balm to a long weekend of frenetic child-focused activity, Wednesdays were like the uncontrolled aftermath of a failed anthropological experiment. Mondays were a morning of quiet reflection and contemplation, Wednesdays were Mondays were a shaded glade in a undiscovered forest, Wednesdays were an inner city tinderbox, the collapse of society in microcosm. It was on a Wednesday that the son of one of his neighbours menaced the other children, stalking each one in turn before creeping up behind them and scratching their faces with his fingernails. Karen, the ponytailed childminder, told his mother off, and he didn’t see either of them at playgroup again.

Wednesdays always infuriated Karen. She took great pleasure in turning people away once she deemed the playgroup full, her mouth set in indignant defiance, impervious to the pleas of desperate parents. Nevertheless, the playgroup was still far too busy, and if had he been running it he would have bolted the doors shut once the Monday regulars were in. On one particular morning, the playgroup was already at capacity when two unfamiliar carers appeared at the door with seven preschoolers, all different ages and all in varying states of dishevelment and distress. The nannies steered the children to the centre of the room, took a seat on the sofa, got out their phones and ignored the children at their feet for the next hour.

On Wednesdays, he rarely left his son’s side, ushering him through the cacophony of noise and rapidly escalating conflicts, much as he tried to keep him from crashing his scooter. Now that there were three or four older boys vying for control of the ride-on cars, he kept him out of their way, consoling him with a story from a gnawed picture book or by fashioning a train track out of several mismatched pieces. Sometimes they built a tower out of imitation Duplo, aided, or hindered, by another child.

His son seemed contented, more contented than the other children at playgroup. Now fully mobile, he was still speaking in toddlerese, able to enunciate only a few words of nonsense. But was happy in his own little world, much like the enclosed space of the car. Safe in his plastic cocoon, he would pootle around the floorspace at leisure, watching what everyone else was doing. A nascent form of anthropology. Reserved in his interactions, he refused all the fruit offered by the childminders at communal snack time. Only very occasionally could he cajole him into joining in with the messy-play or craft activities. Even when he did, his son simply wanted to spread glue using the small white plastic spatulas supplied. Once he had to place something on the liberally-daubed globules of glue, he lost interest.

Instead, he took greater interest in the collective tidying sessions near the close of playgroup, as it meant he could push a broom around or sweep shredded paper into a dustpan. The tidying session was followed with half an hour of half-heartedly singing nursery rhymes. ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’, ‘Ten Little Monkeys’, ‘Zoom Zoom Zoom’, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’. By the time they reached the grand finale of the Oke Cokey, his son had dispensed with any pretence of participating, and was instead running around the nave or climbing on the pews, while he was left to dance with the other carers and children.

Mothers chatted with ease, arranged playdates or went out for drinks. Fathers did not, and while caring for his son and working on his thesis both required long periods of enforced solitude, he never proposed a meeting up with any of the fathers he knew. Perhaps he should have, but the thought of sitting in a park discussing their children’s behavioural traits, or past careers, the obvious conversational start points for people with little in common, left him feeling lachrymose. Besides which, he didn’t particularly like other people’s children. Given the choice, he would rather spend his mornings alone with his son, either at playgroup or at the shabby local library run by septuagenarian volunteers, even though when it was just the two of them he yearned for someone to take him off his hands, for just a few hours, so he could work on his thesis. No matter what he did, there was always something else he would rather do.

Speaking to the mother of the twins, he learned that her partner was unhappy in his career as a recruitment consultant. As her earning power as an executive assistant was greater than his, she was planning on going back to work, while her partner would stop work to become primary carer to the twins. Once she returned to work, he met her partner at playgroup once or twice. In business casual attire, he looked uncomfortable. After a while, he and the boys started missing the sessions. When he next saw them, in their local park, he noticed that the recruitment consultant was wearing loose clothing, jogging bottoms and a hoodie. He had huge bags under his eyes, and the beginnings of a beard.

Throwing in the towel. Letting himself go.

vii.

After the birth of his second son, Sean, by his second wife, the artist Yoko Ono, John Lennon famously withdrew from the music business to become a househusband. From Sean’s birth in 1975 until his re-emergence with the album Double Fantasy in 1980, the former Beatle all but disappeared from public view. Speaking in Tokyo in 1977, he declared, We have basically decided, without any great decision, to be with our baby as much as we can until we feel we can take time off to indulge ourselves in creating things outside of the family. During this time, so the story goes, Lennon’s creative energies were completely focused on looking after son at their large apartment in the Datoka, an imposing Gothic-styled edifice overlooking New York’s Central Park.

Prior to Sean’s birth, Lennon had been on a two-year booze-soaked interregnum in his marriage with Ono, a period Lennon later dubbed his Lost Weekend. After discovering she was pregnant, Ono, who had suffered three miscarriages since they married, informed her husband that she would only proceed with the pregnancy if he agreed to care for the child. Each day he rose at six a.m. to be with his son and plan his day, establishing a safe, stable and caring environment for him. Lennon would later say of Sean, he didn't come out of my belly but, by God, I made his bones, because I've attended to every meal, and to how he sleeps, and to the fact that he swims like a fish. He didn’t write or record a single song for almost five years.

What he did instead became the subject of some conjecture. Beatles obsessives, being heavily invested in the life of John Winston Lennon, Liverpool’s most famous son, a man so beloved in the city of his birth that he received that rare and ecologically unsound accolade of having an airport named after him, believed that they knew the man. They could derive kinship from absorption in the music and words and interviews and photographs and film-reels, a narrative from which they lifted key moments like neatly-parsed lyrics of a familiar song.

Born 1940, parental abandonment, Aunt Mimi, mother dies, The Quarrymen, meets Paul and George, Liverpool Institute, Stuart Sutcliffe, Hamburg, The Silver Beatles, Cavern Club, Brian Epstein, Pete Best/Ringo Starr, Please Please Me, ‘She Loves You’, birth of Julian, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’, Ed Sullivan, A Hard Day’s Night, Bob Dylan, Help!, ‘Nowhere Man’, Shea Stadium, Revolver, Candlestick Park, Yoko Ono, LSD, Strawberry Fields Forever, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Epstein’s death, Paul’s ascendancy, Magical Mystery Tour, heroin, White Album, Two Virgins, Apple Corp, ‘Ballad of John and Yoko’, Allen Klein, Beatles split, ‘Cold Turkey’, primal scream therapy, Plastic Ono Band, Imagine,  New York, May Pang, LA, Lost Weekend, return to NY/YO, birth of Sean, semi-retirement, Double Fantasy, shot by Mark David Chapman, dies 1980.

The tendency with any artist’s biography is to focus on the rise and thereafter the fall, while ignoring the lull. Hagiographers such as Philip Norman glossed over the last five years of Lennon’s life, but for speculative and unscrupulous biographers the lull provided a rich seam. After Cynthia Lennon’s tell-all memoir A Twist of Lennon was published in 1978, Albert Goldman’s The Secret Lives of John Lennon established a micro-industry for character assassinations of the late rock star. Published a decade after Cynthia’s memoir, Goldman’s book alleged that Lennon was an antisemitic, schizophrenic, epileptic, anorexic, bisexual wife-beater, who spent his reclusive years nursing a cocaine addiction in the Dakota while a retinue of hangers on cared for Sean.

Two other biographers continued Goldman’s systematic demolition of the St John ‘peace and love’ mythos. In 1992, Lennon’s personal assistant, Frederic Seaman, published his own memoir The Last Days of John Lennon, which depicted a perma-stoned occultist under the spell of his domineering ‘Mother’ Ono. This was followed, almost a decade later, by Robert Rosen’s Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, a fictional imagining of Lennon’s psychic realm which was drafted from his journals, letters and other ephemera, which the dutiful Seaman had pilfered and passed to Rosen after Lennon’s death. While Seaman and Rosen’s books corroborated some of Goldman’s allegations about Lennon’s Howard Hughes existence and Ono’s ruthless management of her husband’s business, and extramarital, affairs, none could agree which Lennon was the true one. Seaman was sued by Ono for the theft of Lennon’s possessions, and was compelled to apologise in court for his libellous allegations.

Becoming a househusband was a relatively novel enterprise in in the 1970s, one which gestured towards an oblique feminism in its narrative of shared parental responsibility and non-traditional masculine identity. A radical statement, one intertwined with the sexual politics of the decade, although it was perhaps an option available only to the fortunate few. The salacious accounts of Lennon’s last years sought to undermine the tropes of domestic contentment and marital bliss by suggesting they were a projection, a self-masking by Lennon and Ono which reaffirmed the former Beatle’s mythic, or saintly, status and made the couple multimillionaires. This married with the narrative of Lennon as an unrestrained egotist, if not entirely with his being the victim of Ono’s manipulation. In his book, Rosen proposed that John knew that his sudden disappearance in the late Seventies would, perversely, make him more visible, and in so doing confirm his cultural power. Tragically, this assertion was partially borne out by the wave of global mourning following his murder.

Lennon’s becoming a househusband was, more pertinently, a complete reversal of his first, failed attempt at fatherhood. Julian, John’s son by his first wife Cynthia, had been born in October 1963, at the height of Beatlemania. In an echo of John’s own childhood, his first son endured the kind of peripatetic paternal interest that had caused some of the former Beatle’s chronic neuroses. Theirs was an uneasy relationship, played out under the camera’s glare, characterised by long absences, paternal cruelty and short-lived moments of reconciliation, a reflection of what James Herzog defined as father hunger. Whenever he thought of their relationship, he saw that picture of John, Yoko and Julian at the Rolling Stones’ Rock n’ Roll Circus, Julian sat on his father’s knee like a sullen marionette, a velvet-jacketed ventriloquist’s dummy. A couple of years later, after leaving The Beatles, Lennon sang, I just believe in me / Yoko and me / and that’s reality. Difficult to imagine what Julian felt when he heard the song.

It is tempting to view John’s commitment to Sean’s care as atonement for the mistakes he made with his first son, but that would be to ignore the complex, inconsistent nature of Lennon’s personality. Having denied Julian the affection and understanding he needed while he was alive, after his death John left little to Julian by way of a bequeath. Eventually he sued the Lennon estate and was awarded a substantial sum, some of which he used to buy some of his father’s possessions when the estate refused to pass them to him. Due in part to his difficult relationship with his father, in later life Julian declined to get married or have children, stating in an interview, I want to know who I am first. On the 20th anniversary of John’s murder, an embittered Julian issued a statement on his website accusing Ono of manipulating his father and continually frustrating their attempts at rebuilding their relationship.

When he was twelve-years-old, he happened to see Julian perform at the Radio 1 Roadshow in Newquay. He was holidaying with his parents and brother in the town that summer, and the children’s entertainer took a gang of them to join the large crowd gathered on the bluffs near Fistral Beach. First they were treated to Simon Mayo goofing around with Cathy Dennis’ backing singers, before someone in an oversized Bart Simpson bodysuit danced to ‘Do The Bartman’. Finally a nervous-looking Julian was invited on stage and interviewed by Mayo, standing awkwardly with his acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, before pretending to emote into a microphone while his song played over the speaker system. He looked, he thought, profoundly lonely up there on his own.

The song Julian mimed to was ‘Saltwater’, his lachrymose ecological protest ballad and top ten single back in 1991, the opening bars of which recalled the Mellotron intro of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. The banal lyricism and its plea for universal transcendence echoed, somewhat inevitably, Lennon’s most famous solo record, ‘Imagine’, the foundation of the Gospel According to John. We are a rock revolving / around a golden sun / we are a billion children rolled into one. As an act of ventriloquism, the lyrics sounded not unlike those his father might have written, but they lacked the precision and bite of Lennon Snr, if not the sincerity, or indeed the hypocrisy, of the earlier record. Here perhaps Julian was staking his claim to the ‘peace and love’ ethos that his father failed to show him. God is a concept / of how we measure pain, Lennon sang on the eponymous song on his debut album. Julian might have said the same for paternal love.

Back then, he knew enough about The Beatles to know the difficult history of Julian’s early life. Choosing to enter the music business as a teenager had left Julian in a double-bind, promising little more than a lifetime of comparisons to his father, and a career as a one-man tribute act to his music. ‘Saltwater’ certainly wore its influences lightly. There was an argument, uncharitable perhaps, that ‘Saltwater’ was only a success because of its imitation of his late father’s work, and for being released twenty years after ‘Imagine’. It was unarguably the high point of Julian’s musical career. After that record, he all but disappeared from public consciousness. When Sean followed his half-brother into the music business to embark upon a successful career of his own, he was fortunate that Julian had already fought all the difficult battles for him. In art, as in life.

ix.

No one understood the decision he had taken, the new existence he had made not only for himself, but for his wife and children. It was a selfish move, crippling them financially. His PhD was little more than a self-funded vanity project that would do little to aid his precarious state. His parents were puzzled, if not bemused, and the first time he saw them after leaving his job, his father asked him what it was like to be retired. When they tried to send him money to make some repairs to his home, he sent the money back to them, with a handwritten letter explaining why he couldn’t accept it, and they seemed more offended that he hadn’t accepted it than if he had kept it and simply frittered it away.

He had failed on their terms, according to their rules, but not his own. Now his terms, his rules, were no longer important. What was important was that he had two young children to care for, and he was unsure if he could do it. When he grandly announced that he was quitting work to care for his children, he imagined himself like the male seahorse or the ocellaris clown fish, nurturing his offspring as a pure expression of paternal responsibility. One of his eldest son’s favourite films was the Pixar animation Finding Nemo, a touching if fanciful exploration of the co-dependent dynamic between two anthropomorphised clown fish. He wasn’t a male seahorse, nor an ocellaris clown fish, only a fool incapable of facing this new reality he had single-handedly created, the product of his impetuosity, his indignation, his masculine rage.

I just believe in me.

For the moment they were reliant on savings to pay their small mortgage. His wife’s wages as a part-time librarian for all other outgoings. They were fortunate to have savings, but they had no money, no disposable income to speak of. They stopped eating meat almost altogether, and instead subsisted on the same basic meals, the same pasta and rice and pulses, soups and stews and steamed veg. Each week he would push son’s buggy to the local budget supermarket to buy their supplies, returning with a buggy loaded with enough food to last them a week. It wasn’t until they were living hand to mouth, that he recognised what he had done.

Because they had no money, he retreated to a hermetic existence, separated himself from friends and family and former colleagues. He simply wanted to be left alone. Kierkegaard wrote, the greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. By leaving work he had hoped to release or realise a part of himself that had remained dormant while he had been at work, but in fact a part of him had vanished when he left his job, the part of him that provided for his family, the part that met everyone else’s expectations of him as a father, and he sensed, correctly, that now it was gone it would not come back. Something had erased itself, shrivelled and withered, and around that absent part was left a layer of scar tissue, invisible but painfully tangible.

What replaced it was arguably fundamentally more important. Time with his children. Time watching them grow and develop and change from infants into small boys. Time nurturing and comforting and attending to their desires and demands. Time showing them how to confound expectations. Time teaching them how to fail. Showing them how to disappear. Helping his youngest take his first steps. Building Duplo with his eldest. Fancy dress and finger-painting and trips to the playground. Lifting them from the bath and drying their hair. Keeping them safe from harm. Being a good-enough father. His blessing, and his curse.

He was still using cocaine. No less frequently, but in smaller quantities, with less intensity. Much of the time he was able to keep clear of it, but every now and again his cravings got the better of him. Anything might trigger the urge to consume cocaine, if he read an news story about it, or had a deadline to meet, or if he was listening to a particular album, if the sun was shining or he was feeling down in the dumps, then he would scrape together the funds to satisfy the urge. Cashback from his supermarket trips. Borrowing from money set aside for his university fees. Raiding the children’s piggy-banks. All paid back later, as if nothing had happened. He knew he had a problem, but knowing he had a problem still wasn’t enough to make him stop, not when he was still able to fulfil his paternal duties with a mind fuzzed by the drug, if the house was kept clean, his research done.

At times he could be unnecessarily cruel to his children. Once he made his eldest walk all the way home from nursery in tears for scooting too far ahead and not stopping when he commanded it. In the aftermath of those moments, he felt a raw shame, like a naked flame upon his face. Then he held them, clung to them, told them that he was sorry, that he loved them. At night he stood over them in the darkness of their room while they slept and felt stricken by love, by grief at the inevitability of their growing old, those two small boys with their blonde hair and blue eyes and raspy voices, made in his own image, his short-tempered, melancholic, over-exuberant, drunk, drugged, indifferent, perpetually inconsistent self, the self he was always at war with.

The Rottweiler

It was a damp day in late winter, or early spring, when he set off on one of his customary mid-week, mid-morning runs, out from his front door, up the street into his local park, and several times round the elliptical path which circled the under-used cricket pitch, a path measuring approximately five hundred meters, so that by completing two laps he knew he had run approximately one kilometre, and in this way could relatively accurately measure the distance travelled without recourse to a runners app, another contemptible crutch of the terminally networked, his phone’s memory being scarcely large enough for the thousands of photos and videos of his children which he was loath to transfer or upload to the cloud, seeing as he liked to scroll back through them on almost a daily basis, not that he was living in the past but as a reminder himself how quickly his children had grown, and once they were off his phone and onto his laptop they would rarely be looked at, or might end up being inadvertently deleted, and what was it Roland Barthes had said about photography, the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially, and yet if someone took his photograph at that moment he was repeating precisely what he had already repeated multiple times, running around the elliptical path in his park yet again, padding along over the patchy tarmac, admittedly a routine subject to different temporal and spatial configurations, certain variants which might impede or improve his performance – the season, climate, wind speed, his fitness, fatigue, hydration, hayfever, asthma, niggling injuries, degree of commitment – that could be said to be make each instance existentially unique, but it was still him undertaking the same process, his weekly routine, his workout regimen, loping the same laps around the park, anything between ten and twenty times around, five to ten kilometres, followed by pull ups, press ups, tricep curls, abdominal crunches, burpees, this on a good day, of course, when he was in fine fettle, what was it Murakami said he thought about when he thought about running, exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life - and for me, for writing as well, although now it seemed that everyone was writing about running, or walking, or climbing, or wild swimming, communing with the natural world in some way, while urban parks were what passed for the natural world for city dwellers, with their commonplace trees and bug hotels and nature reserves, this was as close as it got for many to the great outdoors, besides today was not one of those days, today he would run as many laps as he could possibly bear, the first six always being the worst, his body resisting its own impulse to exertion, before yielding to to kinesis, then home to write or work on his doctoral thesis, which he should really be doing on a day like today, a day damp and wet and cold, the café half empty, the playground silenced, the tennis courts abandoned, a few straggling dogwalkers toughing out the faint scrim of drizzle and one or two young parents with swaddled toddlers on trikes, and him, loping around the park, forcing himself to do another lap, delaying the inevitable rendezvous with his desk, when he started off on lap fourteen or fifteen, a small group of dog walkers had gathered for a confab on the path, forming a small crowd near the large sessile oak, and as he made to pass them, running on a slithery patch of mud beside the path, eyes down, watching where he was putting his feet, his mind still marginally preoccupied with the theoretical propositions of the chapter he was working on, Hegelian phenomenology and Buberan otherness, a large dog, a rottweiler, broke away from the group and leapt up and bit the underside of his left arm, in between his shoulder and his elbow, pinching the sagging muscle of his tricep between its canines, hanging there for a split-second, until its owner, a silver-haired man in a sky blue ski-jacket, a regular walker in the park, who looked a little like his father-in-law, called out No! and Down! and pulled hard on the rottweiler’s lead, a long blue corded rope, whereupon the dog released his arm and dropped down onto its front paws, where it stood panting, You startled her, the owner said and not wanting to remonstrate with the owner of a dog whose blood might be up, and not wanting to risk continuing his run in case the dog made another attempt at biting him, he continued his run and returned home to inspect the damage, examining his arm in the bathroom before the steam fogged the mirror, the unbroken skin of his arm purpling where the rottweiler’s jaws had applied their momentary pressure, the first intimations of the bruise that had deepened and then yellowed when he next saw the silver-haired man in the park, on a warmer Sunday afternoon when he was taking his eldest son, then aged four, to the playground, and he approached the silver-haired man and spoke to him, indicating his arm and pointing at the dog, She really caught me, you know?, thinking that the presence of his son might give the man pause, but the man said nothing, either he didn’t recognise him or couldn’t remember or didn’t care, either way he said nothing, stood stock still, holding the blue rope lead at the end of which was the rottweiler, unmuzzled, licking its nose and sniffing the delicate sunlight, they stood there for a moment, at a short distance, the rottweiler between them, before he turned and walked with his son to the playground, entering through the gate and locking it shut behind them, where he pushed his son on the swings for a half hour or so, until he was certain the silver-haired man and the rottweiler were gone.

The Stag Beetle

He was taking his son to nursery one morning, when something heavy fell from the sky and landed on his foot. At first, he thought it was a stone, or a pine cone. Then he looked again. It was an large chestnut-coloured insect with long, antler-like mandibles.

A stag beetle. The first time he had seen one. As a child, he had been fascinated by the fearsome-looking thing, and its distant cousin, the poo-rolling dung beetle. Unchanged for millions of years in evolutionary terms, the insects spent years feeding underground as larvae before pupating and emerging for a few weeks in the early summer to find a mate. Much like their deer namesake, the large antlers of the males were used for fighting with other males over food, mating rights and territory, and could give unsuspecting or cavalier humans a nasty pinch.

As a child he’d hoped he might see one on the playing fields at school, or in the woodland near his grandparent’s house, though of course he never did. Back then they were rare enough. Now they were an endangered species. Protected. Dwindling. Apparently doomed.

Which was why he was surprised at the beetle’s robust solidity as it bounced off his foot. Presumably a bird had dropped it mid-flight, to crack its armour before feasting on its interior. Or else it had flown there of its own accord, landing clumsily on its descent, a not uncommon problem, he later learned, due to its erratic and ungainly flight behaviour.

Using a stick, he carefully lifted it from the pavement onto a brick wall so that his eldest son could get a closer look. As they were watching it, other people stopped to look as well. It felt like a scene from a Shirley Hughes book.

His parents had dubbed him beetle when he was a baby. Something about the way his arms and legs moved excitedly when he was on his back, having his nappy changed. Perhaps he scuttled around like one when he became mobile. Due to his hypermobility, his eldest son had been a reluctant crawler, and didn’t start walking until he was almost two. In his early attempts to crawl, with his drool and lumpen posterior, his eldest son resembled less of a beetle and more of a slug.

The stag beetle was still. Worryingly still. Such was the beetle’s stillness, he was concerned it had been stunned in the fall, or else it was fagged out from all the excitement, playing dead, or actually defunct. After a while the beetle began to stir and, as though remembering it had to be somewhere else, crawled to the edge of the wall and flopped onto the flowerbed, where it disappeared.

Disappointed, they set off for nursery once more . As they continued up the road, he realised he had failed to take a photograph of the beetle. No matter. He assumed that his son would remember the day the beetle fell from the sky. That he would recall being with his father, and that his father knew what to do. That he might think the moment remarkable.

Small moments. Small matters.

Years later, they were eating dinner as a family when he remembered the stag beetle that fell from the sky. He asked his son if he remembered seeing it, and his son stared at him doubtfully, and shook his head. Given their endangered status, it was very possible that he wouldn’t see a stag beetle again. There was much from their time in London his son had already forgotten, so much so, that he now wondered what remained.

The Tooth

His wife was away seeing friends in Scotland, and he had been left to fend for himself, and his two boys. She had left him without instruction, apart from Take care. On the Saturday morning, he decided to chance a storytelling session at the local bookshop. It was something he had wanted to do for some time but had never managed to as something always seemed to prevent him going, usually him being too hungover, but with no other plans for the weekend and being sober of mind and able of body, he resolved that today was the day. That morning he rose, breakfasted, and fed and dressed his children without incident. When it came time to leave, he manoeuvred the unwieldy and barely-roadworthy Bugaboo containing his six-month-old through the front door. Once outside his three-year-old perched on the buggy board, and he pushed them, like a labourer wheeling a laden barrow, in the direction of the high street.

It was not-quite-spring, with a heavy frost on the ground, so he considered taking a short cut through the park at the end of their road, to allow his eldest to crunch through the ice furred grass and crisply crumpled leaves. They had set off early, so he was confident they would make it on time. As they approached the playground, deserted at that early hour, his son chirruped that he wanted to go in. Reluctantly he relented, after first checking the time on his phone, and cautioning his son, But only for a little while.

With his youngest already fast asleep in the pushchair, they entered the playground. Frost as thick as snow lay on the ground, and as he had neglected to bring a towel with him to wipe down the equipment, his son’s choices were relatively limited. He told his son to Take care as he trotted towards the infant’s climbing frame, which with its rope bridge and small slide was his favoured apparatus in the playground, him being too small for the imposing timber-framed fort.

Labouring in his winter coat and thick trousers and disposable nappy, his son carefully negotiated the short flight of metal steps up to the raised walkway. Then, holding the green safety bar, he turned to look at his father and started laughing and bouncing up and down vigorously on the walkway, until he suddenly slipped and dashed his teeth against the metal bar. They looked at one another for a second to establish what had happened, his son open-mouthed and frowning in shock and pain, and him no doubt mirroring his son’s look, when he realised that there was now a gap instead of his neatly arranged front teeth. At which point his son started crying, and he moved quickly to comfort him.

One of son’s teeth was partly missing. He hadn’t knocked the entire tooth out, but cracked it diagonally from left to right, leaving him with a short, sharp fang in place of an incisor’s bevelled square. He now had a supplementary canine, and in entirely the wrong place.

He hadn’t noticed the patch of ice, formed when a small puddle had frozen, in between the metal bars of the walkway. His son had been jumping in that precise spot when he slipped. There was what appeared to be a triangular piece of tooth on the rubberised matting below. He picked it up and pocketed it.

He managed to calm his son and stop the bleeding. He considered calling his wife, but decided to resolve the issue himself, and phoned the local dental surgery. The receptionist found him an appointment. The dental surgery was on the upper floor above a book-makers in his old postcode. It took them half an hour on foot to get there, during which time his son’s discomfort had subsided. When they arrived, he left his youngest son, still asleep, in his buggy in the cramped vestibule inside the entrance and carried his eldest son up the steep flight of stairs to the reception. After a short wait, the dentist’s assistant called his son’s name, and they went in.

As the dentist looked at his son’s mouth, he showed him the shard of broken tooth. Sitting in the palm in his hand, it resembled a small fragment of grit. The more he looked at it, the less certain he became that it was in fact his son’s tooth.

Can we reattach it? he asked. The dentist shook his head. I’m afraid not. The assistant took the fragment from him.

As he was checking his son’s mouth, the dentist noticed something else. He’s actually got a hole in one of his other teeth.

He peered into his son’s mouth. There was a brown stain on one of his molars.

Christ, he muttered. Well, he does like apples.

Does he brush his teeth?

Of course.

When? How often?

Twice a day. After breakfast and before bed.

Does he do it, or do you do it for him?

Bit of both.

Do you want me to fill it?

Probably ought to. Will he have to have an injection?

I’ll do it without an injection. If I’m quick, he won’t even notice.

The dentist donned the dreaded mask while his assistant prepared the filling cement. Taking his drill, he applied it to his son’s molar for a nanosecond and quickly plugged the tiny hole. Next, the dentist carefully fashioned a minuscule crown for the incisor, as if putting the final touches to a waxwork of a princeling.

His son sat remarkably still throughout and made barely a sound. When he was finished, the dentist turned to him and lowered his mask.

We’re all done. Don’t let him eat anything for a couple of hours until the cement goes off. I’m not sure if the crown will last if I’m honest. He might need to have the whole thing taken out.

The crown lasted less than forty-eight hours. When his wife collected their son from nursery on the Monday, she noticed that it was missing. She asked their son what happened to it, he said he felt it come loose when he was eating his lunch. He thought it was a crumb of food, So I swallowed it.

He returned to the dental surgery a few days later. Inspecting his son’s mouth again, the dentist ran his finger over the area where the broken tooth gum, and his son jerked in the chair and began to cry.

Sorry, young man, said the dentist, patting his son’s leg. Then to him: As I suspected. It looks like the root has been exposed. This is a problem. The dentist was concerned that the exposed root would die, and affect the adult tooth growing above it.

As I see it, we have two options, said the dentist. Remove the entire tooth, which he’d need to go to hospital for. Or drill out the nerve and fill it.

Can we do that?

Yes. But it will be painful, so I’ll need to numb his mouth.

Let’s give it a try. Fingers crossed it won’t be too painful.

He watched as the dentist took a large needle from his instrument table and applied it to his son’s gum. A large bubble of anaesthetic formed above his son’s broken tooth. His son began crying again, huge tears that rolled off his cheeks and splashed onto his jumper.

Now we just need to wait for the anaesthetic to take affect, said the dentist, stating the obvious.

When they returned to the waiting room, he placed his son in the chair and stood to one side to keep out of the dentist’s way. He folded his arms, then realised that looked too stern, too unsympathetic, so he put his hands in his pockets instead. As soon as he was back in the chair his son became very upset and started to cry hysterically. After tentatively insinuating his drill against his son’s tooth, the dentist stopped and switched the drill off.

I don’t think it’s going to work, he said, shaking his head. The root is too small and I don’t want to damage the gum. Or cause your boy unnecessary distress. I think the best thing to do is refer your son for a tooth extraction.

A fortnight later he took his son to his appointment at St Thomas’ hospital. They watched CBeebies in the waiting room until his name was called. He was incredibly nervous, but his son was calm, distracted by the familiar antics of the Twirlywoos, unconsciously rotating his feet as he studied the screen.

They were led through to the operating theatre by a nurse, and he was introduced to the dental surgeon and anaesthetist. The anaesthetist had an accent that he couldn’t place. Middle eastern. He seemed very interested in his son’s gait.

Could you walk your son to the corridor for me? The anaesthetist asked. Your son has problems with his feet?

He has hypermobility. In his hips and ankles. Since he was a baby. Used to be able to get his ankles behind his ears.

This is his feet I’m talking about. He shouldn’t be walking like that. My son was exactly the same. Have you taken him to see a doctor about it?

He’s been seen by the paediatrician. In Lewisham.

Make sure they do something about it. Don’t let them fob you off. Its important.

Yes of course.

They lay his son on a bed in the operating room. The anaesthetist spoke to his son in a soft voice, gently explaining what was going to happen, and showed him the mask for administering the anaesthetic. Then he placed it over his son’s face, passing the elasticated band over his head. The anaesthetist handed him the oval pump and said, You’ll need to do this. Pump gently until I say stop.

He perched next to his son on the bed and held his hand. He slowly pumped the anaesthetic into his son’s central nervous system, watched his eyes grow drowsy and began to close, his head slump against his shoulder and, as if in a last-ditch attempt at fight-or-flight, his legs softly thrash against the bed. Then he went completely still.

You can go now, said the anaesthetist. We’ll call you when he comes round.

He returned to the waiting area. ZingZillas was on the TV, the episode with special guests Dan and Justin Hawkins of the The Darkness. He marvelled for a moment at the incongruity, before reasoning that their cartoonish personas and glam-rock riffs were a near-perfect addition to the hyperactive musical show. It must have been an old episode, he thought, because the elder Hawkins hadn’t fixed his teeth yet. Or had a hair transplant. Or morphed into the heavily-inked younger sibling of Johnny Depp.

He googled Justin Hawkins Darkness on his phone and scrolled through the photographs for a while. Hawkins had submitted to the contemporary vogue for whitening teeth beyond their natural colour, to the point of being unnaturally blemish-free. Even his son’s teeth newly-cut hadn’t been that white. The cosmetic alterations were not without precedent: teeth had long been treated as markers of wealth and societal status. It was only very recently in human history that teeth might be expected to remain for the duration of an individual’s lifetime. Indented teeth sometimes outlasted bone, such was their strength.

He thought of the little envelope of his own milk teeth in his desk drawer at his parent’s. Mostly molars, including one almost entirely decayed. By this time the true identity of the tooth fairy had long been revealed. The handful of teeth pulled out when he was eight, to make room in his crowded mouth. The only time he was given a general anaesthetic. Dazed and disconcerted, he wept when he woke. His mother was ready with a tissue. Back home, he tried to look at the ragged holes in the back of his mouth in the mirror, running his tongue over the raw and bloody gaps where his teeth once were. The next morning there was blood on his bed sheet. His gums had bled as he slept, like a Freudian dream made real.

Other teeth yanked out with local anaesthetic and brute force. A few teeth, mercifully few, drilled and filled. He had his father’s teeth, large and strong. His mother was snaggle-toothed, her mouth seventy per cent mercury. While living in London he had an impacted wisdom tooth removed at King’s hospital. They gave him a barbiturate and wrenched it from his gums, then set him loose on the streets of Denmark Hill. Wired and slurring in the recovery room like a somnolent ketamine casualty. His wife, then-girlfriend, helped him home. He returned to work the next day, gargling with salt water to stave off infection, but his mouth mourned the lost molar. There was a hole in his gum for almost a month.

The nurse appeared, smiling. Your son is awake now. Would you like to follow me?

The nurse led him to the recovery room. His son was sitting up, blinking. As he drew nearer, he could see that the tooth was completely gone. It was like a ragged hole had been punched into his face. Something he had done. He stroked his son’s fair hair. The nurse handed him a small square envelope containing the broken tooth, which he slipped into his pocket like a till receipt.

He carried his son through to the waiting area and sat down with the boy on his knee. On CBeebies, the programme had now switched to Chuggington. Absurd, interminable Chuggington, with its moronic theme tune, idiotic characters and barely-credible animation. His son asked if he could sit in his own chair and slid off his knee. They sat that way, side-by-side in silence, for a little while longer, his son watching the TV, him trying not to. When he could no longer stand being there, he collected up their things and took the boy home to his mother.

The Appraisal

 

i.

Given his size, it was fortunate that the birth of his second son was not more traumatic. Judging by his wife’s pregnancy bump, he was a large baby, and already long-overdue. Having originally planned for a home birth, the due date came and went, before faded into the near-distance. A fortnight later, his reluctant wife was compelled to book her induction appointment at the local hospital.

She was instructed to arrive at the hospital late in the evening. When they arrived together, she was given a bed on the maternity ward, hooked up to a monitor and told to wait. They waited together in the dim sodium glare of the ward for some time, her reading a book, him writing a paper for an academic conference, listening by the sound of their son’s heartbeat, and trying to ignore the quasi-orgasmic noises of a Polish girl’s protracted contractions in the next bed. Eventually he had to leave and went home alone on the 185.

After a near-sleepless night, during which his wife was monitored and prodded by the ward nurses, she was induced the next morning. He was at home, looking after their eldest son, when she texted to tell him her contractions had started. After leaving their boy with the childminder, he returned to the hospital. A difficult, discomforting labour followed. For his wife, this was on account of her cervix not dilating enough; for him, it was due to a male trainee midwife silently observing his wife’s evident agony.

As with the first time his wife gave birth, he felt utterly helpless, useless, incapable of easing her pain or offering any meaningful words of comfort. His wife was determined to give birth naturally, as she had done with their first son. Her body had other ideas. Several times the midwife offered her an epidural or a c-section. She refused, at one point pulling out the epidural needle before the doctor could insert the line.

Sometime in the early afternoon, with his fatigued wife at the point of exhaustion and his son’s heartbeat fading, another team of nurses and doctors bustled into the room. It had been decided that they would deliver of his son by ventouse, using a suction cup applied to his head and what resembled a length of washing line to pull him out. The stocky midwife charged with using the ventouse looked like she was engaged in a tug-of-war contest. Slowly but surely his son emerged, purple and bloody. Once clear of his by now deathly pale mother, the boy was weighed and placed in a small crib where he lay, sagely and snugly, looking for all the world like he might be about to fall asleep. All ten pounds ten ounces of him. Even in those first moments, his had an aura altogether different to that of his sibling. Already he could tell the boy would be trouble.

Miraculously, the midwife found his wife and son a private room on the over-crowded maternity ward. That evening, while he was at home, the obstetrician diagnosed jaundice in his new son, and as a precautionary measure determined that they should remain in hospital for the next week. The next day, he brought his oldest son to the hospital, who tottered happily towards his absent mother, and met his new brother with puzzlement and be-furrowed brow.

 

ii.

The year earlier he had found a new job, at a charitable organisation with ties to the property industry. His initial impulse, which had been to quit the industry for good, had been superseded by his inability to find work in a different sector, and the urgent need to continue earning money.

His morning routine and commute into the city remained much the same, for the charitable organisation’s offices were in the same building as the lobbying body. In fact, they were literally around the corner. Upon exiting the lifts on his floor, instead of turning left to enter the offices of his former employer, he turned right to enter the offices of his new employer. The job he had taken was less a sideways move, more a crossing of the floor. He was also learning less, a lot less, than before.

A chance conversation with the charity’s chief executive, a perky, pony-tailed woman a few years older than him, had revealed that there was a role available for him, should he want it. We’re looking for someone full time, she explained. I know you’re doing a PhD, but I think we both know that won’t really lead to anything. He hoped she was joking.

He had met the chief executive several times in the communal spaces of their shared offices. She liked to pepper her speech with light management jargon, while letting it be known that there were many demands upon her time, and giving the impression that she thrived in the face of adversity. She was very different to the chief executive at his last organisation. Dynamic. Proactive. Inclusive. He liked her and thought he would enjoy working for her.

A couple of days after being informally offered the job, the chief executive called him into a meeting, where informed him that after canvassing the opinion of his formal employer about his suitability for the role, as an informal reference, the job offer had to be temporarily withdrawn pending a formal interview. The next day, he was formally interviewed for the role, by the chief executive and the deputy chief executive, where he was asked, pointedly, if he had ever found himself in an argument with a senior member of the industry, a hugely influential individual with a high net worth, and if he thought that might make him unsuitable for the position, to which he could only repeat a by-now often spoken lie. I’ve learnt my lesson.

The next day he was offered the job. By accepting it, he had effectively deposed the communications manager already in position, a man who tied his sweater around his shoulders without any noticeable degree of sartorial irony, and who was unable to commit to the additional hours because of his childcare responsibilities. This, it appeared, caused some upset among his future colleagues. We’re sorry to see him go, he’s been an absolute diamond, said one. Another disgruntled former team member, who had confessed her dislike of the chief executive, called him traitor the next time they met.

During his handover period, he and the incumbent met for an awkward lunch at a Japanese-styled cafe on Piccadilly, where his future self warned him, between slurps of ramen, that managing upwards effectively would be vital for the sake of his sanity. At his leaving drinks, one of his work buddies said to him, privately, Are you sure you want to do this - I mean, you do realise she is an absolute nightmare, don’t you? He shrugged and laughed it off.

He didn’t have to wait long for either theory to be tested. In his first week, the chief executive, who thrived in the face of adversity, announced that it was her intention to re-brand the organisation, redesign and relaunch the website and newsletter, and undertake a review of their communications strategy. Responsibility for project managing these three strands would lie with him, but final approval on the next steps would come from herself. Moreover, the entire team should be consulted throughout.

He was introduced to the PR firm who provided pro bono support for the charity, and was grilled at length by their account director, a former property journalist. The director was a generally avuncular and occasionally truculent character, with a good nose for sniffing out bullshit. Amusingly, he had the measure of the charity’s chief executive, who had revealed herself to be unfocused, digressive and all-too-flappable. The director was also utterly unhelpful whenever urgent assistance was required, which was most of the time in those first few months, and he came to dread the director’s terse, single line responses to his detailed emails pinging into his inbox, each of which implied, though without making it explicit, that he was out of his depth and doing a terrible job.

From time to time the charity’s president, the chief executive of a property development company, a man who could usually be relied upon to make inappropriate comments during his speech at their events, would call the office switchboard and, whenever he answered, ask who he was speaking to, and no matter how many times he reminded him, he persisted in getting his name wrong, calling him Alan or Alistair or Ian. The first time they met after he started the role, he introduced himself to the president, who looked vaguely at him before turning to the chief executive and asking, What happened to the other guy?

He struggled through that first year, being a little sheepish with his former colleagues, a little awkward with his new ones, balancing the competing demands of being a parent again, earning less money than before, and having less disposable income, with his wife on maternity leave and their eldest in full time childcare. His workload was insurmountable and the demands on his time relentless. He’d had a degree of autonomy at his last employer, here everyone was invited to critique his work.

The dynamics of office life had also completely changed: his team in his last office was almost all men, and now he was the sole male in an organisation of just ten employees. Most of the team were cramped into a tiny office space, and he was sat next to the chief executive. There was nowhere to hide. Team meetings on Monday mornings almost always overran, and he would listen with growing frustration while any number of unfocused ideas with were discussed, criticised and quibbled over. If he ventured an alternative view, it was usually discounted.

Frequently he felt excluded, sometimes marginalised, and he began to understand how it must feel to be the only woman in a male-dominated office. Or career-minded women in general, eager to get ahead but impeded by obstructive and destructive men. Though he had an inkling, he could never truly know what that would have been like. To be paid substantially less than his male counterparts, to be overlooked for promotions or pay rises, to be leered over or sneered at. He did learn, to his cost, that what had previously passed as banter in a male-dominated team was no longer acceptable in this new working environment. When his gestures towards commonality with his colleagues fell flat, and after a couple of instances of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time, he regressed to the selective mutism of his adolescence. It was better to say nothing, he felt, than say something that might invite ridicule or reprimand.

 

iii.

Midway through his second year the chief executive announced she was leaving the organisation. Always fiercely ambitious, having raised the profile of the charity and expanded the team, she was now ready for the next chapter in her career. She was, understandably, very excited about starting her new role, without considering the team and organisation she had re-made in her image.

Around that time, he also learned that the incumbent chair of the charity was stepping down, and the new chair would be the chief executive of his former employer.

Before she left, the chief executive announced that she would be conducting a final round of appraisals. He had been dreading his, which would be his second at the organisation. His first appraisal been conducted during the honeymoon period of his employment, a relatively tranquil time by comparison with the previous six months, where he had been unable to engage in dialogue with his chief executive without it descending into a protracted discussion, then a heated debate, followed by an executive decision, which usually settled the matter. The new website had been the source of much conjecture, including one particularly ridiculous argument in the communal kitchen about the relative difference between editing out and editing down content, after the chief executive had swamped the site with paragraphs of impregnable text. Back at his desk, he received an email from one of his former colleagues: What is the difference between editing out and editing down?

The day of his appraisal arrived, and he sat down in a small conference room with the chief executive. She announced that she was restructuring the team before her departure. Certain responsibilities he once held would now lie with one of his junior colleagues, who had been promoted. He would no longer report directly to the chief executive, but to another colleague who had been promoted internally. Having been promised autonomy at the start of his time with the organisation, it had now been officially withdrawn. This, he was informed during his second appraisal, was due to his attitude problem.

I think we need to talk about this, for the sake of your time here, however long that might be, and for the sake of any plans you might have career-wise, but more importantly, most importantly I’d say, because of how your behaviour affects the entire the team. Because, and I hate to say it, there is a feeling in the team that your behaviour has become a problem. It’s not just me saying this, I’ve had several conversations with others who say that you are unapproachable, unhelpful. That you don’t engage. That you are grumpy. Some things you may already be aware of, but there are others that you won’t. We are a positive organisation, with a positive team, making positive changes to people’s lives. Everyone in this organisation wants to be a part of that. Everyone, but you it seems. Because you are always miserable.

L—- and I were talking before, and she said she knows someone who is in his late sixties, and he is just such a miserable man, never happy, never has been, never will be, and she said, imagine being that person, imagine working with him or being married to him, or having him as a father, and no one ever took him to one side and told them that they need to stop being miserable all the time, and let him be that way all his life. Well, that’s what I’m doing now. I’m telling you.

She continued, but he was no longer listening. It was obvious he had made a terrible mistake in accepting the job, and that the chief executive had made a terrible mistake in offering it to him in the first place. By accepting the role, he had hoped to prove his capability as a professional individual outside the restrictive confines of his old office, but had simply proved that he was congenitally incapable of functioning like a normal person, and that his behaviour at the charity was emblematic of how he dealt with people more generally. He had been given an opportunity to prove himself, and he had failed.

That night, after his appraisal, he went home and begged his wife to let him resign. She calmed him down, and suggested he wait until the new chief executive was in position. Things may change then. Things could only get better. He was not so sure.

A week later he saw a photograph of the preferred candidate for the role. The picture showed a middle-aged man of average build, vaguely athletic, with thinning blonde hair and square glasses. A man who was, physically at least, his exact mirror image. His doppelgänger. His second self. His alternate. His uncanny Other.

The next day he handed in his notice.

At their first team meeting after his appointment, the new chief executive insisting on standing throughout, an unintended consequence of which was that the entire team’s eye-line rested upon the same zone of elevation as his crotch.

 

iv.

On the Friday of his last week, as was customary he was checking a trade publication for mentions of the charity’s work. The organisation had been referenced in an op-ed piece extolling the virtues of doing charitable work as a way for the property industry to beat the January blues. The tone of the article, by a senior property fund manager, was largely innocuous, but there was something about the self-interest at the heart of her sentiments that prompted him to pick up his phone and type a response. He then sent it to the publication’s editor, which she said she would publish in the next week’s edition.

A few months earlier he had attempted, unsuccessfully, to deflect the inquiries of a STV journalist who was doing a report on homelessness. The reporter wanted to know if he was aware of landlords and property management companies putting anti-homeless spikes in the entrances to their buildings.

I’ve been looking at your website and I saw some of these companies are listed as your foundation partners, the reporter said. So your charity claims to be supporting homeless and disadvantaged people, but some of your donors are using measures that deliberately prevent rough sleepers from finding shelter and warmth. I just wondered if you had a comment about that?

It was impossible to give the appropriate comment to something so fundamentally inhumane without speaking the truth and losing his job.

He wanted to make a public statement that would shame the industry and rattle the foundations of its complacency. Make them see how their actions, conscious or unconscious, fuelled homelessness. How their regeneration projects were pushing lower income families out of London. How fundraising for the Conservative Party by the charity’s own president had brought about the austerity policies which were causing child poverty to spiral. How all their charity runs and bake sales and sponsorship drives wouldn’t make a scrap of difference. How they weren’t doing enough, how they could never do enough, until they stopped chasing profit and started putting people first. How he was sick to death of working to make the industry look good. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. He wanted to stand up and be counted, even though he knew he was pissing in the wind.

Thursday came. The day before the magazine’s publication. He began to get cold feet. He could picture the faces of his colleagues when they read the magazine. The incredulity and hurt. It was then that he panicked. That morning he emailed the editor and asked if there was any possibility that his letter could be removed from the magazine. After lunch he received her response. Sorry. Magazine has already gone to print. Anyway, what’s wrong with the letter? We’ve made it our Star Letter of the Week!

He had to break the news to the new chief executive. He knew there was no way to do this without the risk of sparking a conflagration. The man had only just begun his new job, and he was just about to encounter his first major bump in the road, his first patch of scorched earth by a disgruntled former employee.

In the end, he decided to deliver the news using the medium which would best allow the new chief executive to process the information and formulate an appropriate response, and which would enable him to nip out for lunch before the shit hit the fan. He sent him an email.

An hour later, the new chief executive called him into a conference room. The deputy chief executive was also there, her eyes downcast. There was a printout of the letter on the desk.

He sat down. The new chief executive turned to him.

It’s a bit of a FUCK, this letter. I mean, it hasn’t been published anonymously, has it? You’ve clearly got your name on there and it has been attributed to our charity. Which makes it look like it has come from us, it’s what we think, what we feel, as a charity. And a lot of people will be questioning why they support us at all. I imagine quite a few of our partners will be pissed off by it. Not to mention the Board.

Without looking up, the deputy chief executive spoke. I agree. There are a lot of people who are going to feel hurt by that letter. It’s wrong.

Okay, the chief executive continued. Here’s what’s we’re going to do. I’ll speak to the PR guys. See if we can fight some of these fires. You are going to go into the office and explain to the rest of team what has happened. What you’ve done. They have a right to know, and I think they should hear it from you.

As they stood up to leave, the chief executive spoke again. A word of advice. Don’t write angry.

The three of them returned to the office where his colleagues were working. Possibly they already knew, but if they did, they gave no sign. The new chief executive said, Hi everyone, we’ve got some news, it’s quite important, and gestured for him to speak with the open palm of his flat hand, as if he had him in the centre of it and was ready to close it into a fist.

He cleared his throat and began to speak. To explain the letter. Why he had written it. As he spoke, he watched each face turn from expectancy to incredulity, disappointment to dismay, and finally, anger and grief.

The Newspaper

If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.

Norman Mailer

i.

The career adviser was a prim, middle-aged woman with a gentle face. Short brown perm and oval glasses. Bony wrists protruding from the cuffs of her navy blazer.

They were sat in her small office to discuss his work experience placement, as was compulsory for all the boys in his year. He was by this time fifteen years old. When she asked him where he would like to go for his work experience placement, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and said he wasn’t sure. She asked him which his favourite lessons were. English and history, he replied after some deliberation. After she pressed him what he wanted to do for a career, he said simply that he wanted to be a writer. Writing is a hobby, she replied, not a career. She suggested that he might want to consider another option, like being a journalist or a librarian or a teacher, as writers rarely made any money through writing alone. Unless he was content to be a penniless writer starving in a garret, which she imagined his parents wouldn’t be too happy about, this might be a more realistic career plan.

Very few would-be writers are published. And of those even fewer make any money from writing. Any of those jobs – journalist, librarian, teacher - might provide a springboard into writing later in life. You need to gain some experience first, I’m afraid, before you can even begin to think about writing a novel. Most importantly, once you have finished your studies, you won’t be able to rest on your laurels. You’ll need to earning right away. Once you are earning, then you can focus on writing in your spare time. No. If I were you, I would choose a career to work towards first, and then start thinking about which A-levels would help get you into your career of choice.

A career in journalism would hone his writing skills, provide him with access to interesting stories and allow a writer’s sensibility to develop. Would he like to try a week’s work experience at a local paper? Having once watched an episode of Press Gang, ITV’s comedy-drama about a newspaper run by teenagers, it looked like lots of fun, so he agreed.

ii.

By the time he was fifteen, he had amassed plenty of work experience from doing his chores at home. Mowing the lawn, washing his parent’s cars, weeding the garden, raking the gravel paths or sweeping out the garage. Sometimes there was a wheelbarrow of sand that needed moving, or some bricks to dress. His father had been keen to instil in his sons the hard work ethic that had been somewhat unsympathetically drilled into him by his own father. Hard work meant self-sacrifice and self-sufficiency. Motivation. Drive. Success.

For most of his peers, their experience of work up to that point was a paper round or delivering the Buy and Sell on their estate. Few that he knew were expected to do chores around the home. They found it bizarre that he did.

Then there was the local market, a small encampment dating back to Elizabethan times which pitched up on the town’s common land every Thursday. After school a troop of green blazers would march, or straggle, down to the stalls to do a couple of hours packing up in exchange for a couple of quid being pressed into their palm. A rite of passage for most of the town’s teenage inhabitants.

In the summer that he turned fourteen he had found work at a fabric stall, helping a taciturn trader called David lug boxes of bed linen into the back of his battered, old Transit. Being a slight and still-small fourteen-year-old, he was ill-suited to the heavy lifting the market required, but the trader tolerated his efforts. The trader was probably in his late twenties or thirties. One of the youngest. Quiet. A lurker. Most of the older guys, the spielers and pitchers, had been kicking around for decades. They remembered the market in its post-war heyday. Long before Safeway arrived and started to suck the life blood out of it.

iii.

Work experience had long been compulsory for boys in the fifth year at his school, helping to preserve the distinction between academic, or intellectual, work, and real work, the kind that earned real money. Going to an all boys school, where one was but one among several hundred future paterfamilias, real work entailed rolling up one’s sleeves and committing oneself to a lifetime of hard and meaningful graft.

For many in his year a lifetime of employment, gainful or otherwise, was already just around the corner. A few of the older lads in his year had effectively ditched school to start working. Ironically, many of them had been among the most disruptive, unruly and disinterested students in the school. With their nascent beards and defiled uniforms and total disregard for the school’s rules, they had made the leap from adolescence into adulthood a long time ago. It was the diligent ones, the dreamers, the permanent students, the ones who might have ideas above their station, for whom the work experience programme was truly intended.

Each boy had been encouraged to select a profession or trade which at best inspired them, or else interested them, or which they would doubtless fall into once they left school. Here the social stratification of his peers became clear. The boys from the council houses and rougher parts of town spent a week scuffing around car repair workshops, construction companies, builders’ merchants, leisure centres, supermarkets, warehouses and the local ERF factory. Most of the middle-class kids spent a week with a local solicitor, at the local council offices, the law courts, at the offices of a blue-chip company on the town’s perimeter, or with one of its many estate agencies. An unfortunate few spent the week shadowing their father or another relative, knowing they were almost certain to follow in their footsteps.

He resisted that. It would be easy to follow his father into the building trade, at the firm his grandfather established. Like him, his father had resisted it but had been compelled by his own mother to take over the business due to his father’s ill-health. Running a business was rewarding, particularly financially, but profoundly stressful if it wasn’t successful. Lacking business acumen of any kind, he wasn’t sure if he would succeed in the building trade. In truth, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to work for his father either. But in terms of a career, this was the path which most clearly presented itself.

Generally, he preferred mundane tasks that required little concentration, which allowed his mind to wander, to ponder the many distractions of youth. Once with his mother he spent a couple of hours at his father’s office, sat on the scratchy carpet tiles on the cold floor, folding timesheets and slipping them into the slim envelopes that his employees would complete that week. Years later, once gainfully employed, he found a similar zen-like meditativeness folding letters and stuffing envelopes.

It wasn’t that he was averse to hard work. Outside of his chores, when he was eleven his parents bought the house that would become their home for much of his adolescence. That year, while his friends were off riding their bikes or playing football in the park, he spent most weekends with his family, pulling up floorboards and demolishing internal walls, before gathering together to eat their packed lunch on camping chairs in rooms thick with plaster dust.

If there was a pallet of bricks that needed dressing or a wheelbarrow of sand that needed pushing, he could usually be called upon to do it. On one weekend he might be helping his father to build a stone wall to line their driveway, selecting the stones and pushing them into position as his father laid the mortar. On another, he could be up a step ladder with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge, helping his mother strip wallpaper.

Helping his parents. Building a relationship. Being deferential.

iv.

At fifteen years of age he was still painfully green, the gauche and inhibited product of puberty and a single sex school. Too shy to speak to girls and certainly too shy to pick up the phone and harass a councillor about bin collections or vandalism in the local park. The thought of going into the offices of a newspaper and having to do these things was terrifying.

On the eve of his placement he slept poorly. He drew open the curtains of his bedroom to reveal a clammy mid-November Monday. It was his mother who took him in. The traffic, as usual, was appalling, and he was worried that he was going to be late. She dropped him outside the newspaper’s offices, wished him good luck, and merged back into the flow of traffic.

He rang the doorbell and was admitted by a middle-aged woman with a blonde shampoo and set, whom he took to be the receptionist and editor’s assistant. Once inside he could hear the persistent ringing of a telephone. She asked him to take a seat in the hallway and wait while she answered the phone. He sat quietly and smoothed his tie, a green affair with golfing elves on it. He was probably overdressed but had thought it better to wear a tie than look too casual. Somewhere behind him, he heard the low murmur of voices. Further off, the dim echo of another conversation in full flow, but, curiously, little suggestion of any work being done. He had anticipated hearing the staccato, almost Reichian rhythm of keys being pummelled, and instead there was near-silence.

The assistant returned. She ushered him into the editor’s office, a small room lined with overflowing shelves. In the centre of the room was a similarly cluttered desk. Behind it sat the editor, a youngish looking man who might be in his mid-twenties, barely out of university. He noticed that the editor was wearing a shirt and tie and felt reassured.

The editor shook his hand and invited him to take a seat. His assistant loitered in the doorway. Adjusting his glasses and leaning forward over the desk with his hands clasped in front of him, with fingers interlaced so they could be splayed for effect, the editor gave a short account of the newspaper’s history, its circulation, the role it played as a champion of local causes and campaigns, before moving on to the importance of accurate and impartial journalism. His father had edited the newspaper for many years and upon his retirement handed over the reins to his son. Just as the editor hit his verbal stride, his phone rang. I’m sorry, I’ll have to take this, he said, and upon picking up the receiver gestured for him to leave.

The assistant took him down the hall to meet the news team. Their office was at the back of the building. Deep in the bowels. As he neared the opening, his stomach knotted with trepidation.

He stepped through the opening into a large, cramped room, where he could see five journalists seated at their desks. Three men and two women. Their desks were arranged asymmetrically, randomly, and were flanked by bookshelves packed with files. The walls of the room were barely visible for bookshelves packed with files. Each desk faced one of these walls, with the news editor’s desk to his immediate right, facing the room. There wasn’t a huge amount of work being done. Most were staring at their screens through the steam of a hot beverage or leafing through copies of last week’s paper.

It was a distinctly anticlimactic image. He had expected frenzied typing, phones ringing off the hook, unsmoked cigarettes mouldering in ashtrays, journos screaming obscenities at each other. Here was an eerie quiet, like the morning after some collectively traumatising event that none were remotely ready to confront. A condition he would come to know in later years as Back to Work Blues.

Like the editor, the journalists all appeared to be in their early twenties, save for the news editor, who looked to be in his early forties. He had the harassed countenance of someone who wanted to be somewhere else, someone for whom time was running out. His skin was pallid and pockmarked, the pores of his creased face blighted by decades of bad decisions.

Flashing a smile, the news editor indicated that he was on the phone by gesturing to the plastic appurtenance wedged underneath his chin, so he was shown around the room, passed from reporter to reporter for perfunctory introductions. Each had their own remit, a particular area of focus. Council meetings. Court reports. Planning consultations. Littering.

Eventually the news editor came off the phone, so they were able to be introduced. Hello, I’m Neil. I’m the news editor. He spoke with a soft Welsh lilt. They shook hands. I’m afraid we don’t have a desk, or a computer, for you to use, but you can sit at my desk when I’m not here. Monday’s can be a bit quiet. The newspaper goes to press on a Thursday, so for the moment we’re just collating press releases. Gathering stories. I should have something for you to do by the end of the day. What it might be worth doing for the moment is having a read through some of the past issues. The news editor pointed to a bookshelf containing bound copies of the newspaper. That’ll give you a flavour of the sort of stories we’ve been covering lately. I’ll let you know when you we have something for you to work on. All right?

He spent all of Monday reading old copies of the newspaper, desultorily flicking through a year of Rotary Club jumble sales and announcements by local businesses, planning objections and plucky schoolchildren, with the odd motorway pile up thrown in. There were few of the campaigning stories described by the editor in his speech that morning. Little of the spirit of Upton Sinclair, HL Mencken and Woodward and Bernstein. He returned home more than a little dispirited. He wanted to be a writer. Local journalism seemed more of a distraction than an apprenticeship. An artistic dead-end.

 

v.

The next day, Tuesday, he was dispatched by the news editor to the law courts in the next town with one of the cub reporters, Mark, a beleaguered and paunchy young father who had only qualified as a journalist a couple of years ago. They made the journey in his decrepit, grey Mini Metro, across the backseat of which were scattered the combined detritus of early parenthood and infancy. Crumbs, cassettes, cuddly toys. It took them over an hour to get there due to the traffic, and there was a possibility that they might be late for the first session of the court. This had a particularly adverse effect on what the journalist described as his recent attempts to cut back on the fags. Babysitting the work experience kid probably didn’t help either. By the time they arrived, the journalist had comfortably polished off a ten pack of Benson & Hedges.

They left the car in a nearby multi-storey car park and hurried into the courthouse. It was the first time he had been to the courts and he was looking forward to the experience, if a little worried about encountering any hardened criminals in the toilets. They had arrived in the nick of time for the first session, and after locating the correct courtroom, took their seats at the press table. The journalist unpacked his notebooks and Dictaphone.

Someone approached their table. A badge pinned to the lapel of his suit jacket said court clerk.

The clerk

He’s not allowed in here.

The journalist

I’m sorry?

The clerk

Him. He’s not allowed in here. Why is he in here?

The journalist

He’s with me. We’re from The Chron. He’s on work experience.

The clerk

I don’t care if he’s on the World at One, he’s not allowed in here. Today’s youth court. Young offenders. Him being here is contempt of court. So he can’t be here.

The journalist.

Ah. Right

The clerk

We had another lad on work experience this week shadowing the clerks. We had to tell him to go home.

The journalist

I see.

The clerk

I’m glad you do. You can stay. He’ll have to wait outside.

The journalist

That’s okay. How long do you think it will take? This session?

The clerk

How long’s a piece of string?

As the clerk departed, the journalist looked at him and shrugged.

He went back out into the waiting area and found a seat. Wanting to appear diligent, he hadn’t brought anything with him to read, just his notebook and a pen. He doodled for a little while, wrote some notes, then watched the defendants milling around the room with parents, and in some instances, girlfriends and children. It seemed slightly academic to banish him from the courtroom, as he was just as able to identify the defendants from his position in the lobby. Though of course, now he wouldn’t know what they had been up to.

All were lads from the less affluent parts of the county. The best they could hope for was an assembly-line job at Rolls Royce, if they were lucky, though this seemed unlikely given that they were about to go up in front of the beak.

Most were in possession of a regulation crew cut, complemented by neck chains and earrings. Permanent scowls. Simian-looking. Furtively smoking near the entrance. He recognised the type from his school, but he couldn’t tell if any were from his home town. Lads with limited horizons. Unpromising futures. Billy Caspers. He thought of his friend Joe, whose dad scraped a living on the market, and whose brother had broken his neck diving into the shallows of a local beauty spot that summer. Joe was doing his work experience at his uncle’s garage, but he had zero interest in being a mechanic. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. Smoking weed and going to jungle raves, and that was about it.

Growing bored, he wandered outside. On foot he made a couple of circuits of the courthouse, plodding along the pavement in his school shoes, hands in pockets. He didn’t want to stray too far in case the session ended when he wasn’t there, and the journalist wondered where he was.

Eventually the court came out of session and the journalist emerged from the huge double doors.

Sorry about that, he said. I didn’t realise it was youth court today. Neil might have known. I feel bad as its a bit of a waste of a morning for you. Anyway, we’re all done here now, for the moment, so I’ll take you back to the office.

When he returned to the office the news editor seemed surprised to see him. What are you doing back here? He explained that the youth court was in session, so he hadn’t been allowed in. Never mind, the news editor replied. I ts as well you’ve come back, I’ve got something that wants doing urgently.

The news editor handed him a black and white photograph of three beaming Boy Scouts holding certificates, flanked by two adult Scout Leaders.

We need to get the names of these scouts before we go to press this week, the news editor said. You’ll need to call the scout group. The number is on the back of the photograph. Find out what they have been awarded. Get the names and ages of the scouts, and the names of the two Scout Leaders. Then I’ll let you write it up and send it to the editor.

When he asked why the newspaper’s photographer hadn’t got those details when he went to the event and took the photograph, the news editor replied, He’s the photographer, we’re the journalists. It’s not his job. It’s ours.

The news editor had cleared a small space at the end of his desk, so he now had somewhere to work. While the news editor tersely rattled away at his keyboard, he picked up the phone and phoned the number on the back of the photograph. A female voice answered. The voice was hoarse and wobbly, and sounded as if it belonged to a woman older than his grandparents. Older than the Queen Mother. He noted the names down as she relayed them, taking care to check the spelling, then hung up.

The news editor was out all the next day. At the law courts, Mark explained. He normally comes back from there in a foul mood. While the news editor was out, he was able to type up the picture story about the scouts. This took him almost an hour of labouring over the wording. When he thought he had finished, he left the document open on the computer.

After asking the other journalists if they had anything for him to do, he returned to reading past issues of the paper. He went back several years, hoping he might spot someone he knew in the pages. Someone from school or one of his parent’s friends. Every now and then there was a photograph of someone he recognised, which made him pause and smile, as if he’d spotted a familiar face in a crowd. Occasionally he came across an advertisement for his father’s building firm in the classifieds, and whenever he did, he felt the warmth of filial affection.

It was almost dark by the time the news editor returned. Everyone seemed to duck their head down when he came in. As Mark had foretold, the news editor was in a foul mood. Snippy and tyrannical. He flopped into his chair and immediately began complaining about his day at the courthouse, directing some of his ire in the absent editor’s direction.

When it came time to look at the short paragraph for the picture story he had worked on that morning, the news editor stared at the screen for several seconds without saying anything. Then he began speaking.

Hmm. This looks fairly okay. Sentence construction is largely fine. Nothing that can’t be ironed out. One of the names I’m not sure about though. George Georghingham? Are you absolutely sure that is his surname? Or his full name? George Ingham? Can I have a look at your notes? Pass me your notes, please? Thanks. Okay. Just as an observation. Your handwriting is going to have to get a lot better than this if you’re serious about being a journalist. This is far too sloppy. I mean, is this supposed to be an H or an N? I can’t tell. I doubt anyone else could tell. There’s not really any excuse for handwriting like this. How old are you? Fifteen? Are your teachers okay with you writing like this? They are? Well I wouldn’t be, let me tell you. You’ve also made a lot of crossings out here, which worries me. It really worries me. It makes me wonder if any of the names you’ve written here are the ACTUAL names of the people in the picture. So I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to phone them MYSELF. Because I can’t send it to print like this. Pass me the photograph please.

As he handed him the photograph, the news editor lifted the arm off the receiver and punched the number into the phone. Listening at the news editor’s elbow, he heard the same female voice answer, and the news editor explained that he just wanted to double check the names prior to going to print. The lady on the line obliged, and as she replied to his queries the news editor typed. There seemed to be a lot of corrections. Far more than he expected, and he began to blush with embarrassment. Thanking the lady, the news editor hung up and turned to face him. He began speaking in a raised voice.

Well. What an effing disaster. Did you even check the name of this guy? It’s George Ingham, not Gorgingham, or whatever you wrote. George Georghingham. Ridiculous. Not surprising it was wrong given the state of your notes. When you were on the phone yesterday, I knew you were making a complete hash of it. I didn’t say anything at the time but it’s a good job I checked it, wasn’t it? We’d have got a right bollocking for that. I think that’ll do for now. You can go back to reading the papers.

His fury excised, the news editor turned to his screen and began working on his court report.

v.

He almost didn’t go back the next day, but his father persuaded him he couldn’t not go, after they’d taken the time to make the placement available to him. It would look bad. It might mean someone else doesn’t get to go. He couldn’t not turn up. So he returned sheepishly and determined that he would leave if anything further criticism was directed his way.

As it happened, the news editor was far too busy. Early that morning a substantial fire had broken out at a local leisure centre, and the news editor had spent several hours there with the photographer. With the newspaper going to print later that day, all the journalists were frantically trying to file the last of their stories by lunchtime. When the news editor returned, he was adamant the fire story should be on the front page. The editor refused to halt the presses. Neither was prepared to give ground, but eventually the editor won the day. By way of conciliation, he suggested that the fire story could have a colour front page, next week.

He wondered if local journalism was defined by these little battles over stories which would barely warrant a couple of column inches in a national newspaper. As each day had passed, he had become more sceptical about the profession.

After lunch the careers adviser visited the newspaper offices to see how he was getting on. They sat opposite each other on two plastic chairs in the space underneath the building’s fire escape. I hear you had a bit of an issue this week, she said. News about his bawling out had obviously reached her through, either via the editor or perhaps the news editor. He wondered how it had been reported, as a complaint or an apology. It shows you just how seriously they take their work here. A good learning experience, if nothing else. Other than that, have you enjoyed your week?

There was little he could offer her by way of a response. He shrugged and said he was glad it was almost over.

For the rest of that afternoon, he sat leafing through decade-old copies of the newspaper, while the news editor led a discussion about the hypothetical genital hygiene of several prominent people from the local area. He wondered if that display was for his benefit. He decided not to go back on the Friday.

On returning to school the next week, he found a copy of the paper in the library and flicked through the pages until he found the image of the three smiling scouts, flanked by their two scout leaders, clutching their certificates. He inhaled sharply. His name was on the by-line. He hadn’t expected it, and seeing it now reminded him how phony it was, how little pride he drew from that small endeavour. He stared at the image for a few seconds, holding his breath, as if waiting for something in the picture to reveal itself to him, before closing the pages and tossing it onto a tub chair in the reading area, where it slid onto the floor. Then he walked into the library’s fiction section, looked at the spines of the books waiting patiently on their shelves, and exhaled.

The Iggle Piggle Dance

One of the things he liked to do whenever he was drunk or feeling maudlin, or both - the two usually went hand in hand - was to google the names of old flames and former objects of lust, to see how their lives had progressed in comparison to his. He didn’t view it as stalking so much as a form of self-insurance: ensuring that his past failures, myriad though they were, had by now converted themselves into a form of success, thereby assuring himself that decisions which continued to torment him had in fact been borne out, that he had made the correct choices in his life, or for those times in the past when he had been faced with a non-negotiable position or foregone conclusion, it no longer mattered. In this way, he was able to shore himself up against any scathing self-scrutiny that may follow, and that out there, among the images and profiles, the Rachels and the Charlottes, the Gemmas and the Naomis, the Katrinas and the Claires, for there was in reality only a handful of women he had known intimately in his life, he would find a reckoning of sorts, a soothing of his fractious nerves. It was on one such expedition, late one night, after too much whisky, too much angst, that he came across a video of a former paramour, or rather, in truth, a girl from university he had drunkenly kissed just the once and, a common theme running through his university years, with whom he had become moderately obsessed. At university she was unprepossessing brunette with a good figure and prominent teeth, just his type. Being well-endowed in the bosom was her chief appeal, though he had no doubt she was very intelligent, as a maths and economics undergraduate, but as she resisted his overtures she seemed flighty, aloof or disinterested, traits which simply piqued his interest further. In his final year, when his mind should have been on other matters, he pursued her, halfheartedly, for months, made overtures at countless social occasions via their mutual friend, asked for her telephone number, all to no avail. He gave up hope. Then, in the last week of the final year, at a party in his shared house, she turned up unexpectedly, and he ignored her for almost all the evening, until the moment when she approached him and ran her hands over his closely cropped hair, he told her to leave him alone. Retreating, she sat sullenly in a corner, arms folded across her chest, staring at the ground. He didn’t see her again until a mutual friends’ wedding, almost a decade later. He was single, and she was with someone. He didn’t speak to her. Instead, he became drunk and obnoxious, so drunk and obnoxious that, in the taxi back to their hotel, one of his friends put his elbow across his throat to silence him. And now, this very evening, he had found a video of her on youTube, filmed presumably by her husband or partner, in some slightly shabby house with a patterned red carpet and a surfeit of detritus spread about the place, dressed in a shapeless cardigan and flared trousers fifteen years after they went out of fashion, her hair not the short bob it once was but now long and lissom and without shape, almost unrecognisable but for the prominent teeth which were unmistakably hers. She had aged, as was to be expected, but he was shocked at how old she looked, given that she had only just left university. Then he remembered that she hadn’t. With much hilarity on her part, she was performing the Iggle Piggle dance, the jaunty Iggle Piggle dance from Ceebeebies’ bedtime programme The Night Garden, for some nameless child, flapping her arms and kicking her legs with scant coordination. He realised why he had never seen her dance at the student’s union. Perhaps she was drunk or high, or both. More likely neither. As a performance it was regrettably lacking in charm, a discovery which made him profoundly happy, a dopamine-infused hit of schadenfreude, though there was a gentleness about it that was unfamiliar to him, being revealed only under the gaze of an intimate other. He had never really known this woman, and even at the time he had known he never would. The video was several years old, and the children for whom it had been recorded had presumably outgrown The Night Garden by now, much as his own children had, neither of whom particularly cared for the antics of Iggle Piggle, though the narration of the esteemed actor Derek Jacobi had a mesmeric quality, providing an effective calmative in the moments before bed, for himself and for his children. He often thought about those small boys with their truncated bodies and nascent identities. They were no longer infants, and their early years had passed by in the flick of an eye. That night, as he undressed for bed, he caught sight of himself in the mirror of his wardrobe. He looked old. Not old in the sense of infirmity, but old in the sense that the remains of youth had fled from him. Physically, he felt utterly estranged from himself. It took him longer to fall asleep that night than was customary, and when he woke the next day and faced the mirror, regarded himself in the dim light of morning, it looked as if he hadn’t slept for twenty years.